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Shine On Me

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"Ah, seek the treasure of a mind at rest
And store it in the treasury of Ease;
Not worth a loyal heart, a tranquil breast,
Were all the riches of thy lands and seas!
Ah, scorn, like Hafiz, the delights of earth,
Ask not one grain of favour from the base,
Two hundred sacks of jewels were not worth
Thy soul's disgrace!"

— Hafiz,
from Not All the Sum of Earthly Happiness
Gertrude Lowthian Bell, Trans.


I was out back in the herb garden with Dad, pulling up all the stupid thistle growing in Mom’s lavender beds, when Casey and Dylan started banging on our front door and hollering for me to come out and go swimming with them. I had to admit, that sounded like a lot more fun than just staying at home all day. I’d about had it with mud, and stupid prickly weeds, and if I couldn’t be inside reading a book then I guess swimming with my friends was a pretty damn good alternative. Especially if the twins were involved; Casey was great, and his brother wasn’t so bad, either.

Dad must have noticed my expression, because he laughed and tossed a real big sucker of a thistle into our pile of uprooted weeds before reaching over to mess up my hair. “Go on, Deneb,” he said, smiling in that way parents did whenever they were thinking gross sappy thoughts. “You’ve helped me out a lot today, I can finish what’s left by myself.”

He looked a lot less pleased when I wiped my muddy hands off on my pants, but before he could say anything about it I was sprinting inside as fast as I could go. “Thanks, Dad!” I called over my shoulder. “I’ll be back later!”

“Throw those pants in the laundry before you go, you little devil!”

Thankfully the kitchen was empty when I threw open the back door; Mom had left some potion or alchemical concoction bubbling away in a pot on the hearth, but she must have gone upstairs to the library to bother Shahid for a book. I still stopped to scuff my feet on the doormat until I was sure I wasn’t going to leave any muddy footprints on the tile—she would kill me if I tracked dirt into her spotless kitchen right after she’d cleaned. Once I was sure my feet were clean-ish, I ran through the kitchen and out into the vestibule and grabbed the iron door handle with both hands.

Casey and Dylan both had matching grins when I hauled the heavy oak door open, their green eyes bright with mischief. Both of them had towels thrown over their shoulders, and Casey was wearing a sleeveless shirt and some shorts he’d made by hacking a worn-out old pair of pants off at the knee. “Hey Deneb,” they chorused. Ugh, they were doing their annoying twin thing again. “What took you so long?”

“I was out back with Dad,” I said, then crossed my arms when they both started laughing at that explanation. It was true! They didn’t have to be jerks about it. “I had to wipe my feet, dumbasses! Mom would literally murder me if she found mud in the kitchen again—she’s already pissed enough at Dad for doing it yesterday.”

“Okay, fair,” Dylan admitted. “Your mom is scary when she’s mad.”

“Yeah,” Casey added, hopping awkwardly on one foot as he tried to see how dirty the sole of the other one was. “I don’t want to find out what it’s like to be a frog.”

“Shh, don’t let her hear you say that!” I hissed. “Come on, she’s upstairs right now. And make sure you wipe your dirty feet. I can’t believe you two just wander around barefoot like that!”

“You just said you had to wipe yours off,” Casey retorted.

“I was in the garden! Not running all over town like you two do!”

They stuck their tongues out at me in unison, but they did make sure to wipe their feet off on the mat before following me into the kitchen and upstairs to my room. Casey went to flop on my bed as soon as I opened the door for them, dirty feet and all, and Dylan followed him. They played a few rounds of morra while I organized the notes I’d been working on that morning, before Dad grabbed me for yardwork. I eventually decided to just shove the whole mess into my worn copy of Evocation for Neophytes and set another book on top of it so it would stay closed; I made a lot of notes, okay? Magic requires note-taking!

“I’m going to change, okay?” I told them, grabbing some clean clothes from my dresser. “Don’t break anything, and don’t touch my notes.”

“Whatever, Deneb!” they said.

I ducked into the hall to grab a clean towel from the linen closet, and changed in the bathroom as fast as I could. When I came back, they were in the middle of an argument over whether or not it was cheating to throw no fingers. Ugh, same as usual, then. These two settled everything with morra, up until they had a rules disagreement. They had a lot of rules disagreements, actually.

“Zeroes absolutely do count, Casey!” Dylan said as I opened the door, slapping his twin’s hands away. “You’re just trying to get around the fact that I won fair and square!”

“They do not!” Casey shot back. “Cheating isn’t winning, Dylan!”

“Guys, guys, swimming,” I interrupted, standing in the doorway with one of Mom’s favorite blue-and-white checked towels draped around my shoulders. “I will come over there and mediate this if you make me, and I’m gross and sweaty after pulling weeds all morning.”

“Eww, no!” Casey said, making a face. “Keep your sweat to yourself.”

“That’s gross, Deneb,” Dylan added. “You’re gross.”

“That’s why I threatened you two with it,” I said, then stuck my tongue out at them. “So stop fighting and tell me where we’re going? And is it just us, or did you guys manage to recruit anyone else for this swimming trip?”

“Gavin’s not coming, he’s got chores still,” Dylan said, slapping away Casey’s hands again when his twin started trying to get him in a headlock. They wrestled for a moment before Dylan stuck his foot in Casey’s face, and he backed off, making a disgusted expression. “But Aidan and Peter are bringing snacks, and Eli said he’d pinch some of his dad’s cherry wine.”

“We’re thinking we’ll go down to the Cistern, swim for a while, maybe have a picnic,” Casey added, waiting until Dylan dropped his guard to pounce and try and wrestle him into submission again.

“Oh, you should bring some of your mom’s cookies!” Dylan got his foot into Casey’s side as he pounced, and shoved him off the bed. He broke out laughing when Casey hit the floor with a thump and started cussing up a thunderstorm. “The date ones!” he managed to get out around an attack of the giggles. “They’re so good!”

“We’ll see if we’ve got any,” I said, offering Casey a hand. I pulled him to his feet, and he leaned on me and rubbed his side for a minute before shooting Dylan a sour glare. I poked him until he started paying attention to me again. “Now come on, let’s go!”

Mom was back in the kitchen when we stampeded down the stairs, boiling water for tea while she finished up the potion she’d been brewing. She had a grimoire bound in black goatskin open on the counter, but she looked up from it when Casey and Dylan thundered past to tear the pantry apart, then shot me a brief look.

“Where are you boys off to?” she asked, twisting a lock of graying hair around her forefinger and using magic to turn the page of the grimoire. She smiled as the twins disappeared into the pantry. “And in such a hurry, too.”

“We’re stealing Deneb, Missus Kozel,” Casey said, emerging from the pantry with the jar Mom usually kept cookies in. He put it on the kitchen table, gently set the lid aside, and started digging out handfuls of Mom’s ma’amoul cookies to wrap in a kerchief. “And some cookies, we’re also stealing those.”

“I see,” she said, hiding her laughter behind her hand. “And what are you stealing him for?”

“Dad said we could go swimming,” I said, watching my friends as they ransacked our pantry. Mom seemed as amused by it as I was; she was smiling that gross sappy thoughts smile, just like Dad.

“Hmm,” she said after a moment’s consideration, probably mostly for show. “Have him back for dinner and I’ll allow it.”

“Yes ma’am,” the twins chorused again. “We promise.”

Once they were satisfied with the snacks they’d raided, the twins grabbed me by the shoulders and hustled me out the front door between them. They released me once we were outside, and we took off together down the old stone-paved road leading into Branhaven.

Peter and Aidan were waiting for us just outside of town, chatting to themselves. Peter had a wicker basket slung over his shoulder, and Casey was quick to deposit his kerchief full of stolen cookies in it. Peter smacked his hand away and held the basket above his head, out of reach, when he caught Casey trying to steal a hunk of goat cheese. He’d already started to grow like a weed, and was a full head taller than the rest of us.

“Wait until we get there, you brat!” he scolded, shooting a glare at Dylan, too. “If you two start eating now, there won’t be any left for the rest of us.”

“But I’m hungry now,” Casey whined.

“You’ll live,” Peter told him, and that was the end of it.

We decided to wait for Eli at the trailhead leading down to the Cistern, and we didn’t have to wait long. Not more than a few minutes after we got there Eli came sprinting down the road, a bottle of stolen cherry wine in each hand. He skidded to a halt at the trailhead, bent double and wheezing to try and catch his breath. The twins were quick to relieve him of the wine bottles, but at a glare from Peter they dumped those in the basket, too.

“You get caught?” I asked, patting Eli on the back. My tail lashed back and forth as I strained to try and pick up the sound of his dad storming down the road after him, but I couldn’t hear anything. Maybe I was just being paranoid; I didn’t care much for John Garland, and the feeling was mutual. “I swear if you got caught—”

“I didn’t,” he gasped. “Just didn’t—didn’t want you guys to leave without me...”

“Why would we leave without the wine?” Aidan said, laughing.

“Asshole,” Eli spat at him. “See if steal anything else for you guys if that’s the thanks I get.”

“Whatever, let’s just go~!” the twins called, already hurrying off down the trail. After giving Eli another moment to catch his breath, the rest of us started after them.

The Cistern, of course, was what everyone in town called the tiny lagoon on the island’s southern coast, maybe half an hour’s walk from town. From parts of the trail leading down to it, you could just make out the hazy silhouette of Port Tempest. I hadn’t been there since Casey had gotten his ears pierced, and Aunt Deirdre had made us sit for one of her stupid portraits. Ugh, I hated those so much.

The twins gave a shout as we came in sight of the Cistern, and sprinted off down the trail. From how excited they were, you’d think we’d never been swimming out here before. Honestly, the Cistern was just a big hole in the rock, maybe twenty or thirty feet across, and bordered on three sides by rough cliffs just barely high enough to be worth jumping off of. The fourth side was almost open to the sea; only a little spur of rock kept the turquoise water of the lagoon from mixing with it. At high tide sometimes, waves would wash over even that to refill the pool.

We scaled down the rocks after the twins without too much trouble, and Peter went to find a nice flat rock away from the water to stash our basket of food on. By the time he got back, Casey and Dylan were already stripping out of their clothes, and Aidan and Eli weren’t far behind them. They all tossed theirs into a communal pile, which they’d probably sort out later with a few arguments over whose underwear or shirt was whose. I had my tail to worry about, so I always made sure to separate my clothing from theirs. One time Casey and Dylan had accidentally torn out the button at the back that closed the tail hole, and after that I never let my clothes go in the pile again.

I was only just pulling my shirt over my head by the time Casey and Dylan stood up, completely naked, and started playing morra again to decide who should jump first. While they argued, Peter gave me a sly wink and tossed his underwear in the pile, then ran between the arguing twins and jumped off the rocks, yelling at the top of his lungs as he did. There was a huge splash, and then the twins ran to the edge and started pelting him with pebbles and curse words.

“Fuck you, Peter!” Dylan called, hefting a rock as big as his knuckle.

“Worth it!”

Eli rolled his eyes at them. “Who cares who gets to go first? It’s not a race.”

“It absolutely is, and Peter’s a dirty cheater!” Casey yelled, tossing one last pebble at Peter before he grabbed Dylan by the hand. The two of them jumped together, and Peter yelled something really foul that probably meant the twins had nearly jumped on top of him.

Shaking my head at them, I finished undoing both sets of buttons, untied the drawstring on my underwear, and slid everything off in one go. It took a little practice, but it was quicker than trying to negotiate my tail through both sets of holes separately, and I’d had plenty of time to get good at it. Honestly, it so wasn’t fair that I was the only tiefling in town; just being able to talk to another person who had to deal with the same shit I did would have been nice. But whatever, it was what it was. Completely naked now, I took a moment to fold my clothes and make sure everything was separate from the communal pile.

When I turned back around, Eli’s eyes almost immediately dropped to my crotch, and he blurted, “What the hell, Deneb? When did this happen?”

“What?” I asked, looking down where he was staring. There was some coarse, silvery hair beginning to fill in around the base of my penis, but I didn’t see what the big deal was. “So?”

“You’ve got hair around your dick!”

“What?!” Casey called from where he and Dylan were climbing out of the lagoon to chase after Peter, who was dripping wet and hurrying up the slope to escape them. There was dark brown hair around his, and starting to show up under his armpits, too, so why were they making such a big deal over mine? It was stupid. “I want to see!”

“It’s not that interesting!” I yelped, and I could feel heat on my cheeks. Ugh, of course they wanted to see. “Why do you guys want to look at my dick? That’s weird.”

Despite my protests, they all crowded around to look. I resisted the urge to cover myself with my hands; I’d known these guys all my life, there was no way they wouldn’t tease me forever for being embarrassed about it. It was stupid, I felt stupid just standing there. My tail lashed furiously as I tried desperately to think about something that wasn’t going to make me flush even darker than I already was, but it was hard—oh, shit, that was a bad choice of words, wasn’t it?

“It’s the same color as his hair,” Dylan said after a long, painfully awkward silence.

“Duh, it is his hair,” Casey said, elbowing him in the side. “You know, like adults and Peter have.”

“Shut up, you know what I meant!”

“Guys, really, stop,” I said, my voice small. “It’s not that weird.”

“You’re not even fourteen for another month,” Aidan pointed out. “Gavin and I are both older than you, and we don’t have hair there yet.”

“I’ll bet it’s a tiefling thing,” Casey said.

“Uuuuugh, I want to die...” I moaned.

“Have you got hair in your armpits yet?” Dylan pressed, grabbing my arm so he could check.

“Fuck you, stop asking about it!” I snapped at him, yanking out of his grip.

“Hey, hey! Leave him alone,” Peter said, stepping between us and glaring at Dylan. He crossed his arms over his chest. “We came out here to swim, not gossip about where Deneb has hair. Unless you’re planning to ask him out, stop staring at his dick and go get in the damn water.”

There was some grumbling, but Peter was the oldest and no one wanted to argue with him, so that was that. He stayed where he was until everyone else had jumped into the Cistern, then turned back to look at me.

“Thanks, Peter...” I breathed.

“Don’t mention it,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder.

After that humiliating incident, the afternoon went mostly okay. I waited for a while before going in the water, and Casey and Dylan tried to sneak another few looks at my crotch when I finally did, but they eventually seemed to forget about the whole thing. Either that or Peter’s death glare convinced them to drop it.

Eli joined me underneath the cliffs as the sun was starting to set; I’d been sitting on a submerged rock, watching the twins take turns jumping off the ledge above me. He opened his mouth to say something, but then Casey plunged off the cliff and executed a cannonball that doused both of us with water. Casey gave a brilliant grin and a thumbs up when he surfaced, before swimming over to climb back up the side of the Cistern. Eli wiped brine from his eyes, coughing as he bobbed in the water next to my rock.

“You okay, Eli?”

“Yeah, fine,” he said, once he stopped coughing. “Sorry about earlier, was what I came over here to say. I shouldn’t have said what I did so loud, you know?”

“It’s okay,” I said, though I wasn’t entirely sure if it was. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I... um, I actually wanted to ask you something,” he said, and looked like he was building himself up to ask something serious. Uhhh, that probably couldn’t be good. He took a deep breath, then let it out in a big rush and said, “So, my sister’s been talking to someone at night. She won’t tell me who—it’s really fucking weird.”

“Oh,” I said, oddly disappointed. “That’s... not what I thought you were building up to there.”

He gave me a weird look. “What did you think I was going to ask...?”

“Nothing!” I said, quickly. Ah fuck, engage your brain before you open your mouth, Deneb. Damn it, now I’d made this weird. “It’s just... uh, Peter was saying earlier...”

“Did you think I was going to ask you on a date?”

“I mean, maybe...?”

Eli blinked at me for a moment, then abruptly his entire face went red. Huh, look at that, he was so embarrassed even his shoulders were blushing. Either that or he had a really bad sunburn starting. He made a mortified noise and covered his face with his hands, then realized he needed those to keep treading water and flailed as he went under.

I grabbed him by the arm and hauled him up to sit on the rock with me, and he coughed and spat water for a minute, bent double and still deep red like he’d been sunburned all over. “Oh my god, Deneb, no!” he finally hissed once he’d recovered, then hid his face with his hands again. Shit, I guess that made us even, huh? “I like girls!”

“That’s... uh, that’s kinda what I thought,” I said, scooting over a bit on the rock so there was some space between us. “You know I don’t, right?”

“I kinda thought, yeah,” he admitted after a moment. “Did you... like me or something?”

“Not that way,” I said, wincing as Casey smacked belly-first into the water with a slap that echoed off the rocks. Dylan must have dared him to do it or something. He surfaced a minute later, spitting swear words at his twin. “Just as a friend.”

Eli followed my gaze. “That’s... good.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, setting my hand on top of his. “I didn’t mean to make things awkward. We’re just friends, Eli, promise.”

“Okay.” He curled his fingers into mine; apology accepted, I guess? “That’s good, I wouldn’t want to stop being friends.”

“Me neither,” I said, letting his hand go. “So, you were asking about your sister?”

“Yeah, she says Granny won’t talk to her during the day. She says Granny tells her to do things, sometimes, too, but she won’t say what. It’s really weird, and I figured you and your mom kind of... know about these things?”

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I said. “Have you asked Mother Murdock about it?”

“And get a lecture about Pelor’s light and mercy being the solution to all evils?” Eli said, with an expression like his mother had just asked him to eat his broccoli. “No thanks.”

“Just a thought,” I said. “She knows her stuff, even if she does always smell like peppermint.”

“I know, right?” Eli said, grinning a little now that that awkward conversation was behind us. “What’s up with that, does she bathe in it or something? Gross.”

“Probably.”

Eli and I eventually hauled ourselves out of the Cistern, tired of swimming, and went to raid Peter’s food basket. It wasn’t long before everyone else joined us, and we lounged on the sun-warmed rocks while Eli uncorked one of the bottles of cherry wine.

A while later I was chewing on one of the ma’amoul and some of the goat cheese while I waited for the half-empty bottle of wine to make its way back to me. Across the water, the sun was just starting to set over Port Tempest. You could see the sails of the pirate fleet that harbored there—stained brilliant orange by the setting sun—fluttering in the evening breeze.

“Hey, so, question,” Dylan began, looking straight at me as he passed the wine bottle to his brother.

“If this is about Deneb’s dick again—” Peter said.

“No, that’s not what I meant!” Now it was Dylan’s turn to blush, and he made a rude gesture at his twin when Casey started laughing at him. “His mom has that huge library, right? So she’s gotta have something that talks about stuff like that.”

“I am not asking Mom for a sex book, Dylan,” I snapped, making a face at him. “Ugh, that’s gross, why would you even suggest that?”

“Well, aren’t you curious if it’s normal?”

“Of course it’s normal—”

“Yeah, when you’re like... fifteen,” Aidan interrupted. “Iain bragged for days that he was ‘becoming a man’ when he first started getting hair in his armpits. It was kind of weird, actually.”

I drew my knees up against my chest. “So...?”

“So you’re a tiefling; we have no idea how that works for you,” Casey said, passing me the bottle of wine. His hand lingered next to mine for a moment before he let it go. “For all we know, next your dick will turn into a snake or something super weird like that.”

“That’s not... a real thing that happens, I’m pretty sure.” I took a big gulp of wine, and a few warm droplets ran down my chin. It was so sweet it barely even tasted like alcohol; just cherries and faintly of oak. “Besides, why would she even have a book about that?”

“Because she’s a wizard, and they know things,” Dylan said. “Duh.”

“I don’t think they teach a course on tiefling dick at the University, dumbass.”

“Well how are you going to know unless you ask?” Casey countered, putting his piercings back in now his ears were dry. “Maybe we’re as curious as you are about this whole thing.”

“Why?” I shot back. “It’s my fucking dick, why are you so curious about it?”

“Because I don’t want to be an asshole about it to you even if something weird does happen!” Casey said, glaring at me. He got his last piercing back in, then grabbed a ma’amoul from the basket and shoved the whole damn thing in his mouth, chewing furiously before he swallowed. “Maybe I’d like to know so it’s not a huge surprise? I know it’s hard with all that magic shit in your head, but try to remember that I do care about you, dumbass!” he spat, then froze when he realized what he’d said. “I—I mean, we care about you! You’re our friend.”

“Nice save there, Casey,” Dylan said, elbowing him.

“Shut the fuck up!”

“I’m still not asking Mom if she has a weird sex book in her library,” I said, blushing a little myself. I looked away from them. “So you’re just going to have to get over it.

“Sneak in, you moron!” Dylan said. “We know she sleeps, she’s not in there all the time!”

“Shahid is, and he’s a snitch!”

“Guys, seriously, drop it,” Peter warned.

Dylan and Casey both glared sullenly at him, but did as they were told.

We got dressed again and headed back to Branhaven as the sun started to sink below the horizon. I felt a little dizzy from the wine, but poor Eli was so out of it he had to lean on Peter a few times to avoid falling. Peter started keeping a hand at the small of his back after the third time Eli stumbled over the rocks; he’d make sure Eli got home safe, that was just the kind of friend he was.

I said goodbye to them at the town square and hurried up the road towards home. It was getting dark enough that the stars were starting to come out; the one that Mom had named me after was probably out by now. I didn’t have time to stop and look for it, though. She’d said be back before dinner, and I was cutting it close enough already without an impromptu stargazing session.

The lights were on in the first floor of the tower, and I spotted Dad coming out the front door with an oil lantern as I hurried up the road. Oh boy, that, uh... that probably wasn’t good. I sprinted the rest of the way, and bent over wheezing for breath when I made it to the top of the hill.

“Did you have fun?” Dad asked, messing up my salt-stiff hair. “You were gone all afternoon, so I’m assuming that’s a yes.”

“I—yeah, I sure did.” I hesitated; something felt wrong.

“John Garland was up here earlier,” Dad said, frowning. Ah fuck, that was what it was; Eli had for sure gotten caught and just hadn’t realized it. “Talked my ear off about you boys getting into his cherry wine; I told him you’d be happy to do some charms to pay for it, kiddo.

“Ah, shit...” I said. “Um, hey, I’m not in trouble am I?”

Dad sighed. “Not if you do the charms and don’t complain about it.”

“To be fair, it was Eli who took them,” I protested.

“It doesn’t really matter who did the actual thieving, you all participated,” he said, evenly.

“Fine, whatever,” I said. Okay, so I wasn’t getting out of this that easily—damn it, Eli. “I’ll do his stupid charms for him.”

“Good lad,” he said, and put his arm around my shoulder. “Now come on, let’s go have dinner. Since you’re being mature about this, I won’t even tell your mother about it yet.”

“Thanks, Dad...”

Mom was setting the table when we went inside; I could hear the çaydanlık whistling from the kitchen, and the whole ground floor of the tower smelled like garlic and oranges and cooked lamb. I hurried into the kitchen and grabbed the çaydanlık from the hearth before it boiled for too long, then set it on the kitchen table.

“Thank you, Deneb,” Mom said, setting a pan of karnıyarık on the table while I poured water into the upper pot for tea. “You’re home late, aren’t you?”

“Maybe.”

“Let’s have dinner,” Dad said, deflecting any further questions.

Even with Dad’s promise of silence, dinner was a pretty awkward affair. I wasn’t really hungry, and I kept thinking about what Casey and Dylan had said at the Cistern. There was no way in all the Hells I was going to ask Mom if she had relevant books stashed in the library somewhere, and but I had to admit I was curious. Between that, and feeling a little sick from the wine and the thought of having to go work charms for Eli’s stupid dad, I mostly just pushed food around my plate. Which sucked, because I liked karnıyarık and Mom didn’t make it that often.

“Are you feeling okay, Deneb?” Mom asked eventually.

“Yeah,” I said, prodding half of an eggplant with my fork. Some of the ground lamb filling fell out onto my plate, but as much as I normally liked this meal the thought of actually eating just made my stomach turn. “I’m not really hungry...”

“Did something happen with your friends?” Dad said, and I’m sure they both noticed how my tail froze momentarily. Damn it, stop being so perceptive, Dad! “You don’t usually turn up your nose at dinner like this, especially not this dinner.”

“I... I don’t really want to talk about it,” I said, unable to even look up at them. Yeah, right now that poor abused eggplant was a lot more bearable to stare at. Gods, my face was burning just thinking about asking them about things. “It’s dumb, I’ll get over it,” I lied, feeling even more sick as I did.

“Hmm,” Mom said, then leaned over to speak softly with Dad. “Yuri, I think—”

“Can I go read?” I interrupted, sure I didn’t want to hear where this conversation was going. “Please?”

Dad sighed. “Okay, Deneb.”

I left my plate in the wash basin and hurried upstairs to my room before I could overhear too much their hushed conversation; Mom definitely had suspicions, and if she suspected something then Dad was sure to hear about it, too. Ugh, this was such a disaster. I slumped on my bed, buried my face in my pillow, and fought the urge to scream.

Okay, okay, there was actually a really obvious solution to all this. I couldn’t ask Mom or Dad about this stuff—even the thought of starting that conversation made my stomach tie itself in knots. Ugh, no, parents and talking sex stuff was a combination of things that needed to never, ever happen. Yeah, that was out of the question, but... what if Casey and Dylan were right, and it wasn’t normal? What if I wasn’t normal? I mean, it’s not like I wasn’t aware I was different, but I was also literally the only tiefling in Branhaven; my friends had plenty of other human boys their age to compare their bodies to. They had actual references for what was normal human stuff, and what was weird. I had no one else to compare myself to... I had no way of knowing.

Shit, I was going to have to sneak into Mom’s library, wasn’t I? Dylan was never going to let me hear the end of this if he found out about it... Okay, so maybe he didn’t need to find out? No one said I had to show any of them whatever books I found, assuming there actually was anything to find. Oh hell, was I really, seriously thinking about sneaking into Mom’s library at night to look for weird sex books or whatever? I mean, there probably wasn’t any other way to find out what I wanted to know without having to have an awkward conversation with my parents about it. If I could avoid them finding out I’d been looking for this stuff, that’d be even better.

I’d need something to bribe Shahid with. Mom’s stupid familiar would definitely report on suspicious late-night library trips if I didn’t give him a good reason to keep his nosy beak shut. We probably had some peanuts in the pantry I could use—he loved those.

I distracted myself for a few hours practicing the basic exercises in Mom’s old copy of Resa al-Karadis’ Elementary Transmutation Magic, waiting for them to go to bed. None of the exercises were really hard for me anymore, but Mom insisted I keep practicing them daily even after she’d started teaching me more complicated spells. It couldn’t hurt to let them see me practicing, and it’d take my mind off things while I waited for my opportunity to sneak up to the library.

When Mom came up to check on me, I was rolling a ball of rainbow-tinted light across the floor, pointing with my finger where I wanted it to go. The ball had been skittering towards my door when Mom opened it, and before I could stop it the stupid thing collided with her foot and burst in a shower of rainbow sparks. Harmless, sure, but I should have been able to maintain the spell even after being startled like that.

Mom quirked an eyebrow at me, but didn’t comment on the spell I’d lost control over. “We’re going to bed,” she said instead. “Get some sleep, don’t stay up late reading.”

“Okay, I won’t,” I lied. “Good night, Mom.”

“Good night, Deneb.”

She closed the door behind her, and I waited until I heard her and Dad’s footsteps receding upstairs before muttering the words to the spell and conjuring the rainbow ball back into my lap. I held it between my crossed legs, leaned back against the headboard, and focused on manipulating the patterns of iridescent color that danced across its surface.

I slipped out of my room after a while to go brush my teeth, and when I looked up the stairs there was still a light on somewhere up there. Okay, so maybe they weren’t going to bed immediately? I took my time brushing my teeth, making sure to clean real good around my sharp canines, and when I stepped back into the hall the light was gone. Perfect... now I just had to give them plenty of time to fall asleep.

It was nearly midnight when I snuck out of my room again and crept down to the kitchen. Everything was dark, except for the faint orange glow of embers in the hearth, but I could see just fine in the dark. All the colors were washed out, but otherwise it was as clear and bright as being outside on a full moon night. One of the nice things about being a tiefling, I guess.

It was eerie how quiet the tower got at night; I felt like even my breathing was too loud as I crossed the kitchen to the pantry. Fortunately, Dad had made me fix the squeaky hinges on the pantry door last week, so it swung open without a sound. Now where were Shahid’s peanuts? I pulled a few of Mom’s cookbooks off the shelves and quietly set them on the counter, and there was the bag of peanuts behind them. Jackpot—I snagged a good fistful of them and put the cookbooks back before shutting the pantry door and slinking off upstairs.

Mom’s library took up two whole floors of the tower, and it was as much Shahid’s domain as it was hers. He knew every book in the library by heart, and for the right bribe—which I happened to have, go me—he could be convinced to locate any of them for you. But he was nosy, and noisy, and he loved to spy on me for Mom. More than once he’d snitched on me when I went looking for spells I was sure I could handle, if only Mom would let me try. I’d been throwing firebolts at Dad’s training dummies for a whole year now, why couldn’t I try an actual fireball, huh? Anyways, weird sex books weren’t dangerous magic, so in theory I could bribe him to keep this little library trip to himself, but I wasn’t going to tell him what I was looking for until he swore to keep it a secret.

Shahid was sitting on his perch on one of the bookshelves when I eased the door open, but he was obviously awake because he made a few clicks and whistled the first three bars of Maid on the Shore when he noticed me. “Deneb should be sleeping,” he squawked. “It’s late.”

“I’m looking for a book,” I told him, shutting the library door behind me and watching his eyes. “I have peanuts, but you have to keep this quiet or else you’re not getting any.”

“Want a peanut,” he said, flapping his wings twice and trying to play it cool. His pupils had gotten huge when I first mentioned the peanuts, but now they shrank down before rapidly expanding again. Hah, he couldn’t fool me; I knew how interested he was. I had him figured out, the stupid little stool pigeon. He bobbed his head up and down a few times, making more clicking noises and fluffing up his gray plumage and his brilliant red tail feathers as he did. “What book Deneb looking for?”

“No way,” I said, cracking the outer shell of a peanut and tearing it open so I could pop the nuts into my mouth. I ate another one when he made an indignant squawk at my audacity. “Not until you promish to keep it a secret,” I said around a mouthful of peanut pieces.

“Shahid wants a peanut,” he said, leveling one beady eye at me. “Motherfucker.”

“Promise!”

“Shahid promises not to tell...”

There, was that so hard? I patted my shoulder and held out my handful of peanuts for him. “Okay, come on. And don’t laugh when I tell you what I’m looking for.”

Shahid settled on my shoulder with a flutter of his wings, and took the offered peanut in his beak. He made gross crunching noises right in my ear as he chewed through the shell and pulled the nuts out to gobble them down, then a few pleased clicks as he tossed the shell fragments away. Ugh, stupid parrot. “Another peanut,” he demanded. “Tell Shahid what book.”

I handed him another peanut. “It’s... okay, really don’t laugh, but I’m looking for a book about tiefling anatomy and stuff.”

“Anatomy and stuff?”

“Yeah, like—”

Shahid whistled again and tossed his second peanut shell aside. I reached up to brush the fragments he’d missed off my shoulder. “Mistress Farah has some books. Top shelf on the second floor, with Conjuration books. Said Deneb would want to see.”

“What?” I hissed at him. “When?!”

“Earlier,” Shahid said, then started mimicking Dad’s deep voice. “Love, are you sure he needs to know this yet? He’s only thirteen.”

“Oh my god...” I breathed.

“He’s almost fourteen, Yuri, that’s plenty old enough,” Shahid said, now flawlessly replicating Mom’s voice, emphatic Rayyani accent and all. “Besides, you know he’ll never come ask us about this, and I’d rather not have him getting all his education on the subject from his friends.”

“Boys that age come up with some strange things, that’s true...”

Shahid fell silent again, and I buried my face in my hands. Oh my god, they already knew. That or Mom was making some scarily accurate guesses based on how withdrawn I’d been at dinner. Ugh, of course they already knew, what was I thinking?! This was stupid, why did I even think this would be a good idea?

“Scratch scratch scratch,” Shahid said, butting his head against my temple. “Don’t be upset, Deneb.”

“I want to die...”

“Don’t die, give Shahid more peanuts,” he said. “And scratches.”

“You knew about this when you promised!”

“Mistress Farah made Shahid promise not to tell, too,” he said, then whistled a cheery little tune that I didn’t know the name of. “Go get books if you’re not going to scratch.”

I sighed, but reached up to scratch his dumb feathery head anyways. He made some more pleased clicks and shuffled back and forth on my shoulder, his claws pricking me a little through my shirt. It wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to, and thankfully he didn’t bite unless you really annoyed him.

“Okay, let’s go find these stupid books.”

Shahid continued to chatter at me as I climbed the internal library stairs up to the second level and made my way around to the section on Conjuration. Sure enough, sitting on the top shelf of one of the stacks was a set of three books, tied together with a red ribbon; a little note was pinned to the ribbon that read simply, “Deneb.”

I pulled the books down from the shelf and untied the ribbon so I could examine them. The first one was a thick tome bound in red deerskin and closed with gold clasps. The title was worked on the front in gold leaf, along with an anatomical sketch depicting a naked half-elf man posed like he was being crucified or something grotesque like that. Huh, Comparative Anatomy & Development in Demi-Humans, that basically sounded like the exact book I’d been looking for. That was a scary accurate guess on her part, and I moved on to the next book rather than dwelling on it. The second book was also bound in deerskin, this time black, and the title was Phylogeny of Tiefling Bloodlines in Modern Majal. That could be interesting reading; I’d always wanted to know more about the devil I was technically descended from. The last one... oh, shit, the last one was a thin book bound in cheap black goathide, and the title was About Your Body: A Primer for Adolescents. Fuck, I was turning red just looking at the cover.

“Told you Deneb would want to see,” Shahid said.

“Uuuuugh,” I said, gathering the books up in my arms. “Whatever, enjoy your peanuts, Shahid.”

“Shahid will.”

I shut the library door behind me and willed myself not to just race down the stairs back to my room. It was agony to force myself to take it slow; I crept past their door with the books clutched to my chest with both arms and my tail stuck out behind me for balance. I hardly dared to breathe, afraid that even that tiny noise would wake them. The stairs were right there, fuck! But finally, finally I made it past and started down them to my room.

As soon as I shut my door behind me I was muttering the words to conjure a magical light to float over my bed. My darkvision was good enough to find my way through the tower at night, but I’d give myself a killer headache trying to read small print in the dark. I’d endured too much embarrassment already for these books, I wasn’t going to put up with a migraine on top of that.

I stacked Phylogeny and About Your Body on my desk, then pulled my pile of notes out of Evocation for Neophytes and spread them across the desk to conceal my prize. I left Evocation sitting open on top of the pile of notes, and scattered a few other elementary magic books around; this had to look convincing. Both of the other books were on my to-read list, of course, but I wanted to get into Comparative Anatomy so bad that my hands were shaking as I hid them. I wanted to know, and if I had to wait much longer I was probably going to have a panic attack or something.

Doing my best to ignore the faint tinge of anxiety curling in my belly, I dimmed the light and shoved some dirty laundry under the door to keep Mom or Dad from noticing it if they got up in the middle of the night for some water or something. The done, I snagged the book and climbed into the bed, put my back against the headboard, and propped my legs up to rest it on. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, then undid the clasps and opened it.

Oh, ewww, why? Where was the table of contents? I shouldn’t have just opened it to a random page—I really didn’t need to see a detailed anatomical sketch of a naked half-orc. I flipped to the front of the book and scanned the table until I found the section on tieflings, then opened it to that page number.

Tieflings are a product of the infusion of Infernal blood into the races of the Material Plane, often through physical interbreeding with mortals, and are most common among humans. First generation interbreeding between humans and devils produces cambions, half-blood fiends that are almost universally evil beings, predisposed to the wickedness of their Infernal parent. Mortals breeding with such half-bloods is the most common way tiefling bloodlines are produced, though some tieflings are descended instead from humans who were tainted due to a pact with a devil, and have no cambion ancestor as a result. The taint of the Hells is enduring, and can lie dormant in human bloodlines for generations after its introduction, before spontaneously manifesting anew.

Okay, that was all stuff I knew already—I skipped ahead a few paragraphs.

Tiefling anatomy varies significantly, and often reflects some aspect of the Infernal sire from whom their taint originates, but is usually more human than not. Due to their ubiquity, and the fact that many of their traits are shared with other bloodlines, tieflings of the bloodline of Asmodeus will be used as the type species in this volume.

Ugh, okay, I got it. Skipping again.

The process of sexual maturation in tieflings is typically quite similar to puberty in humans. Barring the most extreme deviations from human anatomy, which become less common as the Infernal taint is diluted, most tieflings can expect to undergo nearly identical changes as pubertal development progresses. The first physical change in males is enlargement of the testes and darkening of the scrotal skin (which may be less observable in tieflings with abhuman skin tones), followed by the development of coarse hair at the base of the penis and in the axilla, and enlargement of the penis.

Gross. Seriously, everything about this was gross.

As puberty continues, most male tieflings with develop body hair comparable to that of their human relatives. They will also undergo similar muscular and skeletal development, and most also report comparable modification to the structure of the larynx and the accompanying changes to vocal character. For males who have not been circumcised, widen of the opening of the prepuce and dissolution of the epithelial layer adhering the foreskin to the glans typically occurs early in puberty, allowing for manual retraction of the prepuce behind the glans penis. As in humans, abnormal development sometimes delays or prevents this occurrence, potentially leading to hygienic and sexual difficulties.

Okay, so basically the same as other guys. That meant I could skip the rest of this section, thank Pelor. I flipped ahead again.

Huh, okay, so those were some pretty detailed anatomical sketches. Sure, it was weird, but unlike the half-orc ones these were relevant to me so I forced myself to look. There were ones at a variety of ages, and I flipped through until I found one labeled, “Male Subject, Fourteen Years of Age, No Abnormal Development.” That was probably close enough to compare to—I was going to be fourteen in a month.

I shot a look at my door, then back down at the anatomical sketch, and realized my cheeks felt hot. Okay, shit, I guess I was doing this—I’d come this far already. That bubbling feeling of anxiety welled up in my gut again, but I shoved it down and went to trace the runes for a lock spell on my door. I practically whispered the words of the spell, and there was a soft click that quieted my nerves a little as it took hold. Yeah, okay, I could do this. I made sure to shut the blinds, too, just in case.

The book was lying open on my bed where I’d left it, and I picked it up and moved it to my desk, then tugged the desk over so it was next to the mirror and I could reference the sketch without having to walk back and forth between the two.

I paused halfway through pulling off my shirt when I realized I was shaking. What the fuck, why was I feeling nervous about this?! No one else was going to see me stripping naked in my own room, and the door was as locked as it was going to get. I looked at my reflection in the mirror; there was red on my shoulders and across my breastbone, just like Eli had earlier at the Cistern, and my cheeks were flushed even darker. Ugh, this was stupid—I was being so dumb about this.

Okay, deep breaths, Deneb. I pulled my shirt the rest of the way off and tossed it on the pile of dirty laundry, then my pants. With one final breath to steel myself, I pulled my underwear off and lobbed them over on the bed—I’d need them later!—then stood naked in front of the mirror.

Huh, okay. I studied myself for a moment, then turned to look at the sketch. I was thinner than him, and obviously my skin wasn’t that sort of deep red, but I could definitely see the similarities. Both of us had essentially human legs, instead of the more bestial lower limbs in some of the sketches, and his arms and torso had begun to fill out with muscle a bit. There was no pupil or iris in his eyes, and they were bright orange. He had gazelle-like horns curving up from a mess of curly black hair, and his tail was thicker at the base and ended in a sharp-looking spade. Coarse dark hair had filled in around the base of his penis, and... yeah, definitely circumcised. Gross.

The sketch said his development was normal, right? Okay, I could work with that—I turned to look at myself in the mirror again. My hair was the color of tarnished silver, and chin length and wavy where his was shorter and curly. My eyes looked pretty human—the only odd part was that my irises were deep red, almost the color of the garnets Mom wore sometimes when she was working evocation spells. I didn’t have long horns like he did; mine were short nubs sprouting from my hairline, barely four inches long, that came to sharp points and were roughly the color of dried blood. My skin was human in color, too; I was a good bit darker than Dad’s Galtin pallor, but definitely lighter than Mom’s deeper Rayyani brown. I was probably somewhere around the midpoint between their skin tones, actually.

His teeth weren’t visible in the sketch, but I pulled my lips back anyway so I could see the elongated canines that gave me so much trouble. I didn’t look like a vampire, but they were definitely long enough that I had to be careful when I was eating, and occasionally the top ones poked out over my lip and made me look stupid. My nose had a long, almost aquiline bridge like Dad’s, where his was stubby and looked like it had been broken in a couple of places. Our ears were both pointy compared to human ears, but his were long and thin like elven ears where mine where broader and more spade-shaped. I kept my nails filed short so I didn’t damage anything in the library, but I could see that his were long and claw-like.

My tail was the first really major difference I spotted; most other tieflings in the sketches had spade-ended tails like his. Mine was thinner and leonine, and covered in soft golden fur that, if I turned around so I could see my back in the mirror, formed a palm-sized patch at the small of my back and ran a few inches up my spine. The tuft of darker fur at the end of my tail often caught burrs from the grass if I wasn’t careful, and they were a literal pain in the ass to get out. Still, my tail wasn’t a huge departure from the norm, and I already knew I wasn’t an Asmodean tiefling.

Okay, I’d been putting off the part that was actually making me most nervous, but I’d basically run out of other features to compare so it was now or never. I took a deep breath and turned back around so I could examine my groin in the mirror. Like Eli had noticed at the Cistern, there was coarse silver hair curling around the base of my penis, though not as thick yet as in the sketch. Now that I’d had it pointed out by the book, I could see that my balls looked... I guess bigger? Maybe. It wasn’t like I made a regular habit of examining myself in the mirror like this! And yeah, the skin was definitely darker and redder than the rest of me. Okay, so that was normal.

What else had the book said? Something about the prepuce? What was that a synonym for...? Oh, right, the foreskin. I wasn’t circumcised like the tiefling in the sketch, so it probably made sense to check that out, too. That... that probably meant touching it, didn’t it? Okay, this was weird, but again, I’d already come this far. I’d feel like a coward if I didn’t see this whole, kinda gross thing through to the end.

Things were... kind of warm when I touched them. Warm and squishy. Ugh, that was such a weird sensation. I got my fingers around the end of it and gently began to pull the foreskin back like the book had said. The flesh of the... ugh, the flans, was a lot redder, and the foreskin kind of bunched up behind it and was weird and wrinkly. Gross, gross, really gross, why did people have to have these parts? Why did I? Uuuuugh.

Still, it rolled back like the book said, so that was normal, right? I was normal? Or as normal as you could get as a tiefling. It was still weird and gross, but it wasn’t weird and gross in any way that was different from how people were apparently supposed to be. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.

Definitely... definitely enough reading for tonight. I closed the book and shoved my desk back to its normal place, then hid the book underneath my notes. I slipped back into my underwear and muttered the words to undo the lock and light spells. The room plunged into darkness almost immediately, and I crawled into bed, determined to actually get some rest. I’d figure this bullshit out in the morning.

I lay awake for a long while, vaguely uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t really place. First I kicked the blankets off, and the cool air felt a little better for a while, but I was still way too hot. Okay, so what was wrong with me? Was I sick? I didn’t feel like I was sick, but I was way too hot and sweaty and vaguely uncomfortable and... okay, that sure was a really weird shivery sensation that just started at the base of my spine, ran up it, and then back down to the tip of my tail. What the hell? It got way worse when I shifted to sit up.

Oh... I suddenly realized what was bothering me; I was hyperaware of the soft texture of my underwear against the underside of my... of my—oh, fuck no! Why did this have to happen to me? All I could make out in the darkness, even with my darkvision, was a vague silhouette around my crotch that definitely didn’t look right. I practically spat the words to a light spell.

Oh, my underwear was tenting up, that’s what it was. That... this definitely wasn’t fair. I just wanted to sleep, not deal with whatever stupid bullshit my traitorous body was throwing at me now. I did the drawstring and slid my underwear down just a bit, and sure enough, it was stiff. The tip of the foreskin was really, really red. Ugh, my skin was damp with sweat, everything felt too hot, and my dick was doing things that I didn’t want.

“You have got to be fucking with me...”

You know what, no. I was not dealing with this right now. I refused. No, nope, one hundred percent not dealing with this because I didn’t fucking want to, so there. I pulled my underwear back up, did the drawstring up, and pulled the covers over me. I didn’t care if it was too hot, I was going to get some sleep, and my stupid body had better cooperate with me or else.

I tossed and turned for a while before I finally did sleep, and when I dreamed it was just as weird as the rest of my day had been. The weirdest thing was that I was definitely aware it was a dream. Like, I couldn’t tell you exactly when I started dreaming, or if maybe I was just dreaming for a while and then realized I was, but one moment I was looking at Casey and Dylan playing morra in my bed and then it just hit me that there was something... off.

Their heads moved in synch when they turned to look at me. Casey had three fingers out, and so did Dylan, but they weren’t focusing on their game anymore. When they spoke, their voices come out in a weird harmonized buzz, like their throats were full of angry bees.

“Deneb?” they asked. “What’s the matter?”

Oh, yeah, that was what I’d noticed; Casey wasn’t wearing his plugs. In fact, there was no evidence his ears had ever been pierced. So this couldn’t be real, because I definitely remembered the place in Port Tempest where he’d gotten those done. Aunt Deirdre had taken us out there one night after Casey threw a fit because no one at the Fort could tell him and Dylan apart. He was holding my hand so tight, he nearly broke my fingers when they actually did the piercings, but then afterwards he had the dopiest smile every time someone got his name right.

“This isn’t real,” I said, pointing at Casey. “You’re supposed to have pierced ears.”

Their eyes narrowed at the same time, and their faces crinkled up the exact same way when they sneered and said, “That’s mean, Deneb.” They were still holding their hands out, midway through their round of morra, and only their heads had moved this whole time. They were acting like little wooden dolls, posed by someone else. “We’re not sure we want to be nice if you’re just going to be mean to us,” they said. “We’re not the same person.”

“You’re kind of acting like it right now,” I said.

Fuck, they even rolled their eyes in synch, just in opposite directions. It was like they were perfectly mirroring each-other. They both dropped their hands and stood up from where they’d been sitting on my bed in unison, and then we weren’t even in my room anymore. There was soft garden soil under my bare feet when I took a hesitant step back, away from them, and it was cold and wet and smelled like old rot and holy fuck they were definitely following me.

“Where are you going, Deneb?” they called, singsong, their green eyes shining in the moonlight. They took another step forward, stretching their hands out towards me. “We’re not going to hurt you, even though you were mean to us.”

“Stop it, guys!” I yelled, and started when my tail hit the garden wall. It was a lot taller than it was in real life, and Casey and Dylan were between me and the wooden gate and backing me up against it. Oh, oh shit, I was trapped in here with them. “This isn’t real! Wake up, wake up, please wake up...”

“You are awake,” they said, and they were right in my face now. I could see the identical lines of faded freckles across both of their noses, and the mean curve of their lips as they smiled at me, and their smiles were all shiny white teeth that were way too sharp and gleamed in the moonlight. They grabbed me by my shoulders and dragged me kicking and screaming across the weed-choked garden. “Come on, we want to show you something.”

“Fuck, let me go! Help! Someone help!” I screamed, trying to dig my feet into the mud, but they got their arms under my armpits and pulled, and no matter how hard I fought I was still being dragged.

Together they lifted me up and threw me, and I fell a lot longer than it felt like I should before my back hit the ground with a huge thunk. I lay stunned for a moment before trying to curl up on my side and suck in some air, but it felt like I’d been kicked hard in the gut, because I just couldn’t. Everything hurt when I tired, and the best I could manage were mewling little gasps.

“We’ll let you out when you’re sorry!” they said, leaning over the edge of the pit they’d tossed me into, and then everything went dark. It was so dark that I couldn’t see anything, not even with my darkvision. Shit, shit, why was this happening?

Okay, okay, this was all a dream. I knew it was a dream. They couldn’t actually hurt me. They couldn’t they couldn’t, because it wasn’t real, none of this was real. I knew it wasn’t real, but I still couldn’t help the shiver that went up my spine or the feeling like icy fingers that wrapped around my throat when I finally got a good breath and everything smelled like pine sap. What the fuck? I tried to stretch out, and my arms banged painfully on wood. Oh no, no no no, this wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. After a minute of awkward struggling in the dark, I was able to get so I was lying on my back, but there was no space to stretch my arms out and the air felt close and thick with pine smell.

Afraid of what I’d see, I cupped my hands on my chest and haltingly muttered the words for a light spell. Cool blue light bloomed inside my cupped fingers, and I realized that I was in a box. No, not a box exactly—a coffin.

Oh gods, this was a nightmare, and I knew it was a nightmare but I wasn’t in control. It felt like my skin was crawling. Fuck, I couldn’t breathe again. Shit, shit, why couldn’t I wake up? I’d read about lucid dreaming before, and everything I’d read said you were supposed to be in control, but I wasn’t. I felt helpless. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth when I tried another spell, and I couldn’t get the words out. It was like I was choking on sawdust, and the magic wouldn’t come.

“Guys!” I tried to shout, but it came out more like a hoarse gasp. “Guys, let me out! Let me the fuck out, please! Casey, Dylan, let me out! I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said it wasn’t real, please just let me out?!”

No one was answering. Why weren’t they answering? Surely they could tell how fucking terrified I was? I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe. I was breathing too fast, I could feel how my chest was heaving, and my breaths came faster and faster as I beat my fist on the lid of the coffin. Had they left me here? They said they weren’t going to hurt me, but they left me here. Fuck, I was shaking—I felt like I was going to be sick. The orb of light made skittering, spidery shadows on the wood as my fingers trembled around it, and that just made the whole thing a million times worse. It started feeling like there little legs crawling all over me, but I could see that there was nothing else in here with me. There couldn’t be anything else, it was a tiny fucking coffin—there wasn’t room for much else besides me.

“Casey, Dylan, please...” I whimpered. “Please let me out...”

The light went out. I made a terrified little squeak and tried to recast the spell, but no matter how hard I focused on it the magic just seemed to slip through my fingers. I whispered the incantation three or four times more, but still everything stayed dark.

“Shit, oh no, please, please work,” I gasped, my hands shaking so hard I couldn’t even make the right gestures to call the light. “Please don’t leave me alone here in the dark. Please, don’t leave me alone, please, please...”

“Let me out!” I yelled, and thrashed so hard I kicked the covers off and fell right off the side of my bed. My nose made an ugly sort of cracking noise when I smacked face-first into the floor, and my vision went white for a moment. “Oww...”

“Shit, are you okay?” Casey asked, poking my shoulder.

“No...” I moaned, tasting blood in my mouth.

“Come on, get up you big baby,” Dylan said, grabbing my shoulder to haul me off the floor. What? When had they gotten here? He and Casey got me upright and leaned me back against the side of the bed, and Dylan went a little white when he saw my face. “Oh, shit, you’re bleeding!”

“Don’t just stare at it,” Casey snapped, smacking him on the back of the head. “Go get some towels or something before you puke, dumbass!”

Dylan nodded and scampered off, looking like he’d seen a ghost. Right, he didn’t like blood, that was what it was—I remembered that now. He’d almost fainted one time when Eli had skinned his knee open on the rocks down by the Cistern, and Peter had grabbed him before he could fall and break his head open or something.

Casey made an annoyed noise and sat in front of me, crossing his legs, then reached out to pinch the bridge of my nose. “Lean your head forward,” he said, pushing at the back of my neck with his free hand. Oh, he was wearing his homemade shorts; I got a good look at his tanned legs when he pushed my head down. Umm, yeah, okay, maybe he had nice legs? I tried not to stare, but it was hard when my blood was dripping on his shins and he was holding my head down so I didn’t have anywhere else to look. “That looks like it hurt.”

“Nhnyeah,” I got out, my throat tickling from what felt like a little rivulet of blood dripping down it. Gross, everything tasted like copper. I tried to focus on just taking deep breaths through my mouth while Casey held my nose and rubbed the back of my neck soothingly. “How’d you guys get here?”

“Your mom let us in,” Casey said. “What the fuck, though, Deneb? You just screamed something and fell out of bed when I knocked.”

“Bad dream,” I said, catching his eyes for a moment when he nudged my head up to inspect the damage. They were... um, really, really green. Something felt like it was turning over in my stomach as he poked and prodded at my face with his free hand, but then he snorted and pushed my head back down and the moment passed. “You guys buried me alive,” I said. “And you were acting like puppets or something. It was creepy as hell.”

“That’s really weird,” he said. “Are you okay, though...?”

“Umm—”

“I brought towels!” Dylan shouted as he elbowed my door open. No, fuck, not right now, go away Dylan. Wait, where did that thought come from? Uuuuugh, this wasn’t really the time for this.

Casey rolled his eyes at him, but he didn’t say anything as his brother knelt and drabbed awkwardly at the blood smearing my face with one of Mom’s blue-and-white checked towels. He mostly just succeeded in smearing it around my face some more, and eventually Casey elbowed him aside and cleaned the worst of it off with smooth, even strokes of the towel. I tried not to think about the feeling of his fingers on my lips. I wasn’t entirely successful.

“Think it’s stopped bleeding yet?” he asked, tilting my head up a bit so I could look him in the eye again. His fingers were just under my chin, warm and a little calloused, and he was wiping blood away from my nose with his other hand. “It kind of looks like it has.”

I sniffed, and though it made a gross, snotty sound, I didn’t immediately get another gush of blood down my throat, so I guess he was right. “Yeah, I think I’m okay now.”

“Mhm,” Casey said. Pelor’s mercy, but his eyes were pretty. “So, you had a nightmare about us?”

“Wait, what?” Dylan asked. “Why would you be dreaming about us?”

“I don’t know!” I said, flushing dark red immediately. “It was just a stupid dream! It’s whatever, it doesn’t really matter.”

“You said we buried you alive, that we were acting like puppets. That kind of sounds like it matters,” Casey pointed out, turning my head back and forth so he could scrub off the last of the blood. He paused for a moment, sticking just the tip of his tongue out while he focused on scrubbing off a spot of blood on my chin; I found I couldn’t look away. “Are you claustrophobic?”

“Uh...”

“Hey, hey, look at me,” Casey said as soon as I started hesitating. He set the bloody towel aside and reached up to cup my cheeks with both hands, staring straight into my eyes. “It’s okay if you are, I’m not going to laugh.”

“Yeah,” Dylan added, but I hardly heard him. “It’s fine, promise.”

“I, uh—” I said, my voice suddenly gone. He had to notice how fucking hot my cheeks were, he had to! Fuck, what was I supposed to do? I glanced down at his mouth, at the little pink tip of his tongue just visible behind his slightly parted lips, and realized my mouth was really, really dry all of a sudden. “Yeah,” I squeaked. “A little bit...”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his eyes flicking over my face like he was studying me as intensely as I was him. He bit his lower lip for a moment, considering his words. “That sounds like a really shitty dream, Deneb.”

“It, uh... it really was.”

“It’s okay now, I wouldn’t let it get you,” Casey said, and took a deep breath; his eyes drifted closed as he did. Then he leaned in and pressed his soft lips against mine, and he was warm and his breath was right in my face and I couldn’t really think of anything else I’d ever wanted more than this. It was just for a moment, but holy shit. I mean, holy fucking shit, what? He drew back just enough so that we were separate, but I could still feel his warm breath ghosting across my face. He licked his lips like he was savoring how I tasted before saying, “You’re safe, I promise.”

“Casey, what...?”

“Yeah, fucking share, asshole!” Dylan said, jamming his elbow into his brother’s side. He hooked his arm around my neck and pulled me into a little bit rougher of a kiss, his nose mashing against mine and his chapped lips rougher than Casey’s, but it was still... wow. Okay, yeah, I could live with this.

“Don’t be greedy, I was here first,” Casey chided, pushing us apart after my head began to spin from how hard Dylan kissed me. “Come on, it’s gonna be more comfortable on the bed.”

Dylan grinned at him, then they both grabbed a hand and pulled me after them. It was kind of awkward getting settled with all three of us crammed into my small bed, but after some jostling and shoving we ended up with my head in Dylan’s lap while he played with my hair, and Casey sprawled across my front and lazily kissing me. Dylan eventually switched to massaging the base of my horns, and that sent weird little tingles shooting up my spine that felt really, really good.

Casey hummed against my lips, then caught my bottom lip gently in his blunt teeth for a moment. I didn’t dare try the same with him; my teeth were sharp enough that it’d definitely end in disaster. Talk about a mood killer—biting someone for real in the middle of making out sounded awful. He let me go and pulled back, green eyes hazy, then smiled real wide and dove back in, shoving his tongue into my mouth with a soft groan that I swore I could feel through my entire body. I felt dizzy, and really warm, and between Casey’s tongue in my mouth and Dylan’s fingers digging into my scalp around my horns I was rapidly sinking into this sort of soft, floaty haze.

“You taste like blood still,” Casey murmured against my lips the next time he came up for air. I was panting hard to get my breath back, but his words just knocked it right out of me all over again. “I kinda want more.”

“Gross,” I said, but I didn’t actually mind that much when he came back in for another taste. Mhm, yeah, definitely getting used to this. If they were down, maybe we could spend the whole day like this? Yeah, yeah that sounded like a good idea.

I managed to get my hands up to cup his cheeks like he’d done before to me, and he felt as hot and flushed as I did. There was an obvious blush working its way over his cheeks, making the freckles there and on his nose stand out. He giggled a little bit and turned his face against my hand like a cat before he dove back in to resume making out with me. I moved my hands to his neck, and my thumbs brushed over his earlobes for a moment. There were no plugs in his ears.

“What—” I said, and woke up. Fuck.