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Warning: This poem contains some touchy topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features an expected death (which does not actually occur), a hospital visit, anticipatory grief, superhero/supervillain relationship challenges, bioethical issues, requesting help from a supervillain, messy medical details, several people donating lifeyears to save a friend, expected memory loss of the accident as a side effect of treatment, sharing secrets, negotiating secrecy, and other angst. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
Always Repay the Cost
When Stan got word that Fiddlesticks
was in the Freeman Family Hospital
and not likely to leave it alive, he went
right over to Lawrence's house, and
then both of them went to visit.
They stopped at the flower shop
on the first floor, where Lawrence
carried out a brisk conversation with
the florist which produced a fine bouquet.
Three tall yellow gladioli -- flowers of healing
and warrior spirit -- rose above mixed carnations
for energy. A nest of foliage at the base included
cedar for strength, sage for health and long life,
and blue spruce for hope in adversity.
Fiddlesticks had been moved to
the palliative care wing, because
there wasn't much more the staff
could do for him, which was sad.
Stan set the vase of flowers on a table
and then turned to Hefty. "Hi," he said.
"We're here if you need us for anything.
Do you want to tell us what happened?"
"Hi," said Hefty. He looked exhausted.
"We were busting up a ring of car thieves,
and one of them rammed Fiddlesticks."
"He couldn't dodge?" Stan wondered.
"He was moving the original target out
of the way," Hefty said. "The other officer
is fine except for a few minor fractures,
but Fiddlesticks is just -- they don't --"
His voice broke and trailed away.
"He's Christian, right?" said Lawrence.
"Have you called a priest, or whatever?"
"Been and gone," Hefty said, nodding.
"They're Episcopal. Their pastor sat
with Diamond through the surgery. We
had hoped for better results, but well --
Fiddlesticks got hit by a truck."
"I'm surprised she's not here," Stan said.
"I ran her off after the first six hours.
Somebody has to watch the kids, and
Roger took a shift, but they need
their mom," said Hefty. "I promised
to call her if he -- when -- "
"Yeah, I get it," Stan said,
and reached over to lay
a hand on Hefty's shoulder.
"Thanks," Hefty said.
Then Stan noticed that Lawrence
was running his hands back and forth
just above Fiddlesticks. "Hey," he said,
"aren't you supposed to get permission first?"
It was a delicate process to separate
Lawrence from all the bad habits that
he'd picked up as a supervillain.
"He doesn't have time," Lawrence said.
"Nevermind, Stan, we all know that
Fiddlesticks let Lawrence look before,"
Hefty said. "If he can help again, I'm
happy to give proxy permission for it."
"This is way past what I could fix, but
he's got other options," Lawrence said.
"I saw the I.O.U. that Fiddlesticks had
after he wrecked his knee earlier, and
I recognized the handwriting on it."
"That's very private information,"
Hefty said. "For various reasons,
we don't want that incident getting
a lot of publicity, please."
Lawrence shook his head.
"I wasn't planning to talk with
anyone else about it," he said.
"I just wanted to know if you
called her yet, because if you're
ever going to cash that favor,
now would be the time."
"There's no contact info on it,"
Hefty said. "We checked.
"Nuts," said Lawrence. "Then
she either forgot to include it, or
put that part in UV ink and forgot
that naries can't read it without
a special light. Maybe she meant
it as a one-way pickup, but that
doesn't make much sense."
"I'd take her help, if I had
any idea how to get it, and
to hell with the risk," Hefty said.
"Let me see what I can do,"
Lawrence said cryptically,
and slipped out of the room.
"Do you have any idea where
he's going?" Hefty asked Stan.
"I've learned not to ask," Stan said.
"Sometimes Lawrence needs
to handle things his own way."
"Smart man," Hefty said.
"Every couple needs to think
about handling their differences.
You boys are doing pretty well."
"Thanks," Stan said. "That means
a lot to us, coming from you. I don't
think we would be doing half as well
if it weren't for you and Roger."
For a few minutes, it was quiet except
for the soft hum of medical equipment.
Stan glanced at the displays, but they
were bad and getting worse, so he
looked away. There was nothing
that he could do, thus no point in
tormenting himself by watching.
Instead, he tilted his head back and
stared at the ceiling tiles as his eyes
traced the smooth, meandering path of
grooves that led from square to square.
Lawrence came back in and said,
"Okay, I've passed the word. We
should hear back pretty soon,
one way or the other way."
"How quick?" Stan said,
peeking at the screens again.
"An hour at the outside, probably
more like half that," Lawrence said,
reaching toward Fiddlesticks again.
"Until then, it's up to him and me."
Hefty held up a hand. "Wait
a moment," he said. "What are
you planning do here, Lawrence?
Fiddlesticks has a real firm stance
on no heroic measures in situations
where the prognosis is poor."
"I know better than to bowl
a gutterball!" Lawrence snapped.
"Not exactly what I asked,"
Hefty said calmly. "There's a limit
to what I can permit as his proxy,
and that one isn't a line I can cross,
because he drew it in advance.
So you need to unpack for me,
or we are about to disagree."
"This kind of work doesn't qualify
as heroic measures," Lawrence said.
"It's just ..." He turned both hands palm up
and patted the air with them. "... bolstering."
"I thought you said that this was more
than you could fix," Stan said.
"It is," Lawrence said. "I can
buy him some time. Mostly it's
just pouring extra energy into
his body to help keep it going
for a little while longer."
That might, just might,
let Fiddlesticks hold out until
backup arrived, if it was going to.
"Sounds like a good bet to me?"
Stan said, looking at Hefty.
"Good enough for me too,"
Hefty said, and sat back in his chair.
"Go ahead, Lawrence -- but after this,
if there is an after, you and Fiddlesticks
need to discuss advance directives.
I don't want to be left guessing,
and neither would Diamond."
"Agreed," Lawrence said shortly,
and focused all his attention on
Fiddlesticks, spreading both of
his hands over the too-still form.
Stan made a mental note to talk with
Lawrence about advance directives
for more than just Fiddlesticks, because
it was an issue likely to come up again,
and Lawrence was in no shape
to think of that right now.
Watching Lawrence work, Stan
wondered exactly what he was doing
with that careful pattern of touch and release.
Lawrence had learned quite a lot of tricks,
from blood clotting to speed-healing, but with
this much damage spread all over a body,
Stan wasn't sure what would help.
He prayed that Lawrence
had a better idea than he did.
It hadn't even been twenty minutes
when the door swung open, admitting
a little girl in a River-and-Simon t-shirt and
a brown skirt the same color as her hair.
She made Hefty sit up at attention.
Behind her came a man built like
an offensive tackle, and Stan really
hoped this was not about to turn into
a fight, because he felt pretty sure that
this guy would wipe the field with him,
regardless of their superpowers.
The man palmed something against
the door, which stuck and lit up blue.
"The door is secure, miss," he said.
"Shall I remove the audience?"
"I don't think that will be necessary,
Lorry," she said. "Hi, Hefty."
"Hello, Miss Martins, thank you
for coming," Hefty said.
"Actually, it's Dr. Infanta
today," she said. "I'm doing
the work, I wear the title."
"Okay, cape names it is,"
Hefty agreed, "even if that one
is stretching it a little bit."
"I am a doctor," said Dr. Infanta.
"I have a medical degree -- actually,
I have several. Most of them are
a few centuries out of date, but
those things don't expire."
Hefty blinked, and Stan felt like
he'd just gotten tackled into the grass.
"Understood, doctor," Lawrence said,
smoothly picking up the thread of
their conversation, and Stan was
grateful for his assistance.
"So, can you help?" Hefty managed.
"I can," said Dr. Infanta. "You were
smooth with me, and I really didn't mean
to wreck his knee that time. I owe you
a favor, and I always repay the cost."
"What do you need?" Hefty said.
"As much medical information as you can
give me," said Dr. Infanta. "I can see what I see,
but the gear this century adds a lot of detail."
While Hefty and Lawrence launched
into a gruesome discussion of what
the truck had done to Fiddlesticks' skull,
spine, ribcage, and assorted innards,
Stan sidled over toward the door.
"Can you let me out for a minute?" he said.
"I want to raid the vending machines; I get
a feeling that we're going to need the fuel."
"Try not to attract attention," Dr. Infanta said
without looking up. "We ran into one guard on
the way here -- don't worry, he's only napping --
and while we now have exact coordinates
for the room, this is really a bad time for
interruptions. Lorry, let him out."
"I'll be careful," Stan promised as
the big man removed the palm lock.
Then he squeezed out of the door.
Stan went looking for the mini-mart
that he had glimpsed on the way in.
He followed the trail of big wall prints
from the savannah to the forest path
to the waterfall plunging into an oasis.
As he rounded the corner into the lounge,
the middle of the vending machines with
its big touchscreen detected his approach.
It began blinking and chiming playfully at him.
Normally, Stan would have paused to play
a few games or quizzes about nutrition --
always of interest to an athlete -- but today
he hit "urgent," "stocking up," and "group."
The machine burbled at him for a moment,
and then offered recommendations based
on which items had the highest calories,
most nutrients, or were suitable for sharing.
Stan surreptitiously untucked his shirt
to serve as a gathering basket. Then he
loaded his arms with Barbecue Saucy Chicks,
Screamin' Squirrel Brazil Nut Phat Energy Balls,
fresh fruit, yogurt, fruit juice, and protein shakes.
With regret, he skipped the heatable sandwiches
and the entrees as too time-consuming, but he did
get a six-pack each of the Greek Deviled Eggs,
the Hummus Deviled Eggs with Za'atar, and
the Avocado Herb Deviled Eggs which were
inevitably packed with a generous slab of ham.
He looked at the different flavors of Jumble Munch
and grabbed Honeybunch, Protein Power House,
Cozy Crunch, Garden Spot, and My Yammy Moon.
Then, playing a hunch, he added Rainbowrama.
Hastily Stan swiped a cash card through the slot,
scanned his haul, and headed back to the room.
A volunteer raised her eyebrows at him.
"Feeding an army?" she asked.
"Stocking up," Stan corrected. He
didn't have to fake the grimace. "We don't
want to leave the room in case of ... bad news."
"Of course, sir," she said, all compassion now.
Stan counted on that to discourage anyone else
from trying to butt into the room outside of
regular rounds, which weren't due soon.
When he tapped on the door and
announced himself, Lorry opened it
for him. "Thank you," Stan said.
"My hands are full right now."
"I'll say." Lorry stared at him.
"What did you do, rob a convenience store?"
Lawrence said, eyeing all of the food.
"No, I bought it from the mini-mart
in the visitor lounge, but this is it for
my weekly budget," Stan said.
"Oh, you're high-burn?" Dr. Infanta said.
"I hope you got the good stuff, because
I'm going to need it after I finish."
Stan politely recited the list of
healthy snacks he'd bought, then
added, "I got this too, wasn't sure if
you liked it, but my sisters love this junk."
He shook the bag of Rainbowrama.
Dr. Infanta reached out to hug him
with one arm and declared, "You
are my new best friend!"
She felt as warm and sturdy
as Stan's sister Sloane.
"Okay," he said amiably. He had
convinced Antimatter to quit acting
so awful; maybe he could help her too.
"That reminds me, can he frontload
or backload?" Dr. Infanta asked,
pointing back to her patient.
"Yes," Hefty said. "Fiddlesticks eats
everything in sight, like most speedsters."
"Then that makes this easier," said Dr. Infanta.
"I can run the initial cycle of healing by hand,
and then do some time-release tricks
that can use calories for fuel."
"What does that mean for him?"
Hefty asked, leaning forward.
"It means that I will need to heal
his digestive system completely in order
to handle that load, but it's doable," she said.
"You'll have to feed him up -- call SPOON,
ask if they know a nutritionist for soups.
I'm not up on all the current details of diet."
"I'll take care of that," Hefty promised.
If there was one in Omaha, it was probably
here. Freeman Family Hospital had started out
as a colored hospital, back when people were
still being that stupid about race. It had kept up
the tradition of covering underserved populations,
which made it the only hospital in Omaha that had
any experience treating people with superpowers.
Dr. Infanta nibbled her lower lip, and the look
on her face made Stan start to worry a bit.
"Speaking of fuel," she said, "I'm toward
the low end of my tank. I can heal Fiddlesticks
enough to keep him alive, and avoid most of
the permanent damage, but that's about it.
He would spend a long time in recovery. I
have other options, but they're ... less easy."
"What do you need?" Hefty and Stan chorused.
"Time, your time," Dr. Infanta said as she
looked at Hefty. "I can borrow energy from
one person to heal another, but it would
shorten your lifespan by about a year. I
could put it back later -- if we meet again --
but not today, not without a reload."
"I can spare a year," Hefty said.
"A year split two ways is six months,"
Stan said without hesitation.
"Split three ways, it's only four,"
Lawrence said evenly.
Stan flinched. The thought of
his boyfriend giving up even a minute
of life stabbed into him like a knife.
He opened his mouth to protest --
-- and stopped.
Lawrence no doubt hated the idea
of Stan's offer just as much, but he
hadn't made a peep about that.
If Stan complained, it would
make him a total hypocrite.
Stan shut his mouth and tried
to get used to the pain instead.
"I can take four months from
each of you," Dr. Infanta agreed.
"It won't hurt, but it'll knock you on
your butts for a while. It's a good thing
that we've already got plenty of food."
She gazed at them with eyes the color of
old honey, the way it turned golden-brown
with sunlight sparkling in the crystals.
Startled, Stan realized that she was
looking on them with respect.
"What does that gain Fiddlesticks?"
Hefty asked. "Speed of healing, or
less permanent damage, or what?"
"Everything," Dr. Infanta said. "He won't
have any permanent damage this way.
I could heal everything today, but
that's pretty rough on the body."
"What would you recommend?" Hefty said.
"It's better to do enough that he'll wake up
about an hour after I finish," said Dr. Infanta.
"It's less conspicuous that way, too."
"That sounds like a lot," Stan said.
He couldn't help checking the monitors.
"Skull, brain, ribs, organ injuries -- yeah,
I can get it all," Dr. Infanta said. "I'd offer
to clean up the surface cuts and bruises, but
that really attracts attention he probably does
not want. Oh, and he will lose his memory of
the collision, I don't know how much; I'd guess
at least an hour, but it could be the whole day."
"Some memory loss is typical after trauma,
anyway," Lawrence said quietly. "That's not bad."
"Does Fiddlesticks have enough time for this,
or do we have to worry that it might run out
before you're all done here?" Hefty said.
"Oh, that," Dr. Infanta said, and flicked
her fingers. "I don't run out of time.
I threw a loop around Fiddlesticks
as soon as I walked into the room.
Your partner's not going anywhere."
Hefty melted. "Thank God."
Stan could see all of the tension
run out of him as the big man
slumped in his seat. Stan felt
pretty much the same himself.
"Ready?" asked Dr. Infanta,
holding out a hand to Hefty.
"Yes," he said, and took it instantly.
It only took a few minutes, and then
Dr. Infanta let go of him. Hefty looked
wrung out, but made no complaint.
Next Dr. Infanta turned to Stan,
offering him a hand as small as Sloane's.
"Whenever you're ready," she said.
Only then did Stan realize a hitch in
his plan: if he simply put his hand in hers,
then probably nothing would happen, because
his fetish tended to protect him from threats.
Even with Lawrence, when they rolled
their energy across each other, Stan had
to take off the fetish first in order for it to work.
He could step out to do that, but they'd know
that something was going on, and besides,
Dr. Infanta was a healer. She'd likely sense
the shift in his personal energy anyhow.
So Stan chose a different course.
"What I'm about to show you,
stays in this room," he told her.
"You don't tell anyone else about it,
and you don't ever use it against me."
Dr. Infanta tipped her head with
birdlike curiosity. "I promise," she said.
Stan unfastened his fetish and
passed it to Lawrence, who put it
in his pocket for safekeeping.
Doing that always made Stan
shiver a little bit, deliberate trust
lain over a layer of mockery and fear.
"I'm ready when you are," he said, and
took her tiny hand in his much larger one.
True to her word, it didn't hurt. All that
he could feel was a smooth cool flow
of energy running out of him. It was
a lot like losing blood, only without
the mess and the pain. It left Stan
feeling deeply, utterly exhausted.
After she let go, a faint ache settled
over him, sinking into muscle and bone.
Stan suspected it was because he felt
like he'd just finished a hard game of
football, and his mind associated that
memory with a certain all-over soreness.
He was so hungry that it felt like he hadn't
eaten in a week, but his empty stomach
gave uneasy flutters at the thought of food.
Stan wobbled in his seat, trying not to groan.
"Sugar first, then starch, then protein," Lorry said,
laying out items on the table by Stan. "Start with
Golden Hope juice, it has ginger if you feel queasy."
He opened it and nudged Stan with the bottle.
Stan took it and gulped the contents.
It tasted like mostly orange juice, but with
the earthier taste of carrots and golden beets,
and over it all the brilliant heat of ginger.
It felt as if he was drinking sunlight.
"Fat before protein, for him," Lawrence said.
He reached over and added a package of
Screamin' Squirrel Brazil Nut Phat Energy Balls
ahead of the Hummus Deviled Eggs with Za'atar.
"Too bad I didn't think to bring any of your buttermints,
but we'll have to wait until you get home for those."
"Buttermints?" asked Dr. Infanta. "Candy
isn't the best thing to eat after that big a drain."
"Stan spikes his with fat-soluble vitamins,"
Lawrence said. "Otherwise he burns through
them faster than he can replace them."
"I don't supposed I could get the recipe
for those?" Dr. Infanta said wistfully.
"Sure," Stan said as he put down
the empty juice bottle. He fumbled
at his vidwatch, fingers shaking.
"Just give me your vddress."
"Security, miss," said Lorry as
he shook his head, and Dr. Infanta
stopped fiddling with her vidwatch.
"Oh," Stan said. He struggled
to think of another way. "I have it
saved. I could call it up, and you
just write it down on scratch paper."
"Sure, that works," said Lorry.
Stan rummaged in the drawer
under the bedside table for paper
and a pen. He passed them to Lorry,
then opened the recipe file to share.
It gave him something to do other than
watch Dr. Infanta pull four months
of life out of Lawrence.
As soon as Lorry finished, Stan
returned his attention to the food.
He wolfed down the energy balls.
The deviled eggs tasted so good
that he slowed down to savor them.
There was definitely something to
the theory that tasty, wholesome food
would encourage caregivers to take
better care of themselves while they
kept watch over the ill or injured.
By the time Stan looked up again,
Dr. Infanta was already working on
Fiddlesticks. Her hands moved
here, there, and everywhere.
It still hurt to see him lying motionless,
because Fiddlesticks was never still,
even if the thick layers of bandages hid
most of the injuries from the collision
and the seams left by the surgery.
Dr. Infanta kept going, calm and
unhurried. It didn't look like much,
just the slow stroke of her fingers, but
when Stan glanced at the monitors again,
he could see clear signs of improvement.
Sometimes as he watched, Dr. Infanta
seemed to blur and skip, going from
one place to another without moving.
Stan didn't let it bother him. She
might be a supervillain, but if Lawrence
trusted her enough to call her, then
that was good enough for him.
His appetite had slowed down, but
now he craved something sweet again.
He opened a package of Cozy Crunch
and nibbled on it, letting his attention
drift to the viewscreen on the wall
that currently showed bison grazing
at the hospital's organic farm.
Finally Dr. Infanta sat back and
heaved a sigh. "All done," she said.
"The rest will take care of itself over
the next few weeks. Try not to let
people pester him too much about it."
"We'll take care of that," Hefty promised.
"Sugar first," Stan prompted, and
held out an open bag of Rainbowrama.
"Thanks," said Dr. Infanta as she
eagerly dug into the rustling package.
"I could eat a unicorn right now."
Which was hilarious to Stan,
because there was one on
the side of the bag. He started
snickering and then couldn't stop,
until he ran out of breath altogether,
desperate with life after the brush
with death come too close, too close.
After Dr. Infanta finished eating
the Rainbowrama, a banana, and
most of the Barbecue Saucy Chicks,
she returned her attention to Fiddlesticks.
"Sometimes hearing a voice can
help to call them back," she said, and
began to sing in a high sweet tone.
Stan could not understand the song --
he thought that it might be in Latin --
but she had a voice like an angel.
When Dr. Infanta came to the end of
her song, Hefty picked up with another
and sang, "O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind."
"I just brought a book to read,"
Stan said, remembering how he had
sat reading to his great-aunt when
he was ten, when she was dying.
He opened the smooth white pages of
The Impossible Will Take a Little While and
read, "When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound ..."
As he finished, he looked up at Fiddlesticks,
but could not see any change. Then
Stan shifted his gaze to Dr. Infanta.
"Don't worry, I'll stay until he
starts to stir a little," she said.
"I don't want to wear out
my welcome, though."
"That's not happening," Stan said,
and she looked so startled
that it made him sad.
She might not have many friends.
Lawrence, too, had brought a book
and read from Robert Hayden:
"And so for nights
we waited, hoping to see
the heavy bud
break into flower ..."
Then Hefty jerked upright
and said, "I think he moved!"
Everyone looked at where Hefty was
carefully holding the last two fingers of
Fiddlesticks' right hand, the only part
of that arm free from bandages.
As they watched, the pinky twitched.
"That's my cue," Dr. Infanta said
as she stood up and stretched.
"Thank you," Hefty told her,
"for coming and -- for everything."
He pulled something from his pocket.
"Here's my card. You ever have
cop trouble, you can call me."
"But I was paying off a favor
to you and Fiddlesticks," she said.
"I think saving a man's life counts
more than a busted knee," Hefty said,
waggling the card until Dr. Infanta took it.
Stan and Lawrence murmured agreement.
"Okay," she said, and tucked it away. "Bye."
Lorry slipped the palm lock off the door,
placed a hand on Dr. Infanta's shoulder,
and just like that, they were gone.
"Wow," Lawrence said. "Now
I know how come everyone dances
around her as carefully as they do."
They lingered for a few more minutes
until Fiddlesticks was twitching more often.
"Okay, it's time for us to tap out
and get Diamond back," Stan said.
"We want her to be here for the good part."
"I'll see to that," Hefty said, taking out his phone.
Lawrence gathered up all the empty wrappers,
packed them down to a tight wad, and then
hid them in his clothes. "There's no point
leaving evidence behind," he said.
"Good thinking," Stan admitted although,
subterfuge wasn't his strong suit. That
was what he had Lawrence for.
Had Lawrence four months less for,
his traitor memory whispered, but Stan
cherished their time precisely the same.
From the way Lawrence clung to him
as they walked out of the hospital,
that feeling was mutual.
* * *
Read the notes for this poem.