He Dreams Magic
Emme C. Taylor © 2019
All Rights Reserved
The lake was on fire. Ren dipped his oars into the water and swept himself closer to the blaze, each stroke an exultation. He’d been waiting months for this, counting down the hot summer weeks to autumn and rain and flames.
He was ready to throw himself into the burn.
The fire came on time, as it did every year. The first rainstorm of autumn brought them down from the sky. Or so the story was told. Ren couldn’t quite bring himself to believe they rode through the skies on storm clouds and dropped to the ground between thunderclaps, stealing their impossible power from the lightning.
Then again, they were magicians. Anything was possible.
Ren’s village, Klein, lay huddled in the dark at his back. On the opposite shore, half the forest flickered red. The low clouds caught and held the glowing light from below. The spectacle could be seen from every village in the surrounding valley, a beacon: come, step into the heat, play with us, burn with us.
For the first time in his life, he was going to see it up close. From the quiet safety of Klein, the spectacle always gave the impression of a town set aflame. So near to it, it wasn’t like that at all. More like the whole world had ignited. His fingers around the wood paddles twitched with anticipation. This was it. Finally. Finally.
By the time Ren reached the middle of the lake, half of it alight, a bright crimson flared across the surface and leaped like waves in wind. Reflections set the rest of the lake ablaze so that it seemed to Ren he was sitting in the very middle of the conflagration. So far, he had avoided the areas of the lake that had caught flame.
Magic. God, yes. He could practically taste it in the air, and he wanted more of it. He’d dreamed of magic for years, a gold thread of it always in his mind’s eye. Since childhood, magic remained a ball of yearning lodged in his chest. Ren had to see it for himself. Touch it. Experience it. He wanted to drink it, have it sear his throat.
For years, he’d heard whispers of this from people in nearby villages, those who had gotten close to it over the years.
Those who’d walked through it—and come out on the other side.
Ren paused in the middle of the lake to take it all in. He would be seeing fire in his dreams that night.
His turn had come to walk into this wild world.
He dug his oars into the lake, his reflection rippling away from the boat with each stroke. Ren pushed himself closer to the ruby burn, a moth drawn to the dangerous lure of light.
Ren reached the very edge of the inferno. He sat near it for a while, swaying with the water’s rhythm against his boat, watching the play of light over the surface. He knew he had to pass through it, but it rose up like a wall in front of him, more intimidating than he’d imagined. He glanced behind, where his home lay tiny across the lake, asleep in the dark.
No, there would be no going back now. He took a breath and hunched low in the boat as he rowed himself into something he’d been waiting for all his life.
He kept his eyes closed, pure instinct, which was why it took him such a long moment to realize he wasn’t burning. No heat against his skin, no pain, so he squinted one eye open and then the other.
The fire swirled all around him, engulfing his boat, yet there was no smoke and only enough heat to warm the chilly night. He breathed in embers that flooded his throat with the flavor of smoke. Tendrils brushed against his skin like a warm blanket, ran hot fingers through his hair. None of it hurt, which seemed to be an encouraging sign.
A laugh of pure relief escaped. Of course he wasn’t in agony. He’d never heard of anyone dying in it, and surely that would have gotten around. Still, it was one thing to hear about magic and an entirely different thing to face a fiery wall of it. Wisps of orange-red danced around him. He touched his finger to one, and it wrapped its dry warmth around his wrist, up his arm, and then dissipated in black dust. Ren flexed his hand, staring at his unharmed fingers in wonder. He wished he could capture a bit of that magic, take it home with him. He’d put it in a jar on the nightstand next to his bed and keep it as a night-light that would smolder eternally.
Ahead lay a narrow, unnerving tunnel, just large enough for Ren’s boat to glide between the flames. He followed the tunnel to shore, a wild swirl of red-gold tingeing the world the whole way. He was light-drunk, giddy, and luminous from its glow.
Ren’s boat bumped against the shore. The downpour intensified, stinging his face and pitter-pattering in the nearby trees as he dragged the boat ashore and found a spot for it on a bank just above the water. The Summer God always passed quickly in the night, leaving the door open for the God of Autumn to sweep in with her windy tumult. Ren adored this time of year. He loved change, and he welcomed the return of each God.
Behind Ren, the lake lit up the night like a giant torch. Ahead, the sway of light beckoned to him. Fire, fire, fire on every side. It stayed always in his sight, a red jewel just beyond reach.
Ren didn’t walk far into the woods. One moment, rain dripped down his face. Then he blinked, and having crossed some invisible boundary, another world enveloped him. The soggy forest had transformed into golden light, crowds, laughter, and spices. It flickered around him, a swirl of excited chaos. He had stepped into a warm, sparkling globe.
He stood in the middle of it for a long moment, jostled by eager magic-seekers, impossible to take it all in at once.
Ren’s mind latched on to one thing: he’d found the carnival he’d longed to see since childhood.
Being inside of it was nearly more than he could handle. The night spun in rich colors. Ren thought he might throw up, which wasn’t exactly the reaction he’d imagined.
All the colors, the lights, the laughter, the shouts, the warm wonder turning the air into a golden mist that hung in the trees, the vividness of this carnival in the middle of a dark forest—all of it caught Ren up in its arms and made him drunk with new sensations, with new sights. Which could be the only explanation for why he stumbled through this spellbinding world, damp leaves and dirt crunching beneath his boots, light-headed as he turned back and forth. He gorged himself on the atmosphere until his stomach tumbled nauseatingly and gold sparks edged his vision. Was he in some wild dream?
There was too much to see, and it would be gone by morning.
Amidst the beautiful mayhem, he recognized many people from neighboring towns, though they were all mesmerized by the ambience too. He didn’t say hello to the familiar faces, and they didn’t say hello to him. His people took a strict stance against magic, but their neighbors did not share that rule. He’d missed out on this beautiful, unearthly wonder for so many years.
It didn’t matter. Tonight was for exploration, of new things. Finally, Ren could share in the spectacle too. This world was his for the night. He just needed to slow down. Breathe.
Rows and rows of little makeshift buildings and stages lined the path, with treats to eat and buy and delight in. Ren didn’t know where to begin.
Flames whirled in the trees, some as small as fireflies, little embers glittering throughout the forest. Others were so large they rippled up and down the tree trunks and skimmed across the limbs, leaping from one tree to the next. Men and women in black danced through the branches alongside the flickers, as nimble and flexible as the light. Empty air seemed the same as solid ground to them.
Magic saturated the air. Ren imagined he was breathing it in, letting it coat his lungs.
He could think of nowhere he’d rather be. Certainly not home in bed, locked behind the safety of his door, windows shuttered, like the rest of Klein.
Ren stopped on the pathway to drink it in. The feverish atmosphere swirled around him. He couldn’t pick out individual parts of the carnival, only the colors and laughter, the jostle of people and the newness of it all. If asked later to describe any particular aspect, he thought he probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Perhaps that was why he’d only been able to get vague bits and pieces from friends in other villages. No one ever seemed to remember details. This ephemeral world was a fever dream.
Intoxicated, he tipped his head back, motionless in the midst of the sweet sensory overload, studying the undulating mist and the dancing sparks tangled together in a jumbled golden weave in the trees above.
“Move! Move!” someone shouted from behind. Dreamy, Ren turned around in time to see one of the aerial acrobats soaring down from the branches straight into his path, flames streaking out behind him. A smear of red and black coming at him. Ren fumbled, wobbling first left and then right. He couldn’t figure out which way to move. It was all too sudden and there was too much of everything. It was too late anyway. There were only seconds to spare. They were already on a collision course—the flying man and Ren and the flames. What an entanglement.
The impact of the man’s body slammed him to the ground, knocking the air out of Ren’s lungs as he hit the dirt and skidded, leaves and twigs doing nothing to cushion the crash. Ren’s head snapped back, and his skull bounced off the ground, setting off sparks of his own, none of them magical this time. Everything flashed white, black, and then the night slowly blurred back into existence.
Ren found himself flat on his back, the other man’s weight resting almost comfortably on top of him. His whole world narrowed to red, red, red, a bleary blob blocking out all else. The fiery backdrop didn’t help. The man grunted out a surprised breath.
It took another few breathless moments for Ren’s head to finally clear. He focused on the other man, had to blink hard twice to make sure he hadn’t slipped into a dream. He was kind of unbelievable. For a second, there was nothing but his hair. They were pressed together, and his hair was all in Ren’s face—hair like flames, wild and bright, and just as untamable, a deep auburn unlike any color Ren had ever known. The man lifted his head from Ren’s shoulder, blinked back at Ren, wide eyes catching and mirroring the light of the autumn night in a way that hid their color.
“Oh,” Ren breathed out.
“Oh damn,” said the other man in a silken-smooth voice that made Ren freeze.
Ren couldn’t breathe the sticky-warm air, couldn’t move a muscle. Oh. Gorgeous man, you can land on me anytime.
The man jolted, his whole body jerking away from Ren. He put his hands to the ground and pushed himself up and back, almost frantic in his hurry to part them. Flustered, he stumbled to his feet, just as shaky and unstable as Ren.
Ren cleared his throat, preparing. “Look,” he said, climbing to his feet as if uphill through mud, “that was my fault. I was too busy staring around to see you coming at me like that. I didn’t mean to get in your way. I apologize for—”
“Forget it,” the man said over his shoulder. He was already walking away, his hair a bright jewel fading into the fiery night.
Ren stared after him. It seemed rude to crash into someone and then simply walk away.
“Hold on!” Ren said, jogging to catch up to him.
The other picked up his pace, so Ren did the same to match him, an easy feat with his long legs.
He didn’t spare Ren a second glance. “Don’t worry about it,” he said into the night air.
“Just wait a moment, will you, please?” Ren hooked his hand into the bend of the man’s arm. For the reaction that small gesture got, Ren might as well have grabbed a totally different body part. He jerked free of Ren, reeled away, and put distance between them.
It was such a clear gesture to Ren: Don’t touch the goods, villager.
As though there were only a certain type of person at a certain level who could touch someone like this red-haired gem, and maybe Ren wasn’t at that level. He wasn’t used to such a clear brush off. It wasn’t a good feeling.
Ren brought out his most charming smile. “I feel it’s only right to buy you a drink after taking you down like that.” He gestured to a passerby giggling into a huge mug. “They must have drinks here, yes? Let me make it up to you.”
A perfect bright eyebrow lifted. “You want to drink Quavar? Aren’t you a little young to be up this late drinking?”
That caught Ren by surprise. His height paired with his shoulder width usually outweighed his, admittedly, baby face. Maybe it was his shaggy brown mop. Too boyish. He’d been meaning to cut it but kept forgetting.
“Don’t worry about that,” Ren said, pushing his hair off his forehead as if it would make all the difference. “I’m plenty old enough.” Which somehow came out sounding childishly defiant. Damn it. Where was his game tonight? Had it been knocked out of him when they’d hit the ground so hard?
Both brows lifted that time, two elegant arcs. “I’ve never seen you here before. I just assumed you’d snuck out of bed and crept over from that village across the lake. Shouldn’t you get home before your parents wake up?”
It wasn’t even said cruelly, which made it worse. This fiery-haired, pretty little jerk of a magician was starting to tickle a nerve.
Ren paused as he drank in the man’s face in one quick, furtive sip. He wore a strange, sheer opalescent makeup that shimmered across his cheekbones and made him look kind of absurdly amazing. Dark outlines around his eyes too. Ren had never seen a man in makeup, but the extravagant atmosphere made it perfectly believable it had borne this glimmering creature. And there was no denying he looked great in it. Otherworldly. Maybe Klein was right. Maybe these magicians did drop from the clouds, having spun from other planets. With this brilliant man before him, Ren could almost believe it.
Ren refocused, crossed his arms, and offered a languid smile. “I can’t be as young as you’re thinking when we both know I could probably snap you over my knee.”
The man stared at Ren. The indefinable eyes widened a bit. Firelight flickered in his irises.
A too-wide grin, tight at the corners, strained across the man’s mouth. It came too late. It was awkward and overthought, and it stoppered Ren’s words in the back of his throat. He didn’t know how to respond to a pasted-on smile like that.
“Fair enough,” the man said. The smile sharpened into something that could bite.
Yikes. Walk away, said a voice in Ren’s head. Just walk away.
Damn the little voice. He didn’t walk away. He couldn’t. All the Gods help him, Ren didn’t walk away. He wasn’t quite done. And it was hard to walk away from someone—someone who looked like that.
Ren had never realized he could be such a shallow thing. May the Gods forgive his superficiality just this one night.
“Do you really believe I’m too young, or are you just trying to get rid of me?” Ren asked.
Ren received a long perusal from beneath a sweeping shock of bright hair. “Would you bug off if I said it was both?”
“If that’s what you truly want, then, yes. But…one drink? A drink and no regrets.”
The smile Ren got in return was a curious thing, a flash of teeth, there and gone. There was nothing genuine about it. “What could I possibly have to regret?”
“Waking up in the morning and wondering about the memories I might have given you tonight.”
The man’s eyes tipped upward, briefly. “That was nauseating. Is that the best you’ve got?” He released an immensely unimpressed sigh. It was so histrionic Ren got the impression it was affected, as though they were on a stage acting out their parts. Unfortunately, Ren hadn’t gotten the script.
Ren resisted the urge to move closer to him. He stood a slight distance from Ren, a remote dream in the flickering light, wavery and indistinct.
Gently, Ren said, “But you’re still standing here.”
The smile, dangerous and unreal, was gone now. With a sense of unfamiliarity, the man said, “You’re so confident.”
Ren let his laugh escape. He gave an exaggerated gesture down his body as if to say, Why wouldn’t I be?
Before his hand even fell back to his side, he was immediately annoyed with himself. What was he doing, flashing this shiny, over-the-top swagger?
At the moment, he wasn’t confident. He was forcing it, overdoing it, thickening every gesture, every vowel with his desire. He didn’t want this lucent man to think this was who he was. It was unnatural, unlike him, and he knew it. It was just that, tonight, it leaked from his pores, as irrepressible as sweat.
He thought the man would walk away from him now. Ren deserved it. He would walk away from himself right now if he could.
His companion scanned around them and said, surprisingly, “Fine. Then get me that drink.”
Ren remained composed. He was, despite the skepticism, an adult. Turning back to the tantalizing pandemonium around them, he said, “Which drink would you like?”
“Quavar. It’s the only drink served.”
“There are no other choices?” In a place like this, how could there only be one choice in drink? He’d been expecting all kinds of unworldly wines and champagnes flowing through the crowds.
“Trust me. It’s enough.”
“A beverage connoisseur, are you?” The man started walking. He seemed so sure of himself, someone who knew exactly where he was going, that Ren followed him without question. Side by side, they fell into an effortlessly synchronized step, though Ren noticed his companion kept a careful, measured distance so that their shoulders never came in danger of bumping, their hands never close enough to brush.
Ren shrugged. “You could say so. When I was young, I helped at the local vineyard.”
“Ah.” He nodded as if it told him something about Ren. “A wine man. I’ve always enjoyed a good glass.”
“Nico!” someone shouted from high in the treetops. They both peered up, Ren in wonder at the height and the way the owner of the voice seemed to float upside down in the tree limbs without care or concern. “How long are you taking?”
“I’ll be back up in ten.”
The other man gave a casual wave of his hand.
“Nico,” Ren said thoughtfully, smoothing the name over his tongue as he watched the aerial acrobat backflip away through the air.
“That has a nice ring to it.”
“Glad you approve,” Nico said in a way that made Ren check whether or not he was joking. Studying Nico’s deadpan countenance, he still couldn’t tell.
Nico led them through laughing, jostling people; through light flares; through air that sizzled and sparked with enchantment. Everything smelled strongly of strange spices, earth and warmth, the slight musk of so many bodies. They stopped at a large wooden hut that looked like it grew straight out of the side of the tree it was next to. Logs framed an open window. A head full of fluffy white hair popped out of it with a sound of surprise.
“Nico! Taking a break already?” He glanced past Nico to Ren. “You found another one? So soon?”
“I’ll take two, Ian,” Nico said.
“I bet you would love that.”
Ren’s mouth opened as he watched their faces. He soaked in the salacious insinuation. It had poured easily from the old man’s mouth, and that just made it seem dirtier. Ren thought he must have misunderstood.
Nico ignored the old man’s bizarre flick of interest up and down his body. “The drinks,” he said, voice hard. “Now.”
The man didn’t seem to be so much as checking Nico out, as checking on him, making sure he was sound. There was an odd air of propriety to it. Ren shifted his feet uncomfortably.
Ian’s eyes flittered past Nico to Ren. “You’ve found yourself a big one for your little stroll tonight,” he said, an odd, underlying hiss to his voice. A knowing grin formed around his eyes and melted down to his mouth. “Are you up for it, Nic?”
Nico remained impassive. “The drinks,” he said, a careful flatness to his tone.
“Coming right up, sweet prince.” Ian’s tongue curled around the s, dragging it out.
Ren said, “Is that your uncle or something?”
Revulsion flashed over Nico’s face. “No,” he said.
Through the window, Ren observed the old man take down two saucer-sized mugs from a shelf that held hundreds more of the same. He dipped the mugs into a gigantic barrel, scooped a viscous liquid into each, and handed them, nearly overflowing, to Nico.
“How much?” Ren asked.
The grin gleamed at him. “We don’t take money, son. Enjoy your night.” He gave Nico an exaggerated wink and disappeared back into the dark depths of the shop.
Ren turned to Nico. “The whole point was for me to buy you a drink.” He let some exasperation slip into his tone.
“We don’t sell anything here.”
“Then how do you make money?”
“We’re not here for money.” Nico took a careful sip of his drink. The mug was nearly the size of his head. He grimaced, swallowed, and held the other mug out to Ren. “Try it.”
“Your wince isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement. Should I be scared?”
The brows lifted. “Don’t you like adventure?”
“Depends on the adventure.”
Ren took the mug from him, but Nico slipped his hand away too quickly for their fingers to touch, and Ren found himself disappointed by the obvious distance Nico kept between them. Maybe there were some people he couldn’t win over. That hurt to admit. So far in his life, his father had been the only person who had ever disliked him. Ren didn’t want to add Nico to that brief list.
“Maybe a drink infused with six different kinds of magic is a little too adventurous for you.” There was a challenge in Nico’s voice. If he was giving Ren his biting smile as he said it, it was hidden behind his mug as he brought it up for another sip.
Ren sniffed the drink, the steam lifting a scent of spice. “I live for adventure.”
Nico lowered the mug and, yes, there was definitely amusement lingering around his mouth, though not quite a smile. “What sort of adventures have you been on?”
“Well,” Ren said. “This one. Here. Tonight.” He grinned at Nico, raised his mug, and took a large gulp of the mysterious liquid—and choked. He must have inhaled some of the fire in the air as the drink seemed to scorch through his chest and straight into his stomach. Unlike the mystifying blaze all around them, this one actually burned. He doubled over, heaving.
“Oh hell!” Nico hovered closer, warmth on Ren’s left side. “You’re supposed to sip it at first.”
Ren shook his head and tried to breathe past the sensation of his throat melting. He wanted to say Thanks for telling me, but he couldn’t manage words at the moment.
“Hold on!” Nico’s presence at his side faded into the crowd.
Innumerable minutes passed. By the time Nico reappeared in front of him, Ren was sitting on his rump on the ground, with no memory of having sat down. He saw Nico through a bleary haze of heat, his face and throat throbbing.
“Drink this,” Nico said, in what Ren considered an inappropriately unconcerned voice, and thrust a cold drink into his hand.
If Ren had been clearheaded, he’d have made a cheesy, grinning remark about what had happened the last time Nico offered him a drink. But his mind was currently floating somewhere in the treetops. He downed the cool drink. Ice water rushed over his throat, soothing as it went down. Ren remained on the leafy ground amidst passing legs, with knees tucked to his chest, drinking until he finished the whole cup.
“Do you need more?” Nico asked. Arms folded across his chest, legs crossed at the ankle, he leaned against a nearby tree, the picture of casual, his mug on the ground at his feet.
Ren cleared his throat. “No.”
“One cup of water usually does the trick.”
“Wait. You mean this happens often?”
“And you didn’t think it would be a good idea to warn me before I drank it?”
Nico gazed at him. “I thought you wanted adventure.”
High in the trees, the air dancers were engaged in an entirely different world apart from that on the ground. A glow pulsed overhead near Nico, heat tendrils swirling like fingers of golden smoke above his head, sending firelight dancing over his unreadable face.
Ren pushed himself back onto his feet, taking his time brushing leaves and dirt off his pants. “Well, then. Damn you, you magical bastard.”
“Here,” Nico said and reached for the mug on the ground next to Ren’s foot. “I’ll get rid of it and get you something a little less…adventurous. Water seems to be more your speed.”
Ren snatched up the mug before Nico could get to it. “No. I’ll just drink it slower.”
Once again, Nico’s gaze settled on him, gleaming and unreadable. “Some people can’t handle Quavar. It’s potent.”
There was that sound of challenge again, and Ren enjoyed a challenge. Grinning, he brought the mug back to his lips. “I promise you, I can handle just about anything.” Including the mocking way said magical bastard’s lips twisted as he watched Ren go in for his second try.
He took a cautious sip. It seared his lips, burned across his tongue, but he pushed it down his throat anyway. It slipped all the way down his esophagus and heated his stomach. He swallowed his own saliva several times to get the lingering effects of the Quavar off his tongue and rasped out, “Delicious.”
“Pace yourself or you’ll be drunk in five minutes.”
“Maybe I want to be drunk now,” Ren said, smirking. He wasn’t even sure what he meant by it, except that maybe he wished they were both drunk so he could see Nico’s lithe limbs loose and willing. It was, indeed, potent.
“Just wait until your parents smell that on your breath.”
Ren took another sip, touching his tongue to the surface of the drink. It tingled. “Exactly how old do you think I am?”
“Eighteen. Maybe nineteen.”
Ren stopped a giggle from working its way out of his mouth. A giggle would do nothing to prove he was a mature adult. Maybe that Quavar stuff did have a strong bite, in more ways than the obvious heat-burn. Ren usually wasn’t a giggler. Coughing to cover the almost-giggle, in a voice rough with held-in laughter, he said, “Add five years.”
Nico gave him a sidelong look. “Really?”
“Really.” Ren sipped his drink, though it singed his tongue. “And I’m not going home to parents, so you need not worry about it.”
“I’m not worried.”
“You can cast your spells on me,” Ren said, grinning over his mug, “and I won’t even tell my mother on you.” He regretted saying it five seconds later when Nico turned away, his patience a fleeting thing. An immensely awkward silence closed them up in a little bubble as carnival goers giddy with wonder streamed past.
“How old are you?” Ren asked just to change the subject.
“Also not an adolescent,” Nico said with a distant tone. Perhaps his mind was in the canopy, flying, free.
Flirting usually came to Ren so easily—until now. He wanted to blame his fumbles on the drink, but he couldn’t. It had everything to do with Nico being so near and the way the actuality of him overflowed Ren’s senses. There was something about Nico that set off a yearning in Ren, like waking from a dream that he couldn’t hold on to, wanting something he couldn’t name. Ren couldn’t get over a reality where someone like Nico truly existed.
Nico’s sharp profile was lit from behind as he observed something or someone in the distance, a glow of gold and ruby spotlighting his pensiveness. Ren had the hot urge to capture the fleeting expression on Nico’s face. He wished he were an artist, if only to paint Nico in that moment.
Nico said, “Do you always stare?”
Ren came out of his stupor. He hadn’t realized he’d been staring.
“I think the drink might be getting to me,” Ren said, a weak excuse.
Nico ignored that, too preoccupied with the crowd and the world above in the canopy, his attention an ephemeral thing Ren couldn’t seem to capture. “I need to get back to my show.”
Nico walked away without another word. The sheer abrupt rudeness of it was like nothing Ren had ever seen. Hadn’t they been talking? Sort of?
No one in Klein would have ever done such a thing. Were these magicians really so different from his own people? So openly rude? Or was it just this one?
This was his night away from the home, the night he had been planning for months. Maybe years. Maybe since the first year he’d noticed the riotous glow in the woods across the lake, and his mother had sat him down and told him everyone was forbidden from going to the spectacle in the woods, that it was much safer to shutter the windows and bar the doors against it. Many in Klein believed the carnival troupe might have dark connections to the Autumn God, that they could use the God’s power to twist the weather patterns and help bring down the gloom of the cool rainy season.
Ren didn’t care. Even as a child, he’d always had one thought. But what if I’m missing out? What if there’s something at the carnival I need to see?
Besides, Ren thought of autumn as his season, and he thrilled to the idea of his Autumn God in cahoots with magicians to weave storms. The season of mystery, when the town hushed up, kept its secrets and suspicions held tightly to its chest. He wanted to discover secrets. Starting, perhaps, with Nico—this enigma. He needed to touch his fingertips to Nico, satiate his curiosity against Nico’s skin.
“You,” Ren said when he reached Nico’s side. Some of the liquid in his mug sloshed out onto his shoes. “Did I say something to offend you?” Nico’s pace slowed. He kept a small distance between them, as though reluctant to let Ren near. “Please tell me if I did.”
Nico stopped so abruptly that Ren spilled more of his drink on the ground. He licked some off his fingers, and this time, it almost tasted pleasant. Its warmth had a soothing quality, despite the sizzle in his throat. The way Nico followed the curl of Ren’s tongue over his fingers answered at least one question for him, and the relief of that realization made Ren a little giddy. It appeared Nico wasn’t utterly disinterested in men.
They were standing closer to each other than they had yet, so close Nico was forced to tilt his face up to him. Ren was nearly a head taller, and Nico’s eyes were level with Ren’s chin. And, yes, maybe Ren liked that a little. Or a lot, actually. Since age sixteen, he’d been taller than nearly everyone. He’d always had to tip downward to look at people, but he hadn’t really thought about it or taken such a thrill from it until now.
“I have a job to do,” Nico said, his regard sweeping up from Ren’s neck, to his chin, to his mouth, and finally meeting his gaze. “You seem like a decent man. Go home.”
“What?” Bewildered, Ren pulled back. “Are you kicking me out of the carnival? I just got here. Wait. Can you even do that? I don’t think you can do that.”
Nico’s focus slipped away from Ren’s face, skittered to the people nearby as he spoke. “It’s not worth staying. Go home.”
“I’ve already found a reason to stay longer.”
“No,” Nico said with force, “you haven’t. Don’t say that.” His mind was clearly elsewhere, and that really got to Ren, as though he were so unimportant he couldn’t even be spared any consideration as he was being rejected. Nico could at least look at him as he gave him the brush-off.
Ren snorted. The disappointment bubbled up, unavoidable, uncontainable. “You’re kind of an asshole, aren’t you? Why is it that people like you so often are?”
Finally, Nico abandoned the crowd around them, facing Ren warily. His shoulders were up, making him seem smaller. Softly, barely loud enough to be heard over the carnival noise, he said, “People like me?”
Ren swept a hand through the air, a gesture that took in all of Nico’s body. “Ridiculously beautiful people.” At that, Nico’s mouth twisted into a familiar exasperation that told Ren he’d heard it before. Of course he had. Didn’t beautiful people always know they were beautiful? Fine. Maybe Ren wasn’t worthy of a magical creature. Nico was a dream man, not a reality. But it still hurt. He looked at Nico, and that hurt too. “All you had to do was tell me you weren’t interested right away,” Ren said, more softly. “It’s all right.”
“I did,” Nico said. “You wouldn’t let me walk away.”
“Simple and straightforward,” Ren went on. “Say it to my face. It would’ve been a letdown, but it would have been quicker.”
“That was a little hard to do with you following me through the crowd. Should I have kneed you in the balls and then walked away?”
Ren ignored that. “Now I’ve spent more time with you, and it makes me want— It makes me wish…” I had a chance. It made him feel so spoiled, so entitled, so pathetic. He couldn’t finish the thought aloud. He stuck his hands in his pockets, shrugged. “Maybe you should have just kneed me in the balls.”
Nico considered him. “I could knee you in the balls right now.”
“No. It wouldn’t be the same. It’s too late for ball-kneeing. That had to come earlier.”
“Well then,” Nico said, “fuck you.”
Neither of them walked away. They stood in the middle of the chaos staring at each other. It was the moment when most would have parted ways: that moment when two people acknowledged a spark had failed to ignite.
There had been a spark for Ren, but Nico let it fizzle. A silence expanded between them, both intent on the other but neither moved.
Nico broke it. “Is everyone a giant where you’re from?” His voice was impassive when he asked it, but the glimmer in his eyes cut back any bite the comment might have had.
It eased the tension in Ren’s shoulders. Carefully, he said, “Just me.”
The comment made Ren realize just how close they were standing. Nico seemed to be studying his face, and Ren did so in return: long, pale-ginger lashes; serious mouth; sharp-planed, shimmering cheekbones. His eyes, Ren could now clearly see, were a strange sort of brown, lighter than brown had any right to be, tawny in the subdued light. And kind of mesmerizing. God, oh God, he was beautiful. So beautiful it somehow didn’t seem fair. They were about to walk away from each other, and Ren would never see him again. The one man Ren hadn’t been able to charm. How tremendously unfair. He’d seen others squashed by rejection. It had never actually happened to him, but tonight was apparently a night of firsts.
Someone bumped Nico hard from behind, and he stumbled toward Ren. It was almost too perfect, the way Nico ended up, briefly, in Ren’s arms. He caught Nico against his chest, steadied him. Quickly, Nico drew away from Ren. All that registered of the man standing behind Nico was that he was broad, stocky, overly hairy, strangely disproportional, and still standing there in their little moment, ruining it, for no reason.
“All right there, Nic?” the man said.
Nico went very still at the sound of his voice. He didn’t answer. The man didn’t move, except for the knowing gleam flicked at Ren, who grew a little more confused by the moment. Nico’s back remained to the man, his lips a distinct flat line, his cheeks flushed. To Ren, it looked like anger. Or, inexplicably, fear.
It was, in fact, becoming uncomfortable, and Ren was getting the distinct impression he was missing something.
“Are you a magician too?” Ren asked, if only to break apart the moment.
“Of a sort.” He laughed.
Ren didn’t get the joke and didn’t pretend to.
Nico was also not laughing, his expression inscrutable. His eyes were hard as they found Ren’s. Ren didn’t know Nico well enough to understand the look in them.
“Just checking in,” the man said, already walking away. “Someone has to keep track of you, Nico.”
He melted back into the crowd.
Nico turned in a slow circle, taking in his surroundings as though searching for someone or something. Scanning, Ren realized with unease.
Ren felt he had to ask it. It might explain Nico’s furtiveness. “Was that your boyfriend? Or ex-boyfriend?”
Nico gave him a disgusted grimace. “No. And hell no.”
“Oh,” Ren said on a release of air. He smiled, relieved, as if the fact of a boyfriend mattered at this point. It would make no difference in Nico’s rejection of him, but he said it anyway: “Good.”
“Someone from my troupe,” Nico said, abstracted. The crowd had his attention once again. “No one important.”
“Is something wrong?”
A muscle in Nico’s jaw twitched. “No.”
He was so jittery, fiddling with his hands, lacing and unlacing them as if he couldn’t keep his fingers still. It was clearly a lie. Nico was deeply disturbed, worried about something.
Ren played along, though he had no idea what was happening. “Does he do the air acrobatics too?” He was trying to pull Nico’s focus back to him, and it worked.
Nico gave him a strange look, hazy with distraction. “Does he seem like someone who capers in treetops?”
“Not really, no.” Nico’s mercuriality felt like a wave that Ren couldn’t avoid. “I don’t think he has the legs for it,” Ren muttered, helplessly unable to stop himself.
Nico turned all that heavy, focused intensity to him now. “Doesn’t have the…”
“Well, I only meant—”
“He has the body of a furry squash,” Nico said, and closed his lips on something that squeezed through anyway. He put the back of his hand up to his mouth as if to stop the awkward fart of amusement that leaked out, but he couldn’t quite catch it.
“I didn’t want to be rude, but he certainly does,” Ren said, unsure of what was happening.
“Please,” Nico said, “be rude.” He shoved his fingers through the stick-straight tousle of his hair, making it fall forward. He dropped his hands back to his sides, his fingers calmer.
Ren had never wanted anything so much in his life than to touch the hair that fell like red silk across Nico’s forehead. What would hair that rich in color feel like against his skin?
“I have to go,” Nico said and started to turn away.
And so they were back to that. Ren knew he should let him go this time. There was something not quite right about Nico. There was something not quite right about the way he felt about Nico—so instantly, intensely immersed.
Ren didn’t let him go.
“Wait.” He put a thoughtless hand on Nico’s shoulder. Nico shrugged away from his touch. And, ouch. He probably deserved that.
“I have a show to do,” Nico said but didn’t turn away or walk off again. He raked Ren with those strange wheat-brown eyes, as if waiting for whatever words Ren might offer this time.
“I only came for…” Embers floated down around them. Ren threw his hands into the air. “Magic. It’s always been out of reach for me, in the distance. In my village, we grow up with it right there across the lake, but we never get to experience it. I had to come see it for myself.” Softly, he added, “That’s all I wanted tonight. I want you to know that I didn’t come here to hit on a magician. You kind of just…fell into my arms.”
A strange sort of music started up, a beat Ren felt in his bones more vividly than he heard it. It rose languidly, filling the night air as well as Ren’s blood. His eardrums told him the amalgam of sound should be a cacophony, but it somehow spoke straight to his body. The tones melted into his skin, suffused his blood. Instruments layered on top of instruments until Ren swore he could taste it on his tongue, sweet and smoky at once.
“Do you feel that?” Ren said softly, afraid he might break the spell. “I think the music is”—he stared at Nico in surprise—“on my tongue.”
To Ren’s relieved delight, Nico’s face brightened slightly. “Well,” he said, “you wanted to experience magic.”
“Good God.” Ren closed his eyes, let the smoke roll over his tongue. “I could listen to this music all night. And savor it too. I don’t want this song to ever end.”
“The next song might have a different flavor.”
Ren came to at that. “Really? Like what?”
“My favorite is the one that’s like chocolate and cinnamon.” The hint of a smile softened his face into something a bit more approachable, less harsh and otherworldly.
“What kind of magic is this?” Ren asked absently. The song swayed through his body, rippling over each of his senses.
“Mine,” Nico said.
“All of the carnival, or the music part?”
“The music part.”
The best part so far. The sensation of the music made Ren smile.
“Can I take you to dinner?” Ren asked and didn’t care how ridiculous it sounded. He might be a country rube, used to nothing but the small candlelit restaurant in the center of town, but he was also a little desperate for the promise of more Nico in his life, if only for a night. He was about to disappear up into the trees, leaving Ren with no guarantee of ever seeing him again. The thought was unbearable. He had to at least throw out a reason for them to meet up afterward and hope Nico might catch it.
Nico paused. He didn’t answer right away.
It prompted Ren to rush out the rest. “I had to try. One last try.”
“You’re tenacious.” Nico bit his lip, and Ren’s world narrowed to his mouth. “You should stay for the rest of my show.”
Ren was having trouble keeping up with Nico’s changeable moods, yet warmth spread up his limbs at the invitation. He swirled his drink. Maybe he’d had more than he realized. It would account for the heat tingling just under his skin. Not even a quarter of the mug was gone.
“I’d like that,” Ren said, the warmth seeping into his voice.
Nico led him through the crowd to a relatively quieter area that Ren hadn’t yet explored. The leaf-crunchy ground was covered with blankets. Dozens of people already sprawled flat on their backs, entranced by the aerial acrobats dancing through the canopy. Ren sat on the brown blanket Nico gestured to, and it seemed to cushion his body as though there were no ground beneath him at all.
Ren looked up at Nico. “And dinner?”
“Gods but you’re brazen,” Nico said.
“Brazenness usually works for me,” Ren said, but then Nico glanced upward into the trees. Not a good sign. “I might never see you again. I know it’s likely, but I don’t want that to be the case. I thought I might as well just put it all out there.”
Nico’s face transformed into mock innocence, all big round eyes and an exaggerated frown that made Ren realize he really wanted to get to know this moody weirdo. Nico asked, “Are you sure you want to have dinner with me? The asshole?”
“I honestly can’t yet tell if you’re a true asshole.” Ren really had nothing to lose at this point. “Maybe you’re just having a bad night.”
“Maybe I’m one of those partial asshole-type people.”
“I can’t figure you out,” Ren admitted.
“We can get something to eat after I finish tonight.”
Ren kept it calm, mellow. Inside, he was jumping, fist pumping. He gazed up the graceful length of Nico’s legs, up his lean torso, and finally to his face. He was wearing some kind of tight black pants with a black shirt, all of it sleekly streamlined. The clothes hugged the clean, slender lines of Nico’s body. For something that completely covered everything, the clothing was astonishingly revealing.
“Perfect,” Ren said and wasn’t sure if he meant the dinner or Nico’s body. Maybe both. Yes, definitely both.
As Nico started to walk away, Ren lifted his mug back to his mouth, ready to dive in to the drink again, but Nico turned before he reached the edge of the crowd. “And you are?” he asked.
Lifting his glass to the sky, Ren said, “Happy to be here.”
“That’s nice.” Unruffled, Nico waited for him to take a long sip of his drink—it didn’t burn so badly now. “I meant, what is your name?”
“Oh. It’s Ren.”
He said it like he was flipping the name around inside his mouth, feeling its edges. Ren liked the way Nico’s accent smoothed out his name. The way Nico’s lips shaped it, it sounded like a song.
“Good to meet you, Ren,” Nico said. “See you around later.”
That small gesture, paired with Nico’s acceptance of dinner, was all it took. Ren thought he might be damn well glowing.
Ren enjoyed the slinky manner in which Nico walked away. It made the heat rush just beneath his skin like magic.