“No Hardcore Dancing in the Living Room

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

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Jules arrived home to the suite well after dark to the sound of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on Nick at Nite and the smell of bacon, which he’d learned by now meant Rory must be up and about by himself. Max never watched anything but cartoons. And she never, ever cooked.

The alchemist hung up his coat, glanced at the empty couch, wandered into the kitchen. He found Rory in a t-shirt and tattered sweatpants, hovering over a skillet, poking at four sizzling, thick-cut bacon slices. A bowl sat on the counter nearby, filled almost to the brim with white rice, three glistening sunny-side-up eggs resting on top.

“For you and Max?” Jules asked.

Rory jumped. “Jesus fucking fuck. You’re like a cat. I didn’t hear you come in. Uh—no, this is just for me. Max went out like a light about an hour ago. You eat yet?” He hefted the bacon from the skillet, laid it gently overtop of the eggs, drowned the whole mound of food in sriracha, noisily tucked in.

Jules absently shook his head.

“Want me to make you some?” Rory asked around a giant mouthful.

This moment felt like a dream, Jules realized—the kind where everything seemed weirdly, comfortingly normal, when reality was anything but. Rory in his bare feet, eating standing up, like he’d always done at his house when they were kids. The smell of breakfast food. The canned laughter of a sitcom bubbling in the background.

Maybe the other stuff was the dream. Jules felt a pang in his chest. Maybe this, right now, is the only thing that’s real.

“You okay?” Rory paused, another shovelful of eggs and rice halfway to his face.

“Just tired. You mind if I, uh…with Max tonight?” According to their alternating schedule, tonight should have been Rory’s night to share Max’s bed.

“Not at all, man. It’s cool,” said Rory, as if Jules had asked to borrow his shampoo. “Is, um—is everything okay?”

Jules eyed him, unusually tempted to confide. Max was the one he told all his secrets to these days, but this news would break her. “Good as you’d expect,” he said at last, and proceeded down the hall without looking back.

He knocked gently, cracked open Max’s door.

She was asleep underneath the covers. Jules stripped down to his undershirt and boxers, discarded his street clothes and binder on the pile of her stuff on the floor. Crawled into bed close beside her, braving the perpetual breath of ice that rose from her chest, the familiar, queasy magnetism of the void.

She stirred, made a sound. He enfolded her, sighed at the sensation of her kisses on his neck. “Hey,” he whispered. “How you feeling?”

He could hear the grin in her voice as she fondled his backside. “Real good now.”

He smiled in spite of himself, rested his head against hers. “Can I ask you something random?”

“Anytime, podnah.”

She was in a good mood. Which just kind of made the whole thing that much worse. “Was your childhood…normal?”

Max gave a faint snort. “Dude. What even is normal?”

“Dunno.” Jules stroked her back, kissed her hair. “Just wondering if you ever felt weird as a kid. Or, like…if your family was weird.”

“I mean, duh. You know me. I was a total fruit bat. All the kids at school hated me.”

Jules laughed, cuddled her closer—swallowed the lump in his throat. “Really?”

“Chyeah, dude. I was a freak and a half. I always made up these nonsense song-and-dance numbers. I had this sailor dress in third grade that I wore to school every day for like a month. One time I stole my mom’s eyebrow pencil and started drawing freckles on my face every day ’cause I was obsessed with Pippi Longstocking. I was such a dork. Nobody wanted to be seen with me. I was a total pariah.”

“I…can’t even picture you in a dress. I mean, you’d look great in one, but you know.”

“Yeah. I’m a lot less flamboyant these days. Don’t like people looking at me as much anymore. Go figure.”

Jules kissed her. “We would’ve gotten along.”

“You think so? You, preppy rich kid, and me, incorrigible clown?”

“What makes you think I was preppy?”

“Dude. I’ve seen your old clothes.”

“Point. No, I know I would have liked you. I mean, Rory was the last person you would’ve thought I’d be friends with, but…yeah.”

“Rory’s kind of like me on steroids.”

“Yikes that comparison.”

“Sorry.”

Jules held her closer, sighed. He wanted more than anything to just keep rambling on wherever the conversation took them. Have one of their giddy all-nighters, talk about all the stupid things they would have done together as kids in some awesome otherworld where their spheres had overlapped sooner and for wildly different reasons. 

Unfortunately, he’d come here tonight with a purpose. “So you: weird, parents: normal, then? Nothing, um…I dunno. Strange about them?”

Max was silent a moment. “You have a reason for asking this. Don’t you?”

Good job, Nimri. Subtle. “I don’t know. Just thinking.”

“About what?”

“I…dunno. Just realized I don’t know much about your family. Doesn’t that seem wrong?”

“You didn’t ask what my family was like. You asked if they were weird.” Max’s eyes glittered in the dark as she searched his face. “If there’s something you need to know, just ask me. And if there’s something you know that I don’t, fucking tell me. Don’t handle me with kid gloves. You know I can’t stand that.”

He felt her pulse in her neck against his arm, pumping faster and harder. Flashed back to the other night in her old room downstairs, her fingernails digging trenches in her skin, her head slamming into the wall once—twice—three excruciating times before he was able to stop her. Shuddered; wrapped her tighter in his arms. “Was there ever anything to make you think, you know…that something about the circumstances of your…your conception, your birth…was…unusual in some way?”

She stiffened. “I…used to wonder why my parents had me. My sister was so much older, out on her own by the time I was born. And my mom and dad always acted like they never even wanted me. Whenever my mom lost her shit she’d go on and on about how she could have gotten ‘so much further’ in her career if it wasn’t for me. Whereas Dad mostly just acted like I didn’t exist.” She hesitated. “Why?”

“What ethnicity were your parents?” murmured Jules, on a hunch.

“Ashkenazi Jew.”

“Both of them?”

“Yeah—why?”

Jules thought back to the day he and Max had first met, when he’d accidentally read her DNA. Half European Jewish, half European non-Jewish ancestry.

“Tell me why you’re asking all this.” Max pulled away, propped herself up. “Tell me right now.”

Jules took slow breaths; got ready to convert his mana, fast. “Max…the man you know as your father… It looks like he’s not your biological father.”

Max’s voice was tight. “Why do you say that?”

Jules found her hand beneath the covers. She jerked it away.

“What’s happening to you now”—he took a shaky breath—“seems to be part of a plan that’s been a very long time in the making.”

“What does that have to do with my dad?”

Jules struggled a moment, wondered how he could possibly break this news gently. “Your biological father, whoever he is,” he said at last, softly—“I…think he may have been working with the people who hurt you. Your conception, your birth…it looks like it was all part of some long-term plan.”

Max’s breathing rattled in the dark. “Are you sure? You shouldn’t say a thing like that if you’re not sure.” He heard a change in her voice. Felt the gravity of the rift grow stronger.

“Max, listen.” He reached for her, fought to keep the panic out of his voice. “It doesn’t matter what they planned for you. What matters is who you are now, who you’re choosing to be. Max—they’ll never have you.”

She struck out suddenly with unnatural strength—hit him square in the chest with both hands, sent him flying off the bed. An unearthly shriek lacerated the air as he lay on the floor where he’d fallen, struggling in vain to draw air.

His lungs finally opened back up. He sucked in big gulps of oxygen, dragged himself upright and back onto the bed. “Max…”

She let out another ear-piercing scream that glissandoed suddenly, startlingly down to a choral bass roar.

“No, no, no, please, Max, please, stay with me, please. I love you!” Jules reached for her; couldn’t hear his own voice anymore over the raw sounds gushing from her throat.

Her hands curled into claws, went for her face. Jules grabbed her wrists, but she twisted free with a snarl, seized him by the hair.

Hurled him full-force into the chest of drawers.

“BETRAYER,” she hissed, in a thousand guttural voices. “HOW VAIN WAS ADAM.” She bit down on her lip till the skin broke, huffing and puffing through her nose like a bull—spat at him, blood spraying: “THE POISON WAS IN THE SEED!”

Jules ignited his central seal.

He hurled his full weight on top of her, sealed his left hand—which he dimly registered looked weird, was slick with blood—over her mouth, right fingers flying. She bucked like a bronco. His fingers kept slipping; he had to abort and restart the sequence several times. The slightest mistake, the wrong alchemical reaction would have dire consequences.

Finally, he succeeded. Max went limp.

Light flooded the room. Jules looked up to see Rory standing over the bed, saying something that was muted by the roar of Jules’s pulse in his ears.

“What happened? Are you okay?” he finally made out.

Jules stared down, panting, at the motionless form of Max. The rift now yawned over the neckline of her tank top, reached long branches up the sides of her neck. Its tendrils wound down her upper arms and up over the lower half of her face; the corner of her blood-smeared mouth; into one of her ears. The unblemished parts of her skin looked dull and gray.

The last few vapors of the sedative Jules had given her drifted up toward him. He clapped his right hand over his nose and mouth. “Don’t breathe it,” he warned Rory, as dizziness set in.

Jules wavered as Rory pulled him to his feet, helped him to the accent chair by the window. “You hurt?”

Jules shook his head, then followed Rory’s horrified downward stare, saw his bloody left hand, realized it felt like fire.

“Fuck,” said Rory. “Jules, what the hell is going on? You have to tell me.”

Jules opened his mouth to speak and broke down in tears.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” The Fresh Prince laugh track droned in Rory’s ears as he stared at the wreckage of Jules’s left hand. Deep gashes marred three of the alchemist’s long, tapered fingers, one of them exposing bone. One knuckle was slightly bent back. Blood streamed in tiny rivers over the fragile bones of his wrist, dripped into a waiting bowl of panchrest on the kitchen table in front of him.

“Must’ve happened when she threw me into the chest of drawers.” Jules’s face was still blotchy from crying, but right now he was all business. “Just pop it back into joint and smooth down the displaced flesh, before a skin forms on the panchrest.”

“You need to go to Medicinal Magic.”

“I can’t risk them figuring out how it happened.”

“Isn’t their shit fucking confidential?”

“DeShay Wade was asking questions that night after Lit Sister. He’s Prefect Weyland’s husband and General Wade’s cousin. I’m not taking any chances.”

“Chances on what, exactly?”

“Them finding out about Max.” Jules gritted his teeth. “Come on, fucking hurry. It hurts like a bitch.”

“Fuck.” Rory gripped Jules’s hand in one of his own, held of the out-of-joint finger in the other, wrenched it back into alignment. Jules made a pitiful sound. “I’m so sorry,” Rory gasped.

“The skin.” Jules squeezed his eyes shut.

Rory gulped down his gorge as he smoothed the wrinkled, displaced flesh over the naked bone, then lowered Jules’s hand gingerly into the bowl.

Jules sucked in a deep breath, rubbed fresh tears from his face with the back of his other hand. “Thanks.”

Rory’s hands were shaking, covered in Jules’s blood. “This shit is getting out of hand.”

Jules smirked weakly. “Nice one.”

“I’m not making a fucking joke here. Why do you not want to tell Enforcement what’s going on?”

Jules looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “How many times do I have to tell you? They’d take her.”

“Are you not starting to think that might be for the best?”

“They’d put her back in quarantine, Rory. They might not let us see her anymore.”

“What’s happening with her might be more than me and you can handle.”

“In that little fucking cell, Rory, without us, she’d really go crazy. She might never recover. And my research—it’d be impossible if I didn’t have access to her. You do get that, right? It could make all the difference to whether I can save her or not.”

“Who the fuck says we have to take this all on ourselves? Whatever’s going on here is bigger than us, Jules. Way bigger. We’re not the guys for the job.”

“I thought you loved her.”

Rory got up, crossed to the kitchen sink, rinsed his hands. Watched wisps of Jules’s blood form a vortex as they circled the drain.

“Do you or not?” Jules pressed.

“What.”

“Love her.”

“Christ, Jules.” Rory dried his hands obsessively with a paper towel, his eyes fixed to the black pit of the drain. “I…care about Max. A lot. I just…”

“You just what?”

Rory exhaled through his nose, looked up at Jules. “Dude, fucking look at what she did to you. This is the second time she’s fucked you up in a week.”

Jules looked tired. “Stop.” 

“Have you ever considered you have a pattern of pouring yourself out for people who drain the life out of you?”

Jules fixed him with a scathing stare. “You care to offer evidence for that?”

“I know you’re not gonna make me bring up Lockwood.”

“Max is nothing like Hunter. You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Rory set his jaw. “Me, then.”

“I never dated you, dumbfuck.”

“You put everything into our friendship, and look what it got you.”

“Yeah. Well. Back then I was a nerdy little loner with no good options.”

“You saying that’s changed?”

“You sure as hell haven’t. I don’t know what I was fucking thinking asking you to come back here.”

“You did it for a girl. Remember? A girl you’ve known all of five weeks. You’re killing yourself for her, man, and she is so obviously not as in love with you as you are with her, seeing how she insists on keeping a fucking sack of shit like me around.”

“Keep your fucking voice down. She’ll hear you.” 

“I thought she was sedated.”

“She shouldn’t be able to get up, but she might still hear you.”

“As long as she can’t Hulk out about it, maybe she should hear this.”

Jules’s face twisted in rage. “Get the fuck out.”

“I will, okay? Just—fuck this. I don’t get why she’s your problem.”

“Because I fucking know what love is, you selfish prick.”

“What you know is how to spend every ounce of your energy trying to ‘rescue’ other people so you never have to deal with your own shit.”

“How’s this for dealing with my own shit: Get. Out.” Jules was red in the face, his eyes blazing coals.  “You’ve done it again, you shithead—made me hate myself. Thanks for reminding me what a stupid asshole I was to think we could ever, ever, ever be friends again.”

Rory turned, made a beeline for the door, head swimming with visions of his own blood.

“Rory…wait.” Suddenly Jules stood in front of the door, blocking Rory’s exit.

“Move,” said Rory.

“Make me.”

“What are we, in fucking eighth year again? Get out of my way.”

Jules stood with his back against the door, arms spread, palms against the wall on either side of the doorframe. A drooling glove of panchrest clung to his damaged hand, leaving scarlet smudges on the wall behind it. “Not gonna. Can’t make me.”

“Your fucking hand, you moron.”

“You go sit the fuck back down and I will too.”

“Fuck,” exploded Rory, and did as he was told.

Jules joined him at the table, resubmerged his hand in the panchrest bowl.

They sat in sullen silence for several minutes.

“You are one stubborn motherfucker,” said Rory finally.

“Mm.” Jules gazed absently into the crimson liquid that consumed his hand up to the wrist. After a beat, “I…know you’re just worried,” he added.

“Yeah, well. What I said to you was wrong.”

“No, it…probably wasn’t.” Jules seemed calm now. Almost meditative. “I just don’t have time right now to ‘deal with my own shit’…you know? Maybe someday, when things aren’t so fucking dire. I just…I don’t want to lose her, Rory. And that rift is about to fucking eat her alive.”

Rory frowned fixedly at the tabletop. “I understand.” Then, after a beat, “What even set her off this time?”

“I shouldn’t have told her,” said Jules. “I mean—I didn’t mean to tell her. I was trying to confirm something without tipping her off.  But she’s too fucking perceptive.”

“She is that. Tipping her off about what?”

Jules hesitated, lifted his gaze to Rory’s. “You know the apostates who did that to her?”

“Yeah.”

Jules’s chest rose and fell. “It seems they also…created her.”

Rory stared. “How?”

“They planned her fucking birth. Conceived her, most likely. The man she thought was her dad isn’t her bio dad.”

“Jesus. You sure?”

“I read her DNA myself once, by accident. Dude’s the wrong fucking ethnicity. And today I found out that the moment she was born, some fucked-up supernatural shit happened around the delivery room she was born in. Meanwhile simultaneous apostate rituals were being performed at eight locations equidistant from the hospital, like some kind of über-ritual.”

“Shit. Yeah, that doesn’t look good.”

Jules raked his good hand through his hair. “I didn’t mean to fucking tell her. But she caught on that something was up and wouldn’t let me off the hook.”

“Girl’s fucking tenacious.”

“Tell me about it.”

They both lapsed into silence. Jules stared at the pool of blood on the countertop.

“Maybe…” he said after a while, then hesitated. “Maybe you’re right, Rory. Maybe I can’t do this on my own.”

Rory pounced on the concession. “She could have seriously hurt you. And dude, something happens to you, it’s all over for her, right?”

Jules’s jaw worked. “Probably.”

“Enforcement needs to know about these apostates. If the fuckers really have been at it that long, they must be organized as fuck. No way can you take them down by yourself. And they have to be stopped, you know that. For Max. For all of us.”

Jules met Rory’s eye, dropped his gaze again. “One week,” he mumbled.

“One week?” Rory was careful not to act too excited.

“I’m not any closer to figuring this out by then, I’ll go to the Master-General.”

“I think you should fucking do it now, but…one week? I can live with that.” Thank fuck. “For now…how can I help?”

Jules looked up at him again, with an uncustomary softness. “Just…I dunno. Keep doing what you’re doing. Okay?”

“I mean…well…yeah. Of course.”

Jules’s lips quirked ever so faintly. His eyes dropped to the panchrest again.

“Will the hand heal up okay?” Rory asked.

“It should. The knuckle’s the worrying part, but you popped it back in there like a champ, so it’ll probably be fine. I let the panchrest do its work overnight, oughtta be good as new in the morning.”

Rory gave a nod.

After a beat, “Do you…want me to cook you anything?” he asked.

“Not sure I could get anything down right now. Might just go lie down for a bit. But…thanks.”

“Yeah, dude. Of course.”

Jules looked at all the blood again. “This is a mess.”

“I’ll take care of it,” said Rory.

Jules met Rory’s gaze again; once more faintly quirked his lips. “Um…let me know if Max wakes up?”

“Yeah.”

Jules got up, cradling the bowl with his hand in it. Shuffled off down the hall.

When he got to his room, turned back. “I’m…sorry I called you a shithead. And selfish. It’s not true.”

“It’s completely one hundred percent true,” said Rory, with a slight smile.

Jules rolled his eyes, disappeared into his room.

Rory heaved a sigh. Got up, got out the paper towels, the Clorox wipes. Tried not to think too hard about what he was doing as he mopped Jules’s blood off the counter, soaking through three heavy-duty paper towels. Disinfected the area.

He noticed his half-eaten bowl of eggs and rice where he’d abandoned it earlier, felt nauseated at the sight of it. Covered it in plastic wrap, shoved it in the fridge.

It was only now that Rory realized his Anberlin tee had Jules’s blood all over it. He peeled it off, wadded it, stuffed it deep in the kitchen trash.

Stood there, thinking there must be something else he had to do, but he couldn’t figure out what. The Fresh Prince episode was over. Home Improvement was on now.

He wandered aimlessly for a moment. Went and listened outside Max’s door. As far as he could tell, she was still passed out.

Finally found his way back out to the living room. Sank down on the couch. Zoned out on Tim Allen and Patricia Richardson bickering, some bullshit about a man’s versus a woman’s place in the home. Felt edgy; didn’t know what to do with the energy. There was nothing to be done right now…it just felt like there should be.

Only one more week, he reassured himself. One way or the other.

But he couldn’t get rid of the goddamned pesky thought that a lot could happen in a week.

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT
PREVIOUS CHAPTER: CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX
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