The first time Damianos comes into the store, Laurent is hunched over a rune that’s been fighting him for an hour. His hair is pushed back from his face by one of the bandannas Vannes keeps leaving around the back rooms, his sleeves are shoved up past his elbows, and he’s almost gone cross-eyed staring at the tip of his knife.
It’s a commission piece, and once the shop had emptied out from the morning rush of strangers clamoring for potions to add to their overpriced Starbucks coffees, Laurent had carved out a chunk of the yew branch lying on top of a few boxes in the storage room and gotten to work. Dragon hunting, the customer had told him, laying a dozen thick gold coins onto the counter under Laurent’s skeptical gaze. She’d wanted something for protection, and also strength, and also inflammability, and a small list of other things that individually would have been simple.
“Packing light,” Laurent scoffs. When he suggested a tattoo design, hinting heavily that it would have been both cheaper and less time intensive, the woman’s nose had scrunched up disdainfully, and Laurent had resigned himself to several hours spent carving the runes into a pendant for her.
“No metalwork either,” she had specified. “If I wear anything other than pure silver, I break out in hives, and I don’t have enough money for that.”
In the end, Laurent had taken the pile of gold, glancing longingly at the chip reader on the counter, and decided that weighing the gold and melting it down would probably be worth it. Now, though, with sweat beading on his brow and his lower lip worried bright red between his teeth, he wonders if it really was. At least the shop has been empty for a few hours, and Nicaise has been clattering around in the potions room more quietly than usual.
He’s almost done, struggling to finish the last in this series of carvings, when the bells above the entrance chime and his knife clatters onto the countertop. Laurent swears, and hears a thump that sounds suspiciously like someone bumping into one of the tightly-packed shelves. Nothing shatters, though, so Laurent doesn’t bother yelling. Instead, he glares balefully at the yew pendant and waits for the customer to approach the counter.
It takes longer than usual. Usually people brush by the tall shelves as soon as they realize most of the labels are written in languages they can’t understand, and come straight to whoever happens to be working at the counter. Usually it’s Laurent; Nicaise is too rude to be trusted around customers, and Vannes has a habit of trying to give people package deals on aphrodisiacs. Laurent listens to the small sounds the customer makes as he moves through the store—the small clinks, rustles, and the occasional hiss as the customer touches something that likely hadn’t wanted to be touched at the moment.
Finally, the customer—a man—rounds the corner of one of the shelves, and Laurent lifts his head to take him in. He doesn’t look much different than anyone else who comes looking for Laurent’s particular wares, but the sheer size of him has Laurent giving him a thorough once-over. Scuffed loafers, nicely-fitting suit, dark curls bouncing all over the place. Despite the nice clothing, the man looks disheveled—to put it mildly—and Laurent leans back on his stool, away from the offending pendant.
“Can I help you?” He asks, and the man glances at him, slightly alarmed, like he’s only just noticed Laurent is there. It happens a lot; Laurent’s magic seems inclined to protect him from prying eyes, and in his own store surrounded by his own magic, it’s easy for Laurent to let himself fade into the background of people’s awareness.
“Yeah,” the man replies, and then pauses. He’s got bags under his eyes, and days-old stubble on his chin, and Laurent notices that his buttons are fastened in the wrong holes. The man’s hands shake in the familiar way of having too much coffee and too little sleep. Laurent can probably guess what he’s here for, but he waits for the man’s attention to return to whatever it is he’s looking for.
Laurent knows that the customer is staring at his face, the curve of his neck, the joint of his shoulder where it vanishes under the too-thin white shirt, and ignores it. He doesn’t date customers, no matter how hot they are. He doesn’t date, period.
“Um,” the man stutters, and Laurent takes pity on him.
“Are you here for a potion?” Lord, he hopes so. The man nods, and his focus seems to snap back into him like an elastic band.
“Yes! A potion. I need, um, something for concentration? Sorry if that’s vague, I looked online and I couldn’t find a menu. Or, um, a listing for the store. At all.”
The man falters, looking at Laurent’s expression, and clearly decides to stop while he’s ahead.
“I make everything custom to order,” Laurent explains as patiently as he can. “Which potion you get will depend on how long you want the effects to last, what specifically you need to concentrate on, and your body mass. Among other things.”
The man glances down at his own torso, touching one hand absently to one of his mismatched buttons, and his dark skin pinkens a little.
“Oh. Um, I need to grade essays. For about two days straight.” A professor, then. Laurent raises an eyebrow, and assesses exactly how desperate this man looks. His conclusion: very.
“I can do that, but you’ll sleep for about seventy-two hours after it wears off and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. And it will be fairly expensive.”
The man looks relieved to the point of sheer exhaustion, and Laurent almost feels bad for making the sale. The potion might do more harm than good, in this case; Laurent will be surprised if he ever gets a repeat visit. Vannes keeps urging him to list the store online, but Laurent has seen too many other magical businesses get torn apart on Yelp to give in. The store is sensitive—he wouldn’t do that to her.
“Please,” the man says, and Laurent shrugs one shoulder. He turns his back on the customer, leaning slightly toward the archway that leads to the back rooms.
“Nicaise!” There’s the sound of a small explosion, Nicaise’s familiar yowling in pain, and several creatively strung together curses, before Nicaise hollers back.
“What do you want?”
Laurent reaches for a notepad from one of the many cubbies under the desk, and glances around for a pen. He’d seen at least four lying on the counter before he’d opened this morning, but Nicaise’s Petunia chews through cheap ballpoints like catnip, and there’s nothing Laurent can do to stop her. He sighs in frustration, glancing up to apologize for the delay just in time to see the man pull a pen from the empty space in front of him. He squints at it blearily, before offering it to Laurent.
Okay. Magic professor. Laurent can work with that.
“Thanks,” he says, and the man smiles.
“It’s not my usual brand. But I guess I haven’t slept in a while, so I’m lucky anything came at all.” Laurent makes a small humming noise, scribbling down a list of ingredients for Nicaise to come and pick up. At eighteen, he’s graduated from watching Laurent brew the potions to actually brewing them himself, and Laurent mostly trusts him with the small things, at this point. Anything much more complex than an energy or concentration boost Laurent either supervises or does himself, but this should be fine.
Besides, Nicaise knows better than to experiment on customers after what happened the last time. Instead of an angry Yelp review, the offended nymph had dropped a pissed-off nest of pixies on their doorstep. Laurent still has a few fading scars from the dozens of bites he’d received from tiny needle teeth.
“Come get this,” he calls, and Nicaise shuffles in about forty seconds later with Petunia glowering at the world, perched on top of his head. Her claws are digging threateningly into Nicaise’s temples, and he scowls at Laurent and the customer as he takes the recipe.
“Do I even want to know?” Laurent sighs, and Petunia hisses at him. He waves Nicaise away, and takes a moment to glance over him as the boy turns to leave. There’s a new bandage above his elbow that hadn’t been there during the morning rush, and his whole body smells a little like smoke, but he seems generally fine.
“Are you working on these runes?” The man asks, and Laurent turns back toward him sharply. He’s leaning over the counter, elbow braced on the wood, staring down at the discarded pendant. Laurent scowls and claps his hand over it. The man looks up, eyes wide, and Laurent doesn’t look at his eyelashes. They’re very nice. He doesn’t look.
“It’s a commission.” Laurent’s had his rune work stolen before, and he’d rather not have a repeat occurrence. He’d hexed the thief to Hell and back, but he’d still lost the commission, and his payment. “It’s not really any of your business, though.”
“Oh, sorry.” The man frowns a little, glancing down at Laurent’ s fingers like he’s trying to see the pendant through them. “I just noticed—it looked like something was in the wrong order.”
Laurent glares. Magic professor or no magic professor, coming into someone’s store and telling them how to do their job is just rude. Any attraction he might have had to the man and his eyelashes fizzles out, and he curls his fingers around the pendant, tucking it into his palm.
“I didn’t mean—um—” The man says, and Laurent should maybe cut him a little more slack, but he’s been struggling with this commission since the day began, and it stings a little. Nicaise swears loudly from the back room, and the man glances behind Laurent with concern creasing his brow. Maybe he’s regretting his purchase already.
“I’ll ring you up,” Laurent says shortly, and drags his stool over to the computer. It’s where he keeps all the pricing information, and he takes the liberty of logging out of Vannes’ Facebook account before pulling up his extensive spreadsheet. A few quick sums later and he smacks the handwritten receipt onto the counter with a little more force than strictly necessary. The rude customer squints at it like he’d squinted at the pen he’d conjured, and glances up at Laurent when he’s reviewed it.
“What kind of currency do you take?” Laurent has to hold back a snort. First-timers are usually fun, especially the non-magic ones. He’s had a woman actually offer him her firstborn for nothing more than some glamour rings.
“Souls,” Laurent says, as deadpan as he can manage. Which, he likes to think, is very serious and slightly intimidating. It seems to work for a moment, and the man’s eyebrows raise as he glances down at the total on his receipt, which helpfully reads ‘$37.62.’ “Or we have Apple pay and a cash register. Whichever you’d prefer.”
“Oh.” The man digs in his pocket for his wallet, and hands a credit card over the counter. Laurent glances at the name on it—Damianos Theomedes—as he swipes it, and hands it back without letting their fingers brush.
“Your potion should be done in a few minutes,” Laurent says, and drags his stool back to the counter. They make enough profit to invest in at least one more stool, but the last time he’d tried that it had become Nicaise’s permanent seat, and he scares the customers too much to be trusted near the counter for any extended period of time. Laurent pulls the pendant out of his pocket, retrieves his knife from the countertop, and stares at his runes with a force he hopes deters Damianos from talking to him any more.
Damianos seems to barely get the hint; he stops talking, but Laurent can feel that he’s being watched. He grits his teeth in frustration and rubs a thumb over the last sequence of runes, erasing the carving and restoring the smooth wood with only the slightest effort. The picky traveler is coming back to collect it and finish her payment tomorrow, and he’s got six other things he needs to finish in the store tonight, and he still has at least three lines of runes to finish.
Out of the corner of his eye, Laurent sees Damianos reach for the pad of paper and the pen he’d offered to Laurent earlier. He scribbles something quickly, a thoughtful frown creasing his face. Laurent ignores him, and glances down at the unhelpful scribbles he’d made on his palm during the morning rush, trying to plan out what he was going to carve. Now, the notes make less than no sense, and if he were alone he’d be groaning in frustration.
Laurent is five seconds away from slamming his head against the counter and probably giving himself a concussion when Nicaise emerges from the back room, a cardboard coffee cup in his hands. They buy the leftover holiday stock from the corner Starbucks in bulk, so Laurent doesn’t blame Damianos for looking strangely at the year-old holiday design on the cup, but he takes it from Nicaise anyway with a wary sniff at the steam curling up from the top.
“Thank you so much,” he says, and he sounds relieved and thankful enough that Laurent actually lifts his head from the rune and attempts a smile.
“Our pleasure, Mr. Theomedes” It’s not as sincere as it could be, but Damianos smiles anyway.
“Call me Damen.” Laurent shrugs, grunting something in vague agreement. After drinking this potion, he doubts he’ll be seeing Damen again, or that they’ll be on very friendly terms if he does. Laurent promises effectiveness, and high quality, but never a good time for anyone who drinks something he makes for them.
“Enjoy!” Nicaise says, saccharine sweet, and Laurent looks behind him in alarm. Nicaise’s grin is angelic and terrifying, and Damen’s eyes flick between the smiling boy and the cup in his hand warily. Eventually, he sags in defeat, and lifts the cup in a sort-of toast before downing it in one long draw. Laurent tries not to stare at his throat, or the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallows.
Damianos leaves the store with a disgusted, semi-horrified look on his face, accompanied by the jingle of the bell above the door. Laurent sighs, and rubs a hand down his face.
“What did you put in there?” He asks, only half-sure he actually wants to know. Nicaise shrugs, the corner of his mouth twitching up.
“Just some vodka.” Laurent chokes on his next breath, caught between a sound of horror and amusement. “You can’t tell me he didn’t look like he needed it.”
Laurent stares down at the counter, wondering vaguely why he ever thought this business would be a good idea, and his eye falls on the pad of paper Damen had been writing on earlier. He does groan, this time, when he sees that Damen had been writing runes. The runes Laurent has been trying—and failing—to write for the last hour and a half. There’s no magic to them—no hint of power pressed in with the ink from the ballpoint pen, but they’re exactly what Laurent has been looking for.
“There there,” Nicaise says, patting his shoulder halfheartedly. “If he dies, they probably won’t be able to track it back to you.”
The second time he sees Damen—almost three weeks later—Laurent looks significantly more respectable. Gone is the sweaty bandana and overlarge shirt; he actually looks the part of a business owner, and is in the middle of experimenting with a new potion that hopefully won’t singe his eyebrows off when the front door opens.
Nicaise has the day off. Less because he deserves it and more because Laurent couldn’t stand being around him for another day without a break during this time of year. It’s getting closer to Nicaise’s birthday, and though neither of them mention it, it’s hanging over them like a storm cloud and the shop itself is starting to pick up on the mood. Today she’s brighter than she had been yesterday; the sun filters in through the paneled skylights, the vines growing on the walls curled up to welcome the warmth.
There’s a few birds nesting in them, too lazy to leave the store to fly south. Laurent lets them stay in exchange for small favors—a couple trinkets picked up here and there, a few feathers when they fall loose, nothing too extreme. And the noise is nice; it makes the shop feel more lived in. Laurent’s magic, mixed with Vannes’ and Nicaise’s, hangs in the air, sometimes bursting into small clouds of light or electricity or color, but magic is not quite living. It is as alive as the shop herself, but that is still only an almost.
Laurent thinks he’s in a decent mood, maybe even borderline happy, until he emerges from the back room and sees Damianos standing in front of one of the bookshelves. His back is turned, but Laurent recognizes both his massive shoulders and his dark mass of curls. From the back, at least, he looks much more put together than the last time Laurent had seen him, though this time he’s in nothing more formal than a dark wool coat and jeans.
Laurent drops onto the stool behind the counter with a sigh that makes Damen turn to face him. Against all of Laurent’s expectations, Damen’s face is open and cheerful—he doesn’t look particularly traumatized by anything Nicaise may or may not have added to his potion.
“Hey,” Damen says, and walks over, two of Laurent’s books clutched under his arm. He sets them on the counter when he reaches it, careful of the cracked binding of what looks like one of Laurent’s old textbooks on—runes. Of course. Laurent quietly decides two things: one, that the world hates him; two, that he’s going to sell the shop and spend the rest of his life ridding apartments of gremlins for tired old women.
“Good afternoon,” Laurent replies, with his best customer-service smile.
“I didn’t get your name, last time.”
Laurent had worn a name tag for about six months when he was nineteen and at least slightly less jaded than he is now. He’d made Vannes wear one too, and Jord when he stopped in from the apothecary, until Vannes had flirted with the wrong witch and ended up cursed. Now, Laurent figures that it’s best that customers don’t know his name until he trusts them to use it responsibly.
“I’d prefer not to say,” he says tightly, and Damen’s expression falls slightly. It makes him feel stupidly guilty, but Laurent shrugs it off. “Name magic. For all I know, you could have come back here to curse me for selling you that potion.”
That, at least, makes Damen perk up a little. “You remember that?”
It had been less than a month ago. Laurent huffs a small laugh. “It was the most powerful potion I sold all week. I thought you might have died, when you didn’t come back to kill my apprentice.”
“Well, it worked,” Damen says, grimacing. “Although I almost wish it hadn’t. Losing my job might be better than drinking one of those ever again.”
“As long as you’re not planning to sue or hex me, that’s fine.” Damen smiles, then, and Laurent glares back down at the counter because of course Damen has dimples. Why wouldn’t he. Laurent is going to list the whole store on Amazon as soon as Damen walks out.
“No—no,” Damen says, half-laughing. “I just wanted to come back and look at your books. You have quite the impressive collection.”
Ah. Right. The books, which are currently still waiting on the counter. Most of the books in the shop are family heirlooms; the only things Laurent hadn’t been able to bring himself to sell once his Uncle’s estate had passed to him. Including the estate itself, crawling with too-familiar magic that had crept underneath Laurent’s skin like needles. He’d kept the whole library though; there are dozens of shelves of books in this store that come and go when they please. Today, the old language textbooks Laurent had pored over as a child are featured prominently.
“The shop does most of the work for me,” Laurent replies. “She always seems to know what people are looking for.”
Some customers are weirded out by Laurent speaking of the store as if she’s a person, but are fine digging through his small collection of severed tongues to find the right one for a potion. Damen just keeps smiling, running a hand appreciatively along the smooth wood of the counter.
“She’s beautiful,” he says, and Laurent can’t help but smile back softly. In the warm light from the skylights and windows near the tops of the walls, Damen looks much healthier than he had nearly a month ago. Laurent forces himself to look away from the almost golden glow of Damen’s skin, casting his eyes down to the books instead.
“You can’t buy these,” he says, kinder than he’d planned. Damen’s head tilts a little, a question building on his tongue. “You can borrow them, but you have to bring them back.”
“Oh. How long can I keep them?” Laurent picks up the rune textbook, ancient and worn, and turns it over in his hands a few times.
“I’m not sure. They’ll tell you when they need to come back, and if you don’t return them within a few days of that they might catch on fire. It’s only happened once, and that was with an entirely different genre, but it’s better to be safe. Generally, they’ll stay with you for as long as you need them to.”
Damen looks down at the book as Laurent offers it to him, before reaching out and taking it gingerly. He looks a little stunned, like he’s afraid tho book is going to open its pages and bite him.
“That’s...convenient,” Damen says. Laurent taps his fingers on the counter, frowning when small embers fizzle out on the counter, leaving black spots of ash in their wake. He smooths them away with his thumb, and when he looks up, Damen’s mouth is agape. For someone who can seemingly pull objects out of thin air, he seems awfully stunned by magic when he sees it.
“I ask for a cash down payment on each book, just in case,” Laurent tells him, and Damen shuts his mouth with a small click, flushing slightly and reaching for his wallet. “You’ll get it back as soon as you return the books.”
He takes the twenty Damen hands him and tucks it into one of the many drawers beneath the countertop, hoping that he’ll be able to find it again when he needs it. The drawers have a habit of mixing themselves up—especially for Nicaise, who never seems to be able to find anything he needs outside of the back rooms. Those he had organized himself, during long hours he’d spent in the store as a young teenager. Laurent had just opened up shop, and had boxes of ingredients and trinkets stacked up in the spacious rooms behind the comfortably crowded storefront.
Nicaise had hated him, but there had been nowhere else he could go to escape. So Laurent put him to work, and let him use his own systems to set up the storage rooms. Now, at nineteen, it’s still where Nicaise seems to feel safest, and he only ventures into the storefront when Laurent needs him to, or when he’s feeling particularly demonic.
“Why do you need a book on runes?” Laurent asks, trying to distract himself. He doesn’t miss the way Damen’s face lights up a little, hands stirring like he’s about to launch into a lecture. Damen catches himself just in time, one hand rubbing over the back of his neck.
“I’m a linguistics professor—I usually teach modern magical languages, but I’m co-lecturing a course on ancient runes with a friend of mine in the History department next semester. I thought I should brush up.” Laurent nods. He might not have pegged Damen for linguistics, but it does explain the way he’d fixed Laurent’s runework after barely a glance at the sequence.
“Why didn’t you just go to Barnes and Noble?” Damen glances away; it might be Laurent’s imagination, but he thinks Damen flushes a little deeper.
“I saw the bookshelf in here last time. It looked a little more authentic than the magical language self-help books.” Damen laughs a little, and braces himself on his forearms, leaning onto the counter in a way that feels familiar.
“And you clearly remembered the oh-so-pleasant experience you had last time.” The laugh is fuller this time, and Laurent leans back a little on his stool. Damen is beautiful, he’ll admit; in the warm light, surrounded by Laurent’s magic, it’s almost intoxicating. The shop likes him too—Laurent can tell, after all these years. He never got a familiar like Nicaise did, and is considered some odd cross between a witch and a sorcerer in the more formal magical circles. They don’t particularly like him in those circles, and Laurent returns the sentiment wholeheartedly, but he can’t exactly ban them from the store.
Laurent never got a familiar, but he’d inherited this plot of land from Auguste, and when he’d left his uncle’s estate it had been the only place in the world that felt like home. So he knows this land, and the building on it, and he knows that it likes Damen.
“I don’t know what was in that potion, but I hated it,” Damen says, but it’s more teasing than anything. Laurent makes a face, and leans in a little closer, lowering his voice.
“Vodka,” is all he says, and Damen’s face twists in horror. Laurent can’t hold back his laugh, and he shakes his head so that his hair falls into his eyes.
“Is that legal?” Damen asks incredulously, and Laurent looks up, pushing his hair back from his forehead.
“We have an alcohol license. I’m not actually sure if it’s legal to put it in your potion without telling you, but it wouldn’t be the first time Nicaise has broken the law in here.”
Damen groans, and drops his head into his hands, elbows still braced on the counter.
“Am I going to die?”
Laurent shrugs. “If you haven’t yet, I’d say you’re good.”
Damen makes a gagging noise, and then starts to laugh. Laurent just watches, fidgeting idly with the handle to the drawer he’d slipped Damen’s money into. The books are still on the counter, just a few inches away from where Damen’s curls are brushing the wood.
It’s not until that the bell above the store tinkles, accompanied by the frantic shouting of one of Laurent’s regulars, that Damen steps away from the counter.
“I’ll see you later,” he says, like it’s a given. Laurent just nods in response, and his smile isn’t fake this time. Of course, the smile falls as Estienne rounds the corner of the far right shelf, eyes wide as he holds something very small, very alive, and very angry clutched in his fist. He’s yelling something about a cage, and Laurent manages to slam a glass dome over the small, insect-looking creature Estienne drops onto the counter before it hisses, purses its tiny lips, and spits something so corrosive toward them that it melts a dime-sized hole in the glass before Laurent even has time to react.
In the ensuing chaos, Damen manages to slip out the door, the only echo of his presence the faint chime of bells.
The third time Damen visits, Laurent isn’t actually in the shop. They’ve run out of lotus petals, and Nicaise had drawn up an extensive list of about sixty other things they’re apparently in desperate need of. On his last count, Laurent figures that at least twelve of them are illegal in some form or another. Even more are practically impossible—where the hell is Laurent supposed to get a sphinx claw?—and he squints suspiciously at the last item on the list. It’s just Kraft mac n cheese written in Nicaise’s perfect script, but Laurent doesn’t trust it one single bit.
He buys it in bulk at Costco anyway, because if he doesn’t get at least one thing from the list Nicaise will hex him again. He returns to the store with the backseat of Vannes’ car crammed with boxes from Costco and Jord’s apothecary, and he calls Nicaise out to help him bring them inside. When everything is dragged out of the car and put away, Laurent looks around for the large box of mac n cheese and finds that it has vanished. Really, he doesn’t want to know.
When Laurent had left, Vannes had been chatting with an older woman over the counter, trying to help her decide between two of the scrying bowls Laurent had pulled from the shelf for her. When he returns, Vannes is reclining in a padded desk chair Laurent has never seen before with her feet propped on top of the counter, playing Angry Birds on her phone.
“What did you do with my stool?” He asks. It comes out more weary than anything, but Vannes still startles; her feet land on the floor with a loud thump, and she hides her phone in her shirt.
“Make some noise when you come in!” She glares at him, and Laurent glares back. Vannes backs down after the cheerful music and exaggerated bird squawks coming from her phone go silent, and Laurent just rolls his eyes.
“Whatever you did to my stool, please give it back. I’ll take over from here.” She heaves a sigh and stands from the padded chair, and with a short wave of her hand it slips back into Laurent’s old, worn stool. He’d carved it himself at eighteen, for lack of anything better to do with his time, and Vannes keeps urging him to let her replace it.
“If you want something more comfortable so badly, bring it in with you. Just don’t let Nicaise or Petunia near it and you’ll be fine.”
“But then I won’t have anything to practice transfiguration on,” she whines, draping herself over the counter in exaggerated agony. Laurent drops onto his stool and taps his fingers on the counter twice. He finds the drawer stuffed dull of receipts on the first try, and he sorts the ones from his most recent trips in with the rest of them. There’s over thirty drawers on this side of the counter, and he doesn’t even remember what’s in half of them.
“Really? I’m sure there’s absolutely nothing else in this store you could practice magic on.” He says dryly, glancing up, and Vannes grins at him. She’s lying down on the countertop now, head tilted back to look at him so that it looks as if she’s upside down, and Laurent can’t fight the fond smile. Vannes is his age, though she barely acts like it most days.
“Nothing at all,” she promises.
“But Nicaise is right back there,” he replies, eyes wide with feigned innocence, and feels something hard hit the back of his head not a half-second later.
“And Nicaise is going to hex you,” Nicaise promises, from the archway behind him. Vannes snorts ungracefully, and Laurent glances down to see the coin-sized chunk of wood Nicaise had hurled at him lying on the floor. “You didn’t even get half of what I asked you for.”
It’s Nicaise’s turn to drape himself over the counter extravagantly, crushing Vannes’ lungs with almost the full weight of his torso as he does. She wheezes and slaps at his shoulder, but Nicaise just glares forcefully at both of them and pushes down a little harder.
“You act like you thought I would get any of it in the first place.” Laurent arches an eyebrow, and then leans back slightly as Petunia leaps up silently onto the counter in front of him, staring him down with her large yellow eyes. She’s a little unnerving, and sometimes more dangerous than Nicaise himself.
“I thought I’d at least try.” Nicaise shrugs, and digs his elbow a little deeper into Vannes’ kidney in the process. She groans, and flaps her hands uselessly at him. Nicaise is dressed in something he’d dug out of a thrift shop months ago—a huge velvet shirt, dark violet and loose on his frame. It’s not even the most over-the-top article of clothing he owns. Vannes eventually gives up, trying to get him off of her, and she eventually settles for rubbing a small part of the loose sleeve between her fingers, humming contentedly with what little breath she has.
Laurent rolls his eyes, and reaches across the counter for the old spellbook he’d been flipping through yesterday. It’s relatively new—to him, at least; the spine is cracked and the pages are yellow from age. It had been donated by a younger woman, whose great-grandmother had been a witch but had passed none of her talents along to her family. When the old woman had died, they’d dropped off thousands of dollars worth of her things in cardboard boxes, and Laurent has been sorting through them for weeks.
This spellbook is interesting for a few reasons, and Laurent had set it aside while he was sorting through the four boxes of books to flip through later. One reason is that some passages and spells are written in a magical language Laurent doesn’t know; the other is that the margins are covered in the old woman’s spindly handwriting. Much of the ink is spiderwebbing, from notes made decades ago, but some are written in faint pencil in a much shakier hand.
“Nerd,” Nicaise scoffs, and lets Vannes move her arm enough to give him a high-five. “Oh, someone came by to see you.”
Laurent lifts his head up from the book, and puts it down next to the notebook he’d been writing in trying to decipher the strange language. It’s some kind of rune he hasn’t seen before, but he hasn’t been able to understand any of the sequences. The part of him that needs to solve any problem he’s confronted with itches to call Orlant, and find out where the woman had been buried, so he could try and get a few translations out of her. The other part of him remembers some of the things Orlant had gotten up to in college and shuts down that train of thought.
“Who?” Nicaise shrugs, but Petunia’s ears twitch a little in interest. Laurent watches her, wary.
“Some teacher guy. He was here to return some books, and he wanted to talk to you.” Vannes raises her eyebrows, shooting Laurent a pointed look.
“Great biceps. Just in case nothing else rings a bell.”
Damen. Damen had stopped by to return his books, and asked for him. He glances over at the bookshelves, and the two titles Damen have borrowed sit in the center of one of the shelves like they’d never left in the first place. Laurent can’t help but feel just a little disappointed, and then decides that he should probably be more concerned—Damen had apparently run into both Nicaise and Vannes, probably at the same time, and Laurent can only hope that he’d escaped with all his limbs intact.
“Please tell me you didn’t maul him,” he sighs. Nicaise and Vannes exchange some kind of look, which Laurent can’t even begin to decipher. He decides not to try, and instead tries to go back to the spellbook. Unsurprisingly, the symbols on the page remain elusive, the only hint to their meaning the spindly writing of fresh at midnight and dreamwalking? written in smudged ink. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Petunia walk across Vannes’ face while Nicaise grins and Vannes spits curses, useless without her wand.
Laurent thinks, very seriously about firing both of them. He then remembers the last man Vannes and Nicaise had ganged up on, and the mess he’d been cleaning off the ceiling for hours afterward, and reconsiders.
To his left, Petunia digs her claws into Vannes’ cheek, and Nicaise receives a harsh knee to the ribs, and all three collapse on the floor, laughing and swearing and hissing together.
The storm has been building for days now, and it’s no surprise to Laurent when it finally breaks. Thunder rolls through the cramped streets of the city, rain filling the gutters to overflowing with trash-filled rivers. Laurent had woken up to an entire tree branch slamming into his window with the force of the wind behind it, and had decided to cut the shop’s hours. Even in the worst weather, people manage to find their way in, but there’s no harm in closing a few hours early. Nicaise has run off with a friend—Jord’s apprentice, who has diligently spent the last three years wriggling his way through Nicaise’s defenses—and they’d promised not to do anything too illegal with the lightning they’d set out to catch.
There’s valuable magic to be found in a storm like this, but Laurent has never been that kind of thrill-seeker. Instead, he shutters the windows, activating the runes on them with a few hushed whispers. The birds in the rafters twitter nervously, and there’s a chatter of obnoxious squawks as one of their squatting pixies presumably yanks out a few tail feathers in retaliation. Another burst of wind sends the door flying in, the bell above it ringing madly, and Laurent rushes over to push it shut before any more water from the street can spill into the shop.
He’s in the middle of turning the third lock on the door with a key that’s usually hidden in another part of reality when he feels something heavy slam three times, quickly, against the glass just above his head. Laurent finishes turning the lock and looks up, expecting—another tree branch, maybe—and is wholly unprepared to see Damianos, most of his face covered by a thick scarf and beanie, eyes wide as he slams his palm against the door.
It takes about a minute to unlock the door, but as soon as the last enchantment falls away, Damen tumbles through the door in a mess of water and soaked clothing, dripping onto Laurent’s nice hardwood floors. They don’t speak immediately; Laurent is busy locking everything up again, and Damen is busy trying to catch his breath, arms wrapped tight around a bulge in his heavy jacket. He looks a little bit like a drowned kitten, if kittens were six foot three and worked out eight times a week. Maybe the metaphor doesn’t work out as well as Laurent had initially thought.
“You’re getting my flooring wet,” he says, once he turns back to Damen, because he can’t really think of a way to ask why he was out in the worst storm of the year, without even an umbrella (magical or otherwise) to shield him.
“Oh,” Damen replies, like he hadn’t even noticed. He closes his eyes, the corners of his mouth turning down in concentration. It takes a while—about twelve seconds by Laurent’s count—but eventually the water dries up, leaving Damen’s clothes and hands as dry as they must have been before he stepped out into the storm. Every part of him is dry, except for his hat and hair, which sends rivulets of water down his face and into the collar of his coat. Outside, there’s a great splash of water onto the sidewalk, like someone had dumped a bucket out of the window.
Damen sighs, and Laurent represses a laugh. He tucks his cardigan a little tighter around himself; the gust of cold air that had rushed in alongside Damen is still dissipating, and the warming potion he’d made himself to add to his tea that morning is starting to wear off.
“I’ll get you a towel,” he offers. Damen tugs his hat off his head, scowls at it resentfully, and murmurs a quiet thank you. One arm is still wrapped around the lump in his coat, which Laurent notes with alarm, seems to be glowing. He glances at it dubiously, but fetches a towel from behind the counter without comment, and watches Damen rug his hair vigorously with one hand.
Damen’s face emerges from beneath the towel only when his hair is dry enough that it’s stopped dripping onto his shoulders, and he holds it out to Laurent sheepishly, shoulders hunched in embarrassment. Laurent takes it with only a raised eyebrow, and tosses it behind him, back over the counter. It will get taken care of eventually, he rationalizes.
“Sorry,” Damen offers, in what seems to be a greeting. Laurent resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Um, I brought your books back.”
He tugs the glowing lump out of his coat, and Laurent reaches for it instinctively. As soon as the stack of books, tied together with several layers of brown string, touches his hand, the glowing stops, and Damen breathes an audible sigh of relief.
“They started glowing this morning, right before the storm hit. I thought I could return them once it died down, but when they started smoking I thought maybe I should just do it now. I didn’t want them to—catch on fire, or anything.” Laurent frowns down at the perfectly normal-looking stack of books in his hands, and then glares for a moment at the bookshelves to his left.
This marks Damen’s fifth visit to the store, and the fourth had been less than two weeks ago. He’d returned and checked out more books, mostly old textbooks on a dozen different languages, and Laurent hadn’t been expecting him for another few weeks, at least. Instead of commenting, he just turns to the bookshelf, untying the strings around the books. He can feel Damen stepping up to his side, staying just a half-step behind him. It’s not intimidating—almost the opposite. Laurent chances a look, and sees Damen watching the shifting shelves with an expression of near-wonder. As the gaps in the shelves appear, one by one, Laurent slides the books back into their places. There’s only one left in his hands when Damen shifts, reaches out slowly to brush his fingers against Laurent’s wrist.
“Laurent?” He says, quietly, and Laurent turns to face him abruptly.
It’s Damen’s fifth visit to the shop, and he still hasn’t been told Laurent’s name. Unless Vannes or Nicaise had told him all those weeks ago—but they wouldn’t; they both know better.
“How did you—?” He cuts himself off when Damen’s fingers, still freezing against his bare skin, trail down to flip open the cover of the book Laurent is still holding. He glances down, at the beaten copy of Enochian Linguistics and Magical Properties, and sees his own name, scrawled in messy cursive, in the upper right-hand corner of the cover.
It had been a present from his father, when Laurent had been almost ten. It had been one among the dozens his father had given him, collected from his travels. He’d been gone most days; he’d been a codebreaker, one of the best in the business, and it took him all over the world. Every time he came back, though, he’d always brought Laurent books, and Laurent had read them all. When Auguste started going with him, on trips to Sub-Saharan Africa and the frozen landscapes of Russian wilderness, Laurent had received double the amount of books and magical trinkets.
The book he’s holding now had been one of the last his father had ever given him. Maybe two months before the last trip he and Auguste had ever taken.
“If it’s any consolation, I’m not exactly good enough at magic to hex you or anything.” He’s still standing at Laurent’s shoulder, still to chilled by the rain to give off warmth. Laurent can feel him anyway, can feel the energy around him. If he tried hard enough, he could probably tune into Damen’s energy enough to verify what he’d said, but he’s cold and tired and almost regretting opening the store at all today.
“It’s fine,” he says, quietly, and closes the book. He slides it in next to a book on angelic lore, and the shelf vanishes as soon as his fingers fall from the spine, replaced with a long row of books about botany, which Laurent pointedly couldn’t care less about, if only to spite Jord. He probably should have wiped his name from the cover, erased with with nothing more than a brush of his finger, but he can’t quite bring himself to; he doubts that the shelves would let him find the book again even if he wanted to.
“I can go,” Damen says, just as quiet, and is immediately followed by a flash of light and a near-instant boom of thunder. The sound of rain gets louder, if possible, and Laurent turns to look at Damen and his still-damp hair. It’s his turn to sigh, now, as he treks over to the door and flips the sign to Closed.
“You said you teach linguistics?” He asks, and feels more than sees Damen nodding behind him. “Come with me, then.”
Living above his own shop has its perks, including not having to venture out into the raging storm. Laurent leads Damen into the back of the shop, going slow enough that Damen has time to stare at most of the things the pass on the way to the narrow staircase that leads to Laurent and Nicaise’s apartments. For a moment he thinks Damen’s broad shoulders won’t be able to fit, but Damen manages it fairly comfortably.
There are three floors above the ground-level shop, and Laurent lives on the second. Nicaise is on the first, because he claims to hate exercise and stairs in equal measure. He’d stayed on the third floor with Laurent for the first few months after he’d left the manor, but as soon as he’d started the formal apprenticeship, Laurent had let him move out. The fourth floor lacks a permanent resident, but Laurent keeps it furnished for friends and the occasional tenant. Damen is quiet on the way up, seemingly content to just observe. Part of Laurent is hesitant—to bring Damen into his home, where he could do so much harm.
But his energy is good, and the shop seems to like him, so Laurent unlocks his apartment with the iron key he keeps on a cord around his neck and ushers him inside.
The apartment is still warm from the morning, though the fire in the hearth has been reduced to a pile of glowing embers. The old-fashioned cauldron Laurent makes his personal potions in is still hanging above it, empty. It had been a surprisingly useful gag gift, from Jord, who had no idea that the copper cauldron he’d gotten Laurent on Amazon was over eighty years old and bore spells from its previous owners.
“This is nice,” Damen says, glancing around the spacious living room. He sounds like he means it, too, with no offhand remarks about the mismatched furniture and alarming amounts of rugs, blankets, and pillows scattered everywhere. Some of the furniture, like the small wooden table next to one of the couches with a lamp, a few candles, and more than a few books stacked on the surface.
Damen has his arms wrapped around himself, and Laurent is just close enough to him that he can see the goosebumps on his neck. The wind howls through the narrow alley next to the building, and Damen shivers at the noise. Laurent crosses the room to one of the couches and tugs off the cushions, dragging them over the rugs until they’re in front of the pile. He grabs a haphazard pile of blankets and pillows and dumps them next to the cushions, and pushes Damen over toward the makeshift nest. Damen seems too stunned to protest, and he sits down on one of the cushions heavily, automatically reaching to tug off his rubber boots.
“Can you build up the fire?” Laurent asks. “It looks like you’re going to be stuck here for a while. Just make yourself comfortable.”
He escapes into the kitchen to boil water for tea, and adds the last few centimeters of potion from one of the flasks scattered around the counter to the bubbling kettle. It should be enough to stop Damen’s shivering, and to stave off any illness from going out into the cold. Laurent watches the water boil, and listens to the sudden crackling of fire from the living room, and wonders why he’d thought bringing Damen to his home was a good idea.
You could have just left him in the shop with a couple blankets, his inner Nicaise tells him, and Laurent rolls his eyes at the thought. The company won’t be bad, he’s sure, and it’s always nicer to ride out a storm with someone else. Even if that someone else is tall, and broad, and has a dimple in his left cheek that comes out whenever he smiles at Laurent.
Damen has shed most of his layers by the time Laurent emerges from the kitchen with two mugs in his hands. He’s sitting cross-legged in front of the now-roaring fire, in what Laurent now realizes are sweatpants and a thick flannel shirt. His coat, socks, and hat are piled up in front of the fire, just in front of the grate. Damen turns to look up at him when he hears Laurent’s footsteps, and despite the wide breadth of his shoulders and the muscles evident in his forearms even under the shirt, he looks—not small, but more comfortable. Less intimidating, to be sure, when he smiles up at Laurent and the dimple in his cheek deepens.
Laurent leans down to set the mugs down next to Damen’s clothes, and perches himself on the corner of the couch to slip his own shoes off. He grabs a few things before settling down on the cushion next to Damen—the spellbook he still hasn’t managed to decipher, the notebook he’s been using to record the little progress he’s made, and a few different-colored pens.
“Hey,” Damen says, when Laurent is done making himself comfortable in the nest of pillows and blankets. His face is turned toward Laurent, so that half of it is illuminated by the orange light of the fire.
“Hello,” Laurent replies. Damen’s smile is soft, and genuine, and Laurent finds himself relaxing into the comfort of company. Laurent smiles back, pulls the spellbook closer to them, and takes a small sip of his tea. “I was wondering if you’d help me translate this.”
Damen becomes a fixture in the store. It’s so gradual that Laurent barely notices; Damen’s visits become twice a month, then once a week, then nearly every other day until one day Laurent opens a drawer and finds a key to the back entrance, with Damen’s name etched into the handle. Each of them have their own keys, which won’t work for anyone else, and Laurent tests it to be sure before giving it to Damen one Sunday evening after closing time.
At first the visits had been to help Laurent translate the spellbook, then the two other books in the same language Laurent had dug up from the back rooms. Then it had been to borrow and return books, then to donate some books of his late father’s, then to bring Laurent tea from the elf-owned coffee shop down the street. And then all of a sudden, without any particular fanfare, Damen starts hanging around the counter whenever he doesn’t have papers to grade or lectures to give.
“I should start paying you,” Laurent comments mildly after the third time Damen points a confused customer in the direction of the pickled reptiles. Damen laughs a little and reaches over to pluck something out of Laurent’s hair—a leaf, from the vine that seems to be fond of leaving bits and pieces of itself on Laurent’s body.
“Or you could just label your shelves,” Damen teases. Laurent reaches out to pluck the leaf from his fingers—easy, comfortable, in the way that touching Damen had effortlessly become. With just the barest effort, it crumbles between his fingers into a small pile of slightly-smoking ash, and he sweeps it off of the counter and into the waiting trash bin.
“But where’s the fun in that?” Laurent just gets a grin in return, Damen leaning back on his elbows against the counter. He’s still in the clothes he wears to teach, white shirt unbuttoned nearly down to his chest, blazer falling off one shoulder casually. He looks out of place against the almost-rustic backdrop of Laurent’s store, but it suits him.
It’s nearing closing time, and it’s been a fairly quiet day; after the morning rush of potions, there had been a slow but steady trickle of people looking for magical artifacts and trying to pawn off some of their own, but nothing too strenuous. Laurent has been trying to perfect a weather spell for a few days; Jord’s humidifiers keep breaking from the proximity to the tropical magic plants he grows in one of his several greenhouses, and since Laurent has a personal stake in his continued production of blood orchids, he had offered to help. Of course, now one of the back rooms is too hot and humid to step into wearing any kind of heavy material, and Laurent’s last version of the spell had caused an actual thunderstorm inside the shop, but he’s spent the day tinkering with it and he thinks he’s getting close.
Damen had rolled in through the back door at around four, tie already undone and draped around his neck loosely, and slid Laurent’s usual tea across the counter at him. He’d been too distracted by his notes to say a proper thank-you, but Damen knows by now the meanings of Laurent’s different pitches of non-verbal grunts. By now, though, he’s set aside his notepad to drink his tea, steam still rising in prancing figures of deer and wolves even after an hour of sitting out. Laurent doesn’t deal with elves much—outside of a few strands of hair bought with gold—but they do make the best tea in the city.
“When is Nicaise supposed to get back?” Damen asks, fiddling with an amethyst and silver pendant hanging on the jewelry rack next to the cash register. The chain and back of the pendant are carved with spells waiting to be activated, not that Damen could himself. Laurent has learned that summoning small objects and an uncanny ability to find anything misplaced are about the extent of his magic; it’s why, Damen had explained to him one night sitting next to Laurent’s fireplace and poring over books, he had gone into academia instead of an apprenticeship.
“Sometime next week, unless he calls me to try and escape for a while longer.” Nicaise has been gone for two weeks now, gone out West to the Rockies with Ancel, Aimeric, and Jord’s apprentice Emile. They’re there on the pretense of restocking Laurent’s cupboards and bringing back plants for Jord, but Laurent’s sure he doesn’t want to know what else they’ve been getting up to.
“I hate to admit it, but I kind of miss the brat,” Damen says, half-smiling, and Laurent rolls his eyes.
“I don’t, except that I have to make all the potions by myself now.” It helps that most of the people in the morning potions rush are regulars, and Laurent can brew them the night before instead of trying to do everything at once in the morning. “Besides, he gets too restless if I keep him cooped up in here for too long.”
Most of the time, Nicaise seems perfectly happy to stay in the back rooms, and to bounce between Jord’s greenhouses and Paschal’s clinic, but traveling is good for him; it gets him out of his head in a way that’s not possible around Laurent, in this city. Even though Ancel and Aimeric are with him, carrying their shared histories on their shoulders, escaping is good for them all.
“And you don’t?” Damen looks up, simply curious. Laurent shrugs, and slides open a drawer to keep himself from having to meet Damen’s gaze. A small mouse blinks up at him in dumb surprise, a flower petal that looks suspiciously like Black Mercy clutched in its tiny hands. It’s eyes are glazed over, tongue hanging out of its tiny mouth next to the chewed-on part of the petal, and Laurent closes the drawer again, leaving the creature to its vivid hallucinations.
“Not really. But most of this place was formed out of my magic, or my brother’s. I get restless if I’m away from it for too long, I suppose.” Damen looks down at the polished wood of the counter, and runs his fingers along the grain of it.
“What do you mean by that? Wasn’t this built, just like every other building on the street?” Damen knows little about the more untamed, instinctual parts of magic. He knows vaguely of Auguste—that he was a cursebreaker, that he left Laurent the land, that he’s dead—but he doesn’t quite understand how all of this came to be. Laurent shakes his head, and lays his palm flat against the counter, a few inches away from Damen’s roaming fingers.
“Auguste bought the land when it was empty; he built the building himself. It took years, I think. He wanted an office for the two of them, somewhere they could call home base that wasn’t our house. The apartments were for tenants, most likely, but—I never really knew what he intended most of this place for. I’d only been here once, before...”
He trails off, glances up at Damen. He looks interested, at least, but willing to back off if Laurent asks. If there’s one thing the two of them share, though, it’s a desire to learn, and so Laurent doesn’t ask.
“I didn’t come back here until I was seventeen, and it took me months to set everything up like this. I carved a lot of the furniture myself, but since the building was made from Auguste’s magic, it made it easier to shape it into what I needed. Instead of keeping my magic inside myself, I sent a lot of it into the land, and now it mostly does what I ask it to. Like a non-sentient familiar, in a way.”
“And your brother’s magic?” Laurent hums lightly, and closes his eyes.
“It’s still here. Mostly I can only feel my own, but his magic is the foundation of everything that happens here. He didn’t only leave me the land—he left me the rest of his power, the part that stayed here every time he left.” Laurent keeps his eyes closed and looks, for the power that almost feels like golden light behind his eyelids. It’s underneath the familiar blanket of his own magic, and harder to find. He doesn’t do this often—hasn’t in years, really—but he digs deeper, follows the structure of the building down to the black soil, and sinks his consciousness into it.
And then, surrounding him, the golden memory of Auguste, spreading warm through his limbs like a shot of Dwarfish gin. With the body that’s only mostly his, Laurent turns the hand resting on the counter palm-up, and opens his eyes.
He doesn’t do this often, because it hurts. To see Auguste’s face, composed of a million particles of golden, pure magic, swirling in his palm and beaming up at him, smile lines crinkling the corners of his eyes. Laurent blinks away the tears and looks at Damen, who’s staring at Auguste in his hand with open wonder. A few tiny specks of light amble toward him, zigzagging their way to brush against Damen’s cheekbones, and he startles back slightly.
“Hello,” Laurent murmurs, and can feel the small, sad smile on his own face.
“Hey,” Damen breathes, like he’s holding his breath. Auguste turns to him then, the motion and the light almost blinding. Laurent’s fingers are burning with the effort of holding Auguste up above the chaotic waves of his own magic, fighting to keep Auguste hidden and protected. He doesn’t know how much longer he can keep Auguste here.
Take care of him, the memory of his brother says to Damen, more of an impression than a sound. Damen’s eyes are wide as he nods, fingers reaching out to brush against the golden specks that trail against the pads of his fingers like vines. Laurent blinks the tears out of his eyes, and Auguste looks back at him one more time before he starts to scatter.
Laurent, he says.
“Auguste,” Laurent replies, and the memory vanishes into thin air, like it hadn’t been there in the first place. Laurent looks up at Damen, blinking both tears and spots of golden light out of his eyes, and sees him doing the same.
“That’s what I mean,” he says softly. “When I say the store likes you—that’s what I mean. It’s not just my magic that wants you here.”
On the surface of the counter, Damen’s hand finds his.
And—because this is Laurent’s life, and he never gets a single moment of peace—that’s when Nicaise appears next to him. He flickers a few times, half-formed and blurry, and Damen yells something Laurent doesn’t quite catch just as Nicaise’s body forms with solid outlines and warm breath, covered head to toe in blood.
He collapses onto his knees and Laurent reaches for him instinctively, magic searching for a wound to heal or bones to knit back together, and finds nothing. He scrambles to the floor, shoulder bumping against Damen’s as they grab Nicaise’s shoulders to steady him, keeping him from faceplanting onto the floor. The transportation spells Laurent had given each of them take a lot of energy; even with Nicaise’s head bowed he can feel the exhaustion etched into him.
“What happened? Where are the others?” Laurent asks, forcing himself to sound calm through the frantic beating of his pulse against his skin. Nicaise groans, and raises one hand limply. Clutched in his fist is a handful of three or four feathers as long as his arm, one half-snapped.
“Roc,” Nicaise says, and lifts his head enough to grin in a way that looks more manic than happy. “We were following a herd of singing deer, and it attacked. Clawed Aimeric pretty bad, so they brought him to Paschal. I grabbed a few feathers off its wing for you, though. And we got everything else you asked for.”
Laurent closes his eyes, and has to take a deep breath to keep himself from saying something he’ll regret. “You’re trying to tell me you yanked feathers out of a roc. A very alive, very deadly three-ton bird of prey.”
“Yeah,” Nicaise breathes out, on a slightly hysterical laugh. “Fuck. Yeah, I did.”
Petunia’s head pokes out of the inside of one of the giant packs strapped to Nicaise’s back, and he hisses angrily at them all before dropping to the floor and stalking away. Damen doesn’t quite manage to suppress his snicker at her puffed-up fur, and she turns and fixes him with her murderous yellow glare. Damen glares back, and Laurent swears that she grins at him before disappearing into the back rooms.
“Hey,” Nicaise drawls, still leaning into their hands like he’s going to collapse if they let him go. “You should make sure everyone else is alive.”
Laurent heaves a sigh, and leaves Nicaise to Damen’s sturdy biceps—and forearms and thighs and everything else—to call Paschal. He’s quickly reassured that Aimeric is mostly not dying, and Ancel and Emile are only a little in shock, and all of their limbs arrived safely through the transportation spell. It calms him down enough that Laurent’s hands stop shaking, and his heartbeat slows to something a little more manageable.
As Laurent follows Damen—holding Nicaise securely in his very nice arms—up the stairs to Nicaise’s apartment, he swears that the next time Nicaise almost dies on a trip, Laurent is going to kill him himself.
It happens so slowly that Laurent barely notices. Damen’s touches get more familiar, his presence in both Laurent’s store an his apartment becomes more tangible. Damen is new books slid quietly into the bookshelves in the store, is lecture notes left on Laurent’s kitchen table, is a new toothbrush on the other side of the sink from Laurent’s.
When they all go out for Laurent’s birthday, Damen is included with barely a second thought—he knows Jord and Vannes well, at this point, and Lazar and Orlant and Charls passably, and the whole circle of apprentices adores him because they know he lets them do whatever they want. It’s a large, cheerful gathering in Vannes’ family restaurant; Paschal and Halvik even stop by, with gifts of books and, from Halvik, a carved ritual dagger with a raw chip of garnet inlaid at the base.
Damen goes home to his own apartment that night, and Laurent is halfway through brewing potions for the morning when he sticks his hand out, expecting Damen to pass him a handful of pixie teeth, and realizes that Damen isn’t there. It unnerves him for the rest of the night—the sudden feeling of absence in his apartment without Damen snoring quietly on the only couch that’s long enough for his legs, Damen waking up early to draft notes and cook breakfast, drawing ineffective runes in the pancake batter with the spatula without Laurent there to activate them.
He doesn’t say anything about it, because there’s no point, but Laurent finds himself almost off-balance in the apartment without Damen beside him. In the store it’s easier, but his magic always lights up a little brighter when Damen steps through the door.
“What are you brewing?” Damen asks one Friday evening after closing, wandering up behind Laurent and propping his chin on the top of his head. Laurent rolls his eyes and grabs his rarely-used wand, dipping it into the potion in front of him and stirring it slowly. He shifts on his stool, pulls his uneven, too-long wand out, and watches the viscous silver potion drip back into the cauldron.
“Draught of Truth,” Laurent murmurs. “Special commission.”
Damen strokes a gentle, unconscious line across the side of Laurent’s neck, and hums low in his throat. “Who needs it?”
“The Bureau of Magical Affairs. Hand me a unicorn hair.” Damen reaches over with a pair of iron tongs to tug a long, shimmering strand of hair off of the rack handing from one of the cupboards, and Laurent gathers it with his wand and stirs it in. The potion gets harder to look at—glittering like a facet of a diamond, but still thickly metallic.
“That’s not a usual client of yours.” Laurent shrugs a little, staring into the potion with his brow furrowed. It’s making his head a little light, his tongue a little looser, so he keeps his answers clipped.
“They’re hiring cursebreakers. It’s fairly standard procedure, and I have a good reputation. And a name they know.”
Laurent’s name is mostly notorious in magical circles these days, but he likes to think that he’s changing it. Fifteen years ago people heard de Vere and thought of his father, and Auguste, and Uncle’s position at the Bureau. And then his family had died, and Uncle’s reputation had fallen apart, and Laurent had sold off everything in his name and started from scratch.
“You should come to bed,” Damen says, and it’s so familiar. Laurent should be taken aback, should be alarmed or frightened or something else, but he’s not. Damen’s arms wrap warm around his waist, familiar and new at the same time. He’s breathing in the potion too, Laurent thinks, but it’s not enough to change the way either of them should be acting.
“I’m almost done,” Laurent replies. It’s the truth—the potion is crystalizing, the movement of his wand almost impossible with how thick it’s gotten, and he pulls it out slowly. There’s a metallic hum in the air, like the sound of electricity, and then a warm release of tension Laurent didn’t even know he’d been holding in his spine.
“Now?” Damen sounds tired—he’d been organizing the amulets, when Laurent had last checked, but had taught two classes earlier in the day.
“Yeah,” he replies, sagging back into Damen’s chest, letting himself be held. It’s easy, with Damen. It’s always easy, and comforting, and safe. He leaves the potion in the cauldron, covering it so Nicaise or Petunia don’t fall in face-first, and turns off the lights in the back rooms as they leave. They open late on Saturdays, and Laurent takes the time to be grateful that he can sleep in.
They get ready for bed together, like they often do these days, but this time when Damen starts making himself a nest of pillows and blankets on the couch, Laurent catches his sleeve.
“Sleep with me this time,” he says, soft with exhaustion, and can’t stop himself. He must have inhaled more of the Draught than he’d thought. Damen pauses, and watches his face for a moment.
“Kiss me,” Damen says in return, and for a moment Laurent wonders if he’d fallen asleep at his stool, if this is what the vapors of the Draught of Truth are showing him in a dream. But Damen’s hand winds its way around Laurent’s wrist, gentle and calloused, and it feels real enough to be believed.
Standing up on his toes, letting his hands rest firm on Damen’s shoulders, feels as easy as slipping underwater. In the end, it’s Damen that leans his head forward that last inch, letting his lips press against Laurent’s quietly, softly, as if too much passion would shatter the moment. When they pull away, his fingers deftly pluck Laurent’s hand from his shoulder, winds their fingers together, and Laurent feels the vague, warm pulse of Damen’s magic against his own.
They fit, he thinks ridiculously, and kisses Damen again.