“It seems so unreal,” Leila muttered, almost whispering, “I thought… when I got married, I thought what a pity it had been that I couldn’t save him,” she finished bitterly. “It feels a lot like it happened years and years ago to someone else, like I read it or it was all just a terrible dream, because – I remember being happy, but I’ve never been happy since then. I wasn’t happy, or excited, on my wedding day.”
I nodded, and felt cold.
“I remember he sent me flowers a couple weeks later,” she said, “but I didn’t see the card until the next day. Maybe I knew, though. Maybe I felt it. He was always saying that I…” she swallowed hard, “that I had such a beautiful soul, so many emotions, so much intensity and that was why he loved me so much, because I loved him like no one else ever could. But I was too sensitive, I couldn’t keep myself together, that was what was wrong with me, it was all my fault that I couldn’t keep myself together despite everything he did for me and he kept trying to fix me with his love, and why didn’t it work for me, because BDSM had solved all his issues and given him control over his life…” Leila nearly choked on her own sob, then wiped angry tears out of her eyes.
“Look, I didn’t come to you so you could pity me,” she said, “That bastard stole years of my life, and I can’t have them back. But I need help, I can’t approach him – the last time I tried I just, it was so much easier just to give up. I thought maybe if he found me dead in his apartment I could save whoever was next by exposing everything he’d done. When they investigated, they’d find out all about him, and my life wasn’t worth that much if it meant that nobody else suffered. He’d already taken my art, and my happiness, and my money, and I knew he was going to eventually take my life. He always said he’d kill me rather than let me belong to anyone else: it never occurred to him that I only belong to myself.” She smiled, tremblingly, “I… I would have stayed quiet, because I was that afraid of him, even after last year, when I – but my husband’s still in Iraq, and -” she took a sobbing breath, “and he has a family, his parents and his little sister, I couldn’t, if something happened to them because of me… I can’t, I don’t deserve them. And my parents, I never dared to tell them anything because Christian would know if I did. He’d go after them to get to me. But if he’s busy chasing me they’ll be safe, and maybe when it’s all over he won’t be interested enough to go after them.”
She looked up at us then laughed bitterly.
“You don’t believe me,” she said.
“I do,” I replied, and then realized that my voice didn’t even sound like my own. “We started this case because he’s with another young woman, and her friends are worried about her safety.”
“Anastasia Steele. She should run away and never come back,” Leila said, “Why – why is she happy? Why doesn’t she know? Why couldn’t I tell her?” She sighed, and her shoulders sagged. “I know I’m not the only one, but when I saw her and she seemed so unconcerned, even though I wanted to tell her everything, I just couldn’t. It was like there was something blocking the words in my throat and I just… I don’t know what I said. Why couldn’t I save her?”
I didn’t have any answers for her, and the silence hung for a bit in the room, like a greasy cloud of regrets. Leila finished her cocoa. Allie was there, in a vaguely comforting way, and I stopped letting my brain run in circles when Leila pushed up the sleeve of her trench coat and I caught a glimpse of the bandages beneath.
She’d taken some pains to keep them clean, I could see, but that wasn’t going to be enough, especially if she’d been living as rough as I thought she had.
Allie saw them too.
“Do you have any place to stay?” she asked, in that concerned, inviting tone which meant she was preparing to tuck Leila even further under her wing.
Leila gave us a brittle smile. “Yes,” she replied.
“Any place better than an alley, I meant.”
The smile disappeared.
“At the very least,” I told her, “You’re going to need a hand with those bandages.”
She wasn’t happy about it, from the way she hunched down into her trenchcoat again, but in the end, when I’d pulled the medical kit out of the bathroom, she offered up her left arm for my inspection. On the inside of her pale wrist, there was one large, raised red line with neat stitches, some scabbed over, and two ghostly white ones, one much longer and steadier than the others, and my blood ran in cold lines in the veins of my own arms. Leila was right handed.
“How long have you had these stitches?” I asked her.
“I couldn’t stay in the hospital,” she replied, quietly, “He had them watching me. They wouldn’t tell me anything. Even before I left Connecticut.”
“If these stitches get dirty, you’re going to have an infection,” I told her as I washed her arm with iodine from the first aid kit. I washed the rest of the arm with soap and water too, careful not to get any on or too close to the wound. There was no telling where her arm had been, and it had turned several shades paler after being washed. “You're going to need to go to a doctor and have them removed sometime soon, too.” There wasn't any skin growing over them, and while I theoretically knew how to take stitches out, I had no idea how long she'd had them in. Plus, I'd feel better about everything if she saw an actual doctor and made sure that nothing else was wrong.
Leila bit the corner of her lower lip in what seemed to be a nervous gesture. “You wouldn’t happen to be a doctor, would you?”
I snorted. “Hardly,” I said, “I've never taken out stitches, but I’m pretty good at patching her up,” I added, pointing my chin at where Allie had taken it upon herself to refill Leila’s cocoa mug while I dug out the antibiotic ointment. “She always manages to get some sort of scrape or bruise.” Of course, Allie being Allie, the fact that they were scrapes and bruises was always a contradictory comfort. God knew we’d been in our share of sticky situations in the past ten years, and any one of them could have gone sour – or sourer. I’d always held that scars were proof that you’d escaped alive, and maybe one day Leila’s would be old enough that they would fade into the past, only visible in a certain angle of sunlight.
Unbidden, the image of long, crooked lines, pale against the tanned underside of a wrist, rose to the forefront of my mind. Once I’d shaken it off, I reached rather decisively for a fresh bandage and wrapped Leila’s arm securely.
“You really should take a shower,” I continued to her as I wrapped, “and have something to eat that isn’t cocoa. My sweats will fit you, more or less – Allie’s would be horrendously long on you – and we can get your clothes washed.” Personally, I doubted that all the stains would come out, but my concern was more in the realm of the sanitary than the cosmetic. “We have plenty of food in the fridge, and even Allie can figure out a can of chicken soup and a grilled cheese sandwich for you.”
“That happened once,” Allie proclaimed from the kitchen, amused but arguing on principle, “You’d be able to burn soup too if you were also trying to get a critical piece of evidence back from the landlady’s cat at the same time.”
“And yet it never occurred to you to turn the stove off,” I replied. “I rest my case.”
I turned back to see that Leila was actually smiling, truly and honestly, at us.
“I’d like that, I think,” she said.
“You heard the lady,” I told Allie. “Chop chop.”
“Bossy woman,” she replied, “And chopping is not how you open a can.”
I rolled my eyes in her direction – which she couldn’t see – and then looked Leila over. The tense hunch had gone out of her shoulders.
“All right, other hand,” I said, and examined the yellowed bruise in the back of her right hand, over the veins. She winced as I turned her arm over and found the horizontal double track of parallel scars running across that wrist, rather than down her arm. It looked as if the mark further from her hand matched a shorter line across the top of her wrist bones, but the injuries were old and shouldn’t have been that painful, I thought.
“When did you hurt this arm?” I asked.
She pulled her arm away from me and looked away, at the floor again. “It was… the car, just, it was raining and… the brakes…”
“Slow down,” I told her. “What car?”
Leila took a deep breath. “Geoff’s car,” she said, “we were driving along in the rain and he… he’d given me his coat because I had to leave mine behind at the hospital, and he said we’d better get out of town, that he had a grandmother in Kentucky who I could stay with for a while, so things could get sorted out, and then there was this car without it’s lights on and I don’t think he saw it in time, and -” she swallowed abruptly. “We went right through the guardrail when he swerved, and we weren’t going that fast, really, but… there was so much blood, and if I’d stayed there, they would have made me go back to the hospital.”
She looked at me appealingly: sometime in the past hour, it seemed that she’d come to trust me, to some degree, for some reason. The knowledge of it settled heavily on my shoulders.
“Who’s Geoff?” I asked.
“He’s a friend of Mark’s from boot camp,” she replied, “He’s home on leave and he was the only person I could think to ask to help me leave, because they took away my license at the first hospital. Everybody else has kids. He… I didn’t think he would, but I finally got him to come see me, and he helped me leave after I got out, even though they could have arrested him. He said he wasn’t ever going to leave a man or woman behind.” Leila smiled in a painful, watery way. “I guess I failed there too.”
Numbly, I examined the yellowed, diagonal bruise across Leila’s collarbone, which was a over a week old and fading out of existence. To my inexpert eye, nothing appeared to be broken. Allie came in, bearing a cup of orange juice, a bowl of soup, and a crooked grilled cheese sandwich on a lunch tray that she’d dug up from somewhere. I excused myself into the bathroom to wash my hands.
I met my own eyes in the mirror as the water ran too hot.
My mind was too empty to think philosophical thoughts about how it was impossible to avoid death, especially if you were a detective, or about how you couldn’t keep yourself from being affected by your cases, and some of them were a special hell in and of themselves.
Sometimes the brain just clears out to make room for something else.
The thing that wormed its way in was the cold silence. The absence of breath. The running fear, running forever, always on the move towards something promised to be better, always on the run from the last disappointment, the last whispered words. The slow click of windshield wipers in the rain, always circling back to the start, unable to break the cycle. The sun-brown hands where the first few age spots had begun to mingle with freckles, with the long white lines in the soft underside of the wrists, invisible unless you knew the right tilt of the light to unbury the past. Isolation.
My wrists burned with ice and I discovered that the reason my fingertips hurt so much was because I was gripping the counter so hard that my fingers had turned white. I let go and sank to the floor, resting my forehead on the counter as I fought down the shadow of nausea. Throwing up couldn’t purge memories, even if my hands still smelled like disinfectant.
I didn’t have to stretch far to imagine Leila, trapped like a rat in a maze, running from the knowledge of what was real by taking refuge in unreality, fighting a persecution that was all too real despite her own doubts, deciding to trade away her own breath, lying lifeless on the floor for who knew how many minutes, hollow. I’d never understand it either, but I thought – I hoped – that she hadn’t given up: that something inside her still rattled the cage in the hopes that it would be set free.
I knew that she needed more help than we could give her – chicken soup does admirably for the common cold but not for fear – but in her place, would it even be possible to trust someone who wanted to lock her up for her own safety? I didn’t think so. If she’d broken out of at least one hospital, with help or not, another one stood a good chance of making things worse instead of better, and somewhere deep in my tired heart I was rebelling against the idea of Leila, caged and absent of breath.
If her husband was still deployed, I doubted we could reach him, but someone who counted as Leila’s family ought to know where she was. And I ought to call the police and report to them that there was a traffic accident connected to the case as well.
I heard a knock on the bathroom door.
“You all right in there?” Allie asked, and I closed my eyes, seeing her leaning against the doorframe, looking impossibly graceful and lopsided and concerned and careless at the same time. She had a way of standing as if people should salute when she passed, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she just sort of unwound herself everywhere at home.
“Yeah,” I said back, still not moving.
“Gonna come out?”
I took a deep breath. “Give me a minute.”
I made myself busy, dragging out a fresh towel and washcloth for Leila, putting the soap and shampoo in a prominent place, and then realizing that if she got her bandages wet, I’d have to change them again. Well, it wasn’t as if we didn’t have more of them, and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t already seen her wrist, so I’d take care of that when the time came, because I did not regret that coaxing her into having that gash treated had been my first priority.
When I stepped out of the bathroom, Leila had devoured her dinner and was nursing another cup of cocoa. I couldn’t even have been gone ten minutes.
In the meantime, Allie had dug up some sweatpants and a t-shirt for Leila, so once our guest had disappeared into the bathroom and pushed her clothes out around the cracked-open door, I threw the filthy shirt and jeans in the washing machine with some towels and waited until the hum of the machine and the pounding of the water had created a sound barrier.
“We’re going to have to call officer Rayne,” I said, at the same time as Allie opened her mouth.
“I think you should have a look at Leila’s aura to check if there’s… the same thing as Sophia,” she said.
We stood there a second until I nodded. “All right,” I said. It wasn’t as if looking at her aura hadn’t already occurred to me, but I found myself strangely reluctant to do it. Until Allie had suggested it, I hadn’t even noticed that I was avoiding it for no good reason, especially when I’d checked auras so often over the years since we’d began doing investigations that it was now second nature to me. I supposed I’d just been busy taking care of Leila, but Allie could have helped too. Now that I thought of it, we hadn’t exactly been playing to our strengths ever since we’d heard Sophia’s evidence. That needed to stop, and not only because we might be facing a trained and dangerous mage tomorrow night if the worst-case scenario came true.
Allie looked at me consideringly, then shrugged. “It might not tell us anything, and I can only guess how disturbing what you saw in Sophia’s aura was, so if you don’t want to…” she trailed off, and I shook my head.
“It could tell us something, and this time I’m prepared for it,” I replied. “Besides, I’ve been meaning to do it.”
I could tell from Allie’s expression that she clearly didn’t believe me, but she changed the subject anyway.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked me. I could clearly see the concern in her dark blue eyes, and didn’t have to ask how she knew. Over the years we’d gotten good at reading each other.
With a halfhearted shrug, I settled down on the couch, and she followed me.
“Remember the Hillcrest case?” I asked her.
Allie grimaced. “The suicide? Yeah, I thought that was it. Though I admit that reaming the police out for not warning you before they let you walk into that room was not the brightest thing I’ve ever done.”
It was a mark of just how long ago that case had been that I remembered Allie’s furious indignance fondly and the horror that had gripped me entering into that case hardly at all. The days before we’d actually become any good at crime-solving were now a matter of nostalgic memory, the same as our youthful misunderstandings with the police force back in the city we had learned to call home.
Home felt like another universe, which was only fair because it was. I’d be more than happy when it was time to leave Seattle and go back to the old familiar faces, and a world where magic of all kinds was out in the open.
“You know,” I said as a thought popped into my head, “I sort of wish Evvy and Martin were here. Especially there’s that charity ball tomorrow night. And if it’s going to be as tacky as Kate said, I’d pay good money to see Will and his impeccable Admiralty manners putting them all to shame.”
Allie snickered at the thought of our oldest friends on the force and the perpetually scruffy inventor on the Greys’ property.
“Evvy would take great pleasure in arresting someone like Christian Grey,” she said. “Her accent would probably put in an appearance, just from pure satisfaction. ‘Ah am arrestin’ you for the followin’ violations of the law…’” she continued, mimicking Evvy’s hardly perceptible horse-country drawl as badly as she possibly could. “Will would probably deliver a long speech about behavior unbecoming to a gentleman, wait for someone to take exception to it, and then let them figure out that he’s the new superintendent of the expanded Aegis.”
“And before we knew it, Martin would have made a perpetual motion machine out of the silverware, or be happily explaining the physics of radio transmission to half the guests using a diagram he drew on the tablecloth,” I added, joining her amusement at the ridiculous scenario.
“That would be a real party.” Allie shook her head fondly. After a few moments, her smile faded. “I’m going to go call Officer Rayne. She can add that car crash to the list of things that her department is investigating. Maybe when Lelia’s a little calmer we can figure out where it happened.”
I nodded, but she hovered there for a moment. Twice she opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and closed it again. Finally, she cleared her throat.
“Was your mom’s aura like these ones?” she finally asked, quietly.
Quickly, I shook my head. “No,” I said. “It was the same color as goldenrod, never covered by anything, just… I couldn’t tell by looking at her if it was a good day or a bad one. She tried to hide her problems from me, to make me think that we had it lucky and she had everything under control.” It still felt strange to smile about that, but crying about it was the only other option and there are only so many tears you can shed. “It wasn’t the auras that reminded me, but my mom had those same scars…” I gestured towards my own smooth right wrist. Unlike me, my mother had been left handed. Then I sighed, and tried to pass it off with a shrug. “I just want to help before it’s too late,” I admitted.
Allie’s face was full of sympathy, but she didn’t seem to know what to say. Instead, she leaned over and gave me a quick kiss, before heading out to the tiny balcony in our room to make the call. I cleaned up the dishes, wrestled the fold out couch into position, and dug out the spare sheets and blankets to make it up, keeping busy again. That I had learned from my grandmother.
Leila must have used up all the hot water in the building by the time she came out with damp, combed hair and bare feet. Cleanliness had greatly improved her appearance: it had been upgraded from bag lady to wide eyed waif.
I looked at her over the edge of my glasses.
Immediately, I felt a stabbing pain between my eyebrows, along with a quick impression of boiling grey something as I clapped my hands over my eyes and squinched them shut. Shit. Not again.
“You all right?” Leila asked, and I waved one hand in reply.
“Poked myself in the eye,” I lied, and my eyes were watering like crazy already. It felt like a sharp weight was trying to compress my skull, constantly, out of tune with my frantic heartbeat. I waited for it to die down a little before I moved, fumbling for the refrigerator and punching the ice button until I heard cubes rattle down into the tray. Somehow, I managed to grab two of them and press them against my forehead. It helped a little.
When I took my hands off my eyes, I made quite sure to push my glasses into place before opening them. The lights glared yellow on the linoleum of the little kitchen, and I still had to squint, but I could see the little lines that separated the tiles quite clearly. I stood there nursing my headache until my heart stopped pounding, but I didn’t try to look at Leila’s aura again.
I could feel frustration gathering in hot prickles behind my eyelids: I’d never needed to be careful of what auras I looked at or how long until a couple years back. I’d thought that my eyes had recovered from the time I tried to see through a grand scale illusion and temporarily succeeded, which had the approximate effect of staring at the sun, and had burned out my ability to see auras for the better part of a year. Apparently, I’d been wrong about that, and right about the headaches instead.
My night just keeps getting better and better, I thought, only to realize that there was no longer any relief in sarcasm.