From the Story Arc: Hope is the Thing With Feathers

Previous Story in the Arc: Secrets by Victoria Victrix (Saturday, June 18, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Revelations by Victoria Victrix (Saturday, January 10, 2009)

(posted Monday, June 20, 2005)

(co-written wiith Red Djinni)

Red Djinni raised his hand to knock on Amber’s apartment door, only to have Bella open it before his fist hit the metal. She blinked startled blue eyes at him for a moment, then grabbed the still upraised wrist and pulled him inside before he could get out a word.

The sound of muffled weeping from the bedroom would have made his hair stand on end if he’d had any.

“Go help her!” Bella snapped, shoving the jar she’d been carrying into his hands.

“Wha--?” he responded intelligently.

Bella took a deep breath. “Vic had a bad patrol. Hellions with a lot of Torches. When she gets scorched, even though the damage gets healed, the scar-tissue contracts and tightens and right now she’s in a lot of pain and---it’s like her skin has shrunk around her and she can hardly move. This has happened before, we know what to do but I’m juggling chainsaws right now and time is one thing I don’t have. She needs help—massage this into her and it’ll dull the pain and soften the skin again so she can move. Go!”

His own skin seemed to contract in horror. He had nightmares about the people he’d burned…the sight of her hand had been more than enough to make him sick with a roiling mix of emotions.

Bella’s jaw tightened and she actually looked angry. “Dammit, Red, I have a dying man across the hall who needs me right now and after that I have an emergency call I have to answer from a CCCP team that’s faceplanted so many times in the last hour the hospital has started embroidering their names on their hospital gowns! You love the woman, for godsake help her!”

“But—“ He felt cold all over, and there was a knot in his gut that felt like a fist-sized ball of ice. “She wouldn’t want me to see her—“

“So do what I do!” Bella said, already out the door. “One candle. The nightlight. Keep it all in the shadows!”

And the door shut behind her.

His look might have been comical to others. He stared at the door, then at the jar, and back again. This might have continued, had the sound of Amber’s crying not pierced the haze of indecision. He rushed to the bedroom.

“Amber,” he said quietly, trying his best to sound confident, reassuring. “I’m here, darlin’.”

She lay in a crumpled heap, shaking from the pain. She was still wearing her armor; it looked like she had simply fallen into bed.

“Red?” She looked up, saw the jar in his hand, and moaned. “No, I didn’t want you to see...”

“It’s okay, I’m going to help you.”

He sat down next to her, and brought his head down next to hers.

“Just tell me what to do,” he whispered softly.

Grimacing, she hesitated, her lip quivering. Finally she gasped, gave a quick nod, and there was acceptance.

“Start… start with the hands.”

He was the first and last person she wanted to see right now. The first, because outside of Bella, he was the only person she trusted this far inside her barriers. The last—well, that was obvious.

He’s going to see. It’s one thing to know in the abstract, but he’s going to see. And every time he looks at me from now on, it’ll be in the back of his mind.

But she didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t move; the scar tissue had all hardened and contracted, turning what was left of her own skin into an armor of pain. Magical injuries did odd things, sometimes; this was one of them. Scars made by magic and magic weapons reacted to similar magic. It was one of the things that hospitals around here were used to coping with. Numb patches and patches with sensation made her feel as if she was being torn apart. Add to that, hypothermia—she was cold, she was so cold, too cold even for her teeth to chatter, but the shivering was enough to shake the whole bed. Bell and the doctors had tried to explain why she got hypothermic, and it had all gone over her head—but the shaking only made matters worse.

She clenched her jaw and tried to get into a semi-meditative state, but it did no good. And the feeling of helplessness made her want to throw up.

The terror of him actually seeing her—

The moan that escaped her was born of as much emotional pain as physical.

Red placed the jar down, got up, and dimmed the lights to nothing. Seeing a candle on the bedside table, he moved his hand slowly over it. He snapped his fingers, and a small blaze ignited the wick, a small point of light in a dark room.

He sat back down, and moved to take off her gloves. Instinctively, she pulled her hands back and cried out from the sudden pain of movement. Frustrated, she buried her face in the pillows.

Red paused, then moved to take the gloves again. Some tension, but she didn’t resist.

Even in the dim light, her deeply scarred hands sent his heart racing, and he felt an overpowering desire to run. She gasped with the pain, tears leaking from the corners of eyes squeezed tightly closed. The pain just drove all thoughts of anything else out.

“Red—I’m—sorry.” He’d never seen anyone shake so hard before, not unless they were hypothermic. Her voice now was strangely calm, with an edge of desperation. “But—“Johnny M—having a bad patch too. Bit more urgent than me. Bell’s stretched too thin—and anyway—“ a gasp of pain cut through his defenses. “Oh god, Red, please help me. Make it stop. Can’t take much more of this.”

He knew how much that plea for help must have cost her.

Why don’t I take her to the hospital?

“Shouldn’t you be at the—“

He knew it was the wrong thing to say before all the words came out of his mouth. He braced himself for a bad reaction—

“Cause they’d—just send me home—with another jar of that.” She sounded exhausted and resigned, and the image flashed into his mind of her being discharged, still hardly able to move, with a jar of cream she couldn’t apply on her own—

And a rush of anger burned out his hesitation, as a soft moan escaped her and struck him like a dagger in his heart.

“Red—“ she managed, before he could hear her choke on a sob. “CD remote—by candle.” Maybe music would relax him and make him not think about what was going on. At least it would cover up her cries of pain.

She heard him start the player. Music filled the room, lush orchestral versions of Enya. And under cover of it, she cried.

Can’t let him see that either. Oh god, he’s going to see, he’s going to know. Don’t think about it. Concentrate on the physical pain. Don’t think about anything else.

She had the disciplines, if only she could muster them, to get past the physical pain. Or, she used to. That was battle-mind, and—

And it had been a long, long time since she had been able to get into battle-mind. She couldn’t do it now, either.

Dear goddess, I am a wreck.

When she’d been hiding in her hole, she had been able to ignore just how much of a wreck she was. Now it was impossible. The physical was less than half of it, truth be told. She’d lost her mental disciplines, her endurance, her ability to concentrate on anything that wasn’t prose—

But then—

A feather-touch as he “painted” the salve—no numbing agents in it, it was all some sort of magic potion that rapidly rehydrated the dehydrated scar tissue and softened it, and quickly countered the reaction of magic-caused injury to similar magic—over the surface, the slowly, carefully, began to massage it in. He had hands as gentle as Bell’s, which she had not expected, and seemed to know without being told what needed the most attention. She concentrated on the relief, and tried not to think of who was giving it.

Bell had gotten that winged helmet off her, and the mask already. But he didn’t know how to get her armor off.

“Arms. Come off separately,” she managed, when the pain in her hands was bearable. “Shoulder seam. Just press along the seam with your finger.”

He did the left first, then drew the one-piece sleeve slowly off. It felt as if he was pulling the skin off her entire arm; she bit down to keep from crying out. “Slick,” was all he said. “Never seen that before.”

That’s because it’s partly magic. It responds to my intent. I want it off, it will come off, as long as the person who’s taking it off is the one I want helping.

She wanted to be able to comment, because he’d probably be interested; the difference between the Llewellco armor, which was partly magical also, and his own costume which was all tech. It would be such a good distraction for both of them, turn all this into an academic exercise so he didn’t have to think about her as anything other than an object of curiosity, but the pain made that impossible.

Now she knew the true meaning of helplessness. Not the moment of defeat beneath the eyes of the enemy, but the moment when you had to depend utterly and completely on the kindness of someone else.

Someone you loved. Who not only knew the worst about you, but now was seeing the worst.

He went slow, carefully, allowing instinct to take over. Flight became curiosity. The music helped, the darkness helped, and somehow he got past the feel of skin like wetted bark. Her cries cut through his hesitation, her restraint cut to his heart. She needed this, and now. His love was in agony. It was a time for action, with none to spare for panic and the turbulent mess of emotions past. That, as least, was something Red had picked up along the way. When something needed to be done, he did it. Damn the torpedoes, there was momentum now.

Her hands, being the start, had been the hardest. The digits and palms held exaggerated cracks and crevices, and he was careful to attend to each one. But with her limbs he closed his eyes, and let his fingers move with their own intuition, gliding, providing gentle pressure here, applying more salve there. Her cries lessened, her body began to relax.

There was between them a jagged union. Upon meeting, they had recognized something in the other and had quickly forged a bond. With dashed spirits and broken forms, nevertheless, something familiar and necessary in each had cried out to the other.

Everything seemed a test to them now. She was a killer, something that had almost torn them apart, but the bond held. Her ruined body suggested an exclusion of physical love, but now his hands moved as a lover’s would, exploring, assuring and restoring. The bond held. More, it strengthened. Parts of them, once rigid and uncompromising, began to yield and bend.

To meld.

They were healing, both of them.

And in the end, in the shadows, there was exhaustion for both of them, and the oblivion of sleep, each in the others’ arms.