This is a dream he's had so many times before, or maybe only just once; it's a dream about a small, dark space. There is a line of light a few feet away, and he waits for his vision to get acclimatized to the heavy darkness, but it never does. All he can feel is the cramped surroundings, a sprinkle of dust on his upturned face (is he looking up?), and the scratchy softness of an old blanket beneath his folded legs.
He can hear voices beyond the line of light; they are angry, and they are afraid.
Good, he thinks. So am I.
"Well, Jimboni," Jeff says to James, his brow wrinkling as he peers at the screen of his phone. "Dreams about dark spaces can mean...what's this word here. Font's too tiny, shit. Oh: obscurity. Unfamiliarity. The unknown. Could represent a hurt and sad soul." Jeff is a large man, a mountain in this narrow shop, skin dark and arms covered with swirling ink; his phone is the tiniest contraption in his massive hands. Jeff wasn't born in the United States, and he has a lot of stories about Guatemala, Malaysia, Singapore and one very long stint in Mozambique.
James always tells him, "I know you're some sort of spy or something, man," and all Jeff does is waggle his heavy eyebrows, tosses his long white braid over his shoulder and laugh. When he laughs, sometimes James feels he knows that laugh too well, like he heard some other old dude laugh like that.
"Have this dream a lot?" Jeff asks him now, setting down his phone and peering at James. It's late in the afternoon and the shop is quiet for now. A small herd of tourists pause on the sidewalk outside, peering in. James gives them a friendly smile; at least, he hopes it is friendly. They blink at him and skitter off, although one of them glances back, gaze flickering over the boards propped up against the walls.
"Dunno." James inspects one of the t-shirts they have hanging on racks near the door, brushing off some imaginary lint. "I think so."
"Maybe it's something about your past." Jeff is trying so hard to not look too eager, and James compresses a smile. Ever since Jeff had taken him in, they've been trying to find out who he was, where he had come from. James had even done an image search online, to see if there had been any articles about a missing person with his face. One month, Jeff had hired a private investigator, and even she had been stumped.
"He musta fell outta the sky," the private investigator had said in her hard manner, her Midwestern accent barely softened by California living. She'd actually given back Jeff's deposit and left with a glare at James, as if he had ruined a perfect record.
"You're a spy, Jimbo," Jeff had said in a theatrical whisper as the glass door had shut behind her rigid departure and the both of them spent about fifteen minutes in the throes of uncontrollable hysterical giggles.
"Like, what a shitty past," James says now. "Why can't I dream about an address or something?" He runs a hand through his still-damp hair. He'd been out on dawn patrol, his board like a magic carpet carrying him through crystal tunnels, the waves roaring like a friendly monster. Jeff had been amazed and pleased at how easily he'd picked up surfing, and James knows that when he's out there on the water, he feels like he's home.
Jeff's broad face wears a mournful expression and then he perks up a little. "Hey, now. At least, you got me now. Right?"
James smiles at him. "Yeah, man. I got you." Jeff treated him like a son and James soaked up the affection like sand absorbing the sun's heat.
He still thought about what his life would have been like if it had been someone else, someone not Jeff, who had picked him up just as he'd been desperate out there on the streets of Venice, ready to sell himself just to get some money to eat. He hadn't even remembered that the large man had been a volunteer in the hospital where he'd spent too many hours trying to convince his brain to give up the key to its secret vault. He did remember that the hospital workers addressed him in Spanish first, assuming by his black hair and brown skin that he was a young migrant worker who had been injured on the job and sent away by their employee to fend for himself, or die.
James is lucky, and he knows it. This place is bright, but anything with such a sheen has a stack of shadows lurking underneath. He's lucky and he knows it; possibly because he once knew the grit of shadows. He's lucky and he doesn't remember why.
The chime at the entrance releases its demanding little tune as one of the tourists from before steps in, looking from side to side. He's very tall, and very thin and very blond. James can feel the force of Jeff's astronomical smirk as he makes his way over.
"Hi," the tourist says, "you've got some real nice stuff in here," and it's in the broad roll of an Australian native. James knows these things; Jeff has lost too many bets to doubt his word now. "Ah, I like that board. Pity I can't take it back home."
"Yeah, real pity," James says, feeling the corners of his lips curl up in a smile. "But you can try something smaller?"
The man stares at him with slightly raised eyebrows and then smiles in return.
James sells four t-shirts that day, and goes out that night with Max, who hails from Queensland and is a surfer himself. Max is funny, and he makes James laugh. He's a temporary fix, but James has no idea what is broken.
The mirror speaks but he's not really surprised. He's sure that his face is being reflected, but there is something horribly wrong with his features. They're distorted and there's a great gash on his forehead, pulsing green. The angle is odd. Although he's facing the mirror full on, his reflection seems to be turned slightly away, as if considering the ornate, golden frame in favour of returning his stare.
The mirror says to him, "What is your dream?" and he is torn between confusion and amusement, because isn't this a dream right now? He's trapped in the middle of it, and he wants to wake up very soon.
"What is your dream?" The mirror insists. Just beyond his reflection, he sees the silhouette of a lanky boy and a girl with frizzy hair. He wishes he could see them clearly, but they are too far behind his own image. They're looking at him; maybe they're waving. Perhaps they're calling his name.
Impatiently, he snaps, "I want to know who I am."
"But you know," the mirror tells him. How infuriating. "You know very well who you are. You just stopped being that person."
This is ridiculous. He feels he should be more afraid, but this is borderline hilarious. "How on earth can someone stop being himself?"
The mirror says, "That is the wrong question." The room darkens. The image of the boy and the girl disappears. He hadn't even realised that there had been sunlight streaming through tall, arched windows. Now, a heavy veil has fallen over the day, covering everything in cold shadow.
He thinks. "...why would someone stop being himself?"
"Well, now," his reflection murmurs, now staring directly at him with burning green eyes. "That is the right question."
"Come on, Jimmy," Cooper sneers and James hates it when people call him Jimmy, because it's close but not right at all. Even Jeff had called him Jimbo, Jimboni, Jamie, Jammie-Jams, or just plain old James if he had been feeling solemn...like at the very end in the hospital when he'd given James everything.
He can't think about Jeff now. It's only been a few months since his friend had passed away, and all James has is the shop, his apartment, his snake and Cooper.
Well...considering how things are going now, he will soon only have the first three on that list.
"Don't call me Jimmy," he says. "That's not my name."
"You don't even know what your real name is." Cooper's narrow face is a mess of disdain, but James has probably seen what real malice is like, because this facade does not faze him in the slightest.
"I don't know much about myself," he answers. "But I know you're not worth my time. Morty agrees, isn't that right, girl?"
"Where's the fucking snake?" Cooper screeches, whirling around frantically once he's noticed that Morty is not in her enclosure. "I'm not kidding, Jimmy! Where is it?"
Cooper is terrified of snakes; James hadn't known this until he'd brought Morty back to his home and set up her special space. Cooper had walked in and started hollering all sorts of foolishness. James had been sympathetic, then annoyed, then downright dismissive. It's not really fair to Cooper, and he knows it. Morty is just a tiny sweet thing, though. She's a lovely corn snake and she wouldn't hurt a fly.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Morty's slender body slowly weaving through the piles of clothing, her black eyes bright as they fix on Cooper.
Get 'im, Morty-pie, he thinks with a mental chuckle and flinches when Cooper shouts, "Why are you hissing?!"
"Stop being so dramatic!" James shouts in return and then bursts into mean, high-pitched laughter when Morty slips her body along the side of Cooper's foot and he nearly jumps ten feet in the air, screeching.
"Calm down," he tries to tell Cooper ten minutes later, and it's precisely the wrong thing to say to someone who is ranting and packing all his belongings at the same time. Cooper's skin seems to gain a shade of fire-engine red and he sputters without ever really using proper words.
"You're horrible," Cooper finally manages to spit out as he stands just in front of the main door, clutching a large gym bag in one hand and, slightly incongruously, a medium-sized trophy that he had won as a joke in a restaurant some months ago. James remembers that night: Cooper had been embarrassed and pleased, his hand cold as he'd gripped James' while the employees had warbled some nonsensical tune.
Now, James doesn't answer him, and Cooper flails his way out of the front door, and out of his life.
"Well," James says to Morty, reaching down and picking her up with great care. He settles her into his lap and she snuggles close, her slight weight somehow very comforting. "That was...not our best showing, I think."
Morty turns her head and regards him flatly. James ponders how she might sound if she was able to speak; perhaps a squeaky voice, and a very prim tone: Not YOUR best showing, you mean. I, on the other hand, was perfectly polite.
"That you were, my dear," James says and tickles her under the chin.
This is a familiar dream because everything is on fire. The floor is a swamp of flames, the ceiling high overhead is a luminous orange sky. He is not afraid because he is quite ready to die.
"Don't leave me," a voice says behind him, small and tired. Sometimes, when he turns around, it's a girl with hair like the fire around them. In other instances, a very handsome man with a broken smile. Many times, it's a boy like him, a boy who thinks he is about to die.
It's the boy this time.
"Shall I save you?" he asks, and the boy actually stops to think, frowning.
"How shall you save me?" the boy asks.
"I'll save you," he says, "The same way I'll save myself."
"How shall you save yourself?"
"Oh," he answers, holding out one hand and there's the most wonderful broom hovering over his palm. "I suppose I'll fly out of here."
"You fly very well," the boy says in his ear, sitting behind him on the broom. The boy is holding him too close, squeezing him around the chest as they race over the forest of crackling shelves and burning objects, things that were once lost now withered into light. Tighter and tighter around his chest...the boy's arms are like a clamp.
"I can't breathe," he tells the other boy, who sighs regretfully. "I'm serious. Stop holding me so close, I can't breathe."
"I can't either," the boy whispers. "I haven't been able to breathe for a long time. So if I can't, then you can't either."
He gasps and wheezes, and then says, "If you don't let me breathe, I can't save us both."
"I was lost so long ago," the boy murmurs, and they fall towards the conflagration. "And now, so are you."
I thought I was ready to die, he thinks, before the fires take them both.
The shop bell rings cheerfully just a few moments after James had opened up after lunch. He stops struggling with the packaging tape on a box, hurrying out of the back office and down the corridor towards the shop proper.
"Hang on!" he cries out, because he stopped to shove another box out of the way. "I'm coming!"
He bursts out front, smiling widely in welcome. There's a man standing there, looking so out of place in the middle of the t-shirts and boards. He's dressed in suit, for crying out loud, although he does not have on a jacket: just a waistcoat and a tie and a pair of grey trousers. His hair is very pale and his face quite narrow; his nose is long and with a slightly bulbous tip. It's not a particularly handsome face, but it's very interesting.
"Hi!" James advances, and he feels his smile growing wider. "How can I help you?"
There is a polished wooden stool in the corner of the counter, where Jeff used to sit and regale the customers with the most outrageous tales. James can easily imagine his old friend sitting there, watching James and this tall besuited stranger with that knowing grin.
The man blinks at him, and then all the blood drains from his face. James has only ever read of that reaction in books. The man is pale enough already, and he washes out as grey as his clothing.
His eyes practically bug out and he sways.
"Oh, hey...are you alright?" James asks, reaching out to him and grabbing onto his arm. He leads him around to Jeff's stool, and settles him down onto it. "It's pretty hot out there, and you're dressed up like this. That's a lot of layers."
The man collapses onto the stool, staring. James realises that he has not stopped gazing right into James' face. Everything in the world shrinks down to the man's wan features. The whole world is the man's eyes, which are the shade of the sea just as the sun rises, and the platinum hair, impossible like silver lining. The whole world is here, and it is a tall, thin man gaping up at him.
"What are you doing here?" the man blurts out and the whole world is here in the way he forms his words, crisp like the most perfect wave. The question is comically philosophical. Jeff would have answered what are any of us doing here, man, in that laconic manner, but James isn't as laid back as that.
He watches the man's skin creep back from that bloodless state, concerned that he might have sunstroke. "I work here," he answers. "What are you doing here?"
The stranger in the suit doesn't reply for a long beat. He cocks his head, as if he's trying to absorb James' voice. He seems confused, and a bit crestfallen, and he keeps looking up at James' forehead. Whatever he sees there seems to disappoint him even more, James doesn't like that he's downhearted.
The man exhales slowly. "I...saw you outside," he tells James. "And I…" He trails off, and he just can't seem to glance away. James gives him the most charming smile he can manage, letting his own gaze trail down and then up again that slender form. Much to his glee, the other man blushes.
"You saw me outside...and?" James prods gently.
"I saw your shop," the man in the grey suit says. "And I, er, wondered what surfing was."
That's a bit laughable but cute. James likes that modus operandi a lot. "You're not telling me you don't know what surfing is?" He grins when the man shakes his head, dislodging some of those pale strands so that they fell across his wide forehead.
"I'm British," he mumbles. "You know how it goes."
"Would you like to learn?" James asks, trying very hard to mask the eagerness in his voice. He loves teaching people how to surf, and Jeff had considered putting on classes, before he'd gotten very sick and James had willingly taken on most of the business of running the shop. "It's like flying, you know? The wind in your hair, the board under your feet. It's amazing. Like flying, trust me."
The man trusts him. James can see it in the way he leans forward, hands curled loosely atop his thighs. He trusts the world that James knows. "I'm not interested in flying," he says and James knows that this is a truth and a lie at the same time.
"What are you interested in?" James asks and for the first time, the man smiles. It alters his face from interesting to beautiful.
"Travel. Business." He pauses, and pauses before the fall. "You."
Nice. James is outright exhilarated.
"I'm James Black," he tells the man, holding out his hand. A very curious series of emotions shimmers across the man's face. Surprise, mostly; and what seems to be a species of distant hurt. However, he reaches out as if he had fallen off his board and James is the one to pull him out of the water again.
His fingers close over James and he says, "I'm Malfoy. Draco Malfoy."
James doesn't know that name. But it is the wind in his hair and the voice of a frightened boy in his ear.
It feels like his world.