Winter – Chapter 20 – 06

            Her name was Phillipa, and she’d been a student at Northern before things went to shit.  We found that out as we stood near the pyre, watching bodies burn down to ash and nothing.  After a while, Matt took her by the hand and led her away.  I sent Greg to follow them, to make sure that Matt got the wounds he’d tried to hide from me taken care of.  Drew lingered a little longer before Phelan waved him away.
            If Rory was going to come unglued during this, it would have happened already.
            It seemed to take less tending after he got the bodies to catch initially, and by the end, as it slowly began to burn down to a few feet deep, a smoldering pile, he stood nearby, sweating and watching the blue-white flames.
            “It’s not natural fire, is it?” I said softly, not sure if I was saying it to Phelan or to Rory as I eased up alongside of my friend.
            “I don’t know what it is,” Rory whispered next to me, his hands curled into fists as he watched the flickering light.  Every so often the pyre threw out embers that flared white and faded to orange and red before dying against the ground.  “Part of me feels alive and part of me feels sick.”  He wet his lips and looked at Phelan and I.  “What the hell am I?”
            I put my arm around his shoulders and squeezed him tightly for a brief moment, smothering a wince at how warm to the touch he was.  “You’re still who you’ve always been,” I said quietly.  “You’ve just begun to unlock whatever was inside of you all this time.  That’s all.  Your eyes are open.”
            He shivered.  “You don’t have to be here, Mar.  Go back to Thom.  He needs you now.  I don’t.”
            Liar.  I shook my head.  “Someone will come and get me when they’re finished.  If someone doesn’t, then he’s fine and I don’t need to worry.  Rather let him rest and not get myself worked into a lather.”
            Rory choked on a laugh.  “So I’m a distraction from your husband getting shot and probably having another broken rib.  Thanks, Marin.  That makes me feel fantastic.”
            “You’re doing a good job at it,” I said, forcing cheer into my voice and giving him another squeeze.  He slumped against me and sighed.  I wrapped both arms around him and stared at the pyre.  “And you’ve done what needed to get done here,” I added, my voice quieter now.  “This will keep on burning without us.  Let’s go back.”
            “You should eat something,” Phelan said to him.  “I’ve been listening to your stomach for the past twenty minutes.”
            “I’m not sure it’ll stay in me,” Rory said.  He let me turn him around, back toward the open gateway and camp.  He threw one last look at the pyre before we started to walk away.  “My stomach’s a mess.”
            “It’ll stay in,” Phelan said knowingly.  “The first time you do something like this is always hard, but you’ll recover.  Food’ll help.  I think I heard something about bread and stew.”
            My own stomach rumbled softly at the idea of food.  I suppressed a sigh.  For all that I was pretending I wasn’t worried about Thom, it was a lie.  I was more than a little worried, and as soon as I got Rory squared away, I’d be going to him, sure as the sunrise.
            You’re trying to take care of everyone except for the person that matters the most to you.  That’s quite a change, isn’t it?
            Rory straightened and pulled away once we’d crossed through the gateway into camp.  “Go,” he said.  “I’ll bring you food once I’ve choked something down.”
            I tousled his hair.  “You won’t choke it down.  You’ll enjoy it.  It won’t taste like sawdust, I promise.”
            He gave me a startled look but nodded.  “…sure.  I hope you’re right.”
            “I am.”  I squeezed his arm and glanced at Phelan.  Phelan smiled gently at me.
            “I’ll check on things by the fire.  Go on, leannán.  He might need you now if he’s awake.”
            I almost hope he’s still asleep.  I wonder if anyone’s sitting with him right now.  We parted company with each other and I wandered toward the shed where Jacqueline and J.T. had been working on Thom.  J.T. was sitting in the open doorway, staring up at the sky as I approached, his hands clean and an empty bucket sitting next to his feet.
            His eyes flicked up at the sound of my footsteps. I didn’t peer beyond him right away, just stopped far enough away that I couldn’t see in through the doorway.  Lantern light still spilled out around J.T., but it was dimmer now.
            “How bad was it?” I asked softly, hugging my arms across my chest.
            “It could have been a lot worse,” J.T. answered.  “Jac had everything pretty well in hand, all told, by the time I got here.  It was just finding the damn bullet and pulling it out before it started wandering around inside of him and causing more problems.”  He patted the spot next to him in the doorway.  I came and sat down, peeking in briefly.
            Thom was asleep, his face turned toward the wall, his breathing even and his chest bare except for blood-tinged bandages wrapped around his chest.  I looked away again, toward the dirt and gravel just beyond my toes.  J.T. put his good arm around me and squeezed gently.
            “The rib’s broken and there’s a bunch of torn muscles, but he’ll live.”
            Relief flooded through me and I nodded slightly.  “Good,” I said in a whisper, drawing my knees sup to my chest.  “Has he been awake?  Does he know?”
            He shook his head.  “Nah.  Jac dosed him with something to keep him out—something Phelan taught her, I think.  It’s for the best, if you ask me.  I’d rather be asleep right now.”
            “How’s your shoulder?”
            “I’ll live.”  He gave me a squeeze, then slowly stood up.  “Though right now I’m going to go get some of what Thom’s getting right now.  You can help him back to your spot when he wakes up.  It should be okay.”
            “Thanks, Jay.”
            “Anytime.  Just try to talk him into not falling on any more bullets.”
            I laughed weakly.  “I’ll try.”
            “Do or do not, Mar,” he said as he lumbered away.  I just shook my head, sitting on the threshold for a moment longer.
            Then I got up and went inside out of the chill wind and the damp that was beginning to settle into my bones.  The night to come, I suspected, was going to be unpleasant indeed.

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