Episode 13.

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Axel sits in the dark, head in his hands. Every now and then, he snuffles back tears, mind murmuring, a low voice, pleading with the boy in front of him. Wake up. It'd been hours since he’d last moved – Jed and Reed long gone from the bedside – and his thoughts were a jumble. A mantra repeated inside, like a chant to a star that had long since burned out. Please...

Filling the silence in his mind, anxious, if he imagined his death for too long, he'd begin to consider every chance it'd become reality. Making his plea louder in his mind to block those images out, he squeezed his eyes closed and trembled, consumed by the panic, the belief that Kayn could be ripped away from him, easy as that. They'd been here together before, more than once. *Please come back, K. I'm nothing without you fighting beside me. Don’t leave now. We’ve lost enough – you can’t go too. Not before. Okay? Not before I-* Watching from afar, terrified by realizing it for certain, he'd kept his heart a secret. Its betrayal now, knowingly hiding too much, the way it beat for him was stronger by the day, deeper, no matter how much he tried to ignore it. Very much in spite of it, actually. I wish you could see what you mean to me. I wish- That- I wish I was brave enough...

It'd clicked for sure a while back. Dying to show him a thousand times over, it had been proven that telling Kayn such a heartfelt truth might be risky at best. Sal had scolded him for badly messing it up the first time. There never seemed to be another right time to approach him after she disappeared – although, it was true he’d used this recent unpredictability as an excuse not to, for far too long. That one had more than enough on his plate to get over. He didn't need to pile on even more and make fresh trouble for him. What if it was too much? Admitting he wanted more than friendship was enough of a thing – the doubt Kayn would answer in the same way quite another – and it was that fear, that outcome if he was wrong, which made him hesitant. Leaving it too long had rendered his will beside the point. Burying it became easier, and he could pretend that none of this existed. That his heart, and everything in it, didn’t exist.

Staring at his hand on the bed, cuts and scars ran the length of his arm, but this hand was the one with the missing digit. The hand that'd squeezed him tight while he was healed by the girl.

Three squeezes. Me and you.

Jed and Sal made up the code so they never had to say the words aloud. No other possible interpretation, he knew what Kayn was trying to say in what could've been his last minutes. This paw had been held out to him for at least two of the last five years they’d travelled together – there was something between them, and there always had been.

So why couldn't he take it? Why was facing this truth so hard?

Pushing Reed's divine, self-contented expression as he left them alone for the last time far from his mind, he couldn’t ignore any longer how being so gutless had ended up causing so much trouble. How running off always screwed things up more than helping. His catastrophic fuck up in the camp with that girl. Kayn had been so hateful after, angry at everything and everyone, and it was his fault. In wanting to push his reaction, he'd driven him to an anger that froze them all out, and left room for dread and doom to grow inside. It was obvious that Reed was right – that he needed to talk to him – for both their sakes. Even Jed had begun to hint at him going elsewhere for comfort if he wasn't quick enough.

Why couldn't I have known it before? Why does the truth always come after a mistake? Why not before?

He wished he had half the strength Kayn did – just half of that confidence. The ferocity of how much wanting to share that pride all he can think of, he realised what this uncertainty and indecisiveness, and fucking their situation up so badly, had almost cost. What the actual damage of losing him would be. That terror and how it affected his despair now tore through him. Sudden, and all at once, nothing was more important than that silver grin lit from inside, shining bright at him again.

His memory of it causes him to dwell on how he'd looked before the shock took over. In one moment, terrified of death, the next, the message passed on, he’d calmed. He would go to the ribbon between Obbé and Sina and linger in peace. Axel knew the message received in those tiny moments. He knew. He'd known it all along, and the girl's over-familiar, smug pat on his tummy when she was done drove it home.

Kayn was his. Not a comrade. Not his friend. Not even his best friend. His.

He found an odd sense of security in the fact he was unconscious, and not merely asleep. Laid out flat on his back, and at rest like this, the way Kayn slept was different. It twisted his nerves to think of it, the way he’d curl up tight sometimes. Why he did. Knees to his chest and arms wrapped around himself, his fur wrapped even tighter, he defended himself from attack in his safest moments. His sleep was often fitful, and it was rare if he got the rest he needed. He wondered if he dreamed here, or if nightmares still haunted him in the peace between them.

In the silence, it was safe to talk. If he couldn’t be heard, he'd admit the truth aloud. He wanted more than ever to reach out to the hand on the bed, just inches from his face, to take it and squeeze him back and never let go. Whispering, needing to say it, needing to tempt him back to this world – yet still unsettled by the idea of being caught out, his stare fixed on the door in case it opened on them.

“I don’t know why I can’t tell you these things, but you’re not useless. Or hopeless. Or worthless. I know you feel that way. I know out there they make you feel that way, but you’re not any of the things any of them say you are. None of them dickheads matter, Kayn. They don’t know you. They don't know that you're everything to me. So, just come back, yeah? Come back and it’ll be me and you forever. Just us, and we’ll make it home together, and we’ll be free of all of them. Please, just step back into this world... with me. We’ll be together for the rest of our lives. You just have to come back, that's all. Please...” A gasp lurches from his chest, from deep inside, as he caught the weight of his words, the sound of the truth on his lips making his heart beat in rapid fire.

He didn't care now, if he didn't want him back as much. If he'd only squeezed at him out of a fear of dying alone. He didn't care if he rejected him in the cold light of day tomorrow. He just needed him to know. “Don't go to the ribbon and wait for me there. I never want to see your star shining down on me. Fuck... I want to be with you. Me and you, yeah?” He gulped, sniffing, “I’m so sorry I've messed everything up. I know I've made you feel abandoned, and I know I messed it all up for us. But I can make it better. I can. Please Kayn. You've got to wake up again...”


A stunned, younger Axel leant on the wall behind him. Next to a closed door, both hands are clamped over his mouth in shock. He couldn’t open his eyes. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t believe what Kayn was begging Jed for – let alone the way that hearing him get it was affecting his disposition.

And after that, when he'd seen him on the road. Panicked, snubbing him, his thoughts, pulse, breath still racing too fast, alarm stopped him from forming any other response. Not quite comprehending how he'd made it inside the hideout, let alone how he'd got from the door to his bed, he clutched at a cushion there, under the furs, curled tight into a ball. The nerves in his gut made him want to throw up. Confused, though, this response usually came with dread – but he wasn't scared this time. He couldn't work it out... Why was he reacting this way? And what even was it? Was there even a name for it? A name for feeling everything there was ever to feel, and feeling it all at once?

Kayn... That boy.

The one with the sun in his skin and his hair. Blue green, sea deep eyes. His easy laugh, and the way he found humour in everything. The way his nose would wrinkle when he did. The way he could talk his way into or out of anything. The way his fucking name sounded in his mouth.

Kayn.

Who'd argue day was night, and you’d believe him. Who needed endless patching up from this scrape or that caper. Who had boundless, unending optimism, and swore he'd use his dying breath to crack a joke. Who knew what he wanted, and exactly how to get it. Who didn't hide who he was, because he was at ease with it, right from the beginning.

He remembered laughing at his open revulsion the first time they started talking about girls together with him. He'd admired how blunt he was in the way he stated his own preference – there was no question of hiding any of it from them. Quite aside from the fact that he couldn't tell an outright lie without twitching, or keep a secret to himself for shit, he’d never hidden who he was. From anyone. No matter what. Because he knew.

That.

Boy.

Tristin and Reed must still have been out. He heard Jed's snore from the other room, after... After... He remembered what he’d discovered, and his cheeks reddened as he pulled the cover over his head. It was the sound of them together he couldn’t block out. Glad no one was around, glad he didn't need to organise his thoughts into actual coherent speech, a solitary phrase in his mind was the only thing he could concentrate on. Dying to be screamed from the rooftops, just three little words, clear as day and howling for attention, as his hand went inside the front of his trousers.

What. The. Fuck...?


Lifting his head too sharply from the bed in front of him, he is gritty, and irritable. Light in the room was changed. Had he fallen asleep?

He ached, cold from the night, a scratchy throat and a tight knot in his mind. Kayn was still laid out but had curled up on his side, and Reed had said it seemed okay to move him, since they’d put a warmer shirt on him well enough. His skin was healed, fused together again – and only the stars knew how. Linens to bind him were just a precaution.

Still more than half asleep himself, climbing into the bed, Axel nestled behind, using his body heat for warmth. Pressing a cheek against his shoulder blade, comfortable, he wedged a cushion at the crook of his achy neck. Two beats later, the scent of him came and the knot inside loosened. Eyelids fluttered all the way shut again, and risking a hand up the front of his shirt, fingertips rest on bandages and relay each breath he still took. A habit.

That familiarity undid his nerves altogether. Holding him, pulling him closer in the night, he wanted his small spoon. Arranging the furs around them, wrapping himself around him, he swears again to protect him from any more harm. To do better this time. To fix the things he’d messed up. With just enough left in him to slide his other arm under the pillows before drifting off himself, he repeated his thoughts over and over. Now he could say the words aloud, he is desperate that he should know.

And as he falls deeper and deeper into sleep, a recurring music comes forward from the depths of his memory. A boy in an alley, playing a forlorn, heartbroken song...


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