by Lilith Saintcrow
Caro closed the suitcase and clicked the locks down. "I’ll call as soon as I get to the safehouse," she repeated, soothingly.
"I can’t believe you’re doing this." Trev folded his arms over his narrow chest. His fingers tapped at his black shirtsleeves—it was a ragged Tragic Diamonds shirt, artistically ripped. His freckles ran together on his nose, as if they had been baked on. Jeans clung to his narrow hips, he wore scuffed blue Doc Martens and a leather bracelet on his right wrist. One of Caro’s gold hoop earrings curved in his left ear—a small one, peeping through dark hair. Caro hadn’t worn small earrings for years, and wondered how long it would be before Trev started raiding her longer ones.
"They need me." And you’ve got a life here, Trev. Never thought I’d see that. "I’ll be driving, it will only take me about eight hours, and I’ll be fine. I’ll be inside a safehouse before dark. I’ll call."
She hefted the suitcase experimentally. Her heels clicked against the hardwood as she carried it to the door, set it down with the two other suitcases, the duffel bag of bathroom necessities and emergency items, and the large canvas bag that held her professional tools. "I’ll examine these cases they’re so worried about and spend a few weeks specialist-training the Mindhealers and Seers there. I’ll be back by Yule." I can also shop for a present for you there and you won’t ransack my room trying to find it, for once.
Trev actually came out and said what most of them had to be thinking. "I wish you’d just take a Watcher with you."
Caro glanced up, sweeping a long strand of golden-brown hair away. No matter how tightly she braided it, her hair had a mind of its own. It would be even worse if I cut it. Curling around and getting in my face all the time, I’d end up eating a mouthful of it every time there’s a breath of wind.
The safehouse was just beginning to wake up, the heavy walls—each nail, each piece of wood, each bit of drywall and each block of stone covered with Watcher wards and spells of protection—almost seeming to breathe. Under the heavy warding the air sometimes turned thick and unmoving, and Caro couldn’t wait to be out on the road, windows down a little and the heater turned up against the chill, singing along with the radio as she drove. Traveling between one place and the next was her favorite part of the job of being a Mindhealer. If you could call it a job, that was.
Well, I get paid, and I work myself hard. That’s a job, isn’t it?
"Why?" She managed a light tone. "You think I need a babysitter? I’m thirty blessed years old, Trev. I think I can handle the drive to Altamira and finding the safehouse there. I have excellent directions, and I promise not to get carried away and make a run for the Mexican border. All right?" She made it back to the bed, pulling the hem of her blue silk sweater down, picked up her cream pashmina scarf and draped it around her shoulders. "Though I must say I’m tempted, with the weather the way it is."
Outside, gray icy drizzle drifted down desultorily; the city below looked just as lifeless and blanched. The trees were losing their leaves, October wind ruffling the thin naked branches. Samhain was right around the corner, the beginning of the witch’s year.
The season of the dead. The thought of her teacher Eleanor rose, Caro pushed it down. Dead only two years, and it still was a hurtful jab every time she thought about Eleanor. She was the closest to a mother Caroline ever had. She supposed the grief was natural, even if it still felt like getting punched in the stomach each time a stray memory rose.
Trev didn’t rise to the conversational bait. "It’s not safe, Caro. I’d feel better if you’d just this once—"
You don’t step outside without a bruiser looming over you. My little brother the chicken. But that was unfair, and she chided herself as soon as she thought it. Since the incident with the kalak, Trev shuddered whenever he smelled smoke and stayed well within the safehouse walls, accepting without demur the presence of a Watcher every time he ventured out. Given that he’d always been the wild child, it was faintly unnerving—but also a relief. At least Caro didn’t have to worry about him all the time now.
Though she did. It was, she supposed, reflex after twenty-six years of worrying about your baby brother night and day.
"—give in and let the Council put a Watcher on you. Just this once," she finished, chapter and verse. She’d hoped to get out of here without having this talk again. "No, Trev. I’ll be inside a safehouse before dark. That’s the bargain. The Council keeps the Watchers away from me, and in return I take every reasonable precaution. Nothing’s changed."
Nothing is ever going to change. I will not cause another man’s death.
She glanced around. She was going to miss this suite; she’d made Santiago City home base for the last three years, venturing to other cities to train novice Mindhealers and take a look at cases that required a specialist but always coming home. She liked this set of rooms, loved how the kitchenette, hung with ferns, glowed with yellow walls and oak cabinets. How the sun slanted through the big window in summer, redolent of spice and lavender from the garden below as she sat on the window seat. How her desk and her bookshelves had come to assume the character of permanent residents rather than uneasy guests. It was a far cry from where she’d spent the first ten years of her existence, and the further away Caro got, the happier she was.
Not bad for a foster kid who heard voices, she thought as she did every time, with a small leap of grateful anxiety in the middle of her chest. Say what you would about Circle Lightfall’s anachronistic rules and regulations, they took their duty seriously. They had saved her life.
And, more importantly, saved Trev’s.
"Eleanor would have a fit," Trev muttered darkly.
"Then we’ll just be glad she can’t see me now that I’m such a disappointment." Caro’s tone turned sharp. The pretty blue linen curtains Mari had given her ruffled slightly as her voice touched them. Rain whispered against the window.
"That’s not what I meant and you know it." Trevor frowned. His aura turned lemon-yellow, a trailing scarf of indignation unfurling like a bright banner. Caro herself had applied a layer of shielding to him, careful almost-maternal wards to help bolster her brother’s weak talent. He was an air witch, the most common type; male Lightbringers didn’t often have considerable gifts. But even if he’d been normal, Circle Lightfall would have taken him in when they took Caro. They didn’t believe in splitting up siblings. Not like the foster system.
The sharp pinch of guilt began right under Caro’s collarbone. It felt like indigestion, only a few inches too high. She’d hoped to go at least a few hours without feeling it.
Well, I managed forty-five minutes. That’s a good sign, wouldn’t you say? "Of course that’s not what you meant," she agreed briskly. "Though that’s what it sounds like, Trev. Let’s not ruin a movie-worthy good-bye with bad feelings. I’m sorry I’m going to miss your Samhain show."
"So’s Elise. She loves watching you squirm on a barstool while she sings."
"It’s not her singing I object to; it’s the drunkards around me." The point-counterpoint was so familiar Caro could have done it in her sleep. "Help me carry this, will you?"
"Keenan’s outside. He’ll help too." Trev’s eyes sparkled with mischief. "I thought you might overpack. As usual."
"I never overpack." She rose to the bait gratefully. "I just like to be prepared."
"For what, an invasion?" Trev sniffed. He made a show of hauling up two of the suitcases, making a face. "Good gods above, Caro, what’d you put in here? Rocks?"
"Weakling." She checked her purse one more time. Everything in its place.
"Teacher’s pet." Trev was grinning broadly.
"You too." Caro actually grinned back, unable to help herself. "Want to keep going, pot calling the kettle black?"
Trev muttered something she was sure was a good-natured obscenity, dropping one of the suitcases so he could jerk the door open. The smile fell from Caro’s face.
Outside in the hall, with the light glowing in his dark hair, stood Keenan. The broad-shouldered man, his face expressionless, leaned against the far wall, his hands in the pockets of his long black leather coat, blue eyes scanning the room once. He had, with perfect Watcher tact, stayed outside. It was just as well, the sword hilt sticking up over his right shoulder and the knives strapped to his chest—as well as the silver guns at his hips—were reminders Caro did not need.
The familiar crimson-black whirl of a Watcher’s aura slid over him briefly, Caro had to look under it for a moment to see him. Keenan wasn’t happy, any more than any other Watcher Caro met; the dragging pain from the Dark symbiote melded to his body teased briefly at her own consciousness before her shields thickened reflexively. She saw his eyes flare with blue for a moment; he would be sensitive to any change in Caro’s bright aura.
And Caro, of course, would be sensitive to that pain. It was part of being a Mindhealer.
"Morning, Keenan," she said politely.
He ducked his head, mumbled something suspiciously like morning, ma’am. He was one of her favorite Watchers, if she could be said to have any, because he generally knew when to keep his mouth shut and never, ever suggested he go with her anywhere. Not that any of the other Watchers would suggest it either, but sometimes they looked as though they might.
Stop it, Caro. Watchers aren’t your problem. Not anymore.
"Come on, Keen, Caro’s overpacked again and wants us to haul all her crap around. Up to it?"
Trev handed over the two suitcases. The Watcher handled them easily. That brought Trevor back to pick up the duffel and the third suitcase, but he left her work bag. Nobody touched Caro’s tools unless she gave specific permission. It was a courtesy other Circle Lightfall witches unconsciously gave her, and one she was grateful for. It was so good to live with other psychics, people who understood what it was like to have the thoughts of the outside world screaming at you every waking—and sleeping—moment.
She followed him out the door, letting out a small sigh. I love traveling, but leaving here is getting harder and harder each time. Why? Because my bookshelves are starting to look like they belong, or because I’m beginning to wish I could go out at night again? Or wishing I could just . . . who knows? Leave it all behind. I suppose every woman who’s ever hit thirty has the urge to run away sometimes.
She swept the door closed, and sketched a little rune over the doorknob—not that she thought anyone would mess with her belongings in a safehouse. It wouldn’t occur to anyone here to trouble her things. It was just habit, a sort of good luck charm.
The little buzz of Power trembled away from her fingertip and grew firm as she set it against the doorknob. She set off down the hall after her brother and the Watcher, who were conversing in low conspiratorial tones. Her heels clicked against the floor—sharp little cracks of frustration when she lengthened her stride; precise little taps marking out time when she observed a decorous pace. Which she did now, letting Trevor and Keenan go ahead of her. Otherwise Keenan might try to hold the door for her, and Caro wasn’t sure her temper would keep down for that. She wanted to be out of here. Gone. Already on the road with the radio playing.
Driving between places is the only time I really feel happy anymore.
The work was fine and she was lucky to get it, she told herself again as she entered the echoing stairwell, hearing Trev’s light footsteps and sensing Keenan’s silent step continuing down. The safehouse had elevators, of course, but the Watchers rarely used them. Too easy to get caught, Vincent had told her once.
Will you stop thinking about Vince? Annoyed with herself, she rested her hand on the railing. She’d chosen the suite in this hall because it gave onto the stairwell going directly down to the west parking level, and when she needed to get somewhere quickly the stairs were the best bet.
Trev’s laugh rang out below, making her smile. Trevor was happy now. He had all the drumsticks he could break, a steady gig with the Tragic Diamonds, and a job working in a music store out on Magen Boulevard. It took so little to make him completely at peace.
And what would it take to make me at peace? She discarded the question as useless. Here in Circle Lightfall, her talents were put to good use. She was a Mindhealer, capable of healing the traumatized and shattered, and it was her great good luck that she’d come to the attention of the Circle and received the training to corral her talent instead of ending up in a mental asylum screaming about things nobody else could hear.
Or eaten by the Dark.
Caro shivered. The stairwell suddenly seemed to draw close and go dim.
But Trevor’s laughter floated up to her, and Caro gave herself a little shake. She was a fully-trained witch and Mindhealer, and she had survived quite well on her own for years now. She had even gone toe-to-toe with the High Council and won the right to be the only witch without a Watcher, as long as she stayed in a safehouse and wasn’t outside after dusk. Unless, of course, she went out after dark with a bonded pair, witch and Watcher. That concession had been won grudgingly from her, but she didn’t mind.
Lately, though, the Council had been making little noises. Little noises like they wanted to put Caro under guard again.
She made it down to the parking level and opened the door into the garage. Echoes boomed off concrete. Her heels made lovely little sounds as she strode, determined, between the aisle of parked cars.
Trev sounded horrified. "What the hell? Caro!"
She rounded the corner and saw him staring at the little blue Miata, only its open trunk marring the low perfect profile. A smile teased at the corners of Caro’s lips, she banished it. "What? You can’t find the keys? I signed it out this morning and it has a full tank."
"You’re not driving this!"
"Of course I am." She saw Keenan fading back into the shadows, retreating to a defensible position, away from the hurtful glow of her aura. Close enough that should something happen, he would spring out of the shadows and banish it the traditional way: with steel. There was precious little chance of anything being here inside a safehouse, but a Watcher never relaxed. "What’s wrong with it? It’s perfectly serviceable, it has an engine, and the suitcases go in the trunk."
"Caro, if you get into an accident—"
She folded her arms. "You think I’m a bad driver? What, because I’m female, or because I’m your sister?"
Trev spluttered. She liked to make him splutter. It was when Trev got quiet and sneaky you had to watch out for him.
In short order, the luggage was stowed in the trunk and Caro had placed her purse and work bag in the passenger’s seat. Trev scolded her all the while, and she gave him a kiss on the cheek. He flung his arms around her, hugging her tight the way he used to do when they were children. She hugged him back, ignoring the wrinkles it would put in her skirt and sweater. Her earring pressed between his cheek and hers, she shut her eyes and breathed in, deeply and quietly. It was always hard to leave him, a habit left over from an uncertain childhood of clinging to each other for support.
"Be careful," he whispered in her ear. "Please, Caro. Be safe."
"I’ll be fine. I always have been. It’s an eight-hour drive, and I’ll be well inside before nightfall. I’ll call. Don’t be such a little worrywart, baby boy."
"Witch." He mock-glared then, untangling his arms from around her. Caro smoothed her skirt.
"You too. Remember to water my ferns." She touched his shoulder, stroked gently. "I’ll be fine, I promise. I’ll call."
"Okay. Get going." He wiped angrily at his eyes. "You’d better call."
"I will," she soothed. "Go on, you know how you hate this part."
"Dammit." But he paced away, Keenan following like a dark shadow with one indecipherable look over his shoulder. But he didn’t say anything, thus confirming himself in Caro’s opinion as her favorite Watcher.
She got in the car, digging the keys out of her purse. It started with a smooth restful purr, and she touched the stick shift, curling her hand around it. Put the car in reverse, pulled out and set about sedately navigating out of the parking level. The Watcher on duty at the entrance didn’t make a move, simply watched her go past from his niche, and she pulled out into the gray of early morning and turned on the wipers. The freeway was close, and she could open up the Miata once she was free of the snarl of traffic. If he knew, Trev would have a heart attack.
Caro turned on the radio, and her heart began to lighten.
* * * *
She stopped in Grenade Bay for lunch in a café that looked over a small marina where sea lions sometimes congregated. There was heavy weather moving in from the Pacific, a winter storm that would wash agates free on the beaches and make the waves pile up like moving gray laundry. She was oddly thankful she didn’t have a Watcher hanging around. If she did, he might want her to go back, since a day with heavy cloud cover wasn’t really safe. Not as unsafe as night, but still . . . not as safe as a sunny day. Even assuming a sunny day was safe.
She told herself not to think about unpleasant things and watched the glimmer of gray water, seagulls skimming in a white line offshore. Wish I had time for some beachcombing. That would be nice.
Vincent would have been sitting across from her, would have eaten if pressed, and would have let his dark eyes travel across the café and the street beyond—only two lanes, with a short scallop of beach below the opposite pavement, and a wall to keep people from falling onto the sand. He would have waited for her to finish her coffee, then shepherded her out to the car with only a faint, ironclad smile. His worry would have been tightly controlled but still like static spilling out from his aura, and she would have been glad to feel it. He had been unfailingly patient, of course—all Watchers were; but Vincent’s quality of patience hadn’t irritated her. It had been rather pleasant, since he mostly asked instead of told her what to do. His hair had been getting long, and sometimes, just before she fell asleep, she would think how she needed to take him for a trim, since it was a witch’s duty to do things like that for a Watcher.
Then her stomach would churn, like it was churning now, and she would remember the shattered bowl and the sound of her own screams.
And the smell of the Bane as it killed her Watcher.
Caro paid and left a good tip, with a faint relieved feeling that she never had to worry about money, and found the Miata parked on the street. Rain lashed down, spotting her sweater, and she hadn’t bothered with a coat. She rarely did unless it was snowing or icy, which almost never happened in Saint City.
I was right. I do feel better when I’m traveling. Why is that? Maybe because I’m not being reminded every moment of what I am. Here on the road, I’m just another car. If it wasn’t for travel I’d probably go nuts.
She shivered and turned the heat up. The thought of insanity, after seeing so much of it, was chilling and comforting in equal measure. She could be fairly sure she wasn’t insane. Maybe wound a little too tight, but not insane.
And that was another thing, it was the travel she enjoyed, not arriving at the destination and certainly not arriving home. It was the state in-between that appealed to her.
She drove south, listening to oldies on the radio, tapping her fingers on the wheel, and singing along as the rain poured down. She was ahead of schedule and doing fine. When she reached Altamira and the safehouse there she would spend the night listening to rain falling on the roof, maybe getting up for a midnight cup of hot chocolate since she would probably have trouble sleeping, as she did in every new room.
Hold that thought, she told herself, humming along to the music as the highway dipped and curved along the humps of the coastline, priceless scenery unrolling out the passenger’s side, scenery she was too busy driving to appreciate but soaked in nonetheless. A whole new city to be an insomniac witch in. Who says life isn’t fun?
Text Copyright Lilith Saintcrow 2008