With Einar seeming content to remain where he was so long as Will slept and Kilgore keeping silent guard over the situation from his post on a stool by the counter, Liz felt free to join Susan in the kitchen, where the two of them worked to put the finishing touches on a casserole she was preparing for supper.
Since his most recent waking, one had said anything about Einar’s missing weapons, including Einar himself, who was far too thoroughly occupied to go and look, nearly the entirety of his attention being devoted to keeping himself upright so as to avoid spilling the sleeping Will. He did not especially care for the situation, wanted instead to be watching out one window or another, if he could not be outside, but as he saw that both Kilgore and the raven were doing this, the situation proved to be at least marginally tolerable. As for weapons, he was certain a variety of knives were to be found in the kitchen, and both Susan and Liz had pistols. Would have greatly preferred to have something on his person, but at least it was a start, should things turn serious. Again. The rest, he would solve at the first opportunity, but so long as Will lay sleeping on his lap, he had no plans to go anywhere.
Bud, on the other hand, had places to go, and knew he must, despite a great reluctance, be leaving before too long. They were holding a memorial service for Juni down at the firehouse that evening, everyone who had been involved in the search, and as the one who had officially “found” and retrieved her, he could hardly skip the event without arousing a good deal of unwanted suspicion. And besides, the family wanted to talk with him. He’d talked to a lot of families over the years, been to a fair number of similar remembrances even after leaving active duty, guys who’d made it back from one conflict or another only to be taken far too soon—from the human perspective, at least—by one thing or another. Cancer, all too often, or guys perishing at their own hand, and though in both cases everyone more or less knew why, the matter was seldom spoken of, at least amongst Bud’s peers. Simply another life to be remembered, another flag, another name that really should, in the end, have been on the Wall.
Einar had not gone to many such memorials, had been traveling the world with one job or another for years as the men he’d served with left this life, and later he’d been living out in the hills without much human contact at all, where more often than not he’d never even known until years later that people were gone… A few times he had sat vigil with those who were leaving, including several months spent with a friend during the last stages of a long struggle with cancer, helping him when he wanted it and fading off into the hills when he wished instead to be alone, and when the end came, making sure his final wishes were carried out. Which included covertly burying him on a remote corner of his own land early one morning, facing east to watch the rising sun and, as the man had put it, to await the glorious return of his Savior. A difficult time, to be sure, but not a bad one, for either of them.
During combat, there had been no time to say goodbye, to stop and think about any of it, you just stopped the bleeding best as you could, loaded them up on choppers for the risky evac. and often as not never even knew if they’d made it, and those who you knew didn’t make it because you had been there to see it happen…well, you didn’t really have time to say goodbye to them, either, because most of the time you were still in the thick of things, or would be again the following night, or the day after, and could not afford to allow yourself to think about such things. To be distracted. Bogged down. It would have led to your destruction, and to that of those around you, which was the last thing you wanted… So they were gone, and you went on, and that was it. Might think about it later, years later, when the nights were unbearably quiet, still, and you were alone with your mind and your memories, or when something reminded you, took you back, body and soul, to some forsaken jungle hillside, the distant rumble of a helicopter, the boom and blast of fireworks as civilization celebrated one thing or another…but even then, it was probably better not to. Not if you could help it. So in most cases he hadn’t, but a person cannot always help it, and sometimes late at night those faces would come to him, those moments in time, lives that in many cases had really never even properly got their start before they’d been ended. These were the things that filled Einar’s mind as he watched Kilgore prepare to head down to the hill to Juni’s memorial.
Tracker heading for the door, Einar intercepted him, pressed into his hand a wolverine claw taken from the pouch around his neck, a perfect match, but for the missing loop of home-tanned buckskin, to the one worn around his own neck, Liz’s and the child’s. “She earned this. Leave it for her.”
Kilgore nodded. He’d find a way. Left, silent, not bothering to admonish Einar as to the necessity of proper behavior during his absence. Could see in the man’s eyes that he was at the moment wholly present, thinking, not likely to do anything too rash or irrevocable. Hoped things would stay that way, at least until he could make his return.
Bud gone and Will once more up exploring the house, Einar took the opportunity to once more make his way several times up and down the stairs, hoping the activity might help him burn off whatever remained of the dart-poison so he could be sure of his thinking once more, and hoping also to start seeing some improvement in his injured hip, which as the influence of the dart continued to decline, was making its presence ever more noticeably felt. Didn’t seem to be helping too much, in either regard. But he kept it up, repeating the circuit so many times that Liz eventually became concerned he might be about to fall down the stairs—not too far from the truth, though he hardly wanted to admit the fact to himself—took him by the arm and guided him to a seat on the couch. No way he’d stay there, she knew, not unless…
Will was happy to oblige in his mother’s plot to keep Einar seated for a time, but only when she’d provided him with a suitable incentive, which in this case took the form of a bowlful of thinly sliced strawberries. Knowing Will would make a dreadful mess if simply handed the bowl, she tasked Einar with feeding him, standing back and nearly laughing at the scene that ensued, Will delighted if impatient, and Einar’s brow furrowed in concentration at the effort required to get the berry slices into the little one’s mouth, instead of all over the furniture Perched above them and looming large as he watched with keen black eyes, the raven kept guard.
Liz’s plan worked for a while, kept Einar still so he could get a bit of rest and entertained Will, but eventually all the strawberries were gone, Will full—and full of energy—taking off to harass the cat and do a bit more exploring. Einar might have hauled himself up then to begin again his endless circuit of the stairs, but he’d stiffened up with the prolonged stillness, started, despite the reasonable warmth of the room, to grow terribly cold so that instead of immediately rising, he simply sat there staring out the window and shivering. Susan saw, tried to give him a blanket, but he shook his head.
“Fine like this. Best this way.”
“Why do you have to do this? Stay cold all the time?”
“Being warm makes me sleepy. And lazy. Got to be awake, ready. Never know what might be coming, down this close to…”
“To civilization? Yes, this must be very different for you, I can imagine. But there’s nothing lazy about being sleepy when you’re all worn out. You can sleep.”
That got a little half smile but no answer, and Susan could sense the futility of pressing the matter further.
“Getting some rest and a little more to eat, helping your body to be stronger and your mind quicker—won’t that do more to get you ready to defend your family than almost anything, when you really think about it?”
“Deprivation of various kinds does make my body stronger and my mind quicker. Works better than anything.”
“Not anymore, it doesn’t. You passed that point a good while back. That’s not what this is about anymore, is it, even if it once was…?”