Tile slapped beneath his bare feet and Caspian ignored the other men around him. It was time for his shower, for which he was grateful – he hated the sensation of grit on his skin. The air of the hospital always left Caspian feeling like he had walked through a fog of dirt that couldn't be easily wiped away, and while it may have been simply his imagination, Caspian couldn't be sure. He had the distinct impression that if the dirt on his skin had formed from honest toil rather than inactivity he wouldn't mind it so much. But, again, the air was heavy, and pressed on him at all times, touching him with grimy fingers.
Moving through the 'locker room' Caspian turned a blind eye to the men in varying states of undress, checking his own towel with quick fingers out of habit. White tile was cold and slippery, and the small group shuffled forward into the much larger tiled room with its metal protuberances. In moments the room would fill with steam and the sound of water hitting bodies and floors, to trickle down drains. This was one thing Caspian didn't mind at all about the hospital – this washing room was absolute divinity. If only he could enjoy it with less company. One of the veterans he passed gave him a strange look, and it was no wonder that he did so. Caspian's body was covered in scars, not the thick white and pink mats that some of the other men bore, and not small brief ones either. Spider webs and thin lines were all over his forearms and chest, with the occasional ragged tear sitting like a badly drawn seam on his side or at his hip. Several stars puckered on his torso, one to the left of his navel, one below his right collarbone and the third below that. Even his legs weren't spared, beneath the dusting of dark hair on his calves were similar marks, but the grouping was much sparser. It was his back that had the least damage, as though he had gone his whole life taking his hurts and trials head first.
He thought that most of the scars came from bladed weapons, and the puckered stars from the heads of arrows and bolts. Possibly. Of course, Caspian couldn't be sure, but he could be sure of the fact that the others looked at him oddly for his markings. That they looked down on him for such things. Things he couldn't remember.
As though to remind him of his place, "Damn dirty Gypsy," followed by the sound of thick phlegm hitting the floor.
Most of the vets didn't speak to him like that. In fact, most of them feared him, but Caspian had yet to figure out the why of that. He assumed it was his Otherness. Then again there were the handful who felt that simply looking down their noses at him wasn't good enough. They had to rub his face in the fact that he didn't fit, and that they thought that that deserved their ire.
Caspian hadn't known what a Gypsy was, but had found out through reading. What little he had been able to piece together was that they were nomadic. And that they were tricksters, dishonest, thieves, and showmen of some sort. At least according to the literature he had found, something of that didn't set well with Caspian though. Letting the insult slide, because Caspian was fairly certain that he wasn't dishonest, a trickster of any sort, let alone a thief, and went about removing his towel and finding his place along the wall of showers.
"Say," one of the men moved to occupy the shower next to him, "how is it that a mud-skinned Gypsy got into the military?"
A muscle ticked in his jaw, but other than that, Caspian showed no sign of having heard the man. He knew they just wanted someone to be mad at, to blame for their infirmities and their inability to go integrate with normal society once more. As irritating as it was to be insulted, to Caspian, it was no real skin off his nose to let such meaningless words fall on his ears. With a flick of his wrist he turned the knobs and waited for the cascade to start, hiding his wince at the initial cool temperature as water burst from the showerhead. His stoicism only pushed his tormentors to further vitriol.
"Say, Howard," the one on his left said to one of the other patients, "didn't you say you thought you recognized him?" a thumb jerked towards Caspian.
"I think so," 'Howard' squinted, then nodded, "yeah, I sure did. But it's hard to remember. I think I saw him rubbing donkey shit all over himself so he could get darker."
Cruel laughter sounded from the two men, and the other veterans shifted around uncomfortably. No one was going to say anything, no one was going to draw any attention to themselves – and Caspian knew that if trouble started, that it would be he who suffered. And so he continued to ignore the Englishmen, rubbing his bar of soap between his palms vigorously, building up a heavy lather.
When Caspian didn't respond at all, other than to tip his head back, letting water flow over his face, and down his neck, the ribbing got worse.
"Now Bernard, I think I you may've been wrong," there was a snort.
Caspian ran his soapy hands over his chest, continuing to ignore for all appearances the words being said. He was above all of it. Scrubbing his stomach, distantly focusing on the stream of water down his chest to watch it swirl around his feet, Caspian hoped the comments would stop soon. If it went beyond words someone was going to get seriously hurt. And it wouldn't be him, at least not until the orderlies came and sedated him. Then Dr. Carter or Dr. Anderson may take some sort of drastic measure with him – even though he would have done nothing more than defend himself.
"I think he may be a dirt grubbing dago."
More laughter, "You're right! He sure does look to be one of those greasy dagos. Say, didn't they say he's from Spain? Aren't they all potato farmers?"
A hand came out, pushing Caspian's shoulder, and he glanced out of the corner of his eye at Howard, "Hey, how do you like potato farming?"
Biting the inside of his cheek, Caspian did his best to keep his cool, "As I am not English, I would not know."
Well, he couldn't be faulted for sniping back when provoked.
"What?" it was a snarl, "Why you – it's you dumb dagos and the Irish who're all potato farmers! We're Englishmen, and we don't farm for potatoes…!"
Blinking at them mildly, Caspian continued washing himself, scrubbing the bar of soap under his arm, "Oh, as you all look the same to me, I did not know. My most sincere apologies. As I am nothing but a humble dirt grubber, my intelligence is rather limited." Turning, Caspian splashed water over himself, rinsing off some, "And my powers of observation leave much to be desired. All of you are so short, I thought perhaps the English and the Irish were one and the same as they are all leprechauns…"
Silence crashed down in the shower, all eyes pinning Caspian. His heart rate increased, but Caspian continued being calm. Showing any signs of concern, fear or anger would only incite an actual fight. The choice of phrase he'd used hadn't been very wise, and he knew better than to bait the angry dissatisfied sort. But his wit had gotten the better of him, and now it wasn't only his two tormentors who looked at him with predatory eyes, but the rest of the Englishmen around him.
He kept staring at Howard and Bernard coldly, not acknowledging the danger he was in. In a fight frankly he could probably take out about half of the men unless they all ganged up on him at once in a mob. Which would be how it would go down, that is unless he could cow Howard and Bernard quickly. They were the head of the beast, a beast he'd prodded with his racist words, and it didn't matter at all that he wasn't the one who started it. No one cared that it was Bernard and Howards bigotry that was the source of the dispute, and not he.
Moving so that he could put his soap aside, Caspian stood loose, arms at hanging at his sides ready to come up to defend himself. Howard's face had gone beet red, and Caspian wondered what he was in for – the veteran looked fairly normal, he didn't even have a scar on him that was visible. But that meant nothing, often the worst wounds were internal not external. Bernard had come forward to stand beside Howard, and he had gone pasty in his anger, burn scars covering one side of his torso. Both men were relatively hale and hearty, but they held themselves poorly.
"You think you're funny, don't you dago?"
"As funny as you think yourself," neutral.
"A regular comedian, aren't you?"
He didn't deign to answer. There was nothing he could say that wouldn't be turned against him. Counting under his breath, Caspian waited, the tension had to break, and break soon – one way or another.
"Hey guys – you better leave me some hot water or I'll be steamed," Charley came in at what had to be the most opportune moment ever.
Never so relieved in his life for a man who was theoretically his rival, Caspian thought he could kiss the Welshman. Charley fancied himself Nurse Fisher's favorite, and as a rule of thumb ignored Caspian as though he bore some plague. Generally, Caspian was fine with this, who was he to care if someone thought Susan favored them over him? In truth he didn't care who she fancied the most, in the end her job was her job and she cared for everyone equally and appropriately. And if he kept telling himself that he may actually believe that he wasn't her favorite. Possibly. After a few centuries of repetition. But, nonetheless, Charley's presence broke the tension and the other men went back to their ablutions. That left Bernard and Howard still trying to stare him down. Quirking a brow at them, Caspian shrugged as though to say he were sorry for the interruption.
His coat was heavy and he liked it that way, for the frost in the air worked its way past the light day jacket of his uniform like it wasn't even there. Brushing off snow that clung to his handrail, Caspian made a place for himself, then slipped onto it, laying down the length. Off to the side Susan watched him, shaking her head.
"It's too cold out for you to do that, you really should go inside," hugging herself.
Tucking an arm under his head to pillow it, Caspian glanced over at her, "If you are chilled, you should go inside. As for me, I am fine, my coat protects me well enough."
"You know what?" he assumed it was a rhetorical question so he only continued looking at her intently, waiting, "I have no clue where you get those things from. Most of the others have family that sends them things in the mail or leave packages for them at the front desk at most. Your things just… show up in the mailroom with no sender listed. Just your name. It positively baffles me and I think it drives poor Mr. Temerson batty trying to figure out where it all comes from."
"It would be nice if whoever sends me these possessions would send me some more texts to read," digging in his pocket for his pack of cigarettes, "as I have exhausted the library of things that interest me for the most part. Perhaps I shall endeavor to learn another language? Spanish may be a good start."
She came closer to him, standing at his side so they were perpendicular, "Maybe it'll jog your memory if you do?"
"The thought had occurred to me, yes," nodding.
Caspian felt himself relax when Susan was near enough that she just barely touched the side of his arm, comforted by her presence. Cigarette in hand, Caspian clumsily lit it in his horizontal position, but managed. Taking a long drag and then moving his hand down so it would rest over his stomach he jerked in surprise when the stick of tobacco was plucked from his fingers. Somehow he contained his shock at seeing Nurse Fisher hold the cigarette to her lips and draw the smoke into her lungs deeply as she gave him a mischievous wink.
Blowing a jet of the grayish purple smoke from her lips, "It's been forever it seems."
"Forever? At your age, forever would be a week or two, would it not?"
To that she laughed, and he retrieved his smoke from her grasp, "You sound positively ancient when you talk like that. How old are you supposed to be – twenty-five or fifty-five?"
Nostrils flaring as his brow crinkled in thought, "I am twenty-two I am told."
They were quiet after that, and Caspian did wonder how old he may truly be. Some things seemed out of place, at times he thought there was no way it was possible he was a mere score and two years. He felt far older than that most days, as though the weight of decades sat upon his shoulders, dragging him down and lifting him up. Somewhere, somewhen Caspian remembered a saying, and the thought of it made him chuckle.
"What is it?" Susan gave him a gentle poke. "Are you having a laugh at my expense?"
Lips twitching, "Nay, more at mine than anything else."
"The please, share the mirth rather than keep it all to yourself."
"The young act so old, while the old act so young," shrugging, "it loses something in translation I think."
Susan finished his cigarette for him before flicking it out into the snow covered bushes, "It seems that way. I don't get it, so that must be the case."
Shifting, Caspian tried to put the idea into words, "The responsible youth looks to his elders, and asks why they don't act with more decorum. While the elders look to the youth and say that life is short and that it must be made fun of."
That elicited a giggle, "It's short? So make fun of it? I think I like that…"
"Yes," smiling in turn, Caspian swung his legs around on the ledge, putting his back to Susan, "I thought you might."
Arms came around his midsection, surprising him again with the familiarity of the gesture, "But I think I understand. The elders know that too much seriousness makes life not worthwhile, even though they're fully capable of it, while the youth has yet to realize what life is all about." Her cheek pressed between his shoulder blades, and Caspian lay his hands over the small pale ones that were bunched in his coat, "It's like learning to stop and smell the roses, to take a beautiful precious moment and value it. There aren't many of them in life, so enjoy them rather than waste them with being constantly productive."
"You have the right of it I believe," giving Susan's cold hands a squeeze, trying to warm them up.
Quiet descended on them as it often did, and as it often was, it was of a peaceful sort. But Caspian didn't want the young nurse to catch a chill, she wasn't dressed for the weather. With a heartfelt sigh, Caspian leaned back into her arms, not wanting to cut the moment short. Yet he knew he must.
As though she knew what he was going to do, Susan stopped him, "Stop and smell the roses Caspian, just a moment longer," whispering, the warmth of her breath seeping through the layers of his coat.
"They do smell ever so sweet," voice low, Caspian stared down at the pink knuckles of her hands, the stark contrast of his dark skin next to hers. The flash of heat he felt go through his body wasn't entirely bashful embarrassment, but mostly the low thrum of male desire – he wanted to envision what the rest of her pale flesh would look like mixed with his. "But like poppies," forcing the words out, and his eyes closed, "the scent can be intoxicatingly dangerous to the unwary."
"And must you always be so wary?" she was shivering, and Caspian knew they'd been in the cold too long for her.
He discarded the idea that the trembling could be for any other reason, "Life is also a fine balance, not just a series of moments Susie."
"What happened to there only being the here and now?" coming out somewhere between hurt and accusatory.
Wincing, Caspian hung his head, "I only meant…" trailing off, he knew when he was beat. There was nothing he could say to salvage the moment, but there was plenty he could do. If he could only forget his honour for a second. Turning with some difficulty, Caspian reached for Susan even as she backed away, "Susie, I cannot explain sufficiently, words fail at times."
"You're good with words Caspian," it was curt, and she wasn't looking at him.
Yes, he was most certainly good with words. Using them for weapons, for diplomacy, manipulation. Words were just as powerful as any physical tool if used properly. And Caspian knew how good he was with them. So did Susan, she'd received the gentle cuts and the firm support.
"Susan," slipping up, desperate, forgetting himself, "please, come here," holding his hands out to her.
"I told you, I don't like that name," as close to snapping at him as she ever had been.
Before he could say anything more, Susan spun on her heel, and stalked off.
"I say – Susan Pevensie?" it was obnoxious. "Susan Pevensie? Oh come now old girl," the voice was so heavy handed, so over the top upper class, that Caspian cringed, "it's me!"
"Keith?" surprise and shock registered in Caspian's ears, Susan's voice sharp edged.
Without thought Caspian picked up his pace, turning the corner swiftly. In the hall there was Nurse Fisher, no – Susan Pevensie – and a young man in a tweed jacket, khaki shorts and knee socks of some sort. All in all he looked imbecilic to Caspian, but the height of genteel leisure to others he supposed. It was most disturbing, the bolt of emotion Caspian felt as he watched the man 'Keith' grasp Susan's elbow as though it were natural for him to lay hands upon her.
The two didn't appear to notice Caspian until the last moment, when his tall frame cast a shadow upon them, his tone slicing through the air, "Is this person bothering you?"
Caspian didn't say her name, one way or another, deciding to protect Susan. If she didn't go by 'Susan Pevensie' in the hospital, then the man before him could be a threat to her anonymity. That wouldn't do at all. Even if Caspian was glad to know her true name, some hidden inner bonds loosened at putting real name to Susan's face.
"And who might you be?" Keith had to tilt his head back to look into Caspian's face, gray eyes bloodshot around the edges, small blood vessels having broken throughout his skin giving his face a permanently flushed look.
Answering for Caspian, "A good friend." Susan's expression was beseeching, begging for no confrontation, "Keith Avery, I'd like you to meet Ten. And Ten, this is Keith." Clarifying, "He and my brother Peter went to school together."
Holding out his left hand to be shaken, "A pleasure Mister Avery," which forced Keith to relinquish Susan's elbow if he didn't wish to make a scene as he had been maintaining a firm hold on her with his own left hand.
"As well Mister… Ten?" the hand clasp was forceful, the shorter man trying to crush Caspian's fingers in his grip. "That's a strange name."
"Most English tongues cannot seem to pronounce the proper version of his name," Susan slid in glibly, the lie sounding at least somewhat plausible.
If one didn't take into account the multitude of Welsh, Irish and Scot names that abounded amongst the English populace. Caspian knew the maps relatively well, but he had tripped over so many names that at some point he'd given up.
"Ah," still squeezing Caspian's hand, "I say that must be one strange name. Then again, I do believe I detect an accent old boy. Where are you from?"
"Spain," answering by rote, not giving into the urge to truly crush Keith Avery's hand with his. There wasn't enough strength in the man's hand to do Caspian any damage, because Caspian had a habit of squeezing things until they shattered, broke, or splattered. It was a strange thing that he'd done for quite some time, recalling that having strong wrists and forearms was part of his nature. "After having spent a time in Argentina."
"Oh?" Caspian only just saw Susan's wince, and didn't understand it or Keith's interest. Not until, "I've spent some time in Spain. Quite a bit of it actually. My Spanish may be a bit rusty, but let me just try this, I'm sure it'd be nice for you to hear a bit of your own language. ::Translate!:: You do not convince me at all, you are a liar. ::Translate!::"
"Keith took a trip for the running of the bulls in Pamplona," Susan stepped in, preventing Caspian from answering, and covering up the fact that he hadn't had a clue what Keith had said. Though the gleam in his eye was clue enough for Caspian. "Isn't that right Keith?"
"Yes it is," lips twitching. "I think this year you should come with me Susan, this place… isn't your style," giving Caspian a once over, then grimacing at Susan's uniform, "It's such a step down for you here."
Not liking the proprietary and predatory way Keith kept looking at Susan, "And Pamplona would not be? England is vastly superior to Spain since the civil war," flying by the seat of his pants, Caspian lied through his teeth, spitting out the propaganda he'd read in the newspapers. "With Franco in power, why in God's name would you want to go there? No, Susan," glancing at her before glowering at Keith, "Spain is no place for a lady of your stature. It is now only filled with those who will seek to take advantage of you at every turn."
"No wonder you're here rather than there," Keith nodded sagely, as though he actually agreed, seeming taken aback by Caspian's wave of information, "you make it sound like such a nasty place."
"Keith," preventing a full on confrontation, "I do have work to do, really I do."
Snorting derisively, "Truly Susan? Have you fallen so low? Come now, why don't you call upon me sometime, we can reminisce about old times. We're friends after all…" Shaking his head, "You needn't lower yourself so much as to work amongst…"
"Veterans?" smiling, though it wasn't a smile that was pleasant, Caspian said non-chalantly. "And where did you serve Mister Avery?"
"I could ask the same of you," drawing himself up, "But no. What I was going to say, was working with nothing but common soldiers. I served King and Country happily."
"Enough, please," desperate, and Caspian felt himself bowing to Susan's distress, "boys, I have things I must attend to. Keith, I'll talk to you later at some point. Ten, were you sent to get me?"
Picking up on the excuse readily, "Yes, my apologies, I am remiss. Dr. Anderson wished to speak with you." Inclining his head to Keith perfunctorily, "Good afternoon Mister Avery, it was a pleasure to meet you."
"And you as well," ground out between teeth, and Caspian had a feeling that he'd be seeing Keith Avery again at some point.
All but hauling Caspian off, Susan kept her arm threaded through his, her pace just short of frantic. He didn't say a word, just kept up, waiting her out. She'd tell him what she would when she decided to, and prompting would only agitate Susan further. But now he had more questions than he had before. At least when it came to Susan he had a source for answers.