[Hunters Outpost | Lacus 15th, 2526 | Mid-morning]
Sebastian didn’t know if they’d gotten through to Theron, or just wore him down, but after that first dinner with the group, he began to slowly integrate into the Hunters’ routine. He still slept in the same tent he used for camping, but closer to the towers. He woke up, unprompted, before sunrise to join Sebastian on his morning runs and met with Gerald for training without complaint. Gerald would either ask Sebastian to stay and spar or allow him to go train with Johanna or work on something else around the Outpost instead.
In the span of a month, admittedly, Theron had improved further than either Sebastian or his brother had in that time. However, Sebastian was two years into his training, and when they sparred, that became extremely apparent. If Theron managed to hit him, he followed up with an immediate counter. One of them was so harsh, Gerald opted to interrupt their spar. “Easy, Rivers. I don’t want broken noses here,” he warned.
“I’m fine,” Theron muttered, spitting a few droplets of blood onto the frozen ground. “Let’s keep going.”
Gerald shot Sebastian a warning glare and shook his head. Sebastian sighed and put his hands in his pockets, shrugging non committedly. “Thought you told us it was important not to fear pain, Tucker. Clearly Lockwood took to that lesson well.” He smirked. “I mean, otherwise he would’ve learned to block by now.”
Theron tried to advance on Sebastian again at that, but Gerald got between them and pushed him back. “Hey. No. None of that. Go take it out on the training dummies.” He turned to Sebastian. “You, go find Johanna if you’re not going to be helpful.”
Sebastian nodded, calmly, hands still in his pockets, and started to leave the training grounds, taking the path towards the Outpost. Johanna was, predictably, in the kitchen, and when Sebastian poked his head in she was in the process of placing a tray in the oven. He couldn’t see what it was, but the air in the kitchen smelled buttery and faintly sweet. “Gerry kicked you out again?”
“Yeah,” he muttered, coming in and sitting at the table. “Can we spar or are you busy?”
“Can,” Jo answered, evenly. “Shouldn’t.”
“Come on. I’m not getting anything out of sparring with the new guy and it’s clearly not helping him either.”
Jo reached for a dish cloth, wiped the flour off her hands, and came to sit across the table from him. Her brown eyes were warm as usual, but there was sternness underneath. “There’s nothing left to teach you.”
Sebastian nodded; she’d already told him. Months ago. “I know. That’s not it.”
“What is it, then?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m just feeling cooped up. We’ve been sort of stalled since we found Theron.” Johanna arched an eyebrow and Sebastian scoffed. “I know. I know it wasn’t any different when we came along. I just… Being stuck here is starting to get to me. Just a little.”
Johanna frowned, her eyes lowering to the table top for several moments. Sebastian could see them move from one side to another as she processed whatever thoughts were passing through her mind. Finally they settled, her expression smoothed over, and she looked up at him again. “You should go up. Talk to Gabe.”
“Uh, sure, but… What even about?”
Jo answered with a simple wave in his general direction.
Sebastian nodded, but remained seated. He’d never actually gone to Grabrielle with anything before. Every time they had a serious conversation, she’d been the one to initiate it. “Hey, Jo, why can’t you trust a flight of stairs?”
Jo hummed, thoughtful, then shrugged.
“Because they’re always up to something.”
Jo shook her head with a soft smile then said, “Why do thieves hate puns?”
Sebastian didn’t even pretend to stop and think about it. “Why?”
“They like to take things literally.”
Sebastian grinned and leaned forward. “Do you know the plight of the cross-eyed scholar?”
“He can’t control his pupils.”
Jo breathed a small huff of laughter. It wasn’t much, but it was the most Sebastian ever managed to draw from her. “Seb… No…”
“What? It’s a good one!” he laughed.
Johanna snorted softly. “Mean.”
Sebastian chuckled. “It’s just a little bit mean. Not like I know any real scholars; cross-eyed or otherwise.”
“Terrible. Shame,” she said, getting up to check on her baking.
He chuckled softly. “You know… I told Porter at least ten of these puns to see if I could get a laugh, but… No pun in ten did.”
Another huff of laughter. Jo decided that whatever she was baking wasn’t done yet and left it in. “Gabe laughs on the inside.”
“At us most of the time, but yes.” Back turned to the table, she put a kettle on the stove for tea and started to look through the cupboards, he assumed, for what would be needed to prepare lunch.
“Do you want some help with that?” Sebastian asked.
“Yeah, I thought you’d say that. You need to learn to let people help you more, you know?”
Johanna shook her head and began silently working by the counter. After a while she mumbled, “Is it your birthday? The restlessness?”
The question caught Sebastian off guard. His birthday was coming up. “I think, yeah, it might be. I’ve been trying not to think about it, but it’s clearly not working. It might be why I’m so worked up.”
“You’re, uhm,” Jo frowned, and he could tell she was trying to find a specific word, “torn?”
“Yeah, I think so. I guess because Kat cared so much about it, I feel I should too even though it kinda hurts now. It’s complicated.”
“It’s a day, like any other. It doesn’t need to be more.”
Sebastian chuckled. “That’s the logical way to look at it, but…” A soft sigh followed. “Our mother died when we were born and Kat always tried to, I don’t know, compensate I think. It was really important to her that we had good birthdays. And, before Gerald found us, I guess I tried too, but… You know how that went.”
Jo hummed. “Ask your brother?”
“We haven’t talked about it. He didn’t want to talk about it last year, remember?”
Another hum. The kettle whistled and Jo abandoned the root vegetables she was chopping in favor of retrieving it. “Don’t ask him, then.”
“Helpful, thanks.” Sebastian said, chuckling. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”
“Your birthday. You choose what it stands for.”
Sebastian nodded. “Do you know where Kyle is? If Porter is upstairs I assume he’s not at the forge.”
Jo vaguely waved towards the back door. “Passed through earlier. Took his crossbow.”
“Alright.” He stood with a sigh. “I’ll see if I can find him then. Thanks for the talk.”
Johanna turned to look at him, gaze lingering on his face for a long moment, concern flashing on her face before she returned to her work with a nod. “Of course.”
On his way to the door, Sebastian paused. “Hey, what’s brown and sticky?”
Jo’s scoff was offset by poorly concealed amusement. “Get out.”
“What? It’s a stick. I meant a stick.”
Sebastian laughed loudly as he exited the kitchen, almost colliding with Theron as he made his way inside. “Hey, earthquake boy. Did Tucker teach you how to block yet?”
Theron scoffed. “Did Jo figure out why you’re being such an infuriating prick yet?”
“Yes,” Jo chimed in quietly, still occupied with lunch preparations.
Theron glanced past Sebastian at the woman with an eyebrow raised, then back to Sebastian.
“Yes, actually,” Sebastian repeated. “You doing anything else right now?”
“Uhm, no. I was going to wash up and read for a couple hours.” Theron told him, his expression wary as he questioned, “Why?”
Sebastian nodded and grabbed him by the arm. “Great. You’re coming with me then.”
Theron allowed himself to be dragged for only a couple of steps before pulling his arm from Sebastian’s grip. “You need to stop deciding I’m going to follow you wherever the hell you want me to go. Maybe ask first, like a normal person. I know you spend a lot of time with Johanna, but you’re perfectly capable of using your words.”
The remark drained all amusement from Sebastian’s expression. If it’d only been directed at him, that’d be one thing, but he didn’t appreciate Theron bringing Jo into it. “I know you haven’t been here very long, Lockwood, but I suggest you learn to think before using yours or I’m teaching you how to block my way, no matter what Gerald says.”
Theron snorted, his expression initially defiant until he caught the seriousness in Sebastian’s eyes. It seemed to finally dawn on him that his words had crossed a line. “I didn’t mean anything by it, I apologize.” He sighed, shoulders dropping. “Where are we going?”
“Good,” Sebastian said, relaxing. “And, well, to find Kyle. I have something I wanna talk to him about. Maybe you’ll find it interesting too.” He nodded in the direction he thought his brother might have gone. “He’s got a few spots he likes to go for target practice. Figure he’ll be out that way.”
“Is this going to take long? I don’t have a lot of free time.”
Sebastian smiled, starting down a familiar path away from the towers. There were multiple spots Kyle liked to go cycle through when he wanted to practice. Small clearings, engulfed by trees made it less likely for one of his bolts to be lost; or land on something they weren’t supposed to. Though, those safeguards were rarely needed now. “I don’t know. We’ll see how moody he’s feeling today.”
“Cancelling my plans for the day, then,” Theron muttered.
Sebastian shook his head, amused. They walked in silence about halfway to the clearing before he spoke up again. “What’s your issue with Jo, by the way? What you said back there was pretty uncalled for.”
Theron hummed. “I like Jo, she’s been nice to me, I just don’t really know how to talk to her. And it’s a little frustrating. Gerald can be a little strict, I think, but most of the time he’s fine. Gabrielle is… You know better than I do, I don’t have to tell you, but she’ll hold a conversation.” He shrugged. “You’re right, though. That was uncalled for.”
“Just stop tiptoeing around her like an idiot. Talk to her like you’d talk to anyone else and maybe she’ll talk back, maybe she won’t, but that part’s not on you. Not being an asshole; that part’s on you.” There was a beat of silence and Sebastian could feel the question coming, so he sighed and added: “No, I don’t know why. I don’t think even Gerald knows. Porter might, but it’s none of my business to ask. Or yours.”
“Gabrielle said, she told me, we’re all here for our own reasons. Do you know any of theirs? You don’t have to tell me, just… You’ve been here a lot longer, do you actually know anything?”
Sebastian nodded. “I know some. Bits and pieces. No full stories; not yet.” He paused, the faint clicks and thuds of a crossbow discharging just ahead confirmed he’d chosen the right path. “I get that you want to know who you’re dealing with, but first of all, what any of us have been through specifically doesn’t determine that. And lastly; it’s painful. It’s not something you ask for. It’s either entrusted to you or it isn’t. You don’t get to decide that; they do.” Sebastian stopped walking before they reached the clearing itself and turned to face Theron. “You wanna get to know them, then get to know them now. Leave their past where it is, simple as that.” When Theron nodded, he continued to walk. “Jo likes puns. Do you know any good puns?”
“Uh… No. I don’t know any puns.”
“I’ll teach you some puns. And how to read facial cues, body language, that stuff. It’ll make it easier. Jo’s not hard to read if she wants you to.”
“Maybe she doesn’t like me.” Theron shrugged.
“I mean, you’re a pain in the ass, but I’m sure that’s not true.” Sebastian scratched the back of his head, he could understand the frustration, but there wasn’t much he could say without revealing things that weren’t his to reveal. “Look, when we got here it took days for either me or Kyle to hear Jo’s voice at all. And sometimes we still go days on end without hearing it. It’s not about you, it’s whether or not she’s, I don’t know, either willing or able to talk.” He paused, letting the words linger between them for a few moments, immersed in a thoughtful silence. “I don’t know what it is, or why, but it just looks like it takes effort for her to do and sometimes she just doesn’t have it in her.”
Theron listened attentively. It didn’t seem as though he could quite comprehend what Sebastian was describing. In all honesty, Sebastian couldn’t comprehend it either, he only knew what he was able to observe. Finally, Theron nodded and said, “I’ll make more of an effort, then.”
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.”
They continued walking. The familiar metallic clicks of a trigger followed by dull thumps of bolts piercing into wood grew louder as they reached the clearing. Sebastian would normally have no qualms about being loud and shattering his brother’s concentration, but opted to stay silent and observe as another bolt shot from Kyle’s crossbow, embedding itself in the center of a small cluster, sticking out of the bark of one of the thicker tree trunks in the vicinity. Sebastian remembered watching Kyle fumble with the crossbow in his first weeks of having it; taking too long to reload, often jamming the mechanism in his attempts to do it faster, cursing up a storm much to Gabrielle’s disapproval. There was fluidity to his movements now, a steady rhythm as he went through each step of the process with the ease of someone who’d gone through the same routine for hours upon hours, every single day, for over a year. Sebastian genuinely admired his discipline. He didn’t feel capable of that kind of repetition. Of course, he wasn’t going to admit that. “Don’t you ever get tired of shooting that thing? I mean, I honestly don’t see how you could be more precise than this.”
Kyle didn’t miss a beat as he loaded another bolt into the weapon and cocked it. “You’re not gonna be complaining when it saves your ass.” He fired. Perfectly centered. “Again.”
“One time. You’re really never going to let me live that down, are you?”
Kyle snorted softly, the last bolt flying out of the crossbow, landing a final blow on the already abused tree trunk. “I’m not optimistic enough to think it’s only ever going to be ‘one time’, Seb. So I practice. Because you’re an idiot and it’s my job to have your back.”
“Yeah, yeah, love you too, little brother.” Sebastian sighed and turned to Theron with a smirk. “Good thing you cleared your schedule for this.”
Theron snorted. “I figured if he wasn’t already in a bad mood, you’d get him there.”
Kyle frowned, glancing at Theron curiously as he walked over to retrieve his bolts. “You need to stop letting him rope you into things, Lockwood. Save yourself while you still can.” He carefully started working the bolts free from their target. “Why do you need me in a good mood, Seb?”
Sebastian walked over to help retrieve the bolts. “Birthday’s coming up.”
Kyle paused halfway through pulling one of the bolts free, then resumed the task without looking up. “So?”
“I want to go to Blackpond.”
“What the hell for?” Kyle’s tone remained even, but he pulled the next bolt with extra force.
“Don’t break those,” Sebastian warned, pushing Kyle aside and taking over the task. “And, I don’t know, get some cake for real, have a pint. Do something relatively normal for once.”
“Thought we agreed we weren’t doing the birthday thing anymore.”
“I don’t remember us actually having a conversation about that.” Sebastian worked the remainder of the bolts free and held them out for Kyle to take.
“Do we have to? Figure you’d already know what I’m gonna say.” Kyle scoffed, taking the bolts and placing them back into his quiver. “You were the one who wanted to leave in the first place, remember?”
“First of all, wow, really? Really, Kyle? Second, I’m not suggesting we move back there, so I don’t see what point you’re trying to make by bringing that up. Third; fuck you.”
Kyle snorted. “Love you too, little brother. I’m not going to Blackpond.”
Sebastian shook his head. “I’m going with or without you. So, you can come with me and have my back or stay here and sulk. Your choice.”
Kyle set his crossbow down against the tree and rubbed both hands over his face. “Why? Why does it matter?”
“Because two years ago I wasn’t sure we were gonna make it another winter. And hey, guess what, here we are. That’s not nothing to me. I don’t want to just ignore it.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in, but Kyle’s expression eventually softened. Sebastian understood his brother’s unwillingness to return even after all this time. They hadn’t been to Blackpond since the night he almost set the Inn on fire. Sebastian was still recovering during their birthday the previous year and neither of them wanted to confront it. “Fine,” Kyle muttered. “Once. Who knows where we’ll even be next year.” He picked up the crossbow and pushed past. “Good luck getting Porter to sign off on this, though.”
“I’m not worried about Porter. Jo on the other hand… Yeah. It’s a couple days’ journey, that’s why I wanna bring it to her today because if they all need to agree…”
“It’ll probably be an argument, yeah.” Kyle shook his head. “You have to be a shit-stirrer, don’t you? Can’t just ask Jo to bake us a fucking cake? You have to go to Blackpond.”
Sebastian snorted a laugh. “You say that like you don’t even know me.”
Kyle groaned as he started to lead the way back down the path. “Unfortunately that was never an option.”
Sebastian laughed after his brother. “Your life would be boring as hell without me and you know it.”
“I know I’ll regret asking, but why did you drag me along for this?” Theron asked, following them back to the Outpost.
Sebastian glanced over his shoulder with an amused grin. “Come on, Lockwood, don’t make me say it.”
Theron heaved a deep sigh. “I’m coming with you, aren’t I?”
“There you go. If only you’d learn to block this fast.” Sebastian teased.
“Yeah. Yeah, I was right. I regret all of this,” Theron muttered.
“I warned you,” Kyle said, not turning around to look at Theron. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
[Hunters Outpost | Lacus 16th, 2526 | Early afternoon]
“Have you guys decided yet?” Kyle’s question was barely audible over the sounds of metal being bent into shape. It was rare that he spoke up while Gabrielle was working on something, but the question had been nagging at him all morning.
Gabrielle paused, briefly, then continued the task at hand. “I left it up to Tucker to ease Johanna’s concerns. It should be alright, yes.”
“You don’t have a problem with it?”
“We’ve trained the two of you sufficiently well. And I would expect you not to lose Lockwood or allow him to get into trouble.” Another pause. “I would expect you not to lose Lockwood or allow him to get into trouble.”
Kyle snorted a laugh. “When did I become the adult in charge of these children?”
“I’ve been asking myself that for the past seven years.”
Kyle hummed under his breath. Keeping the forge alight didn’t take as much of his focus as it used to. It allowed him more free time to think; to notice things. Sometimes Gabrielle would task him with forging something simple on his own in order to keep him occupied—usually something he’d previously helped her with; small blades and crossbow parts—but if the task at hand was something beyond his skillset, there wasn’t much to do but sit and watch. Not that Kyle minded. He’d learn a lot just by observing Gabrielle’s work and there was something relaxing in watching metal bent into shape under the hammer’s strike. “Well,” Kyle spoke up again, quietly, “Seb is my brother and that’s why I do it, but you… I mean, what are we to you?”
Gabrielle struck the piece of metal she’d been working with more force than necessary and sighed at the resulting dent in material. “I’ve asked you before not to distract me, Rivers.”
“Sorry. Is it messed up?”
“Nothing beyond repair.” She told him, “if you allow me to finish this undisturbed, maybe we can look into a reloading mechanism for your crossbow next.”
Kyle immediately perked up. “Really?”
“Yes. I can start instructing you on how to build it. It will take time and definitely won’t be done today, but we can start.”
Kyle knew the offer was a way to deflect from the question he’d asked, but either way he knew she wouldn’t give him an answer. “Can I help with this one?”
“This is a commissioned piece, so no. Just don’t distract me again, please.”
Kyle nodded and settled into silence, watching the level of the flames fueling the forge, listening to the rhythmic clinks and clanks of metal work. Without conversation to distract her, Gabrielle was lost to her work. Kyle suspected that to be the main reason why she rarely allowed others into her workspace. It was the closest possible thing to seeing what the fearsome leader of the Wolf Hunters looked like when no one was watching. Her coat and hat hung on hooks by the door, brow furrowed in concentration, the occasional frustrated scowl when something wasn’t quite working as intended on full display instead of hidden underneath her usual mask of stoicism. It was one of those rare moments that made Kyle wonder who these people truly were, or maybe who they could have otherwise been. Like Gerald whenever he was fixing something around the Outpost, or building another piece of furniture. Like Johanna when she tended the garden in springtime, or baked a fresh batch of cookies just because she’d felt like it. It also made him wonder if he had these moments, if Seb had them, did they know who they were apart from all this?
“Are you worried about going back?” Gabrielle asked. She didn’t turn away from her work, but the metal piece had finally taken shape. It looked like an axe head, but unlike any Kyle had previously seen. “Is that why you wanted to know whether we’d decided?”
“Yes. Sort of,” he mumbled. “That’s a weird looking axe.”
“It’s a halberd blade. Almost like an axe, but it’s meant to be fitted to a polearm,” Gabrielle explained, setting the metal aside to cool. “You know your brother can handle himself sufficiently well. You don’t need to go if you don’t want to.”
“I know, but…” Kyle groaned. “Seb has a point. Kat died before we got to spend another birthday with her and last year he’d almost died. We don’t know where we’ll be in a year, but at least right now things are quiet. We should take advantage of that, right?”
“I don’t see why not. There’s nothing wrong with taking a day, or a few days, so long as you’re careful and stay out of trouble. Don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourselves.”
“That’s easier said than done with my brother around, but we’ll try.”
Gabrielle shook her head, a faint trace of amusement showing in her voice. “You should also try to have fun, Rivers. You’re far too serious.”
“I have fun,” Kyle argued.
“This.” Kyle shrugged. “I like creating things. That thing,” he pointed at the blade she’d been working on, “that’s really cool.”
Gabrielle’s response was a quiet scoff as she moved to her workbench and opened one of the tool boxes. “Did you bring your crossbow?”
“I left it in my room, but I can run and get it!”
“I have a lot of work to do, still, Rivers. You have two minutes to bring it here before I move on to something else.”
Kyle immediately dashed up the ladder leading to the upper floor, hearing a monotone, “don’t fall off the tower, please,” on his way out.
[Wolves’ Camp | Lacus 18th, 2526 | Early Morning]
Dani woke up early to see Sarah out to the training grounds. Ever since their mother informed them of what her training would entail, sleepovers had become more frequent. As far as they’d discussed it, training itself was going well. In fact, Sarah didn’t seem as bothered by Perry’s presence now as she’d been in tutoring, which Dani assumed had to do with Dahlia’s lack of involvement. However, while Sarah’s temper had cooled, and—according to Lena herself—her behavior during training was exemplary, she’d been avoiding her eldest sister entirely outside of it, maintaining an air of cold indifference whenever they were forced to interact. It wasn’t uncharacteristic for Sarah to handle her emotions this way; Dani herself received similar treatment after moving out, but it made it very difficult to get through to her. She refused to talk to, or about, Lena no matter how much Dani tried to persuade her. Particularly saddening considering the fact Sarah clearly missed talking to Lena, she just didn’t want to give in.
This situation put a damper on Dani’s excitement when summoned to the Alpha’s cabin that morning. Concern over her sisters’ fractured relationship wasn’t enough reason to refuse a contract after persistently requesting one for months. And even though she’d gone into the meeting expecting to leave the camp soon, she didn’t anticipate how soon. “You want me to leave now?”
“As soon as possible,” Claire said, pushing the contract information across the desk. “I said I wanted to test your abilities. This isn’t a dangerous target, or a well guarded one, but this is a contract that requires a subtle approach and needs to be completed within a set timeframe. The details are in the file, but this will require you to spend some time at the Inn, communicate with the Scouts there and formulate a plan of attack for yourself. There will be supplies available to you on arrival, so pack a weapon of preference and light gear. Remember the protocol for operating within the cities.”
“Send a raven back to camp upon arrival, never use my real name even within the Inn, avoid the guard whenever possible, always be observant of my surroundings. If anything goes wrong, find the nearest escape route and report back once I’m out of danger,” Dani recited dutifully.
Claire smiled approvingly. “Exactly. Well done.”
Dani took the file, read the details of the contract, every individual line, very carefully, all the while feeling her mother’s gaze watching over her, scrutinizing. She passed the file back with a nod. “Alright.”
“I assume you’re up for it, then?”
“Yes, of course. I’ve been pestering you to send me on another assignment, haven’t I?”
“You have, but you don’t seem very enthused now.” Claire leaned closer over the desktop. “They’ll be alright, pup. Sarah can be stubborn, but even she can’t be angry forever.”
Dani sighed, of course her mother would know. “I know. I just, I feel like I’ve been keeping some sort of balance lately and I don’t know what will happen when I leave.”
“You know, Daniela, sometimes it’s easier to confront things once the option to avoid them has been removed. Sarah needed space, she needed comfort, and you’ve done well to provide that, but comfort can easily become a crutch. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Should I remove myself from the situation entirely?” Dani asked.
“If you’re leaving on this assignment, then you inevitably will.” Claire reached out to gently stroke Dani’s cheek. “What I’m saying is you’ve done well, love, but you’ve done all you can. It’s time to let them deal with this without your intervention.”
Dani nodded. “Yeah. Of course. You’re absolutely right.” She retreated from her mother’s touch, leaning further back in her seat. “Arlo said he would have my weapons ready today at midday. I’d like to have them so I’ll leave in the early afternoon. I should make it there with plenty of time to spare.”
“You’ll recognize the new Innkeeper once you meet with him, but remember; no real names at any moment.” Claire’s smile softened, just barely. “Please be careful, pup. Stay vigilant. Don’t…”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“Good. I expect a raven with news of your safe arrival within the next five days, no later. And another once the contract is fulfilled. Please do not fail to communicate.”
“Mom.” Dani reached out for her mother’s hand on the desktop. “You’ll hear from me, I promise. I’ll be alright.”
Claire squeezed Dani’s hand tight, then gradually released until her fingers slipped away. “Of course you will.”