Katie was coughing again. She was hunched over with one forearm supporting her weight while her other hand covered her mouth. Disheveled strands of matted hair fell in her face, half concealing her from view.
Luna chewed her lip as she watched heaving shudders wrack Katie's frail form. She had lost a lot of weight again in the last few weeks, and it was beginning to show around her hips and ribs, with the bones becoming sharply defined with each clench of Katie's body as she coughed.
Reaching out, Luna peeled some of Katie's hair off her face and tucked it back behind her ear. Then she began to rub Katie's back, not knowing what else to do.
It felt like forever before her fit finally abated and Katie slumped back down. "Thanks, Luna," she rasped, her voice barely above a whisper. "You should go, though. I'm okay."
Luna shook her head. Sophie was not in the room. Luna had offered to keep an eye on Katie so that Sophie could get some rest too - not that she needed much excuse to stay with her sister - and she did not intend to leave her alone now.
Her gaze drifted to the long, slender tube that ran along Katie's left arm and disappeared into her hand beneath a wrap of tape. It was hooked to a bag of clear fluid hanging from a metal stand beside the mattress. Lewis had explained to her that it was an IV bag, and it was helping keep Katie's body sustained because she was having so much trouble eating. Luna did not fully understand everything, but she knew that Lewis would not want to hurt Katie, so she resisted the urge that told her to tear the tube free of her sister's hand. That this was not the lab and no one was trying to inflict pain. She knew it logically, but it was hard to stem the tidal wave of painful memories and fear.
"You should sleep," she murmured finally.
Katie forced a grin and rolled her eyes. "Since when did you-" she broke off coughing. "Start taking care of me?"
"We take care of each other," Luna replied. She flicked her tail and shifted her weight to press her side up against Katie's. "Sophie says you need to rest to get better. Go to sleep," she insisted. She twisted again to drape herself over Katie, resting her head and arm down on the older girl's back.
Katie sighed softly beneath her. "I can't sleep, Luna. My coughing keeps waking me up."
"Try," Luna pressed. "You always tell me to try, even when my nightmares are very bad. Now you have to try. Please."
Katie exhaled slowly through her nose and slowly lowered herself down the rest of the way so she was sprawled over the blanket stretched over the bed. The light in the room was already off, but - despite the drapes that had been put up - afternoon sunlight filtered in from the window. Not that either of them required it to see anyways. Once Katie was settled, Luna cautiously shifted to lay her head down as well, half sprawled over her friend to share her warmth.
She was tired too, and it did not take long for her eyes to start to droop as she began to drift off.
She was quickly roused from her half-slumber as Katie began to cough again. The choking wracked her body and jostled Luna, who quickly sat up so Katie would be able to breathe easier. She leaned down to help prop Katie up with her shoulder as the older Mer began to wheeze heavily once more.
Katie was quick to push her away, but Luna knew not to take offense. Desperation was taking over and Katie was half thrashing as she fought to find a way to open her lungs better. Luna lurched towards the edge of the bed and grabbed a bottle of water left on the nightstand. She fumbled with the lid before offering the open bottle to Katie.
Katie's hazel eyes glistened with worry coated gratitude as Luna held the bottle up to her lips for her. She continued to hack hoarsely as Luna tilted the bottle, and water sprayed over the sheets and both their scales - Luna wondered if any had managed to actually get down Katie's throat - but it did seem to help a bit with her coughing. "Thank you," Katie gasped finally when she found her voice again. Luna nodded and pressed the bottle silently into Katie's fingers. Katie tipped it back and drained it until the plastic crinkled and crumbled with the last drop.
When it was emptied, Luna took it back and set it aside. "You do not have to babysit me, Luna." Katie's voice sounded dull and airy as she spoke, slumping back down onto the bed as she did. "Go take a swim or do one of your puzzles; don't stay cooped up in here because of me."
"I want to be with you," Luna refused. Katie sighed softly and her eyes slipped closed, but she did not seem to have the strength left to continue arguing.
Not that their conversation had the chance to continue anyways, as the door swung open on a creaky hinge and Sophie tiptoed through the doorway. She was holding a large cardboard box and a plain gray-green mug was perched atop it with steam wafting from beyond the rim. She stepped up to the bed and set the box down on the nightstand before reaching out to tuck a lock of Katie's hair behind her ear.
"How are you feeling?" she inquired at a low whisper. When Katie groaned softly, Sophie nodded. "No change then, huh? Katie, do you think you can sit up a bit? We should get you propped up; it should make breathing easier."
Katie shook her head against the sheets, so Sophie instead busied herself with picking the pillows up and leaning them against the wall. She then slid her hands under Katie, pulling her up by the sockets of her arms despite Katie's grunted protests. Luna leaned back to stay out of the way as Sophie got Katie rolled over and propped up with her back against the pillows. The woman then picked up the mug and pressed it into Katie's hands. "I know you don't really like tea," Sophie said. "But it's green, and I mixed it with honey and lemon juice. It won't taste good, but it might help soothe your throat, so I want you to drink as much as you can, alright?"
Katie dipped her head to take a sip of the steaming fluid, and Luna watched her nose scrunch up at the flavor. It certainly smelled sharp and Luna was glad she was not the one having to consume the drink. Still, despite the clearly unpleasant taste, Katie seemed dutiful in taking a few more gulps. Then she lowered the mug with a shudder and glanced at the box Sophie had brought in. "What's that?" she rasped.
Sophie smiled and took a seat on the edge of the mattress. She picked the box up and set it down between the three of them before pulling the lid off. "I found this before we moved, stashed at the back of the hall closet. It's some of your old things; pictures and stuff mostly. From when you were little. I think some of it is as old as when you were two years," she explained. "I put it in my closet when we got here, but I thought maybe it might be nice to go through. Revisit some old memories; have a way to spend the afternoon."
Katie started sputtering again, so Sophie took the mug from her and put a hand behind her to rub her back. Luna shuffled her fin and folded it beneath her, not quite sure how else she could help. She desperately wanted Katie to get better, but every day she looked a little paler and grew more frail. She knew that they were all trying to shield her from the truth, but Luna saw the worry in Sophie's gaze and the terse way Lewis paced around the house. She was not blind, though she desperately wished that the glaring likelihood was not true.
Shaking off the dark thoughts, she forced a smile and leaned forward. Katie's fit was beginning to subside and her interest seemed peaked by the box. "You kept stuff from...before?" Katie inquired.
Sophie nodded and gently pushed Katie's tail over a bit so she could cross her legs and shift the box into the center of the mattress. "Yes. I figured you might want some of this stuff later; when you were older and had your own home, that you might want to look back. Obviously some things have changed, but that doesn't mean they're not still nostalgic."
Katie smiled softly and nodded. She covered her mouth to cough again, though this time did not devolve into a fit. Sophie was the first to reach into the box, pulling out a long, pink leather book.
Luna shuffled closer to them and peered over Katie's tail as Sophie flipped the book open. Inside, there were several images preserved behind a clear sheet on each page of the book. There was a little girl in nearly every photo - a human girl - and her smile in every one was wide and genuine. It made Luna smile too. "Katie, is that you?" she asked.
Sophie was the one who nodded. "Yes," she confirmed. "This is Katie when she was a little girl."
Katie was staring at the pictures too, and she reached out to poke a finger down at one. She looked like she was maybe six or seven in the picture, with her hair woven into separate tendrils on either side of her head. She was with a tall man with red-brown hair that was slick to his skull and stubbled across his chin. He was holding her in his arms and she had a thick white wrap encasing her hand and part of her arm. Luna frowned. She knew what it was. The lab had broken more than one of her bones in the past and she was familiar with the hard shells they used to keep the limb still while it healed. Broken bones were agonizing, but Katie seemed overjoyed in the picture.
"I remember this," Katie murmured. "Dad took me to the park and I fell off a swing, didn't I?"
Sophie shook her head. "No, it was the monkey bars. Michael did warn you to be careful, but you were always headstrong when you were little - though not much has changed - anyways, he brought you here after getting the cast on. You were all dopey with painkillers and couldn't stop giggling and stumbling all over the place. You hated the cast though. I actually think they needed to replace it twice because you kept jostling your wrist and it needed to be reset."
Katie had a soft smile on her face as she nodded and flipped the page. Sophie nodded at another picture. "And this was your first birthday party. You threw up cake all over my brand new blouse. I still need to send you the bill for that," Sophie teased as she bumped Katie's shoulder.
"I'll get right on that," Katie responded dryly.
Luna kept a smile pressed on her lips, but she could not help feeling a little left out. She was happy to hear of Katie's childhood - and thrilled her friend was getting to feel joy and relieve pleasant memories - but the dark void in Luna's head dampened her mood. There was a vast emptiness over her childhood and all of her past. Their nostalgia made her a little jealous; she wished she could remember, or at least that Riley was there to tell her some stories of their youth. Very little of what Katie and Sophie were discussing made sense to her, so she simply felt like she was encroaching on a private conversation.
To distract herself, she allowed her curiosity to get the better of her and peered into the box. There were more books and a few loose photos, as well as some tiny, colorful pieces of folded fabric and some odds and ends that Luna could not identify. She frowned, however, as something caught her eye and her fingers brushed something soft. Carefully, she closed her fingers around it and gently tugged it free of the box.
It was warm and fluffy, and white. At least, she assumed it was meant to be white. Some of the fluff had darkened to a soft gray with age. When she turned it over, two fake blue eyes stared up at her. There were black stripes crossing over the tiny thing that was small enough to perch in her cupped hands, but big enough that it had taken a fair space within the box. It took her a moment to realize it looked an awful lot like the tigers on her puzzle box. She had not completed that puzzle yet. It was not real, and she did not understand, but she hummed at the pleasant texture as she stroked over its tail.
"Hey, I remember that!" Katie exclaimed.
Her comment startled Luna and she jerked her head up to meet her friend's gaze. She blushed and held the object out. It was Katie's and she should not have grabbed at it without permission. "I am sorry, here."
Katie shook her head. "Don't be sorry, it's okay. It's a plush toy. He was mine when I was little, one of my favorites. I think I called him Stripes, which is not very creative."
"What is it for?" Luna asked. She continued to hold the 'plush toy' out to Katie, but her sister did not seem inclined to take it.
"It's a stuffed animal, Luna. A toy. Mostly it's just to play with, but it tends to be really comforting to hug and cuddle."
"You carried that tiger almost everywhere when you were young," Sophie added. "I remember the one time you were spending the night with me, I had to drive to your house to get it; you'd forgotten it and refused to go to sleep without it."
"Yeah," Katie agreed, a fond longing leaking into her tone. "I'd forgotten about him."
Luna pulled her arm back for a second to re-examine the toy. It was soft. She chewed her lip and decided to try it, pulling it close and squeezing it to her chest with both arms. A warmth spread through Luna and she purred in the back of her throat, squishing it tighter. Silly as it was, the soft squish of the little tiger did make her feel good.
Her blush deepened and she reluctantly pulled it away to hand back to Katie. It still was not hers, and it clearly meant something to Katie. However, instead of accepting the plush, Katie shook her head. "You keep it," she said. "I haven't played with him in years. If you like him, keep him," she offered.
Luna tossed her head. "No, I could not; he is yours."
"A stuffed toy is meant to be loved, Luna, not sit in a box gathering dust and turning gray. I haven't so much as thought about him since I was younger than you. I want you to have him."
Luna opened her mouth to protest, but instead found herself pulling the tiger back for another hug, a soft trill resonating from her lips. She heard both Katie and Sophie chuckling softly, but she did not care.
Luna tucked the tiger toy into the crook of her arm, its little legs splayed over her skin as she hugged it close and beamed at Katie, who smiled back and nodded. There was not always a need for verbal communication.
Luna closed her eyes and simply enjoyed a moment to just breathe. There had been so much stress and uncertainty - more than usual - lately, and it felt good to enjoy a happy moment and pretend everything else was simply a bad dream.
But as was the way of her life, reality came crashing back in to knock her down and tear the tranquility away. This time, it manifested with Lukshia. Luna recognized her footsteps coming down the hall - she knew how all of them sounded when they walked. It was the first indicator that something was wrong, because her footfalls were fast and heavy, and Lukshia rarely ran. Luna's suspicions were confirmed heartbeats later when Lukshia appeared in the open doorway. Lukshia was usually very quiet and composed - she intimidated Luna a little despite all the help she had offered already - and it always seemed like nothing could shake her. Now, however, her hands were twitching at her sides and her pupils were heavily dilated. It did not help that she kept shifting her weight as she turned to stare at Sophie.
"We have to go," she said. "You've got ten minutes before I need you all in the van. Not yours - it's too obvious - I've rented one and it's parked along the side of the house."
Sophie frowned. "Go?" she repeated. "What's going on?"
"Seems like your friends have finally gotten organized after we dealt with their little implant. I've been keeping careful surveillance on the street and the waters near the cove, and we've got a security breach, one I'd rather not try to bunker through. I've got a place for us to go, and I've already let Lewis know. He's leaving your park now and he's going to meet us on the road."
Luna could feel her heart pounding in her chest, her blood pumping in her ears in a torrential roar that drowned out Sophie's next words as she scrambled off the bed. She did not understand everything Lukshia said - she rarely did - but she knew enough to know that their fate was catching up with them, and horror clawed its way up Luna's throat as if she had swallowed a shrimp alive that was not yet ready to die. She was not ready either.
Luna glanced at Katie, caught sight of her enlarged hazel eyes. Her friend's wheezing had gotten louder again, and Luna knew it was likely the fear, thick and unbearable. She did not get a chance to ask any questions or say anything before Lukshia was pushing a shirt into her face.
"Put this on, Luna," she instructed. Luna hastened to obey and had barely pulled the shirt down before Lukshia was stuffing a large hat on her head and using a blanket to scoop Luna up so her tail was wrapped in it.
Luna's breath came in shallow puffs as she clung to Lukshia, who was carrying her out of the room and down the hall towards the door. The last time she had been in a van, it had been an exciting trip. This time, she felt nothing but dread. With her eyes stinging and threatening to water, Luna pulled the plush toy she was still holding close and squeezed it hard to her chest. It helped, but it did not prevent her from beginning to shake. She did not want to go back. She knew she would not survive it if she did.