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Wizards always tell the truth.

Carl fed the dogs, and Tom got himself and Carl a couple of Cokes out of the fridge. If nothing else, the sugar would help. "Area" Senior is a relative term; Tom and Carl's jurisdiction went all the way from the New York metropolitan area and down the Jersey coast to up the Hudson Valley a ways, and a good deal inland. All told it was nearly a hundred square miles. At least, if nothing else, Tom thought tiredly, opening his Coke with a small pop and waiting for the enthusiastic barking from the vicinity of Annie and Monty to die down, they wouldn't have to contact any Regionals about the problem. This was a universal problem.

"Headache?" Carl asked, coming to sit down across the table from him. "Look, I told you I could drive part of the way if you needed --"

I'm fine, Tom didn't say. Wizards always tell the truth. "It's not a headache," he interrupted quietly. "I don't mind driving."

"Something for it, at least," Carl said, looking a little worried.

"Sure, aspirin might dull it." Tom shrugged. "It's --"

He didn't need to finish. These days he and Carl hardly ever communicated by thought; it wasn't usually essential for their work, and they'd known each other long enough that verbal communication of any sort often wasn't necessary. Though lately -- lately Tom had become afraid to even attempt a mental connection. The dark matter was already affecting them, and he didn't want to experience the effects any more than he absolutely had to. And he could see in Carl's face that Carl understood this, and understood the not-quite-headache, and probably wanted an aspirin himself.

Tom took a drink from the can of Coke and waited for the fizz to subside, then said, very quietly, "Carl, I'm scared."

Carl laughed quietly and without humor. "I'm terrified."

"It's ..." Tom tried, and stared helplessly at his hands. "It's mostly that we can't do anything, not really. You saw how scared those kids are. Even Kit and the Callahan girls, and they're well on their way to real Senior material ..."

"It's not that, though," Carl said softly. "It's not just that." Tom looked up, and Carl gave him a colorless smile. "It's right of you," he said, "and it's your job to worry. But there's nothing more we can do, and that's the really frightening part. What happens when we really start to lose our magic? The day we wake up and think it's just not worth it. The day we wake up and it was a game --"

"Stop," Tom whispered, agonized. "Carl, that hasn't happened yet, and so help me, I'm going down fighting."

The strange hardness in Carl's face, born of fear, softened somewhat. "Yeah," he said.

Tom allowed himself a small smile and closed his eyes, leaning back in his chair. "Carl," he said, after another thoughtful drink of Coke. "Promise me something."

"Sure," Carl said immediately, and that was more reassuring than anything else he could have said. They were still wizards, and if Carl was willing to give his binding word without even asking what he was promising, that meant something important: he still trusted Tom. They were still partners.

"Thanks," Tom said quietly, and looked back up at Carl. "If I start forgetting first ... please don't try to convince me or remind me. Maybe it would work for a short while --"

"And then it would hurt all over again when you forgot," Carl finished for him, with a little sigh that was partly frustration but mostly pain.

Tom nodded slightly, because it was true, but he added, "And it would hurt you, trying to make me remember and not being able to."

Carl smiled tightly. "Maybe you should promise me the same thing."

"Sure," Tom said.

Some of the tension went out of Carl's shoulders. "Tell you what," he said, after drinking the last of his Coke, "let's play Frisbee with the dogs and order takeout this evening." There was still a note of helplessness in his voice, the sense of being utterly useless.

Yes, Tom thought rather bitterly. Let's get used to having normal evenings.

"Okay," he said, and went to find the Frisbee.

---

"Do you ever wonder how people must feel before their executions?"

Tom looked up sharply from his manual. It was the size of a longish book now, rather than several phonebooks, and some of the technical terms in it weren't making any sense. As painful as that was, though, the manual was still giving him a concise and detailed précis, and as long as Tom found that understandable, he was going to keep reading.

"What?" he asked Carl.

"Executions," Carl said, and held up a book on the French Revolution for Tom's inspection. "History gives us such a clinical account of all the beheadings. Don't you ever wonder how the people felt?"

"Trapped," Tom said quietly. "Carl, we're not going to be executed."

"Yet."

It was nearly their usual banter, but grown horribly twisted. Tom shut his manual. I will guard growth and ease pain. I -- in Life's name -- when it is right to do so --

He was getting that headache again.

"Not yet," he agreed. "And the précis is promising. Those kids know what they're doing."

"I keep thinking they can't possibly do anything," Carl said, low-voiced. "No matter how much they know. No matter how much power they have. This ... this is the first part, isn't it. First the drive of our power goes to the young wizards. Then we lose faith."

Tom shut the manual and put it aside on the coffee table. He went to Carl, sitting close next to him on the couch, and set a hand on his arm. Whatever else the dark matter was taking from them, this would be one of the last things to go. Adept Speech-users can sense each other's bodies more readily than non-speakers can, but even the non-wizardly know something of body language.

"This still exists," Tom said quietly.

"Yeah," Carl agreed, and squeezed his eyes shut. "And I don't know how empty it'll be when all the best work we've done together becomes a game or a -- a dream, or --"

He was so frightened it hurt to breathe. Tom felt crushed, trapped, and it was Carl's emotions he was feeling. He realised suddenly that he'd been ignoring the slow draining of his wizardry, as though ignoring it would make it go away.

And there was the irony. It would go away.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I think I'm far too used to both of us being able to cope."

Carl laughed shortly. "I could really use Peach right now. Even if it was only dire warnings about the end of the universe, at least I'd have a grumpy bird biting my ear and making me feel something other than just trapped."

"I could too," Tom said, and reached over and tweaked Carl's ear. "Does that help?"

"Oddly, yes," Carl said, and laughed.

"I'll keep it in mind," Tom told him solemnly, and actually managed a smile.

Carl smiled back. "Not enough, though," he added, and shrugged. "I do appreciate it."

Tom's hand on his arm tightened very slightly. "Tom --" Carl said, but didn't shrug the hand away. "You're doing enough."

"I don't feel like I am," Tom murmured. "Listen, I've been stupid. I've been ignoring what's going on because I don't want it to happen, but that's not going to stop it, and if I'm being stupid enough to ignore this, there isn't really much I can do."

"Stop it," Carl said quietly. "I'm worrying about it every single moment, and that means it comes down to the same thing in the end. Neither of us can do much. Look --" He stopped abruptly and set his hand over Tom's. Tom could feel Carl's heartbeat, slightly too fast. "In the end it's us alone, because we're wizards and the wizardry's going to leave us separately, but in the meantime we're still partners and you're helping, Tom."

"Understood." Tom's other hand was still hovering near Carl's face. He touched Carl's cheek and said, "Just as long as you remember this is true of both of us."

Carl nodded.

For a moment they were both silent, listening to each other's heartbeats and breathing, the little scraping sound Tom's eyelashes made when he blinked against the lenses of the reading glasses he was just starting to need, the swish of cloth as Carl shifted a little on the couch.

"Worst thing," Carl said after a long moment, "is knowing it's all going away. There's been too many times I've thought I was going to die, but it's not the sort of death where you sit around waiting for it. This is worse."

"It's not dying," Tom said softly.

"Worse."

Tom didn't tell him not to be dramatic. He just nodded. "Then maybe tonight's the last night we'll be dreaming of Timeheart."

Carl winced and pulled Tom against him in a fierce hug. "That," he murmured into Tom's hair, "isn't helpful."

Tom laughed quietly against Carl's t-shirt. "Knew I'd prove you wrong eventually."

"Never." Carl kissed his hair. "If you really think this is our last night to both be wizards --"

"I don't know," Tom said, but that meant yes. His suspicions were still wizardly, which meant they wouldn't be tomorrow.

Carl took a deep breath and pulled back. "That makes this the last night we'll be hearing each other like this."

"Yeah." Tom closed his eyes, feeling the shape of the air against his skin and the negative space it made between him and Carl and the way it was as far from dark matter as was possible. There were twin heats in this room, one from the reading lamp to his left, one from Carl on his right. The sound of Carl's breathing, even and regular and still measured against desperation despite everything that was happening; his weight pulling the couch cushion down a little into a hollow worn a bit threadbare by time and repetition; the smell of his t-shirt, like sweat and grass from running around in the backyard with Annie and Monty after coming home from work, and like the laundry detergent he always chose himself for all their clothes because Tom was too busy at home writing an article or researching a spell to go out himself to buy necessities; all these were familiar and comforting. This was hearing Carl in a way that went far beyond the auditory, and Tom's chest ached at the sure knowledge that this would leave them.

Out in the backyard, Monty gave a few excited yips and a squirrel chattered angrily. Tom blinked his eyes open.

Carl was giving him a funny look. "You know, you look much younger with your eyes closed," he said. "More serious, too."

Tom smiled a little. "I'm going to miss you."

"Shut up. I'm not going away." With rather odd ceremony, Carl took Tom's hands in his. "Anyway, that's my line. You're the one who's so sure you're leaving."

"I'll miss you even so," Tom said evenly, and clenched his teeth briefly as he only did when under enormous pressure. "You shut up; you're the one wasting time."

Carl laughed, still rather painfully. "I'm glad we can still do this."

Tom returned the laugh with a smile. "I told you," he said, "shut up," and because they really were wasting time and this was their last night in perhaps forever to hear each other properly, he leaned forward and kissed Carl.

Carl returned it readily enough, because they were of entirely the same mind about this, about hearing everything just right. He was wonderfully warm, and his hands weren't holding Tom's anymore because their arms were tight around each other and tangled in each other's hair, and neither of them were bothering to act as though they weren't desperate, because it was impossible to be this close and still hide.

In a way, Tom thought, having this advance warning was good. Any other parting, and they wouldn't have had this time to say goodbye.

---

Tom woke up on Thursday feeling completely out of joint, as though he'd missed a deadline for an article or forgotten the title of a favourite childhood book. He wandered to the kitchen in search of strongly caffeinated tea and discovered Carl there, reading the morning paper and looking pale and drawn.

"Thursdays," Tom told him, yawning. "I could never get the hang of Thursdays."

"Go to a planet where they haven't been invented," Carl muttered, and gave him a sleepily annoyed look over the top of the paper.

Tom grinned. "I wish. What sort of cereal do we have left?"

"Cheerios and cornflakes, I think," Carl said, after a short and rather odd pause. "Tom, I wasn't really joking. I mean, now's hardly the time to go to another planet, but ..."

"But I haven't been trained as an astronaut, so the whole thing's bunk," Tom finished for him, pouring some cornflakes. It wasn't until he turned back around, with a spoonful of cornflakes already in his mouth and his brain on the way to fully functioning, that he saw how very pale and drawn Carl was. "Carl?"

Carl shook his head. "Eat your cereal," he said flatly.

"And I thought I'd woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," Tom joked gently, sitting down. "Are you coming down with something?"

"No," Carl said, and set aside the newspaper abruptly, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.

The news lately has been pretty bad, Tom thought in surprise, but not that bad. "You're sure? Do you need the day off from work?"

"I'm fine," Carl said harshly, and looked horrified with himself. He stood hurriedly, bumping against the table in his haste and setting the spoon in Tom's bowl rattling. "I need to go to work."

"Carl --"

"Sorry," Carl said quietly. "I'm so sorry, Tom. It's just not a good morning."

Tom nodded. "I know. Have a good day."

"I'll try," Carl said, and wandered off through the set of rooms as though in a daze. Tom winced and finished his cereal.

Carl reappeared while Tom was feeding the dogs. He was wearing a tie with chili peppers down the front -- a gift from his sister, and something he wore to cheer himself up -- and looked more composed. Tom said another goodbye, and petted the dogs absently until the sound of the car died away. Then he stood, and went to his computer, and booted it up, and stared a little forlornly at the bitten-apple logo on the glowing screen. There were a few articles due within the week, but Carl's dark mood had come down around Tom. The idea of spending any more time than absolutely necessary with the news this week was an abhorrent one.

He went through his files for a few minutes and eventually came up with a novella-in-progress. Tom had been leaving it alone for a few weeks in the hope of generating a few more ideas, but skimming it now gave him no new ones. He'd researched it as thoroughly as possible, of course -- though at the moment he couldn't recall exactly where he'd stored his research material -- but just now the idea of especially intelligent birds yielded up nothing to write about. Parrots that actually knew what they were saying -- the very idea seemed ludicrous today.

Tom pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off a headache and began working on the next article.

---

It was really too bad he was stuck inside on such a beautiful day. Then again, Tom reminded himself, Carl was in exactly the same situation, and today so were Annie and Monty. Tom grinned to himself. He should probably give them extra doggie treats tonight for enduring the groomer's on a nice spring day like this.

The doorbell rang.

Tom sprang up gratefully, glad for an excuse to stop working on the article for a few moments. He was a little surprised, opening the door; though he hadn't been expecting anyone particularly, it was still startling to see the elder Callahan sister there, looking about as stressed as Carl had for the past few days before the weather picked up.

"Oh," Tom said, "hi, Nita. How're you doing?"

The stressed look turned relieved. "Oh, wow, it's great to see you!"

Tom's puzzlement grew a little. It was probably late enough for Nita to be out of school by now, but he couldn't think what she might be visiting him about. "It's always good to see you, too."

"Where's Carl?" she asked.

"At work," Tom said, and did his best to not worry about how Nita was asking silly questions when he should be working on his article. After all, it was a nice day. "Where else would he be?"

Nita's relieved look vanished. "Uh, yeah. Listen, I thought I should touch base about where we've been."

Tom raised his eyebrows, feeling his puzzlement turn to impatience. "School, I thought. Spring break would have ended, I don't know, last week sometime?" Nita opened and closed her mouth, but Tom didn't feel like hearing the details of Nita's life, however dear her family was to him. "Listen, I'd love to chat, but I'm on a deadline. I've got to get this article to the magazine by Friday."

"Tom." Nita was starting to look a little panicked. "Uh, this is kind of important. Do you have guests or something?"

He wished Nita would be a little more understanding. He usually thought she was very mature for her age, but this disregard for everything he was saying was beginning to grate on Tom's nerves. "Guests? No, I'm just working."

"Okay, I won't keep you. But this is an errantry matter."

Tom felt suddenly enlightened. "Errantry?"

Through the mundane worries about work and Carl and the dogs came memories of the previous summer. Nita had been between eighth and ninth grade; she and Kit had come over a lot for Coke and sandwiches and fun-serious chats about the business of errantry; they pretended they could talk to trees and whales; there was something about Dairine Callahan's new computer game.

Tom sort of thought they'd all gotten over that game when Betty Callahan died.

He had to laugh, mostly in relief that this was all Nita was coming over to talk about. "Oh, wow, you had me going there for a minute. I remember how serious we used to be about those role-playing games. Wizardry. Spells. The magic Speech that everything understands. It's great that you're still thinking about that kind of thing even when you're in junior high."

Nita looked pained. "Tom, the universe is tearing itself apart, and we've been out trying to repair it. I just didn't want you to worry about where we were."

Any last vestiges of annoyance he'd had with her vanished. "You've been listening to the news, too, huh? It's enough to make anyone want to take their second childhood early." He really needed to get his article finished, but… Nita looked deadly serious about the business of the universe tearing itself apart. Tom nearly offered to let her in for a Coke or something, for old times' sake, but settled for, "Look, sweetie, I have to get back to work. Was there anything else? Anything serious, I mean. How's your dad?"

"He's fine," Nita said, though she didn't look it herself. "Uh, where are Annie and Monty?"

"Carl had to drop them off at the groomer's this morning. Their fur was getting out of hand again. You can stop in and play with them later if you like."

"Okay." Nita fidgeted. "Do you mind if I go around back and see how the fish are doing?"

"Sure. Anything else? I have to get back to this."

"Nope. Thanks." Nita looked away. Tom had somehow deeply disappointed her. It really was a pity she hadn't caught him at a better time. He might have even been able to humor her about the wizardry thing. She looked as though she needed it.

"Come back anytime," Tom offered. "Best to your dad." And because he couldn't stand to see the look of hurt on Nita's face, Tom closed the door quickly and got straight back to work, typing away double-time to make up for his odd feeling of having let Nita down horribly. He'd make it up to her later. In the meantime, he had an article to get out.

---

Tom awoke with a pounding headache, feeling as though he hadn't slept at all. A quick glance at the clock confirmed that it was only 2:30 in the morning. He groaned and rolled over, then blinked.

"Carl?" he croaked.

No answer.

Tom frowned and stumbled out of bed, pulling on the bathrobe draped over a chair. Wherever Carl had gotten to, he'd gotten up only a few moments beforehand; the sheets were still warm. Tom had the odd idea that they'd both awoken for the same reason, though there was no logical way to explain why both of them might be plagued with a fierce headache at the same time.

There was a light in the kitchen. Tom headed there, and found Carl hunched over the table with a can of Coke.

"You shouldn't drink that in the middle of the night," Tom pointed out, his voice still hoarse with sleep. "It's disgusting, in fact."

Carl grinned faintly. "Sorry," he said, not looking it. "I haven't even opened it yet. There's still time to save it. What are you doing up?"

"Couldn't sleep. Horrible headache." The look on Carl's face was confirmation enough, but Tom murmured anyway, "You too, huh?"

"Feel like I've been having nightmares I can't remember," Carl said, shrugging. "I haven't had nightmares since I was nine."

"Give me the Coke, if you're not having it." Tom sat down next to Carl, cradling his aching head in his hands. "Horrible time for headaches. Or nightmares."

There was a long pause. Carl tapped his fingertips against the Coke can, then said quietly, "Do you feel like the world might implode at any moment? Not ... It's not just because of the news."

"It's been a really horrible week," Tom murmured, and looked up. "Nita came by the other day. I'm sorry I didn't mention it, but I was trying to get the article out."

"How was she?"

Tom shrugged. "Worried. Hardly surprising, is it?" He stared at Carl's fingers, at the marks of moisture on the Coke can. "She kept on talking about errantry, Carl."

There was a short, painful sort of pause.

"You mean that role-playing thing?" Carl asked. "The magic Speech?" He slid the Coke at Tom. "Here. Just hold it or something. I know Kit and Nita became friends over that game, but I thought that ended ..."

"When Betty died?" Tom supplied.

"Yeah." Carl rubbed his temples gently with his forefingers, wincing. "I remember Dairine named her computer Spot. That was pretty funny." He looked back up at Tom. "Why was Nita talking about errantry?"

"I think it's all that stuff that's been in the news lately," Tom started, but it sounded stupid, and he ended up saying helplessly, "Everything's gone crazy."

Carl swallowed, and for a crazy late-night moment Tom felt the slide of it, or the memory of knowing what it was like to be sitting feet from Carl and still know intimately what it felt like to be right against Carl's skin. The momentary pang of nearly infinite loss was inexplicable.

"Do you feel," Carl asked quietly, as though on cue, "like you're ... missing something? Like -- when I picked up the dogs the other day. They gave me this look ..." He trailed off and rubbed his forehead. "This look like they were Lassie and I was the stupid human who doesn't know Timmy's trapped down the well."

Tom had to laugh at this image. "I know exactly what you mean."

They trailed off into silence. Tom reached out and wrapped his hands around the can of Coke. It was comfortingly cold and solid. Cold, he thought detachedly. The only really cold thing is interstellar space.

"I think I might be going even crazier than the rest of the world," he said.

"Yeah," Carl said, and made a little frustrated sound, standing up and going to the kitchen counter. One of the lights under the cupboard was flickering fitfully. "I thought we had this fixed. It's making my headache worse."

"You always want to fix it yourself," Tom said, feeling suddenly so tired that his eyelids were barely staying up. "With duct tape. You always refuse to just read the manual."

"Misplaced it," Carl said vaguely, and turned back to Tom with a look of concern. "Listen, you look awful."

"So do you," Tom returned dryly.

Carl sighed. "All right." He held out his hands and Tom tossed him the Coke. He put it back in the fridge, the brief hum of its open door making them both wince again. "You're sure we didn't just drink really cheap wine at dinner and are now reaping the rewards of our folly?"

"You cooked dinner," Tom said, with a miserable little grin.

"Rules that right out, then," Carl said, and yawned widely. "Well, today is another big day."

---

Carl had left for the work by the time Tom awoke, still with a faint pain behind his eyes but otherwise okay. He went to the kitchen, and refilled the dogs' water bowl, and very firmly had coffee with his toast. It was a cloudy day, so after letting Annie and Monty out into the yard, he stayed inside and tried to work on the story about the intelligent parrot. It still wouldn't go anywhere, and Tom had the horrible idea that he would really hate the news if he turned on the TV.

Somewhere early in the afternoon, there was a brief startling flash of light outside. Tom frowned and closed his laptop, going to the window. It was still cloudy out, but there were no thunderheads, and even weirder, there had been no accompanying boom with the lightning-like flash.

Instead of going back to work, Tom stayed at the window, staring out at the koi pond. Annie was in a corner of the yard, sniffing around under the bushes. Monty was lying in the grass, his tail thumping periodically. The world's so horrible this week, Tom thought distantly. Minutes flowed by; a few ripples traveled over the surface of the pond; one of Tom's fingers went to sleep, and he shook his hand a little to bring it back to life.

He nearly missed Monty sitting up in a surge of furry movement, but it was impossible to ignore Annie streaking across the yard to sit down next to him, and -- Tom stared in absolute shock -- they both threw their heads back and started howling, long and undulating and eerie.

After a moment Tom got over his shock and went to the door. "Stop it!" he told them sternly, but they were howling too loudly to hear him, their attention totally fixed on something Tom couldn't even sense. "Stop!" he said again, more sharply, coming out into the yard, and --

The world went a blinding silvery-white.

In that instant Tom knew, in a vivid, wide-awake way, what Timeheart looked like. Everything was just bright enough for his eyes to bear; every leaf and blade of grass in the yard was etched with the light; the sky and the koi pond mirror-bright. Tom thought, for a wild moment, that perhaps everything had come to a head. The Pullulus had won over the minds of all Earth's leaders, and this was the fallout. Annie and Monty had sensed the coming destruction, and now the Earth Tom knew was only a roil of mushroom clouds, and this was Timeheart, the only real place left for him.

Then the light faded.

Tom had a moment to feel gloriously alive, to know that he was alive, and then the returning wizardry overwhelmed his senses. The grass was furiously growgrowgrowing. The trees murmured among themselves in shock. The koi bubbled placidly, reassured of the restored order of things. Tom found himself sprawled out on the grass, and he wasn't sure whether he'd lost his balance or if the dogs had knocked him over, but Annie and Monty were licking his face in delirious happiness and all Tom could think was thank the One, they did it.

Eventually the dogs' affectionate slobbering became disgusting enough that Tom said, "All right, all right, get off me."

But we did it, Monty said in a very wounded voice. And you're back.

We found you, Annie added proudly.

"You usually do," Tom agreed, and got to his feet with a little groan. He frowned. "Hold on, 'we'?"

Annie looked as smug as it was possible to look while her plumed tail waved so hard it nearly shook her whole body. Yes.

That obviously meant he would have to refer to the manual for more precise details. Tom scratched both dogs behind the ears and returned to the house. He booted up his computer, smiling wryly at the whole-apple logo on the opening screen, then leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes. Carl?

The response was immediate. Tom! I've been trying to get through ever since whatever-that-was.

Carl's disgruntled tone didn't matter. Even the edge of panic in his voice didn't matter, because it was controlled, annoyed panic. Tom grinned widely. Carl, right here.

Sorry, he said, the dogs were happy to hear from me.

I am too, Carl returned with feeling. Listen, I'm coming home right now.

Tom swallowed around the very small lump in his throat. You'd better be, was all he said.

---

"So that's that, then."

"That's that," Tom agreed, and leaned back on the couch. "Although I think we should keep a close watch on Nita. Those precognitions might come in handy."

Carl nodded. After a short while he said, "I feel bad for Kit, though. Did you see the way he was looking at Annie and Monty?"

Tom nodded. "I'm proud of him," he added quietly.

Carl grinned lopsidedly. "Not proud of us, though."

"Not so much, no," Tom agreed, and suppressed a shudder. The embarrassment of having believed those things he'd said to Nita was only the beginning of it. The terrified half-felt longing for things he couldn't name had been far worse.

"We did okay," Carl said softly, crossing his legs and putting them up on the coffee table. "We got them far enough, and it all worked out."

Tom nodded. They sat in silence for a moment, absorbing the feel of Life going on around them. "Listen," Tom said, "how about you make dinner and I give Akegane-sama Nita's thank-you gift."

"No," Carl said, and gave Tom a grin. "You stay right here. I need to have a talk with the fish or I won't feel right."

"All right," Tom said, making a 'be my guest' sort of gesture towards the offering of mealworms. "Am I barred from making dinner?"

"Absolutely," Carl said, getting to his feet. "Stay right here."

Tom did so, amusedly. It felt like the aftermath of a large-scale wizardry, although usually such a feeling of relief and accomplishment and joy was accompanied by a visible result or the memory of the working, rather than a neatly detailed, if dry, précis. Nita and Kit would be filling in the details soon. He watched in a haze of contentment as Carl was attacked by the ecstatic dogs halfway across the lawn, then disentangled himself and knelt by the koi pond. Tom couldn't tell what Carl was saying, and the mere knowledge that he could know if he wanted to kept him from bothering to find out.

Carl came back inside sometime later, looking pleased with himself. "Aha," he said. "You're still here."

"As promised," Tom agreed. "What did you expect?"

"Nothing less," Carl said, and sat down next to him. "Tom."

Tom said nothing. A name by itself was important.

"Tom," Carl said again, in something like wonder, as though discovering for the first time that they were both alive and fully themselves, although it was hours now since the Pullulus had vanished.

An appropriate reaction, at a time like this, might have been to tell Carl to shut up, and then to kiss him. Tom regarded this to be unnecessarily dramatic.

Carl, he settled for, the word brushing across Carl's mind, equally unnecessary and immeasurably more satisfying.

Carl kissed him anyway, and for the first time in more than a week, Tom felt really like himself.