Austin was a patient man, and was not much older than Ryan. He didn’t yell at her when she made a mistake, only corrected her in a kind tone of voice and an easy smile, reminding her painfully of her father. He carefully guided her through the process of cleaning and binding wounds, and never once faltered with his light hearted attitude.
“Tomorrow, we can start with stitching a wound.” He told her, unravelling the bandage from his arm and folding it neatly. “The rest of today, you can learn how to do paperwork. Don’t look so unexcited, it’ll be fun.” He laughed, shaking his head at his own words. “Okay, maybe not fun, but it needs to be done.”
He led her to the desk, sliding into the chair and gesturing for Gwen to do the same with the one opposite. “Right.” He said, splitting the monstrous pile in half and giving one part to her. “At the moment, you’re not authorised to do paperwork by yourself, so I have to sit with you and do it with you. What you have to do is read through it, and tell me if there’s any issues. For instance, if the patient records say that ‘Susan had a cold’ and the paperwork says that she was half-devoured by rabid squirrels, it means that Susan is trying to get more time off of work, and you need to inform me of problems like that. It’s mostly just paperwork for the patients to verify their illnesses and injuries were real so they can claim insurance or whatever, so it’s very rare that anyone makes their injury sound worse than it actually is.”
He reached down, grabbing a large book. “This here is the patient records, but-” he paused, flicking through the book. “You only need to start from here on.”
It was only a few pages worth of patients, nothing that should take too long. “I know the pile looks big, but once you get into it, it’ll go down really quickly.”
“Austin, do you know anything about what career Ryan got put into?” She asked, running her finger down the edge of the page, reading through the names. They weren’t names that were anything special, she had expected that, but some of the afflictions were interesting, such as ‘stapled hand four times’. It was circled in red pen, with a question mark drawn next to it.
“Ryan…” He thought for a second. “Oh! The man you came here with last night, yes? I’m not authorised to tell you what he’s going to be doing, nor do I know, but if you haven’t been told, then it’s probably something to do with the scientists or The Council.” He glanced towards his watch before gesturing to the paperwork. “We need to get at least some of that done so you can go home.”
She nodded, and picked up the pen, sighing. She highly doubted Riley’s previous words about the pile diminishing quickly.
Gwen got home before Ryan did, and it was almost nightfall before the man walked into the room, smiling tightly at her in greeting. She held out the cup of noodles to him, and he took them with a muttered “thanks.” He threw himself down into the chair, which rocked threateningly under the abuse.
“How did today go?”
Another tight smile.
“I take it you can’t tell me then.” Gwen said, sounding exasperated.
He shook his head. “No. I can’t. I had to swear an oath, didn’t even get a choice in the matter.”
“How can they force you to swear an oath?”
The smile made a return, and she sighed. “Secret, right.”
They said in uncomfortable silence, which was extremely uncommon for them. They had long learned to make the silences comfortable.
“How was today?” Ryan asked after a few minutes of eating.
“Good.” Gwen told him. “Austin’s really nice, except I have to do paperwork.” She frowned at his laughter. “It’s not funny, it’s so boring.”
“How did you go with the first aid part?”
“I got to learn about cleaning and binding wounds. Nothing too exciting, except tomorrow I get to learn how to stitch a wound shut.”
“That’s kinda cool.”
“Yeah. Not as cool as your super-secret job though, I bet.”
“How do you know that my super-secret job isn’t doing all The Council’s paperwork?”
“Because you’re a champion bear fighter. They wouldn’t dare have someone so useful do paperwork.”
He laughed at her again, and pointed his fork at her. “You’re very right. They won’t tell me the extent of what I’m supposed to be doing yet, but I’ll find out soon enough, I guess.”
“I hope it’s paperwork.”
Ryan was gone before she woke up in the morning, Gwen absently recalled being woken up but she had obviously quickly fallen back into slumber. She shrugged it off, figuring that it was just to do with The Council telling him what his job would be. She got herself ready for the day, and went off to work.
She expected Ryan to be home by the time she was, but it wasn’t so. Recalling the day before, he had gotten home about an hour after she did, so she settled herself at the table with a pad of paper, finding herself absently drawing on it.
It was almost two hours later when Ryan walked through the door, and he ignored her, and walked straight into the bedrooms, throwing himself onto one of the beds. She followed after him, prodding at him to roll over.
“What’s wrong?” She asked.
He gave her a tired laugh and simply just pulled her down to lay on the bed with her, and that’s the way they stayed for the rest of the night.
Gwen awoke to Ryan getting out of the bed early in the morning. “Go back to sleep.” He told her as she sat up.
“When will you be home?” She asked, sleepily rubbing at her eyes.
“Late, probably. Don’t wait up for me.” He shrugged himself into a jumper and struggled to tie the fabric around his arm. He gave up, looking at her with imploring eyes. “I need help.”
She laughed at him softly, padding over to him and tied the fabric quickly around his arm. “It doesn’t look great.” She told him.
“Doesn’t matter.” He said, and then yawned into his fist. “I’ll see you later.” And with that, he walked out of the room, and a few seconds later, Gwen heard the front door open and slam shut.
It had only been three days, but yet it felt as though they were already taking her best friend away from her.
“I won’t be back for a while.” Ryan told her one night, when he had gotten home early enough to eat dinner with her. “They said it’ll only take a few days.”
“What will only take a few days?”
And the tight smile made its reappearance, and it spoke more than his words did.
She hated this, hated that Ryan left so early and got home so late, and she didn’t even know what he was doing all that time he was away. She hated that it was so secret that Ryan couldn’t even hint towards what he was doing, hated that no one would tell her what he was doing. It felt like everyone knew, except her.
“You’re zoning.” Austin said to her, nudging her slightly. “Did you sleep last night?”
She didn’t. She had been too busy worrying over Ryan. The whole ‘few days’ had quickly grown into a week, and she was growing nervous. What if he didn’t return at all and she was left alone?
“Something like that.” She told him.
“Listen, if you’re worried about your friend, you shouldn’t be. He’s doing a good thing, and he’s safe. The Council will protect him to the best of their abilities.”
“What are they protecting him from?”
And her question went unanswered, and she felt like screaming, and screaming and screaming.
But she didn’t. She suffered silently without him and waited for his return.
“It was only supposed to be a few days, Gwen.” Ryan told her tiredly, eyes bruised with the lack of sleep. He looked pale, and it made him look even sicklier. She wondered if they were going to run him into the ground until he died, and then just replace him without a second thought.
“That doesn’t change that you were gone for a week and a half.” She said quietly. “I don’t like this, Ryan.”
“I know you don’t.” He wrapped his arms around her, and held her. The heater was on, and his skin and hair was quite sweaty. He his head on top of hers, the sweat pressing against her hair almost made her pull away from him, but instead, she curled her hands into the fabric of his shirt, pulling him close. It was perfect and gross all at the same time. “It’s not fair.” She whispered into his chest, and she could’ve sworn she heard him say “I know.”
She gets angry when Ryan gets taken away from her again and again, a rage that isn’t consuming, but a slow, yet fierce burn.
It’s Riley who catches the brunt of it, when he wakes her up one morning and Ryan still is off on another mission that was supposed to again only take a few days, but it was already day six and he still wasn’t back.
“Why won’t you just tell me where he is?” She snapped. “Or at least tell me what he’s doing, or if he’s okay? That’s all I ask! Just to be sure that he’s still alive!”
“Gwen.” Riley said slowly, but the rage inside her lashed out at him.
“No!” She growled.
“Tell me where he is, now.” Her voice suddenly went deadly calm, and she saw Riley pale the slightest bit before he backed out the door and slammed it shut behind him.
And the rage still licked at her skin like fire, burning, and she knew that she shouldn’t go after Riley; the rational part of her mind was screaming at her that it was an extremely bad idea. But she did, she went after him, screaming his name until he stopped.
“Gwen!” He snapped, looking nervously at the group of people who had been alerted by her screaming. She focused him with a hard look.
“Tell me where he is.”
And if that wasn’t her whole current life in a nutshell.
“This isn’t fair, Riley. Not to him, not to me.”
And Riley gave her a sad smile, and shook his head. “We all do our part around here, Gwen.”
And those words were just kindling for the fire, and before she could stop herself, she punched him. Her hand hurt from the force, but it felt good. She watched as Riley took on a blank expression, his voice suddenly flat. “Gwen, if you are to repeat your actions, punishment will be doled out. Stop bringing this subject up.”
He turned on his heel, and left her alone in a group of people she lived with, yet didn’t even know. She copied his actions, pushing past the crowd and walked up the stairs, storming into her apartment, and slammed the door shut, rattling the whole apartment.
“Riley tells me that you lashed out at him.” Ryan says, the moment he steps through the door after being away for two weeks.
“Are you going to threaten to punish me too?” She asked, sounding like a sullen child. “Because you can, I don’t care.”
“Gwen.” He said, and he hesitated, shaking his head. She threw herself into his chest, and closed her eyes. She vibrated with anger.
“I hate this. I hate this. I hate this.”
“I know.” He soothed. “But we’ll get used to this, we have to.”
“I don’t want to have to get used to this.” She said, pushing herself away from him, looking up into his eyes that were like rain clouds, and they’re dull and faded, and she realises not for the first time that he’s sick, and he’s dying.
It hits her like a knife in the chest, like shrapnel from a wayward bullet. “Why do you stand for this?” She asked, tone sounding broken.
But if her voice sounded broken, his was hollow, empty. “Because I have no other choice.”
And she’s drowning in his pain.
She’s surprised when she wakes up one morning, and he’s sitting on the edge of his bed, looking down at his hands, actually still in the apartment when she wakes up for once. He looks up when he realises she’s awake, and offers a smile, but it’s not heart-felt. It’s the one you offer to someone when you have to tell them bad news, like ‘I’m sorry sweetheart, but Grandma was old and sick’.
Gwen’s chest seizes, and she sits up. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
And he laughs, and it’s hollow and everything that a laugh shouldn’t be. He rubs his face, and closes his eyes. “I’m sick, Gwen.” And she knows that, she doesn’t get why he’s telling her that. “I’m sick.”
He gives a choked sob. “I’m so sorry.”
And she realises, and she feels like she’s falling, and falling, and falling.