Actually Less Intimidating (97/141)

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Nik was alone in a small private room in the infirmary, his fingers bandaged, ribs taped, clean and dry, on a comfortable bed with soft sheets. He’d been fed a good meal and had enough to drink. All of which he was grateful for, but most of all he was glad to be alone so that no one could see him shake and weep. Being cared for had been hard to endure; he felt an inexplicable terror whenever anyone came close, as if his body was convinced that even the short, dumpy male attendant might assault him at any moment. He hated himself for being so unmanly and foolish, but it took all his power not to recoil every time someone tried to help him. And the Blessed—

—that was the worst.

He couldn’t tell them no don’t heal me. He wanted to be healed, for the fire in his hands to finally stop burning.

But the Savior would not heal him. Not after what he’d done.

Nik couldn’t feel the Savior when they touched him, when they tried to heal him. The Blessed told him “you’re refusing”, and at least part of him believed them. He knew he didn’t want to open to the Savior’s presence, didn’t want to feel ever again his god’s awful rage, could not bear his disappointment, could not tolerate that terrible storm of divine emotion. I wanted to hurt the Savior and I succeeded. How can I ever ask anything of him again? He did not deserve to be whole, not now.

Which was ridiculous: the Savior was his god. The Savior wasn’t going to hate Nik forever no matter how bad his behavior had been. If anyone had ever loved him, it was the Savior. Nik knew that, intellectually, on much the same level that he knew that there was no reason to fear the little sponge-wielding man who’d helped him bathe. Nik could see in his own mind the structures which had warped, the exact way that damage was provoking these irrational fears, the knots of trauma that were behind the injury. If the trauma had not been too fresh for mind-healing, he even knew how to treat them. Except, of course, that he’d need to ask the Savior to do so. If I could just get over my irrational fear of the Savior I could have him cure my irrational fear of him, Nik thought wryly. It was almost funny.

Someone tapped at his door, and Nik tensed. An unfamiliar voice with the rumbling inflection of a greatcat said, “Lord Nikola?”

Nik rolled over to turn away from the door and scrubbed his tear-streaked face against the pillow. Savior, what now? “Yes?”

The door creaked open. Through the reflection in the glass window opposite him, he saw an orange-and-black feline head poke through the door. “All right if I come in?” Nik nodded. He didn’t want some strange greatcat looking at him – or anyone looking at him, ever again, in truth – but at least the greatcat didn’t trigger any fresh panic in him.

The greatcat padded into the small room, spotted orange bulk filling the space beside the bed, and closed the door with a hindpaw. “Hi. I’m Lord Walther.” He sat on his hindquarters, careful not to crowd the bed. “Heard you’ve had a bad day.”

One corner of Nik’s mouth twitched up. “I’ve had better.” He rubbed his face against the pillow again and rolled onto his back to look at the greatcat. “How was the Ascension Ball? I missed most of it.”

The feline shrugged. “Food was good, but the catnip was a little dry.” He paused, then added apologetically, “Far better than your night, though.”

Nik managed a half-smile. “If it was even half as bad, you ought to complain to their majesties.” Lord Walther shrugged again and shook his head, whiskers spread. He lay down on the floor, which placed his head below the level of Nik’s bed. Nik watched him. “Did you come to heal me?” He’d never met Lord Walther before, but the greatcat had to be Blessed for physical healing – there weren’t any greatcats in Newlant with hereditary titles, nor were there any mind-healers among them.

“Do you want to be healed?” Lord Walther asked, chin against his forepaws, green eyes turned up to regard him.

Nik looked at his fingers, burned skin throbbing under bandages. “I don’t think it’ll work.”

“Mmm.” The greatcat did not ask why, for which Nik was grateful. “The other Blessed asked me to see you because they thought I’d be less intimidating. No one has ever said that to me before. Is it actually true?”

That provoked a real laugh from Nik. “It is. Actually,” he admitted. “We’ve always had greatcats around and, well, all the greatcats I’ve ever met have been peaceable and respectful.”

Lord Walther’s eyebrow whiskers perked. “‘Respectful’? Really?”

Nik made a face. “It’s not a question of manners. I mean…some humans I know don’t care what others want; they’ll try to get their way no matter what. If it’s a problem for you then they’ll do whatever they can to work around you, or bully you, or coerce you out of your stance. If you disagree with them they assume you’re either ignorant, stupid or evil. There’s no respect. I’m sure there must be greatcats who are like that too, but I haven’t met them.”

The greatcat Blessed nodded his orange and black head, rubbing chin against forepaws with the motion. “I suspect your experience is due more to you specifically than any virtue in us, Lord Nikola. It’s a great honor to meet you. I wish it were under better circumstances.” Something in Nik’s expression must have conveyed his dubiousness, because the greatcat spread his whiskers in a feline smile. “Every greatcat knows how much you’ve done personally for our kittens. You’ve saved hundreds if not thousands of little ones from being no better than wildcats. You’re a hero to us. To a lot of humans too, even if they don’t show it.” Nik didn’t know what to say to that. Lord Walther crept closer to the bed, rising just enough to rest his chin on the edge. “I can’t change what those men did to you, much as I wish I could. But I would really like to undo as much of the damage as the Savior may. If you don’t mind me trying.”

Nik closed his eyes, the bone-deep exhaustion that permeated his body almost enough that he could sleep despite the pain. “I don’t mind you trying,” he said, even though he tensed at the idea, even though his heart rate soared when he spoke the words.

Lord Walther nudged Nik’s arm with his nose, and Nik lifted it obediently to let his arm drape over the greatcat’s neck, bare palm against orange and black fur. Lord Walther’s mind was a pleasing array of healthy well-connected structures; it was good to look at a balanced mind instead of his own damaged one. The greatcat rested his nose against Nik’s stomach. Nik tried to relax but couldn’t. He couldn’t feel the Savior. He didn’t want to feel the Savior. The Blessed greatcat whuffled against his abdomen. “Not working?” Nik asked.

“Haven’t tried yet,” Lord Walther said. A purr rumbled deep in his throat. “I am entirely taking advantage of the excuse to collect human cuddling.”

Nik chuckled. “Because you have nothing better to do, I’m sure.” But he stroked the greatcat anyway; bandaged, the motion didn’t make his fingers hurt any more than they already did, and the action was calming.

“If there’s something better to do than get your ears rubbed, I don’t know what it is.” The greatcat purred louder as Nik shifted his hand to rub his palm against the base of Lord Walther’s ears.

“Is this your approach to scared young children?” Nik asked, eyes still closed.

“Maybe. If I get your mother in here to hold you and show she trusts me, do you think it would help?”

Nik laughed. “No. Sorry.”

“Pity.” Walther tilted his head to rub his nose against Nik’s chest. “You mind?”

He shook his head. “It’s fine.” Even knowing the motive behind the greatcat’s behavior, that he was using the same tactics to put Nik at ease that Nik used on his own petitioners, did not make it ineffectual. In a way, it made it more comforting. He yawned. “Mph. Excuse me.”    

Nik felt the greatcat’s whiskers splay in amusement. “Don’t let me keep you awake. You need the sleep. Believe me.” Lord Walther paused, then added, “If you can sleep while I’m here and don’t mind, I’ll stay. I really don’t have anything better to do.”

Nik was too tired to object. His heart had stopped hammering in his chest, and with a greatcat next to him even his body recognized no one was going to abduct him by force. The burning pain in his fingers had subsided to a duller ache. Maybe he could rest at last.

§

It was dark when Nik woke, disoriented, a warm weight against his chest emitting a gentle snore. He bolted upright, and the weight lifted with a jolt.

“Uh wha stay back!” That was Anthser; the greatcat whipped his head about and turned a tight circle to scan the tiny infirmary room for intruders.

Nik’s hands didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt, not his throat or face or chest. Nik splayed his hands in the darkness and touched the bare fingertips gingerly. He winced against expected pain, but there was no soreness in them. Each was whole, with its own fingernail, new and soft as an infant’s. Nik laughed. I guess it’s not my unconscious mind that’s worried about the Savior. He felt much better, not just physically but emotionally, with this tangible proof of the Savior’s abiding good will. He wanted to reach for the Savior, to thank him—

—but terror and adrenaline spiked through him at the thought: he was on the ship, tied to the chair as Brogan pushed burning needles under his fingernails and he was drowning in the Savior’s grief and anger—

“Lord Nik? You all right?” Anthser nosed at his shoulder. Nik wrapped an arm over Anthser’s neck and clung to him, fighting to breathe, to calm his pounding heart. The greatcat rubbed his head against Nik’s chest, nuzzling close and purring. “It’s all right,” he rumbled, voice low. “You’re safe now.”

Safe now. It was some minutes before the reality penetrated, before he could dislodge himself from the awful memory and return to the present, panting and shaking. So, not all better yet. When he unlocked his arm from about the back of Anthser’s neck, the greatcat raised his head to peer at him, worried. “Uhh…should I get anyone for you, Lord Nik?”

Nik dropped his arm, realized anew that his hand didn’t hurt, and petted Anthser instead. He shook his head in response to the question. “Nothing they can do.” Just phantoms in my head, and they couldn’t be cured yet even if I could let the Savior in to do so. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Umm.” Anthser butted against Nik’s hand. “Making sure you’re safe. Lord Walther said you were all right to see greatcats, just not humans. Umm. Are you all right to see me?”

Nik smiled, scratching behind one furry black ear. “I am. Any idea what time it is?”

“Not really. Two or three in the morning?”

“Back up. I’m going to find a water closet, or at least a bedpan, and then I’m going back to sleep.” Nik threw back the covers, still amazed by the way nothing hurt, and padded to the door.

“I’ll go with you.” Anthser slunk after him.

“I think I can manage on my own, Anthser,” Nik said dryly. The greatcat followed anyway, nosing at one arm until Nik draped it over his shoulders and stroked his neck. Nik studied the familiar contours of Anthser’s mind until he spotted the new little knot of raw unprocessed trauma embedded in it. I am not the only one affected here, Nik reminded himself, and let Anthser walk with him.


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