...continued from part one
Before she could form any sort of question, Keiran volunteered the answers she was looking for.
"When I came home from the war," he folded his hands and stared at the floor, "I was told straight away that I was not the same man I'd been when I left."
"War changes everyone," Liis replied quickly.
She knew all too well that it had changed her.
"Yeah, but some handle that better than others. Sometimes, the people most changed by a war are the ones left behind when their lovers go off to fight it."
Keiran continued without hesitation now. "My wife," he twisted the title bitterly as he spoke it,
"...decided when I returned that she didn't want to live with a man who was haunted by things he'd seen, and a life he'd lived a world away from the quiet village that was their home. She decided, amidst great interference from and coaching by her friends and family that," his voice shuddered with barely controlled rage.
"...that I wasn't fit to be a part of my own family anymore."
He stood up and paced across the room, back and forth before her.
"You tell me this if ye can, Zanh Liis. Who has the right to tell a man, after he's done all he can to be good to and love a woman and his child," he waved his arms as he spoke, in emphatic gestures reflecting his frustration.
"After he's done his best to keep the darkness from them, after he's gone through every kind of counseling that the 'fleet can offer and has returned to being as close to what he was as a man can who has been to Hell and survived the trip..."
'Who has the right to tell a man what?" She prodded gently, moments after his words had died out and he'd retreated into his own thoughts.
"To tell a man that he's got no right to be a part of his son's life?"
Liis averted her eyes now, wrestling with the implications of his question as she processed it.
He paced back towards her again, and continued without waiting for her reply.
"Because that is what Maggie did to me, Zanh Liis. She didn't just end our marriage, she ended our family."
Liis stood up and reached out, placing her hand up and onto his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she offered, knowing there was nothing else she could possibly say that would have any meaning.
She would not patronize him by trying to tell him that it was not that bad, that he could have another life, another family.
She'd been told, more times than she could count, as a child with no family that someday she would have a real family when she built it herself. Those words didn't comfort her in the least back then, and she knew the idea of trying to replace the irreplaceable would bring him no comfort now.
Keiran pulled away from her physical show of support and turned his back to her as he struggled to keep his composure.
"You do all you can in the service of your family, and your Federation. You live for them, you bleed for them, and all the while you're doin' it all you want to do is come home," he whispered. "Then when the fightin' is finally over, you find out that you've got no home to come back to."
He lumbered away, sitting down slowly this time and picking the book up again. He opened it up and began to flip through the pages. "Know what this story is about, Zanh Liis?"
Having no idea she stood mute, simply listening.
"It's about a little stable boy, marching for the very first time through town with the King's royal procession." He analyzed each illustration carefully, slowly, as he continued turning the pages.
"The boy is teased because he is riding upon an old donkey and not a fine horse like the rest of those in the Procession.
"At first, he doesn't care, he sits tall and holds his head high. But as the jeers of the people grow louder, he finally responds to the crowd by telling them 'nevermind, I am still marching in the King's Procession',"
He turned another page.
"The sound of the villagers' cruelty reaches the King's ears at the front of the line, and he brings his Procession to a halt. He addresses the crowd and says that since the stable boy has served him well and faithfully, that he is not to be ridiculed and will first thing be given a fine, new pony when they reach the Castle."
Liis was frozen, spellbound as he continued to tell the tale.
"When they got back to the palace, the boy was very excited at first about the idea of owning a fine new pony. Until he saw it."
Keiran held up the book so she could see the drawing on the page. "To be sure, it was a strong, fancy white pony. With a new leather bridle, complete with jingling bells and roses upon it."
Keiran whispered each word now, as once again reading the book to his small son as he'd done so many times he'd lost count.
"But then the boy looked back at the old donkey that had been so loyal to him, that he had loved so dearly and for so long," His voice faltered, and he cleared his throat. "The crowd had called the donkey an 'old bag of bones', but to the lad..."
Liis felt the burning sting of tears behind her eyes and looked up at the ceiling, blinking rapidly to try to disperse them.
"...to the lad, he was the most true and beautiful steed in the world." Keiran turned another page, though he did not need to read the words to complete the ending.
He knew this story by heart.
"So Pippin the stable boy went to the King and respectfully thanked him for the fine new pony, but said that 'he belonged to the donkey, and the donkey belonged to him, and they just can't not belong to each other.'"
Keiran drew in a breath and held it a moment, shuddering. "The King was wise, and he told the boy that he could keep the donkey if he wanted, but how would it be if that donkey had that fine new bridle with bells and roses? So that no one could speak badly of him in the Procession."
Liis turned her back, quickly brushing away the tears she was now incapable of fighting before O'Sullivan could see them.
When she turned around, she could not believe that as he sat now also holding the holo-image of his son, he had no emotion at all in his voice, or his eyes, anymore. He had gone completely numb once again.
"Sometimes, unlike dear little Pippin, people value the wrong things in this life, Zanh Liis." he concluded, as he switched off the disk and the image of the boy disappeared from view.
"They throw away the things, the people that could be the very most important in the the end. They think that they will always have the luxury of time, the chance to make amends someday. Or perhaps they're so bitter and angry thinking they've been cheated out of something that rightfully belongs to them that they don't care if amends are ever made. They will use whatever thing they can use to hurt the person they are so angry with."
Bringing both his story and Pippin's to an end, Keiran closed the book, stood, and approached the Bajoran standing still just over his shoulder.
"I don't think I ever was the man that Maggie wanted me to be, but I didn't know that when we decided to start a family," he confessed.
"If I'd known, I sure as hell wouldn't have tried for it. In the end, she knew the one thing she could do to hurt me was to take my son. But as sure as there's a God in Heaven above us, and on my life I swear to you Zanh Liis, I never did anything but try my very best to make her happy, and to be a good husband and father."
His eyes pierced hers, desperately seeking understanding. Trying frantically to determine if she believed him.
She believed him.
She thought about telling him that things may be all right in time, if he was patient, if he waited. But she thought that holding out such false hope would be nothing short of cruel, with no proof of any kind to support it.
"I write to him, all the time you know." Keiran volunteered. "Pages and pages. I send them, and I know she gets them. But I don't think she'll ever let him see them."
"As someone who grew up without knowing their parents, O'Sullivan, I can only tell you this one thing," she said at last. "That is that the less you know about them, the more you wonder about them. Even if only when he's a grown man, Carrick will need to know about the man his father is. One way or another, he will find out. He will know the good man that you are."
Liis marched a step forward and attempted to shake him free of his melancholy by the shoulders, but the man was so large that she barely moved him in the attempt. "You are a good man, O'Sullivan. Don't forget that."
He turned away and folded his arms. "If ya don't mind, I'd really rather be alone just now."
"I do mind, actually." Zanh replied, and she pointed toward the balcony.
"I'll sit out there all night and you can be alone in here. Or you can go out there and burn the building down lighting one damn cigarette after another, your choice." She put her hands on her hips, indicating that her decision was final and not at all negotiable.
"But if you think I'm going to leave you alone tonight in the state you're in, then I don't think we've met."
She extended her arm out, offering an exaggerated, mock handshake. "Hi, I'm Zanh Liis; monumental pain in the ass. Pleased to meet you."
"You are that." Keiran snorted, retreating out onto the cramped balcony.
As he slid the door shut leaving her in the living room alone, he nodded to her once. Then he took to his chair and resumed staring off into the distance at nothing, seeking the answers to everything.
Zanh Liis sighed and plunked back down onto his couch.
She flipped to the end of the storybook and regarded the picture of the skinny, worn-out old brown donkey dressed up in the bright, new leather bridle.
Then she glanced up, and out the screen door at the man beyond it, as he struck a match against the small tiled table-top and lit another cigarette.
He valued loyalty, and that was something that was so rare in the days since the war had ended. Even in the fleet, and especially, it seemed, at Temporal Investigations.
It was then that she realized that this was just why their new partnership was working so well.
She would never be a first rate, shiny white pony in anyone's eyes, but he saw past her flaws, and appreciated her for what she was.
Because she knew that no matter how many shiny pips she earned in her career, whatever station she may one day attain, all those trappings would be her own personal leather bridle with bells.
Trying to change her would be as productive as dressing up that donkey.
She would always be a child of the streets, yet O'Sullivan didn't judge her for that. He accepted her as just that and never once looked down on her for it.
She set the book aside and activated Carrick's picture again, and as she glanced one last time between the boy's image and the profile of his father as he sat now illuminated by first moonlight, she could only hope that someday, Keiran's son would know just how fine a man his father truly was.
"Captain?" The voice of TC Blane addressed her from the doorway. "We're about to arrive in orbit."
"On my way," Liis replied, swinging her legs over the edge of the bunk and pulling on her boots. As she laced them, yanking the strings taut to the point of nearly snapping them, she made herself a promise.
No matter what happened to Keiran when the Cascade was stopped, she would make damn sure that the boy did know, when all was said and done, how good a man his father was.
USS Serendipity NCC-2012
NRPG: The book is called The King's Procession by James and Ruth McCrea.
It was published in 1963 and has been out of print longer than I've been alive.
I used to check it out of the library every week when I was four- and then one week, someone else checked it out and never brought it back.
Then, when we went back a few weeks later, the library had suddenly closed.
I did not see that book again, anywhere, no matter how hard I searched, for more than thirty years.
I only found a retired library edition through the used book website Alibris a few years ago- and I remembered every illustration when I finally held the book in my hands again.
I still love Pippin's donkey, and that book is still my all time favorite.