Title: Two Times Carl Had To Do Something Without Tom, One Time He Didn't, and Three More He Did

Warnings: Spoilers for Wizard's Dilemma and Wizards At War.

Disclaimer: I didn't make the 'verse. I'm just playing in it for a while.

Notes: The title pretty much says it all. I know these are a bit longer than the standard "times" fics, but I hope you enjoy anyway.


1. When He Took the Oath

Carl stayed in the gym an extra hour after practice, running free throw line drills by himself. His knees hurt, and his back hurt, but Coach Tucker said that was just because of the growth spurt.

Coach liked the fact that he'd shot up six inches since the start of eighth grade, and kept saying he'd be a terrific basketball player as soon as he got control of his limbs. The trouble was he DIDN'T have control of them yet, and all anyone could tell him was he just had to be patient. Determined to train himself out of his clumsiness, he threw the ball and took off after it, but he misjudged his brake speed and ended up kicking the ball toward the doors-

- where it was caught by Mr. Bernado, the janitor. He looked pointedly from Carl to the clock. "Don't you think you ought to head on home, son? Your folks will start to wonder where you are."

Carl realized his mother was probably making dinner already and she'd scold him if he was late. "Guess I lost track of time," he said sheepishly. He turned in a hurry and headed for the locker room to change. Just as he got through the door he stumbled over something, and banged his knee against one of the benches. Scowling, he looked back to see what had tripped him up, hoping it hadn't been his own big feet.

It was a library book, its cover slightly worn at the edges. Carl guessed someone on the team had to have dropped it. It was probably Donny, who was always reading and loaning him the books after. He picked it up and looked at the cover. It read So You Want To Be a Wizard? which figured because Donny liked to pick books that other kids wouldn't like.

Curious, Carl sat down on the bench, forgetting his promise to Mr. Bernado to head home, and started to read. The book had to be a joke, he decided, because it was all about magic. Carl didn't exactly have a problem believing in that, but what he definitely doubted was that it seemed to be saying that HE could become a wizard. Anything that big was for later- like everything else. Like getting through the growth spurt; it'd happen when he was older.

But there was an Oath, and Carl's father had always taught him that those were serious.

He guessed he had nothing to lose by saying it; if it didn't work, nothing would change, and if it did, something might finally happen NOW instead of later. "For Life's sake," he said, liking the important sound of the words, "and in Life's name…"


2. During his Ordeal

The spell wrenched Carl through space and spat him out onto the surface of a planet that looked like it had been colored by a five-year-old-girl. Or, more accurately, a five-year-old girl with a mean streak. The fuschia-colored trees were growing, growing, growing- too fast!- around a darkly handsome figure.

Carl knew who it was.

Beside him, S'beri- the furball with a face that had shown up in his locker that afternoon- trembled. We're too late! He's convinced them! They're going to suck the earth dry to keep growing!

"That's what you brought me here to stop, isn't it?" Carl snapped, irritable and afraid. He drew himself up to his full height, but he still felt too small, and it made him angry. It was like how Mr. Parnell's math class felt when he didn't know the answer.

When the Lone Power spoke, It even sounded like Mr. Parnell. "You're it? You're the answer? The talent pool must be getting awfully shallow."

Carl did his best to ignore the jab. "This is a neat trick you're trying to pull, using the will to live to further entropy."

"I thought it ingenious," the Lone Power replied. He waved to the trees and they continued to sprout up at an unnatural speed.

How can I stop it? Carl frantically wondered. The trees wanted to grow; it was in their nature to grow. He couldn't persuade them to stop what was in their nature, could he? Not with the Lone Power twisting everything out of control.

S'beri turned itself imploringly toward the nearest tree. Stop! Please! There will be nothing left for my people!

"Your people are far too troublesome," the Lone Power snarled. "Or did you think I'd forget the Binding your miserable ancestors tried?"

You're too tall! Too tall! S'beri continued to wail at the trees. You're not supposed to shoot up like the field weeds-"

And then Carl knew why he was the wizard to solve this problem, and he almost laughed out loud. He thought hard at the trees, calling to mind the way he'd seemingly outgrown clothes by the week, how he'd fidget all through class trying to find a position that didn't cause his joints to ache, the way his muscles pulled during basketball, the time his father leaned down towards his arm and laughingly told it to slow down.

The Lone Power, realizing what was happening, lunged towards him, but S'beri was there. S'beri and all its people, their wizards, weaving defensive magic in the Speech, keeping him safe as the trees started to listen, and slowed down, slowed down to a natural growing pace. Carl gasped from the effort of communicating with them, but it was working! It was actually working!

With a shriek of rage and disgust, the Lone Power vanished.

Carl slumped on the ground, wishing his timeslide wasn't going to put him back to the hour before practice, but he guessed he could take it. One step at a time, he thought, and grinned.


3. Christmas When He Was Twenty

He hadn't meant for it to happen.

He'd managed to keep his wizardry a secret from his family for seven years, and he'd planned to keep it a secret for the rest of his life because it was just better for everyone that way. He hadn't counted on agents of the Lone Power showing up at the Romeo family Thanksgiving dinner.

His sister had been thrilled by what she'd seen; it was like something out of the creepy science fiction movies she loved- and her brother was the hero! But his mother and father had brought him into the living room and told him to explain himself. They didn't say that magic wasn't real, that he was making it up- how could they after they'd seen what he could do?

"It is the Devil's power," his mother had told him.

Carl had shaken his head so hard his neck hurt. "No! No, Mama, it's not like that!"

But she'd insisted. "It is the Devil's power, and those who use it invite Him in."

"You must see that," his father had added. "Those… things… heeded the call of it. They must have."

And all of Carl's protests had been ineffectual. He'd thought, as he'd desperately tried to make them understand he was doing the right thing- being the man they'd brought him up to be- that the Lone Power had to be listening and laughing.

In the end- and over his sister's sobbing objections- his parents had tearfully told him to go… just go.

And now it was Christmas, and he was alone at Midnight Mass. The choir began the opening hymn, and he stood, waiting for the words of Adeste Fideles to comfort him like they always did…

But the song ended and comfort never came.

Carl sat and bowed his head. He heard the service going on around him, but he couldn't listen. Couldn't believe that Christmas would turn out like this.

The Manual said that wizardry was costly.

He knew that. He'd known it for years. But it had never hurt like this before.

The pew creaked as someone sat down beside him. "I know that it's Christmas," said Tom Swale, "but you're not looking very merry."

Carl jerked his head up and gave his wizarding partner an astonished look. "What are you doing here?" As far as he'd known, Tom had gone home to California days ago.

"I had gone home," Tom said, catching Carl's thoughts. "But then I realized I'd forgotten something." An old lady in the next pew shushed him, and he dropped his voice to a whisper. "It wasn't hard to find, of course. Your Catholicism makes you terribly predictable."

Carl managed a slight smile, but it faded quickly. "But Tom, it's- I don't want to sound ungrateful- but it's still evening on the West Coast. Christmas Eve. You must have had things to do with your family."

Because Tom's family still loved him. Because wizardry was as common in the Swale household as their dark eyes and crooked smiles- and even if it wasn't they would have never turned him away.

"Carl," Tom said, and waited till their eyes met. "Don't you know you've been a part of my family for two years?"

Carl didn't know how to reply to that, and his throat was too tight anyhow.

Tom clapped his shoulder and reached for the missal he had yet to open. "Listen to Mass. Meantime, I'll try to look less conspicuously heathen. Then we're 'gating to Los Angeles, where my mother will be waiting- and she will put coal under the tree if I don't bring you with me."

Carl nodded, still not trusting himself to speak- not that he needed to, the way Tom could pick up on his thoughts.

His partner smiled. "Merry Christmas, Carl."


4. After Betty Callahan's Funeral

Carl!

Carl jolted awake and immediately groaned at the pain that shot through head. He wasn't sure what had woken him up- he didn't even remember falling asleep- and the ceiling was wrong.

He was in the living room, he realized, sprawled on the couch in his dress clothes- the clothes he'd worn for Betty Callahan's funeral.

He and Tom had come home after helping Harry through the hardest parts of the ritual. They'd tried to talk for a while, then tried to distract themselves with the television, and then they had simply sat- and apparently dozed off.

Tom was still dozing, curled up in the arm chair with his legs dangling over the side. Carl smiled softly and was about to get up when his headache abruptly came back, this time accompanied by a voice-

Carl! Carl! Carl! Wake up!

He bit back a curse and rubbed at his temples. Ouch, Dairine, you don't need to try that hard.

I do at everything else, Carl heard, though he doubted she meant him to. The pressure in his mind eased up, followed by an almost-meek Sorry.

It's all right. Are you okay?

There was a slight pause, then Dairine's answer came in a rush, I needed to talk to you, and Nita told me about the time she was thinking and you heard it, so I came over here, and the house was dark, but I tried it because I need to talk to you-

Carl winced at the effort of listening. Hold on. You came over here? He turned on the backyard lights and, sure enough, there was Dairine, sitting miserably beside the koi pond in her pajamas.

Carl checked his watch as he slid the door open. "It's nearly ten o'clock, Dairine. Does your father know you're out here?" He tried to keep his tone from being too harsh considering what she'd been through, but he could picture Harry panicking upon discovering his youngest daughter's absence; it was the last thing he needed just now.

"He shut himself up in his room after everyone left," Dairine told him. "He won't miss me."

Carl arched an eyebrow, but otherwise didn't dignify her comment with a response. He took a step back to allow her to come inside, but she hesitated in the doorway, zeroing in on Tom as if she hadn't realized her Seniors actually slept on occasion.

"Don't worry about him," Carl said. "We'll talk in the kitchen. He won't wake up." He gestured for her to take a seat at the table, then walked past her to the phone. He quickly dialed the Callahan's number.

Harry picked up on the fifth ring, mumbling, "H'lo?"

"Harry, it's Carl Romeo. Sorry to-"

"Oh God." Harry's voice was abruptly wide-awake. "What do the girls have to do now?"

"Nothing like that," Carl hastily assured him. "But Dairine tells me she came over here without telling anyone at home first." He glanced at the girl in question as he spoke, responding to her annoyed look with a warning frown. "I didn't want you to worry."

"What? Dairine's there? But if there's no… work she needs to do…" Harry trailed off in confusion.

Carl sighed, too softly for it to carry through the phone. "She just came over to talk to someone. A Senior's job does include giving basic advice, as well as the more… technical variety."

He could almost see Harry shaking his head. "But you shouldn't have to do this. It's not… You're not… I'm her father. I'll come pick her up."

Dairine was starting to fidget, and Carl expected some form of combustion if he didn't address her soon. "It's really all right," he told Harry. "Tom and I are used to visitors at all hours- and most of them with problems that are literally out of this world."

That got him a short laugh. "I forget, sometimes, just what it is you two do. If you don't mind, then… Well. You've always been able to talk to her, ever since that going to Mars stunt."

And that, Carl reflected, was because stubborn, impatient, impetuous Dairine reminded him of his younger self more than he liked to admit. "I'll send her home in a little while, then," he said. "Try to get some rest."

"Yeah." Harry sighed. "Thanks."

They exchanged good-byes and Carl hung up, then he turned and regarded Dairine thoughtfully. "There's nothing I can say that will make it easier," he said.

"It isn't that," Dairine replied without looking up. "I know that." Her face scrunched up the way it always did when she was trying to figure out a problem. "Why wouldn't I be strong enough to save her? Wouldn't that have helped?"

"It's not about being strong enough," Carl said, taking a seat across from her. "It's about being right for the j-"

"Well, then why wasn't Nita strong enough? If she was so right for the job, how come she couldn't do it?" Dairine looked as angry as a scrawny kid in Yoda pajamas could look, and Carl could hear her thoughts again- the young ones really did have a hard time thinking softly- I can't help it! I can't! I know it's not her fault, but- but- but-

"How come?" she repeated.

"Because sometimes we lose."

He watched her digest that, could almost hear her ticking through their many conversations since she'd taken the Oath- the ones that would remind her that he knew exactly what losing felt like.

"Okay," she said, sliding out of her chair. "I think I'm ready to go home now."

Carl stood with her, unsurprised by the way she'd cut the conversation. He figured he'd be losing sleep for many more short bursts of grief-driven talk before Dairine moved forward. He watched her perform the spell that would take her home, proud that she'd taken care to mute the "pop" of displaced air, then turned and picked up his phone again.

He dialed, then took a deep breath as it rang.

"Mom? It's me- Carl."


5. At Work During "That Week"

"Dude, you are the master for landing that deal!"

Carl chuckled and resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Kenny was new to the company, and only a handful of years out of college- which explained, if not excused, the "dude" in most of his sentences- and he hadn't grasped the idea that they were supposed to land deals or else the network would have vacant ad time.

Paul, the other time salesman who'd been on the team, cut in before Kenny could spout off anymore praises. "Romeo's an old hand at this. But all the same-" he grinned- "it's a good way to call it a day."

Mark, from legal, said, "I think it's worthy of a drink. Are you gentlemen in?"

Kenny and Paul both gave quick assents, but Carl shrugged. Another day, another deal- nothing really worth celebrating, in his view, if downing alcohol in a noisy bar even was celebrating.

"You know Romeo's not even worth the asking," Paul announced, as if Carl wasn't there. "Man's a regular homebody. Goes back to the 'burbs and watches TV."

"Or maybe he's with some Juliet," Kenny interjected, and this time Carl did roll his eyes.

"I'm in," he said, tugging his tie loose. It wasn't like he had anything better to do.

Mark chuckled lightly. "I knew you'd deign to be human one of these days." He glanced at his watch and made a vague gesture towards his office. "I've got to get my coat, fellas. Meet you downstairs in five."

Kenny also scurried off, mumbling something about having to call his girlfriend before he went out. That left Paul, and Carl realized his coworker was regarding him thoughtfully.

"What?"

"You tell me," Paul answered. "I'm curious why a man who barely ever socializes suddenly gave in."

Carl ran his fingers through his hair, and shrugged. Fact was, he'd never felt the need to blur the day away till lately. "You ever think you should be doing something… bigger?" He asked.

Paul just smirked. "Man, Romeo, you need a vacation if you're getting moony thoughts like that. Do a good job, earn your pay, take a breather, maybe meet somebody to keep you company- that's life."

"Right. I know. Just tired, I think- making me loopy." Carl gave a self-deprecating laugh, but he couldn't shake the nagging disappointment that Paul hadn't given him a more enlightening answer. "I've got to get my things and make a phone call. I'll be down."

"I'll hold you to it," Paul called after him.

Carl ducked into his office, flicked the lights on, and went to his desk. He dialed home and waited for Tom to pick up the phone.

It took several rings, then- "Hello. Tom Swale."

Carl frowned at his friend's absentminded tone. "Tear your eyes off your writing for two minutes."

"Carl, hey. You're still at work?"

"Yeah. Listen, a major deal went through, and the other guys want to grab a drink. Figure I'll be out late, didn't want you to send out search patrols." An irrational part of him wanted Tom to give him a reason to come home- something important. Anything.

"Fine, fine." Tom didn't really seem to be listening. "I've got this deadline anyway…"

Carl pinched the bridge of his nose, stopping himself from asking Tom what was wrong with the both of them that their work lives had become more important than… Than what? He didn't know. "Okay, well, I'm going to go. See you."

"See you." Tom hung up.

Carl couldn't explain why he felt so frustrated. Tom was always impossible to talk to when he was writing- ever since English 101, where they'd met. But Tom was supposed to get how he was feeling.

Tom was supposed to know what was missing.

Wasn't he?


6. When Tom Is On Errantry

Carl alternated between poking at his pasta dinner, channel surfing, and looking impatiently at the clock. Tom had a habit, given his partner's longstanding "obsession" with time, of calculating when he'd get back if he was called away.

And he was now five hours and seven minutes late.

Carl had come home from his own bit of errantry- repairing damage done to the Worldgates during a new wizard's particularly nasty Ordeal- earlier that evening, and he'd expected to find Tom waiting for him. Instead he'd found the dogs demanding their food because no one had been around to get it for them all day. And now he had nothing to do but wait and worry, all because his partner had to hand-deliver a set of spells to four wizards in Jersey- and oversee the intervention they were needed for- and he hadn't expected it to take so long.

The muffled thud of someone landing in the backyard had him jumping up from the couch, but of course, it wasn't Tom. Tom's standard method of entry was the front door. Dairine Callahan let herself in through the back, shucking her boots and shaking the snow out of her frizzy hair. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a heavy coat that must have weighed almost as much as she did, and Carl couldn't help smirking at her.

"What?" Dairine demanded. "My dad made me shovel the driveway." She wriggled out of the coat and the hoodie at the same time. "Can I hang this stuff up so I don't drip all over your floor?"

Carl swept her a bow as he took her things. "Your wish, my command, Milady."

"Shut up." Dairine went to the kitchen cupboard where she'd stashed hot chocolate weeks ago- when Tom had been helping her with a paper. "You know, there's a joke going around school about electing me prom queen. Mug?"

"Dishwasher," Carl answered over his shoulder. "And make it two. Aren't girls your age supposed to want to be prom queen?"

"Only the airheaded ones," Dairine grumbled. "Asa started it, too. Little twerp."

Asa was a fifteen-year-old wizard who'd transferred into Dairine's high school that year. Carl frowned at that bit of information. "How does Asa know about-"

"He doesn't." The microwave pinged and Dairine carefully removed their drinks.

Carl took his with a nod of thanks. "I see. Well. I take it you didn't come here just to talk about the trials of being a teenager. Or to make me hot chocolate."

"Kind of, in fact. Kit called and said Nita hadn't come home yet, so I figured you could use some company."

Carl arched an eyebrow. "I need company because Nita's not at her apartment?"

The look Dairine gave him was a mix of incredulity and you-cannot-really-be-that-stupid. "Do you even think before words pour out of your mouth anymore?" She flopped down in one of his chairs. "Nita went with Tom."

Carl shook his head. "Nita wasn't on this one. She-"

"She drove," Dairine cut him off. "You know Tom's terrible on the roads in winter, and he wasn't going to 'port down to Jersey and back if he could help it- too much energy."

She didn't add that energy was something Tom was having in an increasingly short supply, but it didn't stop Carl from thinking it. It was draining work the time they'd had to save the world, and the time after that, and That Week a few years back when it almost didn't work, and the time after that…

Dairine piped up again, "It's almost like a bad wizarding joke. A Regional Senior and an Advisory take a road trip to Jersey."

Carl smiled half-heartedly. "But you realize there are no coincidences." He summoned his Manual with a snap of his fingers, and sure enough, when he flipped to Nita's listing it had her on assignment. "Damn."

"Thought so," said Dairine. "Neets is still pretty good with the ocean stuff, and she reads Tom's spells almost as well as you do."

"With more firepower, too," Carl said ruefully. "Well. Since the Powers decided to adjust the roster for this one…" He went to look up the précis on the intervention.

Dairine slapped her hand down on his Manual, stopping him from turning the pages. "You already know all the details. You two can read each other's minds, remember? Honestly." She pulled her hand back, but with a warning look that made him think better of moving. "Kit's dopey enough that he's reading up on Nita's every move, but you don't need to sit here following Tom's. You think I came over here just to watch you do that?"

She came, Carl realized, because she knew what it was like to be separated from her partner, and for much longer than a few late hours- and because he'd spent the better part of a year dragging her with him to work on the Gates so that she wouldn't spend all her time on a desperate search.

He obediently closed his Manual and picked up his hot chocolate instead. "So," he said. "I'm sure you've been thinking of a way to get Asa back for the prom thing." He had a feeling that explaining whatever revenge she'd thought up would fill up the time until Tom came home.