soulmates are stupid i love you on purpose

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by melanofly

 

The feeling of recognition was immediate: cold and bitter, like breaking open a bottle of perfume last worn by a loved one now many years dead. Bailey — because that’s what his name was this time around, which made it as good of a name as any — stopped dead in his tracks, not caring that the cameras were buzzing around him, scanning his face for the smallest expression. He’d known this would come, like he knew it would come every time. Once, his heart had leapt for joy at the promise of it. Now he just felt tired.

The boy on the other side of the room stopped as well, staring right back with stark blue eyes. He wasn’t just the same age as Bailey; they’d have the same birthdate, down to the minute when corrected for time zones. Sometimes they’d gone their whole adult lives without finding one another. Now here they were, at six, being set up as the world watched. Bailey clung to his mother’s hand, and she gently nudged him forward.

The boy’s name was Haley this time around, which for Bailey was good enough. Once upon a time, he’d made a vow through tears never to forget the name he’d first met Haley under, no matter how many times they lost and found one another. By now, Bailey couldn’t even remember what his own name had been at the time. So much love, so much anger, so much sorrow — and in the end, it all just washed away.

Being a child was hard every time. It was like trying to think while half-asleep, trying to pinpoint a sound underwater. Everything was muddy, even the knowledge that everything was muddy. Bailey felt his mother’s urgings, even stronger this time. He felt bad for her, because he knew he didn’t love her as much as an ordinary child should love a parent. At least he had siblings this time, two older and one younger. They could be for his parents what he was never going to be. Ever since the diagnosis, his father had already begun to look at him with the chill edge of suspicion, unable to tell if he was seeing his child or a stranger wearing his child’s face. Bailey couldn’t explain that there had never been something that was his third child, not the way people thought of their children as their own creations, their handmade little wonders. From the moment he’d been born, Bailey had belonged only to himself — and to someone else.

He took another step toward the boy — toward Haley, whose features were already strong in the way that looked strange on a young child, but would make him a handsome man later. Haley’s parents were behind him, both of them beautiful enough to have walked off magazine covers and into the studio. Haley’s nut-brown hair was already lightened in fashionable streaks.

“Hi,” Bailey said first. It was always his job to reach out first, to single-handedly build the bridge across whatever gulf there was between them. He wanted so desperately for the two of them to be alone, to be adults, to be in a place they could grab one another and let their bodies work out what was between them. That point would be a long time coming.

Haley gave only a little nod in reply, like this was already all just a waste of his time.

They sat the boys on either side of the host, whose ringlets and tight pink suit made her a sight to behold. Bailey tried to appear attentive as she greeted her audience and explained what a very special thing they were getting to witness today. He smiled with as much gratitude as he could muster as the studio audience clapped for him and dabbed their eyes. It was very romantic, he supposed, if you weren’t living it.

“How do you feel about seeing your soulmate again?” the host asked, inclining the microphone toward Haley.

“Sandra, I feel great seeing him again,” said Haley, looking at her instead of Bailey. He spoke like someone who wasn’t even pretending to be a child anymore, even though Bailey knew this was as much affectation as it was revealing something true. Haley seemed to be taking the chance to fast-forward to adulthood, while Bailey was afraid he’d never see childhood again in this life. “As you know, our souls are deeply connected.”

The audience made sympathetic noises and cheered. Haley smiled at them, at the host, at his parents — anywhere but Bailey. Bailey didn’t even think it was on purpose anymore. Haley just didn’t care.

Then the microphone was in his face. “Bailey,” the host asked, “is it different this time, considering that you’re both boys?”

No, you nitwit, Bailey absolutely did not say; you cannot possibly imagine how little meaning something like that has anymore. “It’s different every time,” Bailey answered diplomatically. The audience members tittered their approval. Same-sex relationships had been decriminalized here for almost a century, but they were still uncommon enough that the lingering taboo of it made this combination a bit of a novelty. 

The host then cut to a short film the show’s producers had compiled, a ten-minute mini-documentary giving the recorded history of both Haley and Bailey before they were Haley and Bailey — and hell if they didn’t seem to say the two names together as much as they could, until they were almost a single word. Haleyandbailey, they were here, a single unit in which Haley was the driving force, and Bailey was … well, And Bailey.

The section of Bailey’s past lives was much smaller than the second of Haley’s, to no surprise. Haley had always been the leader, the one who made his mark on history and got things done — even if sometimes what he got done was murder, war, genocide, and the occasional revolution. Haley had always been the mover and shaker, the head that wore the crown. Bailey had just been the one by his side, helping where he could, never stopping what he couldn’t.

Across the host’s lap, despite the dimmed studio, Bailey tried to meet Haley’s gaze, to get his attention somehow. He leaned out just a bit, waved the fingers of his hand slightly, kicked his feet back against the couch in a way that could have been an accident. Haley’s eyes stayed fixed on the monitors as the footage played out a somewhat sanitized and incredibly romanticized version of their past together. He had a pleasant little smile on his face, but not quite like he meant it. More like he wanted to be seen wearing it. No matter the circumstances, Haley always knew how to play a room.

Bailey could tell the segment was nearing its end when pictures began to appear of their most recent lives, in which Haley had been Caryn Teng and Bailey had been Matthias Fox, and they’d been Carynandmatthias instead. She’d been a shipping magnate, a true innovator in global expansion and delivery, and he’d been … there. Caryn had preceded her husband in death by a full two years, which was longer than most of them tended to live after the other was gone. 

Bailey could see from the dates on the screen that nearly three decades had passed between Matthias’ death and Bailey’s birth. That was around how long it tended to be between lifetimes, though sometimes longer, and infrequently shorter. One time he thought he’d calculated nearly a century between one life and the next, but that had been long ago, when calendars hadn’t been as reliable and systems not nearly as consistent across cultures. He hadn’t even bothered fact-checking the material in the documentary; at this point, he figured the researchers had as much of a chance of being right as he did.

When the lights came up, the audience clapped. Haley clapped along with them, and Bailey tried, but couldn’t manage more than a few slaps of his hands. He wanted out of there. He wanted to disappear into a world where no one knew him, neither who he was nor who he had been.

But there’d never been any chance of that this time around, not once Haley’s scores on the aptitude tests had confirmed his identity. Working from Haley’s birthdate, it had been short work for researchers to narrow down a list of possible candidates. Two weeks later, Bailey’s own results had given them their match.

There were some questions for the parents then. All four of their parents were so excited. They spoke about all the opportunities their special children would have now, chances to become great leaders like they had been in the past, working with the accumulated knowledge of lifetimes. Their parents neatly avoided addressing the part where nearly all countries, including their own, prevented Reincarnates from holding public office or in any other way taking leadership positions that would give them any charge over national militaries. Bailey and those like him weren’t the only ones who could learn over time. Instead, Haley’s parents talked about his dreams of becoming an actor and a movie star, while Bailey’s…

Well, that was the rub, wasn’t it? Bailey never had dreams, not anymore. He was a book with most of its pages blank, spending his life waiting to find out what Haley wanted so he could build himself to suit. What was the purpose of developing more than the simplest hobbies or interests? They would just have to be set aside when the time came.

Now the cameras were back on the boys for a few more questions. Yes, Haley was a fan of current popular music. No, Bailey wouldn’t be going back to his old school, but would be having private tutors going forward. Yes, Haley had enjoyed meeting one of Caryn’s adult grandchildren a few weeks ago. No, Bailey hadn’t been out in public much since the media had gotten wind of his identity. Yes, Haley was considering writing a memoir, but only once he got older. No, Bailey didn’t have any exciting travel plans for the summer.

The hour was almost over, said the host, but they had one more special treat for the audience. Would the audience like to see Haleyandbailey’s first hug?

The audience went wild. Of course they did.

Haley stood first, holding out his hand to Bailey like it was some gallant, princely gesture. Bailey stood and took it. Haley’s hands were warm and soft; they felt like a furnace against Bailey’s own clammy fingers. With all the grace of lifetimes of practice packed into a six-year-old’s body, Haley pulled the slightly taller Bailey into a hug, wrapping his arms around Bailey’s waist while Bailey’s draped over Haley’s shoulders. The sounds of joy from the crowd were deafening.

“Hi,” Bailey whispered, his lips close to Haley’s ear. Haley made no reply.

 

~*~

 

twenty years later

 

He was awake, which meant he was drinking.

That was one thing this particular era of history had going for it: ready access to a wide variety of liquors and spirits. Tucked up against the arm of the couch, Bailey held the mug of whiskey-spiked coffee to his nose and sighed. It was already nearly three in the afternoon. He’d slept the day away.

Outside the window, the glass of the tall city buildings sparkled in the already-dimming light of the midwinter sun. Lines of cars passed up and down along elevated highways, making them look like channels of water that could somehow flow two ways at once. High above, a helicopter hovered, keeping careful watch on all the traffic below. Beyond it all, the urban landscape stopped at the shore, with only the ocean to hold it in check.

Part of him actually wanted it all to grate up against his mind, to make him feel in his bones the discomfort of progress. But no, just because he could remember a time before high-rises didn’t mean he couldn’t understand the world he’d grown up in. Every lifetime was a little different, a little further forward. There was no use being nostalgic for mud huts in an era of vaccines and air travel.

He liked the ocean, though. Sometimes it was nice to think about something even older than he was. Maybe he’d go down to the beach. It wasn’t as though he had anything else to do, after all.

Bailey drank his coffee and watched the world go by without him.

Haley hadn’t called, and Bailey hadn’t expected him to. Haley’s current personal assistant had texted him, though. Her name was Melissa, and she seemed at least adequately good at her job. Bailey didn’t waste even a breath’s worth of effort wondering if Haley was fucking her; it wasn’t his business if he was or wasn’t. Her text had said they’d arrived and would start shooting in the morning. They were on the other side of the world now, so morning was closer for them than it was for Bailey. He hadn’t bothered to respond. She’d tell him more if she needed him.

With a deep sigh, Bailey stretched his long legs out on the couch, flexing his ankles and toes. He’d wound up taller than Haley — and, some people said, even more attractive, with his dark eyes and soft features. The two of them would laugh it off in public whenever anyone made comments like that, and then in private Haley would remind Bailey that tall people didn’t make good movie stars. They were too difficult to get into the frame with everyone else, too hard to shoot during kisses with their shorter love interests.

Bailey would just nod. He didn’t bother pointing out that he had no aspirations toward being a movie star. That was Haley’s territory, and he was doing quite well at it. Bailey had even turned down minor roles and even cameos in Haley’s projects. Haley had never told him one way or another about how he should respond to such offers, but had always seemed quietly pleased when Bailey politely declined the opportunities. If there was one thing Bailey had learned from several lifetimes, it was never to present himself as a threat to any of Haley’s goals.

The best way Bailey had devised to do this was not to have any goals of his own. Which he was accomplishing in this lifetime, and in spades. He wrapped his fingers around the mug and let the heat of the ceramic warm his hands. Their penthouse apartment was perfectly climate-controlled, but there was still something psychologically chilly about knowing that winter was just out there beyond the tempered glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows. He sighed and sank his chin down until he was buried up to his nose in the wide neck of his sweater, until he realized that was a terrible barrier to drinking coffee. With another sigh, he emerged again.

This was his life. These were his lives. That was the worst part, wasn’t it? Not that his whole life would be like this, but that death wouldn’t even stop it. He supposed he could kill himself, but what would be the point? He’d just go back to being a baby again, and that was his least favorite part.

After an hour or so of feeling sorry for himself, Bailey supposed that if he was going to be awake, the least he could do for himself was to put something on his stomach. He supposed he could order something delivered, but that was honestly more human interaction than he was willing to face at the moment. Leftovers it was, then. When had the peanut noodles gone in there, two nights ago or three? Were those sauteed vegetables from earlier that week or the week before that? Bailey realized he didn’t even know what day of the week it was. He’d abdicated the responsibility of knowing to Haley, who had a calendar so complicated it took a whole other person to manage it. If Bailey needed to be somewhere, Haley would let him know.

Bailey went with the peanut noodles, which he ate cold while standing at the window. He liked watching things move around him. It made him feel calm, like he was a quiet little center, a rock that the stream parted around before closing in on the other side as though he’d never been there in the first place.

He took a long shower after that, thinking about nothing but the pounding of the hot water on his skin. He used Haley’s fancier shower, which was technically also Bailey’s shower, because Haley’s bedroom was also their shared living space’s master bedroom suite, and technically they were in the kind of relationship where shared bathrooms and bedrooms also happened. But Bailey had all but completely settled into one of the guest bedrooms, where he kept the majority of his things and slept almost every night. It hadn’t even been a gradual thing — when Haley had bought the penthouse (because of course it had been Haley’s choice), Bailey had just directed the movers to take his boxes directly to the second bedroom. Haley hadn’t objected. Bailey sometimes wondered if he’d even noticed.

No, of course he’d noticed. Bailey’s customary absence couldn’t not become clear on the rare nights they did fuck, when Haley took Bailey to his bedroom and pushed Bailey face-down against the mattress, pounding Bailey until Bailey came all over Haley’s expensive sheets and promptly fell asleep. Sometimes they’d go weeks without saying more than a few words to one another, but they’d catch each other’s eye just right, and five minutes later they’d be naked and sweaty, limbs tangled with one another, kissing so they didn’t have to talk.

They’d fucked more ways than most people could imagine, much less would ever have the chance to do, anatomically speaking. The two of them were long past preferences for bodies, their own or other people’s. All combinations had their own appeals. When they were both men, there was a roughness to their interactions that Bailey enjoyed. When they weren’t, he didn’t miss it.

Bailey was getting hard just thinking about the last time he was in this very shower, his chest pressed up against its stone tile walls, hearing the huffs of Haley’s breath just beneath the pounding of the water. He hadn’t bothered going all the way back to his own room after that, just curled up, still damp, on the side of Haley’s bed that was “his” side as much as it was anyone’s. He’d woken up almost twelve hours later to find Haley and his luggage gone, off to make another movie. Haley had left no note. He never did anymore.

Sighing, Bailey decided to ignore his growing erection and turn off the shower. He dried off with Haley’s fancy towels and stole one of Haley’s fluffy bathrobes, even though it was too short to cover most of Bailey’s long legs. He wandered back out to the main living space to find that he had a message on his phone. He thought for a second it might be an update from Haley, but it was instead a text message from Jo: You coming to Winnie’s thing tonight?

Shit, was that today? Bailey sighed. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to support Winnie, or didn’t want to see her or Jo. It was just that he hated doing … anything, honestly. When is it? he texted back.

You’re useless, Jo replied, which from her was affection. A second later, a calendar invitation popped up: 8:00 PM, just on the other side of the city. Bailey didn’t even have the excuse of pretending he was out of town.

Bailey exhaled through pursed lips. No, it was good for him to get out. This was a good and mentally healthy thing that he would be doing for himself, getting out of the apartment and interacting with other humans. Even if they were all fucking writers. He took a deep breath, and when he had let it out fully, he texted back: Okay.

Jo sent back a line of cheerful emoji so long it was clearly sarcastic, wrapped around the words, Best cousin ever! Technically, Jo wasn’t his cousin — she was Haley’s mother’s oldest brother’s daughter, but Jo had declared both that that was close enough and that she liked him more than she liked Haley, and Bailey had never in his life dared argue with her. Besides, it wasn’t as though Bailey had much doings with his own family anymore anyway. They still made infrequent calls, and he visited once in a great while, but that was the extent of their relationship.

He hadn’t been surprised, not really. After all, the moment any parents learned their child was in fact older than they were, something shifted in the relationship so fundamentally that it could never be recovered. He didn’t hold it against them. They hadn’t asked to be parents of a child who’d been a parent himself more times than he could count. They’d written a book together about what it had been like, raising one of the Reincarnates. Bailey not only hadn’t minded, he’d done his best to make sure the book had sold well. They deserved some sort of compensation for the hand fate had dealt them.

Going to Winnie’s thing, though, meant that Bailey would have to do more than just shower. He’d have to get dressed.

The idea of putting on clothes made him want to fall down on the floor and go right back to sleep. But no, he’d promised, and Jo knew where he lived, and if he didn’t show up, he had no doubt she’d track him down. He’d never chanced her wrath on that level before and he wasn’t in a mood to start now.

No, it would be good for him. This would be good for him. He would be good if he went. It would be good to go.

Despite all this certainty, Bailey sat on the edge of his bed for a very long time, staring out at the urban landscape as the sky shaded into night.

 

~*~

 

No matter how simply he dressed, no matter how far toward the back he sat, Bailey was never anonymous. He was glad that the signing was taking place in the small side auditorium of a local folk art museum, because that cut down significantly on the crowd. He felt bad praying for a bad turnout for Winnie, but at the same time, it made his life easier.

He spotted her immediately, because she was harder not to spot. Six feet tall even before she put on heels, dressed from neck to toe in scarlet, Winnie cut the kind of imposing and dramatic figure he supposed one expected from a crime fiction writer. Most of her black hair was piled above her head, but several curls spilled down artfully across her shoulders. Standing beside her, Jo was a hilarious contrast, dressed in oversized athleisure gear, her shaggy short cut pushed back from her face by a pair of oversized sunglasses. They were a hell of a couple, which was how Bailey supposed they got away with being a couple.

Bailey tucked himself as far into a corner as he could manage, trying to pretend he didn’t notice all the head-turns and murmurs that followed his arrival. He tucked his head down and pretended to be reading something interesting on his phone. It was simpler if he just didn’t engage. They’d eventually get over the novelty of his presence and settle down again. They always did.

The reading itself turned out to be not just Winnie’s thing — her publisher had actually booked the time for four of its authors, a combined book-launch celebration. Bailey glanced down at the list on the program he was handed: a cookbook first, then a biography of someone Bailey had never heard of before, then some new-age title Bailey barely glanced at, and finally Winnie’s new novel. Well, at least there’d be some variety. That, combined with the glasses of wine they’d been handing out in the lobby, meant the night wouldn’t be a whole bust.

It was clear that most of the audience was here for Winnie: young people dying to hear the further adventures of her protagonist, Mona Black, a dashing and rakish fine art thief who engaged in elaborate heists and always stole someone’s heart in the process. No wonder they’d put Winnie last on the program, to make sure half the audience didn’t clear out after Winnie’s segment was done. Bailey was ashamed to admit he’d been dismissive of the entire concept of Winnie’s novels, until Jo had sat him down and actually made him read them. They were hardly high art, but he’d devoured the first one in a night, unable to put it down until he’d learned how Mona got out of this particular scrape.

The cookbook author was an older woman, who read from some of her recipes and told stories about how she’d learned specific cooking techniques from her maternal grandmother. Bailey nodded along in the way of someone who enjoyed hearing about the process and would never in his life repeat any of it. He’d never had the patience or energy for cooking even before food delivery had been invented, and he wasn’t looking to pick up a new hobby now.

The biography actually wound up being more interesting than Bailey had expected, on account of its being about someone who’d come along not long after the death of Caryn Teng, Haley’s last reincarnation, and taken strides in globalization based on some networks she’d set up. For a moment, Bailey actually thought about texting Haley and letting him know, or maybe outright buying the book as a gift. But no, Haley considered every new life a clean break from the last. He wouldn’t appreciate the gift, and he wouldn’t appreciate the thought process that had led Bailey to purchase it. So that was the end of that.

Bailey was considering getting up and going to the bathroom, skipping the third book on the roster; he’d never been much for self-help or crystal healing or whatever it was about anyway. Since he’d first sat down, though, a few elderly gentlemen with canes had taken the seats at the end of his row, meaning that moving past them would cause a bit of a commotion. He wasn’t quick enough to devise a solution, though, which meant that before he could stand, the third reader had begun.

“Our souls have all been here before,” said the man standing at the podium, his eyes cast down on the book open before him. “And our souls will all be here again.”

All plans to do anything to call attention to himself forgotten, Bailey settled back down in his seat, trying his best to blend into the wall behind him. The walls of the auditorium were beige; his coat was camel. Maybe if he tried hard enough, he could make it work.

The man at the podium looked like a little dark cloud. The layers of baggy black garments he wore seemed to swallow him, so that even though he appeared to be a normal size in relation to the podium, that just made the podium look smaller. Even from the far end of the auditorium, Bailey could see his eyes were lined with kohl, giving him a sunken, sleepless look. His hair was pulled up much as Winnie’s had been, but where hers was sleek and loose, his was a bird’s nest of braids and locs and little beads woven throughout. Unlike the other readers, who had at least done their best to glance up from time to time in a conversational fashion, he did not lift his head once as he spoke. He had a pleasant voice with some accent Bailey couldn’t place, quiet enough that without the microphone, Bailey likely would not have been able to hear him at that distance. Bailey glanced down at the program. The full title of the book was Resonance and Interdependence: New Frontiers in the Continuity of Existence. It wasn’t the catchiest.

“When I began my coursework in quantum mechanics, the phenomenon of reincarnation was explained to me like this: To think of the past, think of music. Events happen like songs, and they create vibrations. Over time, vibrations decay, which is why no song can last forever. But unlike music, the past does not decay. We are still living it, all of us, here in the present, sympathetically vibrating on the same waves created eons ago by everything that has come before. There are certain individuals” –and oh, Bailey could feel the effort being exerted by everyone in the room not to turn and look at him– “who are, in essence, fine-tuned receivers. They can hear things the rest of us cannot because of their inherent sensitivity to those vibrations. This explanation is taken as a given in the field, to the point where it is no longer even questioned.

“What I did not understand, however, is why these so-called receivers would work in pairs. Certainly, it makes sense that, in a world of vibrations, some manifestations of consciousness might be more sensitive than others. But for them to appear not singularly, but in tandem? To be incapable of perceiving a signal at all without a second receiver? This, to me, seemed improbable, and made this explanation ultimately suspect. There must, I thought, be more.

“What this book proposes is that these individuals are not joined but conjoined through the element we call a ‘soul’. I use this term not because it has any valid objective definition, but because it is the building block of the term soulmate. The popular understanding of the term is of a self separate from the physical reality of embodiment. However, in this book, I make the argument that the physical reality is not separate from, but created by the connectivity of souls. In the case of these individuals, known colloquially as ‘Reincarnates’, this connection is so strong that they must manifest into a physical reality in tandem.

“Furthermore, what this book proposes is that these individuals have no particular sensitivity to the vibrations of the past, not more so than the rest of us. What they have is one each other — through existing in bonded pairs, they create feedback loops of memory where the memory of one creates the memory of the other. This phenomenon is noticeable because it is so amplified. 

“Yet they are not alone in their ability. All consciousness is capable of accessing the past, through shared resonance with others. From lifetime to lifetime, what we remember is not ourselves. We remember others, and in doing so, we create their existence. In turn, we are who we are because we are remembered — not once, but again and again, in countless variations.”

The applause when the author finished was polite, but certainly nothing passionate — especially not from a crowd that squirmed in anticipation as the event facilitator next gave the short introduction for Winnie and her new book. Bailey watched as the black-clad man went and took his seat in the front row, not seeming to care about the lack of enthusiastic response. He smiled politely at his fellow authors, then sat and watched Winnie talk with an expression that was completely neutral.

Bailey flipped the program over in his hands to the section with the short author bios. There the author was, caught in a headshot whose dramatic lighting fit the sharp angles of his face. The text beneath told him that the man’s name was Raven — a mononym, it seemed, if a bit of a silly one to Bailey’s thinking — and that he had a substantial online presence in communities dedicated to metaphysics, past lives, and some other new-agey terms Bailey couldn’t have defined. To Bailey’s surprise, the line about coursework in quantum mechanics seemed to be real; the bio described Raven as the youngest student admitted into the program from the West Kerina Institute of Technology, with doctorate-level work in … again, something Bailey couldn’t quite parse. Despite his extensive writings for online publications, the bio said, this was Raven’s first book.

Bailey told himself repeatedly that he was silly for giving this more than a single thought’s worth of his time. Of course this was far from the first time he’d ever heard someone talk about reincarnation, either as a scientific or as a spiritual phenomenon. While he had never found himself personally as the focal point of a religious movement, he knew that every few centuries or so, some of the other Reincarnates did. Everyone wanted the Reincarnates’ answers to the mysteries of life beyond the veil of death. The problem was, everyone tended to become kind of disappointed when it became clear that the Reincarnates knew little more about it than anyone else. He’d once seen one of the others — the Musician, in fact, to use one of their semi-fanciful classifications — give an interview where she’d said it was like asking someone riding a roller coaster to explain why the people in the car didn’t fall out at the top of the loop: You didn’t have to know how it worked to know that it worked.

The idea that everyone reincarnated, though, had always been a fringe thought. After all, if everyone did, why would everyone not remember? Bailey had no answers for that, and he didn’t know that he believed Raven’s. But the fact that Raven’s answer was a new one … well, that at least was different. Bailey’s brain turned that possibility around like nervous hands might fidget with a ring.

He was so caught up in thinking about what Raven had said that Bailey barely processed any of Winnie’s reading, only tuning back in for the swashbuckling cliffhanger intended to make people buy the book to find out what happened next. When she finished, it was to raucous applause. The facilitator then asked the audience to stay put for a moment, long enough to let the four authors get to their book-signing spots in the museum atrium. Bailey sat there as they did so, then kept his seat as the rest of the crowd followed them after. He bent his head, busying himself with his phone like checking his email was just so important.

“Boo,” said Jo, dropping backwards into the seat in the row in front of him. “Hey, glad you came.”

“Thanks.” Bailey glanced back toward the doors. “Good turnout. Bet Winnie’s pleased.”

Smiling, Jo nodded. “Yeah, she is. So how’ve you been? It’s been a while since we were in the same room.”

Bailey didn’t even bother with a lie about being busy. “Been okay. Hey, do you know the guy who read right before her? The one in black.”

“Raven? Seen him around a couple times, mostly at publisher things.” Jo shrugged. “Winnie says he’s nice. Little shy, but nice. Hard to get more than a couple words out of him at a time. How come?”

Shaking his head, Bailey stood in the now-empty auditorium; Jo stood with him and walked out by his side. “I thought his book was interesting, that’s all.” Interesting was one way to put it, sure. “Maybe I’ll go get a copy. See if he’ll sign it for me.”

Jo snorted. “That’s what they’re there for. I’m going to go hit up the bar. You want anything?”

“Something simple,” Bailey said, trusting her judgment when it came to alcohol. He was as unfussy about what he drank as he was about nearly everything else, but he knew Jo would appreciate the challenge of a category instead of a direct order. Jo shot him a thumbs-up and slipped back into the mass of people around them, making her way to the far side of the atrium.

Bailey had never been good with crowds, even before he’d reached the status of globally recognizable curiosity. Now he found them outright upsetting. At least everyone here was more interested in the authors than in harassing him. Most of the attendees were of course queueing up around Winnie’s table, but the cookbook author and biographer each had their own draw too.

The fourth table, however, was a little apart from the others; obviously whoever had set up the venue had realized there were enough prime spaces for three tables, and then just enough room off to the side to fit a fourth. There sat Raven, with two small stacks of his book on the table in front of him, and no interested readers to speak of. Bailey felt bad for him, all alone, but Raven himself seemed unbothered by the lack of attention. He sat quietly, looking up at the complicated mobile suspended from the museum ceiling, as though seeing it might have been the real reason he’d come that day.

Before he could second-guess himself, Bailey walked over to the table and gave Raven a warm smile. “Hi,” Bailey said, sticking his hands in the pockets of his coat. “I liked your reading.”

Raven’s response made Bailey think of cars slow to start on cold mornings. Raven had clearly seen Bailey approach and heard what Bailey had said, but it took him a moment to shift from the mindset of watching the mobile spin to the act of having a conversation. “Thank you,” Raven said. Without the amplification of the sound system, his voice was almost inaudible over the buzz of noise in the high-ceilinged room.

“In fact,” Bailey continued after a moment, when it became clear no more response from Raven was forthcoming, “I’d like to buy one of your books. Would you sign it for me, please?”

“Oh.” Raven’s brow furrowed and he looked around him as though he’d lost something. After a second, though, he stuck his hands into one of his pockets — and his outfit had many, Bailey could see this close up — and pulled out a small contactless card reader. “They gave me this to use.” He held it up toward Bailey without further instruction. Bailey swiped his phone across its surface and heard the machine give a beep of accomplishment. Raven nodded and put the reader away, then took the topmost book from the stack and opened it to the title page. Pen in hand, he paused. “Do you want me to put your name on it?”

“Sure,” Bailey said with a shrug. Names didn’t mean much to him anymore, but there seemed no reason not to.

“Okay. What is it?”

At first, Bailey was certain he was being made fun of in some capacity. Had Jo put Raven up to this, perhaps, just to bust his chops? But no, there was no hint of mischief in Raven’s dark eyes. The weight of the irony settled on him — here he was, speaking to a man who knew enough about reincarnation to publish a whole book on it, yet didn’t know one of the living Reincarnates on sight. “Bailey Syvtall.”

For a moment, Raven was still. Then he looked up at Bailey — and this time really looked, taking his gaze all the way up to Bailey’s face. There it was, then, that moment of recognition. Raven looked him in the eye for several sections, with enough conscious effort in the gaze that Bailey wondered if Raven ever looked anyone in the eye that long. Raven took a slow breath in and held it before turning down to the book in front of him. To Bailey Syvtall, Raven wrote; one of the perks of being famous was that Bailey never had to spell his surname for anyone. Where other authors might have written some personal or even generic message after, Raven just signed his name beneath. He closed the book and handed it to Bailey without making eye contact a second time.

“Thanks,” Bailey said, running his fingers along the edge of the hard cover. “I thought your ideas were interesting.”

“Thank you,” said Raven, folding his hands together on the table. He had several silver rings on, ranging from simple bands to one milky white stone as big as an entire finger joint, and his black-painted nails had the telltale chipping of an amateur manicure. “I don’t mean any offense.”

Bailey frowned in surprise. “Offense? No, I — did you think I was offended?”

Raven shrugged a little. One of the coils of his hair fell into his face, and he didn’t push it away. “I don’t know what’s offensive. I’ve never had one of the Reincarnates listen to my ideas before.”

That wasn’t hard to imagine; of the thirty, only eighteen were alive and identified at the moment, and as far as he knew, Haley and Bailey were the only ones who lived on this continent. “The idea that it’s memory, that’s interesting. Even if–” Bailey pressed his lips together as he struggled for the right words. “I mean, I don’t remember remembering. Or making any choice to.”

“You don’t make the choice,” Raven said. “Nobody does. It’s inertia. Everything affects everything else. All conscious beings are enmeshed. We make memory and reality for one another.” Raven pointed to his book. “That’s chapter three. Most of it, anyway. The publisher had me cut out the section on quantum states. They said it was above the interest level of my target audience.”

Considering that Raven apparently had doctoral-level training in the subject, Bailey wasn’t surprised to hear some of his explanations might have traveled over the average layperson’s head. “Then if it’s about memory, do you remember any of your past reincarnations?” asked Bailey, realizing only after he asked the question that it might have come off as skepticism about the entire enterprise.

“No,” said Raven; if he’d taken the question as a challenge to his work, there was no hint of it in his response. He quirked his mouth to one side, the continued as though he were sharing a secret: “But I’m working on a way to. A way that might make someone able to. I don’t know yet.”

Before he could ask for more details, Bailey felt a bump against his shoulder and turned to see Jo with a drink in her hand — some kind of whiskey cocktail, from the look of it. “Hi, Raven,” she said as Bailey took the glass from her. “I know we’ve met, but these things can all run together. I’m Jo Shoemaker, Winnie’s partner.”

From the neutral expression on Raven’s face, Bailey couldn’t tell whether or not that re-introduction had been necessary. “Hi,” Raven said in return. He looked from Jo to Bailey and back again. “You two know one another?”

“He’s my cousin,” Jo said, paving over all the nuances of that discussion. “I thought your reading was interesting.”

Hearing someone else call Raven’s work ‘interesting’ made Bailey cringe to know he’d probably sounded just that insincere when he’d said it. He’d meant it, though — it had literally caught his interest in a way he felt wasn’t going to let go anytime soon. “I got his book,” Bailey said, holding up the signed volume as though she might need proof. “You can borrow it when I’m done.”

“How about you record the audiobook,” Jo said, poking Bailey in the side, “and I’ll listen to it then? He’s got a great voice,” she said to Raven by way of explanation.

Raven gave a little nod to that, though whether he was agreeing or just acknowledging that Jo had said something, Bailey couldn’t tell. Her description of Raven as ‘a little shy’ seemed more and more off the mark every minute. He was simply truthful in the way that came off as awkward to people used to regarding the world through a heavy buffer of social niceties — something Bailey himself knew intimately. If Raven didn’t think something merited a response, he wasn’t going to expend energy toward it. Bailey had known many people like that through his lifetimes, and he’d always liked them especially. He, by contrast, lived life beneath a soft veil that kept most of his thoughts and needs secret, sometimes even to himself. The honesty was refreshing.

“Well, I apologize,” Jo said to Raven after a moment of quiet, “but I’ve got to steal your fan. We’re heading over to the restaurant, and Winnie’s going to meet us there.”

“Could–” Bailey knew it wasn’t his post-reading dinner, much less his reservation, and that it might be unspeakably rude to give himself a plus-one — but he was already starting the sentence before he could think better of it. “Would you like to come along with us?” he asked, looking at Raven and then at Jo. “I can call and tell them to expect one more. It wouldn’t be a problem.”

A shot of skepticism flashed across Jo’s face so fast, Bailey knew he was the only one that caught it. But what did she have to be skeptical about? Bailey was just being polite. “Yeah, sure,” she said after no more than a half-second of surprised hesitation. “The more the merrier, right?”

“Oh, I–” Raven swallowed, fidgeting with one of his more intricate rings. “I’ve got to — I need to get — no thank you, thank you, but I have to go home right after and … and feed my ferret.”

“Your ferret!” Bailey exclaimed. This was somehow the cutest possible detail Raven could possibly have shared. He didn’t want to go to the restaurant. He wanted to hear more about the ferret.

“Next time, then,” Jo said, giving Raven a bright smile. She wrapped her hands around the crook of Bailey’s elbow and gave him a tug that Bailey had no choice but to follow. Bailey raised a hand to give a little wave, some polite end to the conversation, but Raven already had his gaze lowered, staring at the desk, or his hands, or nothing in particular. His face was as unreadable as it had been before.

Dinner was fine. Bailey sat at a table for seven, thinking all the while about how easy it would have been to add that eighth chair, to shift everything else around the circle until it all fit. He spent most of the meal listening to the conversation made by Winnie’s publishing team, all of whom seemed like the kind of nice and competent people who wore suits for fun. 

As they ate, he held Raven’s book on his lap beneath his napkin, and every so often, when he was sure no attention was on him, he would turn to that first page and look at the tight, methodical way Raven had written first Bailey’s name and then his own. Hardly the breezy mark of an author used to signing volume after volume for an adoring public. Winnie herself had crafted a particularly beautiful signature, a sweeping W and K, each followed by illegible squiggles she nonetheless could reproduce on command. She swore up and down it said Winifred King, and Bailey had no choice but to believe her.

Raven’s name, however, was made with letters each wholly separate from the one next to it. It was the cramped handwriting Bailey associated with his math tutors, the private ones they’d gotten to come teach Haleyandbailey, always at Haley’s house. After all, how could the Reincarnates be expected to attend school with their peers? The Reincarnates had no peers, except one another.

As they stood by the curb after dinner, waiting for their cabs to arrive, Winnie took the hand of Bailey’s that wasn’t holding Raven’s book. In her bright red heels, she was as tall as he was. “Thanks for coming tonight,” she said, her voice softer when she wasn’t being quite so on.

Bailey squeezed her hand back. “Wouldn’t have missed it,” he lied.

“Yes you would.” With a laugh, Winnie bumped his shoulder with hers. “We have to get you out more. Maybe I should tell my publishers that my next book can only be written on a yacht, and they need to charter one for me with room enough for you to come along.”

As sweet as the offer was, Bailey also knew it wasn’t an idle threat. Winnie had an amazing way of getting exactly what she wanted from people, mostly through sheer force of will and a combination of being both genial and terrifying. “Maybe,” Bailey said, which he figured was a neutral enough response that he hadn’t accidentally committed himself to anything.

“You could use a little sun.” Winnie brushed her fingertips down the high bridge of Bailey’s nose. “And the gentle healing presence of lesbians.”

That won a chuckle from Bailey. “I’m basking in it right now,” he told her, bumping her shoulder right back. There were benefits and drawbacks to every gender and genital combination he’d experienced in his many lifetimes, but if forced to pick favorites, Bailey would’ve had to have admitted, sometimes he really missed lesbianism. There was just something nice and comfortable about it. “You two should just come over for dinner or something. Don’t bother with a boat.”

“Honey, the boat would be no bother,” said Winnie with a wink. “But okay, I’m going to tell Jo you said that. ‘Over for dinner or something,’ your exact words.”

Bailey brought their joined hands to his mouth and kissed the backs of her knuckles. “I promise,” he said, hoping he meant it.

The back of the cab was too dark for reading, so Bailey sat and leaned his head against the window, tiling his face just far enough away that the warmth of his breath didn’t cloud up the window. The lights of the city passed by in a bright haze. How had humans ever lived without this much color and motion, this many ways to beat back the darkness? He knew some of the Reincarnate pairs shunned modern society, choosing to spend their shared lifetimes on high mountains and solitary islands, keeping the changing world at arm’s length. Bailey himself could never have done that, though. He liked to be in places in that moved around him. They made him feel like less was expected of him. He could be a little more silent, a little more invisible in the insomniac hearts of cities.

Their apartment was as quiet and dark on his return as it had been when he’d left it. There was no message from Haley. Bailey took off his shoes and hung his coat by the door, then managed to get off his trousers and shirt before collapsing into the warm nest of blankets on his bed. He could think about this all tomorrow. Right now, he was going to sleep.

 

~*~ 

 

The shop was halfway below street level, tucked in the gap between two buildings, so snug that Bailey was sure he’d been driven by several times before without actually registering its presence. A swinging wooden sign stuck perpendicular to the brickwork announced that it bore the almost disappointingly mundane name of The Crystal Shop, and a sign in the window let passers-by know it was in fact open.

As he pushed wide the door, a silver bell rang beside his ear and a wave of overlapping smells hit his nose: sandalwood, bergamot, sage, cinnamon, myrrh. Everything was furnished in dark wood, with shelves lining the walls alternately packed with books and stacked with odds and ends. In the center, as the store’s name suggested, were bins of assorted stones, some barely the size of pebbles, others too large to be held by a single hand. From the ceiling hung various strings of bells, bundles of fragrant leaves, tassels that waved when a fan blew air past them, and other talismans Bailey couldn’t identify. Some countless number of lifetimes ago, Bailey had sought the help of a witch of the woods; he could imagine her having been very comfortable in a place like this.

A shadow moved behind the counter, and in the dimmed light, it took Bailey’s eyes a moment to register that it was a person — more than that, it was Raven himself. It was clear now that he hasn’t just dressed like that for the reading; if that outfit and this were to be believed, everything Raven owned was black and at least a size too big for him. His hair was a little more tamed now, knotted up into a single bun near the crown of his head, with only a few stray braids dangling loose around his face. Upon seeing Bailey, his dark-lined eyes went almost comically wide.

“Hi,” Bailey said, tipping the brow of the wide-brimmed hat he’d intended as a bit of casual urban disguise. Over the years, he’d gotten fairly good at slipping around as needed. It wasn’t as though he had anything to hide about his movements, necessarily. It was just no one else’s business. Besides, he couldn’t imagine Raven would enjoy having a cloud of cameras descend on his shop, trying to sneak pictures of interest through the windows.

Perched cross-legged atop a high stool, much like his namesake, Raven braced his elbows against his knees. Today he wore no rings, but had fingerless gloves on instead. “Can I help you?” he asked, all business.

Oh no, did Raven not remember him? Bailey supposed it was arrogant of him just to assume that he was so famous, his celebrity made a mark on everyone he encountered. “No, I’m — I’m Bailey, we met last weekend at–“

“I know,” Raven said. The interruption wasn’t unkind; it just felt purposeful, as though Raven were saving them both the trouble of re-introductions. “And now you’re here in my shop. So, can I help you?” In one hand, he worked a polished, coin-shaped pink rock up and down the backs of his fingers. It occurred to Bailey that Raven was not making some purposeful show of dexterity; this was a fidget gesture, something else for part of him to do, in the absence of his rings, that kept the rest of him still. 

“I read your book.” Bailey almost wished he’d brought the volume along with him as proof, except that he couldn’t figure how the pages could testify to their having been read. “And I wanted to talk to you more about it, if that’s okay. Especially the part about soulmates. So I looked online and found that this is your shop. I like it, by the way. It’s … it smells nice.”

The skeptical expression on Raven’s face hadn’t gone much of anywhere. “Why are you coming to me about soulmates? ” asked Raven, looking Bailey up and down. “If anything, I should be asking you.”

That was the rub, wasn’t it? Bailey should have been the expert on the phenomenon, except that he knew almost nothing objective about what was happening to him. It wasn’t as though he’d been handed an instruction manual or forced to sign consent forms before taking his first breath. Becoming aware of his reincarnations had been a gradual process, one done over many lifetimes: the slow dawning of I remember this followed by the corresponding awareness of and you do too. He’d spent so many of those early lifetimes in a miserable state, understand languages that no one around him had ever heard, yearning for places that no one around him even knew existed.  Bailey sometimes still had nightmares about remembering that confusion, the sweating panic of being unable to sort memory from madness. Those didn’t fade.

That had been a comforting wonder to it back then, long ago, when it had so often been him and Haley against the world — just having one other person to reach for him and say, you’re not crazy; to say, we’re in this together

Bailey sighed and removed his hat, giving up the pretense that it hid anything useful. He raked his fingers back through his chestnut hair, taming its shaggy locks as much as they ever could be. “I thought you might be…” He pressed his lips together, trying to find words that didn’t make him sound either manipulative or insane, two things he’d been accused of being on multiple occasions. “There aren’t a lot of people who are willing to talk about this, at least not in a way that’s, I don’t know, either treating me like a specimen in a petri dish or yet another human-interest story about True Love or whatever. And I’ve never heard anyone talk about it the way you do. Look, you’re doing research, right? I don’t know how much help I can be to that, but it’s got to be something, right?”

The way Raven’s mouth quirked indicated a promising level of intrigue. He was a scientist at heart, Bailey could tell, with all the skepticism and hope of discovery that entailed. “Are there cameras?” Raven asked, eyeing Bailey as though there might be some sting to this, intended to catch him pulling some scam.

“God, no.” Bailey laughed a little with relief. If they were both paranoid about being seen, that cut down the chances significantly. “I shook the paparazzi before I left my building. I know I did. And anyway, Haley’s filming a movie this month, so they’re all watching him instead anyway.” He was long practiced at keeping the bitter edge from his voice when he said things like that, but sometimes it slipped through, like smoke creeping beneath cracks in the windowsill. He forced his expression back into a neutral smile. “So no. Just me.”

Raven sat back a little on the stool, using his free hand to grip the edge of the seat, but made no reply. He was a strange little thing, but there was something compelling about his body language, as though even the way he moved was a sign he was a worthy inheritor of the magic-workers of the past. Bailey had met many witches and their like in his time, most of whom had been either outcast healers or canny tricksters, capable of working no more wonders than could be accomplished through cleverness. Some, though, had been possessed of talents Bailey couldn’t explain. And he was in a glass house so far as it came to the supernatural and skepticism.

In that silence, Bailey felt transparent under Raven’s gaze. All right, then; he would get nowhere but by being honest. “I–” Bailey sighed again and let his fingers run across the smooth surface of an obsidian chunk larger than his head. He could feel the whorls of the volcanic glass beneath his fingertips. He wondered if he’d been around when it was made. “I want to know.”

Raven watched him from across the counter, his brows furrowing. “Know what?”

“What you know. What you see, or think you’ll be able to see. What–” Bailey sighed as he let his thumb lightly trace the jagged edge. Obsidian like this could be refined to exacting sharpness, honed until it could cut with surgical precision. “How it works. Exactly how it works.”

Raven gave a little shrug. “I don’t have the answer you want. I’m not at that stage of my research.”

“Then we can work together, can’t we?” Bailey stuck his hands in his pockets to hide the way they were shaking. I don’t know was more hopeful of an answer than the no he’d been dreading. There was room in a maybe for yes. “Look, I don’t … not to sound like a stalker, but I did look you up online. And I saw the part about why you didn’t finish your doctorate.”

The expression on Raven’s face calcified. “And?”

“And it was because they don’t believe in this stuff, right?” Bailey hurred to add, before Raven could get upset at the reminder that he’d gotten unceremoniously booted from his old program, despite being such a rising-star admit. He gestured to the objects around them to make sure the this stuff was clear. “They think it’s unserious science.”

Raven nodded, but his posture didn’t change. Was he just always like this? Or was he still bracing for another attack on his methods and scholarship?

“Well, I’m willing to give it a shot.” Bailey shrugged and showed his empty palms. “And you don’t need a lab or some kind of official specimen collection when you’ve got me.”

Slowly, Raven uncurled himself from his seated position, then slipped off the stool. For the first time, as they stood together, Bailey could see that Raven was not much taller than Bailey’s own shoulder — about Jo’s height, in fact, though he seemed all the smaller for the heavy folds of his baggy clothing. His gaze was so piercing, it was nearly a physical thing for Bailey, who felt pinned to the floor by its weight. “You don’t think I’m crazy,” Raven said at last, as though by saying it, he were trying to convince himself.

Bailey couldn’t help laughing. “I have forgotten how many times I’ve been locked up or brought to doctors or had exorcisms performed on me because people thought I was crazy. No. You’re not crazy.” He shrugged as he looked Raven over, then added, “Little bit eccentric, maybe, but hey, I like that in a person.”

Was Bailey imagining the slight pink flush that shaded Raven’s cheeks then? Perhaps some clouds had rolled across the late afternoon sun, changing the quality of the light in the shop. That was probably it. “When do you want to start?” Raven asked.

“When are you free?”

Raven glanced around at the empty store. “Now?” His face had taken on a hint of excitement Bailey hadn’t seen before, giving him a youthful glow that his usual too-serious glower obstructed from view. He and Bailey were around the same age, Bailey figured, but with Raven’s eyes gone wide, Bailey could see echoes of the eager young man who’d started college work at fifteen and been accepted to one of the world’s most prestigious graduate programs in physics at nineteen — at least, if his book-jacket bio was to be believed.

Bailey returned that eagerness with a warm smile. “Now works for me. But first, are you hungry?”

 

~*~

 

Raven’s apartment was clean, but also incredibly cluttered. Every flat surface, it seemed, was stacked with books or papers or cardboard boxes, some so high they nearly scraped the main room’s low ceiling. Bailey had been surprised when Raven had invited him over directly to his apartment, and even more surprised when the stairway up to that apartment had been inside the Crystal Shop itself. “I don’t have a storeroom,” Raven said by way of explanation, relocating one of the stacks to the floor so that Bailey would have a place to sit on the battered grey couch.

Bailey ordered dinner on his phone while Raven bustled around, opening and closing various drawers with a kind of purposefulness known only to him. “Mild or spicy?” asked Bailey.

“Spicy.” Raven frowned as he rummaged through a small wooden box.

“How spicy?”

“Spicy spicy.” With a little grunt of disappointment, Raven returned the box to the shelf he’d pulled it from.

Bailey glanced down the options menu. “Chicken, beef, shrimp, tofu–“

“Tofu,” Raven said. “Vegetarian.”

Bailey made a note of that and struck the pork dumplings from the order. “Egg roll or spring roll?”

“Either.” 

Bailey settled this ambiguity by getting one order of each. “Should I just give them the shop address?”

Raven shook his head as he held a pink crystal up to the light, squinting at its refractions. “Tell it 115 Stone Street, Unit 2A. There’s no 2B, but it confuses them somehow if you don’t specify.”

“Fair enough.” Bailey entered all the details and confirmed the order. “Should be here in … fifteen minutes. Pretty fast.”

“They’re literally two blocks away,” Raven said, pointing toward one of his windows as though that should orient Bailey somehow in this part of the city. He stood on his tiptoes and reached for a lacquered box atop a high bookshelf, then frowned when his fingers still came several inches short of reaching it. Screwing his mouth to one side, he started to look around the cardboard boxes at his feet, clearly running a mental inventory of their contents and assessing which might hold his weight.

Bailey cut that line of thinking off early. “Here,” he said, rising from the couch. He had to stand on his own tiptoes to nudge the box closer to the edge, but once he got it there, he could easily shift it into his hands. It was surprisingly heavy for how it looked to be nothing more than painted wood; he wondered what was inside as he handed it over to Raven with a smile. “Glad to help.”

Raven nodded a quick thanks, looking a little flustered. Bailey felt bad; he should have asked before just showing off his powers of being born into a tall body. He’d had so many bodies of all stripes that it was easy sometimes to forget just how self-conscious people got about theirs. He took his seat back on the couch as Raven opened the box and pulled out a chain of beads.They were all lovely, each about the width of his thumbnail, and they alternated down the chain, half of them smooth metal, the other half carved orange stone. “Put this on,” Raven said, holding it out to Bailey.

Bailey did so. As it settled on his shoulders, he could understand why the box had carried such weight. He ran his fingers across the ridges of the carved stone, feeling the intricate swirls beneath his fingertips. It was old, Bailey could tell that much, but beyond that it had no particular resonance to him.

“How do you feel?” asked Raven.

Bailey looked down at himself and then beautiful string of beads that dipped down nearly to his navel, then looked back at Raven and shrugged. “Pretty?”

Raven gave a tired little sigh through pursed lips, but when Bailey went to take the beads off, Raven shook his head. “No, leave them there. Have a seat.”

Obliging, Bailey returned to his former place on the couch. “What’s it supposed to do?” he asked.

But Raven was already off into another drawer, this time one at the bottom of a narrow cabinet. His mouth quirked to one side, he shuffled through what looked like just a stack of papers. Then he made a noise of recognition and pulled out a small square of smoky transparent material, only a few inches wide, and so thin Bailey figured it couldn’t be glass. Raven closed one eye and held the square up in front of the other, peering at Bailey through it. “Has anyone ever told you about your aura?” Raven asked.

“My aura?” Bailey shook his head — then paused, trying to remember even further back. “You mean, ever?”

“Ever,” Raven agreed with a nod, still looking through the square. He swapped open and closed eyes, then went back to the original configuration, which seemed to please him more the second time. 

“Sure, I … I mean, I think so?” Bailey waved his hand around a little. “I get called an ‘old soul’ a lot. Got called. Before people really understood what the Reincarnates were.”

Raven quirked his mouth to one side. “I mean, has anyone who sounded like they knew what they were talking about ever told you about your aura?”

Bailey was about to say no when a memory popped into his mind like the distant sound of a plucked string. Yes, though long enough ago that Bailey didn’t know how to locate that lifetime in history. He’d been a poor girl then, living in mud-brick huts at the edge of a vast desert that had probably long since swallowed up wherever they’d been. There had been a traveling caravan come through town, complete with a gnarled old woman ferried along in her own ox-cart. She’d taken one look at that girl and — what had she said? He had barely understood her half-foreign speech even when he’d spoken a related tongue. Memory across time was one thing, but remembering across languages could give Bailey fits if he thought about it too long.

“Yes,” Bailey said at last. “She said … it’s hard to translate. It was a word that means, when a wind comes in and shakes a storeroom full of clay pots, and all their contents are scattered together on the floor among the shards, and you know you’ll never be able to put it all back together. Kind of a sad word. Oh, and that it’s pink.”

This information seemed to surprise Raven not at all. He turned the square forty-five degrees, until its corners pointed up and down. “You know, ‘pink ‘ is a concept most cultures take a long time to develop. Even a lot of modern languages don’t have their own words for ‘pink’.”

Was that so? Bailey tried to remember and was shocked to find that this seemed accurate. Then again, he supposed it made sense; for several long stretches of history, everything had just seemed various shades of beige. He wondered what in that desert landscape had been distinctly pink enough to make a word for it a necessary part of the language. “So is it?” Bailey asked.

“Is it what?”

“Pink?”

“Oh.” Raven sighed a little, taking the square lens from his eye. “I’m red-green colorblind.”

It took Bailey a second to realize that this was only a denial of the color. “You can see it with that?” he asked, pointing to the square.

Raven nodded as though the answer should have been obvious.

“Can I?”

“You can try.” Raven walked over and held out the square to Bailey. “I had it milled to my own specifications, though, so I don’t know how well it’ll work.”

Peering through the square was like looking through someone else’s glasses. Whatever Raven might have seen through it, Bailey only saw bleary, foggy shapes that reminded him of reflections in ancient mirrors made of ill-polished metal. Bailey looked up at Raven, but all he saw through the square was a dark, featureless form roughly in the shape of Raven himself. Or maybe Raven’s own aura was a shadowy charcoal grey. It would’ve matched his fashion sense. Still, it seemed rude to accuse someone’s aura of being a little black cloud, so Bailey kept that observation to himself. “I don’t know what I should be seeing,” Bailey admitted at last, handing the square back to Raven.

Raven took it and walked back to the bookshelf, where he selected a volume seemingly at random and stuck the square between its pages. “It’s hard to say,” he admitted, shutting the book and returning it to its place. “Aura-viewing is a subjective experience. Everyone who says they can sees something different. Maybe we’re all seeing different things. Maybe we’re all seeing the same thing differently. Maybe some of us are lying. It can’t be quantified by any objective standard.”

No wonder his program hadn’t taken to Raven’s unmeasurable ideas. “Well, what do you see?” asked Bailey.

Raven’s answer there was delayed by the doorbell. He ducked out for a minute, giving Bailey a pause long enough for him to remove the beaded necklace and place it back in its original box. Experiments or not, he didn’t feel comfortable eating supper in something that irreplaceable. This was certainly one of the strangest afternoons he’d had in a long time — but at the same time, he was quickly realizing just how nice of a time he was having. Raven’s oddnesses were endearing, and Bailey appreciated the way Raven didn’t treat him like some rare and famous object to be fawned over.

When Raven returned, he was carrying two large paper bags. “You ordered a lot,” he said, sounding a little sheepish. Bailey supposed he could understand why; after all, Bailey had insisted on both paying and tipping, and Raven hadn’t seen the final order before it had gone in.

“I like a variety.” Bailey shrugged. “Where shall we eat?”

Raven gave his cluttered apartment a frown. Clearly he had not been expecting guests today, nor indeed any time soon. After some shuffling around of piles, Bailey wound up seated on a barstool on one side of the half-wall counter that divided the kitchen area from the rest of the room. Raven took the other side, standing up with his bowl and chopsticks in hand, with the various pieces of the order scattered out between them. 

Bailey chanced a noodle from Raven’s order and nearly choked. “This place isn’t kidding around about spicy spicy,” he managed, going for some plain rice to soothe his tongue. “It’s good, just … hot.”

“Do you ever like spicy foods?” Raven asked. He didn’t even so much as break a sweat as he popped a chili-soaked piece of tofu into his mouth.

“Depends.” Bailey swallowed and took a deep breath, slowing feeling the burning sensation subside. “Each body is new. This time, my tongue’s a little tender. Okay, a lot tender. And I don’t like beer. Matthias was a connoisseur, loved to visit breweries when traveling, even tried to home-brew a little. Now I can’t stand it.” Shrugging, Bailey shook his head. “Then maybe next time I’ll like beer but hate olives. Or be lactose-intolerant, or allergic to peanuts.”

Raven nodded. “Liu Bai How said something like that about wine.”

“When did you hear her say that?”

“She came to give a talk to the program,” Raven explained. “Back in my first year, and then we had a reception after for the students. They were serving wine, and someone offered her a glass, and I remember her saying how funny she found it that she’d been a sommelier in a former cycle, and now got a headache every time she drank.”

Bailey could sympathize with the general sentiment, though he supposed that if he’d had to make that choice in his own life, he would’ve sided with the headaches. “She must’ve been pretty old by then.”

“It was just a year or two before she died,” Raven said. “Did you know her?”

Bailey shook his head. “We don’t…” He let the sentence trail off with a sigh. How to explain it? Everyone treated the Reincarnates like they were in some special sort of club together, like they were all old friends. But the truth was that for most of history, outside of a few rumors and legends, none of the Reincarnates had had any idea there’d been anyone else going through this, other than themselves and their soulmate. It had only been within the last few centuries that the phenomenon had been well-documented enough to allow for the concept of Reincarnates at all, a discovery that surprised most the Reincarnates themselves. “Sometimes they get us together, or they try to. They did when Haley and I were identified. They got elevent of us in one place together, and I think they said it was the most they’d ever assembled at once. But Liu Bai How wasn’t there; I don’t remember why. Her soulmate was, though, Ani Timo, and she was nice. That’s mostly what I remember, that she reminded me of my grandmother and she was nice. It’s not like we have anything in common, though. Sure, once upon a time, I was alive on one side of the world while you were alive on the other, and we didn’t even know each other existed. Not exactly the strongest conversation starter.”

Pity was the reaction Bailey was used to whenever he spoke about how being a Reincarnate wasn’t all sunshine and roses — but there was none of that on Raven’s face. He didn’t seem uncaring, but neither was he falling over himself to be all oh you poor dear, that must be so hard for you. Instead, he simply nodded.

“Sorry,” Bailey said after a minute. “Sorry, I … like I said, I don’t really get to talk about these parts. I don’t mean to dump it all on you.”

“It’s fine,” Raven said, sounding like he meant it. “You can say it, if it’s true.”

Something about that simple statement shocked Bailey into a laugh. No, in his experience, the true things were the ones that absolutely should not get said. “But you were telling me about auras earlier, and that was more interesting. What do they look like to you?”

Raven didn’t protest the change of topic. “You know how a prism refracts light? Like that. Branches. Stretching out.”

“Oh,” Bailey said, remembering how different his view through the square had been. “Stretching out to what?”

“That’s what got me thinking.” Raven traced invisible lines through the air with the tips of his chopsticks. “To what? There was a school of physics almost a century ago that emphasized the interrelation of things. Early chaos theory — a butterfly flaps its wings, and eventually a hurricane hits the far side of the world. You familiar with that?”

Bailey nodded, though he had never, in any lifetime, been a physicist.

“But what teaches the butterfly to flap its wings in the first place? Something must.”

“Instinct, right?” asked Bailey. “That’s what it does. It’s a butterfly. What else is it going to do?

Raven shook his head. “It manifests in animals as instinct. In think in people, it’s something else. Do you know why humans smile?”

“Because we’re happy?”

“No, why–” Raven pressed his lips together, clearly thinking through rewording his question. “Why all humans smile. Everywhere.”

Bailey frowned, wondering if he had this right. “You think people smile because we’re reincarnated?”

“I think smiling is the strongest evidence we have of it. It’s older than us. It’s part of what we carry with us from time to time. It’s so fundamental that it comes through clearly, even in the chaos that disassociates us. Wipes the slate clean.” Raven pointed to Bailey. “Except for you. In that chaos, you’ve got something else to hold on to. You should see your aura. It’s so strong, I feel like I could follow it back into the past.”

This was getting more metaphysical than Bailey ever strictly wanted to be about anything, much less himself. He wished he had a drink, but Raven hadn’t offered, and it seemed rude to ask. “So you think there’s actually a me that goes from life to life. And not just something that anyone could pick up on, if you tuned them right.”

Raven nodded. Long gone was the quiet, stoic man he’d seemed to be at the reading; he was all but vibrating with the chance to have this conversation with someone interested in this work. “If it were just about you as a human radio station,” Raven explained, “we’d see overlap instead of gaps in the appearances of Reincarnates — and it wouldn’t happen in pairs. The pairing is vital. It’s what makes you work. I bet if…” Humming thoughtfully, Raven lifted his hand, miming looking through the square lens again. “Do you know what the Warlord’s aura looks like?”

Hearing Raven refer to Haley by his Reincarnate classifier surprised Bailey so much, he nearly choked on an eggroll. The Reincarnates all had official classifiers to help scientists and researchers keep track of individuals across lifetimes, but they had also developed much less official nicknames — ones that rarely got used, especially to their faces. It was just as well: Bailey hated being the Peacemaker. “I do not,” Bailey said at last.

“Probably like yours,” Raven concluded with a shrug. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if his aura is exactly the same as yours — not just identical, but the exact same aura, just stretched out between two people.”

“And what is an aura?” asked Bailey, feeling like he’d missed something.

“We don’t know,” said Raven, using what was presumably the royal we of science. “But they’re there. So they’ve got to be something.”

“You … don’t know?”

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Raven said. “That’s why they’re so defensive of the radio-station idea. It makes it sound like there’s some certainty. But there isn’t. There’s a huge amount of existence science can’t even begin to explain. Science may never be able to quantify it. But scientists don’t want to admit that, because they want to have authority over everything. They don’t like not knowing, much less admitting there might be something fundamentally unknowable.”

“You sound like a Theist,” Bailey said with a laugh — then stopped when he realized that Raven’s expression had locked into place again. “Which is fine, it’s fine to be,” he added hastily, trying to get his foot out of his mouth.

After a beat, Raven sighed and smiled a little, even if the clench to his jaw hadn’t quite gone wholly away. “That’s fine. That’s everyone’s reaction.”

Bailey, for his own part, had never had much use for religion — especially after the three separate lifetimes Haley’s past incarnations had weaponized it to their advantage, leaving Bailey struggling to be the proverbial Peacemaker and save them all from the Warlord’s worst impulses. To his mind, religion was the way sheep preyed on wolves, not something engaged in by serious people. He’d been pleased this time around to find himself born into a near-wholly secular and rational society. And now here he was, eating dinner in the apartment of someone who both fancied himself a scientist and believed in God. “Really, it’s not my place to judge,” Bailey said as diplomatically as he could.

“It’s fine. I don’t care.” The truth of that statement seemed contradicted by the tightness in Raven’s posture, but that was neither here nor there. “Say whatever you like about it; you won’t be the first.”

“It’s just…” Bailey took a deep breath and tried to get the word out with as little skepticism as he could: “God?”

“Not God, not exactly. Or maybe God. I don’t know.” Raven shrugged. “That’s the point. I’m refusing to put my foot down about anything I don’t know. But I believe in souls, and I believe the soul is an individual experience that cannot be quantified beyond the individual experiencing it. At best, we may be able to form a shared vocabulary. But you’ll never be able to look through the lens and see what I see.”

Bailey chewed a little on his lower lip. “But you’re looking for ways to quantify past lives.”

“Exactly! Because I don’t actually care about the God or not-God part. Or–” Raven took a deep breath, then mimed picking something up and placing it over to the side. “It is a question irrelevant to this discussion. Reincarnation isn’t about God or not-God. God can’t help anything. It’s about us.”

Bailey had so many questions — up to and including are you sure you’re not just imagining all of this? — but a small alarm went off on one of the many things encircling Raven’s wrists. Raven looked surprised, then placed his bowl down on the counter. “Everything okay?” asked Bailey.

“It is, just–” Raven pointed to the leftovers. “Are you done? Can you put it away?” Without waiting for an explanation, he grabbed a small container out of the refrigerator, then turned and walked down the apartment’s single hallway, disappearing into one of the doors and shutting it behind him.

For a moment, Bailey sat there. Had Raven just … left? The door he’d gone through seemed to be an interior door, not an exterior one, but that didn’t guarantee Raven was coming back. Bailey did have a charge, though, so he went about tidying up. The containers all closed again easily and went into the fridge; Bailey had wound up ordering enough that Raven surely could get another full meal or two out of what was left. They’d only used two bowls between them, so Bailey washed them out in the sink and placed them on the nearby rack to dry.

All that done, he found himself a bit lost. He stood there in the middle of the small kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel as he looked around. Raven’s cluttered apartment was absolutely the antithesis of his and Haley’s sparse penthouse, where nothing existed that had not been meticulously chosen by some expensive interior decorator. It was just how they liked it–

No, it was just how Haley liked it. Was it what Bailey would have chosen, left to his own devices? That was a question not even Bailey could answer. He’d stopped asking it of himself so long ago that it hardly mattered now. Haley cared about things like that, and Bailey didn’t, so on a long enough timescale, everything eventually became Haley choosing and Bailey not caring enough to argue any choice. It was just so easy for Bailey to become nothing at all.

The sound of the opening door startled Bailey so much he dropped the dish towel. He bent to pick it up, and when he stood again, he saw Raven there in front of him — only now there was a little white collar to Raven’s cardigan where there had been none before. Bailey made an inquisitive noise, and the collar looked up at him, two little black eyes and a bright pink nose peeking out of an otherwise pure-white face. The ferret! How had he forgotten about the ferret? It twitched its ears as it assessed the stranger in the kitchen.

Raven ran a calming hand over its head, and it butted its nose against Raven’s palm. “Sorry, it was dinnertime,” Raven explained.

Bailey held out his hand close enough for the ferret to sniff, which it did with the kind of disdain only humans and domesticated mammals could affect. He could feel the brush of its whiskers as it leaned in. “Hi,” he said, addressing the ferret. “What’s your name?”

“I don’t know her name,” Raven said.

“How come?”

Raven shrugged, displacing the ferret slightly. “She doesn’t know my name.”

Bailey supposed that made an amount of sense. He extended his hand a little more, holding his palm out flat. Gingerly, the ferret moved closer and put a paw out — then quick as a flash, ran up Bailey’s arm and stretched across his shoulders. Her bristly fur prickled at the bare back of Bailey’s neck, the ticklish sensation making Bailey squirm. “Well, hello there,” Bailey laughed, trying to hold his shoulders straight so the ferret would have a safe place to perch. “Found a new mountain to climb, I see.”

The look of surprise on Raven’s face was charming, and became even more so as he tried without success to hide it. “Guess she likes you,” he said, looking up at Bailey with those wide, dark eyes.

For the rest of the visit, the ferret was the star. Bailey got to feed her some of her treats (and understood quickly why human food had needed to be relocated), then watched her make her way around the apartment, hopping from one stack of boxes to the other. Only once did she get into something she shouldn’t, a fist-sized sphere of what appeared to be sage, and a sharp “Drop it!” from Raven was all that was needed by way of reprimand. She was a wonder to watch, a furry little snake that seemed capable of gravity-defying feats.

How long had it been since Bailey had had a pet? There’d been the Syvtall family cat when he’d been younger, but an elderly cat and an elderly child had had little in common with one another. Before that, it had been too long to say. He sometimes fed strays, but wouldn’t let them inside. Haley never liked the mess.

By the time Bailey thought to check the time, he was surprised to find that six hours had passed since he’d walked in the front door of the the shop downstairs. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d lost track of time like that — at least, for a reason that wasn’t heavy alcohol use. But he was stone sober and his face hurt from smiling, neither of which were usual sensations. “I should go and let you do … well, anything that isn’t just entertaining me,” Bailey said, standing.

Raven looked honestly disappointed, which Bailey took as a good sign that he hadn’t overstayed his welcome. “I don’t mind,” Raven said, but he didn’t make any further protest. He snapped twice and the ferret popped up from behind a box, then scurried over and up Raven’s shoulder.

“Here, give me your phone,” said Bailey, who couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it before. Raven had to check two or three of his many pockets before he produced a small rectangle, which he unlocked before handing it over. Bailey entered his contact information. “Text me when you have some free time. We’lll do this again.”

Raven nodded and took the phone back from Bailey. “Okay.”

“And don’t forget. You’ve got my number; I don’t have yours.” Bailey pointed to Raven’s phone. “So you’d better text me. Otherwise, I know where you work. And live.”

“Promise.” Raven reached up and gave the ferret a little scritch under her chin. “I think she’d be disappointed if I didn’t bring her new friend back.”

Bailey chuckled at that as he retrieved his hat and coat from the hook by the door. “And maybe next time we’ll do something a little fancier than takeout.”

“I’m not fancy,” Raven said with a little shrug.

There was no real way for Bailey to say maybe not, but you deserve more than here-in-fifteen-minutes noodles, so he left it alone. “Thanks for having me over. I had a really great time.”

Raven nodded. “Thanks for dinner.”

“Okay, well, bye. See you next time.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

Bailey closed the door behind him and made it to street level outside the building. Once he was there, though, he felt his knees give way and had to sit on the front steps for a moment, catching his breath. What was happening? Why did he feel like he’d just escaped some tense situation? He hadn’t been in danger in there, not for a single moment. So why was his heart hitting hard against the cage of his ribs?

He just wasn’t used to it, that was all. He wasn’t used to that much socialization, and it had worn him out. When was the last time he’d made friends? Jo and Winnie didn’t count — they were friends who had made him, not the other way around. Bailey himself going out and actually seeking contact and conversation with another human being? It wasn’t unprecedented, but the precedents were few and far between.

On the cab ride home, Bailey fell asleep. He closed his eyes for a second and was surprised to hear a knocking on the partition between the front and back seats. The cab was already stopped right by his building’s main entrance. “Is this it, sir?” asked the driver.

Bailey nodded, paid for the ride, and got out. The doorman welcomed him inside, quite professionally asking nothing about Bailey’s prior whereabouts or general condition. Bailey didn’t need to be glad for his discretion; it wasn’t as though Bailey were doing anything worth hiding. He’d just been to a store and had dinner with a friend. That was legal. He could do that. Why would he feel anxious about anyone knowing that?

He checked his phone when he got into the apartment. No communication from Haley or Melissa The Assistant or any other of his people, but there was a single text message from an unknown number. When Bailey opened it, he found a picture of a white ferret sound asleep, curled into a little ball atop … oh, that was Bailey’s scarf. He’d completely forgotten he’d been wearing one. Looks like it’s hers now, Bailey texted back, adding a few smiley-face emoji at the end to emphasize how cute he found this act of theft.

The message stayed unread. Raven didn’t text back. Of course he wasn’t obligated to. Doubtless he had other things to do that evening that didn’t involve checking his phone. Maybe he was asleep already, or in the shower, or just a human being capable of doing something that wasn’t staring at a screen.

But for the first time since having the capacity to send and receive text messages, Bailey felt the silence of an unanswered one like a weight on his chest.

 

~*~

 

Three days later, he was back in Raven’s apartment, sitting cross-legged on a cleared-off patch of floor. “This reminds me of the time I was forced to be a monk,” Bailey said, straightening his spine.

Seated on the couch, Raven jotted something down in his notebook. Beside him, the ferret slept peacefully atop the scarf, which she had resisted all of Bailey’s attempts to reclaim. Bailey had to wonder how many other ferrets out there had $500 cashmere bedding. “How do you force someone to be a monk?” asked Raven, twirling his pen in his fingers.

“You sort of…” Bailey shrugged. “You take them to the monastery and drop them off. And it’s atop a mountain. It wasn’t bad. It was peaceful, actually. Nice. A little cold. Okay, a lot cold, especially at night.” He could still remember the way the high, dry winds had shaken the rickety wooden structures, letting in drafts from every gap between the boards. “That was a hard time. I finally understood what was happening with me, but I couldn’t make anyone else understand it. I might have stayed there my whole life if Haley hadn’t shown up. He was — well, she was, at the time — part of a caravan making a pilgrimage to a shrine near the monastery. I was supposed to be their guide. Instead, I hid in the wagon and never came back.”

Raven frowned a little, thoughtfully. “Didn’t they make a movie about that?”

Did they?” Bailey asked, surprised.

“Yeah. I saw it when I was a kid. I think it was a musical.” Raven tapped the end of his pen against his lower lip. “It had one of those titles that has barely anything to do with the movie, though. Like Sunset on Fallen Leaves, maybe? Something like that.”

Despite his literal years of training in proper meditative posture, Bailey sighed and let himself slump forward a bit, resting his forearms against his knees. “I guess I was a little too dead at the time to ask permission.” He picked at his sock, removing little white ferret hairs from the rust-brown fabric. He shuddered to think of how much money Raven must spend on lint rollers alone.

“I guess.” Raven shrugged, then reached into a velvety little pouch and pulled out a hexagonal white crystal wand little wider than his fist. He handed it over to Bailey, who took it and closed his fingers around it. “The lead wasn’t as handsome as you.”

Bailey laughed at that, rubbing his thumb up and down the crystal’s glassy surface. “Oh, I’m not the handsome one. Or the pretty one. That’s always him.”

Raven gave him a skeptical sort of frown, but went back to writing in his notebook instead of making any other comment on the subject. Bailey was glad he didn’t press the matter, because honestly, everything Bailey said about it sounded like he was fishing for compliments. But it was true that no matter the body either of them was born into, Haley always took greater steps to make himself attractive and always succeeded on that front. He was the one that always knew how to turn heads when he walked into a room, while Bailey had always been more comfortable slipping in like a shadow, forever putting Haley between himself and the light.

With a little sigh, Bailey lifted he crystal to eye level. It had inclusions in it that looked like gold thread strung through the otherwise-transparent matrix. “What’s this for?” he asked, turning it so the light shone off the rutile.

“Connection,” Raven explained, leaning forward. “How long ago was the monastery?”

Bailey shook his head. “Fourteen, fifteen hundred years?” He tried not to keep particular close count of years and dates. Knowing the numbers made him feel old.

Raven nodded and jotted something else down. “Close your eyes and put it in your palms. Hold them together so it’s flat and pointing forward.”

Nodding, Bailey did so. It was a slightly awkward meditative posture, but not uncomfortable. Mostly he was glad he’d worn a pair of comfortable slacks; when Raven had invited him over, Bailey hadn’t been expecting to spend a fair part of the afternoon sitting on the floor. “What are you writing?” he asked.

“Notes,” Raven said unhelpfully. “Close your eyes and think. Try to recall as much detail as you can about your life there before you met the Warlord. Don’t tell me what you remember. Tell me how much you remember.”

Calling the girl Haley had been ‘the Warlord’ was comical — she had been a little slip of a thing named Jai, whose ambitious streak had gotten her no further than becoming the de facto leader of a small tribe while her younger brother held the official position of chieftain. She’d realized the precarious nature of her position, both in the tribe and in the world, and had decided to bide her time. That had been one of the simplest lifetimes Bailey could remember them sharing. They’d had time for one another. He could remember waking up mornings in her arms, buried beneath layers of furs in their tents out on the high steppes. She’d had lines tattooed from the corners of her mouth down to her chin, and he would brush them with his fingertips, loving the blue-black shapes beneath her skin. Those memories were faded with the passage time, of course, but held steady nonetheless.

But before her? What had been before her? His parents had taken him to the monastery — no, not his parents. His grandparents? Maybe an aunt, or a godparent? It had been because he’d spoken nonsense, of course, revealing too much too early about the impossible things he’d known. What had he said to give himself away, anyway? He had vague memories of having his head roughly shaved and seeing his family’s horse-cart descend back down the mountain, but he couldn’t say for certain if those were things he remembered, or if they were things he thought he should remember. The gap between the two had never seemed so stark as it did now.

Bailey took a deep breath, holding it in his lungs for nearly a full minute, until his chest started to twinge with the ache of needing to breathe. He let the air out through pursed lips, clutching the crystal tight. “There’s not much,” he admitted. “Fragments.”

Raven nodded. “And what about after?”

After? After her, everything was different. He could remember the sound of her laughter, the beaded red boots she’d worn on her tiny feet, the smell of the salted milk tea she drank every morning, the way her hair looked falling down around her shoulders once it had all gone silver as moonlight. “That’s what I remember. Her, and what happened after she arrived.” It was the difference between hearing a conversation through a closed door and being in the same room as the speakers.

“Tell me about what you remember about yourself,” Raven said, pen in hand.

“I–” The sentence caught in Bailey’s throat. Why was that so hard to remember? Certainly, this had been long ago, and in a time before glass mirrors, he’d rarely seen much of his own face. But the more he thought about it, the fewer specifics he could recall. He’d had a beard, hadn’t he? Or had everyone around him had a beard, leading him to extrapolate? His name had been Duboon — except, no, that had been the name he’d taken when he’d run off with Jai’s tribe, because no one had been able to pronounce his birth name. His birth name had been something close, but not the same. What had it been?

A wild thought entered his head: Haley knows.

Now that was ridiculous. Why would Haley remember, if Bailey couldn’t? Haley didn’t bother with details like that; he’d made it abundantly clear how little he ever wanted to think of their past incarnations. Bailey didn’t think Haley had forgotten, necessarily, so much as put it out of his mind entirely, to make room for other, more important things. Like memorizing movie scripts.

After a moment, Bailey shrugged and opened his eyes. “It’s clearer. Trying to remember before she was there, versus trying to remember after. The memories are clearer once she’s in them. Is that … I mean, based on what you said, is that what you expected?”

Raven nodded, writing as Bailey spoke. He frowned for a second and pushed a stray lock from his face. “Tell me about a lifetime you didn’t meet the Warlord.”

The question caught Bailey off-guard. “What do you mean?”

“There have been some, haven’t there? Fewer the more recent things get. Travel gets easier, technology gets better. Easier to find people. But before that. Can you tell me about one of the times you two didn’t find one another?”

“I was … it was an island,” Bailey said, frowning in concentration. “No, it was a chain of islands. Off the coast of … somewhere south. It was volcanic; I don’t know if they’d even exist anymore. We were sailors. Fishermen, mostly. Divers? Pearl-divers, maybe.” Exhaling through pursed lips, Bailey shook his head. He could barely remember anything about the place, much less himself. Had he been a boy or a girl? Tall or short? Happy or sad? Had he managed to hide his strange condition, or had he been found out? By then he’d known to seek Haley out — had he even tried? “It was a long time ago.”

Again, Raven nodded. “You don’t remember.” It wasn’t a question.

Shaking his head, Bailey uncrossed his legs and stretched them out before him, hearing his knees pop as he did. “You want to know something funny? I don’t remember it nearly as much as I remember telling him about it later.” Bailey had been a woman that time, regaling her handsome bearded husband with tales of tropical sunlight as they cuddled together in their cabin at the edge of a snowy forest. “His father was lost at sea, and he had to become the man of the house. By the time he was free from his obligations, there wasn’t enough time left for either of us to find one another.”

Other people might have been touched by the star-crossed tragedy, or at least would have done their best to affect some kind of sympathetic response for Bailey’s sake. But Raven just nodded, as though Bailey might have been recounting a grocery list. In a way, it was refreshing that Raven seemed unconcerned with any affectation or insincere responses. But oh, Bailey wished sometimes that he knew what Raven was thinking.

As Bailey watched Raven write, he realized that Raven’s hand was moving in the wrong direction across the page, right to left instead of left to right.. “What are you writing?” Bailey asked.

“Notes.”

“Yeah, but…” Bailey frowned, unsure if he was suddenly being too nosy. “What language?”

Raven tipped the edge of the notebook down just enough that Bailey could see the looping swirls of his handwriting, much more fluid and weightless than the individual letters he’d printed in Bailey’s book. “Keric.”

“Do you always take notes in Keric?”

“It’s my first language,” Raven said. “I grew up in Kerina. I lived there until I was ten, then moved back for grad school.”

Bailey supposed that explained the little hint of an accent he heard peeking around the edges of Raven’s speech. He thought about bringing up the fact that Keric had been his first language too once, a little over seven centuries ago. Then he stopped, remembering that said lifetime had been one where Haley had presided over several acts of what amounted to genocide against the indigenous peoples along the southern coast.

It wasn’t a rule, per se, but a guideline of sorts that had developed around the Reincarnates: no punishing anyone for the sins of their past lives. For most of the Reincarnates, said sins amounted to little more than the occasional infidelity or affiliation with a group later deemed undesirable. Haley, however, had come by the moniker of Warlord honestly. He’d never been cruel for the sake of cruelty — there had always been some greater and nobler purpose at the heart of his actions, none of which had been particularly outrageous at the time. History was a harsh lens, though, and the line between “regrettable but normal” and “absolutely unacceptable” shifted all the time.

Those were, of course, semantics, and Bailey knew it. He didn’t care. All he could do was learn and do better next time. Still, there was no denying that as obnoxious as Haley’s movie-star career could be, it required far fewer interventions from Bailey to prevent mass murder. At least all the people Haley “killed” now were actors.

His thoughts were interrupted by the ferret, who decided at that moment to wake up and stretch out her long, noodly body. She looked around a little and, seeing Bailey on the floor, seemed to decide that he was in perfect summiting position. With a hop, she bounced down from the couch and scrambled up his arm, coming to flop over his shoulder much like a towel draped there. “That can’t be comfortable,” Bailey said, looking over at the way she dangled.

“You’d be surprised at what she finds comfortable,” Raven said. Bailey glanced up at him, but the second he did, Raven’s eyebrows rose as though he’d been caught at something and he locked his eyes back on his notebook.

Instead, Bailey gave the ferret a little scritch atop her head, which she leaned into. He tried to take his hand away after a few seconds, but she butted up against his fingertips, compelling him toward further affection. “You remind me of a cat I had once,” Bailey said to her. “A barn cat, not a pet, a wild thing. Or at least she was supposed to be. She pretended like she chased out the mice with the other cats, but she thought her real job was getting pets and eating table scraps. Most feral cats, they’ll take years to warm up to you, if they ever do at all. She just walked right up to me like she expected something. He — Haley — said it was no wonder, she was obviously my long-lost twin. We both felt we deserved to be pampered and take naps.”

“Naps are nice,” Raven agreed. He’d put down the notebook, marking his place by leaving his pen between the pages. “So are cats.”

His slightly awkward reply made Bailey smile. Clearly, Raven was not a social butterfly. He was confident with conversation when the topic was familiar, but he didn’t seem to have the same well-practiced response patterns most people developed out of necessity. But he was trying. 

It was an unusually warm night for the season, so when Bailey had grown weary of being poked and prodded by various magical rocks, he suggested that they take a walk around Raven’s neighborhood. He’d checked on the map and seen there was a little park only a block away — nothing fancy, but with a fountain that apparently got lit up at night. Raven seemed surprised by the idea but amenable. It didn’t take him long to secure the ferret back in her bedroom cage, then emerge again wearing a heavier coat and a fluffy scarf that all but hid the bottom half of his face. “I get cold easily,” he explained with a sheepish shrug. Bailey bit the inside of his lip trying not to smile too much.

The fountain was indeed a lovely thing, a modest height, but carved from marble in great swooping shapes. Streams of water dripped down and through intricate curls of stone, to drip at last into the pool below. Colored lights slowly cycled through a rainbow of hues, the changes so gradual as not to be gaudy. It was a marvelous little beauty, tucked away in an urban park barely a block in size. Bailey loved it.

The hour and the cold together meant that the park was otherwise empty. Bailey took a seat on a bench facing the fountain. Raven followed suit, though he seemed to falter when deciding what kind of distance to put between the two of them. He settled on perhaps the closer side of polite separation, but Bailey didn’t mind. Having Raven close was nice.

“I love cities,” Bailey said, watching the lights below the water shade from yellow to green. “I’m glad that we’ve always had that in common, he and I. You know, there’s two different documented pairs of Reincarnates out there that just refuse to have anything to do with the rest of us? Right now, living now, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, where no one around them knows who they are and only a few people know how to find them. So they don’t suddenly reappear and run for president, I guess? But they’re not going to. They’re just by themselves. And I get that. I just don’t know why you’d go to a forest to do it.”

“You don’t like forests?” Raven asked, fidgeting with the tasseled end of his scarf.

Bailey laughed, shaking his head. “Forests are great. But they’re the worst places to hide. If people get curious, that’s the first place they’re going to look — forests, mountains, anywhere remote but habitable. And if they stumble across two people of the exact same age obviously trying to live in isolation, well, they’ve got your number, don’t they?”

Raven shrugged. It was clear he hadn’t put as much thought into this as Bailey had. Then again, Bailey suspected no one but the Reincarnates themselves did. (Well, and perhaps those who wrote thinly veiled historical romance novels about them. He’d seen that shelf at the bookstore and knew to steer clear.)

“Cities, though…” Bailey leaned back, stretching out his long legs before him and letting his arms run along the back of the wooden bench. He took in a deep breath and exhaled hard, until a pale cloud of vapor plumed in front of him. “You can hide in a city. You can be anybody in a city. Somewhere so packed, that no one knows anyone else? Everyone has to mind their own business just to stay sane. And you can get a hot dog at four in the morning.” Bailey laughed at his own joke. “All right, that’s a more recent innovation. Still true, though.”

Raven swallowed hard. “I’m falling in love with you.”

That response knocked Bailey for such a loop that he played it over in his head a few times just to make sure he’d understood the words. “Oh?”

“In the spirit of full disclosure, and potential conflicting interests, I wanted to make it clear.” Raven wasn’t looking at Bailey; he was staring straight ahead at the fountain. He had his knees tucked up to his chest, making his whole body a tight little knot under his many layers. 

Falling in love with a Reincarnate was the absolute pinnacle of foolish behavior. There were, of course, people who romanticized the entire concept — the bookshelves were nothing compared to the way Bailey had learned why not to drop his own name into a search engine — but that was about infatuation with the idea of soulmates more than the actual person. Haley’s fans screamed that they loved him from behind velvet ropes, but they didn’t. And even if they did manage to know him well enough to fall in love with him, Haley himself, what would it accomplish? They were literally soulmates. Who thought they could interfere with that?

At best, at the very most, they could distract Haley for a whole lifetime. But at the end of it, he would just go back to being with Bailey again. It would never last.

“Um,” Bailey said at last, smiling to indicate he wasn’t mad about the disclosure, so much as slightly thrown by it. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t need to say anything.” Raven burrowed a little more back down in his scarf, until even his cold-reddened nose disappeared beneath the fabric. “Radical honesty. If something is true, say it. If something isn’t true, don’t pretend or apologize.”

Bailey chewed his lip thoughtfully. “It’s okay if I … if I’m not?”

Raven nodded without hesitation. “I’m responsible for what I feel. Not you. If you’re uncomfortable, we can stop meeting.”

They’d only spent two evenings together, but already the thought of having Raven disappear from his life left a lump in Bailey’s throat. It didn’t matter if Raven had an ill-advised crush. They could still be friends, and it didn’t sound like he’d make it Bailey’s problem. And eventually Raven would get over it. Everybody did. Not even Bailey’s own soulmate loved him anymore.

Thinking that thought in so many words made Bailey’s chest start to constrict, though, so he clenched his teeth and forced his face into a practiced smile. “I’m not uncomfortable. I like spending time with you.” Those weren’t lies. Bailey wasn’t pretending, and he wasn’t apologizing. At least, not about Raven.

Raven nodded again, and at the corner of his mouth, just visible above the scarf, there rose a hint of a smile — not a forced or polished one, but a real smile, one come creeping out against his best efforts otherwise. “I like spending time with you too,” he said, his voice soft. “Tell me something else.”

“About what?” Bailey asked.

“About cities.”

So Bailey told him about cities. Sitting there on the park bench, in the chilly evening, Bailey told Raven everything that was wonderful about cities. He talked about the technological innovations that no one appreciated anymore, how cities were at first the only places densely populated enough to warrant things like sewers and plumbing and electricity. He talked about the people that gathered in cities, making connections that only existed because there were places to make them. He talked about the universities and museums and galleries and marketplaces and all the other things only cities could sustain.

As he talked, Raven listened — really listened. Every time Bailey began to fear he’d bored Raven into silence, Raven would ask a clarifying question or make a connection that showed he had caught every word. In the light of the fountain, his dark eyes caught every color, reflecting them back as Bailey gave firsthand descriptions of worlds long fallen to dust.

This was hardly the first time he’d spoken about such things, but before, he’d usually been recounting things to historians and anthropologists who’d wanted to know about so-and-so famous person who’d lived at such-and-such a time. They’d hurried him through the mundanities to things of real consequence. But Raven didn’t mind the digressions. He wanted to know Bailey’s thoughts on the taste of meat pies from ancient street vendors, the sound of wooden wheels across cobblestones, the smell of incense from ancient temple braziers.

It was just a crush, of course, and Raven would get over it, because everybody always did. But until he did? Until he did, Bailey could ramble on like this without feeling like he was imposing on some unwitting victim. What did a crush matter between friends? They were friends. That was the important part. They were friends who liked spending time with one another. The rest could wait.

 

~*~

 

The next day, he woke up long after noon and significantly hung over, because he’d come home from Raven’s to his empty apartment and proceeded to down … well, he’d lost count, so the record would show it was simply an inadvisable amount of bourbon. Then he’d fallen asleep in the bathtub, woken up long enough to drag himself naked to his bed, and fallen asleep again there, damp atop the covers. He was so well-practiced at the routine, he should’ve patented it.

What he wasn’t expecting was to stagger out into the main room and find Haley there on the couch, reading glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. He was wearing a perfectly tailored suit of silk pajamas and reading from a tablet resting against his knees. “I was going to hold lunch for you, but I didn’t know when you’d wake up,” Haley said without even looking up.

That was all he got for a greeting. “I didn’t know you were here,” Bailey said, hating the way his voice rasped from his throat. He needed coffee.

“Shooting’s off for a week. Some kind of indigenous harvest festival, or — well, it’s something that was invented after the last time we were there, so I wasn’t paying much attention.” Tapping his stylus against the corner of his mouth, Haley frowned at whatever he was seeing on the screen. “And it’s too fucking hot there anyway. Next time my agent has to get me something that isn’t filming in a jungle.”

As Haley talked, Bailey made his way over to the kitchen area of the penthouse’s great room. The coffee machine was still loaded and at the ready, so he pressed a button and let it percolate a cup for him. He drew his robe a little tighter around him as the cool kitchen tile chilled his toes. A little jungle heat might be nice right now.

“Did Winnie tell you they’re optioning her books?” Haley asked.

Bailey shook his head, then realized the gesture didn’t work if Haley wasn’t even going to look up from the tablet. “No, she didn’t.”

“Well, it’s still pretty hush-hush. And I don’t think they’re offering her the deal she wanted. They seemed to think she’d jump at the chance, any chance to have her story on the big screen. So they’re trying to lowball her, because … well, you know studios.”

Bailey did not know studios. He’d taken pains throughout this particular lifetime to learn as little as he could about the way they operated, lest someone try to fold him into that nonsense. Haley was the performer, the one who liked to be seen. He could keep the spotlight all to himself. It was how he liked it best, anyway.

As Bailey fixed his coffee, Haley kept talking about Winnie’s theoretical movie: how she could go with an independent studio, but that would make it less likely she’d get a franchise out of it, unless the movie was some kind of roaring success, which it might still be, if it appealed enough to the young moviegoing demographic that they’d see it more than once, but that was always a gamble for a studio, and who knew what the young people wanted these days. Unwatched, Bailey poured first one shot into the mug, then another. If he had to deal with Haley and a hangover, he deserved it.

He sat down in one of the roomy loveseats, drawing his knees up toward his chest. He thought of Raven’s pose on the bench last night, and how Bailey was now the one tucked up into a little ball. The thought made him smile, so he hid the expression behind his mug.

“Anyway, the Roslings are having one of their get-togethers tonight,” Haley said, finally looking up. His expression fell as he saw the dark circles beneath Bailey’s eyes and the unkempt brambles of his hair. “Are you sick? You look like shit.”

“I just woke up,” Bailey said, hoping that was enough explanation to get Haley off his back. Haley wasn’t worried about him. Haley was worried he wouldn’t have a date that evening, meaning he’d have to either decline the invitation or spend all evening answering questions about why Bailey wasn’t there. Bailey could still hear Caryn’s voice telling Matthias the same thing. “I need a shower.”

“Right.” The skepticism in Haley’s voice was thick, but they both seemed willing to let it go. “Anyway, one of their get-togethers, and when they heard I was back in town, they invited us. We’ll leave about seven. Think you can have showered by then?”

Bailey bit the inside of his lower lip hard enough to leave teeth marks. He nodded.

“Good,” said Haley, already turned back to the tablet. He took the stylus and scribbled some note against its surface. “Wear the rose merino.”

The frustrating thing was that Bailey had already been planning on just that sweater for the occasion — something simple, comfortable, yet flattering. Part of him wanted to find something else just to spite Haley and his controlling choices. But no, spite never worked for him as well as he wanted it to, so he let it go. He’d build the outfit around it. It was the simplest way to go.

Bailey folded his hands around the sides of his mug, staring at the dark surface of the coffee inside. “The time I was a monk, do you–” He shut his mouth sharply, barely realizing that his thoughts had wandered back to the night before until he heard the words he was speaking.

“Do I what?” Haley asked without looking up.

Shaking his head, Bailey stood. “Never mind.”

That, at least, caught Haley’s attention enough that he put the tablet down on his lap. At that angle, Bailey could see a shooting script, complete with Haley’s annotations in the margins. He couldn’t read either the typeset or handwritten words from that distance. “No, what?” Haley pressed his lips together, giving the little frown he did nearly every time Bailey brought up their past lives. In public, of course, he’d either reminisce on command or dodge the subject with a charming joke. But when it was just the two of them, the past was a dangerous country.

If there was one thing true across all their lifetimes together, though, it was that no matter the circumstances, Haley was tenacious as hell. Bailey had brought it up, and it wouldn’t be dropped until it was addressed. “Do you remember my name?” Bailey asked. “Not what you called me, not Duboon. Do you remember it?”

“Dyvrounetch,” Haley said, as easily as though Bailey had asked him their current address. “Why?”

Dyvrounetch. How could he have forgotten that? Haley wasn’t pronouncing it quite right, but he’d learned Jai’s tongue, not the other way around, and by the time they’d gotten anywhere near that area again, the language had long since gone extinct. Language was sometimes an enormous barrier when discussing past lives: How do you spell that? The character for meadow and the character for pine sapling, with an extra vertical stroke on the third bar, that’s how. Bailey just spoke languages; he didn’t take them apart and put them back together.

“I’d forgotten,” Bailey said, hoping that sufficed for an answer. “That’s all.”

A look passed Haley’s eyes, an expression that even for all their literal millennia of familiarity, Bailey couldn’t read. A second later, though, Haley’s tablet pinged, and the look evaporated as the screen took Haley’s attention again. Bailey might as well have just disappeared.

Around six, Bailey a long, hot shower, letting the water pinken his skin until he couldn’t stand it any longer. He heard the bathroom door open but paid it no mind; there was probably some grooming product or hair dryer in there that Haley wanted. Instead, the pebbled glass door to the shower slid open, revealing a naked Haley on the other side. Without comment, Haley stepped into the shower, grabbed Bailey’s face, and kissed him hard.

Once upon a time, that had been the first instinct when they’d reunited after a separation, not one left for several hours on. There was no denying, though, how well they fit together. Haley’s hands threaded back into Bailey’s damp hair, pulling him down the height distance between them. Bailey reached around and grabbed Haley’s perfect ass, squeezing hard. He could feel the way Haley grinned into the kiss, then turned Bailey around and pressed him face-first against the tile. Haley pressed his lips to Bailey’s spine as he reached around, grabbing Bailey’s cock. He rubbed his own cock up against Bailey’s ass as the water from the spray made Bailey’s wet skin slick.

Bailey didn’t somehow think Haley was deprived or blue-balled. They were both free to fuck other people as they wanted, though Haley was usually the only one who took advantage of that freedom. He hadn’t somehow been wasting away on location for a lack of sex. It was just that he was home now, and home meant he got what he wanted.

They made it from the bathroom to Bailey’s bed, where Bailey landed face-down atop the unmade sheets. He lay there with his ass turned up and his cock pressed against the sheets, breathing hard. Haley went to the bedside drawer, and less than a minute later, his slicked-up cock was buried inside Bailey’s ass. Bailey moaned into the pillows as Haley’s cock filled him, shoving in until Haley’s balls slapped up against Bailey’s ass. Haley stayed there a minute, buried to the hilt with his hands grabbing Bailey’s hips. Then, without hesitation, he began to fuck Bailey hard enough to smack the bedframe against the wall. At least they didn’t have neighbors.

Bailey grabbed that bedframe and straightened up as much as he could, getting up on his knees so that he could brace his palms flat against the wall. Haley wrapped an arm around his middle and pressed up against his back, until Bailey could feel Haley’s breath hot against the back of his neck. Haley rarely spoke during sex, only to give whatever instructions were necessary in the moment. There was no praise, no play. There didn’t need to be. What they had was the raw feel of bodies against one another, skin on skin. The rest was for other people.

Haley’s cock was big. When they’d started fucking as teenagers, Bailey had thought about trying to get Haley to take things slow, to give Bailey a little more time to get used to it. But in the end, he’d said nothing. What would have been the point? He knew he’d get used to it, and he had. And now it was good.

Bailey’s shower-soaked hair fell forward into his face, the damp curls making a curtain across his eyes as he pushed his hips backward and wordlessly begged for whatever Haley would give him. No matter what their bodies were like, Bailey’s body always seemed to want exactly what Haley’s body could give him. This time around, that thing was a thick cock and all the overwhelming sensations that went with having it inside him.

The strength in Bailey’s arms began to give way as his orgasm built inside him. Sweat mingled with bathwater on his skin, dirty and clean in equal measure .He murmured swears in some language, though he was hardly paying attention to which at this point. Haley took the hand that had been around Bailey’s waist and reached for Bailey’s own cock, holding it tight in his hot grip. That touch was all Bailey needed. He let his head fall back, crying out in gasping pleasure as he shot his load all over the pillows and headboard.

Haley came only a few seconds after that — but it was after, that was the point. For Haley, sex, like everything else, was a competition, and his vision of winning was to make his partner climax first. Bailey thought the impulse was more than a little juvenile, but he couldn’t mind too much, given how sweet losing was. He held himself there against the headboard as Haley thrust his last few times, coming inside of Bailey with all the entitlement of someone staking a claim. That ass belonged to him, and they both knew it.

For a moment, as Haley caught his breath, he was tender. He pressed his cheek against the plane of Bailey’s shoulderblade. The hand that had been gripping Bailey’s hip so tight relaxed, turning instead to petting his bare skin. Bailey shut his eyes, drinking in the closeness but knowing it wouldn’t last.

It never did. With what was surely meant to be a playful spank across Bailey’s hip, Haley pulled out of him and bounced off the bed. “I’ll tell the car we’ll be a little late,” he said, sauntering completely naked out of Bailey’s room and back toward his own. He never even looked back.

Bailey went back to the shower and then to the closet. By the time he got there, he was too tired and numb to make decisions. Yes, the rose merino with the pearl-grey slacks and blazer, that would be lovely. All the fine fabrics were so soft. If he had to stand for hours and make small talk with people he barely knew, at least he’d be cozy.

Thinking of coziness made him wonder what Raven was doing at that moment. He chuckled a little as he pulled the high-necked sweater over his head, wondering what Raven would make of a text from Bailey right now: Just got fucked, heading to a party, thinking of you. No, that kind of message would be rude even sent to someone without a crush on Bailey. Given Raven’s feelings, it would just be unbearably cruel. Cruelty wasn’t Bailey’s style.

So instead he grabbed his phone and jotted off a quick message: How’s my favorite ferret?

When he didn’t hear back right away, he figured Raven must be busy with something else and put the conversation out of his mind. Bailey walked out into the main room not significantly after seven, to find Haley standing there in a devastatingly attractive wine-colored three-piece suit with gold accents. His tie was artfully loosened already, giving him a rakish look. “Let’s go,” he said, without comment on Bailey’s outfit.

In the back seat of the hired car, Bailey felt his phone buzz. He fished it from his pocket to find a notification on the lock screen telling him he had a message from Raven. Only centuries of controlled practice kept Bailey’s body language from giving anything away. Even if there wasn’t anything to give away. Of course there wasn’t anything to give away. Raven was his friend, that was all. And so what if Raven were more than his friend? So what if he were ass-up for Raven every night while Haley was away, getting fucked dry on the regular, so what at all? It wouldn’t matter. He could outright tell Haley in graphic detail — hell, he could call Haley while Raven’s whole dick was inside him, and Haley wouldn’t care.

But there wasn’t anything to tell Haley about, because nothing was happening. Bailey was nowhere near Raven’s dick period, and he had no intention of being. Maybe if Raven got over his ridiculous crush, sure, then they could fuck like friends, with no further expectation of things Bailey couldn’t reciprocate. He wondered what Raven’s dick was like. Probably not as big as Haley’s, sure, but few were. He wondered what it would feel like to get Raven’s body up against a wall, to reach down underneath all those layers of clothing and press a hand to the front of the tight black jeans Raven seemed to favor. They were clingy enough that there’d be no way to hide anything beneath. Maybe then he could–

Bailey’s phone buzzed again. Right, the text. God, what was wrong with him? Just got laid and already all he could think about was more cock. He was hardly promiscuous even under the most permissive of situations, but no one had ever accused him of not being a slut.

The message came in three parts: first, Probably asleep at home; then, I’m at a full moon ceremony now in Highline Park; and finally, You can join us if you like.

Would Bailey like? He honestly didn’t know. They were barely half a mile from Highline Park at the moment, though. Wouldn’t it be funny if he told the driver to take a left at the next intersection? If he told Haley, sorry, I can’t mingle a bunch of rich socialites with you tonight, I’m going to go mingle with a bunch of witchy strangers instead? A riot. He wouldn’t do it, of course. Haley would be equal parts baffled and furious, and rightly so. Still, it was a funny thought.

Other plans tonight, sorry, Bailey replied, then included an emoji of a little smiling moon. Maybe next time? I hear full moons happen every now and then.

Every 29.5 days, came Raven’s reply, which made Bailey outright chuckle. He could just imagine Raven out in that park, bundled up against the cold like a little shadow, frowning at his phone and honestly wondering if his friend somehow had gone all this time without learning about lunar cycles. Bailey had to remember to be a little gentler with the sarcasm in the future.

The car was nearly at the Roslings’ building now, stopped at an intersection beside a large lighted billboard. Before Bailey could question the impulse, he had his phone out in front of his face, half-visible now in the pale glow of some advertisement for skin cream. He gave the camera a quiet little smile and snapped a selfie.

There was no way Haley could have missed that. “Here, if you’re going to do that, get me in it,” he said, scooting over. He threw an arm over Bailey’s shoulder and gave the camera a big practiced grin. “Come on, smile.” Haley patted Bailey’s arm.

Bailey’s whole face felt like lead, but he did it anyway. He smiled like everything in the world was right, like he was so happy to be out on the town with the man he loved, like his head wasn’t already aching with the thought of the night about to come. He smiled and took four pictures in a row, hoping at least one of them would make him look a little less dead around the eyes.

As the car started up again, Haley settled back down in his seat. “Those are good, send those to Jill.” Jill was the member of the publicist team that ran all of Haley’s social media accounts. He’d get some good engagement with this one, that was for sure. He always did when Bailey was in the picture.

Bailey forwarded the four photos of the two of them to Jill, not bothering with any explanation. If she needed context, she’d contact Haley for details. That done, he looked back at the first selfie, the one of only him. The blue-white light of the billboard had caught all the shapes of his face in stark relief, making his normally soft jaw and cheekbones look angular enough to cut. But the smile on his face was real — a little sad, maybe, but as genuine as they came. Jill didn’t even get to know that picture existed. That smile wasn’t for everyone else.

With a few taps, Bailey dropped the picture into the text message chain with Raven. Then I’ll see you there in 29.5 days, Bailey added. Have fun!

The get-together looked small at first, but that was only because the Roslings’ place was so expansive — not a penthouse, but still almost twice as big as Haley and Bailey’s — that Bailey had to move around a few rooms before he saw everyone. Myrna and Viktor Rosling greeted Bailey like they were old friends, complete with kisses on each cheek and affectionate we’re-so-glad-you’re-heres. Bailey had only met them a few times before, but he liked them both well enough. He especially liked Myrna, who prided herself on being a patron of the arts and would talk off anyone’s ear about opera. All Bailey had to do then was to laugh at appropriate moments and make a few what happened next? noises, which suited him just fine.

And of course there was an open bar, which suited him even better. Bailey was smart — he knew his limits and always obeyed them, at least in public. No one else had ever seen him drunk drunk, because that was a kind of vulnerability he couldn’t afford. He started the evening with a gin and tonic, a nice, friendly party drink. That would at least make the evening a little softer around the edges.

He knew the trick at these things was to stay as close to Haley as possible, to let him be light and noise enough to cover for both of them. That was the assumption so many people made about soulmates: that whatever went for one, went for two. Bailey had never had the energy to correct anyone about that.

For a moment, though, he lingered by the bar and checked his phone again. In all the bustle of arriving to the party, he’d missed Raven’s reply: You look pretty. The simplicity of it made Bailey smile. Raven had seen the picture, had the thought, and shared it with Bailey. Haley hadn’t been bothered to say a single word about the way Bailey looked tonight. But Raven thought Bailey looked pretty.

Thanks, Bailey texted back, adding a little blushing smile.

 

~*~

 

The week that Haley was back in town was busy for Bailey, because it was busy for Haley, and Bailey was Haley’s favorite accessory. Engagement on his posts went up some number of percentage points when Bailey was involved, or so various members of Haley’s publicity team told Bailey. Bailey steadfastly refused to start his own social media accounts, and Haley didn’t push him to. In truth, Bailey was more than a little certain that Haley liked not having the competition.

An accident on one of the freeways meant their driver had to detour on their way back from filming a morning show. Haley had been the star guest, of course, while Bailey had occupied his assigned seat in the front row of the audience, smiling during the few times the camera had swung his way. Bailey hadn’t been paying much attention at all to how they’d been going, in fact, until he’d seen a familiar logo on the window of a takeout restaurant. “Could you pull over here, please?” he asked the driver.

Haley looked up from his phone, frowning as the car stopped beside the curb. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just…” Why was Bailey having such trouble explaining? “I have an errand to run.”

Here?” Haley asked, looking around with intense skepticism. The street-level stores in this neighborhood were hardly the high-end merchants that outfitted their lifestyle; there were more head shops and tattoo parlors by far than high-end salons and chic boutiques. Bailey supposed he could understand the reaction.

“A bookstore,” Bailey said at last, not even knowing why he was lying. It was a reasonable fiction, though — booksellers often made their homes in lower-rent districts like this, places trapped eternally in the limbo between seedy and bohemian. “Jo wanted me to stop by. Something for Winnie.”

The explanation seemed to satisfy Haley, who shrugged and went back to his phone. “See you later, then.” 

As Bailey stood on the sidewalk and watched the hired car drive off, he couldn’t believe what he’d just done. He’d lied to Haley. Sure, they kept secrets from one another sometimes, but that was different. In the past, if he’d wanted to keep something from Haley, he’d simply said that it was his own business, nothing for Haley to worry about. Haley had done the same for him, and Bailey had never pried. They trusted one another. They understood one another. Nothing either of them did surprised the other anymore.

To make up a lie, though, indicated that Bailey was doing something he thought was wrong. And he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was going to hang out with a friend for a minute. He was allowed to have friends. He was allowed to spend time with them. It was fine. That would all have been fine.

Except he knew it wasn’t, and he knew why it wasn’t.

He balled his hands into fists in his pants pockets and exhaled hard into the air. The weak winter sun did little to warm the day, and Bailey had been so distracted by his fibbing that he’d left his coat in the car. He hustled down the few blocks toward the Crystal Shop, wishing he’d at least thought to grab his scarf. He balled his hands up in front of his face and exhaled hard. The heat still faded too fast.

When he pushed open the door of the shop, red-nosed and shivering a little, Bailey at least had the pleasure of seeing Raven so startled by Bailey’s arrival that he nearly fell off his stool. The ferret was on his shoulder, wearing some kind of harness and leash, and she scrambled up to the top of Raven’s head to keep from falling off. There were a couple people in the shop, browsing the bookshelves with the air of people used to keeping their business to themselves. Bailey scurried across the store, pressing up against the counter. “Hi,” he said, chancing a little wave. 

 “Hi?” said Raven, a greeting and inquiry at once. He reached up and plucked the ferret from his head, wincing as he convinced her to release one of his locs. Once untangled, she hopped from Raven’s hands onto the counter, then proceeded to sniff the sleeve of Bailey’s high-necked aran sweater. “You’re cold.”

“Yeah, I–” Bailey exhaled through pursed lips. “Long story. But I was in the neighborhood. And I thought I’d say hi. So … hi.”

“Hi,” Raven echoed. He looked at Bailey for a few seconds, then handed Bailey the ferret’s leash. Puzzled, Bailey stood there while Raven shrugged off his roomy outer cardigan. It was made of fleece and had several lapel pins up both sides, most of which had symbols Bailey couldn’t identify. Before Bailey could say anything about it, Raven tossed it over Bailey’s shoulders. “Put it on,” he said with a tone of voice that suggested he wasn’t going to take counter-offers.

Bailey did, switching the leash between hands as he slipped each arm through the sleeves. The whole thing was heavy, more than he would have expected from a piece of clothing, but it was also wonderfully warm. It smelled like the shop, like Raven, that dark scent of amber and incense. Closer now, Bailey could see that one of the pins was a pale pink flower, but each of the petals was the word FUCK in a bubbly font. He loved it.

With Raven’s outermost layer gone, Bailey could see just how lean he was. He still had on a long black vest, one that went down nearly to his knees, and a threadbare long-sleeved shirt beneath it, all over a pair of black jeggings. All of those clung close to his frame, though, revealing more of the shape of his body. He was small but not scrawny, with shoulders broader than Bailey would have guessed, given how oversized everything Raven wore appeared to be. “Better?” Raven asked.

It was so much better, Bailey didn’t know how he was ever going to take it off again. He smiled and nodded as he drew the thick fleece around him. “Thanks.”

Raven just nodded, then glanced over to the other customers. “Do you want to … have a seat?” he asked Bailey, pointing to another, shorter stool behind the counter.

Did he? Now that was a good question. Why was Bailey in here, anyway? He hadn’t been thinking that far — he’d just seen the restaurant, made the connection that Raven was nearby, and switched completely to autopilot. “I can go,” Bailey offered, glancing back toward the front door.

Raven shook his head. “Have a seat.”

That was how Bailey wound up sitting behind the counter at the Crystal Shop, petting the ferret and watching a fairly steady stream of customers bustle in and out of the shop. No one paid him more than a few seconds’ worth of attention. He saw a few give him a double-take, but then shake their heads and turn away again. He could almost hear them dismiss the lookalike coincidence with the logic of, what would one of the Reincarnates be doing in a place like this? Bailey wondered what they’d think if they knew he was just as curious about it as they were.

No, that wasn’t true, and he needed to stop pretending like he didn’t know what had drawn him back here. He knew, little though he wanted to admit, that from the moment he’d heard Raven talk about the mechanics, one question had been sitting at the center of his mind, growing like a cancer until its malignant tentacles touched every thought: Is there a way to stop it?

Bailey that kind of thinking was akin to blasphemy. He understood it every time he saw his own face featured on a magazine cover, along with stories about the power of love to transcend the limits of mortality. Most people would give anything they had to be able to stay connected to their loved ones from one lifetime to the next, to know that death would not be the end of the bonds between them. How could Bailey even think of ending such a thing? How could he throw such a precious gift away? Didn’t he love Haley?

He did. That wasn’t even a question. Of course he loved Haley. He loved Haley as much as he loved himself. But the problem was that he also hated Haley as much as he hated himself. And lately, the latter emotion had begun to overtake the former.

What did he mean, lately? No, it hadn’t been lately. The balance had been off for a long time — at least a thousand years, if not more. It wasn’t as though there’d been a moment where everything had changed, a dealbreaking lifetime where Haley had pushed things at last too far. Bailey almost wished there had been, so that he could at least point back and say, yes, that there, that had been the moment he’d realized how hollow he felt inside. He wished it had been one of the moments where Haley, living up to his Warlord name, had ordered some great cruelty for the sake of his ambition. He wished there’d been a time, a single time, that he’d thrown himself in front of the unstoppable force that was Haley and declared himself an immovable object, for the sake of someone, anyone else.

He hadn’t. He never had. Every time, Haley had reminded him how brief those little lives were anyway, how cutting them short by a year or a decade changed nothing in the grand scheme of things, how only bold actions could hope to remake the world. And every time, Bailey had backed down. And every time he’d backed down, he’d hated himself a little more, and Haley a little more by association.

They were toxic together. They were terrible for one another. Bailey knew it, and he suspected, deep down, Haley knew it too. Bailey didn’t know what Haley would have gotten away with if Bailey hadn’t done his best to mitigate the damage. But he had a better idea of what Haley wouldn’t have gotten away with if Bailey hadn’t been there to enable him every step of the way.

So that was it. Bailey had to cut the cord.

Bailey sat there with his thoughts quietly for nearly an hour, petting a very contented ferret and watching the customers as they browsed, until the shop at last cleared out. “Sorry,” Raven said with a little shrug.

“It’s fine,” Bailey promised with a smile. “You’re busy! That’s good.”

“Yeah.” Raven nodded as he folded his arms across his chest, shrinking back in on himself. “Warmer now?”

“Oh!” Bailey had all but forgotten he was still wearing Raven’s fleece. It had just been so comfortable, like being cuddled up in a blanket. But it had been a loan, and he didn’t want to seem greedy. “Here you are,” he said, shrugging the cardigan off while keeping the ferret curled up on his lap. He handed it back to Raven. “I can see why you like wearing that. It’s cozy.”

Raven nodded again as he slipped his own arms back inside the sleeves and disappeared inside its warm bulk again. “I get cold easily,” Raven said, tucking each of his hands inside the opposite sleeve’s cuff. “And labs tend to be kept cold. I got in the habit of dressing like this at school. And I never stopped.”

Bailey nodded. Most of them time, he didn’t mind a little chill, but he could remember lifetimes when he’d been thin-blooded to the point of agony in even mild winter weather. “Sorry for just dropping by without giving you a heads-up.”

“It’s fine.” Raven shrugged. “It’s a public store. You can literally just walk in off the street. You don’t have to tell me you’re coming.”

Bailey supposed he didn’t. At the same time, though, he’d seen Raven’s attentive surprise when Bailey had walked through his front door. It seemed that giving him a warning text would have been the polite thing. Or maybe not. Maybe Bailey was just overthinking everything. He was probably overthinking everything.

Raven glanced around at the empty shop, then looked at his watch. “I’m going to close up for half an hour and get some lunch. Do you want something?”

Bailey did, and to a point he nearly hadn’t noticed. He’d picked at the danishes and cut fruit morning-show green rooms tended to leave out for their guests, but that hadn’t been anything of substance. “What are you offering?” Bailey asked with a wink that appeared to go wholly unappreciated.

Sandwiches, it seemed, where what Raven had in mind. Raven ran upstairs to put the ferret back in her cage and returned with a worn but clean black peacoat. His habit of wearing oversized clothing meant Bailey could just button it around the middle, though he found it a bit short in the sleeves. The sandwich place was at the far corner of the same block, which was a quick but brisk walk. It was a little counter shop with no room for tables and a single old man at the helm. His wrinkled face brightened into a grin as Raven walked in. With a wave of his meaty hand, he called to them and said–

What did he say? Bailey almost understood it, but too many of the syllables hit wrong. It was a greeting, for sure, but he got that more from context than from the actual words. When Raven responded, there was that same near-recognition, where the sounds and the cadence made sense individually, but the overall meaning was gone. It was Keric, he supposed, but miles from any Keric he knew.

Raven looked up at Bailey, then chuckled softly at what must have been a comic look of confusion on Bailey’s face. “He says you look like the man from TV,” Raven said with a smirk.

“Tell him I get that a lot,” Bailey said, sticking his hands in the pockets of Raven’s coat. There were so many little objects cached in there, including several stones, a bottle of nail polish, and what felt like a synthetic rabbit’s foot. He was certainly a man who lived up to his namesake.

Raven shrugged at the man behind the counter and spoke again. Now that Bailey was in a different mindset, he could pick out individual words from the matrix: no, different, two, old, person, light. It was hardly the first time in his many lifetimes that he’d felt lost when confronted with how quickly and relentlessly languages changed in his absence. Bailey assumed that had always been the way of things, but it hadn’t been until recent centuries that the growing closeness of the globe had made those changes impossible to ignore. In the distant past, he might go a thousand years between speaking a language and hearing it again. Now, he could open his phone and hear anything from anywhere.

“What do you want?” Raven asked, pointing up to the menu above the counter. It was mercifully bilingual, and it had a few pictures scattered through for good measure.

Bailey shrugged. “What’s good?”

Raven turned back to the man behind the counter and gave some order that Bailey completely missed, but held up two fingers as he did. Bailey was used to being ordered for, as Haley tended to do it whether he’d offered first or not. It was different when Raven did it, though. When Raven ordered for them both, he wasn’t trying to imply that he knew Bailey’s desires better than Bailey did himself. Raven was actually the expert here, using his expertise to get something he hoped Bailey would enjoy. When Bailey thought about it like that, it was actually kind of sweet.

They said nothing as the man made the sandwiches, splitting the long rolls and filling them with vegetables and long strips of fried tofu. Bailey saw the man reach for a clear bottle of deadly-looking chili sauce, and he waved to get the man’s attention. “Might thou refrain for mine own sake?” he asked, summoning his long-ago knowledge for what he hoped was a simple sentence.

Both Raven and the man burst out laughing at that, Raven so hard that he had to grab Bailey’s sleeve to keep from teetering over. When Bailey looked at Raven, puzzled, Raven just shook his head sweetly. The man said something as he put the sauce on only one of the sandwiches, and Raven replied: old, book, him, learn. Then he turned back to Bailey and said, “He says you sound like his great-great-grandfather’s great-great-grandfather.”

Bailey felt a little embarrassed by the gaffe, as he supposed he should. But he was distracted from this feeling by realizing this was the first time he’d ever heard the sound of Raven’s laughter.

When they got back to the shop and unwrapped their sandwiches, Bailey realized there were huge green slices of hot peppers in his. Without comment, Raven removed them with a pair of chopsticks he’d stored behind the counter and piled them on his own sandwich. Bailey couldn’t help being charmed. “I suppose I’m a little out of speaking practice,” Bailey admitted, opening the little container of dipping sauce.

Raven shrugged. “Mr. Thrang and I are also from the same rural province, so we speak the same dialect. I’m not shocked you don’t know it.”

Well, that explained at least some of the miscommunication. “He seems nice,” Bailey says, meaning it.

“He is,” Raven agreed with a nod. He bit into one of the peppers and chewed it without expression. “I’m sorry we laughed at you.”

“No, it’s–” Bailey waved his hand dismissively. “It’s fine. If my language skills’ being several centuries out of date can bring someone amusement, then I’m glad.”

“There was a project I heard about when I was younger, something a few decades ago,” Raven said between bites. “Some attempt to get all the Reincarnates together and try collectively to document dead languages?”

Bailey nodded. “They started a year or two before I died, back when I was Matthias. Veronique le March — the Poet, you’d know her as — she’s always had a thing for languages. No surprise that she’s single-handedly responsible for about ten percent of the global literary canon.” The bookshelf just over Raven’s shoulder caught Bailey’s eye, and Bailey pointed to one of the titles: The Water-Bringer and Other Sonnets, by Davayni. “That’s her too, you know.”

Raven glanced over at the volume and frowned. “Davayni was a Reincarnate?”

“He was. He and his favorite concubine.” Bailey chuckled. “Who was actually a man, but dressed in drag his whole life so they could be together. All the poems about the Lady of the Skies, actually about him.” Seeing Raven’s surprised expression, Bailey gave a sad little smile. “We actually knew one another that time — not for very long, but long enough to have some conversations. I think that was the first time I realized there might be someone else going through the same thing we were. Of course, I couldn’t tell if he was telling the truth or completely crazy, and I suppose he had the same doubts about me. And we were both cautious with what we gave away — it was a paranoid time on many fronts. They stoned a lot of so-called witches, so you didn’t want to say or do anything that made it sound like you were in league with the Dark Powers, or whatever nonsense they’d made up that month. He was an old man by then, and I was still a youth, but my father thought it would be good for me to go and have tea with him and learn the part of poetry. Which was ridiculous, of course, because I’ve never had any kind of knack for verse. Or music, for that matter, even if he wanted me to play a little shepherd’s harp for him while he talked. I don’t know how he stood the noise–” With a frown, Bailey cut himself off mid-sentence and narrowed his eyes at Raven. “How do you make me talk so much?”

Mouth full of almost more sandwich than it could contain, Raven grew wide-eyed at the accusation. Unable to defend himself, he gave a hesitant shrug.

Bailey laughed at that, shaking his head. “You shouldn’t feel bad. It’s just surprising. I’ve told the basics to … well, to more people than I can count. But that one, I don’t share much. Well, the first time anyone made a real, concerted effort to document our various reincarnations, it was three of my lifetimes ago. And at that time, Veronique was Pal, and she and her soulmate, Su-yin, were living the lives of ‘dear friends’ in rural Tyanpin, both from very religious families who already weren’t particularly happy to find out that their children had lived past lives and might not just go straight on to Heaven forever when they died. It helped that Su-yin was blind, so of course unsuitable for marriage, and all she had in the world was her friend who was close to her as a sister. Very sisterly. Anyway, Pal hadn’t said anything about it, beyond confirming to the researchers that, yes, she had been Davyani and Su-yin had been one of his concubines, so it didn’t seem my place to divulge anything that might cast even more suspicions on her relationship. They had it hard enough. I would have been an asshole to make it worse.”

Why did he feel so comfortable telling all this to Raven? If anything, he should have been more suspicious of their interactions — Raven was a researcher, for heaven’s sake, trying to pick apart the nuts and bolts of their entanglement. Anything Bailey said, he shouldn’t be surprised if he saw it published one day in a scientific journal, or maybe just in whatever poorly titled sequel to his previous book that Raven wrote.

But he trusted Raven. That was the meat of it. Maybe he was foolish to do so — he was always too trusting, Haley had always said, which was why Bailey needed a strong pragmatist by his side to keep him from being taken in by delusional thinkers and con men. He wanted to believe that he’d gotten it right this time, though. He needed to believe it.

As to why that was, he couldn’t say. He only knew that the idea of lying to Raven, especially when Raven had been so nakedly honest with him, made Bailey’s chest feel tight. With a sigh, Bailey looked down at his untouched lunch. “I’m going to stop talking your ear off and eat now,” he said sheepishly. He did just that, taking a bite and making a wonderful pleased noise as the vinegar-heavy sauce hit his tongue. “Wow, that’s good.”

Raven smiled back at him, looking pleased that his choice of lunch spot had been confirmed a quality choice. “I like it when you talk. I want to hear what you have to say. What you’re thinking.”

No, Bailey though quietly, Raven didn’t want to hear what he was thinking. No one wanted to hear what Bailey was thinking. If there was one thing several lifetimes of being attached to Haley had taught him, it was that.

So instead of saying what he was thinking, Bailey spent the rest of the time between bites of his sandwich telling Raven more about Veronique’s project to catalogue all the now-dead languages the Reincarnates could collectively remember. Bailey had to admit that he himself had been of precious little value to the entire enterprise, as he’d never had much of a gift for any language beyond the one he had grown up speaking at any particular moment. He’d been able to confirm a few things here and there, but he’d added very little information they hadn’t had before.

He’d said more than once during the proceedings that Caryn would have been far more helpful than he ever could have been. But by that point, Caryn was already dead.

He felt a pang of disappointment when an expectant figure appeared by the shop’s glass front and Raven hopped to his feet, scurrying over to unlock the door after a too-long lunch. Not that he begrudged Raven’s having to do business, of course. Everybody had the things they needed to do.

And that “everybody” included Bailey. He checked his phone to find he’d missed two texts. The first was from Haley: 7:30, Doug Kraft’s engagement party, La Belle. Bailey didn’t even know who Doug Kraft was, but he knew the bar at La Belle would be stocked with enough to get him through whatever kind of party it was, so he supposed he didn’t much mind.

The second was from Melissa The Assistant. There was no message attached, just a link to a flight itinerary leaving at six a.m. the day after tomorrow. First class, one seat, with Haley’s name on it.

So he was leaving again. So soon, and without telling Bailey himself. Because he didn’t care if Bailey knew, because Bailey was just a fucking afterthought in Haley’s life, and had been for so long now that the thought of trying to count it all up made Bailey sick. Bailey was basically a piece of furniture to Haley, at best a show dog that could be paraded around to admirers but got left at the kennel when things got inconvenient.

And the worst part was that Bailey didn’t even want him around! He didn’t want Haley around, but also didn’t want Haley to go. It was completely irrational and unfair of him, but he couldn’t stop feeling it, so he just got madder at himself for feeling it. Bailey didn’t want Haley to stay. Bailey didn’t even necessarily want Haley to want to stay. Bailey wanted to want Haley to stay. He reached deep doing inside himself and tried to pull those feelings up to the surface, but found nothing there but dust.

“Bailey?” Raven said softly, putting his hand on Bailey’s shoulder.

Bailey looked up at him, surprised by the touch, then looked away and blinked several times, trying to get the prickle of tears from his eyes. “Sorry, I–” He swallowed, then shook his head. “It’s nothing. I’m fine! Just … I should go, probably. Haley’s got a thing tonight, and I should go with him.”

At the mention of Haley’s name, Raven’s face visibly soured. Raven got his expression under control a fraction of a second later, but Bailey hadn’t imagined the distaste he’d seen there. Was this about the genocide? It was probably about the genocide. “Okay.” Raven nodded, but he let his hand linger right where it was. Was this the first time Raven had touched him? Surely not; they’d been too near one another before to remain completely separate. But it was the first time Bailey could remember such lingering, deliberate contact between them.

And it was nice. Raven was small, but he was steady. He was what he appeared to be — not like Bailey, who sometimes felt like a mountain of secrets wearing a human face. The warmth of his hand through Bailey’s shirt made Bailey want to do anything but leave.

He had to, though, so he fished out his phone and used an app to call for a car. As he stood, Raven held out the peacoat again. “Here.”

Surprised, Bailey held up a hand to politely decline. “It’s all right. The car’s going to pull up right outside. I just have to dash from the door to the sidewalk.”

“Still,” Raven said, pressing it into Bailey’s hands so that it would have been more awkward for Bailey not to take it. “It could be cold in the car.”

It was the flimsiest of pretenses, and Bailey found himself helpless to stop the smile rising on his lips. “It could be,” he admitted as he slipped the peacoat over his shoulders. Its woolen embrace felt almost as secure as Raven’s hand on his shoulder had. “Thank you.”

“Besides…” With an awkward little shrug, Raven let his gaze fall to the floor. “Then you have to bring it back, right?”

As ill-advised as it was, Raven’s crush still made Bailey feel good, like he was still enough of a worthwhile human being to attract the attention of someone as pure and earnest as Raven. “I promise,” Bailey said as he tapped open the app and started looking for a ride. Fortunately for him, it was a busy enough district that there were several cars only few blocks away. “My schedule should clear all up again once Haley leaves in a couple days.”

There it was again, the little wrinkle of Raven’s nose. “I don’t like him,” Raven said softly. “He’s not good for you.”

Bailey felt as though Raven had just tossed a bucket of ice water in his face. Nobody talked that way about the soulmates. Not to their faces, not behind their backs, not ever. Maybe once in a while some enterprising spirit would try to get themselves introduced as a third to one of the Reincarnate pairs, and of course millions harbored those harmless parasocial crushes that went no further than second-person self-insert fiction on websites Bailey knew better than to visit. The baseline assumption was always that they were perfect for one another, and the rest proceeded from there. It was bizarre that Bailey had even begun to think such things, and ten times more shocking that Raven had come out and said it like it was something anybody could see.

“That’s,” Bailey managed, before he had to pause and clear his throat. He forced his words through a surprised smile, hearing even as he said them the affront in his tone: “That’s not your decision to make.”

Raven nodded. “I know,” he said, looking at the floor, his hands, the shop — anywhere but Bailey’s eyes. He glanced out the window just as a black town car pulled up by the shop. “Your ride’s here.”

In the car on the way home, Bailey’s mind spun. He felt like he should apologize, but he didn’t know what for, or even to whom the apology should be directed. He turned the dark rectangle of his phone over and over in his hand, wondering if maybe he was the one who deserved an apology. But from what, the universe? He laughed to think of it: a greeting card with Sorry For Finding You True Love on the front. It was as ridiculous as it was unlikely.

Maybe what Bailey needed was to stop being a spoiled, selfish brat. That was the more reasonable conclusion to draw. Maybe he should just be grateful for whatever he had, and stop trying to sabotage what other people would literally kill for.

Yet that night, at the engagement party, Bailey couldn’t beat back the thought of not having to do this anymore. Either of them, for that matter. Hell, it’d be doing Haley a favor. He wouldn’t have to drag around his stick-in-the-mud soulmate like dead weight. He could be free to go off and charm as many people as he wanted, to fall in love with them and maybe even marry a few. Wouldn’t Haley prefer it that way, not to have his whole life without the ball and chain? For instance, wouldn’t he be having a much better time at the party if he didn’t have to mind Bailey? If he didn’t feel obligated to drag along someone who didn’t want to be there in the first place, just to keep up appearances?

It would be better, Bailey concluded after his third whiskey of the evening. He didn’t even need to ask. He knew Haley would agree. He just needed to find a way to cut the cord.

 

~*~

 

“No,” Raven said without looking up from the device he was calibrating.

Bailey had expected some kind of skepticism, but not such a quick and definitive answer. “Why not?” he asked, sitting up.

Raven put a hand in the middle of Bailey’s chest and pushed him right back down onto the couch, where Raven had placed him ten minutes earlier. “Because, even if I did know how to bisect an aura, there’s no telling what would happen. To you, to him, to both of you, to the universe itself. No.”

With a sigh, Bailey ran a hand across his face. “But we could do some experiments to try, right? Or maybe … I don’t know, we could just weaken it, so that next time we could be born without this … what was the word?”

“Entanglement,” Raven said, though the word came out mumbled around the tiny screwdriver stashed in the corner of his mouth. “And no.”

Bailey had spent the last few days trying not to get his hopes up, but every time he’d had a spare moment to think, his thoughts had turned to the idea of what he’d half-jokingly termed their “psychic divorce”. Part of him had selfishly been certain that having a crush on Bailey would’ve made Raven all the more eager to disentangle the object of his affections from his partner. After all, if Haley and Bailey were no longer together, then couldn’t Bailey be with Raven?

Of course, Bailey would never have made such a crass offering, especially not one that he had no intention of following through on. But if Raven’s own mind made such connections independently, and he got his hopes up all on his own, well, that could hardly be Bailey’s fault, could it?

Bailey did not let himself dwell on how much, yes, it absolutely could.

Exhaling through pursed lips, Bailey folded his hands across his chest. “But why not at least consider it?” he asked, unwilling to let the idea be dismissed that quickly, now that he’d put that much time and effort into its existence. “After all, if you could figure out how to sever a connection, wouldn’t that also be a way to figure out how to build a connection too? So if you want to understand how those entanglements work, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to, I don’t know, take one apart and put it back together again?”

Raven’s only answer for a moment was a grunt as he squeezed the corner of a plastic case. It at last popped into place with a satisfying noise, and Raven sighed. He crossed his legs beneath him as he sat on the floor beside the couch. “Maybe,” Raven admitted at last. “But the risk of destruction is too high.”

“But doesn’t science sometimes have to destroy things?” Bailey pointed out. “When you carbon-date something, you by definition have to destroy whatever it is you’re trying to carbon-date. Not all of it, but at least a little bit of it has to go.” The other night, Haley had been watching some award-winning biopic about a scientist, and though Bailey had tuned most of it out, that particular fact had stuck with him. He just hoped the film hadn’t been exaggerating for dramatic effect.

The sigh Raven produced let Bailey know both he and the film had scored at least a mild victory in the category of accuracy in research methods. “Lie still,” Raven said, standing and pointing the device down at Bailey. From this angle, Bailey could see that it was a camera, or at least something camera-like enough to qualify in that category. “This needs a long exposure.”

Bailey knew that he’d won the argument by logic, but Raven had actually won it by refusing to continue to participate. Bailey would have been mad at what an effective tactic that was, had he not used it himself on Haley countless times previous. “So how does that take a picture of my aura?” Bailey asked.

Raven lowered the device just enough that Bailey could see his dark, tired eyes. “Do you want the two-hour explanation of electrical fields and mineral properties, or can I just say ‘it just does’?”

With a shrug of concession to that, Bailey closed his mouth and folded his hands back over his chest. The little grey couch in Raven’s apartment was too short for Bailey to stretch out along it properly, so he had his knees draped over one of the arms. He kicked his feet every so often to make sure he wasn’t losing circulation too badly. Through half-closed eyes, he watched Raven fuss with setting up a tripod-like structure, presumably to counter the long exposure necessary. The rig was clearly a makeshift thing, cobbled together from at least four different separate objects and held together at no few junctures with duct tape. It was meant to hold the camera-thing as high as it could go, which meant higher than Raven’s arms went, leading to a few comical moments where Raven ratcheted the device out of his reach, immediately realized he needed to do something else, and promptly ratcheted it back down.

Of course, these moments were comical only to Bailey, who bit the inside of his cheek to make sure he didn’t so much as crack a smile. Raven was as serious about this as he was about anything, which made it all so charming on him. He didn’t dress like that or do his makeup like that because he was trying to get any rise out of anyone in particular. He just liked himself that way.

Speaking of makeup, Raven had done his eyeliner today with much more artistic precision than Bailey had seen before. Ordinarily, the kohl around his eyes was soft, giving him a slightly bleary look at all times. Today, though, he had precisely winged dark lines stretching out from the corners of his eyes, applied with the kind of clean precision that must have taken a lot of work. Bailey didn’t know whether he was supposed to call attention to the effort that must have gone into it, or to play into the illusion that that kind of beauty was effortless.

Thinking about eyeliner, though, made him think of the only other person he knew with such unmistakable personal style. “Winnie and Jo and I have been talking about getting together for dinner,” Bailey said, figuring he was okay to move his mouth so long as it wasn’t while the photograph was actually in progress. “Would you like to come with us? Make up for not getting to after the reading.”

Raven’s back was turned, keeping his expression hidden. He was quiet for a moment as he tightened a bolt on the rig, then sighed. “I’m not very good company.”

“So what? Neither am I.”

Frowning, Raven looked back over his shoulder at Bailey. “That isn’t true.”

“It’s very true.” Bailey gave a bitter little laugh at that. “I’m an accessory. In fact, I am the world’s most exclusive accessory. I am a professional plus-one. So come along with me. Don’t let the dinner be lopsided, or the lesbians will walk all over me.”

Raven looked at Bailey a long minute then, searching his face as though for signs of deception. At last, he took in a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. “If I say yes to dinner, will you lie still?”

“If I lie still, will you say yes to dinner?” Bailey asked, wiggling his eyebrows.

Raven rolled his eyes. “Lie still,” he ordered, letting that be the answer to both their questions.

The camera took another few minutes to set up, and then a few minutes to test past that. All the while, Bailey stayed put, hands folded across his chest, unable to keep a smile from his face. He liked spending time with Jo and Winnie, and he liked spending time with Raven, so what could be better than combining the two? A dinner with friends sounded like just what Bailey needed.

After the equipment was settled in place to what seemed his satisfaction, Raven opened a box beside the bed and pulled out a coin. It was worn with age and time, but the imprint on it was familiar to Bailey — or at least, it had been familiar to the woman Bailey had been more than two thousand years previous. Raven held it for a second, then handed it over to Bailey, who rubbed his thumb across the letters embossed on its rough circular surface. “Where’d you get this?” asked Bailey.

“Antiques shop,” Raven said. “It’s nothing special. But I thought it might help. Something tangible.”

“Help what?” asked Bailey.

Stepping back behind the camera rig, well out of the shot, Raven pressed a button on one of the electronic components. “I want you to think about back then. Someone you can remember, someone you knew well back then who wasn’t the Warlord. Think about that person with as much detail as you can. And when you’re ready, I’ll take the picture.”

For Bailey, there was only one person it could have been: “My mother.”

Raven nodded. “About your mother, then.”

“Lydia,” Bailey said, remembering the sharp lines of her face, the way she’d pinned her miles of chestnut hair up in intricate braids. “She was … well, she was a whore, to put it plainly. She was never ashamed of it, though at the same time she did her best to make sure I didn’t fall into needing to live that way. She had some story she always told about my father, a handsome soldier who’d died nobly in battle. I think I stopped believing the truth of that story about the same time she’d told it so many times that she’d forgotten it wasn’t true, so … I suppose it didn’t matter. She and I were close, though. Inseparable at times.”

“Was that unusual for you?” asked Raven, looking not at Bailey, but at the camera’s display screen.

There were not words enough for Bailey to explain just how unusual it was for the Reincarnates to bond so strongly with their parents. Being a several-lifetimes-old human from the moment of birth did not tend to engender unbridled fondness for the people in charge of managing childhood behavior. Some of the Reincarnates had good parents, some had bad parents, most had thoroughly acceptable parents — but by this point, all of the Reincarnates had been parents themselves, and none had much tolerance left for being parented.

But Lydia had been different. She had been so young when her daughter had been born that the’d been more like sisters or friends than a parent and child. That style of parenting was damaging to actual children, who needed reassurance and structure as part of their development, but for the girl Bailey had been, it had been perfect. “Yes,” Bailey said at last. “But we were all each other had. So when Haley swept in as a literal prince to pluck me from the streets and bring me up as his wife, I insisted he bring her along to live in the palace. He thought it was a strange request, but he wasn’t going to refuse me. She lived another decade with us, almost two, before a fever took her one winter. Am I doing it right?”

Raven nodded, his gaze still fixed on the display. He held his fingers perched at the side, just over a button. “Think about her as hard as you can,” Raven instructed Bailey. “Stop talking, and just think about her for a minute. And don’t move.”

Bailey nodded and shut his eyes. He had fragments of memories of her when they’d been living together in poverty, scraping together what coins they could. They’d never had the fortune to find as high-denomination of a coin as he had in his fingers right now. But his strongest memories of her were of her in the palace, with her sky-blue dresses and her hair piled atop her head. She’d been given access to gold and finery of all types, but she’d always chosen to dress herself as unobtrusively as possible, drawing no attention beyond that which her natural beauty captivated. Bailey had never quite considered at the time how strange it must have been for her, seeing her daughter swept up in a whirlwind romance with the regent’s youngest son. Love at first sight, it had been.

Except the sight hadn’t been their first, of course, even if they were the only two who knew it. The young prince seen the whore’s daughter in the marketplace, among the crowds, and stopped the carriage right in the middle of the road. He’d hopped out and run toward her, calling out a name that hadn’t been hers for lifetimes. But it hadn’t mattered. He could have shouted anything, or nothing at all, and she would have known him still. Seeing him had been like having color brought back to the world, like a break in the clouds after a whole lifetime of rain. In a noisy public square of a thousand people, there’d been only the two of them.

With a sigh, Bailey clenched the coin in his hand, trying to bring his thoughts back to Lydia. That was the assignment, not thinking about Haley. Not wishing they could go back to how it had been back then, or wondering what had broken between them since.

“Okay,” said Raven after nearly two full minutes, “you can open your eyes.”

Bailey did, then sat up for good measure. “Did it work?”

“I need to develop the photographic plate first,” Raven said, unplugging the rig from the wall. He pulled his little square lens out of his pocket, though, and took a quick look at Bailey through its strange filter. “This suggests that it did, though.”

“Oh.” Bailey nodded, rubbing his hands up and down his thighs a little to get the circulation back. “And … that means what?”

Raven took a seat on the side of the couch that Bailey’s legs had so recent vacated. “I could see your aura … stretch out.” With a frown, Raven put his fingers to his mouth for a second. “No, that’s not it. More like it refracted. Or something far in the distance reacted with it? Like sympathetic vibrations, but for light.”

“Which means…?” Bailey prompted. Sometimes getting a straight answer from Raven was a case of prompting him along until he realized that the connections his brain was making didn’t necessarily get made outside his brain.

“You reached out for your mother,” Raven said, “and something of her reached back.”

Bailey felt a bit like he’d been slammed in the chest with a bat. He gripped the arm of the couch tight and stared at Raven hard, trying to find any words that might constitute an appropriate response to a sentence like that. Of course they weren’t talking about Lydia herself; she was millennia gone, even her bones likely long dissolved beneath the soil. But there was a difference — and, as it turned out, a startling one — between hearing Raven’s general assertion that reincarnation might be a more general phenomenon, and having that assertion apply to a specific person Bailey once knew.

“Where?” Bailey finally managed, stunned.

Raven only shook his head. “I don’t know. I’d need … I don’t even know what I’d need to track those resonances. A setup far more powerful than this. Something that could follow the trail.”

“But–” Bailey shook his head, trying for any crumb he could get. “Close, far?”

“I have no way to tell. This is the first time I’ve ever seen this phenomenon.”

Not that she would remember, of course. If Raven’s theories were right, whoever it was, whatever person had made a home for his mother’s memories, they wouldn’t remember anyway. Bailey could go up to them and share every old secret of Lydia’s that he still knew, and at best, that person would look at him like he was describing a stranger.

“Hey, um…” Raven bit his lower lip for a second, then reached for a box of tissues beside the couch. He plucked out two and handed them to Bailey without further comment.

Bailey took the tissues and dabbed them to his cheeks, surprised to find that they were wet. When had he started crying? It had been a little while, the first tears trickling out of the corners of his eyes as he’d been flat on his back. But now he was upright, they were still coming. “Oh, shit, I–” Bailey pressed the tissues to his eyes. It didn’t help. “I’m so sorry, I — no, I shouldn’t be–“

“It’s okay,” Raven said softly. He brought the whole box of tissues within reach for good measure.

Plucking a few, Bailey nodded his thanks. He tried to speak that thanks, but speech seemed so hard. Why did he feel so tired? He’d just thought about an old memory and had a picture taken. That wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for him. He did things like this all the time. It was completely usual. Hell, it was even ordinary. So he needed to stop crying. He needed to stop. He clenched his fists and tried to make himself stop. He was going to stop crying. Any minute now.

With the slow movement of a person approaching a skittish animal, Raven shifted a little on the couch. “So, um,” he began, his voice soft, “do you need a hug?”

Bailey surprised himself, even, with the absolute eagerness with which he collapsed into Raven’s arms. His head tucked right up against Raven’s chest, Bailey pushed them back together into the couch cushions. He was aware that this kind of physical imposition was likely rude and entirely not what Raven had been offering, and he couldn’t care. He was so tired. He was just tired of everything, tired of being the Peacemaker, tired of being a good soulmate, tired of being Bailey Syvtall, tired of … just everything. Every part of him had been tired for such a long time.

“Sorry,” Bailey murmured, or at least tried to murmur. He couldn’t even muster the strength to lift the tissues anymore to dry away his tears, so he just turned and cried right into the soft black fabric of Raven’s shirt. “Sorry, shit, I’m sorry.” Was he even speaking? Or was he just trying to think so loudly that the words came across anyway?

Raven’s arms circled him as best they could, given their positions. He cradled Bailey’s head close to him, letting his fingers thread through Bailey’s hair. He was surprisingly strong, which was quite the surprise to Bailey. He’d expected that skinny had meant scrawny, especially in a proud nerd like Raven. With his face against Raven’s chest, though, Bailey could feel the lean but solid muscle there. Raven was sturdy. He could take the weight.

He smelled nice, too. There were the smells of the shop, the pleasantly confused cloud of earthy incense cones Raven liked to burn down there. There was also the lingering odor of ferret, which mercifully wasn’t nearly as pungent as Bailey had been led to believe musk could be. But underneath it all there was another smell, something Bailey knew now from having spent so much time in Raven’s borrowed peacoat. That was just Raven himself, it seemed, the light scent of clean sweat and dark wood. That was comforting.

Somewhere, in thinking about how nice Raven was to be this close to, Bailey stopped crying — not because of any conscious decision on his part, but because he outright fell asleep against Raven’s shoulder. He’d joked many times before about sleep’s being his body’s natural self-defense mechanism, but he was still startled to find himself blinking as he returned to consciousness.

Bailey had already half-composed his apology when he heard a soft little sound from Raven. He wasn’t sure at first, so he listened close — and there it was again, a second little snore, as quiet and gentle as the first had been. Bailey let his hand come to rest against Raven’s middle, feeling the soft, rhythmic rise and fall of his breathing. Raven was so sweet that Bailey almost felt like he was going to start crying all over again.

What would it have been like to have had a soulmate like this? Bailey knew it was ridiculous to think things like that, but he couldn’t help thinking them anyway. How would things have been different? How would he have been different? Or would it all just have been the same? Did the very process of being a Reincarnate, by its very nature, grind them all down into what they were?

Other Reincarnates were different, though. Or at least they seemed different. Then again, maybe he and Haley seemed perfect from the outside. Maybe they were all complete messes behold closed doors, working tirelessly to maintain the public fictions of who they were.

Whatever. It didn’t matter. That was their business, and that was all in the realm of speculation, and none of it mattered anyway, so why bother thinking it? It made no sense to bother with impossible what-if fantasies. It was better to mitigate the damage than to wish it hadn’t happened in the first place. Wishing had never gotten Bailey much of anywhere.

Maybe it was sneaky and deceptive on his part, but Bailey didn’t care — he closed his eyes and pretended to go back to sleep, choosing not to end this moment until Raven deemed it necessary. As he lay against Raven’s chest, Bailey let himself indulge in a bit of frivolous, harmless thinking, mostly about what it would be like to kiss Raven. It would be easy enough from their positions right now. Bailey could just turn his face up and brush his lips against Raven’s lips. Bailey could be the prince in this story, kissing his strange, intense, lovely princess awake.

Of course, Bailey wasn’t going to do that. For starters, he was all but certain it would not get him the reaction he wanted. Raven didn’t seem like the kind of person who would be comfortable being kissed at all, much less starting from a sleeping state. Bailey had already sprawled on his couch, cried into his shirt, and fallen asleep on his shoulder today; Raven didn’t deserve any more impositions on his hospitality or his personal space.

And then there was the matter of the crush. Raven hadn’t said anything about it since, but Bailey also didn’t think it had gone away. If it had, that would have been one thing. Maybe they could have moved this from the couch to the bedroom without hesitation. It had been several lifetimes since he’d had affairs without Haley present, but it was hardly unheard-of for Bailey to seek comfort in the arms of others, especially when Haley was called away. Bailey wondered what it would be like, having Raven on top him. He imagined Raven would be as serious about sex as he was about everything else — focused, concerned about his performance, tuned to all of Bailey’s responses. Raven seemed like he would be a generous lover indeed. Bailey could just imagine that strong body between his thighs, pushing into him as Bailey reached up and cupped his face, promising Raven that he wasn’t hurting Bailey, that Bailey loved it, that Bailey could take whatever Raven could give him, that everything he did was wonderful because Bailey loved him–

No. Bailey outright bit the inside of his mouth to stop that train of thought. That wasn’t how that worked. That would never be how it worked. Thinking that way was playing with fire.

Besides, it wasn’t fair to Raven. If he did fall in love with Raven, so what? He couldn’t offer Raven an equivalent amount of devotion. Raven might promise to love Bailey until death, but Bailey couldn’t promise the same. His was a life of many lives. There would be life after Raven. That wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair to give love that could already see its own end. It wasn’t fair to say I love you to Raven while knowing that someday in the far future, Bailey might not even remember Raven’s name.

It wasn’t fair. Raven deserved something better. Raven deserved everything better. He was wonderful. It was wonderful just to be here in his arms. He deserved someone who could love him in equal measure. Someone who could love him first and last. Someone who wasn’t already entangled on so many levels with someone else.

And if Bailey ever found that person Raven deserved, he’d break their knees.

No, he wouldn’t. He’d be very happy for the both of them. He’d swallow down all his feelings of jealousy, because he didn’t deserve to be jealous. He had the thing everyone else was jealous of. He had no right to be greedy. He had everything he could want. He should stop thinking about stupid self-destructive ways to sabotage his great blessings. He should be happy. He needed to be happy. He was going to start being happy right now.

What woke Raven was the beeping from Raven’s watch. Bailey lay still as stone, pretending to sleep, as Raven fumbled to turn it off. For a moment after, Raven didn’t move, resting there with his arms around Bailey. He made a soft little sighing noise, then turned and pressed his lips to the top of Bailey’s head. Raven took a long, slow breath there, with his face up against Bailey’s hair. When he let it out, he said something — but the words were too quiet and too unfamiliar for Bailey to make out as language. There was no mistaking the tenderness with which they were spoken, though, nor the affection with which Raven held him. It had been so long since Bailey had been able to rest in the unmistakable embrace of love.

After several quiet minutes just like this, Raven straightened his spine and gave Bailey a little tap on his shoulder. “Hey,” Raven said softly. “We both fell asleep.”

Doing his best impression of a person just waking up, Bailey shifted and sat upright, rubbing his cheek where it had been pressed up against Raven’s shoulder. “I guess we did,” Bailey said as though this were some new discovery to him “I guess we both needed a nap.”

Raven nodded, looking down at his watch. “I should feed her,” he said, going off to get the ferret.

It took every ounce of self-control in Bailey’s body not to reach for Raven then, to grab him and pull him back to the couch and kiss him and crawl into his lap until he couldn’t go anywhere. It would have been an idea so bad that its badness could not have been measured on a conventional scale. But that didn’t stop Bailey from wanting it so bad, he could feel the desire like a stone lodged in his chest.

 

~*~

 

“Stop fidgeting!” Winnie whacked Bailey over the backs of his knuckles with a serving-spoon. “You’re so nervous, it’s ridiculous.”

“I’m not nervous,” Bailey lied. He rubbed his bruised hand, though, and proceeded to stop fidgeting with the canapés. “I just want him to feel, you know, comfortable. But important. Like he’s worth the effort. But not like we went out of our way or anything.”

Winnie rolled her eyes so far, Bailey was afraid they were going to stick that way. “You’re ridiculous.”

“I am not.” Bailey strategically avoided the part where he’d changed outfits at least a dozen times before leaving his apartment and coming over to Winnie and Jo’s. Their place was smaller and didn’t have the penthouse view, but bringing Raven back to the apartment he shared with Haley had seemed to Bailey like … well, he didn’t know quite what, but it hadn’t seemed right. The thought of doing so had felt like betraying both Haley and Raven at the same time, a thought Bailey emphatically did not wish to engage with. Thus, Winnie and Jo’s.

Fortunately, his favorite lesbians had loved the idea of having Raven over — especially since, Jo pointed out, Bailey couldn’t shut up about the guy. (Bailey felt this was a patently untrue assessment of the situation, but there was no arguing with Jo’s assessments of most things.) Winnie had enjoyed the challenge of making a multi-course all-vegetarian spread worthy of impressing their guest, while Jo had taken the excuse to go out and buy a very good bottle of whiskey, which was basically their relationship in a nutshell.

Jo had cleaned up for the occasion, at least as much as she ever did, in a white pinstriped suit and black shirt unbuttoned nearly down to her navel. Her hair still looked a bit like she’d stuck her fingers in a light socket, but at least she made the effect work. “Yeah, you are,” she said, leaning against the kitchen counter. “You’re just lucky it’s cute on you instead of obnoxious.”

It was Bailey’s turn to roll his eyes. “Just don’t be too weird at him, okay?”

Both Winnie and Jo cackled at that. “I’m sorry, dear,” asked Winnie, “but have you met us?”

Bailey snorted. “Then don’t point out if he’s a little weird. He’s just not used to … people, I think.”

“Please.” Jo leveled her eyes at Bailey over her glass. “We can make it through an evening without scaring off one gay goth.”

“See, I don’t know if he’s gay–” Bailey began, but his observation-based assessments were cut off by the sound of the apartment’s doorbell. “I’ll get it.” He scurried off before they could get off any more comments. He just had to pray they’d be mostly good for the rest of the evening.

At the front door stood Raven, looking much like he had the night Bailey had met him, in a loose-fitting cardigan buttoned over a dress shirt and tie, all in black. His winged eyeliner was again striking, though there was the slightest smudge at the corner of one eye, a little giveaway that the finished product had perhaps not been his first attempt. In his hand, he clutched a bottle of wine a bit like he was certain the whole building was about to sink, and that might be the one object capable of keeping him afloat. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Bailey said, feeling a grin plant itself firmly on his face. “You found us.”

“You gave me accurate directions,” Raven pointed out.

Bailey supposed he had. “Come on in.”

They returned to find Winnie bent down slightly, smirking wickedly as she whispered something into Jo’s ear that made Jo let out a long-suffering sigh. That, too, was a core encapsulation of their relationship. Seeing them, Jo gave a little wave. Winnie walked over and extended her hands, and Raven looked relieved to have somewhere obvious to put the bottle. “Hi, Raven,” Winnie said as she took it. “Thank you so much for this.”

“It’s, um.” Raven rubbed the back of his neck a little. “It’s wine.”

“And it’s lovely,” Winnie answered sweetly, shooting Jo a sharp glare before Jo could open her damn mouth about it. “Bailey, would you be a dear and open it?”

Bailey certainly would. Now that the guest-to-host exchange had been completed, Bailey took the bottle and went about finding a corkscrew. Fortunately, Jo and Winnie went through wine with the speed of people who had a corkscrew in just about every drawer. The wine certainly wasn’t any type of special vintage, but if there had been one thing Bailey had learned in literal millennia of wine-drinking, it was that most wine was perfectly fine. “I should take you two to Raven’s shop sometime,” Bailey said as he skewered the cork into compliance. “It’s in a cute little neighborhood.”

“South of 19th Street, right?” asked Jo. Raven nodded. “That’s where my friends and I used to hang out in high school.”

“Don’t brag about your delinquency,” said Winnie, swatting Jo lightly on her shoulder. “Not now that I’ve made an honest woman out of you.”

Jo snorted. “After you made one out of yourself first.”

“Eh, half right.” Winnie winked as she took the glass Bailey handed her. She took a sip and gave Raven a lovely smile. “But enough of our misspent youths. What were you like as a teenager?”

Of all the questions Raven might have anticipated being asked that night, that one had clearly not been on the list. “Um,” he said, shoving his hands into his cardigan’s deep pockets. “I took a lot of college classes. And then … went to college.”

“So is all this” –Winnie waved her hand in a circle for a moment, as though to indicate Raven’s whole aesthetic– “something you decided on back then? Because I love it, I have to say,” she added quickly after, perhaps understanding as her own words hit her ears how potentially dismissive they’d sounded. “One bitch who can work a look to another.”

Raven shook his head as he stared down into his wine glass. His cheeks were tinting just slightly pink, though Bailey couldn’t tell if that was because of Winnie, the alcohol, or some combination of the two. “I’m not good at matching,” he said with a little shrug. “So I thought it would be easier if everything was the same color. Or, well, shade. It’s an achromatic color. Some people don’t consider it a color. It all depends on your definition.”

Bailey could hear the slightly frantic tone to Raven’s speech, the babble of anxiety. “It’s striking,” Bailey said with a smile, reaching over to give the sleeve of Raven’s cardigan an affectionate tug. “And comfortable. I got to borrow one of his cardigans the other day, and it almost convinced me to swap out my own whole wardrobe.”

“Comfortable fashion,” Jo said with a chuckle. “That’s what I’ve been saying.” She shot a look over at Winnie, whose high-necked jade dress had several laces up and down its sleeves and sides, plus a corseted belt around the middle.

Winnie sighed the sigh of a long-married person who’d had this argument with their spouse countless times before. “There is a difference between being comfortable and looking like you spent the night in a dumpster.”

Jo shrugged. “There’s some nice dumpsters out there.”

Bailey was certain there were not. “Who’s hungry?” he asked, nodding toward the food.

As they settled down around the dining room table, Jo and Winnie performed exactly as Bailey had hoped, taking over the conversation with what was essentially their two-woman show. They were deeply, passionately in love with one another, which in their case meant that they could be deeply, passionately, and in their case recreationally awful to one another. The fact that it was so even-handed was what took the whole experience from horrible to funny. Bailey could see through the evening how Raven’s initial uncertainty with them melted into understanding. They were just like this, and they’d have it no other way.

Bailey tried not to stare, but he couldn’t help how much of the evening he spent watching Raven like a (pun unintended) hawk, on guard for any signs of discomfort that might require an excuse for a hasty exit. It wasn’t that he thought Raven was some kind of fragile little soap bubble — to the contrary, Bailey had seen Raven interact with customers without hesitation or discomfort. This was different, though. Bailey had brought Raven here, to a place Raven would not ordinarily have come, under circumstances Raven would likely not have independently chosen. That meant Bailey was responsible for him.

Bailey wasn’t used to being socially responsible for someone. In fact, he had become accustomed to being the one someone was always socially responsible for — the someone in that case being Haley. But Haley had abdicated that responsibility, it seemed, lifetimes ago, leaving Bailey in all his incarnations to sit through countless obligations with no polite option for escape. He’d be just as bad if he did the same to Raven.

Fortunately, Jo and Winnie were easy to love, provided the person loving them didn’t get too fussed about social niceties. Raven was therefore a perfect candidate. “So how did you two meet?” he asked during one lull in the conversation. The soft little smile on his face said that he wasn’t just asking out of politeness; he genuinely wanted to know how the relationship playing out in front of him had happened.

Both ladies laughed, but Jo was the one to reply first: “Do you want the story we tell people, or the real one?”

“Tell him both,” Bailey prompted.

Winnie straightened her spine and folded her hands politely against the edge of the table. “We were introduced by a mutual friend at a party and talked for a little while. Later that week, we ran into one another at a coffeeshop, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Raven nodded slowly. “So … why is that the story you tell people?”

“Because in the real story,” Jo said, poking Winnie in the side, “she was being a stalker.”

Winnie rolled her eyes. “I was not being a stalker. You were deliberately playing hard to get.”

“You followed me from the party to my apartment,” Jo said.

“Because I asked you for your number, and you gave me your address instead.”

“I was drunk and did not mean to give you either.”

Winnie looked across the table with a perfect see what I put up with? expression. “Gave me her address, with her apartment number.”

“I still don’t think I did.” Jo folded her arms across his chest. “I still think you stole it from my phone contacts.”

“Why would I–” Winnie pinched the bridge of her nose. “Why would I steal your address from your phone but not your phone number?”

Jo shrugged. “You like a challenge.”

Winnie exhaled a short, steadying breath. “This went on for three weeks,” she said to Raven. “She would tell me to fuck off, and then tell me where to find her next.”

“You like a challenge!” Jo exclaimed, throwing up her hands. “You meet a girl, she tells you to fuck off, and you say, yes, that’s the one I’m going to marry. There’s something broken in your brain.”

“Honey, there’s a lot of things broken in my brain.”

“Three weeks,” Jo said to Bailey and Raven, holding up three fingers in case they might be uncertain about how numbers worked. “Three weeks she stalked me everywhere. And she only agreed to stop stalking me if I moved in.”

Willie looked upward as though entreating the heavens. “All I said was, you wouldn’t have to keep dropping hints about where you’d be next if you woke up every morning in the same place I was.”

“And then you stole my number from my phone contacts.”

“It’s our eighth anniversary next month,” Winnie said with a smile.

Raven looked a bit like he’d been run over by a quick tornado. “…Congratulations?”

Winnie reached over to take Jo’s hand in hers; Jo looked like this was possibly the most obnoxious thing Winnie could have asked her to do, but still held on tight. “Don’t encourage her,” Jo said to Raven.

After they’d finished eating, Jo got Bailey to help her clear the table, insisting that Winnie and Raven stay in their seats — Winnie because she’d cooked and Raven because he was their guest. Bailey wondered why his guest status didn’t qualify him for an exemption, but he didn’t press the issue. He gathered up what dishware he could and carried it into the kitchen, where he started moving the leftovers worth keeping into something more refrigerator-appropriate.

Jo turned on the water in the sink, then looked over at Bailey. “He’s sweet,” she said, her voice low enough that the sound from the tap would have kept her words from being heard in the next room.

“He is,” Bailey agreed.

“And he likes you,” Jo said.

Bailey nodded. “I know.”

Jo pressed her lips together and looked at Bailey hard. “I mean, he likes you.”

“I know,” Bailey said again, this time more seriously. “I know, he’s … he’s said as much.”

The slight frown on Jo’s dark brows deepened slightly. “So you brought him over here so we’d … what? Chase him away or push him closer to you?”

“Neither,” said Bailey, who did not want to think about either of those options, or how his actions might contribute to one or the other. “He’s a friend. You’re my friends. He needs more friends. I thought, why not share friends? There’s no reason not to share friends. So now you can all be friends.”

Jo narrowed her eyes at him. “You are how old and you believe that?”

Suddenly, putting away the green beans took all of Bailey’s concentration. He couldn’t possibly keep looking at Jo while they talked. “We can still be friends. It’s just a crush. He’s going to get over it eventually, and then we’ll all be friends.”

“You better not be stringing him along,” Jo said, jabbing her finger into his shoulders. “Because that’s a real dick move. A real Haley move.”

Bailey clenched his jaw so hard that he could feel the veins in his temples shift. “I’m not. He knows it’s not going to happen.”

“That’s just it, though,” Jo said. “Why isn’t it?”

With a snort, Bailey glared back at her. “You know why.”

“I actually don’t.” Jo leaned back against the counter, her arms folded across her chest. She had a real mean look to her when she wanted to, one that Bailey had watched her hone during those years of teenage delinquency. “Haley fucks around on you.”

“That’s different.”

“Different how?”

“Because he–” Bailey took a deep breath and held it in his chest, trying to choose his next words carefully. “Because Haley doesn’t care about me. Or how I feel. He hasn’t in a long time. He’s not trying to hurt me. I don’t think so, anyway. He just … doesn’t care enough to notice. And I do care about Raven, and what he thinks. And I don’t want to hurt him. That’s why we’re friends. He’ll figure out that it’s not worth it, that I’m not worth it, and we’ll be friends. And that way he can get out there and meet somebody who can actually have a relationship with him. And not … entangled.”

Jo’s mouth quirked to one side. “You two seem pretty entangled already.”

Bailey shook his head, not wanting to get into the different meanings of the word. Of course Jo wouldn’t have a sense of its quantum use. When she said it, she just meant the way all people were entangled with other people they liked. That was the difference. No matter how entangled Bailey could get with anyone who wasn’t Haley, it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough until he could untangle the knot the universe had tied between them.

And a knot that couldn’t be untangled could always be cut.

Bailey decided to take advantage of the momentum and leave along with Raven, so Jo and Winnie said good-bye to them both at the door. Jo gave Raven an appreciative handshake, but Winnie bent down and gave him a big hug — one that Bailey was surprised to see Raven returning with more than just polite toleration. She gave him a kiss on his cheek and whispered something in his ear, something that made Raven nod. Jo and Winnie made noises about doing this again sometime, and Raven nodded with sincere approval. It seemed he’d had a good time after all.

As they stood and waited for the elevator, Bailey got his handkerchief out of his pocket. “Hold still,” he said to Raven. “She got you good.”

“Got me?” asked Raven, who sighed with understanding a moment later as Bailey went to scrubbing off the bright lip print Winnie had left on his pale skin. “Oh. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” said Bailey with a smile. “So what did you two talk about while we were putting away the dishes?”

Raven hesitated for only a moment before answering, truthful as ever, “You.”

Bailey supposed he had no business being surprised. He needed to learn his lesson about asking questions of Raven he didn’t precisely want the answers to. “Well, whatever stories she told you about me, don’t believe them. She’s a writer, and as we know, all writers are liars.” He shot Raven a little wink there at the end to make it clear that he was joking.

“She worries about you,” Raven said as they stepped into the elevator. “She thinks you don’t take good care of yourself. And you drink too much.”

Bailey snorted. “Now that is the pot calling the kettle black. She drinks twice what I do.”

Raven shrugged. “Maybe, but not alone.”

They had a point there that Bailey didn’t want to admit, so he changed the subject. “I live just a few blocks over. Do you want to walk back with me and I’ll call you a car from there?”

Raven gave an eager little nod. “I take the subway. But I’ll walk with you.”

The evening was a mild one, which meant that despite the late hour, they were hardly the only ones out and about. Bailey actually liked when the streets were bustling with people; the more eyes there were to see him, the less likely he was to be noticed. As a crowd of what appeared to be tourists flocked in their direction on the sidewalk, Bailey reached out and took Raven’s arm, wrapping his hands around Raven’s elbow. The height difference between them made the gesture a little awkward, but not more so than it was comforting. Raven’s cardigan felt even softer than it had looked, which made Bailey want to nuzzle his face against it like a cat. He didn’t, but the impulse was there.

As little as he tried to think about the conversation he’d had with Jo, it kept tapping up against the glass of his mind. He wasn’t leading Raven on. He was very sure he wasn’t. Leading Raven on would have involved much a more deliberate seduction — the type that Bailey was completely capable of doing, if it needed to be done. But it didn’t, so he wasn’t, so he wasn’t going to worry about any more about it.

Besides, it wasn’t his fault if Raven was warm and good to touch. He’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. At least, that was the way he saw it.

“Thank you for inviting me tonight,” Raven said as they neared Bailey’s building. “It was nice. They’re really nice.”

“They are,” Bailey agreed. “They’re … well, they’re a lot sometimes.”

“Most people are, to me,” Raven said with a sad little nod. “But they’re nice. And they really love one another.”

Bailey nodded, then frowned as a thought crossed his mind. “Say, you’re the expert on this: If you think that everybody gets reincarnated, do you think the two of them maybe were together in a former life too?”

Without hesitation, Raven shook his head. “No.”

“No?” As someone professionally accustomed to reincarnating in exactly that fashion, Bailey was surprised that Raven was so quick to dismiss the possibility out of hand, especially considering how much emphasis he put on the connectivity of all things. “How can you be sure?”

“I’m not sure,” Raven admitted. “But it’s improbable. And even if it’s true, it doesn’t matter.”

“How could it not matter?”

“It…” Raven pressed his lips together and slipped his arm from Bailey’s grip, turning to face him as they stood just outside the facade of Bailey’s building. The wind had picked up a little even since they’d stepped outside several blocks earlier, and now little flurries were starting to dance through the night air. A few crystalline flakes landed in Raven’s hair, temporary decorations that vanished a few seconds later. “That’s what I’m afraid of, with my research. The idea that everyone will start to decide that people are only worthwhile if they’re continuing something established in a previous life. If they think, I don’t know, that someone can only be the president if we can prove they’ve been the president before. Or that the only love that matters has some kind of … some kind of pedigree.”

Hadn’t that been everyone had been telling Bailey several lifetimes, though? Wasn’t that what made the Reincarnates special — that they were part of a continuity of love that stretched before and after them alike? “But wouldn’t it make sense,” Bailey continued, “if they had been lovers before this? I mean, they’re such an unlikely couple.”

“Are they?” Raven looked at Bailey, puzzled. “I think they’re obviously compatible.”

Bailey was willing to concede that perhaps Raven had different opinions about what did and didn’t constitute obvious compatibility. “So you don’t think that, maybe, Jo could be the mother I was reaching out for earlier?”

Raven shrugged. “I think,” he said, speaking with the deliberate slowness of a person thinking their argument through, “that it doesn’t make her love you any less if that’s not true. Like it doesn’t meant that I love you any less if I never have before.”

Despite his desire to keep a straight face, Bailey found himself exhaling through pursed lips. “You shouldn’t,” he said at last. “You’re a good friend, Raven. I like being around you and spending time with you. But you really shouldn’t have any feelings like that for me. It’s not a smart thing to do. And you’re a smart guy!” Bailey added, trying to keep the tone of the conversation light. He wasn’t mad at Raven for feeling that way. He wasn’t disappointed. He certainly wasn’t disgusted. He just needed it to stop. For Raven’s sake, he needed it to stop.

Raven nodded, though even in the dim light from the buildings around them, Bailey could see a telltale redness creep in from the corners of Raven’s eyes. “Love doesn’t … it doesn’t only mean something if you get to have it again,” Raven said at last, looking down at their feet. “What Winnie and Jo have for one another, they’re going to take it with them when they go. Whatever happens to them next, they’re going to be better because they had this together.”

“Maybe,” Bailey conceded, despite wanting to believe more than anything that it was true. “But it’s different with me. You know it is.”

“So?” Raven shrugged, sounding a little defensive. “Don’t think you’re better at love than the rest of us just because you remember it longer. I don’t remember, and it all still stays with me. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t connect me with anything else or reunite me with anyone. It makes me me.”

Bailey could hardly remember ever having felt so at sea before. “Even if you’re right, that’d still be unfair. Us, I mean. To you. If you’re saying there’s no way I’d find you again, then … even if I did love you, even if I could reciprocate, this right here, this life, that would be all I could give you.”

So?” Raven repeated, this time looking up to meet Bailey’s eyes. “Of course it would only be for this life. That’s all I get.”

The words seemed obvious, but as Raven said them, Bailey realized how long it had been since he’d thought that much about it. He knew that other lives were short, single-shot affairs — that was part of why he felt uncomfortable getting close to anyone who wasn’t Haley. They’d all leave him. Haley wouldn’t. Haley couldn’t. No matter how much or little he loved anyone of them, in the end they couldn’t stay.

“Sorry,” said Raven after a long minute. “Thanks for dinner. I really did have a nice time. I like spending time with them. And you.”

“Me too,” Bailey replied, his throat suddenly dry. “Hey, would you like to … you know, you don’t have to go home. Do you want to come up for a while? You could come up for a while. Maybe have another drink.”

Raven looked over at the door to the building — and really looked, with the focus of a man considering his options. “Yes,” he said after a long minute, “I want to. But I should go home.”

Bailey knew all too well how close Raven was to agreeing, and how little effort it would have taken to push him over the line into coming upstairs with him. He didn’t know if it made him a better or worse person that he refrained. “Okay.” Bailey ran his fingers back through his hair. “Maybe I’ll come over tomorrow.”

“I’d like that,” Raven said. He extended his hand to Bailey the same way he’d held it out to Jo — friendly but formal, allowing for closeness without demanding too much.

Bailey took Raven’s hand and held it for a moment, then used the connection to pull Raven into a hug. He felt the surprise in Raven’s body for a second, then felt it melt away as Raven returned the hug with the fierceness Bailey had so closely come to associate with him. He fit so nicely against Bailey’s body, tucking just under Bailey’s chin when Raven bowed his head. Raven clung back to Bailey, tightening one of his gloved hands in the back of Bailey’s coat.

“This comes with me,” Raven said softly, almost too quiet for Bailey to hear over the noise of the city street. “Even if I don’t remember. Even if you don’t reciprocate. Even if I leave tonight and never see you again. This will always be part of me.”

Speaking had become difficult. Bailey cleared his throat. “I want to see you again, though.”

“Me too.” Raven gave him one last tight squeeze, then let go. He stepped back, gave a small little wave, and walked away. Bailey stood there just outside his building and watched Raven go. He realized he was waiting for Raven to question his decision to leave and turn around — and if he turned around, he might see Bailey, and if he saw Bailey, he might come back, and if he came back, he might…

Might what? That was the question, after all. What did Bailey want him to do? Bailey didn’t even know. He had no thoughts on the matter beyond needed Raven to turn around and come back to him. After that, he had to trust that everything would fall into place. He had to. It would.

But Raven reached the end of the far block and descended the stairs to the subway station without ever once looking back. Bailey supposed it made sense. Those who lived a single lifetime had to contend with their decisions for only that long. People like Bailey, though, had nothing but time for regret.

 

~*~

 

Bailey didn’t come over to Raven’s the next day. Instead, he packed a week’s worth of nice suits and got on a private plane to Carnado, the largest city in the southern hemisphere, for a funeral.

The heat that hit him as he got off the plane was shocking to someone who’d boarded in the middle of winter. Along the far edge of the airfield, a ten-foot chain-link fence kept the crowds at bay. Some had cameras, reporting for one media outlet or another, but most were just there to see what they could see. Gathering the Reincarnates for any reason was something to behold, even under such circumstances.

The car that picked Bailey up from the airfield took him straight to what he presumed must be the nicest hotel in the city, given that Haley had booked the reservation. Bailey tried to keep his face hidden behind the wide brim of his white straw hat, not because he was afraid of what they’d see, but because he was afraid of what they wouldn’t. He hadn’t known Joèl Accardo well at all, beyond the way all the Reincarnates knew one another these days — which was to say, they mostly knew of one another. They felt more like far-distant members of a royal family, obligated by their position to keep tabs on one another’s lives, but not to care much about what happened.

Except, of course, in death. Then they all cared, because they were the only ones who knew what it was like.

As Bailey entered the hotel room, Haley rose from the bed and greeted Bailey by folding Bailey into a gentle embrace. Bailey melted into the hug without protest, sighing into Haley’s hair. Despite the day’s oppressive heat, the contact felt good. They weren’t sad for Joèl. They were sad for themselves.

Haley was subdued as they gathered the following day for the service, though Bailey couldn’t tell how much of that quiet sorrow he genuinely felt, and how much was expected of him by the cameras. They were ushered together into a room off to the side that held a dozen or so of the living Reincarnates — minus Maritza Accardo, of course, who had her own obligations as the deceased’s spouse. A long table in the middle of the room was set with refreshments. Bailey gratefully grabbed a wine glass and tried not to down it all in one go.

There was at least the consolation that they he and Haley were no longer the youngest Reincarnates out there, though they had been for quite some time. Now that honor was semi-shared among four children — two seven-year-olds, and two on the cusp of turning nine. The four of them had clustered together in the corner of the room, all but one of them still small enough that when they sat in the chairs, their feet didn’t touch the floor. Bailey understood their self-isolation completely — even in a crowd like this, adults still tended to treat people who looked like children, like children.

Haley took Bailey’s hand as they went to greet the others there, and Bailey let him lead. It was nice, in a way, just to fall back into his default position as the person at Haley’s more important, more engaging side. He spoke when he was spoken to, and he asked questions when the conversation suggested it, and he made it through three more glasses of wine as they waited for their cue to go on.

Were they ever supposed to meet? No, that was a stupid question, one that presumed some kind of design upon the universe that Bailey didn’t believe in. Nothing was supposed to happen or not happen with them; it just happened, and they had to live with it. Still, one would be hard-pressed to look at a room full of Reincarnates and think they had anything in common at all. As it turned out, having lived a long time didn’t give people as many cultural touchpoints as one might have imagined. Yes, there were at least six people in that very room who remembered seeing firsthand the fall of the First Laptian Empire, but two had been part of its ruling class, two had been ordinary citizens, and two had been among the invading forces that had caused its fall. What commonalities did those experiences give those same people almost three millennia later?

Enough to chat about at a funeral, it seemed, and not much else. Bailey sank into the wine and small talk, letting the sorrow of the occasion mask his discomfort. He could be weird and quiet at a funeral. People did it all the time.

While everyone else watching was thinking of Joèl, Bailey knew all the Reincarnates were thinking of Maritza, and thinking only one thing: How long until they were back here again for her? Nine or ten months was the safe bet, by the law of averages. But from the way Maritza looked already like someone had drained all the color from her body, Bailey suspected it would be sooner. She was more than just a widow — she was a time bomb counting down to her own destruction.

The Reincarnates didn’t speak about this part, but Bailey felt their agreement, that this was always the worst. Occasionally, he and Haley were fortunate enough (at least in some senses of the word “fortunate”) to meet their ends together. Mostly, though, one would go, and then the other would follow. And no matter who they were, no matter the circumstances, Bailey always tended to be the one left behind.

Before he’d been Matthias, Bailey had been Leena — but only until the age of four. One day Leena had woken up with a deep ache in her bones and known, she’d known, that wherever her soulmate was, that soulmate was dead and she would soon follow. She’d kept the secret from her parents as long as she could, because no treatments could ever have worked for her condition. Her illness was that Leena had been alone in a world that did not want her to be alone. If the world could not have both of them, it would not have either of them.

During his various widowed periods, he’d thought about taking his own life. He knew that a few of the other pairs regularly did, skipping over all the dread and loneliness, catapulting themselves forward into whatever came next. But Bailey had never been like that. He couldn’t say he’d ever been content to wait for his own end, but neither had he ever really had the fire within him to spite it.

Wouldn’t that be worth the effort of separation, then? To never have to feel that again? Bailey wondered what it would be like to outlive his soulmate by a margin of not months but decades. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what he’d do with himself. Was he awful for thinking of it as a kind of freedom? Perhaps, but the thoughts wouldn’t go away.

The service was nice, for an intimate event that was televised globally. Maritza sat in the front row, looking somber beneath her black veil as various people ascended to the podium to make their tributes. They were nice tributes, too. Funerals were great things for paving over a person’s rough spots, but Joèl seemed particularly nice nonetheless. The service was about him — not who he once had been. No one even mentioned that his designation was The Brawler, given for his history of participation in both military service and martial arts. But he had been barred from military service for several lifetimes now, since the world had grown to know what the Reincarnates were, and many avenues of life had been closed to them. Joèl Accardo had been instead an instructor in more recreational hand-to-hand combat forms, most of which he’d taught to a worldwide audience through his instructional videos.

Which was a fine life, Bailey supposed. It wasn’t as though that were more or less worthy than anything any of the rest of them were doing. Some of them were by nature agitators, used to the spotlight and glorious (if sometimes doomed) causes. Others tended to keep their heads down, affecting the lives of the people around them without drawing too much attention in the process. And some of them, like Bailey, just wanted to disappear.

The problem was, those impulses usually occurred in tandem, as soulmates were concerned. Just Bailey’s luck to get the lopsided draw.

“Do you think there’s a pair out there that’s managed to stay hidden all this time?” asked Bailey that evening, as they lay naked on the hotel bed, sweat cooling against their skin.

Haley looked up from the pillow, his expression half-clouded. He couldn’t run back to his own room after sex when there was only one room, but he could retreat into sleep. “What?” he mumbled.

“That there’s — somewhere — two of us who’ve never been detected.” Bailey folded his hands across his bare chest and looked up at the ceiling, watching the slow circular path of the fan blades. “And they’ve figured out how to do it. They say something like, on our sixteenth birthday, we’ll meet at … I don’t know, some specific location.”

Haley frowned as Bailey talked. “Why would anyone do that?”

“I don’t know, it–” Bailey sighed. “Maybe they don’t like the scrutiny. Maybe they like having a secret together.”

“Is this something you’ve thought about doing?” Haley asked, narrowing his eyes. He rarely liked it when Bailey had a plan.

“No,” Bailey answered honestly. He knew that Haley would never stand for that kind of anonymity. Haley loved the spotlight, and leveraging his status as a Reincarnate was the fastest way he’d found to propel himself there. “I was just wondering if you thought someone else might have.”

Haley grunted and rolled on his side away from Bailey. “No. Shut off the lights, will you?”

Bailey got up and did just that, then ran himself through a quick shower, rinsing off all the lube and sweat and come both on and in his body before they could turn overnight into a considerably less pleasant sticky mass. He was struck with the wild impulse to go out on the balcony naked and drip-dry in the moonlight. There were too many cameras pointed at them right now, though, for that to be a good idea. Instead, he tossed on a light robe before leaving the room’s artificially cooled interior for the warm Carnado night. Haley was already snoring.

Settling down in one of the lounge chairs, Bailey pulled out his phone. Hi, he typed into the entry box of his text messages with Raven. He hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should send something more substantial, to make it so he had a real reason for making contact. In the end, though, Hi was all he could think, so Hi it would have to be.

His phone buzzed seconds later: Hi.

Everything about the reply made Bailey smile, from how quickly it had come to how uninventive it was. Do you think that maybe there’s a pair of Reincarnates who have never been identified? he wrote back, fully prepared to have Raven tell him essentially the same thing Haley had: that Bailey was having a silly idea and he needed to go to sleep.

The phone gave its ‘typing’ indicator for nearly a minute, then displayed the following message: I think it’s statistically almost certain. One possibility is that their entanglement is newer and they haven’t realized what’s happening to them. Another is that they’ve worked out a system against discovery. How to reunite with one another while leaving no trace.

Bailey wanted so badly to hug Raven right then, to thank him for being a weirdo who made Bailey and his own weird thought processes feel less alone. How would you reunite with someone like that? Bailey asked.

More typing ensued, then Raven replied: Choose a date relative to my own life cycle, not any local calendar system. Equinox/solstice dates could also work. Establishing just one date is insufficient; establish something recurring, perhaps annually. Raven was the only person Bailey knew who used semicolons in text messages.

What about the meeting place? Bailey asked, curious now to see how far Raven could take this.

Has to be a relative location. Not a specific point.

Why? asked Bailey.

Don’t know where we’ll be born, Raven answered after a long moment of typing. So we have to pick something that can be found everywhere. No good choosing a city and then being born on the other side of the world. Or finding the city has been destroyed. Maybe the western face of the largest mountain on the continent, the mouth of the longest river, the base of the tallest human-made structure. Somewhere that can apply no matter where we are.

The use of ‘we’ in Raven’s texts did not pass Bailey’s notice. And you think there’s a pair of soulmates out there doing that right now?

Raven’s reply was a thumbs-up emoji, which was so damn cute it made Bailey’s heart flutter. He wished he didn’t have several days of memorial services and other public functions still to endure, so that he could just hop on a plane back home right now and have this speculative conversation with Raven in person.

Or maybe, better yet, he could fly Raven here. Instead of texting, Raven could be sitting right there in the other chair on the balcony, hidden from prying eyes by the thick slats of the railing. The heat would mean he’d have to strip down at least a little, maybe a lot, until Bailey could actually get a glimpse of the sturdy little body hiding beneath all those heavy knit layers. And in return, Raven could look all he wanted at Bailey, whose half-tied robe provided little modesty, and whose thighs were still pink from the force of Haley’s passionate touch.

Now that would constitute leading Raven on. About that, Bailey was very clear.

You should go to bed, Raven texted after a moment. It’s late where you are.

Raven wasn’t wrong — Bailey was currently four hours ahead of his home time zone, well on the other side of midnight with all kinds of morning obligations. And yet, it wasn’t only the jet lag that had him unfortunately still awake. Sleep was friendly territory, but getting there could be dangerous. In a minute, Bailey wrote back. Can you send me a picture of your ferret? I need more fuzz in my life.

A long enough pause followed that Bailey began to wonder if Raven’s admonition to go to sleep hadn’t been Raven’s sign-off for the night as well. Then his phone buzzed and not a picture but a minute-long video popped up. It was dimly lit and at a strange, slightly shaky angle, but at the center of the frame was the ferret, all curled up in a ball, her pink nose the only splash of visible color to her otherwise-white body. Her little chest rose and fell with sleepy ferret snores. Every few seconds, her tail and paws gave a tiny twitch. Bailey hoped she was having nice dreams.

As Bailey looked closer at the video, he began to notice the background. At first he’d thought the black field behind her had just been her sleeping atop one of the many black articles of clothing Raven had lying around his apartment. As he watched, though, he saw that the black background was rising and falling with a rhythm much slower than but just as steady as the ferret’s own. Bailey was a little startled to realize that it must have been Raven’s chest. He must have been lying down when Bailey texted him, doing double duty as both pet owner and pet bed.

There you go, a little fuzz,” said the Raven on the video. His voice was so soft, a rumble barely more than a whisper, so as not to wake his sleeping beauty. It was the way Bailey expected Raven would sound with his lips right up against Bailey’s ear, saying things meant for no one else in the world.

Bailey swallowed hard. That was perfect, thank you for the fuzz, he texted back. I’ll go to bed now. Good night.

Raven viewed the message but sent no reply, presumably considering the conversation closed based on Bailey’s text. Even so, Bailey watched the video a dozen more times, each time hoping that by the time it was done, there’d be something else from Raven’s end of the line. There wasn’t.

Bailey wanted a drink. He wanted to scream. He wanted to go back into the bed and wake Haley up and ride him hard, until they both forgot who they were or where they were or that there’d ever been anything but the two of them. He wanted to grab Haley’s face and ask him why he was always fucking like this. He wanted to waltz out of the room, out of the building, and never have to think about Haley again, not in this life or in any other.

He wanted to be the one curled up on Raven’s chest, sound asleep, having nice dreams.

He wasn’t going to do any of that, though. Well, except maybe fuck Haley some more, and that was because that was what they did when they were together, because it was better than talking. He knew he could wake Haley up right now and Haley would be ready for sex again with very little prompting, because that was what Haley was like. That was what they were both like when they were together.

Bailey didn’t, though whether he was punishing himself or Haley by refusing to, he couldn’t say. He tossed his robe onto the floor and climbed back into the bed without disturbing Haley. He let all the anger and exhaustion and multitude of feelings inside him settle on him like a weight, until it dragged him down into sleep.

 

~*~

 

The little red hatchback was a sight for sore eyes. Bailey waved, even though there was no way Jo could have missed him — he was the only passenger waiting at the private airfield, and it wasn’t as though he cut a subtle profile in his long sheepskin coat. There were of course several car services that would have picked him up, but Bailey never felt like talking to strangers when it wasn’t necessary, so when Jo had offered, he’d said yes without hesitation.

As the car pulled up to the curb, Bailey could see someone in the passenger seat. He assumed Winnie had just come along for the ride, and was therefore startled when a much smaller figure emerged. Looking like a little black cloud and bundled up nearly to his ears, Raven stood there with one of his gloved hands on the open door. “Hi,” he said, the syllable a cloud of white vapor in the twilight air.

“Hi,” Bailey managed, feeling the whole weight of the twelve-hour flight and the week preceding it hit him all at once. He was glad he had the handle of his rolling bag to lean against, because otherwise he might have fallen over.

“Look who I found,” Jo said, hopping out of the driver’s side.

Bailey was looking. He couldn’t quite take his eyes off Raven, in fact. “Yeah, I–” Bailey ran his hand over his hair, trying and failing to do damage control on his general travel-worn appearance. “Just picked him up by the side of the road?”

“The box said he was free to a good home,” Jo said. She opened the trunk, then went for Bailey’s luggage. God bless sporty lesbians.

With a smirk, Bailey looked back at Raven. “And are you?” Bailey asked with a wink.

In the growing dark, it was hard to tell, but it seemed Raven burrowed a little deeper into the high scarf wrapped around the bottom part of his face. “I don’t know,” he said with a little shrug. “I missed you.”

Such a simple little phrase, and yet Bailey found himself all but brought to his knees by it. When was the last time anyone had missed him? So far as Bailey could tell, Haley barely even thought about him when they were apart. Jo and Winnie liked when he was around, but when he wasn’t, they had each other for much better company. Bailey had acquaintances of all sorts, but acquaintances almost by definition were absent from someone’s life more than they were present for it. Even his own parents and siblings had long since given up the idea that Bailey belonged with them.

But Raven had missed him. Raven had come all the way out there, in the cold, because he had missed Bailey. He had actively felt Bailey’s absence from his life, and he had gotten in the car with Jo not because his presence would help anything, but because it had meant he could see Bailey just a little bit sooner than he otherwise might.

“Me too,” said Bailey, feeling his chest tighten.

Raven smiled a little at that. “Can…” He cleared his throat. “Can I have a hug?”

Bailey opened his arms and Raven crossed the distance between them in three long strides, colliding with Bailey with a force that nearly bowled Bailey over. This wasn’t the gentle, soothing way Haley had greeted him — this embrace was needy, punctuated with the feeling of Raven’s hands closing in the thick hide of Bailey’s coat. Raven was practically trembling with the sheer effort of clinging to Bailey. 

What surprised Bailey was finding he was clinging back just as hard, wrapping his arms around Raven’s shoulders and burying his face in Raven’s hair. “Missed you,” Bailey said again, as though only half-saying it the first time might not have counted. “A lot.”

Raven just nodded. The little silver beads in his hair were icy where they touched Bailey’s bare cheek, but the rest of him was so warm. Bailey found himself wanting to burrow into Raven’s cardigan, to wear both it and him like a barrier against the growing night. He wished he could learn to be like the ferret, so that he could crawl inside of Raven’s wide sleeves and just live there all the time, popping out to see interesting things or to get snacks. It sounded like a wonderful way to be.

The sound of Jo’s slamming the car’s back hatch shut made them both jump, and in the process they separated. “Come on,” said Jo, banging on the hood of the car. “It’s fucking freezing out here.”

Bailey couldn’t argue with that. Raven tried to give Bailey the front passenger seat, but Bailey insisted he keep it and got in the back instead. He shut his eyes for a second to get comfortable and promptly dozed right off.

He woke up what couldn’t have been more than ten minutes later, when the car slowed down and then stopped altogether, but he kept his eyes closed in the hope that he might be able to fall asleep again. “Love that city traffic,” Jo said with a sigh. He could hear a rhythmic pattern, probably her fingertips beating on the steering wheel.

“Thank you for driving,” Raven said.

“Yeah, well, next time, you come get him,” Jo said, though the smile was audible despite her grumpy words.

“I can’t,” Raven said. “Or, well, I can, but I’d need a taxi. I can’t drive.”

“Like, you can’t like you never learned, or you can’t like physically can’t?”

“Never had to learn. I’ve lived in a cities all my life. Good public transit and no parking spaces.” Raven shifted a little in his seat, then sighed with a closeness that let Bailey know Raven was looking back at Bailey’s presumably sleeping form. “He’s so tired.”

“Yeah,” Jo agreed. “Funeral, travel, Haley … it’ll wear a guy out.”

Raven made a little noise of affirmation. “Is Haley mean to him?” he asked. It occurred to Bailey that it was the first time he could recall Raven’s having said Haley’s current name.

Jo snorted as the car started up again, crawling its way through whatever jammed mess the freeways had become. “No,” she answered after a minute. “He’s not mean to anybody. Being mean to somebody takes effort. He’s just always been the center of his own weird little universe, and sometimes he doesn’t notice when some of the little planets just, you know, drift away.”

“That’s stupid,” Raven said, with all the charming petulance of a ten-year-old. “If he were mine, I’d never let him go.”

That got a quiet little chuckle out of Jo. “Looks like Winnie’s not the only one around here who likes a challenge.”

“Challenge to what?” Bailey asked, figuring he should cut off this conversation before it went any further in a direction it probably shouldn’t. He rubbed his eyes as though he’d just come up from sleep with the last sentence, missing everything before it.

“Your mom,” Jo said, having never met Bailey’s mother. “By the way, Winnie says she’d apologize for not coming, except she’s not sorry and she didn’t want to see your sorry ass anyway.”

Bailey chuckled. Winnie had probably said exactly that, meaning none of it, and was now likely getting some writing done in the otherwise empty apartment. “Tell her she’s a bitch,” Bailey said with an affectionate sigh.

“She knows.” Jo jerked the car suddenly into the next lane, laughing as the move let her pick up some genuine speed. “Eat my entire ass,” she said with a cackle, presumably directing the comment at the concept of traffic in general.

“You know,” said Bailey to Raven, “I hear she was actually a very sweet little girl.”

“I was an angel,” Jo said. “All long pigtails and frilly little skirts. I used to tattle on the other little kids in class for saying bad words and not eating their celery sticks at lunch. I ran for middle school class president. I was a fucking tiny narc. Right up until I was sixteen and I had a bad week. A real bad week. And I realized, fuck it, life is too short for cop shit.”

Even Bailey knew only the vaguest sketches of Jo’s bad week, and he suspected he’d never know more than that. The punchline was that whatever had happened, she’d wound up on suicide watch because of it, and she hadn’t spoken to her parents since. For all she talked shit about Haley, he’d helped her out a lot during that period, despite being only twelve at the time. Whether he’d done it out of genuine concern or to spite the rest of his horrible appearances-focused conservative family, the end result had been the same.

In response, Jo had always taken care of both Haley and Bailey whenever she could. And since Haley’s caretaking needs had merited the level of professional staff even since his childhood, that had quickly become just taking care of Bailey. After so many lifetimes, Bailey was mostly beyond needing any kind of parental management. But a surrogate big sister? That had come in handy more times than he could count. Like, say, when he needed to be picked up from an airport.

Raven nodded, showing no discomfort despite the grim material to read between the lines of her glib summary. “Bad weeks happen.”

“They sure fucking do!” Jo agreed with a laugh. Beneath the glow of the passing streetlights, the scars on her arms were visible above the cuffs of her rolled-up sleeves — not one cut but dozens made over time, ghostly pale and intersecting. She’d worn long sleeves even in high summer for the first several years Bailey had known her. “But sometimes, if you’re lucky, a bad week can kick your ass right into a lot more good ones.”

When they pulled up in front of Bailey’s building, one of the doormen set to getting Bailey’s luggage out of the back of the car. Jo gave Bailey an affectionate punch in the shoulder, which he endured as stoically as he could manage. “Thanks,” Bailey said. “Really, thank you.”

“Glad to.” Jo grinned at him, then looked to Raven. “I’ve got to pick up dinner and get home to Winnie. Otherwise she’ll get hangry and eat me. Can you help him get his stuff upstairs?”

Raven’s eyes widened for a second, before he swallowed and nodded. “Sure. I’ve got it.”

Jo nodded and gave Raven a tight squeeze on his bicep — the gentler form of her punching affection, Bailey supposed — before waving to them both and driving off. Bailey turned to Raven. “I don’t really need help,” Bailey said, giving Raven an out from Jo’s imposed obligation. Sometimes Jo thought she knew best, but just wound up overstepping wildly. This could easily have been one of those times.

“No, I–” Raven shrugged, looking a little nervous. “I told her I would. If that’s okay.”

“It’s very okay,” Bailey promised. “Come on up. You should at least see the view.”

As Raven stepped from the elevator into the apartment’s great room, he made a little gasping sound that was to Bailey extremely gratifying. With his arms still folded into his sleeves, he walked over to the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the city. During their drive from the airport, night had fallen so that only the faintest glow of blue was left in the sky. All the city lights had come on instead, creating a bright galaxy against which Raven was a dark little silhouette.

Bailey tipped and thanked the doorman for doing the actual work of bringing the luggage up, then walked over to stand beside Raven. “Pretty, isn’t it?” Bailey asked.

Raven nodded. “Cities are ugly. But not from this angle.”

“I agree with both of those statements.” Bailey thought for a moment and frowned. “I thought you said you’d lived in cities all your life.”

Raven barely turned his head, looking hard at Bailey from the corner of his eye. “I thought you were asleep.”

With a sheepish chuckle, Bailey rubbed the back of his neck. “I wake up slowly,” he said, which wasn’t a lie. Glossing over the rest of the conversation he’d overheard, he turned back toward the night view of the lights below them. “Haley likes cities, so it’s where we usually wind up. More people. More variety. More opportunities to be the center of attention. And it’s easier when the two of us wind up being … to put it diplomatically, not what society expects in a relationship.”

“You mean, two men or two women?” Raven asked.

“Yes, but not only that. Racial differences. Religious differences. Caste differences. Body differences. Height differences, once.” Bailey had to shake his head at how such things had once seemed like the end of the world to everyone around him, but were silly enough now to prove that they’d actually been silly all along. “Do you want a drink?”

“Some tea, please,” Raven said, in a tone that indicated Bailey should make some for both of them, instead of fixing himself a drink drink. It seemed Raven had come around to Winnie’s assessment of Bailey’s habits, which Bailey supposed weren’t unfair. He felt judged.

But tea had been asked for, so tea it would be. Bailey filled two mugs with hot water, then opened a cabinet of assorted tea bags. “What kind?”

Raven shrugged. “Any kind.”

That was a dangerous offer to make with such a variety in front of Bailey. He decided to play it safe, though, picking two bags of the most neutral black tea he had and plopping them into the water. “Come sit down,” he said, bringing them over to the couch.

Raven looked a little hesitant as he sat down on the white furniture, folding both his hands around the mug. Bailey bit back a little smile at the care he displayed, like he was worried he might spill the tea or somehow otherwise stain the couch. If there was one thing that thousands of years’ worth of lifetimes had given Bailey, it was perspective on how things could always been cleaned or replaced as necessary. In another hundred years, this couch likely wouldn’t exist anymore, and if it did, the stains would be a part of its story.

But he didn’t tell Raven any of that, because he didn’t want to make Raven self-conscious. Instead, Bailey sat on the other end of the couch, stretching out his legs and propping his socked heels up on the coffee table. “Is the tea good?”

Raven nodded. “Thank you.” He tucked his feet up beneath him. Everywhere he sat, he turned into his own cozy little perch. “Would you prefer to live in a city, or somewhere else?”

Bailey’s own preferences factored into such decisions so rarely that he had to think about it a good long minute. “Maybe … somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but with a city nearby. A private island, but with the mainland visible on the horizon. That way you could go to the city, but you wouldn’t have to be in the city, not all the time.” With a little sigh, Bailey gestured to the penthouse around them. “Which is sort of what I have here, I suppose. A little private island, except in the sky instead of in the ocean. A balcony instead of a beach. An elevator instead of a boat.”

“An island sounds nice,” Raven agreed. “As long as it has running water. And electricity.”

“Oh, absolutely.” Bailey laughed and shook his head. “No, I have lived without those for too much of history, and I am never going back, so far as I can help it. Plumbing? Refrigeration? Heating and cooling? Internet? The record will show that I can live without all those technological developments. Now please do not make me prove it.”

A little smile formed on Raven’s face as Bailey talked, a dreamy little look Bailey had never seen trained on anyone but Bailey himself, whenever Bailey got caught up in talking about whatever was on his mind. Raven liked to hear Bailey talk. Even when what Bailey was saying essentially amounted to unimportant nonsense, Raven still wanted to hear it.

The awareness of a receptive audience was a hell of an open door to Bailey, who fell into a state of taking about positive historical developments in sanitation and technology for nearly a full hour. He hadn’t meant to monopolize the conversation, not really, except that every time he paused, Raven would ask a question that got him going again. It wasn’t even so much that he was talking about anything important — he wasn’t, or at least not important in a way that Raven couldn’t have gotten an equivalent (and certainly more concise) history from a book. It was still miles better than the useless small talk he felt compelled to maintain at social obligations.

Maybe that was it, the sweet spot between meaningful and meaningless. Telling Raven about the first time Bailey had encountered indoor plumbing was hardly vital information that would change Raven’s life. But it was Bailey’s memory, and to Raven, that made it matter enough that he would sit there on the couch, long past the point he’d finished his tea, just to listen.

Bailey did have a little self-control left in him — though it was also tied to his middle, which was informing him that the plane’s meal service had been both on the lighter side and several hours ago. “I want a big stupid pizza,” Bailey said, cutting off his ramblings at last. “That’s another reason I shouldn’t live on a private island. Not until they figure out a way to perform instant food delivery. I’ve gotten spoiled by being able to order a big stupid pizza at any hour of the day or night.”

Though it was a perfectly reasonable hour to order pizza, all things considered, Raven nodded. “I should be going anyway,” he said, standing up. “Should I just put my mug in the sink, or…?”

With a laugh, Bailey reached over and grabbed the hem of Raven’s cardigan, tugging him back down toward the couch. “I mean we should order a big stupid pizza. With whatever you want on it. Vegetables, fruit, I don’t know, other weird things? Whatever they’ll let you put on a pizza that doesn’t have a face. You want it, we’ll get it.”

There it was again, that hesitation in Raven’s face, the same that Bailey had seen when he’d asked Raven up after dinner with Winnie and Jo — the desire to say yes going to war with the knowledge that the answer should be no. “Aren’t you tired from your flight?” asked Raven.

Bailey was, to be sure — bone-tired, in fact, and once he went to sleep, he knew he’d be out for a full twenty-four hours at least. But he was still awake now, and he didn’t want to be alone. “Not too tired for pizza,” Bailey said, giving Raven’s cardigan another playful tug with one hand as he fished his phone out of his pocket with the other. “Come on, help me order.”

Smiling despite a long-suffering sigh, Raven sat back down next to Bailey — close enough to remind Bailey of the time they’d wound up holding one another on Raven’s couch. “I’m fine with just cheese,” Raven said, glancing at the menu on Bailey’s phone.

“Cheese is boring.” Bailey rolled his eyes.

Raven shrugged. “I’m boring.”

Bailey was so shocked and appalled he had to darken the phone screen just to keep from being distracted as he processed the incredible wrongness of that statement. “How are you boring?” he managed, turning to face Raven.

“I just am.” Raven shrugged again. His face was bare of makeup today, making this the first time Bailey had ever seen him in such a raw state. Without the distraction of Raven’s usual dark, striking eyeliner, Bailey could see the first hints of the lines that would someday crease the skin around his deep and pretty eyes. He’d learned from their conversations that Raven was a couple years older than Bailey himself was, but this was the first time Bailey had ever seen that age on him.

Before Bailey fully realized what he was doing, he was reaching for Raven’s face. Raven looked more than a bit surprised, but didn’t pull away as Bailey brushed his thumb across Raven’s cheek. Raven had such pretty eyes, all the prettier for how wide they’d gone at the touch. From between his parted lips, Raven breathed out in short, hot breaths that puffed against the back of Bailey’s hand. How could Raven think that he, of all people, was boring? Bailey could have stared at him for hours and still found new things to see.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to kiss Raven. If it had been, Bailey would have thrown the brakes on the impulse immediately, citing all the reasons why this was the worst idea he’d had in several lifetimes. By the time he realized what he was doing, though, Bailey’s lips were already brushing Raven’s, making a promise he couldn’t take back. So instead, Bailey leaned in.

Raven made such a little noise as Bailey kissed him, a sound so like pain that Bailey almost pulled away. But Raven’s hands had gone tight in Bailey’s sleeve, holding on for dear life as Bailey leaned in. He was an awkward kisser, which was such a novelty — Bailey couldn’t remember the last time he’d put his lips to someone without at least a lifetime’s worth of experience with physical intimacy. Raven didn’t know quite where to turn his head so their noses didn’t collide, didn’t quite understand that he was meant to part his lips as Bailey pushed his tongue along the seam between them.

Despite this, there was no mistaking that Raven was eager for the contact. When Bailey leaned forward, pressing Bailey back against the couch cushions, Raven clung to him. He took a position mirroring Bailey’s, first bringing his hand to rest on the side of Bailey’s face, then sliding it back into Bailey’s wavy hair. Bailey had to be so careful; this was like working with glass. All he wanted to do was to pounce on Raven and devour him. He had to be good.

How long had it been since he’d had to take so much of the initiative during sex? How long had it been since he’d wanted to? He couldn’t fall into familiar patterns here, relying on muscle memory. Bailey was learning, inch by inch, what made Raven’s body respond to him.

Kissing Raven was good, but Bailey wanted more. He pulled away from Raven’s mouth to press his lips to Raven’s jaw, kissing all the way up to Raven’s ear. Bailey could hear the little changes in Raven’s breathing as he did so, each of which made Bailey grin with triumph. Maybe Raven had never had someone make him make those kinds of noises before, but Bailey was doing it now.

Then Bailey felt a slight pressure against his chest and realized that it was Raven’s hand, pushing him back with the gentlest force possible. Bailey withdrew enough to put some space between them, so that he could see Raven’s face. Raven was flushed and breathing hard, his lips pink from kissing. He looked at Bailey, then swallowed hard. “I love you,” Raven said, then shook his head before Bailey could reply. “I needed to … I needed to say it. I needed to say it so you know that I’m going to leave now, but it’s not because I don’t want you, or this.”

“Oh.” Disappointment hit Bailey like a fist to the chest. He pressed his lips together and drew in a deep breath through his nose. “So … what is it because of?”

Raven closed his eyes and swallowed again. “You don’t love me. Not the same way.” He reached and took one of Bailey’s hands, wrapping his smaller fingers around Bailey’s knobby knuckles. “So I can wait. Until you do.”

Bailey swallowed hard. Was he supposed to apologize? Or be grateful? After all, he was supposed to be rejecting Raven’s foolish crush, hoping good sense would prevail. A good way to do this was for Raven to realize that their feelings were asymmetrical. Then they could maybe even kiss like this again and it wouldn’t be a big deal. They could fall into bed together like friends. It would be nice. Bailey was sure Raven would like it.

They walked together to the elevator door, where Raven’s fingers hesitated above the call button. He looked up at Bailey with eyes that seemed nearly on the brink of tears and cheeks that still held the faintest flush. “You should come over soon,” he said, making eye contact with Bailey so deliberately, Bailey could tell it was an act of physical exertion for him. “The pictures came out fine.”

Pictures? Oh, the ones they’d taken before Bailey had left. It seemed like a lifetime ago now. “Tomorrow?” asked Bailey hopefully.

“Tomorrow.” Raven nodded. “Any day you want. You know where I’ll be.”

Bailey wanted to promise that the reciprocal was true, but he also knew there was a great difference between his finding Raven in a public place of business and Raven’s trying to find him in his private, shared apartment. Haley wouldn’t be gone filming on location forever, after all, and then where would Raven fit? What part of this home could be his?

None of it. This was barely Bailey’s home. It was Haleyandbailey’s, where Bailey fit in as an accessory. It wasn’t a place where people lived; it was a place where people — one person — waited around until they needed to be useful again.

Raven opened his mouth as though to speak, then shook his head and pressed the elevator call button. Bailey could hear the mechanical components begin to whir from behind the door, deep inside the shaft that ran the length of the building like a spine. He wanted to kiss Raven again. He knew he shouldn’t, but he wanted to so badly, he could barely keep his feet where they were.

Instead, Bailey lifted his hand and placed it nonthreateningly against Raven’s shoulder. “Thank you for coming to the airport for me,” Bailey said.

A little smile floated to Raven’s lips. “Any time,” Raven said, and Bailey knew he meant it. That was the danger between them, that Raven meant things like that. Someday he wouldn’t mean it anymore, and they’d all be better for it.

The elevator dinged and the door slid open. “Tell the doorman to call you a car,” Bailey said as Raven stepped inside the carriage. “Tell him I said so”

Raven nodded, but it was a nod of understanding, not compliance. He wouldn’t ask. He’d take the subway home, burrowing into his scarf while he waited on the platform for the train to come and take him back to his part of town. “Get some sleep,” Raven said as the door slid shut. Bailey stared at the brushed metal surface as he heard the machinery descend, taking Raven away from his strange little private island in the sky.

Once Bailey was alone again, he felt like a marionette with snapped strings. All the exhaustion in his body hit him like a wave, knocking him over. He should eat dinner. He should drink himself blind. He settled for doing neither of these and instead shuffled back to his bedroom. He removed just enough clothing to make sleep comfortable, then crawled into his bed.

Tired as he was, though, he couldn’t fall asleep just yet. His body had given up, but his mind was spinning. He stared at the ceiling, looking at nothing in particular. He wondered where Raven was, if the train had arrived yet. He wanted to text Raven to tell Raven to text him upon arriving home safely, but his phone was in the pocket of his pants on the floor, which might as well have been a million miles away. Not that Bailey believed Raven wouldn’t arrive home safely, or that he was somehow incapable of navigating the city at night. Hell, Bailey had more confidence in Raven’s ability to do that than he had in his own. It would just have been nice.

Bailey ran his tongue over his lower lip. He could still taste the faintest hint of Raven’s mouth against his own. What had he been thinking? No, the truth was that he hadn’t been thinking. He’d been wanting foolish things, and like a spoiled child, he’d just reached for them.

Thank goodness for both their sakes that Raven had the good sense to call a halt to Bailey’s otherwise unchecked toddler-like desires. Of course Bailey didn’t love him back. Bailey didn’t have a heart. At best, he had half of one, having abdicated the other half to his soulmate long ago. At worst, even that half was all but gone, a faint memory of what it once had been.

He was lucky that Raven understood the situation. Raven was already realizing what a horrible person Bailey was. He’d figured out part of it. He’d figure out the rest soon. And when he did, he wouldn’t want anything to do with Bailey anymore.

 

~*~

 

The photographs Raven had taken were tremendous, in fact, so long as the viewer liked colored blobs — which Bailey did, to a point. To Raven, however, the colored blobs meant something, which was what had him excited. “That’s what I saw,” Raven said, pointing to the place where one of the blobs streaked off the right edge of the print. “That connection right there.”

They were in the Crystal Shop again, with printouts of the pictures spread out across the top of the counter. Outside, the weather was horrible, a blustery, sleeting wintry mix that had most potential passers-by nowhere to be found. Except for one very dedicated one woman looking for peppermint essential oils, the shop had been empty of customers all day.

Bailey held out his arm for the ferret to climb up. She scrambled her way from the glass counter to Bailey’s shoulder, where she promptly stuck her muzzle down the back of Bailey’s shirt collar. Bailey made a noise of distress as her cold nose pressed up against his skin, which the ferret seemed to interpret as a call to flee. Down she ran again, right back the way she’d come. Bailey had her leash, though, so she couldn’t go far before she was once again determined to scale Mt. Bailey.

Raven narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re impeding scientific progress.”

Laughing, Bailey lifted the ferret carefully from the countertop, then opened his blazer and introduced her to one of the inner pockets. The ferret dove in headfirst, then wiggled her way around until her front half had emerged and her back half was securely supported. She obviously loved Raven, who was her primary person and the one who gave her food on a regular basis, but when Bailey was around, he was her favorite toy.

They hadn’t said anything about the kiss. What would there have been to say? Maybe if they didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t happen again. That was a good thing, that it wouldn’t happen again. Raven didn’t want it to, so long as Bailey didn’t love him, and Bailey couldn’t love him, so it shouldn’t happen.

That didn’t stop Bailey’s heart from beating just that much faster every time Raven came close enough that Bailey could have reached out and pulled Raven into his arms. The distance between them was nothing and everything all at once.

So instead, Bailey focused on the pictures. “Didn’t you say my aura was … conjoined?” If he squinted, he could vaguely imagine that the image on the page was a human shape — was his human shape, in fact. For all the imagination it already took to see that, he was all but certain he couldn’t imagine two bodies there.

“It is,” said Raven, pointing to the edges of the picture. “See?”

Bailey did not. As best he could tell, Raven was indicating the vague gold haze that surrounded his person-like shape. “Is that weird?”

Raven frowned for a moment, then sighed. “Right, you don’t know what one of these looks like usually.” He walked around to one of the shop bookshelves, standing in front of it with his hands on his hips as he considered the contents. At last, he gave a nod and pulled a large hardcover book from one of the bottom shelves. Bailey could tell from the way Raven held it that it was heavy. Raven opened it on the counter to reveal that all the pages were thick, glossy stock paper, even the ones without images on them. Those were few, though, as the spine of the book proclaimed its contents to be A History of Aura Photography. Well, that explained Raven and his book-titling impulses

Raven flipped nearly to the end, to a pair of pages with four images on each. Now Bailey understood the difference. That vague gold haze seemed a lot less vague in comparison to these pictures. In these, the human shape at the center of each was clearly visible, down to sometimes being able to see separate fingers in the figures’ hands. The glow captured in each of the pictures was bright but distinct, and it faded to black several inches before the end of the page.

“Wow,” said Bailey, finding himself at a loss for words. “So these are … not Reincarnates.”

“There is one in here I think may be,” Raven said with a shrug, flipping toward the front of the book. “And that’s just of a hand, so it’s hard to tell. It’s listed here as one of the early failures of the technique — an overexposure. Except I think the photographer just didn’t know whose hand she was looking at.”

When Raven arrived at the page, Bailey understood more what he meant. On the left side of the page was the shape of a dark hand, defined by the white, lightning-like outline that surrounded it. On the right side was something that looked more like an oil-slick rainbow, vaguely in the shape of a handprint. “Is this a common scientific technique?” Bailey asked. He’d never heard of it before, but often that didn’t mean anything.

Raven barked a little laugh. “No. It’s a novelty.” As though to prove his point, Raven shut the book and turned it to its back cover.

Bailey leaned in to see the text there, reading aloud: “This volume is dedicated to preserving the history of those who have pushed the boundaries of conventional understanding to document the phenomenon that proves the divine persistence of human spiritual radiance. As you venture through these photographs, you will start to feel your own past-life energetic signatures resonating within your— Yeah, okay, I see what you mean.”

“My program did not take this sort of thing seriously, and thought anyone who did should be laughed out of the academy.” Raven shrugged as he went to put the book back on the shelf. “But they never took me seriously, not from the start.”

“Why not?”

“Lots of reasons.” As he talked, Raven fussed with the arrangements on the shelves, neatening up various things that customers had touched. “I was young. That was a big one. Some of the people who started at the same time as I did had children not much younger than I was. They didn’t like that I wasn’t willing to accept conventional wisdom about things. They didn’t like the way I look. I got told that my hair was ‘disrespectful’.”

Bailey frowned with confusion. “Disrespectful how?”

Raven exhaled hard, shaking his head. “It was different. I was supposed to look like a scientist. I told them, I was a scientist, so by definition I looked like a scientist.”

Bailey could picture it so clearly: Raven’s flat, unimpressed expression as he explained in a single sentence why the dress code police were definitionally wrong. Of course they hadn’t liked that. Bailey knew too well the kind of people who sacrificed their young on the altar of respectability. “Not a well-received argument, huh?”

“To say the least.” Raven gestured to the store around them. “Working here is better, though. For my mental health, but also for my understanding. There are too many phenomena undervalued by scientific inquiry. And that’s mostly because they come with phrases like ‘the divine persistence of human spiritual radiance’. I like my coworkers better, too.”

As though on cue, the ferret popped her head out of Bailey’s pocket and yawned tremendously. Bailey rewarded her for this perfect timing with a little scritch atop her head. “For what it’s worth, I like your hair,” Bailey said as the ferret butted her head up against his hand, demanding her due of more love and attention.

Raven gave one of the loose little braids a tug, then tucked it back into the knot atop his head with all the others. “I started braiding it and pulling it back because I thought it would be easier to manage. Turns out, not really.”

Bailey laughed, not out of mockery, but because he’d had enough hairstyles with enough hair textures to know exactly the problems anything more than an inch or two could encounter. “I once had hair down past my waist,” he said, gesturing with the hand that wasn’t currently on ferret duty. “I can’t even really remember why I’d started. No, I do — it was my mother. She insisted on it, so by the time I was grown, I felt like I’d put in so much effort that it would be, I don’t know, spiteful to cut it. And then I got pregnant with twins, and I was enormous, so the doctors insisted I stay in my bed. I cannot tell you the number of times I rolled over on it or otherwise trapped myself by lying on my own hair, unable to turn over easily. I swore, the second I was on my feet again, I’d hack it all off, down to the root.”

“And did you?” asked Raven.

It was then Bailey remembered the reason he possibly shouldn’t have started telling the story in the first place. “No, I … I died.” He exhaled hard, shaking his head as though to clear away the physical presence of the memory before the details could even bubble to the surface. “Fortunately for me, that’s the only time that’s happened. But that’s partly because I refused to get pregnant again for a long time after. Which, in certain circumstances, can be tricky.”

The look on Raven’s face was caught in the strange middle ground between sympathy and distress. Bailey could hardly blame him; after all, most people didn’t tell tales of their pregnancies while also possessing none of the parts necessary to carry a child, much less have those stories end in death and then discussion of their further childbearing, or lack thereof. This was why Bailey kept to pleasantries and small talk in social settings: The more he opened his mouth, the more he forgot what strange things could come out of it.

“Anyway.” Bailey laughed a little like it didn’t matter, because in the grand scheme of things it didn’t, because if it did, he’d never make it out of bed in the morning. “I suppose I lucked out by being a man for a good long while after that, so it wasn’t an issue for a few centuries.”

Raven nodded a little. “Is that what you like better? Being a man, I mean?”

Of course the Reincarnates got questions like that all the time, from a world desperately interested in the supremacy of certain bodies, as judged by the only people with a true point of comparison. Bailey attempted to maintain a pleasant neutrality on those issues, even though he did have certain preferences. For simplicity’s sake, he liked to present comfortably within the averages of whatever community he found himself in. Perhaps the one exception to this was that he liked to be tall — but even still, not so much taller than everyone else that he stuck out.

On the question of gender, however, Bailey had never found anything so simple as neutrality. Certainly there had been need for cross-dressing in various lives of all the Reincarnates, especially when sex-segregated conventions or heterosexual norms conspired to keep soulmates apart. Those, however, were far more by necessity than recreational choices. None of them were so attached to any particular bit of their identities that they couldn’t manage being born into something wholly different. 

There were certain Reincarnates who tended toward androgyny when given the chance, figuring out whatever social conventions they’d landed in, then cultivating themselves to slot as neatly into the middle as possible. Bailey, however, had always seen that effort as … not frivolous, that wasn’t it, but still ultimately unnecessary. He hadn’t even consciously registered how dismissive he’d become, not until the night Jo had anxiously brought Haley and Bailey over to meet her new girlfriend, emphasis on girl, whose entire body and mannerisms spoke of the amount of work that had gone into creating and maintaining the girl part of the equation. Bailey had been taken with Winnie from the start, but she had also been the contrast that made clear to Bailey just how much he, for his own part, couldn’t imagine feeling unsettled in his own gendered skin enough to fight the hand he’d been dealt.

“Not better,” Bailey said at last with a little shrug. “I suppose I’ve never really been attached enough one way or another to care. If I’m a man, I’ll be a man. If I’m a woman, I’ll be a woman. I’ve never been neither, but if I were, I suppose I’d be neither.” On the counter in front of him, the ferret made a dramatic flop on her side, and Bailey rubbed her furry belly. “I guess it’s just like everything else, huh? I’m just whatever I’m supposed to be.” He felt his teeth grind as he closed his jaw again afterwards.

Raven pressed his lips together, looking down at the floor. “We don’t have to talk about it.”

Whatever resentment Bailey had been building inside himself, it evaporated at once. “It’s okay,” he promised Raven. “It really is. Honestly, it’s kind of nice to talk about it. Haley never wants to.”

That drew a frown of skepticism down across Raven’s face. “He talks about it all the time.”

Bailey supposed it would seem like that to someone who knew Haley only through reputation and media. “He brings it up. He doesn’t talk about it.” Bringing up his identity as a Reincarnate was Haley’s entire brand, as it had been ever since the concept of Reincarnates had become a well-known one. But for as much traction as Haley got out people interested in true love that lasted lifetimes, Haley never said much specific about the actual experience of being one, in public or otherwise.

More than once, Bailey had thought about how much it would surely help Raven’s research if he could have the illustrious Haleyandbailey there to study together as a single unit. But Bailey hadn’t so much as mentioned to Haley what he’d been up to in Haley’s absence (nor, of course, had Haley asked, which meant that if the silence was deception on Bailey’s part, it was equally lack of interest on Haley’s). Haley would never have let himself be photographed on a couch while he reminisced about the past. To Haley, only the present was reality. Bringing up previous lifetimes was like carrying dead skin around everywhere, instead of leaving it in the trashcan where it belonged.

Sometimes, though, that made Bailey feel like he carried the past for both of them. Given what Raven’s theories proposed, maybe that wasn’t even such a far-fetched statement. The burden of memory fell on Bailey so Haley could walk free. 

In theory, that should have made Bailey happy. He had promised — not once but in many lifetimes — to endure whatever hardships came their way, so long as it was for his soulmate. He’d made countless vows, sometimes with rings and handfastings and shared cups and signatures on legally binding documents, that he would fight the world for his soulmate. Why had he grown so bitter about work he’d agreed to do in the first place?

Maybe the difference was that back then, when he’d made those promises, Bailey had felt like they were taking on the world together. Now he felt less like a fellow warrior, and more like a battered old shield.

“So,” Bailey said after a moment, brushing his fingertips over the photographs in front of him, “in theory, how would you disconnect my aura from his?”

“No.” Raven folded his arms across his chest. “We talked about this.”

“We brought it up. We didn’t talk about it.”

Raven snorted, his face unmoved by Bailey’s attempts to apply that distinction here. “No.”

Something about his rejection, however, caught Bailey’s notice. Previously, he’d taken Raven’s rejection to mean that Raven would not even begin to investigate the phenomenon. This was a more definitive no, one that wasn’t even interested in the possibilities at hand. And the only reason Raven would not have been interested in possibilities would have been if he knew the outcome already.

Bailey looked hard at Raven, as though staring over a pair of glasses. “You know how. Don’t you? You do! You know how to do it.”

Raven bit his lower lip. The desire to lie was written all over his face, but Bailey knew he wouldn’t. “It doesn’t matter,” Raven said after a minute. “I have an idea. An idea is not a certainty. And even if it were, the answer is still no.”

“Why not?” Bailey asked, aware that a whine was creeping into his voice. He took a deep breath and tried to swallow it down. He was going to be mature about this. “If mean, if you can, why not?”

“There are lots of reasons why not.” Raven folded his hands into his opposite sleeves and hunched his shoulders; had he been a real bird, he might have tucked his head under his wing.

“Tell me one.”

“Have you told him you’re trying to do this?” Raven asked, dodging the request.

Bailey quirked his mouth to one side. They both knew full well that Bailey hadn’t. It was clear that what Bailey wanted to do lived somewhere in the borderlands between strategic retreat and sheer cowardice. Bailey refused to interrogate which side he was closer to at the moment, and thus resented Raven’s attempts to do so. “Wouldn’t just doing it be easier?” Bailey asked at last.

Raven lifted one eyebrow in a perfect arch. “Or it might destroy the universe.”

“Oh,” Bailey said. “But if it did, no one would be left to notice, right?”

“Maybe,” Raven acknowledged with a grunt of annoyance at how, metaphysically speaking, Bailey was correct. “But there’s things in the universe right now that I like and would like to keep the way they are, if I can.”

“Like her?” asked Bailey, watching as the ferret tucked herself into a little ball and put her chin over her tail. Why couldn’t he reincarnate as a creature who could go to sleep wherever it pleased? That seemed like a far better use of his time than trying to be human again. Or a houseplant. He would make a lovely houseplant. He could be beautiful and rest in the sunshine and not have anyone expect too much of him. The more he thought about it, the more being human seemed like some great cosmic racket.

Raven nodded. “Like her. And you.”

Bailey smiled as he stroked the ferret’s sleek fur, watching her little ears twitch happily at the touch. “That’s not much,” he pointed out.

With a quiet little sigh, Raven shrugged. “To me, it’s everything.”

 

~*~

 

“Haley here,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

For a moment, Bailey was startled by the sound. Why was it so strange to hear Haley’s voice like this? Then he remembered: He’d literally never spoken to Haley on the phone before. When they were away from one another, Melissa the Assistant did all the coordination and transmission of messages. When they were in the same location, there was no need. And of course they didn’t call just to talk, when there was so little to say.

But Bailey had called. He’d gotten halfway into a bottle of something he’d hardly been paying attention to, and he’d waited for a time when he knew filming would be over for the day, and then he’d dialed the number for Haley’s phone. And on the third ring, Haley had picked up.

“It’s me,” Bailey said. Already his voice sounded so unsteady. He tried to sit up, but all his limbs had become liquids themselves. He draped over the couch instead, talking through the speakerphone function because he didn’t quite trust his hand to hold the little rectangle to his face.

There was a shift on the other side the phone. Haley was probably sitting up. Haley wasn’t shitfaced drunk. It was four in the afternoon where Haley was, which was a much more respectable time to be awake than four in the morning, as it was in Bailey’s case. “What’s wrong?” asked Haley.

“Nothing’s–” It hadn’t occurred to Bailey that that would be Haley’s reaction. It was the sensible one, after all, in response to the first phone call in this life. Was it the first phone call in any of their lives? He couldn’t remember. Had Caryn and Matthias ever talked on a telephone? He couldn’t remember. Probably not, and for similar reasons of how Caryn had always had an army of assistants to deal with her business. And the last full lifetime before that had been before phones had even been invented yet. So yes. By his exceptionally drunk calculation, this was the first phone call they’d ever shared between them. “Nothing’s wrong.”

Haley let out a little sigh, anxiety receding. “Then why are you calling?”

“Can’t I just call to talk?” Bailey had the phone on his chest and all the lights off in the room. The glow from the city around him illuminated most things anyway. Dawn would come in another few hours, filling in the gaps. “Just to see how you’re doing?”

“I’m fine,” Haley said. He was cautious, guarded. He didn’t trust the reason for Bailey’s call. He didn’t trust that everything was fine. Bailey could hear it in his voice. “Did you want something?”

“I just walked to talk,” Bailey said, wishing he were actually drunk enough not to be ashamed at the whine that shaded into his voice. “I just wanted to talk, I — I just walked to talk, can’t we talk? We don’t talk. We never talk anymore.”

There was a muffled little sound from Haley’s end and the sound of Haley’s voice saying something — probably sending everyone else out of the room, or maybe excusing himself to take the call in private. Knowing Haley, it was the former. “What do you want to talk about?” Haley asked a moment later, sounding terse.

Bailey snorted. “I’m sorry, am I interrupting you?”

“Yes, actually,” Haley said, without judgment or hesitation. It was simply true. “They’re removing my makeup.”

It was a funny thought to Bailey’s drunk brain: Haley sitting there in one of the trailers, cinematic fake blood half-wiped from his face. It seemed like all the movies he was in had him splattered with fake blood. Given the number of times Bailey had seen him drenched in the real stuff before, he would’ve thought the novelty had worn off. Apparently, for Haley, it hadn’t. “That sounds nice,” Bailey lied.

Haley let out a long sigh, one Bailey knew from centuries of standing by and watching while Haley, mighty and important Haley, was confronted by bullshit. “What the fuck is going on with you?”

Bailey wanted so desperately to be able to pretend he didn’t know what Haley meant. Instead, he felt almost like Haley had reached through the phone and stabbed Bailey in the chest, pinning him to the couch for closer observation. “Nothing,” Bailey said, or tried to say. All the air in his lungs felt insufficient for speech. Maybe his little sky-island was too high, up where the atmosphere was too thin. Maybe he’d gotten lost somewhere up here and was at this very moment floating into space, fueled by whatever the opposite of gravity was, out there among the stars.

“You’ve been acting strange lately,” Haley said, and now he sounded mad. Bailey could imagine Haley’s mad face. It wasn’t hard. He’d seen all of Haley’s movies, many of which required Haley to make that face. “Are you drugged? I know you’re drunk. But this is worse.”

The suggestion almost made Bailey laugh. It also almost made him roll on his side and vomit onto the carpet. No, he wasn’t on drugs. Drugs would have made him happy. “Do you miss me?” Bailey asked. He wasn’t even sure he was talking, or what language he was speaking. Everything felt heavy.

“What kind of a question is that?” answered Haley, which meant the answer was no.

“Do you miss me?” Bailey repeated. His voice sounded snotty. Shit, he was crying. He tried to scrub at his eyes to get them to stop it and mostly wound up slapping himself in the face. His nose stung with the blow. “When I’m — if I’m here and you’re there, do you miss me? Do you notice I’m not there? Do you wish I were there with you?”

Haley took a deep, audible breath and let it out in a heavy huff. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.”

“You don’t talk to me at all!”

“Because you’re always like this!” Haley snapped back. He didn’t shout. That was important to him, that he didn’t shout. Sometimes he shouted when he was acting, but when he was his real self, he just got sharp. “You’re always fucking like this. Half the time you’re drunk and the other half, I don’t even know where you are.”

“I’m right wherever you fucking left me,” Bailey said. The tears were flowing harder now. He was too drunk to control any of the muscles that might stop them.

“That’s not my fault,” Haley said through gritted teeth. “It’s not my fault that you are given life after life after life to do something, and instead you choose to do nothing.”

Wasn’t it his fault, though? Bailey felt it was his fault. At least partly. Probably entirely. “Then where would I be when you needed me for your little cocktail parties?” Bailey mumbled.

Haley snorted. “Doing something interesting. So I could tell everyone, sorry, he can’t here today; he’s, I don’t know, scaling a mountain or learning to blow glass or saving a tiny village from a flood. Not, sorry, he wanted to come to your event less than he wanted to crawl into a bottle.”

Bailey was having trouble thinking of many Haley-related events in recent memory that had been more appealing than the idea of spending the evening at home drinking. “Sorry I’m bad fucking company at your shitty little get-togethers.”

“Fuck you,” Haley said, sounding almost resigned. “At least I have a social life.”

I have a social life too, Bailey absolutely did not say. It involves a ferret and a bunch of crystals and a man sweet enough not to realize that no one would ever love me if they weren’t obligated to. “Would you even notice if I were gone?” Bailey asked, staring up at the patterns the outside lights cast on the ceiling.

“You want to go find yourself? Go find yourself! Go live on a mountain or meditate by the ocean or take hallucinogens out in a desert somewhere. Go spend a year fucking drying out, and maybe someone will teach you how not to be such a needy bitch about it.”

Bailey wondered if the other soulmates were actually like this when they were left alone, if they were all smiles and affection in public, but anger and bitterness behind the scenes. No, he couldn’t imagine that was the case. It was probably just them. They had managed, between them, to completely shit on the idea of eternal love. Haley had ruined it by being a selfish monster, and Bailey had ruined it by … well, by being himself, apparently. Just the drunk and needy bitch that was ruining not just one of Haley’s lives, but all of them.

How long had it been like this, between the two of them? Was this why they didn’t talk, because they both knew this conversation was the wolf lurking at the door? It hadn’t always been like this, had it? No, Bailey could remember back when they’d loved one another with a fire that could have rivaled suns in its intensity. Once upon a time, they hadn’t talked because they hadn’t needed to. They’d just understood one another.

Now Bailey wasn’t even sure he understood himself. “Okay,” he said at last, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Sorry. Sorry for … everything.”

Did Bailey hear Haley’s entire bearing soften on the other side of the line, or was that just wishful thinking? It didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it had come too little, too late to stop the awful truths that had slipped out before it. “Little star,” Haley began, his voice quiet.

Nope. No, Bailey absolutely could not take that, a nickname from literal thousands of years ago, from a language so dead that Bailey didn’t even remember what it had been called in the first place. He slapped for the phone screen, hammering his thumb against its surface until he disconnected the call. That was hard enough to hit even when he was sober.

That done, Bailey just collapsed. He wasn’t even crying anymore, at least not actively. Tears were passively leaking from the corners of his eyes, but that wasn’t real crying. That was just something that happened when a body got too tired to keep it from happening. That could happen to anyone.

They didn’t need each other anymore. Wasn’t that the hell of it? Two people so tied to one another that the universe wouldn’t even let death separate them, and they’d still managed to find a way not to need each other anymore.

Bailey couldn’t remember the last time they’d said they loved one another. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d wanted to say it. At first, it had been all they’d said to one another, no matter what faces they wore or what languages they spoke. Then they’d stopped saying it because they’d both known it was true, so why bother mentioning it again? Bailey wondered where in there they’d stopped saying it because it wasn’t just wasn’t true.

No, there was still a sliver of truth to it, at least on his side. He still loved Haley. Truly, he did. But Haley didn’t love him anymore. To love someone meant to think about them when they weren’t around, and Bailey was quite certain that hadn’t happened in centuries. Bailey had become his accessory, something he expected the way he expected to wake up in the morning and still find feet attached to the bottoms of his legs.

And so what if Haley could remember a pet name he’d used long ago? Bailey was sure he could remember a lot of things. That didn’t mean anything. It was all too late now. Too little, too late.

What really sealed the deal for him was the knowledge that Haley would be better off without him. Now that was a bitter little thought, but it wasn’t wrong. Haley would be free to do all the things he wanted, to make all the decisions he wanted without having to worry about carrying around the ball and chain that Bailey had become. He would invite other people to parties. He would make plans that didn’t require his publicist to book secondary, coordinating accommodations. He would have the whole spotlight on the red carpet. He would no longer be the more exciting member of a compulsory duo. He would finally get to be a solo act.

Meanwhile, Bailey would be … what? Well, it didn’t matter what he would be, because he knew what he wouldn’t be, and that was Haley’s problem anymore.

Bailey woke up on the couch several hours later, catastrophically hung over and bleary in the harsh light of the mid-morning sun through the penthouse windows. His whole body felt desiccated, except for his sinuses, which were still cloggy with the lingering aftereffects of crying. Somehow his head had gotten propped against a throw pillow in a way that made moving his neck agony. He felt more like ninety-six than twenty-six. And he literally knew what ninety-six felt like.

Blinking to focus, he looked at his phone screen. There were no missed calls, no missed texts. Haley had just let him go. Now Bailey should have the good goddamn courtesy to do the same.

 

~*~

 

Bailey was hardly a stranger to the art of seduction. He couldn’t claim to have been beautiful in all his lifetimes, but he’d learned through the ones where he was the confident mannerisms of beautiful people. Once, he’d been a charming actor who’d bewitched a jailer, luring the man back to his bed as his lover snatched the keys and freed their revolutionary comrades the night before their execution. Another time, he’d been a noblewoman pretending to cuckold her husband, all the while acquiring secrets that had let him eventually take over the royal court. Yet another, he’d trained as a dancer, shimmering in silks and jingling jewelry as the woman who pretended to be her sister slipped poison unnoticed into certain men’s cups. It was just that every time he’d done it before, it had been at Haley’s direction and for Haley’s benefit.

In a way, Bailey supposed, it still was. When this was all done, they’d both be better off for it. All three of them, in fact, because Raven was getting what he wanted too, wasn’t he? So they’d all come out on top. When he put it like that, Bailey almost believed it.

For dinner, Bailey had ordered out at the nicest vegetarian restaurant in the city, requesting that they send him “whatever’s good”, enough for two people. He’d resolved to do it sober, then had turned around and found himself semi-mysteriously halfway through a glass of wine. Reflex, he supposed. Well, it was fine. It would calm his nerves.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been nervous about having someone over for dinner. Well, all right, with Winnie and Jo — but that hadn’t been nervous, not really, not then, not like this. Why was he nervous? He had nothing to be nervous about! He was just having a friend join him for a meal, after which he would ask said friend for a favor and fuck his brains out in a friendly way. Why would anyone be nervous about that?

No. He knew why he was nervous. He just wasn’t going to let himself think about it. If he did, he’d lose his nerve.

Raven arrived at the same time the food did, standing to the back of the elevator to let the delivery person out first. He watched them unpack their insulated bag atop Bailey’s kitchen island, his eyes a little wide at the sheer volume of tiny containers. “Are Jo and Winnie coming over?” Raven asked as the elevator doors shut again, leaving the two of them alone in the apartment.

Bailey shook his head as he took the menu, then began sorting out which takeout container was which. “They specialize in small plates. So if you don’t like something, well, there’s about twenty other somethings to choose from. Except I got two orders of butternut squash ravioli, because one of them is mine. I’m willing to share the other with you, though.”

“Sounds good,” Raven said, giving Bailey a quiet little smile. He’d dressed up a little, Bailey could tell — he had one of his more fitted cardigans on again, this time over a collarless shirt buttoned all the way to his throat. Bailey had never thought before of how, for all their fashion differences, Raven and Winnie had a shared fondness for being covered from neck to wrist to ankle. He wondered if it was just a coincidence of preferred style.

Bailey had meant to take the meal to the table, but they wound up eating standing up instead, hovering around the granite-topped island that divided the kitchen area from the dining area, both of which were part of the same great room with the apartment’s couches, television, and fireplace. This fact prompted Bailey to explain to Raven at length about how interior walls were a relatively new invention, in the grand human scheme of things. Raven listened and nodded and asked insightful questions that showed he wasn’t just humoring Bailey’s need for exposition. He was actually listening. 

For some reason, some surely inadvisable reason, he cared what Bailey had to say. Bailey drank more wine to get through the knot in his stomach that he wasn’t paying attention to.

They made their way through the entire menu together, polishing off more than Bailey had expected they might, given the sheer volume of food that had arrived. Raven declared his favorite to be the seaweed salad, which had come dusted with so much chili, Bailey hadn’t managed more than a single bite. He affirmed, however, that Bailey had been right about the ravioli. “You know all the good places,” Raven said with a little smile.

“I know a lot of good things,” Bailey answered, taking a sip from his wine glass. “Like their goat cheese ice cream.” Raven made an expression so skeptical that Bailey couldn’t help laughing. “It’s amazing, I promise. Go have a seat on the couch. I’ll bring you some.”

As Raven went to sit, Bailey got out a single bowl and replated the ice cream from the plain plastic container it had arrived in. He took a little honey from the cabinet and drizzled it across the top, then put a scoop of fig jam on the side. There, he hadn’t scored big on presentation with the actual dinner, but he could bring it home with this.

Raven was sitting on one side of the couch, socked feet drawn up underneath him. Bailey sat down not at the other end of the couch, but at the center, close enough that his knee and Raven’s bumped against one another. He handed Raven the bowl and one of the spoons. “Let me know what you think,” Bailey said with a wink.

There was more than a little hesitation in the way Raven brought the spoon to his mouth, but when his lips closed over it, he sighed. “You win. That’s amazing.”

“Isn’t it?” Bailey took his own spoon and dug in, smiling as the richness hit his tongue. “Sometimes in summer they make it with fresh peaches. But in the winter, they serve it plain, so I thought I’d embellish a little.”

“I like it,” Raven said, going for another spoonful. “I like your embellishments.”

With a little smirk, Bailey took another bite. He closed his eyes with pleasure and let the spoon slip slowly from between his lips, knowing full well that Raven was watching. That was the idea, after all. He was therefore gratified to open his eyes and find a slight pinkness across Raven’s cheeks.

Together, they finished the ice cream. Bailey put the empty bowl and spoons on the coffee table, but did not retreat from his chosen space on the couch. In fact, he moved a little closer, smirking as he saw the adam’s apple in Raven’s throat give a telltale bob. “I’ve been thinking about what you said,” Bailey said softly. “Last time we were both here, I mean.”

Raven swallowed hard again. There was no chance he’d missed Bailey’s meaning. “Oh.” Raven looked down at his hands, which he’d folded together in his lap. “I don’t want you to be upset.”

“I’m not upset.” Bailey reached for Raven’s clasped hands and slipped his fingers into the warm space between them, a gesture somewhere between affectionate and lewd. “You’re very sweet. And I know you understand why, no matter what you or I feel, there’s something standing between us.”

With a little sigh, Raven nodded. Even if he’d wanted to forget, Haley’s presence loomed largest of all in his own home. It was his much more than it was Bailey’s. Surely even Raven could feel that. “I can wait,” Raven promised as he tightened his grip ever so slightly around Bailey’s hand.

“Maybe you can,” Bailey agreed, his voice a murmur such that even this close, Raven had to lean in slightly to hear him. “But do you really want to?”

Raven didn’t need to say anything. The answer was clear.

Bailey moved in closer, leaning well into Raven’s personal space. He put his cheek next to Raven’s, feeling the harsh little puffs of Raven’s breathing. Raven was trembling, a bit like a caught animal. He wouldn’t bite, though. Of that, Bailey was sure. “I want you,” Bailey whispered against Raven’s ear, enjoying the little sound that warbled out from Raven’s throat. “And I think you want me too. Am I right?”

Raven’s nod this time was more controlled, more cautious, as though this were a tightrope, where the smallest wrong decision might send him plummeting to the earth below. But Raven wouldn’t lie, not even by omission. It wasn’t in his nature.

Bailey let his hand slip from Raven’s grip, then brought it down to rest across Raven’s thigh. “We could do this as friends. Sometimes I wind up in bed with my friends, and we have a good time.” Bailey neglected to note that that hadn’t happened in several lifetimes, back before the effort had begun to outweigh the returns. “But I don’t think that’s what you want, do you?”

“No,” Raven admitted, his voice little more than breath. Of course not. He had a romantic little heart in his chest, and it was hammering now like an overworked engine.

It was even easier this time to kiss Raven deliberately, to bring their mouths together not by accident but with intent. Raven’s mouth was sweet — literally, in fact, with the hints of ice cream and honey lingering on his lips. It made Bailey want to press in and devour him. He leaned in closer, then closed his teeth ever so gently around Raven’s lower lip, giving it a pointed little nip. He was gratified to feel Raven’s hand tighten around Bailey’s forearm as though for balance. There, that was the right reaction. It was time for the next step.

“Then why not help me get free?” Bailey asked, sliding his hand up Raven’s thigh toward his hip. “We both know you know how to do it. You’re the only one who can cut me loose from him.”

It was like throwing a switch. Raven’s entire body language changed, going from anxious but willing, straight into red-alert territory. He sat upright on the couch and moved back from Bailey as far as the arm of the couch would let him go. He even placed his hand on the center of Bailey’s chest and shoved him back, far enough away that Bailey could now see the dark circles of Raven’s eyes gone wide with horror. “What are you doing?”

That wasn’t a question Bailey was prepared to answer. “If we both want–“

“No!” Raven cried, sounding aghast. “I said no and I mean no!”

“Why not?” Bailey asked. Now that his attempts had failed, his air of seduction was fading into irritation.

Raven swore beneath his breath and raked his fingers back through his hair, tearing loose the tie that had bound his various braids and locs atop his head. They spilled down around his face. His expression was so saturated with hurt, Bailey could barely look at it. “Because it will destroy you both!” Raven said at last.

The words hit Bailey like a physical blow. He sat back on the couch, staring at Raven but not understanding.

“You are here, alive, now, because of each other! Don’t you get that? Has nothing I’ve said to you stuck?” Raven slammed his fist angrily against his own thigh. “We are all here only because of each other, and that’s a thousand times truer for the two of you! If I cut you apart? If I do it and somehow don’t manage to undo all of reality in the process? I’d still undo both of you. You would both die. Not physically, not right that second, maybe. But there’d be no coming back next time around. For either of you.”

A cold sheen of sweat had broken out all over Bailey’s body. He’d been prepared for some eventuality like that — and if he were being honest, he’d have to admit that he’d been looking forward to it, at least a little bit. The quiet of nonexistence, the peace of permanent amnesia? Hell, after all this time, that sounded like a relief. All the baggage of who he’d been, all the guilt of what he’d done and hadn’t done, gone? Perfect. Even if, as Raven had theorized, the effects of it would dog him into his next life, so what? He wouldn’t remember. He’d be free.

But he hadn’t, not for a second, considered the possibility that he might take Haley down with him. It was one thing to contemplate one’s own end. It was quite another to plot a murder-suicide.

And that was even without taking into account the slow-dawning reality of just what a horrible thing he’d done to Raven.

Raven swore again, this time a complicated blasphemy Bailey couldn’t begin to translate. “I can’t believe you,” he said. Fuck, there was so much pain in his voice, Bailey didn’t even want to hear him continue. But of course he did, because he was Raven, and there were true things left to say. “I can’t fucking believe you. I thought we were friends.”

“We are,” Bailey protested weakly.

“Friends don’t do this!” Raven rubbed the heels of his hands across his eyes, smearing the dark makeup down his cheeks. “You think I don’t know you’re tied to him? That whatever you feel about me, it won’t replace that? I know that! I knew that about you before I even knew you!” Screwing up his face as though physically pained, Raven pressed one of his clenched fists to his lips. “But you don’t even love me. You just hate him.”

What could Bailey say? That it wasn’t true? He didn’t even know if it was or not. He felt seasick. He felt light-headed. He tried to stand, but didn’t make it more than an inch off the couch before his knees failed him and he sat down hard again.

“I have to — I have to go.” Raven crossed the apartment to the elevator and slammed his palm against the call button. He held it there, bent over and breathing so hard his shoulders shook.

“Raven–” Bailey began. He could barely turn his body enough to look back over the couch at Raven.

“No.” Raven shook his head. “Offer me, threaten me, I don’t care. No. Figure out how to do it on your own, fine. Find someone else, fine. But it won’t be me.”

Bailey swallowed hard. “I didn’t know.”

“You should have!” shouted Raven, sounding on the verge of tears. He pounded his fist against the panel just above the call button. “If you’d thought about it at all, you should have known. But instead you…”

Raven didn’t need to finish the sentence. They both knew its ending.

When the elevator opened, Raven stormed into the carriage. Bailey could only watch helplessly as the door slid shut again between them seconds later, taking Raven with it. He didn’t even look back at Bailey, not once.

Bailey stared at the elevator a long time after, forcing his breathing to come slow and even. His phone screen had remained blank, though, and the elevator door did not open again. The quiet that hung in the apartment felt heavy, every inch of its weight telling Bailey that Raven was not coming back.

Well, good.

Bailey surprised himself by that thought. Good? In what possible universe was that good?

In the universe where it would be better for Raven in the long term, he told himself. There had been between them the problem of Raven’s crush. Well, he’d just dealt with that problem now, hadn’t he? And all for the low price of making Raven hate him forever.

Still, it was better for Raven. It would hurt now, and hurt like hell, but then he’d get over it. And at least no one could accuse him leading Raven on any longer. No, now Raven knew exactly what Bailey was and how he worked. So of course he’d left. Better to realize it now than years from now. Better to cry a little, and clear Bailey out of his system, and move on. It’d be like healing after surgery. A little time, a little bed rest, and you’d barely be able to see the scar.

Bailey was surprised to find how dry-eyed he was. He’d been so emotional lately. It had been a real problem. He’d made a fool of himself by letting his feelings — about both Raven and Haley — run away with him. God, he was a needy bitch. Haley had been right. It was time to put a stop to it. 

He just needed to get over himself. They all needed to get over themselves. Well, not Haley. Haley had long been over everything, Bailey included. Now Raven just needed to join him. Maybe they could make a little two-person club, a confederation of people who had been dumb enough somewhere in their pasts to think they’d been in love with him. They could get matching jackets. A secret handshake. Code words to use when they talked about what a loser Bailey had been, and how much better off they were without him.

He was laughing. He was hyperventilating. He clung to the back of the couch so hard, the pressure of his fingers ripped the upholstery.

It had been Raven’s fault for assuming he’d known. Hadn’t it? Raven hadn’t wanted to discuss it. He could just have said that it would be dangerous for everyone involved, and not in the hyperbolic way that talk of destroying the universe itself seemed. He could have said something other than just “no”. He could have explained it all to Bailey, calmly, and Bailey would just have let it go.

No. He wouldn’t have let it go. All an explanation would have done would have been to delay this inevitable moment. No matter where they’d started out, they always would have ended up here. That was just the kind of disaster Bailey was. That kind of disappointment.

So it was good. It was a good choice he’d made. Get it over with. Light the fuse so no one would be afraid of the bomb anymore. Nobody worried about sinking a ship already at the bottom of the sea. And so on and so forth.

He needed another drink, but the wine was all the way over there. He’d get up and get it in a minute, and he’d drink it. Then he’d drink another bottle. Then, if he was still alive, he’d drink another bottle after that. And somewhere in the midst of all of it, he’d stop being such a needy bitch. Or at least he’d stop making his needy bitchness anyone else’s problem. Haley was right. He should go find himself.

Except that was the problem, wasn’t it? He’d found himself so keenly, he couldn’t stop. Every lifetime, he’d just find himself again. No matter whose eyes he looked into in the mirror, he’d always know exactly who was staring back.

 

~*~

 

“God fuck me,” said a voice so disappointed and loud, it could only have been Jo’s. “Where the fuck are you, asshole?”

Bailey made a grunt intended to indicate I’m here in my bedroom. He wasn’t sure how well it translated.

There were noises in the main part of the apartment, more than a single person would make. Bailey supposed he could understand their general tone — after all, he hadn’t cleaned up after dinner with Raven, and that had been … what, yesterday? Maybe the day before? What time was it, anyway? Bailey’s bedroom was mostly an interior room, and what few shades he had were drawn. The clock by his bedside read 7:19, but honestly, that could have meant anything.

A long enough pause followed that Bailey wondered if Jo maybe hadn’t heard his initial response. Then Bailey heard a sound — an ominous click-click tapping noise. It was the slow, punctuated walk of a tall woman wearing high heels. And it was coming his way.

A person-shaped shadow fell across his doorway. “Jo?” Bailey mumbled, too bleary-eyed to make a clear identification.

“Oh no, baby. Jo tried. It’s my turn now.”

The mere tone of Winnie’s voice replaced all the blood in Bailey’s veins with ice water. He realized he was naked and made a halfhearted attempt to drag the sheet over his unwashed, unshaven carcass. Sure, he had nothing Winnie hadn’t seen before, but it was only polite. She was, after all, a guest in his house, if an uninvited one.

The edge of the bed sagged a little as Winnie sat on it. She wore a high turtleneck sweater and skinny jeans, which was about as casual as she ever got; likewise, her long hair was tied back in a simple bun at the nape of her neck. Her lipstick was so bright red and crisply perfect that Bailey could tell she’d been angry when she’d applied it. “Jo is cleaning up your filthy hovel,” Winnie said with a frosty smile, “and texting both Haley and Raven to tell them you are not dead. Are you dead?” She poked him in his side.

Bailey couldn’t give her a definitive up-or-down on that. His mouth tasted like garbage now, the taste of ice cream having long since faded from his lips. He grunted and grabbed a pillow, trying to hide his face beneath it.

Winnie promptly yanked it from his hands and threw it to the far side of the bed. “Oh no. No, no, no. We are having this talk.”

“Don’t … don’t yell at me,” Bailey goaned miserably. “I feel like shit already. Don’t yell at me.”

“You’re in luck. I do not have to so much as raise my voice to tell you what an ass you’ve been.” Winnie folded her arms across her chest. “And I’m sure I don’t even know the half of it, because we’ve only gotten the story from Raven, who has managed to go clearly out of his way to portray you in the least bad light possible, and Haley, who has some magical ability to forget most of the bad things that happen to him five minutes after they’re over. Must be nice,” she added with a wistful sigh.

Bailey struggled to right himself and reached for the glass of water he’d put beside the bed. It was empty. He must have drunk it during the night. How long ago had he filled it? He hadn’t yet deduced what day of the week it was, and by this point, he was afraid to ask.

The cogs in his brain were slowly beginning to grind back into operation, though, as Bailey slowly began to realize why Jo had texts from both Haley and Raven to return. “They didn’t need to call you,” Bailey mumbled.

“You’re right. They didn’t need to.” Winnie snorted. “So the fact that they did should say something for the both of them.”

Groaning, Bailey ran his hands across his face. The skin beneath his eyes was puffy and tender, and he couldn’t tell if he’d cut his lip on something or if it had just cracked from dehydration. The last time he’d thought about his lips, he’d been kissing Raven. Now was not an improvement on then.

Winnie watched him through narrowed eyes. “I’m not going to get into whatever’s going on with you and Haley,” she said after a minute. “Because that is old, and because you never asked. I used to think you two each gave as good as you got. I’m starting to suspect I don’t know the half of it.”

Bailey snorted, then wished he hadn’t for how much it made his head ache. “He just wanted you to come look at me so I don’t die, because if I do, it cuts his movie career short,” Bailey said, hating himself for saying it even as he heard the words come out of his mouth. Whether or not they were true, they felt good to say and terrible to have said. “He’s invested in keeping me alive. They both are. I’m Haley’s life support. I’m Raven’s … some kind of specimen. His ticket to scientific legitimacy. Proof he was right all along. His big fucking I-told-you-so.”

Winnie’s jaw tightened as he spoke, until her pretty anger lipstick had all but disappeared into the severe fold of her frown. “If I thought you actually believed what you were saying, I would slap the words right out of your mouth.”

With a sigh, Bailey crumpled. No, he didn’t believe it. He wanted to believe it. He’d tried very hard to believe it, because believing it absolved him of his bad behavior. He wasn’t quite ready to come to terms with the level of his responsibility for his own state.

“You are behaving like a child,” Winnie said. “And normally my solution with children is to leave them alone until they become somebody else’s problem. Except that you have become a problem for someone I care about very much. That makes you my problem.”

Bailey drew his legs up to his chest as much as he could without crushing his general stomach area, which was very tender. He couldn’t pinpoint the last time he’d put something on it that wasn’t a liquid. He couldn’t entertain the idea of eating anything solid, either. “I know,” he sighed, hoping it would placate her.

It did not. “Calling you the ‘Peacemaker’ is all kinds of bullshit. They should recategorize you as the Passive-Aggressivist.” Winnie paused, then hummed thoughtfully. “We’ll workshop that. My point is, you don’t make peace. You just make things not your fault.”

That wasn’t true, Bailey wanted to say. He did make peace, all the time. That was his entire cosmic draw, after all: to offset the Warlord’s dreams of conquer and catastrophe. He could open a history book and literally point to places where he could say, look, I know that was bad, but without me it would have been so much worse.

Not that Haley had needed that kind of check in a long time, of course. The world of movie-making was cutthroat, but no one’s throats got literally cut. And before him, Caryn had run her business empire with a firm hand, but had never gone to war outside of a boardroom. Before that, well, it had been nearly five centuries before Haley had been anywhere near a situation where he had real life-or-death power over people. As the stakes had gotten lower, he’d needed Bailey at his side less and less. But that wasn’t passive-aggressive. That was just the truth.

Winnie poked him in the side again. “Are you listening?”

Bailey nodded. “I’m listening.”

“Then hear me,” Winnie said. She leaned forward, fixing him with eye contact so fierce he could almost have reached out and grabbed it. “You fucked up. You fucked up big. You have to say you’re sorry. I am here to make sure you mean it.”

“I am sorry,” Bailey mumbled into his folded arms.

“No. You feel bad about what happened. But you’re not taking any steps to keep from making it happen again. Which means it will happen again. Maybe not to Raven, if he’s smart enough to stay away. Definitely to Haley, given the nature of your relationship. Absolutely to someone else, whatever fool happens to stumble into your self-destructive path. Not to me, and not to Jo. We’re smarter than that. We love you, baby, but if it comes to that, you will not be the first beloved person in our lives we’ve cut loose, and you will not be the last.”

Bailey didn’t doubt it. “So what do–” He took a deep breath and held it, trying to formulate his question as Winnie waited, quiet and patient. “What am I supposed to do? I’m stuck.”

Winnie raised an eyebrow. “Are you?”

Of course he was. He was stuck on a metaphysical level, entangled forever with someone whose very existence depended on him, and vice versa. More pertinently, though, he was stuck on a social level. He was one of a very small, very recognizable group of people. His whole life, present and past, had been thoroughly documented from the moment he’d been identified as a Reincarnate. There were entire websites dedicated to collecting and discussing pictures of him. His face literally decorated magazine covers about once a month. His reputation preceded him everywhere.

“I was trying not to be,” Bailey pointed out, though he wasn’t sure how much of the substance of Raven and Bailey’s falling-out she’d been privy to. “All I learned is that I’m more stuck than I even thought I was before.”

With a sigh, Winnie brushed a lock of hair from his forehead. “What my psychiatrist told me right as I was starting to transition for real was that there’s things we can change and things we can’t. And I know that seems obvious,” she said, before Bailey could tell her to spare the quippy self-help talk, “but I think you’ve lost all sense of can and can’t. Because it’s going to be hard, and you don’t want to do it. You just want to stay all balled-up and miserable, because at least you can pretend by doing nothing that all your misery is someone else’s fault.”

Bailey clenched his jaw so tight that his face began to hurt. “What am I supposed to do, then?” he asked again.

Winnie gave a little shrug. “How about you start with a shower and lunch, and we see what happens next?”

On hearing her simple suggestion, Bailey realized that he’d been braced to have her outline some colossal, life-altering, twenty-point plan for self-improvement, something that would take him a decade to implement and that he’d probably just give up on halfway. By contrast, a shower and lunch seemed … well, if not reasonable then at least achievable. He could do that.

“Good.” Winnie gave him a little pat on the shoulder, then stood. “You know what’s eating you right now is that I didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. You have just been trying your hardest not to know it. You want to keep not knowing it, that’s your choice. But now you can’t pretend it isn’t.” With that, she walked out of the room, the sharp tapping of her heels providing the perfect punctuation to her sentence.

Once in the shower, Bailey just sat down on the tile floor and let the hot water rain down over him. His damp hair ran down his face, nearly into his eyes. He needed a haircut. Taking care of a body was hard. Maybe it was harder for Reincarnates than it was for most people, given how temporary Reincarnates knew their assignments were. Everything was so impermanent. The good things, the bad things — everything washed away.

Except it didn’t. Wasn’t that Raven’s idea, anyway? That nothing gone was gone? It sounded absurd when Bailey put it like that, another little quippy self-help thing that people said when they didn’t have anything better to say. But Raven not only meant it, not only had written an entire book about it, but he’d staked his whole career on the idea — and lost the career, and still not given up the idea. That meant he was either very foolish or very certain. Or both, he might be both. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t right.

So they were all stuck, then. Everyone was stuck in the current of what had come before them, both riding and creating the inertia of what would be for those who came after. That was a depressing thought, that the same chains he wore, everyone wore. He just had the privilege of knowing.

Well, that was all well and good, but he still needed a haircut. Bailey poured some shampoo into his hands, then lathered up his hair, sighing as he let his fingernails scritch across his scalp. There were little pleasures like that, like hot water, like good ice cream, like the lights in the city at night, like soft white fur, like the smell of clean sweat and dark wood. Even the ones that weren’t at hand now, Bailey could call to mind. They were still with him, as long as he was there to keep them.

Nearly an hour later, Bailey emerged from the bedroom into the main room of the apartment. Jo and Winnie were sitting at the dining table, talking in hushed voices, and they turned and looked as they saw him walk in. Surprise was evident on their faces; given the way Winnie had found him, Bailey imagined they’d expected to see him emerge in a much sorrier state.

Instead, Bailey had showered off all the filth he’d accumulated lying in bed. He’d shaved and moisturized. He’d brushed his teeth, twice, and gargled with mouthwash. He’d trimmed his nails. He’d combed back his hair with oil. He’d gotten into a clean pair of silk pajamas and a dressing-gown. He’d had to sit down several times in the process until the room stopped spinning, but he’d powered his way through. Now, he stood barefoot in the middle of an apartment he’d never chosen, at the center of a life he’d let someone else make for him, and took a deep breath.

“I need to do something,” he said, and let out a shaky sigh of relief as both of them smiled.

 

~*~

 

Five minutes before closing, Bailey walked into the Crystal Shop. He’d thought he’d been nervous before having Raven over to dinner. He’d had no idea.

Raven glanced up first at the sound of the front door’s bell, then did an outright double-take. He froze in place behind the counter, watching Bailey with a prey animal’s cautious stare. Bailey knew he had every right; that was why he’d chosen the store, after all, instead of waiting until Raven was back home. It wasn’t neutral ground, but it was the closest they had between them.

Keeping the distance of the shop between them, Bailey held up his hands. He wanted to be drunk for this, so drunk, but he was achingly sober. “Let me say three things and I’ll leave,” Bailey said. “Is that okay?”

After a moment’s pause, Raven gave a slow nod. That much, then. Anything further would have to be renegotiated.

“One,” Bailey said, grateful that he’d outlined this in advance, “I was completely in the wrong the other night. That was entirely my fault. It was my shitty behavior, and I shouldn’t have done it. I could try to make excuses or explain what I was thinking, but I’m not going to. I was, full-stop, wrong. I hurt you. I wish I hadn’t.”

Raven’s only response was another slow nod. He hadn’t accepted the apology yet, but he’d heard it.

“Two, I won’t ask you about separating us again. I won’t try to get someone else to. It was a cheap and shitty solution I latched onto because I thought it would be easy. It’s done, it’s off the table. Because it wouldn’t just be us, would it? Him and me, I mean. If we did it, we’d be removing ourselves from everyone else. Including you.”

This time, Raven’s nod was not just an affirmation that he’d heard. Yes, that would be the case. Bailey had been so focused on the idea of being lashed to his soulmate that he’d missed what Raven had been trying to tell him all along.

With a long sigh, Bailey put his hands into his pockets. “Three, I’m going to go.”

“Go?” Raven asked, his voice soft with surprise. “Go where?”

“I don’t know,” Bailey answered, grinning as he felt tears prickle at the corners of his eyes. This was the hard one; this was the one he had to get through. “Private island, maybe? That sounded good. Or a little mountain village where there’s no internet. Or maybe an apartment in a faraway city, someday in the future when I’ve gotten old enough that no one recognizes me on the street anymore.” He exhaled through pursed lips. “I don’t know, what’s the answer most likely to convince you to come with me?”

Raven’s eyes went wide; Bailey could see his hands fisting in the sleeves of his cardigan. “Me?”

Bailey swallowed hard. Great, he was actually crying now. He had to stop doing that; Raven would think he cried all the time, when really, he’d done it more since meeting Raven than he had in his past several lifetimes combined. “So, um.” Bailey took a deep breath and held it until he could speak again. “In the interests of full disclosure, and because I’m been just a complete asshole about it up until now, I, uh … I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you too? And, um.” He drew the sleeve of his coat across his face. “I should have said that a while ago.”

“You should’ve led with that,” Raven said, his tone matter-of-fact as ever.

That made Bailey laugh, though with the tears it all came out sort of a snotty mess. “Yeah, I should have, shouldn’t I? So!” He clapped his hands together, as though rallying a small crowd to something far more enjoyable than this. “I am going to leave, and I would like you to come with me. To consider coming with me. You don’t have to right now. Or ever. But — and I’m going to be really selfish here for a minute — my world is a better place with you in it, and I’m a better person when you’re around. And I kind of feel like I haven’t gotten to make a lot of choices in my life, especially about this kind of thing. But I want to choose this. I want to choose having you. I’m making the choice to be in love with you. If that’s worth anything now. And I understand if it isn’t. But I hope it is.” With a great sigh of relief, Bailey shrugged and turned for the door. “Okay. That was it. Thank you. I’ll let you close up now.”

“Wait.”

The word made Bailey’s heart ring like a bell. He paused, his fingers perched on the door handle, holding his breath.

Raven walked out from behind the counter, passing his way through the shop displays. He looked smaller, somehow — not diminished so much as in retreat. Had he been eating? The smoky smudges around his eyes had been painted there, but the hollows they highlighted were real. His posture was tense, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. Nevertheless, he approached bravely. “Lock the door.”

Obedient as ever, Bailey turned the deadbolt that secured the shop’s front door. He even turned the OPEN sign to CLOSED for good measure.

Raven took a deep breath, folding his arms across his chest. “You’re an asshole.”

True though it undeniably was, the assessment still stung, delivered straight from Raven’s lips. “Yeah,” Bailey agreed, running his hand across his hair.

“Because you really are. You’re really an asshole.” Raven gave a series of emphatic nods, like he was trying to drive home a point in a lecture. “So you get to love me, or you get to treat me like an asshole. But you don’t get to do both. One doesn’t cover for the other. You cannot do anything like that ever again. If you do, I will leave.”

It was an unexpected relief to hear Raven say it so plainly — not, of course, that Bailey had ever expected anything but plain, honest talk from Raven. This, however, was different. There had been too many years between him and Haley of forcing themselves to believe that soulmates understood one another so well, there was no need for conversations like this. Haley had trampled on the boundaries of Bailey’s comfort for centuries because Bailey had let him, and Bailey had to wonder how much he’d done in kind. Threats about leaving would have been useless, empty. No matter which one of them left, they couldn’t run one from one another.

But here was Raven, drawing a line in the sand. Both the message and the consequences came through loud and clear. It felt like a millstone removed from Bailey’s neck. “I promise,” Bailey said.

Raven drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Bailey echoed, all but unable to believe his ears. “Okay like … you’ll come with me?”

“Okay like I’ll think about it,” Raven said. His body language was still stiff, but his expression had softened a telltale fraction.

Bailey bit his lower lip. “Just like that?”

“What do you mean?”

In fact, Bailey had been braced for exactly that. First and foremost, he’d expected to walk out of the Crystal Shop and never see Raven again, beyond the jacket photos of any future books Raven published. In the slim chance that Raven hadn’t decided to hold his bad behavior against him forever, Bailey had at least been prepared for necessary declarations, contracts, even penitent performances to prove his sincerity. “Shouldn’t I have to do something?”

Raven shrugged. “You can come feed the ferret for me.”

That was how Bailey found himself waiting on a stool by the interior stairs while Raven did the necessary tasks of closing the shop for the night. More than once, Bailey opened his mouth to make some small talk, only to find that he had nothing to say. He wasn’t even entirely sure he remembered how words worked. Ten minutes previous, he’d walked in the front door expecting that what would follow would bring this chapter of his life to a close. Now he found himself still tightly in it, Bailey didn’t quite know what to do.

So instead, Bailey watched Raven. On the surface, he looked calm, going through the dispassionate motions of the end of a small-business owner’s day. Bailey, however, had to bite back a smile and pretend not to notice as he saw Raven drop his keys twice, then accidentally shut his finger in the cash register drawer. It felt good, not to be the only disaster in the room. Sure, he held the lion’s share of it, but he hadn’t quite cornered the market.

Despite those nervous missteps, all Bailey could think was how lovely Raven was. Bailey had grown accustomed over his first few shared lifetimes to a flexibility of appetite — he would meet his soulmate, and whatever his soulmate’s body looked like, that was what Bailey would appreciate. By this point, he could hardly think of many physicalities either he or Haley hadn’t embodied at some point. He’d learned, however, that greater awareness of this attitude made his compliments about beauty come off as somewhat insincere, as though, given enough time, he could be attracted to anything.

And maybe that was true. But it didn’t make Raven any less worthy of being stared at. In fact, Bailey didn’t even realize that he’d been doing so with a dreamy little smile on his face until Raven turned around and caught him. “What?” Raven asked, shrinking back self-consciously.

Bailey’s smile only broadened. “You.”

Raven’s eyebrow arched. “What about me?”

“Just…” Bailey sighed. “You.”

“I’m still a little mad at you.”

Only a little mad was better than Bailey could have hoped for. “That’s okay.”

“Okay.” Raven tapped the buttons on store’s alarm system control panel, then pointed to the stairs. “We have thirty seconds.”

By the time Bailey realized what Raven was talking about, there were twenty-five seconds left. He hopped off the stool and scurried up the stairs, with Raven right behind him. They made it with a few seconds to spare; Raven got the door closed and locked just before the alarm system beeped to acknowledge that it was armed.

The landing at the top was barely big enough to hold more than one person. It led to three doors: the one downstairs to the shop, the one to Raven’s apartment, and the one to the outside entrance. Bailey scooted as far out of the way as he could, letting Raven by to unlock the middle door. That done, Raven stepped in and Bailey followed.

Raven’s apartment had always been cluttered every time Bailey had been in it before, and it had gotten no more or less so in the interim. However, Bailey couldn’t help noticing more than a few dishes sitting unwashed in the sink, and a pile of empty takeout containers testing the garbage can’s capacity. He hadn’t been outright worried about Raven in the week or so since they’d last seen one another; he knew that Jo and Winnie had been checking in on him at regular intervals. But still, he could see the frayed edges of Raven’s life where Bailey’s actions had taken a toll on him. The shame twisted his guts. No, he would never do anything like that again. He couldn’t live with himself if he did. 

“Do you want to order dinner?” Bailey asked, or tried to ask. He found his mouth wasn’t moving where he wanted it to, and that was because Raven’s mouth was against it. He wasn’t having any problems standing up, because his back was completely supported by a wall, because Raven had pushed him up against it. Despite his smaller size, Raven had Bailey pinned there, all but climbing Bailey like a tree. Raven’s hands were on either side of Bailey’s face, holding him tight as Raven kissed him with a fire Bailey hadn’t known he’d possessed. There were teeth involved.

Suddenly, Raven pulled back from the kiss, keeping their faces close. He was breathing heavily through his swollen, parted lips, and there was a hungry look in his eyes Bailey had never seen before. He dropped his hands from Bailey’s face to his lapels, grabbing great fistfuls of the soft woolen coat in his hands. He looked as though he might be trying to decide whether to kiss Bailey or throttle him. As Bailey’s luck, the kiss won out as Raven brought their lips together again.

This was no gentle seduction, no careful brush of lips over ice cream. Raven was kissing Bailey because he couldn’t imagine not kissing Bailey. He was clumsy and inelegant about it, but only because his desire for Bailey outweighed his skill. Bailey could not have cared less, though. He’d had skill. What he wanted was someone to want him. In Raven, he had as much of that as he could handle.

Using Raven’s grip, Bailey pushed forward a little, letting his coat slip off his shoulders and to the floor. It was a familiar dance with a new partner, and all the more exciting for it. Without Bailey’s coat to hold, Raven wrapped his arms around Bailey’s chest, gripping the fabric across Bailey’s back. Raven just needed something to hold to — a perch, as it were. Bailey could be that for him. He could be that and a whole lot more.

Bailey brought his hand up to cup Raven’s cheek, then drew back just enough that he could speak. “Can we take this to your bedroom?” Bailey asked with a breathy little smile.

Raven pressed his lips together and lowered his gaze. Now that his beautiful burst of confidence had burned through him, he seemed hesitant again. “I didn’t–” He took a deep breath, and as he let it go, he deliberately unclenched his hands from Bailey’s shirt. “I didn’t know if you’d want this if I’m not–“

Now it was Raven’s turn to leave his sentence unfinished, because Bailey was kissing him, just in case Raven had somehow missed Bailey’s interest in that part. “I want it,” Bailey promised against Raven’s mouth. “I always wanted it.”

Raven whimpered out a little acknowledgment. Bailey chose to interpret it as an affirmation both of Bailey’s desire and of the suggestion to move things to the bedroom, so he reached down and grabbed Raven’s hands in his own. “Come on,” Bailey said, tugging Raven down the apartment’s single hallway. “You can give me the tour.”

Raven’s room was exactly what Bailey had expected — clean but cluttered, filled with equipment instead of boxes. A tall, tiered ferret cage took up a large part of the room’s free space, half-blocking the single exterior window. When the door opened, the ferret lifted her head from her nest on the top floor.

Seeing her made Raven’s face fall a little. “I, um … I should give her dinner.”

“Go ahead,” Bailey said. He looked at Raven with a smile as he sat down on the edge of the room’s single unmade bed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Raven looked at him hard for a moment, as though trying to convince himself that this was, in fact, the truth of the situation. Then he took a deep breath and went back toward the kitchen.

Alone in Raven’s bedroom with the ferret, Bailey looked at her. She looked back at him through the wire mesh of the cage, appearing curious but not displeased that her favorite jungle gym was now in her space. Bailey hoped she wasn’t easily scandalized. One never could tell with mustelids.

A moment later, Raven returned with a little container of what looked — and smelled — like raw meat. “Ferrets are obligate carnivores,” Raven said as he opened one of the top hatches on the cage. The ferret wriggled her way right up to the platform, ears twitching with eager glee. “And they have very high metabolisms, so they eat every four hours. And she has a feeder set up, but she’s used to getting her raw food in the evenings, so I just need to–“

“It’s fine,” Bailey interrupted, laughing. “It really is. You don’t have to apologize for wanting to take care of someone.”

With a sheepish little nod, Raven reached inside the cage and scritched behind the ears of the ferret, who was now merrily chowing down on her feast. “We have slightly incompatible diets.” The ferret paused a moment in her chewing to give his fingers a nuzzle of what looked like gratitude — though again, one could never tell with mustelids. “I promise her that means I’m never going eat her food, but I don’t think she believes me.”

Bailey couldn’t keep the smile from his face as he listened to Raven’s nervous babble. It wasn’t that he was feeling any glee at having thrown Raven so far off-kilter, so much as that he was pleased to see that the tension he felt knotting his stomach wasn’t his alone. He could try to play it cool, but he insides hadn’t stopped spinning since he’d walked into the Crystal Shop.

After another minute, Raven upended the contents of the container into a gory little pile on the enclosure’s platform. The ferret all but pounced on it, which let Raven snatch the empty container and close the cage. “I’d just leave it in there,” Raven explained, “but then she takes it and bangs it against the bars, and I have to fight to get it back from her, and … I don’t want that. Right now, or ever.” The thought of having sex interrupted by a ferret’s jailhouse percussion was amusing, but Bailey could see the logic. “And now, I’m going to go wash my hands, because…”

“I appreciate that,” Bailey said, knowing where he wanted Raven’s hands to go next, and also knowing that he didn’t want raw meat residue in any of those places.

The apartment’s single bathroom was just across the hall from the bedroom, and that was where Raven went next. Left alone (well, mostly alone, but the ferret was distracted now) in Raven’s bedroom, Bailey turned to the important things: namely, the drawers of Raven’s bedside table. Both were as cluttered as he’d come to expect from the rest of Raven’s apartment. The slightly larger bottom drawer contained a stack of notebooks, though lifting the very corner of one revealed that they were written in modern Keric, meaning that Bailey would have to improve his language skills before he could even snoop by accident. They seemed old enough that whatever they were, Raven had kept them with him for a while.

The top drawer, however, had much more immediately pertinent finds. There were the usual pieces of personal care detritus that tended to accumulate in places like those, along with several bottles of black nail polish, a few carved stone figures, a prayer book, and a half-burned votive candle. Next to them was a jelly-like tube Bailey didn’t recognize at first — not, that was, until he connected it to the bottle of lubricant right beside it.

Sex technologies never failed to amaze Bailey. He hadn’t been a virgin since long back long before there had been much innovation in that field beyond what bodies themselves could do when put together. This had made certain combinations of physical attributes a little trickier than others, and though it had never stopped him and Haley, it had on occasion slowed them down.

He didn’t want to be slowed down right now. In fact, with all the tension and misery he’d been harboring in his body for the last week or so, Bailey knew exactly what he needed.

Hearing the water in the bathroom sink turn off, Bailey put the items back and shut the drawer. Instead, he folded his hands in his lap, looking the picture of innocence as Raven stepped into the doorway. Bailey held up a single finger and beckoned Raven close.

Raven crossed the space between them and sat down on the bed next to Bailey. He pressed his lips together and took a deep breath before looking up to meet Bailey’s gaze. “I’ve never–” Raven exhaled hard. “This. Beyond what we’ve done already. I haven’t.”

Though he was surprised to hear this, Bailey supposed he could understand. Raven was absolutely beautiful, but at the same time, everything he’d said about his life painted the picture of a man always slightly out of place. He’d been the teenager in his college classes, the youngster in his graduate program, and then an adult in a city halfway around the world from where he’d grown up — and an introvert on top of all of that, which was hardly the best combination for finding partners. 

More than that, Raven was a romantic. He’d turned down an eager and willing Bailey not because he hadn’t wanted to, but because he’d wanted something more. Bailey just hoped like hell he could make the wait worth it.

“Do you trust me?” asked Bailey, putting one of his hands on Raven’s thigh.

Raven swallowed hard, but nodded.

“Good.” Bailey leaned in closer, nuzzling Raven’s cheek. “You can always tell me to stop, and I will. But otherwise, I want you to trust me.”

“Okay,” Raven promised, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

Bailey reached for Raven’s hands and brought them together to his lips, kissing the backs of Raven’s knuckles. Then he leaned in and kissed Raven hard, using his weight and their respective positions to press Raven back against the bed. Bailey wanted to get his hands all over the beauty beneath him, so he went for the hems of Raven’s shirts, pushing them up away from Raven’s bare belly. Raven squirmed a little as Bailey’s cool fingertips settled against his skin, but not so much that he stopped kissing Bailey.

It was short work to get Raven out of his clothes; though he wore multiple layers, those tended to come and go as layers. Bailey ran his hands up Raven’s sides, bringing Raven’s shirts with them until Raven’s middle was exposed. Bailey could feel how strong the tense muscles in Raven’s abdomen were, despite his lean frame. Strong and smart, then. Bailey tugged the shirts up and over Raven’s head, until Raven lay beneath him on the bed, stripped to the waist, looking up at Bailey with anxious trust.

Bailey sat back on his knees as he straddled Raven’s thighs. If Bailey had ever had any doubts about how attractive he was this time around, they would have disappeared in light of the way Raven stared at him. Bailey couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen such wide-eyed adoration turned on him. He wondered if he ever had. Raven lay back against the bed, gazing up at him with fear and trust all mixed up in the same expression. Bailey put his hands on Raven’s sides, then bent down to kiss his stomach just above his navel. Raven gasped and squirmed, which was the perfect reaction, so Bailey did it again.

He went next for the button to Raven’s jeans, taking deliberate care as he did to brush his palm across the rise that Raven’s cock was making just beneath them. That made Raven gasp again and bring a hand to his mouth. Bailey trailed his kisses lower, until his lips pressed over the patch of pale skin revealed by opening Raven’s fly. Bailey wanted to see more, so he hooked his fingers in the waistband of Raven’s jeans and underwear alike, then pulled them both down and off.

With Raven bare now, Bailey took a second to take in the sight of Raven’s body, lovely and lean against the dark sheets of his bed. He would have been beautiful in any state, but aroused as he was, he was stunning. His cock was a slightly darker shade than the rest of him, and Bailey had its full attention; freed from its tight black denim confines, it stood straight up, as though waiting. Raven looked a little bashful, half-covering his face with his hand, but he didn’t hide. With his lips slightly parted, Raven gazed back at Bailey, waiting to see what he would do next. Whatever it would be, Raven was willing.

There was a moment’s pause as Bailey considered how much his sexuality at any given moment had become tied to Haley’s body and presentation that time around. Raven existed independent of that, but Bailey wanted him so much that his hands shook. It didn’t seem fair, though, that Raven should be so exposed while Bailey had only removed his coat. It was long past time for clothing for either of them.

There was no particularly graceful way to do this, especially since Bailey had not dressed for seduction upon leaving the house that morning. That left only the most efficient way. He stepped off the bed and stripped himself from the waist down in much the same way he’d done to Raven, then climbed right back on top of Raven, straddling his thighs. He nudged his cock deliberately against Raven’s, smiling as the sensation made Raven bite his lower lip. It was arousing, to see Raven come so undone like that — and they were only getting started.

Bending over Raven, Bailey took Raven’s hands and brought them to the top button of Bailey’s white shirt. Raven’s trembling fingers pushed one button after another open. Bailey kissed him as he did, rubbing their cocks together with the gentlest bit of friction.

Bailey’s shirt undone, Raven placed his hands gingerly against Bailey’s bare sides, as though wondering if that might be an okay next step. Bailey kissed him hard for that, lest Raven have any doubts. Emboldened by this, Raven let his hands move across Bailey’s body with the awestruck slowness of a person barely able to believe the reality of the situation. Bailey pushed his hard cock against Raven’s stomach a little more, a sweet reminder that, no, this wasn’t a dream, nor was Bailey somehow humoring him. Bailey wanted him with every fiber of his being. 

And as greedy of a creature as he was, Bailey wanted more. He wanted Raven to flip him over, to climb on top of him, to take him — and if he’d been Haley, he would have done so, without Bailey’s having to say a word about it. This was different, though. If nothing else, Raven was far too new to the experience for that right now. Therefore, Bailey would simply have to teach him.

Bailey pulled back from the kiss, smiling down at Raven to let him know that this was okay, neither of them was going anywhere. He did enjoy seeing Raven’s eyes go wide as Bailey went for the bedside drawer. “No, that’s–“

It was too late, though. Bailey knew his target already, and he had the bottle of lube within his hands in seconds. The bottle had a little leaf on it; of course it was organic. “Trust me,” Bailey said, pouring a generous amount out into his hand. He let it warm there for a moment before wrapping his fingers around Raven’s shaft. Despite being used to Haley’s larger member, Bailey thought that what Raven had was the ideal cock — nothing ridiculous in any dimension, just a good, sturdy handful. Bailey let his hand glide slowly up and down the whole length, taking time to caress the sensitive slit at the tip before sliding all the way back down to the patch of dark hair that surrounded its base. Under other circumstances, Bailey could have been content to do this for hours, just stroking and perhaps talking to Raven, watching Raven’s reactions as Bailey got him off until Raven couldn’t get it up anymore.

That could come later, though. Now, Bailey had a particular hunger that needed to be satisfied. He poured a little more lube across his fingertips, then slid up so his knees were on either side of Raven’s waist. He looked Raven in the eye as he reached back to slick himself up in preparation. Bailey could and often did appreciate a little friction in fucking, but he knew that might be too much for Raven right now. Best to take it slow and easy.

“Just hold still,” Bailey said, putting a hand in the center of Raven’s chest for balance. With his other hand, he wrapped his hand around Raven’s shaft and positioned it at just the right angle. Then he sighed and began to sit back, taking the head of Raven’s cock inside him.

It helped that Bailey was, in a word, experienced. Even so, he knew enough to go slow here, to let his body adjust around the wonderful intrusion of Raven’s cock. Despite wanting to see every bit of Raven’s reactions, Bailey had to close his eyes and lean his head back, concentrating on his breathing for a moment. His thighs trembled a little with the effort of keeping his body steady. 

Bailey caught his lower lip between his teeth, trying not to make too much of a nuisance of himself. Then he remembered what Raven had said about being the only apartment at that address and decided that he didn’t care. Bailey moaned with pleasure at the sensation of being filled — of being filled by Raven, in particular. He could feel his own hard cock jerk as Raven’s cock stretched Bailey wide.

He thought about removing his unbuttoned shirt, but disheveled clothing was even more obscene than nudity, and Bailey was well into embracing the obscenity of the situation. His shirttails brushed against his bare thighs, making him quite a sight, at least judging by Raven’s wide-eyed reaction. Ever so slowly, he sank down, until at last there was no more for him to take — Raven was inside him, as deep as he went, and Bailey was sitting back on his thighs. Bailey ran a hand down his bared chest, flicking at one of his nipples. He took a minute to catch his breath, then licked his lips. “Touch me,” he whispered.

Raven lay his hands on Bailey with the gentle caution of a person who’d just been handed a great treasure, praying it wasn’t more fragile than their touch was careful. His hands were warm now, fueled by the fire Bailey could see burning behind his eyes. Bailey sighed as Raven’s hands slid up his thighs, gasping perhaps more than the situation strictly warranted — and certainly more than he would have in response to Haley’s handling. That was all right, though. Raven deserved to know exactly what his touch was doing, if only so he’d know to do it again.

What his touch was doing, too, was driving Bailey wild. In bed, Raven applied the same principles of thorough inquiry as he did in his research, observing and learning from everything he encountered. He was hesitant in a way that Bailey hadn’t been handled in a long while — not afraid, but cautious, wanting to make sure everything was just right. Raven’s touch said that he believed Bailey deserved nothing less.

Bailey leaned forward into Raven’s arms, feeling Raven tremble beneath him — except it wasn’t Raven’s body that was shaking with the effort of containing all his emotions. Bailey gripped Raven’s forearms tight, taking deep breaths as he tried to get back his control over the situation. He had to keep it together. One of them did.

That one, however, now stroked his hand across Bailey’s back, up under his shirt. “I’ve got you,” Raven promised, his voice barely a murmur. “I’ve got you.”

Feeling a surge of emotions welling inside him, Bailey could do nothing except move. He rose up on his knees as much as he could while still keeping Raven inside him, then brought his hips down again fast, fast enough to make the rickety frame of Raven’s bed creak. “Fuck,” Bailey gasped, not sure what language he was even speaking anymore. The translation came through clear, though, as the tip of his cock tapped against Raven’s belly, leaving a string of clear precome trailing between the two. Bracing himself, Bailey began to move again.

He rode Raven hard, not fast but deep, burying Raven inside him every time Bailey lowered his hips again. Speed has never been as important to Bailey as depth. He loved to be taken from the inside, reduced to nothing but a needy mess at the mercy of a lover. And he absolutely was at Raven’s mercy here — Bailey was in control of most of their shared motions, but Raven was the sturdy one. His strong arms wrapped around Bailey’s back as Bailey took Raven in again and again. He had Bailey, just as he’d promised. He held on with a force that said he’d never let go. This wasn’t a competition — this was cooperation, building something together where their bodies joined.

As the sensations became too overwhelming, Bailey rocked back on his hips. Raven began to let go, but Bailey caught him and interlaced their fingers, using Raven’s hands to steady himself as Bailey moved. Bailey brought one of their joined hands down to his own dick, wrapping Raven’s hand around it. “Touch me,” he said again, not a command but a desperate plea. Everything Bailey thought and felt about Raven had been building up inside him for so long, there was only one way to let it out.

Raven did just that, forming his fingers into an easy ring and rubbing up and down Bailey’s shaft. Despite his inexperience with partners, Raven was very good here, knowing just the pressure to apply. Bailey supposed that came from its own kind of experience, one that he wanted to see. He wondered how many times Raven had been on his back just like this, that lubed-up sleeve around his cock, thinking about being inside Bailey just as he was now. Or had he thought about it another way, with his thighs spread and Bailey between them? That could be arranged, too. There were so many things they could do, now that they were two. And Bailey wanted to do all of them. That was what Raven deserved, and Bailey wasn’t going to deny him anything, not so long as he lived.

For all his practice at being fucked, Bailey wasn’t prepared for how close he was to his climax until he found himself right there. He gasped as he thrust harder into Raven’s hand, building the friction there on top of the friction of Raven’s dick inside him. Bailey could only gasp as he came hard, shooting hot across Raven’s hand. A few more enthusiastic spurts landed across Raven’s belly and chest, like a signature on a painting. Raven looked well-fucked indeed, and anyone who looked would know exactly who was responsible.

Panting hard, Bailey could feel that Raven wasn’t far behind him. Raven bit his lower lip, a look of worry creasing his brows. Bless him, for as overwhelming as the whole sensation was, his awareness of manners had remained steadfast. But Bailey was done being polite. “Inside me,” Bailey gasped, bracing himself against Raven’s shoulder as he slammed his hips down hard. “Please. Inside.”

That was a command Raven had no hope of disobeying. He grabbed Bailey’s thighs and bucked his hips up, pulling Bailey as far down on him as he could manage. Bailey clung to him, burying his face in the soft crook of Raven’s neck as Raven’s body tensed beneath. Raven held his breath for a second, a perfect little moment suspended on the air. Then he gasped noisily — enough to alarm the ferret, if the surprised little rattle from over Bailey’s shoulder was any indication — and came hard, buried just as deep inside Bailey as Bailey wanted. Raven thrust his hips a few more times, riding out the end of the sensation. Then he went all but boneless, collapsing back against the bed and breathing hard.

Bailey smiled down at him, not willing to move and lose this view, not just yet. Raven’s hair was a mess and his whole front was still splattered with come. He couldn’t even hold on to Bailey any longer; his arms flopped uselessly back to the bed, fingers loose. Bailey had never been much of an artist of any stripe, but he could have spent his entire life trying to capture this beautiful scene on canvas, just so the whole world could agree.

No, it was better this way, that this view was his and only his. Likewise, Raven’s view was Raven’s alone. This moment was enough shared just between the two of them, and if it vanished from memory, that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth having existed in the first place.

Bailey’s thighs couldn’t take much more, though, so at last he pulled himself off Raven with a grunt. Ignoring the mess they’d made of both of them, to say nothing of the sheets, Bailey flopped down on the bed next to Raven and stretched his arm across the pillows. Raven turned and curled right up next to him in a little ball. “It’s cold,” he murmured against Bailey’s chest.

Laughing, Bailey sat up just enough to grab the covers, then pulled them back over Raven. Bailey would want them too in a minute, but right now he was still feeling the sweat he’d worked up. He sighed happily as he bent down to kiss Raven’s forehead. “Better?”

Raven nodded. “That was–” He swallowed hard, then looked up at Bailey. “Did I do okay?”

All Bailey could do was kiss him, so he did, long and deep. There was no way for Bailey to express right now that it had been more than okay — that it had been new, and there had not been much new in his life in a long time. More than that, it had been his in a way that Bailey cherished. He loved Haley, and he always would, and he wasn’t upset about that — but at the same time, he’d never had a choice about loving Haley. Here, Bailey hadn’t just tripped and accidentally fallen in love with Raven. Every decision he’d made had led him closer to the way he felt now.

A strange thought crossed Bailey’s mind: that it didn’t matter whether or not Raven left with him. Of course it mattered; Bailey was all but holding his breath about it, and would be until Raven came to his decision. But at the same time, even if Raven stayed and Bailey went and they never saw one another again, this here would still come with Bailey. No matter how many more moments like this they got — whether a lifetime’s worth or none — that would not change this one. Bailey would be a kinder, more loving person just for having held Raven in his arms. Whatever came next, it would be worth it.

At last, Bailey pulled back from the kiss and drew Raven close to his chest. He let his fingers trace up and down Raven’s arm, from his shoulder to his wrist, and before he could stop himself, Bailey opened his mouth and asked the question that had been on his mind for quite some time now: “Do you work out?”

“Oh, um, yes,” Raven answered, sounding a little surprised to have that brought up now. “Sometimes. I swim and run. And I used to kickbox, but the gym nearby closed last year, and I haven’t found a new one.”

The thought of mild-mannered Raven striking anything, even a punching bag, was an incongruous image to Bailey. Then again, he’d seen Raven mad, and he didn’t doubt one bit Raven’s ability to be fierce as needed. “It looks good on you,” Bailey said, squeezing Raven’s bicep. “You’re very sexy.”

As Raven buried his face against Bailey’s chest, Bailey could feel the flush in his cheeks. “Not really,” Raven murmured.

Bailey gave Raven’s hair an affectionate ruffle. “Yes, really. And to prove it to you, I’ll promise that as soon as you want to do that again, I will be more than ready.”

Oh.” Raven cleared his throat, then swallowed audibly. “Even if … even if it’s tonight again? Or is that too much? It’s okay if it’s too much.”

With a happy laugh, Bailey reached for Raven’s chin and lifted his face so Raven could see Bailey’s hungry expression. “Let’s just see who cries mercy first,” Bailey said with a lascivious wink, leaning in for another kiss. Raven draped his arm around Bailey’s waist and melted into it, making Bailey smile. Yes, Bailey was certain, for however long he could have this, it was definitely worth it.

 

~*~

 

“So, that’s it?” asked Haley, his arms folded across his chest.

Bailey nodded, looking down at the stack of legal documents in front of him. The corridor outside the hospital’s morgue was a strange place to have this conversation, but it had been the only place in the building they’d found that afforded them enough privacy — and it had its own exit. “I think so,” Bailey said with a sigh, giving the pages one last flip.

Haley nodded, pressing his lips together. “And you’re really not going to tell me where you’re going? What if there’s an emergency?”

“If there’s an emergency, I’m still dead,” Bailey answered, forcing a soft little laugh. “That’s how dead works.”

At first, Haley had been amenable, even downright casual about the idea as Bailey had laid it out. But as the time had grown closer, Bailey had seen it begin to sink in with Haley that this wasn’t Bailey’s declaring his intention to spend a year or two in seclusion before making some grand, well-rested return. He was going for good.

To his credit, Haley hadn’t fought Bailey’s decision. But at the same time, Bailey wondered if he had ever really understood the gravity of it before this moment, standing beneath the cold fluorescent lights, making sure all the paperwork was done. His soulmate was leaving him — not forever, but at least for this lifetime. And unlike all the other times they’d each seen the other go, it might be a very long time before they met again.

Raven stepped up from where he’d been hovering just behind Bailey, an unobtrusive but steady presence. He put three thin books on the table. “These are the manuals for the ‘advanced spiritual practices’ I mentioned,” he told Haley, tapping the top book’s cover. “I don’t think they’d actually work to prolong your life, but most people don’t know that.”

The fact that most people didn’t know the ins and outs of Reincarnate existence was something that Bailey was counting on. He knew he’d never be able to escape if he just disappeared — if anything, that would make him a more exciting target, with spotters tracking sightings and reporting on his moves across the globe. The only way to accomplish a real vanishing act would be to convince people there was nothing more to see.

That was also where Haley came in. Just as the world had turned its eyes and sympathy to Maritza after Joèl’s death, Haley would now have the one-man spotlight he always wanted. The outpouring of attention would be intense, as the world mourned another pair of soulmates torn apart by death — and these two so young! He would smile bravely through interviews, talking about how he was soldiering on through his loneliness, comforted by the knowledge that they would see one another again in their next lives. He wouldn’t feel obligated to take Bailey as his plus-one to events anymore. He could fill photo spreads solo. He would be free, at least for a time, from the burden of his inescapable nature.

Bailey hadn’t pitched it to Haley like that, of course. After this long, there were some things he just knew.

Haley looked down at the books, then back up to Raven. “Thanks.” There was no reading Haley’s expression when it came to Raven, and Bailey had all but given up trying. From the start, Bailey had made no secret of their relationship, nor of its being one of the catalysts for his decision to leave. By all metrics, Haley had taken this information in stride, and he’d never been anything but polite, even downright cordial when Raven was around. But there was a tension in Haley’s jaw that hadn’t been there before. Maybe it was really finally starting to sink in.

With a nod, Bailey pushed back from the table and stood. “They’ll call my time of death around 3:30, I think. That’ll give us five hours or so to get on our way. You can push it back if you need to, just not earlier.” He gathered the half of the paperwork he’d need: deeds to various properties, travel visas, some banker’s checks, a few notarized letters of approval from Haley allowing this person (who surely was not Bailey Syvtall) access to his accounts. The rest was all the necessary closing details of Bailey’s life. In an age of digital everything, at least the two of them were more than comfortable working with paper.

“Okay.” Haley stuck his hands in his pockets. He was already dressed in a sharp navy suit, having shown up to the hospital already ready to play the widower. Bailey hoped it was one that suited him. With any luck, he’d be playing it for a while.

Bailey had been more than prepared to sign the pages, shake Haley’s hand, and let that be the end of it. He didn’t like good-byes of any stripe, and he hadn’t prepared anything to say. In all honesty, he hadn’t thought there’d be anything more to discuss. Standing here, though, with his folder of documents under one arm, Bailey found himself reaching for Haley’s hand — and more than a little surprised when Haley reached back. Haley’s fingers were warm in the winter-cold hospital basement as he wrapped them around Bailey’s with an uncertain tension, not knowing how much they should hold on and how much they should let go.

“I love you,” Bailey said, the words suddenly caught in his throat. “I know we haven’t said it in a long time. I think we’ve both taken it for granted too long. I think we’ve both taken each other for granted too long. So I’m going to remind us both that we can choose something else, if we want to. You will always have that part of me, the part of me that is me. It will always come back to you, because it never leaves you. But that doesn’t mean either of us has to put up with something less than what we deserve.” Exhaling hard through tight lips, Bailey nodded again. “I love you. But that means I have to love me too. And that means I have to go.”

Haley gave a casual shrug, like Bailey had just explained the reason why he’d be late for dinner. “I get it.”

No, Bailey didn’t think he did. But that was all right. He’d either learn or he wouldn’t. And if he didn’t, Bailey would know he could just walk away again, as many times as he needed. “We’ll be better next time,” Bailey said, willing the words to be true by speaking them into existence. He gave Haley’s hand one last squeeze, then let go and turned away.

Raven was waiting there, several steps behind him in the hallway, just far enough to give the soulmates their space. Bailey walked to him and slipped his hand into the crook of Raven’s soft cocoon cardigan, taking his arm as they walked toward the far exit. It was a service entrance, where only the supply vans parked, with easy access to a frontage road and the highway beyond. The security cameras trained on it were in the middle of a mysterious power failure, but should be restored within the hour. By the time anyone knew there was something going on in the hospital worth watching for, there would be nothing left to see.

“Hey, um–” Haley called from behind them. “Hey, Raven?”

They stopped in their tracks. Bailey kept his gaze straight ahead, but Raven turned. “Yes?”

“He, uh, he–” Haley’s voice was ragged around the edges. “Don’t let him sleep too much, okay? He’s lazy. He’ll sleep until noon. It’s not good for him.”

Raven nodded. “I know,” he answered, his tone soft.

“And don’t let him drink so much. Or stay up too late. He will, if you don’t stop him. He always has. So don’t let him.”

“I’ll remember,” Raven said. There was no dismissiveness or gloating in Raven’s voice. Everything about his bearing spoke of a man who knew he was being entrusted with a precious treasure, accepting it for safekeeping when the one who loved it could not take care of it any more.

Haley drew in a deep breath. “Okay,” he said at last, the word a heavy exhale. “Okay. Okay.”

With another not of acknowledgment, Raven put his hand over Bailey’s and started walking again, drawing Bailey back into step with him. Bailey walked along and didn’t look back. He couldn’t look back. He didn’t want to see what was behind him now, because it might make him change his mind, and they both needed him so desperately not to change his mind.

Because they would be better next time. He chose to believe it would be true.

The loading dock was all but deserted, save for a little red hatchback idling with its lights off. Bailey and Raven got into the backseat, and Bailey ducked down, putting his head on Raven’s lap. Not that he believed anyone was watching, not yet, but there was still no such thing as being too careful. He only got one shot at this, and if he was going to do it, he couldn’t be sloppy.

Jo put the car into gear and pulled out onto the road as Winnie watched to make sure stray eyes hadn’t fallen on them. They didn’t say anything to one another — all conversations had been had already, and had at great length. Faking one’s own death was not a business entered into lightly. They’d managed to keep the total number of people involved in the conspiracy to a bare minimum: the four of them in the car, a very well-compensated hospital administrator, an equally well-compensated physician, and, of course, Haley. As far as literally everyone else in the world was concerned, in the small hours of the following morning, Reincarnate Bailey Syvtall would suffer a massive aneurysm from a previously undiagnosed congenital condition and pass away at the tender age of twenty-six. He would be survived by his parents, his three siblings, their spouses and families, and the love of this life and many others, soulmate and movie star Haley Prince.

By the time his death was announced, Bailey would already be in the air, somewhere over the western ocean. They were headed to the airfield now, where a small chartered plane was waiting to take Raven and an unspecified guest back to Kerina for a visit. Where they’d go from there, they hadn’t decided yet — in part because Haley couldn’t trick Bailey into revealing what Bailey himself didn’t know. Raven had done a little digging and already found more than a few pieces of island property for sale just out from several mainland coastal cities. Some of them even already had internet.

He’d let Jo and Winnie know where they wound up, once they’d settled. That way they could keep tabs on him and everything else, just in case dead really needed not to mean dead. They could even come and visit, maybe on the yacht Winnie would threaten to make her publisher charter after her books started becoming a movie franchise. And Bailey could trust they’d take his secrets to the grave.

Haley could come find them, of course. Even if Bailey had truly wanted to make his disappearance complete, Haley would have known as the years went by and his heart kept beating. Bailey just had to trust that Haley respected him enough to let this break be a break. Besides, Haley didn’t have to go looking. All he had to do was wait long enough and they’d find one another again. They always did.

For now, though, Bailey had made the choice to be with Raven, and Raven had in turn made the choice to be with him. They wanted to love one another, and they did. It turned out it was as simple as that.

No, it wasn’t simple. It was messy and complicated and a downright entangled situation for all of them. But as Raven stroked Bailey’s hair on the car ride to the airport, a trip from the end of one life into the beginning of another, Bailey felt it was the easiest decision he had ever made. Maybe Raven could take his theories on how to bisect a single aura and use them to stitch two together instead. Maybe they could find a way to graft Raven on, so that at least some of him came with them into their next lives. Maybe one day he and Raven would even meet again, wearing different faces but knowing each other anyway.

Or maybe not. Maybe this would be all they’d ever get. But even then, Raven might be changed, but he would not be lost. Bailey would always know that no matter what, the love they’d shared would be out there somewhere, making someone’s world a better place. Everything would be better next time, because this had happened at all.

Bailey closed his eyes, but he didn’t feel tired. For the first time in a long time, he wanted nothing more than to be awake. A life had only so many minutes in it, and Bailey didn’t want to miss any of them.

 

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11 thoughts on “soulmates are stupid i love you on purpose

  1. This was lovely. I have a huge weakness for stories about the malaise of immortality and what it does to relationships, and Raven’s frankness was so endearing. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Comment in the style of an incoherent listicle:
    1) Made me cry!!
    2) I love the idea of the multiple facets (or displays?) of love—love as a choice, love as letting go/taking a break, love as destiny…cue song: Love Will Lead you Back by Taylor Dayne—which I’m now imagining as the track playing in Haley’s mind in the goodbye scene
    3) If you ever feel inspired, I’d love to read a story about Winnie and Jo cause they seem like a disaster/hoot/amazing/hot all wrapped up in one couple
    4) Thank you for writing this beautiful moving story!!! Your storytelling and characterization has an inexplicable clarity and realness to it—which in turn made it easier for me to empathize with these characters and bring them to life in my head and in visuals <3

  3. This is a fucking beautiful story and I was also emotional by the end of it. Particularly because of Haley’s final words to Raven and how the depth of his feelings crept through.

    One of my favorite lines—
    “ Everything about his bearing spoke of a man who knew he was being entrusted with a precious treasure, accepting it for safekeeping when the one who loved it could not take care of it any more.”

    It just works so well to encapsulate Bailey and Raven and Haley’s roles in the story. Bailey is such a treasure. I love his insight and the fascinating stuff about memories of his former lives. I am still so curious about the other Reincarnates and I wish Bailey had been able to sit down with a pair and question whether they feel the same way!

  4. this is amazing!! probably my favourite take on the soulmates/reincarnation trope i’ve ever read!! it was sweet and sad and hard and heart-warming and absolutely stunning ty for writing it

  5. Woah!!! This is SO good and so thoughtful and intense, and so smart about love and choice and change. Bailey is very believable, and so is the complicated disintegration of his and Haley’s relationship: I actually had to take a break in the middle of the story because Bailey’s worn-down depression spiral was just so realistically bleak — which is obviously a testament to your writing! It made the ending all the more powerful and moving. I love Raven and I love ferret.
    Also, the moment in the sandwich place where Bailey speaks Keric is sooo adorable <3

    And the art is gorgeous. Just gorgeous.

  6. So as someone who has not read very much “soulmate” fiction but knows of it academically, this was a really fun take on it. The idea that it’s not an inherently positive or negative thing but a human thing, and therefore exactly as flawed as the people involved, really intrigued me, since making it clear that Bailey and Haley hadn’t always been toxic and miserable had their current state feeling like something that they had a chance to make better, that they could choose healthier ways to live that didn’t require being in such a tight orbit around one another. Bailey needs to live away from Haley, preferably in the company of somebody who genuinely appreciates him, and Haley needs to not be around Bailey, because (as becomes clearer later on) Bailey has a knack for bringing out the worst in him. All this and a plot that ends on the value and beauty of ephemeral things? Lovely.

    The fact that this is very subtly not our world, just something very much like it, was a nice touch; we’ve got enough similarities in culture, technology, and human history it feels familiar, but there’s no need to explain whether so-and-so or such-and-such from RL events were actually Reincarnates. Just knowing Haley has led some pretty brutal military campaigns is enough, no need to tie them to actual atrocities! I want to learn more about Kerina, but out of genuine curiosity, not a lack of detail.

    Once again, a fine match between writer and artist! That Raven goes from being drawn curled up inwards to facing boldly outwards towards the future (and the reader) after he and Bailey come together is some great visual storytelling, and his goth regalia looks very genuine on him. So much care was put into lighting each scene and it really shows. The sex scene with Bailey and Raven is just fantastic, with tenderness and vulnerability in spades without losing the confidence in Bailey’s eyes. Just wonderful work.

  7. Wow, what a ride! Could not put it down once I started, but it’s kind of a nightmare world, especially with how OF COURSE modern media would be hounding the soulmate pairs from childhood. And like… generational trauma, but it’s all you? I like the dumb tropey soulmate stuff sometimes, but putting it into a plausible world makes the concept just skin-crawlingly horrible, it turns out. Not sure I wouldn’t risk destroying the universe to get out of having a soulmate like this!

    Haley was suitably awful from start to like 99% of the story — he gets a few sympathy points at the end. I’m sure he’s just as messed up as Bailey (and Bailey’s seduction attempt puts him on thin fucking ice, good god), but he hit my ‘just set him on fire’ button by whipping out “maybe someone will teach you how not to be such a needy bitch about it” to his sad, drunk partner. Nope, in the trash can, bye!

    Love Raven, though, he’s great. Fascinating mix of extremely down to earth but also very eccentric? Possibly just ahead of his time with soulmate theory. :) Jo and Winnie are also wonderful, sensible folks. “We love you but we’ll cut you off if you keep being shitty” is a healthy place to be and I adore ’em for it.

    All of the art is gorgeous! My absolute favorite is the park scene, with the chilly lil ball of Raven on the park bench. He is ADORABLE and the lighting is so very good with the city lights in the background and the fountain lights dotted on Raven and Bailey.

  8. You know, it’s so about me, but not in all. No. I’m still in love with my soulmate, as much as he is with me. And we’re both standartly hets in this lifetime. (Well, except he doesn’t understand anything but standatd, you know what i mean)
    But I’m so lost as Bailey right now and over decade frankly speaking that i just got caught in a possibility that I can change anything… and it scares me real bad!
    I’m loved for sure, but i still can’t figure what for?
    And that seems the major problem, along with i do exactly nothing but caring / fixing many of health problems for all of my “pride”
    But i do less to myself – and it all keeps me eternally on guard and in stress. And i see no such simple way out as he did.
    I’m glad for him, but I’m stuck.

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