When the sun came up, she didn't see it, because she was no longer behind her eyes.
She was somewhere else, instead, staring down at her own face. She critically observed the just-barely-visible lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth, the hair that had a few more grey than a month ago, the hands that weren't as flexible as they had once been when they'd played the song that had won Rick Krane's heart. She looked *old*. She frowned irritatedly to herself. She was totally unprepared for the hand that touched her shoulder, or the voice that spoke suddenly out of nowhere right by her ear.
"You didn't win my heart, Molly - I gave it to you."
She started, whirled around - and stared into a pair of deep brown eyes that shone with tears.
"Don't ask silly questions, m'love - now's a time for listening."
"I don't understand. I wanted --"
"I know." He enfolded her in his arms, and she sagged against him, suddenly sobbing uncontrollably, trembling against his chest.
"Why did you -- I never -- I wanted --"
"Why did you go?" she asked into his shirt.
"You know why. You know I had to. You used to feel it too. You still do."
She raised a tear-stained face to her husband's. "You promised."
The words sounded feeble, but he answered them without scorn. "I'd made another promise first," he told her.
She hung her head. "I'm sorry."
"So am I."
It was almost as if she'd gone back in time - Rick was there, holding her, tied to her inside, part of her. That piece of her that had dropped away into nothingness with his death was back as if it had never left. She felt momentarily whole, again. And warm. And she didn't want it to stop.
Even though she knew it would, and soon. A sense of urgency nagged at her.
"How are you here?" she finally thought to ask.
"You know how," he said, nodding over her shoulder at her sleeping body. "You wanted me here - here I am. You used to know how."
She felt her face grow hot with embarassment and shame. "I still know. I just don't."
Again, "I know." In this state she could keep nothing from him, could hide behind the bulwark of false strength she kept up for Fiona and Jack's benefit - not that she ever could. He knew her, as surely as he knew himself, as if they were a part of each other. Because they were.
"Things are changing, Molly," he said softly into her hair. "It's time to go back."
She stiffened, but then forced herself to relax. "I don't want to."
He leaned back far enough to look into her eyes. "That's not true, and you know it. You're afraid."
She almost denied it, then gave up the effort as tears spilled down her face again. "I miss you. I don't know if I can."
"You can." He said it with such conviction that she almost believed it, herself. "And I'm always here. And there."
She stared at him, for a moment not understanding, but then she paled. "Oh, God," she whispered. "I'd forgotten." She shook her head. "All this time, you were --"
"I still am, in a way," he said, pulling her close again. "You closed me out, Molly," he said. "I could always come back - but you didn't want me to."
She stood in shamed silence as she realized that this was true. She hadn't *wanted* him back - she'd been too angry, felt too betrayed, and in all of that mess she'd forgotten the obvious fact that she'd *missed* him, *needed* him. But then the anger had come back, starting a vicious sort of circle that had fed on itself for years and years, until finally she was at this point. But now...
"It's time to go back," she agreed, quietly. "If they'll have me."
He laughed softly. "They'll always have you, my love. You're a part of them. Of her. You used to understand." He kissed her hair. "You still do."
She nodded. "I love you," she said. "I'm sorry."
"So am I," he said. "And I love you, too."
He put a finger under her chin, tilted her face up, and kissed her. She leaned into him; the kiss was soft, gentle, yet somehow still sad.
She felt a soft, warm feeling flicker over her thoughts, and then spread. Soft - it was so soft, and this was so right... even if it was the last time...
She opened her eyes. The sun was fully above the horizon now, and it was very early morning. She pulled herself upright - she'd fallen asleep on the hanging deck chair, wrapped in a thick blanket, staring out at the woods in hope of Jack's return. It had been hours - she must have slept through the whole night.
Molly wondered why she wasn't cold. It certainly must have been cold last night, and under normal circumstances she'd have woken up from the cold midway through the night, and gone back in. But she wasn't cold, not even chilled. In fact, she was, if anything, warm. And there was a vague recollection hovering at the edge of her thoughts, like a half-forgotten dream.
No; not like a dream. It had been a dream. A dream about...
It came flooding back, and tears sprang to her eyes. She swallowed them back and drew a deep breath, reaching for that warmth again. It was all right. It was all going to be all right, again. Somehow. Somehow...
She closed her eyes, reached, and pushed.
It wasn't very dramatic, for all the work she'd put into setting it up. The shield, however, slid obediently away, leaving her raw and open for the first time in a long time. Gingerly, she prodded at those long-dormant senses, feeling them slowly awaken. It was like stretching after a long nap, or opening her eyes after being blindfolded - right. She held back a relieved sigh, opened her eyes.
Just as something crept into the range of her sensing, appearing ahead of her like blips on a radar screen. Warm and there, more than one, and one of them, to her eyes, was glowing.
Molly's senses had never been very specific as far as this went - but she could easily recognize her son. Jack was coming back, restored, full of power, and Areahannah was with him. So was...
Molly got to her feet, leant against the railing, seeing them appear from under the trees.
She broke into a run towards the house, and Molly only just reached the foot of the steps before Fiona cannonned into her, laughing. "Hi, Mom. I'm back."
Molly clung to her daughter, staring over the top of her head at Jack, who stood a few paces behind Fi, arms crossed and face unreadable. Molly tried, casually, to look and see what his mood was, but she'd never been very good at reading emotions - and in any case, Jack was shielded to her. She turned her gaze to Areahannah, who stood a respectable distance away, overshadowed by a young man with red-blond hair and an olive complexion that didn't seem to match at all. The Guardian herself was watching Molly, eyes bright but not quite discernable.
Finally, Fi stood back, and gave Jack a *look*. Jack stared right back, then looked startled, then shamed. Molly recognized the expressions on both their faces - the sign that they were speaking without words. She'd once done it fairly often.
Molly held out her arms to him, and he walked into them.
And then Areahannah smiled, relief evident in her features. Molly looked up from the top of Jack's head, and smiled back.
Annie awoke, confused at the early hour. Usually she slept until well past nine or ten o'clock in the morning. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was barely past five. She got up on her knees to look out her window - something warm and wonderful was happening outside, somehow defying all logic against her being able to tell that, at all. She ignored the foolish voice that was supporting logic and pulled open the curtains.
Jack had returned - she'd heard him sneak past her door late last night, probably hoping to leave without waking anyone. But Annie had still *been* awake. She'd also heard Molly and Jack's voices, angry, on the porch under her window, shortly after. Now it seemed as if everything had come properly together - everything seemed marvelously *fixed*, and Jack was hugging his mother. Arrah and Terren stood off to one side a part of but not a part of the reunion, and Fi stood beaming next to her brother and mother.
::Where did Fi come from?:: she wondered idly. ::Oh, well. I guess that was to be expected - given as she was the only one capable of knocking any real sense into him.:: Annie smiled to herself, watching them all. She felt a little bit proud of herself. They were back together again, they way they were *supposed* to be, the way she'd just *known* they had to be, with no traces of the recrimination and blame and bitter, self-destructive grief and loss that had kept them apart before. The grief, that was still there - it probably always would be. But it had changed, somehow, softened, until it was no longer the thing keeping them apart and at odds, but rather the thing binding them together.
It was rather as if she had been staring at a huge, complicated puzzle with missing pieces. And when all the pieces had come back together, it had only taken a little nudge on her part to settle it all into place into a harmonious whole.
As Annie watched the ground below, she saw Terren look up to her window - she could have sworn he winked.
Annie grinned, and let herself fall back onto the bed. She stretched, pushing the covers away as she did.
She almost jumped out of her skin when her foot came into contact with something solid, and quite warm.
She bit back an alarmed squeak by clapping a hand over her mouth - then she sat still for a moment. There was nothing dangerous or hostile in this room - she'd have been able to tell that, as she always had. No, it was more as if something she'd been seeing out of the corner of her eye for a long time had decided to present itself to her, face-on. Annie felt a tentative touch at the back of her mind, full of tenderness and curiosity and even - dared she even think it? - affection. Love. Devotion.
Holding her breath, she threw back the covers.
Lying at the foot of her bed was a large, sleepy-looking panther. It blinked big yellow eyes at her languidly and yawned toothily, its tongue lolling out of its mouth. Then it looked at her.
Annie bit back another squeak, opting instead for scrambling backwards until her back met the headboard. The panther, for its - ::No, his,:: Annie decided - part, stretched, then looked at her again, the end of his pale pink tongue still sticking out of his mouth.
When it didn't seem as if she were going to be devoured alive - not that she'd really thought so in the first place - Annie crept forward until she was only a few inches away from the panther. He was warm, and most definitey *there*, even though there was no hair on the white sheets underneath him.
As Annie was reflecting on this, the panther bent his head forward and, opening a huge mouth, licked her, the rough tongue dragging up her cheek. Annie started, touching the now-damp skin. Which *was* damp. Really. The panther almost seemed to be wearing a smug, self-satisfied grin, or at least as close as a giant cat could come to one.
::The panther is real,:: she reminded herself, joy rising within her in place of apprehension.
"I thought I was going crazy, for a while there," she muttered, thinking out loud.
Another of those friendly mind-touches followed, and that settled all doubts. Annie threw her arms around his massive neck and hugged him. The panther purred, snuggling into her neck like a kitten, for all that he was roughly six times the size of one.
"You're here for me, aren't you? To protect me? And you'll never leave?"
The warm rumble of assent was all she needed.