Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Rockville, MD, January 2009

Daphne Worth lies back on the yielding blue-carpeted floor, her aching forearms spread wide, palms curled upwards, eyes just resting closed. Around her, a vast space echoes with cheery voices. She breathes deep, filling her lungs with the scent of sweaty suede and magnesium chalk.

Her ears ring with the rattle of carabiners, with shouted questions and commands, with banter: "I bet I can onsight that stepladder." "Hey, I didn't order a traverse!" "So don't fall off!"

The voices of friends and acquaintances bounce against the fiberglass walls, the vaulted ceiling. Ten feet away, Tasha McAndrews says to somebody, "Sure, but climbing on plastic still isn't the same as climbing on rock," and whatever that somebody answers, it's buried under one of the Steves calling, "Hey, Stan, bring me the wrench? The little one?"

Bushy's complaining that he's starving, and Daphne hears Chaz answer with a snort. "Starving takes a long time," he says. "Go buy a Clif bar. Support the climbing gym economy."

Bushy grumbles-mumbles something as Daphne tries to find the energy to pull her hands into her chest. It's rude to take up too much floor. She lifts her hands and shakes the arms out, trying to get the blood moving again, mellow on an endorphin rush. It's all sweet and good.

She opens her eyelids when a shadow dims the glow through them. She hasn't felt him sit down beside her, but Chaz is there, arms folded over his knees. He looks away quickly when her eyes find him. He stares up at the wall. "You want to climb something?"

"God, no." She sits up. "I might be fit to belay in another five minutes. That overhang is six kinds of bitch."

He nods, but she knows he doesn't understand, not viscerally. His strength-to-weight ratio is in another league. Monstrous. She'd never think that loud enough to have to admit she knows it. Even now, even after Texas and helplessness and seven months of healing, he doesn't get human limits, though he's tolerant of them. Gracious, even. The way a young demigod should be. But the understanding is intellectual--he's been pushed to his limit, sure. But it's a limit a baseline never would have reached, because a baseline would have been long dead by then.

She'd envy it, but she knows better. There's nothing about the price he pays to be him that she should envy.

He's still carefully avoiding eye contact. She wants to tell him she owes him, that she never thought this would be a part of her life or that she'd grow to love it. She certainly never could have guessed that climbing would become a passion, or that a big part of that passion would be the time spent with Chaz. She wants to tell him that it's his fault her life is good. Not just tolerable, balanced, livable. Good.

But that would be cruel, when he still has that hollow look inside his eyes, like the light doesn't reach there. When he's still coming back from the edge.

When he still almost remembers what it's like to be frail and fragile.

"I want to try the black 5.12 again," he says. "Think you can stand me dogging if I fall on you a bunch?"

She draws her feet under her and reaches for her ATC. "I'm there for you," she says. "Fall away."