It was only when one was driven to a breaking point, Altaïr considered, that one could appreciate the little things in life.
A breeze following an insufferable heat-wave.
Good food after weeks of survival rations.
Or, at the moment, how good a cushion felt under your skin after having the life beaten out of you.
I should get up, Altaïr thought anyway, because he was unsure of how much time had passed beyond the fact that it was dark when he’d returned to the bureau and now there was sunlight.
He tried to get up- slowly, carefully, pushing himself up onto his elbows. It seemed to take an eternity to do so, every muscle, bone, patch of bruised and cut skin screaming in protest as he did.
Just as Altaïr managed to push himself up, a foot directly on his upper back- possibly the only part of him that had not been soundly damaged, from the feel of it- pushed him back down.
“Stay right where you are,” Malik growled. “I know you’re stubborn, but there’s a point where stubbornness crosses into outright insanity, and any attempt at movement right now, for you, would be insanity.”
He removed his foot, and Altaïr coughed into the cushion. “I would argue,” He tried to force his voice to project, but it came out unsteady (probably because that one enemy had managed to choke him pretty well before he’d squirmed away), “But I fear I don’t have the energy to.” He paused. “I might be dying.”
“I’m tempted to say the same,” Malik said, a little more amiably now, “If you, of all people, don’t have it in you to be oppositional.” He knelt down and pulled back the blanket he’d draped over Altaïr, who was half-naked if one didn’t count the bandages that wound around most of his body. Altaïr tensed as Malik undid some of the bandages on his lower back, every movement aggravated by the injury.
The noise Malik made when the bandages had been pulled away did not encourage him. “I must say, with complete honesty, Altaïr,” Malik sighed, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an ugly bruise.”
Altaïr winced as he tried to look over his shoulder and see the extent of the injury, but he found that along with the pain, it was too difficult to breathe when he contorted too much, and he stopped. “How bad?”
“I feel that the full effect is missed if you don’t look at it. Suffice to say, you’d best not be rolling onto your back anytime soon.”
How had that injury come about? Everything from the day before was such a blur of unpleasantness and pain, it was hard to recall. Ah, wait- yes, yes, now he remembered, it was a big brute of a man who had kicked him into a wall- a wall that was only waist-high, and Altaïr flinched to recall how he’d bent backwards over the wall as his lower back had slammed into the stone.
Altaïr could hear Malik fumbling around with something nearby, something that sounded like glass… Like a jar, yes, a heavy one too. “Hold still,” Malik advised. “Or this will hurt worse than it already does.”
The bruising must have been rather severe, because all Malik did was brush Altaïr’s skin at first, and it felt like he’d slapped it. Altaïr went breathless the way one does when confronted with a hard, radiating pain, and dragged in a few short, shallow breaths before Malik took his hand away.
“I’d ask if it hurt, but that feels like a stupid question.”
“Why bother, when you already know the answer?” Altaïr was panting now, and it didn’t help that his chest was fighting against the cushions for room to expand. He flexed his hands against the fabric, grit his teeth and shuddered as Malik went back to rubbing the ointment into his back, trying to breathe steadily and not swear or make any other unpleasant sounds towards Malik. They were friendly now, more than he’d ever thought they could be after everything that had happened, and Altaïr didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.
“Is it too much? Do you want me to stop?”
“No, I’m fine,” Altaïr said, voice strained.
“I’m nearly done with the worst of it.”
Altaïr gently bit down on the edge of one of the cushions, if only as a distraction as Malik finished up with- God, what he hoped really was- the worst of the bruising. It felt as though it were lasting far longer than it actually was.
Finally, Malik’s hand wandered to other places on his back that hurt far less than what he’d just been doing. It stung, ached, but in the right places the rubbing and pressing actually felt good; occasionally his fingers grazed Altaïr’s ribs, and it tickled. After a time, Altaïr melted into the cushions. He was disappointed when Malik eventually took his hand away.
“This will take some time to heal,” Malik clucked. “You’ll need to rest.” He snorted a little. “Though, in fairness, I don’t think you’re exactly in a position to be running off anywhere just yet.”
“Egh,” Altaïr grunted, which was meant to be something like ‘go to hell’, but figured from the way he chuckled that Malik got the gist of it.
Unexpectedly, Malik’s hand returned to Altaïr’s back. This time, however, the touch was lighter, less like Malik was trying to perform a task and more like he was just trying to be…
“What are you doing?”
“Making sure the ointment’s distributed properly.”
Malik said it so simply, so confidently, that Altaïr had some difficulty believing it to be completely true. His hand was moving over all of the places it had before, except for the places where the bruising was at its worst and was bound to hurt. This wasn’t treatment anymore; now it was just soothing.
But Altaïr said nothing. If there was anything his demotion had taught him, it was how to keep his mouth shut, especially where Malik was concerned. Their relationship had repaired in bits and pieces, and they had come to a point where they could comfortably banter with one another without coming to blows, mostly because Altaïr had learned to watch his mouth.
So he said nothing. He did not bait Malik with mockery about his tenderness, did not laugh or suggest that Malik’s hand was as soft as a girl’s; Altaïr sank into the cushions and relaxed under Malik’s touch. The only word that was uttered in that time was a soft “Thank you.”
Malik’s hand stilled for a moment, but then resumed its movements.
“You’re welcome, Altaïr.”