Episode 28.

CW: Suicide Ideation, Drug Use.

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Reed sat, a chill flurry around him, the promise of the bite of the river below reminding him of how far he had come. David's camp was modest but inadequate – doing the very best with what they had, it was clear how much had been taken from them, and as thoughts of spring crawled ever closer to reality, The Sanguine had spent some time planning their next move. He and Tristin plotted maps together based their scouting parties, on various pictures that'd been newly sketched versus scrolls already seen of Issané's visions, Axel relating them to what he already knew and comparing it with the current maps and information David and Jennifer had passed on.

It was a surprise to find their leader defacing his prized possessions, after years of insisting they be carted along with them. Scribbling on them now, tearing them up to share the paper out between them. Whatever he’d seen with Issané, it was as serious as he'd told them that first night he'd seen the vision for himself and they were now defunct. This was it. Not that they'd doubted him making this a reality, yet still the pie in the sky dreams they'd had all this time were one by one coming true.

New growth hung from branches in heavy, emerald jewel tones, waltzing in the light beams thrown by the freshly revealed sun. Norizima was waking up, and the fullness of the water below gushed happily, belying its icy intent. The air was crisp and cleansing. Everything else was silent. Perfect. Or, it may have been, if his worry about Jed wasn’t rattling around in his head, irritating him.

Winter for him had been tough this time, further north than they had ever been and another without Sal, and the others had all but given up trying to rally him. Back in the camp they'd built together, there was a point where he hadn’t spoken in days, and nothing anyone had said seemed to entice him to.

“...Oh my stars! If I hear 'Are you cold?' ONE MORE TIME...” Kayn had hooted after peeing up a tree and getting under the quilts again in the lean-to.

“I know, right? Like... Obviously, I am cold. Clearly I am. Stop asking me all the time.” Axel chipped in – the worst offender for checking on them all the time – while he made room, and they shared the warmth between them again.

“I just want to see the sun, one more time, you know? Doesn’t have to be warm, I'm not fussy, I just want to see the sky.”

“Mmm, that would be nice, a bright blue sky. One flower, though. A daffodil. Just, like, one snowdrop.” Axel sniffed. “Dassit.”

“Who was that?” Tristin sat up out of nowhere, agitated, chiming in with false outrage, making Kayn laugh. “Who sneezed?! Stars alive will you put your elbow over your mouth if you’re going to do that? We are in a barren wasteland out here, in case you couldn’t tell. Not a Temple for a hundred miles out here. One sneeze and we’re done for. He might be skilled, but I don’t think Reed can save us all from the plague, do you?”

“I haven’t got the plague! I said that’s it. Dassit. It wasn’t a sneeze.”

“Oh, covering it up now, are we? Like you should have covered your gob? I saw you! We know you can't possibly have hay-fever right now. And don't lie and say the light was in your eyes...”

“What? No... There was, like, a cat... Or something. A raccoon? I might be allergic to raccoons? Whatever, it's definitely not the plague.”

“Well that’s it then.” Their prodding pantomime had worked, Jed cutting through their laughter. Backfiring, though, he admonished, humourless. “One sneeze out here and we’re all dead now.” He shifted, irritated, leaning back – arms folded over his chest, coffin-ready. “Good to know. If death's coming then, I wish she would hurry the fuck up.”

But Issané wouldn’t let Jed cogitate on his sadness, or mood the winter away, making him get up and walk around and exercise the horses, the only thing that could motivate him to join her. With that, the dopamine her tweed provided had become a welcomed permanent fixture at night and while Reed had refused any more the others enjoyed it, although their nonsense almost drove him to distraction...

She hadn’t tried a thousand other things with him first, up to and including the others’ annoying banter, she'd instinctively twigged how to get him up and about. Kicking at him when he moaned about exercise after his poisoning, not letting him get away with putting it off, she'd told him he’d never hold a sword again if he didn’t do it now.

Smart.

He thought of her, and smiled. Recognising that she fought so hard because she was a survivor like the rest of them, he liked how Tristin was becoming with her around, and he'd enjoyed her annihilation of him over the bear, too.

A tough little sparrow indeed, who swept through the camp, sun up and sun down without fail, because she hated the spiders, whether real or imagined. When they’d grumbled to her about having to get up, and move around out of the furs, she’d cite Tristin’s theories as the reason they had to. Sniping at her for having to stand around in the chill while she did it every morning and night, she'd signed, “What doesn’t kill you will cause you sleep paralysis and night sweats, right?” laughing.

Kayn, adamant he could interpret now, demanded everyone to shush while he did. “Stun?”

“No...” And she signed the word for sleep.

“Oh, Nightmares?”

“Close, but no.”

“Sleep paralysis, then.” Axel could not stop himself from butting in.

“How the hell did you get it from that?”

“How do you think?” Jed had sniped. “Mr. I Don't Cheat at Charades. Can't believe you swallowed that bullshit.”

The cold air hurting her, which had resulted in her endless pissing and moaning, out of guilt, Axel made sure she got the lion’s share of their honey supplies, yet it wasn't enough to soothe her, and they'd had to find her a temple after all. Kayn had inspected the stone room for her, daily and without fail, unsure if the command had come from his own guilt, Jennifer, or Issané herself.

Reed knew Axel had feared that they would all leave him before she came. In her forcing the reconciliation among them, it had bolstered his will to lead them again too, and it was clear that they could only move with her help – his relief evident at that. And since they were all back on track because of her, he’d not been able to to express his gratitude in it's fullest until now.

Enjoying his apology upon her return to the camp, and seeing that he wasn’t used to giving them, she’d made him squirm, but Reed saw that she was serious when she told him that Tristin deserved more respect. When she’d asked if he had spoken to him yet, he’d rubbed at his forehead, admitting that he wanted to get the easy apology out of the way first.

Between her animal conservation, and Tristin’s people conservation, as they lived and breathed, they were a perfect match, yet between their closeness and Jed’s constant aggravation, their circumstances had been something of a last straw for Reed.

Jed's griping about their situation had a way of getting to him, especially now that they'd so little else to think about, and more than that, he'd been right the whole time, worrying about an attack while they were isolated in the forest. He constantly worried about being a target, and he wasn’t about to let them forget that he's been right about that.

The time they’d spent holed up together, practically living on top of each other, made him uncomfortable too. Their constant, faux bolstering drove him wild, in fact. He didn’t want to listen to bawdy jokes. He didn’t want to sit huddled together. He didn't want to get high and laugh it all off as though it was nothing. He valued his space, and the clarity it bought him, inside his mind as well as outside of it. He didn’t understand the desire to pair off. Or rather, he understood it, it was their enthusiasm he was missing. The drive to get close enough to be inside each other’s skin, the way they seemed to want to, and right in front of his bone broth too.

Stomping off into the snow, he'd stopped at the freezing water’s edge then, wishing there were a way to cross. Still sat there now, he was grateful there hadn’t been, but...

Helping Jennifer and David bring life into the world, seeing that happen first hand, was changing something in him, but was it fair to claim that his actions could negate all the lives lost by his hand now? He wanted to believe it was true, but always stopped short of convincing himself so. He’d made several errors before, and may or may not have accidentally cost quite a lot people their lives, at the very least their sanity.

The gravediggers had made an appearance in his first few months of arriving on land again and he had impressed them with his blackout concoction, after using it while stitching up a particularly severe shovel injury. He didn’t need to keep his recipes anywhere other than inside his head, and this had turned out to be error number one.

Error number two was writing it down for the gravediggers and giving it away.

Not that he’d had a choice, it was either that or end up buried alive, and they were very clear to point out to him that his patient had suffered no accident. They wouldn’t be coming back to rob him later. Or, maybe they would. He had seen some things while he was with them.

The army of those corpses still haunted him, but their voices hadn’t followed him out here into the snow and out the other side, their echo fading the further out they rode. He still remembered them, still troubled by them, and the last town they'd fled had had so many more. People rotting in the streets, on every corner, in every doorway and back alley, real or imagined. He knew without looking that it was his mistake in their veins. Jed's insistence that it should be kept well away from him wasn't entirely unfounded.

The new mixture had spread far and wide, and whoever had passed the list of ingredients on had got something very, very wrong. His Blackout wasn’t addictive. It wasn’t designed to tweak anything inside the mind to cause that. There was no ingredient to cause that included. It was medicinal only, meant to help. A soothing, dreamless sleep to aid recovery.

Whatever this new thing was it was not that. It had a new name.

He'd witnessed how people took whatever concoctions they could find to alleviate whatever pain – physical or not – Issané's tweed being testament to that – to help with their conditions, but this... this was not and was never designed to be that. The gravediggers understood. And they weren't looking for a cure, either. They weren't in that kind of pain. They were looking for a remedy to the pain of poverty. A gravedigger's child was not permitted by Albion to do any other job. They'd found an antidote that would ensure they'd still be in business for generations to come.

He should have known not to trust anyone who messed with dead bodies like they did, and did nothing to help souls pass on to the ribbon above. Everything about what they were doing kept their light tied to the land, and the collective rage at the audacity of that sacrilege endlessly marched on and on towards him.

Obviously, the robbers had an ulterior motive, and that meant they didn’t care what else happened along the way. Greed had got in the way, and well out of destitution now, as long as they made their money, the dead didn’t matter to them. He should have done more to stop them, he knew, but they had been... persuasive. He still remembered the confines of the box around him, and taste of dirt in his mouth. And now, the dead ones always followed him, and they had driven him to Issané’s cell.

And only he would have been unwise enough to go to a healer while wanting to end things.

Suspecting she was bringing him back from the brink of a permanent black sleep in her cell, he'd thought to ask her about it while she was away from Tristin. He doubted he would be happy to know he’d been alone with her in there under any circumstances now, let alone admitting to him what he was trying to do. Finding out the truth, that he'd wanted to die, and tried it, and how close to it he’d been to the edge, would be a far bigger kick in the teeth for him than imagining him doing anything else would be. Not that he ever would.

He'd never got the chance to approach her gently. While looking for medicines in his chest, looking to shut Jed’s moaning up, and smiling at remembering hiding inside it, she'd collected up the mushroom powder they mixed with water to stop pain, and discovered that he still had one vial of pure blackout left.

Premixed, and ready to use.

Injectable.

In that quantity, a lethal dose.

As soon as he was back into camp after helping Jennifer, David, & the arrival of baby Issa, and once alone, she’d met him head-on, demanding to know if the vial she'd found in his trunk was what she thought it was. The powder was one thing, but dissolved in firewine it was quite another.

The others had a habit of not confronting him, but not her. “Was this for me? In case things didn't work out as intended?”

“No, Issané. Never. I could never do that... Kayn had hold of it. That’s the only reason it was hidden. Please...”

Satisfied she was in the clear, she’d pointed at him accusing, and he shook his head.

“I’m not taking it any more, I swear. Or making more. But I can’t throw anything away in case, that’s all. I know it’s not worth much, but I swear on my life. I’m not taking it, and I’ll not poison anyone. What if it is the ingredient for something else? What if I need to operate? What if Jed was hit worse than he was? I must keep it.”

As long as honesty was on the table, she'd another thing on her mind. “If it wasn’t meant for me, why did you do what you did in the camp?”

His head dropped, ashamed. “The first night? I thought that if I frightened you and you made a fuss it would look better if I dragged you off before I let you go. You didn’t take the hint. I didn’t know what else to do. Kayn was so hostile – I didn’t know Tris would step in.” Annoyed by her compliance at the time, since it'd almost backed him into a corner with her that he'd have struggled to get himself back out of again, he’d tried to act without losing face. If she'd made a fuss, he could have rescued her and looked a hero. Flustered when his intimidation failed, he'd attempted the last-ditch try to scare her with the blackout, willing her to fight him off.

“Oh, yeah. No. That would have been a good plan!” She brightened, realising. “I’m not good with hints, though. I’m better at... doing other things to keep me safe. Yours would have been a good idea...” She saw his pained expression at mentioning the things she was better at. “You don’t fuck about, do you?”

Not knowing why that had earned her his enigmatic smile, in the end, she’d left the blackout with him, scowling her warning, but he'd had to ask. “Wait. Issané? I have to know. It was you, ah, resuscitating me in your cell all those times? I mean, undoubtedly it was, it couldn’t have been anyone else... But... Did you stop me from... From, you know...”

He couldn’t bring himself to say it. That he wanted to end his life altogether. It seemed so far removed from the way he felt about things now. The world had just made more sense to him without him in it back then. But the further they rode the more he could leave behind, the deaths he had caused, and the deaths he could have, and the killing he had run from. Axel had said all the scores were settled, and Issané compounded the truth of that by forgiving Kayn when she'd every right not to. She’d even get Tristin to forgive them if she had her way. Could that mean he was in the clear too?

Failing to find the signs to tell him, she rummaged for paper instead, and scrawling a note, she handed it to him to keep. Three words lit up his face. ‘You are important’.

Feeling the urge to throw his arms around her, he looked at the floor and whispered instead. “Thank you. Oh stars, thank you so much Issané. You’ve saved me too as well as all the others.”

“It's what I do. And you came to me because you wanted to live, whether you knew it or not.”

“I mean.” He was piqued by the attack on his intellect. “ Of course I knew before you surprised the others in the hideout. I'd say that was a pretty smart move of me, actually.”

“But did you know I was a healer, though?”

“Absolutely. You think I hadn't worked it out already?”

“But did you though? And if you did, you didn't think to tell the others?” She snorted. “Keeping that kind of information to yourself? I doubt it...”

“It's not like I knew how much trouble you'd be, if that's what you mean.”

Her hand went to his chest, and a finger click urged him to look up at her. “We're all in trouble. Every one of us. People are broken enough already. They need all the help they can get. Even you.”

“I'm not sure you can call me a help. A medic just makes you comfortable while you die. You said it yourself, it is a healer that keeps you alive. That's not what I am.”

“Why do you say that? You just saved Jed's life, Reed. And two more lives just this week besides that. More than I was going to do. You're good.”

“But I couldn't have done any of that without you. I'm a charlatan.”

“You’re totally not. How you’ve kept these dickheads alive for so long... We need you. Keep that in your head and stay with us, okay?”

He’d laughed, and she patted him reassuringly on the back. He worked with tangible evidence, and scientific fact. Results. Not magic. Yet, even if he wasn't a healer or even a magic user, she still made him feel important to the cause. They all were, and they all needed to make it together. Some of them needed keeping out of harm's way more than the others, and he wanted to be wide awake for whatever was coming next.


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