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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Just Another Useless Memory, Holding You Tight

Valende took a deep breath and summoned every scrap of clerical wisdom she still had to force herself away from the brink of nervous breakdown. No time for this now. My friends--need me. Little by little, she felt her pain and anger subsiding into feelings of responsibility and shame. Not much better, but more constructive, at least. Val looked around the empty chamber. “Shit,” she said in Dalen. It sounded different that way, more vulgar.

Jack cleared his throat then, and she gasped reflexively and spun to face him. “Oh! You--you’re still here!” She tapped her chest a few times, trying to calm her pounding heart. “Of course you are, what was I thinking... you don’t have a soul, do you.”

“Uh,” Jack said. “Look, if you don’t, uh, want me around, I can just go--”

“No!” she said. “No, that wasn’t, wasn’t meant as an insult, truly... it’s just the nature of the Hotel. Being jerked around it by our souls, I mean. Please don’t go. I don’t want us to lose you.” She sat down on the nearest bench, locking her fingers in her hair. “Again.”

There was an awkward pause, during which Jack apparently couldn’t think of anything to say next either. Valende finally sighed and asked what she’d been waiting most of a year to. “Why did you do it, Jack? Do you... remember, at all?”

“Sacrificed myself, you mean?” he said uncomfortably. “Well, I--Skitch had just died, and Cori before that... I think it just occurred to me that neither of them would have been there if it wasn’t for me, and there were probably going to be more deaths... Cori was the first friend I ever had outside the family, and Skitch was just a little boy. And I knew Uncle Caimen didn’t really have an exit plan for Ebreth, either... and then there was, you.” He cleared his throat again, awkwardly. “And I guess I just didn’t want anyone else I loved sacrificed to what was basically my family’s pride. I think that’s where my, uh, head was at, mostly.”

“Then you did love me,” Val blurted painfully.

“Uh, well, yeah,” Jack said. “I don’t, uh, think people usually try to sacrifice themselves to save people otherwise, but I could be wrong, I guess...”

The priestess pressed her temples, fighting the impulses to burst into tears, embrace Jack fiercely, or throw up. Maybe all three at once. “If you loved me,” she finally said thickly, “why did you try to kill yourself, Jack?”

“Because I’m stupid?” he tried tentatively. Valende didn’t smile, and he sighed. “Because I learned to read from Lita’s stash of teen romance novels, I guess. Because Ebreth had just gone to Hell to protect Khyrisse, and it was about the most impressive thing I’d ever seen anyone do for another person. Because I loved you and I just wasn’t thinking clearly. I’m sorry I hurt you, I really am.”

“Jack,” she said, her voice trembling, “did it ever occur to you that I might think you didn’t love me... or even think very highly of me at all? You didn’t ask my opinion, didn’t take my wishes into consideration, didn’t tell me what you were doing... you didn’t even say goodbye. If I loved you, didn’t I have the right to risk my life over it?”

“I, uh, guess so,” Jack said. “I think my, um, self-esteem wasn’t so great then. I have these weird memories of thinking I was--something less than human, somehow.” Val blinked several times and stared at him. Sehanine, has he forgotten that? “Anyway, I’m really sorry I messed it all up the way I did. I don’t know what else to say.”

“You--you don’t have to say anything else, Jack. I’m sorry this worked out the way it did but I--I’m profoundly glad you’re alive.” She did put her arms around him, gingerly; he didn’t pull away. “And I forgive you,” she said. “Can you--still be my friend, Jack, after all this?”

“Of course,” he said, his voice half-puzzled and half-dizzy. “Should--we try to find the others, do you think?”

“Just hold me a minute, first.” Val put her head into her shoulder, biting her lip. “Just hold me.”

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