This is going to leave a scar, Jack though while he inspected his wound in the slanted mirror that he had for customers to see how his wares looked on them. Especially if I let it heal like this. The cut had been closing crookedly on the ride back to his shop, with nothing holding the two sides of flesh together to have it knit properly. Jack pulled out his knife and positioned it very carefully at one corner of the still-open slit in the skin. At the first, sharp pain he was suddenly very far away from it all. He watched the blood flow in the wake of the metal, vaguely aware of the pain, but with a heavy veil of mental fog between himself and the reality of what he was watching. His hands moved the skin more evenly next to each other, and the two sides re-knitted themselves back together more efficiently than the previous attempt. When the hole seemed like it would hold itself closed, Jack’s hands carefully moved away, and he watched it become a fresh, pink line of scar tissue. At least this time it was more of a straight line. He leaned forward and pressed his palms onto the countertop, closed his eyes, and breathed slow, shaking breaths. When he opened his eyes again, the world was real, and he focused on cleaning the fresh blood off himself, his knife, and the counter. The shirt was unsalvageable. Jack began unbuttoning it with shaky hands, struggling to keep a slower, normal speed at the task. When he reached behind his back to undo the two lines of buttons that closed the shirt around the base of his wings, though, he lacked the dexterity, and instead fumbled with increasing frustration. No matter what he did, he could not get even a single button through the damned hole. The side of his fist slammed into the wall. His eyes burned with the threat of tears. Why was this happening? Why was he like this? Why today?
“Do you want some help?”
Jack stiffened at the sound of the strange woman’s voice. He forgot she was in the back room, changing. He tried to respond, but his mouth couldn’t make words, so he just shook his head.
“I’ll make some tea, then,” she said. And Jack was alone again.
A lot of slow breathing later, Jack managed to finish getting out of his shirt. By this time, a new smell was coming from the back room. Jack found one of his canes and walked to the back room. Unconsciously he held his wad of shirt in front of his mid-section with his free hand. The woman was pouring tea into two cups at the workbench. She turned to Jack and offered him one of the cups. He sniffed the tea and asked, “What’s in this?”
“Chamomile,” she said. “You had some growing out back. It’s good for calming the nerves.”
Jack made a noise and made his way to the armchair. “Let me put some things down.” When he turned away from her he heard her make a small noise of discomfort. He cringed with the realization that he should have covered both sides of his torso. He dropped the bloodied shirt on the floor, grabbed his nightshirt from the bed, and pulled it on. Then he sat on the end of the bed nearest the workbench and held out his hand for the tea.
The woman handed it to him before settling herself into the armchair with her own cup. Jack waited for her to sip from her cup before taking a wary sip from his own. Even when the smell of the steam hit his nose, he began to relax a small bit. They sat in each other’s tense, silent company like this, with her wearing his clothes and sitting in his chair, until their cups were emptied.
“You never even asked me my name,” the woman said.
“I did not,” Jack said.
“I figured if you wanted me to know it, you would have given it to me when you were shoving all that other information at me.”
The woman blushed and stared intently into her tea. “I guess I’m not terribly good at all this.”
Jack just stayed silent. Truth be told, he still had not mentally caught up to their current circumstances. The world just kept going, taking him along with it down this crazy path. He turned and reached over to set his cup down on the workbench, and saw his necklace laying next to the kettle. With a sigh he carefully stood up and moved to the stool at the workbench. He picked up the stone and turned it over and over again in his hands. “I can’t tell you where to find more of these stones,” he said, “because there aren’t more.” He traced his thumb across the intricate gold setting.
The woman made a sound behind him. He turned around and looked at her. She had her face buried in her hand. “So this whole thing was a waste of time,” she said quietly, and he could hear the tears in her voice.
This tugged at Jack’s heart, though he couldn’t tell why. He turned back around and stared at the stone again. He knew he shouldn’t trust this stranger. She had threatened him only a couple hours ago. But she just seemed so….pitiful. He turned back around to her. “I’ll make you a deal: come back in two days, and I should have something that will help your ‘cause.’”
The woman rubbed her eyes and looked up at him. She was doing her best to make it look like she was not crying. She was failing.
“Do we have a deal?”
Jack could already feel the regret. “Alright. Good.” He looked out the window at the lengthening shadows. “I suppose we should get you back to town.”
The woman also looked out the window. “I suppose we should.”
Jack changed again into a simple shirt and they went out to the cart, climbed in, and started off down the road to the fishing town. They once again rode in silence until they were in front of the inn.
The woman moved to climb down from the cart, then turned to Jack and said, “Kate. My name is Kate.”
Jack nodded. “Have a good night, Kate.”
Kate hesitated, then finally climbed down from the cart and entered the inn.
Jack rode back to the farming village. By now the sun had long gone down, and everyone had gone home from the party. He rode down the main road, but passed his shop. As he did, he heard Cathy call his name. He brought the cart to a stop and looked around. Cathy was running to his cart from the direction of his shop.
“Where have you been?” she asked as soon as she reached him. “We couldn’t find you after you ran off during the party.”
“Is Charles with you?” Jack asked.
Cathy crossed her arms. “‘Oh I’m fine, Cathy. Thank you for worrying about my well being. I’m so glad to have a friend like you.’”
“I am fine, Cathy. Thank you. Is Charles with you?”
“Yes. He’s waiting at the back of your shop. Where are you going?”
“I was going to your house to look for him.” Jack climbed down from the cart and started leading the horse to the back of the building.
Cathy walked with him. “Seriously, though. Are you alright?”
“I’m alright, Cathy. I promise.”
They got the cart put away and the horse put into the small stable that the shops shared. Then Jack let Cathy and Charles into the back room.
“Jack,” Cathy said as soon as they got the lamps lit, “why is there a bloody dress on your floor?”
Jack looked at the dress for a beat. “You may want to sit down for this.”