Prologue

     No. He wouldn’t think like that. This time would be different. Booker was different. Micah was different. At least, he had been. Until Eden Voss had shown up and strung him along like some love-sick pup. Something needed to change here. Something needed to happen. Eden Voss was making Micah weak. Weakness was unacceptable in Tartarus. Weakness would get you killed. 

     Booker traced the map in his brain, following the invisible footsteps etched in his brain. He could scarcely make out the fire kept small and crackling just out of spitting range, and he stole upon it quietly, surprised to see who was keeping it lit. 

     August looked up as he approached. The poor kid was a canvas of reds and blues and greens, dark bruises covering every inch of exposed skin on his frail, skinny body, evidence still of what he had suffered when he’d been captured and forced to fight in the Games. He smiled as Booker plopped down beside him, but his silence was telling. He hadn’t been the same since Booker had rescued him from Desmo. Some of the light had faded from his eyes, some of his softness beaten out of him. 

     And there was that cough. Deep and wet, reverberating from the very core of him. It seemed to shake him from the inside out, though he did his best to hide it, to push it under the surface. Despite all that, he still looked up at Booker and smiled lightly. Jesus, the kid was so meek. He needed someone to cling to, someone to love him and protect him. Booker could be that person in Micah’s absence. But he knew the truth of it – who August really wanted. 

     “You need to tell Harker about that cough,” Booker said gently, reaching out and slipping an arm over August’s shoulders. 

     “I’m fine. I don’t want to worry anyone. It’s just a cough.” August snuggled into him like a child seeking his mother’s warmth. Shaking his head, Booker gazed silently into the flames, offering what comfort he could. 

     “Doesn’t sound like just a cough,” he persisted. “You’ve had it for a while.”

     “Please don’t tell him, Book,” August pleaded, his voice suddenly choked. “Please. I don’t want them to worry about me. It’s getting better. Really.”

     Booker glanced down at him, shaking his head. Who was it, really, that August didn’t want to cause to worry? Harker? Or Micah? August had been attached to Micah ever since his auction, when he’d been abandoned to the Yellow District as a failure. The kid was small and weak. He’d glommed onto any sign of strength as a way to protect himself. It was how August survived. So why now was he trying so hard to feign strength? 

     “You trying to keep this from Micah?” Booker asked, and August blanched at his side. 

     “No!” he stuttered. “No. I just…I don’t want him to stop being happy on my account. He deserves to be happy. I don’t need him to worry about me.”

     “August—” Booker attempted to reason, but the young boy at his side began to pull away, a look of consternation on his face. “Ok, ok,” he finally made himself agree, pulling August back to his side. He did his best to keep his tone level and placating. Gentle, just like August liked it. “Ok. Forget I said anything. We won’t tell Harker. For now. But if it gets worse, promise you’ll tell me.”

     August nuzzled into his side, seeming to finally be at peace. “Ok,” he whispered. “Thank you, Booker.” They continued to watch the flames flicker in silence, August’s head settled against Booker’s broad shoulder. Eventually, August’s breathing seemed to even out, his body slumping into Booker’s side. Sleep claimed him. 

     Easily enough, Booker scoped out an empty warehouse some few feet away from the fire. He’d stay there with August, watch over him, make sure he was breathing. And should a nightmare wake the poor kid from sleep, he’d be there to comfort him. August didn’t like falling asleep alone. Lately, it had become almost impossible for him, Booker knew. Booker secured a bedroll from the rest of their supplies, and once he was confident of the depths of August’s slumber, he lifted his unconscious form and carried him inside the warehouse. Gently, he laid August on one of the sleeping rolls, before pulling a thin cotton blanket over his slender body. 

Copyright © 2020 – All rights reserved by Hellie Heat

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