[Abandoned Outpost | Lacus 27th | Sundown]
The air became exponentially colder as night began to fall. Insulation in the Western tower wasn’t the best, and the small fireplace Gerald had built the previous year generated barely enough heat to ease the chill of winter. The man had settled down in a chair near the flames with a cup of warm tea in his hands. His green eyes were fixated on the woman sitting behind the wooden desk across the room. The look she gave him in return brought unpleasant memories of their first meetings—as did the stony silence permeating the air between them.
Gabrielle Porter was, in the simplest possible terms, dangerous. Not cruel, not unreasonable by any means, but not someone whose wrath anyone would like to instigate. Three years of companionship, shared sacrifice, blood spilled together. Gerald understood those were the reasons he was afforded some level of impunity in this situation Three years ago, soon after they met, he wouldn’t have been this calm.
Most of Gerald’s day had been spent at a respectable distance. It wasn’t difficult. The woman barely left the office in that time; likely catching up on sleep after a long journey back. All he had to do was occupy himself, making arrangements to accommodate their new guests for however long they were to stay. When sunset neared, Gerald entered the office with a peace offering of tea and imposed his presence on the disgruntled woman. Gabrielle acknowledged his presence and didn’t protest. Gerald knew that even though she was angry, she would have rationalized by now that this was a conversation they needed to have. It would be pointless to delay it.
There were no windows in this room, but a reddish light was still able to creep through the cracks on the door and the stone ceiling, casting a different tint of color to the room for a brief time. It only happened right before the Sun fully disappeared. The entirety of Valcrest was bathed in crimson red light and then submerged in shadows. It was a beautiful sight. Gerald felt it was a shame he often lacked the carelessness to stop and appreciate it.
The room was still silent as the last shreds of sunlight finally faded. Shadows danced across the walls in rhythm with the sway of flames from the fireplace. The only other source of light was a solitary candle placed on the desktop. Its light cast on an open book. Gabrielle’s eyes moved from side to side across the pages and her expression was unreadable as always. He couldn’t see it, but Gerald knew she was restless, he could almost feel the wheels turning underneath her calm exterior. So he waited. When he was on the final sips of his third cup of tea, she marked the current page of the book for later, closed it, and met his eyes.
“What were you hoping to accomplish?” she questioned. Her voice was the same as usual; soft, low, and void of anything that gave away emotion—the living embodiment of restraint.
Gerald held the woman’s gaze in silence as he pondered her question. “I’m not sure. I made a judgment call.”
“You compromised our location,” Gabrielle stated.
“I needed to get them out of the city.”
“We have safe houses for that. Wasn’t all of this your idea, Tucker? That no one should ever know of this place except the three of us?”
“I know, Porter.” Gerald’s tone was disgruntled. “This is far from ideal, I realize that, but the safe houses are too ill-equipped and I needed Jo’s help.”
Gabrielle’s gaze hardened, resembling molten steel as it reflected the orange glow of candlelight. “You want to save people? Join the White Shadows. Become a vigilante. I don’t care. This isn’t what we’re here for. We don’t rescue people.”
“Don’t be a hypocrite,” Gerald shot back.
Gabrielle stood up from her chair, her movements slow, deliberate, controlled. Way too controlled. She placed both hands on the desktop and as she leaned forward, Gerald leaned further back into his chair. “Don’t try to twist my actions. You and Johanna knew what you were getting into. This is different. I won’t have dead children on my hands.”
Gerald waited for the room to settle into a tense silence. Gabrielle lowered herself back into the chair, eyes piercing him. She was absolutely right, of course. She often was and, though they also often disagreed, Gerald respected her for that.
“Johanna told me the boy is still unconscious. If he doesn’t wake by morning, we’re taking him to the White Shadows,” she announced.
“And if he does?”
She didn’t answer immediately. Gerald tried searching her expression for something even remotely readable, but found nothing there. “Then we’ll decide.”
That was reasonable. Porter was always the reasonable one. They’d call her their leader without hesitation if only she would allow it, but no. They were equals. They had to agree, for better or worse, on anything that affected the group. This wouldn’t be an easy one to solve.
“I take your stance on this still hasn’t changed,” Gerald prodded.
“We don’t recruit as long as I have a say,” she confirmed. “I take it Johanna is growing attached to these children already, though. Is that what you needed her help with?”
Gerald answered the implication with a scowl. That would be low even for him. “I don’t know that much about alcohol poisoning, believe it or not. Two heads think better than one.” There was a long pause after which Gerald sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I saw what I saw, Porter. Spitting those kids back out will not end well for anyone. One of them is pyrokinetic, Twins only know what the other one can do.”
“Send them to the healers. Like I said.” Gabrielle insisted. “We’re not a support group. We’re not foster parents. This…” She cut herself off and shook her head. “You’re a good man, Tuck, and I honestly admire that about you most times, but in my opinion, if you want to help those boys, force them on a path that may actually allow them a life.”
“You of all people should know that’s not always possible.”
Gabrielle silenced and Gerald noticed just the smallest shift in her expression. It was enough to put him more at ease speaking his mind. When she first walked in and demanded answers, he had told her the scene he’d encountered in Blackpond. Nothing more. Nothing less. In that moment he knew his opinion wasn’t welcome. She wouldn’t have listened then. Now, it was different. “You honestly believe they’ll continue to pursue the Wolves?”
“I can’t say for sure, but I feel there’s enough cause for concern.” Gerald opened a half-smile. “Call it intuition.”
Gabrielle leaned further back in her chair, propping her feet up on the edge of the desk and reaching for the large crossbow that had been laying innocently beside her chair. Gerald watched with mild curiosity as the woman loaded and cocked the weapon, aiming upwards. “Have you considered the implications?” she asked.
Gabrielle placed her finger on the trigger, her expression unchanged except for a flicker of amusement in her eyes. “Are you sure about that?”
“I am.” Gerald was confused; more so by the direction the conversation had taken than the crossbow bolt casually aimed at the ceiling. He chose not to question.
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told Johanna when she first dragged you to me: If we agree on this, then you’re fully responsible. I’m not getting involved unless I see an actual point in doing so.”
“That’s perfectly fair.” Gerald ignored the mention of him having been the subject of a similar conversation. It was too far in the past to matter.
Gabrielle tilted her head to the side in a silent repeat of her previous question; ‘are you sure?’. Her eyes momentarily focused on a particular spot on the ceiling before falling back on him. Gerald raised an eyebrow at the woman in a display of confusion. Gabrielle’s response was a soft press to the crossbow’s trigger, sending a bolt flying upwards and through a crack in the stone. The action was followed by a yelp and a loud curse. “Your responsibility,” she repeated.
Gerald withheld a disgruntled sound. Of course.
“Look on the bright side, Tucker. The boy’s reflexes seem sharp if he survived that.” Gabrielle remained, as usual, completely straight-faced, but Gerald could feel her laughing at him.
“I hate you,” Gerald muttered.
“I’d tell you to do something about it, but you’d have to get in line,” she deadpanned, disarming the crossbow and setting it down on the floor once again. “While you wait, you might want to verify that the child you dragged into our base hasn’t dropped from the top of the tower. That would be quite tragic, wouldn’t it?”
Gerald shook his head, unable to keep from smiling in amusement as he rose from his seat. He knew well enough that if Porter wanted someone shot, they would without a doubt be shot. The point, however, was well made.
[Abandoned Outpost | Lacus 28th | Morning]
Kyle was only vaguely aware of his body, but what little feeling he had was a taste of unpleasant things to come. There was a pounding in his ears like war drums, his throat was dry and scratchy and his stomach felt tied up in knots. Kyle’s first instinct was to try and call out for Sebastian, but his voice cracked and all he could manage was an intense coughing fit. It only exacerbated the stabbing pain in his temples and brought his attention to the multitude of aches coursing through his muscles. He squeezed his eyes shut with the distinct feeling that opening them would only cause more discomfort and tried to hang on to unconsciousness.
If he didn’t open his eyes the pain would go away. If he didn’t open his eyes, maybe, he’d forget everything. Like none of it happened. He could take it all back.
It was useless. No matter how hard Kyle tried to slip away, something was holding him back, keeping him awake. Hands. Too soft and too cautious to feel familiar. Who was this? It was the feeling of something cold and damp pressed against his forehead that finally jolted him awake. Opening his eyes proved not only painful but useless; his sight was too blurred to function. His feeble attempt to sit up was met with resistance; a firm hand pressing down on his shoulder. He caved, exhaustion breaking through his resolve, and once he resettled the hand withdrew from his shoulder, the movement almost hesitant. Kyle exhaled in a shudder, trying to cope with the multitude of ways in which he felt sick, waiting for his sight to fully focus so he could inject some sense into his situation.
The first thing Kyle actually saw was a blurred silhouette standing over him. He tried to keep his attention on it while blinking through heavy lids. When the blur started to come into focus, he could recognize it as a young woman. Kyle had no idea who the woman was. He also had no idea where he was. Under any other circumstances, he wouldn’t have complained. After all, he was on an actual bed instead of the floor and in a room that didn’t smell of decomposing rodents. The events leading up to his blackout were coming back to him, though, and the blank space between all of that and waking up here—wherever ‘here’ was— left him full of questions. Who? Where? Why? His voice still wasn’t working. Kyle fell into another fit of coughs trying to voice his confusion. The woman promptly moved in response, unobstructing his view to the rest of the room. Sebastian was sitting on the edge of another bed across the room, watching him. His expression was unreadable, but he didn’t appear uncomfortable with their surroundings, or the stranger in the room, and this helped Kyle relax. The woman returned to his bedside with a cup of water, which she pushed into his hands while offering an encouraging smile. Kyle forced himself up enough so he wouldn’t spill it all over himself and took the cup, drinking a small sip.
Over the woman’s shoulder, he saw Sebastian stand up and leave the room without a word. With barely a glance in his direction. He was still bruised from where Kyle punched him. The memory put a twist in his expression. That had never happened before. They argued plenty, sometimes they pushed each other, but they had never actually fought before. Kyle finished the water and sank back into the bed. His throat felt better, but he wasn’t sure he still wanted to know where he was anymore. He just wanted to sleep.
The moment Kyle closed his eyes, the blankets were yanked from his body and he jolted back to full attention. The woman waited for him to make eye contact and shook her head. She motioned for him to sit up. Kyle groaned and didn’t move. He wasn’t trying to be stubborn. He was just so tired. As his eyes scanned the room, however, they fixated on the small table placed between the two beds. There was a bowl of fruit there. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen fresh fruit. The woman followed his gaze, then smiled. She reached out for a ripe pear and held it just far enough out of reach that he had to move in order to grab it. Kyle frowned at this and briefly considered turning it down for the sake of being stubborn, but his stomach hurt and he was being offered something he would have to beg or steal for in Blackpond. He caved and pushed himself up again. Once he was sitting up on the bed, she landed one hand on his shoulder to stop him from moving further and placed the fruit in his hand. Kyle was confused by this at first but when he looked up at her she motioned towards her eyes and made an ‘open and close’ motion with her hand. She wanted him to stay awake. Alright.
“How…” Kyle started, once again feeling his voice crack and fail. He forced a cough and managed to clear his throat enough to speak. “How long have I been out?”
She held up two fingers.
Kyle looked towards the only window in the room, it was light out. “Two days?”
Kyle frowned, but bit into the pear. As the fruit split with a satisfying crunch, the boy couldn’t hold back a sigh of contentment. He had never been a fan of fruit before, but now, after what he’d gone through, he couldn’t even remember why. Swallowing was a challenge and the otherwise harmless bite of fruit hit Kyle’s stomach like a pile of rocks. He waited a few moments for it to settle somewhat, then took another bite, taking his time to chew and using it as an opportunity to examine his company. The woman was young, early-to-mid twenties, she was taller than him but not by much. And she was pretty; light skin, delicate features framed by a dark curtain of silky brown hair, brown eyes warm like liquid caramel. Nothing about her indicated danger, and it both comforted him and put him on edge. She hadn’t spoken or taken her eyes off of him. He wondered if she had been watching him the whole time he was unconscious too.
Kyle finished his pear and tried to toss the core onto the table, it hit the edge and fell to the ground. The boy smiled apologetically at the woman, but she simply shrugged and picked it up, walking to the open window and discarding it. Kyle sighed, feeling his stomach battling to keep what little food it had, and exhaustion once again trying to take hold. His eyes were aching with the effort to stay open and his muscles weighed him down into the mattress. The woman noticed this and snapped her fingers in front of his face. It startled him fully awake. Kyle groaned and rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands to try and stay alert. He wasn’t sure why he couldn’t just go back to sleep, but he had accepted the notion that, at least for now, he was going to trust this woman and follow her instructions.
They went on like this, mostly in silence, Kyle trying to keep his eyes open and holding back the urge to puke. The woman sat by the small table, watching him. Time passed. He wasn’t sure how long. Sebastian hadn’t come back to the room and he wondered to what extent he’d managed to piss his brother off. He wouldn’t be angry forever. Kyle knew. Sebastian was never angry forever.
Steps sounded from outside the room. Heavy boots climbing wooden stairs. It drew the woman’s attention to the doorway. She stood up when a man entered and Kyle thought he saw a change in her smile at the sight of him. Her eyes almost lit up; he smiled at her in return. “Rough couple of nights, wasn’t it?” he asked her.
She scoffed at this and frowned at him, although it didn’t reach her eyes at all.
The man chuckled. “Yes, I know. Aren’t you a hard-ass?”
She slapped him on the arm and nodded towards Kyle.
“He’s a teenager. Surely he’s heard the word ‘ass’ before,” the man shrugged.
They sure knew each other well if they could so easily communicate this way. It was like he could read her mind. Although, Kyle wouldn’t rule out that he could. This was Valcrest, after all.
The man walked passed the woman shaking a heavy travel bag from his shoulder, his fingers brushing against her hand in a silent gesture. He took the seat she’d left vacant, dropping the bag on the floor at his feet. When his gaze focused on Kyle it was a lot sterner than hers had been. “It’s nice to see you’re not dead, boy.” It sounded strangely sincere.
“Where…?” Kyle mumbled, eager to ask questions now that he found someone who would speak to him. “Who are you? How did I get here?”
The man glanced at his friend with a look of mixed confusion and amusement. She shrugged in response and he turned his attention to Kyle. “You’re in a safe place. For now, that’s all you need to know. My name is Gerald Tucker,” he indicated the woman with a nod, “and this is Johanna. I brought you here.” He paused for a moment, staring at Kyle as if to assess his state of mind. “Do you remember what happened before you were knocked out?”
“Yes,” Kyle mumbled. “Wait, ‘knocked out’?” The boy ran his fingers through his hair and, yes, indeed, he had a large bump where he’d been knocked on the head. “Why?”
Gerald’s arched an eyebrow. “You were about to burn a building filled with people. You’re lucky that’s all you got.”
Kyle blinked, the words taking a moment to register in his exhaustion. “Wolves aren’t people.”
“Wouldn’t that make it easier?” Gerald’s tone was filled to the brim with sarcasm and he let out a bitter laugh as he continued. “If you honestly think everyone inside that Inn was a Wolf, boy, you’re dumber than you look.”
Kyle didn’t know how to answer. Gerald was, of course, right.
Gerald accepted his silence and proceeded to pull something from his bag. It was a sizable package, wrapped in linen. “There are two shirts, two pairs of pants, underwear, socks, a tunic and jacket in there. They should fit you until your next growth spurt.” He then dropped a pair of boots by the foot of the bed. “Jo is going to keep an eye on you. When you’re steady enough to walk down a staircase without breaking your neck, you’re going to take a bath and change. Do you understand?”
“I… Yeah… Sure, but…” Kyle didn’t know what he wanted to ask.
Gerald’s eyes seemed to soften just a bit. “Don’t worry about it right now, kid. It’s going to be some time until either of you is fit enough to go anywhere. And like I said, you’re safe here.”
“Safe…” Kyle mumbled, sliding his head down onto his pillow. He watched Johanna reach for him, but Gerald stopped her.
“No, it’s okay, let him sleep.”
That was all he needed to hear.