The evening of watch was incredibly uneventful, as Soren expected, but far from quiet. He was left alone with his thoughts and the silent images of the events that transpired. They played in his mind over and over again, unrelenting. If Soren didn’t know better, he’d say he was in a horrible nightmare unable to wake and save himself in the waking world.
He kept seeing Dorian on the ground, collapsing out of fear and exhaustion. It must’ve taken every ounce of his will to walk out of the walls on his own in hopes of finding his older brother.
The silent image of Rey holding so still on the glue trap, saved from suffocation by pure luck and circumstance. If the older human had decided to smash the trap… Or if Rey had twisted more one way or the other… Soren shuddered and clasped his brothers’ shoulders in his hands. Both of them stirred simultaneously and pressed their faces into his shoulders.
Soren hated to think of how scared they must’ve been – how scared they still were. In their minds, they were still in danger being so near a human. It was only because they were exhausted and drained emotionally that they were able to sleep right now.
There was one other prominent thought, one question, in his mind – one that set his anger and frustration into a boil. Where was Brady?
Brady had left Soren those two weeks ago and had taken up the responsibility of taking care of Dorian and Rey. Brady had practically sacrificed Soren to the human for his own safety and the safety of his sons. If the human wasn’t Ashlynn, Soren didn’t think he would be alive; so, everything worked out for the best. Still, Brady couldn’t have known that.
More importantly were the conditions of Dorian and Rey. Last time he had seen them, they were a little thin but healthy. It was the Borrower way of life, needing to survive and eat light. Now, Dorian and Rey both were thinner than Soren remembered. Their bodies felt bonier and frail in his grasp.
There were supplies left if they were rationed properly. There were more than enough places to borrow from. A single, chilling thought crept into his mind.
Had Brady abandoned them too?
Surely not; but how else would Dorian and Rey be left alone? How would they feel so thin? Would they have been foolish enough to go borrowing on their own again after what happened the first time? If they were desperate enough, they would do what they needed to do to survive. Soren had taught them that much at least.
The rest of the night passed and, early in the morning when the first light peeked through the uncovered edges of the windows and the blackout curtains, Soren heard Ashlynn stir. Within minutes, he watched as she stretched and let out a sigh and moan. She rolled over, blue-grey eyes flickering open.
The moment she glanced at him, Ashlynn could see there were faint dark circles under his eyes. The events of the evening before left her mind torn in dreams and, even when she slept, it wasn’t as restful as she wanted. She could only imagine how Soren was feeling at that moment. She suspected, after knowing him for this short amount of time, that he had stayed up or, at the very least, he didn’t sleep well.
Their eyes met; and, for the first time, there was no fear in meeting and maintaining the others’ gaze. She raised her hand slightly and waved, receiving a weary smile from her small companion.
Ashlynn glanced over a little more and could see two heads of tussled hair at his sides. [They were probably scared to be here.] Ashlynn thought as she watched Soren rub their shoulders from over the covers. Ashlynn suspected Soren was very kind and thoughtful, but had only seen the rougher and self-preservative side of him.
It was only recently that he had opened up slightly. Seeing him like this, a caring older brother, was definitely new – and she liked it. She leaned up onto one elbow and, being careful, whispered, “Good morning.”
Neither of the boys stirred, much to Soren’s relief, and he elected to mouth, “good morning,” back to Ashlynn. His eyes lulled. He wanted desperately to go to sleep, but he needed to have another conversation with Ashlynn. He needed to have some kind of plan in place for him and his brothers.
Carefully, Soren untangled his arms from his brothers and lifted the covers so he could slip onto the outside. He had done this hundreds of times on cold winter nights and with almost no disturbance managed to place the brothers next to one another so they could keep warm without him. They barely stirred at the subtle jostling. [They must be exhausted.]
“Do you want to get some breakfast?” asked Ashlynn. Soren felt his insides twist as he remembered they failed to eat dinner the night before when Soren’s brothers revealed themselves.
There was now an obvious predicament. Soren did want to get breakfast and help prepare something for his brothers. Also, more than anything and most surprising to him, Soren needed to talk to Ashlynn. He needed to decompress – go over everything that had festered the night before in his mind, but he couldn’t leave his brothers. He couldn’t scare them by leaving them.
Ashlynn could see this inner conflict in his eyes and managed to catch his attention as he looked back to her. “I can go get it together if you want,” she whispered. Soren hung his head and rubbed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. When he didn’t answer, Ashlynn sensed there was something more bothering him and prompted him.
“You okay?” asked Ashlynn. There were a million ways to answer, but Soren couldn’t think of a single one in that moment. “Want to talk about it?” His silence once again confirmed it. “We could go into the kitchen?”
At this suggestion, Soren shook his head. “No.” His voice, already a challenge to hear, was almost imperceptible. “I… I don’t want… I can’t… leave them. Not again.” The boys stirred at the nearness of the sound. Soren tucked the blankets around them and they seemed to be content. Ashlynn nodded slowly. She prepared to get up when she heard Soren speak again.
“Maybe if we stay on the bed? That way I can see them and they can see me if they wake up?” This suggestion was new for Soren. Ashlynn hadn’t known him to make these suggestions before.
“Sure,” she whispered back. “Um… do you think you can… make it over here on your own?” Soren’s exhausted body shivered slightly, but he once again made eye contact with her as he brought his hand down from rubbing his eyes. It was in that look she understood – he wanted her to help. A sudden nervous rush flooded her senses.
The experience of holding Soren yesterday had been lost in the panic. Now that she had a moment, she realized how odd it felt to have his hands, his entire body, pressed into her hand. She had held him before when he was unconscious, but only on a few occasions to change the bandages on his leg. For him to make the conscious decision must’ve been difficult.
Still, he was asking for help now – despite the rules he had put forward. She felt her hands shake slightly as she placed it against the edge of the table. Soren stifled a yawn and staggered forward. Brushing off another shudder and an obvious mental battle, Soren stepped onto her fingers, stabilizing himself against her thumb as he stood.
Ashlynn, as slowly and carefully as possible, lifted her hand the single foot from her table to the bed. For a moment, Soren wavered before stepping from her hand and onto the bed. He shuddered involuntarily before practically collapsing backwards. They were silent for several minutes before he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
“Thank you,” he said, slightly louder than before. He reached up and scratched the back of his head. “I’ve been saying that a lot recently, huh?” Ashlynn’s lips tugged into a smirk.
“Not a bad thing in my book,” she whispered. “You didn’t sleep, did you?” The question was more of a statement; to which Soren shook his head.
“No,” he replied. “They… were nervous something might happen while we all slept.” Ashlynn inhaled deeply, the statement stinging a little. She didn’t have words; and it was probably better that way.
Soren sighed again, rubbing his temples. He didn’t know where to begin. His mind was still swirling and the exhaustion plaguing him was not helping his current state of mind.
“At least they’re alright,” he muttered finally. Ashlynn concurred with a nod. Soren’s chest felt tight. His head pounded. Every muscle ached from being tense. “I… don’t know what happened after I was gone, but I… I know I need to; but I don’t want to. I don’t want to make them talk about it. I don’t want to hear about what happened; but I know I need to hear it. I just wish I could know without making them relive it.”
Ashlynn watched Soren’s body position pulled inward slightly. “What do you want to know?” she prompted. Soren groaned in partial frustration.
“A lot of things. I want to know why they were on their own. I haven’t prepared a lot, but we had supplies that should have lasted two weeks if rationed correctly.” Soren couldn’t stop the words from coming. They were spilling out of him, coming faster and faster in uncontrollable spurts.
“I want to know why they were on their own trying to find supplies. More than anything, I want to know what happened to their father. Why that scumbag left them alone. They’re not old enough to be on their own. I just started training them. Why did he think it was okay to leave them?” Soren shuddered, suddenly realizing his body was trembling. He feared he might be saying too much, that he may let something slip, but so much was still pent up he couldn’t will himself to stop; as if saying it out loud made it real and lifted some invisible burden from him.
“They… they could have died… Ashlynn they could have died, and I couldn’t have done anything to save them.” Soren’s body continued to shake. He felt moisture clouding his vision. “I can’t hardly take care of myself right now. How am I supposed to make them feel safe? How am I supposed to take care of them if I can’t take care of myself? I… just don’t know what to do…”
Soren wrapped his arms around his waist, not making eye contact but simply staring at the comforter beneath him. His eyes threatened to spill tears, but they were too dry and tired. So, Soren simply took in shaky breaths hoping he could calm himself.
Ashlynn, seeing this, felt a pang in her heart. If this were one of her friends, she would reach out and rub on their shoulder. She would hug them or grasp their hand. She would tell them that everything was going to be alright.
It was the rules that held her at bay. Soren didn’t want to be touched without permission, and somehow Ashlynn felt her words would fall on deaf ears. Her chest tightened. They hadn’t known each other long, but there was a genuine connection with a person there – something she hadn’t felt in a while since she moved to this apartment. She wanted him to know he wasn’t alone.
Winning the debate with herself, she decided to test the boundaries knowing full well this could go horribly wrong for her and the little trust she built.
Ashlynn laid a hand on the bed, slowly, near Soren’s leg. Soren didn’t seem to notice. Carefully, she pressed a finger against his leg. Her finger easily dwarfed his leg and the sudden change of pressure made him jump slightly. He met her eyes, making Ashlynn’s breath catch in her chest; but then something happened.
Soren felt a sudden, unidentifiable pressure against his uninjured leg. It snapped him out of his mental spiraling, and he looked up suddenly to see Ashlynn had extended a single finger and had pressed it against the side of his leg ever so slightly. Somehow, the pressure was reassuring, and he found himself leaning into it. His hand involuntarily reached out and laid on the top of her finger.
The touch was so soft, like the brush of a feather against her skin. What she thought may be unnerving was now a marvelous sensation. She could see a trace of a smile on Soren’s face as he continued to process and shake.
Minutes passed. They said nothing. They moved nowhere. It was after this time that Soren spoke up.
“Thanks,” he muttered. Ashlynn nodded and smiled.
“Anytime,” she whispered back. She knew she was testing the boundaries, but now seemed to be the time. “You know, you don’t have to do this alone. You all can stay here, get better.” Soren curled his fingers into a light fist and tapped it against Ashlynn’s finger.
“I couldn’t ask that of you,” he said, his body finally coming back under his control. “I don’t have the right to ask that of you. You’ve already done so much for me and I haven’t done anything in return. If anything, I need to repay you.” Ashlynn shook her head with a sigh.
“Let’s just call it even,” she said. Soren opened his mouth to respond when Ashlynn continued. “Look, Soren, I’ve never considered myself to be a good person and, before I met you, I didn’t make a good life choices. Still don’t, arguably.” Ashlynn was quiet as Soren listened, surprised that his interest was piqued.
“Helping you, in some, I guess, weird way makes me feel like less of a terrible person,” said Ashlynn. “Just… for now, let’s call it even.”
Soren wanted to discuss this more, but heard a faint shifting of fabric. His eyes glanced over to the box and he could see his youngest brother, Rey, beginning to shift and sit up rubbing his eyes.
Both of them, seeing this, went into unspoken action. Ashlynn rotated the hand that was pressed against Soren’s leg as he thrust himself up and onto her fingers. She tilted her wrist so he wouldn’t fall as she quickly whisked him over to the bedside table. She set him down clumsily, making him stumble; but, thankfully, she had removed her hand from Soren’s body and back to the bed just in time.
Soren knelt by the edge of their makeshift bed and smiled. “Hey,” he said softly. “Good morning.” It was a close call, and Soren hoped that if Rey did see what just transpired that he would not freak out. Soren knew there was a monumental task ahead, but at least he wasn’t in it alone.