EPISODE 9: POPS

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Hace Matthews. Jovday. Libra 26th, 2344 AA. 7:38 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (East Caffeteria).

Hace walked out of the cafeteria alongside Radan, a kind fourth-year who had just saved his ass. Over dinner, Radan had heard him complaining to another first-year, Avashall, that he could not afford an elective textbook on the principles of intermediate bindings. Fortunately, Radan had a book that would serve Hace’s purposes, and was happy to loan it to him while they ate. Bronte was already asking their cohort extra credit questions about second-year curriculum and other off-text material. Hace could hear the sneering teacher’s voice in his head. ‘It never hurts to read ahead. Hence extra credit!’ Asshole.

“I’m headed back to the dorm. You want to come with?” Radan asked.

“Thanks, but I think I need to take a walk. Get some air. My head feels like it’s gonna pop.”

“I know that feeling. Have you seen the view from the cafeteria’s eastern balcony yet? Worth a look.”

“I’ll check it out, thanks!” Hace said, giving a polite salute.

“Take it easy, newbie,” Radan laughed.

Hace grinned and waved goodbye. He yawned, reached for the sky, and stretched toes to fingertips. His joints popped. His muscles ached. Thank God I prepared. He had trained hard for assessments, and kept up his personal regimen until enrollment. He was pleased to find out that his attempt to replicate their fitness program was almost dead on the money. He had worked harder on his own but working out smarter had its own challenges. Most of the instructors—masters and proctors alike—had all kinds of advice that improved his technique at the cost of taxing muscle groups he was unaccustomed to using.

Dopamine chased the cartoonish stretch up the length of his body, blossoming in his head. It eased the stress somewhat, but he still felt fuzzy. Won’t be able to study or sleep like this. He decided to take Radan’s advice, and walked the perimeter of the cafeteria to the eastern side, facing the arroyo between the Westridge and Central Terraces. It was still a bit light out, but the view took his breath away.

The buildings of the Central Terrace, which housed the city’s major business and shopping districts, glowed against the setting sun. A tiny, stunning skyline. Westridge reached out to Central with thirteen rib-like bridges, each unique, some threaded through, or carved atop strands of the city’s enormous petrified briar. In their shadow, the banks of the arroyo gleamed with the lights of wealthy homes, peaking through the trees.

I can’t afford this view. Not yet, anyway.

He was trying to act like he belonged. He tried to avoid or evade questions about his family, or his circumstances. And most of the kids were decent about it. He guessed Cyphira was in a similar situation, and neither of them brought it up which seemed to suit them both fine. He knew his roommate, Glem, could tell he was a halfie with no money, no father, and a cracked mother from the moment they met. But he didn’t care! And he was one step beneath Valmont in terms of Arroyo royalty. His father was an enormously influential medithurge, and his mother was a successful asfalis attorney. Glem could read him like a book, and he was cool. But there were others who seemed desperate to judge him.

Hace was distracted from his meditations when he heard a sorely familiar scene playing out. Muffled grunts. Faint insults obscured by labored breathing. And thumps of flesh on flesh. That is the sound of somebody getting their shit kicked in.

He started humming loudly to announce himself, and when scuffle didn’t stop, he sighed and descended the stairs to the patio beneath the balcony. To his surprise, he found his roommate, Glem Grayson Hughes, pinned to a wall by an older boy with the third-year’s insignia on his training uniform, and Jrett, a member of his cohort looking on with twisted satisfaction.

“Fuck him up, Corton!” Jrett urged.

“The hell is this?” Hace said, loudly enough to snag Jrett’s attention.

“Not your business, Matthews,” Jrett said.

“Yeah? Pity I’m nosey,” Hace said, then spoke up, emanating directly at Corton. “Let him go.”

Corton turned to look at Hace, still holding Glem by the collar. Jrett gaped, unable to believe somebody would dare oppose an upperclassman. I’ve faced trolls before. Alone. Unarmed. Corton scoffed, seemingly amused.

“You got a death wish, first-year?” Corton asked.

Hace took his time replying.

Jrett was the butt of every joke in the first years’ cohort. Dumb, weak wyrd, nothing exceptional athletically, and a prime example of somebody who paid their way into the ivory tower. Rumor was his parents were paying over one-hundred thousand in tuition. Threat Level: Zero.

But Hace had to consider Corton for a second. He was a big guy. Built like a tackleball backer. That meant reach, speed, and strength. But judging from the blows he was using to beat on Glem, he telegraphed his moves pretty hard, and used his wyrd to power up his punches rather than as extra hands, projectiles, or anything else requiring an ounce of creativity.

So. Same as a troll. I can work with this.

“Just a conscience and some common decency,” Hace said at last.

“Then be decent enough to fuck off,” Corton said, and punched Glem in the stomach again.

“What did he do?” Hace demanded.

Jrett sneered and said:

“F****t hit on me in the showers! Offered to give my wyrd a massage in front of everyone.”

“Gotcha,” Hace said slowly, nodded his head, and then pointed at Corton. “I take it he’s your insecure boyfriend, then?” Jrett’s jaw-dropped. Corton did a double take. Hace continued: “Because otherwise, I really don’t see how that is remotely his problem.”

All humor vanished from Corton’s face. He flung Glem against the wall.

“What the fuck did you say?”

“Fuck you, Matthews!” Jrett added.

“Hace, drop it,” Glem pleaded through a fat lip.

“Shut up, f****t!” Corton said, and kicked Glem in the shoulder.

“Do that again,” Hace said, wyrd swelling with menace, “And I promise you’ll regret it.”

Corton sneered, and pulled back his foot. Hace flashed forward. He jumped low off the ground, and propelled himself forward with a powerful burst of sorcery. It was a new trick that Fitzgerald taught him and Cyphira during their first private sparring lesson. The sudden movement startled Jrett, and he backed away before a belated attempt to catch Hace. Corton panicked and tried to redirect his kick at Hace.

Sloppy.

Hace planted his feet on the ground, just in time to catch Corton’s ankle. Hace yanked him off balance, and thrust a palm into his chest. Before Corton could fall over on his own, Hace fired a sorcerous pulse from his open palm directly into the older boy’s body. Hace didn’t go all out; only used about a third of his total potential output. But that was enough to make something in Corton’s chest pop. The older boy let off a choked cry.

Jrett had regained his footing and came at Hace from behind. Hace turned and launched an elbow into his jaw, probably not hard enough to break it, but he wasn’t being particularly careful, either. The blow sent him to the ground hard. Knowing Jrett, he’ll give up or run away. No magic necessary. Now, back to you, Corton.

Sure enough, the upperclassman was trying to stand up for another assault. Hace made a disgusted noise and kicked him in solar plexus. Corton collapsed and released a sharp yelp as he gasped for air against his broken rib.

“Listen good, fuckwits,” Hace said, emanating vitriol. “Your Glem Hughes privileges have been permanently revoked. Get me? Starting now. Ending never. We are gonna walk away, and you are gonna lie there ‘til we’re gone.”

Hace’s wyrd simmered with righteous fury. It felt good at first, but then a familiar tingling sensation shot through his entire wyrd, leaving its energy effervescent. Oh no. Not now. Please not now.

It was the onset of an akratic seizure. In seconds, he would be propelled out of reality, and into a pocket dimension. This isn’t right! My last seizure was just four days ago! It shouldn’t be happening again this soon! His heartrate sped up and his wyrd became too diffuse to control. He turned to Glem and tried to tell him to run, half a second too late.

— 7:46 PM. Pocket Dimension (Entered Via Arroyo) —

Hace’s thinning wyrd violently recondensed, launching him out of reality and into the Veil.

The dimensional membrane was thick that night; an ocean of ambient elemental energy, stray thoughts, and faint faen magic. He floundered for a couple seconds, like a whale had spat him out deep underwater. Then there was a popping sensation, and he re-emerged on another plane of physical existence. Not the Faed. Just a pocket dimension. His body was dry, but his wyrd was chilled and heavy with metaphysical dampness. It felt like the urdic equivalent of a fever sweat.

Hace stood on a stone platform in the middle of a hollow sphere, enclosed on all sides by a swirling purple and indigo sky with tiny motes of light, resembling stars. I need to find the exit and get the hell out of here. God knows what they’ll do to Glem while I’m gone!

Three slow claps sounded behind him. Hace whirled to find a tall, sun elf advancing from the far rim of the platform. Hace drew back his head in contempt.

Of course. Of course, you would do this to me now, of all times. Hurt me by hurting others. The elf had Hace’s facial features, though his ears were sharper and longer, and his hair was lighter than Hace’s, closer to flame than blood. Green veins coiled around the immaculately corded muscles of his bare arms and chest, like stylized ivy. He wore a pair of laminated leather boots and trousers, though his usual assortment of blades was absent. His pupilless eyes glowed a brilliant blue, like a summer glare reflected by clear ocean water. The same shade as Hace’s.

“Well fought, my son,” Síol Dawncreed declared. “You certainly showed those bigots what for.”

“This is not the time!” Hace snarled. “Let me go before those two beat the shit out of him!”

“Come now. Make some time for dear old dad. You’ve known that boy for what, a few days?”

“Let me go!” Hace demanded, storming toward his father.

Hace felt an intense swell of power, a shifting in the realm, and halted his advance.

Fae didn’t have wyrds. At least, not in the strict sense. They themselves were magic, sentient extensions of the Faed. Their relative strength was based on their standing in their seasonal court, and how much influence it held over a given. Fortunately, Summer was slipping to Autumn in Ericia, and since they were in a random pocket dimension, Síol was much weaker than he would be if they met in the Faed. But he’s still damn powerful.

He waved his hand, as if wiping the grime away from a window, and the top of the swirling sky abruptly cleared to provide Hace with a close, over-the-shoulder view of Glem and Corton. No sign of Jrett. Glem was kneeling over Corton, who was trying to shove him away.

“Get off of me!”

“Stop moving,” Glem said, his voice calm but firm despite his fat lip. “You have a badly broken rib. Keep thrashing and it could puncture your lung.”

Fear flashed in Corton’s eyes and he stilled, wincing with every shuddering breath.

“How the hell could you know that?”

“My father taught me how to detect and assess injuries with sorcery. I also know enough medithurgy to properly set that bone with a contract, if you will let me.”

“Fuck you!”

Glem snapped.

“No, fuck you, man! I’m trying to help. A break like that, you’ve got two choices: let me set the bone and walk into the infirmary yourself with whatever excuse you want, or stay there and try to explain away the situation to whoever finds us. Because I’m not leaving until I know you’re out of danger.”

Corton stared at him, disbelieving. Hace stared with contempt, but he was also confused. You’re seriously trying to help the guy who was beating you senseless just a minute earlier.

“I don’t need help from a f****t!” Corton said.

“Really? ‘Cause from where I’m at, it doesn’t seem like you’ve got a lot of options. And make no mistake: I am gay. I like boys and I’m not gonna deny it. But last I checked, it’s not contagious. I wasn’t trying to hit on Jrett earlier. And I’m definitely not hitting on your homophobe ass now.”

Corton’s lip curled as he seemed to wrestle with himself. Finally, he lowered his hand from the right side of his ribs and emanated acquiescence at Glem. Glem came closer and held his hands a few inches away from Corton’s chest.

“This is probably gonna hurt. Like, a lot. You may want to bite your sleeve or something.”

Corton grudgingly raised his left arm and bit down on his sleeve. Glem closed his eyes and formed a triangle shape with the tips of his fingers. There was a pulse of violet light, and Corton growled with muffled anguish. Glem raised both hands and backed away like he was dealing with an ill-socialized dog.

“Take it slow you should be able to get to the infirmary without reinjuring it. They’ll be able to wrap it and assess if you need more treatment. But you’re gonna be out of action for a while.”

Corton stood up, wincing, though his breathing was noticeably less strained. He hung around for a couple seconds wtih his hand pressed to his chest, unsure of what to say. He settled on:

“Tell anybody about this and you are dead. Understand? They will arrest me for what I will do to you.”

Glem opened his mouth to say something, but clearly reconsidered his words before speaking:

“As long as you leave Hace out of it, I’m happy to forget this ever happened. But if you try to throw blame, I’ll make damn sure everybody on campus hears the full story. And I imagine ‘a first-year fed me my own asshole’ is a bad look.”

Corton glowered at Glem and finally turned to walk away. Glem flipped him off with both hands as soon as his back was turned. Then he slumped against the wall Corton had pinned him against and massaged his temples.

The sky in the pocket dimension clouded over again, ending the scene.

“See?” Síol asked, smug. “All’s well that ends w—”

Hace launched a wild, sorcery assisted haymaker at his father’s jaw. The split-second his knuckles made contact, he fired an urdic pulse, like the one he’d used to break Corton’s rib. But this time, he unleashed the full might of his wyrd. Síol’s head exploded into a plume of fae dust.

Hace followed up with a roundhouse into his seemingly-decapitated torso, staggering him. He attempted to finish with a spinning back kick, launching his heel toward his father’s solar plexus. But even though the sidhe’s head had yet to finish reconstituting, Síol deftly sidestepped the stabbing kick and yanked Hace by the ankle, hyper-extended his leg.

No!

With terrible, remorseless grace, Síol drove an elbow into his son’s hip, dislodging the femoral head from its joint with a violent, wet pop. The pain was so intense, Hace didn’t even feel himself hit the floor when his father released him. He screamed.

“Well-struck,” Síol said, massaging his jaw as his head finished reforming. “But I didn’t summon you here on a whim, boy. And I don’t have the time for our usual games,” Hace barely heard him, blinded by hate and agony. Síol continued: “You’ve done well to enroll in the Athenaeum. It will provide early education and training suitable for one of your stature. But three years hence, you will be able to answer Summer’s sacred call. And you are needed.”

“Go to hell!” Hace shouted. “I’d rather die before joining any of the fae, and I’d sooner swear myself to Winter out of spite than serve you!”

Siol sighed heavily, dropping his mask of glibness for the barest moment.

“You want to save Sivia, correct?”

At the mention of his mother, Hace immediately tried to rise on his good leg and started gathering his wyrd to attack. His father backed away, holding his palms out in retreat:

“Peace, Hace. Please. I apologize.”

Hace’s lip curled, but he stayed his hand. Síol continued:

“Your city. Your entire reality is in danger. And my kind is near-powerless to stop what threatens it. Our wills are fettered by the Auld Laws, but you, as a Meascach—”

“You think I’m gonna buy into some ‘chosen one’ bedtime story? You destroyed my mother’s mind!” Hace shouted, voice cracking. Siol fell silent and bowed his head. Hace continued: “But I will save her! Everything else can wait until I’ve repaired the damage you’ve done.”

Síol stared at him. He looked genuinely wounded. But fae were peerless actors and deceivers, despite their compulsion to speak only truth. Síol spoke again, chastened:

“Let me help you. I can provide funds for her treatment. Boons. Tutors.”

Hace scoffed, a plan developing in his head.

“Choke on it. Fae are cancer. Gifts are how you spread. Your dust in my blood has cost me enough already. If you loved me or my mother, you would—”

Siol stepped forward and said, sharply:

“I do love you. And Sivia.”

Hace launched himself at his father with the same sorcerous technique he used on Corton, compensating for his useless leg with sorcery. It had to look real, so he went all out with the strike. But the attack was telegraphed, and without both legs to push off the ground, it was much slower. Síol stepped out of the way with trivial effort, and Hace fell on the ground in a painful heap.

Time to start crying.

Hace roared frustration, then wailed. He was genuinely furious and frustrated. And he wasn’t making any kind of coherent statement. So, he wasn’t technically lying. Technically. He beat the floor with his fist and lowered his head to his other arm.

“How dare you. You aren’t a father. You’re a goddamned revenant. You show up when it suits you. Your legacy haunts us. You’re…” Hace allowed his voice to trail off, lost to sobs.

After a moment of weeping, Síol knelt before him and extended a hand. Too obvious. Hace swatted it away, struggling to stand on his one good leg, and deliberately falling again. His father tried to assist him again, and he still protested, weakly this time. Not yet. Finally, Siol gathered Hace into a hug against his bare chest.

Now.

The was a messy squelch, and Siol’s lower body went slack. He looked down at his son’s murderous, triumphant expression.

Hace was still learning how to do kinetic blades. They weren’t even part of the curriculum yet. But he managed to work out the basics with Cyphira. And from their meager self-practice, they had learned that it was damn difficult to focus your wyrd into a fine edge, especially without some momentum to assist. Together, they had mastered one fairly simple cantrip, however.

Mid-embrace Hace traced his father’s bare back with his right hand, feeling out the gaps in his vertebrae. And then, with the most intense focus he had ever achieved, he created a kinetic razor along the edge of his fingertips, and jabbed it into the base of his father’s spine. As Síol lost control of his legs, bewildered, Hace drew back his left hand, forming a sorcerous spear with his fingers, then thrust his forearm beneath his father’s ribcage at a sharp angle. Then he spread his fingers apart, causing the spear point to spread like a fan. Chromatic dust flooded from the wound.

That has to be worth a quarter year at least. Fae naturally healed from minor injuries in minutes to seconds, based on their relative Eminence in that realm. Consequently, they didn’t die as easily as most humans. Even when their ‘bodies’ were broken, they would eventually reincarnate depending on how savagely they had been dispatched. But that arrangement suits me just fine, I can hurt you over and over again, forever. I can kill you until the day I die myself.

“Every time,” Hace snarled. “Do you hear me, Síol? This is how it will end every time you come for me.”

His father laughed, coughing up another gout of dust. He started to say something else, but Hace embraced him roughly, driving his fist deeper into his body. Then he fired another shockwave of kinetic energy radiating from his hand. His father burst into a fine mist of fae dust.

Hace tried to gasp to take a breath before the dust erupted, but timed it wrong, and ended up inhaling a good deal of the iridescent powder.

Well. Next couple hours should be interesting.

He briefly considered waiting out the high in the pocket dimension. But these hellish little bubbles get less and less stable as time goes on. And I don’t want to be caught by something else with a ruined leg. He searched for a soft spot—an area of the pocket dimension where the walls of the Veil were thin—and found it very near the spot he had first punched his father. With a deep breath, and a burst of will, he ejected himself back into reality.

— 7:52 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (East Cafeteria) —

“And what the fuck happened to you?” Glem demanded.

“Akratic seizure,” Hace said, limping to the nearest wall to support himself.

“Obviously,” Glem said, rolling his eyes. “I meant your leg!”

Hace was surprised that Glem was completely calm about his sudden disappearance, and subsequent re-emergence a few yards away. Most people knew about akrasia—or thought they knew about akrasia—just like everyone knew about amnesia. Finding it in fiction was inevitable. It was mysterious and evocative. Good material for bad writing. But in Hace’s experience, when most people were confronted with an actual akratic seizure, they tended to freak out a bit.

“Earth to roommate?” Glem said, exasperated. Hace blinked, paying attention again, but confused. Glem slapped his thigh. “Your leg, dumbass!”

“I think it’s broken. Or dislocated maybe,” Hace said slowly. I’m going to avoid telling him the cause as long as possible.

Glem walked over and took Hace under the shoulder, gently lowering him to the ground. When Hace was comfortably stretched out, Glem examined his leg, prodding it with his wyrd.

“Yeah. Dislocated. You ever delt with one of these before?”

“Not yet,” Hace said, grimacing.

“Bite your sleeve and try to relax, but hold yourself as still as possible.”

Hace complied.

“Deep breath,” Glem said. “On three?”

Hace nodded, then shrieked into his sleeve when Glem popped his leg back into its socket without warning. The world went white. Each heartbeat radiated brutal pain in his hip. He bit harder into the light blue fabric of his aspirant robes and took several heavy breaths through his nose before releasing it.

“Son of a bitch!” He hissed.

“Yeah. Not fun,” Glem agreed. He waited for Hace to finish wincing, then asked: “Can you tell me how this happened?”

Hace tsked and looked away. Glem grinned.

“See, you strike me as the reckless, showboating type. Which means you like attention, but you hate being embarrassed. So, I’m hoping that if you say what you did out loud and it sounds dumb enough, you won’t do it again.”

“This part of your treatment plan?”

“An ounce of prevention, motherfucker,” Glem said.

Hace laughed. Alright. No more dodging, so no time like the present, I guess.

“My father did it.”

“Holy shit. Like, your father-father? In the Faed?”

“It was a pocket dimension. And better to call him ‘the man who made me a bastard’ than ‘father,’” Hace said, smirking. “But I gave as good as I got and better.”

“Yeah. You, uh… you seem to like fighting apparently,” Glem said, voice filled with concern. Hace shot him a reproachful look. Glem returned his expression and said: “What? You’re telling me you just jumped in against two dudes to defend the roommate you just met?”

“I mean, you seem cool enough,” Hace said, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “Besides, those guys were beating the shit out of you.” Glem shrugged, and opened his mouth, but Hace cut him off: “Why they hell did you help Corton with his rib?”

Glem backed away, bug-eyed.

“How did you know that? That’s not an akrasiac thing, is it? I’ve never heard of—”

“It’s a long story. I’ll tell it after you tell me why you helped the guy who was trying to kill you.”

Glem gave him an exasperated stare.

“He’s a piece of shit, but he’s still people, man. If it was just a cracked rib, I might’ve run away, but that thing was ready to pop his lung. That’s not schoolyard shit. That’s a life-altering injury.”

“And beating somebody bloody because they’re gay is schoolyard shit?”

Glem looked away to consider it, then immediately looked back and nodded:

“Yes. Yes, it is.”

“That doesn’t mean you should have to put up with it.”

“In a perfect world,” Glem sighed. “But like. I’m not a fighter, right? You’ve seen me spar. My wyrd isn’t that strong. But it’s versatile. Insightful. Besides, If I don’t give them the satisfaction of fighting back—”

“You think they’ll get bored? Give up?” Hace snorted. “The only people who spout that shit are people who’ve never dealt with an actual bully in their lives.”

“They won’t stop,” Glem agreed. “But they will get bored faster on a case-by-case basis.”

The words chipped Hace’s heart. Fuck that. He didn’t know how to answer, so he sat next to Glem in silence for a long moment. Finally, he found the words:

“Alright. You’re right. I like to fight. Doesn’t take much of an excuse. But when I have a reason? I can’t help myself. You were trying to help Jrett when you offered to massage his wyrd. I remember he was complaining about headaches after sorcery practice. You were being a good person. And it’s not like you deserved to be beaten even if you were hitting on him.

“Yeah, I may have been, uh… ‘testing the waters’ with Jrett,” Glem admitted, scratching his nose.

“Wow. Really? You can do so much better!” Hace said.

“Yeah, I know that now,” Glem agreed testily. “But you were saying?”

“You were being reasonable, and he attacked you for it. And he convinced that dickhead to beat on you as well. All because he’s afraid people would think he was gay.”

“Yeah, that sums up the situation.” Glem said. “But who do you think did better at convincing them to fuck off permanently tonight?”

“I embarrassed the fuck out of him! You said yourself—”

“Showboats hate being embarrassed, yes. And you’re a showboat. But he’s a bully. And bullies live for embarrassment, because it gives them a reason to be angry. It justifies their shit in their own mind. The only way you can beat a bully is by humbling them. By demonstrating that they need you as a fellow human being.”

Hace nodded in consideration, and then in approval.

“Do you think you would have had the chance if I didn’t break that asshole’s rib first?”

Glem smiled.

“No. And I appreciate it. At the time, it was terrifying, but very satisfying to look back on. I’m not sure how much you saw, but I did make sure he wouldn’t drag your name into this.”

“I saw!” Hace said eagerly. He was about to explain when he realized that he would mean detailing his relationship with his father. Talking around it would require too many technical truths and uncomfortable silences.

“Have something to share with the class, Matthews?” Glem asked, imitating Master Steinbeck’s nasal drone.

Hace laughed, then took a deep breath. Then the bell rang, calling all first through third years back to their dorms for lights-out. It would be a walk to make it back to the boy’s dorm on the west side of campus.

“We should probably get going,” Hace said.

“Uh-uh. No saved by the bell shit here. Rest that leg a little. Nobody will care if we’re five minutes late.”

“It’s gonna take longer than five minutes,” Hace said, standing up.

Glem rolled his eyes and stood as well.

“Then talk while you walk. Finish in our room if you have to.”

The two of them made their way back to the boy’s dorm. The heart of campus was a multi-terraced park, shaped in a wide ring around the elevated student center.

“I kill my father. Every time I meet him.”

“Okay,” Glem said, nodding. “That’s some heavy shit, but continue.”

“My dad… when he got my mom pregnant, or while she was in the Faed with him… it Cracked her. Like, she’s slowly losing control of her wyrd. And it’s gotten bad enough that it’s messing with her mind. The doctors tell me and my aunt that it’s going to get worse. That she might only have ten years left.”

Glem nodded again, remaining quiet this time.

“So. Yeah. I hate my father and everything he stands for. Occasionally he’ll summon me—try to act like this is some fun little game or innocent reunion—but I literally try to kill him every time I meet him. And these days? I pull it off more than I don’t.”

“He fights back, I take it?” Glem said.

Hace took a deep breath.

“Not always. Usually, he just toys with me or evades until he makes a mistake. Today he was trying to bait me into something though. I only know what happened with Corton because he showed me. Any fae can look through the Veil at will, but they have to be exceptionally powerful to cross over.”

They reached the middle of campus, the enormous student center. One of Hace’s favorite features of the student center was that the park technically continued beneath it. Broad ramps ran under the building, leading to an open-air, underground quad with a diameter of about a hundred feet.

“Over or under?” Hace asked.

“Is that some kind of gay joke?” Glem asked, seriously.

“Fuck you, man!” Hace said cracking up. Glem laughed with him and they continued onward.

The chamber was dimly lit by the entryways during the day, and luminescent tiles absorbed ambient solar energy, providing a baseline of visibility throughout the night. The lighting was impressive, but Hace was more taken with the reverse-waterfall fountain that coated the chamber’s domed walls and ceiling. The rush of enchanted, gravity-defying water perpetually shrouded the chamber in soft noise. Best place for book-study on campus. No question.

They paused near the middle of the quad, adorned with another fountain.

“So yeah. That’s my story,” Hace said. 

“I’m sorry,” Glem said. “It’s kind of a sad one.”

Hace shrugged. He hated people who tried to use their hardships to compete for sympathy. I mean. It’s just so stupid! He giggled. The dust was making him dizzy, blurring motion with psychedelic after-images and turning the white noise of the chamber into pleasant but indistinct music. He took a seat at one of the study tables.

“I got a lung full of dust when I killed him tonight. It’s kinda messing with my head.”

“Oh shit. What kind of fae is your father?”

Hace waved him off, giggling again.

“He’s Summer Court royalty. A sun elf. I’ll be fine.”

Glem’s eyes grew huge.

“You’ll be high off your nuts! Shit. Let’s get back to the dorm. Quick.”

—8:12 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Boys’ Dorm – Ash). —

They hustled inside, Hace giggling like an idiot and Glem bowing apologetically at the proctor taking attendance. Fortunately, fae dust didn’t have a distinct aroma; it smelled different to everyone, but the proctor probably knew something was up and decided it wasn’t worth pursuing. They hit the showers, brushed their teeth, and went to bed.

Hace looked at the ceiling. His leg was gonna feel like hell tomorrow. But his heart was warm. I think I did good tonight. And I think I’m gonna do it again. Without looking at Glem, he said:

“I’ve decided. If people try to kick your ass, they have to go through me first.”

“Oh, good. Mr. Dusthead is my sworn protector.”

Hace giggled again. The dust was still playing merry hell with…everything.

“Yeah. I knock ‘em down and you patch us all up after. I fight ‘em; you humble ‘em.”

Glem laughed.

“Let’s call that ‘Plan B,’ okay? Like, we’ll both be dead inside a month. Seriously. I’m black, gay, and nerdy. People have no shortage of things to kick my ass over. Like, no offense man, but you’re half-fae. You know how it is.”

Hace frowned. Glem nodded emphatically at his expression, and said:

“It’s like that. Not your fault, but people are gonna be down on you for it no matter what.”

“There’s a difference,” Hace nearly slurred.

“Oh?”

He paused for a long moment, trying to think through the haze of the dust. Then it came to him. His anger. His convictions. The bane of my fucking existence. He launched into a slurred, half-whispered rant:

“It isn’t bigotry to mistrust us. It’s common sense. Fae are evil. They have enough power to solve all the world’s problems, and yet what do they do? They watch.” Hace got angrier with each word. “They hide behind their conveniently mysterious laws, exploit desperate people, and ruin lives for sport. They seduce children.”

Glem opened his mouth and then closed it.

“I dunno about any of that,” Glem conceded. “But I know you’re one of the good guys.”

Hace felt himself blush. Glem smirked and raised an eyebrow.

“You like girls, Hace?”

He thought of Cyphira. Faster than a knee-jerk. Longer than he could blink it away.

“Uh, yeah,” Hace said blushing hotter and looking away.

When he looked back, Glem was giving him an odd smile. It wasn’t unkind. If anything, it was very warm, but there was something else there. Wistfulness? Smugness? Usually Hace was better at reading people, but the damn dust was making everything funny.

“Yeah, I kinda guessed from the way you…. Uh, ‘hang around’ Cyphira,” Glem said.

“I don’t—” Hace gagged as he felt his half-fae compulsion warning him. It filled his head with a sensation like a joint being bent against itself, straining to the breaking point. With enough will, he could lie. He could deny it. But it would hurt like hell and injure his wyrd. He sighed. Glem laughed.

“Do you think she knows?” Hace asked, pathetically.

Glem snorted.

“You think I know what girls are thinking when I can’t figure out boys? Not my priority, man.”

“Fair enough.”

“Anyway. We should get some shut eye. If you get up to pee, drink at least a half glass of water. Dust will dehydrate you.”

Hace cracked up.

“What?” Glem asked, offended.

“Are you ever not a doctor?”

“Twenty-four-seven, three-hundred-sixty-five, and damn proud of it.”

“Yeah,” Hace said. “That’s cool.”

“Then why are you laughing?”

Hace cracked up again. Glem continued to bait him:

“If it’s cool, the fuck are you laughing for? Answer me!”

Hace laughed until somebody pounded on the adjacent wall and shouted a muffled but drawn out: “shut up!” They put on embarrassed faces. Then they both started laughing. And there was no stopping them at that point. They laughed until they were breathless, laughed when the Fifth-Year proctor gave them detention for disrupting sleep, and periodically cracked up throughout the rest of the night.

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