“Gwen?” Derek’s soft voice pulls my attention away from his hand…again. I should really try to focus. I look up at him and he continues. “Is it okay if we go back to the room? People will start waking up soon and this hallway will start getting busy.”
The room, there’s a bed there. Is there a couch? I don’t want to lie down again. I’ve spent too much time lying down.
“Can we sit on a couch?” I feel like I’m an alien discovering Earth for the first time. In a way I suppose I’m rediscovering it. I’ve been underground for three months, confined to a space not much bigger than a coffin, and this has all become unfamiliar to me. Derek’s face shows his surprise at my question.
“Yes, I’m sure we can find a couch,” he says as he stands. I don’t let go of his hand as I shakily get to my feet. Derek reaches out to help steady me but stops when I flinch and lean away from his touch. I see the hurt in his eyes but he hides it almost immediately. I look up and remember that Oliver, Anya and Hank are here too. I don’t really want to, but I need to know that they’re real. I hold out the hand that isn’t clutching Derek, keeping a firm grip on his fingers, and raise my palm to them. They look confused for a second and I’m about to explain when Hank catches on. Instead of taking hold of my hand though, he puts his hand out, palm up, and lets me decide whether or not I want to take hold of it. He’s trying to build trust and though it’s a ploy that I see straight through, it’s one that I appreciate. I reach out nervously and lay my palm flat on top of his. It doesn’t turn to smoke and, in a moment of absent self-control, I gasp. Anya and Oliver give me their palms as well and I’m shocked every time when they don’t turn to smoke. I realise how absolutely depressing it is that I’m more accustomed to my friends being false projections, put into my head as a torture technique using mind control, than I am to them actually being real and in front of me.
“You’re all real…” I stop myself; I didn’t mean to speak out loud. I clear my throat pretending I don’t notice their concerned looks. “We were talking about a couch?”
I try to put some of my old humour into my words, it feels weird.
“There’s a day room a few hallways over,” says Hank and he starts walking. I follow, both hands gripping Derek’s arm. I just need to be certain that he isn’t going to turn to smoke and disappear. That’s not so weird is it? I don’t care if it is. It only takes a few minutes to reach the day room. The others walk in without hesitation but I’m not so sure, someone could ambush us, I reach out with my senses first, checking for vibrations.
“Are you okay?” asks Derek when he realises that I haven’t moved anywhere near the door. I finish checking the room before I respond. There isn’t anyone in there but Hank, Anya and Oliver. I nod and let him lead me into the room and right over to a large, fluffy looking couch. I let go of his arm as I run my fingers over the fabric. It’s smooth and velvety and I let myself sink down onto it. Apparently I forgot what it was like to be comfortable. I sink down into the cushions, crossing my legs beneath me and hugging Derek’s jacket closer to me to stay warm. The others are quiet. They’re just watching me, which I pretend not to notice, and let me do what I need to do. After a moment they rearrange the other arm chairs into a tight circle and get comfortable. It’s a sofa circle with Derek on a single arm chair in front of me and Hank, Oliver and Anya on a three-seater slightly to our left. It’s clear to me that they’re letting Derek deal with me.
“Gwen, is it okay if we ask you some questions?” he eventually asks me.
Is it? I guess I won’t know unless I try.
“Sure,” I say uncertainly. “Ask away.”
He pauses, clearly assessing the apprehension in my response. He must have decided to risk it because a moment later he asks;
“Before you said it had been a long time since you were warm, can you tell me why?”
Ah, they want the story of where I’ve been and what happened to me. They still came to save me after the way I treated them before I was taken, so I suppose I owe them at least that.
“They took my clothes almost immediately. I’ve been wearing just a bra and underwear since I left. My cell was empty; there was no mattress or blanket. It was just a dirt floor and an empty room. I was in Antarctica,” I try to explain. My sentences sound jumpy to me, hard to follow, but it’s the best I can give them right now. I feel the cold deep down in my bones as I remember my cell and draw my knees to my chest again, tucking my whole body inside the jacket and wrapping my arms around my legs. I can’t remember a time in my life where I could curl into a ball and fit comfortably between the arms of a one-seater couch. It’s nice. I look up at Derek just in time to watch him hide some sort of emotion and put on an encouraging and apologetic expression.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. Why is he apologising? It isn’t his fault. “When was the last time you ate?” he continues, his face the perfect picture of concern.
His question momentarily stumps me. The last time I ate? It’s been a while. Every now and then they’d give me water but food was a lot harder to come by. They knew that being an Elemental meant that my power would sustain my strength, so they didn’t really bother. When they did, it was just a slice of mouldy bread or cheese.
“Nearly three weeks…I think. Maybe fo-” I stop myself when I notice four horrified faces looking back at me. It’s embarrassing and I let myself sink further into the jacket.
“Four weeks,” squeaks Oliver.
“Let’s go Olly,” says Anya. “We need to find Gwen some food.”
They’re out the door before I can say anything.
“They didn’t need to do that,” I say to myself.
“Of course they did,” says Hank in a quiet voice. They’re using small voices and I don’t know whether it’s frustrating to me or not. It might be…I’m not too sure. “You need to eat something. You might be stronger than any of us, but you’ll still be amazed by how quickly your strength returns once you’ve eaten.”
I won’t argue, besides, haven’t I been longing to eat something for a long time now? Yes, but I’ve also wanted a shower and a mattress and to not be in pain and to go home. I never got those things when I wanted them before…Let it go Gwen, just let it go.
“Are you still cold?” asks Derek.
“No, the jacket is warm,” I sound like a child to my own ears. It’s because I don’t really feel like talking but, if I’m going to talk, I’ll need to speak like an adult, get my thoughts together and actually communicate. It’s silent for a long time after that. They just let me sit on the couch. I fidget with my hands for a while trying to keep my attention on something other than my own thoughts. My grip on this reality feels like its slipping. No, it’s not ‘this reality’. This. Is. Reality. This is real. I think Derek notices my fidgeting and unease and within a few minutes he offers his hand to me again. I take it immediately and feel a lot calmer when it doesn’t dissolve into nothingness.
“Thanks,” I say to him and he looks so confused.
“For what?” he asks.
“For being patient…for actually existing,” I respond, giving him what I hope is a small smile.
“Anytime,” he replies with a small smile of his own. Oliver and Anya return with a few bottles of water and a tray of fresh fruit. It looks amazing but I find myself not wanting to eat it.
“We ran into Mags and asked her what was best for you to eat. Water and fruit was the way to go,” explains Oliver. He hands me a bottle of water but I wave the tray away, for now.
“I’m just not sure I could eat it yet,” I say as I stare at the fruit with what I will admit to be suspicion.
“Okay, it’s here when you’re ready,” Anya encourages as she sits back down between Oliver and Hank on the couch.
“Gwen,” Hank gets my attention. “Why did you think we weren’t real?”
The question takes me off guard and I drop my water and dig my nails into Derek’s skin as I remember all of the images that Garret created to try and break me; Being home, being with my friends, showing me different versions of what it would be like if I just co-operated, my friends being tortured as a way to make me co-operate. Over and over Garret would invade my mind…over and over I would have to escape.
“Gwen, hey, it’s okay. Come back. You’re safe, come back to us.”
Its Derek…I notice blood on my hands as my eyes refocus. It’s Derek’s blood. I let go of his hand and jerk away from him, horrified by what I’ve done. I gripped his hand so hard that my nails tore through his skin, leaving deep and jagged crescent shaped wounds on the back of his hand and his palm.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” I repeat over and over again as I stare at his hand. Blood never worried me before but after spending all this time covered in my own, all I can think is that Derek is in pain. I caused his pain...this is my fault. “I’m so sorry.”
Derek wipes the blood from his hand with a cloth and holds it up to me. The wounds are already closing and healing and his voice finally breaks through to me.
“Gwen, listen to me, I’m okay. It’s just a few scratches, see, they’re already healing,” he says. In less than a minute the cuts are gone, not even a scar to show that he was hurt. The only evidence of what I’ve done is his blood on my hands. He slowly takes each of my hands and I flinch but I don’t pull away from him as he gently cleans the blood away with a warm cloth. When he finishes he hands the cloth to Anya, who throws it away, but he keeps hold of my hands.
“I’m so sorry,” I say again. He tries to stop me, to tell me that it’s okay, but I have to explain. “The question just surprised me…I remembered…I was surprised. That’s all. I didn’t mean it.”
“Everything is okay Gwen, you don’t need to worry. Elemental healing, remember? I’m perfectly fine,” he smiles down at me. Maybe I’m more damaged than I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to get annoyed by them speaking slowly and quietly to me. Maybe I need it…maybe I’m just not strong anymore. Maybe...
“…Garret did break me…” I think to myself. No…I spoke that out loud. Shit! I didn’t want them to hear that. I hear a sharp intake of breath and know that Derek heard me. He seems to be the only one who did and I’m thankful for that. I speak before he can respond to my unintentional confession.
“I couldn’t believe you were real because…” I pause, not knowing what to say. “Because Garret is a lot stronger with mentalism than any of us knew. He was in my head the whole time he was here and the more my strength faded the easier it was for him to get inside my head while he…while I…while I was away. He could create complete worlds inside my head, making me think I was doing things or seeing things that didn’t exist. His favourite thing to do was make me think you had come to recue me or I had escaped and found you. He liked to make me think I was safe and then destroy my hope. It was usually after one of these sessions that he’d hand me over to one of his men and…well…you’ve seen the s-scars.”
I rush through my explanation and wait for them to judge me. Call me weak and an idiot for letting him do that to me. They don’t though and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. It’s not enough to relax me. My body is completely tensed and, looking down, I notice that I’m gripping my own hands in my lap. I feel like I’m holstering them so I can’t hurt anyone. I’m gripping so tightly that my knuckles are white. Everyone hastily schools their expressions when I look back up again and, quite unexpectedly, I feel angry about it. Angry feels good. It isn’t fear or suspicion or pain. Angry is a relief.
“Don’t do that,” I growl. They look at me in surprise.
“Gwen, what’s wrong?” They’re still letting Derek handle me.
“Stop changing your expressions when you notice me looking. Stop talking to me like I’m a child. It’s infuriating!” I yell the last part and it felt pretty good. At least it felt good at the time. I just feel guilty and now I’ve shocked myself out of my anger. “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you. I didn’t mean to get mad…”
I curl up again inside the wonderful jacket and just sit there. This isn’t exactly how I imagined I’d act in my first conversation with my friends. I didn’t know I’d be so different or damaged. I didn’t think I’d be so jumpy and afraid. No one speaks for a while and it’s a little awkward but I’m also grateful.
The quiet is wonderful…I’m used to terrifying silence broken only by blood-curdling screams. This quiet is different. It’s warm and full and alive and- I fly out of my chair, knocking it over as I jump out of it and back up against the wall. Someone grabbed me. I felt their hand on my arm…what’s happening?
Derek is in front of me. When did he get there? The ground is shaking and I realise that I’m the one doing it. I lost control when I freaked out.
“Gwen?” Derek holds his hand out to me but I already know that this is real. I take it anyway…you can never be too sure of these things.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…who grabbed me?” Yes Gwen, sound more like an idiot. You do know how to speak English…you’ve been doing it your whole life.
“I’m sorry, that was me,” says Hank, looking incredibly guilty. “You started talking in your sleep. It sounded like you were having a nightmare so I tried to wake you. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Scare me? That’s not at all my concern.
“I was asleep?” The shock and complete surprise in my voice sounding completely ridiculous, even to me. I think the others are trying to be patient but they’re also holding back whatever it is that they’re thinking. I must look absolutely ludicrous if they’re trying to censor themselves. “How long was I asleep?”
The shock in my voice is gone, thankfully, and has been replaced with curiosity. That might be what’s pulled them out of their own shock.
“Why are you so surprised that you were sleeping?” asks Anya in a delicate voice.
“Please don’t say that you haven’t slept since you left,” says Oliver. I look at him and he blushes and looks away. Maybe he didn’t mean to say that out loud? It’s my turn to blush, not that I have any idea why, I’m not embarrassed about not sleeping.
“Sorry to disappoint,” I say in response to his question.
Derek, seeming to take my outburst from earlier very seriously, does not try and school his expression when I turn back to him. He looks sad, almost pained, as he helps me to my feet. I have to move slowly, wincing as my legs straighten. I must have been asleep, curled up in that jacket, for some time.
“How long did I sleep?” I ask Derek when I’m finally on my feet.
He releases my hand to stand the armchair back up and motions for me to sit back down. It’s tempting, but I can’t just yet. I shake my head; it feels too good to just be standing.
“You were asleep for five or six hours,” he says, and I feel my eyebrows shoot straight up in surprise. Six hours…all the things that they were able to fit into six hours and I was just able to sleep that time away. I shouldn’t dwell on that, but I can’t help it. I fold my arms across my chest, but it does nothing to shield me from my own memories…is thinking about sleep really something that’s going to set me off like this? I remember the cutting, the burning and searing pain of the knives and magic used to tear at my flesh. I feel it as if I’m still there, I hear their laughter as they begin and hear it rapidly change into groans and shouts of frustration as I remain quiet. As I refuse to give them what they want, I don’t scream for them, I don’t cry for them. I simply remain in my own personal hell, writhing and screaming in my own mind…I’m doing it again now. You’re not there anymore Gwen! You’re back…they aren’t here! I hear a softly spoken plea at the very edge of my consciousness and I grab onto it for dear life.
“Gwen, come back to me.”
Is that Derek? I don’t know. It can’t be, can it? And then it hits me all over again. I got away, I’m back with my friends. Derek is real. I float back into my own mind and survey my surroundings. I don’t know when or how, but I’m huddled on the floor in the corner of the room, my knees drawn to my chest. My breathing is erratic, panicked. Panic? Is this a panic attack? I turn my head, and much to my dismay, a large greasy clump of dirty orange hair falls into my eyes. It’s my hair. My hair is disgusting. I am absolutely filthy and abruptly my breathing eases and I’m on my feet. I feel a certain calm settle over me once again and I turn to Derek, who is staring at me with ill-concealed panic in his eyes.
“Do I have a room here?” I ask him, and almost laugh as his look turns to one of complete surprise…almost.
“Of course,” he says. It takes him a moment to overcome his shock. “I can take you there if you like?”
“I just need a shower…” I look down at myself again. “And some actual clothes.”
I feel my nose crinkle as I catch a whiff of a stale and musty stench that I’m fairly certain is coming from the disgusting bra and shorts that I’m wearing beneath Derek’s jacket. How have they managed to be in the same room with me?
“Alright then,” says Hank, breaking the silence. “Derek can go with Gwen and you two,” he indicates Anya and Oliver. “Are coming with me.”
They look pretty annoyed by something but they don’t argue as Hank ushers them out the door and all of a sudden I’m left alone with Derek…and I’m already exhausted by everything that’s not being said. My train of thought is derailed when he holds his hand out to me. I look at him, confused.
“You seem to be a lot calmer when you have my hand,” he explains, and I know he’s right. “You were wringing your hands together and there are plenty of people in the hallways at this time of day. If you need to get away from them before we get to your room, please tell me. Don’t just suffer in silence, okay?”
And it’s a plea, a plea that has a double meaning. He wants me to tell him if I’m uncomfortable around people, but he also wants me to tell him about everything that’s happened since I’ve been gone. Why would he want to know that? Why would he want that in his head? I’m sure he’s figured out more than enough just by seeing…by seeing me naked…did he see me naked? Was I naked when Mags healed me? Christ, what an awkward thought to have right now.