Happy Valentine’s Day!
I’m spending the day with my significant other, the muse. All day. No exceptions; I don’t care if you’re bleeding from the head, it’s Me and The Story and nothing else. I’ll be at the pub having great locally brewed beer and nachos, and sharing the date internationally is my friend Mel, who will be writing at her local pub as well (in theory, except her town is having a “state of emergency” because they ran out of rock salt and can’t just use dirt on the roads because apparently they hate fun and want her to stay home).
I’m working on Shiva’s Bow (Livi #3) and having more fun than I have possibly had writing anything ever. Or at least in the past year and a half. It takes place in Nepal and I am just in love with the locale, in love with the characters, in love with EVERYTHING. I write a little bit every night, trying not to push it, easing back into things. The book is likely not very good at this point (zero draft, hello) because I’ve already fubared the timeline for getting into Jomsom, and I think I need another chapter before the flight. But I feel like me. Me. I haven’t felt like myself in…longer than I’d care to admit, though technically I just did. I’m 17K into the novel and enjoying every goddamn second of it. I am even looking forward to the middle slog when I traditionally HATE IT, but there will still be, somewhere, that part of me rejoicing because the story has taken shape, it’s in the driver’s seat, and I am doing precisely what I was made for.
To the *counts* three (four, if my mother reads this) people who know these books, and the rest of you who want a lil something for Valentine’s Day, here’s some Livi and West for you. (It’s long. Sorry. BUT I LOVES IT. And this is as close as I get to romance. Also, if there are typos, bite me.)
I set the flashlight on the nightstand between the beds, balancing it on its end so it shone freely up at the ceiling and gave the room enough of a glow that I could see. Puddles of rainwater tracked across the floor, glistening in the low light. I kicked my shoes off, stripped my hoodie off so I could maneuver better. It landed with a wet splotch on the floor.
West was awake, at least, his head moving, lips mumbling, but even with the light I couldn’t make out his features, his face dark with blood.
Assess injuries. Think clearly.
I leaned over him. “West?” My fingers touched his jaw, drawing two lines through the slick blood. I returned to my bag, found the scissors, and sliced through his pullover, then his T-shirt, and pulled the pieces off to cast them on the floor. No blood anywhere else so I left his khakis as-is. My hands moved swiftly over his torso, touching chilled skin that had gone pale, finding no other injuries. I pressed down on his ribs but he didn’t take in a sharp breath, no heat radiated abnormally, and nothing felt broken.
Steps behind me. I shuffled back, awkward in my soaked jeans, water squishing between my toes. Pulaski carted a bucket of water, Thomas had the towels. I wasn’t sure how clean the water would be but West could fight infection—right now I just wanted to see how badly he was hurt.
I took the towels, turned my back to them, knelt at the head of the bed and took the first towel to wipe down his face. Blood came off, dark on white. Pulaski set the bucket next to me, and I soaked another towel, used it to wipe what remained of the blood.
The wound was along his right temple and up, past the hairline. Skin was darkening with a bruise that would be quite colorful in a few days.
Wet towel down. Another clean dry towel in hand, pressed against the wound. I counted the seconds in the silence, my heart beating hard, knocking against my ribcage. The men behind me weren’t breathing, just staring, their focus heavy upon me. I generally thought of West as their employer, but in the tense silence, I realized, then, that he was a friend.
I peeled the towel back. No new blood.
A breath of relief left me and I set aside the towel. “West?” Fingers trailing from his temple to his jaw, turning his head toward the glow of the flashlight on the nightstand. “West?”
His hand suddenly clasped mine, eyes fighting and eventually focusing on my own. “I’m okay,” he croaked.
My shoulders sagged, emotion crashing into me hard enough that I would’ve toppled over if I’d been standing. I sucked air into my lungs but it wasn’t enough, relief more terrifying than actual fear had been.
Laurel cleared her throat. “I’ve got the first aid kit.”
He looked over my shoulder at her, his voice clearer this time. “I’ll take it.”
When his eyes swung back my way, I looked to the side, wiggled my fingers from his. Fell back onto my ass and scrambled onto my feet, soaked socks and the hems of my jeans dragging. He was fine, at least for the moment until I could check for a concussion. I needed to get cleaned up.
Thomas and Pulaski moved past me to speak to him, Laurel started over with the first aid kit but paused as I grabbed a fist of clothes from my overnight bag. Her hand gently clasped my arm, dark eyes met mine, one brow raised in question and her voice low. “You okay?”
I didn’t trust my voice, instead nodding and ducking past her for the attached bathroom.
Belatedly I realized I’d left the flashlight behind, but they needed it more than I did. I partially shut the door, let my eyes adjust with the vague light from the window. It had to be, what, no earlier than nine in the morning, but the sky was black, the rain blurring the landscape into layers of slate gray. This monsoon wasn’t normal and I longed to ask West what the hell was up.
It slammed into me, then, everything I’d put on hold while autopilot took over. I’d been in enough situations now that it was a natural reaction, the hyperawareness and immediate action of an emergency. I didn’t really think about his body there in the street, about all the blood, about the terror of being in a moment knowing the world was on the verge of tipping sideways and nothing would ever be okay again.
But now the emergency was taken care of, and he was okay, and tears rose because I wasn’t.
I held my breath, blinked against the burning in my eyes. The voices in the other room were white noise, steady like the rain beating the windows and roof above. I stripped off my wet T-shirt, jeans. Left them hanging over the tub. Dried off swiftly, tried to soak up rainwater from the long rope of my braid that swung heavily against my back.
But I was shaking. Badly. The starch left my legs and I sank onto the closed lid of the toilet, holding the towel over my face as my chest shook with sobs I failed to hold back.
Pru’s voice from last week repeated in my head: If it’s not going anywhere, just tell him that.
I could not make that claim any longer.
The voices in the other room continued, shadows moving across the floor through the ajar door as they stepped in front of the flashlight. I breathed in the stink of rainwater, scrubbed at my face until it was hot and raw but my eyes were no longer crying. A long breath through my nose sounded like a sniffle, loud in the bathroom but likely unheard by the others. I’d grabbed dark yoga pants and a tank top, and I slipped both on.
Laurel was gone when I returned to the bedroom. Thomas and Pulaski were on the way out with the bloody towels and bucket of water; the former met my gaze and nodded, the latter thrust his thumb over his shoulder at West with a, “Watch him,” warning.
They shut the door. I took a deep breath and turned back to West.
The flashlight was shifted on the nightstand to make room for the open first aid kit. His pants hung over the end of the bed, shoes were gone, and remaining towels were over the sheets now with one cutting over his lower half; any repeated jokes about his perpetual pantslessness died before they could form, though. He held a gauze-covered cold pack his temple, lying flat still on the bed. Some of his coloring had come back, his skin not the usual healthy bronze but not quite as pallid, and his black hair was partially dry, sticking up in all directions. His pale blue eyes started up at the ceiling, chest rose and fell with calm steady breaths.
I lowered myself wearily onto the bed opposite his, the small room pressing down on my shoulders as I struggled to find something to say.
West solved that problem for me. “You’re an idiot.”
I blinked at him. “Excuse me?”
“Do you have some mental deficiency that makes you do the opposite when I tell you to get to safety?”
“You got hit with a roof.”
“Yes, because I came back for you. You got hit with a roof.”
“Because I was busy buying you time to get to safety.”
I chewed savagely at the inside of my mouth, already calculating the distance to my guns before I realized it. Jesus Christ, it took seconds to remember why I usually wanted to shoot him in the face. “Let’s talk about that. What, you control wind now, tiger-boy?”
“You need to start talking to me. What the hell are you, West?”
Silence ticked on. He wouldn’t look at me, and as tension mounted and throttled the air, I expected a hasty exit on his part before he opened his mouth.
Then: “I don’t know.”
That knocked my anger sideways and I simply stared at him. “You…don’t know.”
He set the cold pack aside, continued starting upward which presented me with only his profile and no view of the wound. “I watched my brother executed when I was eight—and you need to stop looking at me like that while I’m saying this.”
I blinked, closed my mouth. My expression was likely one of abject terror, brain adjusting to this causal mention of a relative’s death. I licked my dry lips, swallowed a lump in my throat, and tried to remain composed.
Silence stretched for a moment. There was a delay, now, between the thunder and lightning, but the rain didn’t cease.
“And that was when the change first happened. After Dong-yul was shot, we were to stone his corpse. I reached for a rock and my hand was a tiger’s paw.” His voice was smooth and steady, speaking of this horrific thing with the casualness I’d use for talking about grocery shopping. “It didn’t exactly come with a manual, and since I had to hide what I was or be killed for it, there was no one I could ask.”
It was the most he’d ever said about Korea—and the prison camp where I knew he’d been born—in the ten months I’d known him. And my normal curiosity was silent, brain knowing full well that I did not want more details.
West said nothing more. He didn’t need to.
I blinked, my eyes dry and itchy. Stood, my body screaming with each movement as the strains and bruises sustained from escaping the monsoon came to life. I rifled through the first aid kit. “Do you need stitches?”
Whether that was “No, for real” or “No, I’m a manly man and I don’t need your silly sutures”, I had no idea and didn’t ask. If he wants to risk it opening and bleeding to death, he’d welcome to.
Even the thought felt like a lie, though.
I snapped closed the box’s lid, sat on the edge of the bed, and reached for the flashlight. “I’m going to check for a concussion.”
He caught my hand before it made contact with the flashlight, drew it back to my side. And didn’t let go. “I don’t have a concussion.”
“I know you have a thick skull but you were hit by a roof.”
“Half of one, I remember that much.” Blue eyes found mine, sharp and awake, the lucidity a relief but terrifying as I couldn’t escape him. “I’ve had concussions. This isn’t one.”
“That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Stupider than not going to the fucking hotel when I told you to?”
I sighed. And didn’t dislodge my hand, still grateful to feel his warm, strong grip after not being certain I ever would again. “What was the first thing you learned about me in Ethiopia?”
“That you’re a pain in the ass.”
“Besides that.” I waited but he said nothing. The tension in the air had shifted, not quite so oppressive now but crackling with electricity. “No one on my team is expendable and I don’t leave people behind.”
“We’re a team now?”
We’re something, I just don’t know what to call it yet. “Apparently, since I can’t get rid of you.”
“You’re not trying very hard.”
I ignored him with an annoyed purse of my lips, leaned over with the elbow of my free hand gently braced on his chest, and tilted his face to the side so I could get a good look at the wound. The ugly dark gash hadn’t reopened. Swelling wasn’t bad, though mottled bruises had bloomed on his flesh. He’d heal quickly. Not super magical fast, but swifter than me. I dragged my fingers gently over the damaged skin, my other hand still locked in his.
“You could’ve left me to drown,” I reminded him, heart hammering hard as I met his eyes. “Me injured, one air tank, collapsing cave. Anyone else would’ve left me to drown.”
“If you were anyone else, Olivia, I would’ve.”
The air seemed sucked right from the room, like I couldn’t breathe if I tried. He reached up, trailed his calloused fingertips from my temple to my jaw, watching me with a look that brought sudden gooseflesh to my bare arms.
And while the very rational part of my brain—that just days ago had discussed for the millionth time with my best friend how I couldn’t trust West—still existed, it grew quiet, and want rose in its place. Stupid, irresponsible, throw-caution-to-the-wind, holy-fuck-the-landing’s-gonna-hurt want.
But even when every fiber of my being wanted to take a leap of faith, instinct forced a retreat.
I started to sit up, gaze darting away, but his strong hands tugged me forward again. My head hit his chest and his arms came over me. Warm. Powerful. Safe. And I let them. Because it was scarily natural, secure no matter how that little voice rose up and said it wasn’t, and he was alive. I was probably still in shock, but I didn’t care, instead resting my ear over his heart and letting him hold me.
“You fall, I fall,” I whispered, repeating his words to me from months ago. “So don’t leap if you don’t want me to come after you.”
West said nothing, and we listened to the continuing beat of rain as the rest of the morning wore on.
(It’s one of the THEME songs.)
Whether you read it or skipped it, have a lovely day. I hope you have someone you would throw your pie for.