Upper Kensington, Level Twenty-Nine.
Javier woke to a spike of adrenaline.
He felt it before Corinna’s expression began to shift, pinching her brow like crumpled paper. It was enough warning for Javier to lay a palm at her collar, his movements clumsy from hours on edge.
“Hey,” he said quietly, “hey, relax, you’re at home. Rina? Are you with me?”
On the bed, Corinna was blinking hard; eyes flicking rapidly around the room before settling on Javier’s face. She wet her lips, breathing still shallow with confusion.
“Oh thank god,” he managed.
Relief thudding hard against the bottom of his chest. The force of it rattled a laugh out of him; and Javier’s face hurt when he smiled. The emotion was clearly strong enough to steamroll Corinna’s adrenaline rush, because some of the tension drained from her eyes, the lines of her shoulders and neck going loose as she sank back into her pillow.
“I brought you back a few hours ago, as soon as the Healers were done. Jesus Christ, Corinna, I’m so mad right now you would not believe…fuck.”
“Liar,” she said, voice very hoarse.
There was a dull ache at the base of his spine and his left foot had gone numb. He must have drifted off in his chair at some point, still holding Corinna’s hand. She returned his grip now, fingers curling over the edge of his palm.
“Right, right, of course,” said Javier, and reluctantly let go of his sister to reach for the water on the nightstand. He poured a glass, the sound of it loud in the gauze light of the afternoon: only the soft sheer blinds had been pulled, leaving the windows naked for the rare London sun.
He had brought her back to his parents’ house, which had been closest. They were in Corinna’s old room – they both frequented the house often enough that there were spare clothes and preferences evident: a spare tablet charging by the bed, a half empty bottle of eau du parfum on the vanity.
Corinna brushed him off when he made to help her sit up.
“Feel fine,” she said, leaning back against the pillows, “just foggy. And parched: give me that.”
Javier sat down on the bed, handing her the glass. She took it with both hands and drank messily, throat working as she sculled the water.
“You’re going to choke,” said Javier, without much conviction.
Corinna narrowed her eyes at him above the rim of the glass and tipped it higher. Javier waited patiently. She coughed, full throated and violent, before slapping the empty glass back into Javier’s hand. Corinna coughed some more.
“They only just plugged that hole in your lung,” said Javier, setting the glass carefully on the table, “could you let me get some sleep before we test for leaks?”
Corinna brushed the hair back from her face. Away from the sterile light of the hospital, she looked much less corpselike, but the shadows beneath her eyes still made Javier’s stomach flip with nausea at the memory. Corinna clearly felt his unease, because she reached for his hand again.
“Healers, you said?”
Javier breathed out, slowly.
“Yeah. I took you to Highgate.”
Now that Corinna was awake, her familiar chrome-clean presence was rapidly soaking into Javier’s skin like the weight of a favourite shirt; barely, but reliably, there. He already felt calmer than he had for the past twelve awful hours.
“Well there shouldn’t be any leaks then, should there?” said Corinna, running her thumb over the back of his hand like a metronome, “at least they’re discreet. Did Peter call you?”
“Ah,” said Javier, “about that.”
Corinna sat up a little straighter, and Javier was mostly relieved to see she didn’t seem to be in any pain at all. Good as new; the power of modern medical advances had nothing on good old fashioned Healing. Corinna raised both eyebrows.
“The preface is that none of this matters because I took care of it,” said Javier.
His twin stared at him, unimpressed.
“The ambulance took you to St Ophie’s,” Javier said, hyper-aware of Corinna’s emotional tells, “it was the nearest one and you were – you were in really bad shape. Peter told me to meet you there, so I did. Flew you out as soon as I could. Before the police got there.”
Corinna’s face was a neutral mask, but he could feel her irritation vibrating under his teeth.
“I’m going to skin him with my nail clippers,” she said, as if discussing the weather, “please tell me you did not give your name.”
“….For god sake, Jav.”
“I didn’t exactly have a choice, did I?” he retorted, “can’t exactly waltz in and transfer you without a name, and someone would have recognised you or me anyway. I was there for hours—”
“Because you were in the operation room for hours,” he said eventually, the words scoring his throat as they came up like bile, “because you almost died, even with a healer there. He said your heart stopped a-and I was just in that ugly waiting room for t-two hours; waiting, waiting for someone to come out and tell me that you’d…that you had—!”
“Hey,” said Corinna, pulling him forwards by the hand, “shh, hey. Jav, I’m alright. I’m fine. Shhh, calm down, hey.”
She reached up to clasp him by the nape when he resisted. Her palm was cold from the water, but it was the solid, inexorable calm that made him shudder down to his bones.
Javier’s vision blurred with tears, ribs stiff with the aftertaste of panic.
“No,” he mumbled, “the doctor said…”
“I’m fine, nothing hurts, c’mon,” she murmured, and Javier let her manoeuvre the two of them until they were side by side under the covers, eight years old again.
He tucked his cheek against her shoulder, and felt the point of her chin digging into his hair. Neither of them spoke for a while. Javier closed his eyes, and concentrated on slowing his breathing until his heart beat matched the steady one beneath his hand. There was no point dwelling.
“Sorry for scaring you,” said Corinna.
Her inflection was a little off, and that’s how Javier knew she was trying. He sighed, rubbing his eyes.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, “I was told there might be residual pain. Anything?”
“I feel like I’m hungover,” said Corinna, “but that’s it. Nothing a bath can’t fix.”
“That’s good,” Javier examined the slope of her palm, “they said…if there hadn’t been a Healer there, when you…arrived. They said you were very lucky.”
Corinna pulled up her shirt to examine the unblemished skin between her ribs; her torso blank from any evidence of the night before. The healers at Highgate had wiped away all traces of the surgery, both inside and out.
They’d been surprised at the state of her lungs, apparently.
If it’s not for the ribs and the surgical scars, you almost can’t tell. Very lucky indeed. They did a good job.
“You wouldn’t even know,” Corinna mused, running a fingernail over the bump of her fourth rib, “would have been a real pain to have to pick out a new dress for the Gala.”
Javier pulled her shirt back down.
“Yes, I don’t think that dress would be as suited to a funeral.”
“Now that you mention it, I would like to be buried in that gown.”
Javier couldn’t meet her gaze from where he was lying, so he just gazed stonily at the window instead. Corinna poked his forehead.
He took a deep breath.
“Are you going to tell me what happened or are we going to pretend you got mugged?”
Corinna turned, and Javier shifted until he was staring up at the ceiling. The pillow was softer than he was used to, and smelled of rose water.
“Muggers can have guns,” said Corinna.
Javier snorted and pushed the duvet off, sliding his legs off the bed to sit up. His eyes stung with disappointment.
“Goodo! Pretending it is then,” he said, going for nonchalance and falling a few octaves short.
Beside him, Corinna also sat up. She carded her fingers through her hair, combing it back.
“I just don’t want to stress you out,” she said.
“Too late,” said Javier, deliberately sitting with his back to her, “you almost died. I’m pretty stressed.”
“The only reason you can’t tell,” he continued, pointing at his own hair, “is because white doesn’t show up against this colour. I’ve aged ten years in ten hours.”
“I don’t know much more than you,” she said, running a hand across his shoulder, “seriously. You think I planned to get shot?”
“I don’t know,” echoed Javier, crossing his arms, “do people plan to get mugged?”
Corinna made a noise of frustration, and shuffled forwards to hook her chin over his shoulder. She felt amused, though, and hugged him around the middle.
“I said I was sorry.”
“And I said I was mad.”
“You’re not,” said Corinna, matter of factly.
“Neither are you.”
“Excuse you, I am very sorry for getting shot.”
“…and?” he prompted.
“And what? If I hadn’t gotten shot you wouldn’t be upset. Ergo, I’m sorry I got shot!”
Javier buried his face in his hands, elbows propped against his knees.
“Close enough,” he said.
“I need to talk to Peter. Has he contacted you?”
The name made Javier’s stomach roil.
“No; didn’t pick up when I called.”
“I hate him. He’s a bad influence on you.”
At this, Corinna let out a peal of laughter, manic and scalding into his left ear. She took both of his wrists, and when Javier refused to remove them from his face, she pushed up with the heels of her palm, squishing his cheeks like a goldfish.
Javier spluttered and admitted defeat.
“Mm,” said Corinna, “I need to call him from a burner. Let’s go back to the apartment and—”
Somewhere in the house, a door slammed.
Beside him, Corinna went still. She let go of his hands and shook loose her sleeves in a way that Javier knew, from years of being her shadow, that meant she was getting ready to set something on fire. He got up quietly from the bed, distancing himself to concentrate. Then he stopped.
He recognised the particular blend of thrumming displeasure that was coming rapidly closer.
“It’s just Giulia,” he said.
Corinna pulled a face.
“I’ll head her off,” said Javier, opening the door to the bedroom.
The floorboards were cold through his socks, but Javier managed to intercept his older sister just as she came up the stairs at the end of the hall. He tried to exude a sense of mild happiness, giving her a tentative smile.
“Is she awake?” Giulia demanded, striding past him.
She carried a sleek folder under one arm and a bag in the other. Her dark hair was drawn back in a knot at the base of her neck. She kept it long, unlike Corinna who seemed to cut her’s shorter with every passing year.
“She’s not feeling well,” he tried, “I’ll promise I’ll call you when she’s lucid.”
“So she is awake.”
Giulia was wearing a paler lipstick than usual, which meant she was not in a good mood. Javier had made the mistake of reading her texts that morning, and knew perfectly why.
He side stepped her neatly and stood in front of the door.
“The healers said there would be residual pain for some time and potentially disorientation from the se—”
“Cut the crap,” said Giulia, and pushed past, wrenching the door open.
On the bed, Corinna was barely visible above the covers. Her eyes were closed, hair strewn: the picture of unconsciousness.
Giulia dropped her handbag in the nearest chair and stalked over to the bed. She stared down at her younger sister for a long moment. Javier wasn’t sure how to read her: he thought he felt a lurch of uncomfortable relief, but the static buzz of anxiety and irritation was making his lips numb.
Surreptitiously he put his cuff links back on.
“I know you’re awake,” said Giulia.
Corinna didn’t move.
“I’ve had the police in my office all morning,” Giulia continued, “I haven’t slept since Jav called me at four, so do not try me, Corinna, I have had it up to here with your—”
“Giulia, please,” Javier tried again, “she’s had surgery.”
“Be quiet or get out,” said Giulia without looking up.
Corinna opened her eyes.
“Normal people would be more upset when their baby sisters get shot,” she said, “you haven’t even asked how I am. I could be in a coma.”
“If you weren’t fine, Javier would have been sobbing on the phone to me.”
Corinna shifted on her pillow, scooting up the bed so she was reclining instead of horizontal.
“See, this is why people think you’re a cold bitch,” said Corinna, raising one eyebrow.
“Rina…” said Javier.
“I mean, you are a bitch. Full credit where it’s due.”
“If you’re well enough to insult me, you’re well enough to come into the office and deal with the mess you made. Jav, have you shown her the articles?”
Corinna turned to Javier, who was hovering uncertainly between the door and the bed.
“She been like this the whole time?” Corinna asked with an exaggerated pout, “was she even a tiny bit sad in the hospital?”
Javier looked from one sister to another; Corinna’s flat amusement at odds with Giulia’s cloud of stress.
“Don’t…” he said to Corinna, floundering for the safest path, “she was very worried about you.”
Apparently that had been the wrong thing to say because Giulia jabbed a finger in his direction; a bright spark of anger like a slap to the face. Javier took an instinctive step back.
“Do not do your…your thing with me,” she snapped, “get out. Rina and I need to have words.”
“Don’t tell him what to do,” said Corinna immediately.
She paused however, eyeing the folder in Giulia’s manicured hand. Corinna turned a glowing smile on Javier.
“But I could kill for a smoothie.”
Javier wanted to bang his head against the wall. Instead he just blew out his cheeks, and sighed.
“I’ll see what’s in the fridge,” he said, “please don’t burn anything while I’m gone.”
© Frances Wren 2019, all rights reserved.
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