Thanks to russian_blue for help with brainstorming. Thanks to Leaper Sonata for beta reading.
Somehow or another- Howard had no idea how- twice weekly tea with Torquil had become an assumed part of the family schedule. Once a week, Howard and Awful and whichever student was currently watching them visited Torquil together, and once a week, Howard went alone. Awful objected to being left behind, but Catriona pointed out that there was really no need for Awful to visit Torquil at all. Awful was always particularly nasty to Howard in the evenings after his private visits, but Howard was used to Awful and was nasty right back.
Some time between sending the oldest three into space and the first tea, Torquil had acquired a flat and a cat, a middle aged, very vocal Siamese named Handel. Howard was quite sure Torquil had had neither before. Awful and the cat had something of an armed truce. The cat occasionally allowed Awful to pet her, and Awful put up with the cat's commentary. ("It doesn't matter that I don't know what she's saying!" Awful said. "I can tell it's rude.")
The flat was large enough that Howard thought it could easily hold his entire family, well, his current family. Not his birth family. If his birth family had been in such close quarters, he thought someone would have killed someone else (and then he carefully didn't think about Archer, Dillian, and Shine in the close quarters of his spaceship).
The first time they visited, Awful ran from one room to another, throwing doors open and generally prying into things. Howard followed after her, trying not to let his embarrassment show and quite as determined as Awful to find every secret of the place. Torquil watched them, stroking his cat and looking like he was trying not to laugh. Howard suspected that not all of the space was natural to the flat, and the jacuzzi seemed unlikely to be original, but he didn't think he should call Torquil on it; he suspected Venturus would have altered the place considerably more.
Howard was too busy being grateful that Torquil had decided to stay instead of going to live with Hathaway or going off to travel the world like Erskine. Howard rather thought he needed someone who understood. His parents did their best, but Venturus was outside their realm of experience. They expected Howard to be the boy he'd always been, and though he tried, he really wasn't any more.
"The problem with Venturus," Howard told Torquil, "is that he has years and years. I've only been Howard for thirteen years, twice. I wish I didn't remember him." He fixed his eyes on the painting on the wall above Torquil's head. The painting showed three girls in the process of changing into trees. They looked like it hurt a lot. Howard found it rather alarming and looked away.
"You are Venturus, Howard," Torquil responded. "Talking about him as if he isn't you won't change that. But you don't have to be that Venturus, not any more. More tea?" He lifted the delicate, blue and green teapot that didn't look like it could possibly hold all the tea Torquil went through.
"No, thanks." Howard had barely touched what he had already. He fidgeted his feet but was afraid to move them too far because the tea table always looked to him as if it might break if he knocked against it. It was all thin arches and inlays. Torquil kept the tea things on a tray to protect the table's finish. "I just keep thinking- What happens to Mum and Dad the first time Venturus really wants something? Awful can hold her own-" I hope. "-but he'll trample right over Mum and Dad."
"Your parents might surprise you." Torquil nudged a plate of petits fours in Howard's direction. "They stood up to the rest of us."
Howard frowned. I can tell that I could overwhelm Mum or Dad. It's not as easy as leading them along, but I could do that, too, if I worked at it. If it mattered enough to me. If they tried to stop me designing spaceships. Though spaceships are less appealing now. "What do you think they're doing now? Archer and Dillian and Shine, I mean. I can't see them just letting the ship go and go. I set it up to be hard to get the controls working for them, but they're clever. I'm just counting on them being too far away when that happens to know the way home."
"I don't really care what they're doing as long as they're not doing it here." Torquil didn't sound very certain. "Your ship seemed a tidy way to get rid of them."
"Do you think there are other planets out there, other habitable planets?" Howard picked up one of the little cakes and looked at it for a moment before putting it in his mouth. When he finished chewing, he said, "I mean, we know there are other worlds. We just don't know what's in space. Do you think it loops around to go... where our parents are?" Or to one of the other worlds we're supposed to be barred from? He hunched his shoulders a little. "What would our parents do if those three turned up on their doorstep, still as bad as ever?"
Torquil seemed to consider that for a moment. "Send them somewhere else, I suppose. With luck, not back here." He rubbed the side of his face. "But I see no reason there shouldn't be other planets out there. I can see those three building their own little civilization."
Howard snorted. "It wouldn't be very civilized with just them." They do better with lots of minions, minions they don't currently have. "I just worry. Sending them off seemed so final, but it's really only the start. Also-" He sighed. I've been trying not to think about this. There's so much I don't want to think about. "I might- just might- feel a little guilty about Fifi. She's bound to find out a lot more about Archer than she really wanted to, and Dillian..." Dillian wouldn't want to leave Archer anything she could take away, and Dillian can be charming. Not to mention that Fifi's pretty and Dillian's only prospect for light years. Howard shuddered. "Poor Fifi."
"Ah, yes." Torquil nodded. "I know that one. We didn't really think about what would happen to them, just that they wouldn't be ihere/i any more. Do you feel guilty about those two that went with Shine?" He poured himself some more tea and stirred in some sugar.
Howard regarded his cup. It was still full. "Not so much. I don't know them, you see. I know Fifi. Very well. Awful misses her. She keeps driving off the students Dad finds to help out. She says she wants Fifi back."
Torquil continued to stir his tea. "I can't tell you that Fifi will be happy. I can't tell you that Archer will stay in love with her- Though, with no one else available to adore him, I expect he'll be careful, and he was genuinely fond of her."
Howard made himself drink some tea. He didn't really care for this kind which Torquil had said was called chai. Howard preferred what he got at home from a cheap teabag. "I don't know," he said at last. "It's hard to believe that he went years and years and then suddenly fell in love. I like Fifi, but what makes her different from all the others who've undoubtably thrown themselves at him? He's handsome, rich and powerful. I can't imagine he's spent any time alone that he didn't want to."
"Well-" Torquil got that look that Howard recognized as hesitation over whether to treat him as a thirteen year old boy or as a century old wizard. Finally, Torquil sighed. "Archer falls in and out of love. He's always passionate about it. I don't think he likes being alone."
They were all alone, really. Hathaway wasn't, but he had to live in the past. I wasn't, but I had to become a baby again. Howard took another swallow of tea. "We shouldn't ought to have sent Fifi with Archer."
"Now is not the time to realize that," Torquil said tartly. "She'll be fine. They all will."
And Erskine was angry at her. I think that's really what did it. Otherwise, we'd just have told Archer she was on the ship and trapped him that way. "I just- What if they have children? They could if they find a planet to take over. Would their children have powers? Would their children's children?"
Torquil sipped at his tea. Howard thought it was to delay answering. After a minute of silence, Torquil said, "I've looked into the history." He seemed to be looking at the piano behind Howard's chair. "Hathaway's children had some powers but less than he does- did. They also grew old, just not as fast as normal people. We... don't. Hathaway's grandchildren aged faster and had fewer powers. Now, powers pop up occasionally in his descendants, but it's rare. He has a lot of descendants. I couldn't track them all."
"You've thought about this." Howard tried to keep accusation out of his voice. He was pretty sure he failed.
"Somebody had to. Erskine was too eager to get out of the sewers to think, and you're too young. Hathaway was trying not to look at his future, partly because it shifts around and partly because seeing his family die once is enough without anticipating it forever."
Howard didn't have anything to say to that. He didn't know Hathaway's family particularly well, but he thought about how it would be to watch his parents and Awful grow old and die. And it will happen. If I can't find a way around it, it will happen. It felt a lot like being punched in the stomach. He wanted to rub his belly, but he didn't want Torquil to see his weakness.
Howard groped for a change of subject. "Venturus-" he said at last. Venturus might as well be good for something. "He wants Ginger's gang. I just want to design a spaceship with Ginger. He has good ideas. But Venturus keeps saying that Ginger and his gang could be useful."
"That's probably true, depending on what you want to do."
Howard took another petit four to delay answering.
Torquil studied Howard's face. "Ginger makes you uncomfortable."
"Well-" Howard looked down at the table. "He's... difficult. I don't like the gang. They're afraid of him, and he likes me, so they don't give me a hard time. I just don't like how he is with them. He's mean."
"Is he your friend?"
Howard kicked his foot forward once before he could stop himself. He hit the table, making the teacups rattle. "I'm sure he's really interested in spaceships. I'm sure he's glad to be rid of Shine. I don't know though. Awful keeps thinking of things Venturus- I- can do for her. Ginger probably is, too."
Torquil leaned back in his seat. "That's a risk in dealing with anybody who knows about us. There's a lot we can do for our friends. And a lot we can do to our enemies."
"I don't want it. I was happy just being Howard." But how many times did I wish I was special? Howard clenched his fists against his legs.
"Being a teenager is hard enough without being Venturus, too?" Torquil didn't sound unsympathetic. "You're supposed to be finding your own identity, and instead, you've discovered that there's whole other person in your head."
"You're not going to get a handle on Venturus as long as you keep insisting he's something alien." Torquil picked up his spoon and stirred his tea meditatively. "There's a reason I call you Howard now. You're not exactly the brother I used to know. I think I like you better now."
"You've helped," Howard confessed. "I think, without you, I'd have chucked it all and run. Maybe I'd follow Erskine. Traveling the world sounds easier than school. I could find him. He sends us postcards every week. Mum's running out of places to stick them up."
"That would be very like the old Venturus. Quentin and Catriona would miss you. Awful, too, most likely, though she'd never admit it."
Howard hunched his shoulders. "Venturus is grateful to Mum and Dad. He doesn't love them."
Torquil reached across the table to rap his damp spoon against Howard's hand. "Venturus is you, Howard, and you love them. You even love Awful." He frowned as if he thought Howard was being slow. "You have a choice about that, more or less, because Venturus is so much older than your relationships with them, but what you feel is what Venturus feels. It may scare Venturus, of course. Loving people is scary, especially people who don't live as long as we will and who are vulnerable to all the evil we can do."
Torquil's cat came over to rub her head against Howard's leg. Howard went very still. The cat didn't generally deign to give Howard attention. "How do you bear having a cat?" he asked quietly, bending over to rub the cat's ears. "They last even less time than humans do." He kept his eyes fixed on the cat. He wasn't sure he didn't have tears in his eyes, and he didn't want Torquil to see.
"The price of not having her is higher than the price of having her, even with the broken knick-knacks." Torquil sighed. "Hathaway was right to start a family. He always was just a bit quicker than the rest of us. It took me a while to come around to it."
Howard frowned. That didn't sound right. "Erskine just wanted out of the sewers."
"He'll keep coming back to your family," Torquil predicted. "And it won't be for you."
"No." Howard swallowed hard. Something else I didn't want to think about. "It'll be for Awful. I never told you- We, Erskine and I, saw what she'll look like when she's grown. Erskine didn't care so much about Fifi after that." Venturus must be good something. Maybe he can protect Awful from Erskine. "She's eight."
"And Erskine's not here trying to get on her good side. He has that much sense." Torquil tapped a finger against his cheek. "He may not be back for years. But I meant your parents. They treated him like family even when he was the Goon."
"Awful doesn't have a good side," Howard said automatically. Then he considered that that wasn't entirely true. "She made Mum tea the other day." Proper tea. Earl Grey. "Even toast with marmalade, and she didn't break a thing."
"She behaves moderately well when you bring her over here."
"She's afraid you'll say she can't come back." But she asks questions I'd never dare- like where that bell comes from and what it means. The bell Howard was thinking of was, according to Torquil, Indonesian. It was large and wooden with a painted face carved on each side, and it had a clapper that looked like an upside down baby. He has such odd things. I wouldn't have thought most of it would suit him, but it does. I expected more gold and gemstones- never rhinestones, not for Torquil. Even his clothes- Just how much did those thirteen years change him? But he was showy with Mum, but that was to impress her, but... He shook his head.
"I haven't had to put away nearly as many things the last few times. I think Handel breaks more than Awful does."
Howard shrugged, accepting that and knowing that Awful would hate being compared to a cat. He looked around. "How did you collect all of this? I mean, you had no way to travel around looking for it." He waved a hand around. "You've never built all of this up just since I came into my powers."
Torquil didn't answer. Instead, he said, "I wonder what our parents would make of us now."
Why doesn't he want to answer? Is he hiding something? Howard reluctantly allowed himself to be distracted. "I think they'd approve of Hathaway. I'm not sure about the rest of us. I'm not eager to go knocking on that door to find out. I never tried to get back in, but I'm sure they sealed the gate after us."
"There are other ways to travel universes. Of course, finding the right one would be a challenge."
Howard blinked. How does he know that? He never experimented that way. "Do you think that's what they'll do? Archer and Shine and Dillian, I mean."
"That wasn't what you designed the ship for, was it?" Torquil looked suddenly intent.
"It never occurred to me to do anything but travel in space," Howard confessed. "Space is so big; there's so much out there. But- if it's possible at all- they might be clever enough to figure out how to do it. I wouldn't know where to start, but they've got nothing but time. I didn't point the ship at anything in particular, just set it to go out as fast as possible and get lost." He chewed on his lower lip. "I think they'll figure out how to navigate, eventually. They just shouldn't know which star is ours, so the odds are they won't come back. Whether they land somewhere or just go on until they run out of food." He felt a little sick at the thought.
"Keeping them around wasn't an option. This way, they have a chance." Torquil didn't look unduly disturbed at the prospect of the people on the spaceship dying.
"There was plenty of food, and the water recycled. I planned that right." But I never tested it. Howard wanted to defend his design. But I didn't do nearly as good a job with it as I should have.
"They're all clever. They'll figure something out." Torquil frowned. "Maybe it's better if they do figure out how to travel universes. Another one might have better defenses against them. Or not. We don't want to have to fight them directly. This is a beautiful world, and I don't like to think how much we'd destroy. I'm also not sure who'd win."
"If Hathaway tried even halfway, he could do a lot. He had more time to work than the rest of us." Is Hathaway even still alive? Torquil thinks he is. That's weird to think of- I can talk to him in the past, but he might also be out there somewhere, centuries older than the rest of us. There's no reason he couldn't be.
"Starting earlier does help." Torquil poured himself more tea and added sugar. "I wonder if it wouldn't have been better all around if we'd gone our separate ways when we first arrived in this world... I'm not sure we don't make each other worse. There's so much more to this world than this town, so many more interesting things than ruling anything."
When did you start thinking that? Do I really know you any more? I like you. I need you. You understand Venturus and Howard. But who are you really? "What will you do if Erskine comes back and says he wants to farm the world?" The question had been troubling Howard since Erskine left.
Torquil tapped his spoon against his saucer. "Laugh at him, I suppose. He can't bear being laughed at."
"You're thinking of Archer." How could you mix them up? "Erskine moves slowly, but when he's sure, he's sure."
"Erskine does worry me. A little." Torquil met Howard's eyes. "Just not nearly as much as you do. You don't know your own power, and relying on Quentin, Catriona, and Awful to keep you human doesn't seem like enough."
Howard wanted to scoff, but he had the feeling Torquil was dead serious. He toyed with his spoon. "I told you- I don't want to be Venturus. I don't know who I will be, but I don't want... that."
Torquil sat utterly still. "You could farm the whole town now. If you wanted to. It would be a step toward... bigger things."
"I think the town does very well without me." Howard wanted that to be true. But things have been- It's like people forgot how to take care of things without one of us telling them what to do. For some things, it doesn't matter, but I could do a lot of good with something like the fire department. "Taxes are tempting. Mum and Dad could use the extra money. I don't suppose they'd want to take it, though."
"I'm still farming taxes," Torquil admitted. "It's pretty miserable to live without money. I tried it once. I was dreadful at it. I couldn't do anything anybody would pay me for, not without getting labeled a witch."
"Maybe you could teach music?" Howard tried to think what Torquil was good at. "Or be a fashion designer? Or maybe a stage magician? We have advantages in that direction."
Torquil waved a dismissive hand. "Teaching music means dealing with people who can't play or sing. I don't know how your mother does it. And once in a while, there's someone so brilliant you can't bear it, and you know you'll never be that good ever." His smile looked forced.
When did you meet someone that good with music?
"And fashion," Torquil went on, "would mean some sort of apprenticeship." He shook his head. "It would also mean leaving you behind. Besides, I can't bear to be around people who dress better than I do."
Is that really true? "Acting then? You've got film star looks." iBut that would mean leaving here, too./i
"Theater might be better than film. I like having people looking at me." Torquil's smile was just the faintest ghost of an expression.
Howard remembered the first time he'd seen Torquil this time around and laughed. "Choir boys and dancers. I remember. You know how to make an entrance."
"It was quite the wrong way to get your mother's attention." Torquil shook his head. "She saw that I had power, but she wasn't actually impressed by me."
"Oh, she was impressed," Howard disagreed. "Just not the way you wanted. She believed you could take away her job. That was quite enough."
"It wasn't what I was after." Torquil sipped his tea. "I didn't see how your father's words could be keeping us in, but everyone else seemed so convinced that I had to look into it. I didn't have any better ideas. I could see that us staying trapped was a good thing, but not knowing how we were trapped, I had to accept that it could end any time. I just didn't see how I could beat out the three oldest for control of the world. I hadn't thought about trying Hathaway's way. I wasn't even speaking to him then."
"I suppose you'd be better than Shine." Howard didn't want to think about the world ruled by his family.
Torquil gave a theatrical shudder. "Any of us would be better than Shine."
"I wonder what our parents were doing to have all of us turn out such bad lots? Mum and Dad would never have put up with it. I think I got lucky the second and third time around."
"I've thought about that- I think they were simply focused on getting to their seventh child, never mind the first six. It was all about you for them. And not you you, seventh child you. They weren't nearly so pleased when you turned out to be an independent person."
Howard just stopped himself from kicking his feet again. "I don't think I want to see them again. Ever. I did once, but now... I have Mum and Dad, and they're ever so much better."
Torquil smiled. "Your parents are a good example. I thought about them and Hathaway when- Well, never mind."
When what? What are you not telling me? There's definitely something. Howard was silent for a long moment, looking into his tea as if he might find answers there. "Torquil-" He stopped, uncertain what to say next.
Torquil waited for Howard to go on. After a minute, he said, "How is school? Are you practicing your violin?"
"School is... school." You don't want me thinking about it, do you? "It's harder now that I remember Venturus. Some things are still new, things like history, but maths and science... Well, I know more than the teachers do, and it's hard to remember not to let on. Mum would have me doing advanced classes if she knew. I think she hasn't thought." Howard wasn't even going to dignify talking about his violin with a reply. Torquil knows I don't love music the way he and Mum do.
"Why don't you want to do advanced classes?" Torquil sounded like he genuinely wanted to know.
"They'd just be boring, too." Howard's feet twitched, and he stilled them. "I've studied future science, and that took a lot of math. I think I'd need to go to the Poly, and I don't want to be a freak. It's hard enough to keep friends with Venturus always thinking about how they can be useful."
Torquil looked thoughtful. "I suppose you'd find more useful people that way at the Poly than you will among a class of thirteen year olds." He turned his cup around. "But, Howard, you're not really thirteen. Pretending to be is like- like- Well, you're trying to be smaller than you really are. That can't be good for you."
Howard raised his chin. "Like you're doing, Torquil? You're bigger than this place. I know that." But I didn't realize it before.
"I suppose we're both making choices." Torquil looked vaguely worried. "A few years resting won't hurt me, and it's kind of peaceful not to have to worry about anything but how you and Awful are going to grow up."
Howard narrowed his eyes. "You've had thirteen years- well, twenty six really- of not doing anything much."
"Except worrying about Archer, Shine, and Dillian."
Howard was certain Torquil was trying to avoid talking about something, and he rather thought he needed to know what it was. Torquil doesn't seem to want to farm the world, but what does he want from staying? None of us do anything without a plan. "Everybody but you was eager to leave, and I can't imagine you particularly enjoyed being stuck here. Most people, most normal people, couldn't wait to get out of town."
"Time is different for us. You probably don't remember that yet." Torquil's hands were so tight around his cup that Howard was afraid it would shatter.
"I remember a century of wandering this world with our brothers and sisters. It was a long, long time to be with people I didn't much like."
"I like you, Howard. I like your parents. I even like Awful when she forgets to live up to her name." Torquil's cat jumped into his lap, stretched, kneaded Torquil's thighs and settled in. Torquil began stroking her.
He'd rather deal with Handel right now than with me. Well, I can't blame him. I'm prying. But there's something there- "When we sent the others off into space, you were tired. You were exhausted. You haven't had any time to recover." Or has he? Oh. I'm stupid. Howard was careful to keep accusation out of his voice as he said, "You went the long way around from Hathaway's didn't you?"
Torquil's hand stilled for a moment. "I thought you might be angry. I didn't mean to abandon you, not like Erskine, but I did."
Howard wasn't sure how he felt about that. At least he came back. Eventually. "That's how you've got all of this stuff- You've had years and years to collect it. That's why Handel's so-" He didn't want to say 'old,' but he wasn't sure what other word fit. He shook his head.
"Keeping clear when you visited Hathaway was... I was ashamed to let you see me. I thought you might have some pointed words for me. Then the possibility of coming back occurred to me, and I had a better reason to avoid you. Hathaway helped me write down all that I could remember of what happened so that I wouldn't forget. We both knew that things become vague decades on.
"Neither Hathaway nor I were sure what would happen to us once you went back to being a baby. We'd been bound to this place before, and we didn't see how we could hide for thirteen years if we had to be here twice. Both of us made sure to be a long way away from England in 1970."
I'm accepting all of this too easily. No, it makes sense, sort of. "I take it you weren't drawn back here?"
"No, fortunately. Our earlier selves seemed to be enough for the geas." Torquil shut his eyes and leaned back in his chair. He continued stroking Handel. "We weren't sure what would happen if we were in the same place with our younger selves. It seems like the sort of thing that might be dangerous."
Howard nodded then realized Torquil couldn't see him. "I don't think I'll tell Awful. She'd want to try it herself." He picked up his teacup for something to do with his hands. "Will I see Hathaway?"
"Not as long as you're still visiting his earlier self. He's afraid of you letting something slip about his future."
"Is the future set?" That seems unlikely.
"We're not sure." Torquil opened his eyes. "Hathaway's now depends on his then happening in a certain way. We don't want to see what happens to his now if his then alters course. We think minor changes would simply be swallowed up, but something major might rewrite our present."
Howard squeezed his eyes closed then opened them again. "I like the present. Mostly." But it can't be set. The thirteen years didn't happen the same way twice. Does that mean that Hathaway could have got rid of the three oldest even without us, just by coming through history? But he knew he didn't have to because we'd already done it. Except we hadn't. "Does thinking about this give you a headache?" He thought he sounded plaintive.
Torquil laughed. "I just don't think about it. I do what I'm going to do and let the rest sort itself out. I think Hathaway understands it, more or less. You could ask him to explain. Or not."
I think not. "So either I go hundreds of years without talking to Hathaway or I can't talk to him in our now?" I don't have the right words for this.
"It won't be hundreds of years from your point of view any more than it was hundreds of years between times talking to me."
"I'm still trying to get used to that." Howard studied Torquil, trying to find any differences between the brother he'd known and this new version of Torquil. "I thought it was the thirteen years that had changed you. I knew something had, but I never thought-" He shook his head.
"I learned a lot about the world." Torquil looked around the room, his eyes settling briefly on item after item. "When I came back, I thought about taking Dillian's house. It's large enough to hold all my things, and I couldn't think of a better use for it, but it's so overwhelmingly Dillian that I couldn't bear it. This flat is much better."
"I didn't even notice you'd been gone." But I think I'd have known something was wrong if you moved into Dillian's house. "Even more- Awful didn't notice that you'd been gone. She always notices things you particularly don't want her to."
"She hardly knew me." Torquil flicked his fingers dismissively. "I made up my mind not to tell you but not to deny it if you figured it out. It seemed like a lot to put on you all at once when you were still getting used to being Venturus."
"I'm still not used to being Venturus," Howard said automatically. But I'm not nearly as uncomfortable about it as I used to be.
Torquil smiled. He didn't say anything.
Howard sighed. "Okay, I'm getting there. I can talk about things like this without feeling like I'm making it all up." It would be easier if I were.
"Don't worry. I don't plan to leave any time soon, not until you're ready to go out into the wider world."
"Thank you for that. That and coming back at all." Howard smiled at his brother. I think I like it better that he came back the long way around. He's happier than he was, and I think he understands more how I feel about Venturus. "There's not much we can't do together."
The title comes from a poem called "Ephemera" by William Butler Yeats.