Even the Biggest Fish Have Scales
Hailey didn’t so much fall asleep as collapse into bed and shut off. Her energy was so drained even a full-night’s sleep proved not enough. The deepened mourning greeting her on awakening weighted her already lead-heart. It felt more coincidental to her restless, dead-sleep rather than causal. Though she still believed in coincidence, unlike the other Seers, the deception of things lately meant she wasn’t putting money on anything.
A knocked sounded. She fell from bed to her feet, dressed sluggishly in a shirt, still pants-less, and sequestered her lower-half behind the door. Valerie looked in at the angle, her face more severe than Hailey’d seen yet.
“Valerie?” She yawned. “Training isn’t for another hour.”
“You’re correct,” she replied with a sidelong glance. “May I come in?”
She shook off sleep, let her in, and stepped into day-old pants. Valerie closed the door with a maternal analysis– and similar disappointment. It was less cleanly than even Hailey would’ve liked, but given the previous night and Valerie’s demanding schedule, lapsing to such a state was inevitable.
Hailey sat on the bed to slip on socks and shoes, “Are we changing the training schedule?”
“No,” Valerie said, stepping before her.
She took a breath, clearly finding difficulty with what she intended to say. Hailey hesitated. Valerie never missed a beat, let alone struggled with thoughts. Her heart tripped over itself.
“Is something wrong? Is Rachel alright?”
“Rachel is fine. Injured and recovering, but fine,” Valerie said stiffly. She cleared her throat, “I am here about your parents. Specifically, what you intend to do about them.”
Hailey squinted slightly. “What d’you mean?”
Her face fixed up with a wizened gravity. “Hailey, you were told, when your training was complete, you’d be given an opportunity to leave.” Hailey’s expression remained unchanged. “However, we also discussed that your feelings might change. You are more than capable of defending yourself and others. You proved as much last night. And while there is much you might yet learn, it requires greater commitment. Namely, remaining here for the foreseeable future. Perhaps indefinitely.”
Hailey’s squint narrowed her eyes. “You’re saying I’m finished training?”
Valerie’s head gave a tilt, “In a manner of speaking.”
“You’re not speaking, Valerie. You’re being cryptic. And I daresay more uncertainly than usual.”
Valerie scowled for a moment, but her face fell back to indifference as she admitted the uncertainty within her. For someone so sure of themselves and their words, any hesitation was likely magnified to onlookers even more so than it felt.
“Perhaps you’re right. Your preliminary training is complete. But there is more you can do to hone your skills and control. Unfortunately, it is not without sacrifices. Nevertheless, the choice remains open, but the offer will not last forever.”
“So choose to live here or go home,” Hailey said plainly.
“More or less.” Valerie hesitated again, made doubly sure of her next words, “As I said you’ve proven yourself capable. Normally, you would begin my advanced training while taking on responsibilities; joining Yasmine’s security team, their patrols, scouting or supply runs.”
“But my choice means I’m allowed to leave before committing to that?”
“Indeed,” Valerie replied. “But it is a true commitment we require. We cannot have flights of indecisiveness risking this refuge. To join us, you must commit wholly to us, else outside loyalties endanger our safety.”
Hailey read the subtext in Valerie’s words, “You mean cut ties with my family.”
“If necessary, yes,” she said with a regretful nod. “As they must remain with us for now, it will appear less divisive than it might later. Whether here or not, you would be forced to consider them second to the group, whose safety takes precedence over theirs when necessary.”
Hailey looked to the floor. Valerie’s commitment could be summed up much more simply than Hailey wanted. She almost couldn’t bear thinking of it, but the people around her deserved better than cowering at her own thoughts– or for that matter, reality. Valerie was ultimately admitting she might have to sacrifice or parents for the others, whether through action or inaction.
Hailey spoke as if her thoughts had been spoken aloud. Valerie didn’t need them to be.
“How do I do that?” She looked up at her, seeking guidance, “How do I tell the people that have loved and protected me my whole life, that they’re to be repaid like that? Second to strangers?”
Valerie sighed, sank beside Hailey on the bed. She was suddenly candid, as if her stiff veneer had never existed, however present it remained otherwise. “I first learned I was a Seer while pregnant and married. The child never came to turn. Not after what happened. My husband and I had been rescued, much as you, by a group of strangers that knew more than we did. I decided shortly after, that I could not bring a child into the world I suddenly found myself in. My husband felt otherwise, but ultimately knew I was right.”
Strained memories played over her face. The sudden flash reminded her of Elise’s traumatized stare before she’d snapped, attacked. It was no wonder she had. She wasn’t even half Valerie’s age, already forced to contend with a thing that brought even the most experienced, stiff-faced Seer to the edges of strength.
Valerie’s stare broke. “We were together only months before agreeing to break it off. As you, I was given the choice to stay and fight, or leave. I had already sacrificed my child, my dreams to train as a Seer. For me, leaving meant those sacrifices were in vain. The only reason to leave was my husband.” She cleared emotion from her throat with a hard swallow. “I devoted my life to this purpose the day I was asked to remain among the group that saved my life. Ultimately, I stayed because it was what I felt best. Not just for me, but for those I owed my life to.”
Hailey watched her a moment, but her eyes fell thoughtfully to the floor.
Valerie’s voice softened. “Hailey, I cannot tell you what the right path is. And it would be disrespectful to deceive you into believing this is an easy choice. It will never will be easy to accept. Nor will its consequences. All I can say from experience, is recognize that your choice affects far more than you alone. As much as I fear to sway you, I must admit, we need you as we need anyone willing to help. However, you are young and yet to live life even meagerly.
“And while your parents may stay, and indeed become as great an asset as you, the distance between you will be irrefutable. It is the same distance that afflicts all Seers. We are of a different breed. One with much greater responsibility and effect. Time and again, the three of you will be forced to accept you are no longer their daughter. Rather, you are their protector, as you are to any here.”
Hailey’s eyes glistened with sadness, “And if I leave?”
Valerie surveyed the glint, “Then you are master of your fates, beyond the reach of those who need or help you.”
Valerie winced at the manipulative way of her own words. There was little to be done about it. Hard truths were infinitely less painful, less dangerous, than soothing lies.
“Whatever you choose, Hailey, know that you have been an excellent student. I could not be more proud of your progress. You have great power, child. I suspect, whether here or elsewhere, you will do great things with it. I only hope they may one day help bring an end to the fight that has forced us all here.” She rose from the bed, turning to face Hailey a final time before leaving, “Your training is complete– at least until a decision is made. Take your time, but do not forget; others’ actions may hinge on your response.”
With that, Valerie left. Hailey stared at the closed door. The conversation was an echo of crashing waves. Thoughts nipped and fled from Hailey’s feet on the shore. Like a tide, her decision felt as if merely an eventuality, long ago decided and only yet to pass. Speaking it required more courage than present, while confirming such a decision so quickly felt ill-advised, disrespectful. If nothing else, she’d take time to summon her voice.
As Hailey sat on her bed, Elise’s restless waves struggled for sleep beyond the wall. She’d done nothing but lie in bed since attacking Hailey. She cried, grieving as much for her parents as for herself. Then, Yasmine had led her inside to sleep. She stayed long enough to believe Elise slept, then left. Elise’s strength left with her. She spent the night bearing thoughts and fears that left her writhing. Fits of half-sleep passed. Periods of blame; blaming herself, blaming Hailey. Imagining ways she might have, should have, acted, reacted.
Reality was cold facts, no matter who was to blame; her parents were dead. Her family was gone. Bodies in a morgue no longer bore the same beating hearts. The ones that had graced such love upon her. Gone too, it felt, was Elise’s own heart. She wasn’t even sure it still beat until its rhythm stumbled at Yaz’s sudden appearance.
Elise’s eyes widened. Yaz winced, “I didn’t wake you, did I?” She gave an awkward shake against her pillow. “You mind if I sit?” She half-shrugged. “How are you?” Another shrug. “I can go, if you like.”
She started to stand but Elise grabbed her wrist, her voice weak, “Please. Don’t.”
She wondered what to say. “Rachel’s awake. A little loopy from medicine, but she’ll be okay.” Elise’s hand slid into hers. Yaz trembled, focused elsewhere. “I’m sorry about last night. I didn’t meant to hurt you.”
Yaz stroked Elise’s hand, only half-aware of it. “Ken’s making breakfast. I can bring it here. No-one’ll blame you for wanting to eat away from the crowd right now.”
Elise trembled this time, a bodily mirroring from the calloused smoothness of Yaz’s hand. She inched into a slump against the headboard, half-sitting, half laying. “I don’t… really want to be alone. I just don’t know if I can be around… everyone, yet.”
Yaz sensed her meaning. “Grief is normal, Elise. Everyone here’s lost someone. We all know what it feels like.” She angled nearer to her on the bed. “Look, what I mean is, if you want me to stay here, just say so. I’m giving you time off from training. You deserve it anyhow.”
Elise brightened subtly, “Will you stay for breakfast?”
Yaz’s eyes caught light, twinkled with a sturdy nod. “Of course. I’ll stay all day if you want– after my security briefing, I mean. Then, I’m yours for the day.”
Elise did her best to will tears, but failed. She sniffled, “Sorry. Thank you.”
Yaz’s eyes fell to their hands. Elise leaned forward. Before she realized it, their lips pressed. It was clumsy. Stupid. She pulled away apologizing. Yaz said nothing, bewildered. She blinked hard, tongue skirting her lip.
“I’m sorry, I just…” Elise trailed off, face red and tears flowing.
She tried to pull her hand from Yaz but the grip tightened. “No.” Her chest fluttered. “Don’t. Just– Is this real or… ”
Elise was equally caught off-guard by her forwardness. “I… think so.”
Her usual confidence wavered “What I-I mean is… is this really what you want or– you know, comfort?”
Elise shrugged, eyes still averted. “I… want it. It started during our training. B-but, I understand if you’re don’t.”
Yaz was cautious, quiet. “Why now?”
Elise preened the bed-sheet, “I just need— you, now. I can’t hide it. Not after… not now.”
Again, Yaz hesitated, “Is it really me, Elise?” Silence. Yaz lifted her face with a pair of fingers met the tear-glazed eyes behind her glasses. Her voice softened, “Is it really me, or just anyone?”
Elise’s eyes didn’t stray. She knew the answer. “You.”
Yasmine leaned. Their lips met again. Elise’s wet face sank against Yaz. Their hearts raced. Heads spun with euphoric vertigo. She forced herself forward, over, straddled Elise atop the bed. Their hands tensed, pulled at one another in a passion fueled by fear, need, desire.
A sudden knock made them jump. Yaz choked on a quiet gasp. Elise’s chest heaved. Yaz sat back on the bed’s edge and called at the door. It opened on Ken, apron-clad over flannel and denim, and still dusted with pancake mix.
“Breakfast’s ready. You want some?”
Elise nodded silently. Yaz spoke aloud, “We’ll be there in a minute.”
Ken saw Elise’s tears, suppressed a regretful twitch, and nodded. He pulled the door closed, completely oblivious. Yaz wasn’t sure anyone should know. Not yet anyhow. The door shut, and she stood, pulling Elise up with her.
“C’mon. You need to keep your strength up. We’ll have the briefing afterward. That way, you’ll know what it’s like. And you won’t have to be alone Okay?”
“Okay,” she agreed, voice cracking.
Yaz slipped her arms around Elise. Their temples met. Warm breath invited Elise’s nearer on her neck. She basked in it, finally forcing away her tears, her strength renewed by Yasmine’s embrace.