The woman with the chipped nail polish sat next to the bar. Her flogger - red and white, as far as Quentin could tell in the color-changing lights - hung from her belt, its strands ending just short of the floor.
Quentin spotted her earlier, when she was scening with some guy he vaguely knew. Maybe she was done for the evening.
He'd never know unless he tried, right?
He walked up beside her. Said, "Hi," skirting the line of being heard over the music without yelling in her ear. "May I buy you a drink?"
She looked him over. Quentin felt himself blushing. She shook her head and got up. Before Quentin could find a quiet corner to bury himself in, however, she turned and beckoned at him to follow her.
Outside, it was cold and cigarette smoke stung Quentin's eyes. It was, however, a good deal quieter. Under the streetlights, her nail polish looked green. "What are you looking for?" she asked him.
He swallowed. Rehearsed in his head that if she was one of those who expected him to play a role right off the bat, unnegotiated, she wasn't right for him. The words came to him in Alyssa's voice, and they calmed him down a little. "I'm into impact," Quentin gestures at her flogger. "Kneeling, kissing your feet." The next part was harder, less generic. The things he truly yearned for when he went out. "If you wanted to write or draw on me, I'd like that. Anything you want so long as the ink comes off. Or say things, and have me repeat them, anything you want for that as well."
A moment of silence stretched on. Quentin didn't fidget and thought, over and over, It's okay to want. It's okay to ask. It's okay if she says no. He was used to bewilderment, when he asked for the things he wanted. A few laughed at his face. Some assumed it was a humiliation thing, which Quentin rolled along with, even if it wasn't his first choice.
What the woman said was, "Are you trying to get me to call down power through you?"
Quentin's eyes widened, feeling the words like a shock down his spine. That was what Sabine had called what they did, Calling down power. Just hearing the words from someone else's mouth felt like a tantalizing promise. "Yeah. I-- yeah."
"In a kink club? Really?" she said, incredulous. "How much power did you have in mind?"
When Sabine asked him that, the correct answer would be, As much as you want. But Quentin had had a few years of therapy since then, not to mention Alyssa's influence. "I'm not sure how to measure it. Sorry," he said, when her expression shifted. She looked mildly horrified. "My ex said -- shit, sorry." Wow, bringing up the ex, go him.
"Finish the sentence."
"She said I could take a lot." He winced. "I don't know if that's any help at all - anything that works for you, I'm probably fine with."
"Oh my God." She rubbed her forehead. "How long have you known you're a familiar?"
Quentin blinked. "A what?" Then a memory came to him, some girl Alyssa had met that said she was-- "Some kind of magic thing? Are those real?"
The woman actually facepalmed. "I'm guessing you have no idea how to draw power safely."
"I have a safeword," he offered, after a moment's confusion.
"Great. Just great. Look. As one, as one person to another, do me a favor. Promise me you won't try to draw power - no chanting, no writing on skin - until you know how to do it safely. Okay? Otherwise you could get hurt, your partner could get hurt, the fabric of reality could get hurt. Just-- not until you know what not to do."
Quentin hesitated. He wanted to say yes, wanted to make her happy; it was the same urge that made him want her to hit him with that flogger. At the same time....
He didn't go out often, and when he did, he didn't often find people willing to engage in the kinds of play she asked him to give up. But when he did, when he did-- even when all it did was stir memories of his time with Sabine--
Well, there was a reason he'd stayed with her for as long as he did, despite everything.
"I'm not saying give it up forever," the woman said, exasperated. "Just until you've picked up the basics. Enough to be able to tell a partner how much power you want to draw, for one thing. Okay, open your phone and give it to me." She held out her hand. Once Quentin did as she asked, she typed in something. "That's the email of... you know munches?"
Quentin glanced at the club behind them and sald, "What do you think?"
She snorted. "I think some of the bozos here have no idea what those are. Anyway, I'm giving you the email of the... think of them as munch organizers. For members of the magical community. The next one is just next week. Show up, and if nobody else is there to give you the 101 lecture, I promise I will." She handed him the phone, and said, "My name is Gail."
She nodded. "Nice to meet you, Quentin. See you at the mixer." She didn't add or else, but Quentin had a feeling he heard it nonetheless.
When he got home, Alyssa was sitting at the kitchen table, sorting her meds into her pill box.
He kissed her on the cheek. "Hey, babe. How's Michelle?"
"Distracted. Finals and grading and workshops, oh my! I'm lucky she could clear a couple of hours for me."
"Well, she's lucky to have you for a couple of hours, even if it's all she can have," Quentin said. He stood behind Alyssa and she leaned her head back on his stomach.
"She said the same thing. How do you manage to rub off on each other when you barely ever meet?"
"I don't know, it's like there's this person we both love who keeps telling us sweet affirming things. It's a mystery." Quentin gave her shoulders a cursory rub. "I'm going to bed. Should I wait up?"
Five minutes later they were both in bed, pajama-clad, cuddling. "So how was your evening?" Alyssa said.
Quentin groaned. "So I tried to hit on this domme, and she takes me outside and tells me I'm a familiar."
He could feel Alyssa blinking against his cheek. "Seriously?" She shuffled. "What does that even mean? How could she tell?"
"Beats me. She gave me an email and told me to come to," not a munch, she'd called it something else, "a mixer. I'll know more next week."
"Wow." For a moment, Alyssa went quiet. "Hey, Quen? You know I love you either way, right?"
"I know." Still felt good to hear it. "Love you too, Lyssa."
They kiss, close-mouthed, and settle each in their respective side of the bed.
The mixer took place in a more upscale restaurant than most munches Quentin has been to, and the entire back room was reserved for them. It took him a moment to realize that yes, everyone in the room was here for the same event: there were people wearing business casual sitting next to tattooed, pierced folks in ripped jeans, at least one lady in mom jeans -- or was that rude to say? In jeans, anyway, and a t-shirt, and a guy with a sweater vest.
There was a free chair next to the last one, and Quentin sat down, hunching his shoulders. He looked furtively up and down the table, but couldn't see Gail.
The people around him seemed comfortable, for the most part, exchanging small talk that went over Quentin's head.
Or possibly gossip would be the better word.
"...She attempted to use his cousin as a source, if you can believe that," said a business-casual clad man.
The mohawked, lip-pierced person next to him, who wore a button that indicated they/them pronouns, drew a hissing breath through their teeth. "I take it he wasn't happy about that."
"Not at all. Got her banned from every East Coast mixer and community that listens to him, and you know, most of them do."
"Just for dating his cousin?" That was the lady in jeans. "That sounds excessive."
"If you knew what happened to the other people she'd dated..."
The sweater vest wearer seemed uncomfortable. Before he could say anything, however, there was a throat-clearing sound, and the tinkle of a spoon against a glass. The people next to Quentin fell silent.
"Magic users and familiars, welcome to the third mixer of the year!" The speaker is a petite woman with long, dark hair. "We'll soon do a round of introductions. Then we'll begin the activities. First, a few rules:
"No means no. If somebody isn't interested in pursuing a scenario with you, even if they showed interest in general, then you drop it with no further commentary." The speaker took a sip from a water glass. "I hear we have some new familiars in the audience?"
Quentin ducked his head. He felt eyes on him and did not like that one bit.
"Anybody new to the mixer has to find a member with an armband," the speaker indicated a red ribbon around her arm, "to sponsor them for the evening. Don't be shy, folks, it's what we're here for."
Around that point, as Quentin considered hyperventilating or possibly getting up and leaving, he finally spotted Gail. She was sitting near the head of the table. She waved at Quentin with a vaguely menacing air when their eyes met.
The speaker added some notes on privacy which Quentin already knew from the kink scene - use the names people use when they introduce themselves, don't mention names if you talk about the mixer - and concludes with, "Members with armbands will also have markers, ribbons, graph paper, and other equipment you might need. Don't hesitate to ask!"
Graph paper? Really? Quentin shook his head. Apparently there was plenty he didn't know. Big surprise there.
"Good to see you here," Gail said, shoving a chair in the corner next to Quentin. Her red armband seemed like something he ought to expect at this point. "I'll explain the general flow after the introduction round."
Said round involved saying one's name, pronouns, and favorite animal. The second person asked, a man with cotton candy-pink hair, chose unicorns. For a wild second Quentin wondered if those were real, too. Maybe he should say dragons when it's his turn. What if unicorns were real, though, and dragons weren't, and everyone thought he was a dumbass?
By the time Quentin's turn arrived, he barely remembered to choke out, "Quentin, he/him."
Gail prods him. "Animal?"
"Hexagon," Quentin said, because for some reason his mouth decided that was an appropriate thing to say. There wasn't much of a comment from the room; Quentin tried to tell himself not everyone was staring at him and wondering what planet he fell from.
"Henry," said the man in the sweater vest a moment later. "He/him. No favorite animal, but my favorite geometrical body is a scalene triangle." The introductions continued, and Quentin breathed, grateful.
The speaker was the last person to introduce herself: "Shireen, she/her, pidgeon." She brought out a metal savings tin with "keep it silver" written on it, and a stack of yellow notes. "All right! Now we're going to partake in the time-honored tradition of the koala box. Everyone writes a scenario they're interested in and put it in the tin. I then draw out one scenario at a time, calling for either magic-user or familiar volunteers. Anybody who's interested can raise their hand, and I choose one. Then I'll call out for the other side - familiar if I called user, user if I called familiar - and anyone interested in participating with the first person I chose raises their hands, and the first person I chose chooses who to work with. Everyone got it?"
There were nods and murmurs. Quentin glanced nervously at Gail, who gave him a thumbs up.
Quentin spent a few minutes with a mind utterly blank of ideas, but when the yellow note was passed down to him, he found himself writing, "make someone tell the truth and ask them personal questions".
His memories of doing that with Sabine weren't exactly positive: she mostly used it when she thought he might be cheating on her, and often they came out with her forbidding him from meeting someone, or visiting someplace. But it was a concrete scenario that Quentin thought might be okay to do in this setting.
The tin was passed around, and Quentin threw his folded note in after everybody else. Shireen shook the tin, opened it and took out a note. "Pain relief," she read out. "Magic users?"
The lip-pierced person, Sage, put up their hand. "You want to practice it on the familiar?" Shireen asked Sage, who nodded. When Shireen called for a familiar, five hands snapped up, most of them from the section of the room with colorful hair. The lady in jeans also had her hand up, and was biting her lip.
"Rowan," Sage said, and the cotton-candy haired guy stood up, which let Quentin notice he was using a crutch.
Sage and Rowan both came to stand in the center of the room. Sage had a quick, quiet discussion with Shireen, and came away bearing a lighter and a small red birthday candle, which they had Rowan hold.
"Do you want to sit down for the spell-laying?" Sage asked Rowan, who shook his head. "Alright. Repeat after me," Sage said. "We call to the Powers...."
Quentin had to blink a few times to clear his eyes. He remembered that litany. Sage's voice was nothing like Sabine's, but the words rang so familiar that he could swear he heard Sabine talking.
But as Sage went on, the litany changed from what Quentin remembered. "As long as the candle burns," that part was familiar, although Sabine used larger candles, "and as long as I hold it, the spell will hold. If I let go," had Quentin holding his breath; that part usually involved some sort of punishment.
But all Sage said was, "The spell will end, and all will be as before." Rowan repeated after them.
Sage lit the candle. As the flame caught, Rowan let out a groan of relief; he still stood straight. His face, which Quentin hadn't marked before, looked luminous, blissed into beauty.
"How does it feel?" Sage asked.
Rowan shuddered. "Really fucking good."
"You wanna sit down until the spell runs out?"
Rowan nodded. Sage led him back to his seat. There was a smattering of polite applause.
The man in business casual in front of Quentin huffed. "No sense of showmanship."
Henry gave him a sharp look, but before he could speak, Shireen pulled out another note. "Levitation! Ah, a classic. Familiars, raise your hands if you're interested!"
A young woman in a white button-down raised her hand. Business casual dude raised his hand when Shireen asked for magic users, which didn't surprise Quentin. Henry did, too, which Quentin had not expected. The woman chose Henry.
Henry and the woman briefly conferred. The woman rolled up her sleeves, and Henry took a marker out of his bag. He spoke to himself quietly for a few moments, then began to draw on her. When he said his litany, he did so with precise enunciation, repeating sections when the woman's diction wasn't to his liking. The business casual dude scowled. Henry drew complex geometrical shapes on the woman's exposed forearms, compressing sure strokes of the marker into the available space.
He capped the marker, put it aside, picked up his hands, and she flew.
Quentin's idea of levitation was "a few inches in the air". That's not what was happening here. Henry moved his hands in graceful arcs, and the familiar moved in the air just the same, grinning hugely and whooping.
The whole thing lasted less than a minute before Henry landed her on her feet, a soft landing. The applause this time was thunderous; even business casual dude clapped, resentfully. Henry smiled at the familiar, they exchanged a couple of quiet words, and went each to their seat.
The activities went on. Jeans lady - whose name was Karen - was both a familiar and a magic user, so she could channel her own magic to make colorful water bubbles float and dance in the air. A woman in glasses with her hair in a bun channeled a red-haired guy's power to create an illusion of a palm-sized dragon, see-through but moving with startling realism.
"Two more," Shireen said, and read off the note: "Truth spell! I'm cheating and picking myself as magic user, since I haven't had a go yet. Any familiars interested?"
Nobody was looking at Quentin. He knew that. Lots of people hadn't put their hands up at any point. That wasn't why he raised his hand, hesitantly, then more firmly when Gail gave him an encouraging smile.
He shuffled to the center of the room. "I primarily draw my wards with ribbons," Shireen told him, "but I can do them in marker if you prefer. And I'd have to touch your hand, is that okay?"
"That's fine. Both of what you said." Quentin had no idea what she wanted to do with the ribbons, but he figured it couldn't be too bad.
What she did, it transpired, was a cross between bondage and weaving, tying the ribbons in a complicated pattern around Quentin's chest. The ties were loose enough, and the ribbons light enough, that Quentin barely felt anything through his shirt. If she'd done it on bare skin--
He shut the thought down. This wasn't the time or place.
"Now, repeat," Shireen said. "I call down the power...."
"I call down the power."
"To speak truth, and only truth." He repeated after her. "And know truth from lies. As long as your hand touches mine, I will speak the entire truth, as I know it." She laid her hand over his. "If I draw my hand away, the spell will end, and all will be as it was before."
Again with the lack of the punishment clause. Quentin was getting to wonder about that. Maybe Sabine had added those because he'd been her submissive.
Quentin couldn't quite pursue that line of thought. Before he could try, the spell took charge. His limbs felt heavy, but he wasn't tired: he felt full of energy, coiled and waiting to be used.
"Are you ready?" Shireen asked.
It was funny, being told that he was the one channeling the power, when it was Shireen shining so strongly he could hardly look at her, and couldn't bear to look away. "Yes."
"All right. I will ask you some personal questions, some of a sexual nature. Are you prepared?"
"Okay. When's the last time you had sex?"
"Five years." The answer came out without his needing to give it any thought. He remembered that: the spell got the answers out of him even if he didn't consciously know them. The answer made sense. Five years ago, he'd just moved in with Alyssa, and they had tried the sex thing for a while before concluding it wasn't for them.
Shireen whistled. "You must miss it a lot."
"Not really." He never did. Not the way he'd missed the whistle of a whip hitting his back, or wrapping his hands around someone he loved.
"Ever cheated on anyone?"
"No." When would he have had the time? Sabine never let him out of her sight and Alyssa and he weren't exclusive in any way.
"Ever fantasized about a guy?"
Shireen's mouth purses in concentration. "What are you ashamed of?"
"Staying with my ex for as long as I did." He followed it with, "I know I shouldn't be. But I am."
"What did your ex--"
Gail stood up. "Is this really necessary? This is a demo, not a therapy session. Don't ask the guy anything he'd regret telling you later."
"He could just take his hand away, it's not like I'm putting him in an altered state," Shireen said, but she also didn't continue that line of questioning. Instead she asked, "What are you afraid of?"
"Rejection. Failure." Quentin smiled. "The usuals. Also anything venomous."
Shireen nodded. "I'll draw my hand away, now, and the spell will end. Ready?"
When she did, Quentin still felt the heaviness. Gail looked at him oddly as he sat down next to her. "You're still carrying nearly all the charge you channeled," she told him, once the polite applause died down. "Didn't you want to resist answering any of the questions she asked?"
Quentin shrugged. "She didn't ask much I minded talking about."
"Last activity!" Shireen called out. "And we have... making hair and clothes float, nice. Familiars, who's interested?" She picked a gangling guy in a metal band t-shirt with long wavy hair. "Magic users?"
The business-casual dude ended up being the magic user for that activity, though he didn't look very pleased about it. He went through drawing the wards (with marker, on the familiar's back, the familiar having raised his shirt to give access) and spoken repetitions quicker than anyone Quentin has seen today. Next to Quentin, Henry winced.
Finally, business casual dude went through the "as long as the candle burns" part, and the familiar's hair floated up in the air around him. The familiar's clothes also rose. The familiar looked like he was suspended in a pool of liquid.
Then the air around him started turning murky.
The familiar frowned. He opened his mouth to speak, but only bubbles came out. He waved his arms, movements deceptively languid and slow, but the panic in his expression showed urgency.
Shireen looked nervously from business casual dude to the candle, which was stuck to a nearby plate with a blob of wax, but it was Gail who got up and snuffed the candle flame between thumb and forefinger.
The familiar dropped to the floor with a thud, panting. "Holy shit," he said, when he got his breath back. "Holy shit."
Business casual dude looked defensive. "You were mumbling during the incantation! I can't be held responsible for that."
Shireen ignored him and rushed to the familiar. "Are you all right? Do you need medical attention?"
The familiar coughed and waved her off. "I'm fine. Never channeling for him again," he said, jerking his head at business casual dude, "but fine."
"Magic has risks!" yelled business casual guy.
"Whatever, dude." The familiar turned and left the room. After a few minutes, so did business casual guy, looking furious; a tattooed person with a red armband followed him out.
"...and then Gail gave me the magic version of The Talk, and also I have a date."
"A date!" Alyssa straightened, knocking stray essays to the floor. "A date, he says, after leading with half an hour of magic party tricks." She was sitting on the sofa, cross-legged, the essays she was grading in her lap and in a pile next to her.
"Excuse me for thinking the supernatural is slightly more interesting than my love life."
Alyssa twirled her pen. "You know what I want to know? If magic is real, why do people who mess with it act like it's a kink instead of, I don't know, trying to transmute lead into gold or achieve immortality?"
"Um." Quentin glanced away, discomfited. "I don't know how to explain it."
She didn't push, but waited for him to put his thoughts in order.
"It's -- personal. No, that's not the word. Intimate. Feeling someone's power run through you, seeing them when they're using that power. It's, I'm not sure how to describe it. But it's not like a business transaction."
"Or like co-authoring an article," Alyssa said.
Quentin ducked his head. "You'd know better than me. Even when it's just a friendly thing with someone I just met -- it's a connection." One he hadn't realized how much he'd missed, until tonight. It made him want to curl up on himself, be shielded.
"Hey. Quen. Look at me?"
Quentin raised his eyes to meet Alyssa's.
Her gaze was warm enough to chase off the chill in his chest. "Is that a kind of intimacy you want to have?" Quentin nodded, jerkily. "Well, that's wonderful. I'm glad you found somewhere where you can pursue that." A wrinkle appeared in Alyssa's forehead. "What about safety, though? What did Gail say?"
Quentin concentrated. "Not that much. To repeat the, uh, chanting, without mumbling or slurring. To make sure there's an effective exit clause that can be used quickly -- snuffing a candle or breaking a seal or untying a rope, those sorts of things. If I'm messing with levitation, only do it with someone I trust." That one, he'd pieced together himself. "When asked how much I want to channel, I can give an example of the kind of working I'm interested in, just to give the magic user an idea of the order of magnitude. How much energy a working takes is really individual anyway, so it's a pretty broad ballpark."
"I'd say, have an escape clause that the person being worked on can use," Alyssa said. "Like holding a candle, rather than the candle being far away where you can't reach it."
Quentin grinned. Alyssa was so clever. "Good thinking."
She moved the papers from her lap to a pile on the floor, and pointed firmly on the pillow next to her. Quentin sat down and leaned his head on her shoulder. He took comfort in her size, her solidity. In a voice that brooked no argument, Alyssa said, "Now tell me about your date."
He shrugged with the shoulder that wasn't pressed to Alyssa's chest. "Not much to tell. Next week, her name's Delilah. She made the dragon illusion I was talking about earlier." The appraising look that Delilah had given him had felt familiar. Easy to work with.
Driving to Delilah's place, Quentin wondered whether he'd misrepresented the meeting to Alyssa by calling it a date.
At the end of the mixer, people had stood up and talked about workings they wanted to do, and said whether they wanted to be approached about to the working, and by whom. Delilah had said "Any male familiar," after her project pitch. Was the insistence on men a hint that she wanted types of intimacy beside magic?
That sort of thing, the emphasis on the gender of the people you were intimate with, had never made sense to Quentin. But maybe that wasn't why. Maybe gender mattered in magic in some way that nobody had gotten around to explaining to him.
He arrived at Delilah's apartment feeling simultaneously over- and underdressed. He nervously smoothed a hand over his button-down. It was light blue, which he'd been told suited his complexion. He wore gray suit pants and no jacket: work clothes. It seemed to match up with Delilah's outfit from the mixer.
Delilah opened the door clad in a blouse, pencil skirt and a pair of kitten heels, so Quentin's worries about his own getup were somewhat assuaged. In addition, she looked great, and Quentin told her so after the initial greetings.
"Thank you." She smiled and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, her earrings jangling. "Do you want anything to drink? A snack? Come in, sit down." She gestured at the couch.
"I'm fine, thanks." He sat. Her place was a loft apartment, spacious, with beautiful light coming in through the large windows. There were sculptures and vases standing around, large prints and tapestries and what looked like musical instruments hanging on the walls.
She sat down across from him. "With someone I'm still getting to know, I usually do my wards in marker. Are you comfortable with taking off your shirt?"
Quentin didn't exactly have ripped abs, but he didn't feel like he had anything to hide, either. "Sure, that's fine."
"Have you done any musical workings before, or artistic in general?"
"I don't think so?" In most cases, he was never certain what Sabine was doing. It didn't help that she hadn't told him she was doing magic. "Not that I recall."
"Well, they're fairly straightforward. In our case, I'll lay down the instruments and attempt to extract a dream melody." She waited for a second. "Do you know what that is?"
Quentin shook his head.
"What I’m trying to do is to access my own subconscious and take out a tune I heard in a dream. The instruments," she pointed to the the ones on the wall, "will play, and I will do some tweaking and write down the important parts so I can reconstruct all of it later."
"Cool," Quentin said. The word seemed silly and insufficient, but Delilah already moved on, taking the instruments off the wall and laying them down on the carpet. The one closest to Quentin looked like a flying saucer.
She pointed to a circle marked on the floor in tape, just broad enough for Quentin to stand in. "You come here, and if you need to end the spell, step out of the circle. You can put your shirt on the couch."
Quentin stood in the circle, exposed. The room was warm enough but he still had goosebumps, half queasy with anticipation and apprehension. What are you so worried about? he thought, mentally shaking himself. Isn't this what you wanted?
Delilah uncapped her marker. Not of his own volition, Quentin shivered.
She was quick with the marker, small, sure passes of it engraving themselves in Quentin's skin. He looked down, mesmerized by the curling lines she created. They didn't add up to anything he recognized, neither words nor drawings. "What does it say?" he asked, and cringed as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Way to ruin the mood, Quentin.
Delilah didn't seem upset, though, and she answered while still drawing on him. "Ward language. There's actually a couple of them, like the one that uses knots instead of writing. People say it's super ancient and stuff, but I know for a fact some of the wards are less than five years old." She shrugged without disrupting the line she was tracing. "It's like musical notation. You could use English if you had to, but that would take up more space and make less sense. If you like, I can teach you a few sigils when we're done."
"Oh wow, that sounds great," Quentin said. "Thanks for offering."
"No problem. Now give me a few seconds, I need to concentrate." The lines she drew now curled into one another like a maze, an intricate pattern right over his solar plexus, spiraling inwards. Then she scattered dots in places that seemed random, and capped her pen again. "Right. Time for chanting."
"Hey, can I ask another question?"
She gave a go ahead gesture.
"Um. Are you going to introduce a punishment clause? Like, a bad outcome if I stop the spell? Because...." he trailed off as her eyes widened.
"Of course not! Why would you think that?"
'Right," Quentin said, feeling stupid. "We don't have that kind of relationship, I shouldn't have presumed."
She blinked. "Do you want a punishment clause?"
"No. Wouldn't be much of a punishment if I did, would it?"
A moment passed in silence as she stared at him. Finally, she said, "Either you're into stuff I'm really not into -- not judging -- or you did this with somebody seriously messed up." She paused. "Which I would judge. Hard."
Seriously messed up is a descriptor that had been applied to his relationship with Sabine before. "Right. Sorry."
She patted his shoulder. "It's fine. Anyway, no punishment clause. That okay with you?" He nodded. "Great. Let's chant." She waited a moment, as if to give him time to ask yet more ignorant questions. "I call down the power..."
Any further questions he might have had were drowned out by the familiar exchange of the chanting. As he repeated the words, it felt like an opening created inside him, letting in something wild and strong.
In the grouping of instruments in front of him, a stringed instrument hummed. The thing that looked like a flying saucer let out a sound much sweeter than Quentin would have expected. A flute whistled softly. It all seemed to be gearing into an unholy cacophony, and Quentin was beginning to worry his own lack of musical skill was fucking up the spell when the instruments began to play in harmony.
He'd never heard the tune before, of that he was sure. He would have remembered it. It felt like the power inside him, complicated and unknowable and beautiful.
For long minutes, there was nothing but music. Then the instruments wound down. Quentin sighed at the silence that ensued.
"Hm," Delilah said. "Almost. Let's try that in B flat at the last transition."
Quentin couldn't quite pick out the change. The tune sounded a bit odder as a whole, maybe? He wasn't sure. It was still lovely.
Delilah made tweaks to several of the tune's segments, then played the whole thing from the top with the added changes. "Hey, uh, Quentin, how are you doing?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Actually fine, or don't-want-to-inconvenience-me fine?"
"Actually fine," Quentin said, baffled. "It's very pretty," he added, gesturing at the instruments.
Delilah's expression softened. "I'm so glad it turned out worth extracting. Dream melodies can wind up being an entire song you ripped off, or a bunch of badly mashed up songs, or just a series of chords that makes no sense. I had a good feeling about this one, though, and turns out it's totally justified." She did a little twirl. Quentin grinned at her. "All right then. Again, from the top."
By the time Delilah was satisfied with the melody, Quentin had lost count of how many times the instruments started and stopped. His legs were getting tired, although he wasn't getting the wobbly, turned inside-out feeling he'd gotten sometimes with Sabine. He guessed that's what Gail had meant by burnout.
Delilah held his hand and took him out of the tape circle, oddly careful with him. She led him to the couch. Quentin had a hard time looking away from her; he still felt the connection of the working they did together. She sat down on the couch as well, with some space between them. "How are you feeling?"
"Good." Quentin flexed his fingers, letting his body get used to the empty feeling that he supposed came from no longer channeling. He felt cold. He hoped she didn't want him to leave yet.
What Delilah said, in actuality, was, "Want to make out?"
"Yes," Quentin said, a bit too fast, and moved closer to her. Her warmth was fantastic, and her mouth was soft, and she'd just done something amazing.
No. They had just done something amazing, together.
She asked permission before touching his bare chest, and his stomach, which was weird but endearing. Then she asked to take off Quentin's pants, and the automatic agreement he'd intended to express stuck in his mouth.
"Okay," she said, when it took him more than a second to respond. "Pants stay on, got it. Want to go to bed, just to cuddle?"
Quentin did. But, he realized, not with her. He wanted to be home suddenly, so much his eyes prickled. Wanted Alyssa. "Um." He felt like a total dick saying it, but, "I think I really need to go now. You're great!" He hastened to add. "Just."
"I get it." Delilah helped him stand up and handed him his shirt. "You'll be okay getting home?" she caught his gaze so he couldn't avoid considering the question.
"I'll be fine." Even if he wasn't, he needed to go.
At home, Alyssa was in bed, with the lights turned off, but her breathing was all wrong for sleep. Quentin sat down on the bed next to her and lay a hand on her shoulder. "Hey. Did you eat anything today?" It didn't look like she'd gone out of bed since this morning when he left for work.
Alyssa shifted, a lump beneath the blankets. "I ate yesterday," she said, plaintive. "Why do I have to do that again already?"
Quentin bent and kissed her forehead. "Downsides of being a corporeal organism. Are you up for sandwiches?"
She nodded, and Quentin went to the kitchen. He had soup in the fridge, but that wasn't a good choice for eating in bed. He made them both PB&J sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and cut up an apple and a banana into slices beside it.
Alyssa was sitting up by the time he came back, which was a good sign. She ate her sandwich and most of the banana; Quentin polished off the apple himself when she didn't touch it. She drank the glass of milk he brought her and downed her evening meds, which were on the bedside table.
"Do you want me to brush your hair?" Quentin asked, once they'd done eating and put the dishes aside. Alyssa shook her head and opened her arms to him. Quentin went to her with gratitude, sliding under the covers to be close.
She stroked his hair. "How was your date?"
Alyssa snorted. "Like, may you live in interesting times interesting?"
He rolled his eyes and told her what transpired. "And then I ran back here like a total weirdo," he concluded.
Alyssa kept stroking him. It was making him drowsy. "Do you think you'll want to see her again?" Without thinking or intending to, Quentin's arms tightened around Alyssa. "Is that a no?"
"I don't know," Quentin said, frustrated. "She was great. I don't see any reason why I wouldn't want to see her again. If she'd even have me."
"Well, you're wonderful, so either she'll have you or she's missing out," Alyssa said, as though that was obvious to any thinking person. "You don't need a reason beyond not wanting to, Quen. That's enough."
Sudden fear seized him. "Do you think Sabine, like, broke me? So I can't want someone even if they're perfect?" Halting, he added, "Are you sure you're okay dealing with my emotional drama right now?"
"I'm too tired to move but I can do emotional processing fine, and I want to. Now let me think." For a long moment, she was quiet. "Sabine has done a lot of things to you, and that might include souring you on certain types of relationships. That sucks, and isn't your fault. It doesn't make you any less wonderful, though. And it doesn't mean you should push yourself into a connection you don't want, even if you're not sure why." Another pause. "I can hazard a guess, though, if you want."
Quentin clung to her without a trace of shame. "Yes, please."
"It seems like you didn't want things to become sexual with her."
That was frustrating, too. "She's really attractive," Quentin said.
"But you're not attracted. Are you?"
Slowly, he shook his head.
"Well, you get not to be. For any reason. Or you might feel differently once you get to know her better."
Quentin had been down this path before. "And I might not. I don't want to leave her hanging while I try to figure out what I want."
Alyssa dropped a kiss in his hair. "I want to point out that you're new to this world, and it's natural you'll need to take a while to figure out where you fit in it and what you want from the relationships you find there."
Quentin groaned. "You are so damn smart." He kept the and I'm an idiot part to himself.
"I just listen. That's all."
"It's a lot," Quentin said, with emphasis. He yawned. "I think I want to sleep. Think you'll be able to?"
After some consideration, Alyssa said, "Probably not. Get me my laptop?"
Quentin got up and made pre-bed arrangements - rinsing the dishes, getting Alyssa her laptop, putting on pajamas. He got into bed, turned his back to Alyssa so the glare from her laptop screen won't bother him, and fell asleep almost immediately.
A text notification greeted Quentin the following morning. He blinked at his phone, bleary, while at his side Alyssa gently snored.
It was from Delilah. I had a good time yesterday. Hope you got home okay. I was a little worried since you left very suddenly -- was everything alright?
yeah of course, Quentin typed, feeling like a complete jackass. you were great. had a great time. just needed to go home. He hit send before he could talk himself out of it.
His phone chimed during his drive to work. When he arrived, he saw a reply from Delilah. I'm glad to hear that. Will you be interested in hearing the recorded version of the melody? I should have a preliminary version next week.
that sounds fantastic. Quentin let out a relieved sigh and took the stairs to work two at a time.
Delilah suggested they meet at a coffee shop Quentin had vaguely heard of. Their menu was written on the wall in chalk and all the baristas had at least one piercing. It was fairly quiet, despite the flyers advertising live music.
She was waiting for him when he got there, which gave him a brief moment of panic as he sat down. "Am I late?"
She smiled. "No, I'm early. Do you know what you want?"
He ordered hot chocolate with whipped cream; she had some kind of complicated herbal tea.
After the barista took their orders, Quentin swallowed and said, "I feel like I owe you an explanation."
Delilah's eyes were dark and steady, watching him. "You don't owe me anything," she said. "If there's something you want to tell me, I'm listening, but you absolutely don't have to."
Quentin jerked his gaze down and consciously slowed his breathing. She was just being kind. People did that. No reason to get all worked up.
That she was kind made speaking harder, and more necessary. "I didn't consider that we might do sexy stuff. I don't think I'm in the market for that right now."
Delilah leaned her chin on her fist, thoughtful. "If you're telling me that to spare my feelings, that's not necessary but okay. If you mean it, I might be able to hook you up with someone."
Hope blossomed in Quentin's belly. "Yeah?"
"Yep. Want to listen to the melody first?" At Quentin's nod, she put her phone on the table and offered him the headphones.
The melody in the recording sounded weirdly flat compared to the one they'd played together, probably because it sounded like there was only one instrument - a piano? - playing. It didn't sound entirely like the original melody, although Quentin couldn't remember it well enough to compare. "Why didn't you record the music while we were playing it?" he wondered aloud. She hadn't minded him asking ignorant questions before.
Delilah tilted her head. "You know how persistence works?" She paused. "Or, I mean. Know what the general idea of it is? Since nobody knows how it actually works." Quentin shook his head. "Basically the effects of magic only last as long as power is actively channelled, which is why it's rare for a spell to last more than, say, a few hours. Anything done with magic is like holding up a rock in the air - if you let it go, it's going to fall.
"The tune we made only existed while we were channeling power. If I'd recorded it, the recording would've been wiped when the spell ended."
"But writing down the notes worked?"
"Like I said, nobody knows exactly how it works. Some people forget information they find out by magic the second the spell is over. Most people can write down or draw the information, and retain at least a little bit. Some people can do more. It's very trial and error."
Quentin digested that. "That might explain why nobody's using magic to pursue immortality. Or like, nuclear launch codes."
Delilah laughed. "Oh Gods, that would be awful. No, if you're going after information that exists inside someone's head, specifically, you have to be in the same room with them for the spell to work. Usually in physical contact. There's the types who think they can use magic to take over the world, yeah, but usually they just get frustrated and leave. The people who stick around are ones who treat it as art, or as a form of spirituality, or as a neat prelude for sex. Or all of the above, like I do."
Quentin's drink was getting cold. He spooned up some of the whipped cream as he considered. "But you said you know someone who's not into the sexual aspect?"
"Give me your phone," Delilah said, and reached out her hand. Quentin unlocked it and gave it to her. "Here. His name's Henry -- you know him?" she said, when Quentin straightened slightly.
"Maybe. There was a guy named Henry at the mixer."
"Oh, yeah, I remember. He demonstrated levitation. He's a good guy. Upfront about what he's after. Very good magic user, too." Delilah punched in the number and handed Quentin's phone back to him. "Tell him I sent you... or would you rather I sent an introductory text, first?"
"Would you mind?" Quentin said, grateful.
"It's no problem." She took her phone and thumb-typed rapidly. "There you go, now he has your number. It will probably take him a day or two to get back to you, feel free to call him before that if you'd like."
She insisted on paying for his drink, too. Quentin didn't argue with her. He wasn't much for arguing in general, and one of the reasons he'd asked Delilah to do magic with him was this feeling she gave him, like if he went along and did as he was told everything would be all right.
Here's hoping that feeling won't blow up in his face.
For the next two days, Quentin kept getting his phone out, staring at it, and doing nothing. He should call Henry. He knew that. But phone calls were unnerving enough at the best of times, and those two days were not great.
It was far from the first time that Alyssa had a bad patch during her and Quentin's acquaintance. Usually, though, she had her bad days spaced out, not four in a row and three in the week before. Quentin was worried enough that when Henry did message him, he considered asking for a rain check.
Of course, Alyssa saw that he got a message. Once she got out of Quentin that he was invited on another magic-working opportunity, she was adamant. "I don't need you here holding my hand. If you don't want to go, of course you don't have to, but I really wouldn't want you to stay for my sake."
Quentin didn't very much like the idea of leaving Alyssa alone while she couldn't get out of bed, but she shooed him away. "Worst case, I'll call my brother. Go meet this guy. Have a good time."
So Quentin went, but he wasn't exactly in the best frame of mind for meeting a new person, which this Henry guy picked up on in no time flat.
"If you're not comfortable," Henry began. They were sitting on a park bench, trees green and shiny-leaved above them. "Of course we don't have to do anything--"
Against his will, Quentin blushed. "Sorry. I do want... yeah. It's just, my queerplatonic partner isn't having a great week and I'm worried about her."
"Your--" Henry blinked. "I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with that term. What kind of partner?"
"Oh, Jeez." Quentin ran a hand through his hair. "Um. It's weird to explain -- we live together, we love each other, it's not exactly romantic. We're relationship anarchists anyway -- we're not exclusive on anything and we don't necessarily need relationships to fit neat labels. Basically she's my life partner."
"I see." Henry spoke slowly, making Quentin suspicious he didn't quite understand what Quentin was talking about. That was okay. Honestly, Quentin barely understood what he was talking about himself: Alyssa was the one who understood all the complicated concepts. "Well, that's certainly distracting. Is there anything you need that I can aid with?"
Quentin blushed harder. "That's really kind of you. No, there's probably nothing either of us can do. Thanks for offering, though, I appreciate it. The best thing I could do is get my mind off it and spend a few hours doing something that recharges me, so I can be in good shape when she needs something from me."
Henry took his glasses off to clean them. They were sturdy things, with a black plastic frame. He used specific cloth for cleaning glasses, not his shirt like most people Quentin knew. "Magic does that for you? Recharges you?"
"Um." Quentin wasn't sure that was it. "It's... it's something important to me," he says slowly. "It fills up something in me. It can also tire me out, but that hasn't happened yet." Not since Sabine. "Not recently," he amends.
"Hm. What kind of workings have you done lately? Do you remember what it was that tired you out?" Whatever expression took hold of Quentin's face, it was enough to make Henry startle and say, "Of course, only if you're comfortable telling me."
Quentin waved it off. This information that Henry needed for both their safeties. "Recently, the last thing I did was... extracting a dream melody, I think she called it."
"Who did? Delilah?" Henry asked. After Quentin said yes, Henry asked details: how long did the spell last, how long was the tune itself, how many instruments played. With every detail Quentin added, Henry's brow furrowed.
Finally, curiosity got the better of Quentin. "Why are you looking like that?"
"I can't help my face," Henry said archly. Then he grimaced. "No, I apologize, that was rude. I'm simply confused. I know Delilah, and it's unlike her to push a newcomer to our community so far." He adds, "I remember seeing you sit with Gail at the mixer; she seemed to be taking you under her wing. Am I mistaken?" Quentin shook his head. "Right. And you say you didn't find this tiring?"
"Maybe just standing for that long," Quentin said. "Everything else was fine."
For a few moments, the only sound is the birds chirping in the branches. "What about workings you did find tiring," Henry finally asked, "if you don't mind telling me?"
Quentin thought back. The really bad times were lost, the memories distorted with fatigue and pain. "Our air conditioner broke," he said, halting. "My ex kept saying it was too hot. She didn't tell me what she was doing, but I think she was trying to lower the temperature in the apartment."
"Oh dear," Henry said, faint. "What kind of spatial constraints did she put in place?"
"I don't remember? Like I said, my ex wasn't big on explaining to me what was going on." At Henry's expression, Quentin hastened to add, "I know she was bad news, okay? For a lot of reasons. I get it, she didn't take care to be safe." His mouth twisted. "Anyway, it didn't work."
Henry's face looked faraway, occupied. "Well, weather magic is notoriously unpredictable and difficult. We should count ourselves lucky nothing happened, there's no telling what she could have done to the local climate or to your well-being." He lay his hands flat on the tops of his thighs. "It seems like you have the range to carry out workings I'm interested in, but either way I always start small with new familiars. I would be very happy to work with you, if you were interested."
Quentin exhaled, startled. This felt oddly like a job interview going right. "Great. I-- that's great."
"One thing you should know," Henry said, "is that I use mainly Jewish symbolism in my magic work. I won't be missionary about it, and what your beliefs are is frankly no business of mine, but if that's something you're opposed to, we won't be able to work together."
It was Quentin's turn to blink. "Jewish symbolism? Like... those star things? Um, sorry," he said, "I don't mean any disrespect. I'm kind of agnostic myself." Which Henry had just said was none of his business, and presumably wasn't terribly interesting to him either.
"It's fine." Henry's smile was small but very potent. It made breathing easier. "Stars of David may feature, among other things, though they’re not the most likely. Is that an issue?"
"No issue." Quentin felt a little dazed. Henry was still aiming that smile at him. "I'm good."
"Excellent." Henry had very warm eyes, Quentin noticed. Deep brown, a solid, reassuring color. "In that case, we can go to my office and do a small working there? Just to check the fit, as it were."
Quentin must have made his agreement known, because in another moment they were walking to Henry's car.
"I thought we could do a very basic divining," Henry said. "Have you done any of those?" At Quentin's "No," he says, "It's one of the best usages of magic, if you ask me - one of the only areas where magic gets better results than doing things the mundane way. The melody extraction you did was a relative of what we'll do.
"Divining -- please stop me if I'm saying anything you know already -- is revealing any information that exists, or will exist, in the physical world. Things that are inside people's minds are more difficult -- you need the active participation of the person whose thoughts one is extracting. And then there's dream work..." Henry paused, cleared his throat, and said, "But I was talking about divining. The trick to divination is to be precise with one's wards and litanies. Ask too broad a question, and one risks overwhelming the familiar or getting very vague answers."
"Huh. So if I asked, say, what the weather would be tomorrow...."
"You'd want to specify exactly what you mean by 'weather' -- temperature? Precipitation? Humidity? Atmospheric pressure? And the physical area for which you wanted the answer, which is where spatial constraints come into play, and by 'tomorrow', since the full 24 hours would give much too much information to handle comfortably."
Sometimes being made uncomfortable was worth it. It could be good to be pushed almost to his limits.
But Henry wouldn't want to know about that. Quentin blushed. To cover it, he said, "What are you going to divine today?"
"We," Henry said, with mild pressure on the word, "are going to ask whether one of my study participants would experience significant side effects if given certain medication, and whether the treatment would be effective."
"Wow," Quentin said, weakly. "I wish my partner had that, she hates going on new meds because there's no knowing what it'll mess up."
"That can be discussed, in the future," Henry said.
The thought of Alyssa knowing in advance whether treatment would work was distracting enough that Quentin almost forgot to ask: "Wait, study participants? What do you do?"
"I'm a neurologist. Or, well," Henry coughed, "neuropharmacologist. Mainly in research, as I said. My main area is psychiatric drugs and the mechanisms by which they work."
Which could be either awesome or shitty, since Alyssa had all kinds of stories about ableist doctors and researchers. "And you use magic for your research?"
"I use it to indicate possible research venues. Of course I then have to prove and document my findings using the usual tools, but it tells me where to look."
Quentin tried to find a more fitting response than Cool, but before he could they arrived at the university. The gate opened for Henry's car, and he navigated it between the buildings. "Wow, I haven't been here since graduation," Quentin said.
"How long ago was that?" Henry sounded genuinely interested, not just courteous. But that was probably just Quentin's imagination.
"Uh... four and a half years, I think? Yeah, that's about that." Five years of living with Alyssa, and they had moved in together on the last semester of his previous degree.
In a slightly guarded tone, Henry said, "I realize I should have asked earlier, but how old are you?"
"Oh, I'm twenty-nine," Quentin said. "I started late and my degree, uh, took me a while. How old are you?" He asked the question without thinking much, it was just the obvious response.
"Thirty-five, though I've been told I look older," Henry said in a dry tone. He parked the car, but made no move to get out.
"You don't, really," Quentin said before his brain caught up with his mouth. "I mean -- maybe you sound a little older? You have, like, a vocabulary." Quentin cringed at himself. God, why couldn't he ever think before he said anything?
At least he made Henry laugh, a little bit, enough for his eyes to crinkle. "I may have spent more time with textbooks and stuffy old academics than I have with people my own age. It's taken a toll on me." He undid his seat belt and got out of the car, Quentin on his heels.
"There we go," Henry said, unlocking the office. "It's small and dusty, but it's mine." Quentin walked in.
The room was indeed small, and not just that but crowded. Bags, calendars and posters with various pharmaceutical companies' logos filled the place. If Quentin had imagined any sort of arcane research equipment, though, he would have been disappointed. The room only had a computer, some intimidating books on the shelves, and piles on piles of papers that showed heavy marker use.
Henry gestured him toward one of two chairs next to the desk. "This shouldn't take long, but you may as well make yourself comfortable. Would standing up work for you as a way to end the spell? It's my usual preference. You can see why I wouldn't bring candles in here."
Just the idea of candles next to all that paper made Quentin nervous. "Yeah, I see. Where do you want to, uh, draw the wards?"
Henry gave him an evaluating look. "I think your hands would do, especially if you rolled your sleeves back. You could rest them on the desk," Henry demonstrated.
Quentin undid his cuffs and shoved his sleeves back. Henry winced, and Quentin gave him a sheepish look. "Sorry, they get all bunched up no matter how careful I try to be."
Henry seemed about to say something, but pursed his mouth instead. Then he said, "All right. You'll excuse me while I prepare, I hope?" Quentin gave him a go ahead gesture.
Henry bowed his head. He began to speak in a language Quentin didn’t know: Hebrew, presumably. He spoke quietly, but in the silence of the tiny office it would have been hard not to hear him. Henry’s concentration, his intent, felt like it was filling up all available space.
The recitation stopped, and Henry approached Quentin, who had his hands on the desk as instructed. Henry uncapped his pen, and Quentin shivered in anticipation. It felt good; he'd always liked the sensation of pen on skin, the knowledge of being worked on.
"Are you ready to repeat after me?" Henry asked. Quentin nodded. "Good. Repeat: I wish for the strength to do good," he paused to let Quentin repeat, "I ask for knowledge, if it is permitted...."
It was both like and subtly unlike the other litanies Quentin had heard, or said. There were no explicit references to God or whatever, for which Quentin was grateful. Asking a deity he didn't believe in for favors would be uncomfortable. At the same time, Henry avoided the "I draw down the power" language that was ubiquitous in other litanies he'd heard.
"...for the participant Sheila, daughter of Andrea and Jessica, a student of this university," Henry paused to let Quentin repeat, "let this coin show truth. Heads for yes, tails for no."
If asked, Quentin couldn't say what he'd have expected the divination to be like. Being given a coin, even as he felt power course through him, wasn't exactly it.
"I will ask a question," Henry said, "and you will flip the coin. All right?" Quentin nodded. "Excellent. If given the experimental substance, would the participant find sleep more refreshing? Toss, please."
Quentin did. Heads. It came down heads, too, when Quentin asked, "Will the participant fall asleep more easily if given the substance?" The questions continued in this vein. Every so often, the coin would land tails, and Henry would frown and write something down.
"And done," Henry said. Quentin sagged into the chair as the power left him. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." He hesitated, and admitted, "Maybe a little tired. In a good way, though, like after a workout."
Henry grimaced. "I think I understand Delilah a little better now. It's very easy to push you further. Which doesn't justify me doing so, of course; I'm very sorry, and if you won't want to work with me again, I understand."
Quentin straightened in his chair. "Hey, whoa, no. I said I was good, didn't I? I'd love to work with you again." He ducked his head after speaking. God, why did Quentin have to be such an embarrassment to himself?
"I'm glad," Henry said, and the resulting warmth that coursed through Quentin's bones had only a little to do with magic. "I would like that as well. Perhaps something a little more challenging, if you didn't mind?"
"I do not mind at all," Quentin said, with more emphasis than was warranted. But Henry was smiling at him again, and he wanted Henry to keep doing that.
"Wonderful. In the meanwhile, I prefer to have familiars stay close for a little while after we do a working, in case of any after effects. Would you mind?"
"Nope. I'll just text my partner my ETA." He pulled out his phone.
On the screen he saw a message from Alyssa, and opened it. Michelle had an unexpected night off, it said. going to her place. Love you! and a heart emoji.
"Oh," Quentin said, a tiny sound. It wasn't that he was jealous; he'd never gotten jealous over Alyssa and wasn't going to start now. He just felt so tired, all of a sudden, not just the warm glow of exertion but bleak exhaustion.
"Is something wrong?"
Quentin lifted his head to look at Henry. Even that felt like too much effort. "My partner's not home." He sounded plaintive to himself. No: whiny. Call it what it is. "Sorry. Nothing you should worry about."
Henry frowned. "And she-- I'm sorry, is your partner a she?" Quentin nodded. "She usually provides aftercare for magical sessions?"
"Oh," Quentin said again, slightly louder. He was such a dumbass. "Yeah, she does. I didn't realize that's what was happening."
Henry steepled his fingers. Slowly, he said, "I'm sure I'm no substitute for her, but is there anything I can do to help?"
"You did great. I'm fine." Quentin's tongue felt thick in his mouth.
"Whatever you are," Henry said, eyebrows raised, "fine is not it. What is it that you need? I could arrange food and a blanket." He grimaced again. "For certain values of food and blanket, I suppose."
"Yeah. Those are good." Quentin then watched as Henry dug in his bag and pulled out a thin fleece blanket and a packet of peanuts.
"If you're not allergic?" Henry said. Quentin shook his head. Henry held out the packet, and Quentin took it.
To Quentin's surprise, and guilty enjoyment, Henry laid the blanket over Quentin's shoulders himself. His hands brushed Quentin's neck, brief and impersonal. Henry then retreated to his computer, typing up a storm.
Quentin sat huddled in the blanket. He ate his peanuts. His eyes fixed on the spot on the floor right next to Henry's chair, where a reasonably sized grown man might sit.
"You're moping," Alyssa said.
Quentin bit back his reflexive Am not. Alyssa had a good eye for Quentin's moods, saw him better than he could see himself. "What makes you say that?"
"You keep looking at your phone." She giggled as Quentin guiltily glanced at said phone, out between them. "And you're going all monosyllabic. Do I need to tell you to call the guy?"
"I just came back from meeting him."
Their second meeting had some differences from the first: they met in Henry's office right away, and the working was larger, Henry asking yes/no questions about a neural model that Quentin understood maybe one tenth of. Henry was conscientious about not working Quentin too hard, and as Alyssa was home, sent Quentin to her without suggesting that Quentin stay longer with him. Quentin was decidedly not moping about either of these.
...Okay, maybe a little bit.
"He made it pretty clear that he's not interested in sexual things."
Alyssa shuffled on her side of the bed, leaning on her elbow, chin on her fist. "Is that what you want from him?"
"I don't know?" Quentin raked his hand through his hair. "I think I want kinky things mostly."
"Isn't magic its own kind of kinky thing?"
Quentin squirmed. He could see where this conversation was going. "So you're saying, ask him anyway for the things I want and see if he's interested?"
Alyssa flashed a smile at him. "That's exactly what I'm saying." She waved him off with a regal motion. "Go forth, young padawan, and text him."
"A kinky thing," Henry repeated, highly skeptical, "but not sexual?"
Don't lose heart, Quentin told himself. Worst he could do is tell you no. "Yep."
Well, all right, the actual worst Henry could do is refuse to do magic with Quentin ever again and tell everyone how Quentin was a sucky person who sucked. But that was less likely and Quentin wasn't going to think about that.
"I'm not sure what that means," Henry said. "Could you elaborate?"
Well, shit, Quentin wasn't sure he could. He tried anyway. "Basically you have forms of intimacy that don't go in vanilla relationships, but go in kinky ones. They don't have to involve sex. You can kneel to someone or get flogged without getting off, or even wanting to. It's not about that." Henry's brow furrowed, so Quentin continued. "It's about intimacy. Taking pain from someone can be a pure sensory experience, like getting a massage, or it can be about wanting to push your limits -- for yourself or for the person hitting you." He forced himself to say, "Magic's like that for me, too."
For a few moments that lasted an eternity, Henry looked pensive. Finally, he said, "So excepting magic, what kind of 'kink things'," he said the words delicately, like he wasn't sure of the pronunciation, "did you have in mind?"
"If I could kneel next to you while you're on your computer after we finish a working, I'd like that." Quentin took a breath. "And. If you wanted to, to put a hand on the back of my neck while I did. That would be." He swallowed. "Good."
"All right," Henry said slowly. "Would you mind telling me -- if it's not sexual, for you, why do you want to do this particular act?"
Quentin took a moment to really think about it. It's been a while since anyone asked him what he got out of kneeling. "When I'm on my knees next to someone who wants me there," he said, stumbling over the words, "it's like, like I belong where I am. I don't need to worry about -- the space I take up. About where I should be, because it's where I am. And the hand on the neck -- that's closeness, but it's also, I don't know. Approval? Like you think I did a good job. You don't have to do this," he hurried to add. "Not unless you are totally okay with it."
Henry blinked at him. He looked bemused. "I'll have to think about it," he said, "but as it stands, I don't see a reason not to, if it would be such a positive experience for you. You're sure your partner wouldn't mind?"
"I told you," Quentin said, giddy with this unexpected agreement. "We're relationship anarchists, we don't do exclusivity. I don't do kink with her anyway, it's not a thing for us."
Henry looked briefly away, then back to Quentin. "If we're discussing, mm, intimate issues -- could I make a request? Of course you are absolutely not obligated to say yes, nor is my own consent for what you asked contingent on your agreement."
"Sure. Ask away."
"I want to do workings that include some more complex models of a human brain, and it would be helpful to me to have a subject for them who was aware of magic, and could be in the room with me while we worked. Would you mind if I used you as a subject?" Henry added, "It will show me some facets of your mental and emotional state."
Quentin processed. "Mind reading?"
Henry looked affronted. "Hardly. It would mostly be the same information I'd get from an MRI scan. Perhaps a little like empathy at best."
"Hey, I don't mind." Quentin spread his hands. "I'm good either way."
Henry directed that smile at Quentin, the one that made him feel all loosened up and light. "All right. If you'll give me a few moments to prepare, we could do that right now. Would you be okay with that?" Quentin nodded.
This working was larger than the previous spells they'd done. Henry brought a giant bowl of water with a laminated picture of a human brain in the bottom. Then he dumped colored liquid -- "Oil with food coloring," Henry explained, into the bowl. "The wards for this will require a larger surface -- would you be okay with taking off your shirt? If not, we could--"
"That's fine," Quentin said, faint, and unbuttoned his shirt.
It was distracting to stand there as Henry wrote on his stomach and chest, Henry's face close enough that Quentin could feel the warmth of his breath. Henry was meticulous as ever, and the wards he drew were precise and crowded. Even so, they took up most of Quentin's torso, plus his arms and forearms.
"What are you-- we," Quentin amended, as Henry looked up at him with arched brows. "Trying to do?"
Henry's mouth pursed. "I thought perhaps it could be a surprise," he confessed. "Is it important to you to know now, or are you willing to wait?"
Well, if he put it like that. "Sure, I'll wait."
It wasn't a complete surprise, either way. The litany revealed at least some of the things they were working on: "Empower me to see true, and know the paths of the mind, the changing of emotions and their carriers."
"Can't we just say neurotransmitters?" Quentin asked once the litany was done. He'd picked up that much.
Henry grimaced. "The workings seem to be more effective the simpler the words used are. I think the issue is... let us say, a neurotransmitter can be represented in more than one way. It's a chemical, it's a carrier of emotions, it causes bodily reactions. If I don't narrow down what I'm looking for," he gestured at Quentin.
Quentin picked up the thread. "Then it's too much information to use?"
"That's right." Henry shrugged. "Or at least, that's my hypothesis. Please sit down, and we can begin."
Henry waved his hands, and the water in the bowl, along with the drawing of the brain, rose in the air so that the drawing was in the middle of a ball of water with various colored blobs floating in it.
"Form an image of Quentin's mind," Henry said. As soon as he finished speaking the colored blobs changed shape, flowing, moving quick over and under and around one another. Different parts of the ball around the drawn brain would light up purple, or yellow, or blue. The colors blended together, forming gradients.
"Whoa," Quentin said, despite himself. Henry gave him a pleased little smile. Quentin would have ducked his head, but he wanted to keep watching the show.
Then Henry frowned. He moved his finger through a yellow curve along the back of the drawn skull. "Some activity there, I see," he said. "Are you feeling anxious, Quentin?"
"Not particularly," Quentin said, but added, "not sure that's saying much."
Henry's eyes narrowed, and he said, "Hmm," and, "Let's try to get some more serotonin in the model and see what happens." A green arrow appeared in the water. The yellow curve narrowed a little, but then the green arrow dissipated and the yellow curve returned to its former dimensions. "Hmm. Persistent."
Henry went through three more interventions -- green-and-orange arrows, an aqua one, and a lone orange one -- before saying, "It seems like a psychological intervention would be best, there's not much to do from a neurological point of view." Then he glanced at Quentin, and the brown of his skin deepened in a blush. "Of course, that's hardly any of my business. I apologize."
"It's fine," Quentin said, dazed.
Henry gave him a doubting look, but carried on. "What I actually intended to do today was model the progress of--" he halted, and smiled wryly at Quentin. "To explain without being terribly boring: everything I do is about checking how some combination of medications affects the brain. I might discuss modeling the influence, as well, with safety precautions, of course...." He waved, interrupting himself. "That certainly won't happen today. The medicines I am modeling are supposed to aid in sensory processing disorders, and I want to see how they interact with you."
There were more arrows now, more than Quentin could keep track of, weaving through the water, shuffling the colored bubbles around. Watching it was starting to give Quentin a headache, so he watched Henry instead.
Henry looked rapt. Quentin felt warm at the realization that this was his mind Henry was so fascinated with. He banished the thought as soon as it formed: Henry just wanted a brain. That this brain belonged to Quentin was irrelevant.
Finally, the movements in the model slowed down. The drawing and the water descended back into the bowl in which Henry brought them. Quentin sagged back in his chair and focused on breathing.
Henry sat down. Before he began typing, he gestured to the place near his feet. "You are of course under no obligation if you'd rather not."
"I'd rather yes," Quentin mumbled, and made his way to sit at Henry's feet -- not kneel, he felt too tired to balance properly. He hugged his knees to him and let his head fall forward.
The shock of a warm touch to his nape would usually have made him jump. Right now, though, it felt natural.
"You say that this makes you feel as though you did well?" Henry asked. Quentin nodded. "That's good. You did extraordinarily well. You have done so every time I worked with you so far, and today was no exception. The opposite."
Quentin bit his cheek and squeezed his knees tight. When he could finally let himself speak, all that came out was, "Thank you," low and thick.
"Thank you." Henry's voice was firm, and so was his hand over Quentin's nape. Quentin gave up and let himself sink into peace, into believing what Henry said.
Leaving Henry felt like getting out of the ocean, with the air needle-cold against his skin and the heaviness of needing to carry his own weight. Coming back to Alyssa was like taking a hot shower, washing salt off his skin so he could wrap up in blankets and fall asleep.
"I'm gonna get spoiled," Quentin said, face mashed against Alyssa's arm.
"Good. That's what we're aiming for." Alyssa did not sound like she was joking. "Does that mean you and him are getting serious?"
Quentin shoved up his head with some effort. "I don't know. What does serious mean?"
Alyssa pushed his head back down against her, gently enough that he could move away if he didn't want her to position him. He did, though. It felt good when she pushed him down, told him to rest. "I'm trusting you," Alyssa said, "to let me know if I need to reserve a bigger table for polycule brunch."
Quentin smiled, rueful. "I don't think we're there yet. Or ever." He yawned. "But that was nice." He snuggled closer. "Hey, you know what else is nice? You are."
Quentin held the broom and scanned the floor for more stray popcorn kernels. If any were left, they'd probably rolled under the couch and were future-Quentin's problem. Perils of holding a movie night at his and Alyssa's place.
A couple of other Rainbow Alliance folks had offered to help clean up, but he'd waved them off. Alyssa had come home halfway through the movie, looking grayish, and holed up in the bedroom without saying hi to anyone. Quentin had gone to check on her, but she told him to return to the movie night.
Now that everyone was gone, he went to check up on her again. "Hey. What's up?"
Alyssa lay in the dark, eyes closed, but he knew by the sound of her breaths that she wasn't asleep. "Everything is terrible and everything hurts." She opened one eye. "Which isn't your fault, in case you were getting ideas."
Quentin shoved the little part of him that felt relieved at that statement to the background. "Hey. You concentrate on you, Lyssa, I can handle myself. Do you need meds? Food? Water?"
Alyssa pointed at her water bottle, full by the side of the bed. "I have water. Get my pain kit?"
The pain kit was a wooden box with Alyssa's heavy duty painkillers and some energy bars that she could usually stomach even on bad days. It was on the bottom of her bedside table. They needed to get her a bigger table, so she could get to the pain kit even when she couldn't bend, but there wasn't much spare space in the room. Quentin got her the box.
He realized he'd fallen asleep when he woke up to the sound of Alyssa retching. It was quiet outside, and still dark. Quentin got up.
She'd thrown up on the floor. Now she hid her eyes under her arm and muttered, "Sorry."
"Not your fault," Quentin said. Her water bottle was still mostly full. "Do you need help to drink?"
"I can't." Her voice was low, cracked. She moved her arm away, and Quentin could see tear tracks on her face. "It's bad."
Quentin's heart hammered in his chest. "Do you need the ER?" He was computing their funds even as she shook her head.
"Won't do me any good. Can't take meds. I might throw up again."
And she shouldn't take too much, and who knew how much of the meds she'd originally taken was still in her system? It's the kind of thing Henry might know, but Quentin didn't.
Quentin paused. Henry. For a moment he stood frozen, recalling the pain relief scene from the mixer. Maybe Henry knew how to do that. Quentin trembled between the twin impossibilities of calling someone in the middle of the night and letting Alyssa face this much pain unaided.
Alyssa's pain won. He took out his phone, gulped when he saw the time: 2AM. "Hey," he said, cleared his throat and tried again. "Hey. Lyssa. If you want, I could call Henry and see if he'll come do a pain relief spell for you. Do you want to try that?"
"Fuck it, I'll try anything. Call him."
It was a testament to just how bad Alyssa was doing that she didn't amend that with "If you're okay doing that". Quentin still knew she meant it. He dialed, his fingers steadied.
Henry answered on the third ring. "Quentin? What is it?"
Quentin closed his eyes. "My partner's in pain. It's really bad. Can you do pain relief at all? Would you come help us? Please? I'm really sorry I called you this late. But it's bad." He imagined Henry yelling at him, Henry hanging up without another word, Henry sending him a frosty text requesting no further contact between them.
What Henry actually said was, "Of course. What's your address?"
While waiting for Henry to arrive, Quentin cleaned up Alyssa and the floor. "Just a little bit longer," he whispered to her. "Soon, okay? Really soon." Alyssa was silent, gone past words.
Only when the doorbell rang did Quentin realize he was about to face Henry in pajamas. Well, nothing for it. He opened the door and took Henry to the bedroom.
"I'll need to see," Henry said. He put a little box on the unoccupied side of the bed and opened it, taking out a marker and a candle. "Is it okay to turn on the light?"
Alyssa grunted, which Quentin interpreted as, "It can't be worse than how she's doing already. I'll turn it on."
"If you'll take your shirt off," Henry told Quentin, "I can have more room to draw the wards, and the entire process will be quicker." Quentin whipped his shirt off. Henry uncapped the marker.
"Wait, don't you need to uh, pray, or something?" Quentin was achingly aware of how each moment they spent was a moment that Alyssa was in pain, but he wasn't about to make Henry do anything Henry wasn't okay with.
"I did it on the way over. Here. What's your name, and mother's name?" Henry asked Alyssa. "Or if that doesn't work--"
"Alyssa and Joanna," Quentin supplied when it didn't look like Alyssa was up to answering.
"All right. Repeat after me." Henry drew on Quentin as he spoke. "I ask for relief for Alyssa, daughter of Joanna. I ask that her pain be eased. While the candle is lit, let no pain come to her under this roof. When the candle goes out, the spell will end, and all will be as it was before." He took a lighter out of the box, gave Quentin the candle -- a regular-sized white one, not a tiny birthday one -- and lit it.
"Oh," Alyssa said, softly, as soon as the flame caught. "Oh, that's better."
She was snoring within a few minutes. Quentin sat down on the bed, firmly holding on to the candle. "Do I need to stay in the same room for it to work?" he asked Henry. "I don't want the light to bother her."
Henry looked at him, brows furrowed, and beckoned him over to the living room. "She should be fine if you're in the same apartment," Henry said. "How long are you planning to stay up?"
Quentin shrugged. "Until the candle burns out, I guess." He eyed it. "Or until she wakes up and takes her pain meds, whatever happens first."
"The candle should last about three hours." Henry sighed. "You do realize you will have to channel power the entire time?"
"Sure." Quentin could feel the power inside him, a licking flame twin to the one on the candle he was holding. "I can do it." It wouldn't be fun by the third hour, but he'd deal.
Henry rubbed his eyes. "I don't know you very well, and nevertheless, I am not surprised. Fine. Please tell me you have coffee."
Quentin stiffened. "Wait, do you need to stay?"
"For the spell to work? No. But I'm not letting you channel power for three hours straight without some care afterwards, and it doesn't look like your partner is in any shape to provide it."
"Not letting me," Quentin repeated, raising his eyebrows.
Henry flinched. "If you don't want me to stay, of course I will go. But please. I am asking you: if you think you're sending me away for my sake, don't. I would genuinely rather stay here and help than know I left a familiar with no aftercare following a working we did together."
Quentin's fingers tightened around the candle, careful not to drop it or move it so it might go out. He breathed in slowly. "I do want you to stay," he said, small.
"Good," Henry said firmly. "In that case, where did you say the coffee was?"
Quentin followed him to the kitchen, still holding on to the candle. "Seriously, though, are you sure you're okay staying?"
"Very much so." Henry found the mugs without Quentin's input. "I did go to med school, Quentin," he said, amused. "This will not be my first all-nighter."
In addition to the mug, Henry brought down a saucer from the cabinet and put it on the counter. "If you'll give me the candle, I'll stick it to the plate. Easier than holding it yourself all that time."
Quentin gave the candle with some misgivings, but he figured if it would have ruined the spell to put the candle on a plate, Henry would not have suggested that.
They settled at the kitchen table, Henry with his coffee and Quentin with his candle. Quentin tried not to fidget.
"We could play cards to pass the time," Henry said. Then he frowned. "Although I'm sad to say I don't have any cards."
"Can I ask you about magic?" Quentin said.
Without pause, Henry answered, "Of course. What would you like to know?"
Quentin hesitated. Questions turned around each other in his head like the colored blobs from their previous working. "How did you find out that magic exists?" was what came out first. Quentin was not very proud of himself for that. This did give Henry pause, long enough that Quentin added, “If you’re okay telling me.”
Stiffly, Henry said, “I’m not accustomed to sharing information about myself.”
"Sorry," Quentin said, coloring.
Henry shrugged. "I suppose I might as well tell you. I had a teacher," Henry said, drawing out the words like lengths of string. "I was just beginning my residency. I knew already that I wanted to go into research, but I didn't have that option yet. That teacher took an interest." He took in Quentin's expression and added, "Nothing inappropriate. Just fellow feeling -- we bonded over having terrible bedside manner." He gave a small smile that nevertheless made Quentin feel like he was in on a joke.
"And that teacher taught you magic?"
"Indeed." Henry inclined his head towards Quentin. "Very obliquely, at first. He presented it as a set of doctors' superstitions -- we're very prone to magical thinking, as a group. I noticed fairly quickly that these supposed superstitions were much more efficient than they should have been, and sussed out some of the logic. When he realized I'd noticed this, he taught me the rest."
"Is magic like, a secret?" Worry struck Quentin. "Should I not have told Alyssa about it?" Henry did do magic in front of her, but maybe that was because this was an emergency situation.
Henry shook his head. "It's hardly a secret. A lot of it has been forgotten, or purposefully erased. You could ask Sage more about it -- they're doing their thesis on the history of magic. It's just starting to come back into academic circles as an accepted fact." Henry took a sip of his coffee, grimaced, and drank the rest. "The main risk would have been to my teacher's reputation, if anyone knew he believed in such silliness as magic. Doctors are just as prone to hypocrisy as they are to magical thinking."
Quentin giggled, much to his own embarrassment. To cover it up, he said, "Hey, can I ask you about sigils?"
Some time later, Henry got up to get himself more coffee. Quentin glanced at the candle, and to his surprise only one third of it was left. "Oh jeez, I hope I didn't tire you out with all this talking."
"Not at all." Henry sat back down with a full mug and a smile. Quentin really liked making him smile. "You're a very good student."
Without meaning to, Quentin hunched down on himself. "I'm really not."
Henry looked at him with something like curiosity, but softer. "I won't make you defend that position, but that's my impression."
Henry's impression was wrong, but Quentin didn't feel up to saying so. He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Thanks. I should go check up on Alyssa, see that she's sleeping okay."
Alyssa looked fine -- dead to the world, but her face was peaceful. Without anything better to do, feeling the wrench inside that meant he'd overdone channelling, Quentin went to sit in the living room.
Henry stood in the doorway to the kitchen. "I hope I haven't upset you."
"You didn't do anything wrong."
"That's not what I said." Henry coughed. "But of course you don't have to talk about anything you'd rather not." He looked away. "If you preferred I go--"
"No." Quentin hated how he sounded, small and pathetic, but the idea of Henry going away just now, when he felt like magic was gnawing at his insides but didn't dare let go of it... That sounded. Not great. "Please stay."
"Of course I'll stay." Henry's voice was soft. "As long as you want me to." He took a step closer. "I hesitate to ask, but would you feel better if you sat on the floor next to me?"
Want hit Quentin like a tidal wave. It sounded so good, to sit down and lay everything at Henry's feet. Henry would know what to do. Henry wouldn't call a near stranger in the middle of the night and beg them for help.
But Quentin did, and he couldn't even be sorry because it meant now Alyssa was sleeping and not hurting. "I can't, yet," he said. "Not until the spell is over." He looked around the room, eyes stopping on one of the shelves. "If that offer for a card game is still open, though, I have a pack."
Henry followed his glance and brought the pack over. He dealt the cards with swift economy of movement, not one motion wasted.
Quentin woke up in a burst of panic. The candle. Where was it?
"It's gone out," Henry said. "It went out before you fell asleep, do you remember? It's only been twenty minutes or so."
Quentin raked his fingers through his hair. "Fuck, I'm sorry. Didn't mean to keep you here this long."
"You didn't keep me here," Henry informed him. "I chose to stay."
"I should check up," Quentin started, when he heard a noise from the kitchen.
Alyssa came into the living room leaning on her cane, holding a cookie in her free hand. "I'm taking another dose and going back to sleep," she told Quentin, and headed into the bedroom.
"That seems like a sound plan," Henry said after she'd closed the door. "Perhaps you'd like to join her?"
Quentin looked at Henry, sitting on the couch an arm's length away. Quentin could topple sidewise and his head would end up right on Henry's lap. "Um." He felt empty inside, more exhausted than the loss of sleep could account for.
"If you want anything, please ask." Henry's voice, though quiet, was steady. Certain.
Words weren't working for Quentin. He gestured at his head, and Henry's lap, and gave him a beseeching look.
Henry blinked. "Are you asking to put your head on my thigh?" Quentin nodded, grateful. "Well -- all right, I suppose. Do you want my hand on your neck again?" Another nod. Henry beckoned, and Quentin collapsed on the length of couch separating them.
Henry's hand felt great. Cool against his skin like water, irrigating him inside where he needed things to grow.
After that night, getting a text from Henry that said I'll be busy this week, I'm afraid, can we postpone to next week? felt like getting a cold bucket of water dumped on his head.
He kept telling himself that Henry was just busy. People could be busy. Henry even suggested a date for the next meeting. None of that helped against the little voice that said, He's finally on to what a failure you are.
The shitty thing was, he couldn't tell if that thought was wrong. Okay, maybe thinking of himself as a failure was a bit dramatic, but he just wasn't a very good investment. He'd asked a lot of Henry, and maybe Henry decided it was too much and he needed a break. That happened, too, and didn't even mean Quentin did anything wrong.
It still made him want to curl up very small and possibly disappear.
There was a mixer this week, though. Quentin could go to that.
The mixer was held in the same place. Quentin arrived early and lurked at the edge of the table.
Sage and the cotton-candy pink hair guy -- Rowan, that was his name -- seated themselves close enough to Quentin that he could catch their conversation. "So now she's blaming it all on some bitter ex."
Rowan messed with a drinking straw. "I don't know, I feel weird that the community keeps bringing her up. Aren't there, like, male creeps to worry about?"
Sage shrugged. "I get your point, male privilege and all, but when you have a concrete predator you should deal with them, whatever gender they are. Anyway I hear she's moving back to these parts, we should keep an eye open for her."
Quentin blinked. "Um, hey," he said to Sage, who turned around and looked at him with raised, pierced eyebrows. "Can I ask who you're talking about? I think I know her."
Sage and Rowan shared a look. "I only know her by her community name," Sage said. "Lady Rose."
That could plausibly be Sabine, but it was a pretty generic name. "Any idea what she looks like?" He gestured at his shoulder height. "About this tall, white, straight hair dyed black, always wears eyeliner?"
Sage shook their head. "No idea, I just know her from other people's stories. Pretty sure she is white, but I can't tell you more than that." Rowan nodded along to this.
Quentin was pretty sure this was his cue to slink back to his corner and let them continue their chat. He wanted to ask Sage about their thesis, but they probably had better things to do than be interrogated by some guy.
Anyway, he needed to think. Sabine almost certainly knew she was doing magic with him. What little he knew about wards made that stuff look pretty complicated, hard to create by accident. Keeping that from him would be very like her, he had to admit.
The mixer progressed much as it did last time. Quentin didn't even remember what he put in the koala box, he was so busy thinking about where Sabine could have learned about magic, how could he have been so fucking oblivious and miss what she was doing with him.
Alyssa would say this wasn't his fault, but Alyssa's streak of bad days was still in full force. All of Quentin's ability to think well of himself was tied up in not letting himself believe it was his fault Alyssa was hurting.
When the koala box suggestions started rolling out, Quentin barely listened. He looked around the room. Henry wasn't there -- further proof that he was really busy, or maybe he couldn't stand the chance of meeting Quentin here. If Quentin did that, drove Henry away from somewhere Henry wanted to be--
"Next to last prompt," Shireen said, "a working with a punishment clause! The magic user will request that the familiar channel a certain amount of power, and if the familiar fails, they will be struck by magical pain until the spell is broken. Any familiar volunteers?" She scanned the crowd, and finally said, "Ah! We have a volunteer!"
Quentin looked around to see who it was before realizing his own hand was up in the air. His was the only hand raised.
He should take it down. He should explain that he didn't mean to, he didn't want to -- even if maybe he deserved punishment right now, for being no good to anyone -- and Shireen was already asking for a magic user, and by the time the magic user got up and walked toward him Quentin had given up on saying anything.
Probably he would be best for this anyway. He used to think that the pain Sabine inflicted on him was autosuggestion, but thinking back, of course it was magical. He had experience with this. Better him than someone who didn't know what they were getting into.
The magic user was a guy with a bushy beard and a faded printed T-shirt. Quentin walked up to him. The guy gave him a small bowl of water. "Spilling it ends the spell, that works for you?" His eyes on Quentin were excited, hungry.
"Sure." It was more than Sabine had given him. "That's fine."
As the wards were drawn, Quentin desperately tried to understand why he wasn’t saying anything. Why his hands were so steady holding that damn bowl, like spilling it early was just not an option. But every time he tried to move, or say something, his entire mind shied away from the thought.
He wondered what he'd see, if Henry modeled his mind right now.
Right when he thought he got some effective words lined up, something like wait or stop, the magic user said, "Repeat after me. I call down the power...."
Quentin started repeating, and clearly his mouth wasn't going to listen to him today. Fine. He might as well go along with it. How bad could it be?
The guy went through the litany quickly. Quentin was only half-listening even as he repeated the words, but from what he gathered, the guy wanted a weather report. Quentin almost wanted to say, That's all? He listened to himself spout temperatures, humidity, wind velocity.
"Increase search parameters," the guy said. Quentin tried to remember what constraints the guy has put on the weather forecast.
Whatever they were, they were enough for Quentin to cover every nearby town and some coordinates which, if they had any significance, Quentin didn't know what it was. In addition to previous facts, Quentin now added chances of precipitation, atmospheric pressure, and solar radiation.
The guy tapped his foot and said, "Increase parameters," irritable. Great, now Quentin was getting this wrong as well.
He felt himself drawing more power, swelling up to contain it as it poured into him. He didn't know the names of the towns he was mentioning now. He didn't know anything but power coming in and facts coming out, faster and faster.
"Increase--" the guy started, when Gail stood up and said, "That's enough." She took the water bowl from Quentin's hand and poured some of it into an empty cup. Quentin let go and stared at the ceiling, feeling wrung out.
The magic user was arguing with Gail and Shireen. "If he'd done the spell without showing off what a fucking freak he is--"
"Enough," Gail said again, sharp enough that Quentin flinched. She looked at Quentin. "Are you all right?"
"Fine." Quentin felt dizzy and tired and really didn't want to drive during the next few hours, but he'd be okay.
The magic user left the room in a huff. Quentin slunk out while Gail was out following the magic user. He took a cab home.
Alyssa was in bed when he got home, with exams spread out around her. "Give me a second and I'll make room for you," she said, trying to gather them into one neat pile.
Quentin shook his head, suddenly too tired to wait even that long. "I'll go lie on the couch."
Alyssa went still. She looked at him then. When she spoke, it felt like her voice grabbed him by the neck and shook him. "What happened?"
Quentin closed his eyes and whispered, "I'm a dumbass."
There was a whuff like a stack of papers coming down on blankets. "Come here."
Quentin only paused for long enough to take off his shoes, shaky and grateful.
As soon as he got within grabbing range, Alyssa took hold of his shirt collar and pulled him to lie close, settling his head on her shoulder. "Now tell me everything."
She listened to the part about Henry without a word, and the parts about Sage. Quentin curled into himself when he started telling her about the punishment clause. Alyssa had never said a harsh word to him when he was the primary person affected, but there can always be a first time.
Finally he was done, and Alyssa said, "At what point did you stop flashing back?"
"Stop what?" But his mind was catching up even as his mouth was speaking. "Oh." Emotional flashbacks, his therapist called these episodes, when he knew logically nobody was going to hurt him for, say, stopping a magic working -- but his brain went and launched him back to a time when there was only one option: saying "How high?" when a magic user said to jump.
"Yeah," Alyssa said, ruffling his hair. "Oh. So I'll ask you not to call my queerplatonic partner a dumbass for having emotional trauma, please and thank you."
Quentin clung without shame. He could smell her -- she hadn't showered in a few days, but he didn't mind. He liked how she smelled, a reassurance that came up from his hindbrain.
Then worry struck. "Do you think I should tell Henry about the flashbacks?" He sighed. "If he ever wants to do magic with me again, that is."
"I think he does want to, and it's his loss if he doesn't." She petted his head. "As for the flashbacks - you tell me. Are you going to?"
He struggled with the thought for a few moments before subsiding. "Ugh. If I don't, and he triggers me by accident, he's gonna feel like shit."
Her hand was steady on his hair. "From what you told me about him, he wouldn't blame you if you couldn't get it out."
"I know, I know." He squirmed and tilted his head to get a better look at her face. "Still. It's a shitty thing and if I can keep it from happening, I want to."
"There's your answer, then." For a moment she was quiet, then she said, "Look, I'm pretty tired and this may come out wrong, but -- you know I also don't want you to be triggered, right? I'm not saying if you get triggered you did something bad or it's your fault, just that it's a shitty thing and if it can not happen, I'd prefer that."
Doing things for Alyssa was always easier than doing them for himself. She knew this, and wasn’t shy about using it when necessary. He groaned. "Fine, you have a point. I'll tell him next time we meet."
It took him a long time to settle into sleep. He didn't want to let go of Alyssa for long enough. When he woke up in the morning, his hand was still entwined with hers.
A text message from Henry came on Monday morning. Checking in: are we meeting tonight?
hope so! Quentin replied, then gently hit his head against the wall. Wow, he sounded pathetic. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. He could do this. He was stronger than a little momentary embarrassment.
God, he hoped Henry didn't think he was pathetic.
They set the meeting time. Quentin drove around, not wanting to be too early, and ended up fifteen minutes late. He apologized profusely after Henry opened his office door.
"It's fine," Henry said, letting him inside. "I guessed you might have gotten turned around. The architecture on campus isn't very intuitive, is it?"
"It's really not," Quentin said, grateful for the out.
"Before we discuss today's working, I wanted to give you something." Henry took a plastic bag off the floor. He moved it from one hand to another, restless. "Of course you are not obligated to accept."
Quentin's mouth went dry. "What is it?"
Henry's hand went into the bag, and fished out a net of ribbons, all tied together. "It's a ready-made ward," Henry said. "For a pain relief spell. I have the litany printed out for you, too -- it uses Alyssa's name but you should be able to substitute any sufficiently unique name to alter the target. I used a candle escape clause, like the one we used before." Henry held out the net. The ribbons were all sorts of colors, red and blue and green and purple, and they shone, like satin.
Quentin took it. He stared at it.
Now that he wasn't holding the net, Henry was pulling on a thread from the bottom of his sweater vest, rolling it between his fingers. "Is that all right?"
"Henry," Quentin said, sounding distant to himself, "can I hug you?"
Henry blinked at him, then opened his arms.
Quentin barely realized he was moving before his arms were around Henry. The wool of his sweater vest was itchy against Quentin's forearms. He smelled like soap, fresh, like he'd showered just before they met. "Thank you," Quentin said. "I don't know what else to say. Thank you."
"You don't need to say anything. You're perfectly welcome." Henry sounded baffled, but he held Quentin close, and let Quentin be the first to move away. "I want to be clear: you are always welcome to call me. The ward is in case you can't, or would rather not. Whenever you use it, if you wanted to call me to provide aftercare, I will be happy to do it."
Quentin held his hands behind his back to keep from initiating another hug. "Happy," he said. "About being woken up at 2AM?"
"About helping a friend." Henry coughed. "That is -- I consider you a friend, and would be honored if you felt the same way."
Quentin's heart fluttered. He felt like a Victorian maiden about to come down with a case of vapors. "Of--of course. We can be friends. Friends are great."
Henry rescued him from himself by saying, "Shall we discuss today's working?"
Quentin knew he needed to stay in the living room and let Alyssa work, he knew it, but this was the third time he turned up and said, "Need anything?"
Alyssa was staring down at her laptop. "For the millionth time, no." Her lips were firmly pressed together and she was pale and sweating. Her pain meds messed with her ability to concentrate, so she refused to take them until she finished her essay.
The ribbon vest Henry made him was dangling from a coat hanger on the closet door handle. Quentin fought not to glance at it, and lost. It would be so easy to offer. Even if Alyssa asked him to just leave her alone and let her work, being idle when he knew he could do something was eating at him. "I could--"
"I don't need anything," Alyssa said, "except for you to stop hovering. You're driving me out of my mind."
Quentin needed to leave her alone. He needed to go. She didn't want him using pain relief magic on her when pain was manageable, because she was worried about building up a tolerance.
His feet felt rooted to the ground.
Alyssa gave an enormous sigh. "Please, for the love of little green apples, will you go take a walk? Get out of my hair. Find something else to think about."
Without a word, Quentin turned and left.
He drove in circles, aimlessly, trying to break out of the vicious loop his mind was falling into, tightening around his thoughts like a noose. Every time he tried to help he was just making things worse. He wasn't any use to anyone. He was a failure--
He turned into a side street, parked the car and shoved his hands into his hair, pressing into his head like he could physically stop his brain from going on. He needed -- something. Usually he'd run to Alyssa when he was like this, like the useless....
Quentin gritted his teeth and pulled back from this line of thinking. It hurt, to think that Alyssa wouldn't want him to think that. He knew she wouldn't, but that didn't stop some traitorous part of him from asking, What if she would?
This was no use. He had to make this stop. A scene helped, sometimes, although he hadn't been to a kink club since he met--
Quentin blinked. He took out his phone and selected Henry from his recent calls list.
The first thing he said, when Henry picked up, is, "You don't have to say yes." Blurted might have been a more apt description, really.
Henry answered, slow and measured. "I'm well aware. What is it I don't have to agree to, exactly?"
Quentin closed his eyes and breathed through the painful humiliation of expecting rejection. "Could we meet? I, you said if I needed support...." He winced as he spoke. Could he be any more whiny?
Henry's silence seemed to stretch for eons, but when he finally answered, he said, "I suppose we could. Would you like to come to my house?"
Inputting Henry's address into the GPS felt like relief already: a set of simple orders he could follow, and the tentative promise of more to come.
Standing at Henry's doorstep, hand poised to knock, all of Quentin's self-doubt flowed back into him. It was the weekend, so instead of the slacks and button downs he wore for work he wore a faded t-shirt and jeans. What if Henry thought he was disrespectful?
The door opened before Quentin could convince himself to turn tail and leave. "I saw your car from the kitchen window. Won't you come in?" Henry asked, and of course Quentin did.
The house was small, with no yard to speak of. Quentin followed Henry to the kitchen, where he could indeed see his car through the window, blurred by a purple-flowered plant twined around the bars.
Henry gestured at a chair next to a small table. "Please, have a seat. Would you like something to drink?" Quentin accepted a glass of water with gratitude. "Now, what is the matter?"
The longer Quentin thought of the answer, the sillier it sounded, so he spat it out. "Alyssa told me to get out of the house, and I'm freaking out."
Henry looked alarmed. "That sounds like a reasonable reaction to being thrown out!"
"Oh, it wasn't-- she asked me to leave her alone like, two or three times. I didn't. She couldn't get out herself, the way she's doing, and honestly I'd prefer her sending me out." Quentin took a sip and recanted the day's events
Henry's brow furrowed. "You sound very concerned about her."
“Yeah.” Quentin looked down. The last few weeks had been bad. Some part of him was trying to make that his fault: a cosmic price that Alyssa paid for his happiness, maybe, or the result of him neglecting her to go do magic. He was pretty sure that was bullshit, but pretty sure still left room for gnawing doubt.
Henry opened his mouth, then closed it, obviously reconsidering. "I'm sure she knows her business best. If she ever wants professional advice on medication, I'll be happy to be of assistance."
"Thanks." Quentin meant that wholeheartedly.
"In the meanwhile, if there's something I could do for you, I would like to help," Henry said. "Would channeling for a working help?"
"Hell yeah," Quentin said, relieved. "Maybe not something huge, I can't afford to be wiped right now. Just enough to use up all this nervous energy."
Henry nodded. "I may have an idea. And afterwards, you'd like to kneel and be touched again?" Quentin nodded, jerky, caught between eagerness and embarrassment. "Excellent. Follow me."
They went to the living room, where Henry told Quentin to sit down on the couch. The living room was nice, homier than Quentin would have expected -- a crocheted blanket in red and orange on the couch, and colorful embroidered throw pillows; a lizard-shaped doorstop; a picture hanging of Henry with an older couple and two younger women, one of whom had the same dark brown eyes as Henry. The other one was significantly lighter-skinned.
Quentin nodded at the picture. "Your family?"
"Yes. My sisters, Hannah and Maisie; my parents, Javier and Esther." Henry sat down on an overstuffed chair next to the couch. "Would you like to hear what I had in mind?" At Quentin's agreement, he continued. "A combination of divination and illusion. We can project an image of the night sky as it would look above the clouds and light pollution. And then," Henry smiled, small and secretive, "we can keep going."
The smile took Quentin's breath away. Once he could speak, he said, "How far do you want to go?"
Henry gave him an assessing look. "We could decide on a maximum distance in advance, if you have a good idea of how much energy that would take out of you?" Quentin shook his head. "How about I check in every so often and see if you're doing okay, and if you want to go farther?"
"That sounds great."
"In that case, if you'll roll up your sleeves...."
There was an obstacle, however, as Quentin realized his hands were shaking too badly to do that. "Crap. I can just take my shirt off again."
"If you prefer," Henry said. "Or I could help with your sleeves."
"Oh." Quentin raised an arm in Henry's direction, and Henry took charge. Henry wasn't any quicker than Quentin at rolling up sleeves, but he left creases sharp enough to cut, every movement purposeful. He barely touched Quentin, but the heat of his skin radiated onto Quentin's bare arms.
After Henry finished praying, he started drawing on Quentin's forearms. To distract himself from Henry's nearness, Quentin asked, "Why do you do that? The praying thing. If you don't mind me saying. Do you need to pray to make magic work?"
"The opposite." Henry drew an intricate spiral over Quentin's wrist. Quentin tried not to shiver. "What we call magic might be a force of the physical world that we don't understand yet, or it might be supernatural. The supernatural may come from God, or from sorcery. It's written in the Torah that sorcery is forbidden. I take the view that the magic we use is a force subject to God's will, like gravity." He smiled, a small, wry expression. "To be on the safe side, I pray."
As they said the litany, the room began to darken around them, first colors fading and then shapes, until all Quentin could see were points of brilliant light. His eyes caught on one such point, larger than the others around it and subtly red. "What's that?" he said. His hand was a shadow, and he pointed it at the star.
"Venus," Henry said. Apparently it was a planet, not a star. "Shall we take a closer look?"
"Yes," Quentin said, and felt the flow of power through him grow stronger. It was a heady feeling. "Are we actually seeing real-time images?"
"Not quite. Pictures of Earth's immediate surroundings, yes; magic is constrained by the speed of light, so with everything beyond a certain distance, we see it as it was the appropriate time ago."
"Wow." Venus was a slightly larger spot now. "Can we get closer?"
They progressed until Venus was a visible circle and Quentin felt weak, a shell containing the power he was channeling. "Okay, no closer."
"Thank you for telling me." Henry sounded formal, but still warm somehow. Or maybe formal was the wrong word. Solemn. "Do you want to stop the spell, or hold it up for a while longer? It's perfectly all right either way."
"Keep it." He liked being here, in the dark, with Henry and the stars around them. For a moment he could imagine there was nobody but them for light years.
To Quentin's surprise, Henry broke the silence first. "I hope you're not terribly bored."
"What? No! This is amazing. It's beautiful." Quentin looked at Venus, still so far away. "Do you do this a lot? Look at stars?"
"With magic? Not often. I haven't had access to a familiar of your caliber for quite some time, and when I did, I used our time for work. This is... beautiful, yes. But frivolous."
"Frivolity is important, too." Quentin was pretty sure he heard Alyssa say something like that. In the isolation of the darkness around them, the power Henry called down coursing through him, he could think of Alyssa without a pinch of shame.
Henry's shrug was just barely visible, a shadow moving. "That's not how I was raised." A silent moment passed. "But I suppose it has its place. I used to want to be an astrophysicist."
"Why go to med school, then? Didn't you say you had terrible bedside manner, too?"
"I did and I do." Henry sighed. "My parents and my grandparents made tremendous sacrifices so that my sisters and I would have access to higher education. I couldn't throw it away on a whim when there was so much important work that needed to be done."
"Astrophysicists do important work, too," Quentin said.
"Oh, dear, I hope I didn't offend you. Are you an astrophysicist?"
Quentin snorted. "Yeah, right. I'm a CPA. I quit halfway through my Master's in sociology, I couldn't hack any kind of research." He tried to keep from sounding bitter. He failed. "I'm the only person I know who doesn't do academia. Every friend group needs a dumbass."
Henry took a long moment to answer. "I'm very sad and quite angry that your teachers have left you feeling that you aren't intelligent."
"Are you saying they're wrong?" Quentin's mouth was dry, his heart hammering.
"Absolutely wrong." Henry's voice was flat, like he thought he was delivering plain fact. "You're very intelligent, and curious, and by allowing you to believe you aren't they have done you a disservice. I'd like a few words with them, honestly."
Quentin could barely breathe. Abruptly, he sat down, terminating the spell. The blackness around them evaporated, leaving Henry's living room as it was before. Quentin closed his eyes.
He heard Henry settling back down in the overstuffed chair. "Would you like to sit down next to me?" Henry said.
In reply, Quentin allowed himself to slip off the couch like a viscous liquid. He laid his head against Henry's thigh, eyes still closed, navigating by feel. He let out a ragged breath when Henry's hand settled on the back of his neck. "Thank you." The words were hard to form, but the gratitude was overflowing within him and needed an out.
"Thank you," Henry said, turning it back around on him.
Quentin lost track of how long he spent on the floor, silent, with Henry's hand on his nape, before his phone chirped. He opened his eyes, looked up at Henry and gestured at the phone. "Do you mind?"
"Of course not." Henry removed his hand.
Quentin missed the warmth of it, but he was soon distracted by the incoming message. It was Alyssa. It's getting late. Peaches? Quentin breathed out a sigh of relief.
"What is it?" Henry asked.
"It's Alyssa. She says--" how could he explain what peaches meant to them? "That we're not okay, but that we can work through that, and she loves me." He sent replied to her, peaches. I'm on my way back.
"I'm glad." Henry sounded sincere. "Give her my well-wishes, if you would."
"Sure." He got up and looked at Henry. "Uh. Do you want to hug before I go?"
Henry got up. Again, he opened his arms, letting Quentin come to him, and let Quentin be the first to withdraw.
The apartment was dark when he got home. He opened the bedroom door cautiously and found Alyssa on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Her study things were on the floor in a heap, as though she finished working and didn't have the strength left to put them away.
Quentin itched to do it for her, but of course, that kind of urge was what landed them in this problem to begin with. "Lyssa?"
She didn't turn her face to him. Quentin shoved down his anxiety as hard as he could. "Michelle's moving away."
It took him a moment to parse that. "When? Where to?"
"Out of state, in a month."
"And she just told you? Didn't she know in advance this might happen?" A sneaking suspicion hit him. "Or did she tell you?"
"She did." She did turn her head then. "I didn't want to burden you. You were so happy, with magic and Henry and everything, and I didn't want to bring you down."
"Oh." He digested that. "It's your decision, but I still wish you'd have told me. Oh, Lyssa, I'm so sorry. That sucks."
"It really does." She closed her eyes. "Come to bed?" Quentin wasted no time doing that. He hesitated to come close, but she reached out to him and he went to hold her. "God, today was horrible."
"I know. I'm sorry I made it worse." He considered his actions, and what he could have done differently. "Next time I'll get out of the house after the first time you tell me you don't want help, or try to distract myself somehow."
She groaned in frustration. "The shitty thing is that I want to help when you're freaking out. I just can't do it when I'm also dealing with a flare-up and work and issues with Michelle at the same time."
He buried his face in her hair, grateful for her closeness. "You shouldn't have to."
"I don't," she agreed, "but I still want to. I don't want us to drag each other down, I want us to help each other up. Which means sometimes we have to manage our own issues without help. Does that make sense?"
"Perfect sense." He stroked down her arm. "How were things after I left?"
"How do you think? I finished the reviews and I collapsed. I texted you when I woke up." She squeezed his hand. "What about you?"
"Went to see Henry. Want me to tell you about it?"
"Tomorrow." She squirmed until he let her go, then turned around and hugged him. "I'm really glad you had him to go to."
He kissed her forehead. "I am, too."
Delilah froze mid-gulp, carefully finished swallowing, and set her mug down. "I'm sorry, Henry did what?"
"Um. Invited me to his house?"
"Invited you to his house," Delilah repeated. "Are we talking about the same guy? Prays before doing magic, wears sweater vests?"
Quentin didn't shrink on himself in the face of her incredulous tone, but it was an effort. "Yeah, him. Is there a problem?"
"Problem? Maybe that Henry's been kidnapped by aliens." Delilah took a measured sip of her drink. "Look, I'm sorry, but I've known the guy for literally years and he's never invited anybody to his home. He keeps his private life super private. I don't even know his last name."
It's Castillo, Quentin did not say. There had been a sign on the door. He glanced around them, desperate for some inspiration for what to say next. He found nothing except the day's special drinks chalked on the blackboard.
Delilah must have noticed him panicking. She settled back in her chair. "Hey, nothing's wrong. I was just surprised, that's all." She smiled. "I wish I knew what his house looked like. I won't ask you, though. If he wants to tell me, he will."
"Thanks," Quentin managed. "Do you want to play me the recording, now?" That was why they met to begin with: Delilah had the finalized version of the dream melody recorded, and invited Quentin to listen.
"In a minute. First I wanted to ask, are you coming to the picnic in two weeks?" At Quentin's blank gaze, she elaborated. "The mixer people are organizing a picnic, they just sent the email about it an hour ago. We'll hang out in some abandoned building and do magic that's too risqué to do in a restaurant." She held his gaze. "Nobody has to participate if they don't want to. I thought you might find it interesting. I would be very surprised if Henry showed you those sides of magic." She giggled. "Although it's been a pretty surprising day so far."
When she played the melody, Quentin was almost too busy being relieved that he didn't have to answer awkward questions to enjoy it properly. But he did enjoy it: the music got filled out, with a drum section and everything. "This is so cool," he said, when she finished playing.
"Thanks. Hey, question: I have a spell I want to do, and I could use someone with your strength. Any chance you'll be interested in working together? No sex," she added quickly. "Just friendly spellcasting and maybe cuddles after if you'd like."
Quentin took a moment to consider. "I don't know. Can I think about it?"
"Sure. I'll let you know if I find someone else in the meanwhile."
They parted with a friendly hug. Quentin walked her back to her car. On the way to his own car, he took out his phone and scrolled down to Henry's name on the contact list. He looked at the sky: still an hour or so until sundown. are you at your office? he texted. can i come over? no emergency, just to say hi. He was blushing fiercely as he sent it, but he did press send, emboldened by the conversation with Delilah. If Henry invited Quentin to his home, and only Quentin, maybe that meant.... something.
A reply came promptly. Yes, and you are very welcome to visit.
Quentin grinned helplessly at his phone and got in his car. He made a stop on the way over, on impulse. It was probably a terrible idea, but either way what he bought wouldn't go to waste.
"So I have an idea," Quentin said, seated in Henry's office. "If you're not too busy."
Henry sighed. "I'm always busy." He pushed his glasses up his nose. "I might be able to make the time, depending on the idea."
"I'm guessing you're not going to the picnic the mixer people are organizing?"
"I'll take that as a no. So I thought, maybe I'll take you on a picnic, so you don't miss out. Just sit with me for an hour on the grass outside, eat stuff. Watch the sun set." Quentin's gaze slowly dropped to the floor. "We don't have to. I got food, but I can take it home for Alyssa if you don't like it, or if you can't come, or don't want to."
"Quentin," Henry said. "Would you look at me?"
It took more effort than Quentin would have liked to admit, but in the end he looked Henry in the eye.
Henry's expression was gentle. "I'm not saying no yet. I'm not saying yes, either. I want to understand. Why are you doing this?"
"You like looking at the sky." Quentin shrugged. "And, I don't know. I figured you don't have a lot of fun in your life, and some more might be nice. Just for an hour."
Henry took a moment to answer. "Is this a romantic gesture?"
"Um." Quentin rubbed at his temple. "Depends. What does romance mean to you?" Henry looked conflicted. "I'm guessing that's not a question you asked yourself before. Let me ask you: what are you worried about? What are you afraid will happen? If you'll tell me, I'll try to figure out if it's a likely outcome, and we can go from there." Quentin thought for a moment. "But okay, here's what I know: we don't need to be kissing friends or sex-having friends for me to take you on a picnic, and that's not what I'm aiming at."
Henry narrowed his eyes. "But?"
"But," Quentin acknowledged, "I do want to be close to you. I'm super glad you wanted to see me out of nowhere, just because. I do want you to have fun, because it looks like you don't often let yourself, and that's a shame. I already feel emotionally attached to you because we do magic together, and kink things, and if that stopped I'll be sad, although of course you get to stop whenever you want."
For a long moment, Henry is quiet. Then he said, "I suppose I can spare an hour to sit on the grass and eat."
They took the blanket from Henry's office and spread it on the grass. The sun was already halfway down the horizon, dull red, no longer painful to look at.
"About your earlier questions." Henry contemplated a grape as he spoke, holding it in his hand. "Do you still want an answer?"
"You don't have to tell me anything, but if you want to tell me, sure."
Henry's expression was complicated. "I don't have a lot of free time or energy," he said. "I suppose I'm afraid of leading people on."
Quentin frowned. "Because you don't want to date right now?"
"I have never wanted to 'date'." Henry said the word with such strong ironic emphasis that the quote marks were audible. "I don't suppose I ever will."
"So, like being aromantic?" At Henry's answering incomprehension, Quentin elaborated. "Someone who doesn't feel romantic attraction. That's separate from sexual attraction -- romantic attraction is about who you want to," he fumbled, "date, I guess, and kiss? I don't really get it. I'm quoiromantic myself, I don't see the difference between friendship and romance. For me it's just... I love my friends, and I do different things with different friends. There's not a qualitative difference."
"Thus kissing friends," Henry said. "And sex-having friends." Quentin nodded. "No, I don't think my disinterest in dating stems from lack of... romantic attraction, did you call it?" At Quentin's affirmation, he shook his head. "You're very knowledgeable about these topics. I haven't the first clue about them."
"It's because of Alyssa," Quentin mumbled. "She's the one who knows stuff, I just repeat what she tells me." He took two slices of bread out. "So do you know what it is about dates that you don't want?" He got a slice of cheese between them.
For a little while, Henry was quiet. Quentin let him be, eating his sandwich in the meanwhile.
"I never found the idea of dates appealing," Henry finally said. "Would you forgive me if I talked about, ah, intimate matters?"
"We are talking about intimate matters," Quentin pointed out. "But if you mean sex, no problem, go ahead."
Henry ducked his head. If it weren’t getting dark, Quentin thought he might have spotted a blush. "Well, I've never been terribly interested in that. It seemed like a great deal of effort and the purpose beyond, ah, procreation, eluded me."
"Do you think you might be asexual?" Quentin finished his sandwich and lay down, looking up at the darkening sky. "That's not having sexual attraction."
"Thank you, I managed to guess," Henry said dryly. "I'm... not sure that's entirely true, either."
"I mean, I'm demi," Quentin offered. "Demisexual, that is. I'm only sexually attracted to people if I'm emotionally attached to them. Or there's gray asexual, where you do feel sexual attraction but rarely."
Henry processed this. "Is it possible to be both?"
"Sure." Quentin felt all warm inside, just from the idea that he might have given Henry information Henry wouldn't have had otherwise. "Not wanting to have sex doesn't mean you can't date, though. Just saying."
Henry gave him a sharp glance. "Do you date?"
Quentin shrugged. "I don't know. I hang out with new people to find out if I like them and in what ways. Dating feels to me like it's supposed to be about romance, and like I said, I don't get that. It's a date if the other person says it is."
Henry didn't answer. In another few moments, he also lay down. Quentin spotted the moon, a sliver of white.
When Henry spoke again, it was starting to get cold, and Quentin began to think of going home. "When I did have such an interest," Henry said, "in dating or... related activities... it has always been an interest in men. My desires were so rare and sporadic, it never seemed worth putting in the time for something so... frivolous."
Quentin's heart clenched painfully. "Do you see marriage as frivolous? Between a man and a woman?"
"Of course not," Henry said, indignant.
"Then why would you dating be frivolous? Just because it's two men?"
A moment passed, and Henry let out a sigh. "I suppose there's no reason for it to be." The admission was grudging.
"Good," Quentin said. This kind of internalized homophobia was insidious. Quentin caught traces of it in himself, too, from time to time.
Then he had another thought. "So you've never dated? At all? Or, um, related activities?" He flinched as he heard himself speak. "I mean, you don't have to tell me. It's none of my business. And also sex doesn't have to be related to dating, so that doesn't really make any sense." He stuffed his fist in his mouth to keep from talking himself into a deeper hole.
"I have not." Henry sounded amused, thank goodness. When he spoke again, though, he sounded serious. Solemn, and soft. "I think this might be your business after all."
Quentin's pulse jumped. Was Henry saying...?
"The sky is very beautiful tonight," Henry said. Apparently whatever it was Henry was saying, it was time for a change of subject. "Thank you for bringing me out here."
Quentin let out a long breath. "You're welcome. Thank you for coming." He looked up. "Although it's not much compared to the working you, uh, we did."
"Nice catch," Henry murmured. "I suppose if you wanted to call it my working alone, I couldn't stop you. But it wouldn't be true." The word held enough force to make Quentin's breath catch.
"You care about that a lot, don't you? What's true, what's right."
"Of course I do." Now Henry sounded helpless. "If I don't know the truth, nothing I do can make sense. Especially in my work -- the magical and mundane both. Precision is of the utmost importance."
"I get it," Quentin said. "Like that working from the mixer. It's the difference between air you can float in and air that chokes you."
"Exactly." Henry sagged down into the blanket. "I'm grateful for the concepts you taught me for that reason. Give something a name, and you can know its properties, and how to use it."
Quentin gave Henry a quick glance. He looked very peaceful, lying there and staring at the stars. Quentin very much wanted to hold his hand.
That would probably be too much like a date. With regret, Quentin banished the urge and sat up. "I should be getting home. Do you want to take any of the food with you?”
This chapter has graphic emotional and physical abuse. Also consensual kink with a debatably too-high risk level.
The plastic box held cherry tomatoes, carrot and cucumber sticks, two corn muffins, string cheese and crackers. Quentin rounded it up with a few chocolate bars and showed Alyssa the result. "Looks okay?"
"I'm not going to eat all that," Alyssa said, amused. "Your homemaker skills are great, but don't you think you went overboard?"
"I wanted you to have enough to share," Quentin mumbled. He did feel silly. He was overcompensating for not being able to accompany Alyssa, and they both knew it: she was going to a meeting of one of her trans groups, and cis partners were cordially not invited. "I packed your earplugs too, just in case."
Alyssa said "Thank you," anyway. Her phone pinged: her ride was waiting for her outside. She kissed him on the cheek and left.
Quentin sat down on the sofa. He hadn't had an evening alone in a while: Alyssa seemed to be getting slightly better, but she still had a pretty rough time. He'd had to cancel meeting Henry twice now to stay with her.
That was a thought. He texted Henry. A reply came, quick but disappointing: Not tonight, I'm afraid. Other commitments. Henry didn't add a time when he might be able to next meet up. Quentin tried not to read anything into that.
Fine. It's been forever since Quentin went out clubbing, anyway: most of his social time went into magic for the past few months.
An hour later, he was dancing without much enthusiasm, glancing around the club for familiar faces. He kept patting the pocket where he kept his phone, and taking it out periodically to make sure Alyssa hadn't called or texted.
When someone tapped him on the shoulder, Quentin jumped. Then he turned around and sagged in relief to see Rob.
Rob leaned in and yelled into his ear. "Where have you been? It's been ages!"
"Long story," Quentin said, and tried not to stare too obviously at the cane hanging from Rob's belt. After weeks of barely thinking about impact play, longing built up like a wave and flooded his mind.
Rob caught the direction of Quentin's look and laughed, not in a mean way. "Wanna get hit?"
Quentin closed his eyes and shivered. "Thought you'd never ask."
The club wasn't all that great for impact scenes, so crowded that you could barely swing a flogger without hitting a random bystander, but Rob made some space for them and tried. A brief lull in the music allowed Quentin to hear the murmur of strangers gathered around, interested.
Quentin had his shirt off -- he'd taken it off before getting into the club, his shirts were all too preppy for the dress code -- and was bracing against a padded bench placed there for this exact kind of situation. His collar was a small, reassuring weight around his neck.
The first hit made him jump, much like Rob's hand on his shoulder had. Rob bent close and yelled, "Do you want to be tied down?"
Quentin shook his head. He did, in fact, want to be restrained, but he was on edge and worried that he might have to leave at any minute, that Alyssa might call. He felt absurdly guilty being out here on his own, leaving Alyssa in the care of people he didn't know. This was the sort of feeling that Alyssa wouldn't approve of, he knew, but he was still worried. "I'll hold myself better," he shouted back to Rob.
Rob shrugged and went back to hitting him.
The second strike was smoother, now that Quentin had a fresh reminder of what the cane felt like. Quentin's muscles twitched, but he remained still. The third and fourth strikes were harder, but still gentle, getting Quentin warmed up.
Rob took his time with Quentin, ramping up the force behind the strokes. The cane was thin one, so that Rob could hit Quentin almost everywhere -- on his back, even wrapping around to his ribs. It wasn’t as satisfying as being hit with a thicker cane, but Quentin was greedy to feel the hits everywhere he could.
Little by little, Rob pushed Quentin until sensation became pain and further, until there was something shining through the pain, something Quentin could almost get to--
Quentin's phone buzzed.
He cursed. "Hey, Rob!" He lifted a hand to catch Rob's attention, and Rob stopped. Quentin straightened. "Sorry, have to get this." He took out his phone.
Rob made a face. "Everything okay?"
Usually, Quentin would feel guilty, but that was wiped away by the message he saw. From Henry, not Alyssa, and it said, need your help urgently. where are you?
“I don’t know,” Quentin said. “Listen, sorry, I have to go.” He continued despite Rob’s objections. “I know what I’m doing, I can take care of myself, and I really do need to go.”
Rob sighed. “Text me when you get home, okay?”
Quentin messaged Henry the address and went to wait outside. He was a little loopy: he'd only remembered to start putting his shirt back on when Henry's car stopped next to him.
Henry opened the window, saw Quentin struggle with the shirt and said, "Would you dress in the car? I'm afraid the matter is pressing."
So Quentin got into the car shirtless. He could tell Henry spotted the crop marks by the widening of Henry's eyes, but Henry didn't say anything, only waited for Quentin to put on the seatbelt and sped away.
"What's the matter?" Quentin asked, when they were on the road.
Henry looked straight ahead, hands at ten-and-two on the wheel. He was going ten miles over the speed limit, braking hard at stop lights. "An old friend of mine is in the hospital," he said in a low voice. "His situation is very unstable, and the next few hours are going to be crucial. If you're willing, I'd like your help in lending him some magical assistance."
"Of course," Quentin said.
"I'm sorry." There was a tone to Henry's voice that Quentin didn't like, tense and upset. "I should have asked before picking you up. I should have--"
"Hey," Quentin said. He would have laid a hand on Henry's shoulder if he wasn't worried about distracting him, or upsetting him further. "It's fine. I want to help."
Henry laughed, an odd harsh sound. "Of course you do."
Quentin wasn't sure how to respond to that. "Can you tell me more about what the medical issue is?"
When they reached the hospital parking lot, Quentin took off his seat belt and hurriedly struggled into his shirt. He buttoned it to the top button to hide his collar. He realized on the way out of the car he should just have taken the collar off, but now that seemed like he didn't have time.
Henry didn't ask for instructions. He moved down the hospital corridors like he knew them, which he probably did. Quentin followed him in silence.
Quentin hadn't actually parsed what the issue was with Henry's friend, too dazed still with how fast the evening changed pace. He figured he'll just repeat after Henry and channel.
They finally arrived at a private room, where an aging man lay connected to several beeping monitors. A woman sat in the chair next to the bed, and she straightened when she saw Henry and Quentin. "Oh, Henry, thank you for coming. Who's this?"
"His name is Quentin. He's here to help," Henry said.
She nodded and got up. "I'll leave you to it, then, and wait outside."
That was more cooperation than Quentin would have expected. He glanced at Henry, who sighed. "She knows me well enough to be aware I prefer to be alone for delicate workings. Aside from the familiar, of course, and the subject."
"Of course," Quentin echoed. "What do you need? Should I roll up my sleeves?"
Henry cleared his throat. Under the hospital fluorescence, he looked ashen. "Would you mind if I did that for you?"
Quentin shrugged and reached out his arms.
Henry's hands were trembling when he first took hold of Quentin's sleeve, but they steadied by the time Quentin's forearms were bare. Henry smoothed a hand over the tidy roll-up he'd made. "Shall we begin?"
For once, Henry didn't offer an explanation of the nature of the working, and Quentin didn't ask. He stood quietly while Henry prayed, and repeated after him when they went through the litany. The power called down by the spell was staggering: Quentin almost lost his footing, and had to lean against the wall.
When Henry inquired, concerned, Quentin shook his head and held on firmly to the candle that Henry had lit. "I'm fine. We can keep going." Henry lead him to sit down in the chair vacated by the woman who left the room. "What happens now?"
"We keep up the working," Henry said. "Nothing flashy this time. You only have to continue channeling." He shifted to lean against the wall. He had a bit of a stubble going on. "Within two hours or so he should be out of danger. I brought cards," he said, taking a pack out of his pocket.
Quentin tried to smile but the expression got watered down in the attempt, washed out by the torrent of power moving through him. "I don't think I'm up for it," he said, apologetic.
"You don't have to." Henry sighed. "It's probably not the time to apologize for not taking better care with your consent--"
"Wait, what?" Quentin rewound the evening to try to understand. He found nothing. "What are you talking about?"
"I know you don't always find it easier to say no," Henry said. "I gave you very little time and space to refuse me, and I'm sorry for that, especially as I didn't warn you that the working is even bigger than your admirable usual standard."
Trying not to blush at Admirable, Quentin said, "Okay, am I mistaken in saying this guy," Quentin pointed at the bed, "might die if we don't help?"
"You are not."
"Then it's not like the same standards apply, is it? It's not like this is just, um, for fun, or even for your job. This is to save a life. Completely different situation."
“Pikuach Nefesh does hold, you’re correct.” Henry's expression was complicated. “That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about you.”
“Thanks,” Quentin said, awkward. “I mean, I think even Alyssa would approve, and she’s pretty insistent about good consent practices.”
After a few quiet moments, Henry said, "I'd like to meet her some time, when she's not half out of her mind with pain or fatigue. She seems like a fascinating person."
"She is," Quentin said. "Come to our house for dinner sometime." The invitation came easily, unthinking. "I'd offer a concrete date so you know I mean it and I'm not just being polite, but uh. I'm a little," he waggled his hand, "right now."
"That's entirely understandable."
Henry was standing close enough that if Quentin leaned just a bit, he'd be able to rest his head against Henry's hip. "Can I do a thing?"
"You'll have to be more specific," Henry said. "Also--" he bit his lip.
Quentin grinned. "Were you about to ask me if I meant may I do the thing?" Henry looked straight ahead. "Heh. Okay, may I, I don't know. Lean on you?"
"You may." Henry's voice was grave, but warm, warm like his skin through his clothes when Quentin rested his head against him.
When the spell was over, Henry had to help Quentin to his feet. Quentin felt all rubbery inside, like the power he used was leached from his bones and left them bendy.
The woman came back in, and held Henry's hand for a few long minutes as she thanked him. Quentin shuffled backwards and let her hug Henry; to his surprise, she hugged him as well.
"Don't thank us yet," Henry said. "Please do let me know how he's doing."
"As soon as I know myself," she promised.
Quentin looked at Henry, who came back to support him. He hadn't realized until now, but Henry was a little shorter than him. Quentin tended to think of himself as smaller than he really was, and shrink on himself accordingly. "You're not staying?"
"The hospital staff won't tolerate our presence here for much longer," Henry said. "Besides, I can hardly leave you to get home alone, can I?"
"I could manage," Quentin mumbled, but sagged gratefully as Henry took part of his weight.
It was late. The parking lot was all but abandoned when they shuffled into Henry's car. "Can you even drive right now?" Quentin asked. "Not too tired?"
"I've driven in much worse conditions," Henry said, which barely pretended to answer Quentin's question.
Quentin let it go, exhausted. He rested his head against the back of the seat.
Henry cleared his throat. "And I'm sorry for interrupting your, ah, night out." He sounded embarrassed.
"You don't have to apologize." Quentin gave a boneless one-shouldered shrug. "There'll be other nights." The silence between them felt charged, expectant. "If you want to ask me about it, go ahead, I'm tired but I'll do my best."
"I should be taking you home, not interrogating you," Henry said. Before Quentin could refute this he added, "What were you doing?"
To Quentin, the question was obvious, but Henry wasn't used to kink things. "Getting hit. With a cane."
Henry straightened up in his seat, so abrupt that he shook the car. Then he flopped back into the seat. "I see." He sighed. Resigned, he asked, "Why?"
At this hour, the best Quentin could come up with is, "I like it."
Henry shook his head, a slow movement. “I don’t understand how that’s possible.”
“I just do.” Quentin cast in his mind for an explanation. “It’s like -- like my skin is alive. Like I’m alive.”
There was a long silence. Following it, Henry’s hushed "Would you let me see?" felt startlingly loud.
Quentin blinked. "You want to?" At Henry's nod, he unbuttoned his shirt, letting it fall off him, exposing the collar. The welts left by the cane, now deepened into bruises, were mostly on his back, but a few were on his sides, visible from the front.
"May I... No, never mind," Henry said. "I've asked too much of you already."
"You can ask," Quentin said, voice very soft. "I'll say no if I don't want to."
Henry swallowed. "In that case -- may I touch?"
Sure, Quentin started to say, and swallowed the word. Too glib. "Yes. Go ahead."
Henry's fingers were very gentle, landing just below the cane mark on his ribs. "Didn't that hurt?"
Quentin laughed, soundless. "Yeah. Felt good, though."
Henry kept his fingers on him, just like that. "What about Alyssa? Doesn't she mind?"
"What, you mean, get jealous?"
To Quentin's surprise, Henry shook his head. "If I were her, I would be worried. What if someone hurts you in a way you don't want?"
"Oh," Quentin said, touched. "Well -- yeah, she does worry, and I worry about her when she leaves the house without me. But I'm careful. We have to trust one another to take the best care we can of ourselves. It helps, actually: it's easier to take care of myself knowing she wouldn't want me to get hurt."
Henry's mouth pursed. "Well, if that helps, consider me also highly invested in your continued wellbeing."
"Aww," Quentin said, out loud, without meaning to. He covered his mouth. "I mean -- thank you. It does help." He felt giddy, and reckless with it. "Want to see the rest of the marks?"
"I want...." Henry's eyes traveled up from the mark on his ribs to his throat and stuck there. Where Quentin's collar lay.
Quentin raised up his chin. In a voice that only quivered a little bit, he said, "You can."
Henry's hand was so slow, coming up to the collar. He kept glancing up at Quentin's face, mouth parted, like he was waiting for Quentin to turn him down. When Henry hooked two fingers through the D-ring on Quentin's collar, Quentin let out a gasp. "Is that all right?" Henry said, frowning in concentration.
"It's great." Quentin just barely had the breath to say that. Whatever Henry wanted right now -- to slap Quentin, call him names, pull him down to suck Henry's cock or kiss his feet -- Quentin would be up for that.
With a pull so gentle that Quentin barely felt the pressure, Henry moved him closer. "Only if you want," Henry said, and Quentin felt Henry's breath on his lips.
"Yes," Quentin whispered, and leaned into a proper kiss.
It was soft and slow, courteous almost, close-mouthed. Apart from their lips and Henry's fingers in the collar, they weren't touching anywhere, but those points of contact burned. It felt like the opposite of channeling, like Henry was trying to pour something into Quentin and fill him up with it.
The kiss lasted a long time. When Henry finally withdrew, he blinked at Quentin like he wasn't sure he was properly awake.
"Heads up," Quentin said, voice scratchy, "if you apologize for kissing me, I might cry."
"By all means let's avoid that, then," Henry said, still looking dazed. He looked at his fingers like they belonged to someone else and gently tugged on Quentin's collar again. Quentin moaned, more air than sound. "Is this... is your interest now sexual in nature?"
Fuck, Quentin didn't know. "I want to please you," he said. "If that involves orgasms, or, or sex things, great. If not, I'm good with that too." He groped for words. "It's like -- the way I'm feeling right now, sex is just another thing I can do with you, for you. I want that because it's intimate, but I'd like it just the same if you asked me to kneel, or if you kissed me some more, or told me about your childhood."
"That last one," Henry said, "would feel like quite a mood shift to me." He tugged on Quentin's collar once more, feeling a little more confident. "I.... if I said I wanted sex, what would you do?"
"Blowjob? Handjob?" Quentin offered. "I have about zero experience giving blowjobs, to be honest, but I could try."
"What if we went to my place," Henry said, slowly, like he was uttering words in a foreign language, trying them on for size.
Quentin closed his eyes. "Please."
The drive back to Henry's place was much more sedate. Henry's hands were steady on the wheel. Quentin looked at them, illuminated for brief flashes by streetlights, then gone dark again. Henry had good hands. Quentin wanted them on him: directing, moving, stroking, working him with the same meticulous care that Henry applied to everything.
They arrived at Henry's house. Henry parked the car, turned off the ignition, then sat in the darkness.
After a few moments like this, Quentin said, "Henry?" tentatively.
"I don't know how to do this," Henry said. Quentin could only see the shadowed silhouette of his face.
Answers flitted through Quentin's head: There's not one this and Everybody has a first time and We don't have to do anything. He reached out and covered Henry's hand with his own. "I'm right here," he said. "We can figure this out together. Just like the buddy system." He gave Henry's hand a little squeeze.
"You say you want to please me." Henry sounded so calm that Quentin was worried. Eye of the storm and all that. "I have no idea-- there are so many--" he bunched the hand Quentin wasn't holding into a fist and slammed it on the wheel. "Damn it."
Quentin froze. He told himself Henry wasn't angry with him, just frustrated, but a fat lot of good that did him. The drained post-spell feeling became more pronounced. Quentin's heart pounded, imagining Henry telling him to leave, telling him to prove he was worth something after all.
He closed his eyes and breathed shallowly, struggling. That wasn't Henry, the voice he was hearing. Henry wasn't the one Quentin was afraid of.
"Quentin?" By Henry's voice, Quentin wasn't the only one afraid. "Quentin, what's wrong? I'm so sorry, I wasn't thinking, this was a terrible idea--"
The words felt like a blow. Quentin undid his seat belt with shaking hands. He opened the door without another word and walked out. Henry didn't stop him.
He walked for two blocks before coming to his senses and calling a taxi. He gave his home address. He'll pick his car up tomorrow.
Alyssa was in bed, but she opened her eyes when he came into the room. "Quen?" Her voice was rusty with sleep. "Are you okay?"
Quentin slid into bed in his clothes, too tired to remove anything but the collar and his shoes. "No," he said, shuffling close to Alyssa.
She held him, soft and large enough to let Quentin feel small and safe. "Oh, sweetheart. I'm sorry. Do you want to talk about it?"
Quentin shook his head. "I don't know. Tomorrow." He didn't want to talk about it at all.
"You should really talk to him about it," Alyssa said, "some time when you're not both loopy from magic overload."
"I guess," Quentin said, but Henry didn't text him, and whenever Quentin tried to initiate a conversation his fingers went limp.
It got so that a few days later, even though Alyssa had a date with Michelle, she said, "Do you need me to stay home with you?"
"What? No, of course you should go. Have fun. I'll be fine."
Alyssa gave him a skeptic look, but she went, with only an additional, "Call me if you need anything."
An hour later, his phone chirped. It was Delilah. You coming to the picnic today?
Oh, right, that was today. He'd even marked it on his calendar, despite the fact he had no intention of going. Just... just in case.
The house was quiet but for the humming of the fridge. Quentin hesitated, and wrote back: i didn't register, is it too late or can I come anyway?
Her reply was almost instantaneous. Sure! I'll talk to the organizers. Looking forward to seeing you!
That, just knowing someone was excited about Quentin turning up, was enough to get him up and going.
The "picnic" was on the third floor of a building that was abandoned halfway through its construction. "It was supposed to be a nursing home," said Gail. She shone her phone flashlight up the stairs, which were barely worthy of the name, steep concrete slopes with wooden boards to serve as makeshift steps. "Then there was some sort of conflict between the contractor and the local housing committee... There we are, on that floor." She gestured up at the next exit from the stairway. "Don't step on anywhere marked with a big red X, those aren't stable."
"This place is really not accessible," Quentin mumbled, and, "nothing, sorry, nevermind," when Gail asked, "What was that?"
Their arrival set off a beeping sound. Quentin spotted the sensors flashing bright blue. A few heads turned their way, but for the most part everyone was either in pairs or little groups. A mixture of low voices mingled, and through it one voice came clear like a shattering glass.
"...Only I'd forgotten to set any actual location constraints," said that voice, painfully familiar, "and as far as I know he was trying to change the temperature of the entire world. Now you'd think he'd safeword, but no, he had to be macho about it."
There was Sage, sitting next to the speaker and shifting with discomfort. "That doesn't sound great for him."
Sabine smiled at them and tossed her hair back. "Don't worry, I made it up to him later." She fluttered her eyelashes. "I was just a beginner then. That's my point: if you don't have the experience, running that kind of magic is just a bad idea."
"Well, yes," Sage said, "but--"
"Hey! Quentin!" That was Delilah, grinning at him with delight. "Great to see you! Want a hug?"
Quentin hugged her, maybe clinging a little harder than he should have. She didn't say anything. He let go and darted a look at the stairway he just came through.
Delilah kept a hand on his arm, though, and was tugging him inside. "Come on, they're about to go through a safety briefing." He followed on behind her.
The safety briefing was short and to the point: the event safe-call was "red", to be used in addition to "no" or "stop"; scenes involving pain or power exchange had to be registered with one of the organizers; no getting too close to the windows or, indeed, stepping on big red X's. Throughout it Quentin kept his eyes down, hoping against hope Sabine wouldn't notice him.
No such luck. As soon as the briefing was done she was there in front of him. "Quentin!" She smiled. Her dimples showed. She walked towards him, arms spread, and enveloped him into a hug. "Oh my God, it's been forever. How have you been?"
"Fine," Quentin mumbled. About a dozen different thoughts clashed in his head: revulsion and attraction and confusion. She smelled different, but still floral and mild. He needed to get away. He couldn't remember how to move.
She stepped back and said, "How about a binding? For old times' sake? It'll be a blast to the past for real."
No! Quentin thought, heart pounding. Tell her no, you useless--
"Sure," he said, monotone.
Her posture was very upright, and she gave a small grin. "You're a sweetheart. Do you know, I really missed working with you."
He followed her, numb, to one of the organizers, an older man that Quentin didn't know. "Hi, we're about to do a working involving humiliation, bondage, pain and consent play."
"Heavy," the man said, with a touch of admiration. To Quentin, he said, "You playing along willingly?"
Quentin couldn't seem to speak. No, he tried to say. I don't want this.
"Quentin," Sabine said, low and edged. "Don't make the man wait."
"Yes." He was no longer sure what he was consenting to. But Sabine's eyes were on him, unflinching, and all thought of other choices flew from his mind.
Sabine led him to another part of the floor. They could still see most everyone from where they were standing, but the immediate area around them was unoccupied.
He took his shirt off. Letting her draw on him was familiar, both comfortable and claustrophobic. Before finding out about magic, Quentin had missed this so much he'd gone through hookups even when all his alarms were ringing. He lay docile under her hand. It was weird to realize that she wasn't all that careful about enunciating, her litany was imprecise, and her wards were sloppy. Unlike--
Quentin flinched away from the thought. It hurt too much, to bring up Henry right now. He tried to focus on what Sabine was saying, instead.
"And should I end the working early," she said, and he repeated, "and blow the candle before it's done, let pain come down upon me, and punishment. Let me be in such pain that I writhe on the floor and cry out."
Quentin took shallow breaths. The words came out of his mouth one after another, carefully pronounced, the way he'd been taught.
The first thing she did, as magic came down to him, was gesture him down to his knees. It felt like he was being propelled by an outside force: magic, or his brain being a shit again? Who knew. He did recognize the sensation of magic binding his hands behind his back, fingertips at opposite elbows, like a box tie.
Sabine walked around him. The first question out of her mouth was, "Did you miss me?"
"Yes." The litany had had a truth-spell element, and the word sprang to his lips before he could think of an answer.
She smiled. He'd forgotten how it made his heart clench when she smiled, like he finally got an important task right. "Good boy." He shivered. The words felt like a physical stroke on his head, like reaching into his chest and squeezing his heart. "You know, I starting to forget -- why is it I broke up with you, again?"
The truth-spell was silent: the question itself was wrong.
"Oh, right." She made a motion, and Quentin gasped at the sensation of claws dragging down his back, skin breaking. "I didn't. You," the claws struck again, "broke up with me, through a Skype message, when I wasn't even in the country."
That much was true. She'd been in France for a semester, and it had taken that long for Alyssa to convince him that he didn't have to stay with Sabine. He'd already moved all his things to Alyssa's place before sending that message. Quentin said nothing.
"What kind of asshole move is that?" Sabine demanded. "What kind of coward," she slapped him, "doesn't even wait to tell me to my face that he thinks he's too good for me?" When he didn't answer, she continued: "Do you think that was nice of you, Quentin? Did that make you feel good?"
"No," he said, voice thick. "No." Oh, great, he thought at himself, so now you remember how to say it?
"Because let me tell you, that did not feel great on my end." She grabbed Quentin's hair and pulled his head up. He wasn't sure when he'd bowed it. "Do you think you're too good for me? Do you?"
"No." Quentin's voice was barely above a whimper.
"And that person you moved in with," she snapped her fingers, "what was it..."
"Alyssa," Quentin said. "She went by a different name then. I still live with her." I love her. She saved my sanity.
"Amazing," she said. "So are you going to dump her, too, once she becomes inconvenient?"
"No." Quentin closed his eyes.
Sabine slapped him once, twice, until he opened them again. "Is she good enough for you? Wait." Her expression turned thoughtful. "That's not it, is it? She's too good for you, isn't she. Well?" She shook him by the hair. "Do you think you're good enough for her?"
Quentin's throat hurt. "No."
Sabine clucked her tongue in mock-sympathy. "Do you think you deserve her?" She pulled his hair until his eyes watered.
She let go, and Quentin panted in the sudden respite. "There's your answer, isn't it?"
Quentin didn't reply. Maybe the magic was as confused as he was.
"I don't know what she does for you, but it must be a lot. Too much. Lord knows I had to carry the relationship myself when we were together." Her voice changed, softened. "But we had some good times, didn't we?" She stroked his nape.
"Yes," Quentin croaked out, ashamed.
"I can forgive," Sabine said. "Maybe you didn't even mean to be so cruel to me: maybe she manipulated you. Goodness knows you're not very bright." She laughed. "I could always get you to do what I wanted." She tilted his face up with two fingers under his chin. "Do you think I could get us back together if I tried?"
A noise behind them distracted him; it wasn't until he heard her outraged gasp that he realized he'd said, "No."
She took a step back and snarled, "You ungrateful little..."
"Do I think I deserve better than you? No." The word came to his lips as automatically as before, and Quentin prayed it would continue. "But would you hurt me? Yes. Would I be happier without you? Yes. Do I deserve better?" No answer came this time.
Quentin hurried on before Sabine could slip into the gap. "Magic can't tell us that, because I haven't defined what deserve mean well enough. But are there people who love me? Yes. Are they happier for having me in their lives? Yes." The word came out half-choked, Quentin unable to believe it, but moved to say it anyway by the truth compulsion. "Do they deserve to be happy? Magic may not know, but I do: fuck yes."
Sabine made a strangled noise. She started moving, and behind her Quentin saw someone stand.
Not just any someone. Henry. He had an expression that Quentin had never seen on his face: jaw tightly clenched, eyes narrowed, all of it aimed at Sabine.
Two and two added themselves up in Quentin's mind. Neither Alyssa nor Henry wanted him to get hurt. Sabine was going to hurt him either way, but if he chose, he could end it earlier rather than later, with clean physical pain and not the vicious seeds of doubt Sabine tried to sow.
"Red," Quentin said, then again: "Red!"
Sabine recoiled. Then she smiled, smug, and raised the candle to her lips to blow it out.
"Excuse me," Henry said, ice cold. "By blowing out the candle, wouldn't you be inflicting pain on him? After he'd safeworded?"
Sabine gave a dainty shrug. "He knew the risks when he consented to the scene."
"Lady," said a voice from behind him that sounded like Gail, "that is not how safewords work. Give the candle here, please." Her voice made it plain that this was not a request.
"Fine." Sabine stepped out of his line of sight, presumably to hand over the candle.
In another moment, Gail knelt in front of him. "Hey. I'll unbind you and I'll give you the candle, okay? And then you can just sit out the rest of the spell." She caught his flinch and added, "If you want someone else to take the candle, that can also be arranged."
Without meaning to, Quentin's eyes flicked to Henry.
Gail followed his gaze. She asked Henry, "Are you up for that?"
"Quentin," Henry said. "Is this what you want?"
The spell was rigged so that Quentin would be compelled to answer the person who held the candle. He had to drum up his strength to say, "Yes." Henry nodded at Gail.
Maybe it was only in his mind, but he felt a palpable shift in pressure when the candle was passed to Henry's hand. His muscles loosened of their own accord, until only magical bonds held him in place.
"I'll untie you," Henry said, still soft, "if that's all right?" At Quentin's nod, the magic holding him in place dissipated -- no, it was replaced, by magic that gently moved his hands to the front of his body again, that chafed at his arms until they felt warm and responsive, that slowly pushed him to stand up and supported him.
"Actually I think I better sit down," Quentin said. The magic guided him carefully back to the ground.
Henry sat down in front of him, heedless of the dusty floor. "How can I help?"
Quentin's brain felt scattered in a dozen directions. He was deeply aware of his selfish gladness in having Henry so close, revelling in Henry's attention. I'm fine, he tried to say; instead, the spell compelled him into saying, "Stay with me."
"I'm not going anywhere," Henry said, so immediate that Quentin's heart clenched. Then Henry frowned, and Quentin's heart was having a whole different reaction to that. "Would you prefer I didn't ask you questions?"
"No, go ahead," Quentin said. He smiled weakly. "I'm an open book written in extra-large font. With pictures."
Henry still seemed worried. "You sound like you think that's a negative."
"It is certainly not," Henry said, severe. "It's one of the things I like best about you. Your honesty and openness are remarkable, and lovely."
"Oh," Quentin whispered, feeling sucker-punched.
"I'm sorry." Henry looked taken aback. "Have I upset you?"
Quentin shivered. "No. I like it. Maybe too much." Fuck, but Henry looked so warm, so close, like Quentin could just reach out and touch him. But he'd tried that, and look at where that got them. "I don't know how I made you angry, but I'm sorry. I wish you'd tell me so I'd know not to do it again." He clapped his hands over his mouth, too late.
Henry blinked. "Angry?" He reached out, tentative. "May I touch your wrist?" Quentin nodded, numb, as Henry pulled his hands away from his face, so careful, like Quentin would break if handled roughly. "Perhaps I was angry, but not at you. At myself, I suppose, and for the most part I was frustrated." He gave Quentin a crooked smile. "I don't take well to not knowing what to do."
"I think that's my fault," Quentin volunteered. "I should have gotten you to talk it over first. It's bad form for the more experienced person to just -- shove the newer person into new territory. No wonder you got mad -- I mean, frustrated."
Henry made a thoughtful noise. "I suppose talking more first would have been preferable. I don't think either of us were in any state to make serious decisions." He looked up and down Quentin's body. "Neither are you in any such state now." He hesitated. "May I tell you
"I am," he paused, "awed, I think would be the word, by your strength. Not just your magical prowess, but strength of character. The way you stood up to -- I don't know her name."
"Sabine," Quentin whispered, eyes wide.
"The way you stood up to Sabine was admirable, and I am stunned by your courage. I shouldn't be, by now, and yet it strikes me anew every time."
Quentin closed his eyes and gasped, shaking. The words felt as though someone took his soul and shook it out like a blanket, dust falling out, mending the torn parts. Every word was like a needle prick that made him more whole.
"I won't apologize." Henry sounded wary. "I meant what I said. At the same time, I didn't want to cause you pain. It was the farthest thing from my mind. Did I hurt you, just now?"
"Yes." Quentin opened his eyes and managed a shaky smile. "Felt good, though."
"You." Henry shook his head. "You are..."
"Weird?" Quentin suggested.
Quentin held a hand up. "Okay, I'm going to need you to stop now, because if you don't I might, I don't know. Spontaneously combust or something."
Henry nodded, grave. "Thank you for telling me."
They didn't talk much after that. Quentin dozed, pillowed by magic, and Henry sat by his side. Quentin shook awake when the feeling of power channeled through him abruptly stopped. The candle, now on a plate that Henry was holding, had burned out.
"I'll take you home,” Henry said, ”if that's all right."
Quentin shook his head. "My car is here." He took out his phone, and there was the message from Alyssa. "Alyssa's home. I won't be alone."
"You're sure you can drive?" Henry's brow furrowed.
"I'll manage," Quentin assured him. Then, with some trepidation, he added, "You could come with me. You can sleep at our place and I'll give you a ride in the morning."
"I can afford a taxi, thank you," Henry said dryly. "More than I can afford to spend the night on an unfamiliar sofa. At my age, one's back becomes particular." He helped Quentin to his feet.
Quentin trailed after him towards the exit from the building. "You're not that old!"
Henry's answering laughter echoed in the empty stairwell.
Watching Henry and Alyssa shake hands was a little surreal. Quentin found he was swaying with fatigue, far more tired than the working he'd done would justify.
"Well, you did go head to head with an abusive ex," Henry said, when Quentin mumbled something about that.
"You what?" Alyssa yelped. "Oh my God, that shitstain is back in town? Quentin, what happened?"
Quentin replied by mumbling something even he couldn't decipher and collapsing onto the couch.
"Right. I'll ask again in the morning." Alyssa moved to face Henry. "Thank you so much for making sure he got home safe."
"It's very much my privilege." Henry turned to leave.
"Wait," Alyssa said. "You two need to talk. If you want me to mediate, just say the word."
"I appreciate the offer," Henry said. He'd better, or Quentin would kick his ass. Alyssa was an awesome mediator. "At the same time, I don't think I would be comfortable with that."
"Whatever works for you." They traded goodbyes. Alyssa shut the door behind Henry, and helped Quentin get up from the couch and into bed.
Cuddling Alyssa was so comforting. His safe place, his port in the storm. He squeezed her, careful not to press too hard. He fell asleep before they could talk about what transpired.
When the message from Henry arrived the next day, it offered a time for a meeting, and a place: the same coffee shop to which Delilah took Quentin. Maybe he got the recommendation from her.
i'd really rather not go out, Quentin wrote back. Maybe it was cowardly of him, staying in in case he ran into Sabine again, but he felt like he'd worn all his courage out facing her. how about my place, or your office?
Of course, Henry replied. Whichever you prefer.
So it was that Henry arrived at their house once more, this time with both Quentin and Alyssa fully conscious and present. To a degree, anyway, since Alyssa was in the bedroom grading papers, headphones on full blast.
It felt weird to offer Henry coffee, even weirder to have him accept. "Two sugars?"
Henry looked up with surprise, and no little amount of warmth. "You remembered." Quentin shrugged and blushed.
For a little while, there was no sound but the clinking of spoons and pouring of water. They didn't speak as they sat down with their respective drinks. Quentin wondered furtively whether he should also have set out a plate of cookies.
Henry's cup clacked against the saucer, which he placed on the coffee table. "I've been trying to think of what to say since yesterday," he said. "And there is very little of which I'm certain, but of this I am sure."
The tea in Quentin's cup tipped dangerously close to spilling. He willed his hands to be steady, just until he put the cup down.
"I meant what I said. I am awed by your courage," Henry said. "It behooves me to be brave as well, and admit: I care for you, even if I have no idea how to express it."
Nevermind his hands, now Quentin was shaking all over. "I'd say you're doing pretty well."
Henry shook his head. “Not as well as I’d like, nor as well as I need to. But I have an idea of how to go about it.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a circle of wood that looked like an embroidery hoop sans cloth with different colored yarn strings all around its edges. “This,” Henry said, in reply to Quentin’s uncomprehending look, “is a device I’ve used a few times. I have a spell which connects it to the subject’s emotions and thoughts, forming the strings into representation of the interplay between mental processes and allowing others to experience said mental processes by touch.”
Quentin blinked, and attempted to translate. “So, if you touch a string you’ll feel the emotion attached to it?”
“Or the thought, yes.”
“And you want me to be the subject?”
Henry’s brow furrowed. “I don’t see a need for that. You communicate quite clearly without needing to resort to magic. I was thinking I could be the subject.”
“Oh,” Quentin said, eyes going wide. “But--” He clamped his mouth shut before he could get in his own way.
Henry said, gently, “If you wanted to share your thoughts, I’d like to hear them.”
“You aren’t like me,” Quentin said. “You don’t have everything out on display all the time, you like privacy. Are you sure this is something you want to do?”
“Quite sure. One reason I chose this method over a truth spell is that it allows me some control over what I reveal.”
Quentin processed. “All right. How much space do you need for the wards?”
“Your forearms will do. Would you let me fold the sleeves for you?” Henry sounded strangely formal. His touch, rolling the sleeves back, made Quentin take a deep breath and let it out again, feeling more settled in his own skin.
As Henry drew the wards, Quentin marveled at how careful he was, not slurring a single syllable, the lines he drew on Quentin’s arms evenly spaced, nothing smeared. Meticulous, Quentin thought, and the notion filled him with affection.
“When either one of us rises from his chair, the spell will stop, and all will be as it was before,” Henry said, and Quentin echoed after him. Then the strings on the hoop started moving, so fast they blurred together, until they rested together in a jumbled web. Within the web the strings still shifted, but it was a subtle, slow movement. Quentin stared at it, fascinated, and reached out to touch twined purple and orange strings that arced over a knot of blues, greens, and reds.
A burst of satisfaction exploded through him, accompanied by the image of Henry rolling up Quentin's sleeves. How much better Quentin’s clothes looked with such a small action; the comfort of order in chaos, and how Quentin let Henry care for him, soaking it up.
Quentin blushed. “Oh.”
Henry’s brown skin also seemed a bit more reddish. “Well. Yes.”
“You can tell which ones I’m touching? You feel the, the same mental experiences I do?”
Quentin ducked his head. As he moved, his finger brushed against the orange string, and he recoiled. Then he touched it again, willing himself to take in Henry’s fear of how much he enjoyed that gesture, the haunting knowledge that there must be something wrong about his pleasure in this.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you fixing my sleeves. With liking to do it, I mean,” Quentin said, once he’d caught his breath.
“I don’t think so either. I only feel that way. I’m sure you’re familiar with the distinction.”
“Am I ever,” Quentin said with a sigh. Was it just his imagination, or did the orange thread seem a little thinner?
A pink string, nearly invisible in the edges of the web, caught Quentin’s eye. He touched it, and saw the barest flicker of desire, of naked bodies twining together, before the string shrank and disappeared. “Does that mean you don’t want sex at all,” Quentin said, “or to not talk about it right now?”
“Not right now.” A yellow string crawled out where the pink had been. Quentin touched it, and tasted Henry’s gratitude.
It gave him courage. He went back to the knot under Henry’s enjoyment of rolling up his sleeves, and touched a braid of threads, all different shades of blue. “Whoa,” Quentin said, as memories of that night in Henry’s car floated, being dizzy with kisses and potential; giddy; terrified out of his mind, and ashamed.
Quentin traced along the particular shade of blue where fear lived. He saw himself through Henry’s eyes, Quentin’s mouth red and his eyes wide and dark, Quentin begging for things Henry didn’t have the faintest idea how to give him. The gap of knowledge felt like a chasm yawning between them.
It left Quentin ashamed, too. “That’s my fault. I shouldn’t have expected you to know what to do. I should have been more careful, informed you better so you’d know what you’re getting into.”
Henry blinked. Quentin felt his surprise, a brown thread popping out. “You weren’t the one in charge. I don’t see how that was your responsibility.”
“I’m the one who had experience.” It felt odd to argue about this. Wasn’t it obvious? “Just because you’re the dom doesn’t mean you don’t need people to take care with your consent. Same way me being a guy doesn’t mean female partners don’t need to take care with my consent.”
“Ah,” Henry said. The brown thread disappeared. “Understood.”
The fear surrounding the memory of that night was still there, though. Quentin rubbed his fingers over it, considering, as more images came to him: the bruises on Quentin’s side from that night, the bright claw marks that Sabine had put on his back. “You’re scared of hurting me.” Henry nodded. Quentin traced along a lighter blue thread, barely visible, and shivered. “You want to hurt me.”
“Only,” Henry said, voice thick, “inasmuch as you’d like to be hurt.” Even if Quentin couldn’t have felt Henry’s fear in the threads, he’d have heard it in his voice.
“We don’t have to. We don’t have to do anything.”
“I know.” Frustrated green flashed past Quentin’s fingers. “But I want to do something, and I wish I knew what!”
Quentin took several deep, even breaths. He rested his fingers on the green thread. Henry wasn’t angry with him. He could feel that, if he only let himself. “What if we made a list?”
“A list,” Henry repeated, blank.
Quentin’s backpack was within reach. He grabbed it and took out a notebook and a pen, uncapped the latter, and sat there waiting with it poised above the paper. “We could put down rolling up my sleeves. And hurting me -- we could put a question mark, to indicate not now. Maybe not ever, not until you feel sure.”
“Until I feel sure?”
Quentin shrugged. “If I knew you wanted to, and felt okay about doing it, I’d hand you a flogger right now.” He paused. “If I had one. Which I don’t. I should get one, when I have a chance.”
A warm dark brown thread appeared as Henry smiled, small but genuine. Quentin touched it with trembling fingers, and sighed a little at the fondness it radiated. Henry said, “I think we can shelve that thought.” The thread darkened into seriousness. “You can put down the -- matter of the sleeves.” He swallowed. “About pain… I feel woefully unqualified to deal it. I wish there was a class.”
“Oh, sure there’s a class.” Quentin took out his phone. A few clicks later, he found what he was looking for. “Right now there’s only intermediate level, but next month there’ll be a beginners’ impact workshop.”
For a moment, Henry seemed stunned into silence. Then he laughed. “A workshop. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”
“It’s my fault for dragging you into a kinky relationship without giving you any background,” Quentin said, shaking his head. “Alyssa would totally tell me off for that.”
“I dare say I could have done some research myself. The fault isn’t entirely yours.”
Something clicked together for Quentin. “You were a pretty smart kid, right? Always had teachers telling you how smart you are, skipping classes, that sort of thing?”
“That did happen, yes.”
“And you care about getting stuff right. Maybe so much that, if you get stuff wrong, it really bothers you.”
Henry bristled. “I’m not sure where you’re going with this, but I wish you’d get there.”
Quentin gestured broadly. “It’s that whole -- fixed vs. growth mindset, you know what I’m talking about?”
In Henry’s expression, fondness won out again. “I do.”
“I mean, you have to be used to studying hard, but I’m guessing you chose your field because you’re good at it. Less painful stumbling along, more zooming up the learning curve. And you know where to get the information you need when you’re missing something. But relationships…” Quentin trailed off, watching the threads.
The shade of fear pulsed and broadened; then it shrunk dramatically, until it was barely visible. “Oh,” Henry said, dazed. “That’s… a rather good point.”
Quentin kept going. “But you can ask. I can introduce you to people, or there’s classes, and books! I bet you’d love books. You probably write comments in the margins. There’s videos, seminars -- anything you want, I can help you find it.”
Henry shifted in his seat. “Can you write down another item on that list of yours?”
Quentin took up the pen and notebook. “Sure.”
“Write down, please, that I’d like to learn. And I’d like to do it with you.”
After writing that down, Quentin couldn’t help himself: he got up, letting the threads fall limply to the side of the hoop, and leaned over the table so he could kiss Henry. Henry’s hand wound itself in the front of Quentin’s shirt, pulling him close.
Alyssa stared at the menu before her, unseeing, twisting the trans-symbol pendant she wore. By contrast, Quentin felt… pretty calm, actually. “You’ve met him before,” Quentin said. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
“But he’s never been to polycule brunch before. What if he and Michelle don’t get along?” Alyssa sat bolt upright. “Oh my God, the food! He’s Jewish, he might have dietary restrictions, what if he can’t eat here? I can’t believe I didn’t ask him.”
“Well, I did, and he said it’s fine and he has plenty of options. Relax, Lyssa. It’s all going to be fine.” He draped an arm over her shoulder, and Alyssa cuddled up to him, a relief like his insides unravelling.
“Are you making moves on my girlfriend, punk?”
Quentin stuck his tongue out at Michelle, who returned the gesture, and let go of Alyssa so she could go hug Michelle. “How’s work?” Quentin said. “Or should I not ask?”
Michelle grimaced. “Yeah, how about we don’t. Let’s also not mention the move, okay? I want to have a nice couple of hours without freaking out about anything.” She shook her head, the beads in her braids clacking against one another.
Quentin gave a solemn nod. “That is a worthwhile goal.”
“I’m so glad you approve.” She rolled her eyes at him and sat down on Alyssa’s other side. They sat at a round table, four seats: when Henry arrived, he’ll be able to take the seat between Quentin and Michelle.
As soon as Quentin had the thought, he spotted Henry in the crowd on the sidewalk. He stood up and waved until Henry caught his eye. Quentin sat back down with his heart hammering, half with suddenly abundant anxiety, half with anticipation.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Henry said to Michelle, and extended his hand. “Henry Castillo. Ah, he/him pronouns.” He glanced at Quentin, as though he wanted to be sure he was getting this right. Quentin gave an encouraging smile.
“Michelle Watkins, she/her. Pleased to meet you.”
They shook hands. Henry kissed Quentin on the cheek and sat down. Quentin blushed fiercely: any kind of physical affection was still so new, let alone in public. Under the table, his hand saught Alyssa’s, and found it.
“None of us have ordered yet,” Alyssa told Henry. “If there’s any trouble with the menu, we can go somewhere else.”
Henry opened the menu. “I don’t see an issue, but thank you for your consideration.”
“It’s literally the least we could do,” Alyssa and Michelle said together, looked at each other, and burst into giggles.
Brunch went well. They liked this place, with its airy porch, never too crowded, tables far enough apart that Alyssa had no difficulty navigating them on days she needed her cane. At nights they had fairy lights here, which Quentin liked even though it was corny.
Henry seemed to be having a good time, too. He got Alyssa going about different kinds of non-amatonormative relationship models, and listened with every appearance of fascination. Quentin listened with half an ear, as he’d heard most of this before. Michelle made the occasional contribution, and otherwise played Candy Crush on her phone.
It’s possible that Quentin may have had a hard time concentrating, given Henry’s and his plans for later that day.
They often stayed at the table well into lunch hours. The house never tried to hurry them, and that yet another reason they liked this place and made sure to tip well when they went there. This time, Alyssa noticed Quentin’s distraction and shoo’d him away herself. “Go ahead, enjoy the NRE while it’s there.”
“What’s NRE?” Henry asked Quentin as they drove back to his house. Quentin, grateful for a subject to think about beside their plan, explained about new relationship energy.
That backfired a little. As they arrived at Henry’s house, Henry said, “Are you certain you want to do this? You seem very nervous.”
Quentin let out a breath. “I am. I also want this, uh, a lot. So.”
Henry reached out and took his hand, slowly enough that Quentin didn’t startle. “It doesn’t have to happen today. We could always, ah, cuddle instead.” He said the word ‘cuddle’ like it was in a foreign language. Quentin was definitely deep in NRE to find that cute.
Quentin took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and counted. Then, eyes still closed, he thought again about his experiences with Henry so far. Quentin had been practicing saying no, partially so Henry would feel their plan was safe enough for both of them. “If I’m not ready now, I don’t see how that would change. I’d rather try than give it up.”
Henry nodded. “All right. In that case,” he said, leading Quentin into his bedroom, “please take off any item of clothing you’d feel comfortable without.”
Quentin was down to his briefs in no time. He listened as Henry prayed, accustomed enough to be able to make out the Baruch ata Adonai, although the rest of the prayer was still beyond him. The room was warm, the curtains closed so that they didn’t scandalize the neighbors.
“All right,” Henry said finally. “Please lie down.”
They discussed every part of this in advance. Quentin was not surprised to hear the hiss of a match being struck, and he didn’t jump at the first hit of hot wax to his back. Quentin still knew only a few sigils, but he thought he could make out familiar shapes in the steady drips of heat. Henry worked slowly. A few times he stopped, scraped a bit of wax off Quentin’s back, and redid the section.
Usually, drawing the wards happened at the same time as reciting the litany, but that was more habit than necessity. Today, Henry worked silently. Quentin closed his eyes and let himself melt into the mattress, feeling as pliant as the wax.
Henry blew out the candle and put it aside. Then he said, “Repeat after me, please.” Quentin did, right onto the end, where Henry tied a ribbon around his wrist in a bow tie and said, “If I undo the ribbon, the spell will end, and all--”
“Will be as it was before,” Quentin said, overtaking him.
Henry smiled down at him. “All right. Let’s see.”
The view of the clear, unobstructed sky around them never failed to awe Quentin. It didn’t hurt that he’d also learned to associate the sight with the delicious trickle of power inside him. With the knowledge that this was power that Henry called down, both potent and safe.
“I’m aiming us at Orion’s belt,” Henry said. Just like they planned. “I don’t intend for us to actually get there. You can stop at any point where you feel…” he hesitated. “Where you think you should stop for your safety, or because you want to.”
Good phrasing: Quentin would bet Henry’s first thoughts were something like Overwhelmed or Uncomfortable. But those were both the entire point of the exercise.
In the process of figuring out their relationship, Henry had been cautiously more demanding with Quentin’s power, asking for more and more of him. Always afraid he’ll ask more than Quentin wanted to give, until finally Quentin sat him down and told him that he wanted Henry to have that from him. “It feels good, sometimes, to be driven to the absolute limit,” Quentin had said. “And you’re not getting there, trust me.”
Henry had been quiet for a moment, before saying, “Is that something you’d like us to do?”
And thus they were here: Quentin grateful to be lying down, because the amounts of power Henry was channelling through him were enough to make his knees weak. “Is it okay if I close my eyes?” The surrounding images were beautiful, but he wanted to focus on how it felt to be so suffused with power, under Henry’s careful guidance.
Even with his eyes shut, Quentin still saw flashes of light as they zoomed through the images of outer space. Henry laid his warm hand on Quentin’s shoulder, the sensation of skin half-muffled by the wax blots.
Very soon, Quentin lost track of where they were, of how fast they were going, of how long it’s been since they started, of anything except Henry’s presence next to him, solid and real. He could look at the entire universe, and couldn’t tear his attention away from Henry for long enough to do it. Quentin panted, trying to keep up with the magic, marshalling all his strength to meet Henry’s requests. He could do this. For Henry, he could. Discomfort turned to pain, and Quentin continued through that pain, desperate to see what was on the other side.
“You are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Henry said, hushed.
Quentin cried out, then, and stretched himself in one last gulping push. “Okay,” he said after that, gasping. “I’m just about done.”
“Shall we stop? Or would you like to see, before we end this?”
“Let me see.” Quentin forced the words out. He opened his eyes. He blinked them, feeling tears run down his face as he stared into a brilliant sun.
It was still far enough away not to hurt his eyes, but it filled the entire space, and he could see nothing beside it. “Oh,” Quentin said, shedding a few more helpless tears. “Oh.” He pulled weakly at Henry’s shirt, and kept pulling until Henry was there, kissing him, under that relentless light.