by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
illustrated by beili
Picture this, Terrence always wanted to say afterwards, except he had no one to say it to. Guneet might’ve known — hell, Guneet couldn’t have possibly missed it, the way Terrence had slunk back to their flat smelling of sex and alcohol and Eli’s cologne. She could’ve asked, but she didn’t, but if she had, Terrence would have scowled and told her this:
Picture this, Terrence would have said. It was a party thrown by some asshole Georgetown trust fund inbreds to celebrate them graduating law school, and he only showed up because Eli was drunk and texting him, saying that he should come. Eli never asked for Terrence’s company when he was sober, Terrence would explain, and Terrence was kind of an idiot, so he went to this stupid party where Eli greeted him tipsy and giggly and full-moon happy, handing Terrence beers and telling him that he was a real lawyer now, which didn’t impress Terrence at all, which made Eli cranky. Cranky enough to crawl into Terrence’s lap and start making out with him.
Picture this, Terrence would’ve told Guneet. Eli was drunk and Terrence was horny, and he’d never seen Eli like this, Eli who he argued with all the time during waking hours. Terrence was a twenty-two-year-old upstart gay dude from the wrong side of the hood no matter what the tag on his clothes said, with this blond Adonis trying to get into his pants who would never otherwise give him light of day. So he gave in, heart pounding nervously in his throat, and he and Eli had sex on top of a bed covered with jackets, Eli coming hot and gasping in Terrence’s hand, back arching and toes curling.
They fell asleep afterwards, Terrence would explain. But Eli wasn’t there when he woke up. When they ran into each other again, sober, at a gathering of D.C. Linguists, Eli was perfectly tucked into his cashmere sweater and slacks, and he was avoiding eye contact. They never talked about that night again.
That’s what happened, Terrence would say if Guneet had ever asked. He’d felt angry, then pathetic, and finally resigned because other shit was happening in his already over-complicated life, metaphysical shit even more important than sulking about a drunken one-night fuck.
The root of all magic, he remembered Guneet saying one time as she showed him the Dictionary of Shining Words, is love.
(The root of all magic, Terrence thought, is the combined weight of everything you leave behind).
Well, fuck. Seven years older and wiser meant waking up at five a.m. to a grey D.C. morning. When his alarm buzzed, all Terrence wanted was to shove his head back under the pillows until he drowned in sleep. It was too cold for that, though. The heating in his apartment was a no-go because they hadn’t paid their utility bill. Had maybe not paid it for one, two, three months in a row. He could feel the January chill bite at his toes like a yappy dog.
“Fuuuuuuuuck,” he said out loud to the ceiling.
The ceiling gave approximately zero fucks about his misery.
Terrence made himself get up. As was his routine nearly every morning for the past four years, he made himself get up even though his body was a sluggish piece of dead weight and his eyes were scratchy with morning weariness. He’d worked last night cleaning schools until eleven p.m. and then he had missed his bus and shuddered in the cold for over an hour, trying to wait out the next one. He squinted at the bus schedule on his fridge just to be sure he had this morning’s times right — yeah, okay, he thought, he had about twenty minutes before he had to get out the door.
Twenty minutes was barely enough time to shower, shave, pull on his 7-Eleven uniform, and poke through his fridge for something moderately edible. Christ, he really needed to clean out the fridge. It was starting to actively disgust him, and there was nothing to eat anyway, not even anything he could filch from his roommate Alfonso because the stupid lug only ever drank he-man protein shakes.
He banged on Alfonso’s door as he passed, just to be a dick.
“What the fuck, Ter!” Alfonso shouted, his voice custardy with sleep.
“Morning sunshine, dickface!” Terrence said, and then he threw on his parka and left. The snow covering the sidewalk outside his building was the hard, crunchy kind, and it sounded like stepping on cereal.
His phone buzzed with a text from Alfonso. u kno i’m ur landlord so gunna kill u.
Terrence texted back. technically your aunt is my landlord. technically technically the city of washington d.c. is my landlord, bitch.
The bus was pulling up at the stop when Alfonso replied. u talk like ur white.
On the bus it was quiet, not a lot of people. This early in the morning you wouldn’t be getting the polo shirt-and-slacks 9-to-5 flock. You’d be getting the early birds, the dead-eyed poor folk nodding off against the window before they lurched into wakefulness and scrambled off the bus to get to their job at the recycling plant, Walmart, the delivery depot, whatever place would have them. Terrence had tried to find a job closer to the public housing apartment he and Alfonso shared in Knox Hill, but good luck with that — no one was hiring these days so it wasn’t like choosing from a box of chocolates. He’d ended up snagging part-time hours in a 7-Eleven in Anacostia.
The customers were all right. He could deal with rude people if he had to. But his coworkers, in particular the manager’s nephew, were lazy assholes. Terrence always got stuck working with the manager’s nephew on shifts, meaning Terrence manned the cash register and stocked the shelves while this idiot nineteen-year-old read Playboy pretending to fix the Slurpee machine. You’d think the guy would get tired of glossy plastic tits after a while, but nope. He tried to show Terrence a couple of times, which was a mistake on his part because Terrence might look like a shifty black dude whose picture could be shown on Fox News as a representation of black guys everywhere, but he was also a queer who liked dick and Broadway musicals, so sorry buddy, no tits for him.
Not that Terrence said this out loud. He was as dumb as tofu in a lot of ways but he was at least smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He didn’t talk much to either the customers or Mr. Titty. He kept mostly to himself, ignored any questions about his personal life — “hey, you got a girlfriend?” Mr. Titty asked, rubbing his crotch — and when his shift was over, he bought a chicken salad sandwich, ate it, and caught the bus to Garfield Elementary School where he changed out of his 7-Eleven clothes into custodial threads. He had a cleaning shift from three to nine weekdays.
He liked his janitor job a lot better than the 7-Eleven one, even if he had to work both to make a living wage. Cleaning the school, though, it was peaceful. He wasn’t the day janitor, so by the time he showed up school was already out. The teachers lingering around in their workrooms ignored him, so he could get into a rhythm, slipping on his headphones and mopping floors to the beats of ’90s East Coast hip hop.
Snow was falling again, soft and thick like popcorn, when he headed out to the bus stop. He checked his phone and saw two messages. One was from Alfonso swearing to god that he taught a Kardashian in his spin class that day — Terrence snorted — and the other was from —
Terrence’s breath caught between his teeth like a fishbone.
Elijah Levinson said, I want to talk to you.
Terrence’s thumbs twitched against his screen for a minute or two.
Suck my dick, he finally typed. He pressed send and watched the message swish into view.
He turned off his phone so he didn’t have to see Eli’s reply. When he got back to his apartment he kicked his shoes off and collapsed into bed in his Washington Wizards hoodie and jeans. He looked around his room — small, cramped, with some empty pizza boxes and bottles of beer on the floor — and pictured how different Eli’s room would be. Bastard probably slept on sheets with an obscene threadcount and had a maid to clean out any mess he might make. Terrence didn’t have to try hard to picture it, as he had seen it in person once or twice.
Back then. In his long and illustrious past. When he wasn’t working two jobs to the bone to make ends meet. Back then when Terrence had had his own apartment, a car, an expensive suit, a fucking organic CSA delivered to his door every weekend. God, he had probably been the world’s biggest douche. It hadn’t helped that he’d been a young man come into money after a childhood of no money whatsoever what with a deadbeat dad and a mom who was, among other things, a cocaine addict.
Full circle, baby, he thought. He was living back to his roots now. Isn’t that what over-eager white people always said? No consumer bullshit — super helpful when you could barely afford consumer bullshit anyway.
Terrence burrowed deeper into his bed. Stop it, he thought to himself. The point wasn’t to be bitter. No one had made his choices but him. He’d walked out of his own free will because — well, among other things, he was afraid it would turn him into a monster.
Guneet hadn’t died for him to become a monster.
He had an old photo of her in his wallet. It made him smile every time he looked at it, him an awkward teen with his baggy pants that hung low enough to show the rim of his boxers, and Guneet a middle-aged Indian lady in a bright green sari and arms full of costume jewelry. They were standing on Capitol Hill together and he had his own arms wrapped around Guneet like she was his mother, his teacher, his best friend.
She’d found him on the street when he was fourteen. He’d been running with some gang guys then, and he’d whipped out a gun on her and demanded her wallet, just to show his older friends the balls he had. In broad daylight, mugging some Indian bitch. Guneet had clucked her tongue and handed over her wallet wordlessly, as well as her diamond earrings. But then that night she’d stalked Terrence to the flat where he was hiding out and scared the shit out of him by appearing in his room like an apparition.
Terrence never did drugs, even in his gang days, didn’t want to end up like his mama, but he’d seriously freaked out and wondered if he was tripping. Because Guneet had simply flickered into existence in front of him. One moment he’d been lying on his bed with his hand on his dick trying not to think about his buddy Darren and how the muscles on Darren’s arms flexed when he lifted something heavy, and then Guneet was there staring at him in obvious amusement.
“Fuck, was that magic?” he’d asked, wonder percolating in his voice. He’d been so amazed that he’d forgotten to tuck his dick back into his boxers and it was just hanging out like a piece of corndog.
And Guneet had smiled and said, “Yes, would you like to learn some?”
“Some guy came round asking for you,” Alfonso said.
Terrence had just gotten home. His hands still smelled like bleach from cleaning the toilets at Garfield. He’d washed them with soap twice, but it didn’t really help, so now he’d given up and was eating BBQ chips while watching clips of the latest Wizards game.
“What sorta guy?” Terrence asked. He was pretty sure he didn’t owe anyone money, not at this moment at least, though sometimes friends from his past, guys he’d hung out with on the street, tried to pretend like he did. They’d never been happy that he’d up and left them with Guneet. Terrence could handle them, though. While he wasn’t Mr. Muscles like Alfonso, he wasn’t the scrawny brat he’d used to be either, and his reflexes were fast and precise. Not someone to be overlooked in a fight.
Plus he was a motherfucking wizard. Or at least he used to be.
“What you smiling about?” Alfonso asked suspiciously, leaning against the fridge with his arms crossed. “You never got anyone over. Do you even got friends?”
“I got you,” Terrence said mildly.
“No homo, homo,” Alfonso grinned.
“Fuck you,” Terrence said.
“You wanna piece of this ass,” Alfonso said, turning around and smacking his cheeks. “You want it baaaaaaad.”
“I bet your ass smells like day-old sewer ’cause you never bother to wipe it,” Terrence said. “And who the hell is this guy anyway?”
Alfonso immediately sobered up. “Shit was real. You done something fucked up. You must’ve ’cause this guy be serious business — tall white dude, blond hair gelled up six ways to Sunday, real expensive coat. Like he stepped outta a Gucci ad or something. And he had some kinda hearing problem? I had to talk right into his face for him to get me.”
“He’s deaf,” Terrence said.
“Oh man. Well he was asking about you and I said you were at work, and he said where, so I told him.”
Terrence turned around to face Alfonso. “You told him where I work? What the hell for?”
“Duh, ’cause you got no friends,” Alfonso said. “And he seemed real interested in being your friend.” A smirk slid into his face. “What, did you have sex with him or something? Is he one of your gay-ass boytoys?”
Terrence shrugged. “We had sex once. Years ago.”
“For real, yo? Way to go! Guy was hot. You know, if you’re into taking it up the ass.” Alfonso squinted at Terrence and looked him up and down, which totally wasn’t fair because Terrence was in his boxers balancing a bowl of chips on his stomach — not exactly prime beefcake material. “Yeah, he’s totally out of your league,” Alfonso decided. “You should call him. Then make sweet, sweet love all day.”
It was a sign of maturity, Terrence thought, that he could think about Eli and sex and not want to punch something until his knuckles bruised violet. “Sure, I’ll get right on that,” he said. “Now c’mon, sit the fuck down, you dumbass, and watch TV with me.” While he waited for Alfonso to finally stop dicking around and join him, he glanced at his phone. There was a new message from Eli.
Very mature. You’re just going to ignore me for the rest of your life?
That’s the game plan, Terrence thought, and threw the phone aside.
It was a fucking awful game plan. If Terrence really sat down and thought about it, he would know it for the shit plan it was because Eli was a) a perfectionist and b) a Linguist. A capital L Linguist, able to manipulate the shape of space and matter as he saw fit, so it was no real challenge for him to show up in the middle of Terrence wiping down the grime from the school oven. The doors were all locked from the outside and Terrence was the only person in the building, but suddenly there was Eli watching him curiously by the swinging double kitchen doors. Terrence stuck his head out of the oven and said, in his flattest tones, “What’d ya want?”
Eli frowned a little. Terrence made sure to look him right in the face so Eli could read his lips, and repeated himself while signing at the same time. “What’d ya want?”
“I want you to actually give me a straight answer,” Eli replied.
“Why?” Terrence said. He knew he must be a mess with green-black grime on his hands and in his hair. Figured he’d run into Eli at his sloppiest — what else was new? On the other hand, Eli really did look like he could be modeling for a magazine ad with his blond hair, stupidly elfin bone structure, and his effortlessly well-made clothes. He was wearing a pale calfskin Burberry coat that made Terrence want to run his fingers through it, fingerless black leather gloves, and a silver band on his left hand that made Terrence itch to steal it.
“Look,” Eli said. “I wouldn’t have found you if I didn’t actually need your help. You’re not quite my favourite person in the world either.”
“I’m not your favourite person?” Terrence shot back while signing. “Yo, homeboy. I’m not the one who’s a spoiled whitebread lawyer.”
“I’m Jewish,” Eli said.
“All the same to me,” Terrence said because he knew it’d annoy him. “Why the fuck would I help you? Did Penhale send you to ask? I’m not a Linguist anymore. Whatever rich couple wants you to go to their house and do some razzle dazzle tricks from the Dictionary, I’m not your guy.” He gestured at the oven and the rags. “This is what I do now. Suck it up, princess.”
He wasn’t sure Eli caught all that. Terrence was talking and signing at the same time via contact signing, using Pidgin Signed English to translate his vocal speech into signs as best he could. What he was signing wasn’t an exact match for what he was saying out loud, but Eli seemed to catch the gist of it, and what Terrence missed in the pidgin signs Eli tended to get through lip reading. It was not uncommon for Linguists to go deaf. There were several in the D.C. circles, so both Eli and Terrence had long years of experience with this particular method of communication before they’d had to use it with each other.
He could have just used ASL too, but Eli, who had lost his hearing in an accident three years ago when he was twenty-nine — the same age Terrence was now — had internalized English as his first language and tended to prefer lip-reading and contact signing with very Englishy grammar and syntax over pure ASL. When Eli talked, it was always in vocalized English, and he almost never used signs when talking to a hearing person.
Eli said out loud, “It’s not me or Penhale that needs you. The government of the United States of America needs you.”
Terrence burst out laughing.
“What?” Eli shot back.
“I can’t believe you said that with a straight face,” Terrence said. “The government needs me? What, they can’t fuck shit up on their own?”
“This is strictly confidential, you understand,” Eli said. They were completely alone in the school but even if someone else had waltzed in through the locked doors, Eli would probably know. He’d always been proficient at the Shining Words that allowed you to sense things, even when you couldn’t see them, and Terrence had heard him mutter a Shining Word when he entered the room. “The State of the Union address is scheduled for the first week of February,” Eli said. “We’ve received a threat.”
“Aren’t there always threats?” Terrence said. “Hire some extra security guards.”
“We’ve received a Linguist threat.”
“So?” Terrence said. “The government has Linguists like you and Penhale on retainer when you’re not off being a lawyer. What’d you need me for?”
Eli looked unhappy. “It’s not a threat David and I can handle alone. David is just one Linguist and I’m…” his unhappiness deepened, “I’m not the Linguist I used to be. Not after the accident.” There was a time, when he was younger and brattier, that Terrence would have been over the fucking moon to hear Eli admit his own weaknesses. Eli was the most competitive person he knew; he’d never seen Terrence as his equal in anything. But his confession didn’t bring anything like joy to Terrence now. Instead Terrence felt flat and hollow like a razed treeline.
“You’re the only other Linguist that I trust,” Eli continued. “I know we’ve… had our differences, but I do trust you, Ter.”
Their differences, Terrence thought, and remembered the sweat on Eli’s throat where Terrence had once placed a row of kisses, the wetness of his mouth where Terrence had bitten his bottom lip, made him gasp. He tried to push that memory away.
Eli had clearly forgotten it. “It’s paid work,” he said, looking at Terrence’s janitor shirt. “You’d be given a government contract. You’d be a special consultant with all the privileges that brings.”
“I dunno, they’re keeping me in diamonds and roses pretty good here,” Terrence drawled, signing with slow languid amusement.
“Never mind, I can guess what you said,” Eli interrupted. “Look, this isn’t the usual black-hat Linguists making trouble because they can. It’s not even the usual shit talk of people saying how we have our Shining Words, our magic, so why do we need to be contained by mundane laws? Linguists say that all the time. But this past year, there have been actual attacks against governments in France and Thailand. All hushed up, of course, blamed on normal terrorist cells, but it’s Linguist work.” He ran his hand with the silver ring through his hair. “David and I think, with this threat we got last week, that our president could be next.”
Terrence made a noncommittal sound. Eli couldn’t hear it but the bored expression on Terrence’s face was just as effective. Colour flushed into his face. “It’s your country that needs you. Are you really going to turn your back on it?”
“Yo, I like the good ‘ol US of A as much as anyone,” Terrence said. “But you remember? I’m not a Linguist anymore. I don’t do that shit these days. It’s gonna take more than bald eagles and apple pie to change my mind.” He eyed the oven. It was going to take some industrial solvent to get those black marks out of the insides, and then he was going to have to make sure it was all washed clean — the last thing he wanted was for kids to get sick because of him.
Eli’s voice made him glance over again. Eli was clearly struggling with something, awkwardness slowing his vowels down. “This isn’t because of anything between us, is it?”
Terrence said nothing.
“Because I know I haven’t been that great to you in the past. I was a total asshole, actually,” Eli said. “Now, you were just as bad…”
“Yeah?” Terrence said.
“Come on, don’t play dumb,” Eli said. “You wanted to surpass me in learning the Shining Words just as much as I wanted to beat you.” He leaned forward. “But I don’t care about that bullshit anymore. I don’t need to be competitive with you, Ter, you’ve won.”
Terrence’s hands tightened around the rags. “It ain’t a competition,” he said roughly. “You may have lost your hearing and that sucks, but people died ’cause of us. ‘Cause of me,” he amended. The truth was, Eli had nothing to do with Guneet’s death, hadn’t even been there. That rested entirely on Terrence’s shoulders. He recalled the sweetness, the peaches-and-cream joy with which she had told him that she knew magic, but it was that very magic that had killed her in the end.
“Eli,” he said, speaking and signing very very slowly. “I don’t use those powers anymore. I mean it. I’m done.”
“I’m not asking you to come back as the way you were before,” Eli replied, eyes hooded. “You don’t need to use any Shining Words or powers — only, help us. Be a consultant. Use your eyes and ears and knowledge instead. Guneet taught you so much.”
“But not how to clean a fucking oven,” Terrence said. “Which is kinda what I need to do most right now, okay?”
(It was always the mundane things that were the hardest, every time).
The things Guneet had taught him:
1. How to be a Linguist
2. How to hear the music of the spheres, the sounds that made things happen, made rocks move and glass melt, made invisible things visible and secret things found. How to recreate those primordial, supernatural sounds into something the human vocal chords could utter as Shining Words
3. How to read the Dictionary of Shining Words, the great compendium that was the work of Linguists throughout the ages, constantly added to and amended as new Shining Words were discovered
4. How to use his powers to climb out of his hood and into something better, into circles where rich, influential people respected him, feared him, hired him for his skills
But never, Terrence thought, how to be a good person. Guneet had always assumed he would just know, which was a lot to ask of a troubled, angry son of a crackwhore who’d suddenly had goddamn superpowers at his fingertips. Terrence had had no idea how to be a good person then — but he was trying now, trying so fucking hard.
Working at 7-Eleven, cleaning the school at night, going home and crashing on his bed, paying his taxes on time, being quiet and respectable and boring, those were good things for him. Terrence liked those things, even if he had bags under his eyes the size of pizza pockets. No one was a harder worker than he was, and as a whole it was better that he was applying his work ethic into modest living instead of memorizing Shining Words from the Dictionary and wielding a power whose reach he didn’t understand.
He could still hear the Shining Words everywhere, little pieces of sound that vibrated with the language of the spheres. Sometimes he caught the fragments in the sound of a bird’s wing flapping or in the unexpected burst of a man on the bus’ wild sneeze. But mostly he heard them in music. There was no specific type of music that could claim supremacy; he could hear morsels in anything from classical operas to his favourite hip hop — certain patterns and rhythms that unknowingly echoed the Linguists’ spells, the sound of the Words in Nas singing about his dying mother.
The Shining Words made Terrence shiver like a methhead taking a shot. To be so close to them, feeling their vibrations bending the air to their will, would never stop affecting him. Guneet had opened his ears and mind too far to go back. But hearing them in the wilds was different from speaking them himself, which he would never do again.
Apparently he would also never say the words “you can get two bottles for a $2.99 combo” either. Which was a lot more mundane but from the perspective of paying his bills and buying groceries, just as devastating.
There wasn’t any point in telling his 7-Eleven manager that Duncan, aka Mr. Titty, had been the one stealing from the store. That he’d been overcharging customers for their gum and bottles of Coke, picking out easy targets like new immigrants who’d never work up the courage to object otherwise. Terrence had noticed it early on and told Duncan off — “you’re a fucking dickhead piece of trash” had been his exact words — but he couldn’t stand over Duncan every other second to eagle-eye his transactions, and in the end Duncan was the manager’s nephew, which meant he only had to do his ain’t-I-cute song and dance before Terrence was getting the boot.
“Are you for fucking real?” he said. Duncan shrugged apologetically.
“Hey man,” he said, “nice meeting you.”
Terrence stuck his hands in his parka pockets and calculated what he had left in his bank account. The number wasn’t making him do the dance of the sugar plum fairy. He walked down the street to the bus stop, waited for a while, realized the bus was going to be late, and ducked into another convenience store to buy a chocolate bar. He probably shouldn’t be spending his money on chocolate bars at this point but goddamn he wanted a Snickers. It helped him think as he unwrapped it and stuffed it into his mouth.
He still had time before his evening janitor’s shift so he took the bus to the closest library branch and used their computers to browse Craigslist. Since Terrence hated working retail more than he hated the gunk that no-doubt existed on Duncan’s balls, he looked at some security gigs instead. Stand around and watch video cameras for some empty building at night? He could do that. It would suck having to work a second night job but the solitude of it appealed to Terrence.
He kind of didn’t like people very much, was the thing.
Alfonso was sprawled on the couch playing GTA V when Terrence went home to change for his custodian job. “You looked wrecked, man,” he said.
“I’m just tired,” Terrence said. He swiped his hand over his face. “Don’t worry about it. Was a rough day, that’s all. Wake up tomorrow and I’m gonna be fine.”
He got a job as a night security guard at a high-end commercial tower lined of banks and insurance company offices as well as two tech startups. Three nights in, someone was pointing a gun at his face.
“Whoa,” Terrence said, “chill out, what the fuck you doing that for?”
“Shut up,” the guy said. “Give me your money.”
Terrence thought about what to do. This guy was six-four and looked like a small bull. A small, nervous bull, probably a first-time mugging, maybe the kind that Terrence could talk down, but also the nerves made it more likely that he’d do something stupid like shoot his gun if he got spooked. Terrence didn’t like guns. Terrence, like any healthy individual with two brain cells in his head, was actively afraid of guns.
“Y’know, this is a dumb idea,” Terrence said slowly. “Listen to me, buddy. You’re young, right? Eighteen? Nineteen? What you holding up strangers for?” He pointed to the ceiling. “A building like this got hidden cameras everywhere. And these rich white people who own this tower, they’ll make sure to hunt you down. This ain’t like the hood where justice goes to die. This place has money. They care about their losses.”
“I told you to shut the fuck up!” the guy said loudly, eyes swirling pale in his sockets like marbles. “I’m not robbing the tower, am I? I’m robbing you.”
“Would it help if I said I don’t wanna be robbed?” Terrence asked.
“Give. Me. Your fucking money.”
The gun swung around. Terrence swallowed. “Okay, relax,” he said. He reached into his pocket and handed over his wallet. “Can I — can I at least take this picture out first?”
“Fine, whatever, just hurry the fuck up,” the guy said. So Terrence removed the picture of him and Guneet and also his credit card. He hoped the guy was too jittery to notice. He handed the rest of it over.
He listened to the sound of the guy’s footsteps against marble tiles as he ran off. They were heavy and uneven. Terrence thought of a Shining Word that would have made the mugger slow down, and another Shining Word that would have frozen him in place. For a moment the hunger was itchy against the insides of his throat — he could feel his vocal chords stretch in eager anticipation. But Terrence made himself stop, sit down, and wait the rest of the night out.
He tried to get his bosses at the tower to reimburse the contents of his wallet. He didn’t normally like to make a fuss over himself, preferring instead to just slink off into the wallpaper when things didn’t work out his way, but he needed that money returned. Badly. Not so lucky for him, they decided that a security guard who could get mugged so easily — and they had it all on camera — wasn’t worth paying even minimum wage for.
Back to Craiglist.
A week later he got another job at a construction site. Terrence knew shit-all about construction and building things — he’d always been better, on the whole, at destruction— but he was in good physical shape and could run back and forth handing boards and tools to the guys who knew more than he did. The cold was as dry as fuck when working outside in January, and during his breaks he drank thermos after thermos of cheap coffee.
Then he fell. Like a dumbass who couldn’t keep track of where his feet were going, he fell down a ladder off a second floor framework. The air got knocked out of his lungs with the force of a basketball going flat in a matter of seconds. His hammer and nails spilled out of his toolbelt and tumbled down. Pain shot up his leg. He gasped and blacked out.
When he woke up, he was in a hospital room and there was a girl sitting by his bed.
“Uh, what?” he said thickly. His tongue felt like a giant Fruit Rollup inside his mouth.
He was pretty sure he had never met her before. Not that Terrence was a magical memory wizard who never forgot a face, but in general he didn’t know a lot of teenage girls, which was a shame because he actually liked them a lot. They were better than teenage boys, that was for damn sure. This girl was short and curvy wearing a jean jacket and her hair dyed candy floss pink. She was reading a Marvel comic — he squinted. The Young Avengers.
She noticed him awake. “Oh excellent,” she said. “Eli is going to be so happy that you’re not dead.”
Fuck. Of course Eli had sent her. Terrence immediately tried to crawl out of the bed and slither into the vents, because the thought of Eli being nearby waiting to see him in his injured, dumbass glory gave him a fucking headache. But the girl blocked the door and said, “Don’t be a runner. You had a concussion. Plus you tore a ligament in your leg or something.”
“It hurts,” Terrence agreed, “but there’s no way I can afford the hospital bills, or any of this–” he indicated the room, “so I’m gonna run before they start billing me up my ass.”
“I would rather punch a kitten,” Terrence said, “than let Eli pay for any of this.”
“God, you have such a stick up your ass,” the girl said. “I totally thought Eli was making that up, but he was right. Chill the fuck out, dude. We’re only trying to help.”
“I don’t need any help,” Terrence said and hated the way that sounded, that he’d even tried to justify his reactions to this girl he didn’t know. “Where’s my stuff? I wanna go home.”
“I’m Cass Mendoza, by the way,” the girl said. “Eli talks about you all the time.”
A horrible thought occurred to Terrence. He was almost 100% certain that Eli was as queer as a fish in a barrel but Eli always did have an almost pathological need to be normal, including the time up to his early twenties where he refused to even admit he was gay, so…
“Uh,” Terrence said, “you know that just ’cause your teen years are confusing doesn’t mean you have to hook up with dirty old men, right? I’m pretty sure there’s an after-school special about that. And there are, uh, organizations and stuff to help you work through your–”
“Gross!” Cass said, catching his meaning. “Eli’s my dad!”
I’m dead, Terrence thought. The fall must’ve killed me and this is some weird-ass version of heaven. Or, let’s be fair, hell. Just because he’d been trying to repent for his mistakes the last several years didn’t mean he’d balanced the karmic scales just yet.
“Okay,” he said, sitting back down on the bed and ignoring the pain in his leg. “Try that on me one more time. Slowly, ’cause I’m not very smart. Eli must’ve told you that too. Never finished high school and all. You said…”
“Eli’s my dad,” she repeated.
“Shit,” Terrence said, “Eli, you stupid fuck, what have you done now.”
“She’s my adopted daughter, actually,” Eli said.
“Huh, that’s marginally better than the idea of you knocking up some poor girl during a bout of awful high school sex,” Terrence said. He was back in the hospital bed, sitting up, but at the same time slouching against the headboard, scowling, acting none too graceful about it. Eli and Cass were sitting beside him, Eli having just come from the courtroom where he’d been defending a case.
“It’s cold in here,” Cass complained, using the same style of talking out loud with clear lip movements and accompanying contact signing that Terrence did. “I’m gonna heat it up.” She said a Warmth Word and suddenly it became several degrees warmer.
Terrence gave Eli the most unimpressed face he could muster. “You teaching her the Shining Words?”
“She’s really good at it,” Eli said, and smiled. The pride in that smile blinded Terrence a bit. Eli looked… genuinely, overwhelmingly happy. Something caught in Terrence’s chest. He’d always thought of Eli as this figure from his past frozen in a bubble — that when Terrence had left his old Linguist life behind, somehow Eli too would simply grind to a halt. He had ready-made categories for Eli in his head — Linguist, Fancy Lawyer, Old Money Georgetown Grad, Hot Guy Who Knows His Hotness and Uses It Against Other People. He’d been forced to add Deaf to that category too in the past few years, but he’d never let himself think much of it, that Eli’s life could bend and warp even when Terrence was no longer around to watch it.
“Eli says you’re a really good Linguist too,” Cass piped up. “I wanted to meet you from the first time he told me about you, but he said you probably wouldn’t be into that.”
“You’re his daughter,” Terrence said. “It’s kinda a big deal. I would’ve wanted to meet you. Hell, I would’ve wanted to know about you.”
“How was I supposed to know that?” Eli said. “You haven’t wanted anything to do with me for a very long time.”
“Argh,” Terrence said. “You could’ve at least sent a text about it, okay? ‘Hi Terrence, daughter acquired, teaching her the Shining Words, see ya.'”
“Well now you’ve met her,” Eli said irritably. “Cassandra, this is Terrence Wilson, an old Linguist colleague of mine. Terrence, this is Cassandra Mendoza. I adopted her last year after I caught her trying to steal my car.”
“Dude,” Terrence said approvingly at Cass.
“Right?” she smiled. “I was trying to do it using Shining Words too.”
Terrence’s approval stopped right there.
“Cassandra grew up a lot like you,” Eli told Terrence. “She even found a Linguist mentor who took her off the streets, but hers wasn’t anything like Guneet and he later aban— I mean,” he correct, “he disappeared from her life.”
“He fucking abandoned me, you can come right out and say it,” Cass said.
“Either way,” Eli said, “after I notified the authorities about her attempted car theft–”
“What’d you mean, attempted?” Cass interrupted, fingers flying through the contact signs. “I totally got away with your car!”
“After the authorities were notified,” Eli said, “I realized it would be a bad idea to leave her to the mercy of the juvenile offenders system. Partly because the system needs a lot of work and isn’t in the best interest of any young person—”
“Yadda yadda,” Cass said, rolling her eyes, “here he goes sounding like a PSA. Isn’t Eli the biggest bore in the world?”
“But for a fifteen-year-old who has already received some training in Shining Words, it would have been doubly disastrous,” Eli said. “It’d be like leaving a fire unattended. So long story short, I took her home, said she could stay with me until we figured something out, and then she never left.”
Cass smiled. Eli smiled back at her. The affection between them was so bright it could be seen from fucking Mars.
Terrence realized the rat gnawing at his belly was named jealousy. And that to be jealous when Eli had done the heroic thing, the good thing, the right thing, the very thing Guneet had once done for Terrence — minus the official adoption part, but that was just mumbo-jumbo paperwork anyway — to be jealous after all that meant Terrence was an even worse person than he suspected.
“What does Penhale think about all this?” he said.
Eli shrugged at the mention of his mentor, which was surprising considering Eli worshipped the sun and moon out of Penhale’s ass. “David and Cassandra have their differences in personality,” he said.
“He’s even more of a boring old geezer than Eli,” Cass interrupted.
“But David admires Cassandra’s talent,” Eli said. “He agrees at the very least that since someone’s already been teaching her how to be a Linguist, someone else should at least teach her responsibility and control.” He said the last part gingerly, his mouth tilting in a rueful smile because between himself and Terrence, neither of them could talk with any real authority about a Linguist’s responsibility and control.
Eli had lost his hearing, after all, attempting to speak the Resurrection Word, a Shining Word so dangerous that the Grand Council had chosen to leave it out of their Dictionary entirely. Penhale had taught him to never mess with Shining Words of that power, as no Linguist since the days of the Old Masters had ever successfully spoken the Resurrection Word for a human life. Yet Eli had ignored Penhale for the first time in his otherwise very obedient existence. He’d tried to bring back someone he loved, but in the process he spoke the Word incorrectly, causing the wayward force of the magic to blast through his head and his ears.
He’d had the courtesy to text Terrence about that at least. I think I messed up, was what he had said, and Terrence had gone to him.
At the time it’d been little over a year since Guneet’s death and Terrence had been a fucking mess of his own, and he’d still hated Eli for — well, everything, including that one night they spent together — but he had recognized that this was something he had to do as a decent human being. He’d gone to Eli in the hospital, had watched him sleep, and when Eli woke they’d talked by writing back and forth on a notepad while Terrence stared at the swollen tear-streaked bags beneath Eli’s eyes. On the notepad Terrence wrote tiny, pathetic words, like I’m sorry, man, it sucks, life goes on.
He wondered if Eli even remembered Terrence’s visit. He’d been pretty loopy on grief and drugs and Terrence had thrown out the notepad on his way out of the hospital.
Terrence frowned. He turned to Cass. “So what Shining Words do you know?”
She grinned. Her hands made the signs. “All the first-tier Words, most of the second. I can string sentences together and conjugate–”
“She can barely conjugate,” Eli corrected, slipping into his schoolteacher voice. Terrence had definitely been on the receiving end of that voice once or twice. “Her sentences are still of the single subject and object variety. When she heated this room, she could only use the base Word without being able to add additional Shining Words for specific temperatures, duration, or space.”
“Duh, if I had a better mentor…” Cass teased.
Eli’s face went blank. Terrence could see it like a computer screen whiting out. Ouch, he thought, and Cass didn’t even seem to realize the hurt of her words, still smiling obliviously. If a Linguist went deaf — and there were many who did as an occupational hazard of messing with strange magic — it meant the end of mastery. Terrence couldn’t think of a single high-level Linguist who couldn’t hear the Shining Words that he or she spoke, not when the very craft depended on understanding sounds, on having a good ear. Eli was probably just running the Words on memory and instinct right now.
“I was actually going to bring this up,” Eli said quietly. “Since David and Cassandra don’t get along, and she needs a better mentor than I can provide–”
Cass’ expression flickered with realization, guilt moving behind her dark eyelashes. “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “Come on, Eli, that’s not what I fucking meant at all.”
“No,” Terrence said. “Get this idea outta your head.”
Eli wasn’t looking at Cass anymore. His gaze was fixed on Terrence. “I wanted to ask you,” he said, leaning forward with his hands on his knees. His wrists were pale and slender. He looked beautiful and hopeful and eager. “Not right now, but eventually. If you would take Cass on.”
Terrence shot that shit right down, no hesitation or moment for weakness. “I’m not a Linguist anymore, haven’t I said that a thousand times by now?” he said back. “I wasn’t a very good Linguist when I was one, anyway.”
“Stop bullshitting me,” Eli said.
“I was a fucking awful Linguist, no natural talent,” Terrence said, turning to Cass. “You wouldn’t want me as your mentor, trust me.”
She was scowling. “I don’t want you as a mentor. I want Eli.”
“What?” Eli said. “I didn’t catch that.”
She made exaggerated lip movements. “I said I don’t want Terrence as a mentor. I want you.”
“Cassandra, we’ve been through this,” Eli said. “I can only take you so far. I’ll never stop being your dad, I’ll never stop making pancakes for you in the morning or making sure you get to school on time, mostly because someone needs to ensure you’re not skipping classes — but for Linguists’ work, I’m not…” He pressed his lips together. “I’m a quarter of what I used to be.”
The first time Terrence met Eli, he’d been dazzled by him. By Eli’s confidence, by how things came so easily to him, by the way Eli had accepted the entire world as his right — and why shouldn’t he? Eli had been born with everything while Terrence had gotten nothing. With his clear skin, indulgent parents, prep school education, and high society manners, Eli had been the most self-possessed teenager Terrence had ever met.
(Later he would realize that Eli was just really good at faking it).
“Yo,” he said, distracting Eli. No point in this whole shebang descending into a bucket of misery and tears. “You aren’t a lot of things, but what you definitely are is pushy.” He made himself smirk. “First you ask me to come work for the government and now you’re asking me to take on your daughter? Give a man a fucking moment to breathe, dude. One thing at a time.”
“Right,” Eli said, straightening his spine. Terrence could see the armour snap back on, buckle by steel buckle. “Yes. About the government job…”
“I’m in a hospital bed right now, for fuck’s sake,” Terrence said. “I think I tore a ligament in my leg. Or something. That’s what your girl is telling me.”
“So what?” Eli said. “Do what everyone else does in D.C. It’s called telecommuting.”
“Do you recognize any of the voices in the recording?” Eli asked.
“Get that Macbook away from my face,” Terrence said, batting at it.
What with his hands flailing in the air, Eli could depend on neither lip-reading or signs, so he paid no attention to what Terrence was saying and tried to set the Macbook down on Terrence’s lap. Terrence was at Eli and Cass’ Penn Quarter penthouse propped up on the cream suede living room couch trying not to put too much pressure on his leg. Eli was hovering over him. Cass was off in her room doing god-knows-what. He knew it was her room because the door that was closed had a Ziggy Stardust poster on it. He knew it was Eli’s penthouse because it had floor-to-ceiling windows, Eames chairs, and a no doubt astronomical property value.
“I own it, it’s mortgaged,” Eli said.
“Woohoo that the whole lawyer thing is working out for you, ’cause I know consulting for the feds can’t pay that much,” Terrence said, tipping the Macbook off his lap. Eli bent down and caught it before it hit the floor.
“For fuck’s sake, trying to deal with you is like dealing with a six-year-old child,” Eli said.
“That’s not true,” Terrence said. “A six-year-old child’s never sucked your cock.”
“Gross,” Eli said.
“That’s not what you said,” Terrence retorted.
“Ter, let’s be real. I’ve had better than you doggy-style against the Salvation Army dumpster,” Eli said.
For a moment Terrence was surprised into genuine silence. Then he laughed as he said. “First, what the fuck were you doing by the Salvation Army dumpster? Secondly, what happened to the real Elijah Levinson and where can I get him back?”
“I have lots of adventures I’ve never told you about,” Eli said peaceably. “Now tell me if you recognize any of the voices in this recording because I sure as hell can’t hear anything.”
If it would get Eli off his back faster, then fine. The Macbook was open to iTunes, and there was a file paused that had the name 12/07/3:15. “So what’s this you want me to listen to?” Terrence said. “If it’s heavy breathing, I’m gonna bolt.”
“White House security personnel received this phone call on December 7th,” Eli replied. “Listen.” He leaned over close enough that Terrence could smell his cologne. It had notes of leather, tobacco, and rum, and Terrence’s entire body tightened with familiarity. He knew this cologne. It was Eli’s favourite. Maison Martin Margiela’s Jazz Club. Focus on what he’s saying, not what he smells like, dumbass, Terrence told himself, and pulled himself back in time to catch the start of the recording.
The quality wasn’t great. Static jumped in and out of it like lightning arcs, but through it there were two people’s voices. One of them, a female alto, Eli quickly identified as White House staff. The other voice, a man’s, was calling in. Terrence listened as the man made an explicit threat: if the president did not stop blocking the free rights of American Linguists, there would be a price to pay. All of you sitting ducks in a row, the man growled. Under the same roof, listening to the same sounds. You think you’re so safe.
“And that’s meant to be the State of the Union coming up at the end of the month,” Terrence stated.
“Most likely,” Eli said, going over a transcript of the call in his hand. “The State of the Union address is when all the high-ranking members of the American government are under one roof. Perfect time for a terrorist attack.”
“All except for one,” Terrence said.
“This year the Secretary of Education will be staying behind,” Eli confirmed.
“What does this asshole mean by blocking the free rights of American Linguists?” Terrence asked, tilting his head back. “I thought America was too busy oppressing black people and poor folk to care about Linguists.” Most people didn’t even know about the existence of Linguists. Those in powerful positions, or in certain well-connected circles, tended to know, but it was hardly something that was going to be broadcasted on CNN as part of the evening news.
Eli took a seat on the couch beside him.
“Watch it, that’s my leg,” Terrence said but only half-heartedly. Eli rolled his eyes.
“After the attacks in France and Thailand, there’s been concern in Washington,” he said. “By concern I mean worry, and when people worry, they start trying to figure out ways to stop the problem and stop the worrying. Do you know how in France they’re currently trying to pass a bill that would require all French Linguists to be registered?”
“How can they pass a bill about Linguists?” Terrence said. “We’re supposed to be a secret. Like your mama kissing Santa Claus.”
“It’s a shadow bill,” Eli said. “The legalities of it are obviously in question, which makes it even more controversial — you mean you haven’t heard any of this at all? Guneet had a lot of French friends from what I remember.”
Terrence shrugged. Up and down. “I don’t keep in touch.”
“Anyway,” Eli said, “the American government is thinking about doing the same. The topic’s come up in several conversations, and there are some vocal lobbyists who support Linguist registration… as well as even stricter methods.” He frowned. “There’s been talk of having every Linguist assigned to an officer who will monitor their activities.”
“Like a fucking parole officer,” Terrence said. “You’re okay with this?”
“I’m not okay with it at all,” Eli snapped. “Registration maybe, with the right system and the right procedures in place. But Linguists are citizens like anybody else, and I would never consent to being treated like a criminal by the FBI without actually doing anything wrong. David and I have added our voices to these conversations, advocating for Linguist rights. I think we’re making headway and changing minds, but clearly…” He gestured at the Macbook. “The fear still exists. On both sides.”
“So this douche in the recording,” Terrence said, “he must got connections to government if he knows about these closed-door conversations you’re all apparently having.”
“I think so too,” Eli said. “He could be someone on Capitol Hill right now, or someone close to a staff member or politician. I can’t hear his voice, so I thought I’d ask you. I know you never forget a voice. You’ve got an amazing ear.”
“Yeah, all delicate and shell-like,” Terrence said. But he was surprised again by the ease of Eli’s praise, by how it had fallen so clean and ripe from his mouth. It made their old rivalry seem even further in the past, a memory of childhood like an outgrown sweater.
Eli must have been thinking the same thing, because he said, “I meant what I told you before. I’ve changed.” He touched his own ear. “Life-altering events will do that to you,” he said wryly. “When I was lying in the hospital bleeding my brains out of my head, I had a lot of time to think about things. Things I regret.”
“Including ‘why was I always such a dick to Terrence?'” He said it without real rancor, but back then it’d mattered. When Eli was a golden prince and Terrence was gutter trash, it’d mattered that Eli had never said a nice word to him. It was fine when Terrence was a dick because Terrence had to protect himself, but what did Eli ever had to fear? He’d had all the power between them.
“Including ‘why was I always such a dick to Terrence,”” Eli repeated. “Now come on, you martyr, do you recognize the voice in the recording or not?”
“Nope,” Terrence said. “Never heard it before in my life.”
“Damn,” Eli said. “But you might know someone who does, right?”
“Didn’t you hear that part where I told you I don’t keep in touch with Guneet’s old friends?” Terrence said.
Eli touched his ear again.
“Sorry, you know what I mean,” Terrence said. “But when I stopped being a Linguist, I don’t mean I stopped except for Sundays and the occasional fucking Christmas card with a photo of a puppy. I stopped. Cold turkey. I don’t talk to anyone from my old life. Except you, I guess.”
“But could you get back in touch with your old contacts?” Eli pressed. “Pass this recording to them? The Linguist world is a small one but full of people who never forget a sound — someone must be able to recognize this voice.”
“I closed those doors for a reason,” Terrence said. He looked at Eli. Eli looked back at him, steady and sad and wise (when did Eli ever grow wise?).
“I know that,” Eli said slowly. “When you — when you walked away from being a Linguist, I never tried to stop you. I know you have good reasons. But people could die if we don’t get to the bottom of this, Ter. A Linguist threat is a serious one. I’m not asking you to speak Shining Words. I’m not asking you to step back into that role. All I’m asking is for you to make a few calls.”
Terrence looked down at the computer on his lap. It was warm. He could see Eli’s desktop background set as a photo of him and Cass under the cherry blossom trees. They were making silly faces at the camera together, Cass with her tongue out and Eli with his eyes crossed.
He remembered Guneet telling him, all those years ago, that the root of all magic is love. The only person who ever loved Terrence was dead, but unfortunately, he thought, that didn’t remove the burden of responsibility from him. He had to become someone worthy of her memory.
“You make it sound so fucking reasonable,” he said to Eli. “I hate it when you do that.”
Eli faxed him the contract. Which was kind of a mistake in and of itself because why would Terrence have a fucking fax machine just sitting around his apartment? So Eli came over to deliver the paperwork, which already had the wet signature of some government official on it, officiating Terrence’s contract as a security consultant for the federal government effective immediately until the State of the Union or when the threat was caught, whichever came first. Terrence glanced over the pay, deemed it was good — it was a hell of a lot more than he was making currently, that’s for sure, though not as much as he once made working freelance with Guneet — and said it quickly.
“Does this make me a whore?” he joked to Alfonso once Eli had left. “I’m just in it for the money.”
“Nah, you’re not pretty enough to be a whore,” Alfonso said.
“Fuck you, I’m fine as hell,” Terrence said.
“Nuh uh,” Alfonso said. “Your friend Mr. Elijah there, he’s fine as hell. You look like you’re one day away from being homeless, man.”
Alfonso did have a point. If Terrence was going to rub elbows with the president’s people, he might want to get at least a haircut. Signing the contract provided him an advance payment, a detail he was pretty sure Eli had negotiated for him. Terrence cashed the check, got the haircut, got a shave too, and debated buying a new shirt but then decided that nah, jeans and a hoodie was exactly what the feds were going to get.
Eli sent a car for him on Monday. There was a driver who referred to him as “Mr. Wilson” and snacks in the back.
Holy shit, Terrence thought. It’d been a while since he’d traveled in any way other than packed like prairie dogs on the bus.
Eli worked mostly out of his penthouse, which was where the driver delivered Terrence. When he rang up, he found Eli standing barefoot at his kitchen counter making PB&J sandwiches for Cass’ after-school snack. “Hey,” Eli said, “come in.” He put down the sticky knife and showed Terrence his office where he had cleared half of his long L-shaped desk and set up another computer and chair for Terrence to work at.
“You’ll have to put up with me doing lawyer work during the day,” Eli said apologetically.
“I don’t remember you working from home before,” Terrence said. “How often you go into the office these days?” Eli worked for Goodwin & Hart, a well-respected D.C. law firm where he mostly handled copyright and intellectual property cases. He was good, from what Terrence heard. Very good. But that’d been before the deafness. He hadn’t heard anything about Eli since.
“I go in once a week,” Eli replied. “I don’t take as many cases as I used to. It’s harder for me now to be in court. Even with interpreters. Sometimes things move very quickly and I can’t keep up.” He said it lightly, but Terrence could see the frustration underneath. “Good thing I’m a trust fund baby, huh?” Eli said. “Otherwise I’d never make the mortgage payments on this place.”
Terrence said nothing except, “Make me a fucking coffee, okay?”
“One espresso coming right up,” Eli said and pattered off.
The espresso was very sweet, just the way Terrence liked it. He settled into his side of the office while Eli got to work. Eli had a TTY phone but clearly ignored it to do most of his communications via Skype or email. For the rest of the morning Terrence caught him talking to clients, doing legal research, and barking orders to his paralegals, including a fresh-faced young woman on the screen who Terrence waved at mischievously. He saw her signing to Eli, asking who’s that?
“A friend,” Eli said. “Now get me the latest Kerley ruling on open content licenses.”
While Eli worked his day job, Terrence began the long slog of tracking down Guneet’s old contacts. All of her belongings, including her day planner, had gone home to her family in India, so Terrence had no written record of her friends, but he pulled upon memory and wrote down as many names as he could. Then he started tracking them down online, copying down their contact information in a spreadsheet.
Some were easier to find than others. The black hat Linguists were the hardest, leaving barely a whispery trace on the Internet of their whereabouts. Not that Guneet had been friendly with very many black hat Linguists. Mostly she had run with white hat Linguists, who fell along a spectrum of being active helpers of government and law officials — like Penhale and Eli and their standing contract with the feds — or like Guneet and Terrence, who hadn’t involved themselves explicitly with the authorities, but who made it a point to never use their magic for criminal purposes.
Guneet had been most well-known for her ability to speak Healing Words, as a matter of fact, and had done a fair amount of charity work in addition to working freelance for the rich and famous. She charged her clients who could afford it exorbitant prices to heal their arthritis and tumours, and then turned right around did the same at inner-city hospitals for free. It took a lot out of her to use the Healing Words, so she could never heal more than two or three people per day, but Terrence remembered feeling the sense of awe and wonder when he watched her do it.
Those were the diamonds and champagne days, he liked to joke. Guneet had expensive tastes and could never resist a luxury that spoke her name. Those were the days she plied Terrence with Givenchy blazers and Cartier watches, and they’d vacationed in Ibiza with oil tycoons and supermodels.
A lot of Guneet’s contacts still ran in that world, he found out. At least one of them, a woman named Georgette Turner, had made it all the way to the Grand Council of Linguists, which was the closest thing to a governing body that Linguists around the world had. The Grand Council was a fifty-odd congregation in Stockholm who met, discussed the concerns and interests of Linguists, and maintained the Dictionary. They also had an arm of white hat Linguists that acted as global law enforcement, tracking down rogue Linguists who posed a threat to society, but this arm had limited resources and reach.
It was, largely, a Wild West world out there for Linguists. Terrence could see why people in the federal government would fear their kind. He could see why Eli and Penhale would work so hard to provide some sort of law and order.
Terrence tracked down contacts, stopped to have lunch — Eli made them a cheese and charcuterie board, which Terrence wolfed down — and then worked some more until Cass came home for her fifth period spare. She demolished the PB&J sandwiches — “my favourite, thanks!” she said — before Terrence checked his watch and got up from the desk. He tapped Eli on the shoulder.
“I’m gonna borrow your driver, okay? Gotta get to my evening job,” he said.
“Wait,” Eli said. “What evening job? You’re already here.”
“My job at Garfield Elementary, genius,” Terrence said. “You think accepting this contract means I’m gonna quit Garfield?”
“I thought…” Eli said. He’d been making notes on an affidavit. He rolled his pen over his lips distractedly, licking the capped end. “I guess I did.”
“This is a contract,” Terrence said matter-of-factly. “When it’s over, I’m back to being underemployed. Which is better than not being employed at all. Plus I like cleaning the school.”
“You like it,” Eli echoed.
“It’s peaceful, honest work. It suits me,” Terrence said, enjoying Eli’s confusion. He grabbed his jacket off the couch and pulled it on. “Bye, Cass.” She looked up from the living room TV where she was sprawled out watching anime. She grunted. “Don’t set anything on fire,” he told her as he left.
“Same to you,” she said.
“You really should wear something different,” Eli said, looking him from head to toe. “Since we’re going to the White House.”
“Blow me,” Terrence said sweetly.
“Whatever you say,” Eli replied, adjusting his green silk tie, which was already tied in an annoyingly perfect Windsor knot. “I feel like I used to care more about stuff like this. Now, I can’t even summon up the energy to fight you about it.”
“I’m washed, clean, have two eyes, a nose, ten fingers — what more do you want from me?” Terrence agreed.
But appearances were how you controlled the way the world saw you, Terrence knew. Eli being handsome and put together, so elegantly polished that you would never question his ability to get things done, or see the rough edges of his disability. Terrence in his street clothes, a casual but meaningful demonstration of I-couldn’t-be-bothered. There was a time, during diamonds and champagne, when stuff like this mattered to him too, and his wardrobe matched his ambitions. Now, luckily, he had no ambitions to speak of. But hey, he’d gotten the haircut at least.
They headed downstairs to where Eli’s driver was waiting. Eli opened the door to let Terrence in first, offering his hand when Terrence put too much pressure on his bad leg and stumbled. Gentlemanly dickwad.
The drive to the White House was quiet. Eli was flipping through emails on his phone, so Terrence stared out the tinted windows at the snow and the grey woollen sky. He absentmindedly started picking the dirt out from underneath his fingernails, realized what he was doing, and stopped. Eli texted Penhale to tell him they were coming. He frowned at the reply.
“Don’t think he’ll be very happy to see me, huh,” Terrence said.
“Can you please try not to pick a fight with him?” Eli said. “As D.C. Linguists, we should at least try to put up a unified front.”
Terrence smirked. “Beg me nicely and maybe I won’t.”
“If I actually thought that would work,” Eli muttered. He tucked his phone into his pocket. “Okay, we’re here.”
The White House was always so much smaller than it seemed in the movies. Despite being born and raised in D.C, Terrence had never actually been at its gates more than once or twice, and every time he was jolted by this thought. If he were a black hat Linguist, a radical with the promise of violence… well, that was a dangerous thought. But it was also a thought they were paying him to have, measures and countermeasures, so he kept his eyes open as they drove up to the side entrance and went through security. He was thoughtful and analytical, focusing his gaze on everything in order to remember it.
Guneet had never taught him this. Her world, lush and expensive and carefree, was not one of security cameras and firearms. But Terrence had grown up in the roughest parts of the city, had lost three cousins and two uncles to gang violence, had watched his mother arrested three times before she OD’d, had seen friends and neighbours harassed and shot for no reason other than being black. Even when he was living with Guneet, he’d never lost his sense of wolfish alertness.
Eli was smooth and gregarious, flirting with the female Secret Service agent as she checked their credentials. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to say that again,” he said pleasantly when she spoke with her face turned away from him. She turned back towards him and smiled so that he could lip-read her properly.
“Agent Weaver is waiting for you,” she said. “Follow me.”
The first thing Terrence saw when he entered the room was David Penhale. It’d been four years but Eli’s mentor looked exactly the same: tall, silver-haired, patrician, dressed in black like he was perpetually about to attend a spinster great-aunt’s funeral. He had known Terrence was coming so there was no surprise registered from him, but his lips settled into a crooked line of disapproval when he saw Terrence actually amble in.
“Hi David,” Terrence said. “Long time no see.”
“Terrence,” Penhale said coolly. “I had thought you’d fallen off the face of the earth.”
“Well, Toto, I come crawling back,” Terrence said. He turned to address the other person in the room, a dark-skinned woman in a navy pantsuit. “Terrence Wilson,” he said, shaking her hand. Guneet had taught him manners; he only ignored them for people he knew. “Disgraced Linguist at your service, ma’am.”
“Meredith Weaver,” she said in a no-nonsense voice that he liked immediately. “Head of the security detail for the State of the Union address. David and Eli tell me you’re none too eager to leap back into Linguist work based on some past history, but I trust that now you’ve said the contract, you will perform your duties to the best of your ability.”
“I don’t renege on contracts,” Terrence said.
“Is it true you haven’t spoken any Shining Words for four years?” she asked.
Terrence tossed a glance at Eli and David, the latter of whom was stone blank. “Yeah, it’s true,” he said.
“Are you considerably rusty then?”
“Probably,” Terrence said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “But yo, Eli’s told you that I don’t—”
“Would you be able to speak the Shining Words if called upon in an emergency situation involving the president and/or members of the government?” she pressed.
Well, this was intense. “Like I said. I don’t wanna. But. If people are hurt. If there’s no other choice,” Terrence said. “If I have to.” Unease settled into the floor of his belly and curled up there like a snake.
“Good,” she said. “Then welcome to the team.”
Penhale took over. He briefed Terrence on the steps that had already been taken to secure the Capitol for the State of the Union address. Outside of the regular tightening of security — for a night that would already be packed to the gills with extra guards and agents — Penhale and Weaver would have everybody entering the Capitol that night provide a voice sample that would then be analyzed and matched to the voice of the terrorist in question.
“I would like for you to oversee the matching,” Weaver told Terrence. “The computer can only do so much. I want it to pass by your ear as well.”
“Okay,” Terrence said, “I can do that.”
Anti-Linguist security was still something of a novelty, but a security company in France whose CEO was a Linguist had been developing a voice sensor that could be installed in all the rooms of the Capitol. When loaded with an existing database of Shining Words, the Arcanum could pick up on anything arcane that might be spoken in its presence. It was a very expensive and delicate piece of equipment, but the White House was willing to purchase it for seats of government, which told Terrence how scared of Linguists everybody really was.
“An existing database of Shining Words,” Terrence said. “With a null-suffix attached to each one, right?”
“Of course,” Penhale said. He explained to Weaver, “Even recorded, Shining Words are powerful. There is a null-suffix that can be attached to a Word that will immediately cancel out its power. It’s how we communicate the Shining Words to each other when we don’t want them to actually have effect.”
“But the null-suffix is high-level craft,” Eli said. “It has to be conjugated differently depending on the type of the Word.” He smiled. “If only I could teach Cassandra null-suffixes — so much damage would be averted.”
“Mmm,” Weaver said. “Terrence, I want you to go over this Arcanum database as well to make sure it’s up to snuff. Penhale, send the files to him.”
Then she turned to Eli. “How’s the recruitment of Linguist guards? If only there were more of you on our roster — it’ll take forever to verify and approve civilians, but I still want you to get as many as you can.”
“I’m contacting the D.C. Linguist circles,” Eli said. “I have a few names for you. With the talk of registration, there’s been uneasiness in working for the government—” Terrence snorted “–but I’m also turning to contacts in New York and Philadelphia.”
“Good,” Weaver said, “and Terrence, you’re trying to track down our mystery man through your old circles, is that correct? How can we be sure we’re not just talking to the same people between the both of you?”
“All of Eli’s contacts are David’s contacts,” Terrence said, “but me and Guneet used to run in different circles than the two of them.”
“That’s correct,” Penhale said. “Guneet was more of a world traveler than I am. She is likely to have had a wider circle of connections across a broader range of social strata and positions.”
“You mean, she talked to trash,” Terrence said.
“Is that what I meant?” Penhale replied.
“No arguing,” Weaver cut them off. “My hope is that none of this will come to pass and we’ll catch the guy before the State of the Union and have him cozy behind bars the entire night. Unless this is part of a larger plot. I need us to find that out. Preferably before any threat can be executed. Do we understand? I do not want rogue Linguists running amok on Capitol Hill making everyone wet their pants,” She smiled, sudden and sharp. “That’s the hope anyway. Gentlemen, start your engines.”
There was a cut underneath Eli’s ear, right where his hair started to curl towards the nape of his neck. Terrence had heard people specifically describe that curl as sweet, which was a level of nauseating he wasn’t prepared to handle. He had stopped for a break to stretch and rub his still-healing leg muscles when he noticed the cut. Eli was absorbed in his work, reading over his latest case notes with an expression of serious concentration. He didn’t hear Terrence get up (obviously) or notice Terrence approach him until Terrence had reached out and touched his finger to the cut.
Terrence had no idea why he was doing this — it was just an urge, lonely and yearning. He regretted it the moment Eli looked up, saw him, and jerked like a bee had stung him.
Don’t touch Eli, Terrence thought angrily. It’s ain’t your right, man. He doesn’t want it and you’re not that pathetic anymore.
“Sorry,” Terrence said. He pulled his hand back. “You, uh, have a cut.”
Eli touched the cut. His face seemed a little red. Probably the winter chill on his fair complexion or whatever. “Yeah,” he said. “Courtesy of Cassandra and our lesson last night.”
Terrence barked out in laughter. “You’re handing her knives during lessons now?” He would have no idea since Eli and Cass usually spent their time together in the evenings, after Cass got back from school and Terrence left for Garfield.
“When I’m teaching her how to make potato gratin? Yes,” Eli said. He peered at Terrence. “What, did you think I would give her a blade when teaching her Shining Words? Jesus, what kind of insanity would that be?”
“Hey man, I’m not up to date with all these methods of modern pedagogy,” Terrence said. “So she accidentally cut you with the knife, huh? Instead of the potato.”
“She was very apologetic,” Eli agreed. He looked at the phone and Terrence’s open spreadsheet on the computer. “How are the calls going?”
“So far, nothing,” Terrence said. “It’s one long fucking walk down memory lane, though. I never thought I’d ever talk to these guys again.” Some of it wasn’t too bad. There’d been people Terrence liked and respected, people who sounded genuinely pleased to hear from him. They asked after him, inquired how he was doing, and no way was he going to tell them the truth so he made up an anemic lie about his new apartment, boyfriend, and security consulting job.
“Happy to hear this,” Hei Dao from Shanghai had said in his melodic English. “You were always so talented. The best of us, Guneet always said.”
Other contacts were not so generous. Terrence was glad that Eli was incapable of hearing some of those conversations.
After a lunch break — where they ate leftover potato gratin and Eli chopped them up a salad with candied orange peel and walnuts — Terrence placed a call to Janek Banaszek, who had once lived in New York and was Guneet’s favourite drinking buddy back when. Janek, according to Facebook, had recently returned to his native Poland, where Terrence called him, apologized for the time difference, and explained that he needed help identifying the voice on his recording.
Janek, who had been a thin, crow-like man with a big, booming voice, listened quietly as Terrence explained. “No, I don’t recognize the voice,” he said when it was over.
“Okay. Well, thanks for listening,” Terrence said. “And if you do remember hearing it, this is my number at Eli’s. You can reach me at it from nine to five. Outside of that, this is my cell.” He rattled off the numbers.
Janek was quiet once more. Terrence could hear his steady breathing with a hint of a wheeze — Janek always did have lung problems. Then Janek said, even more softly with some shuffling noises in the background, “You are staying with Elijah? David Penhale’s protegee?”
“I’m working out of his place during the day,” Terrence said. “I think it’s ’cause he wants to keep an eye on me. Doesn’t trust me at all.” He laughed. Janek did not laugh.
“And why should he?” Janek said.
“What?” Terrence asked.
“You killed Guneet.”
Terrence’s bones went rigid. Now he remembered. One time he had come across Janek and Guneet playing chess and drinking whisky on the veranda, Guneet’s face open and friendly while Janek’s had been closed, except for a brief moment when Janek had not known Terrence was watching, when Janek lifted his eyes to Guneet’s and Terrence had thought, That’s the face of a guy in love.
“You killed Guneet,” Janek said. “You spoke the Killing Word and drove it into her body. You are a sociopath. Why should Elijah trust you with anything? You walk free while she is dead.”
Terrence could hear his own breath, sharp and harsh, pulled in like water from the wall.
“Do you deny it?” Janek said. “Do you claim you aren’t her murderer?”
“No,” Terrence said. “I did it.”
“Then don’t call me ever again,” Janek said, and hung up.
It was hard to breathe afterwards. Terrence had been expecting at least one person to throw it in his face, but he hadn’t thought it would be Janek — but why not? he wondered. Janek had loved her. Janek had grieved her. Terrence stood up in a daze and walked out of the study into the kitchen where Cass had just returned from school, balancing on a barstool while going over her math homework.
“Blah, this stuff is boring,” she said. She didn’t see the way Terrence’s hands shook or his slightly desperate lunge for a glass of water. “Who uses calculus in the real world?”
“Not me,” Terrence agreed. He drank the water deeply; it was cool against the heat of his throat. He pressed the glass to his forehead and closed his eyes.
Cass chattered onwards. “Sure, I guess it makes sense if you want to become an astrophysicist or whatever. But for the rest of us, why can’t we take the subjects that are actually useful? Like French. Or shop class. Man, I would love to take some more shop class. I could show those jerks a thing or two about cars.” She grinned up at Terrence. “Or a class in Linguistics, but that would never happen.”
“I can’t imagine anything more horrifying than teaching Shining Words to a class of dumbass high schoolers,” Terrence said.
“So we can do cool shit like this,” Cass said and spoke the Fire Word. Flame burst through the air, but because Cass hadn’t spoken other Shining Words to specify what should catch on fire, Cass and Terrence watched the fruit bowl go alight.
“Oops,” she said. She spoke the Water Word. Same thing. Water gushed from the pantry, nowhere near the fruit bowl.
She tried again. Water swelled like a fist through the cupboard where Eli stored his teas.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, I told you not to set anything on fire,” Terrence said, and went to the sink to fill a bowl and put things out the old-fashioned way before the entire kitchen would burn down around their ears. Janek would probably like that, he thought.
Eli walked into the kitchen. “Who here feels like having some apples?” he yawned, and then stopped in his tracks. “What the hell is going on?”
“I have nightmares that I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and there will be no apartment left,” Eli said the next day. “Stay for dinner.”
“Wait, what?” Terrence said, balking at the sudden change of topic.
“You had to work over the weekend because of a plumbing emergency, so you get today off, right?” Eli said.
“It’s a little creepy that you know that,” Terrence said, watching Eli at the kitchen counter prepping for some North African lentil soup. “You stalker.”
“Everything that goes through Cass’ ears comes out of her mouth,” Eli said. “She mentioned it this morning.” He rested his knife against the counter. “She’s out shopping at H&M with friends. She’ll be back any moment now. So stay for dinner.”
“What if I don’t wanna?” Terrence said, just to be a dick. “What if all I want is to go home and wash my hair?”
“Ter, I’m fairly certain you eat Easy Mac and ramen all day,” Eli said. “I’m just trying to feed you properly.”
“When’d you turn into such a fucking mama hen?” Terrence said. “Oh, right. Daughter. It’s gonna take me a while to get used to that.” He looked at the soup Eli was making and his stomach rumbled. “Fine. I’ll stay.”
Eli smiled brilliantly. “What were you actually going to do at home?”
“I dunno,” Terrence said. “There’s a Wizards game on night. They’re playing the Raptors.”
“We can watch that,” Eli said.
“I thought you hated basketball,” Terrence said with his eyebrows raised.
“When did I say that?”
“I was seventeen, you were twenty. I’m pretty fucking sure the exact words out of your mouth was ‘I hate basketball.’ Guneet had brought me over to Penhale’s. We had to keep ourselves busy while the grownups talked shop. You turned off the game so you could study for an exam.”
“I don’t think I ever said that,” Eli said. “I like basketball.”
“You’re such a fucking liar,” Terrence said. “People don’t change that much.”
“Maybe,” Eli said. “You’re still a lot like how I remember you.”
“Yeah?” Terrence said. He pulled out a barstool and climbed onto it a bit awkwardly with his bad leg. “Like how?”
“Still stubborn,” Eli said. “Still a potty mouth. Still determined to barrel through every one of life’s difficulties through sheer will.” He smiled. “Still likes basketball.”
“They’ll put it on my fucking gravestone,” Terrence agreed. He couldn’t help but notice how easy this conversation was flowing. Talking to Eli had never been easy before. Was this the miracle of finally being a mature adult? Was it because it was technically harder, signing and lip-reading and all that, so they were putting more effort into it? Whatever the reason, if he didn’t know better, he would say that Eli was flirting with him — that voice, that slight cock of his hip — but he did know better. Eli was just trying to be the friendly host. It was those New England manners of his.
Eli’s phone buzzed. He picked it up to read the text. “Hmm, Cassandra won’t be coming home for dinner after all. She and her friends are going to sneak into a R movie.”
Terrence couldn’t help but smile. “Good on her.”
“Totally,” Eli said. “I’m glad she has friends to keep her company. Otherwise I would have to start buying them for her and then where would we be?”
“I dunno if you’d be able to properly select the right friends,” Terrence shot back. “Cass seems like a cool girl. Your friends from what I remember were all idiot jocks.”
“True,” Eli said, putting a skillet over medium heat. “I’d ask you to pick out friends for her should those drastic measures come to pass, but I don’t actually think you’re very good at friends either.”
“Fuck you, I’m great at friends.”
“Name one friend from childhood you still keep in touch with,” Eli said.
“Fuck you,” Terrence said again, but he laughed. “I didn’t need friends. I had Guneet and I had my power.”
“I admired that about you,” Eli said, swirling olive oil around the pan. He looked up in time to lip read Terrence’s reply.
“Like hell you did.”
“No, I really did,” Eli said. “Even though you were younger than me, you always seemed so… self-sufficient. Kind of untouchable. You didn’t seem to care what anybody thought of you. You were rude to everyone, but that was really powerful in and of itself.” He grimaced. “I cared too much what people thought of me. I wanted to be normal.”
“This is some real Oprah shit right here,” Terrence said, taking the time to finger-spell the letters of Oprah’s name. “You were a kid with the force of magic at your fingertips. What sorta normal were you even thinking?”
“You know, normal,” Eli shrugged. “Good looks. Good grades. Straight.”
“Do you remember that night we–”
“You really wanna spend all night dragging up bodies?” Terrence interrupted with a flurry of signs to go with his vocalized question. He didn’t want to hear what Eli was going to say next, didn’t want to hear about how Eli had never wanted him. Sociopath, Janek’s voice prowled in his mind, but there was no way Janek could hate him more than he hated himself. “Put some food on the table and then we’ll talk.”
But they didn’t talk about that night of stupid drunk sex. He wasn’t going to let them. Eli finished making the lentil soup while Terrence cut out slides of fluffy French bread. Eli browned some lamb sausage in the skillet once the soup was done, and then they loaded it all on ceramic plates and hit the couch. Terrence was actually kind of hesitant about eating on this fucking crazy expensive piece of furniture, but Eli sat down on it without a thought and turned on the TV to the game. He sat beside Terrence and watched the closed captioning commentary with a level of intensity that was…
No way. No fucking way was Terrence going to use the word ‘adorable’ to describe Eli. God, was the soup drugged or what?
But Eli’s thigh was a solid, familiar pressure where he was pressed against Terrence, and the food was delicious and the apartment warm. Snow fell outside the window, covering the street outside like risotto, and Terrence was able to shove Janek’s voice out of his head for the time being. He watched Eli’s profile instead.
“You really got no idea what’s going on, do you?” he finally said when Eli glanced shamefully at him.
“I remember now,” Eli admitted. “I hate basketball.”
Eli was spending his one day of the week at Goodwin & Hart, leaving Terrence alone in the penthouse. Bold move, really, and Terrence told him as much, eyeing the artwork and the bottles of wine (more so the wine than the artwork, let’s be real), but Eli unflappably handed him the keys and said, “Knock yourself out.”
There were a lot of things Terrence could have done, like a) snoop through Eli’s hard drive, b) snoop through Eli’s porn collection (guy that clean cut had to have a nasty one, right?), and c) use up all the toilet paper. But the whole mature adult thing kicked in when he least wanted it to and Terrence contented himself with making peach smoothies from the contents of Eli’s fridge and answering emails.
Cass came home half past noon. Terrence eyed her from the doorway. “I’m almost 90% sure you still got class,” he said, sipping on his smoothie.
She dropped her backpack on the floor. “Gonna tell Eli?”
“You little delinquent,” Terrence said with respect. “I should say something about college and bright futures here, but whatever. You’re smart enough to make your own mistakes.”
Cass grinned. “I’m not going to college. I’m gonna be a freelance Linguist just like you were.”
“You better work on your enunciation then,” Terrence said. “‘Cause I’ve heard you say Shining Words and half the time you’re slurring over the diphthongs.”
“Like when?” Cass scowled.
“Say the Freezing Word,” Terrence said, and he picked up a book from a nearby shelf and lobbed it at her. Cass had quick reflexes, no denying that, because she said the Freezing Word as the book was flying in the air towards her. But yeah, messed up the diphthong and the book froze, shivered for a moment, and then fell to the ground with a thud. Poor Alice Munro. What did she do to deserve that treatment?
“See?” Terrence said.
Cass’ scowl deepened. “Fine. What’s it supposed to sound like, then?”
“Say ‘cowboys’ for me.”
“Like the first vowel sound in that word,” Terrence said. “You’re saying it right now like a monophthong, which is why you get only a partial effect. Speaking the Shining Words is all about precision — they’re like cats who get offended when you don’t rub them the right way.”
Cass pulled a handful of her hair into a ponytail and then let go. “Eli says it’s like playing the piano. You’ve got to hit the right keys to make the right sound in the right order. Slip up even a little and you mess up the song.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Terrence said. “I’ve never played the piano. But sure, I can see that. Same skills go into Shining Words as music. You gotta have a good ear to be in this business. You gotta be able to hear tone and pitch and cadence like that. ‘Cause the difference between the Levitation Word and the Falling Word is a single change in pitch.”
“Ugh,” Cass said. “I wish this was more like Harry Potter. Wave a wand, cast a spell.”
“Spells have words even in Harry Potter,” Terrence pointed out.
“But they’re all really different from each other,” Cass argued. “Like, no one would ever confuse ‘lumos’ with ‘alohomora.'”
“Boo-hoo, real magic is different from fantasy magic, go cry into your fucking training bra,” Terrence said. “Listen.” He sang two notes. “Can you hear the difference between the two?”
“Not really,” Cass said. “And excuse you, I’m a B cup.”
“Then you gotta learn,” Terrence said, ignoring any defense of bra sizes. “If playing the piano will make it easier for you to hear the difference, then get Eli to sign you up for lessons. Or learn some foreign languages. Take a regular linguistics class. Whatever it takes. ‘Cause it ain’t just learning the Shining Words themselves — it’s hearing the sound structure underneath, knowing it right deep inside your damn marrow that makes you a good Linguist.”
Cass was studying him curiously. “How’d you learn to know the difference?”
“I’ve always just known,” Terrence said. “I got a better ear than you do. I didn’t need anyone to explain what one sound was compared to another. I could hear it.”
“Do you have a better ear than Eli?” Cass asked. “Before he went deaf, I mean,” she quickly corrected.
“Better than David?”
“Yeah,” Terrence acknowledged.
“But back in the hospital,” Cass said. “You told me you were an awful Linguist. How can you have such a great ear but still be bad?”
Her doggedness made Terrence smile. “You’re kinda a brat, aren’t you?” This too was something he approved of, even though he could see from a thousand fucking miles away how annoying he would find it soon enough.
“I wanna be the best,” Cass said without any shame. “So come on, were you bad or was that all just a load of bullshit?”
“I wasn’t bad,” Terrence admitted.
“I knew it!” Cass crowed. “‘Cause when I told Eli that I wanted to be the best, he told me I’d have to beat you first. And David was there, but he didn’t correct him, which is a big deal because David would never let Eli say something like that if it weren’t true. David hates you. Um,” she paused. “Sorry, was I not supposed to say that?”
“I know Penhale hates me,” Terrence said. “It ain’t news to me, sunshine.”
“David’s an asshole,” Cass said. “I totally don’t think you’re a waste of talent and space.”
“Uh, thanks,” Terrence said.
“Now show me the difference again,” she said.
Terrence stared at the name he’d jotted on a piece of scrap paper. Then he picked up the phone on the desk and dialed Weaver. “Hi,” he said when she picked up. “This is Terrence Wilson. I think I got a name for you. One of Guneet’s old friends, her name is Sarima Ogunleye, she lives in Lagos now. She recognized the voice in the recording as one of her former protegees from when she used to run with the Linguists in Paris.” He cleared his throat. “William LaFevre. That’s the name.”
“William LaFevre,” Weaver repeated.
“Yeah,” Terrence said. “I, uh, tried to dig up as much dirt as I could on the Internet, but there isn’t much, in English or in French.”
“You read French?” Weaver asked.
Terrence made a noncommittal sound. “Former Linguist. I speak lots of languages.”
“I see,” Weaver said. “Good job, Wilson. I’ll put my agents to searching for LaFevre. Keep on working on the database and plugging your contacts for as much information as you can.” She hung up.
Eli was watching him from his side of the desk. “What’d she say?” he asked, tapping his fingers on the surface.
“She says she’s gonna send her agents,” Terrence said. “Which I’ll bet anything means she’s gonna make Penhale say the Finding Word, ’cause how else are you gonna find LaFevre that fast?” He narrowed his eyes at Eli. “You’re not gonna go with them, are you?”
“I’m not exactly field ready anymore,” Eli replied. “Are you?”
“Like hell,” Terrence said. “I’m no hero. She wants someone to bust down doors and bring back LaFevre in handcuffs, get some manly Navy SEAL to do it, not me.”
“It’s really not how it goes,” Eli reminisced. “I’ve gone on missions with SWAT teams before as backup. They mostly make you wait in the van with the IT guys — they don’t trust civilians, not even Linguists, not to mess things up in the field.”
“Like that, huh?” Terrence said. “Either way, not my kinda thing.”
“True, I have trouble imagining you in high heroics,” Eli said. Terrence gave him the middle finger and he smirked. Then he sobered. “This LaFevre,” he said. “I wonder if he was involved with the Linguist attack in Paris earlier last year. They never caught all the perpetrators, and the background is much the same with the talks of registration and crackdown.”
“It don’t exactly help our cause, does it?” Terrence asked. “If we want governments to think Linguists aren’t all that bad, to have this asshole running around promising terrorist shit.”
“You can’t paint the actions of an entire group of people by one of their members,” Eli said. “Not that this has ever stopped anyone before.”
“But are there others like LaFevre?” Terrence said. “Black hat Linguists who aren’t just staying in the shadows like they should.”
“I would bet on it,” Eli said. “For the past several years I’ve been noticing a division. Linguists arguing with other Linguists over the best way to control Linguists. There are some who’d be in favour of registration, some who’d be in favour only if registration was done by the Grand Council and not national governments, some who would rather die than be a name on a registrar with Big Brother watching them.”
“It’s not possible, you know. Controlling Linguists,” Terrence said. “Even if the majority of us are white hat pussies who’d never harm a fly. The ones who go bad, you’d need to chop off an arm and leg to bring them in.” He examined his dirty fingernails. “It’s so easy to lose your head and fall off the wagon. I’d know. I’m the fucking posterboy for that PSA.”
“There are worse monsters in the night than you,” Eli said. “I think there has to be a legal balance between maintaining the rights of Linguists and making sure justice catches up to those who do go bad, but nobody knows what the answer is yet. Doesn’t stop the law-makers from trying to make hasty decisions and yelling themselves hoarse in the process.”
“Politics,” Terrence said. His least favourite thing. “Goddamn.”
“You were a Linguist working out of D.C. How can anyone avoid it?” Eli said.
“By keeping my head down, duh. You like it though.”
“I like the shape and shifting of it,” Eli said. “I like the machinations, the moves and countermoves, always being one step ahead of your opponents. It’s an intellectual challenge trying to keep up with the pace of D.C.” His mouth crooked upwards. “I’m addicted, I think.”
“Hey, whatever gets your motor motoring,” Terrence said, refusing to admit that he liked the gleam their conversation was bringing to Eli’s eyes. It didn’t surprise him one bit that Eli enjoyed being involved with the White House, because it was right up Eli’s alley, all the talking and charming and thinking. It was part of why Eli chose to study law in college and why Eli used to be a chess champion when they were younger. Nerd liked his games and he liked coming out on top.
Eli received a text message from Penhale later that day, very curt, informing him that a team of agents was moving out. Penhale had used the Finding Word to locate LaFevre in the general vicinity of east Pittsburgh, which was as specific as he could manage. The team was heading out to narrow that location down even further. Penhale was going with them.
Eli called his mentor back via FaceTime. “Stay safe,” he said. “Don’t take unnecessary risks.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Penhale said. He was in his bedroom packing.
Cass was lying on the couch with her heels in the air. She was reading The Crucible, sitting beside Terrence who was watching re-runs of Seinfeld. “Bye, David!” she called out. “We’ll all be fine here! Eli’s got a date tonight, even.”
“What?” Terrence said sharply.
Eli, who obviously hadn’t heard Cass, continued chatting with Penhale, so Cass lumbered over and said it again with contact signs.
“Cassandra, that is my personal life and you don’t need to spell it out for everyone to hear,” Eli said, quickly ending the call with Penhale. Colour flushed the tips of his ears.
“You mean you just don’t want Terrence to hear,” Cass said.
“Yo,” Terrence said, “it’s okay. I’m gay too. I’m not gonna judge.”
“We know that,” Cass said, rolling her eyes.
“Right then, so what’s the big fucking deal?” Terrence said, just to pacify Eli, who was starting to seem a little panicked. Really, what was the big deal? So Eli had a date. It was Friday — he’d more be surprised if Eli didn’t have dates lining up out the door. Was it the gay thing? But Eli had been out for several years now. Even his parents knew — Eli had told his mother before she died — which in years past had been a thought that had clearly paralyzed Eli with terror. Well, whatever. Terrence wasn’t going to spend any more time wondering why Eli was acting so damn weird.
“Enjoy your date,” he said, checking the time on his watch. “I gotta head to work.”
“Come over for brunch tomorrow,” Cass said.
“‘Cause I wanna learn more about diphthongs,” she said. “And Eli’s making pancakes.”
Terrence should have said no. He was getting too deep and setting himself up for heartbreak. Letting Eli come back into his life, meeting Cass, and getting involved in their little family with their domestic rhythms and petty concerns — it was dangerous. He should be maintaining his distance, keeping his cool. Because when this was over and he went back to the reality of his small, ordinary, lonely life, he didn’t want to have to miss this.
He found himself showing up the next morning anyway. Fuck, he was a loser. But it was the pancakes, he told himself. It’d been a while since he’d had homemade pancakes. Wasn’t like his mother, addicted to crack as she was, ever made them. He’d had a boyfriend who’d made them one time, though. So it was just nostalgia.
He let himself in with his keys. (Dangerous, he reminded himself).
Cass was watching Saturday morning cartoons. “Hey Terrence,” she said. “Stupid Eli isn’t even home. I’m hungry!”
Terrence frowned. “Eli’s not here? Should we be worried?”
“Nah,” Cass said. “He texted me last night. Had a really good date. He’s staying the night over.” She pulled a face. “Gross. Old people sex.”
Terrence tried not to think of anything, least of all Eli having a great Friday night date. Keep his mind blank like a fucking zen ninja. “So I came all this way for nothing,” he grouched, sitting down on the couch beside Cass. “Guess we’ll have to make our own goddamn pancakes. I don’t even know how.”
“It’s called the Internet,” Cass said, pulling her laptop onto her knees. “I’m gonna google ‘how to make pancakes.'”
Which was how Terrence and Cass found themselves running to the Trader Joe’s down the street, getting the supplies for pancakes, and then setting up fort in the kitchen. Neither of them had ever made pancakes before — neither of them could claim cook among their combined talents — meaning within half an hour Cass’ hair was covered in batter and Terrence had burned the tips of his fingers on the frying pan. “I wish there was a Pancake Word,” Cass said. “Super Pancake Combo Attack!”
That was how Eli found them when he came home fifteen minutes past eleven.
“Extra Effective Syrup Attack!” Terrence shouted.
“Go Go Chocolate Chip Counterstrike!” Cass hollered.
Eli paused at the door while slipping off his coat. “Did I miss something?” he asked. “I didn’t know Terrence was coming over.”
“Really? I totally invited him over yesterday,” Cass said.
“I must not have heard,” Eli said dryly. Terrence glanced up. His first instinct was to let his eyes slide over Eli and rest on a safe vantage point to the right, the lamp maybe. That was a great fucking glass lamp. But who was he kidding? He made himself pull up his balls and really look. It was the brave thing to do. Eli looked — well-fucked. That was the only way to describe it. His hair was loose and messy, his cheeks flushed, and he was leaning against the doorframe languidly, his eyes heavy and warm.
Terrence felt a fist wrap around his gut strings and yank hard. He’d never seen Eli like this. Not even when they had sex those seven years ago because it wasn’t like Eli stayed the morning for Terrence to find out what he looked like.
None of your business, he thought. Remember? None of your fucking business.
“Eli,” Cass said very seriously, “we need you to save us from ourselves.” She held out the bowl of sticky leftover pancake batter. “Immediately.”
“Let me take a shower first before I save anyone,” Eli said in his husky morning-after voice. He glanced at Terrence, and there was uncertainty on his face and in the southern dip of his lashes. The hell? What did he need to worry about from Terrence? Did he think Terrence was going to make fun of him for having base desires like any other person out there? He should know by now that Terrence was all talk and no bite, that he was a lamb pretending to be a lion. Terrence made himself look away and focus on the ruined pancakes instead — really quite fucking sad, those pancakes, and much, much safer than Eli’s dangerous eyes.
The Arcanum sound file was 456 MB in his hard drive as he unzipped it and opened it in iTunes. His first instinct was to search for his headphones before listening, but then remembered: oh yeah, Eli wasn’t going to be bothered no matter what volume Terrence put it at. Eli was answering client emails on his side of the study while nursing a latte that had gone cold. He had a stray cowlick that hair gel wasn’t able to conquer; it fell into his eyes softly. He straightened when he realized Terrence was watching him.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m opening the file of Shining Words that’s gonna be used in the Arcanum sensor,” Terrence said.
“Ah,” Eli said. “Let me know how it is. The CEO recorded it himself, but you know how Shining Words are. Recording them gets temperamental.”
“If the Shining Words recorded cleanly, there’d be a fuckton more Linguists out there,” Terrence mused. You could teach people how to be Linguists through YouTube then — now there was a scary-ass thought. However, Shining Words didn’t record well under normal circumstances. They warped and sounded funny even on the best recording devices so that the listener couldn’t get a true sense of what the Word was. But because it was hard to record them, you also couldn’t transmit their effects secondhand. Once again Terrence imagined people listening to the Shining Words on YouTube, playing the clip and making things explode. Jesus.
Nah, he much preferred the traditional method of hearing a Shining Word spoken only when there was someone physically there to say it. There were more safeguards that way. It was more controlled. It was why the apprentice model of learning was so widespread. There did exist Linguist academies that churned out large numbers of graduates at once like tossing balls into a basket, but most Linguists frowned upon them and the academies received no support from the Grand Council.
You needed a teacher who could give you their full attention, Terrence firmly believed. Like Guneet had for him, Penhale for Eli, and Eli for Cass. Nothing more dangerous than a burgeoning Linguist who goes unchecked.
He clicked play on the sound file. Opening it up, he saw that it’d been subdivided into hundreds of smaller segments, each containing a single Shining Word. He listened to the first segment. It was the Light Word with a null-suffix attached to cancel out its effect.
Eli was watching him still. “The sound quality is pretty good,” Terrence informed him. “A lot better than what I was expecting.”
“I could almost feel it in the air,” Eli said quietly. “Like a vibration.”
What would it be like, Terrence wondered, to never hear the Shining Words again? Not even snippets of it, no bright, unraveling tendrils of sound overheard in nature when you least expected. For the first time he truly understood the weight of Eli’s loss, grasped it not in an intellectual sense but felt it like grief piercing a needle through bone. Eli had misspoken the Resurrection Word trying to bring back his mother two weeks after she’d died of cancer.
He thought of it, then, what it must have been like: Eli in his darkened apartment, suit dishevelled, beer bottles scattered at his feet, alone and in pain. The thought must have occurred to Eli then, the itchiness between his shoulder blades, the memory of a long ago legend.
All begging the question: if you could bring back someone you loved, if you knew the power existed and all you had to do was try — well, who wouldn’t?
The Resurrection Word was not among the ones included in the Arcanum file. It had no entry in the Dictionary of Shining Words either. It was a whisper passed from Linguist to Linguist, and a true test of a Linguist’s skill was whether they could bring some small thing to life — a cat who’d run across the road without looking, a tomato plant in a bed of drought. The last known Linguist who had used the Resurrection Word to bring back a human being, and who had not gone deaf or died in the attempt, was Erasmus Cox of Bristol in 1878, the very last of the Old Masters in what was commonly considered the Golden Age of Magic.
“What’d you think?” Eli asked once the silence between them had stretched and become a new thing entirely. “Will this file make a decent-enough base for the Arcanum security?”
“It’s enough,” Terrence said. “Won’t be perfect, but what sorta cutting-edge tech is?” The company must have rigged up a special recording studio to get the type of sound quality they did. He was curious about whether it was done regularly or through magic. He’d love to — No. He shook his head sharply. Goddamnit. No, he wasn’t curious at all. His one fucking goal during this contract was to get through it without becoming curious about anything, especially not curious enough to try it.
“Well, that’s why they’ll have you on the night of,” Eli said reasonably. “Something might ping only a part of a Word in the sound file. The machine won’t know enough to know it’s enough to worry, but you will.”
Terrence snorted. He closed iTunes and put his elbow on the desk, balancing his chin on the flat of his hand. “You guys trust me that much?”
“There’s lots of things I don’t trust you to do,” Eli said. “I don’t trust you to make me an edible sandwich, I don’t trust you to drive my car, I don’t trust you to organize my birthday party or file my taxes. But when it comes to Linguist stuff?” He made a smooth, graceful, fucking enigmatic gesture with his hands that was neither a sign or anything Terrence could read. “I trust you without question,” he said.
He shouldn’t, Terrence thought. His stomach lurched.
Later that afternoon, when Cass came home and Terrence was on his way out to his evening job, he tossed her a CD.
“What’s this?” she asked suspiciously, fumbling but making the catch.
“Top secret stuff, don’t give it to anyone,” he drawled, pulling on his winter boots at the door.
“No, seriously, what is it?”
Eli appeared in the foyer. “It’s the compilation of Shining Words we’re using for the voice activation sensors for the State of the Union,” he said. “It contains nearly every Word in the Dictionary spoken… mostly crisply and clearly. That’s what Terrence tells me anyway.”
“Yeah,” Terrence said. “You can use it for your own training. But don’t give it to anyone or we’ll whoop your ass.”
“As if Eli would ever whoop my ass,” Cass said, staring down at the CD in her hands with an expression of deep excitement.
“Cassandra,” Eli said, catching her lip movements, “if you leak this CD, I will give you a lifetime of whooping with extra whoopings on Sunday. There won’t be anywhere you can hide where I won’t find and whoop you. As Peter Parker says, with great power comes great responsibility.”
“Actually, I think it’s his Uncle Ben that says it,” she replied.
“Cassandra Felicita Mendoza!” Eli snapped. “I have no idea what you just said but I can tell it wasn’t a yes.”
“Oh my god!” she said. “Chill! I won’t give it to anyone.”
“Do you really think she’ll be responsible?” Terrence asked Eli the next day. “I only gave it to her ’cause you said she would, but it seems like you got doubts.”
Eli groaned and leaned back in his office chair. “Who the hell knows with teenagers.”
“You better know,” Terrence said. “This isn’t giving her the keys to your Lamborghini. This is top level shit. If she does leak it…”
“I’ll get fired, you’ll get fired, we’ll all be blacklisted from D.C. society in ten minutes flat.”
“Who the fuck cares about D.C. society?” Terrence. “I just don’t wanna end up in jail.”
“She won’t leak it,” Eli said. Then, more decisively: “Cassandra knows right from wrong. Even back when she was jacking cars for a living. She only did that because she had to, and I hope I’ve provided a comfortable enough life for her that she doesn’t have to do morally questionable things.”
“But fucking teenagers though,” Terrence pointed out. “One drunken mistake and it’s on Facebook.”
“Cassandra doesn’t drink,” Eli frowned.
Terrence raised his eyebrows.
“…That I’m aware of,” Eli said.
“What’d your parents know about your drinking when you were sixteen?” Terrence said smugly. Eli tossed a wadded up ball of paper at his head in response.
“Nothing,” Eli said. “My parents didn’t know a single thing about what I was getting up to.”
“Your real parents, you mean. I bet Penhale knew everything.”
“David? Probably not,” Eli said. “David cares for me. For a long time it was only because I was a promising Linguist under his tutelage, but then he grew to genuinely love me, I think. I don’t doubt David thinks of me as his son. But David is kind of fundamentally incurious.” That was the most apt description of David Penhale that Terrence had ever heard. Eli added, “He likes his world just the way it is, and if you don’t fit in neatly with that world, he’ll either get rid of you or ignore what’s going on. Like when I told him I was gay.”
Terrence laughed. He couldn’t help it. “Damn, I wish I’d been a fly on the wall. Would’ve been priceless.”
“David still doesn’t really acknowledge it,” Eli said ruefully. “At least my parents did, even if it wasn’t to their liking. My mom was still trying to set me up on dates with women for years after. But at least it was something we talked about. Argued about. Screamed over, actually. There was one time it got really bad, when I brought home a boyfriend who wasn’t just a man but was also black–”
“Did you,” Terrence said.
Eli turned pink. “I was trying to get over someone. We broke up soon after. Anyway, my point is, my parents had issues but David doesn’t mention it. Ever.”
“The repressed emotional lives of really white people,” Terrence said.
Terrence smirked at him. Eli looked like he might have smiled back, but then an alert on his phone went off and he glanced down. “Speaking of,” he said. “I forgot I’m supposed to take Cassandra to my father’s for dinner tonight. I better remind her.” He started texting.
Eli’s father owned about a million banks down the East Coast. Terrence had never met him. He’d met Eli’s mother, just once, when their driver had been sick and she’d come to pick up Eli herself after a night of Linguist work. Eli had been flustered when she showed up, ordering everyone to not mention a single thing about Linguists, even though she must have been suspicious about what Eli was doing out at night with a boy like Terrence, not to mention Guneet and Penhale. Eli’s mother had worn fur and pearls. They’d gleamed at her throat.
“Oh shit,” Terrence said, laughing again. “What your mom must’ve thought of you spending all that time with Penhale if she didn’t know about Linguists.”
Eli made a face. “Another thing we argued about constantly.”
“I bet she thought he was a sexual predator,” Terrence said and that was it, his life was over, nothing would ever be funnier than the idea of grim-faced Penhale being able to unbend enough to even think about sex.
“I told her he was my rugby coach,” Eli said.
“That’s not better at all, you idiot,” Terrence laughed.
“I know,” Eli said. “By the time I came out to her I’m fairly certain she thought her only son was an irredeemable pervert.” He shook his head. “But telling her about magic would’ve been worse. I’m sure of it. My sexuality was hard enough. I don’t think she could’ve handled me being a gay wizard too.”
“Life’s tough that way,” Terrence continued laughing.
Eli smiled. “But later my mom and I sorted out a lot of our issues when she got sick. It was the one good thing that came out of it.”
Terrence had forgot. For a brief moment there, while he was teasing Eli about his uptight WASPy racist mother, he had let himself forget. It was his mother Eli had tried to bring back with the Resurrection Word. When Eli had been alone, desperate, and willing to risk everything for a Shining Word he probably knew he couldn’t control, it’d been his mother he’d done it for.
“Shit, sorry,” Terrence said.
Eli cocked his head. “For what?”
“You mean you don’t even know, you dumbass?”
“Ter,” Eli shrugged, “I’m tired of apologizing. If you and I apologized for every single thing we did wrong, we’d never have time for anything else. We’re both monumental fuck-ups in our lives. I wish we’d just move on and stop groveling about it all the time.”
“I can’t,” Terrence said.
“Because of Guneet?”
“You know what I did to her,” Terrence said, his fingers cold with tension. He ran a hand over his face. “Fuck.”
“I do know,” Eli said quietly, “and I wish–”
Terrence never did get to hear what Eli wished. A text came in then, bright green with Penhale’s name on top. Eli’s eyes flicked guiltily as he hesitated to answer it. But he did, because Eli was a good person, and what he replied with must have been brief because it took him only a few seconds to send it off.
“What’s going on?” Terrence demanded.
“They weren’t able to track down LaFevre in Pittsburgh,” Eli said. “Not even using the Finding Word. David wants to use a different Word, the one that will bring you to a person’s side no matter where they are. They’ll try it again tomorrow morning.”
“That’s a fourth-tier Shining Word,” Terrence said. “Chances of fucking it up are enormous.”
“David knows that,” Eli said. “There’s no point in me reminding him. He’s made up his mind.” His face was pale and drawn. He stood up abruptly. “I need a drink. Want a drink?”
“Aren’t you going to your dad’s soon?” Not that Terrence was in a position to judge, but he felt the need to say it anyway, because it wasn’t like Eli to forget.
“My father of all people would appreciate the need for a fortifying drink,” Eli said. He went to his liquor cabinet and rummaged around. “How do you feel about bourbon?”
“Have you ever used a fourth-tier Shining Word?” Cass asked Terrence. She’d skipped school yet again while Eli was at Goodwin & Hart. The two of them were sitting in the living room eating ramen — the most advanced lunch they could muster between their combined talents — and Cass was playing the sensor-sound file on the stereo.
Terrence let the Shining Words wash over him. It was… almost safe, he told himself. They had null-suffixes attached. They couldn’t do anything to jeopardize his resolve. Almost.
He stirred his noodles with his chopsticks and said, “I’ve used tons of fourth-tier Words.”
“La dee da, look at you, Mr. Bigshot,” Cass grinned. “How old were you when you said your first fourth-tier Word?”
He thought about it. “Seventeen, I think?”
She dropped her chopsticks. “I’m sixteen.”
“I know, princess,” he said.
“I’m still only on first-tier Words, what the fuck?”
“You started later than I did,” Terrence reminded her. “Guneet picked me up and started training me when I was fourteen.”
“No, I didn’t!” Cass said irritably. “My first mentor, before Eli — he found me when I was fourteen too.”
“Then abandoned you, so that don’t really count as a real education,” Terrence said. “Anyway, don’t fucking use me as your measuring post. I’m not a good example to anyone, not the way I turned out.”
“You mean because you killed Guneet Shukla,” Cass said.
Terrence froze. He looked at her. “Eli was talking about her last night, on the way to his dad’s for dinner,” Cass said. “All nice things, don’t worry. He was telling me how kind she was, how generous, how she was this amazing healer. He’d never say a single shit word against you or her.” She frowned. “But I remember what David told me once.”
“Oh yeah?” Terrence said. “What did David tell you?”
“He said you killed her.”
Terrence stirred his noodles again. They were too hot and soggy. He should have put them in the microwave for fewer minutes. “I did kill her,” he said.
Cass was quiet. Terrence ate some more noodles.
“How?” she finally asked.
It was amazing, he thought, that in the four years since Guneet had died and he’d renounced his magic, no one had asked him that simple question. Not even Eli. Maybe they were too terrified to do it. Maybe they thought it’d drive him crazy if he was forced to answer. Maybe no one even cared — they all thought they already knew. But Cass was looking at him with a curious expression, with no shadow of fear or horror, and Terrence let out a breath he’d been holding this entire time.
“Do you actually wanna know?” he said.
“I asked, didn’t I?”
“Okay.” He licked his dry lips. “It started with my dad.”
“Your dad? I thought you didn’t have a dad,” Cass said.
“I didn’t,” Terrence corrected. “All I ever knew of him was his name and this one photo my ma held onto. But after she died, and after Guneet took me in — years later, when I was twenty-five, Guneet and I were running a job in L.A. We were in a hotel and this man comes up to me and says he’s my dad.”
“Whoa,” Cass said helpfully.
“I knew he was, right away. He looked exactly like the photo, and we were… a lot alike. I could see a lot of my own weird mannerisms in him. So I knew. At first I was fucking mad at him ’cause he’d never tried to find me before, he’d left me and my ma to die. But he was so fucking charming and apologetic, and I was this dumb kid who’d always wanted his dad to be proud of him. So we started hanging out,” Terrence said. “Had a few dinners, saw a basketball game together, you know. Father and son stuff.”
He’d tried to stay cynical, he remembered. Twenty-five-year-old Terrence was too hardened to let himself fall for a man who’d abandoned him. But his dad knew the buttons to push, could probably see Terrence’s desperate, meaty hunger to be loved. Could probably see it from the fucking sun.
“Then he started confiding stuff in me,” Terrence continued. “Told me he owed the mafia a lot of money, that they were after him. I got all righteously mad ’cause who would fuck with us Wilsons? We were badass. So I told him I wanted to help.”
“Uh oh,” Cass said.
“Yeah, uh oh,” Terrence said. “My dad was all ‘you don’t have to, son’ and ‘this is my problem, not yours.’ But in the end he told me he was supposed to meet this guy, there was a date and location set up, but he didn’t have the money. I told him I’d go instead. I was a fucking Linguist. No one could touch me. Turns out my dad knew what that meant. Should’ve been my first clue.”
He rubbed his nose. There was an itchy spot on the tip of it. “So Thursday night and I show up at this warehouse near Hollywood. I’m thinking, I’m pretty fucking gangsta, I can take out a bunch of guys with one Shining Word, no problem. But — problem. One of those guys was a Linguist. He knew right away to have his men grab me and tape up my mouth before I could figure out what was going on.”
“Turns out,” Terrence said, “I’m not very gangsta at all. I’d never really been in a fight before, and I panicked. Even if I could open my mouth, I don’t think I could’ve croaked out a single Shining Word. I was that scared. I pissed my pants too. Real fucking heroic.”
“Oh,” Cass said.
“The Linguist, his name was Antonio Donati. Turns out he’d gotten my dad to bring me here. He knew who I was, had heard stories of me from the East Coast. He wanted to see me for himself.”
“Why’d he want that?” Cass interrupted. “For all those fourth-tier Words you could say?”
“Who’d bother with all that for some measly fourth-tier Words? He wanted the Resurrection Word,” Terrence said.
“Wait,” Cass said haltingly. “You mean you know the–”
“Everyone knows it more or less,” Terrence said shortly. “Just ask Eli. But there ain’t many who can say it properly, who know what it’s supposed to sound like for it to work. But yeah,” he said. “I knew. Probably ’cause Guneet was so into healing. We spent a lot of time in hospitals, and it’s kinda a second cousin to some of the Healing Words. I figured it out and used it on this girl after she’d flatlined. I think she lives in Oakland now. Used it on some others too.”
“Holy shit,” Cass said. “No one since the Old Masters–”
“Yeah, whatever,” Terrence said. “That’s what Donati said too. Wanted me to teach him the Resurrection Word. I said no. He got angry. He hurt me.” This was the part Terrence hated nearly as much as the part he would get to next. “He held me for three days and used Shining Words on me to get me to cooperate. When that didn’t work, he used old-fashioned screwdrivers and bats too.”
Cass went pale.
“Ha, I can’t watch baseball anymore, let’s just say,” Terrence said with a huff of amusement. He had the scars too, mostly on his arms and his chest. He didn’t like baring those much anymore. “Well, after three days of it,” he continued, “Guneet tracked me down. Donati had set up barriers to make it hard to use Shining Words to find him — kinda like what LaFevre must be doing now — but Guneet worked it out. She came in like a knight in shining armour with Janek and two more of her friends. She ripped the tape off my mouth.”
Terrence chose his next words carefully. No more blurting out the first thing that came to his mind. “I was furious. At Donati and his men. The moment I could use Shining Words again, I had one thought in my mind. I wanted to kill them. I was terrified they were gonna kill me first. I could see Donati rushing towards me. I was so mixed up in anger and fear, I lost track of what was going on.”
He paused. “I said the Killing Word,” he said. “Another one they don’t put in the Dictionary. I said it clean and perfect, no mistakes there. I didn’t often make mistakes with the Shining Words — trying not to brag, it’s just the truth. I pretty much always know in my head and my throat what they’re supposed to sound like. So it worked. But it wasn’t Donati rushing towards me at all. It was Guneet.”
The flutter of her green sari, he remembered. The sharp sound of her bangles. He should have known it was her.
“So that’s how Guneet died,” he said. “I tried to use the Resurrection Word on her, of course, but it has to be used within five minutes of death. I’ve never managed longer. The fight was still going on at that point, and one of Donati’s men was tackling me. I was too busy fighting him off. The window passed. I couldn’t bring Guneet back.”
She’d lain on the floor, unmoving, when he finally crawled to her side on his hands and knees, sobbing so hard he gagged.
“After that, I lost it, cut off all ties to the Linguist world, went majorly PTSD. I don’t have a good memory of what I did for the next year. Lived under bridges eating scraps, most likely.” He grimaced. “It wasn’t until I heard about what happened to Eli that I sorta came to my senses. After I visited him in the hospital, I went out and got the first job I could find. Been living quietly ever since.”
He looked at Cass, at her wide astonished face. Her noodles were entirely forgotten, her chopsticks dangling loosely from her fingers. “I’m telling you this to scare you,” he said frankly. “Don’t fuck up like I did. There’s two types of Linguists: those who make the world a better place, and those who are just wastes of space. Yeah? It’s like they always say: don’t get pregnant, don’t flunk out of school, and don’t kill people you love. It’s that easy.”
It’d been six hours since Penhale and his team of agents had gone in to capture LaFevre. They hadn’t heard a word.
Eli was still working at Goodwin & Hart. Both Terrence and Cass got a text from him saying he was caught up in some last minute courtroom drama. He also told them there was some frozen pasta in the fridge, and included a link to a website informing them how to make it. He concluded with a note that Cass was grounded for skipping school, because come on, it was obvious that he knew.
Cass cackled. “He’s such a mom,” she said. She looked up at Terrence, and for a moment Terrence was afraid — after telling her the story of how Guneet died, after telling her how much of a monster he was capable of being — but Cass’ opinion of him hadn’t seemed to change at all. If anything, she was actually in awe. Trust a young Linguist to focus on all the wrong parts of the tale.
It was okay though. Awe and hero-worship he could deal with. It was the other parts that left him bitter and cold.
Now that he’d identified LaFevre and quality-checked the Arcanum base file, there wasn’t much left for Terrence to do. He ended up hanging out with Cass, listening as she practiced the Words she heard on the CD. There was her favourite, the Fire Word — Terrence stood ready with a bowl full of water — and then the Telekinesis Word, the Up Word, and the Down Word. Most first-tier Words governed basic physical actions and provided the foundations for more complex sequences when combined with upper-tier Words and conjugations.
Watching Cass learn reminded him a lot of Eli, actually. Eli used to have the exact same stubborn expression and the exact same frustration when things didn’t work out. Terrence didn’t quite know what that was like — he was, frankly, a prodigy, and had never struggled with learning the Shining Words like Cass and Eli did.
The struggle made it seem more honest, though. Hardwon. Like if you struggled to learn a Word, you’d be more careful about using it. Terrence hoped so anyway. He used to let Shining Words drip from his tongue like strawberries.
But he was right: being around the Shining Words was dangerous. Because he was getting lulled into distraction, because the air was warm and Cass’ voice was comforting, because when Cass stumbled over the Water Word, he wasn’t even paying attention and instinctively corrected it out loud, adding the necessary prefixes and verbs.
It burst in his mouth, sweet and juicy. He opened his palm and let the water compress into a sphere where it swirled tightly, completely in his control.
“Shit!” Terrence said. He dropped the sphere and let it splash the carpet. “Didn’t mean to do that. Fuck!”
“It’s okay,” Cass said tentatively. “I mean, just saying a Word isn’t the end of the world, is it?”
But it was like smoking. One cigarette and you were ready to give up abstinence and dive right back in. Terrence made himself breathe in deep and calm. In. Out. In. Out. Be more fucking calm, he yelled at himself, which didn’t help at all. Finally he had to go to the kitchen and pour himself a glass of water, the manual way, closing his eyes the entire time.
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to be a fucking headcase.”
“Should I — should I stop?” Cass asked.
“Nah,” Terrence said. “What sorta work ethic is that? Keep on practicing, princess.”
He could have left the room and had her practice on her own. He didn’t. He always did like taunting himself with what he couldn’t have — it explained his entire relationship with Eli, for one. But he also felt a twinge of obligation that, having told Cass about the horrors and dangers of being a fully realized Linguist, he shouldn’t just abandon her. So he stayed, sitting awkwardly on the couch reading the New Yorker, while Cass practiced.
Which lead to her messing up the Water Word. Which lead to him looking up just in time to see a fucking torrent douse him from the ceiling. “What the?” he said as the waterfall crashed into him. He was completely soaked.
“Um, oops,” she said cheerily. “My bad. You can borrow some of Eli’s clothes. His room is right over there.”
Terrence opened his mouth to argue, just to be ornery, but then shut it. His clothes were sopping wet and he didn’t have spares on him. It was fucking uncomfortable to wear wet jeans. He got up, peeled off his shirt — “ew,” Cassandra said, “stop stripteasing” — and crossed the living room, padding down the hallway where he opened Eli’s door. He’d never been in Eli’s bedroom before. He felt like a trespasser.
Gotta respect the guy’s privacy, he thought, and tried his best to not give into the urge to snoop. Christ, he wanted to snoop. If he was a less controlled man, he would have been digging through every drawer he could find, he was that curious. Instead he made himself survey Eli’s room dispassionately — bed with Egyptian cotton sheets, dresser, mirror, some law books on the bedside table, a photo of Eli with his mom on the wall right beside a photo of Eli with Cass at some sort of amusement park. As a whole Eli was compulsively neat, but this already Terrence knew.
He made for the closet. It was — fucking huge, he thought, sliding it open. There hung all of Eli’s carefully pressed suits, slacks, shirts, shoes. All of his silk ties were arranged in a rack on the left side, categorized by colour. Jesus Christ, Eli, Terrence thought with a rather alarming wave of affection. The workwear was at the front of the closet, the slightly more casual behind it — this being the cashmere sweaters Eli was so fond of —, and then there was the truly casual, the band shirts and jeans that Terrence very rarely saw Eli wear. He grabbed a set at random, pushing aside a ratty Ramones t-shirt, and then noticed another set of clothes hiding all the way in the back.
Suits, mostly. Beautiful tailored Armani and Yves Saint Laurent suits, with cufflinks and ties and silk jewel-toned shirts that whispered like birds in the woods against the skin. Despite all evidence Terrence actually had a good eye for style, and it didn’t make sense that Eli would keep these gorgeous pieces of clothing at the back of his closet, and then Terrence swallowed. Oh. Because these weren’t Eli’s.
It spoke volumes to how long it’d been since Terrence last wore these that he didn’t recognize them right away. He touched the sleeves of what had once been his favourite Yves Saint Laurent threepiece — he used to pick up so many men in bars with it, he thought half-hysterically, who’d been too fooled by the suit to realize the street trash they were hooking up with. That was the magic of fine clothes. They concealed. They tucked away imperfections.
Terrence had only a half-memory of what happened to these clothes in the year after Guneet died. He vaguely recalled selling them on Craigslist to some paralegal for chump change.
Paralegal. Like the ones Eli ordered around.
Eli returned home a few minutes before Terrence left for Garfield Elementary. He looked exhausted. “No word about Penhale?” Terrence said.
Eli wasn’t even looking at him, much less noticing that Terrence was wearing his clothes. Terrence tapped him on the shoulder and tried again.
“Bad news,” Eli said tightly. “They used the Shining Word and arrived directly at LaFevre’s location. That worked out. But LaFevre was ready for them. It was a bad situation. Two agents are critically injured.”
“But David,” Cass said, overhearing. Again Eli wasn’t truly paying attention, so she came over and stood right in front of him, signing while talking. “David?”
“He’s fine,” Eli said. “Minor injuries. But they weren’t able to bring LaFevre in. He’ll have to lead another operation. Everyone is freaking out. Weaver is not happy.” He glanced at Terrence. “She wants to talk to us.”
“Right now?” Terrence said. “But I gotta go to work.”
“Right now,” Eli said.
“Okay,” Terrence said. “Give me — give me a second. I gotta tell them I’m a no-show.”
Weaver wasn’t there when they arrived at the White House. She had gone to visit her injured agents in the hospital and hadn’t left a message for them. Terrence and Eli stood around her office while Secret Service agents in the hall stared at them suspiciously. So many fucking guns, Terrence thought. “We could go to the hospital too, I guess,” he said, “catch her there.”
“I’d rather not,” Eli said. “I don’t like hospitals much. Let me call her.”
Made sense, knowing Eli’s history with hospitals. Terrence watched Eli open up FaceTime on his phone and call Weaver. She picked up after several rings. “Don’t have time right now,” she said. “We’ll talk soon.” She hung up.
“Her lips moved too fast for me to catch that,” Eli said. “What’d she say?”
“She said she doesn’t have time right now, we’ll talk soon,” Terrence repeated. “Nothing much we can do. Come on. Woman’s busy. Why don’t you go visit Penhale and I can still make it to work.”
“Right,” Eli said tiredly. “I’ll have my driver drop you off first.”
Once he got to Garfield Elementary, Terrence changed from Eli’s t-shirt and jeans to his custodial uniform. He made sure to fold the t-shirt and jeans carefully, which was stupid if you thought about it because they were just t-shirt and jeans, hardly Prada. But he did it anyway, which showed how far gone he was, and then he got to work pulling out the vacuum, and after that, the mop and buckets of water. He accidentally brushed too close to a winter art display and knocked a kid’s snowflake craft off the wall. Terrence spent at least fifteen minutes making sure to glue it back up as nice as he found it. He felt bad — hopefully the poor kid wouldn’t notice.
It was eleven when he left, locking up the school after him. He was yawning into his gloves and then he heard his phone buzz.
Have you seen Cassandra? Eli asked.
Oh geez. It was not Eli’s lucky night. Terrence moved his gloves and quickly typed back. Wasn’t she going out with friends?
Eli’s reply: She didn’t tell me that.
It’s what she told me when we were practicing together, before you came home, Terrence texted.
Do you remember which friend?
No. Terrence’s thumb paused and then he typed, Why, she ain’t home yet???
She wasn’t there when I came back from Penhale’s. I’ve tried calling and texting. No response.
Probably just having too much of a good time, Terrence said. Don’t get your thong in a twist. He paused again. I’ll come over if you want.
Could you? Eli texted back immediately. You might have better luck finding her.
Terrence was already at the bus stop but he knew it’d take over an hour with multiple transfers to get to Eli’s. Fuck it. He called a cab instead. Not a luxury he normally allowed, but he was making good money right now working for the feds. He arrived at Eli’s doorstep twenty minutes later in time to find Eli sitting at his kitchen table with his phone in his hands.
“I tried saying the Finding Word,” Eli said when he saw Terrence. “I couldn’t make it work. The sound came out all wrong in my mouth. I forget what it’s supposed to sound like.”
“Yo man,” Terrence said. “Teenage girls stay out late all the time. You don’t need to use magic to figure that out.”
“You’re really fucking freaked out, aren’t you?” Terrence said. He plopped down at the table across from Eli.
“It’s not a night to try my patience,” Eli said. “Not like what Cassandra is currently doing.”
It was more than that, though, Terrence could tell. What the fuck had Penhale said to Eli tonight? Whatever it was, Eli was steely tense, fingers flexing around his phone again and again. Terrence took it from him gently. “Have you tried contacting all her friends?” he asked. “I know you’ve got a list of their numbers somewhere. You’re that kind of dad.”
“The ones who answered, they don’t know where she is,” Eli said.
“She done this before?”
“Yeah,” Eli admitted, “but she’s never not answered my texts. It’s been two hours now.” His jaw set in a rigid line. “What if she misspoke a Word and is lying bleeding somewhere?”
“It won’t come to that,” Terrence said. “I’ll — I’ll say the Finding Word for you.”
Eli blinked again. “Are you — sure?”
The root of all magic, Terrence thought, is love. Fucking hell. “If it stops your pretty blond head from having a mental breakdown over a fucking text, then sure,” he said, sounding casual. He pressed his thumb to the surface of Eli’s phone. It was warm. Then he curled his tongue around the syllables of the Finding Word and spoke it out loud, defining subject (Cassandra) and area (the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C.). Images flickered through his head like a zoetrope. He saw a dark movie theatre, Cassandra’s face, and a redheaded girl with eyebrow piercings beside her.
He described this to Eli, who said, “Her friend Shoshanna. I don’t have her phone number, though. But I do know where she lives.”
Which was the story of how Terrence found himself accompanying Eli late at night, via cab, to Shoshanna’s house where her mother answered the door in hair curlers, told them that Shoshanna was out at the movies, but agreed to call her. Shoshanna picked up and handed the phone over to Cassandra. Shoshanna’s mom passed her phone over to Terrence, who said, conversationally, “Eli’s really fucking worried about you right now. Only reason I’m making this call is ’cause he wants me to be his interpreter and yell at you over the phone.”
“What, why?” Cass said, confused. “I’m just out with a friend. Chill.”
“It’s midnight on a school night. You didn’t tell him and you didn’t return his texts,” Terrence said. “Not cool, princess.”
“Tell her she’s grounded for another week,” Eli hissed.
“Eli says you’re grounded for another week,” Terrence faithfully relayed.
“What!” Cass shouted. “That’s not fair! I was in a movie! Of course I couldn’t check my fucking phone! It’s called manners!”
“Eli says come home right now,” Terrence said. “You better do what he says.” He lowered his voice and added, “He’s had a rough day. Something’s scaring him. Just come home, okay?”
On the cab ride from Shoshanna’s back to Eli’s, Eli stared out the window moodily. Terrence touched him on the shoulder to get his attention. “Spill it,” he said. “What did Penhale say to you that’s got you so rattled?”
“Nothing,” Eli said.
“And I’m fucking Beyonce,” Terrence said. “Don’t lie to me. I’m not stupid enough to believe it.”
“Fine,” Eli said. “David told me the details of what went down in Pittsburgh with LaFevre. LaFevre was waiting for them. He knew it was a trap and was ready. That’s why people got hurt. He was powerful, too powerful for David to take on by himself. The rest of the agents stood no chance.”
Suddenly Terrence understood. “So he wants you to join him next time.”
“More or less,” Eli said. “Weaver agrees. When I think about it, I agree too. If it’s a job for more than one Linguist, then of course someone else needs to step up. I may not be what I used to be — can’t even say the Finding Word, apparently — but I know David. I work well with him. We’ve done raids like this before together. So it makes sense.”
“No, it doesn’t fucking make sense,” Terrence said. “You’re not a fucking field agent anymore. You can’t go in there.”
“If my country needs me, then I will,” Eli said.
“And what about Cass?” Terrence said angrily. “She’s already lost her real parents. You think she needs you to throw your life away playing hero?”
Eli looked at him. The darkness in the cab turned his blue eyes black with a sliver of moonlight. It cut across his cheekbones, his aquiline mouth, and made him appear coldly angelic. “We all have to do things we otherwise wouldn’t want to,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about this right now. We’re almost home and I have a daughter to set right.”
They beat Cass to the penthouse, so Eli was ready when Cass came stomping in. “Oh my fucking god!” Cass shouted with her hands up. “Why are you such a paranoid freak, Eli? Can’t I even have fun without you breathing down my neck ruining everything!”
Terrence wanted to jump in — he had so many fucking things to say to both of them — but he knew this wasn’t a fight where he belonged. Eli was vibrating with anger as he confronted Cass, but his voice was courtroom cold when he said, “If you’re not responsible enough to let me know when you’re out late at night, how can I trust you to do anything? You’re supposed to be a Linguist for god’s sake! Show some responsibility!”
“That has nothing to do with this!” Cass shouted. “You’re just pushing your stupid issues onto me! It’s not my fucking fault your mom died and David’s mission went bad and you’re terrified Terrence is going to leave and never come back! None of that is my fault!”
“Slow down,” Eli said. “Or use pure sign language. I can’t understand you.”
“No!” Cass said. “If you wanted to fucking hear what I’m saying, then maybe you shouldn’t have messed up trying to bring your mom back to life! Maybe you should have just been better.” She pushed past him without taking off her shoes, her laces flapping around her ankles like spaghetti, and slammed her bedroom door shut. The poster of Ziggy Stardust quaked.
Eli turned to Terrence. “Tell me what she just said.”
“I kinda don’t wanna,” Terrence admitted. “It’s just the stupid crap people say when they’re mad but don’t really mean.”
“She wants to hurt me,” Eli said. He picked up a dirty plate from the kitchen table and tossed it into the sink, hard. “Well, she’s very good at it.”
“People do shitty things all the time when they’re mad. Remember what I used to say to you?” Terrence said. He meant it as friendly banter to slice through tension but then realized it might not be the best thing to bring up, all the insults he had thrown at Eli when they were young, just to get a rise out of him. Fuck his stupid brain for not reading the situation properly. “I was wrong to do that,” he added.
Eli actually smiled at that, quick and deprecating. “Terrence Wilson, wrong about something? And the sky hasn’t fallen.”
“It happens,” Terrence said. “Come on. I see you eying Cass’ door — bad idea, buddy. Where’s that bourbon? I think we should finish the bottle.”
Cassandra sent Terrence a text the next morning, morning being the definite term here as it was 4:35 a.m. Tell Eli I’m sorry.
Terrence woke up at the sound of it, groaned, and slapped his phone before burying his face back under the pillows. Tell him yourself.
Cass’ reply. I’m scared.
It wouldn’t be the first time someone was scared to face Eli after a fight. Eli’s anger tended to burn cold rather than hot, but that just meant it could stretch out long after the other person licked their wounds. He had a way of freezing you out. Terrence had seen it before, with people Eli clearly didn’t like. They would practically beg to be let into his good graces again. The problem with Eli, Terrence thought privately, was that people always liked Eli so much more than Eli would like them back.
It wasn’t as if Eli was standoffish or unpleasant, words that had been thrown at Terrence in the past, especially during his angry, hormonal years. No, Eli always had good manners and a polite smile for everyone, and because he wanted to fit in, or at least he used to, he knew how to act so that people would enjoy his presence. He could read the tone of a room and make the right jokes, pay the right compliments.
But he was private, Terrence knew. Could be remarkably cagey. Didn’t always let you in where you could touch his wounded parts, whereas Terrence on the other hand wore his heart on his sleeve, bleeding everywhere and getting the laundry dirty. He wish he knew how to explain this to Cass, because she’d landed a lucky one when she got Eli to be her saviour. Eli when he did care about you — how could you ask for anything more from the world if you had that?
“You look sad, man,” Alfonso said when Terrence shuffled by him to grab some toast. “What’s up?”
“A lot of stuff you wouldn’t even believe,” Terrence replied. “Wizard shit. You got all day to listen?”
“Not today,” Alfonso said. “Gotta run to the gym to teach an early class, but later maybe?”
“Later,” Terrence agreed. He popped two pieces of bread into the toaster only to discover the toaster wasn’t working. “It’ll all be over soon anyway,” he muttered under his breath.
“Wizard shit, huh?” Alfonso asked while grabbing his sneakers.
“Like I said,” Terrence replied. “Long story.”
He phoned Meredith Weaver on the bus ride over to Eli’s. “Listen,” he said when she picked up, even before she got the chance to say anything. “Eli’s got all these visions of nobility running round in his sugarplum head. You dangle ‘saving your country’ or ‘duty’ in front of him, he’ll bite that fucking carrot down to the nub. He’s idiotic like that. But if you send him in to face LaFevre, he won’t be coming back.”
“Who is this?” she asked.
“It’s Terrence Wilson,” Terrence said. “I’m calling you on my personal cell.”
“I see,” Weaver said, “and it’s not even six a.m. What part of this couldn’t wait until a more reasonable hour?”
“Well, I can’t exactly tell you all this once I get to Eli’s apartment, can I?” Terrence said.
“I suppose not,” Weaver replied. “You understand, though, that Eli volunteered to join David Penhale and the rest of the team. I’m not forcing him to do anything against his will.”
“Of course he’ll fucking volunteer,” Terrence said. The bus came to a stop at a red light. “But he’s got a daughter to think about, and this entire life that’s really… well, it’s really goddamn disgusting, it is, like something that came right outta a Williams-Sonoma catalogue. But it’s a good life, a whole one. He shouldn’t be risking it.”
“He’s a grown man,” Weaver said. “He doesn’t need you to advocate for his interests. In any case, David and Eli are the only two Linguists who have volunteered for the second attempt. I need at least two Linguists.”
“No you don’t,” Terrence said, “’cause I’m offering me.”
“You’ll go instead of Eli?”
“I mean I’ll go instead of Eli, Penhale, and your entire team,” Terrence said. “I’ll go in alone.”
There was a silence. He couldn’t tell what Weaver was doing in the other end of the line — getting out of bed probably. He could hear her soft breathing, and then the edge in her voice that was almost nearly like amusement when she said, “David told me you were good, but I didn’t get the impression you were that good.”
“We’ll see, won’t we?” Terrence said. He watched another stop go by and a pregnant woman climb onto the bus with her toddler in hand. At the front of the bus a baby was crying. “Send me in by myself. I’ll bring you LaFevre.”
“Let me think about it,” Weaver replied. “You’re a mostly unknown quantity to me.”
“So what are you really risking by sending me?” Terrence said. “I don’t mean shit all to you.”
“Let me think about it,” Weaver said, and hung up.
When he let himself into Eli’s apartment, he found Eli and Cass in the kitchen talking quietly. Well, Eli’s voice was quiet, and his body language was stiff as he was making omelettes. Cass was using her lips and contact signs very concisely to get her meaning across, and Terrence caught her just as she was saying, “…didn’t really mean it, I think you were brave to use the Resurrection Word on your mom.”
Terrence paused. “Sorry, did I come at a bad time?”
Cass frowned. She nudged Eli to let him knew that they had company. Eli turned around. “Hi Terrence,” he said. “I was making breakfast.”
“And I,” Cass said, “was trying to apologize.”
“I know you are,” Eli said. “I appreciate the effort.”
“Is it working?”
“Eat your omelette,” Eli said, pushing a plate across the kitchen island. Cass looked despondent as she picked up fork to poke at it. Eli hesitated and then, almost before he could stop himself, he ruffled her pink hair. “Wait, are you even using shampoo?” he said. “Cassandra, shampoo is a part of basic hygiene.”
“I use shampoo!” Cass screeched. “Are you telling me my hair’s gross?” And that was that, it seemed. Between one breath and another, Eli and Cass were back to bickering in a way that didn’t signify anything at all, Eli refilling Cass’ glass of milk while instructing her on proper hair care.
“I should take you to see my hairdresser,” Eli mused. “Instead of letting you cutting your own hair in the bathroom. What was I thinking?”
“I can pick my own hairdresser!” Cass said. “Also I’m a girl! Why would I go to a guy’s hairdresser?”
“Bob can do both genders,” Eli said. “He’s very flexible.”
“No way! Why would I want to get my hair cut by a man named Bob?”
Terrence was really going to fucking miss this.
Two things happened in quick succession the next day: Terrence received a call and he missed his bus. Saturday bus routes were a tricky, complicated thing, and you needed a doctorate in astrophysics to understand them half of the time. When he missed his first bus on account of stopping to take the call, the next bus was late in coming, so it was over an hour later that he finally arrived at Eli’s penthouse. He stood outside the door with his keys heavy and cold in his hand, and his feet wet because his winter boots weren’t as waterproof as Walmart originally promised they’d be. His toes squished uncomfortably against his socks.
He looked at the door, looked at the keys pressing grooves in his palm, and then turned heel and walked back out of the apartment onto the streets.
It was one p.m. He walked to the closest library branch and read magazines for a while, and then used his library card to get onto the computer. He checked his email. He watched some YouTube videos of flash mobs. Eli texted him at 2:30 to say, Are you coming over today?
So effortless, like he thought it was an extraordinarily ordinary thing that Terrence had come over every Saturday for the past few weeks. Terrence waited a calculated forty-five minutes later to text back. Maybe, he wrote.
At a Dunkin’ Donuts, he got a coffee, but after drinking it he felt nervous and buzzy, his skin alive with electric tension. There was a pressure in his head that felt huge and dangerous, a swollen knot pushing against his brain, crowding out everything else he might want to think about. There were lots of worthy things to think about: the weather, the bus routes, the upcoming election, whether or not he had enough money to buy boots that didn’t leak after after a couple of months. But Terrence could only think about one thing, and he didn’t want to think about it, because it was done. Weaver had called and told him yes.
He went back to the library and started surfing job ads. He stopped to have dinner at McDonald’s. He noticed how much better his leg was that it didn’t hurt to walk this much. Then he got onto the subway at Archives and rode the train for a while with no particular destination, just to see the stations flash by: Gallery Place, Mount Vernon Square, Shaw-Howard University, U Street. He remembered doing this a lot during his year of confusion after Guneet’s death. Getting on a train and falling asleep to wake up in an unfamiliar station in a part of town he’d never been.
It was ten p.m. by the time he returned to Eli’s. Instead of letting himself in, he knocked on the door. Eli answered it barefoot and wearing pyjama bottoms. “Terrence,” he said with some surprise. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
Terrence kissed him. Before he could talk himself out of it, he cupped his cold wintry hands around Eli’s chin and kissed him.
Fuck good sense. He was going to do this — no turning back now.
Eli tasted like popcorn and cream soda. If Terrence looked past his shoulder at the living room he could see a couple of DVD cases spread out on the coffee table and a half-empty popcorn bowl sitting between two impressions on the couch. He and Cass must have been having a movie night, but Cass was nowhere to be seen, thank god, and here was only Eli, Eli who gasped in surprise and kissed Terrence right back, mouth opening without hesitation.
The kiss was long, deep, and wet. Terrence moved his hands from Eli’s jaw to his hipbones, and he pulled him in so their bodies were flush together as they kissed. Eli groaned and clutched the back of Terrence’s neck, drawing him even deeper. Their tongues met and curled around each other, and just the feel of Eli’s tongue and the graze of Eli’s teeth made Terrence blindingly hard. He didn’t do anything about it though, just kissed Eli until he thought he would go mad with it, until he lost track of time and it was Eli who finally broke away at the end, flushed pink and panting. “Ter,” he said, and Terrence closed his eyes.
“Yeah, I know,” he replied.
“Please,” said Eli, and Terrence just about lost it. He kissed Eli again, hard, and Eli groaned and pulled him into the apartment — oh yeah, good idea, they were totally just making out in the hallway, weren’t they. Once they were inside Eli had the foresight of thought to shut the door, but then he turned right around and pressed Terrence against the closed door, kissing him desperately until they were both struggling to breathe. Eli buried his face in Terrence’s neck and bit him gently. Terrence shivered. Eli started pressing kisses up his neck and his jaw until he reached Terrence’s mouth again, and they were kissing once more, couldn’t stop it, not even when Terrence heard Cass’s bedroom door open and saw her step out.
“Gross,” she said and immediately went back in.
Eli didn’t hear, of course. Eli was oblivious, and even if he weren’t deaf Terrence wasn’t sure he would have noticed anyway, because Eli was singlemindedly focused on Terrence with that intensity Terrence used to love and hate at the same time. Right now he was very much appreciative of Eli’s concentration, particularly when Eli grabbed his hand and led him into his bedroom where he pushed Terrence to the bed and climbed on top of him, pulling off Terrence’s clothes.
They weren’t graceful together, not in the least. Eli’s hands kept bumping into Terrence’s, and Terrence had to finally (very reluctantly) push Eli to side in order to take off his shirt and shimmy out of his jeans. Eli groaned and bit his lip when he saw the bulge in Terrence’s underwear. Their eyes met. Terrence said nothing. Eli smiled.
Then he dropped to his knees. “Fuck,” Terrence breathed as Eli yanked Terrence to the edge of the bed with his knees spread. Eli settled himself in between and toyed with the hem of Terrence’s Fruit of the Loom underwear. He danced his fingertips over it and then curved his thumb down to press against Terrence’s cock, already leaking precome, a wet, slick stain gathering on the cotton. Terrence’s hips jerked. Eli smiled again and pressed his face forward to kiss Terrence’s cock through his underwear.
“Eli,” Terrence said. Eli stuck both his thumbs in Terrence’s underwear and started tugging it down. Terrence helped him by lifting his hips. His heart was pounding like a bass beat. Colour flushed the pale slopes of Eli’s cheekbones but when he saw Terrence’s cock spring out of its nest of curls he groaned again and wasted no time in getting his mouth on it, like it was everything he’d ever dreamed of, like the only thing missing in his life was Terrence’s cock between his lips.
Holy shit. Eli ran his tongue up and down Terrence’s cock, and Terrence was so hard that his eyes hurt. He let them fall shut because it was too much — too much to look down and actually see Eli mouthing the vein on his cock, sliding his tongue eagerly to the tip of it and lapping up the precome.
Terrence’s thighs shook. He opened his eyes again just in time to see Eli rub his thumb against the base of Terrence’s cock. Terrence moaned with pleasure, so Eli tightened his grip as he opened his mouth and took Terrence all the way in.
The last time they’d had sex, it wasn’t anything like this. Too much alcohol, everything had been awkward and uncertain, and they’d traded blowjobs and then rubbed off against each other without making eye contact until they passed out. This was an entirely different thing. For one, it wasn’t on the bed of one of Eli’s frat brothers. For another, it was open and raw and fully aware, Eli undeniably sober as he hollowed out his cheeks and sucked Terrence’s cock with messy enthusiasm.
Terrence tightened his thighs around Eli’s head and buried his fingers in Eli’s hair. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “Fuck, yeah, just like that.” He may have tugged on Eli’s hair a bit, especially when Eli took him particularly deep, but instead of being annoyed it only seemed to turn Eli on even more, Eli moaning open-mouthed and stuffed full of Terrence’s hard cock.
The pressure built in Terrence’s balls. He could feel it rise. How could it not when Eli’s mouth was so fucking hot, and he wanted Terrence so bad that when Terrence started moving his hips Eli lost some of his rhythm but got his mouth on Terrence anyway, sloppy and hungry, practically slobbering over his cock. Eli tightened his grip around the base of Terrence’s balls, staving off orgasm for a few precious minutes until he flicked his wrist once, let go, and Terrence shouted as he came, spurting rich and creamy into Eli’s mouth.
“Fuck,” he said, “oh my god, fuck, that was—”
He couldn’t even finish his sentence before he was reaching for Eli, licking the come out of his mouth. Eli moaned and clung to him, still mostly clothed. Terrence started removing his clothing, yanking the t-shirt off Eli with surprising force. They worked together to get Eli out of his PJ bottoms and boxer-briefs, and then Terrence rested his hands on Eli’s perfect ass.
“You wanna ride me, don’t you?” he said, enunciating very carefully so that Eli could lip-read him. Eli moaned and took that as his immediate cue to push Terrence flat on the bed and climb on top of him, sliding their cocks together as Eli rolled his hips forward.
Terrence could feel himself getting hard again. Jesus fuck, he thought, overwhelmed with pleasure and the sight of a naked Eli grinding against him, slow and easy like some kind of porn star. Eli was completely unselfconscious the way that beautiful people often are — and Eli was so fucking beautiful Terrence couldn’t keep his eyes off him, pale and flushed and determined to find his own pleasure, to use Terrence’s body for his own purpose.
Or maybe not completely unselfconscious. Eli’s eyes fell shut and when he opened them a minute later to see Terrence watching him, he turned even redder than before.
“Oh shut up,” Eli said, but he continued riding Terrence with that same languid pace. It was fucking unbelievable. Terrence went from half hard to all the way in no time at all, his cock swollen against Eli’s as Eli’s precome dripped all over them. Eli quickened the pace, hips snapping forward, and he groaned loudly and froze — Terrence could see he was very close, which made Terrence grab him and flip him over.
Eli let out a cry of surprise. “Lube,” Terrence said. “Where’s your lube?”
“In that drawer,” Eli panted, “second one down.”
Terrence found it. When he returned to the bed he had to pause for a second because this was an image he never wanted to forget, Eli hard and waiting for him, legs open, hair a tousled nest against his pillows. Terrence had to kiss him again. Eli responded with a moan, kissing back helplessly and then falling back and watching as Terrence uncapped the bottle of lube and coated his fingers with it.
“I want you to —” Eli gasped. “I want you to fuck me.”
“What’d you think I’m trying to do right now, dickhead?” Terrence shot back. Eli laughed, but the laugh turned into a sleek groan when Terrence reached down and circled a finger around the pucker of his asshole. Eli’s eyes slid shut. His moans became heavier, more persistent — god, Eli was such a moaner, Terrence knew this from last time, but last time Eli had bitten down on his moans as much as he could, refusing to let Terrence have the satisfaction of them. This time he wasn’t so cautious and Terrence’s nerves went bright with heat. Each one of Eli’s moans pooled into his cock, which bobbed every time he heard it. He wasn’t sure how long he could last but he was determined first to turn Eli into a fucking hopeless wreck.
Terrence wasn’t normally known for his patience, but he found vast reserves of it then, circling Eli’s hole and sliding only the tip of his index finger in, teasing him. Eli shifted around, trying to get more of Terrence inside him, but Terrence only laughed low and deep and gave Eli exactly as much as he wanted to. He played with Eli for a long time, until Eli was dripping so much precome that Terrence started using that as lube too, and when it finally seemed like Eli was starting to lose it, Terrence slid his entire finger in.
“Terrence,” Eli said, lost and broken.
Terrence stole a kiss from his mouth before sliding his finger back out, and then in one more. Eli’s moan faltered. Terrence thrust his finger into him again and again, opening him up. Eli was soft and velvety inside, and it didn’t take very much for him to relax and Terrence was able to slide two fingers in, scissoring them inside Eli until Eli sobbed with joy.
Eli’s fingers were gripping Terrence’s shoulders. They were holding him so tightly that Terrence was going to have some truly impressive bruises tomorrow. He didn’t care. Fucking bring it on, he thought as he fingered Eli with exquisite slowness. Eli wobbled on the high wire of pleasure, his thighs trembling. Terrence glanced up at one point to catch a glimpse of the photo on the wall of Eli and his mom. He hoped Mrs. Levinson, wherever she was, was taking a smoke break and not actually watching down on Terrence debauching her sweet, beautiful son.
“Fuck me,” Eli said. “D-do it. Fuck me.”
Terrence could have said something snarky then, something about Eli being a tremendously needy slut, but any teasing died on his tongue when he saw the expression on Eli’s face. Despite the lewd moaning, Eli was still trying to be closed off, he could tell, trying not to let Terrence see everything, but he was doing a terrible job of it. Open and spread apart by another man’s fingers, this was the most vulnerable Eli ever let himself be, and Terrence shuddered hard as he removed his fingers from Eli’s ass and searched for a condom.
When he found one, Eli took the condom from him. Terrence watched, silent with desire, as Eli rolled it over Terrence’s cock. Then Eli scrambled backwards, let his knees fall apart, and said, “Please.” Biting his lip until it was red. Terrence couldn’t breathe.
He hooked Eli’s legs around his hips and pushed in. Eli groaned so loudly that Cass was sure to hear. Terrence buried his face into Eli’s neck and panted as he worked the full length of his cock inside. Eli was already wet and open from lube and Terrence’s fingers. Terrence pushed all the way in, spreading Eli around his cock, and simply held there for a while, trying to clear his head while Eli moaned and writhed around him.
“Move,” Eli ordered. “Now.”
“Such a bossy asshole,” Terrence muttered, but Eli couldn’t hear that, of course. Eli clutched him tightly as Terrence started to move, pushing in and out slowly at first, just getting the both of them used to the sensation. Slow and steady, each push a delicious friction. He wanted it to last as long as he could so that Eli would wake up tomorrow, in a week, in a month, and still remember what it was like to have Terrence open up his pretty little hole. Eli’s legs tightened around Terrence’s waist and he moaned softly, and then louder as Terrence finally sped up the pace.
“Terrence,” he was saying, breathing it into Terrence’s hair. “Terrence, Terrence, oh my god, Ter.” As Terrence fucked him good and proper, bottoming out in him each time, his balls swinging heavy and hot against Eli’s ass. Eli couldn’t stop moaning Terrence’s name in breathy fragments. Terrence stopped at one point to turn his head to the left and kiss Eli sloppily, because he couldn’t bear to not kiss Eli at that very moment, his sweet, kind, made-for-taking-cock Eli. He swallowed the sounds Eli was making.
They moved past sweet soon enough, though, and found themselves fucking hard and wild against the headboard, Terrence up on his knees with Eli’s legs over around his shoulders. Eli was gasping and whimpering as Terrence drove into him as deep as he could, shaking the headboard against the wall with every brutal thrust. “Ter,” Eli moaned, “Ter, I’m going to come soon, I can’t hold out much longer.”
“Don’t,” Terrence said between gritted teeth. He wanted Eli to wait for him, and he was getting there, he could feel it, liquid heat sloshing around in his balls and turning his spine hot and rigid. He pushed Eli even further up against the headboard until Eli’s head banged against the wall. “Sorry,” he murmured, but Eli couldn’t hear him and didn’t seem to care, just clutched Terrence even more tightly as Terrence promised to take him there, to give him exactly what he needed, a good hard fuck to make up for all those years they weren’t doing this but should have been.
“Oh my god,” Eli said, “oh my god, oh my god, fuck.” His voice splintered and turned into a keening whine as he tightened around Terrence’s cock, and yeah, yeah, fuck, this was it, Terrence just had to hold out for a few seconds longer, when finally Eli broke down and came, screaming quietly into Terrence’s shoulder, riding wave after wave of orgasm until Terrence let go too, and spasmed hotly into Eli’s ass, coming so hard he thought he might go blind with it.
“I’m an idiot,” Eli said afterwards when they were lying in bed together and they’d tossed the condom into the trash bin. He was curled up against Terrence’s side, playing with one of Terrence’s scars. Terrence had wondered if Eli would find the scars disgusting, and had flinched when Eli first touched them post-orgasm, but Eli had kissed them tenderly and didn’t ask, which was the greatest kindness he could offer.
“I know that,” Terrence said, barely able to summon up the energy to lift his hands. “But why this time?”
“When we had sex before,” Eli said. “Seven years ago. I wanted it so bad then. But I was a chickenshit. I thought I had this picture of who I was, and I didn’t think you fit into that.”
“I fit into you pretty well, I think,” Terrence snickered, cupping Eli’s ass.
“I didn’t know,” Eli said softly, shifting closer and sighing at Terrence’s touch. “Like I said, I was an idiot.”
“I want that in writing,” Terrence yawned, signing slowly. “But it can wait ’til morning.”
“‘Til morning,” Eli agreed, yawning too, and Terrence’s heart caught on a rusty nail at the thought that Eli would still be around in the morning, that he wouldn’t just sneak out ashamed and pretend this never happened. He peered at Eli’s sleepy face and then, finding what he wanted to see, let himself close his eyes and wait until dawn. He was happier than he’d been in a very long time.
It didn’t last long enough. Terrence woke up and slid out of bed. He started putting his clothes on in the dark, trying to gauge time by the thin slice of sunlight from beneath the curtains in Eli’s bedroom. Eli must have felt the loss of Terrence’s body beside him because he stirred and peeled one eye open while the other side of his face was smashed deep into his pillow. His hair looked like a porcupine had sat on it. “Where’re you going?” he asked in a voice textured with sleep.
“Gonna take a leak,” Terrence said. “Be right back.”
“Mmm,” Eli said, “m’okay.”
Out in the living room he found Cass eating Frosted Flakes and playing Angry Birds on her phone. She pulled a face when she saw him tuck himself into his jeans and do up his zipper. “You and Eli are so loud,” she said. “I’m gonna need therapy until I’m ancient.”
Terrence snorted. She watched him pull on his jacket. “Wait, where are you going?” she asked.
“Need a walk,” Terrence said.
“As if I believe that,” Cass said. “Why would you go on a walk when you can stay in bed with your boyfriend?”
“Eli ain’t my–”
“You aren’t coming back, are you?” Cass said.
Terrence patted his jacket pockets to make sure everything was there. “I dunno,” he said. Now that it was morning, he felt cool and dispassionate. He had expected to be scared, the way Terrence was normally slightly scared of everything — the world was dangerous, he was dangerous, everything had to be done in moderation — but he wasn’t. His hands were steady as he pulled on his boots. “Tell Eli…” he paused. He had no idea what to tell Eli. “Tell Eli I love him,” he said.
“You tell him,” Cass retorted.
“That, I’m actually scared of,” Terrence said, laughing at the stupidity of it all. Then he tugged on his gloves and headed out the door. “See ya, Cass. Don’t burn the house down.”
He half expected her to follow him into the hallway. She didn’t. Good, Terrence thought and descended the stairs until he was standing in the lobby. At this hour of the morning on a Sunday there was no one there, not even the doorman. It made it easier for Terrence to do his work. He flicked through the catalogue of his memory until he found the Shining Words he was looking for, and then he held them sharply at the forefront of his thoughts as he curled his tongue around the craggy vowels of the first Word, speaking it out loud into the silence of the lobby. The power of the Word moved through his senses like arterial blood. He said the next few Words in quick succession, defining the parameters of the first Word.
At first it didn’t work. LaFevre must be putting up some strong barriers now that he was no longer trying to bait Weaver’s agents in. Terrence’s Words shored and crashed against the invisible walls. But Terrence simply said them again, adding a new line to the sentence to strengthen his power, and this time he could feel it go through, glimmering eels slipping between the mermaid’s net.
The world shifted. The ground beneath him trembled. Terrence knew from experience that this next part could bring on nausea, so he closed his eyes. When he opened them it was over and he was no longer in the lobby of Eli’s apartment. He was in Pittsburgh, in an abandoned warehouse not unlike the one where he had once been captured and tortured. Water flooded the floor and into his cheap boots.
The Shining Words had brought him to the side of William LaFevre, and there William LaFevre was, sitting at a table with the Dictionary of Shining Words open in front of him. He was making notes — Terrence recognized those obsessive, near fanatical annotations from his own days as a Linguist. He heard Terrence walk towards him. He stood up.
“Another mouse sent to catch the cat?” he asked.
“What, you don’t have tea and biscuits waiting for me?” Terrence drawled, hand clutched to his chest. He listened to the hammering of his heart like a sound from far away. He’d come this far, he’d made his deal with Weaver, he was going to carry this all the fucking way through. “My feelings are hurt, William.”
William was small, dark-haired, fussy-looking. Even though he was squatting in a flooded warehouse the living quarters he had set up in the corner looked clean and organized, everything in its proper place. He was well-dressed and his hair was gelled back neatly. He looked liked he should be trading stocks on the floor of a Wall Street exchange.
“I know you from somewhere,” William said quietly.
“Doubt it,” Terrence said. “We’ve never met. I never forget a voice.”
“Not in person,” William said. He thought about it. “Ah! Sarima, the woman who taught me, she showed me a picture sent to her by Guneet Shukla once. She said you had the most raw power of any Linguist she’d ever seen. You’re Terrence Wilson.”
“Who fucking cares,” Terrence said.
“Because it matters!” William said. “If you’re truly the master everyone says you are, then why would you stand by and let governments try and control you. Register you. Track your every move like a hunted animal. It’s barbaric! It’s a violation of our basic rights!”
“Look,” Terrence said, “I’m not here to debate political philosophy. Maybe you’re right. I dunno. The fate of all Linguists is kinda out of my fucking hands at this point. I’m here ’cause you threatened to blow up the State of the Union, and that? That’s fucking idiotic. That’s fucking outta scope.”
William smiled slightly. “Once a white hat Linguist, always a white hat Linguist.”
“We don’t learn the Shining Words so we can make people suffer,” Terrence said. “Now come on, man. You coming with me or are you gonna make us have to fight this out?”
William’s eyes dipped to the ground. He seemed to be studying something there that fascinated him. Then he looked up and smiled, wide and joyous. “Mmm, fight, I think,” he said, and he spoke a Shining Word that made the air ripple around them. It forced Terrence backwards, the pressure of it like a jumbo jet taking off, and Terrence’s lungs burned with ozone.
(The full range of Terrence’s experience with fighting was this:
1. Scrapping with the other ghetto kids to prove who had the bigger balls
2. Bar fight ’cause someone insulted his shoes
3. Bar fight ’cause someone called him a nigger
4. Bar fight ’cause he was drunk
5. Donati capturing him and Guneet saving him and everything going fast and chaotic, and then Guneet was lying on the floor dead while one of Donati’s men tried to strangle Terrence with his bare hands)
This was new. In many ways Terrence wasn’t prepared for it at all, and Weaver was right to have doubted sending him in alone. He wasn’t combat-trained. He was just a civilian. But Terrence had told her he would do this, and he was going to at least fucking try. He threw up a barrier using the Barrier Word, strengthening it with lines and more lines of auxiliary Shining Words. The next Word William threw at him hit the barrier and bounced off, exploding a roof beam on the other side of the warehouse. William spoke another Word, and then another. Terrence could feel the seams of his barrier start to wear down, the whole thing shaking with exhaustion, but he wove it stronger, speaking Words in quick succession until it was a chant underneath his breath.
He couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. It’d been four years since Terrence had last regularly spoken the Shining Words, but they came back to him like his own breath and bone, long lost friends who eagerly crowded his tongue and filled his mind. This was the one thing he was good at in the world, his one true talent, yet he felt grief in the using of it. Using his abilities for violence was what he’d never wanted to do again, because it lived so strongly in him and he was weak to it. Bring William LaFevre in, he told himself, and he would never speak another Shining Word. He still owed Guneet as much.
A new voice entered the fray. Fuck, Terrence thought, and turned around in time to see Eli beside him, raising his own barrier.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Terrence said furiously.
“I told you,” Eli said calmly. “This isn’t a one Linguist job.”
“It is for me,” Terrence said. “Get the fuck out. You aren’t supposed to be here. How did you fucking find me anyway?”
William spoke a Shining Word that flew straight as an arrow against Eli’s barrier. The barrier crackled and made a sound like glass bending. Terrence lost his breath as he moved towards Eli, throwing up a secondary barrier in front of him. Eli took the chance to quickly repair the holes in his own barrier, muttering several Shining Words until they slotted into his golden shimmering wall.
“I’ve known you for fifteen years,” Eli said, “and you think I don’t know when you’re trying to be sneaky? I put a GPS tracker on your jacket while you were asleep.”
And then he must have spoken the Shining Word that would bring him straight to Terrence’s location. He would have used the Word that pinpointed the GPS location rather than the Word that would bring him to Terrence’s side, because a stable location was always easier to wrangle than a moving target. But easy was relative when it came to the Teleportation Words — it was one of Eli’s talents as a Linguist, though. He had used one on the night he’d first confronted Terrence at the school, slipping through all the locks and appearing right before him. There wasn’t a lock or a wall in the world that could contain Eli when he wanted to go somewhere.
Terrence held himself tight against disbelief, laughter, and despair. Fucking Eli always messing Terrence’s plans up.
William was tiring. His Words weren’t breaking through either of their barriers. He was talented enough to have defeated Penhale, or maybe merely extremely vicious, but Eli was better at barriers than his mentor once he had his grounding, and Terrence — well, Terrence was on another level entirely. Calmness passed through him once more, like bubbles in water, and he waited for that gap in William’s weariness, that moment when he saw William’s tongue still, and then Terrence dropped his barrier and spoke a Shining Word that slashed straight through the air, knocking William backwards into a pile of empty boxes.
Terrence ran for him. While William was on the ground disoriented, Terrence ran and leapt, slamming his full weight into William and pinning him to the floor. William spoke a Fire Word, and Terrence turned his face aside just in time to get grazed by it. It hurt like a motherfucker anyway, but he bore through the pain and shoved his hand into William’s mouth.
William bit down. “Fuck!” Terrence said, but he didn’t let go. Had to stop William from speaking. Had to stop William from being able to use his powers. William gnawed on Terrence’s fingers while Terrence’s eyes streamed tears from the pain, and then Eli was at his side with a plank of wood he’d found lying by the boxes. He swung at William’s head hard.
William slumped to the floor, unconscious. Terrence immediately yanked his fingers from the asshole’s mouth. “Shit, shit, shit,” he said, grimacing when he looked at them. He was bleeding from nearly all of his knuckles and there were bite marks that’d pierced through skin.
“Looks bad,” Eli said, kneeling beside him. “You should see a doctor. Make sure he didn’t pass anything onto you.”
“Don’t worry about me. We gotta take care of him first,” Terrence said, pointing at William at the end of his signing. Eli nodded and pulled a roll of duct tape out of his pocket. Well, at least someone between the two of them was smart enough to have remembered that. Eli ripped out a piece and was just about to tape up William’s mouth with it when suddenly William stirred awake and opened his eyes.
In the years to come, Terrence would pick over what happened next, raking through the coals trying to figure out the exact sequence of events. It would come to him at moments unbidden, when he was on the toilet or buying a coke from the vending machine or heading to work — he would stop and remember what had happened there, in the Pittsburgh warehouse the moment William LaFevre regained consciousness. Was there anything he could have done to prevent it? Was there anything he could have done differently?
What happened was: William opened his eyes. Eli was startled. Terrence was thrown off. William took that moment and opened his mouth. He looked straight at Eli and spoke the Killing Word.
Why Eli, Terrence would wonder later. Eli was obviously not the threat. But William must have known that it would be the thing that would tear Terrence down to the roots of his teeth, because living with such deep recesses of regrets was no kind of living at all. In one stroke he would have taken out both of his enemies, Eli dead and Terrence gone.
What happened was: Eli died. Terrence watched it happen, didn’t move fast enough to block the Killing Word from nesting into Eli’s chest. Shock paralyzed him. He could only watch as Eli fell forward onto his knees. Eli gasped, a wet bloody sound that crawled its way out of his throat. His chest hit the floor after his knees, and then chin as he crumpled into a heap. He was silent.
What happened was: No, Terrence thought. He had seen this before, exactly like this. Guneet. Eli. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. No. Not on his watch. He wasn’t going to make the same mistakes again.
What happened was: William struggled to get up, but Terrence turned to him with an expression of total blankness and socked him in the jaw. William crumpled to the ground and Terrence taped up his mouth and then his hands, speaking the Sleeping Word to make sure William was not going to wake up again. He worked quickly and efficiently, knowing he had only a five-minute time frame while Eli was lying dead at his side.
He went to Eli. He knelt down and gently smoothed the hair from Eli’s forehead. He checked pulse and heartbeat just to make sure — nothing. Eli was still warm, though, and Terrence knew as long as Eli was warm, he still had the chance to set things right. What was the point of being one of the greatest fucking Linguists in the world if he couldn’t do this?
Terrence had brought four people back to life before. The first had been Mary Hui, age fourteen, when she’d gone into cardiac arrest as Terrence and Guneet were visiting the hospital where she stayed. Terrence had said the Resurrection Word after the doctors and nurses failed, and they had barely even noticed this shifty black guy lingering at the doorway. When Mary sat back up, gasping after she’d been dead for three minutes, they were even less likely to notice him in the cacophony. Mary’s mother had burst into tears.
The second person Terrence had brought to life was an older man. Henry Kennedy, age fifty-eight. He’d been a Hollywood producer who was hiring Terrence and Guneet to run some illusions that would make his postpartum daughter happier, except he’d had a stroke right during their first meeting. Terrence had walked over, put his thumb on Henry’s throat, and brought him back.
The third person was Mohammed “Mo” Quraishi, five years old and hit by a drunk driver. Terrence had been in the emergency room on other business when they wheeled Mo in, and when Mo died, Terrence had walked over, whispered a word in his ear, and Mo was wailing again.
The fourth person Terrence had brought to life was Aaliyah Carter, age twenty-seven. Her boyfriend Jackson had been screwing around with Terrence — screwing him into the mattress, to be more exact — and Terrence had thought he was in love. Until he saw Jackson with his girlfriend at the convenience store in a rough neighbourhood and Jackson pretended not to know him. Then someone came in for a holdup, and as Terrence and Jackson were lying flat on the floor trying not to drawer the shooter’s attention, Aaliyah had stood up. Shame on you, she’d said, and the shooter had put a round straight into her chest. Terrence had watched her die. Then, when the shooter was gone with the money he wanted, and Terrence could breathe again, Terrence had crawled over and put his hand on Aaliyah’s shoulder. He’d attended her wedding a year later.
Mary Hui, Henry Kennedy, Mo Quraishi, Aaliyah Carter. And now this time someone new entirely, still warm beneath Terrence’s hands as Terrence lowered his mouth and kissed Eli, slotting their mouths together so that he could give Eli his breath, so that he could whisper the Resurrection Word, hoarse and scratchy, right into Eli’s lungs.
“———————” he said, and the power rushed through him like scarlet fever. In those few seconds Terrence saw all the futures that he had given up, futures where Guneet lived, ones where she didn’t, futures where Terrence was still a practicing Linguist, where people came from all around the world to learn from him, where he was rich and powerful and feared and hated, futures where he was alone, where he was pretending to be straight, where he had boyfriends dangling off his arm, each more good-looking than the next, and then this one, the only future he cared about, where he was kneeling on a wet floor with Eli in his arms, rocking back and forth, waiting.
Elijah Levinson, age thirty-two, woke up.
Eli was grouchy. “How long do I have to be in the hospital?” he asked, pulling at the IV tube and scratching his arms. “I’m here, I’m alive, I’m obviously okay.”
“Don’t be such a fucking prima donna,” Terrence said, sitting by the bed. “They’ve gotta run tests to make sure everything’s functioning like it should. I could’ve messed you up, you know. Dark magics and all that.”
“I feel just fine,” Eli said.
“Shut up and drink your non-organic juice box,” Terrence said, shoving it into Eli’s face.
“God, I hate you,” Eli said passionately, but he took the juice box (grape flavoured) and started sipping from it anyway.
“If I’d known you were gonna be this bitchy, I would’ve left you for dead,” Terrence said. He hoisted his feet and slung them over Eli’s lap just to be obnoxious. Eli didn’t make him move.
“You don’t mean that,” Eli said.
“Probably not,” Terrence said, and grinned. He glanced over at the table that was fucking covered with flowers and chocolates people had been bringing for Eli since word got around that he’d had some sort of injury. Relatives, friends, coworkers, and more than one ex-boyfriend, each of them so beautiful and god-like that Terrence fell into a funk that could only be fixed by Eli trying to make out with him on the hospital bed. (Didn’t work for very long — the nurses made them stop).
Penhale had visited, and Terrence had excused himself so that Penhale and Eli could have a private conversation, mentor to student, though probably one so emotionally repressed that nothing of importance was actually said. Cass came too, every day after school, and she had fallen asleep last night curled up in Eli’s bed beside him, her arms flung around Eli’s chest. She’d cried when Terrence told her that Eli had been dead for four minutes.
Eli scratched his arms harshly, like a dog. “What’re you doing?” Terrence said. “You’re gonna scratch yourself bloody.”
“I’m itchy,” Eli complained. “It just won’t stop.”
“Well stop it anyway, you’re freaking me out,” Terrence said. He reached over and touched Eli’s right arm. “Want some lotion?”
“Yeah,” Eli said. “That’d be nice.”
Terrence rummaged through his backpack and found the lotion he’d brought from Eli’s apartment. Cass had told him it was Eli’s favourite, some lavender fruity thing that made Terrence roll his eyes. He squeezed a dollop of it into his fingers and then started smoothing it into Eli’s skin. Eli watched him quietly. “Thanks,” he said when Terrence was done.
“You’re an awful patient,” Terrence told him. “And awful backup too. Look at you rushing into my op and getting fucking killed. Like what’s up with that?”
“No,” Eli said, “what’s truly stupendous is you thinking that you can go in alone and not tell me about it. David and I would have taken care of it just fine without your misguided heroics. It would have been a careful, planned operation.”
“Just because we can’t all be the second coming of the Old Masters like you are,” Eli said, “doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re doing.”
“It’s got nothing to do with being an Old Master,” Terrence said, resisting the urge to cross his arms as that would impede signing. “It’s — fuck, it’s ’cause you’ve got everything to lose, an entire fucking life full of people who adore you and need you, and I — don’t. I’m the expendable one on the team. I’m the one who’ll make the least difference in the world if I die.”
Eli stared at him in total disgust. “What?” Terrence snapped.
“You are so goddamn stupid, it’s amazing,” Eli said. “Good thing I’m the one who died, not you, because if you’d died I would have had to mess up saying the Resurrection Word a second time, and I really can’t afford to be any more disabled than I already am.” He still sounded supremely grouchy but then he looked up from beneath his lashes and snuck in a smile.
Why was Terrence so charmed by this? It was fucking ridiculous. He had horrible taste in men.
They spent the rest of the afternoon talking a little bit about everything. Weaver came in to visit and briefed them on what was happening with LaFevre. He was in FBI custody right now, waiting to stand trial — and here Eli sat up straight in the hospital bed, keenly curious, because prosecuting Linguists was a new development in the legal world, and suddenly he was full of opinions about how the trial might go down. Weaver listened to him patiently for a while before cutting him off and saying, “Since the both of you will be firsthand witnesses, you’ll get to see it for yourself.” She nodded at them. “Good work, gentlemen, even if it was… unorthodox.”
“She shouldn’t have sent you in,” Eli said after Weaver had left. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive her for that.”
“Well,” Terrence said, “forgiveness is a funny thing.”
“It’s hard,” Terrence said. “I think I’m gonna try to do more of it in the future. Part of my goal of being a good man and not a power-hungry Linguist — that whole kebab.”
“Mmm,” Eli said. “Forgiving yourself would be a good place to start.”
“One thing at a time, buddy,” Terrence said. “Gotta climb the hills before you can move the mountains.” They were quiet for a few minutes after that, Terrence listening to the sounds of the nurses in the hallway and the beeping of Eli’s heart monitor. Eli was listening to whatever was in his own head, lost in thought.
“When I was here before,” Eli said slowly, “after what happened with my mom and I lost my hearing, did you… did you come visit me?”
“You remember that?” Terrence said in surprise. “Yeah, I came. You were completely out of it, though. I didn’t know what to say.”
“You’re not very good with words,” Eli smirked.
“Not that kind,” Terrence said.
“I remember,” Eli said. “I remember it was a room a lot like this one. You were sitting in that same place when I woke up, and you had this notepad… you were writing things to me. I thought it was a hallucination after. I had no idea where you were staying at the time, if you were living or dead. I thought I’d just dreamed you up to make myself feel better.”
“What, ’cause I’m your guardian angel?” Terrence said.
“Because when I’m at my lowest, I know you’ll be there with me,” Eli said. “You’re the strongest person I know, Ter. Sometimes I need to borrow that strength.”
“Wow,” Terrence said, his traitorous heart quickening, “that’s pretty romantic.”
“Between the two of us,” Eli said, “someone’s got to be.”
Picture this, Terrence always wanted to say afterwards, but Guneet was dead and it was too late to bring her back, so he had to content himself with saying it to her photo, studying the familiar beloved shape of her face. Yo, picture this, Guneet, he wanted to say, so a few days after Eli got out of the hospital it was the State of the Union address, and even with LaFevre captured security was still ramped up to eleven, which was fine with Terrence because you could never be too careful with fucking Linguists.
Both him and Penhale hadn’t wanted Eli to come, but Eli had brushed them both off, saying, I’m literally more alive than I’ve ever been before, now leave me alone, and he’d shown up with the rest of the security detail, pulling the best straw and getting to stand by the president all night, which hey, worked out pretty well because Terrence was always staring at Eli anyway, so it was convenient that the President of the United States was also within view.
The State of the Union wasn’t a place where Terrence could get away with jeans, so he’d pulled out his old Yves Saint Laurent suit from the back of Eli’s closet — “oh, that,” Eli had said, blushing, “uh, I can explain that” — and he looked pretty fucking sharp judging by the way Eli’s eyes had slid over him in a hot wet glide before they’d left the house.
Picture this, Terrence said to Guneet afterwards. The State of the Union address went off just fine, no one got hurt, Capitol Hill didn’t blow up, and when it was over Eli and Terrence celebrated by heading to one of the swankiest bars in town for drinks, except halfway there they decided that what they would rather do is go home and change into their PJs. Cass was waiting up for them when they changed direction and returned, and it turned out she’d made the coffee table collapse in flames, so Eli yelled at her for a bit before they all worked together to clean it up.
Then they put on their PJs, Eli made them hot chocolate on the stove, and the three of them crowded together on the couch to watch bad TLC wedding planning shows, which both Cass and Terrence gleefully loved and Eli merely tolerated once the closed captioning was turned on. Eli fell asleep halfway through one episode, his head plopping against Terrence’s shoulder, and Terrence had to stop Cass from getting out her Magic Markers to draw a mustache on Eli, because come on, give a man his dignity, he’d just protected the fucking president from a terrorist attack.
Picture this, Terrence said to Guneet later before tucking the photo of her back into his wallet. The snow was falling outside, the streets were being plowed, and everything inside the apartment was warm and sleepy just like a fucking Hallmark card. More than the Shining Words, more than being able to bring people back from the dead, this was the dangerous part of the story, where Terrence’s belly was full of hot chocolate and tentative joy, and he had Eli snoring on his shoulder with his hair tickling Terrence’s nose. The most dangerous thing of all, Terrence thought, but he’d learned magic under a woman who always told him to be brave, to do the thing that was the hardest and scared him the most. Okay, he thought, he was learning, he was getting better; bring it on, bitches.
Good night, Guneet, good night.