Alex and Jessie are two apprentice sorcerer-alchemists playing with spells they haven’t quite mastered, when a casting takes an unexpected turn.
Jessie was looking at him like he was a crone revealed to Aphrodite in all her splendor—Odysseus unmasked in his manly beauty to the prudent Nausicaä. For his part Alex was feeling too many new things. A new kind of sight? An unprecedented ability to exploit—what? The very malleability of time and space?
And, not least—Jessie had kissed him?
Then the strangest mystery of all forced itself through his mental mob of conundra to the very front, and Alex found himself gaping anew at his friend, who still held Alex by his broad shoulders as if he might never let go. Jessie had suggested the idea of removing the door—before Alex had even known he could do it! “How?” Alex asked, amazed. “How did you—?”
Jessie’s grin spread to reach his ears. “I knew you’d ask the right question!” He gave Alex’s shoulders a last squeeze and then jumped back excitedly, much to Alex’s regret. He rounded the small, heavy table Alex had been working at and slapped one of the tomes he had haphazardly pushed aside. “Al Cahijd!” he announced proudly. “You reminded me of it before. I read the same passage. Those imbued with silver self-construed gain inhuman control over the shape and twist of the world,” he recited. “That’s you, Thompson! As soon as you forced the lock to fuse I remembered.”
“And you immediately decided to test it,” Alex said, “to get out of trouble.” His mind was swimming. There were a lot of ideas in that passage he wasn’t sure of, “inhuman” chief among them.
“Of course!” Jessie sang. He moved closer again, his pretty hazel eyes shining up at him. “Don’t you see what this means, old boy?”
“I—I—” He shook his head. “‘Imbued’?”
Jessie clicked his tongue. Grabbing Alex by the upper arm he dragged his friend over to the half-open glass doors leading out onto the stone terrace and the east garden, both of which were still being drenched by the afternoon downpour. There was just enough light in the room from the gas lamps and the fire for Alex to see their ghostly reflections in the glass: Jessie, pale and comely in his natty waistcoat and shirtsleeves, and himself, dark and laborer-hard, staring back at him with a bemused expression—and eyes that were not his own. He knew his own visage, and the eyes he was used to seeing the looking-glass were almost coal-black and remarkably intense. These eyes, however—these eyes, looking back into his own, were not his. They shone, and not with the gleam of coal embers but with a ring of pure, bright light exactly like reflected silver.
Alex’s knees felt weak and he started to collapse. Jessie caught him easily—he was stronger than he looked—and guided him to the club chair he’d been situated in before. Alex dropped into it limply, and Jessie perched on the arm beside him, vibrating with excitement.
“Imbued,” he repeated. He remembered the brief vision of his empty left hand. He looked at it now. There was indeed something odd about it, under the surface—a faintly throbbing, silvery cast to the veins, perhaps. He wasn’t sure he wasn’t imagining it. “I took… the silver into me,” he said, looking up at Jessie. It wasn’t quite a question.
Jessie nodded fervently. “The self-construed silver,” he corrected him. “Al Cahijd says you have to take hold of the silver while your own transmogrification sorcery is still alive within the metal. That’s what causes it to cleave onto you—to become one with your animus.” His expression turned thoughtful. “I wonder of the potency is proportionate to the size of the sample?” he mused. “If so, that was one herculean slab of copper you turned. That would make you plenty powerful!”
Alex shook his head again. That word “inhuman” from the tome was sticking in his head like a branch clogging a sump, and Jessie’s unbridled ardor for his condition was unnerving him as well. “I don’t know, Barker,” he hedged.
Jessie leaned forward and, to Alex’s slight alarm slid his hand around the brawn of Alex’s neck where no doubt it looked almost alabaster next to his dark, tawny skin. It was as though Jessie had caught a hunger for touching Alex during the charged moments of the experiment, and now craved not merely the curve of his arm or shoulder through the remove of fabric but warm, living flesh. “You have to do it again,” Jessie urged.
“Do it again!” Alex repeated, staring up at his friend. His reason distracted by Jessie’s touch, he felt as though he were left with only visceral reactions, and now that the thrill was wearing off his instinctive, unconscious mind was increasingly unsure of everything that had happened in the last few minutes. Those silver eyes—
Jessie nodded insistently. “Yes, again,” he said. “Γνῶθι σεαυτόν. You have to learn what you are now.”
As he got used to Jessie’s touch it seemed to stabilize him, like Jessie was a lightning rod, defusing his storms. Rationality began reasserting itself again at last, and Alex gave his friend a hard, knowing look. “You just want to see me change things,” he said after a moment.
Jessie grinned. “Naturally!” he said. “It’s only—”
“Wait.” Alex held up a hand, stopping Jessie’s babble. “How…” he started to ask. At first he was unsure exactly what his brain was calling his attention to, but then it surfaced like stepping stones across a stream. He met Jessie’s gaze. “How could you know I changed anything?”
Jessie’s blond eyebrows lifted. He seemed to immediately catch Alex’s drift. “I mean, I understand my awareness as the author—it would be a useless gift otherwise,” Alex went on quickly, more sure now that he was on to something. “But…” He shrugged. “The door never existed now, right? So how do you know anything was changed?”
Jessie considered for a moment, then his face split in a wide grin. To Alex it was like the sun breaking through clouds, and his heart tripped as he stared up at his beautiful sunshine boy.
“That’s easy,” Jessie said, his eyes glinting. “I was holding you, Thompson. I was holding you close.”
Their eyes locked on each other. Jessie was aware of his breath, passing slowly in and out of his lungs in slow, steady draws, almost the only motion in the room apart from the flickering of the fire and the rain outside. His pesky rational thought processes nudged him again—he was staring at a boy! Abruptly he felt his face warm, and—fascinatingly—a faint smear of rose appeared on Jessie’s cheeks, too, as if one reaction had induced the other sympathetically. And yet Jessie did not look away; if anything, his gaze softened and became even fonder. All at once Alex found himself wanting to “do things” after all, to use his silver gift and not flinch from it, if it meant Jessie looking at him like that.
Distantly, over the slackening rain, they heard the grandfather clock in the east hall dolefully chiming four o’clock. “Cook’ll be setting out tea,” Jessie said.
Alex was surprised to realize he was actually quite hungry. He glanced toward the doorless wall, then back at his friend. “So,” he challenged him, “seeing as you’ve had me remove our only means of egress from our present locale, how do you suppose we find our way to the dining room?”
Jessie winked. “We’ll have to brave the rain,” he said. “C’mon!”
Before he could say another word Alex found himself being hauled up out of the chair and straight out the french doors into the softening rain, now reduced to a sunlit shower. They ran for the side door to the east kitchens hand in hand, slapping their shoes in every puddle that had collected in the old uneven flagstones, laughing the whole way.
They were only a little wet when then bundled boisterously through the side door into the kitchens, and Cook—Mrs. Anderssen, that is, at least to her face—didn’t have them change outfits as Alex had thought she might. Instead she chivvied them straight into the smaller dining room, which was already set up for the late-afternoon meal.
Master Jaymes would not be joining them, Alex knew, being in the habit of taking a tray in his conservatory on weekday afternoons, and he was quite relieved to put off coming face to face with the old man and having him either reel in horror at what Alex had done to himself or furiously thrash him within an inch of his life, assuming one reaction did not follow the other in rapid succession. It would just be him and Jessie for supper, or “tea” as Jessie called it, plus the two other permanent residents of Jaymes Manor, the Master’s distant cousin Roland, a once-promising nobleman about town who’d now retired here in disappointment to the rolling countryside, having failed to interest any debutante—not even a young widow—in five successive seasons of balls and soirées; and his pretty but feckless young sister, Marguerite.
Roland was already present and frowning at his empty plate as if the meal had offended him in advance; on meeting him Alex had assumed that, as he was handsome enough, his failure to attract a mate must have had something to do with his personality, and over the two and a half years Alex had spent in residence there had been ample opportunities to confirm this theory. Marguerite, meanwhile, present as well and politely awaiting the boys’ arrival, was their age and on the whole genuinely charming, witty in conversation, and quite attractive for her sex, with ringlets of strawberry curls, a heart-shaped face, a demure bosom, and wide, cornflower blue eyes. She had, however, been trained by her elders to attach herself to any prospective male like a limpet, which became rather tiresome. She’d given Alex a go early on, him being, with the dark skin and brawn of a laborer, exactly the wrong choice and there an excitingly exotic specimen; but then Jessie had turned up, with his sweet smiles, lithe figure, and angelic visage, and her infatuation with Alex had melted away like an ice sculpture at a June wedding. Alex had never been so grateful to be relieved of a girl’s attentions in his life.
Alex greeted the others and seated himself by Marguerite and across from Roland, forcing Jessie to settle in opposite the young lady—directly in her line of sight. Jessie shouldered the burden gamely and offered her a smile and a nod as he sat. “Miss Shelton,” he said, acknowledging her before turning to his left. “Lord Shelton.”
“Barker,” Roland grunted. He frowned at Jessie. “You’re damp.”
Jessie smiled brightly at him. “I’m afraid we were caught in the parlor during the afternoon shower,” he said. “Bad luck, I’m afraid.”
Roland grunted again. “I don’t know why Nestor doesn’t knock down part of that wall and put a door in,” he grumbled to no one in particular—Nestor being Master Jayme’s Christian name, which no one used but Roland.
“I think it’s grand,” Marguerite enthused, gazing adoringly at Jessie across the table. “A bit of damp in your lovely hair brings out its hidden colors perfectly, I say. It’s marvelous!”
Alex looked over at him, inclined to agree. Though he kept it cut quite short Jessie’s hair was a very vibrant yellow that caught the sun and, apparently, a bit of rain equally fetchingly.
Jessie met Alex’s gaze and nodded subtly toward Marguerite, as if to say, Do something about her. Alex grinned.
“Nonsense. Now, if I ran this place—” Roland’s wandering stare latched onto Alex. “I say, Thompson, what the devil’s wrong with your eyes?”
Alex blinked at him. “Cataracts,” he answered immediately, somewhat to his own surprise. Evidently some part of his brain must have been working on this question behind the scrims.
“Cataracts?” Roland repeated in disbelief.
“Cataracts?” Marguerite said, turning to him with a tiny concerned crease between her perfectly tweezed brows.
“Cataracts?” echoed Jessie, just to get in on the fun.
“The kind you can see through,” Alex elaborated helpfully.
“I’ve never seen cataracts like that before,” Roland said doubtfully.
“Silver cataracts,” Jessie assured him. “Very rare.”
“Entirely congenital,” Alex said.
“Affects less than a hundredth of a percent of the population,” Jessie put in.
“Manifests at twenty-five,” Alex said.
“Also known in the medical textbooks as ‘jubilee cataracts’,” Jessie added, his own eyes alight. Alex had to press his lips together to keep from smiling.
Roland hmphed. “My condolences, then.”
“Thank you, Lord Shelton,” Alex answered politely.
“It’s ghastly! Are you sure you are all right, then, Mr. Thompson?” Marguerite asked.
“Quite all right, thank you, Miss Shelton.”
“And you can see well despite your condition, you say?” she asked, amazed.
“Perfectly well,” he assured her. “Although—I’m sad to report that some of my colors are a bit swapped around. Most inconvenient.”
“Swapped around!” Marguerite exclaimed.
“Quite!” He leaned forward slightly, to lend an air of conspiracy. “For example, Mr. Barker’s lovely hair you mentioned?” She nodded, wide-eyed. “I now see it as a torrid lilac.”
Marguerite gasped, then giggled. “Are you having me on, Mr. Thompson?” she admonished, obviously delighted.
“I am, Miss Shelton!” he confirmed. She giggled again. He glanced over at Jessie, who was smiling and wiggling his brows, tilting his head incrementally toward Marguerite.
Alex narrowed his eyes at him, his smile growing crooked. So, you really want me to do something, eh? he thought. Right here at the dinner table?
Mrs. Anderssen came out with the soup, and while they were all distracted, Alex unfocused his vision and allowed himself to slide gently backwards along the living, twisting shape of Jessie’s own being-history… back to the very day they’d first met, two years and one month past.
Alex remembered the day well, but it was still a shock to see it manifested again before his eyes, as though being reenacted by a troupe of actors with a perfect resemblance to their subjects. Jessie stood at the center of the entrance hall, trunks and cases littered about him, in fine clothes of black and bottle green, full of rage at being foisted on a stranger after the death of his family. His well-trimmed hair, the cause of so much comment in the present day, was ruffled and out of place, as though he’d been running fingers through it in frustration. Master Jaymes stood before him, cold and implacable as he explained the parameters of his new life, just as he had done with Alex only months before: how, in return for the status of ward, Jessie would train with all his abilities in the secret arts of alchemy, sorcery, and augury, the prospect of being turned out into a ditch forever before him should he slacken his efforts for a single day.
Alex looked around the grand hall, glittering in the reflected sunlight from the chandelier, and spotted himself lurking in the doorway to the east wing. He blushed to see his own face: past Alex was transparently captivated by this pale and gorgeous demon that had descended into his world, this creature with divine visage and a heart of fire, who dared to stare daggers at the terrible old man who held their fate in his hands.
Alex shook his head. He had not even known he liked boys before he’d met Jessie, and in fact still had not for a long time afterward: he’d thought his infatuation was puerile admiration for his fearless new brother, until a summertime incident at a swimming hole when he’d beheld, with immediate physical reaction, the revelation that was Jessie’s naked backside.
At once amused and chagrinned, Alex turned from his younger, naiver self and faced Jessie. Ignoring the Master he approached close to his friend’s still, time-frozen form. With a giddy sense of audacity he reached out to cup Jessie’s cheek. He half expected the chill immutability of a statue, but Jessie’s face felt warm and inviting, and he let himself caress Jessie’s cheek with his whole hand, then his neck and scalp. The hair was soft and thick, the yellow catching the light almost breathtakingly. Alex nodded and did what he had come to do.
No haircuts, he thought, firming the words in his head as he stroked the top of Jessie’s head. It occurred to him that no haircuts forever might cause problems eventually, and while it was tempting to envision an 80-year-old Jessie hauling his whitened hair around in a wheelbarrow he prudently modified his dictum. No haircuts until my present day, he thought. Letting the words solidify he infused them into the scalp he was caressing, then stepped back. Swiftly suppressing an urge to stroke Jessie’s firm, round bottom he departed the frozen moment, hurrying down the months as quickly as he could, beyond eager to see what he had wrought.
And then he was back, seated there at the supper table with the morose Roland, his lovestruck sister, and the object of his own affections. Just in that moment, Mrs. Anderssen moved her arm away from ladling soup into Jessie’s bowl, revealing—
Alex quickly covered his mouth to suppress a gasp. Jessie’s luscious, remarkably blond hair, once cut brutally short, was now a full foot longer than it had been a moment before, falling on his shoulders in a riveting cascade of golds and yellows. Its slight wave lent body to the flow of locks, and a natural sheen drew the eye and held it helplessly captive. Alex found himself both stunned and aroused at how the allure of Jessie’s hair complemented his elegantly handsome face and form—and the fact that Alex had made this change, that he had willfully transformed Jessie with his new silver gift, was, frankly, as erotic and stimulating as Jessie’s heightened beauty.
Then he noticed an unexpected side effect. Jessie always kept himself perfectly smooth-shaven—or had, in the reality Alex had just wiped away with a caress of his friend’s once-shorn scalp. Now, however, a single day’s blond stubble, just a shade darker than his waterfall of flax and sunlight, cheekily lined his jaw and lips, as though never cutting his hair had made him less diligent about the daily smoothing of his angelic face as well. It suited him so well, framing his face and complementing his hazel eyes, that Alex in that moment found his manhood actually awakening just at the sight of it. Despite having had free rein to touch him mere moments ago and two years past, a painful longing to stroke and kiss that beard and those lips flooded through him then with the violence of an ocean tide in a winter storm.
He was so lost in Jessie’s altered look it was several pounding heartbeats before he realized Jessie was staring hard at him, and something in his expression told Alex the other man was himself both shocked and oddly aroused at being unknowingly transformed, dunked in change like a blind man walking a plank.
Embarrassed, Alex tore his gaze away, only for his eyes to land on Marguerite also staring at Jessie’s long hair with shameless adoration. Unable to give voice to his own lust, Alex couldn’t help teasing his seatmate for hers. “Do you like what you see, Miss Shelton?” he asked, hiding a smirk.
“I do,” Marguerite sighed, plopping her chin in her hand—much to the annoyance of Mrs. Anderssen, who was at that moment on the other side of her trying to serve the young lady her soup. “If only mine were as nice. How do you always make it shine like that, Mr. Barker?” she asked.
Alex could not help but snicker, not that she noticed. “Your hair is also quite lovely, Miss Shelton,” he said truthfully.
“Quite,” Roland said, between sips of soup, though his frowning gaze was directed not at her but at the slightly drooping flower arrangement serving as the centerpiece. Evidently he was well conditioned as a young noble to join in on any compliment of a young lady whether he was paying attention or not.
“Not as lovely as his,” Marguerite said resignedly.
“I would not see you sad, miss,” Jessie said forthrightly, “and so, out of respect to you as a sister and a friend, I shall gladly gift you with my very lustrous locks.” Marguerite perked up at this, watching him avidly. “See?” he said, grasping at his hairline with the bottoms of both hands, as if he were doffing a wig. “It removes ever so easily—no! My heavens, it’s stuck!” He pretended to yank at his “wig”, to no avail. “My word! Lord Shelton, quick! What shall I do?”
Roland turned his glower on Jessie, annoyed and confused. “Eh?” he barked.
Marguerite burst into giggles, and Alex grinned, basking in Jessie’s smile when he turned it, as he knew Jessie always would, toward him.
Between the meal and various conversations afterwards it was a full hour before Alex got his wish and he was alone again with Jessie, upstairs in the hallways that led only to their apartments, well away from the rest of the household. The sun had set, and the gaslights were intentionally kept low in this part of the manor, so his sunshine man looked pleasingly like a calm and soothing sunset as they stood before each other, both achingly aware of how much had changed between them.
Alex cast his fears aside and lifted a brazen hand to brush the soft, young beard adorning the shorter man’s cheek. It felt so different from the touch he’d stolen in the entranceway, in the frozen moment in time—not just because Jessie had been younger and clean-shaven then, but because then he had been unaware. Now, Jessie was watching him, his hazel eyes bright as he let himself be touched.
“Did you feel this?” he asked, cupping Jessie’s cheek. “When you first came here?”
He slid his fingers up into Jessie’s glossy hair, and Jessie closed his eyes for a moment, giving himself to the gentle pleasure. When he opened them, they were sharp and penetrating, as if Jessie could see deeper now into Alex than he ever could before.
“I felt… something,” Jessie said quietly. “A hint of something. Now I know what it was.”
Alex continued carding his hair through the luscious mane he’d given him. Jessie smiled, and a little hint of wickedness came into those bright eyes of his. “Maybe you should go back there,” Jessie said after a moment, “and make it so that instead of having our own apartments—” He let the sentence hang, unfinished.
Alex’s breath caught, and his hand stilled for a moment. Then he resumed pushing his hand through Jessie’s hair. He chose his words carefully. “I would prefer,” he said, following his hand with his eyes instead of meeting Jessie’s gaze directly, “that our first night rooming together… not be a memory.” He swallowed, but when he checked for Jessie’s reaction, he was smiling.
Alex slid his hand down to Jessie’s cheek, and Jessie lifted up his own much lighter hand and caught it in his own. He was still smiling. “Fair enough,” Jessie said. “But I do have… ideas.”
Alex smiled. “So do I,” he said, before bending down and taking Jessie in a long, sweet kiss.
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