“Maintenance Work,” a Team Hotel story

Inspired by the prompt here: “Autumn means letting go. Winter means holding on to what’s left.” This is part of the November Creative Jam over on the Crowdfunded Creativity community. The theme is seasonal changes.

My story is part of the Team Hotel ‘verse. When Kylie’s prosthetic arm gets damaged, she must choose between doing everything herself and accepting the help of those who love her.

The sack of flour tumbles right out of Kylie’s suddenly numb left hand. It lands with a smack and a sound of tearing paper and a puff of white. Kylie curses a blue streak while she tries to clean up the mess with only one hand. She refuses to look at her left arm, how it hangs useless from the elbow down. Looking means acknowledging that its increasingly frequent and severe failures are real.

The commotion brings Ned into the hotel’s industrial kitchen, along with a few of the more curious and confident nawa in residence. “What’s wrong?” He stoops to gather up the split bag of flour. Kylie knows he notices her arm without seeing him even look directly at it.

“I don’t need help. Just lost my grip on the bloody thing trying to put it on the top shelf.” She backs out of his way as he stuffs the torn paper bag into a plastic one. The kitchen turns freezing in winter and she uses the shivers as an excuse to clutch her left arm with her right hand and pull it close to her body.

“You know I hate doing the shopping.” She knows she is snapping at him, knows there is no excuse for it, but she can’t stop. Her face feels hot with embarrassment and anxiety.

“Mmhm.” Ned winces when he reaches up to put it on the shelf. His ribs are still healing. The brown skin of his scalp is still purple with bruises. “I’ve got assignments to go over with you. Come to the office?” Kylie wants to retreat and hide until her arm comes back online, but she nods anyway and pushes past the onlookers.

It’s an ambush, of course. The office behind the front desk contains a riot of work-related papers on a good day: calendars tracking assignments, dossiers on hunters, contact methods both mundane and magical. Now it also has Ned’s spell kit laid out on the conference table, with Ned half perched on the edge.

Kylie snarls, “I told you it was nothing.” She’s using the functional muscles of her upper arm to keep the rest of it tucked against her side as much as possible. She can work the elbow join manually, but the wrist is locked up. She still can’t feel anything. “It just needs time. I must have moved it wrong.”

Ned uses a foot to hook the leg of a chair and push it out for her. “Or possibly you got it slammed in a door while trying to save my life. Again. Did you even *look* for any damage when we got home?”

Kylie refuses to sit down but she cannot resist the urge to pick at the wide cloth and metal cuff on her upper arm. The rest of Kylie’s body, like Ned’s, shows its share of bruises and scrapes from their latest run-in with someone who wants to kill Ned. Her left arm, though, remains perfectly, suspiciously unmarked. Despite, yes, having been slammed in a door.

Kylie looks up when Ned’s long fingers join her own over the cuff. “Please.” When she does not stop him, he undoes the complex series of clasps designed to keep the cuff on her at all costs. The touch of air against skin, pale compared to her warm tan, makes her shiver. The cuff slips away and takes with it the glamour of her arm.

Ned sets the cuff aside and moves his hands down her arm. Just above the elbow, bone gives way to wood, muscles to hanks of raw silk, blood vessels to coiling, living vines. Ned’s fingers skirt around the damaged area of her prosthetic forearm, where the wood is shattered and the vines crushed and the silk ragged. Kylie can see the snapping, sputtering sparks of magic disrupted.

“This is worse than I thought,” Ned murmurs, never one to shy away from hard truths. “I had hoped the magic was the problem. This physical damage–I’m not sure.”

“I can’t exactly order a replacement.” The maker, the favor-ower, has long since died. Not unusual in their line of work. Kylie’s muscles tremble with tension. The construct arm feels as much a part of her now as her flesh arm ever did. “Losing the same arm twice, it just sounds irresponsible. I have a reputation to keep up.”

Ned kisses her forehead. “No, you don’t. I do. That’s why people want me dead instead of you, boss.” He clasps the cuff back in place. The illusion of skin shimmers into being. “Let me ask around?”

Almost no one knows about her arm. The illusions don’t work on some nawa, of course, but the humans can’t see through them. If they could, the tsena, hunters and enforcers and guardians, who pass through the hotel would take ill to it. She agrees anyway, ever willing to trust Ned with her secrets.

The nawa Ned brings up to their room that night calls herself Mairead. She is bent and brown and ancient, with a wrinkled face like the whorls of a tree knot. Her kind is kin to brownies and hearth-sitters, the broad family of creatures who love home most of all. Kylie must kneel on the floor between the two beds to let Mairead reach her arm.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Kylie says. She speaks mostly to distract herself from the fear she feels at revealing her arm.

Mairead turns Kylie’s arm this way and that. “It is winter.” She lets that non-sequitur hang as she works. She fishes her fingers, swollen knuckles and chipped nails, into the gaps between silk and vine to pick out splintered wooden bones.

Kylie’s stomach lurches. Before it can get worse, Ned turns her head away and presses her face into his wool-clad thigh. She breathes the familiar smell of him and does not think about fingers inside her arm.

“The nights are long, so I have more time to get my work done,” Mairead continues as though nothing unusual has happened. “Winter is the time for mending. This home needs much mending.” She gives a wheezy chuckle. “A little more does me no harm.”

Kylie concentrates on the voice and the smell and the things that do not scare her. She tries to remember how and when Mairead came to them. An escapee? A rescue? A wanderer who visited and never left? Ned weaves his fingers through her hair.

“Is done,” Mairead announces just when Kylie has started to doze off. She lifts her head from Ned’s thigh and takes her first tentative peek at her arm.

The tears catch her off-guard. She never cries but gasping sobs keep wrenching themselves out of her. Mairead, what Kylie can see of her with streaming eyes, does not seem alarmed by this reaction. The arm is better than before the injury. The wood, smooth and straight again, glows as though freshly oiled. Kylie flexes and watches the silk muscles and tendons respond. The joints roll smoothly as she rotates her arm every way she can think of.

“But nawa can’t do magic,” Kylie protests when she has caught her breath.

“I do not fix magic. Not broken. I just fix wood and thread and vine. Like fixing furniture.” Kylie snorts at that and Mairead laughs with her.

“Thank you.” Kylie touches her repaired hand to Mairead’s. Ned sees her out and Kylie catches him slipping her a wrapped package on the way. When he closes the door and comes back to her, Kylie asked, “What does she take in payment?”

“A couple cakes of the good butter and a loaf of bread. She gets it normally for the regular work, but I thought this warranted a little extra.” He helps her up from the floor and offers the cuff to her.

She shakes her head and puts it on the night stand. She wants to admire her arm a little longer. “Sleep in my bed tonight?” She keeps her back turned when she asks, feeling strangely shy. She needs so little most of the time–help and attention and comfort.

“Oh, good. It’s bloody cold tonight,” Ned happily gripes. And that is that. They curl together in one bed, and Kylie holds on tight because she can, and they whisper plans to one another in the dark. Even in winter, there is work to do: restocking and fixing and maintaining.

Published by Joyce Sully

Joyce Sully believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real. So she writes stories. Really, what else could she do?