He took another draw from the mug, not because he was particularly thirsty, but because he was done with the conversation. The facts had been shared, and he had tried to be honest without talking too much about how ugly it had all been.
How ugly he had been when he’d been there.
As the silence stretched out, he risked a glance at Saxton—
His breath caught. The male’s eyes were full of compassion, not disgust or fear.
“Come sit down,” Saxton said softly. “You’re bleeding and I want to clean you up. Sit.”
When Ruhn continued to just stand there, Saxton went over, took the male’s hand, and nudged him toward the table. As Ruhn sat down, the coffee in his mug was wobbling because his hands were shaking.
That made two of them on the trembling front, Saxton thought as he walked to the sink and started the water to warm up. Peeling free a couple of paper towels from a roll mounted on a dowel, he tried to comprehend what Ruhn had been through.
No wonder the male’s affect had changed as it had during the fight behind the restaurant—that blank stare had been more upsetting than the violence itself. Indeed, after living with the Brotherhood for this long and hearing their stories of being in the field? Saxton was more than well-versed in violence. No, the disturbing thing had been the fact that Ruhn had disappeared into some other part of himself and had had to be all but pried off his prey.
A wild animal unleashed.
Saxton tested the rush of water with his forefinger. It was warm enough. Pumping a little soap onto the Quicker Picker Upper, he got the towel wet and then turned back around. Ruhn was staring into the mug, his brows down, his shoulders tight.
One did not have to guess where the male had gone in his mind.
To have to save his sister and mahmen from being used as veins and no doubt sexual outlets for the fighters? Kept in a stall? All for the mistakes of his sire?
For ten years, penned up like a tiger, not knowing at any given hour whether he was going to be sent back into the ring to be beaten or killed. And along the way, he had to have been injured and learned to live with loneliness and pain.
It was too sad to even contemplate.
Walking over, he expected Ruhn to look up. When he did not, Saxton put his hand lightly on the male’s shoulder.
Ruhn jumped and knocked his mug over. “Oh! I’m sorry—”
“I’ve got it.” Saxton went back and snagged the paper towel roll. “Here. I’ve got it.”
Unraveling a bunch of the Bounty or whatever it was, he threw the stuff down and let its absorbency work its magic.
“Turn toward me.” He hooked his forefinger under Ruhn’s chin and brought the male’s face around. “That’s it.”
Ruhn flinched when he made contact, but Saxton was pretty sure that was more because, for him, reality was a jumbled-up mess at the moment.
“This is quite a cut,” Saxton murmured as he went to work on a laceration over Ruhn’s brow. “And it’s getting more swollen by the moment. Maybe we should take you in to have Doc Jane or Dr. Manello look at this.”
“I’ve had worse.”
Saxton paused. “Yes. I’m sure you have.”
As he resumed cleaning off the dried blood, he wished he could say the right thing, the proper thing…anything that could possibly relieve some of that decade. There were no words, however.
But there was a remedy.
“Is the fighting operation still ongoing?” he asked tightly.
Ruhn shook his head. “There was a revolt by the fighters about a year after I left. They got themselves loose, killed the guards and the enforcers, and slaughtered the boss. The compound is all overgrown now.” He cleared his throat. “I went back, you see. Not once, but a couple of times. I was trying to…make sense of it all. Ultimately, I failed.”
“I don’t know how you could.”
“As I said, I did it for my family. That is the only peace I have ever found.” Ruhn exhaled long and slow. “But you know, I also regret that I let my sister down. Maybe if I had been home, she wouldn’t have fallen in with that violent male. Perhaps I could have done something before he moved her so far away, up here to Caldwell. After I got out, I tried to find her, but she’d left no trail. My parents knew that he was dangerous—I think he must have relocated her as a form of control. I hate that she died without me there to save her.”
“You did what you could,” Saxton said sadly. “At the end of the night, that’s all any of us can do.”
He went back to the sink with what was left of the roll and got some wet with nothing but water. Over at Ruhn once again, he made sure he wiped all the soap away. The rest of what was on the male’s face was bruising, and you couldn’t clean that up.
“You say that I did an unselfish thing with Bitty,” Ruhn said roughly. “I didn’t. I saved her from me. What I did to those men out in that parking lot? I’ve got a bad side, and in the end, I knew she was safer with Rhage and Mary. Plus…what if she ever found out? She couldn’t have a father like me.”
“What do you think Rhage does for the race?”
“That’s different. I wasn’t saving anyone.”
“Other than your sister and mahmen.”
“I don’t know.”
Saxton dried off the area. “This looks bad.”
“It’ll be all right.” Ruhn glanced up. “You are very kind to me.”
Saxton brushed a fingertip over the male’s jaw. And then he stroked the thick hair back, and touched Ruhn’s lower lip.
“You’re cut here, too,” he whispered.
Leaning down, he gently kissed the place that had been torn by a human’s fist. And as he straightened, a warning started to go off at the base of his brain.
As much as he was attracted to Ruhn, and wanted to be with the male, hurt people…hurt people.
Yes, yes, it was the kind of thing you could see with a sappy image as a meme on Facebook, a trite little four-word construction that seemed custom-fit for the snowflake generation’s perpetual, depressive sensitivity. But as a rescuer, it was entirely like him to take in a stray who had been abused. How did he know that Ruhn’s past was truly over, though?
He thought of that look in the male’s eyes—or rather the absence of expression—during that fight, especially when Ruhn had been about to snap the human’s neck.
“It’s okay,” Ruhn said roughly as he pushed his chair back and got to his feet.
The other male took a step back. And then another. “I understand.”
“Understand what?” Saxton asked.
“I don’t trust me, either.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can see it in your eyes.” Ruhn nodded. “And I get it. You’re trying to reconcile what you saw with what you wish me to be. I live with that all the time. Every day when I close my eyes, I am reminded of the things I did. And if I forget, I just have to look in the mirror.”
“Ruhn, don’t make up my mind for me.”
With rough hands, the male took off his jacket. Then he turned around and yanked his shirt all the way up to his shoulders.
Saxton gasped. That broad back was covered with a pattern of welts—except no, that wasn’t it. They weren’t marks made by a whip. The four-inch-long cuts were far too regular, too surgical—and there were at least thirty of them, fanning out from the spine. They had to have been brined into place, salt being poured over the open wounds when they had been made to ensure that the things didn’t close and disappear as the skin regenerated.
“Thirty-seven,” Ruhn said baldly. “I killed thirty-seven males with my bare hands. And every time I did, they took a knife to me and added to my tally. It was done for the crowd, so they would bet more money. It was for the show.”
Saxton covered his mouth with his palm, tears spearing into his eyes.
As Ruhn pivoted back around, all Saxton wanted to do was throw his arms around the male and hold him until the memories didn’t hurt quite as badly.
But it was obvious that was a no-go.
Ruhn pulled the shirt back into place and put his jacket on once more. “I’m going to go now. But you need to tell me where to drop Mistress Miniahna’s things off.” In a dead voice, the male tacked on, “And not to worry. I will not interact with the females. I’ll leave the things in a safe place and stay away from them.”