The room is empty when I wake up.
The covers on the other side of the bed have been pulled back and doubled over me, and the shades have been drawn down over the large window that looks out on the ocean, but I can still see bright sunlight spilling in around the edges.
It takes me a century to get my limbs in working order to untangle myself from the blankets and stand. The world spins for a moment, and then settles. Calm. Steady. Nothing creeping or lurking or watching. No one in my brain but me.
I enjoy the silence in my head for a moment before I step out into Cormac’s kitchen.
It’s a scene from my old life laid out in front of me. The smell of tea and toast and coffee, the soft lull of the radio. But instead of my odd, piecemeal family bickering at the large oak table, there’s only Fadwa, sitting next to a pot of tea, nearly hidden behind a large book.
Glazed eyes blink at me from behind her large glasses.
“Morning,” she says, pushing the pot of tea toward me. “Or rather, afternoon.”
I blink. I haven’t slept through to the afternoon since I was….
I don’t know.
“Murray went home early this morning,” she continues, putting a pen in the middle of her book and closing it. She’s surrounded by large texts and stacks of notebook paper covered in tidy scribbles, and her laptop is open next to the butter dish. She’s in research mode. “Tanis and Isla are cleaning out Kit’s house, for some reason, and your boy went outside.”
I don’t point out that it’s been a long time since he was a boy, and longer still since he was mine. So instead I ignore her and pull two thick ceramic mugs from the counter above the stove and pour tea into both of them. Cream in one, no sugar. Black for me. Fadwa watches me with a curious expression.
“How do you feel?” she whispers, like this is a question I could ever possibly hope to answer.
“You shouldn’t have done the purification rite yourself,” she scolds. But her voice is gentle; there’s no real malice behind it.
“Kit helped me.”
“I know, he told me,” she says, taking a sip of her tea. “But you should have waited for me. Do you know how rare these kinds of rituals are now? I’d have loved to document it.”
I roll my eyes.
“It involved a lot of shivering and vomit, mostly. Don’t worry, we still have to drown Kit later. I’ll let you watch.”
“Thank you for coming up here, by the way,” I say, reaching out to tap her hand gently. “For everything. I know it got intense.”
“Thomas. You let me meet a real life Seelie. I got to watch his magic in action and take part in a ceremony that no magician has documented in over a hundred years. Do you have any idea what this will do for my research? You and Kit are incredible case studies, the things he was telling me this morning—”
“I retract my gratitude,” I interrupt. “Though I’m glad you like Kit now. You two are swots, you’re perfect for each other.”
“I don’t like him,” she argues. “I just don’t hate him anymore. He’s interesting.”
“Aye sure, sure, he pulls you in with the eyes and then you think he’s interesting,” I say, leaning down to pull on my boots before reaching for the green parka Isla has been wearing since we left Glasgow. It smells like her; slightly sweet but musky from getting wet, and I breathe deep. It’s steadying to smell something other than salt and herbs and blood.
“Wish me luck?” I ask, adjusting my cracked glasses and picking up the two mugs.
“You don’t need it,” she responds, turning back to the book she has in front of her. “Also, tell him I’m taking this book back with me. And probably the rest of the ones on the table. And maybe his notes.”
I think Kit would probably let her take all his books after what she’s done, but she doesn’t need to know that.
The wind pushes back against the door when I head outside, mugs in hand, and it slams shut behind me with a deafening bang. It’s sunny out despite the chill; the sky is a perfect, cloudless blue, and the wind that picks up my hood and blows my curls into my eyes is friendly. It’s the best weather we’ve had since I came home.
Kit isn’t in the back garden, so I head toward the track and follow it down the sloping curve of the hill, the tea splashing perilously in the mugs, the wind picking at my face.
There are no shadows or strange whispers surrounding me. I don’t have a migraine.
When Kit’s house comes into view, it’s almost bursting with activity. Sheets are hung out on the washline, billowing in the breeze, and all the windows are thrown open. Rimi and Resha are crouched low by a bush, staring at something and whispering together. When Rimi looks up and sees me, she breaks into a dangerous grin.
“Thomas!” she calls, waving me over. “Come look! Bees!”
I step over Kit’s low wall and go to inspect their find with great reluctance. Crouching down, I follow the girls’ gazes: Two wee miner bees are crawling over the heather that’s grown up through Kit’s yard, buzzing happily. In November.
“I think you found the only bees still working,” I say, genuinely impressed. “How did you do it?”
“We asked if there were any around, and these two said hi,” Resha shrugs, like this isn’t unusual, unprecedented, and extremely advanced for a magician of her age. Or any age, really.
“Oi, do you think if we asked, Tanis would keep a hive for us? So we could get to know a specific set of bees?”
I think it’s unlikely that Tanis would ever do anything that came with a chance of being stung, or required putting on a ridiculous outfit, but I don’t tell them that.
“Dunno about Tanis, but I bet Kit would if you asked.”
It’s almost too easy to imagine Kit in an oversized beekeeper’s dungarees. He’d probably love it. He’d make friends with the bees and never, ever remember to harvest the honey.
Rimi and Resha make eye contact, and Rimi raises an eyebrow. Resha shakes her head, and Rimi grimaces.
“Speaking of, do you know where Kit is?” I ask quickly, interrupting whatever silent conversation is happening.
“Over there,” Resha says, gesturing widely toward the ocean. Helpful.
“Right. Well. Enjoy your… bees.” I straighten up and start to turn away, then pause. “Hey. Would you do me a favour?”
The twins tilt their heads at the same angle. They’re so creepy sometimes.
“Mind heating these up?”
Resha gets there first, rubbing her hands together quickly three times before blowing on the mugs. Thin tendrils of steam begin to curl up from them.
I’ve no idea how magic is so simple and intuitive and painless for them. But I’m glad it is. I’m glad they don’t have to bleed for their craft.
“Cheers,” I say, saluting them with the mugs before I begin to pick my way around the back of the cottage. Cheery strains of the blaring radio spill out through the windows, punctuated by a surprised shriek from Tanis and Isla’s barking laugh.
“Stop breaking things!” Isla shouts, and Tanis snorts.
“I’m not doing it on purpose! Oh, fuck it, put it in the bury pile.”
I think I’ll leave them to their destruction.
Kit isn’t on the beach or the rocks in front of the house, and it takes me a moment of scanning from either side until I see him, a dark dot perched on the the highest point of the causeway, halfway to Eòghan's Cave.
By the time I reach him I’m sure he’s heard me cursing at the wind and trying to balance the hot tea in my hands as I climb the uneven columns of rock, but he doesn’t make any indication of it and doesn’t turn around. One of his trashy romance books is sitting next to him, but it doesn’t look like he’s been reading it. He’s just sitting, his knees tucked up under his chin, his feet clad in only a pair of knobbly socks, staring out at the water. He’s not even wearing a jacket, just the jumper he put on last night.
I forgot that he dresses badly for the weather.
Groaning at the ache in my muscles, I lower myself onto the causeway. My boots send rocks and shells flying as I struggle for footing and I land hard with a small grunt and the realisation that I’ve sat in a puddle. The damp is already spreading through my trousers. I sigh and hold out a mug.
Kit finally looks at me, turning his head to the side and nodding slightly as he takes the mug and wraps both of his large hands around it.
I’m sitting slightly lower on the rock than he is, which lets me look at him without being caught staring. His shoulders are hunched and there are still scratches on his face, but his hair has been evened out, the ragged edges trimmed into a tidy straight line. I recognise Fadwa’s perfectionist streak in the neatness of it. If left to his own devices, Kit would just let the straggly ends grow out.
“Thanks. It’s kind of cold out here.”
His voice is still hoarse and scratchy, and I hate that I prefer it this way. It makes him sound real. The nightmare Kit, the Kit in my dreams and visions, always had a perfect voice. Always deep, always clear, always rolled up in his thick accent. It never broke or wavered or went quiet like this.
“Maybe you should wear a fucking jacket then.”
“Nah,” he responds. “They’re too restrictive. You can’t move your arms in them.”
It aches how easily we fall back into a old argument. It’s uncomfortable how I know he’s going to shift awkwardly, smile at me, and then pull his dark hair back behind his ear with one hand.
He goes through the motion just as I predicted, and I turn to look out at the ocean. The North Sea laps against the causeway, a seagull laughs, the wind blows my curls against my cheek, and Eòghan's Cave looms, cold and silent. The tide is out. We could stand up and keep walking, all the way down the causeway until we meet up with the mouth of cave.
The nuckelavee is pacing in there somewhere behind the wall of caved-in rock, reeking of death and shite. But I don’t want to think about that. The sea feels calm and the sky feels friendly, and the nuckelavee can starve and rot for all I care.
I take a breath and push my palm into the hot ceramic mug. This is real.
Kit takes a sip of the tea and I watch his body unwind as the heat curls within him. His shoulders unhunch, his jaw relaxes, and I press my shoulder into his gently. I’m cold too — I’m so fucking cold, and my whole body feels like it’s still submerged in the frigid water of the bathtub — but he has to be colder. And he shouldn’t be cold. Not after everything. Not after this.
“You shouldn’t have walked all the way down here. Without shoes.”
Kit doesn’t look at me.
“Couldn’t find my work boots, and Isla stole my extras. Also I think Owen was wearing my waders, so….” he trails off and shrugs. “Besides, you know what Cormac always said. ‘The best cure for anything that ails ye is a stiff wind and fresh sea air.’”
I scrunch up my nose.
“Why does your Cormac voice sound like Hagrid?”
The corner of his mouth tilts up.
“Shut it. I’m out of practise. It’s hard to mock someone who isn’t around anymore.”
The smile falls.
“Do you…” I start, hesitant. But I have to ask. “Do you think Owen—”
“No,” Kit answers, cutting me off. “I was there. It was natural. Owen wasn’t involved. He was actually…” Kit’s grip tightens around the mug and his knuckles turn pink. “He was pretty broken up about it.”
It’s hard to describe how I’m both enraged that Owen had the audacity to be upset, and glad that he felt pain.
“He called me, you know. When it happened. I was out of the country, though, I didn’t get the message until after the funeral.”
“I know,” Kit responds, staring down at his lap. “I asked him to. I thought you’d want to be there.”
“I should have been there,” I say, quietly. I should have said goodbye. Cormac raised me. He was a mentor and a friend and a rock to me. I never thought it as a kid, but he was as close as I ever got to a father. “I should have come back to see him.”
“Yeah,” Kit agrees. “You should have.”
He’s not scolding me. Just stating a fact.
“There’s things I should have done too,” he continues, his voice soft. “That night… I didn’t want to—”
“Oi. No apologising,” I tell him, nudging at his shoulder. “It’s all just… blood under the bridge, yeah?”
“Dark,” he says, lifting a thick black brow. “But accurate.”
His head drifts to the side and rests on my shoulder, and for a brief moment we sit there and watch the water.
“I like Fadwa,” he says finally. His mug is empty, and he twirls it between his fingers. Half of Cormac’s mugs have been broken or lost this way, because Kit either drops them in the ocean or never remembers to bring them in.
“Everyone does,” I respond. “Except Isla, actually, but she’ll come around. They had a rough start.”
“Fadwa to me is what Isla is to you,” I say, shrugging. Kit grins. “Isla barged into my flat and dragged me here while I was getting ready to go to America, and she and Fadwa, uh, didn’t get on. Faz didn’t think I should—”
I glance at him nervously, and then shut up before I choke on the uncertainty and anxiety that’s clawing its way through my stomach and up my throat like a creature trying to escape.
He pushes a strand of hair out of his face, and then the wind immediately blows it back.
“Are you still going to America?”
“What?” I turn to look at him more closely. “No. No, I mean, I was going to try to find a cure. There’s no point now, right?”
He doesn’t answer.
Last night he was warm and open and receptive but today, once the trauma has calmed and the sun is out, I don’t know how he’ll feel. I don’t know if he’ll get past this. I don’t know if I’ll get past this, and I don’t know if I can forgive him or if we can ever move on. I don’t know if I can trust what he said and what’s happened.
His firm words from last night ring through my head.
We’re not apologising for what we did.
Easy to say that when you’re wrung out and scared and desperately happy to be alive, but it’s a different thing to practise now, sitting here underdressed for the weather on a damp causeway that smells like seaweed and seagull shit.
But I need to stop trying to run from the shit that scares me.
“I was thinking of staying on Mab for a bit, actually,” I say. My tone is light. Careful.
“Why would you do that?” he asks, setting down the mug and turning to look at me. We’re face to face now, the full force of those deep brown eyes directed on me, his head tilted to the side, his expression as unreadable as ever.
“It’s very quiet here, and I think I could do with a bit of sleep, honestly.” I sigh heavily and smile at him. “I’m really fucking tired.”
His face breaks out into a wide smile, his eyes scrunching up as his cheeks dimple in, and he stretches out one of his long legs so that it’s bracketing my side. It’s our usual position when sitting on the causeway.
“You don’t look well,” he says, still smiling.
“I wish I could say the same, but you actually look really good for someone who was basically dead,” I respond, my chest beating wildly with a melted wave of relief. I put my hand tentatively on his ankle, wrapping my fingers around the coarse knit of his sock. He’s warm to the touch. Warm and real. This is real.
“What would you say if I wanted to go to Glasgow?” he asks quietly, looking away from me. “Do you think you could get sleep there?”
“Why would you want to go to Glasgow?” I ask, dropping my hold on his ankle. I deliberately don’t focus on the implication of his words, the inclusion of me in his plans. I cross my legs and tentatively move closer to him, so that I’m almost sitting squarely between his legs. “You’d hate Glasgow.”
“Not Glasgow, then,” he says, and looks back to me. His arms come up and the sleeves of his jumper slide down and I can see the bruises around the inside of his elbows, the angry veins still throbbing blue. He carefully plucks my glasses off my face and turns them around to clean them on the hem of my t-shirt. “Just somewhere that’s not Mab. Everything here is so confusing and complicated, and I think I need to sort through things in a different place. We could go somewhere else?”
He places my glasses back on my face and moves one curl out of the way so that they hook on my ear properly.
“We can go anywhere,” I breathe, my lungs expelling air like I’ve been punched. “London, Edinburgh. Hungary. America, you name it. You’d love Norway.”
“Anywhere?” he asks, the corner of his mouth ticking up.
“Everywhere, if you want.”
The words are spilling out of me, desperate and rushed. Too much. Too fast. Too eager. But if he says no, it will be okay. I know this. I’ll be alright, because I know how to walk away. We can just stay friends, like he said. That’s probably better. Healthier. That’s what I told Isla, isn’t it?
I’m so full of shit, though. I’m such a fucking liar.
It’s not better.
“Aren’t you tired of running?” he asks. “You’ve been looking for answers for so long, are you sure you don’t want to just… slow down?”
For once in my life, I stop to consider the question.
I am tired of running. I’m sick to the teeth of it. But I don’t need to run from anything now. I don’t even need to run to something. I can just… exist, for the time being. I can want things that aren’t wrapped up in my nightmares.
I want to see if we can move forward. I want to see if we can put ourselves back together. More than anything, I want to exist with him.
“I dunno,” I say, looking up to meet his eyes. “You walk pretty slow. Honestly, trying to get you anywhere takes four years.”
He closes his eyes and scrunches them together, and then leans forward to rest his head on my shoulder and press his face into my neck. He lets out a long, stuttering sigh that’s half laugh and half frustration. His breath is warm, and he smells like tea and the ocean.
I drop my mug onto the causeway and give in, pulling my arms around him and holding on tightly like he did to me last night. He doesn’t move away, just relaxes into my arms. I bury my face in his hair and take the first breath of real air I’ve had in years.
This is real.