Asserting Ellie was wrong wasn’t going to calm the quaking in Shreya’s chest. There’d been truth to Ellie’s vitriol. A broken pact. Wolves pushing forward in an effort to expand their territory. Attempts to reclaim land that should’ve been theirs. And resource gathering, to make up for the end of the bargain Stockbrunn failed to follow through on.
The Elders’ stories had felt too spun to be real. They’d weaved stories of Stockbrunn treating the Marjani people unfairly, that Stockbrunn forced them into a bad deal.
Stockbrunn drew those boundary lines knowing that food would dry up on the Marjani side. They planned their destruction from the start. Not having the wolves near them and sharing resources meant that Stockbrunn could flourish. They got to have everything for themselves. The town prospered, while Shreya’s people suffered.
The wolves tried to work something out. They’d stay on their side, as long as Stockbrunn sent them provisions. It worked for some time. They were able to coexist. Then, Stockbrunn cut them off cold, entirely unprovoked. The food stopped, and the treaty along with it.
What choice did they have when choice was ripped out of their hands? Were they to die, starved out by forced niceties and a law that was unjust to begin with? Upholding that treaty would’ve killed them.
Ellie called this a personal subject, but it wasn’t like she lived through it from their side. How personal could it have been for her? She only knew loss from a distance. Her worst one could turn out to be alive, for all they knew.
Try bearing witness to hundreds of mourning fires over a short lifetime. Entire families lost to sickness and starvation. Infants being put to sleep so they wouldn’t suffer. A brother withering away. A sister dying for no explicable reason. Another succumbing to a debilitating fever. “Personal subject” didn’t cover half of it for Shreya, not with what she’d been through.
“Are you sure you’re gonna make it to the house okay?” Ellie asked.
“Yes.” Shreya’s feet chose that moment to stumble.
“Y’sure about that?”
“I tripped,” she said.
“Yeah, you’re obviously sick. You can’t even walk.” Ellie linked her arm around Sunflower’s. “We should stop here.”
“I am fine.”
“If you were fine you wouldn’t be wobbling. Take a rest. You need it.”
Shreya’s eyebrows creased. “I plan to do that at the house.”
“You’re not going to make it there at this rate. I’ll help you down to the ground if you need it.” Ellie held out her hand.
She kept hers by her sides. “The house is more comfortable.”
“Why, ’cause there’s beds there?”
“That is part of it.”
“Then I’ll be your bed.”
“What? Oh, no, I don’t mean in a nasty way!” Ellie’s face flushed. “I was saying it in a totally not-nasty way, like you could lay on me to avoid getting, like, twigs in your hair and rocks in your back. You’d be on top ’cause I’d be the bed. Get it?” She dug a deeper hole for herself as she talked.
“It is not nasty when I am on top?” Shreya crossed her arms. She fought to keep the smirk off of her face. “Is it nasty when you are?”
“Hey! Don’t you go and twist things. You know I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I know you asked me to lay on you. Is that twisting things?”
“It’s twisting things when you make it sound twisted. I was offering so you’d have something more comfortable to lay on. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“My cape would be fine,” Shreya said, “unless you would beg to differ. What can you do for me that my cape cannot?”
Ellie walked into her trap. “Seeing how I’m living and breathing, I can hug you, cuddle you, do other things to you. I dunno, there’s a lot I can do. I’d make a way better pillow, that’s for sure.”
“Do other things to me?” She hadn’t dropped her innocent act. “Tell me whatever you could mean by that.”
“Like the thing we agreed to do after a big spectacular moment. That kind of other thing.”
“Hm, that thing you won’t be able to resist doing to me first.” Their next kiss.
“Only if it’s the right time!” Ellie exclaimed. Sensing how flustered she was, Sunflower squirmed. Ellie tightened her hold on her.
“You were hoping the right time would happen right here.” Shreya dragged her shoe across the ground where she stood. “Is that what you were hoping for?”
Ellie did the same. “…More like right here.” She tapped her foot. “There’s too many sticks over there.” She smiled slowly, her cheeks not having lost their pinkness.
Shreya mirrored her expression. Conversations like these helped her forget who they were. In these moments they were two girls getting to know one another. Their pasts didn’t matter. The only thing that did was seeing who would smile first.
Seeing Ellie fumble and trip over herself was something Shreya’d never tire of. It was one of the things about her that kept Shreya from running. The hatred the Stockbrunnian girl spewed would’ve been enough to drive away a weaker heart.
She grounded herself in Ellie’s laughter, a light giggle she contained behind her hand. The mirth flickering in her eyes became her rock.
There were noble excuses and selfish excuses for staying. Noble as in she was going through this for her community’s sake, and selfish as in she was going through this for her enjoyment. Ellie was Stockbrunn’s heiress. She was an influential force in that town. As the next in line, she had everyone’s ear, and in a small way, Shreya had hers. Should things between them take a turn for the worst, Shreya’d lose that connection.
As long as they were together, the opportunities to be selfish or noble would keep coming. She could collect information for her people and guide Ellie away from harming them. A noble effort, although she recognized she’d been doing a poor job of that thus far. If Ellie had a soft spot for certain animals, perhaps she could develop another one for wolves.
Their interactions had been enough for Ellie to discard her fear of woods dwellers. All it took was proving to her that the stories about them weren’t entirely true (not that Shreya knew the details of those stories in the first place, but still). Ellie’s deep-seeded lupine hatred would be harder to uproot, but if Shreya kept trying, kept nudging her into a better direction…
Revealing her ears was out of the question. From what she knew about Ellie, she knew doing that this soon wouldn’t go over well. In the worst case scenario, Ellie would snap and attack her. Her rage would manifest in the form of an axe swing, one that Shreya would accept as penance. That’d be the beginning of a war between Stockbrunn and the Marjani wolves, a war her people would be ill-prepared to win.
“Best” may not have been the word for it, but the best scenario was the one in which Ellie’d see her ears and run back to Stockbrunn. No one else would be hurt after that. Ellie would dry her tears on her own, and go on to become her town’s leader. She’d forget all about the girl who took advantage of her, refusing to acknowledge that Shreya’s identity had been the single thing she’d faked.
That was the only passibly good outcome Shreya allowed herself to hope for. Anything better than that was too far out of reach, too impossible for her to dream of.
Whatever the scenario, good or bad, they all ended in Shreya losing her. Shreya couldn’t go through that, especially not when Ellie was the only person in her life at the moment. She didn’t have anyone else. And as complicated and imperfect as this situation was, Shreya was glad Ellie was that person. Her silliness was the distraction Shreya needed.
Shreya stepped closer and lifted her hand for Ellie to rest hers on. Sunflower nearly started at that, but Ellie angled herself so she’d be in the way of her dog’s swinging range. She kept her behind her, Sunflower’s tiny growls going ignored.
Ellie placed her hand over Shreya’s, her arm stretched to close the distance. Shreya’s heart fluttered at the contact. She hadn’t realized how starved she’d been for it until then. The way Ellie relaxed in her grasp made her suspect her suffering hadn’t been solitary. Her biting her bottom lip confirmed it.
Using her other hand, Shreya stroked her finger tips along Ellie’s palm. She dragged her nails slightly on the upstroke to keep from tickling her, going from top to bottom and back again. A pale curved line in the center of her palm caught Shreya’s attention. Careful not to upset the scar, she slowed her movements.
“Thank you for being here,” Shreya said. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome.” Ellie closed her eyes to savor the feeling. “Very, very welcome.”
Shreya ghosted along the lengths of Ellie’s fingers, taking note of the slight crookedness to some of her knuckles. Her ring finger was longer than her index, a short way off from the length of her middle. For someone with farmer’s blood, her hand was surprisingly callous-free. Soft. Warm.
She wandered her attentions to the heat generating from Ellie’s wrist. At a languid pace, she brushed her fingers along her wrist to the crook of her elbow. Shreya thanked her ears next for being able to catch Ellie’s gasp. The sound would’ve been imperceptible to a human.
Pleased with the reaction, Shreya decided to test the waters. “What are you thinking about?”
“Just imagining what else you can do,” she said.
“What do you have in mind?” Shreya leaned further into Ellie’s personal space and brought Ellie’s hand to the side of her jaw. “What do you want me to do to you?”
Ellie laughed breathily. “You’re gonna give me a heart attack.”
She turned her hand so she’d feel her lips move against her thumb. “You started it.”
“I know, but…can we cool off? This is starting to get really intense, and I really don’t want us to regret anything, okay?”
“Nothing is happening. We are talking.”
“You’re totally giving me the eyes, though.”
“I do not understand ‘giving you the eyes,’ sorry. I am looking at you,” Shreya said. “Is that bad?”
“Maybe I’m projecting. I dunno. Either way, um, weren’t you sick a minute ago? What happened to that?”
“You cured me.” She took her hand away from her face and dropped it. Ellie tucked it by her side, her difficulties with eye contact apparent. “There is something I want to ask you.” That brief moment of satiation emboldened her.
“If it’s about that I think the farthest we can go is making out. I’m not ready for more than that. Nothing more than kissing. Sorry. I know spending the night makes it seem like much more’s gonna happen, but noooo. Too fast. I’m not trying to be mean, I just wanna put it out there.” Ellie winced at the end of her sentence. “Sorry if that’s mean.”
“…That is not what I wanted to ask, and no, you are not mean. That is not something to be sorry about.” It disturbed her that she was so apologetic about it. “Thank you for telling me.”
Relieved, Ellie smiled. “What is it, then? What do you wanna know?”
“Is Stockbrunn planning on attacking the wolves any time soon?”
Ellie’s smile dropped. “I don’t think so. I don’t know why we aren’t, but my mom hasn’t mentioned anything like that to me.”
“Good, I would not want anyone to get hurt. The war would get dragged to the forest, and we would have to leave to protect ourselves.”
“Me and you?”
Her wrong assumption tickled her. “My community,” Shreya corrected. “I would leave with them.”
“I am uncertain. Further south. Perhaps north. It is hard to say. It would be up to the Elders.”
“Well, it’s not happening any time soon, so you don’t have to worry about that.”
“Can you please tell me if you hear talks of war? We could prepare ourselves, then. Leaving would be less of a surprise,” Shreya said. “When the Elders are surprised, they tend to go to extremes. We may never come back if that happens.”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you,” Ellie said, “but how about this? If there’s a war, we could conscript you. Your community could help serve as our soldiers against the wolves and after the war, you could become official Stockbrunn citizens.”
“We are not fighting your war for you.”
“You wouldn’t fight in it. I’d enlist you as my personal bodyguard.”
“While my community members suffer on the battlefield? I am sorry, but I have to decline.”
“You’d get citizenship, though. I could set you up with a real nice house, better than this one in the woods. You’d have everything you’d ever want. I swear I’d give you the perfect life, Shreya. That’s how much I like you.”
“Ellie, thank you, but I do not want that. I want no war.”
“It’s pretty much the easiest and least suspicious way I can get you in Stockbrunn.”
“Do not start a war for that!” Shreya snapped.
“It wouldn’t be for that! That’d be a side effect of it, but it’s not happening, anyway. Jeez, no need to yell at me.”
“I am sorry,” she softened her tone. “Will you promise me you will tell me everything you know about any plans for violence? I am afraid of never seeing you again. Am I wrong to think you think the same way?”
Ellie jumped at that. “You’re not wrong! I’ll tell you everything.”
“Will you try to stop it?”
“It’s not like I can,” she said, “and to be real with you, it’s not like I’d want to. You’d be the only thing holding me back.”
“Please, Ellie?” Shreya blinked rapidly. Forced tears sprung at the corners of her eyes, a skill she hadn’t tapped into since she was a pup. “Please slow it down if you can. I do not want to be taken away from you. I am scared,” her voice cracked.
Ellie took her hands into hers. “Shhhh, shhhh, it’s okay. I won’t let that happen to you.” She guided Shreya’s hands upwards, so her arms could drape around her shoulders. “Is it okay if I put my hands on your waist?”
It surprised her that she’d learned from the first time. Another flurry started in her chest, as real tears mixed in with the fake ones. Shreya pulled back to lead Ellie’s hands to the right placement, at her waist but not in any danger of finding their way to her back.
“Yes, right there is okay. Please do not move them.” Shreya placed her arms around Ellie’s shoulders again. She nuzzled against her face, the flaps of her hat blocking them from touching skin-to-skin. “We need to talk about that. I have problems with being touched.”
“Did something happen to you?”
“Yeah,” she lied. Lying to her like this sickened her, but she had to do it. “Something happened. That is why we are going to need rules.”
“I’ll fucking kill him. I will fucking tear him apart if I ever see him.” Although she spoke gently, Shreya could feel the sharp anger bubbling beneath her words. “Or her, or them, or whoever did that to you. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I’m such an idiot.”
“It is not like I wore a sign saying it. How were you supposed to know?”
“I don’t know. I’m just…” She trembled.
“Are you crying?” Shreya pressed herself closer. Ellie’s hands didn’t stray.
A hiccuping sob tore out of her. “No.”
“You are. Sorry. I wanted to tell you early. This was too much. I should not have said that.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry. So many horrible things have happened to you. You deserve so much better!” Ellie cried. “I-I’m going to do everything to make you happy. You’re going to be so happy, Shreya. You deserve to be happy.”
“You do make me happy,” she whispered. I don’t deserve this.
“I’ll make you happier. I’ll be the best,” she hesitated, “the best whatever-we-are to you. I’ll support you. I’ll protect you. I’m here for you.”
Shreya pulled back to look at her, at the sincerity swimming in the water of her eyes. She tried to dam up her own eyes, but seeing Ellie cry made it worse. This girl was ready to do anything she asked of her. She was willing to give her so much, and there Shreya was, falling back into her old patterns of manipulation. She trounced all over her feelings.
“Do it. Make me happy.” Distract me. Make me forget who I am. When Ellie didn’t move, she tilted her head. “Do not wait for something spectacular. C’mon,” she pleaded. “Make me feel spectacular.”
“Shreya… Why can’t we ever do this when we’re not crying? I don’t want this to become a thing.” She watched the resolve crumble in Ellie’s eyes. The closer Shreya moved in, the more it broke. Shreya felt Ellie take in a breath. “Dammit, girl.”
She considered stopping. Ellie may have wanted it, too, but this wasn’t a fair way of going about it. They should save this second moment for a happier circumstance, just as Ellie had wanted. But then, Ellie’s lips met hers and the voices in Shreya’s head shut off.
It started relatively chaste at first, small pecks of are you sure? The answer was the same every time, a resounding yes, but Ellie held back. She kept her passion bridled, only revealing itself in the way she drew circles on Shreya’s waist with her thumbs. To show her she meant her yes, Shreya gave her a more forceful kiss.
She pulled back to get a read on her. Their gazes locked, Shreya could see how Ellie’s eyes had clouded over. The brunette giggled, and said something Shreya wasn’t in the right mindset to translate. Ellie obliged her further, returning that kiss and then some.
Shreya felt like she was melting, drowning in the sensation. In need of an anchor, Shreya tangled a hand into Ellie’s hair. Ellie provided another one, her hands harshening their grip on her waist
Shreya poured as much as she could into her kiss. Her vulnerabilities. The things she didn’t dare say. Her gratefulness for having found someone like her. The need to feel like everything was okay, like they were any other couple-to-be. In the moment, she could fool herself that much.
“You’re the best,” Ellie murmured when they broke for air.
“No talking.” Shreya brought her in again.
If anyone had deserved better, it would’ve been the girl channeling as much emotion in return. Ellie’s willingness to support her floored her. Shreya wasn’t anywhere close to being the best, not when Ellie was the measuring stick by which she compared herself.
“Mmm, wait,” Ellie said. Shreya stopped to take in her appearance, the redness that had reached her lips. “Hold on.” She let go of her, and turned around. She did a double-take. “What? Whaaat?”
“Is something wrong?” Shreya moved to embrace her once more.
Ellie shook her head. “Where the hell is Sunflower?”
“Um…” The spell wore off. They were back inside a cold reality. Shreya patted her face to wake up.
“When did she run off? This can’t be happening!” Ellie brought her fingers to her mouth, and shrilly whistled through them. Shreya flinched from the noise.
“Do not do that. You are going to call every animal in the forest over here.”
“I don’t care! Sunflower’s missing and I can’t even tell you when she disappeared. She can’t be by herself. I have to find her.” The panic rose in her voice with every word.
Shreya gripped her wrist. “Get a hold of yourself. She is a dog.”
“She’s not a dog; she’s my dog!” Ellie pulled away. “I’m going.”
“Slow down. Breathe.”
“We can track her,” Shreya said. She breathed in her scent. It was unmistakable amongst the smells of the forest. She was as wrong and foreign to this place as Shreya was. “Trust me that we can find her. You are light-headed and not thinking straight.”
Ellie sighed. “Whose fault is that?”
“We can try this direction,” Shreya said without paying mind to that comment. “You wanted to learn how to track, correct? This will be your lesson.”
“As long as we find her before nightfall,” Ellie glumly said. She reshouldered her bag.
“We will,” she assured her. Shame on her if she couldn’t complete a hunting task this simple. “Come with me.”
Shreya and Ellie joined hands, and got to walking.
A/N: Fixed version now up. Vote for us on Topwebfiction to help us get on and stay on the charts. Votes reset every week.
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Voting ends Saturday, August 6th at 11:59 PM EST. Chapter 29 will be here on Saturday, August 13th.
Last week, we had 19 voters total. 9 voted for someone being at the house and 10 voted for Sunflower running off. Will this be the week we reach 20 voters? Let’s find out and see! Catch you next time.