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Of Wounds and Second Chances
They do not allow you in.
I was a healer, the younger woman says, before I rode to war and before I was your friend. I cannot let you see him. As if that matters – there is the door, not locked, and here is your sword, which you calmly vow to use on anyone who attempts to block that door. See, before you were anything else, you were a warrior.
The room is silent, as if death has not yet conceded defeat. It lurks in the darkness, clawing at the edges of the room as it waits for its chance to leap. There is the bed, in which he lies. When you enter he does not say your name, or turn his head away from the wall, or make any sign that he's alive at all. You approach the bed. His skin is even paler than his hair – weeks out of the sun does that, you suppose, but it still doesn't look right. Dark lashes quiver, his cheeks are sunken.
He's supposed to say your name, only he doesn't. You say his, instead.
If his closed eyes are an attempt to fool you, he should know that his mouth tightens and gives him away. Never any good at lying, were you? You tell him that you cannot stay very long, for you do not really wish to harm the girl who has nursed you back to health, and you are unsure of how patient she will be. Then you say, you're a difficult knot, aren't you. Here I thought I was doing you a kindness coming all this way to see you, and you tell them you don't want to see anyone?
This makes him break his silence, but the words coming out of his mouth are not the ones you want to hear. He says, I do not want your kindness.
Man's pride, is it?
Laughter. It is terrible to your ears because it holds none of the lightness you remember – it is a strangled, choking, broken sound, as he reflects that not much else is left to him. You do not know how to answer that, he was ever more master of his words than you. You try to keep your eyes on his face, drawn and pale as it is, and not on what's hidden under the blankets.
He notices, of course.
She is right, you know. Even you cannot bring me any relief now. Only more pain. Now that you have seen it for yourself, you best leave.
Like hell. If she is right, you are wrong, and that is something you are not prepared to admit. You wet your lips, study the rigid set of his jaw, and feel your heart break a little more. You remember his words to you before the final battle. They have remained locked away since that day, like jewels to cherish in silence, but now you bring them forth and ask him, is there nothing left of his fair promises? He'd sworn that his love will endure, no matter what befalls you.
His brows draw together in – at last a familiar look – suspicion and disbelief. Blunt speaking indeed, when in the past you would not touch the subject with a ten-foot pole.
It is different now. The battle is over, there is a future. And you tell him in a steady voice that you might as well get to the point, because, as you have already said, you do not relish the thought of using your sword on friends if they finally decide to come and drag you out of the room.
You hold his gaze for a long time as he weighs his answer. What is it to you? he asks at last.
It is your turn to narrow your eyes now. Here, a man who used to charm the skirts off women without once using his gift of illusion, and whose easy grin had gotten him in and out of troubles more times than one could count. Good swordsman, loyal friend – still, dumb as a rock. He had always read you easily enough, why stop now?
You said you'd love me. Always. No matter what befalls us, you said.
I did not reckon it was me that would be... befallen.
His reply takes a few moments in coming. Your instincts say it is because he is gathering his breath. You hear it is difficult for him to breathe and guess that he is suppressing a cough that lies deep in his chest. And in your own, there is that quivering pain again.
Let me see your legs.
In an instant, as if you'd struck tinder, his eyes flare up in anger. He has never abused you such with words, but now the accusations fly from his mouth like flies from a rotten apple, each more ridiculous than the next. You are tempted, for a second, to reply in kind – the gods know your collection of curses surpasses his by far. But you recognize his fear.
I will, sooner or later, you tell him deliberately. Because if you won't allow me to do so now, I will get into your room when you're asleep. I know the potions she pours into you, and the strength of them too. I will do that, if it makes it easier. But I will see.
The look he gives you is like a dagger to your already wounded heart. Then he turns his face away and say, Do as you wish. I cannot stop you.
That is not entirely true. Though he cannot sit up or move away, there is nothing that prevents him from calling out for the healer outside the door, or grabbing the covers with his one good arm as you reach out for them. He allows you to touch.
You move slowly, hesitating only for a second before you start pulling back the rough woollen blankets. All he does is look. It is unnerving and you wish he wouldn't – at least not in that way – but the blame is yours, anyway. You could have left him alone.
The gruesome sight that would have justified the healer's and his reluctance is absent. There are no hideous scars or pus-filled boils or anything that could have repulsed even a pampered lordling. His torso is covered with marks and bruises, to be sure, but his skin is warm and smooth under your hand. He has grown awfully thin; you trace the outline of his ribs where there were nothing but muscles before, thinking that he should at least have had the sense to eat what they brought him.
Then, as your hand goes lower, there are the bandages. Crisp and stiff and white, they cover him from the hips and twine around his legs so many times that they are stone hard to the touch. It is strange, how the legs appear so fat with his upper body so thin. There is that faint, too familiar smell of comfrey.
Door opens, the girl enters. Makes a scandalized sound at seeing her patient so exposed and rushes to pull the blankets back up again. Fussing so that you can't help reminding her how little respect you have for her as a healer, especially if she allows him to shut himself away from the rest of the world. She is your friend and you will treat her so, even if the rest of them curtsy and bow until they break off at the waist.
Then you point at the door and tell her to get the hell out.
He tries to appear indifferent as you sit down and pull away the blankets again, your hand stroking lightly across the bandages. Alarmed, you see the tears welling up in his green eyes, and tell him not to be stupid. Haven't you seen him spew his stomach out as he tried to drink the other warriors under the table? Surely this is nothing, compared to that.
You are brought to silence, however, when he tells you in a tight voice that he only wishes he could feel your touch.
You sit in the silence for a long, long while. He slips in and out of consciousness, for the pain must be considerable, and they have given him a cup which he now and then take a sip off. The door opens again, healer girl comes in with a tray with steaming soup and black bread and a mug of water. The tactic seems now to be to ignore you and she leaves again without a word.
But there are two spoons.
What do you care if he has decided he will not eat? If he is not capable of taking care of his body, then the responsibility – and choice – must go to someone else. You wait until he is unconscious again and prop another pillow beneath his head. When he wakes, he finds that he has been arranged into position to accept the spoonful of soup put in front of him.
If it is a battle of will, it is short. You have never been one to accept defeat, and he never could resist for long. Come on, one more – it will help you get better. When the bowl is empty, your talk flows somewhat more easily. Not easy to hang onto pride when you're being fed like a bird. Still, he tenses whenever your hands come near, so you content yourself to sit on the edge of the bed and tell him of the past few days.
The dead are buried, the wounded taken care of. Already, armies prepare to break up and head south before winter sets in – some returning to their homelands, most headed for the crown city where the queen has promised a proper celebration for the heroes of the war. You are to go with them. Not yet. When he's healed enough. What did he think, that you would all leave without him? Only after you received this last tribute would you break up too – all of you, scattered across the world again as the bonds and oaths that hold you unravel.
And you will go north. He says it with a voice colder than ever.
You shake your head at his stupidity and say, No. You do not belong there anymore. The people there do not have the eyes to see the use of a man such as he, and so it is obvious that you cannot, will not, go there.
He looks at you then. Asks roughly, what the hell is that supposed to mean, and you tell him that if he wasn't so damn thick he would be able to answer that.
Why now? His eyes, troubled like the ocean before a storm; his voice unmistakingly bitter. His breathing is laboured. Why could you not have said such things to me before this h-happened? It would have been easier to accept it then.
There are numerous answers to that question and none that places you in a good light. Because you were a coward. Because you dared not hope. Because you doubted him, doubted yourself, until the very last moment when all seemed lost and you realized that you had gained nothing by holding back. Because, until you thought it was too late, you kept the precious moments locked away and pretended they had never been.
Because you were right, and I was wrong. You look down on your hand lying on the blanket, wishing he would take it. If there is a second chance, I will not be the one to waste it.
But your words only make him angry. He cannot walk, cannot sit – are, for all intent and purposes, useless. A proper warrior would drive the sword through my heart and be done with it. If that was yet another attempt to start a quarrel, it is a poor one. You know full well you never were a "proper" warrior, for all that you might have wished it once.
You don't love me anymore, is that it?
That shuts him up. His eyes are diverted to the wall – again – and he mutters something you cannot quite catch. Honey-tongue, sweet-talker. Did his injuries take that away as well? You kneel down on the floor by his head and this time, free from his gaze, you allow yourself to touch. How long since he washed it, you think, running your fingers through that pale, tangled mess and feeling your heart beat faster. He lies very still, face still turned away. You wish, you wish he would look at you then. You wish he would speak to you, say your name like only he can, and tell you that he will love you, always, no matter what. It is hard, even if one is not a proper warrior, to have to such hopes.
Harder still, to admit them. As the candle burns lower and the darkness creeps nearer, you whisper in his ear how it was when you realized he yet lived. It did not matter that the fall had all but crushed the lower half of his body. You had known you would see him again, and be able to tell – beg of him to forgive you. Because you did not realize before how much – how much you needed him.
A soft intake of breath.
Then, a hand on your shoulder, and you almost lose your balance when you turn. The man crouches down a mere two feet from you and his eyes are the most beautiful in the world. Pale green, like water with a web of sunlight playing on its surface, and with such love and wonder in them. His eyes. His body – whole, clothed in plain tunic and breeches; his hair, pale blonde and falling carelessly over the eyes.
You turn back to the bed and now, finally, it is your turn to be angry. You tell him it is not an illusion you want. You did not come here expecting to find him unchanged and he's a bloody idiot if he thinks you did.
Please. He looks at you now and there is an immeasurable sadness in the way his mouth twists. If you do care for me, let me do this. It is still me. Pause as he breathes – in, out. In. The gift is as much part of me as my arm. It is the only way I can touch you now, properly, and if you cannot bear to have me do that, then mayhap it is best you leave after all.
The illusion moves closer, raises his arm tentatively towards your face. It looks real. The breaths come even, not ragged, and the sound of it so close to your ear makes you swallow. And then... then you lean into the touch, and it is like going out into the sun after a long winter – warmth spreads through your body and you reach out, craving more. Your hands slide up the lean back, the broad shoulders – not too broad, just enough. Up, to nestle in the soft spot in the neck, and you feel his shudder as if it was yours. Lips, soft. Tasting summer. There is the sound of laughter again, but this time it is right; bright and brimming with joy. You let yourself be pushed back against the wall and there is as much wonder as urgency in the way you touch him. So real. You forget, for a long and glorious moment, and slip your hand beneath his tunic, feeling the muscles move under his skin.
Need. Never once did you yield for it, but no false pretension can keep you from it now; you want him, and you want him to know.
Then you look into his eyes.
They're beautiful. They're alive. But, like an anvil from the sky, it hits you that although you can see the love in them, he cannot look into yours. It is an illusion, nothing more.
You push it away, stride back to the bed. So fast that his face is not yet wiped blank. This pains you, you observe, your voice shaking. How, then, do you expect me to take pleasure from it?
Before he can come up with an answer, you lean over and kiss him.
Summer. With traces of rain, as your tears mingle. You think, perhaps, you whispered, please, against his lips just before they parts for you. You think you tried to say his name.
When at last you draw back, somehow, it seems as if the world has tilted back in place. The sober, heavy presence of death in the room has been replaced by something entirely different. Your breaths come rapidly. You cannot tear your eyes from him – how you want. Your hand comes to rest on his cheek.
I am broken, he says hoarsely, but there is a hunger now in his face that he cannot mask. Good. Only those who want to live are hungry. Before you know what you are saying, you ask if, unless he mind, you can make love to him?
Peace! You stare at eachother, seconds ticking by. You do not take it back.
He looks as if he doesn't know whether to cry or laugh out loud. Then he says, No, no – don't say such things.
If you take the time to think about it, you are sure the moment would be mortifying. But you have gone into the fray, and defeat is not an option – at the very least, you will have him say he loves you. So, you channel the smallest trickle of your own gift into him and watch as the rythm of his breathing changes. When he realizes what you're doing, he frowns and tells you in a tight voice to stop it. Right now, damn you.
It is as much part of me as my arm, you mock.
He glares now. As if you need it, to arouse me! He bites his lip, then exhales and closes his eyes. As if coming to terms with something. If you wish.
If I wish?
If you truly wish – to touch me, that way... I am not strong enough to refuse.
It is as much permission as you will get, you suppose. The door, not having a lock, is a problem. It has become dark outside, however, and quite silent, so you assume that everyone is in their beds. Even little healer girls. Making your decision, you quickly undress and try to ignore the way his eyes seem to be scorching your skin. Then you start to unwrap the upper part of the bandages, your hands – calloused by battle as they are – trembling.
Yes, you think, look at me just like that. Like there are no shadows in this world, no death and misery – as if I am the sun to your summer. Breathe that way, heavy and evenly, making me wonder what I should do to make you lose control. Touch me, let me gaze into your face and know that you can read the love in mine too.
At the last, it becomes too much. You hide your face against his neck and feel him shaking in release. You think you said his name. You know he said yours, and whispered into your hair that he loves you, always will, and that you are breaking his heart.
Go. Go. I cannot endure this. Being confined to this bed, having moments like these and know how much more there could have been. It destroys me.
And because you read him well enough to know when he's on the edge, you can only do as he wish without letting your anguish show. Your head is still reeling, you cannot think clearly. Will this be the last chance? If so, did you make the most of it?
Again he tells you to go, and he will not even accept a kiss; he's holding himself together by a thread. You must ask it – by the door, you turn. Do I make this worse?
He tells you he doesn't know. Then he says, even if you do and no matter what comes of it, he will always treasure this night. But please – just go.
That is all you need to know.
He will get the time he needs. You got yours. And it is precisely because of that that you are certain at one point, when he is healed enough to face it, he will remember. The sweetness in your words, the way you spoke his name, and held him close.
Until then, he may keep the memories locked away, like the most precious jewels in the world.
They would come back.
And you always win your battles.
This is an extract from a story I wrote some time ago. Originally it was from a you-I point of view. Never finished the story (never do), so I rewrote it into a oneshot. Might do it with some of my other stories too? Feedback much appreciated :)