“I didn’t realize there would be so much of it,” Quentin said.
“How deep do you think it goes?”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
— Lev Grossman. “The Magician’s Land”
It helps to have a strong mind and a methodical personality to learn magic, but magic itself isn't really about thinking.
It’s not like engineering. Engineers get precise control over their materials. A billet of metal is never willful. Just the opposite, in fact. You can machine a piece of metal to a thousandth of an inch. You can take some ordinary tools, some aluminum and glass, and make a beautiful piece of modern design, every part and every edge exactly in its place, precisely where you planned for them to be.
You couldn't mold and weave magic that way. Sometimes, with enough focus, you might use magic to carve metal or wood or stone the way you wanted, but magic itself was more biological, more emotional, than any inanimate material.
If you were ambitious enough, and built an entire world out of pure magic, even if you were the sort willing and able to spend ten thousand years drafting blueprints of where every rock or tree was going to go before you cast your spell, well, even then the magic might not listen, or it might care more about what you meant than what you said.
Or sometimes, Alice reflected, it would care only about what you said, and not what you meant. Something like that must have happened that day when Professor March had dropped a syllable of Medieval Dutch in the middle of a spell to summon hail, and summoned Martin Chatwin instead.
That was another thing about magic — it had rules, but it was filled with exceptions. Endless, endless exceptions. Exceptions to the exceptions.
Anyway, it came as no surprise to Alice that not quite everything in The Q Continuum was something Quentin had planned. In fact, from what she could tell, most of it wasn't.
When they first entered it, he hadn't seemed to know very much about the place, though he claimed the orchard was something he'd wanted, something he understood would be there in advance.
Another thing he hadn't planned was the cat.
The cat, of course, wasn't magical. It also wasn't from The Q Continuum.
They came across it in the street outside of Plum's townhouse, late after their third day of exploring. They'd gotten hungry, and the fruit from the unearthly orchard (which Alice had been unwilling to eat at all at first) had gotten boring after a while.
"A shame you hadn't thought to put any restaurants in The Q Continuum. Otherwise, we could stay there indefinitely."
"You're calling it that that just to annoy me, aren't you?" said Quentin, with a half smile she couldn't read.
"Calling it what?" said Alice, with feigned innocence.
"Oh, no. I'm not saying it. If I say it, next thing you know, the name will stick."
He was right, of course, at least about her motives. The joke was irresistible once it had come to her. Alice had started calling it The Q Continuum partially because she was tired of calling it "The Land" or what have you over and over, but partially because it was so ridiculous, and very slightly cruel.
She had, in fact, picked the name to irritate him. That was part of what made it funny. Something had gone wrong, though. He made a show of disliking it, but it didn't seem real.
She couldn't tell what he was thinking. Quentin had always been such an open book to her, before.
“I'm not sure that’s true,” was what he said about that idea.
Not right then, not while they were going to dinner. It had been some nights earlier, after they had been working all day on the spell.
The preparation was mostly Q’s work — here and there, she even had trouble keeping up with him, instead of vice versa. Quentin insisted she was still far better than he would ever be, but though Alice wouldn't admit it out loud, she doubted that it was true.
At the end of that day she found herself in one of those states where you’re mentally exhausted but can’t sleep. After staring at the ceiling for a while, half of her wanting to feel nothing and half wanting to feel everything, the loneliness had gotten to her again. She ended up crawling into Quentin’s bed in the middle of the night in spite of herself.
It was their second time since she’d been dragged back into a body from the icy blue purity of niffinhood, and she hated herself for it — for being too weak to hold off the desires of her revolting flesh.
Still, she was made of meat now, not fire. She let him hold her afterwards — wanted it, in fact, wanted the feeling of his arms around her body, wanted it powerfully, and ran a hand slowly over his upper arm.
“What happened to your shoulder, Q?” she asked. A large chunk of it didn't seem to be normal any more, not like the rest of his skin. She had wondered about it since she first saw him without a shirt. It looked almost like a polished wooden sculpture, and seemed a bit cool to the touch.
“I’m a little tired,” he said. “Maybe that’s a story for tomorrow.”
“It's so weird, though. I've always known more about you than you did,” said Alice, thinking out loud.
That was when he had said it, while they were cuddled up, while he was idly stroking her hair.
“I’m not sure that’s true,” he’d replied.
It was only the one sentence, and there hadn't been any malice in the way he said it. He had stated it blankly, the way one might say “we need a brighter hallway light” or “I tend to prefer typing to longhand.”
Still, it upset her. She got angry, stood up, and yelled something incoherent at him — she couldn’t even remember what it was any more — and she ran back to her room before he could feed her any of the soothing “everything’s going to be fine” bullshit he’d been dishing out of late.
Alice wanted him to follow her so she could yell at him more and tell him that she wanted him to go away, but he didn't. He kept being reasonable, and not reacting to her constant provocations, and it Just Pissed Her Off.
It was as though he didn’t even notice that she wanted to hurt him; that she wanted to make him feel as awful as she felt. He never seemed to get mad, no matter how hard she tried.
Didn't he care?
Alice wanted not to like Quentin any more, too, and that wasn't working out so well either.
She had told him they weren't going out any more when they finished with the spell to make the Q Continuum, but he just said he knew, like it was nothing.
Human emotions were messy. Being a niffin had been so much simpler, so much cleaner. She missed it all the time, but it was getting harder and harder to recall exactly what it had actually been like. The memory of how it felt softened and faded with every scent and taste and texture she experienced, with every feeling she had other than rage. She remembered all the events, but the visceral feeling of the experience itself was fading like a dream after waking, and everything had become more confusing.
So there they were, tired and hungry after a day wandering around a newly created pocket universe, going out for dinner, looking like… well, looking like something. Who could tell what anyone would think to see them. Her clothes didn't quite fit — she still hadn't bothered to go shopping for things of her own. She was wearing what Plum had left behind and bits of Quentin’s wardrobe with a little magical size alteration here and there.
As for Q, he kept dressing like someone’s idea of a college professor. Tonight he was wearing a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows. He looked much older than her now, and his hair was stark white.
Alice had assumed, at first, that he had bleached it out or something — maybe it was some sort of affectation? — but it had become obvious that wasn't it. He didn't seem to have any affectations any more, for one thing, and she couldn't imagine him being fussy enough to do his eyebrows too, not even back when he was going out to clubs and getting fucked up every night with Eliot.
(When she brought those months up, Quentin often claimed to have forgotten things. There was a drunken late night scrabble game at Janet and Eliot’s place that burned when she thought about it — everyone taking the game far too seriously, constant angry checks for whether words were in the dictionary or not — but Q claimed not to remember the evening at all. He kept saying “it was so many years ago”, but that seemed vaguely ridiculous. It was still so fresh in her own mind.)
Still, she hadn't asked him to explain the hair, even though it had been nearly the first thing she had noticed after she’d come back. After all, she didn't want to seem too interested. She hoped he’d just break down and tell her. He had to want to tell her, didn't he? Wasn't Q the most self-interested, self-centered man on earth? It had to be a good story. He wouldn't talk about himself much, though, at least not without prompting, which really made no sense.
(He had claimed, once or twice now, that he had changed. Did people ever really change? How would she know? Who did she really know long enough to check? She had maintained no friendships from high school; her brother was gone. Her parents had only become more and more like themselves in the time she had known them, but maybe there was something wrong with them? Where were they now, anyway? As for herself, you would naively assume that spending all that time as a niffin might make you change, might teach you something, but somehow she still felt the same as she had before — twenty three and pissed off. Seven years as a rage demon hadn’t even expiated her anger.)
And then, as they were walking to dinner, they found the cat.
She noticed it not long after they left the house. It was clearly a stray, and was skulking between a couple of beaten-up construction dumpsters on the same block, outside another single family home that was being gut renovated, its glassless windows and doorless entries covered in plastic sheeting and scaffolds.
The cat looked really hungry. It had a calico coat, and was small, very thin, and not particularly healthy looking. Alice was immediately worried about it.
She crouched down and looked at the poor thing. She and the cat locked eyes for a moment, and Alice realized she had no idea what that might mean. She didn't really know much about cats at all. She had read a few things about them in books, of course — population genetics, history of the Egyptian Bastet cult, the life cycle of Toxoplasma gondii, in other words, the sorts of things anyone might casually pick up — but she'd never had one, had never really spent much time around any. Book learning was different from experience.
Quentin squatted down next to Alice. He blinked his eyes at the cat and extended the back of his hand towards it. She (it had to be a she) took a couple of sniffs. Alice reached out to pet her, but the cat bolted away and ran down a stair and under the tarp over the basement doorway.
“Skittish”, said Quentin. “It probably doesn't trust people much.”
“That shows good taste on her part,” said Alice.
“Her?” he asked as they started standing up.
“She’s a calico. They’re always female. The trait is X linked. Didn't you know?”
“She looked awful, like skin and bones,” said Alice, with an involuntary shudder. She wasn’t used to feeling sorry for anything other than herself any more. It felt strange and painful to her, another bundle of nerves long since burned away in blue fire finally regenerating and feeling all too raw.
“A stray cat probably doesn’t have an easy life. Maybe we can pick up some food for her on our way back, see if she’ll eat it,” said Quentin.
“What makes you sure we can find her again?” asked Alice.
Q shrugged. “We have ways, I think.”
He absentmindedly moved his fingers through a couple of the more horrible positions from Popper as they continued down the street.
The restaurant they went to was a short walk away. It was small, quaint, and Lebanese, and proclaimed itself to be a “slow food establishment”. It served (among other things) “pitzas” flavored by a spice mix she had never tasted before called za’atar.
Everything was delicious (her body insisted on reminding her constantly of how tasty food was) and she and Q chatted away amiably about nothing, but her mind was elsewhere, on the hungry cat. It felt wrong that they were eating well and Jenny was out there somewhere poking her way through the garbage.
“We should get out of here,” said Alice. “Feed Jenny.”
“Jenny?” said Quentin. He looked at the waitress across the room and made the universal scribbling gesture that meant “Please bring our check.”
“It’s named Jenny?”
“She. And yes, I've named her Jenny,” said Alice.
“After ‘Jennyanydots’ in the T.S. Eliot poem.”
“Wasn't that cat a tabby?” asked Quentin.
“A tabby with tiger stripes and leopard spots. Don’t be so literal, Q. Her name is Jenny.”
He smiled brightly at her. That felt good, seeing him look at her that way.
Quentin paid, and then they walked to a bodega and bought a few cans of cat food, a package of paper bowls, and a bag of plastic forks.
“We don’t want her eating out of the can,” he said. “The edges will be sharp.”
“Going to magic the can open?” asked Alice.
Quentin pointed silently at the pull tab on the top of what proclaimed itself to be a container of Foodie Feline “Organic and Free Range Osso Buco Flavor (For Active Cats)”.
He had also bought a small can of tuna. “Just in case Jenny isn't a foodie,” he said.
“How could she not be?” said Alice. “She lives in some of the most expensive real estate in the city. Do you know what a house in this neighborhood costs?”
When they arrived back in front of “Jenny’s” building, Alice began working on a complicated 18th century Flemish spell that would produce a set of glowing paw-prints wherever the cat’s feet had been, so they could follow her movements and track her down. (She imagined a long meandering path through the neighborhood, with occasional pauses in front of the mostly-eaten corpses of juvenile rats and pigeons.)
However, she had never actually used the spell, not since she’d read about it in third year in a misplaced book in the Brakebills library. It was taking her a few tries to get the feel of the thing in her hands, the sense in your fingers that you were pushing them through something warm and viscous that meant you were getting traction on the stuff of whatever it was that made the magic work.
Meanwhile, Quentin had walked down the stair to where the cat had disappeared earlier. He opened a can, emptied half the contents into a paper bowl with one of the plastic forks, placed it in front of the tarp, and sat down quietly on the steps. Only a moment passed before Jenny poked her head out from under the plastic, sniffed a bit at the bowl, looked cautiously at Q (who blinked again at her), and then emerged and threw herself wholly into the task of gorging on the food.
It all happened before Alice could cast her spell — Alice, who felt it had been just yesterday that she'd managed Fergus’s Spectral Armory on the first try when fighting Martin Chatwin. She felt a little deflated.
Jenny seemed hungry enough to eat just about anything, so the question of how refined her tastes might be would have to wait for another day.
“How did you do that?” said Alice, sitting down gingerly next to Q on the steep little masonry stairs.
“Get her to come out and eat.”
“Oh, I’m not really sure I did anything. Maybe I did?” he said.
“You’re not sure?”
“Sometimes I don’t really notice when I do small things any more. I spent a few weeks once communing with field mice, so maybe now I’ve got some mental powers with small mammals. But I also had a cat when I was little, so it could just be that.”
Alice wasn't sure what to make of it. They sat in silence for a minute watching Jenny chow down on her dinner. She made little squeaky grunts while she ate.
“Why would you spend weeks communing with field mice?” asked Alice.
“I don’t know,” said Quentin. He tucked his knees up to his chin. “I guess I was in a bad place in my head. I didn't want to feel anything any more, and I was alone. Well, not exactly alone, but there was no one worth talking to, just some centaurs who didn't really think much of humans. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I practiced all sorts of things. Mostly I tried figuring out some of Mayakovsky’s tricks. He could make time go backwards a little bit, you remember, and I guess I thought that maybe I could learn how to do that and go backwards and fix everything.”
Alice snorted. “So you were alone and feeling sorry for yourself and started talking to field mice?”
“I suppose that’s not entirely unfair,” said Quentin, shrugging. He didn’t look at her.
He’d stopped talking. He had been talking about himself, and then she had poked him and he stopped saying anything. She was angry with him for it. Angry with herself, too. She was good at anger, good at being passive aggressive as well. She could have asked him to go on, but that would make it seem like she cared, and caring was something for the fleshy, not for niffins. She didn't want to let him know that she cared, she didn't want to care in the first place. They weren't together any more. And besides, it was infuriating. He was always letting her talk but never asking her anything, or at least, not anything important.
Her anger was never stable, though. The rage went out almost as swiftly as it arrived.
She leaned in to him a bit as they sat silently on the stairway.
After a while, Jenny finished eating and peered at them warily. She seemed nervous.
“She shouldn't be so scared,” said Alice, more thinking aloud than intending to say anything.
“Why shouldn't she?” asked Quentin. “She doesn't know if she should trust us or not, but we've given her food and she knows she wants more. She’s wondering if we’re going to hurt her or help, but if she leaves she risks missing out on getting more to eat. It's a life or death sort of decision if you’re a small, incompletely domesticated mammal far from the environment your ancestors evolved in.”
Quentin crouched down a bit at the bottom step, and slowly extended his arm, presenting the back of his hand to the cat as he had before. The calico walked a couple of steps and gingerly sniffed at it before looking up at him. He blinked again at her.
The two of them were clearly speaking in some sort of secret language of cats, though Alice didn't quite get what was being said. She'd never lived with a cat. Would it take long to learn how to communicate with them? Could you ever get fluent in it if you hadn't learned in childhood, or would there always be a little accent, some way the cat could sense, when you scritched it behind the ears, that you were an outsider, not really raised in their culture?
“What do you want to do?” said Quentin, snapping her out of her short reverie.
“What do you mean?” said Alice, feeling a rush of anger. How the hell did she know what she wanted to do about everything? It hadn't even been ten days since she’d become human again!
“The cat,” said Quentin. “Should we try to get it back to the house? I think she’s not doing well on her own out here. She might also be sick.”
“Yes, of course, we should take Jenny home. We can take care of her until she gets better,” said Alice.
“Of course. Until she gets better,” said Quentin, with a tone of skepticism in his voice. She could tell what he meant by it. Don’t pretend that you haven’t just adopted a cat.
Quentin cast a short spell. She couldn't quite follow his hands, and he was mumbling, but the language was Old Church Slavonic, and it was clearly intended to get the cat to fall asleep, which she did.
“Unfortunately, you can’t really ask their permission before helping them,” he said, “but I agree. I think it’s the right thing to do.”
He picked the cat up and scooped her into his arms, holding her like a baby. The cat crossed her front paws over each other in her sleep. It was ridiculously adorable.
“Could you get the rest of the stuff? My arms are full,” said Quentin. Alice did, and they walked back to the townhouse.
The cat looked awfully cute. So did Q. They looked awfully cute.
Once they got home, Quentin insisted that they put the cat in a spare bedroom on her own for a while.
“Just for a few days,” he said. “She’ll be nervous at first, being inside a big place that she’s not used to, not to mention being with people she doesn't know. She’ll want a safe place to retreat to and furniture to hide underneath until she feels calmer. She’ll need a little while to get used to things.”
Alice had no real idea whether he was right or not, so she decided she had to trust his judgment.
She hated having to do that.
Also, was he just talking about Jenny?
Quentin left her with the cat (which he had placed on the bed, and which was still sleeping off being magically roofied) while he went out again, to get more housecat paraphernalia.
Alice tried petting the cat while she slept, experimentally at first, then with more enthusiasm. She was really underfed — Alice could easily feel Jenny’s tiny little ribs under her fur and skin.
It was late, and Alice felt tired — it had been a very long day — so she lay down next to the cat and pulled one of the pillows under her head.
Soon, without the slightest puzzlement as to why, she found herself back at her parents house. They seemed to have redecorated in some sort of Polynesian style, and her mom, who was wearing a grass skirt and absolutely nothing else, was talking to Amanda Orloff and Professor March in a room lit by bamboo torches. Actually, maybe it wasn't really Polynesian — the room seemed more like a cheap Trader Vic’s knockoff.
“Looks like someone could use a mai tai!” said her father with deranged enthusiasm, handing her a drink in a cup shaped like a coconut shell. He was also wearing a grass skirt.
“This is all so…” said Alice, pausing because she couldn't think of any words to use.
“Tasteless?” said her father. “Yes indeed!”
Nearby there was a big wooden tiki with a familiar look to it. It had a silver-white Andy Warhol wig on top and big white eyebrows like fluffy caterpillars. The sculpture was moving. Of course it was moving. How could it not be moving?
“Heya, Alice! Glad you could make it!” said the Tiki, in Quentin’s voice.
She wanted to ask him how he’d turned entirely into wood, and why he was wearing a wig if he was a Tiki now, but then her father handed him a mai tai too and they started talking, and though she was angry with Quentin for suddenly breaking off their conversation, it seemed like the wrong time to get in to it with him.
She turned and saw that her mom and Professor March and Amanda were now watching as Martin Chatwin unpacked a blood red violin. Martin seemed to be hungrily sizing Amanda up. He started playing — the piece was Paganini’s Caprice #24. The choice of music seemed ridiculously trite to Alice under the circumstances, and besides, it clashed completely with the spirit of the party.
Martin was moving far too many fingers all over the neck of the instrument. Alice realized the violin wasn't just blood red, it was oozing blood, which was covering Martin’s hands and the bow, and dripping onto the floor.
Alice didn't like drinking that much, but this clearly called for it. She looked into her hand, but the mai tai wasn’t there. She couldn't really remember where she had put it down, so she started going around the room looking for it, but then she realized her hand hadn't looked human any more.
She looked down at herself. She was naked, burning, and blue, just the way she was supposed to be at long last. But that made no sense, because she didn't really think anything around her was funny. It was all just weird and disturbing and sad, and she shouldn't be able to feel that way.
Somehow, Quentin had ruined being a niffin for her. It had to be his fault. She couldn't go back any more and she couldn't be a human being either.
It was awful, and she wanted out, but it was taking her forever to find the front door to the house, and when she got to it, she found it was locked, and she remembered that Quentin had the key, but he was on the other side of the room and going out through the other door into the kitchen.
She tried getting to him but he was so far away, and before Alice could get there, “Death” March cornered her. The bastard was acting like she was still his student and wanted to ask her all these questions about the cloud formations in the Q Continuum, which weren't the same as the ones on Earth, but she didn't have names for any of them yet, and didn't he understand that she didn't want to talk to him about any of that shit in the first place, who cared about barotropic cyclones, she just wanted to get the key to the front door from Quentin so she could leave and go back to being full of hate for everything and laughing about it, but March wouldn't fucking shut up and she didn’t have her drink and Quentin kept getting farther and farther away…
…and then, just as things seemed like they couldn't get any more frustrating, Alice heard scratching nearby. Insistent, continuous, loud scratching. She tried to ignore it and get away from March and get the key, to pay attention to what she was doing, but then she found that paying attention made everything around her fade, except the scratching sound, which wouldn't go away.
The sound was real (and was now augmented by a bit of a “thump thump thump”) but everything else had been a dream, and now she was awake.
Alice felt disoriented for a few moments. She was lying on a bed, that much was clear, but it was completely dark, and she wasn't sure where she was. However, even with her brain completely foggy, she could manage a Basic Illumination — hell, she could have performed that spell a semester into first year while dead drunk, stoned, and tripping simultaneously — and besides, her Discipline was phosphoromancy. Light was her specialty.
Her control, though, that was less than perfect.
Instead of a nice low level glow, it seemed bright as the sun (though in retrospect, it was probably just more like a 60 watt bulb than the night light she’d been aiming for). Alice hid her eyes reflexively, and it took her a moment to turn the power down. When the spots in her vision cleared, she glanced around and finally put together what had happened.
She'd fallen asleep, still wearing all her clothes, next to the cat on the bed in the spare bedroom. Someone — no, it had to be Q, there was no one else — had put a blanket over her.
He had also set up a litter box for Jenny the Cat in one corner, and she was even now using it and enthusiastically covering up… something. The scratching was the sound of her pawing at the litter. Her feet were hitting the side of the box here and there, making the thumping noise.
Another corner now held two bowls, which seemed to Alice’s bleary eyes to contain water and cat food.
She was exhausted, and really didn't want to wake up. Not knowing what else to do, she dispelled the light and fell right back asleep.
Alice woke again fairly late the next morning, her bladder insistent that she get up immediately.
However, there seemed to be a cat sleeping on her abdomen.
She tried picking her up to move her, but the cat woke up slightly and hissed at her before curling up again.
There wasn’t anything about this in the niffin handbook, Alice thought. Then again, there wasn’t actually a niffin handbook, and if there had been, it probably would only have advice on the most efficient ways to maim and/or incinerate things. Rage monsters didn’t have pets.
She thought about it for a couple of minutes and she settled for slipping out from under the blanket. It seemed to work — Jenny neither moved nor complained this time. She tucked the blanket around the cat for good measure, and from the purring, it seemed she was content for now.
As Alice left the room, she was vigorously assaulted by a sheet of paper that flew up to her and tapped her on the shoulder insistently until she grabbed it out of the air and read it. Quentin had left a message for her.
“Unable to overcome consumerist instincts. Out shopping. Back soon. Breakfast is in the kitchen. Q.”
His penmanship seemed as atrocious as ever. Worse, maybe.
Alice had finished eating and was trying to decide, in a sort of abstract way, if becoming re-addicted to coffee was a good idea, when Quentin returned to the townhouse. He entered the kitchen with a messenger bag over his shoulder and two large sacks of groceries in his arms.
“Since when,” said Alice, “do you carry a purse.”
“I will have you know that these came into fashion before we were even at Brakebills. Also, I needed something to carry your present in.”
“You got me a present?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he said, withdrawing a leather bound book and handing it to her. It was entitled “Introduction to Small Animal Veterinary Thaumaturgy”.
“I understand this is going to be all the rage at all the European magic schools next year,” said Quentin. “You’ll be ahead of the trend.”
“Since when do you know about trends?” asked Alice.
“In Eliot’s absence, someone has to do the job.”
“And why give me the book?” she asked. “You’re the one who knows all about cats.”
“I don’t, not really,” said Quentin. “Anyway, you’re vastly better and faster at this sort of thing. If I tried anything in that book for the first time on Jenny I might turn her inside out when I was just trying to check her blood pressure. I understand that’s not good for their health.”
“You seem a lot better than me at this sort of thing these days, Q.”
“Where did you get that idea?” he asked.
“Watching you work,” said Alice. “And you told me yourself a while ago. The Quentin I used to know couldn’t have made a niffin human again. He couldn’t maybe kinda accidentally talk telepathically to cats either.”
“And you turned me into a dragon when I fought Ember,” said Quentin. “I don’t think I could ever have done that, let alone without having tried the spell in seven or eight years. You’re forgetting how long it’s been. I’m not as good as you are, I’m just a lot older.”
“It’s so weird,” she said. “It doesn’t feel that long ago to me. It seems like yesterday.”
Alice paused for a moment.
“Q? What happened to your hair? What happened to your shoulder?”
Quentin paused for a moment and looked off into space. He seemed to make up his mind about something, and then he answered.
“It’s not really that big a deal any more, you understand, but at the time it was. When you… after you killed Martin, well, I was pretty badly injured. I was in a coma for six months. When I woke up, my hair looked like this, and the centaurs who patched me up replaced the missing bits with whatever this stuff is.”
He tapped on his shoulder with his knuckles. She half expected it to make some sort of knocking sound, but it didn’t.
“I’ve never really tried to figure out what it’s made of. I can’t actually feel those parts, but they work well enough. I was messed up in the head too, I think I mentioned that. Did a bunch of silly things for a while. Anyway, I got better, and it was a long time ago.”
“Why don’t you want to talk about it?” asked Alice. “Because it seems like you don’t.”
“Oh, I dunno.” said Quentin. “I don’t want to make it seem like more than it is? You got the worse end of the deal. As I said, it was a long time ago. I don’t think about it much any more.”
They were finally talking, but just then, Jenny crept into the kitchen, sniffing around. She had a nervous look about her. Alice realized she hadn’t closed the door to the bedroom when she got up — the cat had probably been roaming around for quite a while.
“Ah, speak of the devil!” said Quentin, though they hadn’t been discussing the cat at all. “Looks like she’s adjusting really fast — sometimes they’ll try to hide for a few days until they get comfortable with new people.”
Alice tried reaching out towards the cat, but she shied away.
“You might want to let her come to you instead,” said Quentin.
“She was sleeping on top of me when I woke up,” said Alice.
“Well, then she must like you. Which shows good taste on her part,” said Quentin. “Anyway, maybe you should go through the book, see if she’s okay. Or we could just take her to a vet. There’s probably one around here.”
“No, it’s fine. I don’t mind.”
It wasn’t as though Alice disliked learning new magic, after all.
The book wasn’t too bad, a little dry perhaps, but the ideas seemed easy enough to pick up. Alice spent most of the day reading it and occasionally hunting down the cat so she could examine her or try out a new spell. Jenny was pretty easy to find — the house was big, but there wasn’t a lot of furniture in it, at least not yet.
Alice didn’t see much of Quentin, though. Once he dropped in on her but she was busy trying to get the cat to stay still long enough to weave a fiddly diagnostic charm around her, and once he came by and left behind a feather on a stick and a package of soft chew cat vitamins. (“They might help. She’s probably not been eating a balanced diet,” said Q. “They’re real artificial chicken flavor — nothing but the best for her, you know.”)
The feather on the stick proved to be quite a hit. Half-starved or no, Jenny was pretty good at jumping.
Jenny was also really good at purring, which she did a lot of after she eventually decided to let Alice pet her for a bit, and she also seemed to be a domain expert on sleeping curled up on cushioned surfaces.
Late in the afternoon, without intending to, Alice drifted off to sleep in an armchair, with Jenny asleep on her lap. It had been a long day, and she had been so absorbed by what she was doing that she hadn’t even paused for lunch.
She woke with a start. It was already almost dark out. Jenny was still on her lap, and was awfully, awfully cute. Alice wondered how she had grown so attached to the poor little thing so quickly.
Maybe it had all been inevitable from the moment she’d spotted Jenny in the first place.
She wondered what Quentin’s motivation had been in sending her off with the book and the cat all day.
It was good that Alice had given Jenny a check-up, of course. It turned out that the cat had been leading a rather unsanitary lifestyle. She had two distinct kinds of intestinal parasites, which, luckily, were fairly straightforward to deal with. (At least she didn’t have heartworm. The description in the textbook made that sound like a horror straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel.)
Still, they could have just taken Jenny to a vet. In the end it would have been much the same. Or maybe, thought Alice, he hadn’t wanted it mostly for Jenny. Maybe it had been for her, too.
She walked downstairs, looking for Quentin. There was faint music coming from the living room.
She peeked in. He was sitting on the cheap Ikea couch, staring off into space. He had a glass of something amber in his hand — whiskey, she guessed. Chet Baker was playing on a little portable stereo. He had an old yellowed paperback on his lap, which had the look of something you’d pick up at The Strand on a whim and never actually read, although, knowing Q, he was probably trying anyway.
A James Clavell novel? she thought. Could be worse, though. He could be re-reading The Flying Forest for the eight hundredth time instead.
“Hey,” she said.
He turned towards her.
“Hey. How’s the patient?” asked Quentin.
“Oh, she’s fine,” said Alice. “I think all she really needs is a warm place to sleep, clean water, and enough food, preferably not from a dumpster. She had a couple of nasty things in her gut but they seem to have been easy to deal with. Oh, and Q, about that tuna you bought. Apparently you shouldn’t feed them too much of that. Not enough vitamin E. They can get something called steatitis.”
“We should keep that in mind, then,” he said.
And with that, a heavy silence descended between them. They had never really finished their conversation earlier. They’d never really talked though things before that, either, certainly not in a meaningful way.
The closest was after she came back and couldn’t stop yelling at him for what felt like hours but was probably minutes, but most of that was her saying things she thought would hurt him as much as possible.
Just do it already, she thought, and she sat down next to him on the couch.
“What is all of this, Q?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“What am I to you? Am I some sort of weird science experiment?”
Quentin seemed stricken.
“No! Of course not! Why would you think that?”
“You never say anything important about yourself,” said Alice. “Not unless I push. I don’t… I never really know what’s going on in your head. You just act all calm and distant. I have no idea where we stand.”
“I didn’t want to crowd you, that’s all. You seemed to have enough to figure out on your own. You also said there isn’t a ‘we’, remember? I don’t believe you — sorry, no disrespect, but I don’t — but I didn’t want to push and make it come true.”
“So you care? About me?” she asked, hating how weak she sounded.
He looked right into her eyes.
“Of course I care, Alice! I don’t think I ever stopped loving you. Not even in all those years when I thought you were good as dead.
“But then you just seemed so unhappy. When I brought you back, I mean. I expected you might still be angry with me, maybe even very angry after everything that happened, but I didn’t think about how hard just being a person again might be for you.”
He turned away for a moment, and then looked down at his feet.
“Anyway, of course I care. I always missed you, Alice. Always.”
Alice took the glass out of Quentin’s hand, set it on the floor, and moved over onto his lap. He was eight inches taller than her, so it wasn’t a bad fit.
Then she threw her arms around him and kissed him.
In the night, the cat came and slept on the bed with them.
Early the next morning, Alice went up alone to the fourth floor work room where Quentin had created his land.
She was good at fundamental principles, always had been, and even if there wasn’t a spell to do exactly what she wanted, usually she could intuit the right method to get it done anyway.
It took a few minutes of thinking about what exactly she wanted to achieve, and how in general terms to accomplish it, but after that she still had to feel her way through it.
Magic wasn’t like engineering. Sometimes, you could get what you needed only if you gave up the desire to control everything, to get everything perfect. Sometimes, in spite of your apprehensions, you had to relax and let go.
After about half an hour’s worth of exploring, trying out this and that, seeing where things led, Alice grokked in fullness. She altered an old Coptic architectural spell for the purpose, and cast quickly and decisively.
Her hands immediately felt the right tingle, the sort of resistance that meant she’d achieved traction on the stuff of reality. The tips of her fingers left little colored trails as she moved them through the air. As she finished, there was a light that intensified steadily for several seconds until it was bright enough to make her shield her eyes with her arm. It took several moments before it faded.
There was now a pale green wooden cat flap at the bottom of the pale green wooden door to the Q Continuum.