While she should have been rejoicing, it was difficult for Shreya to do so in the face of everything. After her moment with Ellie was finished, she’d be heading back to her home and, eventually, to the foxes’ mercy. The Elders hadn’t fully decided on what they’d do with her, but Shreya knew in her heart that they’d sacrifice her to save the rest.
Time was fleeting. There were still words that needed to be said.
“First, I need you to stand,” Shreya said. She didn’t like it when they were on unequal footing. That wasn’t how their relationship worked.
“I don’t know how to explain how sorry I am,” Ellie said as she stood up. “I’m the sorriest person in Casterne. You believe me, don’t you? You can forgive me.”
Ellie saying she loved her didn’t erase everything else she’d said and done. It didn’t make her bigotry disappear. Throwing a blanket over a mess didn’t make the mess vanish. Ellie acted like Shreya was some sort of exception, that she was different from the others. But Shreya was undeniably a wolf. She wasn’t hiding that anymore, and if they were going to work out, Ellie needed to make peace with that.
Baby steps. Deeply rooted prejudices didn’t melt away that easily.
Am I strong enough to be with her through this?
Shreya wasn’t entirely convinced, but she wanted (needed) to be. If she struggled, she wanted Ellie to be the one there to help her. The question remained on whether or not Ellie would falter. Ellie didn’t seem like the most stable of people right now. After all, would the old Ellie have let herself get carted off in a box like that?
“I cannot forgive you right now… I am not saying I never will,” Shreya said. “I need time to heal.” She hoped that would suffice, that her words wouldn’t come off as a dismissal.
“Th-that’s okay. I can live with that,” Ellie said. She hugged her arms. Her bottom lip continued to tremble.
“Would you like some water?”
“Sure. Hope you don’t mind me sitting down. I feel like someone’s dropped a wall of bricks on my head.” Ellie took a seat at the table. She rubbed her eyes, smearing her tears across her face.
Shreya brought her water gourd over, then took the seat opposite of hers. Ellie couldn’t get the cork out of the gourd. Try as she might, it stayed wedged-in.
“Here. Let me,” Shreya said. She took care of it for her. It popped out without a problem.
“Thanks,” Ellie mumbled. “I’m pretty sure I loosened it for you.”
“No, you did not, but you tried and that is what matters.”
“Could you break this table if you wanted to?”
That was random. Why did she want to know that? Regardless of her hesitation, Shreya gave her an answer. “Anyone could if she wanted. It has many weak spots.” It was sure to fall over from a bad kick to one of its legs.
“I mean, not just this table. Lots of things. You’ve got wolf strength or whatever. That means you’ve got to be intensely strong. You could throw me across this room if you wanted to.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Shreya asked.
Ellie shrugged. “I’m just saying you could do it, not that you will.”
“I am not certain I can. I think I would hurt my back.”
“Are you calling me heavy?”
“I am calling myself not as strengthed as you think. I think Shanti could do it,” Shreya said. “If you had not woken up after you fell from that tree, she would have carried you here.”
Ellie groaned. “I’d rather forget about that whole thing. That was the worst. And then I threw up right afterwards. You guys probably heard everything with those super ears of yours. Ew… So does that mean you hear everything really loudly? What if I scrape my fingernails along the table? Can you hear that?”
“I can hear it. It is not loud, but I can hear it. Hm…it is funny. When we were first talking, I used to worry I was not loud enough for you, because your senses are not as good. I had to guess at the loudness.”
“Doesn’t it ever get overwhelming to hear every little thing, though? And doesn’t it hurt sometimes? We’ve got these special whistles back at Stockbrunn that only dogs can hear. It startles them and makes them come running quick. Maybe you could hear the whistle. It’s a special pitch.”
Shreya grimaced. “Not if it is only for dogs. I am not a dog.”
“Other animals respond to them, too,” Ellie said. “You’re too pretty to be a dog, anyway.”
“Thank you.” She returned to Ellie’s question. “Sometimes, noises can be distracting. There is a lot happening outside, but I would not say it is overwhelming. My focus is not scattered all over.”
“Oh, and smells! What’s that like? You know that after-rain type of smell, when the air feels real damp and humid? You’re probably smelling it with layers. You don’t get one scent cloud, you get many things all at once.”
“I do not know if I would describe it like that. It is hard to say. This is all normal to me. I do not know how bad it is for you.”
“What about taste?” Ellie covered her mouth. “Oh no, has my breath ever been terrible to you?”
“Not that I can recall.”
Ellie giggled. She leaned forward, her elbows on the table. “See, this is what I missed. Us, talking together and getting to know each other like this. We get a second shot at this. I know I’m probably going to say the wrong things sometimes, but I’m going to try not to. We’ll take things slow.”
“We were never good at slow,” Shreya said, remembering more than one occasion when they’d been the opposite of that.
“I know, I know. Are you glad we’re getting another chance? I am. Not having you in my life anymore was horrible. I felt like I was losing my sanity. But I think I probably lost it years ago, I don’t know.”
With Freesia? Shreya noticed how hard hearing Freesia’s name hit Ellie during their argument. She’d gone for her throat, trying whatever she could to shatter her Elspeth image. Shreya tore at her, inch by inch. She wasn’t sure what had finally pushed Ellie over the edge.
It was like she had suddenly snapped out of being Elspeth and was trying to become Ellie again. There was an air of fragility in the room. At any time, this moment that felt so much like one of their old moments, could splinter like fallen glass.
Temporary. That was the word. She’d seen Ellie at her worst, and that specter still hung in the room. As much a she wanted to believe that they were on their way back to normalcy, Shreya couldn’t relax. She knew what Ellie was capable of. One wrong word, one bad moment could shatter the illusion.
Before they’d reached their restart point, Shreya had been begging for it to happen. She wanted Ellie to wake up and face the truth of ther relationship. But now that it was happening, her disbelief turned her numb.
Is this real? Are you acting like this because you want to be with me, or is it because you hate the person you become when you are alone?
Her doubt was too bitter to swallow.
“Hey, you’re not, um…” Ellie stopped what she was saying to take down another gulp of water. “You’re rethinking the fox thing, right? I understand doing something reckless after a break-up, but we’re sort of back together now, so you can forget about that.”
“I cannot take back what I told the Elders. It is their decision now.”
“Wouldn’t it be funny if you didn’t go back? That way, you make the decision for them.”
“I do not see what is funny,” Shreya said. “I am certain I will be sent to the Fox King. He will decide after that.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“Yes. But I prefer to go than have my home destroyed. One life to save many.”
“I’m sorry, but you’re a fool to think that.” Ellie kept her voice leveled. “Yeah, maybe your plan would work if you were dealing with people. You’re not. You’re dealing with animals who would stick your head on a pike, march it into your town, and then destroy it. It’s not an even trade.”
“That is the wrong way. Humans would not consider it, but we have respect.”
“Okay, okay, respect, sure. But listen to yourself. No matter what happens, you’ll be dead or enslaved or tortured or whatever it is they want to do to you. Don’t you find that silly? Who willingly walks into a situation where they know they’re going to be messed up?”
“You do not understand. I have to do this.” Her ears drew back, overcoming her attempts to make them stay put. Please don’t let her notice.
“Really? You have to? Because me and your friends don’t think so.” Ellie patted the top of her head.
“What do you think I can do?”
“Tell them the truth, the real truth, or…or tell them you decided to take the blame because you wanted to do anything you could to save your village. Whatever you do, you can’t let them take you away. Please,” Ellie said. She clasped her hands together. “Do you want me to cry again? Because you’re seriously going to make me cry again.”
“You do not have to,” Shreya said.
“You know what? I might have to. I’m trying to stay calm so I don’t pick you up and drop you in that trunk and take you back to Stockbrunn with me. You can laugh all you want, but you better not test me.”
“If I try doing what you say…there is not a certainty the Elders will believe me.”
“Run away if they don’t,” Ellie said. “Just run to Marietta’s house. It’s the fastest way you can reach me. I wish you wouldn’t go to your old people at all, but I get it. You have to tell them something. Then you go.”
“If we get attacked, I must be there.”
“Don’t be selfish, Shreya. You have to run.”
“It is selfish if I run.” Why didn’t Ellie understand that?
“You’re being impossible. What about me? Are you thinking at all about me? I never stopped thinking about you.” She held up her hand. The woven bracelet circled her wrist. “I kept this the whole time. So…yeah, you stayed on my mind.”
“I am surprised you did not remove it,” Shreya said.
“I am surprised and yet not surprised at all,” she said. “Now what about the rest of what I said? If you’re not going to survive for yourself, maybe you should consider surviving for somebody else. Me, your sister, your mom, somebody, anybody else. This isn’t just about you. Think about everyone else.”
“That is exactly what I am doing.”
“No, you’re not. You’re doing some honorable fall-on-your-sword thing when no one asked you to. Right? Did the Elders ask for volunteers? Did your sister tell you to tell them anything?”
“So what this really comes down to is you deciding to do something like this on your own without consulting anyone else. That’s what makes it selfish. Maybe I’d buy your argument if it was something you actually did, like if you really did the whole rabbit thing by yourself, but you didn’t. You lied to your Elders, so you’re going to tell them you lied and get out of it.”
Shreya was loathe to admit that she saw Ellie’s point.
“I… I am not sure I can take it back. It would ruin their trust in me,” Shreya said.
“Better to be a liar than dead.” Ellie stood up. “I should get going before it gets too dark. Just…listen to everything that I told you, alright?”
“Do you need me to walk you back?”
“I have a feeling that Zinnia and the others are waiting for me. I’ll be fine.”
“You should take my knife,” Shreya said. “It would make me feel better if you had something to protect yourself with.”
“I think I’d accidentally cut my own hand off with it.”
“You will be fine.” She undid the ties that bound her scabbard to her belt. “And the book on the counter… It is your turn. Take it.”
“You know, since I’m taking it, that means I’m fully expecting you to listen to my advice. You better not let me down or else I’m gonna have to get Stockbrunn involved. Well, not seriously, but you know what I mean.”
If we had them as our allies through this…
No, I couldn’t ask her to do that. We just got back together. Who is to say that the foxes will do something terrible to me or my community? I have to wait and see.
She prayed that they wouldn’t require their enemy’s assistance.
And she prayed for mercy in what she was about to do next.
A/N: The new season of the Epsilon Project has started. It’s also *interactive*! And it’s also got *lesbians*! Voting on that site will end on Thursday, the 8th, so get your butt over to that site right away. Click, click!
We had 21 votes on the Chapter 56 poll on Shreya forgiving Ellie or not. 3 votes for her saying she’d never forgive her, 8 votes for Shreya forgiving her now, and 10 votes for Shreya forgiving her eventually. We had 25 votes for the question “will Ellie attempt to convince Shreya not to go to the foxes?” 21 said yes. 4 said no.
Polls ends Sunday, the 11th at 11:59 PM EST. If you have any problems with voting, please use the Contact page to submit that way or to ask me if your vote registered. We’ve been having issues lately.
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