The Wound of Sorrow
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Alabama, January 2010
Ben sits cross-legged by the makeshift bed and sighs. He's tired. Tired and hungry. He knows that he should get a few hours of sleep and eat some of the food he has in his pack, but he can't bring himself to do either.
Maria looks so…vulnerable and weak, lying there pallid and wan in the cocoon of newspapers and blanket scraps that Ben has wrapped her in to keep her warm. She needs the rest and the food more than he does.
So he sits. He remembers.
He remembers the panic he'd felt when she'd collapsed into his arms at the church last month, the raw fear. There were people all around them, suffocating him, trying to take her away from him. They had to get out; he'd known he had to get them out of there.
Then the priest was there. He'd looked at them with kind eyes and led them away into a small room with a couch at the back of the church. Maybe he'd seen the possessiveness in his eyes (Ben had never had anything that was his, and Maria was his, and his alone), but he hadn't touched either of them, had simply allowed Ben to carry her himself, watching carefully to see that he didn't drop her.
As if he would ever drop her.
He'd given them water and Ben a morsel of food (that immediately went into his pocket for later), and told him about a clinic three blocks to the west where they treated sick people. "It's run by a nonprofit organization," he'd said. Ben didn't know what that meant, but he had known that the moment the man had said, "doctor," he wouldn't be taking Maria there.
Doctors are cruel and cold. They are synonymous with pain and suffering. Maria needed warmth; she needed Ben. He'd take care of her. That was his mission; the Blue Lady had shown him.
The priest, Father DeSoto, had seen that, seen the resolve in his eyes, and he'd tried to coax Ben into taking Maria there, but he held firm. He wasn't going to let them hurt her, he'd told the man, standing to lift Maria off of the worn sofa and take her away from the stranger.
"Wait," the father had said, "They won't hurt her, I promise. Trust me. They'll try to make her well."
Ben knows when people are lying. Detecting lies is one of the things they'd drilled into him, just like they'd trained him to deceive flawlessly. This priest hadn't been lying.
Maria could have told him that. She'd been scandalized when he'd suggested one day that another priest in another town hadn't been telling the truth. "Priests don't lie. That's just….Priests don't lie. It's bad to lie."
Maria doesn't lie either (except when she tells Ben that she's fine when she's clearly not), so Ben'd had little reason to disbelieve this priest. Maria had said to trust priests.
He'd let the man lead them to the place he'd spoken of. There were lights inside, electricity-powered, not flickering candlelight. They had a generator running in the building.
There had been a long line—people sitting outside in the cold rain, waiting for their turn, and inside, a whole room full of people who'd gotten there first. All were sick, and most were dying. A couple of them were already dead, but no one wanted to move the bodies for fear of contagion.
Father DeSoto had waited with them the entire time, standing with his umbrella over the three of them to keep the rain off. He hadn't asked them their names, or where they were from, or where their parents were. He'd simply spoken of the miracle of Christmas, the kindness of man, the glory of Christ. Ben hadn't listened much; he'd been too conscious of the quiet sounds of pain Maria was making, the limp weight of her fever-ridden body, her increasing pallor (just like a dead man's, like the Nomlie they'd hunted back at Manticore), the gasping breaths becoming increasingly shallower.
It was night by the time they'd gotten to the desk inside the room. "What is the patient's name?" the man there had asked, obviously bone-weary and tired of sitting there taking names down.
Ben hadn't wanted to give a name, but the man insisted, and even the priest was looking at him, as if expecting him to say it. So he'd said, "Juliet." Like Juliet Richardson, who'd been kind to the both of them, even though her husband had been a Nomlie.
"Inigo." He'd liked that name when he'd read the book. It had a nice ring to it: 'My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.'
How was Ben supposed to know that 'Inigo' wasn't a common name, especially for someone who looked like him? That's why he needed Maria so badly; she told him these things without looking at him too strangely, like the man at the desk had when he'd given that alias.
"Montoya?" the man had said, suddenly waking up and with a smirk starting to tweak the corners of his mouth.
Ben had blinked then said, "Westley." He'd said it with confidence; it would never do to show fear in the face of the enemy, if he was an enemy.
"Inigo Westley." Having written that on the form, chuckling slightly, the man had pointed to Maria, still in Ben's arms. "Would that be Juliet Buttercup, then? Middle name Princess? Or is it Capulet?"
Father DeSoto had stepped in then. "Do the names of these children matter, young man?" he'd said sternly, "The girl is ill, and it is in your power to get her the care she needs, as soon as possible. The Lord knows their true names, but we do not need to know them for you to treat her. Write down DeSoto for them both."
The man at the desk, thus chastened, had muttered, "Sorry, Padre. Are you their legal guardian?"
With Father DeSoto speaking for them, Ben had finally been directed to put Maria down on a small cot, covered with a white sheet and with a thin pillow at the head of it. He'd been allowed to stay with her, if only because Maria had woken and croaked out, "Ben?" in such a scared and broken voice that he'd latched onto her hand and wouldn't be moved. Ben would later deny that he'd growled and bared his teeth at the poor nurse who'd tried to detach him. He hadn't.
The way the doctor had diagnosed Maria still made Ben tense, just thinking about it. It hadn't been as invasive as the daily checkups he'd been subjected to at Manticore, but the doctor had poked and prodded with his cold metal instruments, and Maria had whimpered so, that Ben had almost attacked the man. It was only Father DeSoto's hand on his shoulder that kept him from jumping at the doctor's throat. Maria had said to trust priests.
Rheumatic fever. That's what the doctor had said Maria had.
They'd poked and prodded some more then inserted an IV needle into her arm, bags of clear liquids flowing through the IV. Antibiotics and fluids. Ben hadn't wanted the needle anywhere near Maria, but they'd explained that she needed it because she wasn't able to swallow anything at all, her throat was so sore and swollen, and she'd needed the medication and the nutrients.
He'd stayed with her (and didn't leave for longer than the time it took to relieve himself) for the rest of their week-long stay at the clinic. They wouldn't let her stay longer (and Ben didn't want her to) because they needed her bed. The swelling in Maria's throat had gone down enough for her to swallow liquids, her fever was down, and all she really needed now was rest and more antibiotics. And something called digitalis.
It's a heart medication. Maria needs it now because her heart was damaged.
When they'd first told Ben, he'd been horrified. How could they say that her heart was damaged, as if it was broken, as if it didn't work? Maria's heart was anything but that. Maria, with her heart so big and warm (like the Blue Lady's), who'd been so kind to him even when he was so very strange to her, who'd kept him from the loneliness that had threatened to drive him mad in the month after he'd run away from Manticore and before he'd met her, Maria, who hadn't been afraid of him even when he'd shown her what he was capable of doing.
Then they'd said that it was the illness that had done it, that she needed to take the little white pills to keep her heart going strong.
They'd sent them 'home' with Father DeSoto. The priest had wanted them stay with him, but Ben had known better than to do that. To do so might lead anyone looking for Ben to find him (and Maria) because DeSoto had given his own name at the clinic.
So he'd taken Maria across town to an abandoned building that had doors and walls strong enough that it wasn't drafty and that had few people living in it. He'd wanted to take her outside of the city, maybe even out of the country, but she wasn't strong enough for that. They'd have to stay here until she could handle the strain of travelling.
He'd done everything he could to keep her warm, wrapping her up in all the newspapers and other insulators he could find. Her throat was still sore and she couldn't eat solid food, so he'd tried to get some sustenance into her stomach by mashing it all up and mixing it with water. He'd done the same with the pills in the plastic orange bottle.
He would take care of her. It's his job to take care of her; the Blue Lady had told him to. It is his mission, his duty, what he was created to do. Ben is a soldier, made to survive, made to protect civilians, those who can't protect themselves. Ben would take care of Maria, sweet, innocent, vulnerable Maria.
Maria stirring brings him out of his reverie. "Ben?" Brown eyes (he knows they're brown, even though he can't see their color in the dark) flutter open and a warm hand finds its way out of the paper-and-cloth bundle.
Ben reaches for the thin hand. "I'm here."
"Ben," Maria sighs. She blinks the sleep out of her eyes, slowly. "You sound tired," she murmurs. "You look tired. Get in here." She shifts inside the carefully constructed sleeping bag to make room for him.
Ben hold puts a hand on her shoulder to make her stop moving. "Don't do that. You're letting the warmth escape," he snaps. He's tired.
Maria levels a weak and glassy-eyed glare at him. "Get inside, then, bossy. You're warmer than a bunch of old newspapers," she says as she tries again to squirm loose.
Ben sighs and runs his hands over his face. He is tired. The bed looks inviting, very inviting.
He shucks his holey shoes off and slips inside the paper and blankets with Maria. It's a tight fit, but it's warm, and Maria's soft with the sweaters and jackets he's found (stolen) and wrapped around her. Maria wiggles until her head's resting under his chin. The only way to make that position comfortable is to wrap his arms around her, so he does. It'll keep her warmer that way anyway. He suddenly feels a lot less lonely (Maria awake is better company than Maria asleep, but both are infinitely better than no Maria at all) and relaxes for the first time in weeks.
Maria yawns, which triggers one from Ben as well. She giggles into his shirt sleepily, "Sleepyhead. Toldja you're tired." For several seconds, the only sound is their breathing in the old abandoned building.
Ben breaks the silence, "Maria?"
"Do you know the story about the Good Place?" he asks. It's stupid; of course she doesn't know his story, his unit's story. He's never told anyone on the Outside.
"No," she mumbles. "Is it like Heaven?"
"The Good Place is where no one ever gets punished or yelled at," Ben begins. "And nobody ever disappears."
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Umatilla, Oregon, May 9, 2034
Alec knows nothing about taking care of sick people. Transgenics don't get sick. On average, they get injured more frequently than Ordinaries, but they don't get sick. The closest they get to 'sick' is when their seizures hit, and that's not even that often, and it's usually endured in privacy, alone.
This…sucks. Why'd he have to get stuck with the food-poisoned delirious teenager? Oh yeah, because he's the one who made her eat the crap that made her sick. But she didn't have to listen to him and actually eat it. America is still a free country, in most places, and he's not her parent, heaven forbid.
Still, he feels bad that she's sick as a dog and he's perfectly fine. They'd ordered the same thing, so either it was a single bad egg (or sausage or pancake), or Mila hadn't inherited her dad's Transgenic immunity to food-borne illnesses. Or you know, both of those scenarios could apply.
He cringes (again) as Mila horks (again) into the plastic trashcan he's holding for her in front of her face. Yeah, that's gotta suck.
When she's done blowing chunks, he sets the wastebasket down in the floor next to the bed and helps the girl lie back down…on her side, so she doesn't pull a rock star move and asphyxiate on her own puke. See? Field Med comes in handy sometimes. He's an awesome uncle-slash-nurse.
"Quiero Mamá," she murmurs so softly that only Transgenic ears would have been able to pick it up. As it is, Alec hears it and pats her lamely on the shoulder, offering the only comfort he can. Poor homesick orphan.
Alec wishes Maria Delacruz could have been here too. Then he could dump the teenager with her mom and come back when she was all better, and not shivery and sweaty and smelling like vomit. But Mamá's dead, so Alec's stuck with nursing duty until the food poisoning runs its course.
Max would be so proud of him for staying with the kid and not ditching her.
Alec sighs and scratches his beard. He looks down at the girl, with all that dark hair matted with sweat to her pale face and spread out on the thin motel-room pillow, curled up in a fetal position and looking perfectly miserable. He gives her shoulder another consolatory pat and takes the trash can to the bathroom to empty it and wash it out again while keeping an ear out for any sounds from the bed that might signal another bout of yacking.
While he's in the bathroom, he fills the cracked complimentary glass with water from the faucet. Alec knows it's probably not the most sanitary water to give to a sick person, but it's the only liquid around. He spoons some salt and sugar into the glass and mixes it all up into a solution.
Then he goes over to the bed, sits on the edge of it against the headboard, and gently moves Mila into a more upright position, propped up against him.
"Here, drink this."
Mila weakly turns her head away from the proffered glass.
Alec moves the water in front of the girl's mouth again. "Come on. You don't wanna get dehydrated from all that hurling you've been doing, do you?" He pushes the cold glass up against her lips. "Drink."
With her hair sticking up in all directions and her eyes scrunched up like that, Mila looks more like a five-year-old than a teenager. "Mamá," she repeats sluggishly and tries to squirm out of his grip with a high-pitched whine.
Alec sighs and wonders who up there hates him so goddamn much. He tries again. "Come on, Mila, drink the water. Bebe el agua, querida."
Apparently, Spanish is the way to go when dealing with a sick Mila. Good to know. The girl takes a sip, but immediately spits it back out, making a face.
The accidental uncle sighs again. He's been heaving a lot of sighs since he first got that call from Logan about a potential daughter. "Conozco que el sabor es desagradable, pero necesita beberse este agua, Mila. ¿OK? ¿Para mi?" He holds his breath, hoping it would work.
Mila grumbles but drinks half of the glass, making Alec very happy that maybe she'll get better sooner than later. He's kind of bored, being stuck in this room in a motel in the middle of nowhere with a broken TV and only vomit sounds for conversation, all day and all night. And hungry. He's really hungry.
He's got some cans of food in the back of his SUV that he can open and heat up on the stove (which works, surprise-surprise). He might even heat up some soup for Mila if she manages to keep the salt-and-sugar solution down.
There's a soft gagging sound from the bed.
Alec scrambles to get the wastebasket to Mila before she barfs on the moldy carpet. Rats. So much for the soup.
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Translations (again, if you're a Spanish-speaker, just pretend their Spanish is like, totally fluent, okay? I'm using an online dictionary for this.)
"Quiero Mamá" = I want Mom.
"Bebe el agua, querida." = Drink the water, honey.
"Conozco que el sabor es desagradable, pero necesita beberse este agua, Mila. ¿OK? ¿Para mi?" = I know that the taste is gross, but you need to drink this water, Mila. Okay? For me?
Pop Culture References
Inigo Montoya, Westley, Princess Buttercup: all characters from The Princess Bride.
Capulet: surname of Juliet in Shakespeare's story of star-cross'd lovers, Romeo and Juliet.
"Priests don't lie. It's bad to lie.": Ben says to Father Destry in the episode "Pollo Loco" that he isn't lying.
What Ben says about the Good Place here is almost word or word from "Pollo Loco."