lemniscate: (; cat (cause))
[personal profile] lemniscate posting in [community profile] lemniscatic
Title: Or Even Longer
Rating: PG13 (blood, death, death, blood, Cat's strange grasp on what is healthy in interpersonal relationships)
Wordcount: 9,748
Story / World: Colourverse, Cause
Characters: Cat Hydan, Sam Jones, Carl and Alstair Clayton, Tessa Mosier.
Challenges: January hint-fiction challenge
Summary: “An advantage to them burying their dead on their own property,” he says, lips barely moving. “They're off to drink and eat and feel guilty and sad, or guilty because they're not sad enough.”
"Okay," Cat answers, under her breath as well. “What are we doing?”
Sam smiles and pulls his hands out of his pockets. “Follow me.”

Notes: This was finished in January and thus marked the second short story I've ever written and finished (first being, of course, Casey Johnson's Walk), so that makes it kind of ~historic.

Together they throw the dirt,
listen to its plunk against wood,
a sound so unlike anything else in the world,
one you could remember forever.

Sam and Cat stand as far back as they can while still blending in, doing their best to pull off bystanders who knew the deceased but not very well and who don't want to get in the legitimately bereaved people's way. Very courteous, the Joneses, very clever and kind. Who wouldn't be, if not friends, then acquaintances with them? Who wouldn't want them at their funeral?

Cat leans on him a bit. Unhappy and confused (maybe a touch of “Can we go home yet?”) daughter — no, they're too close in age; sister, then, or cousin.

They have a very consistent image.

*


He wrapped a piece of cloth around his neck and started to tie, and that was the first thing to confuse Cat. She bounced off the insufficiently bounce-ready little bed (Sam near the door to ambush attackers, Cat by the window to provide an escape: a little faux-family tradition, already so established) and asked him about it.

“Why would you ever wear a noose around your neck on purpose?”

That had startled him enough that he'd pulled too hard on the knotted black cloth, choking himself for a second and ably proving Cat's point. She stopped tracing the lace on the too-uncomfortable black tights she was wearing and gone over to stand near him in case he needed help instead.

Once Sam could breathe, he said, “It's a formal clothing thing. I don't know the origin.”

“Oh.” Cat tilted her head, then walked over and gave the apparently-finished array an experimental tug. “What's it called?”

“A tie.”

*


Everyone is wearing black. It's almost like being back at the Org. Cat wonders, kind of, how much of the dress code there (black) is for this sort of eventuality. Funeral-ready at every turn — how convenient.

A lot of what they do does seem to involve funerals. Then again, their goal is essentially just stopping everyone else. People stop, almost always, and don't start again, when they're dead.

There's a man dressed in black and white but arrayed differently than everyone else's (Cat herself has a dress short enough to run in; Sam says what he's wearing is called a three-piece suit) talking, almost endlessly. Everyone around them is trying to fidget while looking attentive, respectful, interested.

For a funeral, it's a pretty remarkable turn-out.

*


Sam scattered around him all sorts of possessions just by having been somewhere; scraps of paper, pieces of string, a cell phone (“Noelle”), a laptop (“Nadine”). The last two did interest Cat somewhat, with their alluring promise of potentially contacting Case; however, her hand landed on a vial filled with some kind of clear, sluggish liquid.

“What's this?”

“Don't touch it,” Sam answered, which wasn't really any answer at all, lying on his side and with his back to her among that whole mess.

“Okay,” Cat said, and started to try to flip it between her fingers, like a baton.

“You're touching it,” Sam groaned, presently.

Cat made an affirmative sort of noise at him. She'd figured out, more or less, how to hold it so that it fractured the light from the lamp into a bunch of tiny rainbows, fragile and waterlogged-seeming and just not very good. “What is it?”

“Stuff.” He hunched into himself a little more, shirt wrinkling with the movement. The hotel's sheets had seemed white when Cat looked at them without a frame of reference, but with a base of comparison they now turned out to be sort of yellow.

Cream-coloured, she decided, would be the polite way of putting it, pale like most of the servants at home had been, snow keeping them from the sun. (Pathetic. What kind of person let that stop them? Obviously they were outsiders.)

“But what kind of stuff?”

“You'll see. Now let me sleep.”

“Can I keep looking at it?”

He groaned again. “Fine. Please don't break it.”

“Sure,” Cat answered, and tossed it a foot in the air experimentally.

*


The crowd starts to move. Cat jumps, and realises that the strangely dressed man must have stopped speaking a while ago; she looks to Sam for instruction.

“An advantage to them burying their dead on their own property,” he says, lips barely moving. “They're off to drink and eat and feel guilty and sad, or guilty because they're not sad enough.”

"Okay," Cat answers, under her breath as well. “What are we doing?”

Sam smiles and pulls his hands out of his pockets. “Follow me.”

*


There really did seem to be a lot of waiting around in hotel rooms involved in everything they did outside of home. Cat could see the reason; after all, there was a lot of starting something and then leaving it to happen and then coming back (she would really like it if Sam would explain things to her to begin with, or even at all) and when they'd already traversed what felt like it must have been half the world it wouldn't make any sense to go home from that part.

She growled at Sam's phone, lying pristine and white and non-sentient on the bed. The temptation to try to contact Case was undeniable, so acute it hurt, but probably Ath would pick up and then tell Sam about it. (Almost certainly Ath would pick up. Case hated telephones for the disconnect she felt not being able to read the other conversant's mind, and while Cat would prefer an uncomfortable Case to no Case at all — certainly that it was her must help alleviate the fear brought on by not being able to read her mind — near-certain reprisal if she tried was too much.)

Certainly Cat knew, academically at least, how to use the strange little machine. She'd used the landline at home before, and other ones, but Sam would only ever hand Noelle to her once he'd already dialled.

Odd, really, how he cared more about people handling it than if they had their fingers in his poisons or their hands on his knives. Possibly that was just with regards to Cat herself, though. He had to admit to himself, she thought smugly, that she knew how to use a blade.

But that still left her sitting with her back to her own bed, staring at Sam like that would make time pass faster, and that wasn't helping anyone. She started to stand up and then paused at something that caught at the edge of her vision.

Cat glanced away from it and looked around. The flicker at the boundary between what she could see and couldn't didn't change. She turned, suddenly, too fast for it, and could see the circle for a second, and the impression of great detail but the awkwardness of someone who probably didn't have a feel for what they were doing and were just following instructions.

Almost before her hand fell on his shoulder, Sam was rolling over and lunging upright, one arm striking forward in the apparent absence of a knife. (Of course he didn't have one available, he was sitting on the lot of them.) Cat stepped out of the blow's way, just in time.

“What—” he started. “Cat?”

“Yeah,” she said, kind of bored now. Probably he wouldn't believe her or wouldn't let her investigate, she thought sourly. “There's magic, the remains of it. Over—” She threw her hand out like a bad guess, and her finger came to point exactly at it, though if asked she would have estimated more than five feet off. “There.”

Sam considered this for a moment, staring at her through half-closed eyes. “Will it keep?” he asked.

“Sorry?” Cat had been expecting a mild no-Cat-you-may-not-do-anything-fun, and so was caught as off-guard as he had been when she woke him up.

“This magic. Will it get harder to trace with time?”

“Probably?” she said, and rubbed the place at the back of her neck where her hair couldn't quite decide whether it was done or not. “How much time are we talking?”

“Say until we get home, or maybe tomorrow morning.”

Cat's optimism was revived as if by magic or what was apparently science here, leaping up in her chest so hard she felt like her heart stopped. “That's nothing,” she declared, confident as confidence. “I can handle that.”

“Excellent.” Sam smiled and something funny happened around Cat's wrist and her throat, where her heartbeat and her scars resided. “Then you're on.”

Somehow, Cat thought, based on how quickly he'd acquiesced, as Sam rolled over and apparently went back to sleep, he must have been planning for this anyway.

*


“I'm cold,” she says, or tries to; the chattering she's been trying to keep out of her jaw takes over for her as soon as she opens her mouth. It's stupid, really; home is much colder, even inside — stone walls can't do much once they've been blanketed with snow for a month or more, she used to leave skin on the wall by an accidental touch — but she's shivering.

Her dress and tights are both lightweight, admittedly, and her shoes aren't helping. Cat decides to blame it on them, instead of thinking more in depth and possibly getting frightened.

Sam takes off his jacket, fumbling at the buttons a bit, and drapes it unceremoniously around her shoulders.

*


There was a lot of waiting in hotel rooms and a lot of sitting alone in a corner, too-big jacket or misused blanket on, with her eyes getting tired and a knife in her lap.

Of course she liked Sam, but — Case would probably be an asset, Cat thought confidently. It was only a matter of time, then. She couldn't wait until they let her come too.

(When Sam came back she stood up so abruptly that she nicked her wrist on the stiletto she'd been cradling.)

*


“Come on.” He puts his arm around her shoulders, too; Cat ducks her head, a smooth curtain of straight, shiny black and intricate braids to disguise her. No one can see her, but she can't see anyone.

Good thing she trusts Sam.

They cut through the murmuring crow-like crowd, Sam nodding at people and muttering back at them, “I'm so sorry” and “my condolences” and everything. Cat looks vaguely sick, and shaking slightly like Case in a crowd, to give them a reason as to why they're not staying in one place.

“Stairs.”

She trips, not on the first or second step but the third, and catches herself just in time.

*


“How long?”

Sam looked over at her, eyes red all around. “I... There was an accident. I missed him.”

For a second Cat thought she didn't hear right; Sam has never failed and come back in the time that she's known him. “What?”

“There was... it doesn't matter. He's still alive.”

Cat flicked her knife open and gestured emphatically with it. “I can help! Give me—” She had never done something like that, or read about it, but she wasn't about to let Sam know. “A photograph and a lock of hair. That should do.”

He'd gone back to staring at his feet, but at that he turned again, disbelieving. “You serious?”

“I can try,” Cat said.

*


It's a library, she determines, staring wide-eyed around at the room. It looks like her school or something, which is an odd thing to have in a house.

“The one at home is better,” she says quietly.

“You had a library?” Sam turns from doing something at the door.

She nods. “Of course. What kind of House doesn't have a collection? If only our own histories, I mean. But we had a lot. Everything we could get, from merchants, from when my parents hadn't had to travel up to the north.” Cat bounces onto an armchair and crosses her legs, wondering if she should try to straighten the rose-patterned tights or if anyone can tell. It doesn't really bother her, so she'll leave it. “Supposedly, anyway. I never left home.”

“Really.” It occurs to Cat that Sam barely knows anything about the Guardian Castle, about the north. The idea startles her. Where could she begin to explain? There's not even nobility in this world, not properly.

No one at home would not recognise the Hydan name, she's sure.

“Yeah, really. But the chairs here, they're ace. There is that.”

“Okay then.” He still sounds a bit dubious. Maybe she can try to draw it for him, the huge blocks of cold grey stone, the slightly tattered red banners (dyed bedsheets) that Aaron had taken to flying from the towers. (Does it even look like that any more?)

Maybe she can show him.

“What are we going to do,” she starts to say, “about the circle in the room?”

But then a young woman walks in, heels click-clack-clicking on the floor.

*


“Try these on,” Sam says, walking into the room like the door wasn't locked and startling Cat kind of badly.

There's now a thick line of ink running down her sheet of paper, but at least it wasn't over anything she'd already written. “I was trying to write Case a letter,” she explains, guilty, feeling like she's doing something wrong.

Apparently that was the right thing to say, though. “We'll be back soon,” he tells her, soft and for once gentle, to the point where it's odd and Cat almost believes it's not Sam speaking. “It'll be okay.”

“Cool.” Cat tilts her head at him. “Sorry, try what on?”

He throws her a pair of gloves, detailed and fingerless and just as always black, and Cat catches them, fingers sliding oddly over the unfamiliar material. It's confusing, truly; he's wearing a similar pair, in that his are black as well, but they cover his fingertips – of course, because Sam says they can be recognised somehow by the touch of their hands. She can't see the reason for her own.

“Why's this?” she asks, pulling them on anyway.

“Your scars are pretty recognisable.” A smile's twitching at the edge of Sam's mouth like an accident.

Her new gloves fit perfectly.

*


“I'm sorry—” The young woman who just walked in (black skirt, black jacket, brown hair in a ponytail, Cat notices, trying to be good about that) starts a sentence, probably I'm sorry, but who are you and what are you doing here, and doesn't finish it. Sam's behind her, sudden as a heart attack, more or less pinioning her with one arm and covering her mouth with his spare hand.

Sam pulls his lips away from his teeth and sort of whistles at Cat. “A little help, please?”

“Oh.” She stands, quickly, and does not at all enjoy the moment of panic when she can't remember where any of her knives are. Cat ends up pulling out the little stiletto that looks like a pen. “Right.”

The incision is negligible; the fact that it's across her bottom lip, right where the teeth touch, is a bit weird. She waits a second, until there's blood beading properly, so she can make little bubbles that pop when she says, “Sleep, now.”

She didn't actually think it would work. That kind of thing was always Aaron's speciality.

“Dead weight,” Sam says, sounding disgusted; he hoists the limp young woman up and struggles with the body until he reaches the first armchair he can find. Then he almost trips over it, but eventually and with Cat's help he gets her sitting up in a more or less natural-looking tired sprawl.

“Who is she?” Cat asks, sucking on her lip. It stings more than her hands or arms ever do, probably from the novelty of it.

“Tessa Mosier.” The words have the edge of a sneer to them, just the outline of it.

Cat gives the name a chance to ring any bells, figurative or maybe even literal, then shrugs. “And?”

He smiles, and it's sharp in a way she's only seen once or twice before and makes Cat feel very strange. “And they don't keep authority the same way we do, because they are too small to, but she is very, very important to the Ant'.”

Those explanations Sam has given her, summaries then torn onto a sheet of paper in Cat's apparently incomprehensible script, take just a moment to surface again in her mind. Then she remembers and her back goes stiff; Cat swallows, wishing she could spit instead, saliva and blood and distaste on the unconscious woman's face (and the perfect arc of a knife, too, she doesn't deserve Cat's useful, useful blood).

“You all right with that?” Sam asks, and he must be teasing her.

She jerks her chin up in a mannerism she probably picked up from Ath. “Depends. What are we doing with her?”

“Hurrying, for one thing,” he says, suddenly businesslike. How he switches so quickly and neatly Cat has truly no clue.

“Okay.” Cat's remembering why it seems that she never gets an explanation of what exactly was going on until it's over; while part of it is indeed that Sam doesn't offer, she herself is guilty of getting caught up in things, and everything always seems so urgent while they're there (because it is). “What do I do?”

“Nothing, for the moment.” As if by magic, Sam produces the vial she'd been playing with earlier and a syringe.

“What's that?”

Sam seems preoccupied, though; having filled the syringe, he's now examining the – Mosier's neck and making disapproving noises. “Tell you later. Ah!”

Cat edges over, close enough to see. The back of Mosier's neck has a painful-looking spot on it, a whitehead like the ones that Cat's classmates are stuck with on their faces; she must be fairly young. She glances up at Sam. “Harder-to-detect injection site?”

“Just so,” he says, and has his fingers and syringe ready when he pauses. “How'd you know?”

“I read,” Cat answers dismissively, leaning forward for a better view.

*


“Everything fits?” Sam asked suddenly. Cat was startled again, and her fingers were apparently incapable of learning at all; the loop at the end of a g turned into a skittering line over the very last half-inch of paper she even had to work with.

“Sure. It's fine.” She flexed her other hand demonstratively; she hadn't yet bothered to take the gloves off. It would be interesting to know how much of her skin and the stiffness of her hand was due to proper scar tissue and how much was probably just her being overly dramatic.

“Do you want to send that to Case when you're done?” He seemed to be actively trying to make conversation. That was more than a bit odd for Sam, especially when he hadn't yet shown some kind of agenda; usually he was either practical or entirely lost.

“Actually, I was thinking I'd just give it to her when we get home,” Cat said experimentally. It was nonsense and a lie, of course; the accounts she could build in her mind for Case were endlessly superior, and purposefully using a mediocre medium that neither of them were as happy with would just be ridiculous. “Isn't that going to be soon?”

He sighed. “I was going to talk to you about that, actually. It looks like we might have to stay in town for a long while more.”

Though she'd kind of been expecting it, Cat still didn't like to hear it; it was still an unpleasant, icy feeling at the small of her back and the corners of her eyes. “How long?”

“Well, because of the accident, I'm going to have to clean up after that—” His face contorted with distaste. “And I've got a separate, related assignment to follow up on from here.”

“Okay.” Cat suddenly felt very, very small, not even just singular and lonely like not having Case made her but acutely less than even one person. “I can deal with that.”

“There is one advantage, though,” he said, like an afterthought. “Do you want to come with properly, this time?”

The desk that came with their room was rickety enough that when Cat stood up she knocked it over.

*


Cat can't help but feel a distant kind of satisfaction as she watches Sam's handiwork. Needles do disgust her somewhat – a knife just seems better, perfect and easy and clean – but it's less that and more him, the way his face clears and that odd sharp smile turns into something that's a lot closer to what she thinks of as Sam.

As well, of course, as the fact that this is the kind of person who wants people like Cat dead. There's a great deal of vindictive pleasure in it for her from that.

(Would they want Case dead, as well? She turns the question over in her mind. Can Case even die? Quite possibly; if she can eat and drink and age, if very slowly, then Cat doubts she's truly immortal. The question is weirdly distressing.)

“Hey,” she says, thinking out loud, as Sam checks the needle and wipes the tiny bit of blood that comes out off with his sleeve.

“Yeah?”

Distracted by a sudden thought, instead of asking him about the Antimagic's possible intentions towards Case: “Is that even better than a mole, then?”

“I think so.” In his Cat's-been-doing-her-homework voice, even. She'll have to do yet more research, then, if Sam approves of what she can come up with. “You expect there to be pus and bacteria and blood floating around on someone with bad skin. Hopefully even the traces of the injection will be invisible, because it looks like she'd popped it recently.” Sam makes a disgusted face at this, despite the convenience of it. “And an autopsy is unlikely; the Ant' are very, very private. A coroner might think of checking moles, the first case is, oh man, it's famous, but this is nice. I'd have used a mole or a birthmark or anything if she'd had one. As is?” He gestures, pleased. “Goldmine.”

She can't help but snicker, a little. Death by pimple. It's so undignified. (That's good. They don't deserve dignity.) “Sam?” she asks after a moment, having remembered her original aim.

“Shoot.” He's walking around in a very tight pattern, like something he'd come up with looking at blueprints, here and here and here to leave footsteps like he was just some visitor coming in to escape the crowd and the grief with a book. (Cat thinks that would be a good way to mourn someone, maybe, with stories, instead of this theatrical I'm-sadder-than-you progression. At least they don't wail here, though. She's read about the wailing.)

“People like her.” Cat lifts a hand and waves vaguely towards the body slumped on the red armchair. “Would they want to kill me, because they do not like magic?”

It's truly irritating, the way her voice goes so lonely and small when she's frightened. Cat is – Cat is Cat, she should be able to be brave. (If Case was here, she thinks, irritated and lonely, she could be very brave.) But Sam reacts to it, turns from where he's now inspecting the doorknob (Cat would ask if she could help somehow but she's afraid she'd just fumble things, drop them, panic, and it's just as well).

“Probably,” he says, voice soft like a lullaby.

“And Case?”

He actually considers it, which is somehow more reassuring than knee-jerk assurance. “Probably not Case.”

“Good.” Cat looks at the carpet, stays where she is like there's a circle of broken glass around her, instead of meeting Sam's eyes.

“So—” and now his voice is businesslike, that remarkable switching again, and there's a cloth in his hand, “Have you touched anything?”

*


“That's why I got you the gloves,” Sam confided, though she'd kind of already guessed (and pulled them off; they made her scars itch). “We're going to have to go to the funeral, if there is one, because it turns out that this guy is associated with some heavyweights in the Ant' who happen to be in town. So if I can lure them out...”

“If we can lure them out,” Cat corrected him.

“Right. What do you need?”

“Hair, I think,” she said, because the image of hair catching on fire is fairly consistent and she can work with that. “Blood if you can get it, but I can do without. And a photograph.”

There wasn't anything like this in the books. Myths, yes, but myths couldn't decide on anything; they couldn't even decide on what to call them. Travellers stuck but they could far do more, Aaron always said. That was one of the things he'd protested most strenuously when he'd decided that Cat was worthy of his research and his monologues – which was rarely.

Stories, passed down from one person to the next by fearful word of mouth, said that a Traveller could wish anything on their blood and it would come to pass.

And why, Cat wondered, did people find that aspect of it – the blood in the magic – so threatening? It wasn't as if they were going around using other people's. If anything those who hated them should thank that the only fuel for magic they could use was their own; one would think it would get rid of them faster.

She drew her right hand, where the fingertips were actually fairly sensitive still, over the sliced-up mess of skin on her other forearm and thought about it. Cat barely noticed when Sam left.

After a while, she started to make circles in her head.

*


Sam's just finishing the process of wiping down everything he's touched. That's apparently a formality; he's not in any system, let alone as a criminal, but it helps, and it's almost a ritual, and it lulls Cat as well to watch him.

This is one of the advantages of using people from outside of Colourless, Sam explains. No one can trace you. The Re'idal, for example, their other adversary, destructive mirror-image to the Ant', are completely off the books.

The Org is in the middle; there are people like Sam and, now, Cat and Case, who have some form of formal identity but one that is completely clean and normal and safe. There are those like Ath, who are from this world and who can't really do anything about it. (You can go by another name, though, says Sam, and Cat nods, because that makes sense; after all, what's she doing? There's no place for the young Lady Catherine Hydan here, but Cat Jones is right at home.) And there are those like Ilse, “that creepy bastard”, who don't even have a spare identity to say that something that looks more or less like them exists.

All of the Antimagic's members can be traced, given enough time.

“Come on,” he says, and it startles her out of her thinking such that she almost yelps. “We've got to go now.”

“Go?” Cat's not panicking, she's just kind of... startled. Very startled. “Go where? Why?”

“Because we had about a two-hour window, and now there's only half an hour left.” He smiles. “So we lock this door from the inside so that it looks like she was just trying to get away from everything, we're out, and she gets found in a while.”

“How long a while?” she asks. “Because I'm not sure how long she'll stay asleep. Maybe like four more hours.”

“Hopefully, a really long while.” Sam looks troubled. Planning things when Cat's involved must get hard, she supposes; she's a blind variable who can only give approximations as to herself. “Because it's supposed to break down faster than normal, but if we have long enough that her bloodstream will take care of it for us before she goes into a coma naturally... How long have you got?”

“Think fast,” Cat says. She drags her teeth across the cut on her lip again at that, reopens it and quickly teases enough blood out of it to dress her mouth like lipstick, and blows Mosier a kiss. “And stay out.” She turns back to Sam: “That should help.”

“You're wonderful.” Sam sounds like he actually means it. He leans against the kind of ostentatious wooden double-doors and listens for a moment, then beckons her with one hand. “We're good. Follow my lead.”

Cat leans forward so her hair falls over her face again and looks to Sam through it. He hasn't stopped smiling since his thumb followed the plunger on that syringe down. He looks so happy.

“Okay,” he breathes, and they walk out onto the landing, where the stairs take a break to turn into a hallway. Both are deserted, but Cat can hears something at the edge of her head, like there's someone in one of the rooms whose doors she sees to either side, crying.

Probably there is. A girl, she thinks, maybe around her age or a bit younger, from the pitch.

The Ant' seems to run in this family. It's more than likely that Cat will meet her someday.

For now, she follows Sam down the stairs as he puts a worried and mournful face on. It's showtime again.

*


When Sam walked in she heard him, for once, a pleasant change from the usual “and suddenly, here is Sam and you've dropped something”. Cat didn't turn around; instead she held up one of the pieces of paper she'd been working with, scratchy lines traced on it in pencil until the centre parts of the circle were almost completely grey. “This look good to you?”

“Depends,” Sam said, walking over to pick it out of her hand. “What's it supposed to look like?”

“Intricate, I suppose.” She brought her face far enough away from the one she was on now to get a full view of it and groaned, reaching for her eraser. “Thanks for these, by the way.”

“No problem.” He sounded interested. Probably when he'd brought her this set of drafting and coloured pencils he hadn't anticipated anything but the degree to which she'd already worn the good lake red one down to a three-inch stub. “It's certainly that.”

“In school,” Cat told him, “we were doing something about fractals, so I kind of wanted it to look like a fractal, pulling you into the centre by the way it repeats, but I don't have a ruler, so I was using this book—” it was dark brown and small and dusty and had been in the drawer of the table by the head of her bed “—as a straight-edge, but it's kind of small, and this version's wrong.” She drew the piece of paper out from under the little book, though this was just a gesture – it could barely weigh it down – and crumpled it up with both hands and a decent chunk of fury.

“It looked fine to me,” Sam protested.

“Believe me,” she said. “It was wrong.”

“Oh.” He left it at that for a moment. “Is there something specific about the shape, at all?” he asked, when Cat didn't immediately start in on trying to scale the circle up again.

“Not really. It's the--” She cast around for words. “It's the impression of it. It has to feel right, especially for me. So because this is not something I have done, it has to be a difficult circle, so that it will seem correct. Something like that, anyway.” Cat put her head on her hand. “So I was thinking, if I want it to just affect one person, it should pull that person into something separate. I'd probably do a similar progression—” with her free hand she indicated the piece of paper Sam was still holding “—as that if I was trying to transport someone from a distance, with the coordinate swirly thingies over it.”

He considered this for a moment. “It's a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.”

“It's a lost art,” Cat said, and the annoyance at that it couldn't be easy filtered into her voice. She wasn't Aaron, she didn't enjoy the part that was looking for concepts, she just liked getting them right. Cheating would look really tempting if there was any way to cheat. “I don't know if any Travellers other than Aaron and I even exist any more.”

“I see.” Sam sounded like he didn't, but Cat wasn't going to press the issue. More than anything she felt tired – which was ridiculous, she hadn't been doing anything and she'd not been shedding blood to test these either – and kind of drained. Not really argumentative at all, although explaining it to him for once was kind of fun. “Would knowing something about the person you're targeting help at all?”

“Probably.” It took a second to even get to that amount of surety; Cat really didn't know what she was doing. “Why?”

When she finally looked up at Sam she found that he had a new-looking scrape across his knuckles and a lot of dirt on his clothes. He fished around in the inside pockets of the oversized sweatshirt he'd put on and came up with a photograph.

“Because I got you this,” he said, and then put down both the master draft of her circle and the photograph to fish around more, “and this.”

Cat picked up the tiny bottle of blood and turned it to catch the light, a pale reflection of the energy she'd had earlier breathing life into her hands and mouth.

“Awesome!”

*


They get out surprisingly easily. Cat expects a challenge, whether overt or just in the form of someone trying to start conversation, but everyone's embroidered in their own expressions of grief or interaction. There's only one person who stops them on their way to the door, a young man who's all bones and very bright eyes.

“You all right?”

“As well as can be expected,” Sam says, not quite grave enough that it's ridiculous. “My sister, she's not feeling too well. So I'm afraid we're off.”

“Okay.” Shiny-eyed young man steps out of their way and gestures towards the door. “I know Dad said we should have fun in memory of him, but... Ugh. It just feels kind of wrong. So I know what you mean.”

“Thank you,” he replies, not missing a beat, while Cat almost stops breathing and then tries to memorise the other guy's face. Sam must have already known. “I'm sorry for your loss. We both are.”

He shrugs. “Thanks.”

Nodding like an echo, Cat lets Sam lead her outside.

*


The photograph showed a man turning to one side. He had a nose like a chapter heading; it described the rest of his face, defined it, and it was very hard to miss. His hair seemed caught in a struggle between being black and being grey; his eyes were colourless.

“Who is he?” Cat asked, still more interested in the blood. It was a slightly different colour than her own, she thought. That might make telling things apart easier. It did give them a deadline, though.

“He used to be the operating head of the Ant',” Sam said, dismissively, like that wasn't a big thing (like Cat hadn't just almost dropped the bottle). “He still coordinates most of what they do, but he stays at home, mostly, these days.”

She looked up at him, her throat tight. “Okay,” she breathed, and swallowed the nervousness so her voice would actually come out. “Okay.”

“Do you need me to do anything else?” He must not have been used to being second, Cat thought, and being amused at that helped dull the fury behind her eyes. It cleared, a bit, and she could see.

“No.” Cat paused, and then reconsidered. “Yes. A ruler, and a compass.”

“A compass?” Sam repeated, sounding confused.

“Spinny thing.” She gestured with her hands, trying to describe the arc that the moving arm would make. “Drawing circles is hard.”

“Got it,” he said. “Anything else? Paper or anything? And how big a ruler?”

“Just—” She thought again. “What's the biggest you can find?”

“Very big.” Sam smiled. “Thank you, Cat. How much longer do you have?”

This stuttering, stop-and-start way of thinking was getting on her nerves. She was about to say that it would be almost infinite, and then she remembered the blood, probably less than an ounce of it, warmed somewhat by her hand. “Until—” It struck her that she didn't even know which was sooner, nor why the boundary she thought of even occurred to her.

Sam barely got out of the way of the chair in time as Cat stood up and walked over to the window, legs embarrassingly stiff. She stuck her head behind the curtain and whistled.

“We've got until sunrise.”

*


Once they're on the bus Cat feels that she can speak. “That boy's his son?” Suddenly it occurs to her that she doesn't even know the man's name.

“Yes.” Sam's looking out the window, like he doesn't have a care in the world. It doesn't shut all the way, and so his hair's ruffled back the wrong way; he looks a bit like a contemplative rooster. “Carl Clayton and son Alistair Clayton. Who is, by all accounts, uninterested in much about the Ant'.”

“Good,” Cat says. She feels very fierce, though her voice doesn't seem to have gotten the memo.

*


Once Sam had acquired everything she needed (the paper was very thick, which was probably good; leaving a bloodstained carpet would be terrible manners), Cat set herself up on the flattest part of the floor she could manage, having to draw lightly even so because pencils were, after all, sharp.

She explained it as best she could to Sam as she went, feeling like otherwise he'd disapprove: “This is the first line of fletching”, and “This one's to draw him in farther”, and “I think I'm going to have to leave it at this, none of these are fine-point enough to get it right”.

“Do you only have one chance?” he asked at one point.

“Not really,” Cat replied after a moment. “I could do it as many times as I wanted to if I had enough circles and enough blood. So yeah, pretty much one chance as is.”

“I'm sorry,” he said, like it even had anything to do with him. She waved him off with one hand and kept drawing.

He must have thought she was done, though, when she finished the lines to leave a tiny almost-circular shape in the middle untouched. So that was when Cat brought out the softer pencils, quickly coating her hands and arms with extraneous graphite.

“It's for the same reason as the lines,” she told him, before Sam could ask and make her doubt it. “A gradient. White, light grey, gradually darker until—” Cat threw herself forward on her front to reach “—here.” She indicated the centre, trying not to touch it. “I'm not sure if I should shade it or not.”

“Don't,” Sam said, surprisingly enough.

“Why not?” She raised her eyebrows, doing her best to sound challenging. Likely as not Sam was right just by default of being Sam, and if he could provide a decent justification for it she'd love anyone else's assurance on top of the fragile mess that was her own, but he had to work for it. Or something.

“Light at the end of the tunnel.”

It took a moment before Cat got it, and then she smiled, rueful. “Good point.”

*


The bus stops somewhere she doesn't recognise, certainly not where they're going, but Sam pulls at her elbow until she's standing and they walk out anyway.

“What are we doing?”

Instead of answering, Sam takes a look in both directions that the pavement goes and seems to come to a resolution. He turns to the right, decisively, and puts his hands in his pockets like an afterthought.

She follows, by default.

Sam stops by a half-filled garbage can and pulls the used syringe and the vial out, drops them in.

“Oh.” Cat pauses, and then decides that she should help; she feels around for pockets in the jacket Sam lent her and finds none.

“There isn't anything in there,” he says. “But thanks.” He's looking around again, seeming kind of skittish – not even to mention out of place, dressed as formally as he is. “This'll have to do,” Sam sighs, after a moment.

They walk to a different bus stop.

*


“Paintbrush,” she said curtly, holding out her left hand.

“I don't have a paintbrush,” Sam answered, looking at her hand like it was some strange life-form from outer space or beneath the sea.

“Right.” Cat pulled her lips into her mouth and bit them. “Right. Okay.” She unscrewed the tiny bottle of blood very carefully, and wet the smallest finger on her right hand.

For some reason she's sure she didn't know, Sam laughed, strangled and sharp.

*


On the next bus Cat slumps into her seat (this time she beat Sam to the window, which she takes very childish glee in) and stares at her lap. The dress she's wearing does show some signs of that she washed it in a bathtub, namely that it's kind of wrinkled. It's just as well; she doesn't like it all that much. It'll be nice to get back to the hotel and change.

It occurs to her that she could, at least, take her gloves off and maybe thus take away the feeling of burning pins-and-needles that's assaulting her from elbows to fingertips. It's unlikely that it's anything but nervousness, or perhaps her scars itching with the friction of the gloves and of her aforementioned nerves, but maybe she can fool herself anyway.

Cat's on her left glove and not really watching it come off, staring at the window instead, when she realises that it hurts quite a lot to pull it off. She looks back at her arm and swears. The long half-closed scab from yesterday morning had tried to bind itself to the inside of her glove and is now torn open and seeping blood; the lining fabric is stained somehow darker with it, and her arm already has a few rivulets running down.

She glances at Sam before she decides that even if he's going to scold her it wasn't her fault, and licks the blood on her arm off as subtly as she can.

*


Finally, finally, with Cat kneeling over her piece of paper with her hands covered in graphite and someone else's blood and her knees full of dust borrowed from the carpet, it was finished.

Sam leaned over her – he didn't really need to, it wasn't as if she posed much of an obstacle – to look at it. “Wow,” he breathed.

“Shh,” Cat said, then glanced at the window, hissed an expletive and fumbled for her knife.

“That's it?” Sam asked, seeming confused as Cat's feet vibrated slightly in tune to her trying to figure out where everything was.

“Please,” she managed to gasp through the humming in her head, “be quiet,” and she dragged the pen-like knife roughly down her wrist.

That moment of clarity was almost worth everything; she loved the way she could actually and effortlessly understand the way magic worked when she was doing it. Only when she was doing it, of course, but it was enough to keep Cat coming back and back again, and probably Aaron too.

The blood really didn't flow fast enough, which was annoying, but when it hit the paper – aided by how close she was to the floor, certainly, swaying slightly as she sat on her heels – it separated into perfect thin lines, following where the pencils had been. The humming in her ears got louder (gold fog? That was different), but even through it she could hear Sam breathe in.

Good. Cat was amazing and incredible and all-powerful as long as she had a knife and two hands, he'd do well not to forget that. (Somewhere, in the part of her mind that wasn't riding entirely on this godlike feeling, she was aware that it was probably just the cut that freaked him out. But no matter.)

There wasn't anything flashy about it, though the lack of random splatter – the thin and perfect lines of red – was strange and kind of beautiful. The gold fog was getting thicker to where she could barely even see that, and after a moment Cat slumped forward and the spell was broken.

It occurred to her then that the thin lines of blood on the paper had long-since dried, as had the carefully daubed-on centre part, and so they were not red any more. Shortly afterwards, as she watched them, they weren't.

She wondered what would happen to the photograph. Nothing, probably; all she needed it for was a way for Cat herself to think of him. The target. Maybe next time she did something like this she could see if a bull's-eye focus would work.

Next time. Cat almost laughed at herself. What was it Sam had said so long ago, after the uncomfortable event with the boy and the water bottle? You acclimate to things really quickly. She'd looked at him, completely blank: Yes, and?

Speaking of Sam. She floated vaguely back to reality to find that he had her left arm in hand and a grimly determined look on his face and was winding gauze around it.

“No,” Cat said weakly, trying to pull her arm away.

*


“Oh, Cat,” he grinds out through his teeth, turning to face her at exactly the wrong time.

Cat grins guiltily at him through her arm and says something muffled, she doesn't even know what. She licks up one more extraneous trickle and then faces him. “Listen,” she starts.

“What were you doing? What happened?” His hair's ruffled up and his eyes, she notices, have red all around them. In general, Sam looks sleepless and disconcerted and slightly like his scalp thinks it's an owl.

“I took off my gloves,” she says, recoiling in case he gets angry. “The scab was stuck on them. It's fine, see? It's... coagu... thingy, scabbing, it's scabbing over already.” This is true; there's no new blood coming out, although she can tell from the level of it that it's going to make a really awful scab. Still, digging it out with her fingernails so it won't have any pus in it and will heal properly, however reasonable, will probably give Sam the wrong impression.

He nods, looking like his tie has remembered it's a noose and is choking him again. “Okay. Okay.” Sam contorts a bit to stuff both his hands in his pockets, and the disappointment on his face is almost comical. “Sorry. I don't have any bandages. I'm so sorry.”

“It's fine, seriously.” Cat makes her voice as dismissive as she can. “I don't like them.”

“That wasn't what I was apologising for,” he says, sounding paradoxically both helpless and like he's trying to be commanding. It's very confusing, which is probably not his intention, but which Cat thinks conveys what he seems to think he feels like on the subject fairly well.

What he hasn't seemed to grasp is that it's none of his business. Hopefully that will come in time.

“And it wasn't what I accepted your apology for, either, so stop it.” Cat turns back to the window.

*


“Stop it,” she said quietly, wondering why she couldn't move. It must have come out as a whisper, even, because Sam paused before actually looking at her.

“I have to put this on,” he explained like she was a child, “to stop the bleeding, and so it'll heal right. It'll be all right.”

“Don't be stupid,” Cat told him, voice a bit stronger, sight a bit clearer, euphoria running bizarrely through her veins but shoved aside for the moment at how much she really did not want that disgusting cloth on her. “It's already done bleeding, you're not helping.”

“Cat,” he said. “Please.”

She was about to protest again when she looked at him. It was, what, four in the morning probably, and it showed in his face, but that wasn't what she was looking at. There was something under his face, an impression running around under the bones, that he'd witnessed something that disturbed him and was doing his best to cope.

Mentally, she sighed. He'd asked her, sort of. It would be nice if he could maybe not freak out.

“Okay.”

“Thank you.”

Cat let him wrap her arm in thin, strange cloth, and even waited until he was thoroughly asleep before she pulled the bandages off.

*


“Did I help?” she asks suddenly – it even feels sudden to her, which is strange – still facing the window, but watching her own and Sam's reflections.

“What do you mean?” Sam says. He's slumped back in his seat, legs tangled under one in front of him with whatever unfortunate is there's luggage, and he seems to be fighting off sleep.

“The Org. Did I help?”

Sam, when she steals a look directly at him, has his mouth open like the words were right there and he suddenly couldn't find them. “Yes,” he answers eventually. “The Ant'... The Ant' is the very weakest of our enemies, and they cannot be bargained with really. So this is the best we can do. Yes.”

After a moment of thinking: “Are they also the most dangerous? I mean, in... ideology.” The word is strange and she probably said it wrong; it's the kind of thing Aaron would mention to make sure it would go over her head and then she would feel bad about it.

“Depends how you're measuring.” Sam sits up straighter, she sees the movement in her window, and his hands pick up strange, dreamlike movements. “The Re'idal would quite possibly decimate our world if they got their way, since their model doesn't really allow us to have our own laws of casualty or physics or... anything... it's very complicated. If they win, they'd be the most destructive.”

“But—” Cat presses the issue, despite that the idea makes her feel a bit sick. “What about right now?”

He looks at her sideways, and Cat quickly focuses on the buildings speeding by. “It depends on who you are.”

“Me,” she says, and runs a hand through the overgrown hair that falls in front of her eyes.

She can still see Sam nod.

*


It was morning, and Cat really couldn't see the appeal of doing anything other than staying in bed with her spare trousers and loose borrowed shirt on. By all rights she shouldn't have been cold enough to sleep fully clothed and with socks on, not to mention having searched the little linen closet for another blanket, but while most of her body felt more or less normal she couldn't get any warmth into her fingers or toes, no matter what she did.

By contrast, Sam was sitting on his own mess of a bed that thought it was a desk, mostly dressed, Nadine the white laptop on one knee and Noelle in his mouth as he typed.

“What are you doing?” Cat asked, or tried to ask. It came out as a smear of vowel sounds, blurred with residual sleep and gummy saliva sticking her lips together still. She supposed Sam did have an advantage over her; he'd gone to sleep after some reassurances on her part that there wasn't any way of knowing if it had worked yet and that she would be fine, whereas she had stayed up fidgeting and, on a whim, washing her dress in the bathtub.

Sam more or less seemed to get the message, though, looking over at her and waving. He spat Nadine out after a moment, before Cat could think about a joke on the subject of talking with cell phones near one's mouth, not in them. “Hi! Good morning! Are you all right?”

“It's still morning?”

“Good point.” He glanced at Noelle. “Afternoon, early afternoon, whatever. Hi.”

“Er, yeah,” Cat managed. “Good afternoon.” The sun that made its way in through the mostly-closed curtains coloured the dusty air just like the gold fog that had been in her head.

“I have very good news,” Sam said, and he looked it; he was grinning and smoothing his somewhat fluffy hair back with one hand and almost bouncing.

Cat looked at him expectantly. He looked at her cross-eyed and kind of like a puppy.

Eventually, she caved in. “Okay, what's the news?”

“He's dead,” Sam said, smiling from ear to ear almost. “As I found out when I called, as an occasional associate of the good Mr. Clayton, to ask if he'd like to meet while I'm in town for the next day and a half. The news was shocking and horrible. My condolences go to his family.”

She nodded, waiting, head bobbing back and forth as well as upside down for some reason. It felt strange.

“Well, I told them that if I could, I would like to pay my respects to him and his family; we were never very close friends, after all, but I respected him greatly. And...” Sam drew the word out. “We're invited to his wake,” he finally confided.

“God damn,” Cat said. “Wow.”

“I know!” He sounded absolutely manic, like how Cat had felt this morning. Like how, if Cat thought about it, she still felt now: dizzy and strange and light as air and bright as spun molten silver. “Congratulations.”

That was right, wasn't it, she thought. Sam went to the funerals of people he'd killed whenever he could; he'd never told her why and he'd never let her come, even when that was close to home. He couldn't well keep her from going now.

It was just as well she'd (more or less) washed her dress, Cat supposed.

*


The sun's setting. She only gets flashes of it between buildings, and it's molten and orange and it scalds her eyes, but Cat looks at it when she can see it and scans the buildings for its reflection otherwise. She doesn't feel that she owes it as she kind of owes the moon and stars a favour now, but it's still a good thing to keep in your sight, she thinks.

Cat keeps watching the buildings go by. A lot of them look like home, or sort of like home. Well, like HQ. None of them would look in place in the world she's from, but that blurs in Cat's head a lot lately. She can remember events, faces – Aaron – but the generalities, or even things that should be second-nature, like what colour the flowers on the faded rug in her room were, aren't there any more.

Headquarters is home now. She doesn't really mind.

“This city is very big,” she points out softly.

“Yeah,” Sam says.

“When we get back to the hotel—” Cat's kind of afraid to ask this, even though he promised, because Sam's been so weird today. “Can I try to see about the circle on the floor?”

“Of course,” he answers. “Anything you want. We're not leaving until tomorrow morning, anyway.”

“Okay.” She thinks about her answer for a second and is startled to find that the word fits. It fits everything. So she says it again. “Okay.”

It's a word that doesn't even exist at home and – maybe because of that – it has a nice ring to it.

*


The coffin was closed. Supposedly he'd died peacefully and in his sleep, but maybe it was a family tradition. Cat didn't know.

She tried to act as closely blending-in as she could, but she couldn't help but crane her neck when the first few people – family, most likely – got to take handfuls of dirt and throw them onto the coffin. After the people who seemed to be important, everyone got a turn, walking solemnly to the edge of the grave and taking their own handful of earth.

By the time Cat got there, behind Sam, it was covered already in a thin layer of dirt, so she couldn't hear when her own handful fell in clumsily – she'd used her left hand, it seemed logical. But she cherished how clearly she'd heard the thumps of it falling on the wood at first.

Sam brushed his hands off on his trousers once they were out of sight again.

Cat left hers just as they were.

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lemniscatic: a key and the shadow of a butterfly on a book. (Default)
I wonder who was saved.

April 2011

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