The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.06

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[City of Blackpond | Lacus 25th, 2526 | Early Afternoon]

Kyle froze at the gates. The city walls loomed several meters above him; worn, battle-scarred, but intimidating nonetheless. Blackpond was tainted with bad memories: Shitty orphanage cots, cold nights in abandoned buildings, scorching anger burning in his veins, filling his lungs, fighting to scratch its way up his throat. Fire rising from his hands.

“Hey. Are you good?” Sebastian asked.

Kyle shook his head, pushed the thoughts away, and tried his best to avoid the concern in his brother’s eyes. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“If you wanna turn around, we can just turn around.”

Kyle took a deep breath. If Seb was willing to give up on this endeavor he must have really been concerned. “No. We’re here, today’s the day, we should do this. I just needed a minute. I wasn’t actually awake when we left, remember?”

“Of course I remember. I was the one who had to walk,” Sebastian said, his tone lighter. “You got to nap all the way to the Outpost.”

“Excuse me, I was knocked unconscious.” Kyle protested. The playful jab helped distract from the nervous chill creeping up his spine and he was thankful for that. “Asshole.”

Sebastian chuckled and wrapped one arm around his shoulders, pulling him into a side-hug. “Again: you good? I mean, we know this place pretty well. We were far more helpless and a lot stupider when we left and we did alright then.”

“Yeah,” Kyle mumbled. “Yeah, that’s true.” The city was livelier in the light of day. As they stood by the gates, groups of people passed in both directions; families, merchants hauling their carts, suspicious men and women clad in leathers and cloaks. Kyle wondered if any of them were Wolves, then reminded himself they weren’t here for that. With another calming breath he allowed Sebastian to lead him across the city gates and into the city proper.

“I’m assuming you two know where to go?” Theron chimed in. He’d been so quiet on the last leg of their journey Kyle nearly forgot he was with them.

“Relax, Earthquake Boy, it’s been a couple of years but we still know the city pretty well,” Sebastian reassured.

Theron’s footsteps faltered behind them. “Can you not call me that here?”

Sebastian stopped, released Kyle’s shoulder, and turned to look at Theron. “Sure. Why?”

“It makes me nervous.”

Sebastian frowned, his eyes scrutinizing for a moment, as if trying to figure out where this had come from. “Alright, but that’s weird. We’re gonna talk about this after we get back.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

Seb had already moved on from the conversation. “There’s a bakery not far from here I’d like to pay a visit to. After that we can decide where we want to go for drinks. You look like a tourist so stay close.”

Theron snorted, but rushed to catch up to them, shoulders hunched and hands in his pockets. Sebastian had a point, he didn’t look like he belonged there. “You two know a lot of bars then?”

Sebastian shrugged, taking the lead. “We know of them. We weren’t allowed inside any, being literally children and all.”

“You say that as if you weren’t one now.” Theron retorted.

“I know you’re trying to belittle me by saying that, but it only makes you look worse when I kick your ass in training,” Sebastian said with a grin.

Kyle shook his head, laughing. “Sebastian, have you brought enough coin for you and your boyfriend to get a damn room already? Because I refuse to spend my birthday listening to this shit.”

Sebastian chuckled, “okay, first of all, fuck you. Second, I could definitely do better for myself than this loser if that’s what I wanted, thank you very much. Third, fuck you.”

“I don’t know if I should be feeling insulted or relieved,” Theron said, sarcastically.

They passed familiar narrow streets. The orphanage stood ominously in the distance, a sore thumb of a building, taller than most in the residential district. It wasn’t a terrible place if not for what it represented. Just the distant sight of it brought back that same nagging thought he’d blurted out in front of the Inn two years ago: “If we die tomorrow, no one’s going to know. No one will care. It’s like we never existed.” Kyle knew, without even looking, that the Wolves’ Inn still stood; unscathed and untouchable. Part of him wondered if they could just walk in, like they’d done in Newhaven. The rest of him made sure not to stray too far from his brother. Sebastian grew quieter as well the further they retraced their steps until all conversation died down. Eventually Sebastian stopped in front of a specific building. The door and windows were boarded shut, it seemed as though it’d been closed for quite some time. Kyle walked past and around the corner, peering into the alleyway off to the side, scoffing quietly at the open grate on the outer wall of the building.

“Why did you want to come here, Seb?”

“I just wanted to see if it was still here.” Sebastian’s tone was even, but there was a stark note of disappointment underneath. “Come on, we passed one that’s actually open just down the street. Think the sign on the window said they have hot chocolate.”

Kyle nodded and let Sebastian lead the group away from the extinct bakery. “You wanted to see if it was there, what, out of curiosity?”

“Testing a theory.”

Kyle hummed. “You mind sharing that theory?”

“Maybe tomorrow. I’d rather just have some cake and some hot chocolate today. Find a place to drink afterwards. No heavy stuff. Just a calm day for once.”

[City of Blackpond | Lacus 26th, 2526 | Sundown]

The afternoon was calm. Despite the unwelcoming atmosphere and rough appearance, Sebastian appreciated Blackpond for its character. Even in the worst of times, walking the city streets had been something he enjoyed. It wasn’t home—Sebastian wasn’t sure if he still knew what one felt like—but it was familiar. He could tell Kyle was still uncomfortable, although considerably less. Theron’s disposition fluctuated between curiosity and unease throughout the day. Sebastian imagined he might be going through a similar experience to his own during their first visit to Newhaven. There were a lot of differences in the two cities, but it didn’t take long to notice all the similarities. In a way, it was like staring into the eyes of someone you hate and seeing yourself reflected.

They had cake and hot chocolate, browsed the market stalls, sat idle on a few benches, watching the movement in the streets increase and diminish with the passing of time. As sundown drew nearer and the number of civilians on the streets began to dwindle, the presence of the City Guard increased. With the coming darkness, all life began to trickle away from Blackpond.

“So, where are we going? We need to find a place to hole up for the night,” Kyle said, standing up. “And drink, I guess.”

Sebastian hummed, thinking back to the places they’d heard of in their time on the streets. “How about The Limp Chainmail?”

“The one with the fighting pit? I don’t think that’s a great idea.”

“It could be fun. We could throw Theron in there and take bets.” Sebastian grinned.

“Fuck you,” Theron muttered.

“He’s a Newhavener, Seb. Porter would murder us both if he got himself killed.”

“Alright, no fighting pit. How about The Blushing Harp?”

Kyle coughed, awkwardly. “I’m pretty sure that one’s a brothel.”

“Oh.” Sebastian chuckled. “Never mind then, I didn’t bring enough coin for that.”

Kyle shook his head. “What was the other one called? The Brass Shovel?”

“Yeah. That’s the one across from the cemetery. It’s kinda small, and I don’t know if they rent rooms, but it’ll do.”

“Across from the cemetery?” Theron asked. “Is that why it’s called The Brass Shovel?”

Sebastian shrugged. “I don’t know. I’d go all out and call it Gravedigger’s Respite or something,” he mused.

“Then you’re targeting it directly at gravediggers. There can’t be that many of them,” Kyle said, nodding towards the end of the street before leading the way.

“I don’t know,” Sebastian stood to follow and pulled Theron with him by the arm. “It’s a pretty big cemetery. And let’s face it, if someone’s making money in this town…”

“Probably the military? Making money.” Theron pointed out with a shrug. “Though I guess dealing in death would come close.”

Sebastian shook his head. “If people can afford to die, that is.”

Theron hummed, pausing as they reached the edge of the cemetery grounds. “Is—if you don’t mind me asking—is your sister buried here?”

Kyle stopped walking and turned to face Theron, one eyebrow raised. “Are you trying to ask if we could afford a burial, Lockwood?”

“What? No. I’m just wondering… You know, we’re right here.”

“It’s just a plaque with a name on it. Or a grain of sand in an hourglass. That or whatever other—you know, whatever other traditions there are. It’s all just symbolic. It’s not really them.” Sebastian sighed, staring out into the cemetery grounds. He still remembered where it was. Where she was; what was left of her, even if they’d only been there once.

“You have something to go back to at least.” Theron’s words were heavy. “At least I know where my dad is, even if I can’t really go back there. That’s not nothing.”

Sebastian hummed. “I don’t know. Feels like a whole lot of nothing sometimes.”

Kyle snorted. “Come on. We should get going. If we’re not inside when night falls we’re gonna have to deal with the Guard.”

The reminder got Theron moving forward quickly, but Sebastian lingered by the entrance of the cemetery a few moments. As the sun began to set and a chilling breeze began to blow across the streets and through the field of graves, a faint whisper echoed in the back of his mind: You can’t avoid me forever.

“Seb, are you coming?” Kyle called.

“Yeah.” Sebastian frowned, watching the lines of graves in the distance and muttering, “I know,” under his breath before rushing to catch up.

******

The Brass Shovel was a small, family-owned tavern. A simple interior with a few tables, chairs, and a roaring fireplace. As Sebastian closed the door behind their group, the warm air and pleasant scent of food enveloped them like a thick blanket. Kyle found a table that allowed a good view of both the front door as well as the bar and they settled down. The family that ran the tavern consisted of a middle aged couple, two sons—one older and one around their age—and a daughter who looked around seventeen. The two teenagers were leaning against the bar, wearing matching aprons and bored expressions. After a brief discussion among siblings, the girl leisurely strolled to their table. She stopped across from Sebastian’s seat, tucking away a curl of light brown hair that refused the confines of its ponytail. Her eyes were sharp and curious, but she wore the rehearsed smile of someone whose livelihood depended on the satisfaction of strangers. “Evening, boys. What can I get you?”

“Evening,” Sebastian greeted, offering a smile of his own. “Uhm, I suppose you don’t rent rooms here, right?”

“Sorry, no. If you’re worried about the curfew, though, we stay open all night. You’re welcome to stay until sunrise. Most customers will do that.” The girl’s smile remained, but her tone very much indicated the offer only applied to paying customers and they were yet to order anything.

“That’s good to know. I’ll have some ale and whatever it is you’ve got cooking back there. It smells really good.”

“Venison stew. We also have a warm batch of bread rolls coming out, if you’d like a plate of those,” she offered.

“Sounds great, absolutely. Thank you.” Sebastian nodded. “Alright, so food and ale for the table; how much are we talking?”

The girl hummed. “It’ll be around fifteen silver. Unless, I don’t know, you’d like to try and impress me with your generosity,” she said, a spirited smirk momentarily peering through her professional exterior.

Sebastian chuckled. “I don’t know. If we round it up to two gold pieces will you tell us your name?”

“No, but I’ll be impressed.”

Sebastian set two gold pieces down on the table with a grin. “Nice to meet you, Impressed. I’m Seb.”

The girl snorted softly. “Rebecca. I’m guessing the three of you are from out of town if you’re being so casual about throwing extra five silver on a joke.”

“A good joke is always worth it. Besides, it’s our birthday,” Sebastian gestured between himself and his brother. “I’m in a giving mood.”

“That’s funny, because you didn’t get me anything,” Kyle chimed in.

Sebastian turned to his brother with a smirk. “I’ve been making your life interesting for fifteen years, that’s the greatest gift of all.”

Rebecca shook her head as she collected the gold, her eyes landing on Kyle for the first time. “Oh, wow, that’s interesting,” she said, running her index finger along her own jaw, mirroring the location of his burn scar. “How’d that happen?”

“Just an accident. Held a candle too close to my face.” Kyle’s tone dripped with sarcasm, but he soon caught himself. “Sorry, that was rude.”

“No, no. I was being intrusive, I apologize.” Rebecca smiled. “It looks really fetching, if it’s any consolation.”

“Oh, thank you,” Kyle mumbled, sheepishly running his hand through his hair. “I, uh, I’m Kyle, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Kyle.” Rebecca smiled, more genuine this time around. “Tell you what, since your only birthday gift so far has been putting up with this guy here, I’ll have a talk with my mom and see if she can make you something special, how about that?”

“Won’t that be too much trouble? I mean… It’s not that big of a deal.”

“No trouble at all.” She turned to look as another group entered the tavern and sat at one of the vacant tables. “I’ll see what I can do and I’ll be back in a bit, okay?”

Kyle nodded. “Sure.”

Rebecca lingred for a few moments longer than necessary, sharp, but slightly tired hazel eyes fixated on Kyle’s scar, then she stepped away. Sebastian watched her disappear into what he assumed was the kitchen. “I think she liked you,” he said, turning to look at his brother. “She thinks your scar is fetching.”

“She’s just being nice because you gave her extra money, Seb,” Kyle muttered, crossing his arms.

“Yes, of course. I gave her extra money, therefore she was nicer to you.” Sebastian rolled his eyes. “Back me up here, Lockwood. You saw that, right?”

Theron nodded. “I did see that, yes.”

Kyle shook his head. “You two are being idiots.”

Sebastian shook his head and punched Kyle lightly in the arm. “You’re an idiot. Girl’s clearly interested in you. Tell you what, why don’t you handle the conversation when she comes back? Maybe ask what she’s gonna be doing tomorrow?”

“Why would I do that? I’m not good at handling conversation.”

Sebastian laughed. “You did better than me, stop whining.”

Theron snorted. “You need to learn when to not make dumb jokes.”

“Excuse me, no. I refuse to accept that.” Sebastian scoffed. “Either way, not as if I was interested anyway.”

Theron shook his head, smirking. “You didn’t fail, you just weren’t trying.”

Sebastian shrugged casually. “I was trying something, just not exactly that. I don’t know, she’s not my type.”

“You have a type?” Kyle asked, raising an eyebrow. “What’s your ‘type’?”

“I’m not sure, but I think I’ll know it when I see it. Either way, you don’t have to talk to her if you don’t want to, but if ‘I’m not good at it’ is your only reason not to, well… That’s not much of a reason, bro.”

Kyle nodded, and Sebastian couldn’t tell whether he’d taken the encouragement, but either way he wasn’t going to pressure him further. There weren’t many patrons in the tavern upon their arrival, but with the fall of night, the tables and bar stools filled up quickly. Rebecca briefly stopped by with their drinks and to let them know their food would be out shortly, but was promptly whisked away to tend to another group before Sebastian could even consider forcing another conversation between her and his brother. When their food was ready it was the younger son who brought it, eagerly accepting their coin for another round of drinks and openly making conversation for a brief moment before rushing back to the bar.

The food was delicious, warm, and weighed on his insides like a thick fuzzy blanket. So did the ale; weak as it was, three or four rounds in it’d started to take effect. Sebastian didn’t particularly like it, but he could handle it much better than whatever they’d stolen from the baker two years ago.

Right. That night…

Sebastian glanced at his brother. Kyle was wiping the bottom of his bowl with the last of his dinner roll and it looked as though setting fire to the Wolfpack was a distant thought to him now. For tonight, at least. Theron was watching the bar crowd intently, his chair pushed against the wall at his back; not unlike how Gabrielle normally did, wearing the same introspective unease on his face as he’d done all afternoon. “What’d you make of Blackpond, Lockwood?”

“Not as bad as I’ve been warned it is,” Theron answered, shrugging. “What did you make of Newhaven the first time you were there?”

“A beautiful, untrustworthy place.”

Theron snickered. “Can’t really argue with that.” He took a long swig of his ale and sighed. “Growing up there was alright, but…” He ended the sentence with a noncommittal shrug.

“Growing up here sucked,” Kyle chimed in. “If you can even say we did, I don’t know. Most of it wasn’t exactly here.”

“I think most of it was,” Sebastian said, pushing his empty bowl aside and fishing his journal from the inside of coat, writing implements from his bag. “Not most of the time, but most of the growing up; that was here.”

Kyle snorted softly. “You brought your journal?”

Sebastian eyed the page as he scribbled. “I always bring it when we leave home.”

Kyle snorted again, though more subdued this time. It was as if Sebastian could hear the words echoing somewhere in the back of his brother’s mind; in a version of reality where he’d brought himself to say them. He ignored Kyle’s introspective demeanor and said, “To each their own; how they cope with things.”

Kyle leaned closer, though not enough to see what he was writing. “What are you coping with right now?”

Sebastian stopped his pen mid-sentence. The atmosphere in the tavern was light and cheerful and if there were Wolves among them, for once, he hadn’t thought about it. “I’m just trying to make sense of something.” He finished his sentence, leaving the entry incomplete, and lowered the pen. “When I went into that bakery two years ago I saw a coin purse on the nightstand. I could have taken it, but I decided to leave it.”

“Is that why you wanted to see if it was still there?”

“Porter told me something a while back about not being able to stop some things, and I’ve been trying to test that theory. I had a decision to make in that bakery, but… It didn’t impact anything.”

Kyle chuckled. “For what you told me, one coin pouch wasn’t going to save that guy’s business.”

“No more than I could have saved Kat, yeah.” Sebastian muttered, closing the journal and putting it away.

“We, Seb,” Kyle said. “No more than we could have saved her. I was there too, this was never just on you.”

Sebastian carefully put his pen away so as not to allow it to leak into his bag and ran one hand over his eyes, fingers pressing into his closed lids. “Yeah.”

“Fuck, alright,” Theron cut in. “That’s enough of that. We’re going to get something a little harder to drink, stay in here, not burn anything down, and regret our life decisions in the morning. That’s the plan, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Sebastian answered, letting his hand drop. Kat wouldn’t want them to wallow. She would have wanted them to have a good birthday. “Yes, it is.”

“You do that,” Kyle told him, waving Rebecca over. “I think I’m switching over to tea if they have any.”

Sebastian snorted a laugh. He knew Kyle hated tea, but he wasn’t going to push him into any more alcohol if he didn’t want to. Rebecca noticed Kyle, motioned for them to wait a minute and disappeared into the back. She reemerged several minutes later carrying a small tray, and walked straight to their table. She set the tray down, revealing three small bars of chocolate. “I couldn’t get my mom to make you something, but… Happy birthday.”

“Wow,” Kyle exclaimed. If they’d learned anything from Jo constantly pestering Gerald to get her chocolate, it was that chocolate wasn’t cheap or easy to come by. “Are you sure you want to just give us those?”

“Of course. It’s no problem.” Rebecca leaned in and lowered her voice. “Honestly, you guys spent a lot of coin tonight already, most locals order one round and just sit until morning. Not as if my dad would throw them out.”

Kyle hummed. “Is my brother’s generosity how you could tell we’re not from around here?”

Rebbeca smirked and nodded towards Theron. “Newhavener. I mean, you can take them out of the city…”

Theron scoffed. “I’ve been hearing that from these two all day, what’s that even supposed to mean?”

“It means we can tell you’re from Newhaven because of the way you carry yourself. Also you’ve been way too interested in everything like someone who’s clearly never stepped foot in Blackpond before,” Kyle told him.

“What about you two?” Rebecca asked, her attention still on Kyle. “You’re clearly not from around here, but you could have fooled me if you tried.”

“Out of town, not too far out.” Kyle answered. “We’re hunters, so, you know, we move around a lot.”

“Ah. High demand for pelts this time of year. You must be doing well.”

“It’s still early into winter, but it’s looking that way, yes.”

It might have been the ale, or maybe it was the welcome distraction from the looming shadow of their sister’s ghost, but for someone who wasn’t great at handling conversation, Kyle was doing exceedingly well talking about hunting and trapping as though that was truly their line of work. Half-truths; it was something he did after all, it just wasn’t their usual kind of hunt. Rebecca was clearly not that interested in the topic, but seemed content that he was speaking.

“So, uhm…” Hesitation returned to Kyle’s voice the moment he tried to break from his comfort zone, but he cleared his throat and pushed himself to continue. “What do you do, you know, during the day? Maybe tomorrow during the day?”

“We push everyone out at sunrise, lock up, then I sleep until around midday, and I’ve taken an apprenticeship with a friend of my mom. She owns a dress shop. I work there every afternoon, and then I come back here. It takes up a lot of my free time, unfortunately, but… I don’t want to work here forever.” Rebecca smiled. “I take it you guys won’t be in town much longer, huh?”

Kyle turned to Sebastian. “Think we’re gonna be leaving tomorrow afternoon, right?”

“We can hang around for another day if you’re thinking of planning a date or something, but we don’t have anything else planned tomorrow.” Sebastian told him. Kyle snorted, clearly biting back an angry response to his teasing and Sebastian chuckled, standing up. “I’m gonna go get another drink and let you two can figure it out.”

“Oh,” Rebecca startled and quickly looked around to see if she was being summoned somewhere else. The atmosphere in the tavern had mellowed out considerably and many of the patrons were leaning against their tables, dazed from sleep as they waited out the night. “I should go get that for you.”

Sebastian shook his head. “Don’t worry, I need to stretch my legs a little bit.” He turned to Theron. “You still wanted something stronger, Lockwood?”

Theron had clearly checked out of the conversation and was startled at his call. “Huh? Oh. Rum’s good.”

“You got it.”

Sebastian left the table and made his way towards the bar. The stools were occupied by the few heavy drinkers in the place. The last patrons to arrive before the doors closed for the night stood, leaning against the counter, unable to claim seats. What little conversation he could overhear was either sluggish from exhaustion or slurred from the effects of alcohol. He squeezed in between two men who seemed to be sleeping over the counter top, eliciting a couple of protesting grunts from one of them, and ordered two shots of rum. He didn’t realize the drunken man he’d stirred awake was still staring at him until he spoke up.

“I know you…”

Shit. Sebastian held back a flinch, kept his head down, watching the tavern owner fill the glasses in front of him. He hoped the man had him confused with someone else, because being recognized for anything he’d done during his time on the streets could only spell disaster.

“Hey, kid, I’m talking to you!”

The angry note in the man’s voice left no room for doubt. “I don’t know you, man. You’re drunk,” Sebastian muttered.

The man shuffled in his stool, his gaze piercing the back of Sebastian’s neck as he continued to keep his head down. He paid for the drinks and downed them both, one after the other, groaning as the alcohol burned its way down his throat. It hit much harder than the ale, but not as bad as whatever that baker was keeping in his bedroom.

“Hey! Don’t ignore me, you little shit!” The man yelled.

The bar stool scraped the floorboards as the man stood up. The sound crawled its way up the back of Sebastian’s neck and left an uncomfortable shivering sensation in the base of his skull. He looked back towards their table, Kyle was still talking to Rebecca, but Theron had eyes on him, brow furrowed in confusion. Sebastian glanced at the drunk man over his shoulder. “Listen, whatever you’re angry about, I don’t want to start anyth—”

Faster than Sebastian could react, the man grabbed him by the back of the neck, hard enough for his nails to break through skin, and slammed him face down into the countertop. “You hurled a mace at my leg! I was laid off because of you!” he growled.

The accusations were muted by the rush of blood in his ears, as was the barkeep’s voice yelling at the man to take it outside. The pain didn’t register immediately, just a sudden daze from the impact and a sickening taste of iron coating the inside of his mouth. For an excruciatingly long moment, Sebastian struggled against the man’s hold, attempting to draw breath with his face still pressed against the counter. A harsh impact followed. The force pinning him to the counter lifted. Sebastian drew a harsh breath, catching himself against the counter. His eyes refused to focus, and attempting to shake his head resulted in immediate striking pain across his forehead and a pained groan.

Someone was talking to him. The sound registered, but not the words. Sebastian turned to see Theron standing where his attacker had been, the drunk former-guardsmen knocked prone across the floor. He must have tackled him. Theron wasn’t the most skilled at fighting yet, but he was strong nonetheless. “Thanks,” Sebastian managed to croak, coughing and spitting blood onto the floorboards.

Focus returned to him slowly, just enough to catch movement behind Theron’s back. A sudden flash of instinct allowed him time for one reaction. He chose to stupidly shove Theron out of the way of the man’s hammer fist and take another blow to the face.

Theron’s words registered this time around. “What the hell is wrong with you!?”

Sebastian laughed under his breath, unsure if he was yelling at him or the drunk. The man grabbed him by the front of his tunic and pulled his fist back one more time. Something whizzed past Sebastian and hit the man on the head with full force. The sound of shattering glass rang out as the object hit the ground. The man froze for a moment, fist still raised. The hand clutching Sebastian’s tunic went slack, he staggered back a couple of steps, tried to steady himself, and finally collapsed.

Sebastian looked over his shoulder. Kyle was standing a few steps behind, a heavy glass bottle clutched in one hand, expression severe as though waiting for the man to get back up. He didn’t. Upon closer inspection, Sebastian noticed a trickle of blood trailing from a cut on his forehead and across the bridge of his nose which throbbed with pain. “Fuck,” he muttered.

The Guard arrived. Someone must have shouted for them during the altercation. Their solution to the problem was, of course, to arrest everyone involved. Stupid as he could be at times, even after two harsh blows to the head, Sebastian knew that resisting wasn’t going to help him out of this predicament. They left the tavern escorted by the City Guard, in shackles, and Sebastian tried to ignore the pain setting into every inch of his skull.

“Hey,” Kyle whispered, as they marched side by side escorted by their captors. “Happy birthday, you idiot. Was it everything you were hoping for?”

Sebastian chuckled. “Even better.”

[City of Blackpond | Lacus 26th, 2526 | Early Morning]

Blackpond was bleak at the best of times, most of all in dull, grey winter mornings. Johanna was just another solitary figure, huddled into herself, face obscured by a hood, trying to appear insignificant enough to be left alone. The majority of the city only started to rise from its slumber, and those who never slept in the first place had no reason to pay her any mind.

Blackpond was a broken city. A place where lost souls settled into their meaningless existence when even Lady Death had forsaken them. Jo hated being there. Not because it wasn’t as easy on the eyes as Newhaven, or as alive as the forest, but because deep down she couldn’t help feeling as though she belonged.

If anything, it made it easier to blend in. Jo was there for a reason, but she’d once made a living of blending into the background, being inoffensive enough that no one bothered to spare her a second glance. Those instincts never left her. She crossed the city streets at a leisurely pace, head low. Not a single passerby noticed the faint glow of her eyes, or found it odd how her footsteps made no sound.

The military district was more populated this early in the morning. Busier. A different environment than the market squares or residential districts. Jo was noticed there—the occasional glance of a more alert individual meeting her gaze—but no one stopped her. Whether she looked the part of someone eager to meet the end of a sword, or they just didn’t care that much, she wasn’t sure. 

The person she’d come to see currently lived in one of the buildings just on the end of the main street. Or she hoped, at least. It had been a while since she last visited.

Military housing could range from precariously built shacks to decently comfortable homes depending on one’s standing. The ones Jo had personally seen were always on the lower end of that scale. As she stopped in front of the building she’d come here to visit, she thought it looked nice by comparison. It was a plain unremarkable structure, like most in this area of the city, but still in good condition. The door opened before Jo’s hand met the handle. A tall, disgruntled man nearly collided with her as he left in a hurry. No apologies, but no questions, either. Jo held the door open after him; a gap just wide enough for her to slip through.

The room was dark. The interior was as minimalistic as she’d come to expect, though she noticed a door on the other side of the room, which she assumed led to either a lavatory or a kitchen. Something practical whatever it was. The only furniture was a row of beds and a wooden trunk at the foot of each. Two of the beds were occupied; the one on the far end by a young man getting ready for the day. Jo noticed him glancing at her briefly upon entering. While he continued lacing his boots without a flinch, she had a feeling he was keeping track of her movements.

A familiar figure occupied the bed in the center of the room, face down on the mattress, limbs sprawled. Uneven breaths filled the room, occasionally broken by a loud snore. Jo paced closer and immediately the tip of her boot hit an empty bottle. She instinctively muted the sound as it rolled into the space underneath the bed, then remembered how pointless that was considering she was there to wake him. Another step closer and the smell hit her; cheap alcohol, tobacco, other things she dared not question. A deep sigh escaped her, silent; subdued.

“I don’t know what you’re after with that one, miss,” the man at the end of the room spoke up, “but he ain’t gonna be on his feet anytime soon. That one’s dead to the world. Miracle he managed to crawl back in this time.”

Jo’s expression twisted with the words then settled into a sad smile. Nothing new there. She accepted some things wouldn’t change no matter how much she hoped. Her brother was one of those things. The door creaked open and slammed shut behind her back. Her next exhale shuddered, riddled with frustration, as she crouched beside the bed. “Alex.” Nothing. Her call was too soft to wake even a light sleeper, never mind a heavy drinker. For a brief moment she watched him; even asleep he didn’t look peaceful. Under normal circumstances she would sit and wait. All day if needed. Unfortunately this wasn’t a normal day so Jo stood, firmly planted the sole of her boot against his side and pushed until he fell off the edge of the bed with a dull thud and a pained groan. 

What was only a murmur, Jo heard clearly: “By War’s swords you’ll be dead on the side of the castle wall one day.”

With an agonizingly belabored struggle, Alex placed his hands firmly underneath him and pulled his body up; around into a seated position on the floor. She walked around the bed and crouched to meet his eyes. His face was gaunt and pale. Dark circles rippled down to his cheekbone, his hair knotted and tangled atop his head, and a familiar sour frown she came to accept as her introduction. But much like all the introductions before, realization swiped across his face and with a couple of blinks, the hardened face of her brother turned almost warm. His brown eyes glossed over as if he were about to cry, but there were no tears.

“Hello to you, too.” His tone didn’t match his expression as he let out the annoyance he probably felt from his rude awakening.

Jo knew her methods for waking heavy sleepers were notoriously rough, and she wanted to be sympathetic, but the amused grin in her expression betrayed any attempts to come across as such. “Morning, Chuckles,” she greeted. “Rough night?” The answer was obvious and if it weren’t she’d expect him to lie, but she always asked anyway. “I need help with something.”

“If your boyfriend’s gotten himself into trouble, I don’t want anything to do with it.” He said, lifting himself from off the floor. 

That earned an eye roll and an annoyed huff. “No,” she muttered, standing up to meet him. “And no.” Jo frowned, eyes scolding for just a moment before softening again. “Three kids. Got themselves arrested last night.”

“Ha!” Alex blurted out. He let the thought linger for a moment as he moved over to the chest at the foot of his bed. Opening it, he reached in. With a few clangs, he lifted out two glasses held between two fingers in one hand and in the other, a dark green bottle, corked, and half full of liquid. Without a word, pulled the cork and let a dark brown liquor pour into each glass. 

“Considering the trouble your group gets into, they’re probably better off stuck in the dungeons.” He took a sip and shoved a glass in Jo’s hands. “What act of terror did they attempt on those Wolves? They try to burn down their inn?”

“Not this time,” Jo deadpanned, toying with the offered glass of liquor. “Drank too much, might have made a mess.” She paused, watching the dark brown liquid swirl inside its container. “Maybe assault. I’m not sure.”

Alex furrowed his brows for a moment before taking another liberal sip from his glass. “Didn’t realize you had kids, let alone one’s old enough to drink.” Opting this time for the bottle, he took another big sip and then let out another guttural laugh. “It’s only been a year, Johanna. What’ve you been up to?”

Jo hummed, eyes fixed on the contents of her glass as she tried to push down the sudden feeling of discomfort; kept it from showing on her face even though she suspected it wasn’t entirely successful. “Wolves,” she muttered, looking up. “They leave… Leave misery in their wake. It’s how Gabe found me. How I found Gerry.” She breathed out, shrugging and raising her head to meet his eyes. “How we found them too. It doesn’t end.”

“About as much misery as you bring me.” He finished off his glass and paused, staring deeply into his glass. If he was contemplating another drink or something else, she wasn’t sure. “Those kids of yours need to know how to hold their liquor… . You’re asking me to pull some strings with the guards, then?”

“Maybe.” Jo smiled, though it was much stiffer now. “I can get them out, but might be easier if you do it.” She wasn’t going to argue again that this was a terrible idea to begin with, but she wasn’t exactly happy with Gabrielle for encouraging it. “We don’t allow it, the drinking, but…” she snorted. “It was their birthday yesterday, so just this once.”

“I was going to let those poor sods rot in there for a few hours, still, while we caught up. Why didn’t you say it was their birthday sooner? I’ll help you one time, but only because Abel owes me a favor. This is a one-time deal.” 

Alex grabbed the drink out of Jo’s hand and with one fluid motion tilted it back and let it slide down his throat as if it were water. Opening his trunk again, he put everything back, rummaging through it for a moment longer, fishing for something inside. When he didn’t pull anything out, he patted himself down and smiled. “Still wearing it,” he said, presumably about the midnight blue sergeant’s jacket he’d worn to bed. 

“Don’t get them drunk again, Alex,” Jo warned, the scolding offset by a softer smile. “I already left them overnight. Think that’s enough of a lesson.” There would be a conversation about this, especially since she wasn’t entirely sure what she’d witnessed the night before, but if they needed to be punished for their transgression, she trusted Gabrielle to do it far more than the city dungeons.

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