This is Issue #62 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
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The world smelled of lavender and camphor and death. Stale air and feversweat. He drew a ragged, choking breath as he came alive within the stranger who was soon to die, and lay in the bed feeling as though he were drowning under the light linens that barely rested on his chest. His tongue tasted of fire and metal, and his eyes burned as everything around him dimmed.
Kieron shuddered, struggling to breathe, and in his movement, he caught the attention of someone else in the room, who came over, came closer, and leaned down to look at him. She was young, perhaps half his age, with fiercely red ringlets and a generous spattering of freckles against milkpale skin. He lifted a hand, reaching for her, and saw that his own hand was withered and liverspotted, the paperthin skin mottled with bruises.
He watched her, for some time, feeling a strange longing in his chest; coupled with the heaviness, it brought the focus of his world down only to her. She was beautiful. Something just outside the room caught her attention; Kieron had no idea what it was. She took his hand and held it, kissing the knuckles dryly, and he opened his palm to lay it against her cheek gently. She set that back on his chest and backed away to sit in a chair in the corner and watch him, smiling faintly.
He felt her loss keenly; the body he inhabited was woven through with familial love for the girl. He wanted to protect her. To watch over her.
Someone else came in, just then — someone who tugged at his heart even moreso. Her auburn hair was close-cropped, shorn in mourning, so it seemed according to her redrimmed eyes, but then he realized she was wearing an airman’s uniform. She knelt at his bedside and gripped his hand tightly, laying her head to his belly and sobbing. “Papa,” she pled. “You can’t go. You can’t. Who will we come home to? Who will stay when we ship out?” she begged. “Who will sing the winter holiday hymns and play the fiddle for us? Who will kiss me good morning when I wake up too early? Papa, please get better. You have to get better.”
Kieron knew if he was here, in this body with its heavy chest, with its dying breath, there was no ‘getting better’. There were only moments left. He lifted a heavy hand and laid it atop the woman’s head, petting her hair. Tati. She was Tati. He had never felt this close, this fully a part of a death. The slow suffocation was all-consuming; he wondered if the man who had grown in these limbs was still somewhere within, living out his last moments. He wondered if the man — his name was Brenneman Vernon–knew he was there. His watery eyes flicked to the girl in the chair, who watched the scene quietly, a pained smile on her face. When she noticed his gaze, her expression was apologetic.
Yana. All of nine years old and fierce as an unchecked bonfire.
She got up and put her arms around the sobbing woman, and gently led her out, saying quietly, “Mama, let’s make a tea for Dedi Vernon. You want a tea, don’t you, deduska? A nice hot tea with biscuits. The chocolate biscuits, mama. And fruit and cheese.” She looked to Kieron, a hopeful, pleading expression on her face.
He nodded, trying to look excited, and Tati’s expression wore such hope, he felt his heart break.
“You start, Mama,” his little Yana directed. “I’ll fluff his pillows so he can sit up and tea with us.”
The woman shuffled off, wringing her hands, talking quietly to herself about what she should get out and make ready for tea.
Once she was gone, Yana stood at his bedside again and clasped one of his hands, petting it gently. “It’s okay, Dedi Vernon,” she whispered, reaching up to pet his cheek. “I’ll take care of her. Mama’s strong — she just forgot. She misses her mama, and she doesn’t want to miss you, too.” She stroked his cheek and leaned in to kiss his forehead, saying, “It will be okay. You don’t have to hang on anymore. I know you’re tired, deduska,” she said, patting his hand.
And he was — oh, heavens, he was just so damned tired. Kieron nodded to her, and weakly squeezed her hand. He tried to speak with her, but he couldn’t draw enough of a breath to say anything. For a moment, there was almost panic on his face, but then Yana was there, in his field of vision. Just Yana. She kissed his forehead and stroked his cheek, saying, “It’s okay. Mama and Papa and I will be okay, Dedi Vernon. I love you.”
The sweet adoration Kieron felt came from his own heart, he was certain of it, but the heart of the dying man bore so much more love for the girl, so much fierce pride, he could not help but let it overwhelm him. So much love. So much hope.
So much fear.
My darling Yana. Never let anyone put out that fire in you. Don’t follow them into war. Fly like your babu. My beautiful Juliana. You look so much like your grandmother. Fly for yourself — not for Centralis. Kieron’s head swam with memories of a life that wasn’t his. This slipping — maybe it was the aetheris covering him. The lightning. Maybe it was just the natural extension of his power, fully coming in to itself. Either way, he felt himself settle further into the old bones holding him, and the world grew dimmer, still.
He couldn’t let her follow his daughter into the air force. If he died — if he died, no one could stay with Yana. Tati would have to stay, instead. Centralis would grant the dispensation. She would have to go on leave. Yana wouldn’t be alone. Tati wouldn’t go to the southern excursions.
He gripped her hand, knowing he had to tell her. He had to.
She looked back over her should toward the door and then turned to look at him inspecting his face. “Don’t worry, deduska. It will be okay.”
He nodded, and lifted her hand to put it against his face, pressing the palm to his lips, and letting her thumb pinch his nose shut. He held her wrist, to keep her hand there — Kieron could no longer tell if he was the one controlling the body, or if Brenneman’s memories simply insisted.
Yana stared down at her grandfather, her eyes widening. She did not try to pull her hand back, but kissed her other hand’s fingertips and pressed them to his forehead. “It will be okay,” she promised him, nodding, understanding dawning on her face. “It will be okay,” she repeated, tears shining in her eyes. “I love you,” she whispered. “I love you.”
I love you. Kieron felt his heart burning, his lungs afire. He kept his eyes open, even as the world went dark, even as everything went dark.
He could not draw breath, and everything around him began to dissolve.
He felt the cool, dry sweetness of her lips on his forehead once more, the brush of her ringlets on his cheek, and then his heart skipped a beat, slowing, shuddering once.
Yana. My Yana. I love you. Be free.
Euphoria crashed over him, breaking waves of joy.
One last moment — her quiet, adoring voice. “I love you.”
Euphoria — then darkness.
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