I woke up in a hospital bed. It was the first time, in all the years I’ve worked in hospitals, that I’ve ever actually been a patient in one. The rooms look really different from this angle.
My right arm had an IV in it, a tube dripping saline solution, and Jack holding my hand.
“Hey,” I said. Had to swallow and say it again. My mouth tasted like road dust. Jack gave me some water. I took one sip, then gulped down the whole thing and sucked at the edge of the cup to get the last drop.
“Slow down, Dee. You’ll make yourself sick.”
“Never been sick in my life,” I said, and put my left hand to my forehead while the room rotated a few times. I got drunk once. Just once. I’d felt a lot like this the next day. Hence the just once.
My left hand was swathed in bandages until it was more like a boxing glove. “What happened? What’s wrong with my hand?”
Jack cleared his throat and looked everywhere but at me. “I can’t really say.”
“The doctors don’t want you hit with too many shocks until you’re a little further out of the woods. We nearly lost you, Dee.” He squeezed my right hand. “I nearly lost you.”
I remembered the fat spider thing and beautiful Death gloating over me, about how I’d die old and wrinkled. “Am I old?”
Jack did that eyes everywhere but me thing again and I panicked a little. “Get me a mirror!” I yanked my hand out of his and touched my face, but it felt normal, skin soft, smooth, like it always had been. My arm felt heavy, though, and my elbow ached when I bent it, and not just because of the IV needle.
The rolling bedside table that’s ubiquitous to every hospital room had a little drawer in the bottom. Jack pulled a hand mirror out of it and handed it to me. “You don’t look old. You look fine. It’s okay.”
The mirror confirmed that I hadn’t turned into a wrinkled old hag overnight. I did look a little different, thinner definitely, and hollow-eyed like I hadn’t slept in a week, but something else. It was subtle, but I suspected that there were some bars where I might not get carded anymore. I didn’t look nineteen or twenty, I looked maybe twenty-three or twenty-four. “Stealing years. The Death Dealers were stealing years and selling them.”
“The machine choked on you,” Jack said. “It’s a pile of broken glass and melted metal and wires now. It was probably designed to hold 50 or 60 years, a hundred at most.”
Dragons live a lot longer than a hundred years. Fafnir was more than 4000 years old. He considered Vlad very young at a mere 700. I was a baby at 63. But how old was I now? I’d been going through puberty for 40 years. Was I done? I looked back in the mirror. My face was human still, no scales, and Fafnir told me the scales would cover me completely eventually. No such luck. Domina Death’s little toy sucked 40 or 50 years from my life, but I still had more awkward embarrassing body weirdness to go.
I sighed. “Least she could have done was get me all the way there.”
Jack looked puzzled.
“Nevermind. Who do I have to kill to get a glass of water around here?”
Jack grinned, and I grinned back at him. I almost felt like sending the Death Dealers a thank you note just then. Me nearly dying had apparently made Jack completely forget that he’d broken up with me. He poured me a glass of water from a little pink plastic pitcher and I gulped it down gratefully.
I was starting to feel a bit less like road kill.
A tiny, dark-haired, dark-skinned nurse came in through the door with a hearty, “Ah, good morning! And how are we feeling?” She had a heavy accent, Indian, I think.
“I don’t know about you, but I feel like forty miles of bad road.”
She swept the heavy curtains open, and someone drove white hot ice picks into my eyes. “AAH!” I put my left hand with the big wad of bandages up to shield my eyes and heard ripping cloth.
Jack jumped up and yanked the curtains from the startled nurse’s hands, shutting out the searing white light.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
Jack sat down next to me again. “You tell me, Dee. What happened? Why did you scream?”
“The light hurt my eyes. Is there some kind of searchlight out there or something?”
“It’s just a normal sunny day.”
“Peachy. I’ve developed an extreme sensitivity to light.”
The nurse recovered her composure, said, “I’ll make a note of that on your chart, dear. We’ll keep the lights dimmed and the curtains closed.”
She checked my blood pressure and pulse on my right arm, made a note of it, and asked me if I was hungry.
“I’m hungry enough to eat you.”
She took a step backward, eyes getting a little wide.
“Joke, lady. Get a grip.” Geeze, she was jumpy. “I’m starving, but I’m on a high protein diet. No vegetables, no starches.”
She went all stern mom-faced on me. “You’re going to have to stop starving yourself like that, young lady. You nearly died of malnutrition. People can’t live on meat alone.”
Jack jumped in, “Dee has special food requirements because of her differences. She didn’t diet herself into the condition she was in. It was done to her.”
“I eat like a starving marine. Bring me every kind of protein you have and I’ll prove it.”
The nurse looked skeptical, but said, “I’ll let the kitchen know your requests.”
As soon as the nurse closed the door behind her, I swung my feet over the side of the bed. As I lifted the sheet, I saw that my hand wasn’t the only thing covered in bandages. I looked like the main character in a mummy movie, dressed in one of those useless gowns with the big gaping nothing in the back. “I’m not planning on staying till breakfast. Ma’s bacon and cheese omelette is far better than anything they’re going to have anyway.” Two things hit at once, dizziness and the realization that Ma would be freaking out since I didn’t come home. “I’ve gotta get home before Ma has kittens.”
“Your mother just left a couple hours ago. She’s been here night and day, and she wasn’t looking well. I told her to go get some rest and I’d watch over you for a while.”
I blinked a minute, while the room stopped dancing. “Day and night? How long was I out?”
I groaned. “I am so fired. I used up all my sick days when the Protectors were in Japan.”
“Don’t sweat it. Boss was there when you were brought in. I told him you’d been sick for days, and I’d been taking care of you, but it suddenly got worse. Seeing you in that condition, he couldn’t really dispute me.”
“At least something went right. Death Dealers got away, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, but at least we stopped them from killing anyone else with that thing.” That’s my Jack. Always looking on the bright side.
Jack put his shoulder under my arm, steadied me, and moved the IV stand around behind me. “You probably shouldn’t be getting up this soon, you know.” He said it like he knew I would ignore him, but he felt obligated to say something anyway.
Jack knows me pretty well. “Is Flynn okay?”
“He’s good. His flak vest caught the shotgun blast. He’s in deep kimchee at work, though.”
I looked into the mirror above the sink. Yup, mummy in a blue striped hospital gown. Tattered tailings of ripped gauze hung from the white pillow passing for my left hand. I would have sworn those weren’t there earlier. I wiggled my fingers and saw a glint of silver through holes in the gauze. What the heck?
I started trying to unwrap my hand, but that gauze was layered and taped and it wasn’t giving up its secrets easily.
Jack tried to stop me. “The doc said to wait until you were stronger.”
“I’m fine, Jack, but if you won’t tell me what that steampunk spider thing did to me, then I’m going to see for myself.”
“It’s just that …”
I stopped tearing at the gauze with my teeth and one free hand, and gave him a chance.
“You’re a little more dragon now than before.”
“Ah.” I had this odd feeling looking at the wad of gauze, as if something alien was going to tear its way through. “It’s my hand, Jack. I need to know.”
Jack sighed. “All right. Hang on. I’ve got scissors.” Jack dug in his paramedic kit, which was never far from his side, and pulled out scissors with long handles, short blades, and one tip blunted, made specifically for cutting clothes off patients, or cutting bandages.
He slipped that blunt tip under the edge of the bandages around my wrist. I felt the metal slide against scales, but I didn’t have scales that far down on my wrist. Or, rather, I hadn’t last time I looked.
He slit the gauze along my palm. The poofy football of cotton clamshelled open and I saw what the fuss was about. I staggered back a few steps. Jack guided me until I was sitting on the edge of the bed.
My hand was all dragon. The palm was completely covered in very fine purple metallic scales. My knuckles and the backs of my fingers were covered in heavier silver scales, layered like plates in a gauntlet. Some of the fine mobility in my hand was lost, but I could still close it into a fist, open it, move my fingers. It felt … right somehow, even though it was completely different. I tensed my hand and silver claws an inch long shot out of the tips of my fingers.
Jack and I both flinched a little in surprise.
“Wow,” I whispered.
That was when we heard the gunshots and the screams.