Sometimes, when she touched them, when she trailed her fingers across now-whole skin, Pike's fingers ached. Sharp, needling pains, fading to a low, sick hum as they crept back across her knuckles, through the bones of her wrists and up along the veins of her arms, through her elbows and her shoulders, settling at last into her chest. Into her heart. It pulsed, that pain. A thick, twisting knot. It throbbed inside of her.
It wasn't healing. It wasn't their hurts creeping inside of her. Or at least, not physically. Not by those means. She'd thought it was, at first. She'd been terrified, afraid that she'd done something wrong, that some flaw had opened up inside her and corrupted her power. The first time it had happened, she'd pulled away instinctively as soon as the wounds had closed, ignoring Vax's startled, questioning eyebrow, and cupped her hands around her medallion. Cradled it, examined it, seeking some sign of her god's displeasure. There hadn't been any. Though she had watched it on and off for the next while, brought her aching hands to it instinctively every time she healed them, no crack ever showed. After a while, she realised none were going to. She realised it wasn't the healing.
Physically. Again, it wasn't the healing physically. It was ... something else. Something inside her. The healing was a part of it. Maybe, in some ways, the healing was the reason for it. But that wasn't what it was. She'd slowly come to understand that. It wasn't real. The pain she felt wasn't really pain. It didn't only come when they were wounded. It wasn't only when she touched them with intent.
It lived in her, instead. It lived in her, inside her heart and inside her hands, and it waited. For her to touch them. For her to brush against them, even only slightly. Not always. Not every time. Just ... when she was unguarded. When her mind was blank enough that it could rush through her, seed its ache along her arms and into her chest. And during healing, as well, when her focus was so near to them, when every fibre of her was focused on their presence. When she healed them, and when her mind was quiet in their presence. That's when her fingers ached. That's when the throb of phantom pain crawled up and settled inside her chest.
And that was what it was, of course. Phantom pain. A memory, an echo, not of her own hurts but of theirs. The ones ... the ones she had wiped away. So many times. The ones she had reached out and poured the light of Sarenrae into, the ones she had cupped in her hands and gently closed away. Her hands remembered them. Her heart did too.
It wasn't supposed to be like that. Healing wasn't supposed to do that. For pain to reflect back into the healer, for their mind to hold it and keep it and bring it back over and over again, that was not a good sign. Pike knew that. It meant something was deeply, badly wrong. Or ... or it would, if the pain were from the healing. But it wasn't. For her, it wasn't. This pain, her pain, it didn't come from the healing itself. There were no cracks in her medallion. The pain didn't come when she healed anyone else. It was not her god that did this to her.
It was herself. She knew it, knew it like the throb in her chest while she curled her aching hands to rest against it. The pain wasn't because of her power. It was because of her.
She loved them, you see. That was the thing. She loved them so much, with every fibre of her being. Their minds, their spirits, their flesh. She knew them. All of them. She had put them back together so many times. She had poured her power into their skin, filled them to the brim time and again as they flirted perpetually with death. There had been ... so many hurts. Big ones, small ones. She remembered so many of them. The scars, the wounds she had not been there or had not had the strength to heal, and the blank spaces, the ones she had been there for, where none but she would know there had been a wound at all. They came back when she touched them, when she brushed her fingers against their skin. Those wounds, those hurts. The memory of them. They slipped inside her fingers, crept along her arms into her heart, where they had lived from the beginning, and would live forever more.
It was ... It was almost a possessive sort of thought. Almost a possessive sort of pain. It shouldn't be, it wasn't meant to be. She shouldn't cling to it so closely. Pain, even phantom pain, was something she had set herself to erase. To fix, to heal. To wipe away. For her, of all people, to cling to some, to hold it close inside her chest, was not only unhealthy but rather hypocritical as well. She'd always known that. She should have told someone, had someone help her. Another healer. She should have found someone to help make it better.
She hadn't wanted to, though. That, that was a selfish thing, but she hadn't. Once she'd realised what it was. Once she'd realised where the pain came from. She hadn't wanted anyone to take it away from her.
The skin had closed over those wounds. All of them, theirs and hers, whether in scars or in unmarked flesh. That pain, that suffering, it had been wiped away. It had been healed, and that was only to the good. They should not have to suffer. No one should. There was pride in her, joy, for those places where she remembered hurts, felt the aches of them in her fingers, but could find no evidence of them any longer. All her life, she had wanted to be a healer, and that was why. The taking away of pain. That was who she was.
And yet ... there was a part of it that frightened her sometimes. The way so much suffering, so much endurance, could simply ... vanish. Be gone, so that no one would ever know it was there. Because it had been. It had been there, it had been endured. They had suffered. They had been hurt. So badly, sometimes. Some part of them remembered that. Even if it no longer hurt, even if it had been taken and used and built into something for them to grow past or grow around, some part of them remembered it. And sometimes it did hurt, even still. Somewhere inside them, where none but them could see. The wounds of the flesh could be taken away, but the wounds of the soul remembered.
She wanted to remember too. She wanted to feel it, to know when she touched them that here was someone who had known pain, who had taken some of it inside them, who kept some of it still where no holy light could wipe it away. Flesh healed. Hurts went away. But hearts remembered. Phantom pains remained. The strongest of them were those who straightened up in spite of their wounds, and carried on regardless.
Pike wanted to be strong. More than anything else in the world, she wanted that. She wanted to be strong enough to live, strong enough not to die, strong enough to keep them alive in turn. Strong enough to heal them, the parts that could be healed, and strong enough to endure alongside them with the parts that couldn't. Strong enough to take their pain as well as her own, and help them all to bear it. Strong enough to feel them, to know them, every inch of skin that had healed over forgotten wounds, and love them with everything she had, not in spite of their wounds but because of them. Because of their strength, because of their courage, because of the marks they carried in their souls, because of their joy and their light and their goodness in spite of them. They were ... they were so strong, all of them. She wanted to be at least as much so. She wanted to be strong enough to never let them down.
So she wanted to keep her pain. Those prickles in her fingers, the knots inside her chest. The ebb and flow of them, the tide along her arms, the feeling in her heart and her hands when she wiped away another hurt. The look in their eyes, the pain and the acceptance, the relief and the gratitude and the love. She gathered that into herself, a tide of memory, pain and healing both, and held it tight. Not to hurt herself, but to remind herself. Not to break herself apart, but to remember how to endure.
Her hands ached when she touched them. Her hands and her heart, the things with which she loved them, the things with which she bore them up so gladly. They throbbed with phantom pain and phantom joy with every touch of them against her skin. She bore it gladly, every time.
It was, in truth, the sweetest, most perfect pain in all the world.