I jump awake, instantly alert. I know something is wrong the moment I open my eyes.
“Guys, get up! Get up now!”
They respond immediately, they’re Warrior training kicking in to respond to my shout. It’s certainly convenient.
“Gwen is gone,” I say as I run out the door and, reaching out with my magic, trace where she’s headed. I’m running for a few short minutes when I feel the urgency left in the traces of her magic. Something spooked her here and made her start running. Shit! I pick up the pace. She’s scared, injured and on the run…she’ll tear this place apart. I round a corner, running full speed, and nearly take out two Warriors running from the other direction. I don’t need to hear what they have to say, I can feel Gwen’s magic rolling off of them in waves. I’m only running for about thirty seconds before six bodies go flying out of a side corridor and slam into a wall. Relief floods my body. It could only be Gwen. As if thinking her name summoned her, she comes tearing out of the corridor and runs away from us.
“Gwen!” I shout. If I can just get her to stop, just for a second, then I can help her. She pauses, coming to a screeching halt in the middle of the hallway, but she doesn’t turn around. Her whole body locks up and she just freezes. I hear Hank tell the Warriors to back off and know that they’re going to stay away and allow me to get through to Gwen.
“Gwen?” I say softly as I catch up to her. I’m only a few metres away but I don’t dare get any closer just in case I scare her off. She turns, reluctantly I think, and my stomach drops through the floor. Her eyes are wide and full of suspicion and fear, but she’s still so strong and brave. She’s wearing my jacket, which looks massive on her and highlights her new thin frame, falling to just above her knees. I can’t even see her hands; they’re completely obscured by the length of my jackets sleeves. She’s standing tall but I think one of her hidden hands is gripping her ribs. She’s in pain but she’s hiding it so that she doesn’t appear weak. I look back to her face and see that she’s just staring at me, evaluating me, like she’s just discovered a new species and needs to know if I’m dangerous.
“Gwen?” I say again and feel a sharp pain in my chest as I see her flinch back. As if the sound of my voice hits her like a slap to the face. And then one of the most unsettling thoughts I’ve ever had hits me like a tonne of bricks. She doesn’t know who I am.
“It’s really me Gwen, you’re safe,” I feel like I’m begging her to remember. “Do you recognise us?”
She looks at me like I’ve grown a second head, but her expression falters.
“I know you’re not real. Just because Garret put more effort into what you look like doesn’t for a second mean that I won’t kill you and get the hell out of here,” she says, her tone hostile. I have no idea what she’s talking about. What does she mean Garret put more effort into what we look like? I can ask her about that later, right now I just need to break through whatever illusion she thinks she’s seeing.
“Gwen, please,” the desperation in my voice is perfectly clear to me. “Please believe me. We are real, you’re safe. We found you at the warehouse, do you remember? You called out to me with your mind and told me where you were. Please remember. Think hard, okay? Please.”
“It’s just what he wants me to think. You look real, but you can’t be,” she says, but her voice catches and I know she’s coming around, even if it is taking her a while. I need a way to convince her before she runs again. What can I do? Oh…it’s more like what do I know! Maybe I can tell her things that others wouldn’t have figured out or stuff that only she and I would know?
“Ask us anything Gwen,” I tell her. My voice is steady but I’m getting more and more anxious by the second. “Things that only we’ll know, we’ll prove that we’re real.”
She laughs. It’s a discordant and mildly terrifying laugh that chokes itself off when she opens her mouth to talk.
“How could I believe you? Garret was in everyone’s heads, there’s nothing he won’t know.”
For the second time in the last few minutes I feel my stomach drop…and then I get an idea. Garret didn’t even know she existed before I bought her to the refuge. The Recruiters who attacked her at her house were probably nearby when her powers triggered and just tracked her down. I have a whole three weeks of information and snarky comments to use to try and win her over.
“He won’t know anything about before we were at the refuge. He didn’t know you existed then and he wouldn’t have been able to get any of the information about anything I saw or anything we did before I introduced you to him,” I say and her eyebrows shoot up towards her hairline. She hadn’t thought of that until now and I can see her turning it over in her mind. It takes almost a full minute but she finally speaks again.
“Why did I need stitches after the robbery?” She says in a rush, like she doesn’t want to ask but she knows she needs to. I hold back my smile as I recall the first day I saw her. She beat the crap out of three grown men and did it flawlessly.
“You were stabbed in the ribs by one of the robbers as he was trying to intimidate your co-workers. You also split your knuckles on one of the robbers’ teeth when you punched him in the face,” I answer immediately and she looks surprised, but nowhere near convinced.
“How many stitches did I need?” She fires off.
“Fourteen,” I answer immediately. “You got ten to close the stab wound to your ribs and four to close your knuckles. I remember because you didn’t bother with anaesthetic and I counted to see if you’d give up and ask for some and, if you did, how many stitches you managed to get first.”
She’s surprised again and, almost imperceptibly, I see her expression begin to soften.
“Where did I go for lunch with my friend and what was her name?”
Oh, the sushi place! This is a good memory for me; I got to see her through her friend’s eye which was fantastic.
“You went to your local sushi train, they knew who you were and you didn’t even have to order. You were there with Carmen.”
“Why did you interrupt our conversation and what happened afterwards?” She counters my answer with yet another question.
“You were asked on a scale of one to ten what I was and you answered that because I’m arrogant, cocky and a stalker that I was a negative twenty,” I almost laugh at the memory and remember making comments about her jeans. “I teased you about your jeans and you got mad at me. Your fingertips burned holes into your chair.”
She smiles and it lights up her whole face, making her look a bit more like her old self, for a moment at least. Without meaning to, I take a step toward her and I see her shut down immediately. Her face falls, she takes a step back and she shakily asks another question, almost like it’s a defence mechanism.
“Why did you laugh at me before we teleported to the canyon?” She says and, though it’s probably unfair of me, I get a little frustrated. I thought she’d begun opening up, but apparently not.
“You packed your stuff into a T-rex shaped backpack,” I reply carefully, my frustration dissipating immediately and I feel the flood gates open. “I made you mad both times that I entered your dreams because I made comments about you not wearing pants. The night your room caught fire you ate carbonara and dropped your fork when I spoke to your mind. The sketch book that I opened on that first night was full of landscapes, some realistic and some that looked straight out of fairy tales.”
I finish and she looks utterly perplexed and completely shocked. I take my chance and hold my hand out to her and just wait. She looks at my upturned palm as if it holds all the answers to the universe. She’s clearly thinking incredibly hard about what to do and I have absolutely no understanding as to what they could have done to her that would make her analyse everything she sees as if it doesn’t really exist. It feels like decades before she reaches out, her whole arm shaking violently, and gently runs her finger down my palm. She gasps and lays her whole palm flat atop mine. Tears begin to roll slowly down her cheeks. Her whole body begins to shake and, just as I’m about to reach out to steady her, she leans against the wall and slowly slides down it as though she doesn’t have the strength to stand anymore. She grips my hand for dear life, my fingers screaming in protest, but I don’t complain. I follow her down to the floor, sitting cross legged in front of her. She tucks her legs to her chest, all the way inside my jacket, and holds my hand tightly in both of hers. We sit in silence for a while and I let her get whatever she’s feeling out of her system. Her tears have already stopped and dried, leaving shiny tracks on her pale cheeks. She’s just playing with my fingers, like my hand has become the centre of her world. She’s fascinated by it and hasn’t looked at anything else in over five minutes. I wait a few more minutes and give her hand a slight squeeze to get her attention. Gwen jumps and I feel guilty for having startled her, but then she pins me with those unfamiliar wounded eyes of hers and I pull myself together.
“Hey,” I say, and she looks a little like a wounded deer in head lights. “How are you feeling?”
A crease appears between her eyebrows, she’s contemplating her response maybe? I thought it was a really simple question, but she’s thinking about it like I’ve asked her the meaning of life.
“Warm,” she finally says. “I haven’t felt warm in months. It was so cold…so cold.”
She spaces out again and falls silent as she finishes. I have to stop myself from saying ‘I like my jacket on you’. It’s a comment I would have made before, just to make her laugh, but I highly doubt that comments like that will be welcomed at the moment. Instead I say;
“I was wondering where that went.”
An expression of panic clouds her face and she clenches her fist around my fingers again.
“You don’t want it back right now do you?” she whispers in horror.
“No don’t worry it’s yours. Keep it as long as you like,” I hasten to reassure her, and I mean it. That jacket is just a jacket to me but to her I think it’s become some sort of life line. She curls herself up inside the jacket again, the collar rising above her nose.
“Gwen?” I have a feeling I’m going to be saying that a lot over the coming weeks, just to pull her back from wherever she goes when she zones out. We can’t sit in this hallway all day, people will be up and about soon enough and I really don’t think that she’s going to want an audience while she works through whatever is going on inside her mind.
“Is it alright if we go back to the room? People will start waking up soon and this hallway will start getting busy.”
“Can we sit on a couch?” She asks after a moment, sounding so hopeful, and the question is completely left field.
“Yes, I’m sure we can find a couch,” I say, slowly standing. She’s still gripping my hand as she tries to stand, but her legs don’t seem to be able to hold her weight. I’d guess they’re weak after so long being tortured and she clearly hasn’t eaten in god knows how long. Automatically, without thinking at all, I reach out to try and steady her. She flinches away from me and it takes everything I have to control my facial expression enough to make sure she doesn’t see how much that affects me. Almost like she’s just noticed them, she looks over my shoulder and her eyes widen as she sees Hank, Anya and Oliver. She takes a small, hesitant step to my left and nervously holds her hand out before her, palm up. I catch on immediately, she wants to touch their palms; she wants to confirm that they’re real. I’m about to explain what she wants to the others, when Hank finally figures it out. Instead of grabbing her hand, however, he raises his palm in a similar way to how she did it. Her eyes narrow in suspicion as she watches. Eventually she raises her hand and touches the tip of her index finger to his palm. She gasps, seemingly disbelieving of what’s happening, before her eyes shoot to Anya. Anya and Oliver both offer their palms and she repeats her actions, the pain and relief obvious in her expression as she finishes.
“You’re all real…” she whispers and then, looking incredibly embarrassed, says; “We were talking about a couch?”
I’d be relieved by her attempt at humour if it didn’t sound so forced and anguished.
It’s Hank who responds first, I’m still trying to figure exactly who she thinks we are.
“There’s a day room a few hallways over,” he says and takes off down the corridor, knowing that we’re all going to follow. Anya and Oliver go ahead of him and, after a little coaxing, she grips my forearm with both hands and starts walking with me. Her movements are stiff and her eyes dart around like she’s on high alert, just waiting for someone or something to attack. We only walk for a short time, and we’re about to enter the day room, when Gwen stops suddenly in the hallway and I feel her magic gather around her.
“Are you okay?” I ask. I’m terrified that she’s forgotten where she is, or has forgotten that we’re all real, and is going to attack and run again. I feel her magic reach out before she nods and I take a step toward the door. I know she’s alright when she takes a step with me and we enter the room. I spot a couch on the back wall of the room and walk over to it, watching what she does. She’s staring at it in wonder, like she’s never seen an armchair before, and she releases her hold on my arm. Gwen tentatively reaches out and runs her hands along the fabric covering the arm of the chair. She seems to come to a decision and, with more resolve than I’ve ever seen anyone have involving an armchair, she slowly sits down. She pulls my jacket tightly about her shoulders and crosses her legs, almost sitting on her feet. She looks so small as she tucks herself into the small chair. Gwen looks up, her face pales and she looks away as she sees that everyone is watching her. She tries to hide it, of course, but I saw it.
“We’re making her uncomfortable,” I say to everyone and, as one, they turn to the other chairs in the room. They move a three seater couch to Gwen’s left and Oliver pushes another armchair over to me. I push it in front of Gwen and take a similar position to the one I was in when we were in the hallway. I wait a moment, to see if this makes her feel better or worse, and then decide to try and get this conversation going again.
“Gwen, is it okay if I ask you some questions?”
I’m really hoping she says yes because if she says no then I’m dead in the water and have no idea how to proceed. She looks at me for a moment, a penetrating stare, as she considers my request.
“Sure, ask away,” she finally says, her voice so shaky that I almost back out and let her be. What do I even ask, anyway? I can’t just come out and ask about the wounds and scars. She’s detached enough without me diving head first into such dangerous territory. I’ll have to be a lot more sensitive than that.
“Before you said that it has been a long time since you were warm,” I prompt, it seems to be the safest question right now. “Can you tell me why?”
She looks surprised for a moment before she responds. I guess she expected a more loaded question.
“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,” she rushes through her answer, a little disjointedly, and I feel the knife in my chest twist and dig deeper. She shivers and tucks herself into a tighter ball inside my jacket, like she’s trying to shield herself from something. A curious expression appears on her face but I won’t ask her about it. I’m not going to pry into everything that I see or she does, I’m going to be upsetting her enough by asking the necessary questions.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, because someone needs to apologise for the atrocities that she’s clearly been forced to live through over the past months. The collar of my jacket has slipped down a little and I notice that her collar bones are sticking out, revealing how much weight she has truly lost since she’s been gone. Her bones are completely visible, covered by only the thinnest skin that stretches tightly over them.
“When was the last time you ate?” I manage to say with a steady voice.
Once again, she seems to retreat within her memory, searching for the answer to my question. Not having eaten in a long time won’t have done her body any real harm. The magic and immortality of her Elemental body would have kept her healthy enough to survive without any lasting health problems, but just because she isn’t physically capable of starving to death doesn’t mean that it isn’t a viable form of torture. Her body would still have been craving food and she would have been subjected to all the pain of her bodies deterioration over the course of her starvation. Her muscles would have shrunk, but they wouldn’t be atrophied or damaged, and I doubt there is much fat left on her body. Fat would have been used up much slower in her body than a human would have if they were subjected to these conditions, but it’s incredibly obvious that most of the fat on her body is gone.
“Nearly three weeks…I think. Maybe fo-” she looks up and stops immediately, looking mortified.
“Four weeks,” I hear Oliver’s horrified voice from behind me.
“Let’s go Olly,” I hear Anya, sounding like she’s trying to keep herself from crying.
They’re out the door a second afterwards and Gwen looks confused.
“They didn’t need to do that,” she says.
“Of course they did,” Hank replies, speaking softly in a tone that I know is going to annoy Gwen. Or, at least, it would have annoyed the old Gwen. “You need to eat something. You might be stronger than any of us, but you’ll be amazed by how quickly your strength returns once you’ve eaten.”
She looks away from him and begins to shiver softly.
“Are you still cold?” I ask, fully prepared to go and hunt down as many blankets as she needs.
“No, the jacket is warm,” she says simply, frowning as she speaks. I’d give anything to be in her head right now so that I could figure out what’s going on in there, but that would be crossing some serious boundaries. She’s fidgeting with her fingers, picking at her fingernails. I offer her my hand when she draws blood on her own and she takes it immediately, the crease between her brows softening as she does.
“Thanks,” she says, and I don’t know why.
“For what?” I ask, risking another question.
She thinks for a second, but responds faster than any question so far.
“For being patient…for actually existing,” she says, and I’m rewarded with a tiny, almost imperceptible, smile that makes me want to set off fireworks in celebration. I contain myself though, now is not really the time for jubilation.
“Anytime,” I return her smile as Anya and Oliver return with a tray of fruit and several bottles of fresh water.
“We ran into Mags and asked her what was best for you to eat. Water and fruit was the way to go,” says Oliver with a smile as he reaches out and waits for her to accept the bottle of water in his hand.
Gwen stares uneasily at the food as she waves it away, but to my immense relief she takes the bottle of water.
“I’m just not sure I could eat it yet,” she explains. I understand. It’s been a month since she ate anything and I imagine suddenly eating a heap of food would be a bit daunting, maybe even nauseating.
“Okay,” Anya acquiesces and sits back down on the couch. “It’s here when you’re ready.”
There is a small cough from Hank, clearly to get Gwen’s attention, and he asks;
“Gwen, why did you think we weren’t real?”
The effect on Gwen is immediate. The water drops to the floor and explodes, water flying across the ground, and I feel a sharp pain in my hand. Looking down, I notice that Gwen has gripped my hand so hard that her fingernails have cut into my skin and there is blood pouring out of several curved cuts. I look up to Gwen who is very clearly not in this room anymore. She’s far away as I try to get her attention.
“Gwen,” I say immediately. Her grip tightens, causing her nails to dig in farther and deepen the wounds, but I really don’t care. I have to get Gwen back. “Hey, it’s okay. Come back. You’re safe, come back to us.”
Her eyes focus on me and she looks down, the sight of blood causing her to jump like she’s been electrocuted. She tucks her hands into her lap, almost sitting on them, and starts to apologise profusely. Her breathing is erratic, the veins in her neck jumping up and down like crazy, and she just keeps repeating;
“I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.”
It’s heartbreaking to see her in this state. The cuts are already healing as Anya hands me a cloth. I wipe the blood away as fast as I can, the sight clearly adding to Gwen’s distress. I hold my hand up to Gwen so that she can see the wounds closing over and disappearing.
“Gwen, listen to me, I’m okay,” I try to calm her down, to pull her back to me. “It’s just a few scratches, see. They’re already healing.”
In no time at all the cuts are completely gone, the only evidence that anyone was hurt being the blood still left on her hands. I pick up the bottle of water from the floor as Anya hands me another cloth. Using a little fire magic I warm it, just to body temperature, and use the warm water to wet the cloth. Slowly, very slowly, I reach out and take hold of her hand. She flinches, but only slightly, and I continue, gently cleaning the blood from both of her hands. I hand the dirty cloth back to Anya, assuming that she’ll throws it away, and put the water on the floor. I’m still holding her hands, and she’s still panicking a little bit, so I just hold onto them in the hopes that she’ll soon calm. Her breathing slows, and the artery in her neck stops hammering against her skin, so I can tell that she’s coming back.
“I’m sorry,” she says, again, and I try to tell her I’m fine, but she talks over me. “The question just surprised me…I remembered…” She seems to want to tell us what she remembered, what triggered her panic attack, but she cuts herself off.
“I was surprised. That’s all. I didn’t mean it.”
Didn’t mean it? She doesn’t honestly think that she cut my hands on purpose, does she?
“Everything is okay Gwen, you don’t need to worry. Elemental healing, remember?” I try a lighter tone, smiling at her, but she doesn’t respond. She seems to retreat back into her head again, all the progress we’d made evaporating completely.
“…Garret did break me…”
I’m so shocked by her words that I gasp and it genuinely takes all of my self-control to rein in my wayward reaction. She clearly didn’t mean to say it, but her confession is so disturbing that I begin to feel nauseous. She starts talking again, hurriedly. She’s in a rush, almost like she’s trying to talk over her confession and erase it.
“I couldn’t believe you were real because…” She pauses, seeming to search for the right words. “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 rescue me or I had escaped and found you. He liked making me think I was safe and then destroying 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 s-seen the s-scars.”
My nausea turns to full blown, gut wrenching, agony as I realise that she’s just explained one of the ways Garret tortured her. She lets out a long breath, relieved for some reason, but she is by no means relaxed. She looks down and I follow her gaze, hearing one of her knuckles pop as she grips her hands tighter. I hate the noise, she’s been hurt enough by others without having to do any sort of damage to herself. When she looks back up she’s suddenly seized by what appears to be rage.
“Don’t do that,” she says, her voice sounding pretty scary.
“What’s wrong?” The surprise in my voice is obvious.
“Stop changing your expressions when you notice me looking,” she hisses venomously. “Stop talking to me like I’m a child. It’s infuriating!”
And just like that her expression changes again, this time to shock and disgust.
“I…I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you. I didn’t mean to get mad…”
She trails off, leaning back into the couch and hugging my jacket.
“No one say a word; just let her be for a while. We’ve questioned her enough for now,” I tell the others when I notice Gwen’s eyes fluttering closed. She’s exhausted and she obviously needs sleep. It takes a little while but her body finally relaxes, her facial features go slack and her eyes close.
Gwen is asleep for nearly half an hour before anyone tries to talk. Even then, they whisper as silently as they can.
“They’ve been starving her,” Anya whispers. “She’s so small. I’ll have to find new clothes for her. I’ll have to guess her size.”
“As upsetting as it might be to think about, starvation is not the worst thing she’s suffered through since she left,” says Hank.
“I’d wager the brain washing and illusions were a damn sight worse than being hungry,” hisses Oliver.
Gwen stirs then and I turn to glare at my friends.
“If you’re going to speak then do it mentally. She clearly needs rest and if any of you wake her up I will kick your arse, got it?”
I hear a chorus of ‘Sorry’ in my mind before I tune out completely, leaving them to their own discussion.