Set just post DOBS, but before TWAT. And I just wanted to type the word 'twat' gratuitously. Hahahaha.
The girl feels it the instant she is back on the ground, back in her element. The pulse rushes upward, through the earth.
Her friends' hearts are heavy, and loud. It's an unfamiliar sensation, and not one she likes.
She hadn't expected this. She had said that it would be better to pull back, and fight another day, with another plan. She had believed it, too.
She suddenly realises that she was the only one.
Everyone moves sluggishly to set up camp. Worn out and worn down, every one of them. But one most of all.
She has kept her senses trained on him for months now. When everything was shifting beneath her feet, he had been stable, unchangeable, dependable. Sometimes, she would tune everything else out and focus on the steady beat of his heart. It soothed her, somehow.
But something is off with him now. He talks, as he always has, keeping everyone together, reminding them of what they have to do in the coming days, keeping everyone alive, giving them a reason to keep moving.
The girl cannot be the only one. Surely the others must have heard the weight of despair in every syllable.
But they can't hear his heart.
Before, that fact had delighted her, in a very unfamiliar way. That she felt something private, personal, something no one else had. Now she just feels like a voyeur.
She helps as best she can, in the only way she knows how. She attacks. Everything is a fight to her. She pulls no punches, questioning, irritating, belittling his pain.
It's her way of showing tenderness.
But he doesn't rise, doesn't even raise his voice, and the girl begins to wonder if she just made things worse. She falls silent, and he follows suit.
Eventually, they draw lots for the watch that night. She draws first watch. He draws middle.
Everyone hates the middle watch. You sleep for a few hours, then you have to wake up and stand guard, then try to snatch a few hours sleep before you have to get up again. Before, he had complained and whined fruitlessly whenever it was his turn, waving empty promises of chores he would do in exchange for a full night's rest. Every time. Now, he nods and accepts it without a word.
The silence is alien, and no one knows how to break it. Eventually, they all just lie down to sleep, not even bothering to change, just flopping to the ground where they stand.
But not her, and not him.
He is not sleeping.
She pretends not to notice. She pretends not to feel him toss and turn, and she pretends not to notice when he gets up and walk away.
Strange. Before, whenever he wandered off into the night, he would at least try and conceal himself, as futile as it was when she was around. But tonight he simply stands and walks. Heading for the cliff edge.
Suddenly she is afraid. And so she follows him, silently.
No one is nearby, anyway.
But all he does is sit on the edge, reminding her of the selfish thrill she had when she heard him say that he was going to tell her something crazy, something he's never told anyone before. It seems a lifetime ago, now.
He sighs, long and slow, and then speaks.
The girl starts, sure that he hadn't noticed her.
"It's been a while, huh?"
He's not talking to her.
He'd done this once before, sat and talked to nothing she could see. She hadn't understood it, only getting the feeling that he really didn't want anyone to see this, so she had left quickly.
She stays tonight. She doesn't know why, but she stays. Perhaps she's worried about him. Perhaps she just wants something else no one knows about him.
"Yeah, a lot's happened since the last time we had a chance to catch up. It's been what, a couple of months, actually? Sorry. Anyway..." he trails off again. Suddenly, she hears a tearing sound, and his blade is in his hand, holding it aloft.
"Thanks, by the way. For the sword, I mean. Yeah, I figured you had something to do with that. Just a feeling, I guess. So thanks a lot. I'm grateful." His hand drops, the sudden clatter of the sword beside him sending vibrations buzzing through the earth.
He falls forwards, and his arms move up, his palms flat on his hair. His heart hitches, and he takes a ragged breath.
"I'm sorry. I know, I've said it before, and I know you don't want to hear it, but I'm sorry. I keep finding new and exiting ways to let the people I love down, and... damnit! I can't do this! Why did I ever think I could do this? I mean, everyone was there, you were there, you gave us the only chance we were ever going to get to end this war, and I choked. So I'm sorry. I failed you. Again."
There's more, but she doesn't want to hear it. She flees as he starts to shake, and is gone long before he breaks completely.
Back at the camp, the girl sits and wait for him to come back. Sooner than she expected but later than she had hoped, the boy (she had called him that once, and had laughed in his face when he indignantly informed her that he was actually a man, thank you very much, he had completed this ritual and that ritual and was now actually sixteen, so hah. Now she wonders whether he might have a point) returns, making no noise but plenty of vibrations.
He sounds worn out.
"Hi yourself." They're both murmuring, for the benefit of the sleepers.
He offers no explanation of where he's been, and just sits down.
"You're not well." It's not a question.
He doesn't even try to deny it, just flops his head back on a tree stump.
"No. Not really."
She asks before she can think about what she's doing.
"Who were you talking to?"
There's no answer for a while.
"Someone I left behind."
She shakes her head.
"Look, if you don't want to tell me, just say so. Just stop posturing."
He gives a small chuckle.
"You really want to know?"
She does. So he tells her a story about princesses and the sons of chiefs, star-crossed lovers in a dangerous time. A tale of duty and tragedy. It sounds so much like the stories her mother would read her when she was younger (and she had always loved those moments, in spite of herself) that she would have never believed it had happened, if not for the thump of his heart.
Eventually, the story draws to a close, and she shakes her head at it. He lies back, and breathes deeply.
She has to ask. Has to find out how much he will set aside his incredulity.
"Do you think she can hear you?"
"I don't know. But it sometimes makes me feel better to talk to her, and... I guess I have to tell her these things. if there's even a chance she can hear me, it's not a total waste of time." He's tired. Very tired. But it's nothing to do with the time. "It's just... I don't know. I've just failed so completely right now, I... I don't know."
She shakes her head.
"You're not a failure, you know."
"Oh?" He's suddenly harsh, angry. "What good have I done, then? What have I achieved that's stuck? Every time I try, I just make things worse." She can clearly hear the self-loathing in his voice, and his heartrate jumps.
She takes a deep breath, and tells him something crazy, something she's never told anyone before.
"You make me feel better." She says it grudgingly, like he'd dragged it out of her.
There's a heavy pause.
"Oh." She can hear him start to smile, just a little. "Well, that counts for something, then."
She threatens him with cruel and unusual violence if he so much as breaths a word of this to anyone, as if she could ever harm him. He laughs his agreement nonetheless, unphased.
And the night marches on. In the morning nothing will be different. They will still be on the run in a strange and hostile land, with no hope in sight.
But for now, things are just a little less grim.