Chapter 30 - Isolde
I wake to Katarina softly moaning.
Yesterday’s events bear heavily down upon me. My body feels like it weighs a ton.
I try to pull myself upwards, but I collapse with an ‘oof’ sound. A pair of long, thin hands help me up. Hadyn. It is a great effort to open my mouth – the area around it feels taut and painful – but I still do it, to croak out, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Hadyn says. He is wearing different clothes – ones that aren’t stained with blood.
My eyes roam around the cave. Katarina is propped up against the wall, her eyes glazed. She sits limply – though she is now conscious, the stun gun’s effects haven’t completely worn off. Tristan crouches beside her, trying to coax some food and water into her mouth.
“Isolde?” Hadyn says, sounding sheepish. “I don’t want to bother you, but we’re almost out of water . . .”
“Bottle?” I whisper, taking care not to move my mouth too much.
He holds one up. A thought is all it takes to fill the container.
“Thanks,” says Hadyn, and drinks thirstily from the flask.
I watch him, warm with gratitude. He really helped me yesterday. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to make it to shelter. I squeeze his hand, trying to express a bit of the appreciation.
He smiles sadly at me, his dark brown eyes old and understanding.
Tristan glances over at us, and grimaces. I probably look like a complete mess. I tap Hadyn and point to my rucksack. He opens it widely, and I reach inside to pull out the small mirror I packed, and inspect my face.
I sigh when I see the state that I’m in. My skin is maybe five different colours, none of them my usual ivory. It is mostly shiny red, and yellow and blue bruises. My right eye is black, which explains why it feels so odd. My nose looks completely bashed. When I raise a hand to touch it lightly, Tristan immediately says, “Don’t.”
“Broken?” I guess.
He nods, and I sigh again.
I need to say something sarcastic, but it’s not worth the pain. I set down the mirror, ball up my blanket, and gently place my face in it, wanting to inhale the comforting smell of my home. But it is now tainted with sweat and damp.
Tristan sends Hadyn to watch Katarina, and comes over to me, first aid kit in hand.
I roll my eyes. I doubt very much that the kit will do much good – I am utterly repulsive.
Tristan checks my cuts, his hands gentle. I think about clutching him yesterday as I drifted into sleep. The way he acts is so cold and hard, but he felt soft and warm and just right. “Nothing looks infected,” he tells me. “But it would be best if I put on some more spirit.”
My face twists in dread, but I smooth it out immediately.
I grip Tristan’s right hand as his left dabs at my face with spirit-soaked cotton balls.
Eventually it is over. I don’t release my hold on Tristan. He looks at me, his face expressionless. We spend a while like that, silent, regarding each other. My stomach flips regularly as I stare into his unreadable eyes.
It is a long, long time before we shift our positions.
Tristan hands me a bowl of five washed and cooked tule potatoes, and several leaves of kale. I dip my hands into a bag of cool water to wash them. Then I spell out ‘thank you’ with water, and Tristan’s mouth turns up – just a little bit. I love that tiny, rare smile, one side of the mouth turned up infinitesimally while the other side stays put.
“You are welcome,” he says, and goes to assist Katarina while I eat.
She is weak, but recovering quite fast. Unlike me. I know that it will probably take weeks for my bruises and gashes and whatnot to fade away. Some of them will stay with me forever.
I long for the comfort of my mother, and home. I yearn for the happy laughter and jokes of my friends. I wish that Isaac – not the one angered by his brother’s death, but the funny, supportive one – was still with me.
But now, I have Tristan, Katarina and Hadyn. Much better people than I could have encountered. Katarina showed me kindness first. Tristan and Hadyn willingly risked their lives for me, and that has made them very, very trustworthy.
They all sit and eat meat. It doesn’t bother me as much as it did before, though the image of small rabbits being struck makes me look away.
I finish my meal and absent-mindedly chew on my trail mix – I’m full, but I just need something to do.
“So what now?” Hadyn asks Tristan.
“We wait until Katarina and Isolde heal.”
Hadyn glances at Katarina, Tristan’s eyes find mine. I sip at my water and look back. We have been doing a lot of looking lately. Hadyn has been doing a lot of muffled crying. Katarina has been doing a lot of moaning.
The day passes slowly. I eat. I nap. I stare at Tristan. I think wistfully of clean toilets and unlimited toilet roll.
Hadyn and Tristan busy themselves with getting food, nursing me, and attending to Katarina, who is looking much better. By the next day, she is almost back to normal, alert and fussing over me. The pain has somewhat diminished. Instead of full-on burning, I now experience discomfort, stinging, aching, itching and throbbing.
I can talk without too much distress, but still some, so I try to keep speech to a minimum, which is probably more than I should allow myself.
I have noticed that my powers are not as wild. They obey me, which I am glad of, but I am frustrated now. If that was the case a couple weeks ago, I wouldn’t have left.
If I wanted to leave now, how would I get out? And if I managed to find a solution, what would my story be? How could I explain the absence? And how could I leave Tristan, Katarina and Hadyn, who have helped me so much these past days?
I banish the thoughts and try to sleep, but I can’t. It is the third night in this cave, and I have had nothing to do but dwell in the pain of my body and be tortured by my own thoughts.
Tristan comes to the quilt and lays down. I open my eyes, expecting to see his back. Instead, I am met with his face.
I feel even tenser. I am very glad for the cold, as it soothes my inflamed skin and fights the heat rising up my neck.
“You’re thinking about something,” Tristan murmurs, his rough, low voice making me start.
“You said you’re not a mind-reader,” I say after a while. It took me too long to find the words.
“I’m not. I just find it easy to guess what people are feeling or thinking.”
“I find you very hard to read.”
He pauses. “Yeah, well, that’s intentional.”
“You obviously know the answer to that,” I say, causing the left side of his mouth to raise a bit.
“Yeah, I do.”
A few seconds pass.
“How about we ask some questions?” I say, hungry for information.
“I don’t think I am going to like the questions you ask.”
“I don’t either.”
We regard each other.
“Then I’ll start,” he says.
“Would you go out?” Tristan asks. “Of the NS.”
I hesitate before replying. “Thinking about staying here all my life . . . it makes me shudder. Going out is just . . . too much to think about. Here, it’s just move or die.”
“That’s not an answer.”
I sigh. “OK. Yes.”
“Right,” he says. “Your turn to ask.”
I go for an easy one. “Do you like the colour blue?”
He laughs quietly. “Yes, I do. But I favour purple.”
“Do you like the colour purple?” Tristan asks.
I try not to smile too much; it hurts my cheeks. “Dark. Lilac is a bit . . . eurgh.”
“I prefer light.”
“Oh well,” I say. I pause before speaking, knowing that the jokey atmosphere is about to change – a lot. “What were you thinking when you tried to kill yourself?”
He immediately stills, and his face goes blank.
“Another one,” I push. “Why do you make yourself so emotionless?”
A minute passes. Two. Three. Tristan stays silent, his expression set. When he finally speaks, his voice is terse. “I don’t want to answer.”
“I don’t want to answer that either.”
“Give it a rest.”
“Would you like me to ask you to recap what your worst moments were?”
“No. But it doesn’t mean I won’t do it.”
“Then go ahead.”
“You have to say, too.”
His hard expression softens, just a bit, though his tone is still sharp. “Fine.”
I sift through my memories. “Ask a specific question.”
Tristan’s face tightens. “This is stupid,” he snaps.
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
“I’ll show you stupid,” I say.
And I do.
I lean forward, my hands on either side of his neck, and kiss him. His lips are unresponsive – cold and unyielding. I will for a reaction, because I don’t know what I’ll do if I have to move back now. The panic is so consuming, it actually shocks me. I find myself wishing with all my heart that he won’t refuse me, and I don’t get it. I don’t love him – hell, I can’t even say I like him. But there’s undeniable affection. And I guess I just need someone to comfort me. In all honesty, it’s a crap excuse, but I’m grabbing it with both hands.
I don’t get the reaction I wanted.
Tristan stiffens, and his hands prise me off. With force; I am almost thrown.
I stare at him, ignoring the pain in my leg. Usually I am quite a confident person, but he doesn’t just make me nervous, he sends me to pieces. I can feel my eyes welling up with the sting of rejection.
Then suddenly, inexplicably, he pulls me towards him, simultaneously violent and gentle, the look in his eyes making me melt. I can’t explain it. Passion, and a strangely, terrifyingly seductive aggression, interlaced with power and a loathing of refusal. His lips touch mine, rough, hard, but somehow tender, and that’s it.
I control water, but it is not as powerful as this raging inferno of passion. I can feel it surging through my veins, spreading out to my body from where we are joined. It rushes to the tips of my toes, to the end of my fingers, which are firmly on either side of his neck. I am invincible. I could sprint ten miles, I could soar to the top of the NS barrier, I could do absolutely anything.
I do not want to break away, but I am out breath, so I do, breathing heavily. Tristan’s eyes stare into mine, with the same look as before he kissed me. His look. I feel myself turning into a puddle. I stare back, as I try to figure out what has happened and why, and attempt to get back into solid form. He buries his face in my hair, making my heart beat even more frantically than before. I am immobilised. I don’t know what to do, what he wants, what he thinks . . .
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he murmurs, in that rough, low voice that has me scrabbling for the fragments of my brain.
“I don’t care,” I manage to say, breathlessly, and take his face in my hands to gently kiss him again, feeling my heart soar again, and the fire to burn just as intensely as before.
He breathes in deeply, his hands tightening around my waist. “Questions can come tomorrow.”
“I think I agree,” I whisper as he places his forehead on mine and our lips touch again.
I find Tristan and me staring at each other so many times. In odd moments – when we eat, or when we’re reading, or before we take a nap. Just looking silently. We exchange nothing but small talk – good morning, how are you and so on – until late in the night, or perhaps early in the morning. Katarina and Hadyn are asleep. I have a feeling that this is intentional.
We sit at the mouth of the cave again, and Tristan does not wait for my pushing questions.
“I was so sure as I wrote out the sign, picked up the knife, slashed myself. But then it got bad. It hurt way more than I expected, and I was scared. Scared of dying. Scared of not dying. Thinking of what might happen. The wound was deep. I felt myself going unconscious and nothing compares to the fear.”
I can’t help but notice he explains himself quite a bit awkwardly. Too much kept inside for too long. He looks like the words are paining him, and it affects me much more than I thought it would. Tristan finds talking as hard as Isaac did . . .
“And the tarnished ego,” he continues. “Emotions are weak, I drilled into myself. You are wretched, sorry mess, I told myself. It’s automatic.”
“I,” I say adamantly, my jaw set as I hold his face in my hands, making sure his eyes are on mine, “do not think that you are weak, or wretched, or a mess.”
Tristan opens his mouth slightly to speak, but I stopper his words with a kiss. He immediately reacts, his arms tightening around me as he returns it. A rush of exhilaration passes through me.
“I got a question,” he whispers after, his face an inch from mine.
“Which is?” I ask breathlessly. The blaze that comes from the kiss has not ceased, not even lessened.
“Why are we . . . ?” He trails off.
I understand what he’s getting at. “You tell me,” I say. I have my assortment of inadequate reasons, but I don’t know about him.
Of course, Tristan isn’t that willing. “You can go first.”
I smile a bit, and drop my arms. “No can do.”
His eyes narrow. “You’re trying to kill my self-esteem, here.”
“No, I’m not.” I look at him more seriously. “Stop putting up a front and just speak your mind.”
He passes a hand over his face, wearily. “You’re the one who kissed me first.”
“So? You didn’t push me off and run five miles.”
“No, I didn’t. I couldn’t.”
“Because?” I prompt.
“You’re scary. You make me feel trapped,” he says, and presses his lips together, his eyebrows drawn in distaste – well, not distaste, but that’s what it looks like. I know that it is more likely embarrassment he feels, which, looking at his deadpan face, seems ludicrous.
I sigh. He doesn’t get it. “Nothing.” I mumble.
“Your turn, then.”
I forget all about what was I thinking, and look at Tristan, the insufficient words spilling out of my mouth. I am trying to drag up some that justify what he makes me feel, but nothing can. “You make me feel like I’m this small.” I hold up my hand, my thumb and first finger a millimetre apart. “So nervous, so tense.”
He snorts. “These reasons seem against rather than for.”
“Yeah, they’re pretty odd, aren’t they?” I agree, and twist my fingers together. “You also saved my life, risked your life for mine, when I crash down so many bad memories for you. I still don’t get why you didn’t leave me, after Katarina got stunned.”
Tristan lifts a shoulder, looking out into the woods. “I couldn’t. I don’t even know you but . . .” He pauses, seeming to search for the words. “I don’t love you.”
I know this is true, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt me. Ridiculous that love would be established when our knowledge of each other is so scanty. “Straightforward approach, I see.”
“It makes things quicker.”
“Well, OK,” I say.
“I do . . . feel something,” Tristan continues.
“Glad to hear that you’re a human being after all.”
He turns to look at me. “Hah,” he says, completely humourlessly, face straight.
I laugh, and he smiles that half-mouth smile.
“Isolde?” he says.
His brows knit together as he slowly says, “I . . . I like kissing you. But not because I like you, which I do. But not in that way.” His frown deepens. “Does that make sense?”
It makes perfect sense, and is like a knife to the heart. He’s just looking for comfort. I can’t blame him at all – he seems to have gone years without affection – but it hurts. It’s partly the same for me, but . . . I don’t know. I suppose I was just wishing for too much. Wishing for a sense of belonging.
“You don’t like that,” Tristan observes.
His hand goes out to touch my cheek, and my stomach clenches.
I let out a long breath. “No, I don’t. But there’s a lot of things about life I don’t like.” I reach up to kiss his cheek. “That’s not one of them.”
I lay on my side, closing my eyes, but I can’t sleep. I am still thinking about Tristan. I could paint his portrait with both eyes shut. He spins me around, up, down, sideways, in every single direction known to man. I am uncontrollably whirling around. What has this guy done to me? I went from detesting him to barely being able to piece together words in my brain around him. There are still so many things about Tristan I don’t know, but what I do know is that I have feelings for him.
Such a small amount of time since we met. But does it matter? No. Not at all. Feelings are irrational, uncategorisable. And time is relative.
When constantly in a constant life-or-death situation, you begin to take advantage of all the time you have.
Because you never know when it might run out.
I lean towards Tristan again. He doesn’t move, but looks at me with unblinking eyes and an impassive face.
I stop, hesitating. “Maybe I’m reading too much into this,” I say, “but you’re halfway expecting rejection. Or preparing for it.” Tristan still confuses me. Sometimes he’s so detached, but other times he’s more open.
“You’re reading too much into this,” he says tersely, straightening up.
He doesn’t know the power he has to hurt me. I want him to know me, to trust me, but old habits die hard. “Don’t lie to me, Tristan,” I say quietly.
His face tightens. “You’re not supposed to –” He stops mid-sentence.
“I’m not supposed to what?”
Tristan shakes his head. “Forget it.”
“No, I’m not going to forget it,” I retort.
He breathes out slowly. “You’re not supposed to mean so much,” Tristan says, and glances at me. When saying things that he finds uncomfortable, his eyes always stray. “I’m not saying that you’re not worth anything, but I’ve just tried so much to make people not bother me, or at least not to show that they do. You just break all my efforts, and without even trying.”
I link together my fingers. “We seem to be messing each other up.”
“Like a drug,” he observes thoughtfully, like he’s studying some specimen through a magnifying glass. “Changes you. Sometimes bad, sometimes good. And you can’t resist.”
No, I cannot resist. I can’t resist this aloof boy who makes me want to smack him for his complete social awkwardness – and kiss him at the same time.
“For those few seconds,” I whisper.
Instead of keeping still, he acts. My face tingles where he touches, and my stomach spins around. Invisible magnetism pushes us together.
“I still have a few questions,” Tristan tells me after a minute.
“Right,” I say, trying to get back my breath. “How many?”
He pauses, thinking. “As many questions as there are in the world. But I’ll just ask a few.”
Tristan is silent for a few seconds. “Do you really miss your life?”
“I do,” I answer concisely, homesickness puncturing my heart.
“What was it like?”
“I lived in Brackleby, so lots of woods and greenery. My Mum and I had a small cottage by a huge forest.” I think about my deceased father, but continue anyway. “I practically grew up in that forest, with my friend, Isaac.” I trip over his name, and rush on. “I ran a lot,” I tell Tristan. “Like, a lot. And I often climbed trees. I was actually afraid of heights, but I got used to it. The feeling of power when you’re just up there . . . it’s worth it.”
My life, condensed into just a few words. I can now see how superficial I was before my birthday.
“Died,” I tell him. “Before I was born.” My tongue probes the inside of my cheek as I think back to the conversation Mum and I had about him. “He was an Antithetical.”
His mouth deepens in a frown, but he clears his expression. “OK.”
“So what about you?” I ask him, wanting to banish away the memories terrorising me.
I know that Tristan’s life hasn’t been a very happy one, but there must have been some things that he liked.
“I grew up in Edgwaria, as you know,” he starts. “I lived in a quite busy area . . .” He trails off. “I can’t think of anything of any meaning, really. Had some friends, but we weren’t very close.”
I don’t really care; I just want to know, but I don’t press on. “OK, ask me another question.”
“What do you think has been your biggest challenge?”
The awkwardness hits me again. The way he asks the question, with an odd, uncertain look that just doesn’t suit him, makes me smile a bit.
I run through the numerous testing situations I have been through before replying. “There are many. Like . . . getting the guts to try to get into the NS, trying to control my powers – they were pretty uncooperative – and basically just surviving, really.”
He nods slowly. He’s thinking about something, I think, but I don’t know what. “That’s all for tonight,” Tristan says, surprising me – that conversation was really short. “Need to go hunting in the morning. Are you going to take watch?”
“Sure,” I respond, and add, “You should eat your greens, you know.”
“I’ll think about that,” he says unconvincingly. His lips lightly brush mine – which sends my heartbeat spiking up – and he goes over to the quilt on the floor, covering himself with a duvet. “’Night.” His eyes close, and he begins to snore only a few minutes later.
Asleep, he slacks. The emotionless look on his face softens, revealing a much more vulnerable Tristan. It’s weird, seeing him this way.
“Goodnight, Tristan,” I say softly.