Elaine was resting in her room when the light tapping came. She had started getting confused at dinner, and the nice nurse, June, had taken her back to her own room, and turned off the lights. It was hard, sometimes. She felt like a child, and helpless. She tried not to think about it too much, but it was still there under the surface.
The tapping came again and she startled. Then she said, "Come in?" and sat up to turn on the light.
It had been her room for some time now, this place. It had a lot of pictures of her William in it, and some paintings by Van Gogh and all the books she could fit in it. And one picture of John, the one she had left.
Sometimes she wished William could have brought her a picture from the other world, but then other times she wondered if that was something she'd got confused about.
It was William who came in, with snow in his hair. And he was all alone; wasn't there supposed to be someone with him? Lyra, his Lyra. Or had she made Lyra up, too? Lyra was from the other world. Maybe she had. There weren't other worlds, were there? June said there weren't -
But no. Lyra was quite real. She was certain of that. William had told her about Lyra often. "Did she go home?" she asked, starting to get up.
"Lyra? No, Mum," William said, coming in quickly and coming to sit down. "No, not yet, she's here for - a little while." He took her hand in both of his and kissed her cheek and Elaine felt a wave of relief: first, because she hadn't made Lyra up, and second, because William had looked so much happier when he came in with her.
(Sometimes she felt like there was a mother-self hiding in her, somewhere under the fog, and that part of her knew that at heart, her poor baby was never really happy, and it made her sad. She could just never lay hands on that part for more than a few seconds, and far away.)
"But she couldn't come," Elaine said. Now she felt a little disappointed for herself. William put an arm around her shoulder.
"June said you were tired tonight, Mum," he said. "So Lyra said she didn't want to tire you more, and she would come the next time you were feeling better. She said to tell you Merry Christmas."
Of course he would call ahead. Her William was so . . . careful about things. Sometimes that worried her, but she couldn't remember why. And - she leaned her head against his shoulder and admitted, "I am very tired. I'm sorry, dear. I'm such a poor excuse for a mother - " she started, but then he looked down at her, moving back so he could.
"Are we going to have to talk about that again, Mum?" he said, in his teasing voice. "You're the best Mum in the world. Couldn't give me a better one."
The impulse to argue with him was one she let go. That would only end with them both upset. She patted his leg. "I love you, William," she said instead, the one thing she could offer. "I'm so very proud of you."
He squeezed her with the arm around her shoulders, and then he asked, "Would you like me to read to you, Mum?"
Lyra woke in alarm, to the sound of a loudly oscillating tone of noise approaching and getting louder. She sat up; Pan leapt to the ready, fur bristling and teeth showing. The room was dark; Will wasn't waking up - and then Kirjava was, with a huge cat-yawn and a stretch, sitting up.
"Calm down," she said, and then yawned again with long pink tongue and white pointed teeth. "It's just a police-car and an ambulance. They have sirens like that to warn other drivers to get out of the way, so they can respond to an emergency faster."
It was her continued yawning and stretching that convinced Lyra that Kirjava wasn't having them on. Pan settled himself, and Lyra tried not to be sharp and cranky at being startled, and then having it be at nothing.
"Doesn't it wake everyone in the whole neighbourhood up?" Pantalaimon demanded, being grouchy for her as she rubbed at her eyes and tried to roll the impulse to flight out of her shoulders.
"Not once you're used to it," Kirjava replied. She craned over to lick the space between Pan's ears and then settled back down to sleep. She did purr briefly when Lyra stroked her head, and something in the tension of Will's body eased, but then daemon was as asleep as human.
Lyra yawned, but she was awake now: nothing for that, for at least a little while. Pan crawled up into her lap, grumbling marten grumbles while she stroked his fur.
"I wonder if the feeling'll fade, Pan," she murmured, barely loud enough even for her to hear inside her own skull. "This one, I mean. Like the whole world's just so damn wonderful I can't speak. Like I'd be happy to die right now, except that I want to have today over and over and over again. Even the confusing bits. Even the hard bits."
Pan didn't so much answer as lie his chin down on the back of her hand.
This was Will, now. She knew she was trying to burn him into her mind. Just in case. Just in case the door went away; just in case they went back to how things were. Something to hold onto, something that wasn't a, well, boy, when she was a woman - that had been hard.
So she etched this into her eyes, so she could see it when she closed them: long body, long legs, shoulders broad but not too broad, strong neck, stubborn jaw that got prickly by the morning after his last shave. And his hands. Strong fingers, and long, except for the two cut short. Always dry from the washing. No rings.
The way he lay in bed, on his side but half rolled over. His arm up and crooked, so that if he rolled over it would guard his throat, leg up so it shadowed his stomach. Never vulnerable, not her Will. Not by accident, and almost never on purpose.
If we meet someone, they'd tried to promise, with all the good-will of childhood still there, we mustn't always compare, mustn't always think how it would be if - but how could you not? How could you not always compare anyone you were with to the one who gave your soul its final shape? Impossible promise. And while, Lyra thought, one's own misery might be considered a sacrifice necessary for the work, one was always doomed to make the person you were trying not to compare miserable. She'd had to learn that the hard way.
It en't possible, she knew. It just en't, my Will, my Will, my Will. She liked those words, liked the way they went round in her head. When she'd found the door to begin with, there had been so many days of elated, chaotic thoughts running head over heels in her mind. It was Dame Hannah who'd said the word marriage aloud (Dame Hannah knew everything - she had to know everything, she'd been the one to pick Lyra up the days that everything became too much and she knew she must either cry or kill someone). And Lyra had let it cross her mind and then wanted to laugh, when she realized how useless it would be, how superfluous.
My Will, she thought. And then, the other thought: because he loves me best.
"You're such a greedy child," Pan said, in fond amusement. Lyra ignored him.
"I need you to take off your trousers," Lyra said from behind Will's chair, and Pan hopped up on his chair's arm and peered at, of all things, Will's wrist.
Inserted into the world of new studies of the effects of SSRIs on the elderly - the topic of the JAMA article in front of him - the sentence was particularly non-sensical, and Pan's staring at his wrists completely bizarre, so Will wound up blinking six or seven times before tilting his head back and saying, "Pardon?"
Lyra looked amused. She leaned on the back of the chair, arms folded. She had her hair up in a messy sort of a bun, and a tape measure in her hand. It obviously came from her world: it was plain canvas, with no plasticking or PVC, and the units weren't familiar. "I've got to measure you," she said. "For clothes. I've got to order you some when I go home, for when you come to me - y'can't go wandering around in your stuff in Geneva, someone'd take you for a nutter escaped from his keeper."
" . . . I don't think I've ever had clothes made for me," Will said.
"I didn't think you had," Lyra said, with an odd sort of sniff in her tone, and after a minute, realizing what it was, Will felt his face splitting into a grin. " . . . what?" his Lyra demanded, eyes narrowing.
"You," he said, "are a snob." And then he ducked out of his chair before her outraged squawk of protest could turn into a smack.
Gameshows were, thank god, lost on Lyra. Once she understood the point, she found them boring. Sports were likewise dull, which was only a problem when the World Cup was on. Lyra far preferred to be playing than watching.
Unfortunately, she loved a lot of reality TV. Not the competitive ones: Survivor she declared full of criminal idiocy; she mostly didn't believe what was on American Idol was actually music; and So You Think You Can Dance was dismissed as inferior to real ballet. No, she liked the ones that aired on TLC and A&E, about people with more kids than sense and criminal investigations.
He managed to get her from there to police procedurals, thank god, at least most of the time. He wouldn't watch CSI in any permutation, but that still left a vast spread. Most of the comedies were lost on her - he'd never realized how culture-specific even some of the "universal" ones were - but she liked Leverage, even if she kept having to ask what was going on, or whether or not computers or airplanes or anything really worked like that.
Will supposed that all made sense. The reality shows gave her a window into his world, and a caper story was a caper story: the fiddly bits of technology changed, but the basics remained the same. But her love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was utterly inexplicable. He'd've thought it was worse than the comedies for being incomprehensible, but she watched in rapt fascination, and usually only asked him questions after the episodes were over.
The rerun was winding to a close, and he realized gradually that Lyra had fallen asleep, using his legs as a pillow, with Kirjava curled up on one side of her bent legs, and Pan under her chin. Will reached over to stroke his daemon and she purred, sleepy and contented.
The patient turned into his mother while he was operating on her; when he started to cry and to babble an explanation about how there was nothing he could do, someone put a hand on his shoulder. It was his father, though wavering between John Parry the man who'd lived in Will's mother's pictures, and Jopari, the otherworldly shaman Will had met.
And as he tried to explain to his father that he couldn't save his mother, John Parry became the Authority, but instead of dissipating this time the Authority rotted, rotted from the inside out, and
Then Lyra said, "Will," and stepped into his dream and shook his shoulder, and it wasn't a dream anymore. Everything shattered and he jerked up in bed. He elbowed her in the ribs on the way up. It was an accident.
"Ow," she protested. She was indignant. In his mind right at that moment, she was in relief against all the other women he'd tried to get on with, and that indignant ow became the crystalisation of the difference. Lyra shoved his shoulders. "You flail about too much."
Kirjava groomed her tail ferociously while Pan put his paws on Lyra's shoulders to peer at both Will and his daemon in concern. Will wasn't sure when he'd started reading concern on the face of a pine marten.
"Sorry," he said. "Bad dreams."
Lyra was rubbing her ribs. She looked at him and said, "Well yes, that much was obvious. D'you need to get up, or can we go back to sleep?"
His answer came more in posture than in words. He might have got up, if it were later in the day: late enough to get coffee and tea and drag Lyra to sit with him on the couch. Instead she settled back down and let him spoon in behind her while she yawned hugely.
"I suppose you just don't get them," he said, nuzzled up to the back of her neck.
"Course not," she said, all haughtiness, but after a moment, in a slightly different voice she just offered, "I only get night-ghasts that look like my parents in Hell."
Will accepted that in silence, and then offered in turn, "But you know there isn't a Hell."
"Try telling the night-ghasts that," Lyra retorted.
"I love you," he told her, through a yawn.
"I love you too," she said, as Pan and Kirjava both settled back down. "Now you can damn well shut up so I can go back to sleep."