Spending the morning helping Dmitri build a chicken coop was a good distraction, if only because by lunchtime Jesse was too exhausted to worry about much more than getting a cold drink and sitting down for a while. His hands hurt and he could feel the beginnings of a pulled muscle in his shoulder, and he’d forgotten to put sunscreen on to protect his bare arms. When Dmitri finally took pity on him and took him back inside for lunch, Jesse could see in the bathroom mirror that his shoulders were nearly as red as Aramis’ scales. He dug through the cabinet for some aloe lotion and took it out into the kitchen, handing the bottle to Dmitri and dropping down in a chair.
“We definitely need to get you outside more this summer,” Dmitri said, gently rubbing the lotion into the skin of Jesse’s shoulders. “I thought you were all into sports in high school, taking gym class all the way through. Jules said you were.”
“We screwed around on the basketball court for half an hour and spent most of one semester hearing horrifying stories from the Cryptkeeper about how sex will make our junk fall off or something.” Jesse touched his arm gingerly, feeling the heat of the sunburned skin through his fingers.
“Well, did it?”
Jesse felt his face heat up and dug his thumbnail into the top of the table, lifting one shoulder in half a shrug.
“Ah.” Dmitri ruffled his hair. “Grilled cheese for lunch?”
“Please.” Jesse twisted in his chair as Dmitri headed for the fridge. “Throw that tomato out, by the way. Athos was drooling all over it yesterday.”
They talked about the weather and about hockey over lunch, and Dmitri promised to find his hockey gear in the garage so they could play a little one-on-one in the driveway. Jesse didn’t protest much when Dmitri told him to stay inside for the afternoon and relax, though he felt a little guilty about not helping out. He washed the dishes instead and did some vacuuming, until Porthos made her opinion on the noise clear by biting through the cord. Scolding her didn’t have much effect and he gave up on trying, coiling the cord up instead and hoping Juliet wouldn’t notice.
With nothing to do except watch stupid daytime television on the satellite, he found his thoughts going back to the man—Kith—he’d seen in town. He’d spent a good chunk of the previous evening trying to decide if the invitation to come over was a joke or not, and with the afternoon free he started seriously considering going over to find out.
He had a shower first, wincing at the spray on his sunburn, and changed into better clothes than the old gym T-shirt and shorts. Aramis watched him superciliously from the bed as he decided on a shirt and yawned when he asked her opinion, showing her curled pink tongue. He stuck his tongue out in return and went to give his teeth a quick brush before going outside to ask Dmitri if he could borrow the truck.
“I met a couple people in town while I was there getting groceries,” he said in response to Dmitri’s question. “They said to come hang out, so I figured, you know, it might be fun.”
“Okay. Just don’t stay out too late, okay?” Dmitri lifted a hand and turned back to the wall he was putting together for the coop.
The farmhouse was set so far back from the road, almost hidden behind a stand of trees, that Jesse almost drove right past it and had to slam on the brakes hard enough to make the tires squeal. He turned the truck into the long gravel driveway that led up to the big black barn Kith had mentioned, and drove slowly up to the house. Distracted by admiring the size of the farm, he didn’t see Kith at the foot of the front path until he’d gotten out of the truck.
Kith seemed surprised to see him, then he gave Jesse a grin that made Jesse’s stomach feel like he’d just gotten on a rollercoaster; not exactly an unpleasant sensation but one that unsettled him a little. Relieved he hadn’t been told to get lost, he returned the smile, resisting the urge to shove his hands into the pockets of his jeans and rock back and forth on his heels like a little kid.
“Hi,” he said, then added, “You, uh, you invited me to come over. Yesterday. Jesse Morgan?”
“I remember.” Kith gestured to the house. “Come in. Please ignore the mess; there’s six of us and we’re still moving everything in.”
“Six?” Jesse walked up the stone path and pushed open the screen door into the enclosed porch. There were boxes crammed against the walls on either side, tall enough to block some of the light, and he could see a hockey net in one corner, with a pile of sticks and padding tucked into it. “Your... parents? Siblings?” He swallowed. “Your, um... The woman with you yesterday, she’s your girlfriend?”
“Why do you ask?” The amusement shading Kith’s voice made Jesse glad he was turned away so that Kith couldn’t see his red face.
He picked up a hockey stick for something to do with his hands, smoothing his fingers along the Easton logo on the shaft. “Just curious. Nosy. This is a really nice stick.”
“You can have it if you want.” Kith smiled again when Jesse shot him a startled look. “It was a gift, but I’m afraid I don’t play hockey.”
“Seriously?” Jesse gave the stick a longing look then reluctantly put it back with the others. “That’s really generous of you, but I can’t. That’s a Stealth RS. They run something like 300 bucks and the pros use them.” He grinned a little. “And sorry, you’re not allowed to stay in Canada if you don’t play hockey, or at least watch it sometimes on TV.”
Kith’s eyes—still almost gold even in the cloud-shaded light of the sun coming through the windows beside the door—widened slightly. “Really?”
“No, I’m just screwing with you,” Jesse said, laughing. “Where are you from anyway? You look like this guy I knew in school whose family’s from Iran, but the accent’s kinda... Not quite British, but almost.”
“All over.” Kith leaned past him to pick up the stick, his shoulder brushing Jesse’s. For a moment Jesse thought he felt something off, a little like the tingle that went down his spine when Juliet used magic near him, then Kith straightened and the feeling vanished. Kith pressed the stick into his hands, holding it gently against Jesse’s chest, his bare fingers not quite close enough to touch Jesse’s. “Here. It’s yours. Refusing a gift twice is rude. And Morwen’s not my girlfriend. Except for my cousin, we are all only companions. Friends, I suppose.”
“Okay.” This close Jesse had to look up to meet Kith’s eyes, a little startled to realize Kith had the advantage of at least 3 inches of height. “But you’re going to learn to play hockey. I’ll teach you.”
Kith studied him for a moment, then the corner of his mouth quirked up. “I look forward to it.” He released the stick and stepped back as the screen door banged open. The redhead who came in stopped when he saw them and gave Kith a look that Jesse didn’t understand, then nodded to Jesse and came forward a few steps.
“You must be Jesse Morgan. I’m Corvin.”
“Do you have any ugly friends, or are you guys all vacationing models or something?” Jesse asked before he could stop himself. The pull—whatever it was; he’d told himself more than once in the past few months that he could objectively find another guy attractive without finding him attractive—wasn’t as strong as with Kith, but he still found himself feeling flustered and vaguely inadequate.
“No,” Corvin said thoughtfully. “I don’t think we do.”
A sudden crack of thunder outside prevented Jesse from sticking his foot any further into his mouth. The rain began to beat a tattoo on the roof a few seconds later, streaking the windows beside the door and turning the light grey. Corvin and Kith exchanged another look that Jesse couldn’t read, then Kith went to open the door into the house and gestured Jesse through into a long front hall tiled with alternating grey and red tiles.
Jesse kicked off his shoes onto the mat by the door and leaned the hockey stick out of the way against the wall, then followed Kith into a large, airy kitchen. Accepting the glass of water he was offered, he sat at the wide kitchen table and looked around, impressed by the shining appliances and marble counters. Thunder rumbled again outside and the lights flickered, but stayed on.
“Are you renting or did you buy the place?” Jesse asked, watching lightning flash across the window over the gleaming metal sink.
“It was a gift,” Kith replied, taking the seat beside him.
“Jesus, another one? All I usually get is socks and underwear.”
Kith spread his hands and smiled. “We are very lucky.”
“No shit,” Jesse muttered, torn between jealousy and wanting another one of those smiles directed at him. “What do you do? You know, for a living. A job.”
“My cousin is a hunter.”
“Okay, but what do you do?”
Something flickered in Kith’s eyes as fast as the lightning, there and gone again so fast that Jesse couldn’t even begin to interpret it. “My father died when I was very young, and left my mother and I with more than enough to support us.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Jesse dropped his gaze and rubbed his glass in a small circle, spreading condensation on the table’s surface.
“It’s not like we were close. I never knew him.” Kith shook his head and looked out the window. “I don’t think the weather will be clearing any time soon. Would you like to stay for dinner?”
“Um, sure. I just need to let my sister’s boyfriend know.” Jesse dug his phone out of his pocket and sent Dmitri a quick text message, promising to be back home by dark.
He met the rest of Kith’s companions just before dinner: Kith’s cousin, Celina, mute Cato, and San, who seemed more interested in her book than in him. He wasn’t usually shy—in high school he hadn’t been one of the popular kids, but he’d had enough friends, especially on the lacrosse team—but sitting in the living room while dinner was being made by a man Kith dismissed as ‘outside help,’ he felt very young and awkward. By the time dinner was done, he was feeling strung out and exhausted just from the energy in the room, and he was glad to make his excuses to go home and let Kith walk him outside to the truck.
“You seem a little overwhelmed,” Kith said, smiling a little and leaning against the truck with his arms crossed over his chest.
“You have very... intense friends.” Jesse opened the passenger side door and put the hockey stick in the footwell, leaning against the seat, then shoved the door shut again. He looked down the body of the truck to where Kith was standing and dug the toe of his sneaker into the wet ground. “Thanks for having me, even if I was a total dork. You want to, um, hang out sometime? Again?”
Kith grinned. “You mean like a date?”
“No!” Jesse fought the urge to rub at his hot cheeks, hoping it would just look like part of his sunburn. “I mean, no offense or anything. There’s a pool hall in town, I think. Might be something to do.” He tried a smile that didn’t feel natural at all, but Kith didn’t back away so he supposed it must at least look normal. “Or, hey, I said I’d teach you hockey.”
“Pool is fine. Meet me here tomorrow, before noon.” Kith straightened up and stretched with his arms over his head, making his shirt ride up enough to show an inch of golden skin between the hem of the shirt and his jeans. Jesse refused to look down, keeping his gaze firmly on Kith’s face. “Have a good night, Jesse.”
Something in the way Kith said his name brought Jesse forward a step, but before he could do anything else Kith moved away from the truck and headed up the path towards the house, lifting one hand in a lazy wave. Jesse took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then walked around the truck to climb into the driver’s seat, dropping his forehead against the steering wheel.
“I’m a fucking idiot,” he muttered, then sat up, switched the engine on, and reversed carefully out of the driveway.
He got the use of the truck the next day by promising to pick up some grain on the way home and went to pick up Kith, a little relieved that the only other person he saw was Morwen, sunbathing on the front lawn in a bikini that left little to the imagination. He raised a hand to her but she either didn’t see him or ignored him, and he dropped his hand again, feeling foolish in a way he hadn’t felt since being rejected by the girl he had a crush on in grade ten. The feeling faded when Kith came out and slid into the passenger seat, pushing it back so he could stretch out his long legs.
“Want lunch first?” Kith asked as they reached the outskirts of town. “I’m told there’s a pub called The Randy Badger.”
Jesse snorted a laugh. “Yeah, food’s not bad either. Sure, I could eat.” He turned the truck into the pub parking lot, cut the engine, and got out to follow Kith into the cool, dark interior.
The host greeted them and then did a double take at Kith, his friendly greeting smile slowly transforming into an expression like he’d just seen his favourite movie star. Bemused and feeling distinctly ignored, Jesse trailed along behind as he ushered Kith to an empty table in the corner. Heads turned to watch them until they were seated, and Jesse felt the first touch of unease even while feeling smug that he was the one eating lunch with Kith.
“This is weird,” he said, half under his breath, and jumped when Kith asked him what was weird. “Um, people staring, I guess. Do people usually stare at you when you go out?”
“Sometimes.” Kith settled himself in his chair and picked up a menu. “Maybe I look like someone famous.”
“Yeah, you look like a movie star.” Jesse watched him study the menu, trying not to feel stupid and dazzled, trying to see if there was anything more at work than good looks and animal magnetism. He almost spotted something in the way the sunlight coming through the window lay across Kith’s dark hair, picking up highlights that were almost blue, then the waitress arrived in a flurry of giggles and he lost the idea.
He tried to get more information about Kith’s background over lunch, but Kith only gave vague, noncommittal answers and changed the subject until Jesse found himself trying to explain hockey and the NHL instead. Every time he tried to get back on track, Kith smiled at him and his train of thought derailed. By the end of the meal he wasn’t sure if he was more frustrated by Kith’s evasiveness or by the funny feeling in his belly every time he watched Kith smile or tuck his hair behind one ear.
“This is ridiculous.” He didn’t realize he’d said it out loud until Kith raised a dark eyebrow. “The food. It’s really good.”
Kith stared at him for a moment. “Has anyone ever told you that you are quite strange?”
“Yeah, my sister, all the time.”
“The one you’re staying with, right? She isn’t home?” Kith pushed his empty plate away and propped his chin on one hand. The sunlight gave his eyes a golden sheen and the intensity of having that steady gaze centered on him made Jesse feel like he needed a cold shower. “What’s her name?”
“Jules.” A glimmer of an idea made Jesse give the nickname instead of Juliet’s real name. “She’s in Ottawa on a business trip, but she should be home soon. Hopefully.”
“I look forward to meeting her,” Kith murmured, then looked up as the waitress approached again with a look of lust so obvious on her face that Jesse wondered if he should give them some time alone.
He wasn’t completely surprised when the waitress told them that their meal was on the house, and even less surprised when she outright handed Kith her number written on a scrap of paper. Fighting down a surge of jealousy he knew he had no right to, he left a five dollar bill as a tip and headed for the door. Satisfaction and more than a little relief swept through him when Kith followed him out into the hot summer sunshine. They walked the block down to the pool hall and Jesse noted that while he was sweating, Kith seemed unaffected, even in dark jeans and a black tank top. Jesse envied him that, uncomfortably sticky in the heat and glad to step into the air-conditioned interior of the pool hall. It was still half-empty at this time of day, with only a few players at the tables neatly lined up under hanging lights.
“Beer?” Kith asked.
Jesse looked at the heavyset woman behind the bar and decided even Kith’s charm would bounce off her. “I still have a couple months to go until I’m 19, and if I get carded, we’ll probably get our asses kicked out.”
“That wasn’t what I asked.”
Jesse snorted. “All right, fine. You’re the one who gets to entertain me when she tells us to piss off.”
Kith paused and looked him up and down, slowly, before giving him a wicked grin. “Is that a promise?”
“Shut up,” Jesse managed, voice a little strangled, and went to find them an empty table.
He watched Kith walked up to the counter as he was racking the balls, and saw the woman go from polite but stern-faced to blushing and giggling within five minutes. Suddenly annoyed, Jesse pulled a touch of magic and sent a tendril in Kith’s direction, pinching him hard just above his hip. Kith jumped and the air around him shimmered slightly, but before Jesse could decide what it was, Kith turned and caught his gaze. The next thing he knew, he had a beer in one hand, still cold and wet with condensation, and he was watching Kith set up the first shot. Blinking, he looked at the beer, then checked to make sure he could still touch his magic, relieved to find it was as present as it always was.
He lost the first game badly, awkward and clumsy every time he tried to line up a shot, and distracted by trying to figure out just what Kith was. Part of him wondered if he should talk to Juliet, but the thought of her condescending lecture on leaving things along unless he wanted to actually join the Magia made him change his mind.
In contrast to his bad posture and inability to aim, Kith moved the pool cue like an extension of his arm and took his shots with an almost mathematical accuracy. Irritated and beginning to feel worn out from constant emotional turmoil, Jesse downed the rest of his beer and snapped, “So is there anything you’re not perfect at?”
Kith arched an eyebrow. “No. But you also have a horrible position. Here, I’ll show you.” He stepped behind Jesse and put a hand on his elbow, gently pulling his arm back. The warmth of his fingers almost drowned out the sense of magic that tingled down Jesse’s spine, and he shivered, uncomfortably aware of Kith at his back even if he couldn’t see him. “Don’t til your elbow so much and relax your shoulders. You’re too tense.”
“Kith?” Jesse cleared his throat. “People are staring. Please let go of me.”
“I apologize.” Kith released him and moved back to the pool table, picking up his cue. “Another game?”
They played until the first of the late afternoon crowd drifted in, then left and walked back to the truck. Neither of them spoke on the short drive back to Kith’s, but as Kith got out, Jesse said, “Sorry for getting weird on you.”
“I like weird.” Kith flashed him a smile and shut the passenger door before heading up the path to the house.
Jesse cooked dinner when he got home, trying to ease his guilt about spending all day out with Dmitri’s truck. All three pygmy dragons sat in a row on the kitchen table as he did, watching his every move, but when he offered them each a bit of raw hamburger meat, he got three turned-up noses and a hiss from Aramis. He gave them a dirty look in return and sniffed himself, wondering if he smelled bad. When he didn’t smell anything more than deodorant, aftershave, and sweat, he shrugged and went back to frying the hamburger meat. By the time Dmitri came in from freeing the animals, he’d just finished patting the grease off the burgers with some paper towel.
“Hey, good timing. Go wash your hands and then you can slap together your own burger.” Jesse waved towards the buns, cheese, and other toppings he’d spread out on plates on the counter.
“Maybe I’ll keep you around after all.” Dmitri gave him a quick one-armed hug and went into the bathroom, trailed by the dragons.
“They’ve been weird,” Jesse said around a mouthful of his own burger when Dmitri came back out.
“Who, the Musketeers?”
“Yeah.” He swallowed his mouthful. “Hissing and growling at me.”
Dmitri glanced down at the dragons clustered around his feet, their reptilian expressions clearly saying they were waiting for him to drop something from the burgers he was putting together. “Maybe you smell funny.”
“See, that’s what I thought, but I’m pretty sure I smell fine.”
Dmitri sniffed at him on the way by to sit on the other kitchen chair. “Nothing a shower wouldn’t fix. Have a good time today?”
“Yeah, pretty good. You don’t mind me stealing the truck?”
“Not as long as you’re okay with being my errand boy. You might have to discuss it with Jules when she gets home though.”
“Will that be any time soon?”
“No idea.” Dmitri shrugged. “Things keep coming up.”
“Aren’t you glad you’re dating a Magia agent?”
“I’m glad I’m dating Juliet.”
“Oh, gag me with a spoon.” Jesse rolled his eyes and got up to put his plate in the dishwasher.
“What about you, Jess? Got anybody back in Alberta? Met anyone special in town?”
“Nope.” Jesse turned back from the dishwasher and had to scramble to avoid stepping on Aramis, catching himself hard in the hip on the edge of the counter. “Fuck.”
“You okay?” Dmitri got up and shooed the dragons out of the way. “Want some ice?”
“No.” Jesse rubbed at his hip and glared at Aramis, who was busy cleaning her tail just in case his presence had tainted it. “I’m serious, Dmitri, they’re pissed off at me or something, but I don’t know what I did.”
“Well, I did say you should have a shower...” Dmitri grabbed him in a headlock and tickled his side until he gave in and started laughing, trying to shove Dmitri away with both hands. “Say uncle.”
Jesse squirmed, trying to get his elbow into Dmitri’s ribs, then gave up; for all his lean build, Dmitri was about as easy to move as a boulder. “Okay, uncle, you win. Now let go before I rupture something.”
“Yeah, yeah, teenagers are so dramatic.” Dmitri released him, but only to sling an arm around his shoulders. “Don’t worry too much about the Musketeers. They’ll get over it. There’s a hockey game on tonight, want to watch?”
“Sure.” Jesse thought of the Easton hockey stick, safely hidden under his bed upstairs until he could think of a good excuse for being handed a 300-dollar gift. He smiled at Dmitri and let himself be led into the living room, hoping that yelling at the screen would let him forget all the thoughts whirling through his head.
He spent the next few days either helping Dmitri with the farm chores—making an effort to at least give him a hand in the morning, before it got too hot—or hanging out with Kith and occasionally Corvin. He rarely saw Celina or Cato, San spent most of her time holed up in the library, and Morwen seemed annoyed whenever she saw him, her full mouth thinning into a line. Not sure what he did wrong, he tried to stay unobtrusive when she was around, afraid if he even tried to talk to her he’d stumble over his own tongue and say something offensive.
Kith took him for a walk along the trails behind the barn at the end of the week, after another banger of a thunderstorm that brought tornado warnings and killed the power. They walked mostly in silence, Kith apparently caught up in his own thoughts, Jesse still trying to find the missing piece that would solve the puzzle of Kith and his companions. It was hard to think with Kith walking beside him, though he was beginning to feel more clear-headed as the days passed.
They passed a paddock bordered with tall, weathered grey fencing and he glanced over the top at movement. At first glance the animals grazing in the distance looked like horses, until one tossed its head and he saw the long, spiralling horn. He stopped dead and squinted into the sunlight, trying to see the horn again, wondering if he’d just seen a trick of the light.
“Kith?” He glanced over his shoulder to where Kith stood a few feet away. “What are those?”
“Those?” Kith glanced into the field, then turned a brilliant smile on Jesse. “They’re goats.”
The smile didn’t take him in as much as it would have even a day earlier, though his heartbeat still sped up. “Those are some big goats, Kith.”
“We breed them special.” Kith’s voice was still casual but there was something in the set of his mouth that warned Jesse to be careful. He studied Kith for a moment then decided he could protect himself, turned to put a hand on the fence, and vaulted over it.
He approached the animals carefully, stopping a few strides away when their heads came up. They stared at him with intelligent, half-mad eyes, nothing like Mojo and Geneva. The white one moved first, putting its lean body between Jesse and Kith, who had come into the paddock after him. Aware that the others—black, gold, red, and silver—were watching him, Jesse carefully turned to face the white mare, holding his breath as she pressed the very tip of her horn to his chest.
She held him there for long moments, while the sweat slid down his spine, then she dropped her horn, leaving a small hole in his T-shirt, and pressed her nose to his hands, snuffling for food like any other animal. He rubbed her nose and managed to find a slightly lint-covered mint in his pocket, wiped it off and let her have it, then moved around her shoulder towards Kith.
“Virgin, huh?” Kith asked. The corner of his mouth quirked up but the smile didn’t reach his cold eyes.
“Don’t start with me.” Jesse reached out and took Kith’s face in both hands, feeling the power tingle along his nerves and watching Kith’s features change subtly, becoming more inhuman as the tips of his ears lengthened to points. Wide-eyed, Jesse released him and stumbled back, catching himself on the unicorn’s flank. “Shit. Elves.”