The last of the bandages had been removed today, and the doctor, in a rare moment of courtesy, had actually left her alone. She wheeled herself slowly over to the full length mirror in the door of the wardrobe, her legs not yet up to the task of walking after months spent unmoving as nerves and tendons and muscles had slowly healed. At least she had avoided the shattered bones that Sergei was still in a cast for.
Her arms were barely up for the effort of moving the wheel chair, having suffered much of the same damage as her legs, but she was determined to no longer be dependant on a nurse to move about her own room.
Part of her wished desperately that Sergei were there, encouraging her with his presence, but she also knew this was something she had to face alone. She was finally going to look at herself, see for herself what the damage was without the bandages and splints. That necessitated the removal of clothing, something her grandmother would never have accepted in the presence of the man the old bat still despised. That was something Ree was going to have to work on … when she had the energy to spare.
Once she was before the mirror, Ree refrained from looking until she had wiggled out of the loose top and pants that the nurse had helped her into that morning. Once she was ready, she took it all in at once.
Patches of her hair were still growing back out from where the bastards had removed some of the significant braids as souvenirs. That was easily fixed over time and she didn’t let it concern her.
The parallel scars across her left cheek were a little less pleasing. The reminder of the backhand Rasputin had given her, while wearing rather sharp rings, was one she could live without. However, the pink and tender skin would surely fade to near imperceivability soon enough. Or at least enough that a good makeup job would hide them.
She skipped over her chest, not yet ready to deal with that, and observed her legs. They were horribly thin. She had a lot of muscle to rebuild all over. And while the skin was wrapped with scars from the delicate knife cuts that had contributed to her near death by blood loss, the overall effect was not too bad. These had been some of the first wounds to heal and the scars were already fading well. She might be less fond of shorts in the future, but the scars were almost artistic in their patterning. Perhaps she could pass it off as a memento of her wild youth.
She laughed softly at the thought. At nineteen, she was still technically in her youth, and while it had been rather wild at points these last few years, they had not been much of her making.
Her upper arms matched her legs in many ways, which supported the wild youth story nicely. The rope burns on her wrists were a bit more annoying, but the doctors had promised those would fade well.
Her ribs had some of the same scar patterning as her arms and legs, though oddly enough her stomach was untouched. She wondered for a moment at the logic of that. Sadly, the same could not quite be said between her legs. The doctors had assured her that there had been no permanent damage from the rape and that she would be quite capable of bearing children. That thought deserved another laugh. It made her grandmother quite happy to hear that her little heir wasn’t completely ruined, but Ree was not comforted to hear that she could still be the breeding stock that her grandmother sought to sell off.
In fact, the thought of even attempting to conceive a child was appalling. She had been unhappy but resigned to her future before that day, but now she was not quite so ready to lay down where her grandmother bade. At least all the doctors had been quite firm that it would be some time before the old bitch could even consider a marriage. Sadly there were still plenty of men willing to take a ruined woman if it meant having the leverage of the Aradias at their side.
Finally, with no further distractions available, she looked at her chest, and the source of the last bandage. She reminded herself that she was still all there. Her breasts were whole and healthy, her fingers and toes still attached, her eyes and ears intact. She dashed hot tears from her eyes as she remembered Belle’s shared pain. There were many reasons why her friend had died of her wounds, and while they were not shown on her flesh, Ree could still feel the echo of every stab and slice as if they had happened to her.
But even those memories and her own reminders that everything was there could not resign her to the mass of scar tissue that disfigured the top curve of her right breast. The whole area was incredibly sore still. Whatever Rasputin had had on the knife he used to carve her had caused a massive infection which only exacerbated the pronouncement of the scaring.
And to make matters worse, the bastard had signed her!
There it was, no longer swathed in bandages, a ropy and pronounced, bright red ‘R’. For Rasputin, the bloody … bloody …
She had thought she could handle it. The rest was survivable. She was still better off than Sergei, and far better off than poor Belle. But now that she could see it there, branding her for all time as if she were his possession, she despised it. She felt she could live with the other changes they had forced upon her body, but not this.
She slipped the sterile knife that she had borrowed from the doctor’s kit from the bag that hung from the back of the wheel chair. She would just have to … change it. Perhaps it would be possible to make into a ‘B’, or bisect it in such a manner that it just became a scarred lump instead of a recognizable letter. Yes, that she could live with.
With a gentle touch, and ignoring the pain as only one still suffering from the aftereffects of extensive pain curses could, she ran the knife down the center of the letter, bisecting it in half. For a moment she smiled happily at her work, but then she watched in shock as somehow the slice seemed to move over until it overlapped the upright stroke of the ‘R’. She ran another cut across the letter the other way, only to watch it merge with the letter’s tail stoke. Frantic, she continued to cut around and over the letter, ignoring the blood that rolled down her skin, only to see each slice only deepen and enlarge the cuts that formed the brand she so despised.
A loud crash from the door finally distracted Ree from her manic action, but rotating her head to see what had happened only caused her to black out.
The moment the roiling panic and distress had reached him through their mental bond, Sergei had worked to get over to the room that Ree was kept in. It was no small task, considering he was confined to his wheelchair still, without the strength to wheel himself too far yet.
However, he’d gotten his point and his own heightening distress across when his magic had almost run out of control, causing several of the electric lights that usually worked in his room to blow out. His panic hadn’t been faked in the least, for he could feel pain and emotional upheaval coming from the one person he knew he couldn’t live without.
Now he sat by her bedside, waiting for her to wake up. She’d passed out just as the male nurse he’d made take him to the room had managed to break open the door. It had terrified him to see the blood streaming from the wounds on her chest, and it had taken him a full five minutes of breathing to recover from the brief flashbacks of memory that the sight triggered.
He hadn’t allowed them to make him leave, and they hadn’t tried too terribly hard. They sympathized, even if her grandmother didn’t. Once she was bandaged up and safely in bed, they’d left him alone with her (the old bat would love that, he thought sarcastically) with orders to call if they needed anything.
Sergei had almost been dozing when she seemed to wake with a gasp, the same panic from before immediately roiling through her mind, and down through their bond somewhat. She grasped at her shirt, trying to unbutton it, to take off the bandages and see the damage that had started this whole mess.
He grabbed at her hands, gentle as he pushed her back onto the bed, dodging her fingers deftly as he rebuttoned the shirt. He talked soothingly the whole time, projecting a calm he never really felt these days but was good at producing when he had to. He captured her fluttering fingers in his hands against her stomach, still trying to get her to even sense something besides her panic.
“Calm yourself, love …. Calm, lyubimaya, dushyenka, dushka,” he said, slipping into Russian in his endearments for her, love, darling, dear. He was finally rewarded by a cessation of struggle and her eyes meeting his and actually seeing him now. He released her arms the moment she stopped fighting, but she clasped one of his hands in hers before it could escape her reach.
He reached up with his free hand to smooth a loose tendril of hair back behind her ear, accompanying the physical touch with a soothing mental one. Her skin was clammy, not from a fever he knew, but from the panic that had overwhelmed her.
Propriety, or the appearance of it, obviously didn’t bother her right now, and he felt free to disregard it by staying as long as she needed him to. He couldn’t survive losing her too.
“Water?” she croaked.
Knowing better than to release her hands from the sense of panic she was still radiating down their bond, Sergei gently touched her cheek with his free hand before reaching awkwardly for the glass of water the nurse had placed on the table beside the bed sometime before. He knew he was supposed to summon the nurse now, but he felt it would be better if he could talk to her before she had to face anyone else. He knew her better than anyone these days, better than anyone ever had, just like she knew him.
It was because of this that he kept a close reign on his own panic and fear as he guided the straw to her lips. There was no embarrassment here, because they'd already seen each other at their worst, lived in each other's minds through hell. Embarrassment no longer existed in this.
As she sipped at the water, Ree tried to collect her scattered thoughts. She had tried to reshape the scar, and something had gone wrong. She didn’t know how the cuts could have moved like that, but maybe Sergei did. It was his bloody brother who made them after all.
She chastised herself for such thoughts and hoped it hadn’t echoed down their bond. It was not Sergei’s fault he was related to such a monster, and blaming him would only produce a layer of guilt that he did not need to endure. The poor man had quite enough to deal with trying to heal from the physical damage Rasputin and his friends had wrought.
“You ready to talk about it?” he asked once she stopped sipping at the water. He was much more cognizant of her thoughts and feelings that she suspected, though he wouldn't let on. No, he had his own guilt that his brother was the one that had done this to them, but he hid it well. Ivanovichs always managed to. God, he hated being an Ivanovich now.
She nodded slowly, her head being a bit fragile now that she was paying attention, and the water was returned to the table.
“They removed the last of the bandages today,” she whispered, her eyes avoiding his though she knew he could feel her mental anguish through their bond. “I … I had to see. The infection left such a mess.” Blast, she was already crying. She had long since stopped trying to fight it when the tears wanted to run. It took simply too much energy that was better spent elsewhere. “He branded me,” she sobbed.
He wished he had the physical capacity to get up onto her bed by himself. He wanted to hold her; she needed him to hold her. Jaw clenching as her sobs wrenched his heart, he told himself that he could do it. It hurt like hell as he levered himself up, but he managed, pausing only to put his casted leg up on the bed, before wrapping his arms around her and pulling her to his chest.
As much as it hurt to be leaning on her shoulder, Ree turned and buried her face into Sergei’s chest once he was within reach. She would never admit aloud how much comfort she took from his presence, his touch.
He wouldn't be able to get down again by himself, so in a way this was a bad idea, but he couldn't do nothing. "Shh, it's okay, it's alright ... it doesn't matter. He has no hold over you." His still healing hand stroked her hair, stiff but slowly limbering up as he did therapy.
It took time, but slowly the tears faded and she was able to speak again.
“He had no right to leave such a mark,” she snarled softly. “If he can make it, I can remake it.” She began to cry again as she struggled to explain what had happened when she cut herself. “I thought …” When her throat closed up, she transferred her explanation to their link.
I thought I could change it. But it kept changing back. Every cut, I swear they moved, and the damned letter just got deeper. I don’t understand. What did he do to me? Along with the words, she struggled to project what she had seen in the mirror. A corner of her mind was worried that she had been imagining things, but she couldn’t know unless she got under the bandages.
Sergei just let her get it all out. It was all he could do for her at the moment, especially as he felt the leaden weight of knowledge settle on his shoulders and in his gut. He knew what his brother, his crazed, psychotic brother, had done to her. It hadn’t occurred to him before, he’d missed it somehow, but he knew now.
Guilt twisted through him. “It … is an old spell,” he said softly, stroking her hair soothingly. “It has been in my family for many centuries and very few others know it.” Just families like his, in Eastern Europe, mainly. He knew it, himself, but had never used it; but just as he knew it, he knew there was no cure, no counter spell or potion or rune. “The mark can only be added to in the form the … caster,” cutter, “uses. Any attempts to change it just add to it.”
It had been traditionally something used to mark property. He thought that the creation had started out innocuous, to brand livestock and such and keep them from thieves, but had evolved into a way to mark slaves, chattel, and even brides. It was rarely used, however, being too obviously a sign of darkness.
“Prastite, love, I’m sorry. I didn’t know he’d used it.” His remorse was palpable; if he’d known, he’d have told her, warned her. But it must have been done while something had been happening to him, or maybe Belle as well, because he hadn’t heard the incantation, or seen it done. I’m so sorry. So sorry.
She couldn’t help a faint feeling of relief. She hadn’t imagined those cuts doing the impossible. Or rather, nothing was impossible when magic was involved.
At the same time, she was revolted. He’d not only cut her, he’d done so in a fashion he knew could not be mitigated.
The world turned on its head when the door slammed open a moment later. Ree didn’t have to look up to know it was her grandmother. Only the old bat was rude enough to enter like that.
That, and when Sergei did look up he almost jumped off the bed. He was scared, and understandably. Whenever she caught them in the slightest appearance of an intimate moment, meaning in the same room at the same time, she flipped out and he always bore the brunt.
“Boy, what are you doing?” she started in on them. “Nurse, get in here. My granddaughter needs rest, not smothering.” As she yelled, Ree almost felt she could hear concern in her grandmother’s voice, but that was ridiculous. The old bat didn’t care for anything but image and improving the family. This situation did neither, so she wanted it gone.
“Gloryanna, dear, you should rest. You’ve had a rough day,” she continued, sitting on the far side of the bed from where Sergei was gently being hauled off the bed and back into his wheel chair. “Maybe something to help her sleep,” she added to the doctor who had just arrived.
“Perhaps that would be best for both of them,” the doctor agreed. “Mr. Ivanovich had quite an episode as well earlier.” Ah, there it was, the doctor was giving them the hairy eyeball. Neither of them liked the look, but when they complained he just countered that they should take better care of themselves if they didn’t want to see it. He was a good man.
The problem was, Ree was sick of the drugs and definitely didn’t want Sergei to go.
Is there any counter at all? A spell that disrupts the original casting? she asked desperately, her arm reaching out to catch his before he was out of reach.
He caught her eyes, his face hard around the pain in his eyes. There will be when he is dead he assured her.
The words echoed in both their heads, and the others in the room had the feeling that they had just missed something terribly important.
They now knew what they had to do.
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