Interlude 02: Common Ground

Shadows Rise

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[White Shadows Camp | Lacus 10th, 2521 | Early evening]

“Come with me.”

Gerald interrupted his attempts to tie the laces on his travel bag and looked up. It surprised him to see Johanna standing there. While she had been persistent company in the past week of his stay—only leaving him alone when either of them were called in to see a healer. It was only the previous day when he was able to find something capable of driving her off; the cause of his injuries. Of all things, he didn’t expect his story would cause the impact it did. Her expression had been unreadable by the end of it, and before he could question it, she just took off.

At first he thought she would come back around and when she hadn’t, admittedly, he considered searching around for her. He dismissed the thought, however, reminding himself they didn’t really know each other. It made no sense to seek out this strange woman just to ask what had gotten into her. As he prepared himself to leave, he concluded she had probably done the same. Apparently not. And her reappearance did nothing to ease his confusion. “What?”

Johanna snorted as though he’d asked a stupid question, stepping forward to take the laces off his injured hands. “You’re not deaf, Gerry.”

Gerald frowned. “It’s Gerald. How many times do I have to correct you? And just because I’m not deaf, doesn’t mean I speak crazy.”

Jo shrugged as she tied the laces with ease. “Crazy?”

“You’ve known me, barely, for a week. Go with you?”

She shook her head, helping him sling the bag over his shoulder. “Yes.”

Gerald groaned at the lack of answers. He learned quickly that while Johanna could speak, getting words out of her could be a monumental task. “Would you mind elaborating on that offer a little?”

Jo hummed as she considered the request. “One question.”

Gerald arched an eyebrow. “Alright. What?”

“Why not?”

He huffed, adjusting the strap along his shoulder. Off the top of his head he could think of a few reasons, but at the same time, he could just as easily refute them. The truth was he didn’t have a place to go, or much of a plan. Surviving the little stunt he pulled wasn’t the expected outcome. “Say I go with you… Then what?”

“Meet someone.”

“You want me to meet someone? Who?”

“You’ll see.”

Gerald snorted softly, shaking his head. “Are you about to lure me somewhere to get robbed and murdered? Because that would be unfortunate.”

Jo shook her head adjusting the strap of her own bag over her shoulder. He realized she was also packed up to leave. “Could have done that already, Gerry.”

“It’s cute that you think that.” Gerald sighed. “Alright. Alright, fine. But, uhm… You’ll have to help me with something.”

“Sure.”

Gerald shook his head again. “You didn’t even ask what it is yet.”

Jo smiled. “Sure.”

Gerald groaned. “Lunatic.”

Johanna shrugged and started walking towards the borders of the White Shadows territory. Gerald followed along, stopping to request his weapons on the way out. The healers weren’t very organized, and having visitors surrender their weapons at several entry points along the camp’s borders meant retrieving your belongings could take a certain amount of sorting out. As the two White Shadows responsible for storing said belonging took their time fumbling around an array of stray weapons locked in a trunk, Gerald slouched with a tired breath. He had been advised to stay for at least two more weeks, but refused. Even if he couldn’t travel very far in his current state, being under the healers’ watch for that long would definitely do a number on his sanity.

Johanna had been watching with amusement as the healers tried to find the sword Gerald described and became more flustered the longer it took them to find it. She glanced up at him after a couple of minutes, assessing his state. “S’not far.”

“Where we’re going?”

“Mhm. Into the woods, set up camp, then wait.”

Gerald chuckled under his breath. “You do realize how shady that sounds, at least?”

“Yes.”

“That’s something, I guess,” he muttered under his breath. The healers finally fished out the correct sword from the trunk and while one of them assisted Gerald in attaching the sheath to his belt, the other headed back into the encampment. He returned minutes later with a large round metal shield in his hands. Gerald glanced at Johanna with the trace of a smirk playing on his lips. “That’s what I need help with. Still sure you want to do it?”

Jo didn’t seem to be listening, eyes fixed on the red and golden sun etched onto the smooth metal surface. Gerald could see the wheels turning in her mind and mumbled, “It’s not mine.”

The statement drew her attention back to him, eyes questioning.

“It’s not mine and let’s leave it at that for now, alright? I need help with carrying it. Normally, it’s not too heavy for me, but…” Gerald let the sentence fade with another aggravated snort. Asking for more help than what she had already imposed on him wasn’t his ideal situation.

Johanna glowered at the shield, but took it from the Healer’s hands and got the strap across her back. It was comically large on her.

Gerald chuckled. “I’m sorry, but you look like a turtle.”

Jo rolled her eyes and started leading the way out of the camp.

Gerald followed suit, unable to keep the amusement away from his voice. “What? I said I was sorry.”

“You’re not.”

“I am a little bit, but it’s still funny.”

Jo shook her head and muttered something under her breath.

“What was that?”

She stopped for a second, glanced over her shoulder, and repeated, louder. “Asshole.” Then continued walking.

Gerald wasn’t able to disguise a laugh in response, but let her gain a few steps on him as he continued to follow.

[Valcrest Forest | Lacus 12th, 2521 | Morning]

The two days following their departure from the Healers’ camp were spent in a mix of searching and waiting. Johanna had mentioned they were to meet someone and Gerald concluded that to be the reason. The deeper they traveled into the forest, the quieter Jo became. The snowfall had ceased the previous week; something Gerald was thankful for, since he was equipped only with a bedroll, and as far as he could assess, Jo wasn’t carrying even that much. He couldn’t be entirely sure she had slept at all, in fact. He assumed that she did, because if anything, she was energetic to the point he couldn’t always keep track of her whereabouts. She would be there one second, gone into the woods the next, and before he knew it she was hovering around him with an offering of food or trying to coax him into showing her the state of his healing injuries. The easiest way to get her to sit still was by accepting food and allowing her to help him with it; something he didn’t enjoy, but became complacent to if it earned him some peace of mind. Admittedly, Johanna’s cooking was an improvement over the cold mush that the healers tried to pass as stew. Even if most of the time he had no idea what kind of animal she’d been hunting down during her absences.

Gerald’s injuries had improved considerably with proper care, as well. He suspected the cold weather was actually playing a part in alleviating the swelling in his fingers. Even so, redoing the bandages every morning wasn’t a pleasant ordeal. Even less when the person in charge of the whole process was visibly distracted.

“Ah! Jo, that’s way too tigh—” Gerald’s protest was immediately cut off by Jo’s hand covering his mouth. He winced then shot her a questioning look. She was tense as she glanced around the clearing. She lowered her hand, slowly, and reached out for his shield, placing it in front of him as she stood up from her bed roll.

The forest was eerily silent except for the soft crackling of dry twigs in the distance. It wasn’t an unusual sound; things moved around in the forest all the time, but Johanna’s concern put him on edge and he hid behind the shield without argument. The sounds drew closer and more recognizable as footsteps in just a matter of seconds.

A figure emerged from the trees; tall, clad in faded leather, eyes obscured by the wide brim of a hat, face hidden behind a thick wool scarf. And just like that Gerald found himself staring down a massive crossbow aimed right at his head.

Gerald’s injured hands tensed on the edges of the metal shield. His immediate thought was that whoever this was, carried themselves like one of them. The thought of a crossbow bolt to the forehead honestly didn’t worry him as much as his inability to put up a proper fight. Going down to a pack of Wolves with a sword in his hand was preferable to being put down by one while cowering behind a shield.

Johanna was quick to get in the way, placing a hand over the weapon, trying to coax it down to no effect. “Gabe… Listen.”

The figure tugged on the scarf, revealing the face of a woman. “I gave you a list of what to bring from the Healers’ camp, didn’t I?” Her voice was unnaturally even, devoid of any trace of human emotion. Judging by the way Johanna almost cowered, she might as well have shouted.

“Yes.”

“Was ‘some injured stranger’ an item on that list, by chance?”

“No.”

“Then I expect you to understand why I’m not particularly inclined to listen right now.”

Johanna shook her head and walked in front of the crossbow, stomping her feet. The other woman towered over her in such a way she needed to crane her neck in order to properly glare at her. Gerald gradually relaxed from behind his cover, his suspicions starting to subside and give way to confusion. Wolves wouldn’t argue like this. A Wolf would have shot him on sight and argued about it later.

The woman scoffed. “Don’t start with me. Just because you’re here doesn’t mean I’m obligated to adopt every broken stray I come across.”

Johanna stood her ground in front of the crossbow and crossed her arms over her chest. For a few moments they stared each other down in silence, then the crossbow finally lowered.“You have thirty seconds.”

Johanna seemed pleased with that answer and turned to Gerald. “Tell her.”

Gerald had been so absorbed in watching the two interact that he was startled by the sudden acknowledgment, blinking in confusion from behind the cover of his shield. “Tell her what?”

“Your hands.”

It took a moment for the request to fully register. “You brought me here because you want me to tell her what happened to my hands?”

“Yes.”

Gerald tried scratching his head with his half-bandaged hand. “Alright. I had a run-in with the Wolfpack, they gave me a beating and left me for the White Shadows. Why does that matter?”

The woman disarmed the crossbow with a loud click and stepped closer to sit on a nearby stump. “What do you mean by a ‘run-in’?”

Gerald lowered the shield, unable to hold it up in front of himself anymore. “I ran into them. With my sword.”

“And they just let you live?”

Gerald shrugged, wincing as Johanna pulled the shield aside to continue bandaging his hands.

“That makes no sense.”

“The one calling the shots took pity on me. He broke my hands. Said that’d give me enough time to reconsider my life choices.”

“As you should.”

Gerald snorted. “Unfortunately for them, I’m not that smart.”

The woman’s words chilled the air around her. “You don’t have to tell me that.”

It wouldn’t take a tactical genius to know that attacking any number of Wolves head on was a stupid idea. Still, the remark sparked some annoyance in Gerald. “I’ll ask again; what does it matter?”

“How did Johanna convince you to come here if she clearly hasn’t told you anything?”

“She asked ‘why not?’.”

The woman looked to Johanna—who smirked in return—then turned her gaze on Gerald once more. “Your self-preservation instincts are the worst I’ve ever seen.”

“I charged a group of five Wolves head on. I’m only alive because they pitied me. I think ‘why not’ was a fair question under those conditions.”

The woman shook her head and once again turned to Johanna. “He’s not exactly making a case for himself, is he?”

Johanna rolled her eyes, her focus on applying the bandages correctly.

Gerald groaned, trying to keep still and let her work despite his increasing aggravation. Just because he hadn’t asked questions before, didn’t give them the right to talk about him like he wasn’t standing right there. “Making a case for WHAT?”

“Let’s say that Johanna and I have had our share of run-ins with the Wolves. And she seems to be under the misguided impression that there’s some sort of advantage in having you here. I’m a long way from convinced, personally.”

“Oh. I see.” Gerald breathed out a tired sigh as realization began to set in. “You could use me for your little club, sure. That’s a better plan than charging them with my sword again.”

“Out of curiosity, if that were to actually work, then what?”

“Then suppose I’d have to see if ten could actually get the job done.”

She shook her head and stood, starting to unpack a bed roll of her own. “I’m tired. And I don’t want to deal with Johanna. So I’ve decided not to shoot you.” She glanced at him from the corner of her eye as she set it down. “For now.”

Johanna finished with the bandages and offered him a slightly apologetic smile. Then turned to the woman. “Fire?”

“Not here. We’ll move further east in a few hours to set up a proper camp.”

“There’s a blind spot southeast of this location,” Gerald offered, casually checking that the bandages were tight enough without being painful.

“Blind spot?”

“Way back in the day, Newhaven mapped out areas that the Wolves don’t have eyes on, to use as camping sites and outposts during the war. They were well-aware of the Wolfpack and didn’t want to have to deal with them while also trying to handle Blackpond troops.” Once he was satisfied that the bandages wouldn’t come loose or cause further discomfort he settled on his bedroll.

“Is this common knowledge in the Newhaven army?”

“Not anymore. There hasn’t been a need for outposts like that in a very long time. Hopefully there won’t be any need for them again.”

“And you just happen to know this?”

“There are documents in the Newhaven archives, they’re just not documents most people would be interested in reading. I don’t know all of them, but I do know of a few spots here and there. If you have a map, I can mark them for you.”

“Why would you do that?”

Gerald shrugged, stretching on his bedroll with a pained groan. “Why not?”

“Because I might still shoot you tomorrow.”

“If not you tomorrow, then a Wolf a month from now.” Gerald turned his head to look at her, she was still glancing his way from under the brim of her hat. “I don’t know your story; I don’t need to. If this is what you’re doing… We’re both living on borrowed time. No point claiming anything different.”

“Fair point.” She turned to Johanna with a stern look. “I’m going to get some rest. Granted this stranger you dragged back with you doesn’t try anything in the meantime, we’ll discuss this later.”

Johanna nodded and fixed Gerald with an exaggerated warning glare.

Gerald snorted softly and covered his face with his forearm. “My hands are still broken. What do you think I’m going to do, kick somebody to death?”

“You admitted to charging at five Wolves. You’re clearly stupid and self-destructive enough to try.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because why not.”

Gerald peered from under his arm and met a suspicious pair of dark gray eyes. “Gabe, is it? I’m Gerald. Gerald Tucker.”

“Porter. Gabrielle Porter. Don’t ever call me Gabe.” And with that, her eyes once again disappeared underneath her hat.

Gerald flinched and shot Jo a curious glance. She just shrugged innocently, as if she had no idea why he was so confused. He decided not to question it and try to get his rest in while he didn’t have to worry about being shot in the back by yet another lunatic.

[Valcrest Forest | Lacus 22nd, 2521 | Early Morning]

The unexpected snowfall ruined their travel plans. Gerald had lived through his share of snowstorms, but digging his way out of a tent in the morning had been a first. Sleep had been a chore, as well. Not only was it cold inside his borrowed tent, but he was too aware of his company to properly rest. All in all, not the best of mornings, but definitely not his worst. Once freed from the snow pile where his sleeping mat had been encased during the night, Gerald heaved a deep breath. His face stung from the chilled wind blowing through the forest trees. It felt sobering.

One quick glance around the clearing showed that it was, in fact, covered in a thick layer of white. Johanna was standing next to another heap of snow-covered canvas clutching a cup and staring at it with a frown. The coat hanging from her shoulders was familiar, and comically large on her.

“Morning,” Gerald was too aware that his greeting sounded more like a grumble than intended and cleared his throat. “Where’d your friend go?”

Johanna’s expression slowly relaxed although she still seemed a bit annoyed at her cup. “Dry wood.”

“In this weather? That’d be a miracle.”

Johanna smiled now. “Wouldn’t be the first.”

“Mhm.” Gerald couldn’t help but notice the admiration in her voice and smiled as well. “And what offense has this cup committed for you to be glaring like that?”

“I want tea.” Johanna’s frown returned with a vengeance for a few seconds, but then she looked up from the cold empty object and turned to face Gerald. “Your hands?”

Gerald shrugged and raised his hands to eye level. The bandages clean and wrapped tight around each of his fingers like a glove. He’d regained some movement in the past couple of weeks but they were still bruised and swollen enough to require wrapping. “Same as yesterday,” he quipped.

“Should take medication,” she mumbled.

“I don’t need pain medication. It doesn’t hurt that much anymore.”

Johanna shrugged at this. Gerald had taken this to mean she still disagreed, but wouldn’t bother arguing, which he appreciated. They’d had that particular non-argument literally every morning since they left the plains. “Have you eaten anything yet?”

Again, she shrugged. “I’m waiting for Gabe.”

“Hm,” Gerald mumbled.

It hadn’t been that long since Johanna introduced him to Gabrielle and the woman had been blunt about not wanting him around. Jo insisted and he stuck around anyway, but they hadn’t spoken a full sentence to each other since and he made sure to never be left alone with her if he could help it. Two weeks later, and Gerald was still feeling like an intruder. What little Johanna had been willing and able to communicate about their plans sounded like something worth his time and effort, but between the tension his presence was causing and the fact he was still practically useless, it was uncertain whether he’d made the right decision in staying. Time would tell, he guessed.

Johanna seemed to give up the notion that glaring at the cup would make warm tea materialize somehow. She dropped her cup in the snow next to the tent-heap and gave it a disheartened nudge with her boot. Gerald held back a smile at this, recalling her insistence that he was being childish when they first met. As much as he wanted to point that out, it was clear that teasing wouldn’t be welcomed right now, and Gerald really didn’t want to ruin her mood any further.

The wind faded and while some solitary flakes were still floating down, adding to the already thick cover of snow, the storm seemed to have passed. Gerald drew some comfort from this and, while Johanna had clearly decided to slouch under a tree and sulk, he casually swept the snow from a nearby fallen log and sat down on it. The silence that fell upon the clearing—even if interrupted by a small huff of annoyance every now and then—was void of the usual tension that had plagued it for the past few days. Like the quiet that the snowstorm brought to their surroundings, it was soothing.

Minutes burned away in that silence and Gerald took a long breath. A smile played on his lips at the puff of condensation forming in front of his eyes. He’d slept through Creation Day. Missed Winter’s first snow. Just a few years ago that would have been unforgivable to him. How dare he miss out on the best day of the year?

A little amused snort escaped through his nose and Gerald bent down to grab a handful of snow, carefully shaping it into a sphere between his hands and plopping it down on the ground between his feet. He then proceeded to make a slightly smaller sphere and placed it atop the bigger one.

“What’re you doing?”

Gerald jumped in his seat halfway into scooping more snow. He turned his head and Jo was sitting right next to him on the log, staring at his little sculpture. “Twins’ sake, don’t sneak up on me like that!” He drew a deep breath. “I’m building a snowman, I guess.”

“Your bandages are wet,” Jo mumbled.

“That’s okay, I’ll change them later.” Gerald shrugged, packing a third snowball into his hand and carefully drawing a face on it with a twig. “See?” he asked, placing it on top of the other balls. “Now it just needs arms.”

Jo frowned at the little snowman for a second then turned to stare at Gerald. “It’s small.”

Gerald shrugged. “Well, it’s the best I can do right now.” He casually wiped the excess snow from his hands, noting that his bandages were already soaked and freezing. “I’d need help to make a big one.”

Johanna seemed to lighten up at this. “How do you make one?”

“You’ve never made a snowman before?”

Jo responded with a headshake and a shrug.

“You’re telling me you lived, what, twenty winters by now and you’ve never built a snowman?”

Johanna shook her head again.

Gerald jumped to his feet in a sudden outburst of energy. “We need to fix that. Right now.”

Johanna seemed momentarily stunned by this display, staring at Gerald and blinking slowly, trying to make sense of what she’d just seen. After another moment, however, she opened a wide grin and nodded in agreement.

Despite her enthusiasm, Gerald soon discovered that directing someone else was a much harder task than building something himself. Gerald first grabbed another ball of snow without the same care for perfection. He gently placed it onto the ground and showed Johanna how to roll the ball through the snow. As it rolled, it gathered more snow from the ground, leaving an ever widening path divotted behind it. Johanna seemed to understand and started to roll her own ball of snow. That was the easy part. When he told her that she had to lift her ball onto his, she looked less enthused, but with a big puff of air to gather her strength, she lifted the ball. Just as she was about to place it onto Gerald’s base, she lost her footing and came crashing down. By some miracle, the snowball managed to find its place on the snowman, but cracked in two, causing a heap of snow to fall directly onto Jo, who was still busy laughing on the ground. The end result was a vaguely-man-shaped lump.

“It’s… A good first attempt.”

Johanna shook her head, pointing at the smaller version he had made for comparison.

“It’s a lot easier to make one that small,” Gerald argued. “It’ll look a lot better if we give it a face. And… Hm… Arms.”

Johanna opened her mouth to say something when the sound of footsteps interrupted her thought.

“What are you two doing?”

Jo turned around to give Gabrielle a disgruntled look. “Snowman.”

“Your snowman has some severe structural issues.”

“I know,” Jo grumbled.

Gabrielle snorted. “Stop pouting, will you? It’s not so bad. If anyone was around to ask we could just tell them the crippled made it.”

Gerald frowned. “I take serious offense to that, I’ll have you know.”

Gabrielle shrugged as she unloaded a small pile of sticks and tried to work on making a fire. “You’re welcome to try kicking me to death whenever you want.”

Gerald crossed his arms, glaring at the back of Gabrielle’s head as she continued to try and light a fire, without much success. Then he looked down at the miniature snowman he’d created earlier. When he looked up again, Johanna seemed to have caught on to his thought process and shook her head frantically. Ignoring her warning, Gerald picked up the head of the little snowman and made an awkward throw in Gabrielle’s direction. The snowball flew directly into the back of her head, connecting with enough force to knock her hat down.

Gabrielle was tense as she retrieved her hat from the snow, still hunched over the unlit fire pit. “How did you do that?”

That wasn’t the reaction Gerald was expecting. “…What?”

Gabrielle straightened and turned around to face him. “I asked, Tucker, how did you do that? Your hands are still broken, aren’t they?”

“They are.”

“So…?”

Gerald groaned, fruitlessly trying to wipe snow from his already soaked through bandages. “It’s easier if I just show you. You can use that if you want.” He indicated her crossbow with a nod.

Gabrielle glanced at the weapon and shot him a skeptical look. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m not joking. You can go ahead and aim one right here.” He tapped the spot between his eyes.

Johanna looked between them with concern in her eyes. “…Gabe.”

Gabrielle walked over to her crossbow and picked it up. “He said it’s alright.” She loaded the weapon. “Let’s see.” She raised the crossbow to eye level and carefully aimed to where Gerald instructed.

Gerald stood in place and put his hands behind his back. “Go ahead. You’ll see.”

Gabrielle placed her finger on the trigger and looked up as if to assess him one more time. Gerald didn’t flinch, or tense, and just nodded her along instead. She pressed the trigger and the bolt was released with an audible click. It flew a straight line through the damp air towards Gerald then suddenly veered to one side and embedded itself into a snow mound. Gabrielle lowered the crossbow with a thoughtful frown. “Telekinesis?”

“In a sense, yes. I can’t just move objects with my mind at will like some can. They need to already be in motion.”

Gabrielle hummed as she disarmed the weapon and placed it down next to her snow-covered tent. “You’re telling me that you have an enlightenment that allows you to manipulate projectiles, and yet… You charged a group of five Wolves wielding a sword?”

Gerald flinched. “Yes.”

Gabrielle shook her head and once again returned to the fire pit. “You absolute moron.”

Gerald snorted a half amused sound and walked around to see what she was doing. “Your matches are wet.”

Gabrielle looked down at her tin of matches and groaned. “Crap.”

“I think I have dry ones in my bag, if I can even find it.” Gerald offered, heading to where he dug himself out of the snow earlier in the morning and stirring the snow with his boot, in search of his bag. Distracted with this, he didn’t notice what was rushing in his direction until it was a second too late. The collision pushed forward into the heap of snow and canvas and he landed with a pained groan. “Why?”

“Not funny.” Jo mumbled behind his back.

Gerald muffled another groan into the snow.

“Johanna,” Gabrielle called. “Would you mind picking up that bolt for me? I still need it.”

Jo huffed, but started to walk away to do so, allowing Gerald to roll onto his back and recover. He sat up and watched her pick up the bolt and walk it over to Gabrielle; brows furrowed, fists clenched at her sides. He shook his head, confused, and resumed his task of searching for his bag. He could feel Jo’s eyes on him as he pulled the bag from under the snow with some difficulty and located the tin of matches.

“If you want tea, we’re going to need water.”

Gerald looked up. Gabrielle was watching Jo closely, her statement hanging in the air for several seconds before it had any effect. Jo nodded slowly and turned around, finding an empty flask amongst her own crumbled tent. “I’ll be right back,” she mumbled, ignoring the numerous heaps of snow surrounding their camp and heading in the direction of the nearby creek.

Gabrielle waited for her to walk away and walked over to take the matches from him. “She likes you.”

“Right. I feel very liked right now,” Gerald muttered, rubbing a sore spot on his side where he’d hit the ground.

Gabrielle smirked ever so slightly as she struck a match and finally got the fire going. “I said she likes you. At no point did I say that’s a good thing.”

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