Karin had thought it would be a pretty good day. Jason had been withdrawn in the morning, picking at his breakfast and saying only yes and no, but he recognized her and afterwards he curled up on the couch with a copy of Plato. He turned a page once every twenty minutes; but still, he was reading philosophy. She remembered how much he'd missed it during their training year in Cambrydia.
Then it all went to hell.
She was washing dishes. Jason was in the living room: she could hear him moving about, shuffles and thumps but no muttering.
"Jason?" she called. "You ready for lunch?"
No answer. She pulled off her gloves and went into the living room. "Do you--"
He had pulled open the filing cabinets and was shoving papers into the fireplace.
"Jason!" Karin lunged forward and grabbed him by an arm. "What are you doing?"
"No, you're not," Karin said grimly.
"Belkali's coming," he said. "I have to destroy the documents--"
"We killed Belkali four years ago. Sit down, Jason."
"No. I have to burn them because you didn't, and if Belkali gets them he'll find Steve."
Guilt stabbed at Karin. She had thought she could keep the papers safe and she couldn't, and Steve had been captured. A second after came anger: how dare he reproach her, when he couldn't defend Steve from an ant.
"Jason!" She jerked the papers away from him. He reached out, and she pushed his hand back. "We rescued Steve, Belkali is dead, wake up already!"
"Dead." He looked away, jaw clenched, and for a moment he looked like his old self when he was frustrated at doing something stupid and trying not to show it. "I was . . . I had another one." Then he started to snuffle. "I'm sorry. . . ."
She sighed. "It's okay." The noise of his crying scraped across her nerves. "Will you stop crying, damn it!"
No response, and her shoulders tightened with guilt. You're angry at him because he's sick? she thought. He can't help it. He got this way saving people's lives. And now you're going to hate him for being sick?
Chloe leaned against the door of the bathroom stall as she sniffled, trying to stop crying. In ten minutes, lunch break would be over and she'd have to go back to class; she had to get the redness out of her eyes before then. If Linda saw--
Her nose prickled with tears again, as she remembered seeing the girls laugh over her diary. She said she was my friend! --Like you shouldn't know better by now. No one wants to be friends with someone who's fat, and stupid, and did I mention fat? She thought of Linda's flat stomach and smoothly rounded breasts. Beautiful. Not like you.
Mom would say that shallow girls like Linda didn't matter. Beauty didn't matter. "It's the inside that counts, honey." But Chloe wasn't smart. She didn't like reading David Copperfield or Crime and Punishment, she thought history was a mindless jumble of dates, and last semester she had gotten a C in Spanish. As soon as she got home from school, she usually turned on the TV.
You're stupid and shallow, just like Linda. Stupid and shallow. Linda--
Five minutes later, her nose hot and her eyes still slightly pink, she peeked out the bathroom door. Light glinted off the empty linoleum floor, and she slipped out.
"Uh, Chloe?" Danny, Linda's brother, stood behind her.
"What do you want?" She meant to sound casual, but the words came out sullen and defensive. Stupid.
"I, uh, got your diary back from Linda." He held out a black notebook.
Chloe glared at him. "And?" He was probably going to run away laughing.
"So don't you want it?"
"Not from you," Chloe said, and then wanted to kick herself. You're showing that you care again.
"Look, I'm sorry about Linda, okay?" Danny snapped. "I just wanted to help. Forget it."
"Oh. Sorry. I--" She felt the prickle again, and took a breath. "Thanks." She reached for the notebook, and their hands touched.
Light blotted out the world, and she felt like she was falling. Then with a jolt, like coming awake suddenly, she was standing with Danny in a marble-paved courtyard. The diary fell to the ground and they both jerked back. Chloe saw pale walls, tendrils of ivy, an olive tree in a corner --Danny's mouth hanging open--
"Welcome." A man in dark purple robes stood in the doorway of the courtyard; his beard and balding head reminded Chloe of one of her teachers.
"What're -- who are you?" Danny demanded loudly. Chloe lunged forward and grabbed her diary.
"Marlu si-Jahur," the man said. "Chief master of the academy at Cambrydia."
"You mean -- we're in another world?" The words rushed out of Chloe in a hopeful spurt.
Marlu nodded. "Come with me. There are some things you need to learn."
Chloe clutched her diary to her chest, heart thumping. Another world. Another world.
"Yeah. Uh-huh. Look-- Mom, how many times do I have to tell you that I am not sleeping with him? Well, you could come over and check!" Karin heard a key turning the lock. "I really have to go," she said. "I know, I know. I love you too. Bye." She hung the phone up just as Steve walked into the kitchen, carrying a bag full of groceries.
"How's it going?" he asked, setting the bag on the table.
"Another flashback at lunch." She pulled out two bags of frozen peas and headed for the freezer. "Oh, and my mom still thinks we should put Jason in a home because, quote, 'It can't be good for him to watch you screwing his brother.' --She also wants me to divorce him and marry you."
"Is that legal?" Steve asked, ducking under her elbow to slide a bag of apples into the fridge.
"Dunno." Karin slammed the freezer shut. "Any messages?"
"Yeah," Steve said, and she looked up at him. If Marlu had scried them a message then they would probably have to go back, and if they had to go to Cambrydia then they would probably work magic, which meant she could have Jason back whole again.
For a little while.
"What is it?" She noticed that Steve wasn't meeting her gaze.
"Two potentials just crossed over. They want you and Jason to unlock them."
Karin stared at him. "No," she said flatly. "They can get someone else."
"There's no one available."
"Then they can wait."
"I just spent the last three hours convincing your brother that Belkali wasn't still coming after us, and then that I didn't hate him for making a mess. And then he tried to throw out everything in the fridge because he thought it was poisoned. Do you not understand what we'd be getting those kids into? Or do you just not care?"
Steve crossed his arms. "I understand. I care. I also understand what the Sindaji will do if they're not stopped, and I understand it a hell of a lot better than you do because I spent four months as a Sindaji thrall with Sara and Lumi, and you didn't. And before you trot out your precious broken heart again, let me remind you that Jason came back. Sara didn't."
Her voice trembled as her finger stabbed towards the living room. "You call that coming back?" Without waiting for an answer, she stamped off to the study, slamming the door behind her.
I hate him. I hate him. Karin rubbed at her eyes. And Mom thinks we're a blissful little ménage à trois, she thought, and had to smile. Then she took a deep breath. She and Steve knew each other too well; they no longer bothered working up to fights, but flung their favorite wounds at each other right away.
There was a soft knock at the door. "Yeah, sure," Karin called, straightening.
Steve came in. "I know--"
They looked at each other a moment; then Karin relaxed and took a step forward. "I think we've got each other's apologies memorized by now."
"Probably," Steve said. He paused. "I realize how much this hurts you--"
"--but it really is necessary. I know." She looked down at her hands, clenched around the back of a chair. "I don't want the Sindaji to win, I don't want Sara to have died in vain, I don't want Jason to be-- be hurt for nothing. I just . . . don't want to get another bunch of innocent kids hurt. And yes, I know they may not end up like us, and yes, I know that how I feel doesn't matter -- but I don't have to like it!" She took a shaky breath and stepped around the chair. "Let's go."
"Okay." Steve didn't move. "I'm sorry," he said softly, looking down. "I know you're cooped up. But--"
You can't deal with seeing Jason broken, Karin thought. So you spend all your time working and thinking up ways to fight the Sindaji.
"Yeah," she said, because she hated it but couldn't help it. "I know."
She glanced back to see Danny peeking in through the door of her new room. "Come in," she said, and he walked slowly to her window seat. She watched him as he leaned against the marble wall, flexing one of his hands. The gesture was already familiar; it seemed as if she had spent years stumbling about a new world with him, instead of only three days.
"Marlu said they'll be ready in a few minutes." Danny paused. "Are you sure?"
"Kind of. Well, I mean, I'm not sure, but I couldn't just walk away, not without trying." A thought struck her. "You mean you don't want to?"
"No! Well, not if you don't--"
"You can't if I don't," Chloe said.
"That's my point." Danny's freckled face was serious, his red eyebrows drawn together. "They said we're gonna be bonded -- we'll always have to be together to work magic."
Work magic. The words sent a tingle down her back.
"And we'll have to stay here a year and train," Danny went on, "and after that we'll keep being called back to fight, and . . ." He trailed off.
"I just hope that time-warp thing works," Chloe mumbled. "I can't tell my mom I was missing for a year in an alternate dimension." Then what he was saying hit her. "You mean, am I sure we want to be partners?"
"Yeah," Danny muttered, looking out the window. "Well, also and there's the could-get-killed part."
"Right." She looked out the window at the waves falling against the shore, not blue but gray and deep green. They were like the waves on the Santa Monica beaches that she'd played on, before her family moved to Chicago. Only the foam glowed.
"I heard voices last night," she said suddenly. "From the sea, I think. They were singing, only there wasn't exactly a tune, just . . . song. I don't think they were human."
"What I mean is, I think it would take more than Linda Farrell's brother to scare me away from this world." She kept her gaze firmly fixed on a rocky headland. "And I don't think it would be so bad. Training, I mean. With you."
Silence. Then Danny said quietly, "Chloe . . . I mess up a lot."
"Me too." Her voice wavered. "I mean, I can't even keep a B average, and they want me to save the world. I'd be an absolute loser of a hero."
"So we'll be, like, the loser and loserette."
"Yeah." Her grin was a little shaky, but the tightness in her throat was gone.
A gong sounded in the distance. Fear burned through Chloe's stomach.
"Ready?" Danny asked.
"Think so." She stood up. "Okay. Let's go."
They were just kids. Karin didn't know whether to be furious or heartbroken when she saw them walk barefoot into the Great Hall, wearing wrinkled school uniforms. A scrawny, carrot-haired boy with dark freckles; a pudgy girl, just starting to get her figure, with black hair and almond eyes. They couldn't be more than fifteen. Fourteen.
Marlu si-Jahur smiled down at them. "Chloe and Danny, these are Karin, Jason, and Steve. They're our best warriors, and they're going to unlock your magic."
Danny put his hands in his pockets; Chloe stared at them with wide eyes. Yeah, get an eyeful, Karin thought. Jason was on his good behavior, but he still had the vacant look in his eyes. One hand clenched and relaxed absently, and his hair was rumpled. She wished she'd remembered to comb it.
"Hi," Chloe said with a smile.
"Hello," Steve said, polite as usual. Karin remembered a time when she had been the diplomat, when Steve had been too reserved for making nice. That was before she had stopped caring what people thought.
"Kneel and put your palms together," Marlu said. His robe swished as he moved to correct Danny. "No, like this. Good."
"Wait." The two children craned their necks to look at Karin. "Have you explained everything to them?"
"Yes," Marlu said.
"I mean everything." She felt her throat go tight. "All the dangers."
"Yeah, we know," Danny said loudly. "We're not scared."
Karin looked down at him and thought, He could end up like Jason. "Did they tell you about the burnout?" she asked harshly. "You're the one who'll get it, since you're the boy. There's a limit to how much power you can draw, and you'll never know exactly what it is, but if you cross it you'll burn your mind out. And you'll be whole and sane when you work magic, but any time you're not drawing power you'll be a shivering wreck, and you can't cheat it because you'll never be able to hold power for long." She shifted her gaze to the girl. "No one in your world will know why he's sick so you'll have to take care of him. You'll feed him and talk to him and remind him how to tie his shoes, and try to convince him that there aren't monsters under the stairs. He'll be weak and a wreck and you'll hate him for it, but you'll still care about him. And there will be no cure and no hope, because there are no happy endings, only survival."
Chloe's mouth was a trembling O, but Danny's was a hard line.
"I'll take the risk," he said. "It's worth it, to do something important. And even if I went home, I could get brain-dead in a car crash next week."
"If he's willing, I am," Chloe said.
Marlu dropped a hand on Danny's shoulder. "They have decided, Karin."
"Don't you understand?" Karin demanded. "You will be broken."
This time it was Chloe who answered. "My life stinks," she said, her voice flat and precise. "I'm fat. I'm stupid. I have no friends. If I stay here, I'm somebody and I have a purpose." Her voice softened. "And I can hear singing in the sea."
They were determined, just as she and Jason had been, to grab the magic and gamble their happiness, because nobody ever understood the risks until it was too late.
Steve glared at her, and she remembered her own words: I don't want Jason to be hurt for nothing.
Brain-dead in a car crash. She supposed that the kids had a right to get broken for something important.
"All right." She took Jason's hand and led him forward. "All right."
She had touched magic a thousand times before, but the rush of power was as sweet and golden as ever. Beside her, she heard a quick intake of breath. She looked up at Jason and he looked back at her, himself again.
More potentials, right? he whispered into her mind.
Yeah, she said, unable to form any more coherent thoughts.
Jason dropped a hand to Danny's forehead, and Karin put one on Chloe's. She felt the power humming in the girl's head; it was easy to twist it and set it free. The kids gasped, and then Karin saw delighted amazement spread across their faces as their minds touched for the first time.
She remembered that first touch, when she had felt Jason's mind caress her own, leaving behind an impression of sunshine and coffee and the word eudaimonia. She thought she had fallen in love with him that instant.
"Karin?" Jason whispered, his voice pulling her back into the present. "How long has it been since our last--?"
"Three weeks," Karin said, looking at him over the heads of the children. "Has--" Has it seemed long? she finished silently.
Yeah, he said. A shield clamped down over his emotions, and she realized that he'd heard her. He remembered.
No, she said. I didn't mean it -- I could never hate you--
It's okay, he said. Sometimes I hate you for seeing me like this.
She touched his cheek. I know. I'm sorry. I still love you. Always.
It's not enough, is it?
No. She shivered. It's all I have.
The pressure grew painful: the human mind wasn't meant to hold power without using it. Karin felt a flicker of temptation to work a light spell, anything, to keep Jason for a few minutes longer. But the more power they worked, the worse the backlash afterwards; and unlockings were especially difficult for him.
Love you too, Jason said, and he cut the connection himself.
When Karin's hand touched her forehead, Chloe felt painless fire rush through her body, swelling against her ribs and prickling at her fingertips. She heard a high, distant rushing, like the sea or wind through trees, almost a song--
And with a crack, the walls of her mind burst asunder and she was falling into Danny's mind, an ordered whirlwind with thoughts tracing elegant orbits: space shuttles, the arc of Gregorian chant, numbers unlocked by the magic of algebra, a wistful admiration of Han Solo.
The fire rippled, and she realized that she was looking through Danny's eyes as he looked at her: communing with his communion. They sank into warm water, laced with bitterness but golden with sunshine: beautiful horses, low-carb diets, dreams of warrior princesses.
They hit the bottom of each other. Very clearly she heard Danny think: Wow. Then the fire faded, and she was back in the Great Hall, bent over and giggling.
"Uh, Chloe?" Danny's voice was without fear; she grinned at him, feeling no fear herself. He knew her secrets. And she knew his. It was okay.
"Are you recovered?" Marlu stood over them.
"Yeah," Chloe said, scrambling shakily to her feet. The strangers had already left. "So. Now we start training?"
"Now you rest," Marlu said. "Tomorrow, you begin to train in magic and the sword."
Magic, Chloe thought, bouncing a little. No more homework, no more Spanish verbs. No more trying to fit in with the other girls. All the worries, all the tears and anger and stress, the relentless grind of her life -- gone. She was going to learn magic and sword fighting, just like her dreams.
And there would be others, finally others who didn't care about schoolwork or boyfriends, but about the real and beautiful things: truth, justice, magic, adventures. She wondered what the other girls in the program were like. Probably they were gorgeous; all that sword fighting must be a wonderful workout.
Maybe she would finally lose some weight.
The dishwater had wrinkled Karin's fingers. Jason, luckily at the other end of the house, was humming "Battle Hymn of the Republic" yet again. She wondered if slapping him with a wet dish towel would trigger another flashback. Not worth the risk, really.
Then she bit her lip. He'd been humming that to himself two years ago as they huddled together in Yuorin's fortress, just minutes before they decided to risk everything and work the spell.
Before they failed to die.
She gripped the edge of the sink. Yuorin had assumed they wouldn't try such a spell once she'd taken their amulet away. Without protection, the amount of power would almost certainly kill them.
("You know that if we go ahead . . . we probably won't come home."
"I don't want to die. But I don't want to live with failure.")
And they hadn't failed. They had destroyed Yuorin and stopped her army; they had saved all of Cambrydia and possibly Earth. It was a victory they would have died to achieve -- but they had, against all odds, come home again. They'd just come home broken.
Not only Jason, she thought. I'm so messed up that I hate him for being sick; and Steve just won't care about him anymore. Is anyone whole?
She remembered what Chloe had said: "I'm fat. I'm stupid. I have no friends."
She turned and saw Steve standing in the doorway. "Yeah?"
"Look, um . . . I just called Mary, and she volunteered to watch Jason for the evening. Do you want to get out of the house for a bit? Watch a movie, maybe? There's an eight-thirty showing of Troy Diggers."
She cocked her head. "Steve, you hate movies."
"I liked Babette's Feast."
"Okay, but you hate action movies. 'Stupid escapist drivel' -- right?"
He sighed loudly. "Look, do you want to or don't you?"
"You're trying to cheer me up, aren't you?"
"Have you got a problem with that?"
Karin opened her mouth to snap at him, but suddenly the absurdity of the whole conversation crashed down on her, and she started laughing.
"You. Me. Life." She sighed. "Might I respectfully inquire why the sudden change of heart?"
"I just . . . I thought, even if it is a stupid movie, maybe you'd have fun. And I'd at least be thinking about why it was stupid, instead of . . . other stuff. And you know, I'll take anything that helps us cope with the situation, 'cause we're not getting away anytime soon."
"Nope," Karin agreed. "Okay. I will enjoy it and you will tell me why I'm an ignoramus."
"Nah. Just intellectually challenged."
It wasn't that funny, but she grinned at him anyway. They would watch the movie and they would come home and life would be exactly the same. Next time she was in Cambrydia, Jason would catch the memories from her mind, and maybe he would smile. And then come home and forget. Life went round in a circle; if there was any hope, it was hidden in the slow grind of the spiral.
"I'll go say goodbye to Jason," she said, drying off her hands. Carefully straightening the towel, she added quietly, "You might . . . say goodbye to him too."
She could almost feel him tensing. Then he said, "Okay."
Karin looked up; Steve was still in the doorway, standing tense and trying to look casual, his gaze fixed on the floor. She stepped to him; he glanced at her and moved back.
And she followed him out of the room, one step and then another.
Copyright © 2004 Rosamund Hodge
Rosamund Hodge is a twenty-year-old member of the bourgeoisie. Raised as a homeschooler in Los Angeles, she is now attending college at an undisclosed location, where she studies English, Latin, and French. This is her first published story.