The warmth of the farmhouse banished dark thoughts and welcomed them in when they reached it. Now they sat in the kitchen on curved wooden chairs around a heavy oak table. A large bay window looking out across the back lot to more grazing sheep and a rolling corn field. Sora hummed a little tune to herself as she chased the last of her breakfast around her bowl. Somewhere behind them the comforting presence of Grandma Nan, fake or not, radiated.
It was a good idea to come here, Kerr thought, stuffed now on baked oatmeal rich with peaches, brown sugar, and cream. A second cup of fresh hot coffee sat steaming in front of him.
A switch to the back of his head from a tea towel brought him out of his thoughts, and he carefully set the front legs of his chair back on the ground as he shot a rueful half grin at Nan. Whatever her age under the iron gray curls and layers of fine crow's feet, she was rail thin and strong as a whip. Her words while gentle had been pretty lean and to the point, too. She was going to use that tongue on him now, he thought, as he watched the teasing glint in her eye shift to a quiet certainty. They were going to talk.
He didn't know how he knew this of a woman he didn't know, but he did. He felt a cold iron fist tighten in his gut.
"Sora, darling," Nan's mellow voice broke the silence, "there are kittens out on the back porch if you want to have a look."
Sora was on her feet and disappearing out the back door in a flutter of white night gown before Nan had even finished her sentence. Before he could call her back and delay the inevitable.
She didn't waste any time. "Have you figured it out yet?" she asked , sliding into a chair across from him with her own cup of coffee.
"That I'm stuck in a dream that doesn't make sense?" he tried to make light of it, to turn the impossible away, but the crack in his voice gave him away.
"Yes, and what's behind that," she waited patiently for him, as though she was only waiting for him to catch up with the plot.
"Who I am?" she prompted.
He stared into her narrow, kindly face and tried to find an answer. The certainty there... it terrified him. Ripped the icing of good food and welcoming kitchen away. He felt the void in his mind again. The giant void with the answers locked tantalizingly out of reach.
"The Institute," she prompted again.
This time the words registered, a can of memories bursting and spilling across his mind. Graduating college. Getting that government job so quickly. He had been thrilled. Had taken the job without a second thought. And then everything that came after...
Suddenly he straightened, eyes shooting to the back door. Horror dawning.
"I have to leave her here. I can't take her. I..." He didn't. He couldn't. How could he?
Warm fingers wrapped around his clenching shaking fist, "I know, dear. I know."