Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Baltimore, MD, June 2008

"You're real this time." Chaz's consonants were blurry with drowsiness and a dry tongue. But his eyes were open--half-open--and focusing.

Esther Falkner leaned forward on the stiff square-cushioned hospital room chair. "I was real the last time, too. You just didn't believe it."

Chaz breathed out through his nose, a little louder than normal. Falkner thought it was a laugh.

She stood and took the two steps to the bedside so he wouldn't have to turn his head. "Do you remember me telling you about the surgery?"

He closed his eyes again for a moment, as if he needed the energy allotted to vision for other work. "Sort of. It got-- You were...part of an episode of Mythbusters."

Falkner smiled, and realized it had been several days since she had. "Maybe I wasn't real."

"Tell me again?"

She wanted to soften it. She wanted, in fact, to lie, to tell him he'd be all better soon and had nothing to fear. But he wouldn't believe her. And he should know in advance how steep the hill was. "There was enough intact muscle tissue in your back that you still have some strength and range of motion. It's too soon to tell how much you'll have once the damage heals." That much lie she could tell, and he'd accept: to talk about "damage," as if there'd been an accident. As if this could have happened to anyone.

He didn't lower his eyelids or look away. But the tendons in his jaw and neck flexed, and there was no hiding the motion. It took more flesh than he had now to furnish an impassive public face.

His eyes were sunk in their bruised-looking orbits, as if pulled down by an imbalance of pressure caused by the wasting of his body. She could barely see the colors of his mismatched irises. She concentrated on trying to. "The damage to your heart is slight, and reversible. But it's wear and tear, so it may shorten your life. The HIV test was negative, but it's too early for that to be conclusive. The broken bone in your wrist should mend clean, though. And you'll gain the weight back, if you can avoid thinking hard."

His head creased the pillow deeper for an instant, and his chest rose sharply with a breath she didn't hear him draw. He blinked. "Sounds like wait and see."

"You'll get better."

"But I might not...get well."

"Your definition of 'well' might change."

His long mouth twisted. "Everything. Everything's changed." He closed his eyes tight. His lips barely moved, as if he fought to keep the words behind them. "It's not fair."

A child's protest; and no more than the truth. She'd thought so since she'd had time to think, after they'd got him out. "No. It isn't."

If he needed to show weakness, this was as good a moment as any. She touched his left hand. His cool, dry fingers curled around hers; it made her throat hurt. Twelve seconds, the silence lasted.

But when he broke it, his voice was steady, and his eyes were no brighter than normal. "There's always a trade-off. We're tough."

She wasn't sure who he meant by "we." She squeezed his fingers, not too hard, and said, "Yes. We are."