It scrabbles around inside him, scratching at every nerve, every aching joint. It crawls in his stomach and plucks at the walls there, pinching and twisting before clambering up his broken, burning ribs and back down his spine – only to repeat the process with his next faltering, laborious step.
It is inescapable, all-consuming. It has taken command of his every sense; it's all he sees, all he hears, all he tastes – and it tastes like panic and bile. It rasps in and out of his lungs with each raw, scraping breath; pulses in time with the erratic, thudding beats of his heart.
His entire universe has narrowed down to this, his fear for Jane. He's lost everything else, everything. He can't lose her too.
He reaffirms his grip on her arm, the one he has slung over his shoulder, and tightens his other arm about her waist. So far she's still with him in the sense that she's walking, or at least, putting one foot in front of the other.
But she's half-conscious at best now and, he senses, fading further by the moment.
How long, how long before she stops, before her legs simply buckle, pulling them both down?
Because he can't support her, not without her active assistance. Can't lift and carry her away to safety no matter how desperately he wants to.
He is too hurt, too compromised, himself.
He has to anchor her to him somehow. Anchor her to herself. So she can keep helping him help her.
If that tether breaks, if she falls away from him, if he loses her – it'll be the end for both of them.
"Jane," he rasps out. He pauses for a moment, but there's nothing. "Jane."
"...uh?" Her voice is barely there. She is barely there.
"I need you… I need you…" Well, that is the God's honest truth. He needs her the way he needs air in his lungs.
She is essential.
But that isn't what he's attempting to say. He's got to try harder.
"I need you… to help me… Jane. Help me…" He casts about desperately. He has to think of something… something for her to focus on. Some sort of task that will keep her grounded, keep her with him.
"Help me… count," he says. "Jane. We are counting… uhm, steps."
Her voice is a broken whisper, fading in and out. "Where g… going?"
It's a damn good question. Trust Jane to cut to the chase, even under circumstances as dire as these.
He twists his head, glancing behind them. It's dark now, and the castle – their home – is blazing like the largest, fiercest torch in the world.
Which means that it is not, actually, their home anymore.
There's nothing left for them there.
There's nothing left for them anywhere.
So where are they going to go?
He'd been so focused on the getting away from, on removing Jane from immediate danger, that he hadn't given any thought at all to an actual destination.
Someplace sheltered, someplace safe, someplace they have at least a glimmer of hope of reaching, injured and on foot. Where, where?
"Cave," he mutters. "Taking you to the cave, Jane."
"Dragon," she exhales.
Well he knows it. If Dragon were anywhere in the vicinity, things might have gone very differently.
"He will be, though," he tells her, not because he believes it's true, but because he has to say something. "He will come back, Jane."
All right, well this isn't exactly the time to make conversation anyway. Neither of them can spare the energy for discourse. But he does need to know that she's still… present, still at least marginally in herself.
He glances up the mountainside. This is not going to be fun.
"Come on. One, Jane. Say it. One."
"One," she whispers.
They start their climb.
On step one hundred and sixty-eight, she falters for the first time.
Gunther grunts and staggers at the sudden increase in weight as her legs temporarily fail her.
"Jane!" His voice is hoarse, beleaguered, and taut with fear for her.
"Mh." She hisses a breath through her teeth, finds her feet again. "S'rry."
Her broken apology twists him up inside. He's asking so much of her right now. She shouldn't have to be upright, much less walking; she needs, and deserves, rest and care for her injuries.
But the situation is what it is.
"S'alright," he says. "But we have to keep moving, Jane." God's blood, they've barely begun. "Do you remember… what number we were on?"
A long pause. Then, "...no."
He tightens his grip on her convulsively, dismayed. It's pointless, he can't hold her in herself by force, but it's a gut-reaction, uncontrollable.
"All right," he says again, even though it's not.
It is not remotely all right.
"Luckily, I do. What would you do without me, huh?" A desperate, grasping attempt to drag some levity into the situation. Which Jane promptly destroys by whispering,
His heart lurches, goes cold. "Please do not. Jane? Please."
"Hells, Jane." He cinches her against himself more tightly still, trying not to think about the fact that her padded leather armor is tacky under his fingers. "One sixty-nine now. We have to keep going, c'mon. One seventy."
"One...sev...seventy," she breathes.
And they stumble on.