It takes Arabella two weeks of working for Montgomery Investigative International to figure out that Augustine doesn’t need his glasses.
The fact distracts her. She’s known the man for years – he has been at every holiday and Fourth of July party Nevada and Rogan have hosted since they’ve gotten married. He was her sister’s boss for years. Sure, he tried to trick Nevada into indenturing herself to him prior to becoming a House, but that seems to be water under the bridge. Teenage Arabella always thought he was attractive, and she owns up to a silly crush of epic proportions, sure. But she’s twenty-five now, a college graduate, and plenty experienced in how dumb men are, especially attractive ones. Her interest in working for MII is purely professional.
Working for Augustine’s company is an exercise in separation; it is comfortable for Arabella without leaving her exposed in the magical world. She wanted to be known as something other than one of the Baylors, and not because of what she can turn herself into. After three years working for Nevada she wants space.
Working for Augustine himself, however, is a different animal than socializing with him. For one, he’s meticulous with his files to the point of terror. A misplaced modifier or dangling participle in a case note will drive him to distraction. He will push his glasses up into his hair and pour over the documents to correct any errors he finds. It would be charming, if Arabella didn’t know how much extra time he spends at the office because of this weird personality tic. The man has no social life.
She would be less invested in his personal life if it didn’t seem like such a… waste? Augustine is charming in a strangely methodical way and has a sense of humor so dry it’s a Texas summer. He cares about people, or he wouldn’t work so hard to keep Rogan and Nevada as friends. But she never hears about his family, or about a partner, or even a date.
These many questions are too long of a leash for an imagination as active as Arabella’s. She finds herself weaving stories about Augustine’s life outside of work as she works on background for new cases and wraps up old ones. The mystery of his personal life ignites an excitable part of herself, one that she remembers from her younger years. So much of her energy has been spent learning how to control the beast inside of her; she wants a more creative outlet, she supposes.
(Someone should tell her she’s crazy, but she doesn’t talk to anyone about work. Conflict of interest.)
“May I ask you a personal question?” Augustine asks.
From the passenger seat of their rented beige sedan (the most nondescript car they could find), Arabella glances over at him. They’re on a stake-out which has been relatively unfruitful; a (non-magic) software company hired them to find out whether their main engineer is selling secrets to their (magical) competitors. They’ve been watching a Starbucks in the innovation district for an hour; their target has been drinking the same coffee for the same amount of time, looking twitchy at a corner table.
“Sure, why not. This isn’t getting any more fun,” she murmurs, texting their hacker for an update on the engineer’s technological footprint.
He chuckles quietly. “Why haven’t you been paired with another powerful House yet?”
Immediately, her face flushes. She squints at him, crossing her arms over her middle. “You probably know why.”
Shrugging, he keeps his eyes on the target. “Indulge me.”
“Maybe I have a lot of repressed anger about the circumstances and will shift at any second, thus ruining our rental and blowing our cover,” she retorts.
Augustine looks at her then, gaze gentle. “I ask because Nevada worries that you are not happy.”
“You’re a co-worker, not my therapist,” she shoots back.
He shrugs, looking annoyingly perfect, and takes a note on his tablet.
Sighing, Arabella fixes her eyes on the coffee shop façade. Her fingers clench on her thighs, nails digging through the denim of her jeans. It’s a dreary day in Houston, as many October days are. The humidity is wrecking havoc on her hair, pinned up out of the way in a messy bun.
“Genes are important to magic families,” Augustine says after a moment.
“Listen, I don’t need a pep talk,” she says shortly, her temper flaring. Words press on her tongue and fly from her mouth. “I know all about genetics. Scroll Inc. hates having me as an aberration on their DNA database. I think there are Vegas odds on whether anyone will ever ask me to marry them. It’s no better with non-magical dudes, except they tend to just be scared rather than manipulatively curious as to how I could be used as a weapon for their family.”
It’s the most she’s said on the topic in years, maybe. The only person who brings it up directly is Rogan, and that’s because he’s insanely overprotective. He’s threatened to ruin the financial (and physical) lives of many a dumb scion from a high-standing House over the years. She thinks he may have succeeded once or twice. But he also understands in a way Nevada and Catalina can’t; he, too, is the stuff of nightmares for children and adults alike. Unlike Rogan, she isn’t sure she’ll find a partner who can handle what her nightmare scenario is.
Slowly, Augustine reaches over and touches her forearm. It’s a shock of heat even through the thin sleeve of her blouse.
“You’ve met a lot of fools, I think,” he says coolly.
“Slept with most of them,” she mutters. “Who’s the fool then?”
His fingers tighten their grip momentarily. A rush of heat flushes her face.
“They don’t worry about those consequences, then?”
She sighs. “In college, it was part of a fraternity pledge. Sleep with the Beast of Cologne and survive, or something equally fucked-up. Once I found out, I ruined their lives. Rogan helped.”
When she looks at Augustine’s face, she sees a crack in the usual perfection of his mask. Anger twitches his lips, heats his gaze. A shiver runs down her spine.
“That’s intolerable,” he says at last, voice taut.
She shrugs. “This is why I’m just up front about it with everyone,” she says, squinting at the target. He’s got a guest who looks real official but not from his company. She reaches behind her, picks up the camera, and snaps some photos for identification.
“Up front?” he repeats. His hand lingers on her forearm. She can feel every molecule of muscle and bone under his touch.
“I tell all my dates on the first date,” she says distractedly.
“That’s – well – “
Turning her head, she raises her brows. “I don’t need another opinion about this, Augustine. That’s what family is for. Drop it, or I’ll start calling you Gus.”
His mouth twitches into a smile. He pulls his hand away and leans forward in the driver’s seat. “I’m going in to see what I can record.”
“Can you make yourself cross-eyed?” she asks archly.
Rolling his eyes, Augustine slips an illusion over his face and exits the car. Alone, Arabella breathes in and out slowly.
She thinks she can feel an imprint of his hand still.
Right before Thanksgiving, Arabella walks through the lobby of MII in near-darkness. Returning to the office after eight in the evening is usually unpleasant. However, tonight it got her out of a horrible date with a Summoner Significant who Catalina set her up with.
Her sisters always mean well.
When she enters the main office, the only illumination is from Augustine’s personal office. She kicks off her kitten heels, grabs her laptop from her desk, and walks on bare feet into his office, the warm gold glow comforting.
Augustine, looking a bit ragged and weary around the edges, glances up from his computer. “I’m sorry to – “
He trails off, his eyes sweeping her over. His long fingers adjust the fit of his glasses.
Rolling her eyes, she sits down in the chair opposite him and tucks her feet under herself. The A-line skirt of her ocean-blue dress falls about her thighs, the hem hitting over her knees. “Date.”
Removing his glasses, he schools his expression into stillness. She knows that trick by now. “How was it?”
“Not great, Gus,” she mutters.
“It was a blind date, he maybe wanted to do experiments on my DNA to see if he could Summon something like the Beast of Cologne even though he isn’t even Prime, and my sisters are clearly getting desperate to keep me from magic-related spinsterhood,” she says sharply. “It’s embarrassing. I’m a monster. I’m a science project. And I just want to finish this data analysis so I can go home, eat a bunch of ice cream, tough out another night alone, and be fine by tomorrow.”
Augustine remains quiet and motionless during her rant. He never tries to interrupt. She likes that he listens. She likes the fall of his hair over his brow. She wonders if there is any grey in it, under his perfection. She thinks of the touch of his hand over her arm and shivers.
(She does not think about the very vivid dreams she’s been having lately, of which Augustine is the main actor, and it’s all quite naked.)
Finally, after an eon of looking at her in silence, he reaches into the side drawer of his desk and pulls out a half-full bottle of whisky and two short and stubby crystal tumbler glasses. He pours two fingers of the amber liquor into each glass, and hands one to her. She takes it in mute gratefulness and swallows it down in one. The burn of the alcohol wakens her nerves and warms her belly.
“You look beautiful,” he says after finishing his own glass. His mouth is quite serious, his gaze somber. “You always look beautiful. Even when you are a toothy beast. Because it is a part of you. Anyone who knows you would know that.”
Tears smart behind her eyes abruptly. “No one wants to know me. They just know the monster.”
His mouth twists downwards. “It’s their loss, then.”
Their gazes meet across his desk. She sets her glass down, fingers trembling faintly.
Thank you is what she means to say. What comes out is: “Why aren’t you matched up yet?”
Tension appears in the line of his jaw, the corners of his eyes. He blinks but does not avoid her stare. “An opposite problem, perhaps. People are not interested in perfection.”
She snorts. “You’re not perfect.”
A wry smile curves his lips. “Ah, but the appearance is what matters, doesn’t it? No one bothers to get to know what is imperfect about me. Who could really know me, under the illusions that are possible?”
Wetting her lips, Arabella drums her fingers on her laptop mousepad, watching him carefully. She thinks she might want to know him that well. It’s a terrifying and exhilarating thought.
“Well, this is a fucking pity party, huh,” she murmurs.
He laughs softly. “That’s a good color on you, Arabella. You could wear it more often.”
She smiles her thanks and opens the file he wants to review. It is the last of their personal discussion for the evening. In the darkness of her bedroom, later, she relives the words you look beautiful, just as he said it.
(This, is the real beginning of her falling.
She just can’t tell whether it is a fall with a hard ending, or with promise.)