cover art by Shmaylor
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The thing about magic is that you don’t know whether you have it until you meet a magician who’ll try it with you.
Parker had heard of magic before, but she knew she couldn’t count on it to save her, the same way she couldn’t count on anything to save her but herself. She hadn’t needed magic to blow up her stupid awful foster parents’ house, or run away halfway across the country, or steal cars, or survive on the streets of New York.
In New York, she saw other street kids doing it. A ring of kids all hugging one of the supports of the arch in Washington Square Park, their edges blurring into each other, until they disappeared inside the stone. Three girls holding hands, sending a boy with ugly thoughts in his eyes staggering backward. One time she saw it go wrong, two boys bumping fists to cast a spell and hissing as their knuckles came away red and scalded.
The thing about magic is that you can’t do it by yourself. No one person has enough magic in them to do even a minor casting. It takes two people for that. And for any kind of major casting, you need at least three. Parker knew that, which was why she couldn’t trust it. Parker didn’t need magic. She didn’t need anyone to help.
Or so she’d thought, until she’d tried to steal from a magician.
She dropped into the little condo in Queens through the tiny attic window. Mostly there was just boring attic stuff. But something caught the moonlight with a liquid rainbow shine like an oil slick. It was a pair of binoculars. Parker reached for them.
Her teeth rattled in her skull. There was a jangling under her skin. Her fingers seized around the binoculars like she’d been electrocuted. She fell backward and landed on an old vase, which shattered. Finally the binoculars fell from her nerveless fingers. Parker fought to catch her breath. She had to get out of here.
Parker got back to her feet, shaking, but the stairs creaked and there was a man there, wearing a fancy dressing gown. She dashed for the window. Behind her, the man said in a classy British accent, “Ah. A connoisseur of magical artifacts, are we?”
Halfway out the window, Parker stopped. She’d never heard of an object being magic before, just castings, done and gone. “They’re magic?” she said in a tiny voice.
“My former associates and I enchanted them for reconnaissance work,” the man said easily, as if he were trading old stories over cocktails, instead of talking to a girl who just tried to rob him. “They can see a good sight farther than binoculars their size ought to. Or they could when I was an active thief, back when the dinosaurs roamed. The enchantment’s likely gone askew by now.” The man picked up the binoculars, and they didn’t hurt him. He inspected them, frowned as if they’d disappointed him, and put them back down. He looked up and smiled when he saw she hadn’t scampered away. “My name’s Archie. What’s yours?”
Every time someone asked her that, Parker wondered if she should make up a name. Most of the names the street kids gave were made up, especially the kids like her. But Parker didn’t see the point. She was so far from where she’d grown up that no one would know her, and if people couldn’t tell she was a girl even with her name what it was, then she wasn’t stealing the right clothes or enough hormones, and changing her name wouldn’t fix that. So she said, “I’m Parker. Why do you live in a normal house?”
Archie laughed a little, but not a mean laugh like he was making fun of her. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because you’re like me. You’re a thief. And a magician.”
Archie sighed. “I’m not like you, Parker. I have a family.”
Parker leapt up onto the roof, face prickling hot. She heard him call through the window, “Wait!” She looked down. He was leaning out of it, looking for her. “We aren’t alike, you and I. But I can still teach you.”
“Teach me what?” Parker said.
Archie followed her voice to the roof. “Ah! There you are,” he said. And he climbed up onto the roof with her. The right way, quiet and light. He really was a thief. “You saw the enchantment on the binoculars. I was once the greatest magician thief in the world. With my instruction, you could do the same.”
“Why would I want to?” Parker said. “You can’t do magic by yourself. I work alone.”
“You’re a clever girl, not to trust anyone,” Archie said. “But even if you decide not to cast magic, you may find yourself facing rivals who do. The only way to prepare for that eventuality is to try casting it yourself.” He held out his hand.
Parker stared at his hand. She felt exposed standing on the roof with him. What if someone noticed? But they were on the roof of his own house. And if he tried to hurt her, she could just blow up his house like she did to her foster parents. He’d deserve it. His stupid family, too, for all she cared.
She thought of the two boys whose spell had gone wrong. Did Archie really know what he was doing? She said, “What can magic do? I’ve seen castings, but…”
“Enchant objects, as you’ve seen,” Archie said. “Create hidden spaces. Call to particular types of objects. Change the appearances of people.” He studied her, and she felt exposed again, like everyone in Rockaway was watching her on this roof in the middle of the night. “It really depends on the people involved in the casting, dear girl. We call it the gestalt – the collective magic created by a particular group of magicians who cast.” He wiggled his fingers. “Would you like to find out what we can do together?”
The thing about magic was that Parker was just a girl, no matter what other people had to say about it. But if she wanted to survive, she had to be more than just a girl – and she needed magic for that.
She took Archie’s hand.
She could feel the gestalt between them right away. It felt like a knife scraping against a whetstone, and a rope creaking under tension.
She heard a distant siren and wondered with a jolt of fear where the cops were. There was a feeling of giving, of slack, from Archie, like he was paying out a rope, and suddenly Parker could hear the engine roar of every cop car in outer Queens, and where they were relative to where she stood on the roof. None of them were close.
Parker let go of Archie’s hands. “You let me control it.”
Archie smiled. “I wanted to see what you would do with it.”
But if he let her have control, that meant maybe he could take control. That was a lesson Parker would never forget.
Alec’s second night at Madge’s house, he woke up from a nightmare, sweating and shaking. The top bunk creaked above him. “I’ll go get Nana,” Pedro said, and he climbed down the ladder and left.
Alec’s face burned. He pulled up the covers so only his eyes peeked out. The last couple homes he’d been in, he’d had a room to himself. He’d forgotten there were other people he could wake up with his nightmares, now. He wished Pedro hadn’t gone to fetch Madge. If he kept waking her up with all of his stupid little problems, she might send him back to the home. Maybe Alec should stop him. But he felt like he was nailed down to the bed with fear, his heart a hammer striking the nails deeper.
Madge came in with Theresa, the oldest foster kid. “I’m sorry,” Alec said, his voice muffled in the blanket. “I didn’t mean to wake anyone up.”
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Madge said. “We’re here to help you. First off, honey, did you wet the bed?”
Alec’s body went cold with horror. That had happened before when he was younger. Had he? No, no, he hadn’t. Madge wouldn’t have to go to any more trouble for him. Maybe she and Theresa would just go to bed now and leave him alone. “No, ma’am.”
“Don’t be afraid to tell me if you did,” she said, as if it was that easy. “We all have accidents sometimes. You want to get back to sleep, Alec?”
Alec nodded mutely. He wanted to, but he didn’t know how. Were Madge and Theresa going to sing a lullaby or something? That would be embarrassing. Alec wasn’t a baby.
Theresa and Madge held hands. Alec felt something, a kind of heaviness in the air, and suddenly he forgot what his nightmare had even been about. His body felt like a cup of hot cocoa, all warm and liquid and cozy. It felt good, so good that even the worry that they were spending too much of their time on him dissolved away.
He woke up with the morning sun slanting yellow through the window, feeling more rested than he had in years. Pedro was already up for breakfast, so it was time for him to get ready too. He put on the shoes from the Jehovah’s Witness house and the shorts from the alcoholics’ house and the T-shirt from Christmas at the boys’ home.
There was still hot breakfast for him when he came downstairs, shoulders hunched and head down. He apologized for being late and ate his oatmeal. After, he did the chores Madge said he should do, just easy ones like fixing the antenna on the TV in the den and making a list of everything in the pantry. He even kind of liked doing those. Then he went to find Madge.
She was in the kitchen, soaking beans and defrosting chicken. Alec didn’t want to interrupt, but when she saw him standing quietly by the door, she set down the pot of beans on the stove. “What’s on your mind, Alec?”
“Was that magic you and Theresa did last night?”
“Yes. We cast a magical sleep on you.” Madge leaned against the counter. “How do you feel about that? What have you heard about magic?”
Alec bit his lip. He wasn’t sure what she wanted to hear.
“You can tell me, hon. Just because you heard something doesn’t mean you believe it. I just want to find out what you’ve been told.”
“I lived with Jehovah’s Witnesses who said it was evil. Some kids at the home knew how to do it. But they did bad stuff, like bully the other kids. I hated that. The sisters hated it too. They said only people who were stupid and desperate messed around with power like that. They’d whup the kids who did it and make them talk to Father Ignacio. You’re not gonna whup Theresa for doing magic with you, are you?”
Madge leaned in a little to get to eye level with Alec. “Listen up. I will never whup you for anything. I never lay a hand in anger on any child in this house. If any child gets fresh with another one, with magic or with their hands, they get a timeout and extra chores for a week. That’s the way it is under this roof.”
“I won’t get fresh with other kids, ma’am,” Alec said, trying his best to look her in the eye.
Madge straightened back up. “Good. Magic is powerful. You can use it to hurt people, that’s for certain sure. And it can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, or you do it with the wrong people. But if you do it right, you can keep food fresh, or find your way home through the dark, or even beat a nightmare.” Her eyes twinkled, and just for a second Alec saw not a big lady with flour on her forearms, but a witch straight out of one of his books.
Alec said, “Can anyone do magic?”
She smiled. “Not everyone can do magic, hon. And not every combination of people works out so well. But there are ways to test whether you’re a magician or not. Do you want to find out with me?”
Alec was tired of being another lost kid. An inconvenience. He wanted to be useful to this woman. He wanted to have something that other people needed. He spoke up in a tiny voice. “Please.”
She reached out to him. “Take my hand.”
When their palms met, Alec felt something building around them. It was wood getting sawed into planks and nails getting hammered into place. It was good, solid construction, something that would last.
He could feel her murmuring to the power, asking it if it wanted to do something around the house, like make that chicken defrost now instead of in three hours. But Alec wanted to push the magic to see what it could do. He wanted something exciting.
Alec’s favorite violin piece, The Flight of the Bumblebee, started playing. He looked around; there was no speaker or TV in the kitchen. It came from the air all around them, every note perfect just like Alec learned to play it, rising and rising like a bee on the wing. He looked around the room, as if he could find a bee or a violin somewhere making the noise, but there was none. It had come from him. He laughed. When the song got to the end, he let his hand drop to his side, suddenly feeling like the silly little boy the sisters at the home said he was. “I’m sorry,” he said.
She beamed at him. “What are you apologizing to me for? That was beautiful, what you did!”
“You wanted the magic to do something useful around the house,” Alec said.
“I let you cast the magic that way,” she said. “I felt that was where you wanted to go. You didn’t do anything wrong. I can teach you how to do useful things later. I’m too busy standing around in awe at your musical talent, honey.”
“Thank you, Nana,” Alec said. His hand lifted a little, like it wanted to hold her hand again or give her a hug, without asking his brain first. He put it back down. One day, soon, he’d do that. But not today.
“Thank you for calling me Nana,” Nana said. “It’s an honor to be yours.”
The Army tests everyone for magic when they enlist. The recruiter shook Eliot’s hand, very formal, and the gestalt sprang up like a slow summer night in Kentucky, crickets chirping and frogs grumbling in the ponds. Eliot had never felt anything like it before. He wanted to find out what the magic could do, take it for a spin, but before he could, the officer let go of his hand. “I’ll add that to your file,” he said.
They put him in an all-magician unit. The unit’s gestalt became as familiar to Eliot as his own breath. It felt like breathing, too, and the ocean sighing. They cast magic to protect convoys and clear minefields. He got to be a useful part of something bigger than himself. He loved it.
The higher-ups must have seen something in him, though, even though he was just part of the unit – no one can cast magic alone. They transferred him to a special ops unit. The gestalt of that unit was different, harder. Rock grinding against rock, ice creaking on water. They didn’t use their magic to protect. They used it to track and chase and corner their prey.
Eliot didn’t quit the Army because he had another gig in mind. In fact, he had no idea what he was good for anymore, after what he’d done in special ops. All he knew was that he couldn’t stay another tour.
He was such a fool, back then. A drifting, disaffected, former special ops magician? He was a walking target for Damien Moreau.
He got the offer from a woman who flirted with him at the gym. “My employer thinks you might fit in with his gestalt,” she said to him, low. His, she said, like a gestalt could belong to any one person. “The magic his coven can cast is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. That’s a promise.”
She’d found where Eliot was weak. He missed the magic. He felt so alone, his power walled off from all the connections he knew it could make. So he showed up at the conference room in the hotel where she’d told him to go. There was nobody there, and for a minute there Eliot thought she’d been jerking his chain – or setting up a trap.
Then ten men appeared in the conference room out of thin air. Eliot pulled his gun, adrenaline flooding his body. He’d never seen a major casting that powerful before. “Teleportation?” he said. “Or invisibility?”
A blandly pleasant-faced man with a placeless European accent stood at the front of the triangle formation of men. “Invisibility,” he said smoothly. “Teleportation isn’t possible. Yet.” He didn’t ask Eliot to put down his weapon, which scared him worse than a threat would have. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Eliot Spencer. I was impressed by the more… arcane aspects of your military record.” He bent a little at the waist. “I’m Damien Moreau.”
Eliot shifted to a one-handed grip on his gun. “All right. You have my attention.”
“You want to be a part of my gestalt?” No we or our from Moreau, not ever. Just I, me, mine. “I find that few men’s magic is compatible with mine. Most magicians just bounce off me. Like the similar poles of two magnets. Now, I have high hopes for you, based on your, ah, colorful exploits in the Middle East. But let’s see how you fare.”
In a second, Moreau was right up in Eliot’s personal space, stepping past the reach of his gun as if it weren’t there. Eliot’s whole body twitched with the effort not to hit him. Moreau grabbed him by the corners of his jaw, forcing his chin forward.
Eliot had never experienced a gestalt that made him feel so powerful. It was like he was standing at the edge of a cliff, the wind howling around him and under him, but he stood fast, knowing he wouldn’t fall. Moreau leaned into the power, and when Eliot felt where he was going with it, he didn’t resist. They slowly lifted into the air until they were levitating a foot off the ground, still joined by Moreau’s hand over Eliot’s lower face and throat. Without Eliot, Moreau would be a man standing in a conference room. With him, they could float, they could fly.
Moreau smiled and let go. They fell.
“An excellent beginning,” Moreau said. “I think with the addition of your magic, all kinds of things will become possible.”
And so it was. The eleven of them, linked, had a gestalt like a defiant scream into a raging storm. They enchanted ammunition, cast spells on people’s minds, killed them in ways he tried not to think about even while he was doing it. He kept telling himself that here he had value, here he had a place, here he was something more than a veteran picking up the pieces of his broken life.
He wished the breaking point had been when he was moved to compassion by some stupid kid begging for his life. Maybe that could have redeemed him, just a little. But that wasn’t it. One day, Moreau gave him a clip of ammo they enchanted to disappear a second after it was fired. He gave Eliot the address of a local magician. “She’s known for bringing a concealing aspect to a gestalt. Make her cast a spell with you to make her home unnoticeable. Then kill her.”
She turned out to be an old lady – not that he hadn’t killed old ladies before, by then. She lived in a big beautiful old house with lace curtains and a well-tended garden. Eliot would have stopped to admire it, if he’d been a neighbor passing by.
He pointed a gun at her head and said, “Cast with me.”
He gripped her forearm, and gritted his teeth when their magic ground against each other’s like gears going the wrong way. His palm started to itch and burn, but he gritted his teeth and held on. The gestalt was a hidden clockwork mechanism with sand caught in it. He pulled the magic out of her and cast an enchantment on the house to steer people away from it. Then he fired the gun between her eyes, and the gestalt crashed to a grinding halt.
Eliot looked down at his palm. It was blistered and raw. He thought, Yeah, my magic has a fit. I have a place. But why is my magic compatible with Damien Moreau’s and not with hers?
The next day, he was a ghost, in a country halfway around the world from Moreau.
Nate had known from the beginning that Sophie Devereaux was a magician. She often liked to target other magicians as marks, weaving her way into their confidences by showing them how beautiful their gestalt could be. He’d just never thought his magic would be compatible with hers. After all, she was a grifter, and he was an honest man.
The second time they met, Nate was waiting for her at the cafe in La Défense where her mark was due to show up for his weekly espresso and croque madame. He didn’t recognize her when she first came in. Then she sat at his table and said, “Monsieur Lefevre won’t be here today, I’m afraid. He’s off booking a boat so we can do a tour of the Loire Valley.” She’d cut her hair very short, and she was wearing a tux, like an old film star.
Nate must have given something away in his face, because Sophie’s eyes and mouth crinkled at the corners. “Monsieur Lefevre likes his women dapper.” Her eyes flicked over the nice suit Nate had put on to blend in better in the business district. “His men, too, if you’d care to join us.”
Nate showed her his right hand. “I’m married. And on the right side of the law.” He leaned back in his seat. “But you already know that by now.”
Sophie shrugged elegantly, the picture of a Parisian sophisticate. “Can’t blame a girl for trying.” She reached for one of the madeleines on Nate’s plate at the same time he did, and their fingers touched. Sophie stilled. “I heard something else about you, Mr. Insurance Man. They say you’re IYS’s expert on magic.”
“That’s right,” Nate said.
“Well,” she said, “wouldn’t you like to see what I can do?” And she pushed her magic through her fingers into him, and his magic rose to meet it without hesitation.
Nate had never felt a gestalt so specific before. It wasn’t a mood or a sensation; it was a situation. It was a swordfight in an arena, with an audience watching and clapping. He could hear the ring of sabres as the fencers riposted each other. He could even tell the audience was a sophisticated one, from the swish of their skirts and the restraint of their cheers. Nate found himself laughing softly.
Sophie raised her eyebrow, as if to say, Your move.
With his free hand, Nate lifted the tiny spoon he’d used to add sugar to his coffee and pressed it to their joined fingers.
“A spoon?” Sophie teased. “Would you like to enchant it to cool your coffee faster when you stir it?”
“I’m the expert on magic at IYS,” Nate said. “I’m just taking notes.” And he gently steered their magic into the spoon. Not to enchant it, just to leave an impression. When they were done, Nate passed her the spoon.
“It feels like us,” Sophie said, surprised. It felt good to surprise her. She always seemed to be three steps ahead.
“Like our gestalt,” Nate corrected, taking the spoon back. “So I don’t forget what you’re capable of.” He stood up and saluted her with the spoon. “I’ll be seeing you. Soon.”
Nate flicked through the files Dubenich gave him. Parker, Spencer, Hardison. Once his prey, now maybe his partners. “They’re all magicians,” he said. “But they work mundane jobs, and they work alone. Is that why you brought this crew together? So I could lead them as a coven?”
“Do whatever you have to do, mundane or magical,” Dubenich said. “I just need an honest magician to watch them.”
Nate took the job. Mundane, he told himself. Keep the job mundane. There’s no telling what the gestalt of this group might be.
Eliot should have seen Dubenich's double-cross coming. He’d been around the block enough times to know a setup. But the warehouse was about to blow, and Nate was the first to rabbit out, and Hardison was falling behind, and he was just a sweet young guy like so many sweet young guys who’d died beside him in the desert and he couldn’t let – he just couldn’t –
He grabbed the back of Hardison’s shirt with one hand, his knuckles touching the clammy skin between his shoulder blades, and caught the trailing edge of Parker’s fingers with his own. The gestalt rattled through him, stronger than anything he’d felt even with Moreau: wind and screaming motion through something built to reap that whirlwind. Eliot thought of the kids he’d saved from minefields in Iraq and made the explosion stop.
Eliot’s unit had protected convoys from IEDs by making them swerve harmlessly out of the way, or by tightening the radius of the explosion. They’d never done it like this. A bubble of calm encircled them and Nate, quiet and clear even as fire and debris roared down around them. Their hair didn’t even flutter in the backwash. When the explosion was over, the dust and smoke settling down, there was an untouched circle on the ground around them.
Parker let her hand fall to her side. Eliot had almost forgotten he had still been holding onto them. He let go of Hardison’s shirt.
Nate looked around and raised his eyebrows. “Hmm. Now that’s what I’d call a major casting.” As if it were an interesting museum exhibit and not magic it should have taken at least seven magicians to cast. Eliot risked glances at Parker and Hardison. Hardison was still staring around at where the wreckage didn’t touch them. Parker was looking back at him out of the corner of her eye, measuring. Nate clapped his hands, once. “So. Who wants to discuss our next move?”
Sophie hadn’t been there for the warehouse explosion or the magic cast there, but even so, she saw the effect it had on the crew, once Nate explained it to her. The only ones who were willing to cast magic on jobs were her and Nate – usually brushes of their fingers to cast distractions while they grifted together. They still had the gestalt recorded in Nate’s teaspoon: a fencing match for a refined and appreciative audience. But the younger three startled at the very suggestion of casting, even though they were obviously capable magicians.
Over time, Sophie developed her own reads on why that was. Parker had a long habit of total self-reliance and disliked that magic required trust in another person. Eliot was a hitter with a violent past, who had probably once cast magic toward violent ends. Hardison had, as far as Sophie could tell, only ever cast magic with his Nana, and was unsure if he was truly compatible with anyone else. And after they’d stopped that explosion in its tracks, all three of them were afraid of what they might be capable of.
Sophie had to admit she was curious about what the gestalt of their crew might be like. But they were able to do their jobs well – more than well, magnificently – while keeping them mostly mundane. There was no reason to tamper with a formula that worked.
Until the David job she’d selfishly conned Nate into, leaving their teammates – their charges, their protégés – isolated and vulnerable.
In the closeness of her vault of treasures, Sophie said, “Sterling knows us. He knows how we think.”
And Nate said, “So we think like somebody else.”
“Like who?” Sophie said.
Nate’s eyes glinted sharp in the dim light of the vault. “Like a coven of experienced magicians.”
He got the easier part of the plan, because of course he did. Hardison, like Sophie, was secretly curious about the magic of the crew. Nate and Hardison told Sophie, later, what had happened in their old offices. They were surrounded by six of Sterling’s goons, too many for Eliot to take on with his injuries. But Sterling knew Hardison’s M.O.: mundane jobs only. So he didn’t tell his goons to watch for magicians trying to cast. So Nate reached for Hardison’s wrist under the table, and made a gestalt.
Nate described it as “a whole bunch of big elaborate clockwork machines, each one spinning its gears in a different direction.” Hardison said it was “two giant mechas wrestling each other, but like, sparring, not actually trying to hurt each other or nothing.” Sophie preferred Nate’s description, not least because she wasn’t sure what giant mechas were. They worked together to cast a loud sound through the room, like a thunderclap, just enough of a distraction for Eliot to get the jump on them.
The real wild card in the plan had been whether Parker would spook. Sophie understood her reasons. She’d been on the other side of Parker’s nightmare: influencing the gestalts she made with her marks, steering the magic toward goals they had never intended. To cast magic was to risk surrendering control to another magician; Sophie knew that better than most.
So she stood on the roof, spread her arms, said, “I asked myself: what would Parker do?” looking her teammate directly in the eye. If Parker would just come over and cast with her – she knew any gestalt with Parker’s magic in it would have the power to get her off the roof safely.
Parker’s eyes widened. She was afraid. But she ran toward Sophie all the same, grabbing her, skin contact made from cheek to neck when Parker tucked her head over Sophie’s shoulder. Sophie had only a moment to get a sense of their gestalt – a pigeon cooing as it lifted off from a woman’s hand to deliver her message through the busy city streets – before Parker flung them off the roof, without a harness or a rope rig.
Sophie couldn’t help but scream a little, but she let Parker steer the magic, and a slight distortion in the air rippled into existence around them. With that, they glided straight across to a lower roof across the street. Sophie went tumbling across the roof, but Parker sprang to her feet, catlike, smiling. She helped Sophie to her feet. “That was cool,” she said, her whole face lighting with a smile.
It made Sophie feel a strange pang of guilt. Most of her marks had been robber barons like Blackpoole, but some of them had been sweet young things, trust fund babies with more money than sense. She could see in Parker’s face the same thing she’d seen in those marks: the open joy of truly trusting someone with her magic, for the first time in her life. Sophie didn’t deserve that, not really. But since she had that trust, she was going to work, for once in her life, to protect it.
Hardison stared at the beautiful, fragile violin in his large hands. He’d loved the violin as a kid. The first magic he’d ever cast, with Nana, had been playing The Flight of the Bumblebee in her kitchen. Even after he’d abandoned the violin in favor of the computer, he would cast violin music with Nana sometimes.
He brought it to his chin and tried to play. His hands were as nimble as they’d always been, as the other players on his WoW server could attest, thank you very much. But the sound came out shivering and screechy.
Parker came in dressed as a janitor. “Pa– Parker? What are you doing here?”
“Establishing my cover. Doing a walk-through. How's it going?”
“How do you think it's going? In 24 hours, right where I'm standing, I'm gonna make a fool of myself.” He’d joked to Nate about switching to programming instead of violin because of Internet porn, but that wasn’t the real reason. Or it was only a small reason, anyway. The big one was that on the computer, he was in control. He wrote the code, he decided who he was on the Internet. With the violin, you could decide the way you played, but you could never decide the way the audience would react.
Parker reached slowly for the back of Hardison’s neck. “You wanna make a gestalt? See if we can cast a spell to make you better at violin?”
Hardison took a step back from her hand. She let it fall to her side, tilted her head, and gave him that creepy-intense Parker stare that always made his face warm. “Why are you afraid to cast magic? You only do it when you really need to.”
“So do you,” Hardison said. Not to mention Eliot, and he had a bad feeling about why that might be.
“Yeah, but that’s because I’m used to working alone,” Parker said. “You’ve said you used to cast magic with your Nana all the time.”
Hardison lowered the violin and the bow. “My magic isn’t compatible with a lot of people.” He knew he was stalling, but he didn’t know what else to do. Usually Parker let the past be the past. If she was digging at it, she had a reason, and she wouldn’t stop until she found what she needed.
“It’s compatible with my magic,” Parker said. “It’s like one of those old airplanes, or a catapult. Remember?”
Yeah, Hardison remembered. He couldn’t forget, it gave him such a rush every time. Though for him, it wasn’t either of those things. And this was where Parker had backed him into a corner, because if he said his magic didn’t work with hers, her feelings might be hurt, and he could never risk doing that to her. “You don’t know,” he realized. “The comms were down when Chaos was dissing me about it.”
“Even if the comms had been on, I wouldn’t have listened to him,” Parker said. “Chaos thought he was better than us but we beat him.”
“He was right, though. He asked me why my coven kept me around when – when my magic can’t even do anything useful.” Hardison looked down at the beautiful curves of the Stradivarius instead of the beautiful angles of Parker’s face.
“What?” Parker said. He could hear her furrowing her brow, even though he wasn’t looking at her. “That’s not true. You cast distractions, like when you and Nate made that loud noise and helped Eliot beat up Sterling’s guards in our old office. And what about the explosion at the warehouse on our first job?”
“Yeah. That was the strongest magic I’ve ever cast.” He would never have believed he could do anything like that, right up until it happened. He’d wanted to talk about it with Parker and Eliot, what they could do, but they were both so touchy about magic sometimes. “I can’t cast offensive magic, Parker. Not a single spell directed at another person outside the gestalt. I can make illusions, I can enchant objects like nobody’s business, I can cast magic on myself or anyone willing in the gestalt. But I can’t do it to other people. I was always told not to, even before I started casting magic with Nana. The magician kids in the home, they’d – they’d do things to other kids, and the sisters said – they said it was the devil’s work. And with Nana, we’d cast magic to help around the house. Seal up a leaky roof, enchant the beds to give us better sleep, that sort of thing.”
He paused. Parker said, “Oh! That’s why it’s building things.” He risked a look up. She was smiling. “Sophie told me her gestalt with you was sitting in a museum and watching a painting that assembled its own frame and painted itself. And our gestalt is machines that can make people fly. When you’re in a gestalt, there’s always something that gets built, or was already built. It makes sense now. Because you used your magic to help your Nana make things and fix them.”
Hardison’s throat felt thick. He’d never heard anyone besides his Nana speak well of his magic before. All the criminal covens he’d tried to work jobs with had told him he was deadweight, useless, because he couldn’t cast a spell to dupe a mark or drop a guard.
“Chaos is wrong,” Parker told him plainly, “and so is everyone who said you’re useless. Our coven doesn’t need to cast offensive magic. We’re the good guys. And when we do have to hurt people, we have Eliot for that.”
Hardison almost said that he’d run with crews who had hitters before. Technically, he’d never had to help cast offensive magic to protect the coven. But the truth was, it was different with Eliot. He liked protecting them. He got angry when someone tried to hurt them and he wasn’t there to stop it. Hardison didn’t need to cast magic against their enemies, because Eliot would always be there to stop them.
He took a shaky breath and lifted the violin back to his chin. “Okay. Let’s try it.”
Parker’s hand landed light as a bird on the back of his neck. To him, their gestalt was like the whoosh of a windmill, or the roar of a waterfall through a hydroelectric dam: plants built to harvest energy from the awesome rushing power of nature. Together they guided the magic to his arms, the length of his fingers, steadying them and threading them through with strength.
Hardison drew the bow across the strings. This time, the sound sang out smooth and even. He smiled. “Thank you, Parker.”
Parker’s hand fell away. “I hope that helped. We’re timing the heist to the music. If you don’t play it right, they’ll probably find us and kill us all.” Then she left.
“Great pep talk,” Hardison told the Stradivarius. “I feel better. Don’t you?”
They’d brought more magic into their jobs, after the David job – no major castings, just little pair-offs when they needed the juice. Tara turned out not to be a magician, but Eliot saw how it ended up working for the rest of them: Sophie and Parker changing Parker’s voice for a grift, Nate and Hardison sketching glowing lines over a map, and once in a blue moon, Parker reaching for the back of Hardison’s neck so they could cast a distraction away from Lucille.
Hardison brought it up, once, why Eliot never cast with them. He ended up talking to him half the night about the different gestalts he’d been part of, and trying to find people who worked well with him, talking circles around the one gestalt that kept him up nights wondering how he’d been part of it.
So Eliot kept his magic walled off and unusable from anyone else’s, right up until the day finally came when his team learned he’d been part of Damien Moreau’s coven. And then he had to use two deadly weapons he’d thought he’d never take up again: guns and magic.
Getting in the car with Chapman to scope out a target was familiar enough to make his skin crawl. He was the same man he had been back when this would have been a real kill, he knew. But everything had been turned inside out from how different it was from what he did now.
Chapman started the car and squinted at Eliot. “What are you waiting for?”
Stupid, so stupid. Eliot didn’t ever want to feel the gestalt of Moreau’s coven again, but he couldn’t look scared in front of Chapman. Eliot gripped Chapman’s shoulder so that just the edge of his fingertip brushed his neck – the standard way to cast discreetly – and gritted his teeth against the gestalt.
Both Eliot and Chapman winced at the contact. The gestalt was a river putting out a wildfire, steam rising in a hissing roar. When Eliot pulled his hand back, his fingertip was as red as if he’d touched a hot stove. Chapman clapped a hand to the red mark on his neck. “Hell, Spencer, you have gone soft. And here I thought Moreau was just talking shit.”
Eliot stared down at his burned finger. He wasn’t compatible with Moreau’s coven anymore. Either the coven had changed, or he had. He growled, “We’re gonna have to track Atherton the old-fashioned way. You remember how to do that, huh?”
Chapman did remember how to tail a car. Eliot, though, had no clue how to pretend-break a guy’s neck. But he’d practiced (very carefully) with the team before going out to do this. So inside Atherton’s car, he brought back Moreau’s gestalt inside his head, a trance without magic, but no less powerful for that. He went into that place, the scream inside the storm, where he was capable of doing anything, no matter how terrible. And then he didn’t kill, and the inside of his head went calm.
All that to win Moreau’s trust back, and he rewarded Eliot by filling the warehouse rendezvous point with the coven, armed and probably with magical traps set up everywhere. “It’s a kill box,” he told Nate. “No way out where they don’t have an angle on us. And they’ll have cast magic all over the box too.”
“Eliot,” Nate said, leaning toward him so the Italian couldn't hear. “I understand why you don’t cast anymore.” He held out his hand. “But now would be a very good time to start casting with a different gestalt.”
Eliot looked down at his left hand with its burnt fingertip, and back around the corner at the coven in kill box formation. The coven hadn’t changed. He had.
He pressed two fingers to the inside of Nate’s wrist, as if he were taking his pulse. He heard two sets of heartbeats, one hard and irregular, one low and steady, slowly coming into sync. It took him a moment to realize it was their gestalt.
It had been so long since Eliot had cast, he let Nate take the lead. He only flicked his eyes toward the kill box and the exit from the warehouse, silently telling Nate, I need a way out.
Glowing paths sprang up in the air around them, humming like live power lines. Red paths came in from the sides of the warehouse, behind cover: lines of sight. Then there were green paths spreading out in front of Eliot, some fainter and some thicker. He closed his eyes and watched the afterimages inside his lids. If he’d cast with Moreau’s coven in a situation like this, they would have rained down acid on the gunmen, made the floor burn them right up through their shoes. Instead, Nate had given him an exit strategy.
Eliot pulled his fingers from Nate’s wrist. The warehouse was still filled with guiding light. “Get her out of here,” he said, and picked up the gun.
The worst part about dating Hardison, or whatever it was the two of them were doing, was that now Parker had an imaginary Hardison in her head all the time. So while Eliot assessed how Scott had died, and Parker took an inventory of his and their equipment, her inner Hardison wasn’t doing what had to be done. He was crying, cupping his hands over his mouth, shaking his head, talking about his wife and how much she’d want to lay him to rest.
Parker looked up at Eliot. She didn’t know if he had an inner Hardison, but she hoped he would listen anyway. “There’ll be enough rope to get him up for sure,” she said, “if we cast our way out instead."
Eliot studied her face. Parker forced herself not to look away. Finally, he said, “We don’t even know if our magic can do something like that.”
Parker said, “Do you want to find out?”
Eliot gave a fraction of a nod. He looked down at his gloved hands. Their only exposed skin was on their faces. He walked over to Parker slowly, telegraphing all his movements, and pressed the top of his forehead against hers.
Their gestalt was the grace of a striking snake, the plummet of a falcon off a cliff, the cheetah’s final burst of speed before the pounce. Parker felt a leopard growl inside her, knowing it could climb anything with its claws. She looked down. There were glowing ghosts around their hands and feet, great paws with curving claws that could grip the snow and ice. Parker’s voice puffed white against Eliot’s face. “Yeah. We can do this.”
When they pulled their faces back, Eliot blinked something frozen from his eyes. They still had their claws around their hands. Parker shook hers off. She needed to tie the rigging.
Eliot tied the free end of the rigging to a claw and tossed it over the edge of the crevasse. The sound of it hitting the ice was good and solid. Eliot came over to her slowly again, so she knew the press of their foreheads was coming. She felt dolphins leaping through air and water, the wind whipping through a horse’s mane. She and Eliot willed the claws back, sank them into the ice, and climbed.
Parker would have enjoyed it if her inner Hardison weren’t still down there with Alan, swearing to him that he’d get him out, no matter what. Maybe she'd climb with claws another time, when she could appreciate it. If she could get Eliot to cast with her again.
They hauled themselves out of the crevasse. When he had a good footing, Eliot grabbed the rope with his ghost-paws and started pulling the body up. Soon they’d have it, and the Hardison in her head would leave her alone, and she could go back to the real Hardison.
The rope snapped.
“No!” Parker cried. She looked down the crevasse. “Give me the claw. I’ll climb back down and re-tie the rigging and – ”
“And you’ll dead-lift him out of there and carry him down the mountain?” Eliot growled. “We can’t, Parker!”
“No! This is what we're supposed to do! We're supposed to get him back to his wife!” Parker didn’t know how to explain that Hardison had gotten inside her head somehow. “Nate would do it, Sophie would do it, Hardison would do it! They would do the right thing! I want to do the right thing!” She was crying, her tears freezing on her face. But Eliot was right. They couldn’t go back for him, not now, not even with magic on their side.
“Hey,” Eliot said. “It’s a good thing it was us.”
“Because we’d leave him.”
“Because they would've kept trying and they would've froze to death right next to him, especially Hardison.” Maybe Eliot had an inner Hardison after all. He looked down at their claws, coming out from their hands and feet like gloves made of golden light. “So it was a good thing it was us. The two of us, we do things they can’t. Won’t.”
Parker held up her clawed hand. The points of the claws glittered with hard light. “Does that make us bad?”
“It makes us... us.” He reached out his hand to hers and brushed their claws together, like one of his and Hardison’s secret handshakes. “Now, you can take that as a gift, or you can take it as a curse. And that's up to you.”
Parker shook her paws off. So did Eliot. They dissolved into the snow-bright air. Parker said, just loud enough to be heard over the wind, “Maybe it would have been better if Hardison were here.” Eliot gave her a sharp look. “You’re right about him. He wouldn’t be able to leave Alan behind. But back at the warehouse all that time ago – when all three of us made that gestalt – it made me feel like I could do anything.”
“Me too,” Eliot admitted. “That’s what made me afraid.”
“You were afraid you’d do something bad,” Parker said. “Like you used to do with Moreau’s coven.”
Eliot shrugged and started untying the rope they had left from the claw.
“Hey,” Parker said. Eliot looked up from the rope. “Our gestalt. Whether it’s a gift or a curse – that’s up to you.”
Eliot blamed Parker for getting under his skin, because now he was letting himself cast one-on-one sometimes. No gestalt was as sharp and bright and clear as it was with her, but each one was like unwrapping some part of himself he’d forgotten about after years of walling off his magic or casting it with monsters. It turned out he could do all kinds of things Uncle Sam and Damien Moreau never asked him to do: make a guy pay attention to him, throw his voice like a ventriloquist, light the way in the dark.
He started to let go of the old worry that his magic could only ever wreck the world worse than it was already broken. Until Hardison went missing at the hands of a ruthless cartel.
Eliot usually had to work himself up to casting, but when he found Nate groaning on the floor, “Where’s Hardison?” he didn’t even ask before pulling him up by the hand and making a gestalt.
Two sets of heartbeats beat in closer and closer rhythm as Nate cast out their magic over the room, highlighting tracks in glowing blue. “Two people walking, one dragged,” Eliot said, rapping out the words like a sitrep back in his Army days. “They took him.”
“The two of us can track a short distance,” Nate said to Eliot, calling to mind the warehouse in DC, the glowing lines of sight the two of them had traced through the kill box. “Four of us can do a lot more.”
Eliot nodded. “Let’s go.” There was something old and dangerous slitting its eyes open inside his chest. He ignored it, and in the car he called Nate seven kinds of fool for going in with Hardison and without Eliot.
The thing inside his chest revved up like a chainsaw when he heard Hardison’s voice on speaker, shaking and scared: “Um, I think – I think I'm in one of Darlene's coffins.” Eliot had had to retrieve people trapped in boxes, suffocating, before. But dammit, Hardison was never supposed to be one of those people. Bad things happened to good people all the time. Eliot knew that better than anyone – he’d been a bad thing that happened to good people. But Hardison was imagination and hand-built miracles and bone-deep care, on the outside of him and the inside of his magic and everywhere.
So Eliot met Nate’s eye and said, loud enough for Hardison to hear over the speaker, “I know tracking magic. We can do this.”
The four of them looked around at each other. They’d never done a major casting like this before. Nate took Sophie’s hand, then Eliot’s. Parker took Eliot’s right hand, leaving hers free to hold the phone connecting her to Hardison.
They were a pack of creatures somewhere between eagles and wolves, all wings and teeth, feathers and fur. Their youngest had been taken from them by dragons, and they had to scent him down before they ate him. They could smell it distantly on the wind as they flew into it, the faint scent of –
“Freshly upturned soil,” Eliot muttered. “The freshest grave’ll be his.” With their bloodhound sense of smell he could already start to orient on where it was coming from. He looked around and realized they’d all turned south, their hands still joined.
Hardison’s voice blared from the speaker. “P-Parker? Nate? Somebody? Some–”
“Hardison,” Nate said evenly. “We’ve cast tracking magic, all four of us. We’ve definitely, ah, got a lead on you. We’re going out to find you right now.”
“Car,” Eliot said. “It’s faster, lots of air blowing through the windows we can catch the scent on, and it’s less obvious we’re all in skin contact.”
“I don’t care who notices,” Parker said. “We find him, now.” She tugged on Eliot’s hand, and he grabbed some shovels and led them toward Nate’s car, all without letting go of their hands, because Parker was right – stealth wasn’t worth a damn when Hardison was choking to death in a coffin. They let go for just a minute so they could all get into the car, and the loss of Hardison’s scent made Eliot feel blinded and handcuffed until he was in the backseat holding the back of Nate’s neck in his left hand and Parker’s hand in his right.
Nate started the car, rolled down all the windows, and sniffed the air. “South,” he said, and started driving, his right hand on the steering wheel covered by Sophie’s left.
“Parker?” came Hardison’s voice from the phone in her free hand. “Parker?” His voice was shaking.
Eliot couldn’t listen to this. He had to focus on helping Nate navigate. “Turn left here, Dorchester Avenue’ll get us there faster. I’ll tell you when to turn off.” Somewhere to his right, Parker was breathing with Hardison, keeping him from using up all his air. Eliot gritted his teeth and stuck his head out the window to fill his nose with the slowly strengthening smell of fresh grave dirt, gripping tight to Parker and Nate and their fierce gestalt. He directed Nate to the right cemetery, and tried not to think about why it was he knew so much about tracking magic – that was then, and now he was using it to save Hardison.
When they got there, Javier was standing watch. It itched under Eliot’s skin, smelling Hardison so close, with the waste of space who’d put him in the ground standing between him and rescue. In the gestalt, the eagle-wolves saw the dragons who’d taken their packmate and screamed for their blood.
Javier saw them and said, “How’d you find us?” In response, the four of them leaned out of their windows and cast an unearthly screech that sent him and his hitter covering their ears and reeling.
“W-what was that?” said Hardison over the phone. “Parker? What was that?”
“That was us,” Parker said. “Hang in there. We’re close.”
Eliot let go of Nate’s neck so he and Parker could pile out of the back with their shovels. A viper hissed inside their gestalt, and when Eliot came for the gun in Javier’s hand he struck it away in a blur of preternatural speed. A bone in his hand cracked, and he screamed at the pain. Eliot looked at Javier’s hitter next, a copperhead rattling through the gestalt, but before he could do anything he’d regret, Parker pulled him toward Nate and Sophie. “Come on, there’s three graves here. We can’t tell which one he’s in until we cast with them again.”
Nate grabbed Eliot’s hand as soon as he got in range, and then it was so obvious Eliot wondered how he could ever not have known where Hardison was. It wasn’t just the fresh dirt smell, but the orange soda on his breath, and that deodorant with the ridiculous name that sounded like it came from one of those Harry Potter books. “Hardison!” Parker cried, and fell on the grave with her shovel.
Eliot was glad Parker wasn’t touching him anymore, because with the sharp bright edge her magic always brought to a gestalt, there was no telling what he might have done when Javier’s hitter started firing. As it was, with Nate and Sophie and him in contact, they were a trio of rangers in the woods nocking their arrows to their bows with the beast in sight, and Eliot could see just the right path through the gunfire to knock the guy straight to the ground.
Every minute Eliot spent fighting these men was a minute when Hardison was asphyxiating. It was like talking to Moreau with Hardison drowning in the pool behind him all over again. He beat Javier and his goon again and again until they stopped moving and then –
Then he rushed over to Parker and Nate and Sophie, and they held hands, and the pack howled triumph as the grave rose out of the ground, pulled up by the force of their casting. The lid of the coffin rose right off its hinges, falling away, and then Hardison was floating up out of it, gasping in air.
Eliot broke out of the gestalt and rushed in to grab Hardison. “Never do that again, man,” Eliot growled, his eyes burning behind his closed lids. “Don't do that again.”
“Cool,” Hardison gasped into Eliot’s shoulder. “I won’t.”
Eliot let him go, and when he looked up, Parker wasn’t there to hold him next, like he thought she’d be. She was watching, tears standing in her eyes, helpless. Too much for her all at once. It didn’t seem like this was how it ought to go, for her to guide him through and not be here when he came out the other side, but Eliot didn’t know how to make it right. He went home discontent, restless, still feeling like his breath had been stolen along with Hardison’s.
The next day, while he was in the cooking section of the local bookstore, he got a call from Parker. She didn’t say hello, because she never did. “Hardison wants to see how we did it. The tracking magic.”
“No way to tell if we can do it again without Nate and Sophie.”
“It’ll be different without them. But we can do it,” she said, so easily that Eliot couldn’t help but believe her.
Halfway through his drive over to Hardison’s place, Eliot muttered to himself, “What the hell am I doing?” They didn’t have anyone they needed to track. He was scared of what the three of them could cast with their gestalt, and for good reasons. He shouldn’t do this unless there was a call for it.
Then it hit him. Hardison wants to see how we did it. He wanted to know how it worked, so if he or any of them got lost again, they’d be able to find each other with magic. That was how Hardison thought. He wanted to know the tools he had at hand, all labeled and squared away like programs on his computer.
Well. That was a damn sight more important than any of his reasons. Eliot kept on driving.
Eliot knocked loudly on Hardison’s door, just so Hardison would get to complain when he opened it. “You don’t need to knock down the door like that, dude, I got an alert on my phone as soon as you parked, I knew you were coming.”
“You knock when you visit someone, Hardison, that’s just polite.”
“I don’t knock,” Parker said, from on top of a bookshelf. Eliot averted his eyes so he wouldn’t have to try and understand how she’d gotten up there. “I just climb in a window.”
“If you ever knocked, that’s when I’d know I needed to worry,” Eliot said.
Parker dropped down from the bookshelf, nimble as a cat. “Who should we try to find?”
“Can’t I offer Eliot a drink first?” Hardison demanded. “He thinks I ain’t polite! I know how to have guests up in here. My Nana taught me right.”
“I’ll have iced tea,” Eliot said, because Hardison clearly needed something to do with his hands before he calmed down, and he usually kept a pitcher of halfway decent homemade iced tea in the fridge. While Hardison busied himself in the kitchen, Eliot signaled to Parker with his eyes, and they settled on stools along the counter dividing the kitchen from the dining area, with one left between them for Hardison.
He served Eliot iced tea in one of those mason jars they used in the hippie restaurants in Cambridge. It tasted of mint and lemon and a bit too much sugar. “Thanks for doing this,” Hardison told him. “I just – the last time, it all happened so fast. I’d never really done a major casting before, and – I just want to understand how this works.”
Parker took his hand. “Let’s find Nate and Sophie.”
“Familiar targets are the easiest,” Eliot agreed, and took Hardison’s other hand, closing the circuit.
Back at the warehouse, years ago, there hadn’t been time to get a sense of the gestalt of the three of them. There’d only been a rush of bone-rattling power. But now Eliot could savor it like a wine, and it had enough flavors to keep his palate busy for maybe the rest of his life.
He was falling from a great height, the wind rushing past his ears, but he wasn’t afraid. He’d built something that would catch him. There was a groan of wood and canvas, and great mechanical wings spread from his back, catching the air. With a whoop of pure delight, he rode the wind right into a murmuration of starlings, joining their dance through an endless sky. He followed the starlings, flowing as thick as a stream of smoke, as they descended on the city of Boston and guided him over the tangle of streets. They swirled into a tornado over a wine bar in Jamaica Plain.
Hardison laughed out loud. “They’re on a date!”
Eliot opened his eyes. He hadn’t realized he’d closed them. He was in Hardison’s apartment, holding his hand, and he was flying in circles on mechanical wings over a wine bar he’d never visited. “Don’t tell them they were on a date,” Eliot said. “They’ll deny it to the bitter end.”
Parker grinned. “We have the best gestalt ever. We should do more magic.”
Hardison smiled back. “You wanna?”
“It’s not like this when it’s you two?” Eliot said slowly.
Parker shook her head with a flick of her ponytail. “No. It’s more like… flying machines. They’re complicated and they have all kinds of moving parts, and they can fly, but…”
“It’s not alive,” Hardison finished. He squeezed their hands. “Not like this. This here is enough life to raise the dead.”
Hardison kept thinking to himself on an endless loop: Dammit, Jim, I’m a hacker, not a counterterrorism unit. Dammit, Jim, I’m a hacker, not a biological weapons expert. Dammit, Jim, I’m a hacker, not the Black James Bond. Vance may have thought he’d put together a coven of master magicians, but Hardison was just a computer geek who did not want to get the Spanish flu virus.
“You scared?” Eliot said, low.
Hardison shivered a little, all over, because Eliot never talked about being scared, ever. “You’re damn right.” He went to the truck to hyperventilate, or lie down and have a nightmare, anything but feel the weight of millions of lives on his chest.
Eliot took his hand and pulled him back, making a gestalt. Hardison knew their gestalt well by now: two cyborg wolves revving their motors and snapping their teeth playfully at each other in a wrestling game.
“I’m not,” Eliot said, and Hardison wasn’t sure which was anchoring him more in that moment: the familiar shape of their gestalt, or the laser focus of those blue, blue eyes. “I got the best thief and the smartest guy I know chasing this guy.”
Then Eliot did something Hardison never expected him to do. He grabbed the back of Hardison’s head with a firm hand and cast a spell on him. Even though he hadn’t asked Eliot to, even though there was no immediate danger. Eliot was so careful with magic, so afraid to use it wrongly. But inside their gestalt, one of the robo-wolves pinned the other down and lay on him, whining and licking his face, his motor a low soothing purr.
It brought him back to his childhood with Nana, how she and his foster sister Theresa would cast a gentle sleep on him whenever he woke up from a nightmare. He felt that same warm strength settle on him now, the cozy lived-in feeling of knowing there was someone to hold you up. How had Eliot known this was exactly what he needed? How did he and Parker always know?
Hardison had been so afraid, when he was younger, that he’d never find someone to have this kind of gestalt with. His magic was only compatible with Nana’s, not with any of his magical foster siblings’. Later, when he struck out into a life of crime, no criminal covens wanted to cast with him. After a while, he gave up on finding people who’d want to cast with him, and decided to put his faith in machines and programs he could build himself. His magic was too soft, too useless to be of any use in crime, when he couldn’t use it against anyone else.
But that was exactly what Eliot wanted most – for his magic never to hurt anyone again. When he cast with Hardison, he knew that he couldn’t. For him, it was a gift. And Parker?
Parker’s fingers brushed against his, and the gestalt changed, sending him gliding on Daedalus’s wings on a long smooth air current over the sea, gleaming fish leaping over the waves below. It was different, but just as soothing. Hardison knew where Parker stood. She had that childlike wonder that had somehow never died, pure delight in what they could do together, whatever shape it might take.
“Listen to me,” Eliot said. “You’re the smartest man I’ve ever known, Hardison. I need that brain to get me to him. ‘Cause you know if I lay my hands on him, it’s done. Get me to him.”
Hardison took a deep breath, smelling fresh sea air. It was like Parker had said. He didn’t have to use magic to hurt anyone. He didn’t have to be the strongest or the bravest. He had Eliot and Parker for that. He just had to use his brain, like he always did.
Down in the dark of the DC Metro, they faced down a fanatic with a gun, Eliot shot and bleeding, and no way for the three of them to hurl magic at Udall with Hardison in the mix. But this was way bigger than whether the three of them got shot, more than just a firefight with magic and guns, even more than a job. This time, they had to save the world. Or at least the Eastern seaboard.
To do that, they had to stop a bomb from going off. And that was something that Hardison knew his magic could do, when it joined to Eliot’s and Parker’s.
They had a wordless conversation with their eyes, and small movements of their hands. It was something you could do with people you loved, Hardison had discovered.
We need to stop the explosion, Hardison said silently, in a flick of his gaze toward the bomb. We can do that if we cast together.
I can’t protect you from Udall if we do that, Eliot replied just as silently, his fists flexing, his eyes darting toward their enemy.
We need you for the gestalt, Parker said with a twitch of her hand toward his. So we’ll just have to do it anyway.
This was way, way out of their league. It shouldn’t be on them to do this. Hardison couldn’t believe he was even going to try. At least they’d gotten practice earlier today, containing the explosion of the claymore in Udall’s house inside a force field of their magic. But the stakes were so much higher now.
Eliot rolled over to their side of the train car. Parker kissed Hardison, and both of them reached for Eliot with their free hands, bracketing the sides of his neck.
He was falling from the Burj Khalifa, Parker’s favorite building to jump off, the tallest skyscraper in the world. The wind rushed over him like a scream in his face, but he relaxed into it, knowing his glider was built stronger than any wind on Earth. He was always so afraid to fall, even when Parker had tied the rigging to control his descent, but this time he wasn’t. They’d known how to stop an explosion even before they’d really known each other at all. Now, Hardison knew what his magic was worth, especially when he cast it with these two people who were most dear to him in the world.
He heard a beep, then a rumble as the bomb went off. Then the rumble went low and quiet. Hardison pressed his forehead to Parker’s, ended the kiss, and looked down.
The explosion was beautiful, like a snowglobe in reverse: fire and smoke and heat, all trapped inside its own little world of death and destruction.
“What’s happening?” Udall screamed from down the length of the subway car. “The bomb was about to – what did you do?”
“The heat,” Parker breathed into his mouth. “We’ve trapped the heat of the explosion into a tiny radius. You said only fire can kill this thing. We’re cooking the virus to death, right now.”
Udall roared in incoherent rage and started firing.
Hardison tightened his grip on Eliot’s neck, not hard enough to hurt, just enough to know the gestalt wouldn’t break.
“That’s enough,” Eliot said. “It’s burned up. Hardison, you have to let go. Let me stop him.”
Hardison gave his neck one last caress, then let him go. A wave of heat and smoke rushed out from the popped bubble of magic, making them cough, but the force of the explosion had dissipated.
Parker kept her hand on Eliot’s neck. They exchanged a look, then turned their eyes on Hardison, just for a moment, before they went on the hunt for Udall.
He’d cast his part of the magic. Without him, they couldn’t have stopped the explosion. Their eyes told him they loved him for that. He couldn’t cast magic to stop Udall, but they could. He’d helped save the world, and now? They’d save him.
After Nate and Sophie left, Parker called them once a month to ask, “Have you gotten married yet?”
They would answer, “No, not yet,” and tell her what they’d been up to instead, which could be anything from putting on a play at a children’s hospital to crashing Sterling’s wedding just because they could.
Finally, Parker called them and said, “Eliot and Hardison and I are getting married. Do you want to come get married too? Hardison is ordained as a minister by the Church of the Flying Noodle Monster or something.”
Everything went so quiet on the other end of the line Parker checked the phone screen to make sure the call hadn’t disconnected. Then Sophie said, “The three of you are getting married… to each other?”
Parker blinked. Sophie was so weird sometimes. “Who else would we marry?”
“Well. I suppose you’ve got a point there. Can’t be legally binding, though, can it?”
“Yes it can,” Parker said. “Hardison’s drawing up the documents.” They were for their actual legal identities and everything, with an extra “spouse” box added to the marriage certificate. It wasn’t allowed, but it was also illegal to change the gender marker on her birth certificate in the state she was from, and Hardison had done that too. She went on, “And we’re all going to have identities married to each other, so we can pull spousal privileges no matter what. He can do all of that for you, too.”
“Ah, where are you doing this, Parker?” Nate said.
“On the roof of the building our apartment and the brewpub are in.” Parker played her trump card. “We’re going to give you a gift. It’s a really good one.”
“Eh, why not?” Nate said. “Let’s do it.”
The three of them had a lot of setting up to do first. Hardison took care of the paperwork and decorated the roof with Christmas lights, roses, and Venus fly traps. Eliot started preparations for the food weeks in advance. Parker drove out to her stash and picked out her favorite gold bar (Berlin, 2001, old Nazi loot).
Nate and Sophie only showed up just when it was time for the ceremony, because Sophie loved a dramatic entrance. She swept up the stairs to the roof in a lilac gown, Nate behind her in a tux. Parker had never seen Nate in a tux when he wasn’t grifting. She would have felt like the mark was supposed to show up any minute if Sophie hadn’t caught her in a hug and said, “Oh, Parker, you’re not going to wear a dress to your wedding?”
Parker stepped out of the hug, gestured to her catsuit, and said, “This is my climbing gear. It’s my favorite thing to wear. Of course I want to wear it to my wedding.”
“Don’t worry, Sophie, I’m kicking it old school,” Hardison said, posing to show off his very well tailored tuxedo. “And Eliot’s changing out of his chef’s gear right now.”
Amy struggled up the stairs with heavy covered trays. “Hi, boss!” she chirped at Hardison, her eyes a little wild. “Hi, Parker!” She put down the trays on the table with the nice white cloth and scurried back downstairs.
“I think she just figured out today that it’s all three of us getting married,” Hardison said. “She’ll get used to it.”
“Yeah, about that,” Nate said. “When did that happen?”
Eliot came up on the roof in his own tux, beads and feathers woven in his hair. “‘Round about the job with the vintage cars,” he said. “Hardison and Parker got to talking about whether they wanted to keep thieving together long term, and that got me realizing I’d planned my whole future around running the brewpub and chasing after them. So when they got around to asking me what my plans were, I told them.”
“He makes it sound way less romantic than it actually was,” Hardison said. “It was one of the sweetest things I ever heard in my life. Y’all’d’ve been reaching for the tissues. I know I did.”
Amy came back up with two wedding cakes, one balanced on each arm. “That one’s for you,” Eliot said to Nate and Sophie, gesturing to the white one with marzipan fruit. “Lemon with raspberry preserves between the layers.”
“Oh, it’s lovely,” Sophie said, studying it. “What about yours?”
“Chocolate,” Parker said, beaming at the edible gold foil on their cake.
“With cherries and almond,” Hardison said. “We wanted to give him a chance to show off.”
Amy put the cakes down on the table, looked around at them, blurted out, “Congratulations I’m so happy for you guys!” and bolted back downstairs.
“I like her,” Parker said. “Maybe I should have asked her to be my bridesmaid.”
“Have mercy on the girl. She’s having a hard enough time adjusting as it is,” Eliot drawled. “She mighta fainted dead away if you’d asked her to take part in the ceremony.”
Parker sat down at the side of the table with three chairs and said to Sophie, “Tell Eliot and Hardison the story about when your acting troupe took Nate to the Renaissance Faire and he ended up becoming the court jester.”
“Dragged me to the Renaissance Faire,” Nate said. “They dragged me. I did not agree to any of that.”
“Now this I gotta hear,” Hardison said, swinging into his seat.
Dinner was delicious, and had a lot of feelings in it. Eliot had made everyone’s favorites, even the salad with chocolate in it Parker had had at a restaurant in New York once and Eliot thought was disgusting. It tasted like when Hardison went on jumping-off-buildings dates with her.
After dinner and cake, Hardison clapped his hands, and some kind of big band music came on. Nate twirled Sophie up out of her chair, and Parker, Hardison, and Eliot watched them dance across the roof. When the song ended, Hardison called out to them, “You got your spoon, Nate?”
Nate drew the teaspoon out from the inside of his jacket. Parker stood up and made grabby hands at it. “Come here. Put it on all our hands. This is our really good gift for you.”
Sophie and Nate exchanged a look. They all put their hands together, their fingers touching, like a five-petaled flower, and lay it across their hands. Parker had never touched the spoon before, though Sophie had told her what it meant. It was so weird to feel a gestalt she wasn’t part of. This was all Sophie and Nate: two dancers with ribbons jumping fluidly over and around each other while an audience watched with quiet gasps.
“You made this back before we were a team,” Eliot said to Nate and Sophie. “Is it still like this now?”
“Mostly,” Sophie said. “But the audience has gotten a little rowdier. Now sometimes I hear a cheer that sounds awfully like one of you.”
Parker flashed a breathless grin at Eliot and Hardison. They’d practiced this again and again, and now it was time. They curled their fingers around the spoon and made the gestalt.
They’d only done this once or twice, all five of them casting. She and Hardison and Eliot had been so afraid to cast, each of them for their own reasons, and even after they got over it, they usually weren’t all in the same place during a job. But they weren’t working a job now. They were doing this just because they wanted to.
There was a city. No, not really a city, because a city didn’t have a purpose, it just was. This was a work crew, a team, maybe even a religion. Whatever it was, hundreds of people worked together to make the Tower of Babel. It was grown from redwood trees, and built on gleaming struts, and sung into shape. It was so tall it defied the laws of physics. It was beautiful, and it might fall any day, when the universe finally noticed it wasn’t supposed to be there. But the people kept building it anyway.
Next to the Tower of Babel, it was easy to build something out of a spoon.
They opened their hands, and instead of a teaspoon they had two slender, silver rings. They still felt like Nate and Sophie’s gestalt, but there was a little of the tower too, the catch in your breath when you stood at the very top and realized how impossibly high you were.
“We have the rings,” Hardison said, showing them off with a smile. “Ready to get married?”
Hardison did the ceremony for them right there on the roof. Parker lit up inside when Nate and Sophie put the rings on each other and felt the gestalt in them. They looked different, in all the glow from the fairy lights. Parker wondered if she would feel different when she said her vows.
When Nate and Sophie kissed, Hardison clapped his hands to play the big band music again, and Nate dipped Sophie with the kiss. Parker whooped and pulled Eliot out of his chair. “Our turn!” She got her favorite gold bar out from under the tablecloth and joined Hardison and Eliot.
Hardison beamed, his heart pouring out through his eyes the way it did sometimes when he looked at her or Eliot. Usually Parker found it too much to look at, but this time she could. It was easier when he was looking at Eliot too. “Y’all know what we agreed,” Hardison said.
“Our gestalt is good because it makes us feel close, and because of what we choose to do with it, not because it’s powerful,” Parker said. “We have to choose carefully, without being afraid.”
“Honor among thieves,” Hardison said. “Just because we break the law doesn’t mean we don’t have a code. But sometimes that code has to change.”
“We agreed that we’d all change,” Eliot said, a little hoarse. It was the all part and the together part that was hard for him, Parker knew, not the change part. “We’ve all come a long way, but we’ll go on changing from here. Important part is, for better or worse, we change together.”
Parker didn’t feel different after saying the vows, she decided. They’d discussed these things so many times it didn’t even feel weird for Sophie and Nate to be listening. “You wanna help us make our rings?” she asked them. “You did a good job helping us make yours.”
Nate and Sophie gave Parker the kind of look she’d imagined her adoptive parents would give her, back when she’d been a little kid who still believed she’d get adopted by people who loved her. They came forward, hands held out, and they made that five-petaled flower again. Parker watched the tower grow, planned by clever architects, watered by kind-hearted gardeners, built by swift-fingered engineers, sung by silver-tongued bards, shaped by the endless wind.
She put the gold bar in their hands.
Changing the shape of the gold bar was easy. The next part was a little harder, but it was exactly what the gestalt wanted to do, and they’d prepared for this. Finally, Parker thought of the old binoculars in Archie’s attic so many years ago, and cast one more magic: a protection against anyone else touching their rings.
The rings were plain and smooth, but they were made of Parker’s favorite gold she’d ever stolen, and they felt like them. When she touched them, she was falling free from a mountainside, her only ropes the ones rigging her to the glider, which unfurled its wings in a metal squeak of joints and a rustle of canvas. The air was biting cold but she was wrapped up warm, ready for anything, gliding far above the misted-over slopes. Somewhere in the far distance, she could see the shadow of the endless tower against the sun.
“Thank you,” Eliot said, a little hoarse, and Nate and Sophie stepped back so they could marry each other now.
Parker took Alec’s hand, and together they slid a ring on Eliot’s finger. She said, “We take you, Eliot Spencer, to be our sort-of-lawfully wedded husband.”
Hardison rolled his eyes and took Eliot’s hand to slide a ring on her finger. “We take you, Parker, to be our completely lawfully wedded wife, because Alec Hardison filed legal documents to make that happen.”
Eliot smiled all lopsided at Parker – that was her favorite smile of his – and took the last ring in their joined hands to put on Alec. “And we take you, Alec Hardison, to be our husband, and we don’t give a damn if it’s lawful or it ain’t.”
They nodded at each other and walked to the edge of the roof. “We’ll be right back,” Parker told Nate and Sophie. “There’s something we have to do first.”
“Back from what?” Sophie said, from the circle of Nate’s arms. Her eyes were gleaming, but tears weren’t always a sad thing for Sophie.
Parker pulled Eliot and Alec into a three-way kiss. They’d practiced that part, too, because it was hard to make all three mouths fit, and Parker had wanted to kiss them both at once for the wedding. Then she laughed, because she felt so light. “Ready?”
Eliot raised his eyebrows like he couldn’t believe she would even have to ask. Alec said, “Nah, but I’mma do it anyway.”
Parker felt the gestalt from the ring singing through her, just as if her husbands had been holding her hands. She felt that heart-stopping feeling of the glider spreading its wings just in time. And in midair, she slowed, floating gently to the ground as if she’d been in harness and rigging. In the evening dark, she heard Eliot laughing, open and free, then Alec too. “We did it!” he shouted. “Whoo! We did it!”
Eliot and Alec had given her so much. On her wedding day, this was the gift she gave to them, and to herself: the guarantee that no matter what happened, she would never let them fall.