fairy godmother

Foreward: This is a little different from my normal fare, but I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a classic fairytale twisted and reimagined, and the structure might give you pause occasionally, but try to roll with it. All constructive criticism is welcome. If you read my blog, you’ve probably already seen this (I posted it in pieces earlier this year) but I hope it’s worth a second look. A few things to be wary of along the way: insinuations of underage sex (not shown), casual violence, disturbing imagery, and death. There’s a lot of lighter stuff as well, but consider this fair warning.



And on that cheery note, thank you so much for reading, and happy holidays to everybody:)



PS-I’m wrapping up a sequel to Pandora, which I’ll start posting here soon




***




CINDERS




Mankind is seeded with storytellers, and storytellers very often don’t know their own strength. Words have power, and to use them is to give them will, and breath, and movement. Stories can take on a life of their own. It’s happened many times, with the epic cycles of history repeating themselves despite our best intentions and traditions becoming warped out of all recognition by circumstance, transforming into something completely new. Stories float through homes, cities, cultures and continents and look for fertile ground, and when they find it, they dig in their roots.



Stories, however they come about their imperative to live, do require actors to play the crucial parts. If you fall into a story, you had better hope it’s one of the more benevolent ones, although without some current of strong emotion or trauma a story isn’t likely to endure. The best characters are the ones who can adapt the story to fit their personal needs, without getting totally swept away by the narrative. If you can’t do that, well, then the story runs roughshod over you and you’ll probably end up dead, cooked in a pot of boiling water at the bottom of a chimney or maybe turned into a deer that is subsequently torn apart by hunting hounds, or some other equally grisly and poetic end.



This particular story decided to settle in a house. It waited patiently for the right person to come by, and when they came…it pounced.



***



It’s nearly midnight.



It’s nearly midnight, and Asher is walking as fast as he can with only one shoe on. His other foot is bare, no sock, nothing. It irritates the fuck out of him but he doesn’t want to stop, because stopping would be acknowledging it and then he’d have to think about it, and right now all he wants it to move, fast enough that the anger doesn’t have a chance to boil over. This is as fast as he can go without breaking into a run. Not for the first time Asher wishes he’d never sold his motorcycle, because fuck it would feel good to slide onto that smooth seat, feel the engine rumble to life between his legs and go, just go, fast as he could to anywhere else. The bike was easy escape, pure and simple, but now he has to make do with his own two legs or, God forbid, the San Francisco public transportation system, and anyone who’s ridden it knows that it isn’t the way to escape from anything.



His face is still swelling; he can feel the sting and pull of the skin, and it’s getting harder to see out of his right eye. Fucking frat boys and their goddamn inability to lose graciously. Not to mention the undertones of sexual repression, but that’s just to be expected. Asher doesn’t typically hustle pool in college bars, but he needed the money and it was close by. Two hundred and fifty bucks in and the guys didn’t want to play anymore, but they were more than ready to beat the shit out of the pretty fag who was holding their cash. Asher got out, he’s good at getting out, but not before he took a shot to the face with a pool cue that rocked his world.



Stupid fucking college boys, think they’re so smart…and Asher should know, he lives with one. Not that Ty is like those guys, exactly. Asher met Ty when he was sixteen, new to the streets, skinny and shy and so damn green he practically glowed neon. He would have gotten his ass handed to him in under a week if Asher hadn’t shown him how to live, what you had to do to get by if you weren’t gonna get into the system, and nobody wants to be in the system. Asher shared his money and his place, got Ty’s stupid shaggy hair cut, because you never gave a john more to hold onto than you had to. He took Ty out to work with him, helped him stay away from the hard drugs and the guys who wanted more than a blowjob or a quick fuck, because there were always people who wanted more than you should give them. He helped Ty build a fucking life away from his past without asking any questions, and it worked for them, damn it. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked.



Except Ty was greedy, and smarter than was good for himself, and as soon as he hit eighteen he enrolled in community college. He got a job in a library shelving books, and now he spends all his time studying shit like Basic Anatomy or American Literature. He’s let his hair grow out again, and after he hit his growth spurt he shot up past Asher, well past six feet, big enough so that even the biggest guy thinks twice before stepping up to him. Now instead of a twink Ty looks like a gangling scarecrow, still skinny, all long limbs and oversized hands and the stupidest big brown puppy dog eyes imaginable, eyes that can make you do things you never had any intention of doing. When he pouts it’s like watching someone poke a baby bunny with a stick, or push a kitten off a countertop. There are whole YouTube channels devoted to this kind of sickly-sweet sadism, and Ty probably subscribes and takes notes.



It would be tolerable if Ty didn’t want Asher to change as well. But he does. And that sucks. Like tonight: he got home okay, he had the money and he hadn’t had to turn any tricks to get it, which was kinda nice. But as soon as he walks in the door, Ty is on him like white on rice.



“Holy shit.” Ty dropped the book he was reading on the couch, his legs folded up beneath him awkwardly, and ran over to the door. “Ash, what the hell?”



“It’s nothing,” Asher replied, giving Ty a half-smile as he kicked off his shoes and slung his leather jacket over the end of their tiny kitchen counter. Their whole place was tiny, basically a living room, a bedroom and a closet of a bathroom. The kitchen is a hot plate, a microwave and a sink. It wasn’t much, but they didn’t need much. “Some assholes in a bar just couldn’t bow out gracefully.”



Ty’s shoulder’s slumped a little, and he dropped his hands off Asher’s shoulders and went to rummage through their mini fridge. “You were hustling pool?” He found the ice pack, actually a bag of corn that had been thawed and refrozen way too many times, and handed it over. It felt like bliss on Asher’s swollen face, and he flopped down onto the couch where Ty had been and stretched his legs out.



“Beer?” he asked hopefully.



“No.” Ty found their latest bottle of generic painkiller and shook out two of the tablets. He brought them over with a glass of water. “Ash, were you hustling pool?”



“Yeah.” Asher grimaced but swallowed the pills, and washed them down with water that tasted slightly like metal. The landlord had warned them when they moved in that they’d probably want to put a filter on the faucet, to take the taste away, but there were so many other things to spend money on besides making water taste the way it should. As long as it didn’t kill them, they were good. “I won a lot of money,” he continued with a grin, and pulled the messy wad of bills out of his pocket. He tossed it in Ty’s direction. “There’s your textbooks, man. Never say I don’t do shit for you.”



Ty stated down at the money, his mouth set in a line of distaste. When he looked up again his eyes were wide open, big and unhappy and Asher had to bite back a moan of frustration. He knew what that look meant. “Ash…I don’t want you to have to hustle pool to make money.”



“Well, it’s better than the alternatives,” Asher replied. “What, you want me fucking crusty middle-aged douchebags if I can avoid it?”



“No!” Ty pushed his sandy hair out of his face, tucked it behind his ears. Stupid long hair, every time he saw it Asher wanted to touch it, to card his fingers through it and play with it and basically act like a five-year old girl. Scary. “No, I want you to not have to do any of it. There are other options, Ash. You’re legally an adult now, you could get a real job.”



“What have you been smoking?” Asher muttered.



“I’m serious! You could work in construction, or in a restaurant or something. There are lots of other possibilities out there. Or you could go to school too—”



“Not that again,” Asher cut Ty off mid-sentence. “No thanks, college boy. In case you’re forgetting, I don’t have a high school diploma or a GED.”



“I got mine,” Ty pointed out reasonably. “It’s not that hard, I would help you.”



“Jesus,” Asher said, dropping the frozen corn and glaring at Ty, “Would you just let this go already?”



 



Except Ty didn’t let it go, and the argument became a fight and then Asher was out of there, so fast that he didn’t grab his other shoe, fast enough that he wouldn’t be tempted to just fucking punch Ty in the face, because no matter how big Ty got, Asher had the experience, he had been fighting for his place from the moment he could stand. Asher had promised himself when he found Ty that he would never hurt him, and he never had, not even when the little shit drove him fucking insane with his fairy-tale fantasies. What kind of world did he think they were living in, huh? Nothing was ever right, things never worked out. Or maybe for people like Ty they did, people so goddamn adorable that they bent the laws of physics, but for the Ashers of the world it was always a struggle.



Not that he wasn’t gorgeous when his face wasn’t black and blue. Asher inherited his mother’s Chinese features, cat-like and seductive, and his father’s Irish skin and physical proportions. All American and yet decidedly exotic, he was gorgeous and he knew it. His hair was spiky and short, bleach-blond, and he used eyeliner to highlight the sharpness of his eyes, which were blue like his father’s. His mouth had been called “perfect for cocksucking” too many times to count by dumbass johns who didn’t realize or didn’t care that that wasn’t exactly a compliment. He wore skintight clothes to accentuate the cut of his muscles, and radiated a bad-boy air that was irresistible to some. It was only once he started talking that Asher’s luck changed, because he couldn’t hold back when someone was being a shithead. He always spoke his mind, and that more often than not got him into trouble.



Like tonight. He’s been walking and cussing and fuming so hard he doesn’t know where he is, and the sky is about to fucking open up and drench him, he can feel it in the air, and now his foot is really starting to hurt. Asher stops and leans against a brick wall, turns the sole over and takes a look. It’s filthy, almost black, and bleeding in a couple different places.



“Fuck,” he mutters, cradling it uselessly in his hands. The rain starts to fall then, soft for the moment but he knows it’s going to get worse, and he’s stuck in the middle of nowhere, a street of ubiquitous row houses and flex-fuel cars, every one of them probably owned by yuppie hipsters who don’t give a guy like him the time of day until they’re drunk and horny, and even then the bastards manage to be condescending. This is not the place he wants to be, but its dark out and there’s no way he going to be walking much further on this foot. Asher pulls his jacket a little tighter and keeps going, looking for anything that might do for a night. He could call a cab but he doesn’t have any money, he left all that with Ty, and anyway his phone is just about dead.



He walks on for a while, limping and feeling pretty miserable, still angry but sort of sick too, sick of himself and sick of Ty, but damn it he wishes he were home right now anyway. He walks, slow and searching for a place, and when he sees it he wonders as first if it’s a mirage. Because this isn’t just another quaint house in the row, all girlied up and painted in pastels. This is a three story stone mansion, or it would be a mansion if it were a little nicer. As it is right now, it’s too gloomy to be considered nice. There’s an iron-wrought fence surrounding the thing, which Asher doesn’t get at all, seeing as it has no yard to speak of, and there isn’t a light on anywhere. It looks totally out of place on this street.



Asher tries the gate, curious but not expecting much, and is surprised when it swings open. Huh. Maybe no one lives here, maybe the house is condemned. And if it is, then maybe he can crash here tonight. Asher hobbles his way to the front door and gives it a try. It sticks at first, almost feels like it’s locked but then it gives out under the weight of his hip banging against it, and he topples inside.



Christ, it’s dark in here. Asher feels around for a light switch but there’s nothing on the wall. The floor is gritty under his toes, like the house has been shedding. He shuts the door behind himself and feels his way along the hallway, past cold, empty room and uninviting corridors. The hall turns and he turns with it, and eventually finds himself in a large room with stone floors and a huge fireplace in the back of it. Against one wall is a grandfather clock, a big old thing that’s pacing out time like a metronome, noisy in the solitude. Someone was here, though, pretty recently too. There are embers glowing faintly in the grate, and laid out on the floor are a few blankets and a musty old pillow.



It’s probably some homeless person’s squat, but Asher doesn’t care right now, all he wants is to lay down and fall asleep and try to forget tonight ever happened, just for a while. God, he hates his life. He sits down, picks at his foot for a second before giving it up as a bad deal. The floor is hard under his ass, cold, but at least he isn’t out in the rain. The pillow feels moldy, but he can’t take his jacket off to cover it or he’ll freeze, even with the blankets. He compromises and lays part of one of the blankets on top of it and scoots the whole getup closer to the fire, close enough that he can smell the cinders and feel the silky ashes against his fingers. Whatever, it’s warmer. Asher settles down onto his side, avoiding the swollen parts of his face. He listens to the ticking of the clock and wonders if he’ll even be able to fall asleep. A few minutes later, he finds out he can.



The clock strikes midnight. The front door locks. And the house…changes.



Chapter Two




Molding a proper hero…this is a process that takes some time.



This particular story’s new protagonist has potential. He couldn’t have walked through the door without it. But there’s an arrogance inside of him that’s hard to reconcile with the archetype needed to reach Happily Ever After, a hardness that just doesn’t mesh with the narrative’s goal. It needs to soften him. It needs to make him feel…suggestible. The new reality must become the only reality, and that transition has driven more than a few potential heroes and heroines mad. The story needs to take him back to a time when he feels more resigned to his fate, when the way forward is the way that was made for him, not the way he forged by himself. A place with no questions, only duties. Possibly it can even blend that with his own preconceptions of what the narrative should be. That sort of symbiosis is always handy when you’re breaking in your hero.



Of course, it just figures that his preconceptions should revolve around the cartoon version of the fairy tale. So many modern protagonists’ do these days.



***



For the first time in months, Asher dreams of his little sister.



Cassie had a predictable cycle. Every day of the week after school was a different Disney film. She would meet Asher outside; he had to walk to pick her up from the middle school and it took about a half an hour, but she’d just sit and play with her dolls and wait outside if the weather was good. If it was bad she might be anywhere, but usually the library or the gym. They’d walk home together, and she would talk non-stop about her day, what she learned in school and how it all related to her secret identity as a fairy princess. It was stupid, but Asher forgave her. Cassie was only six.



They’d get home and Cassie would dump her backpack by the front door and run into the living room. There were two televisions in the house, one in the living room and one in the rec room. The rec room TV was the one hooked up to the video game system, but usually Howard and Kyle and however many of their friends were with them that day laid claim to that one, and Asher and Cassie would just get kicked off of it if the big kids wanted it when they got home. Sometimes they’d offer to let Asher play with them, but then Cassie would cry. She hated being left alone.



So they took the TV in the living room. It was smaller but it had all the VHS tapes next to it, and Cassie would rummage through the oversize cases until she found the one she was looking for. Monday was The Little Mermaid, Tuesday was Sleeping Beauty, Wednesday was Aladdin, Thursday was Cinderella and Friday was Beauty and the Beast. Every day was a new princess, and each new princess had her own ritual. Mondays they had to bring the fishbowl into the room. Asher would put it down on the coffee table and Cassie would look from their two goldfish to the screen and back again, like she was trying to make it all work together in her head.



For Cinderella, Cassie had to change into a dress she’d made by cutting holes for her head and arms in one of her old pink pillowcases, and she would clutch her stuffed hamster in her hands, which was the closest stuffed animal analog to a mouse that she had. Asher would have to pause the movie when the fairy godmother showed up so Cassie could change into her church dress, which was made of blue velvet and had a white sash around the middle. She did the same thing every week, until Asher knew the movies front to back and could tune them out while he did his homework.



“I want to go to a ball.”



“They don’t have those anymore,” Asher told her.



“They do too! Princes have balls. I bet they have them all the time. How else do they meet princesses?”



“There aren’t any princesses here. We live in Oakland.”



“I bet there are,” she told him, “and you just don’t know ’cause you don’t see them around. Because they’re in disguise.”



“Oh yeah?” Asher looked over at his little sister, five years younger than him and so much more innocent. Their brothers left her alone, mostly, and so did their dad, even when he was drinking. Their mom looked out for Cassie when she was home from work, and Asher looked out for her the rest of the time, because Cassie was special.



“Yeah. And I’m gonna be one.”



The words “that’s stupid” quivered at the tip of his tongue, a sign of his rapidly developing jerkish streak, but instead Asher said, “Okay.” And Cassie smiled and hugged him, and he forgot for a second about how shitty their house was and how lousy dinner was going to be and what assholes his older brothers were, because Cassie was happy.



***




Everything is cold.



Asher’s hips ache from lying on his side on the stone floor. He blinks muzzily, staring into a pile of gray and black, and tries to push back from it, but his hand just sinks into the stuff. It comes away sooty. Ashes…the house. Right.



Well, there’s daylight coming in now, which means Ty is probably at school which means Asher can go home and clean up without having to deal with the third degree. He sits up and looks around. He freezes in place, dumbfounded, and looks again.

The room has changed. Instead of an empty shell there are tables in here, and shelves, and pots and pans and baskets of food. There’s an oven beside the fireplace, a really old-fashioned one, the kind you see in stupidly upscale pizza restaurants. There are old vegetable peelings here and there, and an ancient broom in the corner.



There’s also a mouse on the floor by one of the table legs. It’s staring at Asher. Apart from some twitchy whiskers, it isn’t moving.



“Dude,” Asher mutters, “not sanitary.” He flicks a cinder towards it. It startles and runs under one of the nearby shelves. Asher watches it go, then shakes his head. “Okay, time to wake up.” He closes his eyes, then opens them again. Everything is the same. He shuts his eyes again, squeezes them shut hard this time, then looks again. Tiny white stars dance at the edge of his vision, but apart from that the room looks the same.



“What the hell?” He pinches his leg, a pinch with a twist at the end that leaves him wincing from the burn, but nothing changes. He throws off the ratty blanket and forces himself to stand. The floor is so cold under hit feet…wait, feet? He was only missing one shoe. Asher looks down and sees that his left foot is wearing not a sneaker, but some kind of strange, thin slipper. It looks like it’s made of leather, and is tied loosely together on top. His other foot is still bare, and the pressure of the floor against his cuts stings like fire. His clothes have changed. What were jeans is now a pair of scratchy woolen pants held up with a string, and his shirt has become some kind of…what, tunic? Is that what these things are called? Whatever it is, it’s shapeless and poorly made, and hangs off his shoulders like a sack.



Panic rises. Asher grabs the edge of the nearest table, feels the pain as his fingers press into the rough hardness of it, and he pushes the fear down. Fear just gets you in trouble. Okay. So this seems really, really real. Maybe it is, maybe some sick fuck drugged him last night and brought all this stuff in. Maybe the owner of the house gets off on watching people struggle with reality. Well, fuck you very much, but Asher knows exactly who he is and where he should be, and this shit can all go to hell. He peers into the corners of the room, looking for cameras. He can’t see any, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. He stabs his middle fingers into the air, then stalks off towards the exit. He’s through with this.



The floor is smooth under his feet now, no longer gritty. Someone took the time to sweep the hall. Distantly Asher hears voices, the murmurs of other people starting to move around, but he’s not interested in asking questions or demanding answers. He just needs to get out of here. He goes to the big front door, throws it open—



And steps out into a land that defies every expectation of his brain. This is wrong. He should be seeing fencing, metal fencing, and beyond it pavement and cars and houses. People should be walking dogs, people should be going to work. It shouldn’t be…this. A long gravel avenue stretches away from the door, bracketed on either side by evenly-spaced oak trees and overgrown lawns. Asher takes a step forward, and hisses slightly when the gravel digs into his foot. It definitely feels real. The air is very fresh, cool and crisp on his face. The sky is clear like you never get in San Francisco at this time of year.



“Fuck,” Asher mutters. Because it’s one thing to assume he’s been drugged, it’s another to figure he’s also been kidnapped and transported to some country chalet that’s surrounded by springtime instead of fall.



There has to be some other explanation for this. Some kind of hallucination, a really vivid one, or maybe he’s in some kind of virtual reality simulator. Because, yeah, why not? It makes more sense than…than whatever this is. Time travel or some shit. SCA freaks gone totally overboard. Whatever.



So the thing to do is figure out how to get out of this. Part of Asher is still hoping this is all just a dream, but even when his dreams have been at their worst he’s never felt them like this, so real that he can feel every square inch of skin that itches beneath the coarse clothes, so real that he can make out the smeared drops of his own blood on the stone stairs.



“Boy!” a voice yells, loudly. “Boy!” Heavy footsteps clomp towards him, and a moment later Asher is staring at a huge, round figure of a…a woman? Is it a woman? Her body fills the doorway, and she’s got the curves to support the female hypothesis, but this person looks strange. Exaggerated. Like someone took a picture of a woman and then put it into one of those weird apps, the ones where you can morph the person’s face. Her scowl is so blatant it could be carved, her ears protrude to the side, and her hair is a tight, slicked-back gray bun. Her hands are on her hips, fingers fat like bratwurst, and her stance is hips-forward aggressive. She looks like a cartoon character overlaid with human skin, real and yet not-real.



Her hand on his wrist as she stalks down the steps and grabs him is definitely real, though. It’s so real that he knows it’ll leave bruises.



She shakes his arm. “You let the fire go out, stupid boy. Now the ladies’ bread will be late for breakfast. Idiot!”



Asher pulls back, trying to jerk his hand from her grip. He should be able to do this, he’s done it with guys twice his size, but she keeps a hold of him like it’s nothing at all. “Fucking let go of me already!”



She slaps him with her free hand. It feels like he’s been hit with a brick, thankfully on the side of his face that isn’t already swollen, but still. Jesus. He reels to the side, kept on his feet only by her iron grip. “Keep a respectful tongue in your head, boy,” the woman sneers. “You lost your privileges when your father died. I thought you’d remember that, by now. Come.” She pulls him back into the house and down the main hall. “You have chores to do.”



They end up in the kitchen, where she passes Asher a bucket of scraps that’s a lot heavier than it looks and a pair of poorly-made sandals. “These will have to do for you, Mistress won’t buy you another pair of good shoes if you’re just going to be careless with them. Now go feed the pigs.”



There are other people moving around in the kitchen, dressed not dissimilar to him, but they studiously avoid making eye contact. Apparently Asher is to be ignored. They all have that same look, too, like their skin doesn’t really fit, like their colors are too bright to be human. Asher looks down at his own hands numbly, but they look the same as they always have. Real. Normal.



The woman—Asher assumes she’s the cook—aims a kick at him, which he dodges out of habit. “Get on with you! More’s to be done when you get back.”



Asher slips off the single leather shoe and gets into the wooden sandals, which are exactly as comfortable as he thought they’d be, picks up the bucket and follows another servant into the hall. He takes a right, because he’s not gone that way before, and a second later he hits a door which opens onto a wide expanse of muddy ground. There are chickens—real live chickens—running around, but they look even more bizarre than the people do. None of their feathers are delineated; it’s like watching puffy bits of cloud dart about, clucking and pecking at the ground. Asher looks at them and shudders slightly. Pigs. He should be feeding the pigs.



It isn’t hard to find the pigpen, the smell is as realistic as the breeze in the air. The pigs might look slightly cuboid, all the same nauseating color of Pepto Bismol pink, but they’re grunting like real pigs, and they’re loud as hell. Hungry, probably. Asher lifts the bucket of scraps and tosses it into the enclosure, and the pigs are on it immediately.



Asher needs to think. He just has to—to think for a second. He shuts his eyes and runs through what he knows. This just seems too real, even with the weird people and animals. Everything smells right, it feels authentic. But how could it possibly be?



 



“If you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth.”



Asher laughed and threw a handful of popcorn at Ty. “Thanks, trekkie boy, I’ll keep that in mind.”



Ty rolled his eyes and gestured towards the TV, where a fight was just breaking out in a gambling hall. “You know, Sherlock Holmes said it first.”



“Either way you’re a geek.”



“Whatever.” Ty picked up a piece of the scattered popcorn and ate it, then swiftly grabbed one of the couch cushions and smacked Asher in the face with it. Popcorn flew everywhere as the bowl went flying. They got into an epic pillow beatdown and had to start the movie over, but neither of them cared.



“Okay, fine.” Fine. So it is real. Ish. Real-ish. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a way out of this. Asher just has to find it. He lifts a tentative hand to his throbbing cheek. Preferably a way out that doesn’t involve him getting hit anymore, because shit that hurt. For a second it had made him want to say, “Sorry, sir,” an impulse he thought died when he left home. No, direct opposition isn’t an option, and neither is curling into a little ball and waiting for it all to go away.



The only thing to do right now is let it play out and see what happens. Unsatisfying, but it’s true. Asher hoists the empty bucket over his shoulder and makes his way back into the fray.



Chapter Three




Asher sucked at the whole concept of brothers. He just didn’t know how to relate to them. It was kind of weird, since he had two of them himself, but Howard and Kyle had been born less than a year apart, practically twins for all the likenesses between them. They had always been happy keeping to each other, and Asher, three years younger and not nearly interesting enough to bother with, grew up mostly alone, rather than running around in their shadows. It wasn’t until Cassie came along that he actually felt like he had something to contribute. He didn’t care that Cassie cried, or needed so much of his attention. At least she wanted it. His mother appreciated the help with the baby and his dad never said anything at all, which was good as far as Asher was concerned. Cassie belonged to him, and his older brothers belonged to each other, and the pairs very rarely mixed.



He had been worried at first, getting to know Ty. Not because he didn’t think Ty was worthwhile; fuck, you just had to look at the kid to see that, but because Asher was so bad with other guys. Honestly it was amazing he identified as gay, for all the shit he gave his own gender. He had been thinking at first that he’d just hang out with Ty for a few weeks before the kid went on his own way, but then he found the part of Ty that made everything else about him fade away. It was the need. He needed help, he needed Asher’s help, and that outweighed every awkward moment and miscommunication. Because Ty didn’t have a fucking clue of how to live on his own, and his ignorance was dangerous.



“I could get a job,” he insisted late one night as they stood on a street corner, watching taxis trawl slowly down the four-lane road. “I could be a busboy or something.”



“You’re too young without your parent’s approval, and they ask for that shit around here,” Asher replied, exhaling a mouthful of smoke. He didn’t smoke often, but that night he needed something to do with his hands other than put them all over Ty. Ty wasn’t ready for that yet.



“Couldn’t I just forge it?”



“Can you also forge a cell number and a permanent address for your imaginary parents? Maybe in a couple of months you could, but that costs money and right now you don’t have any money. Vicious cycle, man.”



“Isn’t there something other than…than…” Ty flapped his big awkward hands, even then too big for him, a sign of how tall he was going to get.



“Sure, there’re other ways,” Asher said easily. “You could get into drugs, start selling them. Hard not to start using them too, but whatever. You could steal things, there are plenty of guys around here who can teach you how to boost a car. Fuck, there’s even a lot of money to be made stealing bikes, so if you got in with the right people they could show you that. Not exactly safe, and you’d probably end up someone’s bitch anyway, but you could try. Or you could get a normal job and hope they never looked into your background and try to live on minimum wage, which is pretty fucking hard in San Francisco.” Asher paused for a second, blew another puff of smoke. “It’s your choice, man. I’m not gonna make you do anything you don’t want to. I’ve got enough to get by for now, but I can’t carry both of us for too long by myself.”



“I know,” Ty said, everything about him screaming discomfort and guilt as his shoulders hunched up and his arms crossed in front of his chest.



A car slowed down at their corner, not a taxi but a private car. The passenger side window rolled down. Asher flicked his cigarette onto the ground and stepped it out, then patted Ty once on the shoulder. “I’ve got this. I’ll be back soon.” He turned and felt the double heat of the shadowy man’s eyes on him from inside the car and Ty’s boring into his back as he walked over to tomorrow’s groceries.



“Hey, man.” Asher leaned forward against the hood, stretching out his body. “You lookin’ for something?”



“Yes.”



***



Asher is a quick study, he always has been. He was programming the VCR before either of his older brothers could, he learned the times tables before anyone else in his third grade class, and he fucked his gag reflex right out of his throat in under a month. He picks things up fast. So he figures out very quickly that the best way to get along on this strange new world is to be quiet, to do as he’s told and, above all, to observe and learn everything that he can about this place. He learns very quickly that there are three stories to this enormous house, and that he’s supposed to use the dark, cramped stairs at the very end of the building instead of the wide, beautiful set off the main hall. He learns that there are no toilets, but there are chamber pots, and those need to be emptied twice a day. His gag reflex kind of comes back when he sees those, but Asher has a strong stomach. He avoids seeing the ladies of the house for most of the day, entering their rooms after they’ve already left them to clean out the grates and lay in wood for a new fire in the evening.



He comes to understand, from the few comments these painting-people address to him, that they think he’s related to the women who run this joint. His “father” is spoken of in hushed tones, often wistfully, and Asher gathers that the man is dead, and has been for some time. His stepmother is apparently of the evil kind, and his stepsisters are beautiful and correspondingly cruel. None of them seem to like to acknowledge his existence, and the only time that Asher is supposed exposed to them is when he serves them at dinner, which is kind of a shocker to him. He hasn’t seen them all day; why start now? But the cook is insistent, and so he mentally shrugs and brings them their damn bread, which smells fucking amazing and which he hasn’t had a chance to eat.



“There he is at last,” one of the younger women drawls from where she lounges in her chair. Asher has no idea how you can lounge in a high-backed wooden chair; it must be a learned skill. “And filthy as ever. Honestly, you’re nothing but soot and cinders, you dirty little pig.”



“Piglet,” the other girl corrects with a giggle. “The runt of the litter.” Both of the young women are bright against the dark wood furniture of the room, their dresses pink and green respectively. Their skin is unnaturally luminous, their features have the kind of doll-like perfection that Cassie aspired to, and their hair is huge and fluffy and piled on top of their heads. Asher kind of expects a bird to poke its head out of there at any moment. He sets down the bread and turns to leave.



“Just a moment, child,” the women at the head of the table says. Asher turns to face her. She’s skinny, almost bony, and her features have that sharp attractiveness to them that you see sometimes in movie stars, hollow but still lovely. Her hair is gray, her nose is slightly hooked and her eyes are hawkish. If she had been a man beckoning Asher into his car on a street corner, he would have walked the other way, fast. She motions him closer with one hand. Asher goes, reluctantly.



When he’s close enough she grabs him, pulling him towards her with one overly-strong claw of a hand. Her skin feels cool and waxy, like a new apple. He pulls away reflexively, but she has him tight. “You are looking rather pitiful,” she observes in a voice as dry as dust. “Where are your new shoes?”



“I…I lost one of them,” Asher says after a moment.



“What did I tell you, Mother?” one of the girls exclaims, slamming her slender hand down on the wooden tabletop. “You cannot give this ungrateful little pig anything, he ruins everything he touches. All your kind gestures accomplish nothing except throwing your money away when it comes to him.”



“Don’t be so harsh, sister,” the other girl, the one in pink, declares languidly. “The piglet is simple-minded, we’ve always known that. Idiots can hardly be held responsible for all their actions, or their possessions. In the future his things must be given into the care of the cook, and she can guard them for him.” She purses her lips and clucks at Asher like a hen. “That way you won’t go naked in the middle of winter for wondering where you left your jacket, poor simpleton.”



“He’d deserve to freeze, if he was that stupid,” the green girl says dismissively. The stepmother has let go of him at this point, and Asher has had more than enough. When his temper gains the upper hand there’s no gainsaying it, and so he doesn’t even think twice about grabbing up the silver pitcher of water on the table and dumping it over the head of the green girl. Her shrieks are like music to his ears.



The direct consequences of Asher’s actions become no dinner, no sandals and no shirt until the next morning, and he is to sleep outside in the open air until morning. It might be spring but there’s still a significant chill in the air, and Asher is shivering violently in his body’s bid to stay warm. The house is closed off to him, as is the granary, so in the end he huddles on the back door’s stoop, where at least there’s no mud and the depth of the doorway protects him from the wind. He holds himself tightly and squeezes his eyes shut, utterly exhausted but unable to sleep. Fucking bitches. But, he admits, fucking bitches who really mean it when they say they’ll make him pay.



Now would be a really, really great time to snap out of this whatever-it-is, he thinks hopefully, but nothing happens. Asher rolls his eyes and stares out through slitted eyelids into the darkness. It’s so dark here, even with the moonlight, so much more so than in the city. Asher’s never been surrounded by so much nothing before, and it’s disconcerting to be alone in it.



There’s a tiny shuffle out in the backyard. Asher focuses his eyes and sees a dark shadow creep across the ground, pounce on something, then sit and wait for a moment before lunging forward again. He looks a little closer. The shadow seems to be a cat, as black as the shadow it resembles, and it’s playing with something small, maybe a mouse. It’s drawing out the torment, being cruel, and Asher moves before he really knows why. He runs at a shuffle-step towards the cat, the best he can do as cold as he is, and the cat bolts when he’s within five feet of it. Asher bends down awkwardly, looking to see if whatever the cat was toying with is dead.

It turns out to be a mouse, and it isn’t dead, just sitting there like a quivering little ball of fluff. Asher reaches out and picks it up, and the mouse doesn’t struggle or bite him or anything, just sits there shaking. Asher can relate. He retreats to the stoop, holds the little critter close to his chest and strokes its tiny head until the shivers die down. Strangely, his own shivers die a little at the same time, and he feels, if not warm, at least not so miserably cold anymore.



“You wanna hang with me tonight?” Asher asks the mouse. A thought strikes him and, suddenly horrified, he quickly adds, “Jesus, don’t actually answer that, okay? I don’t think I can deal with talking rodents right now on top of everything else.” The mouse’s ears twitch. “Good, I’ll take that as a yes.”



The rest of the night passes. Not quickly, but it does eventually pass.



Chapter Four




The narrative is flowing better now. Progress is being made. The hero’s stubbornness could still be an issue but at least introductions have happened, and honestly a little sullenness isn’t a bad thing. The story’s earliest heroine might have been a devotee of the practice of turning the other cheek, even though her prince wasn’t, but that particular trait is the hardest to fill with each new iteration. A certain amount of resistance has been built into the fabric of the tale at this point, but it rarely ends up detracting from the effect. Messiah figures, after all, are meant to be rare and special, not to pop up in every story floating around the world at the drop of a hat.



Not that this protagonist is entirely without those selfless traits. He’s capable of giving a great deal with very little expectation of return. He’s so good at lying to himself about what he wants that he can barely remember what his own precious desires are. He has untapped reservoirs of adoration inside of him, passionate feelings that haven’t really had an outlet for years. Every greater emotion exists as a separate little tide pool in his soul, only combining and being expressed under crushing waves of duress.



It would be better if he were a little more willing to work with those big emotions, actually. The narrative demands more than stubbornness, it demands the heights of love and despair as well. This…this could take some prodding.



***



Asher gets his tunic back in the morning, just as the eastern edge of the sky is starting to lighten. Work begins early on a farm, apparently, and that’s an excellent thing, because he hasn’t been able to catch a minute of sleep all night. Every time he curled up just enough to start feeling his own body warmth, the wind would kick up and drive his comfort away. He’s exhausted, but a chance to sleep is not forthcoming. A kick to the shin is.



“Up, boy!” It’s the cook. Asher doesn’t think she actually sleeps. She looks exactly the same as she did when she kicked him out last night, the same clothes, the same hairstyle. There’s nothing mussed or wrinkled about her severe appearance, and that’s just not right. She throws him his tunic, which he gratefully puts on, itchiness be damned, and follows it up with sandals. The tunic has a rough pouch sewn into the front, where he puts his tiny passenger. He hopes the mouse has the good sense not to try to jump out. I’m thinking about sensible mice…I’ve probably fucking lost it.



The cook motions to him curtly and he follows her in to the kitchen. The fire is going, and Asher gravitates immediately toward its warmth.



“Breakfast,” the cook says, pointing at a chipped ceramic plate at the end of the long table. On it is an unevenly-cut hunk of bread, a pot of something that looks like crumb-flecked K-Y jelly (and God, not the image Asher wanted in his mind when he’s hungrier than hell) and a cup of milk. The milk looks fresh. The bread is from yesterday, but it’s still more than he’s eaten in the last fourteen hours or so.



“Eat quickly,” the cook admonishes before turning to another table and picking up a big knife. She’s chopping something up, something that’s leaking what is probably blood off the end of that table. Asher is uncomfortably reminded of the Cubist pigs in the backyard. He could have been feeding that piece of meat just yesterday. To someone who is accustomed to eating his protein in the form of bacon and burgers, it’s more than a little off-putting.



Asher bites a piece out of the bread. It’s tough and dry, throwing crumbs everywhere, so he dips it into the milk to soften it up before having another go at it. His stomach is so empty it’s hugging his spine, and any food is a welcome addition. He goes through the bread way too fast, drains the milk and goes so far as to pick up and sniff the little pot. It smells edible, kind of like Thanksgiving in a weird way, but he’s not about to stick a finger in and taste. Especially not after he’s been holding onto a mouse all night. Belatedly Asher remembers basic hygiene and figures he should have washed his hands before eating. And speaking of the mouse… Asher brushes the breadcrumbs into his hand, then dumps them into the pouch. He can feel the mouse twitch with interest.



He clears his throat and the cook turns to look him over. She grunts once, then points towards the fire. “Use that bucket to wash up, then bring it back and pick up the scraps. The pigs need feeding.”



“That bucket” has apparently been sitting by the fire for some time, because it’s miraculously not freezing cold. Asher takes it outside, to an abandoned corner of the yard that stinks of piss, and sluices his hands off. After a moment’s thought he does his face too. There’s enough left that he can just barely make out his reflection with the help of the rising sun. It doesn’t look like he’s missed any huge clumps of dirt or anything, but he looks so rough trade right now. Kind of feels it too, although obviously he hasn’t had any sex since he got here. Hadn’t had any for a few days before he got here either, at least not the kind he wants. That would be any and all versions of sex with Ty, but it’s getting harder to let himself go with Ty now that Ty’s not in the game anymore. It makes Asher feel kind of guilty, where it never did before. And it’s not like Ty ever gave him any real signals about how he felt other than enjoying it in the moment.



The mouse sticks its nose out of the edge of the pouch. “You still hungry?” Asher asks. When it doesn’t answer he counts that as a win and keeps going. “Go hang out by the pigpen, there’s bound to be more crumbs around there after they get fed.” He carefully grabs it and then sets it on the ground. “Go on, go forage or nest or make baby mice, or whatever it is that rodents do all day. And stay away from that fucking cat, because it will end you, little man.”



The mouse doesn’t move. It just keeps staring at him. “What?” he says. “What, you want to hang with me? Seriously?” He reached out and nudges the mouse with his muddy sandal, just in case it’s frozen with fear or in some kind of shock. It twitches, and its tail sweeps from side to side. Otherwise it doesn’t move. “Dude, no, really? You want to ride around with me all day? You might get crushed!” He nudges it again. The mouse doesn’t go anywhere.



“Fuck it.” Asher runs one hand through his hair, which feels kind of tacky with oil and old gel. “Fine.” He puts his hand down and the mouse hops onto it. “But you better not piss on me, little man. I mean it.” He replaces the mouse in the pouch, then heads back to the kitchen, feeling just a little bit better about something—someone—needing him enough to stick around, even if it is a mouse.



The morning is rough, but again, Asher manages to avoid the ladies (although personally he’d really like to let the mouse out on the formal table, just to see how those stuck-up bitches react, but he’s afraid they’d kill the mouse before he could remove it) and he even catches a nap after lunch. It isn’t exactly a restful nap, but the dream more than makes up for that.



“Fuck, God, fuck, ah…” Ty was a talker, a babbler when he was getting it on. That was good; a lot of clients liked to hear how much you enjoyed it, and learning to fake it or exaggerate would be that much harder if you didn’t already have a natural propensity for dirty talk. Asher would have returned the favor if his mouth wasn’t full right now.



Ty had finally caved, acknowledging that for now, Asher’s way was the best way. The question then became how to get him comfortable with the work itself. Asher had just been thrown into it, and once he learned how incredible sex could be he had regretted the way he lost his virginity, to a man who stank of chewing tobacco and used spit for lube. Ty had technically lost his virginity, sort of, but he wasn’t going to be fucking pretty girls to make the rent. Asher decided throwing him into the deep end would only freak him out, and so he started them off with mutual masturbation.



Ty had been awkward at the start, so embarrassed it took almost an hour to get hard the first time they got naked together. A few vodka shots later and the process was easier, and by the second night of practice he was already much better, much more at ease. He didn’t balk at exchanging hand jobs, and with a little direction he got really fucking good at that really fast. It made sense; his hands were Goddamn gigantic. He’d be leaving some johns feeling really inadequate after handling them, but Asher liked the way Ty could grip him tight all over. Coming into that kind of constant pressure was fucking amazing.



Blowjobs were the next big hurdle, and Asher was doing his damndest to ease Ty past any difficulties he might have with it by going to town on him. Ty had the hands but Asher had the mouth, and he knew it. Ty was proportionately big and his dick swelled even further in Asher’s mouth as he got closer to coming, but Asher still managed to brush the base of Ty’s cock with his lips, sucking hard.



“Ash!” Ty’s hands gripped the sheets tight, and his hips bucked hard up into Asher’s warm grip. He came like a fire engine, and Asher broke one of his personal rules and swallowed for Ty. This was Ty; he wanted to taste him. He wanted him to know it was okay, that you could enjoy it. He would talk to him later about safety and spitting, or preferably using a condom.



He leaned back when Ty started to shudder, overstimulated, lay down next to him and waited for Ty to open his eyes. When he did his pupils were huge, almost blotting out the warm brown of his eyes, which looked too big for his thin face. His hair was damp, sweaty, and his naked body gleamed. He looked at Asher like Asher was everything, like he was something incredibly important. Asher wanted desperately to hold onto Ty and never let him go, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t make this any harder than it already was.



“So,” he said with a grin, propping his head up on one hand. “You enjoy your first blow job?”



Ty exhaled deeply, releasing the last of the tension from his orgasm-spent body. He smiled his sweet, goofy smile and then reached out and pulled Asher closer by his shoulders. Before he could say anything Ty leaned in to him, and their lips touched in a kiss.



Asher jolts awake with a groan and a raging hard-on. His dick is so hard it’s almost purple, and he really, really needs to come. Thank God he’s taking his nap in the barn. It might smell like horse crap (and fuck, does everything around here smell like crap? Seriously, you can’t escape it) but he’s alone, and he jerks down his trousers and take a hold of himself, and imagines its Ty’s hand. He tries to imitate the way Ty touches him, short, fast pulls that encompass everything and suck him towards inevitable release. Asher pictures Ty in his mind, looming over his body like some ancient Greek hero, too fucking beautiful to be human, using his hands and his mouth and saying all those things that Asher knows are nonsense, just stupid sex talk, but fuck it he loves to hear them, fuck, ah—



Asher rolls onto his side and ejaculates all over the straw, moaning as the orgasm rips through him. He strokes himself until it’s just this side of painful, keeping his eyes closed the whole time because, damn it, he wants to preserve the illusion. He wants to imagine Ty is really there with him right now. No matter how they fight, no matter how annoying Ty is, Asher misses him like crazy. He always misses him, even if they’re just apart for a few hours. He’s been ignoring how awful Ty’s absence has been the last few days, mitigated by the sheer fucked-uppedness of his situation, but right now Asher feels his absence more than ever. God, he wants Ty. He wants him so bad he can barely breathe for a few seconds, but that’s not a sob, those aren’t tears; Asher shoves it all away and takes back control. He’ll get out of this. He’ll see Ty again. He has to.



He has to.



Chapter Five




Asher’s stepsisters like to talk. They’re constantly talking, to their mother or to each other or to themselves. They even talk to him when he’s in the room, as if something is better than nothing at all, as if their conversations with their mirrors palls enough after a while that even Asher’s presence is desirable. Their preference is to double-team him, to play off of each other’s spiky witticisms and jabs. Asher puts up with this because a) the satisfaction of mouthing off to them just isn’t worth it, and b) sometimes he actually learns something worth learning. He’s been in this place for a week, and it’s slowly but surely driving him crazy. Asher doesn’t really know what this place is or why the fuck he’s here, but if time is passing the same way for Ty that it is for him then he knows the kid is going crazy. They fight, it’s an inescapable part of basically living in each other’s pockets, but he’s never just run away like this. It’s the longest stretch of time they’ve been apart since Asher found Ty three years ago, and it feels like he’s missing a limb.



The jerkface part of Asher kind of wonders how much Ty is missing him. Like, is he heaving a few sighs in the morning before getting on with his day, studying and watching TV and going about his life with just a slightly more hang-dog expression, or is he breaking down? Is he lying on Asher’s half of the bed and breathing into his pillow and crying big girly tears and fucking losing it? Does he miss Asher so much that he isn’t eating, isn’t making it to class, can’t even look at all the pretty, hopeful college girls who want to date him because he’s so sunk in remorse he can barely move? Asher thinks it’s probably the latter, and he kind of likes that.



Then he kind of hates himself for feeling that way, because this is Ty, and no matter how much he wants to be that important to the kid, he doesn’t want him to hurt like that. In fact, at this point nothing would make Asher happier than for him to show up again and for no time to have passed, for Ty to be asleep or studying or still mad at him or anything, just not missing him. Ty has missed enough people in his life; Asher doesn’t need to be adding to the list.



This is what he’s thinking about as he cleans out Pinky’s fireplace. Pinky has a name, he just doesn’t care to use it, and besides it’s something that sounds French and has an accent on the second syllable that he just knows he’s going to fuck up, even if it’s just in his head. Pinky usually wears pink, so it works for her, plus he likes the fact that she has her own theme song in his mind, the one from the cartoon “Pinky and the Brain.” She seems about as bright as the lanky animated mouse, but not as funny.



His other stepsister he calls Envy, not just because green is the color of jealousy and she wears it a lot, but because she really is a jealous person. She’s smarter than Pinky, thinks she’s smarter than everyone, and has a dark word and a searching look for absolutely everything. She followed Asher from her room into Pinky’s today, and Asher can feel her eyes boring into him as he works, making sure that Pinky’s fireplace isn’t going to get any cleaner than hers. No one can have more than Envy.



“You work so slowly,” Pinky pouts from where she’s spread on a divan, splitting her time in looking out the window and commenting on everything Asher does. “Honestly, I’ve seen mud-grubbing little village urchins work faster than you do on your best day.”



“There’s very little difference between the two,” Envy points out dulcetly. “You missed the back corner, little cinder boy. You should do it again.”



Asher doesn’t say anything, just scrapes the bundle of sticks that passes for a brush over the back of the fireplace. Again. He’s filthy and his back hurts from being bent over all morning and he hasn’t even gotten to his stepmother’s room yet, and that’s a whole new level of being looked down upon, but at least she’s mature enough to prefer ignoring him to talking at him.



They chat about nonsense, fashions that Asher can’t picture and beauty remedies that involve egg whites and a lot of patience. He finishes with the fireplace and gets up, lifts his ever-present bucket and prepares to get out while the getting’s good. He’s not fast enough.



“Just a moment.” Pinky stares at him and wrinkles her perfect nose. “Lord, just looking at you makes my skin crawl. I think I need a bath after the experience. Go and heat me some water, piglet. But clean your hands before you carry it to my tub. I don’t want any of your ash falling in and fouling the water.”



“What an excellent thought, sister,” Envy says, her eyes narrowing in a way that Asher knows means she wishes she had thought of having a bath first. “I think I’ll have one as well. Go and cut some fresh lavender sprigs to steep in it. Only put them in once the water is hot, mind.”



The cauldron in the kitchen takes four buckets of water to fill. It takes three cauldrons of water to fill one bathtub, and each sister has her own, behind a painted screen in her room. Their rooms are on the second floor. Not to mention, Cook is undoubtedly working on lunch at the moment, and the last thing she wants to do is give up the fireplace for bathwater, so he’ll get to fight with her about that. Asher glares at the women and wishes, for about the hundredth time, that this place had running water. Life was so much easier when you could just turn a tap and…



Asher found Cassie in the bathtub. He hadn’t walked home with her that day; he had been kept late after school for detention, so she had made her way home alone. It wasn’t the first time Cassie had done that, so Asher hadn’t been too worried. His brothers were there, and so was his dad, not that the man was doing anything other than sleeping, probably. He worked an early shift and usually only saw his kids at the occasional dinner when they were all in the same place at the same time.



Detention was longer than usual, because Asher called the teacher watching him a dick when the man wouldn’t let him use his Gameboy. So he spent two hours in a stuffy classroom instead of one, and another half an hour getting back home. It was a Monday, so when he got in he walked to the living room and fully expected to see Cassie in her red and blue swimsuit watching The Little Mermaid with the fishbowl sitting on the table.



The movie was playing, but it was the very end, where a gigantic Ursula was flinging lightning bolts around and about to be run through with a ship. Asher knew this was his sister’s least favorite part of the movie, it always made her a little scared. Maybe that was why she wasn’t here for it. “Cassie?” he called out, putting his backpack on the floor. “Cassie?” No answer. He walked down the hall and checked her bedroom. Her school clothes were in a heap on the floor, but there was no Cassie.

Howard and Kyle were in the rec room, leaning against the couch and playing Grand Theft Auto 2. They didn’t even look over when he came in. “Where’s Cassie?”



“No clue,” Kyle said distractedly, running over a prostitute with his car.



“But she didn’t leave or anything, right?”



“Dude, I don’t fucking know, you’re her babysitter. Get the gun, get the gun!” he yelled at Howard. Asher turned and left them alone, going back to the living room with a strange, heavy feeling in his chest. He looked around. There were a few wet spots on the carpet, a little darker than the other stains, so probably fresh. Cassie couldn’t carry the fishbowl very well, it was still a little big for her, but it wasn’t in its usual place so she must have taken it with her, sloshing all the way. Asher followed the splashes to the bathroom door.



“Cassie?” he said, knocking on the closed door. “Are you in here?” There was no answer. “Cassie, c’mon.” He turned the handle and went inside. A few feet into the room, Asher froze. He knew it was the wrong thing to do, knew he should be moving, but he couldn’t help it.



The fishbowl was sitting on the toilet seat, half-empty. The gravel and miniature castle were all lumped on one side, like the bowl had been tilted. Poured out. The bathtub was full to the brim, with a ring of water spread across the tile almost as far as the sink. The water was pink, not clear. Pink. Cassie was there, in her red and blue bathing suit, face down in the water. Her head was bleeding. The cut was as long as Asher’s index finger, but she was bleeding very slowly.



Asher broke out of his paralysis and ran to the tub. He must have made some kind of noise, something loud, because by the time he had pulled Cassie out of the water his brothers were there, and his dad was right behind them, rubbing at his sleep-crusted eyes and shoving past the boys. Kyle turned pale and puked on the carpet and Howard looked like he wanted to do the same, but Asher didn’t care. He was holding onto Cassie and she wasn’t moving, her eyes were open but she wasn’t moving, she wasn’t breathing…



His father shoved him back. “Call 911!” he yelled at Asher, pulling Cassie into his own arms. Taking her away from Asher. Asher reached for her again, but then his dad hit him across the face, hard. The shock of it made tears spring to his eyes. His father had never hit him before that day. “Go get the goddamn phone and call 911!” he snarled.



Asher had gotten to his feet, moved past his useless brothers, even more useless and frozen than he was, and went and called 911.



“Are you utterly useless?”



The shrill voice breaks through the memory, pulling Asher out of that other place and back to where he is now, which is to say, in the company of two shrieking harpies.



“Can’t you even follow the simplest instructions?” Envy demands. “Or is the task we’ve given you too complex for a little piglet? I told you—”



“A royal carriage!” Pinky breaks in, sitting up abruptly and leaning out the window. Envy turns at once to her sister and Asher takes a second to get his head right. Baths. Right. No running water, no problem. He should be leaving, but the way his stepsisters are acting is totally out of characteristic for them. That is to say, they’re flustered as hell.



“Is it coming this way?” Envy asks, brushing a few strands of hair back from her face.



“No,” Pinky reports with disappointment. “It’s going on—wait! A rider is breaking off! He bears the prince’s standard! Sister, we must get downstairs at once!”



Asher presses back against the wall as the two tumble past him in a frenzy, checking each other for assurance of their beauty even as they rush towards the stairs. He puts his bucket down and goes over to the window, watching as the rider draws close. The horse moves like the wind, as idyllically far from normal as everything seems to be here, but the rider has no problem staying on the thing’s back. He’s carrying some sort of flag, quartered with fleur-de-lis and stylized dolphins opposite each other. Asher has no idea what that means, but this is the most interesting thing that’s happened here since he arrived and he craves a distraction, anything to reroute his brain after thinking about Cassie. He grabs up his stuff and heads downstairs, ready to find out more about what’s going on.



Chapter Six




There is a danger, the narrative knows, of this version of itself burning out. Anger is second nature to this hero, and it is possible that eventually he will be driven to act in a way that ends in his demise. Violent or accidental death is almost as common to this narrative as the intended resolution. Even worse, there could be a transformation into something tepid and banal, the hero losing his spark and resigning himself to a life of unwilling servitude because the plot devices binding him that he’s meant to overcome are too abstract. It wouldn’t be the first time the story has plodded along for decades until the main character dies of natural causes or has the dignity to kill him or herself.



What the story needs is a way to jumpstart this hero into action. Occasionally the narrative has allowed a moment of not strictly scripted peripeteia to appear in the mix, and this might be just the place for such a thing. The backstory is already there, the setting is practically perfect, and if there are flaws in the eventual characterization, well, those can be modified on the fly to suit the hero’s expectations. It should be interesting, no matter what the result is.



The story changes a picture, and watches what happens next.



***



The rider has stopped a little ways from the front door, and the girls have gone out to meet him. Asher hangs back in the shadows of the doorway and waits to see what happens. As it turns out, it’s a good thing he does, although it takes some serious self-control not to laugh out loud at them at first.



Asher has never seen a transformation quite like the one his stepsisters go through once they’re outside receiving the horseman, and he’s seen some fuckin’ doozies. He’s been with men who go from burly alphas to teary-eyed pussies as soon as they come in his mouth, he’s gone at it hot and heavy with guys in dirty bathrooms who delight in a stranger’s gaze but squeal and shrivel as soon as the boy they’re cheating on walks in. He’s seen his own father go from apathetically drunk to furiously drunk in seconds, but these girls…they’re something else.



They’ve gone from bile spewing bitches to ass kissing socialites in the space of a few short yards. Asher half expects their lips to be covered with sugar, their tones are so sweet and suggestive. The rider they’re accosting is wearing a blue and red velvet costume, complete with feathered hat. It looks kind of ridiculous, but is probably the in look for all rich douchebags. He has full lips and black hair, and his nose is so long and straight you could use it as a hole punch. Whoever this guy is he’s no servant, but he’s not the prince either, which is clear from the pretty pout on Envy’s face as she sidles near the horse, trailing a finger along the stirrup as she looks up at the man.



“Will you not dismount, my lord?” she asks coyly. “Rest your horse and share the latest news from court with us?”



“We long to know of the Dauphin’s travels,” Pinky adds, “and you, as his intimate, could surely satisfy our deepest curiosities.”



Envy casts a glare at her sister that clearly screams “Dial it back, ho bag.” The rider doesn’t give her a chance to mitigate the comment’s impact, though. In fact, he lets the clue bus roll right by him as he reaches into a saddlebag. If anything he looks annoyed, hot and tired, which Asher probably would be too if he had to gallop all over the place and talk to bored, horny women desperate for gossip.



“The prince is hosting a ball in one week’s time,” he says briskly as he hands over a thick envelope circled with a ribbon to Envy. “All the eligible youths of this household are invited to attend.”



“How delightful,” Envy smiles. “Please thank his highness on our behalf for this gracious and personal invitation. My sister and I shall certainly attend.”



The rider looks confused for a moment. “Isn’t there another of you here? A boy? A man, I suppose at this point, the son of the landowner…what is his name?”



“We shall convey the invitation,” Envy says coolly, stepping back in a way that clearly indicates that the conversation is over. “Good day, my lord.”



The man inclines his head, just enough to make it look like he’s staring down his long nose at them instead of bowing. “Ladies.” He turns his horse and rides back down the gravel path at top speed. Asher watches him go and wishes desperately that he was behind him on that horse, leaving this place behind. He can’t leave the boundaries of the manor house and its nearest lands on his own two feet; he’s tried several times, late at night when no one is around to watch him bounce off an invisible barrier and scream his frustration into the darkness.



Speaking of screaming…it’s all out war as the girls fight for control of the letter.



“Give it to me!”



“Get off!”



There’s groping and twisting and even some scratching, which just gets a roar of rage and similar treatment in turn before Envy regains dominance over the envelope. She tears the ribbon off and opens the invitation, Pinky hovering at her shoulder, and they read it together as they reenter the house. Asher backs into a hallway to prevent them from noticing him, but at this point he doesn’t think anything short of a bomb is gonna rock their boat.



“The paper smells of lilacs,” Pinky gushes as they head up the stairs.



“The edges are lined with gold,” Envy sighs. They disappear around a corner and Asher feels safe enough to reemerge, a little bemused but also interested. A ball, and one that he’s technically invited to. It’s a chance to get away from here, and that means he’s got to take it, however he can. For a second he smiles, remembering Cassie and her desperate desire to go to a ball.



He’s about to head back to the kitchen before the sight of the ribbon just lying there on the ground distracts him. The ribbon is bright blue, almost electric blue, and it looks weird against the dull gravel. Asher goes to it and picks it up. One end flutters in the air like a butterfly; the other one is weighed down by a wax seal. Asher turns it over to look a little closer and—



It’s Ty. It’s a profile, kind of simple, but that nose, that chin, that stupid shaggy hair…it’s definitely Ty. Every emotion Asher’s boxed up so well lately sort of splinters and seeps into his chest, and he has to sit down for a second, hunched against the wall of the manor house and hoping that no one comes out to see him like this. He stares at the circle of wax, so casually tossed aside, and feels his throat start to close up. Damn it…what the fuck?



Does this mean that Ty is here too, trapped in this freaky reality? Did he come looking for Asher and get sucked in? Is it just an imitation Ty, something pulled out of his mind? Is Asher even seeing this right, or is he really out of his mind and conjuring things up to make himself feel better? Cause if he is, he’s doing a suck ass job of it.



Does this make Ty a prince? The prince? Asher raises his face and shuts his eyes, taking a second, just one second, to get himself back under control. When he looks down again, the mouse is nibbling on the edge of the wax.



“No, damn it!” Ty taps the rodent sharply on the head and gets a bite himself for his trouble. “Bad mouse, shit…” He makes to put his bleeding fingertip in his mouth, then remembers it was a mouse that bit into it. Can’t they give you the plague or hantavirus or something? He doesn’t even bother swearing again, just sighs and presses his bloody finger against his tunic and resolves to get his passenger some food so he won’t eat Ty’s face off.



If Ty is the prince, then there’s no two ways about it. Asher absolutely has to be at this ball. Not just because it’s Ty and he needs to see him like he needs to breathe, but also because there’s no way he’s leaving Ty to the nonexistent mercies of his stepsisters. Not happening. Ty is way too nice to women, too much of a fucking gentleman to tell them to back off, and it’s burned him before. It’s not that there are no nice girls out there, it’s just that the ones that tend to be attracted to tall, cute, gangling Ty are complete bitches who expect their every whim to be catered to. Ty doesn’t need that kind of bullshit. Asher’s run interference before, and he’s more than ready to do it again.



Asher knew that when Ty got accepted to college, when he started working at the library, that things between them were going to change. Ty wasn’t going to be hooking anymore; he was done with the streets. He was going to settle into a normal life, get a degree and a girl and develop some good habits, better than the ones than involved coffee and NoDoz and the occasional Ritalin. It was no shock to Asher that Ty was attracted to girls; they talked about it all the time, rating the women who worked their part of the neighborhood and groaning about the lack of pussy in their lives. Not that Asher really cared; he preferred guys, but he had slept with a few women and it had been nice, not anything special but nice.



But Ty…Ty loved women. He wanted them. He got all tongue-tied and stuttery around them, even the prostitutes, girls who would probably have given him a freebie if he’d managed to ask, but he couldn’t. He was cute and shy and easily besotted, and for two years he didn’t date a single girl. Asher, selfish jerk that he was, liked that. Then came college, and college girls.



The first time Asher realized it was going to be an issue was when he went to pick Ty up after his first day of classes. Asher had still had his bike back then, and plenty of college girls, all California tan and long blonde hair, had given him the “come hither” look as he parked in the lot next to the library. He had basically ignored them, which he knew just made it worse, and went to look for Ty.



He saw him standing by a coffee cart in the commons area—it was hard to miss such a freakishly tall kid—and headed his way. Halfway across the commons Asher stopped in his tracks, staring dumbly over at Ty, who it turned out wasn’t alone. He was talking to a girl about a foot shorter than him, a redhead with curls and denim cut-offs that barely covered her curves. She was twirling hair around one finger and laughing, and Asher watched in silence as Ty paid for their frou-frou lattes and they sat down on a bench together. Asher could make out the word “algebra,” followed by a giggle and an “omigod, it’s so hard!” He watched Ty nod like a puppet, eyes devouring every jiggle, every twist of that coil of hair. Asher spun on his heel and went to wait on the bike.



That night Ty asked Asher if it would be all right if he had a study group over at the apartment. All the real reasons Asher hated the idea poured through his mind and strained against his throat, things like, “I don’t want to make the difference between myself and your shiny new friends any more obvious ,” and “If I have to watch you and some chick eye-fuck each other all night, I’ll probably kill myself.” Instead he said, “I don’t think it’s a great idea, man. Not unless you want them to know you’re living with a prostitute.”



Ty’s face went kind of soft and wounded. “I’m not ashamed of you,” he said staunchly.



“Sure you’re not,” Asher agreed. “But what if I come in all bruised up or covered with cum? You really want your study group to see that? Cause that doesn’t sound like the best way to fit in.”



Ty was quiet for a long moment. “Okay,” he said finally, and turned back to his books.



And Asher knew this was the beginning, the moment when Ty would start to pull away, when he’d really start to divorce himself from this world and leave it, and Asher, behind. Asher wasn’t going to let that happen, not yet—the kid wasn’t ready to be on his own yet, but if Asher didn’t do something to reassure him then things would get weird. So that night after Ty was asleep, Asher didn’t go out, and he didn’t go to his own bed either. Instead he got naked, prepped himself, pulled back the sheet that covered Ty’s rangy body and crouched over his groin. His penis was flaccid, soft and relaxed and beautiful, and Asher leaned over and breathed against it, just breathed, the faintest stroke of air on the tender skin. Ty shifted and sighed, and Asher grinned and did it again. His breath was warm and the air was cool, and slowly Ty’s cock began to plump up. Once it was half-hard he sucked the end into his mouth, keeping his pressure so, so gentle. Ty needed careful handling; he needed a slow start to really enjoy himself. Asher knew what he liked, and he’d show him that. He would show Ty that no one else would be able to make him feel as good as Asher could.



Ty woke up with a start, but just as quickly settled back with a low moan and cupped the sides of Asher’s head, holding him gently. “Ash…”



Asher pulled back from his cock with a soft “pop.” “I want you to fuck me,” he said, his voice deep and kind of growly. He knew how much Ty liked the sound of his voice when they were together like this, how much he liked the direction. When Ty worked the street he had always kept total control, no matter what the john was willing to pay, but when he was with Asher he could let go.



“Ash, c’mere,” he said, pulling at him until Asher left his cock and straddled his chest instead. He was half-expecting Ty to blow him, but instead those big, long fingers reached around and pressed against his hole. Asher pressed back and they slipped smoothly inside of him.



“Oh, fuck,” Ty breathed. Asher had to smile. He rocked on Ty’s hand, breath hitching a little when a third finger joined the other two, but he could take it. He wanted it, wanted Ty in him, wanted this connection. Wanted Ty to remember that he knew what Asher liked just as well as Asher knew him, and all he wanted was all of Ty to himself, for as long as he could have it. Jealous? Hell yes, he was jealous. That didn’t mean he wasn’t right.



Asher pulled away and grabbed the condom he’d brought in with him, rolled it quickly over Ty’s now very awake and interested dick, drizzled some lube across the top and then reached down, settled against the head and slowly impaled himself. Ty held Asher’s hips and bent his own knees to offer support, and after a second of getting used to the fucking baseball bat that was inside of him, Asher started to move. Their rhythm was intense without being frantic. Both of them were breathing hard but they stayed quiet, and once Asher had Ty’s gaze he held it. He couldn’t tell Ty what he felt, that would be like a betrayal of everything he’d ever done for his friend, but he could show it in his eyes.



This is where you belong. This is where you’ll be happy. Stay. Stay. Stay.



Ty’s grip tightened and he fucked Asher a little faster, pressing in as deep as he could get on every thrust. He was sweating soon, panting, his abs tightening and relaxing and making shapes that Asher just had to taste. So he did, bending himself in two and licking a line up Ty’s torso. Ty got his arms under Asher’s shoulders and held him close and started to fuck him harder, hard enough that Ty knew the sound of the bed would wake up their neighbors, hard enough that he could breathe in Ty’s own breaths. It would be so simple to close that distance between them, to kiss him, but he hadn’t done that since their first time, and he wouldn’t. It would mean too much, and even though he was jealous, he wasn’t cruel. He wouldn’t do that to Ty.

The rub of Ty’s abs against Asher’s trapped cock made him groan, and all it took was a single tight stroke of his own hand to make him erupt, hot and slick all over their chests. Ty followed fast, finally closing his eyes as his orgasm took over. They stayed joined for a long time, dirty and smelly and totally blissed out. When Asher finally rolled away, it was Ty who cleaned them off, and before he could go back to his own bed Ty had grabbed him around the waist, pulled him in close and promptly fallen asleep on his shoulder. They didn’t usually sleep together, not even when they had sex, but Asher went with it.



The next morning Ty woke up first and made them pancakes. He never mentioned a study group again.



Chapter Seven




There’s only one way that Asher’s going to get to go to this ball, and he knows it. Yeah, his stepsisters said they’d tell him, but he knows that was just for the horseman’s benefit. They’d sooner be tarred and feathered than invite him along to an event where they’re clearly counting on being the fairest of them all, and no offense, but when Asher cleans up he cleans up good. And if the prince really is Ty, well, Asher knows him. He knows what he likes. Ty likes girls but Ty likes him more, and he can draw the kid’s eye better than anyone else with a little effort. He just has to get the chance.



Convincing his stepmother to let him go along is the only way this is going to happen. The girls like to pretend they run this house, but everyone knows that while you have to kowtow to the daughters, it’s the mother who can order you let go or beaten, or worse. There’s something about her impenetrable silence that makes it hard for you to breathe in her presence, and such a relief when she starts to speak. She says more with her eyes than anyone Asher has ever met before, and usually none of its good. Still, he has to try. This is about Ty, after all. This is Asher’s life on the line.



Asher sees his stepmother once a day, at dinner when he serves the table. He could try to go to her earlier but her room is generally locked, opening only for a maidservant in the morning and the evening. There’s no way she’ll open it if he just knocks, and this isn’t the sort of thing he wants to ask about with an audience either. His best bet is to catch her after dinner, once her daughters are gone but before she’s retired to her own rooms. It’s a plan, at least, and now Asher just has to make it through the rest of the day and build up his courage. He makes an effort to clean up before dinner, to not smell strongly or look rough or be anything else that his stepmother might take offense at. She hardly ever speaks to him but when she does, it’s always some sort of comment on his appearance.



Usually by the time Asher brings them dinner he’s starving, but tonight he’s so on edge that his stomach’s in knots. He serves quietly, and listens with half an ear to his stepsisters’ raptures over the invitation (never mentioning his own) and their not-so-sly comments about him.



“He looked so elegant, Mama,” Pinky says with a little swoon, one hand pressed to her cleavage. “So handsome in the dauphin’s regalia.”



“And the dauphin will look even better in it,” Envy adds. “Of course you’ll give us the carriage to go, won’t you, Mama?”



Their mother is silent for a moment before saying, “I think I’ll go with you myself. I haven’t laid eyes on the dauphin since he’s grown to manhood, and I want to get a good look at my future son-in-law.” Both of her daughters beam at their mother’s confidence.



“It’s too bad you didn’t get a look at the gentleman, little piglet, it would have done you good to see a man so suited to his high station in life,” Envy continues, glancing in Asher’s direction.



“Not that we could have borne the embarrassment if you had shown your filthy face,” Pinky says with a snort.



“Actually…” His stepmother fixes him with her eyes and Asher stops pouring the water, making himself look straight at her. “I find some improvement in your appearance of late, child. It seems you’ve been making an effort. If you continue to do so, I will be most pleased with you.”



“He isn’t making an effort,” Pinky exclaims, wrinkling her nose. “You should have seen him when he was cleaning the grates today, Mama, he was positively filthy.”



“And yet now, he isn’t,” their mother points out. Pinky lapses into a sulk and Envy just stares at Asher, contemplative like a viper eyeing a bit of prey.



Dinner is finished in short order, the girls flounce off and Asher manages to catch his stepmother in the hallway outside of her bedroom, having carted the dishes as fast as he could to the kitchen before running like a madman up the stairs. She hears him coming and stops with her hand on the door, supremely unconcerned in the face of Asher’s discomfort, like a distant, uncaring god. He forces himself to speak.



“The invitation that came today…it said that all eligible youths are invited to attend the ball.”



“And?” she prompts after a moment.



“And…I’d like to go.”



“You wish to go to the ball.”



“Yes, Madame.” Madame is her title of choice when he’s the one speaking. She doesn’t say anything for a long, long time, just looks at him and weighs decisions in her mind and has absolutely no care for the fact that she’s holding the balance of his future in her hands. “Please,” he adds, and the sudden jolt of memory is almost dizzying as it skips into his mind.



Asher remembered the day his mother left, how he heard closet doors opening and shutting in rapid succession and entered her room and found her stuffing clothes into a suitcase, black tear tracks streaking her face where her makeup had run, her small, fine hands wrung red. She didn’t notice when he came into the room, too preoccupied with packing to look up.



“Mom?”



A stricken face rose to meet his, eyes so puffy that he could barely see her pupils, her nose bright red. “Ash.” Her voice sounded clogged and nasal. “You’re supposed to be at school.”



“I left early.” He had skipped the second half of the day, tired of solicitous teachers and morbidly curious classmates. Cassie had just been buried a week ago, but it seemed like everyone had heard about it. “What are you doing?”



“I…” His mother seemed momentarily at a loss for words. “I—I’m leaving for a while, honey. Just to go and see Grandma for a few weeks, she needs me.”



Asher had met his grandmother only once, and that was when she came to visit from Beijing. It had been an awkward two weeks, with her speaking no English and the rest of them speaking no Mandarin. She had totally dominated the house while she was there, and all of them had been happy when she’d gone away again.



“You’re going to China?” Asher asked slowly.



“Yes, but not for long. Just a few weeks.”



A few weeks. Asher mentally calculated just how much his father could drink in a few weeks. Since Cassie’s death he had stopped going to work and only left the house to walk down to the liquor store on the corner and back, or to spend some quality time at the bar. He alternated between loud, drunken ramblings and bouts of crying, and he had hit Asher twice since the funeral, and hit his mother once. The twins spent most of their time with friends away from the house, and since his mother had to work, Asher was the only one around. He hated it, flinching every time his father made a noise, and if his mother went away…



“Take me with you.”



His mother shut her eyes hard for a moment. “I can’t take you,” she told him. “But it will be okay, honey, you’ll see. I’ll just be gone a few weeks.”



“I don’t want to be here alone,” Asher said desperately.



“You won’t be alone, Daddy will be with you—”



“I don’t want to stay with him!” Asher cried. Couldn’t she see that he couldn’t stay with him? “Please, I want to come with you, Mom. Please.” He went over to the bed and pushed her suitcase aside, tried to move in close enough for her to hug him, but her hands flew to his shoulders and held him back. “Mom, please, please don’t leave me here. I want to come with you! Please.” He tried out the one Mandarin word his Grandma had made him learn. “Qĭng. Mom, qĭng. I can go with you, I can learn Mandarin, see? I can already speak some.”



“Don’t be silly,” his mother said, but her voice was weak and her arms were shaking. “You have to stay here. I’ll only be gone a few weeks. It’s too late to buy you a ticket, Ash, you can’t come with me. Stay here with Daddy. I’ll only be gone for a little while.” She pushed his dark hair away from his forehead and gazed with despair at his face. “Just a few weeks.”



Asher had pulled away and just looked at her, watched her pack silently. She wouldn’t meet his eyes again, didn’t even talk to him until she was at the front door. Then she had finally hugged him, wrapping him so tight with her skinny arms that it hurt. “Be good for your daddy,” she breathed. He just held on, held her so securely that she had to pry his hands off and put her suitcase between them, to keep him back. She ran down to her car, got in and drove away. It was the last time Asher saw her.



He’s so taken by surprise, he almost doesn’t here it when his stepmother says, “Very well. If,” the emphasis is clear, “if you continue to perform all your chores with diligence, and if you can find something of good quality to wear that won’t embarrass us, and if you maintain an acceptable level of hygiene and decorum…then I suppose that you may attend the prince’s ball.”



Relief is a palpable thing, like a bucket of warm water thrown over his head and soaking down to his feet. Asher smiles and nods. “Thank you, Madame. I’ll try to be my best for you. You won’t regret this.”



“I never regret anything,” she says coolly before opening the door and entering her chambers. “But you might, child, if you disappoint me.”



The door closes with decided finality.







Chapter Eight




People who only know a little bit about Asher tend to think he’s lazy. Even the ones who know what he does for a living. Part of the issue is that it’s clear he’s clever, and many people equate cleverness to success. It’s so easy to take things at face value and look at him, unabashedly gorgeous, and figure that he’s doing what he does because it’s easy for him and he lacks ambition. He must really lack ambition, because it wouldn’t be impossible for him to find someone to take care of him and set him up nice, even on his terms, if he was willing. So, lazy. Or perhaps, if they generously take into account the fact that he started supporting himself this way when he was fifteen, then damaged. Mentally, emotionally damaged, and now he does what he does because of that. Huh. Poor kid.



There’s some truth in that. For a while Asher did what he did because it was all he could think of, and all he thought he deserved. But he’s been at this for years now, and it’s not that he doesn’t think there are other things to do. Asher’s had dreams, he’s got goals. If he was working just for himself he would be saving money for travelling, for moving on, for getting the fuck away from California. He can do other things, might even go to school, but not here. Especially not when he has other responsibilities.



Ty is both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to him. The best, because Asher loves him. He loved Ty when he first met him, kind of like a little-sibling kind of love, something he hadn’t felt since Cassie. It took him off guard and opened him up to Ty like he hadn’t since he’d been on his own. After living with him, after getting to know him, after taking care of him he started to fall in love. Fell in love with him, and then it was too late to leave. Ty has his own ideas about the future, about his life, and Asher has fallen in line with them despite himself. Ty wants him there, at least for now, and Asher’s got to comply. It’s the best of times, the worst of times. Ty fucking owns Asher. Asher just hopes to hell that Ty doesn’t know it. He’d probably be horrified.



Anyway, the point is, Asher’s not lazy. He’s got plenty to do, and when he’s working, either at the pool table or in the alley behind the bar, he’s dedicated. Asher knows how to keep himself going all night, learned how to do it without resorting to drugs, and most of the time it involves having a very active imagination and good recall of past events. He relives the moments he loves the most when he can, and imagines entirely new situations and conversations when he doesn’t want to tarnish the memories he treasures.



That’s how he spends a lot of the week leading up to the ball. Asher is working his ass off, to put it lightly. He’s up at dawn and down after dark, doing everything he’s normally tasked with as well as everything else his step family can think of. The girls don’t approve of their mother’s deal, and that’s putting it lightly. They’re pulling out all the stops between their inner bitches and their outer darlings, and the darlings are being totally subsumed.



“The grate isn’t clean enough.”



“This water is practically freezing!”



“You’re tracking your filth into the house, piglet. Go sweep it up.”



“Shine them. With your tongue.”



The last one was pointedly ignored, taking almost more control than Asher possessed, but the other ones he had to do. Those and a million other things. The time passes faster when Asher lets his body do the work and lets his mind wander.



“Could you not lounge in front of me?”



“Wha?” Not his best comeback, but then Asher had no idea where Ty was coming from.



“I’ve got finals in a week, man,” Ty said. He was using his special pissy voice, the one he broke out when he was feeling put upon and frustrated and kind of wanted to pick a fight, but kind of wanted to be coddled too. It was a fine line to figure out what to do when confronted with it. Ignore it and Ty’s tone might devolve to Inconsolably Pissed Off, which was never fun and took a day to wear off, or worse, Vindictively Snipey, which tended to make Asher angry back and left them not speaking to each other for a week. “How am I supposed to study for them when you’re watching Supernatural at piercing decibels in the living room?”



“Hey, it could be worse,” Asher offered. “I could be watching Dancing With The Stars. I know how irresistible sequins are to you. You’d never get anything done.”



“Shut up.” Ty pitched his pencil at Asher’s head. Asher ducked the sharp end and looked theatrically offended. “I’m not getting anything done now, asshole.”



“Well, then…” Asher indicated the other half of the couch. “You should come over and sit down. Stop studying for a while. You’re going to do fine, you’ve just worked yourself into a stupor, man.”



Ty rolled his eyes and groaned, but he did put down the notebook and scoot away from the counter. “I have to pass all of these,” he said disconsolately as he flopped down onto the couch.



“Yeah, ’cause you’ve only got As in everything so far.”



“But the final is worth anywhere from twenty to forty percent of my overall grade,” Ty argued, crossing his arms over his middle. It was something he only did when he was feeling vulnerable, and Asher hadn’t seen the gesture since Ty had started school. “I could go from an A to a D in one day.”



“Maybe if you have an aneurysm or go to take the final drunk,” Asher agreed. “But you’re in perfect health and you hardly ever drink, so neither of those are probably going to happen.” Ty sighed and it probably would have been fine if Asher had stopped there, but he didn’t. “So stop PMS-ing, you giant freaking girl.”



“Girl?” Ty lashed out with his stupidly long legs and caught Asher in the middle of his chest, knocking the breath out of him. “You’re calling me a girl? Who spends more time in the bathroom every morning that a tween going to her first Sadie Hawkins dance?”



“I don’t even know what that is!” Asher protested. “And fucking stop it with the feet, man, you’re going to bruise the goods.”



“Poor baby,” Ty cooed, kicking him again, “is the little princess feeling delicate today? Need some smelling salts? Want me to loosen your corset?”



“I will put a corset around your balls if you don’t stop it with the feet, bitch,” Asher warned.



“Ooh, kinky,” Ty replied, and all of a sudden the mood completely changed. Fraying tempers and tiredness seemed to melt away as both of their minds careened gleefully into the gutter.



“If you keep kicking me,” Asher said slowly, deliberately, his eyes never leaving Ty’s face as he set the remote aside—they had demolished two of them in the past three months, “I won’t let you come for hours. Hours, Ty. You can bat your big eyes all you want, I will have absolutely no mercy on you.”



“I don’t think I believe you,” Ty said a little breathlessly. He wasn’t kicking anymore though, more like kneading, working his toes under Asher’s shirt and pressing them against his flat, tight stomach. “You like it when I come. You won’t make me wait.”



“Care to put me to the test?” Asher challenged him. “Put your money where your mouth is?”



“I’ll put my mouth wherever you want it,” Ty replied, never stopping with his feet. One went up while the other came down, pushing lightly against Asher’s erection. Asher stopped its motion with one hand.



“Put it here, then.”



Given his former straight boy status, it was kind of amazing how much Ty loved giving blowjobs. He got into it, like really into it, into giving them almost more than receiving them, at least with Asher. He’d drop to his knees for Asher in a heartbeat, with nothing more than a raised eyebrow and a half smile to encourage him. Now was no different. Ty pulled his legs back and leaned forward, his eyes already hooded with anticipation. He had Asher’s jeans open in a few seconds and went to town right after that, eager and greedy. It was so much sensation so fast, almost too much, but that was part of what Asher loved about Ty. There wasn’t much foreplay between them, not unless Asher initiated it, but there was an intensity to what Ty did that was undeniably hot.



“Ty,” Asher moaned, throwing his head back and cupping the back of his head. Ty had made it abundantly clear as soon as he was over his shyness that he loved it when Asher fucked his mouth, and now that he was growing his hair out again, grabbing it was a compulsion Asher couldn’t resist. He didn’t grip too tightly, just enough to make it clear who was in charge of the pace here, and Ty moaned happily around his cock.



“That’s it, Ty,” Asher said, letting out his inner porn star. He didn’t usually talk when he fucked, but again, that was one of the things that got Ty going, so who was Asher to say no? “Open up for me, give me your mouth. This mouth is mine, bitch, and I’m gonna use you and come down your throat, and you’re gonna swallow all of it.” It was almost always the same speech, something Asher had heard a hundred variations of over the years, but saying it to Ty, holding him like this, really made him feel it. He had a pretty, perfect boy sucking his dick, the only person Asher had ever wanted for more than a night, and he was doing this because he wanted Asher. Ty was moaning like a whore around the meat in his mouth and already rutting against the couch, because fuck, nothing said zero-to-horny like eighteen years old. Asher had seen Ty with guys, and he was never like this with anyone else. Only with him.



“Fuck, you feel so good,” Asher choked out, starting to thrust harder, feeling his dick hit the back of Ty’s throat. When he was the one going down, Asher always slowed things at this point, kept control so he wouldn’t get hurt, but with him Ty didn’t even seem to care. His eyes started watering and he gagged a little, but he was still moaning his happy moan, happy and desperate, and after a few more seconds Asher tightened his grip in Ty’s hair to just below the point of pain and arched off the couch as he came, hard. Ty swallowed fast, his tongue licking over every inch of flesh it could get to so that nothing escaped. Soon Asher relaxed his grip and pulled Ty back, ignoring his whine and tugging him up between his thighs. He attached his lips to the pulse point on Ty’s neck and reveled in his sudden shudder, the helpless thrust of his trapped cock against Asher’s own, gradually softening with satisfaction. Fuck, Ty had to be aching by now…

“Don’t even think about it, bitch,” he said languorously as he scraped his teeth down the taut tendons standing in stark relief beneath his mouth. “Hours, Ty. I said hours, and I meant it.” He wrapped his legs around Ty’s hips to hold him firmly in place, then went back to his neck, ignoring the pained grunt of frustrated lust in favor of the pure pleasure that holding Ty so close gave him.



Oh yeah. He could keep this up for hours.



Chapter Nine




The hardest part of the whole business is getting hold of a suit, or pantaloons, or whatever the hell these boys wear. Asher knows better than to expect his stepmother to just offer up the right clothes, and he also knows there aren’t going to be any singing mice and flitting birds sewing him something, which is fine. Totally fine. One non-talking mouse is plenty, thank you very much. Besides, every bird he’s seen has looked like a colored cotton ball, like whoever had put this place together figures you aren’t going to be getting very close to them, so fuck the details.



Thinking too long in that direction leads to a shit ton of crazy, so Asher puts it aside and does his innumerable chores and waits for a moment where his stepmother is otherwise occupied so he can get into her room. She was married to his sort-of-dad, right? She should have men’s clothes in there somewhere, something nice enough to pass muster. All Asher needs is a chance. And, yeah, he needs for her not to blow up at him when the time comes to go, but that’s a bridge to cross later. First things first: getting in.



Except his stepmother is in her room all the time, except at dinner, and then he’s supposed to be serving her and her two little poisonous apples. He tries using laziness to his advantage and going extra slow with his chores in hopes that someone else will serve dinner, but all it gets him is a cuff on the ear from the cook (which stings like an absolute bitch) and an admonishment to go faster. Asher tries to cut out early too, but he gets called back. He tries to begin late, same issue, but again with the hitting.



Finally Asher resorts to causing some property damage. He isn’t proud, but the ball is tonight and he’s got to get this done. He decides on a fire. Everyone likes to look at a fire, and besides, everything flammable is on the side of the mansion that his stepmother doesn’t have a view of from her room, so she’ll have to leave to see it. There are two barns, one large, one small, and the granary as potential targets. Asher decides on the small barn, there are no animals there, it’s mostly used to house the carriage, and happily the carriage is gone right now too, being spruced up for the big night. Win-win.



Asher never has been a pyromaniac, but his older brothers were, and he paid attention. Their medium of choice was lighter fluid, but Asher goes with a thick smear of goose grease (that nasty gritty stuff in the pot that he couldn’t identify on his first day and still won’t eat, no matter how kind of okay it smells) on the back wall close to the floor. The wood is rotting, a little wet but this should get it going.



He sets the fire early, before breakfast, so most everyone is still asleep. People will be suspicious but no one will be able to prove anything. He readies the kindling, then lays the embers from the fire in the kitchen to it. They catch almost immediately, and Asher bolts out of there. He watches surreptitiously from the back door, pretending to be barely awake. Nothing at first. A little smoke after a while, nice, good start, but no one notices.



When the smell is so strong the air is saturated with it Asher is sure someone will say something, but no, the kitchen staff bustles around and the cook thrusts a bucket of scraps at him. “Pigs,” she grunts. Right. Asher goes out back and stops in the courtyard. There are flames shooting up the back wall now. If he doesn’t get this party started, the damn thing will burn down and no one will be the wiser. Okay then…



FIRE!!!” he yells at the top of his lungs, then takes off around the corner so he won’t be called upon to help put it out. He needs this time.



There’s a scuffle in the kitchen, people darting and shouting and then the chorus is taken up. “Fire! Fire!” Excellent. Asher circles around to the front and looks in through one of the long windows, where he’s got a decent view of the stairs. The girls should be coming down any minute…



Envy is first. She always has to be the first to know anything, and she rockets down the staircase like it’s her ass that’s on fire instead of a barn. Pinky follows at a more sedate pace, rubbing at her eyes.



“C’mon, c’mon…” She has to be coming, this sort of thing has to make the grade for watchable entertainment. They have no TV here, a good fire should be like the Superbowl to these people.



Ah, there now, here she comes, stalking down the stairs like an angry wraith in a black nightgown, her hair frizzed out like wire. Asher has never seen her at anything less than her skeletal best, and it’s weird how uncomfortable seeing her in dishabille makes him. Like she’s really there, real, and of all of the people here, his stepmother is the one that Asher least wants to be real for some reason.



He slips inside and heads up the stairs fast. His little mouse buddy is bouncing against his stomach in the pouch, and he whispers a quiet apology to him for being rough, but timing is important now. He makes it to the third floor, last door on the right, and tries the handle. It opens, creaking, and he lets himself in fast.



The room smells musty, dank despite the fact that a maid is in there once a day to clean things. The bed is a canopy, its curtains drawn tightly shut. The furniture is dark, the walls are dark, the fabric is dark: this place is like a crypt. Asher half wonders if he pulls the curtain around the bed aside, what are the odds that he finds a coffin instead? He shakes his head and moves over to the wardrobe. The doors creak—naturally—as he opens it. Inside he finds layer upon layer of gowns. Asher paws through them, looking for something vaguely masculine without success. Shit. He can still hear the uproar through the window, so he’s got a little time…where else do people keep clothes? He tries the chest at the foot of the bed: all linens. The drawers on the vanity are too small to hold anything useful. In a fit of pique Asher throws back the curtain around the bed, needing to smack at something. And inside the bed he finds—



Oh. Oh, that’s kind of sick. There’s a mannequin in the bed, a life-sized straw man, and it’s wearing a blue satin suit The clothes are nice quality, Asher can tell, but the whole situation is just…just…is there even a word for this kink? There’s no mock genitalia that he can see, Asher doesn’t figure she’s using it for that, but lying in a tomb of a bed with a mock-up of your dead husband is not psychologically healthy. The doll is wearing rings on straw fingers, a medallion around it’s broomstick neck…and is that a real wig on its head? Definitely based on the real thing. Definitely disturbing. Definitely…



Definitely what he needs. Beggars can’t be choosers, and these are the only clothes he’s found. Asher strips them off the straw man and prays that his stepmother won’t crawl back in there for the rest of the day. Yeah, she’ll see him tonight, but again…gotta get there first. Asher leaves all the jewelry but grabs the shoes, figuring his string sandals won’t cut it, and hightails it out of there. Just as he emerges he hears the women of the household chatting animatedly on the main stairs, and he runs for the servant’s stairwell on the other side of the house and gets there just in time. He’s breathing hard, which is kind of gross ’cause the clothes are just as foul smelling as the rest of that room, but he figures he can air them out.



He rolls them into a bundle and tucks it beneath his oversized tunic and gets outside without being seen, finds a likely tree not too far away and beat the fuck out of the fabric there, then hangs it over the lowest branches. Then he gets back to work.



The day is exhaustingly long, and by the time dinner is finished (served early for the ladies) and he’s done getting his daily allotment of abuse, there’s less than a half hour to get ready. Asher tries to excuse himself but the women hold on.



“You don’t look ready, piglet,” Envy says from where she sits, idly wrapping a ribbon around her finger. She’s wearing a green gown that for once makes her sit up straight instead of slouching, the corsets are drawn so tight. Unfortunately they’re not so tight that she can’t get enough air to keep speaking. “Such a shame.”



“The shame would be ours if he were to accompany us,” Pinky counters. Her hair is twice its normal size, and makes her doll-thin neck look like it could snap at any moment. Her pink gown looks like cotton candy strapped to a Barbie doll, poofy in weird places. Fashion, man.



His stepmother doesn’t say anything, but the cool look of disapproval on her face is infuriating. Like she didn’t know she was setting him up for an impossible task at the beginning.



“Actually, I can be ready in five minutes,” Asher tells them.



“What?”



What?”



“Mother!”



“You said—”



“Can you indeed?” his stepmother asks, one eyebrow arching elegantly.



“Yes.”



“Do so, then. And if the clock makes you a liar, then you stay here.”



Asher runs.



The clothes aren’t that far away and he took a few minutes to wash up earlier. He struggles into the suit, still musty-smelling for all that it had been baking in the sun since morning. Christ, there are ties everywhere, at his waist, his wrists, around his neck like a fucking noose. Whatever, he can tighten them in the carriage. He ties the ribbon with the wax seal around one wrist, then after a moment’s contemplation slides the mouse into one of the voluminous sleeves. It’s totally irrational, but he just doesn’t feel like he can leave the little guy behind. “You okay there, buddy?”



The mouse just blinks calmly, then rubs its face on his arm. “I guess so.”



Asher slips into the shoes, a little on the big side and yet still they manage to pinch his toes. He can run in them, though, and that’s good enough to get him through the house and out onto the front walk just as one of the servants drives the carriage up.



His stepsisters are both aghast. “Where did you get that?” Envy exclaims.



“It’s not fair! Mama, tell him he is not to go!”



“I did the work,” Asher says, breathing a little heavily after the sprint from the woods. “I did everything you asked, I was polite to you, and I found something to wear.” He looks defiantly at his stepmother, who is completely expressionless. “So I get to go.”



“Hmm,” his stepmother says, her voice unusually soft. “I suppose you did follow the letter of the agreement.” She moves forward and reaches a hand out towards his, fingering Ty’s wax silhouette. “But I disapprove of your methods.” Her eyes gleam in the dim light of the setting sun, almost glowing, like the eyes of a cat. “Your father was the same way, you know. He snuck around, taking what he wished, and thought I was none the wiser. I never invited him into my chamber, not once while we were married, and I never invited you in, either. If you had begged me properly, perhaps…but there is too much pride in you for that.” She leans in close, and Asher can smell the dust on her.



“I have lived through more than one generation of this game, you know. I understand the hidden rules. You, cinder boy, must be helped over the threshold of this place if you are to pass to another. I will not help you, and neither will my daughters.” She draws back haughtily. “Let that be a lesson to you for your thieving ways. Into the carriage, girls.”



“No,” Asher breathes. No way. “You have to let me come.”



“Wrong.” The women get into the black lacquer carriage and shut the door. “Drive on!” It begins to move.



“No,” Asher shouts, “no, no! You have to let me come!” He tries to grab for the door but it’s moving too quickly by then, and so he leaps onto the back of the carriage. The old wood groans dangerously beneath his feet, far from secure, but if he just holds on hard enough, if he can make his way around to the door…



The carriage hits the invisible barrier of the property, and Asher is flung from the back of it onto the gravel path. He falls flat on his back, knocking him breathless, and from the sting against his neck and hands he knows he’ll be picking pieces of rock out of his skin. Not that that matters, because Asher will need something to do, now that the fucking carriage has driven away without him. Ty’s going to be there, at the ball, this is the chance Asher needed to see him, maybe to break out of whatever is happening here, and Asher blew it. Fuck.



Fuck!” he screams into the twilight, tears of frustration building in his eyes.



“Finally!” a voice exclaims. Shoes crunch in the gravel and a face suddenly looms over Asher’s. It’s a man…sort of? He has canary yellow hair, bright pink lips and wears way too much eye shadow, and he looks like he’s wearing a…no way…shit, is that a dress? “You couldn’t have just burst into tears earlier like a normal heroine? Cause then we could have avoided all of this falling-onto-the-ground bullshit.”



“Dude,” Asher manages to gasp. “Twinkerbelle.”



The man rolls his eyes. “Oh, perfect. I can see that we’re gonna get along like a house on fire. Time to get up, lazybones, we’ve gotta hustle if you’re getting to that ball on time.”



“Are you serious?” Asher demands.



The guy leans in even closer. “Don’t I look serious to you?”



Great. He’s lost it. Psychotic break, meet la-la land. Asher’s officially gone insane.



Chapter Ten




Asher sits up. That’s harder than it looks, after being knocked onto the ground by some magical goddamn force field that won’t let him leave the mansion grounds, but he manages it. He can’t take his eyes off of his…his… “What the fuck are you?”



The absurdly colorful man rolls his eyes again. “Honestly? I mean, you have read this story, right? Seen the movie? The Disney movie, I’m guessing, because that’s the only time I come off looking so freaking ridiculous. I way prefer it when I get this gig as a disembodied voice, but I’m guessing that you’re not incredibly religious, and so the God loudspeaker didn’t even occur to you.” He looks down at himself with a grimace. “Seriously, has the only person who’s ever been nice to you been a total flaming queen? Because that’s what you’re projecting here, Prince Charming.”



“I’m not charming,” Asher retorts automatically.



“No shit, Sherlock. But your handsome prince is, and right now he’s getting an eyeful of a bunch of gaudy, bitchy little peacocks who want nothing more than to snap him up like it’s last call and he’s the only drink for miles. C’mon.” He holds a hand out to Asher, who notices that the…whoever it is’…nails are covered in rainbow polish. Asher takes the hand, though, and a second later he’s on his feet. This little dude is stronger than he looks.



“Really,” Asher says as he shakes some feeling back into his hand. “What are you?”



“Your fairy godmother, of course.” The little dude doesn’t look very happy to be that, either. “And would it have killed you to have given me pants? This dress does nothing for my ass.”



“Hey, none of this was my idea,” Asher protests.



His fairy godmother looks at him with an expression of exasperated condescension. “It’s all your idea, Ash. Everything you see is shaped by your own experiences. I’m guessing you watched a lot of those A&E Jane Austen adaptations as a kid or something, because you’ve done a way more realistic job on the farm parts of this than I would have given you credit for. Work, now that you understand. But the people?” He spread his hands out to indicate himself. “I mean, seriously! Look at this! Where did you even get this? Why do you have to make people who are trying to help you into objects of ridicule?”



“I don’t do that,” Asher says, stung.



“You so do, honey. Just like you make the women in this reality as unapproachable as possible, because you don’t want to be reminded of the things you used to have. Just like you make the men nonexistent, here one moment and gone the next, nothing you care to think about. Like your daddy. Like your johns.”



“You can shut the fuck up at any time, thanks,” Asher snipes. It isn’t true, it can’t be. Because that would mean… “Are you saying that I could have gotten out of here at any time, just by imagining people being nicer to me?”



His fairy godmother grimaces slightly. “Okay, so it’s not all you. I mean, yeah, setting, characterization, a lot of that comes down to you—nice job on the birds by the way, you lazy bugger—but the basic plot…well, that’s been around for a long, long time. Not much you can do about that except try to live through it. Try to finish the story.”



“I don’t want to finish the fucking story, I want to go home!” Asher shouts, losing the little bit of control he’s barely regained. “I want out of these stupid clothes and away from this stupid place and I want to be back with Ty, damn it! He probably thinks I left him or I’m dead, or—” He couldn’t go on. The number of ways Ty could take an absence like this are plentiful, and none of them are good. The only thing Asher knows for certain is that Ty cares. Ty cares, he’s the only one who cares, and he’s the only thing that Asher wants.



“Then I guess you’d better get to him, huh,” his fairy godmother says quietly, now looking so compassionate that Asher can hardly bear to meet his eyes. “The story isn’t just gonna let you go, Ash. It doesn’t work like that. There’s a narrative imperative to satisfy. Once that’s done, well, you’ll get your light at the end of the tunnel.”



“Are you telling me Ty is actually here, trapped in this story with me?” Asher pulls out the ribbon and looks down at the wax seal. Ty… “Is he really the prince?”



“I don’t know,” his fairy godmother admits. “The story is a little different every time. Generally it’s just one character who gets drawn in, but there have been multiples in the past. It’s not frequent, but it does happen. But you won’t know,” he continues more loudly, “if you don’t get your ass to that ball.”



“I can’t leave,” Asher mumbles. “She said I can’t leave without an invitation.”



“Honey, I’m your invitation this time,” his fairy godmother assures him with a saucy grin. “But you can’t go looking like that. You wouldn’t get within a hundred feet of the palace door.”



“Oh, Jesus. Not a makeover.”



“Ash, you smell like pig shit and you look like you got flung into a pile of gravel at twenty miles an hour. A makeover is the least of what you need. I’d give you the time to enjoy a real bath, but,” he glances down at his wrist, which is oddly delicate and bare, “time’s a-wastin’.” He snaps his fingers.



All of a sudden Asher is…fresh. Not just clean, but really fresh, fresh like he just stepped out of a shower before getting ready to bang Ty fresh, fresh like he hasn’t felt since before he got trapped in this damn fairy tale. He reaches a hand down automatically and cups himself. Which is easy ’cause he’s stark naked right now. “How exactly did you clean me up?” he asks suspiciously.



His fairy godmother arches one ridiculous yellow eyebrow. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”



“Yeah, I would, you perv. And how about some clothes?” Asher isn’t ashamed of his own nudity, but it’s kind of chilly tonight and he can feel his balls start to get shy.



“I’m just trying to decide if you’re more of a winter or an autumn.” His fairy godmother taps one finger on the point of his chin and purses his pouty lips. Asher growls, literally growls, then suddenly panics when he remembers something.

“Shit! Where did you put my clothes?” He scans the ground frantically.



“Why? They were barely more than rags—”



“I had a mouse in there, asshole! What, did you vaporize him or something?”



His fairy godmother laughs. “I knew about your little friend. He’s at your feet, genius.”



Sure enough, Asher looks straight down and there’s the mouse, staring up at him and twitching his ears. “Thank fuck,” he mutters, crouching down and looking the little guy over. He seems fine. Totally mousey, nothing special beyond the fact that he’s not running away. “Hey, buddy.”



“You’re such a softie.”



“Screw you,” Asher says. He trembles, a little shiver that rustles the gravel at his feet. “And clothes, dude. Anytime.”



“Fine.” His fairy godmother waves his hands. An instant later Asher’s nakedness is covered with silk, tight and clinging in some places, loose in others. Asher looks down at himself and groans.



“You have got to be kidding me.”



“It’s the fashion!” his godmother exclaims. “Tight through the calves and poofy around the thighs is the fashion!” And that’s what this outfit is, all in black, the doublet edged with silver along his throat and wrists. He’s got silver shoes on, too, soft little slippers that feel so odd against feet inured to hardness and pain by this point. And they sparkle.



“I look like a moron!”



“You look expensive,” his fairy godmother assures Asher, “you look attractive. Your prince won’t be able to resist you when he sees you.”



“Really?” Asher swallows hard. Because that’s the crux of it, isn’t it. That’s the heart of it. He wants Ty. Seeing Ty with other people drives him crazy, makes him insane, and he can’t take it. He just can’t. He has to have Ty, be with Ty, be for Ty. That’s what Asher wants, more than anything, more than his hazy dreams and silly jealousies. Just Ty.



“You should probably tell him that,” his fairy godmother says quietly. Asher swallows back his instant denial and just looks at the other man, his heart in his eyes. He’s almost panting with the need to go, to be there, to be with Ty. Much more and he thinks it might kill him, might stop his heart, and then he’ll never get home and he’ll leave Ty wondering forever. Spots crawl across his vision and Asher closes his eyes and swallows, hard.



“Please,” he whispers. “Please…I have to…”



“You have to go, honey. I know.” His fairy godmother rubs his hands together briskly. “And you need a way to get there! Fortunately, this is one part of that goddamn animation that I can actually do.” He makes a shooing motion with his hands. “You might want to step back.”



Asher frowns but moves a couple feet. “What are you going to—”



It happens that fast, one minute there’s nothing but a twitchy mouse and the next it’s a twitchy goddamn stallion, wearing a saddle and bridle and looking confused as hell about that. Asher recoils instinctively. “Fuck!”



“Let’s not, hmm?” his godmother says as he comes around the horse and takes the reins. “There, there…hush,” he says gently, patting its nose, and the horse calms. “I know it’s a little disconcerting, love. So high, so big. You’ll get used to it. There, there.” When the horse has relaxed, he turns back to Asher. “Ready to go?”



“I don’t know how to ride,” Asher mumbles, staring at the horse. The big, tall, capable-of-crushing-him horse.



“It’s a breeze, honey. He won’t buck you, this little fella likes you. Just hold on and don’t squeeze too hard with your heels, and for god’s sake, don’t saw at his poor mouth with the reins.”



“I don’t know where to go.”



“He does.”



“I…” Asher turns wide eyes on his fairy godmother. “How do I even get in, once I’m there? What do I do?”



“You’re a smart boy. You’ll figure it out,” his godmother assures him. “Come on now, time waits for no man.” He motions Asher over to the side of the horse. “Hold onto the front of the saddle and put your left foot in the stirrup.” Asher does so, gingerly, stretching more than is comfortable to reach the thin strip of metal that’s supposed to hold his foot. Two pert hands cup his bottom and suddenly he’s airborne, and comes down on the leather saddle with a whump a second later.



He scowls down at his fairy godmother, who smiles innocently. “What! You needed some help!” He reached up and pats Asher’s hand. “Go get your man, honey. Go end this story the way you need it to.”



“Thank you,” Asher says, more than a little uncertain but eager too. He looks at the gravel road. “Is it safe now? Can I get through?”



His fairy godmother walks a ways out in front of him, then turns and grins. “Asher Davis McKellan, I invite you through.” The horse takes a few steps forward of its own volition, and Asher stays on. A few more and he’s still on. He grins at the sudden heady rush of freedom that rushes through his body. It leaves him energized, almost high. He laughs, for the first time in what feels like forever.



“Go on now,” his godmother encourages, and it’s enough to get him racing down the path, so fast the wind brings tears to his eyes, so fast he can hardly breathe from the thrill. He’s going to find Ty.



He’s going.



He’s finally going.



Chapter Eleven




The narrative is approaching its climax. This is a tense time for the story threads, woven in and out of their hero, tugging but not outright pulling him along. He’s got to pick a direction, and depending on what he decides to do, the story may end in triumph or tears. This is where early efforts at being non-traditional when it comes to the roles laid out in the fairy tale might just rear up and bite. This time, our hero can’t rely on being pursued back to his home by his handsome prince. He’s got to make all the right connections himself, he’s got to follow through and then he’s got to have that personal climax that allows this story to tie itself off, satisfied, and seek out a new situation.



Taking a boy like this was a risk, but a story can’t evolve it if never takes risks. Stories that don’t evolve fade into nothingness, no more myth or legend to support them, no belief to feed off of. They may be parasites of the human condition, but at least they serve a valuable purpose. Humanity has to believe in something, and fairy tales are better than some of the narratives out there.



It registers the pounding hooves of its hero’s transformed horse, and waits to see where they go.



****



Luckily the mouse-horse seems to know where it’s headed, because it’s all Asher can do to keep his ass in the saddle. Fuck how the West was won, Asher way prefers his steel horse to the real version. It bounces weirdly, it smells and it also…well…fine, so he might be just a little scared to be up so high on something that lives and breathes and could throw Asher off at any second and trample him into the ground. Asher hopes that weeks of bread crumbs bought him some goodwill with the little dude. Big dude. Whatever.



They ride at a breakneck pace through a forest, then into more fields on the other side, fields that steadily give way to buildings on either side of the road. It all looks pretty normal, except where it’s dark now and there are no street lights, only candles in the windows. Eventually they hit an upward slope and the horse slows down to a canter, then a trot. The trot really fucks with Asher’s balance, and by the time he figures out how to post they’re at the top of the hill, and spread out in front of him is a castle encircled by an immense stone wall. It’s like…like something out of a fairy tale, Asher thinks with awe before his sarcasm catches up. ‘Cause, yeah. What else would it be like?



There are…he doesn’t know the words for all of these things, but Asher’s seen pictures of Notre Dame and Neuschwanstein and he can see aspects that remind him of both of those, high pointing towers and swooping arches and flying buttresses, and it would be pretty cool if there were gargoyles too, but he can’t make any out. The white castle walls look almost blue in the moonlight, and are well lit with torches. The horse starts to move and Asher lets him, still a little stunned by the view, and more than a little nervous now that he can breathe without his lungs bouncing into his chest. Somewhere in that place is Ty. Asher just has to make it to him.



“If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?” Ty asked idly one morning, a late morning with no classes for him and a long night to recover from for Asher. They were sitting together on the couch, drinking instant coffee and eating potato chips. There was a commercial on TV featuring a sandy white beach and girls in bikinis windsurfing.



“I mean, like, anywhere,” Ty continued, going on to answer his own question. “You don’t have to limit it to Earth. When I was a kid, I always wanted to visit Hobbiton.” He flushed slightly. “Which I know sounds kind of dumb, but it was supposed to be a happy place, right? With animals and farms and people living under hills and not really worrying about big stuff. I always worried about big stuff as a kid.”



Asher thought for a moment, weighing his options, before picking up one of Ty’s giant feet and putting it in his lap. “You’ve got the right kind of feet for Hobbiton.”



“What do you mean?”



“Hairy.”



“Dude, shut up,” Ty laughed, digging both of his feet under Asher’s ass.



“No really, I bet you could walk around without shoes and you’d develop awesome calluses and then you could be one of those guys who walks over hot coals and doesn’t feel a thing. That’s some shit people would pay to see, man.”



“Seriously, though.” Ty flexed his feet a little, sending a shiver up Asher’s spine. “Where would you be?”



Asher lifted a hand and pointed towards the screen. “There,” he said, but what he really meant was, “Here.” Ty seemed to get it, giving Asher a smug half-smile until Asher was forced to wipe it off Ty’s face with one of the couch cushions.



He rides in through the main gate, and the closer he gets to the actual castle the more well-dressed people he has to dodge, mostly women strolling as fast as they can to the ball when hampered by tiny, fashionable shoes. Carriages were stopped back at the gate, but Asher makes it almost to the front steps of the place before he’s asked to dismount. He does so awkwardly, feeling self-conscious as his slippers hit the ground, but the groom takes his horse with a little bow. Apparently meeting the dress code is all it takes to get in through the front door, because Asher’s not asked to prove that he’s supposed to be here, no need to display an invitation. He fingers the wax seal he’s carrying in his jacket, walks in through the high marble doorway and enters an internal courtyard filled with people wearing every color of the rainbow, flitting about like exotic birds of prey. Every person here is on a mission.



Asher really does fit right in.



Fitting in isn’t good, though, Asher has to stand out. First he’s got to find Ty, though. He hops up onto a decorative but useless little wall, ignoring the scandalized looks as he scans the crowd. Nothing promising. Ty is tall in the present day; among these people he’s gotta be a veritable giant, and there are no humongous dudes in this crowd. Maybe inside. Asher jumps down—



A hand on his arm turns him. Asher’s pulled around and suddenly is face to face with Pinky. She looks puzzled. Puzzled is good. If Asher were looking at Envy or his evil stepmother right now, “puzzled” would not be the look. They’d be more likely to be incensed, maybe murderous.



“Have we met?” Pinky asks coquettishly. “You seem very familiar, sir.”



Don’t recognize me when I’m not covered in mud or wearing burlap, huh, bitch. Asher makes an effort to deepen his voice. “No.”



Pinky smiles, not at all put off by his brevity. “Then it’s high time we make each other’s acquaintance! Are you a member of the prince’s entourage? I don’t recognize your regalia.”



“Actually…” Asher considers it for a second. He steps closer and lowers his voice and prepares to bury them both in bullshit. “I’m here on a mission. I work for His Majesty’s secret service, and we have intelligence stating that an assassin has been sent to kill the prince. It’s a man wearing a—” He mentally casts about for a moment, “a rose in his…um, cravat.” That’s a real thing, isn’t it? “Whoever apprehends this gentleman will have the personal gratitude of the prince. The very, very personal gratitude of the prince.” Pinky’s eyes light up, and Asher has to suppress a snicker. “But please, don’t do anything to endanger yourself,” he adds. Because I don’t deserve to be that freaking happy in this life.



“Oh,” Pinky breathes happily, “I shan’t! I, I’m sure I can help without putting myself in any danger.”



“I’m sure you can.” Asher squeezes her hand a little too hard and then pries it off his arm. He watches her flounce off eagerly, and seeing the back of her is a beautiful thing. Then he heads up the steps into the main castle.



He enters the equivalent of whatever a courtyard with a ceiling is, a great stone hall with long folds of cloth covering the walls, swaths of blue and red, the prince’s colors. The crowd is even denser in here, but dense can’t hide height, and Asher can finally see Ty now. He’s standing on the other side of the room and surrounded by his posse, which has taken on the role of screening the crowd that’s trying to mob the poor dude. And it’s a big crowd.



A really, really big crowd. Asher tries to press through it, but the velvet and taffeta is almost suffocating in close quarters. And there are bustles. Who the fuck invented those? Why did someone feel the need to make asses bigger than they already are? It’s like giving shoulder pads to people who aren’t playing some sort of impact sport. Asher tries and tries again, going at one route or another for more than ten minutes, but it’s pretty much impossible to do this politely. Hell, with the corsets these girls are wearing it might even be impossible to do it impolitely, his elbows will probably just bounce off the whalebone. He grits his teeth and prepares to do his best to bull his way through.



A shrill scream of triumph echoes off the stone, and Asher turns just in time to see a huge puff of pink sail through the air and triumphantly tackle a nearby man. “I have him!” Pinky shrieks. “I found him! Your Highness, you’re safe now! I have him!”



Eyes naturally gravitate towards the display. Asher takes advantage of the lull to slide through the courtiers, ducking and dodging and finally making it to the thin red and blue line. He comes face to face with the same man who delivered the invitation to his former prison, who looks at him with surprise and some suspicion. “I don’t know you.”



“You wouldn’t,” Asher says, deciding to play it straight. From what he saw, this man has no love for any of Asher’s transplanted family. “My mother and sisters usually keep me in the kitchens. It was sheer chance that I made it this far tonight.”



“Oh. Them.” Distaste twists his face. “Are you as desperate as they are to meet the prince?”



Yes, yes, I’m so desperate I could die if you don’t let me talk to Ty right the fuck now. “I would like to meet him,” Asher says, “but I don’t want to make him uncomfortable. If you think I would…” You better not think I would, let me in, let me in, let me in before I lose my fucking mind…



“He is supposed to be socializing tonight,” the man muses. He looks over Asher’s shoulder and his eyes widen a little. “What in God’s name is your stepsister doing?” The noise is coming closer. Apparently Pinky is a lot better at elbowing her way through these kinds of crowds than Asher, even when she’s towing a semi-conscious guest behind her.



“She’s insane,” Asher says with complete certainty. “I’d lock her up if I were you.” He brushes past the man and a second later he’s face to face with—



Ty. God, it’s Ty. Not Ty the cartoon character like so many of the other people here are, not an unnaturally bright creature from some fever dream. It’s Ty in a weirdly poufy costume, wearing awkward shoes and an awkward expression as he speaks awkwardly with an obsequious socialite, but he looks real. Asher doesn’t see any of that, though, all he sees now is the face that he loves. His mouth dries up and he doesn’t remember how to speak, but it’s okay, because Ty seems to be in the same situation. He does that thing where his mouth opens and closes over and over again, and his big brown eyes go wide. He brushes away the hand curling over his shoulder and steps a little closer.



“Hello,” he says at last. His voice is…it’s just what it should be. Gorgeous, throaty, a little tentative. Sexy as hell.



“Hi,” Asher says. He balls up his fists to keep from reaching out and touching Ty. He doesn’t want to spook him. Ty seems to know him in some way, not the immediate recognition Asher was looking for but something is better than nothing. He just needs some more time.



“I’m Prince Tyler.”



Asher smiles. “I know who you are.”



Ty blushes. “Of course.” He tilts his head a little. “Have we met?”



Yes, we have, you know me. “I have a familiar face.”



“No, you’re like no one I’ve ever seen here before. I would remember knowing you.”



You will. “Can we talk? Somewhere else?”



“Of course.” There’s a wooden door behind them, partitioned off by Ty’s entourage. They head to it, their escape covered by Pinky’s cacophony. The door takes them into a hall which emerged on a private balcony. The noise is distant now, a murmur of voices that seems far away. The moon is out, illuminating both of them, and Asher can’t look enough. Ty appears equally captivated.



“What is your name?” Ty asks.



“Asher McKellan.” Asher waits for any additional sign of recognition, but there isn’t one.



“Where do you come from? Why have I not met you before?”



“It’s a long story,” he says after a second, not really wanting to explain the whole ‘servant’ thing.



“Are you a member of my kingdom?”



“I’m definitely your loyal subject,” Asher replies earnestly. Ty looks down for a moment, shy, and it’s so endearing Asher feels like he might explode with the need to touch him.



“This is very strange,” Ty says after a beat. “I feel as though we’re connected, as though we’ve known each other for a long time. How can I feel such trust for you without knowing you better?”



Now isn’t the time to talk about alternate dimensions. Later, when Ty’s memory is back. “You should go with your instincts, Ty.” He almost bit his tongue using the nickname. “I mean, Tyler. Or Highness, whatever you want.”



“I would rather you not call me Highness, it seems foreign coming from your lips.”



“Would you like something familiar instead?”



“What do you have in mind?” Ty asks raptly.



“A kiss.” Aren’t kisses supposed to break spells in these things? “One little kiss.”



His mouth drops open again, and Asher can tell he’s blushing. “You are very forward, Asher McKellan.”



Asher notes that that’s not a no. “I can be, but only when I know what I want.” He moves a little closer. “Please. One kiss.”



“That’s all?”



“That’s all,” Asher promises. Unless you want more.



“I think I can grant you a kiss,” Ty says, his voice deeper now, his body drawing in. They close the distance, and before Ty has the time to reconsider, Asher puts his hands on his hips and kisses him. His lips are warm and soft, and after a surprised moment they open. Asher tastes Ty’s mouth, and it’s sweet and hot and…



Wrong. It’s wrong. The taste is off, and when his tongue explores Ty’s teeth, they’re all perfect. Asher actually feels a familiar chip form on the incisor while he’s pressed to it. He draws back, leaving Ty breathless and beautiful and shaking. Except it isn’t Ty. He knows now, and he has to leave fast, before he traps himself in this beautiful lie.

Categories
June 2017
M T W T F S S
« Feb    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
2627282930  
Categories