“No more than four drops a day”, the doctor had said about the medicine he had left for Altair in Malik’s care. That had sounded reasonable enough when the man had come immediately after Altair’s return in the early morning and two drops had been enough to make Altair sleep despite his wounds.
Now, in the middle of the night with hours to go before the Muezzin would call them for the morning prayer with nothing but Altair’s laboured breath and broken moans to fill the silence his earlier optimism seemed foolish.
“Ma…lik”, Altair panted when he returned with a carafe of cool water and a rag to wipe the sweat from his forehead and maybe bring him a little relief. The bandages would need to be changed soon, too but not before the morning. “You should…sleep…at least…one of us…should….”
“Your moaning would keep me up anyway”, Malik said perhaps a little harsher than he had intended. He couldn’t help but being furious with Altair. No matter how much the man had changed he still rushed into dangerous situations too often.
Malik dipped the rag into the water and carefully swiped over Altair’s face, mindful of the bruise on his cheekbone and the split lip.
“You don’t…need to…tend me…”, Altair protested weakly.
“Who else, then?” Malik snapped. “One of the novices? So that they learn their lesson that everyone is vulnerable? Or maybe Rauf so he loses his unwavering faith in you? I bet Abbas would love to see you now, Grand Master.”
“When you…say my title…like that”, Altair suddenly groaned, his hands uselessly curling into fists, his head thrashing against the pillows. Malik tried to hold him still so that he wouldn’t hurt himself more. Under his hands Altair’s skin was damp and feverish and he had reopened his split lip by biting it in an effort not to cry out in pain. For a moment Malik considered going against the doctor’s orders. Nothing could be worse than this.
“….it sounds…like you…still call me…a novice”, Altair finished.
“If you really were a novice maybe you’d be more cautious.”
“When was I….ever?” Altair asked with a weak smile.
Malik shook his head but didn’t answer. Instead he carefully shifted so that Altair’s head lay on his lap where he could hold him down more easily against the next wave of pain. Without meaning to Malik started carding his fingers through Altair’s hair, the fringes over his forehead damp from sweat.
Altair leaned into the touch, his eyes closed, almost like the cat that slept in the office during cold nights. The words almost came alone, freed by a half forgotten memory of his mother and Kadar and his father. He hadn’t thought about his parents for a long time now but the words still came unfaltering as if he had never done anything else. It started quietly, barely above a whisper until his voice rose over Altair’s pained gasps. And just like the words his hand never faltered, giving Altair what little comfort he could offer until morning came.
A few lines disappeared from Altair’s face, the tension of his body easing a little and he tilted his head until Malik could feel Altair’s breath through his clothes against his stomach but it was lighter and less pain-laced than before.
“Malik”, Altair whispered.
“What is it?”
“I’m glad…that you’re here…not someone…else.”
“Try to get some sleep”, Malik said and then, before he resumed his song, added, “novice.”