What Dreams May Come

From the Story Arc: Two For The Show

Previous Story in the Arc: The Law of Unintended Consequences by Astra Kyne Murdock (Saturday, August 12, 2006)

Next Story in the Arc: Sanctuary by Astra Kyne Murdock (Saturday, August 12, 2006)

(posted Saturday, August 12, 2006)

It was a nightmare. Literally. And one from which Astra Kyne Murdock could not free herself. A nightmare in which everyone she loved and cared about…died. And now, no longer just a nightmare, the vision was repeating itself in her waking hours—over and over again.

Fortunately, Astra, and her parents, had friends.

One of those friends was sharing her body, had in fact, taken over for the while and sent Astra into a deep and dreamless sleep, a sleep in which there was, finally, nothing to fear.

And another was sitting across from Kyne in the Murdock apartment. Strange, Kyne reflected. This place was so ordinary looking…so peaceful. Astra’s room looked like that of any bookish teenage girl. She should be enjoying getting to know Starbuster. She shouldn’t be locked in an endless repeat of terror.

< Well hey Mandy >, the Kheldian symbiote said, clicking her mandibles with pleasure. < Man, it is nice to see you. >

Mandragora hugged the Mefnanim gently. “How so?”

Kyne hugged back with two of her tentacles. < Oh, I was beginning to think the nightmare was real. And that meant you were next on the list. >

“Next...?” Mandy asked, puzzled. Then she got the reference. “Oh. Of being taken out by Longbow.”

Kyne nodded. < I'm tellin' ya, I've had nightmares of one sort or another all my life—Well, all Kandy’s life—and I never had anything like this. Like in her nightmare, anything that wasn't human and wasn't a stooge was being set up for separation. >

Mandragora looked sober indeed, and well she should. “And like you, separating me from the Dragon would destroy me.

Kyne sighed. < So the corollary to that was, if you were time-sharing in someone's head, you'd better rat on your buds or you were about to get evicted like it or not .>

Mandragora looked apprehensive. “Does.. did Astra really think I'd betray anyone? Or was it that I wouldn't, and get killed for it?”

< The sequence didn't go into that much detail. Mostly there was a lot of screaming and dying. > Kyne shuddered. The dream, hallucination, whatever it was, still felt real. She could still feel the pain of being ripped out of Astra…and feel Astra dying, worse than the pain of her own death.

But Mandy was here to investigate. Find out what it was. And…Spirit of Space willing…stop it. < Would you be more or less comfortable if I went human form, or does it matter? >

Mandragora arched an eyebrow. “Form is not as important as soul. I don't mind the ‘squid.’” Then she chuckled. “And didn't I hug you like this?”

Kyne clicked her mandibles with chagrin. < That's Kheld for "DOH!" >

“I may look human, but I'm not. Not anymore.” Mandy smiled. “Okay, how do you want to go about this?”

Kyne thought that over. The atmosphere in the apartment was still surprisingly peaceful, considering everything that had been going on. It was probably safe to turn the “bad vibes” loose in here. < Well you want a look at what she's been putting out? Trust me, I'll keep the volume down and the color dimmed . >

“Please.” Mandy replied, bracing herself.

Kyne tapped into Astra’s mind and combined it with her own memories and let the hideous vision unfold.

It was the same apartment. Astra was on the couch with her brother, both apprehensive, fearful, both feeling triggered by something on the television. And then—

Longbow agents broke down the door with no warning. Strange weapons in their hands, they began firing even before the door had finished falling. John, caught by surprise, was first to be shot, followed by Sera, Aedan, JJ and finally Astra, simultaneously.

There was a stutter, a break, as if a new scene had been spliced in. This one was Astra herself, from inside her own mind. She was in a prison cell rather like the ones that the Council used. She was alone, terrified, cold and sick. Her hands were manacled behind her and in nullifier cuffs.

Another stutter. A lab, but one with some odd Circle of Thorns paraphernalia in it. Astra was strapped down to a table, as was the rest of her family. Astra turned her head, only to see some ominous looking machines. She was crying hysterically with fear.

Aedan was wheeled under one of the machines; enveloped in a strange, coruscating energy field he stared up at the inner workings of the thing so numb with horror that he couldn’t even move his eyes.

K’takei was ripped out of him

As promised, Kyne kept the worst of it repressed but the sheer gut-wrenching terror of that moment still came through. But the worst was yet to come.

Reverting so violently to his pre-Kheldian condition, his father’s fatal genes manifested. Violently. And combined with his genetic inheritance from his mother, triggered a chain reaction.

Aedan Murdock literally burst into flame. Not as Sera did, controlled and powerful. This was uncontrolled, still powerful—
--and fatal.

He died, screaming.

John was next, with the same result, except that in his case, he died not in fire, but in a paroxysm of unbearable pain, his body failing as it would have had he not fused, eyes fixed on Sera to the last.

Sera wailed, a sound to make the heart of anyone who still had one break. Then—she collapsed, lifeless.

The gurney holding John’s body was shoved aside as if it held nothing important, and it was JJ’s turn to be sent under the machine, with the same end result as Aedan.

Now it was Astra’s turn.

She was screaming, crying, struggling against her bonds, to no avail. She looked up into eyes that held no pity and no remorse. She felt the energy field around her.

Then she felt Kyne ripped out of her. And Kyne felt the agony of being separated from her host. And then—like Aedan, like JJ, Astra’s genetic heritage manifested—

Kyne shut it off, then. She wouldn’t show Mandy the utter end, nor make her feel it. But no one could escape the sense that every detail was real and correct, from the chill and grittiness of the concrete cell, to the stink of ozone from the nullifier cuffs.

“Oh gods of the between,” breathed Mandragora.

Kyne sighed. < That's what she's been living through. >

Mandy was very pale. Kyne wasn’t surprised. Even toned down, that was hard to live through. “Damn. It's very real feeling...”

Kyne nodded. < That's a big 10-4. You wouldn't have wanted the technicolor version. >

Mandy gathered herself together. “Believe me, I can guess. Right. Let me see what I can pick up. So let's start with 'listening'.” She closed her eyes and tilted her head slightly.

< Now let me tell you what Bell has in mind while you listen. She thinks that the way to start the cure is to give Astra one place she can always get to that is absolutely safe. And she says she's got just that place. Some of this is a safety thing. After that...she can do some fast-track mental healing. Then it's getting her trust back in people, one at a time, I guess. > Kyne could only hope this was all going to work.

“But that's not going to work unless we can figure out the root of this, right?” Mandy asked, her eyes still closed.

Kyne nodded. < Right. Absolutely. If we can tell her "this is from another dimension," or "This is something the bad guys are doing to you" and maybe even block it, that will go a long, long way. >

Mandragora: opened her eyes. “Okay, what I'm hearing is... echoes. Lots and lots of echoes.”

< That might be me. > Kyne offered.

But Mandy shook her head. “No. I've sort of 'isolated' your theme in the Symphony from hers.”

Kyne clicked her mandibles appreciatively. < Slick. >

“And it's almost like.. every time she read the thoughts of anyone with even the tiniest bit of hate, it got magnified,” Mandy continued. “But it's more than that. It was like every possible future kept echoing across her psyche. Do you know if she's a precog at all, or has that capability?”

Kyne shook her head < Miss Scarlett, I don' know nothin' 'bout birthin' no precogs. >

“Okay,” Mandy replied. Then chuckled. “Why did I just have Carol Burnett run through my head? ‘I saw them in the window, and just had to have them.’”

Kyne, who had seen that episode as Kandy Kane, chuckled herself.

“The trouble is, I don't know anyone who doesn't have at least some kind of anger in themselves. I don't regularly associate with bodhisattvas.” She sighed.

Kyne made an odd little shrug. < Who does? And hell, Kyria is about ready to take GE over her knee. She’s about as close as anyone I know. >

“So, any fragment of anger is being passed through the filter of her fear. And magnified.” Now Mandy looked frustrated. “But that still isn't all of it.”

< This is the Murdock household. When has anything ever been simple for them? > Kyne asked rhetorically.

Mandragora spread her hands. “I would say she's tapping into a sort of collective pool of anger and hate, through her telepathy--But not really.”

Kyne had a sudden thought. < You think it could be because Mom's inherited gift and my native Kheld version are resonating weirdly? >

Mandragora looked up, a light in her eyes. “Hang on.” She started humming, then said, blinking, “It's a lens.”

It was Kyne’s turn to be puzzled. < What's a lens? >

“Like a lens between mirrors.” Mandy definitely had the answer there, Kyne could tell by the sudden sharpness of her gaze. “Your gifts, Astra's natural talents and what she inherited from Sera.”

Kyne took in a deep breath. < I'll be go to hell. >

Mandragora continued, her eyes thoughtful, as if she was thinking aloud. “It's focusing, but distorted. It's also picking up cross-dimension traffic.”

How was that even possible? Kyne’s tail beat a regular pattern in the air. < Ain't THAT a kick in the head! >

“There are... “ and then Mandy said, quietly, “Oh shit.

Kyne’s tail moved faster. < You know, hearing you say that is like hearing the surgeon say "oops" >

“Recluse's Victory,” Mandy said flatly. “DATA has their portal set up - right in Atlas. Cross dimension traffic, right in the heart of Paragon. Resonates with all of your gifts and powers. She's not just picking up people's hate, she's also hearing the damn alternate timelines that that place keeps generating. All of that, focused through her fear, is showing her an alternate timeline on this world - one where Longbow went nuts. Where Tutelary died.

Kyne swore, using words she really didn’t want Astra to know. She’d had the feeling that having that Portal doing what it was doing was a bad idea. There were already so many alternate worlds out there—what had DATA been thinking, setting up a situation where they were deliberately generating more? Then putting it in the middle of Atlas Park? A home-run away from Coldwater Apartments, where the Murdocks lived? The Law of Unintended Consequences…again. < Can we turn it off? >

“Okay. What are the elements to this? Recluse's Victory, people's hate, all of your gifts....” Mandy looked up at Kyne. “The only one I can guarantee is removing her from the proximity of DATA's portal. I think they'd be pissed if I destroyed it. The portal, that is.”

Kyne felt cold. < Leave Paragon you mean. > Leave Paragon. And go where? There was the other factor…where was safe for Astra? Garvey was still very much out there. Take her away from the protection of her family, of Caradoc…of the CCCP…what would the consequences of that be? Powerful as she was and as she was becoming, she was still only a kid. And Kyne was by no means certain she could protect Astra alone.

“Not necessarily. And not forever,” Mandy said, as she sensed some of this going through Kyne’s mind. “I barely feel the effects of Peregrine Island's portals until I'm in Portal Court. And I'm very sensitive to it.”

Kyne sighed. None of this was a good solution.

“First things first.” Mandragora was evidently sorting through options. “We could shield Astra from the resonance effects of the timeline shifts in RV.”

< Well, I’m really all energy. > Kyne pointed out. < You throw me the frequency and I can match it. >

“Sera's got some fantastic shields here, it shouldn't take much effort to add to them - with her permission, of course.” Then Mandy tilted her head to the side. “Or, I could simply build them around you two.”

Well, that was a good option. < that might be better. She can’t hide in here forever, >

Mandy nodded. “Nor would I want her to. I was thinking here was safe, at least until she got some help. Okay, let me figure out what part of this is the timeline resonance, and create a counter to it.”

Kyne had been thinking about her own options. Frankly speaking…at this point, John should be in on the decision making. He was the one who really knew how much hazard the family was in…he might have an option of his own. Like—was the cabin safe? The real one, not the Underhill one. < While you do that, I'm gonna make a "family channel" call. >

Mandy nodded, humming a barely audible melody. A twisted red-black loop of light formed in midair, vibrating. the loop twisted, forming a Moebius strip.

“I need to ask you something. How much of Astra's problem can be traced to Sno's comment? “ The humming grew louder as the loop began to shift shape and color. “Because Sno is very concerned, and apologetic.”

It was so much easier being Kyne…with decades of experience as a human, and centuries as a Kheldian. Perspective was a wonderful thing when you had it; devastating when you didn’t. < I know she is. It's one of those damn things, you know? Wrong thing said at exactly the wrong time. >

The loop flipped inside out, and turned into a blend of gold, silver and blue.

< It's the whole trust thing. Kid looks up to all of you seniors and... >

“I told her that, but nobody was thinking during this whole thing. Just reacting.”

Poor Mandy. Caught in the middle.

< ...you did know JM uses a lot of kind of old-fashioned euphemisms? >

The humming stopped, but the loop remained. “Yeah, I've experienced that.”

< "A one-way ticket" has been used in this household as a polite way of saying someone got killed. > Kyne explained, grimly. < Or rather, executed. Taken out and shot. >

Mandragora swore in what sounded like several different languages before coming back to English. “Hell's bells. Exactly the wrong thing at the exact wrong time.”

There was no polite way to put this, so Kyne didn’t try. < ...so to a kid who has just been gang-raped mentally, she's hearing someone she trusts say the CCCP needs to be lined up and shot. >

Mandy’s expression was grim. “You don't happen to know which reporters and Longbow agents were the worst offenders, do you? Because I would say they should get a little exposure to what Astra's experiencing, wouldn't you say?”

Kyne shook her head. < I couldn't even see anything with all those lights in my face. But I am a vindictive bitch, and I'd say yeah. Don't know how you could do that without putting her through it all over again tho. >

Mandy breathed deeply. “I have a way around that.” She held out her hand, and a blue gem shimmered into being, as Kyne’s mandibles clicked in surprise.

“What you shared with me, project it into this gem,” Mandy said in a flat tone of voice. “Full color, if you would.”

Kyne nodded. < One Sound-and-Light Show coming up. > She concentrated, trying not to re-experience it all over again herself. Finally she had to retreat into her fully Kheldian self, cool and logical, distantly compassionate, before she could deal with it. The gem changed color as the 'vision' filled it, becoming dark and turbulent.

When it was over Kyne still felt as if she’d been dragged face-first through a Vhaz den. < Bleah. Double Plus Ungood, as 1984 put it. >

“I'm sorry to have to put you through that, but...” Mandy tossed the gem in the air and caught it, then sighed. “I hope Astra doesn't have a problem with me, after this.”

Kyne was thinking. < You know...All you really have to do is find out who Longbow had stationed at the tram station when the reporters ambushed the kids. I know it was a pair and both of 'em were pretty much on the same page, >

Mandy gave a small, tight smile. “And a simple spell would project the images from this gem into their heads. Give them a taste of their own medicine.”

Kyne twitched her tail. < Now that's what I call even-handed justice. >

“The thing is, otherwise this gem is inert,” Mandy pointed out. “And Vickie'll know the spell, I'm sure.”

< I expect so, > Kyne replied absently, already thinking of something else. < hmm, something else occurs to me tho. Azuria is right next to Data. If we gave her that, she might not only be able to work with Data to seal the thing off, she might be able to prevent this from leaking over to other psychics. >

Mandragora’s eyes widened. “To prevent the resonance effects. Damn good idea, Kyne.”

She shuddered. < Greater good, you know? Much as I like revenge, I like fixing things for the kidlet more. >

Mandy returned to the reason she had come in the first place. “Now, as to this loop. It's kind of like a belt for you, and it *should* block the resonance of the timelines from Recluse's Victory. All you really need to do is match the frequency of the loop. Then I can take it to Azuria, and explain things to her. But, in case you change your mind... I'll leave the gem.”

< Think I'll run this by JM too if you don't mind. > Kyne had the feeling that John was not going to like the gem idea….

Mandy quickly agreed. Please, share this as much as need be. It's just that Astra has it bad, because of the confluence of powers.

Kyne turned her attention to the gold/silver/blue loop still twisting in midair. < Ok, let me try this little accessory on. > She flew carefully up and positioned herself inside it. Then hummed, matching the frequencies. The Mobius strip glowed and pulsed, Kyne’s now-visible shields glowed and pulsd to match it, until finally the one merged into the other, and the twisted loop melded into the shields. And Kyne, dropping into Astra’s form, dropped to the floor.

Mandy gave her a sharp and intent look. “You okay?”

Kyne morphed back to Mefnanim and shook her head. < Whoa! That was weird. Like getting hit by a good sapper, if there was such a thing. >

Mandy laughed. “Reverse sapper.”

The relief was evident immediately. A sense of impending doom was gone. So was a sense that…that somehow all the world was in shock, mourning, or both, < Hmmm. let's see A little mental rummaging here... Oh. Oh., That's nice. That's really nice. >

Mandragora held up a cautioning hand. “Look. If you can help it, don't go too close to the DATA offices until after Azuria sets up the barrier. There might be even more weird resonance effects. That feels better, from my end. What about yours?”

Kyne gave an appreciative wiggle. < Good. Really good. And this'll slot in with the psychic shields mom taught her. In fact...hmm....yeah....it's gonna keep 'em from dropping now. >

Mandy looked pleased, as well she should. “Because she's so sensitive, Astra is more likely to pick up on stuff like this. You'll need to pay attention for anything like it. Especially if she starts doing Portal Corp work.”

Kyne snorted. < That'll be any day now, given this family. >

Mandy chuckled and hugged the Kheldian; Kyne curled her tail around Mandy and hugged her back. < You are literally a lifesaver. > she said, just as her comm. Beeped.

Mandy smiled. “I could make a joke about small round candies, but I won't.”

Kyne didn’t need to answer the comm. when the answer was also on the “family channel.” < Well speak of the devil. JM is on his way off patrol and incoming. >

“I can stay for a bit longer. Then I need to see if I can sleep.” She laughed, but it sounded, oddly enough, a bit bitter.

It didn’t take being a psychic to read that. < What's with your sleep patterns? Maybe there I can do you a turn. > Kyne thought she knew the answer, but wanted to hear it confirmed.

“I haven't had any for about two weeks.”

Oho. < since what happened? Getting tall green and scaly back? >

Mandy nodded. “Yeah, it started building since then. I'd sleep for a couple of hours, then wake up totally refreshed. But about two weeks ago... I just stopped sleeping. I've tried. Gods know I've tried. And it doesn't seem to be affecting me badly. I'm going in to see Pania soon, as soon as she can make some time.”

Kyne was “reading” Mandy’s energy patterns while her friend spoke. < \You know....this feels --- huh! > She looked up as soon as she sensed John Murdock entering the room. < Hey big man! >

Mandy must have been startled that Kyne sensed John before she did, but she covered it well. “Hey John!”

Or maybe it was that “Berkut class” armor John had taken to wearing. He removed his helmet. “Evenin' Mandy, Kyne. How goes?”

< Some progress with the kidlet, and some interesting stuff with Mandy herself. > Kyne turned back to the dragon. < Mandy, being mostly energy, I read energy like you read the Symphony. >

Mandy nodded. “And?”

< And it looks to me like what you have is....it's like neurotransmitters? You need chemicals to cross certain neuron junctions? You're short on the energy equivalent to allow your...for lack of a better word, "chi" to flow into your sleep center. >

Mandy shook her head. “I'm not familiar with the mechanics of sleep, not even for normal humans.”

John’s brow wrinkled, and he looked perplexed. “Well, as per usual, I'm confused. What're y'all talkin' about, now?”

But Kyne already had a fix in mind. < JM, we can try something if you would. I'm not equipped yet to do this. > A pity that, but Kheldians, after the initial fusion, integrated with the hosts slowly, allowing them to master the skills of the three forms gradually, and Astra just wasn’t ready to try healing anyone other than herself yet. < Can you tune your healing to > She uttered a series of clicks and whistles, giving him instructions in Kheldian since there was no human equivalent < and give her a jolt? >

John nodded. “Well, I suppose so. What're ya trying to accomplish?”

“I haven't slept for about two weeks, John,” Mandy said, with a sigh.

< Might prime the punp to get her energies flowing right again. >

John nodded. “Ah. Well... lack of sleep or prolonged periods of conciousness ain't all that unusual for meta's. But, I'll give this a try if you're willin', Mandy.”

Kyne laughed. < Worst that happens is it'll give you a lovely complexion. >

“I'm willing to give it a shot.”

“Here goes.” John focused for a moment, concentrating his energy to attune with the pattern Kyne described. The result was a more blue-green version of the Kheldian healing rays than usual. Mandy blinked as the energy sank home.

“Whoa.” Mandy sat up a little straighter. “I'm.. wow.”

It had had the desired effect. So far as Kyne’s “reading” told her. < Now there is either a cuppa cappuccino or a nice warm milk. >

Mandy took a deep, deep breath. “I don’t feel sleepy, but I *do* feel better. More relaxed. Like I can breathe right again.” She smiled, slowly. “I might just sleep after this.”

John nodded, and looked remarkably pleased. Well, he should. Nice to have something go right for a change. “Good. Usin' my Kheldian energy like that normally just promotes rapid cellular regeneration an' the like, but that bit was...different. Energy was on a different frequency than I normally pump it out at.”

< Think you can give JM the short form on what's goin' on with the kidlet? > Kyne asked.

Mandy did look better; tiny tension lines that had been in her face before weren’t there now. “Okay, John. Here's the Readers' Digest version. Astra's gifts plus Kyne's Kheld energy plus Sera's heritage are all blending together. It makes Astra particularly sensitive to a lot of things.”

John leaned forward, listening intently, only taking his attention off Mandy to put the helmet from his armor down on the big planter in the center of the room.

“And Recluse's Victory is broadcasting ripples in the timeline through that *damned* DATA portal in Atlas,” Mandy continued. “Invisible, unless you're sensitive to them. And the hate that Astra kept picking up from people resonated in her with the RV ripples. It tuned her in to a timeline where Longbow went very bad. Where Tutelary died, and things just got worse and worse from there.”

John’s lips thinned and a ghost of pain passed across his face. “So the dreams have been from there?”

“In part.”

John braced himself. “Alright.” He thought for a moment. “What can be done about this?”

Mandy hadn’t missed the expression on John’s face; Kyne could tell “Astra was picking up all sorts of things, not the least of which is this timeline. Note that I said ‘was’.”

< Mandy's been a busy girl. > Kyne swayed her tail in a way that any other Kheld would read as being pleased.

“Once I figured out what was going on, I crafted a shield for Astra and Kyne, to block out the time resonances from the RV portal.” Mandy looked to John for his reaction.

It was relief. Profound relief. “Well, that's good news. What 'bout her telempathy, though?”

“While she's in loving hands, you have a chance to get through her 'shell'. This just means that she's not going to be assaulted by the visions,” Mandy cautioned. “I've just got the door open here. A soul and mind healer can help her with the PTSD on this one.”

John sighed heavily. Poor man. Poor, poor man.. He was too good a father to be put through this kind of grief. “Good. I think we know someone that might fit that bill.”

“Oh yes,” Mandy added, “And I'll be passing this to Azuria, just in case there are other sensitives out there with similar problems as Astra's.”

“That'll be fine.” John said, then hesitated. “Maybe keep quiet on who y'first noticed this happening to, however, unless it's absolutely necessary. We've got enough folks pokin' an proddin' at us.”

Mandragora actually smirked. “Azuria won't ask me any questions. She'll just attribute it to my ‘highly developed magical senses’.”

< Pass that business about the rock by him, would you? > Kyne urged.

“Oh yes. “ Mandy nodded, and held up a dark gem, “This is portable revenge.”

John cocked his head to the side, quickly scanning the stone with his own limited telempathy. “What is it?”

“It's a recording of Astra's visions,” Mandy said, with just a touch of the fierce anger she had shown before. “And with the proper spell, they can be projected into the mind of certain people.”

< The full boat version you got smacked between the eyes with. > Kyne said.

“I figure there are a couple of Longbow agents out there, not to mention a few reporters, who could do with a bit of instant karma.” And Mandy looked ready to go out and deliver that instant karma herself, given half a chance.

< I kinda like it, but I'm vindictive. > Kyne sighed. < Then again, I've been on the receiving end of 'em for a while. >

“Well..” John nodded but looked dubious. “I'll preach caution on that. There's enough bad press out there as it is. If someone gets the bejeesus scared out of 'em and decides to run a story on it, things could go south more than they already have.”

“I wouldn't have made it if I didn't think it was justified,” Mandy said, with a hint of protest. She tossed the gem to John. “It's inert. : Vickie will know the proper spell, if you figure out a way to make it work.”

Kyne hissed in disappointment. < Meh,. Dammit. You're right, JM. I hate it when being right gets in the way of getting even. >

John caught the stone, turning it over in his hands. “Still somethin' to hang onto. Might help in some way with Astra's recovery.”

“Or... even the guilty have nightmares, sometimes,” Mandy persisted, with a little smile. Kyne didn’t blame her. She herself wanted badly to use the thing….

But there was more going on than just revenge. All this time she had been feeding things to the “sleeping” Astra, and what was going on was enough to make her willing to forget revenge for a while. < You two want to try a little experiment? Let the kidlet out for a little? >

John nodded, hope lighting his eyes. “I'd like that, if you're fine with it an' y'think she's ready.”

“I'm okay with that, as long as you think she's ready for me. I'll follow your lead, John.” But Mandy looked hopeful too.

< I've been feeding her unconscious mind. Let's see if some of it took. > Kyne took her attention off the two adults and turned it inward.

< Come on sweetie, > she coaxed. < You see what was going on now? >


< You ready to come out? >

Fear/gratitude/affirmation/fear. Affirmation,
< All righty. On three. One. Two. Three. >

The Mefnanim vanished. The girl, looking impossibly fragile, too her place.

Astra looked up into the face of her father and felt her heart overflow with love and relief. It was nothing but a nightmare out of somewhere else. It wouldn’t happen here. Her father, her mother, Mandy, Caradoc—Bella, Vickie, Zach and Djinni—the comrades of the CCCP. They wouldn’t let it happen. Not here.

John smiled down into her eyes. “Mornin', kiddo.”

She plastered herself against her father, startling a little grunt out of him.
Mandragora smiled. “Morning.”

Astra peeked shyly at Mandy, becoming aware of just how much she owed the dragon-mage.

“Get a good rest, dear?” John said, his arm comfortably tight around her. “Mandy an' I were just talkin' 'bout a few things.”

“ ....Hi Miss Mandy,” she whispered.

Mandy smiled wider. “Hey Astra.”

The nightmare was gone. The sense of doom was gone. Mandy had done it. She wanted to weep with gratitude, but she knew that Mandy would take that wrong. “Um,” she faltered. “Thank you.” She felt her father projecting a thread of reassurance, and she clung to it as she clung to him. “Um. I'm glad you're not really dead. Really, really glad.” The fear was still there, and made it hard to speak with any level of articulation.

“Me too,” Mandy offered.

John chuckled lightly. “Makes three of us.”

But—this might not be her reality—but it was someone’s reality, and the memories made two hot tears well up, and roll down her cheeks. “But the poor Miss Mandy there is….” she whispered.

Responding to her distress, Mandragora held out her arms, offering a hug. Almost afraid to respond and discover somehow that Mandy wasn’t real, she gingerly hugged back—

But Mandy was real, and warm, and Astra responded with more of her old enthusiasm before detaching herself and plastering herself to her father again.

Her father held her, and probably felt her starting to shake. “Y'ready to lay back down, kiddo?” he asked gently.
“I...I...think I better,” she managed. The fear. It was coming back.

John nodded. “Come on, then. I'll be sure to send in Ma once she gets home.”

Mom. Oh, she wanted to see mom! Sera was strong and wise and in some ways even more powerful than her father. As long as her mom knew she was going to be all right eventually—Sera could do anything. Would do anything.

“Kay,” she whispered. And felt Mandy’s love and support as well as her fathers.

She swallowed hard, and looked at both of them with entreaty as the fear started to set in again. “I'm sick. But I'm gonna get better. Right?”

Her father’s brow furrowed with worry. “Right. An' you'll have all of us here, ready to help ya.”

“Of course you are,” Mandy echoed.

It was taking her, that fear. It was trying to take over. “Kay. Uh....” she was shaking now, shaking with the effort of trying to hold herself together. And finally, she couldn’t and she called on the only being that could get her out—


The girl was gone. The Mefnanim was in her place. And a pained expression crossed her father’s face. “That could've gone better.”

But Kyne was relieved past all telling. Before this session, Astra couldn’t be awake for thirty seconds before hysteria set in. Now it was just a matter of beating the fear. < Believe it or not, that's progress. Now she knows it's not real, it's being sick >

Mandy nodded. “I believe it.”

Some of the pain left John’s face. “That's true. She's better than she was last night.”

Kyne sent John reassurance of her own. < Frankly she's half way there. >

“And it's not really being sick.” Mandy pointed out. “It's like being allergic. Just very sensitive.”

There was light at the end of the tunnel at last. Kyne took a deep breath. < OK I think I'll put us to bed. You grownups can talk dirty now. >

“And I should try to see if this 'relaxed' state can lead to real sleep for me,” Mandy added.

John nodded. “Probably the right idea. I'll still send Sera in once she comes off from patrol.”

But Mandy wasn’t done. She must have felt the fear that Astra was still racked with. “Those Longbow agents, and those reporters...”

John patted her shoulder. “Right now, it ain't 'bout ethics. It's about safeguardin' my family an' friends. That rock...might not help things in that regard. That's just the way I see it, y'know. No sense potentially bringin' more trouble down on us than we already have.”

Mandy nodded ruefully. “No, I understand. I just have this problem with people screwing with my friends... my family-of-choice.”

From Astra’s room, where Kyne was putting both of them to bed, she heard that last as Mandy and John moved off to a farther room. Family-of-choice. Bless Mandy. That was how it was all right. And no one, no one on this world or any other, could have a better one.