CINDERELLA'S ASHES

"How's she's doing?"

He was sitting in one of the larger recliners in one of the smaller TV rooms, watching old videos of Ota. His eyes were very red, but he appeared to have stopped crying some time ago. Perhaps hours, she thought--with the flexible nature of time from Shadow to Shadow, there was no way of telling.

"As always." She perched on one arm of the recliner and put a hand on his shoulder, while on the forty-inch screen Ota blew out thirty candles on a cake with one breath. Ramon stood beside him, passing constantly in and out of view as the inexperienced camcorder user (Wakaba, she thought vaguely, it was Wakaba who had been filming at Ota's thirtieth birthday party; funny, the details which linger) discovered the ZOOM function. Ota's face in close-up; Ota at wide angle, the central figure of a huge shifting tableaux of family and friends (she spotted herself in the background talking to Nanami, Motoko a small quiet bundle in her arms); Ota's left eye, filling the screen.

"As always?" He looked away from the screen, and there was a recognizable challenge in his words. They argued sometimes, and she usually won, since she could talk rings around him. Pushed far enough, he would shout; once, during the most stressful time, when she and her daughter had barely even acknowledged each other's existence, he had put his foot through one of the stereo systems. But she had never once been afraid in all the years that he would strike out at her, despite his size and despite how rough he was with Ota (but then, Ota had always been rough with him); he would never have hit her. The thought would have been inconceivable to him, just as her own father had never conceived that there was anything wrong with the occasional slap delivered to his wife or children to keep them in line.

"You know how she is," she said softly, not wanting to have an argument with him, despite realizing that it would have been good for him to get his mind off Ota to go through the old marriage routine with her: argue, fight, yell, stomp off, come back, apologize, make up. "She's set the time differential so that she can spend years there while a few days pass in Amber. She practices her sword until she's too tired to move, and that's a long time, given her bloodline. Then she studies magic until she's too tired to even do that any more, and she sleeps. And then she gets up and does it again."

"Is she okay?"

She smiled tightly. "Of course she's okay," she lied. "It's her way of dealing. Just like for you, it's sitting around and watching old videos." She leaned down and kissed his cheek, then frowned and wrinkled her nose. "And not shaving, either. You're stubbly."

"Sorry," he said in a small voice, and began getting out of the chair. "I'll go--"

"No." She put her hand on his shoulder and slid down into his lap. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her up until her head was settled under his chin. They had always fitted together nicely, physically and otherwise. "Let's just watch for a little while."

"...and here's one of the newer members of the family, Princess Motoko! Doesn't she just have the sweetest little toes? What are you going to be when you grow up, honey? A martial artist, like your dad, or a sorceress like your mom and Auntie Wakaba?"

Motoko regarded the camera and Wakaba's off-screen chattering with dark, serious eyes, then solemnly yawned, stuck her thumb in her mouth, and fell asleep in her mother's arms.

"Okay! No answer from Motoko yet on future plans. Let's go over to--whoah! And I just dropped my nephew's camera into the punch bowl, and it's making all kinds of funny popping sounds. Waah! Sorry, Ramon."

"That's okay, Auntie, just let me..."

The screen went black. She picked up the remote and turned off both TV and VCR, then settled back into his arms again. He kissed the crown of her head through her hair.

"He was my best friend," he said eventually. Quite calmly, more as a statement of fact than of grief.

"Have you slept?"

He shook his head. "I've just been..." With a gesture of his hand, he indicated the stack of videotapes.

"Come to bed."

"But it's still..." He gestured again, this time out the window, where the sun hung half-obscured by clouds the colour of steel wool.

"And?" she asked. After a moment, she added, "It's your Shadow, dear."

He chuckled softly, and nodded.

The sun went away, and the stars came out. She rose up and led him by hand towards the closest bedroom. He followed docilely and without speaking, like a child.

Inside, they undressed. She put on her nightgown while he slid under the covers wearing only his shorts. When she lay down beside him, he reached over and held her to him tightly. He was trembling. It was very dim, with only moonlight to illuminate the room, and she could barely make out his shape in the darkness.

She kissed his cheek, stroked his bicep, and asked, "Do you want to...?"

He let out a sound she could not decipher. A sob, a laugh, or a sigh? "Would be appropriate, wouldn't it? The proper way to honour the guy. He was..." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I just don't..."

"Shh. It's all right. Just hold me, if you like."

He did, for a while, in silence, then asked, in a whisper, "We're gonna kill those fucks, aren't we?"

"Yes. Your mother told me she's going to have Motoko and Moriya look into things before we decide on a definite course of action."

"Probably best," he said slowly. "Mustn't... mustn't be hasty." He began to cry again, and she (who very seldom cried, who had decided long ago that crying involuntarily was a terrible weakness) found herself doing so along with him.

Eventually (because all things must), it passed. Despite what he had said earlier, she found his body responding to her heat, to her closeness. They made love slowly, with her on top, and at the end she cried out and sank down against his chest, legs tangling with his.

Later, after they had both decided to try and sleep, and had both been unable to, he said, "I'm worried about her. Maybe we should have insisted she stay with us for a while, instead of going back alone--"

"She knows what she wants," she replied, unable to entirely keep the bitterness out of her voice. "And she isn't alone. She has a whole country of her own to play with."

"Just Shadow people, honey. They don't really--"

The silence was very long.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean that like it sounded."

"Don't worry," she said, and her voice was calm. "I'm not offended. I have no proletariat sympathies. If you're not strong enough to surpass your birth, your circumstances, and anything else... then you deserve them. I was strong enough and lucky enough to be able to make myself Real. If others can't do the same, such is their fate."

He said nothing. She feared that she might have gone too far. Shown too much of the face she tried to keep hidden from him, from everyone else.

Finally, he coughed. "Keiko, can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"Promise you won't get mad?"

She sighed. "Whenever a husband asks his wife that, it's because he knows the question will make her mad. So no, I won't promise, but I'll try not to be too angry."

"Did you and Ota ever...?"

She laughed, not angry at all, and answered instantly. "No. Never."

"I mean... well... back before we..."

"I said no, Ramon. Not ever. Not that I didn't flirt with him. Not that I wouldn't have been willing, under different circumstances. But we didn't."

"Ah."

"Has that been bothering you for forty years?"

He chuckled. "I wouldn't say botherin'. Just... more curious, really."

She reached out in the dark and put her hand into his. "Well, there you are."

"Been a pretty good forty years, huh?"

Wealth. Power. Status. A child. "Yes. A good forty years."

"Mom was worried you were just a gold-digger at the start, you know, but..."

She tensed, sharply enough for him to feel it, because his voice dropped lower, soothingly. "I don't mean she ever said anything to me. But I could tell. She's always worrying about me, and the way her mind works..."

There was something pleading in his voice, an unasked question. She sighed and curled up against him. "What do you want me to say?" she asked, suddenly very tired. "I'm not going to deny that part of the reason I was attracted to you in the first place was because of who you were. A Prince of Amber. I know you're smarter than to believe me if I said that."

He said nothing, so she went on. "But that was just a part of it. I have too much respect for myself to whore myself to a man just because of his bloodline. You're a good man, Ramon, and you treated me well right from the beginning; a woman can't really ask for more than that, in the end. Everything else is just a bonus."

She tried to decide if she was telling the truth, if she really believed what she was saying, and could not.

He squeezed her hand gently. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me, you know that?"

"Flatterer." And she laughed.

"No, I mean it." His voice was almost painfully serious. "I'm not like--I wasn't like Ota. I wasn't any good with girls. Women. So when I found somebody like you, who was smart and beautiful and who actually liked me back, I mean, I just grabbed hold as best I could. And hung on."

She (who did not like intense emotion, who felt it was, along with tears, a kind of weakness) suddenly felt an aching, intense awareness of a fact that was usually simply a dull thing in the back of her mind, like old wounds that occassionally throbbed, like the memory of the daughter born dead: that she did love him, and could not now imagine ever being with anyone else.

"I feel the same way," she said finally, forcing the words up through a tight throat. "You've been so good to me, Ramon. Better than I ever deserved."

"Bullshit," he whispered. "The problem is that I'm not good enough for you. You're way smarter than me. Better-looking, too."

"Well, all right," she said. They both laughed; he let her hand go, and rolled over onto his side, away from her.

"Ought to sleep," he said after a moment, dully.

"You're right," she agreed.

They lay and listened to each other's breathing for a few minutes, and then she said, "Did I ever tell you why I hate that place she made so much?"

"Reminds you too much of where you came from, right?"

"No. That's not it."

He turned over. "Huh?"

"It's worse. It's like where I came from if everyone actually followed all those stupid rules about honour and place and conformity, and was happy to do so. Do you think a fisherman's daughter from that place would ever run away from home to the True City? And meet a prince, and fall in love with him? Of course not." She almost spat the final words: "It wouldn't be _proper_. It wouldn't be her _place_. She'd stay home, in the same little village, and marry a fisherman, just like her mother did."

"I never thought of it like that," he said eventually, very slowly. "But--"

"What does it say?" she asked, frightened to find her voice cold with anger. "What does it say about our daughter, when her perfect world is one in which she never could have been born?"

He was, unsurprisingly, lost for words.

"I'm sorry," she said at last, not because she was, but because she could not bear the silence. "I didn't mean to get so angry."

"Motoko loves you," he said, as though in reply.

"I know," she said tightly. "I know.

"Have you ever told her what you just told me?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"She wouldn't understand."

He appeared to think about it for a while. "Well, no. I guess she won't, if you never tell her."

After a moment, she laughed. "Very true."

"Guess we really should sleep now."

"Yes."

Eventually, they did.