It's still summer. The nights are warm and humid, and when he leaves the fire for the dark of the hills surrounding the camp, Corkus soon finds himself surrounded by a small cloud of mosquitoes. He would rub his skin with yarrow like Judeau does to keep the bloodsuckers away, but the plants give him a rash. If he's going to be scratching himself all night anyway, he'd rather it wasn't self inflicted.

The path leading up towards the edge of the woods is narrow and winding, and Corkus keeps his eyes fixed on the ground so as not to lose his way in the darkness, cursing as he stumbles over stones and tree roots. Even though the wound on his shin from the battle yesterday isn't very deep, it forces him to limp to lessen the pain. His head is pounding too. Still hungover.

There are other, better things he could be doing rather than running around out here in the middle of nowhere. Sleeping is the only that directly comes to mind, but sleeping isn't a bad pastime when you think about it. Drinking isn't either. A pick-me-up wouldn't hurt. Wouldn't hurt at all.

Judeau shouldn't wander off like this. He does, sometimes, disappears at night when no one's looking to walk around in the woods doing who knows what only to return at dawn, pretending to have been in his tent sleeping the whole time. Normally, it wouldn't be a problem. Anyone else, and Corkus wouldn't be acting babysitter this way. A man needs to be alone sometimes, he can respect that.

But alone time isn't meant to be spent literally alone. A bar full of unfamiliar faces, a hopefully not too flee-ridden bed in a brothel – these are good places to go when your thoughts start banging at the insides of your skull. A desolate hill in the dead of night is not, and if Judeau thinks so, he is wrong. It's made ever so obvious by the way he acts the day after. Silent and brooding with deep blue shadows under his eyes, the normal hearty cheerfulness replaced by smiles that strain in the corners of his mouth and laughter that is a little too high pitched, all of it disturbingly uncharacteristic.

And Corkus, sometimes, gets enough.

Finding Judeau doesn't take too long once he's climbed the hill. Blond hair is practical like that; easy to spot. His friend is sitting leaning against a tall tree, elbows resting on his knees. There are several small white spots scattered in the grass around him and it takes Corkus a few seconds of puzzled squinting before he figures out what they are. Yarrow. Soon enough he feels the scent from the flowers, then the prickling in his nose that comes with it.

He sneezes twice. Judeau twitches and then turns to stare at him, eyebrows raised.

"Hey. What are you doing here?"

"You know. Feeding the birds."

"The birds, huh?"

The grass looks soft and it would probably be best to sit down for a bit or the dull, heavy throbbing in his leg will get worse later on, but the flower scent is stronger closer to the ground. Corkus is used to sleeping through pain; hay fever not so much.

"Yup," he says, shifting his weight to his left foot, supporting himself against the tree. "Fleas eat me, then the birds eat them. So I'm feeding the birds."

"You're so witty."

The stare is a smile now, though not of the most welcoming kind.

"What can I say? It's a gift."

The camp is a warm, flickering light down in the valley, the contours of tents and carriages just barely distinguishable. Yesterday they would probably have been able to hear the sounds of singing and laughter all the way up here, but tonight The Band of the Hawks are groaning irritably over their bowls of soup, pressing thick, juicy houseleek leaves to their aching foreheads.

"Come on." Corkus nudges Judeau's arm, hoping both for a more normal reaction to the lousy joke and for him to stop dissecting the flowers and twinning the stems between his fingers. If the smell gets any worse the sneezing won't stop for a week. "This ain't the look of a guy who helped with another victory. We got to shine there!"

When there's no answer he adds: "Casca sure as hell did."


Not much of a conversation, but it's a start.

"Don't you think she's been acting even bitchier than usual lately? Jumps at me for practicallynothing these days."

The silent seconds turn to minutes. Corkus is sweating, the night abnormally hot even for the season, and when he speaks again his voice sounds lower that usual, almost thoughtful. He's not sure whether it's on purpose.

"You could tell her, you know."

Judeau's answer comes fast. Too fast.

"Tell her what?"

It's gotten even hotter. The sweat is running down his forehead, down his back, dripping from his nose when he snorts. He doesn't even try to count the mosquito bites itching more or less everywhere, and when he reaches to scratch one on his shoulder his movements are short, irritated. Maybe it's a good thing his leg still smarts, or the urge to kick this sad excuse of a man he supposes is his best friend would be overwhelming. Instead he sneezes again. That damn smell!

"I'm going back. You coming?"

At first he thinks Judeau won't answer this either, just keep crushing the yarrow flowers between his palms, but after a few moments he wipes off the scrunched petals on the grass, nods and reaches a hand towards him.

As he pulls his friend to his feet, Corkus has to take a step back so as not to lose his balance. Judeau is heavier than he looks.