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Ovid's Game

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Change is the one constant in the universe. Transformation recreates the heart of reality with every tick of the clock. Nothing else remains. Ovid knew it, even if his entire universe was inside the dome of the sky. He couldn't have known about the Big Bang, and the constant flux of energy transforming into particles of matter, but he understood the truth of metamorphosis.

Stanley Kazmarek Junior smelled the truth in the sea air at the docks and transformed himself into someone who could change the world. Elliot Burch was a master of change, steel and concrete dancing under his whims to transmogrify skylines, recreate panoramas.

But Cathy? Cathy changed him utterly.

The private room reeks of antiseptic. The burns will heal, though not all his injuries will no matter how many surgeries or physical therapy sessions he throws at them. The papers are saying he's dead, and presumed dead is a safer place to be when he can barely move. It's less safe for his mind, turning over the past. He's healing slowly in this room because Cathy came into his life and transformed him into something better than he was, someone who didn't build for the sake of change. Her spirit had demanded he follow in her path, put truth and dignity and kindness above the things that used to matter. He hasn't transformed into a swan, or a bull, or a tree. He's not sure what his final form will be, but she was the catalyst.

The part of him that will always be a romantic stares out the window and hopes he'll see a butterfly floating past, but it is winter and all the changes that are yet to be percolate in silent anticipation under the frozen earth.

*

Birthdays are meant to be happy celebrations, but the bright drapery of Jacob's first birthday party holds a pall, as all his birthdays will. Elliot has spent much of the past year learning how to read Vincent's expressions. He doesn't need that education to note the grief underlining his tender smiles for his son. Cathy's absence is a physical weight in the room, pulling down the happiest moments of gifts and treats. It's been a year today, and the ache in his own heart feels the anniversary like a wound.

Transformation has its price.

Elliot sits to one side of the small celebration. So many more people live here in the tunnels beneath the city than he could have dreamed, and all of them act like Vincent's extended family. Too much bustle would overwhelm the guest of honor, who is already yearning for his nap. The guest list has been limited to a handful. Elliot is more honored than he can say to be among them.

Jacob's weariness is obvious to everyone. "I'll take him," says Father. Another curiosity: everyone calls this man by that name, and part of Elliot's change over this past year is how warm and accepted he feels saying it. For all their problems, he loved his own father. This man isn't a replacement, but he is a salve to those old regrets. Father, too, is not the man he once was. Above, he was a doctor, respected and important. Here he's a leader, by turns gentle and implacable as his people need him, changed by their need and by their love, and by his love for his own adopted son. Who can say what effect this impossible grandchild will ultimately have on his own life?

Father carries Jacob towards the chamber the child shares with Vincent, easily holding the boy in one arm as he uses his cane in the other. It isn't as fine as Elliot's cane, not designed with his personal mobility needs in mind. It serves him as an aid from the ravages of time and age and a life spent in the cold damp world below the city, not as a help for a missing leg. But they are the same, and Elliot feels this small kinship with him as he walks away, Cathy's child safe in his embrace.

The other partygoers speak in their usual quiet tones, and most soon give their farewells and leave to their own chambers or up to their lives. Elliot should leave, but he rests a while longer before attempting the long walk back. Vincent tidies away the few gifts, then sits next to him.

"How are you feeling?"

Vincent looks at him curiously, startled. He thinks about his answer in a long silence. Elliot feels his eyes move over Elliot's face, taking in the full weight of the question. Others would mean well, would mean other things. All their disagreements hang between them, but those battles are long settled. Elliot is the only one here who loved her so deeply, who understands the depths of her loss. This is a different kinship, deeper than blood or bone.

"I am healing," Vincent says. "Jacob said his first word two night ago. I can hear Catherine's voice in his."

Cathy changed Vincent too, although Elliot has no context for how much. He can only surmise based on his own experience and the words he's spoken of her since. She was a light in his shadowed life down here among the candles, and the other half of his lonely soul. Elliot can see pieces of her strength and courage inside him, as though she has left clues of herself behind. He wonders what echoes she's left on his own visage that he can't see in his mirror. He wonders if those traces were why Vincent chose to trust him with the precious secret of their son.

Their child changes every day, as children do. Each time Elliot makes his way down here, Jacob has grown a little more, learned something new. He's learning to speak, to walk, to think, to become. None of them can guess his final form, not even his father, but they know he will lead a special life. His future is unimaginable.

Change is eternal, the wheel of the universe slowly spinning into new patterns across the sky.

"Did he say 'Daddy?'"

"Based on the circumstances, I believe he was trying to say 'Mouse.'"

He can picture Cathy's face at that, how delighted her smile would be. Today has brought too many bittersweet memories to the fore of his mind. This one brings a smile to his own face.

"She'd have liked that."

"She would have."

And this too is a change unlike anything Elliot could have imagined the day he met Vincent. He was a rival, invisible for years. Now they are friends, and the wheel turns as they metamorphose one another day by day.

"I should get back."

Vincent makes a noise in his throat, part rumble, part purr, pure magic. "You could stay. You haven't spent much time with Jacob over the last few weeks. You could play with him when he wakes." It's an offering Elliot cannot picture taking place between them even a year ago, the night both their worlds ended. Time with Jacob isn't and can never be a means of stealing minutes back with Cathy, but playing with him always brings Elliot a peace he never thought he could know. He is changing under the bright smiles of this child, and at every young giggle, his own soul transforms into a softly feathered creature learning to stretch his wings.

"I'll stay."