"I wanna go back."
Matt sighed, poking at his peas with a tin fork. "Well you can't, Stay. Neither can I. We were there too long as it was." The words tasted worse than the peach cobbler here... and that was saying something.
"But whhhhyyyyyy not?" She was curled around Mister Flailie, pouting and staring up at him from over the beleaguered plushie's lumpy head.
He grumbled again, trying to eat and failing again. One bite at a time was as much as he could do. It wasn't the flavor or that he'd been sitting here so long that the food was cold. His appetite was just dead. Parts of him felt the same way. Leaving that sanctuary had been the hardest thing he had done in a very long time.
"Do you remember Raze and his coven?"
Stay nodded, nibbling on one of Flailie's tendrils. "I do... I know we had to go away from them before we got them hurt, but..."
Matt shook his head. He had not wanted to do this, to tell her the truth until she was older but if this kind of thing was going to keep happening, she needed to understand why he kept uprooting her. He wanted a place to stay too. Matt was tired of constantly moving...
...but the alternative was just unacceptable.
"Stay, we did get them hurt."
She furrowed her little blond-mopped brow. "Huh?"
Here we go, he thought sadly.
"Remember how you woke up on the road, belted in behind me? How I told we we had left because there were bad people out there who would hurt Raze and his people because we were with them?"
Stay nodded again, still nibbling.
"Well, we left one night too late, midget." The sorrow in his voice was evident. he had never really talked about this before. The emotions of that hard night returned in a wave, crashing down so hard he felt his throat tightening up.
Damn it. He was getting soft in his old age. He had dreamed about Raze's coven last night. he had been for several nights in a row. He'd been still, pretending he was safe, for too long.
"You were sleeping when the coven got hit, Stay. The Dark Ones found us, just like I knew they would. I... I tried to run but Raze told me to stand and fight. He said we could stop them. The Ruby Falls chantry had never fallen."
Stay nodded. "Billy said his mom and dad had been defending it for like twenty years and their mom and dad for like a century before that! They are wunnerful!"
Matt sighed. There was no easy way to do this.
"Stay... Billy's dead."
She stared at him. "But you said... Billy's... no. Billy's fine."
He just shook his head. "No, Stay. I told you we would go back to Ruby Falls someday. And we will... but he won't be there."
He could see it in her eyes. She was getting it slowly, water pooling in her big blue eyes. "His daddy? His mommy?"
Matt just pushed his plate away. What little hunger he might have had was completely gone now. There was no way he was eating today. Honestly, with the food here? Not much of a loss.
"They are gone too, baby girl. They all are. The whole coven died." Again, his throat locked up. Matt was trying to get past his feelings here. They only ever got in the way. Being weepy and sentimental was a weakness. He could not afford to be weak. Weak would get him killed. Weak would get Stay killed.
"But... why didn't you save them?" She was biting her lip, wet eyes and wet cheeks.
That hurt. He felt it like a knife.
"Stay... Please..." The words were not coming now. He was grasping for something to say but everything he was thinking just swam away. She had it exactly right. Exactly right.
He had not saved them. When Raze went down, a cult blade rammed through his chest and his body on fire, Matt had not stayed to fight. He did what he always did. He grabbed Stay, ran to his motorcycle and ran away. He felt them die, one by one, the men.. the women...
...even the children.
"Raze... Raze told me to run."
That was true. It had been the last thing the man said, shouting it past the gurgle of his own blood. Run. Get away. Run.
And run he had. "I had to get out of there. We would have died too, midget." Matt's eyes hurt. His hearts hurt. This was hard. How could he make her understand? Was she just too young to grasp that he did all he could? Or at least, all he could do before all was lost?
Was she? Or was he just lying to himself and she was too innocent to believe it?
He slumped, face in his hands. "I swear, Stay... I didn't want to leave. I wanted to... to stay."
Sometime later, the minutes did not really matter, there was the feel of little arms around his shoulders. "You sound funny when you cry."
That earned her a head bump in the face. "I don't cry."
She laughed softly at him, snuggling a plush octopus up against his side. "Izzit just dust in your eyes again?"
He nodded. "Yeah. It's dusty here. Really dusty."
Stay stuck her tongue out in a little gaggy sound. "That would 'splain the meatloaf, huh?"
Matt, despite himself, was still chuckling with her all the way out to his bike...