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Distraction

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               Lea has bandaged Ríonach’s wounds before, countless times. It’s become a ritual, in some ways, a wordless exchange, one whose motions they both know so well. Ríonach’s teeth fit perfectly into the bite-marks on the leather strip Lea always gives them to bite down on; Lea’s fingers have worn down the clasp on his medical bag to a perfect bronze shine. It’s a dance whose steps they have memorized, flawlessly.

               So when it’s Lea who needs the bandaging, Ríonach is at a loss. Not that they don’t know how to bandage wounds: they do, of course they do. All those years training at Black Iron weren’t for nothing, and Lea isn’t invincible, they’ve bandaged his wounds before. But it always catches them off-guard, always feels odd, off. They’re the hunter, Lea is the handler, and they don’t like it when he gets hurt. In fact, they fucking hate it.

               This time, especially, as the two of them sit hunched together in their hastily pitched tent, rain pattering against the canvas, fire as close to the open flaps as they both dared to light it, Ríonach is not happy. Blood, of various stages of freshness, crusts around and still flows from a nasty gash on Lea’s back, courtesy the flying claws of the harpy Ríonach killed about an hour ago. Ríonach kneels behind him, one palm flat against his good shoulder, the other trying desperately to clean as much of the old blood away as possible with a rain-soaked strip of Lea’s torn shirt. They need to see the gash before they can stitch it closed, but that’s proving to be difficult. They also need their hands to stop shaking before they thread the needle, but that’s looking more impossible that stopping the bleeding. Things have never been easy between the two of them, but that doesn’t keep Ríonach from knowing, deep in their bones, that this, like every other time Lea has been hurt in a fight, is their fault.

               It’s not that they pushed Lea down, or tripped him, no, it never is that. But as Ríonach daubs at the still-welling blood, they still feel the shame of not being a good enough hunter to take down their quarry before it hurt someone else. Before it hurt Lea.

               They press the cloth a little too tightly to the gash, and beneath their palm, Lea’s back arches, the muscles of his shoulder rippling and tightening under Ríonach’s fingers. Even if they know how to clean up wounds, they don’t have Lea’s deft touch at it.

               “Sorry, I’m sorry, Lea,” they whisper through gritted teeth, heart in their throat. They know exactly what his face must look like, what it looked like last time, when they had to bandage the slice of a wraith’s claws on his wrist. Lips pressed thin, nostrils flared, eyes tight, jaw pushed forward. A small bead of sweat drips down the back of Lea’s neck, out from the whisps and fly-aways of his hair that have escaped his bun. Ríonach, fingers still trembling, pulls their sleeve down over their hand and wipes the sweat away. When the worst of the pain passes and Lea untenses, a fresh rush of blood leaks from the wound into the cloth in Ríonach’s hand.

               “It’s ok,” he says, his voice tired and strained, but to Ríonach’s surprise, they can hear the hint of a smile in it. “Doesn’t hurt any worse than watching you fumble your attack on that thing.” Surprise stops Ríonach from moving, but draws from their lips and chest a quick, one-two burst of laughter, an ‘a-huh’ that escapes them incredulously.

               “I fumbled my attack because you wouldn’t get out of the way of my swing,” they say. They might feel guilty, but Lea can’t know that, and besides, the strange sort of smile they hear in Lea’s tone seems to say this isn’t accusatory. This is something else. They take a moment, remove the cloth, look at the wound. This is as clean as they’ll get it, they know that.

               “Oh sure, blame me, just like you always do.”

               “I do not!” Indignation is in Ríonach’s voice now as they reach for the needle, thread it almost without thinking. “I only blame you when it’s your fault.” Lea snorts, shakes his head, reaches to the side to grab the stick he’s wrapped in a strip of leather.

               “I was plenty out of the way,” he says, lifting the stick to his mouth and biting down just as Ríonach brings the needle to his skin. He stiffens, but still speaks around his gritted teeth, grunts interspersed with his words. “You had more – more than enough room – to hit its legs – when I gave you that opening.” Ríonach is starting to get really annoyed now, not just indignant. He always does this, always critiques their form, their choice to open with either sword or magic instead of the other—it’s invariable. They push the needle through his skin; more than halfway done now, to their surprise, but it doesn’t fully register as they try to think of a comeback.

               “At least I’m not the one who missed when I threw my last lightning flask,” they manage at last, tone clipped. You want to play this game, Lea? Fine, then. A tense chuckle leaves Lea’s mouth around the stick he still bites down on. “You’ve got no excuse for that one. At least I was fucking trying to make sure you didn’t get hurt. Which you’re welcome for, by the way.” Lea snorts.

               “Because that – ended up – going so well.”

               “Oh that’s rich. A low blow, considering I fucking ripped it off of you.” Forget indignant. Forget annoyed. Forget guilty, even. Now they’re mad. They can feel their pulse behind their eyes as they knot the thread, and open their mouth to retort again, blood hot in their stomach, but then Lea turns his head slightly, taking the stick from his mouth. And he’s smiling, the fucker is smiling. He’s laughing, even. “What the fuck is so funny, Chen?” Ríonach snarls. His eyes meet theirs then, flit across their face, and then he faces front again.

               “I got your fingers to stop shaking in record time that time. I should make you mad the next time you have to bandage my wounds.” A beat passes, air hanging between them in the tent as Ríonach realizes what he’s done. They look at the neatly stitched wound on Lea’s back, the knot they’d just tied, fingers moving as though they’d not even needed to think about it.

               “You were trying to distract me.” They look down at the needle in their hands, back up at the extra thread hanging down from Lea’s shoulder.

               “Surprised it took you that long to figure it out. You’re always a fucking mess when you have to bandage my wounds. You needed the prodding.” Ríonach should be mad. They should feel furious that he manipulated them so easy, that they rose to the bait. But truth be told, they’re just shocked that he notices, that he’s seen how they react every time. That he cared enough to try and make them feel something other than fear, helplessness, guilt. “And before you think I meant any of that,” he continues, turning his head back toward them again, tone serious now, “thanks, ò Raghallaigh. For getting that thing off me. For saving me.” Ríonach sits there for a minute, then nods. As Lea turns away, they see the curve of his cheekbone, the corner of his mouth, the tense line of his neck, and something strange flutters in the pit of their stomach. They lean forward, press their face close to his skin, and bite off the rest of the thread, trying to ignore the faint smell of sandalwood. There are two moles, near the top of Lea’s shoulder. His skin, where it isn’t scarred, is soft, and it brushes against their cheek as they pull back.

               “Anytime,” they say, and when they turn to grab clean bandages to wrap up the closed wound, their hands are shaking again, but for a new, different, scarier reason.