Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Alexandria, VA, July 2008

Chaz lay on the massage table, blankets pulled up to his hairline, face pressed to the padded doughnut, and concentrated on regulating his heartbeat to distract himself from the awful nausea of the AZT. It was just a pattern, four chambers squeezing blood through like fingers squeezing milk from an udder with monotonous regularity.

It was a violent process, fraught with opportunities for failure. His heart was a strong and stubborn organ. It held on when the rest of him had quit, dragged all of them through even when the rest of his body, in desperation, was eating it. And here they were on the other side.

He was proud of it.

It was everything else he struggled with.

A tap bounced off the door. The next struggle was to stay calm, face-down, vulnerable. Soothe the heart when its rate wanted to spike. Keep the breathing even. Hard. It was hard.

He'd done hard things before. He could do this too.

"Come in," he said, hoping the awkward position hid the strain in his voice.

The door opened, and Amy entered.

He shouldn't find her threatening. She was a foot shorter than he, plump, strong, tendons showing across the backs of her hands. Her hair was dark blond, in ringlets. She wore eyeliner. She was vivacious, snub-nosed, sharp. Based on the pile on her desk, she was reading Scientific American and The Kill Artist this week. Two months ago, he would have found her sexy.

Now he just wished she'd go away and leave him alone.

It had to be done. This was the only way to get back some of what he lost in Texas.

He wanted it back. He was not letting the Relative take anything that he could find a way to defend.

"You warm enough, Chaz?" she asked. He'd asked her not to call him Doctor Villette. Not if she was going to be putting her hands on his naked back. Touching his scars.

No. Don't think about that.

"Dreamy," he said, and she laughed. It was true: the table was heated, and so was the electric blanket, and he was warm enough for the first time in ages. He breathed in, breathed out, trying to relax.

"I'm going to need your help for this," she said, laying one hand on the blanket over his shoulder. "If it hurts too much, let me know, okay? Tough is good, but we don't have to do this all today."

"Right," he mumbled. How much can it possibly hurt?

"Also, if you're triggering, let me know."

That made his breath catch in his throat, his palm curl against the edge of his cast. "Excuse me?"

"Many people experience an emotional release during massage. You've suffered a tremendous physical insult. Your body will react. Don't be afraid of it."

Your body will react.

Nothing else she could have said would have calmed him that much. It's physical. It's medical. It's normal.

It will happen. Don't panic.

"I get weepy," she said. "Personally. Whenever anybody works on my neck. Just let me know if it happens, and let me know if you want to soldier on or if you need a moment, okay? It's all up to you."

Okay, there was something better she could have said. And that was it.

"I'm ready," he said, and tried to pretend he didn't know what she would see when she pulled the blanket down.

Her touch was assured, impersonal. Warm, her hands greasy with rosemary-scented oil. "I feel like I'm being oiled down for roasting," he said, which made her ask if he cooked, and they chattered about chicken recipes for ten minutes while she worked firmly across his lower back and pelvis, then up the spine. Chicken recipes were fine, as long as he thought about the smell of rosemary, not of roasting meat.

The work she was doing hurt, a deep achy pressure he could feel with every shift of her hands, stretching all the way through abused muscles and fascia down the ligaments to the bone. "Ow."

"Too much?"

"No. Just ow."

"Yeah," she said. "I bet. Shoulders now."

He tensed, of course, and she must have felt it but she didn't say a word. And she seemed to take no notice of the scars, neither tracing nor avoiding them, though her fingers kneaded back and forth across them in the direction of the grain of his muscles.

"Right," she said. "Bad news and good news."

"Ready," he answered. He seemed to be getting taller; his eyes were held closed by the headrest now, as if his neck had lengthened.

"Bad news is, I don't think you're ever going to get all your strength back."

"Oh," he said.

She touched him lightly, in the small of the back, and he shivered. "Good news, I think you can get most of it. And the full range of motion."

"Oh," he said. "That's good, right?"

"Yes," she said. "Fair warning. This next bit is uncomfortable."

She wasn't kidding. She drew his left arm forward and down, supporting it off the table, and let it dangle. His knuckles brushed the floor and she laughed.

"Orangutan," he said.

"Tall," she said. "Try not to hold your breath. And go ahead and make noise. It really does hurt that much."

Her fingers glided into his underarm, dug deep, slid along the edge of his latissimus dorsi. He made a noise, short and unhappy, through his nose. "I know," she said, sympathetically, and did it again. "Breathe."

He tried. He got some of it, anyway, before the pain made his throat tighten.

"Good job," she said. "All done. Traps and rhomboids now. We're going to try to break up some of the adhesions. You may hear some weird noises, but if it works, the results are immediate."

"By which you mean?"

"You'll be able to reach stuff down off the top shelf tonight," she said, cheerily.

That promise was all that got him through it.

There were noises, all right. They sounded like somebody snapping bubble wrap. And felt like somebody ripping apart his back with a crochet hook. At one point she levered his scapula up and slid the side of her hand under it, pressing, questing. Something big gave, a thick elastic pop. He yelped.

"All done," she said. "With that side."

"Oh, God."

"I know," she answered. "You're doing great, though. Do you need a drink of water?"

"Not unless you plan to cut it with scotch."

She laughed. He almost jumped off the table when she patted his shoulder. But when she lifted his arm onto the table again it went smoothly, and he felt the muscles gliding freely under his skin. She moved the arm up to where it would have stalled before, and it rose past his shoulder. And then stopped. But that was eight inches of reach he hadn't had that morning. "Awesome," she said, tucking his arm under the blanket. "We'll get there."

Chaz pinched his eyes closed, hard. He could cry when he got home. It was a promise that had gotten him through more than one bad day already this week.

"Other side now," she said.

Chaz took a deep breath and thought, Beat you again, you son of a bitch.