An Unwilling Heart
Written for: Frostfire in the Yuletide 2006 Challenge
Many, many thanks to my betas, labellementeuse and rushthatspeaks, who gave me much useful information on Diane Duane's world and New York. Diane Duane's Errantry Wiki and various other internet sites were also extremely helpful (for those interested, the Parade of Ships can be seen at http://www.uwsp.edu/geo/projects/geoweb/participants/dutch//WTC1976/WTC002.htm ). Any departures from canon, including invented backstories, or remaining stuff-ups are mine.
One of my recipient's other requests crept in as well (the identification of which is left as an exercise for the reader!). I had a lot of fun writing this story, as well as a certain amount of hair-pulling, and want to thank Frostfire for giving me this opportunity.
Manhattan, New York
June 17th, 1976
"Maybe I can't do this anymore," Carl said. His voice cut across the angry sounds of wizards arguing, each convinced the others were responsible for the failure of the last working, and for a moment he thought they were just going to ignore him. Again.
He was standing in what looked like, from the outside, a storeroom at the back of a rundown deli, in a corner of the equally rundown concourse of Grand Central Terminal, New York City. Inside, though, the room was considerably larger - and cleaner - than expected, although only a wizard would ever be able to find it. This was the home of the Grand Central worldgate; the main portal for intra- and extra-planetary travel by wizards on the Eastern Seaboard, and the Earth's only worldgate allowing access to other dimensions - when it was functional.
Currently there was a dead area in the air where the intricately complex bright circuitry of the worldgate should have been visible, and a hissing irregular buzz instead of the expected comforting hum. Apart from that, the room was now silent, and Carl looked back reluctantly from the hole in the air to the three wizards who now faced him.
Wroaah, sitting in front of the gate, was a solid grey cat with a white-flecked muzzle and the chief engineer for the feline team who ran the gates. He had dim views on humans - ehhif - interfering with gates at the best of times, and though Carl had earned his gruff praise in the past, those times were long gone. Indira, the New York Advisory, who'd welcomed Carl after his Ordeal eight years earlier with a warm smile, had had a frown on her face for months now, ever since they'd lost the gate, and looked at least twenty years older than when they'd first met. Behind her was Cecily, face half-hidden behind a brown tangle of hair, shy and fragile ever since her Ordeal. An Ordeal she'd shared with her twin sister, which only one of them had survived.
On the opposite side of the non-functional gate stood Jex, a visitor from an impossibly distant star system where new gates popped into existence every few minutes. Carl found him irritatingly superior at the best of times, and unhelpful for all his supposed experience. He was pretty sure that Jex - who had now folded two of his pairs of arms, staring down at Carl from his height of eight feet - felt the same way about him.
Wroaah spoke first. Not unexpected, he said in the Speech, tail-tip twitching. Your work with the time strings was promising, but extrapolation to the worldgate has been unsuccessful.
"I didn't mean the gate work," Carl said. Now that he'd said it - finally - he had to go through with it.
Indira reached out with one hand, as if to touch him, and then let it fall. "You do know how many we've already lost," she said, her tone bleak.
Jex's primaries rippled, orange and silver. I have disagreed with your suggestions about dislocation, and I find you overly hasty in your desire for direct action, rather than allowing situations to develop, he said. But every wizard matters, and to give it up on a whim...
"You think I haven't thought about this?" Carl said, his Brooklyn accent sharpened by anger. "Nothing we do works anymore. This city's falling apart."
"Running away won't help," Indira said.
"It's not just wizards who fight entropy," Carl said. He thought, without intending to, of his family, who throughout his childhood had been a prime example of achieving order through chaos. His close-knit, loving family, who hadn't spoken to him for over a year. It hadn't been his cousin catching him kissing Hector Santiago under the elevated train arches on 86th Street, which had, the year after the Stonewall riots, prompted operatic shoutings, door-slammings, and extensive and deeply embarrassing arguments between his family and the Santiagos over who'd started it (pretty much a draw, even if no-one would believe that), and it hadn't been him telling his parents about wizardry, which they'd accepted much more readily. But when Carl's older brother Tony came back from Vietnam without a scratch, and asked Carl to remove the shield spell that had successfully protected him despite the loss of most of his unit, and shot himself in the head in the family kitchen, Carl's father had shown him out of the house, silent and grey-faced, and neither he nor anyone else had come looking for him since. Carl had lost friends and lovers as well to the erratic and secretive demands of wizardry, and, from where he stood, all it had gotten him was grief.
"I've been offered a job," he said. "It's not much, but it's a start. Radio advertising."
Indira didn't laugh, as he'd half-expected.
"I know it's difficult," she said. Her shoulders slumped a little. "If we can get the gate running again, if we can deal with the traps in the city, it'll be easier..."
Carl shook his head. "When?" he asked, and knew no one had an answer. For the last eighteen months New York had been under lockdown, with no magic permitted outside the Grand Central shield and the smaller one protecting the Penn Station gate, still running on limited shifts. No magic, and no use of the Speech, because doing so might cause the air molecules nearby to rip themselves apart, combusting everything in the vicinity, and seventeen wizards had died these last twelve months alone. Six who'd been careless, or unlucky, and eleven who'd tried, and failed, to resite the malfunctioning Grand Central gate at LaGuardia airport. No new wizards either, since Cecily. Records indicated some had been called outside the city to take their Ordeals, but none had returned. And existing wizards left, making easy promises to return when things settled, or renounced their magic... Carl had considered leaving, but felt a stubborn connection to the city, a bone-deep loyalty. If he couldn't save it as a wizard, maybe he stood a chance of making a difference as a normal human being.
"Your work." Indira wasn't quite looking at him. "Are your records up to date?"
"It's all in the manual," Carl said. "If anyone wants it."
Go well, Wroaah said, and padded off, quick and soundless, as if ashamed to have said anything.
Indira bit her lip. "We will miss you," she said, but it sounded like an attempt to convince herself, rather than anything she actually felt. Carl hesitated, wondering if he should shake her hand, but she turned away.
Behind Indira, Cecily pushed her hair back out of her face. "Why don't you do it here," she said, voice shaking with emotion. "Or do you want to blow yourself up, too?"
Carl flushed. He had thought of ending things where they'd begun, down by Gravesend Bay, where eight years ago he'd held the wizard's manual he'd found on the train and said his Oath to the Atlantic as it broke gently over the rocks. Maybe that was needlessly dramatic, or even dangerous...
You agree temporal dislocation is a dead end, Jex said to Indira. Will you now consider my proposition? His primaries darkened with emotion.
The same argument Carl had been hearing for weeks now, and suddenly staying here was impossible. He picked up his jacket, impatient to be moving, and left. No one stopped him.
Outside the storeroom the building was crumbling, the roof leaking and the stone chipped and scarred, dark with pollution. Carl slowed as he took the stairs, wary of a misstep. Part of the argument for relocating the gate was that Grand Central itself stood in the shadow of the wrecking ball, its owners - Penn Central Railroad - trying to tear it down to rebuild there for nearly ten years. Public opinion was strongly against them, but that never counted for much...
He took the S train to Times Square and, still wanting to keep moving, began walking down 7th Avenue rather than transfer to the subway. He would, Carl told himself, enjoy the exercise.
The day held more than a promise of summer heat. Carl slipped his jacket off to sling it over one shoulder, feeling the weight of his manual in the pocket. He tried to focus on the moment: the sun on his shoulder, the crisp click of his boot heels against the sidewalk, the blur of colors from the adjacent shop fronts.
None of this distracted him from the hollowness he felt inside.
He was uncertain whether he might, just by saying it, already have given up his magic. After a couple of blocks he ducked to one side, into the door front of a shabby theatre, and pulled out his manual to flip through to the index. Not that it mattered, he told himself, but when he saw his name still there, under the usual black-bordered heading for New York, and the warning "Under Interdiction: Seek Advisory for Admission" he felt a quick stab of relief. It faded when he scanned his assignment details below, which read "Pending Disassociation".
"This is what I want," he said, low-voiced and determined. He slapped the manual shut. He was about to step out on to the street again when a voice stopped him.
"Ain't you going to take it?"
Carl twisted round to see a small grimy window, and a grimier hand thrust out from the space under it, holding a small blue card. By squinting, he made out a dim face behind the glass.
"Said you wanted it," the voice said. The blue card wobbled with the holder's enthusiasm.
"Wanted what?" Carl asked, stepping back inside the foyer.
"S'afternoon's show," the voice said, exasperated. Carl still couldn't make out if the speaker was male or female, and the voice, the cracked rasp of the very old, didn't help. "From California. `Sclusive tour. Last performance."
"Oh," Carl said. "Sorry - I wasn't talking to you -"
"Plenty of seats," the voice said.
"I really can't afford it," Carl said. He had three bucks and change to get him through till Monday. "Sorry."
He hadn't discouraged the speaker. "Free ticket," whoever it was said. "Empty theatres no good." A second blue card joined the first. "Bring your friends."
"I don't - " Carl said, unsure how he'd gotten himself into this.
"Nice boy like you's got to have friends."
Reluctantly, Carl took one of the tickets. He didn't have to go, after all.
"Start at two," the voice warned him. "No friend?"
"Not today," Carl said. "Thanks."
He made his escape, shoving the ticket into his jeans pocket, wryly amused at himself. "No friend?" had actually got to him, but once all this wizardry business was over, he could get settled, spend time with people for whom life wasn't all life and death, and mostly death...
He could get together with Ralph again, perhaps, see if last week's stinging argument had been forgotten. They'd been on again and off again for about four months now, mostly off, and while Carl had his doubts about their basic compatibility outside of the bedroom, Ralph could always get them into an amazing number of clubs and parties, and he had no particular concerns about sexual exclusivity... What Ralph did want, however, was an explanation for Carl's frequent absences and unreliability, and Carl did not want to tell him about wizardry.
He wouldn't have to, now, but somehow it didn't feel like a consolation.
He was almost at his apartment when a voice that he didn't hear with his ears wrapped itself round his brain and whispered.
The Speech, unexpected and inescapable. Startled, Carl almost answered, stumbling over his own feet as he remembered. There were easily twenty people within a hundred yards' radius, pedestrians and panhandlers, shop-owners leaning against their own doorways, and that didn't include the passing traffic. If this were a trap -
Wizard, the voice said again. It sounded amused. There is a small passageway twenty paces behind you, on the left. I will wait.
Carl kept walking, but his steps were slowing. Even if it's not a trap, he told himself, it's not my problem.
The silence inside his head waited. He hit the button for the crosswalk. His apartment building was a block ahead and round the corner of the next block, the buildings here all familiar, if ugly, presences.
The crosswalk buzzed. Carl started across. Sunlight glinted off the bonnets of the waiting cars, and the airbrakes of an impatient bus hissed in his ear.
Carl was almost to the other side when he turned around, loping quickly back across before the lights changed, and back, further, down the street, to an almost unnoticeable alleyway behind a beaten-down Chinese restaurant.
A row of garbage bins, like sentries, blocked most of the opening, and the building behind loomed over the alley, a blank brick wall with a rusty fire escape stuck halfway down. It was far darker than the cross street, and something unpleasantly slimy and foul smelling skidded under Carl's boot when he took a cautious step closer.
He put his jacket down on the lid of the least dirty garbage can, and felt for the small wire ball clipped to his belt loop.
He'd found it cleaning out his grandmother's attic, when she'd become too fragile to live alone and, after a lengthy discussion among all seven of her children, decided to move in with Carl's aunt Julia, graciously allowing all the families to take part in the clean-up. When Carl showed the silver ball to Nonna she'd closed her eyes for a long time, until he'd thought she'd fallen asleep, before opening them and fixing him with a faded blue gaze that had lost none of her fierce intelligence.
("Il tuo nonno l'ha fatto." Your grandfather made it, she said. He was a radio operator in the war, and he was always making things for the radio.
"Do you know what it does?" Carl said, turning the little ball over in his hand. It was, he thought, all one piece of wire, but wrapped around and under itself in so many intricate ways that it was impossible to tell.
His grandmother had shaken her head, but when Carl offered it back to her she closed his hand over it. "Non l'ho bisogno," she said. I don't need it.)
Whatever it was, it bent space around it in a complex and useful fashion. Carl had used it to boost shield spells many times in the past, and had yet to exceed its capacity. If this were a trap he'd activate the shield spell bound to the little ball with one word, and trust to its protection in any Speech-triggered explosion.
He took another step, edging round the garbage cans. His ears picked up a faint scraping noise, like metal on stone. As he moved in further his eyes adjusted to the dimmer conditions, and at the base of the wall he could see a grating, set into the ground, with a faint white curl of smoke rising from between the bars.
Wizard, the voice said again. I have something that belongs to your kind.
Carl moved further into the alley, keeping one hand on the wall and the other on the metal ball. He thought he knew what this was, now, and although the creature was unlikely to be connected with the attacks on the city's wizards it still possessed dangers of its own.
Your silence is forgivable, the voice said, a dry rasp in his mind. We too have lost kin in this conflict.
Carl stopped a few yards away from the grate. "I'm sorry," he said, in English. The city's magical underlife had been quiet for many months. He realized, now, how unusual it was not to have caught a glimpse of a dun mouse fading into invisibility as he got off a subway train, or a skinwing at dusk, circling the trees in Central Park and squabbling with the pigeons for space.
We are all trapped by our natures, the voice said. Carl was unsure whether it had understood him or not. I will give you this thing, but it must be a trade, and for something of worth.
Carl's hand tightened on the ball. Hand it over for something he probably didn't want? But if he wasn't going to be a wizard anymore, it didn't matter if he lost the shield, or, for that matter, if he took whatever the creature was offering him...
Something human, it hissed.
Carl's head spun, dizzily, with thoughts of maidens chained to rocks and bloody daggers, before his mind informed him briskly of just how ridiculous he sounded. He took his hand away from the wall, wiping God knew what on his jeans, and felt in his pockets.
A bus ticket, a scrap of paper with someone's phone number - his fingers touched something larger, and he pulled out a coin. An Eisenhower dollar, new-minted for the forthcoming bicentennial, an event he was as jaded about as any other New Yorker. This, however, he'd picked up as a keepsake. It had the moon on one side, standing in the shadow of the Liberty Bell, and it reminded him of his first few years of wizardry, when the moon and places far stranger were only a handful of words away. He'd gone to the moon the day after the Apollo 11 mission left it, floating in a sphere of captured air over the Mare Tranquillitatis and looking at the distant traces of disturbances in the dust, reluctant to go any closer. Even at this distance he could see the wire-stiffened flag the Eagle's crew left behind, slewed sideways by the exhaust from the ascent engines; a fragile reminder of an impossible achievement. A dozen words, the air slamming shut behind him, and Carl was back in New York two days before the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific.
He leaned forward and put the coin down at the edge of the grate, moon-side up, and moved back again. After a moment the grate itself creaked, protesting, and two clawed feet thrust themselves up and between the bars. The fireworm's head followed, black tongue flickering out to taste the air, and then with another heave, and a creak, it squeezed its body through to sit on the grille, flanks moving in and out with the effort. It was a smallish worm, given the intelligence Carl had heard in its voice, barely the size of a cat, and its brownish flanks were striped with old scars.
I'm a runt, wizard, the fireworm said, as if it had heard Carl's thoughts. Your trade is acceptable, it added, and bent its head to spit out something small and glittering, reaching out with one foot as it did so to secure the dollar and drag it back. It dipped its head to pick it up and turned to squeeze itself back through the grate.
"Is that - wait,' Carl said, moving forwards, but it was gone.
He leaned down to pick up the thing, damp from the worm's mouth. A battered gold heart - a locket - with a broken loop at the top where it had come off its chain. He went to flip the thing open with his nail and paused.
That belongs to your kind, the fireworm had said.
He wrapped the locket in a tissue and stowed it away again. He'd take it to the Grand Central shield tomorrow, opening it only once he'd interrogated it with all of the Speech he could command...
He was giving up wizardry.
Carl stalked back out of the alleyway. He'd mail the damn thing to Indira, with a note, and she could -
There was a dull percussive thump behind him, and the rattle of debris falling from the nearest wall. A woman near Carl looked up, puzzled, and a small brown terrier standing in a shop doorway started yapping.
Carl spun on his heel, knowing already what he'd see. The alleyway was a dozen steps behind him. As he reached it the smell of burning garbage stung his nostrils, and the trashcans themselves sagged on their bases, half-melted. Ahead the grate shone a dull red, rapidly cooling, and the whole alley was coated in a thin grey film of ash.
He leaned over the grate, reaching out with all his senses.
"Worm?" he said, in the Speech. If it was a trap, it had already been sprung.
Silence. He reached out as far as he could, and found nothing moving in the small access tunnels below, down and down, until suddenly he reached the clattering rush of a subway and the human minds shining within it, unaware.
"Worm?" he said, again, but without much hope.
Another trap, another death. Better if he hadn't known.
His apartment door was wide open, the sounds of a record player cranked up past acceptable distortion drifting out into the hall, along with the sweet fug of marijuana. Carl didn't recognize any of the people he pushed past to get into the room until he found Ralph, sitting cross-legged in the middle of Carl's stripped mattress, bedding piled up behind him, explaining something to a skinny blond teenager sprawled adoringly at his feet.
"Ralph," Carl said.
Ralph looked up. There was a brief flash of something dark and angry in his eyes, and then he smiled, and beckoned Carl on to the bed.
"Our host!" he said.
Carl shook his head and stayed standing.
"You left me the key," Ralph said, coyly. "I knew you wanted something special."
"You said you'd drop it off later," Carl said.
Ralph waved at the crowd. "And here we are." He reached out, hooking two fingers into the waistband of Carl's jeans.
"This is Romeo," he said to the teenager. "I don't always know wherefore he fucking art, if you get me, but he's pretty good when he's here. You should try him."
He tugged at Carl. Carl resisted easily, and put a hand down to push Ralph away.
"Are you leaving anytime soon?" Carl asked. Six words in the Speech, and he could blast them all from the room.
Ralph pouted. "You always ask that," he said.
Someone bumped into Carl with a muttered apology, spilling beer on his shoes, and the floor. Not the first stains, either. The apartment was tiny, the shared bath down the hall was filthy, and it was still more than he could afford.
Carl looked at Ralph. "Fine," he said.
"You'll stay?" For a moment, a hint of real emotion broke through again.
"I'm leaving," Carl said. There was little enough here for him, anyway; he kept anything valuable extradimensionally, accessible inside the shield. "Keep the key. Rent's due Thursday."
He pushed out through the crowd, not looking back. He heard Ralph cough, and then the noises of someone trying to get up from a mattress in a hurry.
"Carl - wait - "
Carl went down the stairs at a near-run and kept going, picking streets at random.
He ran himself out somewhere on 10th Avenue and stumbled to the side of the street, head down, chest heaving, and stayed there until the black spots cleared from his vision.
He spent 31 cents on a soda and considered. Go back to Grand Central, and say he'd reconsidered that whole renouncing thing, at least until Monday? Call his parents and say, look, I helped kill your other son, I'm a fag and I can't even do magic tricks anymore, but how about a bed? Show up early - very early - at his new job and sleep in the toilets?
He'd never had much money, but he'd had options. And friends. Somehow, he'd managed to lose both.
Carl went to put his change into his pocket and found something he'd missed before.
The theatre ticket. He glanced at the clock in the grocery store. He had twenty minutes to get there.
He was five minutes late, but when he stumbled down the stairs (no usher; he'd just gone in, still clutching his ticket) there was still nothing happening on stage. The theatre was large, the chairs battered and sagging, and the handful of other audience members had all clustered together in the centre. Carl sat down near the back of the clump, near an impeccably dressed older woman who was reading a magazine, and was slightly startled when he got there to realize it was a Playboy. When she saw him noticing her she thrust the magazine out to arms' length, holding it sideways, and studied it intently, darting quick glances to the side to check for his reaction. A man and a woman, further away, were discussing, loudly, the likely failings of this play and their own infinitely superior (if unproduced) creations, a girl at the front sat tensely watching the stage, face expectant, and an older man behind Carl snored gently, head tipped back over his seat.
Carl figured that, at the worst, he could follow the man's example. His father had loved theatre, but with six kids it was difficult to go as a family, and it'd never done much for Carl in school, especially when they'd done Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade and he'd had to fight back against any number of stupid jokes about his name. He'd seen a couple of experimental plays when he was dating a guy from the local performing arts college, and liked the energy and the enthusiasm (both on and off stage), but found the stories themselves pretty incoherent.
It occurred to him that he had no idea what this play was. He held up his ticket, squinting at the blurred and crumpled letters, and the lights went out.
" - failure of the monopolistic intent," the male auteur said loudly. Someone shushed him.
The curtains parted. A spot came up, shakily, and a man in nothing but a precariously tied sheepskin stomped onto the stage and announced something in a language Carl had never heard before. Three scantily dressed women followed him onto the stage and flung themselves at his feet adoringly, reciting his virtues in a giggly, if comprehensible, counterpoint, and the sheepskin-clad man stared nobly off into the distance. When they finished he began again, stomping around the stage, declaiming his own achievements in rather painful blank verse, and occasionally tripping over one of the women.
"No braver man than I stands here today," he said finally, setting his hands firmly on his hips and glaring at the audience.
The girl at the front burst into a flurry of claps. Another woman, draped in blue, swept onto the stage and began washing her hands very obviously in a basin she'd brought with her.
A bunch of people came into the theatre, arguing in a low-voiced and amicable fashion about bus routes, and gradually dispersed themselves. One of them passed Carl a photostatted program and as the lights came up slowly, and the woman washing her hands spoke more loudly, he was able to make out the title.
"The Epic of Gilgamesh" it said. "Translation by Harrison March (with assistance from some earlier contributors). Script by Harrison March. Production by Zikru Productions, Limited (a Harrison March company). Lead and title role, Harrison March." In smaller letters, inside, under a picture of the man currently surveying the audience, there was a brief acknowledgement of a smattering of other assistance under the headings, "Other Cast" and "Crew".
The elderly woman with the Playboy tapped his shoulder. Carl twisted round.
"Do you want this?" he whispered, holding out the program.
She took it. "It's terribly inaccurate," she said, in a clear and carrying voice. "I do, however, hope the sex scenes will be realistic."
Carl coughed. The female auteur twisted round. "Realistic?" she said, equally loudly. "It's almost as badly choreographed as the fight scenes. And they only sleep with women."
The two women locked glares. Carl slid down in his seat, biting his tongue, and focused on the stage.
The woman washing her hands had done something - Carl thought, untangling the inverted sentences, she'd created someone to take on Harrison - and swept off the stage, tipping her bowl out triumphantly and drenching one of the flung women.
"And lo," Harrison March said, sounding rather annoyed. "To here, who comes?"
It was as devastating as it was unexpected.
The man who arrived on stage was dressed in a skimpy orange tunic and knee high furry boots, and his shoulder length black hair was swept back with a gold Alice band. Despite this, or possibly even because of it, he was startlingly good-looking, tall and lean, and when he smiled, wide and joyful, something uncurled inside Carl in response with an almost painful tenderness.
"What cheer," the man said,
"Out of period," the male auteur hissed, but Carl could tell his heart wasn't in it.
Carl gave up all thought of sleeping and watched the man instead. He was good as well in his role as Enkidu, Gilgamesh's rival and companion, dragging all the others up around him into better performances, giving the dialogue some credibility, and even softening Harrison from his stiff poses, playing up to him so shamelessly that he ultimately unbent. He switched from wild and naïve to loyal and devoted in a heartbeat, and made it obvious to everyone that he loved Gilgamesh with every cell of his body, but not without acknowledging his faults and being determined to make him take responsibility for them. He did, however, as the female auteur promised, only sleep with women, and - to the evident disappointment of the elderly woman - only briefly, and beneath billowing robes. Carl caught a glimpse of one tightly muscled thigh, when Enkidu jumped down beneath a papier-mâché bull, and wished it wasn't just acting, wished this wasn't just a brief respite in the slow plunge of his day...
And then Enkidu lay dying, and Carl waited impatiently for some trick to resurrect him. Instead, Harrison, face dry and empty, put one hand on Enkidu's chest and said, softly, "You have turned dark and do not hear me."
The scene held there, Enkidu still and lifeless, Harrison frozen, and then the lights went out.
No one clapped. He could hear the girl in the front row sniffing. Finally, the elderly lady started clapping, slow and tentative, and gradually the rest of them joined in. The house lights went up again, the stage now concealed behind curtains. Some of the audience were getting up.
"Is this the end?" Carl whispered, unsure whom to ask.
"Oh God no," the female auteur said, twisting round in her seat. "Gilgamesh is now overwhelmed by his own mortality and seeks eternal life, in bad pentameter and with gratuitous sex, only to lose it through his own carelessness and go back to building walls." She stood up, reaching for her bag, and straightened up to meet Carl's eyes.
"He'll be back for the curtain call," she said, mouth twisted in a half-smile. "If I were you, I'd just head over to Gallagher's now. The cast always end up there anyway, and even the shit they call beer there is less painful than the second half."
Carl lifted one shoulder in a shrug, unwilling to admit he'd been that obvious. The woman edged out of her seat, still smiling.
He ended up following her, at a reasonable distance, and watched as she crossed the road to the bar. For a moment, he considered it, and the whole thing unreeled in his head with a dizzying inevitability: waiting for Enkidu, whoever he was, approaching him, engaging in that careful dance of attraction and uncertainty, perhaps putting one hand on his shoulder as he pushed in at the bar, the risk adding spice to the challenge...
And then what? Even if Enkidu was gay (and he'd been burnt by actors before), where would they go? Back to Carl's apartment, with his on-again, off-again boyfriend and a dozen of their most casual friends? And no matter how good it might be (he pushed away the brief, but explicit, constellation of images his mind presented him with), tomorrow, Enkidu would be gone ("From California," the voice in the ticket office had said. "Last performance,") and Carl would still be here. He had to settle for what he had. Little enough.
He turned away from the bar, folding over the program in order to shove it into his jacket pocket, next to his manual. Behind him, someone said, voice shaking, "I thought you were dead."
When Carl turned he saw Cecily, standing on the edge of the sidewalk staring at him. She looked as if she were about to faint, but when he took a step towards her she flung up one hand, warding him off, and he stopped.
"Cecily?" he said. It was odd to see her without Indira, like seeing a shadow without its object. "Are you okay?"
She shook her head, whether in impatience or denial he couldn't tell. "Indira said," she said, keeping her arm out. "Indira said there'd been another explosion, and she was very sorry."
"I'm not dead," Carl said, trying to sound reassuring. It hadn't occurred to him anyone would have picked up on the explosion. And why Indira would have thought - his hand was still in his jacket pocket. "Didn't you check your manual?"
Cecily shook her head again. "It said Pending Dissociation," she said. "I thought that might mean you were blown into pieces. So I did a spell to find you, and it said you were here. I came here to look for the pieces." She stared at him, obviously still not convinced.
Carl rubbed his chin. "That's - " Disturbing, he wanted to say. "It's good you were worried about me," he tried, instead. "I'm okay, though."
Cecily let her arm drop. "I hate this place," she said. She looked exhausted, her skin grey and dull.
"You should go back to Grand Central," Carl said. Something occurred to him. "You used a spell to find me?"
"I was in the shield," Cecily said. Her gaze drifted off, behind Carl's shoulder. He didn't follow it. He'd rarely seen Cecily do any magic outside of the group workings, where she usually allowed Indira to draw on her power for her. Usually, the youngest wizards were the most powerful, and certainly Cecily's initial ratings had reflected this, but her apparent power had dropped precipitously after her Ordeal. He must have upset her very much to draw her out from Grand Central, let alone on the strength of her own spell.
"I'm sorry, Cecily," Carl said. He didn't have anything else to offer her in explanation. He was leaving, after all.
This reminded him, and he dug in his pocket for the gift from the fireworm.
"Here," he was saying, when Cecily flung her head up, staring at a point behind Carl.
" Leaving already?"
Carl knew who he was going to see before he spun round. He was right: the soft Californian drawl came from Enkidu, standing just behind him at the edge of the foyer. He'd changed, at least partly; jeans and shirt instead of the tunic, but he'd kept the ridiculous furry boots, and he still had traces of his stage make-up on. He smiled at Carl, open and welcoming.
"It's only intermission," he said. "You can't go halfway through."
Carl took his empty hand out of his pocket. He glanced at Cecily, who had retreated behind her hair again. He really should take her back to Indira.
"Someplace to be," he said, unable to keep the reluctance out of his voice. "You were great, though."
Enkidu shrugged. "It's an easy part," he said. "Everyone loves the noble sidekick who dies."
"Rough on the sidekick," Carl said.
Enkidu held out a hand. "Tom Swale," he said. Carl took it, feeling the shock of skin-on-skin contact, and found himself meeting Tom's considering gaze. Not the standard appraisal he was used to from the bars; this felt more like he was being measured against something, and he wasn't sure he came off well. He shook the man's hand, suddenly cautious, and opened his mouth to introduce himself.
This time, the interruption came from Cecily. "You never mean it," she said bitterly.
"Cecily?" He turned. She was retreating back down the street, slowly at first, then faster.
"Is she all right?" Tom said. He'd let go of Carl's hand, and was looking past him at Cecily with the same intently focused expression.
An actor's interest, maybe. "Not really," Carl said. "I better-" He twisted back. Cecily was already at the corner.
He'd taken half a dozen strides before he realized Tom was keeping pace with him. Startled, he missed his step and stumbled. Tom grabbed his arm to steady him, bringing them both to a stop, face to face. Pedestrians walked past them, uncaring.
"Look, I'm flattered," Carl said, pulling his arm free. He felt a brief stab of regret, but he was worried about Cecily. Up ahead, he thought he caught a flash of her T-shirt, passing a newsstand. "But not now, okay?"
Tom opened his mouth and shut it again, looking frustrated. "Wait," he said, but Carl was already moving. He cut across the street, forcing a cab to swerve and honk at him, and reached the newsstand.
Nothing. People moved past him, retreating into the distance, but none of them looked like Cecily. He'd lost her.
He shouldn't have expected anything else.
At that moment Tom arrived again, not even breathing heavily, and Carl turned on him, anger amplified by his own guilt at being distracted.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he asked, his voice increasing in volume with every word. He could see people around them turning to look.
Tom, however, seemed unruffled. "Sorry," he said. He reached out for Carl's hand and Carl, bewildered, his anger absorbed rather than reflected, let him take it.
"I should have thought this through," Tom said. "But I have a bad tendency towards - errant behavior." As he spoke his thumb traced shapes on Carl's palm, firm and definite. Two words in the Anglicized form of the Speech, Carl realized slowly, as Tom finished and let go. Dai stiho.
A wizard on errantry. Not personal interest, then, that had led him to stop Carl.
"You should have said," Carl said.
Tom looked apologetic. "I read all the advisories," he said. "It's difficult to work out exactly what I can do, and I wasn't completely sure about you..."
"Cecily's a wizard, too," Carl said abruptly.
Tom grimaced. "I wasn't sure about her either."
Carl wondered, briefly, what Tom had thought of them both.
"I have to find her," he said. "She's upset, and she might -"
Do something foolish. Like renounce her magic.
"Take the other side of the street," he said to Tom, leaving his sentence unfinished. His decision, after all, was hardly the result of a sudden impulse. "Yell if you see anything, okay?"
Something else occurred to him."Aren't you supposed to be in a play?"
The corner of Tom's mouth twisted in a smile. "Harrison thinks it will be more poignant if the cast put down flowers in an outline of my body," he said. "He may even deliver a eulogy."
Despite himself, Carl felt an answering twitch of amusement.
They searched half a dozen blocks, moving rapidly and checking side streets, before they met up at West 23rd, with no sign of Cecily. Carl felt strangely happy to be doing something active, something that didn't involve spending four hours arguing over theory and then deciding to do something else anyway. Maybe the ordinary was preferable to wizardry.
Tom was looking at the bottom of one of his boots. "Not, alas, what they're intended for," he said. He put his foot back down again. "It shouldn't be this difficult. Should we go to Grand Central, and work within the shield?"
Carl felt immediate resistance to the idea. He didn't want to face them all again, or explain what he was doing with Tom - even if he knew. But he was worried about Cecily, still. He no longer trusted Indira to calm her down.
"We do have other methods of communication," Carl said, feeling for a dime. He could see a phone booth up ahead.
One of the wizards killed at LaGuardia had a daughter who worked at Grand Central, and acted as a mail drop and phone board. It took Carl a few minutes for her assistant to find her, and he tucked the receiver under one ear and watched Tom watching the world go by. He looked almost too real, as if he was still under a spotlight. Good-looking, and a wizard - no chance, Carl thought, as someone picked up the phone and said "Hold on again. I gotta try the back,", that he would be gay as well, or interested in Carl as anything other than a native guide.
Annis finally picked up. She'd seen Cecily come in about ten minutes ago - "face like a stormcloud" and go through "to the back area. The special one." Carl, relieved and surprised, thanked her and put down the phone, as Tom uncurled himself from the wall and came over.
By unspoken consent they kept walking, heading west, this time both on the same side. After another two blocks Carl finally thought of something to say.
"So you're a wizard," he said, and could have slapped himself.
Tom nodded, his hair flopping into his face. "Although I don't feel like one much at the moment," he said, pushing it back. "How do you live like this?"
"You get used to it," Carl said, automatically, and then considered. "Actually, you don't. It pretty much sucks."
"At least you can get out of here," Tom said. At Carl's blinked surprise, he continued. "You've still got Penn, right?"
Carl shrugged. "I suppose." He stepped sideways out of the path of a particularly determined poodle, tugging its owner behind. Tom ushered her through with an expansive wave.
"I haven't been out of the city for - " Carl counted. "Two years? Maybe three?"
"Not at all?" Tom sounded appalled.
"I'm on the gate team," Carl said. He tried to describe his work - his past work - without getting caught up in who'd said what and when. "I've been working on the gate's chronological parameters. Indira - the Advisory - thinks we should be able to dislocate the gate from the timestream and get it back to when it was functional."
"And?" Tom asked. He was studying Carl again.
"I think it's impossible," Carl said, bluntly. He was junior enough, he knew that, but there were things you couldn't do no matter how much power or experience you had.
"I think we should get rid of the traps first, but the others think we need a safe line of access. Meanwhile, the cats think they can rebuild the worldgate somewhere else, this visiting gate specialist thinks we can force it to spawn a new one as a replacement, and... oh, I forget. Everyone has their own brilliant idea."
He walked on a few more steps before speaking again. "And one group tried to move the gate, last Christmas - you probably heard about that."
"I did," Tom said. "I'm sorry."
They had reached the end of the street. Carl took them down towards the edge of the river, through the tangle of roading work to pick their way along one of the the abandoned piers, stopping when they reached the railing. He hadn't been here for ages.
"I work with Ae'mhnuu, the cetacean Senior, occasionally," Tom said, looking out over the Hudson in the fading light. Carl, standing next to him, could feel the heat coming off his body.
"He says Indira won't let him back in the harbor here. Says it's too dangerous."
"It is dangerous," Carl said.
"He is a Senior,"
"We haven't really had time for the nonhuman wizards here," Carl said. Tom was suddenly still next to him.
"Haven't had time?" he said finally.
Carl remembered the fireworm. It felt like something that had happened a long time ago, something that didn't matter much anymore. He stared at Tom, startled.
"No," he said. "No, that's wrong. I'd forgotten them. Not just the fireworms, and the other underlife, but the whales as well."
Tom's gaze held his, encouraging him to continue.
"Not just nonhumans," Carl said. He couldn't remember the last friendly conversation he'd had with Indira, or the last time he'd thought that she might have a point. Even now, almost everything he'd said to Tom had been a complaint about someone else... All of them, cut off from each other, thinking only of themselves. "You're the first wizard from outside I've seen in months. And not just wizards."
The headline from the New York Post in last October - Ford to City: Drop Dead - swam in his mind's eye, a message from a vindictive Magic 8-Ball.
Tom didn't look surprised.
"What is it?" Carl said. He'd felt hollow before. Now he felt as if someone had poked him, cracking his fragile shell. He wasn't sure what was left. "What's happening?"
Tom spread his hands, eyes still on Carl. "Last November," he said, "I ran into a wizard who'd been through New York. Not on errantry, just visiting family. She hadn't been able to meet up with any wizards for the whole week she was there; she said she saw people she thought might be wizards, but she couldn't use the Speech, and they just ignored her when she asked. She was unnerved by the whole thing, but when I saw her she just put it down to big city behavior and paranoia from the attacks.
"And then I talked to Ae'mhnuu and thought, that's not just paranoia, that's stupidity. I talked to my Advisory, who said that according to the manual, things were bad, but under control, and the New York Advisory saw no need for additional assistance. Then she said, if you're concerned, though, the manual isn't everything. Follow your hunch."
"Which you did," Carl said.
Tom nodded. "My specialty's research," he said. "Mainly as background for new spells. So I assumed this was a spell, and worked out how I would do it. It took quite a while."
"But it's possible." Carl shivered.
"It's something a wizard can do, if they chose to bind themselves that way," Tom said. He sounded reluctant
"A wizard? Not the Lone Power?"
Tom nodded stiffly.
Carl looked away, out over the river. The wind was cold against his face.
"I said this morning I was going to renounce my wizardry," he said. "I planned to be doing it right now."
"Magic does not live in the unwilling heart," Tom said.
The sun had crept out of sight entirely, behind another skyscraper.
"Do you know who?" Carl said, finally.
Tom cleared his throat. "How far are we from Penn Station?"
Carl took him there. He kept trying to think about what Tom had said, but he would just have it fixed in his mind when it slipped away, replaced with the idea that he shouldn't be here, that he should be in Brooklyn, preparing to say goodbye. He had to retrace their steps twice when he kept turning south.
Inside Penn they went through a "Danger: Authorized Personnel Only" door, and the shield sank through them, cool and penetrating. Carl shook himself, violently, like a dog coming out of the water.
"Why Penn?" he said.
"You need to get out of here," Tom said. "Besides, I have dinner plans."
"Dinner plans?" Carl said, but Tom refused to be drawn.
The gate was in operation, shedding light off the walls as it spun lazily in the centre of the gate room. A tabby queen was watching from a nearby platform, ears pricked forward and alert. Carl recognized her from his early work with the gates.
"Ghaairah," he said. The tabby turned her head.
Ghaairah remembered him, too, and more fondly than Carl had feared. We hardly ever see you ehhif anymore, she said, gesturing with a paw to one of her subordinates and nodding to another almost without taking a breath. And I heard from Wroaah, whose head is obviously more stuffed with wool than usual, that you were no longer of our tribe.
Carl watched the cats tugging on the hyperstrings, their movements almost invisibly quick and graceful. "I changed my mind," he said in the Speech.
I am pleased, she said. Wroaah will also be pleased.
"Are you sure?" Carl said, and then remembered the cat's farewell to him, that morning. Ghaairah looked at him, green eyes sharp. We do not, any of us, she said, always say what we mean, or feel.
Carl had been absently watching Tom, over talking to one of the other cats. He jerked his head sideways to see Ghaairah open her jaws in a white-toothed cat laugh.
"Thanks," he said. "Please tell Wroaah I'm glad to be back, too."
Ghaairah dipped her head in acknowledgement. Where do you wish to go?
Tom looked round. "Just a moment," he said, and said something in the Speech, coaxing space to unfold itself in a small localized area, and pulling out a thick book.
"Your manual?" Carl said.
Tom nodded. "All my research is in it," he said. "This seemed safer. But not having it with me - brr." He grinned again, and Carl couldn't help smiling in return.
"Where are we going?' he asked.
"LA, for a start," Tom said. "And then the Crossings."
"The Crossings?" Carl said, but Ghaairah was already sketching lines on the scarred floor with one sharp foreclaw.
If you can get to LA in the next ten minutes, she said, there is a large scheduled cargo transmission to the Crossings that I can connect you to. This will save energy.
Tom was already flipping through his manual. "The Crossings, then," he said, and shifted his accent suddenly into that of a child's, English upper-class. "And back by tea-time!"
Carl grinned. "Sadly," he said, not even trying for an accent. "I drink coffee. So we may never get home..."
They were just about to leave when Ghaairah remembered another message from Wroaah, this one about the Stationmaster of the Crossings, who'd been sending increasingly irritated requests for a New York wizard to attend to an urgent matter, in person.
While you're there, she said, checking their calculation with a careful eye. All right.
Tom started speaking and Carl joined in, feeling the lightness that came from working in unison, on a familiar spell that still contained enough to be challenging. He fell silent for the seventeen syllables that made up Tom's name, which felt both strange and familiar, and then stated his own, hearing it also as if for the first time. Energy surged around them, the gate reaching out to their own spell, like a cat stretching out a paw, scooping them up and batting them away with unbelievable ease...
LA was a hazy impression of afternoon sun on pastel houses, palm trees and a small black cat complaining that wandering gates were bad enough without being expected to pick up hitch-hikers, and they were flung out again, this time wrapped entirely in gate magic, teasing at Carl's own like a itchy blanket. A much longer jump, energy hissing in Carl's ears as they swept outwards, stars exploding against his eyes in the pitch black, faster and faster, and further... and they were there, on the floor of the Cargo Centre at Rirhath, swarms of cargo workers already moving in to take the boxes they'd traveled with ("Chocolate," Ghaairah had said, when asked. "Don't see the point myself, but a number of other species besides you ehhif seem to like it.")
Out in the Crossings proper Rirhath's sky shone brightly overnight, a dark velvet lit with thousands of bright jewels, stars pulsing into life and fading again. Lower, under the actual roof, a small skein of white clouds drifted past, the building massive enough to have developed its own weather system.
When Tom expressed a polite enquiry in the Speech the floor lit up with a colored path to the Stationmaster's office, and they followed it.
"Why here, anyway?" Carl said.
Tom stopped while a TKrait and all its litter sibs undulated past.
"I came here for the first time on Ordeal," Tom said, checking that the last and smallest sibling had made it through. "I thought I was really special, doing magic, and then I got here and realized I was one of millions. Billions."
"Humbling," Carl said. He remembered the first time he'd thought to check his manual for life on other planets, thinking vaguely about Star Trek re-runs and a benevolent humanity bringing peace to the cosmos, and within the first two pages had had his concept of his place in the universe thoroughly shaken out and restored to more modest proportions.
"Yeah," Tom said. They were in a zone for disembodied intelligences. Colors swept past - and through - them, on their way to even more strange destinations, a deep bass note thrummed through the soles of Carl's feet, and as he took his next step an eye-wateringly bitter scent of lime entered his nostrils. Next to him, Tom sneezed.
"Reassuring, too," Tom said, when they were over the demarcation line, the stationmaster's kiosk visible ahead. "We're not alone."
Carl grimaced. "Did you bring me here for a moral lesson?"
Tom ran a hand through his hair. "Not exactly," he said, sounding unoffended. "I wanted to get you out of the city, and there's a great restaurant here."
"I - " Carl stopped himself. He wanted to ask if this was a date, but he didn't want to know the answer. As far as Tom was concerned, Carl was a magically depressed and forgetful wizard who kept staring, and he didn't think telling Tom his relationship track record would help. Working with him was fun, and for the first time in ages Carl was actually doing something useful with his powers. That would have to be enough.
"Do you even know my name?" he said suddenly.
Tom rolled his eyes. "What spell did we just do?" he said, teasing, but there was affection in it as well.
"Oh," said Carl.
"I probably know more about you than you think," Tom continued. "Given that I found you with a spell."
It confirmed Carl's suspicions.
"I asked," Tom said, "for the next wizard who would renounce wizardry, without it being their own free choice. I wasn't sure, when I stepped out of the theatre, who it was."
He was standing very close. Carl looked down at the blue glowing path at their feet, seeing Tom's furry boots next to his polished black ones.
"Tell me what wizardry is like for you," Carl said.
One of the boots shifted sideways a fraction, as if the owner wasn't quite sure. Then, Tom started talking, using the Speech.
Carl fell into the words, the eternally familiar and new sounds, a perfect fusion of precision and beauty, and saw Tom, standing on a white sand beach at night, the wind chill against his skin, watching a humpback whale breach in the water in front of him, and beginning to speak, his voice mixing with the whalesong as they exchanged information, the whale's tone full of rough affection, chiding Tom for not coming into the water this time, a calf afraid to dive too deep; a switch, then, and Carl fell through the turbulent, opaque winds of another world, into the eye of a storm on a frozen planet, where life huddled for a fragile safety in the shallows of liquids only kept from solidifying by the intense pressure, bringing with him the data needed to prevent their weather patterns from spiraling into ever more destructive storms, necessary after one of the Lone Power's agents had nudged a satellite off course ten years earlier; and on Earth again, in front of a class of bored twelve year olds, teaching drama, gradually coaxing the shy ones into speech, the show-offs into control and real emotion, the bored into interest, noting one girl at the back who took part, and enjoyed it, but took any spare chance she had to dig out a paperback from her satchel and sit huddled over it for a few brief seconds, Le Guin, Heinlein, Sturgeon, and mention her name to the area wizard who watched over potential candidates... These, and more, and more...
"Coming through!" something yelped, and Carl, dazed, stumbled backwards, as twenty or more small icebergs, each on what looked like roller skates, zoomed through between him and Tom. The iceberg bringing up the rear had a large woolly hat on it, with pompoms.
He looked up, still not entirely sure where he was, and saw Tom watching him.
"Thanks," he said. It felt hopelessly inadequate.
."Finally," someone said, and Carl shifted to see the distinctive figure of the Stationmaster, hooked up in its rack behind its counter. "Earth Wizards. Come here."
It was not a tone that brooked argument.
"But it's not mine," Carl said.
The Stationmaster leaned heavily on the counter, all its eyestalks swiveling. "I don't care," it said. "It's addressed to Grand Central Terminus, Earth, and that worldgate is dysfunctional, estimated time of repair unknown. Your worldgate team has been no help in redirection, the return address is unaccountably missing and if this - thing - stays here one day longer inflicting reckless damage on station property I will personally transmit it to one of the unchartable dimensions, which would do nothing for my reputation, so it's yours."
"Your transit to Holding is there," the Rirhait said, firmly, gesturing, and returned to tapping on its screen. Carl hesitated, but it refused to look up. Something beeped behind him, and he turned to see a knee-high robot, holding up a ticket that something seemed to have taken a large bite out of.
The Transit flung them into a huge room lined with thousands of small white doors, accessible by hundreds of crawling ladders, with pale clouds drifting around overhead.
"Which one?" Tom said, but one of the Crossing's staff was already bustling towards them, antennae twitching. It took them through one of the nearer doors, murmuring politely for them to duck, and down a short corridor to another door, this one of thick translucent glass. Something shifted behind it, an ominous shadow.
"Press button for release," the staff member said, and whisked itself off. The door hissed shut behind it, and Carl could hear the click of locks snapping into place.
"I've booked the restaurant for eight," Tom said, leaning against the wall of the corridor. "Local time, so you've got at least forty minutes to open the door, vanquish the creature from the noxious depths and arrive, triumphant, in time for breadsticks."
"I had planned on changing first," Carl said. There were two buttons next to the door, one purple and one orange.
"Half an hour, then," Tom said equably.
Carl put one hand up against the door. "You're ready to open now, aren't you?" he said in the Speech. "But slowly, and you'd close again straight away if I asked."
He felt the door's wordless agreement - equipment in places like the Crossings was often quite sentient, as such things went - and felt, also, a deep click inside the door. It swung slowly into the room.
Carl had one hand on his ball of wire, clipped to his belt, and could feel Tom beside him, readying something similar. As the door opened fully he saw debris, first, on the floor of the cell, and then realized that what he was seeing was the floor itself, ripped up by something, fragments of plates and wires scattered haphazardly around. The walls, too, were scarred and battered.
In the centre of the room was a pile of rubble, and sitting on top of it, head tilted to one side, studying them with beady black eyes, a scarlet-and-blue-and-yellow macaw. As Carl and Tom stared at it, it lifted one foot, scratched its tummy and put the foot back down again.
"About time," it said, voice rasping.
Tom coughed. "Did you say something?" he said.
The bird glared at him. "Tweet," it said, and began moving down its pile of rubble, beak over claw.
"The Stationmaster said it was cargo," Carl said. "Who sent you?" he asked in the Speech.
The macaw had made its way down from the pile and was picking its way over the floor, swiveling to keep its magnificent tail up out of the dust. At Carl's question, it looked up, briefly, and then down again. A few more steps, and it was in the doorframe, next to his feet. Staring - Carl was pretty sure - at his bootlaces.
"Oh no you don't," Carl said, and reached down. He'd intended to scoop it up, but the macaw jumped as his arm came down, and ended up sitting on his wrist like a particularly gaudy falcon. Carl lifted his arm back up in front of him, studying the bird.
"Did you do all this?"
The macaw shut its eyes. "Tweet tweet," it said, and nothing Carl or Tom tried on it made it say anything else, whether they used the Speech or English (or Italian, when Carl tried - "Macaws are South American," Tom said. "And Spanish is like Italian," which did at least make the macaw open its eyes and stare at him in withering incredulity before shutting them again.). Carl's arm was starting to cramp.
"Dinner," he said suddenly.
A panicked expression crossed Tom's face. "Five minutes," he said, after consulting some inner clock. "Leave it here?"
"And come back to find the station half-eaten?" Carl swung the bird up, holding it next to his shoulder. "Hop on, you. My arm is going to sleep."
After a second the bird moved over, a soft warm presence next to his ear. Tom studied the pair of them.
"I could get you an eyepatch," he offered.
Carl shook his arm out in front of him. "Arr," he said, thoughtfully, trying it out, and Tom snickered.
The wait staff at the restaurant didn't even blink at the macaw. In fact, Carl had the distinct impression that they were concerned at Tom's lack of a similar bird, and wondering if they should offer their condolences. He sipped his glass of '86 Framian glacier wine, and looked across the table. Part of him didn't want to ruin the dinner by discussing the situation in New York, but he had, since coming to the Crossings, the suspicion that that part was gradually shrinking.
"You think it's one of us,"
Tom dipped a purple spongey thing in a thick yellow sauce that was slowly crawling out of its tray. "Mmm," he said. "Yes. I don't want to, but it explains quite a few things."
Carl looked down at his own plate, and forked up a few orange fern tendrils. They melted slowly on his tongue with a stinging saltiness, like a fine seaweed.
"The Speech-triggered traps?"
Tom scooped up more sauce. "Are you sure they're traps, and not direct attacks?"
Carl opened his mouth to answer that of course he was, he'd been near at least one himself - and closed it again, considering.
He needed his manual. He reached up to steady the macaw while he felt for it in his jacket.
"What should I call you, anyway?" he asked the bird. It nibbled his ear, gently - an odd sensation - but said nothing. He pulled the book out and put it on the table, pushing his plate aside.
Tom reached out to scratch the bird's head with one finger. "Machu Picchu," he said. The macaw twisted its head and nipped him. "Hey!"
"Bad bird," Carl said, with a cheerful lack of conviction. "Why?"
"An ancient place, full of great power," Tom intoned, sounding like the announcer on a science fiction film. "Well, that and the fact that when I think of South American - as in macaws - and ruins - as you are likely to encounter frequently with this particular bird - it all becomes obvious."
Carl snorted. "Machu Picchu," he said, reaching up with a finger to scratch the bird's front. "Any objections?"
The macaw snorted, sounding uncannily like Carl. "Tweet," it said, witheringly.
"Motion carried," Carl said.
The manual had few notes about the attacks, terse reports from the city's few - and overstretched - wizards. Indira's edict prohibiting use of the Speech outside shielded areas was surprisingly light on detail. Carl had known these things for so long he hadn't bothered to question them.
Carl flipped pages to the map of Manhattan. "Can we track the movements of known wizards against the attacks?" he said. He didn't want to think about who.
Tom shook his head. "Not retrospectively," he said. "At least, not without taking almost as long again. Too many variables, and mapping anything in New York at the moment is like working in a thick fog."
That was how, at the moment, the last year or so felt to Carl. He felt, now, as if he was waking up after a long winter, and realizing the world was still out there.
"What I don't have," Carl said, pushing his manual away, "is an explanation for is why the decisions of New York's Advisory in this matter have all been consistently bad."
A wait staff collected their plates, disposing of them by crunching them up in one of its mouths with every evidence of enjoyment.
Tom sipped his wine. "I agree," he said. "You know her, though."
"I like her," Carl said. "She's the first wizard I met after my Ordeal. She picked me up when I got into trouble on my first assignment - out on Ourob IV - and had to pull out. She seemed to know what to do, and she was friendly, and never got flustered." He poked at the anemone centerpiece in the middle of the table, letting it grab and release his spoon. "She hasn't been that person for a long time."
"The manual says her partner died." Tom pushed Carl's manual back towards him.
Carl nodded. "Three years ago. Nothing magical - Gareth had some knee surgery, an old football injury, and after the operation he got a blood clot in his lung. Completely unexpected. But she seemed okay, at least at first."
"Grief can be dangerous for wizards," Tom said, leaning back in his chair, eyes on Carl. "We tend to see it as a problem we should solve, rather than a process."
Carl paged absently through his manual, avoiding eye contact. "Mmm," he said. He found Tom's name under the list of New York wizards - "Visiting. On Assignment." - and wished, momentarily, that he could convince the manual to include a Personals column.
"You haven't found that?"
Carl shut the book with a snap. "You do make a habit of lecturing people," he said. It started out bitter, but his own childishness struck him halfway through, and he laughed. "Occupational hazard?"
He looked at Tom now. Tom looked relaxed enough, returning the banter, but Carl thought he could something more there, beneath the surface.
"I don't mean to lecture," Tom said, mildly. "I do like teaching, though."
Carl smiled. "And you act," he said. "Sing? Dance? Tap your way to stardom and a ginger-haired partner of your choice?"
Tom winced. "I had a misguided teenage crush on Gene Kelly,"
he said, sounding pained, "and I do not thank you for the sudden horrible flashbacks. I like acting, and I'm okay at it, but I'm not driven enough to keep on with it. I did some short pieces for the literary magazine in college, though, and not having to argue with a director or a cast of thousands is absolute bliss."
"You're more than okay at acting," Carl said. He caught Tom's gaze again, thinking about Gene Kelly, and grinned.
Tom grinned back. "I have the horrible suspicion that you're biased."
Before Carl could say just how biased he was, the wait staff returned.
A plate with a tiny detailed model of the Crossings, all in chocolate, was placed at Carl's elbow, with a matching one for Tom. One of the wait staff leaned in and tapped the anemone, making it glow softly, and - somehow - dimmed the lights above their table.
"We should talk to Indira," Carl said. He'd gathered himself in again, in the interval, and decided, regretfully, that sorting this situation out was more important than making heartfelt declarations, at least for the immediate future.
"She may be just affected by this thing, and not the cause."
"Dangerous if it is her." Tom said.
"More dangerous not to do anything."
"One of the problems with your city is people not asking for help when they need it."
Carl considered this. "How about the feline wizards? Or Ae'mhnuu?"
"Whatever this is definitely doesn't want the nonhumans," Tom said, "so I think we do. I believe I can dismantle the mood spell, as well, although I really need to know who the caster is. Or whatever they used to tether the spell, but needles in haystacks spring to mind."
"Any advice from you?" Carl said, reaching up to check on Machu Picchu. The bird butted his head, gently, and then he felt its weight shift as the macaw made its way back down his arm, claws gripping painfully, and onto the table. Too late, Carl realized where it was headed.
Beady gaze fixed on the chocolate model, the macaw tapped firmly. Chocolate snapped, and a thin cream oozed out. The macaw twisted its beak sideways to lap at it with its black tongue.
"You're a disgrace, Peach," Carl told it. The macaw blinked, unashamed.
Tom's expression was somewhere between amusement and repulsion.
"I'll save her full name for when she's really bad," Carl said. He reached out and stole a piece off of Tom's chocolate model, dipping it into the cream. "Thanks."
Tom waved a hand. "My scale model interdimensional portal is your stolen snack."
"So," Carl said, swallowing. The chocolate was delicious. "What are we going to do?"
The macaw slurped noisily. "Use your heart," she said.
"My heart?" Carl stared at her. "I wasn't actually looking for a feathered advice columnist, you know." He snuck a glance at Tom, anyway, who looked amused and, just possibly, a little flushed.
Tom snorted. "I think," he said. "We go back to LA, and contact Ae'mhnuu. He knows New York, and he knows your Advisory. There aren't any time critical factors I'm not aware of?"
Carl shook his head.
"Once whoever it is knows I'm trying to undo their spell," Tom said, "things are likely to become unpredictable."
"What do you need?" Carl asked.
Tom said a few quick phrases in the Speech, and objects tumbled out of the air in front of him. He bent over them, dark hair flopping down, and Carl dragged his gaze away from the nape of Tom's neck to the table.
Three cherry stones. The silver lady from a Rolls Royce. ("a fifty nine Silver Cloud," a small voice said proudly inside his head). A long thin pink feather, that Machu Picchu eyed attentively, and a series of sailors' knots, worked in two different colors. Carl could feel the energy lines distorting around them, each item picking up energy, twisting it and passing it to the next, transforming and amplifying.
Tom finished conducting some internal check and scooped them all up again in a napkin, folding it all neatly together.
Carl had his wire ball, his manual, and a lot of useless time spells. "I haven't been all that active recently," he began.
"You survived," Tom said, dark eyes intent.
Carl shrugged. Machu Picchu waddled across the table and stood there in front of him, obviously expecting to be picked up.
"Dinner's on me," Tom said, and Carl, remembering his financial situation, said "Oh, no," very weakly only once before agreeing. He felt better about it when Tom turned out to be owed a favor by one of the chefs, a three wheeled Tragian, who insisted on coming out to roll round Tom, thanking him, and pressing on him a small box of petit fours, and better again when the dispatch clerk at Gated Transit recognized Carl from a shift he'd done at the Crossings, over five years ago, and bumped their transit to the top of the line.
"I can see working with the worldgates has its perks," Tom said, as they waited for the final calculations to be made.
Carl chuckled. "The better you get, the less likely they are to let you leave..."
The gate reached out tendrils for them, two men and a macaw, checked their descriptions down to the last character and atom in the Speech, and flung them, completely known, into the boiling currents of energy that swept between the stars and the star systems, 11.4 light years back to Earth. Stars seethed behind Carl's eyes, harmonies and counterpoints sang in his ears, songs from the stars themselves, or the universe, and he felt lifted, carried -
Something squealed, harsh and close, a gate under unbearable strain, and he was yanked sideways, stretching, pulled apart across galaxies, tendons and nerves stretching, a pain like burning - he reached for Tom, and his arm traveled light years itself before finally brushing something, something that turned and held him; something squealed again, and he realized it was Machu Picchu, still on his shoulder, claws clamped tight. The weight of the macaw pulled him back to his body with a painful snap, Tom's fingers tight on his, and he was out, cold and gasping, dropping to all fours to vomit messily across an unnervingly familiar floor.
They were in Grand Central, in the gate room. And lucky to be alive, after a gate breach like that. He looked up, stomach still heaving, and saw Indira frowning, and Jex towering over her, primaries dark and rippling with agitation. He caught a glimpse of Cecily behind Jex. No cats.
Tom was on the floor beside him, groaning softly. Carl reached for his shoulder and felt a small, trembling bundle of feathers, and the rapid thump of a tiny heartbeat. He looked up at Indira again.
"Explain yourself," she said, voice cold.
Carl shook his head, and regretted it. "Where - " He twisted round. Behind them hung the patch of empty air that marked the Grand Central Worldgate. Not entirely empty, this time; faint ribbons of light ran through it, twisted and snarled in a way that hurt Carl's eyes to look at.
"I have suspected for some time one of my wizards was working against me," Indira said, face pale and stern. "I had suspected you - I had suspected everyone - but, when you said this morning you were renouncing wizardry, I knew I could remove at least one wizard from my list."
This morning. Carl tried to move one leg forward, to put weight on it, but he felt as if he was trying to stand on jelly.
"And then I hear you traveled through Penn, unauthorized, and with another outsider wizard."
Carl shook his head again, more carefully. The room swayed gently around him.
"I don't need to be authorized to use Penn," he said.
"I didn't know about it," Indira snapped. "That makes it unauthorized."
Slowly, his and Tom's plan was coming back to him. He looked at Tom again, worried he wasn't coming around.
Tom was lying curled up on his side. From this angle Carl could see that one of Tom's hands was resting on a folded napkin, and when he listened, carefully, he could hear words in the Speech, almost inaudible under the screech of the gate.
He had to distract Indira. "I went on a date," he said, and grinned. The grin didn't quite work - he still felt too sick for that - but it had some of the desired effect. Indira tipped her head to one side, as if trying to remember something. She'd always used to tease him about his men, and his inability to settle down, and he'd played up to her.
"That is not an authorized reason," she said. She sounded just a hair less certain than she had previously.
"It was a blind date," Carl assured her. "I had no idea until we actually left."
Jex's primaries ruffled. I am more concerned, he said, about your appearance through a gate that we all thought was nonoperational.
"So am I," Carl said, wide-eyed and sincere. "We left the Crossings headed for LAX. Personally, I'd always much rather have delays than redirects."
He could feel space beginning to firm around Tom, following particular routes and forms, crystallizing the possibilities. There was no way the others could fail to feel it.
"I forgot your birthday," he said to Indira. "Hold on a second."
He fumbled for his manual, dropped it once deliberately and once by accident, and began paging through, reading short chunks of spells as he went. It was a stupid thing to do, careless and even dangerous, but he needed time and camouflage.
"Stop that," Indira said sharply.
Carl ignored her. "Summoning tortoises of variable sizes... no, not that one... to reform substances squeezed from tubes... no ... to bound, within a nutshell, a king of infinite space... no... here it is." He wondered how far she would let him get through it. It was a short spell, only half a dozen phrases, with the only other requirement needed being that the caster held, or had held, a deep affection for the recipient. He held Indira's eyes with his own and spoke the words, expecting at any moment to be struck down.
The gate is wrong, Jex said, distressed. Indira, we need to help it.
She didn't move. Carl said the wizard's knot, tying off the spell, and in front of him was a single red long-stemmed rose.
It had been Gareth's own spell for her, one he'd written years ago.
"I can't pick it up," Carl said. "Sorry."
Indira bent down to take the rose; straightened up again. She looked lost, but when she lifted it to her nose to sniff the fragrance she looked more like herself than she had for a long time. He waited until she lowered the flower.
"What happened, Indira?" he asked.
She stared at him. Slowly, she opened her mouth to answer.
"It doesn't matter," a voice said, sharply. "Send him back through the gate. He shouldn't be here."
It wasn't Indira. Carl tried to get to his feet, again, and made it. Behind Indira Cecily pushed her hair back behind her ear and stared at him, her pale face full of emotion. Before he could say anything she pulled something from her neck and flung it on the floor, speaking one quick syllable in the Speech.
The worldgate sprang open behind him with an eldritch screech, spinning frantically and spilling light around the room, bright and dark flickering across everyone. Carl felt it reach for him; not a blanket, or friendly tendrils, but something that sought to grasp and destroy...
Jex cried out something in his own language and ran forward, whole body rippling. He pulled a handful of feathers out to throw them at the gate, which took them with a flare of orange, pulling back its tentacles. Jex was talking to it, fast and furious, but it kept spinning, faster and faster, the noise driving into Carl's head...
"What are you doing?" Indira said. She moved towards Cecily, but the girl held up something else, clutched tightly in her fist, and Indira stopped.
"I'll release the whole gate," she said. "It'll destroy the city, but if you make me, I'll do it."
Carl spread his hands. He couldn't hear Tom anymore, beneath the cries of the gate, but he hoped, somehow, there was still time.
"Please don't," he said. "I'll go, if you want."
Cecily stared at him. "You should have gone already," she said, her voice unsteady. "I told you. I warned you when you talked to that worm, even though you didn't use the Speech. I don't want to hurt you, but I've already counted you out, and that makes the numbers wrong. He's changed the numbers so many times, but if I get them wrong just once, it won't work."
"The cats will be here," Indira said. She still held her rose, not moving, but Carl could see something waking up in her eyes.
Cecily laughed, high and wild. "There are eight gate complexes trying to spawn on the concourse right now," she said. "Your cats have other things to worry about."
"What happens when the numbers are right?" Carl asked. He tried to make it sound like a casual enquiry, but he had to keep his fingers spread to stop them shaking. Indira should have seen this. They all should have.
Cecily shrugged. "I get her back," she said. Her hand went to her neck, as if clutching for something, and Carl tensed, but then she took it away again. "He promised."
"His promises are worthless," Indira said. "You know that."
Cecily's face creased. "They are not," she said, almost shouting, and flung whatever was in her hand straight ahead at the gate.
Carl lunged and missed. Jex, closer, flung himself across the gate opening, his spell still uncompleted. Something exploded, soundlessly, sending Carl back to his knees and making the whole room shudder.
Not enough, something said, quietly regretful, in Carl's head, and Jex was gone. The gate noise had gone, the room suddenly dim, and Carl could feel it at his back, caught on the edge, between the wild crazy spin Cecily had forced it into and the way it always used to be.
In the silence Tom's voice was suddenly loud. Cecily stepped forward, one hand scooping power from the air. Carl could see, suddenly, what she'd done, connecting herself and the gate; giving her almost limitless energy, locking their fates together...
"You can't get me that way," she said to Tom. "I'm not there."
She lifted her hand. Tom kept talking, eyes shut ("I ask that these energies be released, and directly, through these and only these modalities...") , and Carl could see his spell, intricate and beautiful, a carefully constructed cage, but one with nothing inside it. Tom was keeping it there and stable, hoping against the inevitable. He reached for the wire ball at his belt, ready to trigger the shield to cover Tom and himself. Against the full power of a worldgate it would be futile.
Machu Picchu, almost forgotten, shifted on Carl's shoulder and nipped his ear.
Carl caught the ball between index finger and thumb, and slid the rest of his hand into his pocket. His fingertips snagged on the broken ring of a golden locket.
He had the triggering syllable of the shield spell at his lips. He had other spells prepared, though, from his work with the gate, spells that had never worked, despite all his effort to master the theory of time displacement. He had a wizard's locket, given to him by a fireworm who had probably died to do so.
Use your heart, Peach had said.
He flipped the locket free of his pocket and dropped it towards Tom, curled at his feet.
"Here," Carl said, and said four syllables, each unlocking a cascade of pre-prepared words in his mind, bright curlicues of Speech, stating the parameters he needed to pull the locket free of time and send it back, taking them temporarily with it.
There were two of them, in a dark place underground. Shoulder to shoulder, sharing energy as well as the little magic they had left, breathing fast and quick, the sound not enough to drown out the skitter and hiss of whatever was coming down the tunnel, between them and the only way back home. They'd defeated the Lone Power, watched his agent snarl and dissolve, sealing one of the two holes into this twisted universe and making the other start to close. This should have been easy.
A shuddering rush in the dark, wizardlight glinting off teeth and claws only to fade. A desperate cry in the Speech that brought down the roof on their attackers, and one of themselves. The free one tore frantically at the rocks, not caring about her hands, until the howling started again and her twin reached out to her, wordless, and told her to go, before it was too late.
I'll get help, I won't leave you, I'll find someone...
She barely made it back before the hole closed, stumbling out into one of Manhattan's abandoned subway stations, ripping the locket from her throat and throwing it away, sobbing. And, as she staggered up the stairs, exhausted, a voice said, smoothly, I can help.
She didn't turn. But she hesitated.
The locket dropped into the centre of Tom's outstretched hand, and the core of his spell, triggering it into life, a spell that didn't create so much as redirect, smoothing the warped energies between Cecily and the worldgate, and through them to those running between wizards, and the city, and its people...
"No!" Cecily screamed. "No, you can't!"
Carl's lips shaped the trigger word of his shield spell, and Cecily let go of all the energies she'd held, the gate behind them flaring to unbearable brightness, all Carl's power sucked in with it, stripping him and Tom of any protection. The gate ripped at Tom, the closer of the two, greedily draining his wizardry.
"No." Indira's voice was calm, and clear. She held one hand out towards the gate, palm outward. The other, next to her side, held the rose. The gate wobbled, dimming. Cecily, caught between the two, looked back at Indira.
"You are more than one bad choice," Indira said. "I have missed many things, made many bad decisions, and I'll make more. Choose again."
She spoke in the Speech, not altering Cecily, or any of the things she'd done, but accepting them, and allowing the possibility of change.
Cecily's face crumpled. "I don't know," she said, tearful, and behind her, the gate hitched, and slowed, the wild lights fading, the intricate twists and turns of the Speech back in alignment.
Indira was talking to Cecily, but Carl didn't hear it. He'd dropped to his knees again, rolling Tom onto his back.
Tom's body was slack, and his face pale, eyes half-shut. "Tom," Carl said, shaking him slightly and reaching out to him with his other senses. To his alarm he saw only the ghost of an energy pattern, fading rapidly.
Tom, he said urgently. Come back.
He felt for a heartbeat with his hand. Nothing.
Something dropped onto Tom's chest and rolled down it, stopping next to Carl's hand. His grandfather's ball of wire, from his aborted shield spell. Something shifted closer to his ear, and made a soft throaty sound.
Carl put his hand over the ball, trapping it between him and Tom.
Tom, he said again, naming him in the Speech, all seventeen syllables, and the ball dissolved underneath his hand, unraveling, sending out bright flares of energy that met the skeletal structure inside Tom and urged it into life.
Tom's chest heaved, and he opened his eyes.
"You have got to stop doing death scenes," Carl said, the first thing he thought of, and Tom smiled at him.
"Okay," he said.
"You do like me, don't you?"
Peach huffed in his ear, amused, and Tom's face looked pretty much the same way.
"I do," he said, "but I thought you should make a decision yourself."
Carl could feel Tom's spell sinking in, starting to counter what Cecily had done. It wasn't going to be a quick or easy fix, but over time, with care and guidance, things should begin to improve again.
"Does this count?" he said, and kissed Tom, quick and warm, feeling the energy flare between them. He drew back again, watching.
Tom began, slowly, to pick himself up. "It's a little tentative," he said, taking Carl's offered hand to get to his feet, "but I guess you have to start somewhere..."
The gate spun slowly in the centre of the room, already fading back to its normal supraluminal level of emissions. Indira had one arm around Cecily, holding her against her side.
Carl looked at her. Cecily looked up at him, face blank and unaware, and he glanced at Indira.
"She chose to renounce her wizardry," Indira said. She sounded exhausted. She pushed Cecily gently, and the girl began to walk, stumbling, as if half-asleep. "I, however, have work to do." Indira sounded exhausted. "I am deeply sorry."
Tom held out his hand. "Here," he said to Cecily. She stopped, swaying, and looked at him. He put something into her hand and pressed her fingers around it.
She looked down at it as he took his hand away, letting her fingers fall open again. The locket, open against her palm. No pictures, just two sets of initials, one engraved in each half. C.J. and T.J.
Suddenly she was sobbing, raw and painful, the sounds of unhealed grief.
Tom took a step back. Without volition, Carl found himself reaching for him to rest a hand on his shoulder, seeking confirmation that he was still whole and alive.
When Indira opened the door. Wroaah burst in, almost scampering and tore around the world gate, snapping orders to the flurry of cats who came in after him. Machu Picchu spread her wings, flapping slightly, and hissed. Tom, standing next to Carl, reached out to stroke her chest with one finger, murmuring nonsense words.
Wroaah skidded to a halt at Carl's feet.
You didn't leave, he said. Good. Now, about these hyperstrings...
Behind him, Indira took Cecily out, back to a life without wizardry.
Manhattan, New York
July 4th, 1976
They were on top of a building completely sealed off to all humans who couldn't teleport, or turn air solid, or, if necessary, walk through walls. Open, in other words, to wizards, two of whom were currently arguing amicably on the rooftop about the start time of the Bicentennial Parade of Ships, an argument settled when the first ship came into view, greeted by a shout from the people lining the docks far below. Carl leaned over the railing, watching with wizard-enhanced sight, and Tom put his arms around him, head on Carl's shoulder, sharing the spell.
Grand Central worldgate was running again. The city's wizards, still shell-shocked, were working with it, and Indira had made certain that this included human and nonhuman alike. Carl had gone back to his apartment, finding it surprisingly clean, with a scrawled note from Ralph that said "Sorry," and explained that the rent was paid up for the next two weeks, and he wouldn't be coming back. No-one had claimed Picchu ("I'm not surprised," Tom said, and ducked, just in time to keep most of his hair) and, a week ago, Tom (who had declined Harrison's offer of a Canadian tour of the Epic) had stood outside another phone booth while Carl made a hesitant, painful phonecall to his family.
"I know this," Carl said. "You're going to point out to me how the Bicentennial celebrations show moments of beauty can come from flawed mortals."
Tom leaned forward, so his breath tickled Carl's ear when he spoke. "I don't think I would have said anything quite that purple," he said. "Actually, I wondered if you and your parrot wanted to pick out a suitable pirate ship..."
In the distance, the US Coastguard's Eagle sailed past Ellis Island, her white sails gleaming against the green and grey. The Eagle was a German barque taken as a war prize after World War II, repainted and renamed; fireships in front of it were spraying water into the air, great white exuberant plumes. Behind it, the other ships were coming from all the world's countries, the Danmark, the Christian Radich, Libertad, Esmeralda, Nippon Maru... and behind them, the flotilla of welcoming small craft, clustered by the flanks of the Statue of Liberty.
"I'll take them all," Carl said. He felt like the fireships, ready to explode with joy.
Tom bit his ear.
"Peach does that, too," Carl said, lazily, and waited for the response.
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