He ached.

They could see it. He knew they could. They suffered with him. They moved around him, careful, avoidant, sheep scattering to escape the pointed watch of the herd dog, but still responding to his presence, moving as he wanted, as he directed, moving in shapes they thought were organic, directions they thought their own, but he was crowding them, crowding them, herding them in, giving them no harbor, nipping at heels, driving them home, into their pen.

"Stay safe," he said, verbal latches on verbal gates, big body framing the entrance to the barracks, hands spread on either side of the doorway, crucifix. Despite lack of religion, the posture is not lost on the eyes that survey him, steady, scared, defiant, understanding. "Keep quiet. Call on Xermiltoth."

They offer words, but they fall on deaf ears. He's been gone for days now, for weeks, hollow, empty, a cavernous ache fueled by rage, driven by desperation, filled, on occasion, by company or activity or forced purpose, but so very often this, this bone-deep, skin-crawling, heart-slowing chasm of doubt and fear and feelings too terrible to give name to; the hate and emptiness that sets nails on edge, digging into flesh at both elbows, digging in, dragging, leaving dents, raising welts, releasing fast when realization hits, and then doing it again because it's something. It's anchoring, it's a focal point, it's a reminder that there's more going on outside this weyr, worse that is being suffered, that small twinges and the burn of sleeves hastily dropped are the least of concerns. Repurpose. Find a task. Move on.

But time has passed. Too much time. Not enough. There's no word; there's never word. Were there ever words to begin with? He doesn't know. He isn't sure. He's never had words for this, words to describe just what it is to go from something to nothing again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Pain isn't enough. Sadness too simple. There's probably some old term, couched, prosaic, beautiful in its obsolescence, that could perfectly describe this vast echoing nothing that somehow keeps caving in and burying him alive with sharp staccato breaths of not enough air despite the fact that it is nothing that he is feeling, and simultaneously it is everything. So much. Too much. How is there so much. How has he reached this point. How did he let someone in. Why. Stupid. Glorious. Glorious stupidity and idiocy and fucking why, for what, what is the purpose, what is the point, why the pain, what is the worth, what is there to gain, it all goes away. It all stops sometime. It all stops, just like his heart as his chest seizes, tries, as it often does, to hollow him in around it, collapsing like a dark star and hauling him in with sheer gravity. He resists, but it hurts, makes him sick, throat going thick, the mere act of swallowing enough to make him gag, fuck, why, fuck, why, fuck.

He is a maelstrom. No, that word is too good. It is golden, like Xermiltoth, though even he isn't so golden anymore. Eyes track, find the bronze, tracing lines once fluid that have now gone hard, pressing against a mind that has locked itself down for him. For him. For him he yields. For him he is silenced. It's like killing a songbird, snapping its neck, rending it in half with a swift jerk, what he's done. He says he understands, that this is how it has to be, weeks and months of increasing silence leading to this, to a mind that doesn't acknowledge him, that no longer cracks along the edge of his touch to let sunshine show through. His defense is complete, his mind tucked and shrouded, ready to play for him, letting him shape him, letting him build, letting him unwind a plan that has been formulating since the day ice went dark.

What is he doing. The thought hammers into him, like it does daily, like it does every time blue eyes hit grey, wishing they were framed by black instead of blonde, seeking shreds of a family that's somehow become his. Family. Family. It hurts. Fuck, but it hurts. What is he doing? He's been given instruction, but it's taking too long. It is a process, but it is a failing one. It takes time, but there's not enough time to give. The thread wears thin. It's going to break, frays splitting, pulling too-taught, too-fine, trembling with the effort to remain, to hold on, to keep from snapping, even though it is inevitable. It will snap. It will break. He can only hope it's enough. Enough time.

Time. Time. The word sours in his head, in his heart. The frequency with which that word is used makes him hate it, if one can truly hate a word, despise a necessary concept. 'These things take time,' as if time is a luxury to be afforded. There is not enough money in the world. Not enough time. Too much time. It's passed. It's gone by. Time. Time. Nails. Elbows. Skin. Heart. Hollow. Caving. Breathe. Not enough air. Walk, then. Move. Fracture on your own time. Time. Fuck. Sleeves down. Chin up. Don't be suspicious. Move. MOVE.

He moves as planned. Circuits are made. Words are given. The same words. Always the same words. Not always in the same order, but what order is there anymore. There's only the feel of his mouth moving, the knowledge that he must have pulled words from somewhere, but it's like the Ghost of Christmas Present, watching without watching as your words are spoken without being able to feel the thoughts. Stay safe. Keep quiet. Call on Xermiltoth. Keep quiet. Call on Xermiltoth. Stay safe. Three stops. It's all he dares do. All he can manage. More begs questions. More draws attention. More takes time. There is no time.

But time gets taken. He must wait. He can't remember what he does to pass it. Pass time. Stares, he thinks, when eyes finally do blink, gritty, sore, tired. So tired. He's slept, knowing. He's slept, aware of what was to come, but still he was tired. So tired. Achingly tired. Would he ever stop being tired? Even if all went as planned, even if he found— even if he returned with— Sick. Clammy. Chest. No names. No names. Push through. Move on. Tired. He would always be tired. Tired of watching. Tired of waiting. Tired of anticipation, of this happening again. It was daunting. Hollowing. Harrowing. If, when, never, this would never be over. Fuck. Ache. Pain. Depth. Emptiness. It was getting worse again. Lack of action always made it worse. Dark phantoms rose in his mind, to willing to engage in shadow-play, allowing scenarios to run rampant. Months. Months. Too long. TOO LONG. TIME. FUCK. Reins. Reel in. Pull up. Pull up or meet rock. Pull up or die. It's almost not hyperbole. It's almost just that dark, vision swimming, arms around shoulders, form swaying, flinching, remembered pain, pain that isn't his, now, it's— No names. No names. There can't be names. Only caves. Only shadows. Only breathing, in deep, out slow, a frantic digging of mental claws against sunbright casing, casing that doesn't open, can't, won't, what has he done, what has he done, what is he doing.

What is right. What is necessary. What is deserved. What he must out of simple need. There is nothing else. No other option. There is no more biding. There is no more time. That is what he's doing. That's what he fixates on. No names. No faces. No emotion. But there is purpose. Purpose he can do. Purpose is only a word, not a person, not a feeling ready to snap him in half, purpose is a concept. An idea. An idea he can do. This is his purpose. He is his purpose. They are his purpose. Slowly, slowly, purpose is wielded. It is the criss-cross of boards over windows, the wrap of cellophane over meals, not enough, not nearly enough, insufficient in the long term but there wasn't time for long term, and this would do. Time was short one way or another, and this would suffice. Hammer. Nails. Boards. Windows. The press of plastic, tucking nearly around edges, forestalling decay, keeping the onslaught from breaking through. Dark water still creeps, pooling around feet, glittering, ominous, but there's no helping that. One day he'll drown. But it's not today. Not now. Not when there's purpose.

Not when it's time.

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