Author notes: Takes place post Epitaph One, pre Epitaph two.
They entered the safehouse with the weary, slowed steps of those who now felt reasonably secure enough to move in an unhurried fashion, to move forward without constant glances back. As Paul closed the door behind them and flicked on the lamp immediately to his left before beginning to bolt each of the door's extensive latches closed, Echo continued to move forward, her steps even slower now, heading towards the small table and chairs in the center of the dimly lit room. She paused before the table, shrugging out of her holstered array of weaponry and letting it drop with controlled care of the floor beside her. Extracting a handgun from her personage as well, Echo set this on the table, pushing it towards the middle slightly, before pulling out one of the two chairs and letting herself sink down into it.
From where he still stood at the doorway, Paul studied her, his eyes narrowed slightly. This was the first time he had really seen his companion since it had all begun tonight, the first chance he had had to really look at her, and he regarded Echo carefully, scrutinizing her even though her back was turned to him, her face turned away. Her posture was slumped, her forearms resting on the tabletop, hands clasped, as though she were bracing herself against its surface. Her head bowed forward a little even as she appeared to be focusing on what was before her, or perhaps she was simply allowing her eyes to stare blankly into the space before her without truly seeing any of it.
But Paul doubted this. Even when weary beyond being able to form words, Echo was never idle mentally. He suspected that such a thing was not possible for her. How could it be, with 40 personalities battling for dominance inside her head?
Her hair cascaded down her back almost to the base of her spine, tangled and snarled noticeably even in the dim lighting of the lamp by the doorway. Paul noticed for the first time the torn, dirty state of her clothing, how it was baggy on her, stained with soot, grease, and blood. Thankfully, tonight most of the blood was not hers. They were not always so lucky.
Paul came forward further into the room, turning on a lamp closer to the table where Echo was sitting. She glanced at him briefly but then turned her face back towards the front, not yet speaking. Going to the small beaten couch only a few feet away from the table, he knelt, arranging his own array of weaponry beneath its slightly raised bottom, in their custom placement for when he was not using them. There was more under his and Echo's bed, of course; it would not do to have nothing on hand if they were to be found and confronted while sleeping. Standing, he turned towards her, now able from his new positioning, the brighter light, and his closer proximity to see her face.
Her eyes were dark, their expression difficult for him to determine, bruise-like shadows staining the skin underneath. Echo was concentrating, contemplative, perhaps mentally running through the night's events again, replaying them, thinking how they could have been better, faster, stronger, perhaps forming plans for the future. He could be wrong though… maybe she was simply tired.
Paul was beginning to wear down from the adrenaline coursing through him heavily, the joltages of energy, anger, and intensity that had kept him numbed, kept him on high alert for hours, even after they were relatively safe. Now he was beginning to even out, however, to feel the soreness of his muscles, the pounding of his temples, and the hot tired scratchiness at his eyes settle over him, a warning of his fatigue, his need for rest. He wondered if Echo felt it too. If she did, she would not voice it to him.
When she turned her head more fully towards him, he noticed for the first time a wound on her upper cheekbone, from what looked like a bullet round shard. He could see the blood beginning to clot there and frowned, eyeing it; he had not known that one of the shots fired had been so close. But really, it was always a close call for them…some just scraped nearer to the bone then others.
"You're hurt," he stated, still standing near, and Echo met his eyes, countering his statement, and evenly matched his tone.
"We're both tired," he replied quietly, and he took another step forward, holding her gaze with his. "Let me take a look at that, Echo."
"It's just a flesh wound," she said, but a slight tension arose in her eyes, and she sat up straighter in her chair. "It's okay. Not much more than a scratch."
It could never just be easy acquiescence on her part. No, that would be less than full control on her part, less than the independence she had fought so hard to earn for herself, and Echo would not have that. Not by her own surrender, without at least an attempt at a rebuff. That would be in her eyes to show weakness, and one thing Echo was not, in 90% of her personalities and as her core self, as Echo, was weak.
Paul knew this about her now; he knew that the only reasonable way to get what he wanted from her regarding such matters was to act without asking. He felt her eyes on him as he knelt before her, gently taking her face into his hands, but even as Echo frowned slightly, she did not pull away.
Paul examined her closely, his index finger lightly probing the area around her injury, before he released her face, pulling back from her and rising to his feet.
"I'll go get a first aid kit, but you're right, it doesn't look like it will leave a permanent scar."
She waited in pensive silence as Paul gathered the materials needed from the area beside the sink. As he knelt beside her again, beginning to gently cleanse her injury, Echo allowed him to, her eyes still narrowed a little, some tension present in her muscles even as she did not protest again.
When he had finished, Paul let his fingers remain lightly resting against the uninjured part of her cheek. Echo held his eyes for a few more moments, still not speaking, before standing abruptly, forcing him to back away.
"I guess I'll go take a shower, if you don't' mind me going first."
She started to take off her jacket but winced, unable to hide the spasm of pain crossing her features.
"You hurt your shoulder too," Paul stated; he was standing close still, and he let his eyes drift now to her still-covered shoulder before turning his focus back to her face again. Echo shrugged, though he noticed that it was only with her left shoulder; she carefully avoided moving the right.
"I think I just pulled a muscle. It will be fine, Paul."
"Why don't you let me look at it?" he asked her, still holding her eyes with his.
When Echo did not reply, the reticence remaining in her gaze, he moved a step closer, without waiting for further permission, and began to help her out of her jacket. He moved as gently as he could, to pain her as little as possible. As she had previously, Echo held very still, her eyes fixed on him intently, as Paul lightly felt around her shoulder and arm socket with his fingertips. She did not flinch again, and he expected that her extreme control was working to keep her from doing so.
"It doesn't seem broken or dislocated," Paul said after a few moments, taking his hand away and meeting her eyes. "But I can't get a really good look to see what's wrong with your shirt covering it, Echo. Could you-"
"It's fine," she cut him off, and she took a step back, putting physical as well as emotional distance between them now. "I'll check it out when I'm showering. It's nothing, there's no need for you to worry."
There was a slight darkening to her eyes now, a guarded civility, and Paul swallowed, attempting to keep his voice level, quiet, logical, as he knew she preferred…as he knew she would best respond to.
"Echo, I've seen you completely naked before. Several times, in fact. You know that I am aware of your physical formation, and I know that you don't' care if I see it. In fact, you have asked me on more than one occasion to do more than simply look at you. So why won't you let me see you now without your shirt on when I'm just examining an injury?"
Even as he spoke Paul knew he had already answered his own question. For Echo to let him see her injured, to let him help her more than he already had in one day, was in her mind to be even more naked to him than when wearing nothing physically.
She was attracted to him. Paul knew this, for on rare occasions, their attraction to each other had overcome their visual carefully drawn partnership based upon platonic respect and caring, their efforts to watch each other's backs in the chaos of their present world. She wanted sex, wanted passion of a physical nature, without explanation needed…or she had, before he had died. But back then, he had also known that Echo loved him. Now, Paul was not always sure.
He knew that his death had scarred her, that his lack of feeling for her upon his resurrection had cut her even more deeply. He knew Echo was protecting herself, working hard to maintain distance, to keep herself focused, keep herself from feeling such pain over him again. She was so calm, so in control, so stoic now, that sometimes she seemed to him to be making herself as far from human and real as she could. Sometimes Paul hated this so much he could hardly stand it. Sometimes he wished she would break just so he could see her soften, see that she still could love, still could feel, even as he knew in his mind, and in his heart, that she could, and did.
He might not have loved Echo when he first returned, but he loved her now. But he didn't have any idea how to show it, how to make her accept it, to take the chance to try again.
"Please," he said to her quietly now, when she did not immediately respond to his question. "Echo, please, let me look."
This was not about her injury. This was about trust, about the hope of possibility, and when Echo nodded, holding his gaze for a moment in silence before beginning to remove her shirt, Paul smiled with quiet relief.
She turned away from him, presenting her back, and he noticed that her muscles were tensed again, her hands in fists at her sides. Paul tried not to notice the beauty of her back, its fragility combined with her strength, the vulnerable backbone, the slight wings of Echo's shoulderblades even among the dark bruising and faded scars. As he gently examined her shoulder, he heard her exhale, felt her muscles twitch ever so slightly at his touch.
"You're right," he told her, "it's just a strained muscle. You should soak it, maybe ice it later if it's painful still."
He did not remove his hand from her shoulder as Echo nodded. Instead, with his free hand, he brushed her hair aside. Without quite planning it he found his fingers slowly caressing down her shoulder. Echo's head turned, her eyes glinting, and she spoke more huskily than usual in a quiet tone.
"Paul…this is the part where you pull away."
"Why?" he asked her simply, his voice as quiet as hers. He did not let her break eye contact, but instead probed her gaze with his, searching intently.
When Echo gave no response, but merely turned her face away, Paul let his hand rest lightly between her shoulder blades, addressing her back.
"Echo…why won't you let me in?"
Several moments passed before she replied, her words still soft, but holding meaning that Paul could not fully understand.
"If I let you in…then everything else might fall out."
She stepped away from him slowly then, out of his reach, out of his touch, and reached for her jacket, slipping it on and zipping it part way without bothering to replace her shirt. As she began to make her way towards the bathroom, Echo turned first, briefly looking back at Paul.
"I need to shower, as I said, Paul. You should get some sleep."
As she disappeared into the small room, shutting the door behind her, Paul watched, his forehead creased into a faint frown. As he heard the sound of running water start up a few minutes later, he continued to stand for almost a full minute, letting his thoughts tangle over one another, each attempting to assert themselves as the most likely to render the best idea on what he could do. In the end, the only conclusion that he came to was 'nothing,' and he turned towards their shared bedroom, preparing himself for the high probability of another long night.