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The Frog Hunter

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Lisa's there for what feels like hours in her grandmother's prison cell and swamp, when the bushes move and a soft voice murmurs from the sheltering leaves, "Don't cry, little one."

She jerks her head up, startled at a voice when there shouldn't be one, and dashes the tears away. "Who's there?"

"Tears are strength. Tears mean you loved enough to feel pain," the voice tells her. "Hold onto them."

"They're a weakness," she retorts.

"That's Anna speaking," he chides. "You know that's not true."

"How do you know that?"

"Because otherwise you wouldn't be in here."

She flinches because that's the pure truth. "Who are you?" she asks again, and gets no answer but silence. She rises, frowning in the direction of the voice and the darker shadow among the shadowed leaves. "Why are you in here?"

"Oh..." He chuckles to himself and hums, and she hears some rustling of the vegetation. "I'm hunting frogs," he says. "I'll give you one when I catch it."

"Frogs?" she repeats in confusion.

"They're quite tasty," he calls to her and his voice gets more distant, muffled. "We get rodents, but I like a little variety."

She rises to follow him, curious to see who else is in here with her. He seems harmless but maybe odd. "Have you been in here all along? Why didn't you talk to me before?"

"Too busy," he calls back. "It's not easy hunting frogs, you know. They're quick."

She pushes into the undergrowth, enough to see a large dark shape under the leaves. At first she thinks it might be one of her people, without his human skin; since he looks oddly hunched and thin and dark green. But it's just the shadows. When his head snaps around she sees a human face. He doesn't look at her though, staring off into the bushes with his head cocked, before he scrambles back.

"Stay back!" he exclaims and he seems clumsy in his flight, tearing at the leaves to get away.

He's frightened of her. The realization is like cold water in her face. Why is he frightened of her?

"Please," she says. "I don't mean to scare you. Please. I just... I just want to see you." But he's gone and her voice trails off.

But who is he? She wonders. Why is Anna keeping someone in here with her daughter and formerly with her mother, instead of killing him? Anna has no tolerance for weakness of any kind. This one seems a bit crazed though he seems supportive of human emotion -- perhaps Anna kept him to remind her of how low one of their people could sink? Or perhaps she liked imagining her own mother trapped with one of their own, gone mad?

But if he is broken, he deserves Lisa's pity, and she doesn't want to live in here with someone terrified of her. She forces a way through the plants to find him.

"I want to help you," she calls softy. "Can we just talk? I ... I'm all alone in here. Anna gave someone else my skin and made me watch her kill my boyfriend. She ... she ate him," she shudders and tears come to her eyes again, remembering. "And it was my fault," she confesses. "I could've killed her. I was going to - to let Diana take over again. But I couldn't do it. But if I'd done it, Diana would still be alive and Tyler, and we could have peace, and... and..."

Her guilt and anguish break free in sobs, and she kneels in the muck, hands on her face, shaking.

A tentative hand brushes her shoulder and then seizes it in a strong grip. "Hush, little one," he murmurs.

She pushes against him insistently, seeking warmth, until he kneels and tugs her against him. She's lying against his chest, curled into his embrace. He seems large and solid and strong and everything comes pouring out of her.

"I thought she loved me," she gasps out, between sobbing breaths.

One of his hands smooths her hair gently. "Anna loves nothing but herself," he murmurs. "She has no compassion for any living thing -- not her own kind, not humanity, nothing. She's empty inside like a shell. You and I - we've learned the truth."

And his voice is strong and sure, his hand gentle on her head. He should be pushing her away, he should be appalled, but instead he's comforting her as she cries, as if he's done this before.

She sniffs tearfully. "What's that? What truth?"

"That existence without emotion -- without empathy -- means nothing. Feeling things makes us more, not less. Even pain."

His voice roughens on the last word, as if he knows pain deeply. And she wants to know who he is, this stranger who comforts her as Erica once did, who speaks so wisely, who came to Lisa when she was crying, and yet, was so afraid he ran from her.

She shifts, straightening and turning, wanting to see him. He lets her go, and shivers as if he wants to run and flee, but she captures his hand in both of hers. "Please."

He stays and twitches, jaw clenched and his grip on her hand is tight as if that is the only thing tethering him anywhere. His dark hair is long, down to his shoulders in matted dirty tangles, and he has a scruffy beard in his human skin. His clothes are shaggy as well, frayed and filthy. His feet are bare. It is quite a contrast from how immaculate Diana kept herself.

He knows it, too, hanging his head in shame, until she cups his jaw to lift his face to hers. "It's all right," she reassures him. "I can help you. let me help."

His eyes are light blue and beautiful, but they seem to look through her. In fact, they don't seem to focus on anything at all, even when she moves her fingers in front of them. "What's wrong with your eyes?" she asks.

He shudders. "She took them." The memories rise up like a visual tide in his body, and takes lucidity with it. He yanks himself free of her and retreats. He passes one hand along the ground and the plants, and she understands -- he's blind.

'She took them'. Since his human eyes are there, he must mean his true eyes underneath. The only way to do that would've been after a skinning, so he must have had to endure that, been blinded, brought back with new skin, and then left here to go mad.

"Oh no," she breathes. "I'm so sorry."

"Do you want a frog? I should find you a frog..." he says, feverishly muttering. "They're not as good as ice cream, but they're better than mice, if I can find one..."

She watches him move away, feeling his way among the foliage, as tears warm her eyes again.

Anna tortured him until he broke and then shoved him in here to be forgotten. Which doesn't entirely explain why she bothered, except that he must be someone Anna doesn't want killed for some reason. Tortured, driven mad, but not killed. Or she hates him so much she wants him to suffer instead of letting him die. Either reason means Lisa needs to find out who he is and why he's in here.

But she'll have to be slow and kind and see if she can help.

Though she could follow him, she stays where she is, dashing the tears from her face.

 


It takes time for him to come back. She can hear splashes and quiet tuneless humming, but he always seems to know where she is and if she moves nearer, he moves away. She doesn't want to make him feel trapped, so she finds the middle of the cell and sits on the ground.

But slowly he starts circling closer. "Lisa?" he calls softly. "Are you still here? Are you ... are you real?"

"I'm here," she calls back.

He emerges from the foliage, head cocked to one side to listen, and splashes through the shallow water toward her.

"Almost there. I'm sitting against the trunk," she tells him. He holds out his hand to feel his way, and she reaches out and takes it when he's close enough. He flinches as if he didn't expect her touch. But she pulls him down to sit beside her. "Please sit with me."

"I... I'm sorry," he murmurs. "I know I ... went away."

She glances at him, and bites her lip, imagining all the horrific things Anna must have done to him to force him to flee in his own mind away from the memories.

She pats his hand. "It's okay." He's sitting cross-legged, and she notices blood dripping on his knee. "Your hand." She seizes his other hand, concerned. There's a cut on the outside of his palm. "What happened?"

He shrugs. "I get them all the time, cut my hands on the wood or rocks."

She shakes her head. "It's bleeding." She tears off her left sleeve and rips up the cloth to make a bandage.

"Lisa!" he objects when he hears the cloth tear.

"I'm not sitting here immaculate when I can help you." She takes his hand onto her knees, and wraps a strip of cloth around his hand. "My mother may have raised me to do that, and obviously Grandmother didn't help you either, but that's not me."

His other hand lifts to touch her, slipping through her hair and feather-light on her cheek. "What you are, is beautiful," he murmurs. "Not this - not this skin on top, though I'm sure you're attractive, and not your skin underneath. But inside, in your heart and your spirit. You are all the wonderful things we could be as a people."

She smiles, feeling warm and proud inside from his words. And just why approving words from someone insane should matter to her, she doesn't know or particularly care. "You don't even know me," she objected.

"Of course I do," he answers and he holds out his bandaged hand. "This tells me all I need to know."

"I... When you talk that way, I ... have all these feelings inside," she whispers. "And I'm so happy that I have them. You're right; they make life so much better."

"They are our birthright, Lisa. The others say that it's the human skins, or that it's a flaw in our alterations, but ... I don't believe so. I believe we've always had the potential but it's only here with the humans who live life so openly with their emotions, could we learn to set it free."

She nods and nudges closer to him, until he lifts his arm to invite her underneath. They sit like that in silence, for several breaths. His words... stir so much inside her, and while a part of her wants to sneer at it and say it's ridiculous, she knows that's the Anna-trained part. Because deeper inside, she believes he is right. And even if he's wrong, and it's a side-effect of their human skins, it doesn't matter really -- this is a part of them now. But Anna still thinks of the human-outer-forms as masks, not as a part of their people. A part that will become more permanent with the hybridization project.

She inhales a deep breath, settling against his arm. "I learned more about what a mother should be from Tyler's mother, than I ever did from my own," she murmurs. "Erica was fierce and strong, just like mother, but compassionate, too."

"I'm glad you knew her, then," he murmurs.

It's terrible to realize Erica is going to hate her - she's going to believe Lisa murdered her son. Lisa takes a deep breath and turns her mind to something else, trying to get rid of the images in her head. She turns. "We need to clean you up. Diana must have had ways to groom herself."

"It's not important." He shrugs.

"You can't see yourself," she tells him, trying to tease kindly. "You need a bath and I'll cut your hair. I think you'll feel better if you feel more civilized. And I'd like to think about something else. Come on."

She stands and tugs at his hand, pulling him to his feet. Sitting next to him, she hadn't realized he was so tall, but standing beside him like this, she has to look up at him. His gaze seems directed at some distant point, past her, and she tucks his hand around her arm as she has seen the humans do with their sightless. "This way."

In the corner is the small hygiene station- it looks like any other on the ship and she finds small scissors in the single compartment next to the soap dispenser. "Sit down here," she guides him to what she thinks is a stump, but turns out to be plastic disguised as a stump. "It's not real wood."

"Most of the plants are real," he says, feeling for the edge of the seat and sitting down in a practiced movement. "But a few are fake. They smell different too."

"Huh. I didn't even know this place existed."

"It's connected to the central garden," he tells her. "The water is all the same system. Sometimes you can smell the haktarif flowers in here, thru the vent," he adds wistfully. "They don't grow in here though."

She thinks of all times she has spent in the central ship's garden, and never known one level down is a prison cell with her grandmother and a stranger kept in it.

"Mother has much to answer for," she declares darkly, but then remembers she's supposed to be trimming his hair. "Can you tell me your name?"

He hesitates for a long time and she wonders if he remembers. Or, if he's been here long enough he might not have been given a human name. She is about to repeat the question in their native tongue to learn his true name, when he answers, "John."

"Good, John. I'm Lisa."

"I know," he answers with a flash of a small smile.

She starts to snip off the tangles in his long hair. "Sit still. I'm going to cut it short, hopefully not too badly. It'll be easier to wash at least."

He sits quietly under her ministrations, closing his eyes as her fingers moved through his hair. "It feels nice," he murmurs.

"You haven't taken care of yourself, or had anyone taking care of you, in a long time, I think." She coaxes his head down, to cut the hair away, and smooths the back of his neck gently.

"Helping the weak isn't our way, little one," he says. "We are made for war and death."

"It doesn't have to be like that," she protests and then smiles. "Why do you call me that? 'little one'?"

"If you don't like it---" He tenses under her fingers, and she tells him hastily, "No, I don't mind. But why?"

"I remember when I last saw you. You were little." His voice roughens with emotion as his hands unconsciously mimes cradling something small in his cupped palms. "Precious."

"You knew me when I was a baby?" she asks in astonishment, scissors frozen.

"I watched you hatch. It was a... miracle. I shouldn't have cared so much," he admits. "Maybe I am the defective Anna thought, because I suddenly felt so much for you. You were tiny and helpless and ... so green." He chuckles softly. "Hard to believe now after all these years in our human skins."

She closes her eyes, struck by familiarity, as if his words recall a distant memory. He was at her hatching ceremony. That means he had been close to Anna back then. So strange to think this blind prisoner knew what she had looked like before the skin graft process -- she has seen her people's true forms only after her mother skinned them for punishment. She feels ill at the thought, recalling that John lived through it and was forced through the grafting process twice, too.

She forces a cheerful tone and steps to the front. "Let me take a look." Her smile becomes more genuine at the view of his face and now cropped dark hair. "Well, it's a little uneven but you're much more handsome without that awful hair. Let me see if I can find a razor and shave off this horrible beard, too."

"There isn't one," he says as she roots through the small drawers. "Diana looked. She hated the beard."

The lack of a razor defeats her only a moment. "Well, at least I can trim it with these little scissors." Her people don't like facial hair, not even in human skins, but she finds she doesn't mind touching it as she cuts it short. Instead she feels pleasantly useful as she fixes him up. "Better," she approves, running her hand along the much softer hair on his jaw. "Now to get clean and you'll feel like a new man. And smell like one too." She laughed a little, gleeful at her little joke.

There are women's clothes in another drawer. Apparently Anna didn't mind keeping her mother properly clothed, but there is nothing for him. That's annoying. "Here's a towel," she hands him the long towel. "Leave me your clothes and I'll wash them while you're showering. You... you can do that alone, right?" she asks, suddenly uncertain. "I'll help if you need me to, but..."

"No. That's fine," he reassures her. "Don't need to see to find the shower."

"Then why didn't you find it more often?" she teases.

His expression falls and his eyes dart. She reaches for his shoulder and squeezed. "I'm sorry. It's not your fault," she reassures him.

"No, it is," his head lowers, shoulders slumping with resignation. "You're right. I should have cared. But it's hard. It's as if my mind sometimes fills with fire and I can't think - I can only escape it."

"Then I'll have to care in your place," she murmurs. "We're stuck in here together."

 


 

He smells nice now - the shampoo and soap smell and the faint muskiness of his own skin is a pleasant combination to her sensitive nose. And she is amazed by how much better he looks. Even re-dressed in his worn clothes, being clean suits him. He looks stronger and more handsome, and she wishes desperately that she can see his blue eyes meet hers. But the eyes remain blank.

She wonders if Joshua can fix his sight, or if it is too late, even if they escape tomorrow.

But despite blindness, he isn't helpless. She watches as he pounces on a mouse that runs across the ground before she realizes it's there. "Dinner?" he asks, holding it by the tail as it squirms and squeaks.

"Is this all we get?" she asks. "What we hunt from the cell?"

"There's plenty if we're careful and let them breed," he tells her. "I think they find their way in from the garden. The whole point of this cell is to try to force us to be less human, so yes, no one will bring human food."

She finds her own mouse -- once she starts looking they're easy to spot -- and she and John eat them. She has to kill hers first, by biting its head off, while he swallows his whole with relish.

"So, empathy, but not toward small rodents?" she asks, teasing.

He shrugs. "Wee're still predators. and old meat makes us ill. And mice aren't sentient."

"Do we get our phosphorus supplements?" she asks. "I know human fauna is lacking in nutrients."

"It's in the pond water. Eat some of the leaves. They're not tasty, but they seem to offer enough."

She wrinkles her nose in disgust. "Leaves for dessert. Ice cream would be better, wouldn't it? You mentioned you ate ice cream before. What's your favorite flavor?"

"Chocolate mint," he answers promptly, but there's a sadness in his tone. "The mint always seemed so ... startling. Such a mix of flavors. I used to take James to get ice cream and we'd sit in the park. It was so long ago."

She wants to ask who James was, but realizes something more important. "You were on Earth?"

"Yes. I wasn't supposed to stay as long as I did. I wasn't supposed to 'go native' as they say. But I don't regret it, not even considering all that followed. It was perfect, living and loving with them, as long as it lasted."

She nods slowly, understanding. He abandoned his mission to live like a human. And yet, he shouldn't have been able to. "You must have rejected the Bliss," Lisa murmurs, realizing one reason Anna punished him. If he rejected the Bliss, and he'd been close enough to Anna to be at Lisa's hatching ceremony, Anna would have thought that was a betrayal. "But how could you reject the Bliss? Isn't that impossible for any worker male to --"

He straightens, reflexively offended, and snaps with the first true pride she's heard, "I am not a worker." Then he looks chagrined as if he hadn't meant to blurt that out.

"But that would mean..." If he isn't a worker male, and he's no obedient soldier obviously, he can only be a prince. Lisa doesn't know exactly how many of them there are, but they are almost as rare as queens. And there was only one who would be tortured and imprisoned... and only one named John.

She blurts it out, astonished, "You're John May! Aren't you? But... but that's impossible! Mother told me you were dead!"

"She's not that stupid to have me killed," he says, closing his eyes, throat working. "No matter how much she hates me, I'm still the only one she can make a queen with, at least until the main fleet arrives."

"The only one?" Lisa repeats, astonished. "But what about the princes on the other ships...?"

"It's a lie," he explains heavily. "We thought our people would be disheartened to know the truth. But there were only two of us with the forward fleet, and Marcus is from her own Nest." He sighs, looking distant at a past she can't even imagine. All she knows is the ship and Earth, nothing of the old ways. "Too many bloodlines exterminated unwisely, too much alien gene tampering.... It amuses me sometimes how much Anna wants to cling to the old ways, when our genes would be unrecognizable to our ancestors."

Lisa is only vaguely listening, putting it together. Lisa was conceived after the fleet was on its way to Earth, and if John May was the only prince who could conceive a junior queen with Anna... then..

She seizes his hand, excited and overcome. "But then -- you-- you're my father!"

His expression is entirely unsurprised; in fact, he smiles a little wryly. "Not that our people acknowledge that biological tie, but as the humans reckon it, yes." He sighs, now looking regretful. "I'm sorry, I'm ... not who I used to be. I wish I was more what a daughter would want, not blind and weak... "

"No," she cuts him off, shaking her head, and tears prick her eyes again. "No. You're exactly what I want. You're my father."

She flings herself against him, nearly knocking them both over, but he catches her against him with a strength she understands. She clutches him around the back fiercely, and buries her face in his shoulder. "I wish I'd known about you before. I could've gotten you out of here, I could've saved you..."

He rests his head against hers and wraps his arms around her. "You're saving me right now. I dreamed but I never dared truly hope that you would understand; I feared Anna would get her claws into you and never let you learn anything different. And I never thought we would be together, Lisa. These moments, this time together, it means everything to me, now."

"Me, too." She thinks back to seeing Tyler with his father and his mother, and she smiles against John's chest. Strange that she should thank her own mother for giving her this chance to be with her father.

"You knew all along, didn't you? That I'm your daughter?"

"Of course. When I know you, I know who you are to me," he says, reminding her that he still sometimes goes off to hunt frogs. If there are frogs in here, she has yet to see or hear one, but it's pretty clear 'hunting frogs' is where he goes to escape from what was done to him. He's no longer John May, martyred leader of the Fifth Column, not a prince, not Lisa's father, not a victim of torture, -- he basically doesn't exist. It's both tragic and infuriating to Lisa. Her mother did this to her father, for the crime of trying to evolve into something better.

But then, that's all Lisa wanted, too. So now she's in here with him, and someone who looks like her but is a vicious monster has taken her place.

"There's another..." she says. "The impostor me. Is she a queen, too?"

She realizes she said something wrong, when he stiffened. "Yes. But Anna must have hurried her growth, since she was in here recently." He shudders and his grip turns into a painful clutch, and this time it was Lisa's turn to soothe him. "I ... want her dead, so much. I hate her with every cell in my body. But I couldn't fight her," he admits in a soft voice. "I knew she wanted another queen because she planned to do something to you, and I still couldn’t stop her..."

She isn't sure if he means because he couldn't override the instinct of defending the queen, or Anna forced him to join with her, or he'd been too overcome with memories to resist, but it doesn't really matter. Anna took what she wanted, determined to have a backup in case Lisa turned disloyal.

"Bitch," she declares decisively. "I'm going to kill both of them. And when I'm queen, you'll be my advisor, and we will change everything. Everything. No more lies, not to our own kind, not to the humans. We have to be better."

He kisses her hair and lays his cheek back on the top of her head. "I want that," he murmurs. "Though I don't think having crippled, crazy advisors is wise."

She laughs. "Already you advise me. But I don't care. If we're going to teach our people compassion, they will learn it from us. You're John May, and Anna hurt you because she was wrong. And I won't hide you like I'm ashamed."

"Lisa..." he starts to object, but she puts her fingers across his lips.

"No. I know Mother hurt you horribly, and I know you may never fully recover from that. But you're already better, and I think you'll be better still once you get out of here. And if you want, I'll put a little pond in the throne room and you can hunt frogs all you want. Fuck 'em if they have a problem with it." He chuckles, but she means every word. She swears fiercely, "I will not leave you here, like Diana did. I refuse. I swear by all our gods and the blood we share, I won't leave you here, Father."

"I ... would like to feel the Earth's sun again," he murmurs wistfully. It breaks her heart.

"You will. I promise."

"But we have to get out of here, first," he points out.

"We'll find a way." She doesn't know how yet, but she knows it's true. She and John May will get out of this cell, they will take back the ship and then they will take back their people.

Together. As a family should be.


end.