UPDATE: Edited 1/13/09 I was extremely unsatisfied with how this chapter played out, so I decided to have it go through major reconstruction. I hope this result is better than the last! -B
Disclaimer: Libba Bray owns, not me. :D
"Gemma, did you hear me?"
I start at the sound of Kartik's voice and turn to look at him, removing my gaze from the sight of Bristol sailing past the cab's window for the first time in what feels like hours. "I'm sorry?"
Kartik smiles wryly. "I asked if you were all right. You were being unusually quiet."
A faint blush creeps up my neck as I shake my head. "No, I'm fine. Really," I add, seeing the disbelieving look on his face. I smile in an attempt to assure him of my ease, but even I can feel the tension radiating from my person, and my smile comes out as a grimace. Kartik slips his hand into mine, and I sigh.
"You didn't have to ask," I accuse him, leaning my head on his shoulder. Kartik's free hand wraps around my waist.
"No," he murmurs, "but I thought it would help."
I don't reply. Instead, I close my eyes, letting my thoughts drift again as the cab speeds towards the dock where the HMS Victoria—and my father—await. Until now, I've tried to evade the thoughts that relentlessly plague my mind, but in the light of today's events, I finally bend to the pressure.
In the weeks before my and Kartik's wedding, I had been able to avoid thinking about my father's nearing departure for India among all of the planning. Now, though, nearly two blissful weeks have passed since the wedding, and Father's ship is to set sail today. I have no choice but to think about it.
Kartik gives my waist a gentle squeeze. I look up at him. He's been wonderful these past weeks, being a much better husband than I am a wife. When Father had announced his date of departure, Kartik had almost instantly agreed to delay our honeymoon so that I could see Father off. And when he had woken in the middle of the night to find me crying over my father, he had held me until sleep overcame me yet again. Even now, the very morning of Papa's departure, I find myself relying on my husband's comfort.
The carriage comes to a shaky halt. Automatically, stress erases all of my thoughts. Kartik hops down from the cab first to help me. I follow him, nearly tripping over my own feet on my way down.
"Ready, Gemma?" he whispers, offering me his arm. I don't take it.
"I'm not sure," I croak, staring around at the large crowd. Kartik softly touches my shoulder.
"It's all right, Gem, you can do this." Kartik's hand is warm on my sleeve as he gently steers me in the direction of the Victoria. "You've done worse things than this."
With a sigh of defeat, I slip my arm in Kartik's and let him tow me through the crowd. The curious and, in some cases, scandalized looks from those around us as they take in the sight of Kartik's Indian arm holding my English one for once hardly register in my thoughts. I'm far too distracted to care. My heart beats more and more quickly with each step I take to the docks, and my grip on Kartik's arm grows tighter.
Halfway to the ship, I stop, shaking my head. "Kartik, I can't do this."
"Of course you can," Kartik murmurs, stopping with me. "Gemma, there's nothing to be frightened of. Your father is going back to the country he loves, and he's very happy about it. Is it so hard to let him go home?"
I shake my head again, blinking away premature tears. "I can't."
Kartik grips my hand in his. "Yes, you can."
My eyes meet his. They are filled with confidence, and assurance, both things I wish I possessed. "All right."
Kartik smiles, lifting my hand to his lips and kissing it softly. A passing woman with a bountiful bosom and a severe bun glare at us coldly. "That's my Gemma."
We set off again, our strides sure and purposeful. Kartik maneuvers us through the chattering crowd with ease, and we approach the Victoria with almost frightening speed. At first, I see no sign of my father. But then a bickering mother and daughter standing near the ship move off, revealing a withered and very familiar man, dressed in his favorite white suit. My mouth instantly turns dry as Kartik directs me towards him until we stand mere feet apart.
"Here's my gem," Father says, smiling in a frail replica of his former beam as I come to a halt before him. "I was wondering when you would arrive."
"I'm sorry for the delay, Papa," I hear myself say. Thom wordlessly nods his greetings to Kartik and me from Father's left, his hands rigidly hidden in his pockets. I look around. "Where is Grandmama?"
"She and Father said her farewells at home," Thom puts in, sounding determinedly calm. "She didn't think the sea air would do her health any good."
I don't even bother to acknowledge Grandmama's blatant jibe at her own son. Instead, I turn to Father and ask, "When are you to board?"
"Any minute now," is his reply. Under the fatigue, I can see the excitement and joy that the return to India gives my father, and this almost eclipses my sorrow. It is plain that Father is eager to restore to the life he left behind, and my feeling wretched for him leaving will do neither of us good.
Father turns his gaze to Thom.
"Thomas, I'll…," he stops, looking uncomfortable, then starts again. "I'll see you at Christmas." Thom smiles thinly as he awkwardly shakes our father's hand, letting go far too quickly. I don't think I am the only one to notice the doubt in my brother's eyes.
"Have a comfortable voyage, Father."
With a curt nod, Father leaves Thom to stand before Kartik. For a moment, neither of them speak a word. I watch them anxiously, sure that nothing will happen but terrified that something might. Finally, my fears are put at rest as Kartik formally extends his hand.
"Take care of my daughter for me," Father says gruffly, shaking Kartik's hand. I see the silently added, "Better than I could," in Father's eyes, and I look away hurriedly to blink away fresh tears. My husband, however, steadily returns the gaze, looking my father straight in the eye.
"I will," is all he says, but the sincerity is plain in his face.
Seemingly assured, Father nods again before moving to face me. My heart flutters. This is what I had been dreading.
"Gemma," Father starts, but is stopped by a coughing fit. Concerned, I place my hand on his arm until his coughing subsides, unsure of what else to do. Some curious passersby allow their gazes to linger on Father's hacking form before moving on. Finally, Father's breathing returns to normal, and he looks up at me through slightly streaming eyes. "I'm sorry."
A lump rises in my throat. "There's nothing to be sorry for, Papa." And I mean it. My father is what he made himself become, but I have long forgiven him, though acceptance still evades me. If only he would forgive himself. A grim smile tugs at my father's lips.
"Good-bye, pet," he murmurs, pulling me into an embrace. I let my arms wrap around him, taking in his scent for what might be the last time. My lips brush against his gaunt cheek, and his weakly return the favor. I feel more tears standing at the ready behind my closed eyelids as I desperately hold back sobs. Will this strange ghost of a man ever return to what he once was? In my heart, I know it will never happen, but I refuse to let go of the hope. I feel his ribs poking me through my corset, and readily separate at my father's final whispered, "Good-bye."
I watch in silence as Father boards the ship, feeling Kartik's arms drape themselves protectively around my shoulders. The final horn for boarding blows, and I see Father in his ill-fitting white suit waving from the rail. I raise my arm to return his farewell. The bright sun, which before had seemed a mockery to our dreary parting, highlights the features of my father that have remained the same from my childhood, making him seem healthy again. Tears burn at my eyes, but I force them away for later. Father's smile, so wilted since Mother's death, seems to shine among those of the other waving passengers of the Victoria as they grow smaller and smaller.
And then, with a final wave, Father is swallowed by the sea of bodies, and I can see him no longer. My gloved hand falls back to my side dejectedly. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Thom shifting uncomfortably. He coughs.
"Er—well, I should be going," he mumbles stiffly. I look at him through misty eyes. He shuffles his feet again. "The hospital…will be expecting me…"
"Right," I reply, just as stiffly. For a minute, he just stands there, looking at me, with my teary eyes and Kartik's arm around me. Something flashes in his eyes, and his arm twitches, as if he means to reach out to me. But then the moment is gone, and he coughs again.
"Right," he echoes. "Well, then. Good-bye."
A brief, hurried kiss on my cheek, and a rigid shake of Kartik's hand, and I watch as my brother rushes away. My eyes tingle with unshed tears, but I hold them back, refusing to cry in front of so many strangers. Kartik squeezes my shoulders.
"We should be going, too, Gemma," he says to me, gently tugging me toward our waiting cab. Mutely, I follow, sliding into the carriage and staring out the window. Kartik sits patiently beside me, just as silent. His thigh is pressed comfortingly against mine, a reminder that he is there, but he leaves me to my thoughts, for which I am thankful. I need to get them in line before I speak, and Kartik seems to understand this.
Finally, the cab stops outside our dingy apartment. Kartik helps me down and pays the driver before following me to our lodgings, avoiding the few people who had ventured outside during the day. The click of the lock echoes through the alley, and I step into the apartment. Over the last few weeks, the small room has undergone a redecoration, so that it is cleaner, and brighter, than before. It's begun to feel more like a home, rather than a gloomy room. Still, we haven't done much: our new house is ready for us to move into after our honeymoon.
I make my way over to an armchair as Kartik closes the door, taking no comfort from the added decoration. I can feel his eyes on me, and when I look up, his brown gaze is the first thing I see. He still hasn't said a word, but I know that whenever I'm ready, he'll listen. I look down at the floor.
"Thank you for coming today," I tell my shoes.
"You don't have to thank me," Kartik replies. I shake my head.
"Yes, I do. You're always doing things like that for me—"
"Gemma," Kartik interrupts me, and I glance up at him, "I do everything because I want to, not because I think I have to."
I stare at him. Not for the first time, I wonder what I did to earn him as a husband. His warm eyes are locked on me, and everything about him, from his stance on the edge of the bed to the sincerity of his words, exudes an air of understanding that I crave. A single tear flows down my cheek, followed by another, and another, until I'm crying in full-force.
In a matter of seconds, Kartik is beside me, wrapping me securely in his arms. The pure tenderness in his voice as he softly whispers my name only makes me cry harder. Patiently, Kartik strokes my hair and lets my tears stain his shirt. For several minutes, I try to speak, to tell him that I'm fine, but every time I try, more tears stream from my eyes, and sobs choke down my words. Finally, I give up and let myself cry into Kartik's shoulder.
"Shh, Gemma…it's all right. Your father will have a happy life in India."
"I know," I sniffle, blinking furiously. "That's not why I'm c-crying."
"Then what's wrong?" Kartik is obviously confused, but his hand on my hair is steady.
"I don't know," I exclaim in frustration, not at him, but at myself. Impatiently, I brush another tear away. "I know Papa wants to go back to India, and I know he'll be happy there." My head involuntarily rests on Kartik's strong chest. He gently rearranges us so that I am sitting on his lap in the armchair, still stroking my hair. I continue, "But it's like we're trying to send him back to his old life, and we can't do that. Not really."
"Why?" Kartik prompts, smoothly wiping a tear from my cheek.
"Because that life is over," I sniff, sliding my arms around Kartik's waist. "It ended with Mother. She made him happy. But he'll never get her back." Dimly, I realize my sobs have begun to recede.
"No one thinks it'll be completely the same," Kartik points out gently. "This is to make your father as happy as he can be right now. He was happy in India once. Maybe it'll happen again."
I don't respond, tucking my head under Kartik's chin. In my mind, I picture my father in India again, surrounded by the memories of a life he can no longer live. Is that what is best for him?
A sigh escapes my lips. "I feel so useless."
"There was nothing you could do," Kartik assures me, resuming his stroking of my hair.
"I know that," I sigh, feeling absolutely wretched again. "But what's the point in all this power if I can't help my own family without botching everything up?"
"Gemma, you know better than anybody that your magic is hardly more than an illusion," Kartik murmurs comfortingly. He twines his fingers nimbly through my curls. "Nothing you could have done would have completely cured your father. The only one who could do that was himself, and he didn't have the willpower to do that. It's not your fault."
Mutely, I nod against his chest. What he says is true, but it doesn't ease the feeling of worthlessness. Kartik seems to understand this. He holds me close, occasionally pressing his lips to the top of my head, letting me know without words that he's here, and will listen to me. Gradually, my mood lightens, calmed by Kartik's warm presence surrounding me, and I allow myself to relax into his hold. I marvel how just the sensation of his arms around me can send sparks through my veins, and how his steady breathing on my hair causes shivers to run down my spine. Beneath my cheek, Kartik's heart beats surely, a promise of life and stability.
Another sigh passes my lips. "I'm going to miss him."
The complete and bleak understanding in Kartik's words bring my eyes to his face. With a pang, I remember that he hasn't seen his own parents since early childhood. Pity and empathy wash over me.
As always, Kartik seems to be able to read my thoughts. "You get over the pain after a while," he says, smiling sadly. "Eventually, you move on, keeping only your memories."
I nod. I remember how, after I had accepted the reality of my mother's death, all of my memories of her had eventually been filed away in my mind, tucked neatly out of sight until I needed them. Already, my recollections of Father have begun to take on a bittersweet, homesick quality. Kartik's words undoubtedly hold the truth, as they so often do. Still, I'm terrified I'll forget something, like the way Father's eyes shined when he told stories, or his laughter.
"Do you remember your family?" I ask Kartik quietly. Almost imperceptibly, he stiffens, and I feel my heart droop. I had been foolish to ask, knowing that he would not answer, at least not truthfully; until now, Kartik's family had, for the most part, remained an untouched topic. There is no reason for him to talk about them now.
Kartik, however, is a man full of surprises.
"A little," he tells me softly, sounding vaguely distant. "I was very young when they took me. What I can remember is hazy and unimportant." His chin comes down to rest on the top of my head. "I can remember my mother singing to me in Hindi every night. And my father telling tales of noble men who risked all to protect their charges. The Rakshana," he sniffs disdainfully. I place a comforting hand on his arm until he relaxes again. "The house always smelled of spices, and Amar's and my favorite food was dose. My mother didn't work, but stayed home to take care of her sons. Our father was the one who worked, trading, he said." I feel his mouth twist upwards in a smile. "I was happy, and spoiled, and loved."
I grin, imagining a young Kartik bouncing on his singing mother's knees. "Did you…have you ever tried to find them again?"
"No," Kartik answers sadly. "It is better for everyone if I do not."
His words leave me sad, but I know the truth to them. He is not the young son who left all those years ago to join the Rakshana; is a man now, and married, and freed of the chains of the Order's badly-dubbed protectors. Kartik has already left his parents behind, said his final good-byes, and seeing them again would only hurt them all. I lift my head from Kartik's chest to look at his face.
"Thank you," I whisper, cupping his cheek in my palm. Kartik raises an eyebrow.
"For what, Gemma?"
"For sharing that with me." Slowly, I raise my other hand to cradle his face. Then, I bring his lips to mine, kissing him softly. It is slow, and deep, but no less passionate than the fiercest we've shared in bed. It is a different kind of kiss, but one which exposes the same love.
A full minute passes before we part. Our unvoiced emotions still hover in the air, creating an almost static atmosphere around us. Kartik's hand smoothes a wayward strand of red hair from my eyes before kissing both of my eyelids.
"I love you, Gemma," he murmurs huskily. "You don't have to thank me for anything."
My mouth finds his. "I love you, too, Kartik."
Neither of us say another word for some time. We don't need to. The comfort of each other's embrace is enough for both of us.
So? Better the second time around? I'll have the third chapter up
soon enough, I promise! Believe it or not, I've had part of it
written for ages, but I'm having trouble getting it to behave. :S
So, expect another chapter soon!