The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.01

Heya, peeps! Blackbird here! Sorry for not uploading a chapter in so long. I still haven’t regained full movement on that injured finger, but I’m able to type now. So onto Arc 03 and, hopefully, back to our normal release schedule!

As an extra treat and a thank you to our lovely readers and followers, I’ve gone and picked out some atmospheric music for this chapter. I suggest you listen as you read. 😉

B.B

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[The Outpost | Creation Day 2525/2526 | Early Morning]

The Day of Creation was a unique day; a day outside of time. It followed the final day of the previous year and occurred before the first day of the next. It also marked the start of winter, and throughout Valcrest, the anticipation grew as its inhabitants—with the exception of those who lived in the desert—awaited the season’s first snowfall. Some enjoyed waiting throughout the night to watch the last remnants of autumn slowly fade under a heavy coat of white. Others preferred to wake in the morning and appreciate the sight of a changed world, fully covered in an undisturbed mantle of thick soft snow.

Each community had its own traditions to celebrate the birth of the first enlightened in Valcrest; the cities, the villages, the White Shadows, and every known and unknown faction. All would cease their activities on this one day—as much as possible in the case of the Healers, and partake in song, dance, games, and good food. It was also customary for Blackpond and Newhaven to open their gates to outsiders drawing visitors from all over to their city-wide celebrations.

When they were younger Kyle and Sebastian had enjoyed spending the day at home baking cookies, hearing stories—and even playing in the snow—with their sister. After her death, they’d let the date pass without acknowledgement, even as everyone celebrated around them. For Kyle, that hadn’t drastically changed, despite their newfound home.  This would be their second Creation Day celebration with the Wolf Hunters, and the previous year they learned that the different backgrounds and views the three of them held played a huge part in how they chose to celebrate. Gabrielle didn’t care much for it. She wasn’t immune to Johanna, though and would  begrudgingly participate in one capacity or another, but her attitude towards the holiday was no different than her attitude towards the Twins themselves: indifference.

Johanna enjoyed baking, hot chocolate, building snowmen, even though she was astonishingly bad at it. And as much as Kyle sincerely tried, he’d found it hard not to get roped into it as well—even though she vehemently refused his help with the snowmen building. On that merit alone, it would have been a pleasant day. But then, of course, there was Gerald.

One of the oldest and most popular traditions in Newhaven was a snowball battle spanning the entirety of the city. The populace would split into teams and engage in fierce battle until only one team was left standing. There was no prize for their achievement other than bragging rights, true to the prideful nature of the city itself. Not to mention offering a prize seemed unfair, considering the winning team often consisted of members of the military, well versed in battle tactics. The citizens didn’t seem to mind, and every so often, a team of civilians would rise to the challenge and upset the military teams despite all odds. The officers and guardsmen claimed that such civilian victories were,  “acts of mercy.” Some people believed it to be so while others assumed that, much like in a game of chance, sooner or later luck would smile on some less experienced fools. Regardless, the snow battle was a staple of the festivities. To take part in the games was to become part of something better and much greater, something that went beyond the value of coin and the walls created by social standing. Even if for just one day, Newhaven gained a true sense of union, brought on by what was essentially a childish game.

Gerald had no apparent love for Newhaven despite his upbringing. In the time Kyle had known him, he’d never heard him speak of the city with any semblance of fondness or nostalgia, only some understanding of the inner machinations of the military and nobility. If anything, he seemed put off by the memory of it all. It was during their first Creation Day with the Hunters that Kyle and Sebastian discovered how attached he was to this one tradition.

After being mercilessly pelted with snowballs by an overly enthused telekinetic the previous year, the last thing Kyle wanted was a repeat. Sebastian, on the other hand, took it as a challenge—much to his brother’s disapproval. Both boys awoke before sunrise, but while Kyle’s intention was to stay as far away from Gerald as possible, Sebastian planned on catching the Hunter off guard. Merit where merit was due: Sebastian had become adept in stealth to the point of keeping up with Johanna on hunts, but Kyle didn’t think it would be enough to sneak up on Gerald. 

“You know, of all the recklessly stupid ideas you’ve ever had, this might be the worst one,” he said.

Sebastian’s form was barely visible in the darkness; a vague hint of movement across the room, but Kyle could feel the shit-eating grin forming on his lips. “That’s a bold claim, little brother. I’m pretty sure I can list at least ten stupider ideas I’ve had.”

“Even Porter won’t deal with him today. That should tell you something.”

Sebastian stood, chuckling on his way to the door. “That’s because Porter might be the only person in existence with less tolerance for fun than you.”

“Being buried in snow isn’t fun,” Kyle muttered as he tied the laces on his boots. “Did you warn the new guy about today?”

“Did anyone warn us?” Sebastian shrugged. “He’ll probably be cooped up in his tent again all day, but go ahead if you want.”

Kyle frowned, watching as his brother disappeared beyond the door frame. 

After arriving at the outpost, the new guy, Theron, had set up his camping gear in a secluded area, away from the towers. Unless Gerald issued him chores for the day, he refused to interact with anyone. True to their nature, the Hunters asked no questions and made no demands beyond pulling his own weight around camp. His presence in the Outpost had been an argument Gerald was unable to win. The topic of his permanence had been extensively debated; even more so than the twins once were. They all wanted to help, but couldn’t reach a consensus of what that help should be. Sebastian merely pointed out he needed more time and quoted Gabrielle in saying it gets worse before it gets better. Theron’s worse, considering what he’d done to the safehouse the night they found him, wasn’t something Kyle wanted to see. Especially after Gerald pointed out how easily he could collapse the towers completely if he didn’t keep himself in check. In Theron’s defense, Sebastian shrugged and pointed out, ‘well, so could you.’

It was the first hours of winter and Kyle already felt bitterly cold. Gabrielle had been attentive enough to get him even warmer winter wear this year—including sturdier boots and thicker gloves—but it didn’t stop a chill from assaulting his body the moment he stepped out of their room. The Outpost was deadly silent with the exception of Kyle’s own heavy footsteps, cautiously descending the frosted wooden stairs to the ground floor. They crunched on a thick layer of pure white. Kyle stopped to breathe in the cold morning air and appraise his surroundings. The entire clearing had changed overnight. It all looked flattened, and yet, fuller, as if someone had perfectly spread a layer fondant across the landscape. The trees, only yesterday, baron, now filled with precarious bushels of snow. The only disturbance at all were three tracks of shoes, which had trudged through the snow and into the forest. As much as he hated the cold and gloom of winter, even Kyle couldn’t deny a sense of childish wonder upon seeing a world suddenly covered in pristine white snow.

Any and all positive feelings the snow might have elicited on Kyle were brutally swept away by a sudden gust of freezing wind which cut right through his warm jacket. “Fuck. Fuck this.” He huddled more into his cloak and hurried down the snow-covered path to where Theron had set up his tent. 

“Hey, new guy,” he called out, and waited. There was no answer except for a soft rustling from inside the tent. “It’s Creation Day, are you coming out?” 

Still no answer. 

“Jo’s probably going to make hot chocolate later, you don’t wanna miss out on that, do you?” Still no response, though he could see movement inside the tent now. “Alright, then. Good talk, buddy.”

With nothing left to say, Kyle turned back, wondering if he could convince Gabrielle to let him hide out in the forge for the day. At least until all the excitement began to wane. He’d been viciously pelted with snowballs the previous year and had no intention of suffering the same fate. Even if it meant hiding like a coward. A blow to his pride was a worthy price for staying warm and dry. Unfortunately, any prospect of peace of quiet was suddenly—but not unexpectedly—disrupted by a forceful pull on his arm. “Jo!” Again, no sound. And no response. Johanna was focused on hurrying him past the tower and into the woods. Had anyone else been trying to drag him away like this, Kyle would resist with every last fiber of his strength, but when Jo wanted something from you, well, resistance was futile. They reached a small gap in the trees where Sebastian was standing, and Kyle knew the grin on his brother’s face all too well. “What are you roping me into?” He was almost startled at the sound of his own voice, expecting it to fail a third time, and glared when his brother chuckled. “What do you want, Seb?”

“Alright,” Sebastian said, his voice so soft Kyle almost had to strain to hear. “Gerald is currently stalking around near the tree house on the other side of the Outpost. Jo and I are gonna go be the distraction, Porter is just down the path setting up a trap. We just want you to go up and help her out. Make sure it’s ready by the time we lure him back.”

Kyle sighed. “You do realize that all this will do is escalate things for next year?”

Sebastian smiled and placed a hand on Kyle’s shoulder. “It’s a game. Even Porter’s getting in on it. Just be a team player, bro.”

“Don’t ‘bro’ me,” Kyle scoffed.

Jo hummed. “I know Gerry can be… Uhm…”

“Psychotic?” Sebastian offered, smirking.

“Intense,” Jo corrected. “But it’s good.” After a lengthy pause she added, “once a year.”

Kyle sighed in resignation. “Fine, but I want extra hot chocolate for this.”

“Fair.” Jo nodded, pointing him in the direction he needed to go. “Go find Gabe.”

Kyle took the indicated path; a carved trail into the thick of the woods. Gabrielle wasn’t normally difficult to spot at a distance, but it took some time for him to spot her dark coat amidst the greys and dull browns of tree bark. Gabrielle’s winter clothes differed from her usual attire only by the addition of a scarf. The heavy coat and faded leather hat that—a permanent fixture even in the height of summer were now sprinkled in a layer of white. In the past year she’d taught him a few things about setting traps, mostly for hunting small game, but upon first glance he couldn’t fully grasp what she was doing. “Hey, Seb and Jo recruited me to help, so what are we doing?”

Gabrielle didn’t look up from what she was doing, measuring lengths of rope meticulously. “See the tarp? I need you to shovel some snow onto the tarp.”

Kyle spotted a shovel leaning against a nearby tree and walked over to get it. “How much snow?”

“I’ll tell you when to stop.”

Kyle nodded, picking up the shovel and starting to cover the tarp, once shovelful at a time. “So… Jo wants to humor him, Seb is taking this as a challenge I guess. Why are you in on this?”

“Both sound like good motives, why pick just one?” Kyle could see out of the corner of his eye as Gabrielle walked around the one tree that towered above his head. “Does that seem unlikely of me?”

“A little, yes,” he said, scooping another shovel of snow.

“Which part? That I would humor Tucker in his childish game or that I would engage in a challenge? That’s enough, by the way.”

Kyle nodded and set the shovel aside, humming in thought. “You know, never mind. I don’t know why I was surprised. You two are almost as bad and Seb and I.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that.” Gabrielle peered from behind the trunk of the tree, expression subdued as ever. “I’m throwing a rope over one of these thicker branches, make sure to catch that.”

“Alright. So we’re hoisting this whole thing up?”

“Yes,” Gabrielle answered, voice straining as she threw the rope over. “This is originally designed for capture. It’s meant to drop a net on a target but I altered the design to release this pile of snow instead, provided it works.”

“Looks a bit heavy. I mean, won’t it hurt?”

“There’s a miniscule chance of serious injury,” Gabrielle said, walking around the tree and getting more rope.

“That’s not what I asked, but alright.” Kyle chuckled. “So I just keep holding this rope now?”

“For now.”

Kyle kept the end of the rope in his hand as he watched Gabrielle set up the triggering mechanism then helped her tie up and hoist the bundle of fresh snow to be dumped on an unsuspecting Gerald. “So in theory, he won’t be able to deflect this?”

Gabrielle hummed, looking up at the bundled tarp containing the snow. “In theory. Tucker’s enlightenment is limited, but of course he hasn’t given us a list of exactly what he can or can’t do. I know that higher speed projectiles are almost completely useless against him, and that if you rush him he will be able to stop you. Whereas if you sneak up on him…”

“So he can affect faster moving objects more.”

“It seems like it, yes. It also seems he’s able to sense movement at a certain radius which means, even if you were moving slow enough that he couldn’t use telekinetic manipulation on you he would likely know you’re there.”

Kyle glanced down the path towards where he left his brother and Johanna. “Do they know about that?”

“Johanna does. Although I doubt a successful ambush is actually possible, hence the trap.”

Kyle hummed, shooting a curious glance towards the Hunter. “Hey Porter, Seb and I have been discussing something. Who do you think would win in a fight, you know, between you, Jo and Tucker?”

“Johanna.”

“That was a quick response.”

“Objectively speaking, out of the three of us, Johanna is the most dangerous.”

Kyle frowned. The twins had participated in a few hunts at this point, but upon further thought he’d never accompanied Jo on any of them, she either partnered with Gabrielle or preferred to act alone. Once or twice she’d allowed Sebastian to tag along, but not Kyle. “Have the two of you ever fought? And I mean, for real, not a spar.”

“One time. A very long time ago. And as you can see I’m alive, but my point stands.”

Kyle nodded. While he wasn’t strict about keeping their rule of not asking questions, he did learn to recognize when his line of questioning was starting to push a boundary. “Should we hide? It’s been a while, surely they’ll be coming this way soon.”

******

Snow crunched under Gerald’s heavy boots. His every step slow and deliberate as he patrolled the trails surrounding the Outpost. Whether the man knew he was being watched, Sebastian couldn’t tell. Johanna’s form was barely visible passing behind the trees, keeping pace with him at a distance; like a predator stalking prey. Sebastian, however, remained still. They agreed she would make the first move and he would only come forward once she had Gerald distracted. He observed as the man paced, one neatly packed snowball in hand, searching for his first target. Jo moved in pace with him, keeping a careful distance, a snowball of her own at the ready. Step by step both Hunters trekked ahead, Jo’s steps were light on the frozen ground, silent as Lady Death herself and yet, something changed in Gerald’s posture. He didn’t stop, turn around, or miss a step, but the way the fingers of his free hand tensed at his side and his shoulders straightened were telltale signs of alert. Jo noticed as well, abandoning her cautious approach and rushing instead. She released a perfectly aimed snowball before disappearing into the trees. Sebastian watched as the projectile traveled in a perfectly straight line towards Gerald’s head, until it abruptly swerved to the right. It kept momentum as it circled the Hunter’s form, picking up speed as it flew in a continuous loop. Gerald turned—a smirk playing on his lips—and slowly paced in the direction the assault originated. Just as he did, Jo emerged from the trees behind him and threw another snowball at the back of his head. Again, the snowball curved unnaturally before it could make contact and joined its predecessor, flying in circles around the man’s form at increasing speeds. More surprise attacks followed. They mostly added to Gerald’s arsenal, but also served the purpose of keeping his attention since, while Jo hadn’t hit him once, she’d also made it impossible for him to get a clear shot. 

 Sebastian packed a few snowballs, cradling them in one arm as he inched closer, staying under cover and trying to make as little sound as possible, though he could never be as silent as Jo. It didn’t take Gerald long to notice his approach. One of the snowballs orbiting the Hunter immediately shot out, flying directly at Sebastian’s head. He reacted just in time to avoid it smashing into his face and he immediately retaliated with a clumsy throw that, of course, made no contact. Instead, it flew right past Gerald and disappeared in the trees. A soft thump and low growl followed, indicating the snowball had successfully found a target in Jo.

“Sorry! My bad!” Sebastian shouted, holding back a laugh. His amusement was abruptly cut short by a sudden impact on the middle of his back, strong enough to almost knock him off balance. The snowball he managed to dodge had come around for him. In the moment it took him to recover, Gerald had successfully pushed Jo out of hiding and any pretense of a sneak attack was dropped. Facing the man head on wouldn’t get them anywhere, but the point was to keep him occupied, not try for an impossible victory.

They burned several minutes senselessly throwing snowballs and trying to the best of their abilities not to get caught up in the flurry of snowballs. Finally, Jo must have decided they’d given Kyle and Gabrielle enough time. She initiated the retreat and Sebastian wasted no time following suit.

Gerald gave chase. As they weaved through the trees Sebastian could hear projectiles whizzing past his head, crashing into tree trunks around him, several of them making heavy impact with his arms and torso. Even through multiple layers of clothing it felt almost as if he was being pelted with rocks. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as Jo was hit in the shoulder with such force she tumbled over. Recovering quickly, she rolled back to her feet almost immediately and continued sprinting towards Gabrielle’s trap. Sebastian picked up speed, lungs burning from the crisp winter air, to keep up and they both reached the clearing together, running past and barely avoiding the trigger in their haste.

The sound of a snap and a muffled cry resonated behind his back as Sebastian ducked for cover behind a tree. The snowball he’d been trying to avoid fell harmlessly to the ground. After a moment to catch his breath, Sebastian poked his head out from behind the trunk to see the aftermath. There was a considerable pile of snow in the center of the clearing; an arm and a leg poking out underneath the only sign of life. Jo had already come out and was sheepishly trying to dig Gerald out. “Too much, Gabe.”

Gabrielle stepped out of hiding next, calmly pacing closer. “He’s fine.” When Jo responded with a furious glare, she lightly poked Gerald’s hand with the tip of her boot. “You in there, Tucker?”

Gerald slowly and painstakingly moved just enough to raise his middle finger.

Gabrielle snorted. “See, he’s fine,” she repeated, helping Jo clear out the bulk of the snow until Gerald was able to crawl his way out of it and roll onto his back. “Welcome back, Tucker.”

“No… Fair…” Gerald wheezed.

Sebastian also came out from behind cover, Kyle coming up just behind him and inhaling. “That was a little too effective. Remind me to never get on Porter’s bad side.”

Gerald chuckled from the ground. “Oh, boy. You think this is her bad side?” With another pained groan and a deep inhale he held out his hand toward Gabrielle. “A hand please.”

Gabrielle shook her head as she pulled Gerald up. “Don’t be so dramatic. You’ll have a few bruises at worst.”

Gerald drew another deep breath. “One of my ribs feels dislodged.”

Gabrielle patted him on the back. “Walk it off, tough guy.”

Jo sighed and grabbed Gerald by the arm, leading him towards the tower. “Come on. I’ll look.”

The Hunters reconvened in the kitchen. The heat of the stove in the small area was warm enough that even Kyle seemed comfortable for once. Jo took Gerald down to the bathroom in order to check his bruises while the twins and Gabrielle sat at the table. The hatch leading down was left open and his side of the conversation was faintly heard, though Jo’s answers were, of course, too soft to overhear. For the most part he was giving her pain levels and insisting it wasn’t as bad despite what he’d said before. Then he laughed and told her, “If you want one, I know a guy in Newhaven. We can just go.” Again, the response was too soft to be heard from the kitchen. “It is not a waste of time. Do you know what is, though? That we have the same conversation every time you see me with my shirt off.”

Kyle’s brow furrowed and he looked from Sebastian to Gabrielle as if to gauge their reaction, then chimed in. “You two know the door’s open and we can hear you, right?”

There was a lengthy pause before Jo emerged from the basement and walked a straight line to the counter—back turned to the rest of the room—with a mumble of, “…hot chocolate…” being all they heard before she wandered out of range for them to hear. 

Gerald came out a few moments after and smacked the back of Kyle’s head as he plopped down on the chair beside him. “Don’t meddle in people’s conversations, boy.”

“Ow.” Kyle snorted. “Sorry. It sounded like it was getting personal.”

“I don’t know what you th—” Gerald interrupted his scolding when Jo winced while pouring water into one of the pans. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” Jo muttered, her movement a bit more cautious as she parted the large bar of chocolate they’d reserved for the Creation Day beverages.

“Jo, come on,” Sebastian mumbled, raising his voice. “She fell when we were running.” The boy rolled his eyes, unfazed, when met with an accusatory glare. “Don’t give me that look, what good’s it gonna do to hide it?”

Jo sighed. “Was just a sprain. My wrist.”

“Alright,” Kyle chimed in, clapping his hands and standing up from the table. “I’m learning to make hot chocolate today.” He joined Jo by the counter and she reluctantly started to walk him through the steps she was about to take in preparing the drinks.

“Did Theron come out of his tent at all today?” Gerald asked.

“Not that we know,” Kyle answered. “I stopped by to talk to him. I could tell he was awake in there, but no answer.”

Gerald sighed. “Running the risk of wasting the rest of this lovely winter day on another endless debate, we need to make a decision about that boy.”

“You know my stance is on this matter, Tucker.” Gabrielle leaned back on her chair, catching herself still wearing her hat at the table and removing it, placing it on her lap. “We’re not taking this boy to the White Shadows.”

“Your stance is all well and good, Gabrielle, but it’s not a solution,” Gerald argued. “His enlightenment poses a serious risk.”

“So does Kyle,” Sebastian interjected. “No offense, bro.”

“None taken,” Kyle responded, helping Jo measure flour for a batch of cookies.

“We were able to help your brother, but we can’t help Theron if he’s shut down. And we don’t have the time or the capacity to deal with this situation.” Turning to Gabrielle, he said, “when I picked up these guys they’d already been on the street for, what, eleven months? Theron had hours to process what happened to his father before he was thrust into all of this.”

“What do you suppose will happen if we drop him off with the Healers, then, Tuck? The only thing he’s talked about in the past three months, when he’s said anything at all, is how he should have fought harder. Do you honestly believe that will go away on its own?”

“No, probably not, but can we do something about it? I’m not against helping this kid, but I’m not convinced that we can. And I can’t stress enough how easily he could literally bring all of this,” he gestures to the walls around them, “down on our heads.”

Sebastian leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. The argument hadn’t changed from the first time they’d had it. Who’s going to train the boy? Gerald couldn’t get through to him, Johanna vehemently refused, Gabrielle managed to get him to talk a few times in the past three months, but even she’d hit a wall. “I can get through to him. Give me a week.”

His statement stopped the Hunters’ argument dead in its tracks. Sebastian didn’t know what he’d been expecting; some level of disbelief, maybe laughter, but Gerald looked as though he was mulling over complex mathematics and Gabrielle was staring right into the core of him as if trying to assess the odds of this causing some irreversible disaster. Kyle was the one who spoke up first, unsurprisingly. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m dead serious.” Sebastian ran a hand over his eyes. “Alright, listen, no offense; none at all, but Porter; you’re intimidating as hell. Gerald, you come off like a disappointed dad most of the time and Jo… is Jo. Maybe, maybe, Theron just needs someone to talk to him on his level.”

Gabrielle hummed, then glanced over at Jo. “Johanna?”

Jo turned around, leaning against the counter. “Let him.”

“I agree,” Gerald shrugged. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a plan.”

Kyle shrugged as well, attention still on the cookie dough. “For the record, I think it’s a bad idea, but sure, go for it.”

Gabrielle nodded. “We’ll see what progress you can make in a week, Rivers. We’ll discuss it one last time after that”

[Wolves Camp | Creation Day 2525/2526 | Early Afternoon]

Creation Day was indisputably the best day to be in the Wolves’ Camp. It wasn’t as loud of a celebration as the Hourglass Night, but, for obvious reasons, it put the whole clan in much higher spirits. Children were excused from their lessons for the day, no training sessions were held, no contracts were taken or initiated. With the exception of the bare minimum required to keep the encampment secure, the only people in the Wolfpack who were hard at work were the kitchen staff. They were the ones responsible for keeping a steady supply of hot beverages and sweet treats, intent on staving off the effects of cold weather.

Lena wasn’t the most enthusiastic person in the camp. Her participation in the multiple snow fights which broke out across the encampment—among both the adults and children alike— was minimal, if she chose to partake at all. And while normally she would seek a quieter environment to sit and read than the central clearing, the smells of sweet pastry and the cheerful atmosphere brought forth pleasant memories and a feeling of comfort. The benches closest to the campfire were usually never vacant, but most of the camp’s inhabitants were preoccupied with enjoying the snow as much as possible, leaving the seating areas almost deserted. It created the perfect quiet spot right in the middle of everything. The only downside? It made her easy to find.

“Only you would sit right in the middle of camp during a celebration and read.”

Lena hummed, glancing as Eldric sat beside her on the bench. “Considering the extensive history of this clan, I’d say it’s unlikely no one’s ever done it before.”

“Unlikely isn’t impossible, is it?”

Lena lowered the book to her lap and rolled her eyes. “That means I’m probably the only one who would sit and read in the middle of a celebration. Did you really come here to get into semantics with me, El?”

“No.” He glanced down at the two steaming cups he had in his hands. “You want hot chocolate or cider?”

“Oh.” She sighed, reaching for one of the cups. “Hot chocolate, thank you.”

Eldric smiled, taking a sip of warm cider. “So, are you planning on reading all day, or…?”

“I could, but I’m not sure yet. What about you?”

“Well… The boys wanted to try and build a snow fortress, but if you want some company I could just hang around.”

“And watch me read?” Lena chuckled. “You can go, I’m not going to be jealous if you spend time with your friends today.”

“I know, but,” he paused, “you know what I mean.”

“Two year anniversary, kind of, sort of, I know. Is it really if we’re still pretending we’re not together?” Lena let the question linger then shrugged. “It’s going to take a few hours for that snow fortress to collapse on one of you, that gives me more than enough time to finish this book and we can have a date later.”

Eldric hummed. “Sound logic as usual, but…” He scooted closer on the bench and put one arm around her. “I wouldn’t mind reading with you.”

Lena leaned into him, but chuckled, shaking her head. “Honestly, I think you’re not going to like this one.” She raised the book to give him a glimpse of the page she’d been reading right before he interrupted. Then waited for his reaction.

“Woah, woah, that is so graphic why are you reading that!?”

Lena burst into laughter, lowering the book. “I thought so. This, well… A few years ago one of the White Shadows documented the recovery process of two severely injured patients; on the brink of death, and how their state of mind affected their healing process. It is a bit graphic and clinical, but, you know, mind over matter. It interests me.”

Eldric grimaced, taking a large gulp of his warm cider. “Alright, I guess I’ll leave you to your mood killer of a book for now. Maybe you can tell me about it later and spare me the gross details.”

“Sounds like a good plan.” Lena smirked. “Whatever you guys build, do not go inside it. I’m not spending date night digging you out from under a mountain of snow.”

“Don’t worry,” Eldric said, slowly pulling away and standing up. “I’ll make Lionel go first.”

“Not first, Eldric.” Lena’s tone turned strict.

“Alright, alright. I won’t go inside the fortress.”

“Good. I’ll see you later, then.”

Eldric leaned in to give her a brief kiss before turning to walk away. “Enjoy your chocolate and your gross book.”

“Mhm. Enjoy your stupid friends and their brilliant life choices.”

Eldric laughed as he walked away. As Lena watched him leave, she caught Lionel and his younger brother waiting across the clearing. Lionel met her gaze and waved with a smile. She nodded in response, not willing to put her book down to fully reciprocate the greeting. Eldric’s friends were alright, but couldn’t help but act like rowdy teenagers whenever they all got together. Despite their efforts to include her in some of their past antics, it was usually too much for her to deal with. The two brothers greeted Eldric cheerfully, the trio following one of the many paths away from the center of camp, engrossed in what seemed like boisterous jeering. 

Lena resumed her reading with a contented smile. The hot chocolate was pleasantly warm and maybe a little too sweet, but a good relief from the increasing bleakness that filled the pages of her book. Considering the subject matter, she hadn’t been expecting a happy ending, but—even though she wasn’t as squeamish as Eldric—she wouldn’t pretend to be unaffected by the excruciatingly detailed accounts of these people’s deteriorating health. She got through a considerable number of pages and the entirety of her drink before she was interrupted a second time.

“Lena, may we have a word?”

Lena glanced at Franklin and sighed. “Alright, one word. Choose wisely.”

There was a lengthy pause through which Franklin seemed to be legitimately thinking of a single word to use before speaking up, “Dani.”

Lena groaned. Of course. “What did she do?”

“Nothing. That’s what I’d like to talk about. She’s been a little withdrawn since she completed her first contract. And while that’s perfectly normal for what I’ve been told… It’s Creation Day and she’s nowhere to be found. Everyone’s noticed her absence. Adria tells me she’s down by the lake, but we assumed it’d be best if you checked on her.”

Lena sighed softly, but closed her book and stood. Franklin was right, it wasn’t like her sister to skip any celebration, even less Creation Day. “I’ll go see how she’s doing. Do me a favor and take this back to the dining hall?” She held her empty cup for Franklin to take.

“Sure, no problem. I hope you can cheer her up, if not she’ll have to wait another year for a day like this.”

“I’ll take care of it, don’t worry.”

Franklin nodded, heading off towards the dining hall. Lena turned in the opposite direction and followed the path to the lake. Of course she’d noticed the changes in Dani’s behavior the past couple of months. It wasn’t unusual for Actives to withdraw themselves after their first assassination. Lena opted for giving her sister space to work through her thoughts, but ever since she was very little, Dani was always the most enthusiastic during Creation Day. Her absence wasn’t something Lena was willing to ignore.

The clearing surrounding the lake was covered in white, the branches looming over the still waters lifeless and bare. Dani’s dark green cloak stood out against the snowy ground. She was sitting right by the edge of the water digging around in the snow with her bare hand until she found a pebble and casually skipping it across the lake’s surface. She looked deep in thought, so much so she hadn’t heard the approaching footsteps. Lena stopped a few steps behind her and, after a moment’s hesitation, crouched and scooped up a handful of snow. She packed the snow into a ball and took aim, first at Dani’s head, but after further consideration, threw the snowball directly at the middle of her back.

Dani groaned with the impact. “Sarah, I told you I don’t want…” The scolding faded with a grimace as she turned and realized it was Lena standing there. “Crap.”

“So you told Sarah you don’t want…?” Lena questioned, walking over and sitting beside her. It was much colder sitting on the snowy ground by the water than on a bench near the fire pit and the sigh she exhaled rose in a cloud of condensation. “What’s going on, kiddo? It’s not like you to be sitting alone, today of all days.”

Dani shrugged. “Just not in the mood for it this year.” She dug around for another pebble. “You ever think it’s weird how Creation Day is right at the start of winter? When everything’s dead?”

Lena shook her head. “That’s kind of the point. It’s an endless cycle. One year ends and another begins. Death leads to new life, destruction leads to creation, so on so forth. That’s what the passing of time is, in a nutshell. The essence of what it means to be human. But at the same time, no. Nothing’s dead, Dani. Death is final, eternal. Winter isn’t. Spring always comes right after, doesn’t it?”

“I guess it does.” Dani wiped the snow from the pebble and stared at it. “I don’t know why this is all hitting me so hard right now. I should be out there. I should want to be out there, but…” She shook her head and threw the pebble at the lake. It sunk instead of skipping across. “Sarah’s mad at me now. And I don’t know how to explain this stuff to her, my head’s just not in it. Or in pretty much anything lately.”

Lena watched as the pebble broke the water’s surface and sunk into the depths of the lake. “Do you want to talk about what happened with your first contract?”

“I’m not supposed t—” Realization hit and Dani chuckled. “You already know how it went down, don’t you?”

“Mom let me look at the report after you turned it in, but even if she hadn’t…”

“Right, no secrets with telepaths around.” Dani shook her head and turned to face Lena at last. “I did everything right. Exactly how I was supposed to. It was a perfect assassination and then I decided I wanted to calm down the horses. If I’d just gone instead of lingering I wouldn’t have been seen at all. I was stupid.”

“You did exactly what the contract demanded. There were no added casualties and you came out of it unscathed. For a first assassination, it was near flawless. I mean, you have no idea what some of us have done our first time. Eldric threw up, his dad was furious.”

“How did your first time go, then?” Dani asked with the look of morbid curiosity plastered across her face.

“As flawless as an assassination can go.” When Dani rolled her eyes, she chuckled. “But… I did cry when I got home and mom had to comfort me. It happens more often than you’d think. We play an ugly part in the world, kiddo. It’s necessary, but it’s also a lot easier to rationalize when it isn’t right in front of you.”

Dani nodded, turning away and digging out another pebble. “I just wish his son hadn’t seen me, that’s all.”

“Are you upset because he saw you, or because you saw him?”

Dani hesitated, dedicating extra attention into the act of brushing snow from her newly acquired pebble. “Both.”

“I’ve had a few like that. And I’d love to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. Hurting people in that way never gets any easier. You just make your peace with it, or you don’t.”

“What if I don’t?”

“That’s a question I can’t answer for you. Do you want another contract?”

Dani frowned, throwing this pebble into the lake as well. “Mom said she doesn’t have anything else for me yet. I mean, Franklin has another contract lined up already. I don’t know if she’s worried about me or, if she thinks I messed up with the previous one.”

“If you’d done something wrong she would have called you in to tell you. You’re still supposed to be learning and you can’t do that if you’re not told you made mistakes. A few months downtime isn’t out of the ordinary. Mom always picks out the Active whose skillset suits the contract best. For you and Franklin, since you’ve only been recently initiated, she’s probably going to choose easier contracts that would also serve as a good test of skill. But she doesn’t control what contracts come in, so you might be stuck in camp for a while.”

“Are you sure that’s all it is?”

“I’m pretty sure.” Lena sighed and put one arm around her sister’s shoulders. “Listen, if you don’t want to be in the middle of everything today, that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean you have to hide out here and do nothing, you know? Besides, if Sarah’s upset with you, it’s probably best you make up to her soon.”

Dani hummed. “You sound like you have an idea.”

“I mean, Eldric told me some of the boys are trying to build a snow fortress, and I saw them heading out in the direction of the training grounds, so…” Lena smirked. “We should maybe go get some hot chocolate, some cookies, wait for them to get some progress in, and then pay a visit.”

Dani shook her head, laughing. “You know he’ll want to murder you if we collapse the stupid thing, right?”

“No, he won’t. Besides, it is going to collapse anyway. We’re just speeding up the process. It would definitely distract Sarah from being upset with you, too.”

“Twins sake.” Dani pushed Lena’s arm away and stood. “I don’t know if you should encourage her to antagonize your boyfriend. I’m not sure what her hang up is, but it should have gone away by now.”

“Yeah, it’s on the list of serious talks I need to have with her, but today isn’t the day for that. One serious sister talk is enough for a while.”

Dani hummed, looking around as if alarmed by something. “Do you hear that?”

“What?”

“I don’t know if you can hear it, it’s really, really faint, but…” Dani leaned closer to Lena, feigning concentration. “Yeah, definitely. Sounds like a cop out to me.”

Lena snorted and pushed Dani away, almost causing her to lose her footing and fall into the lake.

“Careful!” Dani exclaimed, recovering and pushing Lena back.

“What? You don’t want one last dip in the lake before it freezes?”

“You’re terrible at cheering people up, you know that?” Dani muttered, clearly trying to hold back a smile as she walked past.

“Mhm.” Lena chuckled. “Clearly.”

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