Chapter 1: Prologue
Eight years ago …
Aeron didn't speak at the motel.
He ate and drank, sat and let Keelin bind his blistered wrists with bandages even though the constriction made his breaths come short and his heart beat wildly. He listened to Lizzie cry that first night, her sobs reaching his ears through the thin wall between their rooms.
He shared the room with Marcel for the night, having chosen the bed farthest from the front door. That bed also happened to be closest to the bathroom, a fact he was thankful for when he shot from the bed at 3am to vomit.
Marcel stood over him, leaning against the door jamb. When he asked him if he was all right, Aeron didn't answer.
Aeron spent the entire trip to the Armory waking up with a start. Again and again he nodded off in his seat, neck bent at an awkward angle to let his forehead rest against the cold glass. Each time he woke panicked, tugging at his seatbelt. After the first few times, the others learned not to comment on it.
It was the six of them in the minivan: Rebekah driving, Marcel beside her, Aeron and Keelin in the middle row, and Caroline and Lizzie in the back. Only four had come to bring them home—probably so they didn't overcrowd Aeron and Lizzie, he guessed.
He didn't feel overcrowded. Just alone.
A pothole jolted him out of his final nap, the wheels crackling against gravel as they turned into the driveway. Aeron caught a glimpse of Josie at the gate, holding it open as they passed through. Her face was bare of a smile.
"Home, sweet home," said Caroline, unclicking her seatbelt. She was seated directly behind Aeron, Lizzie right beside her; unlike them, Aeron and Keelin had a seat between them to give him space.
Marcel, Rebekah, and Keelin disembarked, Keelin leaning back in to pull her seat forward and make way for Lizzie and Caroline to hop out.
Aeron remained rooted in place, fingers numb as they brushed over the seat belt buckle. His heart hammered in his ears, breaths becoming harder and harder to take. It felt like someone was sitting on his chest, breathing over his face and neck until he was hot and clammy.
Caroline appeared on the other side of his car door, sliding it open slowly and leaning in to meet his gaze. "Need help?" she asked, reaching over and unclicking the belt. She made sure it retracted into the holder fully, leaving nothing in Aeron's way. Holding out a hand, she waited for him to take it.
Heart still hammering, Aeron tried, gripping onto her hand and pivoting to plant his feet on the ground. Breathing become harder the more he looked around the place that had once been a safe haven.
"Aer?" Caroline prompted. She moved to stand in front of him, her face hidden from his gaze as tears blurred his vision. "Aeron, what's going on? Please talk to me."
Aeron could do nothing but shake his head, stepping back. He flung his hands behind him, seeking out the cool metal of the van. He didn't want to be here, couldn't be here, not after they'd taken him, taken Lizzie because of him—
"Hey, buddy." It was Marcel, moving in beside him. "You want to go somewhere else? You don't have to be here if you don't want to."
"Where would you take him?" asked Caroline. "He needs support—"
"He can come and stay with us," Rebekah contributed. "We have a spare room."
"How does that sound?" Marcel asked, hand resting on Aeron's forearm.
Breathing was still difficult, and the hurt look in Caroline's eyes wasn't making that any easier. He nodded shortly, tearing his gaze from hers to look at Marcel. Please—I don't want to be here.
"Then it's settled," said Rebekah. "Pop back in the car and Marcel will buckle you in. I'll go grab some of your things." She disappeared into the front entrance in a blur.
Aeron spent the next few minutes in his seat with his head between his knees, breathing as Marcel instructed. He didn't have to stay here. He didn't have to see Lizzie, the girl that had put herself between him and those that sought to hurt him even though it was his fault they were even there—
And he didn't have to see Hope, the girl that didn't come and find him. Not like he'd come to find her when she was bleeding on the side of the road. Not like he'd thought she would.
Rebekah loaded his suitcase and portable keyboard into the back of the van, slipping in beside him to occupy the seat Keelin had previously. Marcel started up the van, and they backed out of the driveway.
"Sit up properly when you can," Marcel said, looking back at Aeron. "It's better to be upright while we're driving, just in case we get into an accident."
Aeron forced himself to sit back, not meeting either of their gazes. As they reversed out onto the road, ready to drive away, he looked out his window …
And saw Hope standing by the entrance, watching them go.
Hope would have given anything for silence.
She didn't know the basic traits required to be a good spy, but she had a feeling that Lyn didn't embody all of them. She was chattier than she had any right to be, especially given their predicament. Stalking through the woods on high alert wasn't how Hope preferred to hold a friendly conversation.
"Do you mind?" she snapped, finally giving in mid-way through Lyn's recounting of a raucous night out with the guards. "Some of us are trying to find a way through this mess."
"I do mind, actually. And since you're the one that got us into this mess, I'll deal with it however I please."
"If you haven't been paying attention, I've been getting us out of plenty of messes. You wouldn't have made it out of that house without me."
"I wouldn't have had to leave it without you," Lyn bit back. "And besides, every dead body left with a scar from that sword is someone I helped kill."
"But I killed them," Hope replied, panting. She could hear running water, scent it on the air. God she needed a drink, and she didn't want to have to ask for Lyn's canteen to get it.
"With my sword. Honestly, I'd rather be out with the guard. They're not nearly as ungrateful after I slave away making weapons for them."
"I've seen your house." Hope sighed, pulling aside a branch to reveal a creek running through a crack in the earth. "I know how well you're paid for it."
"It's not my house anymore," Lyn said pointedly. "No. Now I'm running through the woods with a madwoman."
Hope shot her a look over her shoulder. "That's offensive. I'm not insane—just violent."
"Oh, I'm so sorry for hurting your feelings."
"I didn't mean it was offensive to me," Hope replied absently, stepping forward. The earth was wet and slippery the closer they got to the creek. A few rocks sticking out of the water would help them on their way, but they were mossy and damp and Hope didn't much like the look of them. "Do you think there's a way around this?"
"Doubt it. It feeds into the ocean."
"For fuck's sake," hissed Hope. "We can't possibly catch a break." She bent over to scoop water up in her hands, wiping down her face. They'd been walking for three days by that point, almost at the border to the Winter Court. The air had begun cooling the closer they were to the border, though Lyn assured her it wouldn't be too cold until they actually reached Winter. Hope had travelled through Winter when she was on her way to Autumn to find the Suriel, and she was not looking forward to nearly freezing again.
"Maybe there's a stick or something you can use to help you get across?"
Hope snorted. "I'm a werewolf with superior senses and reflexes. I think I'll be fine." She hefted her pack onto her back and waded through the shallow water to get to the first stepping-stone.
Lyn had the good grace not to say, "I told you so," when she had to leap forward and stop Hope from toppling into the water only moments later. Maybe she was of use some use after all.
Hope would be damned if she ever admitted it, of course.
Chapter 2: Act II
Sorry this took so long! Been sick (as always), but I'm trying to write more this November for NaNo, so we'll see how that goes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Eight years ago …
Vincent Griffith wasn't what Aeron expected.
Marcel spoke of the man with an obvious respect, and Marcel was so commanding that part of Aeron had anticipated a larger man, a gruffer man, just … something else.
Instead, Vincent Griffith was mild-mannered, shorter in stature and slighter in build than Marcel or even Klaus. His hair was sculpted high on his head, shorter on the sides, and speckled with grey. He was angular in the face but not harsh in his tone, and when he spoke to Aeron it was with quiet confidence.
"I'm really glad to meet you," said Vincent, seated comfortably in his chair. His office was large, big enough for book cases and a pine desk and a long sofa, the one Aeron was now perched on. "I've heard a lot about you from different places. I hope you know that doesn't mean that I have any preconceived notions about how you should behave or be treated. I've never seen you as a patient, and that means that we're starting fresh. All right?"
Aeron didn't reply.
"But I will be honest with you and tell you that Marcel has already told me you've been quiet since what happened. I know the basics, but I told him I'd rather hear most of the details from you. Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?"
Aeron remained silent.
"You don't have to talk, that's okay. I'm pretty talkative myself, so I hope you don't mind if I take over. From what I can see, you were on the road to recovery after a very traumatic childhood, and the recurrence of trauma has brought a lot of things to the surface that you might have wanted to stay buried. Your safety was violated, and the place you told yourself was your sanctuary wasn't that at all. I know you were taken from outside the boundary and not inside the Armory, primarily because I helped put up that spell and I'm very confident that those vampires wouldn't have gotten in past the wards. But you thought you were protected in this world, and you weren't. And that's gotta suck."
There weren't many other ways to describe Aeron's reaction. As expected, he did not speak.
"Look, Aeron, I'm not here to bully you into talking. I'm here to listen when you're ready. We can have these weekly sessions in silence if we need to. I have a pretty wide selection of books in here, and I can get more in. We can both read and relax if that makes you more comfortable. The most important thing to me is that this is a place where you can relax. Understand? Good. So I'll get my book, you get yours, and let's just be quiet for a while, okay?"
Vincent picked up a book from his desk, one with a ribbon already in it marking his place. He leaned back in his chair, flipping it open. "Go on," he said, gesturing towards the shelf. "You can grab whatever you want to."
Aeron didn't move.
"Or not," he said simply. "We can't really do anything else until you talk, and you can't read if you don't pick up a book, so where we go from here is really up to you."
Suffice to say, they went nowhere.
Nemes was a market town, Lyn told Hope as they made their way toward the city center. The homes were solid things made of brick and stone, all encircling the flat field waiting for market stalls to plant themselves on it.
The field was sparse as they made their way across it. It was just on dusk and most stalls had shut down, carts wheeling them away and leaving tracks where the soil was wet from recent rains.
"Why pack up every time?" Hope asked. "Wouldn't it be easier to leave them?"
"Thieves come in the night," replied Lyn. "It's better to have your wares close by."
"And the High Lord does nothing?"
"The High Lord does plenty." Lyn's tone was almost offended. "It's just not his top priority to deal with petty thievery in small towns like this."
Perhaps Hope's view of leadership was different from Prythian's, but she couldn't help but wonder what Marcel would have done differently. She probably put him on too high a pedestal, though.
They made their way to an inn, a rickety thing that canted to one side. "This looks promising," Hope remarked dryly.
"Do you ever have anything positive to say?" Lyn fired back through gritted teeth.
The inside of the inn was clean enough, if a little overcrowded. Lyn got the attention of the innkeep, drawing the woman in with her wide smile.
"Hello," she greeted. "My sister and I are looking for a room for the night. How much?"
The woman rattled off a price and Hope watched as Lyn dropped what was surely more than that onto the counter. They collected their key, accepted the woman's garbled directions, and made their way upstairs.
Lyn unlocked the door, needing to put her weight onto it to open it as the warped wood has swollen until it was bigger than the doorway allowed for. She forged on, dropping her bags on the floor and lighting the lamp on the desk to illuminate the space.
There was one bed, barely wide enough for two; a desk, old and reeking of mold that Hope was sure could be found up the back of it; a dresser, empty and with one door barely hanging on its hinges; and a clawfoot tub behind a privacy screen in the corner.
It wasn't much, but it would do.
"Home, sweet home," said Lyn. "Drop your bags and get comfortable. I'll try and find us something to eat."
Lyn did as promised, returning with meat and flatbread. Apparently the inn owners were originally from the Night Court, Lyn said, complimenting the bread.
"You would know," said Hope.
"I would, and I do."
Hope chowed down the last of her meat. "If you close the curtains you can let your wings out."
"I'm fine," said Lyn. "I'll do it when I have a bath. For now I want to know what the plan is."
"The escape plan you've already worked out in your head, just in case they catch up with us here."
"Well, I'd probably kill them, and then we'd run."
Lyn raised an eyebrow. "That's it? That's your plan?"
"Believe it or not, Lyn, I don't make a habit of being on the run. Especially not like this."
"The belly is an unwelcome addition."
Hope's blood boiled. "Go fuck yourself."
Realising what she'd said, Lyn tried to backtrack. "I just meant that it slows us down, not that it's—"
"Whatever. I'm done eating." Hope dropped the last of her bread onto the plate and shoved it towards Lyn. "Feel free to have a bath or go for a fly or whatever it is you do to relax. I'm getting some sleep." She was tired down to her very bones and in desperate need of a few uninterrupted hours. And she'd already bathed, scrubbing the dirt away and putting on the last of her clean clothes.
As Hope stood to unearth her sword from where she'd hidden it in her pack, Lyn said, "I'm sorry. I know how much the baby means to you."
"Oh, you do, do you?"
"It's obvious that you aren't just doing this for Aeron. I can tell every time I catch you touching your belly when you think I'm not looking. You don't have to hide how much you care."
"Good to know you've been watching me for vulnerabilities."
Lyn groaned. "Is it so hard to believe that I'm not scouting for ways to hurt you? I just want you to know that I see how hard you're working and I care about that. I respect it more than anything else. And it's not like I'm not vulnerable here too. I'm on the run with someone I barely know and certainly don't trust, so forgive me for looking for anything I can to help me believe that you're reliable, that I can believe that you're innocent."
"Well, I'm not innocent. Do with that what you will." Hope pulled the sheath free of her pack, waddling over to her side of the bed. "I hope you don't mind that I'm taking the left side. And if I wake up in your loving embrace—"
Lyn snorted. "Believe me, you don't have to worry about that."
Hope fell asleep the moment her head hit the pillow.
Elijah was already waiting for Aeron when he left Vincent's office. The only hint about the Original's appearance to indicate that he wasn't there on official business was the lack of a tie.
"I trust it went well," he greeted. Elijah had quickly learned not to ask Aeron questions. "Come. I believe Marcel has a surprise for you."
Aeron didn't ask what it was. Truthfully, he didn't feel all that excited to know what it was at all, but he got in the car regardless.
He had nowhere else to go, nowhere else that would take him. This was just his life for now, living in the space between words.
The surprise was a piano.
Aeron could hear it from the moment he and Elijah stepped out of the elevator. The front door was open, making way for a clear line of sight right into Marcel and Rebekah's loft.
Aeron didn't recognise the tune. Something jaunty that Davina was stomping her foot along to, her grin wide enough to deepen her dimples.
"Look what I found on the side of the road," Marcel greeted. "Something for you to play while you're here."
Aeron looked it over. The finish was glossy, and it was definitely brand new. Probably expensive, too. Not that he knew much about those things.
He ignored their gazes on him and wandered into the kitchen to grab one of the small bottles of organic apple juice Rebekah had stocked the refrigerator with. After he'd had trouble keeping down anything else when he first arrived, he'd been on a strict diet of fruit and liquids for two weeks. He'd been on solids for at least a month now, but they hadn't stopped buying the juice.
Elijah and Davina had struck up a conversation about Kol by the time Aeron wandered back in. He avoided Marcel's gaze, the question in them. He knew the piano was a reward for him for going to Vincent. He just didn't feel like he deserved it for sitting on a sofa for an hour while Vincent read a book.
Aeron made no apologies as he ducked into his room, shutting himself inside and locking the door. It was his sanctuary, after all, designed for him by Rebekah's expert eye, and he couldn't have apologised for locking himself away if he'd wanted to.
The Winter Court was beautiful but terrifying.
While the trees on Summer's side of the border were frosted, they remained green and lush; crossing over to Winter revealed bare trees dusted with snow like fringes over the branches, icicles bearing down like fangs beneath them.
"Watch where you step," said Lyn, keeping Hope on the path. "The ice falls. It's why the soldiers' helmets here are all so thick."
Hope hadn't had occasion to see a soldier in her last visit, but she believed her. Pulling her cloak tighter around herself, she muttered a quick warming spell to heat palms, then slid them either side of her belly to try and keep it warm.
"It's only a three-day crossing to get to the Middle," Lyn reassured her. "It'll be cold there this time of year, but the safe house should be stocked with plenty of firewood. We can settle in for a while."
"I have work to do," Hope said, tucking her scarf into the top of her shirt and fastening it over her mouth. The warmth of her breath drifted down onto her chest that way, and core temperature was the most important thing.
"You have a baby to protect. You won't want to be hunting Jora in the middle of the winter months."
"Then I'll draw him to Spring or Summer. Anywhere unaffected by the cold."
"You're going to get yourself caught."
"What does it matter to you? As long as you get away, you're fine. You can go back home to your family like nothing happened. If you report something juicy to Rhysand, maybe he'll give you a holiday."
Lyn didn't turn back to acknowledge her.
"You do have a family, don't you?" Hope continued prodding. "You never talk about them."
"You never talk about yours."
"I told you about Aeron, didn't I? He's my family. The most important part, by fae standards."
Lyn snorted. "Fae standards. Right."
Hope quickened her pace, trying to nudge in beside Lyn on the path. "So you really don't want to talk about your family, do you?"
Lyn rolled her eyes, opening her mouth to reply before her eyes widened and she latched onto Hope, pulling her to the ground.
An icicle fell where she'd been standing, clattering onto its side.
"Shit," said Hope, breathing heavily. "Thank you."
Lyn rolled away from her and stood, brushing the snow off her trousers. "Just … stop talking and pay attention."
"Yes, ma'am," said Hope, struggling to her feet.
For his third session, Aeron arrived early and to the sound of a guitar strumming.
Rebekah lingered in her car until he was inside the reception area of Vincent's office, just past where the wards started taking effect. Aeron always had the last appointment of the day, scheduled just after the receptionist went home, so Vincent was the only one there.
But there was a different scent there that day.
Aeron walked up to the open door leading to Vincent's office, knowing he'd been instructed to always go straight in. But if there was someone in there …
"I don't bite, you know," the someone said, the guitar not faltering. "Witch, not vampire. You can come in."
Though he was tempted to turn around and leave, Aeron forced himself onward. A boy was reclining on the sofa, feet up on the coffee table covered in magazines as he strummed a guitar the colour of cherries. He was thin, almost knobby, and just about Aeron's age, with dark skin and thick hair.
"You must be Dad's Thursday afternooner," the boy said, still playing. "I'm Adam, Adam Folsom. Vincent's stepson."
All Aeron could give in greeting was a nod as he stood there with his hands stuffed into his pockets, watching Adam's hands dance over the strings.
"You don't talk? That's cool," said Adam, unaffected by Aeron's silence. It was a nice change from the concerned frowns and awkward silences. "You can sit down if you want. Dad should be here soon. He probably just ducked out to get flowers or something for Mom. It's their wedding anniversary today. Seven years, if you'll believe it."
Aeron wondered why Adam called a man that wasn't his father 'Dad' when the man had only been married to his mother for seven years. Unable to ask, he moved to sit down on the opposite end of the sofa, eyeing the guitar.
"Do you play?" asked Adam, to which Aeron responded by shaking his head. "I can teach you sometime if you want. It's good for relaxing and stuff."
"So sorry I'm late." Vincent arrived at the door, flushed and, sure enough, with a bundle of flowers in his hand. "Adam! I didn't know you were stopping by."
Finally, the guitar playing ceased. Adam stood, slinging the strap attached to his guitar over his shoulder. "I came by to warn you that Mom's attempting a creme brulee for dessert."
Vincent nodded in solemn understanding. "I'll pick up a chocolate cake, too. Have fun at Brian's, and don't stay up too late. You have school tomorrow."
"Don't worry, all the pot should knock us right out."
Vincent sighed heavily as Adam left. "The child loves to push my buttons," he told Aeron. "Sorry if he had a go at yours. Now, where were we last session?"
Aeron didn't speak, but he didn't try to hide his smile, either.
The next town, Dell, was a welcoming place, especially to strangers. Hope and Lyn had been pegged as outsiders the moment they set foot in the inn, the cook fussing over them as he fed them soup and told them how best to keep warm over night ("Snuggle up by the fire; that's the best bet!").
Hope was pretty sure he'd assumed that she and Lyn were involved in some way, but she didn't bother correcting him. Their current spat probably looked enough like a lovers' quarrel to make any protests unconvincing.
She didn't know why they argued so much. Lyn had saved her life, she'd saved Lyn's life, and they both cared enough about her baby to not want hunting Jora to threaten his life. Maybe they'd just painted themselves into corners with their stubbornness, unable to admit to anything that would make them vulnerable.
Whatever. Until Lyn was being nice, Hope wasn't being nice.
Okay, maybe Lyn was sometimes nice.
Lyn moved the mattress in front of the fire before Hope had a chance to ask her. "Sleep closest to the fire," she instructed. "Is there a spell to make sure nothing catches on the flames?"
"Already done. And we can switch if you get too cold—"
"I'll be fine. Illyrians are hot-blooded."
Hope knew she was lying—Illyrians were just as susceptible to the cold as anyone—but she didn't think it would help anything to argue. "Okay, then. Thank you."
"Don't thank me. I'm putting the baby closest to the fire, not you."
Hope sighed as she sat on the mattress, easing herself down on her side. "I'm still allowed to thank you."
"It doesn't change anything."
"But it's polite." Hope raised an eyebrow as she felt a pillow being wedged behind her back. "What are you doing?"
"It'll keep your spine straight while you sleep. Here." Another pillow dropped in front of Hope and Lyn continued, "Hold onto that. I noticed you twinging during the day."
"And I suppose this is for the baby too?"
"No, this is for me. Don't want to hear your complaining."
Hope hadn't complained, but whatever. She craned her neck to see that there were no more pillows. "What will you use?"
"One of the packs. Don't worry about it—ust sleep. Hopefully you won't be crabby in the morning."
Joke's on you; I'm always crabby. Hope waited for Lyn to settle in beside her, the firelight flickering over them like molten gold. "I don't think I understand you."
"What do you mean?"
"You do nice things for me, like giving me the best place to sleep and noticing when my back is sore without me even saying it. I don't know why you bother, after everything I've apparently put you through."
"First of all, there's no 'apparently' here. This is all completely your fault. Second of all, I …" She hesitated, only the crackling of the fire filling the silence. "I don't know. You just … you're alone, and you don't want to be."
"I'm not alone. I'm with you."
"But you miss your family, even if you don't talk about it. I can tell."
More silence. "Because I miss mine, too. I know what it looks like."
Hope turned onto her back to look at Lyn, a smirk on her lips. "So you do have a family."
"Everyone has a family, you fool. Now roll back onto your side and stop ruining my good work with the pillows."
Moment over, Hope did as instructed (with no small amount of grumbling). She slipped into sleep not long after, the golden light lulling her into dreams.
When she woke the next morning, the pain in her back was gone.
Thank you all for your kind comments so far! They go a long way.
Chapter 3: Act II
So sorry for the wait! Hopefully it's good enough to make up for it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Eight years ago …
The first time Aeron picked up a guitar was weeks later.
It wasn't that Adam hounded him, as the boy certainly didn't follow him around. It was more that he was dependably present at the beginning of each of Aeron's sessions, always ready with a new song he'd heard or learned or written. Aeron knew that the first sign of distress would send Adam packing, but that was just it—he wasn't distressed.
After the second week, Adam started bringing two guitars. He must have heard about Aeron's piano playing from somewhere because he began talking about it, about how playing was cathartic and how it helped him when the kids at school became too much.
Aeron heard a lot about the kids at school, and he didn't like any of it.
It was during another one-sided conversation about the healing power of music that Aeron finally picked up the second guitar Adam had brought for him. He tested the weight of it, settling it in his hands as he'd seen Adam do a dozen times.
Adam said nothing, just watching him as he kept on playing.
Aeron plucked at a few strings, then strummed them all in one go.
"You want to have a go at it yourself, or should I teach you?"
Looking up at him, Aeron shrugged. He wasn't really thrilled at Adam teaching him, if only because being taught piano by Elijah had required speech from him.
"It'll be easy," said Adam. "I'll just play a simple song, one note at a time, and you copy my hand movements. Okay?"
Aeron inclined his head, indicating that it was fine.
And so it happened. It wasn't groundbreaking or earth-shattering, but it happened.
Elijah picked him up at the usual time, raising an eyebrow at the guitar he now had with him. Adam wanted him to have it—said something about practice and how it was a rite of passage to drive your family crazy by playing the same song over and over again.
"Seems like a fine instrument," said Elijah. "Let me know if you'd like another."
Aeron nodded, more than he'd given in a long time.
When he arrived home, he ducked straight into his room as he always did. This time, however, he had something to do there.
Hope walked along with a spring in her step, no pain in her back and a flutter in her stomach that was almost like nerves.
"It's a long way to the next town," said Lyn, sounding regretful. "It'll be dark hours before we get there, but I don't think it's smart to stay in the woods at night. Too many wolves."
"Wolves?" Hope asked, trying to smother her smirk. She could handle wolves; she was a born alpha, after all.
"Yeah. Massive ones, the height of a grown man. You do not want to be caught out here, not with a fire to draw them in. And without a fire we'd freeze, so we're walking until we get there, however long it takes."
Lyn sighed. "You don't have to be sarcastic—"
"I wasn't," said Hope. "It does sound fun. I've always liked walking. Granted, these aren't ideal circumstances, but it does sound fun. Better than sitting around waiting for wolves to eat the two of us, that's for sure."
"Three," Lyn corrected, gaze dropping down to Hope's ever-growing belly.
"Right. Three of us." Hope made to step over a fallen tree, bracing herself on Lyn so she wouldn't slip on the wet bark. "It's still hard to think that way."
"Like the baby is separate. I know he's there, I can hear his heart, but it doesn't feel definite. I don't think it's sunk in."
"Have you actually told anyone that you're pregnant yet? Not trying to manipulate them, or kill them, just because you can?"
"Not really. And it's a bit late for me to be telling anyone anything at this point, not when it's already obvious."
"Maybe that's your problem," said Lyn. "You haven't seen your family to tell them, and you've been in a hostile environment for so long. You're trying to kill Jora, and that's all you can think of, and it's like your pregnancy is secondary to that."
"I don't need a lecture on my priorities, Lyn—"
"I'm not trying to lecture you, I swear. I'm just making an observation. Maybe the pregnancy doesn't feel real because you haven't passed the first milestone."
"And what's that?"
"Telling the people you love."
Hope came to a stop, pulling out her canteen to take a long swig of the frigid water inside. "And how do you suggest I make up for that? They're certainly not here."
"You can try saying it out loud. How do you think they'd respond?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do. We always know. What would your sisters do? You tell them you're having a baby and you're glad about it. They say what?"
Hope really didn't like this game. "Josie would scream. Lizzie would smile. They'd congratulate me, probably take me shopping, ask me if there's anything I need."
"And your parents? Have you ever thought about how you'd tell them?"
Hope sighed. "I … We go out together on full moons to watch the sky. I'd tell them then."
"And how would they react?"
"They …" Hope pressed her thumbs against the base of her spine, rubbing circles. "They would make me feel safe. Like nothing could ever hurt me." She sniffed a little, avoiding Lyn's gaze. "But they're not here to tell, and they're not here to protect me, so I don't really see the point of this exercise when we have to keep moving."
She marched onward, neither she nor Lyn saying another word.
Aeron had another text message from Caroline when he woke the next morning.
She sent them every now and then, just to make him feel connected, he supposed. To remind him that he had somewhere to go back to if he wanted.
He didn't want to. Not right now.
Rolling out of bed and slipping on a T-shirt, Aeron had almost opened his door when he heard hushed voices from out in the living area. Rebekah and Marcel.
"—problems with Louis Leroux—"
"That's not new, is it? They've been at each other's throats since he started at the school."
"Yeah, but you have to remember the family history there. The only thing a Leroux witch hates more than a werewolf is a Mikaelson. You may not have been around back then, Marcel, but I was. If this escalates—"
"Caroline's got it under control. We have to trust that she knows what she's doing. And Klaus is there—"
"Like that means things will stay calm and rational." Rebekah sighed. "I just … from what Freya said on the phone, it's getting worse."
"Hope's having a rough time. That's to be expected, given the … givens. She'll get through it, get over it, and everything will be fine."
"I'll tell Hayley that we're happy to help however we can."
"They've got it covered, I'm sure, but if it makes you feel better, remind them that the Abattoir is unoccupied. We can't really take her in here unless Aeron's comfortable with it, and we can't ask him at this point."
"Right," said Rebekah. "I'll see if she's available for coffee. I'm sure she's updated on the situation anyway. Probably has her bags packed."
"It's not easy to raise a kid in a different state and manage a wolf pack at the same time."
"She makes it look good, though," Rebekah commented, already dialling.
Done eavesdropping, Aeron picked up a book and dropped it back onto his nightstand, hoping it was loud enough for them to hear. He stepped a little heavier than usual and took his time opening the door, so by the time he emerged they were done talking and looked like they did every morning.
"Morning, buddy," said Marcel. "Eggs?"
"It's getting late," said Hope, panic edging into her tone. "Where is this town?"
"Another hour or so. Don't worry, just keep close."
It didn't escape Hope's attention that Lyn had slid her axe from her belt, grasping it loosely in one hand as she walked along.
They crested a hill, the spill of golden light on the mountainside flooding Hope with relief. They had a ways to go, but at least their destination was within reach.
"Closer than I thought," said Lyn, sounding as relieved as Hope felt. "We can take a break if you need it."
"No, I'm fine." She could use a soak in a tub and a good massage, but other than that she didn't need a rest.
A growl rumbled through the forest, low and deep enough to buzz through Hope's toes and set the hair on the back of her neck pricking up. "Was that—"
Lyn slammed a hand over Hope's mouth, dragging her to the nearest tree. They ducked behind it, and Hope dropped down to sit on the forest floor while Lyn remained crouching, wild eyes darting around.
"Wolves," Lyn breathed, grasping the axe in both hands.
"Go," Hope whispered. "Fly up and find them. Come back and tell me where they are, and I'll take care of it."
"You can't fight in this condition."
You can't fight, period. "I can try. Just find out where they are. East, I think, but I can only barely hear them. They aren't running, just scenting."
"More than one?"
"I think so."
Lyn cursed, dropping her axe to unfasten the hooks that kept her harness in place. Her wings unfolded beneath her cloak, and she removed that, too. She swept the axe up in one arm, bicep bulging against the tight sleeve of her undershirt, and she stood. "I'll be right back," she promised. "Just stay here so I can find you."
Hope nodded, watching in awe as Lyn took flight. She'd seen Aeron do it, but never a pair of unscarred wings stretching up into the sky, catching her along the wind like a kite freed from its string.
The full moon caught Lyn's broad silhouette in full, and then she was gone, dashing off into the night.
Left alone, Hope drew her sword and waited. One hand rested on the hilt and the other reached around behind her to rub at the small of her back and ease the ache that had built up there.
She just had to cloak herself and wait. Lyn would return, and all would be fine. She just had to wait.
Hope waited. Lyn didn't return.
The growls grew closer and closer until Hope could hear footfalls padding through the snow, crunching it underfoot like gravel under the wheels of a car. Just how big were they?
Unable to sit still any longer, Hope used the tree trunk to help her stand, sword swaying in her grasp. She could fight, and if she couldn't, she had a reasonable amount of magic stored up. She could always light those fuckers on fire.
Hope tried crouching and creeping, but her balance wasn't what it used to be and she ended up using the sword as a cane to help her hobble along. Cursing, she stood to her full height and looked about her for higher ground. Another growl rumbled through her, strong enough to shake snow from the tree branches and onto Hope's head. The icicles rasped together but otherwise stayed in place. She clambered up a hill, coming to a halt with a tree at her back and the sword out in front of her.
And then she saw one.
It was twice the size of any wolf she'd ever seen, normal or werewolf. Her mother was large for a wolf, but she paled in comparison to this beast. It was at least two feet taller than Hope, and she was not a short woman. Its teeth were like daggers, like the icicles that formed on the trees.
Beneath her feet, the snow began to melt and shift.
Hope flung one arm up to grab for a branch, a knob, anything to grab to hold her in place, but there was nothing but smooth, cold wood. The snow broke beneath her feet, sending the shelf of it along the hill sliding down and Hope with it.
The wolf looked right at her, black eyes glinting in the moonlight. She'd cloaked herself. She was fine. She'd cloaked herself. She was fine. She'd cloaked herself—
Still, the wolf neared her.
Something flew down from the sky in an arc, something black that Hope could barely see through her panic but she could scent it,and she knew. She sagged back against the snow in relief as Lyn's axe met the beast's skull with a crack and both Illyrian and beast met the ground with a roar.
Hope stood, stepping around Lyn to drive her blade home in the wolf's heart. The moment the beast stopped shuddering she reached over, prising the axe from its skull with a pop and turning back to hand it to Lyn as she let the cloaking spell fall away.
The eyes that met hers were wide, fearful, and not at all like those of a triumphant soldier. Hope's gaze drifted down to Lyn's knee, which she clutched with two, blood-slick hands.
"No, really?" Lyn bit back, bending her wings at the joins to help push herself up from the forest floor. "Hadn't noticed."
Hope dropped down beside her. "You can't be too bad if you're still talking to me like that." She eased Lyn's hands away from the wound to get a better look at it. The gashes where teeth had met her knee were deep, and Hope could see shards of bone where her kneecap had shattered.
"Still think it's not that bad?" Lyn panted.
"Oh, yeah. This is nothing." Hope placed Lyn's hands back over the worst of it if only to keep the other woman from seeing the mess that had once been her knee. "I'm going to get our packs. We have some bandages, and I might be able to use some snow and pack your leg with it before we keep going."
One hand on her belly and the other stretched out for balance, Hope jogged over to where they'd left their packs, tearing one open in search of the bandages.
"Yeah, I'll be there in a sec."
Whirling around, Hope saw it. Another wolf, uninjured and bigger than the first, prowled towards Lyn. Hope reached behind her head for her sword—it wasn't there. It was still beside Lyn.
Lyn barely had time to get her axe in her hand before the wolf was above her, jaw spread wide. She tried to thrust the axe upwards but it batted it away with a paw like it was nothing.
"The sword!" Hope called, throwing out her hand to push the sword toward Lyn's grip.
The beast descended on Lyn with its breath blowing her hair back like wind. Lyn grabbed the sword, thrusting it into the wolf's side. It let out a roar and recoiled, pulling the hilt from her grasp before thudding back down around her. The blade hadn't hit its heart. It hadn't hit anything vital, and now Lyn was going to die.
And it was all Hope's fault.
Hope screamed, sending a shock-wave through the air. Icicles broke free from the branches and rained down in sheets like icy guillotines, falling over the wolf and knocking it down and onto Lyn. Hope covered her face with her hands, pain lancing through her left arm. She resurfaced when the ice stopped falling, finding one buried in her arm, just above her elbow, and another dozen in the wolf.
One hand on her own injury, Hope hobbled over to Lyn, lifting the beast's head from her chest so she could breathe. The wolf wasn't dead, but the icicle spearing through its eye and into its head made it a far less credible threat.
"Lift it off my legs," Lyn panted. "I'll crawl out."
Nodding, Hope released her wound to do as instructed, heaving upwards with all her strength until Lyn had enough room to wiggle out. Her knee was crushed even more than before, and she screamed as it dragged along the ground, spilling her blood onto the snow.
Once Lyn was free of the beast, Hope dropped it with a cry. "Incendia!" she yelled, watching the beast catch fire. It screamed in pain. She didn't care.
The beast's screeching stopped, leaving only Lyn's heaving sobs behind. Lyn remained sprawled on the ground, hands scrabbling at her thigh but not touching the knee where the injury was the worst.
"Fuck," she hissed, tears streaming from her eyes and down her temples, slicking her hair back above her ears. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
"Such language for a lady." Hope brought the pack to her with a spell, cursing herself for not doing it earlier. This wasn't about conserving energy anymore. It was about keeping them both alive right here, right now. "I'll just bandage you up, and we'll get going."
"I can't walk," said Lyn.
"You can fly."
"Hurts too much. The wind is too strong. I'll just fall."
"All right, then. Let's see what we can do about your knee." Hope tore off some of the bandage with her teeth, wrapping it around Lyn's thigh and tying it off. "That should slow the bleeding. Can you sit up?"
Lyn whimpered, but she managed it. "You should leave me. Send some people from the town back for me."
"I'm not going anywhere." Hope lifted the leg gently, careful not to bend it, and set the pack beneath her ankle so she could use the gap to help her bandage it. "Everything is fine. We'll just take our time."
"You set a fire, you fucking idiot. More will come."
"So you agree that it's a terrible idea to leave you behind? Good." Hope tied off the bandage and reached for the harness Lyn had dropped. "Put this on."
"Because I can't maneuver you around the woods with your wings out, and if you pass out you'll stop tucking them in yourself."
Lyn took the harness reluctantly, slipping it over her wings and buckling it in place with shaking hands. She slipped a few times, but ignored Hope's offers to help. "Now what?"
Hope crossed over to her uninjured side, slipping an arm under hers to stretch her hand over Lyn's back. "Now, we walk."
"Don't even think about leaving your sword behind."
"It's in the burning corpse."
"I don't give a flying fuck, Hope. That blade is the reason we're in this mess, so get it out."
Sighing, Hope used magic to pull it free without touching it, dropping it into the snow. She'd expected the metal to be hot, but the ice didn't even melt. She leaned over and touched it experimentally, finding it barely warm. Weird.
Sheathing the blade across her back, Hope turned her attention back to Lyn. It was a struggle to get her upright, and the first step was worse. The quickest way was uphill, and Hope tried to help her up it but it was impossible without the foot of her injured leg touching the ground, bending her ruined knee.
After the third round of screaming, Hope set Lyn down again.
"Leave me here," Lyn said again, voice weaker. "You have no other option."
"I'm carrying you. Decision made."
"You can't carry me with an icicle still in your arm."
Hope looked down, having almost forgotten about it. God this adrenaline rush was going to suck when it faded.
Grasping it with one hand, Hope pulled it free with a hiss. "Okay, done."
Hope glared at Lyn. "We don't have time for this."
"You can't make it to the town with an open wound, and apparently you're my only way of getting there. Make time for it."
Hope resisted the urge to poke her tongue out at Lyn as she struggled back to the clearing to grab more bandages from the pack. She stuffed two rolls down her shirt, just for good measure, and used the last to wrap up her arm.
"Happy?" she asked, trudging back to the hill.
Lyn was barely able to nod, face leached of colour and eyes a little glassy. She'd lost a lot of blood.
"There's no easy way to say this," Hope began, "but you're going to have to drink some of my blood."
"It has healing properties, and it can help you make it. It won't fix everything, but you'll feel better. Stronger."
"Does it sound like something I'd suggest if it wasn't true?"
Lyn stared her down, searching her face for a sign of a lie. "No. Fuck, I can't believe I'm considering this. What, do you just cut open your wrist or something?"
"You could always lick my icicle."
"You're really foul-mouthed in dangerous situations, did you know that?" Hope asked.
"Must be that Illyrian warrior instinct you keep talking about."
"Oh, please. Aeron is the most polite and articulate person I know. You, on the other hand—"
"Just give me the damn icicle already."
Hope located it in the snow, finding plenty of blood still on it. "Here."
Lyn licked it three times before tossing it away, looking sick. Rightly so. "Can we go now?" There was a bit more colour in her face, and her voice seemed a little stronger.
"I don't know, if you keep bitching like that it'll definitely hold us up." Hope bent over Lyn, tucking one arm beneath her good leg and resting her head against the woman's hip.
"If that's your way of trying to shut me up, it failed."
Hope lifted upwards with her knees, ending up with Lyn slung over her back in a fireman's carry. "Shut up and let me save your life."
"You're the reason I'm in danger."
"I'm aware," Hope bit out, starting the struggle up the hill. Lyn's weight pressed the scabbard between her shoulderblades uncomfortably, but she ignored it, focusing on the terrain ahead.
"I don't blame you," said Lyn, voice small. Faint. Maybe she was losing blood again …
Hope shook her head. "You should blame me."
"I know," Lyn said. "But you could've left me behind. You didn't do that."
"Because I'm a wolf, too," said Hope, voice strained. "And we don't leave our pack behind."
"Shhh, my Aeron. No crying, now. Shhh. You bear the pain, and you do not scream. Not even a whimper to betray it, understand?"
The pain flared in his gut, the hot poker that sizzled through his flesh.
This time, unlike the first time, he didn't scream.
"Oh, Aeron," said Amarantha. "Do you know who hears you when you scream like that?"
I didn't scream, he wanted to say. But perhaps he had.
Amarantha cupped his cheek in her palm. "Your father hears you. And I have to tell you, Aeron, Rhysand doesn't like having such a weak, pathetic creature for a son." She grinned. "Perhaps that's why he never comes to visit you."
"No," said Aeron. "No, he'll come. He will. He'll come and get me."
"No one is coming to save you. Even if you did scream, no one would hear you. I'm all you have, all you ever will have. Just you and I, together forever."
"No, no, no—"
"Shh, Aeron. Shh."
Aeron salt bolt upright in bed, covered in sweat and tears and God knows what else. It took time for his senses to return to him, one by one until he could finally hear the rattling of the doorknob and Marcel's voice.
"Aeron, buddy, please just let me know you're okay in there."
Shaking, Aeron eased himself out of the bed and stumbled over to the door to unlock it. He returned right to the bed afterwards, pulling the blanket up to his chin as Marcel entered, leaving the door open for light. He sat on the end of the bed, mattress dipping beneath his weight.
"That was a bad one, huh?" Marcel reached over to put a hand on Aeron's knee, slowly and carefully and ready to pull away of Aeron indicated that he wanted him to. He didn't. "Do you want me to get you anything? Some warm milk? Tea? Rebekah's still out, but I can ask her to get something from the 24-hour grocery store if you need it."
Aeron shook his head. "Don't go."
If Marcel felt anything akin to shock at Aeron speaking, he didn't show it. "I won't go anywhere unless you want me to."
Aeron felt his face crumple, the tears flowing again. He didn't know if he pitched forward or if Marcel grabbed him, but the next thing he knew he had Marcel's arm wrapped around his head while he sobbed into his T-shirt.
Pulling back, Aeron tried to calm himself, tried to speak, but he couldn't.
"You don't have to talk," said Marcel, pulling him back in. "I've got you, and I'm not going anywhere."
So Aeron gave in.
The village loomed ahead, warm light filtering through the trees as Hope trudged on. She'd only fallen once, managing to avoid further injury by catching herself on a tree.
Lyn had only grunted, barely having the strength to curse at her.
"Almost there," said Hope. "Lyn, did you hear me? Come on, talk to me."
"Help!" Hope screamed, nearing the houses on the outskirts. "Somebody help me, please!"
Her legs felt like jelly, shaking and knocking together before giving out entirely.
Grunting, Hope eased Lyn onto the ground without knocking her leg. She pressed her fingers to Lyn's neck, breathing a sigh of relief at the pulse she still found there.
"Help!" she called again. "Somebody please help us!"
Again, there was no response.
Hope dropped down, closer to Lyn as the air whipped around them. She tugged her cloak around the other woman, hoping they could warm one another.
"They'll come," said Hope, her words slurring from the exhaustion. "They will. They'll come."
Laying her head on the ground beside Lyn's, Hope gazed up at the moon and tried to breathe. Inside her, the baby kicked.
She was going to die here. If not today, then soon.
Tears welling up in her eyes, Hope blinked them away and cleared her throat. "Mom, Dad," she said, eyes still on the sky. The tears returned, refusing to be willed away. "I'm having a baby."
Thank you for all your lovely comments! They're all appreciated.
Eight years ago …
Aeron didn't speak much over the days leading up to his appointment with Vincent. He had a little input into pizza toppings on one night, and asked Marcel if he could skip his guitar lesson with Adam the next. Marcel had been full of easy assurances, but Aeron still worried it was rude.
Regardless, Adam wasn't there when Aeron arrived for his therapy appointment. Vincent was as early as he was, welcoming him into his office with a broad smile. He knew Aeron had spoken. Aeron could tell.
"So, Aeron," said Vincent, dropping into his office chair with enough force that it rolled along the floor. He gripped his desk to pull himself back to it. "Would you like to talk or listen today?"
He'd been preparing for this. All the things he wanted to say to Marcel the other night, but couldn't bring himself to. If he said the wrong thing with the Mikaelsons, they might not want him back. But Vincent wasn't a part of the family, and he had no stake in Aeron's place with them. He could talk to Vincent. He could do this.
"Talk," Aeron said finally. "If that's okay."
"Anything is okay," Vincent confirmed. "Is there anywhere in particular you'd like to start?"
Aeron shook his head.
"Okay, then. Can you tell me about that night? When they first took you?"
"I don't remember much." Aeron shrugged. "I was out there with Lizzie, and then everything went dark. We were in the cell by the time I woke up."
"What was that like?"
"Cold. Wet. They had my hands chained behind my back, just like—like my mother used to."
Vincent's face remained impassive. "Was that the only thing that reminded you of her?"
"No, but it was the main one. She used to make me lock myself up in chains after she was done with me, and I always thought that was my fault and because this was my fault—" He stopped, noting Vincent's raised eyebrow. "I mean, this was because of me. I was out there past the boundary, and Lizzie came to get me. That's why they got her."
"Is that why they came? Because you were out past the boundary?"
"I don't know, but it's still why we were there to get taken."
"And why were you out there?"
"I … Hope and I go out there on full moons. It's where we first met."
"And that's important to you, isn't it?"
Aeron slid his hands beneath his thighs, pressing his weight down onto them until he felt his fingertips starting to go numb. "It was the first time I met someone that didn't hate me."
"That sounds like it would be a pretty important moment, and that she would be a pretty important person. Why wasn't Hope out there that night?"
"She had a date. Lizzie came to tell me, and we were going back inside when they took us."
"Okay. So, you were in the cell. When did you start thinking about your mother?"
Aeron blinked. "I'm always thinking about my mother."
"And what do you think about her?"
"I think about how she used to talk. I think about the punishments and I worry that I'm forgetting them. Sometimes I wonder if she didn't die, if maybe she's watching and waiting to punish me for being happy here like I've forgotten her."
"Was your mother manipulative like that very often?"
"Can you give me an example?"
Aeron brought his hands back up onto his lap, fisting them and feeling the tingle of the blood rushing back. "Can I not?"
"If you don't want to, you don't have to. That's always been the case here, and it always will be." Vincent leaned forward against his desk, arms folded. "Can you tell me more about the cell? You said you think of your mother a lot, but was there anything in particular that made her more present there?"
"It wasn't just her. It was …" He blinked away some tears in frustration. "I don't know how to explain it."
"Take your time."
Aeron took a deep breath, fisting and unfisting his hands. "I wanted someone to come and save me. I hadn't felt that way for a while."
"Because you were free?"
"Even before that. There was a time when I thought—when I thought I wouldn't have to be with my mother forever. I thought I'd be free, that someone would save me."
"Like an enemy of your mother's?"
"No." Aeron broke eye contact, looking at the picture on Vincent's desk. Vincent, Maxine, and Adam, all wearing Christmas sweaters and dopey grins. Adam was reaching around and going bunny ears behind Vincent's head. "I thought my father was coming to save me. When I was younger, I mean. And my mother—she knew that I was waiting for him, so she told me that he didn't come because I was weak. That he was an Illyrian warrior and they value strength, and I was weak and he'd never come for me because I screamed and cried and he was ashamed of me."
"And he never came?"
"Once I learned how to stop screaming, nothing changed. She said he'd given up on me."
"Did you believe her?"
"I don't know what to believe."
"But you know that whatever reason he didn't come down there, it was out of your control."
"We don't know that."
"Look, Aeron, I'm gonna be frank here." Vincent steepled his fingers, elbows braced on his desk. "No one capable of loving their child does so under the condition that they endure agony in silence. If your father wanted you to be safe in any capacity, he would have killed Amarantha and taken you away the moment you were born. The only two reasons I can think of that he didn't do that are either because he didn't care, or someone stopped him. Both of those things are not your fault. You can't make him love you, no matter how much you deserve him to."
The tears were flowing in earnest now.
Vincent pushed the box of tissues within Aeron's reach. "Whatever happened while you were there, it wasn't your fault. You weren't born free, not like every child deserves to be. That's not on you. Your punishments weren't your fault. They weren't normal consequences like no dessert if you skip your vegetables at dinner; they were brutal and fundamentally evil acts, especially coming from your mother. And if you had a loving and capable father, he would have saved you from her. He didn't. And just because your father didn't save you, that doesn't mean you didn't deserve to be saved. That you don't still deserve to be saved."
"But I wasn't. Not for days."
"You're talking about when those vampires took you?"
"Every effort was made to come and find you. Your bracelet helped them track you down, but there were wards around the property where the vampires were staying that made locator spells really difficult. Hope was the one that broke through with her magic, but it took a lot of work to do it." Something on Aeron's face must have alerted Vincent, because he continued, "You didn't know that."
"No one told me. I guess they didn't want to talk about it and risk upsetting me."
"And how do you feel about knowing that? The reasons behind why it took so long for them to come and get you."
"I don't know. I knew they'd try, but it took so long, or it felt like it did, and I just … all I could think was that it was like my father, like waiting for him to save me. Waiting for the great Rhysand to come down and see his bastard son. I remembered that being quiet was the only way I could beg for him to come and find me, so I just … stopped talking. And then I was ashamed, because I left Lizzie alone and they beat her when she stopped them from hurting me and I did nothing."
"Do you think you were obligated to do something?"
"I had to. I knew what it was like in chains, what people like that expect from you, what they do to you. I should've helped her."
"You think that because you were reliving your past trauma, you should've been able to know more about the current danger, and that in that way you should have been able to help Lizzie?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Okay, let's test out an example just to make sure we're both understanding each other, all right? Right. In this example, I have been in a car accident before, and it was really bad and cars terrify me. At the time of my accident, I was injured and I could barely think and I was completely helpless until someone came to save me. One day you and I are in a car together and we get into another accident. In this example, would you expect me to know what to do?"
"Well, if it was bad the last time then you probably weren't paying attention, so you wouldn't know."
Vincent nodded. "Good point. And can you think of one more reason why I wouldn't be able to help?"
Aeron paused, trying to think. "I don't think so."
"Okay, let me give you more information. The first time I was in an accident, a driver hit the side of my car, and it was the middle of the day. The second accident that you and I get into in this scenario, it's night time, it's raining, and we're hit head-on by a semi-trailer on purpose. Why can't I give you advice in that situation? Even if I can talk, even if I have every faculty available to me, why can't I help you?"
By that point it was obvious. "Because they're different situations."
"Exactly. And—now this is a very important question, so I want you to take your time and think about it—is it my fault that I can't help you?"
"No, it's not."
"Whose fault is it?"
"Um, no one's."
"Okay, a slightly different question: Whose fault is it that I need to help you? Whose fault is it that you need help in that accident at all?"
"I don't—you said that the second one was on purpose. Like they were trying to hit you."
"So then it's their fault."
"That's right. Blame is a dangerous thing, and who it ends up with is something we need to pay attention to. In that example, I was not responsible for the accident, and I was not responsible for the reason I couldn't help you. Do you see the point I'm trying to make here?"
Well it wasn't exactly subtle. "You're saying that it's not my fault that I didn't know how to help Lizzie, and you're saying that it's the fault of the people that took us that we even needed to help each other. Or that the others needed to save us."
"Well put," Vincent praised. "Now, your father, that's a different situation. Yes, it was your mom's fault that you needed saving. But it was also his responsibility to save you, and that's something that isn't there with you and Lizzie. You're friends, maybe even family if you want to be, but your relationship isn't a parent-child one. Also, you were both trapped together, and that's different too.
"Now, Caroline, she's taken you in like family, so she saw it as her duty to come and get you back, and she fulfilled that, they all did. It might have taken time, but they didn't forget and they didn't stop working. And that is what your father should have done for you. Caroline might not have always been responsible for you, but she made herself responsible for you when she took you in like blood. She was also coming to get Lizzie, her daughter, but she did it for both of you. Do you see that?"
"Marcel and Rebekah came to get me."
"Because they were closest, yes. But Caroline was the one that organised everyone, and Hope was the one that found the location. Everyone helped, everyone tried, everyone worked hard to bring you home. Because they had a responsibility to you and to Lizzie. You and Lizzie are not responsible for each other."
"She only came out there because of me."
"She went out there to talk to you because you're friends. She didn't go out there to save you. You're both still kids, and you have no business taking it upon yourselves to save each other when there are adults who can do it as well."
Glancing at the clock, Vincent continued, "Look, it's almost time up, but I want you to know that you did really well today. If it takes us a while to talk through these things then that's really okay, Aeron. Your first step was coming in here, and this was your second step, and it was a big one. It's okay to take some time to catch your breath."
"Marcel's coming to get me," said Aeron. "I haven't really talked to him yet."
"Do you want to?"
"Kinda. I don't know. I know I can talk to him, or anyone, but I just …"
"You know that you don't have to talk to everyone if that's overwhelming for you. You can pick one person to talk to, or one hour to talk during, and then that's it. Set your own boundaries. You're still recovering, and if shutting down communication, verbally or otherwise, is something you need to do to recharge yourself, that's a good thing to do. So long as you're stepping out there some of the time, take care of yourself for the rest."
Aeron nodded. "Thank you."
"No problem," Vincent assured him. "Should I let Adam know that you'll be putting guitar lessons on hold? He'll understand, you know."
"No, it's fine. I want to keep going next week."
"Okay, well I'll see you then."
Aeron stood, legs stiff, and stretched. "See you."
Hope crawled through the snow, fingers clawing and churning it up, a bloody trail in her wake as her arm bled through the bandage.
She was almost at the village. Her belly dragged through the snow, the baby kicking in protest at the cold seeping through her and into her bones, her blood.
"H-help!" she tried again. "Please, s-s-someone, help!"
The nearest house was still ten feet away, but she couldn't crawl any longer. "Please!" she screamed. "Please, h-help me!"
A light flickered on inside. Faelight.
The front door yawned open. A lesser fae covered in downy fur emerged, light flickering in their palm. "Cauldron," they gasped, orange eyes glowing into the night as they shuffled to Hope. "What happened to you, child?"
"My f-friend," said Hope, voice stuttered by her shivering. "She's hurt."
"So are you, dear. Come now, let's get you into the warm."
"N-no," said Hope, fighting the arms that gripped her and hauled her up. "Sh-she's dying. Lyn, she's—"
Her rescuer let out a piercing cry. "Someone is coming to help your friend," they assured her. "Right now we need to help you and your little one. Come inside with me."
Hope whimpered as their hand brushed her wound. The blood didn't even feel warm anymore as it wept from her arm, dripping down her sleeve and coating her fingers. "Y'have t-to help 'er," she said, speech slurring as the world spun. "Prom-promise me."
"I will. We'll find her. You left us a trail, after all."
They were right. The slick of blood would lead them right to Lyn.
It was going to be all right. Lyn would be all right.
Satisfied, Hope let her eyes fall shut as her saviour hefted her up and carried her into the house.
The sound of curtains being opened.
Hope blinked against the invading light coming from the windows, scorching her eyes. "Mmf," she complained. "What time is it?"
"Almost 10am." The bed dipped beside her, an arm sliding over her ribcage as she was pulled into a warm body. She pressed her face into the chest in front of her, hoping it would protect her from the morning. "It's okay. You can sleep in, just for today. It's our honeymoon after all. Do you want me to close the curtains?"
Hope shook her head, pulling back to look her husband in the eye. "Don't go."
"I'd be right back," Aeron assured her.
"No," said Hope, tucking her head into the crook of his neck and breathing in his scent. "I want to stay here, nice and warm. Forever."
Laughter rumbled through Aeron's chest. "Sounds good to me." He nestled into her hair, breath warming her scalp. "But what about the baby?"
Pain lanced through her stomach, making her sit up and clench her belly with both hands. Her stomach was huge, expanding by the moment. "No," she said. "No, this isn't how this happened—"
"Hope," said Aeron, leaning over her and pressing a hand to her belly. "Hope, you can't kill our baby."
"I'm not," Hope protested. "I swear, I'm just trying to protect him."
"You're not trying hard enough."
Hope looked down at her stomach. Lyn's axe was buried in the dead center of it.
Hope woke in a panic, clawing at her belly. Uninjured. Not bleeding. Baby kicking indignantly at her anxiety, telling her to shut up and let him sleep.
Relief flooded through her, leaving her dizzy and shaking as she fell back onto her pillows. Her fluffy, comfortable pillows in her equally comfortable bed.
Where was she?
"Lyn?" Hope croaked, throat dry and sore. Her head spun as she sat up, hand going to her bandaged upper arm. The throbbing of the wound was like a drumbeat washing over her. She'd been laid on a cot in a clean nightgown large enough to accommodate her belly. Across from her was another cot, Lyn laid out on it. She'd been changed into clean clothes as well, her wings free of the brace, and her injured leg was propped up as she laid on her side.
Pulling the blanket off her bed and slinging it around her shoulders, Hope eased out of her bed and surveyed the rest of the room in search of a weapon. There was a fireplace, small but lending warmth to the room effectively; Hope snatched a poker from the rack beside it, hoping that would do, then headed over to Lyn.
"Hey," she said, shaking the woman's shoulder a little. There was colour in her cheeks, her breaths deep and even where they'd once been shallow, so she was recovering at least. It'd be good if she could also be awake. "Lyn, wake up."
"It's best to leave her, dear."
Hope cursed, whirling around to face the speaker with the poker in her grasp like a blade. A woman was reclining on a chair nearby, more shadow than solid form. "Who are you?"
"The one responsible for your friend's healing," she replied, face slipping into a more tangible form, all broad nose, dark skin, and deep-set eyes the colour of amber. "Please, don't rouse her just yet. She needs more rest."
"Where are we? Still in the village?"
"The village is a rather broad term that many settlements in this court would qualify as, but yes, you are still in the village you stumbled upon after being attacked." She stood, shadow blurring behind her like a cape. "Let's speak elsewhere. Your friend needs rest."
"She's not my friend," Hope responded without thinking. "I don't know what she is."
"Perhaps you should figure it out elsewhere," she insisted, hand brushing Hope's shoulder like a cool breeze.
"Fine, but I want my sword."
"That can be arranged. Just follow me."
Giving in, Hope rested the poker against Lyn's bed. At least she'd have a weapon within reach when she woke.
Satisfied, Hope turned and trailed after the stranger, close enough that the shadows kissed her feet.
Marcel was waiting to pick Aeron up when he walked out of his session. He had a smoothie waiting for Aeron, one of the sweeter, more artificial ones that were typically reserved for treats rather than sustenance.
"Put your seatbelt on," Marcel instructed. "I want to take you somewhere, if that's okay with you. I've made sure we'll be alone there, but if you're uncomfortable, you can say no."
Aeron took a moment to think about it, sucking on the faux apple juice flavour that made his tongue tingle. Finally, he nodded his agreement.
Marcel put the car in reverse and began backing out of the park. "All right, then."
The place Marcel took him to was a moderately-sized building that smelled of incense, candle wax, and some sort of wine. The pews were all straight, the floor well-swept, and the stained glass displayed reverent figures Aeron didn't recognise.
"This is St. Anne's Church," Marcel explained, walking up to the altar. Aeron trailed after him, peering around with interest. "It's where I go to think a lot. Vincent and I used to meet here, though he's a hungry bastard now that likes his coffee and cake too much to give up meeting at his favourite diner. There was a time, though, that I'd steal something criminally expensive from the Mikaelson cellar and bring it over here. Vincent would bring the cups, and we'd just drink and complain about our people."
Aeron dug his hands deep in his pockets. "You're friends."
"We weren't always, but yeah. We are. And more importantly, we work together. And this place …" Marcel gestured all around him, from the columns to the candelabra off to one side. "This place had a big part to play in that. In all our lives. It's important to us, to me, and I thought maybe you'd find some kind of peace here."
"Do you find peace?"
"Not always," Marcel admitted. "But often enough to have faith that peace will always come in time. Besides, it has sentimental value, too. This was where I became a big brother for the first time." At Aeron's frown, he clarified, "Hope was born on the altar. A bit sacrilegious, but not Hayley's decision."
"Yep. Klaus was pinned to the wall with magic, and when he tried to intervene to get Hope and Hayley away from the witches they snapped his neck. This is where Hope was born, and this is where Hayley died and woke as a hybrid. That was an important moment for our family."
"Is that a good memory, though?"
"Bad things can become good memories if they lead to good things. Hope and Hayley both made it through, and that's what matters. Plus, the attic, upstairs? That's where Davina lived while I was trying to keep her safe from her coven. This was the first place I could think of to bring her, the only safe space for the girl that everyone wanted to kill." Marcel sighed. "I don't know. I guess I just thought it might be helpful. Vincent runs it as a supernatural safehaven now, so you'll always be able to take a break here. You could winnow in and no one would bother you."
"Sounds nice." It was true, though Aeron wasn't sure he'd ever take him up on it.
"I hope it can be." Marcel walked back over to him, patting him on the shoulder. "Let's get home, shall we?"
Hope ran her hands over her blade. She may not have been conscious for the time she'd been separated from it (all night, apparently), but it was still good to return to it.
Her hosts were seated across from her, fur and shadow somehow not as imposing as one would think. They were in what served as a living room in their modest home—a fireplace running the length of it, clothes hung over one wall opposite to dry, a large table made to accommodate guests for dinner. It was warm enough in there to have Hope remove the blanket from her shoulders and leave it across the back of her chair.
"So," Hope began, fingers still travelling over her sheathed sword in her lap. "Who are you?"
"I'm Noma," said the shadow woman. "This is my mate, Cedar."
"It's nice to meet you," Hope replied. "Thank you for helping us last night; I appreciate it."
"It's no problem," Cedar assured Hope, smile warm and full of fangs. "The woods are no place for anyone at night, let alone a pregnant human. The injured Illyrian wouldn't have survived it long either."
Hope hid her wince. Human and Illyrians were memorable in these parts, and the last thing she needed was for news of this to spread. "Did anyone else see us?"
Noma shook her head. "No. And we won't tell anyone about it if you don't want us to, either. Cedar is a good healer; they can manage your friend's injury without calling for help."
"You would hide us here?" Hope asked. "Why?"
"Because you're afraid," said Noma. "I can see it. You're afraid for your child, and then you feared for the Illyrian, the one you called Lyn. You fear for them. You fear that they will be taken from you."
You have no idea just how terrified I really am. "Everyone is afraid of something."
Cedar exchanged a look with their mate. "Not everyone is afraid enough to attempt to cross the woods on foot in the middle of winter."
"You should stay for a while," said Noma. "Get some rest, make sure your friend rests as well. She won't be able to walk on her leg for a few days, and you should get some good meals into you before you continue. If not for you, then for the baby."
"Please don't use my baby to convince me to take care of myself."
"So you don't want any soup, then?" asked Cedar, smile pulling at the corners of their lips.
Hope felt her stomach growl just at the suggestion. "I didn't say that."
Cedar chuckled. "I thought not. I'll go put some on, see if we can get some bread into you while you wait. Your friend should wake in an hour or so, and we can save some for her."
"Thank you," said Hope. "I do appreciate this."
"We can tell," Nomaassured her. "You're tired, as anyone in your situation would be. Your friend's axe is by the fireplace if you want to set it by her bed. If she wakes alone she may appreciate a weapon more substantial than the poker you left her."
Hope flushed, walking to the fireplace and hefting the axe up in her uninjured arm. "I might do that, thank you."
She ducked back into the bedroom she'd shared with Lyn. Crossing over to the side she left the poker on, Hope paused. Hadn't she leaned it against the bed? Why was it now resting against the nightstand?
A quick listen in to Lyn's breathing provided the answer. Hope cast a quick muffling spell to keep their voices from their hosts and said, "I know you're awake. Don't worry, they can't hear us."
Lyn cracked one eye open. "Do you think they're being genuine?"
"I think they're fools, but yes. And we do need time for you leg to heal. How are you feeling?"
"Like I almost became wolf-dinner. Also, did you drop me last night?"
"What? No. Must've been a nightmare."
Lyn didn't seem convinced, but she let it go. "Baby all right?"
"Kicking like it's his job to do so. Look, Lyn …" Hope saw Cedar wander by the door and shuffled closer to Lyn's bed, making sure to look like she was taking as moment to reflect mournfully on her companions injuries, not that she was talking to her. Cedar disappeared from view, letting Hope continue. "I think maybe you should stay here."
"Didn't you just say that?"
"No, I mean, after I leave. I don't think you should come with me."
Lyn's face hardened, eyes turning as molten as the metals she worked with. "You're abandoning me?"
"No, I'm encouraging you to abandon me. It's better this way."
Lyn rolled her eyes. "If you wanted to leave, you'd go. The only reason you didn't pack your things and go once I was here was because you want me to come with you. I know where the safehouse is in the Middle, I know what dangers lie between here and there, and I'm the one that isn't lugging a baby around. I'm helpful."
"But I'm not. You should stay here, recover, then go home. Back to the Night Court."
"You really mean that, don't you?"
"Why would you doubt it?"
"I just assumed you'd try to kill me before you let me leave. Given that I know who's hunting you and all that."
"I'm getting too pregnant to kill you. And I … I want to minimise the damage my situation does to you."
"I can't leave," said Lyn. "You saved me from Jora's men, and you're going to keep doing that. I'll get us to the safehouse even if I have to fly there with you strapped to my chest like a baby. We'll help each other, just like we did last night."
"We almost died last night."
"Almost being the most vital word." Lyn reached out and poked Hope's belly. "If you don't do it for me, or you, do it for the baby."
"God, I'm tired of that argument."
"It works, though."
"Everything I do is for this baby." Everything but the sword. That was for her, because she needed a hell just for Jora. "And okay. We'll wait till your leg is healed, then go. Together."
"Good. Now leave so I can pretend to wake up all over again. I don't want to miss out on the soup—it smells divine."
Hope gave herself a moment to chuckle, then shattered the silencing spell, heading out to rejoin their hosts.
Aeron and Marcel returned home soon after that, dropping by a diner to grab a smoothie for Rebekah on their way. Having had enough of lingering stares for the day, Aeron headed straight to his room to practice guitar for a while.
The fingering was hard to figure out on his own and he definitely wasn't up to reading sheet music yet, but he had a few simple songs down. He'd played through them all three times each when his phone buzzed.
If there's anything I can send up for you, let me know.
Aeron dropped his chin onto the dip along the side of the guitar, watching the message as though it was a new species he'd just uncovered. There wasn't anything he needed, but he knew that Caroline liked to message him every few days to remind him she hadn't forgotten about him.
Instead of texting back, Aeron tapped on her contact at the top, opening up the options. He wanted to talk, but didn't want to text.
He pressed dial instead.
Thank you for the reviews so far! They really do make the writing process easier if I can gauge how it's affecting you all. :)
Secrets Still Remaining
Eight years ago …
"So," Marcel began. "They should be here about 5pm tonight. Just Caroline, Klaus, and Freya, none of the girls. We thought it might be nice to have a family meeting."
"No Keelin?" asked Aeron, drawing his knees up to his chest and tucking the blanket under his feet. He'd been called into the living room for a meeting with Rebekah and Marcel just after breakfast, and the air conditioner had been on cold all night.
"She needs to stay to run the infirmary at the school," Rebekah explained. "But I'm sure she'll send her regards with Freya."
Marcel nodded his agreement. "Is there anything you want to know?"
"No, and I haven't changed my mind, either. You don't have to worry. I'm ready to talk to them."
"It's all right if that changes," Rebekah reminded him. "And we can call Vincent over in a matter of minutes if you need to talk to him for any reason."
"I know. I'll be fine." He and Caroline had spoken on the phone for hours the night before, and he was doing okay with it all. How worse could a dinner be?
"If you want to prepare in any way, that's okay, too."
"Actually …" Aeron ran a hand through his hair, the shaggy, unkempt length of it. "I was wondering if you might cut my hair?"
Rebekah's grin was almost feral. "I thought you'd never ask."
"Are you sure you're ready for this?" Hope asked for what must have been the twentieth time. She was anxious, and the cold night air seeping into her bones was doing nothing to stay her nerves.
"Stop fussing," Lyn bit back. "It's been a week and we need to look at moving on. I can't keep travelling on foot, so flying is all we have."
"You can't land on that knee—"
"Just shut up and let me try, okay?" said Lyn. She was wearing a wool vest Cedar had altered for her to let her wings stick out the back, the puffy sleeves of her tunic emerging at the shoulders like she had the arms of a pro wrestler. Except that the arms of pro wrestlers didn't flap in the wind like that.
Taking one last deep breath, Lyn took off, soaring into the snow-specked air. She maintained altitude at about ten feet off the ground, then began coming in for a landing.
She tried to come down on her good leg, leaving her bad knee stretched out, but the heavy metal brace was hard to correct for and the side of her injured foot still hit the ground, wrenching a cry from her.
Hope was at her side in an instant, a pack of snow in tarred cloth ready to press against the injury. "I told you it was a bad idea."
"And I told you it was our only idea," Lyn replied through clenched teeth. "I can fly just fine, but this knee …"
"It'd be better if we could practice during the day," said Hope. "Maybe we can duck out to a clearing tomorrow."
Lyn shook her head. "We can't risk being seen by any of the other villagers. We went over this with Noma."
"There has to be a better way to practice. Maybe we can make a pile of snow to soften your fall—"
"I need to practice falling down on hard ground, the kind we'll find in the Middle. No one will be making me pillows to land on, so I might as well get used to it."
"We can aim for water? If we come down there you don't have to go feet first."
"There aren't deep enough bodies of water between us and the safehouse. They're all streams with rocks two feet under the surface." Lyn rolled her shoulders, shaking the snow off her wings. "Let's go again."
"If you injure yourself even more, we can't hope to travel by foot ever."
"You can't keep walking around in your condition, and we can't buy a horse, either. It's too expensive to stable in towns and it'll just be stolen on the way if we leave it in the open."
"There has to be something we can do."
"There is," said Lyn. "Step back and let me try again."
And she launched herself into the sky, refusing to hear Hope's protests.
"You got a haircut," said Adam, grinning. "I like it."
"Thanks," said Aeron, sliding onto the park bench beside him. He could hear Elijah's car pulling away, leaving he and Adam to talk. It wasn't easy to convince the others it was safe for Aeron to be out in the open, but apparently Adam was a powerful enough witch that their fears were assuaged by Vincent's promises.
"So, big dinner tonight, huh?"
"Uh, yeah. Caroline, Klaus, and Freya are coming up for it. I guess I'll probably leave soon after that."
"You know you don't have to go if you don't want to, right?"
"I know. But Vincent said I can keep talking to him over Skype if I need to, so nothing's keeping me here but me."
Adam smiled a little sadly. "Is here really such a terrible place to be?"
"No, of course not. I just … I miss them. Josie and Lizzie, Hope, James and Liam. Caroline."
"They're your family," said Adam. "I get it. I wouldn't want to be away from here, either. It's why I didn't go to the boarding school when it was offered. This is my home, my family. I was born here, and I'll die here. I don't want to be anywhere else." He looked across the park to where a busker was setting up his saxophone.
"It's definitely not like any other place I've ever been," said Aeron. "Not that I've been a lot of places."
"Do you want to go to lots of places?"
"I never really thought about where I want to go. Just where I don't want to be."
Aeron shrugged. "It's how it is. Can I, uh, ask you about something? It's not personal, just complicated."
"There's a family of witches here in the city called the Lerouxs, right?"
Adam sat up a little straighter, smile slipping. "Unfortunately, yes."
"Why is it unfortunate?"
"Because they're assholes that take up a lot of Dad's time. They like to try stirring up trouble with the werewolves."
That much Aeron knew from what Josie had told him about Louis. "What kind of trouble?"
Adam hmmed. "I don't know. Dad tries to keep me out of the feuds and stuff. All I know is that when the Leroux witches get uppity, Hayley comes over a lot, and it's not always friendly conversations between her and Dad. I mean, they are friends, but it puts a strain on the relationship between wolves and witches."
Adam smirked. "It is how it is," he said, parroting Aeron's words back at him. "Why are you asking? Don't tell me you've met Louis Leroux at the school."
"I haven't yet, but I heard people talking about him. Apparently he's giving Hope a hard time."
Adam nodded in understanding. "It makes sense. The Lerouxs talk about bloodlines a lot, and they'd have a problem with Hope."
"In what way?"
"Well, there's a weird legend around the Lerouxs, something about a distant cousin of theirs being a wolf-witch hybrid way back when. They tried to undermine her, get her killed. I don't know much because everything I hear is a different version of the same story, but basically a distant relative of the Lerouxs at the time, Sofia Dalliencourt, married a werewolf by the name of Quentin Lesheres. They had a daughter, Vivianne, and kept her a secret because of the war going on. Klaus got involved somehow when she was older, some people say she was his lover, call her the Queen of the Quarter—whatever happened, she died. The Lerouxs haven't been linked to her death in so many words, otherwise I guess Klaus would have killed them all, but I do know that they're responsible for infertility spells on witches that fraternise with werewolves."
"Because they don't want hybrid babies, I guess. It's a serious crime to influence someone's body like that, and at least one Leroux witch, Seraphine, was banished for performing spells that left a few young witches infertile."
"And Hope is a werewolf, a witch, and a vampire," said Aeron. "So they'd hate that even more."
"Yep. I don't know how active they are now, but Louis antagonising Hope isn't a surprise. I'm surprised that Klaus lets him near her, but I don't know how much of this he's personally aware of. If Dad knew there were problems with Hope and Louis, he might have something to say about it, but we like to keep these kinds of things to ourselves. Whatever Klaus knows from what happened to Vivianne, it's not the whole story. I don't think anyone knows the whole story."
"The Lerouxs might."
"If the Lerouxs have any sort of evil plan, I doubt they'll be forthcoming with information that could help us prepare for it. I can talk to my dad, though, if you think that will help."
"Tell him to tell Klaus," said Aeron. "He needs to know. The way Marcel and Rebekah talked about it, she knew that the Lerouxs had a problem with the Mikaelsons, but I didn't hear her talking about bloodlines or prejudice against hybrids. They need the whole picture, or Hope's going to get hurt."
"And if Dad doesn't have the whole picture?"
Aeron balled his hands into fists. "Then I guess I'll have to find out."
"This is hands down the worst idea you have ever had."
"Do you have a better suggestion?" said Hope, readjusting her cloak to stop the cold air from spearing down the back of her neck. "No? I thought not. Now pick me up."
Lyn swore under her breath, the curse billowing out of her mouth and into the air with her exhale. "I'll probably carry you like this," she said, dropping down and carefully picking Hope up, bridal-style. "If I drop you the wrong way—"
"You won't, stop fussing. Fly us a few feet up."
Lyn readjusted her wings, getting a feel for the wind. "Last chance to change your mind."
"I've done this with Aeron a hundred times. Just do it."
"Fine." Lyn pushed up with her good leg, wings carrying her up until she was about six feet off the ground.
"Now you have to shift the hold on my so I'm facing forward," said Hope, taking one of the arms from around Lyn's neck so she could readjust her grip. "Good. At least we can do that transfer. Now drop me down."
Lyn counted to three and released her grip under Hope's armpits. Hope's heart plummeted into her stomach as she dropped but she caught herself spryly, landing with her knees bent to absorb the shock.
"Right!" Hope called up to Lyn, the wind warbling her voice. She braced herself as though she was about to start running a race, one knee almost touching the snow while the other bent forwards. "Now you come down as low as you can, spread your legs with the uninjured one close to me, tuck your wings in and drop."
She heard Lyn murmur something unintelligible to herself, maneuvering through the wind until she was lower, lifting her good leg up so it was almost horizontal.
"Now!" she called, tucking in her wings and dropping.
Hope braced herself, arms out, and managed to catch Lyn with one arm under the crook of her good knee and the other at the small of her back, just under her wings.
And only then did she topple over into the snow, off-balance.
"See!" Hope panted, shoving Lyn off of her. "It worked!"
Lyn grunted. "Barely. You can't drop me onto the ground every time."
"So then we'll practice. At least we know it can work. Let's go again!" Hope hopped to her feet, giving Lyn a hand up.
"You're enjoying this far too much."
"Me?" Hope asked, feigning offence. "Never."
Caroline approached Aeron carefully when she arrived, almost as though she expected him to push her away. She stopped right in front of him, eyes wide and smile a little weak. "Hi, Aer," she said, voice soft.
Stepping forward, Aeron wrapped his arms around her wordlessly, feeling her hands come up to hug him in return. Her eyes were glassy when they separated.
"I missed you," he said. "I'm so—"
"Don't apologise," said Caroline, waving a hand. "It's fine, I understand. What's important is that you got what you needed."
"Should we eat?" asked Marcel. "It's all gonna go cold if we don't."
"God forbid," said Klaus, shooting Marcel a smile before stepping up to clap Aeron on the back. "Good to see you, lad."
"You too," Aeron replied.
"All right, come and sit down, you sops," said Rebekah. "I spent ages setting up the table—"
"You put the cutlery in the basket and left Aeron to set the plates out," Marcel corrected from the kitchen, grin wide.
"We all have our parts to play. I spent a good half hour shopping for the wine."
"It wouldn't have taken that long if you didn't drink everything we had—"
Aeron felt a poke on his arm and turned to find Freya there, ready to hug him. "You got tall," she said. "The boys missed you."
"I missed them, too."
"Shut up or get a room!" Caroline told Rebekah and Marcel, who had descended into good-humoured bickering. "And can we eat yet? I'm starving."
It was a good meal, if a little awkward. Hayley and Marcel talked business for all of three seconds before Caroline booed them, insisting, "Family time means no shop talk."
Afterwards, Aeron helped clear the dishes but was relieved from other duties as Elijah and Hayley installed themselves in the kitchen as the clean-up crew. Rebekah kidnapped a willing Freya for a shopping spree, something about an anniversary gift she'd picked for Freya to give to Keelin, and Marcel set himself up at the breakfast bar to talk to Hayley while she rinsed the plates and handed them to Elijah.
Aeron, Klaus, and Caroline sat in the living room together, the sound of soft jazz wafting through the open window.
"So," Caroline began. "I hear you've been hanging out with Adam Folsom?"
"He started teaching me guitar, yeah."
"That's great. He's a really great kid."
"I, uh, I was thinking I'd keep learning guitar after I went back," said Aeron. "Vincent said I could Skype with him for my therapy sessions, so I might do that with Adam too."
Caroline beamed—it was the first time he'd mentioned going back. "That sounds amazing. Bonnie can help too, if you want, but it's up to you. It's good to have something special going with Adam."
"Yeah, we'll see." Aeron returned her smile, and the anxious flutter in his chest ceased.
"It's such a shame you have to leave so soon," said Cedar. "You know you're more than welcome to stay and recuperate if you want."
"Thank you for the offer," said Lyn. "But we really can't stay."
Hope nodded in agreement. She and Lyn had discussed it at length; the longer they stayed, the more danger Cedar and Noma were in. Jora was still hunting them, after all.
"At least take some rations," said Noma. "We have some dried meat, some hard breads that will last longer. Wherever you're going, it's best to have what food you can."
"We appreciate it," Lyn said, cutting in before Hope could object. She was more accustomed to the kinder side of Prythian; Hope had only ever used that kindness to get what she wanted.
Noma nodded, satisfied. "I'll just pack them for you."
"You're sure you didn't leave anything in our rooms?" Hope asked Lyn.
"Yes, I'm sure. That's the third time you've asked."
"Here we go," said Noma, returning with leather pouches filled with rations. "Hope these fit in your packs."
"We'll manage," said Hope, accepting them with a "thank you" and shoving them into her pack. "Thanks again for your hospitality. We wouldn't have made it without you."
"It's no hassle," Cedar assured her. "Travel safely."
"We will," Lyn assured them. "We'd best get going if we want to make it to somewhere safe to camp for the rest of the night."
Hope picked up both packs, holding them against her chest as they stepped out into the bitter cold. The wind lashed at their faces, tearing hair free from Hope's braid. "Are you sure you can fly in this?" she asked Lyn, practically yelling over the howl.
Lyn glared at her, apparently unhappy with her doubt. "Just try not to scream. It's annoying."
"I do not—" Hope bit her tongue as Lyn picked her up, positioning her with the packs resting on her stomach. "I do not scream," she finished, pulse already rocketing.
"Good," said Lyn. "You can remember to wave goodbye then."
She took off without warning, shooting up into the sky. Though Lyn would later call it flailing, Hope did, indeed, manage to wave.
Aeron snapped his new guitar case shut, leaning it against his suitcase.
"Is that everything?" Marcel asked.
"I'll go check his room," Caroline answered, marching over to do just that and leaving Aeron alone with Marcel and Rebekah.
Rebekah stepped forward for a hug first, her arms tight across Aeron's back. "It was good having you here," she said, pulling back. "If you ever want to come back, just text me. I can drive right there and pick you up."
Marcel stepped forward to hug him. "We'll miss you," he said. "And she really does mean it. Just say the word and you're back here, no questions asked."
"I know. Thanks for having me here. I don't really know what I would've done otherwise."
"You'll never have to know," Rebekah promised solemnly, patting his shoulder.
"I found this!" Caroline announced, trotting back to rejoin them in the entryway. A small, pocket-sized packet of tissues was in her hand. "Definitely very important," she said with mock seriousness, pressing it into Aeron's hand. "You said your goodbyes? Great."
The elevator dinged open at the end of the hall, Klaus stepping out. "All ready?" he asked. "Let me take the bags—"
"I'll grab the guitar," Aeron said, slinging the strap over his shoulder. It was his most prized possession, after all.
"Okay," said Caroline brightly, kissing Rebekah and Marcel on the cheeks. "Let's get going."
Aeron waved goodbye as he headed down to the elevator, sliding in beside Klaus and the suitcase. Caroline joined them, pressing the button for ground floor.
As the elevator began to descend, Caroline turned to Aeron with a brilliant smile. "Time to go home," she said.
"Yep," Aeron agreed. "Time to go home."
This ended very happily for most of them? I wasn't expecting that to be the case, but it is what it is.
Next volume should be out within a week! Reviews make it come faster :)