Nik felt a moment of panic when they reached the main deck and found several free men aboard, but Justin reassured him: “It’s all right, they’re with us. They rowed me over.” The sailors had secured the survivors of Justin and Anthser’s initial assault, including finding another couple of men hiding in the lower decks. Nik could not believe Anthser and Justin had attempted the rescue alone.
When Crit had first brought Miss Vasilver bound and weeping into the cabin, Nik had been angrier than he’d ever felt before. It wasn’t worse than being tortured, but it was more infuriating. As if now that his mind was less busy processing agony and physical terror there was more room for anger, or perhaps that the injustice of hurting her was even worse. Not that he thought he deserved to be tortured by any means, but Miss Vasilver was even more innocent. It had been a spur to his resolve, giving him strength to take what few actions remained available to him. To pull himself together for a little while.
Hearing Justin’s voice had been like waking from nightmare: the sudden welcome certainty that Justin is here and everything will be all right now. As the sense of urgency and concern faded, so did his ability to cope. Seeing Anthser with open eyes staring, collapsed and unmoving on the deck, nearly undid him. Nik made it to Anthser’s side before falling to his knees beside the great black-furred form, choking back tears. He put a hand against Anthser’s side even though it hurt, because he had to do something. He squeezed his eyes shut when he saw Anthser’s mind still present, not dissolved into death.
“He’s in a bad way, mate,” a sailor said to Nik, not unkindly. “Which we gotta get ’im back to shore an’ a healer.”
Nik leaned forward to whisper in Anthser’s ear: “Don’t you die on me. Don’t you dare die on me.” The greatcat blinked, but did not otherwise respond.
Not even their prisoners knew how to treat catsbane poisoning, or if it was fatal or would wear off. At Justin’s direction, the sailors he’d brought with him worked to fashion a sling for Anthser. Miss Vasilver scavenged shoes and clothes for Nik from the ship and brought him water while the others worked. He had her leave the clothes in an empty cabin for him so he could change.
Justin struggled to keep his temper. The sailors were working as fast as they could; cursing them would not help Anthser, Nikola, or anyone else. Brogan was bound and gagged on the deck; Justin did not look his way, lest he be tempted to vent his rage on a deserving target.
He started when Wisteria touched his shoulder, too preoccupied with his thoughts to have registered her approach. Her eyes were red, but her face was otherwise a mask of unshakable calm. “My lord? Do you think you might be spared to help Lord Nikola dress? He said he could manage himself, but…”
Because Nikola could not let her help him dress, of course. Of course. Never mind that his fingernails have been ripped out by the roots and that he can’t touch anything without excruciating pain. The important thing is appearances. A wave of fury at the insanity and idiocy of his world crashed over Justin. His hand clenched about the pommel of his sheathed sword. But there’s no one left for me to fight. He nodded to Wisteria instead, and crossed the deck to the door to the upper cabin.
He rapped at the closed door. “It’s me.” Justin strained to hear Nikola’s answer, tempted to enter without one. Instead, he rested his forehead against the door and said to the wood, “Please let me help.”
Nikola’s answer was almost inaudible. “Come in.”
Justin closed his eyes, allowing himself a moment of relief, then squared his shoulders to step inside. The cabin interior was dim compared to the sunlit deck; it was furnished with a large table, a couple of chairs, and shelves for navigational charts. Nikola stood with his back to the door, naked, the filthy overcoat he’d been wearing kicked into a corner, scavenged clothes folded on the table next to him. His long hair hung in loose salt-crusted clumps; dirt and sweat streaked his skin while a livid bruise ripened on his right side; otherwise he looked unhurt from this angle. Nikola didn’t turn to face him. “Is Anthser ready to go?”
“Not yet. The sailors are still rigging a sling to lower him into the boat. I’m useless for it.” Justin stepped towards his friend, then stopped as Nikola tensed. The viscount willed away the anger that even the deaths of two abductors had failed to sate. Kill them all. That wasn’t what his lover needed now. He composed himself to say, softly, “May I be of service, Nikola?”
Nikola made an abortive motion with one arm towards the clothing, and winced. His fingers were wrapped in handkerchiefs, the white cloth already stained red. Nikola gritted his teeth, breathing in sharp gasps. “Please.”
Justin went at once to his side and took the drawstring trousers off the table before kneeling at Nikola’s feet to hold them for him. Under other circumstances, he might have suggested a bath to Nikola, or at least sponged him off, but right now he didn’t want to say anything that would add to Nikola’s embarrassment or draw out the time that he had to spend on this curst ship. Better to get him and Anthser to a healer as soon as possible. Nikola stepped into the trousers and Justin pulled them briskly up pale legs before knotting the drawstrings about his waist.
“I hate having you see me like this,” Nikola whispered, voice still hoarse, as Justin retrieved the shirt.
Tan fingers shook at the words; Justin clenched them about the cloth to stop it, struggling to master a roaring ocean of conflicting emotions. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, knowing he’d’ve felt the same in Nikola’s position; what man would want anyone to witness him in such a state? And yet he was glad no one else could be spared to help Nikola. That he could do this little thing for him. He unclenched his fingers, still trembling, and bunched one sleeve together so he could keep the fabric from touching Nikola’s injured hand when he slid it on. He repeated the process for the opposite arm, then straightened the sleeves gently and buttoned up the shirt. He needed to say something more, something to alleviate Nikola’s discomfort, or at least lighten the mood. But everything he could think of was wrong, liable to make a bad situation worse. Instead, he straightened Nikola’s collar with unsteady fingers, then enfolded the tall, slender man in his embrace. “I don’t—” Justin pressed his cheek against Nikola’s shoulder, eyes squeezed shut. He forced himself to find words, however clumsy. “I could not – I would never think less of you, Nikola. Not for what that bastard did to you.” His breath hitched as he spoke, and he clung tighter to Nikola.
The Haventure man didn’t move his arms to return the embrace – of course he could not – but he did lean into Justin. “I am such an idiot. I walked right into their ambush—”
“Savior, Nikola, don’t.” Justin’s eyes burned from the effort of holding back tears. I would drag you back to the Abandoned World myself if I could, Brogan. There are not torments enough in Paradise for you. “It is not your fault. It’s Brogan’s, or that demon that’s possessing him, and those beasts he sent to do his dirty work. Not yours. Blood and death, it is their obligation not to be villains, not yours to stop them.”
“He was going to torture Miss Vasilver too—” Nikola whispered, as if he hadn’t heard. Justin shuddered and tightened his embrace, then made himself relax before he aggravated Nikola’s injuries. “He thought I could treat his mother, that I was just being obstinate, but I wasn’t, I couldn’t—”
Saints. Justin could hardly credit what he was hearing. “The man is mad.”
“—he is, I tried to cure him but he wouldn’t let me—”
Bastard. “Look, hang on a moment,” Justin said, voice artificially light. “I’m just going to pop out and kill him a bit, all right?” Nikola gave a slight shake of his head, and the viscount added, “Oh, come on. Just a little. Not even if I leave some of him for you and Miss Vasilver to kill too?”
That won him a worn chuckle from Nikola. The taller man hooked his chin over Justin’s shoulder to keep him in place. “Don’t.”
“As you wish.” Justin ran a hand over Nikola’s hair as it hung in tangled clumps, and wondered what else that criminal had done to his friend. He closed his eyes against the red haze over his vision, willing himself to be calm for Nikola’s sake. “I wish I’d been here sooner. That monster.”
“It’s not your fault either.”
“I know.” Justin turned his head and kissed Nikola’s cheek, careful not to touch the bruises. Nikola stifled a whimper anyway, and Justin flinched. “Did I—”
The battered man shook his head slightly. “It’s not you. Everything hurts,” he said through gritted teeth. Justin started to pull away, but stopped as Nikola put his arms about Justin’s waist.
“You – your hands—”
“They’re going to hurt anyway.” Nikola relaxed his jaw and hugged Justin carefully. “Justin. Thank you. More than I can ever say. Thank you. I owe you everything.”
“You owe me nothing.” The words came out harsher than Justin intended, his voice choked. “You would’ve done the same for me. Did, in fact.”
Nikola shook his head again. “Not the same thing,” he whispered.
On the point of contradicting him, Justin paused and quirked an eyebrow. “No, I suppose not. You saved me from my own stupidity, whereas I helped you from a predicament you had no hand whatsoever in creating.”
Nikola half-smiled, but turned his head away. “I – the Savior – you don’t know what I’ve done—”
Justin kissed Nikola’s neck. “Nothing to deserve any of this,” he whispered. “It’s all right now, Nikola. It’s over.”
Before Nikola could reply, a knock at the door interrupted them. From the other side of the closed door, Wisteria said, “My lords – I hate to disturb you, but the sailors have the sling rigged. Lord Comfrey’s assistance in lowering Fel Fireholt to the longboat would be appreciated, if you’re free.”
With a wince, Nikola dropped his arms and nodded to Justin. “Go ahead.”
Justin swallowed, nodding in return. “Let’s get you and that warcat to a healer. You’ll be good as new soon.” He drew back and patted Nikola’s shoulder; his friend tried to smile in answer. The expression looked ghastly on his battered face. “It’ll be all right now,” Justin said again, and wished he could convince himself.
Their hired boat was crowded and slow, with three passengers plus a greatcat and only six oars. Nik put himself deliberately on the far side of Anthser, with Justin and Miss Vasilver on the other. Intellectually, even viscerally, he was grateful for their rescue, but a vortex of other emotions churned inside him as well. Not just humiliation at the state they’d found him in or for that matter was still in, but a sourceless persistent terror. He told himself he was safe, but he could not feel safe. The few minutes alone with Justin had helped in some ways, but it also pushed him even closer to disintegrating; if Justin or Miss Vasilver touched him again he feared he would break down entirely. He didn’t want them, or anyone, looking at him like this. He hated himself for his weakness but he was too worn and exhausted to fight it. So he huddled against Anthser’s side – the paralyzed greatcat did not frighten him, at least – and murmured in the greatcat’s ear from time to time. He mixed thanks for the greatcat’s part in the rescue with rebukes for his foolhardiness and stern admonitions: “Don’t you dare die.”
To distract himself from everything he couldn’t change, Nik asked Miss Vasilver and Justin how they’d found him. He was at once shocked and touched by the lengths to which they’d gone, amazed to learn that Miss Vasilver’s capture was not bad luck but planned, something she’d allowed just so they would lead her to them. He was a little surprised that Justin had allowed her to take such a risk. Nik thought he ought to be upset about that but could not feel it, not when the alternative was to still be at Brogan’s mercy.
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