[Hunters Outpost | Inviditas 23rd, 2526 | Early Afternoon]
Never had a week felt longer, or passed by slower than this one in late Inviditas. Kyle did his best to keep busy as much as possible, putting all of his focus on training with his crossbow when there were no chores left to do in a day. He and Gerald alternated keeping watch overnight, which left him to wake up late mornings or early afternoons to sort out meals.
They fell into a simple routine, but one that made it hard to forget the others were yet to return. The kitchen felt too quiet, empty, without Jo’s presence. Kyle thought he’d never heard Sebastian snoring in his sleep, or awake scribbling in his journal at night, but suddenly their shared room felt eerily silent and sleep became difficult, no matter how much he exhausted himself throughout the day.
Porter would find them. Kyle knew she would. He just hated the wait.
Gerald spent most of his afternoons working on repairs or tending the flower beds. As the end of the week drew closer, Kyle hung around him for company and either assisted or just observed. Admittedly, he didn’t care for gardening. It never occurred to him to think about types of flowers, or how to care for them, and even after being told multiple times, he still couldn’t tell some of them apart. He also didn’t think Gerald was the type to know or care for such things.
“Did you learn all this just because Jo likes flowers, Tucker? Never would’ve pegged you for that kind of romantic,” he asked, watching as Gerald wiped his hands on his already muddy tunic.
Gerald chuckled under his breath. “This was initially my idea, Jo just took it over from me eventually. She likes taking care of things and up until I dragged the two of you up here, Porter was vehemently against caring for even a chipmunk, so… Flowers!” he exclaimed.
Gerald smirked. “Jo tried to smuggle one. It ended up getting into the forge… long story.”
Kyle immediately grimaced. “Did Porter kill it?”
“Not intentionally, but Jo was still pretty upset. Thankfully, letting you go down there turned out a little bit better, huh?”
“I’m smarter than a chipmunk, Tucker.”
“Perhaps. I have a feeling the chipmunk would have been easier to train. They don’t talk back as much.”
Kyle rolled his eyes, not wanting to dignify the remark with a response. He didn’t need to defend himself against a dead chipmunk after all. “Alright, so why did you plant flowers, then? The aesthetic?”
Gerald chuckled. “Some of these are good for tea, others have medicinal properties…” he casually nodded towards a patch of yellow flowers at the center of one of the flower beds. “Jo just likes those. Don’t touch that one.”
Kyle turned to look at the flower in question. It was still just a bud, but its dark purple petals stood out amongst a patch of smaller pink flowers. “Why?”
“It’s a rare specimen and the seeds are hard to come by, I would like for it to bloom.”
“Does it have any interesting properties or… Is it just because it’s rare?”
“It has its uses, but… For the most part, I just wanted to see if I could get it to grow.”
Kyle hummed, eyeing the flower with suspicion, but following Gerald when the man stepped away from the garden and started heading towards the nearby creek. “Where did you learn so much about what properties flowers have? Do they teach that stuff in Newhaven?”
Gerald shook his head. “I haven’t brought up my father to you at all, have I?”
“You said your mom was a White Knight. I assumed he was a noble.”
“No.” Gerald fell silent as he stepped over raised tree roots and ducked under branches. Kyle thought he wouldn’t elaborate further, but after almost a minute, Gerald spoke up again. “My father was a White Shadow. A brilliant man, but not the greatest when it came to handling patients. He was notoriously bad with people.”
Kyle couldn’t stop from chuckling, but silenced himself when Gerald turned to glare at him over his shoulder.
“My father’s lack of bedside manners was the reason they stationed him in Newhaven. The leader of the White Shadows felt, at the very least, soldiers could handle his, uh, bluntness a little better. That’s how he met my mother. They maintained a relationship while still keeping to their respective duties. My father would spend two to four months out of the year stationed in Newhaven and the rest of the time in the Plains. And I would often go spend a couple of weeks at a time with him there.”
They reached the creek and Gerald sat on one of the smooth rocks by the margin, reached in to wash his hands on the running water, then cupped two hands full and washed his face, huffing to keep the liquid from entering his nose. It was cooler by the water, but it was still shaping up to be a warm afternoon. The creek was peaceful; the forest was silent, and Gerald seemed content on the surface, but Kyle could see just the trace of a frown in his expression. It’d been a constant from the moment they arrived.
Kyle sat as well, resting his arms on his knees, and broke the silence the best way he knew how; by not asking the question he actually wanted to ask. “What was he like, then? Your dad.”
“He was a good man. My mother used to say he was a little emotionally stupid, and he didn’t always know the meaning of tact; he was a very blunt man, but…” Gerald gave him another warning look and Kyle swallowed his urge to laugh a second time. “…but it wasn’t always a bad thing. Do you know the most valuable lesson I learned from him?”
Kyle shook his head and remained silent, waiting for the answer.
“I was around ten, eleven maybe; before my Awakening for sure, my dad was staying in the city with us and my mother was handling bureaucratic nonsense in a stuffy councilroom as she often did. We went to wander the market and got separated. At one point I ran into this one noble kid that enjoyed picking on me. Now, normally I would ignore it because messing with noble brats in Newhaven is a lot more trouble than it’s worth, but… I didn’t want to risk my father hearing some little smug shit calling me a bastard like he could get away with it. So I punched him before he had the chance.”
“My mother didn’t think so, but that’s a different story.” Gerald chuckled. “Either way, not the greatest idea because, of course, he wasn’t just wandering the market on his own and next thing I know, there’s a full-grown adult bodyguard threatening to break my neck. That’s when my father arrived at the scene. What do you think he did?”
Kyle hummed. “He talked him down?”
Gerald smiled. “That sounds reasonable. Probably the most peaceful route, yes. That man was pinned to the nearest wall, feet off the ground, before he even realized who did it to him. That was the one and only time I witnessed my father use his enlightenment in this manner.”
Kyle made a soft noise of surprise in the back of his throat. “Didn’t you say your father was a Healer? Can they do that?”
“Hm. That’s what the man asked: ‘can you do that?’. My father told him, very calmly, that he swore never to cause harm to another person and no one had yet been harmed. Maybe he wanted to—harm the guy, that is, but he let him down. The guard collected the brat and left without another word. I don’t know what he told his employers, but I’m sure it didn’t include the fact he was so easily bested by a Healer. On the way home, I asked my father if he could have hurt the bodyguard or if he only said that to scare him off.” Gerald paused for a moment, gaze following the flow of water as it rushed downstream. “As we were walking, without even turning around to glance at me, he said ‘my oath is not a prison, it’s a path I chose for myself’.”
The words rang in Kyle’s ears, all too familiar. A path. That’s what both Porter and Gerald had called this. Being a Hunter was a path they all chose. Just not a peaceful one. “What do you think he’d say about the path you’ve chosen, then?”
It took a moment for Kyle to realize he’d asked the question aloud. He hadn’t intended on it, but he also couldn’t take it back. Gerald’s posture tensed, but only for a moment, and the man gave a calm shrug.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I’ve asked myself plenty of times. I don’t know if he would be disappointed, but I don’t think he would be surprised.”
Kyle nodded, watching the creek as well. “If they don’t come back by tonight, are we going after them?”
Gerald seemed about to answer, but froze where he sat, words lodged in his throat. He rose slowly, eyes aglow as he stood at attention. “Someone’s here,” he declared.
“Why do we need to stand guard when you can do that?”
“I can’t do it at all times, Rivers. I sure can’t do it in my sleep,” Gerald answered. “It’s probably them, but just in case, stay behind me until we get confirmation, will you?”
Kyle nodded and followed several steps behind as Gerald made his way back through the same path they’d previously taken. He tried to listen past the snap of twigs on the ground and the rustle of leaves for any signs of movement and, as they drew closer to the towers, the sound of voices reached his ears, then abruptly ceased, followed by the distinct click of a crossbow trigger.
A bolt embedded itself in the trunk of a tree to Gerald’s right and the man breathed a sigh that was part aggravation, part relief, as he turned to yank it free. “I suppose that answers your question, doesn’t it?” he quipped, holding the bolt out for Kyle to see.
“One day she’s going to hit you.” Kyle laughed.
“You’re assuming she never has.”
Upon reaching the towers, the small sense of relief brought on by Gabrielle’s ‘greeting’ immediately washed away. Theron and Sebastian were in the middle of unloading their travel bags onto the ground, eager to be rid of them. Gabrielle was carrying Jo on her back as though she’d been injured. And there was a stark note of melancholy hanging in the air between them that drove an unsettling chill along his spine.
“I told you they were here already,” Sebastian muttered, head low as he removed an extra sheathed sword from his belt. Kyle recognized it as Jo’s sword. It was odd to not see it on her person.
Gerald walked up to meet Gabrielle and although Kyle couldn’t see his expression, the way his posture immediately tensed as he drew near immediately gave away the fact something wasn’t right.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Telepath. Sylvie told Rivers that it’s a matter of allowing her mind to heal. There’s nothing to be done.”
A prolonged silence settled between them as Gerald absorbed the information and when he spoke again, his voice was a mix of deep worry and contained rage. “A Wolf did this?”
“Yes. And before you ask, we’re unsure whether or not she survived. Johanna left her severely wounded, but…” Gabrielle’s tone was grave, and she briefly glanced at Sebastian as she cut herself off. “We’ll discuss the exact sequence of events later, if you don’t mind.”
Gerald followed her gaze to Sebastian, then looked back to her, receiving a brief warning glare in return. “Yes,” he agreed. “Of course.”
“Rivers.” When both Kyle and Sebastian snapped to attention and looked at her in question, she nodded. “Both of you. Go up, clear your room of anything you’ll need, and relocate to the tree house.”
Sebastian immediately nodded agreement and when Kyle only stared back in confusion, he found himself pulled by the arm toward the stairs.
“Come on, we should do this quickly so Porter can bring Jo up,” Sebastian mumbled.
Kyle nodded and followed his brother up to their shared room. There wasn’t much to pack. Even in two years of being in the Outpost they’d amassed very few belongings. Kyle gathered the few spare clothes he owned, his crossbow and quiver, the book he’d been reading last, all the while watching as Sebastian did the same on his side of the room.
“What the hell happened?” he asked.
Sebastian stilled, momentarily frozen, holding a pair of socks that may or not have been clean. When he finally answered, his tone was uncharacteristically dull. “We ran into a Wolf at the village. Jo fought her. She turned out to be a telepath. If you want the play-by-play, I’m gonna need to catch some sleep first, but essentially that’s it.”
“She was a telepath? What does that mean? What—”
“Porter used the term catatonic.” Seb cut in, his tone sharper now. “She’s trapped in her own head, basically. We can’t do anything about it. She’ll either come out of it or she won’t.”
“Oh.” Kyle passed the strap of his crossbow over one shoulder and packed his clothes and other belongings into his travel bag quickly. “We ran into a pair of Scouts in Blackpond. Gerald thinks they’ve been on the lookout for us. He killed one. The other one got away. Do you think you were being tracked?”
Sebastian sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
Kyle’s own sigh mimicked his twin’s. “She’ll come out of it, Seb. And if that Wolf made it out of this alive, we’ll make sure she regrets it.”
“Yeah,” Sebastian muttered, leading the way out of the room. “Yes, we will.”
[Hunters Outpost | Inviditas 25th, 2526 | Early Evening]
Sharing the tower with Johanna again after two years held a touch of familiarity Gerald didn’t know how to reconcile. It felt bitter more than anything else. A lingering resentment constantly burned into his core, reserved for the part of him that wished to cling to the fond memories of that room. To disconnect from the reality of sharing that same space with a mere shadow of the person in those memories. Because no amount of telling himself she would come out of this—no matter how much he willed himself to hope for it—nothing could erase the fact that Jo was not truly there.
Gerald had only a shallow understanding of Jo’s past. Bits and pieces glimpsed over the years, carefully put together into a very simplistic picture. A featureless portrait of a person he’d never met. Jo never invited questions about that aspect of herself, and he’d always been comfortable not knowing. It wasn’t until Gabrielle explained to him what the telepath did to her that he wished he could know where her mind had gone.
“You haven’t come down to eat.”
Gerald hummed, uninterested, at the sound of Gabrielle’s voice. “I wasn’t hungry.”
“None of us are.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught her moving across the room in the dark, the soft dull sound of a bowl being placed on the table. The warm, steamy aroma of rabbit stew assaulted his senses almost immediately, causing his stomach to clench. A small glare of candle flame assaulted his vision; the first light to enter the room since Sun’s light faded and in its place the habitual darkness of night arrived.
“Are the two of you having a staring contest, Tucker? Because even under better circumstances, I’m certain you would still lose.”
Gerald caught a frustrated growl forming in the back of his throat and swallowed it down. The sound of a chair dragging and Gabrielle sitting down with a tired groan was almost reassuring. A small reminder that he wasn’t the only one feeling the weight of this situation.
“Tuck,” Gabrielle called, once again trying to draw his attention. When he didn’t answer, she sighed. “You can’t just sit there the entire time. It’s how the saying goes… A watched catatonic never comes to their senses.”
Gerald shook his head in disbelief, almost as if trying to keep the words out of his ears. “That… Did you just…?” He turned to glare at Gabrielle and noticed just the hint of a smirk tugging at the corner of her lips. It was small, but enough to ease any spark of anger the words might have elicited. “That was horrible. Absolutely horrible. This isn’t funny.”
“No. Not in the slightest,” she agreed. Calmly, she adjusted her hat and leaned back in her seat, grey eyes just barely visible underneath the leather brim as she nodded towards the bowl of stew on the table. “Eat.”
“Fine,” Gerald muttered.
His muscles ached as he rose from the bed and he stretched with a pained grunt. It helped, but not enough. His knees felt stiff when he lowered himself into the seat across from Gabrielle, the candlelight hurt as well; it made him too aware of how long he’d been sitting in the dark. Without a word, he pulled the bowl closer and stirred the food within with the provided spoon. Even though the food looked and smelled appetizing, and he could feel his stomach rumble, he couldn’t bring himself to want it. Still, he knew he needed to and forced himself to take a spoonful, anyway.
“She would laugh,” Gabrielle said, watching him from across the table. “If she could.”
“At your pathetic attempt at humor? Yes. Yes, she would.” Gerald could help a trace of laughter from escaping. “She might even be proud. She always says you need to laugh more.”
Gabrielle hummed, thoughtful, and for a split second he caught a twitch in her expression as her eyes flickered to where Jo was sitting; staring unblinking at the opposite wall, unmoving except for the rise and fall of unsteady breaths.
“I laugh on the inside,” she said. “You’re all very laughable people.”
Gerald chuckled weakly. “I’m glad at least you’re entertained,” he muttered.
“Never a dull moment, Tucker.” Silence followed Gabrielle’s deadpan quip. It lingered in the air between them, heavier with each passing second. Only the gentle scrapes of the spoon slowly dragging across the bowl disturbed it as Gerald scooped the last of the stew. Once finished, he spoke up.
“They’re closing in on us.”
“We knew it would happen sooner or later. This is just… Sooner.”
Gerald shook his head. If he didn’t know better, he’d ask how she could sound so unfazed. “I’ve been trying, from the day we left Blackpond, to figure out where we slipped.”
“Unless you’re able to manipulate time and retract that moment; or collection of moments, I think it’s safe to say it doesn’t matter. And sitting in the dark, being resentful, helps no one. Not yourself, not the kid, nor her.”
Gerald sighed and located the cup of water next to the empty bowl, busying himself with slowly sipping from it instead of formulating an immediate reply. Gabrielle was right, he was resentful and searching for someone to blame even if it had to be himself. Finally, he set the cup down and spoke. “Do you think… If that telepath survived, do you think the Outpost’s location might be compromised?”
“I don’t know, but we’re in no condition to relocate if that’s what you’re considering. Not while Johanna remains in this state. We barely made it back as is.”
Gerald nodded, running both hands over his eyes. “What if…” He trailed off, unable to fully voice the thought. Not now, not with her sitting right there; regardless of whether she could hear them.
“We’re not doing that. Not yet.” Gabrielle answered. “Whatever Johanna might be reliving right now, she’s already survived it once. She’ll do it again.”
“That’s a lot of confidence.” Gerald leaned back on the chair, tipped his head back to watch the flicker of candlelight dance against the stone ceiling. “How long has she been like this? What did Sylvie say was the limit?”
“Thirteen…” Gabrielle paused. “No, eighteen days.” The sound of her chair tapping against the wall behind it echoed in the room. “Sylvie said eighteen months was the longest someone survived this way, but I assume we shouldn’t expect recovery if it’s been that long.”
Gerald grimaced. They’d discussed it the previous day, and Gabrielle was adamant that going to the White Shadows with this would be a poor decision. That it would be safer and better to have Johanna home—somewhere familiar—when she came to. And that they should be patient. “We don’t know what to expect, Porter. That’s the problem.”
“The future is always uncertain,” Gabrielle said. “I know you don’t like not having a plan, but the best we can do about this right now is take turns on watch duty; outside and in here, and take things as they come. We don’t have a choice.”
“Who’s on watch outside?”
“Lockwood. I’m taking over for you here. you need to sleep.”
“I’m fine,” Gerald muttered.
“Tuck.” Gabrielle’s tone hardened enough that Gerald straightened in his seat and looked at her, but softened it once she had his attention. “I know it’s difficult; and too much to ask, but I need you to keep your head if we are to get through this.”
Gerald sighed. It was too much, and it might have been easy to resent her for asking if not for the fact that in five years this was the closest Gabrielle had come to admitting she needed his help. “Yeah,” he conceded. “Yeah, I know.”
They sat across from each other in silence for a long moment. Finally, Gerald got up and went to bed, while Gabrielle remained in her chair, maintaining a watchful eye on the room in the off chance Johanna got up and wandered.
As he lay down with a tired groan, Gabrielle extinguished the candle, rendering the room completely dark. Although still resisting the prospect of sleep, Gerald closed his eyes. If he focused just enough, he could sense traces of movement in the room; the occasional sway of Gabrielle’s chair as she balanced it on its hind legs, a restless movement from where Jo perched herself on the bed opposite his. Small signs of life within a growing stillness. Familiar, yet changed. Home. Or what was left of it.