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Fiction – “The Mongrel Scholar” by Ursula Wood

Hello, said his sleeping cousins, somewhere on the border between worlds.

It was green-gray there, like a forest and a city occupying the same spot. Everything was dark and sparkling like the insides of his eyelids. He heard human and other melodies, tumbling and blurring together; souls drifted in and out of sight.

They looked weary and watery around the edges, trembling like tears on lashes, but their eyes lit with recognition and love at the idea of him.

He smiled in his sleep and reached out to them.

They touched his hands, his face, and tugged him gently through a hundred beautiful dances he’d never have been able to implement with his own clumsy body. They whispered tales of murder and revelry. He soaked it all in, hoarding every word so a few would survive the opening of his eyes.

They told him about the wars. Paindeathfire, they explained, showing him their heartbreak but trying not to drown him. Fly, hide. They wavered fitfully, prepared to wake and run at a moment’s notice.

He stroked them, cherished them.

Sweet. Clever, safe, they complimented him. They drew strength from him, and that made him feel strong.

Home? they asked.

They hoped for news of a better world; he didn’t know whether he bore any such thing. He frowned, considering.

One of them stiffened, quite suddenly, and went all brittle like a dead leaf. The others cried out. Some scattered, racing urgently toward consciousness; the rest crowded around sadly as the soul winked away, just the way a star might go if it were snuffed in complete silence. This one wouldn’t be back, not by the bloody taste in the air.

He wished there was something he could do, but the sun came, as always, to wash him away.

***

He woke up with his eyes burning.

Ailill swore softly, without much heart, and blotted the tears from his face with the sleeve of his nightshirt. He was careful not to smear them.

He’d slept the absolute maximum. His vision was still too blurred with disorientation and pain to read the pocket watch by his bed, but judging by the fall of shadows on the building outside his window, it was nearly noon. With a gravelly moan, he stretched and rolled till his bare feet found wooden floorboards. His eyes still smarted, and he held his arm firmly over them as he groped for the basin. He splashed cool water over his face with a sigh of groggy satisfaction, and relaxed as the offending salt washed away.

The world came in sharp and bright through his squint, and the first thing he confronted, as every morning, was his face in the looking glass, and the task before him to render it inoffensive.

For the most part, there was nothing to be done. He ran his fingers through his coarse hair, attempting to tousle it over the tips of his ears. They only came to the barest of points – really, it wasn’t noticeable unless one was looking – but these days, one usually was. Riotous curls were the price he paid to distract the viewer.

His eyes were more obvious anyway, circled about as they were with peculiar, pale-pink scars that stood out against his brownish skin like salted earth. Over these he slipped a pair of cheap spectacles, tinted glass in copper frames.

Al took a critical look at himself, gnawed at his lip, then turned away to flounder into some proper clothes. He cast his bed a last, longing gaze; it was grey and warm and the softest thing he knew. It was a struggle to turn away, but he nerved himself and left the safety of his room.

Downstairs, his parents were long awake. He could feel their eyes on him as he shuffled around in search of his shoes, bumping dully into wooden doorknobs and stumbling over bolts of cloth.

“Good morning,” volunteered his father.

Al turned to them and summoned up a smile. “So to speak,” he joked. He didn’t like to look at them – didn’t like to see the worry in their eyes, nor chase away the melancholy echoes of his dream.

They were bright and present at the kitchen table, which was overrun with scissors and stitch rippers – only brass, in this household, only ever the metals that didn’t bite or burn.

His mother was a pale and willowy woman, all tapered fingers and towering height, ears sharp as scythes. She looked as out of place in a British haberdashery, mouth full of pins, as Al’s dreams would. “You slept for fourteen hours,” she told him, in Sidhe. Her graceful brows dipped low with worry.

He grimaced, and answered in English. “I know.”

There was a bun set aside for him, which he picked up with a thankful bob of his head.

“Good to see you eating,” his father commented. He was a sturdy, swarthy human (and truly, Al wished he could stop reducing them to their traits, but this was reality.) “You’ve been looking thin.”

He’d skipped dinner, the previous night, to get to bed faster. Al’s appetite dropped off at the mention of it, but he kept eating, to appease them.

He knew they looked at each other behind his back; knew they worried, and perhaps they were right to. He was beginning to think of life as parenthetical, the bookends to his dreams. He hardly cared to work, to talk, even to go to class anymore.

Al gazed at a headless mannequin as he ate, trying to recapture the dim-lit dances, the warmth and friendship, the heartrendingly beautiful grief. He could feel sleeping Sidhe souls, faint now he was awake, flirting with the edges of his mind. He hated to avoid them, but if he slipped into a trance right here at breakfast it would only worry his family more. So he shook the souls off gently and stood.

He seized his hat from its peg, and picked up his linen-swathed safety bicycle from where it reclined in the hallway. He left, and couldn’t remember five minutes later whether he’d said goodbye.

The air tickled his forehead as he pedaled down the narrow street, and he had to swerve to avoid the cluster of little girls skipping rope in the dust at the neighbor’s stoop. They were chanting about kisses and birds, all of them fluent in the Creole folks used around here – part cockney, part Sidhe.

Little Tir was the oddest, most hated neighborhood in all of London. The real fairies were living out in the wilderness with their clans, and the real humans steered clear of this part of town; out here were only the opportunists, the traitors, and the half-breeds.

Al’s mother had been one of the last legal refugees to Earth, and his father the son of an African slave. Both had their reasons for being outcasts, including being married to each other. He couldn’t fault them for any of that. He loved it here, truly, but his prospects were limited – by this place, by this body. Sometimes it was easier just to ignore it.

He indulged himself for a moment, lidded his eyes and wobbled a little on his wheels as he offered himself up as a haven to the spirits from his dreams. His favorite friend, a distant cousin with a voice like the color blue, fluttered about him wretchedly. She’d rocketed awake when that soul had been murdered last night – they must’ve been together at the time.

Al was glad she was all right.

He knew she liked his bicycle, and his steel handlebars were swaddled in cloth to protect his and his friends’ fey hands, so he retreated to the back of his mind and gave over his body so she could enjoy the simple pleasure of leaning and steering for a while. She needed the distraction, needed to believe there was life outside of war. He enjoyed the oblivion.

The Sidhe girl dropped away abruptly, leaving his head sharp and clear. Al blinked to find himself pedaling into London proper, skin itching faintly at the wrought-iron fences and iron-shod horses all around him. Full-blooded fairies could stand the metal even less than he. The discomfort must have been too much for her to bear, but he hoped she’d enjoyed the brief respite.

He thought he could hear the echo of a Sidhe, “Thank you,” feel the tingle of the words still on his lips. His throat felt tight, like he’d been weeping, but his face – naturally – was dry. His legs ached, too; she’d ridden hard. He smiled a little. The first time he’d given over to someone on the bike, he’d come to on the ground, wheels spinning and elbows smarting. This was much pleasanter. She’d taken graceful flight from his mind and body, back to Tir na nOg and whatever troubles she had to face there.

It was just as well, thought Al. He was almost to the hospital – almost time to face his own troubles.

It was called St. Collen’s, named for a very popular, very anti-fairy religious figure. In all honesty, Al was surprised not to be legally barred from the place, or from the study of medicine entirely. He supposed nobody minded taking his money if they assumed he wouldn’t pass the surgeon’s exam, wouldn’t, with a face and accent like his, understand their culture well enough to come close.

He studied along with a handful of other apprentices – some of them more serious than others, but none as serious as he.

One of his colleagues, a stocky, ginger-haired young man called Kerr, just beat him to the front doors. He waited, lingering on the steps to watch Al struggle to tie his bike to a streetlamp without burning his hands, then fumble to fish out his school things.

“Good of you to join us, Ailill,” he said, placing unnecessary stress on his Sidhe name.

Al lowered his head and strode past him, refusing to take the bait. He was prone to fevers and reluctant to leave his sickbed, but when he was well he studied harder than any of them.

“Ringer,” the youth taunted, brushing a thumb below his own eyes.

Al kept walking.

They descended in hostile silence to the dim and dripping basement. Here Al had witnessed half a dozen bloody amputations, and hated every one. If he’d the resources to go to Oxford and study to be a physician instead, he’d do it in a heartbeat. Only, he did have a talent for this – and Little Tir had so many sickly, and so little access to medicine.

Today there were cadavers. Al sighed and fell in with the small crowd of students already gathered, and stared blankly at two pairs of pale, clammy feet. He fished an ink-stained glove from his breast pocket and slid it on before he could scorch himself on any pen nibs.

The doctor in charge of teaching came in clapping his hands bracingly, gave them some sort of introduction for the lesson. Al didn’t care about this part; he drifted off a little, brushed his mind against his friends’, sleeping in or daydreaming their own selves. They smiled to have him visit.

He came back the moment he heard the word “Sidhe,” and he did it with trepidation.

“It’s of vital importance that your instruments be lead,” the man was saying. “Observe what happens with the standard steel.” He picked up a scalpel, held it up for everyone to see, and made an incision on the corpse to the left.

It made a ghastly sizzling noise, and Al could see the wounded flesh shriveling away from the knife. The room groaned and giggled collectively. He closed his eyes, remembering the boy who’d died in his dreams that night. Had he been a child? Had he been hewn like this, or burned?

Who would laugh?

He shivered, but tried to suppress it, lest Kerr notice and goad him.

“Say,” hissed a voice – someone else–”Are you all right?”

Al looked. It was Simon Bell, one of the newer additions to their cohort, just moved over from Bristol. He remembered this because when he’d introduced himself he’d rubbed Al just the wrong way. He had tidy yellow hair and strong shoulders and perfectly round ears. He was a bright, instantly likeable boy of the sort that Al resented irrationally.

He frowned.

“Ailill Foster, isn’t it?” Bell pronounced the name clumsily. “You, ah, come down sick sometimes.” He truly looked nothing but politely concerned.

“I’m fine,” Al managed to answer.

They heeded the dissection for a few moments, or rather Bell seemed to and Al wondered what had possessed him.

“You really do have rings about your eyes,” said the other boy suddenly.

The lesson was still going on, Al assumed, but the young gentleman at his elbow was staring at him and so he couldn’t be certain. He had to resist the urge to edge away.

“Yes?” he confirmed, hoping that would do the trick. He touched a gloved hand self-consciously to his scars. Ringer, indeed.

“No one’s ever explained to me why,” Bell was whispering. “I assumed it was general poor health, but…it doesn’t look that way to me.”

He was a student of science. He felt entitled to an explanation. Al pressed his lips together and looked away.

“So what causes it?” Bell persisted.

It was one thing to be interested in mixed-race physiology – which nobody was – and rather another to be quite this nosy.

He answered in a murmur, trying to escape further attention. “The Sidhe can’t cry,” he said haltingly. “They’re physically incapable. The salt…” He gestured helplessly, certain Bell knew this already.

The boy nodded.

Al cleared his throat and rushed through the rest. “Well, mixed people like me…some of them can produce tears, but salt is still toxic to them.”

Bell’s eyes widened with what looked too like pity.

“They avoid crying, obviously,” Al felt compelled to add, trying to remain composed even as a stranger scrutinized the evidence of his every moment of weakness, literally plain on his face. “Most of the scarring happens when they’re children.”

“How awful.” Bell’s brow was furrowed; he looked disturbed.

Al shrugged, and it turned into the hunch he tended to wear when unsure of himself, lest his height offend someone.

Bell appeared contemplative, then smiled at him weakly in thanks and returned to his notes. Al hoped fervently that he was writing about the lesson and not about him.

When both corpses were bloody messes on their tables, class was dismissed. Al didn’t remember the point of the lecture, so flustered was he by the encounter. He took a deep, steadying breath, and immediately regretted it, for the cadavers were growing pungent.

Simon Bell appeared at his elbow again.

They eyed each other for a moment, then Bell took a breath.

“I was rude,” he said.

It was true enough, but to agree would be ruder. Al hesitated.

Luckily, Bell wasn’t finished. “Let me buy you a drink to make it up?” He offered a winning smile.

“I don’t drink,” Al told him, grateful for an excuse. In truth, his mother’s blood rendered him near-immune to alcohol, but he declined to mention this.

“Lunch, then,” Bell pressed, certain of getting his way.

Al ground his teeth. He only wanted to go home and have a nap.

“Give me a chance,” the boy half-laughed, easy and charming. “What’s life without friends, eh?”

Al blinked at him. “I don’t study here to make friends,” he said, more harshly than he meant to.

“Perhaps not,” Bell conceded. “But…aren’t they a sort of pleasant side-effect?”

Al stared, completely nonplussed.

Bell appeared to take this as consent. He grinned. “Good! I’ll get the others.”

At this point, Al’s stomach seemed to shrivel. “Ah,” he said.

Far too late. Bell had wandered to the far end of the basement, where he elbowed some other boys, comradely, and made some inquiries. He came back with two of them, one of whom (of course) was Kerr, who had a look of dark anticipation on his face.

“Ailill Foster – Jack Reynolds and Stephen Kerr.” Bell smiled, gesturing around the little circle. “I believe you’re all acquainted?”

Kerr smiled with his teeth and shook Al’s hand far too firmly. “Of course.”

Reynolds inclined his head, looking amused.

Bell was a fool. This whole endeavor was doomed, and he was too naïve to see it. Al ached to just walk away, but to back out now would mean some kind of confrontation, and he simply hadn’t the mettle. So when Bell chirped, “To the Granby?” Al simply nodded and followed them all into the street, feeling very tired.

The three human boys chatted easily as they walked. Al kept quiet, envying the ease with which they spoke and moved; he felt jerky and unwitty in comparison. Still, the strained quality of the conversation did not escape him – nor, apparently, Bell, who began frowning when Kerr stopped at the streetlamp and reminded Al not to forget his “cute little contraption,” and who looked downright uneasy when Reynolds clapped him too heartily on the shoulder.

It was well past noon and the Granby was sparse, but it still took a student surgeon far more assertive than Al to secure a table. They settled together in the back room that would seem cozy under other circumstances, but that struck him as ominous.

“Gin,” Reynolds ordered for the group, winking at the unimpressed waitress. “Bread and butter, to start.”

“No salt,” Kerr added, bowing his head to Al in mock-respect. Al swallowed a sneer. Everyone else at the table lit cigarettes and relaxed into their seats, while Al was left ramrod-straight and empty-handed.

Kerr gave him a languid, sidelong look. “We should play Séance,” he announced.

Al frowned, confused. Bell, on the other hand, choked on his smoke and coughed gracelessly into his fist. “Really?” he asked, when his breath was under control. “You don’t find that’s…inappropriate, Stephen?”

Al felt apprehension stir in his gut. If it was something for this insensitive clod to worry over, he didn’t want any part of it. “Séance?” he repeated.

Bell sucked his bottom lip guiltily into his mouth, looking like a grammar school boy caught cheating on a test.

“You’ve never played?” Reynolds looked delighted.

Al shook his head. The waitress came with four glasses. Ignoring what he’d said to Bell about drinking, he took a sip – just to have something to do with himself.

“Well,” said Kerr, in a voice of greatest sympathy and understanding. “I’m sure you’ll know your Sidhe history.” Somehow, he said it as though this were a personal failing.

This rankled Al’s pride, as he knew it was intended to. “Yes,” he said stiffly.

“Then you’ll know that England closed her borders against fairy immigration back in fifty-five.”

It was obvious that no good would come of this, but Al couldn’t make himself stand up. He took another sip and waited.

“But they’re still desperate to get over here – some sort of civil war on.”

“It’s an Unseelie revolution,” he found himself volunteering.

“Of course,” Kerr agreed quickly, before he could elaborate. “Which means they’re still trying to come over – illegally, might I add.”

Al looked at him and tried to keep his face as neutral as he had that morning on the steps.

“And they’ve got this,” Kerr waved his hand, “magic to help them do it.” He smiled and shrugged, as though this were somewhat foolish.

Al shook his head. It was a mistake, but he couldn’t help it.

“Oh, you know about it?” Kerr smiled. Reynolds chuckled into his drink.

“Nobody can cross the border,” Al said. It was perfectly true, but his voice still wavered.

“Ah, not physically, but mentally…” said Kerr, and Al froze, stomach sinking, “they do all the time. So – and it seems like you do know about it – as soon as they get through, they find some unsuspecting human and take over his body.”

Al blinked. Wherever the conversation had been leading, he certainly hadn’t expected it to go here. The idea was so outrageous that he’d no clue where to start arguing. “No,” he managed finally. He looked at Bell, who clearly wanted him to stop there, to let this be a pleasant lunch. “They don’t!” Al insisted helplessly.

“Don’t they?” said Kerr. He exchanged a glance with Reynolds, a this-ought-to-be-good smirk.

“They visit,” Al said, almost pleading. “Only if they’re wanted.”

They just smiled.

Al put down his drink. “You have your gin,” he muttered, pushing it away. “Why shouldn’t they have something–?”

“Of course, Foster,” said Kerr, reaching out to pat his hand. Al jerked away, and he raised his eyebrows, all wounded innocence.

“No call to be rude,” drawled Reynolds.

Al clenched his teeth. It would be so simple to stand up, to walk out the door. Only then he’d’ve lost their game, their contest of false sincerity, and his weaknesses would be laid bare. This wasn’t a conversation anymore; it was a gauntlet.

“So,” he asked, “how do you play?”

Kerr and Reynolds grinned. Bell stirred and opened his mouth, about to protest, but they ignored him pointedly.

“You tease them,” Kerr said. “Discourage them, shall we say, from coming back.”

Feeling ill, Al asked, “How?”

“Oh, there’s a knack,” Kerr said modestly. “A sort of clearing of the mind – you’ve done it before, I’d wager?”

Al, who had been having Sidhe dreams since he was a baby, who’d grown up with two or three people inside of him at a time, whose neighborhood was rife with spirits, shrugged a bit. “I may have done.”

“Well.” He gave Al a charming smile. “Would you like to see how we do it?”

Al was certain he didn’t. But he had to know. He nodded, hands clenched.

“Shall I?” Kerr asked Reynolds.

“By all means,” Reynolds replied.

Bell was tense beside him. Al tried not to notice.

Kerr sat back in his seat, relaxed his body, and let his eyes fall shut. For a youth of such affected mannerisms, he really could drop it all quickly. He sat unselfconsciously in the middle of the pub, face settling till he looked for all the world like a sleeping child.

Something shifted. His breathing, the set of his mouth perhaps, but when he opened his eyes – ginger hair and snub nose aside, this was no Stephen Kerr.

Whoever was with them now smiled experimentally, blinked and stared around the smoky room, and saw Al.

“Oh!” said the someone. “I know you.”

Al stared, surprise eclipsing any other emotions. He could tell by the tilt of the head, the tone of the Sidhe words Kerr would never come close to pronouncing: it was his favorite, the girl he’d shared his bicycle with this morning. They’d never looked each other in the eye before. She seemed exhausted, sagging in Kerr’s seat, but she was watching him with honest affection, and in that moment all he wanted was to embrace her. He reached out.

“Ailill–” blurted Bell, standing up with a clatter. He lunged over the table to grab Al’s sleeve and jerk his arm back.

Reynolds had snatched up the saltshaker and unscrewed the top. With a cruel smile, he took a handful and flung it into Kerr’s face.

Al froze.

His friend howled in pain and fear, staggering away from the table till she hit the wall, skin positively hissing, steam rising from furious blisters. She clawed frantically at her eyes, tearing Kerr’s voice from his lungs so she sounded like a wounded animal.

Reynolds advanced on her with another handful of salt. She sobbed, trying to scramble backwards. “Go home,” he told her, and raised his fist.

Before he knew what he was doing, Al had leapt to his feet, seized the boy’s collar, and thrown a powerful slap across his face.

The salt scattered on the floor, and Al had Reynolds pinned against the wall, was shouting in his panicked face. “What are you doing?” he demanded, and shook him. “You’re medical students, for God’s – how could you even think–”

Reynolds looked shocked, but shoved back at him. “Calm down!” he stammered. “We haven’t hurt a thing, just look.”

Kerr, on the floor, was coughing and straightening his tie, dazed but clearly unharmed. His face was perfectly smooth. “I’m thirsty,” he commented breathlessly.

Kerr was the real villain here, and Al wanted to hit him as well – but the boy glanced up at him and his eyes grew wide and surprised, and the memory of his friend’s soul looking through them stayed his hand.

Perhaps they’d expected him to cringe and snivel, to keep his head down the way he did in class. They didn’t look quite so smug now, but Al’s hands were shaking.

Bell was shuffling about in the background, righting the chairs they’d knocked over. Al turned to him, and he froze guiltily.

“How did you think this would go?” Al demanded. “You thought we could be bosom friends?”

Bell licked his lips, searching for words.

“Foster, you’re being unreasonable,” said Kerr, sliding up the wall and reaching out for him.

“I!” cried Al, rounding on him, and Kerr actually quailed. It should have made him feel better, feel powerful, but all Al could do was spit on the floor. “Get out,” he said.

Nobody moved for a moment.

“Couldn’t be civil,” Reynolds tried to complain, and Al threw his jacket at him, hard. He caught it with a scowl.

“Now,” he ordered, pointing furiously at the door, and the two boys, albeit with much sighing and eye-rolling, obeyed.

“Come on, Simon.”

But Bell didn’t move. Everyone stilled again, this time watching him.

“Simon.”

Bell took a breath and faced his human colleagues. “I won’t be going with you,” he said.

Reynolds frowned and opened his mouth.

“Not ever,” Bell continued. He moved closer to Al, but avoided his eyes.

Kerr sneered. “Really, Simon? Throwing your lot in with him? You’re better than this, man – show some self-respect.”

Bell thrust his hands into his pockets. “I plan to,” he said quietly.

Kerr snorted, incredulous. “Fine,” he said. “It’s your choice, I suppose. Jack?”

The pair of them disappeared through the door, leaving Bell, staring wretchedly at the floor, and Al, still trembling and queasy.

As his heartbeat slowed, he realized that his left hand was throbbing. He glanced down and was startled to see a wicked burn on the back of it. Some of Reynolds’ salt must have gotten on him. He looked around in some consternation, and in the time it took for him to look over at Bell, the boy had moved closer and produced a handkerchief. He didn’t say anything, didn’t meet Al’s eyes, only took his hand professionally and brushed at the wound to make sure all the salt was gone.

“You need water,” he addressed Al’s wrist.

Al reclaimed his hand, wrapped it up in the cloth with the ease of years of practice. “It isn’t severe,” he said. “I’ll take care of it later.”

The waitress came in, looking thunderous, and Bell sidled away from Al to speak with her, voice polite, palms raised. Al flung himself into a chair, eyes prickling, and counted by threes till the feeling went away.

When the woman was properly assuaged, Bell came to quietly sit beside him. He rummaged through his pockets and left a fistful of money on the table.

After exploding once, it was hard to stop. Al hated the darkness in his voice, in his chest, but he couldn’t stem it. “I blame you for this,” he said.

“I know,” said Bell bleakly. “I’d do the same.”

Neither of them made a move to leave.

“Do you play?” Al asked him. His voice was flat. “Séance, I mean.”

“No!” Bell blurted, stopped, shook his head. “I always thought it… tasteless.”

Al laughed hollowly at that. “But you knew – you saw this, and you didn’t stop it.”

Bell nodded, gazing at the tabletop.

“How long…?” Al couldn’t make himself finish, but Bell understood.

“It’s gotten popular the last few months,” he said. “But I think people’ve been doing it for a cheap thrill ever since the border was shut down.”

Al wanted to fall into a trance right then and there – find his friend, check on her, and (guiltily) escape from this damned situation. But he was wound too tight, shivering and brokenhearted in a way he never knew he could be, and his aching hand and penitent classmate were too distracting. Reality was too close. It was all over him.

“How can I make this right?” Bell whispered.

“You can’t,” Al hissed. He scraped his chair back.

Bell swallowed and followed suit. “Let me try.”

“You haven’t the right to make demands of me,” Al told him, eyes prickling again. He was so tired.

The boy looked desperate. “Your hand.”

“Taken care of.” He tugged his jacket on carefully.

“Your friend!”

Al stopped. He sighed, resigned once more to explaining himself to this too-curious student. “I need to talk to her. If I go home, clear my head, find her still asleep, I can–”

Bell looked surprised. “‘Her?'” Then he shook his head quickly. “No, not important. Please.” He took a breath. “I- I realize you mustn’t want me around you now, but doesn’t this woman deserve to speak with you? Face to face?”

Al forgot about his smarting hand completely, such was his surprise. “Are you offering to let her in?” he demanded, squinting down at him.

Bell nodded, nervous now he was the one under scrutiny. “If we go together, you could convince her – and then you two can have a talk you’ll both be able to recall later.”

Al didn’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed. “You know how this works.”

Bell ventured to give him a small smile. “I don’t play Séance,” he swore again. “But I do dabble at the border. It’s an interesting place to dream.”

“I’ll be damned,” Al muttered to himself. It was unlike him, but he was far beyond caring. “Have we met?”

Bell looked shy, shrugged a little. “Perhaps that’s why I spoke to you today.”

Al’s anger was fading before his renewed purpose. “We need somewhere private,” he said.

Bell drummed his fingers. “I’ll book a room upstairs,” he offered.

Al followed him, finally settling into a slight fugue – more from exhaustion than relaxation. He hadn’t realized people outside of the Sidhe community even knew about the dreamscape that made up the border, or that humans could access it. There couldn’t have been many, and they mustn’t have visited often; he’d have noticed an influx of tourists like Bell and predators like Kerr and Reynolds. Still, his world had expanded alarmingly.

The preyed-upon Sidhe girl was yet asleep, rolling like dust before wind, taking violent solace in whoever was available.

“Ailill?”

He surfaced, and realized they were standing before a door with a plaque reading “5.” He eyed the metal doorknob.

Bell noticed, swiftly opened it for him. “After you.”

The room was nothing extravagant, but the sight of a bed calmed Al. He didn’t even need to lie in it, really. He toed off his shoes and sat on the floor, leaning against the wall; Bell followed suit. If things were uncomfortable, Al ignored it, fluttering his eyes shut and breathing deep.

“Can you follow me?” he murmured.

“I think so.” Bell’s voice was breathy, soft.

Al weighed anchor and floated off.

***

They found each other between worlds, bumped gently like flotsam, and tethered themselves together by the urgency of their quest.

The girl was easy to find, bluish and so aggressively unhappy it hurt to get close.

Grieflovecomfort, he poured out, when she clutched at him. He willed her to understand the last few moments of his life, he showed her his companion, he showed her the path –

Sharp pain splintered his thoughts and hauled him away.

***

Al woke up clutching his hand and staring at the ceiling. He cursed like a child and kicked at the bed. He’d been pulled away just too soon, and it would take precious minutes for him to relax again after the agitation of failure.

Trying to suppress any undue hope, he looked over at Bell. The boy was still slumped over in a trance – lashes fluttering, lips twitching. Then his eyes opened too.

He blinked around, hunched in on himself rather. He looked wary and limp. It took Al a moment to realize that Bell had done it, had brought her back, wasn’t the one behind those eyes.

He laughed and thought it sounded a little broken, then knelt before the girl. “Hello,” he whispered in his bastard Sidhe. “Are you…?”

She reached up to brush Bell’s fingers against his unspoiled cheek, checking for blisters. “I’m fine,” she said, though she didn’t look it. “It’s over – like a nightmare.” She spoke as though unsure which of them needed reassurance. Her brave face collapsed on itself a little. “That hurt,” she said, breathless and battered like Bell’s voice was never meant to sound. She looked Al in the eyes, beseeching. “I thought everything here was beautiful.”

He reached for her, and they finally embraced, and it was warm and fierce and Al might have wept if that weren’t the most inconsiderate thing he could do. “It’s people here, just like everywhere,” he murmured into Bell’s hair, which was soft and tickled his nose. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t spare you that.”

He pulled away, and they held hands quietly. They’d never spoken like this, never had to compose and execute their thoughts. It was surprisingly difficult.

“I am glad I found you,” Al told her carefully, “But…why are you still asleep?”

She lowered her gaze and leaned her head into his shoulder. It occurred to him that she must be hardly more than a child. “I’m wounded,” she told him carefully. “I’ve a fever, I think.”

“You can’t wake up?” he said, alarmed.

She shook her head. “I don’t – no. I don’t want to, Cousin.” She took a shuddering breath. “Whatever those men tried to do to me, I would still rather…”

“What trouble are you in?” Al pressed, squeezing her fingers.

She shook her head harder, almost frantic. “I’m seen to. On the floor, in an apothecary. I’ve Seelie folk – allies looking after me.”

Al didn’t want to ask, didn’t want to cause the girl more pain. But she was quivering under his touch, distraught. “Last night,” he said, as gently as he could. “The one we lost…”

“My brother,” she said, and as she said it her face crumpled desolately. No tears came, of course, but Al didn’t need them to see how she hurt. His gut wrenched, and he pulled her to him again.

“They found where we hid to sleep,” she was saying, sharing more than he’d asked for, unable to stop. “They set us on fire–” She choked and leaned into him, and Al, wide-eyed, stroked her hair.

They sat like that, on the floor, and Al couldn’t tell how long it had been when she finally pulled away. She was calmer, but pinched and pale.

He cleared his throat. “You know, we’ve known each other for years, but – it all becomes foggy in the morning. I don’t know your name.”

She smiled at him, tremulously, but it was a start. “It’s Emer.”

He reflected her smile; he liked the name. “And I’m–”

“Ailill,” she told him. When he looked baffled, her smile grew stronger. “I heard,” she said. “That knight of yours said it.”

Al’s bafflement grew as well. “Pardon? My knight?”

Emer looked down at Bell’s body. “He came for me because you wanted it. And I saw him rescue you.” She said it as though it were obvious.

Al’s mouth hung open for a moment. “That isn’t remotely–” he began, then stopped himself. “It isn’t like that,” he said firmly.

Emer was unconvinced, but could see she’d hit a nerve. She looked a little wicked at the thought, like the child she was; it suited Bell’s face.

Al took a breath. He’d never needed to take care of anyone before. “You know what I’m going to ask of you?”

She sobered, knowing perfectly well. “Wake up,” she recited. “Eat something. See to my health.” She must’ve been fighting the idea all day. “Face the world.”

Al bit his lip, uncomfortable. It was too like his parents’ advice to him.

“And when you rest,” he told her, “your friends will be there. Come to the border and we’ll give you all the comfort we can.”

She nodded.

Gently, Al said, “Are you ready?”

Emer looked at him. She reached out and traced the line of his collar. Then she sat up on her knees.

Al just had time to notice that Simon Bell had a smattering of freckles across his nose before Emer had leaned in close. She touched their brows together, then pressed a sweet, warm kiss to the corner of his mouth. Their breath mingled, and Al clung to the feeling like he did to his dreams.

Then she sat back on her heels and took a deep, bracing breath.

“Don’t die,” Al commanded hoarsely.

“I won’t,” she swore, and the set of her jaw was determined.

Al caught her hand. “Will I see you tonight?”

She nodded.

“Promise?” he pressed.

Emer held his gaze. “Yes.”

Then she swayed, and almost toppled. Al reached out to steady her, and found he was holding Simon Bell. The boy was dazed and drowsy, settling back into his own limbs. He squinted up at Al.

They were still holding hands. Al let go of him quickly and sat back.

Bell kneaded his eyes and stretched. “Did it work?” he asked groggily. He rubbed at his throat, probably raw from dry, stifled sobs. He touched his lips, and raised his eyebrows. “Did I…?”

Al hurried the conversation along. “It was good of you to help,” he blurted.

Bell twisted his mouth like he’d tasted something sour, and shook his head. “It was my fault in the first place.”

Calmer, now, Al could see Bell’s betrayal of Kerr for what it was. He was no knight, but…

“You know you’ll be in their bad books now,” he said.

Bell was still scrubbing at his eyes. “Then you won’t be alone there.” He froze, guiltily, as soon as he’d said it. “That is, if – you don’t mind?”

Was this what the hand of friendship looked like? Al wondered. He’d always imagined it would be more…inviting. Less like a half-asleep young man who seemed tempted to hide under a bed.

Instead of answering, he stood and dusted off his knees. “I have to catch up on my reading,” he said. That, and hug his parents, and help them cook, and make fun of their patrons together, and stay up late and get up early.

“Will I see you tomorrow?” Bell asked carefully.

Al nodded. Kerr and his ilk were worse than ever in his eyes, but he found himself itching to prove them wrong.

Bell scrambled to his feet. “Promise?” he pressed.

Startled, Al searched his face. There was no way he could remember the words he and Emer had exchanged. The boy was frowning faintly, concern and apology writ large on his human face.

Al smiled, and answered firmly.

“Yes.”


.

About the Author

Ursula Wood is a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. She enjoys geeking out over anthropology, Spanish, gender politics, social justice, and fiction. She will never be as well-read as she thinks she ought to be, but that doesn´t stop her from trying.

This is her first publication since her equally-geeky adolescence, when she wrote articles for New Moon Magazine.

She can be contacted at electro.lep@gmail.com.

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