He was floating in darkness, in a dark haze that was intangible, yet weighed him down with insurmountable force. It held him fast, beneath his skin, in his very body. Did he have a body? He couldn’t tell. He couldn’t…care. Not in this blinding darkness through which he could not see.
After what seemed like an eternity−or was it less than a second? −a sensation came to him. It was vague, nearly indistinct, but growing. A…firmness. A firmness that was becoming more and more solid behind…behind his back? This confused him. How could it be behind him if there was no him?
It grew harder, rougher. Uneven.
He was no longer floating. He was lying on a cold, worn ground. The darkness persisted, but he could feel it. He could also sense something else, hovering between his shoulders. He didn’t like it. It was large, obtrusive. It was digging into his back with increasing intensity, throbbing with…pain.
He struggled to reach them, to remove the object that was causing him this hurt.
He could not find his arms.
He wanted to growl in frustration, but that too was denied him. He could not find his mouth, his face. He had no choice but to bear this.
After another immeasurable moment, a new discovery came forth, once again something faint that grew in certainty. He could feel the rest of his body now; arms and legs, his claws and wings. He felt, but didn’t feel them, could sense but could not use. The smallest stirrings of fear entered him. Where was he? Why was he blinded? He could barely, barely feel himself in this thick haze! What had happened?!
Slowly, like the trickle of a small creek, pictures formed in his mind, one after the other. The walls of earth beneath the oak tree. The iron gray sky. The flashes of aspen trees flying by.
The images flew faster, streaming through his thoughts like a broad river. Weasel slithering through the undergrowth. Butterfly bloodied and torn. The scarlet chaos of blood and rage.
Sensations followed the flood of memories. The fangs of Weasel as they pierced his chest, inches away from his heart. The thud of thorns slamming into his back. Butterfly’s warm hand on his cheek. The swooping feeling as he’d died.
…no. No! He wasn’t dead! He would not be dead! Not now!
Again he struggled to move, to throw off the darkness. He struggled to struggle, to gnash his teeth, to howl in frustration.
And again, he could not.
His body felt so faint, the connections to his limbs so frail, as if one wrong move would sever them entirely. Fear returned, a cold awareness in the place he realized was his chest.
His heartbeat. It was so…slow. Weak.
He was alive, but only just. He was not dead, but death surrounded him. Death was this darkness that enveloped him. If his heart failed…
He pushed back the panic that was threatening to overwhelm him, his old pride resurfacing. He wouldn’t fall, he wouldn’t falter. He would not accept this fate just yet. He would die when he declared it so!
He concentrated on his body, on everything he could feel. He concentrated on his heart, to keep it beating, to feed it his will to survive.
As the darkness persisted, he dug deeply inside of himself and hung on.
He opened his eyes.
He could see nothing but a dark blurry smudge of a world, but no longer was the darkness so deep, so thick. He blinked, and his vision cleared somewhat. He blinked again, and again. The haze fell away, and he gazed up at soft moonlight floating down around the thick twisted spired of the briar patch.
He was still here in this place. How long had he−?
A crippling fatigue washed over him, filling his body with lead and pulling his eyes shut once more. He was alive. He’d survived. This knowledge was a comfort to him as he surrendered to sleep.
He awoke again as something cold trickled across his chest, which felt heavy and tight. With a feeble groan, he shook his head, trying to clear the fog that lingered behind his eyes, and then hissed as his temples throbbed with pain.
Something close by squeaked in alarm, and he heard small feet hastily scurrying away. He cracked open his eyes, blinking slowly.
He was lying beneath the twisted canopy of the briar patch, dawn’s feeble rays throwing shafts of light and shadow over the sharp thorns. The sky beyond was a periwinkle blue fading into a light pink, a golden glow steadily growing in strength. A few scudding clouds gleamed with infant sunlight. He continued to stare upward for a moment, lost in the simplistic beauty of the sunrise. The pink morphed into a soft orange as the golden glow intensified. He suddenly wanted to be up there, to see these colors for himself, to feel the sunlight’s warmth.
Reality returned to Crow as he strove to move his body. His strength was nearly gone. The muscles in his arms and wings felt as though they were filled with rocks. It was a challenge in itself to simply lift his arm to reach for the sky. His arm shook violently, his elbow threatening to fold.
He huffed in resignation, and his arm fell back down to his side. Weak. He was weak. Weakness was something he detested above all else. It felt so wrong to be robbed of the strength that made him feared and respected.
He blinked, and then lifted his arm back to his eyes. There, on the far side of his elbow, was a broad, red stripe. The red was as vivid as blood against his black fur, the reflection shining on his silver bracer. The stripe ended in a diamond on the back of his hand, and he stared in confusion. Where had it come from? What had happened? Was this anomaly present on his other arm as well?
In turning his head, he finally noticed the mound of muddy paste tightly bound to his chest. Herbs and leaves were mixed into the mud, most of which was dry. The center was still moist, the coolness of the water slowly approaching his hide. His memories of his battle with Weasel returned to him with full force. Where had he gone? How long had he been here? Was Butterfly−?
He twisted his head around, gritting his teeth against the headache.
He was lying on a thick bed of leaves and willow branches, the leaves cushioning his body and back which, if the subtle pain was anything to go by, meant that there were thorns embedded in his back.
He was completely alone.
He moaned, the movements of his body taxing him far more than they should. Fighting against his tiredness, he raised his hand to gently rub at his eyes.
His mask was gone.
He started, but before he could resume his searching, the sounds of approach brought his head around. He was face to face with a timid face mouse, and−
His breath caught. Butterfly was fluttering anxiously from behind. She stopped and their eyes locked. There were lines of tiredness circling beneath her orb-like eyes, which were pale blue from worry. There were smudges of dirt on her cheeks, which were…
He stared at her, fully taking in her form. She had changed. No longer was her body a whirl of colors that displayed her emotions and thoughts. Her cheeks glowed a gentle peach beneath the dirt. The rising sun shone through her translucent wings and the colors there were clear like stained glass. Broad ribbons of red snaked around glimmering spots of white and pale blue. Small strips of light green twisted around the fringes.
A hollow grew in the pit of his stomach as his eyes were drawn to the long, ragged scar in her wing, the only blight in her perfection. A reminder of what−
Wait. If she had healed, how long had he…?
With the smallest of gasps, Butterfly flew forward, her eyes glowing blue-green. She stopped a foot away from Crow, radiating relief as she searched his face intently.
He could now see that her body matched her wings, the pattern repeated, yet different. Those stripes of red and dappling of white and blue decorated her legs and sides, spiraling around her thin waist. That peach enclosed her arms, a thin strip around her wrists the only thing that would shift with her mood…She had changed. She had changed so much.
Her relief faded, replaced again by worry. She stretched out her hand and touched his cheek; just as she had the last time he had seen her. Her eyes and movements bespoke a silent question.
He knew what she was asking, and had it have been any other being, he would have pushed them away, distancing himself. He would've retreated inside of himself, to that safe place cloaked in black. His thoughts and feelings were always buried inside, hidden away from all creatures. But…
He blinked and inclined his crested head slightly, answering the query in her eyes.
She smiled, her face a bright pink of joy. The color was so bright he had to look away. To see that she was that happy that he was all right…a strange warmth seemed to stir beneath the dried paste on his chest. He was suddenly filled with restlessness, the desire for flight returning with renewed strength. He wanted to hear his pulse roaring in his ears. He wanted to feel the strain in his wings, the pounding of his heart. He strained to sit up, rising up on his elbows.
Instantly, his head felt heavy, the world around him spinning. His remaining strength rapidly faded, and he fell back onto the bed of branches, his headache worsening. In a flash, Butterfly was hovering over him, checking his wounds and admonishing him in soft squeaks.
Crow closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, frustration simmering in his heart. He hated this! He hated being so weak, so helpless! He was not meant to be here! He was meant to fly! He was meant for strength! He−
He felt Butterfly touching the paste of mud and herbs placed over his chest, and his temper cooled.
Regardless of how much time had passed, Death had brushed by him, only a sliver of life and will preventing him from falling. It was to be expected for him to need time. Damaged pride would not heal his damaged body.
Butterfly’s hand stroked his cheek, and he cracked open an eye to stare at her. He again noticed the fatigue that lingered in her face, painting dark circles beneath her luminous eyes. And again, he wondered at how much time had passed since that gray morning. How long had she cared for him here?
All of a sudden, he felt…grateful. Despite his wounds, despite his weakness…he did not regret saving her. He was…glad that she was all right…
She smiled, her eyes twinkling with that loving green, and his eye closed.
He had saved her. She had saved him. And…he needed her.