The apothecary. He’d never built up the nerve to enter her apothecary before. It smelled like her.
Roses and thorns and graveyard dirt. Poisoned blood and the barest lick of magic. He could see it in the corners of his eyes, flickering along spider webs like a whisper through telephone lines. The Porter tried to ignore its seductive trickle along the sides of his senses as he searched for what he sought.
Marigold and thyme, marjoram and wormwood. They weren’t protective herbs, oh no. She’d never have those in her apothecary. These were spell ingredients.
He’d heard the charm once a long time ago, back when time still held to its tracks, unyielding. Before he’d crossed the sea and entered the woods. He still felt bits and pieces of it, memories from another lifetime, and it seemed to be nestled in the grit between the cobblestones at his feet. He’d walked over those words every single day, the day, the only day, until the day shifted, just slightly, and he’d been forced to lean against a wall with the force of it.
He remembered the charm.
And the nagging need of a schedule to keep, a bad habit that he couldn’t quite shake, pulled at the back of his mind. It told him to go back downstairs where he belonged. It told him to leave the spells and charms and leaves and twigs to his unyielding mistress.
To know his place. His role. To know the grave that he’d unwittingly dug with his own two hands over and over and over. The one he’d never be able to reside in, not if she had her way.
Her spell called to him, but so did the one from his memories. He had precious few of those to himself, that was to be sure. And this one had taken so long to take seed. To sprout and bud and flower in the dark recesses of his mind until it was unmistakable and unignorable in the darkness.
His hands clenched amongst Hecate’s blossoms, dried and withered as they were, and he made up his mind to take what he needed. Marigold and thyme, marjoram and wormwood.
Surely she owed him that much.
* * *
That evening, he sat on the couch beside poor old Lady Macduff and he made his decision. He could feel her growing cold beside him and knew that his time was waning quickly.
He gazed at the table where they would sit. The stage where he would sing. The booth where he would slump, broken.
The Porter looked into the mirror for a long, long time, and he did not recognize the eyes that looked back at him.
And then, as the cobwebs began to flicker and a faraway laugh seemed to call his name, he opened the small jar of ointment that he had prepared and anointed his forehead, his temples. The deep, dark bags beneath his eyes.
It felt warm there beneath his eyes. Fire and ice. A long red dress. A kiss that was never quite enough. Not quite.
The Porter breathed out slow and then let his head rest back against the wall. He tousled his fingers in the hair of the woman lying at his side and let the waiting day come for them both.
* * *
The Porter awoke what could have been a few minutes later or a few hours. He wasn’t entirely sure.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d fallen asleep, and as he stretched the sleep from his limbs, he wasn’t sure that he’d enjoyed the experience.
Lady Macduff was gone, but the others had not yet arrived. Which meant he had cleaning to do.
He sighed as he stood, then froze as the sound of something unexpected broke the silence.
Unexpected. Unexpected was new. Unexpected was… frightening.
He looked down at his feet to see the little jar of ointment, still open the way he’d left it the night before. Thankfully, he’d lost very little to the floorboards. Hands shaking, he reached down to pick it up.
It had survived. His little charm, the smallest of rebellions, had survived the night.
Nothing, no one, ever survived the night.
He dipped his fingers into the ointment jar again and let it coat his fingertips again. He rubbed them against each other, sticky, and then reapplied the stuff beneath his eyes. Once more couldn’t be helped. It couldn’t hurt.
It was always hard to wait for them, for him, but the Porter was nothing if not a practice in patience. He’d been waiting for a long, long time, after all.
And come, they did.
The revelry was nothing new, but the way that his heart beat double-time, the way his palms felt slick with sweat and his skin thrummed with nervous energy. It all felt so new.
How long had it been since something felt new?
And, he wondered, as he watched them carouse, did he dare? Heartsick as he was, did he have the courage to see this through to its end?
His Boy Witch came to him then, fingers careless and heartless and cruel as they twisted painfully against his skin, and he knew, without a doubt, that courage was no longer a problem.
Love, it seemed, had made him foolish.
His Boy Witch, capricious and vulnerable, fire and ice and sweetness with the sharpest of bites, sat obediently for him. Waited for the Porter to rub Hecate’s ointment below his eyes, a drug store magic that would trick his eyes into crying for just a few moments.
There was no longer time to think. To fear. Only to hope.
Porter switched out the ointments.
The Boy Witch sat there so pliant and agreeable, so trusting in a world that had never borne out faith, and the Porter rubbed herbs and honey below his eyes in the greatest possible gift and betrayal imaginable.
Boy Witch blinked once, twice. His eyes cleared in a manner that was rare, so heartbreakingly rare, and the Porter swallowed hard. And then his pupils narrowed in something like anger, something like fear, and he whispered, “What have you done?”
“What I had to.”
So many things in the Porter’s life felt planned. Things like chance and happenstance had gone away the moment he’d met a bright woman in a dark wood and taken her hand. Since then, it had been orders on orders, expectations that never changed. A fate that was written in cemetery granite.
His life here in the hotel was planned. His departure from the world of childhood had been planned. The deaths that he facilitated here in this room every single day had been planned long, long ago, before breath had ever entered his lungs. Before it had been taken away again by the witch currently gazing into his eyes.
But this, this had not been planned. It had been a series of choices that had rested on precipice after precipice. Yes or no had balanced on a knife’s edge and for once, he was the only one that could have tipped it either way. Her hand had no dexterity here. Her plans had left them.
And the Porter, he was rudderless. All he could do was forge ahead, propelled by nothing so much as his own mindless longing, and bring his witch’s fingers up to his mouth so he could kiss the tips of them one by one.
“Dance with me this time,” he murmured. “Stay.”
Boy Witch pulled his hands from Porter’s grasp, but only long enough to reach up and pull Porter’s mouth down to his own, to kiss him cruel and desperate. The magic in his mouth tasted different than it had before. Honeyed rather than bloodied.
Porter liked it.
“This is a dream,” Boy Witch murmured against his lips, and Porter allowed himself the barest nod.
It was a dream, to be sure. But they had, both of them, lived in a dream for so long. The ship he’d boarded had sailed on a sea of dreams and memories and mysteries and longing, a sea of something primordial composed of the darkness bled out of every heart he’d ever meet.
They’d been in Hecate’s dream now for a thousand lifetimes, and it was, he understood now, a nightmare that neither of them would ever wake from. But even within the land of dreams, perhaps, there could be respite.
He could have a dream of his own. Just for a little bit. “Dance with me.”
His witch’s arms slid low and heavy around his waist and lingered there for just a moment before Boy Witch trailed a finger down the small of his back. “She’ll miss me soon. You know she will.”
“Yes,” he acknowledged, breathing out even as they began to sway in each other’s arms. “But not yet.”
“The happy endings aren’t for us.”
I know. But Porter didn’t say the words out loud. He didn’t have to. Instead he just let his head rest down against Boy Witch’s shoulder, let his nose turn into the soft skin at the crook of his neck.
He could hear music as if far away, and he knew that there was a ball going on somewhere. There was always a ball going on somewhere. The mortals’ refrain or the revelry of the gods, there was always music filtering in through the old stones somewhere.
He stepped with it, knowing that his partner could hear it as well. Hecate’s witches were more music than blood these days, and the songs seemed to torment them even when the night was silent. They came out of Boy Witch like breath most days, but not today. Today his witch was silent but for the ragged breaths in his ear.
“They’re dancing downstairs, too,” Porter offered, and it was something very subtle in the way Boy Witch held himself, but he was almost certain that he was smiling.
“Not like us.”
“No,” the Porter agreed, “not like us.”
Downstairs they would be dancing gaily, not knowing that soon their lives would be upended by the chaotic dance of a witches’ Sabbath. Disciplined rhythm would soon give way to bacchanalia, but the undignified shuffling between the two of them resembled neither of those very much at all.
Maybe that was as it should be. Tonight, just tonight, the two of them were neither mortals nor gods, and were bound by the laws of neither.
It was one night against a sea of nights, a small paper boat amongst the oceans of madness, and Porter wasn’t sure if he’d ever have one like it again.
Even now, she was probably discovering his theft. Even now, she was probably realizing that two flies had broken away from her web. By tomorrow, she would probably re-ensnare them.
But the idea of tomorrow was new. Was beautiful. Was full of hope.
“Is that all there is?” he wondered out loud, smiling against sweat-slick skin as he heard a huff of laughter from above him. “Is that all there is to happiness?”
Boy Witch was quiet for a moment, just swaying against him to the tune of a faraway ball and the strains of music only he could hear. And then he laughed, a dark, rich, hoarse sound that Porter wasn’t sure he’d ever heard before, not really. A true laugh from a witch.
“It is all there is,” Boy Witch murmured. Quiet. Wondering.
Porter stood there a moment longer, both of them still now. Unmoving. “Is that enough?” he finally asked, pulling out of his arms just far enough to look up into his face.
His witch, his mercurial and broken boy witch, was looking at him with an expression that he’d never seen before on his face. On any of their faces, really.
It was scared and it was clear and there was a heartbeat of longing that caught Porter’s breath dead in his throat. He looked — he looked human and Porter’s heart beat painfully in his chest.
“It’s everything,” the witch whispered.
And the Porter, his heart broke every day. It had broken so many times that it was a wonder that it still beat at all. His witch, he was fairly sure that his heart had stopped long, long ago. But his heart broke just a little bit more at something he heard in that whisper. Something lost and foreign, like maybe he was hearing just a little bit of the boy he had been before he’d met the witch.
He thought back to the boy he’d been himself before the witch had spirited him away. The way his mother had held him close and whispered charms into his ear. Kissing the back of his head as she’d rocked him.
Here, in a honeyed dream of marigold and thyme, marjoram and wormwood, he could feel it. The hearts of two lost children meeting for the first time, for the thousandth time, to a faraway song that was only getting further away. He could see what he’d seen in the back of Boy Witch’s eyes for a thousand years, and only now could he touch it.
The Porter reached for him then, the boy he was, the boy he’d become, the boy they’d both been, and kissed his lips, his forehead, the honeyed streaks below each eye. He kissed him for what they’d been and what they were and what they’d return to being tomorrow morning.
He kissed him and kissed him and kissed him, and when he took his hands in his to drag him back towards his little office inside the wall, the witch went willingly.
He wanted to learn him. He wanted to remember him. He wanted to wake from his dream and feel bits of it nestled in his heart and the grit between cobblestones. He wanted to take Boy Witch’s magic into him and keep it until it became something intrinsic that they both would keep and share even after this one night, this one alien, different night slipped back into an eternity of sameness.
They shut the door, and they dreamed.