He didn't know he was nervous until she reached over and took his hand, burning his cold fingers with her warm ones, and he balled his other into a fist and rapped three times on the rough-hewn wooden door, each impact resounding like a judge's gavel in the mid-morning quiet. Their daughter squirmed on his wife's shoulder -- twelve hours ago he hadn't had a family at all -- and he heard her worried sigh, but kept his eyes straight ahead, his friendliest smile fixed on his features, listening to the sounds of shuffling behind the door.
Only a few seconds later, it swung open, and he was greeted by a small, wrinkled man whose white moustache twitched when he spoke. "Visitors!" he exclaimed, peering up at them with a curious expression. "Sure is busy around here these days!"
"My name is Citan Uzuki," he said, pleased at how natural his saying it sounded. He did not like to lie, and as such, despite ten thousand years of practice, had never quite cultivated the talent for it. "I am a physician, and this is my family. We would like to know if my services would be needed in your town."
A moment of silence passed as the white-moustached man regarded them, looking the lot up and down with a skeptical eye. He -- Citan, he was going to have to start thinking of himself, if this was ever to work -- held his breath and gripped her hand even more tightly, and she smiled and stepped forward. "My name is Yui," she said with an ease had not developed in hundreds of lifetimes, "and this is Midori. We asked at the village gate and were told that this would be where we could find the village chief. We came to escape the fighting, and cities are no places to raise children these days. If my husband can be of use to you and your community, then we'd like to stay here."
The old man nodded thoughtfully throughout her explanation, and when she was finished, his face brightened. "As a matter of fact," he said, "we've got a young man right here in my house you could take a look at!"
"Is that so." Citan kept his smile fixed on his lips and summoned every inch of his self-restraint to keep his feet planted to the front step, instead of letting them spring him forward, tearing past all obstacles until he found what he knew was hidden inside the house like a heart. Patience would be the only thing to save him here, patience and deep breaths, and if he could wait a hundred years for something, he could wait another minute.
Yui drew closer to his side, just as he imagined a doting wife would do to her husband. "It looks like we've found the place," she said, smiling up at him, and only the most careful of observers would have seen the way the corners of her mouth pulled that same smile just a little too tight. She had, of course, been the logical choice to accompany him here, owing to their history of acquaintance with one another, and her natural manner made him grateful that, at long last, he had support; Solaris had its own ideas about proper performance of duty, but when the servants of the Queen of Shevat were sent somewhere, they were sent with backup.
"The name's Lee, by the way," said the chief, motioning the young family inside. A fair number of people were congregated inside, and when their attention turned to see who it was that Chief Lee had just brought through the door, Midori squirmed closer still to her new mother's shoulder. "Anyway, as I was saying, he was brought in last night in the middle of the storm. Figured we'd just let him sleep it off, but he's still not up."
"I'd best take a look." Citan nodded to Yui, who took a step back from him, stroking Midori's hair and whispering to her in Shevite. It was perhaps cruel to bring a young girl on a mission of deception such as this, but he knew from experience that a single man was suspicious, and a married couple only slightly less so, but no one doubted devoted parents and a little one. She hadn't said a word since her parents had been killed in a border skirmish, the Shevite doctors had told her, but she seemed to have taken to Yui well enough, and that would do for the time being. Cruel as it might have sounded, she wasn't his top priority at the moment.
Chief Lee made brief introductions to the other villagers, telling him that this doctor and his wife Yuli ("Yui," she had corrected him sweetly, with only the slightest setting of her jaw) had come from big-city life to their cozy little community; said villagers all introduced themselves in kind, and Citan hoped that Yui was paying attention, because his own heart was racing as something strained against the edge of his hearing. It was faint, nearly drowned out by the hubbub of the room and far enough away to be easily dismissed as imaginary, except that he had treated enough punctured lungs in his time to know the sound of a young man's trying to breathe with one. He knew in that moment of identifying it that no matter how awful the Shevite operatives' descriptions of the previous night's confrontation had made it seem, they hadn't painted it awful enough.
"And you said you were a doctor?" asked a withered old woman near the fire from beneath the shadow of a deep blue scarf that she'd draped across her hair. "My foot has just given me the most terrible pains of late, since the rains blew in from the north."
"I'm sure you'll all keep my husband quite busy." Yui shifted Midori up a little higher on her hip, and Midori, who had replaced looking around nervously with sucking her thumb, allowed it. "In fact, I heard Chief Lee also mention there's a young man at this very moment who is feeling under the weather."
"Oh, yes!" Chief Lee shook his head, as though he'd completely forgotten about his patient in the five or so minutes between when he'd first spoken of the matter and when Yui'd brought it up again. "That is, I wouldn't want to rush you lovely people, so soon off the road from travelling, and we greedy folk put you to work right away! You can go on and get settled in first, if you'd like. Our aches and pains will wait until you've started unpacking."
With admirable calm, Citan stepped toward the room's flight of stairs and the sound of the pained breathing beyond them. "As long as I'm here, why not have a look?" He nodded to Yui that he'd be fine alone for the moment, and allowed a shrugging Chief Lee to lead him deeper into the house. The residents of Lahan seemed like a kindly folk, Citan thought as he made his way down the rough-hewn steps, to show such hospitality twice in a very short period, but there obviously wasn't one among them who understood the severity of that young man's condition, or he would have been shown here the moment the word 'physician' passed his lips.
"Funniest thing, actually," said Chief Lee as he opened a nearby door, revealing a room where a bedsheet had been strung up as a makeshift privacy curtain. The only glow came from the soft flicker of lantern light just behind it, and from the patterns it cast on the sheet, Citan could nearly make out the outline of a bed, and on it, a body. "The man who dropped him off said the boy was his son, and was obviously worried sick about him. Said he wouldn't be back for him, though. Doesn't it seem an odd thing, to bring your boy that you're so concerned about to perfect strangers, and then say you'll never see him again? What kind of a father does that?"
A father who loves his son so much that he's burned every other option, Citan didn't say; instead, his fingers wrapped in the edge of the sheet. "It's good of you to have taken him in." With a pause just long enough to steel himself against whatever sight lay beyond the curtain, Citan took a deep breath and drew it back.
The first thing Citan noticed was that the boy's lips were ashen. Stretched flat on his back, he gasped for every wet, shallow breath, each one a fraction of a second shorter than the last. He looked perhaps to be in a fitful dream, or suffering a mild asthmatic attack, but every sound he made was a bright alarm that contradicted outward appearances. A blanket lay tossed across his legs, leaving his upper body bare, and he was so gaunt that Citan could see in the topography of his skin where ribs and sternum had fractured beneath. Whatever Khan had intended to do to him, the actual outcome had been devastating.
He glanced back at Chief Lee, who looked at him quizzically, as though he couldn't understand why his new acquaintance looked so grim. "Will you go tell my wife, please," Citan said, each unfamiliar word as even as the last, "to bring me my bag."
"Of course." Chief Lee turned and shuffled out of the room, nudghing the door mostly shut behind him.
It was all the privacy Citan was going to get under the circumstances, and the boy wouldn't wait for more. He shut his eyes against the dim light and drew his hands to the front of his chest, pressing his fingertips together and leaving his palms apart. He may have been out of practice, after years of trying to keep his peculiarities from Shevite eyes, but he was a physician, not merely by profession but by essential definition; he knew how to do this almost more than he knew how to do anything else in the world.
The first spark began to flicker within the chapel of his hands almost before his lips parted with the first percussive syllable, and grew with every divine word that spilled from his lips in a language as old as he was. He'd heard them from others in recent memory -- Solaris, in fact, prided itself on perfecting Ether ability in its citizens with aptitude -- but to their ears the incantations were meaningless, memorized lines of syllables treated as nonsensical formality, the same way martial arts practitioners were instructed to cry out with every strike. The modern world did not know what it was to call on the might of God, how the user's desire may be what gave form to essence, but how the invocation itself drew down the power in the first place.
Holding that tiny bit of God in his hands, he pressed his palms to the boy's broken chest, and the world exploded in blinding aquamarine light.
The effect faded almost as soon as it blossomed, its absence burning his eyes almost as much as its presence had, and he felt himself pour out through his hands, channeled by the divine energy into the boy's body. It slipped past his fingers, and he felt his own awareness carried with it for a brief moment as it coursed deep through skin, down into broken bone and torn tissue, filling one half-inflated lung -- and, Citan was horrified to discover, rocketing on past to where the boy's heart shuddered like a caught bird. They had been right to hurry, then; he didn't like to think what a delay of even another half hour might have cost them.
He drew his hands away and made them again into a cage, speaking the words faster now, finally letting panic slip loose his mask of calm. When it was ready again, he slammed his hands into the boy's chest, so hard that the boy let out a weak cry of agony, which was probably all he had the strength to manage. But Citan could not afford gentleness now, not if he had to teach the boy's heart how to beat again. The charge clawed its way through him, and he felt as though his body were being burnt over from the inside out, leaving him shaking and feeling every inch of the sleepless night before. That, he supposed, was what he deserved for having let himself forget the price God demanded.
As the second glow faded, he heard a throat's clearing behind him, and turned, squinting against the retinal afterburns to make out Yui's figure, standing with the curtain drawn aside. She looked so strange in a dress, with her long hair down around her shoulders, creating a softness to her that did not reach her worried face. "Is this what you wanted?" she asked, with the question and what was that light? perched just behind her lips -- never, he knew, to pass them. She had a job to do, and she was excellent at silence.
He nodded, motioning her close. "And Chief Lee?" He cast a quick glance to the doorway behind her, but saw no one.
Yui shook her head. "He's playing with Midori," she said, lowering her voice as she slipped back into Shevite. She drew a chair from against the wall over near the side of the bed, but instead of sitting in it, she placed the well-worn medical case there, within his easy reach. "She isn't thrilled, but she isn't crying either."
Like the good little soldier she is, Citan thought as he flipped loose the brass latches. Outwardly, the case looked to be the same as any country doctor's bag of tricks, promising to hold a magical interior jumble of poultices and gauze and even the occasional probe; he'd carried ones just like them in earnest before, at different times, at different places, where it had been expected of him. But this time he had not arrived so poorly equipped: the accoutrements inside this particular physician's case were all Shevite in origin, grey and metallic and some with flashing lights and readouts, trembling at the ready to sing their tell-all songs about whatever body fell beneath their gaze.
Citan reached for three small discs, each made of a transparent plastic and about the size of his thumb, and triangulated the boy's heart with them, pressing each to the pale skin of his chest. "Cardiac stimulators," he told her, also in Shevite; the best he might have been able to approximate in Avar at the moment would have been closer to for the heart, and while the vagueness in description might not have made a difference, practically speaking, he would have known. It never ceased to frustrate him, his frequent inability to find the words quickly enough for precisely what he wanted to say. Keeping up with others' use of a language was one thing, but composing in it was another entirely.
When the dials were in place, he touched his fingertips to all three at once, and felt the heart beneath it fall into a faint but steady rhythm. That, at least, would both keep blood flowing through the boy's body and take some of the strain off his wounded heart until Citan could get to the root of the problem. "How is he?" Yui asked from behind him, a nervous edge creeping out from behind her words.
"Still in trouble," Citan admitted, placing the heels of his hands together in the center of the boy's sternum and letting his fingers feel out along the lines of his ribs. Bone would mend, of course, if given enough time, but the damage its having broken had caused would affect whether or not the patient had enough time at all. "Can you make sure we have privacy? I don't want anyone seeing the instruments."
If she knew the shapes and contours of that lie, she did not let on, choosing instead only to nod and to place a hand on his shoulder. "Of course. Is there anything else I can do?
"Pray." Like most of those who had actual, incontrovertible proof of the existence of God, Citan did not go in much for matters of personal piety; faith, after all, was the substance of things hoped for, not proper response to an evidentiary fact. Nonetheless, at this point, he found himself uncharacteristically willing to accept any petition to the divine on his behalf, and wondered if that was his subconscious' way of letting him know just how dire he perceived the situation to be.
She did not balk or question him, or even fall into that special Shevite brand of agnosticism, relatively certain about the existence of the Divine but wholly uncertain of what to do about it. Instead, she gave his shoulder a quick squeeze, then turned and exited the room, her long skirts sweeping around her graceful steps. Once on the other side of the door, she shut it noisily tight behind her.
Alone again -- though who knew for how long -- Citan repeated the incanation and drew another healing spell up from his core, throwing it into the boy. He knew, intellectually, that he was doing good, but all he could think was what it felt like to touch metal frozen by winter, how the cold itself seemed to claw in past the point of contact and steal heat out of the heart, never giving a degree back in return, its deep-seated chill a gaping black hole that one pair of hands could only dream of filling.
He jerked, startled awake by the touch of her hand as it drew his long, dark hair from his sleeping face, and she took a step back in kind, eyes wide. "I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't mean to...."
"It's all right." Citan straightened, feeling the pull of the muscles in his back as he righted them from his slouched pose. He vaguely remembered having decided to shut his eyes and lay his head down on the side of the boy's cot, just until he felt his strength return enough to draw his hands together and do it all over again. No outside light penetrated this subterranean room, but he remembered having glanced at the lantern hanging from the wall and seeing the tall taper inside; by now, its flame had reduced it to barely an inch's worth of wax."What time is it?" He raked his fingers back through his hair, then refastened the leather thong that gathered it at the base of his neck.
"Past noon." Yui grabbed the handles of his medical case -- which he'd at least had the presence of mind to shut and lock before nodding off -- and moved it from the chair to the floor beside him; in its place, she settled a wicker basket. "How is he?"
It was a complicated question, and Citan held off on answering it until he'd investigated her gift more fully. He pulled open its lid to reveal several cloth-wrapped bundles inside, all of which smelled incredible, all of which reminded him how long it'd been since he'd eaten anything. At least one of them was smart enough to remember little things like that. "Much better," he said, unwrapping the top item -- roast lamb wrapped in flatbread, which he ate with perhaps less dignity than he was wont to maintain. He found consolation in reminding himself that hunger was a universal burden, and had brought many before him lower than he was now.
She gave a nod of acknowledgment, though she couldn't entirely pin the corners of her mouth down from the sight of his eating so enthusiastically. Perhaps to cover the expression, she turned her face downward and looked at the quiet patient before both of them. His chest no longer dipped and rose with the strange topography of a maimed rib cage, and his expression had gradually lost the pained furrow in his brow as wave of wave of Ether poured into him -- supplemented by Shevite medical technology, as well as by the odd local remedy -- knitting him slowly back to health. "He looks better," she continued in Avar; a week of being in the small village had made them both paranoid about keeping their identities on at all times in the face of what she had termed 'curiousity' -- which was her kind way, he thought, of calling the inhabitants of Lahan downright sneaky gossips. "And you look terrible."
"What?" he mumbled gracelessly through a mouthful of lamb. "I'm fine."
"You need to get some proper rest." She glanced over to the lantern, then retrieved a small taper from the top drawer of the small chest beneath, swapping it for its nearly extinguished predecessor. For a woman who had lived her entire life surrounded by technology, she seemed to be adapting to country life remarkably well.
Citan leaned his head to either side, hearing the joints in his neck crack in either direction. "I think I'm the doctor here," he quipped, though even he could hear the exhaustion in his voice dragging down his attempt at humour. Her comment left him unsettled, not because he believed her assessment to be wrong, but because he knew it to be correct and was disturbed that he had worn himself out to the point where he was no longer capable of hiding it.
With a deep sigh, she pushed aside the basket and sat down on the corner of the chair's seat, leaning close and putting her mouth near to his ear, a wife telling her husband something in the intimate language particular to each relationship, no business of any eavesdropper's. "If he wakes up now," she whispered in sharp, dry Shevite, "you'll be in no condition to deal with him."
He looked at the boy on the bed, though she didn't mean him at all -- she meant him, the one who might be sleeping beneath (or not beneath, and wasn't that the worry) the layers of Khan's corrective efforts, the one in the Shevite surveillance photographs who wore the Contact's face and destroyed lives and machines alike with the same cruel efficiency. And she was right, of course, because Citan had let his life-saving efforts take such a toll on him that now he doubted he would have been able to raise a fist in effective self-defense from a rank amateur, much less from a maddened teenager with the power of God at his disposal. If Grahf's protégé opened his eyes in this sleepy community, healed and whole and finally autonomous, the villagers would be utterly defenseless and the world beyond Lahan's borders would hardly fare any better. And without Grahf's protection, he would be an easy target for Solarian resources, whose goals for him were not precisely secretive.
Was there not, then, something to be said for not letting him wake up at all?
No, he had dismissed the suggestion from the moment she'd brought it up, and though she'd never said it again, Citan had heard it in her every cautious sentiment. It would have been easy, surely, and easily accomplished with strategic inattention to the extent of the boy's injuries; he could have made it gentle, even a welcome release. But there was value in this Contact, this boy, at this precise moment, and as long as there existed the possibility of recovery, Citan could not let it pass. Perhaps, at last, this was his own expression of faith.
"That," he said, bringing his hand up and brushing his knuckles down her cheek, a husband's affectionate gesture to his loyal life, "is why I brought you."
She sighed, but did not pull away until he let his hand drop again, at which point she stood. "We've nearly finished moving in," she told him, slipping back into casually loud Avar, for the benefit of anyone in earshot. "I think you'll like the house, if you ever leave this basement long enough to visit."
"I want to see how decorated it is." He folded the now-empty napkin and placed it back in the basket, along the side. "Do you want to take this back with you now?"
Yui shook her head, giving her skirts one last smoothing before heading for the exit. "If I come back later this evening and there's any food left in there, I'll be upset."
Truly, Citan thought as he watched her go, he couldn't have asked for a more competent partner on this mission -- even if she did have a terrifying sort of brutal domestic efficiency. There would be time to sort all that out later, the boundaries and the negotiations of an operation posing as a relationship. Now, however, reinvigorated by a little food and a little sleep, he checked behind him to make sure she had shut the door securely, then took a deep breath and began his work again.
He stared at the woman in the door for a moment, squinting, frowning, looping over and again in his mind the series of sounds she'd made, trying to see if there'd been some way this all might be a perfectly reasonable misunderstanding. But even with his limited vocabulary, he knew deep down that he'd heard her correctly the first time. "What do you mean, he's gone?" he asked, and by the time he was done with the sentence, his feet were on the floor and he was grabbing for his shirt.
"I peeked in twenty minutes ago," answered the woman, an elderly widow named Greta who managed the day-to-day runnings of Chief Lee's house, "and he was resting there, sleeping like a stone, but when I turned my head in just now, he wasn't there at all." She sounded more perplexed than worried, really, which Citan had noticed as being a common character trait among the residents of Lahan, and she regarded his hurry with a bit of surprise. "I checked the toilet, but he wasn't there either."
Still groggy from the few hours of sleep he'd had -- the first full night's rest in an actual bed that he'd attempted in nearly two weeks -- Citan pulled on his heavy sandals and laced them clumsily, skipping the last two loops and just running the laces once each around his calves before tying them into careless knots. "Get Chief Lee and anyone else who's awake," he told her, trying to sound not even a tenth as worried as he was. "Have them search out around the village and look all over."
Greta raised a gnarled hand to her lips. "Oh, dear. Do you think someone's happened to the boy?"
"I think...." Citan moved past her as quickly as he could without raising too much of an alarm, walking down the hall from the spare bedroom to the room where the boy had been kept, giving the place one last look-over just to make sure her elderly eyes hadn't lost him in a shadow. But no, it was empty, the covers thrown aside and the curtain torn down, both pointing toward the door as though they had been dragged a few steps by a hobbled young man. "I think he's very confused," Citan said at last. "And maybe scared, and he doesn't know where he is, and he thinks he might be in danger."
"Oh, the poor dear." Greta nodded and shooed him toward the stairs. "You go on ahead, and I'll send the men out behind you."
That was all the assurance Citan needed; he bounded up the stairs two at a time, up into the night-quiet ground floor of Chief Lee's house. The front door was open, and he ran out through it, not bothering to shut it behind him. With any luck, Greta would be able to rouse a search party quickly, and he'd soon have help from people who knew the terrain better than he did.
In fact, he was dismayed to discover as he stepped beyond the circle of light from the lantern by the door, night only further mystified for him an already-unfamiliar terrain. He'd taken as much in as he could upon their arrival, of course, and had twice since made the journey up the mountain to the high residence that Yui, aware of concerns about both privacy and visibility, had claimed for them, but his mental map of the surrounding area remained hazy, and he had no idea where the boy might have decided to run. It was little use trying to reason out where he might have gone, because if he'd woken up confused and scared, he wouldn't have the information to make a rational getaway plan, and if he'd woken up as the other....
Well, if he'd woken up as the other, then there'd be no catching him anyway, Citan thought, setting out at a brisk pace toward the village gate because it was at least a direction he knew, and as likely to have been the chosen vector as any other. Down the path he hurried as fast as he dared, the well-packed dirt crunching beneath his every footfall, and he allowed speed to take precedence over stealth, because the element of surprise only worked when one knew where one's target already was, and if the boy were inclined to run at Citan's approach, he would already have been gone long before anyone even noticed his absence.
From behind him, he could hear the distant bustle of the hastily assembled search party -- readying themselves at Greta's wise instruction, no doubt, to take areas with which they were all already familiar. He wondered what they must think of all this, being woken in the middle of the night to hear that their strange visitor had chosen to depart from them, and that their other strange visitor wanted him back. Citan found the town's inhabitants incredibly hard to read on this whole matter, in fact, and never knew at any given moment where they felt he belonged on the line that separated their warm hospitality from their deep-steated xenophobia. No doubt more of them than not would be glad just to see their outsider problem disappear into the darkness one night, without further commentary or fuss.
In a few bounding strides made more confident by knowing the terrain, one of the longer-legged men caught up with him, looking a little sleep-saturated but not at all bothered by the late-night exercise. "You heading on to check past Carter's farm?" he asked, nodding to the road ahead.
"I ... think so?" The name meant nothing to him, but he remembered having passed some pastureland on the way in through town, and thought the odds good that they were talking about the same thing.
"Good idea. Stay on the road; the rest of us'll see if he got lost in the forest." The man glanced around. "You think he took off on his own, or you think somebody took off with him?"
The suggestion nearly stopped Citan in his tracks, both out of sheer horror of the concept and out of embarrassment that he hadn't even considered that possibility. There was no shortage of powerful people that would love to get their hands on a wounded Contact, and though some of them had much more impressive calling cards -- Grahf, in particular, if he'd somehow managed to shake off Khan's control and come back for the boy, would probably have few compunctions about letting everyone in a hundred-mile radius know that he'd come back to collect -- some of the others had turned stealth into an art. "...I don't know." A Solarian operative come to spirit him away in the middle of the night could be halfway back to Solaris inside a twenty-minute window, and Citan couldn't even let himself think of what might happen then.
"Well, boys are like that sometimes. They just get itchy legs, have to get up and go, no matter the time or the place. Middle of the night, they're off riding the town bearcows or some such." Sporting a big, honest smile, the tall man clapped Citan on his shoulder. "Got one of my own, about the same age. You stay on the path, and we'll bring him home."
"Thank you," said Citan weakly, turning his whole attention ahead to the road in front of him. He wanted to feel reassured by the conversation, but what he knew had been meant as a casual exploration of the possibilities was now sprouting several detailed worst-case scenarios, burst full-grown from his imagination. With his mind full of dread, he sped from a brisk walk into a clear jog.
The sky above was mostly overcast, but a high wind rolled the clouds by quickly, bathing the scene with quick washes of moonlight that were gone almost as soon as they arrived. Unpredictable and impermanent, they were still his own source of real illumination, and as each one lit up the lanscape with faint contrasts, Citan looked around frantically, trying to catch a hint of movement, a glimpse of something, anything, that might be his runaway -- and finally, just as he passed the livestock pens at the edge of town, his eyes hit upon the right spot for just the right moment, and the white clay road that led far beyond the village lit up with moonlight, casting in silhouette the distant, slow-moving figure of a young man barely holding himself upright.
"Fei!" Citan yelled, and took off at a dead tear down the road. The percussion of his footsteps shook his hair loose, and a small rock slipped inside his poorly fastened sandals, bloodying the sole of his foot, but still he ran -- and ran even faster when he realized the person before him was not fleeing him, but had, in fact, turned and stood his cautious ground at the sound of his own name.
He cried out again -- "Fei, wait!" -- and then he was running faster, the slight incline heading up to the village working in his downhill favour now, nearly falling over himself to cross the distance as quickly as he could between them. Another burst of moonlight, and he could see the boy's expression, wide-eyed with fear as he watched this stranger move toward him at full speed. The fear of spooking him away again slowed Citan to a fast walk, and then to a slower, more cautious approach. "Fei," he repeated, using the voice he'd once employed to calm a frightened horse, "everything's going to be okay now."
Still silent, Fei caught his lower lip between his teeth, a child's nervous gesture, and took a halting step toward Citan. He leaned heavily on his right leg, and Citan could see blood had begun to stain his pants over his left knee, where beneath a heavy gash gave a warning of the joint and muscle damage beneath. Citan hadn't had time to work on it more than to give it a cursory bandaging to prevent permanent damage, and he could tell from the way Fei stood that every step from the bed had been blindingly painful. Wet lines of tears streaked down his cheeks, and his breath hitched in his throat. Cautiously, Citan held out his hands, palms facing out and empty, unarmed. With perfect calm, he met Fei's eyes and held his gaze. "Fei, do you trust me?"
In that moment he knew that Khan's efforts had worked, because the face that met his question betrayed not even a hint of doubt, and Fei pitched headlong into Citan's embrace, throwing his arms around Citan's neck and weeping openly into his shoulder.
Citan threw his arms tightly around Fei's chest, cringing at how easily his arms made that circle, how thin the boy beneath had been allowed to grow in his years in hiding. "You're safe," he said into Fei's hair, and he didn't know if Fei even understood what he was saying, but he knew that the saying of it was still important. "I've got you, I won't let anything hurt you, so please don't run anymore. I'm here."
Fei trembled against Citan's body, first just a shiver than might have been attributable to his scant clothing and the brisk night air, then a full-on shake that nearly threatened to jar him loose entirely from Citan's arms. This was the part where the cure was nearly worse than the disease, where the consequences of the choice not to have him wake up as a murderer came crashing down on all of them. Every frightened heartbeat was another painful if for Citan -- if he hadn't left Fei's bedside, if he had gone after Grahf before Khan did it himself, if he'd kept a closer watch in Shevat, in Nisan, at the beginning of the world, if he hadn't been such a miserable failure at the one task for which he'd been created, they might not have been here right now, like this, holding on to each other against the end of the world.
"Hold on tight," he said, and Fei complied, locking his arms and burying his face into the bared curve where Citan's neck met his shoulder. Satisfied that grip was tight enough, Citan bent down and swept an arm gently beneath Fei''s knees, taking care not to injure him any more than he already had. As though Fei weighed nothing, Citan swept him up and cradled him close to his chest, carrying him back to the lights and safety of the village.
The sound of laughter carried down the hall and into his room as he stood by his bed, folding his spare shirt and packing it back into the overnight bag Yui had brought him, the one that had been meant to keep him a night and had lasted him more than twenty. Work still remained to be done of Fei's menagerie of lingering aches and pains, especially on that troublesome re-injured knee, but time would be the greater physician there, especially since Fei's current conscious state had put a complete stop to all non-local methods of treatment. Besides, what was the point of having a hastily constructed family for a cover story if it looked like he didn't care whether he saw them or not?
As he finished up the last bits of his packing, he heard a noise from behind him, and turned to see Chief Lee standing in the doorway, stroking his long white moustache. "I bet your wife'll be glad to see you more than a ten minutes a day again," he grinned.
Not as much as you think, Citan thought as he zipped closed his bag, but certainly more than I deserve. "I believe I've stayed over your hospitality."
"Ah, nonsense." Chief Lee waved his hand through the air between them, as though to dismiss any lingering pieces of that ridiculous suggestion. "When I was young, my family's house burned down, and we lived here with the chief before me until we could get it repaired. And my mother told me the chief had the biggest house in the village because he never knew who was going to have to stay with him. Though," he added with a thoughtful nod, "I doubt many of the chiefs before me had such an interesting pair of houseguests."
The comment was innocuous enough, but something to the tone behind them put Citan's reflexes on edge. "I'm sorry for the trouble," he said mildly, hefting his bag over his shoulder. "If there's anything I can do, please tell me."
"We know where you live, don't worry," Chief Lee chuckled, though as he did, he stepped inside the spare room and closed the door behind him. From rooms away, another cloud of now-muffled laughter resonated through the house, with Fei's voice the most distinct and audible contribution. Even Chief Lee nodded in the direction of its unseen source. "Sounds like he's fit right in here."
Citan nodded, though the closing of the door had only augmented his caution. "If we need to set up another house for him, or if he needs to come and live with me--"
Chief Lee shook his head. "He can stay here as long as he likes. It's good to have the young people around the place; makes me feel young too." He slipped his hands inside the pockets of his long coat, taking a deep breath and looking away, the mark of a man who had something he wanted to say but didn't quite know how to say it. He cleared his throat once, twice, collecting himself in the presence of his soon-to-be-former houseguest, and after a long moment, he spoke again: "I know there's more to the world out there than I'll ever even hope to know there is to know. Here, I'm the chief, but I'm a big fish in a small pond, and I know it. And it's the way I like it. Nobody around has too much use for what happens too far past our borders, and we hope the outside world'll return the kindness by keeping its nose out of our business too."
Unsure as to where this might be going, Citan nodded again and remained silent. If this whole speech was a preamble to getting kicked out of the village, well, it wouldn't be the first time he'd had to do his job from afar. As long as Fei had a safe place he could recuperate in peace, everything else was negotiable. He was nothing at all if not flexible.
But instead, after another long pause, Chief Lee gathered himself up and looked at Citan as eye-to-eye as their not-insubstantial height difference would allow. "It's a hell of a coincidence, he and you showing up so close on each other's heels, one of you all broken up and the other one it-just-so-happens able to fix him. A hell of a coincidence. ...And as far as I'm concerned, it can stay the biggest coincidence I've ever seen in my life or ever will see again. Are we understood?"
"I think we are." Citan extended his hand in what he hoped was a sufficient approximation of the gesture he'd seen the other adult men of the village use when they greeted and parted from one another. "We all just want to live in peace."
"Isn't that the truth!" With a bright (and frankly relieved) grin, Chief Lee took Citan's hand in his own and shook it, gripping hard despite his age. Citan squeezed back just as tightly, lest insufficient force be perceived as lacking in sincerity, and this seemed to please the chief, who responded by shaking even harder. "Well, Doctor Uzuki, welcome to Lahan."
"Thank you," Citan said, as another gale of comfortable laughter rolled down the hall, crashing like a wave against the closed door between before receding back upon itself, dissolving into the walls of its newfound home.
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