Episode 9.

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It wasn't so much what Axel had said that stopped him in his tracks, although there was a hostile shade to his tone. It was more the look on his face. It was in the way he held onto Kayn's hand. Winced at the cut on his arm. Brushed the dirt from his cheek. Put himself firmly between the two of them. Orange eyes narrowed to slits. Jed was pretty well known for not having the sharpest intuition, but even this was too obvious to miss. Wiping his nose on his sleeve, he gulped hard, trying to sound like he was joking. “What's the matter? You fancy him or something?”

He'd frozen. Not entirely, but long enough to give Jed the answer he needed. No reaction came. No scripted response to such an outlandish claim, no blustering rebuff, just silence. His heart melted, and he offered him an out. “You've got no chance. Apart from you not being at all into boys, he's already in love with someone.” A small, satisfied smile played at the corner of his mouth as he watched him compose himself again. Seeing him process this new information, his eyes persistently attached to the ground in front of him, he contemplated him organising his next words.

“Please, Jed. None of that matters right this minute. He's going to wake up, and he's going to be hurt. Go and get Reed. We'll need drinking water and a splint. Linens for binding, pain relief. We might need to carry him if he can't walk. Get Tris to stay back and make him somewhere comfortable to recover. Go, okay? I'll wait here...”

Turning to fetch their medic, he did as he was told, turning back only once to see him lean in close to smooth the leaf litter from Kayn's blonde strands. He'd observed from a distance for a good few minutes while he was sat on his log. Working at his blade, he'd almost been salivating over the fighting pair, impressed. It entertained him to guess which one of them was catching his eye, and he'd altogether intended to interrogate him until he found out who – yet subtlety was not his strong suit either, and it pleased him to discover the truth without causing too much trouble for the two of them.

A connection between them would require a delicate touch, which he did not possess, and he realised why the situation was so complicated. Why this was all so secret. Axel had only ever been seen with or talking about girls. Kayn was his best friend. If he'd given him any reason to think there could be more between them, he was a million miles away from admitting the truth of it to himself.

As he trudged away, back to camp, he kicked himself for missing it, the more his brain churned over the two. He was right. It was obvious. There was something about them together, and they were much closer than any of the others were, despite him being around the least amount of time. They were thick as thieves, in fact, but that reaction there was way more than mere concern for his friend. Kayn wasn't imagining anything, but he could see why he was playing it safe. He wished he had the tact to help them, but he knew he'd make things between them a bigger mess than they needed to be. It'd be hard, but for this, he could keep his mouth shut.

Screams roused him. Not the usual ones from his sleep – these were louder, crying, they pleaded, frightening him. They always did, but it was the order the memories came in. Kayn never had control once they started, and he could never manage to stop before that part. Routine, though, it was never enough to wake him completely, and dreams continued nevertheless.

But this was the part he tried so hard to divert his attention from. The one that sickened him more and more each time he relived it. The dream that had begun to haunt him in the day. He wished he could remember the cause – the reasons behind feeling this way all the time now. But every chance he had to identify the root of it, a panic would threaten to take hold of him and he'd always end up forced to back off, stranded in the void his thoughts had created, not strong enough to escape it. Older here, magic was in his bones – his power changed in him by this point.

Sinking back into the furs, conscious of the hardness of the back of the cart, he took back his hand. Wrapping the heavily weighted furs tighter around himself, he needed the pressure their substance lent him. He wanted to turn his back on the world again, to turn his back on everything in it, but he was safe, cocooned here. He worried for the horses, but the warmth on his body and the gentle sway of the road soothed him. Anything on the outside of that could rot and die for all he cared. The whole world could turn to dust and flutter away into the sun.

He was sick of being hurt. Tired of being used. No one understood what life was like for him, how differently he experienced it to them, but he was safe inside this shell. He would stay in it until he could determine no difference in safety, inside or out, and not before. He would stay until he was strong enough to survive alone again. Because it was clearer, now more than ever, he would always be alone in this. No one could reach him. It registered that Axel had returned once more. Of course it did, but instead of the glee he usually savoured, there was nothing but the cold, dead realisation he'd left because he'd run from him in the first place.

Away from him. He'd caused too much trouble. Drawn too much danger, yet again. Fucked up yet another good thing. He always would, and none of them would ever be happy, not for as long as he was with them. Certainly he'd heard him promise he wouldn't leave him again, but the world was a pit fire, and all the people in it nothing more to him than a storm of shit. Both had shown him too many times that it was full of nothing but pain and deceit. Liars and dogs, to a man.

Axel had a habit of self-preservation when things got tough. He would always run. It was understandable. Smart, even. Reasons didn't matter. Finished with it all, being a good person just wasn't going to be his deal. For seventeen long years, he'd failed at it. Now, with this latest screw up, allowing this attack to come for his brothers, he'd ruined everything beyond salvage. He didn't deserve anything except for the contempt the world held for him. There was no love in it for him now. There wasn't going to be any happy ending.

Not here. Not any more. Not anywhere on this shithole planet. This hateful, fucking disaster of a universe had shown him for the last time exactly what it wanted from him. He was sick of mourning the life he could have lived. Sick of the jealousy. Of the envy caused by the happiness which came so easy to everyone else. Sick of having to fight for every tiny scrap of joy.

The searing burn in his arm, the slick onset of a fever, the threat in the message he'd received this time was clear, and he'd pay heed. He wouldn't need telling again. If he couldn't do enough to keep him close by when he needed him this badly, then everyone would run from him.

He'd make damned sure of it.

Except, he hadn't been able to make sure of it. He was even a failure at this simple thing. He hadn't been able to cut him off – he wasn't capable of it, no matter how hard he tried. But he was the one who'd broken his promise not to leave again, and in doing so, he'd shown him how trying to win him over wasn't ever going to be worth the effort. He'd made it clear. He was with her in the cell. He wanted her instead.

Kayn kicked himself for allowing himself to think otherwise, to allow himself the excitement of being almost so close to confessing the way he wanted to stay together forever. To believe the strings in his heart whenever they soared in hope at a too long look his way. He shouldn't be allowed to feel the way he did when he'd squint and do that little intake of breath to show he'd considered his words before saying them – an action which always made his energy turn weird, in a breathless, tense buttock kind of fashion. He'd revelled in the thrill, in the sheer delight in a shared joke only the two of them understood. Ached for hips or shoulders that didn't jerk away from each other if they sat too close, for hands that weren't yanked away if they brushed each other by accident. Even after Reed had amputated the broken finger he couldn't fix. Even after that.

But he wasn't like he was, and never would be. Their friendship had already become damaged over it, and they'd never be the same again. And if he couldn't stop himself from fucking up every five minutes, always tripping over his own battle lines drawn in the sand, nothing would bring it back. Lost in telling himself again and again he could easily kill the girl, and that doing so would solve everything, he doesn't. He can't, and it is this hesitation over it which makes him wild.

It'd be so easy. His inner monologue would try to persuade him. No one would even know. More than a few times he'd turned himself back from the cell door. Not even able to enter, getting worse by the day, he was livid with himself for not understanding the reason he cannot execute the extermination of this parasitic, insignificant piece of shit. It was fair. He could lose to her. And she knew it, too.

Spending this amount of energy on her is wearing him out. Exploding into his ice at the tip of a hat, to unable to get out of bed, drained, he feels useless and hopeless between. Paranoia fuelled his anger now, while he becomes more unpredictable by the day. No one else could see her for the threat she was. She needed wiping off the face of Hessonia.

So, why couldn't he?

Returning after a few days scout of the surrounding areas, looking for the next somewhere to go, leaving the rest of them behind, Axel needed room to think. Backed into a corner he didn't want to fight his way out of, everything seemed stacked against him, and he hated it. Even the weather had turned on him and driven him back to their hideout. Maybe the others are right. Maybe it's time to call it quits...

Soaked through, mind still as heavy, he is as warmed by the fire as much as the sight of Jed and Tristin playing cards by the hearth, and it is obvious that Jed, while concentrating hard, is losing. “Where's Reed?”

“Out.” Jed pauses a minute. “Actually, he hasn't been back since you left. Thought he might have followed after you. Didn't he, then?” He addresses Tristin, throwing down his hand. “Shitting fuck. How'd you beat me again?”

“You're crap at cards? Your lips move when you count? I can tell when you're losing? You've always been crap at cards? You can't talk and play at the same time?” He mocks. “Choose one, any one, but don't tell me what it is.”

Grimacing, Axel shucked off his sodden coat. It did nothing to relieve the pressure in his head. The leather had leaked at the stitching which probably meant it would want re-dying too, whenever he'd get to a decent saddle-smith who could repair it. “And him?” He gestures to his closed door. “He still in there? Did you make sure he ate something? Make sure he slept? Can we go in? Did he say not to?”

“He's not a dog, Axel.” Tristin's abrasive tone and hard 't' made him look up. “No, we didn't feed him.”

“What he means is,” Jed hurriedly intervened, “we thought you might like to check on him when you got back. He didn't say not to. He hasn't been out since he came back last. You weren't here then, so he didn't come out again. There's soup still. Bread and that.”

“Yeah. Good idea. I'll take him some. Broken glass?”

“Nope. We kept an ear out the whole time. Nothing smashed so far.”

Tristin pulls a face at 'we'. Tinged with animosity, his expression is missed by Axel, and ignoring Jed's stare too, he gathered enough together to constitute a meal, grateful he could find a reason to disturb him after all. If he'd gone looking for Sal, he might be injured, and if he'd hidden himself away, no one would know. Although avoiding him entirely, it is Jed alone who watched his hand pause on the handle a heartbeat too long. He'd been here before. The mental picture of walking in to finding Kayn passed out and needing bandages came to him, tightening the nervous knot already in his gut. Something he never wanted to see again, a long, slow breath out and a gritted jaw gives him enough heart to turn the knob and enter the pitch-black room.

Gentle, putting the tray on the table, he used a voice which matched. “Kayn. There's food here if you want it. Soup and bread. It's good. Hot, mind.”

“Back, then.”

He felt an equal measure of surprise and relief as the reply. “Yeah. You need anything else?” He wanted to talk, but that would be out of the question. Only the stars would have known how long ago his candle went out, yet he'd decided against replacing it. The silence which followed his question was the signal to leave. Pausing, unwilling to, Axel tries and fails to find the words he needed – there were so many, and he had no clue where to begin – but he'd missed a cue like this before, provoking an anger which had taken a long time to dissipate – and he wasn't going to risk it another time. He'd already overstepped the mark in the camp.

He wished the trick had at least been worth the try. Given him the chance to argue and open things up between them again. To blow the lid off all the things that weren't being said, and have them become safe to talk about. It hadn't gone to plan. On top of it all, he'd broken his promise again, but if he didn't have the next place to go lined up, if he couldn't tell them what the next thing to do would be...

Feeling tired, dejected, and cold from the rain, he almost whispers it. That he wants to stay, and be soothed by the darkness in this room too. To climb inside whatever it was that was keeping him locked away from them, and curl up with him in it. To appease whatever horror he held onto. “Kayn...?” The words were on the tip of his tongue until he realised that no one had asked him, and it would be ridiculous to say such a bold thing aloud.

Plus, no answer. He'd already had about thirty seconds more than he should have been allowed. Backing out again, as the door clicks shut he'd have sworn he heard a small plea.


Dismissing his thinking as wishful while he dried himself and did something about his hair, he changed into warmer, softer clothes, thanking Obbé and Sina for the blessing of dry socks. Relieved all was as well as could be, he joined the card game. If the dark wasn't an option, he'd make do with friends, mead, cushions and blankets, and the warm flicker of candlelit lamps, while the storm outside pelted at their windows.

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