WARNING:This poem contains intense topics that some readers may find disturbing. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features continued rescue efforts, survivors of mad science torture, graphic injuries, messy medical details, mobility issues, impaired consent, fear, anxious body language, frequent triggering due to past abuse, discussions over what to do next, superpower issues, implied abuse of laboratory animals, soul/mind death of domestic animals, loss of original human reproductive parts and fertility, mention of laboratory restraints, the importance of taking no for an answer, tail wrapping and holding, physical time constraints, collection of potential physical evidence, fear of photography, trust issues, and other angst. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read.
"Those Who Have Suffered"
A few at a time, the centaurs
came up from the basement.
Ansel and Turq watched as Arun
coaxed them out into the sunlight.
Some of them came up limping,
or showing other minor injuries,
and Ansel remembered what Turq
had said about them waiting until
someone told them it was safe.
"First aid kits are over there,"
Ansel said, pointing to a table
with supplies. "We also have
paramedics if anyone wants help."
The centaurs shied away from him,
but some of them checked out the table,
so that was good enough for now.
Then another pair came up,
looking worse than the other ones.
The young male was a sooty palomino
with two white feet in back and a tail
so blond it was almost white. He had
short brown hair and tawny-fair skin with
a Celtic cross tattoo around his left shoulder.
He walked stiffly, as if it hurt to move,
and when he saw the first aid table
he headed straight for there.
The female was a bay pinto
with long straight black hair
that matched her flowing tail.
Huge wounds covered her sides
where someone had cut triangles and
then peeled the skin down to hang in flaps,
bright red against her brown-and-white hide.
"My god," Ansel said. "What happened to her?"
"Vent test," Turq said through his teeth.
"They cut us like that to see how well
and how fast we heal. Sometimes
they want to find out if we can still
do it without enough food or sleep."
His hands rubbed up and down over
his arms, and his shoulders hunched.
"That's horrible," Ansel said. He hated
the thought of anyone treating Turq like that.
"Yeah, there's no patching that up with
over-the-counter stuff," Turq said. "We
had to do without, but she doesn't -- if
we can convince her to let anyone help."
"Let's go try," Ansel said, beckoning,
and Turq followed him carefully.
When they got close, she shied away,
and Ansel stopped moving forward.
"Hi," he said. "You look uncomfortable.
We'd like to help with that, but we won't
come any closer until you're ready."
Her tail swished. Ansel tried to watch
that instead of the red gleam of muscle
exposed by the deep slashes in her skin.
"I'm Turq," said the boy. "You might
remember that my friend is Ansel,
or Officer Pink. We came to help.
Do you want to tell us your name?"
"Lilita," she said, one forehoof
pawing at the green grass.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Lilita,"
said Ansel. "You seem nervous.
Sometimes it helps to have a friend
with you when you feel that way. Do
you see anyone who might help?"
Lilita glanced around the courtyard.
When she spotted Arun, she
took a step in his direction.
Arun, who had been heading
toward them, picked up his pace.
"That's a good choice," Ansel said.
"Arun has been working with us
a little. He's nice and steady."
Lilita promptly sidled up next to Arun
when he arrived, but then flinched away.
"Try face to face," Turq murmured.
"When someone is injured, you need
to look for places that aren't hurt where
you can offer comfort." He picked up
Ansel's left hand. "Like this, see?"
Arun swiveled his rear hips so that
he stood facing Lilita. They both
looked so young and vulnerable
that it made Ansel's heart ache.
"There's a lot going on out here,"
Ansel said. "Would privacy help?
We set up tents just in case."
"Yeah, I saw those," Turq said.
"They open front and back, with
windows along the sides, so
you don't feel stuck inside."
"Let's try that," Arun said.
"Out here, I'm trying to watch
everything at once, and it's
starting to make my head hurt."
They moved into the nearest tent,
which had plenty of space for
two centaurs and their helpers.
"Lilita, how would you feel about
getting some first aid?" Ansel offered.
She didn't quite bolt, but she skittered
around to put Arun between them.
"Not right now, okay," Ansel said.
"We could get Kedric," said Turq.
"He took good care of us. That's
not like grabbing a random person."
"Yeah, if she doesn't want a turn,
I do," Ansel said, sending a message.
"This glove is getting really uncomfortable."
Soon Kedric trotted over to join them
with his bag slung over his shoulder.
"What can I do for you?" he asked
as he pulled on his own gloves.
"Check my hand again, please,"
Ansel said, holding out the right one.
"I'm done climbing through the hot zone
for now, and I'd like to get out of this glove."
"Yeah, that can't be fun," Kedric said.
"Pulling off the glove might hurt a little,
but you should feel better after it's off."
"Go ahead," Ansel said, bracing himself
against the tug because his hand had
swollen, which made the glove stick.
Once it was off, he huffed
a few breaths, then looked
to see what the damage was.
The bruises were more blue
than red now, and the scrapes
showed more where they weren't
covered up by the Gatorskin.
"It looks a little worse for wear,
but just surface scrapes -- the cuts
on your knuckles haven't opened more,"
said Kedric. "Let me just clean up
and then I can wrap it for you."
"Can you put on a stretch wrap
this time?" Ansel said. "I might need
my hand more today. I can put on
the brace after I'm done here."
"Sure," Kedric said, opening
his kit. "What color do you want?"
"Pink, if you have it," Ansel said.
The color always made him smile.
"I sure do," Kedric said. He cleaned
the scrapes, then dabbed something
over the bruises. "Do you mind if I
buddy-tape your first two fingers?"
"Please do," Ansel said. "That'll
give me some support without
tying up my whole hand."
Kedric wrapped Ansel's hand
with a soft, springy bandage that
only stuck to itself. The neon pink
stood out against his dark uniform.
"And that's all there is to it," Ansel said,
flourishing his pink hand at Lilita. "Did
you see how we talked about the injury
and then decided what to do, together?
Kedric doesn't push people around."
Lilita gave a faint nod, then said,
"What happened to your hand?"
"I hit one of the bad guys," Ansel said.
"Normally my gloves protect my hands
when I do that, but I forgot that I had
taken them off to type something.
So I got some scrapes and bruises,
but I'll be fine after a few days."
"Kedric took care of me too,"
Turq said. "I found out that ...
someone I knew had died, and
he was really nice while I cried."
"How are you holding up?"
Kedric asked as he brushed
a hand over Turq's shoulder.
"I'm getting by," Turq said.
"Helping other people keeps
my mind off how sad I feel."
Lilita leaned toward them
a little, and Arun moved
along with her to give her
a better view of the others.
"Hello there," Kedric said. "I'm
a paramedic and Emotional First Aide.
Let me know if you want some help, okay?"
"I don't know," Lilita said, swishing her tail.
"Maybe you've had bad experiences
with people in uniform, or with medics
in particular?" Kedric said gently.
Lilita gave a miserable nod.
"All the time," she whispered.
"They did this to us," Arun said,
waving a hand at his horse body.
"So you have sound reason to worry
about people mistreating you," Kedric said.
"You're not crazy, if you were thinking that.
Everyone feels skittish after they've been
hurt, some just feel it worse than others.
I know some ways to deal with that."
"Like what?" Lilita wondered.
"Lots of things, but let's start with
the easy end and work our way up,"
Kedric said. "May I walk around you
to look for injuries? I don't need to touch
anything yet, just look and then talk."
Ansel could see her thinking about it,
because her jaw moved like she was
chewing something, the way that he
had seen horses do sometimes.
"All right," Lilita said slowly,
"if you look but don't touch."
"Can you show me how far away
feels okay to you?" Kedric said. "Let's
have everyone step back, then you come
to me. Wherever you stop, that's how far
I'll stay back when I walk around you."
Lilita minced forward, but she
stopped a good five feet away.
"That's great," Kedric said. "Stretch
your arms -- see, we can just barely touch.
That means I can't reach you from
where I will be walking now."
It was like a circle of safety,
Ansel realized, which was
generally a good gauge.
Kedric walked slowly around
Lilita, taking great care not
to spook the nervous centaurs.
"Okay, you have six big wounds in
your skin," he said. "The smallest ones
are located toward your front, and they
are a little bit bigger than my hand.
The largest ones are on your rump,
just bigger than my two hands."
"I couldn't see much," Lilita admitted.
"It hurts even more when I try to bend."
"I bet it does," Kedric said. "They go
all the way through the skin, but not into
the muscle. Each cut forms an angle
pointing up, and the points have been
peeled down leaving a triangular flap.
That's called a degloving injury."
"That's pretty serious," Ansel said.
"Yeah, on an ordinary person, but
she's not," Turq said, shaking his head.
"If that much would kill her, then she'd
be dead by now. Ask her -- this is
probably not even her first vent test."
"Lilita, has someone done this
to you before?" Ansel asked.
"Yes," she said. "I lost count ...
I heal fast, and he likes to watch."
Turq made a spitting sound.
"Okay, so you survived something
like this before," Kedric said. "You look
pretty healthy aside from the fresh wounds.
Did it cause an infection, or scars?"
"No, nothing," Lilita said softly.
"By the time they do it again,
you can't see the last ones."
"That's great," Kedric said. "I mean,
it's awful that people hurt you, but now
we know that this isn't as life-threatening or
even as disfiguring as it looks. I don't need
to encourage you to do anything. Whatever
we do is just for your comfort, so if you don't
want to do something, then we don't have to."
"Really?" Lilita said, looking doubtful.
"Yes, really," Kedric said. "I'm trained
to treat humans, not centaurs, but
I'll do my best for you if you want.
We have plenty of resources."
"What we don't have is time," Turq said.
"If she regenerates like I do, then even if
it's slowed down by stress or whatever,
those cuts will start closing the wrong way."
"That's true," Ansel said. "I have studied
what I could find about Turq's abilities, and
regenerative superpowers will start healing
injuries even if the parts aren't in the right place.
That makes speed very important in treating them."
Lilita skittered back a few paces, panting,
her tail clamped between her legs.
"Don't," Arun said as he moved to put
himself in between them again.
"Guys, you're scaring her," Kedric said.
"Slow down some. Lilita, they don't mean
to alarm you, they're just worried. We can
take everything at your pace. It's up to you
whether you want me to do anything for you."
Ansel took a step back and spread his hands
to show the centaurs that he was safe.
"I'm sorry," he said. "We didn't mean
to spook you. We're just worried."
"It's okay, Lilita," said Kedric. "If all you
want me to do is stand here and take no
for an answer, I can totally do that for you.
At least that would start wearing down
the bad examples you've gotten."
"I don't want ... you can't ... what
could you even do?" she stammered.
"Well, the first thing doesn't even
require me touching you," Kedric said.
"I could pour numbing antiseptic over
those wounds. They would benefit
from more care, but it all starts with
plain old rinsing to get the grit out.
Does that sound like something
you might want to try now?"
"Okay," Lilita said, fidgeting.
"It would be nice not to hurt."
Kedric pushed a button on
his vidwatch and said, "I need
a big jug of numbing antiseptic.
Actually, make it two, in case
anyone else wants some."
Lilita's tail swished again,
hard enough to hit the wounds
on her flanks. She flinched.
"Ooo, that looks uncomfortable,"
Ansel said with sympathy.
"She can't help it," Arun said.
"I'm trying," Lilita said,
he voice hitching.
"I know," Ansel said.
"Horse tails tend to swish
like that when they're annoyed
or nervous. It's like blinking or
breathing -- you can only control it
a little bit, and even that is hard."
"It hurts and I can't stop," Lilita said.
"I have some ideas," Ansel said,
"but you'd have to trust me enough
to touch you, at least for a minute."
"What ideas?" Lilita said, stepping back
and then dragging herself forward again.
"Horsehair is hard stuff, so hitting
yourself with it can hurt. Hitting Kedric
wouldn't be good either," Ansel said.
"I can wrap your tail, or hold onto it,
or both. Even if it gets loose, it'll be
a soft whap instead those sharp ends.
Do you think that'd feel better than this?"
"I don't know," Lilita said. Her skin
twitched, making her flinch again.
"Maybe I can help you figure it out,"
Kedric said. "First let's see if we
can get you calmed down some.
That will make the rest easier."
"Please," Lilita said. "I feel so ..."
She waved a hand. "... awful."
"Anyone would feel awful in
this situation," Kedric said.
"We'll just focus on breathing
for a minute or two. Take
a deep breath, then blow it out."
Lilita heaved a long sigh.
A motion caught Ansel's eye,
and he noticed Turq lifting his hands
to chest height on the inhale, then
lowering them on the exhale,
all of it in slow motion as if
swimming through taffy.
Lilita was watching him, too,
not trying to copy anything yet,
just following him with her eyes.
Ansel couldn't blame her.
Watching Turq do stuff like this
was like watching goldfish swim,
the fancy kind with long flowing fins.
It always helped Ansel feel calmer,
even if he wasn't doing anything himself.
"Okay, is that better?" Kedric said.
"A little," Lilita said. "I still don't
know what to do, though, and
I'm ... scared. Of everything."
"It's a scary day, and you're
hurt, and those things can make it
hard to think clearly," Kedric said.
"Yeah," she said. "That's it."
"So we'll take it slow," Kedric said.
He held out one hand, palm up. "Think
about how your body feels, and how you
feel about us helping you." He added
his other hand, then tipped both up and
down like a scale. "We want to make
your body feel better, but we don't want
to overwhelm you with scary help."
Lilita held up her own hands,
tipping them almost even.
"Maybe ... a little more help?"
she said. "My body hurts, but
after everything they did to us ..."
"Yeah, I'm still skittish about
anything medical, and that sucks,
because my dad's a paramedic,"
Turq said. "That used to be
something we could share,
and now it's real touchy."
"You're getting better, though,"
Ansel said. "Hold onto that."
"I guess so," Turq said.
"Anyway, Lilita, that's
Total Comfort Level,"
Kedric said. "There are
some fancier versions, but
the core of it is just gauging
what makes you feel better."
"Do you want to try wrapping
your tail to see if it hurts less
when it swishes?" Ansel said.
"We can use a stretchy wrap
like this, which only sticks to
itself." He held up his hand.
"You can try," Lilita said.
"I don't know if I can finish."
"That's fine," Ansel said. "I'll
stand to one side. Just try
not to kick me, all right?"
"All right," she said, although
her hooves shuffled nervously.
"What color do you want?"
Kedric said. "I've got pink,
brown, white, yellow, or green."
"Not white," Lilita and Turq chorused.
"How about brown, that matches your spots,"
Kedric said, holding out a roll of the stuff.
When Lilita approved, Ansel took it
and moved to stand beside her.
"I'll start at the base of your tail
and work down, wrapping in a spiral,"
he explained. "I need to pick up
your tail, so you know why and
that I'm not being fresh with you."
He moved carefully, following
the restless swishing as best
he could, until he had the length
of her tail wrapped securely.
"Okay, I'll step back and let you
try swinging that," Ansel said.
The wrapped tail thwapped her side,
and Lilita flinched. "It still hurts."
"Let me try holding it for you,"
he said. "I'll hang onto the end
where it's all hair. That way you
can tug without hurting yourself."
He could feel her tail shivering
and twitching in his hand, but
it couldn't pull free of his grasp.
"That's better," she said. "It feels
weird, but at least it doesn't hurt."
"Good," Ansel said. "I don't
mind holding onto it for you."
The jugs arrived then.
"Okay, Lilita, I'm going
to pour this over your sides,"
Kedric explained. "It will feel
cold and wet. Any touch on
open wounds is uncomfortable,
but they should go numb after
just a few seconds. Breathe in,
breathe out, and you'll feel better."
He walked around the centaur,
carefully pouring the rinse
over the triangular cuts.
Lilita's tail thrashed in
Ansel's grasp, but he held on
so it wouldn't hit her sides.
She leaned against Arun
for comfort, who petted her hair.
"How does that feel?" Kedric asked.
"Much better," Lilita said. "My skin
still feels weird, but it doesn't hurt."
"Yeah, you can still feel things in
the unbroken skin, but at least you're
not hurting so much," Kedric said.
"The loose pieces pull at the rest of
the skin, and it feels wrong," Turq said,
rubbing his hands up and down his arms.
"Lilita, can you tell me how much pain
you're in, on a scale --" Kedric began.
Lilita jerked away from him, yanking
her tail out of Ansel's grasp as she went.
"Okay, that's a no," Kedric said, spreading
his hands. "I can see that you don't want
to do that. It's all right, you don't have to."
"They used to do that to us in the labs,"
Turq explained, because Lilita was plainly
too upset to talk. "Anything that sounds
like a test is probably a bad idea."
"Thank you for telling me," Kedric said.
"Lilita, don't worry about the pain scale.
It's just a tool, not a requirement. All I
really need to know is if the pain gets
worse than you can handle and you
want me to do something about that."
She took a step toward him, then
skittered backward two steps.
"You're really freaked, huh?"
Kedric said. "Take a minute
to calm yourself. Just breathe.
Any time I sound like the bad guys,
you tell me, and I'll stop right away."
Lilita looked at Turq for reassurance.
"Yeah, I think he means it," Turq said.
"Kedric was real gentle with me when I
fell apart on him earlier. I don't know about
you, but I'm --" He touched his fingertips
together and snapped a spark. "-- kinda
risky when something triggers me."
"I didn't mean to be bad," Lilita said. "I'm
trying to be good, but there's no stanchion."
Turq hissed. "Those fucking bastards!"
"No, we won't use restraints, because we
want you free to move away if that's how you
can say no," Kedric said. "The only things
holding you were Arun, for contact comfort;
and Ansel, to keep your tail from hurting you.
Both let go as soon as you needed space."
Lilita edged closer, reaching for Arun,
who followed her back into position.
She swished her tail into Ansel's hand.
"Now what?" Ansel said as he caught it.
"That's up to Lilita," Kedric said, then
turned back to her. "Degloving injuries
are really bad for ordinary people, but
your Regeneration makes them less risky
for you. Normally it would take lots of stitches
to close the flaps. You may not need that much."
"Yeah, Ethan and I talked about first aid for Turq,"
said Ansel. "With messy wounds on people who
heal fast, he just tacks them in place and then
takes out the stitches a few hours or days later.
A good skin glue can work too. The cuts don't
need nearly as much support, because they
don't have to hold up to everyday motion for
a long time during the healing process."
"If you just push the skin back in place,
some of it will probably heal," Turq said.
"I've done that. It works more often than not,
and it's less scary than some other methods.
All you really need to do is match the edges."
"Okay, Lilita, we've got some options here,"
Kedric said. "Sew them all the way up,
which I bet is more than you can handle.
Tack and glue, which I think will work, and
I know a great trick for taking tension off
the corners. Just lay the skin in place and
bandage it. Or do nothing at all, which is
less scary up front but probably worse later."
"Remember it's gonna suck for days if you
don't fix it," Turq said. "I always hated that."
"So think about how your body feels now,"
Kedric said, holding up a hand. "Then think
about how you'd feel without any help, or
me messing with you for a few minutes."
Lilita's hips rippled as she shifted her weight,
which made her flinch, tail twitching again.
"If you fix it ... how bad would it be, really?"
"Well, stitches hurt worst without anaesthetic.
Now I could give you a local, but that might be
more poking than you can put up with today,"
Kedric said. "You're mostly numb already. You
probably won't feel more than twinges. I'm good
at what I do -- it's no worse than a fly bite. Once I'm
done, everything should heal up pretty as you please."
"Can we ... could you try just one?" Lilita asked.
"Of course," Kedric said. "I'll tack the top corner
on the first wound. That only takes a few stitches.
I'll close the sides with skin glue. If you're still okay
after that, I'll tack the bottom corners for good measure.
You can tell me any time you need to stop, and I will."
Lilita's skin twitched in places. "Okay," she said.
"Great," Kedric said. "I actually want to start
by shaving the hair off the edges. We just
got this nifty new laser razor -- it's silent."
He pulled it out of his bag and demonstrated
by swiping some hair off his arm. Ansel could
see bare patches where he'd done it before.
Lilita lifted a hand toward him, then dropped it.
"Go ahead, you can touch," Kedric said.
He let her run a finger over his arm
and then investigate the razor.
"I can deal with that," she said
with a nod. "At least, I think I can."
"Okay," Kedric said. He shaved
the edges of the first cut and
then rinsed it thoroughly.
Then he set out a suture kit
and put on fresh gloves.
"I'm ready to do the stitches,"
Kedric said. "If you need to move,
Lilita, try to warn me first, okay?"
"I'll try," she said, leaning into Arun.
The first touch of the needle made
her tail twitch again, but she didn't
complain or move away from Kedric.
"Top corner done, now I'm going
to glue the sides," Kedric said.
That only took a few seconds.
The gaping wound had turned
into a neat seam with a Y-tail at
the top where Kedric had sewn
across the point to reduce tension.
"Lilita, how are you doing up there?"
Kedric asked as he rinsed again.
"Okay, I guess?" she said. "It
feels funny, but not too bad."
"Can I throw a couple stitches
on each of the bottom corners
for support?" Kedric said. "It will
help keep the cut from tearing wider
if you make any sudden moves."
Lilita shifted in place, thinking about it.
"Go ahead," she said. "I can take it."
Kedric tacked one corner, then the other.
"I'm going to go around and rinse the rest
of the injuries again," he said. "This has
things in it to soothe injured skin as well as
cleaning it. If we keep the flaps wet, there's
a better chance of reattaching them successfully."
As he sloshed the numbing antiseptic over
her sides, Lilita heaved a sigh of relief.
"Was this wearing off?" Kedric asked. "It's
supposed to last a good while, but that's on
human patients. I don't know what the timing
might be for centaurs or with Regeneration."
"Among my cohort, we burn through
most drugs faster," Turq said quietly.
"There are only a few drugs that are
actually designed for people with
a superpowered metabolism."
"That's gotta suck," Kedric said.
"Lilita, if the numbness starts fading,
tell me or raise your hand, and we'll
do the rinse again -- or I can give you
something stronger, if you prefer."
This time Ansel was prepared for
the hard flinch and moved with her,
so he didn't lose his grip on her tail.
"You don't like that suggestion, okay,"
Kedric said. "We don't have to use
anything stronger if you don't want it.
Will you tell me if you're in pain, though?"
Lilita shuffled in place. "Maybe,"
she said. "I'm trying to mind you,
but it's -- it's hard to talk about this."
"It's difficult to trust anyone after
what you've been through, isn't it?"
Kedric said. "I know. What happened
to my family is very different than what
happened to you, but it left me distrusting
anyone in uniform for quite a while."
Lilita looked at Kedric's uniform,
then Ansel's. "But you're here."
"I didn't want to let that limit my life,
and I had a very specific goal in mind,
so I did a lot of therapy to get over it,"
Kedric said. "Just know that I won't
hold it against you if you can't always
communicate as clearly as we'd like."
"Thank you," Arun said. "We don't
want to make this harder when you're
all being so kind to us, but we're --"
His voice cracked. "-- not okay."
"Nobody would be okay coming
out of that mess," Ansel said. "We're
first responders, Arun, we know
how to handle victims gently."
"Speaking of which, Lilita,
how does your shoulder feel?"
Kedric said, patting near the wound.
"Better," she said. "Mostly numb,
but it doesn't feel so wrong now."
"That's wonderful," Kedric said.
"Do you want me to close the others
while I still can? I know we scared you
earlier with this, but Turq and Ansel are
right -- we don't have a lot of time."
Ansel could see her fingers curl,
one side and then the other, as
Lilita tried to weigh the options.
"Do the next one," she said finally.
"You want to decide on them one at
a time," Kedric said. "That's a great idea,
it lets us keep a close eye on your tolerance
so I can do as many as possible without
pushing you farther than you can endure."
"You're already doing way better than
I did at first," Turq said. "So go you."
"Well, Lilita has a lot more support
than you did then," Ansel pointed out.
"That can make a huge difference."
"Yeah, Kedric is just amazing at this,"
Turq said. "I wish --" He shook his head.
"I wish I'd found you sooner too,"
Ansel said softly. "We all do, Turq.
We would've shut it down then."
"You're here now," Arun said.
"It helps, it really does."
Kedric took advantage of
the distraction to tack up
the next hole in Lilita's hide.
After he finished, she gave him
permission to do the next, and
then two more. He paused after
each of them to re-wet the others.
"Darn," Kedric said, shaking his head
over the last wound. "We ran out of time."
"What's wrong?" Ansel asked him.
"The skin flap is dying off," Kedric said.
"No, Lilita, don't twist around, you'll just
hurt yourself. Do you want me to describe
what I see so that everyone knows what
to watch for in case of future injuries?"
Her face crumpled. "I guess so."
"Okay, the upper point of the flap
is drying and curling. That's already
dead," Kedric said. "Along the bottom,
there's a row of crystals forming where
the blood vessels are breaking down.
Your body gave up on that skin."
"Hey, that looks a lot like what I've
seen in frostbite," Ansel said. "When
that line shows up, it means the flesh
beyond it can't be saved, which means --"
"-- that Lilita has another decision to make,"
Kedric interrupted. "So, we can leave this
to go however it did last time, or I can trim off
the dead skin and bandage the wound for you."
Her whole body shuddered. "It really hurt,"
Lilita said. "But won't cutting it off hurt too?"
"You really do need a local anaesthetic for this,
so you won't feel the cut," Kedric said. "I'll
have to stick you twice to get both corners,
but you shouldn't feel too much through
the topical anaesthetic, maybe a little sting.
I think that will hurt you a lot less than waiting
for the skin to fall off, even when you count
the emotional strain of standing for it."
"I don't know what to do," Lilita said,
leaning against Arun for support.
"That's okay," Kedric said. "We're
not on a tight deadline anymore. I can
take off that skin whenever you're ready,
or not. Take your time to think about it."
"While you're thinking, would it be okay
for Turq to hold your tail for a little while?"
Ansel asked. "I need to go get something."
That might be wishful thinking, but he
wanted to be prepared just in case.
"I don't mind if Turq doesn't," Lilita said.
"He's one of us, a survivor I mean, even
though he isn't a centaur like we are."
"I'm happy to help," Turq said,
and took charge of her tail.
Ansel ducked out of the tent
and picked up an evidence bag.
If Lilita would let him keep the shed skin,
it would make a spectacular piece of
hard evidence for the court case.
Ansel slipped back into the tent.
"Lilita, do you want me to take
your tail back?" he asked.
"Go ahead," she said, and
Turq handed over the end of it.
"I don't want to wait for the skin
to fall off," Lilita said, "but I don't
know if I -- if I can get through --"
"Okay, you want help but you're
running low on tolerance, and this
is hard," Kedric said. "Let's keep
taking it one step at a time. I will
numb the first corner, then check
with you before moving on. All right?"
Lilita drew a shaky breath. "Yeah."
"Hold still for me," Kedric said.
"This might feel like a fly bite."
When he slid the needle in,
her tail twitched, and she lifted
one hoof, but she didn't pull away.
"You're doing fine," Kedric said.
"May I do the other corner now?"
Lilita was clinging to Arun for
dear life, but she said, "Okay."
Kedric finished the other side
and said, "Now we'll give that
a couple minutes to kick in."
"It feels better already," she said.
"That's good, but we need it to get
all the way numb for this," Kedric said.
"Lilita, could I ask you a related question?"
Ansel said. "If you can't spare me
the attention, that's all right."
"You can ask," she said.
"I don't know if I will be
any good at answering."
"If Kedric gets that flap of skin
off you, then would you consider
putting it into evidence?" Ansel said.
"You don't have to, but it would really
help make the case against the bad guys."
Turq glared at him. "Don't you have
enough already?" he said, waving
a hand at the compound outside.
"We have plenty, but this would give
a concrete example of injury," Ansel said.
"It shows the size of one wound -- and
it might be less uncomfortable than
asking to take photographs."
Lilita shied so hard that she
almost knocked Kedric over.
"Careful!" he said, putting
a hand on her flank for balance.
"No pictures," Lilita said, almost crying.
"Okay, we won't take any pictures,"
Kedric said. "Please don't step on me."
She moved back to her old position.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's just -- they --"
When she didn't finish, Turq said,
"They used to take pictures of us
all the time. It felt awful, not knowing
what they were going to do with those."
"Turq, please come take over tail duty
if that's okay with Lilita," Ansel said.
"I need to do something else."
"It's fine," Lilita said with a nod,
and so they made the switch.
"What are you doing?" Turq asked,
watching Ansel use his combat computer.
"I'm sending a message so our hackers
know to take extra care with photo files, and
I'll warn other staff not to ask for any pictures,"
Ansel said. "They won't be happy, but you all
have a right to refuse. We want to help you,
Lilita, not make you feel even worse."
"Thank you," Arun said. "We're trying
to do what people ask, but ... it's hard."
"I know, that's why I'm stepping in,"
Ansel said. "We might want to document
things here, but that doesn't make it okay
for us to hurt any of you in the process.
Warning people off reduces that risk."
As soon as he finished, he stepped
back into place and picked up Lilita's tail.
Kedric's vidwatch beeped. "Timer,"
he said. "Lilita, when I poke this,
can you feel anything here?"
"Not really," she said. "I think
I'm feeling the skin move around it?"
"How about now?" Kedric said,
prodding the flap with a scalpel.
"Still can't feel it," Lilita said.
"Okay, it's good and numb,"
Kedric said. "One quick cut,
and it's all over. Yes or no?"
Her tail was already twitching,
but she managed to say, "Yes."
Kedric made the cut.
"Here," Ansel said,
holding the evidence bag
with his free hand.
Kedric dropped in the skin
and sealed the bag carefully.
Startled by the plastic sound,
Lilita jigged away from him.
"Sorry about the noise,"
Kedric said. "Lilita, you're
bleeding a fair bit here. Try
to stand still for me so that I
can put pressure on this."
He placed a pad of gauze
over the bleeding cut and then
leaned on it with both hands.
"It shouldn't take long to seal up,
even with a big cut like that," Turq said.
"Regeneration is real good for that."
Kedric waited a couple more minutes,
then peeked under the gauze. "Wow,
you're right, it's already closing," he said.
"Turq, my hands are full -- look in my kit
for the hydrocolloid bandages. They're
toward the bottom in a silver box."
Turq pulled out the requested item
and passed it over to Kedric.
"I think you'll appreciate this,
Lilita," said Kedric as he smoothed
the bandage over her side. "It's got
a thick gel that prevents a scab from
forming, so it hurts less, and there's
a film on the outside for protection."
"It's great stuff," Ansel said. "After
the time I wiped out on my bike and
wound up in the emergency room,
I've never used anything else on
the messy scrapes. Most times
it won't even leave a scar."
"I don't scar anymore," Lilita said.
"Yeah, but you still feel pain, and
this will help that," Kedric said.
"Have you thought about
my question?" Ansel asked.
"I don't want people to do things
to parts of me anymore," Lilita said.
"We don't need it for testing, just
to show people," Ansel assured her.
"Nothing happens without your consent."
Lilita sniffled. "I know, you keep saying
things like that. I just can't think."
"It's hard to think when you're hurt,"
Ansel said. "Maybe I asked too much
of you. If you're not totally opposed,
I could mark this as potential evidence,
pending consent later. If you decide
against it, we can always drop the bag
down an incinerator at that time."
"Okay," Lilita said. "You can keep it
and ask me about this again later."
"Thank you so much," Ansel said.
He wrote the instructions on the bag
and stepped outside to hand it off
to the nearest officer he could find,
emphasizing the need for caution
and discretion in handling it.
When he came back in, Kedric was
asking Lilita, "Do you want me to cover
the other wounds? They don't need
as much protection, but it would keep
anything from snagging the stitches.
I have brown bandages that will let
your skin breathe while it heals,
so you don't have to wear white."
"Yeah, that's good," Lilita said.
"Thank you for remembering,"
Turq said. "I know it's silly, but ..."
"Avoiding known triggers is not silly,"
Kedric said firmly as he started unwrapping
the bandages. "We stock the different colors
because it gives people a choice at times when
their body may take away other choices. This
helps them feel better and improves outcomes."
"It's nice of you to try making us feel better
after what happened," Arun said. "That helps."
"It's not just trauma survivors," Ansel added.
"My brother-in-law has a whole canned rant
about the old 'flesh-colored' bandaids --
which were all sort of pinkish -- before
more skin tones became available."
Turq looked down at his pale hands.
"Yeah, those were always too dark on me,
I need lighter to match," he said. Then he
smiled. "But I kept asking for the honey ones."
"Why?" Lilita wondered, thoroughly distracted
from Kedric smoothing gauze over her side.
"Because my foster parents are Chinese-American,"
Turq explained. "They kept all colors, of course, but
the Asian box had sunshine, honey, or ochre tones.
Wearing honey-colored bandaids just made me
feel closer to my family, like I belonged there."
Ansel silently resolved to grab a box of those
the next time he went shopping. They'd make
Turq smile, and besides, the Liáng family visited
often enough to make it a wise courtesy too.
Kedric finished securing the last bandage.
"Okay, Lilita, how are you feeling?"
"Fine, I guess," she said, shuffling.
"Hey, don't worry about my feelings,"
Kedric said. "If you still feel bad,
please tell me so I can try to fix it."
"My sides don't hurt anymore, but --"
Lilita pulled away from Arun, hugging
herself. "-- I just feel so awful."
"That's no good," Kedric said.
"Can you give me a little more detail?
Queasy, anxious, exhausted, hungry ...?"
"I'm scared, I'm scared of everything,
and I feel all wobbly," Lilita said.
"There's a woman setting up camp
outside the gates, where you folks will
have tents with actual comforts, and not
just a privacy tent like this," Ansel said,
waving at the small one around them.
"That might help you to feel safer."
"I have a variety of soothing medications,
if that's something you'd consider,"
Kedric said. "It's your choice."
"Like what?" Lilita said. "I don't want
you to knock me out, I hate that!"
"Okay, that rules out several things,
but I have plenty left," Kedric said.
"How about drowsiness? Most of
the good drugs make you feel
kind of lazy, so if you're already
tired, you might fall asleep."
"I don't know," Lilita said.
"Let's try a different angle,"
Kedric said. "Can you tell me
how you wish you felt? Then I
can tell you whether I've got
anything which can do that."
"I want to stop feeling scared,"
Lilita said. "I don't remember
what it really felt like to be safe,
but ... calm, maybe, or quiet?"
"Relaxed," Kedric said. "Sure,
I've got things to do that."
"That sounds nice," Lilita said.
"Can do," Kedric said. "There's
one drawback to all of them, though.
At your size, I don't have pills that will
work for you. I'd have to give you
another shot. Is that something
you can tolerate now, or not?"
Lilita's tail tried to flick back and forth
in Ansel's grasp, not as hard as before.
"I don't like it, but ... I really want
to stop feeling like this," she said.
"Yes or no, Lilita," Kedric said gently.
"I want very clear consent on this."
She hesitated, then said, "Yes."
"Okay, I'll get right on that,"
Kedric said, opening his kit.
Just the sound made her shy away
from him, and Ansel followed her.
"Scary stuff, huh?" Kedric said.
"I've got an idea. Reach around
Arun and get a good grip on him.
Tuck your head against his chest.
Then you won't have to watch or
listen to what I'm doing, and I'll
have access to your arm."
Lilita took the suggestion, and
Arun wrapped his arms around her.
Kedric moved to where he could
reach her. "Twist your wrist a little,
turn the underside of your left arm
upward," he coached. "That's it."
"I've got you," Arun said,
holding Lilita close to him.
"Fly bite," Kedric warned.
This time Lilita's tail barely moved.
She might not be comfortable, but
at least she was getting used to
Kedric doing things for her.
"There you go, all done,"
Kedric said. "Do you want
a brown bandaid or an EFAid?"
"I heal fast," Lilita whispered.
"Your body does," Kedric said.
"I think your feelings could still
use a sign that somebody cares."
He held up a plain brown bandaid
and a multicolored one that read Calm.
"Either one is yours if you want it."
"That one," Lilita said, pointing to
the EFAid. "I need more calm."
"Sure thing," Kedric said as he
smoothed it over the fading puncture.
"You should feel better in a few minutes."
"Lilita, do you want me to leave
your tail wrapped, or unwrap it
before I let go?" Ansel asked.
"Leave it wrapped," she said.
"It looks silly, but it hurts less
when I swish myself with it."
"Wrapped it is," Ansel said
as he let go of her tail.
"You mentioned a camp
for the centaurs," Kedric said.
"What's going on with that?"
"Yes, one of the officers has
experience with horses, so she's
setting up the tents and supplies,"
Ansel said. "It should be ready."
"How do we get them there?"
Kedric said. "They're skittish."
"They need a choice," Turq said.
"They might not all want the same."
"Of course," Ansel said. "Lilita, Arun,
would you rather walk to the front camp
or catch a ride? We can find you a truck."
"I don't think I could go in a truck,"
Lilita said. "I'd probably panic
as soon as the door closed."
"If she's walking, I'm walking,"
Arun said, wrapping an arm over her.
When they went outside, they found
that some of the centaurs had already
moved on to the front camp, while others
still milled around inside the courtyard.
The sooty palomino was getting
a rubdown from two paramedics.
Ansel could smell the liniment.
"Hey, Sorley, do you want
to walk or ride to the front camp?"
Arun called. "Officer Pink says
they have tents and stuff, and
we can borrow a truck. I'm
walking with Lilita, though."
"Oh, if I can get a ride, I'll
take the truck," Sorley said.
"They had me on a treadmill
yesterday, so I ache all over."
"Truck it is," Ansel said, and sent
a request to the Support Director
so Kelsa could find them a ride.
"I'll walk with you," Kedric offered.
"Things are wrapping up here, and
more people are moving out front.
Besides, I promised Ansel that
he could get his hand scanned."
"As far as we know, it's only bruised,"
Ansel said, waving it. "Kedric thinks I
should get a scan just to make sure, so
I'll stop at the first aid station for that."
They took a minute to log their change
of location with Kelsa, then headed out,
walking along the road to the gate.
It was slow going, but Ansel didn't mind,
if it meant that those who had suffered
felt comfortable making the trip.
* * *
This poem is long, so the notes appear separately.