Note: Not a pairing fic, though anyone who wants to see it that way is free to do so. Title taken from a song by Sinead O'Connor. Don't own it, or Storm Hawks.
Piper is used to surprises. After all, she's lived with Finn and Aerrow long enough to be prepared for almost anything.
That said, she is not prepared for waking up in the hateful hours of the early morning to a shivering merb in her bed. Once her brain registers the fact that it is a merb (getting past the more vague initial impressions of "HOLY HELL COLD FEET" and "Why is the bed shaking?"), her reaction is pretty restrained, considering. Sitting bolt upright with a startled squeak, she gives the culprit a glare normally reserved for Finn when she catches him going through her stuff.
"Stork! What on Atmos-"
She doesn't finish the sentence, because Stork flinches away from her tone as though she just pointed a loaded weapon at him. Irritation melts and flows quickly away, replaced by concern. Piper sighs, then reaches for his shoulder. "What's wrong?"
The concern intensifies as soon as she touches him. He's not just shaking - he's vibrating all over like he might fly apart at any second. It's like touching an unstable crystal. His cool skin feels drier than usual, and a sharp, acrid smell assaults her sinuses. Vaguely she remembers reading about Merbian scent glands and how they convey emotions, namely fear, which might explain why the smell makes her heart beat faster and her skin prickle with perspiration for no discernible reason. Not that she needs it to tell her he's afraid. His eyes are as wide as they ever get, and his gaze darts around the room like a restless fly, refusing to settle on anything, Piper included.
She gulps, willing herself calm. His panic is infectious, and she can't reassure him if they're both terrified. "Stork. Stork, look at me. It's okay. I can help. What is it?"
He blinks, and finally focuses on her, though it seems automatic, like he's just obeying an order. He seems to be trying to cringe away from her and press closer at the same time. Piper takes his other shoulder and grips him firmly, resisting the urge to shake him, which would probably do more harm than good. "Is something wrong on the bridge? Are we under attack?"
Finally a response, as he shakes his head sharply. No, not that. The alarm would be blaring if that were the case. Piper relaxes minutely. "So what happened?" Her mind races through the possibilities - a malfunction, a prank, something that could've set off Stork's last nerve. Maybe he saw, or thought he saw, something through the window that triggered his anxieties. Or maybe...
She leans a bit closer, lowering her voice. "Stork, did you fall asleep on the bridge again?"
His head jerks once, up and down.
"You had a nightmare." It isn't a question.
The paralysis snaps, and suddenly her arms are full of merb. The move startles her, and not just the speed of it. In the month or so that she's known him, Stork has never sought physical contact before. In fact, he usually shies away from being touched. Even now, his desperate clinging is tentative - his hands are clenched on fistfuls of cloth rather than flesh, and he's not looking at her, keeping his head low instead so that his face is hidden in her collarbone. She senses that he'll pull away in an instant if she gives him the wrong signal. But now that he's reaching out to another person, finally, Piper isn't about to discourage him.
Slowly and carefully, her arms encircle him, hands resting on his broad but far too bony upper back. Every muscle is tense, electrified. His heart is beating against his ribs like a caged bird.
"It's okay," she says, voice just above a whisper. "Whatever it was, you were dreaming. Everything's okay now."
She goes on murmuring like that, not knowing if the words are getting through. If nothing else, perhaps he'll register the soft, soothing tone. It's all she can do for him. That, and let him cling, hold him in return and - carefully, once she's sure he won't startle into flight any second - stroke his back with her fingertips. Piper has always been a maternal sort, and the gestures of reassurance are as second-nature as fussing and scolding. She just doesn't get to practice them as often. Finn needs reining in more often than he needs comfort, and Aerrow won't admit when he does need it. In Stork, however, Piper sees something broken in need of mending. No crystal on Atmos could possibly fix him, but perhaps, just perhaps, if she's patient and persistent enough...
Carefully, she arranges the blanket more comfortably around them, not letting go of Stork the whole time. He twitches with every movement, like he's fighting the urge to flee. She's never seen anyone so wired. He seems about to explode with fear. He's afraid of his dreams, afraid of being left alone with his fear, but equally afraid to seek help - afraid of Piper, which she can't begin to fathom, and it disturbs her to no end. What does he think she'll do to him? Her mind shies away from that question, refuses to examine it. She grips him a little tighter and wills him to calm down, please calm down; his terror is almost physically painful to see.
Her efforts are not in vain. Slowly, gradually, some of the tension bleeds out of him. He leans into her now, still shaking, still petrified, but at least his fear of her is diminishing. When she tentatively raises a hand to pet his hair, he doesn't flinch.
She's never felt his hair before. It's a strange texture, as inhuman as he is. Heavy, lank and oily, it slides through her fingers like strands of seaweed. When she grazes his ear he flinches away, so she avoids touching them after that. His skin, cool and clammy, is slowly growing warmer as her blood heats his through contact. There's something almost symbolic about that, though Piper's damned if she can say exactly what.
"Must've been some dream," she says softly after a moment, giving him an opening in case he wants to talk about it.
Evidently he doesn't, because he immediately tenses as if to pull away. Piper holds tight. "Easy, easy. It's okay. You don't have to tell me. You don't."
He relaxes again. Is his heart hammering less wildly than before? She thinks so. She goes on holding him, stroking the back of his head, murmuring nonsense now and again before finally settling on comforting silence. The rhythm of their breathing is soothing enough by itself. Little by little, the terror fades out of the room.
It seems to take hours, but Stork's trembling finally subsides, and the tension clutching his frame dissipates. With a soft sigh, as if in relief, he collapses, turning to jelly in her arms. All at once he seems heavier, a dead weight, and at the same time somehow lighter - Atmos, was he always this skinny? With his muscles limp, there's nothing to him at all: a bundle of twigs held together with rubber bands. Something in Piper's heart breaks open and bleeds. She feels tears rise to her eyes, and sniffs them back quietly, not wanting to disturb him.
She's not sure if he's asleep or just comatose, but at last his breathing is even and slow. He's found peace. She managed to give him that, at least.
It's a long time before she's able to relax herself. But eventually, lulled by that steady respiration and remembering her interrupted sleep, Piper slips away from consciousness, still holding an armload of merb, feeling the strange beat of that cold-blooded heart against her own.
When she wakes the next morning, he's gone. It could almost have been a dream - an exceptionally vivid dream - if not for the single strand of oily black hair caught between her fingers.
Neither of them says anything about it the next day, or the day after that. It's not something Stork is likely to willingly discuss, and as far as Piper's concerned, there's nothing to be said. He didn't hurt anyone, and honestly it's probably a good thing he came to her, instead of freaking out by himself on the bridge. Stork's panic attacks tend to be bad news for everyone aboard.
Still, she thinks about it. And finally, after much debating, she decides to leave him a note. He finds it taped to the outside of one of his critter cages when he enters his room one morning.
My door is always open.
For a while, she's not sure he even got the note, or understood its meaning. But several nights later, during a raging thunderstorm, she's woken once again by a shivering merb in her bed. This time, she isn't surprised at all. And when he seems hesitant to approach, she makes the first move, drawing him gently into a hug.
From then on, he knows where he can find comfort. Not that he needs it every night, or even most nights. But when the night terrors and anxieties are overwhelming his ability to cope, or even when the loneliness on the bridge gets to be too much for him, he's able to seek solace in a maternal embrace.
That's what Piper has to offer him. She can't fix him up with a crystal, and she can't make his fear go away for good. But when he needs it - when he allows it - she can bring a little bit of warmth and reassurance into his cold, dark personal hell. She can hold him and stroke him and tell him everything will be okay. She can mother him.
From what she's seen of Stork since they met, it's about time somebody did.