Chapter Twenty-Three | WaterWorks
The following days between Ashlynn and the Borrowers were progressively becoming less tense. There were brief conversations between the four of them which went smoothly and let both Dorian and Rey come to terms with the fact they’d be staying with a human for a little bit longer.
They moved from the bedside table to the ground not because they were uncomfortable, but because Soren insisted that he continue to practice and walk on his healing leg. Yes, it made Dorian and Rey a little more comfortable to be slightly hidden from Ashlynn’s eyes, but this dissipated after a few days as they would go on walks in the open with Soren within eyesight of Ashlynn.
Rey, for the most part, felt more at ease than his older brother Dorian ever since his conversation with their human host. Dorian was still skeptical, his father’s words ringing in his ears about humans and their tricks; however, he couldn’t deny that Ashlynn was, at the very least, receptive to Soren’s requests. It was strange seeing his brother, Soren – the one who taught Rey and him to stay away from humans – trusting and defending a human.
Dorian would have been at more unease if his brother showed fear, but that wasn’t the case. Twice during these following days, Ashlynn had pulled Soren to the side to change the cast on his leg. Soren remained completely calm as Ashlynn changed his cast. The eldest Borrower’s injured leg was now a soft cast, definitely an improvement and more flexible than the stiffer material Ashlynn had been using. It was still sensitive and bruised, but nowhere near where it used to be.
At the same time, it wasn’t where Soren wanted his injury to be. The Borrower knew Ashlynn meant no ill will or harm to his brothers or him, but he also knew this couldn’t be how things remained. He was grateful for everything Ashlynn had done; the eldest Borrower could not thank her enough – but this wasn’t the way things were supposed to be.
There were only a few things he could do to aid his recovery however, and they were walking and climb holds. So, Soren spent the majority of his time walking the length of the room near the wall without his walking stick. Each step with his injured leg ached, but it no longer sent a shockwave of pain up his leg. It was a good sign that his healing was headed in the right direction.
There were obvious issues other than the injury in his leg, which were energy and the continuous progression of time. Every few laps, Soren would have to take a break, needing the throbbing in his leg to ease before starting again. The other issue, time, was against him as usual. Soren knew he needed to get better so they could resume their lives back in the walls where Soren would keep borrowing and teach his brothers how to live – where they belonged.
Soren kept his desire to recover rapidly close to his chest, however, so he didn’t let up his brother’s hopes of leaving anytime soon. Instead, he encouraged Dorian and Rey to continue their training by climbing and running when Soren did his exercises.
Of course, Dorian and Rey did their best to help their older brother by walking with him and propping him up using their shoulders to balance when he was unsteady, but this was something Soren knew his body needed to do this on his own – and healing took time.
It was one of those days when Ashlynn was working quietly and Soren was taking his laps when Ashlynn’s voice carried from her kitchen table to her bedroom.
“Hey, Soren. Can I come in? I need to grab my headphones,” said Ashlynn.
“Yes, you’re good,” called Soren, noting that Dorian and Rey were currently resting in their box.
Soren had just made it back to the bedside table and propped himself against the leg base, feeling the subtle pulse of his heartbeat in his leg. Ashlynn poked her head into the room, her keen blue-grey eyes picking up his location after a moment of scanning the ground. She saw him and gave a small wave as she retrieved her headphones, but hesitated before leaving, noticing the momentary grimace on Soren’s face before he forced a smile.
“Everything okay?” she asked, her brow furrowing with concern.
“Yeah,” replied the eldest Borrower, running his fingers through his lengthening hair. “Just tired.”
Ashlynn sat on the ground nearby, scooting closer after noticing Dorian and Rey weren’t nearby. She had been conscious of their feelings and, knowing they were still a little uncomfortable with her nearby, had tried to give them the necessary space. Yes, they had gotten better over time, especially Rey, but there was an unease inherent and instinctual in their size difference.
“You could take a break,” she suggested. “You’ve been pacing back and forth for days nonstop.” Soren shook his head.
“Not really,” he muttered. “Not if I want to get better.”
“True,” Ashlynn signed. “But you can overwork your body. That’s why you need recovery time and rest days; and you haven’t taken any of those. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
“I can’t afford a rest day Ashlynn,” insisted Soren, reaching up and rubbing his eyes. “Not if we want to leave, hopefully sooner than later.”
His mind had been swirling with his worries and concerns that this slip of the tongue almost went unnoticed by him; however, the moment the words left his mouth, Soren wished he could rephrase or take the words back entirely. He wasn’t fast enough. He glanced up at Ashlynn who was already preparing for a rebuttal.
“Leave sooner than later?” she echoed hollowly. “Wow. I didn’t think I was that bad of a host.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” said Soren, attempting to backpedal out of his words.
“No?” asked Ashlynn, appearing slightly incredulous. “How’d you mean it then?” Soren was starting to feel uneasy and took the defensive.
“I just…” Soren’s mind scrambled to think of how to approach the subject. “I mean… that we, my brothers and I, aren’t supposed to be seen by humans, let alone stay with them. Don’t get me wrong! You’ve been wonderful and there is no way I can repay you, but… it’s not how things are supposed to be.”
“Wow! Now you’ve lumped me into the ‘humans’ group. Good to know. And why does it matter if you stay or go at this point? Haven’t I proven myself – at least to you?” Ashlynn shot back. Her blue-grey eyes steeled coldly at Soren’s inability to answer quick enough. He attempted to recover quickly after a beat of time.
“Ashlynn, I know you’ve earned my trust, but it’s not about that. There are rules; rules about us and things we need to do and…”
“And haven’t you broken basically all of them at this point? Really, what’s the point of upholding this set of rules of you’ve broken then already?” interjected Ashlynn.
The hair on Soren’s neck raised uneasily. Was she having second thoughts about letting them go? What was different? To Soren’s horror, Ashlynn continued; and what she said sent his instincts into a frenzy.
“I don’t know. It just seems like a hard time of it when it doesn’t need to be. Gathering supplies, living like nomads, hiding in the shadows like you’re in the dark ages or something. Just… wouldn’t it be easier if you stayed?”
Soren hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath while Ashlynn spoke. His heart thumped wildly in his chest, palms sweating slightly. Soren hoped his younger brothers weren’t hearing this, fearing their reaction. Calm down. She can’t know how this sounds; or does she.
The eldest Borrower swallowed dryly and readjusted his position as he sat. Don’t say anything reckless. She can change her mind at any point in time.
“Ashlynn,” said Soren. Thankfully, he managed to suppress the tremor playing with his vocal cords. “You’re right. It is a hard life; and one that I feel useful in. Being injured has only reassured me that I’m not meant to sit around having things brought to me. This life gives me purpose.”
“I’m sure it does, but…” Ashlynn cut in.
“Ashlynn, there are rules about being seen – about leaving to protect not just us, but all of our kind regardless of circumstance,” interrupted Soren, feeling his spark of bravery waxing and waning with every pulse of his heart. “Why do you want us to stay?”
The question left the Borrower’s mouth before he could stop himself. Ashlynn’s eyes steeled again as she looked away harshly. This made an uncomfortable hollow knot in Soren’s insides. For a solid thirty seconds of silence, Soren feared he may be grabbed before Ashlynn moved, pushing herself to her feet and rolled her eyes muttering, “Forget it,” under her breath angrily before leaving the room.
Soren could have collapsed with relief, but his mind still reeled with possibilities. Why the change of mind? What wasn’t Ashlynn saying? Soren now had the hard choice in front of him – leave and chance not being able to provide for his family or stay and risk being unable to leave ever again.
It was a few hours after Ashlynn and Soren spoke. It wasn’t unusual but, after the tenseness of the afternoon, anything was possible and up in the air. Soren was in enough of a right mind to gather up some necessary materials and let Rey and Dorian know where their packs were. Soren also shuffled some emergency provisions behind the electrical cover if the worse case scenario were to happen.
It wasn’t until the third hour that Ashlynn reappeared looking a little bit sheepish and, for lack of a better word, embarrassed.
Soren felt his body flexing, preparing to flee if necessary. He thanked the stars he sent Dorian and Rey into the walls to train their climbing skills on the low beams while he continued to pace outside the walls.
“Hey…” said Ashlynn quietly, making eye-contact intermittently before shying away. Before Soren could initiate the same greeting, Ashlynn stepped up to him, sat down in front of Soren with her shoulders slumped slightly, and continued speaking. “Look, I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to get angry.” Ashlynn’s sudden close proximity to the four-and-a-half-inch person only let him hear part of what she said through the pounding of his heart in his ears, but understood the overall gist based on his human counterpart’s demeanor.
Soren swallowed dryly again as he looked into the human’s softened features. “It’s okay,” he said slowly.
“I get what you were saying,” said Ashlynn. “And I get why you asked me about why I wanted you to stay. It’s just…” Ashlynn’s voice dropped off and, to Soren’s surprise, he could see clear drops of water glazing the surface of her blue-grey eyes which were still averted. “I’ll miss you.”
Those three words set Soren back on his heels. Missed? Him? Soren would believe his brothers or mother would miss him, but a human missing him? After his distrust? Rules? The disruption Soren had caused in Ashlynn’s schedule? All of these things should have had the opposite effect. Or did it?
Soren thought about the questions Ashlynn asked him over the days and the conversations they had. Suddenly, the realization dawned on him that he had indeed enjoyed his conversations with his human host. At first, what was a terrifying experience when he first arrived had become a saving grace – a distraction and something to cling to when he was completely alone.
He understood now – Ashlynn was going to feel lonely. She was asking why he had to leave not because she wanted to keep him against his will, but because the disruption and conversation had become a quick norm – something for her to cling to – and she was going to miss him.
Soren, with this information, felt the tenseness easing from his body. His chest, once clutched with an unease and anticipation to flee, was now heavy and aching.
“Ashlynn, I’m…” Soren couldn’t think of what to say, so he did the only thing he could think to do. Carefully, he hobbled over to Ashlynn’s left hand and boldly reached out and touched it. His mind flashed back to when she had reached out to him, pressing her pinkie against his leg. It was a nice memory.
For a time, it was quiet. It was all they needed. Warm tears threatened to leak over the edges of her eyes and, though unnerving, she reached over with her free hand and pressed the tips of her fingers against his back. While Soren was more certain of Ashlynn’s motives, his body still instinctually tensed. Her fingers were warm and soft. Finally, she pulled her right hand away.
Ashlynn laughed under her breath as she wiped her eyes with her now freed hand with a muttered, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” replied Soren. “I… didn’t even think about how leaving sounded to you.” Ashlynn shook her head.
“No. It’s just me being stupid, as usual,” she sighed. Before Soren could say anything, Ashlynn continued through a stifled sniff. “I… uh… well… Sorry, again. I found something that might help with your leg.” Soren felt his curiosity peaking as his unease began to subside.
“Help my leg?” he asked. Ashlynn nodded.
“Yeah,” she muttered. “I was reading up on physical therapy techniques and I think that if you were suspended and could keep the weight off of your leg that you could keep going for longer. It’s not much, but it could help.” Soren’s heart thumped nervously, but in partial excitement. The prospect of getting better faster and getting back to normal was lightening the conversation tremendously.
“But, how are you keeping the weight off of my leg. Isn’t that what strengthens my leg? The weight?” asked Soren. Ashlynn nodded.
“Well, that’s part of it,” she replied. “I don’t know if it’ll work, but there’s this thing called aquatic therapy. Basically, you have a bunch of exercises you do in the water.” Soren felt the excitement fading rapidly.
“Water exercises?” he asked hollowly. “But… I can’t swim. I mean, I’ve bathed, obviously. How can I do it if I can’t swim?” Ashlynn nodded.
“You wouldn’t have to swim. You just need to walk in the water in the tub back and forth,” replied Ashlynn. “It wouldn’t be too high and there would be things for you to grab onto just in case.” Soren felt slightly uneasy, but Ashlynn hadn’t steered him wrong before.
“Okay… what do I need to do?”
Ashlynn was gone for five minutes or so before coming back and retrieving Soren who, after giving permission, allowed Ashlynn to carry him to the bathroom. He had slipped into a pair of loose pants he didn’t mind soaking in water on and let Ashlynn explain the different exercises and where he needed to grab if he accidentally slipped. She offered to stay and, after careful consideration, Soren agreed.
The tub had be set up as a set of connecting lines connected to the bathtub walls. Each line was at water level so he could grab it easily. There were also odd things in the water which Ashlynn called flotation devices.
She lowered him into the water which came up just below his arms. It was warm and, thankfully, he could reach the bottom even without dipping his head under the water. Ashlynn then instructed him how to stay afloat and gain his footing. Mainly, she taught him that he needed to remain calm even if he plunged beneath the water.
Admittedly, it was unnerving like the first time he saw Ashlynn standing above him. His skin crawled and his heart raced in his chest, but he had to admit that walking through the water kept the weight off of his injured leg. Before he knew it, an hour had passed of him speaking to Ashlynn and walking around and around in the tub.
While walking around in the water, it slowed Soren to half of his normal speed, but the ease of walking combined with the floating sensation made exercise manageable and, boldly thinking, enjoyable.
What was an unease became regular as, over the next week, Ashlynn helped set up the bathtub so Soren could walk around freely. Eventually, Dorian and Rey began to get in on the exercises as well, splashing in the water and learning the value of holding their breath while submerged.
Soren looked out on the scene before him one of these later days in the week. While watching his brothers splash and gain a fearlessness in the water, the eldest Borrower couldn’t help but smile. He was gaining strength faster than he thought with Ashlynn’s suggestion of exercising in the water. His brothers were looking brighter and stronger by the day. Even Ashlynn seemed to be feeling better about the prospect of departing.
There were so many things going in their favor. It felt like Soren’s luck was finally returning. Despite so much fortune, Soren couldn’t help but worry – was there something coming for them? Something Soren hadn’t thought of?