And boy is mucking around with lj formatting fun--and icons, and all kinds of shiny new things.
Ian had gone to his appointment looking fairly optimistic, if slightly anxious, about the whole college aid thing. But he came back growling. If he’d been a cat, he probably would have clawed Gabe when he opened the door, and then run back out into the streets.
“I take it the meeting didn’t go well?” Gabe asked, closing the door behind Ian and keeping a cautious distance between the two of them. Not that he anticipated Ian doing anything in particular, but anyone with eyes that wild needed their space.
“Oh, no, it went fine.” Ian threw himself onto the couch, producing a squawk from the abused springs, and glared at the ceiling. “It went absolutely swimmingly. Everyone thinks I’m a poor dear who needs to be looked after, and if I ever need anything, I should just ask.” He shifted his glare from the ceiling to Gabe, who returned it as steadily as if he too were made of wood and plaster. “It was like I’m some crippled child or something, who’s been abandoned by all my friends and relations. I thought I was going to have to stab someone with a letter opener toward the end of it.”
“Bloodshed probably wouldn’t have helped your cause,” Gabe felt obligated to point out, although he knew Ian was generally about as violent as a duck.
“No, but it would have made me feel better.” The tightly-wound feralness was beginning to fade from Ian’s body, replaced by the too-familiar slump of depression. “I never realized how horrible financial aid could be.”
“So you got some, then?” That was good news. Without financial aid, Ian would have had to cut back to being a part-time student.
“Yeah, enough.” Ian sighed, and pushed himself off the couch, disappearing into the kitchen. “I only wish there was some way to do it that didn’t make me feel like a deranged terrier during the process.”
“I would have called you a cat,” Gabe remarked to Ian’s back, and earned himself a reluctant laugh.
“It’s really not that bad,” Ian admitted a minute later, reemerging with a glass of water, which he played with instead of drinking. “I’ve got a job working in the college bookstore, which is apparently little more than taking people’s money and periodically rearranging everything on the shelves so that nobody can find anything. Everyone said that the store manager is very nice and I’ll probably have plenty of time to study, since it’s empty most of the time.”
With a sigh, he flicked the glass so that the water in it leapt up the side, a miniature wave in a miniature ocean. “It’s twenty hours a week, so I really won’t have any time for a social life.” He smiled somewhat ruefully at Gabe, eyes only mostly successful in hiding the weariness behind them. “I know I said I wouldn’t mind not having one, but it is a bit of a shock to realize how little time I’m going to have left to myself.”
Gabe shrugged. “You get used to it, after a while.” What he didn’t say was, you get used to it or you burn out. He knew people who had gone under in their attempt to do too many things on their own. But Ian had him, and Gabe would willing sacrifice his studies before he allowed Ian to give up on his own.
“Yes, well. . . .” Ian glanced down at the water which was now coming perilously close to the lip of the glass. “It’s just–” he shrugged, and appearing to have finally realized he had something drinkable in his glass, drained it. “You know,” he said when he was done, and spun the empty glass against his knee.
“Yes,” Gabe said, because he did, mostly.
The most frustrating thing about packing was the way Thomas kept hovering over him as he shoved things into boxes, clearly feeling like he ought to help and not knowing how. Ian had to grit his teeth to keep from snapping at him to either help or get out of the way. He was beginning to wonder why he’d ever even considered rooming with him. Or if he’d been thinking at all–as he looked back over the last few years, he had to admit he’d pretty much just gone along with whatever had been asked of him. If he’d been thinking, or even paying the least bit of attention to what he was doing, he never would have let Gabe slip away from him, never would have traded his cousin for Thomas. Gabe never dithered. Granted, that was sometimes part of the problem, but at least he did something. Ian would take the consequences quite willingly, no matter how much fuss he made about it later.
The box in front of him refused to hold any more textbooks, and he reached blindly for another box, only to realize that there weren’t any more. There was still a substantial pile of stuff on his bed, but there wasn’t anything to put it in. Which was a distinct problem.
“Hey, Thomas,” he said, sticking his head around the doorframe into the kitchen, where Thomas was sitting–finally–and doing what looked to be a crossword puzzle. “I don’t suppose you have any boxes stashed away somewhere.”
“Hm?” Thomas didn’t look up from the puzzle. “No, not that I know of.” He glanced up, not really seeing Ian. “What’s a nine-letter word for a large African burrowing mammal, starting with ‘a’?”
“Aardvark,” Ian supplied, squashing the petty impulse to lie. “Look, do you have any idea where I could get some more? I need at least three large ones.”
“Aardvarks?” Thomas stared at him, confusion writ large on his face. Somehow Ian managed not to sigh. “What could you possibly need those for?”
“Boxes, not aardvarks, but never mind.” The phone rang and Ian picked it up, grateful for the distraction.
“Hey, Da’s here with the truck, if you’re ready.” Gabe didn’t identify himself, but he didn’t need to.
“Hi.” Ian closed his eyes and let himself wilt for a moment. “I would be ready, but I’ve run out of boxes. There’s a four foot stack of books by my bed and no way to carry them.” He opened his eyes again. The light coming in the kitchen window was making brilliant rectangles on the semi-white wall and shining off Thomas’ hair. “Are we even going to be able to fit everything into your place? And still have room for us, that is.”
Apparently he could still make Gabe laugh, which was comforting despite the lack of actual humor in the remark. But Gabe promised they’d bring boxes with them, so Ian couldn’t help but be even more grateful. It was starting to feel more than a little absurd.
He hung up feeling rather as if he’d been granted parole after a very long prison sentence, and tried not to realize what that meant. Thomas was frowning over his crossword puzzle, and Ian watched him for a moment, half hoping to be reminded of why they’d become friends in the first place, but he did nothing but silently continue filling in boxes, mouthing the words as he spelled them out. After a couple of minutes Ian gave up and went back to the bedroom to pretend he was packing.
He had rearranged his piles of Very Important Things five and a half times by the time Gabe and his dad and the promised boxes arrived, and couldn’t remember any time he’d been more thrilled to have someone at the door. Thomas gave a little half-wave when they entered, but didn’t even look up. Ian wasn’t sure whether to be apologetic or insulted, so he settled for taking his cousin and uncle into the bedroom, with its stacks of newly-filled boxes. Gabe’s dad gave him a look that said he’d expected a more enthusiastic welcome, but Ian wasn’t sure what that would consist of.
“Hey,” Gabe said, when Ian had shut the door on the kitchen and Thomas. “You okay?” His dad dropped an armload of boxes beside the bed, and surveyed the room thoughtfully. A week earlier, Ian would’ve been worried about making a bad impression, but he found he didn’t care anymore. Yes, the paint was peeling, and there were dust-balls in every corner, and the floor was covered in a fine layer of grit because he hadn’t cleaned in months, but he was leaving now. It wasn’t his room anymore.
“Yeah, I guess.” But he didn’t meet Gabe’s eyes, instead beginning to shovel things off his bed and into the waiting boxes. “Let’s just get this done, okay?” When things didn’t fit the way he wanted them to, he began shoving them around, careless of whether or not he might damage them. Gabe had to mutely rescue several books from having their pages smashed.
“Ian, maybe you and I should start loading up the truck,” his uncle suggested carefully, like he was speaking to some small child who hadn’t gotten enough sleep and was moments away from breaking something irreplaceable. “Let Gabe finish up the packing for you.”
It didn’t matter, Ian felt like telling him. He was moving out of the apartment where he’d lived on and off for over two years, leaving his closest friend from college, and it didn’t matter. Thomas was sitting in the other room, filling out crosswords as if nothing was about to change. While he’d gotten flustered when Ian first started packing, now that they were actually removing the boxes, he didn’t seem to care. It was as if Ian had already moved out.
But he didn’t say any of this. Instead, he nodded and handed Gabe a very ugly snowglobe (a gift from Nyssa, his youngest sister), and began the long process of carrying boxes down six and half flights of stairs.
Each time he returned to the bedroom, there were fewer things on the bed and another box waiting to be dealt with, until finally there was only one box left. The room looked rather empty with only Thomas’ stuff filling it, but Ian knew it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Within a week–two at the most–someone else would be moving in, and it would be as though he’d never been there.
“It needs a coat of paint,” Gabe murmured, as he stood in the doorway, surveying the room one final time. “You’ve left marks all over the one wall.” And Ian was almost relieved to see that it was true, although he couldn’t think how he’d managed to make such a mess of it.
“Coming, boys?” Gabe’s dad stood in the apartment doorway, hands shoved into his pockets, clearly ready to be done with the whole affair.
“Yeah,” Ian sighed, and turned to Thomas. “Guess I’ll be seeing you around.” Thomas looked up from the crossword, somewhat blankly.
“Guess so.” He half stood, but changed his mind mid-motion and sat down again. “Look, take care of yourself, okay? Don’t stay up too late–you’re going to keel over sometime from sleep deprivation.” It wasn’t much as displays of affection went, but it was something, and made Ian feel a little better.
Sitting in the cab of the truck with his uncle while Gabe was relegated to the back–“To make sure nothing falls off,” as his uncle claimed–reminded him of car trips when he was a child, when all that mattered was the destination. They were forced to creep their way through the city, hemmed in on all sides by too many cars, but Ian didn’t care how long it took. He was out now, and going more-or-less towards what he hoped would be a new home, and a little bit of anticipation was a very nice thing.
And it was fun to watch the people in the surrounding cars get irritated by the density of traffic.
“Feel strange to be leaving there?” His uncle’s question came as something of a surprise, and it took Ian a moment to realize that he was referring to the apartment and not the intersection they’d finally been able to get through.
“No, not really.” There was a lady in the car next to him who was repairing her make-up as she drove, and he watched in anxious fascination as she split her attention between the tasks of maneuvering through traffic and managing mirror and mascara at the same time. She turned at the next intersection, and was replaced by two teenagers who didn’t look old enough to be driving legally. “I don’t think it was ever much more than a place to sleep and occasionally study.”
“I suppose not,” his uncle said thoughtfully, and Ian supposed he was remembering the way Thomas had made his goodbye. The casualness of it still hurt a little, but it made leaving easier. “It took me several years of life on my own, outside of college, before I found someplace I could call home again.”
“With Aunt Alys?” She would make any place feel like home, Ian thought. Ever since his childhood, he’d always compared anyone’s house with his aunt’s, and always found them wanting; Alys had the ability to take an empty space and make it into somewhere worth being.
“Yes,” his uncle said, glancing at Ian across the cab of the truck, nearly as unreadable as Gabe. “But only after a while. It wasn’t until Gabe was born that I felt that sense of a place being right, of feeling like there was somewhere I belonged.”
“Oh,” said Ian, and wondered if he should be worried that he felt like that about Gabe’s couch–about Gabe’s apartment in general. Even the few times he’d visited before the fight with his father, it had felt somehow more real than Ian’s own apartment. He couldn’t tell whether it was the place itself, or merely that it was Gabe’s.
“I wouldn’t worry about it, if I were you,” his uncle added, doing nothing to dispel the suspicions of telepathy that Ian had always harbored. The man had the eerie tendency of say what Ian couldn’t.
Gabe fell asleep two blocks from the apartment, head on his dad’s shoulder and most of his weight against Ian’s legs–as near to horizontal as he could get. Not even the sudden stops and starts of the city streets were enough to wake him, although at one unexpected red light Ian had to grab his arm to keep him from sliding off the seat.
The rain pattered against the truck windows, slightly too insistent to send Ian to sleep as well. Instead he watched the window and the rain drops which, barely visible against the street lamps, slid down it and away into black nothing. He felt isolated in the truck, as if everything outside was a dream, Gabe and his dad the only other real things in the world.
“He hasn’t been getting enough sleep, has he.” The question, which was really a statement, was almost lost in the noises of rain and road. Ian turned away from the window to look over at his uncle.
“No, not really.” Gabe looked ghostly in the pale, watery light of the street lamps, his face drifting in and out of shadow like some strange mirror of the moon. The weight against Ian’s legs was all that assured him Gabe was in fact there, and not some illusion. “There’s always too many things to do and never enough time.” He reached out one finger and carefully touched the seam of Gabe’s pants, inexplicably relieved to encounter slightly-damp denim.
“Yes, he’s told me about some of the jobs you’ve been doing. But not all, I suspect.” His uncle’s smile was fond and rueful and many things that Ian’s father had never shown him.
Once, when Ian was nine, his father had decided that they ought to have a guys’ day out, and in a fit of enthusiasm had invited Gabe and his dad to go to the zoo. They had driven there together, the dads talking politics and business and gossiping a little about relatives, while the boys had sat in the back, heads together, scheming about something or other and making up stories about the people in the cars around them.
The trip had taken longer than Ian’s father had anticipated, construction and heavy traffic combining to slow their speed down to a crawl at points. In the front seat, the conversation had eventually stuttered to a halt, brothers-in-law having run out of things to say to each other. In the back, their sons had continued their intense dissection of whatever it is that young boys discuss. Their fathers wished that the roads would empty and their journey end; Ian and Gabe didn’t care.
When they finally reached the zoo, turning out of the crowded streets into the almost-equally crowded parking lot, it quickly became apparent that–despite it being an outing for the four of them–they wouldn’t be able to explore the place as a group. Gabe wanted to see the elephants, and seemed perfectly happy to stay and watch them for as long as he was allowed. Ian didn’t particularly care for that, but he also wasn’t averse to it, and would have been satisfied to keep Gabe company, if allowed. However, after five minutes of impatient pacing, Ian’s father had told him that it was time to go see the tigers.
That was the last of the group outing.
Hours later, when Ian was tired and footsore and wishing simply to be anywhere but where he was, they came across Gabe and his father sitting in the aviary, watching the birds. Ian had immediately sat down next to Gabe, having had to fight the urge to cry–his feet had hurt so much, and he hadn’t gotten to actually see anything, because his father had dragged him from exhibit to exhibit without any regard for what Ian wanted to see–and Gabe had leaned over and pointed to something up near the ceiling.
“See that?” Half hurt by the casualness of Gabe’s greeting–as if he’d not been gone at all–Ian looked as instructed, and saw the beginnings of a nest. A grey bird, small enough to have fit easily in his hand, flew up to it, a few strands of something unidentifiable hanging from its beak. He watched in near-wonder as the strands were added to what was already there and the bird flew off again, presumably in search of more building material. “He’s been doing that for over an hour. There wasn’t anything up there when we started watching.”
Ian glanced away from the nest, past Gabe’s intent expression, to where their fathers stood–Ian’s father stiff, his posture declaring him tired, although he would not willing admit himself so. In contrast, his brother-in-law, Gabe’s father, was at ease, comfortable with where he was. Later, Ian would look back on this image of the two of them and marvel at how completely it summed up the contrast between the two.
“What have you been up to?” Gabe asked, shaking the water out of his umbrella. Given the thunder of rain against the windows, the umbrella couldn’t have been much help, but it looked like it had been enough to keep the books dry, and that would have been Gabe’s main concern.
“Went over to the neighbor’s–old Mrs. Mackalby.” Ian curled up tighter inside his cocoon of blankets, chilled just by the sight of Gabe’s saturated jeans and socks. Gabe tossed the umbrella into a corner, following it up with his sodden shoes, while his books–a large stack, which looked to be mostly texts for his philosophy class–went on the table, to be dealt with later.
“What’d you do that for?” He headed for his bedroom, peeling off his shirt as he went, and leaving a line of wet footprints on the rug. Ian listened to the sounds of him getting changed: the odd sucking noise which must have been him removing his jeans, followed by the loud squelch of wet fabric hitting the floor. Eventually he reemerged, clad in dry clothes, wet clothes in hand.
“She wanted help with her apartment wards, which were completely gone when I checked them.” Ian craned his neck so that he could see Gabe without having to actually move.
“Oh, is she going to get a technician in then?” Gabe disappeared into the bathroom, where he must have been arranging his clothes so that they could drip into the bathtub. Ian had to raise his voice to be heard over slap of wet fabric on ceramic bathtub.
“No, I did them for her.” It was only after he said it that Ian realized it was bound to produce an explosion, which it did.
“You did what?” Gabe reappeared, clutching a dripping sock and looking almost thunderous. “Ian, you can barely light a candle, let alone ward a place on your own.” With as much nonchalance as he could manage, Ian shrugged, dropping his eyes to examine the fabric of the blanket draped over him.
“Wards are different–less chaotic than flame. There’s a very rigid organization to them, so the laying out of them is easy. The only real problem was at the end, when I almost didn’t have enough energy to snap everything into place.” Which was true enough, though a slight understatement of how much trouble he’d had finishing the job.
“Wards can be tricky, though–if you’re not careful, you can burn yourself out doing them.” And what Gabe really meant by that was, Why in the world would you attempt to do one on your own? Which was a question he wasn’t likely to get an answer to.
“I know that–we’ve been studying them in my design class. I had to design one, a couple of weeks ago. But how do you know that?” Ian asked, hoping to deflect any further speculation as to his health, but also more than a little curious. He’d lost touch with Gabe, with his interests and hobbies, and from time to time felt like he was getting to know a familiar stranger, not an old friend. “I wouldn’t have thought wards would be part of the philosophy program.”
“Oh, they aren’t,” Gabe admitted, “Except briefly, as an example of defensive versus offensive development. But when I got this apartment, Da and I rebuilt the wards from scratch.” He grinned, clearly elated at the memory. “It was exciting. And I forgot to put a limit on the amount of power to go into them, so I ended up almost draining us.”
“Ah,” said Ian, suddenly struck by the terrifying image of Gabe, drained, left to molder in a permanent care ward somewhere. Those who used all their magical energy usually ended up as little more than automatons, unable to do much more than feed themselves and follow simple directions. “I’m glad you didn’t.”
“Me too.” The grin disappeared, replaced by an almost haunted look, and Ian couldn’t help but wonder what Gabe was thinking of. Probably not anything Ian actually wanted to know about.
He shut his eyes, and tried to come up with something which would direct the conversation away from his having done something extremely stupid. There hadn’t been any real reason for him to run over and do Mrs. Makalby’s wards by himself–in fact, there had been a good many reasons for him to not do that. And he had gone over all of them and decided to do the stupid thing anyway. He still wasn’t sure why.
“I didn’t realize the place was warded–I’ve never noticed any of the standard warding marks. Are they hidden somehow?” It wasn’t what most people did, ward marks being rather resistant to paint and other such substances, but if done it had the advantage of making the wards much harder to remove by physically dismantling the structure of the spell–without removing the marks, the only way to get around a ward was to overpower it, something very few spell-casters could manage.
“You haven’t noticed the ward marks because there aren’t any,” Gabe explained matter-of-factly, not seeming to care about the impossibility of what he was saying. “Or at least, there aren’t any visible ones. My dad’s learned a couple of tricks over the years, and certain infusions work as well as or even better than the standard paint or carvings–and have the bonus of drying clear.”
“Oh,” Ian said to the back of the couch. He would have to learn that trick. “I’ve always wondered why this place smelled the way it does. The dust I could understand, but the not the geraniums.” Gabe shrugged.
“Well, it was either that or pepper, and I decided I’d rather not be sneezing all the time.” And what a nightmare that would be. It might be worse than having no wards at all.
“Good choice,” Ian said, and closed his eyes. If the apartment was warded, than he didn’t need to worry about going to sleep. But then Gabe sat down on top of his legs, waking him up before he had a chance to actually fall asleep.
“So you went over and warded Mrs. Mackalby’s place,” Gabe said thoughtfully. “That explains where you were and why you’re so tired. But that leaves me with the question of why there was any need to do so in the first place.”
Oh. That was right. He hadn’t been there for the radio announcement, or for Mrs. Mackalby’s flustered arrival and request for help.
“There was a breakout.” Ian rolled over enough to be able to see Gabe, but not quite far enough to damage his knees, which were beginning to complain again. “Serial Sam, I think. You remember him, don’t you?” It seemed wrong that anyone so vicious should have such a silly name.
Gabe went very still, his relaxed sprawl turning into something contained and almost purposeful, cutting nearly all blood flow to Ian’s feet.
“Yes, I remember him,” he said very quietly. “He’s why Da decided the apartment needed wards. He killed what, twelve people? All divvies, or some other kind of reader. Da sort of freaked when he heard about it, but we’d already paid for the semester, and I wouldn’t let him withdraw me.”
“Right,” Ian said, his horrifying image of a drained Gabe now replaced with one of a dead Gabe, a Gabe killed slowly, half eaten, missing his eyes and his heart. His nightmares that evening would have plenty of fodder. “Well, apparently Mrs. Mackalby is a very low-level precog–she used to do dice, I think she said, and occasionally cards. It got her into trouble a couple of times.” He tried to smile, only half-succeeding. “You should talk to her, sometime. She’s got a lot of stories.”
“I bet she does.” Some of the tension was beginning to fade from Gabe’s body, but Ian couldn’t tell whether that was because he actually was relaxing or if he only wanted it to appear that he was. “We’ll have to invite her over to dinner, maybe give her a little bit of wine–” he snorted abruptly, and poked Ian’s leg. “Of course, thanks to you, she’ll probably insist on having us over.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad,” Ian said, thinking of how the apartment had smelled of bread and herbs, and of the flowers in pots on the windowsills. He liked Gabe’s apartment, dust and ghostly geraniums and all, but it had been fun to see what someone else had done with the space. Meaning to say as much, he glanced up at Gabe, and was startled to find Gabe staring at him, face unreadable.
They looked at each other for a while, until Ian, despairing of ever feeling his feet again, shoved Gabe off the couch, breaking the moment and making Gabe laugh. Feet prickly with restored blood circulation, and feeling unutterably weary from the warding process, Ian watched Gabe laugh, and hoped Serial Sam was apprehended quickly. He didn’t want to lose this.