He nearly makes it.
He's on the final approach to the cave, the place where the path levels out and widens into a broad ledge where he knows that in happier days, Jane and Dragon had liked to sun themselves and gaze out over the kingdom. The grueling climb is behind him, the mouth of the cave in sight. The sun is up and he can look down and see the smoking remains of the castle, of his home, although he's been making a concerted effort not to. Every inch of him is sweat-slick, and he's shivering, breathing in short, sharp, pained little gasps. But they're almost there, they're almost there –
And one of the two main support posts of the travois snaps in half.
The whole contraption jerks and Gunther, caught off-guard and already far from steady on his feet, loses his footing and goes hard to his knees.
Pain rips through him, not just at the points of impact but everywhere. It's almost more than he can take. He braces his hands on the ground, head bowed forward, his hair – what's left of it – drenched with perspiration and hanging in his face. The sweat burns the blisters that have developed there and he supposes he should be grateful the mangled nerves can feel anything at all.
He has to regroup, to pull himself together. It's no good, though.
Collapsing to his side on the rough rock, he shrugs off his makeshift pack, wraps his arms around his battered body and for a long moment he just lies there, in silent agony, entirely defeated by the situation, struggling to breathe.
Had he been alone, he might never have gotten up again.
But he's not alone. He's not.
He has Jane with him, and he is responsible for her now; she is depending on him. She'd kept putting one stumbling foot in front of the other until she'd fallen down senseless; he owes it to her, to her incredible determination and indomitable will, to do no less.
They've made it this far. They are nearly within spitting distance of their objective.
He needs to finish this.
Shuddering, groaning, he pushes himself back to his knees and crawls the few feet over to Jane.
So still. God above, she's so still and with the sun now well up he can truly see how pale she is too. "Juh...J-Jane," he stammers, pressing his hand briefly to her cheek before seeking out her pulse again.
He unties the sleeves of his shirt that had been holding her snugly in place. It takes far longer than it ought, his body apparently contemplating open revolt against the commands of his mind, but in the end he prevails, and frees her.
Biting his lip, struggling to focus, he checks her bandages, runs his fingers over the skin above and below them, searching for warmth or redness that shouldn't be there, any sign that infection might be taking hold.
There are no indications of such, as far as he can tell.
He releases a shaking breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
"All right," he mutters. "All right, Jane. I just have to get you inside now."
He hooks her arm around his neck, pulling her against him and up, into a quasi-sitting position. Her head thunks gently against his shoulder before falling forward and he feels with every fiber of his being just how wrong this is, her being so pliant, so limp when he's accustomed to Jane as this crackling, dynamic force, this font of what seems to him, at times, to be nearly boundless energy and enthusiasm.
It honestly drives him crazy sometimes, right up the wall. He'll catch himself wishing that she'd just stop, stop already –
He will never wish for that again. Not for as long as he lives, not now that he knows what that looks like. What it feels like, to be deprived of her vivacity, her stubborn tenacity, her inexhaustible optimism, her ability to find a scrap of good in almost any situation, her…
To be deprived of her.
He grabs her wrist, locking her arm in place; wraps his other arm around her waist and, using the nearby rock ledge as a support, staggers to his feet, pulling her up with him.
"Ugh," he grunts, back pressed to the mountainside, Jane's weight nearly pulling him over sideways as he struggles to right them both, firm up his grip on her. "You weigh a… sarding ton, Jane Turnkey."
It's exquisitely painful to imagine what her rejoinder might be, if she were in any condition to give one. There's no price he wouldn't pay to hear her huff in annoyance, tell him it's hardly her fault if he's a weakling, lob some childish, dung-related insult or other at him. Anything.
She should not be passive in the face of such words.
She remains silent and lifeless, hanging against him, his own flagging strength the only thing keeping her from crumpling back to the ground.
He remembers thinking, not long after they'd started, that if he lost her collaboration it would be over, he wouldn't be able to go on. But he knows now that that isn't true. He has to get her into the safety of the cave. Has to. HAS to.
He doesn't know how he's going to manage to carry her; he only knows that with all other options removed, he will. His face pulled into a rictus of pain and concentration, he slides her sword out of its over-the-shoulder scabbard, and drops it to the ground with a dull clang. It would make carrying her too unwieldy; he'll come back for it, and the provisions still bundled in Pepper's apron, after he gets Jane situated.
"Steady," he grits out, unsure of whether he's talking to Jane or to himself. Then, still bracing himself heavily against the unyielding rock, he stoops and slips an arm behind her knees and swings her – more like heaves her – up until she's cradled against his chest.
His ribs are screaming.
"You could… help… me… a little, you un…cooperative brat," he pants brokenly, struggling not to drop her, struggling not to fall. There's no bite to the words, of course; if anything, it's a desperate grasp at normalcy, at the sort of bickering and grousing that constitutes the backbone of their sometimes contentious, but fiercely loyal, relationship with each other. He has no doubt she would have much the same words for him, were their roles reversed – and wishes with aching intensity, as he adjusts her in his arms, that that were so.
When he feels he has as firm a grip on her as he's going to get, he raises his head and stares across the wide ledge of wind-scoured rock at the mouth of Dragon's cave. God help him, it looks so far away.
He's barely keeping his feet as it is, standing immobile and with a wall of rock at his back, supporting him. How the hell is he supposed to cross all that empty space?
He'll never make it.
"Oh yes we will," he mutters, almost feverishly. "We have to. Ready, Jane?"
He'll just have to assume that silence implies consent.
He takes a single, staggering step.
And then another.
His raw, jagged breaths sear his lungs.
He wants to reassure her, tell her that he has her, that he'll never let her go, will protect her to his last breath, that they're almost safe. That she's almost safe. But forming words, forcing them up and out of his burning throat, feels about as attainable as flying to the moon.
One impossible task at a time, and for now it's simply walking.
Five… six… seven.
On step nineteen, over halfway there, he starts to go down. There's no external reason, no gust of wind, no loose scree to trip him; his legs just give out, start to buckle beneath him.
He hisses a breath through clenched teeth and tries to twist himself so that at least he will be the one to take the brunt of the impact, not Jane; tries to brace himself because the pain, God's blood, the pain is going to be astounding.
And then he's caught, and steadied.
It's the strangest thing he's ever felt. The strangest thing he thinks he ever will. Because he and Jane are alone. Alone. There is no one with them on this barren jut of rock.
But he's caught and steadied all the same.
He can feel the arms, the hands, each finger, distinct. Small – compared to him, at least – but strong, this unseen person who rights him, who bears him up.
He's so shocked that he loses his count – but he doesn't lose his feet, and that's what matters. When he makes it, stumbling, into the cave and sinks down to place Jane gently on the floor, he realizes he's crying.
All composure gone, he drops his face into his hands, careful to avoid the damaged skin at his temple, and for a moment he just sobs.
Tears are a luxury, however, that he cannot afford to sustain for long. There is more to be done. He drags himself back to his feet and then stares around for a space of heartbeats, getting his bearings.
The rush of relief that swamps him is nearly enough to knock him clear back to the floor.
He'd been hoping that Jane might have some supplies laid by up here… but he hadn't let himself hope too hard, afraid of being crushed if it turned out not to be the case.
He needn't have worried.
His amazing, resourceful, wholly beautiful Jane.
There are supplies.
A few yards in from the main opening there is a small scoop in one of the rock walls, a natural little chamber almost, which Jane appears to have designated as a kind of a storeroom.
There are blankets in there, a couple of changes of clothes, a heavy, fur-lined cloak; hell, even a pillow. One corner of the space is stacked with firewood, a good-sized cookpot sitting atop the pile. Closer inspection reveals a second, smaller pot nestled within it, and inside that, a few crude dishes, some dried herbs and tea.
There's food, too; not an enormous quantity, but more – far more – than he had dared imagine. The back wall of the little area is lined with clay pots of food, most sealed shut with beeswax to keep the contents fresh and safe from vermin. Not that Gunther would expect too many animals to venture into a dragon's cave, but Jane is nothing if not thorough. The sealed pots have rough charcoal sketches on them to indicate their contents. Pickled eggs and vegetables, fish packed in oil, fish packed in salt. Barley, oats, dried beans. A jar of honey, dried apples packed in sand.
There are fresh apples too, in a covered bowl – although they're small and well on their way to going mealy. In the darkest corner is a heap of cabbages, possibly intended for Dragon, and some carrots and onions. A cursory glance is all it takes for him to ascertain that some of the vegetables are gone beyond recovery… but others appear to still be in an edible state, even if rather past their prime. Beggars can't be choosers, and he's just so grateful.
Nor is that all. In the name of all that's good and holy, there are barrels – three BARRELS, Dragon must have carried them up at some point – of water.
There's even a medical kit.
He's nearly overcome. There are enough provisions here to last them easily a fortnight. Enough time to rest and regroup, enough time for him to nurse Jane back to health – which he will, because there is no acceptable alternative – and for them to strategize their next move.
He glances from the supplies to Jane and back again. It's as if she's still partnering with him, still pulling her weight – hell, pulling both their weight – still has his back, even in her current, deeply unconscious state.
He knows that she sleeps up here occasionally – or had, until Dragon's recent departure – and so it hadn't been too farfetched to anticipate that there would be some food and comfort items. But this… this… had she been planning for something like this? Quietly, methodically setting things by in case of emergency?
Sir Theodore always had expounded on the virtues of being prepared for any contingency. And Jane always had been a far more attentive pupil than he.
No wonder he loves her so deeply, so fiercely much.
He has to swallow back another sob.
Focus, Gunther. There is more, yet, to do.
It's hard to walk past Jane. All he wants to do is lie down beside her, curl into her warmth. But he makes himself go back outside, cross the ledge of rock that constitutes Dragon's "porch", over to the place where the travois had broken, where he'd abandoned their few belongings in order to carry Jane.
He reshoulders the pack for what feels like the thousandth time since they'd begun their wounded, stumbling exodus; picks up her sword in one hand and the nearer pole of the travois in the other. He can drag it easily now, even single-handedly. He pulls it over to the cave.
Leaving the travois and pack just inside the entrance, he takes Jane's sword back out to the center of the wide, empty area and uses it to summon Dragon.
Well, to try.
He doesn't really expect that Dragon is anywhere in range – but he'll keep trying anyway, every few hours, just hoping… hoping. Luck has been with them so far, after all. They've survived, they've made it here, they haven't been followed, they found provisions ready and waiting.
...Although that part hadn't been luck. That part had been pure Jane.
Pure, wonderful Jane.
In any event though, all injuries aside, they've had a run of rather amazing good fortune, so maybe, maybe it's not too much to hope that it hasn't yet exhausted itself and somehow, Dragon will hear. Will come.
In the interim, however, it's time to go to Jane.
His exhausted body sags with relief at the thought.
He digs deep and finds the energy, somehow, to tug her further inside and around a small outcropping of rock so that, should a wind begin to blow, they will be out of its path. The ceiling of the cavern is quite high here, allowing for smoke to dissipate, and the fact that they're deeper into the cave and around a little bend means that a fire won't be seen from the outside, so he decides to indulge.
He gets a small one going with a bit of the wood that Jane set by, then retrieves the blankets, pillow, and fur-lined cloak, fashioning them into a sort of… nest that the two of them can share.
His head is spinning with fatigue by the time he gets Jane situated and checks her bandages yet again. Everything looks fine for the nonce – he'll need to change them in a few hours, repack her deepest wound, maybe even stitch it up if there are appropriate supplies in the medical kit Jane squirreled away up here… but he needs to rest first. In his current state he'd be likelier to bungle such an undertaking than not.
He sinks down next to her, molds his body to hers, tugs the stupendously soft and warm cloak over both of them. Slips one arm beneath her head; snugs the other one, protectively, around her body, careful to avoid the hurt bits.
Drops a soft kiss on her temple.
Wonders fleetingly what her reaction would be, were she in any condition to have a reaction. Feels his heart constrict at the thought. He'd welcome anything, literally anything, an expression of horror, a sound telling-off, a ringing slap. Anything at all.
Although a positive response would be… nicer.
He gets nothing, though. And he's so tired at this point that he feels drugged with it, unable to ponder their situation any further for the time being. His head nestled beside hers on the one pillow, he inhales the scent of her hair as his eyes drag themselves slowly shut.
His breathing evens out, deepens.
He tries to whisper, "thank you, Pepper."
He tries to whisper, "I love you, Jane."
He manages neither; is incapable of producing anything but a gravelly, inarticulate mumble.
The last thing he does is attempt to count Jane's breaths – he's so profoundly, eternally grateful for every single one of them – but he only reaches four, and then he's gone, gone.
An indeterminate amount of time later – the little fire has burned itself out – Gunther tightens his arms around Jane in his sleep, and dreams of wingbeats, coming closer.
He starts to count those too.