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The Pagan Stone (Chapter Nineteen)

Chapter Nineteen

HE GAVE HER SOME TIME. HE WANTED SOME HIMSELF. When he walked to the door of the bedroom they shared, Gage thought he knew exactly what he needed to say, and how he intended to say it.

Then he opened the door, saw her, and it all slipped away from him.

She stood at the window in a short white robe, with her hair loose, her feet bare. She'd turned the lights off, lighted candles instead. Their glow, the shifting shadows they created suited her perfectly. The look of her, what he felt for her, were twin arrows in the heart.

He closed the door quietly at his back; she didn't turn. "I was wrong not to pass along the research I found."

"Yeah, you were."

"I can make excuses, I can tell you I felt I needed to dig deeper, gather more data, analyze it, verify, and so on. It's not a lie, but it's not altogether true."

"You know this is the way. You know it in your gut, Cybil, the same as I do. If I don't do this thing, and do it right, it takes us all-and the Hollow with us."

She said nothing for a moment, but only stood in the candlelight, looking out at the distant hills. "There's still a smear of sunlight at the very tips of the mountains," she said. "Just a hint of what's dying. It's beautiful. I was standing here, looking out and thinking we're like that. We still have that little bit of light, the beauty of it. A few more days of that. So it's important to pay attention to it, to value it."

"I paid attention to what you said downstairs. I value that."

"Then you might as well hear what I didn't say. If you end up being the hero and dying out there in those woods, it's going to take me a long time to stop being angry with you. I will, eventually, but it's going to take a good, long time. And after I stop being angry with you-after that…" She drew a long breath. "It's going to take me even longer to get over you."

"Would you look at me?"

She sighed. "It's gone now," she murmured as that smear of light faded into the dark. Then she turned. Her eyes were clear, and so deep he thought they might hold worlds inside them.

"I have things I need to say to you," he began.

"I'm sure. But there's something I need to tell you. I've been asking myself if it would be better for you if I didn't tell you, but-"

"You can decide after I say what I have to say. I got an answer on this earlier today from someone whose opinion I respect. So…" He slipped his hands into his pockets. If a man had the guts to die, Gage thought, he ought to have the guts to tell a woman what he felt for her.

"I'm not telling you-or not just telling you-because I may not come through this. That's kind of the springboard for saying it now. But I'd've landed here sooner or later. No getting around it."

"Getting around what?"

"A deal's a deal for me. But… the hell with that." Annoyance ran over his face, heated his eyes to a burning green. "All bets are off. I like my life. It works for me. What's the point of changing what works? That's one thing."

Intrigued, she angled her head. "I suppose it is."

"Don't interrupt."

Her eyebrows winged up. "Pardon me. I assumed this was a conversation, not a monologue. Should I sit down?"

"Just shut up for two damn minutes." Frustration only kicked up the annoyance factor. "I've got this push-pull thing with the whole destiny deal. No denying it pulls me in, or I'd be a few thousand miles away from here right now. But I'm damned if it pushes me where I don't want to go."

"Except you're here, and not wherever else. Sorry." She waved a hand when his eyes narrowed in warning. "Sorry."

"I make up my own mind, and I expect other people to do the same. That's what I'm saying." And all at once, he knew exactly what he was saying.

"I'm not here with you because of some grand design dictated before either of us were born. I don't feel what I feel for you because somebody, or something, decided it would be for the greater good for me to feel it. What's inside me is mine, Cybil, and it's in there because of the way you are, the way you sound, the way you smell, you look, you think. It wasn't what I was after, it's not what I was looking for, but there it is."

She stood very still while the candlelight played gold over the dark velvet of her eyes. "Are you trying to tell me you're in love with me?"

"Would you just be quiet and let me manage this on my own?"

She walked to him. "Let me put it this way. Why don't you lay your cards on the table?"

He'd had worse hands, he supposed, and walked away a winner. "I'm in love with you, and I'm almost through being annoyed about it."

Her smile bloomed, beautifully. "That's interesting. I'm in love with you, and I'm almost through being surprised by it."

"That is interesting." He took her face in his hands, said her name once. His lips brushed hers, softly at first, like a wish. Then the kiss deepened. And as her arms hooked around him, there was the warmth, and the rightness of her. Of them. Home, he thought, wasn't always a place. Sometimes, home was a woman.

"If things were different," he began, then tightened his grip when she shook her head. "Hear me out. If things were different, or I get really lucky, would you stick with me?"

"Stick with you?" She tipped her head back to study him. "You're having a hard time with your words tonight. Are you asking me if I'd marry you?"

Obviously thrown off, he drew back a little. "I wasn't. I was thinking of something less… formal. Being together. Traveling, because it's what we both do. Maybe having a base. You've got one already in New York and that could work for me. Or somewhere else. I don't think we need…"

He wanted to be with her, to have her not just in his life, but of his life. Wasn't marriage putting the chips on the line and letting them ride?

"On the other hand," he thought out loud, "what the hell, it's probably not going to be an issue. If I get really lucky, do you want to marry me?"

"Yes, I do. Which probably surprises me as much as it does you. But yes, I do. And I'd like to travel with you-and have you travel with me. I'd like to have a base together, maybe a couple of them. I think we'd be good at it. We'd be good together. Really good."

"Then that's a deal."

"Not yet." She closed her eyes. "You need to know something first. And that I won't hold you to your hypothetical proposal if it changes your mind." She stepped back until they were no longer touching. "Gage. I'm pregnant." He said nothing, nothing at all. "Sometimes destiny pushes, sometimes it pulls. Sometimes it kicks you in the ass. I've had a couple of days to think about this, and-"

Thoughts tumbled inarticulately through his head. Emotions stumbled drunkenly inside his heart. "A couple days."

"I found out the morning your father was shot. It just… I couldn't tell you." She took another step back from him. "Chose not to tell you when you were dealing with so much."

"Okay." He drew a breath, then walked to the window to stand as she had been. "You've had a couple days to think about it. So what do you think?"

"We'll start globally, because somehow that's easier. There's a reason the three of us conceived so closely together-very likely on the same night. You, Cal, and Fox were born at the same time. Ann Hawkins had triplets."

Her tone was brisk. In his head he saw her standing at a podium, efficiently lecturing the class. What the hell was this?

"Q, Layla, and I share branches on the same family tree. I believe this has happened for a purpose, an additional power that we'll need to end Twisse."

When he didn't speak, she continued. "Your blood, our blood. What's inside me, Q, Layla, combines that. Part of us, part of the three of you. I believe this is meant."

He turned then, his face unreadable. "Smart, logical, a little cold-blooded."

"As you were," she returned, "when you talked about dying."

He shrugged. "Let's shift down from global, Professor. What do you think about two weeks from now, a month from now? When this is over?"

"I don't expect-"

"Don't tell me what you expect." Sparks of anger sizzled along the edges of control. "Tell me what you want. Goddamn it, Cybil, save the lectures and tell me what the hell you want."

She didn't flinch at his words, at the tone of them-not outwardly. But he sensed her flinch, sensed her draw back, and away from him.

Let it ride, he told himself. See where the ball drops.

"All right, I'll tell you what the hell I want." Though she'd drawn back, it didn't lessen the power of her punch. "First, what I didn't want. I didn't want to find myself pregnant, to deal with something this personal, this important when the rest of everything is in upheaval. But that's what's happened. So."

She angled her head so their eyes were level. "I want to experience this pregnancy. I want to have this child. To give it the best life I possibly can. To be a good mother, hopefully an interesting and creative one. I want to show this child the world. I want to bring my son or daughter back here so he or she knows Quinn's and Layla's children, and sees this piece of the world we helped preserve."

Her eyes gleamed now, tears and anger. "I want you to live, you idiot, so you can have a part of that. And if you're too stupid or selfish to want a part, then I'd not only expect but demand you peel off some of your winnings every goddamn month so you help support what you helped create. Because I'm carrying part of you, and you're just as responsible as I am. I don't just want to make a family, I'm going to. With or without you."

"You're going to have the kid whether I live or die."

"That's right."

"You're going to have it if I happen to live and don't want any part of being its father, except for a check every month."

"Yes."

He nodded. "You've had a couple days to think about it. That's a lot of thinking in a short amount of time."

"I know my own mind."

"Tell me about it. Now, do you want to know mine?"

"I'm riveted."

His lips quirked. If words were fists, he'd be flat on his ass. "I'd like to send you away, tonight. This minute. Get you and what we've started in you as far away from here as possible. I've never given much thought to having kids. A lot of good reasons for that. Add on that I'm not quite finished being annoyed to find myself in love with you, and handing out hypothetical marriage proposals, and it's a jam."

"Tant pis." She shrugged at his blank stare. "Too bad."

"Okay. But I can do a lot of thinking in short amounts of time, too. It's one of my skills. Right now? Right at this moment? I don't give a flying fuck about global thinking, greater good, destiny. None of it. This is you and me, Cybil, so listen up."

"It was easier to do that when you didn't talk so damn much."

"Apparently I've got more to say to you than I used to. That kid-or whatever they call it at this stage-is as much mine as it is yours. If I happen to live past midnight on July seventh, you're both going to have to deal with that. It's not going to be you, it's going to be we. As in, we show him the world, we bring him back here. We give him the best life we can. We make a family. That's how it's going to work."

"Is that so?" Her voice trembled a little, but her eyes stayed level on his. "That being the case, you're going to have to do better than a hypothetical marriage proposal."

"We'll get to that after midnight, July seventh." He walked to her, touched her cheek, then cautiously laid his hand on her belly. "I guess we didn't see this one coming."

"Apparently we didn't look in the right place."

He pressed his hand a bit firmer against her. "I'm in love with you."

Understanding he meant both her and what they'd begun, she laid her hand over his. "I'm in love with you."

When he lifted her up, she released a watery laugh. And when he sat on the side of the bed, cradling her, she curled in, held on. They both held on.

IN THE MORNING, HE STOOD BY HIS FATHER'S grave. It surprised him how many people had come. Not just his own circle, but people from town-those he knew by name or face, others he couldn't place. Many came up to speak to him, so he went through the motions, got through it on autopilot.

Then Cy Hudson reached for his hand, shook it hard while giving him a shoulder pat that was a male version of an embrace. "Don't know what to say to you." Cy stared at Gage out of his battered face. "I talked to Bill just a couple days before… I don't know what happened. I can't remember exactly."

"It doesn't matter, Cy."

"The doctor says it's probably getting hit in the head, and the shock and all scrambled it up in my brain or something. Maybe Bill, maybe he had a brain tumor or something like that, you know? You know how sometimes people do things they wouldn't, or-"

"I know."

"Anyway, Jim said how I should take the family on out to the O'Dell place. Seemed like a screwy thing to do, but things are screwy. I guess I will then. If you, well, you know, need anything…"

"Appreciate it." Standing by the grave, Gage watched his father's killer walk away.

Jim Hawkins stepped up, slid an arm around Gage's shoulders. "I know you had it rough, for a long time. Rougher and longer than you should've. All I'm going to say is you've done the right thing here. You've done right for everybody."

"You were more father to me than he was."

"Bill knew that."

They drifted away, the people from town, the ones he knew by name or face, or couldn't quite place. There were businesses to run, lives to get back to, appointments to keep. Brian and Joanne stood by him a moment longer.

"Bill was helping out at the farm the last week or two," Brian said. "I've got some of his tools, some of his things out there, if you want them."

"No. You should keep them."

"He did a lot to help us with what we're doing," Joanne told Gage. "With what you're doing. In the end, he did what he could. That counts." She kissed Gage. "You take care."

Then it was only the six of them, and the dog who sat patiently at Cal 's feet.

"I didn't know him. I knew, a little, who he was before she died. I knew, too much, who he was after. But I didn't know the man I just buried. And I don't know if I'd have wanted to, even if I'd had the chance. He died for me-for us, I guess. Seems as if that should even it all out."

He felt something. Maybe it was some shadow of grief, or maybe it was just acceptance. But it was enough. He reached out for a handful of dirt, then let it fall out of his hand onto the casket below. "So. That's that."

CYBIL WAITED UNTIL THEY WERE BACK AT CAL 'S. "I have something we need to discuss and deal with."

"You're all having triplets." Fox dropped into a chair. "That would put a cap on it."

"Not so far as I know. I've been doing a lot of research on this, but I've hesitated to bring it up. Time's too short for hesitation. We need Gage's blood."

"I'm using it right now."

"You'll have to spare some. What we did for us after the attack, we need to do for Cal's and Fox's families. In their way, they'll be on the front line. Your antibodies," she explained. "You survived the demon bite, and there's a very decent chance you're immune to its poison."

"So you're going to mix up a batch of antidemon venom in the kitchen?"

"I'm good. Not quite that good. We'd use the ritual we used before-the basic blood brothers ritual. Protection," she reminded Gage. "Your Professor Linz spoke of protection. If Twisse gets past us, or if it's able to breach the town, or worse, the farm, protection may be all we can offer."

"There are a lot of other people besides our families," Cal pointed out. "And I don't see them circling up to hold bloody hands with Gage."

"No. But there's another way. Taking it internally."

Gage sat up, leaned forward. "You want the population of Hawkins Hollow to drink my blood? Oh yeah, I bet the mayor and town council will jump right on that."

"They won't know. There was a reason I put off bringing this up, and this is it." She sat on the arm of the sofa. "Hear me out. The town has a water supply. The farm has a well. People drink water. The Bowl-a-Rama's still doing business, selling beer on tap. We wouldn't cover everyone, but this is the best shot at a broad-based immunization. I think it's worth a try."

"We're down to days left now," Fox considered. "When we go into the woods we'll be leaving the Hollow, the farm, all of it. The last time we did that, it was damn near a massacre. I'd feel easier if I knew my family had something-a chance at something. If that something's Gage's blood, let's start pumping."

"Easy for you to say." Gage rubbed the back of his neck. "The whole immune thing is a theory."

"A solid one," Cybil said, "based on science, and magicks. I've looked into both elements, studied all the angles. It could work. And if it doesn't, we're no worse off."

"Except me," Gage muttered. "How much blood?"

Cybil smiled. "Going with a magickal number, I think three pints ought to do it."

"Three? And just how are you going to get it out of me?"

"I've got that covered. I'll be right back."

"My dad gives blood to the Red Cross a few times a year," Fox commented. "He says it's no big, and after he gets OJ and a cookie."

"What kind of cookie?" Gage wanted to know, then looked dubiously at Cybil when she came back in with a shipping carton. "What's that?"

"Everything we need. Sterile needles, tubing, container bags with anticoagulant, and so on."

"What?" The thought of what was in the box had his stomach doing a long, slow roll. "Did you go to some vampire site online?"

"I have my sources. Here." She handed Gage the bottle of water she'd set on top of the box. "It's better for you if you drink plenty of water before we draw the blood, particularly as we're going to draw about three times what's usually taken in a donation."

He took the bottle, then glanced into the box and winced. "If I'm going to have to slice some part of me open again for the ritual, why can't we just take it from there."

"This is more efficient, and tidier." She smiled at him. "You're willing to punch a hole in a demon and die, but you're afraid of a little needle?"

"Afraid is a strong word. I don't suppose you ever jabbed anyone else with one of those."

"No, but I've been jabbed and I studied the procedure."

"Oh, oh! Let me do it." Fox waved a hand.

"No way in hell. She does it." Gage pointed at Layla, whose mouth dropped open in shock.

"Me? Why? Why?"

"Because of everyone here you'll worry most about hurting me." He smiled thinly at Cybil. "I know you, sweetheart. You like it rough."

"But… I don't want to."

"Exactly." Gage nodded at Layla. "Neither do I. That makes us the perfect team."

"I'll talk you through it," Cybil told Layla, and held up a pair of protective gloves.

"Oh, well. Shit. I'm going to go wash my hands first."

It was surprisingly simple, though Layla-whom he'd seen literally crawl through fire-squealed breathlessly as she slid the needle into his arm. He munched on macadamia nut cookies and drank orange juice-though he'd requested a beer-while Cybil efficiently stowed the three filled bags.

"Thanks to your recuperative powers, we could do this all at once. We'll give you a little while, then go ahead and do the rituals."

"The farm should be first. We could swing by there," Fox calculated, "take care of that."

"That works. I want to take Lump out there." Cal glanced at the dog sprawled under the coffee table. "He's not going in with us this time."

"We'll take him out, then go by the Hawkinses'," Fox said, "then into town. Head out to the water supply from there." When he reached for a cookie, Gage slapped his hand aside.

"I don't see your blood in the bag, bro."

"He's good," Fox proclaimed. "Who's driving?"

IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN A WASTE OF THEIR TIME, efforts, and Gage's blood. Cybil gnawed on that in the days-and nights-that followed. Everything that had seemed logical, everything she'd been able to document, verify, research, speculate on now seemed completely useless. What had begun for her months before as a fascinating project was now the sum total of everything that mattered. What good was intellect, she thought as she rubbed her exhausted eyes, when Fate twisted what should be into the impossible?

How had time run out? How could that be? Hours now, essentially, she could count in hours the time they had left. Everything she learned, everything she saw, told her that at the end of those hours she would lose the man she loved, the father of her child. She would lose the life they might have made together.

Where were the answers she'd always been so good at finding? Why were they all the wrong ones?

She glanced up as Gage came into the dining room, then put her fingers back on the keyboard though she had no idea what she'd been typing.

"It's three in the morning," he told her.

"Yes, I know. There's a handy little clock in the bottom corner of the screen."

"You need sleep."

"I have a pretty good idea what I need." When he sat down, stretched out his legs, she shot him a single hot look. "And what I don't need is you sitting there staring at me while I'm trying to work."

"You've been working pretty much around the clock for days now. We've got what we've got, Cybil. There isn't any more."

"There's always more."

"One of the things I tripped over when it came to you was your brain. That's one Grade-A brain you've got. The rest of the package gets the big thumbs-up, too, but the brain's what started the fall for me. Funny, I never gave a damn, before you, if the woman I was hooked up with had the IQ of Marie Curie or an Idaho potato."

"IQ scales are considered controversial by many, and skewed toward white and middle-class."

"See." He tapped a finger in the air. "There you go. Facts and theories at the fingertips. It just kills me. Whatever the scale, you're one smart woman, Cybil, and you know we've got what we've got."

"I also know it ain't over till the fat lady sings. I'm trying to gather more information about a lost tribe in South America that may have been descended from-"

"Cybil." He reached out, laid his hand over hers. "Stop."

"How can I stop? How can you ask me to stop? It's July fourth, for God's sake. It's three hours and twelve minutes into July fourth. We only have now. Tonight, tomorrow, tomorrow night, before we start back to that godforsaken place, and you…"

"I love you." When she covered her face with her free hand and struggled with sobs, he continued to speak. Calm and clear. "That's a damn big deal for me. Never looked for it, and I sure as hell never expected it to slap me in the face like a two-by-four. But I love you. The old man told me my mother made him a better man. I get that because you make me a better man. I'm not going back to the Pagan Stone for the town. I'm not doing it just for Cal and Fox, or Quinn and Layla. I'm not doing it just for you. I'm doing it for me, too. I need you to understand that. I need you to know that."

"I do. Accepting it is the problem. I can walk into that clearing with you. I just don't know how I can walk out without you."

"I could say something corny about how I'll always be with you, but neither one of us would buy that. We've got to see how the cards fall, then we've got to play it out. That's all there is."

"I was so sure I'd find the way, find something." She stared blindly at the computer screen. "Save the day."

"Looks like that's going to be my job. Come on. Let's go to bed."

She rose, turned into him. "Everything's so quiet," she murmured. "The Fourth of July, but there weren't any fireworks."

"So we'll go up and make some, then get some sleep."

THEY SLEPT, AND THEY DREAMED. IN THE DREAMS, the Pagan Stone burned like a furnace, and flaming blood spat from the sky. In the dreams, the writhing black mass scorched the ground, ignited the trees.

In the dreams, he died. Though she cradled him in her arms and wept over him, he did not come back to her. And even in dreams, her grief burned her heart to ashes.

SHE DIDN'T WEEP AGAIN. CYBIL SHED NO TEARS AS they packed and prepared throughout the day of July fifth. She stood dry-eyed as Cal reported there were already some fires, some looting and violence in town, that his father, Chief Hawbaker, and a handful of others were doing all they could to keep order.

All that could be done had been done. All that could be said had been said.

So on the morning of July sixth, she strapped on her weapons, shouldered her pack like the others. And with the others left the pretty house on the edge of Hawkins Wood to strike out on the path to the Pagan Stone.

It was all familiar now, the sounds, the scents, the way. More shade than there had been weeks before, of course, Cybil thought. More wildflowers, and a thicker chatter from birds, but still much the same. It wouldn't have been so very different in Ann Hawkins's time. And the feelings clutched tight inside Ann as she'd left these woods, left the man she loved to his sacrifice, not so different, Cybil imagined, than what was tight in her walking into them.

But at least she would be there, with him, to the end of it.

"My knife's bigger than yours." Quinn tapped the scabbard hooked at Cybil's waist.

"Yours isn't a knife, it's a machete."

"Still, bigger. Bigger than yours, too," Quinn said to Layla.

"I'm sticking with my froe, just like last time. It's my lucky froe. How many people can say that?"

They were trying to take her mind off things, Cybil knew.

"Cybil." The word came in a conspirator's whisper, and from the left, from the deep green shadows.

When she looked, when she saw, Cybil's heart simply broke.

"Daddy."

"It's not." Gage stepped back to her, gripped her arm. "You know it's not."

When he reached for his gun, Cybil stilled his hand. "I know, I know it's not my father. But don't."

"Don't you want to come give Daddy a hug?" It spread its arms wide. "Come on, princess! Come give Daddy a great, big kiss!" It bared its sharklike teeth, and laughed. And laughed. Then it raked its own claws down its face, its body, to vanish in a waterfall of black blood.

"That's entertainment," Fox said under his breath.

"Poorly staged, overplayed." Shrugging it off, Cybil took Gage's hand. Nothing, she promised herself, would shake her. "We'll take point for a while," she said, and with Gage walked to the front of the group.

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