Interlude Five: Shocks and Reassurances

Everything that followed was a blur, and not just over the course of that day, but the several days that followed it. For the longest time, Jack existed in a state of semi-coma, with no conscious awareness of what was happening around him. When he finally woke up, it was to a soft, comfortable bed and warm light streaming in through a large picture window that gave him a pleasant view of trees and a clear, pale pink sky beyond. The window was open a fraction, and a cool breeze wafted through, feeling like heaven against his hot skin.

Jack sighed and turned his face fully towards it. The movement caused a twinge of pain through his neck and skull, but the feeling of fresh air on his face was worth it.

“Welcome back.”

Jack turned his head again, and this time his pale blue eyes focused on a middle-aged woman in cream and blue robes, with bright eyes and stern but kind expression.

“Where am I?” he asked. Or rather, would have done, had his mouth and throat not been so completely dry that they felt like used sandpaper.

“Open,” the woman murmured, brushing her thumb gently against his lips. He did so, and she slipped a spoonful of ice chips into his mouth. It felt like heaven, and he didn’t try to hide his sigh of relief. As he sucked greedily on the ice, she spoke again to introduce herself.

“I am Brenna, Chief Healer of Mendyr. You have been in my care for the last several days. You were gravely ill, but your body is finally healing as it should. You were fortunate, young man, to escape when you did. With the infections you’d developed, I doubt you would have survived another week without treatment.”

At his puzzled look, she took the liberty of sitting in the chair by the bedside.

“How much do you remember of the last week?”

He managed a tiny shake of his head, and tried to ignore the stab of pain that the movement caused him. He had no clear memories of the past several days, and he had no intention of trying to remember them.

“Well,” Brenna said, “I would consider that a blessing. When you were brought to me, you were in a grievous condition. You had an infection from some of the open wounds on your body that could have easily killed you. Your body is healing now, but slowly. It will be some time before you are fully healed and completely well again.”

Jack swallowed the remainder of the ice, and spoke in a soft, hoarse voice. He was acutely conscious of how terrible he sounded, but at the same time he couldn’t help but feel grateful that he did, at least, have a voice.

“Where… Where’s my master?”

The dark, angry look that filled Brenna’s face at his words cause his chest to tighten painfully. Fearing he’d said something wrong, and that he was about to be punished, he cringed away from her and shut his eyes in anticipation of the coming blows.

It never happened.

Slowly, Jack became aware of a cool, damp cloth being pressed to his still-hot flesh, and he opened his eyes tentatively to see Brenna watching him with regret and apology.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to scare you, but the idea of slavery… in any form… always makes me furious. Darien is not your master, child. You must try to accept that now, or you will never properly heal. You’re free of him, I promise.”

Jack drew in a shuddering breath. In all truth, he hadn’t even been aware of what he’d said. Had Darien really wormed his way in that far?

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t realise…”

He felt her palm against his cheek, and the coolness of her flesh felt like bliss on his hot skin.

“No apologies. Just concentrate on knowing that you are no one’s slave. Now, as for Darien, I wish I could tell you that he has been secured, but I’m afraid that is not the case.”

Jack felt his stomach roll ominously.

“He’s still out there?”

“Not for long,” Brenna promised him. “The entire Elder Council is searching for him, as are all of the Lesser Councils. He will not escape justice for long. You are safe. He will not be allowed to hurt you again.” She moved her hand to gently cover his eyes. “Rest, now. You still have a lot of healing to do.”

Jack felt an overwhelming desire to sleep threaten to overcome him, but fear was a powerful stimulant.

“You’re really sure? I mean, he said…”

“Hush,” Brenna murmured. “I promise you’re safe. Now, try to sleep. You need as much as you can get.”

His eyes finally slid closed, and he was just drifting off to sleep when a voice spoke close by.

“Brenna? I was told he was awake.”

“Yes, for a short while, Leesa. He still needs much rest, though.”

“So, you haven’t told him yet.”

Jack heard Brenna sigh, and felt another chill rush through him at the sound.

“No,” she answered soberly. “I would like to see him regain his strength at least a little before laying that burden on him. Darien did a great deal of damage, Leesa – both physical and psychological. When he woke up a few minutes earlier, the first thing he asked was where his master was.”

“Shakkran,” Leesa snarled softly.

“Exactly. I just don’t believe he is ready to deal with another shock on top of everything he has already been through.”

“Surely it couldn’t be too much of a shock,” Leesa mused, and Jack fancied that he could almost hear her frowning. “After all, he must know that his body is capable of bearing children.”

Jack’s eyes snapped open; all remnants of sleep gone. Brenna and Leesa turned as one, and Brenna uttered a sound of dismay as she hurried to his side. Oblivious to her presence, Jack’s wild eyes went to his stomach, currently shielded from view by a warm blanket. He threw the cover back, heedless that he was naked underneath, to stare in horror at the currently taut, albeit badly bruised flesh of his abdomen.

“I’m not… I can’t be…”

He could barely speak, both for the shock and the strain on his vocal chords.

“Hush,” Brenna murmured, but Jack tried to pull away from her as his distress rapidly escalated.

“Take it out! Get it out of me!”

Her hands grasped the sides of his head firmly, making him look at her.

“Listen to me. You are in shock, and not thinking clearly. When you have had the opportunity to think this situation, though, then make your choice. But not now.”

Tears filled Jack’s eyes and spilled down his cheeks.

“He did it… It was him…”

Brenna shifted her hold on him so that she was cradling him to her as he wept.

“We know, but I promise we will look after you.” She brushed her fingertips over his temples, and a sigh escaped him as his mind and body succumbed to exhaustion. “Sleep now,” Brenna murmured sadly. “Sleep, and heal.”

Jack slept. Aided in part by the gentle suggestive powers of the Chief Healer, Jack slept a solid and blessedly dreamless sleep for the next three days. When he eventually awoke again, his mind was clearer than it had been since Darien had first taken him. For a long while he just lay quietly, grateful for the warmth of the blankets, the softness of the pillows, and the comfort of the bed in general. The only comfort that his master had afforded him, despite all his promises and platitudes, had been that hard and narrow bed, with just one thin, scratchy blanket.

He shuddered involuntarily as he realised belatedly that he was still thinking of Darien as his master. He had only been in Darien’s control for a month or so, and yet the man had managed to well and truly screw his head around.

“I am afraid that is what he is best at.”

Jack turned his head slowly towards the source of the voice, and was grateful not to suffer any ill effects for the effort. Sitting by the bedside was the man who had come across him on the road, and had ultimately saved him. A frown creased Jack’s brow as he tried to recall his name.

“My name is Jal,” he said in response to Jack’s unspoken question. “This is our largest Healing House, and you are on the planet Mendyr.” Jal smiled kindly at him. “You don’t have anything to fear, Jack. The Elder Council met the day after your rescue, and again yesterday. They have a great deal of sympathy for you, and have determined that you should receive the best possible care… whatever your decision may be.”

Unable to help himself, Jack glanced down the length of his body, and was slightly disturbed to find that his hands had folded themselves protectively over his stomach.

“You know?” he asked in a small voice, feeling his face heat up with humiliation. Jal reached across and laid a hand gently over Jack’s.

“Yes. Don’t be ashamed. We are well aware of the ability of some human males to bear children. Despite the circumstances of conception, you are still considered to be blest.”

Jack cringed at his choice of words. Blest was not the word he would have used to describe his situation.

“What if I decide I don’t want it?” he asked, quietly dreading the answer, despite Jal’s earlier reassurance. “What if I want to terminate it? What will happen to me then?”

The bitterness and anxiety that he felt turned to surprise when Jal did not withdraw his hand, and continued to smile kindly.

“You are our guest, Jack. We’ll support you no matter what you decide.”

“Why?” Jack burst out, startling Jal a little. “I’m a stranger, I don’t belong here. Why does anyone here even care? Why are you all being so kind to me?”

Jal was still trying to form a response when Brenna approached.

“That’s enough for today, Jal. He needs to rest. You may come back tomorrow.”

Jal nodded, and quietly vacated the room. Jack watched him go with a feeling of regret. He hadn’t meant to take out his fears and frustrations on the kindly old man, but he just couldn’t bring himself to accept that he was no longer in any danger. The stress of it was almost more than he could tolerate.

“He’s been here every day,” Brenna said quietly while she saw to Jack’s injuries, “sitting with you for hours at a time. First when you were ill from infection, and then whilst you slept. He stood up to accept responsibility for you at the Council Gathering yesterday. It wasn’t necessary, of course, but the gesture was noted all the same.”

“I appreciate it,” Jack murmured, “but I still don’t understand. Why does he... why does anyone here care about what happens to me?”

Brenna paused in her ministrations and regarded him sadly.

“You should remember that Darien enslaved you, child. He enslaved you, and lied to keep you in servitude. We are a private people, but we also pride ourselves on being fair and reasonable. Whatever the circumstances of your situation, it is obvious to us that you are the victim here. We would never lay blame on your for something that you had no control over. I wonder, though... You wouldn’t ask such a question unless you were unused to having anyone to care about you. Tell me, child, what has happened in your life to make you believe you are so unworthy of being loved?”

Jack stayed silent, but nothing he could do could prevent the painful images from his past that tore through his mind. He was crying before he realised it, and had no strength to object when Brenna embraced him.

“We have accepted you as our own, dear one. Here, you are loved.”

For a long time, Jack’s only concept of love and acceptance had been attached to sex. To use and abuse – it was a gross parody of marriage vows that his time with Darien had only served to enforce. Now, he suddenly found himself faced with a level of acceptance and care – if not love – that he wasn’t fully capable of comprehending. In the end, he gave up trying. It was far easier in the long run to just accept the kindness that was on offer, and he found himself much happier for it.

Over the following days, Jal visited him frequently, and it wasn’t long before Jack came to look forward to those visits. It was noticeable by all who cared for him that after a visit from Jal, Jack’s mood was considerably lighter. Jack personally soon realised that he was beginning to view Jal as a surrogate father figure, and it seemed to be a role which Jal willingly embraced. His wife, Kyrii, had also taken a shine to Jack, and before long she’d begun to bring him hot, home-cooked meals, among other delicacies and treats.

Jack looked forward to seeing them both. They had a visible positive effect on him, the likes of which he hadn’t had in his life for a long time. They were enough of a positive influence that before long Brenna permitted them to take Jack outside to the gardens for brief periods each day.

“We are going to need to teach you our language, Jack,” Kyrii said with a smile as Brenna’s aid pushed Jack’s wheelchair into a garden that was resplendent with native flora. “Now that you’re able to go outside, I expect there’ll be a lot of people wishing to meet you.”

Jack’s attention slowly wound its way back to Kyrii.

Like Jal, she had a kind face that was slightly wrinkled with age. Her face was framed with greying hair that was still thick and wavy, and her eyes were a deep blue that positively sparkled every time she smiled. She was beautiful in Jack’s eyes, and it didn’t take much for Jack to come to love her dearly.

Even the comforting presence of her and Jal couldn’t completely allay his fears, though. As much as he was pleased to be outside, he couldn’t help the apprehension that curled through his stomach. Darien was yet to be found, and Jack would not rest easy until he was securely in the custody of the Elder Council.

A hand on his cheek drew him gently back to reality, and he looked up into Jal’s kindly brown eyes.

“You’re safe, Jack. He can’t get to you.”

“I know,” Jack conceded. “I just... I guess I’m not going to be able to feel totally safe until he’s been found.”

“We know, sweetheart,” Kyrii said, firing a warning look at her husband. Jal understood, and wisely kept quiet.

“Hang on,” Jack said suddenly as Kyrii’s earlier words finally registered with him. “If Commonspeak isn’t the main language here...”

“It is taught to the children, but not many retain the knowledge as adults,” Jal explained. “It would benefit you to be able to learn at least the basics of our language. However, as you know we do use Commonspeak, as does Brenna, her Healers, the Elder and Lesser Councils... Mostly anyone in a professional position on Mendyr. So you can be assured that you won’t have to learn Mendyrian by tomorrow.”

There was yet another thing for Jack to worry about. He was due to face the Elder Council tomorrow, the members of which had apparently decide they wanted to see him in person. Tomorrow was the first day that Brenna had been willing to let him be taken away from the sanctuary of the Healing House, and its surrounding gardens.

He didn’t know what to think of it all, and the truth was that he was more than a little scared. In all, it was just one more thing to be worried about.

“Jack?” Jal asked. “What are you thinking?”

“Don’t you know already?” he snapped in reply, and instantly regretted the outburst. “I’m sorry, Jal. I didn’t mean that. I... I’m just confused.”

Jal grasped his hand lightly.

“We do understand. And no, as a matter of fact, I don’t know what you’re thinking. As your health has improved, so too have your mental defences. I suppose I could force my way in, but I am not Darien. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“Thankyou,” Jack whispered gratefully. “I... I guess I’m just trying to get it all straight in my mind. The Council wants me to decide, don’t they? About the baby, I mean.”

“Yes,” Jal admitted, “but it’s for your own sake. If you decide to end the pregnancy, then it should be done sooner rather than later.”

“I’m scared of how everyone will react if I do decide to do that,” Jack admitted. “You’ve all be so kind to me...”

Kyrii leaned in to hug him, effectively silencing his concerns.

“Oh, Jack, that’s not going to chance. Yes, we hope that you will choose to see the pregnancy through, but no one is going to turn on you if you don’t. What happened to you was not your fault. Please try to believe that.”

Jack felt fresh tears threaten, and blinked them back. Brenna had told him that the extra hormones his body was producing would make him emotional, but he honestly hadn’t expected it to start so soon.

“That’s the thing, though,” he admitted, and wasn’t game enough to look either of his friends in the eye. “It was my fault... at least partially.”

“And how, exactly, did you come to that conclusion?” Jal asked quietly.

Despite his fears, Jack gradually found himself telling them all about the Time Agency investigation, and the way that he and John had effectively messed it up, placing both themselves and their fellow agents in danger.

“I don’t even know if John’s alive,” Jack said in a stricken tone. “I let him talk me into it, and now he might be dead... and all because my damned ego couldn’t cope with letting someone else run the operation!”

“You really think you deserve what was done to you because of one error of judgement?” Kyrii asked in shock and dismay. Jack stared at her with such self-loathing that it brought tears to her eyes.

“Don’t I?”

“No, you certainly don’t!” she answered fiercely. “No one deserves that. You might not believe it right now, but I hope that you will before too long.”

She hugged him again, and was still hugging him when Brenna appeared.

“Jack,” she said with an apologetic smile, “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid your outing will need to be cut short today. You have visitors waiting for you inside.”

Confusion lit up his face.

“Visitors? Who...?”

She smiled encouragingly at him, if somewhat nervously.

“The Elder Council is here.”

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