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the caress of dalua

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"Do you know where you are?" said the man, his black hair and coat the only things in the room that weren't some shade of white. The man had a big nose and small eyes, which seemed to recall some familiar memory, but he couldn't place it. He certainly couldn't remember where he was, or how he got there, or why he felt as if he'd been whipped, his entire body raw and at attention. He could feel a breeze from somewhere, smelled flowers that weren't there, and there was some kind of smoke in the air, a haze that dulled everything but the light.

"You're in a hospital. My hospital, actually. Lord Hervey, we've already met." The man held out a hand, but he couldn't quite lift his own to meet it, no matter how he tried.

"Haaarpe..." he tried to speak, but he didn't even seem to be able to control his mouth.

"Rest," the man said. "It will all come, with time."

***

"He's still disoriented," someone said. It seemed to be a woman's voice, though that made little sense; he seemed to recall women weren't allowed to work in hospitals, and he couldn't recall seeing anyone else, and he would remember, surely.

"I'd wager that makes him suggestible," another voice said. It sounded like Lord Hervey. He was fairly sure they didn't know he could hear them, though he couldn't explain why. The room was small and the air was stale, smelling of blood and sweat and piss and that was familiar, though he couldn't say why he thought it should also smell like dirt, or he should be able to hear raucous singing and someone snoring.

"He is healing well. His mind, though..."

"You'll have to find a way to keep an eye on him, sister," Lord Hervey said, and he was sure it was the same man, now; he listened for more, but there was nothing.

***

"Do you know where you are?"

"Haarpe..." he tried to say, but his voice still wouldn't work. He knew where he was but not where he had been, or why the walls felt like they were always closing in, why he felt naked despite the shirt and fine bedclothes, or why he reached for a weapon that wasn't there.

"Hospital, that's right. And do you know your name?"

He tried to say it; it was right there, and if he said it he'd remember.

"That's alright. You took a nasty fall, which has affected your memory. You'll remember, in time. What about family, do you know anybody who might be looking for you?"

Blonde hair, maybe; images half-occurred and dissipated before he could see them, understand them. Black hair, a farm, a child... he shook his head, hoping to stop the suddenly searing pain that starts at his spine and goes up, as if sparking behind his eyes.

"I see. We'll see if you remember on your own for now," Lord Hervey said, and left him alone again, alone with the same four walls, the same sweat-soaked sheets, the same meal three times a day. Each day he remembered more of the one before, but anything before that stayed hazy, just out of reach as if the very plainness of the room repelled any details of the world outside it. The faintest recollections of a sense, a place, a time, haunted the outskirts of his dreams, but they faded and grew indistinguishable from the white-grey surroundings, as if they had never truly been real at all.

There was one more memory that maybe lasted, a man in green, a flintlock rifle that felt like a third arm, but he couldn't hold onto it, as if that man no longer existed, or he simply couldn't get in, being entirely too rough and bright for the world he now found himself in.

***

"Still nothing?" Lord Hervey made a sound that was somewhere in between disappointed and fascinated, a 'hmm' that was chilling for how it seemed detached, as if coming from somewhere else.

"Your name is John Marlott. You're with the police. You took quite a knock to the head, which is why you don't remember."

"John," he said. It felt wrong to say, but it did feel familiar, and came with a vague sense of pain, like he'd heard it spoken in anger a hundred times before. "John."

"Yes," said Lord Hervey. "Now, John, you're physically well, so I don't have any more reason to keep you here, but you're welcome to stop by for a chat if you don't find your memories returning. Do you understand?"

The only thing that he understood was that he would be able to leave. He thought, perhaps, once he got outside, put this place behind him, he would remember; it was almost there, somewhere, and if he could just reach it...

But the London he walked out into didn't feel like home; it was loud and dirty and closed in, and even the young boy Lord Hervey had sent with him seemed ill at ease in the apartment that was said to be his.

"Will you be alright, guv?" the boy said, and as soon as he nodded the boy took off, running as if his life depended on outrunning the shadows that seemed to have sprouted dust in his absence.

He picked up a photo, faded and cracked, and had that same flash of blonde; he still could not reach it or place it, even when he pressed on his broken and scarred skin, looking for pain to cut through the sense of ill-ease that seemed as if a curtain between then and now.

***

It took but a few days for the memories of the white room to fade, too; the streets of London kept him busy enough, and if not for the missing time, as if his life had only started when he came home, if not for the occasional nightmare, the shiver he felt at winter's first storm, he would say that nothing had happened at all. The unease gradually fell away, and if he felt he was being followed... it was London, and these were desperate times. Occasionally, he remembered something, but it never took; after a while, that stopped too, but for the rare sense of not belonging, or feeling like he knew a person he'd never met.

***

He'd always hated London. He hadn't even wanted to come back, but he'd been called to Downing Street again and not going was unthinkable. But to survive battlefields across the continent and at sea, only to die in the same gutters he was born in?

Richard Sharpe was not amused. "Bastard," he coughed out, but his coins were already gone and his attacker far away, and the world was going black.

***

He felt strange, not quite inside himself, as if someone had dug his insides out and left them sitting on his corpse, and that was just about how much pain he was in, too. He couldn't scream, though, or move. If not for a flickering, thin blue light, like lightning but inside, he'd have thought the blackness was death.

"Hush now." A man's voice. Something being pulled from his mouth. Sweat. He was tied down. "I saved you."

And then the blackness was absolute.

"It worked, Jemima. We brought him back."