A large hand pressing lightly against her forehead was Arren's first awareness of the outside world. A shudder passed through her and she tried to pull away. The hand moved and gently stroked over her hair,
"Easy, Arren, lie quiet, you're safe." She recognised the deep male voice that uttered them.
"Max," she mumbled thickly.
"Yes, now hush. I'm going to try and clean you up a little, it may hurt," he warned. It already did, but it was too much of an effort to try and speak around the swelling in her mouth.
She was unable to suppress a whimper as he gently wiped at her face with a damp cloth and the hand came back to her hair, his fingers combing through the short strands.
"Easy, easy," he murmured. Arren blinked her eyes open and tried to reconcile the strange view of the world this gave her. As if sensing her puzzlement, Max said,
"There was an earthquake or tremor, or something. You were helping me to shop for a present for my niece." Arren frowned, trying to remember the events he had just mentioned, but it was all a blank.
"An earthquake?" she asked finally. Max nodded and picked up the cloth, a handkerchief she noticed, to continue his ministrations on her face.
"I don't remember," she whispered. His lips tightened into a grim line and then he relaxed,
"You've taken some nasty blows to the head. One of the displays fell on you," he replied calmly, "it'll come back to you once you've had time to recover. For the moment, just try and take it easy." Her brows knitted, not wanting to accept this assessment.
"No, I must remember," she whispered, trying to turn away from his painful sponging. He slid a hand under her head and held her firmly,
"No, lie still, Arren, don't move. It will only hurt worse if you do."
"No, no... I must remember..." she twisted under his restraining hold, whimpering at the pain her movements caused. He dropped the handkerchief and pressed a hand gently but firmly to the base of her neck, pinning her to the ground.
"Be still," he directed, "it will have to wait." Arren made a protesting noise, but it was a token resistance; her strength had ebbed abruptly away, leaving her drained and exhausted. Max lifted his hand with a sigh, half of relief, half of exasperation. "It will come back to you, Arren," he reassured her quietly.
"But I want to remember..." She fell back into unconsciousness, still mumbling the words, allowing Max to finish cleaning the blood from her face.
It was chill in the shop and he had already covered Arren with his coat, forcing him to wrap his arms around his body and pace to keep warm. He had made a cursory search for a way out earlier on, but had been reluctant to leave Arren on her own for long.
Nor did he want to move her. The shelving had been heavy and only the wall had prevented it from crushing her. As it was, a display of hard-edged toys and their boxes had almost buried her. It had taken him long minutes to free her, his heart beating a frantic tattoo in his chest as he did so.
He had called out for help, but there seemed to be no one else in the shop. Just before the tremor, the assistant had disappeared down some back stairs, searching for a stock item, leaving the two alone.
Arren muttered in her sleep and he moved back to kneel beside her,
"Hush, little one, hush." It was safe to speak so kindly when she was asleep. Safe to reveal what he was beginning to suspect was much more than simple friendship. Her head turned under his soothing hand and the dim glow from the emergency lights revealed rapidly darkening bruises on her cheek, at her temple and jaw. He shivered, sighed and rose to his feet again.
"Max?" He froze after he had taken only two steps. Had she heard him?
"I'm still here, Arren." His voice was utterly calm and composed, his feelings forbidden from showing in his voice. She didn't need to hear his worries at this time, however subtly expressed.
"I'm cold," came the whisper. He was by her side in an instant.
"I know, but if I lift you, it will cause you pain." He laid a hand on where her shoulder would be beneath his coat, and felt her tremble.
"Please, Max." He couldn't bear the fear that coloured her voice and so, very carefully he slid an arm under her shoulders.
"Grit your teeth, then, this will hurt." She gave only one tiny whimper as he brought her up into his arms, settling her against the warmth of his body and then leaning back against the wall.
She felt so small in his arms, her head resting naturally in the hollow of his shoulder.
"Brave girl," he said under his breath, unable to resist this one bit of praise; allowing himself some small relief from the welter of emotions that rose up inside him. She shifted closer, causing havoc within his body and he shut his eyes firmly.
"Arren, it might be better if you kept still." He could almost hear her thinking about the meaning behind his words. He felt her stiffen a little in response to her sudden understanding.
"Yes. Sorry," she said finally. He sighed again,
"There's no need to be. I'm just..." There was no way to finish that sentence.
"Thank you, Max." She was exhausted; he felt her tension ease and her body molded into his. He gritted his teeth and tried to distract his thoughts as her breathing evened into a sleep pattern.
Tilting his head back against the wall, he listened for an indication that the rescue teams were nearby, but everything was quiet except for the soft susurration of Arren's breathing. Looking down again, he smoothed back an errant lock of hair, letting his fingers trail through the soft strands.
"Precious girl," he murmured, his voice barely more than a whisper, "my poor, precious girl." A wave of anger at his powerlessness, frightening in its intensity, caused his muscles to tense. Arren whimpered softly, her head turning into his shoulder as she sought to break away from the pain and he relaxed quickly, hushing her softly.
"Max?" He cursed himself silently for waking her.
"Here, Arren, still here."
"I've remembered." Her words were more slurred now, as her facial injuries became swollen and hindered her speech.
"Have you?" He could hear the relief in his voice. One less worry.
"The assistant went to get... What was it?"
"Lego, I think."
"Yes. I always liked Lego as a child." It seemed a strange response and he worried that he had somehow made her headwounds worse by moving her.
"So did I." It took greater effort that he expected to maintain a controlled tone.
"There was a shaking... The shelves..." she broke off and, responding instinctively to the distress in her voice, he stroked her cheek with his cold fingers. She turned her head into his touch and he felt his heart beat a little faster.
"Are we trapped?" He wanted to say no, because he knew her well enough to anticipate her response to his reply. Honesty, however, compelled him to admit,
"I don't know."
"I haven't really explored thoroughly. I didn't want to leave you on your own."
"I'll be all right." Max felt his shoulders sag.
"Arren..." A cold hand startled him when it caressed first his chin and then found his cheek.
"It's the right thing to do, Max." Max made a sound of pure frustration, sat for another moment in silence and then shifted Arren gently off his lap and back onto the ground. A soft hiss of pain almost made him drag her back into his arms again, but then he resolutely rose to his feet, ignoring the protests from his cold, stiff muscles.
"Max?" He went on to one knee beside her,
"I will come back for you," he promised fervently. There seemed no point to hide his emotions any longer, "I promise, I'll be back."
"I know." He felt, rather than saw her smile in the darkness, "I'll be waiting for you. Right here." Max suppressed a groan with difficulty, touched her cheek with a gentle finger and made his way cautiously over to where the exit had been.
The rescue barely warranted the term. The front door was totally inaccessible, but using force, Max managed to breath through the back where he found a rescue team just converging on the building.
Later, he learnt that the toyshop had been at the epicenter of the quake, which had been so small as to be barely noticed by the newer, better-constructed buildings around it.
"Mr. Emerson?" Max looked up wearily from where he had been letting his headrest on his hands.
"Yes?" The nurse smiled reassuringly,
"The doctor has decided to keep your friend in overnight, but there's nothing to worry about, they just want to keep an eye on her."
"I see. Thank you."
"She's been moved up to the ward. She's asking for you." Max said nothing. He was tempted to retreat, embarrassed by his behavior in the shop.
"Mr. Emerson?" The other man was watching him curiously, "can I show you the way?" Max nodded and rose to his feet.
Under the harsh lights, the purple bruises on Arren's face stood out in stark contrast to the pallor of her unmarked skin. She turned her head as he entered and gave him a lopsided smile.
"Max," her hand reached out to him, but he couldn't seem to move from his position just inside the privacy curtain. The light in her eyes faded and she self-consciously lowered her hand. "What is it?" He shook his head, unable to express the feelings that rampaged through him.
"Max?" She looked worried, but it was the apprehension in her voice that enabled him to break free of his immobility.
"I shouldn't have asked you to come with me." Surprise replaced her anxiety and was then rapidly changed to hurt.
"Oh." Realising how his words might have sounded, Max surged forward,
"I didn't mean... Arren, I'm sorry. That didn't come out right."
"I thought in the shop... You felt..." She trailed away and her lashes swept down as her eyes closed. He reached out and tenderly touched the tear that escaped this gesture.
"I did," he replied, suddenly sure of his path. He tentatively took the hand she had held out before. "I've felt it for a while, I just... didn't want to... if you didn't feel the same..." he broke off, frustrated by his inability to express himself just as he decided to open his heart.
"I do." She had opened her eyes again and he began to breathe more easily. "I do feel the same." A sense of peace stole over him and he smiled slowly.
"Close your eyes," he murmured softly. "I'll stay until you're sleeping."
© 2001 Copyright held by the author.