A/N: So...anyone miss me? ;-) I had massive writer's block with this chapter (we're talking months, though I don't think I have to tell you that) and finally had to just give you something much shorter than usual because that's seriously all I could wring out of the timespan and still end with my beloved cliffy.

Also, I've been dragged into the 21st century! No, still no Facebook, but I'm now on Twitter! My Twitter is only for fanfiction stuff and occasional randomness, so you should follow me! at judo_lin

BTW, judo_lin is my name at The Writer's Coffee Shop, which is an alternate fanfiction site I highly endorse. Everyone here knows that Fanfiction Dot Net has been cracking down on content for the past month or so, right? Deleting stories with graphic content? If you weren't aware, you are now! If any of my stuff disappears from here, it's all still available at TWCS.

All standard disclaimers apply.

Kindheit Ende

Days passed.

Wendla slept.

She did not make a fuss, did not express any opinions other than her abiding wish to stay in the hayloft and keep Melchior with her. Since he didn't want to be parted from her anyway, it was not difficult to give her what she wanted. He understood his mother's worry, he really did, but it was impossible to deny Wendla. He just couldn't do it. She had been so hurt by the actions of their elders, and he was determined to do nothing to interfere with her small happinesses, such as they were.

It was difficult to tell exactly what else she might want or need. Wendla was sweet and unassuming by nature, and she hated putting people out. To that end, she ate what was put in front of her without complaint, and spoke with shy deference to Melchior's mother. She complained about nothing—not the bed of hay, nor the cold buckets of water she had to wash with since she refused to return to the house for a bath. She admitted to pain and some lingering nausea when prodded, but did not offer the information of her own volition. Melchior knew she was simply trying to be as little trouble as possible, but it worried him that she did not feel comfortable expressing herself. The sweet, passionate girl he had come across in the woods that fateful day, willing to argue for the rights of the day laborers, was nowhere to be found. She was still sweet, still lovely, but the spark of fire in her eyes and personality was missing. Melchior hoped it was buried only, not permanently extinguished. He had such faith in her, and if she needed time after her horrific ordeal in order to fight her way back to herself, then he would give her all the time in the world.

At first, the day she woke and asked to touch him, he'd felt as if it was perhaps a sign of growth, of healing. And maybe it was, but right now her progress seemed stalled, as if she'd taken a step back after fighting so hard to take one forward. She was listless, her sleep troubled and her waking hours quiet.

And it was quite clear that she did not feel comfortable. Increasingly clear as the days inched by, Melchior watching and waiting for her wounds to heal and her strength to return. She slept more than she woke, but her sleep was light and troubled. Nightmares stalked her dreaming hours and she shifted restlessly in the bed of straw, her abused body twisting and tangling in the blankets until she cried from the feeling of being held down. Only when Melchior freed her, removing the constricting blankets and settling them lightly on top of her again, would her sleep calm.

Her fever faded, though she was still hot when she slept, her cheeks glowing bright pink, her skin moist and warm to the touch. Whether it was a lingering problem or just part of her nature, Melchior could not say.

And, perhaps more worrying, her wounds did not appear to be healing. She was no longer bleeding from between her legs and the raw spots of abused flesh had slowly turned softly smooth again. The bruising, however, remained dark, and the worst welt on her backside, which had broken and exposed raw flesh beneath, did not want to close. She did not complain when she sat up to eat or wash, though he knew she had to be in pain.

"I want to try," Wendla argued three days after Sonnenstich came prowling around the Gabor house. Her big, beautiful eyes were bright with insistence, but Melchior wasn't sure.

"Liebling," he said, touching her cheek, "are you sure that's the best idea?"

"If I don't keep trying, how will I ever get better?" she asked, using her hands to awkwardly toss the blankets back from her legs. "Will you help me, Melchior?"

He knew her request at least made sense. She wanted to try to stand and walk, and she would have to regain that ability before they could even attempt to make their way to Berlin. But she was weak and hurting, and she seemed so fragile in his eyes. Her body was so much smaller than his, and she looked even tinier swallowed by his nightshirt. He always wanted to put his hands on her, to feel the warm, living flesh of her body, to know that she was still with him, still safe, still alive, still breathing. While she slept, he rested his head near her heart and listened hard to hear it beating. That soft, living thump had become his favorite sound in the world.

Because he could not deny her anything, Melchior took her hands when she held hers up. Her delicate fingers tightened around his and he saw her arms tremble as she tensed, pulling against him to lever her body upright. Her mouth dropped open as she breathed deeply, a look of fierce determination sparking in her dark eyes as her knees shook and she eased herself higher.

"Easy," Melchior breathed. "Careful, liebling. Please don't hurt yourself more."

Her eyes squinted shut as, with a final jerk, she forced herself upright. She grasped at his shoulders for balance, her body swaying slightly, but she was standing. "I can do this," she panted, her face a grimace of concentration.

Melchior held his peace. He had no doubt that she could, but whether it was a good idea, he didn't know. She was pushing herself too hard, and his instincts told him she needed to rest rather than strain her hurt body. She'd been in dire condition when he found her, and he could still picture with horrifying clarity the first time he'd really seen what those monsters had done to her body. She was young and strong but, even so, recovery took time.

"Please," he murmured, distraught as he watched the effort it took for her to remain upright, even with his help. "Please, Wendla." He shifted a half-step closer and carefully took her waist in his hands.

Her eyes shot open, then slammed shut again. "Dizzy…" she said, just as her knees buckled. She would have dropped to the floor if Melchior hadn't been holding her.

"Shh, liebling," he crooned softly, lowering them both slowly back to the bed of hay. "I know. I know."

"You don't!" she cried, louder than she'd spoken since escaping Sonnenstich's house. "You don't know what it feels like! You can't!"

Melchior held her helplessly as angry cries tore from her throat, raw and piercing. He had a wonderful education, and had filled his head with the words of the masters since he learned to read. He could reproduce Euclid's figures from memory to perfection, could recite whole scenes from Hamlet both in English and in German. Homer, Ovid, Herodotus, even Göthe and Schiller, he knew them all.

And it was absolutely, completely useless. Not one of them could tell him what to do as he held an angry, broken, weeping girl in his arms. What was he supposed to say to her? She was right—he hadn't experienced the torture of body and soul that she had endured. He had no idea how it felt to be abandoned to a monster by his mother, to be kept in the dark for days, unsure if anyone would ever find him—if anyone would even care. He didn't know how it felt to know a life was growing within him, or to then have it brutally taken away; he was a man, or soon would be. These were mysteries he would never know, no matter how much he ached to understand.

But he did know how it felt to be forced to leave her—to be sent away by his parents, never knowing if she understood how much she meant to him, or if she would be waiting for him when someday he returned. He knew the pain of Martha's letter, her hurried plea that he help Wendla, and the burning impatience of the journey home, not knowing what sort of trouble she might be in. He understood the gut-wrenching helplessness of watching her hurt, unable to take the pain away.

"He comes for me when I sleep," she cried, kneeling on the quilt and burying her forehead in its folds. Her hands grasped fistfuls of hay until her knuckles turned white. "He holds me down and they laugh—Melchi, I can't stand to sleep, but my body won't stay awake! I want to—I want—"

Yes. Yes, that was a feeling he understood well. The insane wanting, the need to do something—anything—and the utter inability to fix this. Adrenaline poured through his system in answer to her impotent rage. The emotion was too much, too big for a single human body to hold. Were people meant to feel so much, so deeply? Melchior didn't know if he could handle it. And if he couldn't, what about Wendla?

"I don't understand!" She remained bent over, huddled on her knees in a position that had to be uncomfortable. "Make it stop—please! I can't—I can't—"

Would they ever be able to get past this? Would she ever sleep soundly through the night again? Or had Sonnenstich hurt her to the point where she would forever bear not just scars but gaping holes, pain that would never cease, wounds that would never heal?

"Do you want him dead?" he asked finally, his voice tight and almost unrecognizable even to his own ears. "I will kill him for you, if it will help you sleep at night. Please, Wendla. I'll do anything. Just tell me what to do." He was begging by this point, hovering over her body, afraid to touch but also afraid not to. She was breaking apart in front of his eyes, and he was terrified that the pieces might scatter to the wind, never to be reassembled.

"Make it go away," she pleaded, her words muffled by the quilt. "Please, just make it go away."

And that, of course, was something Melchior could not do, no matter how much he wanted to. He couldn't take away her dreams or her memories. He had no miraculous potion to smooth away her scars or give their baby back. These were things she was going to have to live with, if she could.

The 'if not' didn't bear thinking about.

"I can hold you," he told her softly. It wasn't enough and he knew it, but he would offer her everything he could. "I can take you away from here once you're healed. I can kill them so you never have to be afraid again. I can give you another baby, if you want one. But I can't turn back time, Wendla. I'm sorry…so sorry…"

Was the girl from the woods truly gone? The girl who had found him in this very same hayloft, who had ignored his pleas to leave him alone, instead apologizing for something that had been his fault in the first place? The girl with dark fire in her eyes, so passionate and curious about the world, a sort of intense fearlessness hovering about her—who had attacked the other boys for picking on Moritz despite being younger and smaller? He would love her forever, whatever form she took and whatever the cost, but if that young girl was truly gone, he would mourn her deeply.

And then, through the middle of their pain, the tiny orange kitten marched toward their huddled bodies. It climbed toward Wendla's buried face, pawing at her ear with miniscule pink toes.

Melchior was about to pick the animal up, moving it away from the distraught girl, but she shuddered once, then shifted, turning to her side and sweeping the kitten against her damp cheek. It lapped at her several times with a tiny sandpaper tongue, then rubbed its skull against her jaw in a soft circular motion.

Wendla continued to cry, but she held the kitten as carefully as she might a baby bird, stroking its fur, her tears falling to the quilt. She was no longer hysterical, but the broken sound of her sobs made Melchior feel like his chest was breaking open, everything delicate inside now exposed to the harshness of the world.

"Beruhigt, mein Schätzchen," he said finally. "Alles wird schließlich gut. Bitte, hängen nur an."

But his promise meant nothing two days later when Sonnenstich came back with help.

A/N: Don't kill me! You knew it was coming.