Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
(Author note: This was published a while ago when I didn't really know where I was going to take the story. This is a new re-vamped version of 'As Yet Untitled')
The frost made the dirt tough as cement. Ainsleigh tried to keep it moving, never letting it settle for too long. It didn’t help that the dense trees refused to let the light of the pale moon guide her shovel.
She swayed suddenly, the weight of the packed shovel almost toppling her into the hole she was filling. Letting out a horrified shriek, she twisted bodily away and landed hard on her chest on the ground. The frost bit into her cheek and she rolled onto her back with a grunt. The branches spun above her, making dizzying patterns in the sky.
“Why…” she muttered to herself. “Why did I think this was a good idea?”
But there was no time to waste. She needed to finish the job before morning. Simply because she figured that the severity of the situation would hit her by the time the sun rose, making her incapable of doing anything else but sob. Struggling back to her feet, she grabbed the discarded shovel and continued filling in the hole. Once she found a melodic rhythm, she began to actually enjoy the motion of twisting, filling, turning, dropping, twisting, filling, turning, dropping. Her hips swayed from side to side as she hummed a jaunty tune in time to the beat of the motions.
Her eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness and so when she noticed a shape wandering between the trees before her, she paused and squinted to try and focus. Perhaps it was the branches creating shapes again. But then the breeze changed as if altered by movement. A shiver ran up her back and she shook her head to clear it. Just a few more shovels full and she’d be finished. Best not to get distracted. It was probably just someone using the woods as a shortcut home.
A low grumbling travelled through the wind. She patted her stomach. It had been a while since she’d last eaten. The night had been a rather eventful one. Food hadn’t really been on her mind. Drink, on the other hand…
Spotting her bottle nestled within a curl of nearby roots, she swiped it up and drained the rest of the golden brown liquid, gritting her teeth against the glass as it burned its way down her throat.
She was pummelled from the back, the force sending the liquor rushing back up and out her nose and mouth. Her face met the packed dirt once again. Coughing and spluttering, Ainsleigh pushed herself up onto her elbows but the pressure returned to her back. Feet. One on each shoulder blade. Then there was stabbing pain, like a bunch of little knives slicing through her thin, canvas jacket. No, not knives. Claws.
Blood swelled, hot against her cold-numbed skin. Then the ringing started. No, not now. The high-pitched squeal pierced her brain as viciously as the claws raked her skin. She jerked her body, wiggling wildly so the animal lost purchase. It seemed to work, the pressure lifted. She caught her breath but then the claws lanced through her side, the swipe so powerful it flipped her onto her back.
A wolf. There was a wolf on top of her. Canines as long as her little finger dripped saliva onto her chest. Its muzzle so close it was all she could see. Its breath was hot and foul and consumed her. Something thick clogged her throat. She wanted to scream but thought she might choke on her own vomit. The cold wind lapped up her side and she was suddenly brightly aware of the deep wound on her side. She shuddered beneath the animal as it leaned closer, its wet nose almost touching hers.
Her fingers spread over the dirt, shifting carefully from side to side and her heart leapt in her chest as her fingertips felt the cool glass of her bottle. She rolled it into her grip and swivelled it so the neck of the bottle fit perfectly in her grasp. The wolf was still sniffing her, a low rumbling vibrating deep in its throat mixing with the ringing in her ears. It snarled, teeth bared, and she reacted. She swung out her arm, smashing the bottle against the trunk beside her then drove the broken edges into the animal’s side. It howled in pain and jerked away, bounding off her and dropping to its side.
Heart pounding, she looked down at the bloody bottle in her hand and then to the wolf. Its coat was dark, mottled brown and black. The fur at its shoulder looked slick and wet. It stumbled back to its feet and she caught a flash of amber eyes before it let out a yelp of pain and limped away into the trees.
A wolf, she mouthed then sucked in a pained breath as the wound in her side was disturbed. The woods had returned to silence, the ringing must have calmed mid-tussle. That thing had been huge, easily spanning the length of her. Were all wolves that big? She’d only ever seen them from afar. Most definitely had never been attacked by one.
She should move, get home. No, not home. She couldn’t go home. What had been her plan? Had she even had one? Her head felt heavy. Her body felt heavy. Muscles like liquid, mind full of dirt. Her eyes ached. She couldn’t keep them open. Wet palm. Tacky. Hurts. Blood. The bottle must have cut her. But not just her blood. The wolf’s blood, too.
I just stabbed a fucking wolf.
A chuckle escaped her but then she winced. Right. I’m wounded. She didn’t want to look. She couldn’t look. Her head wouldn’t lift off the ground. Just attempting to move sent hot bile shooting up her throat.
She could just lie here for a while. Rest it off. Yes, that sounds nice.
The voice was low and gruff. Ainsleigh felt her lips form a sneer. Her cheeks hurt. But in that numb way, like she wasn’t really feeling it. There was a stiffness to everything. She tried to open her eyes. After several attempts, she managed. Frost made her eyelashes sparkle. Too bright. It was dizzying. Her stomach roiled and she rolled over in time to hurl stringy, water into the dirt. Her whole body convulsed with sudden blinding pain.
“Try not to move too much,” said the voice. Male. Above her. She couldn’t focus her eyes enough to see who it belonged to. “Shit, that looks bad.”
It felt bad. She was frozen all over but her side felt like it was doused in flames. Dropping onto her back, she let out a soft groan and felt herself drifting back to sleep.
“No.” Something hit her face. She tried to lift her hands to swat it away but her arms weren’t responding. “You have to stay awake.” He slapped her again.
Stop slapping me. She tried to say it but it came out as a guttural gurgle.
“You’re not gonna die.”
She scrunched up her face. Yes, of course I’m not gonna die.
“What are you even doing in the woods anyway?”
She tried to shrug. She managed a little.
“Are you drunk?”
She grinned, coughed, turned and spat.
“Getting drunk alone in the woods. Classy.” There was silence for a moment. Even though Ainsleigh’s eyes were closed, she sensed his worry. “You were alone, right?”
She nodded. He sighed in relief. Why did that matter?
“Okay. You can’t stay here.”
You told me not to move.
Rough skin against her bloody hand. “Jeez, you’re freezing. Okay. Right. Okay.”
He seemed to be gearing himself up for something.
“Can you walk?”
At that, she managed to open her eyes long enough to glare at him. He was tall, or maybe it was because she was lying on the ground. Dark hair and a scruff of beard. His thick, wool-lined lumberjack fleece looked warm.
His lips formed a thin line, contemplating his options as he sized her up.
“I’m going to help you up, kay?”
Slowly, she tested her arms and was able to use them to push herself up onto her elbows. Her shirt pulled at her wound and the ground tilted.
“Steady.” His hands were on her back, keeping her upright. “This is gonna suck real bad but once I get you to mine I can clean your wound and you’ll feel much better, I promise.”
She wanted to kick up a fuss about a strange man propositioning her in the middle of the woods right next to… No, she was in far too much pain to decline the offer.
The minutes seemed to stretch out for far too long, but finally, Ainsleigh was upright. Her half-dead arm had been slung over the stranger’s shoulders and he was keeping her close to him, mindful of his hand placement against her side. He was so warm, the heat of his body soothing other aches and pains she hadn’t realised she had.
Slowly and carefully, they both made their way through the trees. He kept her glued to his side, making her steps match his and murmuring words of encouragement when she faltered. Tears sprung into her eyes at his gentle tone, but she forced them away.
“Do you live far?” Her own voice surprised her. It was weak and croaky.
“Oh, she does speak.”
Ainsleigh sent him another glare. He smirked. His eyes were brown, like dark chocolate. Kind eyes.
“My cabin’s not far, no. We’ll be there soon.”
He wasn’t lying. After a few more stumbling steps, she caught sight of a one storey log cabin within a small clearing. Crisp orange and yellow leaves covered the ground around it, making it look like a scene from a fairy tale.
Ainsleigh was propped up against the wall as he unlocked and opened the door. Despite how careful he was, the wound stung with every step and she was incredibly thankful when he helped her up onto a large wooden table and reclined her onto her back.
“I’ll get the fire going. You’re still freezing.”
Ainsleigh was barely listening, she was just thankful to be lying down again.
“Here.” Something clonked down beside her head. A glass of water. “You’re probably dehydrated.”
He helped her bring it to her lips and she drained the whole thing. That was the best damn water she had ever tasted. He smiled, refilled it and helped her drain it again.
“Right. I’m gonna have to get you out of your shirt.”
And so it begins.
He pulled back the side of her jacket and made a face at the mess underneath.
“Yep. Your shirt is nicely matted up in there. Do you want something to bite on?”
She shook her head. “Just do it.”
He helped her out of her jacket sleeves, and then began to work on her shirt buttons. Once that was also open, he sighed.
“Of course you’re wearing another layer.”
He grabbed a heavy looking pair of scissors and sliced down the front of her t-shirt. She sucked in a breath as the cold metal touched the skin of her stomach.
Once the top half of her was in nothing but a bra, he covered her with a blanket but left her wound exposed. He was completely professional throughout the whole ordeal, his eyes never lingering for longer than they should.
The wound was nasty. She couldn’t see all of it, but could make out three deep gouges running across her ribs to her hip. The blood leaking out was thick and almost black. Ainsleigh had seen a lot of blood in her life- a lot of her own blood- but her vision still swam.
The stranger cleaned her hand first, clearing the blood away with a cloth doused in something that made her cut tingle. There wasn’t much damaged. Just a shallow slice across her palm.
Feeling far too comfortable and relaxed in the company of a complete stranger, Ainsleigh closed her eyes and hoped for sleep as he moved onto the more taxing job. The cleaning stung but she managed to grit her teeth through it. The stitches on the other hand… she may have thrown some insults and threats in his direction as he stabbed his huge needle and course thread through her swollen, tender flesh.
By the time he was finished, Ainsleigh was drenched head to toe in sweat. Her short hair felt like a slick cap stuck to her scalp.
He passed her more water, tipping the glass to her lips.
“Are you hungry?”
Her stomach growled in response and his lips lifted in a half smile, before he disappeared from view. He had given her pills for the pain but she knew they wouldn’t do much. Maybe food would help.
“What’s your name?” she asked the ceiling.
He was moving around behind her head. She could hear him shuffling and clinking things.
“Finch,” he offered simply. His voice was still a little gruff, but it had soft edges. Like he was willing himself to not sound too rough. “Yours?”
“Ainsleigh.” She looked down her body and flicked the blanket aside to see what he had done. Her side was securely bandaged. He had struggling to manoeuvre her while wrapping it around her body, clearly trying his best to not touch any exposed skin he didn’t have to.
She must have fallen asleep again because she awoke to the smell of smoked bacon.
“It’s best you sit up to eat. I’ll help you to the sofa. It’s cushioned. Should be more comfortable.” He wrapped her arm around his shoulders and she was moved from the table to a bench-like sofa kitted out with a multitude of thick cushioning.
When he was happy she was settled, he dropped into the armchair opposite. A round coffee table separated them, too low to eat off. He passed her a plate of bacon, egg and beans from the kitchenette at his back and winced as she took her plate. Relaxing back against the chair, he rolled both shoulders and then his neck.
“I’m heavy,” Ainsleigh stated, keeping the plate level with one hand while stabbing her fork into the bacon with the other.
“No, it’s not that. Bad posture. I must have been hunched up when I was sorting your wound.”
“Thank you, for all this. You didn’t have to.”
“I did,” he replied quickly, and with such finality in his tone that she didn’t dare question him. After a short silence, he seemed uncomfortable by the tense atmosphere. He shuffled in his chair a little, scraped the remainder of beans around his plate and then set his eyes on her. “Are you gonna tell me why you were drinking alone in the woods?”
Mouth full of food, she shook her head.
“What happened?” He nodded to the bandages beneath the blanket.
“Wolf.” The memory of its huge fangs made her shudder. “Huge fucking thing.”
Finch’s jaw set before he busied himself with finishing his plate. He looked around Ainsleigh’s age. Possibly exactly Ainsleigh’s age. Twenty-three, born in the Problem Year.
The cabin was a decent size. They were sat beside the big fireplace, giving out so much heat that a fresh load of sweat was tricking down Ainsleigh’s neck and disappearing beneath the blanket she still hugged close. Beyond the sofa was the dining table she had lain on to get fixed up, with two sturdy wooden chairs tucked beside it. The bedroom space at the other end consisted of a large, unmade bed, a wooden wardrobe, cabinet and a side table with a lamp. There was a door at the other side of the bed, which she guessed led to the bathroom.
“There was a shovel where I found you.” He twisted his body and placed his empty plate on the counter. He then collected hers and did the same. “Were you digging up something? Or burying something?”
Ainsleigh tensed and winced a little at the pull of her stitches. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“You’re in my house.”
“You brought me here.”
They both watched each other, brows low. Then his lips twitched and he smirked. He seemed to do that a lot. Leaning back in his chair, he shrugged, accepting defeat.
The food had been good. Ainsleigh could feel her head clearing. After years of practice, hangovers barely affected now but they still left a cloggy fogginess to her senses.
The only noise in the cabin was the crackling of the fire. It was pleasant. Feeling flushed, she loosened the blanket but it slipped off both her shoulders, exposing more than she had planned. Finch got to his feet and crossed over to the wardrobe. He pulled out a checked, long-sleeved shirt, a similar red and grey colouring as his jacket and passed it to her. Ainsleigh was grateful when he turned to let her change.
He looked back and smiled softly, his dark eyes brightening as he watched her rolling up the cuffs.
“Your eye.” She hadn’t noticed it before, but at the top of his left eye, above the pupil, was a slice of blue. It looked like a tiny piece of the sky.
“Oh, yeah.” He dropped back into the armchair and carefully peeled himself out of his jacket. Underneath, he wore a simple black t-shirt. He groaned a little, rolling his shoulders again. They were round, his biceps straining a little against his sleeves. He wasn’t thickly built, but he looked strong, agile. Gesturing to his eye, he shrugged, “It’s just a birth defect.”
“Your Gift is that you have a pretty eye? That’s lucky.”
“Did you just call me pretty?” He arched a dark eyebrow.
She glared at him until his face softened.
He laughed. “It’s not a Gift. It doesn’t do anything special. It’s simply just a birth defect. My father has it, too.”
A heavy silence followed as he watched her, assessed her. Ainsleigh realised her mistake. She shouldn’t have brought up Gifts. It was an unwritten rule that you didn’t ask someone if they had a Gift outright. But Finch continued to be ever the gentleman and eased, seemingly content with letting the unasked question linger between them.
“Do you have anywhere you need to be?” he asked instead.
Ainsleigh hugged herself, winced, and uncrossed her arms. “No, I don’t. Not really.”
She thought of her father, coming home and finding no one there. He would be so confused. But she couldn’t go back. She couldn’t face him after what she did. But she did need to move the truck. Could she drive in her current condition?
“Well, you can stay here, if you like. I’ll take the sofa.”
“I don’t want to impose.”
He shook his head. “I need to keep an eye on your wound. Make sure it’s not infected.”
Why did he care so much? But Ainsleigh just smiled in return.