“Falling Asleep on a Stranger”
story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
Content Warning: DYSPHORIA, REFERENCES TO GORE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT
Rory drifted in and out of sleep all afternoon, jerking awake several times from vivid nightmares. An especially memorable one was of looking down to find a filth-covered Juliana Nimri in his arms, bound and begging for mercy, while he gripped the handle of the athame lodged in her chest.
He was lying awake on his bedroll, afraid to let himself drift off again, when he finally heard the stamping of Ordinator boots, a jingling of keys, and the thudding of Jules’s cane approaching in the hall. He pushed himself to his feet, shuffled readily to the front of his cell.
“Let’s go.” Jules looked him in the eye for half a beat, then averted his gaze.
A pair of Portillo’s Chicago dogs, french fries, and cheese sauce were waiting for Rory, along with a duffel bag of his stuff Abby had brought from Mom’s house, in the Enforcement conference room with the big Auctoritas Magicae seal on the wall, where Jules took Rory to get his eyewitness statement. Rory was more than a little surprised Jules had gone to the trouble of picking up what had been his self-professed favorite fast-food meal back in the day. To his regret, Rory couldn’t put away two loaded beef franks and a tub of fries anymore—he wasn’t thirteen and in the middle of a runaway growth spurt—but he resolved to wolf down as much of the meal as he could stomach.
Jules sat in silence across the table from Rory while he ate, poring over a stack of old leather-bound books he’d brought with him in his satchel. He had changed at some point, out of his work clothes and into a Mouse on the Keys t-shirt, worn jeans, and red Chucks. Rory wondered if his habitual smacking still annoyed Jules as much as it had back in the day. He half-expected the alchemist to look up from his reading, dark eyes wide, and say, Christ, Rory. Close your fucking mouth.
“Did you do your tattoos yourself?” Rory asked, around a bite of his hot dog.
Jules looked up at him as if he’d forgotten he was there. “Yeah.” He resumed his reading.
“Dude, that’s fucking rad. And they’re activated by touch?”
“They’re activated when the channels come in contact with reagent material at the same moment I complete one of the arrays.” Jules displayed the partial circles and symbols tattooed on his right finger-pads and palm.
“Jesus. How the hell do you do that as fast as you do?”
“Practice. Lots of it. Are you ready to give your statement?” Jules set aside his book.
“I guess so.” Truth be told, Rory wasn’t looking forward to it. The details of that night weren’t something he enjoyed calling to mind. The stench of death. Max’s eyes, rolling in terror in the filth-stained mask of her face. The way her body had lurched with the force of the athame sawing her flesh and bone.
He told the tale start to finish, with as much detachment as he could muster. Jules took notes the whole time, his expression impassive, except at the moment Rory mentioned the rotted meat Max had pulled out of her vagina. It wasn’t that the alchemist’s affect changed much even then—it was more that Rory noticed his knuckles turning white on the hand that gripped his pen.
“How did you escape with her?” Jules asked, once Rory had finished describing the scene.
Rory went silent a moment. “Just…grabbed her and left.”
Jules raised an eyebrow. “They didn’t put up a fight?”
Rory studied him. We’re not friends, Jules had said to him earlier. But, as far as Rory knew, Jules had kept the secret of Rory’s maleficium to this day.
Even after what had happened that day in Magic Theory class.
“You want the truth?” Rory asked.
Jules surveyed him. “Off the record.” He laid down his pen, folded his hands on the table. “Did you kill any of them?”
“Not magically,” Rory was glad he could honestly say.
“Ran the cogimancer over with the van.”
Jules picked up his pen again, wrote. “Anything else I should know?”
Rory shook his head. “That’s pretty much the story. I drove and drove till I got her here. The rest you already know.”
Jules sat back in his chair. His ink-black forelock fell over one eye as he twirled his pen, baton-like, between his fingers.
“What do you make of it?” ventured Rory.
Jules chucked the pen on the table, leaned forward on his elbows, raked back the rogue sheaf of hair—which promptly fell across his eye again. “I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like any magic I’ve ever heard of. It doesn’t even sound like magic. Sounds like some mundane metalhead Satanist’s concept of magic. Magic relies on form; pattern; repetition. That they got any results the way they did flies in the face of the most fundamental precepts of magic theory.”
Rory stared at the table, heaved a sigh. Jules had always remembered even the blandest details of every subject they’d been taught at the Academy. He was a veritable encyclopedia of arcane knowledge. If he wasn’t familiar with a school of magic—even an obscure apostate one—it was a safe bet no one else at the Enclave would be, either. “Well, how the hell are we gonna help Max if we don’t even know what they did to her?”
Jules shrugged his eyebrows. “I’ve got some of the best researchers in the Alchemy department looking for anything they can find on the ‘gash in reality’ concept. I’ll have them expand their search to the elements of this apostate ritual. And going forward I’ll be monitoring Max closely for any changes in her condition that might suggest a cause or course of action.” He eyed Rory. “That said, it seems to me the best thing we can do is catch the fuckers who did this, and get it from them straight.”
Rory grinned. “Now you’re fuckin’ talking.”
“We’ll hit the crime scene tomorrow night.” Jules got up from his chair, stuffed his notes in an accordion file.
“Why not tonight?”
“’Cause it’s late, and I have work in the morning.” Jules shouldered his satchel, picked up his cane. “Anyway, I thought you wanted to see Max.”
“Hell yeah I do.” Rory sprang to his feet.
Rory watched curiously as Jules swiped a keycard through the lock on the door of the Alfheim Hotel, Room 808. He’d never been inside an Alfheim room, in spite of having passed through the lobby every day on his way to and from school during his Academy years. This one was a twin, tastefully decorated, with a view overlooking the square. It was way cleaner and more stylish than any hotel room Rory’d ever stayed in. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trashing the place just by setting foot in it.
Which kind of made the rebel in him want to actually trash it.
By the look of things, Jules had settled in that afternoon. A handful of toiletries were lined up neatly beside the sink. A few pairs of trousers, some shirts, suit jackets, and ties were hanging up in the closet. A laptop and cell phone sat plugged in on the nightstand next to one of the beds.
Rory crossed to the unclaimed bed, the one closest to the window, and dropped his duffel on it. He had already changed out of his Enforcement standard-issue prison duds back at the Enclave, and now had on a Yeah Yeah Yeahs shirt, his favorite tight black skinny jeans, and checkered black-and-white Vans slip-ons.
He felt a thrill of excitement at the prospect of seeing Max again. Bounced over to the full-length mirror, fussed with his short, shaggy, highlighted crop. His face was looking downright whiskery from days without a shave, and, since his patchy beard had a way of growing in the shape of a goatee, he was starting to look like his own evil twin. He’d definitely have to deal with this situation, he decided, before Max saw him.
“Hey, you got a razor I can borrow?” he asked Jules, without thinking.
Jules looked at him with a hint of amusement. “No.”
“Right. Uh…sorry.” Rory was savvy enough to know that Jules having been assigned female at birth didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have anything to shave. But it was pretty plain, if you looked at him, that he didn’t.
“Don’t be,” shrugged Jules. Rory wasn’t sure, but he thought he looked pleased. “I’ll call the front desk and have one brought up. Gel and aftershave, too.”
Roughly ten minutes later, having denuded his face to his satisfaction, Rory emerged from the bathroom to find Jules sitting on his bed with his earbuds in, shoes and socks off, pawing through the same books he’d been looking at earlier in the conference room. Rory had the briefest flashback to seventh year: Jules sitting on Rory’s bed at his mom’s house, trying to convince him to actually study for Divine Math with him like he’d promised—and Rory talking him into playing World of Darkness for the next three hours instead.
“I’m ready to go see Max,” he announced.
Jules pulled out one earbud. Rory repeated himself. LITE was playing so loud Rory could hear it from across the room.
“Through there.” Jules pointed. “I’m not gonna babysit you. Just don’t go making a fucking break for it.”
Rory followed the direction of Jules’s finger, saw a door to the right of the dresser.
“She’s in there?” he asked.
“I had Enchantment set up a quarantine next-door so I can keep a closer eye on her, and so she doesn’t have to stay shut up in that shitty white room in Medicinal Magic.” Jules rummaged in the nightstand next to his bed, tossed something small and metallic at Rory. Rory caught it awkwardly against his chest. “Constitutional Defense ring. It’s probably not any use against what’s ailing her, but better safe than sorry I guess.”
“Eh.” Rory eyed the engraved dark-metal band for a second, then tossed it back to Jules. The alchemist caught it readily with one hand. “I’ll take my chances.”
“Fair enough.” Jules stashed the ring, popped his earbud back in.
Rory’d been expecting more of a fight. He could only assume, based on his old schoolmate’s non-reaction, that Jules was pretty confident the ring would be no protection against Max’s rift.
… Which made sense. To Rory’s memory, Constitutional Defense rings were designed to defend against virulent illnesses. As Jules had explained it, what Max had wasn’t an infection, either magical or mundane.
It was a fucking tear in the fabric of her being.
Rory took a deep breath, opened the door. The quarantine field sparked with a pale blue static as his hand passed through it to knock on the second door that locked from the adjacent room.
“Who’ssat?” chirped a raspy mezzo-soprano.
Jesus. He’d actually forgotten what her voice sounded like.
Rory tried to think of something clever to say in response, and realized he hadn’t known her long enough to know her sense of humor. They’d had a short flirtatious exchange, then been plunged into the pit of hell together. What did you even say to a girl after that?
“Rory,” he said finally, feeling like a tool.
Maybe she doesn’t wanna see me.
Maybe she forgot who I am.
Seconds later the door flew open. A small hand grabbed a fistful of his shirt and dragged him into the room.
“Rory, oh my God!” All at once her face was buried in his chest and her arms wrapped around him like she was drowning and he was a buoy.
She nudged the door shut behind him with her foot, hauled him over to the bed. Hers was king-sized. Her room was a double, but was otherwise identical to Rory and Jules’s.
“Oh, praise Jeebus.” She plopped down on the foot of her bed. “You’re actually as cute as I remember. Prison didn’t change you, did it?”
Rory stared at her. She looked healthy, and was very much the wide-eyed elf he remembered. It was hard to fathom that, the last time he’d seen her, she’d been screaming her guts out covered in filth and gore.
Or that there was now a gaping fucking hole in the middle of her chest.
His eyes drifted toward the spot as he thought of it and ended up lingering on the details of her shirt. It was a cut that had been in vogue a few seasons back, pastel-blue, with a lacy neckline and short puffed sleeves.
“That shirt…” He frowned—then realized exactly where he’d seen it before, and clamped his mouth shut.
God. Try thinking before you talk, dumbass.
She glanced down at it. “Oh, it’s not mine. All my clothes are still at stupid Dennis’s.”
“Konami Code bassist.”
“Right.” It felt weird to be talking about normal life stuff from before the abduction.
“Yeah. It’s whatever. He can fucking keep them. I so don’t give a shit right now. Jules gave me this outfit and a bunch of other stuff. Fits great—except all the pants are super long.” She gestured to the rolled-up cuffs of her jeans. “He must have a sister who’s a freaking runway model or something.”
Yep. A sister.
Max was silent a moment. “Oh, no. This is weird, isn’t it?”
“No.” Rory shook his head vigorously. Then…“Maybe. I don’t know. Is it? Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.” Max laughed through a sigh. It came out sounding like a hiccup. “I understand if you…don’t find me so attractive anymore. You know. After the way I looked last time you saw me.”
“What? No! No. God, are you kidding? How could you think that?”
Tears flooded her eyes. “I don’t know. It was disgusting. I was disgusting.”
“No!” Rory wrapped her in his arms. “I never thought you were disgusting. Never.” She looked broken and ashamed, and he hated it. “I should have gotten there sooner.” He felt a surge of anger at himself. “I shouldn’t have let them get to you in the first place.”
“Rory.” She sat back, looked up at him. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“I have nightmares every time I close my eyes.”
Rory sighed, then folded her close again, rested his head on top of hers. “God, I wish I had the power to turn back time. It was a good night, right? Before…”
“It was a great night,” whispered Max.
Rory looked down at her, hesitating, then tilted her face up toward his. He took in her big hazel eyes, her mousy upper lip, her small pointed chin. “You are the farthest possible thing from disgusting.”
Her lips parted. He curled her in closer and kissed her. Her tongue tasted of menthols and sour apple candy.
She wrapped her arms around his waist, burrowed her head into his neck. He clasped her tightly and sighed.
“I…kind of hit on Jules,” she said.
Rory blinked. He didn’t know what to do or say.
“I thought you were gone forever,” she went on, “and I was kinda stir-crazy by that point. This was earlier today.”
“Okay.” Rory genuinely didn’t know how he felt about this. His emotions had gone weirdly blank.
“It was nothing, seriously, and he pretty much blew me off. I just thought I should be the one to tell you so you’d know it didn’t mean anything. I had no idea at the time you two were friends.”
“We’re not friends,” said Rory automatically.
“Didn’t he tell you that?”
Max looked at him, then nestled her head once more against his neck. “I guess he didn’t say one way or the other.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Are you mad?” she asked finally.
“I don’t think so,” said Rory, and meant it, though he still wasn’t sure. He definitely felt…something. It just wasn’t jealousy. At least not the ragey, tunnel-vision kind he would have usually felt. Maybe it was just that recent events had put the kind of things that would normally freak him out into perspective.
“He’s…a little bit of an odd bird, isn’t he?” said Max. “Jules?”
“Is he? I mean…yeah, I guess he is. But he’s super smart, you know. And he’s had a different kind of life.”
“You don’t talk about him like you’re not friends,” noted Max. “Anyway, I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Odd is interesting. I like odd. And Jules is nice. He was the first one around here besides you to treat me like a person.”
“God. I’m really sorry they just chucked you in a room like that.” Rory ground his teeth. “I thought you’d be all right here as long as I was with you. But then…”
“Stop being sorry, dumbass. You’re the reason I’m still alive.”
Another silence. “You get a chance to let your family know you’re okay?”
“I don’t talk to my family. I doubt they even know I’m gone.”
Rory didn’t know what to say to that.
“Dropped out of school last semester,” Max went on. “Had no clue just how screwed my useless ass would be in the recession job market. Just dumped my boyfriend who I was living with. So…yeah. As of this time, I have pretty much zero footprint in the world.” She glanced up at him with a hollow smile. “This stupid void can eat me, and no one will care.”
“That,” said Rory, “is not true.”
Max gave a sad little laugh. “Rory, Rory, Rory…I don’t know if you know what you’re getting into with me.”
Rory took a deep breath. “Don’t know, don’t care. I’m in. You understand?” He ducked, tilted her chin up, held her gaze. “Look at me, Max—you’re not going through this alone.”
Tears leaked onto her cheeks. “Man.” She chuckled hoarsely, wiped them away. Smiled. “What the hell’d I ever do so right?”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into a kiss.
Rory would have assumed Jules hadn’t stirred from his bed—where he sat now, same as before, surrounded by books and notes—if the alchemist hadn’t at some point changed into his pajamas: a familiar, faded cotton tee that read, The Hamptons: Long Island, New York, and a less-familiar pair of red athletic shorts. Rory found himself staring at the downy dark hair on his former friend’s long white legs.
Jules pulled out his earbuds, left them dangling around his neck. “How is she?” He followed Rory’s gaze, frowned slightly.
“Sorry,” Rory deflected. “I, uh…thought your hurt leg would look worse.” Now that he looked closer, actually, there were dozens of scars running the length of Jules’s left leg in a corkscrew pattern. They were mostly only visible because they interrupted the hair.
“Oh.” Jules lightly touched one of the scars. “Yeah, they left it soaking in panchrest for hours after the psychic surgery, so the surface is in pretty good shape. And it’s healing well internally, too. But it’s still not quite a hundred percent. How’s Max?”
“Sleepy. Otherwise not too bad, considering.”
“Mm. I’ll let her rest tonight. I can get those measurements I need in the morning.”
“What are you studying so hard?” Rory went digging in his duffel bag for his toothbrush. He came across a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies either Abby or Mom had thrown in there for him and decided to hell with the toothbrush for now.
“One of these three texts, if I remember right, had the most plausible theory I’ve seen regarding the origins of prima materia.”
“Eh. Forget I asked.” Rory threw back a couple of the Double Chocolate Milanos.
“You should be interested in this.”
“Think about it. If prima materia had an origin, that means there had to be a time when it didn’t exist.”
Rory slowed his chewing. “Like in the inside of Max’s hole.”
“That…really doesn’t sound right.”
“I’m going with ‘rift.’”
“‘Rift’ it is. Carry on.”
“If it’s true,” resumed Jules, “that there was a time when prima materia didn’t exist, then, if we can reach an understanding of the forces that first brought it into being…”
Rory’s eyebrows shot up. “We can fix Max.”
“Maybe. And that’s one whopper of a maybe. We’re basically talking about reenacting the creation here. And that’s a little more playing God than even I am comfortable with.”
“Hey, if there’s a chance it could work…right?”
“It’s not just about whether it’ll work. When you fuck around with things on such a fundamental level, one minor misstep could have cataclysmic consequences. Think of splitting the atom. Or vacuum decay, if you’ve heard of that.”
Rory shook his head. “But, dude, you already make stuff out of nothing, don’t you? With your tattoos?”
“I convert my own mana, or transmute substances available in my environment. In spite of appearances, it all checks out in terms of equivalency. Replacing nothing with something is a whole different ballgame. And that’s what has to be done to fix Max.”
Rory fell silent. He’d gotten his hopes up. Now they were in danger of taking a nosedive. “It’s at least worth looking into,” he said at last. “Right?”
“What do you think I’m doing?” Jules waved at the piles of papers and books. “Honestly, though, intriguing as this angle is, it’s pretty far-fetched. Even assuming I can come up with a way to do it, I’d only consider it as a last resort. I still think our surest bet will be shaking down those apostates.”
“Can I ask you something?”
Jules eyed him. “Depends.”
“It’s not about…past stuff. I just really am wondering why you’re going to so much trouble here. For Max, and, uh…and me.”
“Are you fucking kidding? This is fascinating stuff.” He was being sincere. Rory knew better than anyone how rare it was to see Jules Nimri this animated. “But also…” Jules sobered. “You know. Max is cool. So of course I want to do what I can to help her. Not to mention I’m a Martial Magus now. Taking down apostates is literally my job.”
Rory nodded, rested his Milanos bag on the nightstand. Resumed his quest to find his toothbrush. “So…no luck yet, huh?” He nodded toward Jules’s books.
“Nope.” Jules grunted as he eased shut the ponderous tome in front of him. “Starting to think I’ve forgotten which book it was in. Maybe one of my researchers will run across it.” He yawned. “If not, I’ll make an appointment with Grand Archivist Loris-Beckett. If anyone would know where to find an obscure tidbit like that, it’s her.”
By the time Rory got back from the bathroom, Jules’s lamp was off, and he was laid out beneath his covers like a corpse in a casket, glasses discarded on the nightstand. He opened one eye as Rory passed by him. “I have to be at the Enclave at nine tomorrow. Think you can be up and halfway presentable by eight forty-five?”
“Yeah, no problem.” Rory crawled into bed, heard Jules emit a sigh. “Mind if I have the TV on?” he asked quietly.
Jules’s eyes popped open. “Go for it. I don’t think I can sleep anyway.” He sat up and put his glasses back on. Eyed the books that now sat in a stack on the floor by his bedside.
“Dude, take a break from that stuff,” said Rory. “Watch something stupid with me.”
“I shouldn’t be idle.”
“You haven’t been idle once all day, I bet. Have you?” Rory flipped channels. “Here.” He settled on TV Land. “Let Three’s Company nourish your soul.”
“Oh, God.” Jules settled back against his headboard, let out a chuckle. “You had to be the only thirteen-year-old on Earth in 2004 who was into this show.”
“It’s a classic comedy of errors. And Janet was a formative figure in my budding sexuality. Anyway, laugh all you want. Your fave was Gilligan’s Island.”
“When I was ten,” said Jules. “And how do you even know that? You weren’t there.” He paused. “Anyway, it was a tie, with Adam West’s Batman.”
“Oh, right! You totally had a Robin thing.”
“Shut up. Seriously, why do you know that?”
“You told me, dummy.”
“And I left out Julie Newmar as Catwoman?”
“You definitely, definitely did. I definitely would have remembered that.” Rory hesitated. We’re not friends was still echoing like a warning automation in his brain. “So…you really did like Dick? Er—Grayson? That wasn’t just misdirection?”
“I’m not interested in discussing my sexuality with you, Rory.”
“Sorry.” Rory sank up to his nose beneath the covers, huddled awkwardly. “Now Don Knotts,” he ventured, muffledly, as Mr. Furley blundered onscreen to steal the show. “There’s a sex symbol we can all get behind. Am I right?”
“Turn it down a little bit, will you?” Jules set his glasses on the nightstand, rolled to face away from Rory, burrowed under his sheets. “I think I’m sleepy after all.”
Rory meekly complied.
He sighed, grabbed one of the excess pillows on his bed and hugged it to his chest. He was suddenly alone with his thoughts again. Alone with flashbacks of Max getting hurt—and his own unforgivable fuck-ups.
Another minute or two, and the laugh track on Three’s Company started to grate. Rory turned off the TV, then impulsively climbed out of his bed and crouched beside Jules’s, grunting as he gathered a couple of the heavy alchemy books into his arms.
Jules sat up, stared at him. “What are you doing?”
“I thought I might as well take a crack at these.” Rory felt guilty—though for what, he wasn’t sure. “I seriously can’t sleep.”
“Oh.” Jules frowned slightly. “Well…good luck, then.” He turned away, buried his face in his pillow.
Rory dropped the books onto his bed with a whumph and climbed in after them. They had a distinctive dust-and-old-parchment smell that took him straight back to his Academy days.
He grabbed his Milanos—he’d already brushed his teeth, but fuck it—and started paging through one of the tomes.
“Gah. ‘Good luck’ is right,” he mumbled to himself. The text was written in Ancient Greek and peppered with incomprehensible charts.
He plugged on resolutely, realizing he remembered more Ancient Greek from Academy than he’d thought.
But then he discovered the whole thing was encoded, on top of being written in a dead language—which he’d forgotten was the norm among older magic texts, alchemy texts in particular.
“God fucking dammit,” he sighed.
A small notebook came flying at his head.
“Hey!” he shouted, ducking it. It smacked into the headboard behind him and landed on his bed in a heap. “Jesus, I’ll be quieter!”
“That’s the key,” said Jules. “For the code the author used in that book. You won’t get far without it. Sorry, I’m tired. My aim’s off.”
“Oh,” said Rory. “Thanks.”
Jules dwindled again to an all-but-invisible heap beneath his covers.
Rory picked up the notebook, opened it. Its contents were written in Jules’s lean, taut hand.
He took a deep breath, chowed down on a cookie, and went to work.