[Abandoned Outpost | Lunaris 24 | Nightfall]
“I can’t take it anymore,” Kyle whined from under his covers, “Gerald is trying to kill us. I know he’s trying to kill us.”
Sebastian rolled his eyes at his brother, thankful that the groans of the wooden bed frame were loud enough to mask his own sounds of discomfort as he collapsed on it. “He’s not trying to kill us.”
There was no answer, and before Sebastian thought to check on his brother, Kyle’s snores began to fill the room.
Their evenings had been like this for the better part of two weeks now; grunts and complaints followed by the sounds of intense snoring. The first few days of training had Sebastian out like a light the moment his head touched the pillow, but as time passed, the pain and strain of exertion had already started to lose its effects.
After what felt like hours of lying awake, Sebastian decided he needed to be somewhere else in order to unwind. He crawled out of bed and lumbered out of the room. The office door was closed which meant Gabrielle was already asleep, or didn’t want to be disturbed at least. Gerald was keeping watch tonight—although Sebastian wasn’t sure what that entailed—and Johanna was nowhere in sight as usual. On his way down the stairs Sebastian was surprised to see a flicker of light emanating from the kitchen. He entered the room expecting Johanna, but found Gabrielle instead. The Hunter was seated at the table, sipping from a cup of tea, her hat off and placed gently on her lap—she looked as tired as he felt.
“Can’t sleep either?” Sebastian questioned, taking a seat across from her.
“Haven’t tried yet,” she responded. “Is Tucker not working you hard enough? I’d expect you both to be out like a rock at this hour.”
Sebastian shrugged. “I’m sure I’ll regret it tomorrow.”
“You will.” Gabrielle nodded, taking another sip of her tea.
Sebastian leaned forward, propping his elbow on the table and resting his head on his open palm. “Why did you offer to let us join you anyway? I’m pretty sure you don’t want us here,” he questioned.
Gabrielle paused halfway through sipping her tea and set the cup down. “I think I made myself sufficiently clear at the meeting. There was no offer. This is a path. You’re either on it or you’re not and that’s for you to know. Not me.”
Sebastian frowned at the tabletop. That only answered half his question and did nothing to ease his confusion. He raised his head and met Gabrielle’s eyes. The woman’s expression was the same as the day he arrived; the shock of finding a malnourished teenager sitting in her room aside. She hadn’t demonstrated any distaste towards him or Kyle at any point in the past two weeks. Nor had she attempted to show any form of acceptance. Even the fact that Sebastian was sitting there staring without a word didn’t seem to cause any reaction. The woman sat, holding his gaze and showing him nothing more than mild curiosity. Sebastian snorted through his nose and lowered his eyes to the table once more, opting to remain silent.
Gabrielle finished her tea and set the cup down on the table in front of Sebastian. “Give it time. It gets worse, but… Then it gets better.” She stood up and placed her hat atop her head. “Have a good night, Rivers.”
Sebastian didn’t know how to respond, and remained frozen in his seat as the woman left—her words resonating far deeper than they had any right. If it was meant to cheer him up in some way; it hadn’t. Things were fine enough now. He didn’t need to get better and he sure didn’t want to find out what ‘getting worse’ would involve. With a heavy sigh, Sebastian left the kitchen and crawled his way back to bed.
[Abandoned Outpost | Lunaris 25 | An hour before sunrise]
Kyle woke up to find his brother still asleep. Both boys had gotten used to being out of bed before sunrise—under Gerald’s threats of coming to get them otherwise—but Sebastian was usually up first. Kyle frowned and poked his brother awake. Sebastian groaned in protest, but eventually rolled out of bed. They set out to do their daily routine of running and exercises before breakfast. As per Gerald’s word, they no longer required supervision. Their run was unusually quiet and Kyle noted that Sebastian was jogging behind him when he would usually make sure to be the one in the lead. Kyle chose not to question and gave his twin some space, but when they sat down for breakfast afterward, Johanna took one look at him and frowned. She moved over to Sebastian and pressed her palm to his forehead.
“Go back to bed,” she told him.
Sebastian gently pushed Jo’s hand away and muttered, “I’m okay.”
“I’m not asking,” Jo’s tone wasn’t different from her usual near-whisper; it was just loud enough to be audible and so soft it was almost musical, and yet, the sharp glare that accompanied her words left no room for protest or discussion.
Sebastian stood without a word and left the kitchen, Kyle remained in his seat while Jo walked after his brother with a bowl of cut-up fruit in her hands. She nearly dropped the bowl while bumping into Gerald in the doorway. They exchanged a simple glance and Johanna shook her head. That was the extent of their interaction, but it seemed to give Gerald enough to grasp the situation. The man entered, sat in the spot Sebastian vacated and picked some fruit from the large platter Jo had previously set. “Your brother’s not feeling well?”
“Think so. Jo felt his forehead and sent him back to bed.” Kyle shrugged, “I think he hasn’t been sleeping lately.”
“Hm,” Gerald mumbled, chewing on a slice of pear. “I”ll have a look at him after training is done.”
“You sound so very concerned,” Kyle deadpanned.
“Johanna is probably doing enough concerned smothering on behalf of us all at the moment, any more won’t improve his condition.” Gerald snorted. “And don’t think this gives you an excuse to dodge training.”
Kyle groaned at his half-eaten breakfast. “I was far from hopeful, believe me.”
Sebastian wasn’t too pleased with the idea of missing out on training for the day, but halfway through climbing the stairs he felt his body starting to give up. The boy stumbled his way into bed—a pile of rocks settling on his stomach—and lay down on his back. He remained that way for a long while, watching the world blur in and out of existence while his body weighed him down. The room’s ceiling was a cold grey canvas, marred by jagged lines where the passing of time had traced a pattern of cracks along the stone. Sebastian tried to lull himself by following them with his eyes, but they were blurry and he kept losing track of them. He ran his hands over his face and squeezed his eyes shut. For a moment he caught a glimpse of a spotted wooden surface flash behind his closed lids. The ceiling above his bedroom. Home.
“You can’t avoid me forever, you know.”
Sebastian sat up with a jolt, letting out a muffled groan into his hands. “I know,” he muttered. “I know!”
Sebastian froze when the soft whisper reached his ears. It dawned on him that Johanna had followed from the kitchen and had been sitting there all along. The boy raised his head and turned so that he was facing the woman, his back pressed against the wall like a cornered animal. She was sitting at the table, brown eyes peering at him with warmth and concern. His abandoned breakfast waiting for him on the table top. “I’m okay,” he argued.
“You still need to breathe,” she smiled.
“If I wasn’t I’d be dead.”
“You will if you don’t eat,” Jo added, grabbing the fruit bowl and pushing it onto his lap.
“Don’t we have anything that isn’t fruit and oats?” The boy frowned.
“Currently, no.” Jo shrugged. “We will soon.”
Sebastian assessed the bowl of fruit with an apathetic gaze and, after a moment’s hesitation, started to eat. He didn’t want it, but it did provide an excuse to ignore Johanna for a couple of minutes.
Sebastian followed Johanna’s gaze to the portrait on the table, then immediately looked back down as if the image burned his eyes. “This was before Kyle and I were born. So no. Not our family.” The boy shook his head and swallowed hard, returning to his bowl of fruit in silence until it was empty.
Johanna was kind enough to allow Sebastian to shut down, but didn’t move from her seat or showed signs that she’d be leaving. Resigned to the woman’s company, the boy reached out to place his empty bowl on the table and retreated into his bed, He sat with his back to the wall, arms wrapped around his knees, like a ball. Time was supposed to make things better, help wounds heal. Whatever he was feeling wasn’t better. It didn’t feel like healing. It burned.
“It gets better.”
Sebastian stared at Johanna with narrowed eyes. “Porter said that.”
Johanna smiled, it was soft and melancholic. Her eyes darted away from him and her fingers tugged the left sleeve of her tunic all the way down to her hand. “Yes.”
“She told you the same thing?”
Johanna’s smile changed, her eyes a bit more alive. She straightened herself in the chair and tried to put on deadpan expression in a poor imitation of the other woman. “I’ve been where you are. It gets worse, but then it gets better.”
Sebastian managed a laugh. though it sounded more like a high-pitched choke than proper laughter. “Did it?”
“Eventually.” Johanna let out a soft sigh. “Time heals.”
“Is it over?” Sebastian murmured. He was still trying to make sense of his own answer. He knew it by now, but in his mind, it still lacked validation. He almost regretted it the moment he saw the way Jo’s smile shut. The woman’s eyes lowered to the ground and she once again grabbed at the cuff of her shirt. “I’m sorry, you don’t have to answer that.”
“It’s okay.” Jo’s voice sounded smaller than usual. “Wounds heal…” The woman let go of her sleeve and slowly reached for her neck, her fingers searched past the collar of her tunic and retrieved a thin metal chain. She pulled the chain free from her shirt and hanging from it were a pair of rings. The bands were made from the same dark metal, but one of them was set with an azure white gemstone. He remembered having seen his father wear a similar one around his neck. Jo let the rings rest over her tunic. Apart from the gem, they almost disappeared into the dark grey fabric. “Scars don’t heal,” she added.
Johanna nodded in agreement, her index finger tracing the contour of the plain metal band resting on her chest. “…His brother,” she added. “My…” Jo’s voice broke and her eyes flickered towards the portrait on the table. “My family.”
Sebastian was stunned into silence, unsure of how to respond. He looked at the portrait on the table and that burning feeling came back, like a searing knife piercing his insides. That wasn’t really his family. Their father never smiled the way he did in that portrait, Kat never smiled like she did in that portrait, their mother was just a ghost hiding in the walls. She was never there. She was never real. Sebastian hid his face in his hands again, his breaths turning shallow and uneven, the knot in his throat ached, as though it were trying to contain something vicious.
The boy felt pressure on the bed beside him and before he could think to inch away, two arms had already wrapped him in a tight embrace. Sebastian’s entire body stiffened. He’d been doing all he could to ignore the tension building in his chest, the panic that kept him awake at night; none of it had the right, even less reason, to exist. He just wanted to tough it out, push past it, but the unexpected display of affection broke his resolve. Before he knew it, he was holding on to Johanna with no regard to the fact they were practically still strangers. The woman let her head rest on his, her exhales blowing a warm breeze through his hair in steady intervals. She wasn’t that much taller than him, but in that moment Sebastian felt small in her arms. Like a helpless child.
“I’m not okay,” he admitted.
He could feel Jo nod. “You will be.”
Sebastian closed his eyes, his fingers clutching the back of Jo’s shirt in a vice. Minutes turned to hours before the tension in his body started to ease. A damp spot had formed where his tears pooled on Jo’s shoulder, but she showed no signs of discomfort or aggravation. The woman emanated peace and quiet with her every breath and, with each burning second, Sebastian felt reality slip further away. Once his hold on her loosened enough, Johanna was able to coax him into his pillow. The boy lay on his side, facing the wall, and watched through heavy lid as the cracked stone surface blurred away to nothingness.
[Abandoned Outpost | Sagacitas 5th | Morning]
Kyle’s ears were filled with the soft thuds from his fists striking the padded leather of Gerald’s gloves. His wrists no longer hurt from impact. Building up a steady rhythm no longer required the same attention. His knuckles didn’t bruise as easily. Even getting out of the way when Gerald decided to throw a counter-punch at him had become instinctive; although the bruises proved his reaction speed still needed work. A fact he was once again reminded of when Gerald moved his right hand out of the way of his fist and smacked him on the side of the head.
“You’re not paying attention,” the man scolded.
“Ow,” Kyle muttered, shaking his head to alleviate the ringing in his ear. “Didn’t you say you wanted us to do this without having to think about it? Which is it?” The question was accompanied by an exasperated glare towards the Hunter.
“Sit down,” Gerald commanded.
“I don’t need…”
Kyle groaned, but obeyed, sitting on the cold ground with his legs crossed. Gerald sat across from him, green eyes piercing in a way that had become more than familiar. “I don’t need to calm down.”
Gerald was unconvinced. The Hunter removed the padded gloves and dropped them on his lap. “There’s no point in continuing if you’re not going to be present.”
Kyle flinched, his fists clenching in his lap. “I’m present. I’m here. I’m not the one…”
“I see we won’t be needing any breathing exercises this time,” Gerald concluded. “If you’re preoccupied with your brother, then no. You’re not here.”
“At least I’m trying,” Kyle muttered. “I’m trying. Someone fucking has to, right? I’m here even though he was the one who really wanted to do this.” Kyle closed his eyes and breathed slowly. The breathing exercises weren’t guaranteed to work in controlling his enlightenment. Especially since he wasn’t sure if it was just emotion or stress that triggered it. Still, they always made him feel a little better.
“Do you not want to be here?”
Kyle opened his eyes at the question. “I do now. Not so much at first. I wasn’t sure at first, but…”
“You can still leave at the end of Winter,” Gerald interjected.
“Yes, I know, but that’s not the issue. I just… I needed to make sure I was making a rational decision, reach my own conclusions. And I’m honestly not sure about Seb in that sense, but who knows anything at this point.” Kyle drew another slow breath, staring down at his open palms. “The issue isn’t that I’m here, the issue is that he’s not. After he threw it in my face that he was the one making an effort, because ‘one of us had to’. He decided to be here and he’s not even…” He closed his eyes, his hands clenching into fists. “We’re never in the same Twin-forsaken place anymore.” Kyle silenced, opening his eyes to stare at Gerald and shaking his head. “Sorry, that’s… Not your problem, is it?”
“No. It’s not.” The Hunter stood and walked over to his supply bag to retrieve a water flask. He returned to his seat and offered it to Kyle. “Listen, boy, I’m not going to ask about your sister. How she died. How you feel about that or anything else. You’re right. That’s not my problem. More importantly, it’s not my business. Just like it’s not your business whether the Wolves had to do with my mother’s death, or why Jo keeps those two swords in the armory. We don’t ask. That sort of trust isn’t something you ask for. It’s earned.”
Kyle lowered the flask to his lap halfway through taking a sip. “I see.”
“It might do well for you to remember, though… We’re all here for our own reasons. And one way or another, we’ve all been where you are.” Gerald snorted, a trace of a laugh concealed underneath a scoff. “Why do you think Porter has been keeping such a close eye on your brother?”
“We thought she just wanted to mess with him.” Kyle shrugged, taking his drink of water and offering the flask back to Gerald.
“Well, that too,” Gerald playfully admitted, “but also, she was waiting for this. We all have been.” He took the flask and sat it down on the ground beside him. “We know that the easiest way to keep going is to set your pain aside. Bury it where you don’t have to deal with it. Tell yourself that you have to because you need to keep going somehow. To survive. The problem is, it always comes a time where those excuses fall flat. You’re in a good place. You have warmth, food, protection, what is there to worry about? Training? Sure, for a while, but after a while it becomes routine. You don’t have to think about it anymore. It leaves a void for all those horrible things you forced yourself to ignore to come creeping back in. And then… Well, you either break or lash out. You tried to burn some people alive. Your brother’s been hiding under his blankets for a week.”
Kyle frowned. He wanted to ask which one it had been for Gerald, but the man’s words came back to him: ‘we don’t ask’. “It has been a whole week, huh?”
Gerald smiled. “He’ll get through it. You just have to let him”
A smirk broke through Kyle’s concerned expression. “Pft. If I knew crippling depression was the way to get out of training…”
Gerald shook his head. “Oh, I’ll make sure your brother gets up to speed once he’s able. Don’t you worry about that.”
This caused Kyle to grin. Maybe it was a little cruel of him to take joy in his brother’s future torment like this but, he wouldn’t lie to himself about it either. Whatever Gerald meant by ‘getting up to speed’ was definitely something Kyle would find amusement in, so long as he wasn’t on the receiving end of it.
The background of rustling leaves and groaning tree branches was suddenly disrupted by heavy boots crushing cold, dry, blades of grass, swiftly approaching.
The sound of Gabrielle’s voice caused Kyle to jump to his feet as if he needed to stand at attention. Gerald looked over with utter amusement and calmly tilted his head back to stare at the woman towering over him.
Gabrielle was as she always was; dressed in dark clothes, shielded by brown leather armor, shoulders slouching under the weight of a heavy coat and bulky crossbow, perpetual shadows cast over her eyes by the same old hat that rarely left her head. Yet, to Kyle, seeing her standing in the training area was odd. As far as he knew the woman was either in the office or gone. He’d never seen her use the stairs or cross the bridge. If he didn’t find that answer way too simplistic, he’d just assume she could teleport.
“Porter,” Gerald greeted. “What brings you?”
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. “My feet. It’s not a long walk, truly.”
Gerald let out a small chuckle at the woman’s sarcasm. “What do you need?”
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest, her grey eyes moving from Gerald to Kyle. The boy swore she was grinning. Somehow. Her expression hadn’t changed, but he felt a spark of mischief in the way she stared at him. It was eerie that she could somehow convey that without actually showing it, but that hint of playfulness in itself was a comfort. It was more human an expression than usual. “I was wondering if I may borrow the kid for a few hours.”
“Oh.” Gerald showed genuine surprise but didn’t express concern whatsoever. Kyle was in no way comforted by this. “May I ask what for?”
Gerald paused for a moment, his eyes shifting from Gabrielle to Kyle, a clear grin of amusement spreading across his features. “You know what… It gives me some time off. Sure.”
Kyle openly glared at Gerald. He knew the man hadn’t asked what this was about just for the sake of messing with him. Or forcing him to speak up. Either way, Kyle resented it. “Don’t I get a say in this?” he muttered.
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. “Of course. You’re free to stay and spar with Tucker all day if you prefer.”
That posed a dilemma. Sparring was sure to get him knocked in the head a few times, but on the other hand… He wasn’t sure what the other option was. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be alone with Gabrielle either. The woman didn’t exactly scare him, she never showed any ill-will towards him or Sebastian. She was friendly with the other Hunters in her own little ways. She poked fun at Gerald whenever they exchanged any words for any reason, and Kyle had actually seen her grace Johanna with a hug one afternoon. The woman wasn’t a bad person, but she wasn’t opposed to making a point by shooting at someone either. Calling her a safe bet was a stretch.
“We’re losing daylight, Rivers. Yes or no.” The woman’s remark had the same tone as usual, not an ounce of impatience marked her words. They were, plain and simple, a gentle nudge.
“It’s not even noon yet,” Kyle argued. Still, he had been thinking way too hard. It was unlikely Gabrielle would even trust him with anything life-threatening, so why not a change of pace? Could be fun. “Okay.”
“Good.” The woman said this, again, with no inflection whatsoever. If she was genuinely pleased to have him along, he’d have to take her word for it.
Gabrielle let her arms fall to her sides and with a big shrug, a travel bag dropped from her back. The woman caught it by its straps before it hit the ground, however, and unceremoniously tossed it at Kyle. The boy nearly keeled over from the weight and despite his aggravation, he couldn’t help but be impressed that she could so easily catch it one-handed. But then, if she could, why did he have to carry it?
The question must have shown in his expression because Gabrielle immediately answered it. “You’re supposed to be training, remember?” The Hunter then started to walk and motioned for him to follow.
Kyle groaned but he couldn’t argue with her logic. He started to follow Gabrielle, his steps hesitant once he realized they were moving away from the Outpost and into the trees. “So, what are we doing?”
Gabrielle didn’t turn to look at him but slowed her pace so that he wasn’t too far behind. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a bit sick of fruit.”
[Abandoned Outpost | Sagacitas 5th | Morning]
Gerald hadn’t been expecting Gabrielle to show up and take charge of his task for the day. As much as he appreciated both the small break and the woman’s initiative, he wasn’t sure what to do with his time now. Not as if there weren’t things to do around the camp. There was a fair share of things needing repair, and a few construction projects he’d left unfinished or were in need of further planning. Still, the thought of being productive was drowned out by a dull feeling of exhaustion. While Gerald exercised and honed his skills regularly, training two children was something that took a toll on him. Mentally more than physically, but a toll nonetheless. Gerald wouldn’t complain about it. He accepted this as his responsibility. He’d agreed to it by bringing the children into their safe space without consulting the others. Whatever came of it was on his shoulders.
The brief walk to the Outpost was spent pondering all of this. Which meant that Gerald was quite absorbed in his own thoughts and distracted from the path he was taking. It shouldn’t matter. His feet knew the way around the Outpost. It was home. What could possibly surprise him there?
As if on cue, Gerald nearly buckled over when something collided with him head-on. Something soft, small, and warm. It wrapped around his midsection with a vice grip. A laugh would have escaped him if the sudden hug hadn’t squeezed the air right out of his lungs. Gerald stared down at the top of Johanna’s head, a weak amused noise forming in the back of his throat. He might not have consciously realized he was about to be assaulted in this manner, but this was something else Gerald no longer needed to think about. He’d already wrapped one arm around the woman before his brain managed to catch up to his body. This wasn’t an every day greeting, but it wasn’t unusual either. Sometimes, for some reason that had never been explained, Jo decided to greet him like they hadn’t seen each other in a decade. Nothing particular had to happen; good or bad, to prompt this behavior as far as Gerald knew. It was either something the woman decided on a whim, or some urge that she gave into on occasion. Whichever the case, much like everything else about her, it was something Gerald had learned to accept without question.
A few moments passed before Johanna finally broke the hug and took a step back to let Gerald breathe. She looked up at him with a sweet smile on her face, as usual, and Gerald took this opportunity to give her an inspecting look. She seemed content—never-wavering smile, eyes shining in the daylight—but there was lingering exhaustion hiding underneath the surface. Exhaustion and concern. Gerald returned the smile and leaned into Jo, pressing his forehead to hers for a couple of seconds. “The kid giving your trouble?”
Jo closed her eyes at the extra bit of comfort and exhaled softly. “He’s asleep.”
“Mhm,” Gerald mumbled. His concern was not as directed at the depressed teenager as hers. He knew better than most how Johanna could be when she decided to take care of someone. “Again?”
Jo frowned momentarily. “Still.” She then looked past Gerald and her expression shifted. She stared at him with confusion plastered over her face. “Where?”
“Porter took the boy with her hunting,” Gerald explained.
“Oh.” Johanna’s eyes widened and her brows raised in surprise and realization. “Oh!”
“I know. I was pretty shocked myself.” Gerald shrugged and casually strolled past Johanna into the kitchen. “I hope she doesn’t scare him straight.”
Jo followed Gerald in and while he sat at the table, she started to heat up the stove. “Gabe wouldn’t do that.”
Gerald chuckled. Johanna didn’t understand, or accept, that Gabrielle wasn’t quite as tolerant of everyone as she was of her. “Of course not. I don’t know what made me think that.”
Johanna snorted loudly, her back to him while she added wood to the stove, and Gerald barely contained the urge to laugh again. Jo acted innocent and in many ways she was, but he knew damn well the woman wasn’t naive to the point of sarcasm being lost on her. Even if she hadn’t said anything about it, she’d made some note of it for later, and oh there would be hell to pay for sure. For the moment, however, they settled into a comfortable silence. Jo put the kettle over the fire and Gerald was more than content with just sitting there. His eyes tracked her movements but occasionally wandered the room, making note of two hastily scribbled ‘birthday cards’ pinned to one of the walls and the mess of used muffin trays waiting to be properly cleaned. This wasn’t a terrible use of his time.
The silence was broken several minutes later when Jo placed a cup of tea in front of Gerald. She sat across from him and smiled. It wasn’t the same sweet smile as before. This one was far more… Cunning.
“What?” Gerald questioned, accepting the tea but looking at Jo with suspicion.
“You have free time.”
“Yes. I know.”
Her smile widened and Gerald winced. She definitely had something on her mind now.
“We should bake cookies.”
Gerald let out a nervous laugh into his tea cup. He sure appreciated Jo’s enthusiasm in teaching him, but his every attempt to bake or cook something in the past had ended in complete disaster. “How about you bake some and I provide moral support?”
Jo hummed, pondering his offer. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Gerald agreed, unable to hold back a smile. This wasn’t a terrible use of his time at all.
[Deep In The Woods | Sagacitas 5th | Late Morning]
They didn’t walk too far. Kyle was thankful for that. Not only because the bag he was made to carry was weighing him down, but also because the walk had been silent and awkward. The boy should have expected the silence. Gabrielle wasn’t as persistently quiet as Johanna, but the woman also wasn’t prone to idle chatter. And he was about as skilled at starting conversation as a doorknob; Seb’s words, not his.
The place where they stopped was a small area carved into the thick of the forest. Gabrielle instructed him to drop the bag on the floor with a simple wave of her hand. It took Kyle a few seconds to understand, but once he caught on, he did as instructed and lowered the heavy pack to the ground. Doing so as quietly as possible earned him a slight nod of approval. Apparently, silence was key.
When Gabrielle spoke, her voice was soft, just enough to be audible. “See those thorny bushes over there?”
Kyle followed the woman’s gaze to the bushes in question. They were short and covered in a mix of brambles and white berries that looked inedible. He nodded his confirmation.
Gabrielle walked towards the bag and pulled out a pair of thick work gloves and a wooden box. She handed Kyle the gloves and motioned for him to put them on. They were a little big on him, but not uncomfortably so. She then gave him the box.
“Rabbits in this area love to make their burrows under those bushes. It’s a good cover from predators.”
Kyle gave the woman a confused look and waited for her to continue.
“There are some pellets in this box. You’re going to find the rabbit holes under the bushes and drop one of these inside each one. Don’t let them touch your skin and don’t touch your face with the gloves. They’re not poison, but you don’t want that on you, trust me.”
Leaving Kyle to his task, Gabrielle retrieved the supply bag and moved away. Kyle watched her examine the ground for small tracks and start to set up snares in strategic places. “Can you show me how to make those?”
Gabrielle turned around to stare at him and it made Kyle wince internally. He didn’t even start doing what she asked. “One task at a time, Rivers.”
Kyle couldn’t help a small grin. That wasn’t a ‘no’. Still, he decided not to push his luck and set out to accomplish his task. It was a surprisingly complicated ordeal. The rabbit burrows weren’t easy to reach and even though the gloves protected Kyle’s hands from the thick brambles, he ended up with several tears on his sleeves. And, somehow, a scratch on the cheek. The pellets, whatever they were, smelled horrible and Kyle realized why Gabrielle had warned him about not wanting it on him. The gloves he was wearing would need to be burned.
By the time he was finished, Gabrielle had set up all the traps and was sitting quietly against the trunk of a tree. The bulky crossbow that had been sheathed at her back was now sitting idle near her right arm. At first, it seemed like she wasn’t paying attention to him, but she spared Kyle a glance and nodded towards the spot on her left. The boy sat, keeping a respectful distance from the Hunter, and stared at the bushes waiting for something to happen.
“You might want to take those gloves off.”
Kyle nodded his agreement and took off the gloves. Gabrielle took them from him and tossed them back into the bag. The woman then proceeded to startle the hell out of him by dropping a piece of rope in his lap with absolutely no warning. She snorted at his reaction and he thought he heard a hint of laughter underneath. Kyle turned to face the Hunter with a glare of annoyance in his eyes. As though that could actually be intimidating. Gabrielle held his gaze with her usual non-expression, but that spark of amusement from earlier was back.
“You wanted to learn how to make snares, no? It’ll be a while before the rabbits come out.”
“Oh. Yes. Okay.” Kyle managed an awkward smile at the woman, who, as expected, didn’t return it.
The next half an hour was spent learning how to make snares, talking about different types of traps and knots, and general hunting tricks. Gabrielle’s demeanor never changed, but the more they interacted more Kyle realized that he was actually having a good time.
“So, do I really have to always call you ‘Porter’ like Gerald does?” He asked, his eyes focused on the knots he was now practicing on the piece of rope.
“My name is Gabrielle Porter. You can choose either one. I don’t mind.”
“Johanna calls you ‘Gabe’, though.” Kyle couldn’t help a smirk while pointing that out.
Gabrielle openly scoffed at this. “That’s because Johanna lives in a separate dimension and the laws of the Universe don’t apply to her.”
Kyle couldn’t help but laugh at Gabrielle’s blatant display of annoyance. “You know, I can believe that.”
They sat in silence after that, Kyle occupied himself by fiddling with the piece of rope and Gabrielle watching with her right hand resting over her crossbow. A couple more minutes passed and the sound of a triggered mechanism shattered the silence.
What followed was an absolute slaughter. One after the other, rabbits were bounding out of the burrows and being immediately impaled by arrows. Kyle snapped at attention with the sound of the first shot, just in time to see it hit its target. He turned his head to look at Gabrielle and the woman seemed perfectly relaxed. Grey eyes following their prey, a loose finger on the weapon’s trigger, applying just the right amount of pressure at just the right time. Deadly precision. Not one shot wasted. And suddenly what the woman told them at the meeting weeks ago surfaced in his mind: ‘What we do is kill people’.
It all transpired in a matter of seconds. When the crossbow was emptied and once again lowered to the ground, the grass was littered with dead rabbits. Gabrielle examined the aftermath of her work with an almost imperceptible furrow in her brow. She got on her feet and sheathed the crossbow at her back once again. The woman retrieved the bag and pulled from it a burlap sack, which she tossed Kyle’s way. “Remove the bolts and put the bodies in the bag,” she instructed. “I’m going to check the snares.”
Kyle nodded along to the instructions, registering the fact Gabrielle had drawn a small knife from her boot before walking towards the traps. Kyle wouldn’t say that he was squeamish; he had seen dead animals before. Rats, for the most part, but nonetheless. Even so, there was something unsettling in being surrounded by so many corpses, animals or not. He approached one of the dead rabbits and crouched next to it. The crossbow bolt had penetrated the rabbit’s head, straight below its ear and, Kyle assumed, killed it instantly. One quick look around proved this to be true for every single one of the animals. Deadly precision. Kyle gripped the dead animal’s head while pulling out the bolt. It was smaller than his hand. He wondered how easy it would be to shoot a human heart in comparison. He shook the thought away almost immediately, trying to keep his focus on the task at hand. The last rabbit was on its way to the burlap sack when a succession of short high pitched squeals startled Kyle out of his stupor.
“What the fuck was that!?”
Gabrielle’s voice was surprisingly strict as she shouted the word at him over the incessant noise. Kyle looked around and didn’t see the woman anywhere. Some rustling in the bushes and the direction the constant wailing was coming from the only indication of where she’d gone.
“What?” Kyle mumbled.
Gabrielle emerged from the tree cover. One hand grasping a bundle of dead rabbits bound together by the same ropes used for her snares. On the other hand, the source of all the noise. It was a rabbit. A baby. A very live, very distressed, baby. “I said mind your language, Rivers,” she berated.
“What are you doing with it?” Kyle asked, ignoring the scolding completely.
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow at him. “Nothing. It’s barely got any meat worth cooking. Killing it would serve no purpose.” She added the bundle of rabbits to the sack Kyle was holding, and carried the screaming bunny closer to the bushes, releasing it. It finally stopped squealing.
“Can it fend for itself?” Kyle asked.
“If it can’t, it’ll be feeding something else that can.” Gabrielle took the used bolts off his hands as she spoke, storing them away in a small quiver at her waist. “Either way, it’ll serve a better purpose.”
Kyle didn’t know how to respond to that. It was such a bleak statement, but nonetheless real.
Gabrielle took the sack full of rabbits from him and hauled it over her shoulder. “Take the supply bag. I’ll carry this one.”
Kyle did as he was told, letting the woman lead the way back. He expected the walk to be just as silent as before, but a few steps in, Gabrielle spoke.
“Well done, Rivers. For a first hunt, that wasn’t bad.”
Her tone didn’t indicate it, but that was, without a doubt, praise. Kyle smiled at the words, raising his head to look at the woman with a hopeful expression. “Does that mean I can shoot the crossbow next time?”
“No.” She paused. “At least not yet. And definitely not this one.”
Kyle grinned. That was a very promising answer.
“One more thing, Rivers.” She turned her head to look at him over her shoulder. “If I hear you curse that way again, there will be consequences.”
The walk was silent after that.
[Abandoned Outpost | Sagacitas 5th | Early afternoon]
Hours turned into days and days turned into a full week. Sebastian had barely left his bed in that time. Even though he was aware of this, and further reminded by Kyle that morning, he didn’t particularly care. Gerald had been to their room once on the first day after training. They talked for a few minutes, after which the man told him ‘take your time’. Gabrielle had been a non-presence, as per her usual. Johanna, on the other hand, had been a constant. After he’d recovered from his little cry fit, the woman was kind enough to not ask him any questions or treat him any different. For the most part she brought him water, food, and perched on the same chair from time to time in silence. Her presence was, if Sebastian were to be perfectly honest, a much welcomed bit of comfort. He didn’t actually want to be alone. He just didn’t want to be prodded about what was going on with him. Jo knew how to give him that space and he was immensely thankful. Likewise, he tried not to think about the little she revealed about her past, and resisted the urge to ask questions. Even though Jo had trusted him enough to bring it up in the first place, it was obvious the memory was till fresh and painful to her. He needed to respect that.
“Well, we’re having rabbit stew for dinner tonight,” Kyle announced as he entered the bedroom collapsed on his bed.
Sebastian gave his brother a glance and noticed he seemed genuinely excited for the first time in months. “That’s nice.”
“Seb, guess what? Porter took me out hunting. Can you imagine being alone in the woods with that woman? I swear nothing has ever put my bladder control to the test as much as this.”
Even in his current state of mind, it was impossible for Sebastian not to laugh at that statement. “You sound like you had fun.”
Kyle smiled, all the more pleased to hear his brother laugh at something. “It was alright. Porter is… She’s alright.”
“How very flattering.”
Gabrielle was standing in the doorway. Kyle got on his feet so fast Sebastian was sure that if he didn’t have such excellent bladder control, they’d need to mop the floor. The woman made no comment of this behavior. Her eyes locked on the jumpy teenager and her expression was as neutral as ever. “Didn’t I tell you to help Johanna skin those rabbits?”
“Uh… Yeah… I…” Kyle faltered, nervously scratching the back of his head. “I tried. She wouldn’t let me.” He snorted. “You know, for such a nice person, she can be downright scary when she wants to be.”
“Show some ingenuity, Rivers,” Gabrielle advised. “Go back down and ask her to teach you.”
“Oh,” Kyle mumbled, “oh, alright. I’ll do that.”
The boy stood, staring from Gabrielle to Sebastian for a moment. The woman was lingering in the doorway, obviously waiting for him to leave. Kyle grinned at his brother before walking out of the room, mouthing ‘good luck’ behind the woman’s back in the doorway.
Sebastian frowned at his brother while he turned the corner of the doorway with a playful wave. Gabrielle had indeed remained, her steely gaze now aimed right at him. Her presence seemed to somehow make the room feel smaller. She walked in and sat on the chair where Johanna usually perched.
“Here.” The monosyllabic statement was accompanied by a book, which she dropped on the edge of the bed. “I thought you might be interested in this.”
Sebastian sat up, for the first time that day, and reached for it. It was a small, leather-bound book. Dark brown cover, faded lettering spelling out the title: Intricacies of Time. There was no named author. He gave Gabrielle a questioning look, but the woman didn’t seem about to elaborate.
Sebastian decided to flip through the book then. Upon opening it to a random page and reading a few paragraphs, he learned it was a religious tome. It told the teachings of a Blackhurst scholar who claimed to have met Time himself. He wrote a book of ideologies based on his experiences with the God and he gathered followers, even though he claimed not to want them. The man said Time refused to be worshiped like his siblings because He felt worship amounted to nothing more than wasted moments. The only thing Time demanded was that humanity spend His Gift wisely.
As Sebastian read on, he found several passages had been circled. Lines such as ‘the past can’t be rewritten’ and ‘the future is uncertain’, but one had been circled repeatedly, as though it had been obsessively read and reread for a lengthy period of time.
“A person’s life is nothing more than a collection of moments; some good and others bad. It was Brother Time’s belief that the only true way to achieve peace in one’s mind would be to experience each moment independently, in such a way as to not allow the good to obfuscate the bad, or the bad to obliterate the good. For both good and bad moments serve a purpose in the development of the human soul,”
Sebastian exhaled through his nose. “That’s easier said than done, isn’t it?” he mumbled.
Sebastian looked up, momentarily forgetting Gabrielle was in the room with him. He closed the book and looked down, staring at the faded letters. The word ‘Time’ ironically faded to a ghost of its former self. It looked ancient.
“Johanna baked cookies, but you’ll have to go downstairs if you want some.” Gabrielle stood from the chair. There was a pause in the woman’s step as she headed for the door. “You may keep that if you like.”
“Okay,” was all he managed. He ran his fingers across the book’s cover, feeling the faded letters, and opened it to the very first page. Previously blank space filled with newer words than its original content. The handwriting was simpler than whoever filled the book’s actual pages; rougher, void of any flourishes, but clean and readable.
I thought you might find some value in this. You may keep it if you like.
Welcome home, kiddo.
Sebastian snapped the book shut, feeling as though he’d somehow intruded on something he shouldn’t have. It was a silly thought, he decided. The book could have been scavenged, abandoned somewhere, and that message could have been directed at anyone. There was no way Gabrielle would have so casually given up something that personal. It made no sense.
That woman made absolutely no sense.
Sebastian looked out the window. The sun was high in the sky. The chill of winter was milder than it had been a week ago. It would be a while still, but the seasons were changing. The world hadn’t stopped. The boy took a deep breath. The future was uncertain, the past was indeed written, but right now… Sebastian felt like some cookies might actually do him a world of good.