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In Case The Daylight Never Comes

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Raindrops splatter onto the window, falling from a sky that hasn’t seen the sun in days. Autumn is fading to winter, arriving with a sharp chill and icy rain that will soon turn to sleet. Haven is days away from becoming a kingdom of ice. At least, from inside this shabby apartment, with its chipped walls and loose floorboards, Keira is warm, is safe. The rain is sealed out, the frigid air chased away by the radiator chugging away.

Keira is perched between the window ledge and sofa, tucked comfortably under a dusky pink throw, sipping at a hot chocolate, watching the lights of neighbouring apartments switch on as night creeps in. It’s been a long week, time dragging by slowly despite the shorten duration of the dismal days. Keira’s never been fond of rainy days, prefers sunny skies and warm spring days with a gentle breeze that carries the scent of flowers blossoming back to life.

Rainy days in Haven are bleak, tug at the sorrow that has sprouted in her chest, flooding her with hopelessness.  At times it feels like she’ll never make it home, to the sun-drenched village by the sea, to the rickety hut with its shelves overflowing with books and walls lined with childhood memories. Home will never be the same though, that bold, clever girl who tinkered with gadgets and drafted new inventions is gone. The ocean eyed boy who used to stay for hours, hindering more than helping – not that she ever mined – is gone too.

Returning to their time, to their home, won’t undo the last two years. It won’t erase the dark eco within Jak or soften Keira’s hardened edges. Those care-free days of sun and adventure are over. Their blossoming relationship, which was sweet and innocent, belongs to the past. All that’s left is a rift created by harsh words and a petty dispute. It’s been almost two weeks since Jak stormed out of the garage, anger that Keira realised too late was hurt, lingering in the air.

She wanted to apologise, to snatch back the words, go back to the start and throw herself into Jak’s arms instead of gasping in shock, letting cruel words leave her tongue. ‘And Jak… you look different.’ Of course, he looked different, two years is a long time, it’s an eternity while at their hands of wicked of men. ‘And you’re a good judge of character?’ Who was she to judge? She’d trusted Erol, let him into her life, all the while he was torturing Jak. People say you get angry and change. People say Jak, the heroic village boy who bravely saved the world, turns into a monster.

It’s ironic how she is the one who feels like the monster now, the one full of sharp and twisted things. These ugly feelings aren't directed at Jak, it’s not his fault, none of this is his fault, but she’s hurting and angry just the same. Keira wasn’t expecting Jak to show up, swoop her off her feet and find them a way home. She wasn’t waiting for a hero, Haven’s taught her how to be strong, how to be tough – maybe a little too tough – but her broken parts longed to be mended by the boy who always made her smile.

When she looked into Jak’s eyes - eyes that were no longer calm blue waters but a raging sea - that fantasy, that hope died. There would be no comfort from her childhood friend and first love, only callousness and thorn-covered walls. A twisted, hidden part of Keira resented Jak for being different. How was she going to find the girl she used to be if Jak wasn't the heroic and jovial boy she remembered. There was no point harbouring blame, no point holding onto misplaced resentment and there was no point wallowing in this misery. She’d screwed up, she’d lashed out unfairly and hurt Jak. Hurt the boy she loved, lost, and found, only to lose again.

Tears that have fallen too much over the past two years gather in Keira’s eyes, blurring the streets below. Sorrow awakens in her chest, clenching at her fragile hear. Keira presses her tear-streaked face against the window, letting out a shaky breath that fogs up the glass. Tears fall like the rain, trailing down flushed cheeks, chasing after raindrops. Coldness settles in her bones, frost coating her lungs, sometimes it feels like the winter chill will never leave her. Never release this fragile beating heart.

She’s gotten so strong, yet she is broken, is splintered, and cracked, pieces held together with glue and tape. There is no remedy for this, no magical fix or solution to be puzzled out and built from scrap metal and Precursor tech. Sobbing, shuddering, Keira capsizes in the misery, letting it pull her down, down, down into its murky depths. Tears fall, and broken sobs ricochet off walls, louder than the raindrops, then the thunder rumbling through the sky.

In this moment, with night creeping in, the air growing colder, Keira feels the loneliness, immense and overwhelming, press around her. The apartment is too quiet, too big, stretching out around her like an endless void. The emptiness is suffocating, ties a noose around her neck, winding, winding, winding until the very air is chocking her. Darkness falls as the sky rumbles like a hungry beast. Keira inhales deeply, air a sharp thing forced down her windpipe.

‘Breathe,’ comes Tess’s voice reaching through time, from the very first-day panic stole her breath. ‘Just breathe,’ she encouraged, ‘you’re safe. I’ve got you.’ Lungs exhale, and lashes flutter scattering tears. Resilience sparks beneath the misery, thawing the chill, giving Keira enough strength to lift her head, to focus on the world outside. Lights in the neighbouring apartments look like ships lost at sea, and the streetlamps glow like fireflies.

A few people are still out, bundled in red raincoats, heads bowed against the wind, or partly hidden by black umbrellas. She hopes these people have somewhere warm to go, a safe and dry place to spend the night. The temperature is going to plummet, and Keira remembers how cold nights in Haven can get. Her heart aches at the memories of lonely, fearful nights roaming the streets in search of shelter. Thank the Precursors for Tess, who found her before she froze. Before the men with ill intentions could snatch her up.

Shuddering, she slams the door on the unpleasant memories, deciding she’s indulged long enough in this pity party. If Tess weren’t working a shift at the Haven Saloon, then she would be dragging Keira to the bathroom, submerging her in a lavender-scented bath. While Keira soaked Tess would order their favourite take out and build a fort of pillows and blankets, adding string lights and filling it with snacks. Keira would wash away the sorrow, scrub away the tears and grit of the day. Emerging she’d put on the oversized sweater left for her by Tess and pull on a pair of knee-high socks that would be pink and white striped or yellow and adorned with purple butterflies.

She can almost smell the lavender in the air, can hear the bathroom faucet running, but it’s just the rain coming down harder. Tess’s presence evaporates from the air, leaving a chill behind. Keira sighs, resigning herself to a quiet, lonesome night. She’s about to get up, go to the kitchen and heat up her forgotten hot chocolate, when something outside, in the streets down below, catches her eye. Keira’s leans in, face pressed against the glass, scanning the streets below, but the streak of bright yellow and blue, but it was just her mind playing tricks on her.

Nights in Haven tend to play games with people, turning shadows into monsters, the moans, and groans of old buildings into growling beast. Keira slips from her spot, closing the curtains forcefully, shutting out the night and whatever evil lurks within it. With the world blocked out by green velvet, Keira feels the trickling sense of anxiety ebb, soothed by the warm glow of the various lamps that are placed around the apartment.

The sorrow lifts, a caged bird freed from her chest, carrying the pang of loneliness into dark skies.

***

Keira’s perched on the kitchen countertop socked clad legs swaying over the edge, sipping at her reheated hot chocolate when an urgent knock at the door startles her. The hot liquid sloshes in her star-speckled mug, heart painfully lurching into her throat. Shaking off the fright, Keira swivels towards the monitor that sits by the pink toaster, relieved to see a familiar face on the screen. Jumping down Keira hurries to the front door.

Butterflies with sharp wings swarm in her stomach, ugly and painful, nothing like the soft flutters she used to feel at the sight of Jak. Nothing about them, between them, is beautiful anymore. She is thistles and bristles, and Jak is thorns and claws, but that’s not going to stop Keira from opening the door and letting him in. They’ve never fought like this before, not with such venom and hurt. They’d been so young, so full of hope and light once.

Keira holts the messy trail of thoughts, she’s not going to hold onto this anger any longer. This city, Erol, everything is conspiring to pull them apart, and she’s not going to let misplaced anger and trauma take Jak from her, not after knowing how much it hurts to live without him. Composing herself, Keira opens the door, expecting to hear a shrill ‘took you long enough’ from Daxter, but Jak is standing in the hallway, under one of the few remaining lights, alone, shivering.

“Jak.” Any remaining anger, every shred of bitterness and confusion is ripped away. “What happened?” Keira reaches for him, heart sinking when he flinches. “Are you okay?” Her hands fall back to her side, where nervous fingers toy with the hem of her oversized jumper. “Come in.” She steps aside, allowing Jak entry, taking in the slight limp in his step, the way his gaze flickers around the room like a caged animal. “Jak, talk to me, please?”

Jak’s lashes flutter, the dazed sheen clearing from his eyes. “Sorry.” He rubs awkwardly at the back of his neck, a familiar habit. “I… It’s been a rough night.”

It looks like it’s been more than a rough night, given Jak’s soaked and dishevelled appearance. She’s not going to push the matter, though. Jak is shaken, is trying to act like he’s fine. Like there isn’t a gash right between his eyes, which is trickling blood down his nose. “Lose a fight with Daxter?” she teases, shutting the door, locking out the night.

Jak’s lips curl at the edges, so close to a smile. “I ran into some trouble with the guards on my way back to the bunker.” He folded his arms over his chest, shivering. “I tried to shake them, but I ended up getting turned around and well…” he trails off, hugging himself tightly. “I hope it’s okay that I came here, I had nowhere else to go.”

“Jak, of course, it’s okay,” Keira replied. “You’re always welcome here.”

“Thanks.” Jak’s lips twitch into a smile, fleeting and brittle, but there all the same.

“You don’t have to thank me, Jak.” Keira dared to reach out, moving slowly, giving warning and time to pull away. Jak stayed, allowing her fingers to brush lightly against his. “What are friends for?” Jak answer is silent, is a subtle graze of ice-cold fingertips, yet it sparks warmth beneath Keira’s skin. “C’mon,” she tugs at his hand, “let’s get you patched up.”

“Keira, wait.” Jak pulls his hand free, planting his feet firmly on the ground.

“Jak, what’s wrong?” she asked, searching his face for answers. She used to be able to read Jak, he spoke volumes with the arch of a brow, the tilt of his head, now, as she looks up at him, searching, searching, all she can see is indecipherable anguish.

“It’s nothing, I’m fine.” He snapped, edges sharp and tone like ice. “I can patch myself up.”

Keira takes a step back, heart splintering, pieces falling to the pit of stomach, resting with the razor winged butterflies. Jak lowers his gaze, expression clouding over, walls rising. Outside the storm howls, wind battering against the windows, threatening to come in, to blow them away. Not so long ago they understood each other, now there is just silence between them, an empty space where friendship and love once bloomed.

“I’m sorry,” Jak said, not lifting his gaze from the worn timber floors. “I didn’t mean…” he trails off, worrying at his bottom lip. “I’m still working on my anger. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.” Slowly he lifts his head, guard lowering. For a few precious moments, Keira can see the emotions shift across Jak’s face. The apology extends back two weeks, to that bitter day in the garage, when harsh, unkind things were said, adding to the distance between them.

“It’s okay.” An urge to hug Jak rushes through her, chasing away the hurt, giving her an almighty need to make this better, to make Jak, her best friend, feel better. Tears sting Keira’s eyes, chest aching as a fist squeezes around her fragile heart. “I’m sorry too. For what I said.” Tentatively she takes a step closer, opening her arms, giving Jak a choice. “For all of it.”

Jak’s breathing hitches, eyes swimming with tears and a dozen other things Keira doesn’t have the time to decipher, for Jak’s lurching forward, closing the space between them. He crashes into her, an ocean wave breaking against the shore, and wraps his arms around her. Keira holds him up, holds him tight, carding fingers through his damp hair. He shivers and trembles, shoulders shaking as violently as the windows rattled by the roaring wind.

Jak cries without sound, tears dampening the fabric of Keira’s sweater. He cries, and Keira weeps with him, grieving the loss of innocence, releasing unspoken pain. Jak lifts his head, cheeks red and tear-stained. Blood trickles down his nose, mixing with the tears, staining his skin red. He looks miserable and exhausted, the circles under his eyes black as night.

Keira cups his face, brushing away a stray tear. “Are you okay?” It’s a stupid question, of course, he isn’t okay, he’s a thousand miles in the wrong direction of okay. They are five hundred years in the future, stuck in a dystopian city run by a mad man and surrounded by monsters, nothing is okay, but the words leave her tongue all before she can swallow them. 

“I don’t really know.” Jak leans into her touch, eyes fluttering closed as he says, “ask me again when all of this is over.”

“Okay.” Keira smiles, despite the tears and raw pain in her chest. “It’s a deal.”

Even though Jak’s eyes are still closed, his lips twitch, the corner curling up into a half-hearted smile, mirroring hers. It sparks something inside Keira, something warm and bright that softens the sharp wings of the butterflies, soothes the grief and sorrow. Perhaps they are not as disconnected and broken as Keira thought.  

“C’mon.” Encouraged she takes his hand, tries, tries again. “I’ll show you to the bathroom.”

Jak opens tired eyes, smiling softly as cold fingers curl around hers in answer.

~~J~~

Thunder rattles the night sky, ripping it open, shaking the earth. Jak’s eyes scrunch closed, body tensing under the spray of hot water. The rumbling fades, the sound of pelting rain merging with the cascade of shower water. The warmth envelopes him, soothing tired muscles, washing away blood and grim, adding stains to Keira’s clean tub. He shouldn’t have come here, shouldn’t have put Keira in danger, shouldn’t have dragged mud and darkness through her warmly lit apartment.

He needed shelter, was cold and running on fumes, body aching from the last mission. There was nowhere safe in reach, no place with a familiar face at least. As the storm unfolded, the air growing thin and frigid, and the guards closed in, panic drove Jak to Keira’s door. No, there was something alongside the fear, simmering below the frantic urge for safety. Need. Longing, so strong it tugged at his strings, pulling him towards Main Town, to the high rise building he’d passed a dozen times before knowing it’s where Keira had made a home.

Home… he missed home. Missed his uncle and the comfort of their hut filled with books and treasures and warmth. He misses the sound of the waves lapping against the shore and the ocean breeze playing with his hair throughout the night. Here, in this time of monsters and men, Jak owns no more than the clothes on his back. Everyone has a place to go, have people waiting for them when they get there. Daxter has Osmo, the father figure he always wanted, who has a bed spare and food to put on the table.

Keira has Tess, has an apartment filled with plants and pretty trinkets, that is warm and cosy. Jak has empty places, which are cold and strewn with things left behind by those who left, the walls echoing with memories and ghosts. He has sheltered spaces tucked out of sight, that are dark and cramped and smell of mildew. It’s better this way, he doesn’t belong in the shiny places. He is a renegade, a restless spirit blown about in the wind, carrying rage, leaving carnage.

He doesn’t need a home or a collection of useless trinkets. He has a box of matches, a loaded gun and a thirst for revenge, anything else would be a distraction, would be a vulnerability. Yet coming here, parting ways with Daxter for the night, has opened a chasm of loneliness. Ignited a spark that simmers like anger and stings like betrayal. Hands balled into fists, blunt nails biting into palms, skin crackling like the lightning outside.

Thunder rumbles and the light flickers, plunging Jak into darkness. The air snatches in his throat, chest tightening, constricting around his racing heart. The rain pelts down, thunder rolling away, leaving the bathroom cloaked in darkness. Jak shudders despite the heat, the tangled mess of thoughts vanishing, ripped away by cold panic. He can’t see a thing, is frozen in place under the stream of water that now feels like ice shards tearing away his flesh.

He inhales a shaky breath, calming the hurricane threatening to carry him away, and exhales deeply, forcing his body back into motion. He is a rebel, a soldier, he can’t let the darkness, no matter how heavy and layered with fears it is, paralyse him. Fumbling in the dark, holding down the panic, Jak doesn’t notice the soft footsteps outside the door, the squeal of hinges as a shard of light pieces the darkness. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust, to realise there is a familiar silhouette behind the thin shower curtain.

“Keira?” her name falls from his tongue, the following moment of silence suspending him in fear.

“Yeah, Jak, it’s me.” Her reply scatters the building tension. “Sorry, I should have knocked. I’m just bringing you some light, the storm knocked out the power grid.”

“It’s alright,” he said, feeling foolish for letting the panic overwhelm him, for being afraid of the dark.

“It’s a good thing I’ve collected so many novelty lights,” Keira mused.  

Jak chest tightens, bitterness gathering at the back of his throat. He tries to swallow it down, reason with it, but the anger burns, chasing the ice from his veins. Keira has a collection of lights, an apartment filled with pieces of her, with comforts and small joys. Daxter has Ximon, who’s fun and laid back, not covered and thorns, in scars. They’ve built new lives, found new passions, new friends and it makes Jak feel like an intruder.

Like an outsider.

Tears prickle at the corners of his eyes, but he quickly blinks them away. He’s shown enough weakness tonight. "Thanks for the light." The world feels off-kilter, tired, aching body swaying, mind teetering on the edge. “I’ll be out soon.” He added, wanting a moment to pull himself together, to sort out the tangled mess of emotion in his head, in his chest.

“Take your time, Jak,” she said, voice chippy, like everything, is fine. “I’ll be right outside if you need me.” Keira’s silhouette drifted out of sight. “Oh, I left some clean clothes on the bench for you.”

“Great, thanks.” Did he sound grateful or was his voice too harsh, the strange entanglement of emotions betraying him.

The door closes, the soft thud resonating in the air, slicing through Jak. He waits a few moments, inhaling the humid air, exhaling the bitter anger. With shaky hands he turns off the faucet, the pipes shudder and groan in protest. Jak steps out into the yellow-lit room, eyes going to the small glowing muse that sits on the bench. The sight tugs at his heart and without thought, ignorant to the chill setting into his damp skin, Jak reaches for it, heart sinking when pruned fingers glide over smooth plastic.

For a foolish moment he hoped to feel soft fur, to hear a gentle purr, but it’s just a replica, a poor replacement for the real thing. Guilt churns in his stomach, adding to the layers of swirling emotions. The frigid air bites at his skin, returning him to the night, to Keira’s steam-filled bathroom. Shivering, shoving down the tangled web of thoughts, Jak grabs the towel Keira left for him and begins drying himself, being mindful of the many bruises and abrasions, flinching when the fabric catches on wounds, old and new.

Avoiding the mirror, which is slowly clearing of steam, Jak dresses in a hurry, paying little mind to the clothes until they are covering his skin. They are soft and perfectly sized, smells of rose petals and oil, like Keira. Jak tugs at the sleeves, making sure the fabric conceals the thick scarring on his wrists. Turning towards the mirror, bracing himself, Jak smears away the remaining steam, revealing tired, red eyes underlined by deep purple circles.

Blood trickles down the bridge of his nose, the cut left by the sharp edge of a stone reopened. Grabbing a tissue, he wipes the blood away, then disinfects it before applying two small strips of gauze. It’s not the only injury Jak acquired tonight, but he’d rather not waste Keira’s small vile of green eco on aches and bruises. Besides, he’s had worse. Unpleasant memories flicker in his mind, luring him to dark places, but he knows better than to give chase.

He fights, he resists, keeps the blood-soaked door tightly closed.

Regaining a semblance of control Jak release a shaky breath, fingers uncurling, eyes reopening. Reflected in the mirror is a face, half concealed in shadow, that Jak can barely recognise. He’s sharp angles and ashen skin, eyes dull and black as river stones. He is out of place amongst Keira’s bright things, a shadow, a ghost inhabiting a warm and cosy space. He yearns to belong, to not feel like a being made of anguish and rage. Jak puts his back to the haunted boy in the mirror, taking measured breaths to strive off the choking sensation creeping up his throat.

Gaze sweeping around the room he takes in the mess he's made of Keira's cheerful bathroom. The floor is spattered with mud and water, the trail leading to where his boots lay drying. The bench behind him is littered with blood-stained tissues and cotton gauzes, but he doesn’t have the strength to face the mirror again. Outside the rain softens, the sound of Keira moving about in the darkened apartment rising above it.

Sighing wearily, Jak walks towards the door, pulling it open on rusty hinges before stepping out into the dimly light hallway. On the floor is a novelty butterfly light, glowing pink and purple, wings glittering, a few feet away is a love heart that changes colours. The one after that is an artificial candle that flickers orange. The trail of novelty lights led to the living room, where the darkness gives way to a golden glow.

“Jak.” Keira appears at the end of the hall, haloed by the light, hand reaching into the dark. “Come, I have something to show you.”

“What is it?” he asked, hesitant, lingering in the dark.

“It’s a surprise,” she replied, fingers fluttering in invitation.

Not trusting his voice, Jak steps forwards, towards the end of the hall, towards Keira, offering his hand for her to take. Smiling, Keira laces her fingers through his, tugging him forward, out of the darkness and into the light.

~~X~~

Heart hammering, butterflies fluttering, Keira pulls Jak into the hallway, gesturing to the right, to the parade of lights and collection of colourful blankets that have been arranged into a safe place to wait out the long, cold night. Jak's eyes light up, the way they used to before the darkness and pain smothered their shine. The sharp edges and towering walls fall away, Jak’s arms falling to his sides as the tension leaves him in a quiet gasp.

For a moment Jak is unarmed, unburdened and time unravels, just for them. Keira is fourteen again, is giddy and falling in love with the heroic village boy. Jak is fifteen and speechless, glistening eyes taking in the blanket fort with curiosity and wonder. Warmth gathers in Keira’s chest, humming beneath her skin. Jak is readable again, is open and looking down at her with a smile that reaches his eyes. For this perfect fleeting moment, he seems happy.

“Keira… this is amazing,” he said, voice softer than she’s ever heard it.

“Ah, it’s nothing,” she shrugged, smiling. “Tess and I make them all the time.”

The light in Jak’s eyes flickers, dulling to a fragile ember. Time shifts, returning Keira to the frigid night, to the closed-off, jagged-edged renegade. Jak lets go of her hand and takes a step back, but Keira gives chase. “Jak." She doesn't want him to retreat, to lock her out. She understands he's hurting and that she said terrible things, but she's trying, is reaching and will continue to do so until Jak knows she isn't going anywhere. "Talk to me, please."

“I thought…” he crosses his arms, creating a frosty barricade. “I thought you gave up on me… on finding me.”

“Jak…” Anguish grips her heart, clenching it tightly between gnarled fingers. “I never stopped looking for you. How could you think that?”

Jak turns away, face concealed by the shadows. “What else was I supposed to think?” his tone is cold, biting. “You and Dax have wonderful new lives and amazing new friends, so why would you want me?”

Keira flinches at the harshness in Jak’s voice, feels her throat tighten and eyes well with tears. The torment, the self-loathing in Jak’s voice cuts to the bone, festers in the air around him, smothering and toxic. The anguish swells, crushing her heart, spreading jagged ice crystal through her bloodstream, but she holds her ground.

“The sweater you’re wearing,” she said calmly, gesturing at Jak’s clothes, “I bought it for you three months ago from a clothing store in Main Town. The pants are from a thrift store in the Baraza. I have a blue dragonfly mug waiting in the cupboard just for you. I have clothes and gadgets and knick-knacks that I knew you'd like tucked away in the back of my wardrobe." She pauses, steadying herself. “I bought these things for you.” She reaches out, clutching at the fabric above Jak’s racing heart. “For when I found you.”

Jak stares at her through wide-glistening eyes, speechless, breathless.

“I never gave up on you, Jak,” she continued, voice unwavering, despite the storm of emotions unfolding beneath her skin. “I never gave up on us.”

“Oh…” Jak’s gaze drops to the floor, eyes clouding over.

“Jak.” Gods she wanted to know what was going on inside that troubled mind of his, wants to tear down the walls and find the source of Jak’s pain, take it out and set it free into the night. But she can’t take away his trauma anymore then she can her own. Pain demands to be felt, and if they want to heal, then they must first walk through the fire. They don't have to go it alone though, not now, not ever again. "It's okay." She reassured, cupping his chin in the crock of her fingers, tilting his face up. "I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere."

Jak’s breathing hitches, face crumpling as he shatters, raining jagged pieces all over Keira’s living room floor. He is not quiet and contained like before, the sobs are guttural and heartbreaking, his knees buckle and bend, sending him to the ground. Keira catches him, but his weight pulls her down. She falls with him, holding on tightly.

“I’m here,” she whispered, running soothing fingers through his damp, tangled hair. “You’re safe. I’ve got you.”

Jak sinks deeper into her embrace, tears once more dampening her sweater, spilling free into the night.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she vowed. Jak trembles and shakes in her embrace, violent sobs turning into soft hiccups. “I’m sorry, Jak.” Her breath catches, fresh tears trickling down her face as searing pain grips her chest. “I’m sorry for everything.”

“So am I.” Jak leans back, tears shining multicoloured in the array of lights. "I wish we could go back to the start… be the people we used to be." Jak sniffled, brows furrowing deeply over wet eyes. “But we can’t.” His adds, tone acidic.

“No, we can’t,” Keira declared, brushing away Jak’s tears, “but we can get better.” She smiles, words full of conviction. “We will get better.”

“What if I can’t get better?” Jak holds her gaze, eyes glistening and churning, expression tormented and torn apart. “What if I’m just broken?”

“You’re not broken, Jak,” she reassured, know deep down in the very foundation of her being that it was true. “You’re just a little bent out of shape, a little hurt,” she added, “but I still love you.”

Jak’s eyes flicker with light, with a surprise and doubt and rejoice. “You still love me?”

“Of course, I do, Jak.” How could she have missed this? How did she not see the self-loathing before tonight? The fear of rejection, abandonment is so painfully evident now. It’s the storm raging in Jak’s eyes, under his skin, tearing him apart. “I will always love you.” And she will, no matter how jagged the edges, no matter how bitter the tone. Jak is her best friend, the boy she fell in love with a lifetime ago. Her home. “I’m sorry for what I said the other week." She would take the words back if she could, would pluck them from the air and douse them in fire, but she can’t, the wounds have been made. “I’m sorry for making you feel like I’d given up on you.” She will try to heal them, will remind Jak that he is loved and has been deeply missed. “And for making you feel like I didn’t care about you.”

“Keira, it’s okay.” Jak leans in, resting his forehead against hers. “I forgive you.” His breath ghost across Keira’s face, drying her tears. “And I’m sorry too.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“I kinda do,” he insisted. “I was defensive…” his voice softens. “It’s something I’m working on.”

Keira smiled, feeling light-headed and wrung out from the emotionally charged night. "Well, in that case, you're forgiven." She said, knowing Jak needed to hear the words, even though there was nothing to forgive. He was hurting, he is hurting, and she didn’t see it sooner enough, was blinded by her own misery, fooled by Erol’s charm and easy smile.

As the quiet night settles around them, rain now a gentle pitter-patter and thunder a distant echo, a familiar yet distance urge rises. The butterflies flap their wings, no longer sharp blades but delicate gossamer, and her heart drums a forgotten rhythm. Longing swells in the spaces between her lungs, filling her with courage, with fuzzy desire. The misery felt earlier tonight is swept away, caught up in the whirlwind, sending them far away.

Now, as the tears dry and the pain recedes, cast out to allow healing to begin, Keira feels herself tilting forward, cresting on the current of entanglements and neglected love. She would like to close the distance between them, hold Jak’s face in her hands and kiss him. She wants to fold herself into his embrace, to rekindle their blossoming romance, to remind Jak that she cherishes him with all heart and soul. The wave rises, desire tugging at her strings, memories of their first tentative kisses encouraging her forwards, but something wrenches her back.

The spell breaks, turning desire cold, into regret. Deep in her heart, fragile and fractured, is a love so profound it feels like a supernova. Jak will always be her first love, her first real friend, but despite how close the night has bought them there are still rivers and roads between them. They are two strangers sitting in the dark, fundamentally changed by two-years’ worth of pain and trauma yet tied together by a shared path.

They are wounded and torn apart, far from home and the people they used to be. Even though Keira longs to kiss Jak, to rekindle their spark, she knows she can’t. They aren’t ready. They need to heal, need to reignite their friendship, themselves. Tonight, they must weather the storm and lay a new foundation, build it with love and strength, so they have solid ground to stand on, so tomorrow they can be better. Can be closer.

“Come on.” Keira takes Jak by the hand, encouraging him to stand.

He rises above her, taller and sturdy then he used to be. A soft smile graces his face, face a little less haunted, eyes no longer a dark churning blue like the ocean before a storm, but he still seems weary. On edge. A pin dropping could frighten him. Outwards, he fits in perfectly with her decor, yellow of his hair bright like the sunflowers and daffodils, green roots deep and rich like the curtains and velvet cushions. Yet he fidgets, not in the playful twiddling way of the village boy, but rather in tense stilted motions, eyes scanning the shadowy corners.

“Jak?”

“Sorry.” His eyes return to hers, open and vulnerable. “I’m just on edge.”

“That’s understandable.” She squeezes his fingers softly. “I feel the same, most of the time.” She turned to the blanket-fort, taking in the dazzling lights and soft fabrics. “Whenever I feel homesick or am riddled with anxiety, Tess builds me a blanket fort, and we spend the night or day sitting in there, eating sweets while watching movies.” A fond smile graces her faces, memories of laughter and long hours of feeling safe, loved play in her mind. “I always feel safest during those times, the city and all its cruelty feel far away.” She turns the smile on Jak, watching the light flicker in his eyes. “That’s why I made this for you.” She pulls back the sunshine yellow sheet, revealing a cavern of fairy lights, a parade of colourful throws pillows and two sleeping bags. “I thought it might make you feel safe too.”

Jak is silent, but his eyes say a thousand words. He pulls her into his arms, leaving no space between them. “Thank you,” he said, sealing his words with a kiss, lips leaving a tingling warmth on her temple.

“What are friends for?” she asked, echoing her words from earlier.

Jak chuckled, chest rumbling against hers.

“Come on,” she eases out of Jak’s strong embrace, peeling back the sheet once more, gesturing for Jak to enter. “Let’s go inside, it’ll be much warmer, and the snacks won’t eat themselves.”

Jak shakes his head, smiling fondly. “You had me at snacks.”

He gives her one last lingering look, the storm gone from his eyes, leaving calm waters flecked with gold, like the ocean under a setting sun. Ducking his head, Jak disappears into the depth of the fort, which from the inside looks like a cove of lost treasures. Keira follows, stepping out of the frigid night air and into the warmth, sinking down into the mound of pillows and blankets. Jak lays beside her, resting his head on her lap, staring up at her through bright eyes.

“You mean the world to me,” Keira revealed, smiling down at him, carding nimble fingers through his thick yellow hair, “you know that, right?”

Jak’s breathing hitched, expelling in a rush. He is silent for a moment, but Keira can see the wheels turning, read the range of emotion playing across his face. It hurts to see him like this, to know that Praxis and Erol have torn him down to the point he believes he is worthless, unlovable. It’s going to take a long time to dismantle these beliefs, to heal these wounds, but Keira will do whatever it takes.

Keira bends, placing a kiss to the tip of Jak’s cold nose. “You are loved.” She whispered. “You are wanted-” she kisses his forehead"-and you are cherished.”

Jak deflates under her touch, tension draining from his tightly coiled body as the walls fall away, revealing raw nerve and fragile vulnerability. Keira gazes down at him, capsizing in the blue expensive of his ocean eyes. Jak draws her back in, and for a dizzying moment, she thinks he is going to kiss her, all concern about rebuilding their friendship thrown to the wind; instead he brings her forehead to his, cradling her face between his warm, calloused palms. He remains silent, but the gentleness of his touch, the very gesture itself say more than words ever could.

Earlier tonight Keira had been restless, heart heavy with uncertainty, scared her friendship with Jak was in ruins, but that had been fear talking, the cold, lonely night pressing in. Now, with Jak in her arms, she knows differently. He loves her too, just as deeply and fondly. He’s here. He’s here to stay. Their friendship has been salvaged from the rubble, painstakingly pulled free and exposed, raw and bleeding, to the frigid night air. They are wounded and hurting, miles from who they used to be, but there is no longer distance and resentment between them.

Tonight, surrounded by colourful lights and shadows, they begin to heal.