"Coffee. Black. Keep it coming." I hand the waitress a twenty and sit in the corner furthest from the door. Cheap little breakfast place on a holiday weekend, the kind of place that served coffee in one size and grease is a free side dish with any meal. No one else was in this early, and from the waitresses half-finished novel on the counter she hadn't expected anyone.
I drink my first cup, which tastes better than it has any right to; accept a second cup, turn down a menu. I can keep coffee down; I don't trust myself with food. I've killed before, with magic and without, but the last two nights had been hard and ugly. Hate-shadows and hauntings, sendings in the shapes of the living and the dead. I've put up conscious wards around my sleep for the first time in years and I know they won't last. Not if I want them to fail.
The world is an ocean of guilt we all drown in. Someone told me that once years ago. I don't think it's true, not all the time. Nothing is true all the time, even if one isn't a magician. I think I'm drowning in magic. I don't realize I said the last aloud until the waitress coughs.
"Refill?" I nod, push my cup over. "Strange thing to say."
She doesn't push. Other customers should have begun to trick in by now. I doubted any would until I left. "It is all I am. A magician who is only that is dangerous, I think."
I look up and meet her gaze. The pot of coffee tumbles from her hands at whatever she sees in mine and is on the table between moments. I pour my own coffee as she stagger-sits across from me, her eyes wide and hunting. Her name tag seems to shift, the words no language I know, her name sliding from my mind. Is she human? Other? Does it matter? No idea. If this is a trap, I can't bring myself to care.
Her gaze skitters to the coffee pot, back up to me. "I saw it fall."
"It didn't want to break." I put on a smile that doesn't fool either of us. "You're really a waitress."
She nods after the barest of pauses; I could read anything in it. I try not to. A magician tapping their emotions can work terrible magics and after be unable to undo any of it. I don't trust myself right now at all. Am not sure I ever did.
I pour her some coffee. She dumps creamers in it with shaking hands. "Why are you here?"
"Everyone has to be somewhere." It slips out glibly enough to satisfy neither of us. She wants to know why a magician with two days stubble and rumpled clothing is here. Why I haven't used magic for new clothing. Other things, I'm sure, but I try not to see them, sip coffee. "Sometimes we do a good thing for all the wrong reasons. Magic doesn't put us outside cause and effect or beyond karma and guilt. It can, but then we'd be something other than human but maybe still a magician."
I didn't think I was before now. I dump cream into my coffee, watch the ripples spread through it under my spoon. Ripples spreading into each other, flowing out as something else. "My guilt is hunting me as nightmares."
She doesn't say it's not possible. I'm sure whatever she saw in me hurt her, but I've no idea what I truly did nor how to undo it. Magic answers need, and often we don't know what we need until too late. Her hand reaches out to mine, pulls back.
"Guilt changes as well. It meets the world and it changes." I don't raise my voice as the bell over the door rings. "Even anger doesn't happen in a vacuum, no matter how pure it is."
Something moves toward me. It is large and wet and reeks the sickly sweet of burnt flesh clinging to the world. The waitress stares past me, eyes full of horrors.
"Look at me." She does, though it takes enough power to make my throat ache. "This is not yours. This is not you." Her fear gives me something. Not anger, but something.
I stand, turn. The thing behind me has my father's skin, my sins, random memories and flashes of bodies I don't know. It had been in the world. It has changed. Give it another day and it won't be mine, might even leave. I'm not quite gone enough to let that happen, surprised to find that is true. I brace myself for memories, for a scream wreathed in fire, but it does nothing at all, and that is somehow worse.
"I don't want you." I don't say I don't need it.
Nothing spills out of it, and I have nothing to bring against it, except the sharp gasp of the waitress. Except her fear. Except someone else.
The laugh that comes out of me is harsh, ugly with truth. I have nothing to bind it with, no magic strong enough to build a cage. I'm not me enough for that, not now. I loose it. I shove my hands into it before I can stop myself. (It burns so cold.) I loose it, pulling, fling the guilt to corners the world doesn't even know it has.
Two days of running broken in a moment of madness that feels like glory. I'm empty after, in a good way. Hollowed out of pain. Not balanced, but better.
I turn back to the waitress. There is nothing in her expression I can read. I imagine she looks like someone I once knew as I pull the rest of my money out of my wallet and place it on the table.
The coffee cup has gone still, with no ripples left in it at all. Her eyes seem almost human. Perhaps they are.
I don't smile. I say nothing. I just turn and walk away because sometimes that's all we're strong enough to do.