Saturday, February 28, 2015

Footsteps - Coda

“Oh. My. God.”

“What? Y-You ok?”

“Er, yeah,” I snorted. “Holy hell, Caleb, this place is amazing!” I couldn’t believe it when he’d shown me the webpage of the place where we were going to be staying for our weekend away. He’d only let me believe for a nanosecond that he was paying full price for the fabulous hotel, and I’d still smacked him hard on the arm for doing it.

I felt him relax beside me with a puff of breath. “Don’t sc-sc-scare me l-like that, L-Lyss,” he chuckled, squeezing my arm between his fingers as we stood on the pavement. He looked tired and stressed, but relieved that I was happy.

The taxi pulled away and left us standing on the side of the old, cobbled street, the warmth of the sun beating down on us from a clear, endless sky.

“Nan said y-you’d l-love it when she found the special offer. D-Descr-Describe it for me?” he asked, hefting his backpack further up his back. He had opted for a rucksack, actually an old army one, so he could carry his own luggage while I had a small carry-on suitcase in my left hand. I’d volunteered to take Caleb’s smart clothes in mine, and he had my toiletries in his. It all felt wonderfully harmonious and domestic. I loved it.

“Ok,” I said, my eyes taking in the beautiful old building in front of us with its hotel sign in classically elegant, old-time European font and the brass-trimmed glass doors rotating soundlessly open on their hinges. I told him everything I could think of about the old hotel, from the red and white Swiss flag and its neighbouring companion, the black, red and gold flag of the canton, each hanging large as sails above us, to the mix of smooth ashlar facing and wooden windows on the lower floors and the large windows in the upper storeys.

When Caleb was ready, I guided him up the low marble front step into an echoing entrance hall of polished marble and gleaming brass. Ahead of us and slightly to our right, a man in a crisp white shirt looked up and inclined his head politely at us. “Bonjour,” he smiled. “Welcome to one of Geneva’s oldest buildings,” the man behind the reception counter continued in attractively-accented English. “Checking in?”

In a flash, his eyes took in Caleb’s white cane, folded up and stashed in the side of his rucksack, and then went to the dark glasses, finally ending up on the smart black cane in his hand before coming back to rest on my face.

I inhaled deeply. This is not my thing. I’m always the shy one. I’d always rather someone else do the talking, take over in this situation, but Caleb had gone to all the effort of booking it and making sure it all ran with the precision of a fucking military exercise, so I was damned well going to play my part. And do it flawlessly. I nodded. “Yes, we have a reservation for two under the name Starling.”

In the end it didn’t go all that badly at all. Caleb could tell I was nervous, so when I dropped his passport and it landed, fortuitously, on top of his left shoe, he let go of my arm and stooped to grab it for me. After the last few formalities were over, and with our keys in my hand, I went to the lift with Caleb still holding my arm, and waited for the little elegant ‘ding’ to sound. The doors rolled back, and we squeezed into the small space. I could hear the way Caleb’s breath was rasping a little, but I restrained myself from asking if he was ok.

I knew he was tense. He’d survived the car journey to the airport, and managed to get through the extra faff and pother at security, which took a while because, as he had warned me, he has quite a lot of metal in his leg, not to mention the brace itself. Next he’d put up with the havoc that flying played with his knee, ankle, hip, and mental state, and then the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. How he wasn’t a completely shredded mess of frayed nerves by this point, I wasn’t sure. My description of flying over Lake Geneva, with the Jet d’Eau spouting high above the surface of the water, and the old town spreading out up the hill from the harbour, certainly helped to ease him into the landing, however I knew his anxiety levels were probably reaching maximum. His fingers were latched onto my arm like a raptor’s talons and he kept licking his lips and twitching his head at every sound.

As the elevator sailed gracefully up to the third floor, I leaned in close and smiled as I kissed his beautiful lips. “I love you,” I murmured.

He blew out the sigh he’d been holding in his chest, and tilted his head down a little bit. At least he was smiling. “I l-l-love you too.”

“Nearly there,” I grinned as the doors opened and I paused. “Ok?” He nodded and we walked down the corridor, with me scanning the doors until I found ours, but when I stopped Caleb did not let go of me. He was disorientated and I was very aware that I all that was holding him together. Before sliding the key into the lock, I put my hand over his and added. “You’re ok.”

He twitched another smile, but it didn’t last long.

Deciding not to linger, and pile on the pressure, I unlocked the door and waited for him to squeeze my arm to move off. In the year since Luke had come back from Afghan, Caleb and I had developed a seamless and silent code for things, and I had grown much more comfortable with his disability and what his needs really were. Of course, I still fucked up every now and again, but that’s to be expected in any relationship, let alone a relationship where one of you has very specific needs and requirements. In return, he’d learned to talk to me more. About all sorts of things.

Oh,” I laughed, seeing the room stretching out before me. “Oh, Caleb.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s nice. It’s really nice.”

I could hear the smile on his face behind me as he shuffled awkwardly down the little corridor beside the en-suite.

“Give me your bag,” I said, pausing at the end of the corridor, “And I’ll put it out of the way while I show you round.”

He nodded but took a few seconds longer than I’d expected to release me. To him it must have been like standing in the middle of a tundra at midnight. He had no reference points but me, and was almost entirely reliant on my help at that moment. Of course, he could have figured it out and explored without too much difficulty if he’d had to, but I was moved by the fact that he opted not to. He had given all that control, gradually over the course of twelve months, to me.

He held out the heavy bag and warned me of it’s weight. Luckily my arms are strong from years of hammering and working metal, even if I’m not quite Hephaestus, and it wasn’t as bad as I had expected.

With the bags stowed away in the wardrobe, Caleb handed me his black cane so that he could have both hands free, and I began to walk him around the room, starting back at the main door. I guided his hands to the walls on either side of him so that he could skim down the narrow corridor alone, while I walked just a pace or two ahead of him. When he reached the end of it, the wall continuing on his left into a wardrobe and a chest of drawers which supported the huge flatscreen TV, he reached for me with his right hand, finding me faultlessly.

My presence was merely a guide as he explored the space, walking his fingers over the chest of drawers and TV, my touch drawing him across the room like one magnet following another. He particularly liked the gauzy material of the curtains by the balcony window, and stood a long time, playing with them between his fingers while I prattled on about the view through the glass. “C-C-Can y-y-y-you open it?” he stuttered, adding, “Sorry, sp-sp-speech is shit. I’m tired.”

I instructed him to take half a step back so I could open the door outward into the room, and then took his hand. “Small threshold up,” I commented, setting his hand down on the railing once we were out on the balcony.

We were one of the few rooms with a balcony on this level. The whole of Geneva stretched out below us, the old town immediately surrounding us, and the lake, glimmering in the afternoon light as little speed boats skimmed across it. I inhaled the clear air, hardly able to believe we were in a city at all, and let Caleb hold me. I stood against the railings in front of him, and he pressed his whole body into my back, cheek resting on the top of my head.

I don’t know how long we stood there.

Back inside we resumed our tour, but I had no sooner got him into the bathroom to show him where the bathtub was than it all went wrong.

I had leaned forward, my heel ringing on the stone as I took a step forward, intending to show him which end of the tub the taps were, when my arm suddenly slipped out of his grasp. Caleb froze instantly, his gasp echoing off the cold, ceramic surfaces. He reached convulsively for something to hang off, but his jerking hand found nothing, and I watched him slide straight into the jaws of a panic attack. His entire body shook and shuddered so violently that I thought he might even be having a seizure. His breathing skyrocketed to a hideous, quick-fire wheezing and his shoulders shot up almost to his ears.

“Lyss,” he gasped. “Lyss, I… I can’t… Lyss… I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“It’s ok, I’m here,” I said, lunging back to him and taking his hands in mine, trying to bring him back to me. It had been months since he’d slipped sideways like this, and I couldn’t remember ever seeing him this bad.

He wasn’t listening to me, perhaps he couldn’t even hear me, and he kept repeating over and over how sorry he was, but what he was sorry for, I didn’t understand. His whole body was quivering and as he stumbled backwards, face white as paper. I was terrified he was going to fall and hit his head or something. He was too tall for me to hold him upright completely if that happened.

“Here, Caleb, here,” I yelped. “Come here, squeeze my hands.”

I tried every trick I knew to get him to come back to me, but nothing seemed to be working. It just went on and on, spiralling until I thought he was going to hyperventilate himself to death.

His black cane had fallen to the stone floor with a loud crack, and I thought he was going to pass out any moment. In the end I did the only thing I could think of. I grabbed his jittering hands and shoved one onto the cold ceramic of the sink.

“Run the tap Caleb,” I ordered as calmly as I could manage, which was to say, it came out just shy of a shrill squeak. “Run the tap for me.”

Somehow the command got through to him, and he began to fumble with the old fashioned faucet. Cold water sprayed out in a great gush, and I told him to put his hand under the stream. He didn’t, so I took it and yanked it under the water. “Wash your hands. Tell me what the water feels like. Tell me, is it warm or not?” I avoided trying to make him say ‘cold’ with his stutter.

“No,” he hissed.

“It’s not warm then?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Wash your hands for me,” I said, noticing the way his shivering was slowing down. “That’s really good. You’re doing really well, Caleb,” I said. “I’m here.” And I took a chance and pressed my whole body against his back. “I’m here,” I crooned into his spine.

The act of washing his hands in the freezing jet of water seemed to centre him. He ran his hands over one another, gradually circling less and less frantically, until I felt some of the tension bleed out of his back. As he fought to control his breathing, he braced his hands on the sink and lowered his head, tap still streaming. I left it on. Sweat was beading his forehead. I heard him swear.

“You’re ok,” I said for the millionth time. “You’re safe. I’m here.”

“I know,” he finally rasped. “I know. I’m sorry. I… I don’t even…” His whisper was harsh as broken glass in his throat.

“It’s ok,” I breathed, sighing my own adrenaline out of my lungs. He was still shaking, but it had faded to a background tremor. He shifted beneath my embrace and I heard the splash of water again. He was back under the icy flow from the tap. He bent and washed his face.

“T-Towel?” he asked softly.

“Sure. Here,” I murmured.

When he had taken it and dried his face, I caught the reflection of his expression in the mirror in front of us. He was ashen, and his dark hair was now damp at the front from where he’d splashed water on his face. “I’m so sorry,” he said again. “Gr-Gr-Great st-start to our weekend, right?”

His tone was so bitter that I could almost taste it on my own tongue. It made me want to kiss it all from him. “Hey,” I murmured, stepping in even closer. “Shh, it’s ok. It was just one of your moments. It’s alright.” I paused. “You… You know what set it off?” I asked hesitantly. “Was it letting go of me?”

“It w-was n-nothing at all, r-really,” he sighed. “I…” he huffed a sour laugh. “I heard how the echoes pl-played on the tiles. I g-g-got di-disorientated… l-lost…”

“Well, I found you now,” I smiled. “Come on, let’s go back into the other room. I’ll unpack if you want to sit quietly for a bit.”

He nodded mutely and I led him back out into the bedroom. His steps were stiff and awkward, and his breath was still shallow and ragged. He asked me if I’d ‘drop him off’ at the bed, and he busied himself in taking his shoes off so he could sit back against the headboard and just breathe for a while. After about ten minutes of my quiet bustling around the room, I was done unpacking both our bags, and I turned around to find him sound asleep, slowly slipping to one side, head rolled forward with his chin on his chest. I found a spare cushion and propped him up so he wouldn’t topple over and wake himself up, and slid into a chair beside the window.

I let Caleb sleep for almost an hour, watching the world go by below from my vantage point and reading a new book I’d been meaning to start for ages. The window was open and cool summer air blew in, inviting me in soft whispers to go and explore the city before the light faded. It was late in the afternoon, and the bells began to chime in the cathedral nearby. They were that lovely Mediterranean clanging, not like English church peals, but ancient, raw, and, to my ears, evocative of dusty hilltowns in Tuscany or remote parishes in Provence. Here, with the small but varied city of Geneva just waiting to be explored, the sound made me itch to get out there.

As the sonorous clanging drifted in from the cathedral that was less than a hundred yards from the hotel, I heard Caleb wake with a grunt and push himself upright, the pillows and duvet crackling beneath him as he moved.

“Hey,” I smiled before he could wonder where I was. I stood and crawled over the bed to him, nuzzling up to him as he automatically lifted his arm and draped it round my shoulders. “Feeling better?” I asked.

“Much,” he whispered, kissing the top of my head. “Thank you.” We stayed like that for another few minutes, just drinking in each other’s presence again, before he asked, “Y-You w-want to g-g-g-g…” The consonant ground into his throat and he bit down, forcing it to stop. “Sorry.” He began again. “Y-You want to h-head out and see some of the city before it all sh-shuts down?”

“I’d love to, but I’m happy staying here if you’d rather.” I knew he’d resent my saying that, but I couldn’t bear the thought of forcing him to go out if his leg was painful after travelling or if his anxiety was likely to spike.

He lifted his right arm off my shoulders and ran his fingers down his leg, bumping lightly over the struts of his brace. “Sh-Should be ok. I’ll just…” and he swung carefully off the bed, testing the weight on it as he stood, keeping his right had trailing on the duvet to keep him located. “Wh-Where’s my washbag?”

“I put it on the shelf directly above the sink in the bathroom.”

He nodded, and I watched him walk slowly from the bedroom. He’d taught himself to memorise spaces with an astonishingly rapid efficiency since losing his sight, and I was still genuinely impressed at how he navigated his way. I almost chuckled to myself as I imagined our roles reversed, with a blindfold over my eyes. He had adapted to his new life in a way that I could only admire.

I heard the foil seals of medicine being opened, and the short gush of water as he washed the pills down his throat, and he emerged about five minutes later, looking a little fresher, if still tired.

Our walk around the old town was only short, as Caleb had admitted he didn’t want to go too far, but that was fine by me. “We’ve got all weekend,” I’d said. “It’s only Friday night.”

He squeezed my arm as we walked along the road from the hotel to the church, and then surprised me by letting go and sliding down to take my hand in his. His ear was locked onto me, head tilted slightly to the side as we made our way, much slower than usual, towards the cathedral.

I waffled on about the sun on the cobbles and the pretty flowers in window boxes, the old buildings with their patriotic flags, and eventually as we entered the square, the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre itself. I got him to point with his finger, my hand wrapped around his, as I ‘walked’ him up and down what I could see, moving his finger along the roofline as we ‘climbed’ the gleaming white columns on the 18th century façade and skimmed up over the pediment which crowned the portico, and sat atop Corinthian capitals. I described it all in excruciating detail, but he loved it. I opened up the world for him again, he’d once said.

Beside the Classical building was a taller, gothic church with a steep gable and a tall gothic window laced with elegant tracery. I described the six little tubs which stood in a row in front of us, each with a stumpy verdant tree growing in them, and briefly added that the other buildings in the square looked exactly as you’d expect from a European city with history. He smiled all the while I spoke, and when I was eventually finished, the second I uttered my final syllable, he moved his hand quickly and surely to my face and pulled me into a deep kiss.

I’m not sure how long we spent making out like two teenagers in the piazza, but I broke off first, needing to come up for some air. Caleb’s soft smile gave me the most wonderful fluttering in my stomach as I opened my eyes again, his lips curving sweetly. The small flecks of scars around his eyes were just visible beneath the frames of his dark glasses and stretching slightly as his whole face beamed at me. “L-Love you, L-Lyss,” he stammered quietly.

“I love you too.”

We ate dinner in the hotel that night, and once I’d told him where the food was on the plate in front of him, assigning areas of each successive dish to the numbers on a clock face, we dug in. Caleb didn’t talk much over dinner, and he seemed a little withdrawn, but I didn’t press him. We were both tired. I’d grown used to our daily routine since moving into our little apartment together, and I’d built up my stamina to the point where helping him whenever he needed it didn’t drain me like it had when we’d first started out. However, getting two bags of clothes, even small ones, and two people from one country to another, and assisting him, having him rely on me all the time, had really taken the starch out of me. I didn’t resent a second of it, but I did find myself yawning all the way through pudding, and was ready to collapse into bed by the time we made it back to the room.

“Phew,” I sighed, falling backwards onto the enormous bed with a soft flump. “I’m so glad we showered before dinner. I’m exhausted.”

“Me too,” he chuckled, unbuttoning his sky blue shirt. He looked beautiful in blue, and as he got further down his chest, I couldn’t help feeling that rush in my own ribcage that still came every single time I saw his body.

I levered myself to my feet and padded over to him, barefoot now, but my footsteps were still loud enough on the carpet for him to track my inbound course. He paused on the penultimate button and turned his chin up questioningly at me. I reached up and let my fingers explore beneath the open folds of his shirt, tracing more scars and marks there before planting a kiss right on his exposed sternum. He chuckled, and I let him finish undressing.

The room was dark and cool as I lay there waiting to drift off to sleep. My body was exhausted, but my mind was chasing itself in manic circles, worrying about stupid things like whether Caleb would wear himself out on our little European break, whether we should have come at all, whether it would be too much for him, whether he’d tell me if it was too much for him, or whether he’d just suffer through it and run himself into the ground for my sake.

In the still of the room, with Caleb lying on his back and with my head nuzzled into the hollow of his shoulder, I felt his arm move, and he stroked my hair with his right hand. “Go to sleep, Lyss,” he whispered. “Stop thinking.”

I sighed. “You always know, don’t you?” I sighed ruefully.

“Yup,” was all he said in answer, but I could feel his smile again in the way he breathed. I shuffled and tried to kiss his lips, but in the dark I missed and caught him somewhere between his lips and his nose. “N-Not so easy, huh?” he chuckled.

“You always make all of it look so easy,” I said as I curled back up against his cool, bare skin. “Honestly, sometimes I forget you can’t see, or that your leg even hurts you.” It was true, though if I’d been told that when we’d first met, I’d never have believed it. “I always feel awful when I do though…”

“I know,” he breathed. “Don’t. It’s nice.”

His voice was a hum in my ears as his fingers carded softly through my hair, and I began to sink into sleep shortly afterwards.

Saturday dawned bright and clear, and as I slithered out of bed to use the bathroom, I drew the curtains back a little to reveal a deep, summery blue sky dotted with little shreds of white cloud. On my return, I saw Caleb stirring, and slid back in to give him a cuddle. “Wh-What are we doing today then?”

I ran my toes down his leg, carefully so as not to jar him, and rolled closer still. “We could stay here?” I giggled, grinding my hips playfully against his.

He in turn slid his hands down my back, letting out a soft moan when he discovered I’d shed all my clothes in the bathroom. “W-We c-could,” he said, palm circling my bare arse cheek, “But then w-we n-needn’t have bothered c-coming all this w-way…”

I pouted. “Stay here a bit longer, get some breakfast, and then head out and sightsee?” I suggested.

“Sounds g-g-good,” he agreed, his voice rumbling in his chest, still gruff and sleepy and just the way I liked it.

It took a little longer than perhaps either of us had planned to get out of the hotel, which was partly my fault to start with, and then partly his fault for insisting on making me come as many times in a row as I could bear, but when we were out and wandering the city, he let me hook my arm through his and guide him through the narrow streets down to the waterfront. “You want to go to the Jet d’Eau?” I asked. “I think you can walk along the jetty and stand under it.”

“You didn’t get w-wet enough this morning?” he quipped.

I rolled my eyes and shook my head, my loose hair tickling his bare arm as I did, and he only snickered.

“Sure,” he said, still laughing. “Wh-Whatever you want to do. Today’s y-your day.”

I frowned at the words. “Our day,” I insisted.

“Sure,” he said again, sounding odd this time. I didn’t lose the frown until we were both standing on the end of the pier with the enormous fountain arcing overhead above us.

Spray fell in a wide curtain onto the water, and small birds dabbled in the shallows. I gasped when I saw a pretty little great crested grebe bobbing around, but couldn’t help the ache I felt when I knew he couldn’t see it. There was only so much describing I could do, and when he stopped asking me to ‘see’ for him, I stopped telling him. I did make sure I kissed him a lot, more than was probably decent, and I touched him a lot too with my free hand. I knew he loved it, so I did it even more when we stopped for lunch in a shady spot in the park.

Caleb was on his feet for most of the day until some point late in the afternoon when he admitted that his knee was burning and he wanted to head back. The uphill journey back to the hotel in the old part of the city was a bit of a slog, but with his cane on one side and me on the other, he made it alright.

The receptionist wished us a good afternoon, and I answered for both of us in return as Caleb was a bit too puffed. The lift deposited us on our floor, and after a quick shower, Caleb lay down for a nap. I let him sleep a good long three hours, while I munched my way through the book I’d started the previous day, and then headed to the shower myself as dinnertime approached. When I emerged, I found him sitting up, earbuds in, phone in his hand.

Trying not to make him jump, I crossed over to him and pressed a hand lightly into his shoulder. He did jump, but not very badly. I gave him an apologetic kiss and waited til he’d taken his earbud out before I spoke. “I’m going to get ready for dinner now,” I said. “It’s quarter to seven.”

He nodded. “I’ll g-g-g-g-get dr-dr-dressed too,” he stammered. It was the worst it’d been all day, and I wondered if he was hurting. His face split into a smile and he took his glasses off, resting them on the table. He opened his eyes, and I felt the world tilt slightly at the sight of them. “L-Lyss,” he said sternly.

“Yeah?” My voice sounded breathy even to my own ears.

Milky blue irises stared blankly straight through me. “St-Stop w-worrying. I c-can feel it c-coming off you in waves.”

“Sorry,” I giggled and stepped closer to his body. He was lying on his side of the bed, the right hand side, and as I leaned my legs against the mattress, he reached his hand up and removed the towel from my body. It fell to the floor with a soft noise that was instantly drowned out by my little groan of pleasure as he started to kiss his way across my stomach, hands playing first around my back and then up to my breasts. “Caleb,” I said, aiming for ‘admonishing’ but missing it entirely when my breath hitched in my throat and he pinched my nipples slowly and firmly between his fingers. “We’re going to be late for our reservation. We’ve only got fifteen minutes.”

He sighed and released me, but not before he’d trailed his fingers down the length of my bare body from my collarbones to my clit, and then he let out a shivering sigh. “Fine,” he said. “Fine, I’ll finish this l-later.”

“You’d better,” I laughed, turning and heading to the wardrobe to get out my dress. I handed him his shirt and his trousers from where they were hanging beside my dress, and when I was ready, ten minutes later, I went to the balcony and stepped out into the chilly, dark evening.

Caleb was busy inside, rummaging around in a pocket of his rucksack, but I stayed with my attention largely on the city. When I heard him step out behind me, I turned my head to look over my shoulder, and my breath caught again. “Wow. You look… wow.”

“W-Will I do?” There was a tension around his lips again, but he seemed happy enough. I couldn’t work it out.

Playfully I smoothed out the shoulders of his dark blue jacket and said, “Yeah, you’ll pass muster.”

We stayed there a while, Caleb with one hand in mine, listening to the sounds of the city below us. Standing beside me on the balcony, facing me and not the view, Caleb swayed slightly. I watched out of the corner of my eye, some vague apprehension fizzing inside me. He looked like he might be on the verge of a panic attack or something, but… there was a depth to his features that I never saw when he slipped sideways. He was ok, just… nervous.

I frowned.

He must have heard my eyebrows creaking or something, because he huffed a little shy laugh and began to spit out whatever it was that was on his mind. Whatever I’d been expecting, it wasn’t what followed.

“L-Lyss…” he croaked, clearing his throat and licking his lips. “L-Lyss,” he repeated reaching for my hand with his. His own had grown cold and sweaty, and it was shaking like a leaf.

“Caleb?” I asked. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said, quick as a whip. “Nothing,” he added more slowly. He chuckled, but it was full of a strange kind of energy, like static on an old TV screen. “So… um…” Caleb swallowed. “I…” He pushed all the air out of his lungs, blowing out his cheeks and rocking on his feet. “I… I…” and then I realised he was upset. Not with me, but he was upset that he couldn’t get the words to behave in his mouth.

I squeezed his hand as he held mine, and silently told him I’d wait. Something told me this was important.

I watched him suck in a great breath, and as I watched him, I recognised a speech therapy trick. He was going to start speaking at the top of the breath, and stop speaking when he got stuck to repeat the gesture. He would only speak at the very top of each inhale. It was a technique he used when his speech had really gone to shit.

“Lyss,” he said, starting all over again. “I… I want to… thank you for being there for… me when… when it hasn’t been easy for you.” The sentence was breathy and halting, but he didn’t stutter. A little sheen of sweat glistened on his temples in the night, the glow of the city just catching it and making him seem unreal, ethereal.

My heart was clanging.

I thought I knew what was coming now, but I couldn’t believe it.

I bit my lip.

He drew another shuddering breath in and went on. “I know we… had that bad period when we didn’t… really… underst-st-underst-stand each other pr-properly…” He steadied his breath again and forged ahead. The wind gusted and a tree below whispered softly, sounding almost as shaky as Caleb’s breathing. The boy looked so nervous I could have kissed him right then and there. “But… you bring me to l-life, L-Lyss… you g-give me… so much of yourself… more than I’ll ever be w-worthy of, but…”

My heart lurched as he let go of my hand and bent forwards. In an awkward, clunky movement, he knelt down, his left leg sinking to the floor as his right hand released the catch at the side of his brace on his right leg. With his left knee on the ground, his right hand went to his jacket pocket and he drew out a small, black velvet box with trembling fingers.

I gasped and bit my lip harder, tears welling up in my eyes, heartbeat thudding in my throat. I sniffed but forced myself to stay silent as he knelt before me. His fingers shook so hard he could barely run them around the box to work out which side the hinges were on, but when he had, he opened the lid and I gasped again.

“L-Lyss,” he choked. He was almost in tears himself as he spoke. “Y-You’re my light. W-Will you… W-Will you do me the very gr-great honour of be-becoming my w-wife?” He swallowed. “W-Will you marry me?”

I didn’t even have to think. “Yes,” I breathed instantly. “Yes, yes, yes.”

A rasping breath escaped his lips as he smiled in utter relief and he searched gingerly over the silk lining of the box for the ring inside. Taking it delicately between a shaking right finger and thumb, he held out his left hand to me, palm up. I reached for him and let him slide the ring onto my finger. “It’s beautiful, Caleb,” I sobbed. And it was a perfect fit too.

“I…” he chuckled, “I had help… I’m not g-g-gonna lie…”

It really was beautiful. My jeweller’s eye appraised the ring carefully in the half light. Three small, round diamonds sat on a cross-over shank, the largest in the centre, bezel set and glimmering, with one on each side, the one on the right slightly higher, the one on the left lower, between the arms of the cross-over. It was soft, white gold, not too heavy, not too wispy, with everything in proportion and balance. It was stunning. Tears streamed down my face and I crouched down to kiss his face.

I took his cheeks in my hands and kissed him with everything I had in me to kiss him with. I raked my fingers through his dark hair, I ran them over his shoulders while I kissed his beautiful lips, and then I swept my thumbs over his strong eyebrows. “It’s perfect. I love it. I love you,” I said when I pulled back.

While I’d been plastering myself to his body, he had opened his eyes for me, and when I drew back and saw those misty blue irises, I nearly died of happiness. They weren’t moving from side to side so much that day, and there was just the slight shaking nystagmus I had grown to love, that little shake that his eyes and none other’s had. I thumbed a circle at his temple and then moved down to caress the little dimples in his cheeks which only appeared when he was truly smiling. He seemed to relax then, all the fear draining out of him, and he gave another one of his earthy chuckles. He moved his hand to the railing and levered himself upright, locking the brace once he was standing. “Thank you,” he said, opening his arm at the same time as I launched myself at him again. “Thank you for saying y-yes.”

“I knew a week after we got back together that I’d say yes if you asked,” I sniffled from somewhere near his shirt collar. “But this is perfect. Who helped you choose it?”

“I asked y-your brother to c-come with me,” he admitted and I hugged him all the harder, tears flowing freely down my face. I was fast becoming a mess of eyeliner and tears, and I pulled back before I splodged it all over his perfect shirt. Another laugh from him. “C-Can I see it on y-your hand?” he asked, trailing his fingers down my arm until he was holding my hand in his again.

“Of course.”

He spent ages running the fingertips of his right hand over and over the ring, taking in the diamonds and the curves, the soft planes and the way they interacted with the warmth of my skin.

He was still lost in it all when I raised my hand and pressed a kiss onto his expressive hand. “Come on,” I said, “We’re already fifteen minutes late for our reservation. And I want to be able to apologise to the waiter and say that we’re late because my fiancé was proposing to me.”

He followed me as I led the way downstairs, after having re-done my makeup because I’d gone full giant panda on him upstairs, and as we made our way down the brightly lit corridor, his glasses back on his face, Caleb suddenly halted.

“What is it?” I asked.

He’d paused, black cane spiked into the cold floor, just standing there with my arm in his grip, hand outstretched a full pace behind me after hitting the brakes.

“Caleb?”

He let go of me and took his glasses off, his eyes open. Moving his head a little from side to side, he tilted his chin up. His gaze was sailing straight past me, but I’d seen that look before. He beamed me a smile as bright and dazzling as the ring on my finger, and said, “You’re wearing that gr-green dress I like, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I laughed. “Yes I am. I’m wearing it for you, and I will continue to dress up for only you, for the rest of my life. Fiancé…

I knew I would always be able to picture his smile in that moment, forever.

***

I was nervous. I was so nervous. Not because I was about to join myself to Caleb legally and forever, but because I really didn’t want to make an arse of myself in front of all our friends and family by tripping over or forgetting to repeat the lines that were about to be said to me.

The dress was amazing. Long, ivory, modest at the top and falling to the floor in a pale waterfall, hugging my waist and falling away in soft, heavy folds, a thin layer of frosty lace over the top and down my arms to the wrists: it was perfect.

Caleb, while he had vehemently insisted on not ‘seeing me’ on the day which I thought was utterly adorable, had been texting me all morning, asking if I was ok, if there was anything I needed, if there was anything he should be doing. This happened with such unrelenting frequency that I had eventually replied by saying, “I’m a bride not an expectant mother!”

I was still fizzing over his response to that one.

Now, standing outside the little country chapel, I took a look at my father, who definitely had a few tears glazing his eyes, and said, “Ok.”

“I’m so happy for you, little one,” he whispered as we pushed the chapel door open and everyone turned around, rising to their feet in a rustle of clothing and stamping feet.

“Wait,” I hissed, glimpsing Caleb over the heads of the congregation, standing at the far end of the small chapel.

“What?” my father asked, clearly terrified that I was going back out or something.

“Wait til everyone’s still,” I clarified. There were a few sniffs and gasps – I do actually scrub up quite nicely these days – but when it was quiet to my satisfaction, I took my first step onto the hard flagstone floor in my heels and watched Caleb’s head turn to catch my footsteps. He had his eyes closed, and, to my astonishment, his glasses were nowhere in sight.

Amy appeared from her little siding and grinned at me, distracting me from Caleb for a second, a little basket of flowers in her hand. I gave her a wink and a nod, and she began to walk down the aisle in front of me, hurling ivory and purple petals into the air, all over the guests in the end seats, a lot of it landing in her hair. I didn’t mind.

I walked slowly, carefully, up the aisle, passing the bouquets of cream and purple roses on the ends of the wooden pews, towards the man who stood at the other end, adorned in his beautiful military dress uniform. He had no cane in his hand as he stood near the altar, not even his black one, and he was ramrod straight.

He was as nervous as I was.

I’d seen photos of him in uniform before, but I’d never seen him in it in person. He looked so handsome I felt tears begin to prick my eyes. I ground my jaw together to stop myself from blubbing. I was only halfway down the aisle damn it.

As I moved through the crowd it seemed to take forever, and yet it was over in no time at all. I saw Banjo’s face swim past me, and then Smiley, Chris and Mickey too, and I smiled at every single one of them. My own friends were there of course, and family, but my attention didn’t – couldn’t – linger on them. Caleb was the centre of my whole world.

I drew level with him and slid my hand into his. I didn’t have a massive bouquet, so I could hold it in one hand until someone came to take it off me. Caleb’s hand was shaking, cold and clammy. “I love you,” I whispered, turning up to look at his face. I was shocked to see tears already rolling down his cheeks. “Hey,” I giggled. “We haven’t even started yet…”

He laughed and squeezed my hand so tight I thought my fingers were going to fall off. “You wore those heels for me, didn’t you?” he choked, just loud enough for me to hear, and no one else.

“Yeah,” I smiled. “Yeah, I did.”

“Thank you. I c-can’t… c-can’t tell you…” he broke off, unable to formulate words. Luckily the vicar stepped in and began the ceremony, otherwise we’d have stood there paying each other compliments all afternoon.

It could have been a little more refined, I suppose. I blubbed my way through the entirety of my vows, and Caleb stuttered so badly in his I thought he was going to give up, but he didn’t. He suddenly remembered all his breathing techniques about halfway through, and it became a lot more fluent.

We emerged into the bright light of a late autumn day amid a shower of confetti rose petals, Caleb holding my hand. He didn’t stop smiling all day, and as we shared our first dance he leaned down into my ear and whispered, “You make me the happiest man alive,” as he ran his fingers down the back of my lace-covered dress. “And I cannot wait to get you out of this,” he added.

“You look pretty incredible yourself, captain.” I smiled, reaching up and pulling him up into a kiss, to the soundtrack of somewhere between fifty and seventy people whooping and cheering at us.


~The End~

Friday, February 27, 2015

Twist Of Fate Chapter 2

Hi readers! Following your cheerful and encouraging comments, I keep on posting TOF, the story of Matthew. Every week I will sum up in a few words the previous chapter. This second one is a bit long but I couldn't decide where to cut it !
Here is Chapter 2

Footsteps - Chapter Eighteen

My trip back home, back into the real world, was considerably calmer than my journey in the other direction the previous Friday evening, and when I got there, I found that Kit was already back.  

“Hey,” he said, setting a mug down on the counter while the kettle boiled. “I wondered where you were. Tried calling you.” 

“Sorry,” I said, unable to meet his eye.  

He shrugged. “I only got back about twenty minutes ago.” He peered more closely at me and added, “You ok?” 

I chewed the inside of my cheek and debated whether I got him to sit down or not. Deciding to go for it, I blurted, “Luke’s been hurt, and he’s probably in transit to a UK hospital right about now. I have to call them to get an update.” 

Kit froze and then went visibly paler. “Oh my god, what happened? When did it happen? Are you ok? Is he ok?” 

I nodded. I preluded the news with a quick “He was hurt pretty badly but…” and then began to detail his injuries and the details as far as I could.  

“When will we know more? When can we see him?” He took it surprisingly well, and when I'd told him all I knew, I called the number the two officers had left me.  

My heart leapt and I turned to Kit as I hung up, thanking the lady on the other end profusely. “He’s in the UK! Landed this morning, and he’s stable, but still in intensive care. We can go see him whenever.”  

Kit blew out the breath I hadn’t realised he’d been holding, and said, “When do you want to go?” 

“Like, five minutes ago!” I gabbled. “But first… I need to tell you something else.” 

“Oh?” he was now sitting on the sofa with his feet up on the cushion, nursing his big mug of tea. He surveyed me over the rim and his eyes went wide as I told him where I’d spent the weekend. Then, to my great surprise, he laughed. “I’m glad.” 

“You are? I thought you said Caleb was a shit for behaving like that…” 

“He was, but he obviously loves you.” 

I smiled and tried not to conjure images of him lying in bed that morning. “Yeah, he does.” 

“He’s not the only one who’s love-struck,” Kit snorted into the dregs of his tea. We sat in comfortable silence for a while and then a thought dropped through Kit’s brain and fell out of his mouth before he could stop it. “You want to ask Caleb to come with you to see Luke?” 

“What? Why? That could set his PTSD off something wicked.” 

Kit blushed and dropped his gaze to his socks. “Of course, I hadn’t thought of that. You still want to go today?” 

You've done a lot of driving already this morning, and it’s a long way,” I hedged. It was times like this that I regretted never learning to drive. 

He shrugged. “I don’t mind. We can always stop off on the way if I need to.” 

“Ok.” I bit my lip.  

Truth be told, I was terrified of seeing him. I thought it’d only make it all the more real that he was hurt and there was every chance there could still be some kind of complication, and he might not make it.  

I reached for my phone and messaged Caleb. Luke's back in the UK! Going to see him today. It’s a long drive from here, but Kit and I want to see him. 

Immediately a message bounced back. I’m glad you can go see him. If want me to come with you, just ask. Xxx 

Bless you. Bless you a million times over for offering. Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx 

I mean it. 

Thank you. You're my hero. I don’t want to put you out though… And I know hospitals aren’t necessarily your thing, and this is a military one… 

If you’re there, I’ll be ok. 

My heart stopped beating. My expression must have given me away, because Kit asked, “Hey, you ok?” 

“Caleb volunteered to come…” 

“Bring him.” 

“Just like that?” I quizzed. I looked a little harder at my brother’s best friend and asked, “You’re testing him, aren’t you?” 

He shrugged and stood, glugging the last of his tea down. “If he’s serious about you, he’ll do it. The fact that he offered is a good sign.” 

“When do you want to leave?” I asked. Kit’s attitude seemed rather callous, but I couldn’t blame him after the state I’d been in.  

“Give me an hour or so to sort my stuff out from this weekend?” 

I stood as well, and messaged Caleb again. I’d love that, thank you. We’re aiming to leave in an hour or so. Does that suit? 

He didn’t reply straight way, so I washed up our mugs, and by the time they were draining, I heard my phone go.  

Works fine for me. You want me to come to you, or will you pick me up on your way out? 

We arranged to pick him up, and as the car drew to a halt outside his house, I scampered out and shot down the path to his door. He embraced me warmly and kissed me, tasting of toothpaste, and I rubbed the corner of his mouth affectionately where he’d missed a bit.  

“R-Ready?” 

“Yup. Kit’s waiting in the car.” 

He cocked an ear and caught the engine and nodded. Turning back over his shoulder, he called a farewell to his Nan, and then followed me down the path with his white cane folded up in his coat pocket. His brace was back on, judging by the way he was walking with less of a limp, and I hoped it wouldn't hurt him. He was so sweet, making so much effort for me.  

I sat in the back with him and held his hand, largely in warm silence for the first hour. When I felt him wince a few times, I looked up at his face and whispered, “You ok?” 

He nodded, looking a little green around the gills. 

“Caleb?” My thumb stroked the top of his hand, bumping over the delicate bones. 

He smiled and hissed back, “I forgot to take travel sick pills. I… I’m kind of bad with moving vehicles.”  

"You want to stop?" Kit asked from the front. "I can pull over..." 

"Only if you n-need a break," Caleb said firmly. "It'll only st-start up again wh-when we g-get moving, and I'm not g-going to throw up. Thanks though." 

"Ok, holler if you decide you do need to stop." 

"I will." 

After another few moments, I tightened my grip on his hand and shuffled a little closer to him. "So... um..." I began, and Caleb immediately picked up the harmonic of distress in my voice.  

He frowned and clenched his fingers. "What is it?" 

I chuckled nervously. "I'm like an open book to you, aren't I?"  

He brought his other hand over and traced his fingertips over the top of my hand where it lay clutching his right hand. It took me only a fraction of a second to realise he was mimicking the way he read Braille, and then he nodded. "Yup. Open book. Al-Alyssa Bowmore, Ch-Chapter Two, now fully blind-person friendly." 

I snorted and booped him on the nose with my free hand, which made him jump and he laughed with me.  

"Ok, m-mostly friendly," he amended. "Wh-What's on y-y-your mind?" 

"So... I told Luke about us when we were first dating, but..." I nibbled my lip.  

"Y-You didn't tell him we br-br-broke up, did you?" 

I shook my head. "No. I didn't want him to worry about me. It seemed so trivial compared to what he was facing out there. Heck, it still does, especially since we're back together again like it never happened..." 

"I won't m-mm-men-mmmm..." He faltered and the sound died between his lips. "Sorry. Um, I w-won't br-bring it up."  

I leaned across and kissed his beautiful, stuttering lips, his cheeks still flushed a cherry blossom pink. "Thanks," I breathed. 

He squeezed my hand and we fell back into our cosy, cuddly silence for the remainder of the long journey. Caleb's body was soft, relaxed, despite his sickness, and his head lolled on his shoulders as he dipped into sleep for a moment. His glasses slid a little way down his nose as his head drooped and I contemplated taking them off for him, but never got the chance as he tipped his head right back against the side of the car and, with softly parted lips, breathed heavily as he sank down into sleep a little further. I had to smile. He was beautiful.  

All that softness in him was replaced by high, nervous tension when we were standing beside the reception desk in the hospital. The air was thick with antiseptic and that other smell that clings to places like doctors' surgeries and hospitals. The smell of sickness.  

Caleb stood perfectly still beside me as Kit asked where my brother was, and I felt the tension ratchet up through his whole body the more he breathed in the smell of the hospital. I slipped my arm through his and pulled him close to me. "You're my hero, remember. You've got this." 

He tried to smile, but it was watered down by his fear.  

"Caleb, look at me," I said.  

"What?"  

He didn't understand what I meant for a moment, so I reached up for his ear and ran my finger delicately around it, like I was tucking a strand of hair back behind it. I went onto tiptoes and brought my lips to the soft shell of his ear and whispered, "That's it. Don't focus on anything else but the sound of these boots when we walk through the corridors, ok?" 

He hissed out a breath and shuddered. "Thank you." 

I tugged him gently as Kit moved off. "This way." 

And my boots did make a noise. They clacked loudly. I'd chosen them deliberately. Caleb walked with his head lowered, the next thing to having his ear literally 'to the ground'. Men and women in uniform strode past, and I caught the way Caleb's ear would wander, picking up the clink of the poppers and zips of uniform pockets, the distinctive way the soldiers moved, their motions almost as stiff as their uniforms. I nudged him gently with my elbow and he nodded his thanks.  

More than once I was struck by the way people stared at Caleb and me. I turned to look at him and for the first time in a long time, I saw the same military set of his shoulders mirroring that of the officers we passed. They knew. They knew he'd been hurt in combat. I had to remind myself then that I was walking in step with a soldier as well as my boyfriend. Away from his band of noisy friends, and when the PTSD faded into the background, biding its time between nightmares, he was just a man in his late twenties to me, but when I looked up at Caleb now, I saw a wounded soldier. A veteran.  

He paused mid-step and twisted his ear up so that it was no longer listening as acutely to my footsteps but more to my breath. "Hey, are you ok?" he asked.  

"Yeah," I replied, my voice unexpectedly hoarse.  

"Don't lie to me," he said. It wasn't harsh, but it was a little stern. "You're not ok. Is it L-L-Luke?" 

"It's not Luke," I said, though my chest was alive with a thousand fire ants at the thought of seeing him. 

"What is it?" 

"It's you," I whispered, my voice cracking. "You look so much like all these soldiers going past us. I never really saw it properly before, not even when you're with your old unit, but here..." I shuddered. "You walk like they do, you carry yourself like they do… I just keep seeing you in their faces. I..." I took another shallow, almost panicked intake. "I'm imagining you in here after you got hurt..." 

"Stop," he said. His tone was now insistent. "Stop. You're here for L-L-L... for your brother, and I'm here for you. Ok?" 

I smiled and nodded weakly.  

"Bl-Blind men and nods..." He teased me.  

I squeezed his hand. 

Luke's room was at the end of a long corridor. Kit ducked out of our little formation of three to talk to the nurse about his condition, and I went ahead with Caleb. I hung back a moment on the threshold, and then pushed the door open.  

Luke was dreadfully pale, hooked up to all sorts of machines and drips, the function of which I had no idea, and his leg was up in a cast. I burst into tears the moment I saw him, and Caleb held me.  

I got a hold of myself a minute or two later, and snuffled my thanks at him, before stepping over to my brother. "Hey," I croaked, running my hand through his hair. His eyes were closed, but the lids twitched. "I know you probably can't hear me, but it's me. It's Little Lyssie. I'm here. I'm here and I love you, and you're so brave." 

After a while, Kit and the nurse came in and tried to tell us a bit about his injuries and the expected recovery time. I swallowed and breathed out. He was hurt, but he was healing pretty well. They were going to bring him out of the medical coma soon. The nurse handed us a patient diary, and explained that we could write something in it if we wanted, so that he'd know we'd been to see him if they woke him when we weren't there.  

"Where's his armband?" I asked the nurse as I leafed through the patient diary. There were scribbles in there from the rest of his unit, as well as the trauma team at Bastion. My eyes watered at the sight of the kind things they said about him, and all the well wishes they left him. 

"His armband?" 

"Yeah, the medic band," I said. "Where is it?" 

"Oh, of course. I..." She looked around her and then said, "It might be with his things." 

"Might be?" I snarled acidly. "That represents what, who, he is. It's his identity -" 

Caleb reacted instantly, reaching for my arm and holding me tightly. Calm down.  

I inhaled, held it, let it go, and then asked, "Would you check please?" 

"Certainly." 

Caleb leaned down and kissed the side of my head again. 

I bit my lip and then pressed my side briefly into his. "I'm sorry." 

When the nurse returned with it in her hand, I apologised to her, and thanked her more gently. I went gingerly over to where Luke was lying. I lifted his lifeless fingers and slid the band between them. I turned around to Caleb and told him what I'd wanted it for and what I had done. 

The look of pride on his face surprised me. "That's g-good," he murmured. "When I w-woke up, I... I was alone. I had nothing. But when they c-came to see me, Amy brought me my beret and badge. When I held it, I c-could say I w-was still a R-Rifleman." 

I held him.  

Kit and I made the trip alone to see Luke twice more before he woke. I sat with him for hours, listening to the machines around me, holding his hand and telling him I loved him and I was so proud of him. When they did wake him, he was groggy and dazed, and we weren't allowed to stay for long. On the fifth visit, he was very much his old self, though his humour was tempered by pain, and his breathing was a bit ragged still. He got tired quickly. 

Caleb came with me to see him again when Luke was much better. I'd rung the hospital that morning, spoken to Luke as well, and heard how well he was doing, but I'd been so desperate to see him when we'd got there that I had completely ignored the fact that my body was telling me I had to pee after the long journey. I sat with him, elated at the progress he was making, chatting and listening in alternate bursts while my knees bobbed up and down wildly.  

"Lyss," Luke chided. "You ok?" 

"What? Of course I am. Look at you," I grinned. “You’re healing up so nicely!” 

"Why are you sitting in that chair like a toddler who's about to piss herself?" 

I flushed and smacked him on the hand. Caleb, who was still on his feet to stretch out after the long car journey, barked a loud laugh 

"Fine," I said, pouting as I stood. "Fine, I thought I'd come straight in here and see you, but if you'd rather I go take a piss, that's fine." Both boys were laughing at me and I smiled, glad to see them at ease. "I'll get some tea while I'm out too," I added. I paused and then turned to Caleb and pressed my hand onto his. "You want one?" 

"For a m-minute there I thought you were g-going for a jack brew," he smirked. Luke snorted and I glared daggers at the two of them. If they thought I didn't know that term by now, they were mistaken. And anyway, like I’d ever make a cuppa for myself and not for anyone else.  

I rolled my eyes, smartly informed Caleb that I had done so, and retreated.  

When I returned some time later – hospital corridors all look the same, so it wasn't my fault I got lost – I heard the sound of their voices and lingered out of sight for a moment, sipping my tea and listening curiously. 

Caleb was standing beside Luke's bed, leaning casually on his black cane. Luke laughed hoarsely in response to something I'd just missed Caleb say, and then said, "You know, I was awake during the medevac after I got zapped." 

"Christ," Caleb hissed. "I wasn't." 

"They told me I was going back to Butlins, but I wouldn't be able to enjoy the fun..." 

Butlins? It'd been a while since I'd had to translate Army English into normal English. Butlins. Bastion?  

"Christ, I was a mess. Blood coming from everywhere. Leg, lungs... I remember just before I started to crash I heard the boss yelling something at me." 

Caleb drew his shoulders up and assumed an imposing posture, hands clasped behind his back. "If y-you don't buck up and pull it together, son, I'm g-going to r-rip that l-leg right off and beat you with the soggy end," Caleb said in a strong and somewhat pompous voice I'd never heard before.  
Luke laughed, and Caleb joined him, relaxing again. "Fuck me," Luke breathed, "You really were a captain, weren't you? Yeah, it was something very like that," Luke wheezed. "Oh god," he moaned. "I still can't seem to believe this really happened. I know I got off lightly though. Fuck, one look at you tells me I did." I inhaled sharply at his bluntness. Caleb didn’t seem fazed by it.  

"Don’t worry," Caleb smiled. "They'll assign you y-your own personal club swinger, and y-you'll be back on your feet in no time." 

"Yeah?" 

"Trust me. G-Give it a l-lot of effort, and a g-good dose of p-patience..." I was taken aback by their bluntness to each other, but I forced myself to stay put as I heard Caleb go on.  

I noticed a drop in the energy of the room, and Luke slumped into his pillows, looking drawn and tired. "Can I ask you something?" 

Caleb nodded. "Anything." 

"How's Lyssie been?" I almost dropped my tea as tears choked my throat up. "How's she dealing with this." 

"L-Like a champion," he said without hesitation. "I mean, she was a bit of a mess when they first told her, but if y-you're anything l-like her, you're tough. Y-You'll pull through." 

"You love her, don’t you?" Luke asked.  

My heart was in my mouth.  

"Yeah," Caleb said, his voice gritty. He shuffled where he stood beside Luke's bed, leaning heavily on the black cane. "Yeah, she..." He paused and I realised with jolt that he was about to cry. I wanted nothing more that to go to him, but I knew they needed to have this moment together. I forced myself to rivet my feet to the spot. Caleb didn’t cry in the end, but he puffed out a sigh. “She brought me back to life, I guess.” 

Luke grinned and lay there breathing for a moment. He was still pale and weak, and I think Caleb was wondering if he’d passed out or gone back to sleep. Eventually, getting his breath back, Luke let out a little laugh. “I know we’re twins,” he said, “But I was born first, so technically I’m her big brother. It’s my job to try and scare off guys from her, but she seems happy with you. It’s nice.” He yawned, and winced.  

“You’re tired,” Caleb stated.  

“I want to wait til she comes back,” he mumbled. “But I’m…” His head lolled and Caleb reached for his forearm.  

“It’s ok,” he said. “You r-rest.” 

Luke’s hand twisted, careful not to pull out any of the drips, and he grasped Caleb’s hand in his. I was surprised by the way they were behaving with each other, but it made me smile to see that Caleb was accepted by Luke. I had taken half a step to go back in before he fell asleep when I heard him say, “Look after her, Caleb. Don’t hurt her.” 

“I promise you,” Caleb hissed. “I’ll always be there for her.” 

I began to cry. Tears rolled down my face as I stood there. Luke was asleep by the time I mustered the courage to go all the way in and, approaching Caleb from behind, I put my tea down and looped my arms around his waist and planted my cheek against his back.  

“You heard that, didn’t you?” he rumbled.  

I nodded, moving my cheek over the soft fabric of his t-shirt.  

“C-C-Come here,” he stuttered, his throat contracting rapidly. He raised his left arm and invited me to sneak around to his front. I did as he requested. “I mean it.” He whispered into my red hair. "Always."


THE END
(or is it...?)