“How,” Sebastian says weakly. “How even.”
The puppy, a bouncy heap of gold and big paws and a plumed tail, manages to shrug. And then, rather than becoming embarrassed, hops out of Scott Evans’ arms and onto Sebastian’s table, sticking nose into coconut-scented smoke from a candle, getting paws everyplace.
“Chris!” Scott flails, alarmed. “Behave! He’s going to help! Seriously, though, can you help? Please? You’re like the best and you totally took the no-acting-work curse off my friend Joey that one time, he said you did it just like that, you’re great, and also I swear I didn’t mean to do this, we were just messing around with this book a friend left at my place and I thought it’d be funny—”
Sebastian really needs to sit down. Because, again: how even.
The famous actor-director Chris Evans, currently hexed into the shape of a not-very-recognizable but very enthusiastic breed of puppy, tries to turn to bark at his brother, sticks a paw into Sebastian’s scrying-bowl, and yelps. Water splashes. Silver rattles.
Sebastian dives in, grabs an armful of the famous actor-director Chris Evans, and announces, nose to nose, “I’m really more of a cat person.”
Chris’s ears droop. Amazing how the man can emote even in canine form. A pathetic apologetic puddle of puppy, right there in Sebastian’s arms. No wonder he’s so in demand. That, plus the honest loving heart on display, passions worn right on his sleeve and carried at the surface, genuine. Plus the gorgeous ocean-floor eyes and tiny freckles and fluffy beard worn in recent photographs, and Sebastian’s wondered idly whether it’d feel as soft as it appears, brushing over skin, nuzzling between thighs…
Some part of Sebastian’s brain recognizes that these are dreadful thoughts to be currently having. For one thing, Chris Evans is currently a puppy.
For another, even if Chris Evans weren’t a puppy and also Chris Evans, Sebastian’s supposed to be a professional. Witch, healer, herbalist, a bit of psychic power that’s as reliable as anyone else’s, which is to say: not much. But he’s young and pretty and had started with a few friends who turned into celebrities along the way—Chace Crawford, Margarita Levieva, that group—and he does try to be good at what he does, and he likes helping people. All of these truths’ve made him both trendy as magical advisor for a lot of young Hollywood, and the reason why Scott Evans is here in his consultation room, desperately mopping up spilled water with his own shirt and swearing.
“Sorry, sorry, fuck, can I fix it, you can turn me into something if you want but please fix Chris first, he didn’t mean to, it’s not his fault, oh shit was that like rare fuckin’ mystical water or—”
“It’s pure unicorn-blessed water from the springs of Mag Mell.” Scott turns into a horrified statue; Sebastian gives up on the joke. “It’s tap water. Honestly. I swear. Any liquid works.” He sets a damp-pawed Chris Evans on his own chair, for lack of a better option. Chris Evans licks Sebastian’s hand as if appreciating the joke. Sebastian likes the fact that he and Chris Evans seem to have the same sense of humor. “You, on the other hand—paw—might be more of a problem. Did you bring the book you two used?”
“Um,” Scott says, dripping. “I didn’t even think about grabbing it…”
Sebastian sighs. Chris licks his hand again, maybe in apology this time. Big rueful eyes—still blue, still distressingly empathetic—gaze up at him.
He grumbles, “This’ll be harder without knowing the precise spell…”
“Oh shit,” Scott mourns. “I’m so sorry. Chris. Magician Stan. Everyone. I can go get the book, it’s at my place…is there anything you can do?”
“I said harder,” Sebastian says, mildly insulted. “Not impossible. And call me Sebastian, please. I’m trying to transform your brother out of puppy-shape; I think we’re on a first-name basis here.” He’s also never felt entirely comfortable using the title. Just not him. Too adult, too serious, too stern. Sebastian’s not an earthshaking mage or a storm-commanding sorceress or a hero out of old legends. He likes pizza and sings along to nineties pop music in the car and follows fashion designers on social media. He’s been known to ramble about space-related science and walk into doors and trip over furniture while talking. He has a plush wolf pillow on his couch at home, and he is decidedly not deserving of wide-eyed awe and adulation.
Chris Evans lets out a little whine. Lifts a paw and taps at his arm. Sebastian blinks. Shakes himself out of wry acceptance of his own inadequacies and into professional white-witch headspace. He is good at this. He’s earned his reputation.
He says to Scott, “By the way, you should see someone about testing your latent magical potential…” and then sits down on his floor so that he can be more eye to eye with the puppy. “You, however, need to be human. So that you can continue your own particular brand of magic on film. At least you still have human thoughts, so it wasn’t a full transformation.”
Chris Evans lets out a medium-sized puppy bark in response, and then rolls over and bares his tummy for scratching. Sebastian does before even thinking about it. Chris’s leg twitches. That tail thumps. Sebastian muses, “You don’t mind being a dog, do you? No wonder the hex took so easily. You were a puppy to begin with.”
Chris gives him a canine grin, tongue lolling out. Sebastian suddenly ends up hit over the head with the sheer weirdness of the afternoon—he’s scratching Chris Evans’ puppy tummy, what the actual hell—but Chris feels like warm happy dog and is indeed soft and is beaming at him. He does not sigh aloud again, because he’s already done that once. He scratches a bit harder and makes that leg more excited.
“Please,” Scott pleads. “Anything you want. Whatever it costs. Money, favors—um, that’s a thing, right? Magic—magical bargains…” His gaze hesitates, darts around the consultation room. Paradoxes visibly register: the traditional décor present because expected, a moon-chart and a star-map, the row of bottles and jars labeled in Sebastian’s messy handwriting, that righted scrying bowl, candles and pillowy chairs for the benefit of clients, a tidy rack of gold and silver and bronze knives, the long white ceremonial robe hanging on the wall-peg—and then Sebastian himself, sitting on the floor petting Chris. Black leather jacket tossed over one chair. Youth and slim-fit jeans and a blue t-shirt. Charmed coffee keeping itself hot in the background, because Sebastian possesses undying love in that direction. No occult jewelry or wizardly dignity at all.
He does have one or two protective charms on his person. A bit of charmed gold around his neck. A tiny graceful tattoo over a hip, imbued with iron and defensive magic. It’s been a while since he’s let anyone close enough to see that one. He’s been busy. So many clients. Not much room to breathe in the whirlwind.
He’d flipped the sign on the door to Closed when Scott had burst in clutching a flannel-wrapped bundle of squirming hexed person-puppy. He’s got one appointment in the evening, but nothing before that, and he’s not hurting for income. He charges outrageous prices for the clients who have money and no real problems, who merely want a decorative face to tell them that nothing awful’s waiting in their future; he never charges for emergencies and never requests payment from anyone who needs help and can’t afford it. He doesn’t go around announcing that part, but people who need a counter-curse or assistance finding a lost child seem to always somehow know that the rock-star magician with the fuckably pretty mouth—words he’s overheard more than once from the coarser type of client—will also wear himself to the bone trying to search for a missing girl across time and space.
“Magical bargains are totally a thing,” he says from the floor, not bothering to stop petting Chris. “But don’t worry about it. Or buy me a bottle of really good vodka sometime if you want to properly balance the universe out. We’re cool, though.”
Chris Evans woofs at him. This might be agreement. Sebastian snorts. “As if you get a say. You let your brother read a hex out of a random spellbook and got turned into the definition of adorable puppy.” Chris’s ears perk up. Sebastian revisits his sentence. He’s said adorable. Aloud.
Scott shifts weight, wrings out his makeshift mop of shirt, hovers. “Yes to the vodka. As much as you want. What can I do?”
“Hand me the rowan rod, would you? They’re labeled.” He doesn’t really need it—more of a focus than anything else—but the additional touches of counter-enchantment and anti-beguiling properties might be nice, since he doesn’t know exactly what he’s dealing with.
He could get up and get it himself. He’s comfortable. Anyway, Scott needs something to do.
And runs over waving the requested item. “So this’ll help?”
Chris Evans looks at what is essentially a small stick, and then at Sebastian. His tail wags.
“You,” Sebastian tells him, “are getting dog hair on my chair. Oh, fine. One time. Fetch.”
Chris bounds off the chair and across the room, skidding on the rug, sliding into the table. He comes back cheerful and proud of himself, offering the rod to Sebastian.
“Is that a good sign?” Scott sits down too, distressed. “Or a bad one? More dog-like…”
“Oh, no. He’s completely present in there. He’s just having fun.” Sebastian wiggles rowan at the him in question. Chris nods, as odd as this looks on a dog, and then spins around in pursuit of his own tail. “I could leave you this way if you’d prefer.”
Chris pauses in quest of the tail to give him a look. It’s a wouldn’t be so bad but you know I’m not serious, I like being human look.
“Yes,” Sebastian agrees, “I know, you only want to be a metaphorical puppy, sit down and I’ll see what I can do.” Chris sits obediently in front of him, and then puts a paw on his boot. Sebastian considers this. Chris gives him a head-tilt, with a disconcerting level of scrutiny from a dog.
“Shut up,” Sebastian says to canine Chris, which is not quite the weirdest thing to ever happen in his consultation room but close.
Chris woofs at him again.
Sebastian points the rowan his direction. “Hold this for me.”
Chris does, grinning around it.
“Okay,” Sebastian decides, “let’s find out how hard this might be,” and rests a hand on Chris’s head, and doesn’t bother to change position: a boy in skinny jeans with exuberant hair, sitting with a puppy on the floor.
And the universe blossoms into light.
He’s always felt, heard, seen, tasted magic: so many senses, swirling and impossibly alive with it. People like sparkling multicolored flames, walking around unaware of their own brilliance. Sun and moon and growing grass and shimmering stars, each of them a melody and a tingling flavor at the back of his mind, cool crisp winter ozone or luscious summer-plump berries, a vast humming throng of joyous sound like an opera of bees and honey and life unfolding and ending and spinning like a kaleidoscope or a wheel, fabric taking shape, cosmic and intimate and linked together. Everywhere he turns he sees the strings, the knitted beating hearts and tangles and connecting threads that shoot across the world. He’s not a fairy-story great power and he can’t hold so many threads at once—he knows his own limits—but he can see them and ache with their poignancy and shiver with them.
He takes a breath, lets it go. Lets rainbows pool and fade. He’s not here to wander the magical plane. He’s here to focus on one scrap of misplaced magic. On Chris.
Chris, who feels like summer and tap-dancing and the bright quick splash of a waterfall; Chris, who glows gold and blue and honest as cream pies and Boston-street history. Chris who flickers with hints of rowan-wood and magic and faint wrongness, a shape that’s very much him in many ways but fundamentally untrue, artificially skewed away from right. Chris who’s holding loyally still and oddly a bit worried, which is understandable—Sebastian himself would much prefer to know the spell in question for simpler reversal—but startles him upon closer inspection.
Chris isn’t worried about being stuck in dog-form. Chris is worried about Sebastian. Who had grumbled about dog hair, and whose scrying-bowl has been tipped over, and who mentioned that this might be hard.
Oh, Sebastian thinks. Oh, Chris—
He’s not sure what he’s feeling, precisely: only that it opens up and blooms like shy gilt-edged pink petals under sun. He’s flushed with it, warm and secure.
And now he’s blushing. Metaphysically, of course. Possibly physically too; the body does tend to manifest what it feels. He clears his throat. Looks Chris over. Professional. Right.
The hex lies in an inky spiderweb over Chris’s shape, which flickers between dog and man and draws him inexorably into the former; it’s a net, a blanket, on top and not woven into the heart of being. When Sebastian touches it it lifts easily. He raises eyebrows, fingers skimming obsidian silk; he knows this one.
It’s from an apprentice’s practice book. Relatively advanced, human transformation is reserved for later training, but nevertheless: definitely apprentice-level. And he’s pretty sure he’s even seen this exact one; it’s not uncommon. Scott has nothing to worry about.
He pokes around a bit more. Relaxes. Not a problem. Not even permanent; it’ll wear off on its own in about a day if he’s any judge. Scott’s not that strong in magical terms and hadn’t had serious expectations or intentions beyond teasing, and intentions do matter. It’d been enough for the hex to work, but—he tugs a trailing shadow-gossamer thread—not even to proper capacity. Sloppy.
He could let it resolve naturally, in that case. He could pop back out of the mystical realm and tell the Brothers Evans as much.
But. He considers Chris again.
Chris Evans, actor and director, likely can’t afford to spend twenty-four hours as a dog. Meetings, phone calls, scripts to approve or pass on. And publicity issues; his reputation might suffer if word got out that he’d been transformed into a puppy. Nobody’d critique him—it’s not his fault—but they might take him less seriously.
Anyway, Chris is fretting over this being too hard to fix. Sebastian flexes intangible fingers. It’s damn well not.
He focuses on dispelling illusion, on correcting what’s been made wrong, on putting it right. He gathers up a few of his own shining crystalline threads of self, of radiance past and present and future, his possibilities and potential energies, and tucks them in as backup power; he slips fingers under ink-pool strands and flicks them up and off and away from Chris.
The hex-web flutters up with only minor resistance—Sebastian pushes a bit harder, and it stops sticking—and just for good measure and because he’s annoyed about the sticking, he pops it into nonexistence without waiting for it to disperse. The backlash catches his first two fingertips like the snap of a belt, a breaking elastic, a sting of minor nasty fussy magic; he glares at invisible dissipated trails, and checks on Chris.
Who stretches, stirs, and—Sebastian, watching, can see this on the magical plane, limned in fiery truthful light like the glints from sun on water—flows into human form.
Very human. Very large. Very naked. Sitting on Sebastian’s rug with a hand on Sebastian’s ankle and a rowan stick in his mouth.
Sebastian’s profound mental and emotional oh what the fuck even how do I process this oh god help is enough to knock him right out of any metaphysical heightened awareness. And back into the earthbound and, oh fuck, extremely physical realm.
In which he’s sitting across from Chris. Who remains incredibly naked. And wide-eyed. With a stick.
Sebastian lunges that way. Yanks his rod out of Chris’s mouth. Which is the worst phrasing his brain could’ve ever come up with, and he panics and dissolves into non-professional non-impressive non-enchanting rambling. “Oh fuck sorry about that I forgot here let me—are you feeling okay, I mean like yourself, are you all here and everything’s where it should be and—oh god I swear I’m not flirting with you, that wasn’t a pick-up line—can I get you clothing? A blanket? I have blankets!”
Chris Evans stares at him.
Scott Evans leans over from his own crosslegged spot on the rug. “You okay, bro?”
“Um,” Chris says. “Yeah?”
“Cool, then.” But Scott’s expression says more, more full of affection and relief. “Shame, you were cuter as a dog.”
“Even as a dog I’m cuter than you, so I’ll take it.” Chris also takes the blanket that Sebastian’s hastily charmed into flying over from a chair. Sebastian tries frantically not to peek at what’s being covered up. Acres of muscle, those broad shoulders, fascinating stories etched in tattoo-ink across fair skin…lovely waist, and lower, and oh, isn’t that impressive, Sebastian absolutely likes that and would like to get to know it better, with his mouth…
And this is fucking horrible of him. Chris came to him for help. Chris is a client and had been in trouble. He averts eyes. Stares at his own boot-tip. Knows his cheeks are burning.
“Sebastian?” Chris, venturing in after a second or two, sounds hesitant but determined. “Can I ask…if you need…”
“I don’t need payment! You were an emergency and I wanted—I’m glad I could help!” Not looking up. Not, not, not. “I’ll just, um, put this—” A helpless wave of the focus-rod. “—away. Um. Really don’t worry about it.”
“Hey, I promised you vodka,” Scott reminds them.
“And we’ll deliver, but that’s not what I was asking.” Chris’s voice is gentle. Sebastian looks up. Can’t help it. Drawn by the voice, caught by the eyes and the honesty. Bespelled.
Chris holds out a hand. “Can I help? If it hurt?”
“You felt that?” Sebastian looks at his own fingertips. Faintly pink: the impression of a parting nip, dwindling. “It’s my fault. Impatient. It’s fine.”
“I felt it because I was in there with you and you were touching me.” Chris freezes as this sentence leaves his mouth. “I don’t mean you were—I mean you were—you know what I mean. Please fuckin’ know what I mean, because I have lost so much track of where this was going.”
“I know what you mean,” Sebastian agrees. “You’re fairly sensitive, aren’t you? Magically speaking.” He’s searching for equilibrium. Chris Evans is sitting naked under a blanket with him, concerned about him, looking at him in a way that—that—
Chris reaches over and takes his hand. Sebastian, dazed by the whole afternoon but a hundred percent thrilled, allows this. Chris runs fingers over tender skin. Skin shivers and yields and pleads for more. “Yeah. Not a witch or anything, but I can pick up some stuff. Local. If I’m sort of…touching someone. Can I do anything? Do you need anything to, y’know, make this feel better?”
“I already feel better,” Sebastian admits without thinking.
The whole consultation room lights up and glows. Even his scrying bowl sparkles a bit more silver. Not subtle, but that’s okay: Chris Evans is holding his hand and fussing over him and smiling at him, and Sebastian feels like sparkling too.
“So,” Chris says. “You rescued me.”
“I didn’t really, it would’ve worn off in—”
“You rescued me.” Chris drums fingers over Sebastian’s wrist, where the pulse-point leaps to attention. Chris is still wearing only a blanket and Scott’s rolling eyes and saying, “Don’t mind me, guys, you only owe me forever for being the reason you even met, at least let me leave before you both end up naked.”
Chris turns a bit pink but ignores this commentary. “Sebastian Stan. My hero.”
“Hey,” Chris says. “Everything’s, um, where it should be, if you want to, y’know. Like you said. Check.”
“Oh my god,” Sebastian says, “that’s a terrible pick-up line.”
“Worked on me,” Chris says.
“I’m still here,” Scott says.
“You turned me into a puppy,” Chris points out. His fingers’ve continued gently trailing along Sebastian’s wrist, bared forearm, quivering nerve-endings. Everyplace he touches sings; Sebastian’s never known the inside of his arm could feel so much. Chris tacks on, “So you can suffer. So…Sebastian…”
“Yes,” Sebastian says, which is about as much as he can manage under those ceaseless delicious ministrations; he’s saying yes to anything and everything, whatever Chris proposes. He pulls himself together. “You did make an adorable puppy, by the way. Big paws. Nice tail.”
“And you said you were a cat person. Sorry about your scrying-bowl.”
“I like both. I like everything.” He waits for the innuendo to land, adds, “It’s a cheap bowl. Stage dressing. I just need liquid and a surface for images.”
“ ’Cause you’re good at what you do. Helping people.” Chris tugs at his hand; Sebastian tumbles that way, half into his lap, willing and breathless. “Everything, huh? So if I wanted to see you again…more…to get to know you…”
“Yes,” Sebastian agrees helpfully. “I’ve put the Closed sign up already. Scott can leave.”
“Scott is leaving,” Scott puts in, and suits action to words. “I’ll be at the Starbucks. Nice to see you without a tail, bro, and don’t say I never did anything good for you.”
“I mean I do want to know you.” Chris blushes more. “Not that I don’t want to, um, all the naked, with you—I do, I so fuckin’ want to, you’re so—but I want to take care of your hand and maybe buy you coffee or a drink, um, you said really good vodka, and I want to—you knew what I meant even when I was a fuckin’ puppy and you’re smiling at me and I like it when you smile at me and please say I didn’t just ruin every chance of ever sounding cool around you.”
“You didn’t,” Sebastian says. “I like it.”
“Yes,” Sebastian says right back, sitting in Chris’s lap, watching the future unfurl into white sails and billowing breezes: explorations of magical appointments and movie-making and love-making, artistic creation and terrible pick-up lines for only each other, late nights and long days and tender care, Chris’s big kind heart and kisses that prickle with power along sensitive shimmering threads and bodies entwined, coffee-pots and Chris’s large hands cradling his when he’s been impatient and made his fingertips sore.
He likes that idea. All those ideas.
He says again, “Yes,” and Chris Evans lifts his fingers and kisses them. Sebastian says dreamily, “So much better now,” and Chris laughs while licking one of them, so Sebastian has to laugh with him, at the entire bizarre and wondrous afternoon, at puppies and Chris Evans, at the ridiculous glorious acrobatics of his own heart and the rowan rod he’s forgotten to put away and everything, everything in the universe, that’s shouting yes.