Most of the characters in this story are the property of ABC TV, and I do not have any permission to borrow them. Not that I think ABC will notice; it certainly isn't taking very good care of them. However, no infringement is intended. All other characters are my property, and if you want to mess with them, you have to ask me first. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
This is a futurefic, set a decade-plus after "Skein". It was written for the Prey fandom's 5-year anniversary, and inspired by Mark Schultz's (markschultzmusic dot com) song He's My Son. Grateful acknowledgement is hereby made, and absolutely no disrespect is intended.
Spoilers: The whole series, really.
At first glance, the scene framed in the window seems warm, cozy, comforting. A child tucked up in bed, his pajamas sporting colorful stripes, his dark hair a contrast to the snow of the pillowcase; a woman sitting next to the bed, head bent, holding the child's small hand in hers.
Then the details come into focus. The bed is a hospital one, despite the sheets with airplanes printed on them; the child's free arm has an IV line running into it, and his face is flushed with fever. The woman raises her head, and while the light catches on the fiery highlights in her hair, it also picks out the lines of strain that are deepening those laid faintly down by time.
To the man in the dim corridor, watching through the window, the scene beyond was all his hope and his despair. And he stood for a long time, unable yet to walk in and see what he already knew--nothing had changed.
After a time, a soft step in the corridor made Tom turn. He saw a man approaching--big, blonde, graceful, his youth belied by the black shirt and clerical collar he wore. The man gave Tom a quick glance, read his desire to remain alone, and nodded briefly, turning to knock softly on the door before opening it and passing into the brighter room.
The door shut behind him, and Tom watched him cross to the bed and look down at the sleeping boy. The pastor said something, the sound muted by the glass; Sloan shook her head slowly. The pastor's own head bent, though in sorrow rather than prayer; then he skirted the bed and laid comforting hands on Sloan's shoulders.
Tom gave them a few moments before he turned the handle and walked in. Sloan looked up, and as ever, her eyes lit at the sight of him; the light was dim now, but it still warmed him. She held out a hand as the pastor stepped back, and Tom took it in his, squeezing gently.
"Shane," he said in greeting, and the younger man smiled as though they had not seen each other a few minutes before.
"Hello, Tom." His smile faded. "Sloan tells me that there's no improvement."
Tom's eyes turned almost involuntarily to the sleeping boy. Normally he would have kicked the covers off by now... He suppressed the thought. "Not yet," he said carefully. "But Ed and Walter are working around the clock."
The unvoiced thought hung in the room; they were all thinking it. What if that's not enough?
Then the boy stirred, and three gazes turned to him, three sets of eyes filled with worry and hope. Blue-green eyes opened, blinked, and focused slowly on Tom. Tom smiled, and let Sloan go so he could take the too-warm hand in his own. "Hello, Michael," he said softly.
The boy smiled back. His eight-year-old's voice was rusty with illness when he spoke. "Hi, Daddy."
"It's hard to believe it's been over ten years," Sloan said to Shane, though her eyes lingered on the man seated a few yards away and the book he held as he read out loud.
Shane laughed. "It seems like only yesterday, sometimes." His gaze also watched the pair at the other end of the room. Michael's eyes were still open, but they were dull with fever and fatigue. "I still remember Tom bringing me up to your apartment that night."
Sloan shook her head ruefully, and finally turned to look up at him. "And I never even said hello--just slammed down the phone and ran out."
"You were a little distracted," Shane pointed out, amused. His face grew thoughtful as he remembered. "You know, I envied Tom so much."
"Because he wasn't working for the new species any more?"
"Partly." Shane folded his arms. "He was free in a way I wanted to be free...but it was more than that. He had found you."
Sloan blinked. "Me?"
The younger man chuckled at her expression. "Yeah. He found someone who cared about him. That was more than most of we rebels could hope for." He cocked his head and regarded her with the same cool expression that so many Homo dominants used. "You cared so much...not just about Tom, but about Ed too...to my senses you shone like a beacon. Tom must have seen you that way too."
Sloan's fingers touched her lips. "I never thought of it that way. It just always seemed like we were attracted to each other..."
"There's that," Shane said dryly, smiling, and Sloan grinned briefly in answer. Her eyes shifted back, inevitably, to the subject of their conversation, who was closing the book. Michael was asleep again.
Tom rose and came silently to them. "Ed's asked us to come in to the lab. We should go."
Sloan nodded, her humor dissolving in the ever-present dread. "We'll see you later?" she asked Shane.
"Tomorrow, probably," he answered. He gave them the small, almost self-conscious salute that was an old joke between the three of them, and left.
Sloan walked back over to brush a gentle hand over her son's hair. It was almost more than she could bear to leave him, even for a couple of hours, but it was not likely that he would wake, and the lab was only a couple of floors away. And the nurse was on call.
She felt, rather than heard, Tom come up beside her. "Do you think Ed and Walter have made any progress?" she whispered.
Tom hesitated, and she knew he did not want to say something that would crush any hope.
"Never mind," she said. "Let's go."
The hospital lab that Walter and Ed had appropriated was not as spacious as the one they'd had at Whitney University, but it had the best equipment available. Its normally pristine atmosphere was ruined by the scattered evidence of prolonged, intensive work, and its usual feel of cool science was now weighed down by worry and fatigue.
The two men occupying the small office within the lab also showed signs of strain. Walter's hair had gone iron-grey years ago, but the scientist looked a decade older than he was; Ed looked as though he hadn't slept in a week, and the glasses he had insisted he didn't need were now perched on his nose almost constantly. When she thought about it, Sloan felt nearly as tired. She had been working furiously right alongside them--until two weeks ago, when one of the dizzy spells she'd been trying to conceal had laid her out flat on the lab floor. She'd been banished from work for the foreseeable future.
Tom let her enter the room first, but she felt his hand at her waist, a reassuring touch. The two scientists looked up as they came in.
"How's he doing?" Ed said, and Tom shrugged.
"No change," he replied, and anyone watching might think from the coolness of his voice that he didn't care--until they saw his eyes.
Ed nodded slowly, and Walter gestured them to seats.
"We may have something," the older man said quietly, but waved a warning hand as Sloan sat up straight in her chair. "It's only a maybe, Sloan! Don't get your hopes up."
Ed slumped wearily on his folding chair. "It looks good in the trials, but so did the last two."
Walter folded his hands and rested them on the desk he sat behind. "Ever since this juvenile fever became known six months ago, we've been following the standard research patterns in trying to find a cure, or at the least a palliative or vaccination." For a moment his face creased with anger. "If only the new species had let us know when the fever first appeared! So many lives have been lost."
Tom shook his head. "They didn't think it was serious, not at first." His mouth tightened. "If I had realized--"
Sloan reached over to lay a hand on his arm. "Don't blame yourself," she told him. "It's not your fault."
"If it hadn't spread out of the Homo dominant community--" Walter sighed. "We would be even further behind if the hybrid children hadn't started getting sick."
"I was kinda surprised that Michael came down with it," Ed interjected. "I mean, as far as we know his genetics are unique."
Michael's parents, one human, one neither Homo sapiens nor Homo dominant, exchanged glances. The fever ignored human children, preferring those of the new species--regardless if one of the parents was human.
"None of the other research teams has been successful, neither the human ones nor those of the new species. So we've been branching out into less traditional areas of research, using the new techniques and equipment developed by the new species...this you knew."
Walter took off his glasses and tossed them onto his desk. "This virus is unlike anything we've seen before."
Tom looked up sharply. "Do you think it's artificial?"
Ed laughed without much humor. "I wish it were. We might have better luck."
Walter sighed. "No, it's natural. It was probably something rare and relatively harmless, that mutated and found the immature systems of Homo dominant children to be just to its liking."
"I'm starting to regret the fact that Copeland's own virus killed him," Ed murmured. "This would be just up his alley."
"But it was you and Sloan who came up with the vaccine," Tom pointed out.
Sloan shrugged. Part of her wanted to plunge back into lab work, and her dizzy spells could go hang; her child was threatened, and she wanted to work until they found an answer. But another part of her grudged every moment she was away from Michael's side--all the more because she was never sure how much time she had left with him.
But I thought he was safe! a tiny voice wailed inside her. We all did!
They had never voiced the assumption that Michael's singular heritage would protect him, but they had all shared it. So much about the virus was unknown, including its method of transmission, but they had believed that Michael was out of danger.
Maybe we believed that...because we were frightened to think otherwise. A week ago her son had come home from school listless and irritable, and by evening he was in the hospital, tossing with fever. He was stabilized for now, but like so many other children--in this hospital and elsewhere--his time was limited without a cure. And they didn't know how much time.
"So how soon can you test your new..." Tom trailed off.
"Antiviral," Ed supplied. "We've started the tests, but it will be tomorrow afternoon at the earliest before we know anything."
"Go home. Get some rest," Walter said gently. "There's nothing more you can do here right now."
Sloan thought about tossing the advice back at them, but held her tongue. They needed rest more than she or Tom did, certainly, but she also knew what drove them. They would not stop, not yet.
Sloan was already in bed when Tom got out of the shower that evening, though she wasn't asleep. A formidable nurse at the hospital had turned them out of Michael's room and ordered them home until morning, and they had reluctantly left their sleeping son.
Sloan looked up at her husband and frowned. He was obviously distracted, dropping his towel on a chair instead of replacing it neatly in the bathroom as he usually did, and he sat down on the edge of the bed and stared off into space.
Sloan studied him for a long moment, thinking. Their lives had changed so much over the past decade, and yet she would scarcely trade a moment of the years away. Well, maybe a couple of moments. There were a few memories she could do without...but none of them the fault of the gentle, unique man who loved her. She could count on one hand the times he had told her so, but it didn't matter. She didn't need the words. She had him.
Sloan sat up, then scooted over and began rubbing his taut shoulders. He sighed and leaned into her hands, and she grinned to herself. If he could purr... Tom was a remarkably sensual man for someone raised to ignore the needs of the heart, and he needed to touch and to be touched. And it was never a hardship to fulfill that need.
When she had eased the tension from his muscles, he turned and caught one of her hands, raising it briefly to his lips. "Thanks."
"My pleasure." Sloan felt her brief uplift fading in the face of the ever-present fear. "Tom..."
"I know," he said softly, and gathered her into his arms. She felt the tears well up and did not bother to try to choke them back.
When her storm passed, Tom leaned back against the headboard without releasing her. For a long time they just rested in the silence, but their fear hovered in the shadows.
One look at Walter's face was all they needed the next afternoon. The latest attempt at a cure had failed. Walter's face was drawn with exhaustion and his normally scrupulously tidy person was rumpled.
"I'm sorry," he said in a low voice as they walked slowly into the lab. Sloan blinked back tears and managed a smile, but it was Tom who spoke.
"We know you're doing all you can, Walter."
The older man nodded, but his face did not lighten. Ed sat on one of the high lab stools nearby, arms resting on the table and his face buried in them. Sloan swallowed. "Uncle Ed" was taking Michael's illness very hard.
She chose a lab stool for herself. "Tell me again what approaches you've tried--I've lost track since I stopped working."
Walter glanced toward the unmoving Ed, then turned back to Tom and Sloan. "Well, we've gone through all the usual analyses, but this virus is not like anything we've isolated in the past, so no help there--it's not a mutation of anything we recognize."
"But the new species carries immunities to so many bugs..." Sloan put in, and Walter grimaced in agreement.
"Yes. Even the Homo dominant scientists haven't identified them all yet. But you can bet they checked for a match first thing." The scientist sighed. "The immune systems of Homo dominant adults were no help, so we tried those of Homo sapiens, both children and adults. But the bug just fails to thrive in human systems. It's not that they fight the virus off--it just doesn't reproduce."
"It's not an ideal environment?" Tom suggested, garnering approving looks from both doctors.
"Exactly," Walter confirmed. "The problem is, we can't figure out what it is in the immature system of Homo dominant that makes the environment ideal."
"He means, we can't figure out why everyone else's system won't let the bug reproduce," Ed said, raising his head at last. He fumbled for the glasses sitting on the table and put them on.
"What happened in the adult Homo dominant systems?" Tom asked.
Walter shrugged. "Practically the same thing as the human adults. The virus doesn't reproduce."
"Almost," Ed added. "It starts to, but then it just stops--as though it's getting some kind of message that tells it not to multiply."
"And you can't identify the message?" Sloan asked.
"If there is one." Walter leaned back in his chair, weariness and sorrow in every line of him. "It happens too fast, whatever it is. We tried over and over again to isolate it, but eventually we had to give up and go on to other ideas."
"Except we've run out of ideas." Ed ran a hand through his hair distractedly. "And the kids keep dying."
The room was dim, lit only by a nightlight, but Tom could see well enough. He and Sloan had gone home, but stayed scarcely long enough for showers and a quick meal. Neither wanted to be too far from Michael, in case...something...changed.
Sloan now slept on the small cot the hospital had tucked into a corner. Tom watched her as he had so often before, though his ears stayed tuned to the sound of his son's breathing. Hope was still sometimes a foreign thing to him, even now, and he was rapidly learning the terrible aspects of it as well as the sweeter ones.
Michael... They'd tried to have more children, off and on, but without success; Sloan had done a few tests and finally decided that their unique genetic combination was probably the difficulty. "We were lucky to get one," she had said, a touch sadly, but with the proud and tender smile she wore only when speaking of her child. Tom had been satisfied, still amazed at the wealth of emotion and responsibility that Michael had brought.
Now he wondered what would happen if they lost Michael. He touched only lightly on the thought of what it would mean to him, afraid of the pain even before it happened. The fear he now felt for his son was as deep as any he had ever felt for Sloan, though different in ways he could only partly understand.
What would I do if I had to choose between them?
A chill ran over him at the unexpected thought. His first impulse was to put it away from him, but years of discipline stepped in. Different circumstances, of course; though in this situation he knew that Sloan would be quick to offer anything, even her life, if it would save Michael. As he would. But now it would not.
The answer to the frightening little puzzle came more easily than he'd thought it might. I would choose Michael...because Sloan would want it that way. Once upon a time, losing Sloan might have killed Tom as well, but now he would have something--someone--to live for.
Tom shook off the disturbing thoughts. The situation was dire enough already without having to indulge in flights of morbid fancy.
His senses reached out to his sleeping wife, yearning toward her in the familiar, helpless love that was still a wonder to him. And he blinked and straightened as he sensed something new.
It took him a few minutes to be sure; then he relaxed back into his chair, the least hint of a rueful smile touching his lips. Of all the things to happen now...
Two days went by, and they scarcely dared leave Michael's side. This second phase of the fever could last days, even weeks, but when the third phase set in, it was sometimes only a few hours before death. Walter and Ed were theorizing that the third stage did not occur until the body was worn down enough by the fever, but so far they had been unable to turn their theory into anything useful. Time is running out, Sloan thought as she sat holding her son's overwarm hand. And not just for Michael. Hundreds of children had come down with the virus, and it could conceivably strike every Homo dominant preadolescent, as quarantine efforts had so far proved useless. There were factions that would be happy to see an entire generation of Homo dominant wiped out, Sloan knew, but they were fortunately few. Still, they might get their desire.
Shane stirred in his seat on the other side of the bed. The younger man had kept his promise and had returned as often as he could to offer what comfort he could, though the needs of his parish usually meant he could not stay long. But Sloan found it reassuring to have him there, praying silently for her son.
Now Shane closed his Bible and stretched. Michael's eyes opened as he drifted back out of sleep, and Shane grinned down at him. "How's it going, sprout?"
One corner of Michael's mouth turned up in a tired grin, so like his father that Sloan's heart twisted painfully. "'M thirsty."
She reached out to pour him a glass of water from the carafe on the bedside table, and Shane slipped a gentle arm behind Michael's shoulders so he could sit up a bit and drink. But as soon as he had taken a swallow or two, Michael's eyes slid shut again.
Shane eased him back down, silent grief etching his face. "I have to go," the pastor said after a moment.
Sloan nodded. "Thanks for coming by."
The younger man rose, and placed a hand briefly on her shoulder before walking out the door.
Sloan sighed and glanced at the clock on the wall. It was early evening, and she had not seen Tom since that morning. Much as he hated to leave, business had called him away. She knew he was pushing his luck in neglecting his responsibilities as much as he was currently doing, but he would only compromise so far.
As if her thoughts had conjured him, the door opened again and Tom stepped silently in. To Sloan's experienced gaze, he look strained and exhausted, and his eyes went immediately to the small form under the sheet. Then they flicked to hers.
She shook her head. "No change," she said softly.
His shoulders slumped a fraction, and to her horror, she read despair in the tilt of his head and the darkening of his eyes. He had been her rock throughout Michael's illness; Sloan knew he worried as much as she did, but he always seemed ready to proffer hope when she had none. She rose, half involuntarily, and stepped toward him. "Tom?"
He shook his head, but not to ward her off. Lines of pain and fear suddenly stood out in his face, making him look older than he was. Sloan went to him and put her arms around him. Slowly his hands slid around her waist, and he leaned forward to bury his face in her hair. She stroked the firmness of his back, saying nothing, knowing from the wordless communion they sometimes shared that his own fount of hope had run dry.
His shoulders quivered beneath her hands, and she felt a sudden spot of coolness just below her ear. But it wasn't until she heard Tom draw in a harsh breath that she realized he was crying. Her throat swelled and her own eyes watered in response, but she kept her reactions under control. It had been many years since she had seen him weep.
He made little sound; a few shudders passed through him, and she felt his hands clench in her sweater, but it was not long before he took a deeper breath and relaxed his grip. His head turned a fraction, to press his face further into her curls. Sloan searched for words to comfort him, but she could think of nothing that was not foolish or untrue, so she only sighed and held him closer.
They stood so for a long time, wrapped in grief and tired fear. Then Tom straightened, releasing her, and cupped her face in his palms. He kissed her as though he were drawing strength from her, as perhaps he was, and Sloan summoned up all her courage for him. When he lifted his head, his face was still streaked with tears, but his eyes were calm.
"Don't give up," Sloan whispered, and he gave her the faintest hint of a smile.
"I just...what will we do without him?" he asked softly, and Sloan had no answer.
Hospitals are never silent, but they are often hushed, and Tom sat and let the sounds drift around him through the long stretches of the night. He'd been having trouble sleeping since Michael's diagnosis--they both had--and while Sloan would succumb to exhaustion every so often, Tom's own stronger constitution kept him going for days at a time, even when he wished for a few hours of oblivion. It was just as well, he reflected tiredly. Staying awake meant fewer nightmares.
Is this acceptance? he wondered, then rejected the idea as a fierce denial rose in him. But he could no longer look forward to the time when his child would be well.
Sloan had become restless and had finally departed for the lab, murmuring something about making sure Ed and Walter got a little sleep themselves.
He set his chair by the bed and took one limp, hot hand in his own. Michael did not even stir, and Tom sat for some time, watching the slight swell and fall of his son's chest. He had to keep swallowing; the tightness in his throat had returned. Something dark gleamed on the bedside table, and he glanced over to see Sloan's worn leather Bible. It was she who had called Shane, though Tom knew that the younger man would have turned up as soon as he had heard the news.
He gripped Michael's hand a little tighter, then did something he had not done since his son had learned to walk; he lifted the boy's palm to his mouth and gently kissed the brown fingers, remembering how it had made the baby giggle and Sloan smile as she watched. He'd never hoped to have children, not this way; his genes were considered valuable by his people, of course--at least before his change--but as a chameleon and a Chosen he would not have had anything to do with the raising of offspring, even his own. It was reassuring in a way to find out through the records that Michael was his first child; there were no others lost to his memory and growing up without him. Judging from how he felt about his son, he would have had to go find them and bring them back to Sloan. And she would scarcely have blinked, he thought with a touch of humor, though she might have had something to say to him later in private.
For an instant he wished that they had managed to have more children, wistful at the image of his beloved surrounded by healthy, handsome...redheaded...kids. Still...
The inevitability of the situation returned to hit him all at once with a heavy wave of pain. He felt so helpless, all his power and position and emotion nothing against the virus that was killing Michael. He released Michael's hand and gripped his own together, hard enough to bruise. There was nothing more he could do.
Please... The thought was half-coherent, pleading, directed at a Power he only half-believed in and was outside his experience. Please. Let him live. He's only a child.
Someone else had begged for her child's life, years before; she had looked at him with eyes that were just as empty of hope and had asked the impossible. He asked for a miracle now, emptied of resources and having nowhere else to turn. Let him live.
Slowly the turmoil inside him ebbed, leaving a faint, inexplicable sense of peace. For a moment he felt as though someone stood behind him, watching too, and he remembered abruptly the story of the Father who had lost His own Son. Then Michael sighed in his sleep, and Tom's attention focused on him, and the feeling was gone.
I don't even remember what day it is.
I suppose I could look at the last entry, but I'm not sure when I wrote it--two days ago, maybe, or three? Anyway, it's just more of the same. Nothing. Nothing we try works.
Walter told me to take a break for a bit, and I guess I can see the sense in that, but it's hard being away from the lab when I know that every minute could count. Still, out here I don't have to watch. I don't know which one is harder to look at, Sloan or Tom. Sloan shows her pain like she does everything else, and it only makes her dearer. Tom doesn't look like much if you don't know him, but if you do...I can't stand to look at him for long. It just hurts too much.
I haven't even been to see Michael since the day he was admitted. That hurts too, and it's more personal. This kid--he's something special. He's got his parents' brains, and their looks, and a genetic code like the world has never seen. And a heart as big as his brain.
Just the other day he was asking me how the incubator works, and I had to admit I didn't know. Never thought I'd hear a kid calling me "Uncle," especially since I'm an only child myself. I never thought I could care this much.
Gonna go back inside now. There has to be an answer. We have to find it.
He knew how long he'd been sitting there in the dim light, of course; his time sense was as sharp as ever. But it felt longer. Michael was asleep again, his body wearing down under the constant onslaught of the fever, and Tom reached out to push an errant curl of black hair out of his son's closed eyes. Sloan had gone down the corridor to get herself some of the hospital's revolting coffee; Tom refused to drink the stuff. Something was nagging at the back of his mind, something that he couldn't quite bring forward. He tried one of the concentration techniques he'd been taught as a child, but it still hovered, just out of reach.
The door swung open to reveal Sloan. She looked as exhausted as he felt, and he thought wryly that the vile brew in the styrofoam cup she held would not do much to perk her up. He rose, ignoring her headshake, and made her sit in his chair. She grumbled, and sat.
"What's the matter?" she asked, taking a cautious sip.
He smiled a little. Sloan had become almost as good at divining his feelings as he was at sensing hers.
"Something's bothering me," he said quietly, leaning back against the table next to the bed. "There's something we're missing in all of this."
Sloan cupped both hands around her coffee. "Maybe," she said thoughtfully. "What are you thinking about?"
He folded one arm over his chest, the fingers of his other hand fretting absently over his thumb. "The research," he answered, frowning a little. "There's something we're not seeing..."
Sloan swallowed a larger gulp, wrinkling her nose. "It wouldn't surprise me," she replied. "We're all exhausted--even you."
Tom tilted his head in ironic acknowledgement. Then his eyes widened as the thought came clear. "Ed and Walter said they tested for responses to the virus in both human systems and those of the new species..."
Sloan set her cup down and sat up straight. "Yes..."
His hand flicked out to point at her. "Then there's one system they haven't tried. Mine."
They stared at each other for the space of a breath; then they scrambled for the door.
"I can't believe we were that stupid!" Ed fumed, bending over a microscope. "Right in front of our noses the whole time..."
Walter strode across the lab, pulling goggles down over his eyes. "Recriminations later," he admonished. "Research now."
Sloan put away the tubing she had used to draw blood from Tom's arm, and he rolled his sleeve back down over the bandage. He watched as the two scientists spun into action with renewed energy, and made no protest as she snatched up a lab coat and joined them. Sliding off his stool, he made his way toward the door to be out of the way, but as he approached it, Michael's doctor came in. Glancing back at the oblivious workers, Tom drew the woman back into the corridor. "What is it?"
Worry and weariness creased her face, and Tom sensed the frustrated anger that burned in her. "Mr. Parker...Michael's entered the third stage."
Normally Tom appreciated bluntness, but this time it took his breath with sudden hot pain. "How long?"
The pediatrician shook her head. "Twelve hours...maybe sixteen."
Not enough time, was his first thought, but then he told himself that he didn't know for sure. He managed to thank her, and she strode away, holding her shoulders straight against the hurt she knew she had dealt him. Tom shut her out and went in to tell his wife.
Sloan turned dead white at the news, eyes growing huge, and their gazes locked in mutual anguish. Ed swallowed hard, and a muscle twitched in Walter's jaw. The silence hummed with pressure.
Then Sloan took a deep breath. "We'd better hurry, then," she said, and turned back to her task with an effort. Pride in her strength pushed back a little of Tom's pain.
"I'll go back to Michael," he said quietly, and left the three to their tests.
His son had been moved to a critical care unit, and an oxygen fitting joined the tubes and wires that connected him to a variety of machines. The boy seemed shrunken and waxy among the sheets and the beeps, and Tom wanted fiercely to pick him up and cradle him the way he did when Michael fell and hurt himself. But he had to settle for pulling up a chair and once again taking the thin hand in his own. The young bones appeared fragile, as though the fever was taking all of Michael's substance to feed its own hunger. Dark lashes sealed pale lids, and Tom knew they would not open again, not unless the three in the lab could pull off a miracle.
He could see the pain approaching, the looming impossibility that he should be alive and his only child dead. It was drawing closer, and he had no defense against it. So he held Michael's hand and loved him silently, deliberately, knowing how little time he had had to learn love and how little time he had left to practice it on his son.
Sloan came to them at some point, to sit on the other side and place a mother's gentle kiss on Michael's forehead. Tom's eyes devoured that, too, Sloan's devotion almost a symbol of what Tom himself had never had. And they waited, in the dim light, in the hush underlain with quiet machine noises.
And then Ed hurried in, shattering the waiting with the syringe he held. No one said anything as he hastily disinfected Michael's arm and slid the needle in. Not until he depressed the plunger and withdrew the needle did he speak. "It hasn't been tested, there wasn't time," he said softly. "But you should have heard Walter. It looked like it might work, and all he said was 'Screw ethics' before he handed me the solution." He straightened and looked down at the comatose boy, then took off his glasses and scrubbed hard at his face.
Sloan glanced across to Tom, and he nodded, knowing what she was asking. Her eyes warmed, though she did not smile. "Pull up a chair, Ed," she told the doctor.
The waiting was harder now. Every rise and fall of Michael's chest seemed to take forever; every second ticking away seemed to prick as it passed by. An hour slid by. Another was half gone before one of the machines gave a different beep.
They all sat up straight together, in a move that would have amused them at almost any other time, but it was Ed who spoke. "His temperature..."
It had dropped a degree. As they watched the monitor, it dropped another. And hope bloomed slowly in the shadowy room.
Michael was sleeping normally when they finally pulled themselves away. Ed had gone earlier, running almost as fast as he had come, to give the good news to Walter, who had barricaded himself inside his office to wait. "It was the Homo dominant equipment, in part," Sloan explained as she and Tom walked down the corridor. "Without the new species' advancements in technology, we never could have pulled off the serum in time." And it was working on the other hybrid children, too; the hospital held enough of them for further hasty tests.
They paused outside the lab. Already it was a swirling bustle as technicians hastened to prepare more serum. Within hours it would be reaching sick children across the country. Sloan laughed, incredibly relieved, and then put a hand to her forehead and leaned against Tom as her head spun briefly.
"I thought I'd gotten rid of the dizzy spells," she complained. "What's wrong with me?"
She was no more expecting an answer than she was prepared for the brilliant grin that shot across her husband's face. And her mouth dropped open when he bent his head to her ear and told her just why she was dizzy.
"Mom?" Michael's voice was still high, but Sloan could all but hear its future deepness. Her little boy was becoming lanky and coltish as adolescence approached, and she smiled as he swung into the room.
"What's up?" she asked as he bounced to a stop.
Michael's face was more serious than an exciting event like that day warranted. "Mom, what's with Dad? He's so...quiet...today."
Sloan suppressed a chuckle at that. Tom was hardly noisy at the best of times. Still, she knew what Michael meant.
"You know your father didn't have a very happy time when he was growing up," she said, sitting down at the kitchen table. To her secret joy, Michael hesitated, then sat down in her lap--something he did so rarely any more. She put her arms around him and cuddled him.
"When he turned eleven," Sloan went on softly, "your father was taken away from his family and put into a kind of training school. It was very hard for him, even though he learned fast. It's not something he likes to remember very much." What he can remember of it.
Michael twisted a little to look up at her. "So he doesn't like that it's my birthday?"
"No!" Sloan's arms tightened around her son. "No, of course not, Michael. He's very happy for you. I think..." She paused to order her words. "I think he's remembering what happened to him and being happy that it won't happen to you."
He's beginning to see that Tom's different, Sloan thought, a bit sadly. Until recently, Tom had been only Dad--maybe not quite like anybody else's dad, but nothing too unusual.
"Your father was taught that emotions were bad," she explained. "He learned that this was wrong a long time ago, but it's still hard for him to show what he's feeling sometimes. He loves you very much, and he's happy that you're growing up strong and safe. He just can't say it or show it very well."
Michael was silent for a little while, thinking. "It doesn't matter," he finally said. "I mean, if I know he feels things, he doesn't have to show me."
Sloan smiled in relief and ran a hand through her son's dark, curly hair. She often wondered if Tom's hair would curl so if he ever let it grow that long. "You're right," she told him. "But if you ever wonder, you ask him. He'll tell you then."
Sloan grinned at the expression of glee on Michael's face as she brought in the cake with its burning candles. A mature eleven he might be, but some things are forever childlike. She set the platter down in front of him; as was his wont, Michael shut his eyes for his long wish.
Sloan looked across the table at her husband. Tom was silent, of course, but the gleam in his eyes was not all a reflection of the flames, and the slight, tender smile he wore as he watched his son was one he kept only for his family. Her gaze slid affectionately over Tom's face. Years had passed since they had first crossed glances through a glass-windowed door, and while her hair was beginning to thread silver, his was untouched by grey; the fine lines that accented her eyes and mouth had no counterpart in his skin. Homo dominant had a much longer lifespan than Homo sapiens, and while Tom was a hybrid now, he still aged more slowly.
It should bother me--but it doesn't. For one thing, Tom's love for her had never been based on her looks. And the deep bond between them seemed to make such details irrelevant. Sometimes the future worried her; how would Tom cope when she grew feeble with age? And then Sloan would laugh at herself. There were plenty of times in the past when she did not think either of them would live to grow old, and even now some random chance could take one or the other of them away. An occurrence she refused to dwell on.
Her gaze shifted to her daughter, whose normal chatter had subsided at the sight of the cake. The little girl held absolutely still, though her red curls trembled; her eyes, too, shone raptly at the sight of the cake with its curlicues of frosting and its bright candles. But Sloan knew it was only a matter of time--a short time--before her voice would be lifted in question or demand. She smiled and pulled Celia onto her lap. Tom could cut the cake this time.
And Michael opened his eyes, grinned hugely, and blew out the candles.