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Spellbinder (Chapter 6)

Kevin howled, clapping a hand to his cheek. "He cut me! This guy cut me!" Blood ran between his fingers.

Randy lifted the razor again.

Thea reached out with her mind. Not reached. She leaped. It was completely instinctive; she was scared to death, and all she could think of was that he was going to kill Kevin, and maybe Blaise, too.

She caught-something. Pain and grief and fury that seemed to be bouncing around like a baboon in a cage. She could hold it for only an instant, but in that instant Eric threw two cups of punch in Randy's face. Randy yelled and turned away from Kevin, toward Eric.

Thea felt a surge of pure terror. Randy slashed with the razor, but Eric was fast; he jumped back out of the way, circling to get behind Randy. Randy wheeled and slashed again. They were doing a macabre dance, going round and round.

Thea felt as if the fear was winding tighter inside her with each turn. But Eric kept out of the way of the flashing razor until a rush of movement on the dance floor caught her eye. It was Mr. Adkins and two other teachers. They converged on Randy and there was a lot of confusion. When it was over, Randy was on the ground.

Sirens wailed outside, coming closer. Eric stepped away from the pile on the floor.

Breathing hard, he looked at Thea. She nodded that she was all right, then shut her eyes.

She felt limp and wrung out and awful. They were going to take Randy away now, and she didn't think there was much help for him. He definitely seemed too far gone.

At that moment she was ashamed of being a witch.

"All right, people," Mr. Adkins was saying. "Let's move out of here. Let's get this place cleared." He looked at Blaise, who was bending over a seated Kevin, holding a napkin to his cheek. "You two can stay." Then he put a hand on Blaise's shoulder. "Are you okay here?"

Blaise looked up with wide, tragic gray eyes. "I think so," she said bravely.

Mr. Adkins swallowed. His hand on Blaise's shoulder squeezed. Thea heard him mutter something like, "Poor kid."

Oh, give me a break, Thea thought. But a small, selfish part of her was relieved. Blaise wasn't going to get in trouble over this one; neither of them was going to get expelled. Grandma wasn't going to be disgraced in front of the Inner Circle.

And Blaise did seem worried about Kevin. She was bending over him again solicitously. As if she really cared.

Thea slipped past a teacher's outstretched arm. "Are you okay?" she whispered to Blaise.

Blaise looked up enigmatically. That was when Thea saw that she had a tiny vial concealed in the napkin. It was full of blood.

"You…" Thea couldn't find the words.

Blaise made a slight grimace that meant: I know. But it was just too good a chance to miss.

Thea backed up and ran into Eric. He put a steadying arm around her.

"Is she all right?"

"She's fine. I have to get out of here."

Eric looked into her face. He was rumpled: his hair mussed, his eyes dark. All he said was, "Let's go."

They passed Vivienne and Selene on the way out. Thea had to give them credit; they both looked shocked and unhappy. The question was, would it last?

Dani was in the parking lot with John Finkelstein. "I'm going home," she said significantly to Thea, and tossed something into a clump of bitterbrush.

It was an empty vial.

Thea felt a tiny uncoiling of relief. She touched Dani's arm lightly. "Thanks."

Dani looked back at the cafeteria. "I wonder what it was he wanted to know?" she murmured.

And just then a howl came from the lighted doorway, as if answering her question. It didn't sound like a person; it sounded like an animal in anguish.

"Whyyyyyy?"

Thea turned blindly and almost ran for Eric's jeep.

When they were driving on darkened streets, Eric said quietly, "I'm presuming he was an old boyfriend?"

"Last month's."

Eric glanced at her. "He was pretty messed up, poor guy."

And that, Thea thought, summed it up nicely. He was pretty messed up forever. Poor guy.

"It's Blaise," she said. She hadn't meant to talk to him about this, but the words were so crowded in her throat that she thought she'd burst if she didn't let them out. "She does this and does this, and I can't stop her. She picks guys up everywhere, and they fall in love with her, and then she dumps them."

"Love? Hm," Eric said.

Thea looked at him, astonished. He was looking straight ahead, his long, supple fingers steady on the wheel.

Well. And I thought you were so naive. Maybe you see more than I realized.

"It's a kind of love," she said. "It's like-do you know, in ancient Greece they worshiped the goddess Aphrodite. She was the goddess of love-and the thing about her was that she was absolutely merciless." Thea shook her head. "I saw this play once about a queen named Phaedra. And Aphrodite made her fall in love with her own stepson, and by the end of the play just about everybody was dead on the stage. But Aphrodite just kept smiling. Because she was just doing what a goddess does-the same way that a tornado rips houses apart or a fire burns down a forest."

She stopped. Her chest was aching and she didn't have any breath left. But in a way she felt better, as if some pressure had been relieved.

"And you think Blaise is like that."

"Yes. Sort of a natural force that can't help itself. Does that sound completely crazy?"

"Actually, no." Eric gave a wry smile. "Nature's rough. Hawks grab rabbits. Male lions kill cubs. It's a jungle out there."

"But that doesn't make it right. Maybe for goddesses and animals, but not when it gets to the level of humans." It was a moment before she realized what she'd said. She was using "humans" to mean "people."

"Well, humans aren't very far from animals, after all," Eric said softly.

Thea sagged back against the seat. She was still confused and unhappy, but what scared her most was that she felt a strong urge to keep talking to Eric about it. He seemed to understand so well… better than anybody else ever had. And not only to understand, but to care.

"I know what you need," Eric said suddenly, brightening. "I was going to suggest we go to the late buffet at Harrah's, but I know something better."

Thea glanced at the clock, saw that it was almost eleven: "What?"

"Puppy therapy."

"What?"

He just grinned and turned the jeep south. They pulled up at a modest gray building with a sign that read sun city animal hospital.

"This is where you work."

"Yup. We can let Pilar off early," Eric said, getting out and unlocking the front door of the building. "Come on."

A pretty girl with shoulder-length brown hair looked up from behind the office counter. Thea recognized her as Pilar Osorio from school. A quiet girl who looked like a good student.

"How was the dance?" she said. Thea thought her eyes lingered on Eric wistfully as she said it.

Eric shrugged. "Pretty awful, to tell the truth. There was a fight and we left." Thea noticed he didn't mention his part in stopping the fight.

"How awful," Pilar said sympathetically-but Thea thought she wasn't entirely sorry that the dance hadn't gone well.

"Yeah. So how's our boy?"

"Okay-a little hyper. You might want to take him for a walk later." Pilar picked up her jacket. She nodded politely to Thea as she headed for the door. "See you Monday."

She likes him.

When the door was shut, Thea looked around the office. "So the clinic's not open."

"No, but somebody has to stay overnight when we've got animals boarding here." He gave her the grin again. "Follow me."

He led her through an exam room into a corridor and then to a kennel room at the back. Thea looked around with interest. She'd never been in the inner sanctum of an animal hospital before.

There were several dog runs. Eager whining was coming from the last.

Eric looked at her mischievously. "Three, two, one…"

He opened the cage. A big Labrador puppy tumbled out, tail wagging frantically. He was a beautiful color that ranged from deep gold on his back to almost white on his legs and paws.

"Hey, Bud," Eric said. "Hey, pal; who's a good boy?" He looked at Thea solemnly. "This is the ultimate cuddle dog."

Thea collapsed on the sheet vinyl floor and made a lap, holding both arms out.

"Uh-your dress-" Eric began mildly, but the puppy was already in midair. Thea caught him and he crawled up her, legs on her shoulders, hot breath blowing in her ear.

"I think I'm in love," Thea gasped, her arms full of warm, heavy puppy sweetness.

Happiness surrounded her. She didn't have to try to merge with the puppy's mind; he practically took over by force. All his thoughts were good ones, and they were all about now. About how terrific everything smelled this minute, and how great that scratch behind the ear felt on a fleabite.

Good feelings, happy feelings… I really like this big bald dog… Wonder which of us is dominant?

The puppy bit her and Thea play-bit him back.

"Wrong; I'm the pack leader," she informed him, holding his jowls.

There was only one odd thing. She could see the way the world looked to the pup-and there was nothing on the right. Just a void.

"Is there something wrong with his eyes?"

"You noticed the cataract. Lots of people don't see that right away. Yeah, he's blind in the right eye. When he gets older he may come back for surgery." Eric sat back against the wall, grinning madly. "You've really got a way with animals," he said. "But you don't own any pets?"

The question was gentle, not intrusive. Thea said absently, "Well, usually just temporary ones. I pick them up and when they're cured I put them back- or find homes for them if they want to be pets."

"You cure them."

Once again, the question was gentle, but Thea felt a little shock. Why couldn't she guard her tongue around this guy? She looked up and found he was looking at her steadily and searchingly, his green eyes alert.

She took a breath. "I feed them, take them to the vet if they need it. Then I wait until they heal up."

He nodded, but the searching look didn't go away. "Did you ever think of being a vet yourself?"

Thea had to look down. She bluffed by kissing the puppy.

"Uh, not really," she muttered into blond fur.

"But you've got a gift. Look, I've got some material on U.C. Davis. They have a great undergraduate program-and their graduate school is one of the best in the country. It's not easy to get in, but you could do it. I know you could."

"I wouldn't bet on it," Thea muttered. She had several dramatic blotches on her academic record- like four expulsions.

But that wasn't the real problem. The real problem was that witches weren't veterinarians. They just weren't.

She could choose to specialize in gems or herbs or ritual clothing; in chants or runes or research or amulets… in hundreds of things, but nothing taught at U.C. Davis.

"It's hard to explain," Thea said. She didn't have much room left to be surprised, or she'd have been surprised to find she wanted to explain to a human. "It's just-my family wouldn't really approve. They want me to be something else."

Eric opened his mouth, then shut it again.

The puppy sneezed.

"Well-maybe you could help me with my application sometime," Eric said at last. "I'm trying to do the essay question and dying."

You sneak, Thea thought.

"Maybe," she said.

At that moment a buzzer sounded-far away but insistent. Bud barked.

"What the… that's the outside buzzer," Eric said. "But nobody should be here at this time of night." He got up and headed for the front of the building. Thea followed, her fingertips just brushing Bud's head to control him.

Eric opened the door, then stepped back in surprise.

"Rosamund… what are you doing here? Does Mom know you're out?"

Something like a miniature whirlwind entered the waiting room. It was a kid, a little girl with a mop of sandy hair sticking out from under a baseball cap. She was carrying a rolled-up blue blanket, and what could be seen of her expression under the hair was ferocious.

"Mom said Madame Curie wasn't really sick, but she is. Call Dr. Joan." With that, the kid marched into the office and dumped the blue blanket on the counter, pushing aside a clipboard and some vaccination reminder cards.

"Hey. Don't." When she ignored him, Eric looked at Thea. "Uh, this is my sister Rosamund. And I don't know how she got here-"

"I rode my bike and I want Madame Curie fixed now."

Bud was rearing up and trying to sniff the blue blanket. Thea pushed him down gently. "Who's Madame Curie?"

"Madame Curie is a guinea pig," Eric said. He touched the blanket. "Roz-Dr. Joan is gone. She's out of town at a conference."

Rosamund's ferocious expression never wavered, but her chin began to quiver.

"Okay, listen. I'll take a look at Madame Curie now, see if I can see anything. But first we have to call Mom and let her know you're alive." He reached for the phone.

"I'll take Bud back," Thea said. "I think he thinks Madame Curie is lunch." She led the puppy into the back room and coaxed him into the run with a promise of extra petting later.

When she came back to the office, Eric was bent over a small brown-and-white guinea pig. He looked frustrated.

"Well, there's something wrong with her-I guess.

She seems weaker than usual and sort of lethargic___"

Suddenly he jerked his hand back with a yelp.

"Not too lethargic," he said, eyeing the blood welling up from his thumb. He wiped it on a tissue and bent over the guinea pig again.

"She's in a bad mood," Rosamund said. "And she's not eating right. I told you yesterday she was sick."

"No, you didn't," Eric said calmly. "You told me she was tired of living under patriarchy."

"Well, she is tired. And she's sick. Do something."

"Kid, I don't know what to do yet. Hang on." He bent closer to the little animal, muttering to himself. "She's not coughing… so it's not strep. Her lymph nodes are okay… but her joints seem swollen. Now, that's weird."

Rosamund was watching him, her green eyes full of fierce trust. Eyes like Eric's, Thea realized.

She reached out gently and just touched the guinea pig's soft fur with her fingers. Her mind reached gently, too.

Frightened-little-animal thoughts. The guinea pig didn't like being here, wanted the sawdust of her cage,  wanted safety.   She didn't like  the  clinical

smells, didn't like huge, strange fingers descending from the sky.

Home-place, nest-place, she was thinking. And then, something odd. A concept-more smell and taste than picture. Madame Curie was imagining eating something… something crunchy and slightly sharp. Eating and eating and eating.

"Is there some treat she really likes?" Thea asked doubtfully. "Something like cabbage?"

Eric blinked, then straightened up as if he'd gotten an electric shock. His green eyes stared straight into hers. "That's it! You're brilliant!" "What's it?"

"What you said. She's got scurvy!" He dashed out of the office and came back with a thick book full of small print. "Yeah-here it is. Anorexia, lethargy, enlarged limb joints… she's got all the symptoms." He turned pages feverishly and then said triumphantly, "All we have to do is give her some of those veggies, or maybe some ascorbic acid in her water." Scurvy-wasn't that a disease sailors used to get? When they were on long trips with no fresh fruits or vegetables? And ascorbic acid was… "Vitamin C!" "Yeah! It's been hot and we've got hard water at our house-all that could deplete the vitamin C in her diet. But it's easy to fix." Then Eric looked at Thea and shook his head wonderingly. "I've been studying for years, besides working here, and you just look at the animal and you know. How do you do that?"

"She asked Madame Curie," Rosamund said flatly. Thea gave her a wary glance. How come this whole family was so observant? "Ha ha," she said, her voice light.

"I like you," Rosamund said, just as flatly as before. "Now where can I get some cabbage?"

"Go look in the vaccine fridge in back," Eric said. "If there isn't any, we can always use vitamin drops."

Rosamund trotted off. Eric watched her, openly fond.

"She's an interesting kid," Thea said.

"She's sort of a genius. Also the world's smallest militant feminist. She's suing the local Boy Trekkers, you know. They won't let her in, and the Girl Trekkers don't trek. They do macrame."

Thea looked at him. "And what do you think of that?"

"Me? I drive her to the lawyer's office whenever Mom can't make it. I figure it stops her griping. Besides, she's right."

Simple as that, Thea thought. She watched Eric as he folded the blue blanket, and heard a voice in her mind like the voice of an announcer describing a game-show prize.

Now. Look at this guy. He's tender but intense. Brave. Profoundly insightful. Shy but with a wicked sense of humor. He's smart, he's honest, he's an animal lover….

He's human.

I don't care.

She was feeling-well, strange. As if she'd been breathing too much yemonja root. The air seemed sweet and heavy and tingly somehow, as if laced with tropical electricity.

"Eric…"

And she found herself touching the back of his hand.

He let go of the blanket instantly and turned his hand to close on hers. He wasn't looking at her, though. He was still staring at the office desk. His chest heaved.

"Eric?"

"Sometimes I think if I blink, you'll disappear."

Oh, Eileithyia, Thea thought. Oh, Aphrodite. I'm in terrible trouble.

The thing was, it was terrible and wonderful. She felt awkward and tremendously safe at once, scared to death and not scared of anything. And what she wanted was so simple. If he only felt the same, everything would be all right.

"I just can't even imagine life without you anymore, but I'm so afraid you'll go away," Eric said, still looking fatalistically at the computer on the desk. Then he turned to her. "Are you mad?"

Thea shook her head. Her heart was threatening to leave her body. When she met his eyes it was as if some circuit had closed. They were connected, now, and being pulled together as if Aphrodite herself was gathering them into her arms.

And then everything was warm and wonderful. Better than holding the puppy, because Eric could hold her, too. And the thrills of fear that had been shooting through her seemed somehow to burst like fireworks and turn into exhilaration.

Her cheek was against Eric's. And she'd never felt anything so blissful before. Eric's cheek was smooth and firm-and she was safe here, loved here. She could rest like this forever. Peace filled her like cool water. They were two birds enfolding each other with their wings.

Swans mate for life… and when they see their mate, they know, she thought. That's what happened in the desert. We knew each other; it was as if we each could see the other one's soul. Once you see into someone's soul, you're attached forever.

Yeah, and there's a word for it in the Night World, part of her mind said, trying to shatter her peace. The soulmate principle. You're trying to say that your one and only is a human?

But Thea couldn't be frightened, not now. She felt insulated from the Night World and the human world both. She and Eric formed their own reality; and it was enough just to stand here and breathe and to feel his breathing, without worrying about the future….

A door creaked and a blast of cool air blew in.

Thea's eyes were startled open. And then her heart gave a terrible lurch and started thudding painfully.

It wasn't the door that Rosamund had gone through. It was the front door, which Eric must have left unlocked. And Blaise was standing there in the waiting room.

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