Patchwork Knight



Author’s Notes: ‘Patchwork Knight’ is set in the Sweet Dreams universe, but is otherwise a standalone story.

***

‘Patchwork Knight’

***

Does everyone remember their first crush with such clarity? Forgetting his is impossible, and if he were honest with himself, he would acknowledge that she is the standard by which every other woman that he has admired or dated is judged, and has found them lacking. He knew that he was not the only one who fell in love with her in those glory days of high school.

The ultimate girl next door, she was the soul of delight and laughter, pent up pleasure in a tightly wrapped package of pinks and blues, her chosen colors. People couldn’t help but love being around her, couldn’t help but be made better for being around her, because she always had a kind word for everyone and insistence the others have only kind words for each other, no matter how far outside of her social circle they’d been relegated.

Even the jock-tosterone brigade was no match for the brunette’s whirlwind graces, and because of that, the number one unspoken rule in school was that any room she happened to be in at the moment was neutral ground. She was the life of parties, and wherever she was… there was a party. Behave, and you could hang with the cool kids, even if only for a short time.

‘Dance!’ she’d always insisted to anyone fool enough to try and sit out the school events at the gym. ‘Is it more embarrassing to get out there and have a little fun, or to sit there like a lump where everyone can see you?’ Never relenting in her enthusiasm. Everybody danced for her.

Scruffier and scrawnier in those days, he’d been a farm kid without the benefit of the farmer’s tan and build, thin and light-skinned enough to be burned tough and leathery by working with his father in the field. No chance he’d have ever strayed into her orbit — not only would he have gotten a private chat with the jock-tosterone brigade, it was simple fact that was she an upperclassman, he a freshman.

She never knew he existed, but it wasn’t the mean ignorance of arrogant and prideful youth, simply too many people and too little time. Kellville was a little school serving only a few townships, but not that small. Always admiring from afar, like so many of her other silently suffering victims of puppy-dog love.

Amelia Collins was the flame, but there were no moths about her, only butterflies – and butterflies in every sense of the word.

Greg Bartels had never let it get him down, though, the plentiful bounty of growing seasons past and school crushes fondly remembered made for great nostalgia, something to keep him warm on long lonely nights when he’d had no desire to drink himself stupid and weepy. There were no truly unhappy memories of Kellville High, only a somewhat drearier place left behind when she’d graduated with her high school sweetheart into whatever the world held in store for her.

***

Yet here he lay, his bare skin against hers, a hand about her waist as she slept, retreading the long road he’d taken from there to here. Kellville was better than two hours drive, a small town edging its way into obscurity as time took a toll on it, nearly every child that graduated from the ancient halls of that decaying school escaping to other cities throughout the state to pursue whatever dreams they had. Far away, in both time and distance, a past locked behind a stint in the service, and later, a college education that the service had helped pay for.

***

You’d think that as a father who believed so strongly in conservative values, Conrad Bartels should have been able to pass down his stringent ideas of what constituted proper personal discipline down to his only son, but Greg had never taken to it. Maybe just doing the shit rebellious kids do, insisting on hanging out with the wrong crowds, getting up to business that might have damaged his entire future if he hadn’t had some guardian angel.

One of those bright kids who suffers for lack of direction, Greg had come close to failing out of high school, just skating by with a diploma, and it was only after a campaign of insistence and demands, pleading and bargaining, that he’d been convinced to enlist. The united front his parents presented was a key to that — Sherry Bartels had seen and agreed with her husband’s reasoning that their son had needed a steadier disciplinary hand in his life.

And what do you know? It’d worked, and by the grace of that same unseen angel, he’d gotten out by the skin of his teeth, his time up before the administration in charge had the notion to reinforce the troops in the middle-east with stop-loss. Greg believed in god and country, would have fought as trained and directed, but he’d already lost a buddy stationed there and had more than enough ugly memories.

He didn’t sign on again, opting to takes his benefits and channel them into an education. Chance had put him on a paralegal’s career path, and with that newfound discipline, he’d buckled down and created a future for himself, earning his associate’s in paralegal studies and capturing himself a great job in downtown Shenan Oaks.

His future seemed solid, a steady income and no bad habits to blow it on, taking everything he’d been given or earned for himself over his life and making it into something his father could finally respect. That was what he’d wanted more than anything else, was why he’d finally agreed to enlist, and coupled with good old army discipline, was the motivating force throughout college.

Then he’d met Andrea Dunlap, and life did a 360, spinning in place, never quite sure if he was back where he started.

***

Memories like Andrea weren’t what he wanted to call up, lying here next to his girlfriend. Amy wasn’t plain. In fact, most people would call her pretty, but Andrea’s stunning good-looks always seemed overshadow anyone around her. Willing the traitorous thoughts away, he examined Amy’s sleeping form.

Almost what people would refer to as full-figured, without the connotation of obesity, she had a body that was all great curves, with hips and a bottom that swung flirtatiously when she moved, lovely full breasts that were more than a handful. Lovely, really? What was he, some kind of ridiculous poet? he chastised himself as he examined her.

Still… the word fit. She looked not just good, but great, she’d taken care of herself, though her self-image was far lower than the packaging warranted. Fucking Jake. Fucking Freddy. There was a place in Hell for them, and Greg believed that some version of it existed.

***

Bafflement was the only word he could use to describe his relationship with Andrea. There’d been any number of other girls… Greg had two older sisters, and they’d made certain he understood what ‘romance’ met, while his mother had made sure to impress the word ‘respect’ on him as well. So yeah, he might catch them, but not hold them. Definition of nice guys finish last. Until Andrea.

There was another expression that had always confused the hell out of him before he met her — a mystery wrapped inside an enigma inside a puzzle, or some such. Made sense for her, because he couldn’t make sense _of_ her. They’d met while he was doing work for his firm, and he’d been awestruck by not just her good looks, but her skills and competence, the way she’d worked together with him.

Perhaps stupidly, since it could have caused him trouble, he’d dropped into his classic form, making a show of mock-nervousness and asking, ‘If you don’t have other commitments tonight, perhaps you’d give me the opportunity to try and impress you as much as you’ve impressed me? Dinner, perhaps?’ Blushing, she’d laughed and accepted the invitation, and from that point on, they were a couple.

That was how it was supposed to work, anyway.

He’d gone to the party for their date, and found that others were waiting in the lobby as well. More to the
point, a tall girly-looking dude was there, and he’d had no idea why the prick was talking about his own date with Greg’s girlfriend. Greg believed in standing up for things that matter, and he’d immediately called the punk out, ready to beat the crap out of him.

Andrea showed up, in the process stopping him from embarrassing himself, and worse still, ran the two of them a spiel that convinced him he was being a possessive ass. Horrified at the realization that he was acting completely at odds with what the women of his family had taught him, he’d backed off, and made it his personal challenge to beat the arrogant girly-man in the competition for the hand of the lovely Andrea. No problem, right? Hollywood romances are made of that shit.

Unfortunately, so were comedies. Nothing bleeds the romance out of that kind of challenge like losing the interest of the woman you want. Felt it, a storm-head on the horizon, looming and ready to strike. He didn’t deal well with stuff like that, and had taken to drinking far too often. Some people are angry drunks, others simply hilarious when they’d had a few too many. Greg was a weepy drinker, knew it, and hated himself for it.

Feeling it come on again at the end of a long and lonely holiday, he’d finally said enough was enough, ceded victory to the girly-man. Hadn’t quite worked out that way for either of them, but he’d dropped the news on Andrea at her job. It had seemed funny when he’d talked about it on the phone, less amusing as he walked in the building’s doors, and downright stupid as he approached her office. Instead of taking pleasure on it, Greg had simply told her how it was going to be.

Andrea had stared at him, those beautiful green eyes glittering, and while there was some heat in her cheeks, she’d dismissed him with, ‘Whatever.’

That stung, but he’d already made his decision, and Greg wasn’t a man to fuck around with regrets or second thoughts. It was a load off, and he’d rode the elevator to the bottom floor with a tremendous sense of lightness. He could get on with life now. Excellent. Not only that, but he was kinda hungry, and what did we have here?

Vander & Porter didn’t have an employee break-room, it had something better: a full-blown public cafeteria that looked better than some restaurants he’d been to. It was classy, and open to anyone who wanted to grab a bite with friends who happened to work here. He’d never eaten there with Andrea, as it always seemed a bit below her standards, but he wasn’t going to settle for processed mcshit with smells like this wafting his way. Settling in, he ordered lunch, enjoying his newfound freedom.

When the blonde walked into his range of vision, it was like seeing a ghost. Obviously not a true blonde, her hair had the look of amateurish work with a bottle, but he’d know that face anywhere.

‘Amy?’ The blonde had turned to look at him, confusion on her face. Amy was short for… Amelia. ‘Amelia Collins from Kellville?’ A kind of dopey grin came over her face, the pleasure of meeting a stranger who obviously recognized her from home evident.

‘I’m sorry, but I can’t put a name to you…’

He laughed. ‘No hard feelings, you were a senior when I was a freshman. I remember you, though…’

.

That had led them into a bit of chat about the old days, pleasant reminiscence over old parties, hometown events and friends. Greg couldn’t begin to fathom why she seemed so sad about it, and because of that, he’d noticed something else about her. She seemed so… tired. None of the old sparkle in those pretty light green eyes of hers. Worn out. He would bet her future hadn’t been what she’d hoped it would be, and not wanting to pry open wounds, he’d settled for chatter about the good old days.

When Jake Edwards had showed up, everything made sense.

Greg could tell just by the man’s possessive demeanor that he was Amy’s boyfriend, and had backed off politely. Each had their own lives, cool. Except that he could also tell, just by looking at that unprovoked and slightly pissed off expression on the man’s face, this was going to be one of the biggest assholes he’d ever had the displeasure of meeting. You have my sympathy, Amy, he reflected sourly.

Maybe the guy could see the pity on Greg’s face for his girlfriend, because he’d gotten confrontational with her right away, insisting on knowing just why the hell she was chatting up strangers in the cafeteria. Because she has no right to talk to other people, right? Greg reflected sourly. Amy had gotten a panicky look on her face, attempting to explain away the talk for what it was… simple nostalgia… but there was a note of hysteria in her voice.

People had turned to look, stopping their own conversations to stare, and Greg flushed uncomfortably. He also noticed something strange about those looks. They’d seen this before, didn’t like it. Her boyfriend simply stood there and seethed, until she’d trailed off, apologizing for her thoughtlessness.

Apologizing for her thoughtlessness. The hell?

Greg silently upgraded the nameless boyfriend from ‘asshole’ to ‘grade-A piece of shit’ in his head, a classification which lasted all of two seconds when a second upgrade was forced. Though he had barely registered the motion of the guy’s hand, the cracking noise was like a gunshot in the cafeteria, and the red handprint on Amy’s face unmistakable.

***

Traces Jake Edwards has left on Amy’s body are equally unmistakable, as are those left behind by Freddy Calhoun before him. They were small scars, always easily hidden by clothing, existing as permanent reminders of the worst aspects of obsessive possessiveness. You couldn’t call that love, by Greg’s book. People could be treasured, but they weren’t treasure, they weren’t things.

He’s come to accept them as part of her, though his heart still twinges painfully as he watches over her at night, imagining the story each old wound tells. Almost like writing on a wall, each seems to speak: a burnt dinner might be that pale arc upon her upper breast, or a moment too late with a cold beer begat the white line upon her hip.

This is what her scars do to him, as he stares, contemplating her nude body, and he can only imagine the nightmares they bring her. Amy cries out in her sleep sometimes, and he can only draw her closer to try and keep the dreams at bay.

***

Greg has known a few women who have been abused, and whether it was by spouses or boyfriends, the station never really mattered, just the terrible effects it had on them, forcing them to reconcile their love against the treatment they received. Effects he can see in the way they react to an otherwise harmless turn of phrase, or an unintentionally harsh gesture. The knowing always fills him with a rage, built on a strong foundation of morality taught him by his father, the lessons learned from the women of his family, the simple damned observation that some things are unacceptable and _wrong_. How could any _real_ man treat a woman this way?

Despite the rage, his head was clear, and the decision was made without a second thought. He was going to hit this man, hit him hard, hit him again. That could cost him, though, cost him big. There is a way…

‘Wow, you’re a real big man.’ Greg had jeered softly, just loud enough to be heard by the boyfriend. That got his attention, and that seething gaze had shifted from his girlfriend to Greg with some effort.

‘Mind your own business.’ The boyfriend was loud, and people were watching. They couldn’t help but overhear.

‘Yeah,’ Greg had said again, in that same harsh jeer. ‘Wouldn’t want anyone to take notice of the big man hitting his girlfriend, would we? They might think he was a pussy. A little bitch. Hell, they might not think you’re a man at all, with that long hair and lack of balls, eh?’

Each word had been emphasized to convey just how little manliness the guy possessed, and he’d gotten results. A steadily reddening face, turning
an ugly shade with each word uttered. Some words were simply guaranteed a reaction unless the person he was taunting was completely gutless. Few people were, if you kept pushing on their buttons.

‘Word might even get back to your _mother_ and then you’d have to shut her up with a few well placed slaps, am I right?’ He’d hissed the words with grim satisfaction, sure they would be enough, and he’d been right.

Asshole boyfriend had swung, broadcasting so obviously that any unskilled fighter would only have needed to move and hit back. A punch to the gut and the man deflated. Another to the side of the face and he went to his knees. Follow-up from the opposite direction and he went down, stunned nearly to the point of unconsciousness. Each blow was enough to eat some of the rage he felt. He wanted to hit the man again and again, but knew there were limits. If he got busted, he’d have to explain himself. This was over.

There was only silence in the cafeteria, and in that moment, Greg realized that everyone, _everyone_ was watching. No applause, that shit was only for the movies, simply a silent consensus that the boyfriend had gotten what he’d deserved.

Someone nearby spoke, though he had no idea who. ‘You should go.’ Nobody was going to call the cops, probably, but no need to stick around. Except…

He turned to Amy who was staring at him with wide eyes, a knuckled fist concealing her open-mouthed horror. Somehow, he knew it wasn’t because she cared about the guy on the ground.

‘It’s going to be worse for you when you get home because of me, isn’t it?’

Nodding mutely, she stared at the man curling in upon himself on the floor, the beginning of tears in her eyes.

‘Then end it here. Come with me.’ He’s wanted to say that before, to others, but he’d never had such a seemingly personal connection to those women before. More than anything, he wanted to save Amy Collins: from her boyfriend, from herself.

He had, paying a price in teeth and a dozen stitches some months later when he’d made the mistake of paying a visit to her former residence to retrieve some clothes and personal possessions she wanted, her ex-boyfriend’s buddies ambushing him, taking their pound of flesh. There was an image, too, that would haunt him in his own nightmares, a skinny rat of a guy who looked like a refugee from a Depression-era black-and-white film staring silently at the man beside him, a man who had ranted about Greg laying hands on his boy.

***

And here she was, lying beside him over a year after that fateful day, safe from the too-human demons that had tormented her. There were things he could never put right for her, and he could only stand by her side for as long as she needed him. Her knight in shining blue denim, she called him sometimes. No teasing or silliness in it, she’d meant every word. He loved her, and she loved him back, and it had taken him way too long to figure that out.

***

Helping set Amy’s life to rights again had been Greg’s first priority, and the months after that day had been pleasant ones, an exercise in helping her get whatever she needed to put her life back to rights. They couldn’t go back to the boyfriend’s house to get her clothing, and the bastard had made sure she’d had precious little else of her own. That meant helping her, getting her the clothes she needed, taking her to interviews, anything he could do to help her transition into a life that was not completely dependent on the whims of some pitiless monster.

But most of it was getting her some confidence in herself. For too long she’d been told she was nothing without these other guys, that she was ugly, too stupid to earn a degree or learn a trade, too silly to think for herself, too sluttish to be trusted by herself. Too often, a simmering rage would well up in him as those old inflicted hurts were made apparent on her face, but he stamped them out, because the very last thing Amy needed was to see him angry again. If she ran now, what other loveless arms might she end up in? The thought terrified him, the notion that someone might break this once lively young woman’s spirit even further than she’d already been broken.



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