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Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Issue 73: Perchance to Dream

Edited by Shousetsu Bang*Bang
Smashwords Edition
Copyright 2018 Shousetsu Bang*Bang

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the contributors and editors, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy or visit our website at http://shousetsubangbang.com. Thank you for your support.

Shousetsu Bang*Bang Issue 73 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Based on a work at http://shousetsubangbang.com

Table of contents

if there’s a light at the end it’s just the sun in your eyes, by katewonder

Where the Light’s Forgiven, by T.F. Grognon

Slime After Slime, written and illustrated by Iron Eater

A Realm Unexplored, by Okamoto Shin (岡本辛),

illustrated by beili

To Sing of Contests, by 織工 (Okō)

In the Bindings of a Dream, by Tabby Wright,

illustrated by Cap O’Rushes

Night Owls, by shukyou (主教)

Front cover by erli

Edited and published by the Shousetsu Bang*Bang editorial staff. Read more about this issue at http://www.shousetsubangbang.com/wiki/index.php?title=Issue_73

if there’s a light at the end it’s just the sun in your eyes

by katewonder

As a small child, his grandmother had warned him about the forest.

She had told him that there were faeries who lived deep, deep inside the forest, who would not hesitate in snatching him if he got too close to it, that they longed to take beautiful children away from their loving families and would do so in a heartbeat if they could.

Bailey hadn’t believed her, had written it off as the stories an old woman told children to get them to behave, and that was now proving to have been a mistake.

He had only gone into the forest to find Jonathan. Beautiful, clever Jonathan who had been such a huge presence in all of their lives and had vanished completely from their memories one midsummer day last year. Bailey had forgotten all about him, forgotten the months of friendship and the kiss they had shared as Jonathan told him that he had to go home, that he might not come back.

“Don’t forget me,” Jonathan had said, breathing the words into Bailey’s mouth as he’d pressed something into Bailey’s hands. Bailey had dropped whatever it was into the pocket of his jeans in order to better clutch at Jonathan’s back, and forgotten about it just as easily as he had forgotten about Jonathan himself.

It was the dreams that made him realise he had forgotten something. Dreams of darkness, of someone screaming, of a handsome boy staring at him through a cage made of glass and fog, dreams that had his fae touched eyes looking at Bailey like Bailey had broken a promise. Every time he woke up, the dreams stayed with him longer than dreams should, and it wasn’t until he put his hand into the pocket of a pair of jeans he hadn’t worn since summertime and found a bizarre rock with a hole through the middle of it that it made any sense at all.

It was a witch stone. He’d been told about witch stones when he was younger. They supposedly revealed the truth and could see through faerie glamours. The memories came rushing back the second Bailey brought the rock up to his eye to look through. A whole season’s worth of memories that had been stolen from him somehow, memories of a tall boy with dark hair and bright eyes and a smile as warm as summer.

“Jonathan,” he said, quietly, horrified that he had forgotten someone who had loomed so large over his life.

It took him a fortnight to find out where Jonathan was, and it had only taken him that long because he hadn’t wanted to believe his own suspicions. But when a faerie he managed to trap – using only the knowledge of old village women – had told him that Jonathan now belonged to the King of the Faeries he knew what he had to do. And he knew there was a good chance that he would probably die doing it, but it was the right thing to do.

Going after Jonathan was probably a bad idea. Especially with zero planning and no resources other than the witch stone in his pocket, but Jonathan was his friend. Possibly something more. And it really wasn’t like Bailey had much else going on right now, so he went into the forest and it had welcomed him in like it was expecting him. Cleared a path right to the center of it where a golden palace had sprouted out of the ground like a mushroom. Bailey felt the entire forest watching him, like it was holding his breath waiting for something to happen. He raised his fist, knocked on the door and was swept right through the entrance foyer into the court of the Faerie realm, where a ball was taking place.

To the naked eye it was mostly a blur, eerie forms of all shapes and sizes swept around the room in brilliant colors, too frantic in their movements to really make out. It was dancing, sure, but it did not look enjoyable.

“I demand an audience with the King,” Bailey said, and his voice was quiet but a strange hush fell over the ballroom as he spoke. “I demand to be given the chance to save my friend.” The faerie folk parted, giving him a straight line to the throne where a very tall, very handsome man was sitting.

Bailey had expected the King to look otherworldly, but he looked like an average man except for his peculiar height, strangely reflective eyes, and his dark, menacing antlers. Seeming amused by the disruption, he waved Bailey closer with a crook of his fingers.

“Who might you be, little thing?” the King asked, a smile on his face that felt like a threat.

“My name is Bailey,” he said, which was true enough, but not the whole truth. His grandmother had never been terribly clear whether faeries could hurt you with your name, or whether you could only control them with theirs but it felt safer to not hand it over. “And I’ve come to get my friend back.”

“Who’s your friend?” the King asked.

“His name is Jonathan,” Bailey said, and the King’s lips twitched a little.

“What could you possibly want with my Knight?” the King asked, a smile on his lips. He turned slightly, looking at someone over his shoulder that Bailey couldn’t see. “Someone, fetch Tamlane. This human says they’re friends.”

Bailey’s heart skipped a beat in his chest when Jonathan was brought before him, and he was still so very tall, so very handsome. His eyes, the silver one in particular, looked clouded but when he looked up at the King it was in the same way he had once looked at Bailey, but with an added layer of something. Devotion, perhaps?

“Hello, dearest heart,” the King said, and then he was leaning down to kiss Jonathan, fingers curling against his cheek. He kept eye contact with Bailey the whole time, like he was proving a point instead of showing Jonathan any kindness. “Are you enjoying the party?”

“I am, my Lord,” Jonathan said, quietly.

“It’s for you, you know,” the King said, brushing a knuckle over Jonathan’s cheekbone. “To celebrate your staying with us forever. Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Very wonderful,” Jonathan said, and then seemed to notice Bailey standing there. He turned to look at him slightly, but there was zero recognition in his eyes. Bailey didn’t really know what he had been expecting; for Jonathan to seem more prisoner-like, he supposed? Or for him to look broken or damaged, instead of someone who looked to be cherished by the King. He’d had dreams of Jonathan where he was screaming, but here he was smiling and happy. Of course he was under some compulsion but, maybe, he had once come here willingly. Maybe this was his home? Maybe Jonathan was as fae as people had said he was.

“Jonathan,” Bailey said, wanting to touch him the way Jonathan had touched him before, wanting to force Jonathan to look deep into his eyes.

“Do I know you?” Jonathan asked, his attention suddenly on Bailey. stepping closer to him, reaching out to him — but then suddenly the King was behind him, a hand on Jonathan’s shoulder, drawing his attention away. Jonathan looked up at the King like he was the sun and moon and all the stars in the sky at once.

“I see you’ve met our guest,” the King said, stroking Jonathan’s cheek with the back of his fingers. “Now, my love, I need to ask you, have you ever met him before?”

Jonathan turned back and looked at Bailey again. “I… don’t know,” Jonathan said. “Perhaps in another life?”

“Tamlane,” the King said, turning Jonathan around to face him. “Why don’t you go and enjoy the party? I’ll get to know our new friend.”

Bailey did not want Jonathan to go, not even a little bit, but Jonathan smiled and walked away from them.

“Let’s play a game,” the King said, quietly.

“I feel this game will be rigged against me,” Bailey said.

“Perhaps,” the King said. “But it’s the only shot you have to get him back, isn’t it?”

“What happens if I lose?” Bailey asked, which felt like a reasonable question but the King laughed like it was a joke.

“Well, you have a few choices,” he said. “You could stay in the court with us forever, or I could let my riders hunt you down in the forest. Maybe a third option if I can think of one between now and sunrise.”

“What are the rules?” Bailey asked. “Of this game.”

“You have until sunrise to find Jonathan, and you have to hold onto him until the sun rises,” the King said. “If you don’t find him, or if you let go at any second, he’s mine forever. And you lose.”

“You’re not going to make it easy for me, are you?” Bailey asked.

“Where would be the fun in that?” the King asked. “Do we have a deal?”

His grandmother’s voice in his head, telling him to never make deals with the fae unless you had every single loophole closed – but there was no time. He had no time to make sure that he didn’t get double crossed by this deal. He looked up, to where Jonathan had been minutes ago but he was gone, lost to that blur of colour.

“Fine,” he said. “I accept.” The King smiled, all teeth and no joy. “When does it start?”

“Oh,” the King said, his hand against Bailey’s face to draw his attention back. “The game started the second you walked in. Good luck, Bailey Carterhaugh.”

He felt like he had just agreed to his own death, but it was the only option he had. The one bright spark of his life had been Jonathan, and his life had been so grey with him gone even though Bailey hadn’t remembered him.

“Okay,” he said to himself, quietly. “Step one, find Jonathan.”

He stepped into the fray of dancers, all of them somehow facing away from him when he looked at them. Half of them, regardless of whatever gender they appeared to be, were in ballgowns that seemed both brand new and yet falling apart from age, and the other half were in the exact same uniform that Jonathan had been wearing. As he got close to one pair they would drift away, and as he walked deeper onto the dance floor the line of sight he’d had to the door or the throne vanished.

Be smart, Bailey, he thought to himself, and recalled a story of his grandmother’s from when he was small about a very clever girl who had saved her beloved from the Faerie Queen of Summer. She had pulled him off his horse during the Wild Hunt, held onto him even when he transformed into monsters. At the end of the story, she’d been allowed to keep her beloved, but Bailey had always wondered whether it was just a fake happy ending.

He supposed that by dawn he would know if it was possible.

Across the ballroom he caught a glimpse of Jonathan, dashed towards him, blocked only by other dancers, and when he made it to where Jonathan had been, there he was again suddenly on the other side of the room. He grabbed the closest dancer to him and turned her around to him only to find she was wearing Jonathan’s face, her golden curls looking strange framing  his sharp features.

She only giggled, pulled away from him and turned back to the dance.

All of them had Jonathan’s face, but all of them looked wrong like they had looked at Jonathan through a mirror. Wherever Jonathan was now, he wasn’t here and Bailey knew it.

The faeries let him leave, their laughter following him out into the hallway like the worst kind of haunting. Wherever he’d ended up seemed to be some kind of servant’s entrance, quiet and empty, but maybe it’d give him a few minutes to formulate some kind of plan. Or at least catch his breath, or maybe sit down and curl up into a ball and try to contemplate what he’d done. Something along those lines.

So far, his plan was three parts. Part one was find Jonathan. Part two was hold onto Jonathan until sunrise. Part three, all things going well, was leave with Jonathan. All three parts were going to be equally challenging.

Some of his memories of Jonathan were still a little hazy at parts, but they were clear enough that Bailey felt that he could find his friend easily. He just had to trust his own judgement. It hadn’t let him down before all of this nonsense. His judgement and the stories of how to trick faeries.

And he’d thought his grandmother’s stories wouldn’t get him anywhere.

~*~

The King would have somehow lured Jonathan away from the ball, knowing that Bailey would get caught up in all of the dancers’ having his face. Jonathan loved parties, loved being the center of attention, and would have not left a party being thrown in his honour without somewhere else more fun to be.

For whatever reason, Bailey knew that he was still in the castle, still close enough that it was a chance that he could win, as slim as it possibly was. The castle itself was a maze, and felt strangely emptied, though Bailey supposed that all the occupants were currently in the ballroom enjoying the party. Why he hadn’t been chased after, hindered in some way, was strange but he supposed when he got closer to where Jonathan actually was it would be more of a challenge.

The palace itself was something out of a storybook, but twisted in a way that the world looked in a dream. Everything was golden and shiny, and there was art on the walls that looked like paintings from his own side of the veil but different again, always wrong. A famous portrait of a woman, but she had antlers like the king and was holding a monster instead of a dog. The paintings made his head spin when he looked at them straight on, so he forced himself to look away, walked as far as he could from them until he came to the end of a corridor where there were three doors. One was marked with the sun, another the moon and the third was unmarked.

“Hm.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out the witch stone. There was a slim chance it would actually help him at all but it was all that he had. His gut said to go with the unmarked door, but when he looked at it through the stone it just seemed menacing. The sun room also seemed wrong somehow, so Bailey pocketed the stone and went through the door marked with the moon and came out into a room full of his own reflection.

The door swung closed behind him and vanished. Perfect, great. This was at least more along the lines of what he had expected when playing a game with the Faerie King. He walked up to the first mirror and touched it, looking deeply at the reflection of himself.

“Is that what I look like right now?” he asked himself, poking at his face. There was dirt smeared across his cheek and his hair looked less than great. “Focus, focus,” he said, quietly, then moved onto the next mirror; he reached out to touch it and his hand went through it.

“Oh!” he said. Illusions, great. For some, strange reason he hadn’t expected actual magic though he wasn’t sure what he had expected. He quickly stepped through the illusion mirror and into yet another row of mirrors. Of course.

He had never been fond of mazes. His sense of direction had always been hazy at best, and this maze was definitely designed to mess with him. He stepped forward, half expecting the mirror to be fake and was a little surprised when he banged his head into it. He swore, under his breath, rubbed his forehead and looked at his reflection again.

Jonathan wouldn’t want him when he found him. Who would want someone that looked like him? His nose was too large and his chin had been called weak on more than one occasion and his hair was truly terrible. It had always been such a boring, brown colour, but the light here made it look worse. Bailey closed his eyes, shook his head and turned around to go back through the illusion mirror he’d come through and found that it was suddenly real.

“Great,” he said. “Just great.”

He made eye contact with himself again, reached out to feel through the mirrors around him until he found one that wasn’t real and went through it. There had to be a way through the maze. Well, he supposed that there didn’t need to be. The King could trap him in here forever if he wanted, nobody had ever said that the Fae played fair.

His grandmother had told him that there was always a solution to every problem, even faerie ones. That they had to give you a tiny chance where you could win, because they couldn’t lie, and unbreakable deals were kinds of lies. That had always felt rather simplistic to Bailey, even as a child, but the working through problems part had always served him well.

He dug his hand into his pocket, pulled out the stone, and looked through it, which did nothing other than prove he looked as stupid doing it as he thought he did while peering through a rock. Sighing, he dropped it back into his pocket and considered other options. He could play the game, and solve the maze and probably never find Jonathan at all because he would be trapped in here his entire life. Or he could do something that was a little bit on the borderline of cheating. Well, that was probably the only way out of this room at all, so he did the only thing he could do and raised his foot, stomping into the middle of the frame.

The mirror shattered and the illusion flickered a little, like Bailey had damaged it with his act of vandalism. He smiled to himself, if only because the sound of glass breaking was a little bit cathartic, and then kicked another one and another one, until all around him were just broken mirrors and at the end of the maze, a door.

There was only the one door though, and there was nothing to guarantee that it wouldn’t drop him back in front of the three doors from before but it felt different somehow.

The handle turned easily, and Bailey walked outside into the night. Wherever he’d ended up was a balcony of some sorts and there, unexpectedly, looking out at the trees and the moon, was Jonathan. For a moment Bailey watched him, expecting it to be a trick but Jonathan didn’t move or change or anything, he just looked like he was enjoying a quiet moment away from a party being thrown for him.

Just in case it was a trap, Bailey looked at him through the witch stone and it was like his heart stopped in his chest for a second because it really was Jonathan. He didn’t change at all, just stayed the same but surrounded with a weird dark light. Whatever compulsion was over him, Bailey supposed.

He’d done it. He’d somehow completed the first step of the three-step plan of the night. Before anything could change, he dashed across the balcony and reached out, quickly, wrapped his fingers around Jonathan’s wrist and tugged him around to face him. Jonathan looked at him, confused, a little angry.

“What are you doing?” he asked, trying to tug his hand away, but Bailey held strong. “Who are you?”

“You’re coming with me,” Bailey said, though he had no idea where they were going. Maybe he could find somewhere quiet and out of the way where they could hide until morning. As if the King wouldn’t flush them out before then.

“Let go of me,” Jonathan said, putting his other hand on Bailey’s and trying to pry him off.

Bailey shoved him against the wall of the palace, clenched his fingers tight. He’d dug his nails in, probably deep enough that he was drawing blood but he didn’t want to look. Couldn’t look. He just kept looking at Jonathan’s face trying to make sure he’d made the right choice, grabbed the correct Jonathan. He pried Jonathan’s other hand away from his hand, linked their fingers together and looked into his mismatched eyes.

“We’re friends,” Bailey said, putting himself up on tiptoes to be as eye level as he could with the much taller Jonathan.

“I don’t know you,” Jonathan said, but he sounded unsure. Just a little, though maybe ithat was just wishful thinking.

“We’re friends,” Bailey said again. “We snuck up onto the roof of the priory to watch the New Year’s Fireworks. You snuck into my midterm exams just so I could look at you if I began to panic. You always have candy in your pockets. You love the colour blue but hate wearing it because you think it clashes with your eyes, and you are the brightest, shiniest person in any room you enter.”

“Please, just let me go,” Jonathan said, but there was no emotion in his voice. He sounded so resigned to his fate, whatever it may be.

“Not until sunrise,” Bailey said.

Jonathan was still struggling, and Bailey had one last idea and if it didn’t work he didn’t know what to do. He used his free hand to dig the stone that Jonathan had given him all those months ago out. “You gave this to me,” he said, quietly. “And I think maybe it’s time to give it back. And if it does nothing, if you still want me to let go, I’ll let go and let the King do to me whatever he wants but at least I’ll have tried.” He held it out, and Jonathan held his other hand out, accepted it and looked at it for a moment, before he held it up to his silver eye and looked at Bailey through it.

Whatever haze was there cleared and Jonathan laughed a little. Quietly at first until it ended up a little more manic and he tried to pull his hand away from Bailey’s again before stopping suddenly.

“Bailey,” he said, lowering his hand to look at him again, properly this time. He pulled him into a one armed hug. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to rescue you,” Bailey said.

“What?” Jonathan asked. “What did you do?”

“I made a deal with the king to free you,” Bailey said.

“What were the rules?” Jonathan asked, taking the lead and pulling Bailey back into the castle and into a door he hadn’t seen before. More servant’s runs, he supposed. It was still ominously quiet in these back sections of the palace and it did not put Bailey at ease at all.

“I had to find you and hold onto you until sunrise,” Bailey said.

“Did you specify which sunrise?” Jonathan asked, swinging Bailey around to face him.

“Look, I only had a few minutes to hash this all out,” Bailey said. “I just wanted to rescue you.”

Jonathan laughed, dropped his head into the crook of Bailey’s neck and pressed a kiss there gently. The simple act warmed his heart a little, proved maybe a little that it hadn’t all been in his head before Jonathan had vanished on him. “You’re the greatest person I have ever met, Bailey Carterhaugh. Come on, I know somewhere we can go.”

Jonathan led him into a huge bedroom, and Bailey somehow knew that it belonged to the King. It wasn’t gaudy or anything, just large and comfortable and obviously belonged to the most important person in the palace. A tree had grown through the wall, shading the bed in its canopy. Bailey had no idea how anything stayed alive while growing inside a building, but he knew that if he asked Jonathan the answer would just be magic-related, and Bailey was so sick of magic.

“Should we be in here?” Bailey asked.

“Honestly, there’s probably nowhere safer,” Jonathan said. “Not many people are allowed in here and all of the ones who are won’t be coming in here tonight.”

“What about the King?” Bailey asked.

“Oilbhreis doesn’t sleep,” Jonathan said.

“That’s his name?” He’d kind of just assumed that his name and his title were one. In retrospect, that was silly, of course he had a name, all Fae had names, and if you had their true names you had a power over them. So, of course The Faerie King was just a title. Of course he had a true name.

“It’s one of his names,” Jonathan said, flippantly. “The one he gave me when I came here. I don’t think it’s a name we can use to trap him in any way, if that’s what you were thinking.”

“How did that happen?” Bailey asked.

“My family sent me into the forest as a tithing,” he said, quietly. “I was a strange little thing. Mismatched eyes, was always wandering in to the forest. So, they figured I was the best choice when the village elders decided that there needed to be a sacrifice to the Fae at the changing of seasons. The King took a liking to me, I suppose. He snatched me up onto his horse and I’ve lived here ever since.”

“How did you end up at school?” Bailey asked, because nothing about the life of a tithed child suggested that he would end up away from the forest studying ledgers at some second tier school.

“He sent me away,” Jonathan said. “And it broke my heart because I loved him. I wanted to stay here and be by his side and he said that to make that decision I needed to know what it was like to be away. So, I left. I walked for days until I found a town that felt familiar and that’s where we met. But I was only supposed to be gone for a year. I don’t think he intended me to want to leave forever though.”

“I guess that’s a risk you take when you send someone away,” Bailey said. “Maybe they’ll find something else worth staying away for.”

Jonathan smiled at him, a real legitimate smile, and reached for Bailey and pulled him close. “Let’s just make the most of this,” he said, “before we forget each other again, before the King has some dogs tear you apart and makes me watch.”

“That’s… will that actually happen?” Bailey asked, and Jonathan shrugged and leant in to kiss him.

Jonathan kissed him like it could be the last time he got to, his spare hand on Bailey’s face, drawing him in closer. They’d been holding hands now for long enough that it felt natural, that Bailey knew that when it came time to let go it would feel like something was missing. The kiss felt as sad as the last one they’d shared.

“You came to rescue me,” Jonathan said, in quiet awe, like he had just come to this conclusion. Like, nobody had ever gone out of their way for him before, or seen him as something worth rescuing. He laughed, a musical sound and kissed Bailey again, gently, like he was precious.

“Of course I did,” Bailey said, pressing gentle kisses into Jonathan’s skin wherever he could reach.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Jonathan said. “You were safe where you were.”

“I forgot you,” Bailey said. “And then I remembered you and missed you so much. I just wanted to make sure that you were safe.”

Jonathan smiled and sat down on the bed, manhandled Bailey into his lap and kissed him. “So we have until sunrise, right?” he asked. “Possibly the nearest sunrise and not a sunrise ninety years from now.”

“I hope the nearest sunrise,” Bailey said, and grinned. “My grandmother always told me not to make deals with the fae.”

“Wise woman,” Jonathan said. “Though I note you didn’t follow her advice.”

“No,” Bailey said, smiling still. “I’ve never been very smart.” He leant in and kissed Jonathan again. “I could die tomorrow, so let’s have a good time before I die?”

“Okay,” Jonathan said, pulling Bailey closer to him.

It was hard to undress someone, even a little bit, while holding onto their hand like a lifeline. He was so conscious of Jonathan’s hand in his own, how they fit together, and he needed to be just in case he accidentally let go. He’d come so close and didn’t want to fail here, at what could be the final hurdle. Bailey had no idea how much time had passed since he had made that deal with the King in the ballroom but it felt like so many hours and yet no time at all.

He fumbled with the buttons on Jonathan’s uniform, golden like everything else, pushed his shirt open as far as he could. Jonathan laughed, kissed him again, still laughing. “Your hand is so cold,” he said, caught it in his other hand and brought it up to kiss his fingers gently.

“Sorry,” Bailey said, smiling. He rested his forehead against Jonathan’s and let Jonathan touch him through his pants. Jonathan managed to get both of them out of their respective pants and underwear enough that he could get some measure of friction between them. He wrapped his hand around their lengths and stroked. Bailey whimpered, had to consciously think about not letting go of Jonathan’s hand to grab onto him with.

That would be some end to his sad life, losing a faerie bet to have sex with a boy he liked. He really didn’t know if it would be worth it. The fear was kind of making things better though, more intense. Jonathan stroked them together again, and it was all kinds of things Bailey hadn’t really felt before. It was more rushed than he had wanted it to be, than he had imagined things would be when he found Jonathan safely, but it was what he was getting and it might be the last thing he did. Jonathan did something with a flick of his wrist and the noise that came out of Bailey surprised them both.

“Shh,” Jonathan said, laughing, let go of them to enclose Bailey’s other hand around them, closed his own hand around it all.

If this was how he died, with his dick out on the King of the Faeries’ bed, maybe it would be worth it. He closed his eyes, leant in to kiss Jonathan, and relaxed into the sensation of it. Jonathan’s fingers were long, and his hands were so warm, and if they got out of this he wanted a repeat performance where they could take as long as they wanted. If they got out of this Bailey was going to spend a whole day touching him with both hands instead of just one.

At least he was holding onto him, no matter what happened. Bailey laughed, and leant back to look at Jonathan, who looked at him quizzically. “One of the rules said I had to hold onto you until dawn; yeah, well I’m holding onto you, all right,” he said, and Jonathan laughed too. He stroked his thumb over the head of Bailey’s cock, rubbing the wetness gathering there over the both of them, and smiled when Bailey whimpered again.

“So noisy,” Jonathan said, and leant in to kiss him again, and any noises he could possibly make due to the friction and wetness were swallowed by Jonathan’s mouth. Bailey had wanted to last longer, wanted this to last until dawn if they could, but he came quickly and almost unexpectedly, spilling over their hands. He wrapped his fingers around Jonathan’s length, stroked him fully and quickly until Jonathan came with a shout, his fingernails digging into Bailey’s hip.

Bailey pressed their foreheads together until they caught their breath, and then brought their combined hands up to kiss Jonathan’s knuckles. “I vote we do that again when we get out of here.”

Jonathan smiled, like sunshine and warmth, and wiped his hands on the plush cover of the bed they were sitting on. “Come on,” he said, tucking Bailey back into his pants before he fixed his own clothes. “Let’s go and wait for the sun to rise.”

~*~

Outside, the sun was rising and the forest they could see through the window seemed brighter, less scary. Bailey expected to feel something, to know that this game was over, but he just felt tired. He leant his head on Jonathan’s shoulder and closed his eyes for a second, let the warmth of the sunrise fall over his face.

“Did you actually want to be rescued?” Bailey asked, quietly, suddenly needing to know whether he had done the right thing in coming here and disturbing whatever life Jonathan had here. “Have I wasted my time in coming here after you?”

“I… this is my home,” he said. “I grew up here. I have friends, people I care for. But… when he sent me away it made me see there’s more out there than just this forest and I think that I want to see more of it. It doesn’t mean I won’t come back here maybe in the future, but I would like the chance to make that decision myself.”

“Faeries aren’t big on free will, hey?” Bailey asked, smiling.

“Not for the humans they steal, no,” Jonathan said. “I’m glad you came, if only so I don’t spend the rest of whatever life I have under thrall of somebody I thought I loved. I’m glad I had this time with you, at least.”

“What do you want the outcome of all this to be?” Bailey asked, because Jonathan had been wishy washy about it every time Bailey asked, and he supposed that made sense. He was asking Jonathan if he wanted to give up his entire life for something that might not last. Something fleeting and human. “Do you want to stay here? Do you want to come back with me?”

“I think I want to leave,” Jonathan said, and that was still too indecisive. There was a pause and then he said, “No, I know that I do. I want to leave and see the world, and I’d have you come with me if you’d like?”

Bailey was pretty sure that what he was feeling was relief. Sheer relief for not wasting his time, relief for not ruining Jonathan’s life here at the Faerie Court. “Do you think that it’s over?” he asked, still clutching at Jonathan’s hand.

“I don’t know,” Jonathan said, and turned to him, leant in to kiss him gently.

“I guess there’s only one way to find out?” Bailey said.

“Are you ready?” Jonathan asked, raising their hands up towards the light.

“Ready,” Bailey said, and let go.


Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

Where the Light’s Forgiven

by T.F. Grognon

País en que los deshechos
son amados todavía,
es la comarca sombría
donde la luz se perdona,
porque allí van las personas
del sueño a la poesía.  — Silvio Rodriguez, “Del sueño a la poesía”


Anthea is waiting for him when he gets off work. Leif shakes his head, tries to shoo her away, but it doesn’t do any good. She peels herself off the wall and steps in front of him. The sidewalk’s busy, it’s quitting time for people with normal work schedules, but she makes an island in the torrent of foot traffic.

“I have a job for you,” she says.

Leif keeps shaking his head and shoulders past. “Not interested.”

She stops him. “It’s a good job.”

“No,” he tells her, “it’s not. And even if it were, I’m not interested.”

She purses her lips and regards him. “Your loss.”

“Guess I’ll just risk that,” he says. Her hand drops and he finally moves forward, past her and up the sidewalk and around the corner. He has a crosstown bus to catch.

*

Three days a week, he works a double shift at the call centre before doing Seymour runs over the dinner and evening hours. Every other day, he does Seymour lunch runs, then waits out a couple hours downtown, usually at the library, before another call centre opens at five.

Seymour is a stupid name for a dumb business, bike couriers who pick up your take-out and bring it to you. Wouldn’t want you to actually have to exert the minimum effort to obtain food, after all. It runs a distant third to Uber Eats and Yummy Wheelz; it used to pay a better base wage, which is why he signed up, back when it was still known as Eat Me. Then FeedBag bought out Eat Me and it became Feed Me, then Seymour.

He had to pay for a new knapsack and helmet cover with each rebranding.

It’s late lunch now and he’s so tired he’s leaning his shoulder against the buzzer to this swanky apartment building. When someone finally picks up, he’s startled and almost forgets the scripted patter.

But if he doesn’t get it right, and the customer notices, he has to cover the cost of their food. This delivery’s from one of those new pit barbecue joints out in the old docklands; Leif has no idea how expensive it was. All he needs to know is that he couldn’t afford some coleslaw there.

Feed me, Seymour

Feed me all night long

Cause if you feed me, Seymour

I can grow up big and strong

He’s pretty sure no one’s paid for the rights to these lyrics. Supposedly, the legal loophole is that they’re spoken, not sung.  Leif doesn’t think the excuse would hold up in court, but who is he to say?

“Up,” the voice says and finally he’s buzzed in.

*

When he gets home after his shift at Seymour, the cat is yowling miserably from his room.

“She won’t shut up,” his housemate Robin grumbles. “She never shuts up.”

“She’s lonely,” Leif tells them and takes the stairs two at a time to his room on the second floor.  Florence hears him coming and switches up the rate of meows. “I’m coming, baby.”

When he unlocks his door and pushes inside, she’s in the middle of his unmade bed, glaring at him.

“I know, I know. Brought you sashimi to apologize,” he says, shrugging off his jacket and hanging up the front wheel of his bike on the back of the door.

“What flavor?” she asks.

“Fatty tuna.”

“Hm,” she says, and jumps off the bed with a double thump. “Acceptable. Let me see.”

He unwraps the slices he wheedled from Jenni at Downtown Omakase and places them in her bowl. Then he heads down the hall to the communal bathroom to pee, wash up, and brush his teeth.

When he returns, there’s no trace of the fish, just Florence at the foot of the bed, grooming her whiskers luxuriously.

“You can’t be so loud,” he tells her, sinking down next to her.

“I’m not that bad.”

“You’re pretty loud,” he replies and lies back, feet still on the floor. He’s so tired. She prods his ribs with her front paw, then jumps onto his chest. “Oof. And heavy.”

She swats his chin once. “Watch it.”

“Sorry,” he says. “Long day.”

“Good tips?”

“No,” he sighs and closes his eyes. “Not at all.”

She doesn’t reply. Her interest in his doings outside their room is flimsy at best and very short-lived whenever it does appear.

*

He delivers two bobas to a couple girls sitting outside in a park, then a box of sandwiches to a corporate team staying in to pound out a big project. His last run is to one of the new condo towers with a mixed shawarma plate and extra pita. He’s self-conscious as hell waiting for the elevator, sweaty from the ride and switching the food from hand to hand because the heat’s radiating out the bottom of the foil tray.

On the thirty-third floor, Anthea’s waiting for him.

“No,” Leif says.

“Extra hot sauce, double pita?”

“Oh my god,” he says, handing it to her. “Yes. Can I go now?”

“I have a job for you.”

“You’ve mentioned.”

“So why don’t you come in and we can discuss it?”

He looks around at the sterile hallway and bright, colorless light filtering in. “You live here now.”

“It’s one of my places,” she says. She tilts her head and the door behind her opens smoothly. “Come on in, I’ll give you some water. You look like you’re drowning in your own sweat. It’s repulsive.”

“Can I just go?” he asks, then bites his lip.

“Leify, Leify,” she replies. “Just listen to the job description. If you’re still not interested, no harm, no foul. But don’t you want to know?”

“I really don’t,” he says and punches the down button again.

“Couple runs for me, you could quit this…” She looks down at the food. “Whatever this is. It’s humiliating.”

“It’s fine,” he says. He hates this job. He hates it so much. He’s exhausted all the time and hardly ever home and he’s getting a distinctly uncomfortable chapping in his groin. And it’s still better than what Anthea’s offering. “Humiliation isn’t really something I worry about.”

She’s still looking at him. “No, I don’t suppose it is.”

“Right,” he says, and takes a step backward. He’s not going to turn his back on her until he absolutely has to.

“It’s something you always rather enjoyed, in fact.”

He drops his head and works his fingers in and out of fists. Not looking up, memorizing the rough pattern in the concrete floor, he says, “what’s the job, Anthea?”

*

When you’re asleep and cannot wake, and your chest is caving under a great weight, and terror floods through your dreams, and try as you might, you just can’t move, you might be experiencing a nightmare’s visit.

A mare is, variously, a demon or a fragment of a soul or a preternatural creature. Whatever it is, is less important than what it does: crush, paralyze, and frighten the sleeper. Some are feral and roam the dark looking for prey, but most are sent by magic-users to specific targets.

Leif comes from a family of mares. His sister is the only magic-wielder in four generations. The rest of them are bound to wizards, freelancing, or retired.

Then there’s Leif, who is none of those things. He’s not sure what he is.

*

“So that’s it,” he tells Florence when he gets home. He’s cross-legged on his bed, tucked into the corner, and she’s curled up in his lap. Her eyes are nearly closed, but not all the way, her ears up and alert. “Couple nights for Anthea, we’re back on our feet.”

“Tempting,” she replies. “Very tempting.”

He waits, rocking his knuckles against the side of her face, occasionally reaching back to massage her neck.

“But no,” she finishes.

“I already said yes.”

Florence’s eyes close all the way and she  rolls onto her other side, away from him.

“I need a nest egg,” he continues. “I need padding.”

“We’re doing all right,” she mutters.

“We’re barely hanging on. One more scare like last year, we’re done. You and me and a cardboard box, if we’re lucky.”

“You went straight,” she says. The pang that gives him, it’s right in the heart, and radiating outward.

“Without Wilhelm…” He can’t finish the statement. They both know very well that without a warlock’s bite, Leif has to go freelance if he wants to continue.

“You went straight,” she says again, twisting back around, fixing her yellow-eyed gaze right on him. “Wilhelm had nothing to do with it.”

“I’m still straight—” He stops and shakes his head. “I’m not straight. I’m still a good guy, though. That’s not going to change.”

Florence jumps off his lap and stalks over to the radiator under the window. She curls up in the bed there and doesn’t speak to him again.

*

Sometimes, he doubts all over again if he ever really did “go straight”. He escaped, that much is true, and rather than return to the life he’d always known, he stayed in the ordinary world. He could have gone back to his family and found another wizard who needed a mare.

“I don’t know why you don’t come home,” his mother says, every week when he calls.

“I am home,” he tells her.

She sniffs and sighs and doesn’t quite contradict him so much as ignore the statement.

“Without a magic-wielder….” she’ll start before trailing off. He can fill it in from memory: he’s nothing, he’s useless, he’s just taking up space.

He’ll look around his little room, at Florence napping on the windowsill and his bike hanging on the wall, and think, well, it’s not that much space, all told.

He doesn’t daydream any longer about telling her off. He used to want to craft the perfect sarcastic wisecrack, something that would cut her to the bone and tell the truth as plainly as possible.

“I’m doing fine,” he says instead, into the space left open by her unfinished sentence. “Not great, but just fine.”

Eventually, she’ll speak again and start telling him about what all the cousins are up to. He doesn’t need to be here for such conversations.

*

He pricks his own finger and adds a drop of blood to Anthea’s altar. He’s giving her permission to direct him, but nothing more. Wilhelm’s bite went deep and controlled Leif from the inside out: He could see through Leif’s eyes, make him roar and groan, if he wanted. He wore Leif like a suit, drove him like a beast. All Anthea can do is speak the spell that loosens Leif’s monster from his body, then point the way.

The thing is, he always liked being human. He likes blunt fingertips and being subject to gravity, dim little vision and clumsy feet. Some mares can’t bear it; his great-uncle Rudolf refused to re-enter his body in 1952 and lived in a crawlspace for the next thirty years. Leif has never minded this form.

But then the spell enfolds him, mummifying-tight and a sudden drop like an elevator with snapped cable, and he’s free. Where skin, bone, muscle had been, he’s a dense collection of black smoke and bitter thorns. Claws that curve, wings that beat, hunger that roils and yearns.

He soars as a million particles through the in-between before coagulating back into a smoky, smeary approximation of a body, up here in the corner of a bedroom ceiling.

He could be in Chicago or Caracas right now; the trip is always the same length. First, he’s specks, then a thing again, then he’s sinking onto the sleeper’s chest.

He crouches at the foot of a wide bed, an older man asleep before him. He has gray hair and softly wrinkled pink face, pinstripe pajamas and white chest hair. Leif leaps and lands on the man’s chest, so heavily that his ribs creak and the bed complains. He startles once, then tries to lift his head, but his eyes stay closed, even as his mouth opens on a snore than breaks into a whimper. Leif shifts, growing heavier, his fore-claws digging into the man’s shoulders, then the sides of his neck.

Easy, easy, Anthea says.

Leif growls a little and loosens his hold. He moves a little downward, so most of his weight comes to rest on the man’s diaphragm. The man can’t draw a full breath. His eyes dart rapidly under his fluttering lids. The smell of fear is sharp and sudden in the room. Sweat’s broken out all over his face. His mouth closes, then opens again, gasping.

Leif could drink out the last of his breath. He could rise and drop, again and again, heavy as a boulder, until ribs crack and pierce the skin. He could devour.

For now, he just watches fear writhe beneath the man’s skin, struggling to escape.

It’s good to be back.

*

He comes to, arm flailing, on Anthea’s couch. She sits in an absurdly ornate wing chair before him, legs crossed, hair pouring down her front.

“Not bad,” she says. “Money’s on the side table, unless you prefer PayPal?”

Leif’s mouth is sour, his stomach unruly. He scrubs both hands over his face and tries to get to his feet. “Cash is fine, thanks.”

He stumbles a little and she grabs his hand. “Thank you,” she says. “Pleasure working with you.”

He tries not to shudder. He can still feel hints of her, like clouds of gnats at the back of his head, down his front. The witch doesn’t so much steer the mare as get him primed and let him loose. That’s enough, now, to leave him feeling exhausted, flecked with sweat, and very much used.

The dawn has yet to break when he gets outside. Night air is still cool against his face and, despite his tiredness and confusion, he decides to walk all the way home.

In the days that follow, he can’t stop remembering what it felt like. Dark and unbound, crouched to feed, break, watch, something utterly wild and hungry.

He should be better than this. He thought he was better than this, but maybe he was fooling himself.

*

Anthea employs him several times over the next several weeks. Those who have been cursed are usually older, in nice bedrooms with fine linens. Leif expects that it’s not cheap to curse someone, but he doesn’t know Anthea’s rate. Wilhelm had a scale, depending on how much latitude he was given to mess with the cursed one. Sometimes he just sent Leif into people’s beds for fun.

Anthea is more sensible about business. Either she’s not as ambitious as Wilhelm, or (and this is more likely) she’s not as foolish and arrogant. She’s arrogant, of course; there isn’t a magic-user alive or dead who isn’t. Humility and magic spring apart like magnets.

All those he’s visited have been men so far. That might not mean anything, or it might be deliberate on her part. Maybe she uses someone else for women and others who have been cursed. A delicate chemistry exists, he’s always been told, between a mare and the cursed. A mare can haunt anyone, of course; there’s nothing to stop it. But for the maximum possible effect, then there are considerations.

You have to have a certain predisposition to cruelty, far greater than an ordinary mare’s, to haunt children, for instance. Some excel at this; Leif’s own father dabbled in it, though one never would have guessed upon meeting him in his soft-spoken, sag-shouldered human form.

In his personal life, such as it is, Leif is into men. This translates to a particular effectiveness on men, whether or not he is actually attracted to them. He rarely is attracted, although Willie often maintained otherwise: You can’t get enough of them, can you? Eat them up, all of them, you’d take them all if I wasn’t there.

Leif knew that wasn’t true, but he also knew, just as strongly, that he couldn’t argue and win.

“It’s all hunger,” Wilhelm liked to say, “sex and haunting, eating and killing.”

Growing up, Leif’s family explained the situation differently. They weren’t going to talk about sex, let alone gay sex, so the different varieties of intimacy and effect were cloaked in vague terms like sympathy and resonance.

What he does is no seduction. He pins them, unconscious and pliant, and takes his time hungering and scaring. Sometimes they get hard, sometimes they piss themselves. He crushes them in his claws, chokes them with the caustic smoke, heavy with cinders and bristles, that composes his form.

When he’s finished, sometimes it is like he’s been fucking: he’s tired, loose, a little clumsy. But there’s never anything like afterglow, no hint, nothing near satiation. Just more hunger, a wider maw, a deeper void.

Wilhelm used to take care of that. He’d be as agitated and aroused as Leif, he’d murmur spells and draw them in the air with his finger until the magic surrounded them, crackling and radiant, like barbed wire heated red and glowing.

Now, after sessions with Anthea, Leif goes home and sleeps face-down. Florence settles on the small of his back, keeps him in place, prevents him falling all the way apart.

*

He met Wilhelm at a family reunion in Maryland. Leif was seventeen, Wilhelm in his early twenties. He was haggard and handsome, hair somehow both pale and muddy, like the water in which paintbrushes sit.

“You,” he said to Leif when the cousins were out on a playground, sneaking beers and sharing joints, “I could do a lot with you.”

He was Leif’s first boyfriend, though not his first kiss or first sexual experience. Both of those were with Luke Dell’Accio on the municipal baseball team the summer before. Willie was the first magic-user, though, that Leif had ever been close to.

They moved in together in Baltimore that fall.

“Magic recognizes no boundaries,” Willie told him early on. “I have no limits.”

He meant that in every way.

Magic is the ability, combined with the will, to go anywhere, do anything. Wilhelm loved magic more than anything else, including his own safety, with the fervent, oblivious arrogance of a child dashing into the street. He poked and prodded at what seemed like limits, turned them inside out, shredded them to glittering confetti.

Leif was one probe among many; Willie used him to frighten and control not only his enemies but strangers, just to see what would happen.

*

Tonight’s target is younger than the rest, maybe even slightly younger than Leif himself. Leif hovers at the ceiling, putting off the usual descent. The target sleeps on his side, arm pillowed under his head; he’s shirtless and looks fairly well-built. The sheet is tangled baroquely around his waist and legs. In the dimness of the room, the sheet glows dully against his dark skin.

The cursed guy stirs a little, frowning in sleep, then relaxing again.

Who would curse this guy? He looks innocent. Handsome, a sweet smile on his lips, long lashes brushing his cheeks.

He’s too old for this room. Young as he is, no one past the age of ten sleeps in a race-car bed. There are posters of dinosaurs on the wall and cubbies overflowing with plushies and stuffed animals.

Get out, Anthea hisses, and Leif nearly shrieks as she yanks him back.

He slams back into his body and hits the floor hard. “The fuck?”

“Wrong guy,” she says, scowling. “What the fuck, how did that even happen?”

“He was cute,” Leif says.

She rolls her eyes. “Really not the point.”

He pushes up to his feet, his head swimming. “Just saying.”

She’s flipping angrily through a grimoire. “So glad you enjoyed it, that’s all I want for you.”

“Hey,” Leif says, “I take pleasure where I can find it, okay?”

Anthea sets the grimoire aside. “Don’t fucking pull that shit.”

“What shit?”

She narrows her eyes. “Your old shit, feeling them up, molesting, whatever.”

“I never—”

“Right, right, it was never your fault,” she says.

*

Leif doesn’t think about the past very much. There isn’t much point. When he does consider about his old life, it is the smaller, more superficial qualities that he misses. He doesn’t miss Willie, not much, not usually (and when he does, he feels guilty about it), but he does miss having someone to wake up next to. He doesn’t miss the night rides, but he does miss the brief, wild intimacy with sleeping bodies: hot breath on the target’s face, claws curling into their shoulders, minute shifts that produced larger movements, quakes, shudders.

He doesn’t have anything to show for himself in this new life. Besides a payday loan that’s gone to three different collection agencies, that is, and a cat who doesn’t particularly care for him. On the other hand, he also doesn’t have much of anything to regret.

It’s hard to keep believing this was the right choice, especially because it doesn’t feel like much of a choice at all. His new life is more a succession of accidents and stumbles that happened serially than it is a product of deliberation and choice.

*

“Hey, man, sorry, you can’t sleep here.” The guy smiling down at Leif looks sheepish, almost apologetic, like he’s the one breaking the rules. He also looks familiar.

He was just going to wait at the library in the periodicals room for a few hours between shifts. God knows how long he’s been asleep.

Apologizing, knuckling his eyes, Leif squints. The guy’s dressed like anyone, blue button-down shirt tucked into worn black jeans. He’s light-skinned, hair in short twists, cheekbones really prominent.

He’s the cute target, the wrong one.

“What are you doing here?” Leif blurts.

His eyes go wide. “I work here? Do I know you?”

Shit. Leif rubs his mouth. “No, sorry. I’m just out of it, wires crossed in my brain.”

“Ah, okay. Well—”

“Happens when someone wakes you up,” Leif adds, grinning.

Guy ducks his head for a second, acknowledging that. “Sorry.”


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