Its Eyes Were Jewels
As way of disclaimer, I own none of Anne McCaffrey's characters nor do I own her world (though I sometimes wish I did), I'm simply borrowing them for the time being.
The flight back home was tense, with H'val unsure of what to do or say to make his friend feel better. He was even gentler with his touches than usual, as though sensing that she needed comfort, and when she shrugged out of his grip he deflated visibly.
"I just want to help," the boy murmured softly, staring at his feet like he'd just been scolded.
The expression softened Elrenia, forced the anger out through where he feet stayed firmly on the ground in the bowl. Shame filled her almost immediately, prompted her forward, closer to the blue rider. In a moment she had him in her arms, pressing her lips to his cheek in sincere apology. "I know," she whispered, pressing her face into his neck as she did. "I know you're trying to help. Thank you. I'm sorry. So, so sorry."
"Not your fault," the boy whispered back, squeezing the girl tight to his chest, "You have every right to be mad. I… shards I hate Raid right now."
"You and me both."
"I don't…" The boy sighed, frustrated, and pulled away from the girl. There was turmoil in his eyes that touched her down to her bones. This hurt him. This situation, with the Lord of her lands ignoring that she'd been abused so severely, hurt him. "I don't understand! How can he do this?"
"He's a Lord Holder," the girl explained softly. "Lord Holders don't have to follow the same rules as everyone else. They don't have to care. They… they don't care. I'm little. Even when I had my Cothold, I was small. Before thread, we gave them a sack of grain in tithe—maybe. They don't miss things like that. We did nothing for them, so we never actually mattered."
"But it's not fair."
It wasn't, but then life wasn't fair. Not for Elrenia. Never for Elrenia. There was absolutely no peace for her, it seemed, but when she kissed H'val's cheek again and stepped away she felt a little better. They were okay, she and H'val. This situation wouldn't rip them apart, because they wouldn't let it. That was what she needed, a way to calm the beating of her heart. The reassurance that it would be okay. It wasn't okay right then, but it would be.
"Go," H'val spoke before she could open her mouth, smiling just a little tightly. "I know you need some time. Go. Be by yourself. I'll see you at dinner."
Weeks past with no word that Raid was changing his mind, or being cooperative though Robinton was purportedly going to speak to him almost every single day. It frustrated her that he refused to help, refused to so much as listen to her story, and to distract herself she threw all of her effort into taking care of her wounded dragon pair. Unfortunately there were no signs that the man would be waking soon, and though the Healers did their very best to keep him alive, Elrenia knew that eventually he would begin to wither. Soon no amount of skill or experience would keep his muscles on his bones. His body would begin to die in a brand new way, and it was not a process that even Oldive could prevent.
But she sat at his side, day in and day out nonetheless. This was something that she would see through to the end, whether it ended well or not. When she wasn't with him, she was sitting cross-legged in front of Arlith, discussing what they would do as soon as he and Z'den could take to the sky again.
Fort, the brown said suddenly one day. We will go to Fort, and locate your brother.
"That would be nice," she admitted quietly, scratching his eye ridge until his eyelids slid helplessly closed. "I miss him so much."
What was he like?
"Most responsible of my brothers, if I'm honest. A bit of a troublemaker when he was a kid though. He had a thing for practical jokes, but his work always got done. Always. Dad was so proud when he found a woman and got his own Hold."
You wish he'd stayed.
"Well… yes. I… I felt sort of betrayed by his sudden departure. I never even met the woman. He just… told my father and left."
"Nothing to be sorry about. We'll find him, and…"
And you will tell him about that man, and he will help to fix you.
That was the plan then, and it was as good a plan as any considering she was no longer a candidate, and would be receiving no help from Raid. As soon as they could Z'den and Arlith would be taking her to Fort, whether the brown rider realized this yet or not was a completely different matter. The dragon seemed intent on helping her, and who was she to shun that kind of offer?
Who was she to shun offered rides from Koth and H'val, when it was mentioned that she needed to get out of the Weyr for a while? "You've been spending all of your time here. All day, every day," H'val mumbled at one point, staring rather pointedly at her. "It's not healthy, Elrenia. Even the Cavern workers get out more than you do."
"I've got responsibilities," she tried to reason, but a big brown snout nudging against her back more or less shut down her most convincing argument in half a moment.
Go, the brown beast ordered, staring hard at her with one large eye. The boy is right. You need to do something else. I will be fine.
Just for a little while. You don't smile anymore. The comment was striking, stopped the girl immediately in her tracks, because somehow she didn't expect a dragon to notice something like that. What was a smile to a dragon? What did it matter? She was comfortable there most of the time. She was healthy, she was helpful. What were smiles?
"Two against one," H'val finally said, extending one hand as Koth swooped down to the edge of the ledge they stood on. "Come on," he urged. "You'll have a great time."
Except she didn't. Elrenia found that she simply could not enjoy any time that she spent away from the Weyr, because she spent the entire time worrying about Z'den. Wondering who was with him—if anyone was with him. Someone should have been. Watching him. He needed to be watched. And someone had to try to coax him into drinking something. It was far easier said that done, but infinitely important. It was the best Oldive could do for the man until he recovered enough to not be in agonizing pain every second he wasn't unconscious.
They weren't gone for an hour when H'val sighed and offered to take her back home if she was really that uncomfortable, and the first place she went was to check on Arlith, petting his eyeridge carefully as he glowered at her. That was a glower. It had to have been a glower.
Z'den is fine.
"I just… need to be here, okay?"
It is not good for you.
"Well, someone needs to take care of you."
Everyone takes care of me. You are not alone.
"I know." And she did. She knew that the entire Weyr was chipping in to make sure that the two were doing as well as could be expected, but she still felt as though she needed to be there. Absolutely, positively, needed to be. The feeling welled up massively in her throat, blocking the passage of air until she walked into Z'den's weyr to relieve the young man sitting watch over him.
"I'm fine," the man tried to convince her at first, smiling easily when she shifted anxiously on her feet. Usually when she offered to take shift the person she was dealing with realized that it wasn't actually a request. She just phrased it like one to be polite. "You should go eat, and get some rest. We all know you haven't gotten real sleep in weeks now."
"I…" What could she say? "But… you…"
"Go eat at least." Coercion. That's what this was. The boy was coercing her into doing what he wanted, the fact that it was for her benefit didn't matter. "Go eat, an actual meal, and I'll let you watch him, okay?"
And that was how they got her to eat. How they got her to sleep in an actual bed. How they took care of her in their own little way, especially when Lessa was unwilling to intervene, deciding instead to just give the girl what she wanted until she was able to solve the situation with Lord Raid. A situation that Elrenia was certain would never be solved, but sometimes it was an amazing thing to be in the good graces of the Weyrwoman of Benden.
Spending less time with Z'den through this new arrangement the riders seemed to have set up amongst themselves, Elrenia fell back into a routine of watching the children just to pass the time. Falling into a habit that the Weyrfolk had not expected at all—taking care of everyone else before herself. At least when she was just watching Z'den and Arlith she was looking out for herself as well. Eating when food was brought up. Drinking as much as she could, because the brown never let her forget. Sleeping when she was tired. Bathing when she was dirty. Over the course of a few weeks she seemed to have forgotten the basics of being a person. What's more, she didn't care.
Not until an accidental tilt of her head in tandem with a deep breath had the young woman nearly gagging, realizing abruptly that she smelled distressingly similar to the barracks after an exceptionally long day. An unacceptable turn of events as far as she was concerned, and she rose immediately to her feet to use the bathroom.
One step away from the bed and the girl froze, wondering if she should go all the way to her weyr or not. It was late, and people were sleeping. She didn't want to wake someone up to take her place. But… "Z'den has sweet sand," she murmured more to herself than anyone else, fishing briefly through his belongings for a shirt and a pair of pants. Anything that was his would be big on her, of course, but she decided that it would be okay for a few hours. She'd have his clothing washed and put away before he ever knew that they were missing.
A quick bath was her only intention. She wanted to get into the water just long enough to make the scent and the dirt go away, so she walked away with only the mildest of anxious glances at her charge. He'd be okay for a few minutes, because nothing in the world could go wrong that quickly. She'd be in and out of the bath, and once she was…
Oh, but the water felt divine. Folding over his skin like the hands of a trusted lover. Embracing her like family. Nothing in her entire life had ever felt this amazing, she was certain, and she just laid there for a short eternity before palming some sweet sand to wash away the grime of almost a week. That's disgusting, she thought of herself with something more like a chuckle, and less like self loathing. It had been a week since she'd truly bathed, and she swore to never go without a bath for that long ever again. Not if they usually felt this amazing (and they always did).
Getting her hair out of the braid was an effort, and ultimately the leather thong that bound the strands needed to be broken and discarded, a bit of a disappointment, honestly. It may have been a little strip of leather to anyone else, bit Z'den had given it to her when he realized her hair was bothering her, and her old one snapped. Z'den, who noticed all of the little details, was always coming up with little gestures to remind her that he cared.
At least he used to.
The thought was sobering, and suddenly the warm water felt ice cold against her body, prompting her to climb out and dry off. It wasn't the time or place for her to be relaxing in a bath. Z'den's bath. Just a few weeks ago the mere suggestion would have sent her into a fit, so at least there was that improvement. But she was clean now and didn't need to be wasting her time when the man needed her. What if he'd woken up while she was busy pampering herself? What if he woke up, and found that he was alone, and panicked? She knew how easy it was to panic while waking up from an injury. Knew how easy it was to assume the absolute worst.
"I'm back," she murmured as she walked toward the bed, toweling as much water from her hair as she could, wishing she had a hairbrush but unwilling to go—"Z'den?"
The blankets that she'd covered him with were on the floor, only one hanging valiantly to the man's legs. Had he kicked all of them off? The girl had no idea, but rushed forward all the same, collecting them to cover the man back up. How long had he been uncovered? Ten minutes? Twenty? Enough time for the cold to seep into his wounds and kill him?
"Z'den?" she breathed the name, reaching down to touch the man's face and was greeted by heat. Not just any heat. The slow burn of a fever. A high fever. She'd never felt anything like it, and immediately her heart lodged in her throat.
Small one? the blue responded instantly, worry clear in his tone. Small one, what is it?
Tell H'val to get Oldive. We need him.
Z'den's burning up.
That done, the girl stood about listlessly for a moment, unsure of what she was supposed to do. Cooling the man too quickly could kill him, she knew that for a fact. A passing comment from a friend of her brother's when she was a child that stuck with her forever prevented her for throwing the man physically into a pile of snow somewhere, though that was her first thought to lower his temperature. But allowing him to continue to burn was just as dangerous.
Oldive is coming, she reminded herself, certain that H'val and Koth would time it if necessary, but not happy to just stand around. Damn it, but she wanted to do something. Anything. Absolutely anything!
"What can I do?" she murmured, face pale with worry. This wasn't something she could fix, and she knew it, but she wanted to. By the egg, she just wanted to pull the fever from Z'den's body and put it in her own. She wanted to make him better. Wanted him to be okay. Wanted Arlith to stop suffering. Wanted everything to go back to normal.
If only, her mind supplied, I'd fought harder to stop him from going. If only I didn't let him get on Arlith. This would be okay. Everything would be okay.
"What can I do?" it was becoming a mantra, as though the words would cause an epiphany. They wouldn't and she knew it, but a hand on Z'den's sweaty cheek forced the words out again, more of a plea than anything else this time. "Tell me what to do. Z'den, what can I do?"
"Ksssmmm." The sound, so soft, so strained had Elrenia leaning close. Too close. Running trembling fingers through his hair trying to draw his voice out once more.
"Z'den? Z'den, talk to me. What can I do?"
"I don't understand you."
Fingers, big but weak, wrapped themselves in Elrenia's sleeve, tugging. Had he been at his regular strength, Z'den would have pulled her straight down, but as it were she had to submit to the motion and move close. Had to press her ear close to his mouth when he murmured, softly, "Ksss m-me."
"Kss?" she repeated the sound. Rolled it around in her mouth to try and decipher it. "Kss you? Kss? Kiss? You… you want me to kiss you?" The words stuck in her throat more from shock than fear. Why in the world would this handsome, strong, amazing man want someone like her to kiss him? Did he think she was someone else? Was there a woman he desired now, in the depths of an overpowering fever, that he wanted to kiss just one last time? "Z'den?"
"B'fff… I…" The man let out a shuddering breath, turning his head toward her before gasping vaguely. "Nnng."
I do not want to die without having kissed you just one time, Arlith's strong voice sounded in her mind, but they weren't his words. Elrenia knew that. People said that dragons weren't good at relaying messages, and that their memories were so short that they just couldn't, but she didn't believe that for one second. Dragons were as unique as any person, and their skill sets varied. Who was to say this dragon couldn't remember a single sentence. A dragon would find a way to do anything its rider asked it, including this. This wasn't the brown speaking, it was his rider, and she felt her eyes fill with tears.
"You're not dying."
But if I do, I want the taste of you on my lips. The words should have been frightening, but instead they wrenched tears straight from her heart, drawing her down to press her lips against the brown rider without a second thought.
Having never initiated a kiss before, the movement was stilted and messy. Afraid that she hit too hard at first she pulled back and was suddenly barely touching him. That wasn't a kiss. She… she didn't know what a kiss was, but cupped one of his cheeks and kissed him more firmly regardless. If this is what would make a dying man happy, she wasn't about to tell him no.
He isn't dying, she insisted. Still crying. Still kissing. She could feel the brown dragon in her mind, lying in wait, listening and observing all that he could. He isn't dying, she repeated for the creature's benefit, fearing suddenly that he'd panic, what with the way his rider was thinking. If Z'den was afraid that he was going to die, how in the world could she reassure the great beast that he was just fine?
She had to hope that the dragon knew something she didn't, had to hope that the beast could feel his rider's physical state as well as he could read his thoughts. Maybe, if that was the case, then he'd know that… that everything would be okay in the end, even if it wasn't okay now. Maybe that was why he was continuing to recover instead of wasting away. Maybe he did know that his rider would be okay, that he was just being dramatic with his fears and fever.
Oh, but why a fever? Why now? Why right when his throat was beginning to heal, and everything should have been okay? Why couldn't he just recover? Why couldn't she find a way to fix him?
They come, came a warning from Koth, and Elrenia slowly lifted her face away from Z'den's. His fever had not lessened, if the hand against his neck told the truth, but he looked almost… at peace. Content, even. His expression put her own heart at ease as Oldive shuffled into the room, looking tired but determined.
"He has a fever now?"
"A bad one," she explained, rubbing tears from her face. "It must have started sometime in the last hour. I went to bathe, and when I came back… I should have told someone to stay with him!"
"El'nia," was groaned from the bed, and the girl was kneeling beside her brown rider once more, looking frantic. "Nnng."
"Move over, child," the older healer ordered quietly, leaning over the man to check his fever personally before reaching for the bag that Brekke carried in for him. The man didn't tell her to leave, didn't even make her go very far, he just nudged, and pushed, and prodded until she was far enough out of his way that he could work without interruption. "He's been getting fellis?"
"Of course," Brekke almost sounded insulted when she said it. "For a wound that severe, how could we give him anything else?"
The old man didn't respond to the question, and instead carefully pulled away the bandage around the brown rider's throat. It was healing, that much was clear, but it was still open and raw, prompting Elrenia to gag and rush out of the way. She'd dealt with threadscores before, but nothing like this. Nothing so deep. So… she hadn't been so attached to Z'den back when she first saw him hurt. Didn't know how it would feel like her heart was being pulled slowly up her throat every time something bad happened. This feeling was new, and it made her physically ill.
Bristling at the cool hands on her neck, Elrenia looked up sharply at Brekke. The woman was stroking her back, easing the way of the food that was making a second appearance. Soothing, or trying to. But Elrenia didn't want to be soothed. She wanted Z'den to be better. She wanted to stop being useless.
"I'm going to Arlith."
The brunette was gone before the Healer could get a word in edgewise, disappearing through doorways and down corridors until she exited onto the ledge where the wounded brown rested, startling the man on watch. One large eye, burning a vague sort of blue-yellow, watched her closely as she approached. Seemed to swirl faster when she got close enough to touch him, ran trembling fingers along his chilled hide.
How was he not freezing cold out here? How was he not dying from it? The girl didn't understand, and sunk to a crouch, curling herself tightly against Arlith's uninjured flank. The beast sat tense for a moment. Were he a human, Elrenia would have thought him unsure of himself, but surely the magnificent creatures never felt that way. Never second guessed. Never worried about whether or not they were doing the right thing. But the way the creature hesitated before wrapping his tail around her made her think that maybe, just maybe, he was more human than people tended to think.
Why else would he be comforting her? And that is what he was doing. Comforting her. His tail wrapped around her legs, his neck twisting so very carefully to rest his head at her side, pressed close as she breathed in his scent. Part of him was carried on Z'den everywhere he went. Part of Z'den stayed with the beast as well, a vague sort of musk that she'd smelled on him fresh from a bath.
For a brief moment she wondered why in the world she knew what he smelled like fresh from a bath, but she shook the thought away. It wasn't important. All that was important were the hearts beating beneath her ears, and the warm body that seemed to be tilting just slightly in her direction. For every ounce of pressure she put on the brown dragon's body, he pushed back. Told her that he was there. Told her that he was watching, and listening, and she was not alone. She was never alone. She would never, ever be alone again.
You are correct, the boy's voice rumbled in her mind, and she punched out a heavy breath. Never alone. Never again. She would—You kissed him.
Feeling her face take on color, Elrenia turned her head just far enough to gaze into one gently swirling blue eye. If dragons had expression, this brown's was amused. Very, very amused. But then the beast said, You made him very happy, and that made it okay.