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stories from the last war

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When you make your bed, you have to lie in it. When there's blood on both your hands, it's easier to hold each other's and tell yourself half of it isn't on you to live with.


When Thea leans over to kiss him in public, Kevin turns his face away. He feels the narrowing of her eyes somewhere within his ribs, thin and supple as a stiletto knife, and he says:

“Sorry. I’m trying.”

“I know,” she says, and Kevin bites his lip. This is the thing: Kevin isn’t good at failure, because he was never taught how to be. This is the thing: Thea isn’t good at this either, because the Ravens got her by the fucking throat, and Kevin knows how it is. Blinded by the lights behind your eyes, you tell yourself you didn’t need the oxygen that much anyway, even as you pray to come up for air. Blinded by the lights behind your eyes, you forget that the lights themselves are a warning sign.

This is the thing: neither of them knows how to navigate these waters. Neither of them were ever taught how to swim.


Sex for Kevin is an afterthought in the way it both is and isn’t for Neil. That’s why Neil and him are like two colliding forces of nature: they are both like and not-like on several immutable and fundamental levels. Neil doesn’t swing because he doesn’t. Kevin doesn’t know why and, in all honesty, doesn’t care, so long as it doesn’t fuck up his - now their - shared exit strategy.

Neil doesn’t swing and Kevin doesn’t anything, but for him it’s because there’s a - disconnect, you could call it. Where there should be a bridge in his brain, someone already struck each match along his skin and burned it down. First agony, and then ash. He’s been trained too well to turn anything outward. The risk of touch and want - these two strange and ugly things which can, for some people, define a base level of individualism - the risk of these things incalculable. Kevin doesn’t anything out of fear, out of how that fear has been scripted into his bones, encoded until he ached with it. To want is to incite.

Kevin has never been skiing, but he remembers the feel of ice against his broken hand; and for him, that numbs the worst of the wanting.


Here’s another thing, though: neither he nor Thea knows how to quit. Neither of them know when to lay down and die. Apparently with hypothermia, you don’t even notice it’s happening, but Kevin isn’t so sure.

Perhaps, Kevin thinks wearily, on days when tugging out his old internal moorings makes him grit his teeth, cutting himself open to staunch some slow internal bleeding; perhaps it would be easier if they did. They could make a bed in the snow and it could stop. Apparently, you don’t even notice it’s happening.

But then again, maybe it wouldn’t.


Let’s tell it like it’s a story instead of a life: when Kevin is a Raven, he tries not to look at the other boys, because there is Riko to think of. When Kevin is a Raven, he tries not to look at the girls, because there is Riko to think of.

There is always Riko to think of.

Let’s tell it like it’s a story: when Kevin is a Raven, he tries not to look at anyone. He spends years watching the sweat on Thea’s brow in silence, the shape of her mouth a Morse Code. He spends years avoiding the heartstring-tug of Jean Moreau’s eyes, the fringe of his eyelashes like an insistent rope around Kevin’s wrist.  He spends years and calls it buying himself insurance.

In the end, Riko breaks his hand anyway.


“You belong to me,” Riko tells him at eight and eighteen, tells him at nine and ten and twelve and, in his dreams, at twenty. “You belong to me, I’m your better half, what are you without me? A shadow, Kevin. What are you without me?”

Riko’s hand is curled around Kevin’s throat, resting, nesting, with a curious lack of pressure. Kevin swallows and stares back into Riko’s scalding eyes.

“A shadow, Riko,” Kevin says, and Riko’s smile burns through him; and each time he says it, he gets a little less real.


“What is it you like,” Thea asks, and it’s not a question, it’s a mission. “What it is I like. We need to figure that out.”

She moves the jewel of her necklace back and forth on its chain. It’s a habit of hers. Kevin used to use it as an opportunity to watch her hands. Her nails are frosted with glitter and clipped brutally short. They’re sat in her bedroom, on her bed, and every breath into his lungs drags her smell further inside him. There is Exy playing in the background - when isn’t there for them - and his eyes keep straying to it. He feels her hand against his face; calloused, rough, smaller than his. She rubs her thumb back and forth, just below his eye and just over the tattoo, and he feels it in his spine.

“Eyes on me,” she says, and smiles.

He’s not immune, he’s not, for all Palmetto think of him as some victim with ice for veins.

“You still wear their necklace,” he says, and her other hand flies back to it.

“Yes,” she says, hand at her throat, hand on his face. “I do. Do you know about the red ribbons?”

“What?” Kevin says, frowning. She knows he speaks French. “Thea, this story is pointless.”

“Humour me,” she says, then, a beat later and softer, “Talk to me, Kevin,” so Kevin sighs and says, “After the French Revolution, wearing a red ribbon became fashionable amongst the aristocracy. Around your neck. To show you’d escaped the guillotine.”

“Yes,” she says, “To show you’ve escaped.”

“Have we?” Kevin asks, feeling the familiar dullness creep outwards from his chest. He is a boy made of winter. He is a boy made of nothing at all.  

Lightning-quick, Thea’s hand is away from her throat and under his shirt. She pinches his side, and she uses the roll of his hips when he flinches to slide into his lap.

“That hurt,” he snaps, ignoring how the heat from the sudden pain flares out along his skin, how something in his chest cracks like thunder. He tells himself that the next roll of his hips is to try and get her off him and ignores how his arm is braced tight around her waist.

That hurt: for him to say it out loud is monumental, and they both know it. Thea’s eyes are too aware, the sirensong of them a hook and a confessional, but saying all the words he wants to would be like dredging up a graveyard of bodies from a lake. He presses his face into her shoulder instead.  

“Life hurts, babe,” she says, nosing at his hairline, leaving kisses that hitch his breath behind his ear, “Suck it up,” and gasps when he bites her shoulder. Gasps, and then starts to laugh. Exy is still on in the background, but Kevin is only half-watching over Thea’s shoulder, and she shoves him down so his back hits the bed, which kind of solves the problem for both of them.

“I bet you,” she says, her grin like a new moon, “you can’t take my bra off before the Trojans score a point on that playback.”

Both their eyes slide to the screen as one. 

“Who do you take me for?” Kevin says, and feels his blood rise with the challenge.

He loses the bet. For once, he feels like failure suits him. It’s a new feeling.


Nicky has always flirted with Kevin, but then Nicky always flirts with everyone. If Kevin had a dime for every time Nicky had, in those early days, stroked his hair, tried to drunkenly sit on his lap, or had chattered to Erik on the phone in German whilst casting significant looks in Kevin’s direction, then Kevin could have upgraded the whole team’s Exy racquets overnight.

At the time, he told himself the faint burn in his gut, low and nearly sputtering out under the noxious wave of fear that somehow Riko would sense this other betrayal, wasn’t what it was. But at the time, he’d already known better.

Riko is dead before Kevin looks one day from his laptop, turns to where Nicky is leaning against the kitchen counter and staring at a mug of coffee with dull eyes, and says, “How did you know?”

“What, that he was going in for the - oh my god. You’re not asking about Exy. You’re asking,” Nicky says, eyes widening, “About boys.”

Kevin is rapidly regretting this decision, his heart going triple-time. The adrenaline is making him sick. He shrugs under the weight of it, faux-casual.

“I can’t be the first person to ask.”

Nicky recovers from his current, private haze of misery enough to frown, his eyes flashing, and to retort with a “I don’t know. How did Aaron know he was straight?”

Aaron, from across the room, makes a disgusted noise. Kevin feels the weight of Neil’s stare and ignores them all. He looks back to Nicky, who is rolling his eyes.

“Honey,” Nicky says, and Kevin’s sure he says it just to piss Aaron off. It works. Aaron starts getting his things together. “Honey, if you’re looking for someone to handhold you -”

“I’m not,” Kevin says, shortly. He’s not fucking needy. “I’m asking. I’m just asking.”

Aaron slams the door on his way out. Everyone ignores it. Nicky sighs, and leans back against the counter.

“Have you talked to Thea?”

“Why would I?” Kevin replies, feeling his body heat as though under her hands again. “Thea’s - Thea’s fine.”

There’s an ugly snort from across the room. Kevin decides tonight he’s making Neil run drills until he drops.

“Look, it’s not my fault someone taught you every form of love was toxic,” Nicky says. “I was told there was just the one that was poison.”

Kevin stares back, giving no quarter, but only because he knows looking away gives someones a chance to sink their teeth in. Riko is dead, but Kevin is a shadow; Kevin is little better than a ghost.

“Where do you even go from there, though,” Neil says, and when Nicky and Kevin both turn to look at him, he also stares back.

Neil, Kevin will admit to thinking, would have been a spectacular fucking nightmare of a Raven.

“Don’t ask me, Neil,” Nicky sighs, “They told me it was poison and I drank the whole fucking bottle.”  

He laughs. It’s a little hollow. Kevin nods.

There’s his answer, then.


He sits on his bed and his back is to the door. He tries not to think about what they did last time they sat on a bed like this; Thea and him, him and Thea, and Kevin fails, Kevin breathes in the smell of her and says, “I like -”

His voice sticks in his throat. His eyes, absurdly, go to Thea’s necklace. They have not been guillotined yet. He takes a breath.

“Do you remember,” he says, very carefully, “How I looked at Jean Moreau? How I - didn’t look at him?”

He doesn’t say the number three. He’s trying to give things their proper names, these days. He looks at Thea silently, swallowing. She is wearing a sports bra and a skirt, the sleek muscle of her arms and the faint fold of her stomach above her waistband, and Kevin, for all he wishes he was some days, is not made of ice. He feels too much for hypothermia.

“Babe,” Thea says, “who didn’t try not to look at Jean Moreau like that? He’d have had our eyes out.”

She doesn’t say names. That’s also, Kevin concedes, a way of going about this. Different, but not wrong. He’s always admired Thea for her tactical mind. Then he finally registers what she’s saying, and she laughs at his expression.

“Stop laughing at me,” he says, “I’m trying.”

He means to say I’m trying to tell you something important, but his voice sticks right there, and Thea’s smile cuts through him.

“You always are. What about me?” she asks, teasing, and Kevin goes hot. He hates this.

“Yes, you,” he says, irritably. “Of course, you. You, and. What we did last time. Are you fucking laughing?”

“All I’ve ever wanted was for you to talk to me,” Thea says, “I need to learn. Be careful what you wish for.”

“I’m bad at this,” Kevin admits. His hands are clumsy. Sometimes, he imagines seeing bone through the skin again, but today they are just hands, and Kevin watches them tighten in his lap.

“We both are,” Thea agrees, and her smile is there, brighter if anything, and strangely buoyant. “Total failures.”    


After his next match with the Foxes, he walks up to Thea where she’s stood by his - by Wymack, and he raises his eyebrows.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he says, drags her face down to his height, and kisses her in front of the cameras, closing his eyes against the clamour. Thea’s nails are red and lacquered, and in the photos he sees later, they are slick as blood, they are reflecting light.

He has a panic attack almost immediately after, whilst changing out, and another on the coach home, but he tells himself this can be something he’s bad at.  


“I need you,” Riko tells him, over and over. “And you need me. We’re blood brothers.”

He carves himself into Kevin so deeply that to rip Riko out would be to take a pound of Kevin’s own flesh with it. But isn’t that what you do with tumours? Isn’t that how it works?

When Riko breaks his hand, his mind whites out with pain, and for a second all Kevin can hear is the creaking open of some great colossal gate.

He can’t remember if he starts running towards it before he passes out. He likes to imagine he might have, but he knows he might not. But a gate that heavy, a wound that old, takes its time to close again. It takes its time.

So does Kevin.