Jason eased the back door open and stepped onto the porch. The storm had passed, and while the sky was still cloudy and the ground still wet, the air itself was dry. Jason turned and descended the wooden steps, then crossed the overlook and followed the nearly-invisible path into the woods.
He'd thought he was okay with having children in the house, but he wasn't. It wasn't their fault, and he didn't want to drive them away or take it out on them, but he couldn't stay inside with them any longer. He was very much aware of how much he wasn't thinking about his last tour -- absolutely wasn't thinking about it -- and of the voice that was screaming in the back of his head, a loud and unbroken wail of shock and pain and grief and regret.
There were trees. There were lots of trees out here, and he focused on them as he stepped lightly between them, using their roots to keep his boots out of the mud. There was underbrush, wide stretches of harmless leafy plants kneeling close to the forest floor, interspersed with virulent patches of poison ivy.
The path wound back and forth as it traced its way carefully down to the creek. Jason followed it with the surefootedness of long familiarity, staying balanced by reflex while he carefully didn't think about the refugees in the house or anything that they reminded him of. The machete on his left hip was a solid, comforting weight; the pistol on his right hip was heavier, but less comforting. He told himself that he'd brought it along for protection, and sometimes he almost believed it.
The creek was high and muddy, swollen with the rain and racing headlong to join with other waters, all equally out of control. Anything that fell into it would be swept along, helpless, tumbled and beaten and likely to drown. At the moment, it seemed like the perfect expression of his life.
Jason followed the path down until he was overlooking the river. The path went further down, descending into the flood-risen waters, and Jason stood looking at it.
"Are you going in?" asked a voice, and he turned.
It was the oldest boy -- Oberon, the woman had called him -- standing some twelve feet further up the trail behind him. Jason blinked at him. "That would be suicide," he observed.
The kid shrugged. "Are you?"
"No," said Jason firmly. "I wasn't even thinking about it." I was very deliberately not thinking about it. With the boy there, with someone watching, the water wasn't even tempting; neither was the gun. "What are you doing down here?"
"Following you," said Oberon. "Wondering what you were doing."
For a moment, Jason just stared at him. The kid didn't flinch, though. He didn't react at all. He just waited. Finally, Jason said: "All right. Are you ready for the walk back up?" He would have to wait. He wasn't sure if he cared. He wasn't even sure if he should.
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