Amaranth got to his apartment building and up the stairs to his floor without attracting notice. Opening the door while still holding the unconscious chel in his arms was a bit of a juggling act, but he managed it. Once inside, he headed straight for the bedroom.
He laid the chel out on the bed. "Let's see what we've got here," he murmured. A quick visual scan and a slower one with his soul confirmed his worst fears. The sharp face, narrow chest, and wiry limbs sported numerous bruises, cuts, and contusions. Kidneys and intestines were bruised from the beating he'd sustained. His throat and anus were abraded from forced entry, and his left hip was dislocated. He was in shock.
Amaranth trembled as full comprehension of the ordeal the young man had been through washed over him. "And you managed to crawl away, after all of that, and find a hole to curl up in and a weapon to defend yourself with," he muttered under his breath. Respect for the resilient spirit that had somehow found the strength to fight him filled Amaranth. Part of him quailed at the task before him, but had he not always insisted that a vasai's abilities should be used to help those who really needed it? He couldn't think of anyone needing the touch of a vasai soul more.
There was no question of treating him the traditional way, not after what he'd been through. Instead Amaranth sat down on the bed beside him and simply held his hand. He loosed his soul and reached out with it, seeking the worst of the trauma. He poured his own strength into the body's natural healing responses, supporting and amplifying them. When he was certain the young man's life was no longer in danger, he turned his attention to the body's pain blockers and fortified those. Then he lifted his client's thigh, turning it just so and sliding the joint back into place. He made sure that the scoring in the anus was free from infection and coaxed the tissues to heal. Finally, Amaranth poured his own feelings of compassion into the chel's soul to bolster his shattered spirit.
Vasai healing was different from what a medical doctor did. Often the most challenging cases for a vasai were not the most physically dire ones, but the ills that carried with them an intense or long-standing emotional component. For example, a deep cut would take many stitches and several weeks to heal if treated by a doctor, but so long as the injury was sustained under neutral circumstances, such as an accident, a vasai could coax the severed flesh to knit back together in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, something as minor as bruising could take several days for a vasai to clear if it was the result of brutality.
When at last Amaranth had done all he could for one day, hours had passed, and he was weary to the bone. He pulled the covers over his client to be sure he stayed warm, collapsed onto the couch on the opposite side of the room, and dropped into an exhausted sleep.
The first thing Ash became aware of was that he wasn't cold anymore. Then he noticed that the cardboard he lay on had somehow gotten much softer. He rubbed his face against it and realized it wasn't cardboard at all. It was much too smooth and soft. While his sleeping brain puzzled over that, it dawned on him that he was able to notice these things because the pain that had overwhelmed all other awareness was now a distant, dull throb. He tried to crawl his way up out of the languorous stupor that wrapped him in warmth and comfort. He didn't really want to wake up. He hadn't forgotten what had happened to him, and he knew he should be feeling far worse than he did. Perhaps this was all a dream that would fade the moment he opened his eyes, and he'd be in his little lean-to in the culvert again, cold and naked and hungry.
Except the more he lay here, the more certain he became that what he felt beneath his cheek was a pillow. That meant he wasn't in the culvert. He was somewhere else. He couldn't have gotten anywhere else under his own power, which meant someone had brought him here, wherever here was. His eyes flew open and he forced himself up with his hands.
He blinked in the bright morning sunlight. It reflected off whitewashed walls. The room he found himself in was simple. He lay in the only bed. It stood in one corner and had an iron frame. The headboard had bars that ran vertically up and down it. Good for tying people to, he tried not to think. He sat amid a sprawl of white sheets and two--two!--blankets, one blue, the other green. They were practically the only color in here.
In the wall above the worrisome headboard was a window, deep set, with little panels of glass set in a metal frame. The window stood open, letting in the morning light and a fresh breeze scented with some sort of heady flower. On the same wall stood a simple wooden table with a chair drawn up to it. There was a pen stand and a writing tablet there too. Against the wall opposite the table was a wooden chest. Above it, several garments hung from pegs.
The fourth wall had two doors, one on the end near the chest and the other almost directly across from the bed where he lay. Like the floor, they were made of wood, dark brown and beautifully polished. Between the two doors stood an overstuffed couch upholstered in a rich, dark brown velvet, and on the couch, asleep with his...her...head resting on the arm was the most beautiful person Ash had ever seen.
The individual was dressed in white--loose pants of some sort of slightly shimmery material, and a tunic of knitted fabric that looked nubby and at the same time indescribably soft. The hair was blond and long, cascading down the arm of the couch. Stray wisps clung to the long neck and the perfect oval face. A long, delicate nose, lips as pink as rosebuds, chin and brow and cheekbones all balanced on the knife-edge of androgyny.
Ash barely dared breathe. This was a vasai! The beauty of the creature made his cock stir. Desperately, he tried to quell his response. He was in equal parts mortified at his reaction and astonished that his misused body was capable of it.
As he stared at the vasai, the almond-shaped eyes opened, revealing glittering golden irises. The vasai blinked once, twice. A smile transformed the face from pristine perfection to a much more irresistible living warmth.
"Ah, you're awake." The voice was as beautiful as every other aspect of the individual and equally unhelpful in terms of determining gender. The vasai sat up, stretched, pulled a few wayward strands of golden hair from his face, and leaned forward, fixing Ash with a piercing look from her scintillating golden eyes. "How do you feel?"
Ash gathered the covers more tightly around his body and asked, "What do you want?"
The vasai gave a little shake of her head and smiled, then stood and approached the bed. Ash backed up to the wall. The languor of sleep faded, reminding Ash just how badly he'd been hurt. Even that small movement made his muscles scream in protest. He stood no chance at all of fighting him...her...off. Helplessness brought tears of frustration to his eyes, and that only intensified his humiliation.
"I'm Amaranth," said the vasai, stopping the moment he observed Ash's reaction. Now she stood halfway between the chair and the bed, arms loose at her sides. "I found you last night and brought you back here. This is my apartment. Nobody is going to hurt you here."
Sweet words, but Ash wasn't dumb enough to believe them. This was a vasai. He was a chel. Why would a vasai help a chel other than to get some use out of the chel? "Just tell me what you want."
Amaranth tilted his head to one side and pursed his lips. "I want to help you, if you'll let me."
"And then what?"
The vasai appeared to be at a loss. He shrugged. "I'll confess, I hadn't thought that far ahead. You've been badly hurt. I think you would have died out there last night. You need a safe place to rest and recover from what those people did to you."
At those words, fragmented memories of the attack flashed through Ash's mind like shards of a broken mirror, cutting him. "What do you know about that?" He'd been going for an outraged shout, but his voice shook. Gods abandon him.
Amaranth sat on the floor, fractionally closer to Ash than before, but not pressing too much on his space. Her face, now just above the level of the bed, was open, sincere, if appearances could be trusted. "From your injuries, I know you were beaten and raped, probably by more than one person. And I know that you need time to recover from the physical and emotional trauma you've sustained."
Ash shook. He wanted nothing more than to launch himself at that perfect face, wrap his hands around Amaranth's neck, and choke the life out of him...her...it. But his traitor of a body couldn't do anything but lie there and tremble. He couldn't stand the compassion in those golden eyes. He turned onto his side, facing the wall. "You should have left me out there to die!"
Tears stung his eyes, and he rubbed his face against the pillow. "Why not?" he choked out. "What are you going to do to me?"
"I'm trying to help you. Here." Ash heard the vasai get up and walk across the floor. He heard the door open and then the distant sound of water running. Wincing at the pain that rocketed up and down his limbs at every movement, Ash rolled over to see Amaranth coming back through the door. Ash caught a glimpse of the kitchen beyond--polished stone counters and floor, a stainless steel sink, and a stove. The vasai carried a glass of water and a carafe with more. "You need water."
As if Amaranth's words had the power to awaken his body, Ash suddenly realized how horribly thirsty he was. He propped himself up on one trembling arm. He was so weak. He had no hope of fighting the vasai off if...if he needed to. He was at Amaranth's mercy.
The realization made him blush, and that made him scowl. He grabbed at the glass of water and would have dropped it if Amaranth had not held the base and guided it to his mouth. Ash drank it dry.
He nodded, lacking the good grace to give thanks or even say please. Without comment, Amaranth poured him another glass and held it for him as he drank it down. The cool, clean water was the best thing he'd ever tasted. "Thank you," he managed at last before slumping back down into the blankets.
Amaranth smiled at him. It was like the sun coming up over the ocean. So beautiful. The vasai refilled the glass once more and set it down on the table by the bed. "Try to get some rest," he said and left him, shutting the door on the way out.
Ash stared at the door until it stopped wavering and his eyes dried. He wasn't sure how much time passed; he seemed to go into some sort of blank state that wasn't quite sleep, wasn't quite anything. He was grateful for the solitude.
Amaranth turned the soup down to a simmer and went in to check on his new client. The chel lay in the bed, a small lump amid the blankets. A shock of red hair and a pale forehead were all that were visible above the covers, which gently rose and fell with his breath. Good. He was sleeping soundly now, at least. He probably needed that more than anything else, though Amaranth was concerned about getting some nourishment into him soon.
Amaranth sat down on the couch and loosed his soul, letting it merge with the chel's so he could check his condition. He was already starting to heal, but his muscles were still traumatized from the beating. Movement of any kind was still going to be very difficult for a number of days. He was going to need physical assistance with things like eating, bathing, and going to the bathroom.
Amaranth bit his lip. Already his client had shown himself to be mistrustful--sensibly so, of course, even if it weren't for his recent experience at the hands of his attackers. Amaranth stared, rapt by that sharp face tucked among the covers. He'd never seen a chel in real life before. He didn't find him ugly at all. And he certainly didn't smell any worse than anyone who'd been sleeping rough would. But he was unmistakably a chel, and as such he must wonder why on earth a vasai would take interest in him. He must expect mistreatment from any caste above his own.
Getting his client to accept Amaranth's help would be a challenge. He hoped he could communicate his intentions in a way the chel would understand.
Ash must have slept without realizing it, because he opened his eyes to discover the light had changed. The room, previously flooded with sunlight, was now shadowy, and the sky outside the window had the golden cast of afternoon. Amaranth had returned at some point. He sat on the couch, reading a book, which he now closed. "I don't know your name," she said, crossing to Ash's bed and kneeling beside it.
"Ash," he said, because really, what difference did it make if she...he...knew his name? And so long as they were exchanging personal information... "What are you, anyway? I mean I know you're a vasai. But are you a boy or a girl?"
Amaranth smiled broadly, the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkling in amusement. "Yes."
Ash shook his head, bewildered and grateful for the distraction. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Like all vasai, I have both female and male characteristics."
He knew that, but... "What do I call you? He or she?"
"Traditionally, we are referred to with the gender-neutral pronouns, hir and sie, but the current fashion is to choose a gender of preference. I'm most comfortable with the male pronoun."
Ash took that in and decided just to let it sit there for a while. He could examine it later--sometime when his bladder wasn't about to explode. He shifted, trying to ease the pressure, and winced as his muscles protested.
"Ash, do you need to go to the bathroom?"
Ash colored. Moving even that little bit hurt. He didn't think he could stand. He'd have to crawl... He pushed himself up by his arms, biting his lips.
"Wait," said Amaranth. "Don't try to get up."
Not needing much convincing, Ash collapsed on his side and lay staring as Amaranth turned back to the couch. Ash noticed a tear in the back of Amaranth's tunic and an angry red cut beneath it. "What's that on your back?" he asked.
Amaranth turned in surprise, then reached around to feel the cut. "Oh. Yes. When I found you, you thought I was there to harm you. You tried to defend yourself."
Ash didn't remember that at all. He didn't remember anything from the time he had woken up in the culvert and crawled to shelter, and when he found himself here. "I did that to you." The cut looked bad enough to be painful, though it was clean, as were the frayed edges of Amaranth's tunic. But Amaranth was a vasai. Why hadn't he healed himself?
Amaranth nodded. There was no anger in his eyes, no promise of retribution in the frank set of his mouth, the calm stance. "Yes. But it's not important. You thought you were fighting for your life. The cut will heal, and my tunic can be mended."
"And still you brought me back here. What if I had woken up while you slept last night and attacked you, killed you?" What if I still do?
Amaranth raised his eyebrows and shrugged. "At the moment, I don't think you can." He paused. "Later, I hope you won't want to."
"I cut you pretty bad," said Ash, finding both shame and pride in the statement.
"I miscalculated when you threw yourself at me. You went for my face at first, and in my urgency to protect it and prevent you from harming yourself, I neglected to take the weapon away from you. That's what I should have done to start with, of course. I'm not much of a fighter."
"But you're a vasai. Why haven't you healed it?"
Amaranth smiled again, but there was sorrow in it. "A vasai cannot heal himself."
"Oh." Suddenly the mix of feelings inside Ash shifted to shame. "I'm sorry I did that."
"No. Don't be. The fact that as hurt as you were, you still tried to fight, bodes very well for your recovery."
And what was Ash supposed to say to that? He didn't have a chance to think of anything. Amaranth picked up a vase that sat on the floor beside the couch. It was crystal, a beautiful thing. It caught the light from the window and cast a rainbow about the room. Ash was reminded of the glass figurines in Darien's mother's cabinet. What on earth did Amaranth intend with it?
That was answered soon enough. "You can use this," Amaranth said, thrusting the vase toward him. "Just push the covers down and lean forward."
"What? You want me to go in that?" He was pretty sure he could be executed for pissing in a crystal vase.
Amaranth looked at it critically. "Yes, I think it's a good shape. The trick is to get you close enough to the edge of the bed. It will be easier if you let me help you. And I can steady you so you can concentrate on relieving yourself."
Ash stared at him. "But it's a crystal vase."
"Yes. A client gave it to me once. I suppose it's pretty, but I never really use it. I don't care for cut flowers. They just die, you know?"
Ash tried to decide if he was up to this conversation. The answer was no, and his bladder, now promised relief, became insistent. Why worry about the vase? Just his being here was enough to get him killed. He nodded and started to sidle painfully toward the edge of the bed.
"I can lift you by the shoulders and position you closer to the edge if you'll allow it," Amaranth said.
The way he asked made it not so terrible to accept. "Okay."
Amaranth's arms came around him, warm and strong, and for a moment, Ash was enveloped in the smell of lilacs. One golden strand of hair fell down and brushed against his neck. Its silken touch so distracted Ash he barely noticed when Amaranth drew the covers down, exposing him.
"Here," said Amaranth. He steadied Ash with one hand on his shoulder while Ash guided his penis to the vase. The position pushed Ash's face into Amaranth's shoulder, and he rested against him as his bladder emptied. Ash looked down, expecting to see blood in his urine. But there was none. Odd. He distinctly remembered taking some sharp kicks to his kidneys.
Feeling accomplished for producing a quantity of blood-free urine, Ash let Amaranth wipe him off and position him back in the center of the bed with the covers up around his neck.
He must have drifted again, because the next thing he knew, a tantalizing smell filled the room. Amaranth walked through the door carrying a large steaming bowl. "You must be hungry," he said. "I made you some broth. You're better off staying away from solid foods until your body heals. I'm sorry."
The smell of the broth made Ash's stomach tighten with need. But he hadn't even been able to hold a glass of water by himself. How was he going to manage a bowl of hot soup?
Amaranth saw the hesitation in Ash's eyes. His soul told him how hungry Ash was, but he also knew that just sitting up to eat would be difficult and painful for him. "Your body needs nourishment," Amaranth said. "The easiest thing would be if you would allow me to feed you."
Ash frowned. "I'm not a stripling. I can feed myself." He forced himself up into a sitting position against the metal bars of the bed frame. That had to be rough on his bruised back, but his mouth was set in a line of grim determination. Amaranth hesitated, but Ash had so little control over anything at the moment. The last thing he wanted to do was make the young man feel even more helpless.
Ash's head swam at the effort of sitting up. Little blotches of gray danced about his field of vision, and the bars of the headboard dug into his back. Looking doubtful, Amaranth settled the bowl in his lap and handed him the spoon. Ash managed to wrap his fingers around it. He leaned over the fragrant broth, nearly fell in face-first, and then righted himself. He dipped the spoon in the soup with a splash and drew it out again. One would have thought this simple process the equivalent of swimming up the Newhope River, the way his heart pounded and his hand shook. The soup splashed all over the blankets. None of it made it as far as his mouth. He tried to put the spoon back in the bowl, missed, and it slid off the blankets and clattered to the floor.
"I don't want any," he said.
Amaranth shook his head. "Do you really believe I mean you harm?"
Ash considered this, realizing that if he wanted to harm him, Amaranth could have done so by now. And Amaranth had sustained a wound because of him and seemed to bear him no ill will for it.
Ash knew how he felt now, which was terrible, but nothing like how he'd felt last night, and that was also Amaranth's doing, he was sure. Amaranth had somehow slipped him some painkillers or something. That should trouble him, but truthfully he was grateful. The vasai wanted something from him--that was a certainty--but he didn't think Amaranth meant him any immediate harm, and that alone was more than he could expect from most people. "No," he said grudgingly. "You've helped me."
"If you will permit me contact, I can help you eat."
Ash looked Amaranth over carefully. He was so beautiful. Under other circumstances, he would like nothing more than to "permit him contact." But this was different. He was helpless. This was humiliating. His stomach growled, as if to tell him exactly what he could do with his pride. He gave a short nod.
Amaranth smiled. He moved slowly, as if Ash were an injured wild animal, prone to startle and attack at the slightest cause, which had been the case so far.
"I'm going to lift you and place you in a more comfortable position where I can support you." He bent over, sliding one arm under Ash's knees and the other behind his back. He pulled him away from the torturous bars of the headboard, then held him securely while he slid onto the bed behind Ash. Amaranth rested his back against the wall--much more comfortable, surely; why hadn't Ash thought of that?--and settled Ash in his lap. Ash suddenly became aware of how much shorter he was than Amaranth. His head rested against Amaranth's clavicle. Small, soft breasts pillowed his shoulder blades. This detail so distracted him that he didn't freak out about having someone so close behind him until Amaranth leaned forward to lift the soup from the bedside table. That was when a sudden memory of the grocer leaning over his back, panting, made him flinch and, to his horror, whimper.
"I'm sorry," said Amaranth. "This position must be difficult for you. It seemed the most stable, but I can move, give you more space..."
Ash got a hold of himself and shook his head. "It's okay," he muttered. Truth was, he wasn't at all sure he could sit up on his own for long, he was ravenously hungry, and until memory had blindsided him, he'd rather enjoyed the feeling of Amaranth's body surrounding his. That last he chose not to dwell on. Maybe it was just the hunger.
As Amaranth dipped the spoon into the bowl and lifted it to Ash's mouth, he began to hum. The sound was soothing. Despite Ash's uncomfortable mix of feelings--humiliation at his own helplessness, curiosity about Amaranth's body, hunger, fear, pain--he felt himself relaxing. The soup was warm and delicious. His greedy stomach clamored for more. He thrust aside the part of himself that died in mortification every time he opened his mouth and permitted himself to be fed, and in no time he had finished the whole bowl.
His stomach full for the first time in he couldn't remember how long, Ash found himself sleepy and sated. Amaranth's humming came to a stop. For a moment, neither of them moved. Ash found himself reluctant to be freed from Amaranth's lap, but he did not want the vasai to know that. What passed through Amaranth's mind in that pause he could not begin to guess at. A sigh escaped the vasai's lips, ruffling Ash's hair. Ash closed his eyes, imagining it was Amaranth's lips instead, pressing a kiss there. Gods abandon him. He was worse off than he'd thought.
"That was some soup," said Ash. A warm glow suffused his entire being. He'd never felt like this before. Amaranth must have put some kind of drug in the soup. Ash didn't care. Whatever it was made him feel good, and if he woke up tomorrow in a cage or without his kidneys, then that was tomorrow's problem. For now, all pain was forgotten. He closed his eyes, and his mind settled into a cool, open space where there was nothing to bother him. He stretched on forever across the ocean, the curve of the horizon rolling out before him like a graceful hand, beckoning.
Ash felt so good in his arms. The chel rested against Amaranth's chest, compact, warm, and solid. Holding Ash in his lap and feeding him made it a simple matter for Amaranth to simply loose his soul and let it infuse his client's. He could feel Ash's hunger, his pain, and his intense embarrassment at his own helplessness. Amaranth hummed to help his client relax as he focused his soul on helping Ash's sore muscles and bruised tissues to heal. Amaranth hoped that Ash would put the feelings of warmth and ease that came with treatment down to the soup and the gentle contact.
He wondered about the ethics of treating Ash without his knowledge now that Ash's life was no longer in danger, but asking his permission would require a discussion of Ash's soul, and at the moment Amaranth judged Ash had enough to deal with. The important thing was that he ate and got as much rest as possible. Through his soul Amaranth could feel Ash's whole body and being responding to the food and to his treatment. Ash was strong, but he'd been through so much. Amaranth could feel sleep overtaking the young man, and no sooner had Ash finished the meal than he sagged against him, unconscious.
Amaranth continued to hold him longer than was probably proper, but he couldn't resist prolonging this moment of trust, exhaustion-driven though it might be. At last he gently laid Ash back on the bed and pulled the covers up over him. He hovered, staring at his client's face. Dark bruises ringed his eyes, but the swelling around his nose and mouth was already starting to go down. And the suspicion was gone for the moment. Amaranth drank in the sight of Ash's smooth brow, the dusting of freckles across his cheeks, and his open expression. A little smile still lingered on his lips. Amaranth smiled too. He knew chel were supposed to be ugly, but he didn't think so. He thought Ash was beautiful.
Amaranth wasn't used to treating someone who really needed it. A wave of fatigue swept through him. He forced himself from Ash's bedside, took a shower, changed his clothes, and then lay down on the couch to rest.