Hal brought me breakfast in bed the next morning. It took quite a bit of maneuvering to extract myself from Gus’s arms, though he ended up waking up anyway. He slunk out of the room with his pants and vest, one of the dapper sets I’d gotten him while in town, mumbling something about splashing water in his face at the courtyard spigot.
“This is an unheard of luxury,” I said as I finally received the tray. It was just a bowl of oatmeal with some goat’s milk and a plate of cut pears, but it was pretty luxurious for me.
“Actions speak louder than words,” he said, giving me that soft smile of his and pulling over a chair from the little desk in the room. It had worn out carvings of dear running up and down the sides.
He waited until I’d taken a few bites of the oatmeal before saying more.
“Lil’, Milly and I are fond of you. You know that, right?”
My gulp had to move past a sudden rock. “Yeah.” His smile was dousing me in warm hot chocolate as it usually did.
“I’d challenge anyone to not grow as fond of you as we have. You’re a good girl, Lil’. Braver than most, hard working, and the kindest heart of them all. I’d even go as far as to say we love you.” He set a hand on my head, heavy and thick fingered. “So don’t go thinking you’re alone or unwanted. And don’t go thinking ‘bout hurting yourself either, kay?”
My eyes watered. “Okay.”
“And you get sad like that again you come ask for a hug. I’ve got room enough in my heart to spare for two daughters. Goodness knows my wonderful Julia would have delighted in you.”
I put aside the breakfast tray to do just that. His hug reminded me of my grandfathers, scented with beeswax and water on stone.
After patting my head again, he left me to eat, my wounded heart considerably warmer than it had been before.
Knowing that Gus needed me helped too, though it didn’t dispel the gloom instantly. I still found myself achingly misplaced. I still missed my family. And I still wanted to hold a baby. But now there was comfort, like bandages to the wounds and a warm fire to scare off the cold. Though the storm still raged outside, I had the comforts of a home now to keep me safe.
Gus needed that reassurance as much as me. Despite repeating that I wouldn’t go slitting my wrists or anything like that, I felt the cautious touch of his fingers on my temples at night when he thought I was asleep, and the squiggly little tendrils of his magic checking the upper layer of my thoughts. He never looked any deeper than that, either because he didn’t know how or because he respected my privacy,
“I know you’re using your magic on me when you think I’m asleep,” I said one day while we were cleaning tables.
The rag he swept across jerked. “I know you’re not asleep! You’re falling asleep. I can tell that much. I-it’s—it’s just to check in on you!”
“Then why not check in on me while I’m awake?”
He looked around to re-verify that the common room was empty, as it usually was during lunch hour, but still whispered when he leaned in close.
“The mind is less guarded and easier to look into when you’re relaxed. I…I don’t trust you not to lie to me.”
“Can someone lie to you in their thoughts?”
“Of course,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “I can’t go that deep. It’s only what you’re thinking then and there. Anything deeper, like memories, goes both ways. So you don’t have to worry about me seeing anything you don’t want me to see, I promise!”
I wrung out my rag, not sure I believed him.
“I wasn’t all that keen on you seeing me writhing around in angst back then,” I said. “Are you sure that’s all you see?”
“You were completely focused inward,” he said. “You weren’t thinking about what anyone else thought or did at the moment.” He threw his rag in the bucket we were sharing. “Pisses me off whenever I remember it.”
Well, angry was better than in hysterics, I thought.
“Can you do anything else with your magic?” I asked.
He didn’t look all that keen to keep talking, but he did anyways as he moved to the next table.
“It’s not like I go around using it all that often. It’s dark magic, or, at least I thought it was. People don’t exactly take kindly to it, and if anyone important finds out I even have it…”
I stiffened. “Do they kill people with dark magic?”
“Not legally,” he shrugged. “Most people talk about it like it’s a myth, and I haven’t met anyone else who has it. But, sometimes…I wonder if someone is making people believe it’s a myth on purpose. If people knew for sure mind magic existed, it’d make it harder for those in power to use it to control others. Just being aware that someone is using mind magic on you makes it hard to do anything. The mind will put up all sorts of blocks.”
I’d stopped in my cleaning to listen, wholly invested. A thunk came from the back as Hal moved a new keg into place behind the counter. I had yet to ask him what he thought of Gus and his mind magic, though I knew he had taken Gus aside to give him his own talking to.
“How do you figure all this out if you couldn’t use it all that often?” I asked. “Your mom?”
“I was six when she died,” he said flatly. “No. I tried using it when I got desperate. I was in an orphanage for a short time too, you know. Only to get more food or get people to ignore me, but it rarely worked. I got to be touching people to put in any magic, for one. Can’t really go holding hands with one of your bullies.” He dropped the rag back in the bucket. “Are you just going to stand there while I clean all these?”
“I’m hearing the vital history of my grumpy and private Gus Gus, how could I spare a modicum of attention on something as paltry as cleaning?” I put a hand to my cheek and fluttered my eyelashes in mock emphasis.
He gave me a flat, unamused look as he wrung out his rag again.
“Point is, most of what I know I just know by instinct.” He slapped the other rag down. “Either way, it’s a good thing I’m so useless at it. Dark magicians are monsters.”
“You know, there’s a whole section in my book about mind magic and how to train it.” Which now explained why there weren’t any sections on how to train any of the other magics besides healing. Nehcor really had planned this well.
That surprised Gus. “You serious?”
“Aw, come on, God gave you that gift for a reason, you know. You could be awesome! And it doesn’t make you a monster. You more or less saved my life with it last night, didn’t you?”
That gave him pause. He didn’t look up from the table, but his hand had frozen mid wipe.
I wanted to hug him, but settled with a smile and a ‘yes.’ I didn’t want to run the risk of him feeling smothered again. He had a mother. He’d most likely had felt I had been encroaching on her territory while bringing up bad memories.
“I would have gone off and died if you hadn’t peeked in and stopped me,” I said softly. “I really would have. I didn’t think I had any reason to stay in this world.”
He continued wiping. I joined back in and we moved to wiping down the stools as well. We also wiped down the mantles and around the fireplaces, even though it had been a while now since they were used. Summer was on the rise.
When we had finished and were sitting down with Nehcor’s book for our usual reading and writing study, he quietly said that, maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad to practice his magic, if for nothing else so he didn’t accidentally hurt someone in the future.
It took a lot out of me not to nuzzle the crap out of his fuzzy head then. My Gussy was just so sweet, worrying about not hurting people, all while acting all grumpy and devil-may-care. So cute.