The silver alchemist

by BRK

Alex and Jessie are two apprentice sorcerer-alchemists playing with spells they haven’t quite mastered, when a casting takes an unexpected turn.

2 parts Added Jan 2022 3,459 views 4.8 stars (5 votes) 6,932 words

Part 1 Alex and Jessie are two apprentice sorcerer-alchemists playing with spells they haven’t quite mastered, when a casting takes an unexpected turn. (added: 22 Jan 2022)
Part 2
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Part 1

Jessie threw his wand down on the table in disgust. “What’s so special about silver anyway?” he muttered petulantly, slumping back in his club chair and folding his arms crossly over his chest. His brilliant white shirt-sleeves formed a stark contrast with the midnight blue and black diamond pattern of his finely tailored waistcoat and the crimson-pinstriped ebony tie he always wore—as if everyone weren’t already perfectly aware he’d studied at Old Aethelred, the poshest private college in all the American dominion. Beyond him the French doors to the garden stood partly open, letting in cool damp air and the sound of a loudly-pattering spring shower that seemed to match the young man’s dour and churlish mood.

At the next table, Alex smiled slightly to himself without looking up from his own work. “Not having much luck with your alchemy, Barker?” he asked.

“Alchemy’s stupid,” Jessie groused, sounding more like his equally blond and pallid toddler nephews than the twenty-four-year old future master of the Barker clan and their industry-dominating trusts. Though it was his darker and more conventionally handsome best friend and fellow trainee-apprentice who bore the name, it was Jessie who better resembled the Alexander of old: a fairer, more cultured, more charismatic, more exquisitely comely scion to a long line of swarthy, lascivious barbarians, hailed by kith and kin as a harbinger of some new and expansive future full of unimagined wealth and power. If only his private demeanor matched his divine appearance, Alex thought mildly, not for the first time.

And silver,” Jessie went on, tightening his self-embrace as if trying to snuggle deeper into the overstuffed leather of his chair and disappear. “What’s it good for, Thompson? Who the dickens cares about silver?”

“It was the standard currency of trade for thousands of years,” Alex said with his customary reasonableness. He was focusing on the tiny transmogrification spell he was deftly winding through the thick, yam-shaped lump of solid copper on the lead tray on front of him, barely needing the sleek maple wand he had pointed at the metal to concentrate his focus. He was finding he was rather better at magic-assisted alchemy than he was at the Hermetic kind, with all the chemical processes and arcane ingredients. Maybe it was his background in sailing: guiding carefully-defined spiritual energy through the intricate recesses of inert matter felt very much like navigating the currents of a difficult harbor, finding the right turns through skill and instinct, and, it had to be said, the slivers of luck that seemed to come his way more often than not.

The frisson of nerves tickling his intestines—they weren’t supposed to be doing any sorceric alchemy during their afternoon study times, only reading about it—only added to Alex’s enjoyment of the exercise. He got away with so much being (despite his brawn and stature) the quiet one in the background, while everyone paid all their attention to his more extroverted fellow ward and his formidable, larger than life Master. It had been Alex’s idea to push the grimoires aside, craftily purloin a few chunks of copper from the Master’s forbidden alchemy stores using the key Alex had lifted days ago for just this purpose, and try the transmogrification for real. He wasn’t too surprised, either, that Jessie had given up when it turned out it wasn’t coming easily to him. His friend usually had to push himself to catch up to Alex to really achieve anything—and then half the time he’d plow through his doubts like an icebreaker and end up being even better at it than Alex was.

Teasing Jessie in the interim was, naturally, an important part of the process. “It’s perfectly conductive, it resists bacterial contamination,” Alex went on randomly as he watched his energy-weave closely, lips still quirked at the corners. “It’s beautiful… like the moon it’s often associated with. Al Cahijd’s grimoire says that under the right circumstances it gives power over life and death.” He squinted and nudged at his spell, curling its tiny path back around the heart of the slab like a worm made of metaphysical animus. “There’s even a country named after it.”

“A count—? Oh.” Jessie sounded unimpressed. “Well, I’m sure they’re very excited about silver in South America.”

Alex’s spell was starting to tentatively branch and twine of its own accord, a very good sign it was going to work. “You’d rather try to turn copper into gold, instead?” he needled his friend, eyes still on his spell. “Good luck with that. Not even Master Jaymes can make gold from copper.”

“He can make it from platinum,” Jessie retorted irritably.

Alex snorted. “That’s useful. Aha!” He rose slowly to his feet, grinning widely as he cautiously lowered his wand. Even to the naked eye the coppery tuber was starting to glisten and shimmer faintly with a sly inner potency. He was sure he detected that faint odor in the air that Master Jaymes said was a sign of successful, self-sustaining spellwork as well. Alex always thought it smelled like walnuts, but no one seemed to agree with him.

“You did it?” Jessie said eagerly, jumping up from his chair to lean over Alex’s table, his earlier sullenness forgotten.

“See for yourself,” Alex said. Jessie leaned in for a closer look. In so doing he rested a hand on Alex’s broad back, and even through his own waistcoat and shirt—neither nearly as nice as Jessie’s—the warm touch felt obscenely delicious. The thrill wound a richly pleasant counterpoint under the glittering effervescence of his alchemical achievement as they stared as the shifting metal.

“Victoria and Albert,” Jessie swore softly, awed and amazed.

Suddenly there was a bright flash, and they both leaned back, shielding their eyes. When they looked again, the spots in their vision swiftly cleared to reveal, sitting pertly on the tray, a large yam-shaped hunk of what looked for all the world like pure, unprocessed silver. It was entirely calm and inert, not even evincing any lingering magic to Alex’s second sight. Only a few scorch marks on the surrounding lead suggested that anything extraordinary had happened.

Jessie beamed at him, clutching him into a hearty embrace. Alex hugged him back, a little dazed. The rare pleasure of holding Jessie’s smaller, wirier, and altogether exquisitely masculine form like this almost completely eclipsed the excitement of having successfully worked his spell. When they pulled back to stare at the silver yam again Jessie kept his arm around the small of Alex’s back, and, despite the dangerous swelling of his awakened manhood in his well-pressed navy-blue trousers, Alex was happy to reciprocate.

They both gawked at the transformed silver for several heartbeats, holding each other in mutual appreciation of Alex’s deed (and, in Alex’s case, appreciation of other things as well), the only sound the rain and, under it, the crackling of the fire in the enormous fireplace at the other side of the room.

“We should tell him,” Jessie said at last.

Alex glanced uncertainly at the parlor door. The Master was a formidable man, old but hale and stronger than Alex with fierce eyes under dark, intimidating eyebrows, and he did not like to be disturbed during the afternoons while his two wards were supposed to be immersed in their studies and not illicitly trying to perform spellwork they’d only just been introduced to and which they definitely weren’t supposed to be attempting on their own without supervision.

Proof would ease the Master’s ire, Alex thought. “We should show him,” he said.

He reached out toward the newly-transformed potato-shaped slab. “Wait—” Jessie said, even as Alex’s hand clasped around the rough surface of the silver and he lifted it, cold and heavy, off the leaden tray.

Something sparked and slid inside the metal lump. Then reality itself seemed to fall away. Everything went dark, and time ended.

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First came the sound of the clattering rain, distant and muffled, as though his head were swathed in cloth. Then his hand emerged from the darkness, fitfully, as if it were reluctant. It was his left hand, the hand that had been holding the hunk of transmogrified silver. The hand that was now… empty?

Had he dropped the silver?

Why did the veins under his palm look strange?

Time shifted, tearing the moment staring at his hand into wisps like a dream. Darkness filled him, and his soundscape seemed to blur, like an ocean washing over a shore, drowning everything. Then the roar ebbed, and he heard it again, clearer now. His name. His first name, which no one but his dead mother had ever used in this rigid, too-polite dominion.

“Alexander! Alexander, can you hear me?” The voice sounded familiar, and, he thought, uncharacteristically agitated.

Hands were shaking him gently about the shoulders.

He blinked. The act of doing so seemed to free his breath somehow, and he emptied his lungs and filled them again, sucking in the damp, pine-arbor-tinged air of the parlor. His vision cleared. He was now gazing directly into the bright hazel eyes of his best friend. “B-Barker?” he said weakly, not sure what was going on.

Jessie was staring up at him with an almost palpable mix of wonder and fear. His hands were still on Alex’s shoulders, adding to his distractions.

Jessie bent his head slightly, as if trying to peer inside him. “Alexander? Is that you in there?”

Alex felt his brows draw together. Why wouldn’t it—?

Jessie must have read his confusion. “Your eyes, Thompson!” he marveled. “Your eyes are—”

Loud footsteps interrupted them, and Alex’s stomach plummeted. He knew that sound: it was Master Jaymes, stomping down the side stairs just beyond that door and the long, blue-flocked wall it interrupted, descending from his second-floor conservatory to see what the ruckus was that had disturbed him from his contemplations—it wasn’t the first time they’d broken into his afternoon concentrations, only to suffer the consequences. You could always tell how angry he was from how loud the stomps were, and these, Alex was fairly sure, were loud enough to wake the dead—were there any departed souls living under the stairs, anyway.

Jessie’s eyes widened comically and he whipped his head around toward the oaken parlor door, alarmed. “Hell and damn,” he cursed. “He’s going to flay us, Thompson.”

Alex took in the scene in a split-second. The tomes they were supposed to be studying pushed aside on their tables. Wands visible, obviously in use—Jessie’s on his table, Alex’s dropped on the carpet at some point after he’d blacked out in Jessie’s half-embrace. The lead trays, Jessie’s still with his stolen copper slab, Alex’s marked with scorches of a transformation gone… wrong? Or right? Where was that silver he’d had in his hand, anyway—?

The brass doorknob rattled, instantly drawing the entirety of Alex’s attention. He panicked with what felt like his entire being. No, he thought fiercely at it.

Well, that was a stupid reaction, he immediately chastised himself. It wasn’t as if just telling the door not to open—

The doorknob rattled again, more raucously than before, but the knob didn’t turn, and the parlor door stayed resolutely shut. “Lads? You in there?” the gruff old sorcerer barked, so loudly he might as well have been looming over the table Alex had been working at and shouting in their faces. “Lads! Unlock this door immediately!”

Both apprentices instinctively kept silent. Jessie had turned back to look at Alex, and his expression was strangely appraising. His warm hands were still on Alex’s shoulders, his grip firm and natural on his round, work-toughened muscles, and Alex allowed himself a brief, insane vision of Jessie leaning forward brush those sweet red lips against his.

Then Jessie did more toward him, launching Alex’s heart into a racing gallop. Instead of his mouth, however, Jessie’s passed to one side, and a moment later Jessie was whispering in Alex’s ear.

“What we need,” Jessie hissed, “is for there not to be a door there at all.” Then he pulled back, looked Alex meaningfully in the eyes for a moment, then turned to stare at the door. What in heaven’s—?

The knob rattled again, and Alex focused on it with a frown. Weirdly, he felt like he could feel an aspect to the brass of the doorknob that wasn’t the ordinary, observable shape it had in the physical world. It was blurred somehow but very real in its own way, extending backward in a direction Alex could only describe as “away”. Intrigued, he followed this indistinct, frictionlessly smooth, strangely elongated aspect down its endless length, finding more and more of its brassy existence extending back, deeper and deeper, into the marshy depths this extra dimension.

After a long passage of uninterrupted sameness he came to a sudden turning point, and he realized with some excitement that this bend, this place where it wrenched away from where they stood in the Master’s sprawling manor home and off to some more remote origin, was the critical moment he had been looking for without knowing it: it was the very moment when this brass fixture was installed in the door that had been hung and framed to open between the parlor and the main east corridor during the post-fire renovations of the manor nearly a hundred years before.

Fascinated. Alex focused all his attention on the bend. The murky extra dimension slid sideways, as it were, and after a moment of disorientation he found himself, spectral and invisible, beside the door itself on the corridor side, watching the tradesmen install the door and fixtures. All around him was evidence of reconstruction: plasterers, carpenters, masons, and more, all diligently at work rebuilding and expanding the old mansion house after its partial destruction.

Nearby were the east stairs the Master was so fond of stomping down, prefatory to his patented verbal lashings and other carefully-chosen punishments. By some miracle the stair itself, bannister included, had survived the fire intact; knowing this, Alex focused on the bannister head and, finding an extra dimension there as well, carefully followed its shape back further into the past, day by day, until first there was just the parlor doorframe in the restored corridor wall, then an empty, wallless gap exposing the skeleton of the restored parlor beyond.

No door here, he thought with resolution, staring at the space. Fixing the thought securely in the front of his mind, he moved his spectral self forward again along the time-shape of the bannister.

The wall appeared—with no door frame!

Heart thumping, Alex slid forward a few days further. The wall remained in place, still with no door in sight—just a smooth expanse of plaster. He moved forward a little more, and the east wing as he knew it solidified around him. The molding was finished and stained, the floors polished. Wallpaper appeared on the wall with door. A narrow side table appeared—one that Alex knew had previously been further down the main corridor, only now it was more or less directly in front of where the door should have been.

A low ache rose in the back of his head, and it occurred to him that whatever he was doing might be expending energy or effort via some mental muscle he wasn’t used to exercising. He let go of his spectral self as slowly as he could, but the connection more or less snapped and he found himself back in the parlor, as before: standing by the table, Jessie grasping his shoulders but twisted to look at…

At the blank, blue-flocked wall where the door had been. A single gaslight sconce hung there now, as old and ordinary as the room itself.

As they gawked they heard a loud throat-clearing from the corridor beyond. “You lads be quiet in there, or you shall rue that you were not!” the Master barked abruptly from the other side of the wall, before receding footsteps indicated his retiring to some other part of the mansion.

Alex blinked, utterly confused. His eyes were fixed on the offending sconce where the door had been. Had been? Had never been…? What—

After a few loud heartbeats Jessie swiveled his head slowly back to face him, a light in his hazel eyes and a feral grin spreading across his face. Then, astonishingly, he did lean forward and kiss Alex, right on the mouth. It was brief and dry, and just on the lips, and yet Alex was certain it was the best and most unexpectedly brilliant moment of his life, so far.


Part 2

Jessie was looking at him like he was a crone revealed to Aphrodite in all her splendor—Odysseus unmasked in his manly beauty to the prudent Nausicaä. For his part Alex was feeling too many new things. A new kind of sight? An unprecedented ability to exploit—what? The very malleability of time and space?

And, not least—Jessie had kissed him?

Then the strangest mystery of all forced itself through his mental mob of conundra to the very front, and Alex found himself gaping anew at his friend, who still held Alex by his broad shoulders as if he might never let go. Jessie had suggested the idea of removing the door—before Alex had even known he could do it! “How?” Alex asked, amazed. “How did you—?”

Jessie’s grin spread to reach his ears. “I knew you’d ask the right question!” He gave Alex’s shoulders a last squeeze and then jumped back excitedly, much to Alex’s regret. He rounded the small, heavy table Alex had been working at and slapped one of the tomes he had haphazardly pushed aside. “Al Cahijd!” he announced proudly. “You reminded me of it before. I read the same passage. Those imbued with silver self-construed gain inhuman control over the shape and twist of the world,” he recited. “That’s you, Thompson! As soon as you forced the lock to fuse I remembered.”

“And you immediately decided to test it,” Alex said, “to get out of trouble.” His mind was swimming. There were a lot of ideas in that passage he wasn’t sure of, “inhuman” chief among them.

“Of course!” Jessie sang. He moved closer again, his pretty hazel eyes shining up at him. “Don’t you see what this means, old boy?”

“I—I—” He shook his head. “‘Imbued’?”

Jessie clicked his tongue. Grabbing Alex by the upper arm he dragged his friend over to the half-open glass doors leading out onto the stone terrace and the east garden, both of which were still being drenched by the afternoon downpour. There was just enough light in the room from the gas lamps and the fire for Alex to see their ghostly reflections in the glass: Jessie, pale and comely in his natty waistcoat and shirtsleeves, and himself, dark and laborer-hard, staring back at him with a bemused expression—and eyes that were not his own. He knew his own visage, and the eyes he was used to seeing the looking-glass were almost coal-black and remarkably intense. These eyes, however—these eyes, looking back into his own, were not his. They shone, and not with the gleam of coal embers but with a ring of pure, bright light exactly like reflected silver.

Alex’s knees felt weak and he started to collapse. Jessie caught him easily—he was stronger than he looked—and guided him to the club chair he’d been situated in before. Alex dropped into it limply, and Jessie perched on the arm beside him, vibrating with excitement.

“Imbued,” he repeated. He remembered the brief vision of his empty left hand. He looked at it now. There was indeed something odd about it, under the surface—a faintly throbbing, silvery cast to the veins, perhaps. He wasn’t sure he wasn’t imagining it. “I took… the silver into me,” he said, looking up at Jessie. It wasn’t quite a question.

Jessie nodded fervently. “The self-construed silver,” he corrected him. “Al Cahijd says you have to take hold of the silver while your own transmogrification sorcery is still alive within the metal. That’s what causes it to cleave onto you—to become one with your animus.” His expression turned thoughtful. “I wonder of the potency is proportionate to the size of the sample?” he mused. “If so, that was one herculean slab of copper you turned. That would make you plenty powerful!”

Alex shook his head again. That word “inhuman” from the tome was sticking in his head like a branch clogging a sump, and Jessie’s unbridled ardor for his condition was unnerving him as well. “I don’t know, Barker,” he hedged.

Jessie leaned forward and, to Alex’s slight alarm slid his hand around the brawn of Alex’s neck where no doubt it looked almost alabaster next to his dark, tawny skin. It was as though Jessie had caught a hunger for touching Alex during the charged moments of the experiment, and now craved not merely the curve of his arm or shoulder through the remove of fabric but warm, living flesh. “You have to do it again,” Jessie urged.

“Do it again!” Alex repeated, staring up at his friend. His reason distracted by Jessie’s touch, he felt as though he were left with only visceral reactions, and now that the thrill was wearing off his instinctive, unconscious mind was increasingly unsure of everything that had happened in the last few minutes. Those silver eyes—

Jessie nodded insistently. “Yes, again,” he said. “Γνῶθι σεαυτόν. You have to learn what you are now.”

As he got used to Jessie’s touch it seemed to stabilize him, like Jessie was a lightning rod, defusing his storms. Rationality began reasserting itself again at last, and Alex gave his friend a hard, knowing look. “You just want to see me change things,” he said after a moment.

Jessie grinned. “Naturally!” he said. “It’s only—”

“Wait.” Alex held up a hand, stopping Jessie’s babble. “How…” he started to ask. At first he was unsure exactly what his brain was calling his attention to, but then it surfaced like stepping stones across a stream. He met Jessie’s gaze. “How could you know I changed anything?”

Jessie’s blond eyebrows lifted. He seemed to immediately catch Alex’s drift. “I mean, I understand my awareness as the author—it would be a useless gift otherwise,” Alex went on quickly, more sure now that he was on to something. “But…” He shrugged. “The door never existed now, right? So how do you know anything was changed?”

Jessie considered for a moment, then his face split in a wide grin. To Alex it was like the sun breaking through clouds, and his heart tripped as he stared up at his beautiful sunshine boy.

“That’s easy,” Jessie said, his eyes glinting. “I was holding you, Thompson. I was holding you close.”

Their eyes locked on each other. Jessie was aware of his breath, passing slowly in and out of his lungs in slow, steady draws, almost the only motion in the room apart from the flickering of the fire and the rain outside. His pesky rational thought processes nudged him again—he was staring at a boy! Abruptly he felt his face warm, and—fascinatingly—a faint smear of rose appeared on Jessie’s cheeks, too, as if one reaction had induced the other sympathetically. And yet Jessie did not look away; if anything, his gaze softened and became even fonder. All at once Alex found himself wanting to “do things” after all, to use his silver gift and not flinch from it, if it meant Jessie looking at him like that.

Distantly, over the slackening rain, they heard the grandfather clock in the east hall dolefully chiming four o’clock. “Cook’ll be setting out tea,” Jessie said.

Alex was surprised to realize he was actually quite hungry. He glanced toward the doorless wall, then back at his friend. “So,” he challenged him, “seeing as you’ve had me remove our only means of egress from our present locale, how do you suppose we find our way to the dining room?”

Jessie winked. “We’ll have to brave the rain,” he said. “C’mon!”

Before he could say another word Alex found himself being hauled up out of the chair and straight out the french doors into the softening rain, now reduced to a sunlit shower. They ran for the side door to the east kitchens hand in hand, slapping their shoes in every puddle that had collected in the old uneven flagstones, laughing the whole way.

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They were only a little wet when then bundled boisterously through the side door into the kitchens, and Cook—Mrs. Anderssen, that is, at least to her face—didn’t have them change outfits as Alex had thought she might. Instead she chivvied them straight into the smaller dining room, which was already set up for the late-afternoon meal.

Master Jaymes would not be joining them, Alex knew, being in the habit of taking a tray in his conservatory on weekday afternoons, and he was quite relieved to put off coming face to face with the old man and having him either reel in horror at what Alex had done to himself or furiously thrash him within an inch of his life, assuming one reaction did not follow the other in rapid succession. It would just be him and Jessie for supper, or “tea” as Jessie called it, plus the two other permanent residents of Jaymes Manor, the Master’s distant cousin Roland, a once-promising nobleman about town who’d now retired here in disappointment to the rolling countryside, having failed to interest any debutante—not even a young widow—in five successive seasons of balls and soirées; and his pretty but feckless young sister, Marguerite.

Roland was already present and frowning at his empty plate as if the meal had offended him in advance; on meeting him Alex had assumed that, as he was handsome enough, his failure to attract a mate must have had something to do with his personality, and over the two and a half years Alex had spent in residence there had been ample opportunities to confirm this theory. Marguerite, meanwhile, present as well and politely awaiting the boys’ arrival, was their age and on the whole genuinely charming, witty in conversation, and quite attractive for her sex, with ringlets of strawberry curls, a heart-shaped face, a demure bosom, and wide, cornflower blue eyes. She had, however, been trained by her elders to attach herself to any prospective male like a limpet, which became rather tiresome. She’d given Alex a go early on, him being, with the dark skin and brawn of a laborer, exactly the wrong choice and there an excitingly exotic specimen; but then Jessie had turned up, with his sweet smiles, lithe figure, and angelic visage, and her infatuation with Alex had melted away like an ice sculpture at a June wedding. Alex had never been so grateful to be relieved of a girl’s attentions in his life.

Alex greeted the others and seated himself by Marguerite and across from Roland, forcing Jessie to settle in opposite the young lady—directly in her line of sight. Jessie shouldered the burden gamely and offered her a smile and a nod as he sat. “Miss Shelton,” he said, acknowledging her before turning to his left. “Lord Shelton.”

“Barker,” Roland grunted. He frowned at Jessie. “You’re damp.”

Jessie smiled brightly at him. “I’m afraid we were caught in the parlor during the afternoon shower,” he said. “Bad luck, I’m afraid.”

Roland grunted again. “I don’t know why Nestor doesn’t knock down part of that wall and put a door in,” he grumbled to no one in particular—Nestor being Master Jayme’s Christian name, which no one used but Roland.

“I think it’s grand,” Marguerite enthused, gazing adoringly at Jessie across the table. “A bit of damp in your lovely hair brings out its hidden colors perfectly, I say. It’s marvelous!”

Alex looked over at him, inclined to agree. Though he kept it cut quite short Jessie’s hair was a very vibrant yellow that caught the sun and, apparently, a bit of rain equally fetchingly.

Jessie met Alex’s gaze and nodded subtly toward Marguerite, as if to say, Do something about her. Alex grinned.

“Nonsense. Now, if I ran this place—” Roland’s wandering stare latched onto Alex. “I say, Thompson, what the devil’s wrong with your eyes?”

Alex blinked at him. “Cataracts,” he answered immediately, somewhat to his own surprise. Evidently some part of his brain must have been working on this question behind the scrims.

“Cataracts?” Roland repeated in disbelief.

“Cataracts?” Marguerite said, turning to him with a tiny concerned crease between her perfectly tweezed brows.

“Cataracts?” echoed Jessie, just to get in on the fun.

“The kind you can see through,” Alex elaborated helpfully.

“I’ve never seen cataracts like that before,” Roland said doubtfully.

“Silver cataracts,” Jessie assured him. “Very rare.”

“Entirely congenital,” Alex said.

“Affects less than a hundredth of a percent of the population,” Jessie put in.

“Manifests at twenty-five,” Alex said.

“Also known in the medical textbooks as ‘jubilee cataracts’,” Jessie added, his own eyes alight. Alex had to press his lips together to keep from smiling.

Roland hmphed. “My condolences, then.”

“Thank you, Lord Shelton,” Alex answered politely.

“It’s ghastly! Are you sure you are all right, then, Mr. Thompson?” Marguerite asked.

“Quite all right, thank you, Miss Shelton.”

“And you can see well despite your condition, you say?” she asked, amazed.

“Perfectly well,” he assured her. “Although—I’m sad to report that some of my colors are a bit swapped around. Most inconvenient.”

“Swapped around!” Marguerite exclaimed.

“Quite!” He leaned forward slightly, to lend an air of conspiracy. “For example, Mr. Barker’s lovely hair you mentioned?” She nodded, wide-eyed. “I now see it as a torrid lilac.”

Marguerite gasped, then giggled. “Are you having me on, Mr. Thompson?” she admonished, obviously delighted.

“I am, Miss Shelton!” he confirmed. She giggled again. He glanced over at Jessie, who was smiling and wiggling his brows, tilting his head incrementally toward Marguerite.

Alex narrowed his eyes at him, his smile growing crooked. So, you really want me to do something, eh? he thought. Right here at the dinner table?

Mrs. Anderssen came out with the soup, and while they were all distracted, Alex unfocused his vision and allowed himself to slide gently backwards along the living, twisting shape of Jessie’s own being-history… back to the very day they’d first met, two years and one month past.

Alex remembered the day well, but it was still a shock to see it manifested again before his eyes, as though being reenacted by a troupe of actors with a perfect resemblance to their subjects. Jessie stood at the center of the entrance hall, trunks and cases littered about him, in fine clothes of black and bottle green, full of rage at being foisted on a stranger after the death of his family. His well-trimmed hair, the cause of so much comment in the present day, was ruffled and out of place, as though he’d been running fingers through it in frustration. Master Jaymes stood before him, cold and implacable as he explained the parameters of his new life, just as he had done with Alex only months before: how, in return for the status of ward, Jessie would train with all his abilities in the secret arts of alchemy, sorcery, and augury, the prospect of being turned out into a ditch forever before him should he slacken his efforts for a single day.

Alex looked around the grand hall, glittering in the reflected sunlight from the chandelier, and spotted himself lurking in the doorway to the east wing. He blushed to see his own face: past Alex was transparently captivated by this pale and gorgeous demon that had descended into his world, this creature with divine visage and a heart of fire, who dared to stare daggers at the terrible old man who held their fate in his hands.

Alex shook his head. He had not even known he liked boys before he’d met Jessie, and in fact still had not for a long time afterward: he’d thought his infatuation was puerile admiration for his fearless new brother, until a summertime incident at a swimming hole when he’d beheld, with immediate physical reaction, the revelation that was Jessie’s naked backside.

At once amused and chagrinned, Alex turned from his younger, naiver self and faced Jessie. Ignoring the Master he approached close to his friend’s still, time-frozen form. With a giddy sense of audacity he reached out to cup Jessie’s cheek. He half expected the chill immutability of a statue, but Jessie’s face felt warm and inviting, and he let himself caress Jessie’s cheek with his whole hand, then his neck and scalp. The hair was soft and thick, the yellow catching the light almost breathtakingly. Alex nodded and did what he had come to do.

No haircuts, he thought, firming the words in his head as he stroked the top of Jessie’s head. It occurred to him that no haircuts forever might cause problems eventually, and while it was tempting to envision an 80-year-old Jessie hauling his whitened hair around in a wheelbarrow he prudently modified his dictum. No haircuts until my present day, he thought. Letting the words solidify he infused them into the scalp he was caressing, then stepped back. Swiftly suppressing an urge to stroke Jessie’s firm, round bottom he departed the frozen moment, hurrying down the months as quickly as he could, beyond eager to see what he had wrought.

And then he was back, seated there at the supper table with the morose Roland, his lovestruck sister, and the object of his own affections. Just in that moment, Mrs. Anderssen moved her arm away from ladling soup into Jessie’s bowl, revealing—

Alex quickly covered his mouth to suppress a gasp. Jessie’s luscious, remarkably blond hair, once cut brutally short, was now a full foot longer than it had been a moment before, falling on his shoulders in a riveting cascade of golds and yellows. Its slight wave lent body to the flow of locks, and a natural sheen drew the eye and held it helplessly captive. Alex found himself both stunned and aroused at how the allure of Jessie’s hair complemented his elegantly handsome face and form—and the fact that Alex had made this change, that he had willfully transformed Jessie with his new silver gift, was, frankly, as erotic and stimulating as Jessie’s heightened beauty.

Then he noticed an unexpected side effect. Jessie always kept himself perfectly smooth-shaven—or had, in the reality Alex had just wiped away with a caress of his friend’s once-shorn scalp. Now, however, a single day’s blond stubble, just a shade darker than his waterfall of flax and sunlight, cheekily lined his jaw and lips, as though never cutting his hair had made him less diligent about the daily smoothing of his angelic face as well. It suited him so well, framing his face and complementing his hazel eyes, that Alex in that moment found his manhood actually awakening just at the sight of it. Despite having had free rein to touch him mere moments ago and two years past, a painful longing to stroke and kiss that beard and those lips flooded through him then with the violence of an ocean tide in a winter storm.

He was so lost in Jessie’s altered look it was several pounding heartbeats before he realized Jessie was staring hard at him, and something in his expression told Alex the other man was himself both shocked and oddly aroused at being unknowingly transformed, dunked in change like a blind man walking a plank.

Embarrassed, Alex tore his gaze away, only for his eyes to land on Marguerite also staring at Jessie’s long hair with shameless adoration. Unable to give voice to his own lust, Alex couldn’t help teasing his seatmate for hers. “Do you like what you see, Miss Shelton?” he asked, hiding a smirk.

“I do,” Marguerite sighed, plopping her chin in her hand—much to the annoyance of Mrs. Anderssen, who was at that moment on the other side of her trying to serve the young lady her soup. “If only mine were as nice. How do you always make it shine like that, Mr. Barker?” she asked.

Alex could not help but snicker, not that she noticed. “Your hair is also quite lovely, Miss Shelton,” he said truthfully.

“Quite,” Roland said, between sips of soup, though his frowning gaze was directed not at her but at the slightly drooping flower arrangement serving as the centerpiece. Evidently he was well conditioned as a young noble to join in on any compliment of a young lady whether he was paying attention or not.

“Not as lovely as his,” Marguerite said resignedly.

“I would not see you sad, miss,” Jessie said forthrightly, “and so, out of respect to you as a sister and a friend, I shall gladly gift you with my very lustrous locks.” Marguerite perked up at this, watching him avidly. “See?” he said, grasping at his hairline with the bottoms of both hands, as if he were doffing a wig. “It removes ever so easily—no! My heavens, it’s stuck!” He pretended to yank at his “wig”, to no avail. “My word! Lord Shelton, quick! What shall I do?”

Roland turned his glower on Jessie, annoyed and confused. “Eh?” he barked.

Marguerite burst into giggles, and Alex grinned, basking in Jessie’s smile when he turned it, as he knew Jessie always would, toward him.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Between the meal and various conversations afterwards it was a full hour before Alex got his wish and he was alone again with Jessie, upstairs in the hallways that led only to their apartments, well away from the rest of the household. The sun had set, and the gaslights were intentionally kept low in this part of the manor, so his sunshine man looked pleasingly like a calm and soothing sunset as they stood before each other, both achingly aware of how much had changed between them.

Alex cast his fears aside and lifted a brazen hand to brush the soft, young beard adorning the shorter man’s cheek. It felt so different from the touch he’d stolen in the entranceway, in the frozen moment in time—not just because Jessie had been younger and clean-shaven then, but because then he had been unaware. Now, Jessie was watching him, his hazel eyes bright as he let himself be touched.

“Did you feel this?” he asked, cupping Jessie’s cheek. “When you first came here?”

He slid his fingers up into Jessie’s glossy hair, and Jessie closed his eyes for a moment, giving himself to the gentle pleasure. When he opened them, they were sharp and penetrating, as if Jessie could see deeper now into Alex than he ever could before.

“I felt… something,” Jessie said quietly. “A hint of something. Now I know what it was.”

Alex continued carding his hair through the luscious mane he’d given him. Jessie smiled, and a little hint of wickedness came into those bright eyes of his. “Maybe you should go back there,” Jessie said after a moment, “and make it so that instead of having our own apartments—” He let the sentence hang, unfinished.

Alex’s breath caught, and his hand stilled for a moment. Then he resumed pushing his hand through Jessie’s hair. He chose his words carefully. “I would prefer,” he said, following his hand with his eyes instead of meeting Jessie’s gaze directly, “that our first night rooming together… not be a memory.” He swallowed, but when he checked for Jessie’s reaction, he was smiling.

Alex slid his hand down to Jessie’s cheek, and Jessie lifted up his own much lighter hand and caught it in his own. He was still smiling. “Fair enough,” Jessie said. “But I do have… ideas.”

Alex smiled. “So do I,” he said, before bending down and taking Jessie in a long, sweet kiss.

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