Chapter 26: Open Hearts
It took a while for Storm and I to begin to calm down, and even when we did, we had tears on our faces. But we didn’t know how long we had been gone for, and we didn’t want Scout or our mom or anyone else to worry about us. So we did our best to dry our eyes and came out of our hiding spot, opening it up for anyone else.
Seconds after we came out, I looked up, and saw Valla walking towards us with tense shoulders and eyes that spoke of concern. Storm looked up seconds after me, and tensed up.
“Have we been gone that long…?” Storm asked. I heard a low growl under his voice, and wondered if he was irritated that she had come looking for us.
“I’m just out here because I was worried,” Valla said, looking at the ground between us. “Scout and Shadowforth said you guys would be fine but… I didn’t feel right just sitting there…”
“Well, they’re right,” Storm said. “Gray and I are fine, we just needed time. That wasn’t a pleasant thing to re-live, for any of us.”
“I can’t imagine it was,” Valla said, her voice a little softer. “And I’m… well, there aren’t really any words that can soften it at all, no matter who they’re coming from. Even I know that.”
“And that’s why we’ve tried to leave it behind us,” Storm said.
“But we can’t hide it forever,” I whispered. Even as I spoke, the words felt like they were kicking me in my stomach as a reminder of what I had lost. And the look on Storm’s face when he registered what I said didn’t help; anyone who didn’t know the situation would have thought I had just stabbed him in his back.
“Gray, I don’t know if it’ll be worth it,” Valla said. “It’s okay to not want to go back, us elves don’t have a right to force it…”
“Rune’s studies would have led us back there,” I said, looking up at Storm so that he’d see the pain still in my eyes and know it wasn’t easy for me to be admitting this. “And even if we got to that point and turned back… some of the other chimeras have been wanting to have children. Especially the ones who never had children in the dungeon. What would happen if one of those children, or the ones that are too small to remember the dungeon, when they grew up enough to travel, happened to wander back to the dungeon out of curiosity, or rebellion…?”
Storm let out a shaking breath, and I knew from the look in his eyes that he knew I was right. Those children… the ones who were too young to have remembered the dungeon… Any of them could have been his, if his were still alive. And just like that, I knew that he was on my side again… however begrudgingly we both might have gotten there.
Valla glanced at us and looked away. “I don’t want to be too nosey or interfere too much but… will anything we can get there be worth re-living the… well, what happened? I… I’m worried about how it would affect you guys…”
“And why exactly are you worried so much about us?” Storm snapped. “We’ve survived this long without your kind. What makes you think we need you now, hm?”
“I don’t think you guys need us,” Valla said, clearly trying to keep her voice soft to avoid escalating the situation. “But… well, we wouldn’t have survived without you. I don’t want to change whatever decision you make but… I don’t want to see any of you get hurt because of it either…”
“We’re no strangers to being hurt,” I said, softening my voice to try to tell Storm that I didn’t mind her being there. “I appreciate the thoughts, Valla, but as I said, going back there is inevitable. Besides… Lassania can’t do more damage to us there, at least, not in the same way. Not as long as we’re free.”
Valla nodded, and I saw her breathing pattern become calmer. “Okay…”
Storm narrowed his eyes slightly at me, as if trying to figure something out. I ignored it, and took a step towards Valla. “How is everyone else doing?”
“Scout went to go help your mother with some of your siblings, and Rune… seemed to just want to be alone after you guys left, so Harold and Anna went to go talk to Fayne, Safiena, and Nayila. And I wanted to help your mom with some of the wounded hunters but…” Valla’s voice seemed to trail off, and she looked away. I tilted my head at her.
“Y-yeah… I was having trouble thinking about anything but that…” I frowned. “I know I didn’t experience it but… it was so hard to wrap my head around…”
“...Well, not all of us died,” I said, glancing up at Storm, who was watching me bemusedly. “That’s… a positive at least.”
Valla smiled, but it was a pained smile. “Perhaps the only positive,” she said.
“Would you two like some private time? I mean, the tent is still right here,” Storm said, though I could tell that under the joke was an amount of tension that worried me a lot. But… I understood the implication of the joke too well to not start blushing, especially when Valla laughed half-heartedly.
“I’m not sure now’s a good time for stuff like that,” Valla said, glancing away. “As… as nice as it is to talk to you, Gray.”
I nodded. “...Yeah. I enjoy talking to you, too.”
“But… it’s only been a week or two since us elves got here, and there’s other stuff to worry about than… all of that,” Valla said, looking up at me. “I… really like you though, Gray.”
I nodded, my face too hot for me to be able to think about how to respond. I heard Storm laugh.
“Don’t tell our siblings about this, Gray would never hear the end of it,” Storm muttered.
“I like you too, Valla,” I said, only having half thought about it before saying it out loud and therefore surprising even myself. “But it really hasn’t been that long.”
Valla nodded, before turning around. “We should get back now… before the other elves start to freak out about where I am.”
Storm and I walked beside her on the way back to the house. “They seem very protective of you,” Storm muttered.
“It’s because I’m their princess. They don’t want anything bad to happen to me, because what if my parents and sister die and they accidentally end up with a queen with real life experience?”
“Would that be a bad thing?” Storm asked.
“Depends. If you’re smart, it’s not. If you’re an Akalaian noble, on the other hand, then yes.”
I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows and laugh a little bit. “For someone who is apparently involved in leading the country, you don’t seem to like it much.”
“I’m not involved in leading the country. And I definitely didn’t choose to be a princess, especially not of Akalai.”
“Well, regardless, I’m a little curious as to why you have so much dislike towards the country,” I said, frowning.
“I’m just… sick of the way my parents and the noble class do things. And I’ve tried to talk to them, but they don’t listen. And not only that… my older sister kind of listens, but I don’t think she agrees with me about anything. So it’s just going to continue. And at this point… she’s already married.”
“She’s what?” Storm raised an eyebrow at Valla.
“Married… basically, she has a mate. They don’t have kids yet but they were working on that when I left. So, with the way royalty works… if my parents died, she would take their place first with her husband, and if she died after having kids, her husband would take over until those kids were adults. It would only be if her kids died without having kids of their own that I’d be offered the crown.”
“And would you then be the leader of Akalai?” Storm asked.
“Yeah. But there’s no doubt at all in my mind that the noble class would have major problems with me having power. They’d… probably fight to get someone else in power who is likely to have children, and they’d probably win.”
“And… why aren’t you likely to have children?”
“I’m not interested in men like I should be.”
I raised my eyebrow at her, but she was staring forward, her teeth clenched in what seemed to be determination to not show any emotion. Yet, I could smell her shame and fear, and couldn’t help but wonder if there was something she had gone through that she was finding as difficult to say as we found our experiences.
But before Storm or I could bring it up or even change the subject purposefully, there was a loud yell from the guard house.
“Attack! The humans have attacked the coast!”
Everything seemed to freeze in that moment. The three of us looked towards the guard house for a long moment, and all I remember was the sound of rocks suddenly crunching beneath our feet as we took off towards the growing commotion.