"And it must have been a very great amount, to require a lifeprice to be paid. There's no higher payment that can be made." Carl fell silent for a moment, then said, "Well, one." And his face shut as if a door had closed behind his eyes.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The snake, eating its own tail; the wayside boundary stone: by what measureless markers should Life be understood?
The Book of Night with Moon
"The time is eight-seventeen in the morning and New York City is ready for another clear winter day!" announced some radio personality, right in Carl Romeo's ear. Carl flailed upwards in his bed and managed to hit the source of the noise, which unfortunately didn't come with a snooze button: his macaw Machu Picchu nipped at his fingers in retaliation.
"Ow!" Carl said, and glared at her. She blinked back impassively. "What's important enough for eight o'clock on a Saturday?"
"RING RING!" yelled Peach, who was obviously in one of her moods. "The future is calling!"
Carl groaned and looked around for a pair of pants. "Okay. I'm listening."
"Central Park," Peach said, in a much calmer voice. "Fifth Avenue across from the Frick." She climbed onto Carl's arm and edged her way up to his shoulder, combing her beak through his hair. "Watch for snakes and strangers," she added. In its own way, this last bit of advice was reassuring; Carl started getting nervous whenever Machu Picchu was this specific in her forecasts. She'd be sticking to the weather for the next few days.
"I'll bring back a bag of nuts for you," Carl said, getting to his feet gently enough to not dislodge Peach. "Off, bird." Peach flapped from his shoulder to his desk, and Carl got dressed.
Even in winter and with half of Manhattan to cross, Carl chose to bundle up and walk. These days he spent too much time inside: the combination of a college workload and a decline of wizardly power reserves kept him off errantry more often than he liked. He'd done some conflict-resolution on pigeon territory during Christmas break with his family in Brooklyn, but aside from that he hadn't done any major wizardry without Peach's prompting since the summer before college.
Maybe since a little before that, too.
Carl sighed and took the elevator downstairs. Outside his breath misted the air, and the slushy remnants of days-old snow clung to the edges of the sidewalk. He walked around the edge of the park to Fifth Avenue and started straight up towards Central Park. He passed pigeons and commuters, squirrels by Madison Square Park and early tourists going to the Empire State Building, where he paused to buy an overpriced bagel and coffee before continuing on. There was the Public Library, and a line of cabs heading towards Grand Central. Carl finished his bagel, burned his tongue on his coffee, and did a quick wizardry under his breath to repair the damaged cells. The coffee he let entropy cool, and by the time it was drinkable he'd reached the Park. He walked on until he came to East 70th. Then Carl leaned against the fence, finishing the dregs of his coffee and waiting.
A harried woman with two shrieking small children went by; a man with a newspaper passed the other way. A little old lady shuffled over to Carl and said, in a cracked voice, "Spare some change, dear?" There was nothing of That One about her, except so far as she was cold and hungry, so Carl dug around in his pocket until he found his laundry money. "Bless," said the old lady, clasping Carl's hand briefly with one of her gnarled ones, and shuffled off. Carl smiled after her and looked up to find someone watching him. Not many people were in the habit of making eye contact in Manhattan, but Carl looked back anyway.
The someone was a boy Carl's age or a little older, wearing an almost comically thick winter coat and a curious expression. When he saw Carl looking back at him, he said by way of explanation, "Not many people would do that, you know."
"I know," Carl said, feeling a slow smile of recognition slide across his face. "Cousin."
The boy grinned, a sudden brilliant grin that made his face very handsome. "Dai'stiho," he said, and somewhat incongruously held out a mittened hand. "Tom Swale."
"Carl Romeo," Carl said, taking it. "So, I might be on errantry, and anyway I greet you."
"'Might be'?" Tom Swale echoed, his eyebrows going up.
"My pet macaw sometimes tells the future," Carl explained, a little ruefully. "She shouted me out of bed and told me to come up here, and that usually happens when I need to do something important."
"Convenient," Tom said, sounding honestly impressed. "For you and for me. I'm in the middle of something a bit fiddly, and -- well --"
"Have you had breakfast?" Carl asked impulsively. "I know some really overpriced cafés around here, and I won't be sentient enough for a consultation until I've had another cup of coffee."
"Coffee," said Tom, "would be wonderful."
Nita stood in the middle of a great echoing space. Green light filtered down to her; she seemed to be in some sort of amphitheatre. Just in front of her was a little stone marker, like the ones she'd seen near the edges of towns in Ireland. A snake was carved into the stone; Nita moved a little from side to side and watched the snake's stone gaze follow her. Then she noticed the owl that was perched atop the stone. "Hi," Nita said.
The owl ruffled its feathers. "Entropy is not change," it told her. "Death is static."
"I know," Nita said. Something was digging into her pocket. She pulled out her space pen. "This changed."
"Do not go gentle into that good night," said the owl, and gave Nita a stern look. "Well?"
"Uh, Dylan Thomas?"
"Next time say it with conviction," the owl told her, and the greenish light turned blazing. Nita groaned and pulled the covers up higher, but the winter sunlight shone insistently in through her window.
Figuring sleep was a losing battle, Nita sat up and groped around on her nightstand until her hand found the Manual. She pushed her hair out of her face, drew her knees up to her chest, and began recording the dream.
Ten minutes of talking over coffee with Tom yielded the following facts: Tom was twenty, a junior at Sarah Lawrence College, and taking a semester at NYU in order to intern at a major publishing house in Manhattan. Tom was also from California. He doesn't look the way Californians do on television, Carl thought, and then, But Martians usually don't either.
"I've been investigating solutions and delay tactics with the pollution of the Sound," Tom was explaining. He allowed Carl to steal a pancake from the top of his stack with good grace. "The San Francisco Bay has mercury pollution like you wouldn't believe, and I thought that adapting the same approach to the waters here -- stopping the build-up, if not reversing it -- might be helpful."
"I couldn't say," Carl admitted. "The whales have some tricks to keeping it under control. I'm not big on theoretical application." He propped his elbows on the table and broke out the line that usually explained everything, at least to nonwizards: "I'm a communications major."
Tom laughed. "Appropriate," he said. "I'm in the really frustrating position of being good at theory without having anyone to check my work or provide supplementary power. There was another wizard at college for a while, but ..." He shrugged. "She graduated and moved to Connecticut, and the Powers saw fit to send me to Manhattan."
"And here you are," Carl agreed, draining his coffee. "Sentience achieved. What's the 'something fiddly' you mentioned earlier?"
"Faults," Tom said. Carl stared at him blankly. Tom grinned again and pulled his Manual from somewhere in the depths of his winter coat. "Tectonic chart of the San Andreas and comparison Clarendon-Linden," he told it quietly, and the book spidered out a display. Tom slid the Manual across the table at Carl. The left page displayed the California coastline, geography emphasized and cities all but forgotten; Carl recognized the half-familiar double wings of the San Francisco Bay. The right page held New York, from Erie to the Atlantic. A jagged red line down the California coast, sometimes at sea but more often running just parallel to the land, was marked off San Andreas Fault. A little red gash crossed the western part of New York, starting near Albion and continuing downwards.
"Clarendon-Linden Fault, I presume," Carl said to it, and looked back up at Tom. "And?"
"A certain amount of seismic activity is completely normal on any fault line," Tom said, "but -- well. I mostly have the San Andreas for comparison, because I've worked with it before. In theory, the Clarendon-Linden Fault is sizable enough to produce a 5.0 earthquake, and Manhattan might feel the aftershocks." He pulled the Manual back a little and told it, "Following page, display moment magnitude and epicenter for Clarendon-Linden quakes; past thirty years, Julian calendar."
The list included a few earthquakes in Albion, one in Warsaw, a handful more in little places Carl had never heard of. None of the earthquakes came above a 4.4 MMS. The latest recorded quake, though, was 1.8 MMS, epicenter of Manhattan. Jersey City, 2.2 MMS. Manhattan again, 2.1. "I'm not an expert," Carl said, "but that sort of thing's not normally physically possible."
"Tell me about it," said Tom wryly, reclaiming his Manual. "I figure this could use looking at with fresh eyes. Either the fault line has physically moved, and, as you say, that's really unlikely -- or something is mimicking the fault closely enough that the Manual's recording the data incorrectly."
Inside the warm café, Carl shivered. "Bad news?"
"When you have some free time, look into the précis on the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco," Tom said. He hesitated. "Uh, if that's not presuming. It was nice of you to get coffee with me, but if you have something else --"
Carl felt the beginnings of something uncomfortable and wonderful starting to uncurl in him. No, please, I seriously don't know how to deal with this. "I always listen to the bird," Carl said. "The bird told me to get out of bed and meet you. So: précis on 1906 later. Theories about the weird earthquakes here now."
Tom gave him another of those smiles. "I'll take you to the most recent epicenter. It's the playground in the Park."
Nita spent a long time staring at the morning mail -- so long, in fact, that her cereal went soggy. She didn't even notice until Dairine popped up by her side to whisk the bowl away with the observation, "Entropy in a bowl. How tragic."
"Where do you want to go to college, Dari?" Nita asked absently, refolding one letter and unfolding the next.
"Way to sound like Mr. Arnold," Dairine snorted, perching on the kitchen counter and swinging her legs. Mr. Arnold was the college counselor, and Dairine was way too old to be sitting on the kitchen counter.
"Off," Nita said.
"Yale," Dairine said, blithely ignoring this. "Harvard. MIT. I'll be a wizardly astrophysicist." She slid down until her feet were touching the floor again. "What's the latest?"
"Dartmouth." Nita refolded that acceptance letter too and tapped the envelope against the table.
Dairine looked at her, and Nita looked back. They both knew how much Nita loved the idea. "So go," Dairine told her. "I'll be accepted to every Ivy League in the country on full scholarship. Don't sweat it."
"Thanks, Dair," Nita said, meaning it, and peeled an orange to make up for the lost cereal. Dairine gave Nita an ironic salute and wandered off, probably to upgrade Spot or to go through the custom gating to Wellakh. Maybe both. Nita ate her orange, washed her hands, went to the phone, and briefly considered calling her father's cell. It would interrupt the mid-morning grocery shopping, though, but the phone was already off its cradle, the dial tone humming in Nita's ear. Impulsively she dialed one of the other numbers she had memorized.
"Morning?" answered a voice on the other end of the line a moment later, accompanied by barking in the background.
"Hey, Tom, it's Nita," Nita said. "Listen, if you're busy, forget it, but I could do with some life advice right now and Dad's out shopping --"
"No problem," Tom said at once. "My deadline's not until Tuesday and Carl's supposed to take the dogs to the vet's, so --" He was interrupted by an especially loud bout of barking. Tom probably covered the receiver, but Nita could still hear him shout, "Carl, get these mutts out of the house right now!" A minute later the barking faded, then ceased altogether. "Sorry about that, Nita," Tom said. "Come right over. I can't remember how to function with a silent house these days."
Nita laughed. "Okay, I'll be over in a minute."
She hung up and scribbled a quick note for her dad, At Tom and Carl's. --Nita. Then she headed for the back yard and the normal transit spot. A few words and a clap of outrushing air later, she was standing in Tom and Carl's yard. The trees were barren, clawing leafless at the sky, and the ground under Nita's feet was frozen, but the magically warmed koi pond bubbled placidly, and Tom was sticking his head outside, having heard Nita arrive. Nita ran over to the door.
"Can I get you anything?" Tom asked, shutting the door behind her.
"No thanks," Nita said. "Late breakfast." She followed Tom into the living room and curled up in an armchair. She didn't refuse the Sprite Tom handed her, either, nor miss Tom's knowing look.
"So what's up?" Tom asked, sitting down too.
"Uh, it's about college." Nita popped the Sprite open and listened to it fizz. "I just got an acceptance letter from Dartmouth."
"Congratulations," Tom said warmly. Nita made a face. Apparently everyone knew how much she'd wanted to get in. "So what's the attendant problem?" Tom asked.
"Technically, not quite as much financial aid as we'd hoped," Nita said. She sipped the Sprite and silently blessed Tom for remembering to give her something to do while she found her words. "But I know my dad won't let that stop me going, and Dairine's already told me she's gonna get into every Ivy League in the country on full scholarship."
Tom chuckled. "I don't doubt it."
"Yeah," Nita agreed. "And the thing is, I want to go. I really do. But I could just as easily go to NYU. They have a better aid package, it's closer ..." Tom was giving her another knowing look. She sighed and said it. "I just don't know how to do this without Kit."
"I'm guessing 'you can still visit him as easily as you do now while he lives down the street' isn't going to cut it, huh?" Tom said.
"Really no." Nita took another gulp. It fizzed in the back of her throat.
"Look at it this way: you have options, and all of them are good." Tom grinned. "And how often does your Senior have a chance to say that?" This drew a small laugh from Nita. Tom continued, "You could go to NYU. You'll have a great education, and the old cliché is true -- it's not where you go but what you make of it. You won't have to worry about being a financial burden to your family. You're familiar with the problems in the New York area. You'll most likely continue to collaborate with Kit.
"Or you could go to Dartmouth. It's your favorite -- and it might not turn out to be as great as you're hoping, or it might exceed your expectations. You can't know until you're there. You'll encounter different sorts of problems to solve by virtue of being in a new place, and both your wizardry and that place will benefit. If Kit is part of the solution to those problems, you'll find a way to keep him in your life; but he could just as easily fall out of it if you go to NYU and you end up being solutions to separate problems. Bottom line is, if the Powers need you and Kit to be a team, They'll find a way."
Nita nodded. She wanted to add, And if They don't --? but recognized it for the self-pitying rhetoric it was. "Thanks," she said. She finished her Sprite. "Uh, Tom? Can I ... stay here for a little while?"
"Sure." Tom got to his feet. "I'm going to work on the article for a while. Just give a shout if you need anything."
"Thanks," Nita said again. She waited until Tom was out of the room before turning on the TV, volume way down. She hadn't really watched much TV since Dairine had turned six and announced that television pandered to the infantile viewer. Of course this discounted the brief Pokémon phase, but all things considered the Callahans were very bookish, and Nita didn't recognize any of the Saturday morning cartoons. She watched some anyway, not really seeing them, and thought that Kit would probably say basically the same thing her dad or Dairine would: Nita would be making herself a pointless martyr by going anywhere besides Dartmouth, now she'd gotten in. On the TV, some commercial told Nita her life would be a lot more fun if she bought a doll with huge eyes and glittery hair. She knew being both a wizard and a conscious martyr was unhealthy. She knew Kit wanted her to be happy.
Nita switched off the TV and got up. She walked through the kitchen to stand in the airy arch that gave it the illusion of separation from Tom's office. "Tom?"
Tom finished whatever he was rapid-fire typing and turned from his laptop. "Any verdict?"
"I think so." Nita rubbed her forehead. "Tom, what am I gonna say to Kit?"
"He's your friend," Tom said, "and he's a fairly reasonable guy. I don't think you need to worry too much."
Nita nodded. The front door slammed, and Carl shouted something like "I'm back!" but it was drowned out by enthusiastic barking as the sheepdogs smelled Nita in the house. They came skidding into the kitchen and bounced around Nita excitedly until she crouched down and let them give her wet doggy hellos. This done, they raced off and Nita stood up, surreptitiously wiping her face with the back of her hand. She looked up to find Carl watching her with slightly raised eyebrows.
He gave her a grin. "Hey, Nita. What brings you here?"
"Not business," Nita said. "Just life stuff."
"She got into Dartmouth," Tom put in.
"Did you? Congratulations!" Nita gave Carl a rueful grin. He laughed. "That really is great. Well. Vox clamantis in deserto."
"What?" Nita asked.
"Oh. School motto." Carl leaned back against the countertop with a smile to match Nita's. "The voice of one, crying in the wilderness."
Tom and Carl walked back from the Park together as far as 13th Street; Tom went right, and Carl continued straight on. Peach was asleep when he arrived in his room, so he went quietly to his bed and whispered a request to the Manual for a précis on the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.
The report was mostly unsurprising. Any major disaster had the Lone Power behind it somewhere, this one more than most; Carl already knew that the earthquake had been devastating, and the subsequent fires even more so. He hadn't known that some of the fires had started from poorly set and dynamited firebreaks, nor that the fire chief had died in the initial quake, but he could imagine the dark gloating laughter at the senselessness of the whole chain of events. What Carl hadn't expected was what the Manual had to say on the quake's origins.
In the aftermath of California's gold rush, Carl read, many of the wizards native to the area were incapable of reporting vital information to the newcomers. The breakdown of communication is attributed to agents of the Lone Power, both deliberate and unwitting. With no inherent knowledge of the land besides what the land itself could give them, wizards new to California and especially to the San Francisco Bay Area fundamentally miscalculated one particular aspect of the geography. Correctly perceiving the active fault line along the coast as a constant danger to Life, the wizards engineered a spell to diffuse the fault's pressure without resultant earthquakes. While this spell was effective in releasing some of the pressure, the rest stored and built up until a complete collapse fifty years later, resulting in the 7.8 MMS earthquake which destroyed --
Carl was rudely interrupted by a nip on the ear. He jumped; Peach squawked; Carl called her a few names not meant for innocent bird ears. After a few moments they both settled down. Peach ruffled her feathers. "Well?"
"Sometimes I hate you," Carl said.
"Sometimes you can't diffuse the pressure without earthquakes," Peach said loftily.
"I am not a metaphor," Carl snapped, and sighed. "And I don't want to have a partner."
"That One doesn't want you to either," Peach pointed out.
"You're way too smart for a bird," Carl grumbled. "Now if you don't mind, I've got homework to do."
Peach gripped Carl's shoulder a little too tightly. "Just look in the book first," she said. Because Carl sometimes remembered it was wise to listen to the bird who could rip his ear off, he pulled the Manual back over and flipped to the directory.
Carl Romeo: on errantry.
Nita found Kit in his living room, arguing with a cell phone -- the actual cell phone, not someone on the other end. "Look," Kit was saying to it in the Speech, in a very reasonable tone of voice, "calling your voicemail is a breeze. You're on the same service provider!"
"Bad time?" Nita asked, lingering in the doorway.
"Nah, it's being stubborn." Kit set the phone aside. "Hey, Neets."
And just like that, Nita got a lump in her throat. How stupid. It was so easy to be in life-or-death situations with Kit and have more important things to worry about than being choked up or afraid, but here in Kit's living room it was happening again, and it never got any easier. "Hey," Nita said, and came in to perch on the other end of the couch. "Cingular?"
"Verizon." Kit sighed. "Sometimes I think I should retire to somewhere without machines. Rural Madagascar, or somewhere in the Magellanic Cloud. So what's up?"
"I got my Dartmouth letter this morning," Nita said. "I'm in."
"That's great!" said Kit, sounding like he meant it. "You're gonna say yes, right?"
"I think so." Nita took the cell phone from where Kit had set it on the couch. It radiated sullenness at her, and she grinned a little before looking back at Kit. "I thought I should check in with you first, though."
"Neets," Kit said seriously, "if you don't go, I will personally help Dairine in her lifelong quest to make your existence one of obnoxious pain and misery." Nita opened her mouth and Kit added, "I'll visit you all the time, okay? Everyone will think you have a mysterious boyfriend or something, I'll be around so much."
Nita snorted. "Great. Five years and we still can't escape that."
Kit waited a beat too long before giving the usual commiserating grin. "The point is, you're going. It'll be good for us to do things differently for a while."
He waved a hand. "And we'll have at least one more project and chance to die together before you go, right?"
Nita laughed. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
Tom and Carl met Sunday afternoon to discuss options and theories. "I'm just here to check figures and provide extra power," Carl said as soon as he could, and Tom agreed; they went on to pour over seismic charts in Tom's dorm room, which was a little bigger than Carl's and not filled with loud macaw.
After about an hour, Carl sat back on his heels. "Okay, I'll say it: even That One can't move a whole fault three hundred miles east. We're looking at an undiscovered fault line or a new one. Either that or physics is getting screwed."
"It's mostly mica schist around here, and then bedrock. No striated rock or layering -- nothing to indicate a fault." Tom frowned and rubbed his eyes. "All the active volcanic activity is way off the coast, which rules out the most likely natural cause for a new one."
"Physics getting screwed, then." Carl went back to his Manual, and the list of recorded quakes that had transferred from Tom's. "What I don't get is why the Manual seems to think the Manhattan quakes are from the Clarendon-Linden fault. It's not prone to that sort of error."
"Physics getting screwed," Tom echoed. "Okay, bear with me. This fault line is the only major one in the Northeast. It isn't on a plate boundary, so, understandable. Even so, the quakes have been extremely mild and irregular. Reference for comparison," he told his Manual, and it brought up parallel listings for minor fault lines around the world. Most of them had a lot more activity than the Clarendon-Linden.
"Maybe an old wizardry was put in place to stop the fault." Carl met Tom's eyes; they were suddenly alight with the same idea. Carl felt a little breathless and hated it, and continued as normally as he could, "Like the wizardry used to calm the San Andreas. Only in that case the pressure relieved itself with a massive quake on the fault, and in this case the pressure was displaced."
"Conjecture," Tom said, but wizards know to trust their intuition, and the fact of Tom's origins in California alone were almost enough to confirm it. "I'll index for old wizardries in western New York."
"Imagine a massive earthquake in Manhattan," Carl murmured. "That would be ..." Really bad.
After Nita sent in the signed contract agreeing to attend Dartmouth, the world didn't change. Spot zoomed around the house making high-pitched noises until Dairine caught and subdued him; Kit and Nita spent a weekend at the Crossings helping Sker'ret clean up a complicated mess. Nita's dad spent long hours in the shop in the week leading up to Valentine's Day, then brought each of his girls a single rose and took them out to dinner; the following morning Dairine had a screaming fight with Roshaun over 'stupid Earth customs' and Nita found herself cleaning up another complicated mess. She even mostly managed to avoid 'Senioritis,' but she was very grateful for the approach of spring break.
"Winter's not letting go this year," Kit observed, watching still-bare trees flash by outside the window of the train. It was the weekend, and he and Nita had decided to take a day off and visit the city the nonwizardly way.
They got off at Grand Central, mostly to give the worldgates a quick check and say hi to Arhu, who was on duty that morning. Then they took the walk up to Central Park, chatting. Later Nita wouldn't remember the topic of conversation, only that she still wasn't quite used to Kit being taller than her, and that he made her laugh, and that his shoelace was untied. He bought them both huge fluffy pretzels just outside the Park.
"I always remember the statues coming alive," Nita said. "Maybe we should say hello."
"Sure," Kit agreed. "I was also thinking we might behave like little kids and go on the carousel."
"That would be amazing," said Nita, half-laughing but meaning it, and they stepped into the wrongness.
It was a subtle wrongness, like an invisible sheet of oil over the sidewalk, like nearly twisting an ankle. Both Kit and Nita stopped and stood quite still. A bit of snow hissed by them. The light was a shade too green for the grey late winter. "Neets --?" Kit whispered.
"I have no idea," Nita said quietly back. "Keep walking. Let's see how big the affected area is."
Five steps, molasses-slow, and they were through whatever it was, or it went away. Everything looked normal, including the bit of sidewalk they'd just covered. Kit shook all over like a wet dog, and Nita hugged her arms. "So much for the carousel," she said. "We'd better check this thing out."
"Yeah." Kit snorted. "Wizard's holiday."
The Manual didn't have Carl's current assignment marked as high priority -- apparently even the Powers understood that college was college -- so he spent his weekdays going to classes and reading up on seismology in his free time; every weekend he would meet Tom.
After the first time in Tom's dorm, they moved to neutral ground: note-taking over coffee in some cheap cozy café, or walking through the Park in deep debate. Tom liked to defend his position by citing times he'd worked through similar situations; Carl mostly agreed with him, but on those points where they differed he would back his arguments with raw data from the Manual or proofs he'd worked out, never from his previous work. He hoped Tom would assume Carl stuck to theory because he had no practical experience with earthquakes, but Tom was intelligent. Carl wasn't actually lying by omission, but he was coming close to it, and Tom could probably tell. If he could, though, he said nothing about it. Carl was a little grateful for that, which made him uncomfortable, because it was becoming very easy to appreciate things in Tom. The list started somewhere around Tom being a good debater and a better wizard, and ended somewhere around Tom being a funny guy who liked the same bands Carl did and had endless supplies of helpful advice about college life.
"I'm not used to this," Carl observed one day. He and Tom had been going over the trouble spots in the Park, and had moved to a bench to eat hot dogs and watch the kids shrieking and laughing on the carousel.
"The pitter-patter of little feet?" Tom asked.
"No, uh," said Carl, and Tom turned from the carousel to pay him attention. "Having a friend who's also a wizard. I don't usually do that."
"It's new for me too," Tom admitted. "I mean, I had some colleagues in California I could go to if I had trouble with the spell-work, but I've never had someone get worked into the equation with me." He bit his lip briefly, one of the first signs of uncertainty Carl had ever seen in him -- so he nearly missed the ghostly pressure against his own bottom lip. Nearly. "I'm not a terror to work with, am I?" Tom was asking.
"No, yeah," Carl said, and Tom gave him a bewildered look, so Carl bumped his shoulder gently. "Of course you're good to work with. I have no patience at all, so if you weren't I would've run off screaming a long time ago."
"Good," Tom said, and went back to people-watching. For a moment Carl felt him breathing from the inside.
"On second thought," Carl said, "I do have to run screaming now. I just realized something." He stood up and even managed to give Tom a grin. "I'll see you next weekend?"
"I'll have ground zero calculated to the last inch when you do," Tom said. "See you."
"See you," said Carl.
He was rattled enough that he snuck into the nearest public restroom and teleported straight to his dorm room rather than negotiating traffic. The bang of outrushing air resultant of his arrival caused Machu Picchu to give him a very dirty look, which Carl paid back with interest. "I can hear him," he said.
"I can hear you," Peach shot back, unimpressed.
"No, I can hear him," Carl said, sitting down in his desk chair with a thump. "I mean, I could feel -- I'm listening to his body." He groaned and pressed his knuckles to his eyes. "Why can't I have nice things, Peach?"
"Uncomplicated is booooring," observed Picchu the philosopher.
Carl couldn't really argue with that, so he took a moment to wallow in panic and then went back to the Manual. See if he couldn't find the problem spot before Tom did.
"Long time, no see, Kit," Carl said, opening the door for them. Kit and Nita came in out of the yard. "Excuse the mess," Carl added; "it's Tom's night to cook."
"I could hear that!" Tom called from the kitchen.
They followed Carl there. It wasn't a real disaster area, but it had its moments; Carl had to sweep a whole stack of cookbooks off the table and surroundings so Nita and Kit could see where they were sitting, and the countertop did look like a warzone of flour. Tom had his sleeves rolled up and was doing something violent to vegetables next to the sink. He paused to say hi, then carried on.
"So, to what do we owe this visit?" Carl asked, sitting down where he could very obviously keep an eye on the proceedings.
"We went into the city today, just for a day off," Nita said. "So, of course, wizard's holiday. We were in Central Park, near the playground, and we ..." She trailed off, glancing at Kit.
"It was weird," Kit said. "There was this little bit of the Park where nothing ... fit. Like it didn't belong. It was ..."
"Shaky," Nita supplied. "And a little bit green."
Tom stopped chopping the vegetables. In fact, he stopped mid-chop, the knife hovering absurdly for a moment. He set it down and stared at Carl. "Near the playground," Carl said, looking straight back at Tom. Nita had the slightly uncomfortable feeling she used to get whenever she walked in on her parents doing something completely normal that was nevertheless obviously private. She glanced at Kit; he looked the way she felt. Then Carl's attention moved back to Kit and Nita, and he went on, "Central Park West, just below 65th?"
"That's the place." Kit nodded. "Why, is it some sort of hot spot?"
"Not usually," said Tom. "Frankly I'm not sure what to tell you. Does the Manual have you on errantry?"
"Yeah." Nita flipped to the appropriate page. "It's also high priority, which is why we came here, because we don't even know what it is."
"A seismic pressure rift that could demolish Manhattan if it's allowed to become bigger," Tom said matter-of-factly. Kit and Nita stared. "It's been inactive for longer than either of you have been alive."
"Wow," said Carl. "I feel old."
"Pretend Nita was a zygote, then," Tom returned. "The point is, if you're the solution you'll need to get back there as quickly as possible. My only advice is to listen to the snake."
"And you'll need a containment spell," Carl added. "I don't know the specific parameters, but a catch-all terminus would be a good bet."
"This is advice so specific as to border on creepy," Kit observed.
"We have a personal history with the area," said Tom. "Nita?"
Nita started. "Sorry," she said. "I was just remembering -- Listen, do you have old rocks? A terminus delineates boundaries, right? A marker would be a good focus."
"I'll go look through the old rock collection and see if there's something suitable," Carl said. He gave Nita a wink and went out to the yard.
"What did you remember, Neets?" Kit asked.
"A dream," Nita said, frowning, and told him about it.
On a Friday morning in early March Carl found his Manual glowing gently. The message inside was from Tom. Found the exact coordinates for the trouble spot. Meet me at the Park, 10:30 AM.
Carl wrote back, somewhat cheekily, 40° 46' 56" by -73° 57' 55" and found his scarf.
"You might have told me," Tom said by way of greeting when Carl met him at the Plaza. The cold colored his cheeks, and Carl flushed a little too. Tom grinned at him.
"Dai'stiho yourself," Carl returned. "I only figured it out last night. I thought it could wait until the morning."
"Fair call." Tom headed into the Park, Carl matching his stride. "First bit of business: designs should always be adapted to the context in which they are located. So the spell to relocate the pressure to the proper geographic area --"
"Should be a rewrite of your recycling spell," Carl said, a smile starting. "You actually applied the principle of genius loci to a patch on a pollution matrix?"
"You actually knew where I was going with that sentence?" Tom returned. "And you think I'm impressive."
"I didn't say that," Carl protested, laughing. "It won't create any major earthquakes in western New York, will it?"
"It shouldn't," Tom said, unencouragingly. "Anyway." They stopped on the footpath. Tom checked around them, but it was just after ten on a school- and workday: they were alone. Tom pulled a long silvery string of Speech characters from his book bag, and shook them out like a piece of rope. He lay the spell carefully on the concrete; both of them knelt down by it, checking equations and switching Sea for land (island [Manhattan]) New York [Clarendon-Linden], Hg and Pb for mica and Sb. Carl added the shorthand for his own name, linked to the body of the spell next to Tom's.
Slowly the spell formed a circle around them. The listening silence pressed down, although they hadn't started speaking yet; and there was a malevolence to the pressure. Carl took several deep breaths. You can't avoid It forever, he told himself. Tom glanced at him; Carl nodded. Tom tied off the wizard's knot, making the spell-circle whole, and they stood, facing each other.
"This is a type six modified translocation spell," Tom started in the Speech, "to redistribute seismic pressure from --"
"Latitude 40° 46' 56" by longitude -73° 57' 55" to latitude 43° 14' 47" by longitude -78° 11' 37"," Carl said. He shared an incandescent grin with Tom and his heart pounded in his throat. The high singing attendant to the listening silence was starting in his ears. "The redistributed pressure is then to continue its normal geologic cycle." The light was getting greenish.
"Carl," Tom whispered; it carried, and echoed.
They were in a place like a giant amphitheatre, stone risers misty in the distance. It was much too warm for Carl's scarf or Tom's thick winter coat. The singing silence had been replaced by a far-off rushing noise, like a distant river or an underground train. "Um," said Carl.
"Timeslide?" Tom asked nervously.
"Horrible miscalculation," Carl replied, very calmly in the face of things. "The pressure here isn't entirely physical; it must have worn into the ground so much it created a little worldgate, and we've triggered it."
The far-off rushing was getting steadily louder. "Should we put the translocation in place anyway?" Tom asked.
"No," said a voice outside the spell-circle.
Tom and Carl looked. A large spotted snake with eyes uncomfortably like Picchu's was risen partway up out of the grass, regarding them both with some distaste.
"Genius loci," murmured Tom, and laughed a little, softly. "'Spirit of the place.' We are on errantry, and we greet you."
"It's not a kernel, is it?" Carl asked quietly, eyeing the snake.
"It is a guardian," said the snake pointedly. "I cannot hold this place if you come so ill-equipped." The rushing noise grew louder still, was becoming a roar that set Carl's teeth on edge. He glanced at Tom; Tom was going white.
"It's an earthquake," he said, nearly too quietly to be heard. "This is how they sound."
Carl took a deep breath and tried to ignore the dark laughter in the middle of the roar. Starsnuffer. "Open-ended timeslide," he said. Tom stared at him. "We'll send it forward until it reaches the appropriate materials."
"Do you want to die?" Tom demanded, and the dark laughter in the earthquake-roar was more pronounced, and Carl laughed with it, against it, had to swallow it down before he became hysterical.
"No," he said, veins singing, and began speaking the timeslide: a blank-check debt to stop Manhattan from collapsing. Tom stepped up next to him, taking his hand, and said a single word. Conduit. Carl wanted to yell at him for being stupid, but he guessed Tom wanted to yell at him for the same thing, so he kept clutching tight to Tom's hand and spoke the necessary words, swaying only a little.
The green world went dark and slid away, leaving them standing in the middle of a small cold grey Manhattan day. Carl tried very hard to stay standing, and didn't tear away from Tom's hand holding up his elbow.
He did have the energy to talk, though. "Why did you do that?"
"Because you have too much potential to martyr yourself," Tom snapped. Carl winced. "Now come on," Tom said, more gently. "Let's get you something to eat before you fall over."
Nita and Kit returned to Central Park the quick way. "What do you think that was about?" Kit asked.
"I don't know." Nita hefted the rock Carl had given her. "I think we're going to find out, though."
There wasn't anyone near them on the path for the moment, so they set up the spell parameters quickly. "This is a type six translocation spell to redistribute seismic pressure from latitude 40° 46' 56" by longitude -73° 57' 55" to latitude 43° 14' 47" by longitude -78° 11' 37"," Kit said, speaking quickly.
"The redistributed pressure is then to continue its normal geologic cycle," Nita finished.
It was not gentle. They were slammed from Central Park into the world from Nita's dream, and another spell flared up and attached to their own. Kit edged over until he was holding Nita's free hand. "Now what?" he muttered.
"Now --" Nita took a breath and knelt down, setting the rock firmly in the dirt so that it stayed upright. "This is a modified kernel construct spell," she said, "for the entwinement of Central Park's genius loci and this terminus, to delineate the boundary of the timeslide, and to reset the seismic pressure to its original source." Out of the corner of her eye she saw something like a snake gliding over to them; she stood back up and held Kit's hand. The spell demanded energy, and she gave it willingly, but Kit did too, halving the deficit. They leaned on each other and watched the snake glide up and around the terminus, becoming stone as it did so. A complex gating structure rose up, Central Park visible on the other side.
Kit and Nita stepped through together, and that liminal world closed behind them.
"Talk to me," Tom said gently.
Carl spent a while concentrating on his bagel. Tom sat patiently. Carl said, "That unfinished spell probably paid back most of the blank check. We have an energy surplus now."
"Yeah," Tom said. "What happened to make you so angry?"
Carl laughed. "I'm not angry." He sighed and mopped up some crumbs. "I just really hate it when That One wins."
"You can have the rest of my coffee," Tom said.
"Thanks." Carl stared into the black abyss of too much caffeine. "There was this girl in high school. She was a wizard too. A year younger than me. I hadn't known her before her Ordeal, but she found me in the book and thought we could try working together." Carl laughed again. It hurt his throat but it felt kind of okay, too. "I think she had a crush on me."
"Unrequited?" Tom asked sympathetically.
"Yeah. I don't --" Carl looked up and saw that Tom knew. He felt suddenly lighter. "Anyway," he said. "We did a couple of projects. She was a good partner. Competent. Then ..." He shrugged. "It's always the same story. I got us into a mess, and I thought I'd have to pay lifeprice to get us out. Which is fine -- I know what I signed up for. The problem was, since she was younger than me, she thought she could pay my debt and live."
He stared at the coffee some more. Tom was listening, and Carl could feel it; he could feel Tom feeling his heartbeat and the ache in his throat. It was both awful and comforting. "I thought she could pay without dying too," he said, "so I gave her the price willingly."
People chattered around them, and clinked spoons against coffee cups. Outside Manhattan roared its muted roar, different from the coming earthquake. Carl finished the coffee.
"I could say a lot of things," Tom said quietly.
"I'll give you a list," Carl said. "'Everyone gets tricked sometimes.' 'It wasn't your fault.' 'It will heal in time.'"
"How about 'everything happens for a reason'?" asked Tom, wryly.
"I hate that one," Carl admitted.
"How about this," said Tom. "Senseless awful things happen, and you weren't the only one being stupid or playing into Its hands. Absolutely the best thing you can do is laugh and defy It -- and frankly I think you're doing a pretty good job, since you're still practicing the Art. But the way I see it, we're the lucky few who do know that things happen for a reason. The Powers That Be are going to do Their best to keep you, and if that means being angry but carrying on, so be it. I just think it might be needlessly cruel for you to do it alone."
"You're going back to Sarah Lawrence in the fall," Carl pointed out.
"In six months, yes! And less than a year after that I'll be back here. Every publishing house in the world is on this island."
"Surely you exaggerate," Carl said. He felt like grinning, a huge happy grin, unafraid to be frightened.
"Surely you don't think the Powers waste resources," Tom countered, and leaned across the table. His thumb settled on the inside of Carl's wrist. Carl's pulse thrummed wildly. "You're not getting rid of me," Tom said.
They didn't go straight home, but walked together around Central Park, saying hello to the statues and talking about nothing in particular.
"When I'm away," Nita said, "look after Dari for me, will you?"
"I hope Mela didn't say that to you when she went to school," Kit said. Nita rolled her eyes. "Yeah, of course I will."
"Thanks," Nita said. She scuffed at a pebble. "Kit? How do you think Tom and Carl do it?"
"Keep being partners after so long. You heard Tom: it's been at least twenty years. I mean, imagine getting a house with me!"
"I don't know," Kit said, shrugging. "The first trick is being a wizard and managing to live that long."
"And the second trick?"
"No idea." Kit squeezed her hand. "I don't know about houses, but I can't imagine ever getting tired of you, Neets."
Nita squeezed back. "But, I mean -- Tom and Carl. They manage because it's not complicated, right?" She took a deep breath. "Their parents probably never thought they were sneaking off to have sex together before they learned the truth."
"Complex set of assumptions, Neets," Kit said, frowning a little. "I tell you, my mama was really surprised when she learned Tom and Carl were wizards. She thought they were a couple."
"Oh," said Nita, and blushed a little. "Well, okay, I thought Tom was Old Crazy Swale and I didn't even know Carl existed, so your mama was a little better informed." They reached the statue of Balto. Endurance, fidelity, intelligence, Nita thought, barely bothering to look at the plaque after reading it so many times as a kid. She stopped and looked up at the statue for a couple of seconds. "Hey, Kit? Are Tom and Carl ...?"
"I don't think it matters," Kit said reasonably.
Nita kept staring at Balto. "Right now it does," she said, "because the only model I've got is my crazy kid sister and her crazy Sun Lord, and they'd be a model of amazing dysfunctionality whether they're wizards or not. But if Tom and Carl can pull it off ..."
Kit's grip had gotten very tight. "Nita," he said.
"I think this is just one of those things that sort of happens," Nita said, and turned to him. "Are we cool?"
Kit was staring at her like he'd never actually seen her before. "It depends," he said. "Do we get to kiss now?"
"I think that's the general idea," Nita admitted.
"Then we're cool," said Kit, and they kissed.
Night fell over Manhattan, as much as night ever did fall. Carl stood on the balcony of Tom's apartment, watching the traffic below, until Tom stuck his head out. "It's freezing."
"Yeah," Carl agreed, and turned to look at Tom. Tom made a face and dragged Carl inside by his collar. "The bird's angry she hasn't met you," Carl said, sitting down with a bounce on Tom's bed.
"I look forward to the pleasure of her company," Tom said. Carl snorted and scooted over to make room for Tom to sit. Tom turned on the little television he had propped precariously on his dresser; the news had no earthquakes or related weirdness to report. Tom leaned a little against Carl's shoulder. Carl leaned a lot more on Tom's, until Tom snuck an arm around to hold Carl against him. He could hear both their heartbeats.
"This might be one of those awkward question times," Carl said.
"Yes, I would like to have a thing; no, I don't know how it will interfere with work but I'm willing to risk it; and sorry, you do have to meet the folks sometime," said Tom, and grinned at Carl. "It's San Francisco. They'll be thrilled."
"Okay," Carl agreed, and leaned over to kiss Tom carefully. It was a lot like coming home, which was stupid. Carl didn't mind.
"The time is eight-seventeen in the evening and New York City should get ready for some unseasonable snow flurries!" someone on the TV announced, in a voice very like Picchu's. Carl smiled against Tom's collar. Peach could gloat all she liked.