Child of Morning, Child of Night
Author's Introduction: In my unpublished AU I/N novel, "A Trackless Domain", references and flashbacks refer to Illya's terrible childhood. Sometimes Illya wistfully thinks of how it would have been, to have been raised by someone who loved him. He thinks of the only real father figure he knows, his laboratory partner George Piper, and of what he calls his phantom childhood, under George's care.
Without setting out to do so, it seemed I had created this sad little boy. It haunted me. So I have provided the following window into that phantom childhood, as an attempt to make it up to him. This story does not fit any time line—it is just a brief—and perhaps OT—moment out of time.
The child stirred, stretched under his covers. He slept on his side, curled up tightly, but now he spread his arms and legs wide, luxuriating in soft cotton sheets and a feather mattress. Opening his eyes he gazed sleepily at the ceiling, at the patterns of light and shadow, shifting as the breeze moved the branches of the big maple tree outside his window. He could climb right out the window into those branches and sit there, watching the sky above him, the ground far below, and the birds and squirrels sharing his leafy perch.
"Just be careful," George had told him. "And never go out at night without telling me." He had agreed because he loved George, and always tried to please him, and moreover George loved him and that was why he worried. Just thinking of George made him smile. He adored George. George represented everything that was good and kind, safe and secure in his life.
He was an extraordinarily beautiful child, lying there with his waist length blond hair strewn across the pillows; small for his ten years, and thin. His eyes were wide and serious, sky blue and fringed with thick gold lashes, set in a delicate little face with skin of a translucent fairness. He had a soft, dreaming mouth but when he was feeling stubborn he set it hard, and then only George had any influence over him.
"Illya!" There was a tap on the door. "Breakfast!"
"Coming!" The child sat up in bed, pushing his hair behind his shoulders. He didn't hurry—George knew he liked to take his time, and always gave him plenty of notice. So he sat dangling his legs over the side and gazed contentedly around the room. His room.
He wasn't sure what had happened, that he now lived in this warm, bright place—his place. Before this there had been another life. He didn't think about that life. He wouldn't. It was over. He set his mouth against it and got up.
Scrubbed and dressed, he sat at the kitchen table and watched George flip pancakes. Pancakes were a treat usually reserved for weekends, because Illya had to be at school and George had to be at work. But this was summer and both were on vacation. George set a plateful in front of him and sat down, forked more pancakes onto his own plate. "Want to go to the pool today?"
"Yes!" He bounced a little in his seat. "Can we eat lunch there? And go back after dinner to swim with the lights on underwater?"
"Yes to lunch, and we'll see about later. Deal?"
"Illya—have you given any more thought to camp?" George looked at him, brows furrowed. "You haven't said anything since I gave you the brochure."
"I read it," Illya said, and put his fork down. George wanted him to go, he knew, because most of his friends were away this summer at camps of their ow, and George worried about him being alone so much. And he had considered it—oh, not for the whole summer, but for a few days maybe—the camp George had cunningly suggested had a stable full of horses and every camper had his own horse for the duration of his stay. The brochure, which Illya had read over and over in his bed at night, promised he would learn to ride it and take care of it. Illya was unaware how his face had brightened as he thought about that, but George saw it.
"It would only be for a week," he said coaxingly. He was thrilled that Illya was considering it at all. George had suggested it last year too, and Illya had recoiled in horror at the very thought, worse, had dissolved in tears of fright that George was sending him away, that George didn't want him there anymore, that George didn't love him anymore... it had taken George a very long time to calm him and the matter of camp had been shelved. But George had brought it up again this year because really Illya was doing so well—he had slept over at friends' homes several times during the school year, and participated in two 'Lock Ins' at their church. And summer camp was what regular kids did, and that was what he wanted most of all to give Illya, a regular childhood. A normal childhood.
"How long before I have to decide?"
"I need to call them tomorrow."
"It's been three weeks since I gave you the brochure."
"I know." George wanted him to go, so he knew he should go. And it would be fun to have his own horse. Plus they had a lake there for swimming, and they offered white water rafting, and canoeing as well. He'd be in a cabin with five other boys but he didn't mind that. Children his own age didn't trouble him. It was the adults... he looked at George. "The—the people who work there."
"Are they—are they all right?" His lips trembled as he said it and George reached across the table and covered his hand.
"Yes, honey, they are. I would never send you anyplace without having it checked out top to bottom."
"And you'll have your radio and you can call me any time. All right?"
"And if I don't like it you'll come and get me? You'll take me home if I want to come home?"
"Yes. If you want to come home I'll come get you right away."
"All right." He felt brave just saying it, and how pleased George was! The child smiled at him. "I like horses."
"And if you really enjoy riding," George promised, "if you like it so much you" stay the whole week, he was going to say, but temporized "hate to leave it," he said instead, "then we'll see about setting you up for lessons here."
He couldn't even speak. He only nodded, face aglow. George patted his hand. "You better go get ready," he said gruffly. "I want to get a lounge chair in the shade."
He was a good swimmer. After George had finished applying sunscreen to his back and face, and he had smeared it everywhere else the child ran for the high diving board, giving a guilty start and slowing to a fast walk at the lifeguard's imperious whistle. George was pleased. At the start of last year he hadn't dared run at all. He watched affectionately while Illya climbed the ladder, waited for the previous diver to leave the water and ran straight out, hurling himself into space, tucking his little body in tightly, doing three full somersaults before slicing cleanly into the water. George beamed. His kid was a natural born athlete, no doubt about it. And bright, too—head of his exclusive private school with plenty of time left over to swim and run and play and read and George made sure he took time for all those things. George jealously guarded every hour of every day, trying to ensure each one gave Illya joy, and success, and security—but he couldn't do that forever. That was why he hoped fervently that this camp thing would work out. He hoped... Illya was back on line for the diving board now, and George took out his newspaper, started on the crossword puzzle.
After lunch—sandwiches, potato salad and milk—George insisted, as always, that Illya stay out of the water for a full forty-five minutes. They talked about Illya's swim team meet, and the reading list he was working his way through over the summer. Camp was not mentioned again. When the time was up Illya went back into the pool. He was swimming laps now, back and forth under the watchful eye of the lifeguard. George let his eyes drift closed and slept a little, in the hot sun.
Illya loved to swim—gliding through the water, trying different strokes, different turn around, always wanting to do a little better than the last time, pushing his body to the limit and enjoying its response. Breath in, breath out... it was a hypnotic rhythm and he was lost in the pleasure of it when there was a tremendous blow to his back, smashing him down, knocking the air out of him, scraping him against the concrete bottom of the pool. He was pressed into it, and he couldn't get off the bottom and he had to breathe... the weight left him and he struggled for the surface but he couldn't help it, he had to breathe, he couldn't wait... water rushed in and he choked, flailing and sinking and then he was out of the water, held in an iron grip. He fought it. There were a lot of excited voices and then George's—calm, familiar, safe.
"I'm the boy's guardian," he said, and people fell back for him. "Give him to me." The lifeguard did and Illya clung, gasping for breath. "Now now," George said and sat down, Illya sideways on his lap, leaning against him, still coughing. George gave his back a couple of solid thumps, making him cough again. "You just swallowed some water and got a little scare. That's all."
A little scare? That heavy body pinning him down, drowning him... he trembled and pressed even closer to George.
"Here." The lifeguard draped a large beach towel across Illya's back and George pulled it tightly around him, rubbing him, trying to warm him. Illya's lips were blue, and his teeth were chattering.
"Thanks." George pulled the towel down to cover Illya's bare feet as well.
"Hey! Little boy! Are you all right? Is he all right?"
"Are you the clown that did this to him?" George growled and the middle aged man, balding, with a distinctive pot belly, nodded unhappily.
"I'm sorry—I'm real sorry. Showing off—stupid—I never saw him."
"Doing cannonballs onto little kids!"
"I know, I know. But hey, you okay there little guy?"
Illya opened his eyes fearfully but the worried looking man peering into his face wasn't the monster he'd been half picturing, just an ordinary looking man, a little man, really, much smaller than George or even the lifeguard. He looked at the lifeguard gratefully.
"Thank you," he said and the lifeguard nodded. He was a college boy who had never before been called upon to perform any sort of rescue, and he was pleased with himself as well as relieved that all he'd had to do was scoop the kid up off the bottom of the pool. He'd been coughing and crying when he came out of the water so no further measures were called for, and now he was a hero.
"I'll write a letter to your boss and drop off a copy for you," George said, and they shook hands.
"Do you want me to call an ambulance?" the lifeguard inquired. "Get him checked out?"
George shook his head. Illya had stopped coughing but was shivering violently even under the towel. "No thanks. I'll just take him home and put him to bed."
"Hey. Hey kid. I'm sorry. No lie."
Illya turned his head and looked at the man again. "It's all right," he said, because it would be impolite not to and George was very strict about manners. "You didn't mean it?" It came out as a question and the man looked shocked.
"No, son, of course not. I never saw you."
"You never looked," George snapped and the man nodded.
"That's right. I'm an idiot. I'm sorry."
"It's all right," Illya said again and he meant it this time. It had been an accident, that was all. But he was cold, and he wanted to go home, so when George stood up and carried him towards the car he was glad, although ordinarily George had to pry him out of here. Sympathetic people carried their bags, someone ran ahead to open the door, and then he was in the car. George buckled him in, then went around to his own side.
After a hot bath and warm milk Illya was settled contentedly enough on the sofa. George had combed his soft, fair hair dry and was now brushing it. "George?" His voice was very small but it was the first word he'd spoken since leaving the pool and George was relieved.
"I decided... I don't think... I don't want to go to camp after all." Tears threatened to spill over as he said it What if that had happened to him and George had been far away? He would be lost. "I don't want to go away from you."
"Okey dokey," George said amiably, not missing a stroke.
"You're not mad? Or disappointed with me?"
"Honey—I only wanted you to go because I thought you'd like it. If you don't want to go—of course I'm not mad. Or disappointed. We'll do something else. We'll go to Coney Island. We'll spend a night in Manhattan. We'll see a show. You want to ride horses? We'll spend a week at a resort. You can ride all the horses you want. All right?" For answer Illya turned and threw his arms around George's thick waist, climbing back into his lap. "Is it what happened today, at the pool?"
"Yes!" The words were muffled in George's neck. "It scared me! Him on top of me and I couldn't get away and I couldn't breathe!"
"I know it did, honey." He rubbed Illya's back comfortingly. "I know it did."
"And what if you weren't there? What if I was scared and I didn't know anybody and... and you weren't there?" He cried a little at the picture he'd evoked, and George hugged him and rocked him and thought. George took his responsibility to Illya very seriously, and tried hard to do what was best for him all the time. It wasn't enough to bind Illya to him with love and gratitude and security and stability, although that had been the first thing, the main thing. He had read somewhere that children needed both roots and wings to grow. He had done his best to provide those roots. He wanted very badly to see Illya fly, as well.
"Honey," he said, after a long silence. "Are you awake?"
"Uh huh." The voice was sleepy but aware.
"If you don't want to go to camp because you would rather stay here, or because you don't think you'd like it, or whatever, that's fine. But I don't want you to think you can't."
"Listen to me. What if I hadn't been there? What if... what if it happened during swim team practice? I don't stay for that. I just drop you off."
"Well—but Mr. Guarando would be there."
"You know, George. He's the coach."
"So he'd take care of you."
"Yes. I mean it wouldn't be like you being there but I know him."
"Uh huh. And at camp there would be counselors and lifeguards and people you would also know."
"I suppose... but I don't know them now."
"No, and you didn't know Mr. Guarando when last season started either."
"But you introduced him and said he was all right. You don't know these people and you won't even be there to meet them I have to take a bus it said so in the brochure and I don't want to go!"
"Okay, I said." George hugged him again. "Don't want to go is fine. Can't go is different. Just keep that in mind."
"All right." It was an unwilling response but not a sullen one, and George was satisfied. He left Illya in front of the television set while he cooked dinner, and while they ate they watched a Disney movie. Illya loved these cartoon fantasies and he watched them with an open mouthed wonder that tickled George and moved him, too. Tonight Illya curled up against him as usual and, also as usual, informed him when the movie diverged from the original fairy tale. "In the book," he told George between mouthfuls of ice cream, "the wicked stepsisters cut off their toes and their heels to fit into the shoe."
George made a face. "I'm glad they left that out."
"Do you think the bad parts should be left out?"
George considered it. "Yes," he said finally. "For children, yes. There should be different stories, different rules for little kids." He looked hard into Illya's face as he said it, and Illya reached up and kissed his cheek. They watched in silence until the end, and then Illya put his mouth right to George's ear.
"I really wanted to learn to take care of my own horse."
"I know you did."
"Would you—would you maybe drive me there? Then you'd meet everybody too and you could tell me if they were all right."
"Yes. I'll drive you, and we'll both meet everybody."
"And if I looked at it and met people and then I didn't want to stay would that be all right? Would you take me home with you?"
"Yes, honey. That would be fine. I wouldn't leave you there if you didn't like it."
"All right." It was a very satisfactory solution, and he wriggled a little against George in anticipatory pleasure. He'd see it and then he could make up his mind and it would be all right with George either way. He fell asleep on George's shoulder, smiling as he thought about it.
George carried him to bed, and tucked him in. He left a glass of water on the night stand, and turned out the lights. Sitting on the bed he heard Illya's drowsy prayers and stroked his hair back, smiling, when he had finished. "Good night, honey."
"Good night, George. George?"
"Even if I like camp and stay—just for a week, right?"
"I still think it would be fun to go to Coney Island, and see a play, and go to a resort together and everything."
"We'll do it all," George promised him. "Whatever you want to do. We have all summer."
"Good. I love you, George."
"I love you too, Illya. Sleep well." He waited until he was sure Illya was asleep before leaning over, kissing his forehead and leaving. He left the door ajar because Illya liked to hear the normal nighttime noises, including George's own vigorous snoring. George watched the nightly news, made himself a sandwich, washed it down with a cold beer and went to bed himself.
The child slept in a pool of moonlight. He was an extraordinarily beautiful child, long blond hair silver in the light coming through the window. He stirred, disturbed by something—a noise, a memory, a dream—and turned over but even as he half woke the sound of George's snoring came through his open door and he quieted, comforted, and slipped back into sleep. The branches of the maple tree stirred in the breeze. The brief spark of a falling star crossed the night sky and even if the child or the man had been awake to see it, there was nothing further to be wished for.