Blood and Iron Ch. 04bynomennescio©
Darkness. Light. A tunnel, a cave cocooned around him, floating without sensation as a single crack of brightness bloomed outward to a vague and blinding haze. No sense of time or place - he was dead. He must be dead, gone to meet his maker, face judgement for his life. To answer for his sins...it was no pious feeling, the frustration that rose up tired in him at the thought. What troubles now, in some whole new existence? Tortures or hosannas, stretching on for an eternity. Enough was enough. He was dead. He should be left alone.
A face, then, looming at him from the light. Coming slightly into focus as he strained to see, as his heart thumped with a nervous spark of recognition. Hair like dusky flame, and eyes of glowing green. Fuzzy features, carved as beautiful as any sculptor could ever hope to make...he was distantly surprised at the dryness of his tongue as it stirred to speak. "Molly?"
Those fine lips pulled upward to a delighted, tearful smile - but she shook her head. Disappeared suddenly from view, and a subtle, tingling pressure touched upon his arms and chest, like a slightly awkward embrace. Relieved words sounding sweetly in his ear, carrying still the tremble of recent sorrow. "Thank god." A voice he knew all too well...
The fuzz of vision receded further as moments passed, as he forced himself to blink, resolving not to the clouds of heaven but instead to just a small room, richly furnished in the Spanish style, the sun streaming brightly in from a window on the far wall. The softness of a bed beneath him, the warmth of blankets pulled up to his neck. Awareness gradually returning of his legs, his arms, his body there beneath him, as his mind clicked slowly back to function. A faint ache of pain yet, down inside his belly.
Not dead, then. That itself was a surprise, almost unwelcome. "Alice, what..." The words scraped out rough, uncertain, rasping in a parched and shaky throat; he could feel her cheek still touched to his, but she pulled back as he spoke, appearing again before his eyes.
"Shh," she soothed, warned him to quiet. Sitting there at the side of his bed, eyes lambent and soft with a doting concern. A tiny quiver at her chin, the smile pulling joyful at her expression. "'ts all right. You're safe. Back in Las Cintas. Javier's villa, you remember?"
He nodded, vaguely, the flow of thought still slow and murky. His voice hoarse as he tried again to speak. "How'd I get here?"
"I brought you," she answered simply, gazing down at him. Her tone resounding with a fairly wrenching bliss, a little tremble of feeling that she took a beat to quash before she spoke again. "Anyway, that ain't no matter, now. You okay? Hurtin' any? Hungry?"
Denial was an uncertain shake of the head - he scarcely knew yet what he felt. But the dry scrape of the tongue in his mouth soon suggested itself as a problem to be fixed. "Reckon I could use some water."
She laughed at that, a bit, more relief than humor. "I ain't surprised. You been out gettin' near three days now." Excitement in her motion as she rose up to her feet, the energy of nerves and tension suddenly set free. She grabbed at a painted stoneware jug set down upon the endtable, and just the sound of pouring liquid was enough to redouble his sense of thirst. "Doc said it was an even chance you wasn't gonna wake up at all, but I didn't give it no regard." A denial somewhat unconvincing, in light of the strength of her reaction a minute prior.
She returned a second later to the side of the bed bearing a tall glass of water, shimmering pure - in this moment, it looked as appealing as the sweetest of liqueurs. And faint frustration, then, embarassment, as he tried to reach for the glass, only for his arm to stir but feeble and uncooperative beneath the covers, feeling again as weak and useless as it had been after his injury all those years ago.
"Here." The words were murmured soft and tender as she realized his predicament. Sat down once more close beside him on the edge of the bed, the firmness of her upper thighs brushing against his through clothes and covers. "'ts all right, just sit yourself up a bit." And as he clumsily managed this, she held the glass up carefully to his lips, gifting him to greedily drain the cool and satisfying water. One hand held steadying on his shoulder, a little smile on her lips. Her eyes solid now in his, warm with joy and with affection. "Couple times you took care of me when I was sick; figure I can return the favor." And slightly strange to see, this new poise and confidence of manner, with his recent memory so full of her anxiety and almost-tears.
Wasn't room to worry about that, though. He little had the energy, nor the focus, his mind still foggy with fatigue. The glass was empty by the time he'd drank his fill, and for a moment after she just sat there at his side, gazing quiet and slightly smiling at his face. Finally speaking again, tones softly solicitous. "Anything else you need, pa?"
There was, in fact. He hadn't felt particularly hungry before, distracted by the desert in his throat - now that his thirst was quenched, he could hear the answering growl of his stomach. "Ah..." His tongue, however, hesitated a trifle. Faintly uncomfortable, ashamed to be in such a position, asking her to bring him food. Not that there was much choice. "If it ain't no trouble, I am feelin' a mite peckish, after all."
"No trouble." Her smile quirked upward, tenderly amused. "I asked the cook to leave on a pot of stew, just in case today was the day you woke up. I'll run and grab you some, if'n you don't wander off while I'm gone."
"Don't reckon I could," he awkwardly returned her humor as she lifted to her feet, giving on her way a slight, comforting squeeze about his wrist. And indeed, it was scarcely a minute later that she returned with a large bowl of soup on a metal platter, setting it upon his lap as she sat down once again beside him. Serving careful spoonfuls into his mouth, her eyes nestled in his features, affectionate and kind.
It was a fine meal, rich broth, chicken and vegetables...but her presence touched lightly to his side was a distraction from the taste. Her body's heat impinging on his consciousness, the sight of those gently smiling lips - and the faint clenching of despair inside, that he was still faced with this untoward desire. That the nearness of death had not gifted him with any fresh perspective, any awakening of righteous disregard. Or that it had not gone all the way, and granted him the indulgence of extinction...dark thoughts, beside her glow and tender warmth. But he'd thought it all was over, that he'd found the liberty of death. There was a certain surreality to be sitting here now, attended to so close and solicitous by the girl he'd imagined he was finally leaving to her own life.
Especially given how she seemed now to look at him. Even through the still-fogginess of thought, he could not miss the intensity of her expression, nor forget her confession to him on the last night he could recall. How she'd thought of them together, of him touching her...the notion slipped too comfortably into his own mind, despite his attempts to shake it, as his daze was slowly lifted. But where before she had fairly quivered with shame before his gaze, had begged that it was truly no desire of hers - now her eyes were steady, sincere, warm and cheerful as candlelight, and he did not quite know if he imagined the promise they seemed to carry. Did not trust his tongue to words, for the nervous uncertainty which had hold of it.
Not long before the bowl was emptied, his stomach sated, the tray set well aside. Alice still perched there at the edge of the bed, as silent as James himself...but there was a sort of language to her smile, curved up gently at the corner of her lips. To the slender fingers that she lay upon his leg, above the covers, or to the way she looked at him, as though to memorize his features. A meaning to it that he didn't dare to understand. A message that she couldn't really mean.
He didn't speak, or even much react, when she took his hand in hers - though his heartbeat kicked up faster, throbbing in his ears. Didn't look directly at the solemnity of her gaze, the intensity, the sparkle like that of starlight. But this refusal to acknowledge little stopped the building of the moment; her tone was deep with looming truth as at last she spoke, dulcet with meaning. "Pa?" A murmur, reaching for his attention, her thumb stroking softly at his palm - he could not quite keep himself from looking up at her, being captured by her eyes.
Whatever she planned to say was mercifully forestalled by the sounding of a quiet knock at the door. Relief in James' voice as he looked up past her, polluted with a touch yet of misgiving, a tingle from what she might have said. "Yeah? C'mon in." Hoarsely, to usher inside whoever stood on the side opposite, to find the safety of a chaperone.
That 'whoever' soon proved to be Javier himself, as finely-dressed and cheerful as ever as he pushed the door smoothly open. A smile in his eyes and on his lips as his gaze fell upon the other man, enthusiasm in his tone. "Ah, Señor Blake! The young lady told me that you were awakened; I am glad to see that it is true." Teeth flashing white and well-maintained. "I must confess, when she brought you by thrown across that horse, I did not hold a great deal of hope for your survival. I do not believe I had ever before seen a man so deathly pale who was not destined for the grave."
Between his fatigue and the uneasy awareness of Alice still beside him, James struggled vainly to return a little warmth, his own smile flickering but wanly in his expression. "Aye. Reckon I'm just lucky."
"Lucky, indeed," Javier nodded sagely, "And with a capable ally, as well. She told me just a little of what transpired, but I understand that it could well have been worse, were it not for prompt action on both your parts." A noncommittal muttering from James, and he continued on, his eyes flashing briefly over to Alice. "In any case, she has certainly been diligent. She scarcely left your side, you know, these past three days - something of a surprise to see, after the manner of your earlier departure."
Her fingers curled with his, her weight gently pressed upon his side - the truth was an awkward thing, complicated, conflicted and unspeakable. James could only vaguely shrug his shoulders, utter dryly, "S'ppose you could say we got a strange relationship."
"Yes," Javier seemed to find a distinct humor in this, chuckling heartily. "In fact, that is about the most that I could say. But!" His hands clasped firm together, sudden energy for a change in subject. "You are finding the room comfortable, I hope? The food, acceptable?"
"Oh, it's more'n fine..." James agreed slowly, mild confusion at the question...giving way to abrupt chagrin, as he thought he recognized the hint of a welcome overstayed. "You been plenty kind, no doubt. It's...tell the truth, I ain't quite sure what time of day it is, but if it ain't too late we could clear out this afternoon, let you have the place back."
"Please, Señor!" Javier bared his palms in faintly theatrical refusal. "You wound me. I assure you, I am not the sort of fellow to turn an injured man out into the street. Even if I were, well..." His gaze touched curiously on Alice again, before returning to James. "I suppose she has not yet told you. It gives me happiness to say that you may consider this place a home, at least for the immediate future. The young lady has agreed to my earlier offer of employment, and has asked as a caveat that part of her renumeration be for you to be provided room and board. An offer I was glad to accept, particularly in light of the circumstances."
James turned an inquiring eyebrow to his daughter, who answered the unspoken question. A tone almost of tentative apology, if he should disapprove. "Seemed the thing to do. We ain't really got no place to get to, anymore, and I weren't much inclined to get by just on hospitality. Even if he does got quite a store of it." She glanced at Javier, acknowledging, who returned a wide and gracious grin. "This way we got a place to stay, while we...work things out. Ain't like I signed no contract, neither; it's just givin' the thing a try."
"On that subject," Javier cut in, his own voice dropping faintly apologetic. "Much as I hate to separate you from your companion, now that he is awakened...there is a matter for which I would like your presence, señorita. One of the ranchers with whom I contract - I am not expecting any trouble from the meeting, of course, but I imagine I should likely have you there nonetheless."
A faintly sour look curled at her lip...but she nodded, gamely enough. Pushed up to her feet, leaving a little pang of loss to echo in James' soul as she departed from his side. "Suppose it wouldn't be a job if I didn't have to do no work."
"Indeed not," Javier chuckled mildly. Gestured to the door. "Come along, then. I shall try to keep matters brief, for the sake of your reunion."
She followed, then, walked once more out the door - but not before looking back at James with a quiet, hopeful smile, a statement in her eyes of such significance that he was left to grapple with it long after her footsteps had faded from his hearing. Speaking again of the night he last remembered, of tears and kisses and impossible dreams...and him left now to wonder in the dullness of exhaustion what fresh travails awaited him in the promise of that gaze.
Between the warmth of the bed and the meal in his belly, James dozed off again before arriving at any kind of answer, troubled thoughts disintegrating into the vague fuzz of sleep. Darkness had fallen outside by the time he was pulled again awake, roused by the catch and creak of the bedroom door. Alice standing there in silhouette, in hat and coat, the peculiar figure which had come to look so beautiful. The lines of a man's outfit subtly reshaped to the woman beneath. Distinctive. Unique. Distracting his tongue from any words of greeting - he only lay there silent in the dark, watching faintly guilty as she took a match to the oil lamp upon the table, and a wavering yellow illumination welled up in the room.
Neither was Alice swift to speak. Uncertain what to say, despite her tentative attempts before she'd left. The past three days had felt as an eternity. The panic of his injury, the frenzy that had lent her strength enough to shove his body up across her horse. The endless agony of the trip back to town, riding just shy of a gallop - afraid simultaneously that she would be too slow to save him and that the battering of the pace might finish him off. She shuddered still to think of the slick layer of his blood that had been matted at her horse's side when he finally arrived, the terrible pallor of her father's features. And that damned doctor, who would give her no guarantees, no assurance that he could even be saved, who just bit at his pipe and frowned as though even trying were a fool's errand...she'd almost drawn on the man, threatened him, demanded that he do his job or else forfeit his own life. Almost.
And the afterward...that was its own torture. When she could only wait, and hope, and pray. Keenly, bitterly aware of how her last prayers for his return had gone unanswered all those years ago, but trying all the same. Talking to him sometimes, as he lay there limp and unresponsive, breathing only low and shallow. Hoping that some part of him at least could hear her, pleading for him to come back, to be okay. Squeezing up close against him to whisper in his ear, telling him a decade's worth of dreams, the childish, the mundane, and those it made her blush to speak. It didn't matter. There was a kind of comfort in it, to tell herself that maybe it would help him, to say aloud what for so long she'd just carried about inside.
Harder, now that he was awake. Not that she knew he'd truly hear whatever words she chose to speak...so much she had to say. But time, she needed time. A few more moments to steel her tongue, to settle her heart. So for now, she just glanced at him above her shoulder, spoke a slight inanity of greeting as she began to prepare for bed. "You get by all right while I was gone?" Her hat set to rest on a high back post of the chair, her duster on the table beside the lamp.
His answer was a grunt, vaguely affirmative. Watching her. "Damned worthless, I was. Just slept...least I feel a little bit more now like a human being." Heavy boots slipped off, tossed to tumble at the foot of the bed. "How was the job?"
"Pretty dull, truth be told." Her fingers hesitated, tracing at the wooden buttons of her shirt. A slight tingle along her spine, pulse thumping faster despite her attempts to calm it. "Spent longer ridin' back and forth than we did there. And I couldn't understand most anything they said, neither; suppose I ought to try and pick up some more Spanish if I mean to do this for real." The tinge of nervous excitement in her voice was not from the words, but from the action of her hands as she unfastened her shirt, silently begging that his gaze still was on her. Pulled it swiftly off, shoulders bared for him to see, her upper back...she could not help then but to turn and face him, to see him staring fixed. He looked half away as her gaze found his, eyes fleeing to the wall - but they flickered back to her for brief moments, even as she watched. A hopeful, giddy tightness in her chest, feeling the touch of those dark brown eyes on her abruptly heated skin.
It little even hurt her mood when he sputtered out a rough demand, "The devil are you doin', Alice?" Words high and slightly strained, that might before have sent her scurrying to cover up - but she was ready, now. Prepared, practiced...though this, too, was different, with him awake.
The answer was a simple thing. "I'm gettin' ready for bed. Way I done these last two nights." Only the faintest quaver sneaking in her voice, to suggest the anxious hope that lay beneath. Her belt again undone, set to rest upon the table, her jeans slipping down past her hips and to the floor. Wondering briefly if she truly saw or just imagined his gaze dipping down to caress up her legs. There was a thrill, a sparkle of excitement in this unveiling. So different a feeling from the forced undress those few days past, from the humilitation and the helpless fury. She wanted this, wanted him to look at her, to see her, to want her...the defense was light upon her tongue, as she stepped closer. "I'd get the sheets dirty, otherwise."
By the time she reached the edge of the bed, his eyes had ceased their edging for escape. Stayed on her, instead, wary as a jackrabbit's as he worked through the implications of what she'd said. "Hang on a minute, now," croaking aghast, "You're telling me you slept in here with me, wearin' nothin' more than that?"
A little smile tugged as answer at her lips, giddy exultation blending with the nervousness that ached along her nerves. "'sright." Climbing up then to the empty half of the bed, her heart thumping solid in her chest as she drew up close before him, kneeling above the covers. A murmur of explanation, of excuse. "Figured...I oughta stick by you, in case you woke up. Figured there'd be maybe a better chance you would wake up, if somebody was around, if I...if you knew I was there." Her left hand laid upon the mattress, inches from his.
"We can't." His voice roughened, rumbled firmer...but strange to hear, the thread of almost fear that pulsed behind his words. Sitting up higher, pulling away. "You can't, you gotta...Alice, we talked about this. I mean, all right, maybe sharin' the bedroll on a cold night, when we're dressed up safe'n proper, that maybe ain't so bad. But this, with you all..." His gaze traced briefly down along her body, lingering where her thighs emerged pale and shapely from the loose fabric of her drawers. Stroking hesitant along the smooth curve of her knees before returning to her face, grave and troubled. "You got to find another bed, Alice. Or I can, if you won't."