Smoke curling up from the corner of his mouth, Brandon slumped back in his chair and pulled his coat closer around him against the chill of the evening. The sun was sinking behind the cover of a leaden sky, leeching what little colour there was out of the grey day. A few hard snowflakes danced by on a sudden gust of wind and he tucked the hand not holding the joint in under his armpit for warmth. From the joint he took another long drag then pinched it out, holding the smoke in for long moments before blowing it out through his nose. He tossed the remains of the joint into the coffee can of sand in the corner of the balcony and pushed himself to his feet, going back inside his apartment.
He paused at the couch, where Alejandro had fallen asleep while watching a Law & Order rerun, and pulled the blanket off the back of the couch to cover him with. He ran his fingers through Alejandro’s hair and kissed his temple, then went into the kitchen to grab a bag of chips, standing at the counter to eat them. His fingers touched nothing but crumbs and he realized he’d zoned out, mindlessly eating his way through the entire bag. Making a face, he threw the bag in the garbage, washed the grease from his fingers, and tossed some chicken nuggets into the oven for dinner.
Alejandro stumbled into the kitchen a few minutes later, checked the oven, and put a bowl of frozen veggies into the microwave, nuking them on High. Sprawled back in a chair at the kitchen table, Brandon watched the light above them glow in Alejandro’s hair, studying the line of his jaw and the heartbeat pulsing visibly in the hollow of his throat. He took a deep breath and matched his own heartrate and breathing to Alejandro’s, smiling in real pleasure when he felt Alejandro’s pulse in the tips of his fingers, twining around his own.
“Bran.” Alejandro snapped his fingers in front of Brandon’s face, bringing him back to reality. “Stop staring at me with that goofy look on your face and eat your dinner.”
“It wasn’t that goofy,” Brandon said, but he did as he was told, nearly inhaling the plate of nuggets and mixed vegetables.
“You’ve been smoking a lot more recently,” Alejandro said between mouthfuls. “Since we went to see Shoshanna and Nabila. Everything okay?”
“Mmm. Yep, fine.”
Alejandro gave him a disbelieving look. “You’re not a good liar when you’re high, anyone ever tell you that?”
“You know what would suck?” Branodn popped the last chicken nugget in his mouth and answered himself around it. “Crocodiles with wings. Just swooping around all scales and teeth. Like dragons.” He stumbled slightly over the last word, seeing in his mind’s eye something huge coming up at him from dark depths. “Shit, I’m high.”
“No kidding.” Alejandro got up to take his plate to the sink. “Could be worse. You remember you got completely stoned at school in Grade 9 and thought you got that girl in front of you pregnant somehow? Whatever her name was.”
“Meagan,” Brandon said absently.
“Yeah, Meagan. I’d only met you three days before and I kinda wondered if maybe I should just run away while I still could. It was still pretty funny. You—”
“I’m empty.” The words fell out of his mouth and he saw them lying on the table, grey as gunmetal, but when he tried to pick them up to put them back into the secret place inside his heart, they sank into the table and disappeared.
“What?” Alejandro turned from the sink, frowning at him.
“Nabila said so. When a psychic tells you that you’re empty, I guess it’s gotta be true.”
“Why did she say you were empty?”
“She said there was an emptiness inside me and she was afraid of what might come along to fill it. Told me to be careful what I did and that maybe I could help you best by not helping you.” Brandon placed his hands flat on the table, watching his nails grow into wickedly sharp black claws. He dug them into the sanded wood, but when he blinked his nails were normal, the table unmarred.
“Well, screw her. I’d go completely insane without you, total bugfuck. You’re not empty. Maybe she just meant, I dunno, that you should be careful who you date in the future.”
Brandon laughed despite himself, seeing the noise as a flare of rainbow light that brought colour back to the kitchen. “Maybe. I love you, Leandro, you know? I’d never do anything to hurt you.”
“I know.” Alejandro dried his hands on his jeans and came over to give Brandon a hug. Brandon wrapped both arms around his waist and pulled him in, resting his forehead against Alejandro’s stomach. He could feel Alejandro breathing and gentle fingers stroking his hair, and let himself relax to the rhythm, breathing in the scent of Alejandro’s aftershave and the faint smell of laundry soap still clinging to his shirt.
“You don’t have to say it,” he muttered into Alejandro’s sweatshirt. “I turn into a little girl when I’m high.”
“Just don’t start trying to put this mess in pigtails.” Alejandro rubbed his knuckles against the bristly short cut on the side of Brandon’s ‘hawk. “At least not unless I have a camera.”
“Don’t be jealous, you know I’d rock it.” Brandon sat back, knuckling at his eyes. When he looked up again he saw the light sliding over Alejandro like gold, highlighting the angles of his face and running down his arms to drip from the tips of his fingers like rain. “Leandro, do me a favour. Toss that batch of weed. It’s fucking laced with something. I’m going for a nap.”
He shoved himself to his feet and stumbled down the hall to his bedroom, falling into bed fully clothed and dropping quickly into sleep. He dreamed of mountains like the edge of a serrated knife in the sky, towering over him where he stood like a speck of dust on a vast plain. The wind muttered and growled at him in a hundred different voices, pleading and insulting and crying for his help. He felt it whistle through him and looked down to find a gaping bloodless hole in his chest where his heart should have been, where now nothing but empty air dwelled.
He jerked awake lying on his side in his bed, knees drawn up almost to his chest. From down the hall he heard the distinctive theme music of another episode from the Law & Order series. Taking a deep breath, he uncurled from his cramped position and rolled over onto his back, trying to dismiss the dream as nothing more than his overactive imagination combined with a bad batch of weed. He told himself he’d get more out of Nabila when she and Shoshanna called about Ciaran and felt a little better for it, enough that he got out of bed and went to the living room to see if Alejandro had fallen asleep on the couch again.
Alejandro was still awake, if beginning to look a little zoned out. He gave Brandon a smile when Brandon dropped down on the couch beside him and asked, “Feeling any better?”
“Some.” Brandon glanced at the clock—5 minutes past midnight—and added, “Going back in a minute, though. Care to join me, or do you want to spend some more alone time with Detective Unstabler?”
“How do you manage to make even Law & Order: SVU into an innuendo?” Alejandro picked up the remote and turned the TV off. “I’m good. Let’s go to bed.”
Nabila called the next morning to tell them that she had a good lead on a way to track Ciaran down. Sipping at his fresh coffee, Brandon watched hope bloom on Alejandro’s face, cautious but visible, and felt his own muscles relax a little. They made plans to meet Nabila for lunch at a little Greek restaurant downtown and Alejandro hung up, his grin lighting up his face for the first time in weeks. Brandon waited for the urge to kiss him to pass—it came up every now and then until he remembered he’d already been down that road and decided he preferred mostly platonic friendship instead—and saluted him with the coffee mug.
“Good to see you smiling again, Leandro. We’ll have Ciaran back before you know it.”
“Jesus Christ, I hope so. I can’t take much more of this.”
Brandon made a ‘tsk’ noise. “Look at you, so ungrateful. I open up my home, my bed—if you steal all the blankets again, by the way, you’re sleeping on the floor—and this is all the thanks I get.”
“I’ll buy you lunch to make up for it.”
“Good enough.” Brandon drained his coffee and got up. “I’m going for a shower.”
They met Nabila on the street outside the restaurant and walked in all together, snagging a table by the window. While waiting for their food the conversation stayed safely on mundane topics, and by the time lunch had arrived and they were left alone to eat, Alejandro was nearly vibrating in his chair. Nabila gave him a look equal parts amusement and sympathy, reaching across the table to pat his hand like she had in the kitchen of her apartment. Brandon saw the flesh gape open over the dull grey-white glimmer of the bones in her forearm, blinked, and saw nothing but unmarked dark skin.
“You all right?” she asked, giving him a concerned look. “You just made a face like you saw a ghost or something.”
“Fine. Tell us about this lead on finding Ciaran.” He stuffed food into his mouth just to distract himself, chewing and swallowing it without really tasting it.
“Shanna knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody, ad infinitum, who claims to know worldwalking spells. As in spells that will let us move to another world. Shanna’s pretty good at locating things and people, and she thinks she can modify a worldwalking spell to take us to Ciaran. I’m going to tell you outright that I’m not really a big fan of the idea, because it’s dangerous as hell to play with spells like that, but she said I had to tell you two about it anyway.” Nabila paused to take a drink of water. “So I’m telling you, but it’s not going to happen for a while, if it does. I’m still hoping that we can come up with a safer way.”
“It’s a start, though.” Alejandro mustered up a smile. “It’s better than sitting around doing nothing. Just... I don’t want to wait forever, you know?”
“I understand, honestly I do. We’re working as fast as we can, promise.” Nabila’s gaze slid to Brandon but he just looked blandly back at her until she dropped her eyes back to her food.
He waited until Alejandro had gone to the bathroom to ask her if she still thought he was empty, trying not to grit his teeth when she took her time finishing the last of her food before answering. She studied him for a moment, wiping her mouth on a napkin, then shrugged.
“Maybe empty wasn’t quite the right word. You’re just... very open. That kind of thing is dangerous when you’re working with spells, and to be honest, there’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to trust you at all. I saw you in my vision and it wasn’t pleasant.”
“Cryptic answers are cute, very mysterious, but maybe you could actually tell me what you saw.”
“Do you know the curse of Cassandra, Brandon?”
“A prophet from Greek mythology.” She gestured at the restaurant around them, smiling a little. “Apollo gave her the gift of foresight, but cursed her so that no one would ever believe her.”
“My best friend’s boyfriend disappeared in a flash of light and we just spent twenty minutes talking about spells and going to another world,” Brandon growled. “Try me.”
“I saw you down on your knees and screaming,” she said after a moment. “I saw you destroy your friends and everyone else around you. I saw you under control of darkness.”
“It won’t happen,” he said immediately, and saw the expression of mixed pity and condescension in her eyes. “Look, fine, I believe you saw that happening, but that doesn’t mean it will. I know about it now. I can make sure it doesn’t happen.”
“Yes, by walking away and letting us handle it.”
“I’m not walking away.” Out of the corner of his eye Brandon saw Alejandro coming back. “I’m not. He needs me.”
“I hope you’re right.” Nabila got to her feet and put some money down on the table. “Gotta run. I’ll call you when I know anything else.” She waved to Alejandro and left the restaurant, pulling her hood up over her short hair against the cold of the wind outside.
“Everything okay?” Alejandro asked, taking his seat again. “She kind of left in a rush.”
“Everything’s fine.” Brandon smiled at him. “Nothing wrong at all.”