Foggy orange begins to creep up from behind the rooftops of Raneadhros as I make my way back on foot to Weyrse Point.
John's door is, as I expected, unlocked. "This isn't safe," I say as I open it. He isn't in sight, though. Of course, the light is still in operation. I look at the stairs, walk to their foot, look up. And up. And up, all the way to the amber beam of light piercing the sky.
If I had to use those to climb a hundred feet, I'd feel like I was in a wheelchair. The walk back outside takes almost as long as the flight up. Stone rushing past, the wide openness of the window, down, through and shit!
"Are you all right?" a voice comes from three feet ahead of me, a bit to the left, moving toward me. It looks blue-white. So does everything.
"Am I standing?"
"No," John says.
"Good. I didn't think so, but I wanted to make sure." I close my eyes and shake my head. Everything still looks blue-white, so I open them again. "Had to be a damned showoff," I say, crossing my arms and hissing at the light. When I was little, I would always get up early and watch the setting sun; I wanted to know why I couldn't fly up close to it. Now I truly understand why that would have been bad.
"Are you going to be all right?" I hear John lean over me, and feel, somehow, his arms reaching toward my shoulders before they touch.
"Yes," I assure him with false confidence as he helps me up. "I've been out all night looking...." I blink involuntarily and shudder. The white is fading, but the blue is still there. Dammit-- "looking for a fence."
"Why?" John asks. He sounds genuinely baffled.
"John, one of two things is happening." I close my eyes and start rubbing them. "One, the Ranean Guard itself is framing your dead wife. In my experience, the Guard is rarely corrupt, only incompetent, so for the moment that seems unlikely.
"Two, they are telling the truth as they know it. Her name was in the records they found, and the evidence points to her association with the pirate ring. If that's the case, we need to find out why."
"They needed a scapegoat," John mutters.
"I don't know. Why isn't the Guard going after the fence, money launderer, whoever it is, who's working now?"
I laugh. "I'd guess they don't have the slightest idea who it is. Whoever they caught isn't talking, and destroyed all his records before they got him."
"Then how could they have gotten Marilyn's name from this?"
"I don't know."
"How are your eyes?"
"Much better," I lie. John grunts, and clicks off the light with a deep, resonating snap that I feel in my wingtips.
"Good. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful, but I need to get some rest," he says quietly. His voice has lost the brightness of yesterday; for the first time since we met, he sounds like an old man. "Thank you for trying. It really does mean a lot." The stairs start to creak as he steps onto them. "Do you have a room somewhere? You can sleep on the couch. It's not--"
"I do. Thank you. I might just sit here and... rest a bit first."
"Okay. Good mornin', ma'am." When I point my ears at the stairwell, I hear the faint creak of his steps all the way down to the floor.
Let me keep thinking about this, John. Either your wife's name was placed in false records that the Guard was expected to find, deliberately setting her up, or the pirates' broker hadn't been careful when he destroyed the real ones. Which would mean she was one of them.
If she was, then how could you not know? But if you did, there'd be no reason to involve me. Having a neutral party investigating things would be an unneccessary complication, and you could have gotten rid of me yesterday merely by not sharing the affidavit. And if the pain you appear to be going through isn't genuine, you're the finest actor I've ever seen.
I'm too tired for this. I lean up against... against... whatever is behind me and close my eyes. The world seems a little darker, but it may just be wishful thinking.
Sometimes when people see my eyes, the solid blackness of them, they assume I am blind. Perhaps now they would be right.
I'm not used to being scared for myself.
There is a voice, just on the edge of my hearing, but I can't tell who speaks. Am I dreaming? I struggle to open my eyes--
Light, dim green light filled with dancing blue spatters, shines from something above and behind me against--against something in front of me. Dammit. Against a metal pedestal. The pedestal the big light rotates on. Unless it's my imagination.
I sit very still, beginning to feel the coldness of the stone behind me seep through my wings. No, I have never seen the pedestal before. So I am actually seeing it now, blue spots and all. The voice is real, and I still do not recognize it. Rising to my feet, I lean over the edge of the window and look down.
"...don't have time for this," the voice is snapping. I can make a figure that is not John next to the bear, who is standing in the doorway a little more than one hundred feet straight below me. The figure, of course, looks blue.
"I don't know what--" John starts to say. The figure hits him, hard. I think the bear falls down.
"It'd better fuckin' come to you," the figure says, stepping back.
Here it comes now, friend. I pull myself through the window, a bit more gracefully than I landed there this morning, and step into the air. The sunset seems peculiarly gray. Have I really been asleep since sunrise? It disappears as I turn headfirst and start to plummet, opening my wings. I haven't done this in far too long.
John is rising to his feet. The other figure is a male fox. He is stepping forward. Wings out-- He looks up. Hmmm. Mouth wide open and teeth bared for effect as the dive turns sharply, heading right toward him. The split-second I see of his face as my body passes a hair's width above it shows pure, mortal terror. Legs down, hands back, and a rip! as his weight pulls me down. And a scream as he is dragged along by my claws.
This is a lot more difficult than it looks. When a hundred-fifty pounds suddenly gets attached to your wings--which are almost straight back then--you have to time things perfectly. It's far easier to grab with your back claws, but not nearly as psychologically damaging to your prey.
But there is no difficulty this time. When we stop, I am standing over the fox, one foot on each side of his waist; his head is at my knee-level. Only my fingertips seem to be touching him, pressed against his shoulders with my palms turned toward the ground. He is held in place by the claws buried deep in his flesh.
This is, of course, another potential problem. When you grab someone as you come out of a dive, it takes very good coordination to just spear the shoulders. About three inches lower and the fox would have been dead before I caught my breath. I'm too careful for that, though; the one time I hooked someone through her heart, it was quite intentional.
I have no desire to do more damage to the fox, who has his eyes screwed shut and is literally howling with fear, but he has no way of knowing that. I kneel, letting him drop to the ground with a thump, and yank out my claws. He screams, the blood starting to flow freely. Now straddling him, I sit down on him and-- Oh, for God's sake. He's wet his pants. I slide up a few inches, up to his waist, and notice he is bleeding orange-grey.
No, out of one eye, it's an entirely wrong shade of something close to red. Out of the other it's just black.
The fox opens his eyes and reaches up, as if to try and push me off. I grin down at him, making sure I have his complete attention, and carefully lick his blood off my claws, one by one. By the time I reach the last finger, the idea of fighting back is completely forgotten, replaced by a pathetic, trembling whimper. In spite of the way he attacked the bear a moment earlier, I feel a bit sorry for him.
There is a whisper behind me. I turn my head slightly; John is praying under his breath. "What did he say to you?" I keep my voice soft.
"I..." John stares at my face, eyes wide. It is only there for an instant: a look of fear directed at me. "He wanted to know what I told the Guard. And then he... asked where the records were. He wouldn't believe me when I said I didn't know."
Oh, John, I didn't want you to be scared of me, too. I sigh as I turn back to the fox and lay one of my hands across his throat. "Why do you think he knows?" I ask, still softly.
The fox's mouth opens, but no noise comes out. He tries again, producing a small squeak. "Knows?" he finally says.
"Knows where the records you're looking for are."
"He squeak!..." His voice becomes a cough, and he shudders. "He... has to know."
"Because he has to, dammit!" he barks, desperation giving him coherence. "She was his wife!"
"What records do you think she had?"
"The ones she kept."
I smile and tap a claw on his windpipe. "Don't be evasive."
"You know," he says. "Shit, you probably know more than I do." He gulps. "Buyers. Sellers. You know." He moves his hands toward me; I press harder until he drops them.
"She's been dead ten years. If these records existed, why wait until now to come get them?"
"I don't know."
"That's not good enough."
"I swear I don't know!"
Tap. Tap. "Do you know what I am?"
He gulps again. "A vampire?"
"Close. A vampire bat. You see, most people just see you as another thug. But," I lean close to his face, dropping my voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "I don't. Know what I see you as?"
He shakes his head.
"Food." I nip him, very lightly, on the nose, and he screams. "Now. Why, after ten years, are you just now looking for Marilyn Brown's records?"
The fox abruptly starts sobbing. "Please. I don't know, I swear to God I don't know, maybe they just found out she had kept 'em or something but they don't tell me why, I was just supposed to go get 'em and make sure the old man hadn't told the Guard anything. Please. Please don't eat me, lady."
"Who sent you?"
He turns his head away from me.
"Have I mentioned you have very sweet blood?" I place my right hand under his muzzle, twisting it up and to one side--far enough to bare his neck, but not so far he that he can't watch my open mouth as I move it, as slowly as I can, toward his face.
"No!" He squirms, but is far too terrified to do anything effective. "Please! If I tell you anything they'll kill me!"
I keep lowering my head, stopping with my nose almost touching his eye, so all he sees as I speak is my tongue and teeth. "They'll kill you quickly," I whisper. "I won't."
"Cayne Wortham!" he shrieks.
"And what's your own name?"
I let go of his muzzle and, very gently, caress his forehead. "Thank you, Marn. I'm glad you stopped by; you've saved me a lot of work."
I turn toward John, who is still standing in the doorway, looking only slightly less terrified than the fox. "Do you have any bandages and salve?"
He blinks in confusion, then steps inside, reappearing a moment later and setting both beside me. "Thank you." I turn back to the fox, who has relaxed enough to resume sobbing uncontrollably. "You don't mind if I take off your shirt, do you?" I say, unbuttoning it. He stares up at me with a new expression of horror, as if the possibility I might rape him just entered his mind. When I start cleaning the wounds, he manages to add profound puzzlement to the emotions on his face.
After covering the gashes with salve, I stand and pull him to his feet, then carefully bandage both shoulders. He is trembling so violently it is difficult to get the tape in place. "I don't want you to lose any more of that nice blood, Marn. After all--" I place my hands lightly on his arms and press my chin against his chest, looking up at him with an innocent expression. "We might meet again sometime."
He stumbles backward, eyes as big as two moons, then bolts toward the mainland, wailing.
John has retreated to the door, leaning against it and watching me. The price I have paid for Marn's information is in the bear's eyes. Even if he still trusts me, there will be a slight wariness, a trace of doubt, somewhere under the surface. It may never go away. "I'm sorry," I say, unable to meet his eyes.
"Would you really have killed him?" he asks after a moment.
"No. But he had to believe I would." I wonder if I am being honest. A week ago I would have said without a moment's hesitation that I'd never deliberately kill someone who hadn't tried to kill me or one of my few friends. But if John hadn't been standing there, I might have ripped the fox's throat open after he gave me what I wanted. Just to see if he could become even more terrified in death.
I drop to the ground, face in my hands. What's happening to me?
After a moment I become aware of the bear's arm around me. I look up at him; his face is filled with a concerned incomprehension. He believes that I'm revulsed by the encounter because I didn't enjoy what I did to Marn. There is no way to explain that the problem is precisely the opposite.
"Nice outfit," a human observes. I am wearing what I call my "backless jacket," a swatch of dark red cloth that fastens around the back of my neck, a large 'V' cut out all the way down to a point centered between my breasts and two long straps that wrap around my back, just under the wings, and tie in the front to form a belt. The matching skirt falls just halfway to my knees and is slit all the way to the top on the left side. I have been told it makes me attractive as possible given my none-too-pretty facial features. Tonight the outfit looks slightly purple, or a murky green-grey if I look at it out of my right eye only.
"Thanks." I lean just enough to give him a good view down the 'V.' His eyes widen slightly as I brush past, heading toward the bar.
Shortly the bartender comes over to me. The fat man I remember from the time I was here a few nights ago is gone; in his place is a thin, reedy younger human. "Just a bourbon."
"Over crushed ice."
He nods and ducks behind the bar, producing the drink in record time. As he hands the drink to me, I ask, "I don't suppose you've heard of a man named Cayne Wortham, have you?"
He shakes his head, looking quite blank. It was a longshot, but all the likely places have come up blanks, too. At least here I know the drinks won't be watered.
There's only a half-hour left before the bars close. But by tomorrow afternoon there's a good chance Wortham will have heard a female bat is looking for him.
"Hey, Reverb!" a bouncy voice calls from behind me as the glass is halfway to my lips. It sounds familiar. "I've been looking for you!" Bounce. Bounce. The turtle who owns the voice bounces into the stool next to me.
Where in the hell--? One of my first nights in Raneadhros, that was it. I was starved for blood and completely drunk, and had just managed to catch someone drunker than I was. He was moaning a lot but not fighting as I drank; I'd probably be finished before his nerves finally got the message "You've been attacked" to his brain. And this turtle was there, somewhere, trying to carry on a conversation with me. He had absolutely no fear, despite the fact I had just opened a man's throat and was lapping up blood in front of him.
"That's Revar," I say, setting down the drink.
"Right," he says, looking mildly offended. "Where have you been? I kept expecting you to come back here, and--"
I place a hand on his shoulder. "I can't quite remember your name. Soup, was it?"
"No, Turtle. Anyway--"
"I've been rather busy. I still am."
"You know, I've always thought it would be interesting to fly." He looks intensely thoughtful for a minute. "You know, if you could hover, you could be right over a stage when--"
"Why were you looking for me?"
"Oh. I have something really, really important to tell you."
No doubt. I take a drink and look at the reptile expectantly. He waves one of his hands a few times with one finger out, as if to emphasize a point, then waves the other one once, a pained expression on his face.
"Don't rush me," he says. "You know, there are maybe a dozen women in Ranea who could wear that outfit successfully."
"Am I one of them?"
"Oh, yes." He sighs. "Oh. Wait. It's... you see, it's... it's... it's completely slipped my mind!" He bangs both fists against his forehead, then immediately looks like he regrets having done so.
"I'm sure it wasn't that important, then."
"But it was!" He sounds more agitated than desperate. "Not only was it that important, it has profound bearing on not only the rest of your entire life, but on those of others around you. Perhaps even the course of history itself." He hops down from the barstool, then looks up and shrugs. "Well, see you later."
I watch him disappear into the crowd, then let out a long, drawn-out sigh and finish my drink in relative peace.
The room I am staying at has no furnishings but a knee-high table that is serviceable, if not pleasant, when sitting, a dozen fluffy pillows, and a solitary mattress that takes up one-third of the floor. The mattress is tough, only two inches thick and quite comfortable in spite of itself. It is nearly nine feet long and wide enough to sleep three people without seeming cramped. I am told this is a common hostel arrangement in Raneadhros, designed so everyone from dwarves to musclebound tiger zoomorphs can sleep in the same room without too much difficulty (or expense for the innkeeper). Curiously, the ceiling is only a bit over six feet; I suppose giant guests are expected to stoop.
Pale orange curtains cover the walls and ceiling, a matching carpet on the floor; the mattress and sheets are a darker orange-red. Perhaps someone thought it would give the room a bright, warm feeling. To other people it might.
I close my left eye and the room changes. It is redone in blues and greens and greys, as if I was back underwater, no longer drowning but visiting a mermaid's cottage. The curtains are yellowed grass. I unfasten my top and toss it amongst the pillows; the bottom follows a second later. Then I put out the light, and the dark monochrome of night vision makes both eyes normal again.
Sitting down in the center of the mattress, the room is colder. No: it is empty. I lie down on one side of it, the sheets crumpling under me. I am very small against its expanse; on my side, looking toward the wall, it stretches invitingly, waiting for someone else to fill its space.
We never made love. We never really had the chance.
I'm not sure I've ever made love. I have had sex, sometimes with people I thought I was in love with. But I don't think I've ever made love.
Maybe it's a meaningless distinction. Maybe sex is sex. It's not a subject I know much about. Few non-bats were ever attracted to me, past trying to look down my dress. Out of the handful that were, it was an even split between men looking for women to completely dominate them, and men wanting to prove they could dominate such a woman. I made both of those mistakes once. I suppose I understood Jemara more than I ever let her know. Ah, that was stupid: Bringing up the other one you've lost. At least it wasn't by your own hand.
I would have liked it, very much, if we had made love. That night in the park....
I grab a big pillow, half my own size, and crush it to me awkwardly, its cool softness rubbing against my fur, across my stomach and thighs. In a little-girl way, hugging it to me is comforting. I can pretend I am holding Mika.
But it will never purr.
The first noise wakes me, but it takes me until the third repetition to identify it as someone knocking on my room door. A glance at the window says it's some time after noon. Dammit, I don't like this schedule. You're not supposed to be fully awake hours before sunset any more than you're supposed to sleep through sunrise.
The noise at the door changes to a soft clicking. I still haven't made any noise and the person outside seems to have concluded the room is unoccupied, and therefore is in the process of picking the lock. The door will be open before I could put on any clothes, so I sit up, facing the entrance, and gather my wings around me to hide most of my torso. I wonder if I could go out in public like this without breaking any laws? Only until I moved my arms.
In a few more seconds, the door swings open softly, and a short, wiry human follows it, looking back over his shoulder to make sure nobody outside sees him come in. Then he shuts the door behind him, still without looking in my direction. Okay, sir, you've just broken into a vampire bat's room without knowing she's there, and made absolutely sure that nobody's around to see you come in. Or come out. Did you bring your own seasonings, too?
Satisfied the door is completely closed, he turns around and looks up. His eyes widen only very slightly when he sees me, but his entire body tenses. He has a ruddy complexion, fairly attractive hazel eyes that neither match nor clash with the nondescript dark blue top and short pants, and brown hair clipped close in a military style. "You should lock your door," he says softly. The voice is somehow both low and reedy. Then he realizes I am wearing only wings, and his eyes widen noticeably further.
"I'll keep that in mind," I say softly. "Are you looking for something?"
"I've found her," he replies easily, letting his eyes wander over me. If it is a move calculated to unnerve me, it might work under other circumstances. Now it just makes me more irritated.
"You were looking for a naked bat." I keep my voice pleasantly blank.
He smiles thinly. "Actually, naked wasn't a requirement. Just a female bat."
"In that case, turn around." He raises his eyebrows. "I'm going to put on some clothes."
"And you're like a nymph?" He continues smiling. "Of such legendary beauty that the sight of your nude form would cause me to go blind?"
"No," I say, smiling back. "I'll just rip your eyes out."
He laughs, a bit uneasily now, and turns to the door. I grab a simple brown halter top, fastening it through the flap in my wings, and pull on a pair of ripped denim shorts. "All right." I sit back down on the mattress, hands on knees. "What do you want?"
"That's my question." He leans against the door as if to block my exit. I stare at him in what I've learned is my most unnerving fashion, as if to suggest that I'd go right through him if I wanted to leave. He coughs.
"Should I want something from you?" Hmmm. "You're Cayne Wortham."
He nods, then laughs at the shadow of doubt that crosses my face. "I know. You were expecting someone six-foot-five who can rip doors right off their hinges and juggle them. That's not my job. I have people who do that sort of thing for me."
He walks a bit closer, then squats on one of the pillows, facing me. "But you're pretty good at intimidating them."
"Anyone can be intimidated."
"And what about you?"
"I'm not just anyone."
"Oh?" He raises his eyebrows, his smile fading. "You're someone who's making it difficult to finish a matter my employers would like to see resolved."
"And how would you like to see it resolved, Wortham?" I say softly. "By beating an old man for information he doesn't know? Or by framing his dead wife for something she didn't do?"
Wortham purses his lips, then expels his breath explosively, standing up. "You don't know shit about this, lady."
"And neither does he."
"You expect me to believe that?" He snorts and turns toward the door. "This doesn't have to be any of your business. You really don't want to keep pursuing this."
He has moved three steps before I have risen, spun him around and pinned him to the door. "What I'm pursuing," I hiss, "is just answers. I don't care what you do with your life. But I care what you do to John's. Did his wife work for you?"
He blinks, then smiles down at me, trying to look like the claws at his throat don't concern him at all. "What you don't know won't hurt you."
"It might hurt you." I press a claw more firmly against his neck.
"Then it'll probably hurt the bear a lot, too."
"It is true, isn't it?" I release him slowly. He looks at me without making a noise or moving his head, but the answer is in his eyes. "He believes she was set up."
"We all have our fantasies, don't we?" He turns toward the door.
I place a claw on his shoulder. "Leave him alone," I say flatly. A brief image of moving the claw down to his stomach, sinking it in and ripping him open up to his sternum seizes me.
He shakes his head, very slightly. "We all have our jobs to do, too." He starts to move away, but I tighten the hand, holding him in place. "It's not up to me," he grits.
"What the hell is it going to take?"
"Her records," he says after a moment.
"How the hell can ten-year-old records be damaging?"
He stares fixedly at the door handle. "Organizations like ours don't change very much in a decade."
I could still slit your gut. Bastard. As my hand drops from his shoulder, he says without turning around: "As far as I'm concerned your bear knows less about the truth than you do. I said this was my job. That doesn't mean it's my decision." He opens the door and quietly steps out.
Well, that's it, then: I let myself get dragged into this to find out whether or not John could clear his wife's name, and now I know. The Guard was right.
But somebody in the "organization" is damn worried about these records coming out. All she should have is lists of clients, most of whom have probably been out of Ranea for eight years by now. If they were worried about bank numbers, those could have been changed within a few days. And the accounts Marilyn was using were certainly changed when she died just to be safe.
And this still doesn't answer: why now? If they thought John had these records, why not go after him ten years ago?
Maybe they didn't know the records existed until recently. Or maybe somebody was just sloppy; they didn't think the records would ever be found, and it didn't start worrying them until the Guard began busting pirates a few days ago. That sort always seems more concerned with the romantic image of piracy rather than the business end. Wortham may work for the pirates, but he hasn't set foot on a floating dock, much less a ship.
So now they realize they screwed up ten years ago, real big, and they're in a panic. Maybe.
But whatever the real story is, John is caught in the middle of it.
I sit down on the bed, wondering why I am taking pleasure in graphic images of what I could have done to Cayne Wortham.
As I approach the lighthouse I can hear voices from inside, one John's, the other thin and sibilant. It sounds exasperated.
I fling the door open loudly so both of them stop talking and look over. The other voice belongs to a stoat, immaculately-combed tan (or greyish aqua) fur barely visible under a tight-fitting bright red (or dark black) Guard uniform. He smiles very slightly when he sees me, then turns back to John.
The bear is crying again.
As the stoat starts to speak, I cut him off with a hiss. "What did you tell him?"
He looks over at me, then back at John, then closes his eyes for a moment. "Nothing that isn't true."
I cross over to John and sit beside him on the bed. "Was she?" he says softly.
Should I lie to spare his feelings? But it's not up to me: the Guard has already told him. "Yes," I say helplessly, knowing that part of him will die with the word.
He bows his head, squeezing his eyes shut, and clenches his fist and trembles.
"I'd like to see you outside," the Guard says softly.
I snap my head up. "Can't you see that--"
"Not him," he says. "You."
Oh, damn. I grit my teeth as I follow the stoat out; he closs the door behind us.
"Why are you here?" he says. "It's becoming obvious that you're investigating this case, too. Why?"
"I was trying to help a friend. And I think I've failed."
"Not necessarily. Tell me this: why do you think we're going after these records this hard?"
"Because you're hard up for anything useful, and this is all you've got."
"Yes, this is all we've got. But it may be a lot more useful than you think." He turns away from me, his hands clasped behind his back just over his tail.
"The man we caught sold the pirates' stolen property. He had a fence to make the deals with the pirates and the clients; all he did was handle the money. He didn't have any reason to keep anybody's name around except clients, and he didn't list most of those. He certainly didn't have any reason to keep around the name of someone who was in his position ten years ago.
"Except--" he turns around abruptly, waving a finger in the air--"if she had information he needed as insurance. If her records weren't just lists of clients, but lists of everyone she dealt with.
"Suppose that somehow he knew about these records, and knew they still existed somewhere. If someone in the pirate ring tried to bring him down, all he'd have to do is find those records and he'd bring the rest of them down with him."
"Well, good luck." I fold my arms. What does this have to do with me?
"You have a better chance of finding out where those records are than we do."
"You can move through the underworld without attracting that much attention, can't you?" His eyes are bright. "Somebody needs to find out where those records are, and quite frankly, I don't think the Guard is going to be able to do it before the pirates do."
"Why the hell do you think that somebody is going to be me?"
"Because you care about Mr. Brown. And because you know as well as I do that the Guard isn't his problem. If those records aren't found soon, the pirates will kill him, if for no other reason than to make sure he can't tell us where they are. If the good guys don't win this round, he's dead.
"And because helping us would look very good for you right now, Miss Desmera."
The stoat looks grimly smug as he continues. "The jailbreak charges are currently suspended. The assault charges that put you in jail, though, are still pending. You broke out before your trial."
"I was dying!"
He shrugs. "The fact that you escaped rather than stand trial could look very bad indeed in the hands of a good prosecutor. And we have very good prosecutors in Raneadhros.
"Of course, those charges were brought against you in a different country in the Empire. Whether or not they're carried forward to Raneadhros depends on whether or not the Guard elects to pursue them."
"All right," I say tightly. "What do you want me to do?"
"Try to find the records, Miss Desmera." He smiles. "All we can ask you to do is try. And to come to us first if you find anything.
"And--to keep an eye on the bear until we can get protection assigned to him. I suspect you'll be a better guardian than anything we can come up with anyway.
"What I would suggest you do is the same thing we're doing. Looking for the fence who worked with Marilyn Brown. And anyone else who might have known her." He tips his hat to me. "We'll be seeing each other again very soon, I'm sure."
After he starts to walk away, I go back in the lighthouse. He is stretched out on the bed, staring at the ceiling, perfectly still, tears running down his face and beginning to soak the pillow. I sit next to him; he doesn't move. So I lay my chest across his, my face against his neck, and hug him. "I'm sorry, John," I whisper.
We lie together, unmoving, for a very long time.
Toward the evening of the third, and final, day of the journey to Raneadhros, Jack said, "What about Dahlu?"
I folded my arms. "Be specific. Do you mean, do I still love her? Do I care about what's going to happen her now? Do I think I'll ever see her again?"
"Well, then. Yes, to all of them. Even the last one, I think." I sighed. "It was too easy to be angry with her for not understanding me. But when I look back, I realize I was the one who didn't understand me. Up until a few months ago, Dahlu probably understood me better than I did."
"Until you met Revar."
"No." I looked out at the fading sun, resolving that when I got to Raneadhros I'd lose the damned sunup-to-sundown schedule that I'd hated for the years I'd been on it. "Until I started going down to the docks. That was three or four months before I met Revar.
"There's only so much... sameness one person can stand. Everything was becoming so comfortable it hurt. Does that make any sense?"
"A lot of people work most of their lives to be comfortable, kitty."
"So when they get there--if they get there--are they really happy? I had a stable relationship with a nice girl, a job that I could live with, and enough time to pursue art as a hobby. I was probably more comfortable than my parents had ever been."
"And you hated it." Jack nodded. "I suppose I've always been happy being comfortable."
"If that was true, why were you an accomplice to a jailbreak? It's not comfortable work."
He laughed. "No, I guess it isn't."
Silence drifted past us. The soundlessness grew unbearable, so I spoke again. "Dahlu always thought I was closed to her. She never thought I was willing to share feelings, so she'd just guess at them. She was almost always wrong." I chuckled a bit. "But it was as much her as me. Or more so."
"Of course you'd think that," Jack smirked.
"No, that's not it. See, a lot of people spend their lives building walls that no one can get through without permission. They let people in a little at a time, ready to push them all the way back out at a sign of trouble.
"But I don't. When I was a kitten, I was always completely open. By the time I was a teenager I had been stomped enough for it that I had my wall, all right. But people are either fully outside, or fully inside. I don't open up often. But when I do, it's all the way.
"I think that scared Dahlu. She didn't want to learn how to deal with someone who was all the way open, even for just a little bit. Every time I was, I'd say something--make a joke, kid her about a little thing--and her walls went up. I stopped trying over a year ago. It was easier to be cordial acquaintances."
"And no matter how good the sex is, it won't fill the gap," Jack said. "Did Revar fill it?"
"I was more intimate with her the second time I saw her than I ever was with Dahlu."
The fox nodded solemnly and leaned back in the bench; after a moment I turned back to the window.