“What were you and Kellin talking about?” Thom asked as Marin moved the pile of finished blankets out of the way and settled down next to him, near the fire.
She shook her head a little. “Nothing important. She wanted to know how you were without asking you, for one.” Marin grinned. “I told her you were worrying yourself ragged.”
I can’t do anything else but think about shit. What do you want from me, Marin? Thom frowned a little and set down the shears. “I’ve got a head for logistics.”
“Among other things,” Marin said, smoothing a hand over the fleece spilling across his knees. “I see we found something to occupy your hands, at least, and maybe your mind, too, since all of your fingers are still intact.”
She looks tired. He put his hand over hers and squeezed her fingers before letting go. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, drawing her tightly against his side. “Think you could spend the rest of the afternoon helping me with all of this?”
“Probably not.” She smiled wryly. “My legs kind of work. That means I get to wander around and do things, even if I’m still sore. You, on the other hand, need to stay the hell off that ankle so it heals.”
At least a month, if not more, of doing nothing but sitting on my ass and being useless. Joy. That’s not going to last. Thom rubbed his eyes with his free hand. “For a few more days, anyway.”
He squeezed her. “Don’t worry. I won’t overdo it.” At least not by my standards. “And I won’t try to get farther than a couple dozen feet on my own until you guys get me some crutches.”
She gave him a disapproving look, but he’d expected as much. He smiled at her and squeezed her again.
“Stop worrying so much,” he murmured, letting the tip of his nose brush against her ear. She smelled like wood smoke and that shampoo she liked. His eyes slid closed for a moment. Can’t lose her. “Worrying about me doesn’t do any of us any good and all it’s going to do is give you an ulcer.” He kissed her ear gently before straightening again, ignoring the protests from his ribs. She doesn’t need to know that they still hurt. The less she knows, the better. She’ll worry less.
She put her hand on his knee and sighed quietly. “We found horses. Did anyone tell you? Maybe cows, too.” Marin squeezed his knee. “Davon and Matt put the tent up a while ago. Rory’s going to try to move the wood and bricks from the construction site on south campus, so we can maybe start building shelters.” She smiled weakly. “So you might need to start drawing some sketches.”
“I’ll need a sketchpad. Maybe graph paper. Pencils. Erasers.” He grinned. “Anything to get me away from this mountain of fleece.” Been a long time since I sketched plans for anything. Been using computers for so long…it’ll be different to draft longhand. He paused for a moment. She’s trying to distract me from worrying about everything else…and it might be working. It’s something useful to be doing, anyway, that’ll keep my hands and my brain busy. So she can stop worrying about me worrying.
Marin grinned. “I’ll talk to Tala and see what I can do about getting you off blanket duty.”
Thom nodded. “Thanks, Mar. It’s not really that bad, it’s just…”
“I know. You want to be useful and in your brain this doesn’t qualify.”
He turned at the sound of her footsteps, his pencil going still in his hand. “I thought you were asleep,” he said quietly.
“I was,” she murmured, making her way over to him and resting her hands on his shoulders. “Now I’m not. What are you working on?”
“Nothing,” he said, staring at the sketch in his lap. “Nothing important,” he amended as he stared at what he’d drawn, what he was planning. I wanted it to be a surprise.
He set the pencil down and handed her the sketchpad. It was simple, clean-lined, and well within his ability to make himself between combat training, hunting, and other duties around the village. He smiled a little nervously at her quiet gasp.
“Do you like it?” He murmured.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. He stood up and slid his arms around her, leaning in to kiss her neck gently. Marin set down his plans for a baby’s cradle and put her arms around him.
“Thom, you’re hurting me.”
He jumped a little, realizing that he’d squeezed her even more tightly against his side, that his ribs were screaming at him and his knuckles had gone almost white where they gripped her arm. He loosened his grip immediately and took a deep breath, instantly regretting it. Christ. Ow. “Sorry,” he managed to mumble, staring hard at the fleece covering his knees.
“Are you all right?” He suppressed another wince at the concern in her voice.
“I’m fine,” he lied. “Just moved my ankle funny, that’s all.” Shit. Shit, shit, shit. “Think you could track down Jac or Leah to have a look?” Of course, they’ll come, look, see the bruising and the swelling and remind me to stay the hell off of it, but they’ll tell me I didn’t do anything to it. But that’ll at least keep Marin from knowing I keep having these waking dream-nightmare things.
That’s all they are. Nothing more than that.
“Okay,” she said softly. She squeezed his knee and stood up, leaving him there.
Thom stared at his knees and slowly exhaled. His ribs ached, right along with his heart.
They have to be dreams. Nightmares. Because if they’re not, I might lose her. And I can’t stomach that.
“Thom? You okay?”
Thom looked up toward Jacqueline, who had a messenger bag slung over one shoulder and a basket braced against her hip. He grimaced. “Why does everyone keep asking me that? I’m fine, I just moved my ankle wrong.” He frowned. “What’s with the basket?”
Jacqueline shook her head a little. “J.T. found a cat and her kittens. I’ve got custody of them for the time being.”
Talk about the last person I’d expect to bring back pets. Thom shook his head. “He still around?”
“He and Jack and a couple others hiked back to the store.” She set down the basket and her bag, then knelt next to him. “Does it hurt?”
“Not as bad as it did a couple days ago.” Thom shifted uncomfortably. “Ribs are still really sore, but don’t tell Marin that.” He gingerly rubbed at his side, the side that hurt less. “She can’t do anything about it.”
Jacqueline carefully unwrapped his ankle. “And you don’t want her to worry.”
At least someone understands that. “Exactly.”
She nodded slightly, fingers cold against the warm, bruised flesh of his ankle. “She loves you. Still.”
“I know.” Thom looked past her toward Marin, who was having an animated discussion with someone he assumed was one of her former coworkers. He couldn’t hear what they were saying—they were too far away.
“Don’t push her away again, Thom.” Jacqueline’s fingers sent a slight tingle through his ankle before she started to rewrap it. “You need her. Probably more than she needs you.”
I know that. But I have to do what I have to do to keep her safe. To keep her breathing. Thom stared at the fire. “Get some more wood. We’ll need it before we start cooking dinner.”
Jacqueline whacked him in the knee. “Stay off your ankle. Try not to move it too much, either.” She shifted, moving from his feet to his side. “Need me to look at your ribs?”
He shook his head. Either they’ll heal, or they’ll kill me. Either way, nothing you can do. “Only thing you can do is tell me to take drugs and sleep, Jac. I’m not going to do either right now.”
“Wrong there.” Jacqueline dug into her bag and shoved a vial of pills into his hand. “You’re taking two if I have to cram them down your throat. It won’t do much for keeping you parked in one spot, but at least you won’t be a total grump.”
“You’re a pain in the ass when you’re hurt, you know that?”
Thom tried to suppress another wince, tried to ignore the feeling of her needle passing through his flesh, the tug of thread against the edges of the deep slash. “At least no one was killed,” he muttered.
“No, just you almost. Again. I swear, Thom, one of these days your luck’s going to run out and then where the hell are the rest of us going to be?”
“Bereft but better rested, maybe,” he said.
“Don’t be flippant. I’m serious.”
Thom tried not to groan. “Go have some sex, Jac. It lightens you up.”
He never saw the right hook coming.
Thom snapped out of his fugue to find himself sprawled out, flat on his back, ribs aching with Jacqueline and Marin bent over him.
“I’m okay,” he mumbled, trying to wave them both off. Marin was staring at him, and for the first time in three days, there wasn’t worry in her gaze, but dread. He stared back up at her. They’re not real, Mar. They can’t be. Just…shared delusions. Our imaginations.
I can’t lose you. God. I can’t.
“What happened?” Jacqueline asked, trying to check his pupils with a penlight she’d pulled out of somewhere.
Thom was staring at Marin. Just a nightmare. “Nothing,” he lied. “Just tired, that’s all. Got a little dizzy. Haven’t been sleeping well. Too achy.” He closed his eyes as Marin turned and stormed away. Don’t look at me like that, Marin. I’m not betraying you. They’re nothing but nightmares. Nothing real.
The look on her face was real enough, though. The look of betrayal and hurt in her eyes was still there before him, even though his eyes were closed. He swallowed hard as Jacqueline helped him sit up.
“Maybe I’ll take your advice,” he murmured, rubbing a hand over his eyes.
“About not screwing things up and pushing her away again?”
Might have already done that. Screwed things up. But what else can I do? He shook his head. “Give me the pills and help me to bed. I think I’m going to snag a nap.”
Jacqueline hesitated, then nodded. “All right.”
Even though he tried not to, Thom cast a glance toward Marin as Jacqueline helped him up. She never looked back. He felt a stab of guilt and tried to shake it off.
She was wrong, after all, and he was right. That was the way it had to be, for both of their sakes.