First and last, Yusuf has his magic. And in the wild, twisting eddies of the present chaos, that is the thread that he reaches for. His magic has never been incredibly strong, but it has always been steady. Like a thin, unbreakable filament of yellow gold strung amongst his ribs and spine, threaded through his nerves and veins, webbed into the marrow of his bones and wreathed about his brow like a crown of sunshine.
Joe doesn’t know where he is, or why everything is so...loud, for lack of a better word. So he reaches for his magic, hoping to at the very least steady himself upon its pulse.
But then...there is something, someone...new.
Joe feels a broad, warm palm touch the thin skin of his wrist.
“Joe, my heart, please. No magic for now, the doctors must check you first.”
The voice that speaks is calm, accented, and clearly worried. He thinks that whoever it is is brushing their thumb across his pulse at his wrist back and forth, back and forth. Joe struggles to open his eyes. He manages to get his eyes open just enough to see the fuzzy outline of someone against a white rectangle of light. Everything seems tilted – is he laying down?
There’s noise nearby, beepings and clicks and whirling and something screaming. He feels like he’s moving somehow, rocking back and forth. There’s a sense of frantic movement on his other side, but he doesn’t look away from the hazy outline that has caught his attention.
He needs to get his head clear, but everything feels like it is coming to him on a delay of some kind. Like a bad internet connection, please wait while we buffer. The stray thought makes him smile and he loses track for a moment, just long enough to reach for his magic again, to try and clear things up a little.
“Joe, please. You can’t do that,” the voice comes again, pained. A hand reaches up and brushes over his forehead, with a specific intent more than the desire to soothe and there’s a rush of sound and color across Joe’s mind.
He’s a familiar, Joe realizes distantly. The man is a familiar and he’s smoothing out Joe’s attempts to reach for his magic with his own. The familiar’s magic is...in a word, astounding. Joe doesn’t know how else to describe it. He’s barely coherent and all he can think of is that it feels the way moonlight on the Mediterranean sea looks. Glittering, beautiful, cool, deep, unknowable, and engulfing. It stretches forever in a way Joe has never known before; whoever he is he’s powerful.
The man leans closer as he brushes down Joe’s attempts to tug on the thread of his own magic, and as he does so, for the briefest of seconds, Joe can focus on the man’s face.
He’s lovely. Soft strands of long brown hair frame a noble face. He has a beauty mark near his mouth and the most glorious blue–green eyes Joe has ever seen. He’s also crying.
“You shouldn’t cry,” Joe rasps, and is rather amazed he’s able to speak that thought coherently. The man doesn’t look comforted, but he does seem to muster a small smile in reply.
“You shouldn’t be hurt, my heart,” the man replies.
“Ugh, I do hurt a lot.”
“I’m sorry, my love. We’re almost to the hospital, just hold on a little longer for me.”
“Okay. I can try.”
The man picks up Joe’s hand and presses the back of it to that beautiful mouth. There’s another rush of magic between them. He’s not doing that familiar thing of soothing or building his magic up, just...tangling them together for a little bit. It feels…
Joe doesn’t know. There’s poetry he knows for moments like this, but words seem like frail, brittle cages for something they weren’t meant to hold.
“Thank you, my heart, please just keep trying for me.”
“I think I’d do anything for you,” Joe replies bluntly.
That earns him a watery laugh, which Joe feels like is an incredible accomplishment on his part considering he’s just met this beautiful man.
“You keep calling me your heart,” Joe says.
“That’s because you are, Yusuf. You are the very core of me.”
“Oh, that’s...that’s so nice. I like that.”
The man huffs again. He keeps Joe’s hand pressed against his face, and Joe can feel his tears wet his skin.
“Please don’t cry,” Joe pleads. He doesn’t know why, but this man’s tears just end him. Something vital in his chest, his heart, his magic, his something aches.
“I can’t help it,” the man whispers.
There’s more noise suddenly. Joe realizes all at once that he’s in the back of an ambulance. That’s why he’s rocking, he’s strapped to a gurney and the screaming is actually sirens. There’s someone, an EMT, they’re frantically doing something with his other arm, an IV maybe? There’s frantic beeping that’s rising in volume and the man holding his hand looks away from Joe up above him and whatever he sees makes him pale.
There’s a burst of pain in his head. Gods it feels like his skull is cracking in half. All of the hurts and pain he had been ignoring in favor of the bewitching familiar comes roaring to the forefront. He thinks he screams. He thinks he whimpers.
He knows he blacks out.
Somewhere in between unconsciousness and sleep, Joe feels it again. That rush of familiar magic, soothing down his own golden threads. It’s a wash of glittering electric blue, a color Joe’s not sure he’d ever be able to capture in his paints.
He wants to try. though.
For the first time in a long time, Joe feels like he’d like to try picking up a paintbrush again.
Before he can plan any further than that, the rushing black tangle of oblivion takes him back under.
It’s far too bright in his hospital room.
Joe hasn’t even opened his eyes yet, but he knows that it’s way too bright and that brightness is doing nothing to help the pounding in his head. Fuckin’ hell – what the hell happened last night. He knows he got drunk with Booker, after getting into that screaming match with Keane, but Joe knows he knows better than to drink this much. He’s not a college student anymore.
But well, he can tell he’s in a hospital. The healing magics steeped into the walls are a physical push against his own senses; plus, hospitals have a smell. A very distinct chemical and blood and humans smell that is just unmistakable.
Knowing that he’s not going to get any answers unless he actually goes about the business of properly waking up, Joe reluctantly opens his eyes to greet whatever pickle he’s gotten himself into.
It takes a few blinks to get his eyesight clear and focused. He was right, the room is far too bright; the blinds have been drawn open and it appears to be a rare sunny day in London. He’s a bit perplexed about the weather actually, because he’s fairly certain last night was supposed to be the first of many days of rain, typically October weather. But out the window, it looks a lot like spring. really. The tree tops look green and inviting; even the few clouds lolling about near the horizon look cheerful.
Joe reaches for his magic, wanting to feel that comforting glow while shifting around a bit, testing his limbs. Two things happen in rapid succession. One, his magic leaps eagerly forward, stronger and more vibrant than he’s ever felt it, and he panics, shoving it back down frantically. And two, he realizes that his legs are currently pinned to the bed by a large but compact gray wolf.
The animal immediately stirs when Joe moves and twists to look over its shoulder. Upon finding Joe awake, it startles and practically flings itself off the bed and onto the floor, shifting as it falls. The transition is so smooth, so practiced that when the animal’s paws would have hit the linoleum, a man lands in a crouch instead.
He swiftly stands and whirls around to face Joe, his features lit up with what can only be described as ecstatic relief.
Joe feels like he might still be asleep, or maybe not fully awake yet? Because this beautiful man is now bending forward to cup Joe’s face in his broad, warm palms and Joe can hear the heart monitor going nuts over his shoulder. There’s a glorious rush of magic that winds down through some new window in his mind that was definitely not there before. The magic is foreign, and feels like glittering moonlight on water – electric blue and silver sparks filtering down through his own golden threads in a wave. His magic luxuriates in it; there’s no other way to describe it. The satisfying snick of a key in a lock, or that particular feeling of relief when you kick your shoes off at home after a long day. It’s like all of that, all at once.
“Are you alright? The doctor said you might feel nauseated or dizzy when you woke up. I can fetch a nurse if you need anything.”
“You’re...you’re a familiar,” Joe manages to get out through his surprise and bewilderment. There’s absolutely no mistaking the magic, however. He thinks he might have seen this man before. He has a hazy recollection of someone riding in an ambulance with him?
Seriously, how drunk did he get last night? Where was Booker? Surely, Adele would have cut them off at some point? Joe could have sworn that she’d driven him home and he’d just passed out on his sofa. Maybe someone spiked his drink? Did they call 999 or something?
The beautiful familiar seems thrown by Joe’s comment.
“Joe?” He asks. There’s a growing fear in his eyes, and it immediately cuts into Joe’s heart in a way that feels at once both incredibly real and incredibly foreign.
“I’m...” Joe feels terrified. He feels terrified because he does not know what is going on but he’s starting to realize that something is very wrong and he’s going to have to hurt this beautiful man in order to find out what that is and oh fuck. “I’m sorry, but, who are you?”
Joe gets a front row seat to what heartbreak looks like on this man’s face.
The beautiful man drops his hands from Joe’s face instantly, and his skin feels colder without his touch.
“I’m Nicky,” Nicky says woodenly. “I’m...I’m your familiar.”
“I have a familiar?”
“I...don’t remember you.”
Nicky swallows thickly, Joe sees his throat bob with it, and there’s a little shudder that goes through his limbs as he just sort of falls into the seat next to Joe’s bed like his strings have been cut. The chair is pressed right up next to the bed, so Nicky is able to almost blindly reach out and slap a hand over the nurse call button. A little light on the board over Joe’s bed turns a cheerful orange.
“What...what’s the last thing you remember?” Nicky asks hoarsely.
Joe double checks in with his brain for a moment, and yep, no new updates there.
“Uh, getting drunk at a bar with my friend Booker.”
There’s a twitch at the corner of Nicky’s mouth, something like a smile, but abandoned before it can fully form. A muscle in his cheek jumps.
“You’re going to need to be a little more specific. You don’t get drunk with Booker often anymore, but it still happens on occasion. Especially when Arsenal wins.”
It’s weird how a little throw away comment like that can put so much of Joe at ease. Sure, knowing he hates Arsenal is pretty easy, but it’s a comfort to know that the man is aware of that much. Even if the idea of him being Joe’s familiar is still...incomprehensible.
“Uh, we’d just seen that new movie, the one with the aliens visiting Earth and showing the main characters their futures – Arrival?”
Nicky stares blankly, and then pulls his phone out of a pocket and clearly is googling when Arrival came out.
That...doesn’t bode well.
Sure enough, Nicky pales when he sees whatever results are displayed on his device.
“So, I’m guessing it’s not 2016 anymore?” Joe asks, his voice small.
Nicky looks up, an entire novel of words, thoughts and feelings in his gaze.
“Joe,” the man begins like he’s afraid of how Joe is going to react. “It’s 2021.”
The door to the room swings open and a nurse comes in, dressed in cheerful yellow scrubs and a matching surgical mask, carrying a tablet of some kind.
“Oh excellent! You’re awake!”
“It’s 2021?!” Joe demands of her. She stutters to a halt.
“Oh dear. I’ll go find a doctor.”
In the end, Joe calls Booker.
Turns out since Joe doesn’t have his wallet on him, and Nicky only has his own ID, nothing of Joe’s, the hospital takes Joe’s declaration that he doesn’t know who Nicky is seriously and ushers the protesting familiar out of the room.
“Just a precaution,” the nurse explains kindly, as she pulls the chair Nicky had been sitting in away from the bedside and returns it to its lonely corner by the window a couple of feet away. “I’m sure once your friend arrives we can get this whole thing sorted out.”
“Why are the police here?” Joe asks, because he saw a couple of uniformed officers talking to Nicky right before the door to his room had shut.
“Well,” the nurse begins, but then pauses a moment like she’s unsure how much she should divulge. Joe turns on the puppy eyes, knowing they almost never fail him.
“You and your familiar were attacked last night, Mr. al-Kaysani,” the nurse explains in a rush. “The police took his statement already. Once you woke up, we sent an alert to them too. I’m sure they have questions for you as well.”
“I don’t remember anything,” Joe points out.
“Well, they’ll want to hear that from you first, I imagine. And then likely the doctor.”
“Do you know why we were attacked?”
The nurse shakes her head, but her eyes say something else. He’s about to ask her again, when the door swings open and there stands Booker.
“Are you Mr. le Livre?” the nurse asks. Booker just wordlessly nods. Joe stares at him. The nurse ushers Booker over to the chair she tidied earlier, and he reluctantly sits. “I’ll give you two a moment alone. The doctor should be here momentarily.”
She leaves, and Joe barely pays attention. He’s too busy staring at his best friend.
Sebastien looks terrible. He looks like someone scraped him up out of a gutter, and then assembled him incorrectly on his feet. He slouches in the chair, listing to one side. His eyes are bloodshot; his hair is greasy and too long. His clothes don’t fit and he reeks of alcohol.
“What…is happening?” Joe croaks, because that’s the only somewhat tactful way he can think to speak this question without demanding to know if Booker is dying.
Booker licks his lips and his eyes seem to dart around the room nervously. He’ll look at Joe, but only for a second, before looking elsewhere.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” Booker asks, his voice a thin rasp. Nothing like the quick, clever, and witty witch that lives in Joe’s memory.
“2016, apparently,” Joe answers shortly. “You, me, Adele, and Keane went and saw Arrival. Keane and I started a debate about the nature of language that very quickly devolved into a screaming match. He left. You and I got drunk in a bar and Adele drove me home ‘cause your wife’s a saint. I passed out on my couch determined to break up with Keane in the morning because you’re absolutely right, he treats me like shit.”
Joe watches as Booker takes this in and his face processes through several thoughts in rapid succession that he can only guess at. It looks like shock, fear, and then deep, unending sadness. Just like with Nicky, Joe’s forced to watch his friend’s heartbreak in real time and it’s awful. Fuckin’ hell, 2021 fucking sucks.
“Did Nicky tell you anything?”
“You know Nicky?”
Booker scoffs a little. “Of course I know Nicky, Joe. He’s your husband.”
“I’m married?! ” Joe yelps, his eyes immediately going to his left hand to check for a ring. He’s not wearing one, but there’s the faint beginnings of a tan line there.
Nothing makes sense. Absolutely nothing.
“I don’t understand!” Joe practically wails. “When? How? And he’s my familiar too? Since when do I have a familiar? Why on earth would a familiar bond with me? How am I married?!”
Booker isn’t cracking a sudden grin and shouting out April Fools! He’s not announcing that Joe’s being pranked. He’s doing nothing but avoiding Joe’s gaze.
Joe is starting to think this may be a dream. A bizarre, strange fever dream. He's not here; he's actually drooling unconscious on his couch in an alcohol induced haze, imagining a world in which instead of that asshole Keane, he's married to a stunning, supermodel slash extremely powerful familiar. As if familiars like that bonded with no name, no coven, unremarkable hedge witches from nowhere.
"I'm delusional. Great. I've snapped. Keane has driven me to madness."
"You're not dreaming or delusional."
"Lies. In what world would one: a man that hot decide to date me, and two: a familiar that powerful bond with a nearly non–magical witch like me?"
"This one," Booker deadpans. "Joe, I'm being completely serious. The two of you are so well matched it's honestly annoying."
Joe levels a finger at Sebastien.
"If I was lucky enough to share a love and bond with that man it would be beautiful and tender. Not annoying."
"It's all three, actually."
Joe just gapes at him a little. The feeling of the world being off its axis isn’t getting any better. In fact, with every word Booker says, it just seems to be getting worse.
“So what you're saying is that in this year of 2021, five years into the future, I'm bonded, happily married and....what? What am I even doing? What's my job? Oh gods please tell me I'm not still working for Merrick? Did I break up with Keane like I said I would? Shit, that probably made work supremely awkward."
“Joe, this –” Booker seems to censor himself, which is just so strange. Joe and Booker haven’t felt the need to censor themselves around each other for years. Since the early days of sharing a dorm at college. The other man rubs a tired hand over his face. “You really should be talking to Nicky about this stuff.”
Joe frowns. "Why can't I talk to you?"
"What about if I called Quynh?"
Trepidation is crawling up the back of Joe's neck. There is something else going on here. More than whatever has fucked his friend over, more than whatever has landed Joe in the hospital. There’s something else, and Joe is suddenly, all at once, frightened.
"Sebastien," Joe says. "Why can't I talk to you."
Booker sighs, presses his hands against his face, and shudders a little.
"We're...not speaking right now."
"I did something stupid a few months ago."
"So stupid that...I stopped talking to you? That's...hard to believe. You're my best friend."
Booker flinches again, this time like Joe hit him. Anxiety joins the trepidation. There's very, very few things that Booker could do that Joe would find unforgivable. Very few.
The pair of them stare at each other. Joe doesn’t know what his face looks like, but it is clearly doing something to Booker because the man suddenly stands up, and for lack of a better word flees towards the hospital room door, leaving Joe gaping like a fish at his back.
“Booker!” Joe calls after him, but Booker doesn’t slow.
The Frenchman wrenches the door open and goes to storm out, but is brought up short by the sight of the beautiful Nicky standing on the other side of the door, leaning up against the wall. There’s a uniformed police officer talking to him who also looks up when the door opens.
“Sebastien,” Nicky says, and there is clearly so much layered in the name. Joe doesn’t know how Nicky manages to say so much in three syllables, but it’s practically a dissertation. Booker freezes mid–step and all his furious momentum just drains out of him.
The uniformed officer looks back and forth between the two of them for a moment, and then seems to decide that whatever is happening is not her problem because she leans around Booker’s hulking form to meet Joe’s eyes.
“Mr. al-Kaysani, it’s good to see you awake. Would you mind if you and I spoke for a few minutes alone?”
“Um,” Joe says intelligently. His eyes bounce back and forth between his best friend and potential betrayer and this gorgeous stranger and potential husband. “I guess? I’m not sure how much help I’m going to be. My most recent memory is from 2016.”
The officer winces in sympathy and slides around Booker to come into the room. Booker, probably on auto–pilot, steps out of her way and into the hallway. Meaning that she can nudge the door shut behind her, leaving...whatever that interaction is on the other side and out of sight.
“I’m Celeste Lavigne. I was one of the officers that responded to the scene of the attack last night.” She tugs the doctor’s wheeled stool out from under the table on the wall by the door and rolls it over. She sits down and takes a notebook out of the breast pocket of her uniform, followed by a plastic evidence bag from her jacket. She hands the bag over to Joe.
“We found your wallet at the scene. I’ve been cleared to return it to you.”
Joe ignores her in favor of shaking the wallet from the bag immediately and flipping it open. It’s new, he can tell that instantly. It’s also nice. The leather is supple, and soft, and it has his initials stamped on one corner. His ID greets him first, also new, issued just a couple of years ago in 2019. Seeing it on ‘paper’ so to speak does something to his heart, and Sergeant Lavigne gives a somewhat nervous glance at the heart monitor that is picking up on the increased pace. The address on the ID is new as well. He apparently lives in Golders Green now, which, okay, he knows nothing about that area but at least it’s closer to the city center than where he’d been before. If he is still working at Merrick’s that’s a shorter commute.
There’s some pounds, which he ignores, his bank card, still the same bank at least. He’s got his Oyster card, new design, it looks worse; his card for his gym, and a credit card he doesn’t recognize. There’s some store credit for some thrift book shop he’s never heard of, folded up in one of the pockets, a loyalty card for a local coffee shop, he’s two punches away from a free breakfast item; and in the very back of the wallet, tucked away – is a somewhat dog–eared picture. It’s little, like it was cut off of a strip of one of those novelty photo booth sets.
It’s him and the Nicky that he woke up to find at his bedside. Nicky is looking at the camera, but his eyes are half closed while he laughs. His eyes crinkle adorably when he smiles. Joe is there, pressed against him, giving him a kiss on his cheek. Joe in the picture is also laughing.
They look happy. They look so happy it’s like they glow.
When he looks up at the Sergeant, realizing he’s been ignoring her this whole time. She’s holding out a box of tissues. Joe is startled to find that he’s actually crying. His face is wet with tears, and they’re dripping on to his patient gown. He quickly stashes the picture away in the wallet to protect it, and takes a tissue from the box.
“Sorry,” he says, for lack of anything else to say.
“Don’t be,” she says with a kind smile. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I’ll keep my questions quick, okay?”
Joe picks at the blanket with one hand nervously but nods.
“Great,” she says, and flips open her notebook. Joe notices that she doesn’t have a pen or pencil anywhere. “Okay so, as I understand it, you have no memories of the recent past at all?”
“Correct,” Joe answers. “The last thing I remember is getting drunk with my friend Sebastien le Livre after seeing a movie with him, his wife, and my boyfriend. Or, I guess now my ex–boyfriend?”
Joe watches, enraptured, as a beautiful script appears on the pages of her notebook. It glows a lovely dark shade of green while it writes itself, and then fades to plain black, looking for all the world like normal ink.
“That’s amazing!” He says, grinning at her. She smiles.
“It’s useful when I’m doing interviews, that’s for sure,” she replies. “It’s nothing like what you do.”
Yusuf looks at her, startled.
“What...I can do?”
She blinks back at him, confused.
“Yes, with your art?”
Joe just slowly shakes his head at her.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh,” she says. “I didn’t realize that you had started your business so recently. I assumed you’d been doing it for much longer, given the quality of your work.”
The officer nods at the wallet that is still in his lap. There’s a few business cards tucked into it that Joe had originally ignored – figuring they were just detritus that he’d picked up here or there. But upon closer inspection, Joe realizes that they’re all the same and they’re all his. The graphic design is clearly his own, he knows his own style well enough, even if it’s been a couple of years since he’s done anything creative. On the card it says: Creature Comforts, has his name, and the word “Owner,” followed by contact details.
“I...don’t have any memory of this, so I guess it’s something I figure out after 2016.” Joe says absently, running a finger over the embossed design reverently. The sergeant nods her head.
He looks up at her.
“Can you tell me what happened to put me in here?” he asks. “I think I’d like to hear it from a neutral party if that’s okay.”
“That’s fine, sir.” She flips back in her notebook a couple of pages and checks some notes she took previously.
“The emergency call came in just before midnight last night, reports of an altercation involving several persons. Witnesses claimed that a group of men, in dark clothing, were attacking a same–sex couple. Police were immediately dispatched.
“Upon arrival at the scene, several of the attackers were already unconscious, having suffered from severe magical overload. Your familiar and husband, Nicolò al–Kaysani, was conscious, and alert. He told police that you and he had been attacked by the group and that they employed magic in an attempt to subdue you both. The two of you fought back, using your skills as a bonded pair and were able to repel them. However, in the ensuing fight you were knocked down and took a blow to the head from one of the assailants. You were taken into care by emergency medical personnel and your husband was sent to the hospital with you. The assailants were all arrested and are still being held in custody.”
She ends there and looks up at him. Joe finds the entire experience more than a bit rattling. Her direct testimony helps, though, it’s a bit like listening to a story told about someone else.
“Why were we attacked?” Joe asks.
The sergeant closes her notebook.
“Greed, I’m afraid. I’m not sure if someone has told you this yet, but this is the second time you and your husband have been targeted for your abilities. You are not only a bonded magical pair, but you are both quite powerful in your own rights. There are several groups that are extremely interested in...acquiring your cooperation for their projects, or for their own research. Especially your familiar.”
“He’s strong,” Joe croaks, clenching a fist in his sheets. He may not remember the past five years, but the touch of that man’s familiar magic was just...awe inspiring.
“He is,” the officer agrees. “And like I said, it’s made you both something of a target.”
Joe knows that people with magical abilities, especially ones that could be turned to nefarious purposes, are always at risk of being targets for kidnappings or coercion. But to have gotten to the point in his own abilities where he’s considered a target is just a concept he cannot grasp. Like so much of his present life, it would seem. His magic lies coiled under his skin, threaded through every muscle and bone like it normally is – but it just feels so much stronger than he remembers. Is that Nicky’s influence? Or did he do that himself with practice? Was it both?
“What happens next?”
“We will continue to investigate. The suspects that were arrested were clearly hired by someone. They will be charged with the actual assault of course, as well as the more serious attempted kidnapping, but we will try to find out who their employer is and nab them as well. When you regain your memories, we would appreciate you letting us know so we can get a statement from you as well. We’ve also assigned some patrols to do regular checks at your home. Just in case.”
“Okay,” Joe says absently. He opens his mouth to ask about the first attack when suddenly they’re both distracted by growing shouting just outside the door. Whatever discussion Nicky and Booker were having has devolved into shouting in – wait, is that Italian?
Joe is startled to find that yes, that is indeed Italian, and stranger still, he understands it.
“For gods’ sake! You're the only one he trusts right now! Quynh and Andy won't be back from Greece until tomorrow and they still have to quarantine for two weeks!"
"You think after he finds out what I did he'll want me anywhere near either of you?" Booker demands hotly.
"Yes! I do actually!"
"Are you insane?!"
"I'm not crazy, I just know Joe! And he's feeling very lost right now, and again, you're the only one he trusts. He deserves to know what happened these past few years and it will be easier and better for him if it comes from YOU!"
"Gentlemen!" A third voice, unfamiliar, breaks in. "This is a hospital. Lower your voices or take it outside. Immediately."
The volume instantly drops, and Joe can no longer make out what they are saying. But the voice Joe can now recognize as Nicky’s even at a murmur says something forcefully and a moment later the door swings open to admit a sheepish looking Booker with Nicky right on his heels.
“Do you need a few more minutes?” Booker asks, and he looks almost hopeful. The sergeant raises a skeptical eyebrow at him.
“I think we’re good here, actually. Thank you for your time, Mr. al–Kaysani. I wish you a speedy recovery. Your husband has my contact information. Please call when you’re feeling better and we can get your statement as well, alright?”
“Yes, thank you Sergeant Lavigne,” Joe says automatically, his manners taking over while he stares intently at his best friend who has once again gone back to looking at anything in the room but Joe. The officer stands up and nods to Nicky who quietly thanks her too. When she leaves, she shuts the door behind her.
The three of them all stare at one another, until finally Nicky just sighs and so much of the tension and eagle–eyed stare he’d been maintaining drops off. The man sits on the abandoned stool and runs a weary hand through his hair.
“Now what?” Booker asks.
Nicky looks up at Booker in exasperation.
“Am I allowed to talk to you now?” Joe snarks, still feeling hurt that Booker had attempted to run out on him.
Booker looks up at the ceiling in clear supplication before walking around Joe’s bed and sitting back down in his abandoned chair.
Joe’s got a creative imagination. He’s an artist, it’s a given. But the tale that comes tumbling out of Booker is nothing he would have thought of. Not even if given a thousand years to dream it up.
Joe’s got a fist full of used tissues clenched in his fist as he cries quietly, unable to suppress the sobs that well up from his chest. Booker is holding his other hand, his forehead pressed against it and is doing nothing but breathing raggedly. Nicky has got tears in his eyes too, and has wheeled his stool over closer to the bed. He hasn’t reached out and touched either of them, but Joe can tell he desperately wants to.
“I can’t...believe she’s gone.” Joe chokes. And he can’t. To him, he saw Adele yesterday. Yesterday. She had helped him up to his flat and let him collapse on his couch. She brought him water, and paracetamol, and kissed his forehead like he was a child. She was... right there. He can’t even remember if he thanked her. Joe knows that he must have, that in reality, Adele had taken her husband home that night and continued to live her life for another year. That he saw her again after that, had laughed with her, probably bought her a drink or two, had dragged her out to the opera because Booker refused to go but they both loved it. He knows all of that. But that’s not what it feels like.
It feels like he watched her leave his apartment last night, and now she’s just...dead?
There's so much else he has to parse but he just can't. Joe knows it's important, Booker's depression after losing his wife and familiar; the times he lashed out at Joe because Joe was in the midst of starting a relationship with Nicky when Adele had died, Booker volunteering to participate in a study Joe's old boss Merrick was conducting on broken witch/familiar bonds, that Booker knowingly divulged to the researchers, that his friend Joe, their former employee, had recently bonded with a prodigiously strong familiar from an unbroken genetic line of them – a true rarity.
That Merrick had sent Keane, Joe's old boyfriend, hurtling back into their lives with the express purpose of trying to get both Joe and Nicky to participate in the study. And when asking nicely hadn't worked, and when harassment hadn't worked, they'd tried kidnapping.
Thankfully that too hadn't worked. But Nicky got hurt, badly, and was only just now approaching proper recovery.
"I don't understand," Joe says. He keeps holding on to his friend, though. "Why would you do that?"
"I don't know," Booker rasps in broken French. "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know."
"You need help, Book."
Booker just mutely shakes his head. Joe yanks on his friend's hand, hard, forcing him to stop hiding behind them and actually look at him.
"You're going to get help. You hear me? You're gonna sign up for counseling, today."
"It won't help."
"And what? Destroying your liver is?"
"It makes me feel better."
"No," Joe says, and lets himself be a little vicious. "It just makes you feel nothing at all. Which is probably how you were able to first: sell yourself as an experimental subject and then second: turn around and sell your friends as well."
Booker looks away, his face defeated.
"Therapy, counseling, something. Today. Fuck, actually, how about right now. We're in a hospital, there's got to be therapists around."
"I'm sure Joe's doctor could recommend an excellent therapist," Nicky says. Joe turns to look at him.
The man has been mostly quiet for this conversation, letting Booker do most of the explaining and only clarifying a couple of points on the timeline. He looks exhausted and there are dark circles under his eyes.
"We'll ask when they get here. In the meantime, can someone please fill me in on what is so special about your lineage that you'd have magical and pharmacology researchers willing to commit kidnapping?"
Nicky actually grimaces, his jaw working as though he's swallowed something unpleasant. Booker just looks relieved to be out of the hot seat.
"I took your name when we married," Nicky begins. Joe nods encouragingly.
"My family name is Di Genova."
There's a long, empty pause while Joe waits for someone, anyone, to announce that Nicky is joking.
"You're...one of the Di Genovas."
"One of the oldest unbroken lines of familiars in the world, going back to before 1100 AD. One of those Di Genovas?"
Nicky looks resigned and just nods.
"And you bonded with me? Why?"
Nicky stares at Joe with a look he doesn't know how to interpret.
"Because I wanted to," is all he says in reply.
There's a knock at the door and someone in a white lab coat pushes it open.
"Gods above, below, and in–between, please tell me you have good news," Joe implores of the woman standing there with a clipboard and a surgical mask. Joe feels overworked and raw. All he wants is for her to tell him he can go home.
Which, fuck, home isn't home, home is apparently in Golders Green according to his ID. He better own a couch that's good for lying face down on and screaming into, otherwise what's the fucking point.
"Well, yes, actually I do." She replies, walking into the room fully and shutting the door behind her. "The swelling in your brain has gone down. We're going to be discharging you in a couple of hours – that's the good news."
"What about his memory loss?" Nicky asks.
"I’ve double checked his scans from last night. For right now, there's nothing we can do to treat that. We have to let your head wound continue to heal. In all likelihood, your memories will start to filter back over the course of the next several days. Once you're healed up, and if you're still having problems, we can start considering other options, like sending you to a specialist.
"In the meantime, I have your discharge instructions to go over, and before we begin could I ask please that the two of you put on your masks? I'm grateful you're maintaining social distancing, but I would feel more comfortable if you wore them."
"Oh, of course, I apologize," Nicky says immediately and to Joe's incredible confusion both Nicky and Booker pull out what look like cloth versions of surgical masks and put them on their faces. Nicky's has a frankly adorable design with cartoon plants on it. Booker's has what looks like the opening paragraph of Pride and Prejudice in a nice script on his.
"What the hell?" Joe asks. All three look at him startled. And then all three sort of have the same look of horror and realization, though it's somewhat obscured by their masks.
"I take it no one has told him about the pandemic?" The doctor asks.
Yusuf's aunties used to call him Baby Xanax because of his gift.
Witches aren't common, but they aren't rare either. Their appearance in the background population is about the same as ambidexterity, perhaps one percent of the total population. No one has been able yet to isolate the part of the human genome that triggers magic in some, but there's a lot of money these days going into studies to find it.
Some magical gifts are simple, or maybe functionally useful (like the sergeant and her ability to dictate her notes), some are entertaining (Joe once knew a woman in college who could mimic any bird call, even the ones that normal human throats had no chance of copying), some are terrible burdens, some are awe inspiring (in World War II there was a British officer who could conjure fire storms), and some are just nuisances. Whatever you are born with, however, that's what you get. There's no learning another talent, only becoming better at what you already have, or finding new and creative ways to employ it.
Yusuf's talent lies with his emotions. He's a bit like the opposite of an empath; instead of feeling other people's feelings, he can sort of push his own to the surface of his skin.
All of his aunties would bring him their fussy babies, and Joe could carry them for a few minutes and for lack of a better description, shine a better mood into them.
It's not very strong. Anyone can brush it off, or even just flat out ignore it. He can't charm or hypnotize anyone. And he's never been able to push it beyond himself. All in all, it's a handy trick for when his friends are feeling down or panicked, and not much else.
Familiars are a whole other thing. Technically, they're witches too; their magic is magic. But unlike people like Yusuf, they all have the same gift: the ability to make another magic user's gift stronger or weaker; to stoke it higher or snuff it out. Because of the former, they are highly sought after, and because of the latter they were highly oppressed for much of history. Once they are bonded with a witch, they can only affect the magic of their bondmate. It means that in the past, the race to capture and claim a familiar was a vicious and bloody one. Wars have been waged for want of a single familiar.
It doesn’t help that they’re so rare. Joe doesn't know the exact ratio, but he knows it's definitely small. It’s so small that familiars are often sequestered once they are discovered, hidden away and protected by their family. For lineages like Nicky’s, Joe doesn’t even want to imagine what his childhood was like. It must have been...isolated, at the very least.
That is what Joe thinks about as he follows Nicky up to what he assumes must be their home in Golders Green, after the taxi had deposited them on the quiet street of semi–detached row houses. It has a nice little front area for a car, though it appears they don't own one, and a tiny postage–stamp–sized yard below the stoop where Joe can only assume Nicky (because Joe is well aware of his limitations with growing plants) has planted a few flowering bushes. Their front door is an eye–catching, cheerful yellow – the exact shade that Joe always wanted to paint the front door of his dream home.
It's a weird feeling, seeing aspects of a dream dearly held laid out before you, a thing achieved, but also unearned. Nicky unlocks the door and Joe follows him in.
The weird feeling only intensifies, a bizarre combination of nostalgia, excitement, and imposter syndrome. That is his glass bowl on the entryway table into which Nicky drops his keys and wallet. Joe doesn’t recognize any of the specific shoes in the basket underneath where they both kick their shoes off, but he recognizes his sense of style in a couple of the pairs. That's his denim jacket hanging on a peg, and his rainbow pocket umbrella.
"Are you feeling hungry?" Nicky asks softly. He flips some switches and the living room beyond the hallway lights up, as well as the kitchen off to the left.
"No, I'm actually feeling kinda exhausted. Which is weird. I spent most of the day unconscious."
"Unconscious isn't the same thing as resting, habibi," Nicky says, absently, and it sounds like a quote. He tries not to startle at the affectionate pet name.
"Who said that?" Joe asks. Nicky clenches his jaw for a moment and then answers in an impressively neutral tone.
"You did, actually. To me, a few weeks ago."
"After you got hurt?"
"Yes. If you're tired, then let's get you into bed for some proper sleep. Do you want to shower first?"
“Yea, that sounds amazing.”
“Okay, the bathroom’s, um, it’s just,” Nicky stutters. He then sighs, runs one hand through his long hair with a tired swipe and looks at Joe levelly. “I have no idea how to do this, but I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable or weird.”
“I’m not sure that’s...possible? At least, the weird part. This whole thing feels deeply, deeply weird to me.”
“Can you be more specific?”
"It’s just, okay, my stuff: I can clearly tell this place has got my stuff in it. I can see my books on that shelf over there,” Joe gestures to the shelf in the living room. “So I’ve got an emotional tie to the things, but not the place? So it all just feels really weird. You’re not doing anything bad, this is just a weird situation.”
Nicky nods as he listens attentively.
“Alright. I can’t...really do anything about the stuff and the place. Is there anything I can do to make you feel less weird overall?”
“Just, be honest with me? I’m not...I can’t read you,” Joe explains, and he feels bad about it. Because while he can’t read Nicky, he can tell that Nicky’s used to Joe being able to. And that loss has got to be jarring for him. “I can’t tell what you’re feeling, only that you’re definitely feeling something.”
Nicky quirks a small smile at the corner of his mouth. Joe wonders for a moment if everyone notices the little minute changes in Nicky’s face or if his eyes are just trained to check those small places.
“I can do that,” Nicky says. He takes in a deep breath, fiddles with something at his wrist, and then seems to sort of unfold and relax. His shoulders drop and Joe now realizes just how tensely the man was holding himself.
“The only shower in the house is in our bathroom.” Nicky explains, returning the conversation to the previous topic, a little more at ease now.
He turns and gestures for Joe to follow him, which he does. They pass through the living room, and Joe gets just enough time to glance at the collection of pictures on the shelves, pictures of him and this man in various places around the world, before they’re entering the bedroom.
The room is, in a word, comfort. Lots of soft textures, soft colors, and minimal clutter. Joe’s body must recognize the space on some level, because Joe already feels a little more at ease. The bed is large, and presently covered in light green sheets and a couple of fluffy pillows. There’s two bedside tables, one by the window on the far wall, and the other near the bathroom door that’s standing open. Both have a couple of books stacked on them, and before Joe can try guessing at which is his based on the titles, Nicky is flicking the light on in the bathroom and Joe is utterly distracted by the large, clawfoot tub dominating the tiled room.
“Oh wow,” is all Joe can say when faced with it. “Please tell me we use that all the time.”
Nicky chuckles, opening the cabinet under the sink and nods while taking out some fresh towels.
“We do. It was one of the top five reasons we picked this place.”
“Was it my number one?”
Joe’s about to ask for his number one reason, but he gets distracted again, this time by a collection of black and white photos hanging on the wall next to the bathroom door. The pictures are of their wedding. Both he and Nicky are in sharply tailored suits. There’s a picture in the center of the collection that is of himself, Nicky, Quynh, Booker, and two women he doesn’t know. They’re all grinning happily at the camera.
“How did we meet?” Joe asks, suddenly absolutely burning to know.
Nicky looks up from where he’s setting a washcloth on top of the folded towels. He walks over and takes a look at the wedding pictures.
“We met because of your business.”
“Yes, did Booker tell you about it?”
Joe shakes his head.
“No. I found one of my business cards in my wallet.”
“I didn’t know you before you had it, so this is me telling you what you told me,” Nicky begins. “But you told me that you’d never really been able to manifest your abilities outside of your body before. And then one day, you decided to make a friendship bracelet for Adele. You told me it was because she had mentioned in passing missing exchanging them with her girl friends when she was younger. You made her one and it was sort of an accidental discovery but you were able to sort of, imbue the bracelet with that feeling of friendship and love you had for Adele.
“You said you thought it was because you were working with threads, which is how your magic appears to you, that maybe it was easier to do because of that connection. But after that you tried it again with different feelings, contentment, happiness, joy, peace, calm, things like that. And it worked really well, so you started giving them away as gifts, and then selling them. I happened to buy one.”
Nicky holds up his left wrist and tugs up the cuff of his shirt. He’s wearing a macrame friendship bracelet, and Joe realizes this was what he had been fiddling with before. The bracelet is lovely; it has a simple chevron pattern with golden yellow and pale blue thread.
“We met when you bought it?”
“Not this one specifically, but yes, back then you were selling them in person at a local crafts fair. You hadn’t opened your online shop yet. I was traveling through London at the time. After my family kicked me out, I didn’t have any way to really protect myself from...overzealous witches, let’s call them. So I had to keep moving from place to place.”
“But you stayed in London?”
“I have a friend here, Andy,” Nicky points to one of the women that Joe didn’t recognize in the center photo. “She works for a non–profit for abuse victims and survivors. After she found out about my family, and that whole debacle, she insisted on helping me. I was finally able to settle in one place thanks to her, and her connections and resources. I work for her now, too; I manage the charity arm of her organization.”
“Who asked who out?” Joe asks.
Nicky smiles at him, not a small half smile, but a real, warm one.
“You asked me.”
“You weren’t suspicious of me? I’m a witch. I could have been angling to take advantage of your powers?”
“You didn’t know what I was when you asked me out. By that point I had gotten very good at hiding,” Nicky explains. “And I…” He blushes. “I really liked your smile.”
Joe is grinning now, he can’t help it. Something about seeing Nicky bashful is making him feel such pleasure. Nicky sees it on him, because of course he does; he’s his husband, isn’t he?
Oh gods, they are married. They really are. Joe knew this, but it’s only just now properly hitting him.
“Quit it, yes, you’re hot stuff,” Nicky teases, and for a moment Joe feels perfectly at ease. His magic swells in his skin, the golden strands lighting up so much that he feels like he has to be glowing like a road flare. But just like in the hospital, the surprising rush startles and scares him so he shoves it all back down – and the feeling of rightness dims.
Joe drops the smile, and while Nicky doesn’t shut down entirely, his own warm smile vanishes and they’re strangers again.
“You should shower. Take your time, okay? Call if you start feeling dizzy or anything.”
“I will,” Joe promises, and he means it. The absolutely last thing he wants to do is fall, hit his head again, and then maybe forget another five years of his life.
“While you’re in there, I’ll get my things and set myself up on the couch.”
“Wait, I don’t want to displace you, um, I could sleep on the couch? Do we not have a spare room?” Joe asks in confusion. The house had certainly looked large enough from the outside to at least have one spare room. Plus there was a staircase near the door; there had to be more rooms up there.
“We do,” Nicky answers. “But these walls are pretty thick, I wouldn’t hear you if you needed something.”
Joe stares at him.
“Nicky, you don’t have to cram yourself on the couch just because of me.”
“You’re forgetting something.”
“I don’t have to sleep like this,” Nicky gestures to himself with an encompassing sweep of his hand. “In my other form, the couch is perfectly comfortable. Decadent even.”
Joe chuckles at that, surprised. He looks at Nicky for a long moment, and Nicky just patiently bears up under the scrutiny.
“Even if I convinced you to sleep in the guest room, you’d just come downstairs at some point and sleep on the couch anyways, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes,” Nicky replies.
Joe sighs, wonders for a moment what 2021 him would have done to convince Nicky to sleep upstairs and be comfortable, and then realizes that’s a futile question. If he had all his memories, Nicky would be sleeping with him, no question. Joe considers telling Nicky to just sleep in the bed with him, but discards that idea, knowing that if he did, and even if Nicky agreed, Joe probably wouldn’t sleep. He’d be up all night wondering about the man sleeping just inches away from him. About their life together, about the activities they get up to in said bed.
“Alright,” Joe concedes. “I don’t think I’m going to win this one. However,” and here Joe pokes Nicky gently in the chest with one finger. “You should keep in mind that when I do get all my memories back, I’m gonna remember all this too. And I’ll bet I’m going to want to have words with you, mister.”
Nicky catches Joe’s finger with his hands and with his eyes on Joe the entire time, looking for even the slightest hint of reluctance, presses a dry, chaste kiss to his fingers.
“I look forward to it,” is all he says. Then he slides around Joe and leaves the room.
Joe looks at his hand. His skin doesn’t look any different, but it feels like it should. A rush of goosebumps starts at his shoulders and then rolls down both arms in a wave. He shudders, and tries to shake the pins and needles out of his hand.
It doesn’t work. He feels the press of Nicky’s lips on his skin like a sweet, tantalizing brand for the rest of the night.
Joe is dreaming. He knows it and he doesn't care right now. Not when he's getting fucked in the most luxurious, delicious manner by someone who's lovingly draped over his back. Joe is face down on the bed, his legs are spread wide, knees pushing down so that his ass is tilted up just a bit, making it that much easier for the other man to press right up against him, barely withdrawing before rolling forward, like a wave to press in so tight and close. He feels split open, cored out in the way he loves; wrapped intimately around his lover while his lover wraps himself around Joe.
Joe opens his eyes and everything is hazy, gossamer; he thinks he sees the strands of his own magic hanging in the air, beaded with these lovely little sparks of electric blue and silver light. It looks like stars, threaded upon the firmament of sunbeams. It's stunningly beautiful.
The man fucking him swivels his hips against Joe's ass and the press against his prostate is mind–blowing. One of the man's hands is pressed against the back of Joe's, their fingers laced tight, holding fast. They're both wearing matching wedding rings.
"Yusuf, my love," Nicky's voice is a hoarse, desperate whisper, lips moving against the shell of his ear. He's covered in goosebumps, and a shudder rips through him starting at his chest and overtaking his body in a rush he can feel pass through his veins.
"I'm close," Joe whimpers, because he is, dear gods, he is. He's rocking unsteadily on the precipice of what is promising to be a fucking magnificent orgasm and Nicky is nudging his prostate, trying to tip him over it.
Nicky moans, and doubles his efforts. The light hanging around them intensifies. Joe turns his head a little and Nicky presses his forehead to his temple, panting against his cheek.
Joe snaps awake, lurching forward in the bed, disoriented at being able to sit up when he was just lying face down. The light sheet tangles around his waist as he shifts, and the fabric pulls tight against his groin. He's painfully aroused, the sheet is damp against the head of his dick and the drag is sweet fucking torture. He quickly jams the heel of his hand in his mouth, just in time to muffle a whimper.
He doesn't think he's been this aroused or desperate for years. Or hell, considering his present circumstances, maybe it was last week. If Nicky actually fucks anything like he does in his dreams, Joe's amazed they ever leave the bedroom.
Joe tries to deepen and even out his breathing. It's tempting to just reach down and take care of the issue but he can't bring himself to do it. It's like he knows it would only be a disappointing finish to a fantasy that's just not attainable on his own.
Weak dawn light presses up against the curtained window next to the bed; he can just make out the brightening horizon. He lays there for a few minutes, trying to empty his mind. His magic thrums behind his eyes, a soft coil that feels like it's looping around him endlessly in a warm, comforting spiral. The window in his head that he felt yesterday sits open and unused. It makes him feel lonely.
He calms. His erection goes down and he gets out of bed.
Nicky is asleep on the couch, curled into as tiny a ball as he can press his other form into. Joe watches him for a couple of minutes, counting his breaths. His gray fur looks soft and inviting, especially where it lays in thick layers at his neck. His hand twitches like his fingers are already buried in it, nails scratching under the guard hairs and pressing the fur in the wrong direction just to feel it flutter against his skin as it lays back down. The sense memory is so strong, that even without the actual memory to back it up, Joe suddenly knows that he's sat on this couch in the past and just run his hands through Nicky's fur for the sheer pleasure of a comforting touch.
Nicky lets out a quiet snore, his nose covered by the curl of his tail. Joe decides to wait on trying to make himself a cup of coffee and instead quietly creeps past to explore the rest of the house. It’s chilly, and Joe almost doubles back to grab a shirt, since he’s only dressed in soft pajama bottoms and that’s it – but the lure of the house is too strong.
The downstairs is fairly simple. The entryway hallway leads to the living room and master bedroom. The kitchen is off the entryway to the left and there's a tiny half bath tucked under the stairs like an afterthought. Joe quietly tests the stairs and finds that they don't creak, so he pads up them to see what's up there.
The first room off the hallway to the left looks like an office and guest bedroom, with windows that overlook the street. The books and papers on the large desk all have to do with donations, taxes, and nonprofits, so this must be Nicky’s work space.
He crosses the hall and opens the other door.
It's an art studio. Joe stares around, wide–eyed. The ceiling and far wall are all glass, so the room was probably a conservatory or greenhouse or maybe even rooftop patio at some point. Joe shuffles in on bare feet, his eyes roving around while his mouth hangs open.
There's a huge desk pressed up against the far glass wall, a large computer monitor sitting on top, the screen saver a rolling photo album. At present it's an old picture of himself, Quynh, and Booker from one of the Halloween parties they attended in college. The three of them had dressed up as musketeers.
The desk is covered with stacks of books, papers, and jars of colored pencils, pens, and paint brushes. A large easel stands in the corner, a painting that is half finished resting on it with a rolling table of paints next to it and a high stool. There's a curious pile of cushions on the floor there as well, a lamp sitting on a crate full of books next to it.
Canvases are leaned up against the inner wall, dozens of them in various stages of completion, as well as a large cache of fresh ones in various sizes. On the other side of the room there's a flat worktop, with tools, a hanging peg board filled with every color embroidery thread he's ever seen. The table is covered in jars of jewelry clasps, little metal charms and chains.
It's all...him. Aside from all the stuff here that could allow him to paint and sketch and make art for years, the space just feels like his. Those are his posters on the wall, his mug that says "Paint Water" that Quynh bought him as a joke years ago. Those are his slippers lying abandoned under the desk, his wrist brace for when his hand gets tired sitting on top of the stool by the easel. This is his space. Filled to the brim with all the things he's always wished he could buy, arranged exactly how he would if given this beautiful space to work with.
Joe walks around the room a little, letting his hands drift over different things. He shuffles through the paintings leaned against the wall; they're all magic touched, he realizes instantly. Each carries a spark of his golden threads, mixed in little tight swirls in paint. One is a beautiful landscape, looking out over the cliffs of the peak district and carrying with it the feeling of calm and oneness that he feels when standing looking at nature. Another is a stunning collection of geometric shapes, like some Moroccan mosaic in bright colors that feels energetic and excited.
He looks over the one on the easel. It's a view from inside a coffee shop, looking out of a large picture window. The people sitting at the tables are out of focus, while the park across the busy street is in crisp detail. The magic in this one feels cozy and contemplative.
All of them are powerful magic items. All of them are well beyond what he knows himself to be capable of.
Which is why the pile of pillows and cushions, along with the stack of pleasure reading, suddenly makes sense. Nicky sits there. Nicky sits there so he can rest against Joe's legs, or touch his ankle, anything to keep skin to skin contact so Nicky can amplify Joe's abilities with his own magic.
Joe tries very, very hard not to think about Nicky, sitting at his feet, the afternoon sun pouring in through the windows, golden and warm. Maybe Nicky has one of his broad hands wrapped around Joe's ankle, his head pressed against Joe's thigh, his soft brown hair pulled back in a bun that leaves strands feathered out, begging to be touched.
There's a small box tucked in the crate of books, the lid slightly off. A bottle of lube is just barely visible, along with what appears to be a pack of wet wipes.
Joe puts some distance between him and the easel.
He stares resolutely at the other worktop, taking in all the bits and bobs and the half finished bracelet pinned to the work surface. There's a largish painting sitting propped up against one of the desk legs, and as Joe drifts closer, he realizes it's there because the back wire on it for hanging is in the process of being replaced. Joe picks the painting up and is surprised to find it's not magicked at all. He turns it around to see the painting itself.
He drops to sit on the stool.
It's of Nicky.
Nicky is lying on his side on a bed, back to the viewer, the outline of his supine form perfectly captured in a handful of bold black strokes. Outside of his body the canvas is blank white. But inside...Joe has painted a moonlit sea. He’s rendered Nicky's spine into a horizon line, the bottom curve of his waist into a curling wave that breaks upon the shore of the bed sheets. The surface of the sea is a wash of glittering silver blue moonlight that almost seems to move with the gentle swells and falls. The moon itself rests upon Nicky's shoulder blade; clouds dot the skin of his ribs. His hair, loose and flowing on a pillow is wreathed in stars and moonbeams.
"Joe?" comes a quiet rasp.
Joe whirls around, the painting cradled protectively between his hands. Nicky is standing in the doorway, sleep rumpled, dressed in a pair of flannel pants, with a throw blanket from the couch wrapped around himself.
"I'm in love with you," Joe announces. His voice breaks on the last word. Nicky looks bewildered. He cautiously shuffles in further and Joe sees a rising look of hope on the other man's face.
"I don't remember anything," he says quickly before he can lose his nerve. Nicky's face falls and gods, it hurts.
Joe turns the painting to show him. Nicky looks at it. He doesn't seem surprised, which makes sense: he's probably seen it before.
"I'm in love with you. I loved you when I painted it. I can just...tell."
Joe doesn't know how to explain it to him since he scarcely can explain it to himself. But seeing this painting, seeing the loving detail, the absolute focus, the way it makes him feel even without a drop of magic involved: he knows.
Nicky drifts closer. He’s barefoot, and the hem of his pants drags on the floor.
"You showed that to me for the first time on our first year anniversary," he says, and Joe can tell it's a good memory.
"When did I originally paint it?"
Nicky seems to debate telling him. Finally he sighs. "You told me you started it after our third date."
Joe wants to say that's insane, but he knows himself, and it's not. Nicky is a beautiful man, constant, sweet, and kind, and there's a layer of iron in him. Joe's under zero illusions; Nicky is exactly his type.
Joe turns the painting back around so he can look at it again.
"Somehow...that doesn't surprise me," he says quietly. Joe reverently sets the painting back down and gets up from the stool. He walks over and closes the distance between him and his husband. Nicky stays still, waiting.
"May I kiss you?" Joe asks formally. This close to him, Joe can see how Nicky's jaw slackens just a little before the surprise passes.
"Are you sure?" Nicky asks.
"Yes," Joe replies firmly.
"I'm not. Joe, you don't have to force yourself, I'm a stranger –"
"To me, yeah," Joe interrupts gently. "You're a kind, beautiful stranger. And I'd like to kiss you. But don't feel like you have to. I don't remember you, so it'll be different for you. I don't remember what you like or–"
"You," Nicky interrupts this time. "I like you."
"May I kiss you, then?" Joe repeats.
"Yes," Nicky answers.
Joe is staring into his eyes as he leans forward. Nicky is a touch shorter than him, just enough that he has to dip his face down, and Nicky tilts his up so they can meet in the middle. Joe keeps his eyes open. Nicky's fall shut. Their lips meet and gods, it's bliss. It’s sweetly familiar and excitingly new. His heart is pounding, and he feels dizzy. Nicky's lips part and suddenly the kiss is heavier, warmer, wetter. Joe follows in kind; his eyes fall shut and he lets his body do what it wants. And what it wants is Nicky.
Muscle memory seems to carry him forward; how else would he know to scrape his teeth over Nicky's bottom lip? How else would he know the exact angle to turn his head at so their tongues can get acquainted? How else would he know to step into the kiss, that Nicky would raise his arms up to wrap around Joe’s neck and that Joe would slip his arms low? How else would he be able to kiss this man so thoroughly, that Nicky moans helplessly, the blanket falling from his shoulders, Joe's hands smoothing over his ribs to trace that hypnotic line of his spine?
Joe feels like he's come home to a place he's never been. Gods, he never wants to leave. He never wants to let this man go. How could he have been so lucky to begin with? Past him deserves a medal for managing to pin this man down.
Joe drops one hand to boldly grope Nicky’s ass, while the other drifts around his lower back to press him more firmly against Joe’s body.
Nicky breaks the kiss with a pained gasp, pulling back. Joe immediately lets go, his eyes snapping open, concerned.
He looks down and sees there, on Nicky's left side, is an angry, partially healed wound of some kind. The edges are still a deep, angry red. Joe can see where there were stitches or staples. The new skin is coming in pink and shiny.
"Holy fuck," Joe says, taking a step back. The wound is large, about the size of an orange. Nicky winces and holds a hand over it carefully.
"I'm sorry," he says.
"No, no, I should have been more careful, I didn't... You, I'm sorry, you and Booker said you got hurt but I wasn't expecting, I didn't know–"
"It's okay, Joe. You didn’t remember, it's fine."
"This is from the first attack?"
"Yes, I'm still recovering from it. Doctors say it'll probably be another couple of months before I'm approaching normal again."
Nicky bends down carefully and picks up the blanket, wrapping it around himself again, hiding his torso from view. Joe finds himself still staring at where the wound lies, however, even after Nicky has covered it up. There’s...this burning sensation in his chest; his magic is snapping under his skin, wild and...angry. He’s angry. Gods, he’s furious.
Suddenly, Booker’s reluctance to speak with him seems far more reasonable. He kinda feels like throttling the man right now. Booker did this. He’s partly responsible for that horrible scar on his husband, for the pain he feels, for the healing he still has to do.
“Yusuf,” Nicky says, his voice serious. Joe looks up. “Breathe.”
Joe instantly takes in a deep breath and then slowly lets it out, trying to shake out the sudden rush of tension. It’s not working, Joe realizes with a panic. He’s been pushing down his magic so much for the past day, and now that it's gotten a little away from him he’s struggling to reel it back in. His breath starts to come out as panting, and Nicky steps back in close to him, one hand offered between them.
“Let me help,” he says. Joe doesn’t hesitate; he’s too scared of his own magic right now to turn down the offer. Nicky touches his skin and through the window in his mind, the man’s magic comes rushing into Joe. The glittering sparks feel cool and calming; they wind through Joe’s golden threads and it’s like they weigh down the coils. His magic calms. It’s a queer feeling, but a nice one, like sliding into cold water on a hot day. He feels encompassed, held, seen, gentled.
“Sorry,” Joe says, once he feels better.
“Don’t be,” Nicky says absently as he removes his hand. The sparkles vanish from him, and Joe feels bereft. His magic is quelled, but he still feels angry.
“Come downstairs, I think both of us could use some coffee.”
Nicky leads the way again and Joe follows him down, giving the art studio one last longing, confused glance before shutting the door behind him.
The living room is not very large, essentially just enough room for a standard couch, one large bookshelf, and the high bar countertop that looks into the tiny kitchen. There’s a TV, sitting on a low table along the outer wall. The same wall has a sliding glass door that leads into a small yard. With the sun rising, Joe can finally get a good look at it – and it’s immediately clear to him that that is definitely Nicky’s domain. There’s no way, even with five years, that Joe could come anywhere near putting that kind of gorgeous landscaping together.
“When I lived with my family, as a child, gardening was one of the only ways I could get time outside,” Nicky explains, correctly reading Joe’s look as he gazes outside.
“That’s…” Joe trails off. He doesn’t know exactly how Nicky feels about his family or his origins, and is hesitant to say anything that would offend the man.
“Horrible?” Nicky asks, handing over a mug of steaming coffee. Joe glances down and sees that it is the exact shade of pale brown that indicates the right amount of milk was added to it. He smiles at the cup. Of course Nicky knows how he takes his coffee.
“Yeah,” Joe replies. “That sounds pretty awful.”
“It wasn’t ideal,” Nicky agrees. “But I got out in the end. I worry for my younger cousins. I hope they are also able to find their way.”
“Do you think about going back?”
“Yes, and no. I think about wanting better things for them, all the time. Especially working with Andy. But, I know that I would never even make it close. My family has a lot of power and the authorities would not help me.”
“I’m sorry,” is all Joe can offer and it feels so lacking in substance. But Nicky just smiles a small, quirked smile at him, and pats his forearm before going over to sit on the couch. Joe goes over too, and drops to lean sideways against the arm so his back is pressed against it. The coffee table, which is a huge, old repurposed steamer trunk, sits at just the right distance for Joe to easily put his mug down.
“Is this my spot?” He asks.
“It is,” Nicky replies. Joe wiggles around for a moment, feeling how his body nestles neatly into the space, comfortable without even really trying. The way the sofa is placed, Nicky sits on the side closest to the kitchen bar, and Joe’s towards the wall with the bookcase and the door to the bedroom. Turning his head, he can see there’s a small reading lamp on a low end table, next to it a stack of novels and two textbooks on magical item creation. The remote for the TV rests precariously on top.
“This is our home,” Joe says, like it’s a revelation. And it kind of is. The studio upstairs, the bedroom, the bathtub, the couch with his spot, the mug of coffee in his hand that’s been made just the way he likes it.
“It is,” Nicky says again.
Joe gazes around the room with a little more appreciation.
“Are we going to have to leave? Because of, well, um–”
“Because of me.”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Joe rushes to explain. He shifts across the couch, needing to get closer to the other man who is staring down at his own coffee with a closed off look on his face.
“But it is because of me.”
“No, it’s because of Booker, it’s because of both of us. It’s because of them, Nicky. This isn’t your fault.”
“You can’t even remember–”
“I don’t have to,” Joe says firmly, and he puts what he hopes is a comforting hand on Nicky’s thigh. “I don’t have to remember to know that none of this is your fault. You didn’t ask to be a familiar. You didn’t ask to be born into this fucked up world where so many people think it’s okay to just snatch other people off the street because they feel entitled to. That’s not on you.”
“We might have to,” Nicky says, not addressing any of what Joe just said and instead answering Joe’s original question. Joe wonders if he lets Nicky do that, or if he refuses to let the conversation shift. He doesn’t know, and he is afraid to guess wrong.
“The police have assigned a patrol car to drive by every couple of hours to check up on things and keep an eye out, but they can’t do that forever,” Nicky continues. “We have no way of knowing how many people know about me, about us and where we live. We’ve already been attacked twice, can we risk a third? Can you?”
“Yes,” Joe replies immediately. Because that is a question he knows he can answer now with confidence. “I’ll risk anything for you.”
“You don’t even know me,” Nicky stresses, putting his coffee down on the trunk with a tired sigh. His blanket cape drops off one shoulder and Nicky yanks it back up like a shield.
“You’re my husband,” Joe says. “I married you. Bonded with you. I chose to do those things, and just because I can’t remember the specifics doesn’t mean I’m just going to ignore that I clearly have damn good reasons for choosing you.”
Nicky opens his mouth and Joe suddenly knows exactly what he’s going to say and cuts him off before he can even start.
“Reasons that have nothing to do with your magic, Nicky. Is it cool that you’re a familiar and can help me do spectacular things with my magic? Yeah, that’s awesome. But I wouldn’t marry anyone for just that. And you know that,” Joe points out with a further flash of insight. “Because you wouldn’t have married me otherwise.”
Nicky opens his mouth as if to reply, but then closes it. He looks over at Joe, turning his body so that they face each other more fully on the couch.
But whatever Nicky is going to say, or argue, or concede is lost, because there’s a sudden crash as something hits the glass sliding door full force, and busts through to land on the floor in front of the coffee table. Joe is stunned to see a smoking canister, spilling ugly green–yellow smoke spinning on their hardwood floors. Both Nicky and Joe instinctively dive for the ground – Nicky shoves the coffee table over with his shoulder, shielding them from whoever is outside.
The smoke starts to fill up their living room. It’s acrid, stinging Joe’s eyes. He grabs at Nicky blindly, both of them curling up tight to stay out of sight.
“Fuck,” Nicky swears viciously. He squirms around, hands blindly patting along the couch cushions in a frenzy. Before Joe can demand what he’s doing, Nicky produces his cell phone from where he must have dropped it last night while sleeping here. He immediately dials 999.
Joe risks an–eye watering glance around the table and sees three people dressed in black with what looks like riot shields and paintball guns standing in the garden, about six feet back from the glass doors.
“There’s three of them,” Joe tells Nicky who is urgently whispering into his phone. His heart feels like it's going to pound right out of his chest.
“Help is on the way,” Nicky replies. “We just have to hang on a couple of minutes.”
"Why do they have shields?” Joe asks, frantic.
Nicky rolls a little to one side to steal his own glance and then curses creatively in Italian.
“They’re anti–magic shields – it's a recent thing. Someone with the gift has been making them and selling them to whoever can pay. They lessen the effect of most magic thrown at the carrier.”
“Motherfucker,” Joe hisses. He tries to even out his breathing but the smoke is making him gasp and cough. “And the paintball guns?”
Nicky twists around and gets his feet braced against the coffee table.
“Here, help me push this towards the glass,” he orders. Joe twists around to do so without question.
“Tranq guns,” Nicky adds in answer to his previous question. “Do not get hit by one, or I’m going to be extremely cross.”
“Why haven’t they rushed us yet?” Joe demands. He and Nicky push with their feet and the heavy coffee table goes screeching across their wood floors. Joe catches a flash of one of the three men pausing warily at the sight.
“They’re being cautious, Yusuf,” Nicky explains tiredly. “We’ve proven to be highly resistant to capture.”
“I knew what I was doing with my magic, then,” Joe points out feebly. He’s under no illusions that there’s an excellent chance this fight will go very differently. He has no memory of how to use his magic in a fight. He can barely keep control over it when angry, much less direct it while scared out of his mind.
Nicky stays low to the ground, flipping around onto his stomach, shoving the blanket off of himself, grimacing as he does. Joe realizes that his wound is probably paining him. Gods know that the smoke is making the throbbing in his head about twenty times worse. Joe watches, confused, as Nicky sticks his hands under the couch and heaves it back a little, giving them just a bit more room to maneuver.
“What are you doing?” Joe asks, as he turns around as well and gets his hands under to help Nicky push the couch.
“We have to get behind it. Then we can use it to keep between us and them and hopefully make it to the stairs or the bedroom.”
Joe redoubles his frantic efforts to move the couch. Together they manage to shove it back a few more inches, giving them the needed space to crouch low on their knees, ready to jump up. Nicky grabs Joe’s wrist in a tight grip.
“We go together, do you understand? Up and over, then duck behind.”
“On the count of three: one, two–”
The glass doors shatter in a booming crash of something big and substantial being slammed against the remaining partition. Joe grabs Nicky’s wrist in an answering grasp; his palm clamps down on Nicky’s skin, his hand coming into contact with the macrame bracelet bound in a loop there. Not the first one Nicky bought from Joe, but one that was given later.
Time stops. Or maybe his brain leaps forward. He’s not sure. Joe hangs suspended for a breath in the infinite space of his magic. A star burst of threads and sunbeams erupts under his hand. The flash is blinding.
He’s not in the home in Golders Green. He’s in his old bedsit in the outskirts of Hounslow. He’s not wearing anything, walking back to his bed with a warm washcloth in one hand. Nicky is a vision of pale, glistening skin, red lips and unbound light brown hair. He looks debauched. Joe is taking personal pleasure in looking at him, knowing he got to do the debauching.
Joe takes the warm washcloth to Nicky’s skin, cleaning him between his thighs gently, pressing a soft kiss to one bare hip and then the other. He presses his nose to a most delectable spot, just below Nicky’s navel and just...breathes him in.
Nicky sighs, already half asleep. He always gets drowsy first when he’s the one getting fucked. Joe tosses the washcloth towards his laundry basket where it lands neatly, draped on the edge so it can dry. He shifts the light bed sheet free from the foot of the bed and pulls it up over both of them, curling into Nicky’s pliant body as he does.
Nicky hums a note, and it hangs in the air like a question. Joe can feel the vibrations of it, and all along where their bodies touch, he feels the rush of electric blue and silver light pass over him. Joe reaches back with his own magic and the two twine together the same way Joe twines their bodies together to rest. The pulse of Nicky’s magic is slow and lethargic, pleased and sated. The familiar has dropped off into the lands of dreams, barely stirring. Joe presses his face into Nicky’s nape, uncaring of the still sweat–soaked strands catching on his skin and beard. Lips to Nicky’s hair line, he breathes.
“Can I keep you?” he whispers. For the first time, since meeting this magnificent, magnetic, kind, loving man, Joe utters his desires aloud. He can only risk it here, with Nicky asleep, afraid of scaring the familiar away.
He asks the question now, when it won’t be answered, because he’s afraid of the answer. Nicky is always on the move; it’s the only way he can keep himself safe without the protection of his family – he can’t stay in London.
He asks the question now because it feels like this is the only place where the words won’t shatter the fragile little bubble they’ve built for themselves. This small, transient little space where the light of the sun and moon can tangle together and not have reality ask how.
Joe is badly startled when Nicky moves. A strong, broad palm circles one of Joe’s wrists and pulls his hand up from where it was pressed against Nicky’s chest to press against Nicky’s cheek. There are tears brushing across the pads of his fingers.
“Yes,” Nicky whispers against the skin of Joe’s palm. He presses a kiss there. “If I can keep you.”
Joe crushes Nicky to him. Pulls him in tight against his body so they are pressed together from nose to knees, curled together so much so that it would be impossible to separate them.
“Yes, please, I love you,” Joe whispers, his voice cracking halfway through.
“I love you too, my heart,” Nicky replies. Joe concentrates on this moment with all his might. He never wants to forget this, he wants to wrap it up tight in the coils of his magic and stow it down in his heart – so that whenever he needs to, he can unwrap this little pocket of sunshine and moonbeams and bask in it. So maybe one day soon he can knot it up in cotton threads and give it to his love so that Nicky can do the same.
He lands, half on top of Nicky behind the couch with no real memory of how they made it over the piece of furniture. But with every other memory that matters.
“Nicky–” he gasps.
“Quick, quick,” Nicky hisses, untangling himself from Joe and turning his body around back into another crouch. “We’ll push for the bedroom, okay? They probably have someone on the front door.”
“Hayati.” Joe says and puts every ounce of their past, their history, their love into three syllables. Nicky wrenches around to look at Joe, incredulous.
“Now?! Are you fucking kidding me? Right now?!”
“I have excellent timing.”
They hear the crunch of boots on shattered glass. Both Joe and Nicky, without any further coordination, grab the couch by the legs and shove it across the floor.
“You have shit timing, Joe, I swear.”
“Both of you, come out with your hands raised!” One of the masked men shouts from the sliding glass doorway.
Neither Joe nor Nicky pay the man the least bit of attention.
“You missed me,” Joe declares, huffing as he shoves the sofa along. There's only a gap of a couple feet between Joe’s end of the couch and the doorway; their earlier pushing has moved it beyond the edge of the bookshelf. The masked men are still moving too slowly, too cautiously – they might just make it.
“Of course I missed you. You were here, and at the same time you weren’t. It was maddening.”
“I’m sorry, my love. I won’t do it again.”
“Damn right you won’t. We’re moving after this, Yusuf. I’m very sorry about the house, but we should have moved after the first time. Andy warned us.”
“But habibi, the bathtub.”
“We’ll take it with us.”
“Don’t make us come over there!” comes another angry shout, but to Joe’s ears it sounds more pleading than angry. Nicky glances over his shoulder, wearing what Joe can only describe as his ‘fuck around and find out’ face, which is a special treat – it so rarely makes an appearance on the usually mild–mannered familiar.
“Oh fuck this,” Nicky hisses, clearly fed up. Which Joe can understand. By his reckoning, his husband has been harassed, attacked, questioned, forced to interact with the friend that betrayed them, forced to delicately handle a Joe who didn’t remember him at all, sleep on the couch with a still healing gunshot wound, and is now having their home invaded. He can only guess, but he’d guess that Nicky has reached the end of his usually long patience.
“How do you feel, Joe?” Nicky asks plainly.
That’s not the bland, small talk question that it normally is for other people. Not for them. That’s a very specific call and response between Yusuf and his familiar.
“Very pissed off,” Joe replies.
“Perfect,” Nicky returns, and abandons trying to move the sofa any further. Instead he slides across the floor to Joe, who is absolutely ready for him. He sits back on his heels, and Nicky climbs right into his waiting lap. His arms dip low, circling around his husband’s waist, their skin coming into full contact along their bare torsos. Nicky’s hands cup both sides of his face and suddenly they’re kissing furiously. Nicky is in him. There is no window, there’s no barrier between them at all, Nicky is just there.
And Joe feels undone from his skin. Like a star going supernova, he blazes, and everything that he feels is pushed from him in a shock wave, amplified into an event, not a feeling. He doesn’t have to see – he knows that the emotion slams against the anti–magic shields. The shields work, they protect the three men from the emotional backlash that undoubtedly would have melted their brains in their ears, but not completely. The emotional bleed–through permeates the air, just like the obscuring smoke from the smoke bomb, and it takes them out with nothing but whimpering screams. All three hit the ground with loud thumps, unresponsive.
Nicky doesn’t stop, he pours into Joe in an unceasing wave, a glittering sea of magic and love that has no end. Joe meets him, wave for wave, passing back in an endless loop threads of golden sunlight and adoration until the anger is long gone and they are just two beings, existing as one.
“Nicolò,” Joe says sometime later, as they sit waiting for yet another detective inspector to come and speak with them about their statements. At least they’d been given enough time to change into proper clothes before getting dragged down to Scotland Yard. They’re not in any trouble, but this is the third batch of mercenaries sent after the pair and it’s obvious that the Yard is finally ready to take this threat seriously. They may not have to leave London after all.
“Hmm?” Nicky hums, contemplating the break room coffee machine with a look of deep resentment.
“I told you we were gonna have words later.”
It’s hilarious to watch his husband freeze, and slowly turn around. Nicky is looking at him with wide, devastating blue–green eyes. Joe is unmoved. Nicky learned that puppy–dog look from him and it’s not going to work. Not at all.
“But Joe, I had to be close enough in case you needed me.”
“The ‘walls are pretty thick,’ Nicolò? Really?”
“You bought it.”
“I cannot believe you lied to me while I was suffering from amnesia, just so you could sleep on the couch in your other form! You know the rules!”
“I love you.”
“That is not going to work!”
“You are the light of my life.”
“The stars when I’m lost in darkness.”
“You cannot talk your way out of this one!”
“The warmth when I shiver in cold.”
Nicky kisses him sweetly. Joe lets him. They’re going to have to get rid of the couch anyways.