To boil water, it had to burn. Even the slightest hint of a flame, and it would begin to catch, the surface rolling as it heated. He knew this dance well, had brewed enough tea that those with the darkest souls jokingly called him master. Occasionally, he heard the uneasy lilt in their voice that unraveled the fear—sometimes, it was not a joke.
Even now, one of them winced as he carelessly tossed a sprig of mint into the furious pot. It had taken years to obtain carelessness around tea, but he had managed, and now, not even the Order spared him a second glance. Out here, on the streets, it was death to appear too involved, and he had spent more than enough of his freedom behind wards.
“Is it done?” the wincing one asked, twitching closer.
Mason leveled him with a glare that Leia would have laughed at. She had always been stronger than the rest, rolling her eyes at his antics and shoving him out of the way. She didn’t burn when her fingers passed over his bare skin, but he was careful to always wear long sleeves and pants regardless. The wincing one shrank back beneath the glare, curling in on himself. He sighed. He hated helping them.
“Stop that,” he spat, tossing another sprig in, “They’re going to see.”
“It won’t stop,” he said, holding out his trembling arms. Scabs, old and new, puckered his forearms. He made to scratch at his left with his right, and Mason sneered. “This won’t do anything,” he said, and though he didn’t gesture to the tea, they all knew. They always did.
“It does,” the wincing one implored.
Mason’s sneer turned into a hard frown again, and he turned his attention back to the brick wall beside him. He despised brewing in alleyways—they were too open, too easily peered into—but the wincing one hadn’t had much by way of payment, and he hadn’t opened his shop to the severely dehydrated in months now.
His thoughts flickered briefly to Dhaval, covering the Madhouse in his absence. Mason could easily picture him, skin dark as night with two yellow eyes peering up at him as he shouldered open the door—he shook his head. Stop it, he thought fiercely.
There are people looking for you, Dhaval’s voice was crisp, as though he knelt next to Mason, chin hooked over his shoulder, breath eliciting goosebumps across his shaved head.
Frustration reared through his structured walls, and he snapped something incomprehensible at the wincing one as he crept closer again. It was more of a snarl, really, and though his rising anger wouldn’t let him understand Dhaval’s voice in his head, his tone was clear. The wincing one looked at him warily, and Mason let out his frustration in a loud sigh.
“Black currant, chased with mint, you ugly bastard,” Mason said two minutes later, tossing the steaming travel mug toward his customer before he began collecting his supplies. “Don’t be an idiot,” Mason added when the wincing one lifted the mug to his mouth, “Let it cool, and then drown yourself. Away from me,” he clarified when he still stood there.
The wincing once scampered away, and another one approached as Mason was dumping the last dredges of the boiled water onto the alley street. “We have no business here,” Mason said without looking up.
“I can pay,” the new one said.
“For street corner tea?” Mason said wearily, shouldering his bag.
“I have more than enough, but they say you can’t just walk into Madhouse anymore.”
“They are correct.” Mason finally looked up. For a moment, he saw something that couldn’t be—the flash of a grin beneath a halo of dark curls—and then it cleared. He paused. He hadn’t had a vision of Lukas since he’d closed the Madhouse’s doors to the public, but an official motion had come down yesterday demanding a new, skyrocketing rent, and Mason had felt a little desperate when he woke this morning. It was this, perhaps, that formed his words, “Follow me.”
As they approached Madhouse, Mason glanced at his new customer, his brow furrowing just enough that it wouldn’t call attention. There was a masked man dressed in Order robes across the street, and he wouldn’t show anything but indifference in company.
“I thought you might have hidden it better,” the man said as he stopped, his gaze lingering on Mason’s hand near the handle of the door, which did not move.
“Even the Order drinks,” Mason said, looking at his face. The man would not meet his gaze, and, from inside, Mason heard Dhaval’s quiet laugh. He let out a short exhale, a burst of flame that shattered through the thick air and left black smoke trailing in its wake. The man looked up. The man across the street shifted, his masked eyes turning on them. Mason’s fingers curled, tightening inward before spreading. Blue fire leaked from between his fingers, unlocking Madhouse, as he asked, “Your poison?”
The door swung open, and the man swallowed down a swear that begged to be released. They were always trying to catch him, though Mason would never admit he thought of it like a game.
“Anything chased with cinnamon,” he said.
Mason barked a laugh. “How dull.” He stepped inside Madhouse, letting the door hurtle back toward its frame, though the man caught it and stepped through. Inside, the deception grew stronger. Only true tea drinkers, those who frequented the shop every day, could see beyond the veil, could catch glimpses of skulls mounted and framed in mistletoe, thin trails of burning cedar wood whispering through faerie lights, and the snake coiled on the counter, its head rising in greeting.
One of the man’s eyebrows lifted as he looked around, as Mason stepped behind the counter and began sorting the supplies from his bag. “It’s not much,” he said finally, coming up to the counter, “For all the fuss.”
“Hallucinogenic tea makes for strange stories,” Mason said. There was the sound of porcelain shattering through the beaded doorway. Mason frowned, turned, and found himself pinned against the counter. The man had not moved, but the masked Order member from across the street was holding Mason’s throat.
He would not shout for Dhaval, vocally or mentally, would not risk him, as well, but it was for naught, as he watched another Order member drag Dhaval out of the backroom, the beads clattering around them. His body was heavy, unconscious.
“What do you want?” Mason ground out, with less volatility than he had hoped for. His windpipe was being crushed.
“You,” the man said easily, shrugging one shoulder, “You are hoarding an Undying, and you have embraced your becoming.”
“I don’t—” he choked as the Order member squeezed tighter.
“Save it,” the man said, “You brew tea for a living, and yet you don’t seem effected by its proximity to fire. We know what you are, phoenix,” he spat the word as though it caused him offense, and really, Mason thought it might have. Humans didn’t play well with myths. “We have watched you fight, endlessly, constantly, every single day,” he paused even as his voice roared higher, and Mason tried to look at him only to have his throat crushed harder between gloved fingers. “And then, just like that.” He could sense the man shaking his head, and, with sudden clarity, he knew what was coming. Perhaps, it was Dhaval, in his subconscious, reaching out on a thin tendril to alert him, but Mason heard it nonetheless, and he flipped one of his palms upright, let it spill hungry fire around him.
The Order member caught, and his screams echoed through Madhouse as Mason dropped to his knees and burned his other hand in quick strokes, ash staining his palm with a ten over a six. He turned it to face away from him and closed his eyes.
He knew, like coming home, when Lukas saw him. He opened his eyes, pale and pleading, his dark veins straining against his arms as his last cup of tea began to drain from him. Lukas fell and scrambled backward, and though he knew it was useless, that Lukas would not hear him, Mason screamed for him. Footsteps bore down without care on his hand-crafted floor, something he and Lukas had created together, even as he threw up wards with his free hand, his energy leeching out into the air around him.
Mason could hear a woman’s voice now, trying to cast him away, and he turned his gaze on her, sneering, furious. He pushed against his magic, willed Lukas to open to him, and then it was just this—his voice, “I know where you are.” Mason looked back him, saw Lukas staring at his palm. “I know,” he said, gaze shifting from Mason’s palm to his face, and there was the shadow of a grin, “Ten over six, mad as a hatter. I know where you are.”
Mason collapsed, throwing up a last image of him smiling fondly at Lukas before his wards broke, and rough hands wrapped around his wrists, locking them in iron. It mattered not. They were taking him where faerie blood burned slowly, and without tea, it would take the last of his energy. He needed help. He needed Lukas.
“You were always the strongest,” the man said, watching as Mason was jerked to his feet, grinning when he sagged against the wide man beneath the Order robes. “Marian was not so lucky,” he said, “But it appears her death gave you life.”
“Marian isn’t dead,” he murmured, letting his eyes close. He was so tired. “That’s not something we do.”
“You’re mumbling, Mason. Either speak up, or I’ll have your tongue ripped out.”
He dug deep, searching for any lingering sparks. He found one, and then another, unraveled a small harvest of coals, and let them sit but for the first. He inhaled until it ignited, and then he came roaring back, held only inches from the man’s face. His breath was smoke, his eyes liquid molten as he said, “We’re not in the business of dying, but do your worst.”