Jesse opened his eyes to the dishwater grey light of early dawn, shivering despite the already muggy heat. He pushed himself up with his good hand, wincing when the movement pulled at the knife wound, and just sat there for a few moments with his head hanging. His injured arm throbbed and he struggled to open and close his stiff hand, gritting his teeth against a grunt when new pain shot down to the tips of his fingers. His mouth felt sticky and tasted like something had died on his tongue overnight. He scrubbed at his lips with a dirty hand and squirmed out from under the fallen trees, dragging the hockey stick with him and using it to help him get to his feet.
Dizziness swept over him when he straightened up and he barely stopped himself from falling over again, leaning heavily on the stick. The forest stretched out endlessly around him, sun-dappled and silent, and the heat beat down on him, bringing up sweat along his temples and across his upper lip. He wiped his face on his shoulder and looked around to orient himself before starting off in the same direction he’d been going the night before.
His stomach clenched painfully with hunger as he walked and he tried not to think about breakfast in Juliet’s sunny kitchen, where it was safe and comfortable and he didn’t feel like his arm was on fire. The twigs and leaves on the forest floor scratched at his bare feet, little cuts that stung and itched. Sweat ran down his spine, itching under the waistband of his shorts and under the bracelet still tied around his wrist, but it didn’t seem to be easing the heat prickling at his skin. With every step he took, he hoped Juliet would appear to take him home, but when midday passed with no sign of her, he forced himself to start thinking about taking himself home, no matter what the risks.
He’d been walking another half-hour, pausing only to sip brackish water from a puddle, before he realized that all birdsong had stopped. Feeling the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, he paused and looked around, staring into the shadows under the trees in search of whatever had silenced the birds. He saw nothing under the trees or above them, only making himself dizzy when he looked up into the high branches. He heard nothing but the unsteady sound of his own breathing and the thump of his heartbeat in his ears. He turned in a slow circle, unconsciously holding his breath to listen, then kept walking, trying to ignore the way his skin was crawling.
The sound of hoofbeats against the ground warned him only seconds before something hit him in the back hard enough to send him sprawling. He fell clumsily, unable to keep quiet when the impact jarred the knife wound, and curled up in a protective ball around his arm until the pain eased enough that he could think again. Still cradling his arm, he shifted awkwardly over onto his side to look up at his attacker, and felt his stomach drop when he saw their faces.
They were wild Fae, seated on the backs of enormous gold and white stags, their faces and bare torsos painted in bright colours. Three of them were female, their dark hair knotted and braided with beads and feathers, surrounding their angular faces like twisted coronas. Each of them wore gold rings in their ears, noses, and lips. Their two companions were male, much paler in colouring, their piercings silver and their white-blond hair short and combed up into spikes. The stags they were mounted on gleamed under the sun, gold and white coats shining like metal, and they glared at Jesse with mad eyes, tossing their heads so the sun glinted off the sharp tips of their antlers.
The female Fae with the most ornate hair slid from the back of her mount, hefting her spear in one hand, and walked over to Jesse, casually kicking him over onto his back. She placed the butt of the spear against Jesse’s chest, leaning on it just hard enough to make Jesse grunt, and asking him something in a lyrical language that he didn’t understand. He shook his head, reaching for his magic but not quite daring to use it; not against five wild Fae in their own territory, and not when he was already weak and injured.
The female Fae looked back at her companions and spoke rapidly, gesturing with her free hand. Jesse thought he caught the word ‘Magia’ a few times, and didn’t much like the sharp-toothed grins the other Fae greeted the name with. He tried to shift his weight, testing the Fae’s attention, but she only pressed the spear harder into his chest without even looking at him, the corner of her full mouth curved up into a smirk. One of the males replied, then swung his bow down off his back and mimed shooting an arrow at Jesse’s face. Despite the heat Jesse felt a chill run up his spine and goosebumps broke out on his bare arms.
“You run,” the female Fae said, turning back to Jesse. “We hunt.”
Jesse stared at her for a moment, trying to think through the panic beginning to knot his thoughts. He’d heard more than one story about wild Fae hunting down any mage—or anything else—that wandered into their territory, but he’d always dismissed them as tall tales and exaggerations used to scare new agents. “I... Can’t we...” He licked at his dry lips. “Can we talk about this?”
“Up.” The Fae moved the spear and prodded him in the ribs. “Run.”
“There’s an elf,” Jesse said, pushing himself backwards like a crab and rising cautiously to a crouch, resting his hand on the hockey stick he’d dropped. His heartbeat pounded so hard in his chest that he felt lightheaded, and even the pain in his arm had faded under terror. “She came through too. Don’t you guys hate elves?”
“We know,” one of the males said, holding up the bloody knife Jesse had left lying beside the nixie’s stream. “We track. Run.”
Jesse saw the Fae with the bow take aim, this time with an arrow nocked and pulled back, and scrambled up with the hockey stick in his hand, turning on his heel to run. The first arrow whistled past his ear, close enough that the fletching brushed his cheek like the wing of a bird, and the second scored a shallow cut across his ribs. He heard the Fae laughing behind him and his back crawled with the sense that they were taking aim again, this time for his heart. Panic gripped him and he grabbed for his magic, using it to fling himself to a different part of the forest, the only thought in his mind to get away from the Fae. The sudden movement and the whiplash from barely keeping his magic under control made his stomach knot and he doubled over to retch, bringing up little more than bile.
Wiping a hand across his mouth, he forced himself into an awkward jog, looking for a place he could hide before he was forced to make a stand. Behind him he could hear distant shouts, telling him that he hadn’t gotten as far as he’d hoped. Groaning, he pushed on, half his attention on the trail in front of him and half his attention listening for hoofbeats. When he heard them getting closer, he ducked behind a broad tree, shifting his sweaty grip on the hockey stick. He counted the beats of his heart to keep calm, listening to the sound of the Fae approaching. When they got close enough, he stepped out from behind the tree and swung the stick as hard as he could at the lead stag, ignoring the screaming pain in his arm.
The stag went down on its nose, throwing its rider and tangling two of its companions in a knot of long limbs. The remaining Fae—the taller male and the female leader—managed to pull up in time, barely keeping their seats as their mounts reared. Jesse scrambled back and ran again, weaving through the trees, biting back a yelp when an arrow buried itself in a tree trunk only inches from his head. He pulled magic again to jump forward and ducked behind another tree, leaning his back against the rough wood and trying to catch his breath, his head spinning with the exertion. The shouts this time sounded distinctly angry and Jesse wouldn’t help grinning a little before he pushed away from the tree and staggered on through the undergrowth.
The trees began to thin enough that he started to catch glimpses of rolling golden fields in the distance, but he slowed and hesitated before leaving the shelter of the forest, glancing nervously back over his shoulder. He knew he’d be an easy target out in the open, especially when exhaustion dragged heavily on his limbs and now that the adrenaline was fading, and he didn’t think the Fae would be interested in playing cat-and-mouse after he’d sticked them. Taking a deep breath, he shifted his grip on the hockey stick again and turned back, planning to head along the edge of the forest and go back to his plan of finding a spot to hide and rest.
He made it barely two steps before the Fae appeared through the trees, spreading out into a fan to force him towards the fields, raising their spears and whooping. Jesse forced himself to run again, his breath tearing through his lungs, and gathered magic as he did, hoping he could force a gate before the Fae skewered him like a bug on a pin. Every step hurt and he could feel the magic fighting his control, making his skin burn and tingle, but he brought his will to bear on it and slowly shaped it into what he needed.
The sun was so bright out from under the trees that he stumble, unable to keep from squeezing his eyes shut, and almost lost his grip on the magic squirming like an eel in his mental grasp. Air rushed over him and he felt Juliet’s magic suddenly, so close that for a moment he thought it was her running beside him, a dark and blurry shape to his sun-dazzled eyes. He reached out blindly and brushed feathers with the tips of his fingers, and when he squinted he saw it was the gryphon, spinning around to raise its wings in challenge to the approaching Fae.
Barely maintaining his fingernail grip on his magic, Jesse turned and struggled up onto the gryphon’s back, flinching when five arrows bounced off the remnants of Juliet’s shield. He tried to follow Juliet’s signal back home but it twisted and lashed at him, and he felt himself start to lose control, this time with no hope of regaining it. He dropped the hockey stick and tangled his fingers in the gryphon’s ruff as it lunged forward, his eyes drawn to the bracelet tied around his wrist, its colours still bright despite a layer of dust and spots of blood. He thought of Elliot, picturing Elliot’s kind eyes and crooked grin, and felt his tenuous control on his magic snap, flinging him and the gryphon headlong through a gate that snapped shut behind them.
He caught a glimpse of a long, neatly furnished living room before the gryphon crashed into the sofa, reducing it to kindling. The impact threw Jesse over the gryphon’s head and he landed hard in the corner, all the breath knocked out of his lungs so that he couldn’t even cry out at the pain of the wound in his arm tearing open. The gryphon pushed itself out of the wreckage of the sofa, tail lashing, and turned to shriek a challenge at the sound of footsteps hurrying down the stairs from the second floor.
“Holy shit.” The voice was Elliot’s, faint with shock. “The hell... Jesse? Is that you?”
“Uh-huh.” Jesse tried to get up but only made it to his knees and one hand, too tired to even lift his head. He heard Elliot tell the gryphon to get out of the way and almost at the sound of the gryphon hurriedly obeying, and a moment later Elliot knelt beside him, putting an arm around his shoulders.
“Long story.” Jesse shifted painfully onto one hip and dropped his head on Elliot’s shoulder, just grateful to be off his feet. “I’m a mage, that’s a gryphon, and I’m really sorry about your couch. I’ll buy you a new one.”
“Hush.” Elliot gently unwrapped the dirty makeshift bandage from Jesse’s arm and made a ‘tsk’ noise. “If I help you, think you can make it upstairs to the bath? I need to clean out all these wounds.”
“No,” Jesse said, but he struggled to his feet with Elliot’s help and they made their slow way past the gryphon—which made a low crooning noise but otherwise stayed crouched against the wall—and up the stairs. By the time they reached the second floor, Jesse could barely keep his feet under him and gratefully sat down on the closed lid of the toilet when Elliot helped him into the bathroom.
“I’m going to run you a bath,” Elliot said, moving away just enough to turn on the water. Jesse nodded and closed his eyes, and when he opened them again to Elliot shaking him, the bath was already full. “Hey, talk to me, Jess. Stay awake for a little bit longer. You’re a mage?”
“Yeah. We both are. Me and my sister.” Jesse rubbed at his eyes with his good hand, stumbling over words that felt like mush in his mouth. “We can cast spells and we keep the upper world safe. I’m sorry about the gryphon in your living room. Elves are trying to take over my sister’s territory and I got dragged into Fae territory and stabbed by Kith’s mother and hunted by wild Fae, so I tried to get home and I saw your bracelet and then we went through a gate. Sorry about your couch.”
“You said that already. It’s fine.” Elliot helped him to his feet, supporting him until he could awkwardly step into the tub. Jesse sank down into the heat and immediately felt better, even when the hot water stung at his cuts and scrapes. “I’ll be as gentle as possible, but this is probably going to hurt. Try not to pass out. You said you were stabbed?”
“By an elf.” Jesse hissed through his teeth when Elliot started cleaning the fresh and dried blood from the knife wound in his arm. “Then a bunch of Fae chased me through a giant forest. It sucked.”
Elliot laughed a little. “Very eloquent. I’m going to grab some disinfectant, hold on.”
Jesse nodded and let his eyes close, listening to Elliot get up and rummage in a nearby cupboard. The slam of the cupboard door closing startled him out of the doze he was slipping into and he opened his eyes to watch Elliot lay out disinfectant, bandages, and clean washcloths on top of a towel draped over the toilet lid. He couldn’t help a faint smile at the conscientious way Elliot did it, and managed to push himself up straight when Elliot knelt down beside the tub with a washcloth in one hand and the bottle of disinfectant in the other.
“Done this before?” Jesse asked, gritting his teeth and trying to keep still when Elliot liberally applied disinfectant to his wounds.
“It’s like washing my aunt’s Great Dane,” Elliot said, flashing him a grin.
“Gee, thanks. I probably smell about as bad.”
“Maybe a little.” Elliot helped him out of the tub and wrapped him in a big fluffy towel, pausing a moment to stroke Jesse’s hair back off his forehead. I’ll get some butterfly stitches on your arm then you can get some sleep. Do you think you can manage some tea and soup first? And what do I do about the gryphon?”
“No, I have to go back,” Jesse said, following Elliot to a bedroom at the other end of the hall and sinking down on the end of the neatly made bed. “This is all my fault.”
“I doubt that. Sit tight, Jess. I’ll go put the gryphon in the backyard or something and make you some food. What do gryphons eat?”
Jesse stared at him for a moment, surprised out of his own circling thoughts, then laughed. “You’re taking this really well.”
“My cousin says I’m so open-minded sometimes she worries my brain might fall out.” Elliot grinned, but his smile faded when he looked Jesse over. “Are you sure you’re okay? Maybe I should take you to the hospital.”
“No. The gryphon might eat some raw steak.” Jesse’s stomach growled at the thought. “Me too. Preferably mine should be cooked.”
“I’ll see what I can do. You just rest.” Elliot ruffled Jesse’s hair and left the room.
“Be careful,” Jesse called after him. “If he gets aggressive, just leave him alone and come get me.”
“I can handle it.” Elliot’s voice drifted back from the stairs. “You just rest.”
Thinking that was the best idea he’d heard in a while, Jesse pulled the towel around himself, letting his eyes shut again. His arm still throbbed but even that couldn’t keep him from slipping into the twilight state between awake and asleep, only vaguely aware of noises from downstairs followed shortly after by the rising smell of something cooking. His chin dropped onto his chest and he didn’t wake until Elliot gently shook his shoulder and pressed a warm mug into his hands. Jesse mumbled a thank you and sipped at the liquid, which turned out to be tea sweetened with honey. He shifted over to let Elliot sit beside him and traded the mug for the sandwich Elliot offered, eating it so fast he got the hiccups.
“Feel better?” Elliot asked, taking the empty sandwich plate and leaning over to put it on a nearby dresser.
“I do, actually.” Jesse took the tea back. “Get the gryphon outside?”
“Yeah, offered him a steak and he followed me right out. Don’t know what I’ll tell my cousin about her sofa, though, or what happened to that steak in the freezer.”
“I’ll replace them for her.” Elliot put an arm around Jesse’s shoulders, the movement a little hesitant. “This okay?”
“It’s nice.” Jesse leaned into him. “This really is all my fault though. The mess with the elves, putting my sister in danger, even your cousin’s couch.” He sighed. “I’m an asshole.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“Jesus, like I even know where to start.” Jesse rubbed at his burning eyes. “Kith’s mother said it was me being uncertain that let them come in. Kith and his friends were okay, even though Jules hates them, but the others want to kill us all, even Kith. And Kith keeps hitting on me and I...” He took a swallow of the tea and shrugged one shoulder. “Kinda liked it. Sometimes.”
“Is Kith that guy you were with in Guelph?”
Jess laughed a little. “Yeah, how’d you guess?”
“He looked at you like a dog looks at a bone. And you didn’t exactly seem to mind.”
“Says the guy who gave a total stranger on the train his phone number. You’re not exactly helping anything with your megawatt smile and your pre-med and your travelling around the world. And you’re okay with a gryphon in your backyard and patching me up. You’re kind and hot, and that’s really not fair. I’m not... I don’t know who or what I am.”
To his surprise, Elliot laughed. “How old are you?”
“Almost 19.” Jesse tried to keep the defensiveness out of his voice but was pretty sure he failed.
“Jess, you’ve barely lived yet. You think anyone knows who they are at 18? That elf or whatever was wrong to tell you it’s your fault. Nobody knows who or what they are at 18, or at 20, or most of the time even at 25 or 30. And that’s okay.”
“Jules knows. And you seem to have a pretty good idea too.”
“I can’t speak for your sister, but I’m lucky because I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a little kid and I have family who can support that. They’d also support me if I decided I wanted to be a beach bum for a few years. There’s nothing wrong with you, Jess. Anyone who says there is needs a kick in the ass.” He rubbed his thumb lightly against Jesse’s upper arm. “Tell me if I’m getting too personal, but is it your future you’re more worried about, or your sexuality?”
Jesse felt himself blush. “...Both. The group that sort of controls mages, they’ve been after me to join since I was about 13, but I don’t want to be one of their errand boys. I don’t hate things from the lower world just because they’re not us. As for the whole boys or girls mess, that’s just what it is. A mess.”
“Only because you let it be. You’re turning yourself inside out because you think you’re doing something wrong and you’re not, Jesse. You’re not wrong and you’re not bad. You are, however, allowed to be uncertain, and that includes uncertainty about who you are, who you’re going to become, and who you want to make out with along the way.”
Jesse looked at him, studying his face and the sincerity in his eyes, then pushed himself up and kissed Elliot on the mouth, curving his hand around the back of Elliot’s neck. Elliot’s mouth opened under his and his hand slid down Jesse’s back to his waist, palm warm against Jesse’s skin. Goosebumps ran up Jesse’s arms and he couldn’t help a shiver, pressing in against Elliot until Elliot pulled back just enough to put a little space between them.
“Not that I object to kissing you,” Elliot murmured, “but now probably isn’t the best time.”
“Sorry.” Jesse sat back, running a hand through his hair. “I’m the king of stupid moves.”
“I said I don’t object. I just want you to get some sleep.” Elliot leaned in to kiss Jesse’s cheek.
“Can’t. I need to get back to Jules.” Jesse tried to get up but Elliot caught his arm and tugged him back, fingers gentle but solid around his wrist.
“No, you need to sleep. Doctor’s orders.”
“You’re only pre-med,” Jesse said, but he sank back down onto the bed. “I’ll sleep a couple of hours, then you wake me up and I’ll go home. I’ll take the gryphon with me, don’t worry.”
“I’m coming too. You might need me.”
Jesse snorted. “What do you know about taking on a bunch of elves?”
“Nothing, but I learn fast. And I can patch you up if you need it. Again.”
“Don’t rub it in.” Jesse sighed, dropping his head back on Elliot’s shoulder. “I’m too tired to fight with you. I’ll sleep. You wake me. Then I’ll decide.”
“Deal.” Elliot helped him move up the bed to the pillows and pulled the sheet up over him. “What’s your sister’s number? I’ll call her and let her know you’re okay.”
Jesse mumbled it, eyes already closed, and felt Elliot stroke his hair just before he slipped into a deep and dreamless sleep. When he woke, he spent a moment staring around the room, completely disoriented by the unfamiliar wallpaper, before he remembered where he was and why. Still feeling groggy and stiff, he rolled out of bed and went into the hallway, pausing a moment to listen to the silence before he headed for the bathroom to empty his bladder. A quick check of his arm showed redness and swelling, but the worst of the pain had eased and he could move his arm freely. Relieved, he rewrapped the bandages and went downstairs to see where Elliot had gone.
He found Elliot curled up in an armchair that had escaped the gryphon’s path of destruction, fast asleep, his cheek pillowed on the back of one hand. Jesse watched him for a moment, smiling a little, then shook him awake. “Hey. You were supposed to wake me up.”
“You needed the rest,” Elliot mumbled, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes. “Want some coffee?”
“Yes. And I could eat a horse and come back for seconds. Can I borrow some clothes? I’m kind of tired of walking around in my underwear.”
“Help yourself. I’ll see what I can put together.” Elliot heaved himself up and went into the kitchen, scratching absently at his lower back.
Jesse made his way back upstairs, trying not to fret over the fact that an entire night had passed, and rummaged through the drawers in Elliot’s room until he found a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt that fit well enough and didn’t look as expensive as most of Elliot’s clothing. He pulled them on, resisting the urge to poke around in Elliot’s things, and went back down to the kitchen, accepting the mug of coffee and the plate of microwaved bacon Elliot handed him.
“I couldn’t get through to your sister,” Elliot said. “How are we getting there?”
“Teleporting,” Jesse said through a mouthful of bacon. “Kind of. I’m not supposed to do it without permission because the world will end or something, but I think this counts as an emergency. Come on, let’s get the gryphon and go.”
“End the world?” Elliot asked, following Jesse out the back door into the long, fenced backyard.
“It hasn’t yet.” Jesse spotted the gryphon dozing under a large oak tree in the corner of the yard and whistled to it, grinning when its head came up and it scrambled to its feet. It trotted to them and rubbed its head against Jesse’s chest, crooning deep in its throat. “Thank you,” Jesse told it, scratching under its chin. “Ready to go, Ell?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.” Elliot took his hand. “This, uh, it won’t hurt, right?”
“Not if I do it right.” Jesse squeezed Elliot’s hand, took a deep breath, and reached for his magic. It responded to his call like an obedient dog, coiled and waiting, until he pictured Juliet in his mind and took all three of them home.