[Abandoned Outpost | Otium 15th | Early morning]
“We’ve been going over this for days. One way or another, you need to make a decision,” Gabrielle stated, looking over the crenelated wall atop the Western tower. The sky was clear and tinged in a cold, pale lavender where sunlight hadn’t yet touched.
“I promised.” Johanna’s tone was soft but resolute.
“We all made promises we couldn’t keep.” Gabrielle watched her with the corner of her eye. “I can’t make decisions for you. Tucker can’t either. That’s for you to do, but. . . He is right. You do realize that at least?”
“They shouldn’t be like us.”
Gabrielle paused, choosing her next words carefully. “They already are, Jo.” She turned to face the other woman, leaning her lower back against the wall of the tower. “I know it’s been nice feeling like you’re taking care of someone these past few months, but the reality of our situation remains the same as always. You can’t shield them from it forever.”
Johanna shook her head, the unyielding tone still present in her voice. “They’re children, Gabe.”
“Not anymore. That ended for them. I know that, Tucker knows that, I know you know that too. Any version of reality where those boys would have had any semblance of a normal life? That’s shattered now. Gone. Like it was for me, for Tucker. . . for you.” She stopped, watching Jo’s expression to make sure the words were sinking in as they should. “As much as I’d want to, we can’t change that.”
Johanna’s expression was mixed between aggravation and distress. “Are we. . . Did we. . .? “
Gabrielle shook her head. “I don’t know if we’re making it worse. I can’t know. I already didn’t when I let you tag along with me.”
Johanna’s eyes softened a small amount, almost apologetic. “I wasn’t innocent.”
“If Tucker hadn’t done something they wouldn’t be either.” Gabrielle turned once again to look down at the small clearing below. “I know what we’re asking you to do isn’t easy, and I can’t say it’s right. All I can say is that it has to be you.”
Silence followed that statement and Gabrielle didn’t need to look over her shoulder to know Johanna had left. Her eyes remained on the clearing below, watching as three figures emerged from the trees.
“I don’t get why you’re bringing us back already. We only did half our exercises.” Kyle’s tone was confused as he and Sebastian trailed after Gerald.
“Are you complaining I’m giving you less work, boy?”
Kyle snorted. “No. I want to know why we’re doing something different than usual.”
Gerald didn’t respond, gesturing towards the towers. “Go inside, wash up and meet me for breakfast in ten. Go on.”
Kyle was clearly displeased with the lack of answers, but Gerald’s tone made clear he wouldn’t be getting them right now. Resigned, he followed his brother in silence to the tin of water behind the Eastern tower. Sebastian was already washing his hands and face by the time he made his way around. “And you. . .” Kyle muttered. “You’ve been quiet since we came back.”
Sebastian shrugged. “I’ve been tired, Kyle. Gerald didn’t exactly give us much down time before starting training up again.”
Kyle joined his brother by the tin and started washing the dirt off his hands. “And you haven’t been sleeping again.” He winced as the scrapes he sustained during their spar stung under the water.
“I have. Just not as much as I’d like. I think. . .” Sebastian hesitated, running wet fingers through his hair. “I think it’s my enlightenment acting up. I’m not sure though.”
“Are you having nightmares or something?”
“No. It’s more. . .” Sebastian frowned, trying to think of a way to explain it. “Like my head won’t stop.”
Kyle hummed while rinsing his face. “You should tell someone.”
“I’m sure it’ll be okay soon. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it. Not unless I have to.”
Kyle was unconvinced, but didn’t insist, opting to change the subject instead. “You think they’re gonna tell us why they’ve been arguing behind closed doors since we came back?”
Sebastian shook his head. “Leave it alone, Kyle.”
“They’re acting weird. Why don’t you ever question these things?”
“Because they are weird, for starters. Also. . ..” He let out a resigned sigh. “I think I know what it’s about, sort of.”
“What do you mean?”
“I couldn’t sleep one of the nights we camped on our way back from Newhaven. I overheard Gerald and Jo having a conversation. At least. . . I overheard Gerald’s side of the conversation.”
“Gerald was saying he needs to make changes in our training. And that we’re ‘ready to move forward’ whatever that means.”
“And you didn’t think that was important enough to tell me about?”
Sebastian shrugged. “I figured we’d find out sooner or later. No point in stressing over it ahead of time.” His tone then shifted to amusement. “I should have figured you were going to anyway.”
Kyle frowned, placing his hand over his left shoulder and rolling it with a groan. Just because Gerald had cut their training short, didn’t mean he hadn’t given them hell all the same. “I wonder what new inventive ways they’re gonna find to punish us now.”
“Teach.” Sebastian corrected, though with a sarcastic smirk. “I think you mean ‘teach’.”
“Yeah, right.” Kyle shook his head. “Come on, we don’t want to be late for breakfast.”
Johanna hadn’t shown up for breakfast. And if that wasn’t weird enough on its own, Gabrielle was sitting at the table with Gerald by the time the twins walked in. The boys shared confused glances as they sat down,reaching out for one of the many slices of fruit at the center of the table.
“So. . . where’s Jo?” Sebastian finally asked, biting into a piece of melon.
Gabrielle eyed him for a few seconds before answering. “She had a few things to take care of today, she’ll be back soon.”
Kyle shook his head. “You’ve all been whispering behind closed doors and being weird for days now. Are you gonna tell us what’s going on?”
Gerald gave them a short glance from behind his cup of tea. “You’ll find out sooner than later, boy.”
“Oh, come on. You’re just doing that on purpose now. Why can’t you just tell us?”
“We need to decide something, but. . .” Gerald cut himself off with a soft breath.
Kyle rolled his eyes. “Are mom and dad fighting again?”
Gabrielle glared at him. “We haven’t reached a consensus yet, Rivers. That’s all.”
Kyle watched her expression for a few seconds, his next question more cautious. “When do we get a say?”
“When you’re a Hunter,” Gabrielle stated, her eyes on his. “Not a second sooner. Are we clear?”
Kyle held her gaze, quick to nod in agreement. “Yes, ma’am.”
Gabrielle nodded in return and nudged the bowl fruit a few inches across the table. “Finish your breakfast.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Kyle repeated, taking another piece of fruit.
Gabrielle then proceeded to reward Kyle’s obedience with a rather stiff pat on the head and a mumble of, “Good boy.”
Kyle froze in place, hand half way through the motion of reaching for a bite of fruit. Unsure if what he received was meant to be genuine praise or a mocking gesture, his eyes glanced back and forth across the table. Looking towards Gerald and his brother for guidance was extremely unhelpful, seeing as they were both nearly turning blue from holding back laughter. If Gabrielle actually noticed his confusion, she showed no signs of it. And once Sebastian and Gerald managed to control their reactions, the kitchen fell into a dull silence until the two boys were finished with their share of fruit.
“What are we doing the rest of the morning then?” Sebastian questioned, examining a slice of pear in his hand before deciding he was full and tossing it back into his bowl.
“I still need help with the watch post,” Gerald said.
Kyle coughed a sound very reminiscent of the words ‘tree house’ and Sebastian was unable to withhold a small laugh. Gabrielle faked a cough as well and the boys were under the distinct impression this was meant to disguise a trace of laughter also.
Aside from a small impatient scoff, Gerald made no response to this. “If you’re finished, you can start heading out.”
The boys stood up with agreeing nods and exited the kitchen, still trying to hold laughter in.
[Abandoned Outpost | Otium 15th | Early evening]
“I thought I’d find you here.”
Gerald’s voice was so soft it hardly carried over, but it was still enough to break Jo from her thoughts. She stirred, aches coursing through her body from sitting on the stony ground for too long, her neck stiff from all the time spent looking up at the weapons mounted on the wall. She hummed acknowledgment and let him sit next to her on the ground.
“Here, I brought you dinner for once.” His tone was soft and partially amused as he set a plate of roasted meat and cooked vegetables in front of her.
Jo stared at the food for a few seconds, then looked up at him in confusion.
“Don’t look at me like that, Porter cooked. She didn’t want to bother you.”
She took the plate into her lap with a soft mumble. “Gabe can cook?”
Gerald didn’t bother hiding his laughter. “You do realize we both survived into adulthood just fine before we had you to feed us, right?”
Jo mumbled under her breath. “I like doing it.”
“I know you do.” He held out a knife and fork to her. “I’m just saying that we won’t starve to death if you need some time to yourself now and then.”
She took the utensils and with a brief nod of ‘not-quite-agreement’ proceeded to cut her food into smaller pieces.
“It’s not poisonous, I checked.”
Jo lifted her head to glance at Gerald. He leaned back on his hands, looking up at the weapons mounted on the wall. His mother’s sword and shield gleamed in the torchlight. It was difficult to really read his expression just then. It wasn’t exactly empty, just indiscernible. She lowered her gaze before he was able to catch it with the corner of his eye and finally started eating. The food tasted nice, she just wasn’t all that hungry.
“Your fiancée?” The question was quiet, as if he really didn’t mean to ask it. They didn’t usually ask questions.
“His brother.” Jo mumbled, staring at a piece of carrot stuck to her fork. “He trained me.”
“If the man taught you everything you know, I’m going to chance the assumption that he was some sort of genius.”
“Sword master.” She mumbled, eating a piece of carrot; she chewed on it slowly. “Didn’t really want to.”
“He didn’t want to train you?”
“No.” Her voice was softer than usual, the sound carrying just far enough to reach his ears. “I worried him. My motivations.”
Gerald fell silent for a few moments, then made a soft sound in the back of his throat. “Let me guess. . . He realized you were going to do what you wanted either way?”
“I had to. They were going. . . .” she cut herself off with a shake of her head, stabbing into a piece of meat a little harder than necessary. “I had to.”
Gerald turned to fully look at her, an unvoiced question thinly lined his face. What little he knew of Johanna’s early life were bits and pieces she’d occasionally let slip. What he’d gathered from it is that she’d joined a crew of thieves in Newhaven and they had turned out to be the sort who didn’t draw many lines where it came down to hurting people; their own included. And when he tried to question further, her only response had been that it didn’t matter because they were all dead now. The implications of that statement weren’t lost on him at the time, but this shed new light on them. “Was it the first time you killed someone?”
Johanna nodded. “Yes.”
“Was it harder than you thought it’d be?”
Jo drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly, looking down at her plate. “Easier.” She toyed with her knife, slicing into one of the cooked vegetables with a thoughtful expression, as though she was seeing something else in its place. “Too easy.” She shook her head and placed the knife down, lips twisting in a slight grimace. “He was right to worry.”
“Is that why you don’t want to train the boy? You think you’ll corrupt him?”
Johanna shook her head. “Not how it works Gerry. It needs to already be there. I see it there.”
Gerald paused, his silence thoughtful as he held her gaze. “You see yourself in him.”
“Like a mirror.” The smile she offered him was offset by a note of melancholy. “Alton helped me with one condition. A promise: let it end here. I didn’t.”
Gerald looked up to the wall again. The worn swords mounted beside his mother’s shield. “You think he’d be angry with you for breaking your word?”
Jo shook her head. “Disappointed. Hurt. Family honors family. Alton believed that.” She stuck another piece of carrot on her fork, glaring down at it instead of eating. “I didn’t.”
Gerald breathed out. “If you feel it’s too much. You don’t need to do this. I wouldn’t ask you to.”
Johanna was silent for a long moment. “I have to.”
Gerald turned to look at her. There was a discreet frown in her expression. “I wouldn’t want you to dishonor your family, Jo. I can do it without your help.”
Jo shook her head, her expression heavy with grief, but bearing a hint of a smile. “You’re my family now.”
There was the smallest twitch in Gerald’s demeanor, his gaze lowering to the ground for a small collection of moments, then rising to the weapons displayed on the wall. “I’m not asking you to make me any promises.”
“Mhm.” Johanna’s hum was faint, though the softness in her voice was less withdrawn now and more reassuring. “I know.”
[Abandoned Outpost | Otium 16th | Early morning]
Again things didn’t start out the same that morning. Gerald woke them up, they did their morning exercises, had breakfast, returned to the training area, and sat. Gerald left them for full minutes and when he came back his expression was more serious than usual during training.
“Alright,” he started, sitting on the ground in front of them. “You two wanted to know what we’d been discussing behind closed doors the past few days, right?”
The twins nodded in silence.
Gerald offered them a half-smile. “Good. You’re going to find out.”
Sebastian cut in. “Our training is changing, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Gerald crossed his arms and regarded them carefully. “I’m going to be very honest with the two of you, training together from this point forward is a bad idea. Your strengths lie in very different skills and the basics of fighting have already been drilled enough into you both that it’s safe to say I’ve taught you all I can at this point.”
Kyle let out a sharp exhale. “I sense pain in our future.”
Gerald’s lips twitched with the smallest trace of a smirk. “We’ve been discussing how to move forward, how to better hone your skills to where they’d become an asset to us. You’re still going to do exercises every morning, but after breakfast you’re parting ways. Kyle, you can head back. Porter’s waiting for you by the towers.”
“What?” Kyle questioned, but stood, brushing dirt from his pants. “Wh—What for?”
Gerald nodded towards the path. “You’re more than capable of asking her that.”
The boy frowned, but obeyed, starting down the path at a slow pace as if trying to delay the inevitable.
“What about me?” Sebastian asked, his eyes fixed on the spot where his brother had disappeared in the trees.
“You can stay right here. I’m leaving.”
Sebastian didn’t have time to question what Gerald meant by that. Before he vocalized anything, Johanna stepped out from the trees. She smiled at him as usual, but he could tell this wasn’t just her popping in to say hello. She wore all black; light clothing complemented by leather boots. The soft fabric wrappings that normally covered her forearms had been replaced with bracers comprised of light malleable leather which extended past her wrist and halfway down her hands. In her hands she held two sheathed swords. One he recognized immediately: his. All he managed was a confused mumble. “What. . . ?”
Gerald smiled, it was a mix of amusement and worry. “Like I said, boy. I’m leaving. Johanna is taking charge of your training now.” He left the clearing with a call of, “good luck.”
Johanna motioned for him to stand with a hand gesture. As soon as he got on his feet, something hard collided with his chest. He fumbled to catch it, only fully realizing it was his sword when his fingers closed around the scabbard. The sword that remained in Jo’s hand was shorter than his. Sebastian watched the double edged blade emerge from its sheath. The smooth, impeccable steel reflected the light of the sun like a mirror. Johanna instructed him to do the same with just a glance towards the still sheathed weapon in his hands. He obeyed, his palms beginning to sweat against the leather grip.
Jo dropped her sword scabbard at her feet, Sebastian didn’t wait to imitate her this time. His gaze flickered from the weapon in her hand to her eyes. They felt sharper than the metal. His spine tingled and, as she took a step in his direction, he stepped back.
His reaction gave Jo pause and she shook her head. “No.” She pointed to the ground where his feet had been and he returned to where he’d been standing. She then tapped his boots with the side of her blade then pointed it to her own feet. Another wordless command.
Sebastian took a moment to examine her footing and try to mimic it, understanding that this was what she wanted him to do. Johanna raised her blade and his eyes followed as if under hypnosis. He tried to imitate the way she was raising her sword, his hand gripped tight along the handle. Jo took notice and shook her head, reaching out with her free hand to lightly grip his wrist. The touch radiated warmth and he felt the tension fade slightly. She smiled as she let go and resumed her stance.
Sebastian’s heartbeat was pounding in his ears at that point. More sweat built up in his palms and his eyes darted back and forth between his sword and hers. He had never faced anyone with a real weapon in his hands. Mock fights with Gerald and his brother didn’t hold the same weight as he felt standing before Jo. The silence that permeated the air between them was dense enough that his sword wouldn’t be able to slice through it. He fidgeted, apprehension locking him in place.
When Jo moved he felt it in the pit of his stomach. Like the ground had sunk beneath his feet without warning. Metal clashed and the force vibrated up to his elbow. He stumbled backward. Another blow followed. The sweat barrier between his skin and the grip of his weapon made it fly off his hand.
What followed was a sting on the side of his face. Like his skin had gotten too close to a lit candle and hot wax was trickling down his cheek. It wasn’t wax, he knew, but it was warm. The faint smell of iron filled his nostrils and he breathed out a whimper he’d been holding the entire time. Jo lowered her blade, waiting; no doubt, for him to pick the sword up. Sebastian tried to meet her eyes, but his gaze fell to his feet instead.
“Seb.” Jo’s voice was soft. “Pick it up.”
His fists clenched at his sides, nails sinking into his palms. He tried to obey, but couldn’t quite move.
Johanna breathed out, he expected it to sound more exasperated than it did. The corner of his eyes caught her movement as she walked to take his weapon from the ground. The cold feeling of two blades pressing against the sides of his neck forced his eyes up. Jo was holding both swords to him. Her expression unreadable. After holding his gaze for a few solid seconds she offered the hilt of his sword back to him. “Take it.”
Sebastian obeyed this time. “I don’t understand what. . .”
Another sting, right below the first. The second trickle of warmth following the path of the first.
“Watch, Listen. Don’t talk.”
Sebastian frowned at this. “But I. . .”
That turned out to be a huge mistake. Jo’s response was another heavy blow to his blade; it knocked his sword immediately off his hand and when he did try to pick it up this time, her blade stabbed the earth, passing right between his fingers. He froze in place, staring at the sharp metal less than an inch away from slicing clean through his flesh.
“When you talk, you don’t listen.” Johanna spoke, pulling the sword out and allowing him to retrieve his. “Don’t talk.”
Sebastian took his blade back, now very alert to the fact she had been taking it very easy on him so far. His response this time was a silent nod and he promptly returned to the stance she’d shown him. Trying his best to pay attention to what she was doing when she once again had her blade collide with his.
Time after time, he lost his sword. Every time he suffered a consequence. After enough attempts to fend off Jo’s advances all he could smell was iron; on his face, his arms, his torso, there were shreds of his shirt littering the soil between them. But his grip grew firmer as they continued, his reactions quicker, dread gave way to focus. Hours passed. More and more, pain became an afterthought.
Kyle met with Gabrielle in front of the towers. The woman was, to his surprise, not wearing her heavy coat. The clothes she wore looked worn past the point of looking presentable; a tunic that seemed to have had its sleeves torn off, pants and boots that had several indiscernible stains on them, and a brown leather apron that had clearly seen its share of damage in the past. Her long hair was also bound in a ponytail; something he’d rarely seen in the time they’d known each other. “Rivers,” she greeted.
“Hey.” Kyle’s tone gave away confusion. “What’s with the getup?”
Gabrielle’s expression didn’t give way to much. “Work clothes.” Her eyebrow rose. “You said you wanted to learn to shoot a crossbow. Remember that?”
“Yes, but you said ‘not now’.”
Gabrielle nodded. “And not my crossbow.”
Kyle allowed himself a moment of excitement. “Are you going to teach me how to shoot one then?”
“Eventually.” She started to climb the stairs and motioned for him to follow. “First you need to build one.”
Kyle frowned. “Build one?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle led him into the office, down to the armory, then further down. And further. Underground. It was dark there, and warm. Not just the air, but the ground and the walls around them. He could understand now why Gabrielle had ditched her coat; and sleeves. Despite how stuffy the air felt, the warmth surrounding him felt oddly nice. “Where are we?”
Gabrielle lit torches along the walls. His eyes took in the sight of the large furnace before anything else. Bellows placed near it, meant to feed the fire.
“This,” Gabrielle spoke, “this is my forge, Rivers.”
She gave him a moment to take in the room a little more, then nudged him towards a workbench. There he could see the wooden structure meant to be the body of a crossbow, beside it were an assortment of molds. Gabrielle took one of them in her hands. “You see these?”
Kyle nodded along. “It’s a mold. Like the trays Jo uses to make muffins.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Yes, Only we fill these up with iron.” She indicated the furnace with her eyes. “See where the kindling goes?”
Kyle observed the opening. Charcoal and dry wood were stacked in shelves built into the stone wall behind the furnace. “Yes.”
“That fire needs to be just the right temperature. Not enough heat and you can’t work the metal. Overheat it and you compromise its integrity.” She put the mold down. Moving around him, she grabbed kindling and lit the furnace—flames coming alive in a disordered burst. She glanced at him, registering the step he took back. “Rivers, come over here.”
Kyle breathed deep and stepped closer, standing beside her in front of the furnace.
“Give me your hand.”
She held out her hand. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Kyle hesitated, but put his hand in hers. Gabrielle gripped him by the wrist and pushed his hand straight into the open flame without even giving him time to try and jerk away.
“What the hell!?” Kyle yelled and tried to pull his hand back.
Gabrielle, however, hadn’t flinched. “Stop squirming. Look.”
The panic started to fade with the realization that there was no pain. Even while looking straight at the fire, only now he’d noticed that the flames surrounding both their hands weren’t actually touching them. “What the. . . How. . . How did you. . . Did I. . .?” He looked away to stare at the woman. “You’re fucking insane! How did you even know that would work!?”
“I wasn’t sure.” Gabrielle let go of his wrist and withdrew her hand. “But self-preservation is a powerful instinct.”
“You’re insane,” he repeated.
“Rivers, do you want to spend the rest of your life flinching or do you want control?”
Kyle shuddered, trying to control the heaving breaths exploding from his chest. “Control.”
“You can’t hope to control something if you shy away from it in fear.” Gabrielle’s eyes fixed on the flames surrounding his hand. “Can you feel the fire?”
Kyle frowned, taking the time to consider the question. He could feel the warmth. Outside of him. Inside of him. In his veins. In his lungs. It didn’t burn him like fire should. Didn’t hurt. It felt. . . Alive. “Yes.”
“That’s how you’re going to assist my work,” she told him. “You’re going to control the fire, and I’m going to build you a crossbow. If you mess it up, we’ll start over. If we can get all the pieces done. . . Then I’ll teach you how to shoot.”
Kyle let out another harsh breath. “I don’t know how to control it.”
Gabrielle nodded, moving to pull raw iron from one of the shelves. “Trial and error, Rivers. That’s the best way to learn.”
Time passed in a weird state between too fast and not fast enough. Gabrielle didn’t speak much other than to tell him whether the fire needed to be hotter or if it was too hot. He tried to find a way to keep the flames in check. It was a weird sensation, as though it was a living being and he could feel it breathe. At times he managed to feed or contain the flames, but he was unable to keep the furnace at a consistent temperature. Materials were apparently wasted on his attempts and not a single part of the mechanism was completed. Finally, Kyle removed his hand from the fire, flexing his fingers. His skin felt warm, but he was otherwise completely unharmed. “That was crazy.”
Gabrielle was watching him as she disposed of their failed attempts. “Johanna told me what happened at the village..”
Kyle wasn’t expecting that. “What?”
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow as if silently asking if he was deaf. “You ran away from the hourglass ceremony. Refused to go back inside. What were you afraid of?”
Kyle exhaled heavily. “Yes, I. . .” He glanced at the fire. “The last time I thought about Kat, how she died, I ended up losing it. I didn’t want to. . .”
Gabrielle cut him off. “You weren’t out of control. You were just angry. There’s a difference.”
“I don’t follow.”
Gabrielle nodded towards the furnace. “Extinguish that, will you.”
Kyle did, without thinking, and it took him a moment to realize he’d never been able to actually extinguish a flame with his enlightenment before. “Whoa,” he mumbled.
“To answer your question,” Gabrielle started, opening the hatch above their heads to cool off the room, “you were angry. You wanted someone to pay for hurting your sister. You chose to start that fire. It might have gotten out of hand afterwards, but it was a conscious choice. Not a result of spontaneous combustion.”
Kyle mumbled a quiet, “oh.”
“I understand why you’re afraid to be angry. Fire or no fire, it can still consume you. I would know.”
Kyle gave her a long inspecting look. “You do?”
Gabrielle hummed. “If there’s one thing I can guarantee you, boy. . . No one hates those Wolves more than me. But you know what I learned from all my hate?”
“You can’t control your emotions. It’s impossible. Anger, fear, grief, those things are always going to be inside you. What you can control are your actions. What you can do is choose.”
Kyle nodded in silence to those words, letting them sink into his mind one by one. “How?”
“Trial and error,” she repeated, starting to lead the way out through the hatch. “Come on, let’s go see how your brother’s done with his training.”
“Holy Twins!” Kyle was wide-eyed as he watched Sebastian change into a non-shredded shirt. “Jo did this to you?”
“Mhm.” Sebastian’s voice was muffled by fabric. “It was. . .” He shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell you, kind of insane, I think.”
Kyle frowned a little, staring down at his hands. “Looks like it was.”
“How did it go for you?” Sebastian asked, his head emerging from his shirt, hair sticking out in several places. “You seem more intact than me.”
“Porter wanted me to help her on the forge.”
“Oh.” Sebastian seemed intrigued by this. “She actually let you down there?”
Kyle nodded, sitting down on his bed. “She said she’ll teach me to shoot a crossbow, but I have to build one first.”
Sebastian smiled, though it turned into a grimace as he lay down on his bed. “Feels like you have it easier than me this time around, bro.”
“Maybe.” Kyle frowned a little. “Are you afraid?”
Sebastian hummed, an exhausted note in his voice. “Of what?”
“No.” Sebastian breathed out slowly. “For a moment or two, I was, but. . . No.” He reached to touch the side of his face where Johanna’s blade had made thin lines on his skin. “These cuts are gonna heal in a couple of days. They’re barely scratches. It’s scary to have a sword that close to your face, to feel it slice into you, even if it’s shallow, but it’s. . . So impressive. To have that kind of control. To move that fast. Be that precise.”
“You sure do sound impressed.” Kyle’s voice held a note of humor.
Sebastian glanced at him from across the room. “Jo wouldn’t hurt me. I know that.”
Kyle shook his head. “You have about a thousand cuts on your body, Seb. How is that not hurting you?”
Sebastian shrugged. “How is it different than Gerald hitting us with a punch or a training sword? Yeah, it’s painful, but it’s not an actual injury.”
Kyle frowned a little. “I asked Jo what it was like. You know, to kill someone. She said ‘it gets easier’.”
“You’re worried it won’t?”
“I’m worried it will. I just. . .”Kyle eyed his brother carefully. “I don’t get how you can get over everything Gerald said to us in Newhaven so easily.”
“Who says I have? I haven’t, but. . . I don’t know. Deep down I feel I want to pay the price. I’m willing.” Sebastian turned on his side with a small grimace, focusing on his brother. “Jo, Gerald, Porter. . . They aren’t bad people. Maybe they aren’t good people for the things they’ve done, but they were still good enough to help us. They’re still human enough to care. They’re not empty. I don’t think we would be either.”
Kyle hummed a thoughtful note. “Maybe you’re right. For all they say otherwise. . . They’ve been good to us.”
Sebastian nodded, rolling onto his back. Red light was beginning to flood the room from the window. The sun was descending behind the southern mountains.
“You think you’ll be able to make it down to dinner? You look hurt.”
Sebastian flinched a small bit, but smiled and started to get up. “I’ll live.”
Kyle shot him a skeptical look but nodded, getting up as well. They’d barely reached the stairs when they realized something wasn’t quite right. “Something smells weird.”
“Jo convinced Tucker to help make dinner again.”
The twins turned to see Gabrielle peeking out from her office across the bridge. Kyle shot a suspicious look towards the bottom of the stairs. “This has happened before?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Tucker knows he can’t touch food without destroying it, but he also has difficulty saying no to Johanna sometimes. As we all do. And then this happens.”
Kyle and Sebastian looked at each other in mild confusion, but continued down the stairs. The smell became more prominent and there was a thin veil of smoke emanating from the kitchen.
“It looks. . . Okay?” Jo said.
“I appreciate the encouragement, but I’m pretty sure stew isn’t supposed to be that color.” Gerald’s voice was a mix of amusement and frustration. “And for all that’s sacred, Jo. . . Don’t eat that just to try and make me feel better.”
“Can’t be worse than last time,” Jo argued.
“No. I’m throwing it out.”
Kyle’s shoulders slumped with disappointment. “Guess it’s gonna be fruit again.”
Sebastian shook his head as he entered the kitchen. “Honestly, I’ll take it over disaster stew any day.”
Kyle paused in the doorway for a moment, pondering what they had just been discussing. Right then and there, it was hard to imagine Gerald and Johanna as anything other than two nuts arguing over a pot of ‘disaster stew’. And somewhere in the back of his mind, he couldn’t help but find the feeling eerily similar to sitting in that Inn in Newhaven, surrounded by Wolves.
[Abandoned Outpost | Aurelium 12th | Early evening]
“Boy, are you still in there?”
Gerald’s voice was muffled behind the heavy wooden door of the bathroom. Sebastian knew that ignoring it would probably be a bad idea, but after the day he had, there was no energy left for formulating anymore words. He just groaned in response, trying to make it audible enough so that it was known he hadn’t drowned himself in the tub. A few moments of silence followed before the door opened. “Sebastian? Are you alright? You’ve been down here for two hours.”
“I don’t wanna move.”
Gerald made an amused sound in the back of his throat as he stepped inside and closed the door behind him. The bath room was underground, beneath the kitchen,The first time the twins had been down there Gerald had given them an entire explanation on how he’d managed to circulate heat through the walls and floors of the towers making use of the ventilation system in the forge. Sebastian couldn’t pay attention to the particulars of it all, but he understood that Gabrielle’s use of the furnace is what fueled the heating ducts. And even though they were almost a full month into summer now, that was still a pretty good thing. He’d been laying there so long at this point that his bath water had nearly turned to ice.
“It’s almost time for supper. You know what happens if you’re not there.”
Sebastian conjured up the energy to lift his head to focus on Gerald. The Hunter’s expression was torn between amusement and pity, but more so amusement. “You know it’s entirely your fault that you’re in this situation, don’t you, boy?”
“Yes.” Although Sebastian was quick to agree—because on some level he felt that to be true—the statement was followed by a soft mumble. “How?”
Gerald snorted a laugh. “You’ll find out.”
“You’re not helping, you know.” Sebastian muttered, devoting some effort into sitting up straighter. Every muscle in his body was protesting this and it was hard to resist the urge to sink into the water and die.
“Boy, if you think anyone is here to help you, it’s going to be a rude awakening. Johanna. . . Isn’t me. She’s not going to spoon feed anything you need to learn. You just have to take it upon yourself to do it. Or you bleed. Simple as it comes.”
Sebastian nodded in silence, frowning as he looked down into the tub. The water had taken on a slight pinkish hue from the numerous cuts he sustained during his training session that afternoon. At some point he lost the ability to keep track of how many times his body hit the ground. The pain would fade, as much as it was currently getting to him. The frustration, on the other hand, wouldn’t be as quick to leave him. Almost two months of training. He thought he’d made progress with Gerald, but this. . . “I can’t touch her. No matter what I do. It’s not. . . Possible.”
“Don’t be stupid, boy. No one is invincible. Absolutely no one. Not even Jo.”
“It doesn’t matter if it can be done. I can’t do it.”
Gerald shook his head, but before he could say anything else, the door opened again. “I said I’d get him, Jo.”
“Tonight?” The mumble was teasing.
“This is your handy work.”
Sebastian sighed, aggravation seeping into his voice. “Can you two banter outside? I need to put on some pants.”
“Five minutes.” Jo’s tone was soft as always but made it pretty clear that if he took any longer she would come and get him. She left the door open as she left and, without another word, Gerald followed.
Once the door closed after the Hunters, Sebastian hid his face in his hands and muffled a frustrated growl. He forced himself to ignore the pain and get out of the tub. Looking down at his torso, once the blood was washed clean, the small cuts were barely noticeable. If he didn’t know any better, he would swear there was nothing there at all. He drew in a long breath and tried, unsuccessfully, to keep his exhale from shaking. He didn’t have to see it, it didn’t even have to hurt. Each and every one of those cuts was a reminder. A representation of death. Had anyone else’s hand been wielding that blade, he wouldn’t be standing there.
Despite the nagging thoughts, he drained the tub and managed to get dressed with a minute or two to spare. It wasn’t until he entered the kitchen and the smell of food fully hit him that he realized how hungry he’d been. Kyle and Gerald were already seated in their usual spots around the table, Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen, and Johanna was setting down roasted rabbit and vegetables on the table. Sebastian took his seat beside his brother with a small wince and leaned against the table top.
“You look like absolute crap.”
Sebastian would have glared at his brother just then if he had the energy. “Thank you, I hadn’t noticed.”
“You’re welcome.” Kyle’s smirk was very noticeable in his tone.
Sebastian snorted. “Say, how many rabbits did you shoot today?”
Kyle shook his head. “You know I didn’t shoot anything today. Don’t be a jerk. It’s not my fault you keep getting your ass kicked.”
“You know what, I’m not hungry.” Sebastian muttered this despite it being a blatant lie and stood up to leave the kitchen. From the corner of his eye he spotted Gerald reaching out to stop him, but for whatever reason he changed his mind and let him go. It was a good thing he did, because right then and there all Sebastian wanted was to storm out. He knew that Gerald could stop him if he wanted, but he still couldn’t predict how he would react if that were to happen.
[Abandoned Outpost | Aurelium 13th | Early Afternoon]
“Mind the fire.”
Kyle’s stare was fixed on the furnace, a frown in his expression, and he seemed oblivious to the flames he was supposed to be regulating; or the fact they were currently dying out.
The call startled him back to the present and the fire once again burst into life, though maybe a little too high. His attempts to get it back under control ended up extinguishing the flame altogether. He growled in frustration. “Fuck, sh– Ow!” The moment the first curse left Kyle’s lips, an open palm struck the back of his head, interrupting the second. He looked up at Gabrielle with a glare in his eyes. “Why?”
She arched an eyebrow. “You know why.”
Kyle huffed and rubbed the back of his head. “Did I mess it up?”
Gabrielle hummed and checked the metal he had been trying to liquify. “Yes.”
Kyle shook his head and ran his hand over his eyes. “Great. Just. . . Effing. . . Great.”
“Just reignite it and we’ll start over. There’s no point in standing around being angry.”
“This isn’t going to work. I can’t. . . Make this work.”
Gabrielle disposed of the compromised materials, her expression unchanged from its usual. “You’ve been at it for less than two weeks. Rather early to be making that assessment. Not to mention, that’s supposedly my job.”
Kyle muttered a complaint under his breath, but after a few seconds reignited the fire and tried to put his focus back on keeping it under control. “I’m not sure I understand why Seb gets to actually train to fight and I’m doing this.”
“Johanna isn’t training your brother to fight, Rivers. I’m not training you to be a smith. While having an assistant could be helpful, clearly that’s not the point of this.”
“What is the point?”
“If I tell you that you won’t learn anything.”
“I always thought that kind of answer was just an excuse for people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Gabrielle didn’t flinch as she responded. “Maybe that’s the point.”
Kyle gave her an inspecting glance from the corner of his eye. “Is it?”
“You tell me.”
“Now you’re just doing it to annoy me.”
Gabrielle’s tone remained even, though it bordered on amusement. “Am I?”
Kyle groaned. “Fucks sa-. . .” Once again, he was interrupted by a blow to the back of his head. “Ow! Stop that!”
“That’s up to you, Rivers.”
Kyle once again rubbed the sore spot on his head, but went silent. For a while he just watched Gabrielle work on what was shaping up to be an axe head. She hadn’t given him any input on whether to adjust the intensity of the flames, so he assumed he was doing it right this time around. Unlike the first time they’d done this, shoving his hand into the furnace wasn’t necessary, all he had been doing most days was sitting on a stool out of the way and trying to keep the fire at the required level. The exact method for doing this was still confusing to him. And it got worse if he was distracted.
“Are you worried? About your brother?”
The question caught Kyle off-guard, though,he should have expected it to come up eventually. “Yes. A little. I mean, I don’t think Jo’s going to actually hurt him, but. . . He’s been pretty angry the past week or so.”
“Under the circumstances, you don’t think that’s understandable?”
“Maybe. It’s just not very like him. Seb’s never. . . Angry, really.”
“It’s never too late to get started.”
“He didn’t come down for breakfast or lunch today. Gerald didn’t go get him for training.”
“I’m sure Jo will do it soon enough.”
“Don’t think he’s gonna like that much.”
“I’m sure he won’t. Johanna isn’t known for tact once she gets impatient.”
“So I’m right to be worried, then?”
“Yes and no.”
Another groan followed that response. “Can’t you just pick one and give me a straight answer for once?”
The sound Gabrielle made under her breath was definitely amused. “If only things were that simple, Rivers.” When all Kyle managed to respond with was another glare, she elaborated. “Yes, because what’s about to happen with your brother probably won’t be pleasant. No, because. . . It’s what needs to happen. Johanna isn’t the most reasonable person there is, and she is prone to let emotions get the better of her, but. . . That’s one reason why your brother would benefit from her. And you wouldn’t.”
“I would benefit more from this.” Kyle can’t keep a note of skepticism from seeping into the words.
“In theory. It’s up to you whether or not you benefit.”
Kyle frowned, his gaze once again fixed on the flames. They were dancing in place but far more stable than before. “I don’t get it.”
“What don’t you get?”
“I don’t get how you’re always so. . . Calm.”
“The first time I crossed paths with the Wolves I wasn’t much older than you.” Gabrielle moved around the forge as she spoke and Kyle watched her pour molten iron into one of the molds that would make up the loading mechanism. “I spent a lot of time trying to get rid of my anger.”
“Did it work?”
“I wouldn’t be here if it had.” She moved the mold to one of the workbenches to cool. “We have one part of the mechanism. Well done.”
“It only took a week and a half of failure.”
Gabrielle snorted softly. “You’re not the most positive person, are you?”
Kyle shrugged. “I see things for what they are. Seb is always caught up in possibilities, Kat was. . . An optimist.” His expression turned sour with the word. “Look where that got her.”
“Do you resent your sister?”
“No.” Kyle paused. “I. . . No. It’s not her fault. It’s just. . .” He silently stared at the flames, forehead creasing then smoothing with a soft breath. “Katherine always saw the best side of things. Of all things. Even when. . . You know, when our mother died. And Seb’s right, you know. They don’t care, it didn’t matter, who she was.”
“Your sister’s death was a contract. So no. Who she was didn’t matter to them.”
“Right. One of them knocked on our door, smiled in the doorway, talked their way in, spent time with her. . . Then slit her throat like it was nothing.”
“What Gerald was asking us to do, in Newhaven, what you guys do. . . It’s the same thing.”
“How do you cope with that?”
Gabrielle busied herself with placing another piece of raw metal into the crucible. Silence lingered as she did. “We have different methods. Johanna and Tucker within religion; though in their own particular ways. I like to look at things for what they are, so to speak.”
Kyle hummed a soft note. “By ‘things’ you mean. . .?”
“Johanna sees death as a gift. You know, a reminder that time is meaningful, all of that. I’m sure you’ve heard it during the Hourglass Ceremony. Tucker, being from Newhaven, believes in justice but also that the concept of justice in itself can’t be universal. Meaning that what is just to you may not always be just to others. The harm you cause in life turns to debt in the afterlife. Pursuing something like revenge is, in some ways, an act of self-sacrifice to him.”
“What do you believe?”
“What do you mean ‘nothing’?”
“I mean that I believe in nothing. We come from, and inevitably return to, nothing. Everything we are and everything we’ve done turns to nothing. It fades, disappears, when we do.”
Kyle made an incredulous sound in the back of his throat. “That’s bleak even for me.”
Gabrielle regarded him in silence for a long moment, then nodded. “That’s good, in some ways, but nonetheless. . . It’s how I choose to look at it.”
“How does that help you cope?”
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. Fifteen years, give or take. That’s longer than you’ve been alive. The only comfort I’m ever going to get is the thought that, one day, all of this ends. I don’t have to carry it with me when I die.”
Kyle hummed under his breath, his focus once again falling on the flames. They had remained surprisingly even throughout the conversation. “Do you think. . . We can get another piece done today?”
“That’s awfully optimistic of you, Rivers.”
“I’m asking for a realistic assessment not a pep talk,” Kyle muttered, rolling his eyes.
“Right now the conditions are favorable. If we can keep them that way, you might be able to shoot a rabbit by summer.”
“You won’t hit it on your first try, but you’ll be able to shoot it so long as you don’t screw up the assembly.”
Kyle made a surprised sound. “Wait, I actually have to assemble it myself?”
Kyle frowned. “It’s not gonna be ready by summer if I have to do it.”
“So much for optimism, huh?” There was clear amusement in Gabrielle’s tone. “Don’t worry, Rivers. It’s not as hard as it looks.”
Kyle once again frowned, shooting her a brief glance before refocusing on the fire. “I don’t believe you. Not for a second.”
[Abandoned Outpost | Aurelium 13th | Mid-Afternoon]
Sebastian should have known that being allowed to stay in bed couldn’t actually be a good thing. He had expected at least Gerald to turn up after Kyle gave up on him and left, but no. No one came. Not for hours. Some distant, still rational part of his brain understood what would inevitably happen, but the rest of him was too caught up in being tired and angry to heed its warnings.
The room was quiet, undisturbed. No sound reached his ears other than his own breathing. There was no sudden, eerie feeling of being watched, or other indication that something was about to take place. Sebastian was lying still on his bed one moment, and a pair of hands had him by the back of his shirt the next.
“No, no, no, no. . .” Sebastian tried to struggle, but to no avail, and his body crashed on the stone floor, accompanied by a mess of blankets. They dragged behind him as he failed to hold on to the bedframe and only untangled when he twisted around to try and see his attacker, although he knew all too well who it would be.
In the months since their arrival the twins had recovered from their malnourished state and even gained muscle mass from the exercise routine they’d been put under. Gerald had also gotten into the habit of occasionally reminding Johanna that at this rate they would definitely grow to be taller than her by fall; much to her annoyance. With all of that under consideration, either she was a lot angrier than Sebastian thought she would be, or she was a lot stronger than he’d calculated to be dragging him around this way. Or both. Jo finally let him go when they reached the top of the stairs and the look she gave him made clear that he was going down one way or another. He got on his feet and frowned, looking past her into his room. “Can I at least get my boots?”
Johanna shook her head “no” and urged him down the staircase. Sebastian flinched but knew that there would be no room for negotiation at this point. He started down the stairs barefoot and waited for her to come down and lead the way to the training area. The ground was warm from the sun and rough on the soles of his feet, but he forced himself to ignore it even as he struggled to keep up with Jo’s pace. She was walking with a purpose and he noticed her fists clenched at her sides. That kind of tension couldn’t possibly result in anything pleasant.
The apple trees surrounding the clearing had started to bloom in the past week. Faded-pink flower petals stuck to his bare feet as he walked to the center and the air was almost sickly sweet from their perfume. Sebastian held back a disgruntled noise when the smell made his stomach churn. Or maybe it was fear; Johanna was watching him with the sharpest glare he’d ever seen her give anyone. The moment he met her eyes they narrowed, and in one swift motion she removed the scabbard slung across her back and threw his sword for him to catch. He fumbled and dropped it, rushing to retrieve it with shaky hands.
Jo stood only a few steps away, silent as usual, watching. Once Sebastian managed to straighten himself, however, she turned away. That’s when he realized the only sword she had been carrying was his. Confusion set in as he watched her momentarily disappear within the cover of trees and reemerge wielding a thin branch, stripped of foliage and about the same length as the blade she’d usually sparred with. When she took a fighting stance and silently urged him to do the same, Sebastian couldn’t help a soft snort. “You can’t be ser- Ah, fuck!”
Jo answered his question by lashing out with the branch. The tip broke skin on his forearm; a rough, uneven gash, far more painful than the sword slashes he’d grown accustomed to.
Sebastian hissed out a breath and tried to push through the pain enough to draw his sword and wield it properly. Jo waited just long enough before striking again, this time slashing the air less than an inch away from his face. He stumbled back,trying to bring his mind back to what he’d learned instead of flailing like a helpless idiot. His fingers tensed on the hilt of the sword but relaxed after a slow breath. He managed to raise the blade in time to block her next strike. And the one after that. While attempting to dodge the third consecutive blow Sebastian’s foot crushed a twig. Sharp wood splinters dug into the sole of his foot and threw off his balance.
The next lashing struck his midsection, tearing open fabric and the skin it was meant to protect. Sebastian groaned and forced a breath through searing pain, his blade knocked the branch aside as he struggled to recompose. Jo didn’t wait for him to find his bearings this time. She thrashed him again almost immediately. The branch struck him below the left knee and Sebastian’s leg buckled. His fingers tightened against the sword grip. The slash he countered with was blind and clumsy from the pain. It missed completely and further messed up his balance. Jo’s retaliating blow was forceful enough to finally put him on one knee. His free hand pressed into the ground at his side as he hissed through another breath.
Sebastian was usually good at picking up on whatever point Jo was trying to make, but he was starting to think this might just be punishment for his behavior after their training session the day before. His refusal to get out of bed this morning. Every blow she landed seemed to hurt far worse than the last. The scent of the flower petals crushed in his balled up fist mixed with the blood trickling down his arm. His stomach twisted further and he tried to keep his body from heaving. Stupid as he knew it was, the more the pain tore at him the more he refused to go down.
When Sebastian managed to push himself up it was sluggish and unsteady, but he saw Jo’s next strike coming and leaned away in time to avoid it connecting with the side of his face. He swung the sword with more force in retaliation. The blade met the side of the branch. It barely put a dent on the bark, but it forced Jo to take a defensive stance for once. His next strike was followed by a sound of cracking wood. The third was finally precise enough to slice clean through and the tip of his sword just barely missed Jo’s shoulder before she gripped his wrist and knocked him back down with a kick to his injured leg. He hit the ground with a pained grunt, his sword left in her hand.
Sebastian was in the midst of curling into fetal position when the statement reached his ears, his answer a confused mumble. “What?”
Jo crouched down beside him and held the sliced branch in front of his eyes. “This. Intent.”
Sebastian grimaced; pain making it hard to concentrate.
Jo didn’t wait for him to answer and dropped what was left of the branch on the ground, walking over to where he’d dropped his scabbard and sheathing his sword. He watched her movements from the ground; the tension from before gone from her body. She once again slung the sheathed sword over her shoulder and then came back to help him up. “You did well.”
“You kicked my ass. Again.” Sebastian muttered, trying to steady himself without needing to lean on her too much.
“You need to learn.”
“Intent?” He mumbled the word through gritted teeth, limping as they started back to the Outpost.
“Yes.” Jo glanced at him as though she was being forced to draw him a picture. “You defend yourself well, but. . . S’not enough.” She must have noticed the way his frown deepened because she added, “someone tries to bleed you, Seb, you don’t hesitate. Even me.”
Sebastian let out a soft breath and nodded agreement. “I understand.”
“Clean up. Food. Sleep. Try again tomorrow.”
Sebastian looked himself up and down. “I’m going to need stitches.”
Jo regarded him with a thoughtful hum. “One scar. Two maybe.” She opened a small smile. “Builds character.”
Sebastian shook his head, though he couldn’t help a small sarcastic quip. “Anyone ever tell you’d make a good mom?”
Jo stopped for a step and her expression turned into a grimace for a split second before she resumed walking. “No.”
Sebastian wasn’t sure where that reaction came from, but he knew better than to pry. Instead, he walked in silence for a couple of steps before speaking again. “Why did the pony cough?”
Jo glanced at him in mild confusion. “What?”
“It’s a riddle. Why did the pony cough?”
“Oh. Uhm. . . I don’t. . . I don’t know.”
“It was a little horse.”
Jo frowned, her confusion deepening before slowly turning to realization. She shook her head, a small laugh escaping past her lips. “Good one.”
Sebastian laughed as well. “Good. I’ve been holding that one in since Newhaven.”
Jo snorted. “What happened. . . What happened to the girl who swallowed a spoon?”
Sebastian hummed a soft note as he thought about it, then shrugged. “What?”
“She couldn’t stir.”
He shook his head through another laugh. “Okay, uhm. . . Where do generals keep their armies?”
Jo didn’t even need to think about that one. “Up their sleevies.”
“You knew that one!” He grinned. “You’re from Blackpond, aren’t you?”
That earned another grimace, though not as severe as the previous one. “I was. Once.”
Sebastian flinched. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry like that.”
“It’s okay. . . I. . . My brother. He liked that joke. Not anymore.”
Sebastian ran one hand through his hair, then grimaced remembering the blood and flower nectar stuck to it. “Is he. . .”
“No.” Jo chuckled. “Not dead. Just. . . Changed.”
“Oh. So you still have a brother somewhere?”
Jo nodded. “Yes.”
“But he doesn’t like puns anymore?”
Sebastian smirked, stopping as they neared the towers. “Don’t worry, my brother doesn’t have a sense of humor either.”
Jo rolled her eyes at him. “Be nice. Go clean up.”
Sebastian laughed softly as he limped his way inside. “I’ll get right on the latter, can’t really promise the first.”
[Abandoned Outpost | Aurelium 14th | Two hours past midnight]
The only sound in the room when Sebastian opened his eyes was Kyle’s usual snores. The candle burning by the windowsill let him know that it wasn’t too far into the night. He was tired, but the multitude of cuts under his bandages kept him alert. Earlier, at dinner, Jo had conceded when Gerald suggested he take at least a couple more days to recover this time. The gashes under his knee and on the back of his forearm required stitching. Kyle was particularly agitated about it at first, but it only took Sebastian asking how the crossbow was coming along to steer the conversation away from his injuries. Soon enough Kyle was going on about how he finally managed to get two whole pieces completed. Sebastian couldn’t remember if he ever heard such pride in his brother’s voice before. It sounded almost foreign.
The candlelight was swaying in an almost soothing rhythm and shadows danced across Sebastian’s vision. His eyes wouldn’t stay closed no matter how he tried. The vague memory of Katherine’s advice surfaced in his mind and he smiled to himself. It was long past a time when counting sheep could actually help him. And just as quickly as that thought came and went, his smile faded with a frustrated grumble. It still hurt to move, but he forced himself out of bed and started limping his way outside.
The night air was warmer than it had been the week before, but still cool enough to be pleasant. Sebastian paced carefully down the wooden steps, not bothering to take his boots. The Outpost would be silent if not for the incessant chirping of crickets and the occasional owl. The wooden steps creaked under his feet, but it was too soft to hear above the sounds of nature. It was odd at first, how loud the forest was compared to Blackpond, but at some point—he wasn’t sure when—the sounds became familiar. The soles of his feet ached when they came down the last wooden step before touching the cool earth at the bottom. Maybe he should have bothered with the boots after all. Candlelight emanated from the kitchen door and, without thinking, Sebastian made his way inside.
The room smelled floral and sweet. It was a soft, inoffensive scent; unlike the apple trees outside. Sebastian wasn’t surprised to see Gabrielle sitting at the table, or a cup of tea waiting for him across from her. He’d stopped trying to question how she always knew to have it there. He paced further into the kitchen and took a seat, letting out a small groan as he settled into the chair. Gabrielle fixed her gaze onto him, the subtle arch of an eyebrow expressing an unvoiced question.
Sebastian chose to reach for his cup of tea in silence instead of acknowledging her. His eyes focusing on the table top rather than meeting hers.
“Did you finish it?”
The question made him look up, humming a question into his tea.
“That book I gave you. Have you finished?”
Sebastian lowered his cup, slowly as if to stall for time. “Not yet. I’ve been kind of. . . I don’t know. . . Stuck.”
Gabrielle took a sip of her tea with an interested hum. “How so?”
“Some of it feels very. . . Bleak. The whole idea of inevitability. As if nothing we do matters.”
“You should continue reading. As is, you’re drawing conclusions from half a message.”
Sebastian shook his head. “You make no sense.”
Gabrielle snorted softly at his statement. “Again, how so?”
“Kyle said you don’t even believe in the Twins. So how come you think this book is so important?”
“Your brother asked me how I cope with the reality of what we do. And in relation to that, Rivers, to each their own.”
“Is that book the reason you don’t believe?”
Gabrielle pondered the question through another sip of tea, then shrugged. “Yes and no.”
“Is it because your father gifted it to you?”
Gabrielle’s expression hardened, just a fraction. “How did you come to that conclusion?”
“The first page has a personal message. It says ‘Love, Dad’. And yes, anyone could have written that for anyone, but it’s your book. It has your handwriting in several pages. It’s childish compared to now, but it’s clearly your handwriting. Which means you held on to it for quite some time too.”
Gabrielle scoffed into her cup. “Yes and no.”
Sebastian was taken aback by this. “‘Yes and no’ what?”
“Yes, my father gifted it to me. And no, my father didn’t gift it to me.”
“That makes no sense.”
“It makes perfect sense. You want to play investigator with me? You can draw your conclusions and I’ll confirm or deny. Think about it. In the meantime, you can finish reading.”
Sebastian frowned as he examined her expression and, as usual, found nothing. He’d learned in the past months that Gabrielle wasn’t opposed to messing with people, but he’d never heard her tell a single lie, so he concluded there was definitely some detail he was missing. “Why did you give me that book?”
“You tell me.”
“You’re not answering any of my questions, are you?” Gabrielle took another sip of tea and he could swear the corner of her lips twitched just a little. “Now you’re just laughing at me.”
“I see you learned your micro expressions from Tucker.” She set her cup down. “So you learned what you were taught, but you don’t apply it. Or you would know what Johanna has been trying to teach you. And you would know why I would give you that book.”
“Intent,” Sebastian mumbled the word under his breath, his expression contorting for a moment.
“You can learn everything you’re taught, Rivers, but what is it worth if you’re afraid to use it?”
Sebastian’s frown deepened and he opted to drink more tea rather than try answering the question.
“There’s a reason you’re here. All those months ago when I asked if you were done with all this, you said no for a reason.”
“My sister,” he muttered.
Sebastian glared at his teacup. There’s wasn’t enough left to avoid any further questions.
Gabrielle regarded him in silence for a few moments before standing up. “Like I said, Rivers, to each their own; how they cope with things.”
Sebastian drank the last few drops with a hum of agreement, watching as Gabrielle made her way to the door. She had one foot on the threshold when he lowered his cup. “Hey, Porter.”
She stopped, but didn’t turn around. “Hm?”
“May I. . . May I borrow some ink and a pen?”
Gabrielle nodded. “I’ll leave some out for you before I turn in.”
Sebastian sat in silence for several minutes, holding on to his empty cup, mind racing with unwelcome thoughts and unanswered questions. The candlelight was already waning by the time he stood up and extinguished it. The air outside was cooler and quieter than when he left his room. The change reminded him of that book he was yet to finish. One particular passage that stated Time stops for no one, waits for no one, and if you refuse to move forward, the world moves on without you.
As if to contrast that sentiment, the first thing Sebastian noticed once he re-entered the bedroom was that Kyle hadn’t as much as stirred in his bed. Dead-asleep and snoring away. The second thing Sebastian noticed was the writing quill and ink neatly placed on the table. He stared at it in thought for a few seconds, then retrieved the blank journal from under his pillow and set it down on the tabletop. More seconds passed before he finally sat down to open it, flipping past his sister’s message to the very end. There, flattened by the book’s pages, a dried rose. In the months he’d neglected his journal the petals had aged, turned a light yellowed-brown stained by darker brown rather than the red-splattered-white they had once been. Though they still smelled vaguely of perfume, it was tarnished by the stale scent of rust. Sebastian reached for the dead flower with a shaky exhale. His fingertips brushed the shriveled petals with excessive care, not wanting them to fall apart as he moved it from the book to the tabletop.
White roses were Katherine’s favorite. When Sebastian had taken the bloody flower from his sister’s hand, his intention was to bury it with her. The burial came and went, and he couldn’t bring himself to let go. The dried rose watched from the tabletop as Sebastian flipped the journal pages back to the beginning. To the first of many blank pages. It hadn’t occurred to him what he wanted to say. Maybe it didn’t really matter. Maybe all he needed was to fill that space. To each their own.