Rima lay entangled with Casey on the couch, half watching the Netflix marathon and half just thinking, reveling in the feeling of being here, with him, at this precise moment, now. It seemed unreal if she thought about it too long—an out-of-body experience, like something she’d read about, something happening to some other girl, not her. And with the nightmare-memories as close as they were, that terrified her. What if it wasn’t real, after all this time?
As if he were thinking along the same lines, he glanced his fingers over her temples the way he knew she liked. She shuddered into the contact. “Do you still have the dreams?” he asked, fingertips like magic.
She hesitated, then nodded. “Sometimes. Not as often anymore.” The snowstorm, the squirmers, and that great darkness… She had to admit, she was glad of the decrease. She hated living in those worlds, even if only for a night.
He traced comforting circles across her forehead, down her nose, tapping the occasional freckle. For a second she wondered if he had finally escaped the nightmares, but then: “Me too,” he admitted in a low heavy voice. “It’s been almost two years now since they started. Do you think…?”
She tilted her head up to look him in the face, to glance her own fingertips across the frown pulling down the corners of his lips. She wished she could draw the pain from him, but she couldn’t, not in this Now; she could only hold him, and he her, when they both battled the nightmare-memories. “I do think they’ll fade eventually,” she reassured him, which wasn’t a complete lie. She wasn’t convinced they’d ever totally disappear, but following the trajectory so far, the nightmares had been steadily decreasing in frequency if not intensity, and she liked to hope that eventually they would be left in the past altogether.
Casey sighed, those beautiful angular stormy gray eyes closing briefly. To distract him she traced the outline of his mouth, his nose, the slight swoop of his straight dark hair. Relished every detail, wishing she could commit him to flawless memory, glad that she didn’t have to.
She hated that the nightmares, the other Nows, robbed her of those details—if they allowed her to have him at all. That might be the worst part, she considered, but then with a shudder: Maybe second-worst, with the rotters. She was glad Casey didn’t know that Now, even though in the moment she always wished he were there with her.
Not that he didn’t have enough to deal with on his own: his brother killing their father, then Casey taking on Big Earl’s angry whisper. The violent loss of one Tony, one Bode. Losing everyone—each other, himself—in the Dark Passages and coming out the other end as a stain. And the Dark Passages themselves… No, she hadn’t deluded herself into thinking he’d gotten off easy.
His lips parted, and she felt the jagged whisper of a breath against the inside of her wrist. She started to pull her hand back, but he nosed her palm as it passed. “Wait,” he whispered, his voice cracking, his eyes still closed against the other realities that broke them both at night.
Rima was no mother, barely even a legal adult, but her maternal instincts kicked in. Unable to turn down his request for comfort, she only deviated her path to caress his cheek. Natural tan against natural tan, his only slightly darker. Draw it out, she commanded her touch, but she remained unable to absorb the pain for him, and the flaw ached sharp in her chest. At least in those other horrible Nows she had been able to help others, to actually make use of the protective sixth sense she’d been created with.
Instead she had to watch Casey’s forehead crease, his jaw clench against the overwhelming pain. He trembled against her, and her throat thickened with frustrated, hurt, pained tears. Nothing you can do, her mind seemed to mock her over and over. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Her breaths shallowed as she fought the spiral, and she squeezed her own eyes shut.
She didn’t realize she’d begun to shake as well until his cooler hand closed over hers. Her eyes burned and she wasn’t sure why until she reopened them to find everything blurry. Panic rose in her throat—no, give me the details back, this is real, THIS IS REAL—until he brushed the blur away and his hand came away damp with tears.
Tears. That’s it. That’s all. But her heart pounded too fast in her neck, and no air she took in seemed to reach her lungs. Every gasp sounded shrill in her own ears.
THIS IS REAL THIS IS REAL IT HAS TO BE
“Shh,” Casey whispered, “shh, I’m here, it’s okay.” She couldn’t bring her hands up to her face, so he dried her face for her, wiping her eyes and dabbing her cheeks, inhaling long to guide her to it herself. During panic attacks Eric was good for his brother, for Emma especially, but for Rima only Casey helped, only Casey. She forced herself to follow his lead, to breathe in with exaggerated slowness even as her fingernails dug into her palms.
THIS IS REAL
Casey’s words devolved into soothing noises, but something clicked. Rima’s trembling faded, and eventually her breathing came back down as well, though tears still burned her eyes. She hiccupped, and he leaned in to press a soothing open-mouthed kiss to her neck. The intimate touch calmed the last threads of her hysteria. She swallowed and tried to focus again. The tingles along her scalp when her blonde curls brushed him. The light calluses on the pads of his fingers as he drew along her shoulders, up her waist, along her forearms.
But she couldn’t forget that he’d had an attack as well, and before hers, at that. Wanting to return the comfort, she cupped either side of his jaw and drew him to her for a kiss, long and slow and gentle and easy as nothing ever could be. He tasted faintly of salt, or maybe that was the taste of her tears in his mouth. His lips were chapped from the fall air outside, but warm and familiar and reassuring as they fell into place against hers. Blindly she traced the angles of his cheekbones, his jawline, the cords of his neck, seeking to memorize every detail if she could.
His hands spanned over the divot of her waist through her shirt, palming the curves as if reassuring himself that they were still there. His mouth left hers to explore the familiar territory of her soft jaw, the arch of neck into shoulder, the hollow at the base of her throat, the solid lines of clavicles. She made a little noise without meaning to. Half desire, half pain, still remembering. And he paused, which she hadn’t wanted. She pressed her lips together, not wanting to worry him.
He drew back to meet her again, and she pressed slightly on his shoulders. Just a little, just enough to get the hint across: Rest. Lie back. Let me. But those gray eyes flickered across her face, looking at something, and his brow creased again.
“Casey,” she whispered, hurting with the need to take his pain away. “Let me help.” Please.
He kissed her, kissed her, kissed her, all hands and mouth. And focused as she was, she knew the moment his hands moved to her shoulders and pressed for her to lie back. She made the stupid noise again and hated herself for it.
“No,” she protested, “I can’t. You need to—”
He shook his head, sadness and compassion mixed in his gaze. “Let me help.”
“You do help,” Rima protested, and she could feel the anxiety rising again. “You always help me, and I can never…” She needed to forget, to help him forget, and she was only remembering—
His lips on hers, his hands on her thighs, firmer this time, rucking up her dress. His nails dug into her skin, and the sting came as a welcome distraction. The darkness fled, just for a moment. No, she had to remind herself, no, it’s not about distracting you, you selfish girl. It’s about distracting HIM.
“Let someone help you for once,” he murmured.
She would have pushed him off, insisted on having her own way, but she needed the contact as much as he did. Her arms went around his neck without a thought, pulling him closer. Heat wound slowly up her insides, letting her forget pieces of the anxiety in favor of other desires. Images of white and black and rotters scattered, replaced with images of what she knew Casey looked like nude and buried in her, hands fisted tight in her hair, shoulders tense above her as he—
Heat burned up her cheeks, between her legs. A different noise broke from her throat. Lower. Hoarser.
“Rima,” Casey groaned, the word hot against her shoulder. The hard ridge of him burned against her stomach. His brow was creased, his jaw tight, but with hot need rather than painful memory. Open mouth and teeth against her skin. “Oh g—”
Casey, she thought and gasped. Casey. Help Casey. So she took his pain in the only way she knew how. And after he shuddered and collapsed onto her, brow cleared by the rush, he closed his eyes and caught his breath, and she calmed in the knowledge that he had forgotten, for now at least.
The nightmares chased away, she curled into his side. Not to sleep. Just to forget.
For a little while.