Melissa is five when they start reading The Last Unicorn. Already Lucia is pushing Jack slowly from their lives, and he knows that one day he's going to come home from a mission and his daughter will be gone. Melissa, Boe the stuffed sheep, and her blankie will be missing, and he'll have to chose between being a good father and letting her grow up far away from the madness that is his life, or being selfish and hunting his family down. He likes to think he'll do the right thing, but when his daughter curls up against his side and her hair smells like strawberries and baby shampoo it becomes a bit harder to separate what he wants from what she deserves.
"'What is plucked will grow again. What is slain lives on. What is stolen will remain. What is gone is gone.'" He's made up the tune for it off the top of his head, but it's not bad if he says so himself. Melissa likes it certainly, grinning up at him as he rocks her against his side to the rhythm.
There's movement by the door and he looks up to see Lucia standing in the doorway. Her hair is down, thick brown curls to her waist and he's preparing to make his excuses, close the book and head for the couch when she smiles at him, and it's soft and wistful. Jack lifts his other arm–what is he but an optimist with a galaxy-wide streak of emotional masochism?–and his heart stutters as she pads forward on bare feet to climb into Melissa's tiny bed with them. Her hair is still slightly damp from the shower, scented with jasmine as she tucks it under his jaw, and for the moment this is his family: warmth and love tucked around him on a twin bed that is almost disgustingly pink. Jack finishes out the chapter and, desperate to hold this moment as long as he can, goes on to the next.
It's scarier than he thought it would be, sad and suspenseful, but his girls, his brave girls, are huddled closer to him, eyes tracing over the black and white illustrations as the unicorn opens cages and advances on the one cage she shouldn't.
"'He ran.’" His voice is trembling as he reads the dialogue on the page, and why didn't he bother reading this bloody book ahead of time? "'You must never,'" he's whispering now, "'run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention.'"
Against him Melissa is nodding sleepily as if this is the most common sense of rules, eyes drifting shut. Under his other arm Lucia is still and hardly breathing as he finishes the last few paragraphs on the page at a whisper as Melissa becomes a boneless weight, slipping deeply into sleep.
"Is that a threat or a warning?" Lucia's whisper in his ear is cold and sharp.
"I...I really didn't. It's really in the book, look." He shoves the page under her nose, desperate because this is it. One ill-timed line and what he might have rebuilt, or at least prolonged, has crashed around him. Jack is one hundred percent certain that the next time he opens this door his family will not be on the other side of it. Her eyes flick across the line and soften a bit, but not enough. Not nearly.
"Not a threat, then, but maybe a warning anyway." She shrugs and he presses his lips to her hair, breathing her in desperately. "Come on, Jack, let her sleep." He lets her take him by the hand and pull him into the bedroom, because this is the only goodbye he's ever been any good at. When they finish making love he brushes his lips across her forehead.
"I have to go to London, report to the tower. It might take me five or six days, maybe a week." He needs to call London and pull in a few favors so that it looks like the upper floors have summoned him. He'll even try to do as much damage to the Moretti files as possible. After all, it's not going to be just him she's running from while he's gone.
"No, you don't. Jack, you don't have to..."
"You're leaving. We both know it. So if you're going to take my little girl and run, I'd rather you have a few days to clean up behind yourself rather than leaving little trails of breadcrumbs in an overnight rush." He's hopping into his pants quickly, even as she rolls onto her stomach, smoke curling out the corner of her mouth as she exhales and watches him. "You hate me, and you pity me, and yes, I'm well aware you think I'm a bit of an idiot, but you have to promise me that if my daughter is ever in more trouble than you can handle, you'll call me."
"If we're ever in more trouble than I can handle, Jack, I'll be dead before I ever get near a phone to call you. I'd like you to leave now, before this gets hard."
"Sure. I'd hate for this to be hard on you." It's only Melissa sleeping in the other room that keeps him from slamming the doors. He does squeal the tires as he pulls away though.
Eight days later he lets himself into an empty house, sits on an empty pink sheeted bed, and finishes the rest of the book before systematically taking a sledgehammer to anything that looks like it might shatter or snap with a satisfying sound. Lucia's mothers' wedding china is particularly satisfying, but not as much as it would have been had a single place setting not been missing.
"You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention." He's sitting on the damp grass, head resting on the granite stone with his grandsons' name etched into it, the lines still laser sharp, not time enough for the edges to soften. He thinks there might be a moral there and doesn't want to learn it. Some edges deserve to stay sharp forever.
There's a sound, shoes rustling in leaves and he doesn't look up from the book as his daughter's feet enter his peripheral vision. He's going to keep reading until she makes him leave by word or deed. He was one hundred and fifteen years old the first time he read this book to a child and thought he knew what immortality was. He's more than two thousand years older now and the unicorns' words resonate in dead places inside him.
Jack watches Alice move to the other side of the grave and settle onto the grass silently. She never speaks, lets him work his way slowly through pages of sorrow and wonder and acceptance. Does not mention the tears splotching the yellowed pages, or the way his voice wobbles as he sings the songs to tunes he wrote for her centuries ago, and when he closes the book she stands gracefully. She moves so much like her mother.
"I always wondered how it ended." Her voice is thick. "Did you know him, the author? Because he was right about running from immortals. They always seem to see you. You have eternity to visit him, Jack. Don't come back while I'm still alive."
"Right." His coat is more than damp now from soaking up the drizzle and it hangs heavy on him. He's done here anyway. Done with this awful little muddy ball of a backwater planet that just keeps taking and never gives back. His fingers ache with the urge to push hair off her face, and brush a kiss across her forehead the way he did when she was still Melissa, and still his princess who never knew her daddy was a monster. He places the book on the grave and walks away.