Chapter 21.1: No Talk Me I Hurty
James had experienced many different types of pain in his years on the run as a wanted man. Often, it felt like his fate toyed with him. The moment he'd think he was in the clear and the moment he'd fully recovered, something else would come. Be it a bullet, an arrow, or a punch to the gut - it was always something.
He'd already accepted that this was his lot in life. He'd brought it on himself.
He just hadn't expected so much to happen all at once.
He took in a deep breath. Billy and Elliot were tied to a tree off to the side. Clandestine had hurried to get a fire started while James sat and put actual pressure on his wound in the waiting. All he'd really been doing atop his horse was fill a sock up with blood and nearly lose his balance. Though it had been a nice thought, it wasn't quite possible to put pressure on a wound while riding a galloping horse in the dark. Now, he was leaning against a tree. It was easier to lean into a bunched up cloth and push it up against his wound that way than to reach around his back like some kind of double-jointed spider.
James watched as Clandestine cleared away a pit of dirt and piled dry twigs and leaves and broken branches. The whole time he'd been sitting, she hadn't stopped moving. She was running around, tossing more flammables into the pit before she ignited it - not with a firestarter, but with her hand. She hardly had to breathe on the magical flame before it caught, and started eating up the dry leaves.
Soon enough, they had a small pocket of light under the stars.
A shiver ran up his legs and arms as if his limbs were thawing. James hadn't realized quite how cold the night air had become until the warmth of the fire started to prick at his skin. He was covered in blood and sweat and dirt, and he could finally make it out in the light. He stared down at his shirt - more red and brown than it was white. Why had he chosen to wear white? White always stained. It never held up well in the long-run.
He wasn't sure how long he ended up staring down at his feet, his toes starting to feel a burning sensation through his boots, only being a foot away from the fire.
"Laura taught me a bit about sewing up wounds and keeping blood in," Clandestine said. She was standing right next to him, and he flinched, skittering to the side and losing the cloth on his back as it fell between his back and the tree. He hadn't realized she was there.
Clandestine jumped a little too, before drawing closer again, putting a hand on his shoulder. He flinched again, but not as much. She didn't move her hand.
"Y'know, back when I got stabbed in the leg. I already knew a bit from patching up myself when I've been in tight spots, but I'm glad she showed me how to do it right," she said quietly, lowering her voice near to a whisper. "I just need some light to see what I'm doing."
James was breathing hard, and he'd fixed his gaze on her hand as she spoke, before looking up into her face. Her eyebrows were knit together, tight in worry, but she mustered the smallest smile.
She'd come back for him again, even when things hadn't gone according to plan. She also saved him. Again.
"I'll help you get to the fire," she said softly. "We need to act fast."
After James nodded, time didn't seem to exist anymore. First, they peeled off his bloody shirt. Then, she wrapped his shoulder tightly, with padding over the cut. She said she'd sew it up after the bullet wound. He didn't argue. Next thing he knew, he was lying with his stomach on the forest floor. Clandestine was sitting beside him on his right, facing the fire on his left. Things seemed to be going smoothly once she said she got the bleeding under control, but when she started digging into his skin to find the bullet, he dug his fingers into the ground.
Clandestine had been explaining everything she was doing until she started fishing for the fragments of the bullet, and after that, James found himself somewhere else.
He was awake, but his mind was empty as he focused on digging his fingers into the grass and dirt, knuckles turning white as he gripped the earth as tightly as he could.
When it was all over, he was sitting up again, back against the tree, in a clean shirt, with bandages underneath, snugly wrapped around his shoulder and torso.
Clandestine was moving more slowly, even though he could tell she was still trying to hurry around. She was packing everything away, back into their bags, and taking a long look at Billy. He watched as she stopped to pet him, holding her head against the steed's neck and stroking his snout slowly.
"Is he alright?" he asked.
Clandestine's head shot up and she looked over at him. "What?"
Clandestine blinked, before letting out a small laugh. "Oh. He'll be okay, I think. He's just tired. Poor guy's real sweaty. He's been doing lots of running. We uh - well, I had to hurry to find you. Things didn't go exactly as expected on my end."
James leaned his head back against the tree.
Clandestine smiled, but it was weak, and quickly faded. He knew it wasn't just Billy who was tired.
"You should get some rest. I don't think I'll be sleeping for a while."
Clandestine laughed again, but this time more forceful. Almost pained. She leaned her head back against Billy.
"I don't think I will either," she admitted in a sigh. "Besides, I need to take care of Billy. And Elliot too-"
"No," Clandestine cut in sharply. "You got shot, and I saw how Alexander tackled you to the ground. You don't need to be doing anything but sitting or lying down. I'll be fine."
James frowned, but he fell back into silence, and Clandestine didn't prompt him anymore as she turned her attention to Billy and Elliot.
His eyes fell to the fire, watching as the fire ate away at the wood. The crackle of the fire mixed with the distant hum of crickets and the occasional owl in the trees. The cool air hung around him as a sharp contrast to the pool of warmth at his feet. He could hear the shuffling of the horses as Clandestine started to take some of the weight off their backs and brush them.
It was just then that he realized he didn't even know if she'd gotten hurt. He hadn't spotted any blood on her (besides, perhaps, his own), and nothing seemed to be broken. But he could tell that she was tired - she was moving slowly and deliberately, especially in comparison to all of the running around she'd been doing before stitching him up.
He took in a deep breath, but his breath hitched about halfway through. It hurt. He let it out early.
He'd done nothing to deserve Clandestine's kindness after how he'd treated her.
He stared down into the fire as guilt ate away at his conscience. The vision of the flames dancing in the dark consumed his attention for some time until his eyes caught on a puff of smoke rising in the dark.
"We might need to put the fire out soon if we don't want Alexander to catch up again," James said quietly.
Clandestine glanced at him as she squatted by her bag, looking through it for something. "Good," she muttered, turning her face away. "I didn't get a good hit in at him anyway. If he wants to come back, he can."
James wasn't sure how to respond to that.
"I'm just saying it would be wise to be cautious," he answered, watching Clandestine closely.
Clandestine pulled out a waterskin. It looked like she was done with the horses. She stood up slowly before walking over to him, sitting down beside him, just a little closer to his feet and the fire.
She looked down at the waterskin in her hands and then at the fire.
"I can put it out if you want," she said quietly. "I just thought you might be cold."
He wiggled his toes a little inside his boots. They were warm, which he was thankful for, but he wasn't sure that it was worth getting found again for. But he'd also lost a lot of blood, and he had been cold, and it certainly felt better to stay warm.
"We can let it burn a little longer," he said. "Then I can just grab my blanket if we don't need to move again."
Clandestine nodded, setting down the waterskin beside her and drawing her knees up to her chest, hugging them loosely.
She didn't say anything. He waited for a minute, and then two, and more for her to speak, but she stayed silent, staring over the fire, somewhere in the direction of the horses.
Guilt, again, fed off the silence. James started picking at the seam on his pant-pocket.
"Are you okay?" he asked, his voice soft.
Clandestine lifted her head but didn't look at him.
"What? Of course I am. I'm all in one piece. The griffin got her egg. You're alive. It's okay. I'm relieved!" She threw up her hands, before wrapping them back around her knees. "Like you have no idea how relieved I was. I mean, I thought I'd never see you agai-" her voice cut out for a moment. She looked down and cleared her throat. "Again."
He resisted the urge to scoot up closer to her. She wanted to hide her face, and he'd respect that.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "For all of the pain I've put you through."
Clandestine's shoulders tensed, and for a second, she squeezed herself before lifting her head and looking back at him. Her eyes were misty.
"What? James, no. It's not your fault. I was the one who dragged you into this whole griffin thing. I was just being impulsive, and dumb like I always-"
"I probably led Alexander right to you!" she said, her voice rising. "Again! I'm the reason you got shot!"
James's brows knit together tightly and he looked her in the eyes.
"You are not the reason I got shot," he said. "Look, Alexander has been tracking me for a long time - probably before we even met. And even if he wasn't, you're not responsible for him, and you're not responsible for me. I'm a wanted man. You don't have control over that."
Clandestine's eyes were welling up and her lower lip started to tremble, but she pressed her lips together in a tight line.
"But none of this would've happened if I hadn't suggested finding the egg," she whispered.
"Maybe. Maybe not. Alexander would've found me again sooner or later," he said, his tone softening again.
Clandestine sniffed and turned away for a moment, wiping her eyes before looking back at him. Before she could say anything else, James needed to finish his apology.
"I'm sorry for lying to you," he said. "About who I was. My name. All of it."
Clandestine froze, her eyes widening as she stared at him, locking her eyes with his. She'd only just wiped her eyes, and they were starting to well up again. She sniffed again and looked back at the fire with her chin resting on her arms, still practically curled in a ball. James wasn't sure what he'd expected as a reply, but the sudden silence made his stomach turn and his chest tighten with anxiety.
The minute that followed was agonizing. As each second passed he wondered if he should say more, or if that would render the apology ingenuine. Should he directly ask for her forgiveness? Would that be selfish? He wanted to give her the choice. She didn't have to forgive him - it wasn't like he'd done anything to deserve it. But the reality started sinking in that he hadn't just burned the bridge between him and Clandestine, but he'd really hurt her in the process.
He thought back to when they first met, and the blind trust she'd given him, inviting him to go monster hunting. She'd been so quick to welcome him into her world, and he hadn't even thought of her as a friend - just a means to get some money and alleviate some boredom. He'd spent so much of the time spent with her thinking about when he would leave that he hadn't even stopped to really get to know her. Their entire relationship had been formed through fight after fight and helping each other recover.
Not that that was a surprise, seeing as he never went out of his way to get to know anyone anymore, but still.
In his pocket, he was rubbing his thumb over his forefinger in a flicking motion until his nail caught on a loose thread in his pocket.
Finally, Clandestine spoke up, quiet, with her mouth behind her arms.
"Are you going to leave me again? After this?"
His heart broke at the sadness in her voice. He took a slow, measured breath. In the back of his mind, paranoia started listing off a million reasons to say no. It wasn't realistic. She could get killed. But at the end of that long list, it all boiled down to one thing: could he trust her? If she really knew everything?
She was a mage, hiding in plain sight. Her life was at risk just as much, if not more than his if she were to ever be discovered. She was a living relic of times before the calamity. She didn't even seem to hold any loyalties to any people group or kingdom. Clandestine was just doing what she knew - monster hunting in a world filled with monsters of every kind. But she wasn't hunting him, and for reasons he didn't understand, she seemed to like him enough to want to stick around and even ask that question.
And he didn't mind her company. He really didn't.
"We barely stayed apart for a day. I don't see any reason why I should."
She slowly turned her head to look at him, eyes wide with her eyebrows drawn up and pinched together. He swallowed, still feeling his stomach twisting in knots. What was he saying? Would he regret this?