HOME TO THE HILLS
by M.D. Bloemker
(previously published in Shadow Chasers Express #3)
Dr. Juliana Moorhouse did not look up as her office door opened; her secretary had buzzed only moments earlier announcing the arrival of Jonathan MacKensie, so she addressed the newcomer accordingly. "I hope you've brought the revised curriculum, MacKensie," she said without interrupting her writing.
Several moments passed without a reply; only then did she look up, readjusting her glasses to see that MacKensie was standing directly before her desk and was regarding her with an oddly strained look on his face. Her first instinct was that he was preparing an apology for not having completed his semester schedule, but she revised the impression even as her mouth started to tighten in disapproval. She had known Jonathan for a long time; she was a past master at reading his moods. This one was different. There was a shadow that defied description lurking behind his outwardly calm expression, and just the fact that she couldn't identify it caused her a pang of concern. "Well?" she ventured when he did not offer an explanation for his unexpected visit.
Still without a word, he offered her an envelope, which she took only after favoring him with a long, hard, narrow-eyed stare. Normally he would have squirmed uncomfortably under her trademark scrutiny, but this time he remained completely unperturbed, meeting her gaze with unusual aplomb that was belied only by the tautness of the muscles in his face.
She flipped the blank envelope to quickly inspect both sides, then glanced back up at MacKensie. "What is this?"
He started to speak, but ended by clearing his throat. "I believe it is self-explanatory," he managed around the residual hoarseness.
Her heart sank even as she removed the contents of the envelope, flipping the folded paper open with the fingers of one hand. It took her only a few seconds to read the three typewritten lines, and only a few seconds more for all the color to drain out of her face. Then her eyes flicked to stare at the desk calendar. "What is today's date?" she said in a tight voice.
"March 26," he replied after a moment of surprise at the curious question; it was obviously not the reaction he had expected from her.
"Oh, no," she said in a sigh that she hoped, a moment later, that Jonathan had not overheard. She realized that she was again staring at the paper without really seeing the words anymore. "Have you discussed this with anyone?" she said, recovering some of her composure.
"No," he replied, giving her a curious look.
"Good." She slid the paper back into the envelope, which she then carefully placed in the top drawer of her desk.
Jonathan's frown deepened. "Dr. Moorhouse, I'm afraid that this isn't open to discussion..."
"Not discussion," she told him, removing her glasses to rub the bridge of her nose tiredly. "Explanation, perhaps. MacKensie...do you really have any idea why you've just handed me your resignation?"
As she suspected, the question stymied him. He paused, having obvious difficulty forming an answer. At length, he sighed in defeat. "No. I don't."
She nodded, closing her eyes briefly. "Sit down, MacKensie."
He did, staring at her with growing confusion. "Dr. Moorhouse, forgive me, but -- you seem less surprised by this than I am. Why is that?"
She settled back in her chair, studying him for any sign of guilefulness. "You really have no idea why you felt compelled to write out your resignation?" she asked with soft incredulity.
"None," he told her, and there was no mistake about his sincerity or his discomfiture. "But...why do I get the distinct feeling that you do?"
"Because," she sighed, gaze fixed blankly on the pen she was unconsciously tapping against the desk blotter, "unfortunately -- I do." She roused after a moment to look up at him. "I've been expecting this for quite some time."
"You have?" he ventured.
"Your thirty-fifth birthday is Thursday, is it not?"
He nodded, then frowned. "Are you saying that this is some sort of mid-life crisis, then?"
Her eyes closed briefly. "Oh, if it were only something as wonderfully mundane as that," she said, shaking her head ruefully.
"Then I fail to see what -- "
He stopped when she held up her hand. "I shouldn't have let it go this long," she told him, her voice oddly tired. "For that matter, your father..."
When she did not finish the thought, Jonathan leaned forward with narrowed eyes. "What about my father?"
"He should have told you." She mustered strength to her voice, but made an effort to suppress the inevitable anger. "You had a right to know. Still...I can't blame him. If I had been in his position, even I couldn't say that I would have handled things differently."
"Dr. Moorhouse, please. I don't understand any of this."
"No. No, of course you don't. And it falls to me to explain it to you as best I can, with what little I do know." She paused, searching her mind for the few times she had actually rehearsed what she might say when this day came. But it was useless; even though Leonard MacKensie had convinced her beyond all doubt that he was neither insane nor drunk, something inside her had always resisted believing the wild story he had told her that night; as a result, even though she had long known this time would come, she was unprepared to deal with it calmly and succinctly.
"I need to ask you a very personal question," she said at length, leaning forward and resting her arms against the top of the desk to clasp her hands before her. "This may sound rather bizarre, but I assure you, the answer is very important. What exactly were you told about the night your mother...passed away?"
The question took the color from his face. "My mother?" he repeated in a voice without breath. "Dr. Moorhouse, I don't understand..."
"Yes, I know," she nodded grimly. "If you did, this unpleasant task would not be left to me. Please -- I need to know. What did he tell you?"
He struggled to regain some semblance of composure. "I was at visiting some relatives, on holiday," he began with marked hesitation. "My father came to fetch me." A shadow crossed his face as the memory took hold. "I've often wondered why he didn't call first. He just showed up on the doorstep that night with the news that he'd taken my mother to hospital and that she'd suddenly died while there."
"Jonathan, this is very important. I want you to tell me exactly what he said about the manner of your mother's passing."
He blinked in surprise; then a frown creased his forehead. "All I can actually remember is that I was very annoyed with him because he kept saying that my mother 'went away'. I felt he was being condescending, treating me like a child, incapable of understanding what had really happened. Of course, now I realize that perhaps it was his own way of coping."
"You are familiar with your father's early work in England?"
He hesitated, confused by the strange turn in the conversation. "Yes -- he was working on a theory relating Stone Age religious practices with various anthropomorphic aspects of extant legends."
"Or, as your father so quaintly put it, he was looking for leprechauns," she added with a thin smile. "At least a plausible explanation for the development of their rather extensive mythos." She paused, pressing her fingers together in thought. "He found what he was looking for," she finished in a thin, wistful voice.
Jonathan started slightly. "Dr. Moorhouse, forgive me, but -- I'm thoroughly familiar with most if not all aspects of my father's research work. I've read all his early journals and papers. He abandoned all his work on British Stone Age culture without conclusion."
"Oh, there was a conclusion," she said with an odd, wry smile. "You won't find a hint of it in your father's journals, however. You see, your father discovered incontrovertible proof of the existence of the Sidhe."
"Sidhe?" he ventured carefully. "You mean -- the Dawn People?"
"Faery folk," she nodded with a quiet sigh.
"You're saying that my father discovered that the Sidhe once actually existed?"
"More than that -- they still do."
He was staring at her with open incredulity. "And you expect me to believe that he abandoned his research after a find like that? Why?"
"To protect you," was the quiet reply.
His stare was blank now. He roused himself enough to shake his head numbly. "Dr. Moorhouse, I...I don't understand what you're saying," he said pleadingly.
"No," she said bleakly. "No, I don't suppose you do. MacKensie -- did your parents ever tell you how they met?"
His hand went to his forehead. "Dr. Moorhouse..."
"Please. I have a reason for asking. What did they tell you?"
"Nothing, really," he said with a helpless gesture. "My father claimed that he really couldn't remember; he joked that it felt as though he'd known my mother a thousand years."
"I imagine he was only jesting in part," she observed dryly. "Your father ignored a rather stern warning and went out alone to conduct a night-time excavation at the site of an alleged faerie-hill near a village called Hobston." She paused, then continued with marked hesitation. "Your mother...lived there."
This time his stare was long and incredulous, and it took him more than a moment to find his voice. "So -- what you're trying to tell me is that my mother...was a faerie?"
She sighed, sympathetic to the obvious distress filling his face and his voice, and braced for the inevitable storm of denial.
"Dr. Moorhouse, please. I remember my mother quite clearly, and I assure you, she was quite human."
"Yes, she was," she agreed readily. "For a time."
He stared at her, pale. "For a time," he repeated faintly.
The leaden silence in the room had grown unbearable. "Oh, for pity's sake," she said quietly. "Say something."
He roused himself from his shock-induced lethargy, making an effort to oblige her. "What is there to say?" His voice was drained of strength. "What you've just told me is absolutely incredible and yet...I believe every word of it. I have to. It..." He shook his head numbly. "It explains so much."
She lifted her head, intrigued. "Indeed? What do you mean?"
He cleared his throat, struggling for coherence. "When I was young, my father, he...he encouraged me to read Scott, Dumas, even Poe; yet he remained adamant when it came to Perrault and Grimm. I was the only one in my form at school who had never heard the story of Cinderella -- or even Peter Pan. He wouldn't allow me to read fairy tales." His voice trailed off, then gathered strength again. "It makes sense now." A thought seemed to intrude rudely on his reverie; his brow furrowed in confusion again. "But what I still don't understand is how this all relates to why I wrote out my resignation. I don't know why, I don't even know where I'm supposed to go, I just know that -- I have to leave. And...I won't be coming back." He looked at her, lost. "Please, Dr. Moorhouse, if you have any idea what's happening, tell me. Please."
She drew a deep breath, inuring herself to the sharp sting of sympathetic pain. "Your parents struck a bargain. Apparently, your mother was quite desperate to remain with your father, and could not persuade him to join her in her world. So she decided to join him; she agreed to...well, to become human for a time. I'm not quite sure how that sort of thing is supposedly accomplished; I'm not even clear why your father ever agreed to such a bizarre arrangement, though I suspect that it was because the attraction was...mutual. I do know that he had not anticipated that she would conceive a child. Make no mistake about it -- he was quite aware of the fact that human children are highly prized among the faerie folk. In fact, for a time he suspected your mother of duplicity in the matter, and I believe it was her effort to assure him otherwise that let to their unusual agreement." She glanced up briefly, enough to assure her that Jonathan was hanging on to every word, and that there was not a trace of skepticism to be seen in his expression. "Your father was desperate to keep you away from your mother's people, but there was no escaping the fact that she had a valid claim on you. After a great deal of difficulty, which apparently involved an attempted abduction which your father barely managed to foil, he struck a bargain with your mother and with her people. You would be allowed to remain in the human world for half of an average human life span -- seventy years. Your mother's claim comes due on the first hour of your thirty-fifth birthday."
"Saturday," he said in a voice with no breath, nodding to himself.
She slid open the top drawer of her desk again, removing the envelope that contained his laconic resignation. "Half of you belongs with an ancient people, MacKensie. I imagine that this..." she tapped the envelope "...means that the call is already upon you. As for where you go from here, I suspect that for the first time in your life, you'll have to stop thinking like a scientist. It's your instincts that are guiding you now -- your mother's inheritance."
He was nodding slowly, full resignation evident in the slump of his shoulders. "Yes. I know what I have to do now. I have to return to England." He fixed his gaze on her, suddenly calm. "I have to go home."
The argument had been short but heated, and as usual, Dr. Moorhouse's iron will held sway. Two seats were reserved on the first available Dulles/Heathrow flight, and Jonathan's protestations that he be allowed to proceed alone fell on deaf ears. Each objection, such as not having covered his courses, or not having made disposition of his apartment, was met by a cold, terse reply: "I'll take care of it, MacKensie."
They exchanged nothing more of consequence, the strained silence extending fully one hour into the transatlantic flight. Jonathan was careful to make sure that there would be no further interruptions by flight attendants before once again broaching the subject. He had had a lot of time to brood on what Dr. Moorhouse had revealed him only that morning, and brood he did, turning over pieces of his life and holding them up in the light of his new knowledge. As a result of his concentrated search, he was numb. Shock after shock had taken its toll; he had slipped into a protective shell, outwardly marked by lassitude and a certain deadness in his face. He had noted without comment the darting glances Dr. Moorhouse gave him from time to time, all the while knowing the reason for her unspoken distress.
Now that he knew the truth, he just didn't seem to care anymore. Perhaps it was as Dr. Moorhouse had hinted -- his normal concerns were slipping away from him, supplanted by this strangeness that was slowly but surely laying claim to his soul. That he was in the grip of something beyond his ken, he did not doubt; what that something was, he could not define. But it was there, and it was guiding him despite his fierce initial resistance. Now he was resigned to it and to his uncertain future.
But he was still in the human world and he still felt a twinge of emotion that continued to prey on his mind. He finally gave it voice, calculating his moment carefully.
"Dr. Moorhouse," he addressed her calmly, continuing when her head came up questioningly. "I'm curious about one thing."
"What is that, MacKensie?" she said, her voice even.
"How did my father come to tell you all of these things?"
He could almost feel the intensity of her gaze on him, and realized he hadn't fooled her with the oblique phrasing of his question. She knew what he was really saying. Perhaps she even perceived the depth of his agitation over the fact that she had been entrusted with Leonard MacKensie's secret, and yet he, Jonathan, the person most affected by the entire bizarre situation, had been left in the dark.
"You must not think badly of your father for this," she said after a small silence. "We both know that he was a brilliant scientist, a true genius -- pragmatic, logical, rational. This was the one thing I had ever seen him exhibit any degree of irrationality over, and irrational he remained to the end. Somehow he felt that he was protecting you by refusing to tell you the truth."
"He told you." He couldn't keep the accusation out of his voice; she reacted to it by covering his hand with hers. "Yes," she said quietly, with apology. "He told me. I believe it was a few months before your father passed away. He was in the hospital for observation following an angina attack. I went to visit him there -- "
He was staring at her in open astonishment. If he thought his system had been innured to shock, he had just been proved wrong. "Angina attack?" he said, incredulous. "When did that happen? Why wasn't I told?"
Her hand tightened over his. "He refused to let anyone contact you," she told him earnestly. "The doctors assured him that he was in no danger, and he knew how much your first internship meant to you."
He paused, doing a fast mental calculation. "My internship in Kenya," he realized.
"You mustn't judge him harshly," she insisted. "What he did, he did to protect you, in the only way he knew how."
For some reason her assurance irritated him, but a greater concern pushed it aside. "I still don't understand how he came to confide this story to you."
She drew a steeling breath. "On the surface, he dismissed the angina as inconsequential, but the truth was that it had shaken him badly. It had provided him with a glimpse of his mortality, as it were. He was quite depressed when I arrived for my visit. At first I thought it somewhat normal and did my best to let him talk it through, but it soon became apparent that what I was hearing was...well, quite incredible. For the first time he realized that perhaps he might not be there for you when the time came, and so he told me everything in the hope that one of us would see you through this...this time."
"So you've known this for over fifteen years?"
Her eyes betrayed the fact that she was aware of the smoldering anger in his voice; there was a mute plea for forgiveness in the searching look she gave him. "Yes," she admitted. "I've known. And believed. How could I not believe? And yet...I understand too well your father's reluctance to come to you with the truth. To have done so would have required courage that, for my own part, I sadly lack. It was easier to remain silent and hope that perhaps this day would come and go without a whisper of change."
"Yet you forced me to investigate paranormal phenomena for you," he noted. "Why? To prepare me for what you knew was in my future?"
She hesitated, startled by his sudden insight. "Perhaps. I won't deny that this thing has haunted me all these years, and more so of late when I knew the time was drawing near. I watched you closely, MacKensie, and saw in you a brilliant, intuitive young scientist who harbored a violent disdain for anything that did not fit his constrained view of life. To have revealed this incredible story to that young man would have been to invite disaster. Yet I had to prepare you somehow. Hence my invention of the Paranormal Investigation Unit and my admittedly fascist tactics to keep you on as its director." Her face softened. "I treated you rather badly, I fear."
"No," he shook his head to dismiss her unspoken apology. "No, I understand now. You were right. I fought you so hard because you were right, I can see that now."
A faint smile flickered across her drawn features. "As much as I initially resisted the association, I have to admit that in the long run, Benedek's influence seems to have done you more good than harm."
She had made the comment with returning good humor, but it had an adverse effect on Jonathan. His face clouded; he had the appearance of someone reminded of something he shouldn't have forgotten. "Benedek," he repeated grayly. "Damn."
Her first instinct was to persuade him to dismiss the flamboyant yellow journalist as some kind of unhappy postscript to the life he had otherwise turned his back on without another thought, but she restrained herself. "I'll explain what I can to him," she said quietly.
"I should have -- " He broke off with a sigh, reconsidering what he'd been about to say. "It doesn't really matter now." And with that, he lapsed into a pensive silence that she chose not to disturb.
It was nearly full night when the sound of footfall on the gravel path behind him came to his ears. He waited for the newcomer to approach, as he fully anticipated he would.
The footsteps came to a halt at a distance Jonathan judged to be little more than ten feet away. For a long moment, there were only the normal sounds of an early spring evening. Then, a familiar voice rang out cheerily.
"Well, will you look at this? As I live and breathe, if it isn't my old pal Dr. Jon!" Edgar Benedek bounced down into the empty space on the bench next to him. "Cosmic, absolutely cosmic! This is really one for the books! This is the last place I would have expected our paths to cross! And you're not buying any of this, are you?"
His broad grin dissipated like smoke in the wind when his last words ended a full octave lower than his previously ebullient tone. Jonathan spared him only a quiet glance; Benedek deflated with a sigh. "I must be losing my touch," he muttered, shaking his head. "Would you believe I tracked you guys down because I'm sure you're onto something hot here?"
"I might," Jonathan said with studied disinterest. "If it were true, which it's not."
Benny exaggerated a wince. "No getting past you this time, is there? Okay, Sherlock, suppose you tell me what you've scoped?"
He shrugged lightly, still staring out over the darkened landscape. "She sent for you, didn't she?"
There was silence from the other side of the bench for a moment. "First class tickets on the first flight out of J.F.K.," he said at length. "The lady doesn't fool around, does she?"
"What did she tell you?"
"Everything." A pause. "At least I think everything. We should really compare notes, I suppose."
Jonathan lowered his head to dispassionately regard the hands clasped between his knees. "You believed her?"
"What, you don't?"
"That isn't what I asked. I asked if you believed her."
"Are you nuts? When Dr. Juliana Moorhouse calls me out of an all night poker game with the mayor and the archbishop of New York with a story like that, what am I supposed to believe?"
An unamused smile briefly crossed his features. "Benedek," he began carefully. "You're forgetting that I've known Dr. Moorhouse for a long time. There is no conceivable way that she would have told you this story over the telephone. So -- give it to me straight this time, all right?"
Benedek shook his head in mock disgust. "You are a hard man, MacKensie," he complained good-naturedly. "Okay, straight. She called, she said you had trouble, she had the plane tickets waiting for me at the desk, here I am. God's own truth. I got here about an hour ago, and she gave me the Reader's Digest version of what's been going down. So, tell me -- you really marched into her office and slapped your resignation on her, just like that?"
Jonathan looked up at Benedek with real surprise in his eyes. "That's all she told you? That I had trouble?"
"Well..." He made a vague motion. "Yeah. Words to that effect."
"And you came?"
He spread his hands. "That's such a big deal? Yeah, just like that. Pass up a free trip to Old Blighty? Are you kidding?"
He broke off when Jonathan, looking away again, shook his head while emitting a low chuckle. "I'm sorry," Benny said, pressing a hand to his chest. "I must have missed something here. Did I just say something funny?"
Jonathan stifled another laugh, and shook his head again. "I was just...thinking, that's all. I was thinking of all the times I was sure that you were nothing more than an ignorant, insensitive clod."
Benny shrugged lightly. "Yeah, I've always had warm thoughts for you too, Jocko," he said without rancor.
"Do you think you could refrain from interrupting me in the middle of my apology?"
"Oh, forgive me, is that what I just did?" He feigned wide-eyed innocence. "Gosh golly, I could have sworn I was giving you a rather broad hint that I don't want an apology. I am not offended. Get what I'm saying here? I've never been offended. I know what you think of me. Hell, you could have taken out a full-page ad in the Times and you couldn't have made it any plainer. Did you ever once notice me taking offense? You know what your problem is? You're still trying to figure me out. Big mistake, pal. It'll never happen in your lifetime."
His words ended in an odd choke; he had realized what he had just said. "Lifetime," he repeated faintly, shaking his head. "Whoa. Now there's a concept that's about to under major reconstruction. I won't kid you, Jack -- I'm not bouncing back from this one with my usual aplomb. I've heard some bizarre stories in my time and seen even stranger things, but this one gets the Really Weird Award. If they asked me to cast this movie, you wouldn't even be on the audition list. And yet..." He inclined his head, his features taking on a thoughtful cast. "It kinda makes a weird kind of sense, you know?"
"I know," Jonathan agreed quietly, causing Benedek to blink.
"You do?" he said in unabashed surprise. "Wait a minute, you're not going to tell me you've had inklings of your fate all along, are you? Don't try to kid a kidder, pal."
"No, no, I meant...other things. Things that confused me in the past, but make sense now that I know -- " He broke off with an exasperated sigh. "Know? What do I know?" Something inside him was growing, tightening in his chest until he felt he was about to explode. He jumped off the bench, pulling up short when he realized that he was not in control. It hurt to breathe; he had to close his eyes for a moment to keep the world around him from spinning away. "I'm...I'm going back to my room," he forced himself to say in a tightly controlled voice.
"Okay, wait up. I'll go with you," Benedek told him, getting to his feet to follow the man as he started up the path. He jumped back with MacKensie spun on his heel, a wild look in his eye. "No! I mean...no, I -- I need to be alone for a while."
Benedek was regarding him with a critical eye, unruffled by Jonathan's outburst. "This thing's really got you spooked, huh?" he observed calmly.
The pressure in his chest grew, pushing up into his head. "He should have told me!" he raged abruptly. "She should have told me. Dammit, someone should have told me! I had a right to know!" Again the need for control overcame him and he choked back his rage, turning away to compose himself. Stopping with a jerk, he glanced back over his shoulder, eyes narrowing. "You're taking this all rather calmly, aren't you?"
"Is that a comment or a question?" Benny's smile faded with his nonchalant shrug. "Are you asking me whether I believe in faeries? So what's not to believe? Maybe I'm having a little trouble picturing you in green leggings and boogying the midsummer's night away, but..." He considered MacKensie's odd, agitated reaction to his last remark. "Ah," he murmured with a nod, casting his eyes downward for a reflective moment. "Sorry, pal. That wasn't what you were asking, was it?"
"Forget it," Jonathan said gruffly. "Forget everything. I'm...I'm..."
Cutting himself off with an exasperated sigh, he spun and stalked off up the path, leaving Benny to call after him, "Hey! Come on, Jack, I didn't...oh, damn. Dr. M is gonna have my passport for lunch for this..."
Jonathan started at Benedek's abrupt intrusion into his room, less from surprise than from guilt at having been caught in a lie. He was standing by the far window, looking out at the shrouded landscape beyond, instead of resting as he had insisted he wanted to do.
Benny hadn't entered, only leaning in, prepared to hiss Jonathan awake. He blinked upon seeing the still untouched bad, then slid a questioning glance over to Jonathan, who averted his eyes. "Benedek," he snapped irritably. "Don't you ever knock?"
"Never give fair warning, that's my motto." He breezed into the room, letting the door slam shut behind him. "Just checking in to see if you, ah..."
Benedek's voice trailed off, whatever he'd been about to say forgotten as something else grabbed his attention. Jonathan half-turned his head, but already knew what Benny was looking at before he had the man within the range of his peripheral vision. Jonathan's wallet was lying on the bed next to a notepad and pen; near that were a few photographs, one slightly crumpled.
Any other person might have politely ignored the items. As it was, Jonathan was unable to move fast enough to keep Benedek from sweeping up the rumpled photo with an expression of feigned casual interest. His eyebrows arced. "Distinguished," he nodded. "Very Nobel. I can see where he could set a few Sidhe hearts aflutter."
"Benedek, you have a positive talent for making yourself very unwelcome," Jonathan growled, turning his back on the man to move again to the window.
"One of my more endearing traits," the man agreed, absently smoothing out the creases as he spoke. He then took a moment to crane his neck to see if he could read some of the scrawl on the open notepad. "You know, if you're making out bequests here, do you think you could pencil me in for your address book and social calendar?"
This got him a dark glare of open incredulity. "Are you being disgusting for a reason, or did you perhaps leave your brain in a holding pattern over Heathrow?"
Benedek held up his hands, palm out. "Just trying to put it all in perspective, pal." The photo was between two of his fingers; he flipped it meaningfully. "Seems to me you've been having a little difficulty with that yourself."
"This is my problem," Jonathan told him stiffly. "I'll deal with it. I don't need your help."
With a casual shrug, Benedek tossed the photo back onto the bed and made the door in two backward steps. "No sweat."
Something inside him thawed, just a little; something inside him wanted to say something. But whatever controlled that something inside him reclaimed its control before he could turn and begin to form one word. It died, unvoiced; but not before he saw that Benny hadn't left the room yet, and had seen the small, reflexive movement.
He resolutely turned his thoughts away from their dangerous course, turned his back on Benny again. Closing his eyes, he willed the next sound he heard to be that of the door shutting quietly; a soft and clean sound, cutting swiftly and leaving behind only a sharp but brief pain, something to color a memory he wasn't even sure he'd be allowed to keep.
Benny cleared his throat. "Jonathan? Uh..."
Stomach knotting, he moved his hands forward so as not to betray himself with whitened knuckles. The soft voice of question behind him held a strange emotion, one with which he felt ill-equipped to deal.
"I gotta ask you this." The door closed, but the grave, unwelcome voice was on the wrong side. "Do you really want to go through with this?"
The emotion roiling inside him gripped his chest tightly, and he had to force out a long breath to relax the muscles enough to make a reasonably unstrained reply. "Want? Did I really want to hand in my resignation? Did I really want to wake up yesterday morning and get handed an eviction notice from a life I spent thirty-five years trying to build? Did I really want to fly three thousand miles from home to stand around some hotel room in the heart of the Yorkshire Hills answering rhetorical questions that don't deserve an answer?" He broke off, forcing back his rising anger with a sigh.
"I get the picture." A slight rustle; then Benny's voice again, nearer this time. "You have to go, I understand that. But you don't necessarily have to stay."
His bewilderment melted down the barrier, allowing him to turn from the window. "What do you mean?" he demanded, voice thick with the effort he made to control the sudden leap of hope in his chest.
He saw that same hope briefly light Benny's face even as the man leaned forward earnestly. "Look, I brushed up on what I already knew about this stuff on the flight over, and from what Dr. M gave me, I think we could get you sprung on a technicality. But everything depends on you and what you want."
He stopped. What did he want? In the space of thirty-six hours, his entire life had upended, and only now could he see that it was no longer simply a matter of being a victim of circumstance. He wasn't going to his fate with the measured step of a condemned man. He was instead going forward into something that was now suddenly and inexplicably his destiny, the place to which he must go. Dr. Moorhouse's words came startlingly clear: the change was upon him. He was less a human struggling against the chains of fate than he was...something else. And that something else wanted ....
The words echoed in his mind, wafting out into a soft, detached whisper. "I want to go home."
Benny stared at him, and the light in his eyes died a little with understanding.
"Yeah." Benedek cleared his throat, rubbed his finger briefly against his nose. "You get some shuteye, Jocko," he said quietly. "I'll check in with you later for the game plan."
At 11:45 pm, Jonathan MacKensie exited his room, taking great pains to quietly close the door. After a moment to determine that neither Dr. Moorhouse or Benedek were about to poke their heads out of their own rooms, he then headed down the hallway, grateful for the carpeting that muffled his footsteps.
Exiting the inn, he quickstepped down the path leading to the small carpark. A few paces from the rental car, he paused to search for the keys, which he had been careful to pocket earlier in the evening. Surprise, then confusion crossed his face when all pockets proved empty. With a frown, he quickly reviewed all his movements over the past few hours, trying to think where he might have accidentally lost the keys.
A jangling sound came to his ears, bringing his head up. Benedek had appeared out of the night, and was holding up the keys with an expectant grin.
"Looking for these?" He tossed the keyring into the air, snagging it again with a theatrical flourish. When Jonathan made a move towards him, he sidestepped, putting the car between him and the man. "Thinking of taking a midnight drive?" Benedek said with raised eyebrows, crossing his arms against the roof of the automobile, keys safely curled within his fist.
"Benedek," MacKensie muttered, half-exasperated, half-pleading.
"Not polite to leave without saying goodbye, you know." His amiable smile was belied by the cool intensity of the gaze he fixed on Jonathan.
He didn't have the strength to enter the fray. "There's nothing more to say," he told Benedek tiredly. "Please -- give me the keys."
Benny shrugged. "I'd figured on driving. Haven't really trusted you behind the wheel since Hooperville, know what I mean?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."
"Benedek, I'm going alone."
"I think not." Dr. Moorhouse's sharp voice heralded her brisk arrival on the scene. MacKensie groaned, running his hand agitatedly through his hair; he averted his eyes from the fierce glare Dr. Moorhouse leveled at him.
"I made a promise to your father, MacKensie," she told him sternly. "I intend to keep it."
Benedek jumped on MacKensie's noticeable hesitation. "Besides -- who's gonna bring back the rental? Hm?"
MacKensie's shoulders slumped in defeat. "All right," he sighed. "Get in."
"Ah." Benny held up a hand against Jonathan's attempt to open the driver's side door. "In the back, pal. And be ready with the directions -- I'm safe in assuming you came equipped with a mental road map?"
"I know where to go," he said quietly, suppressing an odd chill to realize how true those words were becoming. Something about the strained quality of his voice seemed to affect Benny; he nodded once, averting his eyes. "Yeah. Figured," he muttered, flipping the keys once more before crossing over to the driver's side. "Come on, boys and girls, let's get this show on the road."
Jonathan settled into the back seat, giving Dr. Moorhouse a brief, almost embarrassed look before fixing his gaze on the fists he balled against his knees. Was it only anger which pulled his muscles taut and caused the dull ache in his head? Or was it something else? It took a conscious effort to relax his muscles, to open his hands and stare down into the open palms. This was his last hour as a human in a world he thought was his own. His fate had been decided thirty-six years ago, by two beings from different realities bound together by the only thing that could bridge their disparate worlds -- an emotion as old as time, defying all boundaries, all logic. And now he prepared to pay the price for their defiance.
They had compromised, and in so doing left him with no choice, no wrenching decision. Just a growing coldness where once he had felt sorrow and joy, grief and happiness. He couldn't feel anger any more. That emotion was part of his past, a fast-fading memory -- his father's legacy. The last vestiges of his humanity dissipated with every moment which brought him closer to a small hill just outside of Hobston, and the tenseness in his muscles drained away with it.
Thirty-five years. He smiled slightly, letting memories play in a bright, colorful jumble. I can't hate you, Father. I never could. And you were right not to tell me. It's actually better this way. I lived the life you and Mother allowed me as I should, unmarred by some dark foreknowledge that it would end at a certain hour of a certain day. I only wish I'd understood your pain, understood more clearly that I was part of it, but not the cause of it. I wish I'd understood as I understand now.
You loved her. I've always known that to be true; I know it now more clearly than I ever thought possible. I can't hate you for that. And...I know now that you loved me. You fought to keep me with you, and if even if that meant bargaining with my life -- I can't hate you for that, either.
"Crossroads, Jonny. Call it."
He looked up, squinting to make out their surroundings by the stark light cast by the car's headlights. But he didn't need visual aids, nor his glasses to make out the road sign. "Left," he said calmly, looking down at his hands against his knees once more.
Benny made the turn without comment; the uneasy silence descended once more. After a moment, Dr. Moorhouse reached out tentatively, covering one of Jonathan's hands with her own. He looked up at her, caught her tiny, strained smile before she looked away, out her window. But her hand tightened on his, and he covered it with his other, savoring the warmth for this one last time.
He closed his eyes, concentrating on the strangeness inexorably taking possession of him, body and soul. The human part of him quailed, recognizing its own end, but not enough of it remained to impart fear or dread. Just acceptance, calmness growing out of the knowledge that this was the right path. Something beckoned him forward and he approached with open heart even though he didn't know the shape or the colors or the sounds of what waited to welcome him. All he knew was that when the time came, he would release the human hand clinging to his without hesitation, and go forward without looking back.
Voices sang in his mind, and with a start of mild surprise, he realized that his consciousness, once a private sanctuary, was now becoming part of a greater whole. The sounds and the images were little more than muted chaos at this point; he would not be drawn in completely until he crossed the invisible boundary, and officially welcomed into his new existence. But he could hear the whispers, alien yet so familiar, and he heeded them, responded to their call, and gave voice to their imperative command.
The car jolted slightly, then slowed, pulling off to the side of the road. "Give a guy a little more warning, willya?" Benny grumbled, killing the engine. He hesitated before turning off the headlights, squinting out into the hilly, desolate area around them. "Whoa. Been a while since they fixed the streetlights around here. I don't suppose either of you kids remembered to bring a flashlight?"
Hand on the door release, Jonathan froze at Benny's words. "I don't need a flashlight. I know where to go," he said quietly, waiting for the reply he dreaded, the one he knew was coming.
"Great. We'll follow you, then."
"No," he said, more sharply than he meant.
"Yes," Benny shot back, and even in the darkness he could feel the other man's glare, like a fierce blaze in the growing coldness. "Don't get stupid on me now, Jack. It's all or nothing, and you know it."
"Please." His voice sounded strained in the sudden silence, breaking slightly as he felt Dr. Moorhouse's hand tighten around his. "Let me do this my way."
"No dice," came Benny's quiet but firm reply. "Your only choice is whether to keep arguing for old times sake, or save your breath, give up now and..." He broke off suddenly, sighing heavily. "And let us make sure you're really gonna be okay."
He looked up, nonplussed at what he realized was the first openly sincere thing he'd ever remembered Edgar Benedek saying to him. "I'll...I'll be fine," he said thickly, then hastened to add, "No, wait, listen to me. I...I don't think they'll like the idea of outsiders coming near the circle. You could be borrowing trouble."
"I could get hit by a bus in Times Square," Benny muttered darkly. "Chill out, Jonny. We're wasting time here. Your mother's calling you."
His throat tightened, choking back an incongruous laugh. "All right," he sighed, giving Dr. Moorhouse a brief glance before extricating his hand from hers. "Come if you must."
The air was alive, a dancing mist of bright colors and vibrant sounds. He opened to it with a thrill of awe, only dimly aware of another reality in which Benny aided Dr. Moorhouse from the car, sprinting around to close the door Jonathan had left open before approaching cautiously.
"Jonathan?" Benny's voice sounded muted, as though it came from a far distance rather than a few feet from his right ear. "Yo. Jack? You still with us?"
He forced himself to nod, only part of him responding to the tenseness in the man's voice. "Still with you," he said, even his own voice sounding as though it belonged to someone else. "For a little while longer, anyway."
From the corner of his eyes, he caught the tiny jump Benny barely covered by gesturing to Dr. Moorhouse. And for a moment, he thought he might speak, words of reassurance or something else very human. But the kaleidescope surged abruptly, and he felt himself drawn towards it. All other thoughts and considerations sloughed from him as he went forward in search of the thing laying claim to his soul.
There was enough of what was once Jonathan MacKensie to marvel at how easily he moved through the darkness, without faltering or stumbling. Indeed, he realized with a leap of joy that he could close his eyes, and still see his path. This was just a taste of his new life, a whole new awareness of which his human half could barely dream. Suddenly it seemed as though his entire life had been lived in darkness, and only now could he see that he was going where he truly belonged: home.
The voices, once a meaningless jumble, coalesced into a lilting song, glorious sounds, filling him with indescribable joy. Light unfolded before him, and he stopped, knowing instinctively that he had come as far as Jonathan MacKensie could ever go.
He held out his arms, preventing the two shrouded presences behind him from going farther. A voice that would soon no longer be his spoke, saying, "This is the perimeter of the circle. They won't let you go any farther than this."
His voice trailed off as the light flared, resolving into individual columns of gold and silver, linked by soft pinks and greys. An amorphous mass detached itself from the communal glow, and floated towards them. It came to a halt only yards away from where they stood, and only then could they see that the shape vaguely suggested the figure of a woman clothed in flowing light.
Dr. Moorhouse glanced up when Jonathan's grip on her arm tightened. His features were drawn, fear and fascination fighting for control. He had to make a conscious effort to swallow, and his voice was little more than a cracked whisper. "Mother?"
Benedek was at his side, regarding the eerie manifestation with open awe as well as professional interest. His attention went back to Jonathan at his hoarse utterance, and a curious shadow passed over his face. For all the posturing and glib comments, he'd never really given deep consideration to what was going down. And now it was happening, and whatever it was was totally outside even his experience.
To his own surprise, he found his hand on Jonathan's upper arm, and could not say whether it was to lend the obviously shaken man mute support -- or perhaps to restrain him, to pull him back from stepping forward.
The light beckoned. Jonathan flinched slightly, seemed about to protest, but swallowed hard instead. "A moment," he begged. "Just...a moment. Please?"
The bluish-silver glow flickered slightly with what appeared to be reluctant consent.
Jonathan reach over to take Dr. Moorhouse's hands, gently freeing his arm from her grasp and pressing both of her hands between his. He hesitated, uncertain of what he wanted to say, and unwilling to meet the woman's pain-filled eyes. "I wish you hadn't come," he admitted with an embarrassed laugh. "It was easier to...to..." He sighed, shaking his head.
She nodded slowly. "To leave without saying goodbye. I know."
He tried to speak, but the words would have had to have come from his human half, and that was fast fading into oblivion, leaving him bereft. With effort, he salvaged enough to give her a wan smile, leaning over to place a soft kiss on her cheek. She lowered her head as he drew back, releasing her hand, but he saw the flash of light reflected in the wetness filling her eyes.
Benny forced a smile as Jonathan turned towards him, shrugging weakly. "You're not going to try that on me, are you?" he grumbled, mocking disgust.
Shaking his head with a dry smile, Jonathan offered his hand, which Benny took without hesitation. "Gotta hand it to you, Jonny," he said quietly. "This is the way to shuffle off this mortal coil. Style, real style. You maybe wanna put in a word for me with your mum? I could really liven up those midnight romps in the fairy circles, you know."
His soft laugh was almost genuine, marred only by a slight tremor that he tried to cover with a cough. "You take care, all right? Listen to your mother. Wear a sweater." His shrug faltered, half-finished. "You know."
"I know." He glanced down at his hand, still clasped in Benny's. "Do me a favor, all right?"
"Sure," he agreed uncertainly. "What?"
His smile widened benignly. "Don't ever change."
Benny grinned. "For you, pal -- anything."
The light flared, a shaft spearing up like an arm raised imperiously. Starting, Jonathan looked over his shoulder, swallowed hard. "I...I've got to go. It's time."
To his own surprise, Benny tightened his grip on Jonathan's hand, but his friend, turning towards the light, ripped free without apology, taking two steady steps forward before stopping at Dr. Moorhouse's strangled cry.
The woman stood rigid, one hand pressed to her mouth, the other held out, trembling. Not a goodbye, Benny realized as he moved to her side, ready to provide support should her startling paleness presage a sudden collapse. Before his eyes, he saw the woman's facade crack apart, saw into a place he'd thought could not exist beneath her cool, professional exterior. In her eyes, shimmering in the reflected faery lights, he saw fear and abject grief. Unwilling to let go, desperate to hold him back, unable to accept that he was already lost to her.
Jonathan turned slowly, a dark silhouette against the pulsing lights. For a second, regret lay heavy on his face, and his hand moved slightly, as though to return Dr. Moorhouse's gesture. But then, his expression changed and his eyes narrowed in confusion. In that moment, the colorful lights flared and embraced him in streamers of gold and silver and blue and pink. In its midst, Jonathan MacKensie stared at them, and Benny stiffened to realize that he saw them as strangers. And unwelcome ones at that.
And in the midst of his quick prayer that Dr. Moorhouse would not notice, he heard her ragged gasp, almost a sob of anger.
A kaleidoscope of soundless light erupted, a joyful dance of welcome weaving a brilliant net around its prodigal son. Benny reeled back, protecting his eyes from the bombardment, barely able to feel surprise when Dr. Moorhouse stumbled against him, clutching at him for support as she turned away from the painful assault.
Then, abruptly, darkness. Blinking hard, Benny peered ahead into the gloom. Logic told him that Jonathan MacKensie should still be standing there, perhaps dazed, definitely complaining. But he wasn't there. This was not a place of logic, and Jonathan MacKensie wasn't there.
Dr. Moorhouse still pressed against him, one hand gripping his upper arm tightly as she lifted her head to stare bleakly into the shrouded clearing before them. She made a sound, and he waited for her to speak, to say something he could react to enough to break his own shock-induced paralysis. But she did not speak or repeat the strange sound; nor did she move, only stared steadily ahead with her fingers pressing harder and harder into his arm.
He shook his head slightly, mentally hacking through the shroud muddling his thoughts. "Come on," he said quietly, thankful that his voice remained steady in the eerie silence surrounding them. "Let's go."
She resisted his attempt to urge her away, glancing at him with mild surprise when he tugged at her arm. Drawing a deep breath, she nodded curtly, taking a fast swipe at her eyes as she replied, "Yes. Yes, of course."
Taking his cue from the lack of strength in her voice, he slipped his arm around her shoulders. For a moment, she stiffened as though to rebuke him for impertinence, but just as quickly sagged, accepting his support. Without another word spoken, she let him lead her away.
It took less than a minute for him to realize that his city-honed sense of direction was next to useless in overgrown and unfamiliar territory. He faltered, glancing around in a futile attempt to get his bearings, cursing his short-sightedness at not having left some sort of trail markers. Lost in her own thoughts, Dr. Moorhouse looked up only after he'd come to a complete stop, regarding him with mild confusion. In the midst of deciding whether to bluff and forge ahead, or admit his confusion outright, a shaft of moonlight broke through the cloud cover, illuminating their surroundings. And Benedek noted with relief that the silver glow sparked off something metal in the middle distance.
The light stayed with them as they made their way down the slight slope to the roadside where the car still waited, and only then faded away into the clouded gloom. Guiding Dr. Moorhouse around to the passenger side of the car, Benedek paused, looking up at the night sky in growing confusion. Coincidence he could accept, but only now did he realize that the helpful light had been bright and silver; the moon was only half-full, emitting a pale golden glow obscured by tumbling black clouds -- and in the opposite direction.
Dr. Moorhouse, who until now had been perfectly willing to go where Benedek guided, suddenly resisted, bracing her hands against the door he'd opened for her. Again she seemed about to speak, but whatever the words were died as she looked up to stare back at the place from which they had come.
He closed his eyes, battling the thousand things he could say, he wanted to say, he should say and he couldn't say. He's not coming back, Dr. M. That was one of the logical things that he'd never be able to get past his heart long enough to give voice. It would have to remain as it was, a hollow echo pounding a dull tattoo within his aching head. No matter how hard you wish it, he's not coming back. Nothing you can do, nothing you can say is going to change that.
Her voice was a dry whisper almost lost in the cold night air. "Did I do the right thing?"
He blinked, not entirely sure whether she was aware she spoke aloud. Such an admission of overt self doubt he found hard to reconcile with his image of Dr. Juliana Moorhouse. But then, nothing about this night was normal or logical. Together they had glimpsed a world beyond their reach and far beyond their ken. Under any other circumstances, they would have both been awed and thrilled to have been shown proof that magic truly lived on the periphery of their existence. Would have -- if not for the fact that the magic had ripped away part of themselves.
"He's not dead," she said softly, startling the half-formed words of reassurance out of his mouth. "He's...he's not, is he?"
He hesitated, fighting back the rise of cold dread at the uneven pitch of her voice. But before he could think of what to say or do, she spoke again, lifting her hand slightly as though to physically capture her frail thoughts. "And yet...for all intents and purposes, he no longer exists." A small sound, like a breath catching softly in her throat, and then: "And we'll never see him again, so...that must be why it feels this way."
He closed his eyes, swallowing the hard, cold lump forming in his throat. When it eased enough for him to speak, he managed to quietly say, "Yeah. Yeah, that must be it."
She nodded, silent for a time as she continued to stare, almost curiously into the shrouded distance. "It's not fair," she whispered, and he flinched to hear the half-desolate, half-angry note in her thin voice.
It was the jolt he needed to break his strange paralysis, and he drew a deep breath. "Neither is catching pneumonia in the middle of Yorkshire. Come on. We both need a stiff one."
For the first time, she turned and regarded him appraisingly. "The pubs are long closed," she informed him with a wry smile.
Encouraged, he put his hand on her arm, and this time she allowed herself to be settled into the passenger side of the car. "Just leave everything to me. I know a place that never closes."
"And where might that be?" she asked once he'd sprinted around to slide behind the wheel.
"My suitcase," he grinned, revving the engine. "Got a vintage that was collecting dust before your grandmother was born." Hand on the shift, he paused, his cocky grin fading into momentary seriousness. "The boy scout in me, I suppose. You know -- be prepared."
She stared a moment before confusion faded into understanding. Nodding, she settled back, closing her eyes as he nudged the car into a tight U-turn in the narrow lane.
They made the drive back in silence. Unwilling to let himself dwell on sorting out his own reactions, Benny gave second and third thoughts to the advisability of drowning the night in a bottle of old scotch. It wouldn't change anything. And in the long run, it wouldn't make it hurt any less. But it would get them through this night. And that, he could tell from the single glance he snuck at the silent woman beside him, was the only thing that mattered.
Dr. Moorhouse looked up as Benny slumped into the seat next to her, watching stonily as he groped at the edge of the table to keep from sliding to the floor. Blinking rapidly for several moment finally restored his equilibrium enough to reach out for the glass of juice sitting in front of the woman's breakfast plate.
She waited until he'd nearly drained the glass before saying quietly, "Help yourself."
Shooting her a hurt look, he swallowed and rasped, "Knowing you for the sensitive, caring person you are, I was sure you wouldn't deny a desperate man. You weren't going to eat that toast, were you?"
With a sigh, she pushed the plate over. He paused a moment before grabbing a piece to gnaw on. "You look a little better."
"Better than what?" she sighed, rubbing tiredly at her forehead.
"Better than I'd give anyone credit for after a two-day drunk."
She winced, groaning lowly as her hand slipped down to cover her eyes. "Two days."
"Can't wait to see how this comes out on your expense report," he murmured, stifling a laugh.
"Don't even joke about it," she sighed.
"You thought it was pretty funny last night."
"I would prefer not to be reminded of last night." Her head came up, revealing a puzzled frown. "I don't remember last night."
"Actually -- neither do I," Benny enjoined, shrugging. "You...you don't suppose we, ah...?"
She cut him dead with a glance and he raised his hands in hasty surrender. "I do remember you muttering something about heading back to London today. So I was wondering if you had a plan, you know?"
"A plan?" she echoed blankly.
"For explaining to people how you managed to lose an anthro prof in England."
"Oh." She shrugged, picking up a fork to poke disinterestedly at the congealed eggs on her plate. "I've decided to tell them the truth."
He choked on a bite of toast. "You what?"
"The truth," she repeated patiently. "He returned home to live with relatives."
"Oh." He blinked, then nodded. "Oh. Okay. Right."
"I glad it meets with your approval," she muttered, tossing down the fork to once again rub tiredly at her eyes.
"Listen," he said after a silence spent studying her bowed head. "There's no rush getting back to Heathrow, okay? Maybe a few days in the English countryside will do you some good?"
She lifted her head to give him a long, studied look, and he swallowed the rest of his words. "It'll only take me a half hour to get packed, whenever you want to leave."
He busied himself with the last piece of toast, and was unprepared for the hand that reached over to grasp his. Startled, he glanced up, meeting her softened gaze. "Thank you for being there," she said quietly.
He froze in confusion, unsure whether her thanks were for Jonathan or for herself. As soon as he decided that it didn't matter one way or the other, he nodded his acceptance. "It just occurred to me," he said, drawing in some composure with a long breath. "You're out one anthro prof, right? You're gonna need a quick replacement, what with the new semester coming up."
She blinked, and for a moment seemed about to laugh. "Excuse me. Are you volunteering?"
"Nah. Volunteers don't get paid. How much does the position pay, anyway?"
"Not enough," a new voice interjected. "Besides which, the position is no longer open."
Jonathan MacKensie pulled out a chair, sitting down as he finished speaking. Smiling at the two expressions of frozen shock before him, he picked up a folded napkin, snapping it out onto his lap. "Are the rolls fresh? I'm starved."
"You're...you...I...you..." Blinking hard, Benny clamped his mouth shut as though to put an abrupt halt on his spluttering. He grabbed the drained juice glass, sniffing as Dr. Moorhouse managed a weak, "Jonathan?"
"It's just orange juice," Benny pronounced ominously. "Dr. M -- I think he's real."
But she'd already proved that to herself, reaching out a tentative hand that Jonathan, with a smile, took without hesitation.
"Yo, garçon!" Benny snapped his fingers at a passing waiter. "Two more place settings, and three glasses of this orange stuff, whatever it is. Maybe it fermented," he muttered, peering again into the glass.
Dr. Moorhouse, barely holding back tears, managed, "I don't understand. I don't understand, and I...I don't care. You are back, aren't you? To stay?"
"Yeah." Benny leaned forward suspiciously. "This isn't some quick stopover on your way to Fairie Central, is it?"
Jonathan's disparaging look dissolved into a chuckle of amusement. "A quick stopover, yes, but the final destination is Heathrow, and from there Dulles Airport. I do have classes first thing Monday morning." He hesitated, glancing at the hand to which Dr. Moorhouse still clung. "I do still have a job, don't I?"
Her answer was in the fierce squeeze she gave his hand, but Benny jumped in before she found her voice. "As far as I'm concerned, you're going to have to tell us a story first. Please feel free to take this personally — what the hell are you doing back here?"
"Having breakfast," he replied calmly, stopping the waiter from placing out the juice glasses. "Here. Drink up. You'll need to hear this on a full stomach."
"Orange juice as an explanatory prerequisite," Benny muttered, accepting the glass Jonathan handed over to him. "Well, at least you don't want blood. Cheers."
Dr. Moorhouse set her glass down when her shaking hand threatened to send the contents flying. "I...I can't," she protested weakly. "Please, I have to know what's going on."
"Only when both your glasses are half-full," he said, giving the waiter a quick order for eggs and toast. "I'm serious. You both look like you're about to fall over. Come on."
Jonathan's breakfast arrived by the time both had forced down the required amount. Benny groaned, making a face. "Orange juice o.d. This better be worth it, Jonno. Spill it. Why aren't you out there flitting over forest and field with the rest of your clan?"
"It's rather simple, really," Jonathan replied, calmly buttering his toast. "I decided not to stay."
"Whoa." Benny held up his hands in surrender. "Back up. I never once heard the word 'choice' come up in the conversation. I thought your switchover was a signed and sealed deal, non-negotiable."
"I thought so, too." His smile tightened dryly. "And it seemed to suit their purposes to allow me to continue thinking that. But the actual truth of the matter is that the only thing I had no control over was my summons to the circle. Once there, it then became my choice whether to stay -- or to go."
"Hey," Benny laughed, clapping Jonathan on the shoulder. "I knew you'd find an escape clause, Jonny. Congrats!"
Jonathan's smile flickered and wanned. "I didn't say it was an easy choice."
"Oh." Benny's grin vanished. "But you did come back. Here, I mean."
"For better or for worse, I did," he agreed with a sigh.
He looked up to see Benny and Dr. Moorhouse fixing him with identical searching looks and stifled a laugh. "I'm not sure I could do the explanation justice."
"Oh, we've got lots of time," Benny assured him fervently. "We've got as much time as it takes you to tell us every last detail."
Jonathan shrugged, shaking his head. "Actually, you don't have much time at all. Three minutes, at the most."
"Three minutes," Benny echoed blankly, giving Dr. Moorhouse a puzzled look which she returned in kind. "What happens in three minutes?"
"In approximately three minutes, you both fall asleep," Jonathan informed them casually, poking at his eggs with a fork. "Ten minutes after that, you both wake up, and neither of you will remember a thing about me or about Hobston Hill or about faeries. I'm not entirely sure how we'll figure out why we're all in England in the first place, but faery magic can only do so much, I suppose."
Benny listened agape, blinking once before grabbing up his orange juice glass to stare accusingly at the contents. "You fink," he growled. "You slipped us a mickey, didn't you?"
"A little sleight of hand," he mocked modesty. "With a touch of faery, of course. They were good enough to allow me one small taste of what I was turning my back on." He flipped his hand over, studying it with mild interest. "All gone now. No more tricks left in it."
"You...you fink," Benny slurred, his eyelids already closing. Dr. Moorhouse's head dropped onto her crossed arms. She remained oblivious as Benedek slumped against her, his head coming to rest on her shoulder.
Jonathan regarded them for a long moment, wishing for a camera to preserve the moment. With a long sigh, he reached over for his own glass, and paused.
Whether his own heart caused him to hesitate, or whether it sensed the quiet approach, he wasn't sure. His head came up as the aura reached out to touch him, enfolding him in a gentle embrace.
The pull on his heart became stronger, and he closed his eyes to resist it. He spoke without voice, a longing sigh. Mother.
He turned to her, seeing her through the gilded haze of his half-human eyes. He'd spent all too short a time with her in her world, where they were both real and substantial beings, able to see and to understand each other as though they shared only one heart and mind. But already that memory was fading. Here she was a image formed of light and shadow, as though he glimpsed her through frosted glass. The light shifted; her hand reached out to him. And her voice spoke in his mind, soft and distant. Jonathan.
Why did you come here?
Because you would not stay.
He closed his eyes, but she was there, in his mind, refusing to be shut out. I made my decision.
We have so much to offer you.
I reject it all.
No! Mother...no. Please. Please, don't do this. I thought you understood.
She was silent, her aura pulsing agitatedly. Then, a feathery sigh: So like your father.
He looked up in growing wonder, and for a moment her image came to him clearly, just as a twelve-year-old boy remembered her. You made Father the same offer. he realized.
So many times. I begged him to come with me. I offered him a life beyond his wildest imagining, I would have given him immortality....
And he refused. Jonathan's heart sang. He refused.
He preferred his squalid, transient existence. Her voice shimmered with regret. He chose to suffer pain and grief and the burdens of his mortality. He chose all that -- over me.
Mother, he loved you.
When I chose to be what he wanted, yes.
That's not true. You know that isn't true. He loved you, as I do -- without qualm, without reservation.
He stared at her, overwhelmed by emotions he'd thought long-dead and buried. Mother, why did you leave us?
It was not my choice, she told him gently. I am part of the Sidhe soul. They allowed me to forsake them for a short time only. I stayed as long as I could, and the parting was made less painful by the knowledge that someday you would come to me.
But I'm not part of the Sidhe soul. That's what I realized, Mother. This is my place. Here, transient and squalid though it may be. Father understood. Neither he nor I could exist in your world. I wish you could understand that.
Her existence became an embrace of vibrant warmth and light, and he reveled in the maternal love too long denied him. I do understand, she whispered sadly. I understand only too well. I was part of your dark world for only a short time, but it was long enough. Long enough to realize that understanding does not make it hurt any less.
Tears edged out from beneath his closed eyelids. Mother...I'm sorry.
She touched him, a feathery brush against his cheek. You have made your choice, my son. As I love you with my heart and soul, so do I respect that decision. I regret only that you will not remember me.
No. You're wrong. I will remember you. I will always remember you. It doesn't matter whether I know what you really are, or whether I go on thinking that you died when I was twelve. It matters only that I will remember you -- always.
His impassioned plea brought the tears coursing freely down his face. Goodbye, Mother. I love you.
He felt her kiss on his forehead, heard her dry sigh. Goodbye, my son. Rest now. Sleep. And when you awaken, I'll be gone.
Not from my heart, he whispered, feeling the strong tendrils of sleep pulling him away from consciousness. Never from my heart.
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