The Heart of the Forest 2.02

Shadows Rise

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[Valcrest Forest | Lacus 25th, 2525 | Sundown]

Sore lungs forced a pained breath. Unfocused eyes tried clinging to the fading image of grass tufts poking through a sheet of white above her head. The way they swayed ever so slightly was soothing; almost hypnotic.

“You do realize that if you pass out now, you’ll have to do this again tomorrow, right?”

Dani blinked slowly, her view obstructed by a pair of dark blue eyes—the only trait she shared with her older sister. “That’s not fair, Lena. This isn’t a part of the exercise.”

Lena’s expression was unsympathetic “It became a part of the exercise the moment you put yourself in this situation.”

Dani forced another painful breath and squirmed. A couple of hours ago it would have been easier to think of solutions. Her fingers twitched, inches from touching the ground, hanging slack above her head. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.”

“I can’t pull myself up, my hands are going numb and I think I’m about to be sick.”

Lena sighed. “You’ll choke if you do that. Do you really want me to drag you back to camp unconscious and covered in vomit?”

Dani closed her eyes. It eased the twisting knot in her stomach, but her lungs still felt full of rocks. She lost track of how long she had been hanging from that tree branch. At least a couple of hours. The golden rays of light infiltrating the canopy above gradually took on a reddish hue as time passed. It became difficult to situate her body. If she really focused, she was able to wiggle her toes inside her boots. She could feel the thick rope coiled around her ankles and the forming bruises underneath. Pins and needles assaulted her hands and forearms in sporadic intervals. Lena’s threat of putting her through this yet again was far from empty; Dani knew, but the rush of blood to her ears and the pressure building up in the base of her skull were signs that she couldn’t just ignore. Her body had given up on her.

If Dani hated anything, it was pleading—even under these circumstances—and the resulting feelings of self-loathing surfaced in her voice. “Please, cut me down.”

Silence lingered in the aftermath of those words. Underneath Dani’s frantic heartbeat and harsh breaths, an unnatural stillness filled the air. Then she crashed against the cold ground below. Pain filled every inch of her body and she breathed out a whimper as she rolled onto her back. “I hate you.”

“You did this to yourself.” Lena’s voice was directly above her, distant at first, then closer. “Open your eyes, look at me.”

Dani groaned and forced her eyes open with a groggy hum. “You’re not upside down anymore.”

“Very observant.” Lena snorted, holding up her index finger in front of her eyes and slowly moving it across her field of vision.

Dani followed the movement with her eyes instinctively. “What’re you doing?”

Lena didn’t answer, searching for something in her pocket. A small tin. She opened it and pulled out a stick, scratched it against the lid of the tin and it ignited. Lena held the flame in front of her eyes. “Watch the flame.”

Dani obeyed, staring at the small flickering glow before her eyes, blinking slowly.

“Good. Your pupils are reactive.” Lena declared, blowing out the match and tossing it aside. “Make a tight fist then open it.”

Dani groaned in protest, but obeyed. “Why are we doing this stuff?”

Lena once again held out her index finger. “I’m assessing whether or not you have brain or nerve damage. Squeeze my finger.”

Dani reached out to grab her finger and squeeze as hard as she could. “Brain damage?”

Lena hummed. “Don’t worry, you seem fine. Other hand.”

Dani reached out with her other hand and squeezed her finger. “Do I really have to do it again tomorrow?”

“No.” Lena answered, pulling her by the hand to help her sit. “At least not tomorrow.”

Dani attempted a deeper breath. As sensation returned to her body, new aches began to form. “Are you actually taking pity on me?”

Lena smirked. “Twins, no. I just think it wouldn’t be as effective if you’re expecting it.

“Right. Of course.” Dani muttered, leaning forward until her forehead touched her knees. Her next attempt at a deep breath was a little more successful. A sobering chill filled the air as the last rays of sunlight finally faded, engulfing the forest in darkness. “We’re missing dinner.”

Lena snorted. “Are you hungry?”

“Maybe after I puke.”

Lena chuckled and Dani felt something soft and heavy wrap around her shoulders. She looked up and saw her sister walking away to retrieve something from her bag. “Take your cloak back, you need it.”

“I won’t freeze. Warming up will help your blood circulate better. Then we can start heading back.” Lena took out a flask and a small book from her bag and walked over to sit next to Dani, offering her the flask. “Drink it all, slowly.”

Dani took the flask and uncapped it, taking a small sip. “Ugh. It tastes like. . .” She trailed off, taking another sip. “It’s gross.”

Lena rolled her eyes, opening her book. “It’s water, sugar and salt.”

Dani snorted, taking another drink and holding back a grimace. “Don’t you need a light to read that?”

Lena shrugged. “I already memorized this one.”

Dani hummed while taking another drink. “So why do you need the book?”

“It acts as a memory trigger.” Lena answered matter-of-factly, flipping the pages to a specific one.

“Mhm. Pretend I don’t know exactly what you mean when you say weird stuff like that, and then run that one by me one more time, please.”

Lena shook her head then closed the book and set it down on her lap. “In the simplest possible terms: when I hold a book and flip to a specific page, my mind goes back to the memory of what I saw in this exact page of this exact book. So I don’t necessarily need to read it again.” She leaned closer, giving her another assessing look. “How does your head feel?”

“Hurts a little, but it’s better now.” Dani sighed, giving the flask a brief shake. “Do I need to finish this?”

Lena reached over and took it from her hand, setting it down on the ground between them. “You’ve had enough. Try to take deep breaths for a couple of minutes, then we’ll try getting up. In the meantime, since you seem to be feeling better now, let’s talk about how you got yourself in this dreadful situation.”

“I set off a trap during the exercise. You were there. What’s there to talk about?” Dani muttered, once again resting her forehead against her knees. “You didn’t need to let me hang there for. . . I don’t even know how many hours.”

“Two and a half hours,” Lena clarified. “I know you have a knife tucked into your boot which, up until maybe an hour ago, you could have reached without problem. So I think the fact we’re both sitting here in the dark when we could have been home hours ago is something to talk about.”

“Recruits are not allowed to carry any weapon in their position unless granted by their Instructor for the purpose of training,” Dani recited as if she were reading straight from a rulebook.

“I’m familiar with the clan laws, but I also know that if you can bend a rule and get away with it, you will.” Lena followed this with another smirk. “Besides, you know I know you have it. And I’m going to punish you for it anyway.”

Dani’s response to this was yet another shrug, keeping her head down, eyes cast on the displaced snow, exposing patches of frozen soil beneath her.

“Do you understand why mom wanted me to be your Instructor?”

“As punishment probably.”

“And who do you suppose is getting punished here?”

Dani raised her head to glare at her sister. “Excuse me if I’m not feeling sorry for you right now.”

“You’re excused.” Dani’s next glare drew a chuckle from Lena. “What? You think you’re not being a pain in my ass? I’m hungry, I’m cold, mom will definitely want my head when she finds out what I let you do to yourself.”

“You could have cut me down at any point.” Dani argued.

Lena shook her head. “You’re fifteen years old, Daniela. You were supposed to be a Wolf by now. You’re supposed to be the Alpha someday. Acting like an irresponsible brat stopped being cute a long time ago. Grow the fuck up.”

Dani turned away, offering no answer. If she was completely honest, she would have to admit that getting into trouble wasn’t the real reason she never reached for the knife. The excuses she constantly made for herself would never work on Lena. And this wasn’t an argument she wanted to have right now.

“What’s going to happen the day you’re out there and you find yourself in a similar situation? What happens when there’s no one else to cut you down? Are you just going to shrug your shoulders and say ‘oh, well, I guess I better give up’?”


“Are you sure? Because that’s not what I saw.”

Dani curled up more under her sister’s cloak, fists clenching tight. Lena was right; she would turn sixteen that Spring, and yet, her sister knew how to bring the bratty-five-year-old out of her. She’d been so angry at herself for triggering that trap in the first place; so caught up in berating herself, that she did the equivalent to sticking her fingers in her ears and pretending she was somewhere else. She needed to grow up faster.

Lena would turn twenty in the Summer. Four years wasn’t that great of an age difference, but unlike Dani, she had been quick to grow up—a full fledged Wolf at age fourteen, and a near flawless assassination record until the previous year. That was when their mother decided to put her in charge of Dani’s training. It was an arrangement neither of them was particularly happy with.

Dani continued to keep her head down and for the moment, Lena allowed her to wallow in self-pity for a little while longer. When she lifted her head, Lena had reopened her book; the bright blue glow emanating from her eyes the only remaining source of light in the clearing. “You’re going to give yourself a headache like that.”

“I already gave myself a headache when I woke up this morning, but I appreciate the concern.”

Dani let out a short burst of laughter, and pulled out the knife she kept tucked in her boot. She held it out for Lena to take. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, right? I guess I should have used it.” Lena looked up from her book and took the knife from her wordlessly. Dani’s shoulders sagged with another weary breath. “I think I’m alright to go back now.”

Lena pocketed the knife, closed the book, then stood and offered her hand. Dani took it and pulled herself up with a soft groan. She stumbled and Lena grabbed her by the forearm to hold her steady. “Are you sure you’re alright?” she asked.

Dani nodded. “Mhm. My legs just needed to . . . function. I’m okay.” She flinched when Lena continued holding her by the arm and squeezed her forearm in return. “Hey. I’m alright, really.”

“Sure.” Lena let go, shaking her head briefly then starting to walk in the direction of the camp, picking up her travel bag from the ground as she passed it.

“Are you alright? You’re making that face.” Dani pointed out as she followed.

Lena glanced over her shoulder at her. “What face?”

“Your ‘I’m going through one of my telepath things’ face.” Dani smirked.

Lena frowned, picking up her pace. “I don’t have a ‘telepath face’.”

“Yes, you do. It’s in-between ‘I think I saw a ghost’ and ‘I just smelled something awful’.”

Lena rubbed her forehead as she tracked ahead. “Shut up.”

“It’s not my fault. Sarah came up with it, I’m just confirming it’s true.”

“Sarah is only nine. I won’t get to properly torture her for a couple more years. You, on the other hand . . . .”

“Shut up.”

Lena chuckled, but stopped once she realized she had been walking too far ahead. “It’s not a telepath thing, just my head getting worse. It’ll probably get better after I get some sleep.”

Dani hummed as she caught up to her sister. They weren’t too far from camp. The area Lena chose for them to train consisted of narrow paths connecting a multitude of secluded clearings enveloped by dense forest. The area was safely within their territory, but isolated enough from their encampment that it created the illusion of solitude and, in situations like the one Dani found herself in earlier, helplessness. In hindsight, no one had passed anywhere near them in the two and a half hours Dani had been hanging from that tree branch. She winced, recalling Lena’s question of what would happen had no one been there to cut her down.

“Don’t beat yourself up so hard. That’s my job.” Lena mumbled.

Dani scoffed. “I’m not. I just hate it when you’re right.” Damn telepaths.

“Life must be a terrible ordeal for you, then.” Lena’s tone was even, but Dani could still hear the smirk in her voice.

“People wouldn’t think you’re such an arrogant, stuck-up, nuisance if you stopped saying things like that.” Dani told her, rolling her eyes. “You’re not always right.”

“No. Of course not. But when I say I’m right, it’s because I know I am. If people have a problem with that, they’re within their right, but it’s not arrogant to be sure of yourself. You should try it sometime.”

“I do try.”

“No.” Lena smiled, softer this time. “But I think that’s a lecture for another day. I’m already making you help the workers clean up after dinner tonight.”

Dani groaned. “I almost died, can’t you punish me tomorrow?”

“It’ll be better for both of us to get it out of the way now. I’m sure you’ll end up doing something else tomorrow I’ll need to punish you for.”

“Not if I don’t get caught.”

Lena responded with a disbelieving scoff, but drew the knife she’d pocketed earlier and held it out. “Here.”

“. . . You’re letting me keep that?”

“Strictly for training purposes. And don’t get caught with it. I get enough of a hard time from the other Instructors for being ‘irresponsible’. Twins forbid you break a nail.”

Dani took the knife and once again concealed it in her right boot. “Wait . . . What? They do realize what you’re training me for, don’t they?”

“Again . . . Why do you think I’m your Instructor? No one wants to put a dent on the Alpha’s daughter. Especially not the Alpha.”

Dani hummed under her breath. She had heard some of the older Instructors complain about Lena’s methods before. Her mother didn’t seem to take issue, however. Or if she had, it wasn’t where anyone else would hear it. Conversation died down the closer they drew to home. As the narrow paths they traversed began to open and merge with the main trails, moonlight illuminated their path.

The Wolves Camp was a small city carved into the core of the forest. The clearing at the center was illuminated by a large fire pit that served as a point of congregation for idle Wolves and younger members of the clan. Winding paths connected to that clearing, meandering in between rows and clusters of wooden cabins. As they approached the edges of the camp proper, they noticed signs of life here and there; movements amongst the trees, the occasional scout coming out to greet them as they passed. It was still relatively silent, but as the faint glow of the firepit became visible, Dani could feel herself finally relax.

The center of the camp, on the other hand, was bustling with activity. Groups of people clad in several shades of brown and green congregated around the warmth of the fire, engrossed in cheerful conversation. The flames at times would be the tallest thing in the camp, next to the trees, with licks of flames reaching heights above the cul de sac of cabins that surrounded it. Dani took off Lena’s cloak, offering it back to her once they were close enough to the fire. Lena took the cloak and draped it over her own shoulders with a small smile. “Go get some food and then stay to help Larissa with the clean up.”

“You’re not coming to the dining hall with me?”

“No, I’m not hungry. I’m going to see mom, report, and then call it a night.”

Dani gave Lena a glare not too unlike their mother’s. “You should eat something.”

“I won’t starve. Now go on. If you do a decent job with the clean-up I’ll consider letting you take the day off tomorrow.”

Dani frowned, knowing that this was Lena’s attempt to distract her from the issue at hand, but also knowing that arguing wouldn’t do anything. “Alright. Have a good night.”

Lena nodded briefly and started walking in the direction of the Alpha’s cabin. Dani remained near the fire pit, by herself, watching until she disappeared behind a row of cabins.

[Wolves Camp | Lacus 25th 2525 | Early Evening]

The Alpha’s cabin was situated in a small clearing at the end of a narrow path. It was easily accessible from the main encampment; just a short walk or quick sprint away. Its door was always open unless the Alpha had retired for the night, or there was a meeting taking place. As Lena reached the end of the trail, she saw the dim glow of candle light emanating from an open crack on the door. There were shadows moving between the light source and the doorway. Lena stopped in her tracks, observing the movement. Despite the door not being fully closed it was obvious that there was something going on within the cabin she might not want to walk in on.

The door opened before she could make a decision and a figure stormed out of the cabin. Lena winced as the man collided with her on his way past. Images from the inside of the cabin flashed before her eyes—palms slamming onto a table top, heated unintelligible arguing. It came and went in a flash, too quickly to make sense of. “What did you do this time, old man? I mean, you got her to yell at you. That’s a feat.”

The man stopped in his tracks and turned; dark eyes smoldering with anger, but before he could muster a reply, there was another movement from the cabin and his expression sobered. He snorted and turned his back again. “Mind your damn business.”

“That’s rich coming from you.” Lena muttered under her breath, but let him go without further comment. Reuben Fletcher had a long, respectable track record as an assassin and an Instructor in the clan. Even if he didn’t exactly outrank her, Lena knew that antagonizing the man as much as she did wasn’t a good idea. It wasn’t something she would normally do, if the man didn’t take such a gigantic issue with her mere existence. He wasn’t the only Instructor in the clan to criticize her, but the others did it because they thought she had an attitude; and she couldn’t fault them for that. Reuben would go out of his way to criticize her at any given chance dating back to when she was just a Recruit.

Lena shook her head. She had come here for a reason after all, but as she turned to face the cabin door, another figure crossed the threshold. His face was shadowed with the candlelight at his back, but he was instantly recognizable as Reuben’s eldest son, Emmett. Unlike his father, he seemed in no hurry whatsoever; walking at a leisurely pace, hands in his coat pockets. Emmett acknowledged her with a pleasant smile. “Hey there, Bright Eyes, how was training today?”

“More exhausting than usual.” Lena frowned, Emmett towered over here and when she looked up to examine his face, the first thing she noticed was a bruise forming on his cheek. “What happened?”

Emmett shrugged. “I got a little too far under the old guy’s skin. Don’t feel too sorry for me, I knew what I was doing.”

“Oh. So it was your intention to get punched in the face?”

Emmett shrugged a second time, but followed the gesture by pulling one hand out of his pocket and running it through his hair. “Not specifically, but . . . I’ll still call it a win.”

“You’re still an irredeemable idiot,” she scolded.

“It’s part of my charm.” Emmett smiled, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“What was the argument about?” Lena asked.

Emmett shoved his hand back in his pocket and sighed. “When your mother called me back I had to sit down with her and go over all of my activity while I was in Newhaven. The Inn’s finances, civilian hires, possible Recruits I was scoping out while I was there . . . and also some of my personal relationships. Tom and a handful of Instructors were present at this meeting. My father wasn’t one of them, but . . . You know how information spreads around here, it’s surprising it took this long for him to hear about it.”

“About your . . . personal relationships?”

Emmett hummed. “I was seeing someone while I was there. It wasn’t anything serious and he only ever knew me as ‘James’, but . . .” He shifted as he thought, “dad took issue, because of course he did, and he wasn’t too happy when I decided to talk back. So here we are.”

“I wouldn’t have thought he cares who you’re with. What was wrong with this guy?”

Emmett smirked. “He was a member of the Castle Guard.”

Lena frowned in thought for a few moments, then snorted a laugh. “Seriously? Come on, Emmett.”

“Your mother said I was in the clear. He would probably get into a lot more shit than me for it. Think about it; he knew I was a Wolf, because let’s face it, they know, but that’s it. Only someone as paranoid as my father would think a castle guard is going to come in like that—” he smirked, “no pun intended—to try and get information. ”

Lena crossed her arms, another thoughtful frown crossing her features. “That does make sense.”

Emmett arched an eyebrow as he watched her reaction. “I’m sure they’re just being careful. After what happened with Eddie, I don’t blame them.”

“I wish they’d tell me more about it, but mom and Tom are still of the opinion there’s only so much that needs to be out in the open. After what happened with Eldric . . . It wouldn’t be a good idea for the entire clan to be riled up.”

“Right.” Emmett looked past her down the trail. “Has he talked to you about it at all?”

“No. He’s been avoiding me lately.”

“He’s probably worried you’re gonna get in his head if he doesn’t want to talk about it.”

Lena frowned. “I would never do that.”

“Not on purpose, no, but you can’t always help it, can you, Bright Eyes? And we know that.”

Lena flinched and responded with a dejected nod of agreement. Emmet placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “Don’t take it too hard. He’ll come around when he’s ready to talk about it.”

“Right.” Lena took a deep breath. “You’re right.”

Emmett gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze before letting go. “You should go in there and I should go secure a bowl of stew before the mess hall closes for the night.” He moved past her and started his way down the path to camp. “See you around, kiddo.”

“See you,” Lena mumbled. She waited for him to disappear into the cover of trees before turning around and finally entering the cabin.

The Alpha’s cabin wasn’t very distinct from any other in the encampment. It was just the first. It was considered a piece of living history by the clan as a whole, and she was sure a lot of the stories she heard growing up were at the very least embellished. As a child she enjoyed hearing about all the disastrous lightning storms and wildfires that somehow left the cabin unscathed despite devastating everything around it, but even then she had a hard time believing it was somehow blessed by the Twins themselves. Though her skepticism didn’t stop her from sharing those same stories with her sisters, Lena only ever saw the cabin as home. Even with how tired she felt, and with the prospect of finding her mother in a sour mood, crossing the threshold brought her comfort.

The front room of the cabin served as a meeting room and an office. It held no more than ten people sitting; a few more if they stood and hugged the walls. Meetings behind locked doors had never been the norm in the Wolfpack—not until recently anyway. The Alpha’s cabin was never built for it. A large desk sat facing the doorway, multiple chairs were placed along the walls, leaving some space in the center to walk around. The two doors leading to the bedrooms were usually closed at all times for privacy reasons, but as Lena walked in she noticed the door to her mother’s bedroom was cracked open. She stopped beside the desk and knocked against the desktop.

“One moment!”

Lena hummed and pulled up a chair to sit across from the desk. The candles lighting the room were burned halfway through and the flickering flames cast dancing shadows on the walls around her. She leaned back on her chair and watched them sway across the wooden ceiling, her tired eyes blurring in and out of focus at regular intervals. It had been a rough day; a rough couple of months, even. And if today’s training session was anything to go by, she wasn’t feeling optimistic.

“At least someone seems to be having it worse than me today.” Her mother’s voice was soft and amused, but the deep note of exhaustion underneath didn’t go unnoticed.

Lena straightened in her seat and rubbed her eyes. “I ran into Reuben and Emmett outside. Putting out fires already?”

Claire Wendell took her seat on the other side of the desk, with a rueful smile. “I expected something like this to happen when I decided to make Emmett an Instructor, but I felt it was time for him to come home.”

Lena examined Claire’s expression carefully. It was still difficult for her to know when she was speaking to her mother, and when she was speaking to the Alpha. Even though she could get away with questions most other Wolves couldn’t, there was a line she knew better than to cross. And tonight didn’t feel like the night to toe that line. “I can come back in the morning if you want.”

“No. Tell me how today went.” Claire smiled. “By the looks of you, it wasn’t great.”

“It wasn’t great, no.” Lena rubbed her sore eyes and leaned into the desk in front of her. “I’m starting to question if I should be the one to do this.”

“Helena . . .”

“There is pressure and then there’s pressure. Maybe this shouldn’t be coming from me.”

Claire leaned back in her chair, her expression stiff. “Tell me what happened today.”

Lena sighed, she was talking to the Alpha now for sure. “We were doing stealth training in the field. It was going well. Dani was doing exceptionally well in avoiding me. The problem arose when she triggered a rope trap. I assume one of the other Instructors set it up for their Recruit and left it behind. When she got caught in it, she wanted me to end the exercise. I told her no. She got herself in that situation, she should get herself out. We sat there for two and half hours until I deemed it too dangerous to leave her hanging any longer.”

“Could she have cut herself down without assistance?”

“In five minutes at most. She had a knife in her boot, even if it took her a while to reach, it wouldn’t have taken longer than that. Minimal effort. She didn’t even try.”

“Do you think it wouldn’t have been an issue if she had someone else for an Instructor?”

“I think if she’d been alone under similar circumstances, she would have been able to cut herself down. Dani is smart; she’s resourceful. She wouldn’t be such a pain in the ass if she wasn’t. Everyone in this camp has, at one point or another, seen her come up with insane solutions in order to get what she wants. If what she wants is a joke, and it doesn’t involve any form of actual consequence. But she doesn’t like to fail, she doesn’t like the prospect of being a disappointment . . .” Lena let her sentence trail off with an uncomfortable sound caught in the back of her throat.

“‘In my eyes’. Is that what you were about to say?” Claire’s expression was unreadable.

Lena hesitated, but nodded. “She thinks you assigned her to me as punishment.”

“And who does she believe is being punished?”

Lena chuckled. “I don’t know.”

“Mhm.” Claire watched closely from across the desk. “Have you had your tea this morning? You’re looking a little pale.”

“I don’t like it, it tastes like grass.” Lena muttered, rubbing her forehead. “It barely helps anyway.”

“Barely is still better than nothing. Make yourself a cup before bed. And get food.”

Lena shook her head, hand still pressed over her eyes. “Mom . . .”

“Don’t ‘mom’ me. You’re an adult but I can still force tea down your throat if I have to.”

“I thought I came here to talk about Dani’s training. Not my health.”

“And how do you intend to conduct said training when you’re incapable of holding your head up?”

Lena forced down an aggravated sound before it escaped her and took a deep breath instead. “I’ll be fine after I get some sleep.”

Claire took a deep breath of her own and reached across the table to gently coax Lena to lift her head and meet her eyes. “Where do you think your sisters learned to be such stubborn pieces of work? Hm?”

Lena smirked. “Where do you think I learned?”

“I wonder.” Claire’s expression matched her daughter’s for a brief moment before it sobered. “You were always quite vocal about your Instructors’ shortcomings when you were a Recruit. All four of them. If anything, I expect you’ll at least be able to handle your sister now. If her abilities aren’t the issue, then concentrate your efforts on the actual root of the problem.”

“Easier said than done,” Lena muttered.

“I wouldn’t have assigned her to you if I thought you couldn’t handle it. I would appreciate it if you could trust my judgement at the very least.”

“I can’t really argue with that.” Lena forced herself to straighten up, squinting at the persistent ache behind her eyes. She placed both hands on the desk to steady herself and stood. “If I may be excused now, I should go make that tea and get some sleep. I told Dani she could take a day tomorrow, so I’ll try to sleep in.”

“You may be excused, yes.” Claire stood as well and made her way across the table to see Lena out, concern in her eyes. “Come see me after you wake up tomorrow.”

Lena nodded, pacing towards the door, careful not to stumble. “I will. Good night, mom.”

[Wolves Camp | Lacus 25th, 2525 | Late Night]

The dining hall had been closed for hours. All the tables were cleared, chairs stacked along the borders of the main room. The wall sconces snuffed out. From the earliest hours of the morning and well into the evening, the room would be alive with the sounds of chatter and the pleasant aroma of stew, fresh bread, and warm teas. After hours, it became nothing but an empty shell, populated only by darkness and the echoing creaks of aging wood. On this particular night, however, the stillness was disrupted by the occasional disgruntled mutters of a teenager.

Dani sat on the kitchen floor with a large cast-iron pot between her legs. Her persistent scrubbing was doing more damage to her hands than to the layer of burnt stew stuck to the bottom, but she refused to let it win. “Come on, you stupid piece of sh—” She cut herself off mid-curse when the pitter patter of bare feet caught her ears. She lifted her head in time to see messy brown hair begin to poke out from behind the door frame, “Sarah?”

Sarah shuffled into full view with sluggish steps, eyes blurred from sleep. “Why didn’t you come home?”

Dani shrugged and the flare of pain across her shoulders caused a grimace in its wake. “I’m not done with my chores.”

Sarah hummed, pacing into the dimly lit kitchen and sitting on the floor beside her. “You can’t finish tomorrow?”

Dani shook her head and resumed trying to scrub the burnt layer from the bottom of the pot. “You shouldn’t be out of bed. It’s not safe to wander off in the middle of the night like that.”

“I just walked across camp, what’s unsafe about that?”

Dani finally paused her incessant scrubbing to shoot her little sister a warning glare. “The camp is still the forest and you should always be careful. Do you understand?”

Sarah’s brow furrowed. “But you sneak out all the time.”

“Not all the time. And I’m me. You’re just a kid.” Dani continued scrubbing the pan with renewed vigor.

“I’m nine!” Sarah protested.

“My point exactly.” Dani glanced over with a small smirk. “Enjoy it while it lasts. A couple of years from now you’ll be scrubbing stew pots in the middle of the night.”

Sarah frowned, mumbling. “I don’t know about that.”

Dani hummed, concealing a groan as she continued scrubbing. “Did something happen today?”

Sarah pouted. “Perry killed me.”

Dani chuckled. “Aw. You’re not the long-standing, undefeated Assassin in your kiddie class anymore?”

“It’s not funny!”Sarah’s pout grew even larger. “No one managed to kill me in a game of Assassin since last year.”

“It’s just a game, Sarah,” Dani reminded her. “Get back at him tomorrow.”

Sarah snorted, muttering under her breath. “Jerk.”

Dani shook her head, full blown laughter distracting her from her task. “Twins, you really are sore about this, huh? That kid better watch himself.” She once again resumed her task, letting her laughter fade and shooting Sarah another small glance. “You still having trouble with math?”

“Sometimes. It’s not as bad this year.”

“If you need help with it, just let me know, alright?”

“I’m doing okay for now, but I will.” Sarah watched her continue to fruitlessly scrub the pot for a while still before interjecting. “I don’t think you’re gonna get that out tonight.”

Dani frowned, but before she had the chance to argue the sound of wooden boards creaking under heavy boots sounded from the empty hall, a man’s voice calling out. “Sarah!”

Sarah groaned. “You got me in trouble!”

Dani snorted. “I didn’t drag you out of bed, squirt.”

“I wouldn’t have to get out of bed if you were home!”

The argument was cut off by a forced cough coming from the kitchen door. The silhouette standing in the doorway was familiar, the tranquil-yet-stern voice of their father much softer now that he found them. “Sarah, why aren’t you in bed?”

Despite the man’s soft tone, Sarah winced, knowing she had done something wrong. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“You know better than to wander off. You’re lucky your mother didn’t wake up.” Their father added. “Go back to bed.”

Sarah stood from the kitchen floor, giving her father a doubtful look. “By myself?”

“Malik is waiting outside to walk you home.” He smiled, crouching down to her level and playfully tapping her on the nose. “I need to talk to your sister for a minute, so say goodnight.”

Sarah nodded, her expression smoothing over as she turned to her sister. “Good night.”

“Good night, squirt.” Dani smiled at her sister over the pot of burnt stew, still attempting to scrub it clean.

Thomas Wendell stood, watching his daughter persist in her fruitless endeavor for a long moment; much like Sarah had done. “Helena told me what happened earlier in the afternoon.”

Dani glanced up and mumbled. “I’ll do better next time.”

“I have no doubt that you will.” Tom smiled. “You might want to consider that sleep would facilitate that.”

“I told Larissa I would finish this and I have the day off tomorrow.” Dani muttered, scrubbing the bottom of the pot harder.

“I’m sure she will understand if you go to bed.” Tom’s voice was even as he held out his hand for her to take. “Come on now, pup.”

“I just want to finish.” Dani muttered, scrubbing harder and ignoring the lingering pain in her shoulders. “Let me finish.”

Tom frowned, a note of warning coming into his voice at her insistence. “Daniela.”

Dani dropped the sponge into the pot finally. “I just wanted to finish something today.”

Tom’s voice softened as he continued to hold out his hand to her. “I know, pup. It’s okay.”

Dani reached for his hand with a sigh of defeat, pulling herself up and allowing the man to draw her into a hug. The comfort drawing a soft contained sob from her.

“It’s okay,” Tom repeated. “It was just a bad day. You’ll feel better once you get some rest.”

Dani shook her head. “I’m tired of feeling like I’ve let people down.”

“You’re not letting anyone down.” Tom assured her. “You need to remember that no matter what happens in training, your sister still loves you. Your mother still loves you. All of this is meant to build you up stronger. To keep you safe.”

Dani let out a deep, exhausted breath, pulling away from the hug with unsteady steps. “I should soak it overnight. The pot.”

“Of course.” Tom’s amused smile was clear in his as he watched her fill the pot with a bucket of water. He waited for her to return to his side and placed one arm around her shoulder to lead her out of the kitchen. “So, what are you planning on doing with your free time tomorrow?”

Dani breathed out a bitter chuckle. “Sleep. I hope.”

Thomas chuckled softly. “I wouldn’t count on Sarah allowing that, but one can hope.”

Dani drew another deep breath as they walked outside, inhaling the cool forest air. The camp was silent save for their footsteps. The towering flames of the campfire now extinguished, leaving the surrounding cabins engulfed in darkness. Dani would never have walked across the camp on her own at Sarah’s age. It wasn’t until her training started that Dani began to truly feel comfortable exploring the forest on her own. The rustling of the leaves were now a familiar call rather than nightmarish whispers. Home.

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