Gray gets overly defensive... and then is confronted by an oversight she has made.
I didn’t want to sleep before we went back to the village. Not since the dungeon was mentioned. I closed my eyes to pretend to sleep, so that the elves wouldn’t be too concerned, but drifted into a restless half-sleep against my will.
I only woke up when one of them placed something wrapped in a thin cloth in front of me, and I startled awake with a sharp breath.
“It’s me,” Valla said immediately. “Sorry for waking you up but we need to get going. Back to the village…”
I nodded, wiping the sleep out of my eyes. “Thanks. I didn’t mean to go to sleep…”
Valla smiled weakly. “But I’m glad you did.” I growled a little, but opened the cloth. It was a piece of bread with some dried meat on it.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better. I didn’t use all of my energy because I knew it wasn’t going to work before I had to commit to it completely, so it wasn’t as hard to recover as normal.”
“That’s good, at least. Where are the others?”
“Waiting for us to get out so that we can finish packing up and get back as soon as possible.”
I nodded, standing up. “Then let’s go.”
We arrived back at the village, and were let in quickly. Everything seemed normal in the village. Everything seemed calm.
But I was anything but calm. My first thoughts were of Storm. How was I supposed to explain what had happened to him? And that we had to go back, even if it was just for a single mission? I silently cursed at myself as we went to Sentinel.
And when Sentinel wasn’t even surprised that we were going to have to go to the Dungeon, I felt an irrational anger. Why wasn’t he freaking out? He and the other elders had suffered more than anyone else in that place!
But no. All he had to say was, “This was inevitable. Snitch, go spread the word that anyone physically and mentally able should gather at the Guard House tomorrow when it is light outside. We will leave for the Dungeon when it is dark to reclaim anything we can from it.”
Snitch agreed, not even a hint of his usual arrogance. I kept my mouth shut and my eyes trained on the ground.
I felt Valla’s hand slip into mine, and I glanced up at her. She was watching the other elves, but tightened her grip enough to be reassuring. I looked back up at Sentinel, who was watching. I wasn’t sure if he could see what Valla was doing; Harold was in the way.
“Note that I said anyone physically… and mentally… able to handle it,” Sentinel said gently. I raised my lip in a snarl.
“What the are you implying about me?” I growled. Sentinel took a deep breath.
“Nothing. But if returning even for a single mission will cause significant anxiety or emotional pain to someone, I don’t want them to feel forced to do so.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Sentinel closed his eyes. “I need you to think about this, Gray. I am concerned about you, but you’re not the only one this applies to.” I felt my face turn more red. Was I really taking this personally? I looked away. “You don’t need to be ashamed, Gray. It’s a painful thing that we have to do. But we’ll make it, and if you feel you can come with, your presence would be a boon. And Harold, as for you all, I know that you don’t want to put us in danger, but this is our fight and our history. You can come with as our allies, but keep in mind that we may need to take this at our own pace. Any help would be appreciated, however.”
“Of course,” Harold said, bowing his head with a grave expression on his face. “Our king would tell us that our first goal should be to destroy the barrier… but that will be our second goal.” He had to ignore glares from Safiena, Nayila, and Fayne, though I felt some amusement and relief in Valla’s aura. “Our first goal will be to help you all and make sure that your goals are met.” Fayne’s glare relaxed completely, and Nayila’s glare did a little bit… but Safiena rolled her eyes.
“We appreciate your help more than we can express in words,” Sentinel said. “You should all rest. We’ll begin to gather when it’s light outside, and we’ll leave when it gets dark.”
Word had already gone through the village by the time we left Sentinel’s house. Nobody looked us in the eyes. Even Torchlight and Dew seemed tense and uneasy. Nobody said anything about it, except in hushed tones.
When I got to my mom’s house, even my siblings were all quiet. My mom welcomed me with a tight hug.
I knew where Storm was. He was inside, away from everyone else. I felt his aura, and the tension and anger, and the fear, in it. It was… even worse than when I had left.
I slipped away from the others to go inside and talk to him.
“Storm? I’m back,” I said, trying to keep my voice low and steady as I walked in. He didn’t respond, except with a flick of the tip of his tail. He was facing away from me, lying on his side. I sat down behind him. “What’s up…?”
“Do you really fucking need to ask, Gray?” The sharpness in his tone caught me off guard, and I looked away. We sat in silence for a long moment, before he sat up, giving me a glare that told me that was the lightest of things he wanted to tell me. “I heard about you returning before you actually did so, and someone else had to tell me what you had to say.”
I opened my mouth, but ended up saying nothing for a long moment. What the fuck was I supposed to say to him? “Storm, nobody is happy with this situation. I would have come back sooner if things had gone well.”
Storm looked like he was going to say something else, but closed his mouth tightly, and shook his head, before burying his face in his hands. I instinctively reached out towards his hands, wanting to comfort him, but hesitated. For the first time, I was the reason he was angry… did I even have a right to try to comfort him at all…?
When he looked up, there were tears on his cheeks and in his eyes. “Gray… I’m sorry. I’m… I don’t know. I don’t know what’s gotten into me.”
“It’s okay, Storm.”
“No. No, it’s not. I’m- I’m not angry with you, but I’m still taking it out on you.”
“Then what are you angry with?”
“...I…” He looked hesitantly at me, then sighed, as if defeated. “...We hadn’t been spending as much time together, ever since… well… you and Valla got closer.”
I leaned back, and rolled my eyes, not able to prevent a small growl from escaping my throat. Was that all this was about? “Storm, get yourself together. She’s not replacing you, damn it.”
“Hey, this is not an easy change for me to get used to,” Storm growled in response.
“This isn’t about you at all, Storm. My relationship with Valla is between us, and is nobody else’s business.”
“Gray, could you fucking listen to me on this?” I glared at him, but stopped. “I know. I fucking know, and I wouldn’t try to separate you and Valla because I know you’re happy! But that doesn’t mean that it’s not hard for me to suddenly not be spending even half as much time as before with the person I grew up next to--and it makes it even harder that you don’t seem to even be thinking about it!”
My eyes widened a little bit. We were sitting right next to each other, face to face… I couldn’t hide anything from him, and he couldn’t hide anything from me. That was the way it had always been… but he was right. I hadn’t even considered that we were spending less time together even when we were both in the Village. Because Storm had encouraged me to keep talking to Valla… I had assumed he didn’t mind. But… in the time that I was spending with Valla… he was alone. He… didn’t have someone to go to like I had Valla. And he couldn’t even go to me in those times.
I looked down, crossing my arms over my chest. But instead of pushing me away, Storm wrapped his arms around me, and then his wings, and then rested his head on my shoulder.
“Gray, I’m so glad that you’re happy, and that Valla’s happy,” he said. “But… I don’t want to be pushed out completely.”
I lifted my arms to hug him tightly. “You won’t,” I said, but my voice cracked with tears. “I’m… I’m so sorry, I didn’t… you’re right. I hadn’t realized. I’m sorry…”
He hugged me even tighter. “I… I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to bring it up like this. Especially not… well… this… close to something so…”
His voice trailed off, but I understood what he meant. I nodded, and we separated mostly, though he kept his hands on my shoulders.
“I’ll do better,” I said, nodding at him. “We’ll spend more time together again…”
“Okay,” Storm said. “Thank you. And… I’m sorry I brought it up like this…”
I nodded, wiping away some of the tears, and looking at the droplet on my hand. “It needed to be brought up. I… just hope it’s… not going to cause problems between you and Valla.”
Storm glanced away, and closed his eyes. “...I hope so too.”
We sat in silence for a long minute. I could hear the low chatter outside, and could also feel Valla’s presence. She was talking to my mom… but seemed to be aware that something was happening in here. I turned my attention back to Storm.
“Are you going to the Dungeon?”
There was a long moment of silence. Then, Storm sighed.
“Had you asked me that first, I would have said no.”
“But I didn’t ask it first.”
“Yeah. And so I’m conflicted about it again… but really, the reason I was going to say no was out of spite. And I’m not going to do that…”
“Good,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him. “There are plenty of good reasons to not go to the dungeon. Spite over something completely unrelated isn’t one of them.”
Storm nodded. “I’ll go.”
I blinked. “Like I said, there are plenty of good reasons not to go…”
“And I’ve considered them all. None of them overpower the reasons I have to go.”
I closed my eyes, and nodded. “Then… I’ll be glad to at least have you there.”
Storm nodded. “And I wouldn’t be going if you weren’t.”
That night passed quickly. Everyone who had decided to go was resting. Storm and I slept back-to-back, next to all of our other siblings who were old enough to be afraid, but not old enough to go to the dungeon. Red and Quiver were there for once, wanting to spend time with Rune and Rain, though Rain was the only one not going. I briefly spoke to Valla, though Safiena was present so we didn’t feel safe talking for long.
I thought about telling Storm what Safiena had said and done, but we had gone through enough emotional turmoil for the day. I decided against it.
When it came time to go to the guard house, Storm and I woke everyone who was leaving and we all went together. Valla walked next to me and Storm, and Fayne was just behind her. Then Harold and Anna followed with Rune and Scout, and behind them, Nayila, Safiena, Red, and Quiver were trailing, all of us in almost complete silence.
At the guard house, everyone was resting. Our goals were to find anything that we could salvage and use primarily. Secondarily, we wanted to find records of what the scientists were doing. Anything. Anything to tell us what their goals were, what they did to us… and why. Finally, our goal was to find anything that might be contributing to the barrier, and destroy it. Everyone had been told that we couldn’t contact our potential allies in Akalai until it was broken. Everyone who knew magic was encouraged to help search for the barrier. People kept filtering in, and finding their friends, and then when we were almost done, we were split into groups. Storm and I were with Rune, the Elves, Scout, Sentinel, and Snitch. And we’d be going into the places that the scientists had been using for their testing.
When we all left the village, we had some hope, and were chatting amongst ourselves.
By the time we were face to face with the dungeon, however, all of us were speechless. It was overgrown with glowing vines, and the charred stone had seemed to fade in color… but as we looked at it, all we could think about was the pain that we had all gone through.