Spoilers from the Pilot Episode, PK Tech Girl, That Old Black Magic, Rhapsody In Blue, A Human Reaction, Through the Looking Glass, and A Bug's Life.
This tale is dedicated to Becca. Thanks for everything!
Aeryn's sleep is restless. Not that anyone else would know it, from her stillness as she lies deep in healing rest. She doesn't toss or turn, there are no moans to break the silence. Her body, trained for so many years to be a finely tuned instrument at the beckoning of the PeaceKeeper High Command, maintains its control even though her mind is not there to direct it. Her body is still.
But cut off from everything we'd shared on Moya, isolated on an Earth I didn't even know any more and one soon to be proven false, on the run from all I thought I'd known and loved, we'd fallen asleep wrapped in each other's arms. And to lie next to Aeryn was to know a peace I've never known. Not with Alex, not with Ginny, not with anyone. Not since Mom...
I break that chain of thought, not wanting to go there. Afraid the roller-coaster of my emotions will tip head over heels and dump me out to face the anger and fear I've run from for twenty-eight years.
But having slept beside her, and knowing how peaceful Aeryn asleep can be, I know, despite her stillness, that Aeryn's sleep is troubled. I sense, rather than hear, a slight sound from the direction of the bed. It saves me from my thoughts. I hop down from the chest I'm perched on, cross to the bed. Aeryn still has not moved. Her breathing is shallow, the threadiness so frayed I wonder if Clotho can spin enough for her sister to weave into the loom of life. A faint sheen coats Aeryn's skin. I touch her face. Warm.
"Zhaan." I activate the personal com.
"Here, John." Not even the tinniness of the connection can disguise the tiredness in Zhaan's voice. She'd labored for ten hours -- ten arns -- to save Aeryn, to bring her back from the blackness, and the blackness is not yet driven back. Even when she allowed Aeryn to be brought back to her room, Zhaan could give me little hope. The knife had struck deep, almost hitting Aeryn's heart.
But that isn't the real problem. "Larraq was Special Ops, John," Zhaan had said, voice graver than usual and face so still I knew she maintained her composure only through one of her Pa'u rituals. "First in, last out. They never know what they're facing, or how dangerous, and they are prepared for any eventuality."
I knew where she was heading. I wanted to kill Larraq all over again, this time with my bare hands. I shook my head in denial, refusing to hear the words, and turned away. Zhaan paused, waiting for me to face her, to face the truth again. I looked to her. Sympathy, empathy, concern. Her gaze conveyed all these to me, or perhaps some thread still bound us one to the other despite the many horrors we had faced since leaving Tahleen's twisted temple.
She'd cupped my head, almost as though we were to share Unity once more, and said simply and clearly, "John, the knife was poisoned. I did my best, but now Aeryn must fight the poison on her own."
I draw a shuddering breath and bring myself back from the precipice of memory. Aeryn fights what may be her last battle. "Zhaan? Are you there?"
"I am here, John. What seems to be the problem?"
"It's Aeryn. She's feverish. I figure that can't be good for a Sebacean."
"It is not necessarily a problem, John. As long as her temperature stays lower than 30 delgras her body is fighting off the effects of the poison." There is slivered silence, then Zhaan's voice returns. "Moya is monitoring Aeryn's condition. Her readouts show that Aeryn's fever is only 28 delgras. She has not reached a dangerous level. She needs sleep, so she can continue to heal."
I nod, even though I know Zhaan cannot see me, and sign off. I stare down at Aeryn. With the exception of the sweat pooling under her on the bed linens, she might only be sleeping soundly. Just then, however, her breathing grows more ragged, and a small moan breaks the silence she's maintained since she fell victim to Larraq's blade.
I feel so helpless, unable to do anything but watch her sleep. Gently, I brush the hair back from her brow. She seems to find comfort in the touch, and moves her head slightly, seeking to maintain contact. I run my fingers down the side of her jaw, across her lips, up the sweep of both brows. Her breathing smoothes out. I memorize the contours of her face with my fingers.
I realize I have been humming for the past five minutes, and I listen to myself. The words are old, the music older still. Softly, I sing to Aeryn, "Hush, little baby and don't say a word, Papa's gonna buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don't sing, Papa's gonna buy you a di--" A sudden snapshot, a screen capture in my mind. The ring I'd bought Alex. "-- Papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring. And if that diamond ring don't shine, Papa's gonna..."
The words and the gentle caresses bring her comfort, and soon she sleeps peacefully. I go back to the large chest off to the side of her bed. Too tired to hoist myself, I use the smaller box on the floor to climb up and sit in the spot I'd cleared earlier. I draw my legs up to my chest and rest my chin on my knees. I've not even taken the time to change from the PK captain's uniform.
I won't leave. Not until I know that Aeryn will be all right. I'm exhausted, though, from the emotions that rip me apart. I feel pain in my left hand and look down. My nails have gouged the flesh from my hand. I need to keep my hands occupied. I reach across to the equipment piled on the right side of the chest. I pick up a slender rod of some sort. The kopra rod Aeryn had spoken of? She was going to give me lessons in using it...
I hold the rod in my hands like a talisman. Like a sword to protect my lady. But my lady is no damsel in distress who needs a prince to rescue her from the fire-breathing dragon. My lady can rescue herself, thank you kindly, and blow the triple-frelled gas-hole of a dragon back to whatever froggy hell he came from.
And she can rescue the prince and his lady of the moment while she's doing it. I close my eyes. It's hard to call up Gilina's image. I snort when I realize that sometimes I have to look at the background of the images in my memory to tell if the girl I'm seeing is Gilina or Alex.
I run my fingers lightly down the edge of the weighted rod. There's something familiar about it. I've learned enough in battle techniques from Aeryn and D'Argo that I can see what a formidable weapon this slender stick would be in hand-to-hand combat. I wonder if Aeryn has ever felt tempted to lay its length along my skull.
I had liked Gilina. And in the rush to enjoy clever conversation, good companionship, and a sweetly formed female, I totally ignored what my actions might mean to Aeryn. Worse. I never even considered that she might have a stake in my actions. She might deny it, but I know I hurt her. We both knew what she meant when she spoke of being ambushed. I'd led the conversation away from personal issues and she let me. But we both knew what had happened.
Just as I know that something happened between Aeryn and Larraq. I recognized the look on Aeryn's face when I saw her with him. It was the same look I had on my face onboard the *Zelbinion*, the look I saw reflected back to me from Gilina's eyes when I kissed her.
Had Aeryn kissed Larraq? And do I really want to know? None of the fairy tales I heard as a child cover a case like this. How can there be two princes? My hands tighten over the rod. One prince now. Thanks to me. I feel the pain that's all too much a part of me. What if Larraq had been the *true* prince? At least before the virus caught him? Oh, frell. The virus *I* gave him.
I rub my hand across my face. I'm damned good at guilt trips. Been giving them to myself since I was five, tripled it in spades when I was nine. I wonder how much the choice of Larraq as carrier for the virus was blind luck, and how much deliberate choice. The virus had made its intentions to head for the PK gammak base clear, so I'm pretty sure it was a deliberate choice of host, but that small guilt-ridden part of me can't help but wonder just how much I might have aided in that choice.
The intellant was malicious, a disembodied evil. The PK doctor had said a host abandoned by the virus retained no memories of anything that might have happened while it was under control. Memories, no. At least not if you mean the haul-out-the-scrapbook-images we all cart around with us. But if I start picking at the blank spot in my memory, like a kid picking at a scab, my body remembers the virus's enjoyment at killing the doctor.
And there are enough faded photo-images floating around the inside of my skull that I can easily see the virus first choosing Larraq simply because of *my* thoughts of Aeryn, then doing exactly what it *had* done, using Larraq's body to taunt me, to taunt Aeryn, and then to kill the woman it knew we both might have grown to-- the woman Larraq and I both cared for.
Using Larraq's body to get to the gammak base could well have been serendip for bug-boy, although now I have no way of knowing for sure.
I set the kopra rod down to stretch, then knead the muscles in my neck. Had it survived, this whole section of space would be at the mercy of the intellant and its stone cold serial-killer hosts. It *liked* to cause havoc, to bring pain and death to those it infected, to those around it. I remember *that*, if nothing else. If ever there were a demon from hell... But the virus had not survived. I saw to that. I sent it right back to hell.
Only now I wonder... Should I enjoy its death so much? And whose death am I glad of, really? The virus's? Or Larraq's?
I glance around the room. PK mementos -- a couple of uniforms, some workout equipment, close-in fighting weapons -- take up much of the space. Would Larraq, if he still lived, honor Aeryn as a PeaceKeeper? Have I ever done so? Or am I always disparaging her early allegiances?
I remember reading one of Anne McCaffrey's books as a kid. No dragons in this one, but a human colony on a planet already inhabited by sapients. And the kid hero saves the day by learning to "hear" from one of the natives. Not just to listen, but to "hear," to hear the emotions as well as the words, the truth and not the lies, and to know what was real from what was only imagined.
Do I need to hear what Aeryn is saying? As I'd not been able to hear Dad for so long after Mom...
And I can't evade the memories any longer, not even by denying them, by trying to force my thoughts into other paths. Every thought leads back to Aeryn, and without my willing it, to Mom.
I shift a little so I can reach into my inside pocket. I take out my tape-recorder. I've been carrying it around with me lately. It has a habit of growing wings if I leave it in my room when Rygel or Chiana are prowling about. I click it on.
"It's me again, Dad. Tonight I'm keeping watch over my lady. You'll like her, you'll like her a lot. Matter of fact, you almost met her just about a month ago. But that-- that's another story, one I really can't get into yet. Tonight, tonight Aeryn sleeps and I keep watch. But this is the dark night of *my* soul, not hers. So here I sit, a fraudulent prince. A prince so unworthy of love no woman stays."
I close my eyes, trying to spot my path through the labyrinth. The golden thread that ties my life to Aeryn will help me find the way. "Yeah, I know the arguments, Dad, I know why you and Mom hid her illness from me, and I know you both thought you were doing the right thing. But between you, you tore the heart right out of me. For the five years she was sick, every time Mom went to the hospitaI I really thought she was just leaving us, and that it was because of me, because of something I did, and I hated her for it, and I hated me for causing it. And you were away so much, you never knew what I was going through and I guess you never even wondered if anyone had ever said anything to me. You had your own problems back then, and I can understand that now."
I stop recording for a moment and glance across the room at Aeryn. No change. It's taken me a long time, but tonight, if never before, I do understand refusing to accept that the woman you love is going to die, and that there's nothing you can do to stop it. "Aunt Kathleen never came to grips with what was going on either, Dad, so for four years I couldn't understand Mom coming and going like that. I was old enough to know that she was sick, and the worst of it was that if I'd known, I could have said 'Good-by'... Instead, I hated her for always leaving and me for not being able to stop her and you for crying out for her in the night. And then she died... but it was too late to stop the hate and the anger by then. It might have been death, took her away, and not desertion, but it hurt just as bad."
I pause, wondering as always if Dad will ever get my messages, knowing only that whether he hears this or not, I have to say it. I clear my throat and continue. "You and I, we made our truce, Dad, years ago, but I never had that chance with Mom. Not until now. But if anyone can understand what I'm going through, and know what I need to be doing here, Mom does." I click off the recorder. Hopping off the chest again, I go to Aeryn's bedside.
I kneel down. Reaching under the gold coverlet, I take Aeryn's hand in mine. If she leaves me tonight, a part of me won't survive, not without help, and so I'll draw around me my coat of many colors, woven from all the fairy tales Mom told me so many years ago... It was Mom first told me about princesses and princes and dragons and the magic of love. I haven't read a fairy tale since the day I first thought she was leaving us. The stories that could have helped me thread my way through the maze of her years of illness I had left behind, simply because they were hers. I can finally celebrate those fairy tales again. Now, when they are needed.
I curl my fingers closer around Aeryn's hand. She will not die. I will not let her go into the dark, not if I have to stay here for the next five cycles, my voice the only tether to keep her in this reality.
Aeryn, stay. Listen to the sound of my voice and hear me, really hear me, and know how much I need you. I take a deep breath.
"Once upon a time..."