The world opens beneath my feet, splitting the asphalt and gravel of the back alley, a glimmer of wet and pale rock at the bottom. Steam rises, tangles with the bread and cookie scent from the bakery on one side of me, the fresh clean smell of the laundromat on the other, and I stretch my legs wide over the crack into the Nevernever, flip flops slipping on the slush and ice.
”Hold your breath,” my mother’s voice says.
It’s autumn for her; it’s spring for me. The sun is hot on her face, her hair tied back at her neck, the nylon weight of her water-proof backpack, the straps scratching at her skin. “We’re going in deep.” She draws in a breath-- my chest expands, her feet shift, stepping on each other, a stone rolls under my heel, my clothes in a plastic-wrapped duffel bag, held in one hand.
Someone murmurs in her ear, the touch of a hand on her arm-- that morning, marmalade toast and coffee under the big open windows of a diner, the gleam of fluorescent light on deep red hair, Lea’s eyes squinting up in a smile, knowing how those lips would taste if she leaned over--
”Shh!” my mother laughs, “don’t distract me!” The roar of a car makes me twist, look back at the alley mouth, the street past it: empty. There’s a puddle near my feet, little green weeds growing out of the hundreds of tiny cracks in the pavement by the dumpster-- I hunch down, hide behind it a little more, the brick wall rough against my back, catching on my thin shirt, the whispery fabric of my swim trunks.
“Okay, Stars. Before we put on a show, let’s go!”
The bakery kitchen must be at the back; the air wafts warm from a vent over my head, cupcakes and melting chocolate carried on the promise of raindrops from the heavy grey clouds up above. My mother’s breasts are heavy against my chest, familiar and strange; I suck in a deep breath-- hold it-- and step into gravity going the wrong way.
The first thing is water. The second thing is heat.
I stick my arm out above my head because it’s what my mother does, her muscle memory mine, my hand hitting the same rough rock bottom hers does. We push off together, twist in the deep, clear water, kick up to where the ground was a moment before.
It’s farther than it looks-- her chest burns with mine, Lea ahead of her, pale feet kicking bubbles down-- I gasp when my head breaks the surface. I’ve come out into a cloud-- I cough, the air cold and thin, bright in my lungs like the spill of stars overhead, far and framed by the darker space of mountains, uneven lines of black on black and my ears popping at the change in air pressure, my own breathing the loudest thing I can hear.
The water in my hair freezes, I blink to break the ice on my eyelashes. The steam from the spring hangs in the air and I sink low, treading with my head just above the surface. I’m warm all the way to my bones, even the trickle of Winter in my core lulled, sleepy and loose. I pull my power back from the ruby in my pentacle and let my mother go, alone now, talking about a weakness in the world half a mile away that will take me to a place in the Nevernever where drops of light fall from trees like cherry blossoms in the wind.
I stay in the water until my head is spinning with the heat, struggle up onto the rocky, snowy shore until I can concentrate, breathing deep from the mountain air, a little sulfury from the spring, wet and heavy with steam, and dive down to dry land.
Two weeks later, I’m on my back, staring up at the silver smile of the moon, letting my front cool, ice beading along my ribs, the heat leeching the knots from my shoulders. The water laps against my sides like mother’s voice in my mind, her boots crunching through an overgrown field under the summer sun, chamomile heady and sweet in the air around her, sticking to her skirt, her bare arms. It itches, pulls-- I tip my pelvis into the water, let gravity pull me down until it’s washed away, come back up to the surface with her memory of an old thin teacup in her hand, my grandfather’s kitchen, that same ticking clock I know, the farm at night.
There’s a Way a few miles down the road from Ebenezar’s big yellow farmhouse, past the alpaca farm, through a ditch full of wild strawberries. I remember my mother finding them, the way they stained her fingers, her dress, the prickle of dirt on her knees from kneeling, the sweat down her back, the first sweet taste each year she returned.
I breathe deep, brush the slush from my hair with wrinkled fingers-- and freeze.
There are eyes watching me.
Through the steam, two reflections of my pentacle, glowing back at me. I cut my will; it goes dark, quiet. The owl swoops away. I wait, push myself to the edge of the pool, hold onto the rough rock, worn down by water and time. I pull my duffel bag in with me, and sink down to the Way.
The first thing is water. The second thing is heat.
I don’t need my mother’s voice to guide me up to the surface, but she carries me with her anyway: we match our movements, each stroke, each kick. I let Lea surface first like she does, shake the water from my hair, my face, let things settle and spin when she isn’t there, no curling wet hair, no knowing smile and gleaming cat eyes. The sky is high and blue, the mountaintops white, the water clear and hot. It glistens on the pale rock walls and shore where the steam has settled, warm enough today that it’s only frozen where the snow drifts start.
We go to the Sahara this week, in what’s Chad for me, part of French territory for her-- ”It’s a sharp drop, she says, laughs bright and wild, and the breath knocks out of us at the landing, sliding down a sand dune, hot and scratching against our back. It’s dry and scorching and her pants billow out wide in the wind. From there, we step into something half oasis, half a djinn’s garden, fruit trees grown wild, a crystal pool at their center, water splashing, cycling in its own little waterfall, orange blossoms so heady in the air I don’t know if it’s them or the heat of the spring making me dizzy.
I break the connection-- her voice fades, but I can still feel her in my body, the stretch of the walk across the shifting sand in her hamstrings, where her arms reach at her sides, shorter than mine, the burn of the sun on her skin, pink and hot and tight. The water has had time to freeze in my hair, an icy mess that trickles down the back of my neck, burns when I sink down so just my eyes and nose are above the waterline.
There’s something tight and hard in my chest, in my gut, my mind shying away when I reach for it-- my hands suddenly shaking under the water, so angry I can’t think, my head pounding. I arch, stretch, try to get it to unwrap, to meet the hot water and dissolve away like the ache in my back or arms after a hard day.
It’s a raven watching me this time, through the steam, black feathers rustling, strutting back and forth on the rock ledge. It tips its head at me, one way then the other, bobs its chest. I nod at it, and it watches while I tread sideways, grab my bag, and dive down.
The next week there are bear prints in the snow, circling the hot spring. I wrap up in a beach towel and pick a rock and sit near the waters edge, aware of the ice freezing on my body, that my flip flops are hardly appropriate wear, but the cold lodged in my magic is deeper than this mortal winter, and I wait. My mother keeps me company, the weight of our pentacle, the memory of it between her breasts, that chill then and the one now against my skin.
He comes out of the woods, his steps slow, lumbering with a muscly grace, sits when he sees me.
I wave; he blurs, form going liquid, comes back into Listens to Wind, grey hair and dark eyes and his expression wry. “You greet all wildlife like that, son?”
I shrug. “Only when I’m pretty sure they’re not coming to teach me about forest fire prevention.”
“What gave me away?”
I eyebrow at him and he shakes his head, laughs, the echoes rolling off the mountains around us. There are lines of white down the darker rock, through the scraggly green of stubborn trees, their roots wrapped around stone. Avalanches. He knows where I’m looking, and thumps my shoulder, sitting down beside me. “The season for it,” he agrees. “And it was a cold winter; the pack’s not stable. I’ll tell you if anything feels like it’s coming our way.”
“...This place?” I say, sounding more surprised than I am. “You?”
He grunts, and we sit, still and quiet. I wonder if he’s been able to hear my mother through me, feel her, know the little pieces of herself she wove into the fabric of her map for me, her secrets that I’ve made my own. The wind is gentle, cool where it finds us, rustles my hair, smells like snow and mud and spring high above sea level. I wonder if I’ve disturbed him, the invasion of another messy human body in his sanctum.
“It was too safe here,” I tell him. “I could feel your wards-- not the wards. I could feel them working. That’s how I knew.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder again, leaves it there for a minute. “You’re frozen to the ground,” he says, and stands, arches his back.
I look. It’s true, the water that’s dripped down my legs has sealed tight around my flip flops. I flex, pull, watch the ice break apart.
“You here for lessons?” Listens to Wind says, unzipping his jacket, pulling his shirt over his head. He’s strong underneath his clothes, lean definition, long runner’s muscles I wasn’t expecting. His shoes and pants follow, folded and tucked into his jacket, his ass and thighs and calves flexing as he slips into the spring. “Offer still stands. There’s anger in you buried ten feet deep, son. Kept me up all night the first time, listening to it fighting to get out.”
“Not much of a student,” I say, watch the muscles in his back as he pushes himself to the centre of the spring where there’s no submerged rock ledge, nothing but deep water, treading easily.
“Not much of a teacher,” he returns. “In fact, I make the old farmer look as patient as a saint.”
I kick my flip flops off, leave them by my duffel bag, leave my towel on the rock. I slide my legs into the water, sitting on the ledge-- he turns to face me. “That’s all the invitation you’re going to get, son. Don’t pretend like I haven’t seen you splashing around in here.”
“Did you know my mother?” The pentacle rests against my breast bone. I could probably find out, search her memories until I stumbled across one, Listens to Wind in my grandfather’s home, maybe, or a face in a crowd that would remind her of him, a voice, a scent, a tangle of blackberry vines, a shadow.
“Not well,” he says. “When she was growing up. But after she took off, she didn’t want much to do with her father’s friends.”
Something begins to untangle in my chest. It hurts. “She was pretty angry,” I say. “For a long time.”
Listens to Wind nods, steam gleaming on his shoulders, the lines of his face. “Lots of people are,” he says. “Doesn’t make it any easier.”
I slide into the spring, going under, push off the ledge until I’m down deep, looking up at his legs, his ass, the bubbles where he's treading above me.
The first thing is water. The second thing is heat.
“Youth,” he says, snorts, when I come up next to him, wiping water from my eyes, my nose, my mouth.
I know how he can feel me, my heart beating, my legs kicking, each breath I take. Probably Mab’s power, waiting in me for her call. Knows the way I keep watching his chest, the water dripping down his neck, how I was staring up at him from below.
My cheeks heat up, not from the spring, and he snorts again. “That’s hardly my usual approach to apprentices, son.”
“Sorry,” I say, cheeks going hotter, stomach twisting as I try to find those thoughts, isolate them, and only urge them on a little stronger for my efforts. “Oh Hell’s bells, I’m so sorry.”
I don’t know his reasons because I’m only myself in this spring, not an entire island, not a whole mountain or a valley. But his eyes are quiet, and then hot, and he reaches out for me, shaking his head. I’ve felt people die on Demonreach. I’ve fought monsters there, felt a creature older, stronger than I can imagine bleed. I’ve never kissed anyone there. I don’t know what it’s like to feel a strong hand come down gentle on my face, a mouth press against mine, taste him, open my lips carefully, catch myself by surprise with a moan that starts in my belly, and feel it again from his perspective, feel both at the same time, know it as one tiny part of a world full of little lives and deaths and centuries.
I shiver, try not to imagine it, push harder at Listens to Wind’s mouth, slide my hands around his back, drift them down his spine, trace his muscles. He breaks away, stays close, chuckles, shakes his head again. But his eyes are kind still, wanting, and his grip on me is tight. “Your grandfather will kill me,” he says, his hand sliding down to hold the back of my neck. "Old farmer's going to bury me a mile deep; ought to have my head examined."
I kiss him this time. There’s nothing but the steam in the air, the heat of the spring, his skin slippery under my hands, his dick hot against my belly. I kiss around his lips, press my body up against him, wrap my legs around his hips when he pushes us over to the rock ledge where the water splashes shallow around us, hot and wet.
He knows where to touch me better than I do, strips my wet shirt and bathing shorts off, finds every place that makes me spark up, makes me gasp and shout and tremble. He rubs against me, hard, burning, in the crease of my thigh joining my pelvis, hikes my legs higher and rubs between my ass cheeks, the head of his cock hitting me just right on the thin skin behind my balls. I chew at his shoulders, latch on to one coin-flat nipple until it’s peaked and swollen in my mouth, swear and twist when he grips me around the middle and digs his thumbs into matching spots on my hip bones that must be connected to a rocket launcher in my nervous system, and I go off with a wail, messy and hot and slick between us.
He pants into my neck, hits my ear and makes me shudder, my cock twitching in its own mess. The steam rises up around us, off of me, the mess on my stomach and chest, my still gasping breath. I tighten my knees and he pushes them apart, leveraging himself into short, hard thrusts, hits my asshole a few times and I twist, push back, arch up and feel myself flex open and close, not sure what to do with the jolts of nervous and pleasure making my sides twitch, my thighs shake.
“Whoa, boy,” he grunts, laughs. “Don’t take off yet, pony.” He pulls back and presses the heel of one hand against my mouth to give me something to hold with my teeth, grips himself with the other. I bite down, and he jerks and finishes, streaking down on my belly, adding to the mess, hotter even than the water beneath me.
He folds down beside me, rolls until he’s mostly covered by the shallow water. I have a flash of guilt-- he doesn’t have Winter inside him, after all, and he wraps an arm around my chest, strokes gently, hooks a leg over my hips. “Settle down, son,” he says. “Let it run its course.” And I do.
It’s not until my heart’s slowed back down and his hand has stilled and I eventually wriggle and sit up, reach for my towel and wipe the mess off my chest, my stomach-- can’t help but laugh that’s it’s iced over, frozen into a tacky slush-- that I realize I’m alone in my head. I go still, breathe in-- out, wait to see if my mother’s body is with me, somewhere, her skin under mine. I clutch at my pentacle, feel the ruby, I don’t know what I want to do--
Listens to Wind sighs, slips all the way into the spring again, holds onto the slopping, uneven rock ledge. “Don’t do trouble in halves,” he says, like he has before, shakes his head. “Let her rest, Harry. She’s there when you need her. That’s one hell of a map she’s left for you.”
I look at him, feel my face twisting down, my lungs tighten-- he pulls at my knee, tugs me into the water. “Settle, pony,” he says, brushes at my hair, his old eyes tired. “You’ll go wild. Anger’s going to tear you down.” He presses his hand to where my chest aches, a ball of Winter cold and my own rage, bundled so tight I’d forgotten it was there, hard and shiny. “We’ll work through it.”
I force words through the way I’m panting, teeth grit together, chest heaving like I’ve run down from the top of one of the mountains around us. “Not my usual approach to teachers, either,” I tell him.
“I’m flattered,” he says, dry, and I snort and rub at my face. He lets go and I sink down under the water to where it’s quiet and warm.
He waits until I’ve surfaced again, and rubs my shoulder, squeezing gently. “Meet me next week,” he says. “I’ll know when you’re here.”
“This wasn’t our first lesson?” I ask, eyes wide, and he snorts, pulling himself out of the water.
“Keep yourself out of trouble, Harry.” He bundles his clothes up, and I watch the bear leave through the steam, lumbering away. I stay in the spring until the stars come out, until my fingers and toes are one big wrinkle, and sink down to where it’s morning on the other side of the world, dripping water and hot through to my bones.