Eight years ago …
Aeron didn't speak at the motel.
He ate and drank, sat and let Keelin bind his blistered wrists with bandages even though the constriction made his breaths come short and his heart beat wildly. He listened to Lizzie cry that first night, her sobs reaching his ears through the thin wall between their rooms.
He shared the room with Marcel for the night, having chosen the bed farthest from the front door. That bed also happened to be closest to the bathroom, a fact he was thankful for when he shot from the bed at 3am to vomit.
Marcel stood over him, leaning against the door jamb. When he asked him if he was all right, Aeron didn't answer.
Aeron spent the entire trip to the Armory waking up with a start. Again and again he nodded off in his seat, neck bent at an awkward angle to let his forehead rest against the cold glass. Each time he woke panicked, tugging at his seatbelt. After the first few times, the others learned not to comment on it.
It was the six of them in the minivan: Rebekah driving, Marcel beside her, Aeron and Keelin in the middle row, and Caroline and Lizzie in the back. Only four had come to bring them home—probably so they didn't overcrowd Aeron and Lizzie, he guessed.
He didn't feel overcrowded. Just alone.
A pothole jolted him out of his final nap, the wheels crackling against gravel as they turned into the driveway. Aeron caught a glimpse of Josie at the gate, holding it open as they passed through. Her face was bare of a smile.
"Home, sweet home," said Caroline, unclicking her seatbelt. She was seated directly behind Aeron, Lizzie right beside her; unlike them, Aeron and Keelin had a seat between them to give him space.
Marcel, Rebekah, and Keelin disembarked, Keelin leaning back in to pull her seat forward and make way for Lizzie and Caroline to hop out.
Aeron remained rooted in place, fingers numb as they brushed over the seat belt buckle. His heart hammered in his ears, breaths becoming harder and harder to take. It felt like someone was sitting on his chest, breathing over his face and neck until he was hot and clammy.
Caroline appeared on the other side of his car door, sliding it open slowly and leaning in to meet his gaze. "Need help?" she asked, reaching over and unclicking the belt. She made sure it retracted into the holder fully, leaving nothing in Aeron's way. Holding out a hand, she waited for him to take it.
Heart still hammering, Aeron tried, gripping onto her hand and pivoting to plant his feet on the ground. Breathing become harder the more he looked around the place that had once been a safe haven.
"Aer?" Caroline prompted. She moved to stand in front of him, her face hidden from his gaze as tears blurred his vision. "Aeron, what's going on? Please talk to me."
Aeron could do nothing but shake his head, stepping back. He flung his hands behind him, seeking out the cool metal of the van. He didn't want to be here, couldn't be here, not after they'd taken him, taken Lizzie because of him—
"Hey, buddy." It was Marcel, moving in beside him. "You want to go somewhere else? You don't have to be here if you don't want to."
"Where would you take him?" asked Caroline. "He needs support—"
"He can come and stay with us," Rebekah contributed. "We have a spare room."
"How does that sound?" Marcel asked, hand resting on Aeron's forearm.
Breathing was still difficult, and the hurt look in Caroline's eyes wasn't making that any easier. He nodded shortly, tearing his gaze from hers to look at Marcel. Please—I don't want to be here.
"Then it's settled," said Rebekah. "Pop back in the car and Marcel will buckle you in. I'll go grab some of your things." She disappeared into the front entrance in a blur.
Aeron spent the next few minutes in his seat with his head between his knees, breathing as Marcel instructed. He didn't have to stay here. He didn't have to see Lizzie, the girl that had put herself between him and those that sought to hurt him even though it was his fault they were even there—
And he didn't have to see Hope, the girl that didn't come and find him. Not like he'd come to find her when she was bleeding on the side of the road. Not like he'd thought she would.
Rebekah loaded his suitcase and portable keyboard into the back of the van, slipping in beside him to occupy the seat Keelin had previously. Marcel started up the van, and they backed out of the driveway.
"Sit up properly when you can," Marcel said, looking back at Aeron. "It's better to be upright while we're driving, just in case we get into an accident."
Aeron forced himself to sit back, not meeting either of their gazes. As they reversed out onto the road, ready to drive away, he looked out his window …
And saw Hope standing by the entrance, watching them go.
Hope would have given anything for silence.
She didn't know the basic traits required to be a good spy, but she had a feeling that Lyn didn't embody all of them. She was chattier than she had any right to be, especially given their predicament. Stalking through the woods on high alert wasn't how Hope preferred to hold a friendly conversation.
"Do you mind?" she snapped, finally giving in mid-way through Lyn's recounting of a raucous night out with the guards. "Some of us are trying to find a way through this mess."
"I do mind, actually. And since you're the one that got us into this mess, I'll deal with it however I please."
"If you haven't been paying attention, I've been getting us out of plenty of messes. You wouldn't have made it out of that house without me."
"I wouldn't have had to leave it without you," Lyn bit back. "And besides, every dead body left with a scar from that sword is someone I helped kill."
"But I killed them," Hope replied, panting. She could hear running water, scent it on the air. God she needed a drink, and she didn't want to have to ask for Lyn's canteen to get it.
"With my sword. Honestly, I'd rather be out with the guard. They're not nearly as ungrateful after I slave away making weapons for them."
"I've seen your house." Hope sighed, pulling aside a branch to reveal a creek running through a crack in the earth. "I know how well you're paid for it."
"It's not my house anymore," Lyn said pointedly. "No. Now I'm running through the woods with a madwoman."
Hope shot her a look over her shoulder. "That's offensive. I'm not insane—just violent."
"Oh, I'm so sorry for hurting your feelings."
"I didn't mean it was offensive to me," Hope replied absently, stepping forward. The earth was wet and slippery the closer they got to the creek. A few rocks sticking out of the water would help them on their way, but they were mossy and damp and Hope didn't much like the look of them. "Do you think there's a way around this?"
"Doubt it. It feeds into the ocean."
"For fuck's sake," hissed Hope. "We can't possibly catch a break." She bent over to scoop water up in her hands, wiping down her face. They'd been walking for three days by that point, almost at the border to the Winter Court. The air had begun cooling the closer they were to the border, though Lyn assured her it wouldn't be too cold until they actually reached Winter. Hope had travelled through Winter when she was on her way to Autumn to find the Suriel, and she was not looking forward to nearly freezing again.
"Maybe there's a stick or something you can use to help you get across?"
Hope snorted. "I'm a werewolf with superior senses and reflexes. I think I'll be fine." She hefted her pack onto her back and waded through the shallow water to get to the first stepping-stone.
Lyn had the good grace not to say, "I told you so," when she had to leap forward and stop Hope from toppling into the water only moments later. Maybe she was of use some use after all.
Hope would be damned if she ever admitted it, of course.