A Midnight Return
Greer was crying again, strident infant wails that pierced ears and got under the skin. Khora struggled to get out of her bed and answer her son's demands, feebly battling with the thick duvet and detangling herself from the sheets.
Normally one of the women would be there to help her as she was still recovering from the demanding pregnancy but tonight she was on her own. She wryly made a mental note to reward each and every one of them because she was clearly unable to function without them. Greer was only a room away from her but she felt like she was sprinting up Hell's Precipice all over again as she followed the anguished noises. She was winded by the time she reached his door.
As Khora reached for the cool knob to open the door to the nursery, Greer's wails abruptly ceased. Khora felt her heart seize; the baby was only months old, but she knew he only did that when someone was there, answering his cries. Everyone who had legitimate access to this section of the living quarters was out and not returning for days yet. Her throat closed; she had been upsetting quite a few people lately with her political badgering and anyone hoping to strike at her heart would naturally target her little boy.
Automatically, Khora fell into the battle mindset that had saved her life so many times years before. Greer's room had two doors, one into her own rooms and another leading to Chihiro's which was protected by wards. There were four floor-to-ceiling windows, but they'd had Doom fix them with clever locks; only a trusted few knew how to operate them and the windows themselves had been hexed to incapacitate any person foolish enough to tamper with them.
She paused, and her heart dropped. If someone had quieted Greer, they were certainly not affected by the hexes. And that could only mean... One other had helped design the protections for the little boy, one person had set the powerful hexes that would activate if the lock was improperly worked. But he was gone, vanished in the darkest part of the night just hours after Greer's birth.
Mortimer Mortag. Greer's father.
The fear drained from her, leaving weak relief behind. She knew in her bones that was who was in there with her son and so instead of crashing into the room and upsetting them both, she gently eased the door open and peeked in.
The heavy curtains that were drawn closed every night were pushed back and moonlight flooded the pale green room, causing the stuffed toys that littered the floor to cast eerie shadows. One of the center windows hung slightly open, confirming her suspicion. The low bassinet where Greer slept was empty and she searched the room for a few moments before she spotted them, tucked in a corner where the bright light barely reached.
Her throat closed as she took them in. Mortimer had settled into a ratty old chair, the tiny baby cradled gingerly in his stiff arms as if the Necromancer was unsure he was doing it correctly. His ever-present armor was absent and his son's head rested again the soft linen of his shirt, the baby's pale hair blending with the fabric in the odd lighting.
His head was bowed, and she could hear him murmuring over the gentle rush of the wind through the young aspen tree outside the open window.
Tears gathered in her eyes as Mortimer brought up a hand, impossibly large compared to the baby, and stroked the white-blond hair on Greer's head. "I expect that came from me, eh?" he asked the baby softly as Greer clutched at Mortimer's shirt blindly. For a long moment, the man was silent, watching Greer settle against him and doze.
"Chihiro was right, little one," Mortimer murmured. "You are something. I didn't believe her, but I'm not very smart sometimes." He shifted carefully, crossing one leg over the other and settling the baby closer in the crook of his arm. Khora smiled at the way he carefully watched his son's face for any indication the new position was undesirable for the baby. The man relaxed when the baby continued to doze against his chest, unaware of the outside world.
"Your mom wanted you so bad," he confided. "It just about broke her spirit to lose all the others." He paused and watched his son for a long moment, capturing the tiny hand splayed against him and wrapping it around his finger. "You were a pain from the beginning, you know. We thought you were going to kill her." There was another long silence and Mortimer never took his eyes off Greer.
"When I told her what a powerful Necromancer you already were," he murmured, "she just about burst with pride. Never for a second did she ever think about herself." He ran a thumb over Greer's knuckles and smiled. "Even when a Monk followed her around constantly to replace the life you were taking from her."
Another silence stretched as Mortimer, the cruelest man she'd ever met, the same man who had held her hostage, endangered her life countless times and saved her life countless others, stared down at the baby he'd help make. In that moment, leaning against the jamb and peering into her son's nursery, she could see everything in his face; fear, pride, hope, and most heart wrenchingly of all - love.
"And I love you already, little guy," he whispered, and Khora felt tears fill her eyes. "More than myself and almost as much as I love your mother." A few tears spilled over, and she felt a pain in her chest as a poisonous thought hissed through her head, about abandonment and betrayal. But then Greer squirmed and let out the special squall he reserved for when he was hungry, ruining the bittersweet moment.
There was a pause in which Mortimer stared at his son. The baby screwed up his face and cried again, louder this time. Khora almost laughed out loud, her pain pushed aside as Mortimer looked utterly at a loss as to what to do.
Khora took pity on him and even though she didn't want the moment to end between the two, she opened the door completely and quietly entered the room.
"His name is Greer," she said softly. "And that means he's hungry."
Mortimer looked up at her like he'd looked at her so many times before with that mask that deterred others; gone was the tender father. But she knew how to look under it, and knew that he was only being defensive. Years at his side had taught her to go gently at times like this, and so she didn't bring up any of the things that lay between them like an ocean.
Instead she walked to him, lifted the baby from his arms and settled him expertly in her open robe. Mortimer watched in bemused fascination as she sat in a chair nearby, the baby happily occuppied. They sat together in silence, only the wind, the ocean, and gurgling baby noises filling it. She stared at her son instead of Mortimer, because her heart was malfunctioning. He was back, months after disappearing without explanation but she wanted nothing more than for him to be staring at her and their son as if a starving man at food; she wanted him to have missed them desperately. And she couldn't bear it if he wasn't; felt as if her heart would shatter if he hadn't.
And so the silence stretched and the moonlight dimmed as the moon set. Greer had long since finished and was now napping against her, his reassuring weight the only thing that kept her together. It felt as if she were back in the Breach, eyes full of tar and chest full of grief, prisoner of a man who would rather use her for sacrifice than feed her.
She had thought in the years after the fall of the Lich, she was over that. They were so happy, ridiculously happy. Even their fights were not really fights because there was nothing to actually disagree over. When Mortimer had gone to mop up the last of the Plague in Cantha, she established the school and it had taken off amazingly in such a short time. The loss of one baby after another had dimmed the happiness somewhat, but it had not broken them and then came Greer. She smiled and gently stroked his head. Her miracle. Even when he had sustained himself on her own energy, requiring her to be followed by a Monk every hour of the day, she had loved him with a ferocity she'd only brought to bear in battle.
Mortimer had been thrilled, and he smiled more readily - real smiles, not smirks - as the months passed with no complications. And when she delivered their child, he told her he loved her, which he had not been able to bring himself to do before, even though she was sweaty and exhausted and probably smelled awful.
And then, hours later, he was gone and she was back to the girl in the Breach with tar in her eyes.
But she had rallied, because she had a school that needed her to run it, and people who depended on her to be strong, and a baby boy who needed a parent. She had viciously locked that pitiful girl away and refused to acknowledge her. Her dearest friends, many of whom had helped defeat the Lich or Shiro and the Plague, had watched her with worry and never fully believed she as all right as she seemed, but they knew what a losing battle looked like and had quietly helped her instead.
But now here he was, sitting in the nursery shadows like a nightmare come to life; the night incarnate, death from the darkness and pure danger. She had felt compelled to trail in his wake in the past like a neophyte, unable to leave him be any more than the sun could stop rising and setting. Until the night in the desert, which she had some suspicion had to do with Greer, she was helpless in her attraction to him. It was powerful, unnatural and intoxicating.
Now, something deeper drove the attraction. He was the father of her son. He had died for her on that lava-riddled black battlefield, at the hands of the Lich, and owned her lift-debt as a result.
And Grenth help her, she loved him with her entire soul. Even with tar in her eyes.
She looked up and he was staring at them his pale eyes flicking between her and Greer, intense and unreadable.
"I missed you," he finally whispered, and a pressure in her chest eased slightly.
"I missed you, too," she murmured back, offering him a small bleak smile.
He stood in a movement so liquid it seemed unnatural and was suddenly at her feet, kneeling like a supplicant. He didn't touch her - he knew better than that, but he hovered a hand over her knee so closely she could feel the cool aura that always surrounded him and it tasted of Necromancy. Mortimer gazed up at her and she stared back as the baby slept between them in her arms. His eyes dropped to Greer and his free hand reached up to gently stroke the fine hair that fuzzed Greer's head.
"I know this will seem cold comfort," he whispered, still looking at their son. "But I needed to leave like that."
Khora swallowed and her stomach roiled. She didn't want to hear his excuses, but she knew this was needed. She had to hear why. Why he left her and his child without a backward glance or even a note. He removed his hand from their son, but left the one not touching her knee and returned his steady stare to her face.
"I was visited by Grenth," Mortimer continued in the same growling whisper. "He was quite pleased with such a powerful Necromancer born of me." He glanced at her face. "Of us. Of that night, in the desert."
Khora fought a flush; she remembered the desert, the single night of terrible, powerful magic compelling her into his arms. She hadn't put up much of a fight. But they had woken apart from each other, fully clothed. It had seemed merely a dream.
"He also showed me... scenarios. Futures. What could happen if I did not leave for the Desolation that very moment, and what terrible things would happen if I told you where I was going." A faint frown marred his face. "We are bound, you and I. Through time and blood and... And love. Reality works differently in the Desolation. If you had known, if you had worried for my safety in love with a bond so deep as ours it could have opened a..." He paused, searching for a word to express it in terms she could understand. "A doorway, I suppose. A doorway from there to here. I could not risk it, so I left even though it was the hardest thing I've ever done."
He pulled his hand back and made a fist, glaring at it. "The hardest thing I've ever done, do you understand? Harder than my transformation from human to monster. Harder than ascension. Harder than losing all those babies that could have been ours. It took every ounce of will to turn my back on you both and walk into the portal that took me away from you for the six years I was in the Desolation."
She stared at him silently and felt ashamed that she could think he would abandon them selfishly. She should have known better than that, should have trusted Chihiro and her staunch belief that Mortimer would be back with a good explanation.
He brought his head up and met her eyes, waiting.
She took a deep breath, made a decision and stood, careful not to jostle Greer. Mortimer did not move from his kneeling position, but turned his head to watch her cross the room and settle the baby in his bassinet. She closed the window, engaged the lock and closed the curtains, plunging the room into utter darkness.
She was blind but knew he was not and stretched her hand out toward him in the darkness, an invitation. His large calloused palm enclosed it without any warning; he moved without any sound. Her eyes still useless, she walked to her door by memory and pushed it open. It was slightly lighter in her room, lit by a small flame that burned without fuel in a glass on her bedside table.
"Welcome home," she whispered in the dark, turning to face him. He stepped in and closed the door behind him looming over her in the dim light, shadowy and inscrutable but so close and familiar her chest ached. She smiled faintly, aware of what he was pointedly not saying. The one time she'd gotten the upper hand and had him at her mercy, forever and a day ago. She'd thought of demanding a kiss, but had instead extracted an oath. I swear I will not touch you, without permission.
And he couldn't, even now. An oath was a powerful thing between spellcasters of their caliber. Even if she did not enforce it, it would enforce itself for her. Unpleasant things would happen if he tried to violate it. He knew she had retracted her previous permission when he left; he knew her better than anyone else.
But she knew now that for all they had things to work through - Grenth be damned, they always seemed to - already the wounds of his absence were healing. And so she smiled at him, closer to a real one this time, and said those words he'd been waiting for.
...And Chihiro never let Khora forget she had been right.