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“Yes. It’s incredible.”

“It’s a memorial to my mother.”

“I’m so sorry that she passed, too—I had wondered—”

“Oh, she’s still alive. Living in a rich gentlemale’s mansion, earning her keep on her back like any other prostitute.” His brows sank so low, his eyes all but disappeared. “So yeah, my father actually died long before he was killed.”

“He loved her that much,” she said sadly. “Oh, Axe …”

“I hate that kitchen. I hate every one of those fucking leaves and the dumb-ass roses he carved for a female who didn’t want him—and Christ, you should see what’s in the basement. My father spent his daylight hours down below, working on all these figurines after my mother left.” The firelight played over features that were harsh with anger. “That male was fucking pathetic, the way he mourned her. She leaves him and her kid behind, just walks out one night—so disgusted with their life as a family that she didn’t even bother to take any of her clothes or her things. And what does he do? Collapses in mourning. I mean, whatever, he should have just fucked her off and gone about his life.”

Elise shook her head. “How old were you?”

“It was before my transition. I must have been ten or so. She upgraded us like we were stereo equipment. An eight-track tape player when she wanted to be with an iPod. She never looked back—and my father never looked forward again. He got stuck, always convinced she was going to walk through that door at any moment, say she was sorry, and fall right back into place by his side and mine. He was so fucking deluded, though. Come on. We lived in this shitty little house, with a beater for a car and his rough workman’s hands on her. Her son? I was this scrawny little shit.” He shook his head. “But I grew up fast after she pissed us away. I wasn’t going to miss her, fuck no. I hated her and I was glad she stayed away. I don’t know where she is and I don’t fucking care—shit, I wish they’d killed her in the raids.”

Elise took a deep breath. “I can imagine how betrayed you must have felt. Both for her leaving and your father for deserting you as well.”

Axe shrugged. “He didn’t leave, though. He fed me. Kept a roof over my head. But he was too wrapped up in his fantasy of her and her divine return—” He frowned and focused on her properly. “I can’t believe I’m talking about this.”

Taking a risk, she reached out and stroked his arm. “I will never judge you, Axe. You’ve got to believe me.”

“You sure about that?”

“Keep talking and I’ll prove it.”

One by one, Axe cracked his knuckles, the huge muscles of his shoulders bunching and releasing as he did. “I took a lot of drugs. After my transition, you know. I just couldn’t stand being here with my father. I hated him, I really did, even though none of it was his fault. He was a good male, a little on the soft side, maybe, but he deserved more than what he got for a shellan. More than what he got for a son.”

“You were a child. As children, we have to survive, so we contort ourselves into whatever family of origin we grow up in. We are forced to cope and sometimes it’s in ways that harm us.”

Axe shook his head. “I wasn’t a child when I started going on benders. When I’d disappear for nights at a time. When I froze him out. I ended up breaking his heart as much as she did at the end.” He ground his jaw. “The, ah … the night he died? I was out in the city, I’d been high for … shit, for three, four days at that point, bouncing between cocaine and heroin like the two were a circus ride.”

“You couldn’t have saved him,” she whispered. “I don’t even need to know the particulars. But you couldn’t have saved him, Axe. You’ve got to forgive yourself—”

“He called me. When the attack happened. He left me a fucking message on my cell phone—right when it happened. You want to know how I know what time it was? Because I bumped him to voice mail. And when I saw he’d left me a message? I erased it. I fucking …”

Axe looked away, hiding his eyes.

“Axe, you were not responsible for your mother leaving him. And you were not responsible for his death, either—”

“Is that what they teach in all those psych classes you took?” He sniffed up hard and rubbed his face into the crook of his elbow. “To placate everyone even though they were wrong and bad? You know, give ’em participation trophies just for breathing, even though in reality they’re fucking shitheads who let people down?”

Elise looked at him steadily and wished he would meet her eyes. “No, they teach us that self-hatred is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“What’s that supposed to mean.”

“Until you learn to let go of the responsibility for your parents’ relationship and choices, you are going to see everything through a prism of blame. And you’re going to eat yourself alive.”

“But I erased his message.” He scrubbed his face with a hard hand. “The last thing he said on the planet, I let it go like it was worthless. I’m no different than she was. I left him when he needed me.”

“Is that why you nearly killed yourself last night to save Rhage? You just had to be there for someone and you weren’t going to let anything stop you?”

He was quiet. “Maybe.”

“We find ways of repeating things until we get them right. But that can be dangerous. Especially if we’re trying to fix things we never should have owned in the first place.”

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