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Prudence, Chapter 36

The old man had no ID, and so far no one had recognized him or reported him missing. He was probably just a drifter, passing through. A long-haired old bum, missing one eye, going nowhere and taking the wrong route to get there.

They'd found him in an old abandoned house at the edge of town. He was covered in cuts and burns, and three of his fingers had been severed. Cause of death was determined to be heart failure, but they sent the body to Dallas for a full autopsy, and they were treating it as murder. Rumor had it, though, that the sheriff said all the wounds looked self-inflicted, and the body was found with numerous knives and a small pocket torch.

Kristen was horrified by the news, and Kayla, as she related the details she'd managed to garner, looked grim. Mark was feeling rather paranoid himself... that missing eye... He glanced towards the door. It was lunchtime, and his classroom empty, the hallway deserted, but the door was still open to allay any suspicion. "Kayla, can you come over and help me add more protections to the house tonight?"

She shook her head. "Mark... I can come over, and I can find you a stronger spell, but I can't help you do it."

"Why not?" he asked, puzzled.

"Remember I said you could build the skill but you had to have the talent first?" she asked. "I don't. Period. I can't do magic. Not at all."

He looked at her thoughtfully. He didn't buy it. She knew too much about it, and she wasn't the type to waste her time learning something she could never use. But it wasn't the time for questions, not yet, so he just said, "I see. Well, we'd still like you to come over. Tell us what needs doing."

She smiled, relieved. "I will."

During his conference hour, he drove to the post office and sent the package to Lenita. He sent them in a locked box, with a combination lock and his cell-phone number, via next-day FedEx delivery, with the request that she call during his conference period to get the combination.

As the day went on, the rumors got wilder, of course. It was a high school, after all. By the end of the day, the gory details would be enough to give anyone nightmares.

Kayla rode home with them. As soon as they got home, Kristen headed upstairs at as close to a run as the cast would allow. "I need a shower! I couldn't take one after P.E., and even if I couldn't run, I still got all sweaty in that hot gym, yuck! Be right back."

"Okay," Mark said, smiling after her and wondering if somehow she knew he wanted to talk to Kayla alone. She'd certainly given him the perfect opportunity to do so.

Kayla headed straight for the computer. "Okay, lemme get online a minute, and I'll pull up the spell I have in mind for you."

"That's fine," he said, following her. "I'm curious, though -- why do you think you don't have the talent? Is there a way to test for it?"

"Yeah, you try something and it works, basically," she said. "Or sometimes you have Sight and it's obvious. I used to. I don't now. End of story."

He raised an eyebrow. "You used to and now you don't? What happened?"

She frowned, then shook her head. "I'd rather not talk about it, Mark," she said quietly.

He reached out and took her hand. "You don't have to. But... I do love you. It sounds like this is something that hurt you, and I'd like to share it, even if I can't make it better."

She closed her eyes, her face tight with pain. "Mark... I lost my magic when I let Karen Wilson die."

He stared, shocked, then stepped up and wrapped his arms around her. "Oh, love..." He held her tightly and kissed her forehead. "How did you 'let' her die?" he asked softly.

She shivered, leaning into him. "Don't sound so skeptical, Mark," she said. "I could have stopped it. I dreamed it all. But I didn't tell her, and because I didn't warn her, she and her husband are dead." Her voice was tight, choked with old pain and guilt.

He kissed her forehead again, then pulled back enough to look down into her eyes. "Did you know it was a precognitive dream?"

She closed her eyes, not looking at him. "I thought it wasn't. I thought I was just being paranoid. But... part of me did think it was real, and even if I didn't, I should have told her. But I knew she'd believe me if I said it was going to happen, and then she'd leave and I'd be all a-alone again..." Her shoulders shook, and tears seeped from the corners of her closed eyes.

He pulled her close. "Oh gods, love... I'm so sorry. So sorry. Love, you didn't know. Maybe you could have saved them, but maybe it wouldn't have made a difference." He held her tightly, stroking her hair. "How long ago was it?"

"Three and a half years," she whispered.

"So you were eleven yeara old?" He shook his head. "Love, you didn't know. You couldn't have known that those dreams were true. Maybe you suspected, but if you'd really believed... you'd have said something. You can't go around blaming yourself for this for the rest of your life. It wasn't your fault."

"It was! I could have stopped it, but I did not. The gods punished me by taking my magic." She shuddered. "I haven't dreamed since."

"No," he said firmly. "It wasn't. You didn't kill them. The people who started the fire did. And I can't believe the gods would punish you like that, not as young as you were."

She shook her head stubbornly. "They gave me the warning to pass on. With the power comes the duty. I failed."

He held her shoulders and looked her in the eyes. "Maybe you did, but you were only eleven. I can't believe they'd punish you for not realizing that it was a true dream, love. I don't think that's what happened."

She glared. "I told you. Part of me did realize it. But I w-was selfish and..." She went from angry to vulnerable in an instant, her eyes filling with pain. "And I didn't want my friend to go away, so I didn't tell her. I told myself it was just a dream... and it wasn't, and they burned them, and it hurt and hurt..." She shuddered, falling against him with a moan.

He kissed her hair. "But only part of you knew," he said gently. "Not all of you. And at eleven, you can't be expected not to make mistakes. Hell, you can never be expected not to make mistakes." His brow furrowed as something she'd said nagged at him. "You said that like you know what they felt..."

She looked up at him, then nodded, face tight with pain. "I dreamed from her viewpoint."

He stared down into her eyes for a long moment, searching, before kissing her gently. "Love, I don't think the gods took your magic. I think it was someone else."

She wiped at her eyes, angry again. "It doesn't matter. It's gone. I didn't deserve to keep it."

He nodded as her words confirmed his suspicions. "I disagree, love. You do deserve to have it. You can't punish yourself for the rest of your life for one mistake."

She yanked away from him abruptly, and he stared at her in surprise. She glared back at him. "You don't know what they suffered," she snapped. "You don't know what I deserve."

He shook his head. "It doesn't matter what they suffered. You made a mistake. A mistake. A mistake. You didn't decide they should die, you just didn't want to believe that what you dreamed could happen to your friend. It was a mistake, and you can't punish yourself for that forever. You shouldn't punish yourself for that forever."

"I accept my punishment," she said. "For however long it lasts."

"It will last until you forgive yourself, love," he said gently. "Until you stop hating yourself for making a mistake."

"I do not want to talk about this," she said, with an irritable toss of her head. "I don't hate myself, okay? Just don't worry about it."

He stepped close to her, looking down into her stormy grey eyes. "I think you do, love. I don't think you've ever forgiven yourself for Karen's death. I don't think it's the gods that blocked your magic, I think it's you, to punish yourself." He bent, kissing away the tears on her cheeks. "Forgive yourself, please?"

She put trembling hands on his chest. "Please, Mark... please drop it." Her voice shook as much as her hands. "If you really love me, you'll stop."

He looked down at her, his own eyes full of pain, and just pulled her back to him, holding her tight, not saying anything. She pressed against him, accepting the comfort, letting go enough to cry, quietly, just for a little while, before pulling away, wiping at her eyes. "All right," she said. "That's enough of that. I'll get the spell. You go check on Kristen."

He stared searchingly into her eyes, then bent and kissed her gently on the lips. "I'll drop it for now. But... please, think about what I said?"

She sighed. "I will. But you're wrong."

He kissed her again, then headed for the stairs. As he reached them, he stopped, turned, and asked, suddenly, "Have you asked your gods?" Then he turned back and climbed the stairs, not waiting for an answer.

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