Black Between

A/N: Thank you for all the reviews on my other StarStorm stories. I really do appreciate them and hope you like the latest offering. There are more about J'fren on the flash drive and hopefully, I'll be polishing them up soon, as well.

Disclaimer: I do not own or operate Pern.

StarStorm Weyr

"Sal, I'm going to the Hold to see Nana and Pops for a couple of days. Want to come?" J'fren was packing clothes on Shimuth's back and turned to look at his weyrmate.

"Can't, love. Not today. We've got all that training for the Spring Games. I'll come in tomorrow, how about that?" Saldia replied.

"All right. Have Fralmith give Shimuth a shout when you get ready to come in, so we'll know when to expect you." J'fren crossed the weyr and embraced Saldia.

"Will do." She smiled into J'fren's face as he kissed her sweetly. She kissed him and then leaned back to look at him. "Whew. I know it's just wrong for a child like you to be able to kiss like this. Keep it up and you won't get to the Hold today," she chuckled.

J'fren just held her a little closer. "I'm 23, remember, sweet Sally? Hardly a child anymore, my pretty girl."

"And me 48 Turns and I'm a 'girl'? You're a rogue, brownrider. But quite the most irresistible rogue on Pern. I'm still not sure how I got mixed up with you," Saldia retorted. But she loved their banter. Jeff could tease her out of the bleakest moods with his wit.

"Two dragons, mating in the early afternoon…" his voice trailed off lasciviously.

"You're awful, honestly you are. I don't know why I put up with you," she teased.

J'fren raised his eyebrows. "Because I'm the most irresistible rogue on Pern, that's why." He gave her a toothy grin.

Saldia rolled her eyes. "Good grief. You have quite a high opinion of yourself, Shortstuff."

"You're the one who said I'm irresistible — not me, sweet thing." Saldia was probably the only human on Pern besides his grandparents who could make a reference to Jeff's stature and not get a blistering retort.

"Me and my big mouth. Get out of here and go see Nana and Pops, why don't you?" She gave him a playful shove toward a patient Shimuth.

He grabbed her and kissed her again, then shrugged into his wherhide jacket and fastened his riding helmet. He mounted Shimuth, waved at his weyrmate, and the brown dragon dropped off the ledge. They rose high over the Star Stones and blinked between.

Jeff landed Shimuth in the open area near his grandparents' cot and unpacked his things from his back. Shimuth immediately went to the wallow he had carved for himself that caught the afternoon sun.

Jeff walked to the cot, carisak in one hand, swinging his riding helmet from the other.

Nana's flowers were blooming, he noticed. Looked like she had been working hard on them this spring. She had her climbing flowers up a trellis. That was new. Same old-fashioned pink roses, though. The blooms always looked a little ragged, but nothing in the garden smelled any sweeter, he thought, as he caught their scent on the breeze. Except maybe Nana's lavender when it was blooming. A couple of fruit trees were blooming, too, with the promise of a bumper crop.

The cot was built from the native rock, abundant in the area. The stone was hand-hewn, and Jeff wasn't quite sure how old the structure was. It had been around a while, though. A big hardwood tree shaded the home from the sun, and Jeff smiled, thinking about the rope swing that used to hang from the low branch.

The cot had a wide, shady front porch, with two rocking chairs and a porch swing. Jeff climbed the stone steps leading up to the porch and sighed a little. No matter how long he lived at the Weyr, this was home. Really home. He opened the door and peeked in.

"Nana? Pops?" he called. He entered the cot as his Nana came in from the kitchen, her face wreathed with smiles.

"Jeff, sweeting!" she exclaimed. She went to her grandson and hugged him tightly. "Is Saldia with you?" she asked.

"No, she may come in tomorrow, though. She had training for the Spring Games today. My Wing trained yesterday."

"Fine. Go put your things in your room and come sit." Same Nana.

"Yes, Nana." He laid his carisak and riding gear on his bed. His room was as it had always been. Nana had never changed it or converted it into something else. He changed out of his wherhide into cooler pants and shirt and went into the kitchen, where Nana waited for him.

"Sit down, son. You're just in time to help me peel tubers."

Jeff grinned ruefully. "You waited to peel them until I got here, didn't you Nana?" He grabbed a paring knife and filled a bowl with the vegetables.

"No, it just worked out that way, dear," she replied. "But I'm glad you're here to help."

As Jeff seated himself and started working his way through the bowl, Nana peppered him with the usual questions about his training, Shimuth's health, Saldia's well-being and weyrlife. She caught him up with the gossip from their little hold community. "Turra's daughter just had her third child. That makes 12 grandchildren for her. For Turra, I mean. Can you believe it?" Nana was saying, as she fluttered around the kitchen. "I certainly can't." Here, she paused to hug her grandson again and give him a kiss on the cheek. "But none of her 12 is as good as my one."

Jeff turned a little pink at this remark. "Thanks, Nana," he said.

"I'm only telling the truth," she replied as she stroked his black hair. "None of them are as intelligent, accomplished or as handsome as you are. And they're certainly not dragonrider candidates."

Jeff chuckled. "Not everyone is dragonrider material, Nana. Some people were born to do other things besides ride dragons. I thought I was until I was Searched."

"Hmph," Docena snorted. "You were always a cut above the rest of your peers. It didn't surprise me at all that the dragons thought you were suitable."

Here, Jeff laughed outright. "Goodness, Nana! No wonder I was such a brat, the way you go on about me."

"You were never a brat, Jeffren. You were a bright and creative child, with an inquisitive mind and a determined nature," Nana primly replied.

"By which you mean I'm stubborn as a herdbeast. I also came with a nasty temper."

"No one is perfect, love. Not even Tarel." Here she patted his head. "But you come as close as anyone could, dear."

Jeff rolled his eyes and shook his head. Small surprise he had the problems he did as a weyrling.

The tubers were peeled and sliced in short order and Nana had them on to boil. She had Jeff running her errands, which he was happy to do, until Tarel came in and saw his grandson, dishcloth in hand, drying the dishes as Docena washed them.

"Jeff, son, glad you're here," he said, clapping his grandson on the shoulder. "I've been wanting to see you."

Supper was its usual talkative affair, and Jeff ate far too much of his Nana's cooking, as he always did when he was at the hold. Evening found the family on the porch, Tarel and Docena in the rockers, Jeff dozing on the swing. He had one foot trailed down to keep it in gentle motion.

Tarel said, "Jeff, lad, let's have some music. Go get your gitar. And bring mine, too."

Jeff stood and stretched. "All right, Pops. If I can croak a note, full as I am." He went inside and returned with Tarel's gitar and his own, which had been the one Tarel made as a journeyman. Both were sound and beautiful instruments and prized by their owners. A glowbasket on the porch provided soft and pleasant light, as grandfather and grandson played and sang the old songs they loved. Nana knitted and sang with them, in her sweet, flute-like soprano. Even Shimuth was awake and enjoying the music, Jeff knew.

The singing continued until Nana announced it was past time for bed and she was going. Tarel and Jeff laughed at her insistence, but closed the glowbasket, put away their instruments and complied.

Jeff was more tired than he had realized, as he lay down. His last conscious thought that night was Nana coming in the room, to kiss him good-night, as she had every night since he could remember. She stroked his hair and left the room, humming softly. Jeff drifted into peaceful sleep. All seemed exceptionally right with the world.

Jeff slept late that morning. He didn't usually, but being at home, it was a luxury he allowed himself. He padded into the kitchen, yawning, and saw his place set at the table, and found the cereal, kept warm on the back burner of the stove. Fruit lay in a bowl on the table and Jeff absently sliced a peach into his cereal. He ate slowly, eyes half-open. Nana came into the kitchen from outside. She hugged Jeff. "Good morning, sweeting," she said.

"Morning, Nana." He smiled sleepily at her.

"Did you sleep well? I didn't want to wake you too soon. I thought you needed the rest."

"I slept just fine. It's always so quiet here. You're right: I needed the extra sleep," he answered.

"You and your dragon both. I think I just now saw Shimuth raise his head up as I went by his wallow. My, but he's looking well."

Jeff put his bowl and cutlery in the sink and felt for his dragon's mind. "Yep, he just woke up, too," Jeff said.

"Do you need to hunt him today?" Nana asked.

"No. He had a big meal day before yesterday. I may let him run down a wherry or two tomorrow. I need to bathe him eventually, though," he answered.

"Have him call in the hold's flits. They're always willing to help."

Jeff chuckled. "Anytime I'm out with Shimuth around here, I've always got plenty of company. You know how the young 'uns are."

"Oh, indeed. You know where the long-handled brushes are, when you want them."

"Yes, I do, Nana. Thanks." He hugged his diminutive grandmother and went to find some shorts.

Dressed, he gathered the brushes Docena spoke of and went outside to Shimuth's wallow. The Hold was having a rare, sunny spring, and Jeff felt the sun warm on his bare back.

He went to his dragon and spoke to him, Morning, big feller, he said.

Morning, Jeff. I need a bath, the dragon replied.

Absolutely, Jeff said, showing Shimuth the brushes. They paused a moment for their morning ritual of nuzzles and scratching eye ridges. Jeff rubbed Shimuth's blunt chin and the big brown thrummed happily. Dragon and rider were in utter sympathy.

Shimuth followed Jeff to the river, and waded into the warm water. He took the sweetsand and soaped Shimuth's near flank and started scrubbing his hide. Five minutes had not passed before three Holder children appeared to watch the proceedings, with their flits.

A word to Shimuth, and the flits immediately started scrubbing his back and neck ridges. The children watched, wide-eyed, as the dragon turned so Jeff could get his other side. He sent the dragon into deep water to rinse and the children giggled as the dragon splashed down contentedly, spraying water all over them, as well as his rider.

Show-off, Jeff thought affectionately to his beast.

They like me, he returned.

Everyone likes you, Jeff said, and motioned to the children. "When he comes up out of the water, he wants oiling on a couple of itchy places. Who wants to help?"

"Me! Me! Me!" came the answers in chorus.

"All right then. Come on out, Shimuth. You need oiling."

The dragon rose from the water and shook like a dog, again, wetting his observers thoroughly.

"Behave yourself," said Jeff, aloud. Then to the children, "Now then. He has a place on the near foreleg, one on his belly and one on his tail that need the oil. Let me show you how to do it." Jeff took a rough towel, and dried Shimuth's foreleg vigorously. "You've got to slough off the flaky skin first," he said, handing one boy the oil pot. "Then you dip your hand in the oil and rub it well on the patchy spot. That's all there is to it," he continued, as the boy massaged the oil into the rough patch.

The second boy volunteered for the belly. He took the towel and dried the skin, then put both hands into the pot and started rubbing the dragon's belly.

"Dragons are a bit ticklish on their tummies," Jeff said, as his brown twitched and hummed with pleasure. Honestly, Shimuth would let someone rub his belly all day. He did love to be loved.

The girl in the group was a few Turns younger than her brothers and Jeff knelt down to be eye-level with her. She was a little shy. "Do you want to oil his tail?" Jeff asked her.

She nodded silently, wide-eyed.

"Right, then. Shimuth, move your tail towards me so we can get it oiled," Jeff said. The dragon obediently swished his tail over to Jeff. The little girl started back, but Jeff smiled at her. "No fear." He handed the towel to the little girl and showed her where to rub. She patted the spot dry and Jeff held the oil pot for her. She dabbled her fingertips in it and barely touched Shimuth's tail with the oil. She giggled in pleasure. "His tail's warm," she said.

"It sure is," Jeff replied. "A little more oil, now. That's a girl. Rub it in well. You won't hurt him." The child laughed again as Shimuth twitched his tail under her ministrations. The children finished and cleaned their hands.

The boys thanked him nicely, as did the little girl. Then, she went to Shimuth's head. "T'ank you, brownie," she said to the dragon, to Jeff's amusement.

My thanks, small one, for oiling my tail. It feels better, Shimuth replied directly to her. Her eyes grew wide.

She turned to her brothers. "Brownie talked to me! I heard it in here!" she said, pointing to her head. Her brothers looked at her, then at Jeff.

He just shrugged. "He talks when he feels like it," he said.

The girl turned back to Shimuth. "I love you, Brownie," she said, throwing her arms around a very surprised dragon's neck. She went back to her brothers and they returned to their cot, the little girl stopping every so often to wave at them.

Jeff chuckled at his beast. You're a good dragon, my lad. That little girl will tell everyone she knows that a dragon spoke to her. You made her very happy.

Small ones are pleasant to speak with, Shimuth said.

Jeff squinted up at the sun. Bespeak Fralmith, will you, and find out when she and Saldia will be finished? he said.

There was a short pause. Fralmith says they are nearly through, she thinks. They will be here before supper, she says.

All right, said Jeff. Well, I'm going to swim a while and you can bask on the big rock. He was wet to the skin, anyway. Shimuth arranged himself comfortably on the large, flat rock and Jeff slipped out of his shorts and laid them out to dry in the sun beside his dragon. He went into the water to swim.

As Jeff and his dragon walked back to the cot, Shimuth got the message from Fralmith that she and Saldia were leaving the Weyr and would see them at Rainy Shades shortly. They reached the cot and Jeff scanned the sky for Fralmith's silhouette, but it was empty. Strange. It shouldn't have taken them that long, unless they were delayed at the last minute. Suddenly, Shimuth sat up, his eyes wheeling anxious purple. The color seemed to drain out of his hide.

What is it, Shimuth? Jeff asked.

"I cannot hear Fralmith!" he said.

Can't hear her? Maybe she just now went between. Jeff tried to reassure his beast, his own chest pounding with worry for his weyrmate.

Shimuth waited a moment, then apparently tried to contact her again. I cannot hear her! Then a pause, and Fralmith is no more! The dragon raised his muzzle to the sky and gave the keening wail that signaled the passing of one of his kind.

"NO!" Jeff screamed, "No! No! What happened? Shimuth, what happened to Fralmith and Saldia?"

Shimuth was silent and then, Lintrith says they left for here, and went between. He says he could not hear her after that. He had bespoken their Wingsecond's dragon.

Docena came flying out of the house at that moment. "Jeff, sweeting! Was that Shimuth I heard keening? What in the world happened?" She came to a standstill when she saw the shock and grief on her grandson's face.

He could hardly form the words. "S-Saldia. And Fralmith. Both gone," he said, voice choked with tears.

"How?" she said.

"Between," was all he said. He stood beside his dragon, both looking lost, Jeff clenching and unclenching his hands.

Docena first went to Shimuth. "Dear Shimuth. I am so very sorry." She touched his drooping muzzle. Then, she went to Jeff, and stroked his face and hair for a moment and then took his hand and led him up the steps to the porch and she sat down in the swing. She held her arms out to her grandson and he sat beside her and cried as she held him, speaking very softly to him. "That's right, Jeffren. Cry it out, my baby. Nana is here. Oh, my sweeting, I am so sorry."

Tarel came running into the yard. "I heard the watchdragon keening," he said, and stopped as he saw Docena cradling Jeff's dark head against her shoulder, and took in Shimuth's dull hide and lost expression. He slowly went up the steps. "Oh, Docena — not Saldia and Fralmith!"

His wife nodded silently. Tarel, his face bleak, put a hand on Jeff's shoulders. "My son. What can I do?" he said. Jeff just shook his head. Tarel stood beside the swing, his grief too deep for words.

Jeff finally sat up and said, "I suppose we should get back to the Weyr."

No, said Shimuth. Lintrith said to stay here. He said to come back tomorrow.

"All right." Jeff wasn't going to argue. Rainy Shades was where he would rather be at this moment, anyway.

Going back to StarStorm and the weyr he had shared with Saldia was one of the hardest flights Jeff ever made. As he landed, he instinctively looked to the left, where Fralmith usually slept. But she wasn't there. The whole weyr was full of reminders of Saldia's life: clothing, bedding, knickknacks she had picked up at Gathers, pictures her children drew for her. Children—who would tell her children? Or did they already know? Jeff sat down on the bed, overwhelmed at the numerous things there were for him to do.

The sounds of claws scrabbling on the ledge outside startled him. Who in the world? Jeff turned to the door, and C'land's blond head peered around it.

"Jeff, can I come in?" he asked.

Jeff nodded at his friend. C'land went to sit beside his friend and said, "I can't tell you how sorry I am."

"Thanks, Coll," Jeff replied.

"What can I do? Anything?"

"I don't know. Has anyone told her children?"

C'land nodded. "Her Wingleader told them yesterday."

"Good. That's good." He looked around him. "What am I going to do with all her things?"

"Well, I'd put away anything that means a whole lot to you, then ask her children if there's anything they want. Then, I'd get the greenriders in her Wing to come in and give them a chance to go through and pick up anything that is meaningful to them. They're a close-knit group. I don't think she had any family still living outside the Weyr, did she?"

"If she did, I'm not aware of it," Jeff said.

"All right then. Let's walk through and you put aside those things that you want to keep."

"I don't want to disturb anything. I want it to stay just as she left it," Jeff said.

C'land smiled at his friend and patted his shoulder. "I know, Jeff, but you can't do that. You have a life to live. Let's get started on this now, and you'll feel better for it."

Jeff nodded his acquiescence and stood and began looking around the weyr. Her small jewelry box sat on a shelf. He opened it. Inside he saw the wing emblem pin he got for her, as well as the filigree necklace he commissioned Pola to make for her. Saldia's daughter should get the necklace, certainly, and her blue Gather dress. All Jeff really wanted was the pin. He went to her chest and took out the Gather dress, remembering the first time she wore it -- at Rainy Shades. She had it laid away with dried lavender from Nana's garden to keep it fresh. The fragrance made Jeff's breath catch again. How was he going to do this?

By evening, Jeff and Cl'and had gathered up most of Saldia's things. A knock sounded, followed by the appearance of Saldia's three children. Marra, Saldia's daughter, was twenty-one and had Impressed a green dragon two summers before. Jeff started when he saw Marra. He hadn't realized until today just how much she resembled her mother. Especially when she smiled, as she did now.

"J'fren, thank you for asking us here. We," she indicated her younger brothers, "appreciate your thoughtfulness."

"You're welcome, Marra. I couldn't just give away your mother's things without asking you if there was something special you wanted. I do have something just for you." He turned and laid the folded Gather gown in her arms, along with Saldia's jewelry box. "The necklace she wore with that is inside," he said.

Marra's blue eyes, so like her mother's, filled with tears. "hank you, J'fren. Saldia was so happy with you. After F'rtel moved on, she was so sad. But you made her smile again." F'rtel was Marra's father.

"I'm glad," he replied, then turned to the middle child, Fayler, a lad of sixteen. "This is for you," Jeff said, handing the boy his mother's Wing papers she received when she was tapped into Clear Flight Wing as a Weyrling.

Silar, her youngest son, looked warily at Jeff. He was fourteen. "I have something for you, as well," Jeff said. He gave the young man a framed parchment. "This is the commendation Saldia received for exceptional bravery. She and Fralmith risked their lives to save a Wingmate who was injured in a firestone drill. The Weyrleader signed it."

Siler took the parchment. "Thank you, J'fren."

"You're welcome. Now please, look around and take anything you'd like to have. Don't be shy. I called you three in first. You are her children." Even though Saldia had to foster her children, she spent as much time with them as she was able, and was close to them. Jeff never begrudged her a moment with them. He had always told his weyrmate that time with her children took priority anytime.

When Saldia's children left, Jeff invited her Wingmates in. They were as sober as he, but also expressed thanks and appreciation for him thinking of them at such a time. They expressed mutual condolences and B'lil, who was also musical, asked Jeff if he could borrow his gitar. Jeff readily agreed and B'lil sang an old song – one of Tarel's favorites, in fact. As he trailed off the last note, "In my life, I loved you more..." there wasn't a dry eye in the weyr. Jeff clasped B'lil's hand in gratitude for singing such a sweet and fitting memorial to his dear weyrmate.

Later, Jeff grabbed a blanket and went to sleep in Shimuth's forearms. The bed was too big – and too empty.