He Nearly Killed the Cat
The New Neighbors
By Anne B. Walsh
Fox blinked several times, but it made no difference. The unfamiliar but handsome young woman, whose skin tone matched the sandalwood sticks which held her black hair away from her face, was still attacking his sister's pretzel jar, making noises of frustration akin to those he was used to hearing from his friends who'd been crossed in love as the stopper refused to yield to her frantic tugs.
"Sorry about her," said a male voice from the door, where a golden-haired young man was lounging against the frame. "We're all out at our place, since the others beat us back by an hour."
"Pretzels!" The girl finally managed to get the stopper out of the jar, but her greedy grab for three of the thick rods was arrested as her eyes tracked a few inches to the left. "Hey, and wine! Hmm. Pretzels, wine, pretzels, wine…" She groaned in indecision, then brightened and pulled the top off the wine. "Got it!"
Triumphantly, she dipped her three pretzel rods into the wine, dunked them up and down a few times, and stuffed them into her mouth.
"Fox, allow me to introduce two of our nearest neighbors," Neenie said in the strangled tone that only ensued when she was trying her very best not to laugh. "The patient gentleman at the door is Lin, and the lady having a completely inappropriate reaction to snack foods is Nima. Lin, Nima, my brother Fox. You've heard me talk about him."
"Pleased to meet you." Lin came forward to shake hands. "We're always glad to find another survivor."
"Foss? Weww—oh, sawwy," Nima said indistinctly through her mouthful of wine-dunked pretzel when she noticed everyone looking at her oddly. She swallowed, set down her truncated pretzel rods, and hurried over to shake Fox's hand in her turn. "What I was trying to say was, I'm a really big fan of yours. The stuff you get up to, it's just great. I'm so glad you made it out, wait till I tell Reyna, she'll flip—do you think I should go get her right now, love?"
"I think she and Jason don't want to be disturbed at the moment," said Lin mildly. "Isn't that why we left?"
"Yeah, you're right. But oh my God. Fox. You're really here. I can't believe it. Excuse me a moment?" Nima glanced around the kitchen, spotted her pretzels, dashed over to snag them, and bolted back out the door. A few seconds later, a jubilant shriek rang out from the treeline.
"Excitable, isn't she?" Fox asked, turning to look the way Nima had gone.
Lin sighed. "You have no idea. So, we're off duty at the moment. Do you have anything interesting brewing?"
"Something right up your alley, as a matter of fact." Neenie pulled out a chair at the table for Lin. "Nima can help too, if she ever gets done fangirling over Fox. We think it was our magical ties that kept him from being completely rehabilitated, and we were wondering if there was any way to trace those bonds into the worlds to find out what the RC's did with the rest of our family."
"Ah, a challenge." Lin interlaced his fingers and cracked his knuckles, grinning. "You know I can't resist a challenge. Shall we start by examining the bond between the two of you and getting its signature deciphered? Then we can seek for like bonds elsewhere on your series of worlds, unless you think the RC's were likely to get creative in your case, in which case we can expand the search…"
Lin, Fox decided within the first half-hour, would have been his sister's dream man, if not for the obvious attachment between him and Nima.
And if Neenie weren't already taken herself, supposing we can find Redwing and bust him loose.
The older Legendbreaker (though his face and body bore no indication that he was much past twenty, some of his turns of phrase and body language gave Fox the impression of someone his parents' age or more) was intelligent, thorough, and a touch didactic, though he managed to make his lessons interesting.
Merlin knows I've got plenty to learn, so it might as well be from someone who knows what he's talking about.
Nima, too, had a keen mind under her giggly exterior, and when she calmed down from her inexplicable excitement over meeting Fox, brought a number of good points to the discussion of just how Fox and Neenie could disentangle the pure Pack-magic between them from their twin-bond, so that they didn't end up finding every pair of twins in the worlds and none of the people they wanted.
"Sorry to get so silly about the pretzels," she said, a trifle shamefacedly, after they had their initial plan of attack laid out and were taking a break to have lunch. "We've been on assignment for the past five months, and pretzels are one of the more dangerous foods, because they're basically made out of bread and they're covered with salt. And if you drink water with them, that's three of the six for sealing, so at that point your grip on Outer Time gets kind of tenuous."
"And if you should happen to weep shortly thereafter, or have a bleeding cut, or partake of wine…" Lin's eyes, normally a gray-blue a shade lighter than the twins', darkened with remembered pain. "We lost a friend that way. He let himself become four parts sealed to the world he was trying to help, and a Reality Cop was able to break his bonds to Outer Time. At which point he became simply another character, and thus subject to the RC's authority."
"Ergo, no pretzels while on assignment." Nima waved another of her favorite snack in the air for emphasis. "And since Jason and Reyna—they're our partners, you'll meet them another time—took all of ours off to their bedroom for uses I don't want to think about, I came running over here to raid Neenie's jar. And met you. Which is really cool to me, even though I know you don't get why. I'll explain it another time."
"Sometime, perhaps, when we are not trying to solve a more important problem." Lin's tone turned this into a tease rather than a serious scold, and Nima poked him in the ear with her pretzel rod in retaliation. "Now, I do think that I have isolated the particular magical trace that we will be able to use to track down the people you seek. Before we turn it loose on a wholesale seeking, though—Neenie, did Eve and Suzie give you any reason why they sent you into the world they did for your first assignment?"
Neenie closed her eyes, mashing grains of rice with her fork as she cast her mind backwards. "I know they said that because it was so early on in the story arc, I could effect a change with very little effort and the RC's wouldn't be able to do much about it. But Miss Suzie did say something about being surprised by what I might find…"
"In that case, I must assume they either knew or had deduced what I see here." Lin tapped a finger against the sapphire stud in his right ear, then sketched a few glowing lines in the air. "The resonance along these bonds is, of course, extremely strong between the two of you, because of the added power in your twin-bond. However, I can hypothesize that a similar, if less powerful, resonance would occur between any two members, and would be highly disruptive to the walls which exist between worlds unless some provision was made for it."
Fox looked at Neenie. Neenie looked at Fox. Both of them shrugged in unison.
"Lin, honey, you're speaking jargon again." Nima administered another poke to her man with her pretzel rod. "What I think he means is, if they tried to put someone from your Pack or Pride alone in a world, the buzz along your bonds would be so strong that it would basically rip the world apart trying to get to the others. Counterproductive much?"
"So they must have done something to stop that from happening," Neenie said slowly, her thoughts visibly taking shape behind her eyes. "They must have… put us into the worlds in pairs? So that the resonance would bounce off each other, and never go beyond?"
Lin nodded. "As I read it, at least two would be necessary to stop the resonance from building to critical levels. Three would be better, but also more dangerous, because three people with strange dreams and memories which agree with one another might start to think something of it."
"So we're unlikely to find three together, unless they had no other choice." Fox was scribbling a list of initials, drawing lines between them with the colored pencils Neenie had found for him. "And they'd want to break up any particular pairs, wouldn't they? Married couples, boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters?"
"Absolutely." Lin craned his neck to peer at Fox's list. "The farther apart that they can keep the people they're trying to rehabilitate, the better for them."
"So there must have been someone else in the world where I found Fox," said Neenie, reaching over to appropriate the list. "But who?"
"And not to be a downer, but how do you plan to get these people out?" Nima made an apologetic face when everyone turned to look at her. "Most of you source from main characters, and someone's going to notice if the hero of the story suddenly isn't there anymore."
"Historically, that has been a problem for recruiting Legendbreakers as well," Lin said thoughtfully. "The most intelligent, best developed characters tend to be the main characters, integral to the story's continuing."
"Yes, but stories end." Fox mimed closing a book between his hands. "Whether it's just one or a series, there's always an ending somewhere, unless the author—sorry, the Chronicler—is still actively writing on it. We can get into a story at any point that's Chronicled, right?"
"That's how it works." Nima took a bite of her falafel-stuffed pita. "Though if you know the Chronicler, and they're in a good mood, you can sometimes get into bits that aren't strictly Chronicled yet," she said around it. "It's not terribly common, but it does happen."
"There are also what's called the indeterminate areas." Lin picked up the first book off the hardcover stack and turned to the beginning of the second chapter. "Almost ten years in Inner Time pass between these first two chapters, and the Chronicler gives very few details about what has or hasn't happened in that time. Unfortunately for us, given that most of the people we're interested in play roles in the future development of the series…"
"We can't just pick them out of the world during those ten years," Neenie finished with a sigh. "Too bad."
"Hang on." Fox set down his smoked turkey and cheddar on multigrain, extending his hand for the book. "Can I see that?"
Lin handed across the book, and Fox flicked rapidly through the first chapter, his thoughts keeping pace with his fingers. We can't just pick people out of the ridge without changing the way it goes…
"But the world Neenie pulled me out of isn't the ridge anymore, is it?" he asked, looking up. "Neenie caused a new breakpoint in that world, she turned it into a tell, so no one knows where it's going to go now, do they? Somebody could just up and vanish, and no one would think much of it, particularly if that person left behind some kind of note saying that they were going traveling or moving away."
"Assuming it's one of the adults," Neenie cautioned. "If it's another of the Pride, we might have some fast talking to do, since you're the only one where we could honestly make a case that even your ridge self would be better off with us than with his ridge parents."
"In that case, we wait for them to grow up." Fox returned the book to the stack. "Or can we do that? Has this world been Chronicled yet?"
"Probably not, but we have a workaround for that." Nima grinned around another mouthful of mashed and baked chickpeas. "In a world that becomes a tell because of Legendbreaker involvement, we have a free pass for meddling thereafter. Subject, of course, to the usual rule."
Fox sat back down and helped himself to a handful of crisps from the bowl in the middle of the table. "The usual rule being?"
"Simple." Nima swallowed. "You break it, you fix it. Where 'it' can be anything from a mind to a family to a crucial channel-spanning bridge that handles over eighty percent of a country's trade." She winced. "Had some fun with that one, let me tell you."
Making a mental note to ask about this story at another time, Fox crunched down on a folded-over crisp. "So we can do just about whatever we want, as long as we don't cause problems for people. Yes?"
"There are subtleties to it in practice," Lin cautioned, "but yes. In the most basic form, that is correct."
"In that case, I think our next step should be finding out exactly who it is that's still in that world." Neenie laid her fork down in her half-finished plate of vegetable curry. "After that, we can decide on a plan of attack, figure out how to demonstrate what's really going on, practice our dream-hunting techniques in case the host personality is hostile and we have to go to stealth mode…"
"Actually, I think your next step needs to be taking a week or two off." Nima laid her pretzel rod against her lips like a finger at Neenie's indignant cry. "No, don't give me that. You're just barely back from assignment, and he's never been." She jerked her head towards Fox. "You can get into Inner Time at any moment you need to, and you know it. What good will you do if you go in tired and bungle the whole thing?"
"But…" Neenie subsided but continued to glare at the other girl. "I hate it when you make sense."
"We can, at least, determine the identity of the person you will find when you do return." Lin twisted his earring between finger and thumb, then slid his hand down the list of initials Fox had written. One set began to glow a soft blue, and four Legendbreakers peered eagerly at the list to see which one.
"Cool," said Nima. "I've always wanted to meet him."
"He may have an even harder time adjusting to this new world than you do," Lin said to Fox and Neenie. "You had unexceptional nicknames to which you were accustomed, but his nickname is part of your series of worlds and therefore unwise to speak here in Outer Time."
"Yes, but we all had pseudonyms while we were growing up." Neenie smiled, her eyes momentarily distant. "He'll probably pick one of them, or some variant on it. And that reminds me, don't we need to settle our full names too before we go on another assignment?"
"Before we go on an assignment for me," Fox pointed out. "And why full names? Aren't the nicknames good enough?"
"For just us, for Outer Time, absolutely. But that's why it's before you go on another assignment." Nima got up and went to the refrigerator, returning with a jar of miniature pickles. "You would not believe how strange people think it is if you hesitate when they ask you your name. Neenie got a pass, because her first assignment was in animal form, but you aren't likely to get that lucky again. So you need a full name, one that's not too obviously related to your source world, and you have to be used to it enough that you answer to it."
"That makes sense." Fox decided he wanted a pickle too. "Neenie, any ideas yet?"
"I've already picked my first name, as it happens. From those same pseudonyms, but a little different." Neenie sketched four letters in the air, then waggled her fingers at them, rearranging the last three. "Apparently the Chronicler of our ridge heard my middle name wrong to start with, and our source world was already going by the time she got the correction out there. So I've just corrected it myself. Not to mention, it makes my nickname a little more plausible, with the long E sound in it."
"Jean. I like it." Fox considered his sister. "It suits you."
"And, if you wouldn't mind a suggestion for yours, Fox…" Nima flushed, but continued when Fox waved a hand at her. "Your source world generated some spins and tells of its own, and in several of those, your analog had the name Reynard. It's French for—"
"Fox, of course." The young man thus named grinned, showing off all his teeth. "I could handle that. And it would explain the nickname perfectly. So that makes us Jean and Reynard… should we go with White again? Just for old times' sake?"
"Simple names are generally best," Lin said approvingly. "They can be translated or elaborated on as various worlds demand, and will seldom be inappropriate."
Nima rolled her eyes. "This from the man whose driver's license lists him as Lin Quillian. And wasn't it a blast, teaching him to drive," she added to Neenie and Fox. "I'm grateful we became Legendbreakers for that reason alone, because in Outer Time nobody can sue us for damages."
"It was only one mailbox." Lin's shoulders had stiffened perceptibly. "And a plant."
"And a pole," Nima said, tapping her thumb. "And a wall." Her index finger. "And another pole." Middle finger. "And an oak tree, and very nearly a ginger cat." Ring and little fingers. "And that poor lady's tire in the Wal-Mart parking lot. But you did apologize for that one."
Lin rose with dignity, leaving behind the last few bites of his crunchy peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich, and bowed formally. "It has been a pleasure visiting in your house, and meeting you," he said directly to Fox. "I hope to have the pleasure again soon. For now, I must depart."
He twisted his earring twice clockwise and vanished with a small pop.
"I think I may have embarrassed him." Nima leaned back in her chair. "It is true, though. He's a terrible driver. He even scares Reyna, and she drives like a maniac."
"Yes, but you didn't have to list everything he's ever hit for us," Neenie said, a look of sympathy on her face.
"Oh, that's not everything he's ever hit. Just what he hit in the six months or so between the time we met—met in the body, I should say, but that's another story—and the time Eve and Suzie recruited us for Legendbreaking."
Neenie winced. "I stand corrected."
"But you're sitting down." Nima returned her chair to its usual position and got up. "And since I'm devolving into ridiculous puns, I'd better go too. We're just one domain west of you," she told Fox. "Great to meet you, hope to see you again soon, thanks for lunch, Neenie, and we'll be in touch!"
Fox shook Nima's hand and watched his sister hug her, then with Neenie escorted her to the back door, which was more directly on her way home. Once it was shut behind her, he let out a sigh of relief and reached for Neenie's hand. High-energy, aren't they? he commented.
You noticed. Neenie gave him a one-sided grin. I hope they didn't wear you out too much.
I think I'll survive, but Nima was right. I didn't want to be a downer, but I'm not up for another adventure yet. He sat down limply on the sofa pushed up against the half-wall that hid the first few steps to the upstairs of the cottage. I don't even know when I will be.
"Take your time," Neenie said aloud, releasing his hand. "That's the best part of being based in Outer Time. We don't have to rush things between assignments. Sometimes Legendbreakers get lazy, but that brings its own punishment with it." She spread her hands wide, indicating the cottage and the domain around it. "If you know that you're fit for work, but you choose to avoid finding your next assignment, your sense of guilt subliminally chips away at your domain. The edges start unraveling."
"And what if you're not the sort of person who feels a sense of guilt over skiving work?"
"Generally, that sort of person doesn't become a Legendbreaker." Neenie plopped down onto a large, furry beanbag. "Katie and Peggy, who live in the domain south of here, notwithstanding."
"Now this I have to hear. You never talk trash about anyone. What's so special about these two?"
"You mean besides doing exactly the amount they have to and never a speck more, constant carping criticisms about other people's work, and one of them actually complaining that other Legendbreakers aren't doing a good enough job and should be forcibly removed from their domains?"
"Yes, I think that would do it, even for you…"
Elsewhere in the worlds, late in the evening of All Saints' Day, a young man pored over three different copies of the Daily Prophet, piecing together what was going on from the bits and scraps of true news the reporter had seen fit to toss into the article in between fits of inchoate jubilation.
So Voldemort's been found in Antarctica, frozen—ha-ha—stiff. Most of the Death Eaters are either dead or rounded up, with a bit of extra drama at the Malfoys' when both senior members of the household accused one another of making off with the junior member. Padfoot caught up with Wormtail himself, stopped him just before he blew a street to pieces trying to cover his escape. Prongs and Lily and Harry are all safe. And I—
He knew it was unworthy, knew he should be rejoicing in his friends' good fortune, but he couldn't stop the anger from boiling up inside his heart.
I get to sit here and put things together from the damn newspaper. Because none of them have stopped to think, if Wormtail was the spy, maybe Moony wasn't? Maybe we should be, oh, I don't know, apologizing to him? Begging his pardon for thinking in stereotypes, for finally letting the werewolf thing get to us, for cutting him out of every damn decision we've made for over a year?
He swept the papers onto the kitchen floor with one fling of his arm.
And the worst of it is, I could forgive them better for it if things hadn't gone so well. If they had taken some damage, been hurt a bit by their own bad decisions. But no, they've been saved from all of it. By their cat of all damned things, if the Prophet's got it right. They get to go on with their lives, and what do I get?
I know, I know. I get to keep my friends. And I am happy for them, really I am. He sank into a straight-backed chair, wincing as his own back made a complaint. Thirteen transformation nights without his friends had taken an unpleasant toll on his health. But this is going to drive a breach between us. I can't deny that.
If I thought anything good would come of it, I'd leave. Just pack up and go. See the rest of the world. Maybe even find a new place to belong.
He looked at the ceiling. "If there's anybody out there listening," he said under his breath, "this would be a good time for a nice big unmistakable omen."
Someone knocked on his door.
I know it's cheesy, but I couldn't resist it. Nor would Neenie and Fox have been able to, which is the point, isn't it now?
Almost all of Lin's vehicular mishaps also happened to me, though over a significantly longer period of time.
To the posting, and then to the blogging, and after that to the tormenting of felines with various types of floor-cleaning devices! Happy Labor Day weekend to my American readers, and watch for another chapter either Sunday or Monday!