Aleister abruptly stops walking and spits out a string of curses under his breath. Anxiety creates static across their connection. He pulls his left sleeve up to reveal a tightly wrapped bandage.
“Get this off of me! It burns!” he snaps.
She swiftly draws a knife from her boot and inserts the blade between the bandage and his skin. In one swift movement, she slices the bandage open and it falls away. Beneath, Aleister’s skin is red and irritated. Nichi gasps at the sight of the fresh, barely healed slice from his elbow to his wrist. That long red cut sears into her brain and she’s taken back to the circle when she felt this injury. Her eyes find his with wide, honey-colored disbelief and a demand for explanation.
“Something was on that wall in the cave,” he says, avoiding the probing attention by looking back to his arm.
With a quickness and efficiency of a seasoned healer, Nichi grabs the sleeve of his sweater and rips it away from its seam at the shoulder. She lets it fall to the plank in a slimy mess. Aleister stares at her, something like awe and surprise warring for dominance of his expression.
“Uh, thanks,” he mutters.
“Attached to the other sleeve?” she asks, eyes unable to leave the irritated wound.
“Not anymore,” he admits.
The word has barely left his mouth when she removes the clean sleeve with a movement much the same as the first. She’s met by a large and glaring half-sleeve of ink that occupies the skin of Aleister’s arm from shoulder to elbow. A crow is perched upon his bicep, its feet drawn so that they look like they’re latched into his muscle, and one mean eye is tilted toward the viewer.
“Oh!” she cries, startled at the sudden darkness of it against his pale skin.
“Oh,” she says again, much softer, when she really takes in the tattoo. She didn’t even know he had a tattoo.
The crow is done in black and grey with long wings that wrap his arm and end near the back of his elbow. The thing stands surrounded by fall-colored leaves that seem to blow around in a grey-washed wind, and a full moon rounds his slender shoulder. The visible eye, large and piercing, is done in grey and the same yellow of the moon. Then she clears her throat and sets to work, doing her best to ignore the intriguing, beautiful, and terrifying art.
She uses the sleeve to wipe his arm as clean as possible. The cotton is freezing, but it has collected enough moisture to remove most of the slime away from his skin. She flips it over and wraps it quickly and just a little tight around the length of his forearm, then neatly ties a quick knot at his wrist.
She turns to continue their journey and says, “Come, we cannot stay here.”
As she does, she avoids his eyes.
Aleister follows in silence for a while. Nichi can feel his attention on her but she doesn’t address or return it. Eventually, he says, “Thanks.”
“You are welcome,” she answers softly without turning toward him.
“Are you that straightforward about everything?” he asks.
Her eyebrows arch. She has been around him enough to know he’s not shy about speaking his mind, but the question still surprises her. She says, “Yes. How does your arm feel?”
“Much better. It’s kind of a weird feeling to wear a sweater with no sleeves, but you probably just saved me the trouble of needing to be healed again,” he says.
“If that has been healed already it was a shoddy job,” she says, her chin lifting. She hears him snort then laugh softly. She adds, “What happened?”
“That…is a story better left to some other time,” he says. It’s obvious he doesn’t want to talk about his experience, so she leaves it alone. He’s probably right, anyway. They really need to get off this bridge.
As she leads the way, she keeps a hand on her katana. Feeling is returning slowly as she moves her fingers one at a time. Aleister’s energy burns like a star behind her, and presently the pitch changes again to something more agitated.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
He sighs then says, “This place is a drag. My arm hurts. My throat hurts. And I’m starting to feel the effects of blood loss. I’ll be fine, though. How about you? That stunning spell was no joke. I don’t think I know anyone who would still be walking after that.”
The heat returns to her cheeks and she’s thankful her back is to him. Maybe this sort of concern is normal for him on a more personal level than he ever gives the Murder when they meet. She suddenly feels bad for bringing him here after the night he has already had.
“Half of me feels like a waking limb. It sucks,” she says. “The good news is we’re here.”