When the glider returned the Hunter was already there, waiting for them in the same spot they had left – the night still lingered, hooked on the corners of the sky by a thin purple sheen. The last stars streaked to the west and Sadja pulled away from the window as she saw his grave expression, contoured by a few fresh scratch marks around his face. It seemed this had been a busy night for all of them.
He waited for the machine to touch ground, his rifle hanging from behind his shoulders, arms crossed over his chest.
Valeriana gave her a glance from her seat, opposite her. Her eyes were red and puffy and her face seemed to have gained ten years in the one hour they had spent talking.
“You’re home,” she groaned, pointing at the door. It opened itself without a touch and the chilly air of the unborn morning came to brush its fingers against Sadja’s back.
“For the time being,” she replied. She took a step towards the Vestal, but the woman withdrew.
“Sorry. Sorry. I’m not… I don’t think I can right now. I need to think.” She hid her face inside her palms and Sadja turned back. “Say hi to Cloria for me,” she said in one final whisper.
“I will.” Her heart already beating faster, she stepped out of the glider. It immediately recoiled and took into air, wheezing past the contour of trees and disappeared towards the south.
She turned to face Hunter. He did not move. His right eye was just as puffy as Valeriana’s.
“I just came back,” she tried, rubbing the back of her head even as her ears fell. “So… how was the night?”
“Regular. For me, at least.” He pointed his chin at the direction the glider had taken off. “What was that?”
“Listen, I just asked Valeriana for a little favor…”
“You went into the forest, didn’t you?”
She paled. How could he tell?
“Your smell,” he waved his hand. “The… traces of sap and pine tree on your coat. Your new scars – that’s a tracking spell.”
Well, she did try to make it as little obvious as she could.
“I knew you were going to do something,” he started, taking a step forward. She blanched, but did not take a step back. “But I let it slide because I told myself: what’s the worst that can happen? She knows the woods are dangerous. She should, better than anyone else,” he mocked.
She withered under his furious gaze.
“But… I just…”
“And not only that, but without even telling anyone where she was going. Because Spirits forbid I know where to find you! After all, it’s not like I already lost one eye, I could always lose the other one. And my belongings, once again! And my life.” He loomed over her – she’d have preferred if he shouted at her, but it was the low hiss of his disappointment that truly made her understand she had made him mad.
“I had to do it,” she tried, looking down at her boots. “I didn’t have any other chance! The Vestal had the glider and it was the only way to bring my friends back home! They would have withered and died staying here for the rest of the winter!”
“And that gave you the right to throw your life away like that?”
“Nothing happened,” she retorted, but it was weak, even to her ears. “Nothing…”
He set his hand over her head.
She winced, expecting a blow.
Which did not come.
He sighed and crouched so that he was level with her blue eyes – he brushed aside one of her silver locks and a prickling heat spread over her cheeks.
“I was scared all night. I had to leave my post to come looking for you, and when I understood what had happened I… I feared I had lost you again.” He pulled her in a hug. “Are they all safe?”
“Y-Yes. I think so. They are in their old home. It’s nice and cozy, the fireplace was crackling and there were even fresh cookies.”
He rolled his eyes. Knew who did that for them, no need to spell it out loud.
“You did a foolish thing,” he explained. “Are you happy about it?”
She hesitated, but then pulled onto his chest and looked up.
“I am happy I managed to get them back home. Less so about what happened with you… I hoped I would come back with you none the wiser.”
“The same man who managed to find a wolf-girl in a hostile forest would not feel it when she’s leaving?” He asked with a smirk. She puffed her cheeks.
She kept underestimating him. Even after all this time. His skills, or his affection.
She turned his eyes back to him as he shook with laughter.
“Oh, Sadja,” he said getting over his mirth, “you foolishly brave girl. You saw the chance and you took it. You are ready.”
What was happening? He was all mad one moment, then he was all happy the next?
“Ready to live on your own,” he replied, passing his fingers through her hair. The blush extended as she realized the extent of what that implied.
“You have shown initiative, skill, wit and a good dose of luck,” he winked. “That never ceases to be useful. I have always wanted to see you go free, and tonight for the first time I am truly certain you’ll be able to.”
“I… you… you think that…”
“Still need training, but what you did tonight was really brave. And foolish! You could have died, or worse! You had me go all grey with worry at the thought of you alone with that woman! I was afraid she had kidnapped you!”
“Sorry… I… it won’t happen again.”
He clicked his tongue.
“Don’t make promises you cannot keep.” And she just wanted to disappear into the soil. “But when it happens… let me know. Alright?”
“Alright,” she promised.
“That’s great. Now, how about we go back home? I need some sleep or my legs are going to fall off. I hope Arguta can put up some tea when I go back to the world of the living.”
Sadja giggled – she helped him by setting her arm against his waist and he did the same. Despite their difference in height and build, she was strong enough to support him.
They stumbled back home, towards the furnace district.
“And how did you convince Valeriana to help you anyway?”
“Yeah… about that…” she groaned.
Pic by Darkfang