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One of Oak and the Other, Linden

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On the grand list of the worst places for private conversations, 'a dirigible' ranked fairly high. One was just within earshot of everyone else aboard at all times, and there were plenty of conversations that Evy didn't want to share with her brother, her son, or her husband's old bank-robbing friend at that moment. (She still hadn't coaxed the stories of Rick's seamier days out of Izzy. She'd have to remember to do that before they parted ways.)

As much as she longed for a comfortable bed, however--and, more importantly, a four walls and a ceiling--she could make do with what she had. Breath, for one. Her family, for another.

That first night, drifting along above the sand in the chilly desert night, she and Rick curled up together under a thin blanket on one end of the dirigible. Jonathan and Alex took the other end, the latter complaining all the while that he wasn't tired, not really. Izzy stood at the center of the deck. Apparently set on getting away from Ahm Shere post-haste, he'd devised a plan to switch off piloting the dirigible with Rick and volunteered to take the first shift.

"You've only got four hours' sleep until you have to play the captain," Evy murmured, nuzzling her head against his chest. It was a strange thrill--what was merely pleasant a day ago now held urgency. She needed to feel him pressed against her, his heart beating under her ear as they lay staring out at the horizon. "You ought to get some rest."

His arms tightened around her. "Maybe in a few weeks, I'll try sleeping. I'm fine for now."

Evy frowned, tilting her head up to look at him. She could guess the thoughts drawing his expression into a frown, particularly coupled with the way he held her gaze. Normally, it was alluring, the intensity with which he watched her every move; in the stillness of that night, it just set her heart aching. With the same slow, quiet voice she'd use if Alex had a nightmare, she said, "I'll be here when you wake up. I promise."

"That was easier to believe yesterday." Rick's voice was an undertone. He bowed his head to kiss her, a kiss of sand and sweat and barely withheld desperation. "You died, Evy."

"I did," she agreed. Speaking the words left her chest tight and hollow; she suspected it would take more than a few hours of life before she felt properly solid again. "But--but I am here now. And I've no plans to leaving you or Alex any time soon."

He began to stroke her hair then, his callused hands catching on the snarls that hadn't been brushed out in a week or more. The repetition was soothing even as the corners of her eyes threatened hard, burning tears, and she curled closer into his side. Beneath her cheek, she could feel his breath coming raggedly, his chest rising in little jolts.

It was a long time before he answered in a hoarse whisper, "Plans, Evy--you didn't plan to say hello to Anck-su-namun, either."

"I was aware of that," she hissed back, unable to restrain herself. The tears ran down her cheeks in hot lines, streaking through the dust on her face and leaving her skin itching. "You know if I'd had any choice in the matter I'd never have--it was monstrous, it hurt, and--"

"Oh. Oh, God. Evy, I'm sorry." Rick laid a kiss upon her head, and then another, leaving her skin wet where his cheek brushed her forehead. "I didn't mean that."

For a moment, it seemed a just punishment to respond with silence, neither moving nor breathing--but that was a punishment to them both. Her mind's eye filled with the memory of Rick pleading with her not to die, this time eerily painless. She shuddered.

"I'm sorry," he murmured again, curling his fingers gingerly into the hair at the nape of her neck. His hand was a warm weight against her head, at once familiar and so immediate that she could believe in her own heartbeat.

"I was terrified." Evy inched up until her mouth was at his jaw, her voice pitched so only he could hear her. Suppose, after all, Alex was still awake. The last thing she wanted was for him to realize just how frightening the prospect of death had been for his mother in those last moments of life. Besides, these were words meant for Rick alone. "I knew that you could--could take care of things, but--"

He shushed her. The light from the full moon was enough to cast the soft hint of tears tracked through the grime on his own face, certainly enough to draw out the worry in his expression.

"No, I--please, Rick. You could have gone on without me--"

"I couldn't."

"You did." She felt him cringe. "You didn't have a choice, darling, it's all right. You could go on without me, but I don't want you to have to."

"Good. Because we're not going to." The kiss he pressed against her mouth had no gentleness to it, only insistence and anguish. "Losing you again is twice more than I can take."

"I know." Evy hugged him close, her forehead pressing against his temple. "I--I can't imagine..."

She felt him shake his head. It hadn't seemed possible that he could hold her more tightly, but she was beginning to have trouble breathing. His grip loosened when she wriggled against him, and his voice was heavy with finality as he murmured, "If I have any say in it, you'll never have to."

The thought sparked another in Evy; for the first time since her eyes opened again, she felt like the woman she'd been a day ago. "We'll have to leave Egypt if we want that."

"Huh?" His brow had creased at the apparent non-sequitur--she knew it without looking.

"Do you want to hear a story?"

He didn't sound entirely certain when he answered with an okay, but she began anyway.

"In ancient Greece, there lived an old couple called Baucis and Philemon. They'd been married for years and years--the poor-but-good sort. And they loved each other more than anything. And one night a pair of strangers came to their door." Evy could picture it in her mind as she spoke, the words coming more easily as she continued. "Baucis and Philemon hadn't much, but they shared what they could, and they never seemed to run out of food and drink for their guests."

"Lemme guess. Gods." The last word was spit out as though edged in poison.

Evy kissed his cheek. "Right in one. Zeus and Hermes had decided to destroy the town Baucis and Philemon lived in, but their generosity convinced the gods to spare them. And after that, Zeus gave them one wish. Whatever they wanted most in the world, whatever they longed for, they could have."

Rick's breath had slowed, and now it had seemed to cease entirely. She paused, relishing his undivided attention.

"They were simple people, and they loved each other dearly. Instead of gold or jewels, they asked to die at the same moment, so neither would have to go on alone. And Zeus agreed." At Rick's sigh, she paused again, wondering if he intended to say something. But he was silent beside her. "When the time came, they were transformed into a pair of trees--one of oak and the other, linden. And their branches intertwined forever."

Minutes passed as they drifted beneath the dark sky, silent moments that found each taking comfort in the faint sounds and movements that made up the other's body. The warmth of Rick's skin, even in the cool of night; the rise and fall of his chest; the steady beat of his heart: if she could have nothing else, no promise that she would not someday leave him again (or he, her), she could at least have the quiet sense of existence at that moment.

"Let's go to Greece," he finally said, and for all that she knew that they would never have the luck to run into Zeus in a wish-granting mood, she nodded her agreement.