Sunlight filtered through the tree as Ronan lay on the quad lawn with his textbook.An ant crawled along the spine and Ronan flicked it away before turning the page — smashed ant might further lower the value of the book when he sold it back at the end of the semester. A shadow fell across the book and Ronan looked up. It was that geek with the camera, always hiding behind it, contorting himself to get the perfect shot — today that was the sunlight filtering through the tree above, by standing not a foot away from Ronan’s book.
Glasses emerged from behind the body of the camera, looking around. Finally they looked down.
“You’re in my light.”
“Oh, uh, sorry.” He raised the camera again, turning his attention upwards. Ronan grunted. “It’ll only be a moment more, sorry.”
Ronan grumbled, rolling over to sit up, drawing the large textbook into his lap instead. The fringe of his hair fell across his eyes, providing almost a curtain to divide him from his surroundings and shading everything but the book. Movement through the fringe, followed by the soft sound of the shutter, caused Ronan to look up in time to see the guy with the camera standing up. Ronan brushed aside his hair and fixed a glare on him as the guy reached into his camera bag.
“You can see how the shot came out,” was all he said as he dropped a postcard on Ronan’s book and walked off. Ronan picked up the postcard, ready to wad it up, when the clocktower chimed four. Time for his next class, book shut quickly, trapping the postcard inside to mark his spot, and the encounter nearly forgotten.
The sun sat high in the sky on the vernal equinox as Ronan stood in the shade of the Joshua tree. If he’d decoded the message right, it would be here any time now. Of course, there were so many variables to take into account, so many ways he could have confused his research, that he couldn’t be sure it was coming until—
The ground shook — someone who didn’t know better would attribute it to an earthquake — but Ronan could feel it, he knew what was coming. The desert disappeared in the blink of an eye and as far as he could see there were buildings, people, the bustle of a city. Not just any city, but the city. The Wandering City.
The Joshua tree he’d been standing under had been replaced by something taller, more delicate, bark the color of platinum with translucent rose gold leaves. It was one of many in this park that filled a square block, surrounded by shops that spilled out into the walkways. Ronan’s eyes slid along the overflowing tables and racks, lingering on trinkets and baubles that looked particularly shiny as he wondered if Wendell would appreciate any of them. Perhaps not, they were only things.
It had been so many years; Ronan just freshly 19, Wendell just shy of 23, and their car had broken down on their road trip and they had nowhere to be, so they’d just walked. Nothing for miles until they’d instantly found themselves in the city, surrounded by tall buildings and people… there were so many people. That there were so many may have caught their attention first, but soon they started to notice so much more. Wendell had immediately pulled out his camera and started taking pictures — skin in a rainbow of colors ranging from a nearly translucent pale pink, to a royal purple so deep it was as if staring into the depth of space, earthy russets and mosses, tones the colors of precious stones. Hair and scales, hooves and horns, clothes that ranged from hardware to hardly there. Wendell had gone through all four of his unused rolls of film before he’d realized.
They’d integrated into the society with little effort, everyone welcomed them without a moment’s hesitation, and Wendell was so happy that Ronan couldn’t help but be infected by it. Two years they lived together in a little loft, all their needs met. Wendell spent his days wandering and taking pictures once he’d replaced his camera with one that didn’t need film, sometimes leaving the city in the afternoon to explore wherever it was it had connected with reality today, usually returning in the small hours of the morning to find Ronan pouring over a book. Hundreds of alien worlds covered every inch of the walls, even more prints in galleries and eateries across the city. Ronan had been amazed at the number of cultures and races that were in the city, and he filled his time learning everything he could of all of them. He soon realized that the city existed as a living catalog, collecting a sample from everywhere it visited — people, objects, plants, animals — all kept happy and allowed to just be. So he went looking to find out who ran things.
A passing person bumped into him, drawing him out of his memories, and he only caught the wisp of an apology in their wake as they moved on. His hand slid into his pocket, drawing out a folded postcard. On one side was a landscape featuring two suns and three moons, the other was a hand written invitation to a gallery opening. The café hosting was a few blocks from the park he stood in, and the date should be today if he was remembering the conversion between calendars. His feet took him there on memory alone.
“Ronan! You made it.” Hair longer, silver breaking up what was once jet black, laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, but it was Wendell for certain.
“I couldn’t pass up a personal invite from the artist himself.” It was as if the surrounding people had disappeared as they closed the space between them. Ronan’s hands wrapped around Wendell’s, the postcard sandwiched between. There was a long pause as their eyes met.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d get it—” Wendell’s eyes dropped to their hands. “If you’d gotten any of them. And even if you had, if he’d—”
“The other thirty-five that made it are posted on the walls of my RV above my bed.” As he spoke, Ronan moved his hand up to cup Wendell’s jaw, a thumb crossing his lips and silencing him. “It had just taken me time to find my way back.” Another long pause, then Ronan looked over his shoulder at the café. “I think it’s almost time to start, I wouldn’t want keep you from your audience.”
Wendell laughed, shifting so that he could hold Ronan’s hand as he silently lead the way inside. When they let go, and Wendell made his way to the spotlight, Ronan hung at the back of the crowd with his heart in his throat. Just that small exchange had brought everything rushing back as if it was only yesterday when they’d still shared that loft.
“Wendell hasn’t smiled like that in years.” Ronan turned his head toward the strange voice, and the person who seemed to have spoken shifted to stay on the edge of his peripheral. “He thought you should know he’s watching, but as long as you behave, you’re welcome to stay.” And with that, the person quickly left the café, and all Ronan saw was the back of a feathered head. He swallowed hard as he turned to look at Wendell again, and was met with two deep brown eyes staring deep into his own, and a smile that could outshine the sun.
“It’ll be okay, I’ll make this work,” Ronan muttered to himself, smiling back at Wendell. After all, it had been his own fault he’d been chased out of the city without even having the chance to tell Wendell goodbye. Three months of trying to find him, a hint here, a whisper there, and finally an offer for a meeting outside the city. He’d fallen for it and was left alone in the middle of cornfields with nothing but the clothes on his back when the city disappeared early. A letter via a courier arrived some months later telling him that his disruptions had gone too far. It had been a small mercy the city had been connected to his earth at the time.