"Bleeding eyen, and reed fingers perced with fire." – Troilus, 14th century, The Withe Papers
"Let go," the blistered, fading man gasps, even as his fingers clench painfully around John's bruising wrist. "Let me go – I'm not worth it –"
He is frantic because of the building, noxious fire-fight around them; the unsteady sand under their feet leaps in bursts of orange-bright, soot-dark flames at their backs.
John says nothing. He bends over the gasping man; sand stings his forearms and bare face and sunburnt hands, but he pushes away the sounds of fire and men dying, the spurts of gunfire, concentrating on this one man, this single patient. He is intent upon pulling Geoffrey back from death, intent upon binding the gleaming spilling wound in his belly.
He is not using bandages, but his own hands. They clamp down over the wound; Geoffrey grinds his teeth in agony; John closes his eyes and breathes in the dirty, slapping wind. He lets the strange blue current of his magic stream through his very bones, lets it fill his eyes, shoulders, arms, his fingers to bursting. Then it breaks away through him, burns down into the wound he holds shut.
Geoffrey will not remember this when he wakes; no one ever has.
Healing is always like water, electricity, fire; it moves to fill the broken places, the places left open. Beneath his fingers, beneath the onrushing wave of binding, blinding power, Geoffrey gasps, shudders, and falls still. Relaxes. John feels the wound close. The skin lies unbroken under his hands.
He opens his eyes into the glaring sunlight of daytime Afghanistan, leaning back to gasp for air, and sees nothing for a moment but white. The colour of triumph, the colour of the still puddles in the road after a heavy storm has steamed through and left the grassy hills drenched in rain.
Around him the battle rages, and he is silent. His eyes have cleared. He reaches for Geoffrey's fallen gun, lifts it to his shoulder, aims. He means to protect the man he has healed.
Geoffrey, oblivious, sleeps peacefully in the grimy sand.
There have not been powers for a long time.
No one knows why. There are people who have searched, those who have buried themselves in ancient tomes for years, scrabbling for some inkling, some indication of why the magic had gone, but no one has ever found the answer. It is doubtful anyone will. Their ancestors had not thought the magic would disappear, and so they did not include any musings on the matter.
John knows this very well, because he has searched too. He's read the old books, dug through tottering bookstores, prised open moth-eaten, faded dictionaries and encyclopaedias and medical texts.
He is the only one in his family with magic, and no one but his sister Harry knows (and she, after her initial surprise and interest, has long since grown uninterested. He does not blame her; Harry only truly loves what she understands.). It is a lonely thing sometimes, this burden, this privilege, and sometimes he wishes there was someone else, anyone else who could understand the terrible, lovely wonder of his magic. Understand the aching knowingness in his bones, the way his hands rise, almost automatically, without forethought, to smooth away cuts and bruises, to tend to wounds. He must hold himself back from people, stand away to avoid taking away their hurts; he must hide his full nature, for it could lead to his downfall.
Of this hiding he is not quite sure, but he knows that telling someone is too unknown, too unsure for him to attempt.
Magic is a dangerous thing in this shifting world, dangerous because of its power, dangerous because of how it is sought after, wanted, desired. Even the best of men and women can be corrupted; and magic changes all it touches. In the old days, there had once been equilibrium between the Withe (as they called those of magic) and the others, the Nowithe, but now the world is different. Magic has been gone for so long, no one knows if its reappearance will be for good or ill.
John had not wanted to be Withe, but he is. Magic does not choose its bearer with their wellbeing in mind.
He becomes a doctor, partly due to his desire to heal, partly due to lack of other interests, and then he goes to war.
Geoffrey is one of several soldiers he saves, one of those who do not remember the surge of unexpected power spreading like cerulean fire through their limbs, their heads, their lungs, binding wounds, cooling headaches, quenching toxins.
John is very good at hiding his ability, very good at hiding all the telltale signs. The exhaustion from healing he allows his fellow soldiers to chalk up to stress or overwork; the intensifying lines under his eyes and around his mouth (for the Withe age quickly), the same. As for the heady glower of magic around him, he strives to stay near the equally mesmerizing quality of pure nature, near water or fire, sky or stone.
Water works best; coffee or tea has enough of the liquid to function almost as well. When he cannot drink water, holding a bottle in his hands or tucking one into his pack, he drinks tea; coffee for when he cannot have either. Alcohol, when he must consume it (for it is always a war between his common sense and his desire to blend in, as one day he may blurt out his secret in a moment of foolhardy drunkenness), works too.
So he is hardly ever without a canteen in his hand, and neither is he ever far from the tent flap.
Several days after Geoffrey has been saved (and in the confusion of battle, no one had seen his healing, nor can he remember it – he believes he was knocked out by a shell blast), John makes his final mistake in the war. Every soldier has more than one; it is only the final one that takes their lives or their limbs, the last act that tips them over the brink of safety.
As he kneels to reach for a dying soldier, his fingers brushing away the grime matted over the woman's closed eyes, there is a great concussion behind him, a massive crushing wave of sound. The horrific noise billows around him; the sky turns to smoke.
He falls with a bullet in his shoulder, and the soldier he has reached to heal is gone.
She is the only one he had failed to save.
John wakes with a start in his horrible rented room, breathing in the fetid air of unwashed clothes and old fears, staring blankly up at the pocked yellowing ceiling. It is dark outside; early in the morning. He can feel his heart beating frantically against the insides of his ears.
Everything is quiet.
Quiet, he thinks, is the sound of the time before the end. He turns his head and looks at the red glow of the cheap digital clock.
It has been sixty-three days and two hours since he left Afghanistan.
He is alone in the peaceful city of London, alone with his magic, and there is no one for him to heal. In the crooks of his elbows, the back of his neck, in his wrists, in the dead frozenness of his useless leg and his scarred shoulder, the blue electricity burns without ceasing, and all around him is the emptiness of a city undisturbed.