The hotel room was soaked in class and a little light starch. Crisp, white linen on the bed, a glass French press to make my morning coffee, a gold foil fleur-de-lis chocolate on the pillow. The building was old enough that I could open the window and look out on the street. A couple dozen people walked and shouted and laughed. There was music playing, but I couldn't tell where it was coming from. It was barely midnight in New Orleans. In Athens, I would have been finishing breakfast. In London, I would still have been asleep.
And so would Aubrey.
I had offered to drop Karen at her place or to have her stay there with us, but she'd turned me down. I wasn't sure whether I was sorry or relieved that she wasn't there. I stepped away from the window and turned on the television. I turned off the television and booted up my laptop. I left the laptop on standby and pulled my backpack onto the bed. Sitting cross-legged, I took out the wide manila envelope I'd been carrying since Denver. I drew out the note.
I suppose it's a failure of nerve leaving like this. I hope you can forgive me. I've struggled with this more than you know.
I had dreamed of the day when I could come back to the life I left behind. Now that the obstacles that held me apart from Aubrey and Denver are gone, I find that there are more reasons to stay away than I had realized.
I care for Aubrey very deeply, but as I look back at the manner in which he and I fell away from each other, I can't in all honesty say I'm sure it would be different now. I know that if I stayed, if I saw him, I would be tempted to try. The rational part of my mind says that would be a mistake. And so I'm taking the coward's way out.
Tell him that I wish him well. Tell him that I blame him for nothing, and that I forgive him as I hope he will forgive me.
Take care of yourself.
Kim hadn't signed the note, but she had signed the divorce papers that went with it. She'd left them in my care, to do with as I saw fit. At first it had seemed like a gesture of trust and intimacy, and for weeks I'd put off telling Aubrey about them because I needed to decide what I thought and felt and wanted. Then after that, I hadn't told him because I would have had to explain why I hadn't told him earlier. Now, a thick Gulf breeze stirring the sheer curtains, my laptop fan whirring quietly to itself, the Vieux Carr¨¦ outside leading its subversive, rich, wild tourist honey trap, her decision seemed monstrous. Why was this my business? Why did I have to be the one to decide whether Aubrey and Kim could learn to love each other again? It wasn't fair to pull me in this way. It wasn't right.
And anyway, if I did give him the papers, what would he do?
Kim had known all that. She'd apologized. And, honest to God, she wasn't the one I was angry with. I promised myself that if Aubrey came back, I would tell him everything. I caught myself.
When. When Aubrey came back.
I took a shower, watched the talking heads on Fox News yell at each other, and waited for time to pass. Every five minutes, I reached for the phone to call Chogyi Jake and ask for a report. Every time, I restrained myself and tried to pull my attention back to something small and innocuous. Aubrey would be fine. It wasn't my fault he'd been taken. Just because he would never have been there except for me...
I picked up the phone and called Chogyi Jake.
He answered on the third ring.
"Jayn¨¦. I hoped you'd be asleep."
"Short on Ambien," I said. "What's the word?"
"I'm on my way back to the hotel now," he said. "It went... well enough."
"Okay," I said. "You need to explain that comment."
I could hear the smile in his voice when he spoke.
"Aubrey is himself again. But Marinette was very strong, and there was some violence. Ex doesn't need stitches, but he will need at least a day or two of rest. I suspect Aubrey will too. They're both asleep now. The house isn't fully warded."
"And we don't know where the kid is," I said. "And the bad guys have the little girl who sees through time or whatever. We're not in the best position. Check. But Aubrey's back?"
There was a hesitation, but it might only have been Chogyi Jake changing lanes.
"Yes," he said. "Aubrey's back."
"Okay," I said and the knot in my chest loosened. "Okay. I might be able to sleep after all."
"Try," Chogyi Jake said. "I'll stop by your room in the morning."
I looked at the bedside clock: 3:41.
"Not early," I said.
"Not early," he agreed. I dropped the connection and fell back into bed. I felt like shouting. By any rational, objective standard, we'd gotten our asses handed to us. Right then, it still felt like victory.
I closed my eyes for a second, and when I opened them, there was sunlight shining through the window and a Vietnamese maid apologizing in a voice that suggested it was my own fault for not putting up the DO NOT DISTURB sign. The lady had a point. I made some apologies of my own, which were much more sincere, hung the appropriate sign on the door, and made coffee. Until I saw the manila envelope where it had slipped to the floor in the night, I'd forgotten my little vow to the universe.
Aubrey was back. It was time.
Instantly, I came up with several excellent reasons not to. He'd just been through an ordeal; adding to it would upset him. There wasn't anything pressing about the divorce; I'd had the papers for months now, so what difference would a few more days make? Chogyi Jake was going to come and meet me, and it made more sense to wait until I had the straight skinny on the night's events.
I told myself that it made more sense to wait. Until it was easier. Until he was ready or I was ready or some cosmic alignment made everything easy. Until the mythical perfect time that never quite seemed to be today.
I looked into the coffee cup, as if it might have an opinion. The French press left a bright layer of oil on top of the darkness that seemed lush and decadent, but not particularly eloquent.
"Just go," I said. "Put it in your pack, and go to his room. If he's too blasted, you can chicken out then."
I still didn't move.
And then I did.
Aubrey's room was a floor down from mine, and I took the stairs rather than waiting on the elevator. My knock seemed intrusive and loud. I was already regretting having come. He was probably asleep. I was probably waking him up. I sucked. No sound came from the other side of the door, and I shifted from side to side wanting to knock again and also not wanting to.
The door opened an inch, Aubrey's bloodshot eye made an appearance, then the door closed again and I heard the security bar they use in place of a chain being fumbled aside. When the door opened again, it opened wide.
Aubrey leaned against the doorframe. His bathrobe was the white hotel terry-cloth from his shoulders to his knees, then more familiar soft gray sweatpants under that. His sandy hair stood at a hundred different angles, and the whites of his eyes were full-on pink.
"Hey," he said. His voice was hoarse and careful. "Hell of a night, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. Not strictly according to plan," I said. "Look, if you're crashed out..."
"No, no. Come in. I was just staring at the ceiling waiting for my brain to start working again."
I walked in slowly, my heart in my mouth.
His room was a little smaller than mine, the view out the window a little worse. It was still pretty nice, though. His laptop was on the desk, the screensaver scrolling a quote from Voltaire about not believing in absurdities. I tried not to take it as an omen.
Aubrey sat at the head of the bed, stuffing a pillow behind the small of his back and groaning. I perched at the foot, my leather pack stowed discreetly on the floor. We were silent for a few awkward seconds.
"So," I said. "How are you doing?"
"Honestly?" Aubrey said. "I don't know. I feel... I don't know how I feel. I keep surprising myself. One minute, I'm thinking, Ah hell, that wasn't too bad, and the next my heart's racing and I'm sweating like a pig. Ex said it'd be like this for a while. Didn't say how long, though. Seems kind of stupid, really. I mean, it's over. It feels like it should be over when it's over. You know?"
"Intellectually," I said. "But I think Ex is right. It was a bad night. You have to respect that."
He shook his head and leaned forward, the bed creaking under him.
"I've never had one of them inside me," he said. "All the time I worked with Eric, I saw maybe a dozen people all told. Some of them had things in them. Some of them had been kicked out of their bodies."
"Aaron," I said. He was a cop in Denver who'd been living in his girlfriend's German shepherd while a haugtrold ran his original body. Nice guy.
"Aaron," Aubrey agreed. "I never really thought about what it's like for them. Having something else in their body with them."
"Only now you've been there," I said.
He started to speak, then only nodded. His robe gaped open at the neck. Raw red gouges started at his collarbone and ran down and to his left. Claw marks.
"It was... intense," he said. "I was still in there. The whole time, I was aware of everything. Well, until you knocked me out, at least."
"Yeah, well," I said. "Sorry about that."
"No. Don't be. I knew you might have to kill me. When we were in the hallway, in the dark, I knew that the only way to really stop the rider was going to mean breaking my body bad enough that... I was rooting for you. I wanted you to."
"I wouldn't hurt you," I said. "If there was any way not to, I would never hurt you."
"It didn't give you a lot of choice," he said. "I could feel it too. The thing. Marinette. It was like my mind and its mind were hooked up at the back."
"You knew what it was thinking?"
"What it was feeling, more like. It had this energy. Wild and angry and... I don't know how to say this. Confident? I was standing there, peeking in at the ritual with you two, and then it was like someone had thrown me in a prison cell about five inches behind my eyes. But I could feel the anger. It hates Amelie Glapion-I mean hates her-but it hates Karen worse."
"I guess it would," I said. "Karen's like the kick-ass rider hunter, right? The thing in Glapion's a rival and an exile and all, but at least it's one of their kind."
"Yeah, I suppose," Aubrey said. He swallowed, the delicate mechanism of his throat shifting under the skin. "I think I tried to kill Ex. After the exorcism part started up, I get a little fuzzy. But I think I hurt him."
"Nothing he can't come back from," I said. "Chogyi promised that a little rest, and the padre will be right as rain, whatever that means."
Aubrey smiled. It was the first time that morning I'd seen him smile, and it looked like it hurt.
"I see why they do it," Aubrey said. "The rider cults? The ones like Glapion's where people actually invite things into them? I get it now."
"There's this amazing sense of power. Marinette could have done... well, not anything, but almost. More than I could ever dream of. She was invulnerable and wild. Feral. I could feel it. I participated in it in a way I can't exactly explain. The only thing I didn't do was control it."
"Power without responsibility," I said. "Every girl's dream."
"If I had been there as part of the cult. If it had been something I wanted," Aubrey said, then took a long, slow, shaking breath. "I don't think I know how to talk about this."
"You're doing fine," I said.
"No, I'm not," he said. "The words don't fit around it."
"Of course they don't," I said. "That's all right."
"I couldn't stop it. I couldn't stop it from killing you," he said. "And it was inside of me. My body... I just couldn't..."
There had been a time, no doubt months or years before, when I'd thought that Kim and the divorce papers were the most important issue between me and Aubrey. It couldn't have only been minutes. I would never be that shallow. Just then, watching Aubrey start to weep, the wife and legal proceedings didn't matter at all. I leaned forward and took his hand in mine. His knuckles were skinned. Eyes closed, he wrapped his fingers with mine. He looked up at me.
I had seen Aubrey naked. I had seen him in the throes of orgasm. I had seen him unconscious and helpless as a baby. I had never seen him as vulnerable as he was at that moment. I moved up the bed, pulling his arm around my shoulder, and held him as he rocked gently forward and back. There was blood on his robe. His body smelled like musk and clean sweat and the peculiar almost-pepper that was just him. He cried like he'd lost something precious, his arms tight around me.
I wept too. And I rocked him.
And I kissed him.
Here's the thing about sex. It's like music or language or anything really human and complicated. It can express anything; love or lust or anger, loss or sorrow. I kissed Aubrey, and he kissed me back. He was gentle at first, and then it was hard and rough and desperate. And I met him, pressure for pressure and power for power. Grief for grief. I pulled open his robe, my fingertips tracing wounds that hadn't fully stopped bleeding. He pulled off my shirt, his hand resting on my side where my old scars had almost turned white.
"Aubrey," I said.
"Please," he whispered.
I put my hands in his hair, holding him. I didn't remember moving in to straddle his lap, but I was there now, and it felt perfectly right. His breath was deep as if he'd been running. Mine was too. I leaned to the side, rolling onto the bed with him still locked between my knees.
"Yes," I said.
There were a hundred things to say. Sane, rational, responsible things. You're still married. You're vulnerable. We don't really know what we are to each other. We should be careful.
I didn't even manage Do you have a condom?
The last time I'd had sex, it had been with Aubrey. He had been gentle and giving and funny and beautiful. Now we were different people, and our bodies were saying something else to each other. He was strong and selfish, angry and rough. Once, we had made love; now, we were fucking. And even as I pulled him into me, even when I crawled on top of him, I was there as witness to his pain.
We ended the way we began, locked in each other's arms, crying. I had cataloged all the injuries on his flesh. The scrapes, the scratches, the bruises and cuts. I had kissed them all. He tried to thank me, but I pressed my fingers to his lips until he gave up the effort.
He fell asleep first, his skin glowing a little in the soft sunlight of early afternoon. His breathing became slower, deeper. More peaceful. I pulled the blanket up over us both. Once again, things hadn't gone to plan. I wondered lazily if they ever would. I appeared to really suck at planning. I let my eyes flutter closed.
In my dream, I stood alone and naked in the desert. A gentle wind was blowing across the stones and sand. I knew with the logic of dreams that this austere, lifeless landscape was my home and that it was sacred. There was something I was supposed to do there, and I didn't remember what precisely it was. I knew I was in time, but that a moment would come-and sooner rather than later-when I would have to act. I tried to remember what exactly I had agreed to do.
Far above, a hawk that was also Chogyi Jake cried out. When I looked up, there were two suns in the sky. One was the burning disk I was used to, and the other was darker. Instead of radiating light and heat, it was radiating purification. I opened my arms to it, recalling that this was what I'd been meant to do. Something bigger than mountains whispered my name, and I woke up.
The knock came again. Hard pounding at the door. I lifted myself up. Aubrey muttered in his sleep as I fished his robe off the floor. I heard a voice I recognized. Ex.
"Aubrey!" he said, words muffled by the closed door between us. "Get up! Jayn¨¦'s missing!"
I fumbled the security bar off and opened the door. Ex looked ill. His skin was gray, his eyes redrimmed, his pale blond hair hung to his shoulders. He opened his mouth to further announce my absence, went pale, and then blushed a deep scarlet.
"Yeah," I said. "Could you maybe give us just a minute?"