It had been two weeks since the night of Lord Waverly's death. Since his murder, if she were honest, and she had to be; she couldn't afford to let herself pretty it up, distance herself by pretending it had been something other than what it was. He had deserved to die; Jewel had both condemned him and chosen to do it, lured him deliberately to accomplish that goal. Now that it was done, she still had to own that decision, live with it every day. Avoiding it was weak and worse, foolish. Her Oma had had far too much to say about folly for her to allow herself that luxury.
Two weeks, and the visible reminders were nearly gone: her bruises healed and even Duster's hair beginning to grow out, a thin line of black now bordering the pale blonde like a stain, a physical manifestation of the shadows the demons had said they'd seen in her. Shadows that Jewel saw nearly as clearly, that she'd always seen and perhaps always would. But she knew, now, that there was more to Duster than that, that she could choose something other than darkness.
The external mementos might be fading, disappearing like the snow that no longer graced the city with its deadly beauty, but the internal ones were harder to erase. Lord Waverly had been right – Jewel couldn't forget him and what he'd done, any more than she could forget what she had done in turn. He'd cut her in ways no one else could see and she'd bear those scars, scars she'd never thought to bear nor truly understood until that moment, the rest of her life. But she looked at Finch, at Duster, Fisher, and Lander, and she couldn't bring herself to complain. She had been wounded, but she was still alive, and sometimes, survival was all that mattered.
But if she'd thought it would be easy, thought that the bonds formed that night, when her den had come to save her, would be enough to erase the past, she'd been mistaken. In truth, Jewel had known better, but at the time, she'd made herself believe it. Maybe she'd needed to; she'd been left with so little else to cling to. Now, however, she was denied even that illusion.
Yet there were compensations. Duster wasn't kind; she wasn't gentle. Neither was in her, even now – even if she'd wanted to be, she wouldn't know where to begin. Even the quiet deference she'd shown that night had faded, replaced by the contempt and outward arrogance that seemed so much more natural to her. But from that night on, while Jewel watched the rest of them: watched Rath retreat into silence, vanishing into work he refused to share, denying them even the limited participation of knowledge; watched Lander begin to speak, to become a person rather than a ghost, as though they were mirror images, one eternally receding as the other approached - Duster watched Jewel. Only Jewel.
It wasn't something she would have admitted she wanted, wasn't something she'd even realized she wanted until she had it, but Jewel found she valued it. Nights like tonight, when she couldn't sleep and instead sat in the kitchen, knees drawn to her chest and magelight shining dimly through her fingers, she was grateful for the company.
Not everyone would have been. Duster wasn't comforting, not in the way that most people meant the word. She didn't tell Jewel that things would be all right, didn't try to tell her the lies so many expected children to believe. Most of the time, she didn't even touch her. Instead she watched, her very presence a statement, almost a demand. It was the opposite of comfort and yet, it was what Jewel needed: someone to remind her of her responsibilities, of all the expectations pinned on her. It wasn't pretty and sometimes the burden felt far too much to bear, but this, too, she had chosen, and it was a choice she refused to relinquish or regret.
"You really think we can do this?" Doubt there, in the words, something that could be seen as a weakness, but Duster's tone made it a challenge rather than a true question.
Jewel looked up, feet sliding to the floor as she abandoned the comfort of her defensive posture. She forced herself to meet Duster's eyes as she nodded. "Yes. I know we can." She was certain of it, though not because of visions, not because of the sight she'd been born to. She knew they could do it because they had to. As her Oma had said, necessity revealed capabilities you hadn't even realized you had.
Duster stared back, searching her eyes, her expression, for vulnerability, for any hint of doubt. Jewel lifted her chin and held her gaze, although she knew her fear was obvious, apparent in the way she sat here, sleepless when she needed rest. Duster had always been one to point out weakness, pouncing on it almost eagerly, but this time, she said nothing. Instead she glanced at Rath's closed door – a brief look, but one full of contempt, almost loathing. "This is only the beginning."
So many things contained in that simple sentence – layers of meaning, one piled upon the other and all true, as was so often the case with things Duster said. You can't trust him, she meant. You can't depend on him and you were a fool to think you could. She had always believed Rath was too good to be true and, as far as she was concerned, this only proved her right. Jewel might be more forgiving, more understanding; might see all the reasons Rath asked them to leave that had nothing to do with abandonment, but those reasons were no part of Duster's experience. She wouldn't understand them and, had they been suggested to her, she would have dismissed them as lies, mere petty excuses.
And under that? Beneath her lack of faith, her certainty that Rath was as untrustworthy as nearly everyone Duster had ever known? Fear. Fear of the future, of how they'd survive when they were on their own, of course, but more than that. Buried deep, so far down that Jewel wasn't certain that Duster was even aware of it, was a darker, more desperate fear, a child's certainty that not only was she being abandoned by an adult, but that she deserved it, that it was because of something she had done.
As with so many things, Jewel couldn't say how she knew it, how she felt so clearly what Duster would never put into words, but she knew it was true. Knew, as well, that it would be a mistake to voice it, to even attempt to address that fear or soothe it. It was too old, too close to the heart of her. Instead, she nodded again. "Yes." Rath wouldn't abandon them, not completely. He wouldn't really be gone. But they wouldn't be able to depend on him, not like they had. For all intents and purposes, they really would be nearly on their own. "We'll get work when we can; steal if we can't." 'If', in this case, being nearly a certainty – no one hired children as young and poor as they all still so obviously were for honest work. "Fight if we have to."
"Fight?" Duster scoffed. "Most of you couldn't fight if you tried."
Jewel shrugged. It was true and there was no point in denying something they both knew. Duster had no regard for the truth, but she despised few things more than comforting lies that wouldn't fool a child much younger than either of the two sitting here at this table. They were insulting and Jewel wasn't trying to insult her. "We won't need to. We have you."
Duster snorted, but she didn't seem displeased. Another person might have been, might have been insulted at the open admission that the den was using her, but for Duster, that was normal, only to be expected. People used each other; that was something she understood. She'd rather be used than feel useless; the latter, in her experience, was only a step away from being sold out. You were useful or you were abandoned, left behind while others found someone who could take your place. "Guess you really do need me."
It should have been a statement of contempt, full of the hatred that weakness usually provoked in her and yet, it wasn't, not quite. Jewel reached out, dropping the precious magestone on the table and taking Duster's hands in hers – hands that she could still see covered in a dead man's blood, blood that she'd refused to flinch away from, staining herself literally as she already was figuratively. Hands that she knew would be covered in blood again, this time at her orders. She knew it, saw it clearly, and accepted the responsibility, the weight of a decision not yet made. Duster was her killer and she would use her. Not without regret, not without pain. But without hesitation. "Yes, I do."