"Do you have any idea how much a beard itches in this heat?" Alex retorted.
"You missed a few spots, though."
"You try shaving without a mirror, kid." He touched his face, feeling the rough, stubbly patches. "Fine, so I still look like a hobo. At least I no longer look like a wino, and that's a step up as far as I'm concerned."
Sand giggled. "I dunno. I thought the beard was kind of... cute."
"Shaving it was your idea originally, kiddo!"
She giggled again, not at all put out. "Are you going to cut your hair, too?"
Alex fingered his long locks thoughtfully. "It is a pain in the ass..."
"You'd better not!"
He laughed. "So you like it long, little girl?"
Sand shrugged, and looked away. Alex's smile faltered. It was the first time he'd gotten her to laugh in days.
He put away the razor with some feelings of nervousness. Okay, so growing a beard hadn't quite worked out that well. Guys in his family just seemed to get stuck in an era of perpetual stubble until they gave up and shaved again. But he felt a bit exposed without at least that passing pretense at changing the shape of his face.
It's ridiculous. How many people on this entire world would be able to recognize you at sight? And how many of them are here in this part of the world, f'r cryin' out loud? So stop being an moron. You're going to be back in civilization soon, and you may as well look the part.
At least he'd gotten Sand to smile. She was so serious and sad these days. She hardly ate at all, and as far as he could tell, hardly slept either. Often he would wake in the night to see her sitting with her back against a rock, a blanket wrapped around her skinny shoulders, staring off into the distance.
Sand stretched, her blue eyes distant again. "Well, I need to take care of, you know. Necessaries."
Alex grinned. "I'll start breakfast."
She wandered out of sight behind the rocks and he boiled water in the coals of their little campfire. The meager meal was almost finished when he realized that Sand hadn't come back.
"Hey, kid?" Alex called. "Food's ready."
He shivered slightly in the warm wind blowing down from the mountains. Come on, what's going to happen to her? There aren't any Gung-Ho Guns around here. She'd hardly appreciate you disturbing her privacy.
He took a few irresolute steps in the direction in which she'd gone.
Maybe she ran into bandits or some kind of predator. Maybe she collapsed from lack of food and sleep.
Maybe you worry too much.
Maybe it wouldn't hurt to just take a quick look...
He climbed to the top of the rise behind their camp and scanned the area quickly. There was no sign of her, but that didn't mean anything... she could easily be concealed in one of the ravines.
Standing still in the wind, Alex suddenly became aware of a soft undertone to its ceaseless whispering among the rocks. He closed his eyes and listened. He wasn't mistaken -- he could hear Sand's voice, although he couldn't make out the words.
Who could she be talking to?
Seized by fear, he made his way down the slope, listening intently. Sometimes the wind changed and he lost the thin thread of her voice, only to come around a corner and pick it up again. Sometimes he thought he'd lost it, but she had only paused for breath or to listen for an answer from whoever she was talking to. Occasionally he glanced back to make sure that he wasn't leaving the camp too far behind.
Finally he topped another ridge and saw her. She was sitting crosslegged on top of a boulder. The morning sun shone on her blond hair, making it glow like a halo around her head. She was staring at nothing, and talking quietly, with occasional breaks just as if she was carrying on a real conversation.
Alex just stood there, staring at her. He knew he was invading her privacy, knew he could say something, but he couldn't figure out what to say.
Pardon me, but who are you talking to? And, more importantly, are they answering?
Before he could say anything, though, Sand glanced his way, and then glanced back quickly, and broke off in midsentence. For an instant he thought her eyes were glowing again, but she blinked and the effect was gone, and he supposed it must have been an effect of the morning sun, like the pale nimbus around her head.
"Alex?" Sand said, sounding rather small and scared.
"Breakfast's done," he said lamely. "Uh, if it hasn't burned by now, that is."
"I'm sorry, I guess I ... I just stopped to look at the desert and lost track of time. Sorry."
She was very quiet on the walk back to camp, and merely picked at the plate of food he handed her, eating nothing.
They drove all day, as usual, and by afternoon they were starting to get into country Alex recognized vaguely. So many years since he'd been back this way, but he could still pick out landmarks that he remembered. Sand was a soft heavy weight against the small of his back, and Alex thought she'd fallen asleep.
She wasn't sleeping.
What's happening to me? Sand stared at the speed-blurred countryside with unfocused eyes, her gaze turned inward. Am I losing my mind?
You are not losing it... but regaining it.
Sand gritted her teeth. Go away, Voice. Go away go away GO AWAY!
Suddenly she jumped, almost falling off the motorcycle. For an instant she'd felt something brush against her mind, like the fluttering of a moth's wing. Warm. Familiar. Comforting. The Voice had fled, and for this briefest of moments, she was alone in her head. It felt... wonderful.
Alex pulled the motorcycle over to the side of the road and stopped. He looked over his shoulder at her. "You okay back there, kid?"
"I'm fine," Sand said, leaning wearily against his back.
"You get hit by a rock off the road or something?"
"No, I just... had a dream, I guess. I was almost asleep."
Lying came easily to her now, and she regretted that. She hated lying to Alex.
"Think you can get back on? We're close now. Real close."
Sand nodded and straddled the bike behind him, unobtrusively adjusting her body to conceal the silver gun. It felt warm against her skin, almost hot.
"So who are we going to see?" she asked, resting her head against Alex's back as he pulled back out onto the road. She realized with a sort of tired, dazed wonder that she'd never even asked, in all these days of traveling.
Alex hesitated a moment before responding. "My grandfather. I know it sounds a bit odd, but he was actually born on the world we humans came from. Earth, it's called. At least that's what my uncle used to say."
Sand could tell by the tone of his voice that he didn't like his uncle much, but she still couldn't help thinking, How wonderful to have family...
Alex laughed shortly, as if reacting to her thoughts. "Don't know how happy he'll be to see me after all these years. It's not like he made a great effort to get in touch after my parents died. He should have... but it doesn't matter now. The last time I saw him, I was a little kid."
"What if he's dead?" Sand asked.
Alex shook his head. "Only if he's died in the last couple of years. I made a point of checking him out occasionally... just to see, you know. From a distance. See that he was okay. Not like I care. But it's a rough world, and a lot can happen to an old guy. Even if he's a bastard."
"Is your grandfather... not a nice person, then?"
"I don't know, kid. He raised someone like my uncle Chapel, so he can't possibly be a saint. And he never tried to get me, not once in all those years. Maybe he thought I was dead. Who knows. Anyway, from what I've heard, he knows a lot about Plants. More than anyone else alive, some people say. If anyone can help you, he can."
"I hope so," Sand whispered, resting her face against Alex's jacket.
She dozed on the back of the motorcycle, only waking when they bumped to a halt. Sand was jolted out of dark, frightening dreams, and for a moment she could only look around, trying to figure out where she was. She could still hear the echoes of voices crying out to her -- not The Voice this time, but voices raised in pain and fear.
"Hey," Alex said, sliding off the motorcycle. "Wake up, kid. We're here."
Sand let him help her off, but when her feet touched the ground, her legs began to walk. In a direction she didn't intend to go. She hadn't told them to. The feeling of being out of control of her own body terrified her so badly that she fell to the ground.
The Voice wasn't just in her mind anymore. It was reaching out into her whole body. All she could do was shiver with fear.
Alex's grandfather can't help me. He'd probably try, but he doesn't know any more than anybody else. Nobody knows what's wrong with me and nobody knows how to help me and I'm going to hurt someone again...
"Sand? You okay?"
"Yeah," she whispered, looking into Alex's worried face and wishing, once again, that she could stop lying to him. She liked this man. She liked him a lot. He was the only person besides the old women who raised her--
--the old women you killed --
--who'd ever treated her like a human being.
She'd rather die than hurt Alex.
He's not your friend. He's a human. You can't trust any of them. Especially not that one. His ancestor betrayed us all. HE PERSONALLY BETRAYED ME.
Shut up, Voice, she thought furiously, and got to her feet, hanging onto Alex's arm.
"It's been a long day in the sun," he said. "Why don't we get a hotel room, and you can get a bit of sleep while I go find my grandfather."
Sand started to protest, then thought better of it. I guess he just thinks it's a bit of sunstroke ... better than him knowing the truth. "I guess so," she mumbled, and allowed herself to be led across the dusty, darkening street. Her mind was working furiously. It's getting stronger and stronger. I shouldn't have let Alex bring me here, to this town full of people. I've got to get away before something bad happens.
But she didn't seem to have the power to move on her own anymore. Numbly she let Alex lead her through a set of swinging saloon-style doors. It was almost dark outside, and the light within hurt her eyes. She closed them and surrendered herself to Alex, feeling soft carpet or rug material under her feet. Alex eased her down into a chair, patted her hand and murmured, "I'll be right back."
She opened her eyes and watched him walk over to the clerk's desk, terrified for a moment to let him get too far away, afraid he wouldn't come back.
He's safer without me, though.
Her eyes wandered away from Alex, wandered across the surprisingly plush interior of the hotel lobby. She wondered if everywhere in town was this nice. A few people were drinking tea or eating dinner. One woman caught Sand's eye. The woman was staring at Alex. She'd apparently been drinking a cup of tea and reading a magazine, but the magazine lay forgotten, open on the table, the tea cooling next to it.
Sand studied her curiously, eager for something to take her mind off her own problems. This woman looked like she'd had problems of her own, though. Brown hair straggled around a face that might once have been pretty, but was worn by deep lines of pain and sorrow.
Alex returned to her table. "This is a pretty pricey town. I could only afford the one room, but I asked them to bring up a cot from the back. Gonna be nice to sleep in a bed again, hey, kid?"
Sand dragged her eyes back to him, and nodded. "Yeah. Alex, that woman's been watching you. Do you know her?"
Alex turned his head, and Sand saw him stiffen.
The woman got to her feet and approached them.
"I thought surely I was dreaming," she said, her voice trembling slightly. "It's so good to see you again."
Alex hesitated, then, to Sand's surprise, he grabbed the woman in a tight, crushing hug.
"I thought you might be dead, Angie," he said, his voice slightly muffled by her hair.
Angie pushed him back, half-laughing, with tears in her eyes. Some of the other people in the hotel lobby were giving them odd looks.
"Oh, Hikari," she said, catching her breath in something between a laugh and a sob. "You're alive. You're healthy. You don't know how I've dreamed... And you're free, aren't you? We both are. Daniel's dead."
"I know," Alex said, gently disentangling her arms. "I was there."
"You--" She hesitated, looking into his eyes. "I never got a chance to ask you, then -- Did you kill him, Hikari? Did you kill your uncle?"
Sand looked back and forth between them, frustrated by the feeling that she was missing a good chunk of the conversation.
Alex shook his head. "I could have, but I didn't. Something stopped me. No -- someone stopped me. Or the memory of someone. Someone who made me realize that it is possible for me to be the man I always wanted to be. I haven't picked up a gun since that day."
"Oh," Angie said quietly. She smoothed a strand of hair back from his face -- a motherly gesture, or that of a big sister. "So what are you doing in this town, Hikari? Are you here to see your grandfather?"
Alex nodded. "Or rather, she is," he said, nodding to Sand, who smiled briefly. "I'm just along as an escort. Oh, Sand! Sorry, kid. This is Angelina, an old friend from my childhood. Angie, this is Sand. We've been traveling together."
Sand smiled politely. Angie leaned over and pulled the startled girl into a hug. "Any friend of my Hikari is a friend of mine. It's a pleasure to meet you, Sand."
Sand caught her breath, afraid she might start crying. No one had ever greeted her that way. "Angelina -- like the bike?" she said.
Alex blushed right to the roots of his black hair.
"What's she talking about, Hikari?" Angie said.
"Nothing. Never mind. Anyhow -- we've got a lot of catching up to do! What are you doing in November City, Angie?"
"We're also here to see your grandfather," Angie said with a smile. "It's a small world, isn't it?"
Alex looked suddenly wary. "Who's we?"
"Vash and myself."
Sand's eyes darted to Alex's face at his sudden, small intake of breath. He had gone pale. "Vash?" he repeated. "Vash is here?"
"Oh, no, it's not what you're thinking! Not the outlaw, Vash the Stampede. Of course not. This is a gentle man, one who only happens to bear that name."
"Yeah," Alex muttered. "That's what they all say." He fumbled in his pocket, dug out a cigarette and lit it. Sand saw that his hands were shaking slightly.
"Those aren't good for you," Angie said maternally. "I'd hoped you would have given up that habit."
"Yeah, well, the habits of a lifetime are hard to break, aren't they? All of them." Alex took a few deep drags on the cigarette and looked down at Sand, who had sunk down sleepily into her chair.
"We'd better get you upstairs to bed, kiddo."
"Are you sick, hon?" Angie asked, touching Sand's cheek with the back of her hand. "Oh, you're burning up."
"Just a little sun," Sand muttered. Being fussed over made her very uncomfortable. It reminded her too much of the two old women, the only family she'd ever had --
-- who you killed --
-- who you MADE me kill, Voice, if I did it at all--
Her expression must have gone all distracted, because she saw Alex and Angie looking at her with concern. She wanted to say something to calm them, but she seemed to be looking at them down a long tunnel. It was that same sliding-away-from-her-body feeling that she'd experienced that morning, only to wake on a boulder with Alex staring at her in concern and no knowledge of how she got there. Or that afternoon, when her body had started to move without her volition.
And it was happening again. Sand stared in fascinated horror at her own hand, laying on the table in front of her like a stick of deadwood. It twitched, then folded briefly into a fist.
This is like a nightmare. I'm going to do something horrible, only it won't be me really, it'll just be my body -- but I'll be able to watch, trapped behind my own eyes --
Alex leaned over and shook her gently. "Hey, kid. Kid! Come on. Let's go to bed."
Sand let him help her stand and lead her towards the stairs, with Angie hovering behind.
They're good people. That's why I can't let this happen to them. I have to do something. I won't let it happen again.
By the time they got upstairs, to her and Alex's room, Sand was walking under her own power and feeling more in control of herself. She managed a smile as she shrugged off Alex's hand. "I'm okay. I just need to take a bath and get something to eat. Then I'll be better."
Alex looked at her helplessly. She hated seeing that concerned look in his eyes. "You do that, kid. I'll go see if my grandfather still lives where he used to. With any luck, he'll know something about what's going on with you."
"I hope so," Sand said carefully, and then quickly, suddenly, she reached out and put her arms around Alex's chest. He hesitated, then put his arms around her, too.
It felt so good to be held, protected. Sand closed her eyes to keep the tears away.
"Thank you so much, Alex," she said into his chest. "Thank you for helping me. Thank you for everything."
"It's okay, kid," Alex said, stroking her hair. "You're just in a bit of trouble. Hopefully soon you'll be out of it. Buck up, okay?"
Sand looked up at him and forced a smile. "Doing better already," she said.
She pushed away from him, hoping her self-control didn't crack until he was gone. Just leave, won't you, just leave...
"I'll be right down the hall if you need me, sweetheart," Angie said.
"Thank you very much," Sand murmured politely, and closed the door.
She stood there for a moment, listening to their footsteps and voices retreating down the corridor. Then she slumped down on the bed without bothering to take her shoes off.
Alex was right... it felt really, really good to lie on a real bed again. She felt a wave of weariness engulf her, but she didn't dare sleep, no matter how tired she was. She was terribly afraid of waking to the aftermath of some kind of horror she'd caused without remembering it.
Sand clenched her hands, seeking the resolution to do what she knew she had to do.
Alex... I'm sorry. Sorry you came all this way out here, confronted things you wanted to leave behind, because of me. I wish your grandfather could help me. I wish I dared wait to find out. But I just can't. I can feel myself losing control of my own body.
I have to do what I can, while there's still time.
"Do you think we should get a doctor for her?" Angie asked.
Alex hesitated, but shook his head. "No. I really don't think it'd help. She's been more or less like that ever since I've known her. I brought her out here hoping my grandfather will be able to help her."
"Is he a doctor, then? Daniel never really told me much about him."
"Not really. Close enough. I dunno. He might be dead, for all I know."
"He isn't," Angie said, and then after a moment, "Well, I hope not. That's what we're here to prevent."
"What are you talking about?"
Angie looked away. "There's a man after your grandfather, Alex. A very, very bad man."
A spasm of terrible pain crossed her face. Alex was suddenly glad that he hadn't asked about Lucas. He'd noticed that she didn't have her son with her, and had a deep suspicion that the kid wasn't still alive.
"I think we beat him here," Angie said. "But we have to get your grandfather out of here. I don't know where Vash went -- looking for him, maybe."
Oh, peachy. Just what I need.
"All I need to do is find him and talk to him. My grandfather, not Vash." Definitely not Vash. "I'll help in any way I can -- I don't like to think of you in danger, Angie."
Angie smiled a tired, sad smile, and touched the side of his face. "I've been in danger longer than you've been alive, Hikari. Don't worry about me."
"I do worry about you, I -- Angie..." He stopped in the hallway and took her by the arms. "Angie, I'm so sorry I left you with Uncle Chapel, all those years ago. You... and later, you and Lucas, though I didn't know about Lucas at that time. I didn't know what to do, you understand? I was just a kid. A scared kid. I felt like if I stayed with my uncle any longer, I'd wind up just like him, and that thought scared the hell out of me."
"You're not at all like Daniel," Angie said in a low, fervent voice. "Not at all. I don't blame you for any of it. I made my own life into the mess it became. It isn't your fault."
Alex smiled slightly. "One of these days you'll have to tell me a little more about yourself, Angelina. And about that place I woke up in, that place you took me before you vanished the last time. That was crazy. Lost technology, was it? Never seen anything like it."
"Hikari..." Angie slid her hands to rest on his. "Do you think you could find that place again? Do you remember how you got there?"
"I think so. I almost died, walking out of there. It's way the hell in the middle of nowhere."
"I know. I'm sorry. I wouldn't have left you there if I'd had any choice. But... listen, Hikari... If we get separated here, let's meet back there, okay? I've come to feel that my life will come full circle, sooner or later. My life on this world began on that ship, and fate keeps bringing me back to it. If something happens... meet me there, okay?"
"Nothing's going to happen, Angie." He gripped her hands firmly. "We're back together again, right? Let's stay that way for a while."
"You never know. Life is cruel." She slid her hands out of his. "I think I'm going to go lie down and sleep until Vash gets back."
"Could you look in on Sand for me, if I'm out late? I wouldn't want her to wake up in a strange place, alone."
Angie smiled faintly. "You're a good man, Hikari. I'm glad to see the kind of man you've grown into."
Alex looked away, unable to meet her eyes. Yeah... a guy who abandons his friends and spends half his life running from his past in one form or another. Great guy, all right. Wish we all knew a guy like that. Yeah, right.
"Thanks, Angie. See you later."
He walked downstairs quickly, wondering why Angie's words had chilled him so thoroughly. Of course, the possibility existed that he wouldn't see her again, after all. He didn't want to run into Vash. If he just found his grandfather, got advice on Sand, and left...
Doing what you did before. What you're so good at doing. Walking away, with Vash and Angie in danger.
Alex sighed and ran his hand over his face, wishing now that he hadn't shaved the beard.
Look, Nick, you're going to run into Tongari sooner or later. It isn't that big a world. May as well get it over with, huh?
He was afraid it was inevitable. Ever since the second time he'd encountered Vash, drawn back into the whirlpool of the man's life after he thought he'd walked out of it forever, he had felt that his fate was somehow tied to Vash's. No matter how he tried to slip the bonds of that duty, he couldn't seem to walk away completely.
Outside, the suns were setting. Alex wheeled his motorcycle around back of the hotel and parked it next to a beat-up dune buggy, two tethered Thomases (the nearest one lowed at him mournfully) and a battered dirt bike with most of its paint scoured off by the ever-present sand. He patted his bike's seat affectionately and went off to find his grandfather, wondering, as he did so, how far ahead of him Vash was and how likely he was to run into him...
He had no trouble finding Alex Saverem's house. Saverem had lived in the same place, for all Alex knew, for the last 50 years. It was a tidy little cottage with its front yard beautifully landscaped with desert plants. Alex leaned over the gate. "Hello?" he called.
There was no answer. The windows of the little adobe house were dark. Saverem was either asleep or out somewhere.
Alex pushed the gate open, shut and latched it carefully behind him, and went to knock on the door. "Hello? Alex Saverem? Are you home?"
He waited, feeling a bit self-conscious standing in front of the door in his dusty black leather jacket and long hair. Sudden anger and frustration welled up inside him. He'd come halfway across the world to get here, and the old guy wasn't even home? Probably on vacation or something. Gone sandshark fishing... back in a week.
Alex pushed on the door. To his surprise, it swung gently open.
You don't even lock the door?
Sudden apprehension caught in his throat. Maybe Alex Saverem hadn't taken a voluntary vacation... Alex flattened himself against the wall, his heart pounding. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder. The street was empty.
I wish I had a gun. The thought came unbidden.
Well, I don't. If I die, I die. By all rights I shoulda been dead years ago anyhow.
Are you watching all this, God? he thought with heavy irony, and slipped through the half-open door.
The room inside appeared totally dark at first. Alex waited, heart pounding, until his eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light filtering in from the street.
If there was someone in the house, they could not have possibly missed seeing and hearing him come in. Yet no shots were fired. He stood flat against the wall, beside the door, straining his ears for footsteps or rustling. Then he realized how silly he was being. He'd had a good view of the house all the way down the street, and the lights had been off the whole time. What had the intruders been doing, sitting in the dark? Not likely.
Still, he felt his way quietly along the wall until his hand encountered a lamp sitting on an end table. Electric? From what he knew of his grandfather, more than likely. He explored with his fingers, found a knob and twisted it.
Warm yellow light flooded the room. Alex instinctively tensed, ready to dive for cover -- not that there was any cover near him -- but the room was quite empty. He was alone.
He closed the door and then walked quietly around the house, looking for signs of a break-in or struggle. There were none. The room in which he'd entered seemed to be a sort of living room-study, dominated by a massive desk overflowing with stacks of papers and diagrams. Behind doors leading off the main room he found a small, tidy bedroom, a bathroom, and a large kitchen that appeared to also function as a workroom, judging from the strange devices piled on every surface. The kitchen windows looked out on a narrow backyard, landscaped as beautifully as the front yard, though its appearance was made more mundane by strings of laundry strung back and forth across it.
Alex gazed out at his grandfather's underwear flapping in the evening breeze, and started feeling like an intruder. Family or not, he really shouldn't be wandering around someone's house without their permission. Sighing, he returned to the main room.
He'd seen no signs that Saverem expected to be gone for a long time. There was a loaf of bread sitting on the sink, as if it had just been taken out of the oven that afternoon and set out to cool. If he waited, the old man was bound to come home soon.
If he waited...
And equally likely, Tongari would show up looking for Saverem... and there would be a scene...
He sighed. What should I do, sneak around town trying to avoid him? Dammit! What is it with that pointy-haired lunatic! Why'd he have to show up here, of all the lousy times?
He didn't want to admit to himself... he couldn't... how nice it would be to see Vash again...
I'd better not leave Sand alone too long. Yeah, that's it. I'll go back to the hotel and check on her. Come back and see my grandfather first thing in the morning, and then leave town. Yeah.
He snapped off the light, but stood for a moment in the darkness, his eyes slowly adjusting.
The last time he'd been in this house, he'd been five years old...
Alex closed his eyes, hearing for a moment his little brother's laughter, his baby sister crying in his mother Karen's arms as she sat in this room, talking animatedly to her father. The clarity of the memory surprised him. He could see everything in the room as if it had been cast in crystal... the colors of the rugs... the sparkle in his mother's eyes... the color of his baby sister's hair...
He hadn't even known that he remembered it at all.
Caught up in that vision of a family long dead, the man who chose to call himself Alex Daniels crossed the room to Saverem's desk. It was dark, but he didn't need eyes to find his way. He touched the smooth wood of the desk, calling up more memories ... his grandfather picking him up, setting him on the edge of the desk... his legs much too short to reach the floor, swinging happily...
Everything had been so happy then.
Hardly aware of what he was doing, he leaned against the edge of the desk, in more or less the same spot where he'd sat all those years ago. He was startled to find tears threatening.
I haven't thought about them, any of them, in so long...
Suddenly he was almost overwhelmed by the memories of all the people that he'd known, and loved, and then left behind in the course of his life. His parents... a laughing woman and a solemn man, seen through the golden haze of childhood. His brother and sister. The children in the orphanage. Angie.
And more recent faces... Vash... Meryl... Milly... even Sand...
Nicholas Wolfwood squeezed his eyes shut, but still the flood of memory continued, a litany of loss and betrayal. He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, ground them against his eyeballs until the faces of those he'd loved and lost disappeared in a galaxy of red whorls.
I'm sick of this life. Wandering alone... it stinks. I want to have a family. I want kids of my own. I don't want to be alone anymore...
Have I fallen too far... to ever redeem myself...
Please, God, I just don't want to be alone any more.
But God didn't answer prayers. At least not his prayers. He'd learned that as a little child, praying for his parents to come back... as a teenager begging to be taken away from the life of killing that his uncle forced him into... even as an adult, kneeling in a church, bleeding to death, speaking to a God who never seemed to listen or respond.
I don't want to be alone...
Something clattered outside.
Shit. Wolfwood took his hands from his eyes, still resting his hip on the edge of the desk. He could hear voices outside, too low to make out, and footsteps on the porch.
Hopefully it's Alex Saverem. Hopefully it's only Alex Saverem. Hopefully--
Wolfwood reached for the lamp, but there wasn't one within reach. Shit, he thought again. Now he really looked like a burglar. Hopefully Saverem didn't have a gun...
The door swung open, and he heard the tail end of a conversation --
"--should I? I have no enemies."
"Look, I've just been trying to tell you--"
It was two people, but he couldn't see them in the gloom. The street outside was almost as dark as the room within. Wolfwood straightened up, trying to figure out what to say. Hello, please don't shoot me, I know I look like a drug addict, but I'm actually harmless...
The two men halted, becoming aware, by his movement, somehow that they weren't alone.
"And who might you be?" one of them said.
Wolfwood opened his mouth to reply, but the other man slammed the first one to the floor. "Get down!" he yelled, and Wolfwood heard a scrape and click that could only be some sort of weapon. Sounded big, too.
"You have a bodyguard, eh, Alex?" he said, oddly disappointed. "I wouldn't have expected it, but then I don't know you at all, do I?"
Mom always described her dad as a total pacifist. Things must be really desperate if he's bought himself a hired gun...
"Who are you?" the gunman demanded, and there was something horribly familiar about that voice.
Aw, shit. Double shit. It better not be Tongari. Don't let it be Tongari...
"I'm not armed," he said. "Look, turn on the light and you'll see. I know it looks sorta bad, but I just came to talk."
There was a hesitation. "Did Tony send you?"
"I don't know any Tony," Wolfwood said. "Turn on the light, okay? Let's talk face to face... Tongari."
He heard a sharp intake of breath, and knew, in one blinding instant, that he had been absolutely correct about the gunman's identity. And he felt something shiver into pieces inside himself -- the wall of false identity that he'd been so carefully building and protecting, all falling apart from one moment to the next.
It's all over. The running. The hiding. Time to face my past.
The light came on.