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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 24: Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright...
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
This is just a small bit of writing I'm afraid. I'm hoping that it brings about a desire to do more. I had never needed any outside inspiration to write before; it had always come from within. I find that I'm rather empty inside and I fear that it has little to do with the fever I had so recently suffered. I saw the worry in Xena's eyes from the first moment I awoke. She's afraid I'll not take up the quill again; she said as much this morning. I explained that she needn't fear that, but she appeared unconvinced. Perhaps it was because I sounded rather unconvincing, even to my own ears.
Cyrene has gone downstairs to arrange for a portable bath to be brought up to the room and to fetch us a pot of tea. We had talked almost all morning and I believe some of it caused the heavy ache within my chest to ease up slightly. In fact, while I can admit that I am heartbroken beyond reason over what I see as my parent's betrayal, Cyrene's words have at least calmed me to the point of trying to accept. I don't think I will ever understand, but I can at least accept their behavior. Cyrene has made that easier with her love and abundant compassion.
Cyrene had a manner that immediately put me at ease. It had been that way almost since the first day we'd met. There was a sort of connection between us. I don't really understand why, considering she was Xena's blood and not my own. When I thought on the enigma of it, perhaps that is exactly why this woman seems so familiar to me. I see Xena within Cyrene in so many ways. How odd that mother and daughter could be so alike after having spent so many seasons apart.
I sat at the small table in our room and ate what I could of a delightful morning meal. Since the days that my servitude ended, I had been most fortunate in having such culinary masters as Delia and Cyrene spoil me at the dining table. I enjoyed listening to Cyrene tell me all that I had missed around the inn since I'd been ill. The stories were nothing particularly important, just the sort of talk that people engage in to pass the time. Cyrene changed the sheets on our bed and removed the linen from the day lounger that Xena had obviously been spending her nights on.
Cyrene was an astute woman, as I have found most healers to be. Just as Yu Pan watched the world around him in reflective silence, speaking only when it was necessary, so I found Cyrene much the same. I could feel her watching me more closely than most people would have even noticed. She was extremely subtle about it, and in truth, I hadn't the energy to allow it to unnerve me. Besides, I understood why she did it. It would have been foolish of me to think that Xena hadn't confided in her mother about what had happened in Potidaea, but I knew that Xena had an interesting way of relating a story. She had always felt quite uncomfortable about talking about someone without that person's knowledge, and that was even more apparent when it came to me. I suppose it came from her personal code of honor, or loyalty. In short, I suspected that she had left it up to me as to how much of my personal life I would reveal. It should not have come as any surprise to me, then, when Cyrene commented on the furrow in my brow.
You look as though you're concentrating much too hard on that food." She chuckled slightly after she spoke.
I offered a distracted smile. Between all of the other ramblings in my brain, what happened in Potidaea still replayed itself. I'm sure my face reflected that.
"I'm sorry, Cyrene. It really has nothing to do with the food. In fact, I was just thinking how spoiled I was with you and Delia feeding me."
"She's a wonderful woman, isn't she," Cyrene answered. "It's been so wonderful having a woman my age to talk with. That's a rare commodity in the village. You don't realize how much you miss something like that until you experience it. Most of the women I grew up with live on farms outside of town."
"I know what you mean. It's been special to me having friends, especially women near my age. I'm often surprised how much I have in common with Anya and Scylla, even considering how different our outward lives are."
"Well, I'll miss all of you a great deal when you go. I've become a little accustomed to having family running all over the inn again."
"You know, Cyrene, you're welcome to visit, or even stay, with us no matter where we are. You're family and you're always wanted."
"Come over here, my child. That's reminds me of something I wanted to tell you." Cyrene patted the newly changed bed as she spoke.
She came over and assisted me in walking over to the bed. I accepted her help with little resistance. After spending so many days in bed, my legs felt a little like wet reeds. She poured us each another cup of tea then, after taking a few refreshing sips; we set them upon the small stand beside the bed.
"I asked Cor to have Elias help him and carry up a large copper bath. I told him to give us some time, though, so we could talk a little."
"Cyrene, I feel bad for all the trouble you're going to. Really, I wouldn't mind using the baths at the end of the hall."
"Nonsense, I won't hear of it. Besides, with the privacy you get here in your room, you can relax and soak for a good long while with no interruptions."
"Well, you make it sound too good to turn down," I answered. In truth, it did sound wonderful and cleaning up after the last few days sounded marvelous.
"Gabrielle, your words about me feeling welcome wherever you and Xena are--"
"I meant that, Cyrene. You will always have a place with us."
"That means a great deal to me. I think family has become more important the older I get."
"Or the longer you're away from them," I added. My response had slipped past my tongue before I even realized that I had made it more than thought.
"What happened in Potidaea, Gabrielle?" she asked.
That was all it took. Isn't that strange? I felt all the emotions; pain, heartache, betrayal, and anger, just as I had felt them on that day. Then, the emptiness that had captured my soul upon learning that nothing I had put my hopes into over the seasons existed, perhaps had never existed. With Cyrene's one simple question, I found myself spilling out the story in a jumble of words, tears, and the occasional hiccup.
Some time later, Cyrene still held me in her surprisingly strong embrace. I sat up and she handed me a soft cloth with which to dry my eyes.
"You'd think I'd have no tears left with as much as I've cried over this," I said. "I sure don't feel at all like a Queen."
"Well, if you want to know the truth, you don't look much like one either." She smiled at the jest and I couldn't help but smile, too. "It's nothing that a good bath and a clear head can't fix, though."
"Well, I suppose the bath can be provided, but the clear head might be a little tough. I have such an emptiness in my heart, Cyrene, and it feels as if the pain will never go away."
"Perhaps that's because you mourn for what you still desire. Gabrielle, just because your parents have forsaken you doesn't mean that your heart has stopped wanting what they represent. Seeing Xena return home after all these season should have shown you that. Nearly a lifetime has gone by, yet Xena desired nothing more than that connection that we can only find with our family."
"Then I suppose that means I'll never find that connection," I responded.
"Little one, you are so wrong."
I don't know which surprised me more, the fact that Cyrene had used that special term of endearment or the strength and conviction of her words.
"That's what you reminded me to do today with your comments about family," she continued. "What I remembered that I wanted to tell you, no matter how things had gone for you in Potidaea. You are my child's whole world; I see that in both of your eyes. Xena means the world to me and you'll never know how happy it's made me, seeing her again. She's my daughter and that makes you my daughter, as well. Gabrielle, as long as Selene, Cor, myself, and any of our own that come later are alive, you will have family. Not just blood kin, my child, but a family who sees you for the truly special young woman that you are. You may not be the child of my body, Gabrielle, but you will always be the daughter of my heart."
It seemed only right that we would embrace and that I would find myself in tears once again. The last time I had felt such love had been on the day that Xena proposed to me. I had never thought to feel that sort of emotional tie ever again, but I had been wrong. I silently thanked Athena for such a gift, for how many people actually get a second chance at a family, and how many of them find one as wonderful as the one I now found myself a part of. For the first time since setting foot on my home soil of Potidaea again, I felt blessed and not saddened. That empty ache had all but disappeared; replaced with something I could not put a name to. It felt a great deal like the familiar comfort of home.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
I hadn't been away long from the room that Gabrielle and I shared. It was most of the morning, but evidently not long enough. When I made my way up the back staircase, I met Cor on his way down. He and the hired man, Elias, had just finished hauling up a large copper bath for Gabrielle's use. Cor was on his way back downstairs to heat the water.
Mother had rigged up a sort of tent around the large metal bath. When I walked into the room, Gabrielle and Yu Pan both turned to look at me. I knew immediately that Gabrielle was different. That crease in her brow that she gets when she concentrates on something overly hard had disappeared. Had it been Yu Pan, Cyrene, or a combination of both the healers' skills in easing Gabrielle's pain? Who cares, is what I had been thinking. Anything that made my young wife happy made me delirious with joy.
"Forgive me. I had no idea you had company," I addressed Gabrielle.
"It's all right, love, come in." Gabrielle held out one hand and I closed the still open door.
I crossed the room to the table they sat at and reached for her offered hand. After placing a gentle kiss upon her palm, I knelt down beside her. I didn't feel at all awkward about such a position. I disliked the feeling of towering over my seated partner, and Yu Pan was not much taller than Gabrielle was.
"You look as though you're feeling much better," I said to her.
"Just stay down wind. I haven't had a chance to bathe yet."
"Beautiful all the same," I replied, oblivious to Yu Pan's presence. There was a time when offering Gabrielle any sentiment aloud in another's presence caused extreme embarrassment on my part. I had come too close to losing her too many times to hold on to such foibles.
"Master Yu Pan, forgive me for not acknowledging your presence. It's such a joy to see Gabrielle smiling that I forgot my manners."
"Xena," the old man nodded his head at me. It was rare for him to use my given name. I had usually been Conqueror or even Tong zhi zhe, the name for which he had known me during my time in Chin. By his form of address, I knew that this was to be an informal visit, as if we were family coming together for an afternoon's discussion.
"Perhaps you two would prefer to speak alone?" I looked from Yu Pan to Gabrielle.
"Unless Master Yu Pan wishes it so, otherwise I'd love for you to stay," Gabrielle answered.
"It would be most refreshing to share tea with the both of you," Yu Pan added.
I knew that phrase meant more than simply sharing a hot beverage. Gabrielle had explained that Yu Pan often put special herbs in his teas, particular herbs depending upon the individual's need. His healing methods ranged from storytelling to hypnosis, but they had never failed to instill Gabrielle with strength and a fresh outlook on life. I wondered, however, how herbs meant for Gabrielle would affect me, but I trusted the old man, which was saying a great deal. Gabrielle was accustomed to his roundabout way of getting to the point. It was usually a lesson in patience for me, wondering when he would get to the heart of his visit. Of course, by the time I realized that he had, the visit was usually over.
"Let us grow comfortable," Yu Pan indicated the area under the open windows. The cushions that had previously surrounded the fireplace lay under the warm breeze coming in through the open shutters. "Shall we?" he asked.
Gabrielle felt much stronger walking next to me, the waxen pallor of her face had all but departed. We settled ourselves on the comfortable cushions and Yu Pan rolled out a bamboo mat upon which he placed a small teapot, three very small clay cups, and a rather plainly decorated jar.
"Just in time," Yu Pan said in response to the knock on the door.
I had often wondered at our friend's age. He jumped up to answer the door with a spryness that indicated a much younger man. During my days in Chin, I had learned of the mysterious monk who had elevated hand-to-hand combat into an art form. Little did I suspect that the Tiger of Shaolin would actually come to live in my own castle in Greece. Still, I pondered the mortality of this man who appeared so unassuming, yet held the strength of the Gods within his slight and elderly frame. When I had lived in the Eastern part of the known world, and men spoke of the elusive Tiger, the story had been nearly a hundred seasons old. Many a day had I thought of Yu Pan as an immortal, but I supposed only time would tell the truth of that.
Elias held a metal teapot in one hand, two layers of towel wrapped around the pot's handle. He sat it on the table and, after Yu Pan whispered a few words to him, he exited the room.
I offered assistance, but Yu Pan waved me off, although he looked as though the pot of steaming water weighed as much as he did. I missed this part of drinking tea the most from those long ago seasons spent in Chin and Japa. The making of the drink was nearly as sacred to the people of those lands as any religious ceremony was to us in Greece. Women taught their daughters the intricate steps of preparation as if they were all a part of a formal ritual.
I watched with fascination and delight as Yu Pan carefully laid each utensil he would use on his wooden mat. It was like watching a dance or a well-choreographed battle. Each move was deliberate and precise, yet appeared to be wholly spontaneous. He carefully removed the lid from the clay jar and measured a goodly amount of dried herbs and flowers within the palm of his hand, placing them in the teapot. The sweet and earthy aroma of herbs filled the room as soon as Yu Pan poured in the steaming hot water.
"Mmm, I smell Jasmine," Gabrielle said as she leaned against my shoulder. The warm breeze carried the scent of flowers and cedar.
"There are Jasmine plants just outside the kitchen. They vine up the walls. That scent is one I've always remembered," I answered.
Gabrielle leaned into me further and rested her head upon my shoulder. It was almost a part of my nature to reach out and touch her when she was near. I wrapped one arm around her, but felt slightly self-conscious. I had no wish to make Yu Pan uncomfortable, but his next words dispelled any discomfort I might have had.
"It makes my soul glad to see that you two have found such happiness with one another. It seems as though your hearts have found the way to be one with nature."
"One with nature? I've never heard you speak of that, Master," Gabrielle responded.
As was his custom, Yu Pan answered Gabrielle with instruction as opposed to a simple answer. "There was a man whom I studied under as a young monk. He explained that there was something before all beginnings. It never moved and it never ended; yet, it always existed. He claimed that it was the inexhaustible source of everything else. He called it nature."
"Are you saying that our hearts have a good relationship with nature?" Gabrielle asked.
"Very astute, nuér," he replied. "Would that your mind and body reacted as well as your heart with nature."
"Is that what's wrong with me? Do you see that, Master?" Gabrielle asked.
"I have seen it, nuér," Yu Pan answered.
I wondered if I should say anything. Was I a part of this wrongness with nature or was I simply there for Gabrielle's benefit? I decided to be a silent strength for Gabrielle and hold my tongue. I understood enough to know that if Yu Pan wanted something from me, he would ask for it.
"When I was a child " Yu Pan began as he poured each of us a cup of tea. "A Tai-Ch'i Master came to the village where I lived in order to catch a rogue tiger. The tiger had been disturbing the oxen and there were rumors that it had dragged off a sickly child from another mountain village. The Master explained to me that it was not the tiger, but the people at fault and that he would not capture and kill the creature, but become one with it. He said that the animal's patience had most probably been exhausted. The humans built villages along the mountainous slopes, deeper and deeper within the bamboo jungles. Then, the people acted surprised when the wild animals attacked their flocks. It was they who came into the animals' homes, destroying them for their own needs.
"Upon finding the tiger, the Master sat down before him and looked deep into the tiger's eyes. It was as if they passed messages in silence. Without any struggle at all, the tiger fell to his knees. The Master sat on the tiger's back and rode the animal away into the mountains, never to be seen again. It was said that while sitting on the back of the tiger, the Master attained enlightenment and the creature's stripes burned as brightly as the rising sun."
We sipped our tea during Yu Pan's story. My promise to be Gabrielle's silent strength quickly went the way of the bath water once he had finished. I still wasn't sure about what he spoke of and so I simply said so.
"Okay, I don't think I get it."
"Xena," Gabrielle said.
"Well, is it just me? Do you understand it?"
"Well, no actually." Her lips turned upward into an embarrassed smile.
Yu Pan's light laughter stopped us before our words could turn into any sort of an argument. "For some, enlightenment comes quicker than for others," he said.
"I think the point of the tale is how the Master made the effort to understand the tiger instead of destroying him," Gabrielle said.
"Very good, but what does that mean?"
"Becoming one with nature?" I answered. Of course, it was more of a question than a statement and Yu Pan saw it for what it was.
"Are you asking me or telling me?"
"Frankly, I'm just not sure."
Gabrielle laughed. "Neither am I, Master."
"And do you know the story of Anteus?" he asked.
We both nodded our heads and Yu Pan continued.
"Then you remember that the giant son of Gaia and Poseidon was invincible only as long as his feet remained in touch with the ground, for the ground was his mother. He knew and understood that his power came from nature herself. Have you ever heard the Oracle at Delphi speak?"
Gabrielle shook her head, but I acknowledged aloud that I had met with her a number of seasons earlier.
"And, what is it that she has inscribed over the lintel of her inner sanctum?"
"Know thyself," I answered, suddenly linking what all of these tales had in common. "It's more than being in harmony with nature, but believing in it as well."
"Not even so much just believing," Gabrielle added in her excitement. "But, understanding that's where it comes from."
We both realized that we had finally understood Yu Pan's parable. We didn't need it, so sure were we, but if we had, Yu Pan's smile and nodding head was our confirmation.
"Nuér, your recent illness indicates what to you?" Yu Pan asked Gabrielle a question for which he seemed to feel she should already know the answer.
"That my body wasn't in harmony with nature," Gabrielle answered.
Somehow, I felt instinctively that my role in the conversation was at a sort of end. I sensed that Yu Pan now taught a lesson to Gabrielle alone.
"And, was it your body alone that did not walk in the way?"
"I--I'm not sure I understand."
"What makes up the self, my nuér?"
"Mind, body, Ch'i, and thought," Gabrielle dutifully answered.
"And what is wellness?" Yu Pan continued to ask questions that even I would have had a difficult time answering, but obviously these lessons had been completely ingrained upon Gabrielle's mind.
"Healing, happiness, health, and harmony."
"I see you mention healing first. Is there a reason?"
"Well I know that we hold the power within ourselves to self heal. I suppose that always seemed important to me. I use it a great deal, but sometimes some of the time the illness seems to much for me to attempt."
"What, ultimately, do you use for self healing?"
Gabrielle paused for the first time, but only for a moment. "My mind. I mean, I use my touch, but only as a sort of instrument. The source is located here." Gabrielle tapped the index finger of her right hand against her temple.
"Illness indicates that you are not walking in harmony with nature, but what is most important is to understand what exactly makes up illness."
"Aside from being sick?" Gabrielle asked with a cocky smile.
Yu Pan grinned at her humor and the old man looked at me. "She picks up your sense of humor," he said; to which I could only shrug.
"Gabrielle, stress or emotional toil is a sort of sickness, as well. It can ravage the body much faster than many fevers, leaving one too weak to fight the physical illness that follows. Stress attacks the heart and soul."
"Are you saying my fever came from the trauma that I went through over my parents?" Gabrielle asked.
"Precisely. I am not saying that your fever was not real, or that a true illness did not attack your body at some point, only that you had not the defenses to fight once it came upon you. Stress, my nuér, creates an enormous emotional and spiritual burden on the body. It lays upon our soul like so much dead weight, and the longer it lies there; the more it festers and deteriorates your body's ability to be one with nature. It interrupts the natural flow of Ch'i, so that you cannot feel the earth beneath your feet."
"I had no idea," Gabrielle mused, almost as if to herself.
I smiled at her. I never tired of looking on my young wife with pride. I, too, had learned a lesson from Yu Pan's teachings, but Gabrielle's mind had always been like one of the giant sea sponges the cleaning women used on the floors. It had the ability to soak up great amounts of water and hold it all. That was Gabrielle's brain. She learned and retained, making her the perfect student. I knew Yu Pan felt the same way. I could see the pride in his gaze, as well.
"When Hercules discovered Anteus' secret of strength, he was then able to strangle the giant. That is how great the power of nature is to our Ch'i. To keep this delicate balance healthy and strong, you must work hard at keeping your heart and mind in harmony with nature, just as your daily qigong ritual keeps your body as one with the outside forces."
"Not focusing on the stress I have to go through is a lot easier to say than to do," Gabrielle interjected. I could see it in her face. She ruminated over her most recent emotional turmoil.
"Ahh, but is that not the mark of true balance and strength? When we, mere mortals, can melt our worries away and let nature take them on her wings and float them away? Can we not then say that we have perfected the way?"
"It seems a pretty mighty thing to shoot for," I added.
"Xena...my nuér..." Yu Pan looked first at me, then at Gabrielle. "May I say that if there are two in this world in whom I would place such faith, it would be the two of you. I have known very few who are living examples of the positive and the negative, the Yin and the Yang. Within and without, in your hearts and bodies, you both exude the power of the light and the dark. When you have run out of your own strength, you have merely to look to your other half for that succor to lift you up. Put your faith in one another and harmony will come naturally."
Gabrielle and I looked at one another and smiled. Yu Pan's lessons were interesting and fulfilling, in an odd sort of way. I believe that we smiled, however, because, deep down, we already knew what he said to be true.
After that, we spoke in odd spurts about bits of nothing. Gabrielle had grown sleepy after that and I suggested a short nap until the water for her bath became ready. I, on the other hand, felt invigorated by the conversation, Yu Pan's tea, or perhaps both. I left Gabrielle sleeping lightly on the lounge under the window. A great deal of information had been passed to us in Master Yu Pan's subtle way. Gabrielle and I would need to deal with that information in the way that best suited each of us. For Gabrielle, it would be quiet reflection. For me...well, I left the inn in search of Atrius or Ephiny. I felt as though a good, rough sparring match would kick my brain into a higher gear.
I nearly tripped over my own feet in an attempt to spin around and quickly confront the voice of my son.
"Solan!" I whispered between clenched teeth. "What in Hades name are you doing sneaking around up here?"
"Sneaking?" he repeated through his laughter. "I was just going to my room."
"Well, you should know better than to sneak up on me like that," I snapped.
My answers were short and my attitude testy because, in truth, Solan had caught me doing something for which I took no pride. I had been listening in on a conversation between Gabrielle and my mother. Now, in my defense, I hadn't meant to eavesdrop. I had silently entered our room, moving as quietly as I could, thinking that perhaps Gabrielle still slept. It was only after I had moved into the room, and soundlessly pushed the door closed, that I saw their shadows moving behind the tent-like structure around the copper bath.
Gods on Olympus! I cursed to myself. I could easily hear their voices and they were already knee-deep in a personal conversation. Should I take the chance and announce my presence, knowing that they would probably suspect I had been listening to them from the start? What would Gabrielle do? I silently asked myself. My guess was that she would have been smart enough not to get herself into the same mess in the first place. Given the exact circumstances, however, I guessed that Gabrielle would have tactfully remained silent, waiting for the opportunity to slip out again. I liked that idea. Not only would it help me to save face before two women who had the ability to make me feel like a naughty girl of five, but I wasn't altogether averse to the idea of finding out what Gabrielle and Cyrene talked about when I wasn't around. Shameful, I know. I don't understand what came over me.
"Cyrene, I feel guilty. You don't really have to help me like this. I can manage."
"You mean to tell me that you're feeling well enough to lift the kettle to pour in more hot water when you need it?" Mother had stumped Gabrielle and my wife's silence told me that she felt the same.
"Well, all right, you've got me there, but--"
"Is it that you feel uncomfortable?"
"Oh, no, not at all. I gave up feeling that sort of discomfort a long time ago."
"Then it's settled. Let me at least help you to wash your hair and I'll leave you and let you have a relaxing soak. How would that be?"
"I still feel guilty, but I think it sounds wonderful." I could imagine Gabrielle's smile just then, as she gave in to my mother's insisting.
I listened to the sounds of their chatter and the water, imagining what Gabrielle looked like, lying in her bath. The mental image did nothing to instill me with a sense of calm. Frankly, it did nothing but excite me.
"Oh, Gabrielle, how lovely. Wherever did you get such a marking? It's a rose, isn't it? Oh, see the stem weaves its way all along your neckline."
I could hear nothing but my heart beat in the silence that lasted after Cyrene's question. I could very nearly feel the tension that suddenly filled the room. I could tell that Gabrielle was weighing different scenarios in her mind, wondering what to tell my mother about the tattoo. Actually, Gabrielle was probably deliberating over the truth versus some made up tale.
The sigh that finally escaped Gabrielle was audible even from where I stood. I listened as Gabrielle told Cyrene the truth, complete and without any veneer to make it look better.
" It was what it was," Gabrielle finished at last. "I'm not proud of the things that I did to stay alive, but I refuse to be ashamed any longer. I'll show remorse and even regret, Cyrene, but I will not hang my head in shame."
I continued to listen to the silence that followed. Would my mother accept this young woman now that she knew Gabrielle's story? Could she possibly show my wife any less compassion than Gabrielle's own mother had? I listened to the words Cyrene spoke in amazement.
"Gabrielle, if you're going to stay married to my daughter, you're going to have to stop calling me Cyrene and start calling me mother. I swear, I'll begin to feel offended otherwise."
Could I have possibly felt more pride any more honor at carrying my mother's noble blood in my veins? I heard Gabrielle begin to cry and my heart broke. Mostly because I could not hold her in my arms, but her tears were not the product of sorrow, rather of happiness. On this day, Gabrielle came just a little closer to knowing what the unconditional love of family was like.
I knew Gabrielle was safe, even without me to console her, and I took that moment, when both women were too occupied to notice me, to retreat out into the hall.
Of course, that is when Solan found me.
"Are you actually eavesdropping?" he asked.
"I am doing no such thing. I'm just just " I looked around the hallway as if the answer to my predicament would be written on the wall.
"Eavesdropping," Solan said while trying to hide his amusement at my extreme embarrassment.
"Don't you have somewhere you're supposed to be?"
Solan walked away chuckling. A mother's job was never done. I believe I had made my son's day, merely by looking more human to him than at any other time in our relationship.
To be continued in : Chapter 25: Out Of The Mud Two Strangers Came...
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