The streets are mostly abandoned now; the trick-or-treaters have retreated into their warm houses and homeowners have turned off their lights and blown out their jack-o-lanterns for the night. I lean against Hunter’s warm body as I walk, both of us trying to shield the other from the cold night air.
“Where are we going?” I ask after we’ve walked about a block from Mr. Harris’ new home. Or prison. I’m not really clear on that yet.
“I was thinking we could head back to Grant’s. He can drive you home, unless he’s had too much to drink. Worst case scenario you can crash there until morning,” he stares ahead as he speaks, his eyes lost in the darkness behind his mask.
“And what about you?”
“I’ll head home after. It’s not that far.”
I watch my feet as we continue to walk, my mind engaged in an internal struggle. I inhale sharply, my stinging lungs a welcome distraction from the warm tingling I feel in the depths of my stomach.
“If it’s not far,” I speak the words slowly, purposefully, afraid they will come out in an unintelligible blur, “I could always stay there instead.”
Hunter immediately stops and swivels cartoonishly in the opposite direction, dragging me along with him. We laugh. After a minute he stops walking and laughing, pushing his mask up onto his head. I’m about to ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing but then he looks at me gravely and says, “Are you sure? If you’d rather be home tonight I can find someone to get you there. We can get a cab…”
“Hunter, if I wanted to go home I would have said so. I want to stay with you tonight.”
His smile returns, crooked with mischievousness.
“Good,” he says, pushing the mask down over his face and extending his elbow dramatically. I lace my arm into his and laugh again as we walk through the dark and quiet streets.
Hunter’s new apartment is on the second floor of an old Victorian-style home and is reached by an iron staircase at the side of the house. Inside is the same Spartan decor. In fact, this apartment seems even emptier than the last and I wonder how much he had to abandon when he fled from Yagher.
My bare feet are cold on the hardwood floor as I slip off the last of my clothes; there is a trail now, spanning the small distance from the door to the bed on the opposite wall. It starts with our jackets and culminates in the plastic bag from the drug store where we stopped to buy condoms, both of us open and eager about our intentions for the other. Hunter pulls me onto the tiny bed and I welcome the protective warmth of his skin. There’s no shyness between us, no hesitation. For the first time in years I don’t even stop to think about the thin, silvery scars scattered across my naked body.
We lay on his bed and I kiss his neck gently. As I pull away he smiles mischievously again and asks, “Would it be okay if I tried something?”
I squint at him, trying to figure out what exactly he has in mind.
“You can tell me to stop if it bothers you,” he says very seriously, and my curiosity wins out. I know he’ll respect me if I say no. I smile while biting my lip and nod.
He kisses me deeply, but something is different. I’m overwhelmed with a rush of emotion and sensation. It’s as if my excitement and desire are heightened. When I glide my hand over his stomach, chest, and up to his shoulder I begin to comprehend what he’s done; I can feel everything that he’s feeling. I can feel the pleasurable tickle of my hand playing with the hair at the base of his neck. I can feel my lips warm against his. I can feel his passion and his desperation when he pulls me in closer. When he tears away to look at me, I can feel the love and admiration so intense it hurts him to experience it. All of this intermingling with my own feelings.
I take a moment to catch my breath so I can ask him, “Can you feel this too?”
“Yes,” he whispers in my ear before biting playfully at my neck, “Is it okay?”
Instead of answering, I flip him onto the bed beneath me and lean down to kiss him. He pulls my body down into his arms.
The next morning we wake together, still entangled in each other’s limbs. We lay silently for a time, enjoying the simple pleasure of each other’s presence. Finally I kiss his cheek, now slightly rough with stubble, and ask him, “Do you still hate your magic?”
He contemplates the ceiling for a while before answering. “No. I always thought skin magic was cruel and invasive. The things skin mages did, the things I did… but it wasn’t the magic that made us hurt others. It was always us – our choices.”
“You shouldn’t blame yourself.” I rest my head on his warm shoulder.
“No, I should. It’s okay. I did things that were wrong, and caused harm. I hated myself because this magic, this thing I despised, would always be there. It was a part of who I was. But if I know it’s not the magic, if I can accept that they were choices I made, I can move on. I can make new choices — better ones — and I can forgive myself instead of blaming some unavoidable evil lurking inside of me.”
“There’s beauty in your magic,” I tell him, then chuckle, “and I don’t just mean last night. Every person on this planet is trapped. No matter how hard we try to connect with other people, to tell them how we feel, what we’ve been through… we’re still alone inside of ourselves. But your magic breaks that barrier. We can actually feel what it means to be someone else. It creates true empathy.”
“Maybe,” he says, “but there are downsides to that too.”
I nod. “Yes. I discovered it when you shared your memories of Mirena with me — we lose our individual perspective. When you show me things from your point of view, that’s the only way I can see them. When you tell them to me, when I’m removed from them, it’s different. I can point things out you may have missed, or ask questions you could never have considered. There has to be a balance or you lose the benefit of multiple perspectives. You lose individuality.”
“It’s addicting, you know — sharing things that way, wanting people to share your opinions and your perspective — but you’re right. It doesn’t replace actually talking to each other,” he turns, his face hardly an inch from my own.
“Besides,” I say, resisting a smile, “you have an incredibly sexy voice.”
He laughs and kisses me for a long time. When he pulls away, he grins and asks, “If we ever manage this whole thing, if we somehow change the world, what kind of magic do you want to learn?”
I chew on my lip while I think. I had surrendered myself to the belief that magic would always be beyond me, it never occurred to me that if Hunter succeeds I could be a mage too. “I’ve honestly never thought about it. It seems so unreal that I could have magic. I’m not even sure I know enough about it to answer.”
“So forget about what you know. Look at Sean Harris… maybe there are things we can do with magic that we haven’t even dreamed of. If you didn’t know anything about the rules of magic, and someone gave it to you, what would you want to do with it?”
He lies next to me and gently kisses my bare shoulder while I think. There are so many possibilities. Skin magic seems redundant, since Hunter’s magic already lets us share everything. Reading people’s minds would be interesting, but also too tempting. I suppose there’s always healing the sick or feeding the hungry… but neither answer feels honest to me. The truth is, when I imagine having magic I’m overcome with nostalgia for my time with Mr. Harris. I recall that surreal feeling I had staring out of his window during those early days of autumn.
“Something to do with trees, I think. Like growing plants or communicating with nature? Is there anything like that?”
“Hmm,” he rolls onto his back while he considers the possibility, “There are mages that use wood as a medium, but that isn’t really the same thing. Familiar handlers, like Asuka, have a unique connection with specific animals. They can understand them, in a sense, though it’s more of an emotional connection than true communication. They can share their senses sometimes. It’s never been done with plants, but it could very well be possible.”
“And if it was, what gods could I pray to? To focus my power and all that,” I ask.
“God?” he laughs, “Well, that’s up to you – you don’t have to pray to any. Whatever helps you connect to your form of energy. Though if you’re looking for deities associated with nature there’s plenty to choose from.”
He laughs again and rolls on top of me, “Most of them are fertility deities too though. Nature and sex tend to go hand in hand.”
He kisses me and as he pulls away I follow him, refusing to let his lips leave mine. When he manages to break away I ask what religion he follows. He shrugs a little, “Everything. Nothing. Skin mages need more self control than other mages since our magic is basically in direct contact with everything around us. It’s very easy to overextend ourselves. Each deity, each ritual, each practice represents a facet of our psyche. I picked up little things here and there while I travelled. Figures of deities, mandalas, meditations…”
His voice trails off and he leans down, kissing between my breasts and then down my stomach. I inhale sharply before saying, “Yes… I see they really help you with the self control part.”
He looks up at me and smiles, “I’ll have you know I’m in complete control. Every action I take is entirely intentional.”
My laugh very quickly turns into a sigh as he begins kissing the inside of my thigh. Eventually I pull him up to face me, saying: “You know, we do have to get out of bed some time today.”
He ignores me and kisses my neck playfully. His breath is hot in my ear as he pleads, “Five more minutes, please?”
I grab the pillow from beside us and hit him with it. “I need a shower. Care to join me?”
He grins and finally sits up, moving to the edge of the bed. He gestures towards the bathroom with his arm, bowing his head. “After you.”
I push him off of the bed ahead of me and, even with no magic coursing between us, his skin feels electric against mine.