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The two shared a quick glance that betrayed everything Cerid needed to know. If they had laughed at him and called him a ridiculous dreamer or been clueless, he’d have been convinced there was nothing for him to find here; however, they had shown that small sign of panic instead. At least, he hoped he could trust that interpretation of their exchange.

“Are they here?” he pressed. “Please, I… I just want my fallen comrades to be revived. Nothing more.”

“Thea?” Sharp-Tooth said quietly, placing the burden on her.

She looked uncertain as she thought it out but gave Cerid a guarded and imperious gaze as a sign of a choice being made in the end. “My name is Dorothea Atlin,” she said. “I’m the last of the Atlin bloodline. And I don’t see why I should help you.”

Cerid’s body went cold anew. Really? Was that how it was going to end? He’d come this far and had such luck only to be made to return empty-handed? “But –” he protested weakly.

Dorothea interrupted with neither anger nor pity in her voice. “You can go back to Sacerian territory when you feel able to. All of your injuries were healed, so you could probably head out immediately and be just fine. I’m sorry about your comrades.”

Impotent rage fueled Cerid. “How can you say that?! You, who know nothing of war, do not have the right to feel sorry for me! If you are truly so sorry for a single one of us, then you would act!”

“Oh, I know nothing of war, do I?” she snapped, eyes blazing while her voice turned to ice. “Your war, the one your people and the Ghurians started, took everything from me. I owe you nothing.”

“I just…!” Cerid trailed off as she turned sharply back inside and slammed the door shut after tossing his sword onto the porch. “How can she be so… so cruel!” He burst to no one in particular.

Still, he received a response. “It’s not that simple, you know?”

“It seems fairly clear to me,” Cerid muttered, bitterly taking out his guilt and frustration. “The question of cruelty.”

“The name’s Shark. Ze, zir, zirself.”

Cerid looked blankly at a hand that was extended to him, caught off guard by the sudden change in subject. “What?”

“Now you know who I am, so hopefully you can trust me a bit. Give me until tomorrow morning. I’ll talk to Thea. Now, I can’t promise anything, but I’ll have you know that I’m the ultimate voice of reason around here.” Ze smirked.

Cerid gaped and clasped Shark’s hand. “Um, thank you.”

“And on that note…” Shark laughed as Cerid stumbled when pulled after zir, all but slipping and falling down the porch steps.

“I-I thought you were going to talk to her!” he gasped.

“First and foremost, you need a place to stay, don’t you? Or were you going to sit out on the porch all night and freeze? Not that you’re not welcome to. Your choice.”

“Er… Well, you… You have a point,” Cerid mumbled.

“Always do. Well, there’s nowhere better than my house.”

Somehow, Cerid felt as if he had been pulled into something grand, fearsome and irrevocable. But that could have just been change in general, that unstoppable and terrifying thing, making his head spin.

*~*~*

Shark felt as if it were providence that Cerid Creed had dropped into ze and Dorothea’s laps. This had to be a sign that it was finally time to face what had been weighing on zir the most since the very day ze had set foot in Equin.

News of an outsider had spread across the village, and Cerid stuck out like a shooting star in an empty black sky. He had been picked up and brought to Dorothea by a group of hunters, after all, and they hadn’t been told to be discreet. Whispers, a quiet stream of wonder, and elbows pushing into arms and sides ran through the villagers. By the end of the night, countless stories would have circled through the populous as to what kind of person the newcomer was and why he had encroached on Equin’s sluggish peace so abruptly. And a member of Sacer’s Creed family at that! It was obvious with a single glance exactly who Cerid was.

After the boy was settled in Shark’s small but cozy apartment, Shark turned right back around and went back to Dorothea’s place. Hers was befitting of her status, sizeable and enclosed, and had been the home of three generations of Atlins. Dorothea kept the rooms her parents and grandparents had once used clean but otherwise untouched from how they had been left, keeping only a small section for herself to live in.

Shark found her exactly where he had expected—rocking on the porch swing with a large, soft blanket swallowing her up and making her look like a sad ball with a head. “Alright, Thea. Tell your good ol’ friend Sharkie what’s on your mind,” ze said in a light but loving tone as ze plopped beside her.

Dorothea scooted to make more room. “He was completely right.”

“About what?”

“Me being a terrible person.”

“He said you were cruel, not terrible,” Shark corrected, chipper.

“Helpful, Sharkie,” she said flatly. “There’s no difference. Not in my case.”

“And why do you agree with him?” That was the distinction that mattered.

She was silent for a while, and Shark listened as the old swing squealed each time they arced forward. It hadn’t used to do that. Small things like that reminded zir how much time flew. “I thought…” Her hands wiggled out from the blanket’s mysterious folds to reveal a book clasped in her hands, some well-worn historical guide. “I thought that reading and listening to stories meant that I understood. But he’s seen war firsthand. I mean, look at the state he came to us in. I was this close to having to revive a corpse rather than heal a living person.”

“And what’s that got to do with you?” Shark asked gently, letting her sort out her own conscience as she spoke.

“That’s just the thing! Since the day… Ever since Mommy died, and so soon after Daddy died to boot, I’d always resolved myself to believe that it all had nothing to do with me, or that they didn’t have a right to my help if they were just going to keep tearing each other apart. Dragging innocent people into it. Monstrous business, war.” She paused and looked up at the slow trickle of snow that fluttered to the ground, filling out footprints. “But…”

“But?” Shark asked quietly.

“I guess I… There’s no point to me living like I am now. If I’m going to die young anyway—and let’s be realistic about that—then should I do something useful for others by killing myself through using my magic to my limits? Or should I just while the rest of my life away? It’s just… Why am I even here, Shark?” She looked up at zir with plaintive helplessness.

“I can’t tell you what to do, and I certainly have no idea what the meaning of life is.”

“I know. I know,” she sighed, turning forward again. “It’s something every person has to answer for themselves.”

“But, if it helps you make a choice…” Shark hesitated. No matter what, this was something ze had to do for zirself. “I want to go back to Sacer.”

“What?” Dorothea’s eyes widened with panic. “Why?”

Ze couldn’t help but chuckle. “Not indefinitely, of course. This is my home now. But, Thea, I want to see my parents again. I want to close that door so I can really move on. It’s been six years, and I still think about it every day. I have to do this, and I think you have some choices of your own to make. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is…” Ze smiled, feeling a weight already lifting as the words were said. “I think we need to go with Cerid back to Sacer. It will help both of us know for sure.”

“Gods…” Dorothea muttered, looking both shocked and exhausted. “Nothing today has gone as expected.”

“At least you can say your life is interesting.”

She smiled some. “True.” Her gaze lowered as it always did when she was seriously contemplating. “I don’t know if I should go. To be honest, I’m scared of what might happen. But, well… At the very least, I’ll learn something. Besides,” she continued, tone becoming brusque as she turned away from sadness and towards action, “I’d never leave you to face your parents on your own. Of course I’m coming with you.”

Shark grinned and let out a short yet joyful laugh. “Aw, Thea. I love ya.”

“Yeah, yeah. Love you too.” She smiled gently and stood, bunching the blanket in her arms. “We need to pack. I hope this fits in my bag.”

“Trust me, where we’re going, you won’t need it.” Shark’s memory was coming alive with dreams of sticky summers, cool, lazy breezes, and daily prayers. A woman standing at the stove humming as she made a ruthlessly spicy chili, a man crafting lame rhymes to give words to her melody as his large hands kneaded a bread cooked with beer, each slice later slathered with honey that dripped down Shark’s fingers. Laughter between the three of them, something pure held in these mundane moments. Painful dreams, those, but precious all the same.

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About the author

Sara Mullins

Bio: Hi everyone! Hope anyone who reads this is doing well and taking care of themselves. I love storytelling and aim to become better and better as I continue to write and practice. In terms of what I like to write... In truth, though it's what I'm worst at, the goal is just to get to the fluffy romance scenes. The obstacle is only what lies before and between. Alas. Again, take care, all.

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