Andreus had a point. Closure. Didn’t most people want that? Shouldn’t Colin want it, too? He thought about it when he went to a department store on Tuesday for razors and alcohol. He bought both, along with new jeans, work boots, and some frozen pizzas. He stopped in the electronics section for a prepaid cell phone, a nice one compared to the burners he sometimes found on the street.
He froze when he saw a couple looking at his car outside. They could be looking for him, having discovered his secret somehow. Then again, they could have just been admiring the expensive car. He had to believe it was the latter.
Still, he waited until they left before approaching. Even if they were human, he wasn’t ready to for human interaction. Humans. He couldn’t reconcile that he wasn’t one of them. It didn’t seem possible. He threw his bags on the couch at home before he shaved. He reached into the cabinet for a washcloth when his hand brushed something incredibly soft.
He pulled out the cashmere scarf, wrapped around the letters from his parents. He opened one.
“Hey son, I don’t know what your mom wrote. This is the one secret we’ll keeping from each other. To the grave. If you’re reading this, I’m proud to say that we went before you, which is as it should be. We haven’t seen you in quite some time, but I hope you find your way. I wish there was something more we could have done for you, but your mother and I were both free spirits in our day, and we couldn’t have expected anything different from you. I hope you’re happy. And I want you to know that I will never stop loving you. I’m proud of all of your accomplishments, whatever they are.
We kept your car maintained, you know how your mom gets attached to things like that. We’ve been taking it on road trips every year, mostly to Vegas, just to make sure.”
Tears sprang to Colin’s eyes. The rest of the letter was all business, passwords and locations of things. He closed his eyes for a few moments and took a few deep breaths before moving on to his mother’s letter.
“Hey, Colin, just reminding you that you were adopted.”
He gave a sputtering little laugh. Strangers used to think she was cruel when she’d tell him that at the park, or in the grocery store, or in line at the bank. She’d tell them he came from some Romanian orphanage where he never learned any manners, but she was doing the best she could. The looks on their faces always made Colin smile. The one time he really questioned it, when he was fourteen, she showed him the paternity test. He didn’t think back then to ask why they’d ever gotten one. But there was proof he was human. Mary was wrong about that.
“I’m kidding, but I hope that made you smile. I hope you still smile every day. I love you more than words could ever describe. I need to explain a few things, like the terms of our will. We decided that you would have to stay in the house to inherit the money because I want to make sure you know how to stay in one place. A million dollars won’t support you forever, so you’ll need to get a job and all that good stuff. You were never going to inherit it all, so don’t bother being disappointed. If you decide not to take the house and money, I won’t love you any less. You are our legacy, not our stuff. I hope you’re living in a way that would make us proud, but you’re my little boy, so it would be hard to disappoint us. We’re trusting we did a good enough job with the time we had that you can take care of the rest.
I don’t care if you get married and have kids, or if you want to stay in your hometown or if you want to go live on Mars or whatever the kids are doing these days. I care that you are living true to yourself and that you are happy.
Go put three carnations on my grave on my birthday and visit it sometimes. I want you to remember who I was and I want you to go to me when you need to clear your head. I love you forever and always.
PS. Sell the car if you don’t want it. Drive it off a cliff. I got so much enjoyment out of it, and it was precious to me, but now I’m dead and it’s not. I hope. If you won’t enjoy it, I hope you’ll find a way to get it to someone who will.”
Dammit, Andreus was right about closure. It felt good to hear from his parents one last time. Then he realized what car they’d crashed. It was his car that they died in. They were probably getting an oil change, or going for a drive to keep everything working. And they died. It was his fault, too.
Mary didn’t answer her phone.
“Hey, Mary,” he said after the beep. “I’d like to talk to you when you have some time. Okay bye.”
Not exactly smooth, but it would have to do. Leaving another would sound desperate.
He realized he’d been clutching the scarf, crushing a part of it in his sweating palm. He tried to flatten it out, but he couldn’t get the wrinkles out.
He left a message for Andreus, who showed up an hour later.
“You could have just called back,” Colin said.
“I was out.” Andreus shrugged. “What’s going on?”
“I’m starting to get worried. Mary won’t return my calls.”
“Did you have a fight or something?”
“No, she said she was going to be gone for a weekend, and I haven’t seen her since. I even called CERT and Kurada said she was out on some mission, but even that was almost a week ago.”
“Kurada said Mary was on a mission?”
“Shit.” Andreus grabbed Colin’s phone. “Phoenix? Where’s Kurada? No, what the fuck, man? I’ve got New Guy over here worried about Mary. Tell her to call him back or something. Why didn’t she tell someone what she was planning? Yeah, I’m sorry. I know she doesn’t tell you shit either. Hey, let me know next time, New Guy’s over here thinking she’s mad at him. We’re on the way.”
He hung up the phone and motioned for Colin to get moving.
Colin looped the scarf around his neck before pulling his shoes on. “What happened?”
“She thought it would be fun to do my job and diffuse an actual hostage situation. She’s alive and she’ll probably be fine, but she’s at CERT and she’s beat up pretty bad.”
Colin drove them to the facility, where they burst into the room Mary was in.
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” Andreus asked her, before the door swung closed behind him.
“You were busy,” she said, struggling to sit up on the brown leather sofa bed. “There were supposed to be humans there, because they thought we wouldn’t hurt them.”
“And your intel was wrong, right? And you got hurt. This is why we have people who do this stuff, Mary. That’s why I stick around. That is what I do, so people like you don’t get hurt.”
Colin stared, shocked at the intensity of Andreus’ angry look and the shamed look on Mary’s face.
“I’m sorry,” she practically whispered. “I couldn’t reach you soon enough and I thought I could handle it myself. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“Mary,” Colin interrupted. “Are you okay?”
“I’m so glad to see you, Colin. I got burned pretty bad, but it’s nothing I won’t recover from. I fucked up.”
“What happened?” Colin sat in one of the chairs. After a little pacing, Andreus sat, too.
“We got a report that the Balancers have some of our people in captivity, that they were making them work. According to our intel-.”
“Your bad intel,” Andreus said.
“I know that now, don’t I?” Mary glared. “According to our bad intel, they were using humans to relay incomplete messages, keeping the humans neutral. I thought I’d just follow one, see if the intel checked out. Fucker led me straight into a trap and some fire bitch lit me up. I thought I was going to die over there.”
“How did you escape?”
“I went underground, Only I had to do it through the melting carpet and the foundation of the building. I’m not even sure how I managed it, really.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Colin asked.
A tear slipped from Mary’s eye. “Hold me?”
“I must look horrible,” she said.
She didn’t. She looked the same as always, only without the usual swipe of eyeliner and mascara, and no lipstick. Her hair needed some attention, and the hugely oversized shirt and worn out blanket didn’t do her any favors while lying down, but she was beautiful.
Colin sat beside her and folded her into his arms the best he could. She clung to him like she was afraid he’d blow away.
“God, I never thought I’s see you again. I wanted to die, for a minute in there. When I realized that meant I wouldn’t ever see you again, I’d never be able to explain, I had to fight. You kept me alive in there. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.” She kept her face turned away from him.
Colin pushed her braided hair away from her face. His heart raced and he knew she could hear it through his shirt. It was exciting, and terrifying, and amazing. He tilted her face to look at him. He smiled.
“I love you, Colin.”
“I love you, Mary.”
He kissed her. All doubts about her intentions were erased. He knew her in a way no one else did, and she knew him in a way that no one else ever could. Love and trust, and sure, sex played a part, but it wasn’t everything. What they had was real. It was love.
She sighed. “I was afraid to say it out loud. I wasn’t sure you’d feel the same way. I don’t think we went into this thinking we’d develop feelings. I didn’t think so, anyway.”
“But we did.”
She smiled. “I’m glad you guys found me. I don’t think Sam was going to let me out for a while.”
“Closest thing to an elemental doctor we have. He wants to make sure I’m not dying of smoke inhalation or internal bleeding or something.”
“Good,” Colin said. Maybe he’d still have parents if their doctors were so careful. But then he wouldn’t be here, now, professing his love to the most amazing woman he’d ever known. He couldn’t think about that. He couldn’t be glad his parents died in the car they kept for him. Just in case he came back. “You can’t tell that anything happened. Your skin is perfect.”
She wiped her eyes with a hand towel and smiled. “I was able to regenerate a bit on the way down. You’ve seen me do it before.”
“Can everyone do that?”
“Only the really strong, and only in the presence of their element.”
“Do you think I could?” He asked. “I mean, if I’m strong enough and I practice?”
“I don’t know. There’s a lot I don’t know about your kind. That’s why I don’t want it get out yet. They might know of a weakness I don’t.
He spent the night with her, and the next night. Kurada and Min brought meals and Mary spent a lot of time on the phone, coordinating things and people and rescheduling meetings.
Colin told Isaac he’d go in on the weekend, and Mary felt well enough to go along to the farm with him, so they finally emerged from CERT on Saturday morning. Colin drove, and Mary’s proud smile wasn’t lost on him.
Isaac greeted them, with a look of sadness on his face.
“Hey, Isaac, what’s going on?” Mary asked.
He sniffed. “It’s Saphira. She’s dying. And we can’t do anything but watch.”
“Who’s Saphira?” Colin asked.
“Where is she?” Mary asked.
Isaac took them to the stables, where a horse lay in the middle aisle between the stalls.
“The poor girl’s dying and I can’t even get a dose of tranquilizer to make her feel it less. The damn vet is busy with some overpriced inbred house pets with the cold. I can’t get it from anyone else within a few hours’ drive and by then it will be too late.”
The horse raised her head weakly. She made a snuffling sound that even Colin recognized as bad. He knew nothing about horses. Her big sides expanded and contracted erratically.
“I was going to shoot her,” Katrina said. “But we don’t have any bullets for a gun big enough, either.”
“Couldn’t she recover?” Colin asked. “Horses get sick, don’t they?”
“She’s too old,” Isaac said. “She’s lived a long life; we were hoping to give her a more dignified death than this.”
Mary’s eyes sparkled with tears. “Colin, outside?”
He followed her outside.
“Can you do it?” she asked. “Can you put her out of her misery?”
“I don’t think I can,” he said. “You can’t be asking me to kill her.”
“I am asking you,” Mary pleaded. “You have to. She’s just going to suffer in there if you don’t. They’ll suffer, too. Please. I can’t watch this. I can’t walk away knowing this is happening.”
“How do we know she won’t pull through?” he asked. “They can’t get the vet, right?”
“This horse is ancient,” Mary said. “If she somehow recovers today, she’ll be right back in the same condition tomorrow. It hurts her to live, Colin. I know you don’t understand, but I can feel it.”
“So you’re seriously asking me to kill her.”
Mary bit her lip and nodded, big puppy dog eyes glistening. “Please.”
“Just put your hands on her and give it all you’ve got. I’ll keep everyone else clear so no one gets hurt. Trust me, Isaac and Katrina need this as much as she does.”
Colin hated the idea of killing an animal, but he hated the idea of her suffering, too. He could remove this burden from Isaac and Katrina, it was the least he could do after all they were doing for him. He sighed and went inside.
“I can do it, Isaac,” he said. “I can put her out of her misery for you.”
“How do you intend to do that?” Katrina asked. “I won’t have you burning down my barn.”
“I won’t burn it down.” He didn’t actually know for sure that wouldn’t happen, but he was fairly confident.
“He can do it,” Mary confirmed. “Just get her outside.”
Isaac nodded. “Give us a few minutes to say goodbye?”
Colin and Mary left the building. She squeezed his hand to comfort him while they watched the old couple help the big creature out into the sun to say goodbye.
“It’s fitting,” Isaac told him. “She lived her whole life on this ranch. It’s only fitting that her last view should be of the sky and the grass and the place where she learned everything and was loved so much.”
Colin nodded. He didn’t know what to say. He still wasn’t even sure he could do it. But Mary was sure, and they all believed her.
“You’re going to need to clear out,” Mary told them.
Katrina gave Saphira one last kiss on her face before the couple retreated to the house.
“Just make it fast,” Mary said.
“Okay.” Colin approached the sick horse cautiously. “Hey Saphira, I’m Colin. I don’t know why I’m introducing myself to you, but there we are. And look at that, we’re on a first name basis already.”
She nudged his hand, as if she was urging him to get it over with already. Her big, cloudy brown eyes couldn’t seem to focus.
“I’m sorry, girl,” he said. He put his hands on either side of her head, so her chin rested on one of his arms. “You will be missed.”
In an instant, her heavy head dropped onto his arm and a faint burnt smell wafted away in the breeze.
Colin jumped when Mary put her hand on his shoulder. “You did a good thing, Colin.”
He looked at his hands. Good or not, it was done. Good or not, it was so easy. Like a light switch, and Colin was the one who flipped it. Killing shouldn’t be easy. But it was a good thing, right? When it stopped his victim and his friends from suffering? “I know.”
Isaac and Katrina thanked him with hugs and food. They didn’t ask how a fire elemental managed to leave no trace of how he killed. Isaac said they’d have a backhoe take her body away on Monday morning. The challenge would be to keep the other horses from seeing her. they didn’t want to drag her around the property, and the weather wasn’t too warm, so she’d stay where she was for the rest of the weekend.
After a decadent meal, it was back to business as usual for all of them. Mary went home, or to CERT, or wherever she went. Colin went back to helping with the barn conversion, and Isaac and Katrina saw to the other animals and operations.
Every time Colin passed Saphira, he thought of his parents, and Callie, and closure.