This is Issue #81 of DeathWatch, Book II: tentatively called Heart Of Ilona, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find DeathWatch, the first in the series, or start from the beginning of Book II!
* * *
There was silence, but only briefly. “Can’t?”
“They roughed me up but good, Nate.” Her voice was abrupt and without apology.
His expression crumpled in the dark.
Jules could see the outline of it, the sharp angles of his grief lit up by the faint blue of the aetheric torch.
Rage and pain, and so much sorrow, to know she had been so hurt, and no one had stopped it. He cleared his throat, cleared his mind — focusing on his own anguish would get him nowhere. She was telling him, finally, and he’d be damned if anything got in the way. “Oh, love. Is… Is there anything I can do?”
“To what? Fix it?” Her lips twisted in frustration.
“Well, no, no,” he promised, shaking his head. “Not if you’re tellin me it’s a done thing. But to ease it, maybe. So if you see the soldiers again, it doesn’t blind you?”
Jules was silent again, for a long time, feeling Nathan’s pulse in his fingertips as they laid against hers. “Aren’t you disappointed? Y’wanted t’get out of here. Bridgewater. Babies. Retire and raise strawberries.” She laughed quietly, tears in her eyes. “I was actually afraid to tell you. I didn’t want you to lose your dream, Einin.”
“I guess, if I have t’think about it,” Nate said, shrugging. The movement rustled his wings, made them chime quietly. “Disappointed, maybe, but not in you. Now’s not rightly the time for me to worry about sowin seeds.”
She smiled faintly, shaking her head at his terminology.
“You’re tellin me you got injured past injury. You got assaulted.” He paused, and then said the words aloud, “Y’got raped, Jules n’I don’t need the details unless you want ’em out there. You tellin me… If it heals somethin, then spill it. If it makes it better, if it closes the wound, then tell me every last moment of it, and I’ll listen, and I’ll stay right here, and I’ll keep you safe, so you aren’t lost in it, but unless that does somethin for you, you never gotta satisfy that kind of curiosity in me.”
“So you’d never ask?”
“Like as not, unless you start tellin me you need me to. I could see, from before the Maxima goin’ down, how being close t’me hurt you. How you stayed with Sha. It was all right; you needed her. Abe and I caught up,” he whispered. “But you were stiff when I held you. You were happy to please, in bed, but you got shy when I went to return the favor.”
Jules slumped, her face burning, “I didn’t mean for–“
“What, for me t’notice y’had feelings? Mercy, Jules, Y’flew with Abe too long,” he said, earnest. “I know the Krieg in you demands strength. But come now. The Celd in you has to know I won’t shame you. I won’t demand you be all better. I won’t make it about me. Y’got hurt. Y’got fucked up. But y’don’t have t’go it alone.”
She turned and looked at him again, swallowing roughly. “N’if I never want t’tell you the details?”
“What, like I should make you relive something beyond shitty because I deserve every bit of fact about your life, regardless of how much it hurts? Do I own you, Mrs. O’Malley? What do I say?”
She blushed, smiling shyly — a look she’d never worn for anyone else.
“What do I say, Jules?” he whispered, leaning in to barely brush his lips to hers.
“You say: ‘Go anywhere. Do anything. Fly. Just… Come back t’me’,” she said, breathless. There were tears on her face, but they weren’t of pain as she wrapped her arms around him and sank into his embrace, covering his face with kisses.
“I’m here,” he promised. “And I’m yours.”
“I’m here,” Jules answered back. “And I’m yours.”
“S’all we need, yeah?”
He reached to touch her, to slide his hand against her, to pull away the uniform gently, carefully. He watched her while he did it, watched her face, her eyes, her mouth. He looked for the tension, looked for the fear, and guided himself carefully around its edges, letting her come to him.
She warmed to his touch, shifted to offer the curve of her neck, the rise and fall of her shoulder, down past her back.
When his fingertips slid around to the base of her spine, he paused. In the faint hollow of her lower back, his first two fingers rested. He felt the scars there, fresh and merciless. He bared her, and turned her so he could see her skin, laid her down on her belly, and sucked in a breath through his teeth when he saw the line of scars running down her spine. “Oh, Jules.” He shook, hands trembling as he felt something ignite behind his eyes. “Did he–“
“No,” Jules interrupted, quickly. “The Queen.”
“Do they hurt?”
“Not anymore,” she murmured.
He carefully touched each one, and then leaned down and over her, kissing them, pair by pair, taking in the new patterns of her skin.
She lay beneath his touch, his eyes, trembling with an excited sort of nervousness as she made herself vulnerable, allowed him the nearness she had tried to refuse to feel.
He carefully rolled her back over, and helped her sit up, wanting her to feel in control, safe, rather than hovered over, suffocated. The whole time, he’d carefully used the mechanical hand to undo buttons, to pull straps, but he didn’t let it touch her bare skin. When it was time to hold her, to keep her close, he let that part of himself be still, kept it from her.
When she sat up, she reached for it, twining her fingers in the delicate machinery of his. “Can you feel me?” She watched the gears move, the springs twist, the tiny pistons shift. “Can you feel me, with…”
Nathan’s eyes held to Jules; he watched her with a hunger she could feel, a pressure that was there more than his touch, surrounding her, cradling her. How had she ever thought he would crush her with something so gentle? “With my fantastically amazing new appendage?”
“Y’not allowed t’call it that,” Jules snorted, laughing. The absurdity of their situation, his humor, her laugh — it didn’t dispel the need, the intimacy; it broadened the strength of their connection. They were neither of them perfect, but they still fit, and it was good.
“I can.” He nodded, and his smile deepened. “Feel you, that is. Pressure, and warmth. Friction. S’an aetheric current runs through it, like nerves,” he said quietly.
“Does it… does it come off?” Curious, she reaches to unsnap his shirt, finding all the ways it attached under his arm, under his wings, pulling it away to bare his tanned, tattooed flesh. She traced her fingers around the bronze cap at his shoulder, pulled gently at it, felt where his skin met the metal, where he became one with the device, and could no longer be separated.
“Not in any good way, I imagine,” he said softly.
“Y’makin a face.” Her voice was quiet, not reproachful, but teasing.
“It’s just my face,” he promised.
“No. Your face is sweeter than that. Right now, y’makin a face like y’waiting for me t’run screamin.” Her voice was blunt, easy.
“I’m not whole anymore,” Nathan whispered quietly. “I’m not the man I was.”
Jules smiled up at him. “Y’so adorable. Don’t spoil it by talkin bullshit.”
* * *