The feeling floating in her chest—Ellie would best compare it to breathing with a new set of lungs. She flung open her bedroom window to let in the morning sun. Although in reality, it practically seared her vision, she overlooked that in favor of saying she was merely basking in its rays. Because everyone knows to bask is to see black clusters throughout your vision.
Sunflower slept on the edge of her bed, stretched out on her back with her legs twitching from what seemed like a puppymare. Every so often, she’d let out a whine and shuddering snore. Her position presented the perfect opportunity for a belly rub, but Ellie decided to let her rest for a little while longer.
“Aren’t you the cutest puppy ever?” Ellie gushed.
Her mother wouldn’t have allowed Sunflower in the house if she’d been home. Good thing for Ellie (and the rest of Stockbrunn) that Hildegarde was busy tending to the town in the wake of the fires. As far as Ellie knew, Hildegarde had worked all through the night, not returning home.
Ooh, thinking about those arsonists again steamed Ellie up, and remembering how Zinnia refused to let her do anything about it scalded her. Yeah, granted it might have been good for Ellie’s livelihood, but it was still annoying. Zinnia had to go and be as protective and practical as she usually was. How dare she try to keep you alive, right?
Ellie had to roll her eyes at her own ridiculousness. She needed to work on becoming more appreciative. Her first step towards that included working on the bulk of repayments she needed to make. Marietta’s request was the silliest of them all. Dressing up a dog?
Stockbrunn had already figured out the best clothing for them. The jumpers were utilitarian, easy for them to move in and a breeze to clean up. Since they were made of scrappy materials, it wasn’t a big deal to replace them when it was necessary. What mattered was the dog and whether it could perform its duties.
“Ellie.” Her name was Sunflower’s first word upon waking. She stared at her, her eyes shining with an overflow of love. Some wouldn’t name it such a flowery, unknown thing. They’d call it dedication. Devotion, maybe, if they let in some semblance of poetry into their lives. “I love you!”
“Love you, too.” Ellie strode over to her closet. She hummed as she searched for something to wear. She needed an outfit that said, thank you for taking me back, I am so lucky while also saying look at all of this, aren’t you lucky to have me? The luck had to work both ways. Things were more fair like that.
“My name…iiiiis Sunflower.” Sunflower talked like she had a towel clenched in her mouth.
Ellie frowned. “You know, you really shouldn’t be saying that around people. Dogs aren’t supposed to do that.”
She sat up, her long hair in disarray from her sleep. “I love you.”
“That, too. Only say that around me, okay?”
“Okay, okay. Liss plaplee!” She bounced off the bed, her tail wagging as she joined Ellie at the dresser. “I love you. Hi, Ellie. Love you.”
“What’s liss plaplee? Wow, Marietta must have taught you a bunch, huh? Plaplee, plaplee… Is that supposed to be ‘let’s play, please?'”
Sunflower nodded furiously. “Yes.”
“She has you saying please and everything. That’s impressive, and rather foolhardy of her. She has to be careful teaching you too many words or else you’ll reach your limit.”
Ellie had heard rumors of people trying to get their dogs to learn Casternian. At a certain point, they’d cease to function. The knowledge overwhelmed them. It didn’t fit in their skulls and they’d get all frothy. Ellie forgot the name for it, but plenty of veterianarians verified those rumors. Learned dogs had to be put to sleep for their own good.
“I wouldn’t want that happening to you,” Ellie cooed while petting the crown of Sunflower’s head. “But you’ve probably got a long way to go before we have to worry about that.” Sunflower pressed her face into Ellie’s shoulder. “We can play at Marietta’s house. Be a good girl until then and you’ll get a treat. Can you do that?”
“Yes!” Sunflower hopped in place. She spun around.
“You’re so excited today. Me, too. Wanna help me pick out an outfit? I’m hoping we can see Shreya after we drop off Marietta’s breakfast.”
Sunflower wandered back to the bed. She curled up in the blankets, watching Ellie sort through ideas.
“And once I’m finished picking out something for me, you’ll be next.”
Zinnia’s going to freak out. I can’t wait to see the look on her face.
What Ellie Navarrete expected on arrival to Marietta’s house: a sassy pig complaining about how late Ellie was with her food.
What Ellie got: an upset girlfriend launching herself at her and dragging her into a hug that threatened the safety of said food.
“Whoa, careful there,” she said. “You almost made me drop everything.”
“Marietta…did she tell?” Shreya asked.
“I haven’t seen her. She’s not home? Maybe Zinnia has her off on another adventure.” Ellie set the food bag down. She took her assumption under heavier consideration. The only times when Zinnia needed Marietta involved the woods. What would compel her to go there now, of all times?
“She leaved last night to find you. I waited here.”
“Did something happen? What’s wrong?” It was then that she saw the bloodshot bleariness in Shreya’s eyes. Ellie pushed through her hesitation to do so and placed her hands on Shreya’s cheeks. “You’ve been crying.” Her heart plummeted. “…About me? Do you regret this?”
What else could be so urgent? Hardly any time had passed since their reunion, and Marietta was sent off to find her. Shreya probably needed to pull off the bandage in one cruel tug—get it all over with in one fell swoop. Couldn’t wait and give us one beautiful day, could you?
“No, not you. Shanti, sh-she,” Shreya struggled to speak. Her voice broke somewhere among her next words, the incoherence of them impossible for Ellie to understand. Something about a bunch of foxes? Whatever it was, it was clear that it had nothing to do with their relationship.
I’m a piece of shit.
“Come here, it’s going to be okay.” Ellie gently guided Shreya to rest her face in the juncture between her neck and shoulder. There was safety there, a private place for her to cry it out. She rubbed circles into her back.
“Not okay,” she mumbled against her throat.
“Your sister’s strong. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
“No.” Shreya squeezed Ellie around the middle. She squeaked from the strength of her hold. “No one is understand. I thought you would. We must, need to do something. We finding Shanti.”
“Can you go over everything one more time?” Her slip-ups with her speech were concerning, to say the least.
“The Elders bringed Shanti to the foxes. She is a…” Shreya huffed out a frustrated breath. “A sacrifice. They think her death will stop the foxes. The foxes want to kill us for the rabbits. My mistake never leaves me.”
“It was never your fault,” Ellie said. “Wasn’t it your sister’s? Not saying she deserves being sacrificed, but if you want to blame someone, the blame should go where it deserves, no?”
“What?” Shreya backed out of her embrace.
“That came out wrong. I…sorry, what… Hold on.” Ellie gathered herself, then started again. “How do we find her? Do you know where the foxes live?”
“No, but I know her scent. We will follow it.”
“And then what? There’s not a lot that me and Zinnia can do. We’re human. Marietta’ll probably stay home. I don’t think you and Sunflower will be enough. What about her friends? I don’t know how you’ll explain us to them, but if there was ever a time to try, it’s now.”
“No one will help. They said goodbye,” Shreya said. She tugged on her hat strings. “I won’t say goodbye. You have armies. All of us together will save her.”
Ellie winced. “I wouldn’t say armies.”
“You said you would save me. You said…anything for me.”
“That was before—” she snapped that wretched sentence before it could form. “That’s different. I can’t pull Stockbrunn into this. Some assholes were burning our Town Hall last night. Things are intense right now.”
“You won’t try.” Shreya turned towards Marietta’s door.
“Where are you going?”
“I need a second weapon.” She patted her belt, where her knife was sheathed.
“You’re not doing this by yourself. If no one’s trying to help you, isn’t that a sign? This is a bad idea.”
“Is that what they told you when…?” Shreya allowed the question to hang in the air, for Ellie to swallow the strings of.
“Something like that,” she admitted. “It’s not like I don’t want to help you, but this whole thing can come crashing down on our heads, big time.”
“What do you think will happen to Shanti? Something worse.”
“I guess maybe we could arrange some way for Stockbrunn to attack the foxes. Maybe that would do it. I just really don’t know about this. What about waiting to see what happens? Because, you know if Stockbrunn has to go to your part of the forest, that’s not going to look good for our pact. This is tricky.”
She only imagined it ending terribly for their communities. Sure, they might rescue Shanti, but what would happen after that? And what was she supposed to say to get Stockbrunn to storm the foxes’ den? It wasn’t like she was the Chieftess, free to abuse her power however which way she wanted.
“Please, you must help me,” Shreya said. “You are my final hope.”
What am I supposed to say to that?
“Please?” Shreya reached for her hand.
“Er, um… Have you seen what Sunflower is wearing?” Ellie gestured over to her.
Nothing in her or her mother’s closet properly fit Sunflower, so Ellie had to stop at a boutique. No one working there batted an eye over why Ellie kept going in and out of the changing room with her dog. They knew enough not to question her or the fact that she was shopping the morning after a major emergency.
Ellie had the sense not to dress Sunflower until they neared Marietta’s home. Sunflower wore a buttoned shirt with a soft, rounded collar, and a pair of shorts and suspenders to hold them up. Ellie had to roll up Sunflower’s sleeves to keep her from chewing on them. Her fit over having to wear shoes was worse than that. Ellie planned on returning them later.
Throughout Ellie and Shreya’s conversation, Sunflower had been busy playing with some sticks in the grass.
A shame Marietta wasn’t around to see that Ellie had stayed true to her word.
“Marietta! Damn… Can you watch Sunflower while I try and find her? She must’ve gotten lost somewhere in town,” Ellie said.
“What about Shanti? What will we do?” Shreya asked, not falling for any of Ellie’s attempts at distraction.
“I, we, well, we’ll…” Ellie scrambled for something to say. Think fast, and think smart.
A/N: Dear Ellie, you don’t have to think. You just need to listen to whichever poll choice wins and act accordingly. 😉
This poll will end Sunday, October 22nd at 11:59 PM EST. New chapter will be up on Tuesday, October 24th, assuming I don’t get locked out of my apartment again.
Gonna copy and paste my question from last time: Would you kindly vote for RWC on Top Webfiction? Only takes you a click and less than a minute of your time.
How’s everybody feeling, by the way? Hope you’re all doing okay. See you on Tuesday!