Sometimes Nita wishes she could just open her eyes in the morning and be ready to leap right out of the bed and get on with stuff. Unfortunately, life doesn’t seem to have arranged itself for her that way.
She lies there this morning, staring at the ceiling, and wishes it again. What I need is something like in that Wallace and Gromit movie, she thinks. Where somebody pulls a lever and dumps you into your clothes and automates your putting-yourself-together and your breakfast.
She yawns and rubs the early-morning gunk out of her eyes (why is there always so much of this gunk?). She knew it had to do with eye fatigue. Hilary the optometrist had told her so once, back in the ancient day—back when her folks were concerned enough to take her to an eye specialist because all of a sudden she didn’t need her glasses any more. Though it had always been a given that Nita’s astigmatism was of the kind that would clear up eventually by itself, having it happen so quickly—and take the nearsightedness with it—had freaked her mom and dad out. And unfortunately Nita wasn’t yet out to her parents as a wizard, and so couldn’t explain that she had slowly and carefully been talking her own eyeballs into changing their shape so that her eyes’ inner focus points would fall on the right place on her retinas.
Fortunately, after the eye exam Hilary had started to talk about a condition sometimes called “paradoxical resolution”, which turned out to simply mean “Someone’s eye shape changes quickly and we don’t know why”. The idea seemed to be that just as nearsightedness can get a lot worse in short spurts during someone’s teens, it could also (quite rarely) get better in the same way. Hilary had actually insisted on some blood tests to rule out sudden-onset diabetes, but these had naturally come back negative… leaving Nita’s folks bemused but reassured (Nita thought) that they at least had a fancy name for something inexplicable.
The memory now makes Nita snicker a bit as she finishes rubbing her eyes clean. Eyestrain, Hilary said. Well, with all the reading lately…
She sighs and looks over at her bedside table. Once upon a time, it would’ve been her alarm clock she was fumbling for. Now it’s usually her manual, to which she’s lately added audio alarms, because there’s so damn much going on at once.
Fortunately today the book’s just lying there and being quiet. And it’s even a Saturday. I must’ve been particularly good this week. …Not that that’s routinely how the Powers that Be recompense you for good behavior, of course. More frequently you get given even more work of the same kind. Or something completely different, but way harder. Anyway, there the manual lies, looking for all the world like an ordinary library book, if a beat-up one.
What do you need that for, really? a sleepy voice grumbles in the back of her head. You’re holding yourself back. I can do all that for you in your head. Even the custom ringtones…
“Bobo,” Nita mutters, “not right now, okay? Put it on hold. I’m barely conscious.”
She slowly hauls herself out of bed and just sits there a moment breathing and letting her brains settle. It’s just after seven (why am I awake at seven AM when I didn’t even set an alarm? This is insane) which will mean that Kit—routinely an early riser, these days—is of course up already. But the manual’s lying there quiet, which means that he hasn’t found anything in his overnight notes that warrants getting in touch with her first thing. Thank God. Pancakes, maybe? The thought of maple syrup suddenly strikes the right note. She’s always had a bit of a sweet tooth, something that seems to be increasing these days, not that she has the slightest idea why. She hasn’t been gaining any weight. Just working harder, lately? Burning off more energy? Body craving carbs?
…Too early in the morning to be thinking about this. Shower.
Nita sighs and gets up, pushing her hair out of her face and going to the hook inside the closet door for a bathrobe. Then she heads for the bathroom, but not before she rummages around on her desk for a moment to find a book.
Nita is one of those people who realized early on that certain bodily functions are only interesting if you’re having trouble with them; and when you’re not, it already being the case that you have to deal with them sitting down, you might as well have something to read while you’re doing it. Right now she’s working her way through a paperback copy of Veronica Roth’s Divergent that Joanne gave her a couple of weeks ago, and has just hit a spot where (despite her early concerns) she’s starting to enjoy it.
She notes (while passing Dairine’s slightly-open bedroom door and peeking through the foot-widegap) that her sister appears to be completely out of it, while nonetheless well involved in her nightly battle-royal with the bedclothes—sprawled all over her bed so that arms and legs are sticking out at strange and theoretically chilly angles. This is a good thing. It means there’ll probably be no annoying hammering on the bathroom door—something Dairine really loves to do even when there’s absolutely no need for it, because she knows it makes Nita crazy. There are some behaviors that not even becoming a wizard and swearing not to unnecessarily increase entropy have broken Dairine of. Nita’s occasionally wondered whether the fact that she’s learning to become resigned to these is a sign of early-onset adulthood, or just abject surrender.
Either way, once in the bathroom she shuts the door and throws the little sliding lock, and then says under her breath, “Bobo?”
On it, says the fragment of the essence of wizardry that lives inside her head. A second later, the preconstructed spell that’s probably the single wizardry Nita uses most often in her life executes itself, a line of light running quick around the edges of the bathroom door—because no merely physical lock on Earth could stop Dairine if she was in the mood. This wizardry, however, locks the entire material / physical geometry of the bathroom into a single unbreakable unit for a short time, making it impenetrable to entry attempts from outside, regardless of methodology. Nita knows that Dairine could probably unravel the spell if she felt like expending the energy… but she couldn’t do it before Nita finished whatever she was doing in there. So, like most good property protection concepts, it deters the theoretical intruder by being just a little too much trouble to go to for any useful result.
My life, Nita thinks, sitting down: where I have to alter the local structure of spacetime to keep my little sister off my case.
She pulls the bookmark out of the paperback and distracts herself for a few minutes with events in Tris Prior’s life; then puts the book aside on the windowsill, tidies herself up, and starts the shower running. This requires a very slight alteration to the wizardry presently holding the room sealed in its grip, so that the water can get in and out. (Nita’s still smarting from the thought of a moment’s forgetfulness some weeks back, when she got extremely distracted after a particularly vivid and unnerving lucid dream about Carmela—something reminiscent of their wartime meeting at the Crossings—and as a result forgot to do the plumbing dispensation routine before she flushed the toilet. The cleanup afterwards was memorable.)
The room is awash with steam very quickly, and shortly Nita’s inside the shower curtain. Hair gets dealt with first because she needs a lot of conditioner, and time for it to settle in; all the time she’s been spending in the water with S’reee recently has been drying her hair out something fierce. (Being inside a forcefield half the time doesn’t help, either. The smart wizard keeps the air inside a spell containment very dry, as when you’re out in vacuum or other hostile environments too much moisture can complicate things.) While the conditioner’s doing its thing, she scrubs and zones out a little.
There’s a lot to do later today, on what’s officially a day off: a whole list of minor housekeeping things in the back of her manual that she’s been letting slide—spells that need alteration, wizards she needs to contact about unfinished business associated with the Invitational, a bunch of stuff. Later on she’ll probably start feeling overwhelmed by it, but right now, for this one tiny segment of the day, she keeps her life narrowed down to hot water, soap, and a slightly blanked-out brain. Sometimes she gets good ideas about things in the shower, but today nothing in particular arises.
Nita doesn’t spend as much time in there as she’d like to, as the house’s hot water heater has been acting up lately and taking a long time to reheat. Time to have a word with it, I guess. No point in acting as if I have to call Kit in every time a piece of machinery acts up. She gets out and towels off and turns her attention to other things: combing her hair out, toothbrushing, facial scrub. (She needs less of this than previously; learning the six different words for “pimple” in the Speech has helped a lot, but so has drinking more water and eating more fruit.)
She doesn’t bother with the blowdryer this morning, as there’s nothing exciting scheduled today and her hair can use a rest. Nita shrugs back into the robe, taps the doorsill to kill the embargo wizardry, and heads back to her bedroom to deal with the part of the morning routine that comes before getting dressed.
Once there she clips her hair up out of the way, fumbles around under her bed among the dustbunnies (really gotta get the vacuum in here, Mom would have taken the skin off me by now) and pulls out her foam mat; rolls it out alongside the bed and lets it relax the curl out of itself while she slips into sweats. It’s not as if she’s planning to actually break a sweat. There are routines that do, but if she was going to do one of those this morning, she’d have done it before the shower.
It was Helen Walks Softly who originally got her into the yoga originally. One evening in backtime London, in the “girls’ side” of the hotel suite they were sharing with Tom and Carl and Kit, Nita saw Helen lying on the room’s Persian rug and doing some graceful back-arched stretches after getting out of the corsetry that her costuming there had required. Nita had idly made some kind of jokey remark about cat moves. “Nope,” Helen had said, getting up and melting into another long stretchy position with her hands braced against the wall: “snake, actually.”
Nita started searching her memory for something wizardly that this might mean, or wondering if it was a reference to the very ancient cats-versus-snakes mythological / archetypal dynamic that Rhiow and Ith once tried to explain to her. But Helen just laughed and started describing the exercise regimen she’d been developing with help from a friend of hers back in Los Angeles. “If you’re not doing wizardry in the physical mode,” she’d said, “you can get stuck in all this brain stuff… and it’s so one-sided! You’ve got to let the body talk back on a regular basis. It’s good for spell energy management, too.”
And minutes later Nita had found herself up against that wall next to Helen, stretching along with her and being fed a move-by-move account of just what the two of them were doing. It was complicated, and most of the narration made no sense whatsoever—and the ache in her muscles the next morning was hard to believe. But that was actually part of what convinced Nita that maybe she’d been missing something, somewhere along the line: because she usually thought of herself as pretty fit. If her body felt like that after just some leaning and stretching and bending, maybe her preconceptions needed some looking at.
When they got back from the intervention, Nita had started some research. There was a ton of information on the Web, and much more in the manual, and Helen had dropped her a long note with a description of her own first few months’ experience. She’d also added some notes from her own trainer, who (on hearing that Helen had a younger friend who was interested) had come up with some caveats and alterations to the program Helen had started: things a younger practitioner should take it easy on at first.
Now Nita shuffles over onto the mat and starts the pre-position stretches. Then, when she’s warmed up, she starts. Cat-and-cow, praying tree, downward dog (cutting that one a little short because her back is bothering her a little): child, baby pigeon, standing mountain. Nita’s brain quiets in a different way from the way it does in the shower—probably because it’s something active she’s doing, rather than just the passivity of letting hot water drum the thinkiness out of you. It’s structure, in a way; a sort of imposition of order on the physical, which in turns affects the mental side of things. Or so Nita thinks. There’s a ton of mental-discipline stuff associated with yoga, not that she’s anywhere near getting to grips with it yet. “Work on the moves first,” Helen say. “The rest comes along later.”
So Nita works on the moves and tries not to let some of them make her crazy, because despite her young age she’s a long way from the astonishing ease Helen displays. Years, I bet. Ow. Ow! …Half her joints refuse to bend as easily as they should when she asks them to, and the other half mostly refuse to do it at all. One more time at the end of the routine she goes for the full lotus, and once again she can’t make it, because when she manages to get one foot tucked up into the right spot, the other just won’t go. Or slips off. Gaaaaaahhhh ow ow ow! So once more she winds up in half lotus—or half assed lotus—at the end of the routine, getting her breath back (no matter how you’re supposed to control your breathing, she hasn’t got the hang of that yet).
And this is the point when, most mornings, after she’s gotten the breathing back to normal, she shuts her eyes and says or thinks about the words that will set her up for the day.
The present words are a new development. In earlier times she’d just have reached for the manual, turned to that one page with the little block of text on it, and one more time repeated those very basic words, the ones that lie at the core of every wizard’s practice, the heart of the Art. But lately she’s been swinging out a little— a side effect of meeting new wizards and getting to know the ones she knew already a lot better: or of seeing how things are done elsewhere, and thinking some of the habits she’s seen elsewhere might be worth adopting.
Who is she talking to? There are any number of possible answers: the Powers that Be, the One, wizardry itself (through the fragment of it that lives in her head). Or just herself, because there’s no harm in reminding yourself what you’re doing, and what you’ll have to deal with as you have on a regular basis before.
I’ll meet cruel people today, she thinks, cowards and liars, people eaten up with envy and people drugged out or wasted on booze. They’ll be like that because they’re not clear about what’s good and what’s bad in their lives or about how much it matters which side to take, for themselves or for others. But even though they’re like that, I don’t have to be. I do have to keep their trouble in mind while I go about my business, though; because they are my business.
She sits and breathes in the dark of closed eyes and lets the certainty sink in—what Carl once described to her as “the knowledge of the Charge”. And not just my business: the Powers’, too. They walk by my side while I’m on patrol; They see what They see because I see it. Today it’s my turn to take up the challenge They took up once the first Word was spoken and Life started learning its name. I walk where Life does, alongside it, and keep it from stumbling in the dark…
There is more of the Affirmation, of course, but there’s no point in going through the whole thing if you don’t feel like it. Nita finds it useful that the wording can change from day to day, because there are days when one part of it is more on her mind than others. The stumbling in the dark, or the annoying people: the sometimes acutely-felt presence of the Powers, or the sometimes wildly shifting feelings that go along with being out on your own, on the most important Business there is.
The words run out, and this is okay. That’s what they do sometimes. Nita sighs and opens her eyes, and her gaze drops to the manual. A sudden memory comes up, makes her smile a bit: the blank look Mrs. Lesser gave her when, after she and Kit got back from the dark Manhattan, she realized that despite the terror and the wonder of having such a book, she was going to have to bring it back.
The prospect had freaked Nita out. It’s my manual! All the wizardry’s in it! What happens when I give it back? Do I have to keep checking it out? Isn’t that going to look awfully weird? But it didn’t matter. Nita had never returned a library book late in her life, and she wasn’t about to start then.
Nonetheless the walk to the library on the tenth day after they came back—for she kept the book until the very last minute—felt like a deathmarch. Even now Nita could remember with terrible clarity the fizz of nervousness up and down her spine as she walked up the front steps of the library and pushed open that old creaking door. The last time she’d paid attention to the creak, it had been caused by a gang of kids piling into the library and intent on beating her up. She remembered thinking, I could cope with that now, with a much bigger gang of them… but not with losing this!
—and then standing in front of Mrs. Lesser’s desk while Mrs. Lesser checked in book after book from a pile in front of her, waving them over the scanner, while talking to someone on the phone held between cheek and shoulder. “I told her, Mick, I really did, but she just did not seem to get it and I started wondering, what does she need, a telegram? Assuming those even still exist—?” Mrs. L. had looked up at Nita, nodding, putting one book down long enough to make a yada-yada-yada gesture with one hand while rolling her eyes: taking the book that Nita held out to her, scanning it: and the scanner going beep, beep —
Not the “returned” noise that Nita knew quite well, but a little double beep that meant some kind of error. She remembers her mouth going dry as Mrs. L. waved the book over the scanner again, got the same noise. “No, Mick, seriously. It’s not my place; I’m not gonna go there with her! She needs to sort it out herself and act like a grownup. Listen, I’ve got something I need to deal with here, can I call you back?”
—and then as she hung up, Mrs. L. was rolling her eyes at Nita some more. “Seriously,” she said, “sometimes half this job seems like fixing the spots where other people haven’t done theirs.” And Nita can still feel that long-ago-dry mouth as Mrs. L. waved the book over the scanner once more and got the same double beep. “You don’t need to bring this one back,” she’d said, sounding slightly surprised. “Did you get it mixed up with another?”
“Huh? No. I got this out last week, you remember—”
“Sure.” —and Mrs. L. had flipped the book over to examine the spine, where the scanning chip was embedded. “No, that’s fine…” Holding the manual over the scan pad again, she’d hit a few keys on the computer’s keyboard. “Huh. Must have been misshelved. Anyway, I was right, you really didn’t need to bring it back. This was withdrawn from circulation months ago.”
Nita could still feel the shock of that moment: sudden relief, extreme confusion… and curiosity. “What?”
“Look.” Mrs. Lesser had swiveled the screen so she could read it. There was all the book’s info, the title, the author, the Dewey classification, along with the Library of Congress info, all the rest of the book’s metadata—but then also the note at the bottom of the record, W/DRAWN FROM CIRC JAN12 2008. “Sometimes,” Mrs. Lesser had said, “we get a new copy and the old one gets pulled. Or it should, but somehow it gets stacked back in the shelving cart anyway…” She’d shrugged, handed Nita back the book. “Don’t know why the system treated it as a normal checkout last week. Maybe some database refresh hadn’t happened yet. Or someone upstream was processing a whole bunch of backed-up withdrawals into the system at once. It happens. …Anyway, you enjoyed it?”
It would have been hard to even begin answering the question in any way that made sense. “Uh, yeah.”
“Then take it with you and give it a good home. Either we’ve got a newer copy someplace downstairs, or the system’s pulled it for some other reason.”
Some other reason, Nita had thought, smiling a little as she walked away. And she smiled again, right now. Doesn’t matter, in the long run. You look out for the Powers, and They look out for you.
She sighs and stretches and opens her eyes. That’s a good enough note to finish on, Nitathinks, as these things go. She sits up a bit straighter, deconstructs her half lotus with a few under-her-breath grunts (how can my joints be making noises like that? I am fifteen!) and stands up (ow ow ow) with only a slight wobble. Can I finally be getting used to this? Let’s just hope. She does a few final stretches to finish the cooldown and then heads over to her dresser, starting to think about what to wear.
Not that I have an idea what’s on today, since there’s actually nothing urgent going on. A miracle. She drops the manual on the top of the dresser, flips it open to the messaging section in the back, and pulls a drawer open, starting to rummage.
He’s always up around dawn these days, it seems. The reasons keep changing, though.
One, for some months now, normally had to do with Mars. Starting late last year, if you wanted to see the planet without artificial aids like the live feed from various probes or a wizard’s manual, the predawn sky’s pretty much been the place: at least in Kit’s time zone. Mars has slowly been climbing a little higher every day in the eastern sky, separating itself further from the Sun as it swings around out of solar conjunction. Each day its redness has been getting a little more vivid, and there’s something about that that Kit enjoys. Like the planet’s been through a bad patch lately, he thinks, and getting over it. Which in a way is true.
Not that there hasn’t been more than than that going on. Mars, as it turns out, has a cometary close pass coming in October 2014. C/2013 A, the comet’s called formally; or informally, Comet Siding Spring—a long-period comet now swinging in toward the sun. Kit and other wizards on the de facto Mars team are intensely interested in this event for a couple of reasons. There’s the obvious one—the chance to have a stable platform from which to take a very close look at a cometary body—and the less obvious one of wanting to make sure that during this very close pass nothing important on Mars gets damaged, particularly hidden cultural artifacts like the Cavern of Writings. (Though these days, bearing in mind how much his sister brags about being not only one of its discoverers but an important part of the Ongoing Analysis team, Kit is now starting to think of it as CARMELA’S CAVERN OF WRITINGS, with a mental flashing neon sign hanging over the portal like something you might see in front of a newly opened and seriously overcompensating burger place.) And there are also more famous spots to be concerned about—particularly Olympus Mons. As one of the biggest planetary volcanoes on any known world, if not the biggest, the Mount is a huge tourist attraction, and one that nobody wants to see flattened out by some passing comet.
I’m not even awake yet and already I’m worrying about preserving cultural heritage sites on other planets, Kit thinks. This is about fifty shades of wrong. And counting.
He sits up in bed and immediately feels, as he does most mornings, the weight on the bed that isn’t there: this being the other reason he tends to wake up early.
Kit sighs and flings the covers off and puts his feet down on the floor… though not on the rug, from habit. For so much of his life, a big black and white dog would have been upside down on that rug at this time of the morning, sometimes with his front paws over his face (for reasons Kit still didn’t understand), his belly in the air, snoring gently. But not now.
Kit gets up, stepping around the rug, and makes for the closet across the room, rubbing his eyes. With the shades down to keep the direct sun out, it’s dim in here. But this time of year the Sun will come straight in through the window opposite his bed as soon as it dawns, and hit the posters on the far side of the wall, fading them: and he can’t be bothered to do a wizardry to keep the fading from happening—the shades are easier. He pulls the closet door half open and fumbles around inside it, not even bothering to look, and grabs hold of the tatty plaid flannel bathrobe hanging inside there on a hook.
His mama has been bugging him to get a new one. “Look at it on you,” she mutters when she sees him in it in the mornings, “the way you’ve grown this last year. It looks like a miniskirt.”
“Yeah, that’s me, Miniskirt Guy,” Kit mutters right back at her without fail: because he’s stubborn that way. Or just stubborn about this one thing… though maybe this is something he’s been picking up from Nita, who wears her stubbornness like a badge of honor. He’s seen the bathrobes in the department stores all this year, because his Mama keeps trying to push them off on him, and they all make him look like somebody’s grandfather. “So does that one,” Carmela remarked earlier this month. That got him so annoyed that he actually agreed to see what the Crossings might have that would look better.
And look where that got you, he thought, snickering under his breath as he wraps the frayed-around-the-edges bathrobe belt around him and knots it. The memory of what without warning turned into Clothes Day at the Crossings is still a little raw around the edges. Betrayed. By my very best friends. What do the Powers that Be have to say about people who swear up and down and sideways that you’re all just going out on a Blue Food Run and instead drag you off and…
He yanks his room door open and heads out into the hall. Well. No point in beating them up about it; they were dragooned into it by a criminal mastermind. Meaning the one who was theoretically asleep just down the hall… though since her closet had the worldgate installed in it, her presence there was always a matter of conjecture until you actually looked in there to be sure. Which Kit was not going to do. At least not until I’ve had my shower and am dressed and ready to go out so I can do something annoying enough to wake her up, and then escape.
It was, after all (Kit thought as he shut and locked the bathroom door behind him and started to attend to basic physical needs) important to at least attempt to keep your sisters on their toes. There were, when you got right down to it, so many of them—or at least it seemed that way when you were the youngest one and there were two of them, both inevitably and unavoidably older. They always seemed to have the odds on their side. Even while they were feuding with each other (and in Kit’s memory, whole years seemed to have been taken up with this occupation) they had always seemed willing to drop whatever they were fighting about and join forces to persecute him. Teasing him, needling him, correcting him, taking his stuff, hiding his stuff.
And here I thought that becoming a wizard would even things out a little. Though there had been some difficulties with that at first that he hadn’t expected, especially when he’d told his family about it. Like Helena going all freaked-out on him and deciding that he was either (at best) dangerously spiritually deluded or (at worst) some kind of devil-worshipper. The temptation to let her find Kit doing some kind of weird fake juju dance in the back yard in the middle of the night had been so strong. But he’d decided it would just speed up entropy locally, and there was enough of that going on as it was. Eventually things had settled down somewhat.
Well, for certain values of ‘settled’. Edgy conversations with giant sharks, multiple attempted murders by fallen angels, deaths in the family, journeys through other wizards’ minds, holidays spent on beaches half a galaxy away, war in Heaven and on the next planet over…
Kit finishes his business in front of the toilet and turns his attention to the shower. This of course was another of the advantages of getting up so early: Carmela had as yet had no chance to make any inroads on the hot water. The length of his sister’s showers was legendary in the household, and Kit refuses to believe any of her prolonged explanations about how it was all about taking good care of her hair. “My haiiiiiiirrrrrr,” he whines under his breath in a passable imitation of Carmela as he gets the shower going. “You have to let the conditionerrrrr work, Mama, tell him to shut up about my haiiiiirrrrr….”
He snickers under his breath and gets into the shower, just standing there for a moment and relishing the heat. He likes his showers hotter than anyone else in the house, which is a constant mystery and borderline annoyance to his Pop (”Boiling yourself again, son? Seen the electric bills lately?”). His Mama likes hers nearly as hot, though not quite as hot as he does (”How many times do I have to tell you to turn the knob down a little after you turn it all the way up, don’t you know I’m not always entirely conscious when I get in there ?!”).
He sighs as the steam rises and the hot water beats down on him, and finds himself wondering what the temperature will be on Mars’s northern hemisphere in October of 2014. Is it going to be spring? Or winter still? The lengths of the Martian seasons keep eluding him, though he really should know it by now, considering all the time he’s spent there lately. Well, in the last year anyway… He makes a mental note to check his manual later.
Kit reaches for his shampoo bottle and picks it up, and is instantly surprised to find it a lot lighter than it was yesterday. A lot lighter. He pops back the poptop, shakes the bottle. Squints one eye to peer inside through the little hole. It’s nearly empty.
And there under the steaming water, he feels himself starting to steam even more. I will kill her.
Because his sister has used up all his shampoo. Again. His. Shampoo.
Kit stands there in the shower and literally clutches his head. I willingly bring one thing home from the Crossings, he thinks, exactly one, and without a word to me she pours it all over her head. And her haaaiiiiiiirrrr. Kit growls, actually growls under his breath. What am I doing wrong? Besides not killing her?
Powers that Be, I need an exemption. Just one. Just this one time! I will never kill anyone else, ever, I promise. Just think how much more fun it would be for you to have her with you. Stealing your stuff!
And then, against his will, the concept starts making him laugh…. because the Powers would have their hands full. I could almost pity them. No, maybe if I want to stay in good with those guys I’d better not wish her there a minute sooner than she needs to be…
He rummages around in the wire caddy hanging down from the shower fixture and comes up with his Pop’s Head&Shoulders, which is okay for just this once. I can always make her lend me the worldgate so I can go get another bottle. Or better still— Kit pauses, lathering up. I bet I can manipulate her into going there and picking me up another bottle. Because she really should.
Now how the hell am I going to pull this off?
The question will need some careful thought. In the meantime he’s going to have to be careful to act like it doesn’t matter at all, because if ‘Mela gets the slightest hint that this is any kind of issue for him, she’ll dig her heels in and refuse.
He considers the logistics of it as he rinses. Possibly Sker’ret can be leveraged into this somehow. He owes me one after the shopping fiasco, Kit thinks. And she’d never suspect him of being about to pull anything on her: she thinks she’s his fair-haired human. Kit grins. Should be doable.
Idly considering the whys and wherefores of this, Kit climbs out and dries off and pulls his robe on again, making his way back to his room to get dressed, as there are things to handle before he can have his breakfast.
He gets dressed to go out exactly as he used to do at this time of morning when his bedroom featured his own dog, on his own rug, upside down, snoring. There are of course still moments that still creep up on him when he suddenly finds himself sitting at his desk with his eyes burning, gazing at that empty spot on the rug. But he keeps those to himself: not even Nita knows about them. There are things you share with your closest friend, and things that are too private even for them to know. Possibly because it’d hurt them to know you were in pain and there was nothing they could really do about it. Not even sharing it’s likely to help all that much…
And the problem of course has a flip side, or has had one: one that Kit also hasn’t discussed with Nita, because he’s not entirely sure how she’d take it. He remembers finding her out in her back yard one time crying bitterly over Ponch’s loss, and finding himself irrationally upset by that. “Because he’s not gone, really, he’s still around,” he’d said at the time, feeling incredibly awkward about it. It had been hard enough for Kit to come to terms with that, and it hadn’t occurred to him that she’d be more broken up about it than he was.
But she’d only shook her head and said breathlessly, between sobs, “I thought I was over this!” And what explanation Nita was able to offer up over the next few minutes suggested that she’d been as upset about Roshaun’s disappearance, and (all over again, or still) about her mother’s death, as about Ponch. When Kit realized that she couldn’t really clarify the details of what was going on with her, and that he didn’t have the slightest idea how to help, all he could do at the end was sit with Nita and feel in full what Carl had once described to him as “the wizard’s burden”: the wretched sense that though you might indeed be able to freeze fire and burn the rain and slow down the heat-death of the Universe, the key word was always might… and that sometimes not even wizardry was enough.
It had sorted itself out, over time, but that feeling of helplessness had lingered with Kit for a while. In the wake of some of the last year’s events on the Moon he’d actually had a brief existential crisis about it. Did anything a given wizard did actually make a difference, in the longest of long runs… that vast stretch of minutes and years and aeons between now and the day when all stars everywhere would have gone cold and dark, and even the last twitch of atomic motion had gone still? When time was truly over, because not so much as a single quartz molecule was left vibrating to prove the fact? Sooner or later that fate was coming: the Powers knew it, indeed had never been shy about admitting it. And They never pretended that They were going to be able to stop it. Everything They did, and everything done by all wizards everywhere, was about making that process take as long as humanly, or inhumanly, possible.
In the end it had been the unavoidability of that outcome itself, and the unflinching clarity of its communication from Powers to wizards, that had settled Kit down. He’d been reading some Norse mythology—something Carmela, strangely, had gotten him into: she was reading all kinds of Earth mythology all of a sudden since getting involved with the Cave of Writings—and the harsh, bleak cast of their version of the Last Days had struck a chord with him in terms of what the Powers knew and how They were handling it. A predestined end, a certainty of loss to the dark and the cold of the dead-black Winter that was inevitably coming, yes, that theme was there in spades. Yet to the people telling that story to one another all that while ago, what mattered most was being on the right side of the fight, going down fighting for the right thing, and being known to have done so. Of course in Kit’s and the Powers’ reality, there was no expecting anyone in the merely physical universe to be left to tell the story afterwards. Everything right down to the quartz molecules would indeed go silent. But nothing would be able to change or detract from what had been done on the way to that state, or the daily heroism involved in making sure it took as long as it possibly could.
It’s strange, Kit thinks as he finishes dressing and goes quietly downstairs to get his jacket, how stabilizing that realization has been. And he has to admit that there are a lot fewer of those burning-eyed moments now than there used to be. True, it didn’t happen instantly. He’d kept waking up again and again at the time of morning when Ponch would have been ready to go out. He’d tried as hard as he could to keep on sleeping past that time. He’d stopped setting his alarm: it didn’t help. He’d tried going back to sleep after he woke up, but that worked no better. Briefly he’d considered using wizardry to enforce sleep on himself… but something made him resist that.
Eventually, though, the thought had occurred to Kit that the universe might be trying to tell him something: perhaps even offering him an opportunity to do something. A smart wizard is always alert to such obscure hints, Tom had told him once—the Universe being under no compulsion to be clear in its suggestions all the time, any more than people were. And finally, on one of those early mornings, Kit found himself thinking: Well, if I can’t be walking my dog, why shouldn’t I walk somebody else’s?
There was of course no thought of anybody else’s dog being any kind of replacement for Ponch. That was impossible. But if this behavior was going to persist, Kit had thought, he might as well do something useful with it. “And maybe you can’t always be happy,” Carl had said to him recently during a consult—Carl being halfway under the sink in his kitchen at that point in yet another of his periodic epic clashes with the plumbing, and decidedly not sounding any too happy himself—“but you can sure as hell be useful.”
That too had made sense. So over the space of a few weeks after coming to that conclusion, Kit touched base with some of the neighbors who had work that took them away from the house very early, and offered to do their morning dogwalking chores for them. Now (as he slips out of the house into the barely-post-dawn twilight, speaking the back-door lock noiselessly shut behind him) he has to admit to himself that he was perhaps a little slow on the uptake.
The point at which Kit realized the Universe had not only been trying to send him a message, but also that it had a fairly dry sense of humor, was when the first neighbor to take him up on the offer was Mr. Akambe, just three doors down. He and his family were the owners—if that was the word—of an extremely annoying Yorkshire terrier whose name in the Cyene dog-language was Grarrhah, but whose family, having no way of knowing this, called her Tinkerbell. Grarrhah (whose name properly meant Throat-Ripper, and whose disposition suggested that the name was a good choice), had just about gone around the bend when she found out what the human name for her meant. But then most things made her crazy, and the fact that Kit was going to be walking her in the mornings now was no exception to the rule.
“Morning, Grarrhah,” Kit says in the Speech, as usual, as he comes up to the Akambes’ gate.
“Fuck off and die, primate spawn,” Grarrhah says, also more or less as usual, and displays every one of her teeth around a theoretically terrifying growl.
Another lovely day in the neighborhood, Kit thinks, and eases the chainlink gate open, blocking it with his legs so Grarrhah can’t bolt past him into the street (one of her favorite moves). Nearly a month of this routine, three days a week, has done nothing to blunt her disgust with it, with him, and with the world in general at inflicting this intolerable indignity on her. She dances away from him, barking that incredibly annoying little yammering barkbarkbarkbark at him until he’s tempted to drop a muzzle-spell on her.
This, though, would be an overreaction, as well as rude. So he lets her get it out of her system while unhooking the leash from the link-mesh of the gate, where Mr. Akambe has left it hooked for him. “Come on, Grarrhah,” Kit says, heading over toward her, “let’s get you hooked up.”
“Stay the hell away from me, you damn upstart prey object!” she barks at him, turning as he gets close and running full tilt down the house’s driveway toward her doghouse, where she intends to take shelter and bite him if he puts an arm in to try to grab her.
Kit rolls his eyes. It’s always either the doghouse, the far right corner at the very back of the Akambes’ property (up which she routinely tries very hard to climb, barking desperately all the while as if she was about to be torn limb from limb), or the side door to their garage, which has a doggie door in it so that she can take shelter in there in case the weather turns inclement or a little too chilly. There are days when Kit lays bets with himself on which way she’ll go, but this morning he just doesn’t have the patience for it. So instead Kit says the spell that he now knows nearly as well as the beam-me-up spell he uses for casual teleportation, and activates all three of its preset escape-prevention variables.
The immediate result is that Grarrhah runs straight into an invisible soft-impact forcefield wall halfway down the driveway, the rebound knocking her right onto her tiny butt. She immediately begins yelping as piteously as if the impact has shattered all her bones, but Kit is as used to this behavior as the Akambes are, and pays it no more attention than they do. Nor does he have any concern about them seeing what happens in these situations. To even an alert observer, it would simply look as if the overexcited Yorkie has tripped over her own feet somehow.
While she’s still scrambling to her feet and trying to figure out where she can try to escape to next, Kit quickly comes up behind her, reaches down for her collar, and snaps the leash onto it. Then he straightens up hurriedly and holds the leash away from him at arm’s length, because this is her favorite time to turn around and try to bite him in the leg. Sure enough, Grarrhah launches herself at Kit’s near leg on the off chance she can nail him.
“You know this is going to happen,” Kit says, resigned. “Every time, you know it’s going to go down this way. Why do you even bother? You’re going to have a walk, and that’s all there is to it…”
She’s growling and snarling and snapping at him, while at the same time doing the throw-herself-against-her-collar-and-
“No I won’t,” Kit says, “and no I won’t. Come on.”
Grarrhah writhes and snarls and froths and throws herself on the ground and tries for Kit’s legs again and generally makes a total nuisance of herself until she’s clear of the gate. Then, as usual, fairly suddenly, she allows herself to be dragged to her feet—never one to miss a chance if she can help it to do something that might possibly make Kit feel guilty—and heads sulkily down the street with him, alternately hanging behind and having to be pulled along, or racing ahead hard enough to make her wheeze and choke as she strains into the collar.
Kit rolls his eyes and lets her do her thing, because there’s no talking her out of it. Repeated attempts to get her to tell him just what the hell her problem is have never produced any result. Kit’s assumption is that it’s something to do with territoriality, but without a hint as to what underlies the behavior, there’s no way to help. Finally, though, Grarrhah comes to a tree down the road that she favors, the big maple with its trunk sticking halfway through the McDavies’ hedge, and stops by it, smelling it carefully and suspiciously, like someone who suspects that whoever’s handling quality control for local urination sites is falling down on the job.
Kit stands there and looks away at the relentlessly suburban surroundings—houses, hedges, driveways—and just listens to the world. It’s a little misty out this morning, and as sometimes happens in such conditions sound is carrying better than usual. From here he can hear the very soft rush of the Southern State Parkway only a mile or two away, the pre-rush hour traffic passing through the Meadowbrook Parkway exchange over behind the high school. Briefly Kit’s mind jumps back to the round of waste ground in the middle of the exchange, sloping down into a little hidden dell surrounded by tall trees. He thinks about how he once stood at the bottom of that dell intently scribing a spell circle on the ground, only to feel his neck hair go up as he felt like someone was staring at him. And he looked up and saw her there, standing very still, gazing down at him with the strangest expression, and had a panic, going cold all over with the thought: Who’s that, what do they want, how’d they get in here?…
He grins at the memory. Grarrhah, meanwhile, is apparently satisfied that no one who’s been here before her has peed on this tree in any overly unacceptable way. She squats down, wiggles her butt comically (Kit, as always, straining not to snicker) and starts taking a leak of truly historic proportions. Kit watches this idly, out of the corner of the eye, because unlike most dogs of Kit’s acquaintance, Grarrhah seems sensitive about being watched in the act. Seriously, though, how long has she been holding that in? For she always seems to prefer saving it all up for this morning walk. And how is all that even inside her?
Apparently oblivious, Grarrhah just keeps on peeing and peeing. And finally she finishes and turns to sniff and then kicks up the turf behind her, and turns back to Kit…
…and there’s someone else looking out of her eyes.
Sorry, did I keep you waiting? She’s so obsessive about finishing up first.
Kit grins and falls to his knees by Grarrhah and does something he would never dare do with her at any other time. He picks her up and cuddles her—which would always have been a challenge after the shape he was missing on his bedroom rug came to his full growth—and rubs his face up against hers and stares into her eyes.
Ponch is there. It’s the same look in those eyes that Kit would have seen any morning after Ponch’s own walk or run outside into the back yard: an expression suggesting that now that immediate physical needs were dealt with, the day could properly begin… as long as Kit was there too. “Didn’t know if I was going to see you this morning.”
Got a little delayed, is all. And the Ponch-inside-Grarrhah starts enthusiastically washing Kit’s face.
“Delayed!” Kit snickers: for his dog is now God, at least in a dog-God way. “I thought you’re supposed to be everywhere.”
I am everywhere. But sometimes there are logistical issues.
“I believe you on that one…” Kit puts the Yorkie down and just kneels there by her, ruffling her fur up, with an eye to making it look casual and keeping it brief, since it wouldn’t do for the neighbors to see too much of this going on: it would seem out of character for Grarrhah. This time of morning, though, any attention on the neighborhood kid who does dog walking is going to be pretty scarce. “Big guy, Grarrhah gave me the crazy act a lot worse than usual this morning. Just what is it with her?”
I can’t tell you. She wouldn’t want me to. Ponch sighs an exaggerated sigh. It’s a privacy thing.
Kit sighs too. “Look, you’re the Lord of the Canids and such—”The phrase is shorthand, and a massive oversimplification. Over time Kit has come to understand that Ponch’s new role is far more complicated than just being God-to-Dogs. It has to do with filling the role of the One for a whole complex of creatures that fit into in a particular set of interrelationships between and among many, many species, right across this physical reality. “Isn’t there anything you can do to help her out? She’s so angry all the time.”
I know. And she likes it. That’s the problem.
Kit snorts. “Tell me,” he mutters: “it’s the dog version of the lightbulb joke. She has to want to change.”
She has as much free will as you do, Ponch says, sounding a little out of sorts about it himself. Maybe more. But when she uses it, I don’t get to override her. It’s not appropriate. She gets to choose how she wants to be.
Kit sighs. “It always comes down to choice sooner or later, doesn’t it?”
All the time. Even when the choices are stupid. Another of those big sighs. But that’s the way things go.
“Yeah,” Kit says. “So never mind her, then. What’ve you been up to?”
Lots! Wait’ll you hear.
Kit keeps petting Ponch-in-Grarrhah while he/she sniffs around the bottom of that tree with great interest, and they chat quietly while this goes on. Some of what his dog (or dog-that-was) is telling Kit seems to have something to do with shepherding behaviors—on a truly beyond-macro scale: it sounds in one case as if he’s working on shepherding whole species—but just about everything else, even when Ponch is using the Speech instead of Cyene, is frankly unintelligible. Kit thinks this is probably something to do with the difficulty humans normally have with talking to gods, or beings occupying more than what humans think of as the normal number of dimensions. There’s simply no way to cram a human mind with enough of the background context necessary to understand deity-level concepts without bursting the mortal mind open like a split melon. Nonetheless, Kit listens and picks up what he can, and wonders (as always) whether this was what it was like, before things changed, when Ponch would listen to him: a great interest in and unquestionable love for the one holding up the other half of the conversation, paired with a near-complete inability to understand what in the worlds your friend and partner is talking about.
Was that making any sense? Ponch says at the end of one explanation.
Kit just laughs. “Nope.”
I’m so sorry!
“Don’t be! It’s okay. I don’t care if I don’t always get what’s going on! It’s worth it to be together like this.” And he laughs again. “And there are funny things about it too. Side effects. Some of the neighbors are starting to think I’m some kind of dog whisperer.”
Irrepressible woofing laughter ensues at the other end of the conversation. Oh please! At least you’d really whisper. That other one, how he shouts half of the time! I get so many complaints, you have no idea. Of course he means well but his Cyene’s not exactly nuanced…
“And anyway it’s so terrific, what you’ve become,” Kit says. “Even if I can’t understand most of it. It always mattered that you should be happy, as happy as you could be. And this… it’s so big, and it does make you so happy. I can tell.”
Yes. No uncertainty there at all. And there’s so much more to be, yet. This was something Ponch had said to him before, something Kit had taken a little while to wrap his brain around: that even being a God came with a learning curve. It’s big stuff, but small stuff too. The broad picture and the little details. Not just being all the dogs, or all the kinds of doglike. But being everything that matters to them, too; to all of them. Learning how to be in every bone, every tree, every squirrel, for them.
Kit has to chuckle at the thought of the squirrels. Before his ascent to deity, mostly Ponch wanted squirrels inside him rather than the other way around.
But Ponch laughs at that thought too. Things change. I am more. I am way more. Going to be way more. Another of those woofing laughs. And you’re going to be way more too.
Kit grins. The discovery (inadvertently let slip by Spot one morning while he and the computer/mobile were waiting for Dairine on the Moon) that there were places where Kit was being worshipped as God’s Best Friend: that had come as something of a shock. Do I get extra credit for that somehow? he’d wondered at the time. But now it was just amusing. “Rumor has it I already am,” Kit says.
Rumor is right, the answer comes back immediately. You’re more already.
And Kit just freezes where he is as every hair on his body stands on end… for that answer is somehow profoundly freighted with unexpected and unparseable meaning. It’s as if hidden behind and beyond it, beyond his comprehension, is something more important than anything that’s happened to Kit so far in his life—more important than keeping the East Coast from being drowned or Ireland from being overrun by its own mythology or helping a couple of species move on to the next thing or dueling the Lone Power to a standstill a few times. The feeling simply runs all over him in one big shiver, his body trying to express as best it can its reaction to something Kit’s brain just can’t grasp. The sensation, the obscure wordless knowledge, is utterly unclassifiable, completely inexplicable. And it is unquestionably good.
And then the Yorkie is jumping up at Kit again and again and licking at his face. Boss! Boss, are you okay?
“Yeah,” Kit says, because it’s true, even if he doesn’t fully understand why. He’s still shivering, but it’s the kind of shiver that comes with joy, with Christmas morning and a pile of unopened presents, one of which you know is the thing you asked for… but somehow even better. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He grabs hold of the jumping licking ball of fur and strokes it until it calms down. “Take it easy!”
I’m sorry! I said something wrong!
“No, no, I don’t think so,” Kit says, ruffling up the Yorkie’s fur as he realizes that even worse than not knowing there’s a God, or that God is pissed off at you, is the discovery that a God is scared for you. It might be a little hard for him to breathe at the moment, but he manages it and gets a grip. “You said something right, I think. I’m just not sure what yet.”
Are you sure you’re all right? Those little pop eyes, so comical in Grarrhah’s face as a rule, are full of worry and not entirely convinced.
“Yeah,” Kit says. “Ponch, we’re just doing something together that nobody’s done before. No telling what it’s going to look like in the long term, and we both may get weirded out sometimes. But you’d never hurt me, I know that. So trust yourself on that count anyway.”
The Yorkie settles down a little, panting. All right, Ponch says after a moment. It’s true. There’s a lot going on, and a lot of it’s new…
“You’ll work it out,” Kit says. “We’ll work it out.”
He stands up. “Come on,” Kit says, “we’ve gotta get this one back before Mr. A has to leave. I’ve got Rex around the corner, tomorrow. Got time for me? ’
“Need to poop first?”
A thoughtful expression. No, she’s saving it for later. The eyes flick up to Kit’s, rueful and amused. For their kitchen floor, apparently.
Kit rolls his eyes as they start back down the street. “You completely sure about this free will thing?”
The Lord of the Canids makes a slightly ironic face: Ponch was always fastidious about his personal hygiene, even if he did like keeping mummified squirrels in his bedding. Don’t tempt Me.
They make their way down to the gate again, and for these few moments it’s like it used to be: that sense of perfect companionship, the perfect companion, trotting alongside him and so long taken for granted. Until you lose him, Kit thinks. But as those little round pop eyes flick up to him, just before they get to the Akambes’ gate, once again he realizes (with an echo of that shiver) that past the loss, he’s gained something he can barely understand. “Later, big guy…”
And then Grarrhah shakes herself all over and glares at him. “So you’ve had your little chat?”
“Then go the hell away, monkey brat!” Yet there’s a hint of something there in her gaze that wasn’t there when they started: something softer, almost wistful. Not for the first time, Kit wonders what’s going on inside Grarrhah while the One-For-Dogs is looking out of her eyes.
She catches him at it, and snarls and turns and hurls herself at the gate. Kit shakes his head, sighs, resigned, and opens the gate: then unsnaps her leash before she strangles herself. She goes tearing into the yard and makes for her doghouse at top speed, growling all the way until she vanishes inside.
“See you in a couple days,” he says, more or less to the air. He snaps the leash back through the links of the gate where he found it, and turns to walk off toward home.
A voice he hadn’t been expecting to hear quite so early, but welcome nonetheless. “Yeah?”
Oh good, you’re awake.
“And what else would I be this time of morning? You know the drill.”
She snickers at him, as “what else would I be” can under certain circumstances be a dangerous question to ask a wizard. Never mind. I’m thinking about pancakes.
“You mean Dairine didn’t drink all the maple syrup again?”
She drank the decoy I left out for her. I hid the other one.
“One of these days she’s gonna catch you at that…”
Then I’ll change tactics. Griddle’s getting hot. What are you waiting for?
“On my way,” Kit says, and breaks into a trot, his mouth starting to water a bit… while he wonders whether there’s enough pancakes and maple syrup on earth to make what just happened to him any easier to explain.
Doesn’t matter, he thinks as he turns the corner toward Nita’s. What counts is that another day doing the world’s best job can now begin.