Episode 29.

CW: Suicide Ideation.

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Reed continued to muse over the last few months at his spot by the river.

Watching Kayn’s complete one-eighty degree turn, he ruminated on how he and Issané had continued to train together, and how he'd watched them both enjoy the challenge of fighting each other. Their rivalry all gone, as though it had never happened, something else was in the way she acted with him now.

His grim demeanour lifted all the while, and revealed the friendliness, the kindness, compassion and optimism that they knew was still inside him. It had been hidden away, for sure, but not taken from him yet. Reed would watch in pride when he would dash to lend a hand if someone was struggling to carry something. Talking about her night after night before they settled, Axel loved to listen to the way he would go on as he did now, excited, happy, and on occasion, in awe of her. Watching them together like this made Reed smile, and think of a past memory. Of another person who'd touched all their lives in such a way.

Kayn was teaching her to box, training her to use her fists. Bubbling over with pride, telling Axel all about it, he'd gush over how lightning fast she is. Praising her for learning quickly, he liked how often she could take him by surprise. He'd found that he enjoyed coaching her, pleased that she could take his advice and apply it well. She listened to him and she pushed him to do better, but always just shy of too far. She had a knack for knowing where the line was with him, something that Axel was developing for himself now that his own boundaries had changed.

By comparison, the boxer had been an absolute mess at dual wielding swords, and Issané was perplexed as to how, as an able-bodied man, he managed to operate his own hands independently so poorly. Thinking he could use two sabres from the stock they'd collected like she can, he'd refused point blank to use a ‘girl’s knife’ to train with, to Tristin's raised eyebrow. Showing off, not listening to her, he'd ended up hitting the longer blades together more often than not, which made the others laugh. More than a few of them had been surprised when he had laughed along with them, instead of defaulting to embarrassed or angry, and Reed was glad of it. Fairly beaming when he was comfortable enough to tell jokes around the fire, he grinned warmly back, when Kayn said Axel was ‘His Axel’.

He was his, and it was good to hear him comfortable enough to call him that.

Issané and Kayn being polar opposites, he could appreciate how their differences only strengthened the scope of their training ability together. Pushing them all to train harder and harder, she goaded and taunted them all until they could no longer resist.

Neither did he miss Kayn’s ever-growing patience with her. Defending himself against the kick attacks she incorporated into their training, he was learning new moves too. When they weren't sparring together they could often be seen training in unison, co-ordinated, almost choreographed, an ingrained knowledge they both shared on display. He was pleased that she wanted to spend time with him, and now Tristin would as well again, because of her. Maybe... maybe they could finally bury their differences once and for all, their fresh start together in sight.

And careful, and as covertly as he could, he'd watched while Axel took his time to learn his new cues, the more they showed they accepted each other, the further back into the light they felt they could come together. Allowing him to test all his boundaries, he knew that doing so would build their trust, and Axel let him know that he was true to his word. He would never leave without him again, try to change him or ever stop him from feeling anything, merely for his own benefit. Nor would he tell him he was wrong for feeling any of it, whether it was good or bad.

In turn, overjoyed that nothing had really changed between them at all, Kayn still found he never badgered at him about, 'the way he is feeling today'. Or ask for any prior warning if he was 'going to have a mood swing', as if he himself would ever know in advance. He never wore kid gloves or talked down to him when he felt anything less than cheerful, and would never tell him to hurry up and get over a mistake. When something was wrong, and he fell back into the habit of locking himself away from the others for a while, he never took it to heart. As happy as he was now, he would never stop himself from relying on the safety of that comfort zone.

He knew he wasn't invited into it. Sometimes he said he felt the others walking on eggshells around him, but Axel never did. Whenever he made it clear that he isn't allowed near, whenever he needed time alone, and he often did, he shrugged it off and found somewhere else to be. It was never personal. It never had been before, and he never took it that way now.

He only needed to check once to be sure he is alright on his own, getting better and better at sensing possible known triggers, avoiding them. And he took his first answer instead of keeping on at him for more information. And, whenever something did go wrong, he knew how to roll with the punches if Kayn needed to vent or drop it if he needed to be alone. Axel let Kayn be, whatever it was today, not preferring or demanding one mood from him over another.

And these were things that Axel had always known, all along, and Reed was relieved to find it hadn’t changed any because they were together now. Accepting him, unconditionally, he truly wanted Kayn. Every part, good and bad, dark and light, all of him, as he had promised to him now that he always would. These were Kayn’s rules. His boundaries, and they would stay within them as well as they could.

Yet, the only thing he could not accept was his blank refusal to pick up a sword and use it seriously whenever he trained. His messing about with Issané was funny, but it irritated Axel that he still thought he was indestructible. This pestering was allowed, a sore point always played for laughs, but one that was still up for debate. He knew he cared when he got irate about it, and when he'd encouraged the others to tell him how dangerous the road was without a weapon, they'd joined in too.

Their stories had only cemented his stubborn streak.

He still would not do what they wanted, purely because they wanted him to. That went against all the rules of consent and therefore remained a no go. Not even with the increasingly impressive blades they'd find for him after their victims had been disarmed. But the fact that he'd allowed this point to even be discussed again had given Axel the courage to nag him for something else. That he should grow his hair long again.

Kayn had shrugged at the first suggestion of it, supposing he could, and Axel's reaction to his answer had been confusing for him. He wasn't sure if it was about the hair itself, or the fact that he had conceded that he could possibly, maybe consider doing something so frivolous without being ordered to. Or the fact he had expected a fight over it and hadn't got one. He let him have the victory this time, but he would still keep his undercut.

In fact, Reed hadn't seen their leader this fired up in a long time. The validation over his feelings being returned to him had let him return to himself, and those who'd chosen to follow him, now that The Sanguine could move on to whatever was next after all this waiting. The others were more than ready, and Axel knew how to whip them into a frenzy, talking more and more of the continuum and the theories behind it, holding court and relishing the attention they lavished upon him for it.

Needing to be sure they are as one, he would test them on all they'd learned with him so far, satisfied that his people are ready for the task ahead, eager to move on. However, after speaking to Jennifer, there was still one thing holding them back. The drawings still looked wrong somehow. Different to the maps they’d used to go on. Too different, but still so similar. Expressing his worry alone with him one night, the discrepancies more than apparent to him, none of the outcomes of following the diagrams added up. The fact that the others seemed not to worry about it as much irked him. Plus, he knew too well that he'd sink an entire ship or set fire to a whole town before he’d admit his idea was bad.

“Could this be another wild goose chase? We have to consider it. I know we were following her lead before, but Axel, The maps. They don’t match. Not closely enough to be sure.”

Axel simply laughed at him. Whether or not they'd saved his arse more times than he liked to admit, he knew he took forever to come to his decisions. The others would follow him to the ends of the earth, but Reed would only deign to go if there were clear directions and a well drawn out and infallible plan of attack. “Ha! Now that I am sure, you have doubts? And you have the cheek to tell Tris he is overcautious! Look, it has crossed my mind, of course it has, and I know I have been sure about a lot of things before, but Reed, none more so than this. Look at the others. Watch how they are now, and see if that can't ease your worry. I have seen where we are going with my own eyes, and it is real. I’m sure Issané will show you too if you want? She won't mind?”

Blanching, he’d dropped the subject, although he couldn’t help one last question. “What if there are people...”

“Then we will move on again like we always have done. If there are people then it’s not our place to be there, and this will have been another mistake. We will not take land that is not ours to take. Why are you even asking? You know that better than anyone. We won’t take someone else's home for our own. The land will be deserted when we arrive. No Man’s Land. That’s how it is written. If there are already people there, it’s not ours to take.”

“But do you honestly think that we can do that again? Move on again? If we have to? Do you think he can?”

The way Axel treated Kayn made Reed’s heart glad but it came with a price. He’d quelled his worry over his intentions – still fiercely protective over the injured boy he'd met under the dray – and so he'd no longer felt the need to spy, but could see why he was going to lose his spot as second in command. He could never hold Axel’s attention the way he did.

But that was okay. Really, it was. He felt alright about the grand scheme of things being bigger than him. The band of survivors surviving together more important than his survival alone. The thread of suffering that had knit them together was stronger than any bond he’d known before, and he’d never felt this way about anyone outside of himself, not even when he’d come to leave his home land.

He sometimes wondered what the first group he had lived with were doing, what his people were doing, but it was probably likely that they were doing the things they always did, and his curiosity was satisfied. Nomadic by nature, when his people had agreed to occupy a settlement as part of a deal to broker peace across their land, Reed found he could not. There was too much out there still to know. He had to keep moving to survive. And with nothing to keep him tied to them, he’d left. No one had begged him to stay, his folk knowing that he would leave as soon as he had the chance, and he did.

Wandering through towns and villages, cities and camps, he's gone on and on, learning his craft and collecting his samples, until he’d found himself at the edge of the sea, and then when he’d discovered ships there, and saw there was even more to see and know, he'd crossed that water too.

He’d found Axel first, at fourteen, with an eye for a bargain and a talent for bartering, searching for something that was always just beyond his grasp. Hungry for it. Convinced he would find it, it seemed right to look together. And yet, the boy he'd found had wandered too far north to be on his own. In the south, where he was at home, he was used to being treated well. His father's name carried a certain gravitas there, still under his distant but watchful eye, and regardless of that a kid of that age was as respected as an elder, traded with fairly, and he'd done business and made friends and a name for himself all along the coast. But no-one would follow him too far north, and so, dismissing their repeated warnings not to leave, he'd found himself alone. Without his safety net watching his back, he'd been tricked out of the small fortune he'd been amassing, simply by being too close to Albion's grasp.

New 'Friends' had shown him that blackout was an antidote to the fear he found himself mired in, close to penniless and alone, and he'd carried on taking it to numb himself to the pain of being afraid without his parents and unable to reach home. And while his leg was healed, Axel had worked to pay the cost of his treatment in the temple, and saw how the blackout powder was used for real relief and noted that Reed would only use powder he'd made himself. In return for the coin, he'd weaned Axel off a burgeoning addiction, by showing him how dangerous it had become after the gravediggers had doctored the recipe.

And then there was Jed and Tristin. A matching pair of brute strength Frenetics that his new companion seemed taken with, with nothing better to do than drift along with them, and so they tagged along for the ride. Then Kayn, and Sal, and now Issané had stuck with them too. Reed knew they were building a community, and there would be people joining them from all over, but why did they all have to be so... close?

He did join in with their antics and jokes. They were friends, after all. Comrades. But there was a line for him, and the new relationships between them were crossing it. It was awkward, being with them while they huddled up to each other, and the thoughts inside him had started to turn sour as well.

Jed was lucky to be alive. He knew they'd all seen him freeze before helping Issané too. Watched him second guessed himself again. Not the best thing for someone supposed to act quickly and be able to intervene in someone's death. The Stars knew that his own life would have reached a swift end if his faltering had failed her. Tristin’s dig about the scope of his skill set cut him deeply. It was meant to.

And Axel had given him no answer. He didn’t even want to know which he would not be able to move on from this, if it all went terribly wrong. He was sure this was the last chance for all of them, and understood they could not fail again.

Simply gesturing to he others instead, who were looking at Tristin’s final draft of their redrawn map – the detail it is in being by far the clearest – Issané was most blown away by how accurate, and beautifully drawn it was. Not looking up, from where they sat beside each other, Kayn beckoned him to come closer, demanding it be completed by him writing the place names they knew on, even Jed’s spark was back as he looked on, shuffling closer for a better look.

And so, he’d rolled his eyes and rolled up his sleeves and got to work. And he was fine for a while, drawn in again by his comrades, back to their security. But not here. Not on the riverbank now.

He needed to let some things go.

Drinking the highweed tea with the others had shifted some of his worst thoughts to the surface of his memory. It was fun and games to laugh and giggle, but the tight grip on what he allowed himself to feel was loosened. Buried things came to the surface and wouldn’t be quietened. Thoughts he didn’t want to think, things he couldn’t process yet forced their way into his mind.

He’d been bad, done bad things, made bad choices, but he could still carry on, choosing to take the right path now that it was obvious where that would take him. Things would catch up to him, because no matter how far he wandered, they always did, but for now at least, it wasn’t too late for him and he'd be free for a while again. He wanted to stay with these people. To fight with them, and realize their ambition with them.

Writing things down for the gravediggers had been his first mistake, and so he had to destroy the thoughts that were generated by that with fire. Watching his words dissipate into the air meant they could become dead to him too. The sheaf of paper in his hands caught alight, and with that, he concentrated on the feel of the horror from before burning away too. He could release that for the time being.

They'd gone from serious threat only to injure on sight overnight, and he'd been a little overzealous in following his orders. Replaying his regrets over in his mind as their written form turned to ash, he watched himself galloping after Axel, and later the explosion he'd caused in the inn, saw himself shooting Tris in the back, angry he'd not stopped the mage in time to begin with...

An injured, terrified Kayn in the back of the cart flashed through him, as if the salve to justify his actions. And while the paper burned, he turned his thoughts to Issané once more.

Comrades weren't always perfect, and it was ridiculous to expect or demand that they should be. Tripping over the constantly shifting battle lines drawn in the sand, how would they ever be able to keep up. Win, even? Perfection an impossible standard to reach, at least for some, it was unfair to expect it, and that meant it was never too late to offer an apology. He had plenty to give out.

And if they were accepted? If Kayn had decided to grow his hair back, then maybe he could again too.

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