In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him
James warmed his hands over his mug of coffee as he stared at the photographs.
When James had first seen Keira’s message, three days before, his heart had jumped. He knew only she had the password to the site, and he knew he could trust her with the secret. If anyone ever figured out that it was him running it, the consequences would be unspeakable. He remembered joking with Keira about it.
“Is this like one of those gossip blogs?” She’d stared at the site, her brow furrowed.
“Except with our own local ‘celebrities.’” He’d laughed aloud at her confused face. “I think having a gossip blog might actually be a gayer endeavour than liking men.”
She’d laughed too, teasing him.
He missed her laugh. He missed laughing about it, instead of living in fear of being discovered. Nothing was frightening when you laughed.
James couldn’t find anything funny in these photographs.
He was in Seattle, like she’d suggested. After a month of silence, he would have gone to Hong Kong if she’d suggested it. He’d taken every instruction seriously.
He’d even popped into Dr. Wallace’s medical office, two days before, just to see which magazines Keira might consider legitimate. He doubted MacLean’s would have much interest, nor did he think the British Medical Journal was the right genre. He’d settled on the New York Times.
“James,” Dr. Wallace had called in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
James had turned to see that Dr. Wallace was a shadow of his former self. A well-liked, normally boisterous physician, he’d become withdrawn and short with his patients since his daughter’s disappearance. In such a small town, word had spread quickly of the event. One could easily spot the toll it had taken on him, yet he spoke to no one about it, nor had he made any effort to retrieve her. Most of the people who spoke of it had concluded that she’d run away, and thought it an abominable thing to do to her parents, and that they were glad to see the back of her.
“I came to see you,” he’d said.
Dr. Wallace had shifted awkwardly. “Come in then.”
James frowned, wondering what Dr. Wallace had to hide. Once he was inside his office, James had set up his laptop, and turned the screen towards Dr. Wallace.
Dr. Wallace’s face went from drawn to distraught. He’d stared at the message a long time before saying anything.
“Are you sure she sent this from a secure location?”
James shook his head. “I can’t be sure.”
Dr. Wallace’s face was impassive. “What’s the attachment?”
“I haven’t looked at it yet,” James answered.
“Good,” Dr. Wallace said. He exhaled slowly. “It’s probably best that you don’t.”
“But she said – ”
“I don’t care what she said!” Dr. Wallace reached over and slammed the laptop shut. “Whatever it is, if it gets out, it will only get her killed. She took a risk, and if you act on it, she’ll be dead.”
James snatched his laptop away, standing up. “Aren’t you even going to look for her?”
“You have no notion – ” Dr. Wallace closed his eyes. “Go. Just… go.”
James was taken aback. He’d never seen Dr. Wallace in any mood but calm. James slipped quietly out of the room, but as he closed the door, he caught sight of Dr. Wallace putting his head in his hands. To his great astonishment, the doctor was weeping.
He didn’t do what Dr. Wallace asked. Instead, he skipped school and took the ferry to Seattle. He sat in a coffee shop, ensuring his screen faced two walls, and set to work. It had taken him a frozen hour to overcome his shock at the photographs. It took another hour, a medium coffee, and a cheese croissant to choose a journalist and obtain her personal email address. It had taken him another two hours, another coffee, and two biscotti to hack into a server in New York City, and create a new account from whence he ‘sent’ his email. Then he read his message twice, memorizing each word, and cleared it from his account.
He sighed. Ethan was in Argentina, or maybe it was California now. Joe kept a board of his progress up in the surf shop. Ethan was winning every competition entered. He’d sent James two emails, each filled with blunted enthusiasm about surfing, never mentioning his wins, and always starting and signing off with the same demand: news of Keira. James wasn’t sure that this was news he wanted to give.
He slammed his laptop shut, deciding to put off the email. He cursed Keira, wondering where on earth she was, and why she couldn’t have this conversation instead.
He strode out into the soggy Seattle afternoon. He closed his eyes, and breathed in the thick, cold air.
Remember to be brave.
“Well Keira,” he spoke softly to the rain, “if I’m going to be having uncomfortable conversations, I might as well start with my own.”
Keira’s messages could wait. He had things to say to his own family first.
Once inside the village, men and young boys came out of their homes to stare curiously at the odd procession as it moved through the dirt streets. Keira took up the rear, silent as a shadow, stealing glances from the corner of her downcast eyes at the alien hamlet. Her brow furrowed in confusion as she noticed the missing piece. There were no women.
The village elders began to move more swiftly, and she almost fell behind as she searched more openly. Then she saw them: flashes of features, eyes, noses, mouths, peeking through windows and then vanishing again so quickly that one might not even notice them. The village elders led them to a mudbrick house that looked to be about the size of two mobile homes stacked on top of one another.
A middle-aged man came out of the house. He took one look at the man in the stretcher, and motioned for them to come in.
He led them through a small living room, and into a larger room with a long wooden table and a small belly-shaped clay oven in the corner of the room. A small woman with shiny black hair was tending the fires, and he yelped in Pashto at her.
She covered her head quickly with a black scarf before turning. But then she cried back, holding a wooden spoon aloft that dripped with a sauce. Keira’s vision swam as hunger overtook her at the sight of food. The man shooed her away, motioning for them to lay Martin on the kitchen table. The wife immediately began to berate the elders, her husband, and the four young men, waving her spoon in the air in frustration.
In a somewhat disturbing display, the man put his hands on the woman’s shoulders, and pushed her back into the entry room. She continued to argue in Pashto and smacked him with the spoon, but he didn’t stop pushing until she was out of the room. Then he promptly slammed the door in her face, and locked it.
He turned to the husband, whom Keira now understood as a doctor of some sort, and said something to him.
The man waved him off, already busy at work. The other men in the room laughed, including Kevin and the twins.
“He told the doctor that he really need to get a door like that in his house, except that he would lock his wife in the kitchen, not out of it,” Aiden told her quietly. The corners of his mouth were quivering.
Keira did not find it as funny as the rest of them.
Glancing around the kitchen, Keira noticed for the first time a young man in the corner of the room. He looked a few years younger than herself, with grey eyes that stood out against his dark hair. He was sitting on the floor, scooping a delicious-smelling sauce out of a bowl with a piece of flatbread. He stared at the intruders in astonishment, taking them in one by one. When their eyes met, he nearly dropped his bowl.
Then his father barked orders at him, and he blinked twice. He replied something to his father. The father then barked in an even angrier voice. Fumbling with the knob, the boy turned and slipped out the back door of the kitchen.
“He’s gone to get some opium from their stores,” Aiden explained quietly. “They’re going to have to amputate the leg.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?” She asked.
The doctor turned and stared at her, apparently having understood her words. He took her in, as if sizing something up, and his lips went white. “You. Go.” He said in English.
“She stays,” Aiden replied resolutely.
“Go.” He said more forcefully. He growled at Aiden in Pashto.
Keira realized what had happened. Until that point, they hadn’t even noticed that she was a woman. She saw the staunch refusal in Aiden’s posture, and he began to reply what she could only imagine was a Pashto equivalent to a dozen English cursewords, when she brushed her fingertips on the back of his hand.
I don’t want to mess this up for Martin.
He turned to her apologetically. “He asked you to tell his wife that she must cook.”
Keira nearly choked. She turned and left the room silently.
The wife was standing at the foot of the stairs. Keira followed the woman up the stairs and into a separate room, where she settled down on a pile of cushions on the couch. A small girl was playing in the corner, and the woman called to her in Pashto, and she toddled over and sat down in front of her mother. The woman’s rage seemed to evaporate in the presence of her daughter. Keira, not quite sure how to approach the situation, knelt awkwardly before the woman. The woman kept her focus on the knots she was working out of her daughter’s hair. The girl, however, turned to her and stared at her in wonder. She looked perhaps ten years old, and had the same grey eyes as her brother.
Keira smiled shyly down at the girl.
The girl blinked, then reached out and grabbed the strands of Keira’s hair. She stared at it for a moment, and then giggled.
Letting the girl continue to stare at her hair in wonder, Keira looked up at the woman, patted herself on the chest, and enunciated her name.
“I speak English,” the woman said.
Feeling now very foolish, Keira blushed and asked her name.
“Malalai,” she called herself.
“Malalai,” Keira repeated. “Thank you for helping us.”
The woman snorted. “Who are you, anyway, a girl in the midst of warriors?”
“You speak English better than your husband,” she noted.
For some reason, Malalai seemed to find this hilarious. “Why do you think he kicked me out?”
“I thought it was the same reason he kicked me out.” She answered.
Malalai laughed even harder at that. “And I suppose he’s asking for food, now?”
“Well, yes.” She answered sheepishly.
Malalai wrapped a red, patterned head covering, a hijab, over her daughter’s head. “For you and your men, as well?”
Keira shrugged, blushing.
“Well, you and your young men can have his food tonight,” the woman declared. She threw up her hands. “How does he think I will prepare his food with his operations in the kitchen? Come with me.”
Keira watched as Malalai threw a heavy blue garment over her body, with only a mesh square cut out for visibility. It was a burqa. Keira touched her own chest self-consciously, wondering if she would have to wear one as well. But Malalai said nothing, so she followed her down the stairs and out of the house, the daughter tailing them, constantly looking up at Keira curiously. She pointed at Keira and chattered at her mother.
“Roshina,” Malalai said, pointing at the girl. “She likes your hair.”
Keira smiled at the girl and knelt down for a moment. The girl reached out and grabbed a bunch of the hair, staring at it in wonder. The little girl’s own hair was as glossy as her mother’s, and fell down past her shoulders in shiny waves. Keira laughed. “Tell her that I like her hair better. It’s like yours.”
Malalai smiled in a gratified way and pushed open the door to another house. They entered into a kitchen where a younger woman held a toddler on one hip, while another young child, about the same age as Roshina, clutched at her legs. Malalai called her Leila, and embraced her warmly.
The women chattered in Pashto for a bit, the young woman glancing occasionally at Keira with mistrustful green eyes. Then she bent down and said something to her son. He looked at her and made a noise of disbelief. She nodded, held up three fingers, and waved her hand, motioning for him to go. He ran out the door, followed by Roshina.
When he was gone, she sighed, shook her head and turned back to the pot-bellied oven in the corner of the kitchen. She lit a fire again, pulled out a bag of rice, and poured it into an enormous copper pot. Then she put on a kettle, made some tea, and offered one to Keira.
Remembering how thirsty she still was, she took and drank it gratefully, burning her throat with the scalding liquid. Too embarrassed to grimace, she grinned painfully. The women burst into laughter.
Leila’s son came back shortly, and Keira nearly dropped her tea. “Good god,” she said aloud, knowing they would not understand. “He looks like something out of Children of the Corn.”
The boy was standing in the doorway, grinning maniacally, covered in feathers and blood. Promply, he stomped over to his mother, and handed her three headless chickens. Keira could only assume that he had beheaded them himself. Leila patted him on the head, and pointed towards the basin. He promptly stripped off and began to wipe himself off with the dirty, bloody water. Leila shrieked at him, and pointed outside. He hung his head, and talking the basin with him in one hand, a large jug in the other, and walked out the door. Keira heard the sound of water splashing on the ground, and the universal inflection of disgruntled complaint as he stalked off to whatever source he was to take the water from.
Leila pulled out some flour, oil, seeds and spices and set to work mixing something. It took a few moments for Keira to realize she was making bread.
“Come and help,” Malalai commanded.
Keira washed her hands in a basin they provided for her, and was set to work kneading bread while Leila chopped vegetables and mixed in spices. Her arm ached every time she pushed down on the bread, but then she remembered Bear, and his unfortunate fate, and she felt ashamed for any self-pity.
“When your American friends come to rescue you,” Malalai said, “they will bring food and supplies for us.”
“I hope so,” Keira answered. She knew the feast they were preparing was more than they could afford, and she had no idea how she could repay them. “How do you speak English so well?”
“I learned in university,” Malalai answered.
“I didn’t realize women in Afghanistan went to university,” Keira said quietly.
“They do not for a long time,” Malalai said. “I trained as gynaecologist at Kabul University when women could still be trained.”
“And what happened?” Keira asked.
“Then the Soviets invaded, and there were many bombs. It was too dangerous to stay in Afghanistan. We flied to Pakistan. I only half-finish my education, but I helped the women, and he helped the men. We stayed for ten years in refugee camp, waiting to go home.”
“And this is home for you?” Keira wondered dubiously.
“My husband’s uncle lives here.” Malalai answered. “You met him. He is the malik.”
By malik, Keira deduced that Malalai meant the village elder, and if she were to hazard a further guess, she assumed it was the wizened head of the salutatory triumvirate. “And what of your family?”
Malalai’s smile faded. “Dead a long time ago.”
“I’m sorry,” Keira said, wishing she could slap herself for her stupidity.
“You Americans have strange expressions for death,” Malalai commented. “Now, flatten those naan like this.”
“Canadian,” Keira corrected automatically, but Malalai wasn’t listening.
Malalai turned her attentions to Leila, and the two of them began to sing as they cooked. The song flowed both beautiful and tragic and Keira supposed it was not so different from having a radio playing. Leila had plucked and dismembered the chicken in no time at all, and soon the kitchen smelled of rich spice and cooking fowl. Sometimes they would break their song to chatter in Pashto, Malalai occasionally speaking to Keira in English to give her some direction. It was nice- even though she understood nothing of what was said- to be in the company of women after weeks of only being with men. She wondered about Iris and Lin, who never even seemed to speak to one another; if they were ever lonely; if they ever craved the company of women. Somehow, she doubted it.
The kitchen door opened, and the young man who’d been eating in the kitchen came in and spoke to them.
Malalai yelled back at him, then turned back to her work. The young man stayed in the doorway, staring at Keira. She turned back, her cheeks reddening under his constant gaze.
“Samoon, stop staring and do as you are told,” Malalai chided in English.
Keira pressed her lips together to prevent herself from laughing. “Your son?”
“Yes,” Malalai said, and there was a touch of pride in her voice. “I am teaching him English. He says we are to take the food to the men. I said if they want, they must come and get it. Help me prepare the room.”
Along with Malalai and Leila, she helped to spread out the food on a large cloth on the ground, and placed cushions around the cloth. The women had cooked the chicken in a spiced dish with fried raisins, slivered carrots, and pistachios, and served it on huge beds of rice. Then she was ushered back into the kitchen.
As if on cue, there was a commotion in the dining room adjacent to the kitchen, and the men settled down to the meal. They spoke in urgent tones, and she stood with her ear to the door, wishing she could understand. From the sounds of their voices, she could tell that Aiden seemed to carry most of the conversation on the Paragon’s behalf, although Colton would occasionally put forth a phrase or two.
Malalai gestured to Keira. “Come, sit. Eat.”
Keira huddled with the women near the pot-bellied stove and ate a portion of the meal they had not put out for the men. She tried to chew on the portions of chicken, rather than swallow them whole, and waiting for the soft naan to melt in her mouth, but it wasn’t long before she was staring miserably at her empty bowl, wondering if it would be rude to lick it clean. The food, it seemed, had only served to whet her appetite. She was famished. She leaned over to Malalai and pointed to her empty bowl.
“What is it?”
“Thank you,” Keira said, remembering her manners. “And thank Leila for me.”
“You can thank her yourself,” Malalai told her. “Tashakkur”
Keira turned to Leila and repeated the word. She gazed at Keira for a moment, her green eyes probing, before tilting her head forward graciously.
The women said little otherwise, and Keira guessed that they were eavesdropping on the conversation next door. Finally, she could not stand it.
“Do you always eat separately from the men?”
“In large group, yes,” Malalai answered. “When just husband and children, we eat together. We cannot have our faces being shown to the tribesmen. It might tempt them.”
Her voice was thick with haughty sarcasm, but it could not quite hide Malalai’s frustration. Keira knew very little about the political history of Afghanistan, but from what she had learned, it had been rather more progressive - at least in the urban areas, where men and women attended university together and worked together - until the Taliban took over. These mountain villages, however, had perhaps always been a bit more… conservative didn’t quite seem a strong enough word. Keira could understand Malalai’s frustrations.
“Are you the women’s doctor in the village still, then?” Keira guessed.
Malalai nodded, and her smiled came back to her. Then it faded again, overwhelmed by the burden of care. “We have no supplies to care properly for our people. The men would surely have turned you over to the Taliban or killed you themselves if the need was not so great. But we have run out of medicine and many other items.”
“Ah,” Keira mumbled, because she could not think of how to respond to such an admission.
There was another knock at the kitchen door, and Samoon entered. He spoke in rapid Pashto to his mother, who then nodded towards Keira. “Time for you to go.”
Keira stood up, not quite sure where she was supposed to go. Malalai nodded towards the door, and Keira hoped that the men hadn’t changed their minds and decided that they had enough medicine after all.
But it was only Aiden waiting for her, and she couldn’t help but smile with relief. He returned it, a tired curve of the lips that did not reach his eyes. He tilted his head, and she followed him through the winding alley.
“I’m sorry about all of this,” Aiden apologized.
“This is the way they’ve operated for millennia. Who are we to force change upon them in a decade?” Keira shrugged, trying to be grateful. “When in Rome.”
Aiden stopped walking. “We’re not in Rome.”
Keira smiled. “Do as the Romans do. It means that when you visit another country, you should adopt their customs, because it’s the polite thing to do, and because it makes things easier for you to be polite. Have you never heard it?”
He shook his head.
“I suppose not,” Keira muttered.
He snorted. “And it makes perfect sense that you would adhere so dogmatically to a turn of phrase concerning politically correct etiquette.”
Keira changed the subject. “How’s Martin?”
Aiden exhaled slowly. “We were lucky to happen upon such a proficient doctor. They had to amputate, but the doctor says his vitals are stable. That man has nine lives, I swear.”
“What’s his story?”
He put on hand on her bloodstained jacket, thumbing carefully under the wound. “I’ll tell you another time. How’s your arm?”
She had almost forgotten about the pain in her shoulder. “Sore, but I won’t lose it.”
“I’ll look at it once we’re inside,” he decided, apparently unsatisfied with her answer.
Keira reached out and touched the back of his hand, telling him of Malalai’s admission. “They don’t trust us,” she whispered, “and I’m not sure we should trust them.”
“It’s not that simple,” Aiden answered, but he squeezed her hand to reassure her. “If they work with the Coalition forces, then the Taliban threaten them. If they work with the Taliban, then it’s our job to arrest or kill the young men involved. So they go by what they need the most at the moment, because it’s the only thing they can do.”
“And they need supplies from the army most right now?” Keira asked.
“Not very much of Afghanistan is actually cultivable, and much was destroyed by years of war. Most of what’s left is now used for growing opium. They don’t actually grow enough food to sustain the population, so they rely on the supplies… well, the bribes really, from both sides. It’s all they have to respond to: bribes and threats. And frankly, most of them have never known anything else.”
They were installed in a home that had been abandoned by a family who had gone to another village for a wedding, and never came back. The elders couldn’t explain their absence, but the reasons were too numerous to contemplate. Illness, an explosion, exposure or gunfire; any of these could easily wipe out an entire family in this country.
There were two rooms on the lower floor of the house, and a single room at the top. Frankie was in the living room when they entered, holding a cardboard box in his hands.
Keira saw that it contained a mobile phone, and presumably a charger. Hope surged in Keira, but it was quickly quelled by the look on Frankie’s face. She looked around. Candles brightened the room they were in, and she hadn’t seen any evidence of electricity elsewhere in the village. She understood the problem immediately. They had a mobile phone, presumably donated by well-meaning aid workers, but no way to charge it. Frankie dropped the box on the ground angrily.
An idea hit her, and she swept up the box before heading upstairs.
They chose to give Keira the top room, and the men split the lower area, leaving her alone at the top to inspect her room. Instead of a bed, there was a thin mattress on the floor, blankets unmade, still holding the tangles of the hapless family’s last sleep.
A jug and washbasin on a stool in the corner was her “bathroom,” and someone had been considerate enough to fill the jug with fresh water. She decided to wait till morning to use the latrine that could be found in an annex to the house. She had a mattress and a blanket- when she might not have been afforded such luxury here- and she was grateful.
Standing alone in her room, she could hear the men downstairs, discussing battle plans. She was furious that they had left her out after all she’d done to save their lives on the mountain. Rather than fume, however, she decided she would learn as much Pashto as she could- either from Malalai, or simply from absorbing it from Aiden. She smiled a little as she realized how easy it would be to learn the language that way.
Feeling less feeble, she remembered her arm. Gingerly, she removed her own jacket and stared at the previously white bandage on her left upper arm that was now entirely red-brown.
Without realizing he’d entered, Aiden was standing behind her. His hand gripped just below her elbow.
Because of the awkward position of the wound, she did let him. She stood with her back to him. There was a strange protectiveness, and a strong sense of guilt, that passed from him to her as he slowly began to unravel the bandage, pacing himself with the feeling of her pain passing through him. He tilted his head closer, so that she could feel his breath on the back of her neck.
“Is this okay?”
“Fine,” she said, cringing slightly as he pulled off the rest of the bandage.
The tearing sensation passed straight through to him as he pulled the bandage and new, scabbed skin away. He inhaled sharply through his teeth. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she breathed.
The wound was bleeding again, but rather than apply pressure to slow the flow, Aiden flushed it with a jug of icy water.
“They weren’t leaving you out of the plans, Keira,” Aiden explained, “I didn’t think you’d want to take part in it. I’m sorry if you had.”
She stayed still, thinking on that. She wasn’t sure why she had wanted to take part in planning battles and killing. In reality, she didn’t want that at all. She just didn’t want to be a voiceless in a place where she felt her femininity more acutely than she ever had. “You were right,” she admitted.
“As always,” he teased half-heartedly. He took a breath, and in the stillness of the room, she could hear his eyelids shut. “Today- I didn’t know why you did what you did.”
“You mean kill someone?” she asked, unable to face him. She remembered what he’d told her the night after he’d been whipped, about not changing, and she wondered if he was disappointed in her.
He shook his head. “No. I knew you would protect yourself. But you did more than that. You put your life on the line for the rest of us. I don’t know why you did that.” He paused. “God knows we’re not worth it.”
“I’m don’t feel good about killing the insurgents, but I had to do it.” Feeling the need to face him, she twisted. “I did it because you are worth it, Aiden.”
He stared down at her, trying to find something in her eyes. “Worth killing for?”
“Worth saving.” As she said it, she realized she wanted more for him than to keep breathing. She wanted him to have a chance at living.
He stood very still, just looking at her, and somewhere in his face she saw the shattered pieces of his innocence. She wanted, more than anything, to put them back together. She reached out to touch his face.
He flinched away from her.
“I don’t need saving,” he snapped.
“Fine, I’ll remember that next time.” she muttered, dropping her arm. She glanced at him. “Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”
He was bare-chested, the unscarred skin of his torso covered in goose prickles. He shrugged. “I cleaned it. It’s still drying downstairs.”
There was something else he wasn’t telling her, but he was standing too far away for her to tell. Fed up, she inspected her wound. Frayed strands of her own torn shirt were still touching the wound, stinging it, so she pulled it off, leaving her in just her sports bra and undershirt. She looked down at the wound. It was a sharp, inch-wide space banded across her right deltoid, and deep enough that she could see the layers of torn skin and muscle between blobs of congealed blood. A thick blue ring of bruise circled the wound.
“That’s gross,” she said, but her tone was matter-of-fact. Blood had never bothered her.
Aiden, on the other hand, looked positively ill. It surprised her, because she didn’t think gore bothered him either. His hands were limp by his sides, and he stared back at her with wide, almost frightened eyes.
“What is it?” she asked quietly.
“If anything had-” He looked bewildered. “I don’t-
There was a knock on the door, cutting short his reply. Before either could answer, Colton pushed it open. He stared at their state of undress for a second with a raised eyebrow and a half-smile.
“Bad time?” He sauntered into the room and glanced down at Keira’s injured arm. “You really need to clean that up, you little amateur.” Even as he said it, he patted her good shoulder fondly.
“Needs stitches,” Frankie, who had come in behind his brother, decided.
“Should we call the doctor?” Aiden asked.
Colton stared at him strangely for a moment, but then shook his head. “He’s done enough for us today, and we can handle simple stitches.”
Frankie stepped out of the room, and came back in with a small medical kit that must have been in one of the pockets of his jacket. Kevin had a bottle of rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs in his hands. Where he’d gotten them, she had no idea, but she didn’t care to ask. Track looked in from outside the door, and she could feel him inspecting her with his disturbing gaze.
Frankie opened a silver package and removed a thick needle, already spooled to a long, thick string. “Aiden, do you want to do it?”
“I can’t,” he answered helplessly. Keira had known he wouldn’t be able to; it would have hurt him too much to stitch her effectively. But there was something in his tone - a sort of frightened hopelessness- that she didn’t understand.
“Well, that’s going to be a problem,” Colton muttered, taking the suture and gauze in his hand. He shoved Aiden out of the way, who stumbled back two steps, his fingers fisted by his sides and features tense, as if he were suddenly afraid of her. She stared at him in confusion, until Colton wove a cloth in her face, breaking her line of vision. “Put this in your mouth, but keep very still. It’s going to hurt like hell.”
“Can I do anything?” Track asked from the doorway.
Keira looked up at him in surprise. Aiden turned on Track, his face turning an angry red.
“You can get out,” Colton growled. “Ready?”
She nodded, biting down on the cloth. The salty taste made her wonder where the rag had been. She felt the rubbing alcohol sting her wound, and screwed her eyes shut. Then she felt the first stitch. Colton wasn’t lying- it did hurt like hell, and she let out a muffled squeal as he wove the needle through her shoulder.
“Frankie, hold her still,” Colton ordered, and she felt an arm come around her ribs, another grabbing her right arm and holding it still. Frankie was holding her from behind, and he stabilised himself by sliding his legs around her.
“Why, hello Keira,” he teased as he felt her tense under the close position.
She made an aggravated noise, but could not retort.
“Stop moving,” Colton admonished her.
“Shrry-“ she apologized through her piece of cotton.
Colton made an irritated noise. “Stop apologizing.”
He pierced her again, and a stifled squeal escaped through the cloth, but Frankie was holding her so tightly, she couldn’t have move had she wanted to. She looked up from under her bowed head, and though the edges of vision had blurred with pain, Aiden was sharply focussed. His face was twisted with pain so great that it crushed her own cries of agony back down her throat, and his eyes- his eyes were filled with confounded self-loathing. She knew the look, because it was the same look she’d seen reflected in the mirror every morning until she’d met him. It was the look that came on with the revelation of something that existed deep within her, something both terrible and wonderful, and she had no hope of understanding or controlling or ever, ever getting rid of it. She had no idea what it meant on Aiden, who had known himself his entire life.
When it was over, someone handed her a cup of water. It was bitter, but she didn’t complain. By the time she’d finished drinking it, Aiden had left in the room.
“How come she gets her own room?” Track complained.
“I told you to get out,” Colton answered, shoving him from the room. As he followed the young man down the stairs, she heard him growl, “You know Track, a lot of mercenaries disappear in these mountains.”
In truth, Keira was confused as to why Aiden had chosen to stay with the Kappas. She had grown used to his constant presence, and though she should have been glad for her privacy, she found herself missing his presence. When she looked up at Frankie, who was the only one left in the room.
“Need someone to keep you company?” He grinned at her as he took the cup from her.
“What is wrong with you?” she balked.
He shrugged. “No harm in trying.”
She tried to raise an eyebrow, but yawned instead. “Does that ever work?”
“Doesn’t mean it won’t,” he retorted.
“You need to up your game, Frankie,” she replied hazily, tucking herself into bed. “Now leave me alone.”
“So I should just persevere?”
“Good night, Keira,” he said as he made his way out of the room.
She mumbled incoherently in reply.