Closing time came and I found myself with just enough energy to be up to magic practice for the first time in over a week. Derrick went to sleep on the floor in Milly and Hal’s room (it was a bit larger than the little thing Gus and I shared), and Gus and I settled ourselves on the floor on the thin blanket that still smelled of man musk.
“Alright,” I shook my arms all loose and closed my eyes. “Mind me.”
“Actually, I think you should practice tonight.”
“Eh? What gave you that idea? I can heal just fine.”
“Not on healing. On protecting yourself.”
I opened my eyes to look at him, perplexed.
“Is this another trip into your paranoia?” I asked.
I got the Gus original scowl for that—the default of his many scowls. “Another? I am not paranoid. You’re an idiot to think that you won’t ever have a time when you need to protect yourself.”
“Alright, whatever. It’s not like you listen to me anyways.”
“I do listen to you.”
“No you don’t!”
He threw his head back with an explosive sigh. “Whatever! Just try out my idea, okay?”
“Fine.” I didn’t have the energy to fight with him anyway.
“When you healed my twisted leg, you had to break my bones to do it. I remember feeling it. That’s what happened, right?”
“Yeah…” Okay, I could see where he was going with this. But how could I practice breaking bones?
“So tonight, I’ll be your practice dummy,” he held out his arms.
I stared at his arms for a full thirty seconds, wondering if he’d lost it.
“I can’t practice breaking your bones!”
“Shh, people are trying to sleep. And you can just heal them as soon as you break them, dummy.”
“It’s still going to hurt. I can’t hurt you.”
“I’ve had plenty of broken bones before, it’s no big deal. But you need to see if you can do it without needing to have something to heal. If you can do that, protecting yourself should be easy, especially with the massive magic capacity you have.”
I groaned, my insides getting all kinds of twisted just thinking about breaking my baby’s bones. “Gus Gus…”
His eyes hardened. “I’m not your baby, so stop thinking that.”
I winced. Yeah, not going to ask how he knew that.
He nudged his arms towards me. “Now, take your pick.”
“Can’t…can’t I just start with a finger?”
“Fingers breaking hurt more than an arm.”
“How do you…nevermind, I don’t want to know.”
He flashed a toothy, cool smile.
“Smart. Now hurry. We’re both tired.”
I winged. I groaned. I teetered in place and gave him plaintive, pleading looks. But when he just continued to sit there, his eyes telling me ‘stop being ridiculous and get it over with, you know I’m right,’ I cautiously gripped one of his skinny wrists. Once I had my chosen arm, he let the other one drop.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, tone turning soft. “I’m not.”
I whined in my throat.
“You know it’s the smart thing to do.”
It was. It really was. Defending yourself was never a bad idea, especially in this strange world.
So I closed my eyes and let my magic reach out.
The heat criss-crossed threads through my arms to his wrist. After hesitating at his skin, reflecting my apprehension, my magic dipped in, brushing against the texture of a carpet of miniscule energy markers for every cell. They were young and vibrant. As I dove down to the bone, I found the cells there especially active, caught up in the active growth of puberty.
I took me a bit of feeling around. I had never realized the instinct for broken until this moment when I tried to get my magic to do something other than heal. It felt a lot like keeping my ear out for an out of tune note. For comparison I found some acne budding on his chin to compare and healed each pimple one by one to observe the sensations of the movement of magic.
“Is there a reason you’re in my face?”
I came back to his arm. To his stretching, buzzing tibula.
After tapping it with my magic, I imagined the feeling of the pimples—that ting of wrong note—and turned it to the bone. Imagined that ting coming from the bone twisted wrong, like in his leg. The bone cells had been healed and functioning then. They had been no off-key in the fuzz of energy markers. But it still needed to be tuned, straightened, broken—
The snap was a lot louder than I anticipated, and I cringed back in alarm, hands smacking to my mouth in fright.
Gus instantly reached out to me, his now broken arm being tucked close.
“Shh! Shh! It’s okay, it’s okay, good job. You did it.”
“You—oh god, Gus, did I really—“
“Yep. Hurts like a bit—You did it.”
“Quick, give it back.”
He gave me his broken arm back. If I hadn’t believed his word before, I could see for myself through my reaching tendrils of magic, like feelers, that the tibula had cleanly snapped in two.
In less than a second, it was whole again, before the bone cells could even begin the process of division.
“And pain is gone,” he lifted his healed arm, twisting it back and forth and smiling at me. “See? That wasn’t so bad.”
I slide my hands down my face. But then I gave him a tentative smile.
His smile widened and he tipped forward to pat the top of my head.
“Sorry that scared you. But…I think you got to be faster.”
“Bad guys aren’t going to wait ten minutes for you to break their bones. You should practice until you can do it in an instant—“
“I am NOT doing that again!” The loud crack of his bone felt like it had hit me in the core. I could still remember it. “You can’t tell me that didn’t hurt!”
“Oh, it hurt. A broken bone hurts like hell. But…” and here he made sure to meet my eye. “It would hurt far, far worse if anything were to happen to you. I’d break every bone in my body multiple times if it keeps you safe.”
That got me. I got the fuzzies. Hot, writhing fuzzies dropped into my gut and rose up like heartburn to my throat.
A second later, Gus seemed to regret saying that as a blush darkened his cheeks and forehead. He lifted a hand to his face and looked away.
“Anyways, try again, just one more time, to see if you can be quicker. Then I’ll stop bugging you and we can practice with my magic tomorrow.”
I did more whining and winging to myself, mostly just me flipping my hands in the air and squeaking in my throat as I gathered my courage, than I reached out again, this time for his other arm.
“Are you sure this doesn’t hurt as bad?” I asked.
“Well, you can try a foot bone. I just know toes and fingers are stupid sensitive.”
So I picked up foot this time. It was still damp from his wash down in the courtyard. The calluses from his shoeless days were still there, rough to the touch.
It took a bit for me to trick my mind again and perk up that mental tuning ear, but a mere minute later there came another crack.
This time, Gus hissed, ever so quietly.
I rushed to heal it. It gave my brain the sensation of being flipped over, like a pancake on a griddle, from undoing the mental trick to forcefully tossing it aside.
“That was really good that time, Lilly.” I felt his hand on my head again, ruffling it like I was the younger one. “Thank you for humoring me. I know that was hard.”
“Stop talking to me like you’re the adult in this relationship,” I said, pouting through my relief that it was now over and I could go to bed.
“Sometimes, I wonder,” and he had a funny little grin when he said that, more of a cock to the side of his mouth than an actual smile.
I lightly slapped his hand off my head. “Well you’re not. You’re fourteen, and I’m…” I had to stop to count, only to get confused. I’d died when I was twenty-five, but Nehcor had told me my body had been reversed to its prime, and that I’d live ten times longer than the average human, so…was I twenty-six or was I, like, something else? And if we were talking age in experience who knew who was older.
And if I aged so slowly, it might be a good idea to say I was younger, at least for the short time I was here. People started looking older by the time they were thirty in these medieval times, or at least the people who came to the inn did.
Gus looked at me funny. “Did you seriously forget how old you were?”
“I’m twenty,” I said.
His mouth twitched. “Did you just lie?”
“What, do I look like a kid to you?”
“Yes,” he said frankly. “Actually, you do.”
I gaped at him, then scoffed. “You wish. Get to bed already.”
“You got the bed tonight.”
Even so, after I’d stripped to my underwear (after Gus had turned away on the floor) and lay down, I still felt myself a little confused. Why had I hesitated so much? So what if I was around past thirty? Couldn’t I just say I had a baby face? If, for some horrible reason, I was still here past thirty and people started asking questions, I could always leave and start up somewhere else…
The awful droop that gave made me snap the subject close with a final, Screw it, I can be whatever freaking age I want to be. And I wanted to be twenty.
That’s how old I’d been when I’d gotten married, and I would have done anything to go back in time to fix that mistake.
“Oh, and for the record, I’m turning fifteen next month.”
“That makes no damn difference.”
“Shut up, Gus.”