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It had been days since Moonblight had come and gone, since Sagebristle had let him go without a word of protest. She wondered where he was now, what he was doing. Her migraines were near constant, and she wasn't sure why- if it was the remnants of her old injury or the pain of assimilating her old memories with her jagged, piecemeal worldview that Kier had fed her.
So Sagebristle stayed, kept her head down, and did her duties. She let Kier nurse his wounded pride, and said nothing to rub it in or acknowledge the events in any way. When a few days had passed, and Kier seemed to be feeling a little better- at least publicly- Sagebristle found him in the cenote.
She knew everything now, knew about Eris, knew about how Kier had imprisoned her and taken her children. He knew that she knew, and the charade was up. Sagebristle still wasn't sure how it would affect the strange, warped dynamic between the two of them- hatred and dependence and connection and betrayal. Despite it all, she had stayed, and she was hoping that would count in her credit.
"You look well today," she told Kier, her tone carefully neutral, trying to gauge his feelings towards her by his body language and response.
Kier was sitting alone by the pool of silty water, shoulders hunched slightly; there was something about him that looked out of place, overwhelmed, nervous, uncomfortable, like someone out in a strange city for the first time. He always looked small, but he looked even smaller now, ears pressed back slightly and the tension in his body defensive. When he saw Sagebristle making a beeline for him, he clicked his tongue softly and glanced away, letting out a breath that substituted a roll of his eyes. But even that didn’t really look annoyed — it looked nervous. He really didn’t feel ready to speak to anyone that wasn’t Eris or Laertes. It was clear he didn't want to speak to anyone, and if it were anyone but her, they'd have met a sorry bout of cruelty. As it was, he still had a weak, frustrating soft spot for her. He resented her for that, too. Resented it just as much as he did her, and blamed her for both. His shoulders hunched further; she'd already caught him now.
You look well today. “Do I?” Kier replied lightly, glancing at her with a prim sort of disinterest when she sat down — and it was more threatening than if he’d snapped at her, that shallow glaze of cheer that was so paper-thin you could almost see the vicious blood underneath. His mismatched eyes were burning, the strongest thing about him in that moment; it was clear he was still hurt by everything that had gone down. His voice crashed down. “Well, I’m not.” He seemed to live his life with a constant accompaniment of injury, the old never never allowed to fully fade before new ones joined them, always scabbed and sore and bloody, always the punching bag for any larger cat’s annoyance. That he deserved it was beside the point. Kier was extraordinarily good at self-pity — ever the optimist, any significant setback was met by depressive, reclusive self-comfort for days, hiding away in his den and muttering things in his head about how it wasn’t his fault, they were the problem — them, all of them. They just didn’t understand. They couldn’t see. No one ever could — not his siblings, not his father, not his mother. The ones he’d thought might hold potential, like Moonblight, like Sagebristle, always disappointed him. Always, always — always them. It was at these times that he was at his most crazed, because he was spectacularly self-aware, aware of his own cruelty, his own mind, his own villainy — until someone shattered a special hope. Then it all shattered and he was left alone with his own attempts to soothe himself, talk himself back up, hug himself, mumble and hate and fear and tremble.
This was his first night back out in public and he was still frayed, still a little more delicate, fragile, soft. It meant that his insults both lacked ferocity, and were a thousand times more dangerous — because a fox with his belly exposed is vulnerable and screaming and desperate. When Kier knew he was weak, the merest wrong touch could herald execution; he had to reassert his own strength while he still felt sick and sore and whimpering, and so the brutality doubled. Over-compensation, you now.
He turned to her more fully, locking eyes with her and letting out a breath like he was explaining something to a child. “Sagebristle, I know you struggle with the subtleties of life so I’ll make this simple for you — I cannot comprehend in what world,” he let out a laugh; it dissolved a second later into a pitying frown, his head bowing slightly as his eyes stayed snagged on hers, “I would ever wish to speak to you. The little whore herself.” He spoke gently, sympathetically, like he really did feel for her, for her struggles — she couldn’t help her nature, couldn’t help a woman’s instincts. Truthfully, he was trying to hurt her. To brush her aside. “What is this, my dear? Mm? You know I have your kits so you’re hoping to, what,” he let out another laugh, and this time he shifted closer, sitting down again softly close in front of her and raising his paw to gently lift her chin, blinking at her tenderly, “rekindle a little of what we shared?” He hummed again, a little hm? Kier smiled, still holding her chin, close enough that he could feel her sweet breath on his whiskers and she could feel his. “My dear.” The smile grew so sympathetic, almost tearful; the paw slipped across to her cheek. “No one’s going to want used goods like you ever again. Really, I should have felt bad for what I did — but what tom in their right mind could when you had neither class nor the merest hint” he clutched her cheek for a second then let her go, smoothing over the spot gently and smiling so softly, “of reluctance? You—“ He laughed again. “You would have slept with anyone! A rogue— yes, a rogue! And you think myself or Moonblight will ever feel anything but disdain for you ever again?” His paw had snaked down to her chest; now, with a brutal shove, he pushed her away with a sneer like she was damaged, the gentleness snapping. “Best get used to being alone, my dear.”
He was at his most mean when he was feeling wretched himself. When he was tired and weak and hardly had the energy to speak, and so he smeared it with a glaze of cruelty to bring himself the faintest hint of comfort. Of joy. Of vindication — she'd hurt him, so he had to hurt her back. He did feel better, in that sick, sad way that guilt felt addictively terrible to a sadist.
Sagebristle let him speak, let him cycle through his theatrics, without an ounce of sympathy or pity. She understood Kier. She knew, on a basic level, what was setting him off and what his goal was now. He was speaking to her like a child, like she was stupid and worthless, but she knew that he was projecting. And if she was being honest with herself, she thought of Kier as a child. A petulant, whining, power-hungry child. His pride was hurt and he was lashing out. Whether it was nature, or nurture, or both, Sagebristle understood, but it didn't excuse any of what he had done.
But that wasn't what was important. Her feelings towards Kier, as deep and resentful as they were, were the least of her concerns. When he shoved her, she rebalanced herself before speaking. "If you'd like to sleep with me, I'd be glad to," she responded evenly, calmly, careful not to lash out in return and risk his retribution. "If you wish to keep insulting me, feel free. If you'd like to never speak with me again, I'd be glad to do that, too."
The words about Moonblight cut deep, but only for who she'd found in her mate's absence. Sagebristle didn't hold Kier's puritanical views of she-cats and purity, and the word whore held no real insult for her- not from this tom, at least. "We both know the game is over, Kier. And I'm still here. I didn't leave with Moonblight, and I don't plan to leave now. I know you have my kits, so I'll be completely honest with you." Sagebristle watched him through her honey-hued eyes, filled with that old fire.
"I'll do whatever you want. I'll be whatever you want. I'll kill anyone, maim anyone, sleep with anyone. Point me in a direction and I'll go without question." The russet tabby flicked her ear back. "I have no desire to overthrow you or restore any part of the old Nightclan. I only want one thing, and that's to see my children again."
Her next words were quiet, subdued, deferential. Kier wanted control, and she would let him have it. "You know I can be a valuable asset. I was top of my class. I'm still an unparalleled fighter. And I know- trust me, I know that you don't need me. You're a powerful ruler, and you have plenty of decent fighters here already. But I'm here, and I'm willing to lend you my abilities in any way that suits you. Place whatever limitations you want on me meeting my children- supervision, words I'm not allowed to say, whatever. Just let me see them again, and I'll do anything you ask."
Someone else might have been moved by the mother’s devotion to her children — might have felt guilty, that they were the reason she was willing to debase herself, sell her soul, make deal after deal just to keep them afloat as she went under. Kier did feel moved — but it was by the fact that his mother would never have done this for him. It was by grief, and anger, and a kit’s longing that twisted itself into hatred of the she-cat in front of him — because his mother wouldn’t do this for him but Sagebristle would do this for her kits, and he couldn’t hurt Rhiannon but he could hurt Sagebristle. It was part of the reason he felt so inextricably connected to this she-cat — she was a fantasy, she was this rare, perfect light of a she-cat who loved her kits; he could be a kit, he could destroy her, he could be nurtured by her, he could wound her to alleviate the constant pain tearing into his chest.
There was nothing about it that wasn’t awful.
If you'd like to sleep with me, I'd be glad to. Kier had been eyeing her with a resentful, sullen sort of distrust, head bowed; now his whiskers twitched with surprised interest. He stayed silent, but his head raised a little as he listened. My, but she was indestructible. Fearless. She’d outlast even he. ’If you’d like’ — the wording sent an excited thrill up his spine; the fact she’d offer herself at any time at night, irregardless of how interested she herself was, just for him, for him… If he’d like. It made his heart flutter. The knowledge that nothing he could do would ever break her — rather than the usual flare of frustration, he felt a deep, thrilled respect. If you wish to keep insulting me, feel free. Kier gave a half grin, just a thin, toothy little thing; with the way his head was still slightly bowed beneath his shoulders, it made him look like a teenage boy sneaking forbidden treats. “How about both?” he tittered.
As she continued, Kier fell quiet but his whiskers kept twitching with interest, with surprise that was close to faint, sadistic amusement; he was the tiniest fraction taller than her, just enough that it gave him a little thrill to be able to look down his nose at her, standing there with their muzzles close together, listening. He’d be lying if he said the things that left her mouth didn’t flatter his ego just the littlest bit. The fact that she’d stayed when Moonblight had been chased out — even though she had stayed for her kits, the twisted part of him said she had stayed for him, and his ego trembled and purred. I'll kill anyone, maim anyone, sleep with anyone. His brows quirked faintly, more amused than anything, but still he stayed silent, the trace of a smile playing at his mouth. Finally, though, he spoke, pointedly ignoring the last part about wanting to see her children. “Are you sure you don’t have a little kink for indenture?” he joked toyingly; the merest hint of teeth glinted behind his little grin. He was still close enough to feel her breath on his face, on his tongue. “You’re very good at playing the handmaid. Assassin — forgive me, I should call you my little assassin.” The grin grew slightly; a titter breathed out past it, his eyes not wandering from hers in the dim light. “That seems to be what you’re angling for.”
When she continued, Kier wasn’t immune to her show of deference — it was one of the only things in the world that could fool him, that could make him think her idea was his. Dipping his head like he was considering it, like she was making sense — or like it was old news she kept regurgitating — he left his place in front of her and padded round in a wide circle, nodding all the while. I was top of my class. “Mm, yes,” he interjected, and he said it with all the amusement of an inside joke, one he had with Eris or his Guards or himself — “top of the class! You know, you and Moonblight really do bang on about that — Aspenstar gives two apprentices some little consolation prize and it’s all you cling to for the rest of your lives.” His voice suddenly took on the suffocated quality of stifled laughter. “I suppose it’s all you can do, bang on about it, when you can’t bang each other.” He doubled over with laughter. “No, I’m sorry, that was very crass, very classless — I’m sorry, Sagebristle, I apologise. I mustn’t mock your celibacy. And I did offer, you know,” he held his paw up, like he was commanding her attention, like he was telling the truth, “to Moonblight — I told him I’m more than happy to let you two see each other so long as I got to be involved.” He shrugged. “But he said no.” He went back to his lazy circling.
I’m still an unparalleled fighter. Kier raised his brows doubtfully, still circling round. “After childbirth? After wasting away in solitary confinement? After doing so very little but pleasing me for two moons? You’re still an unparalleled fighter, are you, Sagebristle? You once wiped the floor with me—“ he was suddenly in her face, muzzles almost touching, a daring, foolhardy little grin on his face, in his wide eyes, “— could you still?” He stayed there for a few moments more, listening to her, until his eyes started to hood again with lazy, ego-stroked self-satisfaction at I know that you don’t need me. You’re a powerful ruler. “Mm,” he hummed pleasurably, turning away again and resuming his circles, lazier this time. Slower. Closer. His pelt brushed against hers, warmth on warmth. “Plenty,” he agreed in that same hum. Lend you my abilities in any way that suits you. He shivered as he brushed against her. “You’re either a wonderful mother or you really do get something out of this,” he breathed, sounding a little undone.
And then she brought it back to her damn children. Any pleasure he’d felt evaporated back into irritation — into betrayal. Because it always came back to them, not to him.
His mood snapped in an instant; from behind her, his forepaw was suddenly hooked at the side of her throat, forcing her head backwards towards him as he surged closer, sides pressed flush together and his breath hot on the back of her head. He could just see her honey eyes from how far he’d tipped her head back. He held her painfully in place. “Are you sure WE aren’t expecting a little surprise?” he asked in a vicious, whispered hiss. “A bit of joy? Mm?” His claws imbedded in her soft neck fur shook her. Kier’s lip curled, his voice losing its cloying warmth and turning truly nasty. “We certainly did it enough. What a happy accident that would be, mm, for Moonblight? You know,” he shifted closer, voice lowering to a warm, intimate sneer, “I truly can’t believe he left — the little coward. Left you. And you still love him? I would never leave my mate, Sagebristle. I would die with her.” Without truly meaning to, he shook her again for emphasis — it was the truth, the honest, searing truth, and the passion of it imbedded itself in his hones and got away from him. “And yours just walked out to save his own skin. Doesn’t that disgust you?” He hissed it in her ear, forcing her head back even further. His chin dug into her scruff. “Do you really think he’ll come back? What — for your little bastard kits and you, the Clan harlot, prostrating herself for her leader even after her memories came back? They don’t even know him. They’re just as pathetic as you and he are.” All his charm was abandoned in the place of pure hate. Only being so terribly wounded and betrayed could do this. Dragging her impossibly closer by her throat, still gripping her from behind, he dropped his voice like he knew even then that this was risky territory; she’d already bested him once. But he didn’t care — he trembled with the daring of it, with the fear, with how much he wanted to hesitate and how forcefully he pushed himself through it. His lip curled against the back of her head, close enough to feel her fur against his teeth; the words came out snarling, so quiet, so intimate, so full of hatred and spittle. “I would have left them out for the foxes if I thought they’d be worth anything even as a meal.”
The kits really were a sore point for him. He didn’t consciously understand why they bothered him so much, but in some insane way, he felt a rivalry with them. Like he was competing with children. And he hated them. He’d manipulated them once, had really developed a softness for them, an affection. But now he just felt so sickeningly jealous. He wanted them gone.
Sagebristle felt a flare of unbridled rage consume her as Kier pushed her head back and held her there. She could still wipe the floor with him- she could snap his puny neck and take her time breaking his ribs one at a time. She wanted to. She should- should rid the world of this twisted, vicious tyrant who was keeping her from her children and her mate. Her paws flexed slightly, claws digging into the ground as she took a long, steadying breath.
What did he want from her? He had seemed pleased for a few moments, like she'd been saying the right things. What had made him snap? The mention of her kits? Sagebristle couldn't figure out why it bothered him so much. Kier was cruel, but he wasn't stupid- he must've known, cognitively, that they were why she'd stayed. This world of delusions that Kier seemed to live in didn't come naturally to her- she was a fighter, a she-cat who either addressed her emotions head on or avoided them entirely. Her mind was working overtime to try to understand how to get what she wanted from this tom who was in equal parts keenly intelligent and wildly susceptible to methods of manipulation that played into his particular fantasies.
She had to figure out how to play his stupid little game, especially since she had very few cards of her own to play. She could offer everything she had to Kier, but if he simply said no, if he turned her request down for whatever sick thrill it gave him, then she was powerless to change the answer. There would be no challenging Kier, she knew, and very little bargaining either. They were not equals in Kier's Nightclan. The best she could do was submit to that fact and learn to play into whatever delusions of control filled his head.
Think, think, think, she chided herself. What response did he want from her? What could salvage this interaction? He was droning on about Moonblight, and something small clicked in her mind. Whatever this was about, it involved Kier's complex about Sagebristle's mate. She latched onto that, ignoring the comments about a pregnancy.
"I'm not waiting around for Moonblight," she assured him, forcing down her rage and hatred and settling on a tone that was calm and slightly soothing, as if she were speaking to an angry kit. Not too condescending, sounded the warning in her head. This was thin ice she was on. "He doesn't matter to me now. I'm here, Kier. I'm here with you, with Nightclan. You're right- he's a coward." Her voice was too close to trembling with the lie, and it took all of her effort to keep her voice steady.
"He ran away. He doesn't know his kits, and he doesn't deserve to." Sagebristle would drag Moonblight's name through the mud to hell and back. She'd disavow him day and night if it got her children back to her. "I've heard about your kits here- the life you've made for them. You're a better father than Moonblight- if that label even applies to him." Gently, very gently, she tested his grip- tried to ease out of it to look him in the eye.
Deference had worked the first time- perhaps it would work now. "I'm sorry, Kier. I didn't mean to overstep." She didn't grovel- if she was too unlike herself, he might realize her game. So she went for subdued and chastised, instead. Even offered him a bit of vulnerability. "You know my story- my own father abandoned me. I never knew my mother. I didn't want my children to think I'd treated them the same way. That's all. I want what's best for them- but you know them better than I do by now. I'll do what you think is best."