Episode 18.

CW: Smut Mention, Alcohol.

Back | Penultimate Episode

image shows the letters C, I, T, B, in bold green type.

“Okay, so let me ask you this, then.” Kayn was blackening his nails, intent on them. “What if I hadn't liked you back?”

“Oh now, that is a question and a half. Always worth being able to answer. What if you'd said no to me?” Axel twisted a coil in the mirror, shaping it over his brow just so. “I probably would have stuck about a few days, but ultimately left for good.” He stopped, considering. “Not to teach a lesson out of spite, not to run again out of cowardice, but,” He sighed, not wanting to think of it. “It would have been the end. Just- I'd-” He sought the words. “That would have been the easiest way for me to put myself back together.”

He avoided Kayn's wide eyes, needing to explain himself. “I know you. 'How dare you do this to me?', and 'Who the fuck do you think you are?' weren't questions I could answer by myself until now. A strong no from you after demanding to know that from me? That would have been the final break in communication between us. That and a total lack of trust after? Between us?” He paused, not even close to imagining it. “More than I could stand. I don't think I could have reconciled that with a compromise to stay friends. You'd have ended up on a pedestal for me. Unattainable, and my reason for being? That's not us, and being in that situation is never gonna end well. For anyone. Getting a hard no – it's better to end it. To leave and forget.”

Kayn nodded, understanding. He'd cut people off before, and he'd seen what jealousy could do. He knew what he was getting at. “That makes sense. I think I'd have done the same too if I was wrong. Communication, trust, and compromise, you're right. That's what I meant when I told you I missed us, because it was that what was what was gone. It's weird that we've always been about that, and it's a huge deal for us, even if we've never said so aloud. But something was missing when we couldn't talk plainly to each other. Something in us broke down. We have to be careful that doesn't happen again, don't we?”

“Honesty.” Axel nodded. “I know it's because I couldn't face myself feeling so... deeply, I guess, and that got in the way between us. I couldn't talk about it. Not out loud. Not until I could answer your questions, until I knew who the fuck I thought I was, I didn't know if I was over-valuing our friendship, and I didn't know if that would mean I'd overstep a mark by telling you I was doing that. Just because I was feeling all of the things, and stars, by the way, was I, it didn't automatically mean you would too. It so was messy. I couldn't clearly see how much the risk was worth it. Because, you know, how dare I even look?”

“For me, that felt like, not a dishonesty, more, I don't know, unhonest? One minute you were all... well into us being us, or at least, you didn't seem to mind it being a thing, and then you'd take it all back. You kept taking it away from me again. That hurt me. It felt like you were punishing me to cover up admitting how you felt to yourself. And I couldn't tell you how I felt about that, because I wasn't a hundred percent sure I should be allowed to feel anything about you at all. I couldn't show you you were right to take that risk, because what if I was wrong? What if I had to leave? What if you left me behind? And so that fear got in the way of me being honest with you. I lied and covered up how I felt too, and I'm sorry for that. I finally get to tell you I'm sorry for doing that. Because honesty, as we all know, is the only thing that equals trust.”

“See now,” He waved his Kohl pencil. “this is why you don't rely on subtle hints to get by. Or hearsay from others. This is why we need to be able to stop hiding from each other, all of us. We spent too long questioning everything in the universe, instead of being upfront and asking each other for the truth and finding out what to do about it. Together.” He grinned, cocky. “Now I know who the fuck I am, and I can explain it to you. Sometimes, though, you need that little firecracker to light the way...” Dodging a cushion, he wagged a finger. “Don't give me that look, you know I'm right.”

“Is it fucked up that love is way down on the list, though?”

“Nah. Not for us. How can you even get to there without the other three things all working together first? Skipping straight to some grand declaration of love first is such a low bar. Who starts there? What about, I don't know, giving a shit about each other just because, or, knowing whether you're actual friends or not? You know, a little simple checking that each other isn't going to be a complete bastard? That shit takes years to find out, and even then there's no guarantee that hearts won't change later. True Love... it needs proving? That's such bullshit. Look at the way they look you in the eye. Listen to the way they talk to you. It should be obvious if they know how to love you the right way or not. You know if you feel real love – and a love that suits you both – from the other person or not. You know if it's consistent or not, because of how easily you can return it back to them.”

“Next you'll be talking about Unquestioned Faith, and Indomitable Honour...”

Axel smirked. “I know them. Those two always have each other's backs. Won't take less than seven coins between them...”

After sunset, dusk in the tent protecting their nest further, Kayn urged Axel to place his hand back on his thigh again, his hand on top, guiding him. In the candle light, easy together, the skin that covered the muscles on his man was as heavenly to touch as his kiss. An almost dainty caress. He might not have been with a boy before, but he sure as hell knew what he was doing to him.

A gasp escapes from deep inside, turning animal in his throat, hitting him in the exact spot he liked best. In the cushions and furs, a reflex closes his eyes, and when he gulped again, words he hadn’t thought of in years filled his mind and burned behind them. “Axel...”

He looks up from his nibbling, catching his name spoken in that way. By him. A flirtatious leer and heavy lids survey him, attentive to him almost panting for air, aware of the flash burning between his barely open lashes, he savoured the suggestion of him pulling him back in for more. He has something to tell him. Something big. Coy, and making it easier by returning to the spot which made him growl that way in pleasure, he whispered, “You don't have to...”

It was too late, and phrases from long ago sang at him, wanting to be honoured but never spoken aloud, those words became printed, emblazoned inside his skull. Axel breaking away from his embrace a touch snapped his eyes open, and he withdrew, blinking. It was clear he’d caught something – half afraid to look, it was the depth of that regal, stag-like, forest deep gaze that drew him back in again. No escape.

The knit in his brow told him he hadn’t understood what was sworn, but the shimmer of delight that followed, and a slow blink after it showed it didn’t matter. At least not until later. He’d liked it, even if he didn’t know what it meant. He was still safe.

Lust returned while Kayn gave in, letting him take him over. He’d done well with the Outliers at the cart and deserved a reward, and he would stop whenever he said to, but until then... Covering him with his whole body, protecting him from the rest of the world, he sought out the silver-demon smirk greeting him. He liked the way his shrinking back into the furs even further, and pulling him in with him makes him feel, wrapping his man up in his arms under him.

This was more than enough. The two of them in bed with kissing and kind words, they would not go too far. Not yet, the pressure off them to do any more. Still not willing for the time being, this was more than good. Axel could never wipe the smug look off his face, in fact, and Kayn was impish in return, laughing at him for it, which always made all the bigger.

Kayn maintained a lot of boundaries – so many defences – and for good reason. Axel knew there was a pain in him that would take years to undo, and he didn't want to stumble into something he could have easily avoided and trash this whole connection by jeopardizing in any way. He had to know where the boundaries began and ended first. Had to know what the rules were before he could break them. He'd told him he liked to be in control while he worked, because it suited him to compartmentalise things in that way, but that wasn't what he wanted from their relationship.

Letting him take over was going to be a slow process, and he was pleased when Kayn was comfortable enough in the first place to make it known when something worried him. After all of the not telling each other how they felt, it was clear that setting the pace between them was important to him and he would pay attention, thinking of how difficult it must have been for him to admit that small thing. How important to him. They would get there one obstacle at a time. Together. Drinking in the contented way he was looking now, he dared anyone who thought they could to come and try to take this from him.

Not long after they'd left, while he’d been planting kisses on him one night, wanting to claim his territory and thoroughly enjoying his giggles, they were both impressed with the newest addition to his scar collection, admiring it. After removing the dressing Reed applied, they’d found the skin knitted together, entirely healed.

Of course, it had lead to counting up the other ones he could see, and Axel, innocent, had pointed to one he’d never seen before, oddly shaped and high up on the inside of his thigh. Asking about it, expecting another gory story, Kayn had closed off immediately, giving him a hard and warning glare, their game abruptly finished. What must have been hundreds of marks covered him, but this was another small thing that was too much again. Backing off, apologising for the memory he'd evoked, he'd said no more.

But watching him drift off to sleep now, he was consumed by the thought of a scar on him he wouldn't talk about, coupled now with words he wouldn’t say aloud to him. Or couldn't, rather. Replaying the fragment of the phrase he’d caught in his head over and over, the expression that went with it was what he wanted to remember most. Thinking how different he'd looked while remembering the pain the scar caused, his mind wandered to the image of him kicking Issané. How many times had he been in that position himself? Defending himself from an attack? How recent was the last time?

Reliving the new words he'd heard to himself, the feel of them filling his mind, he was looking forward to finding out all about him. He never really told them much about himself before they'd met, and this was precisely the kind of riddle he liked to unravel. Kayn lived in the moment, yet his past haunted him, and he wanted to know everything. Seven years in total spent on the road together wasn't going to be anywhere near enough information.

Before long, they've found an excellent site – one to see them well through the snows – a sheltered place on a hill, with a stone cliff wall which would support a sturdy lean-to. A rocky cave, little more than a notch in the stone, with scattered boulders encircling them on three sides, their position would keep a good proportion of the wind off them, with high ground advantage if they should need it, and a river below that Tristin had checked was teeming with fish. Well off the valley floor, they are quick to have a roaring fire going, and Jed is careful to keep it burning strong as the colder weather draws in, all of The Sanguine glad they listened to him and stole so much mead and cider and even some whiskey they'd found to warm them.

Time drawing on now they'd settled, Issané and Tristin had indeed began to distance themselves from the rest, true to Jed’s prediction. Spending more and more time alone – away from them – Axel worried, a voice in his head that he could not ignore, and while Reed reported on their latest haul, the two watch the pair leave together again. Issané dragging him into the woods, Axel was incredulous they weren’t only fighting together now.

”...rabbits and a deer. Oi? Are you even listening to what I said?”

“They’re off again. Second time today. I don’t like it.”

“Haha! Keeping tabs?” Reed scoffed and screwed up his face. “Gross. Haven’t you got anything better to do? We’ve caught enough. We actually got the deer this time. We’ll be set for a week at least. Let him off, we don’t need him until it wants gutting.”

“That’s not it...”

“Axel, leave them. Mind your own business, stop checking up on them and let them be. Tris won't go anywhere far, and you know it. It’s not just you that gets to pair off and be happy. You do realise that, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I know. I do. I can’t stop the squick though. I don’t want Jed left alone too long either. I worry. They were going to fight together, that’s all. This isn’t the plan.”

Annoyed by his efforts going unnoticed, he snipped. “I’ve got Jed’s back. He’s not doing brilliantly well but there’s no need to worry. Yet.” He couldn't resist a dig. “Worry more about my blistered arse from that piece of shit saddle I’ve had to sit on. What’s the problem? She’s not proved herself enough? We’re following her for all the stars' sake. Isn’t it enough for you? And is it so much of a surprise they are...” He swallowed, a frog in his throat. “...more than partners now?”

“But how fast? They could have waited...”

“Waited? For what?” Reed snorts. “For us to trust her more? For your approval? Let them be. She’s done enough.”

Axel’s surprise is evident. “Wow. I did not think I’d find you in her corner. Her being a rival to your particular skill set and all. She might well have done enough for you and Jed and Tris, but Not for Kayn. Still not enough for him.”

Reed wanted to tell him that nothing would ever be enough and that it was probably a good idea to stop obsessing over her, and that alone would probably go some way to easing him. But a better idea came to him to keep his mouth shut about relationship advice, so he did that instead.

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