The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.04

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[Valcrest Forest | Spiritus 9th, 2526 | Early Evening]

Theron always considered manual labor a good distraction from unwelcome thoughts. His deforestation, as Sebastian called it, yielded a decent amount of firewood to keep the forge running and the towers warm. Once Gerald learned of the mess they’d made on their first outing, he informed the boys that harvesting said firewood was now their responsibility.  Unfortunately for Theron, the travel distance to the area he defaced meant there were only so many trips they could make in a day. This led to more nights camping out in the same clearing, amongst the mess he’d made.

Sebastian suggested the most efficient way to collect the wood might be if he stayed out in the campsite and Theron made the runs to and from the Outpost, but Gerald argued he wanted neither of them alone that far out into the woods. Johanna would kill me if I even entertained this idea, he’d said. When Sebastian asked Gabrielle for her thoughts on the matter she added that if anything were to happen that far from the Outpost no one would even hear the two of them scream. The statement didn’t seem to worry Sebastian and left Theron wondering if the woman had been attempting humor. It was hard to tell.

Gerald provided them with a cart to haul the lumber and they decided to camp out and harvest until the cart was as full as possible, bring it back to unload, then head back and start the whole process over. In any case, he was stuck with Sebastian for several more days.

It wasn’t as bad as Theron expected. Despite being younger, shorter, and not physically as imposing as Theron, Sebastian was clearly used to the intense manual labor. Surprisingly, he also remained focused and silent as they worked throughout the day, only speaking up when it was time to set up camp. The confrontational, condescending tone he’d taken in their first interaction also disappeared and he spoke matter-of-factly on the past two years living with the Wolf Hunters; how Gerald found him and his brother in Blackpond, what their first few weeks were like, training, how he was almost killed on his first hunt. He didn’t ask Theron any questions or seemed to expect him to respond. For the most part he didn’t—Theron still wanted to keep to himself—but he found he didn’t really mind listening.

It took the better part of a week to get all the trees harvested and the last of the firewood loaded onto the cart. It would take two more trips to bring it all to the Outpost, but as they set up their campfire and tents for the evening Sebastian expressed they’d be able to join the others for supper the following evening if they pushed themselves a little. Theron’s inclusion in this scenario, despite him never having joined them before, hadn’t gone unnoticed. Normally he’d argue against it, but a whole week of eating roasted nuts and jerky made the thought of it far more inviting than it ever had since he’d arrived at the Outpost.

“So, why did you come with us?”

It was the first question Sebastian asked in the week they’d been working together. Theron frowned, unsure how to interpret it. “You’ve seen what they did to my father. You should know why.”

“Hating the Wolves, I understand. Venturing further into the forest with a group of strangers, not so much. Especially since you don’t seem to want much to do with us since we’ve gotten here.”

“Isn’t venturing into the forest with a stranger exactly what you’ve done?”

Sebastian snorted softly, stoking the campfire with the end of a stick. “I’m not known to make wise decisions, first and foremost. And our situation didn’t really give me much of a choice. You could have gone back to Newhaven.”

“I don’t want to go back to Newhaven.” Theron muttered. “If I leave, I’m heading south.”

Sebastian nodded, silently stoking the fire for a couple more minutes until he decided the flame would hold and stood up to fetch an iron pan. “You mind if I ask what Porter said to you? That night at the cabin. She was a little vague on the details.”

“Oh good. She’s always like that, then. Here I was thinking it was personal.” Theron watched Sebastian set the pan to heat over the campfire. “She didn’t give me a lot of details on what the Wolves were, what you guys do, or anything, just the gist, but,” he paused, watching the flames thoughtfully, “I realized there’s nothing I can do. The girl who killed my father was just a kid and I could barely—just barely—land one blow. Gabrielle said I’m only alive because she didn’t want me dead.”

“I’ll be honest, I could’ve hurt you if I wanted to.” Sebastian threw some chestnuts onto the pan, visibly unenthused by the prospect of having the same meal yet again. “Whether you stay or go, I suggest you start accepting some training. You wouldn’t even make it south.”

“You think you could have hurt me?”

“I know I could have.” Sebastian shook his head calmly. “Yes, I’m young. You’re taller than me, stronger than me, and your enlightenment is extremely powerful, but you don’t know what to do with any of it. You’re scared, Lockwood. We’ve been out here alone for a week and I still have your dagger on my belt. Why is that?”

Theron vaguely gestured to the piles of lumber. “Tired.”

Sebastian chuckled as he split the roasted nuts between two bowls and added a few pieces of jerky to each. “Sure, buddy.”

Theron snorted as he reached out for his bowl. “You’re a lot more tolerable with your mouth shut. Anybody ever tell you?”

“I have a twin brother, what do you think? I can’t exactly remember, but I’m pretty sure Kyle came into the world telling me to shut up.”

Theron couldn’t help a small laugh. “Can’t say I blame him.”

Sebastian made a muffled noise of surprise while trying to tear off a bite of jerky. “Was that a laugh? I didn’t know you could do that. Impressive.”

“Bite me, Rivers,” Theron muttered.

“Is that a challenge? Because it’d probably be easier than biting these,” Sebastian said, holding up his chewed piece of jerky.

“I will literally bury you,” Theron warned, glaring at the boy. Sebastian just laughed but turned his attention back to his bowl of nuts and jerky and fell silent. Theron picked at his own food occasionally sparing glances at his companion. There was something about Sebastian that didn’t sit right with Theron sometimes. One moment he acted way too serious, the next he was making stupid jokes as if he was just a normal kid his age. It felt like part of it was a front, but he couldn’t tell which one. Finally, he muttered, “you people are strange.”

Sebastian merely shrugged. “It gets worse after you get to know us.”

They finished their meal in silence after that. Theron stayed out, keeping the fire alive long after Sebastian retreated into his tent. Despite the winter chill, he found himself enjoying the evening air for once. He watched the few visible stars flicker amongst the bare tree branches above his head, only retiring once he felt his eyes grow heavy.

[Hunters’ Outpost | Spiritus 10th, 2526 | Early Evening]

Sebastian woke Theron up at sunrise. Together, they dismantled the camp and started hauling the cart of lumber back to the Outpost. The exertion of pulling the cart didn’t leave room for conversation. They’d discussed whether or not they were overloading the cart and if maybe they should make an extra trip the next day, but in reality neither of them wanted to be out there another night. If they had to be a little more sore upon arrival it’d be worth sleeping at the Outpost and possibly having some warm stew and some fresh bread.

It was past sundown when they arrived, limbs aching, cheeks beet red, and stripped down to just their undershirts and trousers to avoid sweating while they worked. They parked the cart behind the towers and Theron lingered outside as Sebastian entered one of them through a ground floor entrance. He leaned against the cart and took a deep breath before following after him.

The kitchen was bright and warm. The smells emanating from a stew pot sitting atop the stove made his stomach clench. The Hunters were all seated around the table, sharing bowls of stew and cups of tea or water. Sebastian was quick to take a seat between Kyle and Gerald. Johanna smiled and ruffled his hair affectionately as she stood to serve him a bowl. Gabrielle had her chair partially tipped against the wall behind her, leaning casually into the backrest and sipping from a tea cup, her hat sitting on her lap. Johanna brought a bowl of stew and some bread to Sebastian and then came back to serve another bowl, pushing it into Theron’s hands with an encouraging smile. He flinched. With all of them around the table no vacant seats were available.

A soft thud drew his attention. Gabrielle straightened her chair and set her tea cup on the table. Her gaze met Theron’s briefly before she put her hat back on and stood to leave. “Sit, Lockwood.”

Theron frowned, indecisive and Gabrielle already exited the kitchen without another word before he finally looked down at the bowl of food in his hand and sighed softly. He let his aching legs win and took the vacant seat, setting the bowl down on the table and immediately spooning a mouthful of steaming hot stew into his mouth. It burned the roof of his mouth, but compared to the week spent outdoors, he’d take anything. 

A soft snort sounded from across the table. Theron looked up and saw Johanna holding her hand out to Gerald, grinning. Gerald reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a few coins, seeming disgruntled as he dropped them on her open palm.

Sebastian chuckled. “Were you betting on whether he was going to kill me in my sleep out there?”

Johanna nodded, returning to her own unfinished bowl of stew.

Sebastian chuckled softly. “Honestly, he didn’t even try. I was almost disappointed.”

“Shut up,” Theron muttered through another spoonful of food.

Sebastian snorted. “Make me, earthquake boy.”

Gerald rubbed the bridge of his nose, then finished his tea and stood, patting Kyle on the shoulder. “Come out and meet me at the tree house tomorrow morning. We’re going to need another chair.” Kyle nodded over his bowl of stew and Gerald turned to Theron and Sebastian. “The two of you can take a day to rest.”

“Just a day, huh?” Sebastian asked, amused. “That sounds a lot more ominous than reassuring.”

Gerald smiled. “You know the drill by now, Rivers. I trust you can run Lockwood through your morning routine. Come find me after.”

Sebastian barely withheld a smirk. “Yes, sir.”

[Wolves Camp | Spiritus 14th, 2526 | Early Afternoon]

After graduating and completing their first contract,  Actives were  allowed to have a personal weapon made by the clan’s blacksmith. No Wolf relied on one single weapon—Actives knew to carefully choose their equipment based on their given tasks—but having something made specifically for them was something newly inducted Wolves were usually excited for. Yet, in the months since she completed her contract, Dani hadn’t decided on what she wanted. She thought about it often, and made frequent visits to the armory to try and reach an epiphany of some sort. Much to the dismay of the man in charge.

“As much as I enjoy the company, Daniela, I can’t allow you to stay here all day.”

Dani hummed, averting her eyes from the rows and rows of blades in the armory to stare at its keeper. Bana was standing beside her, arms crossed, staring at the same weapon rack she’d been examining. “How many times do I have to remind you to call me ‘Dani’, Bana?”

The man smiled briefly. “I haven’t forgotten, I just wanted to ensure I had your attention.”

“I’m not a child. If you want my attention, ask for it.”

He arched an eyebrow. “I have. Twice. You’re clearly preoccupied.”

“I have to choose a weapon soon. I’d like to have it made before I’m sent on another contract, but I can’t decide.” She sighed, scratching the side of her head. “I guess it’s good she doesn’t have anything lined up for me yet.”

“Is it? If you had less idle time to think, perhaps you wouldn’t complicate this so much.”

Dani chuckled. “You wanna go and tell her that?” She let her fingers run through strands of hair as she lowered her hand to her side, eyes scanning the shelves. “She told me there are no contracts available that would suit me right now; and that makes sense, but part of me feels she’s being overly cautious with me. With Sarah too. It’s been a week and she wasn’t assigned an Instructor yet.”

“I see. You’re bothered because you believe your mother is overthinking decisions that would otherwise be simple?” The question was filled with amusement.

Dani side-eyed the man briefly then fixed her stare on the weapon rack right in front of her. “Don’t…”

“Claire has never been one to rush important decisions and considering the trouble both you and Helena caused as Recruits, I think it’s only reasonable she give extra thought on how to approach Sarah’s training. As for you,” Dani couldn’t see it, but she could hear a softer smile in the man’s voice, “she would be overly cautious with you now. How many Actives have left this camp never to return in the past couple of years?”

“Too many,” Dani mumbled, shoulders dropping. She thought about all the names they’d read out during the last Hourglass ceremony. “They had families too, Bana. I understand her fears, but I don’t want preferential treatment.”

“And I’m sure that’s not something she would ever intentionally do, however, even the Alpha is not without fault. And she is your mother.”

Dani nodded, eyes still fixed on the array of weapons in front of her.

Bana stood beside her for another moment, then walked further down the same row of weapons, pulling a pair from one of the racks. “You have withdrawn these for every spar since you faced off against Franklin. For what I hear you’ve become quite proficient with them.”

“They’re blunt, though.” Dani mumbled, thoughtfully. She didn’t need to look to know which weapons Bana was holding up. “I’ve been liking them for spars, but I don’t know what good that’ll do in the field.”

“Well,” Bana started, walking over and offering the weapons to her. “It’s your design. If you’d like to substitute the batons for blades, I’m sure Arlo can outfit you. Just take these to him and ask what he can do. That said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a blunt weapon. The armory is at your disposal now, plenty of sharp things to choose from. This is just supposed to be yours. Choose something you want. There is no wrong answer.”

Dani took the weapons and assessed them for a moment before looking up at the man. “It’s not my favorite question.”

“You don’t appreciate being asked what you want?”

“It feels disingenuous.” Dani shrugged. “There’s no wrong answer, except there usually is. When people ask me what I want, they’re never doing it without expectations. They want a particular answer.”

“Your mother is the Alpha, your father was beloved by the clan, so yes… Everyone has expectations of you, that’s true. Should those expectations matter, however?”

“I don’t know if they should, but they matter to me. I used to hate the thought of being a disappointment, but failure now has taken on a much graver meaning.”

Bana snorted softly and placed a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “It’s just a weapon, Daniela. Not every decision has the potential to spell disaster.”

“In some people’s hands, they can, I’ve heard.” Despite the retort, Dani allowed herself a deeper breath. He did have a point; this was small, she shouldn’t be second guessing it. “But that’s not me yet. So you’re right.”

Bana once again raises an eyebrow, but made no comment this time and simply nodded. “Are you set, then?”

“About ready to kick me out, are you?” Dani quipped. She answered his question with a nod, however and made her way to the door, chosen weapon in hand. “Tell me something, Bana. You ever considered being an Active?”

“I have, sure. I think at one point or another we all have, but… Over the course of my training I realized I enjoy weapons a lot more than I enjoy what can be done with them. That’s why you see me throwing my knives at targets and not at people when I’m out in the training grounds.” He escorted her outside of the armory and locked the door behind them, reclaiming his post outside the door. “How are you finding it so far? The work.”

“I don’t know. I think I haven’t been out there enough to really feel much about it. My only contract so far was a little conflicting, but I don’t feel bad about completing it. I feel alright.”

Bana hummed, watching her carefully as he leaned against the outer wall of the shed. “Does it bother you that you feel alright?”

“A little,” she admitted. “I wasn’t expecting to be miserable, but I wasn’t anticipating how trivial it felt to take someone’s life. His kid was there,” she paused and leaned against the wall as well, leaving the closed door between them, “that part hurt a little, it still does if I let myself think about it too much, but… That’s it.”

“A lot of new Actives come by here. They’re always excited before their first contract, and always sullen upon returning.”

Dani nodded. “I’ve had a lot of conversations about it already. The ‘this is perfectly normal’ talk, you know?”

“You’re a teenager, I’m sure you’re used to those.” The man smirked.

Dani snorted a laugh. “Yeah, well, laugh now but your kid will get there before you know it.”

“Oh, I know. I don’t envy your parents whatsoever. Especially if the boy turns out to be half the troublemaker you are.”

“You know your wife taught me most of what I know, if your kid doesn’t surpass me one day I’ll be extremely disappointed.”

“I’m sure you won’t be. A father can hope, but I know what I’m in for.”

Dani smiled as she pushed herself away from the wall. “Aren’t you glad I’ve been keeping you on your toes, then? It’s free practice.” When the man responded with a subdued glare, she failed to hold back laughter. “Alright, alright. I’ll stop distracting you and take this to Arlo. Thank you for listening, Bana.”

“Don’t mention it. Seriously. I don’t want every rookie assassin using me for emotional support after this.”

“Don’t worry, I know I’m special.” Dani said, chuckling and waving over her shoulder. She didn’t look back, but she was sure she heard a trace of laughter after she’d moved a few steps down the trail.

******

“Dani!”

The call reached her ears the moment Dani entered the central clearing. Sarah ran towards her from the direction of the unlit campfire. It was obvious she’d been waiting there for her. “Hey, squirt. What can I do for you?”

“I don’t know, I mean,” she glanced at the weapons in her hand and seemed to deflate slightly, “are you busy?”

“More or less. I need to bring these to Arlo, get my weapons finally made, I was just going to grab something to eat first. Why?”

“Oh, okay. Uhm, if you’re busy it’s not important, I have some new drawings I thought you might want to see.”

Dani hummed. She couldn’t remember a time when Sarah was this sheepish about asking anything of her. But then, she realized, they hadn’t talked much since her birthday. Or before her birthday. “This isn’t going to take too long, I think. I don’t actually know. You could just come with me if you’re not doing anything and I’ll go home with you after. How’s that?”

“You sure?”

The unsure note in her sister’s voice caused a painful stab of guilt. “Yeah, of course, squirt. Come on.” Dani sighed, wrapping one arm around Sarah’s shoulders and starting to guide her along towards the blacksmith. “Look, I know I’ve been a little off lately, I guess, but you don’t have to worry about bothering me. You know that, right?”

“Well,” Sarah mumbled, “Lena said you had a lot going through your head right now. I thought maybe you needed some space?”

“I’m alright, squirt, I promise.” Dani leaned down and pressed her forehead to the top of Sarah’s head in a gentle headbutt. “It’s my job to protect you, not the other way around, remember?”

Sarah shook her head. “No. I’m your sister, stupid.”

Dani grinned. “Hey, stupid. Nice to meet you, I’m Dani.”

“I think you need more space,” Sarah muttered, stopping and slipping out of her embrace.

Dani laughed, holding her sister by the hand to stop her from fleeing. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry, but I had to.”

Sarah didn’t resist, but groaned. “That was terrible and you should be ashamed.”

“I’m not.”

“You should be.”

“Completely unashamed, thank you very much.”

Sarah rubbed the bridge of her nose, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’m so glad you’re feeling better. I sure missed this.”

Dani laughed softly. “I missed you too, squirt.”

Sarah scoffed, but before she had a chance to form a reply, her eyes fixed on a spot just behind Dani and she flinched. Dani turned to follow her gaze and saw Tom crossing the central clearing in their direction. Seeing that he’d gotten both their attention, he silently nodded for them to go to him and Sarah immediately obeyed, leaving Dani to trail a few steps behind. It didn’t seem as though either of them were in trouble, but something in his posture made clear this wasn’t just their father checking up on them. Something was up.

“Dad,” Dani greeted. “What’s going on?”

“Your mother wants to see Sarah about her training,” Tom explained.

Dani frowned. Sarah was uncharacteristically silent considering she had been impatiently waiting for this. “Hey, squirt, are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m okay.” Sara mumbled, shaking herself off and starting to walk in the direction of the Alpha’s cabin. “I should get going.”

Dani lingered for a few moments and shot her father a wary look before following after her sister. Sarah covered enough ground that Dani was forced to jog in order to catch up. The two walked the path to the Alpha’s cabin in silence and it quickly dawned on Dani that she hadn’t been the only one with a lot going through her mind this past week. She reached for Sarah’s shoulder and stopped her right before the cabin came into view. “Hey, you’re okay. It’s okay, squirt.”

“I know. I know that.” Sarah tried to keep her voice steady, but her pitch raised with poorly contained panic. “I’m okay.”

“Listen, squirt, whatever happens in there, I can guarantee it won’t be as bad as whatever you have going through your head right now. It never is.” Dani gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “And if it is, then… I’m right here. I got you. Alright?”

Sarah nodded and drew a deep breath. “Alright. Yeah. You’re right.”

“Alright. Let’s go, then.” Dani said. She released Sarah’s shoulder and motioned her to continue down the path, trailing a couple of steps behind.

Sarah stopped in front of the cabin door for almost a full minute before finally pushing past its threshold. Their mother was sitting behind her desk as usual, her eyes meeting them in silent greeting. Across from her, looking far more composed than either of her sisters, was Lena. She calmly waved and offered Sarah an encouraging smile. Dani was about to turn to leave, having safely delivered her nervous sister, when her mother interjected. “Actually, Daniela, since you’re here, I would like you to sit in on this meeting,” she turned to Sarah, “if you don’t mind?”

Sarah answered a bit too quickly. “No, I don’t mind. That’s okay.”

Dani nodded, pulling one of the extra chairs closer. She took a seat and offered Lena a smile. “I don’t know why I’m surprised you’re here.”

“No idea why you would be,” Lena said, matter-of-factly.

Despite a genuine attempt to hide the amusement in their tones, the exchange earned them a brief glare from the Alpha and Dani looked away, trying to disguise a bubble of laughter as a cough.

Sarah was about to sit when Claire stopped her with a gesture. “Would you please go into your room for a few minutes, Sarah? There’s something I’d like to discuss with your sisters beforehand.”

Sarah frowned and whatever panic she might have been feeling was quickly surpassed by indignation. “You want me to go into my room so you can talk about me?”

Claire was far from intimidated, although her smile bordered on apologetic. “I want their opinions on a particular matter. It won’t take long and I promise I’ll explain once we’ve deliberated.”

Sarah didn’t vocalize another complaint as she marched into her room, but the way she slammed the door shut made her sentiments clear. Claire rubbed the bridge of her nose and Dani was met with the sudden realization she’d seen both her sisters do the same when trying to keep a grasp on their patience. She wondered if she did it too and never noticed.

“I have an idea of why I’m here,” Lena started, breaking the heavy silence, “but I’m wondering what the issue is, mom. There is one, right?”

“I don’t know if I would call it an issue, but,” Claire sighed, opening her desk drawer and pulling two documents from within, laying them on the desktop, “let’s just say Dahlia surprised me when she delivered her assessment of Sarah last week.”

“How so?”

“I know you have your doubts about Dahlia, but the reason I keep her is that, despite not being the warmest person, she does have a very keen eye. Her evaluation of your sister’s skills was actually quite positive. In fact,” Claire paused and glanced at Dani, “it greatly resembles yours. There are small areas where she’s presented difficulties; all of which she overcame in the past year. Dahlia described her as ‘extremely resourceful’ and ‘exceedingly intelligent’ but unfocused and stubborn. She can achieve anything she puts her mind to, but doesn’t really want to apply to anything. Which leads into her recommendation.” Claire placed her hand on one of the documents and pushed it across the desk encouraging Lena to take it.

Lena took the document and glanced over it, her expression going from initial curiosity to concern, “I don’t understand what Dahlia thinks this will accomplish.”

“Perry is top of his class, a brilliant student, well-behaved, mostly well-liked amongst his peers, he won’t be of age to start training for a few months still, but she feels starting his training now would be most beneficial. She also noted that this ‘rivalry’ between him and Sarah has, in her words, ‘caused significant improvement in Sarah’s performance.’”

Dani shook her head. “You can’t be seriously considering this. Sarah hates this kid. She’s done nothing but complain about him for over a year now.”

“Trust me, I’ve heard all of the complaints, I’m aware of the complications, that’s why I wanted a less clinical assessment.”

Lena sighed and reread the report her mother handed to her. “I assume I’m here because you’ll be assigning them to me?”

“Yes.”

“I think,” Lena paused, lowering the document back to the desktop, “as much as it pains me to say, Dahlia has a point.”

“Lena, come on, this is not a good idea,” Dani argued.

“So far the only concrete thing Sarah ever complained about with this boy is that he’s better at things she excels in. Sarah isn’t the most focused kid, but she does hate to lose so I can see how that would motivate her to improve further. In theory, I don’t see a problem with maintaining that incentive,” Lena said. She then turned to Claire and added, “though, if I’m going to be conducting this training I want express permission to reassign either of them to another Instructor at my own discretion. On the spot. No questions asked. The moment I feel this dynamic isn’t working out as planned, I’ll shut it down.”

Claire nodded. “Of course.”

Dani caught herself rubbing the bridge of her nose and lowered her hand with a groan. The decisive tone in her mother’s voice kept her from protesting a third time. Instead she looked at Lena and muttered. “She’s going to hate you for this.”

Her sister half-smiled. “Occupational hazard.”

Decision made, Claire called Sarah back into the office. She sat on the chair between Dani and Lena to hear what the Alpha had to say. Their mother went over Dahlia’s assessment with her, explained what they discussed while she was still in her room as promised, and Sarah remained silent, sullen, and glaring a hole through the desktop the entire time. Lena told her to meet her early in the morning by the campfire for their first day tomorrow and all she could do was nod. Finally when all was said and done, Sarah looked up sheepishly to meet their mother’s eyes and asked, “may I be excused now?”

Claire nodded. “Of course.”

Sarah stood up quickly and started back to her room without another word. Without sparing their mother, or Lena, another glance.

“Hey, squirt,” Dani called. “Do you still want to show me those drawings?”

Sarah hesitated, but nodded, and left the door open as she entered her room. Dani stood up to follow, briefly placing a hand on Lena’s shoulder as she walked past her chair. Sarah’s anger was far from unexpected, but she was sure it must have stung nonetheless.

Sarah’s room was messy as usual. Most of her drawings scattered across the floor, but there were more of them on the walls now, and Dani noticed some of the older ones had been taken down to make room for newer art. The more colorful undefined shapes she’d produced in her younger years gave way to charcoal drawings with more defined lines. Still very much a child’s handiwork, but there was more visible effort put into them. Sarah was sitting on her bed, still looking shell shocked, but she pointed out the latest pieces she’d drawn. The most recent one was recognizable as the area around the lake, as it was now; colorless, the trees bare with their empty branches looming over the surface of the water. Dani smiled fondly at the picture and, as she examined it, Sarah walked over and carefully took it down. “Here,” she said. “You can keep this one if you want. Put it on your wall.”

“Are you sure, squirt? It’s a good one.”

“Yeah, I know you like the lake, so…” She shrugged.

Dani took the drawing with a nod. “If you’re sure. Thank you.” She watched Sarah quietly for a few moments. The look in her eyes was instantly recognizable as something she herself had felt before. “You know they’re not doing it to hurt you, right?”

“Yeah, I know, but it still, still hurts a little.” The admission was hesitant, weak, almost guilty. “Lena knows how worried I was about this and I don’t understand why they think I can’t handle this without him.”

Dani sighed softly. “It’s not like that, Sarah.”

“Can… Is it okay if I come with you for a sleepover tonight? I don’t… I just…”

“You want some space. Sure. Of course. How about you pack some stuff to bring with you? I’ll go out and talk to mom.”

Sarah nodded. “Okay.” She reached for her bag and half smiled. “You know what’s funny?”

“What?”

Sarah’s chuckle was soft and unamused. “You were right. It still went a lot better than what was going through my head.”

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