Sunshine, p.29
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       Sunshine, p.29

           Robin McKinley
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Chapter 29


  Pat expelled a long noisy breath. "Well held, you guys," he said. He glanced at Con. I could guess he was torn between wanting to celebrate a partial victory against the goddess and wanting to know who and what the hell my apparent ally really was. He caught my eyes and I watched him decide to trust me. I watched him watching me watching him decide to trust me. It was true: I owed him. That was something else I'd have to figure out later.

  "Can I give you a ride home, Sunshine?" he said casually.

  "That would be great," I said feelingly. Even supposing I had bus fare in my pocket, which I didn't, I didn't yearn for the experience of getting Con and me anywhere in public. Any sane bus driver would refuse to let us on board, the way we looked, not to mention the nearest stop was a mile and a half from Yolande's and I didn't think I could walk that far.

  I doubted that any nowheresville way was available in - from - daylight. And if I was too tired to walk from the bus stop I was way beyond too tired to deal with any nowheresvilles.

  And turning up at Charlie's, looking like this and with Con in tow, wasn't an option.

  "John, you want to take Mr. Connor - "

  "He can come with me," I said firmly. "We have to - talk. "

  "I bet you do," said Pat. "Okay, Sunshine, I won't ask, but take notes, okay? I'm not going to do my heavy SOF guy trick and make you do your talking here because you've already had that from the goddess, and besides, if she found out I'd taken you to my office and got more out of you than she did she'd bust my ass back to Tinker Bell patrol. "

  There is a legion of little old ladies (of assorted ages and sexes) who manage to believe that the Others are mostly small and cute and harmless, and live under toadstools, and wear harebells as hats. A lot of them ring up their local SOF div to report sightings, because that is the citizenly thing to do, and since there are a few ill-tempered Others who sometimes pretend to be small and cute and harmless - I'd never heard of any of them wearing harebells, however - these have to be checked out. But it is not a popular job.

  "I've been getting reports from No Town right along, you know," continued Pat, "and I want to know what you guys did. And I want it in triplicate, you got that? But I'm a patient man and I'll wait. I won't even tell the goddess I took you home together. "

  "He's lost his house keys anyway," I said glibly, "and we can call a locksmith from my house. "

  "He keep a fresh change of clothes at your house too?" said Pat. "Does Mel know? I didn't say that. "

  No windows yet. The other SOFs went their own ways, and it was just Pat and Con and me. Down a few more corridors, and now we were walking toward the glass doors into the parking lot. Con unobtrusively moved near me again and I tucked my arm under his arm and pretended to lean against him. It didn't take a lot of pretending, any more than my tears for the goddess had.

  Pat's glance flicked over us again and I realized he was having to make an effort not to go all, well, male. He wanted badly to try to put Con in his place and thus find out what his place was. He wanted this as a pretty high-ranking SOF officer, he wanted this as my friend and self-designated semiprotector and semiexploiter, and he probably even wanted this for Mel, who he was at least sure was genuinely human, although ordinarily he would consider my private life strictly my own business. And he'd be having mixed feelings about suspecting Con as some kind of freaky partblood for the obvious reasons. But I recognized the signs in this (comparatively) respectable middle-aged SOF agent from the staring and grunting contests we got occasionally at Charlie's, and from some of the biker bars I'd been to with Mel. I had a sudden frivolous desire to laugh. . . as we walked through the swinging doors and out into the morning.

  The sun was still low but the sunshine on my face felt like the best thing that had ever happened to me. I couldn't help it: I stopped, and raised my face to it. Con stopped with me of course. "Sunshine for Sunshine," Pat said mildly. "I'll get the car," and he went on, running his hands over his head as if smoothing down feathers from his frustrated dominance display. I hadn't picked up any response from Con - I could always feel Mel not responding - but then Con didn't noticeably respond to much of anything. And it wasn't that vampires didn't have their own shoving competitions - we had, after all, just survived a particularly extravagant one of these. I didn't feel like laughing any more.

  I put Con's arm around my waist so I could raise both hands to the sun, as if an extra twenty inches of extended arm was going to make a big difference to its curative properties. I didn't care. I held them, palm up, till I saw Pat's car coming toward us, and Con handed me carefully into the back seat, and slid in after me.

  I curled up and pretended to go to sleep on Con's shoulder so we didn't have to make conversation and Pat wouldn't try. This really was pretense: I couldn't go to sleep, at least not yet, and was afraid to try. Even keeping my eyes closed was an effort, but I listened intently to all the normal noises of morning in the city, smelled gas fumes and early coffee bars, and felt Con's arm around me - and his spiky hair occasionally brushing my face - and managed to keep the sights of the night before from replaying themselves against my eyelids. The smell of coffee - penetrating even through the smell of us - reminded me of Charlie's, and there was one of those weird bits of mental slippage that trauma produces: I thought, oh, what a good thing I'm not dead, I never did write that recipe down for Paulie. . .

  It felt like a long drive, although it wasn't, still well before rush hour, and in a real car instead of the Wreck. "Check in as soon as you can," was all Pat said when he dropped us off.

  "Thanks," I said.

  "Thank you," said Con.

  Again that flick of gaze to one, then the other of us. "Yeah," said Pat, and drove away.

  I had avoided losing my house key by not taking it with me. I fished it out from under the pot of pansies and the crack in the porch floor and opened the door, half-watching my hands still, as if they might turn on me and try to tear my own heart out. Con followed me up the dark stairs. My apartment was full of roses. I'd forgotten about the roses. None of them was more than half open. It felt like some kind of miracle: it felt like centuries since I'd bought them, two days ago. I was supposed to be dead. I would be going to work tomorrow. Cinnamon rolls. Roses. They were from another world. The human world. I glanced at my hands again. Hands that earned their living making human food. There isn't much that is a lot more nakedly hands-on than kneading dough.

  The ward wrapped around the length of the balcony railing had a big charred hole in the middle of it. When we'd walked through it last night, into Other-space, presumably. The poor thing: it had probably felt like a garage mechanic presented with a lame elephant: wait just a sec here, I never said I did all forms of transport. It had been a good ward, and it had survived my smoke-borne passage on my way to find Con. I'd find out later if it could be patched up or if it was blown (or squashed) for good.

  I left Con in the middle of the shadowy floor and went out into the daylight again, holding my hands out in front of me like sacrifices or discards. Con moved forward till he was standing at the edge of the shadow. "There is nothing wrong with your hands," he said.

  I shook my head, but I lowered my hands till they rested on the balcony railing. There were scorch marks on the railing. On their backs, with the fingers curled up, my hands looked dead.

  "Tell me," he said.

  "I had to - touch him," I said in a low voice. "I tried not to, but he was too strong. He was winning. I put my hands. . . I touched him. Bo. " As I said it all the other things I was trying not to remember about the night before came racing back, bludgeoning their way into my mind. I felt myself begin to fragment again. When I'd been facing the goddess, I'd known what I was doing for a little while. Now that there was no immediate threat to organize myself around. . . I shivered, even in the daylight. Thin, cool, autumn sunlight, with winter to come, with its shorter, colder days, before the baking heat of summer returned.
Autumn daylight wasn't going to heal my hands.

  Or the reopened wound on my breast. I hadn't had to look at it yet, accept its reappearance yet, while all of me was covered with crusted blood.

  "Sunshine," said Con gently. "He had no power to hurt you physically. He had had no such power for many years. His strength was in his will, and in the physical strength of those he controlled by his will. If his creatures - his acolytes - had not hurt you, he could not. "

  I wanted to say, he did hurt me - his creatures did hurt me - they taught me what I could do. I would never have done what I did to Bo, if I had not already done it to his followers. "He almost killed me!" I said at last, aloud, feebly. This was an unendurably anticlimactic way of describing what had happened. Merely dying seemed like a minor difficulty, like an alarm clock that had failed to go off or a car that wouldn't start. Maybe I had been hanging out with vampires too much.

  "Yes. By sheer force of evil. Only that. "

  "Only that," I said. "Only that. "

  "Yes. "

  I turned my head to look at him, leaving my hands awkwardly where they were. The Mr. Connor of the goddess' office had gone; my Con was back. There was a vampire in the room. He looked tired, almost as a human might look tired, as well as ragged and filthy. My vampire looked tired. I took my hands off the railing so I could go back into the shadows to Con. I reached out to touch him, twisted my hands away from him at the last moment. But he took my hands by the wrists, and kissed the back of each fist, turned them over and waited, patiently, till the fingers relaxed, and kissed each palm. It was a strange sensation. It felt less like being kissed than it felt like a doctor applying a salve. Or a priest last rites. "There is nothing wrong with your hands," he said. "The touch of evil poisons by the idea of it. Reject the idea and you have rejected the evil. "

  I was being lectured in morality by a vampire. I wanted to laugh. The problem was that he was wrong. If he'd been right maybe I could have laughed. "My hands feel - they've been - changed. I can feel this. They - they don't belong to me any more. They are only - attached. They feel as if they may be - have become - evil. "

  "Bo's evil was a very powerful idea. "

  "I thought I was coming to pieces. I am not sure I'm not. My hands - my hands are two fragments of what is left of me. " Two ruined fragments.

  There was a pause. "Yes," said Con.

  "How do you know?" I whispered.

  I waited for him to drop my hands, to move away from me. The pleading whine of my voice set my own teeth on edge. He was only still with me because the sun trapped him here till sunset.

  He didn't move away. He said, "I see it in your eyes. "

  This was so unexpected I gaped at him. "What - "

  "No. I cannot read your secrets. But I can read your fears. My kind are adept at reading fear. And you look into my eyes as no other human ever has. "

  I looked away from him. War and Peace, my fears. All fifty-odd volumes of the Blood Lore series. The complete globenet directory. For sheer length and inclusiveness my fears were right up there. I hoped he was a speed reader.

  He dropped my hands then, but only to put a finger under my chin. "Look at me. "

  I let him raise my chin. Hey, he was a vampire. He could break my neck if he wanted to. This way he didn't have to.

  "You are not afraid of everything," he said.

  "Nearly," I said. "I am afraid of you. I am afraid of me. "

  "Yes," he said.

  There was a curious comfort in that "yes. " I had definitely been hanging out with vampires too long. This vampire.

  I remembered standing in the sunlight in my kitchen window, the morning after my return from the lake. That moment when I first began to feel I might recover, from whatever it was that had happened.

  The splinters that my peace of mind had been smashed into - if not, perhaps, after all, my sanity - were sending little scouting filaments across the gaps, looking for other pieces, whether I'd sent them out to look or not. Where the scout-filaments met, they'd start winding themselves together again, knitting themselves back into rows. . . They were probably building on those first granny knots from when I'd agreed to be let out of the SOF bind and be responsible for my behavior.

  No: from the first granny knots of the morning after Con had brought me home from the lake.

  I was going to have some more scars and the texture of the final weave was going to change. Was changing. It was going to be lumpier, and there were going to be some pretty weird holes. I never had been able to learn to knit. I don't do uniformity and consistency. Even my cinnamon rolls tend to have individual personality. I could probably cope with a few more wodgy bits in my own makeup.

  Maybe my medulla oblongata was refusing to take any crap from my cerebrum again. Shut up and get on with the reconstruction. If you can't find the right piece, use the wrong one.

  I took a step backward, still facing Con, still within reach of him, but so that the sunlight touched me.

  There was something struggling out of the murk here, trying to make me think it: If good is going to triumph over evil, good has to stay sane.

  Say what? Oh, please. I'm still thinking about breathing. Now I'm supposed to start in flogging myself to go on fighting for the forces of. . . well, "good" is some freaking mouthful. It sounds like some Anglo-Saxon geek with a big square jaw and a blazing sword, any vestigial sense of humor surgically removed years before when he was conditionally accepted to Hero School.

  But that was kind of where I'd wound up, even if I'd missed out on the jaw and the training. Because I was definitely against evil. Definitely. In my lumpy, erratic way. And I knew what I was talking about, because I'd now met evil. That was precisely the point.

  I'd touched it.

  And I was going to have to remember for the rest of my life that I'd touched it. That these hands had grasped, pulled. . .

  But us anti-evil guys have to stay sane. Lumpy and holey, maybe, but sane. Listen, Sunshine: Bo was gone. He wasn't going to get the last word now.

  I hoped.

  At least not until later this morning.

  "I'm going to run a bath. I'll flip you for who goes first. " I had a jar on my desk, next to the balcony, that held loose change.

  "Flip?" Vampires. They don't know anything.

  I won. I was almost sorry. I felt obliged to have only one bath, and a fast one, but I made it count. If I rubbed my palms a little rawer than I needed to for an idea, at least my hands felt like my hands while I was doing it. Perhaps the touch of the rose petals, when I'd had to move all the floating roses out of the bath so I could get me into it instead, had helped.

  There was no wound on my breast. I hadn't believed it at first. I kept rubbing the soap all over my front, from throat to pubic line, as if maybe I'd mislaid it somehow. But it wasn't there. The scar was. I thought it looked a little. . . wider, shinier, than it had, the day after Con had closed it the first time. But it was a scar.

  But my chain was gone too, and there was a new scar, which dipped over the old one, in the shape of a chain hanging around my neck. Together they looked like some new rune, but I couldn't read it.

  There was no sign of the golden web, no matter how hard I scrubbed.

  . . . What had I been saying about going on fighting for the forces of good? In that mad little moment right after Con had said something comforting? That a vampire had seemed to say something comforting should have told me I was having a crazy moment, not a returning-sanity-and-hope moment.

  Going on doing anything like what I'd been doing these last five months - horribly culminating in what I had done last night - was approximately the last thing I wanted.

  Especially when it meant bearing the knowledge of what I'd done. And that going on doing it would mean bearing more of doing and more of knowing.

  But Pat had said we had less than a hundred years left. Us humans. No, not us humans. Us-on-the-right-side. And
there aren't enough of us.

  Okay, here's the irony: if I went on with this heavy magic-handling shtick I was likely to be around in a hundred years.

  I pulled the plug and started toweling myself dry. I rubbed violently at my hair like I was trying to friction-burn undesirable thoughts out of my head. I washed and dried my little knife tenderly, however, and put it back in my fresh, clean, dry pocket. I was dressed in the first thing out of the top cupboard in the bathroom, where all my oldest, rattiest clothes lived. Then I started another bath and called Con.

  I found a one-size-fits-all kimono in the back of my closet that Con could get into, or rather that would go round him; at least it was black. I could give him the shirt in the back of my closet but it wouldn't be long enough on him.

  Right. I was clean. Con had something to wear. On to the next thing. Food. I didn't have to think any more long-view thoughts yet. I still had small immediate things to organize myself around.

  I was frying eggs when he came out, looking very exotic in the kimono. I stood there holding a skillet with three beautifully fried eggs in it and said miserably, "I can't even feed you. " How I'd organized my entire life: feeding other people. I heard what I was saying - or what I was saying it to - a moment after the words came out, but his gaze did not waver.

  "I do not eat often. I do not need food. "

  I shook my head. I'd narrowly avoided mental breakdown as a result of facing ancient all-consuming evil, and now I was about to lose it over giving a vampire breakfast. I felt tears pricking at my eyes. This was ridiculous. "I can't eat in front of you. It's so. . . I feed people for a living. If I don't do it I'm a failure. I identify as a feeder of. . . "

  "People," said Con. "I am not a person. "

  I'd just been having this conversation with myself in the bathroom. "Yes you are," I said. "You're just not, you know, human. "

  "Your food grows cold," said Con. "It is better hot, yes?"

  I shook my head mutinously. He was right, though, it was a pity to ruin such ravishing eggs.

  "I will drink with you," said Con.

  "Orange juice?" I said hopefully. It had to have calories in it. Water didn't count.

  "Very well. Orange juice. "

  I moved three white roses out of one of my nice glasses, gave it a quick wash, and poured orange juice in it. It was one of the tall ones with gold flecks. Silly thing to drink juice out of. I didn't see him drink - it occurred to me I hadn't seen him drink his tea in the goddess' office either - but nearly half a gallon of orange juice disappeared while I ate my eggs and two toasted muffins and a scone. (What a good thing that it hadn't occurred to me to empty my refrigerator before I died. ) Did that mean he liked it, or was this his demanding standard of courtesy again?

  "What does it taste like?" I asked.

  "It tastes like orange juice," he said, at his most enigmatic.

  How was I planning on putting us-on-the-right-side, anyway? Con had been on the right side as compared to Bo. Con was still a vampire. He still. . .

  I did the dishes in silence while Con sat in his chair. The kimono made him look very zen, sitting still doing nothing. I'd seen it first at the lake, that capacity for sitting still doing nothing with perfect grace: although that wasn't how I'd thought of it when we were chained to the wall together. And it was interesting that he retained it when he wasn't under the prospect of immediate elimination with no way out, which might be expected to focus the mind. If it didn't blow it to smithereens.

  I did the dishes slowly. We'd done washing and eating. There wasn't anything to come except to figure out sleeping arrangements. Con had acknowledged that vampires did something like sleep during the day. And my body had to have sleep soon or I was going to fall down where I stood. But my mind couldn't deal with it. I'd tried to convince myself to haul some laundry downstairs but I couldn't face the effort: stairs: the assault on Everest, and where were my Sherpas? I rescued Con's trousers from where he had rinsed and wrung them out and draped them over the towel rack (you don't think of vampires in domestic-chore terms, but I suppose even vampires have to come to some arrangement about getting their clothes washed), and hung them on the balcony for the sun and wind to dry them; at least they were still trousers, if a trifle ravaged by events, which was more than could be said for the remains of his shirt. I scuffled around in my closet again - at some peril to life and limb, since my com gear tended increasingly to get left in there - and pulled the spare shirt out, and left it on the closet doorknob.

  Every utensil was scoured within an inch of its life and dried and put away too soon.

  Sleep. No way.

  At least, being this tired, and still half-watching my hands for renegade moves, I wasn't interested in - or maybe I should say I wasn't capable of brooding about - what else might happen in a bed-type situation. Or could happen. Or wasn't going to happen.

  I was capable of brooding about being afraid to be alone. Afraid to sleep.

  "You'll have to have the bed," I said. "There are no curtains for the balcony, and the sun gets pretty much all round the living room over the course of the day. I'll sleep on the sofa. "

  He was silent for a moment, and I thought he might argue. I'm not sure I wasn't waiting hopefully for an argument. But all he said finally was, "Very well. "



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