Tuesday, April 18, 2017

TRIBUTE: Part Nine

    "I DON'T think you can." Finn's words scraped out. "You're burning through those bodies. That's why you want us. And if you take us, we die anyway." She continued ferociously, "You're nothing but pieces of paper."
   "Finn." Christie sounded on the verge of hysteria.
   Finn gently put her hand over his mouth as she met Jintong's burning gold gaze. She didn't dare look at Jack, because she was admitting to something she'd always suspected about the Fatas. "You can't kill us. You need one of us--a human--to do it for you. Flesh and blood."
   "So it's a draw, is it?" Jintong began to move back, step by step, while Jack watched him.
   "I believe so," Jack told him. "The Mononoke and the Skriker won't take part in this. Like you, they're wisely afraid of Reiko."
   "We're as old as she is." Jintong smiled slyly. "And what are these mortals to her?"
   Finn saw the rustling shadows drawing closer and the entire nightmarish aspect of the evening, instead of dulling her into the numb inertia she'd been experiencing since Lily's death, sharpened her. She said, quietly, with a wondering realization, "You need us more than we need you."
   A whirlwind of paper blossoms, leaves, and snowflakes swept over them as she and Jintong regarded one another.
   "Do you see their plan?" This, from the until-then-silent Jade. "The Magician. The Empress. The Hanged Man. The Sun." She cocked her head to one side. Her face was expressionless, but her voice was threaded with despair. "We have lost, Jintong."
   Jintong looked at each of them. The smile became a shadow on his face. "So the trick is on us. But now I know--these two mortals are not meaningless to your family, Phouka." He turned to Finn. "You guessed correctly--we cannot take what is not freely given. There is nothing with which we have to bargain. Beaten by the house, we accede." He bowed, folding into the night.
   "Well, shit," Christie whispered.
   Finn couldn't believe it. She stood very still, marveling at what had just occurred.
   She turned. They were gone, the menacing silhouettes. Only Jade remained, watching Finn.
   As Christie sank to his haunches, his arms over his head, Jade said to Finn, "They will be the death of you, braveheart."
   Then she, too, was gone.
   "What happened here?" Christie's voice was muffled.
   Finn broke her gaze from Jack's to crouch beside Christie. "It's over now. You're safe."
   "They took him." Phouka, Finn realized, was speaking to Jack. "I had no other way to fetch him back."
   "Are you explaining yourself to me?" Jack was staring at Phouka. "Because it's not me you should be apologizing to, cara."
   Finn rose, reeling a little. How could she go back to her somewhat ordinary life after this? She said, "Let's go. Now."
The ride home was quiet, until Christie shook himself and said angrily, "Isn't anyone going to tell me what just happened?"
   Phouka, driving, glanced at Jack, who was in the passenger seat beside her. Jack, one arm on the back of the seat, turned his head and looked at Finn. Phouka said, each word succinct, "Nothing happened."
   "Oh no you don't," Christie began, then sounded baffled. "What did I just say? Hey, where were we going again?"
   "Phouka." Finn wanted to grab the other girl's hair. "What did you d--"
   "Here we are." Phouka swerved into the driveway of Christie's house.
   "Yeah. Yeah. Okay." After Phouka parked, Christie dazedly got out. Finn threw a furious look at Phouka and slid out after him. She heard Jack say to Phouka, "You're going to addle that boy's brain if you keep doing that."
   "Christie." Finn hurried to his side as he walked toward his house. As they stomped up the porch stairs, she said, "Are you all right?"
   "I'm fine." He grinned, but his eyes were glassy.  "See you tomorrow."
   "Yeah?" He turned as he stepped into the warmth of his house.
   "Are you sure you're all right" Finn was worried about the glazed look in his eyes. "Do you remember--"
   "This weird night out at Max's Diner with the Fatas?" He gazed past her at Phouka and Jack. He frowned a little. "Yeah. See you at school, okay?"
   "Okay." She watched him close the door.
   She trudged down the steps. Jack and Phouka had gotten out of the Mercedes. Finn strode past them, across the street, heading for the wooded lot that led to her house.
Jack, watching Finn walk away, said to Phouka, his voice dark, "You used her to get rid of them."
   Weariness dragged at Phouka's voice. "I needed a mortal. She's stronger than you think--Jack!"
   Jack was already vanishing into the weedy lot across the street.
   Phouka cursed.
Finn knew he was chasing after her in that way of his, feral and preternatural. She wanted to whirl around and tell him to go to hell, but sensed he may have already been there. She'd just engaged in the scariest game of Rock, Paper, Scissors ever and she couldn't summon the courage to tell one dangerous and damaged person to leave her alone.
   She halted. She turned and he was there. She struck him, one hand flat against his chest. He allowed her to shove him against a tree.
   "What are you?" She whispered, more afraid now than she'd been facing off the Zhi'Ren.
   His expression was serious. "Just what you see."
   "Stop." She didn't mean that word to sound the way it did, as if her soul were being shredded. "I don't want this. I don't want to know things. I don't want this world you live in."
   "Liar." The word was almost voluptuous the way he spoke it. "What you said back there was true--we can't get to you unless we're invited."
   "You're saying I invited you?" She still had her hand against his chest, which wasn't hollow anymore--she felt the drumming of his heart. He straightened. He was so close, suddenly, his mouth only a breath from hers.
    He said, "You did invite us, Finn. Maybe you didn't mean to--but we are drawn to lost souls."
   "I"m not a lost soul." But even as she said it, she knew it wasn't true.
   "Finn. I've been one." His gaze was shadowed. "And look where it got me."
   "I don't know what you want from me, Jack." She felt as if she were pleading.
   "You're the one who wants something from me. Don't pretend you don't need to know things, because there's something inside of you screaming. And all of them, my family, can hear it."
   She felt as if the pain twisting up inside of him was bleeding into her. She searched his gaze with her own and saw the anguish behind the shadows in his eyes. She stood on tiptoe, closed her eyes, and kissed him.
   It was like kissing an electric current wrapped in darkness--it jolted her from her head to her toes and shot heat through her, thieving her of breath, but so sweetly, she was scarcely aware of his arms folding around her or her own circling his neck because that kiss had become glorious and neverending.
   Her mouth swept from his. She still had to breathe. For a moment, she didn't know if she was steadying him or he was keeping her from falling.
   "Finn," he whispered against her temple, with his heart beating. "Forget."
   It was an order. Finn knew he'd meant it as an enchantment, whatever Phouka had done to Christie, but it didn't work--
   Then the night was gone from her.
   She sat on the swing, gazing up at the stars. She'd fallen asleep for a second, and dreamed. She frowned, rubbed at her temples.
   It had been a dream in which Jack had not been heartless.
   Something drifted toward her through the air. She reached out, and caught it. It was a leaf, webbed and delicate, made of crimson paper.
                                                                     The End

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