Two humans, a tree, and an alien prince walked into a coffee shop.
No one in the shop even blinked at their entrance, though a few heads turned when the punk-looking teenage human loudly asked, “Is this some kind of a joke?” in an Irish accent. When neither explanation nor answer was immediately forthcoming, and the eclectic group politely stood off to one side to examine the menu and converse quietly amongst themselves, the curious patrons quickly turned their attention back to their own business.
One might find the coffee shop’s lack of reaction to be confusing, if one were not aware of two facts.
First, the tree and the alien were disguised as humans; through an elaborate spell-costume in the case of the former, and a hair tie and oversized hoodie for the latter.
Second, the coffee shop in question was located in the middle of Portland, Oregon; a city quite famous for its weirdness. In all likelihood, the disguises weren’t necessary. The nonhumans in the group could probably have gone about their business without drawing any attention, because most of the shop's patrons would have seen things far stranger than them on their morning commute.
Either way, they drew no additional attention to themselves as they discussed the menu.
“No, really, is this a joke?” Ronan asked.
“I don’t know,” Darryl replied, tilting his head to the side and staring at the menu.
“Are those even words?” Filif asked.
“Technically they are, since they are formed from an established letter system and are pronounceable in the local dialect…” Darryl trailed off. “Maybe it’s supposed to be Italian? I heard coffee shops use a lot of Italian words.”
“What is a ‘machiatto’?” Roshaun asked, pronouncing it “match-ee-ah-toe.”
“I don’t know,” Darryl said, digging in his pocket. “I’ll try a translator app. Maybe it’s related to an Americano?”
“Then, is there such a thing as a ‘Canadiano?'”
Ronan scoffed. “'Try this new coffee shop in Portland,’ Carmela said. ‘You’ll love it, and it will be a great chance for everyone to broaden their horizons!’ she said.” He stuck his hands in his pockets. “Should have known better than to take her recommendation. We transited all the way here for… what? What is a ‘crosswalk mocha’ even supposed to be? Distracting enough you get into a car accident?”
“Okay, okay, guys, I got this,” Darryl said. “There’s a page here with all this information about coffee and stuff… So that’s what a latte is…” In the middle of scrolling down the page, he paused, and grimaced. “Man, that coffee grinder is loud.”
Roshaun wrinkled his nose. “Yes, and it does not smell very pleasant in here either.”
“I think that’s them roasting the beans,” Darryl said, still reading. “But according to this, it’s not supposed to smell bad like that. Hey! Fil! Says here coffee is good for plants if you water them with it!”
“Hm, that does sound intriguing…” Filif adopted a pondering face, or rather, his mochteroof did, translating whatever the equivalent branch movement was into a human expression. “I’d be worried about the acid content, though. Perhaps a light roast?”
“Eh, maybe not,” Ronan said. “From the smell of it, I don’t know how likely we are to get anything lighter than charcoal from this place. I’m getting a headache, and only part of it is from someOne hollering at me about fair trade coffee beans.”
“Yeah, it’s… Really strong. And the grinder is hurting my ears.” Darryl pulled a face. “Can we please get out of here?”
“By all means,” Roshaun said, ignoring the way a few girls over in the corner had started to stare at him longingly.
“Want to see if Sker’ret knows a better place?” Filif asked. “Surely there’s a place in the Crossings that will suit us better than here.”
“Let’s do it,” Ronan said.
The humans, tree, and alien prince exited the coffee shop, and life in Portland went on.
When Ronan turned the corner to the small beach he frequented for some alone time, the last thing he expected to see was a faintly embarrassed humpback whale, beached on the sandbar.
But there it was, resting half on the sand and half in the water, staring mournfully at him out of one great eye as the waves lapped around its belly.
“Uh, hello,” he said in the Speech.
“Hello,” the whale said back.
They stared at each other for a moment.
“You okay?” Ronan finally asked.
“Physically? Well enough. Otherwise? I suppose if anyone had to find me in this predicament,” the whale said, “it’s better to have been a fellow wizard.”
“Um, are you stuck?” Ronan asked. “Can I help?”
“Yes, please,” the whale said, relief distinct in her voice. “I can get back into the deep water myself, but I’m tired, and it helps to have an extra set of eyes; that reef back there is tricky and sharp. I learned that on the way in.”
Ronan winced. “I’m guessing a healing spell is in order after we get you back in open water?”
“It’s not serious, but it does sting.” The whale shifted uncomfortably.
“Alright, we better get to this. I’m Ronan, by the way.”
“S'reee. Well met, Rhoannann.” S'reee waved the fin closest to him in acknowledgment. “Now, how would you prefer to go about this? A gravity spell, perhaps?”
“Sounds easiest, yeah.”
With two wizards involved, getting S'reee back into the open ocean and patching up the scrapes on her belly was trivial, though it did leave Ronan winded. S'reee was kind enough to let him rest on her back for a while.
“So, what happened there?” Ronan asked, once he wasn’t gasping for air. “With the reef, I never see anything bigger than turtles on that beach.”
S'reee let out a long breath. “Rhoannann, as a Senior wizard for the North Atlantic, let me give you the advice I wish I had known a few hours ago: when it comes to your love life, never listen to a dolphin’s suggestions!”
Of all the things! Even if it’s not good form to laugh at a Senior, Ronan couldn’t help it. “Okay, I think you lost me somewhere along the way,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. “Let’s start at the beginning. You took romantic advice from a dolphin?”
“I was trying to impress someone,” S'reee whistled sadly. “Hotshot offered to help, and the maneuver looked fairly easy when he did it. I neglected to consider that what works for one cetacean might not work for another, even after his initial suggestion was to offer him fish!”
“Hm.” Ronan considered that. “Well, humans give each other gifts when we’re interested in one another, why didn’t that work out?”
“For one, the object of my affections is a baleen whale.”
“Ah, I can see why that would be a sticking point.” Ronan sat up and patted S'reee’s back. “You really shouldn’t have taken dating advice from someone named ‘Hotshot’. You ought to find someone a little more subtle.”
S'reee was silent for a moment, then spoke again. “Cousin,” she said, a playful tone in her voice, “I require an advice.”
“Oh, not me, you great big fish!” Ronan playfully smacked S'reee’s back. “I am the last person you should be talking to about this! Ignoring, for the moment, that our species difference is even worse than you and Hotshot, the last time I kissed a girl I found out I’m the vessel for a celestial Power!”
“I know, it’s difficult to miss the presence of the Finned Defender.”
Ronan groaned and laid back down. “Can’t even give dating advice to a whale without You looking over my shoulder and making it difficult, can I?”
In the back of his mind, Ronan got the impression of snickering.
“Okay. Whatever. I’m a wizard. I’ve handled worse than this. How hard can this be? I mean, worst case, I just Google cetacean mating rituals and read you the first result.” He rolled over and propped himself up on his elbows, gazing down at S'reee. “Okay. So you want to impress this guy. You’re a Senior wizard! How is that not impressive by itself?”
“He’s not a wizard, though,” S'reee said. “I’m not sure he quite understands the ranking system, or even wizardry itself. But he’s so nice, and we do have a lot of other things in common! Plus, the flukes on that guy! Quite attractive!” S'reee splashed with her tail for emphasis.
“Ah, woah!” Ronan struggled to keep his balance and nearly tumbled off of S'reee. “Careful, Cousin!”
“Sorry, he’s just…” S'reee trailed off, then sighed. “Why is it easier to understand the laws of physics than it is romance?”
“I don’t know. Because physics is logical and consistent, unlike most organic life? I took in the sea on my Ordeal and that was still easier than talking to someone I have a crush on.” Ronan echoed her sigh. “I think we are both horribly out of our depth on this subject, pun very much intended.”
“Love is strange,” S'reee said.
“That much, at least, seems to be constant across species.”
Ronan never did end up Googling ‘cetacean mating rituals,’ because he was understandably distracted by the events that were to come. Dealing with an invasion of malevolent dark matter and getting impaled in the chest by a divine weapon does tend to push such things from one’s mind.
It was harder than Ronan thought to pick up the phone and call the Australian that had healed him – Matt, Nita had said his name was.
It wasn’t that he was worried about long-distance charges (such things weren’t exactly an issue for wizards). Rather, it was more about having to acknowledge the fact that he had almost died. He had even stopped breathing at one point, according to Nita. For the past few days, he had been getting along just fine without examining that fact. Not examining much of anything, really; just resting, recovering, celebrating the victory, mourning the losses.
Nita pestered him, though, to call the guy and make sure everything was healing okay. “You took the freaking Spear of Light to the chest,” she said over the phone. “You are going to follow up with your healer if I have to put you over my shoulder and transit you there myself!”
She made a very convincing argument, and Ronan was fairly sure she would follow through on that threat (Nita could be very scary when she wanted to), which is why he finally hit the ‘call’ button and held the phone up to his ear.
After five rings, a very sleepy voice said “’Ello?”
Ronan smacked his forehead. “Shit. I forgot the time difference.”
Matt yawned loudly.
“Hi, sorry, Nita kept nagging me to call you, and– ”
“You’d be Ronan, then?” Matt didn’t sound grumpy, just a little sleep-slurred. “Nice to hear you up and about and making a fool of yourself, considering the state you were in.”
“Yeah, believe me, I’m glad to be up too. Sorry to bother you, but Nita said you wanted to follow up with me about the healing?”
“Yeah, yeah, make sure I didn’t glue your aorta to your ribs and whatnot?”
Ronan choked on air.
Matt continued without seeming to notice the interruption. “I’m free tomorrow, later today, whatever you want to call it depending on what time zone you’re in. Think you could gate into the complex at Adelaide and I’ll meet you there? Say, I dunno, sometime in your morning, so it’d be evening for us?” He rattled off a time in Julian Date form.
Ronan took a second to convert that to local time. “Okay, that works. Why Adelaide, though? Isn’t Sydney closer to you? At least, going by what the Knowledge says about your address.”
Matt was silent for a moment. “Because people think Adelaide is boring and it’s fun to mess with tourists by sending them to the most boring place?” His innocent tone sounded as real as the color on a neon pink feather boa.
Ronan snorted. “You don’t really think I’m that gullible, do you?”
There was a rustling sound, which might have been Matt shrugging. “Well, it’s worked on everyone else so far. It’s really funny to mess with tourists.”
“Ha ha. Believe me, if I hadn’t just been stabbed in the chest, I would be laughing hysterically. Just meet me there.”
“Will do. Oh, and one more thing?”
“When you’re gating in to Sydney, there’s an extra variable you have to take into account.”
Ronan instantly sobered. Transits out of Ireland were already tricky due to the overlays. “What’s that?”
Ronan almost hung up on him. “Sure, okay. Just one question.”
“Is every Australian as much of a shit comedian as you are, or are you just special?”
“I don’t know, is the stick up your ass an Irish hereditary trait or did it just get stuck up there after they pulled it out of your chest?”
Both of them were silent for a moment.
“Too soon?” Matt asked, hesitant.
“I think I like you already,” Ronan said.
“Likewise,” Matt replied. “Looking forward to meeting you when you’re actually conscious! Honestly, as far as Sleeping Beauties go, I’ve seen cuter.”
Ronan did hang up on him that time, but he was smiling.
The first thing Ronan noticed when he stepped through the worldgate in Sydney was how hot it was compared to Ireland.
The second thing he noticed was a guy he presumed was Matt, jumping up and down and waving and generally making an idiot of himself.
“Yo, Irish, over here!” the guy called, and it was the same voice as on the phone, confirming Ronan’s suspicions.
“Well, this is going to be fun,” he muttered under his breath, making his way to Matt.
The moment he stopped in front of him, Matt poked him in the chest.
“Ow!” Ronan yelped. “What was that for?”
“Preliminary examination,” Matt said.
“That is not an explanation! Or an examination, for that matter!”
“Well, you didn’t pass out from pain, and you’re not bleeding into your shirt. Therefore, I can conclude that you’re healing well.” Matt’s grin was positively shit-eating.
“I knew this was a bad idea,” Ronan griped. “What kind of a quack are you?”
“Well, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and casts healing spells like a duck, then it wants to check you over more thoroughly. My place is just a few blocks down, we can do it there. Oh, almost forgot, this is for you!” Matt dug around in his backpack for a moment, then presented a small cylinder to Ronan.
Ronan took it, dubiously, then his eyes widened as he read the writing on the can. “Koala meat?” he exclaimed, voice hitting an embarrassingly high pitch. “You eat koala meat? Canned? This is horrifying! What the fuck? Why do you eat koalas? They’re cute and cuddly and what kind of twisted Australian greeting ritual is it to present your guest with a can of meat, anyway? I swear, I—”
Ronan trailed off, noticing the gleeful expression on Matt’s face and the way he was just barely suppressing his snickers.
“Oh, you little shit.” Ronan pulled a swiss army knife out of his pocket and flipped out the can opener. A few moments later, an adorably fluffy koala plushie poked its head out of the top of the can. “Oh you fucking arsehole.”
Matt, in the meantime, had abandoned all pretenses of not laughing, and was wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. “Oh my god, I can’t believe you fell for that one. That was the best canned koala speech I’ve ever heard!”
“I was going to be nice,” Ronan said. “I was going to get you a tasteful souvenir in return like a beer mug or something, but… This is war. You are getting the tackiest fucking snowglobe I can find, with, I don’t know, a leprechaun dancing on a shamrock covered in green fucking glitter.”
Matt just kept laughing. “Is it gonna have that many cuss words on it too?”
“Hey!” Ronan snapped. “I’ll say whatever I fucking well please.”
Matt held up his hands. “Okay, okay, I will respect your Irish vocabulary, sorry. Let’s just get you to my place and checked over, make sure you didn’t pop a stitch while you were popping off your mouth.”
Ronan glared. “You’re a wizard. You didn’t use actual stitches.”
“It’s a figure of speech! Yeesh!”
After a brief examination, Matt determined that Ronan was healing well. “I’m clearing you for ‘light duty’, so to speak,” he said. “Don’t go running a marathon or anything, at least not until our next follow up, but you’re fine.”
“I don’t feel fine, I feel like I’m going to die,” Ronan said, wiping sweat out of his eyes for the umpteenth time since he had arrived. “Why’s it so hot here?”
Matt shrugged. “Eh, you’d have to ask my friend Amy. She’s more on the meteorological side of things. As your ‘doctor,’ I do recommend a quick splash in the ocean if you want to cool off. Just…” He tossed a tube of sunscreen at Ronan, and it bounced off his head. “Slather yourself in that SPF 90, will you? I don’t want you doing a lobster impression. And I’ll put a waterproofing on your scar. It’s sealed over, but it can’t hurt to be extra careful.”
Ronan was almost expecting Matt to pull another ‘gullible tourist’ fast one on him, but the little beach he brought them to was quiet and secluded, almost like Ronan’s little spot back home.
“Well, this is almost nice,” Ronan said, sitting down on a sun-warmed boulder. “Do I have to watch out for, I don’t know, flying shrimp or something?”
“No, but you might want to be careful about the spider that’s very interested in your rump,” Matt replied.
Ronan leaped up, frantically brushing off his backside, before spotting the spider. It was a tiny thing, nothing like the horror stories people liked to tell of Australian fauna. “Oh, ha ha.”
“Is there anything on this continent that won’t try to eat me?” Ronan asked, gently brushing the spider off the rock.
Matt considered this. “I don’t know. I’m tempted to say koalas, but wear the wrong shade of green and you might get mistaken for eucalyptus.”
Ronan squeezed some sunblock onto his arms. “I swear, you have got worse terrors on top of this rock than are at the bottom of the ocean.”
“I mean it! I’d rather fight a giant squid than pick spiders out of my pillowcases!”
“I think you’ve been reading too many internet stories,” Matt said. “We hardly ever get spiders in our pillowcases in the cities.”
“Phew, okay, you had me worried,” Ronan said, slathering his shoulders.
“We tend to have to be more cautious of snakes,” Matt continued, ignoring the way Ronan accidentally dumped half the tube of sunblock on himself. “Antivenom kits come standard in apartments in my neighborhood.”
Ronan took a moment to regain his composure, then put some of the excess of sunblock to good use on his face. “Like I said, I’d prefer the squid. At least it’s up front about trying to kill you. ‘Hi, you are tiny and squishy and trespassing in my deep ocean crevice, goodbye.’ Whereas you lot just have it all sneakily trying to kill you before you’ve even woken up in the morning.” He paused for a moment to rub sunblock on his ears. “Still not convinced you’re not just pulling my leg about everything, but whatever.”
Matt just laughed at him.
Tentatively, Ronan waded into the water, keeping a sharp eye out for any poisonous Australian creatures that wanted to make his life miserable. It was warmer than he had expected, and he wasn’t sure it would do much to cool him down.
“Well, if you can avoid dying for five minutes, I’ll be right back. I forgot something.” And then, Matt was gone in a puff of displaced air that left a divot in the sand where he had been.
“Right, I’ll do that,” Ronan said to the empty air, then waded in a little further. Only up to his waist, careful to keep the scar on his chest dry.
The water was cooler than the surrounding air, at least, and the familiar push and pull of the waves was soothing as it tugged at his legs. Ronan just stood there for a while, feeling the water, mind not thinking of anything in particular. It was a lot brighter than his beach back home, and in lieu of regret over not bringing sunglasses, he just closed his eyes against the glare. The white noise of the waves rushed over him, and the longer he stood there, the more his feet sank into the sand.
After so long in space, on foreign worlds, scrambling against terrible forces, it was nice to just let the ocean push and pull at him in its familiar rhythm, and to feel the Earth’s gravity grounding him solidly against the tides. The ocean was where his wizardry had begun, and some part of him never forgot that fact.
The human body is eighty percent water. The salt in the ocean calls to the salt in your blood, and your bones echo the crunch of the sand, reminding you where you’ve come from, and where you’re going…
Ronan’s introspective train of thought was abruptly cut off by Matt whooping and diving past him into the water with a great splash. The cascade of water drenched Ronan, thoroughly snapping him out of the semi-trance the rocking of the waves had lulled him into.
And there was Matt, charging into the waves on top of a garishly colored surfboard. Just when it seemed a large one was going to topple him, he pushed himself into a standing position, and the surfboard was on top of the wave instead of crushed beneath it. It was one thing to see surfers on TV, and quite another to see one in person, gliding on top of the waves like it was as easy as gliding down the street on a skateboard.
Matt noticed Ronan watching him, grinned, and angled the surfboard in his direction. He was approaching quickly, so Ronan scrambled out of his way, back up onto the sand.
“Liking what you see, Irish?” Matt called.
Ronan turned red, but he ignored the taunt. “Dang, you’re really good at that,” he said instead. “How long have you been surfing?”
“About five minutes,” Matt said, coming up on the beach near Ronan. “Remember? I forgot my board, then I came back here, and-”
“Come on, we’ve already established you’re a smartarse, you don’t need to prove that,” Ronan interrupted. “I was serious, that’s impressive.”
Matt shrugged and picked up his surfboard. “Since I was a kid, I guess. Can’t really remember a time I didn’t.” He walked up the beach a bit, to where the sand was dry, and sat down. Ronan joined him. “Just kind of like riding a bike, by this point. Except with the ocean instead of the sidewalk.”
Ronan made a face. The ocean was so powerful and dangerous; he couldn’t imagine someone viewing it like the pavement.
“What’s with that look?” Matt asked.
“The ocean is so big and powerful, I can't look at it the way I would someone biking down the street,” Ronan said. “I look out there, and all I can think is how cold it is back home. All it wants to do is smash you against the rocks and wear away the cliffs. Not exactly what you’d ride training wheels on in the suburbs.”
Matt shrugged. “Well, it hurts when you fall either way, but water is still a softer landing than concrete. Less skinned elbows, anyway, as long as you're not near rocks.” He looked out at the horizon. “Growing up here… Yeah, the ocean will absolutely kick your ass if you’re not careful. We get the hurricanes and the tsunamis and the little ankle biting critters. But…” He trailed off.
Ronan let him gather his thoughts for a minute.
Eventually, Matt continued. “But, then you have the days where the waves are warm, and the tides are gentle. You see some sea turtles coasting by for a quick hello, and the water is so clear and calm in some places that you can dive twenty feet down and the sun will still warm your back.” Matt blinked, then shook his head, bringing himself back from whatever place he had gone. “Ah, listen to me ramble. Sorry to go all ‘bad poet’ on you there.”
“Nah, I think I get it,” Ronan said. “We have days like that too. It’s colder, so sometimes it hurts your feet to walk on the sand, but then you see the whales in the distance, or the life in the tide pools, and it’s so happy to just be where it is. The wind is so fresh, too; that salt air just sweeps away everything.” He stopped, and snorted. “Hey, do you know what salt air even smells like? Because I don’t. Salt doesn’t even have a scent. ‘Salt air’ just makes me think of sweat or something.”
Matt laughed. “I know, right? Why can’t they just say kelp air or fish air or something? Because you’re a lot more likely to smell the rotting seaweed and seagull poop than salt.”
“Seagull shit air’ isn’t good for attracting tourists, though,” Ronan said, also laughing.
They sat in a companionable silence for a while, watching the waves.
“Could you teach me to surf?” Ronan asked.
“Sure,” Matt said. “Just heal up a little more, first. I don’t want to have to save you from sharks because you opened it in a wipe-out.”
“Oh, ye of little faith. I have great balance!”
“Everyone has good balance until the ocean gets a hold of them.”
Matt gave it a couple of weeks before he cleared Ronan for surfing lessons. He checked in every few days, having Ronan run diagnostic spells on himself and having him report any discomfort or pain. The wound healed the rest of the way without incident, a testament both to Matt’s healing skills and the clean precision with which the Spear of Light had pierced his chest.
It was a hot and humid weekend when Ronan finally found himself in Australia again, ready to try catching a wave or two.
Matt asked if he knew anything about surfing, and when Ronan answered in the negative, Matt spent a good half hour talking about terminology, technique, types of boards, and types of waves. Ronan did not absorb much of the information, other than the fact that he was apparently “goofy footed” (which he thought was an insult at first, until Matt explained it was about his preferred foot placement) and the fact that “pearling” was a bad thing to do with your board. He wasn’t too worried about not knowing it all; he figured that he would be able to pick the rest up from context as he went along. Still, it was enjoyable to listen to Matt explaining everything; he was very enthusiastic about surfing, and his accent did some very funny things when he got excited.
Eventually, Matt picked out a surfboard for Ronan to try and they headed out to the beach. Apparently, it was a good board for beginners, as opposed to Matt’s more advanced board. Ronan thought they both looked identical, but he took Matt’s word for it.
They spent some time just paddling around, Matt explaining the basics of surfing and Ronan just trying to stay on the board. He rode a few waves on his stomach, getting a feel for them, then Matt suggested he try to actually stand up. On the next wave, Ronan managed to get into a crouch before he overbalanced and went toppling into the water. When he broke the surface, Matt was snickering at him.
Ronan spat out a mouthful of salt water. “Well, that’s not as easy as it looks.”
“Do you want some water wings?” Matt teased.
“Nah, I prefer chicken wings,” Ronan said, hauling himself back up on his board. Thirty seconds later, he was in the water again. “Ugh.”
“Well, that’s a zero on your surfing skills, but a solid ten on the drowned rat impression.”
“I think your comedy is in the negative numbers.”
So it went for another quarter of an hour: Ronan falling a lot, Matt mocking him a lot, Ronan sniping right back as he tried again. He did manage to keep his balance a little longer each time, but surfing was definitely harder than he thought it was going to be.
After about the dozenth time he came up for air, Ronan decided he was done for the day. “If I swallow any more salt water, I’m going to pickle!”
“Might be an improvement on your personality,” Matt teased.
“Is that what happened to you?” Ronan asked. “Too much brine?”
Matt shoved his shoulder playfully, but Ronan actually managed to keep his balance, and he splashed Matt in return.
That just made Matt laugh and say, “Nice waves you’re making, Irish! Keep practicing and you might just be riding ones that big in the next few years!”
Ronan splashed him again. “Keep that up and ye shall feel my wrath,” he said, in a mocking deep voice.
“I’m so scared,” Matt said sarcastically.
“Watch out, I am gonna get you back for that 'next few years' comment. And I still owe you for the koala!”
“Yeah yeah, I’ll see it when I believe it.”
As they were packing up, Ronan made good on his threat, making sure to hide it so Matt wouldn’t ‘see it and believe it’ until after he was safely back in Ireland. He was quite looking forward to Matt’s reaction when he realized his surfboard was temporarily spelled to be an eye-searing combination of bright red and neon green.
The next day, Ronan had a message on his phone. “You think you’re so funny, don’t you?” Matt’s voicemail said, quite loudly. Ronan held the phone away from his ear and grinned. “When I get a hold of you, I swear to the One I am feeding you to the freaking cassowaries!”
Ronan didn’t know what a cassowary was. Probably some fake prank animal, like drop bears. He laughed some more, then went about his day.
He was not expecting disproportionate retribution to arrive in his mailbox a few days later, in the form of a spring-loaded package filled with pink glitter. As soon as he wiped enough of it out of his eyes to see, he began plotting revenge.
In a little local shop, he found the tackiest souvenir box he could, covered in glittery Celtic knots and shamrocks and leprechauns galore. He set up some spring loaded snakes in it, then brought it along the next time he went to Matt’s for a surfing lesson. Matt accepted the souvenir, opened it, laughed at the snakes that popped out, and absolutely didn’t notice Ronan wrapping his shower head in cling wrap when he went to use the bathroom.
Ur not even creative, Matt texted Ronan later. Ur a wizard, shouldn’t ur pranks be better?
Is that a challenge? Ronan replied. Because if you want me to step up my game…
Bring. It. On.
So, with some careful tweaking of the chemical composition of his shampoo, Ronan managed to dye Matt’s hair purple. That prompted Matt to somehow change Ronan’s ringtones to nothing but Aqua songs, which wouldn’t be too hard to undo, except he also talked his phone into blowing raspberries at him when he tried to remove ‘Barbie Girl’ and ‘Cartoon Heroes’.
Ronan retaliated with a variation on a popular prank, creating a spell that would softly beep at random intervals and attaching it to Matt’s backpack, surfboard, and sunglasses. A very annoyed Matt, in turn, tricked Ronan into eating a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich that actually contained vegemite and jelly, which made Ronan simply abandon all subtlety and upend the nearest beverage onto Matt, Nita-style.
The pranks went back and forth like that, some mundane, some wizardly, all annoying. Kit got dragged into them through proximity, then Darryl. Dairine only participated for one prank, but they were still finding the things she did to their computers months later.
Then came a day when it all went wrong. Ronan and Darryl were just trying to set up a wizardly equivalent of a “bucket balanced on top of the door” prank on Kit, but then Kit walked in and caught them at it. They all had a good laugh about it, until someone who was decidedly not Kit opened the door…
There was a great “POMF”, and the trap released a great cloud of soot onto the individual who had been unfortunate enough to stumble into their prank.
Everyone froze, staring at the doorway, where a Carmela-shaped silhouette was standing. The silence was so absolute that they could hear the soot rustling as it settled.
Carmela reached up and slowly took off her sunglasses, leaving the outline of them on her face. The look in her eyes was enough to make Ronan gulp. Power that invented death? Not a big deal. Facing an angry Carmela? He’d rather take ten Lone Powers any day.
“Now, boys,” Carmela said, in a tone so icy that a molecular gastronomist could have used it to make instant ice cream if they were out of liquid nitrogen. “I am as much a fan of a prank war as the next person, but I. Had. A. Date.”
“Oh, shit,” Matt whispered.
Darryl flickered out of existence, presumably bilocating to somewhere he would not have to suffer Carmela’s wrath.
“That lousy traitor,” Kit mumbled. “He could have taken one of us with him.”
“Now, I am going to go get changed, before my date sees me covered in carbon-based compound, and then…” She cackled. Actually, literally cackled, like a cartoon bad guy. “And then, this is war!”
Matt and Ronan gulped.
An evergreen tree, a purple centipede, and five humans covered in various sparkly pigments walked into a Crossings coffee shop (or the local equivalent, which translates closer to ‘beverage bar’).
“Sit,” Sker’ret said, in a tone that brooked no argument.
Ronan, Matt, Darryl, Kit, and Carmela sat, shedding glitter as they did.
“Now, as I’m sure you’re aware,” Filif said, assuming an official tone. “We have brought you all here to arbitrate a cease-fire in the ongoing ‘prank war’ you have been engaged in.”
“Please understand,” Sker’ret said. “We are not mad, merely disappointed.”
Darryl and Kit ducked their heads, scattering more glitter onto the shiny chrome table. Ronan and Matt exchanged a glance and shrugged. Carmela looked utterly unruffled.
“These events have come to arbitration because of the sheer scale of the effect they have had,” Filif continued, branches rustling in annoyance. “You are to be held responsible for the following charges: ten counts of property damage, six counts of petty vandalism, two counts of unintentional bodily harm—”
“It was just a rubber chicken!” Darryl protested.
Filif continued, ignoring the interruption. “Three counts of arson, forty-two counts of possession of banned and hazardous materials, thirteen counts of mental health trauma dealt to the Irish rabbit population, eight counts of grievous crimes against pancake batter…”
The assembled humans slowly began to realize that Filif's branches were not trembling with annoyance, but with supressed laughter.
“We’ve been had,” Ronan muttered.
“Yup, they got us good,” Kit said.
“Five counts of corruption of a minor, seven counts of corruption of a dolphin, four counts of corruption of an already obselete hard drive–” Filif was saying.
“So, when he said ‘corruption of a minor,’ d’you think he was talking about me, or that one sapling we talked into helping us at the park?” Darryl asked.
“I don’t know,” Ronan said. “But the dolphin one is absolutely not fair! Hotshot was already plenty corrupt before he sprang that one on S'reee!”
Matt sighed. “I get the feeling we’re going to be here a while.” He nodded at Filif, who was still reciting charges.
Carmela beamed. Her alien buddies were turning into fine pranksters.
In hindsight, it really wasn’t anything he should have blown up about; just a stupid disagreement with his parents that somehow turned into a screaming match. Even while he was throwing clothes into a backpack and storming out the door, a small part of Ronan’s mind was wondering, “why am I doing this?”
Then, he was down the block, out of town, and when he was alone, he pulled a transit circle tight around himself and vanished.
Maybe it was habit. His whole life, Ronan had a fiery temper, and the fiery Power in his head had exaggerated it and made him quick to snap. Even with Him gone, his temper was still flaring. The One’s Champion couldn’t alter the fundamental tenets of his being, after all, just affect what was already there. It was a lot easier to control his temper these days. He was even getting better at keeping his cussing under control. However, that made Ronan wonder if the times he did lose control, he wasn’t just purposely reacting the way he used to. “Re-acting” the same tired lines and script and clinging to that old persona like a security blanket.
In the end, the reasons behind it didn’t really matter. He had still blown up. He had still stormed out. He still needed to find somewhere to go for a while. Wondering why he had done it didn’t change the fact that it had happened, and he wasn’t immature enough to wish for a timeslide do-over.
Ronan pinched the bridge of his nose, frustrated with himself, then took a deep breath and finally looked around. He hadn’t had a destination in mind; he had just pulled the first set of “safe landing zone” coordinates from his memory and jumped, more concerned about putting space between himself and his parents than he was with where he ended up.
He was in a vaguely familiar suburban backyard. It had been evening in Ireland, but it looked like late afternoon here, so he must have gone across a few time zones. After a moment, his memory clicked, and he recognized Nita’s house. Ronan looked around, trying to figure out what to do next. Maybe he could do some touristy things in New York?
The back door to the house opened, and Nita’s dad poked his head out. “Did you forget some— Oh, hello.”
“Uh, hi.” Ronan couldn’t remember Nita’s dad’s name. It started with an H, maybe? “Sorry, is Nita around?”
“No, both the girls just left, I’m afraid. When I heard you pop in, I thought maybe one of them had left something behind.”
Ronan winced. Usually, he was better at controlling the noise of displaced air.
“You’re Ronan, right?” Nita’s dad asked, coming over to him. “I don’t think we were properly introduced before. The last time you were here, you were pretty out of it. I’m Harry.”
Ronan shook his hand. “Nice to meet you, now that I’m not, you know, unconscious.”
“Do you want me to give the girls a call for you?”
“No, that’s okay, I was just in the area, thought I’d drop in, see if they were here.” Not entirely the truth, but it would serve.
“Ah. In that case, do you want to come in for a cup of tea or something?”
“No, it's okay, I don't want to bother you.” Privately, Ronan just wanted to go curl up somewhere, but he wasn't about to admit that to a stranger.
“Oh no, anything but! It gets so quiet here when the girls are gone. It’s nice to have some company.”
“Okay, yeah, some tea would be nice.”
“Great! You know, Dairine’s brought home this orange spice stuff she found at a coffee shop somewhere in her travels, it’s really good.”
Ronan privately thought that particular flavor combination shouldn’t count as ‘tea,’ but he agreed to try it anyway. He had nowhere better to be, after all.
“Is everything okay?” Harry asked, setting a mug in front of Ronan once they were inside. “You look kind of out of it.”
Ronan realized he had just been staring at the kitchen wall for a few minutes. “Yeah. No. I’m fine. I just had a fight with my parents earlier. I had to leave and cool off.”
“Aha. Sorry to be nosy, but was it something about wizardry?”
“No, actually. It was…” Ronan let out a deep breath. “It was mundane, I guess. Honestly, I don’t even really remember what it was, now.” He leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling. “It seemed so big and important in the moment, and we were all hollering about it, but now…”
“Now?” Harry asked gently.
“Now I’m just embarrassed I made such a big deal about it.” Ronan’s stomach growled, and he took a sip of the tea. It was actually really good, even if it did taste more like some kind of fruit juice than proper tea.
Harry chuckled. “Well, if you don’t feel like going home right away, I’ll order in a pizza. Do you like pepperoni?”
Ronan’s first instinct was to decline, but his stomach rumbled again, and Harry did seem glad for the company. “Yeah, pepperoni is great. You’re sure you don’t mind?”
“Like I said, it’s too quiet around here. I got too used to the aliens in the basement and the wizards tramping through here at all hours.” Harry stood up and pulled a takeout menu off of the fridge. “Besides, my daughters call you ‘cousin.’ You’re already part of the family.”
“You don’t even know me,” Ronan protested. “Are you sure you want to welcome in a sulky Irish arse with a temper?”
Harry snorted. “That’s called ‘just being a human teenager.’ There’s a whale who calls my older daughter ‘sister’ and a whole species of robots that calls the other one ‘mom’. I think you’re going to fit in just fine around here.”
“A whale that calls Nita ‘sister’?” Ronan made a face. “Oh boy, that would explain a lot.”
“About Nita, or the whale?”
“If it’s the whale I’m thinking of, then both of them.”
Matt had to cut their latest lesson short due to a family dinner, so Ronan found himself practicing alone. Not that he didn’t enjoy Matt’s company, but sometimes it was nice to just try to balance on a wave without the accompanying heckling.
It was also nice to just sit on the surfboard and bob on the waves, enjoying the peace and quiet. Ronan closed his eyes and savored the warm sun on his face for a moment. Australia was starting to grow on him.
Of course, with his eyes closed, he didn’t notice the large wave that came up behind him and crashed over him until it had already drenched him and knocked his sunglasses off. “Son of a motherf—” The last part of the curse was drowned, quite literally, in the water.
“I don’t know human idioms that well, but that certainly didn’t sound polite. Here you go.” A rubbery snout nosed Ronan’s arm, and he looked down. Hotshot was gently gripping his sunglasses in his mouth.
“Thanks,” Ronan said, taking them gingerly, wary of dolphin spit. “Now bugger off.”
“Hm,” Hotshot grunted, considering. “Nah. It’s more fun to just bug you.” He swam a few circles around Ronan and the surfboard.
“What do you want, you great big fish?”
Hotshot snorted. “S'reee said you do that, calling everyone in the sea a fish regardless of actual species. She wants to say hi, by the way. That’s why I’m here.”
“Sure, not like I was making much progress on the surfing.” Ronan sighed. “Should I paddle out to her, or?”
“Nah, I can give you a ride. Ditch that board on the beach, who needs it when your friendly neighborhood dolphin is in town?”
Inside, Ronan may have squealed in delight, just a little bit. Wizard or no, how many people get to ride a dolphin in their lifetimes?
Ronan slipped off of Hotshot’s back to float in the water next to him, keeping a hand on his back in order to keep from drifting away.
S'reee surfaced, they exchanged greetings, then she asked, “So, how are you doing, Rhoannann? This is the first time I’ve had a chance to check on you since the events with the Pullullus.”
“Good. You know, all healed up, Matt’s teaching me to surf so obviously I’m healthy enough to be repeatedly crashing and burning in the water,” Ronan said, dismissively.
Hotshot rolled his eyes. “That’s not what she meant, guy.”
“He’s right,” S'reee said. “You’ve been through a lot; how are you holding up?”
“I’m fine, okay?” Ronan pushed off of Hotshot and floated on his back, turning away from the both of them.
“Cool, I’m fine, you’re fine, we’re all fine. ” Hotshot said, following him. “I mean, I still get freaked out at night, thinking about the way the stars were going out and I couldn’t do anything, but you know. All fine.” His tone was dismissive, but there was real emotion in his eyes.
Ronan reached over and patted Hotshot’s back. Hotshot leaned into the touch.
“It was difficult,” S'reee said. “It still is, as a matter of fact. I no longer carry the responsibility of planetary Senior, but it weighs heavily on my mind anyway. Could I have acted differently? Better? Could I have saved more lives had I made different choices?”
“S'reee, you did the best you could,” Ronan said. “And you did pretty damn good. That was a lot to ask, of all of us.”
“Oh, goodness,” S'reee said. “Listen to me complain, when the Powers That Be asked more of you than any of us.”
“Aw, carp. I forgot about that.” Hotshot made a face. “Sorry.”
“We can change the subject,” S'reee said.
“Oh my god, will you two stop?” Ronan snapped. “I’m not a fucking delicate flower, that needs to be spared the memories, okay? I am FINE. I almost died and I lost the little voice in my head that has been there as long as I can remember and I don’t know what to make of myself without it, but yeah, I’m just fucking fine! I am alive! I survived! I am here. I’m fine. I’m fine.” He trailed off, breathing hard.
Hotshot tucked himself under Ronan’s arm, and Ronan clung to him, burying his face in the dolphin’s head.
“I’m here,” Ronan said, muffled. “I’m fine. You’re fine. We’re fine.” He let out a muffled sob. “We made it.”
That was the good thing about the ocean being so warm in Australia. It was good camouflage for when you were crying hot tears.
“Yeah, we’re here,” Hotshot said gently. “We made it. We’re okay, you’re okay.”
“You know,” S'reee said, moving a little closer. “If you think about it, we’re here because of you.”
Ronan couldn’t say anything to that, he just held on to Hotshot. S'reee drifted even closer, gently bumping into them. It was the strangest group hug Ronan had ever been a part of, but at the moment, it was exactly what he needed.
Eventually, the sobs trailed off, and Ronan’s breathing evened out. He released Hotshot and wiped his eyes. “I’m alive, and now I have to figure out what that means now that the literal purpose for my existence has left the building.” He leaned against S'reee.
“You are still a wizard, though,” S'reee said, the words vibrating through his body through the point of contact. “You can still fight entropy and do the One’s work. Just one day at a time, like the rest of us.”
“And, if all else fails, you can always be a surfing instructor,” Hotshot said.
Ronan gave him a questioning look.
“You are a perfect demonstration of what not to do!” he elaborated.
“How do you put up with him?” Ronan asked S'reee.
“I ask myself that question every day, Rhoannann.”
A tree and an Irish human teenager walked out of a Crossings beverage bar. The tree seemed satisfied with his gourmet rooting compound, but the teenager made a face at his drink.
“Why did you make me get the blue one?” Ronan asked. “It’s not bad, but couldn’t I just have gotten a Coke?”
“It’s traditional,” Filif replied. “Something Kit started.”
Ronan shrugged, and took another long sip. “I guess I just wasn’t expecting such a mild flavor from something this vibrant. I almost expected it to be more sour or pungent. Ooh! Tacky souvenirs!”
Filif followed Ronan indulgently as the latter all but pressed his nose up to the window of an extremely garish shop. “Stay right here, hold my drink please, I need that right now, and I’ll be right back,” Ronan said all in a rush.
While he was waiting, Filif checked the caffeine and sugar content of Ronan’s bright blue beverage. “Ah, that explains it,” he muttered to himself.
“Oh man this is awesome,” Ronan said, holding up his purchase as he exited the shop.
Filif swiveled a few berries to get a closer look. “’My friend went to the Crossings Worldgate Complex and all I got was this stupid mug,'” he read.
“Isn’t it great? Matt’s gonna love it!” Ronan tucked the mug back into its bag, then took his drink back from Filif. “Thanks.”
“Speaking of you and Matt,” Filif said. “How is your courtship going?”
Ronan, who had been taking another sip while Filif was talking, choked and started coughing. A rather unfortunate amount of blue drink came out his nose. Ronan doubled over and made a sound that started off sounding like “Augh-wha-ow” and ended with more coughing and spluttering.
Filif patted Ronan on the back with a few fronds. “Oh dear,” he said. “I always thought it odd that humans had their windpipe so close to their digestive system. Are you alright?”
“Huhbuhwha?” Ronan asked. He cleared his throat, then asked in a slightly clearer tone, “What do you mean, courtship?”
Filif handed him a bundle of napkins to clean himself up with. “Well, you’ve been talking about him so much lately. You seem quite enamored.”
“I, what? No, wait. What?” Ronan paused in the middle of trying to wipe blue liquid off his shirt to stare at Filif. “What?”
Filif bent a few branches in an apologetic manner. “Forgive me if I misunderstood; while my cultural horizons have broadened considerably, there are still many things I don’t quite grasp. Your behavior about Matt seems similar to Carmela’s in regards to attempting to initiate a relationship.”
Ronan blinked. “Okay, first off, do you mean to tell me you two aren’t already a couple? Because wow, I was absolutely reading that wrong. You two are adorable together.” He coughed again. “Second of all, me and Matt? We aren’t a couple?”
“You sound unsure,” Filif said.
“Well, yeah,” Ronan said, walking to a nearby trash receptacle to throw away the napkins and the remains of his drink. “This is literally the first time the subject has come up.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Filif said. “I’ve overstepped, haven’t I, with my assumptions about your attractions?”
“Nah, it’s cool,” Ronan said. “I’m not offended or anything. I just haven’t thought about him like that, at all. I mean, I really enjoy his company. Not many people can snark back at me the way he does.” Ronan led them over to a bench, where he sat down, and Filif settled down on the floor next to it. “He gives as good as I do, which is kind of rare these days. He doesn’t treat me with kid gloves, which I appreciate. I mean, you get stabbed in the chest with the Spear of Light one time, and suddenly everyone’s treating you like some delicate piece of porcelain!”
“I can see why that would grow tiresome,” Filif said. “And why the alternative is welcome.”
Ronan leaned back on the bench and stared at the shifting ceiling of the Crossings. “Yeah. We’re getting to be good friends, but I think that’s all it is. Unless I am really missing something.” He turned his head to look at Filif. “Can we talk about you and Carmela, though? Because I thought you two have been an item for a while. How long?”
Filif rustled his branches in what might have been a shrug. “We had our first ‘official’ date a few weeks ago.” He pondered something for a moment. “I do have to ask if you could clarify something for me, so I am not mistaken again.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Is it customary for humans to show up to a first date all smudged with soot?”
Ronan had thrown away his drink, but he managed to choke on air. “Oh, shit.”
“Is it bad? Was that some kind of nonverbal signal I should have picked up on?” Filif sounded very concerned.
“No no,” Ronan waved a hand while he tried to get his breath back. “That was. Um. That was kind of my fault. She walked in on the prank war and got caught up the crossfire.”
“Aaah, now I understand,” Filif said. “That does explain it, as well as why she suddenly unleashed her wrath on you. Thank you, I was worried.”
“Why? What did you think it was?”
“Well, she was covered in soot, and soot comes from fire. I didn’t know if it was some sort of attempt to impress me, perhaps by risking herself in a burning building.”
That made Ronan laugh until his sides hurt. “She literally shot the Lone Power in the face with a curling iron, why would she need to impress you?”
Filif did the rustle-shrug again. “I don’t know, that’s why I asked! Human courtship rituals are baffling.”
“They really are,” Ronan said.
A punk Irish teenager walked alone into a trendy Portland coffee shop, looking furtively around to make sure no one he recognized was there. He ordered a “crosswalk mocha,” purely out of curiosity. He didn’t dislike it.
“Please tell me you didn’t skip out on Matt for the coffee.”
He did, however, dislike the sensation of a “crosswalk mocha” going down his windpipe. He was getting very tired of people sneaking up on him.
“Okay, Nita. I won’t tell you that,” Ronan said. It came out more like “awho dell oo at,” given that he was still trying to dislodge whipped cream and chocolate syrup from the back of his throat.
Nita smirked and handed him a wad of napkins. “Good, I was worried you actually came here for the coffee. This place isn’t as good as Carmela was saying.”
Ronan thought the crosswalk mocha wasn’t that bad. “Why are you here, then?”
Nita shrugged. “Dair’s hooked on whatever organic orange tea they sell here, and we ran out faster than usual, so I promised to pick her some up on my way.” She wrinkled her nose. “She didn’t mention how absurdly expensive it is.”
“Hah, funny how that happens,” Ronan said, feeling vaguely like the Universe was pulling a fast one on him. If he hadn't drank so much tea with Harry the other day, would he be stuck having this conversation? “You’re a terrible liar, by the way.”
Nita sighed, and pulled Ronan over to an empty table in the corner. Once they were settled, she said, “Fine, I tracked you down. Why are you avoiding Matt?”
“I’m not avoiding him, I just—”
“Came to a trendy yet mediocre coffee shop rather than seeing him.”
Ronan did not reply.
“Oh, that’s the way it’s going to be?” Nita stood up. “Fine. Let me order, I think I need some chocolate and caffeine before I can have this conversation with you.”
Ronan sat there in the corner, nursing his crosswalk mocha and feeling vaguely like a child in time-out, until Nita returned with her own drink.
“Okay, so why are you avoiding him?” Nita asked after she had a long drink of whatever she had bought.
“You are as repetitive as my grandma’s record player when it needs a good whack.” Ronan punctuated that with a sip of his own mocha.
Nita was not deterred. “Congrats, now you are avoiding both Matt and my question.”
The steam coming out of the little hole in the cap of Nita’s drink was very interesting. So interesting. Such a wonderful thing to look at. Much better to look at than Nita’s face.
To her credit, she didn’t keep prodding him, just let him sit there and study their beverages while he gathered his thoughts and decided what he wanted to tell her. Finally, he settled on the truth. “Look, I just don’t know how to be, okay?”
Nita raised an eyebrow. “Missing a word there?”
“Augh.” Ronan scrubbed a hand over his face, then leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know how to describe it; I don’t know words in English, Irish, or the Speech for this kind of thing. I don’t know how to be around him, I don’t know how to avoid him, and I don’t even know how to be alone.”
“Ah.” Nita gestured for him to go on.
“It’s not anything to do with Matt, any more than it’s anything to do with any other living being. It’s me!” Ronan gestured vaguely, frustrated. “It’s just too empty inside my head. I always used to think a thought, and there’d be a bit of an echo, or a reaction, or even just that feeling you get when you sit with someone, and neither of you are saying anything, but that silence is different than if you were sitting alone. I never thought much of it; I just thought that’s how everyone’s mind worked, and then I found out about Him. But I got used to even that.”
He paused to take a sip; his mouth had gone dry. “Now it’s just silent. The layout of my mind is completely different. I don’t know how to be me. I’m still trying to figure out who ‘me’ is in this new context, so how am I supposed to know how to be around other people?”
Nita smiled at him, a little sadly. “You do it, just the way you are now. You practice. You put your foot in your mouth, occasionally, like the rest of us. But you just do it.”
Ronan snorted. “Yeah, well, I think I’ve stuck my foot so far in my mouth I could kick what I had for breakfast.”
“That’s not what Matt said.”
“He thinks you’re avoiding him because you’re mad at him,” Nita said.
Ronan spluttered, and this time it had nothing to do with accidental nasal aspiration of overpriced beverage. “But! What? No! Why?”
“This is what happens when you don’t communicate,” Nita said, with an exaggerated tone for emphasis.
“Indeed. Now, go talk to your Aussie doctor and tell him you don’t hate him.” Nita made to stand up, then stopped. “Oh, almost forgot.” She dug around in her bag for a moment, then handed Ronan an I ♥ NY snowglobe. “Here. Now you don’t even need to worry about your tacky makeup gift.”
Ronan gently rested his forehead on the coffee shop table. “I’m never going to live that down, am I?”
Nita patted his hair sympathetically.
Ronan was still trying to sort out the inside of his own head, so he opted for solo surfing practice that week, settling for a local surfboard rental and a wetsuit instead of Matt’s spare board in the warm Australian sea. As usual, it didn’t go incredibly well.
He thought that perhaps the colder water would give him more incentive to stay on the board, but after the umpteenth fall proved that wasn’t the case, Ronan took a break, lying back on his rented surfboard and closing his eyes against the sun.
A wave larger than the rest lifted him up, and without opening his eyes, he said, “Hi S'reee.”
She chuckled. “How did you know it was me? I thought I was being quiet.”
“Bit hard to miss a whale’s presence, especially when you’re a wizard.”
“Well, there go my dreams of starring in a spy movie,” S'reee said. “I’m all fins and no stealth.”
Ronan laughed out loud. “Did you and Hotshot reverse engineer Netflix for underwater viewing or something?”
S'reee was silent.
“Oh hell, you did?”
“Hotshot likes Doctor Who,” S'reee said defensively. “And... I will admit to a certain fondness for the Star Trek movies. The fourth, especially.”
Ronan laughed so hard he nearly toppled into the water again. “I can’t tell if you’re pulling my leg or not, and I honestly don’t even care!” When he regained his composure, S'reee was eyeing him.
“You seem to be in a better mood than last time,” she commented.
“Yeah, well, you know. I think I got the whole existential crisis out of my system,” Ronan said. “Now I can just focus on dealing with my supposed love life.”
S'reee whistled interestedly. “Oooh, love life?”
“Hah, yeah. I think it’s time for a role reversal, I’m the one who needs relationship advice this time.” Ronan let out a slow breath.
“Who’s the lucky one?” S'reee asked.
“Matt, the guy who healed me up.” Ronan patted the surfboard. ”He’s the one who’s been teaching me how to surf.”
“Seems he’s been doing a good job of that.” S'reee gently nudged him.
“Oh, you wound me, you big fish!” Ronan clasped a hand over his heart theatrically. “You’ve been spending too much time with Hotshot! I thought I could expect better from you!”
“He is a bad influence, I grant you that,” S'reee said. “So, is it easier without the celestial chaperone looking over your shoulder?”
“I don’t know.” Ronan sighed. “I thought it would be, but… I’m still getting used to life without Him. I have to relearn a lot of things.”
“Are you relearning the old, or learning a new way of being?” S'reee gave him a long look. “You’ve never been without Him before, so if you try to return to an old state, it won’t work.”
“I guess. I know that, on some level. It’s just easier said than done.” Ronan groaned. “It’s not like there’s a support group for people who are ex-vessels of celestial powers.”
“It sounds like something that will just come with time and experience,” S'reee said.
“Yeah. It just sucks in the meantime.” Ronan shook his head, as if he could shake off his problems along with the salt water in his hair. “Enough about me. How’s it going with Mr. Baleen?”
“Oh, we broke up last week.” S'reee snorted. “He wasn’t fond of all the traveling my Work entails.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that,” Ronan said. “At least you figured out it wasn’t going to work early. You deserve someone who’s in it for the whole package.”
“Indeed. And so do you.”
Ronan was quiet for a while. “What if it’s the lack of package that is the problem, though?”
“If he judges you based on the size of your physical attributes, then he is not right for you,” S'reee said, tone far too innocent.
“Augh, S'reee!” Ronan splashed her. “That’s not what I meant! Who even taught you that idiom?”
“Of course he did.” Ronan took a moment to regain his composure. “I meant… It’s just hard, everyone’s adjusting to me being just Ronan, instead of Ronan and Company.”
“Matt didn’t know you before, though, correct?” At Ronan’s acknowledgement, S'reee continued. “He is, perhaps, the first person who can just get to know you, as you are now, with no preconceived expectations of what you may be like due to your passenger, or lack therof.”
“I guess I never thought of it that way,” Ronan said. “I just don’t want to ruin anything with my preconceived expectations of myself.”
“When you first met, you were unconscious and bleeding from a nearly fatal wound. I don’t think there’s anywhere to go but up from that first impression.”
“Thanks S'reee, you always know just what to say.”
“Look man, I don’t know what to tell you. The cats are going to kill me if I transit any more this week. I swear, there is a tabby on my windowsill giving me the stinkeye right now.” It was technically not a lie; Tualha had given him a talk recently about chronological transit density and how it affected the overlays, and there was indeed a grey tabby in the window giving him a very perturbed look. However, the latter stemmed more from the fact that Ronan wasn’t actively feeding and spoiling it than from any gating-related issues.
“I know, that’s why I’m here to give you a ride,” a voice that wasn’t Matt said.
Ronan promptly fell out of his desk chair. “DARRYL, WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK! Matt, I’ll have to call you back!”
Darryl grinned, unrepentant. “I don’t think I’m supposed to know that word yet.”
Ronan growled. “I’ll teach you a lot more words if you don’t tell me why you’re sitting on my bed!”
“Because it’s more comfortable than the floor,” Darryl said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“No, I mean why are you in my room?”
“Because physical proximity is required for vocal communication.”
Ronan glared at him.
“Your phone was busy and this was the quickest way to get in touch,” Darryl finally explained. “Say, will you teach me some new words anyway? Everyone thinks I’m so innocent and naive. It would be fun to mess with what they think of the ‘innocent little autistic cinnamon roll.’”
“Uh.” Ronan did not have a good reply to that.
“Just kidding. I already know all the words,” Darryl said. “I just don't say them because I'd get in trouble.”
Ronan finally picked himself up off the floor and deposited himself back in his desk chair. “You are a little shittake mushroom, you know that?”
Darryl nodded. “If I have to be food, can I be pizza instead? I don’t like mushrooms or cinnamon rolls.” Before Ronan could respond, he continued. “Anyway, I have an easier time of working around the overlays because of the bilocation thing, so I’m here to give you a lift!”
“But, why?” Ronan asked.
“Nita figured you’d need it. She said a little dolphin told her you were still avoiding him.” Darryl tilted his head to the side. “I thought it was ‘a little birdie,’ though?”
Ronan internally cursed Hotshot and his delphine gossip. “No, I think it literally was a dolphin in this case.”
“Aha. Anyway, you brought me hot cocoa when I was about to melt down at the Crossings the other day. That was really nice of you. I owe you one.”
“Eh, I figured, 'better to have melted chocolate than melted Darryl.'”
“Ooh, I’ll have to use that one.” Darryl paused, a look of realization coming over his face. “Wait, how did you get it? I thought you had to be Carmela to get decent chocolate that quickly.”
Ronan shifted in his seat. “I, ah, may have just popped back to Earth real quick and gotten it from a coffee shop here.”
“Oh man, I owe you at least three trips to Australia, then.”
Ronan waved him off. “No, you don’t owe me anything, we’re even. Don’t worry about it. I’m not going to Australia today anyway.”
“How come?” Darryl stretched out on Ronan’s bed. “It’s not a transport issue, then?”
“No, it’s just… I have reasons.” Ronan looked away.
Darryl made a hmmm noise and gestured for him to continue.
“I may have been accidentally flirting with him, I think.”
“Huh. Is he not into dudes, then?” Darryl asked.
Ronan threw up his hands. “I don’t know! I don’t even know if I’m into dudes! Filif asked me if we were dating and now I can’t stop questioning everything I say to him! I’m already dealing with my own garbage, and now I have to worry about leading on the guy who saved my life?” He spun in his chair and dropped his forehead onto the desk. “Why is human interaction so baffling? How do I just talk to him?”
Darryl shrugged. “You are asking the wrong person that question. Humans are weird.”
Ronan lifted his head and looked at the wall. “I don’t want to have to deal with feelings. I just want to learn to surf and hang out with him.”
“Then maybe that’s your answer?” Darryl sounded unsure. “I mean, don’t make it more than it is? I don’t know, I am the worst person to be giving advice on this. I’m still not entirely sure romance isn’t a big made up joke that everyone goes along with because it’s what we’re expected to do.”
Ronan snorted. “You and me both, I think.”
“Why are you even asking the autistic kid for interpersonal advice, anyway?” Darryl asked.
Ronan considered that. “Given past experience, it seemed safer than asking the dolphin.”
Darryl snickered. “You’re really going to have to tell me the context for that sometime.”
Ronan’s phone rang, rattling his nightstand and dragging him out of the nicest sleep he had had recently. He grabbed for it blindly, hit what he prayed was the ‘answer’ button, and growled, “The sun will not be up for another three hours. This had better be important.”
“Hey, sorry to bother you,” said Matt, a little hesitantly. “But… I have a big problem and I need some backup.”
The worry in Matt’s voice had Ronan sitting upright immediately. “Yeah, sure, what’s up?”
Ronan squeezed his eyes shut and grasped for patience. “Yeah, and you want some help cleaning the word ‘gullible’ off your ceiling.”
“No, really, there’s drop bears, and they’re trying to eat the tourists, and—”
Ronan did not hear the end of Matt’s protestations, because he hung up the phone and dropped back into his bed to try to go back to sleep. A minute later, the phone rang again. “Ugh. Why am I even going to answer this?” He asked his ceiling. The ceiling did not reply.
“DON’T HANG UP PLEASE!” was the first thing Matt said.
“You can’t seriously expect me to believe you when you say it’s drop bears,” Ronan said flatly.
“Seriously, there’s drop bears, actual drop bears.” Matt sounded a bit out of breath now. “I know, I know, it’s like if the Americans started calling us about rabid Jackalopes, and I can’t believe it either. But something’s gone wrong with a gating, and some kind of interdimensional portal formed instead of a clean transit, and, well…” Matt snorted. “Apparently there IS a universe somewhere where drop bears are a real thing, and I was serious when I said they were trying to eat the tourists, it’s all we can do to keep them from it! Help! I need backup!”
“Why are you calling me, then?” Ronan asked. Despite his grousing, he was already hopping into a clean pair of jeans. “Don’t you have Aussie wizard buddies who could help with this sort of thing?”
“You’re, uh, the only one who picked up the second time.”
Ronan thought there was an awful lot wrong with that statement (wouldn’t their version of the manual show there was a problem?), but he just sighed heavily and said “I’ll be right there.”
The scene when Ronan arrived at the Adelaide gate with a very careful transit was not as bad as he had thought. He was picturing a scenario in which Australia was in danger of forcibly going astahfrith, with drop bears attacking people left and right and general chaos in the air. Instead, there was Matt, looking rumpled and jumpy, scanning the trees with a suspicious eye.
He didn’t look over when Ronan approached. “There’s one in the tree over there, do you see it?”
Ronan squinted in the direction Matt pointed. “I see a gray lump, is that it?”
“Yeah. Watch this.” Matt muttered a few Speech words under his breath, and a soft glow appeared in his palm. He pointed at the drop bear, hand in a gun shape like a child playing cowboy, and said another word. An invisible bolt rippled through the air and struck the drop bear. It let out a squeak and vanished.
“What was that?” Ronan asked.
“A drop bear getting sent back to its proper dimension, that’s what.” Matt finally turned to look at him, and grinned. “Neat little spell that Amy worked up. We call it ‘return to sender.’ Want a copy?”
“Hell yeah. Let’s go hunting!”
It was open season on drop bears, and Ronan discovered two things: First, Matt was indeed exaggerating when he said he had no backup. Once the initial disbelief wore off, people noticed that they were indeed on active status, and they did indeed have terrifying drop bears to contend with.
There was no other adjective to describe them, really. At first, you thought you were looking at a perfectly normal, fluffy, harmless koala bear. Then it would turn and look at you with piercing red eyes that had pupils that were entirely the wrong shape, and snarl at you with fangs that were long enough to rip out some very vital pieces from your insides. Maybe it would raise one paw, and gesture menacingly at you with sharp claws that were just slightly tipped with rust. You had to hope that you would be quicker than it on the draw, or else your intestines would be confetti.
Ronan made a mental note to seal his koala back in the can when he got home; there was just no way he was going to sleep properly with that thing staring at him.
The second thing he discovered was that he kind of sucked at aiming the “return to sender” spell. After he missed the fourth drop bear, he growled at his hand in frustration and mentally adjusted the delivery system in the spell. The next time he encountered a drop bear, instead of a bolt from a finger gun, he tossed a spell javelin at it. Direct hit.
Discovery two point five: he may no longer have a Power in his head, but he appeared to have retained some of the spear-throwing skills associated with the One's Champion.
He met Amy, briefly in passing (she was rather terrifying - he made a mental note that she should never meet Nita). She assigned him to keep the drop bears at bay while she and a few other wizards tried to figure out how to solve the gating problem. Yes, the “return to sender” spell could get rid of them, but they were still coming through the malfunctioning gate as fast as Ronan and Matt and the rest could pick them off.
It all became a vaguely koala-shaped blur after that. Ronan was throwing spells as fast as he could shape the words for them. It was tricky, trying to balance his instincts for open combat with the level of stealth that was required for hunting drop bears in the Australian urban sprawl.
Several times, he thought that he was about to witness a gory civilian casualty as a drop bear lived up to its name and plummeted towards its bloody ambush. Each time, he managed to hit it in midair at the last moment, sending it on its way with the innocent tourist beneath it remaining ignorant of how close they just came to a bloody doom.
How were they singling out the tourists, anyway? It didn't seem like they were attacking many natives. Did they have some sort of radar that said, ‘hey, this person is naive and foreign. Go eat them!’
There wasn’t much room to ponder that mystery. It was just dodge, throw, hide, whistle innocently and stuff your hands in your pockets because some dodgy American was looking at you funny, then nail the drop bear above the American when they got distracted by something tacky in a souvenir shop.
A voice said, “Hey, how are you holding up?” and Ronan was startled so badly he very nearly returned the voice to sender before he got a hold of himself and realized it was just Matt, checking up on him.
He then realized that Matt looked like hell; he was pale, his clothes were torn, and he was covered in blood.
“Holy shit.” Ronan vaguely gestured at Matt. “You’ve got a little something on your face. And, the rest of you too. Holy shit. Don’t die on me.”
Matt blinked, and wiped a little blood out of his eye, then looked at his hand and said, “Huh. How about that.”
“Idiot. Sit down, let me have a look.”
Ronan guided Matt to a nearby bench to do triage. Thankfully, it wasn’t too serious of a wound, just a minor cut. The kind of head wound that bleeds a lot but is very superficial in the scheme of things. A quick healing spell and enough energy to run up and down the stairs a few times, and Matt was right as rain, if still disturbingly bloodstained.
“Well, guess we’re even now,” Matt joked, wiping ineffectively at the blood on his face.
“Oh, shut up, you ridiculous Australian. We are nowhere near even, and there are still a thousand goddamned drop bears out there, so we’ve got to— ow!”
The last thing Ronan wanted to feel on the drop bear battlefield was a paw colliding solidly with the back of his head. Thankfully, the paw didn't seem to have two-inch-long, razor sharp claws attached to it.
“You’re an idiot,” a small voice said in his ear.
“How’s that?” he asked, turning to make eye contact with the peeved cat sitting on the bench behind him.
“Really, you are an absolute, complete, and utter idiot.”
Ronan sighed. “Okay Tualha, we’ve established that. Care to explain, in small words the idiot can understand, just why that is?”
“You ran off to deal with broken worldgates and you didn’t even tell the cats? Honestly. Idiot. You are so idiotic that I cannot even come up with a proper variety of synonyms to describe the sheer level of your idiocy. You are turning my vocabulary idiotic through sheer proximity, that is how idiotic you are. Congratulations. You are such a royal idiot you have stumped the bard cat. Idiot.”
Ronan blinked. “Idiot doesn’t sound like a word any more.”
“Serves you right. Idiot. Seriously, you’ve been chasing those things around for an hour and haven’t even made a dent in them.” Tualha swatted the back of his head again. “We’ve closed the gate, so no more of those things are getting through, and it will be properly fixed soon. Your humans who were working on the gates were on the right track, but this could really have been solved a lot quicker if you had just asked a cat in the first place instead of being an idiot.”
“Right, I’ll keep that in mind the next time we have an invasion of vampiric marsupials from another plane of existence.” Ronan rubbed the back of his head. Next to him, Matt snickered.
“Be sure you do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to assist with the cleanup. You, sit here and tend to your boyfriend. He looks like hell.”
“Wait, what?” Matt said, at the same time Ronan spluttered “He’s not my—”
But Tualha had already hopped off the bench and was heading back in the direction of the gate.
Ronan and Matt shared a confused look, then stared at Tualha’s departing backside.
“Cats,” Ronan said, injecting the word with as much befuddled disdain as the English language was capable of carrying.
“You got that in one, mate,” Matt replied.
In one smooth motion, Ronan pushed himself into a standing position on the board. He wobbled a little, but regained his balance, and shifted his weight to angle the board along the wave. “Hey, I’m doing it! This is the biggest one yet!”
“Haha, nice!” Matt crowed, punching the air. “You’re really getting it now!”
“What is this, a four foot wave?”
Matt laughed. “Maybe three, Irish.”
“Still, better than I’ve been— Woah!” Ronan overbalanced and came to an abrupt halt with a splash. When he resurfaced, he said, “Yeah, yeah, I shouldn’t have tempted fate like that.”
“At least you recognize your shortcomings,” Matt said, splashing him playfully.
Ronan wiped water out of his eyes. “Matt, do you really want to water fight the guy who took in the sea on his Ordeal?”
“Ronan, I live in Australia. I pick scarier things than you out of my breakfast cereal.” Matt splashed him again, for emphasis. “You? You’re like a baby seal in comparison. Tiny and cute.”
“Is that why you were scarfing Nita’s cereal at Christmas?” Ronan teased. “Enjoying that you didn’t have to check for throat spiders or something?” He started making his way back towards the beach. “Come on, let’s take a break. This baby seal is tired.”
“Throat spiders aren’t a thing,” Matt protested, following him.
“The same way drop bears aren’t a thing?”
Matt’s eyes got wide. “Oh, shit. What if throat spiders are real somewhere?”
Ronan shrugged. “Universes are weird places, I guess they could be. Maybe that would be a better question to ask the Transcendent Pig next time we run into him.”
Matt nodded. “Yes, please do.” He stopped mid-step. “Wait, hang on, ‘next time?’ You’ve met the Pig?”
“Well, Nita and Kit have.”
Matt shook his head. “Man, you are really going to have to tell me about some of the stuff you guys have gone through.”
“Got a week?” Ronan asked. He set his surfboard down, then sat down on a beach towel he had laid out earlier. “Yeah, some of it has been pretty out there, even for wizards. You got any good stories?”
“Well, there is one about a cassowary and a fleece hoodie that’s pretty good,” Matt said.
Ronan gave him a sidelong glance. “So, cassowaries are real, then? Real in our universe, I mean?”
“Oh yeah, and terrifying!” Matt shivered. “Great big feathered dinosaurs, they are, and a mean streak a mile wide! My American friends talk about how terrible geese are, but a cassowary could eat them for dinner!”
“How are you even alive?” Ronan asked. “Your entire continent seems to be trying to kill you.”
Matt shrugged. “I’m used to it. Being a wizard certainly helps, because you can talk stuff out of eating you. Stranger things have happened.”
“Given recent events, I am inclined to agree,” Ronan said.
“Speaking of strange things, can we talk about the fact that that cat thought we were boyfriends?” Matt asked hesitantly. “What’s up with that?”
Ronan moaned in exasperation. “I don’t know. My friend the Christmas tree seemed to think we were dating, too.”
Matt grimaced. “Did we fall into a romantic comedy when that interdimensional portal happened? Is this one of those things where everyone knows we’re dating but us?”
“Who knows, man?” Ronan said, dropping his head onto the towel. “Do you want to be dating?”
Matt shrugged. “I don’t know. You?”
“I have absolutely no idea. I mean, you’re cool, don’t get me wrong, I just don’t know if I’m up for dating in general right now,” Ronan said.
“Want to, I don’t know, get a coffee some time?” Matt asked. “Worst case, we’re just two friends getting coffee.”
Ronan smiled. “Sure. I know this great place in Portland. They serve a heck of a mocha.”