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Just a Puppet on a Lonely String

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“Tell me this is a joke. Please, tell me it’s just a joke.”

Jensen’s silence, together with the defeated slope of his shoulders, is answer enough. Mackenzie thinks she’s never seen him look so small, and she wants to reach out and touch him, offer some comfort, but weak as she suddenly feels, those few steps she'd be required to take from the bed to where he’s slumped into a chair seem like an impossible distance.

She should have seen this coming, what with the random pieces of information from Chad and Jensen and the rumors from the household slaves, should have put two and two together… but she hasn’t, and clearly neither has Jensen.

Jensen throws a quick glance at her, then directs his gaze back to the floor.

Minutes pass.

It’s Mackenzie who gathers the courage to speak first, even though she’s not entirely sure she's ready to hear Jensen's answer. She won't get any more ready than this though, of that she is certain. “When are you leaving?”

He starts at the sound of her voice, as if he’d forgotten she’s even there. “In a week. We’re leaving in a week.”

She closes her eyes, slowly counts to ten, opens them again. “Good. That’s… that’s good. At least it’s not tomorrow, right?”

He gives a jerky nod. “They said they have to take care of some things here before they set out. More meetings with Kripke and the Council, deciding on the best strategy, that kind of thing.”

“And… how long will you be gone?”

Jensen’s shoulders slump even more; he’s practically trying to disappear into his chair. “I don’t know. Until the atmosphere in the Kingdom becomes less explosive, I guess. Or until Jared’s transferred elsewhere. Whichever comes first.”

“Oh.”

“But you’ll hear from me,” he offers like a consolation prize. “Jared promised we can write to each other and the letters will be delivered together with his personal correspondence, so at least there’s that.”

The bed squeaks when Mackenzie shifts her weight, leaning forward slightly. Her hands are still trembling. “Can’t you… can’t you talk to Jared about it again? Make him change his mind?”

Jensen shakes his head and laughs, and it’s a bitter, hollow sound. “Don’t you think I tried?”

“Well, maybe if you told him–“

“Told him what, exactly? That I’m not going anywhere unless you are too?” Jensen throws up his hands. “Jared’s the one who calls the shots, not me. And he’s not an idiot. He knows taking me home is dangerous enough as it is, and without keeping you here as leverage I’d definitely try my luck at escaping. We both would. So no, he’s not taking you with us.”

“But–“

“I begged him, you hear me? I dropped to my knees and begged, but he said no!” He's almost shouting now, but doesn't seem aware of it. “I fucking begged and pleaded with him, and he still said no. You’re staying here.”

She thinks about it, weighs their options. “Fine. But you have to try it anyway.”

He blinks, uncomprehending. “Try what?”

“Escape.”

He rubs his hand over his face. “Kenzie…”

“No, listen to me. This,” she taps the slave collar tattooed around her neck, “it doesn’t mean the same thing at home. If you manage to get away, our people will help you, they’ll cover you. You have a real chance to avoid recapture.”

“Yes, I probably do.” His stare is hard and uncompromising when he finally meets her eyes. “But I’m not going to do it.”

“Because I’d get punished? Jared won’t have me killed; he can’t lose the best bargaining chip he’s got.” She doesn’t like to think of herself that way, but essentially it’s exactly what she is. “So what is he gonna do to me, huh? Make me become a pleasure slave just like he wanted right from the beginning? Like it’s been done to countless others, to you? I know it’s bad–”

“Oh no, believe me, you don’t know,” Jensen assures her. She’s made him angry now, she can tell from how cold and flat his voice is, from his white-knuckled fists. “You have no idea how bad it is. No idea.”

She opens her mouth to protest, but ultimately anything she’d say would be a lie. The closest she ever got to what Jensen is talking about was standing naked on that platform and waiting to be sold to the highest bidder, and while that experience was traumatizing enough that it still stars in the majority of her nightmares, it's nothing compared to what Jensen had to go through... has to go through on a daily basis. She can't even begin to imagine what that must be like.

“You have no idea,” Jensen repeats when he sees her surrender; not victorious, just tired, the anger seeping out of him as quickly as it appeared. “And I’m gonna make sure you never will.”

Mackenzie hates this, painfully hates being the leash around Jensen’s neck that Jared can use to make Jensen do whatever he wants. But it’s not like she’d have the heart to actually do anything to put herself in danger, she couldn’t do that to her brother, not when he’s already given up so much for her, so all she can do now is nod minutely and offer him a faint smile. It’s a thank you that remains unspoken but he hears it nonetheless, returning a tiny, thankful smile of his own before ducking his head.

Again, it's Mackenzie who breaks the silence. “So if you’re not planning an escape… what are you going to do? Play along, give the occupants a friendly face?”

“You know I’ll try to do more than that. But for now, I guess I will have to play along, like you said. At least for a while. Keep stalling.”

“Stalling?” That sounds promising.

Jensen stands up, crosses the room and joins her on the bed, scooting back until he’s leaning against the wall, and Mackenzie follows him, resting her head on his shoulder as he starts explaining. “Look, we can’t risk another open war with the Empire, they’ll bring their entire army north and burn the Kingdom to ashes. We have to make them think we’re finally giving up. Make them complacent, careless. And then we’ll have to wait.”

“For you to take over and free the country?”

The soft, amused chuckle he lets out is the most sincere she’s heard in a while, even though it's tinted with sadness too. “No, Kenzie, I don’t think that’s possible. They’ll be watching me too closely for that.”

“So what are we going to wait for then? A miracle?” Because she stopped believing in those the day she watched her parents' blood paint the grey cobblestones of Hengstenfurt’s main square red.

“Kind of. We're waiting for Steve and Jason.”

“But they’re dead.” The image of Jensen’s grief-stricken face when he learned his two closest friends were murdered is another one that Mackenzie will never be able to erase from her memory.

“No, it turns out that was only a disinformation spread by the Empire.” Jensen nods in confirmation when she stares at him incredulously. “Apparently they escaped the assassins sent after them and they’ve been in hiding ever since. Seems like they haven’t left the country though.”

She immediately understands what he’s getting at. “You think they’re the ones organizing the resistance.”

“Of course they are. And I’m afraid right now it’s up to them, Kenzie.”

His tone makes it clear Jensen believes it should be solely up to him instead, which is a big pile of horseshit, as Ty would say. He doesn’t have to carry all the weight on his shoulders by himself. But ever since Josh died over ten years ago and Jensen became the oldest son and successor to the throne, carrying all the weight was exactly what he’s been taught to do, so Mackenzie doesn’t expect anything she might have to say on this particular matter to fall on fertile ground.

Jensen sighs, long and heavy. “Unfortunately, all I can do to help is try to temper the Empire’s aggression towards our people, serve as a mediator, make sure there are no pointless conflicts, no deaths that could be prevented. Minimize the damage.”

Which sounds fairly reasonable to Mackenzie, given the poor choices Jensen has, but it might not seem that way to everyone. “You realize what that’s going to look like to our people? They’ll perceive it as the acts of a traitor.”

“I know,” he doesn’t even attempt to sugarcoat it. “But I can’t think about that. It doesn’t matter; I have to do what I can to help. I don’t care if they call me a collaborator and a traitor in our history books, I only care that we have our own history books.”

“But that’s horrible. And unfair.”

Jensen doesn’t raise any objection to that, just pulls her closer and offers her one of his big, confident smiles that say don’t worry, we're gonna be alright.

She ducks her head, feeling vaguely guilty because she's can't quite believe him anymore, not after everything.

  

***

 

It is a commonly known fact that Time is a mischievous creature, capricious and volatile, always doing the exact opposite of what it should be, so it comes as no surprise that while normally the days at the Padalecki mansion drag on endlessly, minutes feeling like long hours, now minutes become hours and hours become days far too quickly, the day of Jensen’s departure approaching way too fast.

Mackenzie does her best not to think about it that way and instead tries to enjoy the remaining time that she and Jensen have together, but it proves to be a superhuman task.  Whatever she’s doing, the knowledge that in only seven days (six, five, four…) Jensen will be gone is always there, lurking just around the corner, tainting every moment she spends with Jensen and effectively driving her insane.

It’s a whole new level of stress that neither of them has been prepared for and although Mackenzie’s not proud to admit it, they’re not always handling it very well. 

*

“You’re already leaving again?”

“Yes, I am. Do we have to argue about this?” Jensen looks exhausted, and after the sparring session he just got back from he probably is, but that only serves to add more fuel to Mackenzie’s flame.

“Why does he have to usurp you all the time?”

Raking his fingers through his sweat-damp hair and unknowingly making it stick up at funny angles, Jensen lets out a frustrated huff of air. “You know why. He wants me to be present at the dinner he’s having with Manners. My knowledge of the Kingdom might be useful.”

She resists the urge to scoff. Barely. “Really? Do you honestly think Jared wants you there because you could offer some advice?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what.” She’s seen them at one of those ‘strategy-planning’ meetings several days ago, outside in the garden pavilion – Jared and Manners talking about something she couldn’t hear while Jensen knelt at Jared’s feet, obediently opening his mouth and eating pieces of food out of Jared’s hand like a perfectly trained, docile pet. The sight made her stomach roll and her blood boil, and even now the memory sickens her. “He just doesn’t want to let his favorite eye candy out of his sight.”

Jensen flinches at that, but stands his ground. “Come on, you’re being unfair now. Jared really wants to make sure things run as smoothly as possible.”

“How noble.”

He blows out an exasperated breath. “Don’t you get it? He wants to stop the bloodshed just like we do. I don’t see what’s so wrong with that!”

“He’s Jared Padalecki, that’s what’s wrong!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. At least he’s not bent on making everyone’s life a living hell like Heyerdahl is. If I do this right, working with Jared might actually make things better for the Kingdom.”

And Mackenzie simply can’t stand it anymore; she snaps. “Fine, if he’s such a bright and wonderful person, then go with him. Go! Sometimes I think you actually want to be with him, it’s like you’re in love with him already!”

She regrets the words as soon as they’re out of her mouth, but before she gets a chance to start apologizing Jensen is standing in front of her, intimidating as he towers over her. She’s always found his tall, broad-shouldered figure comforting because so far he’s only ever used his size for her protection, but now she’s suddenly acutely, uncomfortably aware how dangerous he is. Jensen’s never made her feel that way before, never looked at her with so much anger that calling it anything but rage would be an understatement.

Mackenzie finds herself taking a step back, actually scared of him. Scared of her own brother. Jensen notices, and if this were any other day he’d be apologizing for that already, but clearly she went too far this time. “I don’t ever want to hear that again,” his words cut through her, cold and clipped, and then he’s turning on his heel, striding away.

The door slams behind him and she’s left alone, legs unsteady, heart hammering in her chest, the reality of her horrible, stupid, hurtful words slowly sinking in.

Gods, what has she done?

*

It’s only late at night that Jensen comes back, and he doesn’t utter a single word, doesn’t even look Mackenzie’s way, just heads straight for the bed closer to the door - the bed that always stays empty because they sleep much better when they’re together.

Not tonight.

And Mackenzie deserves the cold shoulder treatment, she knows she does, but it still hurts. It hurts almost as much as the knowledge that maybe she’s gone too far this time and Jensen won’t be able to forgive her and then he’ll have to leave and she might never see him again.

Jensen’s the only family she has left, and soon she might never see him again.

In the quiet dark of the room, Mackenzie presses her face into the pillow to muffle her sobs.

The pillow must not be doing a very good job because not long after she starts crying, Mackenzie can hear soft footfalls and then the hard mattress dips and Jensen is there, gathering her in his arms, warm and strong and safe as always.

“Damn it, Kenzie. Can’t even stay pissed at you,” he murmurs into her ear, hand rubbing soothing circles over her back.

But that’s not how it’s supposed to go, so she takes several deep, calming breaths, waiting until she’s more or less functional and then determinedly wriggles out of his hold. Because this isn’t about her taking comfort from Jensen, it’s not about her at all.

“Jensen, I’m s- so sorry,” she stutters out, desperately willing him to see that she means every single word that she stumbles over in her clumsy attempt to make things right again. “What I said to you… That was stupid, and wrong, and you know I didn’t really mean any of that, don’t you? I wasn’t thinking straight, and I know that’s not an excuse, but I was hurt and scared and I get so mean when I’m scared and I said it to hurt you… but I didn’t mean it, I know you’re only letting Jared do this to you because of me and I should be grateful for that, I am grateful, and I’m sorry, Jensen, I’m so sorry for what I said to you. I’m so sorry.”

The fact that Jensen doesn’t cut her off but listens, soaking up her words like parched ground soaks up the first rain, only proves how deeply she wounded him, and she does her best to fix the damage, apologizing over and over again, until she runs out of words and falls silent, waiting for Jensen’s verdict.

Jensen takes his time, and his answer is far from anything Mackenzie would have expected: “See, this is exactly why I need you.”

“So I can make you miserable by being a mean bitch?”

“You weren’t bein–“ He pauses, shakes his head. “No, not that. I need you to keep me going when I get tired, when I get lost, when I forget.” He grabs her by the arms, fingers digging into her flesh painfully as he searches her eyes with an almost frantic expression. “I need you to promise me something.”

“Uh… okay?”

“I need you to remember who you are. Remember that you’re Mackenzie Ackles, daughter of a king and a free woman, no matter what anyone else has to say. Don’t settle for anything less, because you have the right to want more from life and you should want it. Don’t lose that fighting spirit, that fire burning inside you. It’s really important. Promise me you’ll never forget who you are.”

The pleading urgency of his voice is disconcerting. “Jensen, you’re scaring me. Why are you telling me this, what’s going on?”

Jensen bites his lip and doesn’t answer, eyes darting away.

“Jensen?”

When he speaks, it’s reluctant and full of pauses, as if Jensen’s not sure he should be telling her this. “Listen, what you said about me and Jared… In a way, you weren’t entirely wrong.” He pauses, a deep frown settling over his features. “Jared, he has this… I don’t know, charm, strength of conviction, charisma, whatever you want to call it. And I hate what he’s done to us, to me, but…”

“But?” She prompts, putting on her best supportive, non-judgmental face.

“But I don’t think I can hate him.”

Well, she definitely has enough hate towards Jared for the both of them. “So what does that mean? You love him?”

“What?” He appears genuinely taken aback now. “No, I… come on, Kenzie! No! I just…” He makes a strange waving gesture with his hand, trying to find the right words. “I don't know how he did it, but he's got under my skin. I’m getting used to being around him. Working with him. It’s almost effortless, easy. Like I know what he’s gonna say or do even before he does it.”

“Hey, that doesn’t actually sound so bad,” she interposes, feeling a bit like she’s defending Jensen from himself now. “I mean, you’re gonna have to work with him a lot when you get back home. This… connection you two have, it can be useful.”

“Yeah.” But he doesn’t look particularly convinced or comforted.

 

***

 

As the day when Jensen has to leave draws near, Mackenzie feels more and more like a convict awaiting execution, and when the night falls – the last one she’ll get to spend in Jensen’s company in who knows how long – she has a very clear idea of how she wants to spend it.

“I don’t wanna go to sleep tonight.”

Jensen doesn’t ask why, and doesn’t seem surprised. If anything, he looks almost relieved, as if he’s been secretly thinking the same thing but didn’t dare say it out loud.

“C’mere,” is what he does say, tugging until she settles on the bed next to him, head resting on his chest, and they breathe together in the quiet of the night.

Tomorrow night, she'll be here alone.

“Hey, Jensen?” Mackenzie whispers, voice breaking, because she did her best to escape the horrible, oppressing fear that’s been following her around the past week, battling it with faked indifference, loud, forced laughter or fits of meanness, but now it’s caught up with her, sunk its teeth into her flesh and suddenly she can’t fight it anymore. “What am I supposed to do, all alone?”

Jensen doesn’t reply right away, but acknowledges her question by tightening the grip of his arm around her. “You have friends here, people who care about you. Alona, Sam, Chris, they’ll look after you. You will look after yourself; you’re strong and smart, much better at this than I am."

"I'm not," she protests, and it's not out of false modesty.

"You are," Jensen insists, voice warm with pride. "You never lose sight of what's important. You're very passionate and uncompromising about what's right and what's wrong. And you're stubborn like a mule."

"I thought you hated that about me."

"Nah, only when you're being a difficult little brat refusing to listen to your older brother even though he always knows what's best for you."

"Oh, come on, like you listen to your own advice!"

"Well, I'm an exception to the rule."

Mackenzie rolls her eyes. "Really? That's you're excuse? You're unbelievable."

He's laughing, his chest vibrating with it under her head. "Damn right I am. One of a kind."

"Extraordinary," she adds readily. "Unlike any other. Full of surprises."

"Of course," Jensen agrees with the fake smugness he can play so well when he wants to. "In fact," he pushes her off him and sits up, "I've got a surprise for you right here." He moves away, reaching underneath the bed and pulling out something small and wrapped in a piece of cloth. "Almost forgot about it."

“What is it?” She takes the bundle from his hands, watching it mistrustfully.

He shifts, scratches the top of his head, a nervous gesture. “I, uh… it was supposed to be for your birthday, but that’s still almost a month away and I figured you should have it now. It’s… Go on, open it already.”

She unwraps the present, then frowns in puzzlement. “Jensen, what is this?”

“It’s a teddy-bear.”

“No, it’s not.” It looks more like a squashed starfish.

“Well, it looked better in my head!” Jensen’s getting flustered now, and it’s so adorable that Mackenzie has to bite her lip in order not to laugh. “Alona offered to help me, but I wanted to make it by myself, and… okay, I admit, I’m not really that good at needlecraft, but…”

Mackenzie gives up trying to remain stoic and bursts out laughing. Jensen manages to look offended for about five seconds and then he’s laughing too.

“I’m sorry,” she chokes out once she finds her composure again, drying her tears with the back of her hand. “I appreciate the effort, I really do.”

“It’s stupid,” Jensen says, back to sulking.

“No, it’s not! It’s… very original.” She looks at the stuffed thing again, then at Jensen. “It’s something from you, something personal to remember you by while you’re gone, and I…” Tears spring to her eyes again and she throws herself into his arms, the unfortunate teddy-bear still clutched in one hand. “Thank you, Jensen.”

She can feel him smile against her neck. “You’re welcome.”

“Now I only feel bad for not giving you something to remember me by, too.”

“But I do have something to remember you by.”

“What’s that?”

Jensen takes Mackenzie’s hand in his, placing it on his forehead, a little to the left and just beneath his hairline, where her fingers find the ridge of an old scar, a result of an accident caused by Mackenzie’s enthusiasm with a bronze candlestick when she was three, maybe four years old. “I have this.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Sure I am,” he replies fondly, and hugs her tighter.

They stay like that for a long while, and then they settle back into the pillows.

“Jensen?”

“Hmm?”

“Tell me a story.”

“Like the ones Mom used to tell us when we were kids?”

“Mhmm.”

“Which one?”

“All of them.”

“Alright. But I’m not sure I remember them right, so you’ll have to help me out, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Fine.” Jensen pauses, deciding which story to start with. “Once upon a time, there lived a girl named Betsy, who became an orphan when she was only seven years old.”

“Eight.”

“Only eight years old,” Jensen rectifies his mistake. “And since she had no other family in the village where she lived, she decided to go to her aunt who lived across the forest. She set out in the afternoon, having nothing more than the plain dress she was wearing and a small loaf of bread her poor godfather had given to her. As she walked down the forest path, she met a beggar. ‘I’m so hungry, little girl, don’t you have some food to spare?’ he asked. Betsy gave him her bread without hesitation, and after the beggar thanked her, they went their separate ways…”

With a content sigh, Mackenzie snuggles up closer to him and shuts her eyes, listening to the stories of her childhood, one after another. Presented in Jensen’s voice, they are familiar and comforting, like a lullaby, like safety, like home.

“Kenzie. Kenzie, it’s time to wake up.”

Startled and disoriented, she bolts up, squinting at the light – light? – pouring in through the window, and looks around the room. Her heart sinks once she realizes what happened, and she turns to glare at Jensen as murderously as she can, considering that she’s just woken up. “Why’d you let me fall asleep?”

“Let’s go, we’ll be late for breakfast,” Jensen replies, avoiding her question, and normally Mackenzie would give him a good dressing-down for letting her oversleep, but since this is their last morning together, she lets it slip and instead gets out of bed and gets ready to go in what must probably be her record time.

Breakfast is a rush. Everyone around the table is trying to say their goodbye to Jensen, so neither him nor Mackenzie get a chance to eat in peace, and as precious minutes of time pass, the knot in the pit of Mackenzie’s stomach is constantly growing until she feels like she’s going to be sick any moment now.

Of course Jensen knows, and tries to calm her down with comforting smiles and soothing touches, but it’s not working anymore, not when one of Jared’s personal slaves comes in to inform Jensen that it’s time to go, not when Jensen stands up and nods. Mackenzie follows him back to their room, leaning against the doorframe for support as she watches Jensen shoulder the small bag containing the few items of clothing and personal hygiene he’s been given here, and then he’s walking out and through the corridors, to the courtyard which is buzzing with people, carriages and horses, the typical commotion that is always bound to set in before a big journey begins.

Jensen uses the last moments to obsessively repeat everything he considers important, from “Don't skimp on the morning exercise” and “I want you to eat properly, you need to keep your strength" through “Chad may act like a friend but you can't really trust him” to “Remember who you are” and, finally, “Please stay out of trouble”.

It’s becoming ridiculous. “Jensen, I’ll be fine, would you please stop worrying?”

“I’m your older brother, it’s my constitutional right to worry about my little sister.”

“He’s right, you know,” chimes in a new voice – it’s Jared, winking at Mackenzie conspiratorially as he appears seemingly out of nowhere. “Unfortunately, we’re leaving now. You have one minute to say goodbye, Jensen,” he calls over his shoulder before he walks away. “Don’t make me wait.”

So this is it.

Not wasting the time they’ve been given, Jensen steps forward, pulling Mackenzie into a crushingly tight but devastatingly brief hug. He draws back far too soon, cupping Mackenzie’s face in his hands and resting his forehead on hers. “This isn’t goodbye,” he promises, kissing the top of her head, and then he’s pulling up to his full height, squaring his shoulders, turning around and striding away without looking back.

Jared is waiting for him in front of the first carriage, and he slides his arm possessively around Jensen’s waist as they climb inside. The coachman whistles at the pair of horses and the carriage jerks into movement. The rest of the suite follows, and soon they’re out of the gate and out of sight.

Mackenzie can see the rest of the Padalecki family standing at the opposite side of the courtyard, Jared’s sister and mother in tears and his father and brother more stoic, but their faces drawn in worry nevertheless. Watching a loved one leave is always difficult, but it’s even worse to watch them leave not knowing when – or if – they’ll ever be coming back.

“He’s gone,” Mackenzie whispers in horror, as the tears she somehow managed to hold back the entire morning for Jensen’s sake finally start to fall. Her knees buckle, threatening to give under her, but to her surprise, she doesn’t end up on the ground.

“Hey, darlin', it’s gonna be alright,” comes Chris’ easy drawl as his strong hands steady her. “If there’s one thing I learned about you Ackles folks, it’s that you’re tough as leather. Jensen’s gonna be fine.”

“I’m sure he is,” Alona joins them, with Samantha standing right beside her, and Ty peeking over Samantha’s shoulder, looking uncharacteristically serious. “Come on, Kenzie, let’s get you inside, okay?”

Like a small child or a puppet, Mackenzie lets her friends lead her back into her room (only hers, not hers and Jensen’s anymore), lets them sit her on the bed, then watches as Alona shoos everyone away and they shuffle out of the room with slightly awkward but sincere, compassionate smiles that Mackenzie isn’t really able to appreciate, let alone reciprocate right now.

When the door closes behind them and they’re left alone, Alona puts her hand over Mackenzie’s and squeezes gently. “I’m with you,” she says softly. “I’m here.”

*

The following days go by without Mackenzie really taking notice of what is happening around her; she’s simply going through the motions. She keeps to herself, doesn’t speak unless spoken to, and even then her answers are usually just nods or shakes of her head, or monosyllabic words at best.

Alona and Samantha try to get her to open up, Richard goes through his entire repertoire of jokes and anecdotes in an attempt to make her laugh, Chris patiently sits next to her during every meal, making sure she eats everything on her plate, claiming to be acting on Jensen’s orders.

Mackenzie doesn’t protest, doesn’t care. Nothing seems to bring her out of the stupor she’s fallen into, out of the numbness she lives in now. Not that she minds. She likes the numbness.

In the end – and Jensen is going to hate this once he hears about it – it’s Chad who manages to strike the first light of life from her, and he succeeds at that by being absolutely obnoxious and saying the worst, rudest things about slaves and their lack of rights and humanity and Mackenzie simply can’t help reacting. It’s only in the middle of her impassioned, righteous lecture that she realizes her companion is grinning.

“Did you…” She pauses in their stroll across the courtyard, stopping in front of Chad, hands on her hips. “Did you do this on purpose? Say all that to get me angry?”

Not even trying to defend himself, Chad shrugs. “Well, it’s working, isn’t it? You’re finally acting more like yourself again. Fire and fury and all that.”

Remember who you are, Jensen made her promise. And she was already working on forgetting.

Ashamed, she bends her head and closes her eyes.

“Mackenzie?” Chad sounds worried.

Everyone around her seems worried lately. Everyone is concerned for her well-being, asking if she’s okay, if she needs help, if there’s anything they can do for her. And locked up in her lifeless, emotionless world, it has never even occurred to Mackenzie to pose the same questions to them, to see if they are okay, if there’s anything she could do for them.  

But that’s not who Mackenzie Ackles is. That’s not how she was raised, that’s not how she was taught to treat the people around her, her friends. If Jensen could see her now, he’d be disappointed in her. But more importantly, she is disappointed in herself.

So she’s ending this, right here, right now.

Mackenzie takes a deep breath, lets it fill her with the strength and determination Jensen keeps complimenting her on, straightens her back, stands up taller and opens her eyes to face the world again.