- teawithlemon2 —
- November 24th, 23:19
Rose said his name.
Cried it out as he was leaving, actually, though he wouldn’t read into it, much. After their quick handfasting she’d called him Major exactly once, then danced around every conversation without having to address him, like he was a man untethered to life. Nearly a month together and this was the first time she’d used his name. He smiled a little as he walked towards the East Wing, recalling the way she’d bit her lip in hesitation. He wanted to take her in his arms and kiss those lips until she said his name again, or moaned it, or forgot it for better reasons.
Except…he had made a promise not to.
All he knew for certain was that he was in love with her. Harping over details of his good fortune seemed ungrateful, and his usually dogmatic brain seemed to agree with his heart this time; every time he tried to go back and probe his memory for a good explanation for why Rose had ended up with him, all he could think of was her smile. Why had she taken his hand and not looked back? He had a thousand questions, but by some tacit agreement they weren’t talking about the past, only the future. His problem was that when he thought about the future, he envisioned things like reading at night with his head in her lap. Drinking hot cocoa by candlelight. Sliding his hand up those infernal skirts and hearing his name fall from her lips a little broken, maybe.
“Mental,” he muttered under his breath.
He’d get there eventually. He’d seen so many different woman as he traveled the universe. Women who ruled planets, women who ruled nothing greater than their own hearth. Women who failed, women who built cities, women who were too weak to stand and women who died fighting. No one had been caught up in his orbit before Rose, and she’d been nothing more than a happy accident, a radiant gift from the universe. So far she seemed up for any adventure, even willing to move to a new planet and make a home with him. It didn’t make sense, but then again, neither did an old military doctor making camp outside of a battlefield.
Dr. Alice Prevya’s office was easy to find once he got to the East Wing. It was the last in a row of offices adjacent to the general surgery wing and the only one with the door open. He wanted to poke around all the rooms and observe as much as he could. He could already tell this was going to be the most well-equipped hospital he’d ever served in, and not because he’d seen the dozens of well-organized supply ships coming and going off the roof. Everything was spotless, calm, quiet and not crowded. Some of that was due to people hunkering down in the blizzard, but he knew it was no easy thing to lower the stress level at a hospital. By the time he reached that open door he was already predisposed to like Dr. Prevya, and his first impression was confirmed when she waved him in, apologized for being on her comm., and gestured for him to sit while she ended her conversation with ‘Mum loves you, sweetie.” She matched his smile and turned around a photo on her desk of a little girl with fluffy dark hair sticking straight up.
“That’s Grace. She’s two. I know she’s right down the hall, but I always call her right after she wakes up from her nap. Do you have children, Dr. Tyler?”
“No,” he said, his brilliant brain torturing him with an image of Rose crouched down with her arms open, her face alight as the baby took his first wobbly steps towards her.
“Right, you’re newlyweds. Sorry, I forgot. Congratulations.” She sat down in a squeaky red leather chair and folded her hands on top of a handful of folders. “Welcome, Major John Tyler, M.D., of the Ninth Battalion.”
“Formerly,” he said, regretting it immediately. It made him sound maudlin or childish and at the moment he was feeling neither. He was only impatient to get going, start a caseload, get the lay of the land and try to get his wife to love him.
“I am sorry for your loss. Agrelesh was a horrible tragedy. But…if it is not improper, I must admit that your decision to transfer to our mission here at Kindred is a blessing for the City of Tides, Dr. Tyler.”
“Please, it’s John.”
Dr. Prevya on the other side of the desk nodded once and extended the informality of her own first name, and he nodded back. He kept his posture ramrod straight, self-conscious of the fact that he hadn’t been able to shower or shave before this meeting. Even though he and Rose hadn’t even been anywhere near the invasion, he felt like he could smell the dust of war on himself. At least his hair was still close-cropped and neat, and he had working shoes instead of pack boots, but he still wanted a bath more than anything else. Dr. Prevya, in contrast, had just supervised an entire day of surgeries and a flurry of activity on the roof, yet not a single dark hair had escaped her neat chignon and the collar of her white dress shirt was as crisp as if she’d just put it on in the morning. There was a small gold pin on the lapel of her jacket, the white flag with the red cross on it, and when she saw him notice it, she smiled and opened a drawer in her desk.
“Here,” she said. “We all bear the cross on our person, but surgeons don’t have it as part of our uniform so we prefer a pin, or an armband.”
“Thank you,” John said, and mentally ticked that off his list. Obtain insignia of hospital. Check. Mention the awkward entire-village-destroyed topic. Check.
“Your specialty is trauma and we have that in spades, as does any large city, but not post-war trauma. Kindred serves the City of Tides, rich and poor equally. Ten percent of business profits fund the hospital and other charities. That’s why the docks are located here—we’re a bit of a neutral zone. No agenda other than healing.”
“I’m grateful for the position, Alice. I thought there would be more of a transition between solider and civilian, but one day I was enlisted, and the next I’m flying off to an entirely different planet.”
“Tides is a bit of a melting pot,” Alice said with a smile. “I’m sure the both of you will fit right in. I’ve taken the liberty of registering you as citizens so you can move about freely. You can pick up new uniforms at the hospital laundry any time, I’ve left them your name. You’ll find your occupation puts you in the highest echelons of society, if you have the inclination to move in such circles.”
“What, in all my free time?”
“We also have weekly table game matches down in the games room—air hockey, billiards, hand-football, spike bowling. Very loud, very competitive. There’s usually blood involved.”
John grinned. Rose would love that.
“Anyway, as I was saying, there are a fair amount of everyday accidents as well as altercations with aircraft, ground vehicles, forest predators. If you keep within a mile of the pikes, the raptorfish will consider you a provider and will protect you from anything dangerous in the forest. Beyond the line, I advise staying inside a carriage or other conveyance. Do you enjoy hiking? The far side of the city has a state-patrolled park, danger-free.”
“I…don’t know, really,” John said. All he could think of was that he’d had the carriage drop them off at the edge of the wood. Had they been within the parameters of safety? Oh, God. He hadn’t known there was a pragmatic purpose for placing the gruesome pikes on the front lawn of the hospital. Rose could have been…
“Some say the pikes are unholy,” Dr. Prevya said, and sighed, pressing her fingers to her temples. “Maybe they are, but it is an effective way to bury paupers and bring the local carnivorous bird population to heel. I don’t know. We revisit it every year, but no one has come up with a better idea. You might find a lot of that here, I’m afraid. If you do have a better idea, for that or anything at Kindred, my door is always open.”
“Forgive me, but how do you defend yourself against…human attacks? When we arrived, there were no guards in the foyer.”
“Guards in the foyer?” Dr. Prevya asked, tilting her head. “Why would we need guards in a hospital? We have a security team, of course, but this is neutral ground, John, not one of your battlefields.”
“They were never my battlefields,” he corrected her. She watched him for a heavy minute of silence while he fought not to squirm.
“Forgive me. There’s no good way to talk about war, is there? They send us the spoils from planets and cities we only know from maps, they reduce a lifetime of sorrow to a paragraph on an invoice and we continue on our way. I meant no offense, I truly didn’t.”
“Good. Alright, then. Shall we go over your schedule? I want you to cycle through all the departments before you take over the Emergency wing.”
John shifted his chair forward, relieved that the personal part of the interview looked to be over. Facts and figures, he could handle. Caseloads and patient procedures and hospital philosophy, that was what he wanted. Not the thought of Rose being attacked in a forest.
Dr. Prevya offered to walk him down to the dining hall after their meeting was over, helpfully pointing out the most direct route on the map attached to the wall by her office door. He declined with a smile and her face brightened.
“That’s right, it’s not all trauma, is it?” she said, her dark eyes sparkling. “I look forward to meeting your wife. I hope she’ll be happy at Kindred. When the winter season ends, a lot of us move to houses in the out-country or bigger homes in the city. It’s just so hard to travel in blizzard conditions that it makes sense for most of the staff to live on-site in the winter. The tunnels are so crowded, it often takes too long to get from one place to another.”
“Oh yes, there’s a whole network of tunnels under the city. How else would we get around in the snow? Everything should have been included in your welcome packet.”
“I left it with Rose.”
“Ah. Well, again, welcome to Kindred.”
“Thank you, Alice.” John shook her hand and watched her walk swiftly down the hall. She skipped a step every now and then but was not outright running to her next appointment. He huffed in admiration. She had been calm and organized with him and not once had he suspected she was going to be late for something else. When he grew up, he wanted to be just like that.
Nothing tempted him to stop on the way back to their suite of rooms. Not the robotics department, not the cyber-training lounge, not the spiderweb burn lab, nothing. He remembered how Alice walked, jogging every couple of steps but not outright running, and adopted the same gait. He’d probably twist an ankle.
Unlocking the door to their suite and pushing the door open felt like swallowing a very large amount of whiskey—a smooth shock followed immediately by contented calm. John smirked, then opened his mouth to call out for Rose, but saw the lights were on in the other room. He crossed the floorboards, speaking her name when he reached the double French doors that separated the lounge from the bedroom. Their bedroom.
Rose had unpacked, because the duffel was a deflated balloon in front of the corner wardrobe, but she wasn’t at the desk poring over the welcome packet. John leaned against the doorjamb and just looked at her, asleep on the bed.
She was curled up in a fetal position on the very edge of the mattress, afraid of taking up too much room on a bed that wasn’t solely her territory. She’d laid out a mud-colored dress and a forest green scarf to change into for dinner, but was asleep in nothing but her shift. Her petticoats, skirt and blouse lay in a heap by the door to the ensuite. John imagined what had happened—I’ll just rest my eyes for a second before we have to go downstairs, she must have thought, before collapsing in an exhausted heap.
He walked into the room and picked up her discarded clothes, draping them over a chair with the new dress. She would look better in brighter colors, if that wouldn’t be too scandalous here. He would have to open an account for her to shop with; he could use a few things as well, and if the tunnels really did provide access to the city, he wouldn’t have to wait for the blizzard to end. She didn’t wake when he stripped off and stood under the blessedly hot shower spray for half an hour, nor when he puttered around the room, pulling on soft flannel sleep trousers and turning off all the lights. He was a little hungry, but there was no way he was going to leave her now.
Crouching down by her side of the bed, John gently stroked the blonde hair off her face. Her lips were parted and her face was paler than he liked to see, faint smudges of purple under her dark lashes. Her chest rose and fell with each breath, one arm bent under the pillow and her other hand under her chin. He let himself look at the soft rounded curves for a half a minute—technically not illegal, and he wasn’t touching, wasn’t even fantasizing. Just checking, really. Sue him for looking at his own wife’s chest. She smelled like tea, warm sugar and something vaguely metallic he couldn’t identify. If his memory was a mixing bowl, he could scrape down the sides and try to get enough for one more substantial lump of knowledge, but when he tried to define her unique scent she whimpered in her sleep and he stopped trying to remember.
“Rose,” he said, cupping her face. His thumb stroked her cool cheekbone, the rest of his hand cupping the back of her neck. If she were awake and looking into his eyes…if she looked at him with joy instead of wariness…if.
“Mmm,” she said again, this time definitely distressed. John tilted the angle of his hand so his thumb was over the vein in her neck, which thrummed under his touch at a pace far too fast for someone asleep. He ran his hand down to her shoulder, which was bare except for the wide linen strap of her shift, and cupped it firmly.
“Rose, wake up.”
Rose opened her eyes and for a moment he thought he saw the battlefield in her nightmare. Then she blinked and sucked in air, putting her hands flat on the mattress and pushing up to a sitting position.
“Sorry. I’m sorry,” she said, running her hands through her hair. “Didn’t mean to fall asleep. Dinner, right?” She looked around at the dimly lit room, saw her clothes neatly draped on the chair, and then focused on him properly.
“I’m not hungry,” he lied, getting up and sitting next to her on the bed. The mattress was so firm it barely dipped under his weight, and the coverlet was pulled so tight it didn’t so much as wrinkle. Even from a foot away he could still feel her freeze in terror. He could see it in the way she clutched the edges of her shift and focused on the far wall instead of on him. For a second he was confused and afraid too—what did she know that he didn’t? Why was she ready to bolt? And then he realized that waking her up, both of them half-dressed, looked like he was trying to open the envelope he’d sealed shut.
“No, it’s okay, we can go downstairs, I don’t mind. Do the next thing,” she added, almost to herself.
“Rose, please look at me.”
It took her a second, but she complied and John tried to relax his posture into something casual and non-threatening.
“I guess it’s time to have this conversation,” he said lightly. “The one where I reiterate you have nothing to fear from me.”
“I don’t fear you,” Rose said, reaching out a hand and then snatching it back.
“Alright,” he said. “Do you want to tell me about your bad dream?”
She shook her head, her hair obscuring her face.
“I’m a good listener.”
“I don’t…it didn’t have a plot. Just…fire. I think.”
John put one hand on the bedspread between them, palm up. He didn’t say anything, just followed Rose’s gaze out the window, where snow blew violently in the hazy yellow exterior lights. The heating element in the stones emitted a soft hiss every three minutes, he learned. The wind rattled the weather-tight windows and someone in the suite above them was taking a shower, he could tell by the rushing noise in the pipes in the bathroom. Rose stared straight ahead, lost in her thoughts, uncaring that her shift gapped in the front and he could see quite a bit more than when she was all curled up. While he tried not to move, she finally lowered her hand to the bed on top of his. He spread his fingers apart just as she pushed hers down to link them between his. John relaxed shoulders he thought were already loose and rubbed his thumb against hers a fraction of an inch.
“I’m afraid I’ll give in,” she said, breaking the not-quite silence.
“To you,” she said, and then turned those whiskey-colored eyes on him.
“Would that be bad?” he asked, thinking of the vows he made to her, vows that he would keep for eternity, whether she left him at the end of the handfasting year or not.
“I want to know who you are,” Rose said, her gaze roving over his face.
John wondered if she liked what she saw. He knew he had an interesting face instead of a conventionally handsome one; big ears, sharp cheekbones, wide mouth and bright blue eyes. His shoulders were more angular than broad, but his arms were sleek, wiry muscle and despite his age, his stomach was still as firm as it was when he enlisted. These arms will carry you he thought when her gaze dropped down from his face to his bare chest. Protect you. Defend you.
“I think we should go out,” she said, and in her tone was the first note of cheerfulness he’d heard since she woke up.
“Yeah, like you’re a regular bloke who picks me up and buys me chips. And I’ll find out who you are, and you can find out more about me, and that’s how we’ll spend the winter season.”
“You want me to court you,” he translated.
“Yeah! That’s the word.”
“Do I get to kiss you?” he asked, grinning to soften the intensity of his question.
“Not if I kiss you first,” she teased, and then did this thing with her tongue, folding it to the edge of her teeth while she smiled at him. Lust swarmed his brain; he wanted to grab her and devour her mouth with his, pull her backwards onto the mattress and cover her with his body until he could feel every curve pressed against him.
Instead he merely rolled his eyes a little.
Rose absentmindedly scratched at her neck, where he saw a faint pink rash curving down across her collarbone.
“What’s this?” he asked, reaching across their joined hands to pull her hand away from her skin. Honestly, scratching was going to make it worse. Allergic reaction? Eczema?
“All that wool’s scratchy. And, not to complain, but really…”
“It’s the way they dress here.”
“Seems like with all their fancy hospital tech they’d be cool with elastic,” Rose said, scratching at the other shoulder.
“Well,” he said, delighted to have information she didn’t have, “I learned that the city is connected to Kindred with tunnels. We can access all the shops. You can find some new clothes tomorrow, if you like.”
“Fantastic,” Rose said, gifting him with another wide smile. John didn’t know what it was that had changed her attitude so far, so fast, but hoped it had to do with their new arrangement. He was still a little fuzzy on the details, but she seemed to be relieved, so he’d just figure it out as he went along. Like a regular bloke. On dates.
“We can order some food to the room,” he suggested. “Or if you’d rather go back to sleep?”
“Nah, I’m up. Might as well eat. Is this okay, if I…” Rose gestured to her shift, clearly not wanting to put all her other layers back on.
“Keep off the wool,” he answered.
Rose let go of his hand and stood up, stretching with her hands to her lower back. John knew, he knew she wasn’t deliberately trying to drive him spare, but her breasts jutted up and out, straining against the ill-fitting linen and causing his mouth to go dry and his palms to sweat at the same time, like his nervous system was having an apoplectic fit. He couldn’t keep himself from stirring inside his flannel trousers and thanked all the gods that Rose didn’t notice when she finished her stretch and sauntered off in the direction of the lounge. He blew out a huff of air and squeezed his eyes shut, thinking of his last surgery in the battalion, which had been an amputation above the knee. Good, mission accomplished. Now he could stand up and follow her out of the room and see just what kind of food the hospital would serve them on their first date.