I jump out of my chair at Gwen’s unexpected words. It’s been five hours of complete silence and, for a brief moment, I think Gwen has woken up. She hasn’t though, she’s talking in her sleep and her face and hands are twitching violently. She’s cringing into the chair, squashing her face against the arm rest.
“They want you to scream, don’t scream!”
She’s clearly having a nightmare, probably detailing horrors that we couldn’t even try to imagine, and I’m not too sure what to do about it.
Hank reaches over and touches her hand, saying her name to try and wake her up; Gwen does not take that well. She flies up, standing with such force that the armchair topples over and flies backwards into the wall. A blast of air rushes from her body, knocking the rest of us on our arses. She backs herself into the corner, her back against the wall, as she looks around to try and find what’s woken her. The ground is shaking, something that is all too familiar to me, as Gwen’s powers spring forth to defend her. All eyes turn to me, waiting for me to pull Gwen out of her nightmare. As if I needed to be told? I step forward, standing directly in front of her, but a few metres away, and try to get her attention. Her gaze settles on me and I take the opportunity to talk to her.
“Gwen?” I say and, as her eyes fully focus, I hold my hand out to her like I’ve done several times today. It seems to calm her more and more each time, and this time is no exception. She takes it, straightening up as she does, but she doesn’t move away from the wall.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…who grabbed me?”
She really needs to stop apologising for things. She has nothing to be sorry for.
“I’m sorry, that was me. 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,” says Hank, guilt colouring his every word. She, in turn, looks utterly bewildered.
“I was asleep?” she says, her shock almost funny. “How long was I asleep?”
She’s curious now and it’s a welcome change from wounded, suspicious or scared.
“Why are you so surprised that you were sleeping?” says Anya softly.
“Please don’t say that you haven’t slept since you left,” Oliver sounds pained as he speaks.
Gwen blushes and does her best not to look any of us in the eyes as she says;
“Sorry to disappoint.”
I don’t bother trying to hide my reaction to this incredibly disturbing news; instead I just help her to her feet. She winces as she stands, but she promptly hides her discomfort.
“How long did I sleep?” she asks again.
I release her hand long enough to put the chair to rights and motion for her to sit down again. She shakes her head and remains standing. I don’t make a fuss and decide not to draw attention to it. Instead, I answer her question.
“You were asleep for five or six hours,” I say, and her eyebrows shoot up. Clearly this information has surprised her, no doubt because she’s gone even longer without sleep than she did without food. Her face quickly falls as she remembers something and she crosses her arms, like she’s trying to protect herself. She spirals into another panic attack, fighting to get air into her lungs and her pulse once again hammering at her throat. Her legs give way beneath her and she curls into a ball as far into the corner as she possibly can. I wait for a second, just a second, to see if she will be able to calm herself, but it’s obvious that it’s not going to happen and I step closer and kneel before her. I won’t touch her; I don’t want to scare her again.
She doesn’t respond, but her eyes flicker towards me for just a second.
“Gwen, come back to me,” I say and this time she does.
Her eyes focus on me and she just stares at me. I hold her gaze and just wait, watching her come to terms with something and once again I watch her get control of her breathing and watch her pulse calm. She drops her gaze and a look of disgust replaces her stricken expression.
“Do I have a room here?” she abruptly asks, and it is the last thing I expected her to say after that.
“Of course,” I splutter as I overcome my shock. “I can take you there if you like?”
She nods and looks down at herself, her nose wrinkling like she’s just noticed a foul smell.
“I just need a shower…and some clothes.”
Oh, that’s what she was looking at, her tattered and dirty shorts.
“Alright then,” says Hank, looking to Anya and Oliver. “Derek can go with Gwen and you two are coming with me.”
I don’t look away from Gwen as the three of them leave, her whole body sagging with exhaustion, and I hold my hand out to her again. She looks completely dumbfounded, and she’s picking at her hands again, so I explain.
“You seem to be a lot calmer when you have my hand. You were wringing your hands together and there are plenty of people in the hallways at this time,” she looks up at me and I find my tone turns a little desperate. “If you need to get away from them before we get to your room, please tell me. Don’t just suffer in silence.”
She doesn’t respond, as I knew she wouldn’t, but at least it’s out there.
I pull her to her feet and start walking us toward the door. Just as we get there, she digs her heels in and brings us both to a stop. A quick glance at her expression tells me that she’s uncertain about stepping into the hallway.
“We can stay here a little bit longer if you like,” I suggest. She seems to pull herself together and says;
“No, sorry, let’s go.”
She sounds confident but I can hear in her voice that she is not keen on this at all, so I come up with a plan to put her a little more at ease. I walk over to the door, open it and step aside, giving her the choice as to when she leaves. She hesitates again, her power reaching out into the hallway, and I know she’s searching for someone, maybe even several people. I gently grasp her elbow, ignoring the way her jumping away from me makes me feel, and turn her away from the door.
“It’s okay Gwen, whenever you’re ready.”
“I’m not used to this,” she says, taking a deep breath and I think she’s somehow trying to talk herself into walking through the doorway, but my curiosity gets the better of me.
“Not used to what?” I ask, but she doesn’t respond and my mind is taken back to a night nearly four months ago. She froze up on me then too. I bring myself back under control as I recall us on her couch and get back to the matter at hand.
“Hey, you’re not allowed to freeze up on me, remember?”
I can’t hide the grin that spreads across my face as she looks at me and I see a beautiful, yet fleeting, smile spring up on hers. She seems to come to a decision and takes a breath to speak.
“I’m not used to being able to walk through a door,” she says, looking a little uncomfortable. I’m completely confused, but I try to hide it while she continues. “The doors were always locked and even then I knew that the only thing that waited for me on the other side was pain. There were never people in the hallways…not unless they were coming to take me from my cell.”
…And I feel the knife twist again. How am I supposed to make that feeling go away? I try to think of something to say but how is ‘Everything is okay’ or ‘You don’t need to worry anymore’ supposed to make her feel comfortable again? Instead, I just walk out into the hallway to make sure it’s empty.
“There’s no one in the hallway but me, and I promise that there is nothing and no one out here that will hurt you.”
I really hope that works, because I’ll be completely stumped if it doesn’t. I offer her my hand again and she takes it, thank god, and I begin to slowly walk us down the hallway. It’s barely any time at all before I get us to the short hallway where our apartments reside and Gwen is analysing everything about it. I continue walking us forward, right to the end, and stop at her apartment door.
“This is your apartment and you don’t need to worry about your neighbours,” I really hope this makes her feel more comfortable. “I’m right next door and the rooms on the other side of the hallway belong to Anya and Oliver.”
She relaxes, just a little, and goes to place her palm on the door to unlock it but pulls her hand back immediately, clenching her fist by her side. She doesn’t need to; her key will adapt and open this door too.
“Don’t worry, the key will recognise your new place and adapt,” I say, trying to identify the source of her trepidation.
“I don’t have it,” she says, sounding uncomfortable. I blank, completely.
“You don’t have your key?” I test the question, trying to comprehend why it doesn’t make any sense. “Of course you do it’s in your palm, remember?”
I gently take her left hand and turn it over so that I can see her palm and her key. The only problem is that there is no key, just a thick and jagged scar that takes up nearly her entire palm.
I know I don’t want to know the answer, but I really need to know. She closes her palm and takes it away from me so that I can’t see the injury anymore. For a moment I think that she isn’t going to answer, but after nearly a minute she starts talking.
“Apparently it was a reminder of the other refuge and would be something I’d be able to hold onto for strength and power or some crap. They dug it out.”
I don’t even know what to say to that. They dug it out?! I can’t even comprehend how painful that would have been. All I can think to do is apologise, which just seems to confuse her.
“A funny thing happens when someone tries to tear a key from your palm. It just sinks deeper and deeper and moves away from whatever is trying to grab it…” she rushes through her explanation, and then falls silent. “It took them nearly four hours.”
Questions immediately start running through my mind, but I hold my tongue, not wanting to pry too soon into her experiences with the Recruiters.
“Did that happen often?” I can’t help myself from asking that question. It’s been bugging me since I saw the scars. How often was she tortured?
“Of course not,” she says, and I’m so relieved. “I only had the one key.”
And there goes my momentary relief.
“I meant…” I trail off, she misunderstood my question.
She blushes, like she’s just realised what I’d really tried to say, and sighs.
“You meant to ask how often I was tortured, didn’t you.”
I nod and smile, trying to put her at ease.
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t want to talk about it.”
Her expression tells me that she really doesn’t want to talk about it at all, but she seems to come to terms with something and she looks down at her hands.
“You’re right; I don’t want to talk about it. But if you’d really like to know then I will tell you,” she says, catching me off guard. I won’t push her for any more information now though; instead I turn and open the door. Gwen walks in ahead of me and stops dead in her tracks as she takes in her new apartment. After walking through the apartment in wonder she makes a beeline for the bathroom. It’s all waterfalls and relaxation, which now that I think about it, is exactly what Gwen might need.
“If you’d like to shower or change or anything…I’ll wait in the kitchen. Anya went out and bought new clothes for you, your old clothes would be far too big after, well, everything. They’re all on the shelves in the closet.”
I smile and walk out, taking a seat at the kitchen table to wait. It’s been about ten minutes, and I’m about to contact Anya, Oliver and Hank to give them an update on Gwen, when I hear the most heartbreaking sound I’ve ever heard in my life. Gwen is crying, sobbing sorrowfully in the bathroom. I’m out of my chair and through the bedroom door before I can stop myself. Am I really going to walk into the bathroom while she’s naked in the shower, because she’s crying? That would be crossing some serious boundaries and that could just damage her more. What the hell am I supposed to do here? Maybe she really needs this, maybe she just needs some time to let out some pent up distress. Is that a thing? I have no idea how to deal with trauma like this, or PTSD…if she has it. Could she have it? I’d be incredibly surprised if she didn’t. So I just sit at her kitchen table, feeling completely useless, and wait.
It’s been nearly two hours and I’m getting pretty concerned. She might have passed out…I need to check on her. I get up and walk into the bedroom, straight to the bathroom door and knock loudly.
“Gwen, is everything alright?” I call out.
I hear her moving about, which is reassuring, before she responds.
“Yes! I’m fine I’ll be out soon,” she calls out to me, and I walk back into the kitchen to resume my waiting at her dining table. She been in the bathroom for over two hours by the time she walks out, but I can understand why. She looks a little like her old self again. I imagine that three months without so much as a face wipe would make someone want to just live in their bathroom when they finally got home. She’s wearing a green tank top and black shorts, which surprises me. I thought she’d maybe try and hide her scars away, most people I’ve known who have scars have done that, but not Gwen. She seems a lot more comfortable now and I find that to be amazing. Either way, she looks wonderful to me.
“Hey,” I say. Do I mention that I heard her crying? How would I even bring that up?
“Uh, hey,” she looks a little out of place, and I’m about to try and talk about her crying, when her face lights and I follow her gaze to the fridge. She walks over and excitedly throws the door open, her stomach growling loudly enough for me to hear it from here. I have to stifle my laughter as she stands and walks over to the table with an arm full of fruit and water. I watch as she cracks the seal on a bottle of water a takes a tentative sip, then drains the bottle in seconds. She finishes and immediately gets up, heading back to the fridge and returning with two more bottles. She puts them down on the table and picks up a chunk of pineapple from the container of fruit salad. She analyses it for a moment, seemingly forgetting that I’m here, and curiously pops it into her mouth. Her eyes close in appreciation the second she bites into it. Would it be inappropriate to jump for joy at the fact that she’s actually eating? It takes her a little bit to get through it, but within twenty minutes both bottles of water and the whole container of fruit salad is gone. She looks at her empty bottles, her brows creasing, and I can’t help smirking at her as I stand and go to get her another bottle or two. I take two, one for her and one for me, and go straight back to the table. I see her looking at them and feel as though maybe I should ask if I’m allowed to have one.
“Do you mind?”
“Of course,” she says, her tone telling me that my question was apparently idiotic, and I sit back down opposite her.