Instead he paid attention to the texture of the blanket beneath him, the rhythm of his breath, and the hot pain in his shoulder.

Tonight's shirt was ruined, but it was only cloth, not a gift. She'd helped him remove it. At his suggestion, she'd placed a blanket on the couch to keep it dry, since he hadn't taken off his wet jeans. He'd have been more comfortable without them, but that would have sent a sexual signal.

The blanket would also absorb blood, and there would be some. He could limit bleeding, but he couldn't stop it entirely without prematurely sealing the wound.

The first bright shock of pain from the bullet's entry had long since subsided to a crimson haze, unpleasant but manageable. Controlling pain did not mean setting up some magical shield to deny it, but going into it, accepting it fully. Just as his muscles would accept the knife's message when it sliced into him.

Harder, much harder, was making himself vulnerable to that knife. But Kai would be wielding it, so that was all right.

He lay quietly, waiting, bemused at himself. How odd that he'd come here. It had been instinct, of course. He'd been hurt, in need of help. He'd come to his friend.

His friend. Nathan basked in the wonder of that. He'd known he liked Kai, that he felt good around her, but hadn't realized... gods. He'd just found her. A year ago he would have felt nothing but joy at the finding. Now...

"Okay, I've got gauze and antibiotic ointment and peroxide," Kai said. Her footsteps, soft as they were on the carpet, were audible to him as she approached. "And I found my tweezers. I sterilized them with the peroxide, but I should probably boil them and the knife."

"Not necessary. I'm not susceptible to bacteria or viruses."

"Oh." She took a deep breath. "I'll still clean the area around the wound. It will make me feel better, and I need to get the dried blood off so I can see what I'm doing."

"All right." He slowed his breathing further, closing his eyes. The couch smelled musty; she gave off the fresh, bright scent of a healthy young woman, plus the subtle mix that said Kai to him.


He couldn't go under all the way. Her scent might be enough to keep him from interpreting the knife as an attack, but he wouldn't risk it. Besides, he needed to guide her.

"Where were you that you weren't supposed to be?"

The peroxide was cool and wet. Her touch was firm enough to do the job without being rough. It hurt, but he liked having her touch him. He wished she could do it more often. "At the morgue."

"Are you going to make me pull your story out question by question?"

He smiled at the image of her extracting answers with her tweezers. "I'd prefer to discuss it after the bullet's out."

Another deep breath. "I guess I'm trying to delay."

"Are your hands shaking?"

A pause. "No." She sounded surprised.

"You know how to cause pain when it's needed for healing." They'd talked about that, about how she'd had to learn to allow, even encourage, others to hurt in order to help them reclaim their bodies.

"Yes. Yes, I do. All right. Let's do it."

"You see the entry."

"Yes. It, ah, it's scabbed over and looks about three days old, but I see it."

"Good. The bullet's path was slightly up and to the left, leaving it wedged just beneath the edge of the shoulder blade. I've delayed the internal healing enough that I think you'll be able to see its path. Make a vertical cut, starting about two inches above the entry hole and extending an inch below to give you room to work. There will be some bleeding. I can't prevent that entirely without sealing up around the knife."

The next several minutes went about as he'd expected. Nathan didn't like pain, but it was a familiar enemy. He only tensed once, when her knife skidded across the bullet, sending it deeper.

Otherwise she did well. Kai wasn't trained in this sort of thing, but she understood the basic layout of the body. Her hand remained steady and she followed his directions meticulously. Still, by the time she finished it was a relief to relinquish control and let his body heal. He lay there and panted, exhausted.

She seemed to be doing the same, sitting back on her heels with her eyes closed and her face pale. After a moment she spoke. "It's closing up."

Her voice sounded odd. Spooked, maybe. He couldn't think of what he was supposed to say  -  agreeing that the wound was, indeed, closing seemed pointless. Perhaps she wanted to know what to expect. "The visible part of the wound heals first, to seal it. Since no vital organs were affected and I'm not in combat, the rest will heal more slowly."

"How slowly?"

"Several hours, probably."

"If you were in combat, it would heal faster?"


"Do you control the healing?"

"No." He reconsidered. That wasn't entirely accurate. "I can, to some extent. I slowed it on the way here, but it's difficult. Tiring."

"Your body prioritizes for you." A thread of humor lightened her voice.

She wasn't too spooked, then. Relieved, he made the effort to sit up. The pain was much less now. "Yes. A good way to put it. May I see the bullet?"

Her eyebrows lifted. "Ghoulish interest, or a souvenir?" She handed him the clump of bloody gauze where she'd dropped the slug.

"I haven't been shot in a long time, and ammunition has changed. It could be useful to know what kind of damage to expect from today's weapons."

"If you're well enough to sit up and examine your bullet, you're well enough to explain why a cop shot you in the back."

"He couldn't shoot me from the front. I was running away." He inspected the smashed lump. Hollow point, as he'd expected. That was standard police-issue and what he used himself. Good stopping power, and less likely to pass through the target and harm a nearby civilian or hostage. Probably a lightweight .38, he decided. Some of the older officers clung to their .38s.

"The officer will be disciplined, I imagine." He lifted his hip so he could slip the slug in his pocket. "He was too hasty in using his weapon. Chief Roberts thinks within narrow channels, but he's correct within his limits."

She huffed out a breath. "That is not an explanation."

He felt a smile start. Kai was angry. If he told her she was pretty when temper brought that flush to her skin, she might pick up the knife again. But she was.

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