“I don't care!” she cried sullenly. “It doesn't matter!”
The sun had dipped in the west at last, hidden from them by the bulk of Mt. Pelion. It would soon be nightfall. In the sky to the east, over the darkening waters of the Aegean, flocks of birds wheeled and dipped, hoping, perhaps, to catch small fish unwary enough to rise for mosquitoes and other insects more active at twilight.
“It does matter,” Manny told her. “You've been logged in all day. Your real body needs to eat and rest.”
“I can't,” she insisted. “I can't abandon him this soon.”
Manny sighed. He turned to her mother. “Maybe you can talk some sense into her,” he said.
Elizabeth sat down on the boulder next to her. “In the real world,” she said, “they would have taken him to a nursery room by now with the other babies in the hospital. I've been through this too, you know. I know it's hard, letting go, but you'll be no good for him tomorrow if you don't take care of yourself today.”
“Who else does he have?” Darla asked. “Farker has to get back to his job and find the newest intruder from the other side. You and Dad have been up at least as long as I have, so you can't watch him all night. Do you know anyone who doesn't have to sleep?”
“You can leave him with me,” said Cheiron.
Their heads turned in surprise.
“I don't sleep,” the centaur told them. “Not since my original body died. And I've helped raise more than a few Heroes in my day, before my own apotheosis.”
“He's right,” Farker agreed. “He's the logical choice. Who better to watch over Machaon than the one who raised his father, Asklepios? Not to mention Achilles and a bunch of others.”
“But you can't even kneel down,” Darla objected. “What will you do if he falls and hurts himself? Will you put a leash on him and haul him up by his neck whenever he stumbles?”
“I think you'll find him running around here like a gazelle when you get back, at the rate he's growing,” said the centaur immortal.
Darla grimaced, but it was hard to deny the truth of it. Already, the baby was getting heavy in her arms. His body was inches longer and was losing its baby's pudginess. “But how can I can just leave him here?” she breathed, looking down at Machaon.
Machaon looked up at her and blinked. “You have to,” he agreed. “Leave me with Cheiron.”
“Looks like he's picked up pronouns already,” Farker remarked. He looked directly at her. “It's the right thing to do,” he advised. “Not only because it fits the classic story of a Hero, but because he'll be with his own kind.”
“His own kind?” She wanted to spit.
“All right, maybe not exactly his own kind,” Farker admitted, “but the closest we can get. Cheiron's related to him, after all. As Zeus's half-brother, he's Machaon's great-grand-uncle or something like that.”
“Something like that,” Machaon echoed.
“Plus, you can rely on my good old horse sense,” Cheiron joked. “He can ride on my back while I forage up some food for him.”
“Centaur don't wear saddles,” she objected.
A grin split Cheiron's bearded face. “It's never been a problem before. In the old days I used to carry them until they got too heavy, and that was in the flesh. This virtual body is as sturdy as I want it to be.”
Her eyelids had begun getting harder to keep open. Darla had to admit to herself that she might doze off any second anyway. “All right,” she agreed grudgingly. “For now.”
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