17 Refraction

August 26th, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Southwestern States, Bloodriver National Park

Midnight came a few hours later.  Rose and the others rode a few hours in the back of a windowless armored car, a small, boxy thing that wobbled when it took the turns on a narrow, gravel road.  It was stuffy and hot and Rose curled up in one corner beside Pastor, her arms wrapped around her knees, her face buried, trying not to think of how the road turned stomach.

As they rode, just after midnight, they heard the sharp and sudden hollow crack roll from the south like thunder, felt even at a distance the shock waves that rattled the desert from end to end, as General Gao made sure Farthing’s envoy went missing across the border.

Jill whimpered from her seat beside Fred.  “Why is everyone so horrible?” she asked.

“Wasn’t it ’cause Hod killed Baldur or something?” Fred asked.

“Don’t mock my religion,” Jill said automatically, but there was no heart in it now.

“I was acknowledging the validity of the story.”

Rose didn’t say anything.  She was thinking of the woman in the apron at Broken Arch, and on the King’s words to Pastor in Carlotta, and she was turning her coin once again between her fingers.

Gao can’t expect us to survive, she thought, letting her fingers know the faces by feel.  It has to be me in the end, she told herself.  I have to make sure it’s not them.

The thunder of bombing continued, and she thought, Am I a fool?

Of course she was, she told herself.  She was a fool, blessed and cursed all at once with a foolish heart.  Only a fool, after learning she’d lose everything, would pull a blind man into the shadow of a tent and kiss him like she never would again…

“Rose?” Jill nudged her, reaching across the cabin.

…and too soon, it had been time to go.

“Rose, are you okay?”

“I’m tired,” she lied.  She forced herself to look up.  It was dim inside the cabin of the truck.  There were no windows.  A weak lamp hung overhead so they and the two soldiers sitting in the back could see each other.  Everyone looked pale and wan and a little hollow with their lack of sleep.

Pastor’s wandering hand found her knee.  She put her own hand over it, felt a pulse run up her arm and down the rest of her.

The truck slowed.  The engine’s hum puttered and finally they stopped.  There was a peculiar knock from the driver’s cabin.

The quieter of the two soldiers knocked back in turn.  The other had been talking quietly with Fred.  They all fell silent, and waited.

A moment later, there was another knock back.  Fred looked relieved.

“Nearby is a camp,” Fred told Rose and the others.  “The area’s safe so they’ll drive further up, then go back a different way, confuse the tracks a bit.”

Rose and the others stood up, hunching over in the small space.  More special knocks were made on the driver’s side wall, then on the back door.  They climbed down into the dry, hot darkness.

They were on a trail tightly pressed in on both sides by a forest.  Fred gave the soldiers a bow, they called him something in Eastron that he laughed soundlessly at, and then the Eastasian men waved in the Westron fashion.  They boarded the truck, and it headed away into the darkness up the road.

The steady thunder of extermination continued in the south, faint enough that, if you didn’t know what it was, you might only think about rain.

Fred drew a deep breath of late summer woodland air.  The scent of evergreen and sod seemed to invigorate him.  “Let’s go then,” he said quietly.  “Off the road, of course.”

They joined hands for the first leg of the journey, until the wood thinned out a little, and they could hear the lapping waters of a lake.  Soon they found a small trail, only gravel but still level, and some way’s off they could hear laughter, and see the sparks of campfires, something so normal Rose felt a sudden ache for summer camps all but forgotten.

Fred aimed for the electric light in the distance.  It belonged to a small cabin that served as an office.  Rose, Pastor, and Jill waited outside, their faces ducked down as if tired, in case there were cameras they couldn’t see.  They could faintly hear Fred laughing with the park manager on night watch, talking about the winding roads in the area, and how easy it was to get lost.

“How does he do that?” Jill sighed.

“What?” asked Pastor curiously.  He was facing the lake as if staring at it.

“Get people to like him,” Jill explained.  “I remember, I used to be good at that.”

After a moment’s thought, Pastor pointed out, “It used to be easy.  When you’re young, people only like you for behaving.”

Jill was quiet for a moment, then she, too, looked out at the lake.  The answer seemed to depress her.  She drew a ragged breath, shut her eyes, and put her hands to her ears for a moment.  “Life was simpler then.”

Pastor turned his head on one side.  “We were simpler, that’s all.”

She opened her eyes and stared at him.  Then she smiled ruefully and shook her head, either automatically or perhaps knowing he’d hear the movement.  “Let me dream, okay, Pastor?”

~~~

Eventually they lay down in a small site by the lake, curled up in their bedrolls, to get some small sleep before dawn.  Jill stared skyward, listening for the even breathing that would tell her everyone was asleep, thanking the gods that those explosions were finally gone.  At one point, she tried to count the stars, but finally she sat up and walked the dimly lit path to the public restrooms.

The toilets were little more than pine boards skirting plumbing, but they gave some sense of privacy, and the warmth of the golden light from low-watt bulbs was welcome after the humid, buggy darkness.  Jill stood at the long communal sink and braced her hands on its edge, stooped over and trying to breathe and ignore a persistent mosquito in her ear.  She looked up and saw one of the staggered panes of unframed glass was directly in front of her, a diagonal crack running from corner to corner, making her face look split and skewed.  Everything behind her was indiscernible.  She turned to look at the shadows, but there was nothing but trees and the ridiculously loud droning of late summer crickets, or were they cicadas this far south?  She’d never bothered trying to tell them apart.

She was heading back up the path when she spotted a tall, approaching silhouette.  Her mind tottered on the edge of fear as she tried to balance a ready indifferent nod with the possible madness of flight—

—but it was only Fred.

“You all right?” he asked, stopping to meet her in a ring of lamplight.

Indifference then, she rallied, just a different sort.  Jill waved a hand behind her.  “Don’t let me keep you…”

“I was actually looking for you.”

Jill drew a deep breath and tolerated the walk back together, deciding that not talking was the best way to make it clear she had nothing to talk about.

“What is it?”

And failed.  “Nothing.”

“There are a variety of things that are pretty wrong right now besides nothing.”

Jill narrowed her eyes, but then stopped walking.  She didn’t like the thought of Rose or Pastor overhearing.  She twisted her fingers around each other.

“How can you tell?” she asked quietly.

“You do one of two things when you’re upset,” Fred told her: “You get quiet or you get talkative.”

“I’m a girl of extremes,” she jested dryly.  He grinned and she fought the sudden urge to smile.

“And you always fidget,” he added, and she failed again.

Jill tucked her hands behind her back in a renewed effort at restraint.  ”Okay,” she said, shrugging and looking into the forest.  “I’m just quietly freaking out every day now, is all.”

“And?”

It wasn’t a dismissive conjunction.

“I thought I was fine, but I’m not.”

“That’s okay,” said Fred.  “We’re all like that.”

“Rose isn’t.”

Fred smiled and shook his head.  Jill felt a little jealous, and surprised herself, at seeing a smile about Rose.  Just what is wrong with me today?  she berated herself.

Instead of facing this question, she said, “I thought things were going to be okay.  I mean, I thought at least they seemed certain.  I was willing to deal with whatever that meant.”

“And now they’re uncertain?” Fred suggested.

“Right, no one wants more than to live a peaceful life, right?”

Fred considered this more seriously.  “Except the Fair Folk,” he said at last.  “They’ve lived so long, Pastor says they got bored.  I think maybe we all did.”

I was fine,” Jill insisted.

Fred was already shaking his head.  He had the “philosophizing” look (as she used to call it) that said he’d been turning over some thoughts on this matter for a while.

“I mean, we got bored.  We let things slide.  Next thing we knew, there are Fair Folk running the government because we weren’t that interested in it.  Half the reason they took over was half of us didn’t know how it was supposed to work in time and they did.”

“It’s all a game,” Jill scoffed.

“Gao said something like that.”

“He did?  When?”

“The other day, like that it’s all a machine and they like to learn the pieces.  His Westron’s pretty good, though he’d never let on.”

Jill forgot to worry for a moment.  It hadn’t occurred to her that the Eastasians would know things like that.  She stared at Fred again, amazed.  How did this plain man, who chopped his own firewood when he could afford to go out and buy it, get people to talk to him?

“I talk to people,” he said, as if reading her thoughts.  “Most people like talking about themselves.  It’s pretty simple.”

“A general?”

“Sure, why not?”

For the first time in a while, Jill let her jealousy go and let herself admire him a little.  Fred was, she reminded herself hastily, an unhealthy distraction, but with this chiding thought came just another reminder: She’d been happily distracted for some time.

“I just want things to be normal,” she confessed.  “I want things to be okay for a little while—a little while where I know they’ll be okay from start to finish, where there’s not going to be some unpleasant interruption of reality.”

“By more reality?”

“Exactly,” she sighed.

“I don’t want to sound imposing…,” he said.

“With what?” she asked.

“But do you need a hug?”

Jill felt her chest clench.  A ball of tears rose in her throat and she swallowed it down, standing stiffly to do so.

“I’m fine,” she said at last.  “We’re not that anymore.”

“Not what?  You can just ask anyone for a hug, I’m not saying it has to be me…”

Jill clenched her teeth.  Hang it, she thought.  “It’s fine, really.  I need to grow up.”

Fred sighed.  “You’re doing that thing,” he said reluctantly.  He nodded and turned away to walk back down the path.  “I get it.”

She felt suddenly bereft and unbalanced.

“What thing?” she asked, so she’d have an excuse to catch up with him, because she could tie them together with words and feel less lonely.

“You tell yourself stories,” Fred told her.  “It’s your thing.”

He stopped walking.  Jill realized they were probably near plenty of campsites.  He’d lowered his voice a lot.  He didn’t sound angry.  That was good, she reasoned.  She really didn’t need a fight to make herself feel more alone right now.  But, really, he thought she had a “thing”?

“We all do it a little,” he went on.  “I get it, but I think you put yourself through a lot more stress than you need to by doing it so much.”

“What does that mean?”  It was a loaded question.  She really, really didn’t want this to be a fight, but it was starting to get close to that soft spot, the one that remembered the Slight Twice King waving a gun in her bedroom.

“Like, saying you don’t need a hug like it’s a big moral dilemma not a human thing that anyone would feel with things this crazy,” Fred replied.  “You’re telling yourself this story that I’m trying to get back together with you so any show of weakness is just playing into my hands—and seriously that’s just stressing you out more.”

“That’s a bit over-complicated,” she said dryly.

“Also stressful,” Fred pointed out.

“I wouldn’t be stressed if you weren’t picking me apart in the middle of the night,” she said irritably.

“The storytelling works, so you don’t want to question it,” Fred said agreeably.

“So it works, so don’t.”

Fred sighed.  “I wish I could, Jill,” he said, and he was serious again now.

Jill had a feeling all of a sudden, that maybe his easy tone was something he wore when she was being roundabout with him.  He put it on and took it off so quickly.  She was reminded of one of those paperweight devices where two ball bearings on a rod spun in orbit off center.  Balance within the illusion of imbalance.

She didn’t like the thought.

Instead, she said, “Don’t make wishes, Fred Clayton.  You of all people should know they might hear you.”

“I mean, sure, let’s not get back together, but don’t think that I don’t care,” said Fred.  “You get buried in these stories and then reality breaks them, and it’s not like a house of cards—It’s like seven floors of stone and steel with you in the basement whenever it all falls down.  I worry about you.”

She stared at him, trying to parse the metaphor.  That was another thing, about him being such a philosopher.  He just said stuff like that.  Who said stuff like that?  It was as ridiculous as his chopping wood.

“Why are you telling me this?” she asked at last, quieter because she really didn’t, despite everything, want to make him go away.

“You didn’t want a hug,” he said with a shrug.  “It’s all I’ve got left, words.”

“I didn’t ask you for anything.”

“I can’t help it.  I care about you.”

Jill clenched her teeth and mentally kicked herself.  The fact was, she really, really could use a hug, or, sheesh, a pat on the back might help.  He was being so damn respectful and she would truly and colorfully cuss him out if he wasn’t, and he was so wrong at the same time, but only because she was insisting he was reading her wrong and…

She wanted nothing more than the simple comfort of two arms around her and another heartbeat.

But there was nothing she wanted less than questions.

Fred waited in cricket- or cicada-laden silence.

“I didn’t ask for your help or care,” she said quietly, then turned on her heel and walked off down the trail.  I’m such an idiot, she thought, and even the thoughts that contradicted each other agreed on that.  She was crying now, but at least it was in the dark of the campsite and there were no lights to betray her.  She stopped and waited for her eyesight to adjust, blurred though it was, so she could find her bed and just sleep.  What had happened to her?  She used to be happy, used to be stronger than this…

“Jill?”

Jill was able to hold still until he set a hand on her shoulder.  Suddenly she turned and gave up, sobbing into his shirt, letting his arms hold her, tight but gentle, strong and safe.

Damn, damn damn!

“You could have asked,” he said belatedly.

“This doesn’t mean—”

“I know.  I know.  It’s just you being human.”

She looked up at him, swiping a hand across her face in surprise.  She could just make out that sad little smile he hardly showed anyone, the one she’d felt special for knowing about.

“I like you human,” he added.  “That’s all I was really trying to say.”

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