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“Now is a great time,” he told Olivia firmly. “One moment.” He grabbed a sign that he kept just inside his office, hanging it on the door to indicate his absence. “And now nobody will wait around for me.”
“What a gentleman,” Olivia said dryly, with an almost odd air of amusement. “You’re such an odd one.” She gestured to him to come walk with her.
Augustus raised his eyebrows at them. “Am I?”
They nodded, tossing their hair over one shoulder. “I’ve always found you quite the mystery, Pennywright. You’ve got that mysterious husband you brought to that one work party, but you live alone, you never talk about your past, you publish the strangest things.”
“I hope at least people do talk about my work, even if they think it’s strange,” Augustus said demurely. “If you aren’t making a scandal in academia, are you really doing any work at all?”
“Hah! You’re right about that. I have a paper I’ve just refined and turned a draft in,” Olivia said. “I’m hoping that it’ll make waves too.”
“Oh, what about?”
“I’d love to talk about it later,” she said brightly, gesturing. “We’re here.”
Before he could ask anything more, Olivia knocked on the door. “Soren? You in?”
“Yes—Liv? Come on in.”
Liv? So they were friends? Augustus thought back to earlier when he’d asked Olivia about Soren, and realized that they hadn’t indicated their level of closeness to him or not. He’d known they’d interacted some, which is why he thought to ask them for an introduction, of course. A bit surprising to be on nickname terms, though, given how new Soren was to the school.
Olivia opened the door and waved, then gestured toward Augustus. “I’m not staying,” she said brightly. “But I thought I’d introduce you to my colleague, Augustus Pennywright. He’s a Doctor of Conjurations, specializing in Planar Research, so you two should have plenty to talk about.”
Soren’s face jerked up, expression going almost blank with surprise. Too much surprise, Augustus thought, but he wondered what his own face was showing. That level of familiarity was hitting him again, a strong spark of I know you that he hadn’t been able to brace for.
How was he going to do this? Just … have a conversation about things? He was tired of trying to be delicate. Okay with being ominous, though, and mysterious. Perhaps he should even be direct. Not too direct, if it wasn’t working—he didn’t want to be kicked out of a second office today!—but he needed to know what was going on with Soren. He needed to.
“Professor Pennywright,” Soren was saying, in a sort of airless, faint tone. “It’s a pleasure to meet you properly. Do come in.”
“I—” Augustus’s voice didn’t seem to want to work correctly. He cleared his throat. He was suddenly desperately aware of the mug he’d stolen sitting in his satchel, since he’d not had time to go home yet. He’d better not open that in front of Soren, just in case he spotted it. “Yes, I’d love to.”
Olivia’s brows seemed to be disappearing into her hairline. “Well! I’ll leave you to it, then,” she said, and showed herself out, waving, heading down the hall. She had to have an incredible strength of will to just leave while she was radiating that much curiosity.
Augustus shut the door behind himself and came closer, pulling up the spare chair and sitting across from Soren, the desk between them. For a moment, there was just a charged silence.
“I know you,” Soren said.
Perhaps Augustus could bluff a little. “Of course you know me,” he said airily. “What do you mean? We went to school together. I was wondering if you’d come and say hi.”
A hungry light seemed to spark in Soren’s eyes and he half-stood, leaning over his desk. “Wait, you remember? You remember? What do you remember? Who were we to each other? What did we do, Augustus?“
“Well, we—that’s—” No. He couldn’t bluff around this. He didn’t have enough details; he’d have to straight up lie, and then he wouldn’t be able to get anything from Soren at all. He sighed slowly. “No. I don’t remember. I was hoping you did, and that you’d tell me.”
“Fuck.” Soren didn’t seem like someone who’d swear often. Augustus was pretty sure Soren had always been too uptight for that—although the man across from him didn’t look uptight. Just uneasy, a bit sad, stressed. Soren slowly sat back in his chair. “Then how…?”
“I saw a picture of us together.” That was true. Augustus didn’t have to say he’d broken into Soren’s office to do so; he tried not to look at the turned-over frame still on Soren’s desk. “Our class picture, I suppose.”
“I saw that too. I’ve kept a copy with me,” Soren murmured. “Is that it? I remember a bit more than that.”
Augustus didn’t have to say that he didn’t remember more than that. “Tell me,” he said, simply.
“It’s not much,” Soren admitted, scrubbing hands through his tight curls. “It’s just flashes. The doctors considered it a period of insanity, and perhaps it was. I don’t know. But I’ve got fragments. I recognize your face from when you were younger. I have dreams sometimes.”
Augustus used to get dreams; he’d had Em protect him from them. “Yes?”
“There’s a beast. A beast beyond,” Soren said, haltingly.
The Beast Beyond. Augustus had a chill run through him at the title, though he couldn’t say why. An ominous name, he supposed. Perhaps the research assistants were right and you didn’t become a professor unless you were very capable of ominous and mysterious statements. “Tell me more.”
“I can’t. I don’t know. I think we used to be friends, you and I.” Soren said, and for some reason he seemed to get a bit flustered at hearing himself say it. “The two of us. Maybe there was a third as well. I sometimes remember someone else, but I don’t think I liked him very much. I think I was jealous of him.”
Augustus thought of the third person in the picture, the one his younger self had been leaning on. He thought of Soren, too, superior, remote. Nothing like the person he was talking to right now, but nevertheless, he knew Soren. He knew him, he felt close to him in a way he couldn’t remember feeling close to another human being. He knew Soren must feel the same way, given how openly he was talking. “I don’t remember him. Go on?”
“I think that we were in classes together. Conjuration, of course.”
“And I think we tried to do something we shouldn’t.” Soren made a face, obviously hearing himself say something so very vague. “I think we summoned something. And it shattered us. At least, it shattered me.”
“I don’t think I left school or took any breaks—did you?” As if he didn’t know.
“I did. I did not handle whatever happened well, I suppose. I needed time away, and came back later to finish my degree, after I had become … calmer,” Soren said. It was clearly embarrassing to him, and he sounded slightly defensive, so Augustus raised his hands, shaking his head. He wouldn’t touch it further. Not right now, anyway. “If you didn’t have time off, Augustus, what did you do? I had an entire breakdown!”
“I don’t know. I finished my schooling, I suppose, or at least I got a degree. I don’t really remember much of it early on. More towards the end. I suppose I was on auto-pilot, or just losing my memories as fast as I gained them, or simply blocked off whatever it was that happened and carried on,” Augustus admitted.
Soren sighed, eyes lowered. “I could envy that.”
“I don’t envy what you told me, for sure. I’m sorry to hear it.”
After a moment, Soren shook his head. “Thank you. I don’t know what we could have summoned. It could have been demonic—if you don’t have the proper wards, it goes badly. But it doesn’t feel demonic. I have my soul, and I’m alive, and a period that your mind cannot handle is not … traditional. I think we found something out there beyond the planes. The thing from my dreams.”
Augustus nodded slowly. “I think so too. I’ve been studying. Trying to understand more of what happened to me. Were you also studying that?”
“I tried to leave it behind. Just live my life,” Soren said. “But I don’t know if I can. It haunts me.”
“I suppose academics are terrible at ignoring a mystery,” Augustus said gently.
That earned him a smile from Soren, even though it was only a faint one.
“But,” Augustus said, still gentle, “why did you come here? I know you’re a recent hire. Surely you were working somewhere else first.”
Soren swallowed. He said, “I saw your name on a faculty list. And I recognized you with … such intensity that I knew you must have some answers for me, somehow. I pulled up my roots and did everything I could to get hired by that dreadful von Beekeeper. But then I saw you around and somehow just … couldn’t bring myself to talk to you.”
“It was mutual,” Augustus admitted. “I wonder if something was actively trying to sabotage the meeting. It could have been the thing we did, the thing we called, or just our own minds trying to save us from a second mistake. Perhaps.”
“Perhaps,” Soren said. “I do feel like … things are clearer even now. If we overcome whatever this is, if we work together, maybe we can figure this out. I already feel closer to remembering … something.” That last word rang with frustration.
Augustus nodded slowly. Perhaps they could. Perhaps they shouldn’t, though; perhaps he should simply take what he’d learned and bring it back to Em. He didn’t feel in control of this situation with Soren; it felt like he’d taken his hands off the reins and the horses were picking up speed, throwing him around in the trap.
“You’ve come into things at an odd time,” he said, half to put off feeling pressured to answer right away. “I’m sure a lot of it is simply departmental nonsense, but things have been strange.”
“Oh?” Soren asked.
Augustus summarized in brief, telling Soren about the book disappearances, the things Fitzfleming had said, even von Beekeeper’s recent pressure on the department. He didn’t mention how odd Yujin had been acting, half out of an attempt to hide his using Yujin to dig up information on Soren, and half to protect them in case they weren’t involved at all in any of this, somehow.
Soren was frowning. “Very odd,” he admitted, and there was a bit of that old, familiar coolness in his voice now. “Do you believe it’s related or that it’s tangential? It does seem that whoever is doing this is taking materials that can be used to research the same thing we’re studying to find out more about. Things beyond the planes.”
“Yes, though truthfully, most of the things they could steal from me would be about that,” Augustus said. Not all, though, he had to admit; the rest wasn’t his active research, and it wasn’t cutting edge, but he had plenty of work about demons, and even about other ethereal spirits. And some of the books had involved those too—in terms of creating definitions, at least.
“We could ask Olivia,” Soren suggested. “They’re working on something similar,”
“Are they?” Augustus asked, almost forgetting himself in his surprise; it might have been better to play it out as if he were familiar to hear more about it, but oh well. “Why would a specialist in Contract Law be studying non-planar entities?”
“I think she’s writing a paper about it,” Soren said. “Perhaps I misunderstood, but she’d asked me a lot about my research due to her interest. I imagine she might be interested specifically because our lack of definition for them means that if there is anything out there, the Spiritual Contract department doesn’t have any terms around them to help confine them.”
“How very odd,” Augustus murmured. But he was aware that if Soren and Olivia were friends, questioning it too much might make Soren defensive. “Well, never mind that. Let’s get back to your situation. I haven’t told anyone about my memory loss. Who knows for you?”
Soren seemed reluctant for a moment, but slowly shook his head. “Beekeeper likely has some idea, since he would probably have looked into my … public historical record, but he hasn’t said anything about it to me if so. Olivia knows, since we’ve chatted a lot over drinks, and have become close. I thought they might have some insight given our similar field. They didn’t, unfortunately, though they’re interested in helping me find a solution at some point. Nobody else should know, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t. My … recovery period was public record at a hospital, and besides that, if I’d gone to school with someone during that time period, I wouldn’t necessarily remember them. They, however, would remember me.”
Augustus hadn’t had anyone approach him, but by the sounds of things, he’d covered his own loss with more aplomb than Soren had been able to.
“Do you want to work with me to try to figure this out?” Soren said. “We could talk more. You could come back to my apartment and we could see if we could figure this out tonight …”
Oh! Oh. Hm.
Well, Augustus wasn’t sure. This did seem like a proposition, which seemed awfully sudden, but Soren seemed awfully hungry for Augustus. Some shared thing he couldn’t remember, perhaps. It wasn’t that he didn’t find Soren attractive, mind, he thought Soren was gorgeous. But there was a lot there that he had to sort through before he’d be willing to potentially get involved. Then again, that might be one way to get more of Soren’s … essence.
He could also invite Soren back to his place very easily. Not that he could just summon Em without prep work; obviously, it was a whole process. But he could probably find a way to distract Soren if he wanted to have him there for it. Literally tie him up, perhaps. Still, that also felt like it’d be a betrayal of this connection Soren had clearly made with him and wanted so badly. Plus, he’d have to reveal his whole demon husband situation to Soren unless he were very careful.
On the third hand, he already had the mug. Maybe he should just say he needed time to think, and take that mug back to Em along with the story he’d just gotten, and see what Em could make of it all.
[What should Augustus do? Comment with details.]