Archive for the ‘ Chapter 08 – Opener ’ Category

(190) A Dragon in the Hand

I stared at the closed door for a moment, getting my bearings.  I pushed my sleeves up halfway to my elbow, and took a deep breath.  I started shaking my head.  A part of me thought about just passing them on the steps and heading to the car, letting them handle their issues themselves, but alas, someone here had to be the grown-up.

I don’t know how that role got transferred to me, but it had.

I opened the door again.

“Nen, Peredur,” I said, trying to channel my grandmother’s tone of voice and her way of implying how something was utterly ridiculous and should be stopped immediately just by the way she said our names.  I chose my grandmother because she had presence and power, and, well, it wasn’t unmanly at all.  If I recalled correctly, she had a bit of a moustache.

Peredur’s eyes flashed to me, like a spark of orange and yellow, before going back to the wee man with a hand at his throat.  He lifted one hand as if in a gesture that said, “I’d be happy to desist, only, you see,” and I sighed.

“Nen.  If the Dragon wanted to eat me, I’d have been kibble long before now,” I said, with a sigh.

“It’s not his appetite with which I’ve a concern, Door-closer.”

“If it’s his breath, I’ve got mints in the console.”

Wrecks cracked a smile.  “You’ll be wanting to know why he’s here, I suppose.  Ha’en’t you ever heard the phrase about curiosity being the death of ye?”

“I’m no cat,” I said.  “But yeah, I have to admit I’m kind of curious.”

“I’ll be taking my hand off yer throat, Dragon.  Know that the King has not lifted the ban,” Nen said, seriously.  He backed off a step, letting Peredur go.

“We do not follow any law but our own,” Peredur said, after a moment of composing himself.

“So you said then, and so ye say now.” Nen shrugged. “But I am a-playin’ by the Small Kingdom’s rules.”

“Good, he needs protection,” Peredur said, and his eyes glanced at me again, full of their own light in hints and pieces.

“I thought a Dragon sent you to watch me,” I said to Wrecks.

“Indeed,” the small fellow said.  A little smile played on his face.

“The Seven King is a Dragon?”

Peredur sniffed in such a way that might have been a chuckle, or might have been something worse.  “What memento of yours did she gain?” he asked me.

I tried to think if I had left anything behind.  Well, yeah, a pair of pants and a shirt, but I didn’t think that’s what the Dragon meant.  “The pleasure of my company, I suppose,” I said, slowly.

“Eighty parts mortal arrogance, ten lucky guess, and ten percent a certain tenacity to your chosen reality, then?” Peredur asked.

“The ancient pest may have you pegged,” Wrecks suggested, with a wry grin.

“Hey, only seventy percent arrogance, and I know at least three percent would totally have boned her, but the ninety-seven percent of ‘Ain’t stickin’ it in,’ won.”  I sighed.  “If you have to know.  Why is everyone so intent on getting me laid by the faerie chick?  Couldn’t you use your magic to maybe let me date a nice, sane girl?”

Wrecks chuckled.

“A child would have complicated things,” Peredur said, smoothly.

“A child?” I think I squeaked a little.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of the Facts of Life, but I take precautions. I know they’re not one-hundred percent guaranteed, but I like to think there’s a good mathematical premise that people who take less chances have better odds.

“A child with enough mortality and enough royalty to anchor the Small Realms closer to the real you’ve known was the prize for which the King made her play.”  Peredur shrugged in a casual way.  It was one of those shrugs that was amazingly graceful and dismissive at the same time.

“So, now that she’s rolled the critical failure, what’s her next action?” I asked.

“The King may wish Thomas’ child, but he has made a different bargain.”  Peredur’s eyes had their own light as he glanced towards Nen.  Part of my brain wondered how that worked, if all Peredur saw was golden and blinding, or if he used vision at all, or if it just was a neat effect or if I had his eyes they could be used to light up a room.  That last thought was a little disturbing, even for me, and my superego quashed it with a grimace.

The small gentleman shook his head.  “Her Thomas is oracle, and that protects him.”

I felt a little better, but not like my question was answered.  I waited for them to continue.

“Then she is committed?”

“Not yet,” I perked up, “but I do suggest some form of multiple personalities as a diagnosis.  Definitely spotty and a bit haunted.”

Nen shrugged.  It wasn’t as graceful as Peredur’s.  “Dryden.  `Kings fight for empires, madmen for applause.'”

I wanted to interrupt, to say that Thomas was true, not mad, but Peredur looked concerned.

“Shelley said, ‘To know nor faith, nor love, nor law, to be…'” Peredur paused in his quotation, giving it the benefit of a segue, “‘Omnipotent but friendless, is to reign.'”

“All kings is mostly rapscallions,” I retorted, unwilling to be left out.  “Mark Twain.”

“Then Demogorgon notes,” Wrecks says, tilting his head slightly, “All spirits are enslaved that serve evil things, but so are all things subject to eternal love.  A kind of slavery.”  He glanced at me as if seeing if I knew the reference (I had no clue), or possibly a warning, or maybe an opening in the conversation.

I took the latter option. “She said…” I wracked my brain, “that `We do not love that we are loved.’  And Thomas had said that ‘Love we speak and love we waste,’ but Thomas spoke of the importance of it.”  I shook my head.   “Does love bind the King?”

“Did I say ten parts tenacity? You blunder into luck, small wizard.”  Peredur was amused.

It was luck that I didn’t mention that Sir Darius had called him a “dandelion fluff-head,” yet, too.  Luck and some kind of unusual sense of self-preservation.  Restraint, perhaps.

He continued.  “I owed you three protections, and I have given you two.  The third will pay for all, and any more will put you in my debt.”

I didn’t try to figure them out – he might have been watching out for me and giving me good parking and counted it as some kind of mystic interference.  “Hey, I don’t recall asking you for any of it,” I said.  “I don’t want you suddenly taking the initiative and then putting me on the hot seat for it.”

Maybe “hot seat” wasn’t a good way to put it to a Dragon.  He remained calm and aloof in body language, but the air between us warmed up and I could see a puff of smoke from his nostrils, despite the waning heat of the day.  “Your point is noted,” he said.

“Good.  As long as we understand each other,” I said, gruffly.

He laughed.  It sounded… well, I guess I had expected his laugh to be a little more human, and less of a roar of some sort.  I found that my evolutionary niche still had instincts about such sort of sounds, as I didn’t quite cringe, but I did push myself back against the door as if I were going to duck inside and find safety.  And if that was a laugh, it might explain why the memory of him saying, “Flee!” was something I hadn’t been able to really focus on in the last few days.

But the reminder came up, anyway, and the paralysis wasn’t as bad this time, even if the blood rushing in my head and the shaking in my arms started as soon as I said, “What was I running from?”

There weren’t enough gold stars for how proud of myself I was for saying the words aloud.

Peredur smiled, and his teeth were never human enough, and yet, this time I noticed there was one missing.  I put my hand in my coat pocket, running my fingers across the heavy lump there.

“Third time pays for all,” he repeated.  There was a whiff of woodsmoke, a wave of heat, and he was gone into the night.  I thought I heard the sound of wings.

I banged my head into the doorframe, closing my eyes.

“Does it help?” Wrecks asked, sounding amused.

“The old joke says that it feels good when I stop,” I said.  “I was doing something.  I was getting groceries.  What the heck was that all about?  Isn’t the magic grapevine all a-light with everything that happened?  Isn’t some arcane weekly keeping track of it?  Doesn’t he talk to the great eagles and find out or, heck, sylphs with ears to the cellular transmissions or something?”

Wrecks laughed, and his laugh was pleasant to listen to, at least, except for the almost bark-like bits.  Basis of comparison counts for a lot.  “He wanted to see for himself where you stood.”

“On two feet, thanks to millions of years of evolution,” I snarled.

“He sees more than that.  You were not claimed by the Seven King.  You have not committed to any side of the war.  He is still in your debt, Dragons-bane.”

“Bane.  Is that an herb, like wolvesbane?  Is someone having a laugh calling me a vegetable?” I banged my head against the frame again.  “Any side, not ‘either’ side.  How many sides are there?”

“How many opinions might one have about the same subject?” he asked, with a shrug.  “Come, let us get comestibles.”

I closed the door and locked it behind us.  “What,” I tried sounding light about it, “is the subject at hand?  I thought it was a power grab, but there’s fire and passion and witches and war.”

He looked glum.  “If the root cause was a simple one, there might be a simple answer,” he said after a moment or two.  He followed me to the car.  “There are a number of things that collided at once, and each has a claim of value.”

“Huh,” I said, letting him in.  I was pleased to see that the car started after all this time, but I was going to want to get it checked out, just in case.  I started driving, letting the silence draw out.

“You’re not going to tell me much more?” I kind of made it a question.

He shrugged.  “I have named some of the players as your enemies.”

“And some as my friends, am I right?” I hoped, turning the car towards the driveway of the local supermarket.

“I can say that you are correct, although some of your friends are traditionally neutral parties.”

“Like the Questor, but not, I’d guess, his wife.  Wizards are meddlers by nature, or they wouldn’t be wizards,” I sighed.

“I’m not likely to argue too hard versus your presumption,” he admitted.

“Okay.”  I turned off the engine and sat back into the seat.  “Can you do a little warmer-colder game with this?  I know straight talk is like a terrible allergy to your kind, so let me blunder by luck into something,” I suggested.

“Mayhap,” he said, guardedly.

“Denver is traditionally fairly neutral because its location has so much at conflict,” I said.  “Urban infrastructure versus rural memories.  The Small Folk are at the cusp between, or you wouldn’t be as well read and snarky as you are.”  He didn’t comment, so I continued.  “No one seems to have an upper hand, but we’ve got more than a handful of wizards, and a whole heck of a lot of witches because they’re drawn to the confrontation of energies.  We have Peredur’s interest, and Naul was here because of…love, I guess.  Which is something I want to program back into the earlier conversation when I’ve got the cycles for it.  So at least two Dragons.  We’ve got minor vampire activity; Matana didn’t have to apply for passports or whatever the parasites use to track each other, but that’s fine because like a lot of predators they have huge territories and don’t like being around others when they can avoid it.  I know of a few cases of slipskins, people who can take on one other form, although even they cringe at the word ‘werewolf.’  Plus, the ones I know aren’t wolves.  There’s one couple who shift into parrots.”  I shook my head.  “There’s a mad unicorn.  There’s the -cubi.  The Shadow King.  A witch with a fascination for snakes.”  I sighed.  “There’s me.”

Wrecks started to say something, but was cut off at the sound of my phone ringing.  “And my sister,” I sighed.  I answered it; what else was I to do?

(192) Sister Eve

“Hi.”  There was a pause, and a breath taken as if she was going to say something more, but I gave it a brief conversational moment, and nothing happened.

“Hi,” I responded, guardedly.  It always seemed safe to respond with the same wording the other person used.  The mirroring communication techniques were part of some feminism class I’d taken, and while I think I’d forgotten all the history of it, I was at least still putting some of the lessons to use.

She didn’t say anything.  I glanced at the phone in the off-chance that I’d lost connection, but no, the seconds were still ticking by on the phone’s counter.  I shrugged, glanced at Wrecks and said, “OK.  Tell me everything.”  It probably wasn’t a fair question.  I mean, how do you even begin, except with the zen hotdog joke?

“Grandma,” she responded.  Not a bad answer, actually.  I was going to say something more, but she continued.  “Did you know that the Venn diagram between witches and computer programmers has a very wide overlap?”

I grinned.  “I could have guessed.  `Ten, print, Hello world.  Twenty print, This is my book of shadows.'”

“Really?” she asked, sounding exasperated.  “BASIC?  Why not go real old school and draw something out in LOGO?”

“Um, that was the one with the turtle and the directions like a really slow Etch-a-Sketch, right?”

“Yeah.  That’s a registered trademark owned by The Ohio Art Company. But you have the right idea.”

“I guess I could remember enough to draw a pentacle, but only if it did diagonals, and that’s where it would end.  Yeah, it did diagonals.  You could go forward then right 45 degrees then forward again.  So pentacles, totally.”

“You never studied.”

“Is that a ‘Ghostbusters’ reference or are you touting your advanced degree again?”

“Can’t it be both?  Oh wait, you studied how to get drunk, laid, and then sober enough to tell your teacher where to shove her opinions on Ray Bradbury before you walked out.  Did that take a lot of book learning?”

“Hey, what can I say, girls liked a man who could stand up to a tyrant, especially a tyrant who downgraded them when they wore pants on test days.  I was real popular for a while.  That’s not book
learning, that’s book … writing.”  I was smooth, real smooth.

“Real popular with everyone but the parents, if I recall correctly. Anyway, that segues well with my point.  You take a dash of Grandma and mix her in to the general experimentation of college, and you meet a lot of people.  A lot of odd folk, like a group of Numancian demon hunters.  Like Roberto.”

“Newmancy?   New Man-cy kind of Aubry Knight-like?  New mantids? Insects spirits?  Universal Brotherhood types?  I don’t get it.”

She sighed. “They were a Celtiberan settlement at war with Rome. ‘We’d rather die free than slaves,’ types.  It’s complicated and like a lot of things over two millennia has kind of drifted from the original intent.”

“Celtiberan.  Irish-Russian?  No, Irish-Spanish.  You said you owned him,” I recalled.  “That sounds like a slave type.”

“Do you really want to know that much about my sex life?” she asked.

“No, he hinted enough.  Ewww, gross.”

“Now you say it like that and I feel like I’ve got cooties or something.”

“You’re a girl, and related to me.  I thought it was part of the package.”

“Certified cootie-free.  Anyway, I was kidding.  It actually tweaks him a bit, and he got me back by playing idiot studmuffin for the rest of the day.”  She sighed.  “So, once you presume that Grandma was onto something and that there were demons, your worldview kind of grows to envelop all sorts of other possibilities, like the fact that some of your brother’s associates call him ‘Doctor.’  Even though you know he quit school.  ‘Doctor of what?’ you ask innocently, well, innocently enough when you’re wearing nothing but some adequate Victoria’s Secret, and they say, ‘Um, Portal Doctor.’  Probably where you want me to quit this story because you’re squeamish.”

“Well, yeah, and not just because I just realized how kind of dumb it sounds.  At least when you say it,” I teased.

“It’s a gift.”  She sighed.  “Anyway, I’ve not been keeping tabs on you, but our circles sometimes intersect, so I got to know a couple of people who know you.  Including this one guy who is suddenly house sitting for you, named Nen.”

“He gave you his name in the beginning?  I’ve called him Rent-a-Wreck most of the time,” I glanced at the individual who was pouring over the car manual in the pale glow of the streetlight.

“Actually, he gave me some ridiculous poetry, but I grilled him enough to get something I’d actually call him.  Rent-a…?”

“Something he said about sharing the name of my chariot.  Doesn’t matter.”  Wrecks didn’t even grin up at me; he was looking at a diagram that showed how to install the radio.  “So when did you start
helping him?”

“When I realized you weren’t coming home.  He was kind of cute, but clueless about how the world worked.  Like an alien, really. Mom would freak out, plants would die, mass hysteria.  That, by the way, was a Ghostbusters reference.”

“I got it,” I said.  “There’s two things wrong with your conjectures.  One, I came home, and two, there’s no such thing as demons.”

“Are you sure?”  She didn’t believe me.

“About which?  I got stuck in the land of faerie for less than a year and a day, and I know there’s no such thing as demons.  Unless you use the old ‘dimension travellers’ saw, but I think that’s kind of a cop-out.”

She sounded concerned.  “What would need an exorcism, then?”

“Everything,” I said, confidently.  “If the term, ‘Exorcism’ means sending things back where they belong, or more likely, kicking them out of these parts and not caring where they end up as long as it isn’t local.  Local referring to this reality, Earth-1218, or Earth Prime depending on your …referents.”

“This isn’t a comic book,” she said.  “So, the things Roberto has killed, they’re what, aliens?”

“Yep.  If ‘alien’ refers to something that isn’t naturally a part of this world, and well, of course, presuming he is killing those things.  I mean, I love you like family and all, but are you sure he’s not some kind of psycho killer?  I ask you this as a big brother.”

“Well, he might be some kind of psycho killer, but only of things with weird tentacles and the occasional monologue.”  She let go a breath I didn’t think she knew she’d been holding.  One of those literary phrases that gets a lot of use in my thoughts.  “So, is there a basic vocabulary primer?  You used the term ‘faerie’ and didn’t get clobbered by anything with wings and glitter, right?”

“Hah.  The ‘ABCs of Abracadabra?'” I offered.  “There’d have to be different kinds for each magic type.  Necromancy’s ‘Scratch and Stiff’ for young zombie lovers?  Nah.  I think we get our terms from modern fantasy literature and the occasional pagan gathering.  It’s pretty idiosyncratic.  If you ask, ‘How does anything get done,’ the answer is that mages are solitary creatures, and don’t play well with others, so they rarely sit down and compare notes.  When I have, it’s been a matter of making sure we both think ‘sorcerors’ are the skeevy salesmen wheedling favors in and out of the Beyond, witches making epistolaries of charms and secrets hoarded generation after generation, and then wizards are kind of the jack-of-all-magics.  That sort of thing.”

“I’m busy taking a ton of notes, I hope you know.”

“I won’t call you ‘padawan,’ ever.  Weird tentacles?”

“Yeah, Lovecraft’s followers may have something.  At least, the squiddies are fairly common.  I hate the creepy kids.  I am never going to have children at this rate, and you’re getting too old to pass on the family line.”

“How bad was Mom while I was gone?”  I sighed, closing my eyes and gripping the top of the steering wheel as if to brace myself.

“The usual, lightning bolts in the kitchen and a repair bill or `Do we want her to sit there in the dark?'”  She did the classic New York Yiddish accent, as I thought of it.  “Otherwise, she seemed very calm and didn’t ask a lot of questions.”

“Oh man, now I’m worried,” I said.

“Think she knows something?”

“I know she knows things.  I just never know what.  She’s as flighty as a dragonfly on a sip of Jolt cola, but she’s also darned perceptive.”

“That’s an old, old reference, older brother.  Not many of us would recognize it.  We usually use the coffee terms.  Ferret.  Double espresso.”

“Too imprecise.  You get the caffeine, but you’re not guaranteed the sugar.  Speaking of which, I was making a run for fruit puffs and other terribly unhealthy staples.  My candy bar stash seems suspiciously low.”

“You wouldn’t be accusing me, now, would you?  I import my chocolate from England.”

“Oh, I forgot.  You’re one of the one percent, or whatever it is.  Did people really hang out in tents in the middle of Denver?”

“It was kind of a meld of a hippie commune and a tent city.  People don’t have jobs.  People without jobs need something to do, and there are some people who are gluten-free and afraid of clowns.”

“Gotcha.  I’m going to go stick my head in the sand again and hope that when I pull my head out people will be smarter.”

“Um, that’s a mixed metaphor you didn’t mean, a myth, and a dangerous proposition.”

“Let me tell you about my life sometime.  My life is full of propositioning danger.”

“I’ve got to go vacuum my cat.”

“That’s dangerous too.  No, it’s just what I thought.  Alright.  Will catch up with you later, right?  Don’t go getting slimed by an octopus man.”

“You make it sound like an old slobbery dog living with someone who finds him just adorable despite the way he piddles on the carpet.”

“I wasn’t talking about Roberto.”

“Neither was I.”  She laughed and hung up.

I sighed.  “Alright, Wrecks.  Nen.  Your opinion?”

“I stayed quiet during the call, didn’t I?”

“That means bupkis. I don’t remember the full phrase, but I know what bupkis is.”

“It’s a pastry.  Made from potato flour.”


He grinned.  “A misdirection, only.”  It seemed important to him, so I gave him the out.  “But I suppose there is no denying that I listened.  Is it important that neither of you told each other the full truth?”

“Hey, she’s family.  Truth is entirely optional.”

“Ah.  That is not what family means to me,” he said.

“I’ve met your sister,” I reminded him.  “The psychological torture is probably the same.”

“It is what you said of consequence; there is no common language for those who do not share their practices.  Your terms absorbed from community and fiction are not any less relevant for their provenance.  Truth is where you find it, and while it is not the whole of the law, it is a major force behind it.”

“Is a lie the same as a broken promise, then?”

“Akin, definitely akin,” he said.  “And a broken vow is a gateway, is it not?”

“Is an omission of truth then the same as a lie?”

“Do you leave someone without the tools they need, you are guilty of having them fail in their quest.  That is a law of Hospitality.”

“Huh,” I grunted.  “Speaking of which, we need to get some groceries.”  I got out, not that the night was much cooler than the day.

“I live on more than sugar and spun sunbeams,” he admitted.  “I wouldn’t turn down a good steak.”

“Hey, you cook it, and it’s yours,” I said.

“Is that a rule like, ‘You kill it, you eat it?'”

“Let’s not go so far as a rule.  I’m not that much of a humanitarian.”

“You say that like people who eat only vegetables are from another star.”

“Very funny.”

(193) Who Goes There on First

At least he helped put away the groceries.

I made a snack and went back to the computer, trying to get back into the groove.  Reading a lot of news, railing at a lot of foolishness, and trying not to get political.  I tried to use the rule of only commenting when it was going to be productive, but either I felt like I was going to go all Gandalf, “I need to talk to the wise, and I’m the only one here with that epithet,” or all trolling for irony.

Time passed.  I could not bring myself to drive down to look at the fires.  I got a temporary job at an office I’d worked at previous to my exposure to Doloise, and if Nen was my bodyguard he wasn’t intrusive or weird.  I called my mother.  I called her a number of names mentally, but managed to hold my tongue.  Nen was a better housemate than most of the guys I roomed with at college, although he did curtail a lot of my bachelor porn habits, and I think my book purchasing tripled, but he generally had good taste if a weakness for some authors I didn’t really care to read.  I had to get a new bank card, and they asked me a couple of times about things I’d bought, but nothing unreasonable.  I had to re-instate my comic pull bin, but if that was most of the difficulty of dropping out for a year from the world, I had it made.  It wasn’t even awkward making gaming night again – we have a lot of people who have to drop out and come back periodically, which is kind of how the GM has a two-decade stretch or so of world building.

And yet, that talks of an essential loneliness.  I had two “people” (if you could call Nen or my sister that) covering for me, day in, day out, and I was able to fit right back in to my life, such as it was, without much difficulty.  I kept putting off my talk with Ed, or meeting his boyfriend.  Really, that was the only speed bump to my social interaction.  Rohana didn’t call.  Maggie didn’t call.  I didn’t have any meerkat shows left on my DVR, although I still had to admit to a fondness for the little beasts, if only for Doloise’s sake.  For a memory.  In order to have something, I guess.


For all that I was this major player, visitor to Faerie Courts, favourite of a King, and owed boons by a Dragon for I didn’t know what for, I really was just this quiet guy in his little place and really, pretty disposable.  I hadn’t made an impact on the world.  I could disappear for real, and probably less than a handful of people would have any idea that I’d gone, and most of them would get over it.  I mean, Ed had his new sweetheart, and while I knew my invitation to Thanksgiving was open with his Ma, it’s not like they needed anyone else to help eat the turkey.  I could just whisk myself away to somewhere else, and have some kind of new life, I guess.

I wasn’t feeling suicidal, exactly.  I was just aching for some kind of change, some disruption of routines, some kind of adventure.

“I can guard your body, but I ain’t touchin’ yer soul,” Nen said, as I stared at the computer.

“That implies that you believe in one,” I pointed out.

“Aye.  There’s soulstuff, to be sure.  Anima and animus, the dreams the dead cannot touch,” he shrugged.  “But you grow them slowly, and they’re personal, to be shared only with those you love.”

“The dreams the dead cannot touch.  That’s poetic.”

“And pertinent. And possible.  And purposeful.  If that’s not the same as pertinent.”

“You sound a bit impertinent to me,” I grinned.  “But you usually say something like that when I need to learn something.”  I turned it over in my head.  “That which is dead cannot dream, that which dreams cannot be dead, or is this something about that which can lie eternally can dream and not die?  I always get that quote wrong.  I sometimes think Lovecraft hosted some sort of odd parasite from Beyond.”

“Then teach me this,” Nen said, “Why do you say ‘Beyond’ as if it weren’t ‘next to,’ or ‘betwixt’ or ‘between’?”

“Huh, or just widdershins in parallel or something.”  I shrugged.  “Because I’m somewhat focused on the idea that my reality is the one true reality, and all of what your lot is is outside, beyond the boundaries of my realm.  I know it’s solipsistic, but while I do a lot to expand my perspective, can I really know anything more than my own mind?”

“Hence, love,” Nen said with his own shrug. “The ability to take someone else’s mind to mind,” he grinned, picking his paperback up.

“I don’t know.  A lot of writers I’ve enjoyed have put their own spin on what love means, and I’m not sure they’re right.  Of course, I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong, either.  I mean, if love is purely chemical, how could it be of the soul? If love is so good, how can it hurt people? Is love even possible or just a delusion?”

“So speaks someone who has never been in love,” Nen put the book down.  “Is it true, my mortal friend?  Have you never been tested in the fires of love and then cooled in its silver stream?”

“Wait, love is both fire and water?” I shrugged. “I thought I had tasted it a couple of times, but I’ve never had the full entree, if you know what I mean.”

“Love is more than a full meal, warm feet, and a good place to pee,” he said.  “Although those are all conditions from which it can be appreciated.  Of course, so is the moment of choice, the knife’s edge, the dangling from the cliff, the moment when you close your eyes because you do not need to see what comes next,” he reflected.  “How can you live if you do not love?”

I sighed, leaning back in my chair.  “Perhaps that’s the problem.  I do not live.”

“You breathe, you eat, you are animate,” he said, “but even I know that that is but a clumsy definition.  It lacks… soul.”

“So we come back to that.”  I shook my head.

“I am fey.  I would lead you into a swamp just to enjoy watching your feet get wet, and tease leeches to your ankles.”

“I thought better of you,” I said, slowly.

“That is because I deserve better, but do not think your wet feet just a prelude to fungus. It is the present, come in and know me better, man.  I am more than what you see or guess.  I am mystery.”

“You are not a woman.”  I was teasing, but he took it seriously.

“Women are not mysteries, my friend.  Women are not mountains to climb or experiences to gather.  That which is woman is not so different than that which is you.”

“I’m not sure if I should resent that,” I said, sourly.

“Only if you think being a woman is something less than being a man,” he said.  “In which case, I would have you speak again to my sister.”  He grinned.

“No, I tend to put women on pedestals,” I paused for effect.  “Well, I mean, your sister is kind of short.” I was trying to keep it light-hearted.

“Hah,” he said, but it wasn’t a laugh.  “Women as the untouchable other, then?  It explains your reaction to the Seven King.”

“Untouchable, yes, and other, yes, but she wasn’t a woman.”  I didn’t even look for the grin I knew would be curling his lips.  “Not like that.  I mean, she was a lot of woman.  Women, even.  But she wasn’t on my wavelength.  That’s why you’re Beyonders.  You’re written in a programming language based off Linear A, and I’m simple and translatable.  And yes, I mean that in a Shakespearean sense, sometimes.   We hold similar forms and you and I have even managed to communicate in similar phrases and quotes from shared experiences, but sometimes you get really freaky and I realize that we don’t come from the same world.”

“I am not a woman,” he said, after a moment.  “How much do you want to be boxed in by the lines you’ve drawn?”

“I still don’t want to be a wizard, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Peredur would have that you already are.  Do I cross him in refuting it for your sanity’s sake, or do you embrace the riddle?”

“If I’m not sticking it in the faerie girls, I’m certainly not hugging any puzzles.”

“What conversation do you think we’re having?” Nen asked.  He put the book down completely.  “You want to live, but then you say you want to live blinded.  You want to breathe, but the air is poisoned, you want to drink but are too afraid to sip the wine for fear of inebriation.”  He shrugged.  “You cannot fly if you’ve torn off your wings.”

I held my tongue and thought furiously.  I had the inklings of a reply being formed on my lips, but Nen shook his head.

“I cannot lead you in this, man.  My role is appointed differently, and though at times I call you friend, it is a marriage of convenience, only.  I am not your guide, I am not your kind, and I am most certainly not your mentor.”  He picked up his book.  “I only guard you as I was given, and I am done with this talk.”

“Okay.  Me, too,” I said lamely.  I went back to my room and closed the door.  I felt as if I’d lost something, like I’d broken something very fragile that I hadn’t realized had been at risk.

I got out a notebook.  Living was more than reacting, it was acting.  I wrote down a number of questions, with all hopes of answering them.

Who.  Who?  Who what?  Who was the person behind my problems?  Who was Nen guarding me for?  Who was Nen guarding me from?  I didn’t know.  I decided to ask the questions I could answer, if I could find them.  Who was on my side?  Well, Nen had answered that in part before.  The Questor had thrown in with me, which was awesome, and I believe it included his wife, so I had an actual wizard on my side.  Peredur owed me.  The Seven King might have been on my side, at least part of her.  Wrecks.  I put a question mark near Sir Darius’ name, and Thomas.  I decided Rohana was still more on my side than against, but left her with a bunch of question marks.   Ed.  My sister.  Hawk.  Matana was another maybe, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt.  Andrei and Viktor, maybe.  Who was against me?  Naul, wherever she was.  Maybe Ivan.  Maggie.  The Shadow King, what had Nen named him?  Muak-Lal.  Asheralat.  I wasn’t sure who that was, but I kind of thought it was the Messenger.  So there were a lot of names I had to find the connections to… like, how did Peredur relate to Naul?  They were both Dragons, but did that mean enemies or friends or what?  I’ve learned before that a lot of my friends knew others of my friends, so would Rohana and Hawk know each other?  It was a curiosity, but only speculative.

So what.  I mean, “What?” was next.  What was going on?  There was a Dragon who started fires, terrible ones, too close.  I doubted it was Peredur for some reason, even if he was often accompanied by the smell of smoke.  It just didn’t seem his style, but I didn’t rule him out.  I decided I was drifting into “Who” territory again, and went back to focus.  The War.  Small Kingdom, “Large” Kingdom, and Muak-Lal.  The Messenger.  The Witches.  That must make this place a battlezone somewhat, and I was being guarded from something for someone.  How much of the War affected me?  How much of it was related to what I was doing or not doing?  What was my role?  I couldn’t answer enough of these, so I moved on.

When?  Well, while I was gone.  During a politically fraught time, a time of concern, really.  I was not gone a year and a day, although the timing probably had some significance.  I didn’t know enough to really argue this one.

The question “Where” seemed somewhat obvious, but I wrote it down anyway.  Here, in my home state.  In the Small Kingdom.  Was there anywhere else being affected?  I didn’t know.

Why?  Well, that was the rub, wasn’t it?  (I always figured ‘the rub’ referred to something nice done with white robes if it was a good rub, but I wasn’t wedded to the idea.)  Why was it happening?  Well, the War was probably some of it.  The Shadow King had marked me for something.  That was probably a ‘What’ question, so I added it to the list.

How?  How was I involved?

That was the real question.  I mean, was I involved at all at this point?  Was I taken out of time just so it could pass me by?  That would go back to the ‘Why’?

I scratched my head and decided to ask Nen after all.  I didn’t know if he’d answer me, but it was worth the question.

(194) Scenes from an Open Door

I resolved to be more prepared the next time I closed my bedroom door.  It wasn’t a rule that something terrible was destined to happen, but it did seem like it was becoming a bit more of a habit than with which I was comfortable.

The front door was hanging open again, and I could hear growling and other disturbances.  I picked up my keys, unconnected the charger from my phone, stuck both of them in my pocket in case I was sucked into some other world, and then grabbed my notepad like a shield, my pen like a sword, and pushed the door open so that I could see what was outside.

I remember thinking first that there was no such thing as giants. I couldn’t remember what author had proved it to me, but it’s that “desperately clings to rationality” part of my brain that seemed to govern a good bit of the panicked part.  I mean, most people have fight or flight drilled into them (is the other “fornicate”?  It’s amazing what years of perverting instinct will do to the mind) but no, I have to have “philosophize,” which doesn’t start with the right letter, but at least it was the right sound.

But there was a giant.

And then that desperate, terribly put-upon part of my head interrupted and said, “And there’s no such thing as demons, either.”

But there was a demon.

There are times I wish I was an artist, but this scene belonged more in a comic book than on canvas.  Nen, or the giant that was now Nen, was about seventeen feet tall at the shoulder. (That’s how you measure things that have gotten bigger than you expected, I’ve noticed.  Dogs, horses, and I guess now these spriggan-like entities.  Because from toes to head misses some kind of horizontal plane.)  He was holding down a creature made of tentacles and teeth, and slime.  That sad, lonely part of my brain didn’t even interrupt and call it “mucus,” or insist on some other word.  It was slime.  It was grey and greasy, and it made it difficult for Nen to hold onto it.  The tentacles seemed to form from a central core, like one of those cu sithe balls (or however they’re spelt – I might have some odd presumptions there) you could get that were rubbery and wiggly, and then some of the tentacles had mouths with teeth, some were useful for manipulating things, and some worked as limbs, tail, antennae, something like that.  The middle of the body seemed to have a beak and some eye-like things, very krakenesque, if you got that opinion from a Jerry Bruckheimer film or four.  Nen’s body shifted in size, this time slightly smaller and his hands slightly bigger, and while a quivering (I’m sure that was the venery) of tentacles seemed to have been pulled off from the beast (meaning there might have been blood in that mix) they continued to shift and dance and do no major harm to the creature.

While observing the both of them (and trying to ignore the damage Nen was doing to the sidewalk, the asphalt, and one of the neighbor’s bikes) I decided the demon was actually some kind of echinoderm from Beyond.  More of a sun star than a traditional radial shape, but that hopeless part of my brain kicked into gear just long enough to suggest other correlations including the idea of some kind of slime vascular system and then it kind of exploded.  That is, both the demon and that sad, doomed part of my brain just as the science was getting interesting. Only one, literally.  Apparently Nen had pulled it apart significantly enough for it to collapse on its pseudopodic arms.

Nen turned to me, and there was something feral in his eyes, something that made that strange shape of mouth and teeth more like a movie werewolf than a kind doggie, and he was coated in ick.  Parts of his outfit were ripped away, and I saw that his hands were reminiscent of sharp rocks, and that his hair was the sea and his breath the maelstrom, and then after a moment, he was simply Nen.  Nen in the center of what was almost a crater of destruction.

“What was it you called me, man?  Sir Wrecks-a-lot?” he asked.

I stuttered for a moment.  “Y-yes, that was it.”  Did I put the Sir in?  I didn’t remember.

He looked forlorn for a moment, turning around and looking at bits of yuck and street and sidewalk.  “That may have been a foretelling I would have rather have avoided.”  He sighed.  “I’m no house-elf to be cleaning this up, but the bit that hid the battle from untrained eyes will need to be made stronger for dawn’s light, and shaped to make it look more like the cause was re-directed.”

“I should hope it was hid,” I said.  “You were some twenty-feet tall, and it was,” I watched as remnants of it melted away into the darkness of the road.  “I forgot what I was saying.”

“The slightest of us weave a gossamer of untruth to best protect our wards from the consequences.”  I decided to parse that together later. “Where did this creature come from, and wherefore did it come so close as to be caught in your defenses?”

“Perhaps it was a message?” I said.

“A shot above the bow? A present for your birthday?”  Nen scoffed, but he was still considering it.

“Who are you protecting me from?” I asked again.

“I repeat that I am bound not to say, although you are a keen observer of the obvious and can see that these stargazers are amongst them.”  He shrugged.  “Let me complete my shroud of lies, and I would like to use your shower.”

“Shroud of lies?  That sounds a little more self-denigrating than ‘glamour,'” I pointed out.

“Does it?” he asked, and I felt very much put in my place.

I stayed quiet, but I could feel the screeching fork against a blackboard of a partial Opening, and smell the acrid and pungent asphalt melt and reform as he painted what I knew of Reality slightly differently.  It was a  dizzying thing to watch, a thing of  art and Art and I could almost feel it like a wave of heat and I brushed against it with the thing I thought my talent, and almost felt the weave of it, thin and burning like ice against my fingers.  It dissolved away almost sweetly, and I found myself holding on to the railing near the door and wishing for its stability, as if it were connected to the roots of the earth.

“Um, how do you do that?” I managed.

“Magic,” he winked, as he turned back towards me.

I sighed.  “What about all the size shifting and stuff?”

“It’s what I am,” he said.

He passed me and went back inside, so I followed him.  I put my keys down and closed the door.  Really, I probably needed to make some kind of “sucked into another reality” kit.  What would you put in there?

“Well, it fits the Wikipedia entry,” I shrugged, sliding onto the couch.  He went into the bathroom and a few minutes later I heard the sound of running water.  A thought occurred to me, and I knocked on the door.  “Hey, what if another one of those tickly things shows up and you’re all getting un-gunked?”

“I would not be worried about that, Door-closer,” Rayya said, sitting in the very spot Nen usually took.  “There are other guardians.”

I jumped.  I hate being snuck up on.  Sneaked up on.  Sneakered.  Snookered.  Whatever. “Aiiigh!” I meeped.  “When did you show up?”

“Demanding answers will not get you them, Wizard-friend.  Nen will be touched that you think the crashing wave to suffice against the lingering flame.”

“Lingering flame? Is that what’s after me?”  I thought I had it, then I frowned.  “Of course, what a lingering flame might have to do with some kind of undersea triffid…  Well, if it was a plant it’d be more a pentid, I guess…” I realized I was talking kind of for the sake of talking as Rayya just did the silent statue stare at me.

“How many?” I asked, sitting down next to her.

“You must learn to be more specific with your words, Dragons-bane, or our conversations will be generic ones.  Shall I delight you with the little I care about the vagaries of the environment, or the combative nature of some local cluster of therianthropically named groups?”


She grinned a toothy grin.  “You shake up well, but you continue to function and think.”

“I’ll…take that as a compliment.”

“I am not inclined to argue,” she smiled and hid some of the teeth.  “At least about that,” she amended with more of a flash of tooth.

“And not inclined to answer?”  I smiled back.  “How about I ask again, and this time identify more specifics?”

“If it amuses you,” the smile started to fade.  It was an affectation.  They don’t need to smile – they probably send out subatomic wave particles of evil glee.  They only smile to manipulate us.  Alas, it works.

“How many guardians are established to my protection?” It was clumsy, but seemed solid enough.

“You try too hard. I could simply answer, ‘Enough,’ and have it be true.”

“Are you leaving me to wet my feet in a swamp?”

“That sounds like curious fun,” she replied.

“You know, having all of these people around for my safety kind of makes me want to go passive-aggressive and do really dangerous things,” I tried.

“You may have more ability than most of your kind to pick up on the transcendental, but you have less than the usual for prevarication.”

“I’m sure I could do something dumb enough to get hurt,” I said, realizing about halfway through that my pride certainly wasn’t at stake and maybe I should quit while I was ahead.

“I hold that truth to be self-evident,” she merely remarked, but I realized she was also disappointed in me.

“What do you guys want from me?” I raged, standing up.  I hadn’t realized how loud I was and it made me uncomfortable.

“That is a fair question unfairly asked,” she said.  “How do you want it answered?”

“Unfairly,” I said, staring at a wall of books.  I heard the water turn off, and the shower door open.

“That I can give you,” she said.  She rose from the couch to stand at my hand, just a little taller than that, and she reached up with her own fingers to touch mine. “The veil cannot be lifted, Ghost-caller.  You know the name of the one who seeks you.  If we shadows have offended, our misty ways have but pretended, to whirl in smoke and quench the flame, of the one that holds our hero to blame.”

“That’s not Shakespeare,” I said.  Her hand felt very small in mine.

“No.  We have few poets of our own, which is why we steal yours.”

“I wrote some bad poetry in junior high.  Does that grant me access to the fair kingdoms?”

“There are those who lock themselves up in oubliettes of their own design, and those of the realms that have a dubious taste for the wanderings of the young.”  I looked down at her as she sneered, and then laughed.  “It is translation, my friend.  We enjoy the work of making thought to word and word to shared language.  It is a game for us, and rhyme is one of the ways we … score points.”

“Ah.  Can anyone play?”

“You are at a disadvantage,” she said, letting go of my hand.  “The game will be done too soon.”

“Another crack at my mortality?” I grimaced.

“No,” Nen said, coming out, and shaking his hair dried with a towel. “In some fashion, ours.  After all, we must throw ourselves at the beast for your safety, and at that, you’ve already gotten one of us killed.”

(195) Presumptive Presumptions

I parsed that while Nen and Rayya shared looks.  Or strange fey telepathic pheromonic communication with the background symphony of the world’s rotation punctuated with highlights of the aetherial nexii, or, I don’t know, whatever it was they were doing.  I intended to consider this with serious intent, because if I was going to be accused of what I am pretty sure would be at most involuntary manslaughter (or feyslaughter, I suppose) and more likely some kind of negligent homicide, I thought it wise to take a few minutes to muster my arguments.

I threw out the “feyslaughter not being equal to manslaughter” argument pretty quickly. I mean, provided they were aligned with a Lord of some sort, they certainly weren’t estrays (as I understood it from legal arguments in comic books) and they weren’t recognized as human under the law, but I knew how I felt.  And even if they weren’t human, they had what Nen and I argued about as “life” and “soul,” I guessed.

So the real arguments.  The first one of course, was, “Where’s the body?” because I didn’t know who I was supposed to have had killed.  There were three immediate possibilities, well, four, okay, six… six at most.  I sat down at the table and rested my head against my arms as Nen moved up to Rayya and talked to her in low tones.  What was I doing that I could come up with six possibilities of people who I had killed?  It struck me as highly unlikely, if not entirely unnatural a thing for me to have done.  On the other hand, I knew better than to throw myself upon the mercy of any faerie court.  (Faerie court.  Get it?  Nevermind.  It should be an episodic TV series.)

Alright, alphabetically, Artur wasn’t my fault.  He was entirely motivated by his own revenge or whatever to seek out the Dragon.  Doloise, well, she was stolen by Naul, so I figure that one was also not my fault.  Ivan wasn’t a fey, so whatever happened with him shouldn’t count. Naul wasn’t actually killed, just banished from several sources of her power and injured enough that I figured she would crawl into some kind of hole and fester for a hundred years.  You know, like a Balrog.  Long enough that I’d grow old, get married, die a peaceful death, and warn my kids from playing with Dragons.  Um, not in that order.  The Stargazer (as Nen called it, which brings to mind Lovecraft and marine biology both) was presumably my fault but if so, it was entirely incidental, and I didn’t know if it was fey.  Sylvie’s death was suspect, and she would have been killed as a matter of war, which meant she was a casualty of the conflict, not me.

That was the six I could think of off the top of my head.  I picked up my head and watched as Nen took Rayya’s spot on the couch, picking up from where he’d left off in Testerman’s Hidden Things.  I hadn’t read it yet, but he chuckled a lot so I’d definitely pick it up.  His sister had disappeared as suddenly as she’d appeared, I guessed.  Trust them to forget convenient little things like barriers of reality, the impossibility of teleportation, and the politeness of knocking on doors.

The words were just about to spill out when I realized the error of asking, “Who was it?” That implied a kind of callous I didn’t want to be, that I hadn’t even noticed someone giving their life, the sum of their being, for me.  To me.  However the preposition worked.

I leaned back on the chair and thought for a minute if there was any way to hint around it.  What about starting with something related like, “I didn’t mean to,” even if that was suck as an apology?  It might bring me around to finding out, but it didn’t seem right.  Leaving it alone didn’t seem right, either, but they had, and maybe in their twisted mirror world it was just as polite.

I went back into my room with my notebook and pen.  I remembered belatedly I had meant to ask Nen a particular question.  I had another that I wanted to ask Rayya.  I wrote them both down and called Ed.

“Hey, E!” he answered, heartily.

“Hi,” I said.  It sounded weak next to how enthusiastic he was.

“What’s going on?  Need to take on a gryphon or something?” he asked.  His voice was all cheerful.

“Sorry, my armor’s at the dry-cleaners,” I said.  “And I don’t think they really exist.  Of course, I’ve said that a lot in the last hour or so.  At least to myself,” I amended.

“I repeat, what’s been going on?” He sounded a bit concerned.

“Sorry I haven’t been calling or getting together,” I said.  “I’m a real dunderhead.”

“Yeah, we know.”  He took a moment.  “You okay?”

“No.  I don’t think I am,” I decided.

“Huh.”  He didn’t say anything else.

“Stuff’s been happening and like I said, I realized I was a real jerk.  Yes, I’d love to do Thanksgiving with your mom and Zach.”

“I’ll let her know.”  He was quiet.  “Um.  You want me to come over?”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to invite you to my pity party.  I’ve just been trying to put stuff together, and I needed to hear a friendly voice.”

“Anytime, man.  Need me to sing commercial jingles from the 1980’s?  I’m best at pop tunes.  Soda pop, that is.”

I laughed, and he chuckled with me.  “I don’t know if that meets the definition,” I admitted.

“Hey, they’re upbeat and insensitive in the way only television could be!  You know, they could totally do commercial karaoke.”

I considered it.  “Yeah, I think so.  Did that happen in a movie somewhere?”

“Demolition Man.  Um, 1993.  That’s what they had on the radio, so I supposed they had karaoke, but I don’t remember for sure.”

“And all restaurants… yeah, I remember that movie.”  I shrugged.

“We haven’t gone to the movies in a while.  You missed some good ones.  But they’re all available for download these days. Legally, even.”

“Yeah, but is it the same without the air conditioner jacked up, the sticky floor, and the horrifying sound of the urine-colored cholesterol being spread across the popped corn?”  I put my feet up on the nightstand, staring at the ceiling.

“You make it sound like so much fun,” he said. “I can’t imagine how more people aren’t flocking to the films when you put it that way.”

“I’ve never worked in advertising,” I admitted.  I glanced outside, and made a guess at the time.  “Let’s go get a drink.”

“That’s a bit of a drive,” he hedged.

“I’ll stop at a liquor store on the way and crash at your place, like we did ten years ago,” I offered.

He chuckled.  “You haven’t done that since Haley, remember her?”

I thought back.  “Wow, that was… yeah, I remember Haley.”

“She wasn’t as crazy as Mags, but man, she was pretty out there.  On the other hand, given the way she looked, I figured there was some kind of compensation.  I mean, yeah, I like what I like, but Haley even gave me some thoughts.”

“Her hair was the color of apricots,” I said, remembering.

“And her eyes the green of brussel sprouts,” he added.

“That’s not very poetic,” I groused.

“She dumped my best friend. I don’t have to have fond memories.”

“They were more romaine lettuce green.  Lighter than kale.  Brussel sprouts are just too gassy.”

“Let’s compromise.  Broccoli.”

“Her eyes were as green as the stalks of steamed broccoli.  I’m no poet, but it’s better.”

“And instead of apricots, think melted cheese.”

“Did you skip dinner?”

“Nah, just completing a metaphor.”

“I won’t get in the way of you and Zach, right?”

“He’s got choir practice, and I’ll text him.  Don’t stint – the cheap stuff gets you drunk, but the good stuff makes you less likely to want to die the next morning.”

I glanced at the open door.  “I’ll probably have some kind of invisible bodyguard, too.”

“That must make it hard to meet girls,” he joked.

“Haley liked it when people were watching.  That’s one of the reasons we broke up.”

“She dumped you.  Get it right, man.”

“Well, even if the bodyguard wasn’t invisible, it certainly won’t be human.”

“Won’t be the first, or even last time that mom has something like that in the house, and I’m not counting the crow she rescued last month, or the various dogs and cats of my childhood years.”  He sighed.  “I’d trust you’d tell me if it was dangerous.”

I laughed, but it sounded insincere.  “If it was a bodyguard, I’d hope it was dangerous.  To things that weren’t me and mine.”

“Yeah, point.”

“Anyway, that’s one of the things I want to get drunk over.  Give me about 90 minutes and I’ll call you when you’re in the neighborhood.  You still drink that nasty coffee stuff?”

“Less a Mudder’s Milk kind of night than a Samarian Sunset.”

“I happen to recognize both of the references, and I know absinthe is nasty and tastes like licorice.”

“Black Anise was a witch, wasn’t she? What about Green Anise?”

“A Baby-stealing Bourbon?”

“Hmmmm.  Bog-goblin beer?”

“Will o’wisp whiskey?”

“Leannan sidhe liqueur?”

“Kelpie Kahlua?”

“That’s a trademark.  But do leprechauns drink irish coffees?”

“I want a genie gin.”

“I’ll have to recommend a dwarf tonker tonic.”

“Not to me you don’t.” I thought quickly.  “Old Man Willow Wine?”


“Yeah.  Okay.  I’ll try not to make a hobbit out of it.  Vodyanoi vodka.”

“What’s a Vodyanoi?  Sounds like an empathic Star Trek race.”

“They live in crystal palaces under water.  Or, heck, maybe under-vodka?”

“Ninety minutes, you said?”

“One hundred, because I want to make a mixer for a kraken juice drink.”

“Rum, not carrot juice.  Pick up the umbrellas.  You know, to fight off all the tentacles.”

“It makes me amused to let you know that every drink umbrella I’ve seen has been peace-bonded for our protection.”

“You know how people with fruity drinks like to start bar fights.”

I grinned.  “See you in a few,” I said.

I picked my feet up and went to the bathroom to wash my face.  I noticed that my  usual hand soap had been replaced with something labelled “organic” and made a face.  I didn’t remember buying it.  It smelled alright, but I wanted something with a whiff of engine oil and manly sweat.  Next I’ll be complaining that it doesn’t have “new keyboard smell.”

“I’m off to do foolish things,” I called out to the front room as I dried my hands.

“Far be it from me to prevent it,” Nen replied.  He leaned against the doorframe. “Must I suggest that future bacchanals be planned with better spirits?”

“Don’t knock my scotch, man.”

“I’m more likely to butter it.  Nevertheless, I am not your chaperone or your conscience.  I am merely here to make certain nothing ends you before your allotted time, given a certain elevated danger bought from your patron’s hospitality.”

“Bought from his or her hospitality?  What can I say? It was on sale.”

Nen looked annoyed, and I sighed.  The annoyance probably isn’t an act. I bet it’s how faerie faces look all the time, unless they’re pinching someone.

“How does this hospitality work, anyway?  Does it mean I should or shouldn’t invite you?  I mean, you’re going to have to come along or send one of your buddies anyway, but should I presume or should I grease the way with social lubricant?”

Nen gave me a wry smile.  “An invitation is always nice.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.  “I can tell from your look that an invitation is kind of like a free pass of some sort.  I told him I’d be bringing someone, and I’d rather it be you.  As much as a pain in the butt you are, I’d rather have you than the weird angry wind.”

“An excellent endorsement. I shall be sure not to let you pen my epitaph.”

“We’re agreed, then,” I said.  “It’s BYOB,” I teased.

“I’ll find something,” he threatened.  Or promised.  I wasn’t sure quite which.



The drive to Boulder is always longer than I remember it. There are only a few ways to get there, and the weather and the time of day both have meanings besides how they impact the scenery. There is a lot of scenery. I live in Aurora, which despite a lack of skyscrapers is a pretty generic city in the United States. You go a little west, and there’s Denver, bam! right in your face. Denver lords it over us with its skyscrapers. Really, a city with skyscrapers kind of kicks sand in large sprawling suburbia’s face. Then you head west, and if you draw a little south, it becomes Lakewood, and there’s some larger lots, some horses, some farms, but as you go north, it becomes hills and fields. Very much like the places above Naul’s cavern and the hill Rayya walked me to, if you subscribe to the theory that the worlds beyond are built by the worlds within. I kind of liken it to what I think of as the, “And You Were There,” theory, which, checking my phone, is a legitimate TVTrope. (Really, TVTropes is part of the Akashic Record, and thus I never feel bad when my thoughts are given capital letters by them.)

That said, the side trip to the liquor store was something I’d be still trying to describe for days. First, it was huge. It wasn’t a liquor store, it was a warehouse of ethylated madness, separated generously by type of poison. There were forklifts. Forklifts and alcohol do not mix, but here they did a fragile ballet representing the delicacy of spirit and its presumed proof. It was a shrine to what heat and sand could do, a stained glass masterpiece in a thousand, ten-thousand bottle chorus. It was a labyrinth of inebriated possibility.

I was frightened, truly terrified, of what Nen might do. I hesitated before the doors thinking of what whimsy untempered by consequence meant, combined of course with a generous imagination and too many comic books showing the after effects of superhero dismay. Broken glass was just the beginning, and where broken glass and alcohol were combined, fire was inevitable according to the rules of story.

I pictured the building going up in smoke and flames.

“I’m not a barbarian, speaking the bar bar bar of uncivilized tongue,” Nen said.

“You’re fey,” I pointed out.

“True,” he said. “And not a swamp within miles.” He sighed dramatically. “What a pity.” He said it in just the same tone as Jareth does in “Labyrinth.”

He was still pretty agreeable about wearing the seatbelt. It’s those Small things that matter.

“I’m not ready for this,” I said, but I screwed up my courage (which is to say, I screwed it down into the proper place so it didn’t go scampering off, not that I made a mess of it) and entered the automatic doors with a wave of my hand and a little Jedi shtick.

Nen was actually quite calm and complimentary to various brands and choices, although he apparently had more familiarity with whiskeys and scotch than I did, my budget not being of that calibre. He flirted with the ladies doing the stocking, and joked with the men at the register. I asked him a couple of times about flavours, as I’d learned from living with him that he loved oranges, peaches, and ginger, pretty much in that order of preference. I compared the backs of bottles, and the aesthetics. A bottle shaped like a mythical sea monster would always win over one that looked like it came from a 1940s cartoon.

Nothing blew up, or even shattered. If I came out slightly dazed it wasn’t from fumes, but from a dizzying lack of destruction. No pixies fighting in the aisles, no explosions of gold dust and cinnamon, not even a moment of concern when the forklift seemed to drive straight for us.

Surely, he was up to something.

Or tired. Do fey get tired? I’ve seen them rest. I know that their magic has limits, and that the limits are more poetic than measured, and that those who head the Realms are on a scale I can’t understand. I know that bumping against Reality has its problems, too. This is why magic a la the Jedi mind trick is so much easier than that dropping a mountain on someone that was mentioned. I don’t know if it’s a limit you can blast through with sheer power, or if it’s only best for the subtle ones, like the vampires and their thin weaving Between. I know I was tired, and I only had psychological trauma to blame.

“Only.” I’m such a kidder.

We were quiet while I drove. You can see stars out sometimes. It’s kind of funny, really. I love feeds that give me daily pictures of astronomical marvels, but I forget to look up and enjoy the stars. Truth is, well, I think it was a couple of summers ago. I laid back in the grass and looked at the stars, and I think a girl was involved, probably Maggie if it was only a couple of years, and suddenly I felt like I was falling into the sky. You can’t hold on to the ground. It’s an eerie feeling. Not that I don’t drive into snow in the dark and pretend that I’m in the Millennium Falcon. (No, really, the ship a character of mine captains I threatened to name the “Bi-Centennial Bird.”)

I don’t know what Nen thinks about when he’s looking out the windows. I was a tiny bit curious because of the silence, but after a bit I just turned on the radio. I had lost the ability to be concerned about being overheard while I sang along with some of the songs years ago, and while I don’t have the voice even for karaoke, I can carry a tune with the radio.

Nen spoke up somewhere in the middle of my mangling an 80s song I thought I had known more of the words to with a, “Look there.”

I glanced where he pointed, careful to keep the majority of my attention on the road. I saw that the traffic was at an ebb and so gave it a better look.

It was a unicorn, silhouetted against the horizon. Dark in the moonlight, a flash of silver and shadow, looking much like a deer.

“Huh,” I said. “So there’s one near Boulder? Can’t be a lot of virgins there with the college.”

“Virgo intacta has never been the question. The uninitiated, unconsecrated, of those I suspect you would find many. Those who still have their innocence, the flower and bloom of naivete, those still blessed like children and fools.” He scoffed. “What a ridiculous diet.”

“Diet?” I asked.

“`We Pee Rainbows’ is my Weezer cover band.”

“Has that meme really made it into the fey realms?  Wow.  Funny, but are you saying they actually eat virgins?”

Nen just chuckled.

“No, really.”

He stayed silent.

I think I asked him a few more times. “Hymenatarians? Chastitarians?” He refused to answer, and eventually my brain let it go. Just to save it for later, like some kind of bizarre midnight snack, no doubt. I’d be casually ready to fall into a comfortable doze, and then I’d see horses with horns and shark teeth. Like you do.

Ed’s house was decked out for Halloween, which was an event I was completely unready for, although I quickly decided the costume I came home in was probably relevant. I’d have to pick up some pumpkins and carve them and ask Nen what he thought. I expected he would laugh and laugh.

Ed didn’t have any of the animatronic stuff out that he usually put out on the last day. He and his mom once rigged up a whole bug theme that made all the adults who came up with the kids to get candy start scratching themselves in less than thirty seconds. (On that note, did you know that the average trick-or-treat tends to max out at forty-five seconds per transaction? Never give a nerd a stopwatch.) Just occasional blinking and glowing eyes in the bushes, that sort of thing, to set up the anticipated fear response.

Ed’s mom answered the door. “E, it’s so nice to see you,” she said, giving me the obligatory hug. She did it awkwardly because of the huge knife in her hand. I don’t cook, so I just put it under the term “butcher knife” and figured it was for cutting out the joints of people who hadn’t done their required amount of seeing their friends. You know, because the horses with horns and shark teeth wouldn’t be enough to keep me awake.

She asked our favourite question. “Did you eat?”

I gave her my favourite answer. “I wouldn’t turn down a snack, but don’t worry about it.”

She looked at Nen carefully. “And who is your friend, E?” she asked, reminding me of my duties.

“This is…” I thought about it, but he jumped in.

“I am Adam Neniyi,” he said, offering his hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said, with all the sincerity that he meant it.

I had a moment of dismay, thinking, “Great, he saved all of his mischief for…” but then I realized something odd.

Nen’s height has varied from about seventeen inches to the aforementioned twenty feet, but I was used to him being about four-foot nothing. Ed’s mom was looking up when she shook his hand. He was still the size I was used to, but it was like he was different, taller, to her. Or that she saw more of him or something. Kind of like how Sir Darius was an eight foot troll at the same time he was a short blue man who smoked too much, I guess.

Ed came from down the hall, wearing an open red flannel shirt over some jeans. He looked good, actually. It wasn’t quite the lumberjack look it could have been. He came up and gave me a half-hug, one of those manly arm clasps and a pat on the back kind of things.

“Hey, Doc,” he said. “And Adam, nice to see you,” he fist-bumped Nen, but his eyes weren’t in the same place. He did the same thing his mom had, as if Nen were, I guessed, almost six feet tall.

I shook my head. It was weird. And where did that name come from? Adam, for the Namer, no doubt. Probably some sick kind of fey pun somewhere. Rayya said words could score points. I’d have to get a scorecard.

Ed took the bag and gestured for me to follow. He lived downstairs, mostly, although they had a library and gaming room upstairs. “C’mon,” he said. “Zach texted me and said rehearsal was starting late, so he won’t be home ’til closer to eleven.”

“Oh good, because I’m sure we can be sloshed by ten thirty,” I suggested.

“You’re making a night of it?” he asked.

“You still have that awful blue couch?” I asked. I nodded as we got down the curve in the stairs and I saw it under the pile of video games. “Yeah, and ‘Adam’ can do whatever it is he does for sleep.”

“That is truly an awful blue,” Nen noted.

I actually loved the couch – it had a single cushion that I think his mom has had to re-stuff some seventeen times. (That number doesn’t come completely out of the blue – it’s been about that long since I left high-school, so once a year…) It has a dark wood frame and rounded arm rests. But it was really an awful muppet blue.

The room was otherwise picked up and neat; I saw the pause screen for a game I didn’t have on his big monitor.  He might run a successful extermination business, and he might have employees and even a small office, but when it comes down to it, there’s a chance that Ed’s the guy who lives at home with his mother and plays video games in the basement.

Nen turned on me like I’d done something to him.  “Why don’t we have this game?” he accused.

“Um,” I scratched my head.  “Because I’m about a year behind in video games?  And why…” I went with it, “Why would you care? Is there a secret fey Nintendo league or something?”

He gave me the look that said once again I had disappointed him.  “We have sought your dreamers, your poets and your singers, those who balance on the edge of madness, teetering on the precipice of that which might be. Your wizards, your explorers, and yet it is in games of make-believe that you visit us.  Every island of the Neverneverland is populated by the dreams and wishes of children.  Do you forget the crazy wars you had with your neighbors from the deck of your treehouse, and yet it was turned into a ship of tall sails, and you navigated by the depth of the golden sunlight and the whispering of waves given sound by wind-tossed leaves?  You do not understand the hope given to those who cross into the mortal realms by games such as Mass Effect, where human and alien can live in a negotiated harmony, and sometimes even things like love.  We are your monsters so often, the trolls and goblins you make into stumbling blocks, sharing the names of kith and brethen and yet even the noble elf of Arda is an elevated perversion of our true natures.”  He shook his head.  “And yet, in games, do you dream.  Your demigods, your heroes, touched by the flickering fingers of the other… how can those of us who are the other not feel the kindredness of spirit?”

I was moved, but I gathered up some of my concerns anyway.  “But the argument is that such games conquer and replace imagination, that they provide so much input that the potential for make-believe is railroaded into predestined paths where one’s stories are all the same.”

“But is that how you play?” he asked.  “Do you not make up the motivations, change the choices of your characters and give them limits so you are not playing in the same world as your friend?”

Ed chuckled.  “That’s true.  I might have defeated the great dragon the same way all my friends did because of the constraints of the story, but I made different choices up to that point.  Choices the game granted me, admittedly, but ones I justified in my own head, using my imagination.”

I made a non-committal noise.  “But you can’t make choices the game won’t let you make.”

Ed smiled.  “You could go running naked down the street, but you won’t.  How is that any different?”

“We’re closer to South Boulder Road than Colfax?” I offered, trying to make it a joke.

He gave me a similar look to Nen’s disappointed scowl.

“Honestly, the difference is that I could.  Not that I won’t.  There are unkillable NPCs, there are a lack of consequences if I go into peoples’ houses and steal their stuff while they sleep.  How many of the old games let you steal their stuff, should the programmers have put any thing in there, while they were awake and in the house talking with you?”

“You’re arguing realism,” he pointed out.  “The rules of our lives include things like thermodynamics and chemical reactions.  I think what Adam was saying is that when we throw out some of our rules, we’re closer to Faerie.”

Nen gave a partial shrug of agreement.  He was reserving something.

“Yeah, our lives have consequences,” I said.  I was surprised at how bitter it came out.

“They do,” Nen said.  He stood closer to me for a moment, looking into my eyes.  “There are always consequences with monsters.  You forget how many children we’ve led away, dazed by the glamour of the arcade.  The lights, the sounds, the confusion, they make for a fertile feeding ground.  It’s not so easy these days to have a child trip into a ring of toadstools, or stand at a crossroads in the moonlight, or even open the wrong door.”

Something about his last few words echoed in my head, and I moved away and grabbed for the arm of the awful blue couch to steady myself.  “But what about those Beyond?  You guys have no such rules.  We fake them in games and fiction, like that you can’t break your masquerade, or otherwise show yourselves to the general public, or that you bend reality to…” I stopped.  “You do that.  That part’s real enough.”

“Bend it.  Even your most puissant wizards will not break it.  Have you ever wondered why?”  He took a step away from me.

I thought it was because they couldn’t, but… maybe I was wrong.

Ed seemed to be thinking about it.  “Doc here, he closes doors.  I’ve asked him probably a dozen times if not more why he does it.  Sometimes when he’s in his cups he says because they hurt him, and I think that’s true, and sometimes he has explained that such things leak or bleed into our reality, and really, I’ve seen that.  It’s weird and I don’t like it.  It’s uncomfortable.  But basically, he’s said that it’s wrong.  I don’t mean like in a moral judgment sort of way, but in a whole cycle sort of thing, like it disrupts a natural process.”

“A virus has a natural process,” Nen said.

“As do parasites,” Ed countered.  “But we’ve given a denigration to that word for a reason.  It’s an unbalancing of the forces.  It’s a relationship that is taking advantage of someone, and that’s a violation of what is right.”  He shrugs.  “Maybe I make it too simple for your wizards and your magical creatures, but that’s kind of where I am.”

He sat on the couch. “I have to think of these things.  I’m an exterminator.  I work with the way bugs think.  I have to know that this kind likes warm, dark places, and where the warm dark places of the house might be.  It’s not unnatural for mice to get into your walls; it’s safer for them.  Better place to raise their young.  Same thing with all sorts of creepy-crawlies.”  He shrugged.  “But we’ve drawn lines in the sand.  We’ve said, ‘This is our territory and we don’t want you here because what’s good for you is not good for our kind.’  And that’s where I leave it.  I eradicate flies and mosquitoes where I can.  They bring disease.  On the other hand, I relocate bees, not spray them.  I have a friend who does the same thing for critters who haven’t gone too far into a comfort zone with humanity.  It’s like the coyote problem; they’re not scared of us, so they won’t obey the rules we expect.  What’s it they say in India?  A tiger who has gotten a taste of human won’t stop.  Not that we’re super-delicious, just that our rules are being broken – we live on the top of the food chain and anything that tries to take us down is a danger.  E, here, he draws the line in the sand.  He closes the door because we’ve got our territory and magical creatures have theirs. Maybe I’m not paying attention to the bedbugs’ feelings, but sometimes you have to decide who you’re going to put first.”

I almost clapped — that was quite the speech — but it would have sounded super patronizing.  “I think… Wizards respect rules more than other people,” I said, slowly.  “They have to work within them, integrate themselves with the limits and become really intimate with the boundaries.  If they don’t,” I had a sudden idea, “if they don’t,” I repeated, “they find themselves out of it.  They slip Between.  Could that be some of what makes other worlds?”

Nen just smiled.  He seemed less upset with me.  “Good,” he said.  “You’re starting to think.”

“I’m always thinking,” I complained.

“Yes, even when we should be drinking,” Ed said.  He opened the bags up to look at our selections.  “Hmmm,” he pondered.  He got some glasses out from the little shelf area we called our bar since, well, forever.  “Movies or, well, now I hesitate to offer them, but games?”

“First,” Nen said, “a toast.”  He pulled a small flask out of a pocket of his coat, and poured about a finger’s worth into each of our cups.  “To the interstices,” he said, passing us each a cup.  It smelled like a spiced mead.  “Where friends meet and lovers linger, to the weaver and the spinner, the wizard and the wise man, the maiden and those lovely women less than,” he waggled his eyebrows dramatically and then drank.

Ed grinned, “Lovely women and men less than,” he corrected and drank.

I just raised my cup and then drank my share.

If you have never tasted faerie wine it makes no difference how I describe it.  It wouldn’t be the same for you that it is to me.  There was no elderberry, clove, or ginger, and it burned and cooled the throat at the same time.  It lasted on the tongue, a bouquet of spice and soothe, a place of intersection and a place of too many doorways.  You could get drunk on a drop and stay sober on a gallon, but the amount Nen poured was just right.  It did not taste of alcohol at all, yet just sniffing it made me feel like I was on the philosophical drink of the night.  It seemed almost a waste to drink anything after it.

Ed damned Nen most whole-heartedly after the moment of silence that accompanied the drink.  “And furthermore, sir,” he used a set of epithets that surprised me with their vehemence.  “Now anything we taste is going to be terrible in comparison.  You pull that kind of stuff at the end of the night when you’re ready to think and then pass out.”

Nen just smiled.  “Games, then?” he asked, reaching for a controller.

After a while I couldn’t say the taste faded, but it did impact what else we had, even the glasses of water Ed’s mom brought with her (and the snack; she makes a mean queso-bean dip.)  She shared a few drinks with us before excusing herself and asking that we try not to tromp around upstairs after 3am.  What can I say?  She’s a mom.

Nen trounced me at the battle games.  As a matter of fact, I think I broadly if still vaguely accused him of cheating until I went up against Ed and he trounced me, too.  On the other hand, I’m a bit of a button masher when I don’t know the system.  (Although I’ve learned to try multiple hits of the same button and facing unusual directions to try to find power moves.)  Ed and Nen were pretty well matched, but Nen won most of the time.  We changed games about fifteen minutes before Zach was expected to make it over.

“So he’s here most of the time?” I asked Ed.

Ed nodded.  “Yeah, we’ve been talking about getting a place.”

“Sounds serious.  Moving out from mom’s and all?”

“Mum’s actually the reason I’ve stayed.  She’s been really good about Zach and I, but I know the house would be very big and very lonely.  She’s… she doesn’t need my help exactly, but she needs someone around.  Someone to cook for,” he grinned.  “Which is probably one of the reasons she likes Zach.  He may be tiny, but he can put away food like he was…”

“Don’t reach for a metaphor.  We were young men once.”

“Hey, I’m not that much older than him.”

“Wiser in the ways of the world,” I pontificated.  “Master of many secrets, conqueror of things creepy and crawling,” I began.  “Hey, did you know I have a song?”

“Doc, if someone wrote a dirty limerick for you and you set it to music, that does not qualify.”

“No, it was sung by a spriggan.  That’s got to be worth something.”

“Can you sell it on eBay?”

I didn’t look at Nen.  “Nope.”

“Then it’s not worth anything.  Greatest Spriggan Hits, volume 4, Songs of the Door Doctor.”

“Hey, I’m not making fun of you for living at home with your mom.  This was a real thing.  Like a poem.”

“I wouldn’t make fun of his mother,” Nen piped up from where he was crafting armor.  “Not a powerful witch like her.”

“A what?” I hit my head against the side of the couch.  “Oh no.  Not another one.”


“You didn’t know?” Ed asked.  He looked surprised.  “You didn’t ask why I was alright with some of the weird you’ve injected into my life?”

“Oh, I’m sure I knew on some level,” I said, spitting the words out with a little bit of unexpected venom.  At least I found the potency of it surprising.  I felt…angry.  “I mean, it’s not like there is any, and I mean any, woman in my life who isn’t a practitioner of some sort.”

“I think Bugs Bunny backs you up on this,” Ed said, thinking.  “There might be proof on YouTube.”  He shrugged. “I started thinking women were a different species back before puberty, so if witches are something different genetically I could believe it.”

“Well, men and woman are different genetically speaking,” I began, ready to tease Ed and take the emphasis away from my poison, but I heard the sound of the door opening upstairs and he kind of flew out of his seat.  Not literally flying, not with a broomstick or anything, just launched himself into the air and then into a run.    I might have to specify this given the subject matter.

“I think of DNA as a map,” Nen said in the sudden silence.  “Cartographers can only outline so much, and thus have places where there be Dragons.”

“Please don’t use the D-word,” I said.  “I’ve got issues.”

He snorted.  “Too easy,” he said.

“When you’re poor for opportunity, even the cheap jokes look good,” I pointed out.  “Anyway, in jest and in truth, or however the phrase goes.  I am not quite ready to kid about the scaly ones.”

“Are you aware of how much anger you hold?” Nen asked.

“Too serious.  More drinking,” I said.  I was as good as my word, and poured more into my cup.  Not to be rude, I also poured more into Ed’s, Nen’s, and took out a cup for Zach and poured some into his, too.

Zach was an inch taller than Ed, making him taller than myself, too.  He had lines of worry on his face, and a tan that had weather on it, rather than lightbulbs, if you know what I mean.  (And if you don’t, no worries – sometimes I don’t really know, either.)  His hair was bleached blond, spiky, and he wore a pale pink shirt, a black bowtie, and black slacks.  His eyes were dark, maybe green, maybe hazel, hard to tell.  He was younger than Ed, but something in his face had seen a little too much.  Kind of spooky, really.  He had a tiny button on that read, “IN UR KITCHEN SUBVERTING UR FABULOUS” which I wanted to think made sense but really didn’t.  It was like a mash-up of memes that didn’t become delicious peanut butter and chocolate but just some kind of mush that sat on your plate.

I focused on the button because Zach made me nervous.

He was attractive, you see.  I don’t… well, besides the law of the universe that made all women in my life witches, I liked women.  I mean, I really liked them.  I liked the beanpole dames as well as the ones with the itty bitty waist and the round thing in your face.  Ahem.  I didn’t swing for Ed’s team.  Didn’t even pick up the bat, if the metaphor is permitted to dance over to euphemism.

I found myself caught between looking away and looking at his eyes, unsure what I was supposed to do.  If I looked away was I giving him a bad impression, or was I giving him the wrong idea if I met his gaze?  I was uncomfortable, and the tipsy I had was not helping.

Ed stood off to the side, looking for all the world like the maestro having played his masterpiece and waiting for the audience’s reaction.  Huh. I must have been up to the philosophical level.  I’d lost track of the number of the drinks, given their purpose.  That was exactly it, though, when we have friends meet our friends.  There’s an ownership to it and at the same time we want so desperately for them to like each other (despite the geek social fallacy warning against it) because it shows something about our tastes and our talents for attracting like to like.  It’s why when you break up with someone you want everyone else to break up with them to in part — it isn’t because you want people to choose sides, but because you were hurt and the validation isn’t there unless your friends have felt it in part as well.

Maggie meant something to Ed.  Maybe he wasn’t in to her, but he listened to all the nights I railed against her, and while he was always cordial, he had never been warm to her when I went cold.  That’s why Ed was more than a friend, over the line to family.

Could I do the same for him, stand and meet Zach?

Sure I could.

“Hi,” I said, offering my hand, and meeting his eyes.  “I’m E.  Some folks call me ‘Doctor’ because I’m a thinker, but it’s just ‘E.'”

“Zacharias,” he said, clasping my hand in the ‘hand hug’ style of quick touches, “but if you don’t call me Zach, I’ll bite you.  And I know Adam.”  He nodded in Nen’s direction, but not at Nen’s height, releasing my hand.  He didn’t quite release me with his eyes, though.  He was evaluating me for something.  I felt uncomfortable, warm, under his gaze.  I wasn’t blushing, of course.  I had to look away for a moment, and I grasped for his glass.

“We poured you some to get started,” I said.

He took the glass but didn’t drink from it. “It’s okay, E, I won’t actually bite,” he said.  “And you’re more on the wizard side of things than a neurosurgeon.”  It wasn’t even a quarter question.

“No one’s been calling me Doctor Strange, now, have they?” I asked, trying to ignore the first part of what he said.

“Well,” Ed drawled, amused.

“You were right,” Zach said to Ed, walking over to kiss his cheek.  “He’s cute.  And he’s blushing.  And he’s totally not your type.  I feel better already,” he said, winking at me, and raising the cup in kind of a toast before drinking from it.

I hadn’t thought Ed’s boyfriend would have been worried about me as competition, but… I felt even worse that I hadn’t come over to meet them sooner.  I drained the glass.

“Another!” I shouted.  Well, I kept my voice down because I didn’t want to be heard upstairs, but it was in the flavour of a shout.

“If you break the glass, you’re explaining it to Mum,” Ed said.  “I’m pouring.”

“Good, because my hands aren’t steady,” I muttered.  “Nope, not a neurosurgeon.  Not a wizard, either.  Not that anyone listens to me about that.”

“That’s fine, E,” Zach said, putting a hand on my shoulder.  “I know what you are.”

“That makes one of us,” I said.  Ed returned the drink to me, and Zach lifted his hand up.

“I thought you were a happy drunk,” Ed grinned.  “Stop thinking so much.  That’s the point of killing our brain cells.”

“Don’t we need a couple?” I asked.

“I’m afraid if I kept two around, I’d rub ’em together to try to make some sparks,” Ed said.  “And my breath is definitely flammable at this point.”

“No, dear, the only time you have dragon breath is in the morning,” Zach said.  He hovered around Ed for a moment, and then flit over to Nen.  Okay, that was extremely bad phrasing that shows I’m not quite the evolved social animal I thought I was.

“I don’t know what you see in that game,” he said.  “I mean, ridiculous Facebook games  I’d challenge anyone, but that just looks too complicated.  I don’t understand why you’re gardening.  If you wanted to garden, I know plenty of places you could grow real things.  Why spend time planting virtual seeds?”

“Such has always been the way of my people,” Nen said, distractedly.

“Gamers,” Zach sighed.  “You even talk in dialogue. Wait, that didn’t make any sense, and I haven’t even been drinking.  Must be a contact drunk.”  He went back and kissed Ed on the lips.  “See?  Contact,” he said in a low voice, grinning.

I got that Zach was pretty touchy-feel-y, and kind of got some distance from him by sitting on the far end of the couch. “So, um, Zach, what’s your angle?”

After a bit of couple choreography, he sat on Ed’s lap across from me.  “That’s a little personal on a first date, don’t you think?” he asked, coyly.  He fluttered his eyelashes, and then grinned when Ed punched him.  “Fine, fine, I’ll quit the act.  The whole story in a few short words? Born in godless California too near Hollywood for very religious parents, became a practicing skeptic, came out to my parents to the whole disowned shmiel, mustache flapping in the wind and all of that, learned I was good with numbers, moved to Colorado, found out I was a wizard, and met a shy fellow who talks to bugs.  Or is that skipping too much?”

“Wait, wait,” I said, holding my head for a moment.  “Practicing skeptic?”

“Not just for holidays,” he grinned at me. “You know, full ritual decrial of creationism, the scarlet A, even the bowing and scraping or at least autograph hounding of the great saints of the field, from Penn to Randi.”  He chuckled.

“Okay, I can see that.  Sorry, I’m slow tonight.  Had a bit of a shake-up to my reality.”

“Yeah, I’ve had that happen.  In fairness, I’ve done that to people, too.”

“So… wizard?”

Zach grinned at Ed.  “My boy’s said you aren’t comfortable with the term.”

“Words mean things,” I said.  “Some more than others.  So what are you a wizard at?” I asked, a bit flustered that he called Ed a boy.  Or that he was talking to some boy.  I guess I shouldn’t presume.

“I send things away.  Kind of hard to be a skeptic when you’ve seen a ghost and made it go into the light.”

“Oh.  That kind of wizard.”  I decided that the floor was spinning.

“I thought it was kind of what you did,” Ed said.  He was looking at me, as if concerned.

“It’s something an ex-girlfriend of mine told me I should be able to do.  Exorcisms.  Demon banishing.  Not quite what I’d call a wizard, definitely more a matter of equations than a lot of the witch-y stuff.”  I shrugged, and closed my eyes.

“Are you okay?” Ed asked.

“Um, no.”  No, I wasn’t okay.  I wasn’t going to throw up, but I was not okay.

Nen hadn’t said anything for a while. “A teacher comes when he is needed,” he said.  He could have been talking about the game, but I didn’t think so.

“What’s wrong?” Ed asked.  Maybe he hadn’t heard Nen.

“Like calls to like,” Zach said.  “I knew when I looked at you,” he said.

“So it’s just a magic thing, not that I’ve suddenly leaped over the fence and found you attractive?” I asked.  I was glad my eyes were closed because it gave me the illusion of anonymity and thus a certain sense of boldness.

“I’m stuck here,” Ed said.  “Half of me is like, ‘Hey, of course he’s attractive,’ and the other half is, ‘Keep your eyes off my man!'” He chuckled.

“It’s a magic thing.  You’ll get used to it,” he said.  “I remember when I met the woman who taught me.  I almost called my folks and apologized.”

“You didn’t!” Ed said, sounding scandalized.

“I didn’t,” he said.

“Huh.  Is it that bad?” Ed asked.

“Let me put it to you this way,” I said, opening my eyes and leaning forward.  “I definitely need another drink.”

“I can do that,” he grinned.  “Hey, Adam, stop hogging the controller and pour for us, would you?”