by Alex Jeffers

The second week, Emma discovered a tattoo parlor down an alley off the main square. The young man behind the counter took one look at her and said, in careful English, “You are too young for a tattoo.”

“I don’t want a tattoo. I don’t think I do. My brother does.”

The guy (his name sounded like Raf) asked how old Theo was—seventeen—and suggested she bring him in. Raf looked only a few years older than Theo. Emma liked the little blue-black glyph inked on the concave bone of his left temple between hairline and eyebrow. She thought it was meant to evoke a bird’s wing. But then Raf turned to change the CD and the tattoos on his shoulder and back, what wasn’t covered by his wifebeater, disappointed her. Koi fish, lotus blossoms, a whiskered Asian dragon—boring. As cliché as the horned skulls and flames and roses Theo dreamed about.

But when Raf returned his attention to her Emma decided he was good looking so she asked how he’d known to speak English. “You speak it very well,” she added. She wanted a moment to contemplate the image that had just come to her of Raf kissing her big brother, caressing Theo’s shoulder and arm. Raf’s long fingers left strokes of color on Theo’s skin, fire-breathing skulls, schools of glistening koi.

“You have the American look,” Raf said.

Emma didn’t believe he meant to sound condescending.

They’d come on vacation, Emma, Theo, Mom, Dad, but it promised to be a dreary sort of vacation because Mom and Dad had responsibilities—for them it was a working vacation. Every morning they took a train to the bigger town thirty kilometers away to do research in the university library, leaving their children to entertain themselves.

Theo wasn’t much entertainment even back home. In a foreign country where he didn’t know the language, he spent hours hunched over his laptop (he had terrible posture). Complaining to friends on Facebook, playing World of Warcraft, piecing together angsty doom-metal loops on GarageBand, which he never seemed to paste together into actual songs. Now and then he took a break to reach for his sketchbook, struck by another vision for the sleeve of tattoos he intended for his left arm as soon as he turned eighteen. If he wasn’t on the internet, he was usually in the home gym at the top of the house.

They’d traded houses with a professional couple, a dentist and a professor, who were abnormally fit for men in their forties: there were photos of them without shirts on all over the house. Theo made fake gross-out noises over the photos but he attacked their exercise machines with fervor and learned the metric system right away so he could keep track. When he didn’t smell of sweat, he smelled of the rank bodyspray TV commercials back home told him would attract girls. Not if they had functioning olfactory organs, Emma often almost told him. Emma thought her older brother might be more interesting if he were gay. Emma thought she’d make a better boy than Theo.

She had the guts to go out with her phrasebook and wander the town. Village—it was barely a town, surrounded by fields and pastures. Her guidebook to the country said the village had once been known for its livestock fair, but now the market ground had become a park and the abattoir municipal offices. She didn’t carry the guidebook with her because the village rated only half a page.

Emma walked through the park, noting the public pool for a future occasion, but she saw a cluster of girls her age who she could tell thought themselves too pretty to get wet. She had exactly as much use for girls like that as they would for her.

Walking the towpath beside the canal east of town, she imagined boarding a barge that would carry her upstream to the university or downstream a hundred twenty-five kilometers to the capital and the sea. On the far side of the water, a fence prevented golden-brown cattle from blundering into the deep canal. Approaching the fourteenth-century bridge, she startled a gang of teenage boys. They scuttled down the bank into the water. She saw several white butts before brown water hid them, before she noticed heaps of clothing by the towpath. Crouching in the shallows, the boys glowered up at her, and she wondered whether she found the notion of skinnydipping with a bunch of girlfriends appealing.

Not really. She couldn’t imagine any of the girls she knew being up for it. She wasn’t certain she would be. Public nudity was different for boys, she thought, though she still couldn’t imagine any of the boys she knew, American boys, willingly hanging out bareass with other bareass boys (certainly never Theo). But the image was oddly attractive. If she’d known these boys she might have gathered up their clothes and run off with them.

She didn’t know anybody in town yet. Raf at the tattoo shop wasn’t the only person to speak to her in English but he was the only one who knew right off his native language wouldn’t serve.

Walking on, leaving the boys to their fun, she recalled the dream she used to have of waking one morning to find herself a boy. Emma had read about gender dysphoria—she knew she didn’t suffer that. She had never felt any conviction that really she was a boy trapped in the wrong body, but if she played World of Warcraft she would choose a male avatar. All the best adventure stories, the heroes were boys who got to slay dragons or be apprenticed to wizards, embark on voyages of discovery or quests to rescue magical talismans (or tiresome princesses). Girls were tiresome, generally, the ones she knew. Although it was entirely likely, if she could penetrate the secret world of boys, incognita, she’d find they were also tiresome, consumed by trivial concerns she wouldn’t even comprehend because she lacked the context.

Theo was tiresome in just about every way but she had to admit he was pretty to look at when he forgot to look sullen. It was easy to place her brother’s face on the untried heroes of fantasy adventure novels, to populate the sweet fumblings of slash fanfic with Theo’s lithe body.

It would revolt him utterly to know that about her, the uses her imagination put him to.

Besides, Raf at the tattoo parlor was prettier, really, though she didn’t usually find blonds appealing. He didn’t give her that look, that startled, hungry, boy look, as if he’d just noticed you weren’t hideous and were a girl, so she thought probably he was gay.

The second time she visited the tattoo shop, she asked Raf if he’d like a soda or coffee from the café on the square. “You didn’t bring your brother,” he said.

Emma was used to boys being disappointed. She hadn’t even told Theo about Raf and the shop. “He’s afraid—” she thought he was—“to get inked while he still lives at home. Mom and Dad might get angry.”

“It’s not their affair, surely, what he does to his own body.”

Emma saw the hole. “Then it shouldn’t be anybody’s affair if I wanted a tattoo. I’m only two years younger than Theo.”

“But you don’t want one.” Cheery, Raf grinned. “I don’t even know why you’re here.”

“To talk to somebody friendly. To fetch you a cup of coffee or a Coca-Cola from the café.”

Raf went wide eyed in a charming, fake way. He glanced around the empty shop. The stop-start buzzing of an electric needle came from somewhere in back, behind the life-sized ventral and dorsal photos of a Japanese man vividly inked over every square centimeter of skin below the neck. “As you can see,” Raf said, “I have no customers presently clamoring for my artistry. I will walk with you to the café.”

When he turned to call in his own language to the invisible co-worker, Emma saw his ventral tattoos weren’t what she remembered. Glossy black spikes and blades pierced his pale skin and showed through the thin fabric of his shirt, looking like the crazy weapons of Star Trek Klingons, clashing. Tribal, she thought the aesthetic was called, just as clichéd as the dragon and fishes she must have imagined. She was relieved, when he came around the counter, that the wing glyph at his temple hadn’t changed, and startled by how short he was. The floor behind the counter must be raised. Theo would be a full head taller.

“Shall we?” Raf asked. “We’ll bring our treats back here, if you don’t mind. Better for Hender not to be interrupted.”

He walked beside her, asking how she and her brother came to be visiting this tiny, unimportant town. He knew the professor and the dentist—the dentist was his dentist, he’d done some of the professor’s ink. Emma found herself telling him more than she meant to, if she’d meant to tell him anything, on the short walk to the square. He was easy to talk to, dropping all the right hints to lead her on. Theo interested him but that was to be expected: Theo might be persuaded to drop a couple hundred euro on ink. If Raf was gay, he might find Theo attractive. Theo was attractive. Once again, the two boys were making out in the back of Emma’s mind, beautiful, almost innocent, so she was surprised when Raf opened the café door for her. Going in, she noticed a porcelainized plaque fixed to the wall beside the door, Delft-blue letters spelling words she couldn’t read.

Inside, it was noisy and cheerful, smelled of coffee, warm milk—spices and baking bread, hot sugar, mustard, salted meats. The odors were comforting, though Emma imagined they could also be nauseating as she realized she’d forgotten lunch. “Are you hungry?” she asked Raf.

“Are you?”

“Famished. I only noticed now.”

He smiled in a way she liked for a moment, then didn’t like so much as he walked right to the counter and spoke to the man behind it too fast for Emma to have any chance of understanding. She stepped up beside him. He was barely taller than she, still smiling, but the fellow behind the counter was taller than Theo and quite nice looking. “Perhaps ten minutes,” Raf said.

“I’m paying.”

“Not this time. You may dislike what I chose for you.”

“What?”

“A traditional hot sandwich and our traditional way of serving coffee. Hot milk and a taste of bitter chocolate.”

Coffee Guy (so she christened him) blinked, encouraging.

“Yummy.” Emma held out the ten-euro note in such a way Coffee Guy would have to fold it back into her hand or take it. Raf made falsely remonstrative noises but Coffee Guy took the bill with a smile.

Moving aside, Emma asked, “What does the sign by the door say?”

“Hmm?” Raf was still pretending pique. “It notes that this is an historic building, dating to the early sixteenth century, and that it was built over the site of the witch’s house. Excuse me.” Returning to Coffee Guy, he accepted a white paper bag and a cardboard caddy carrying three tall paper cups with plastic sippy lids.

“Witch’s house?”

Raf was leading her back to the door. Outside, he indicated two words on the plaque that Emma could now interpret—the languages were not so distantly related. “Another tradition,” Raf said, “older than the coffee or the sandwich.” He seemed in a hurry, brisk and brusque.

As he strode away and Emma hesitated, puzzled, it appeared to her the inky spikes and blades and flourishes on his back were writhing, contorting, blushing with blots of clear color, but when she blinked and looked again, hurrying after him, they had resolved into intricate flowers tangled in wreaths and garlands on his shoulder and upper arm. Scarlet poppies, indigo cornflowers, peonies, Japanese chrysanthemums—she didn’t recognize half of them.

“I become anxious about Hender,” Raf said when she caught up. “I’m sorry. He is not always good with people.”

“Your tattoos—”

“Yes? I like the flowers better as well.”

From across the street, through the plate-glass window of the shop Emma saw a customer waiting, back turned, peering at the display of photocopied flash as if each sheet were a painting on a museum’s wall. “An American,” said Raf.

“How can you tell?”

“I can tell. Perhaps your brother.”

“Theo has long hair. Halfway down his back.” She didn’t have to see him close up to see the American customer had barely the shadow of stubble on his skull.

Raf leapt the step to the door, pushed it open, and said in ringing English as the bell tinkled, “I’m sorry there was no-one here to welcome you.”

“He said you’d be right back, the other—” Turning from the wall of skulls and dragons, magickal symbols and WWII pinups, Theo froze when he saw his sister behind Raf. “Emma?”

“What happened to your hair?”

Triumphant, Raf grinned.

“What are you doing here? You’re too young for ink.”

Startled into petulance, Emma blurted, “So are you!”

“My friend Emma bought me coffee,” Raf said equably, placing cup caddy and sandwich bag on the counter. “That is why I wasn’t here to greet you. Let me just give Hender his and then we can discuss your plans and wishes.”

When he took one of the paper cups behind the curtain, Emma asked Theo again, “What happened to your hair?” It had been beautiful hair, wavy and lustrous—much prettier than hers.

“His friend?” Self conscious, Theo shifted his sketchpad from one hand to the other, then back. “Since when?”

First surprise passed, Emma imagined Theo was maybe even handsomer without all that hair distracting from the fineness of his features, the shocking paleness of his eyes. A queasy-making thought to have about her brother when he stood in front of her big as life, so she turned away. Incomprehensible voices sounded behind Hender’s curtain, three of them (she hadn’t seen Hender yet), and the thrumming of his needle. “How’d you find the place?”

“Google,” Theo said, but not as if she was stupid.

Distracted by annoyance, Emma didn’t often remember how shy he was. She took her cup from the counter and sipped through the vent in the plastic lid. The coffee wasn’t very sweet, not like cocoa—she tasted milk and coffee more than chocolate. “Why?”

“You know I want them.”

“Why now?”

When she looked over her shoulder, Theo was sitting on the bench below the display of flash. Staring at his clasped hands, he looked miserable. For an instant she felt sorry for him. “Why now?” she asked again.

“Simon got one. Bragging about it on Facebook.”

Simon and Theo were barely friends, back home. Simon had a guitar and people to jam with, not just GarageBand on his laptop. They were World of Warcraft rivals, though Emma didn’t really understand how that worked.

Your friend got one isn’t a good excuse for a tattoo,” Raf said, pushing through the curtain. He went straight for his coffee. “It’s a permanent alteration to your body—” Emma wondered about his, Raf’s, though—“you need to really want it.”

Theo raised his head. “I do!” His face was tragic.

“What did Simon get?” asked Emma, mildly curious.

“Line of kanji down his spine. Really hurt, he said.”

Emma snorted. “Bragged, you mean.”

“Close to the bone hurts more,” Raf said in the tone of a master craftsman imparting lessons to his apprentice. “I do not recommend it for your first experience. I won’t do kanji, either, by the way. It’s not my language—I don’t like to trust the published interpretations or the designs themselves. They’re often inaccurate.”

“Simon’s probably says happiness puppies,” Emma said, uncomfortably sympathetic, “instead of what he wanted.”

Theo looked down at his hands again. “Fight fierce, fight strong,” he mumbled.

“That’s possibly stupider than happiness puppies.”

“Your sandwich, Emma.” Somehow Raf had got it out of the bag and wrappings without her noticing, arranged nicely in little wedges on a pretty plate.

Emma’s hunger asserted itself. Ravenous, she stuffed a wedge into her mouth. It was still hot. Crunchy and buttery toasted bread enfolded molten cheese and shavings of something like prosciutto. Feeling guilty after bolting two, she looked up to offer a taste to Raf and Theo.

They sat side by side on the bench, knees nearly touching, Theo’s sketchbook between them. “Any of these might be executed to fine effect,” Raf said, flipping through the pages again. “But you can’t decide, am I correct?”

Emma edged closer. The uppermost page showed a disembodied arm (thicker, brawnier than Theo’s) encrusted with patterned lozenges like Turkish tiles, but Raf flipped it and the next arm was decorated with a menagerie of vivid zoo animals.

“I keep changing my mind,” Theo admitted, his voice mournful.

“Then I’m sorry to say you are not ready.”

Theo lifted his eyes, stared into Raf’s for a long moment. He looked ready to cry before he moved his gaze to Raf’s upper arm and shoulder. “Yours are…” he began.

Beautiful, Emma thought he meant to say, but beauty wasn’t a quality Theo could ascribe to another man. They were beautiful, Raf’s garlands of inked flowers. Theo raised one hand as if to caress them, another gesture halted as he abruptly rose to his feet. The sketchbook clattered to the floor. Raf looked up mildly.

“You’re right.” Theo crouched to retrieve his drawings. “I need to decide what I really want.” Without another word, he bolted out of the shop. The bell over the door tinkled gaily. Emma sat beside Raf and they shared the rest of her sandwich, except one sliver saved for Hender.

After the first bitter bite, Emma didn’t mind the needle chewing at her skin. She’d had to assume an awkward position on the settee to give Raf access to the fleshy inner surface of her upper arm, and the moment of removing her shirt had been disorienting. She’d never done it for a boy who wasn’t interested in what was inside her bra.

She had determined Raf wasn’t. He was interested in what was in her brother’s undershorts, but not in any urgent way—when Emma confessed her fantasy of Raf and Theo necking, Raf just laughed, delighted, and wondered aloud why it was so many women loved those images. When she decided, quite abruptly, she did want a tattoo, just a small one in an inconspicuous place, he wasn’t difficult to argue around after she told him what she wanted. He sketched the symbol for her, fast and decisive in colored inks, and Emma became even more determined to have it. He ushered her behind the curtain at the back of the shop. She got only a glimpse into one small room where a man in a white undershirt like Raf’s leaned over the jewelled serpent on the back of another man, before Raf waved her into the second. He gave her a moment to settle herself, ducking into the other room to give Hender his wodge of sandwich.

It didn’t actually take much time for Raf to inscribe the design on Emma’s arm three inches below where she shaved. She liked his hands on her, swabbing the skin with alcohol, then transferring the design, finally going to work, though she wished it was skin to skin uninhibited by his latex gloves. After a while, the rhythm of the stinging needle and regular pauses to wipe off blood and ink relaxed her into a kind of trance that blundered into memory.

Unfamiliar memory. Half-familiar memories. They were old, well worn, blurred around the edges as they bubbled up from among quite different memories she knew to be hers but that faded even as she reached after them. When her little brother Theo was small he couldn’t get his mouth around the four syllables of his big brother’s name. Emma, he called her, and had to be taught that Emma was a girl’s name. Theo’s brother’s name was Emmanuel, which didn’t admit of a convenient shortening like Theo for Theodore. (Theo had been Teddy until he turned ten.) What had their parents been thinking?

She remembered throwing a football for Theo, who was miserable at catching it—she remembered wrestling with him when they were nearer the same size—she remembered helping him with his algebra homework, impatient when he didn’t get it.

She remembered the first boy to kiss her (not the first she wanted to kiss), Steve, a nerdier nerd than her brother, who refused (at first) to suck her cock though he was extremely happy when she went to town on his. How old had she been? Fourteen. Almost nineteen now, lying still under Raf’s calm hands and the sting of his electric needle, she felt her dick plump up a bit in her boxers at the memory, felt her balls shift around.

She remembered the expression Theo got when she told him his big brother was gay. Liked other boys instead of girls. Liked their muscles (some of the boys she liked didn’t possess much muscle), their scratchy beards, their odor. Liked touching them, kissing them, sexing them up.

Theo didn’t so much recoil as subtly withdraw, bending his head so dark hair obscured his transparent eyes. “I’m still your brother,” Emma had said. “Nothing’s changed, except that little bit of dishonesty between us. You want me to be honest with you, right?”

Now Raf set the silent needle aside and swabbed her arm again. The evaporating film of alcohol tingled, its fumes fizzy in her nostrils. Raf stood, stretched, clenching and flexing the fingers of his right hand, and gazed down at her, his expression neutral, thoughtful. She wasn’t the type of boy he was attracted to.

Annoyed, Emma said, “Done?” The depth and richness of her voice distracted and pleased her.

“Yes. Do you wish to see?”

A big mirror hung on the wall but Raf reached for a hand mirror and held it for her. First, momentarily disconcerted, she noticed the aggressive growth of hair in her armpit that thinned only a little where it fanned out to mesh with the hair on her chest. The kind of boy she was attracted to would never shave his body hair. Raf shifted the mirror a fraction.

It was reversed in the glass, the symbol incised on the pale flesh of her inner arm, arrowheads pointing off past eleven o’clock instead of one. Inflammation blurred the outlines, seeping blood obscured careful gradation of tint and shading. It was probably stupid, overly obvious, but she liked it: paired Mars glyphs, unbroken circles interlinked, arrowheads parallel. Within indigo outlining, the rings and arrows were tinted like anodized aluminum. She liked it.

“I like it,” Emma said.

“Nice work, Raf,” said a new voice, more heavily accented speaking English than Raf’s.

Emma blinked away from the gleaming oval of the mirror as Raf said, “Hender—my new American friend Emmanuel, who bought your coffee.”

“And my tasty bit of sandwich? Thank you, Emmanuel. They were much appreciated.”

Hender appeared older than Raf, ten, fifteen years. Emmanuel didn’t find him especially handsome or his ear and facial piercings enticing, but his eyes, a brown so pale it was nearly gold, were compelling. The glyph on his left temple was larger and more complex than Raf’s, foliated, tendrils looping and extending into his hairline, onto his cheekbone, as if Raf’s were merely a preliminary sign, incomplete. Both stepped back when Emmanuel sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the settee. Hender placed a proprietary hand on Raf’s shoulder—his fingernails were unpleasantly long, lacquered black, and he wore too many gold rings—and smiled, exposing teeth that looked inhumanly sharp. Under his hand, the flowers on Raf’s shoulder appeared to catch fire.

Emmanuel blinked. Flickering flames resolved into stylized scrolls, yellow, orange, red, like the decals on an ancient muscle car’s fender, and she blinked again, disappointed.

“Show Emmanuel how to care for his new art while it heals,” Hender said, squeezed Raf’s shoulder again, and went away.

Before she allowed Raf to tend her wound, Emmanuel rose to her feet and regarded herself in the mirror, pleased by what she saw. Wide shoulders, expansive chest, trim, defined midsection, narrow hips. The logoed elastic of her boxers cut straight across her belly below the hips, cutting short the furry trail that led the gaze toward the meaty lump behind the fly of khaki shorts. It shifted, all by itself, buckling the fabric of the fly to reveal a flash of copper zipper, and Emmanuel grinned at her reflection.

Raf swabbed the tattoo with stinging alcohol again, smeared it with greasy antibiotic ointment—he gave her the tube, opened fresh, to slip in her pocket—taped over it a square of plastic film, explaining as he went along how to care for it so it would heal quickly and cleanly. Because she wanted him to, he kissed her, but it was an uninvolved, almost chilly kiss—he was more attracted to Theo—and he wouldn’t go further even after she groped his crotch and found him stiff. She didn’t have enough cash on her to pay the full price of the tattoo but he said it didn’t matter, she could cover the rest next time she dropped by.

Emmanuel liked being a boy. A man, really. Her voice was deeper and she was taller than her dad, outweighed him by twenty or thirty pounds. Nor was her hair thinning, though she kept it short and butch. Now and then she caught him staring at her, bemused by his big gorilla son or almost (she didn’t really think so) remembering his daughter.

She liked being a big brother. She half remembered watching out for Theo when he was a geeky high-school freshman with no friends and girly long hair—remembered intimidating the bullies who wanted to intimidate Theo. Those memories gradually became more vivid, washing out bleached memories of growing up a girl, Theo’s little sister. She remembered encouraging him to work out, get bigger and stronger so the bullies wouldn’t bother him. She had moved bench and free weights to the basement because she knew he was uncomfortable invading her bedroom to use them. What really made Theo uncomfortable in her room, she knew, was the home-made screensaver on her desktop monitor, endlessly cycling raw beefcake. The nerdling needed just to deal: his big brother—bigger in every way, not just a year and a half older—was gay and pretty happy about it.

Well, not so happy maybe about not having done much recently. She regretted not pushing harder with Raf. God, the blue balls when he finished with her and sent her home to the dentist’s and professor’s house. She’d had to beat off twice before she could sleep. The first experienced (she recalled earlier but it wasn’t clear they’d really happened) boy orgasm almost disappointed her. She kind of remembered girl orgasms being more profound, less localized and fleeting, if more effort to achieve. But she liked spunk. Splooge. Cum. Even the names were fun. As a girl, she’d thought it gross without much acquaintance—as a boy, she licked it off her hand, savoring the slimy texture, the salty-bitter taste, and rubbed it gummily into the hair on her belly and chest.

When she woke, early, she was delighted by the morning wood in her boxer shorts but needed to piss so she left it alone. She stumbled to the bathroom and remembered she could do it standing up, lifted the seat, fumbled her dick out. Unused to pissing while half hard (or maybe she just didn’t care), she made a mess. After brushing her teeth, washing hands and face, replacing the dressing under her arm, she went back to the bedroom and fired up the laptop. She pointed the browser to her favorite slashfic site. After only a few paragraphs she found the story insipid. The boys were insipid, dreamy and yearny, barely out of adolescence—big eyed and delicate like the figures in yaoi manga, for which she used to have more patience. When she was a girl. Without much trouble, she found a site more to her liking and, reading badly spelled, pedestrian porn, rubbed out another. She smeared the splooge over her abs, sucked the remnants off fingers and palm.

She pulled on a pair of b-ball shorts, stuffed her big feet into shoes, and climbed the stairs to the professor’s and dentist’s gym. She preferred free weights, which required more finesse and, by way of their instability, worked peripheral muscles as well as those directly involved, but the machines were all she had till they returned home.

She was benching, legs splayed wide while her arms pressed the bar up, when she heard her brother’s feet on the steps. She finished the set before looking toward the door. Theo gaped at her. “What?” Her shorts were too long for anything to be hanging out in public and perturbing his masculinity.

“What did you do to your arm?”

“Got Raf to give me a tattoo.” She sat up. “Wanna see it?”

Raf? That’s his name? He didn’t talk you out of it?”

“It was a sudden thing but I only had one idea, one small design, not dozens.”

“Just nine.”

Emmanuel peered at her brother. He was unhappy. “I’m going back today, if you’d like to come with me. Didn’t have enough cash to pay him yesterday.”

Aimless, Theo turned away. Running his hand along the white plaster wall, he paced until the descent of the peaked attic roof prevented further progress. “There’s no point if I can’t decide what I want.”

“I should have let you get yours first.” But then she’d still be a girl, and younger than Theo. It seemed likely, anyway.

“For once,” he agreed without turning, his voice thin with unsuppressed bitterness. It was hard for Theo, being younger, smaller, less. “Is he gay, Raf? Your summer-in-Europe boyfriend? He shouldn’t ask you to pay.”

“I’m not his type, as it turns out.” You are, Emmanuel didn’t say. “You should come with me anyway. Get out of the house. Maybe we’d meet a girl for you.”

Theo still didn’t turn. “Are you done? I want to work out.”

“Fine.” Irritated, Emmanuel got to her feet. She was done. Her brother smelled worse than usual, as if the bodyspray had rotted his skin overnight. “Have at it.”

“Wait,” Theo said when she was almost out the door. “When are you leaving?”

They walked along the towpath in hot sun, brother and brother. Strangely, after his shower Theo hadn’t fragranced himself to hell and back: he smelled of boy, soon of sweat. He smelled good. Emmanuel wanted to rub his head where pale scalp gleamed through dark stubble but figured it wasn’t a liberty she ought to take. She wanted to ask again why he’d cut it. Probably some fallout from his on-line rivalry with Simon, like the disappointing first visit to Raf’s shop.

“When I came along this way yesterday,” she said, “there was a bunch of kids skinnydipping in the canal.”

“Girls and boys? Or just boys?”

“Just boys.”

“Musta been a treat for you.”

Startled, Emmanuel laughed. She liked the sound of her own laughter nearly as much as the evidence her brother had a sense of humor. “Not much to see—they were in a hurry not to be seen. You ever done that?”

“Not really my thing.”

Theo didn’t like even just taking off his shirt in public. He was shy about it even with her, though she had her suspicions about that.

“You?” Theo asked, startling her again.

“Sure,” she said, not really sure. “Not here. Yet.”

“Wouldn’t try it here,” Theo muttered. “That water looks nasty.”

“Wanna find out?”

Before he could react, Emmanuel had him in a mild chokehold, lifting him against her chest. The stubble on her cheek rasped on the stubble of his skull.

“Fuck!” Theo grunted—she hadn’t cut off his air—grabbing at her arm with both hands. Somehow he twisted and heaved in her grasp. As she went off balance, unlikely pain ripped through her shoulder and then the ground came up and knocked the breath out of her lungs. In an instant, coughing, she was tumbling down the grassy bank. The water pounded her with a crash. She went under.

She came up spitting. When water cleared her eyes, she saw her brother down the bank, teetering on the verge. “Stupid!” he hollered. “You’ve got an open wound!”

“What—” The new tattoo.

When she struggled upright, the warm silty water only came to mid-thigh, dragging at her shorts as she floundered back to the bank. Theo wasn’t going to plunge in and help but he stood waiting, looking worried. “Jesus, Emmanuel, don’t surprise me like that.”

Emmanuel couldn’t help herself: she guffawed. “How’d you do that, anyway? Been sneaking out to some dojo, little bro, learning super-secret martial arts moves?”

“You surprised me.” He shook his head, extended his hand for her. “Are you okay?”

“Sodden,” she said, letting him help her onto the embankment. “Fine. Maybe more surprised than you. Who knew that was even possible? Let me sit for a minute.”

When she sank down onto the grass and pulled off one bucket of a shoe, Theo crouched at her side. “I’m not the whiny kid who gets beaten up at school anymore, you know. Are you sure you’re okay?”

She worked the other shoe off, turned them both upside down and set them aside. She didn’t expect further explanation for Theo’s mysterious superpowers. “Yeah, sure.” Testing the rotation of her shoulder, she felt the twinge but it wasn’t bad. “Prolly some bruises and a bit of stiffening up tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Glad to know you can defend yourself. And like you said, I shouldn’t have surprised you—my own fault.”

“Pick on someone your own size next time.”

Astonished again, Emmanuel choked on a laugh. Recovering, she said, “Excuse me, Theo, when did you turn into a human being?”

Regarding her gravely, her brother said, “Occasionally one has lapses.” Then he sat down properly by her side. “At the moment I’m worried about your tattoo. You don’t know what kind of bacteria were swimming in that water.”

Reminded of it, she felt the clammy suction of the tape and plastic on her inner arm. Except for her shorts and what was in them, the rest of her, exposed to sun and air, was practically dry already. Peeling at the tape, wincing when it ripped hairs from their follicles, she said, “I doctored it up pretty thick with hi-test antibiotic stuff. It’s greasy. Probably the germs couldn’t even get through the grease.”

“Still. I would be happier if you got it properly cleaned and tended. Soon.”

Looking up, Emmanuel caught him staring at her fingers picking at the dressing, at her hairy underarm—her hairy chest. She didn’t understand his expression.

“We’re closer to your friend’s shop than the house,” Theo went on. “He’ll know what to do. As soon as you’re ready.”

Raf was calm, undismayed—pleased to see them, Emmanuel thought. Pleased to see them both. With little fuss, he cleaned Emmanuel’s tattoo—the alcohol stung, weirdly worse than the first times, fizzes and pinpricks more irritating than her memory of the needle—anointed it with a dose of antibiotic, dressed it anew. He advised her to keep a close eye on it as it healed although he had never heard that the canal bred flesh-eating microbes. Indifferent, he accepted the damp euro notes she pressed on him and rang them into the register. And then they were at a loss.

While Raf tended Emmanuel, Theo had been leafing through a thick album of photos of the shop’s work, absorbed, intent—beautiful, really, as a studious child. He had failed to remark on Raf’s transformed tattoos but now that Emmanuel noticed the cheap stylized flames were gone, the garlands of flowers returned. The same flowers? Possibly not but near enough. Had Raf changed them back on Theo’s account?

He stepped away from Emmanuel to peer over Theo’s shoulder and point something out. The smile her brother turned up at him made her heart contract and then thump uncomfortably. They were too pretty together—like manga boys, they looked too alike. Theo was quite a bit taller and their coloring was different but it was the difference between African-American Barbie and the standard model.

Her tastes had changed, it seemed, since she became a boy herself. The thought of them getting it on was still attractive (the inevitability of it, it almost looked like) but what she wanted for herself was a bigger man, a big, hairy, muscly guy. Like her.

“Anybody want coffee?” she said, loud. “I’ll go get it.”

Theo started but Raf only glanced at her, his expression mild. “That would be very pleasant, Emmanuel.”

She half turned toward the door, then turned back. “Will somebody speak English?”

“Probably, but I’ll write it down for you, shall I?” Raf did that, his printing precise and legible, and coached her through the pronunciation.

For some reason that reminded her and she asked, “What was that about the witch’s house?”

“Witch?” asked Theo.

“Town legend,” Raf said. He appeared slightly put out. “Perhaps wizard would be the better term, in English. A learned man back in the fourteen hundreds, more learned than he had need or right to be, not being in holy orders, lived in the house where the café stands now. There were suspicions about him, rumors, but they came to nothing until it was noticed there were strangers, foreigners, living in the house whom nobody recalled arriving. He called them nephews, or sometimes visitors from the Holy Land.” Reciting, Raf’s voice was thin, precise, almost pained. “The scholar was abruptly wealthier than he had been. Some claimed to have seen peculiar lights and other manifestations about the house in the depths of night. A child died raving, inexplicably. Another, older child murdered her father some days after being seen conversing with the scholar and the foreigners. A youth claimed one of the strangers had bespelled him to perform an unnatural act. Signs, portents—there were others: stillborn or deformed livestock, blights, comets. The mob chose him and his guests as their scapegoats but the guests had vanished. Under torture, he called them, the three of them, angels or sometimes devils whom Lucifer had sent to tempt and aid him. Naturally, he was killed, burned alive. His house was demolished, the soil under it sown with salt. The town’s misfortunes eased. A hundred years later a new building was raised on the spot and eventually, say ten years ago, the café opened.”

“Whoa,” said Theo, fascinated. “We don’t have history like that back home.”

Raf regarded him soberly. “So you’re privileged to think. The stories weren’t written down, the storytellers died of smallpox and their languages disappeared, somebody built a Starbucks just like every other Starbucks on the salt-sown foundations of the forgotten wizard’s house. Here we do too much remembering. You Americans are fortunate to live in the present as it happens.” Turning away, he seemed to mutter, “I too prefer the now.”

Emmanuel left them to argue that out—or not. At the café, Coffee Guy behind the counter didn’t seem to recognize her (how could he?), but was charming, friendly, flirtatious, and spoke sufficient English that she didn’t have to wrestle with Raf’s language lesson. Taking her money, he touched her hand with his own in a way he didn’t need to and looked into her eyes with great promise. When he turned to prepare her coffee, it seemed he fumbled his white shirt open two buttons more so she could be sure of the interesting knotted tattoo on his chest, just below the left clavicle, its flourishes glowing through curly brown hair. Flowers twined through the knots, poppies and cornflowers—she wondered if it was Raf’s work. Surely it was, or Hender’s. The town was too small to support more than one tattoo shop. Handing over the three tall coffees, he said, “See you around,” as if he’d memorized the phrase but in a tone that made it both a question and a promise.

Walking back, Emmanuel pondered how to encounter him again without a counter and a transaction between them—how to discover his name. He was as tall as she, as substantial. She somehow didn’t wish to ask Raf, who would probably know. Spend an afternoon at the public pool swimming and tanning—he had a nice tan, perhaps that was where he’d acquired it. Loiter around the café until he went off shift. Google for the places gay guys congregated. For a few steps they were making out in the back of her mind, Coffee Guy and Emmanuel, necking and groping—chest hair caught in her teeth when she nibbled his nipple—but then the vision became Theo and Raf again, similarly pleasing in a voyeuristic way but interestingly different.

They weren’t necking when she stepped back into the shop, not that she’d really expected them to be. The front room was public space, windowed to the street. Theo was shy…wasn’t gay.

They were, however, too preoccupied to acknowledge her entrance after making sure it was her. Raf leaned over a large sheet of paper, delicately maneuvering his pencil. Theo watched—watched Raf’s hand but glanced up often at his face. Theo’s expression was dopey with intent, and something else.

Emmanuel set a cup before each. Raf offered her a distracted nod but Theo nothing. The drawing taking shape was a spidery branch of cherry blossoms. Emmanuel could imagine it spiralling up somebody’s arm, twining over biceps and triceps to spray blooms across the upper back, then up and over to deposit more on the round ball of the shoulder and a final profusion on the gentle swell of one pec. Raf paused, sketched in a butterfly alighting.

It was subtle, pretty. She wouldn’t have expected pretty of Theo. The designs he’d drawn were aggressive, mannered. “I thought you wanted a full sleeve,” she said, too loud and abrupt.

He glanced at her but didn’t seem to see her. “So did I.” He reached for his coffee.

“It’s just an idea,” murmured Raf, concentrating.

Emmanuel no longer had to imagine the tattoo: the spindly branch climbed Raf’s arm, looped onto his shoulder and back, under the translucent white strap of his wifebeater onto his chest. Blossoms blushed rose over the paler pink of his skin. Faint blue shadows made them stand out. Unopened buds and baby leaves were tender spring green. The butterfly was black, blue, purple, with shards of clear, bright yellow. Bruise colors, except it was precise and fine within its outlines, not blurred and sore. She could never manage a seduction so well. She didn’t have his talents.

She’d finished her coffee in fifteen, twenty minutes, and Theo and Raf hadn’t become any more entertaining. “See you around,” she said, echoing the object of her interest. Raf glanced up with a faint smile, Theo nodded absently. She left.

In the square, she waited a while on a bench across from the café, hoping Coffee Guy might emerge, but that would be too easy. Other people did come out. One of them she recognized as Hender. He recognized her as well, raised his paper cup in a salute, but didn’t come over. She wondered if he was going back to the shop—if he would be annoyed or jealous at the sudden rapport between his protégé and her brother. She wondered if she’d ever see Coffee Guy again. She went into the café but he was no longer there. Disappointed, she blundered out again without buying anything.

Google directed Emmanuel to a pub that, while not strictly a gay bar, was the next closest thing in this small town. Another reference suggested a grove in the park where sordid things might occur, and another told her to try the same café after midnight, when it was the only place still open. Overall, though, she’d be better off making a trip to the university town where her parents did their research. She filed all the information away for later.

It was Theo’s night to make dinner, something he was usually pretty responsible (if resentful) about, but he didn’t get home till twenty minutes before she expected their parents. He looked a little bruised around the eyes and—was she imagining it?—chafed around the lips. He looked halfway to exaltation and moved his left arm gingerly. “Did he do the whole thing in one go?” Emmanuel asked.

Theo grinned, open, delighted. “Just the outlines. Filling in and coloring later, couple of days.” Then he winced and looked a little worried. “Don’t tell the ’rents?”

“As if I would. They’re going to wonder about long sleeves, though.”

“Let them wonder.”

“I want to see it but I won’t ask you to get all unwrapped right now.”

Theo shook his head. “After dinner, maybe. Oh, hey, help me make dinner? I’m kinda running late.”

“You’ll owe me.”

He shook his head again. “Well, you know, I already owe you so what’s a little more.”

In the kitchen he got busy fast, pointing her at things he needed cleaned or peeled or chopped. It was going to be some kind of stir-fry, apparently. Slicing beef into thin strips, Theo ignored his brother, but when he had it marinating in soy sauce and the ginger she’d chopped he took a moment and just looked at her.

“What?”

“I’m, umm, going out after dinner. You want to come with so the parents don’t freak?”

Emmanuel set her knife down. “Out? Out where? You never go out.”

Looking away, he smiled. “Raf invited me to join him for a drink. He said you’d be welcome.”

“You’re underage.”

“Not here. Civilized country. I’m not planning to get drunk or anything. I’ll buy you a beer.”

“Raf? Huh.” Emmanuel snorted, keeping her delight to herself. “Am I to understand you’re not as straight as I’ve always been led to believe? Or is this not a date?”

Startled, Theo squeaked, “Date? It’s not—” He blushed, blinked a few times. “I guess maybe you could call it that. Hah. That’s a shocker.” Blush fading, he shook his head. “And I don’t quite know what I am because I still think girls are all kinds of sexy but kissing him was hella sexy too.”

“Well, good for you,” said Emmanuel in jovial, big-brother tones. “Sure, I’ll chaperone you, Teddy—” she hadn’t called her brother Teddy since he was a little kid—“if you promise not to put on any of that noxious bodyspray.”

“Lend me your big-boy cologne?” he suggested with a cock of his head both flirtatious and naïvely mocking.

After his shower, Teddy knocked on her door to show off his ink—get Emmanuel’s help doctoring it. She was less surprised by the delicate tracery of branches and shoots and bruises on his arm and shoulder than the unprecedented act of his coming to her room wearing only a towel hitched around his hips. The temptation to make it fall, discover what he had in the downstairs department to offer Raf, tested her resolve. He smelled of her cologne (he’d used too much), which she really felt smelled better on her.

With a kind of brusque tenderness, she swabbed the twigs and branches and uncolored blossoms with a pad steeped in alcohol. The softness of Teddy’s skin perturbed her. The hair on his forearms was translucent and there was none on his chest, just a faint glowy fuzz. Glancing at his legs, she noticed that shins and calves appeared only as downy as his arms. He noticed her noticing. “You got all the wild man of Borneo genes from Dad’s side. I take after Mom’s family. So I’ll never go bald.”

“Except on purpose.” Emmanuel seemed to remember her little brother being more hirsute. Not like her, maybe, but not like a girl either. Under her hand, the muscles of his arm and shoulder felt different than as recently as the morning, when he tossed her in the canal. Not flabbier, but less purposeful than simply useful. Perhaps it was just that he was at rest. She smeared on the greasy ointment. When he stood up to have her apply the dressings, he looked willowy standing before her, not lean and wiry. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Nothing.” She went back to work, taping squares of plastic like patchwork to his skin.

When that was finished, she told him to go get dressed if they were going out. At the door, he turned back fast and had to grab for the slipping towel. “You didn’t say what you think of your friend’s work.”

“It’s—” Emmanuel hesitated. “It’s not what I’d have expected for you. Not to say it isn’t very nicely done. When Raf completes it and it’s all healed up, it’ll be…lovely.”

Clutching the towel, Teddy frowned, but then he visibly let what he didn’t want to hear go and opened the door. Fifteen minutes later he was back, dressed, black shirt severely buttoned and tucked into black jeans, buzzed head making him look an ikon of severity. It was momentarily impossible to imagine him necking with Raf. In her mind Emmanuel stripped off the shirt, finished off the tattoos, and then all was well. She followed him downstairs happily enough, out. She had dressed equally thoughtfully if with different calculation: tight t-shirt was meant to showboat her build, low-slung shorts make it evident she’d chosen to go commando. She hoped to meet Coffee Guy, though another guy might do almost as handily.

Teddy knew the way. He had memorized Google’s map, she imagined. They walked through long summer twilight, bucolic suburb to mediaeval town alleys, not saying much until Teddy asked, “What’s it like? What guys do with guys, after the kissing?” So he had taken note of her outfit.

She peered at him. He had his head down, looking away. “It’s sex,” she said. “It’s big fun. I mean—” She turned her own head, not really embarrassed. “I mean, I’ve never done it with a girl so it’s not like I can compare and contrast.” She could, but not in a way that would be helpful.

“Me neither,” Teddy muttered, voice small but defiant.

“Really?” It was almost not a surprise.

Teddy half stumbled, recovered. “Not all the way.”

Brotherly, Emmanuel put her arm around his neck, holding him up. “It’ll be okay, Teddy. You don’t have to go through with it—you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Say no, easy as that.” Teddy was bigger than Raf.

“But I do want. I want to do everything. Will it hurt?”

Emmanuel released him, stepped away. “If you do that? For a moment or two, yeah. Not as much as tattoo needles.”

Her brother hurried to catch up, passed her, remained a few steps ahead until they reached the pub, where he held the door open for her as if she were a girl. They saw Raf right away, pale as an exotic orchid in the gloom. Strangely, he was talking with Coffee Guy, who beamed when he saw Emmanuel. His name was Thijs—he spelled it for her. He wasn’t wearing the collared white dress shirt and black slacks from the café but a dark green hoodie unzipped nearly to the waist so she could admire the furry expanse of his chest, his tattoo, the steel pin through his left nipple, and jeans worn so low she could make out his swimsuit tanline and be sure he, too, had foregone undershorts. It was all thrilling. By the time he’d bought her a beer that had so much flavor it astonished her she was entirely smitten and Raf and Teddy had vanished.

When the fact penetrated, she said, “Where’d they go? I have to look out for Teddy.”

“See over there,” said Thijs, soothing and calm. “Teddy is quite safe.”

Looking where he indicated, Emmanuel saw a line of private booths and the backs of the two heads, one buzzed to blue shadow, the other blond. “I should—”

“Teddy is quite safe,” Thijs said again. “Now and then Raf discovers an interest in women, particular women, an impulse that startles him so much he is extremely careful, gentle, easily dissuaded. Your sister will come to no harm.”

“Teddy—” But Emmanuel knew her sister would be furious, if it was something he really wanted, if Emmanuel barged in like a clumsy knight in shining armor to protect the damsel’s virtue. Still, she watched a moment longer, unsure, saw Raf’s fine long fingers caress Teddy’s skull and saw her sister turn his head for the kiss. He was beautiful, her little sister—the shorn scalp made his face at once stronger and more vulnerable. When he did it, their father, oddly pleased, said his daughter was prettier than Sinéad O’Connor and ran a Google Image search to show them how Teddy compared to the pop-star crush of his youth.

Thijs attracted her attention back to him by lifting her hand to his chest. One point of the steel pin, not quite sharp, poked her finger. Leaning to her ear, he said, “I also have a, what do you call it in English, a Prince Albert. Would you like to see?”

The sex was good. Not great. Perhaps they were nervous of each other, being so newly acquainted. Perhaps Thijs depended on the novelty of his PA in lieu of technique. She’d had a moment or two of wanting one for herself—he became inarticulate trying to express the sensations it gave him—but the desire passed. Rolling a condom over her own stiff dick, she’d felt a pang, thinking she ought to have said something to Teddy about the importance of birth control (she didn’t know if he was on the pill) but Thijs distracted her before the pang could bloom into panic, and she didn’t think of her sister again. Anyway, Thijs and Raf were housemates, it had turned out, sharing the big apartment two floors above the café on the square. Teddy was just down the hall. If he got scared, needed his big brother, he knew where she was.

But afterward, dozing on Thijs’s bed with Thijs spooned up against her back (his chest hair tickled her when he breathed, the metal in his nipple scraped), Emmanuel had what felt like a dream. She remembered growing up with, not an annoying little tomboy sister, but a nerdy, differently tiresome little brother. Theo. Not Teddy. Then her breath strangled in her throat as she recalled that Theo was Emma’s big brother and she, Emma, for almost sixteen years had been a girl.

She sat up abruptly. Thijs grumbled in his sleep. “Thirsty,” Emmanuel said, though she didn’t think he could hear her, and clambered off the bed. Still naked, she stumbled out of the room.

She thought she knew where she was going but ended up in the kitchen, where a low candle in a glass jar guttered on the breakfast table and somebody sat beyond it, face shadowed. “Thirsty,” she said again because she didn’t know who it was.

“Hard or soft?” The voice with its distinct accent was Hender’s. He leaned forward and candlelight caught his stark features, gilded the piercings at eyebrow, ear, cheek, lower lip. The baroque ink at his temple looked purple, like wine in a glass.

“Water.”

He stood. Emmanuel flinched back. “Sparkling or still?” Hender asked, stepping away from the table but not toward her. He was as nude as she. Thankfully, she couldn’t make out details in uncertain, wavery light.

Unthinking, she took another step toward the table. “Just water.”

“Sit, then. A moment.”

She was afraid he’d turn on an electric light or just open the refrigerator and she would have to look at him, but he rummaged through the cabinet for a glass without hesitation, filled it at the sink. Emmanuel sat. The polished wooden seat felt unpleasantly slick and cool under her bare flesh. Hender set the glass before her, stepped back. “Thanks,” she said. lifting it to her lips. As he turned to round the table, she caught a glint of heavy metal dangling below his crotch—another PA. Was Raf pierced down there as well?

“What did Raf do to my—to Theo?”

Hender sat down. “Raf wants an American wife.” Then Hender grinned broadly. Flickering light gleamed unhealthily on his teeth. “Well, actually, of course, he would prefer an American husband but the laws in your country mostly do not recognize that relationship and a husband could not help him emigrate. You aren’t concerned about what he did to you?”

“Why? Why not me? I was a girl…before.”

“He likes to complicate matters. You were too young. He felt you would enjoy being a boy.”

“I do!” The response came without thought but thinking only reinforced it. “I don’t want to go back. But Theo never wanted to be a girl. Or a gay boy, any man’s husband.”

“Are you certain?”

She wasn’t.

“It’s true Theo was more effort to…persuade.” Leaning forward—now the fluttering light made the design at his temple resemble blood, drawn in intricate patterns like the henna on an Indian bride’s hands—Hender shrugged. A billow in the shadow behind him made Emmanuel think of great black wings flexing with his shrug. “In any case, Raf’s altruism is erratic. He wasn’t attracted to you. To your brother, yes.”

“What are you? The two of you?”

“Three.”

“Thijs too?” she blurted, dismayed.

“We have been here so long,” murmured Hender, leaning back again. “But Thijs and I are relatively content. Of course, Thijs has no imagination. He lives in the moment—the future is an impossible destination for him. It would not have occurred to Thijs to take advantage of your possibilities before Raf manifested them. Raf—discontent defines him. It always has, longer than you can imagine. You see, we may not leave this place without a sincere invitation.”

“It wouldn’t be sincere!”

“Are you certain?” Hender asked again. “Raf has gone away before, several times. When the invitation expires, he must return. Not to America however. America interests him. He will be disappointed, of course, for all the world is an outskirt of America in this era, but one can’t reason with him. Come.”

When Hender rose to his feet the shadowy wings rose with him, pinions glittering like black knives. Emmanuel shrank back but he reached for her hand. His touch was chill, not like ice, colder, and she found herself upright, enfolded in his arms, his dank, oppressive wings that smelled like incense. “You make a handsome boy,” he murmured in her ear.

They stood in the doorway of Raf’s bedroom. Raf and Teddy lay on white sheets. Emmanuel looked away from her naked sister, looked back. Raf’s arm, crooked over Teddy’s rib cage as he spooned the young woman, lifted the breasts on Teddy’s chest, made them look larger, misshapen. Matched cherry-blossom tattoos seemed to grow together, one plant joining two bodies. Teddy began to stir and Raf, in sleep, tightened his grasp and pressed his lips to Teddy’s nape.

“It is not the time, Raf,” Hender said. The regret in his low, shuddering voice caused the world to flinch. “This is not the person.”

Shrugging off Raf’s arm with less effort than he’d taken to toss Emmanuel into the canal, Theo sat upright. He threw his legs over the side of the bed and planted his feet on the carpet, set wide. Emmanuel looked away again: her little brother’s dick, at rest, was bigger than hers.

“You were right,” Theo said, his voice foggy. “It hurt. But it was interesting.”

Behind him, Raf made a noise like ice breaking. Indigo wings thick as snowdrifts clapped, disturbing the air, lifted him. For just an eyeblink, Teddy became a girl again.

“Not now,” said Hender.

“Theo?”

Ignoring or unaware of angelic perturbation, Theo scratched sleepily at the flame-eyed skull inscribed on his left biceps. “Not really interesting enough, though. No offense, Emmanuel, but I think I really am straight.” He yawned, shuddering.

“I…I don’t need the competition.”

“Hah.” Theo blinked. “Where’s my clothes? We should go home. ’Rents probably shitting themselves with worry. Grounded for life,” he grumbled, blinked again, looked up at his brother and, as if properly comprehending her nakedness, glanced his eyes away. “Where’s your clothes? Did you have fun with wotzisname?”

Raf made another noise, like air collapsing, and settled back onto the bed. Theo shifted his seat unconsciously as the mattress settled. Great blue-black wings cloaked crouching Raf, abstracting him from sight. A fierce itch flared under the skin inside Emmanuel’s arm, but then was gone.

“But I liked Emmanuel!” protested Thijs.

So did I, Emma wanted to say. Her throat was frozen with disappointment and relief. She felt uncomfortable naked in a way she hadn’t a moment before.

Thijs’s wings were dull scarlet, not as impressive as Hender’s or Raf’s. His erection had been impressive but it wilted, dragged down by the weight of its metal, as he glared fiercely at the girl who had been Emmanuel. “He was handsome. And an excellent fuck.”

Emma felt another intolerable itch, but this erupted between her legs and when she reached to scratch it, horribly, trivially embarrassed, Emmanuel discovered his own proper prick hanging where it should. He clutched it in his hand. The heavy steel Prince Albert was chill, but warmed against his fingers.

It wasn’t nearly as late as they’d thought. Light hung in the west. As they walked the towpath back to the dentist’s and professor’s house, Theo asked, his voice merely curious, “Are you going to see him again?”

“Thijs?” Emmanuel shrugged, amused. “Probably. We’re here another four weeks. Not a professional visit, though, it’s not like I want him piercing anything else.”

“Yikes.”

Theo wanted not to sound appalled by his brother’s adventure in body modification, Emmanuel thought without being fooled. He’d offered to show the pretty thing to Theo.

“What about you? Going back to Hender?”

“Of course!” Craning his neck, Theo tried to look at his own arm. His shirtsleeve hid the ink, though, and he stumbled. “It’s not done yet! But I’m not interested in fooling around with him.”

“He wouldn’t mind, probably.”

“No.” Great sincerity thrummed in Theo’s voice. “I mean, I’ve had moments of curiosity since…since you told me you were gay, but it’s just not my thing.”

Emmanuel scratched at his jaw. His stubble wasn’t novel anymore but it still felt good. “Just as well,” he said. “More boys for me.”

“Seriously?” Theo was outraged. “You seriously think any guy wants into my shorts is going to be interested in a big hairy dude like you?” He threw a punch at his brother’s arm that made basically no impression. “Manny, bro, even I know better than that.”

Manny? As they scuffled, Emmanuel decided this new nickname was acceptable. “Fine, whatever.” Grappling Theo around the neck, he knuckled his brother’s bristly scalp.

“Besides, you’ve already got a summer boyfriend. Now you need to help me find a girl. That’s what gay big brothers are for, evolutionarily speaking.”

Laughing, Manny pushed Theo away. “You’re on.” It would be a challenge. Challenges were good. He relished a challenge.

____
Copyright Alex Jeffers 2012

Alex Jeffers‘s last story appeared in Chelsea Station #1 in November; his next will be out in the YA anthology Boys of Summer in May. Those two, this one, and some others will reappear in his collection You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home, due from Lethe Press in July. You can find more information and news at his website.