He was falling; stumbling over the forest ground, leaves rustling under his shaky legs. Knees weak, head spinning, deaddeaddead, his palms slapping hard against tree trunks but not hard enough to make the pain in his chest disappear.
Alineja was dead. Killed by the Icies as if she was nothing but a twig broken in half.
He was falling; the pain in his chest soaring high, bringing tears to his eyes.
No, no, nononono!
This wasn't supposed to have happened. They were ... they were following the rules, they were moving, they weren't living in the same house all the time, they weren't camping at the same spot for more than three days, they ... shouldn't have been found.
He was falling; down onto his bony knees on some dry, orange and red leaves, falling down until his forehead hit the ground. He grabbed a fistful of 'em, didn't feel his fingernails break, not feeling anything but how dawn would bring nothing but ... loneliness. There would be no more Alineja to wake him up with a smile and some food. There would be no more Alineja to tell him stories of his mom, no more stories of how life used to be, no more stories at all.
He was alone now. There was no one in his life anymore to ... there was just no one. Alineja was dead, Uncle Sam had left four years ago, he didn't know anyone else and he was alone.
He was pretty sure he had lost the Icies, or maybe they hadn't even noticed him, being too busy ripping the spine out of Alineja's back to notice him be there at all.
He was alone now. On this world, he was alone now.
He leaned his head down and screamed into the ground, stuffing his mouth with the dried leaves to muffle the sound. Tears are for the weak, Uncle Sam had whispered to him sometimes in the dead of the night, but they make you stronger, too.
He shed one tear for a woman that had been in every way his mother, then another for a woman that combined with his uncle had been in every way his teacher. And then it was enough.
Tears were for the weak, and in this world, being weak meant death which he wasn't all that excited about. Alineja had taught him to survive, to fight, to love and to live. And for her, Jensen would be strong. Two tears would have to be enough of the mourning for the woman who had raised him since he was just a baby, only three hours out of his mom's belly. She was the woman who had taught him how to live on this world and how to keep his soul from bleeding.
He raised himself up to his wobbly feet, cleaned his wet face of any signs of weakness that whoever would find him in these woods could abuse and started walking into the rising sun.
It would be a hot day, he could feel it all over his body.
It would be a sunny day, he could see it in the redness of the sun.
"Jensen, come on, easy, come on, just open your eyes."
It would be a day full of silence, he could feel it in his head.
"Come on, easy, easy, open your eyes for me, buddy."
It would be a day full of walking on achy feet and desperate need of water.
"That's it, come on, it's okay, it's all right, come on, buddy."
He was lost. Everyone he'd ever had was gone.
He was falling into a warm, dim light.
Jensen was burning, he was burning but he wasn't screaming, he wasn't making any noise because noise could attract monsters, monsters who would kill him.
And he didn't want that. He didn't. He rolled over, hissing quietly when the hard surface of whatever he was lying on dug itself into his ribs.
The ... image ... in front of his eyes made abso-fucking-lutely no sense. Whatever those two Icies had done to him must've short-circuit some of his brain cells or something, because what - who he was seeing just couldn't be.
Jensen closed his eyes, said 'hi' to the pretty little stars and lines of colors that appeared under his eyelids, and let them take him away again.
"Jensen, don't do this, not now. Come on, open your eyes."
He squeezed his eyes tighter, because no, this ... this wasn't happening. He was dreaming, he was dead, he was ... this wasn't real.
But the voice kept on returning, kept on saying his name, he fucking damn well knew his own name, fuck ... just ... no, this wasn't happening.
"You're not real..." he whispered and tugged his hands closer to his chest, his legs closer to his body and hid his face into the hard surface of what he was lying on.
It smelled of those same dry leaves that he'd had stuck in his nose for weeks after he'd run away from the Icies and Alineja's body. For weeks that smell had haunted him, hunted him, followed him throughout the day and into his dreams.
For weeks, Jensen could hear her screams, could see the sneer on the Icy's face when he'd ripped out Alineja's spine … for weeks that image had followed him into restless sleep.
"Jensen, listen to me, kiddo ... open your eyes. Right now."
"Shut up." he gritted through clenched teeth, because no. This just wasn't happening.
Jensen was lost again. Falling into that feeling of pain inside of his chest that couldn't be healed no matter how many Icies he had killed. No matter how many of them he'd stuck his knife into, no matter how many of their hearts he'd had pierced with one of his arrows ... that pain in his chest stayed with him, sitting heavy and watchful every damn night.
And then he'd learned that the Icies couldn't really be killed like that. So … he hadn't killed any of them. Not really. He hadn't even hurt them. He hadn't made any dent in their population. He'd … only killed humans. For real.
Jensen swallowed down the bile that rose up into his mouth. He wouldn't puke, fuck his life, but he wouldn't puke. His throat was already sore and he had nothing more to give. Stomach acid and even that was in very scarce supply.
He slowly opened his eyes, leaving the comfort of the stars and blissful darkness. It had been just him and the stars on a dark canvas for such a long time, years since Alineja had died and it was soothing. It was a world free of the blood and the brokenness.
"Uncle Sammy?" he rasped and licked his lips, still tasting some blood there, but it wasn't as horrible as before.
The man still had the same smile, the same face, the same hair, the same deep voice, the same calm manner ... the same. His uncle was exactly the same as he had been when he'd left him and Alineja so many years ago.
Exactly the same.
Jensen blinked, because maybe his eyes were just tired, not able to see straight, the pain and the blood loss, but when he opened them again, no. The man was still there, sitting cross-legged near him and looking at Jensen with the same calm expression he'd always had. The very same. Bright, warm eyes.
Exactly the same.
He had never forgotten his uncle. Never. He ... he thought of him a lot; whenever the loneliness became too much, whenever his knife became too tempting, whenever the nights were the darkest and the days the hottest, whenever the desire to bury his head in his hands and cry became too much - he thought of his uncle. Thought how, whenever the man had touched him calm had rushed all over him, how the man's words were always full of wisdom, knowledge, love and sweetness. How, whenever they played 'battle', Alineja would roll her eyes and scoff at their muddy faces and their torn clothes. How walking all day long on his small feet had made him hurt but he had been a strong boy and had never said anything but uncle Sam had always known and had picked him up, put him behind his shoulders and held his calves. Safe. He'd always felt so safe.
This was an illusion. The man was an illusion. The Icies had done something to Jensen, had drugged him or whatever they did to humans. Or he was dead and this was heaven or maybe hell, because he sure damn deserved that.
But the smell of dried leaves was still in his nose, still invading his mind, bringing forth memories of Alineja. Memories of Uncle Sammy.
"'m real, not an illusion. You're not dead, Jensen."
"You're not real..." he gasped and moaned through a burst of pain that came from somewhere south of his brain.
"I am real. Come on Jensen, we taught you better than this."
He nodded, chafing his cheek on the leaves. Alineja and Uncle Sam had taught him better than this. They had taught him how to fight; dirty and flawless. They had been training him - through play when he was a kid and more seriously when he got older - how to fight with his brain, his arms and his legs.
He uncurled himself and was on his feet between one breath and the next. He wasn't sure what he was even doing, the momentum just kind of carried him forward and he kicked the man - Uncle Sam - in his head, right under the man's chin, watching how he fell onto his right.
There was no grunt of pain from the guy, no noise whatsoever, and Jensen watched with wide eyes as the man righted himself, uncrossed his legs and stood up.
Just like that.
A kick like that ought to snap a person's neck, but …
"What the hell? What are you?"
He stepped into a protective stance; left leg forward, right one back, fingers curled into fists before his head.
"That's good, Jensen. That's what we taught you."
The man looked proud. Just like Uncle Sammy had whenever he did something good.
"What the …"
Jensen's eyes widened when he saw the man was taller than him, wider at the shoulders, more muscled, even though his own muscles were well-defined too. Fighting and hunting and training did that to a person. And lack of food didn't really allow to store up any fat either, although when one is born to scarce amount of water and food, one's body adapts. It needs far less substance than it would with 'normal' food supply.
"You're an Icy."
Even if Jensen was feeling really, really close to passing out he couldn't do that. Even if his eyes were getting blurry, making everything go a bit dim at the edges, and even if his legs felt weak and unsteady, he couldn't go down. Couldn't pass out like a sissy. This man was right; that's not what he had been taught.
Gathering up all of the remaining strength he had, all the anger at being surprise-attacked by Asshole one and Asshole two back at the house, tied up and tortured, he made his move - kicking the guy into his stomach, making him stumble backwards but before the guy could do anything Jensen was on him, his hand on the guy's sweaty neck, bringing him down to the ground, like an axe brings down a tree.
He crawled on top of him, pinning him, his hand still holding the man's throat, feeling the Adam apple bob under his weak fingers.
"Who the fuck are you?" he growled, all but spat down onto the man's face. Damn, he really looked just like Uncle Sam. Uncanny.
What a mind fuck all of this was. He was probably dreaming and this was what his drugged up mind came up with. Or his blood-loss mind, whatever.
"Who are you?! Answer me, or I swear 'm gonna kill ya, answers or not!"
He knew he looked completely wild, his mind in the killkillkill zone, but his heart was stopping him. He couldn't … kill … his uncle. If there was just the slightest chance this this man really was his uncle …
Jensen could see with the corner of his eye the guy slowly raising up his left hand.
Jensen couldn't move his hands, if he'd do so, he'd risk the man dislodging him and he couldn't have that.
"I said drop it, or I'll choke you right here, right now."
He squeezed his hand tighter and watched as the man didn't even flinch, his nostrils flaring, eyes completely calm. It was obvious the Icy couldn't talk, but hell if he'd loosen up his hand. He didn't want to hear anymore lies come out of the man's mouth. They would just make him snap and beat this liar into pieces. It probably wouldn't kill him, but it would make Jensen feel a lot better.
But the hand was still slowly inching up towards his face, the man's eyes shining bright blue-green-orange-yellow in the dusky light.
The sun was going down, the horizon looking gray and dark blue. Must've been a beautiful sunset.
"Shut up and lower your hand, or I swear to God Imma kill you."
If I lower my hand, then what, was written clearly on the man's face. Then what are you gonna do with me? Kill me? Let me go? What's your plan here? And fuck, but that sounded just like uncle Sammy did whenever he was teaching him tactic.
Jensen shook his head, trying to clear it of memories, trying to push back the weakness he could feel starting to invade his limbs. The hand on the man's throat was already shaking, loosening its grip second after second after second.
And then the hand finally came into contact with his cheek and the palm felt just like his uncle's had.
"Don't fucking touch me." He snarled.
"'s all right."
Jensen shook his head, but how that would make the hand go away, he had no idea. He wasn't thinking clearly. Nothing was making any sense.
Especially the palm that was becoming gentler and gentler on his cheek, the longer the guy was touching him. He hissed at how the calm started to penetrate into his mind, his brain, his thoughts. It was even starting to dim the pain he was still in.
"Aaaah, what the…"
Releasing the guy, he crawled off of him, like a crab out of the ocean and got on his feet. His palm shook when he pressed it to his cheek, not knowing what to expect when skin would touch skin. But there was nothing there, just his scruff and some wetness. Probably sweat.
"You're one of 'em, you're one of them! You Icy fucker!"
He stumbled away, barely feeling his legs anymore and watched with fear so alive he could feel it be hot in his veins, as the man got up from the ground, cleaned himself off and started walking right at him.
"It's all right, kid," the Icy smiled, "man. You're not a kid anymore, are you? You're a man now. All grown up now…" there was a hint of awe in the Icy's voice and Jensen didn't know what to say to all that but he knew he had to get away from this crazy Icy or risk being killed, because he was for sure not firing on all cylinders right now.
"Jensen, I know this is, uh, a shock, but let's get you to sit down and we'll talk."
"Talk?" he laughed. Talk? That was the last thing he wanted to do with this Icy. He wanted to tear him apart and rip him to shreds, stab him with his knife, that's what he wanted.
He patted his leg, searching for his knife, but it wasn't there. It wasn't there and Asshole one and Asshole two probably didn't take it with them and, and, and … he had lost his knife. He had lost his bow. He had lost his arrows.
He had lost … he had lost everything. Everything he was, there was no more.
"It's all right, man, I'm not gonna hurt you."
"You … you stay the hell away from me!"
It was a rock that did him in. A goddamned stupid rock that made him trip and fall on his ass, drawing out a grunt and a hiss. The man was still walking towards him, slowly but surely and he tried to pick himself off of the ground, his arms feeling as if they'd break any second now.
"Don't you come near me, you son of an Icy bitch!" he snarled and scrambled up to his feet, pulling forth every reserve of strength he still possessed, because he would not die laying down or kneeling in front of the lying bastard.
They stood like that, face to face, eye to eye, one shaking and listing to the side in danger of toppling over if the wind would be strong enough, and the other one calm, sure, strong, head held up high and a look of pride in his eyes.
"You're gonna pass out now, but when you'll wake up we'll talk."
The Icy's voice was soft, merely stating a fact. It made him wanna cut the Icy's tongue off.
Jensen grabbed his head, hearing a ringing sound inside, he couldn't feel his legs anymore and his eyes were blurring, his hands feeling heavy. Blood loss. Exhaustion, hunger and dehydration. Fear and instinct to survive.
Fuck his life.
His legs folded beneath him and he fell to the ground. Strings cut. Darkness, without stars.
Jensen woke up to the sound of wood crackling and heat against his face. He opened one eye and saw fire, branches clearly visible in the orange flames. The fire pit was surrounded by big stones and he hoped that meant something cooked would await him once he would be able to move his body.
It was not that time yet and he closed his eye to a whispered: "Just sleep, kid, you're safe here."
Hearing a voice like this, just appearing out of nowhere, should've brought him up to his feet holding his knife in not time, but ... he had no knife. He had nothing now, just an aching body and an Icy pretending to be his uncle.
He drifted back to sleep; there was nothing else for him to do.
Jensen opened his eyes and saw the fire again, but it wasn't raging like before, it was just orange ambers lying neatly in the nest of rocks. His cheek hurt, being smashed against the ground like that, his whole right side hurt, ribs probably bruised if not cracked, his hip in agony pressed to the hard forest ground for who knew how long. Even his back ached, having it bowed like that, knees to his chest, protecting his gut.
"Hey, you awake?"
He shuddered and looked around, seeing the man sitting close by, holding a shirt in his hands.
The moon was bright as always, so bright it sometimes felt as if it were a flashlight someone forgot to turn off. He could see everything; the trees, the leaves, the Icy. His uncle.
"I have some clothes. I let the fire burn down, so it's gonna get real cold, real soon."
Jensen licked his lips, felt them be dry and chapped and he was so thirsty. He swallowed what felt like dust; he would kill for some water. And some food.
He startled because a cup of some sort appeared before his eyes and the Icy was so close.
"'s just water, Jensen. I swear, just water."
"No…" he whispered, because it could be poisoned. It could be a trap. It could be so many things, and yet it really could just be water. Glorious, cool, delicious water.
"Come on, don't let me do the 'flying' thing."
The Icy rolled his eyes: "Don't you remember? I had to pretend that a spoon or a cup was flying to make you eat your food."
Liar. Liar. No!
"Come on, just water, it'll make you feel better."
He choked on the first sip, sweet, sweet water running down his chin and he could weep at all the drops that were lost now. Water was so precious and he let it drip into nothingness.
He glared at the man, but he knew it was too weak, he was too weak, because it took him so much time to finish one cup of water. But slow did the trick and he didn't spill anymore, didn't let more water go to waste.
"Good, now come on, let's get this shirt on you."
"Don't touch me."
"Jensen, please. Just … get this shirt on you, I don't want you to be cold. Alineja would … she … please, just get the shirt on."
"Don't you say her name. Don't you even … don't!"
The Icy's eyes were glowing green-yellow-amberorange and bright-blue in the moonlight and if Jensen would've been able to get past his anger, he would be able to see signs of tears in the Icy's eyes.
But he was pissed and he was tired and he could feel the water soothing away the emptiness he could feel in his belly.
"Here, I think it'll fit you."
The shirt was red and gray checkered plaid and it felt warm in his hands, but for the life of him, he didn't know how the hell he'd manage to put it on. His arms felt like lead and his legs must've fallen asleep at some point, because they were tingling when he tried to shuffle them a bit.
He must've made a noise, something that probably told the Icy that he was frustrated and annoyed, because between one sluggish blink and the next he was sort of vertical, sitting on his ass and leaning forward, his forehead resting snuggly against the Icy's chest.
His hands were itching for his knife, he could've stabbed the Icy right here and right now and then run away as fast as he could … but … Icies couldn't be killed by a mere mortal's knife, could they?
He hated his brain and how it was always so rational and logical and always seemed to screw him in the process.
"I remember," the words made Jensen twitch, the man was so close, "when you were a kid and," the Icy sighed, "Alineja was still asleep, but you, you were all over the place already and jumpin' all over me, yellin' shirty, shirty," he could feel his arms going into the sleeves of the shirt, too long sleeves, "and I had to get your favorite shirt, the AC/DC one. You," another sigh, "you loved that shirt, wore it every day until one day it just … fell apart."
He remembered that. He remembered jumping on his uncle's stomach and yelling for 'shirty' until the man got up and dressed him in it.
"You're not him, you can't be him." He whispered into the Icy's – Uncle Sam's – chest, rubbing his forehead in a 'no' across the guy's shirt.
"Okay," a sigh, "come on, lie down, get some more sleep and we'll talk when you'll wake up."
He was being pushed down to the ground again and rolled onto his back, alleviating the pressure on his hip.
He stared up at the dark sky, shivering, but not from the cold.
Not from pain.
Not from anger.
But … chance.
A chance that maybe that really was Uncle Sam.
"Hey kid, you awake!?"
Jensen was, but he didn't want to be. He didn't want to roll over, open his eyes and see that all of this was real and not just a dream. Not just some really, really fucked up dream where Uncle Sam was alive and had actually rescued him from those two assholes.
He had always had weird dreams, but this one … this one sure took the cake.
"I know you're awake."
"Th'n stop 'sking stupid queshtionsh." He growled, his voice sleepy and a bit uncoordinated.
He bit his tongue, damn him and his need to be quick mouthed and loud. Alineja would've gotten a kick out of this one.
The Icy huffed and Jensen could actually hear the man smile.
"The day's breaking."
"I don't know where you got that pissy attitude, but it sure wasn't from Alineja and me. We didn't teach you to be like that."
And that was just it. That was it!
Jensen was up on his feet before he could even think about getting up and he waivered, tilting a bit to the left and feeling like he was on a boat on rocky waters, but that was just it!
"We? There's no we, you goddamn monster! There's no we, 'cause you ain't my uncle, you fucker! Goddamned asshole, stop talkin' about Alineja and stop pretending to be my uncle and just fucking stop. Don't even mention her name, don't talk about how we taught me anything, don't just … just kill me or let me go, damn it!"
The Icy stood there; the light of the rising sun behind his back, biting his bottom lip, his eyes shining green-blue-yellow so brightly as if it were two lamps in the darkest of night. Stoic. Still and tall, hands by his sides, dressed in jeans with a hole on his right knee and a tiny hole on his right thigh. He wore the same shirt as yesterday; dark blue, looking almost black. To blend into the night. To save him.
"Yeah, okay, you're right. You are. But listen, Jensen, sit down, okay?"
"Don't fuckin' tell me what to do!"
The Icy breathed out and made a step forward, but Jensen held his ground.
"I'm not telling you what to do, I just think it would be … wise, if you'd sit down, before you fall down and make your injuries worse."
He wasn't a hundred percent, he knew that, those assholes had hurt him in some way and he … he needed to sit down. The trees were spinning, coming closer and fading away and yeah, okay … he'd sit.
He looked around and saw a thick, fallen tree trunk all covered with moss and sat down, bringing his hands up to his face and rubbing. He was so exhausted. It had been a busy night. Hell, it had been a busy life and every muscle and ever bone in his body was just fed up with having to fight all the time. All the goddamned time.
"Okay, you good now?"
The words came from his right and he didn't want to let go of his face, because he could feel – even if there was absolutely no touching going on – the Icy sit really close to him on the log.
"How you feelin'?"
"Why do you care?" he whispered into his palms.
"Okay, fair enough. Look, we need to talk, okay? Before … before we leave this place. We're safe … for now, but … Noleih could … find us and I'm not ready for that yet. And neither are you. So, this is how it'll be. Imma talk, make it quick and you're gonna listen. You're not gonna interrupt me, okay? And after … after you can do whatever you want. You can hit me all you want, you can walk away or you can stay. I'm not gonna force you to do anything, it's either you believe me or not, understand?"
Jensen's head hurt. His hip ached, or not even his hip, but his whole right side hurt so bad – he'd slept on the ground for too long.
"Just those options?"
"I don't know what other options I can give you."
"What about a 'you can kill me' option, because my hands are itching to do that right now."
"No, that's not an option, Jensen."
"Well then, I'll take option 'I'll leave'."
He dropped his hands from his face and got up from the log, or tried to anyway, but a sharp pain in his right side and a heavy hand on his shoulder pushing him back down to the tree trunk made it really hard to do anything but stay put.
"Let me go." He hissed, but the man just put more pressure on Jensen's shoulder and yeah, he wasn't gonna go anywhere soon. Not with the sharp pain poking into his right side and an Icy's hand so close to his throat.
"You'll listen and then we'll fix you, I can see you're hurtin'."
"Wow, 'm stuck with a genius."
Jensen heard the man scoff and huff, warm breath directly into his ear.
"Your mom, your real mom, she … she saw I wasn't a bad guy, you know? You're so like her, you fight and you fight, Jensen, and that's great, that's … that's what kept you alive, but you have to work on your instinct too."
"Oh man, seriously? Don't talk about my mom, don't 'life lesson' me, don't … just get to the point, 'kay? Get to the point, so that I can leave already."
"Okay, here's the point …"CHAPTER 2b _II_ CHAPTER 3b