The afternoon sun is setting into Thomas’s eyes, and he squints as he looks out over the ocean.
The dimming sun is lighting up his hair, setting it awash in flames of gold and auburn. It’s almost the same colour as the jumper of mine that he put on this morning to be petty when he saw I stole his Talking Heads shirt.
Everything he does is so petty.
He’s tense. His shoulders are hunched and his thick brows are pulled together and he keeps looking around nervously. It’s not an expression that comes naturally to him. I never see him looking this tense. Not unless he’s in pain.
“I’m serious, I think it’s our best bet,” he says, turning away from the ocean and the sun to look at me fully. “It’ll buy us some time at least.”
We’re sitting on the causeway, facing each other. It’s our usual seating arrangement; Thomas is sitting with his legs crossed, my legs bracketing him.
But this isn’t our normal evening sit. There’s no tea. No beer. None of Thomas’s awful music filtering through his cheap mobile. Owen isn’t here either, and for good reason. We’re hiding from him.
“It just seems like there has to be another way. We’ve barely done any reading on this,” I say, hesitant. I always use this voice when Thomas comes to me with some plan. I’m always the one who has to say no. But instead of scrunching up his nose and making a face at me, he takes off his glasses and sighs heavily.
“If we bind ourselves together, our blood becomes communal. Our essence — our magic — becomes tied. If Owen tries to take one of us, he’ll have to take us both,” Thomas whispers. One hand snakes around my ankle and he rubs the exposed skin just above my sock. I love it when he does that. “I think. But, at the very least it’ll give us time and protection to figure out how to bind him and break his power.”
“I’m more concerned about making sure he can’t follow us when we leave,” I whisper back, my own worry starting to build. I hate that I’m the one who always worries. But someone has to.
“He can’t follow us,” Thomas insists, pausing. “If he really is Seelie, he can’t leave the island, right?”
“He could order us not to go.” That’s been my biggest fear since I found out: that this will all fall apart because our subterfuge hasn’t been that subtle. That he’s going to catch on and worm into my brain and keep us from leaving the island. That he’s going to trap us here.
What if we’ve been here before? What if this isn’t the first time we’ve found out and made a plan? What if we’re just living in a cycle of realisations and failures?
“We just need to find out how to neutralise him,” Thomas says, reading the look on my face. “Once we do that, we’ll be free.”
“Cold iron,” I say, just like I’ve said forty times this week. “Just put him in cold iron. Stick him in Eòghan's Cave and let him rot.”
Thomas lets out a wheezy laugh and balances his hand on my knee. The laugh smooths some of his sharp lines, but others are more persistent. Everything is starting to get too much for him, I think. The worry lines are setting in. He’s getting paler. The bags under his eyes have bags.
“God, I wish.”
I know it won’t be that easy, though. Nothing is ever that easy. We’ll have to plan. And we’ll have to pretend like nothing is wrong. I don’t know if Thomas can do that. He’s terrible at lying; I can always see through him. I hope Owen can’t.
Thomas has been on the verge of an explosion since we found out. It’s been growing and glowing under both of our skins, getting brighter and brighter every time we pretend that everything is fine. But it’s taking its toll.
Thomas can’t look at Owen without getting angry. I can’t look at Cormac without getting sad.
The whole scene has been replaying in my mind and filling my dreams and I hear the words echoing off the walls of my brain every time I close my eyes.
We were meant to be at work. We weren’t supposed to be home. But Cormac and Owen weren’t meant to be either.
We expected the house to be empty, which is why we’d skived off. The house is never empty. Owen is always around or Cormac is always tinkering with something, and sometimes it’s impossible to find just a moment to ourselves. So of course we took the opportunity.
So did Owen.
We heard it before we saw it. The argument. Cormac’s raised voice, his sudden shout.
“All this time!” Cormac shouted. It reverberated through the window, and Thomas and I froze coming up the stoop. “You’ve been hiding here all this time, sucking off our lives like a fucking parasite. Even if you make me forget again, I swear to it, I’ll kill you myself, boy.”
Thomas and I were wide eyed as we stared at each other. Cormac never yelled, except at the cat, and we’d never heard him say something like that to anyone. Ever. I pulled Thomas back from the door and we pressed against the side of the house, hunched over just under the window, listening.
“Cormac.” The voice was Owen’s, but not. It was both too deep and too high. Too lyrical and too sharp. “You haven’t seen anything. You will forget this conversation.”
“I will not be held hostage in my own mind by some damned Seelie!”
The smell of smoke and moss and moulding leaves swept over us, playing at the corner of my memory. I knew the smell immediately, intimately. But I couldn’t place it. Why did I know that smell and not know that smell?
Thomas had started to fully hyperventilate, and I had to clasp my hand over his mouth to keep him from making noise. He was shaking. Full body tremors. I wanted to wrap my arm around him and pull him in, but I couldn’t. I think I may have been shaking too. But it wasn’t from fear, like Thomas. It was from rage.
I had to drag us back around the side of the house just before the door burst open and Owen strode out into the afternoon sun. Thomas saw the flash of red hair and tried to lunge for him, but I held him back, nearly picking him up and throwing him into the shed.
We hid in there for what felt like hours, not speaking, just trying to moderate our breathing and calm down, and when we finally had the courage to go back inside, Cormac was asleep. The smell of damp leaves remained, though.
I can still smell it, triggering the anger and fear and confusion and deep, deep betrayal that’s settled into rage. The fear comes and goes, but the rage is still there, burning under the surface. Just under the calm face I’m keeping on for Thomas.
“What if instead of the rite, we just leave. Tonight? Hide a note for Cormac, tell him to take off when he can,” I say. “Or we get Tanis and Eris and Annag and we lay in wait for him.”
“Mac,” Thomas says, rubbing at my ankle. “He knows our names.”
“Ear plugs. Big noise cancelling headphones. We blare dubstep.”
“He still has our blood,” Thomas argues. “It’s too much. No. We can’t face him directly. We have to protect ourselves and then purify ourselves, and then go from there. I’m telling you, Mac, this rite is our best bet.”
I look down at the rocky ledge of the causeway.
“This rite is… it’s a lot,” I say, not looking at him. Why is it still so hard to look at him, even after all this time? After all these years apart, it’s so hard to look at his face.
My breath catches.
I don’t know what I meant by that. We’re eighteen. We’ve spent every day of the past thirteen years together. We plan to spend every day of the next thirteen together, too. And all the ones after that. I blink away the thought, and look away from the sun.
“The rite means things,” I say quietly. “It’s a big thing to do just for protection.”
“It doesn’t have to mean things,” Thomas says quickly, not noticing my pause. “We’re doing this for safety. Just safety, Mac.”
He’s anxious and keyed up. His old accent is getting thicker, his words slurring together, his consonants taking on a sharp tone, his vowels sliding out. He only sounds like this when he’s tense or sleepy, and usually I love hearing it.
Not right now.
He’s full of shit and lying. I know his tells. He doesn’t have any idea if this bonding rite will protect us or keep us safe from Owen. He’s grasping at straws, desperate to do something, anything. But he doesn’t really believe this will work.
He’s just scared out of his mind and trying to make us feel better. He’s clinging to the bond because this is his attempt to make all this — make us — mean something in case everything goes bad.
He’s just trying to manipulate the scenario, and doing an awful job of it. As always.
“What if I want it to mean more?” I whisper. “For us. More than just safety?”
Thomas’s thumb stops rubbing circles around my ankle bone, and his whole body stills.
“Do you want it to mean more?”
I take a breath and meet his eyes.
“Sometimes I think it’s all I want.”
We’ve never said I love you. That’s not what we do. He says you keep me sane. I say you keep me focused. We talk around our feelings. We’ve planned a future together, but that’s not new. We’ve always had a future together, even since we were kids. Wherever he went, I was always going to follow.
I’ve never been this honest though. It’s time at least one of us was.
I wait for his reaction. To see if he’s going to shy away from it or manipulate and wheedle his way out of this with some joke or aside or caveat.
But instead he smiles.
“This is extremely stupid of us, isn’t it?” he rasps, his hand tightening around my ankle.
My chest fills with air.
“We are known for being extremely stupid. It’s kind of our thing.”
I lean forward and kiss him, because I can. He scrunches his nose up and makes a face and pretends that he doesn’t want it, like always, but a moment later he kisses me back. I almost can’t stop smiling against his lips. This is stupid. This is so stupid, and our lives are in danger, and we’ve been betrayed by our best friend.
But I’ve got Thomas, and it’s hard for me to remember the bad right now.
He pulls back from the kiss, his cheeks slightly pink, and lets out a long breath. Then he shifts up to grab something out of his back pocket. A fishing knife and a length of rope. It’s coarse and frayed and smells like salt, and I’m positive he’s stolen it out of Cormac’s tool box.
“So,” he says, pausing. “Kit Macrae. Are we doing this?”
I look at the knife and rope in his hand, and then back up to his eyes.
There are things I want in life. A lot of them. To leave Mab. To go to uni. To find people who look and think and feel like me. To make something of my life and be more than an abandoned selkie discard. To be more than the magician’s quiet, unmagical grandson. I want to know things. I want to know everything.
And I want to learn them with Thomas.
“Tamás, I believe we are.”
He picks up my hand and kisses my palm, and then cuts it with the knife.
The pain is sharp and then cold. So cold. Everything is cold. I shiver, but not from pain, and I can taste the blood in my mouth. Blood and sea salt. Everything is cold and everything hurts, and my body feels as though it’s floating.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I ask. “There has to be another way. We could still leave. We could go right now.”
I blink. We’re in my bedroom, sat on the floor. Everything is going fast. Too fast, like it’s getting muddled up in my head. How did I get from the causeway to the bedroom floor? Why am I so cold?
“We can’t leave,” Thomas rasps. “You know we can’t.”
I sigh. I know. He’s right.
Thomas tries to hand me the knife he’s holding, but I don’t take it.
“We have to do it while he’s gone, or he’ll notice,” he responds. It’s dark out and the house is silent. Owen is out with Tanis. I remember this. I texted Tanis and asked her to distract Owen for the night. She laughed me off the phone.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” I say, still not taking the knife.
“I trust you,” Thomas presses. He takes my hands and rubs his thumb across my knuckles. “It’s just a little blood.”
“And you really think this will work?”
“No fucking clue,” he admits. “But confidence is key.”
“Thomas—” I start, and he shakes his head.
“Mac. Whatever happens, we’re going to be okay. I promise you. I’m not going to let him fuck with us anymore.”
“I still almost can’t believe it,” I whisper. I have to whisper, or the rage will bubble up and scream out of me. “He was our friend.”
I’m pulling a Thomas. I’m stalling. I don’t want to take the knife and cut him up. I don’t want to do this. I can’t do magic, and while I understand the principles of it, this is old. This is unwritten. This is intuiting and feeling your way through the power and I can’t do that. I don’t know how this works.
I hate not knowing. It makes me feel like I’m drowning.
“He is our friend,” Thomas argues. “That’s how he’s survived so long. He knows us. He cares about us. He’s shaped this all to fuck with us. Mac, he’s using our blood to keep himself human. He’s ingratiated himself into our lives so he can keep feeding off us like some kind of fucking tick, and sooner or later he’s going to kill one of us.”
“But we don’t know—”
“Either these visions are going to kill me or I’m going to pitch myself off a cliff,” Thomas snaps. “His blood is eating at me from the inside out.”
That shuts me up.
“Now,” Thomas says, shifting into action mode. “If we purify me first, I think I can hold him off with magic.”
“But he still has your blood,” I argue. I don’t know how Thomas can be so confident about this. We’re flying blind. We have no idea what we’re doing, or what Owen is doing, or what Owen wants. Thomas has no idea what he can or cannot do. He’s not even that good of a magician. He’s just lying to make us feel better.
“Aye, but if he gives me a direct name order, I think I can shake it off. Like, if he tries what he did on Cormac to me. I think I can push through it. I’ve got a theory.”
“You have a theory?”
I don’t mean to sound as condescending as I do, but Thomas never has theories. He just has certainties. Absolutes. Or false assurances that he doesn’t mean.
He glances behind him and leans in.
“He only ever calls me Thomas, right? But that’s not my name. I’m not sure if he knows it. I thought about it earlier today, when you called me by my name. My real name.”
For his first theory ever, it’s a good one.
“Alright,” I say, taking the knife. “I trust you.”
I don’t. I don’t trust anything about this. But I love Thomas, and all I want is for him to get better. All I want is for him to stop feeling like a prisoner inside his own mind. I’ll do anything to help him with that. I promised him that today — his life and my life, together. I’ll do anything to protect that.
So I take the knife and make the first cut. Long and sloping down his forearm, like he requested, so we can get the most blood. I try to be detached about it, the way he and Cormac always are whenever they have to give blood for a rite. I fail a bit. I’d be an awful magician if it meant carving myself up. I hate blood.
“What are you doing?”
Thomas and I freeze at the same time. I can practically hear my blood rushing in my ears, can feel my pulse elevate as I turn to the doorway, where Owen is leaning. His arms are crossed and he’s still wearing his raincoat. He’s grinning, like he’s just walked in on a joke.
“Uh, we…” I start, turning to Thomas. I don’t know. I’m not good at lying.
“Get tae fuck, Owen,” Thomas says, not turning around. His tone is casual, but his eyes are wide and his hands are clenched so tightly his knuckles are white.
“Fuck off,” Owen mumbles, walking into the room. “Seriously, what are you doing? What’s with the knife?”
“We’re doing a rite,” Thomas says, clearing his throat.
“Oh, cheers.” Owen sits down on the ground next to us and rolls up the sleeves of his raincoat. He loves watching Thomas do magic. “Can I help?”
“It’s—” I start, then trail off. “I mean, it’s just… a two person…”
Even through my fear and anger, I feel a stab of guilt at the hurt look on Owen’s face. Thomas feels it too.
“Kit and I did a bonding rite today,” he blurts. His cut is starting to clot already, but long lines of blood are still trailing down his forearm. “We’re finishing the final part now.” He shifts a bit and plasters a smile on his face — that cocky, careless smile with the mean edge that I hate so much. “No offence, mate, but you’re kind of cock blocking.”
Owen stares at us, his face scrunched up, then looks down at the knife, the cut on Thomas’s arm, the candles surrounding us and the mug of brewed herbs sitting in front of Thomas.
Then he looks at me.
“Kit Macrae,” he says, his voice suddenly raspy and deep. “Tell me the truth.”
“We know you’re Seelie,” I shout. “We’re trying to purify Thomas so you have less control over him.”
A sick wave of revulsion washes over me. I don’t want to be saying this. I never even made the decision to do so; every nerve in my body was telling me to lie, and then I just… couldn’t.
Thomas closes his eyes and lowers his head in acceptance, and Owen’s attention shifts.
“Thomas Madigan,” he says, and Thomas’s eyes open. “Heal yourself. Then go to bed. When you wake up, you won’t remember any of this.”
Thomas’s mouth stretches into an exaggerated grimace, and he looks like he’s physically in pain, but then he nods. Satisfied, Owen turns to me. The smell of mouldering leaves and wet grass tickles inside my nose and down my throat, making me feel like I’m going to choke on the sour sweetness of it.
“Kit Macrae. You will go to sleep. You will wake up and not remember any of this.” Owen stands up and wipes his hands on his trousers. They’re shaking, just slightly, as he addresses both of us. “You don’t believe in Seelies. You suspect nothing about me. You think the very idea is ridiculous.”
My body goes limp, and everything goes blurry. I feel like I’ve just stepped out of myself; like my body is asleep, but my mind is still awake, and I’m watching this happen like a movie. I can almost see the scene; my eyes glazed over, my hand slack on the knife.
I feel like I’ve been here before.
“Thomas Madigan, heal yourself.”
Thomas is moving his head back and forth, blinking slowly like an obstinate cow, and it looks as though he’s shaking. He’s fighting off Owen, somehow. Even though my body has gone limp and useless at the smallest word, Thomas is fighting back.
Owen frowns, paces the room, and then walks back to us, his face arranged in a mask of determination.
“I don’t know why this is always so hard with you, Thomas,” he says. His voice is normal again. Reedy, raspy, exasperated. “I don’t know why you fight it. It has to be hurting you, doesn’t it? Resisting has to be pulling your mind apart at the seams, it’s not good for you.” He sighs and runs his hands through his scraggly red hair. I cut it for him not that long ago. “I’m sorry, mate. I thought giving you more blood last week would help, but it didn’t. I guess I need to make my hold stronger. Kit, cut him.”
My body lurches forward, the hand holding the knife moving without direction, and I cut a vicious slash down Thomas’s arm. He shouts in pain and pulls his arms up to defend himself, and I cut again, lashing out wildly. Owen told me to cut. I have to cut.
“No!” Owen shouts, dashing forward. “Not like that! Stop! Kit Macrae, stop!”
Thomas has his arms over his head as I stumble back from him. Inwardly I’m horrified, but my body is like a puppet. There’s blood everywhere, streaming down Thomas’s arms, bleeding into his jumper, covering his hands. My mind is screaming to drop the knife and go to him, but my body doesn’t comply. I just stand there. Waiting for instruction.
“Thomas? Thomas, are you alright?” Owen asks, crouching down. He reaches out to put his hand on Thomas’s shoulder, and Thomas’s arms come down. He’s smeared blood on his face, and his hands are outstretched, the magic on the tip of his tongue.
“Kit, hold him!” Owen shouts, falling back.
Once again I dart forward, gathering up Thomas’s arms and pressing them to the wall. Thomas fights — tries to pull his hands loose, kicks at me. But I’m stronger.
“Kit, let me go,” he pants, his eyes wide and wild. “Kit, please, Mac, please.”
“Keep him there,” Owen says in his strange, deep voice. He reaches between us and runs his hand down Thomas’s arm, smearing the blood even further, and then brings his palm to his face and licks it.
Thomas trembles, out of fear or revulsion, I don’t know.
“Let him go,” Owen says, and I drop Thomas’s arms and stand back. The knife is still in my hand.
“Thomas Madigan, you will not remember this. You will heal yourself.”
“No,” Thomas whispers, hugging his arms to his chest. He’s shaking his head, his glasses slipping down his nose. “No. No. I won’t.”
Owen takes a shaky breath and cups Thomas’s face in his hand and stares at him. They make eye contact, and even though Thomas is unrestrained, he’s not pulling away. I think it’s too much for him. I think he’s about to break. I wish I could help him; I wish I could find the strength to pull myself out of this.
“You will wake up and not remember any of this. You will not remember your accusations against me. You will not think about Seelies. You will not believe in Seelies. You will wake up and think of me as Owen. Just Owen. Just your best friend Owen.”
Thomas shakes his head and scrunches his eyes closed, and Owen’s grip on his face tightens. The skin of Thomas’s cheek is turning white from the indentations of Owen’s fingers. He rattles Thomas’s face forcefully.
“Listen to me, Thomas Madigan.”
Owen is shaking now, fully shaking, and he’s starting to change. Small, almost imperceptible changes, but he’s grown taller. His arms are longer and his eyes have grown larger, more angled and set further back into his face, and his skin — so pale it’s like milk — is now so white it’s almost snow.
“Why do you always make me do this? You know this is easier if you’re willing to obey,” Owen says. His voice is slow and quiet, his long branch-like fingers digging into Thomas’s cheeks. “I don’t need two humans, Thomas. I only need one. And your magic is more important to me. Kit isn’t needed. Even if you don’t bend to me, Kit does. I can make him do anything. To you, or to himself.”
Thomas crumples. His jaw goes slack, his eyes glaze over, and he crouches on the floor. He’s given up. He’s chosen to obey. He hands over his will for me.
The creature that looks like Owen lets out a long, shaky breath of relief.
“You won’t remember any of this. I’m just Owen. And I was never here.”
He steps back into the corner of the room, putting himself between my bed and the window, and then he sags against the wall. His body unlengthens itself, he reverts to the Owen I know, and then he snaps his fingers.
He blinks up at me from his spot on the floor, his eyes wide and surprised. His blood is everywhere. The knife is still clutched in my hand. I’m not reverting out of it. Why am I not reverting out of it? Thomas has shrugged it off, but I feel like I’m swimming through a bog to come back to the lucid surface.
“Kit?” he asks. His voice is hoarse from crying. “Kit? What is this? Why are you… what did you…” He looks down at his arms and sees the blood, then looks back up at me and the knife. His voice breaks and tears spill down his cheeks when he speaks again. “Kit?”
I snap back to alertness with a tidal wave of terror and revulsion. I remember this. I’ve been here, and I remember this. It’s the only part I regularly recall; coming to with a knife in my hand and seeing Thomas huddled and crying at my feet.
“Kit, put down the knife, please, don’t—”
“No! It’s not what you think! Thomas, I—” I spread my hands out to gesticulate, and Thomas flinches as the knife comes toward him. “No! Mads, no, it’s not— I didn’t—”
I don’t know what I did or didn’t do. I don’t know how we got here. I don’t know what’s happened, but I know I didn’t do this. I would never do this.
“Why did you do this?” Thomas cries, his voice hoarse. I shake my head and a growl of frustration rips out of me.
“No! I didn’t! You don’t understand, just let me explain, please.” I reach for his shoulders to ground him; to reassure him, to keep him in his spot and to make a connection so I can feel him tangibly under my hands. But Thomas is shaking and crying and he can’t hear me over his shouts, and when I reach for him he ducks back.
Before I can process what’s happening, Thomas has spit a mouthful of blood at me.
“Get the fuck away from me!” he screams, and my body goes hurtling backward from an unseen magical force. I land sprawled in the far corner of the room.
At Owen’s feet.
But neither of us is paying attention to Owen; neither of us even realise he’s here, and Thomas races out the door before I can pull myself back up. My body is doused in freezing pinpricks of cold; my limbs are sluggish. Everything is getting hazy.
“Hold on!” I shout, desperate. “Mads, please, hold on! Thomas, hold—”
Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.
Everything is swimming and going black and I’m so cold. I’m so cold.
I want to shout for Thomas to hold on, to wait, to just let me explain. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. It’s echoing in my ears.
“Kit, please, hold on.”
Everything hurts and everything is cold, and I’m weightless. There are arms around me and a song running through my mind, a song I know.
“Hold on, Kit, please.”
Thomas is whispering it in my ear. He’s pressed against me, whispering in my ear as we push through the water. Swimming. I’m swimming through the cold, carried by a song I know. A song I can hear in my sleep, a song I can feel when I’m in the ocean.
The selkie’s song.
Beside me, two bodies are moving quickly through the water. A nose nudges at my back, and I’m draped around something firm and slick and cold. Seals. I’m in the middle of the herd.
Someone is dragging me; pulling me onto land. My body snags against sharp rocks but I don’t feel the pain. I don’t feel the cold either. I don’t feel anything. And I don’t hear the song anymore. I just hear crying and shouting — someone shouting. A woman screaming. Someone sobbing.
Strong arms around me, lifting me up into a firm hold. I’m dangling, numb. Limbless. A hand slips into mine, walks next to me, squeezes tight.
“He has my name,” I whisper. I don’t know if the words are even coming out, but he has to know. He has to know why I did it. “He used my name.”
The hand squeezes again. I don’t know if he heard me. There’s so much shouting and crying. So many voices. His is the only one I can make out, hoarse and broken, walking next to me.
“Hold on, Kit. Please, just hold on.”