Blurring the Line
"You're late again, Bri!"
Brian let his bag slide off his shoulders, a little dazed. He wasn't sure what he'd been anticipating… For his father to be worried, or angry, having expected him home days or weeks ago? For his trip to have lasted years instead of hours, and for him to come back and find another family living in his house? Those were the sort of things that happened when you were dealing with science fiction, right?
He glanced at the hall clock. It was about the time he'd been expecting to get home when he'd left the library.
I guess that could be something out of a sci-fi novel, too…
"Earth to Brian? You there, buddy?" Stephen Henderson wandered out of the kitchen to meet him, one side of his mouth quirking up. He was a tall man - taller than it looked like Brian was going to be - but he had the same sun-streaked brown hair and skin that looked perpetually tanned. His lanky frame sometimes seemed awkwardly placed in the front entranceway; he had to duck a bit to get through the door from the kitchen.
Brian and his father lived in a small, single-story house that looked as if it had been repaired so many times that the original material used to make it was no longer a part of the structure. There were a total of six rooms - seven if the dining table could be considered a separate part of the living room. Besides that, there was a computer room that doubled as a guest room - if anyone in the house was willing to wrestle the ancient hide-a-bed couch into submission - also a room each for Brian and his father, and of course the kitchen and bathroom. The wallpaper in those rooms that had it was cracked and peeling slowly, the paint on the walls was in need of a new coat to hide the sickly brown-yellow color it was starting to turn, and the carpets needed to be cleaned. There had been minor renovations done to the place, but the best it could hope for by way of a description was probably 'homey'.
And whoever had built the place had not intended it for higher-than-average men.
"Sorry, dad." Brian untied his shoes and kicked them aside. The front entranceway never stayed clean anyway; there wasn't much point trying to be neat. "I was just thinking."
"Don't hurt yourself," his father teased, ruffling his hair. "You're lucky I didn't go to any great effort for supper tonight, or you'd be getting something else to think about. C'mon, get it while it's still at least lukewarm."
Brian followed him through the kitchen to the table just outside the living room and tried to push thoughts of Omen and that other place out of his mind. What would his father say if he tried to tell him he'd been pulled into another world - and met a disturbing attractive boy who he wasn't even sure was entirely human?
"Tatyana been using you for a punching bag again? I thought I saw a couple extra bumps on your noggin there…"
No. Not a good idea. Brian valued what little dignity he was allowed to keep. "How did work go?" he asked instead.
"Don't ask me - ask Chris." Stephen chucked. "He's the one who decides if I've got a piece of crap or something that's worthy of the almighty Torian Falls Daily. I just had an editorial to finish up - nothing major." He shrugged, sitting down at his end of the table. "How was school?"
"It was okay." Brian pulled up a chair and looked down at his plate. Spaghetti. Never a bad thing, even if it wasn't hot. "Tatyana almost got suspended again. They said next time she won't just get a warning."
Stephen shook his head, and grinned. "Again? Whose nose did she break this time?"
"She didn’t break anything this time." Brian shrugged, swirling his fork around and slowly forcing his thoughts back around to his best friend's latest escapade. "She gave one guy a black eye and made the other one cry. They were picking on Thomas."
"Good way to court death." His father spooned up a mouthful of spaghetti, then went on around it anyway. "Or hadn't they heard of his sister before?"
Brian shrugged, finishing his own mouthful before he started speaking. "Beats me - I don't know them. But guys who are thirteen and picking on sixth-graders don't usually go looking for real fights, right?"
He knew enough about bullying to feel sorry for Thomas, though. The eleven-year-old was a small kid, shy and quiet and clumsy enough to earn at least a few people's scorn. The fact that his sister beat up anyone who so much as looked at him cross-eyed probably didn't help his social life much.
"You're right about that," Stephen agreed, still eating. "Find anything interesting at the library?"
More like on the way home… And it had been too real to be just a dream. It seemed crazy to be eating dinner now, after just waking up. "I think so. I'll let you know after I've read them."
"Makes sense. The ways of the history novel are mysterious - you have learned well, Grasshopper."
"Ha. Ha ha ha. Do you use jokes like that in your articles, too?"
Stephen shrugged. "It's something I've been trying to work into the program. Chris isn't going for it, though. I wonder why not."
Brian couldn't help but grin. "Go figure."
His father waved a fork at him, shooting a false glare across the table. "Don't you poke fun at your father, you whippersnapper. In my day, good comedy was hard to come by, you know."
"It still is - in this house, anyway," he pointed out, and took another bite of spaghetti, feeling much more relaxed now that he was on familiar ground again.
At the back of his mind, though, the image of a wild boy with silver-blue eyes and a wolf companion refused to go away.
"Ah, Saturday - how wonderful to meet with you again." Out of nowhere, an arm slung itself around Brian's shoulders. "And with the best of all my friends at my side… how can my situation possibly be improved?"
He shrugged her arm off and turned to glare. His best friend was fifteen minutes late - they were supposed to meet at noon - and she had come at him from behind, which just wasn't fair in the first place. "By making my life more miserable than it was thirty seconds ago?"
"You wound me!" Tatyana grinned at him. She had a thin, oval-shaped face with deceptively pale skin and plain brown eyes and hair. "My humble existence, improved by making yours worse? How could you suggest such a thing? And here I thought you trusted me with your life…"
"I'd trust George with my life before I'd trust you," Brian grumbled, referring to her three-year-old golden Labrador Retriever. "At least he wouldn't laugh at me while I was down."
"No, but he'd lick your face and smother you in slobber," she pointed out. "What's new in the hand of the library folk?"
"I don't live in the library," he protested.
"You might as well." She patted him on the head condescendingly - Tatyana was two inches taller than he was, and she never let the opportunity to rub it in pass her by. "Poor little Brian, trapped in a boring world with no way to break free of the chains that bind him to books and toil and the evil of schoolwork…"
"Don't you have someone to beat up today?" he interrupted, ducking his head to free it from her hand and giving her an irritated glance. "That's your new hobby, isn't it?"
Tatyana shrugged - a brief up and down of too-thin shoulders. She was bouncing as she walked, pent-up energy making its way out in the only way she would allow it. "Only people who piss me off. That's not easy to do."
He had to admit, that was true. Tatyana was level-headed; it was easier to annoy him than her. But she did have her weak points… "Just when you're talking about Thomas."
"He can't stand up for himself yet." She tucked her hands behind her head for a moment, bony elbows jutting out oddly, and crossed her eyes at an older man who was giving her a funny look. "It's not fair to pick on him, is it? Those guys had it coming."
Brian wasn't about to argue there. "Guess not." He absent-mindedly wondered what Omen would've said if he'd had time to tell him about Tatyana and her ideas about justice.
Probably something like 'that's what you get if you're weak'.
"Anyway, they didn't kick me out of school." Tatyana didn't seem concerned. "My parents are laying out a new tactic - every time I get into a fight, I owe them five bucks. That's only for the ones they catch me at, though," she added, grinning.
"Fights that almost get you kicked out of school, or just any fight?" Brian had a feeling this new rule was going to have about the same rate of success that the others had. Tatyana had a steady paper route that earned her a lot more than they could milk out of her over a few fights. If she thought the fight was worth it, the loss of five dollars wasn't going to persuade her otherwise.
"Only the serious ones. I don't think they're that ambitious yet. Anyway, I get into not-very-serious fights in jiu jitsu all the time, so it'd be a pretty thin line."
Brian decided not to take the bait on that one. He still had bruises from before he'd quit agreeing to be her sparring partner.
I wonder who'd win if she got a chance to go up against Omen.
The thought made him chew his lip a bit, and worry about his sanity. It wasn't as bad as last night - by this point, he was used to having the crazy wolf-boy on his mind most of the time. But it still made him wonder about himself. Omen didn't seem like a dream, or a hallucination, or whatever someone in the psychologist business might call him. 'Imaginary friend'?
That was just degrading.
In any case, though, he wasn't sure whether he should be more worried about the fact that he was convinced his experience had been real, or the fact that he didn't really want to erase the image of Omen's face from his mind anyway.
Because I'd like to think I've got more sense than to fall for a boy who might even be just a figment of my imagination. Brian let out a long breath, frustrated. My imagination wants me to be gay. Great.
He still didn't really think it was his imagination, either.
"What are you thinking about, Bri?" Tatyana asked, her curious tone instantly snapping him back to reality. Brown eyes peered down at him questioningly as he settled back into the present.
Crap. Brian grimaced before he could help himself, and silently cursed his own carelessness. "Nothing. Uh… I mean… something about school. No big deal."
She snorted. "Oh, sure, Bri, school. That's it." By that point the idle curiosity had locked into severe stubbornness. "You lie about as well as my brother; cough it up now, or I make your day a living hell while trying to force it out of you." That last was offered in a deceptively cheerful tone - Tatyana never had to resort to physical violence when she wanted something.
She annoyed her victims to death instead.
There were times when Brian wished desperately for a place to trade in a best friend - and now was definitely one of them. "Rough night last night, that's all," he mumbled, hoping against hope that she'd show some tact and decide not to pry.
Tact and Tatyana were incompatible terms. "What was so rough about it?"
Brian sighed. No chance of escape. "I'm going crazy," he began - and quickly launched into the rest of the story before she could make a comment. He left out as much of the strange fascination he'd developed for Omen as possible.
She doesn't really need to know about that…
Tatyana was chewing on her bottom lip thoughtfully when he'd finished. They'd paused somewhere near the beginning of his remembered adventure for whatever miniscule amount of privacy the glass-shielded bench at the bus stop provided. "I'd say you either need to turn yourself in to the guys in white or come up with some way to carry out a cross-universal relationship," she said casually.
That was another problem with having her as a best friend: just because you decided she didn't need to know something didn't mean she wouldn't figure it out anyway.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
The indignant tone did him no good whatsoever. "Your crush on the crazy wolf kid - which was really obvious, by the way. The fact that you were trying to keep it a secret only proves that you suck at hiding things." Tatyana grinned at him. "I never would've guessed you liked guys, though - I was betting on asexual."
"You were…!" Brian broke off that sputtered protest, caught somewhere between resentful and flustered. "Just… just be quiet, all right? I'm not gay!"
She shrugged, tilted her head, and raised both eyebrows at him. "Got something against gay people, Henderson?"
"No! But… I've never…" He tried to find the words. No, he didn't particularly want to be gay. With the way most of the world treated people like that, it wasn't exactly something to aspire towards. But even if he were and had to admit it somehow, it was a lot worse to fall for a guy who may or may not have been something his mind made up on its own.
"I don't know why you've got such a problem with it. So you're gay. So what? You said this guy only hangs out with wolves, so it's not like you've got competition." Tatyana was clearly enjoying this, if the shit-eating grin on her face were any indication. "What's the big deal?"
"You break people's teeth for saying you're a dyke!" Brian accused her.
She leaned back against the wall, and shook her head sagely. "That's different."
"Oh yeah? How?"
"Because they mean it as an insult. I'm defending lesbians everywhere by knocking some sense into their useless brains." No guilt whatsoever. "Are you trying to change the subject? Because I'm not going to forget that I asked you what the big deal was until after you give me an answer."
Brian glowered at her. "Ever thought that maybe it's none of your business?"
"Yeah, I love you too, Sunshine." She gave him one of those annoyingly superior smirks and waved a hand as if to encourage him. "Go on."
Why does that falling into another world thing never happen when I could use it?
"It's not… that part," Brian admitted, grudgingly. "It's more like the part where I don't even know if the guy's real and not just something I thought up. It bothers me that my subconscious could come up with all this."
She raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms but not moving away from the wall. "What makes you think it wasn't real?"
He stared at her. "Because… because it's crazy! I walked into another dimension and met up with a guy who talks to wolves, and you don't think I should be questioning my sanity?"
"Hey, I'm trying to be nice here - I'm assuming you're not crazy." Tatyana shrugged again and grinned at him. "If I'm wrong, then they'll cart you off to wherever they keep the rest of the history-obsessed freaks whose brains imploded. But if I'm right…" She let that trail off, eyes more than a little wicked.
"What?" Brian asked grouchily, when she didn't continue. He didn't like being mocked - even if it was just teasing - and she knew it. Which was probably why she did it.
"Well, then you'll have to try and seduce the wolf boy, won't you?" she suggested in an offhand sort of tone, and rolled her eyes upward in a show of heavy thinking. "Maybe you should try flowers - or chocolate, even. Do homicidal wolf boys who wield knives and attack innocent bystanders to see what's in their back-packs like chocolate?"
Brian scowled. "I really hate you."
Tatyana grinned, wagged her eyebrows, and bowed extravagantly.
It wasn't quite dark yet, but the sun was well on its way to setting. There was an almost grey shade holding the city, as if the sunset were casting the only splash of color over an otherwise dull world.
Brian stopped when he came to the park that time. He didn't have his bag with him; would it make a difference? Everything looked perfectly normal.
You're being ridiculous, he told himself flatly. Omen told you 'right place, right time'. It's not the same time, so this probably isn't the right place any more. Right?
He wasn't too sure about that, but kept going anyway.
There was something about the way the world seemed dimmed around him that made Brian feel as if he were halfway asleep - lulled into a false calmness. It made him expect to disappear; he anticipated walking onto a path he'd never seen before and running into the boy who would match the persistent image in his head.
So he wasn't entirely sure whether he was relieved or disappointed when he walked right through the park without incident and came out the other side.
Brian stopped again, looking back over his shoulder. Well… what was I expecting, anyway? It happened or it was a dream; either way, it's over now. He shook his head and kept going. He was going to be on time for dinner tonight.
It really was better to put it behind him - no matter how long Tatyana might go on about seduction and pretty savages.
He wasn't going to get a chance to figure out that crazy wolf-boy. Brian swallowed, wondering what - exactly - he thought about that. It was hard to sort out the confusion going on in his head.
He still can't read…
Omen would just have to keep wondering about this world; Brian wasn't going to be there to tell him anything more. He wouldn't get a chance to scoot closer when he thought his storyteller wasn't watching him, to devour every word with a fascination glowing out from his eyes that enraptured Brian at least as much. Never. Again.
Brian sucked in a breath, only partly surprised to find a harsh, unpleasant knot forming in his stomach; rising up as an ache at the back of his throat.
I want to go back.
Without knowing if he'd be lucky enough to stumble back into his own world… Not knowing where he was, or what dangers there were… Only knowing one person in a world that would be full of strangers…
I'd do it. I'd go, if I got the chance. It was a realization that shocked him, but the truth of it couldn't be denied. It was frightening, thrilling, and dismaying all at the same time. Frightening for its intensity, thrilling for its excitement, and dismaying because he'd almost certainly lost his chance whether he wanted it now or not.
And it might've just been a strange delusion, too…
Well, if that's the case, then I want to be insane!
"You hear that?" Brian spun around and shouted back at the park. "I want to be insane! Is that what you wanted? Well, you've got it! Send me back!"
The park didn't answer him.
Brian lifted his head to shoot a frustrated glare up at the sky - which wasn't quite dark enough for the stars to be visible, but seemed a likely target. "I said I want to be insane! Can't you hear? Insane!"
"You again?" For a moment Brian thought that the sky was actually answering him - then a split second later, he realized the voice had come from behind him. "What are you shouting about?"
He whipped his head down, spun around quickly - and stared.
The first thing that became apparent was the fact that his surroundings were no longer familiar. Instead of houses, everything he could see in just about every direction was a series of great stone ruins, reminding him of pictures he'd seen of the temples in Athens or Rome. Some of the 'buildings' had even been reduced to piles of dust, marble pillars holding up crumbled shells that only held traces of the brilliant structures they had once been.
And the second…
"Well," Omen said, mouth twisting a bit wryly into a small smile, "since you're here again, I guess it's time to eat."
And beside him, the dark-furred wolf stared up at Brian with her strangely intelligent silver eyes, silent and knowing.