They’d had to break the lock to get in. A few well-placed kicks from Shanti was all it took. Whatever security they’d thought they had had been a farce the whole time. Ellie assured everyone that she could piece the lock mechanisms back together, good as new, once she was feeling better and had the right tools for it.
The house was as they left it. Wooden floors lined with scratches, broken cabinets containing nothing of use, a table close to its breaking point surrounded by four rickety chairs. There were no signs of a break-in or forced entry (other than what Shanti had done) or even scrape marks along the door frame. Whoever had kidnapped Sunflower hadn’t dared approaching their house. Or perhaps it was better to say that they never sourced them back to the house at all.
Shanti’s attention was squarely on the metallic vessel that resided in the corner of the room. She played with its gate, the hinges creaking as she worked it opened and closed. After a moment of amusement, she reached her hand inside and pulled it out just as quickly. Her fingers were covered in a blackened soot, remnants of whatever had once been inside.
“That’s a stove,” Ellie remarked. Her voice had gone hoarse from her earlier sick spell. Shreya saw through the smile on Ellie’s face, knowing that it was a cover-up for her suffering. “It’s not a good idea to stick your hand inside like that.”
Not having a care for the cleanliness of her clothing, Shanti wiped the grime off on her draped fur coverings. It left a gritty stain onto the brown and gray, reminiscent of a burn mark. She offered a shrug when she caught Shreya’s disapproving gaze.
Ellie continued, “it’s great that this house has one. It’ll keep us warm if we keep coming back here in the wintertime.”
Shreya wondered if they could make it that far. It wasn’t that she felt like things were coming to an end. It was just that she was close to being fed up with herself and her prolonged insincerity. She wasn’t being forthright. Bringing Shanti to Ellie was supposed to help bridge that gap between her rationality and irrationality, but that point was being lost in the midst of Ellie’s inexplicable illness.
But what did Shreya think would happen when she introduced them to one another? It was naïve of her to think that Shanti would accept Ellie with open arms. Even with Ellie at her best, Shanti would still peg her as the worst thing that had ever happened to Shreya. She’d made that clear earlier. With that in mind, Shreya watched her sister’s actions carefully.
Shanti set the gourds on the table and took a seat in a wobbly chair Shreya worried wouldn’t hold her weight. Not because she was particularly heavy or anything like that. It was just that the chair seemed particularly weak, especially with Shanti leaning back on it in a way that had its front legs hanging in the air.
Ellie sat down across from Shanti. She folded her hands in an effort to keep them from trembling. Shreya noticed the minute movement, her keen eyes taking in every part of Ellie’s appearance that didn’t seem perfectly all right. Most of her—from her paleness to her fidgetyness—didn’t seem right.
“You should go upstairs,” Shreya said.
Sunflower lingered near. She’d been freed from the wrist leash, the strip of fabric bundled up on the table. She leered over at Shanti with about as much suspicion as Shreya had for her. If it weren’t for a hand signal that Ellie gave her, Sunflower probably would’ve been growling.
“In a little while,” Ellie said. She took her belt off from where it loosely hung off of her neck and placed it on the table in front of her. “I’m not sure I can walk up there without falling right now.”
Shanti spoke in the Marjani tongue. “This is how it starts. She can’t walk.”
Shreya held back a reply for her sister. Instead she directed her next statement at Ellie. “I can help you up there.”
Ellie rubbed her knuckles into her eyes. It was a long and drawn out process as if she had to take Shreya’s proposal under serious consideration. Her shoulders stiffened, then drooped in defeat.
“I guess you can,” Ellie mumbled. In a chipper tone, she said to Shanti, “I hope you know that I’m much better when I’m feeling well. The next time we meet, we can look back on this awkward situation and laugh about it. It’ll be hilarious.”
“The next time we meet…” Shanti repeated. “Yes, laugh. Am laughing now, too. Hilarious.”
Ellie stood up. She steadied herself on the table’s edge, her stand more of a stagger stumble. Shreya gave her her hand, then led her up the stairs one step at a time. It was to her surprise that Shanti didn’t follow them. She expected her sister’s curiosity to get the better of her. Sunflower, on the other hand, stayed at her owner’s heels all the way up.
Shreya set Ellie up in the bed the best she could bearing in mind the poor quality of it. It wasn’t all that long ago when they had first kissed, kicking off their latest arc. It had taken place there, on those dingy sheets belonging to who-knows-who, beneath the watchful eyes of someone’s family portrait, and amidst a flood of tears.
And now the reason for that crying (in an indirect or maybe direct way, Shreya wasn’t sure which applied better in the situation) was sitting downstairs looking oddly entertained by most of the things that had transpired earlier in their day. Shreya assumed that Shanti was replaying Ellie’s epic fall over and over again in her mind.
“Is this okay?” Shreya asked about the bed. She smoothed down the covers and cringed at the coil she felt through the fabric. Shreya undid the ties that kept her cape on Ellie, and tossed it towards the other bed. It fell to the floor, entirely missing its target.
“Nice one,” Ellie commented on the throw. “This is better than okay. It’s perfect. You didn’t have to do all of this for me.” She unlaced her boots, kicked them off, and then laid down onto the bed. Ellie used her arm as a pillow.
Sunflower stayed dutifully at the foot of the bed. Her eyes were pointedly aimed at the staircase, her ears up to listen for anything dangerous. That included Shanti deciding not to be friendly anymore. For the most part Shreya’s sister had been well behaved, but there wasn’t a guarantee that would last for much longer. She tended to flip her emotions towards whatever would bring her the most enjoyment, usually at Shreya’s expense.
“Do you think I can fix this? Be honest with me,” Ellie said. Shreya assumed she was talking about her and Shanti.
“Another time,” Shreya said. She brushed away Ellie’s bangs, not only as a comforting gesture but also to double check for fever. “Focus on resting.”
“At least she liked the berries, so this isn’t a total loss on my part. I sort of won if you think about that. Then again, I did go and throw up, so that might undo any points I gained with the berries. Whoops.”
Ellie was at a disadvantage all along, but Shreya didn’t want to hammer the obvious point in further. The entire situation was unfair to begin with, not just Shanti’s treatment of her. Shreya wasn’t being fair to Ellie, either. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep the woodsdweller charade going for. The secrets, the lies, and not having Ellie’s true acceptance were beginning to become unbearable.
In the time she had spent away from Ellie, Shreya had done a lot of introspection. She thought back to Marietta’s taunts and all those times she knew that none of this was real, those brief reminders of clarity that broke through the illusion. Their relationship was real in some respects but the Shreya that Shreya was wasn’t the Shreya that Ellie knew.
The real Shreya wasn’t as great as she seemed. By most standards, she was rather average. She was never a stand out amongst her community members. She helped whenever she could it wherever she could but that didn’t make her special in any way. She was simply another Wolf in the greater Marjani community.
How different would things be if Shreya blurted out the truth, if she gave credence to all of Zinnia’s suspicions? Shreya was no Erzyan, but an enemy of a different kind, perhaps a worse kind. Ellie would be let in on the fact that everything so far had been a lie, only it wasn’t. Not exactly. In the longer that this continued the harder it became for Shreya to think of any good way that this could end. Every imagined outcome was worse than the last.
It was complicated.
This wasn’t the time or place for a confession, not when her sister was waiting downstairs. Shanti’s lack of fluency gave them some privacy, but a big reveal like that… That should be done one-on-one. Part of her thought that perhaps even Sunflower shouldn’t be around, if only to remove Ellie’s main weapon should things go awry.
But Ellie had been the one to declare that their relationship was between the two of them and no one else. She was the one that came up with that grand statement. It was her that swore on it. Of course Ellie hadn’t realized the gravity of her words but they still had to ring true, right? There’s no way someone could come up with something like that and then throw it all away after a confession that wouldn’t change who Shreya was as a person. It only changed what she was in the Ellie’s eyes.
Who versus what. There was a difference there.
That Ellie was the same Ellie, though, that had practically screamed her hatred and bigotry from the tree tops and shattered Shreya’s heart in multiple blows. Was it possible that she wouldn’t have said anything like that if she knew what Shreya was? Or would Shreya go on her list as being another reason why she hated the Wolves?
Ellie had wished death on them all.
Deceitful liars and tricksters. Shreya didn’t want to play into that narrative, except a stronger part of her did. None of this would’ve been possible if it wasn’t for the hat that hid her identity. And then moment after moment of weakness led her to the point where she was trying desperately to join these two lives of hers together.
Desperately? Only trapped on the inside, where the feelings kept festering and chewing at her.
Shreya had needed Shanti to understand the why of it. She needed her to see Ellie into no better than Shreya did why she was so compelled to keep committing these wrongdoings on many levels. Shreya knew the answer. No amount of disagreement with that would discard the conclusion she had already made a long time ago. Some of those conclusions had been formed in the very room she stood in.
Selfishness. Everything boiled down to that. Her guilt bubbled over to the tip of her tongue, the words hanging there. Some of the words found their way behind her eyes. They stung at the corners and burned at the blue. She rapidly blinked her eyes to keep them dry and to keep the time-inappropriate conversation from surfacing. They didn’t need to go there right now.
It was possible that bringing reality into their relationship was its own act of selflessness. She’d be robbing Ellie of her happiness, too. Happiness manufactured or happiness grown organically was still happiness all the same. If Ellie resorted to foolishness in their time apart, what would happen to her from a permanent break? Would something worse than whatever she was suffering from happen to her? That would all be Shreya’s fault.
“Are you okay?” Ellie’s voice had a soft lilt, a drowsy and subdued yet still caring layer underlying her question.
Snapped out of her thoughts, Shreya worked up a smile to dissuade Ellie from thinking anything was wrong. “You should worry about you. Here, I will tuck you in.”
“This pampering, I like it. I should hit myself in the head more often.” If that was supposed to be a joke, no one was laughing at it, not even Ellie herself. “Concussions are terrible. Avoid them if you can.”
“Yes,” Shreya said. “Take sleep for a couple of hours and then I will lead you part of the way home.” They would need to get her back before nightfall.
“Sleep would be nice, yeah,” Ellie spoke into her arm. “Just make sure you check on me. You wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to me, would you?”
Shreya squeezed Ellie’s lips into a funny, pouty shape. “What do you think? Sleep now and talk later. That is enough out of you.” She let go, then playfully ruffled her hair to make it clear she didn’t mean anything bad by that.
As Shreya ran her hand through Ellie’s hair to fix it, she pictured what Ellie’s ears would’ve looked like if she had ones like Shreya’s. No doubt that they’d be as expressive as a puppy’s. Ellie lacked a shield for her emotions. That was one of her more endearing traits.
Ellie hummed happily. “Good night.” Her eyes drifted to a close. She snuggled into the thin blanket.
Sunflower lifted herself onto the bed, no longer content with sitting by it. She laid out, down by Ellie’s feet and at prime kicking range. Shreya hoped for Sunflower’s sake that Ellie wasn’t a restless sleeper.
Shreya went downstairs to join her sister. Shanti had taken it upon herself to open every cabinet door, and to further break the one they’d smashed in her and Ellie’s EZS Crew days. Wood splinters and shards littered the floor.
“What are you doing?” Shreya asked in their home language.
Shanti kicked a piece of the cabinet door, one of the bits that had fallen to the ground. It hit the far wall. “Keeping myself entertained,” she answered back. “How is your darling doing?”
“You know you can go home if you’re bored. You don’t have to stay.” She’d told her something similar to that already, but the statement bore repeating. Maybe Shanti would get the hint this time.
Her reply in return was slightly different than it was before. “It’ll be strange for me to come back home alone, especially after your long term absence. Mama really whooped you for that, huh?”
“Because you told her I was out hunting the rabbits when I wasn’t.” Shreya forced those memories, the ones of her holding the machete, out of her mind. She shook her head to clear it. “I don’t care that you did it. You were hurt. I deserved it for everything that happened to Danilo.”
At the drop of his name, Shanti’s expression sharpened to a glare. “Are you afraid for your darling’s life?” Shanti asked. “Whatever fear and hurt you’re feeling is only a fraction of what I felt. Don’t bring him up without my permission.”
“I answered you for what I did. I’ve repaid you.” The rabbit. The beheading done by her own hand. Shreya remembered the feel of the blade, the resistance of skin and bone that didn’t fully give way until her third strike.
“It’s not a debt you can pay off,” Shanti said. “It’s not that simple.”
“You forgave me. What happened to your forgiveness?”
“It comes and goes in waves.” Shanti pulled her hat off. She scratched behind her ears, letting out a relieved noise after having them uncovered. “How can you stand wearing this crap for so long? It’s torture. I’m burning up.”
And just like that, Shanti’s flash of anger about mentioning Danilo dissipated. Shreya remained cautious. “You get used to it,” she explained. Although the transition to a more normal mood felt abrupt, Shreya was glad their conversation was headed back into a lighter direction.
Shreya said, “I’m going to wake Ellie up in an hour or so, then send her off. You’ll have to have a proper meeting with you some other time.”
“Oh, this was proper enough. It’s been…interesting.” Shanti’s voice trailed as she tried to find the right word for it. “I can finally put a face to the girl you’ve been so caught up on, so there’s that.”
Shreya decided to cut her off. She didn’t need to hear a rehash of what she’d already said about Ellie not seeming to be special enough or worth the misery she was putting Shreya through. The misery was accompanied by so much more, though, and for the most part, the good outweighed the bad even though the good wasn’t all that real.
Caught up in another circular back-and-forth conversation with herself, Shreya’s interruption of Shanti came out as a garbled “yeah, um, ‘kay” mess rather than something coherent. Shanti looked at her, her ears tilting out of confusion. Shreya cleared her throat, hoping that that would clear the awkwardness, as well.
“Have you thought about exploring the forest?” Shreya asked once she’d steadied herself. “I wouldn’t want you to be stuck here while I’m waiting for Ellie to wake up. I know you didn’t want to go on this trip just for Ellie.”
“I suppose I could. You would think that Stockbrunn would do so much more with this place than what they doing. Feels like a lot of wasted potential here,” Shanti said.
“Why do you say that? What would you want to do with this place?” Sometimes her sister got grandiose ideas out of nowhere.
They didn’t always make a whole lot of sense, like that time when she came up with a whole extension plan for the crèche. She not only want to add additional structures to the area, but she wanted to add additional training regimens for the children. When the pups would need to do things like carve the names of their enemies into trees, Shreya didn’t know, but Shanti apparently thought that was important enough for them to learn.
Whatever plan she had in mind for this place probably contained a similar sense of “why? Why would you ever come up with something like that?”
“Well, they seem to have everything they could ever need. You’d think that they would use up more of that rather than hiding in their town,” Shanti said, sounding more thoughtful of the subject than Shreya expected. “If they were living in the woods instead of next to it, they could be using their space much better, if you know what I’m saying.”
Shanti shrugged. The seriousness drained from her face. With one of her usual unnerving grins, she said, “but who knows what they’re doing with this place? It feels like they fought so hard for something they don’t care very much about. Think about that girl. Ellie couldn’t even climb a tree without falling onto her ass. If she’s the best example of someone from Stockbrunn, then that’s pretty damn sad.”
“I don’t know if she’s the best example of someone from their town. She may be an exception to the rule,” Shreya said. “I wouldn’t take them so lightly. The Elders aren’t having us attack Stockbrunn for a reason.”
“What about those friends of hers? What are they like?”
Shreya considered the best way to describe Marietta and Zinnia. “They have their egos. So do we. All of us think we are better than everyone else out there.”
“Some of us know it, though. It’s not thinking when it comes to us,” Shanti said. “They can think whatever they want, but they’re wrong. They’re afraid to be a part of the woods. That’s a weakness of theirs.”
“You haven’t seen Stockbrunn to be able to say that. You don’t know what they’re afraid of.”
“I’ve read enough about them to know. I can say a lot about them. There’s a lot you can say when you don’t consider yourself too good for our people’s stories. If you had more respect for our stories, then you’d be feeling the same way. So far being here has been a confirmation of almost all of my expectations except for the ones I had about your darling,” Shanti said.
Shanti stretched out her arms over her head, taking a more relaxed pose. Although her words had spite to them, she delivered them languidly. The underlying threat—just the littlest growl to her voice—behind her sentences was unsettling. Our people’s stories, she’d said. She was verbally poking at Shreya with her barbs like that, trying to mine Shreya for a reaction.
Shreya acted like she missed her sister’s obvious goading. “We have different tastes in stories. I’d rather read ones that are more realistic.”
“And yet in your real life, you unrealistically fell for a Stockbrunnian. How’s that for realistic? Explain that to me.” Shanti’s eyebrows quirked upwards. “Then again, being normal’s never been your thing, so I guess this shouldn’t be a complete shocker.” She went over to the table and grabbed one of the gourds off of it.
In an effort to get away from talking about her unusualness, Shreya asked, “are you going to refill that?”
“Yep. Going to do some exploration, too.” Shanti fit her hat back on, dragging it down tight. “You want me to hunt and cook you something? It’ll be my treat.”
“I don’t know if Ellie will be well enough to eat.”
“I meant for you.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Shanti held out her hand. “Could I have my dagger? I’ll make something for myself. I’m hungry.”
Shreya untied the dagger holster from her belt. She passed it over. “You have to be careful out there. The Stockbrunnians have traps set up. I told you about them. There are also these people out there called woodsdwellers, people that aren’t attached to the town. They’re the ones using the woods like you think Stockbrunn should.”
“Am I supposed to be afraid of them?” Shanti asked. She attached the holster to her belt.
“They’re what Ellie thinks we are. Forest people. Stockbrunnians are afraid of them,” Shreya explained. “They stay far away from each other.”
“Ah, so Ellie’s defying some expectations, after all. You’re both into people you shouldn’t be into. That’s interesting,” Shanti said. “I think that adds another angle to this whole whatever it is that you’re doing. It’s a forbidden romance on both sides. Neither of you are supposed to be doing this. Is that what keeps you pulled to her? Do you like feeling bad?”
“We don’t have to keep talking about me and Ellie.”
“The push and pull of something wrong. I think I get it now. You can’t resist that. Take that away and there’s not much else to what’s going on with you.” There was a glint in Shanti’s eyes that made Shreya regret handing her her knife. “I’m just thinking out loud here. Don’t mind me.”
“You can think out loud somewhere else,” Shreya said, a crispiness to her tone.
“I think I might go and do that. I have things to see out there, and I doubt you’d want to stick around after she goes home. My time’s limited, in other words,” Shanti said, grinning.
Shreya nodded. “I don’t know why that makes you smile like that, but, yes. We’ll be going as soon as she does. We can’t be gone for too long. Do all the hunting, cooking, exploring that you want to in the meantime.”
Shanti shouldered the strap attached to the water gourd. Her grin hadn’t faltered, not for a second. Shreya wondered if her face ever hurt from doing that so much. Shanti said, “I will. You keep an eye on Ellie. She’s as fragile as glass.”
As Shanti headed to the door, Shreya made sure to add, “don’t get involved with any of the people in the woods. Avoid them. They could have weapons, things that can shoot arrows faster and stronger than any bow can. Come back as soon as you can.”
“I won’t mess with any people. I’ll be a good little Wolfy and stay away,” Shanti said. She gave her sister a laugh that removed her credibility, then exited the building.
That left Shreya alone to watch Ellie, only not really alone because Sunflower was still there. Should anything go wrong, Sunflower would spring into action. That was what her role as Ellie’s guard required of her, and it was that thought that took off some of the sting from their ruining of the lock. It was worrying that it had been that easy for Shanti to break.
Light on her toes to keep the steps from creaking, Shreya walked up the stairs. She nearly jumped when Ellie, turned on her side and still lying in bed, greeted her with a soft hello. Her hair had gotten mussed, seemingly from the toss and turn struggle of sleeping on a mattress with sharp coil shapes poking through.
“You are not asleep? Awake?” Shreya asked. There was a clumsiness to her voice, the switch back to Casternian not a smooth one. “Does this mean you are ready to go? Shanti left to see the forest, but I can find her.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Ellie replied.
Shreya had a feeling why. “We were speaking too loud. I am sorry.”
Sunflower hadn’t had a problem with their volume. She was dozing, stretched out like a stiff line. Soft snores escaped her, coming out in time with the rise and fall of her chest. The bottoms of her feet were still crusted in dirt, but her owners had had the decency to change her into a fresh jumper for this latest excursion into the forest.
Was that why? Shreya thought back to their encounter and at the foggy way Ellie had acted. No bag. No preparation. Nothing to defend herself with. It was as if Ellie strolled out on a hike to the woods on a whim. Luckily, this time she had the sense to bring Sunflower along, unlike that first time she and Shreya had met.
Everything about this day had rung as strange. Ellie’s behavior throughout it all had been off, as much as she tried to pretend she was alright. Her illness had turned her odd. Shreya looked forward to the end of the day, and to meeting up with a renewed Ellie tomorrow. Shreya would leave Shanti at home, and hopefully she and Ellie would be able to resume their relationship where they’d last left it off.
“It wasn’t that,” Ellie said, “but yeah, I pretty much heard everything.”
For a moment, Shreya filled with worry. Then, she remembered that Ellie wouldn’t have understood a thing they were saying. “Oh? What was it you heard, then?”
“Something about me. Something about Stockbrunn. I don’t know. Your sister sounded kind of angry, but, like, the scary quiet kind of anger. My mom gets like that, sometimes. She was like the way people sound when they’re holding themselves back. I almost wanted to start coughing loudly to interrupt you guys.”
“It was fine. It was not anything for you to get concerned over.”
“Sisterly fight? I always wanted one of those. Does she think I’m wrong for you?”
Shreya sat down on the bed. “It is not your fault. Nothing you could have done today would have changed her mind. She does not think we should be together.”
“Not a surprise,” Ellie said. “Zinnia’s the same way. Everybody’s got a problem with us when it’s not even their business to begin with. They’re terrible, the whole lot of them.”
“It is Shanti’s business. She is my family.” Shreya toyed with the strings of her hat. “She is scared for me.”
“So she’s not here right now?”
“Why did you bring her here? What was the point of that?” Ellie’s brown eyes scrutinized Shreya. “If she was never going to like me, then why did you bother?”
“She forced me to bring her. That is the main reason why she is here. And I thought that I could convince her that there is nothing wrong with me. With us,” Shreya said. “Just because we are what we are does not make us unnormal.”
“Abnormal,” Ellie corrected. “I thought your village didn’t have a problem with violets. You know that there’s a town like that out in Stockbrunn? I can’t do anything with them. No messages. No contact. They think I’m some kind of monster.”
“You are not.”
“Eh, maybe making it about me is a little overblown. It’s not me that they think is a monster. It’s Stockbrunn in general. They think that our town is backwards and full of heathens or whatever. They hate our social policies, but they sure love our pork exports. It’s silly.” Ellie grimaced. “Ew, I sound like an Intendant. I’m talking to you about social policies and exports. This is your fault. You messed me up.”
Shreya wasn’t even sure what an Intendant was. An official of Stockbrunn, if she remembered correctly. “What did I do?”
“You kept pushing me into getting involved with what was going on with Stockbrunn. You had to go and be all encouraging and stuff. It’s not a fun job, by the way. I’m inheriting a ton of problems,” Ellie said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“I am sorry?” Shreya offered.
“It’s not something you can be sorry about. It’s not like you’re the one who ruined Stockbrunn and set it back this far.” She looked away from Shreya, her gaze resting on the window.
In the break of their conversation, Shreya suggested, “you should sleep now. It will be quiet without Shanti here.”
“Are you hiding something from me?”
The cold abruptness of her question chilled Shreya.
“I am not the destroyer, the ruiner of Stockbrunn, if that is what you are saying,” Shreya said. “You are not still thinking of that fight you had with your friend, are you? You know she is wrong about me. I am not Erzyan.”
“No, I’m not thinking of that.” Ellie stopped herself just as she was about to shake her head. “I’m thinking that I haven’t been…” She let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t think I’ve been all that honest with you. Kind of. It’s not just you. It’s everyone. I’ve been hiding things from pretty much everyone.”
“What are you hiding?”
“I think there’s something wrong with me.”
“You have a concussion,” Shreya said, tripping over the pronunciation.
“It’s not the concussion. It’s something else.” Another heavy sigh. “It’s like…a lot. I don’t know if it’s too much to unload on you. We’re pretty new and I don’t want to lose you over this.” Ellie pulled herself up into a sit. “My mouth’s running faster than my brain right now. You can forget I said anything.”
“You won’t lose me over it. Tell me what you need to say.”
Ellie bit her lip. “It’s not really the time for it. I just really need to talk to someone. This is hard. You know that doctor-ish friend I was telling you about? He’s all for that talk therapy stuff, but I can’t talk to anyone in Stockbrunn about this. It’s messed up. Everything’s messed up. Have you ever felt like you need help, but there’s no one around that knows how to help you?”
“Yes, many times,” Shreya said.
“That’s where I am, in that I-need-help-but-I-don’t-know-where-to-get-it space, and that’s why I’m babbling to you like this without really saying anything.”
“I can help you.”
“You’d run away and never come back if you knew what was going on in my head. I thought, I really thought that I wasn’t going to see you again, that you really had gone and run away. I kept coming and going to Ianes’ Wall, day after day. That’s not normal. That’s obsessive.”
“If anyone runs, it will be you. I promise you that you will be the one to end this. There is nothing you can say or do that would cause you to lose me. Is that obsessive?”
“But, Shreya, I’m sick. I can’t even tell you how I got from Stockbrunn to Ianes’ Wall this morning. My concussion probably had something to do with it, but, I don’t know. Sometimes I just get drawn into the woods. It kept happening after I lost Freesia and then when I thought I lost you, it started happening all over again. What illness is that? What’s wrong with me?”
“I do not know,” Shreya answered. “You can see a healer.”
“I can’t trust our doctors. They don’t know the first thing about confidentiality.”
“Then, talk to me.”
“We should drop this. Never mind about the whole thing. You don’t need to hear about any of this. You’ve got real problems going on in your life. My life and my problems? Who cares about them in the face of yours? I’ll just keep them to myself,” Ellie said.
Shreya placed her hand on Ellie’s blanket, over her knee. “You do not need to hide for my sake. Whatever you are hiding cannot be as bad as what I am hiding.”
“That’s what I mean, you have real problems. Wait,” Ellie caught herself mid-sentence. “I thought you said you weren’t hiding anything.”
“I did not know what you meant. Hiding something… Everyone hides something. You do not know everything there is about me, and if you did, you would be the one who ran. There are things I have to hide. That is why Shanti is scared for me. She knows you would never treat me the same way if I was not hiding from you.” Shreya knew she was kicking at a hornet’s nest, but she couldn’t stop herself. She had to know how Ellie would react to that.
“Of course you’d be the same Shreya to me. I know your community has made you do things you’re not proud of. That’s not going to change what I think of you,” Ellie said. Her voice softened. “You mean the world to me. You’re the best, and I truly, truly mean that. I’m not going to leave you.”
“My community has something to do with it, but not completely. I think I…I think we have to talk before we get any further than this. I am not worth you getting sick and lost in the woods over, not when you do not know who I am. You have to get yourself some help.”
“Where? Did you miss the point of what I was saying? There’s no one there that can help me, and I know it wouldn’t be fair of me to hang everything on you. We should just stop talking about this. Why don’t we spend our time doing something a whole lot better? We’re alone now. Sunflower could sleep through a house falling down.”
“Do not shut down on me, Ellie,” Shreya said. She wasn’t going to let her worm her way out of this. “I can be the help that you need. Whatever the problems you are having are real. Do not compare them to mine and think they are worthless because of that. I want to help you get better because you are the one who is the best.”
“Oh, please, I could think of a thousand reasons why you’re the best.”
“I can think of a million for you.”
“A million and one. Don’t try me. I’ll always have you beat.”
“We cannot both be?”
“I suppose we could. I’ll concede,” Ellie said. “Okay, maybe next time, we can talk about this whole hiding business. Slowly. You share whatever it is that you’re hiding and I’ll talk to you about what I’m hiding. We’ll do it that way. And no one’s allowed to think of the other one as terrible for the things she says. It’ll be a no judgment zone. No one’s leaving and no one’s running away.”
“Understood,” Shreya said. Would Ellie be able to hold to that promise? “You should probably rest now, unless you would like to go as soon as Shanti comes back. I do not know how strong you are feeling.”
“Weak. Headache’s coming back. I’ll take a short nap.”
“Right, I will give you some privacy.”
When Shreya stood up to leave, Ellie’s hand shot out to grab her. “Hold on. I can’t sleep alone. That’s bad luck in Stockbrunn. You’ll curse me for a hundred years if you don’t stay with me.”
“You have Sunflower,” Shreya replied. “You are not alone.”
“Didn’t you know that any illness can be cured by the healing powers of sleeping next to your girlfriend? Everyone in Stockbrunn swears by that remedy. Come here. Just don’t kick Sunflower or she’ll bite your foot.”
“There is no such thing. You would not be smiling like that if that was in any way true,” Shreya said.
“Maybe I’m smiling because I like you. Ever think of that?” Ellie asked.
“I think about it a lot. I like you, too.”
“Then, let’s be two girls who like each other and are sharing the same bed. Just try to keep your hands to yourself. I’m sick and my dog’s here. I noticed you putting your hand on my knee, young lady.”
“What? Was that a bad thing?” Shreya took off her shoes. She set them next to Ellie’s boots.
“I know what kind of perverted mind you have. I know what you’re thinking before you’re even thinking it.”
“I am sure you are confusing your mind with mine. Hm, did you forget what you wrote in our diary? It was something about you losing control around me. Who is the pervert?”
Ellie laughed nervously to cut her off. “Alright, some things are supposed to stay in text form. Let’s not bring that out into the open air.”
“And some things are supposed to stay private, but you showed them to someone,” Shreya reminded her.
“Going to sleep now. Good night,” Ellie said. She laid down, yanked up her covers, and rolled onto her side. “We’ll leave when your sister gets back. Sunflower will probably freak out when she comes back in, so she will be our alarm.”
“Alright, good night, silly.” Shreya squirmed her way under the blanket, mindful to bend her legs so they wouldn’t accidentally touch the sleeping dog at the end of the bed.
Sunflower did what Ellie said she would. She leaped out of bed, barks and angry growls pouring out of her. The sound and movement made Shreya bolt awake. Still in the throes of sleep, Ellie muttered something that didn’t make sense. Shreya shook her.
“What?” Ellie mumbled into the bed.
“It is night time.” Shreya stumbled to the window, and dragged the curtain back to see the moon.
“We slept for that long?” Ellie scrambled to put her boots back on.
“Shreya!” Shanti called from downstairs.
“Sunflower, stay,” Ellie commanded to keep Sunflower from going anywhere. Her dog kept growling, her ears folded back from defensive fury. “I’ll be down as soon as I get these on. You can go.”
Shreya grabbed her shoes, then bounded down the stairs.
She almost slipped and missed the last step.
Shanti stood near the doorway. She had blood on her. Her dagger was gone from its holster.
“We have a problem,” Shanti said.
A/N: We had 18 voters on Chapter 39. We’ll see what happened with that in Chapter 41.
We’ve got two votes this week! Try to remember to vote on both of them. Voting will end January 4th, 2017 at 11:59 PM EST. The next chapter will be on January 11th, 2017. Thank you to everyone that read RWC throughout 2016. It’s been a blast. 🙂
In a few weeks we’ll have our one year anniversary! What will we do for it? If you have any suggestions, leave them in the comments.
I finally got Dragon. I dictated the majority of this chapter, so sorry for any oddness you may come across.