Valiant. Part 12

Lolli, Dave, and Val walked through the streets of the West Village, magicking fallen leaves into a slew of jeweled frogs that hopped in chaotic patterns, enchanting strangers to kiss, and otherwise making what trouble the three of them could imagine.

Val glanced across the street, through the gauzy drapes of a ground-floor apartment at a chandelier hung with carved monkeys and glittering with drops of crystal in the shape of tears.

"I want to go in there," Val said.

"Let's," said Lolli.

Dave walked up to the door and pressed on the bell. The intercom by the door buzzed to life and a garbled voice said something indecipherable.

"I'd like a cheeseburger," Dave said with a loud laugh, "a milk shake, and onion rings."

The voice spoke again, louder, but Val still couldn't understand the words.

"Here," she said, pus.h.i.+ng Dave aside. She pressed the buzzer and held it until a middle-aged guy came to the door. He was wearing faded cords and a loose T-s.h.i.+rt that covered his slight paunch. Gla.s.ses rode low on his nose.

"What's your problem?" he demanded.

Val felt Never fizzing inside her arms, bursting like champagne bubbles. "I want to come in," she said.

The man's face went slack and he opened the door wider. Val smiled at him as she walked past and into his apartment.

The walls were painted yellow and hung with gilt-framed finger paintings. A woman was stretched out on the couch, holding a gla.s.s of wine. She started as Val came in, splas.h.i.+ng her s.h.i.+rt with the red liquid. A little girl sat on a rug by the woman's feet, watching a program on the television that seemed to be about ninjas kicking each other. The little girl turned and smiled.

"This place is so nice," Lolli said from the doorway. "Who lives like this?"

"No one," said Dave. "They hire cleaners-maybe a decorator-to fake their life."

Val walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. There were boxes of take-out, a few withered apples, and a carton of skim milk. She took a bite of the fruit. It was brown and mealy on the inside but still sweet. She couldn't understand why she'd never eaten a brown apple before.

Lolli picked up the bottle of wine from the coffee table and swigged from it, letting red juice run over her chin and cheeks.

Still eating the apple, Val walked to the couch where the woman sat numbly. The lovely apartment, with its stylish furniture and happy family, reminded Val of her dad's house. She didn't fit in here any more than she fit in there. She was too angry, too troubled, too sloppy.

And how was she supposed to tell her dad what had happened with Tom and her mom? It was like confessing to her father that she was bad in bed or something. But not telling him just let his new wife label her as Lifetime movie material, a troubled teen runaway in need of tough love. "See," Linda would say. "She's just like her mother."

"You never liked me," she told the woman on the couch.

"Yes," the woman repeated robotically. "I never liked you."

Dave pushed the man into a chair and turned to Lolli. "We could just make them leave," he said. "It would be so easy. We could live here."

Lolli sat down next to the little girl and plucked a ringlet of her dark hair. "What you watching?"

The girl shrugged.

"Would you like to come and play with us?"

"Sure," the little girl said. "This show is boring."

"Let's start with dress-up," Lolli said, leading the little girl into the back room.

Val turned to the man. He looked docile and happy in his chair, his attention wandering to the television.

"Where's your other daughter?" Val asked.

"I only have one," he said, with mild bafflement.

"You just want to forget about the other one. But she's still here."

"I have another daughter?"

Val sat down on the arm of his chair and leaned in close, her voice dropping to a whisper. "She's a symbol of the spectacular f.u.c.k-up that was your first marriage. Every time you see how she is, you are reminded how old you are. She makes you feel vaguely guilty, like maybe you should know what sport she plays or what her best friend's name is. But you don't want to know those things. If you knew those things, you couldn't forget about her."

"Hey," Dave said, holding up a bottle of cognac that was mostly full. "Luis would like some of this."

Lolli walked back into the room wearing a leather jacket the color of burnt b.u.t.ter and a string of pearls. The little girl had a dozen glittering rhinestone pins in her hair.

"Are you happy at least?" Val asked the woman.

"I don't know," said the woman.

"How can you not know?" Val shouted. She picked up a chair and threw it at the television. The screen cracked and everyone jumped. "Are you happy?"

"I don't know," the woman said.

Val tipped over a bookcase, making the little girl scream. There were shouts outside the door.

Dave started laughing.

The light from the chandelier reflected in the crystals, sending s.h.i.+ning sparks to glitter along the walls and ceilings. "Let's go," Val said. "They don't know anything."

The kitten wailed and wailed, pawing at Lolli with sharp little nails, jumping on her with its soft little body. "Shut up, Polly," she mumbled, rolling over and pulling the heavy blanket over her head.

"Maybe she's bored," Val said drowsily.

"It's hungry," Luis said. "f.u.c.king feed it already."

Yowling, Polly jumped onto Lolli's s.h.i.+fting back, batting at her hair.

"Get off me," Lolli told the cat. "Go kill some rats. You're old enough to be on your own."

A shriek of metal grinding against metal and a dim light signaled the approach of a train. The rumbling drowned out the sound of the cat's cries.

At the last moment, as the whole platform was flooded with light, Lolli shoved Polly onto the tracks, right in front of the train. Val jumped up, but it was too late. The cat was gone and the metal body of the train thundered past.

"What the f.u.c.k did you do that for?" Luis shouted.

"She always p.i.s.sed on everything anyway," Lolli said, curling up into a ball and closing her eyes.

Val looked over at Luis, but he just looked away.

After Ravus was satisfied with her stance, he taught her one move and made her repeat it until her limbs ached and she was convinced he thought she was stupid, until she was sure that he didn't know how to teach anyone anything. He taught her each move until it was automatic, as much a habit as biting the skin around her fingernails or the needle she shoved in her arm.

"Exhale," he shouted. "Time your exhalation to your strike."

She nodded and tried to remember to do it, tried to do everything.

Val liked Dumpster-diving with Sketchy Dave, liked walking through the streets, enjoyed the hunt and the occasional amazing find-like the stack of quilted blankets with silver lining that movers used to pad furniture, found piled up near a Dumpster, and that kept the four of them warm as mice even as November wore on or the cool old rotary dial phone that someone paid ten bucks for. Most of the time, though, they were too dazed with Never to manage to make the old rounds. It was easier to take what they wanted anyway. All they had to do was ask.

A watch. A camera. A gold ring.

Those things sold better than a bunch of old c.r.a.p anyway.

Then, finally, Ravus let her begin to put the moves together and spar. Ravus's longer arms put him at a continual advantage, but he didn't need it. He was pitiless, broomstick knocking her to the ground, driving her back against the walls, knocking over his own table when she tried to put it between them. Instinct and years of sports combined with desperation to let her get an occasional blow in.

When her stick struck his thigh, it was great to see the look on his face, rage that changed to surprise and then to pleasure in the s.p.a.ce of a moment.

Backing off, they began again, circling each other. Ravus feigned and Val parried, but as she did, the room began to spin. She slumped against the wall.

His stick slammed into her other side. Pain made her gasp.

"What's wrong with you?" he shouted. "Why didn't you block the blow?"

Val forced herself to stand upright, digging her fingernails into her palm and biting the inside of her cheek. She was still dizzy, but she thought she might be able to pretend she wasn't. "I don't know... My head."

Ravus swung the broomstick against the wall, splintering the wood and scratching the stone.

Dropping the remains of his stick, he turned back to her, black eyes hot as steel in a forge. "You should have never asked me to teach you! I can't restrain my blows. You'll be hurt by my hand."

She took an unsteady step back, watching the remains of the stick swim in her vision.

He took a deep, shuddering breath that seemed to calm him. "It might be the magic in the room that unbalanced you. I can often smell it on you, on your skin, in your hair. You're around it too much, perhaps."

Val shook her head and lifted her stick, a.s.suming a starting position. "I'm okay now."

He looked at her, his face intense. "Is it the glamour that is making you weak or is it whatever you're doing out there on the street?"

"It doesn't matter," she said. "I want to fight."

"When I was a child," he said, making no move to change his stance, "my mother taught me how to fight with my hands before she let me use any kind of weapon. She and my brothers and sisters would beat me with brush, would pelt me with snow and ice until I fell into a rage and attacked. Pain was no excuse, nor illness. It was all supposed to feed my fury."

"I'm not making excuses."

"No, no," Ravus said. "That's not what I meant. Sit down. Fury doesn't make you a great sword fighter; it makes you an unstable one. I should have seen that you were sick, but all I saw was a weakness. That is my flaw and I don't want it to be yours."

"I hate not being good at this," Val said as she flopped onto a stool.

"You are good. You hate not being great."

She laughed, but the sound came out sounding fake. She was upset that the world still wouldn't settle back into stillness and even more upset by his anger. "Why do you make potions when you had all that training to be a swordsman?"

He smiled. "After I left my mother's lands, I tried to leave the sword behind. I wanted to make something of my own."

She nodded.

"Although some among the Folk would be scandalized, I learned potion making from a human. She brewed cures, potions, and poultices for other mortals. You would suppose that people don't do that anymore, but in certain places, they do. She was always polite to me, a distant politeness as if she thought she was appeasing an uncertain spirit. I think she knew I wasn't mortal."

"But what about the Never?" Val asked.

"The what?"

She could see that he'd never heard it called that. She wondered if he had any idea what it could do for humans. Val shook her head, like she was trying to shake the words away. "The faerie magic. How did you learn what would make the potions magic?"

"Oh that." He grinned in a way that was almost goofy. "I already knew the magic part."

In the tunnels, Val practiced the motion of a cut, the way she had to twist her hands as if she were wringing out a kitchen towel. She practiced the sweeping figure eight and turning the sword in her hands like girls flipped flags at game halftimes. Invisible opponents danced in the moving shadows, always faster and better balanced, with perfect timing.

She thought about lacrosse practice, drills of reverse-stick pa.s.ses and sword dodges and change-of-hand dodges. She recalled learning to ball off the shaft of the stick, off the side wall, and catch the ball behind her back or between her legs.

She tried those moves with her half broomstick. Just to see if it could be done. Just to see if there was anything she could learn from it. She bounced a soda can off the makes.h.i.+ft hilt of her stick, then kicked it with the side of her foot, sending it off at her shadow opponents.

Val looked at her face in a window as the rush hit. Her skin was like clay, endlessly malleable. She could change it into whatever she wanted, make her eyes big like an anime character, stretch her skin taunt across cheekbones sharp as knives.

Her forehead rippled, her mouth thinned, and her nose became long and looping. It was easy to make herself beautiful-she had gotten bored with that-but making herself grotesque was endlessly interesting. There were just so many ways it could be done.

Val was playing a game she couldn't remember the name of, where you were trapped inside the necromancer's tower, running up endless stairs. Along the way, you picked up potions. Some of them made you smaller and some of them made you very tall so that you could fit through all the different doors. Somewhere there was an alchemist trapped very high up, so high that he couldn't see anything that was going on beneath him. Somewhere there was a monster, too, but sometimes the alchemist was the monster and the monster was the alchemist. She had a sword in her hand, but it didn't change when she did, so it was either a sharp toothpick in her palm or a huge thing she had to drag behind her.

When Val opened her eyes, she saw that she was lying on the sidewalk, her hips and back aching, her cheek patterned with concrete. People pa.s.sed her in a steady stream. She'd missed practice again.

"What's wrong with that lady?" she heard a child's voice ask.

"She's just tired," a woman answered.

It was true; Val was tired. She closed her eyes and went back to the game. She had to find the monster.

Some afternoons she arrived at the bridge from the night before, glamour riot still licking at her veins, her eyes feeling charred around the edges as though they had been lined with ash, her mouth gone dry with a thirst she could not slake. She tried to hold her hands steady, to keep them from trembling and revealing her weakness. When she missed a blow, she tried to pretend that it was not because she was dizzy or sick.

"Are you unwell?" Ravus asked one morning when she was particularly shaky.

"I'm fine," Val lied. Her veins felt dry. She could feel them pulse along her arms, the black sores on the insides of her elbows hard and hurting.

He perched on the edge of his worktable gesturing toward her face with his practice stick as though it were a wand. Val held up her hand automatically, but if he had been going to strike her she would have been much too late to stop the blow.

"You're observably pale. Your parries are dismal..." He let the sentence remain unfinished.

"I guess I'm a little tired."

"Even your lips are pallid," he said, outlining them in the air with the wooden blade. His gaze was intense, unflinching. She wanted to open her mouth and tell him everything, tell him about stealing the drug, about the glamour it gave them, about all the confused feelings that seemed to be canceling themselves out inside of her, but what she found herself doing was taking a step closer so that he had to stop gesturing and move the stick aside to keep from injuring her with it.

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