[Wolves Camp | Aurelium 21st, 2526 | Midmorning]
The letter arrived several weeks ago and those two words were all Dani could bring herself to read. Lena’s handwriting was always flawless. Research notes, reports, hastily scrawled notes slipped under her little sisters’ bedroom door; it didn’t matter the purpose. Lena’s words were always impeccably neat. Each letter penned with methodical precision, with just the right amount of pressure on the page. Rhythmic and flowy; effortlessly beautiful.
Those two words; the familiarity of them, should have been a comfort. Dani couldn’t get past the shaky lines, the smudged ink where the pen sat against the paper for too long. It was vulnerable, fragile in a way she couldn’t recognize. She wanted to feel relieved that Lena was able to write them at all, but the more she stared at those two words over the course of days, the more Dani resented the thought of her sister so weak that the previously innocuous act of holding a pen to a sheet of parchment had now become a hurdle.
“…but mom said she’s coming home. That’s good news, right?” she mumbled.
No one answered. Dani took her eyes off the creased parchment for the first time in what felt like hours. As her sight readjusted to the world around her, she groaned and squinted under the glare of midmorning sunlight. The vibrant golden-yellow leaves hung from the weeping willow over the solitary grave and accentuated the brightness of the sun. The words etched into the stone blurred into indistinguishable lines until Dani blinked them back into focus.
Dani stared at the name. Scrutinized it. As though staring long enough would somehow allow her to read the expression of a face she never knew. Adria had called it “morbidly peculiar”, this newfound habit of conversing with a grave other than her father’s; and Dani reckoned it likely was, but places like this were built for this purpose, weren’t they? To comfort the living. And, foolish as that notion may feel to others, a part of her felt Lena’s birth mother—wherever she may be—would have liked to know how her child was faring. Some people believed the dead could watch over the living, some didn’t. Dani wasn’t sure what she believed but she wondered, if they could, what they would be feeling.
“What would you even say about all this?” she muttered.
“I wonder that too.”
Dani scrambled to tuck her sister’s letter into her pocket before she even fully registered her mother’s voice. To Claire’s merit, she hadn’t once inquired as to the content of the letters she and Sarah received. Dani knew Sarah had read hers the day it arrived, but didn’t ask what it said either; only offered to talk about it if she wanted. Regardless, Dani felt protective of hers and, truth be told, guilty that she hadn’t been able to read it fully.
In the time it took Dani to fully recompose, Claire had taken a seat beside her on the grass; legs crossed, arms resting over her knees, posture stiff as a board. Dani wasn’t sure if the obvious tension was because of where she was sitting or the fact she expected to be there alone. She wondered if she should get up and leave. If she was intruding on something that didn’t concern her.
“I’ve been wondering for most of your sister’s life if I’ve made the right decisions. I knew Luce better than anyone else. If she wanted to disappear I would never have found her, but she chose to hide in Rosefeld of all places. Part of me will always question if she’d resent me for bringing her child back here. If she’d gone where she wanted Lena to be.”
Dani slouched where she sat, all thoughts of leaving immediately draining from her mind. She had never heard her mother speak so openly about this; or anything else for that matter. There’d been moments over the years, small glimpses, but nothing this blatantly vulnerable.
“Why didn’t you ask? You found her. You must have wanted answers.” Dani asked, unable to stop herself.
“When I found Lucille I struck her down where she stood. Because I knew if I hesitated even for a second; if I heard her voice…” Claire trailed off and shook her head. “I couldn’t falter. I’m the Alpha. I’m meant to enforce the clan’s laws. Lucille’s betrayal of the Wolfpack was far more important than her betrayal of our friendship.”
Dani kept her eyes on the grave. She could hear the undertone of hurt in her mother’s voice and she couldn’t risk seeing it in her eyes. “That’s… Not fair, is it? She chose to run instead of coming to you. Never knowing why must hurt.”
“It does, yes, but… Duty isn’t fair, pup. That’s something that you’ll have to come to terms with, should you choose to be Alpha.”
“Choose.” Dani scoffed. “It doesn’t feel like a choice.”
“Daniela.” Claire sighed. “It is a choice. One that I won’t be around to help you make. I want you to be prepared for whatever decision you make, but you need to understand that it is ultimately your decision. Because this is not easy.”
Dani nodded, finally turning to look at her mother and finding her gaze to be gentle, if a little tired. It drove a stabbing feeling of guilt into her core. She knew her mother wasn’t taking well to Lena’s situation; none of them were. Unlike Sarah who clung to their mom’s side at every opportunity, Dani handled it by avoiding being alone with her as much as possible. She felt foolish for acting that way. At what point had it become so difficult to talk to her mother?
“You shouldn’t have sent her there,” Dani mumbled before she even realized. There was no bite to her tone, no accusation, just hurt. “I know she said she wanted to go, but you could have said no. You could have chosen someone else to go instead.”
“Dani, I didn’t send Lena after Maddie just because she wanted to go. I sent her because I thought even if there were Hunters in that village I could rely on your sister to not engage with them. I failed to consider that she might be recognized, but… Even in hindsight I don’t know how I could have chosen differently. Other than maybe stress to your sister that she was to not go into that village.”
“She knew that already.” Dani muttered, unable to hold back a biting tone. “I don’t know why she thought that was a good idea.”
“It was a reckless mistake, but I think we can all agree she’s been punished for it enough, can’t we?”
Her mother’s tone was the same as when Lena left her books on Dani’s side of the room or they were both being too stubborn to apologize for whatever childish grievance managed to put a wedge between them for the day. It was not as if her eldest child had barely escaped a brush with death. It drew a short strangled laugh from her. “I guess. I don’t even know who I’m angry with anymore. Anyone. Everyone. I just don’t know how to stop at this point.”
Claire sighed and wrapped one arm around Dani’s shoulders. “Of all people, rest assured, I know that anger well, Daniela, but your sister is coming home. The journey from Newhaven will be difficult and for what the Healers have said she has a lengthy recovery ahead still. Try, if you can, to set those feelings aside for her benefit. Because she will need you.” Claire squeezed her daughter closer, lightening her tone. “And so will I. You know how insufferable Helena becomes when told to remain in her room.”
Dani chuckled and felt some of the tension in her chest begin to finally ease. “She’ll need restraints.”
“She’ll get out of them.”
“She would.” Dani’s laughter grew then slowly faded to a weary sigh. “Will dad be home by the time she gets here? Sarah told me he left for Blackpond this morning?”
“It depends, pup. At present we don’t know what’s happened to Irene. As much as I would prefer Tom not to go now… It’s been too long with no communication. She’s either gone rogue or we’ll be adding her name to the Hourglass Ceremony next year along with Peter’s.”
Dani winced. She didn’t know Peter or Irene well. Scouts rarely stayed in camp very long, but she did know how inseparable they were. If she witnessed his death there was a real possibility she’d gone rogue. Something that hadn’t happened under her mother’s leadership since… Dani’s gaze flickered towards the name etched into the gravestone. The dead may or not be able to watch over the living, but one way or another, they surely knew how to haunt them.
[Hunters Outpost| Aurelium 22nd, 2526 | Midmorning]
The sharp sting of blade slicing flesh caused Sebastian to wince in his seat. As a low curse slipped from his lips, the harsh whack of a dagger handle against the the top of his head only added to his discomfort.
“Mind your language, Rivers,” Gabrielle warned, calmly.
“Porter, what the hell, you cut me!”
“I gave you ample warning to hold still. I’m not as precise as Johanna with small blades,” she scolded.
Sebastian grumbled, touching the small sore spot behind his left ear, unsurprised to find blood glistening on his fingers upon lowering his hand. “If you’re a little less precise you’d be stabbing into my brain there.”
“Unlikely.” Gabrielle deadpanned. “I will advise you once more to hold still.”
Sebastian huffed, but stilled and tried to relax into his seat as much as possible without slouching. In the past few weeks he’d done his best to become more present. He’d been helping Gerald with the garden, sitting down for meals with the group, only moderate training, and writing in his journal every night. His sleep improved and he hadn’t heard his sister’s voice or suffered any dizzy spells since.
Part of him felt wrong falling into any semblance of a routine as though nothing changed. The rest of him tried to cling to those frayed threads of normalcy as much as possible. Even in his diary entries, he attempted to talk about small and unimportant aspects of his day, as though Jo’s absence wasn’t a heavy fog permeating all aspects of their lives. The more time passed, the heavier it became. She hadn’t improved, if anything, she was becoming more lethargic. And he couldn’t help but compare the sight of her now to a candle burning at its end. Just a flicker of flame, trying its damndest not to fizzle out.
A haircut felt like such a small, foolish concern by comparison, and he was surprised Gabrielle didn’t say so when he asked for her help. To her merit, she’d done a much better job than he could have by himself, but it was clear neither of them had the patience for how slowly she worked.
“Ah, both his ears are still attached, I’m surprised.”
Sebastian tried to move his head upon hearing his brother enter the kitchen and was immediately punished with an open palm to the back of the head.
“Hold still, Rivers.”
“Stop hitting me!”
Kyle laughed as he walked around Sebastian’s chair, leaning in to get a closer look at Gabrielle’s handiwork but flinching away after; Sebastian assumed, being given a stern glare.
“S’not bad but I still think you should just grow it out,” he said. “Less risk of getting a bloody ear that way.”
Sebastian huffed, holding back a wince as the blade sliced through the shorter hairs on the back of his neck. “I like it short. And if I let the prospect of cuts scare me off, I wouldn’t be here, would I?”
“It’s also a lot cooler,” Kyle said with a nod.
“Don’t you mean fetching?” Sebastian grinned.
“Shut your fuc—” Kyle caught himself, drew a deep breath, and corrected: “shut your mouth, Seb.”
Sebastian chuckled, running his fingers through his hair once Gabrielle sheathed her blade and stepped away. “Not on this life.”
Kyle huffed and crossed his arms. “Whatever, dumbass.” He then turned to Gabrielle. “Tucker’s in the office. Asked me to come get the two of you.”
The words drained any lightheartedness out of the room. And as Gabrielle exited the kitchen with hurried footsteps and clenched fists, Sebastian realized that in three years, this was the closest to anger he’d seen in her demeanor.
“Uh oh, I think mom and dad are about to have a fight,” Kyle quipped.
Despite the humor in his tone, the twist in Kyle’s expression gave away concern. Gerald had abruptly left the Outpost the week prior without a word to anyone. Not even Gabrielle had been included in this decision. And while she showed little reaction at the time, Sebastian wouldn’t be surprised to learn she had been seething the entire time.
“Did he say where the hell he’s been?” he asked as he walked past Kyle to exit the kitchen.
“No. All he said is that we need to have a discussion and to come get the two of you.” Kyle answered, his footsteps trailing after Sebastian as he ascended the stairs. “Didn’t leave a lot of room for questions and I thought it’d be a bad idea to push it.”
“Hm.” Sebastian stopped at the top of the stairs and as Kyle crossed the bridge to enter the office, he instead peered into their former bedroom.
He and Kyle had never kept many personal belongings since losing their home. Not even after gaining a new home with the Hunters had they gathered personal items. Still, the room was visibly changed since they’d vacated it. The half Jo occupied was kept neat and clear of any clutter, but the other half showed clear signs of the comings and goings of the other Hunters; scattered books, writing implements strewn across the floor, empty food bowls from the previous night still piled on the small table beside the bed.
Jo was huddled on the bed Sebastian used to occupy, lying on her side, facing the wall. Despite her stillness, he could tell she was awake; or at least in some sort of wakeful state. Her shoulders were tense, her breathing shallow. Nothing about Jo indicated any form of relaxation except for the rare moments when she did fall asleep. Initially they’d worried about her getting up and wandering out of the room, taking a tumble down the stairs, Gerald and Gabrielle made it a point that one of them should be keeping watch at all times. It had since become far less of a concern as Jo barely stirred anymore.
“Thought Gerald wanted to have a talk?”
Theron’s voice stole his attention, hoarse and muffled under a thick book carelessly plopped over his face. He was splayed on the other bed, unmoving, and if he hadn’t just spoken, Sebastian would assume he was asleep under it.
“Yeah, I just wanted to check in for a second. You sound like shit.”
Theron pulled the book away from his face with a frustrated huff. His hair was disheveled and his eyes bloodshot from a lack of sleep. “I was on watch all night and then Gerald came back and woke me up to keep Jo company because he wants the rest of you in the office.” He sat up and ran both hands over his face. “I would have told him to piss off if he didn’t look so miserable.”
Sebastian sighed. “Alright. I’m taking over for you after this meeting.”
“Take your time,” Theron deadpanned. “No need to rush on my account.”
Sebastian forced a small chuckle, but lingered in the doorway, his gaze once again focusing on Johanna.
“She hasn’t moved,” Theron said. “At least not for as long as I’ve been here.”
Sebastian hummed. It’d been months. They’d all been doing as much as possible to tend to Jo’s needs, but her health was visibly deteriorating. “She will,” he muttered.
Theron didn’t say anything, but he could feel a look of disbelief follow him out of the room. He knew that with each passing day the odds of Jo escaping this mental prison became more scarce. They all knew. And it was a thought he didn’t want to entertain, but was finding increasingly difficult to push down.
Across the bridge, the door to Gabrielle’s office was cracked open. The murmur of voices coming from the other side was unintelligible until Sebastian was halfway across the bridge, and Gabrielle’s voice became clear enough to be understood.
“It isn’t how we act,” she said.
“I made a spur of the moment decision,” Gerald answered.
“We don’t make decisions without proper deliberation, Tucker. This is how mistakes are made and now, of all times, we can’t afford to make them.”
“We’ve never encountered something like this before. I wanted to make sure there really was nothing more we could be doing. I think, if anything, we owe her that much.”
When Sebastian entered the office, Gabrielle was standing behind her desk, palms pressed on the tabletop. Even though her expression didn’t convey much, there was an intensity in her eyes that left no doubt in his mind that if it was anyone else in Gerald’s place, they would be shaking hands with the Twins in the Beyond. Sitting in the chairs across from her, Kyle had recoiled into the back of his seat, warily eyeing both Hunters as though he expected an outburst to occur at any moment. Gerald, on the other hand, didn’t seem intimidated, or angry for that matter. Everything about the man’s demeanor screamed exhaustion and defeat, and Sebastian was convinced that if Gabrielle wanted to reach across that desk and choke the life out of him, she’d be met with no resistance.
“Alright…” Sebastian mumbled, turning to Gabrielle. “I’m five minutes late, if that, and you look like you’re about to slam Tucker’s face onto the desktop. What’s going on?”
Gabrielle’s steely gaze met Sebastian’s eyes and for a moment he was struck with the same unfeeling coldness he met the first time he’d been in that office. It was only a moment, however. With her next breath, the ice melted from her gaze, her shoulders dropped an almost imperceptible amount. She sat down, leaned back into her seat and with a tired sigh, addressed Gerald.
“Would you mind repeating what you just told us, Tucker?”
Gerald’s tone was stiff, but he turned in his seat to face the doorway and motioned for Sebastian to enter and take a seat. He stepped further into the office and closed the door. The last available seat was across the room, in front of the fireplace, and Sebastian stalled by taking his time dragging it closer to the desk. Gerald patiently waited for him to place his chair next to Kyle’s and take a seat. Gerald’s demeanor—unlike Gabrielle who still looked tense, almost combative—was one of resignation and defeat. He was hunched over in his chair, elbows resting on his thighs, and ran his hands over his face multiple times before finally speaking.
“I went to see the leader of the White Shadows. I sent him a message from one of the villages and he agreed to meet me there. I explained Johanna’s situation to him, detailed her current state, like I said… I felt at the very least we should know for sure if there was something to be done.”
“And what did he say?” Gabrielle asked, her tone noticeably harsh.
Gerald grimaced as though forced to swallow something bitter, the answer coming through gritted teeth. “The same as Sylvie. There is no way to actively combat this. He said that even if his enlightenment was able to reach that part of her mind, interfering would likely cause more damage. He said that the best the White Shadows could do in this scenario is ensure her physical condition doesn’t deteriorate too quickly. Which means, prolonging this.”
“That… That would buy her time, right?” Kyle asked, his voice almost a whisper.
“It would keep her alive, but…” Gerald paused, momentarily at a loss for words. “Here’s the issue, Rivers, mental deterioration is the actual problem. We could keep her alive for longer, but her mind will be gone before that becomes a serious concern, so I don’t think that… It might not be something she’d want us to pursue. And I think it’s time we think of how to proceed when that time comes.”
Kyle’s expression twisted and he looked from Gerald to Gabrielle as if expecting—or maybe pleading for—an interjection. The silence that followed was almost as devastating as Gerald’s words had been. Everything about Gabrielle Porter in that moment screamed defiance; from the hard unyielding coldness in her eyes to the clenched fists resting on the tabletop, but her anger was as hopeless as Gerald’s resignation. And that, above anything else, felt earth-shatteringly brutal.
“We’re not doing this.” The words left Sebastian’s mouth before he could restrain them. “I’m not doing this.”
Gabrielle’s voice was calm; almost gentle, and it was the last thing Sebastian wanted to hear. He stood, pushing his chair back with enough force to knock it over. “No. Fuck you. You can’t ask me to sit here and…”
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” Gerald interrupted. “We won’t ask that of either of you. Trust me, the last thing I want to do is have this conversation. What I wanted—what I still want is for Jo to recover, but… I also don’t wish for her to suffer through however many more months trapped in her own mind unnecessarily because we were too selfish or too cowardly to…”
“We’re not there yet,” Gabrielle interjected.
“We’re not,” he agreed. “And hopefully a conversation is as far as this goes.”
“Seb.” Kyle’s tone was quiet, strained, almost as resigned as Gerald, and Sebastian knew this wasn’t an argument he could realistically win. “Sit.”
Sebastian hesitated. He didn’t want to be there if he was fully honest with himself, but the thought of leaving also felt horribly wrong at the same time. So he forced a deep breath, righted his chair, and took a seat. “How will we know? When—if—we get to that point, how can we tell?”
Gerald breathed a sigh, partway relieved, but for the most part exhausted. “Witters said that if she doesn’t fully regain control of her mental capacity there will come a point where she will no longer have any awareness of reality. She’ll become completely unresponsive. Right now she still responds to touch, sounds, light, there’s some awareness there. However, the longer she spends immersed in her own memories, the more her mind disconnects from reality and past a certain point, it’s almost impossible to recover.”
“And then what?” Kyle asked.
“Then… Well…” Gerald trailed off into silence, expression torn.
“If we reach the point where the only options are to either prolong Johanna’s suffering or… take action, then I will handle that,” Gabrielle said. “I don’t think there is a discussion to be had on what she would want in that situation.”
Gerald shook his head. “This shouldn’t have to be entirely on your hands.”
“With every ounce of respect I can muster, Tucker, I disagree.”
Gerald’s jaw tensed and then untensed with a soft huff, opting to answer with a simple nod of agreement. Sebastian doubted “taking action” was something either of them truly wanted, but he couldn’t fault Gabrielle for wanting to be the one to do it. He didn’t actually know much about their relationship beyond the fact Jo might be the only person in Valcrest fully allowed to be in Gabrielle’s space. There was history between them that even Gerald didn’t seem to fully know about. In the end, even if he wanted to argue against it, he knew he couldn’t.
“What about her brother?” Kyle asked. “He doesn’t even know… Wouldn’t he want to see her?”
The question seemed to catch both Gerald and Gabrielle off guard, and simultaneously served to dispel some of the tension in the room. The two Hunters exchanged a brief glance as though trying to reach a silent consensus as to how to respond.
“We’ve taken worse risks for a lot less,” Kyle insisted. “Look I don’t know the man and I honestly think he’s an unlikable twat, but he is Jo’s family. Clearly she cares about him.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “No. The risk of bringing a member of the Blackpond Guard into this Outpost could only possibly be surpassed by inviting the Wolfpack for a get-together, Rivers. Not to mention Alex is the least reliable person I think I’ve ever met.”
“The Outpost is already potentially compromised,” Gerald pointed out. “I don’t like it; trust me, bringing that man here and having to deal with him is the last thing I want, but… Kyle has a point. She would probably want to see him.”
Gabrielle groaned. “You do realize that if this backfires I will have to kill him?”
Gerald shrugged. “I don’t see the issue with that.”
Gabrielle shook her head, exasperated, though Sebastian noticed a faint hint of amusement underneath it. “Who’s going to go get him? Because I’m not comfortable leaving the Outpost right now and he won’t come with you.”
Kyle snorted. “What’s his issue with Tucker?”
“Newhavener.” Gabrielle and Gerald answered simultaneously.
“Amongst other reasons,” Gerald added with a noncommittal shrug.
“I’ll go. Newhavener also rules out Lockwood and, no offense, but the last time you two,” Sebastian gestured between Gerald and his brother, “were in Blackpond you got into trouble with the Wolfpack. I don’t think Kyle returning so soon would be a good idea.”
Kyle rolled his eyes. “We’re twins, Seb. If you think they’d recognize me, they’d definitely recognize you.”
“You have a noticeable scar on your face and much longer hair. I think that if they’re passing a description around, someone who hasn’t actually seen you wouldn’t mistake me for you.”
“Have you forgotten that the Scout who chased me out of the city is still out there? She has most definitely seen me.” Kyle objected. “At the very least take Theron with you. Going on your own under these circumstances seems stupid.”
“Theron draws attention,” Sebastian argued. “I know my way around the slums better than you, and definitely better than Theron. If it turns out we have to make a run for it all he’d do is slow me down.”
A soft thunk interrupted the twins’ discussion. Gabrielle had tipped her chair back, the backrest hitting the wall in the process, and was now leaning back in her seat, arms crossed as if prepared to patiently wait for the two of them to finish arguing. Once they silenced, she regarded them both for a moment, then turned to Sebastian.
“You can leave in the morning, Rives. I will not have you make this trip unless you’re fully rested, and at the faintest sign of trouble, I would like for you to follow protocol, are we understood?”
Sebastian nodded. “Of course.”
“You all say that, but…” Gabrielle shot Gerald a glare as she righted her chair and opened one of the desk drawers. “I’ll tag a few locations you’ll be likely to find Alex. He’s Johanna’s brother, but nonetheless, be careful with what you tell him. He can learn the details once he’s here.” She pulled a rolled up parchment from the drawer and set it down on the desk, on it was a slightly worn map of Blackpond, where she proceeded to cross out a few spots around Sebastian guessed would be drinking holes. “Also, you shouldn’t mention you were there when it happened. We don’t know how he’d react to that.”