Jaycee barely ducked away from the tree branch overhead. In front of him, a winding path opened up into an enormous field. They had been traveling for hours since having left the village of Decimari behind them. Outside the towns, the areas contained mostly dirt, dead or dying plants, and feral creatures that made it their home. It was late spring, and the trees had only just started blooming, faded greens, yellows and browns exploding around them.
The sun, obscured behind the extensive cloud coverage, began its descent below where the eye could follow. The splashes of blood orange and golden yellow landed on the foliage. It wasn’t safe to wander around aimlessly throughout the night. As the years passed, the wild became home for more than the poor.
“Can we stop here for the night?” asked Kyla. “My feet are killing me. There’s no way I can move another inch.” Without waiting for an answer, she sat down and stretched her legs. A pleasant-sounding sigh escaped her lips.
Jaycee wanted so badly to sit, his limbs heavy like lead. Even before jail, he had always preferred napping to working. After being inactive for so long, his body struggled to keep up with his increasing activity level. His lower body was shrieking in pain as he plopped down on the ground. What he wouldn’t do for a nap.
“Mind if I sit here?” A deep voice tickled his ears.
Jaycee glanced up to see Alec, his fan waving at a steady pace. Unwillingly to speak, he shrugged his shoulder in confirmation. The uncomfortable feeling from earlier came back full force, heart pounding in his chest like a drum.
“Kyla, what are you doing?” asked Alec. A few feet away, the girl in question lay sprawled out. Her arms were behind her head, using them as a pillow. “You have five seconds.”
“Five seconds before what?” She still didn’t leave. Jaycee felt the frustration coming off of the man near him in waves.
“One.” His tone started low, like he was talking to a child.
“Okay, okay. I get it already. I’m going.” She huffed and bounced up. With one quick motion, she dusted the dirt off her back. “I’ll gather the firewood, but don’t expect me to cook! I’m not Leon.”
“Two.” If Jaycee didn’t spare the man next to him a glance, he would have failed to notice the hint of a smile adorning his features. What a strange relationship they had.
Without another word, she turned towards the dense forest. As she passed, eyes glared daggers at her boss, and she stuck her tongue out. Her figure faded into the shrubs minutes later.
“What a troublesome girl,” said Alec. The words rang fondly from his mouth.
Now, with only the two of them left, that restless mood surfaced anew. The grass intertwined in his fingers was prickly and itchy to the touch. Even though his time above was short-lived, he already missed the abundance of nature that surrounded Fioma. They didn’t recognize how fortuitous they were.
Next to him, Alec opened and closed his fan, the gentle breeze caressing his face. The enigmatic leader of a band of mercenaries, objectives and wishes unknown. The aura of authority he gave off had Jaycee, well-known in his field, contemplating how he never heard of the name Alec before today.
The man in question sat only inches away. His crimson robes fell around him like a blanket, legs crossed with one hand propping up his head as he looked at Jaycee. It was impossible to tell what was behind those light brown eyes. His thoughts were futile to read.
“You’re sitting kind of close,” said Jaycee. He scooted off, gaze wary. “Do you need something?”
Alec hummed before replying. “We’re going to be allies for the near future, so I figured we should get to know each other.”
“Know each other? Like what?” He scratched the back of his neck, puzzled. What did it matter? Even he recognized he was only useful as a weapon. Growing to understand him and how he ticked seemed unnecessary.
“For example, how did you end up in jail?” he asked. Jaycee’s eyes narrowed, unwilling to answer. As if realizing his mistake, Alec put his hands up. “Ah, ah, don’t be mad. I’m only joking.”
It was then that Kyla came running back, arms filled with what appeared to be sticks and leaves. She collapsed in front of them, wheezing and chest heaving. What she had collected slipped out of her arms and settled all over the front of Alec’s Hanfu.
“Oh god, oh no. I’m so sorry.” She paused, face scrunched together as she drew a deep breath. The subdued fury in her boss’s glare was enough to make anyone panic. “Wait! Don’t move! I’ll clean it up.”
Jaycee would never admit it out loud, but he was thankful for Kyla’s clumsiness and terrible timing. Another minute alone with Alec was one minute too long for his liking. Conversation wasn’t one of his strong suits.
After apologizing profusely, head bowed and arms flailing, Kyla went back to her initial task of creating a fire. Behind her, Alec loomed over and barked orders. The scene had Jaycee puzzled. Their boss had many faces, and it was difficult to decipher which one was the real him. Who was Alec, really?
Kyla hunched over the stack of wood, furiously rubbing the two sticks together. Jaycee heard her grumbling from where he sat. The chirping of the surrounding wildlife became nonexistent as time trudged forward. Even the animals knew to disperse as the temperature plummeted and nocturnal beasts woke from their slumber.
“Need some guidance?” asked Alec. His voice sounded amused as he watched her struggle. Although he offered, he didn’t make a move to help her. He absent-mindedly played with the fan in his hands.
“No! I got this. Just you wait and see—Aha! Hey, boss, do you see this?” A small spark ignited with a gentle pop, and then a flame emerged. “Oh man, Leon is going to be so jealous.”
Jaycee could only imagine what he’d be jealous of.
“About time.” They continued to bicker. Jaycee watched them, somewhat envious of their friendship. He buried most of his companions six feet under.
As time passed, and day turned to night, the group huddled by the fire. In the sky above them, dark blue hues turned almost black. He could see no stars as the fog blended in with the night sky. Nearby, the flames flickered, shadows dancing along the dirt. Although modest, the warmth it gave helped stave off the chill of the night.
“Jaycee, don’t you want to sit by us?” asked Kyla. She and Alec sat on the other side, close together. They had found a large log earlier and used it to rest on.
“I think I’m okay over here.” Regardless of whether they had saved him, trust took more than a day to build. While Kyla’s fighting ability was noteworthy, Jaycee figured he could take her on easily enough. She wasn’t a threat. Now Alec was another story.
“You know, it’s all your fault he won’t hang out with us.” She grabbed a stick laying by her feet and pointed it at him. “What did you do to him while I was away?”
“Silly girl. I can’t tell you that. It’s a secret between men.”
“No, don’t tell me you—”
At that moment, Jaycee hugged his legs close and shut his weary eyes. The effect of their quarreling on him was relatively pleasant. It reminded him of better days, and those memories became ones he would relive in his dreams.
His slumber, filled with moments he’d soon cease to recall, vanished as calloused hands jolted him awake, shaking him vigorously. A piercing howl had his anxiety increase, and his eyes flew open.