He Nearly Killed the Cat
The Guided Tour
By Anne B. Walsh
"Have I mentioned your timing is fantastic?" Reynard White murmured to his twin sister Jean as they waited on the front step of the small, bland house.
"Oh, Fox." Jean put on a falsetto and fanned herself with her hand, as though overcome by his fulsome compliments. "How can you come up with such lovely things to say?"
Fox grinned. "Practice. Brace yourself, now, Neenie. Here he comes."
The door at which Neenie had knocked a moment ago opened a short way before thudding to a halt on a chain lock. A man whose lined face and gray-streaked hair of light brown made him appear to be the twins' father, though both siblings knew he was only five or six years their senior, gave them a long and searching look. His left hand grasped the doorknob, ready to close the door in their faces. His right was not visible.
Knuts get you Galleons he's got his wand ready back there. He's not stupid.
"Mr. Lupin?" Fox took charge, moving slightly to the fore and leaving Neenie to guard their flanks. "Remus Lupin?"
"That's my name." The tone was carefully emotionless, but even with his human nose Fox could catch hints of recent emotional upheaval. "I wasn't expecting visitors."
"We're aware of that, but we'd appreciate a moment of your time, if it happens that you're not busy." Without making a production of it, Fox displayed his hands open and empty, simultaneously turning a few degrees to his left, to reveal that he carried nothing in his right hip pocket.
It's up my sleeve, but he doesn't need to know that. Especially since we're not here to do anything unfortunate to him, other than mess with his mind.
"And if I am busy, you'll simply go away?" Feeling edged into the voice now, a healthy dose of skepticism with raw anger underneath.
"If you ask us to go away, we will." Neenie spoke for the first time now, stepping up beside her brother so that the light mounted above the front door fell directly on both their faces. "But we have information that we think you'll want to know, and we're willing to share it."
"For a price?" Lupin asked bluntly.
Fox shrugged one shoulder, pretending unconcern equal to Lupin's, though he had seen the man's eyes widen at the sight of Neenie, heard the nearly silent inhalation of surprise. He hasn't completely blocked it out, then. We still have a chance.
"A few minutes of your life spent listening to us," he said aloud. "No threats, no guarantees, no betrayals. If you want to ask us questions when we're done, we'll do our best to answer them."
Lupin eyed them both for a moment longer. Then the door slammed, and there was the rattle of a chain lock being undone.
Neenie's hand closed around Fox's like a vise. We're in. Praise be to Safkhet.
To who? Fox pried her fingers open. Also, ow.
Oh, sorry. Neenie used the hand instead to stop a semi-hysterical giggle from making its escape. "Safkhet," she said around it. "She's my personal goddess. All Legendbreakers need one, it helps you break world-based habits like swearing by a particular god or person—"
The door opened before Fox could ask the obvious question. Lupin stood framed in it, his wand now clearly in his hand. "Come inside," he said, stepping back so that they could. "One at a time, and keep your hands where I can see them."
Lifting his chin, Fox stepped across the threshold.
Remus Lupin could feel his control slipping away from him. If one more strange thing, just one, happens tonight, be it good or be it bad, I swear I will—I will—
And isn't that part of your problem? murmured a voice in the back of his mind. You've been so focused on control all your life, you don't even know what you'll do without it.
Control is important. Doubly so for someone like me. With an effort, Remus got some semblance of his polite company face into place. Without it, I could hurt people, kill them even. Or go mad.
The voice chuckled. With it, you'll go mad from boredom. Always assuming you haven't already. You are talking to yourself. Now why don't you do yourself a favor and talk to these nice children instead? I doubt whatever they have to tell you will leave you bored.
They're hardly children. Remus regarded the brown-haired pair across his front room dubiously, Jean sitting on the edge of his best rocking chair with her hands clamped around the seat, Reynard on the floor beside her with his hand over hers. They may be under seventeen, but it's not by much if they are. I just wish I could figure out who they remind me of.
I doubt they remind you of anyone. The voice had gone soft, almost wistful, Remus thought in surprise. What could a part of his mind be wistful about that he didn't know?
Unless I really am going mad…
He cut off this internal dialogue as unproductive and sat up straighter in his chair, watching the way both pairs of blue eyes shifted to him as he did. "You wanted me to listen," he said without preamble. "I'm listening."
I do know one person they remind me of, though it has to be a coincidence. There are only so many ways people's eyes can be shaped, only so many colors they can be. It doesn't have to mean anything that their eyes look like mine.
It doesn't have to.
Why do I feel like it does?
"Mr. Lupin—Remus," Jean began, faltering. "There's so much to tell you. I don't even know where to start."
Somehow, this evidence of his visitors' fallibility put Remus a bit more at ease, and gave a boost to the small seed of attraction he thought might be sprouting. I've always thought I'd never have a chance with a girl because I was so strange, but maybe a girl who has her own strangeness to deal with would understand… "Starting at the beginning is usually a good idea."
"God created the heavens and the earth," said Reynard. "Or there was a microscopic bit of nothing which became an awful lot of everything. Or God created the microscopic bit of nothing and sat back to watch it become an awful lot of everything. Oh, I'm sorry, you wanted us to start a bit further forward than that, didn't you?"
Remus managed to catch the laugh before it got away, but didn't quite hide the smile. "If you wouldn't mind. I don't think we have enough time for the rest."
Jean rapped her brother on the side of the head with her knuckles, smiling herself. "Prat."
"It got you over your nerves. You can say thank you later."
"I'll say thank you now. What I'll do later is get you back." Her smile turned into a grin as Reynard grimaced. "That's right, be afraid. Now let me see." Her eyes went momentarily misty with thought, then cleared and focused on Remus once again. "Have you ever heard of the theory of parallel universes? Worlds existing side by side, all of them sure they're the only one, until something happens that breaches the walls and the impossible suddenly comes true?"
"I've read a bit about it." Remus leaned forward, intrigued despite himself. "Are you saying that you come from a parallel universe?"
"Yes. Originally, at least. At the moment, I suppose you'd say we come from an intersecting universe, one that touches all the worlds we know about, and lets us touch them, within limits…"
Jean, Neenie as her brother called her, spun a good story, Remus discovered. He could imagine, could almost see, the chaotic, cacophonous, joy-filled household she called the Pack, the tried-by-fire trust of the group of friends known as the Pride. He understood the pain in her voice, in Reynard's eyes, as she described that love, that trust, destroyed by a faceless and impersonal force.
I used to trust my friends that much. I thought they trusted me. And then the war—it has no face, no name, no address where I can find it and destroy it for everything it's done to me. Everything it's taken from me.
If I can help them, I should. I will.
I just don't understand how I could…
"I'm terribly sorry about your family," he said as Neenie paused at the end of her explanation of Outer Time and the duties of a Legendbreaker. "And I can only assume that you're here because you need something from me to help save this world. Am I being horribly dense if I don't quite know what it is?"
"No, not at all." Neenie's cheeks turned a delicate pink. "Actually… I've already done it. Saved the world, I mean. More or less."
Neenie pressed Reynard's hand lightly, released it, and stood up. A moment later, a small tricolored cat stood on Remus's rug, looking up at him with Neenie's eyes.
"I… see." Remus didn't consider himself stupid, and found two and two adding up into four for him without much effort. "I thought what was being reported was a bit far-fetched for simply a cat." He switched his gaze to Reynard. "Did you have any part in it?"
"Not a bit. I was otherwise occupied. Which is what we are here about, in a way." Reynard didn't flinch from Remus's eye contact, but held it steadily as though he were trying to look into Remus's mind. "Have you been having any strange thoughts lately? Thoughts that don't seem to be yours? Dreams, memories, any of that?"
Neenie turned back into herself with a loud crack. "So much for leading up to it gradually, Fox," she snapped. "Why don't you just ask him if he wants to jump up and hug us, if you're going to dive into it like that?"
"You were going round about the mulberry bush, and unless I'm remembering something wrong here, we don't exactly have all night—"
Remus cleared his throat loudly, and was gratified (not to say surprised)when both twins jumped, broke off their incipient argument, and turned to look at him with every evidence of respect. "Before tonight, I would have said no," he said. "Unless…" He'd had one or two bad nights earlier in the year, with nightmares which now sounded eerily similar to the scene Neenie had described witnessing. "Perhaps, if I'd thought about it a bit, I would have said yes. Tonight, I can definitely say yes. Seeing you two—and no offense meant, Miss White, but especially you—"
She flushed a deeper pink than before. "It's Neenie."
"Neenie, then." Greatly daring, Remus crossed the room towards her. "Seeing you makes me feel different. Different than I was, different than I am. Not exactly strange dreams or memories, but something beyond the everydayness of my life. Something more."
Reynard was on his feet in one fluid, easy motion. "Hold on a second," he said, not quite threatening, but with a definite hint that he could become such on a moment's notice if it was required. "First off, you're going a trifle fast, she barely knows you—"
"Fox!" Neenie whirled on her brother. "That's disgusting! I can't believe you'd imply—"
"Think about who you look like!" Fox shot back. "And when we are! It's less than six months to our breakpoint, and you know exactly what happened that day, or you ought to! We've heard the story enough times!"
Neenie paled. "I hadn't thought of that. Oh dear." She shut her eyes. "Safkhet, goddess of wisdom, help me now," she murmured. "Draw me a straight path, for mine is crooked and difficult to see…"
"You can tell me what you're talking about anytime you like," said Remus, though in truth he wasn't sure that he wanted to know. Whatever's going on here, it's a lot more complicated than I thought. Don't I have enough complications in my life?
Do I count?
Remus stiffened, and Reynard's eyes went to him. He held up a finger in a "give me a moment" signal and turned his back. "I'm not making you up," he muttered under his breath, staring at his toes in their worn-out brown loafers in lieu of anything more neutral. "You're the reason they're here, aren't you? I'm just an incidental."
I would assume so, to the first bit. Don't be so sure about the second. You heard what my girl was saying about Legendbreakers. The proprietary warmth in the possessive pronoun surprised Remus somewhat, both in its strength and in its quality. It differed sharply in tone from what he thought he was beginning to feel on his own behalf.
But is it really what I feel, or is it just bleedover from him?
"Your girl," he answered, limiting the sarcasm in his tone as best he could, "said a great deal about Legendbreakers. Which bit were you referring to?"
The bit about trying to make things better. Trying to let people live the lives they want. They've got to care about people to do that, care about them a lot. And they do. They may be here looking for me, but they won't want you to lose by it.
"Well, that's just too damn bad, isn't it?" Temper was rising into Remus's throat now, and refusing to be choked off. "I've already lost quite a bit by them. Like any vestige of respect I might have had for my so-called friends. Because they were so busy cooing over what your girl did for them—" The sarcasm got full play this time, and his voice swelled to match it. "—that they damn well forgot about me, and even if they came here right now to apologize, I don't know if I'd accept it, because I should have been the first person they told about something like this, not a bloody afterthought a full day later—"
The front door vibrated in its frame as three deep, booming thuds sounded from its other side. Neenie hissed deep in her throat. Reynard said something brief and obscene. "Decide now, whether you trust us or not," he ordered Remus. "We can get you out of here ahead of them, but you have to want to go. We won't drag you."
"Ahead of who? Of what?" Impatiently, Remus cast a Peephole Spell on the door. "It's just as likely to be Sirius or James as it is to be—"
He nearly dropped his wand. The voice in the back of his head repeated what Reynard had said, with elaborations.
Standing on his doorstep were three vaguely man-shaped figures. Their resemblance to human beings ended there. Human beings had faces, had hands and legs and hair and clothing. They weren't covered in viscous, rippling gray fluid which was never still.
Not to be a cliché, said the voice unsteadily, but those things will do worse than kill you.
Don't worry, I'm convinced. Remus turned around and found Neenie beckoning to him, pointing at a spot in the air which would have looked completely normal if it hadn't been for Reynard's heels disappearing through it. I assume I go there?
That does seem like the safest bet.
Grasping his wand firmly and sending up a silent prayer to Neenie's goddess of wisdom and any other deity which might happen to be watching, Remus dashed through the area Neenie was indicating.
And found himself standing securely on nothing at all, a starry void stretching away underneath his feet.
"Don't panic!" Reynard flung out a hand, as if to physically stop Remus from screaming or trying to run further. "We're perfectly safe—"
"No, we're not," Remus interrupted, wiggling his wand experimentally. It felt the same as usual in his hand, but unless he was very much mistaken, he was now in the "intersecting universe" Neenie had talked about. Rules might not be the same.
"Watch where you're pointing that thing. Magic works fine here." Reynard moved a pace or two to one side. "And in case you haven't noticed, you're breathing, you're standing upright and not falling, and Neenie's shutting the Threshold now so they can't follow us through—"
"Yes, but we can't possibly be safe yet." Remus turned away to hide both what he was doing and his smile of satisfaction about it. Sometimes, balance comes in ways we never imagined. Such as the coincidence of an unexpected sight and a familiar phrase. "We're missing the most important things."
"We are?" Neenie asked from behind him, sounding worried. "What do you mean?"
If I'm going to go mad, I may as well go mad with style.
Remus turned to face her and, with great dignity, draped the bright red bath sheet he had conjured around her shoulders. Reynard was presented with a gold one, and Remus displayed his own, with its prominent Gryffindor lion, before twisting it into a rope and tying it around his waist. "Now we're safe," he said with satisfaction. "We have our towels."
Well played, sir, the voice approved. Well played indeed.
Neither Neenie nor Reynard seemed inclined to pass comment, though this could have been because they were both laughing too hard to speak.
Though I should point out, the voice went on, I'm not a symptom of insanity, since despite what I said earlier, talking to me isn't technically talking to yourself.
Remus put his wand away and turned his attention inward. I think I'd already accepted that, he thought distinctly, shaping the words with clarity inside his mind. But we never did establish who you are. Some relation of theirs? A flick of the eyes indicated the twins, now holding onto each other for balance. Another version of me, from one of those parallel universes Neenie was describing?
Yes, to both. The voice was growing more distinct than ever. Remus imagined the speaker standing behind him, using a tone pitched only loud enough to carry to his ears. You wondered why you thought of them as children—you were sharing some of my memories. They are my children, I raised them, and I would have done anything rather than see them suffer like this…
"They don't seem to be suffering too much at the moment," Remus said dryly, watching Neenie fanning her face with one hand, Reynard blotting his eyes with the corner of his towel.
Oh, no? An Arctic chill crept into the voice. Think again about that story Neenie told you. Now think about where I am, what relation I bear to you, and what that means for the way she must have found her brother. And the way they still have to find all the rest of us. This is reaction, nothing else. Relief at having completed one step of a long and painful task.
I… didn't think of that, Remus admitted silently. I apologize. What do you think you'll do next? And what about me? I don't suppose I can go home, not when those things were literally on my doorstep.
"Would you want to go home?" It was quiet, barely more than a whisper, but it was an audible voice, as both twins' heads jerked up at the sound of it." You seemed very bitter against your friends, and I can't blame you. It was wrong of them to forget you. Do you really want to go back to that?"
"M—" Neenie cut herself off, both hands clapped over her mouth, as the speaker drifted into view. Reynard seemed about to take a step forward, but pulled back, joy and frustration warring in his expression. Remus noted idly that his ability to be surprised seemed to have been used up for the day, while taking a long look at the translucent figure of his older self, rendered in washed-out color.
At least I aged well.
Paradoxically, although the older Remus had more gray sprinkled among the sandy brown of his hair, the lines on his face were less worn, in some cases gone altogether. He stood with his hands thrust casually into his pockets, smiling at his children with pride and love written so clearly on his features that Remus wanted to look away.
Damn it, now I want to be him when I grow up. He looks happy, even after his world fell apart and he got tossed into my head…
"Somehow I thought I'd find you two together," the older Remus was saying. "Am I the only other one yet?"
"Yes, but the more of us there are to look, the faster it will go," Neenie said eagerly. "As soon as we're sure the Reality Cops aren't waiting for us there, we'll head for our home domain, we only came to this one because we know they wouldn't dare come here—we'll seal you to our home, you'll be safe then, and we can show you everything we've done and work out who we'll look for next—"
"Ease up there, Neenie." Reynard laid a hand on his sister's shoulder. "You're forgetting something."
"What do you…" Neenie's voice trailed off as her eyes ranged to Remus. "Oh. You're right. I did forget."
"The sealing ritual requires a body," Reynard explained before either version of Remus could ask. "One occupied by a soul which plans to stay both in that body and in Outer Time for a while."
"Outer Time being this general area?" The older Remus circled a finger, indicating the starscape around them. "You mentioned this isn't your own home."
Neenie nodded. "We live south of here," she said. "This domain is my mentors'. They cleared us to use it as an entry point if we were ever being chased, because their anti-RC spells are better than ours."
"They've had a few hundred years longer to get them established." Reynard waved a hand impatiently. "The point is, we've got two souls here, and only one body between them. Now, I felt justified taking over this one I'm wearing, because the resident soul was both young and unlikely to have a decent life in his home world. But you're an adult," he said to Remus. "You had a life, as much as you're currently pissed off at most of the important people in it. You deserve a chance to go back to it, or to say the hell with it and go on to something else."
Remus nodded. A thought had appeared at the back of his mind, but he wasn't about to push it forward yet. More information was needed. "What happened to your original bodies?" he asked. "And your original world, for that matter? Could you still go back there?"
Or can someone go into it who never belonged there in the first place?
Several of the problems you've all been asking about are going to get solved, or partly solved, here, so stay with me!
Happy Labor Day, all! It's been a quiet and rainy weekend, so there's not much to report here. Hope you're enjoying the story, and watch for the next chapter on Wednesday!