I dropped my bags next to the shoe rack when the door clicked behind us. A sigh escaped me as I relaxed into the gentle light of the setting sun in the courtyard. This had to be one of the more beautiful times of day to see the apartment.
Sylwyn dropped a stack of mail on the counter. He proceeded to reach into his cupboard and pull out a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. A knife from the utensil drawer and a plate from the cabinet followed suit. “Want one?” he asked, looking up, suddenly realizing that he had fallen into a pattern.
“What type of peanut butter you got there?” I asked.
“Smooth?” He turned the jar over to read the label, even though he had already smeared it across the slice of bread.
“Mind if I?” I pointed to the curtains that hung to the side of his floor-to-ceiling windows. He looked at me quizzically and shrugged, “make yourself at home.” I walked over and found the pull rod in the folds of the drapery. They were heavy hotel quality with a darkening capability. I tugged them closed, finally shutting us off from the Guild. I closed my eyes and relaxed in the dim light of the underlit cabinets and nothing else. It was so nice to finally feel like I wasn’t under prying eyes.
Sylwyn cleared his throat. I opened my eyes to look over at him. He had laid his knife down and was braced against the countertop, trying not to look at me. “Deus, what are you doing?” he finally asked.
I raised an eyebrow, confused. “Closing the curtains?” I thought that was fairly obvious.
He was fighting a smirk and losing. “I mean,” he gestured to me, still refusing to look at me.
I looked down. “Eep!” I squawked. My three-piece suit and everything else had disappeared. “What the bloody hell?” I cast around myself, expecting to see the green and brown material pooled up somewhere. “Wyn?” I crossed my arms over my chest in panic. He came around from behind the counter, putting his hands up in a placating manner as he tried his best not to laugh and keep his gaze off me. “What happened? Is this going to happen when I’m in public?” My heart was beating too fast, and my throat was closing up.
“It’s okay, Deus. I’m surprised that didn’t happen earlier.” He grabbed my bags of clothing and medication and thrust them in front of me to help me with my sense of modesty. I grabbed the brown paper and crushed it against my front.
“Now, do you need sand, or you good to head in there?” He turned his back to me and pointed to the bathroom.
The tightness in my chest unravelled as I tried to understand why he offered me sand. “Sand?”
“You’re breathing again. Go get changed. I’ll get a sandwich put together.”
With a sideways scuttle, I made off for the bathroom. Locking the door behind me, I upended the bag of clothing. Dragging on boxer briefs, I grimaced at how high they rode on my hip. I’d need to see if I could order in my preferred brand that was cut to deal with my shape. I groaned. My packer had ended up in the washing machine. I wasn’t about to go and dig it out in front of Sylwyn. I’d need to wait for when it wouldn’t be as obvious what I was doing.
Sighing out, I pulled on a pair of loose green cargoes, black tube socks and combat boots. Turning to the mirror, I took out the medication from the pharmacy and the little blue pencil case and foam I’d picked up. It had been a blessing that the lady on the other side of the counter had been more than willing to send for my script and hadn’t fought me on why I needed it. She smiled. She pointed me to the pencil case and suggested the foam to keep the bottles from breaking. Tears slipped. I’d needed that. I just needed someone to be helpful. I sank to the floor, sniffling like a baby. She’d made sure to spell my name correctly in the medical file and told me she’d get me a proper carrying case ordered down so I wouldn’t be making do. The waterworks refused to stop.
“Deus?” A knock startled me out of my thoughts.
I hiccuped. “Yeah?”
“You alright in there?”
I pulled myself back up to the counter. “Yeah. Yeah. I’m alright. Doing better.” I reassured.
“I’ve got hot chocolate going out here when you’re ready.”
“Thanks, Wyn.” I pulled out one of the alcohol wipes and got my shot finally taken. I dug into the cabinet to find my binder still damp. I resigned myself to my fate and tugged on a sports bra, a compression undershirt, and an overly baggy red sweater with the word Tokyo scrawled across it. Along with a small box of pads I had bought just in case missing a week on my shot messed with my cycle, I shoved my pouch to the back of the cabinet behind the towels. Grabbing the brown bag from the pharmacy and the other bag with another change of clothes, I let myself out of the bathroom. I scuttled back across the living room expanse to the laundry machine and pulled my clothes out. Stuffing them quickly into the one empty bag, I pocketed my packer, relieved that it hadn’t gone all clumpy on me. I’d need to time it again to get back into the bathroom without being weird. Dropping my bags under the side table near the window, I finally sat down.
Sylwyn set a cup of hot chocolate in my hands and the plate on the side table.
I waited. I felt like that was something I was mastering recently, waiting. “I guess,” Sylwyn settled next to me. An eyebrow rose, and he pulled my tie from under the couch. He handed it to me, and I tossed it on my bags, “that might be the first thing I can teach you.”
I blinked up at him, not trusting my voice yet.
“I had asked you earlier today if you had summoned the suit, right?” he asked me. I nodded. “Most summons, most Readings only last for so long. An unRead helps in dismissing something quickly and keeps backlash like unBound from happening, that way you can leave an area or a battle without waiting for a Read to pass. unReadings are vital to keeping the Guild safe. Say you summon a…a…hmmm…a vampire or something like that; you wouldn’t want it sticking around for very long, right?” he led me on. I nodded again, taking a sip of the hot chocolate. It wasn’t really something I drank much of anymore, but I could sympathize with Sylwyn not keeping tea in the apartment.
“How were you releasing, or passing, or unReading your other Reads, your other summons? Like the mammoth and the unicorns from earlier?” he asked, pushing me to think. How was I doing that? I sat and thought about it.
“I…it’s…um,” I wasn’t sure how to explain it.
“It’s okay if it’s hard to really say. Try to formulate it, though; it’ll help you later…or at the very least, me,” he smiled encouragingly.
“When I Read something, it’s like, I can see pictures in my head of what I’m wanting. I have to be really exacting in all the details. Then, I just sort of…reach for it, but with my mind. I have to will a lot of power into it, like I ground myself to the floor. I feel like I pull power out of the ground. It’s a thing you do when you centre for meditation, so I know I’m not actually pulling energy out of the ground or anything like that,” I apologized. He nodded gently. “When I want to unRead, without having to say anything I…it’s almost like I have a thread or a leash attached to the thing I Read, and I just let go of it. Does that make sense?” I asked him, not sure if that was really accurate.
“It’s an interesting way to phrase it. Essentially when most Guild members are taught how to unRead, they are taught to form poems that help them focus on letting go of the object, returning it back to its original source. It takes a long time and a lot of practice for most members to be capable of unReading. They have to learn how to let go. You seem to have found the most fundamental aspect of what unReading is. It is a tether. Your Reading takes your energy to project something, and your unReading is releasing your connection to it all at once. If you wait for a Read to pass on its own, it will wear you out; eventually, you don’t have the energy for it after a bit. Sometimes, if it’s a big Read that took a lot of effort to project, it can backlash, and you can end up with unBound reactions. You aren’t suffering any negative effects that I can see as being unBound, just startled. You were holding a Read for the whole day and doing more on top of that without losing your hold on that one. You must not have really realized that you were still holding it, and when you finally relaxed completely, you let that one go,” he explained.
He was explaining, and I was fixating. His hair had come out of its ponytail. It looked silky, and I wanted to run my fingers through it. I touch the tip of my tongue to my bottom lip, my mouth suddenly feeling dry just by watching his lips work. I shifted my glance to the bookshelves and tried to breathe through the warmth seeping up my skin. Looked like my libido was back in gear where it had been before. I swallowed, trying to divert my attention to an action. Didn’t help at all. His fingers were long, thin, maybe qualifying as delicate. His muscle, hard as it was, was sinuous rather than bulky. Shadow played along cut edges. I shoved my hands deep into the pockets on the side of my thighs. Stupid side effect. I just needed a distraction. Needed to concentrate on the conversation. “Well, if it means I have to relax completely for something like the suit to go away, I won’t have to worry about losing it when I’m out of here.”
“Why’s that?” Sylwyn asked.
“Because it’s stressful outside of these walls,” I answered.
“Fair enough.” He laid his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes.
“Sylwyn?” I asked after a time.
“Hm?” he was dozing.
“I’m sorry about earlier. I shouldn’t have taken such a low blow out on you. It wasn’t fair,” I apologized.
He sighed, trying to figure out how to respond. “You know…you’re right. Honestly, I’ve hated being the Simil so much. It sucks.” A light plopping sound brought my attention to his face. A dark spot on his collar was the only hint that a tear had escaped.
“I’m beginning to see that,” I whispered.
“What about the Simil, though? You don’t seem to have a problem with him.” Sylwyn rolled to look at me. His face was blotchy, and his eyes were red and watery. The mismatched black and pink irises stared back at me.
“With you,” I answered.
“But -” he protested.
“See, all I see is you, Sylwyn, or Simil, or Hatter. All I see is what’s in front of me. You have changed in so many ways, but you are still you. You are still the man I had a crush on all those years ago. The man I fell in love with, talking about the validity of Tolstoy’s explanations of man’s nature. Simil is only part of you, not you entirely. I knew I couldn’t pursue you back then. I didn’t have a name for what I was back then, but I knew I didn’t quite fit in with the gender I was born in, but I saw you with your boyfriends, and I knew I had no business even trying. I wasn’t interesting to you. Doesn’t change the fact I had feelings. Doesn’t change how I see you or Hatter.” I knew I could be burning a bridge saying it. “Sorry. I’m sorry. Not something you’re probably interested in.”
“Why do you keep saying that?” Sylwyn’s brows pushed a wrinkle together over his nose.
“I kinda found myself on social media. Safer behind a screen being the real me. You read some nasty shit living online. Kinda get used to being hated on by the mainstream, and dealing with the gatekeepers in the community. Internalize that hatred. The ones from the side that say you can’t be bi, can’t be pan, can’t be demi, or ace. Bottom surgery leaves behind ‘creepy dicks’. If you’re transmasc and start dating a guy, that you should have just stayed straight. That’s entirely dismissing how both men want to be treated in that relationship. If you’re a transmasc and date a woman, you should have just come out butch lesbian and not butchered yourself. Fuck that; that’s dismissing lesbians and what they want from their partner. Seen too many gays and lesbians on vids rant and act like they’re gonna vomit about how disgusting transmascs are. It becomes the expectation that I’m just disgusting. Sucks existing, you know? You finally get a name for this thing, finally start fixing the mirror, start feeling like you found a way to stop trying to rip your skin off just to realize that everyone still hates you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for kissing you. For existing.”
Sylwyn ran a knuckle along my forearm, startling me from continuing to unfurl. “You told me earlier I hated myself for the Mad Hatter? Looks like we’re in the same boat, here, Deus.”
I let out a self-deprecating huff and a soft smile. “You’re not wrong.”
“You didn’t ever ask if I was gay.”
“You. Had. Boyfriends. That you were really close to. I saw more than one hickey on your neck.” I glared his way.
He slapped a hand on his neck, cheeks going red.
I snorted at him.
“And until you changed your name and started presenting and fighting to have people see you for who you really are, I would have thought you were a straight girl who lived in hoodies and cargoes ‘because they’re comfy’ as you liked to say.”
I pulled my hands out of my pockets as the knot of worry in my chest loosened. “Are you saying…?”
Sylwyn shrugged. “Masc presenting. That’s what I’m into. I’m a switch, and have a preference toward male physiology. Not like that can’t be figured out with a few toys. And yeah, I’ll agree, bottom surgery looks kinda Frankenstein to me, but I’m not disgusted with it, just being honest at what I’ve seen.”
“I don’t think I ever saw you with anyone that…well, I guess I wouldn’t actually know if any of your partners were trans then if they’d gone through with all the mods,” I mused.
“To be fair, no, none of them were. Not to say I haven’t had a crush on one or two that I’ve seen on social, you know, back when I had access to internet.” His voice got louder at the end of that statement like he could passive-aggressively hint to the guild through the apartment walls.
I fidgeted, going for my mug before thinking better of it. I set my hands on the couch, not sure what to do with my enegery. The question I wanted to ask was also one I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer for yet. Swallowing, I dove in, “are you, um…”
“Am I?” Sylwyn prodded.
“Are you seeing anyone now? In the guild? Or, I guess, out of it?” The butterflies in my stomach felt more like hornets.
The pit in my stomach sank.
“He’s got short black hair a la 90’s boyband, and a temper to match. Wears these really thick frames that I suspect might be fake.” Sylwyn side-eyed me.
“Oh fuck, I’m sorry, Sylwyn. Damn it. Um, yeah, I should probably -” I scrambled to grab for my stuff to get out of the apartment as fast as possible.
“I’m talking about you, dork.”
“Dude, you and the uptake.”
“This might be a really good time to mention I’m neurodivergent. Thought that’d be kinda obvious. Teasing sometimes is a bit beyond me if I’m already nervous.”
“Librarians in the guild have a pretty high likelyhood of neurodivergence. Autistic?”
“With a touch of ADHD.” I nodded.
“Awesome, that makes two of us. Maybe between the both of us, we can remember to buy another jar of peanut butter, ’cause I’m now officially out of food in the house.”
“Maybe some chicken nuggets or mac and cheese? Wait!”
“You, you, you, you-“
“Chillmax isn’t here, so I can’t play ‘cat-got-your-tongue’.”
I tilted my head. “You know my cat’s name?”
“Duh, do you know how many pics you showed me when you first brought him home from the shelter?”
I shook my head. “Come back from Chillibean. You. You’re, we’re,” I cleared my throat, but my voice kept cracking. “Are you saying you’re okay with us dating?”
He tentatively crept his fingers over mine to carefully squeeze my hand. “You seem okay with me?”
I nodded. “More than okay.” My heart took off like a rocket.
“I can’t ask you to stop hating yourself immediately. And I know you’ll have some confidence issues. I can’t imagine someone not, if I have a problem being me with the Mad Hatter. I just want you to know this: I’m not disgusted with you, and I know what I’m getting into dating you. I know you haven’t had surgeries. I’m not asking you to hide yourself, trying to exist for some image in your head of what you think I want in a partner. If it’s not good for your physical or mental health, please, don’t. Alright? You’ve been hunched up for the last hour trying to hide yourself. So you’ve got a larger chest than me? So what? Some guys who work out have some great,” he lifted his hands up to make a squeezing motion before catching himself and trying to get his face back in order, “Anyways, If you need to breathe, you need to breathe. ‘K? Don’t injure yourself trying to fit a mold you think I need to be happy.”
“I always imagined Van Helsing would have had a nice rack.” I mused at his imagination.
“Robin hood did. At least the last one that got read out two years back. We had him teach self-defence for an evening class.” Sylwyn offered with a smile.
“Earlier this morning, when I mentioned I was pan, you kinda looked displeased. Can I ask what that was about, if you’re saying you aren’t disgusted with me?”
“I wanted to make a pan-pantry joke, but I don’t have a pantry, and the laundry closet wasn’t going to work for the pun I wanted.”
“Crap. I forgot you had dad-pun energy.”
“Hey, you’re the one who kissed me first; you get to deal with me now.”
I finally picked up my hot chocolate and took a minute to drink it.
Sylwyn shifted, kicking off his house slippers and tucked his feet up to sit cross-legged on the couch. “I’m, well, I don’t think I’ll be the jealous type?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Not like I have any desire to shop around down here.”
“No, I meant, with the Mad Hatter. It’d be foolish, right? To be jealous of something living in you.” He took my empty plate and set it under his before stacking his mug on top of them.
“Not sure I could tell you that you shouldn’t be jealous. If you really don’t remember when he takes over, I’d think it’d feel just like dating someone long distance and them having a short-distance partner that you know about but you can’t participate with. I don’t think this counts as poly. Maybe? Maybe it does? I’ve kissed both Hatter and you. So…”
“Call me out if I start being a jealous jerk. If you’re really okay with me the way I am-“
“We can both work together on being better people to ourselves, yeah?”
“How’s that old quote go? You need to learn to love yourself before you’ll let anyone else love you?”
“Sounds familiar.” I finished my hot chocolate and took the stack of plates and the other mug to the counter to start washing them.
“Alright. We’re dating, then. Now what?” Sylwyn watched me from the corner of the couch while I laid out a towel and found a wash rag.
“You don’t have internet, and I didn’t see a TV in here, so I’m assuming video games are out?”
“Yeah,” he pulled out the vowels.
“Do I want to know what happened?”
“Chaos? Chaos as usual.”
“I’ve got books?” He offered with a smirk.
“How about I don’t summon things in the apartment?” I returned the smile and set the plates and mugs away.
“Might be a good place for us to start then.”
“Wanna pull out a book then that you don’t mind me accidentally making a muck of the apartment with?”
He uncurled himself from the couch, disappeared into the bedroom, and returned with a heavy blanket. I came out from behind the counter to watch him rummage through his shelves. He pulled another thin picture book off the bottom shelf. A manila envelope slipped out along with it, a set of large medical style pictures spilling across the floor. Sylwyn handed me the book and went to scoop the contents back into the envelope. “What if Simil takes over?” he asked.
“Is that liable to happen?” I checked the cover of the picture book. A bear and a fox were wrestling under gold letters.
“From time to time, a Simil can take over and never change back; the character overwrites the host.” He couldn’t quite face me.
“Is there a way to undo a character like that? When you retire, like the previous Simil, do you what, regurgitate the character or something?” I asked.
“No, it’s permanent; you can’t get rid of it once it’s inside of you. You only learn how to cope with the times you can remember.” He set the envelope back on the shelf and settled on the couch, pulling part of the blanket over him.
“That’s…that’s horrible,” I finally told him. I inched back to the couch, tentatively lifted the other side of the blanket, and scootched under it.
“Sorry, I was cold. Yeah…it’s hard knowing that one day my body could be walking around with a different me using it to do things, and I would not exist anymore. It’s like knowing that you could wake up dead any day. Not the most reassuring of feelings, I can tell you that much.” He wrestled around under the blanket and behind his shoulders until he pulled his ponytail free with an exasperated sigh.
“What does it take to consume a character?” I ran a finger along the binding on the blanket, counting stitches while he got comfortable.
“That projection of energy that you use in your Reading?” he started. I nodded. “It’s like that, but you direct inside yourself. I explained that before, but you’re trying to form the object inside of your core, or your psyche, really. That energy sears nerve endings, reforming it to allow the new memories and personality of the character to have a habitable space,” he explained.
“You can actually see these changes on a CT scan?” I asked.
“Yep. Well, PET’s the best one. Before those scans, it was more difficult to verify if a Simil had actually been created or if someone was only acting like one to bank a Simil’s pay,” he laughed derisively. He threw the blanket off, walked over to his bookshelves, and pulled out the manilla envelope. He came back and sat down next to me. Inside were images of his brain before and after the transformation. Flowering colours showed where the Reading ability lay in the brain and how it flared when a Read was taking place or an unRead. A distinctive new shape of colour after the transformation verified the authenticity of the Simil process.
“Will I have this done?” I shivered.
“Probably. We could go tomorrow if you want. You seem to have abilities that most don’t. It might be better to have it done to make sure where your starting point is,” he mused.
“Alright. I take it I won’t see the bill?” I was curious to see just what was going on in my head.
“I never did. Tell Simil, if you see him, that you need to go to the PET specialist. I don’t know when he’ll pop back in, and I don’t want you getting forgotten because of that.” He returned the envelope to the shelf.
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