Alan Grant raised his head. The female doctor was looking down at him with that same vacant expression of sterile politeness as the rest of the medical staff at Hospital Cristiano Jerusalem. The tone of her voice would have sent tremors of fear rippling through his heart if he hadn’t known better. Doctors have only two tones: screaming, used in cases of emergency, and deadpan, used for everything else. Grant was not worried—but he was anxious.
“Mr Brennan’s surgery went well and he is now in recovery.” Her accent was faintly British, not unlike Grant’s own heritage-exposing slips-of-the-tongue. “He is still sleeping off the anesthetics, but if you would like to see him I—”
“Yes,” Grant interrupted, rising to his feet a little too fast. His brain did a pirouette with his bloodstream and he lolled woozily for a second. The doctor reached out and steadied him. For a petite woman, she was surprisingly solid.
“Mr Grant, I understand your concern for your student—”
Here we go, Grant sighed.
“—but you must also take care of yourself. Those cuts, for example. Have they been examined?”
“Yes,” Grant lied, though he was as aware of his own condition as anyone—and it was terrible. He hadn’t even changed out of his mangled, muddied and bloodied clothes. In fact, with the exception of an ill-fitting shirt, everything he was wearing had been worn the day he took that doomed flight over Isla Sorna. That had been four days ago. He was quite aware of his appearance, injuries, his hunger, his lack of sleep, most noticeably his odor, but there were more important things to be dealt with now. Like an overwhelming sense of guilt.
Grant knew that punishing himself like this would accomplish nothing, but he felt as if he owed it to somebody, maybe God, mostly to Billy, to suffer a little for that brief moment of cruelty. This was his penance. And he was serving it with the grim resignation of a prison sentence.
“I can assure you I’m fine,” Grant continued testily. “I would like to see him now.”
The doctor pulled her lips into a thin line of disapproval, but she didn’t press any further. “Right this way.”
Grant was led to a small, dim room divided into two suites by a curtain. One side was empty. The other was occupied by William Brennan, who to Grant looked very small and weak lying in that narrow bed.
“Thank you,” Grant murmured, the unspoken “Now leave us alone” heard loud and clear by the doctor, who turned and shut the door behind her. Tapping heels faded down the hall. Silence crept into the room and settled in its corners. The windows on the far wall glowed blinding white behind the drawn blinds. Grant knew that outside it was sunny and warm and safe, a different world. In here there was only Billy, lying on his side so that the patchwork of ugly stitches on his back could heal, and Grant, the man who’d let it all happen.
Though the sensation had left him long ago, Grant was still conscious of his own scars received those many years ago. Slashes and lacerations that had healed over soft and pale, upraised like trenches filled with fresh new dirt. But they were nothing compared to the scars that Billy was going to have.
For the rest of his life, Grant thought gloomily. He’s too young for those.
He crossed the room and drew a chair beside the bed, sitting down and removing his battered felt fedora. For a long time he sat listening to the steady rhythm of Billy’s breathing and couldn’t bring himself to look at him. He didn’t want to see that face without its smile, or see those dark eyelids that had become shutters to eyes grown old from terror. If it were possible to scare years off a man’s life, Grant considered, he and Billy were both doomed.
He rolled his hat in his hands, meditating. Trying to think of what he’d say to Billy when he woke. There was no way to say sorry—it was impossible. And a lie. Grant wasn’t sorry. He was shattered.
“I knew you were trouble,” he said quietly, “the first time I laid eyes on you. I knew you would make me sorry somehow.” Your heckling. Your questions. Your attitude. Your brilliance. Grant smiled to himself. “I knew you’d make me proud . . . and you did. But in the end, Billy, I’ve got no one to blame but myself.”
And that’s why I’m here, sitting with you now, with my head missing and my heart broken, and it’s all my fault. It’s my fault for liking you too much. My fault for letting you push me. For letting you get too close. I should have shipped you off to that dig in the Gobi Desert last year. Then maybe none of this would have happened.
These thoughts ran their millionth lap through Grant’s mind and then finally threw in the towel. He drew in a heavy breath and massaged at the ache between his eyes. How long had it been? Sixteen hours? Eighteen? Twenty?
Birds sang outside the window, their voices faint and so unlike those of their ancestors. Though it was not cold in the room, Grant shivered. Then his eyes came to rest on Billy’s face. And here came the knot, working its way up Grant’s throat like some kind of tenacious frog, refusing to be swallowed down. And here came the heat, rising to a flush on Grant’s cheeks and catching his eyes on fire. And here came the congestion, the blood rushing through his head, amplifying the pounding of his headache, here came the queasy guts and the stumbling-drunk heartbeat and the clenching muscles.
And here came the end result, rolling down his dirty face and into the creases around his mouth, thick hot rivulets of tears, burning clean trails in their wake. A sniff later and they were gone, but the fresh lines down Grant’s cheeks remained. Fossil records.
He rose awkwardly, impulsively, and leaned forward. One hand cupped Billy’s ear, then a kiss was laid at his temple, a breath exhaled into his blondish curls. When Grant drew back and returned to his seat, he felt better. Miserable, but better. Billy continued to sleep, drugged and at peace.
You old bastard, Grant mocked inwardly. It took you long enough.
He leaned back in the chair and rested his hat in his lap. And before he even knew it he had fallen asleep, listening to Billy breathe across the 12-inch, thousand-mile gap between them.
It seemed like only minutes later when Grant woke up, oddly aware and alert. His back ached from sitting so poorly and he pulled himself upright with a weary grunt. His bones and muscles protested, reminding him that he was too old to be doing this to himself—hadn’t yesterday been enough?
“Standing vigil over me, Doctor?”
Grant started and turned. Billy, still in the same position as before, smiled weakly at his mentor and fellow survivor. Grant returned the smile and then some. “Mr Brennan.” He tried not to sound sick with relief, but these things have a way of sneaking out.
Billy blinked languidly. “How long have you been there?” His eyes roamed over Grant’s dirty clothes and then rested on the older man’s face, almost as if he were accusing him of neglecting himself.
Grant skirted around the question. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“I am, thanks,” the 25-year-old smirked cutely. “I heard pterosaurs don’t work the day shift here.”
Grant stifled a laugh, wondering how someone who had nearly died could still make a joke. He himself had no sense of humor, which only made him appreciate those who had it all the more. Billy was a class clown and his antics could be obnoxious, but Grant couldn’t have been gladder to see that this at least hadn’t changed.
His smiled faded as the black clouds came home to roost on his face. “Billy,” he said gravely, “I wa—”
Grant swallowed the rest of his sentence. Billy was staring at him imploringly.
“It was going to kill me to see everything you worked so hard for just . . . end. I knew this dig was our last chance. That’s why I did it. I fucked up and I’m sorry.”
Grant rested his elbows on his knees and held his hat, staring at it mindlessly. “It wasn’t you who fucked up, Bill. This has been a long time coming, and I don’t think there’s anything either of us could have done to delay it.” He paused to see if Billy had anything to add, but he was only listening. Grant continued.
“Paleontologists don’t get into it for the money, they get into it for the experience. They love what they do. But now . . . the world is so busy obsessing over the real thing that the field is going extinct. Paleontology is dying out, just like the animals we study. And sometimes, when you’re fighting to keep your head above water and not thinking about the consequences of your actions, you eventually have to ask if standing on somebody’s shoulders is really worth those last few minutes of air.”
Grant sat up and gazed at Billy, who gazed back at him deeply. “I had you so wrapped up in the dig that you’d become as mad for it as me. You would have done anything to save it, and that was heroic of you. But every man has a price, Billy. I almost lost you. And no dig in the world is worth a human life.” Especially yours.
A faint smile came to Billy’s lips. “You do realize you’re admitting that you brainwashed me.”
“If by ‘brainwash’ you mean ‘heavily influenced’, then yes, I suppose I did.” Grant grinned thinly. “You shouldn’t like me so much.”
“You’re an easy guy to like.”
“That’s not what everybody else says.”
“They don’t know you like I do.”
Grant narrowed his eyes. “And how well do you think you know me, Mr Brennan?”
Billy’s face grew serious. “Enough to know that you haven’t seen a doctor since we came back to the mainland. You probably haven’t slept or eaten much because you’re so riddled with guilt over what happened to me, even though it was my own decision. You were probably going to sit here and wait for me to wake up even if it took a week, just because you’re stubborn like that. You’re probably wishing we never met because I never would have gotten dragged into this and made you feel as shitty as you do right now. Is that right?”
Am I that easy to read? Grant wondered with a slight sense of panic. No; it was just Billy.
“Yes,” he said. “That sounds about right.”
Triumph shined in the young man’s eyes, not because he was glad that Grant was miserable, but that he had succeeded in doing what no one else could do.
“Alan,” he said gently, “I want you to know that it’s not your fault. You didn’t know the plane was gonna crash. Everything after that was the result of the conditions of that place. You do crazy things to stay alive out there. But I’m alive, and . . . isn’t that all that matters?”
It should be, Grant thought. But I’ll never be able to look at your scars without feeling as if they’re somehow my fault. “I suppose it is.”
A brief silence fell between them, and things were finally beginning to feel “right” again. Billy shifted a little, wincing with discomfort until he settled again. He kept his eyes on Grant, even though the other man was staring emptily down at his hat.
“Alan,” said Billy softly, waiting until he had Grant’s full attention before continuing. “What made you cry?”
He hadn’t looked at a mirror recently so he had no idea the evidence was all over his face. He wasn’t startled that Billy knew—Billy knew everything, apparently, he was a smart kid—but by having the question so boldly asked. Grant could have said it all right then, confessed everything in under a half hour or so, but of the long list of things he hated, making a fool of himself was near the top. Besides, he wasn’t sure if what he was feeling right now was an aftershock of the traumatic incident at Isla Sorna or just a bad example of proper teacher/student etiquette. The possibility of anything genuine existing between Billy and he was not up for discussion right now as Grant was not even capable of conceiving such insanity. That would come later.
He faked a smile for Billy. “Relief,” he answered. It was a white lie, but perhaps there was some truth to it, he rationalized. It seemed a satisfactory enough answer for Billy, who reached out his bandaged hand to touch Grant’s shoulder. Grant clasped it.
“Thanks, Alan,” breathed Billy.
“For staying here. Keeping the dinosaurs away.” Another small smile. “It means a lot to me.” And Grant could tell by his eyes that it was the truth.
“It’s the very least I could do,” he replied, giving Billy’s hand a warm, gentle squeeze.
It may not have been much of a passionate gesture, but all lovers start out as strangers in the beginning.
Operation Salvation Rated: T+ Sequel to Revenge of the Houseplants and Return of Hastur. Hastur must befriend Aziraphale in order to convince the angel that Crowley is out to get him.
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