xii. Winterhawk

Alastair Stone did not knock on Nigel's door right away. He wanted to, but somehow every time he reached out his hand to do so, something stayed it. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, steeling himself for what he would have given anything not to have to do.

No more excuses presented themselves though: he had already gone to his room and changed out of his wet clothes into faded jeans and oversized sweater, his usual outfit around the Manor. He had looked for Terry and not seen him, which was probably just as well, since he was in no mood to hear any more of his friend's 'life in the streets' speeches. While deep down he knew that the younger man was right, he was not yet ready to admit that he had so little power over the events that controlled his life. That was what magic was all about—shaping energies to one's will. That was one of the reasons he loved it so much: it gave him a tremendous sense of power, of command over his destiny. Conceding that there was nothing he could do to make this situation right was a very difficult thing for him to face.

He stared at the door as if hoping the carved wood would give him some help, but it was silent. Behind it, lying in his bed and going through what Stone knew to be nearly constant pain, was his only son. Possibly the only son he would ever have. Closing his eyes, he thought back, ashamed, at how he had treated the boy when he had first arrived. It was no secret to anyone that he did not like children and preferred not to be around them, but had that been any excuse to act so abominably to his own flesh and blood? He reminded himself of the reason the boy had been sent to him in the first place, but that didn't help. The only thing that stuck in his mind at that moment was that he had barely had a chance to know the boy, and now he was going to be dead. One way or another, with or without Stone's intervention, Nigel would be dead within days.

So, said a small voice in the back of his mind, Why don't you just wait it out? If he's going to die anyway, let him. But no. He couldn't do that. If there was any way he could redeem himself in Nigel's eyes—

He knocked on the door, softly.

"Come in," came the boy's voice, weak and tired through the thick door.

Stone turned the knob and pushed the door open. The well-oiled hinges made no sound. He looked inside: Nigel lay on his bed, covered over with a heavy quilt, looking tiny on the large mattress amid covers, pillows, and books. "Hello, Nigel," Stone said quietly, forcing himself to smile. The boy was suffering enough already; he didn't need to have to worry about his father as well.

Despite his obvious pain, Nigel's face lit up when he saw who his visitor was. "Dad," he said, and his smile was genuine. "You've come to see me."

Stone nodded, moving over to take the chair next to the bed. "How are you feeling?"

Nigel shrugged. "All right, I guess." His sunken eyes met his father's. "Have you—found—?"

For a long time, Stone didn't answer. When he finally shook his head and whispered "No," he knew it was not necessary for him to do so.

Nigel closed his eyes briefly, their dim spark disappearing into the widening black hollows surrounding them. "That's all right, sir," he said, and opened them again. He smiled tiredly. "I know you did what you could. I appreciate that."

"I'm—I'm sorry," Stone said, fighting against his rage at the woman who would inflict such torture on her own son for her own petty revenge. He wished she were alive again, so he could kill her a second time.

"I know," the boy said, his voice weak. He paused, then said, "I—I don't know how much longer I can stand this, Dad. How long before I—?"

Again, Stone didn't answer right away. "I...don't know, Nigel. A few days, perhaps a week. Here...let me take a look." Leaning back in his chair, he shifted his perceptions into the astral realm and carefully examined the child, running his hands over the small form, an centimeter or two away from touching. What he saw surprised him: Nigel's aura was fading, angry, condemned, but somehow flickering along. As he watched, it dimmed, then brightened a bit again, as if the boy were willing himself to stay alive. It was hard to say how long he might hang on in that state, although he doubted that the fading energies could sustain themselves longer than two weeks. Two weeks—such a long time, in constant agony. He touched a flaring red knot in the aura, causing the boy to cry out in pain. Quickly, he drew back, returning to his normal senses. "I'm sorry, Nigel...I'm sorry. I didn't think that would hurt."

"No, that's...all right. It just...it hurts all the time now. It's getting worse." He looked up at his father. "What's...going to happen to me?"

Stone's angry words to Terry about reciting the symptoms associated with the disorder came back to him like acid in his soul. He knew all too well the answer to the boy's question. All he said, though, was "You'll...gradually get worse. I can...give you something for the pain, or have the doctor over for something better, if you like..." Again, he struggled against rage and despair, determined that he was not going to let Nigel see it.

"But I'm going to die, right? There's nothing you can do?" From the look in his eyes, Nigel considered the answer to this question to be of the utmost importance.

Stone could do nothing but tell him the truth. Very softly, sadly, he nodded. "There's nothing I can do."

Nigel drew himself up on his pillows a bit, wincing at the pain of the effort. He looked exhausted by just that small exertion. His face contorted as another spasm of pain shot through his thin body. "Can't you make it stop?" he cried, the words wrenching from him unwillingly.

Stone clenched his fists in his lap; his arms were shaking from the force, and he felt his fingernails digging into the palms of his hands. "Yes," he said raggedly. "I can make it stop, if that's what you want." He didn't look at the boy.

Nigel grasped the significance of that right away. "You—you'd do that for me? You'd make it stop?"

Still without looking at Nigel, Stone nodded. "If you desire it," he whispered. "But only if it's what you want. I—it's not my decision to make for you."

"Yes, sir. I know that." Nigel reached out and gently covered his father's clenched fist with his own thin hand. "I just want it to be over. Would—would it—hurt?"

Stone unclenched his other hand and laid it over Nigel's, squeezing it in what he hoped was reassurance. He wasn't sure who he was trying to reassure: himself or his son. "No," he said, barely audibly. "No, I don't think...it will hurt. Perhaps for a second. It will be...quick." He took several deep breaths and gritted his teeth; he was not going to lose control. The child needed him to be the strong one now.

Nigel nodded, pondering that. "I think...it's the best way," he finally said. He looked up at Stone. "Can you give me a little time...you know...to get ready?"

"Of course." Stone stood, letting go of Nigel's hand with another slight squeeze. "How long do you need?"

The boy sank back down into a fully reclining position, adjusting his pillows and blankets around him. "Ten minutes?"

"All right," Stone said. "Ten minutes. I'll return then." Looking up and past Nigel's bed, he noticed that the rain had stopped and the moon was now out and glowing dimly in the distance. He turned quickly and left the room.

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