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Sightless by Neko Kuroban and Sister Grimm Erin

Part One:

Walk This World

Chapter IV:

But That Was In Another Country

The past is another country. They do things differently there.

fMore than an hour had passed, and Artemis still had not returned.

Light slumber had overtaken Abigail. In the quiet stillness, her shallow breathing seemed exceptionally loud. Her eyes did not move behind her closed lids as they did when dreaming; she must have been unable to achieve anything approaching a deeper state of sleep.

If she had been mortal, death would have claimed her hours ago. The immortal blood that coursed through her veins was the only thing keeping her alive—and the only thing prolonging her agony. Her body was spent and beaten, but it would continue to try to fight the poison even after the battle was lost.

Thalia turned away.

She strode through the tent without a single sound, extinguishing candles and incense. The brazier still emitted a feeble glow and faint warmth. She let it be. From the narrow bed that was usually Mary's, she grabbed one thin pillow and the vibrant patchwork quilt, light enough to be comfortable in the summer warmth. She laid down on the floor beside Abigail's cot, but she did not dare make herself comfortable for fear of falling asleep.

It was chiefly due to her concern for Abigail, but a part of it, one she would not acknowledge to herself, was her desire to stave off the relentless nightmares that assaulted her. They had always been a constant presence in her life—more than anything or anyone else had ever been.

From an early age, Thalia had trained herself not to let them affect her daily routine, but once the night terrors she suffered from had often been intense enough to leave her sleepless and out of sorts for days. There was no method to predict them. Often they came clustered. Sometimes a week-long spell of dreamless sleep would be shattered by but a single spy.

This summer, she had suffered from them nightly, and there seemed to be no reprieve in sight. At least once a night—twice or three times, more commonly—she would jolt awake, anxious and striving for something just beyond her grasp. She would wake instantly, breathing raw and perspiration lining her brow, heart pounding and sheets tangled around her seemingly leaden limbs. More than the physical feelings, however, she loathed the feelings of fear and vulnerability the sudden fits of distress aroused within her.

Hands laced behind her head, Thalia lay on her back and stared up at nothing. Like the walls, the ceiling of the large tent was constructed of pale silk that seemed to shimmer from gray to blue and back.

Beside her, Abigail's light breathing ceased, only to be replaced by a quicker, sharper rhythm. She heard no indication of a body stirring or the whimpering groan that usually accompanied someone waking, but Thalia was not taken by surprise when the question rose out of the darkness.

"Have I ever told you about my people?"

"No," she answered, her eyes locked on the gauzy fabric overhead. "You haven't."

"It is not common knowledge," the other girl admitted. "As far as I know, only Artemis and Mary know all of it. I would like to tell you...if I might."

"Go ahead." Under Thalia's tongue, the instruction twisted into a challenge.

"You won't tell anyone?"

She dismissed the other girl's concerns with a half-hearted flick of her wrist. "Who would I tell? And why would I tell them?"

And there it was: that dry, rasping laughter that served only to discomfort rather than to reassure. "You have a point." Abigail paused as if it was a struggle for her to gather her thoughts. "I do not know where to begin."

At long last, Thalia turned. She sat up and arranged herself so that she was sitting cross-legged, the thin coverlet draped over her narrow shoulders. She gazed at Abigail with somber eyes.

"Which of your parents was immortal?" The question was something Thalia had before wondered but never dared ask. It was not a concrete rule, but de facto practice among the Hunters (there were very few of the former but the limits posed by the latter were countless) dictated that information about one's past needed to be freely given, provided without being asked for. "Your mother or your father?"

"My mother." Abigail's answer came promptly—and not without a touch of pride. The pride of an orphan, Thalia thought wryly. "It was a dryad who bore me."

"That explains your eyes," she mused aloud. "They say that eyes like yours—with the colored rings around the pupil like that—almost only ever come from having a nymph for a mother." She wrapped the quilt tighter around herself. "Have you ever met her?"

"Never," Abigail answered after a moment of silence. "I am the issue of her flesh and yet I have never so much as seen her. I once confronted the man who lay with her, the father of my birth. He was only able to tell me that she was a nature spirit." Something that might have been a smile turned up her lips. "He told me that she was magnificent.

"I do not know the actual day or even the month of my birth, but the wind brought me to my father when I was still an infant too young to sit up. That was the winter after the Chickamauga Wars ended. The peace treaty was signed in the autumn of 1794. It has been nearly two hundred and fifteen years since then. I wonder..."

Thalia latched onto the hitch in her voice. As if by instinct, she identified and understood the vulnerability there. She wanted to quell any doubts that might have lingered just on the edges of Abigail's perception. When someone was dying, what could be done but to make them comfortable—emotionally as well as physically?

"I'm sure she'd be proud of you."

And who was to say it was a lie?

"I hope so," Abigail confided in a tentative whisper, suddenly naught but a girl of twelve or thirteen. "I want to share this with you—I really do—but it is...hard for me."

"I can understand that." Thalia laid back down. She curled on her side, turning away from her companion. She pressed her cheek against Mary's lilac-scented pillowcase; the crocheted pattern, dimmed and yellowed with age, was coarse yet calming against her skin. Her black hair spilled over the antique lace. "It would be difficult for me, too." Because it seemed necessary, she added, "You can tell me anything, you know."

"I know."

A silence fell, pregnant with a hundred potential meanings and possibilities, but, at last, Abigail spoke.

"In my tribe, we were—we are—very proud. Proud to live; prouder still to die. Names are seen as highly sacred...very much like the people of your own father believe.

"My father was the only son of the high chief. He was young. Today, he would still be considered a boy, but then he was a man. He had taken a bride, and she had already borne him two children, one boy and one girl. You can imagine the scandal admitting what he had done would have caused in normal circumstances, but he boasted to all the men that bedding a nature spirit had been what made him a hero in the wars. He never thought there would be a cost.

"When the wind brought me to him, he was tempted to leave me to the elements. It would have been merciful, and he would have remained blameless. Instead, he found he could not. He gave me the name of Pretty Flower. Lomasi. A life and a name...those were the only two things he ever gave me."

"Lomasi," Thalia repeated, tasting the three syllables upon her tongue. "Is that what you consider your true name?"

"Be patient."

"There's something I'm terrible at."

"Patience? I never would have imagined."

Thalia was not facing Abigail, but she did not have to look at her to hear the smile in her voice.

"Rather than face the consequences, my father and grandfather insisted that I was an orphan from another tribe, one with which ours had become allies. He said that my parents had died in the war and that he had found me in the forest. The adults all pretended to believe it. That was easier than facing the truth, especially when they valued loyalty and courage above all else."

Under the tongue of a gifted storyteller, a tale such as this became a form of medicine, a balm for the sin-sick, world-weary soul. Not only did stories possess an inherent power, they demanded nothing of the audience. One was not required to act, to say, or to become anything.

One needed only to listen.

"He gave me to a woman to raise. She was very old and without child or husband. In a sweat lodge, her spirit guide told her that I was to be called Butterfly—Aponi—and so that is what she called me...when she was not calling me girl or brat. She tried to teach me her craft of medicines and prayer, but she died when I was very young. I think I was still six, but it was the summer of my seventh year."

"And after she died?"

Behind her, she heard the fabric of the bed sheets rustle as Abigail shifted position. "I was sent to live with a man. He was our storyteller, but he was something of a hermit. Very few people ever saw him leave his home for anything but holy days or on nights when the men drank and demanded entertainment. A lone wolf, people joked, but everyone thought he was nothing but a bearded grump. I was a little afraid of him at first, but he was always kind to me."

"Before or after?"

"Both. He had eyes like I did, and he once told me that he knew what it was to be called a bastard. He had once been a great warrior, but, by the time I knew him, he wore his hair short and walked with a limp. He was called Lean Bear—Avocano—by the adults who remembered his glory, but the children called him Wahanasatta, He Who Walks With His Toes Turned Outward."

"Kids suck," Thalia noted, her voice deadpan, and she heard Abigail laugh weakly behind her. "What did you call him?"


Feeling as if a knife had just been plunged into her breast, Thalia squeezed her eyes shut. "I see." She had not expected to receive such a blunt, straightforward response to her question—and she never would have anticipated herself having such a visceral reaction to those two deceptively simple syllables.

"Not at first, of course," Abigail went on. Another girl might have sounded nostalgic or even plaintive and self-conscious, but her voice, though melodic, was not shaded by emotion. "I called him Hotato when I first began to live with him. It is short, but it means quite a lot—Warrior Spirit Who Sings. A thousand stories lived in his head. He was delicate but rough, crude but elegant. He was once a hero, but he found himself outcast after he was hurt. Many thought he should have died and spared himself the shame. He taught me everything he knew: how to tell a story, how to fight, how to string a bow, how to play the flute, how to tan leather. He also gave me the name I consider mine: Ahyoka."

Thalia shifted to face her when she did not elaborate. "What does it mean?"

The other girl's smile lit her exhausted features from within. "She Who Brings Happiness."

"He died when you still needed him, didn't he?" Thalia's question, impulsive and not at all premeditated, came out no louder than a whisper. Why did her throat suddenly feel as if it had been stripped dry? "You loved him, you needed him, and he died."

"He died trying to protect me," Abigail replied. "I have lived knowing that for the past two hundred years."

"Was it in vain?"

Thalia suspected that she knew the answer already, but she needed to ask. Beneath the tapestry woven of Abigail's story, she had discovered another fabric, this crafted of memory, one that brought both pain and joy. In her mind's eye rose not the image of a warrior or the child who brought him delight, but an angelic little girl with golden ringlets and a beautiful, broken boy with ancient eyes. Her own sacrifice had afforded them safety but ensured neither their happiness nor their security.

"It was."

Thalia released a breath she had not realized she had been holding. "Oh."

"My people who survived the battle were separated. The adults were forced to a reservation, and the children were taken. I do not know what became of the others.

"I was sent to a school with another girl. She was my birth father's daughter—my half-sister, I suppose you'd say now—but there was no love lost between us. She had known that I was a bastard but not whose, and she had always been cruel to me. Suddenly we were forced to be all one another had of home.

"They took away everything we ever had: our clothes, our language, our families, our gods, our names. Among our people, she was Halona because of her luck and good fortune, but she became Rachel. I became Abigail."

"If that was the name they gave you, why do you still use it?" Thalia asked.

"Names are a very powerful thing. Sometimes it is better to keep the one that belongs to your heart private. Later, I learned that Abigail means father's love. I kept it out of respect for Papa's sacrifice."

When she grew quiet, Thalia assumed she was lost in memory.

"Changing our names was the greatest insult to me, but to Halona it was small compared to what happened next: They cut our hair. Among my people, that is a punishment reserved for those who were defeated in battle and returned home in shame. When they cut our hair, I refused to let them see me cry, but Halona sobbed and sobbed.

"She became very sick. Life was different then; a cold could easily kill. I stayed with her until the day she died. Very much as you are doing for me now, Thalia," Abigail added. "They buried her under their rites, not ours. I ran away that very night. That was when I met our lady. Artemis seemed to be a girl just as I was, but I could see eternity in her eyes. She made me think of what my birth father had said about my mother: she was magnificent."

Abigail ran the pad of her thumb over the smooth back of Thalia's hand, and the girl felt a hot pricking sensation at the base of her neck. A cold chill raced along her spine. In spite of herself, she shivered.

"Your turn."

The unexpected announcement ended the enchantment. "My turn?"

"Tell me your story."

Thalia freed her hand with a sharp jerk. "There's nothing to tell."

Abigail regarded her with a strange, steady look. "Liar."

"I never lie," Thalia insisted. "I just have no idea what there is that I can possibly tell you."

"You began by asking about my mother. You could tell me about yours."

"Don't ask me to do that," she snapped without thinking.

"Are you really saying no to me now? I'm dying."

The bluntness—and irreverence—of the proclamation would have made a lesser girl recoil in shock. Thalia merely frowned, her slender black eyebrows drawing together almost imperceptibly. "Are you trying to use that as a way to manipulate me into doing something I don't want to do? Really?"

Abigail considered this. "Essentially." Her response was laced with saccharin sweetness, equal parts genuine and sarcastic.

If Abigail could be blasé, so could she. "Charming," Thalia noted with her usual brand of dry sarcasm, but there was nothing resembling malice in her voice.

She raked her gaze along Abigail's prone form. Framed by damp, matted hair, her face was flushed, and the faint light—what little there was—from the brazier glistened off of her sweat-slicked skin.

Dying slowly must be hell, she reflected. It had been far from painless for her, but at least her own misery had been mercifully fleeting. She's getting near the end. She's lucky. "Are you afraid?"

"Of death?"

Thalia nodded.

"No. I have had more than two centuries to get used to the idea that one day I will become one with everything. That's nearly three times as long as mortals today have. If ever I was afraid of dying, I was afraid of dying alone. Because of you, I will not." Abigail turned her head to look at her. "And you? Do you fear death?"

Thalia had expected this. "No."

"Liar." This time, the chastisement was accompanied by a faint, rasping laugh and a wet-sounding cough.

"I never lie," Thalia maintained. "Ever," she added for emphasis. "Dying isn't something I'm afraid of. I mean, I've already died once. I feel like I understand the concept of eternity better than most people. The idea doesn't scare me."

"Dead and resurrected...and the girl claims to have no story to tell."

Thalia resisted the urge to sigh as she reached for her bag. The black messenger bag was simple, festooned with a veritable wealth of old patches and pins, but she had carried it for years. Practical supplies were kept in the main compartment, but the narrow second pocket served as a repository for her most private possessions.

As she rifled through its myriad contents, her fingertips brushed against soft material, cool and smooth. She typically refrained from indulging in memory in favor of focusing solely on the present, but she knew instantly what it was. She withdrew the item without ceremony and placed it in Abigail's lap, where it formed a pool of petal-pink silk.

"This was hers."

From the corner of her eye, Thalia observed Abigail sit up—not without a great deal of effort—and run her hand over the narrow scarf. Somber she may have often been, but, even weak and lethargic, Abigail was still a girl young enough to be prone to whimsy. With a flourish that was not as grand as it might have otherwise been, she looped the length of silk twice around her neck to let both ends fall down her back in a cascade of soft brocade.

Mary's burnished looking glass in the far corner must have provided a slice of her reflection, because Abigail preened for just a moment before unwrapping it to tie it in a different fashion.

She really is just a kid, Thalia realized faintly.

"Did she wear perfume?" Abigail wanted to know. "It's so familiar—like something I should know, but I can't recognize it."

"I'm not sure. Probably something floral with an insipid one-word name. Curious or Fantasy or Imagine. Something along those lines."

Thalia returned her attention to hunting down what she sought. Why had she never bothered to discard these reminders of things that she wanted to forget? She resolved that she would purge herself of them when she had a moment to herself—if she ever found one. That, of course, assumed that they had a future at all.

If the world doesn't end in a week, I'll have a bonfire, she thought for her own amusement. Throw myself a pity party. Balloon animals optional. Get some symbolic closure.

At last, she found what she was looking for: a photograph the size of her palm. The colors were still vivid and the texture no less glossy than when it had been developed, but the one corner was beginning to curl at the edges from lack of proper care.

She handed it to Abigail, face down. "Here." The single word sounded more terse than she had intended. "Memories neither water-colored nor misty. This was my mother."

As Abigail examined the photograph, an expression Thalia could not quite place crossed her face. "She is very beautiful."

"Yeah. She was." Even to her own ears, Thalia's voice was without passion—as if she was stating an indisputable fact she was loath to admit. She was. "Physically, at least. This picture was taken a month or so after I was born, going by the date on the back. She...was killed a few years ago."

Died, she had almost said. However, she had read the ruling printed on the death certificate, sharp-edged type that tried to lend sense to what did not seem possible, and she had seen for herself the harsh, unforgiving photographs of the aftermath. Died did not fit what had happened.

Again, Abigail looked to the picture in her hand. Thalia believed she could see the other girl reassessing it. "How old is she here? Seventeen?"

As if to delay the inevitable, Thalia reached out to unwind the scarf from around Abigail. She shaped a loop and laced it around the other Hunter's neck, tucking in the loose ends to create a tidy slip knot. Her movements were brisk and efficient with no extraneous motions.

"She had just turned seventeen there," the raven-haired girl answered as she pulled away. "She was sixteen when she got pregnant." Disdain crept into her tone and colored the statement. "Twenty-nine when she died."

"Sometimes there is no choice." Abigail's shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. "Once, it was perfectly normal for a woman to have her first child at sixteen. It was common when I was young."

"That is the best defense of teenage pregnancy that I've ever heard," Thalia said, caustic with sarcasm. "It was normal once, and half of them died while doing it because their bodies weren't developed enough to have children. What does that tell you?"

"That we had very good mid-wives," Abigail quipped, sticking out the pointed tip of her pink tongue. "Was she a dancer? She has that...carriage."

"No." Abigail looked faintly disappointed, and somehow Thalia found herself revealing more than she intended. "She was an actress, though. And a model."

"Really?" Abigail half-smiled. "Was she anything like you?"

Thalia almost laughed at the question—and, under different circumstances, she might have. Then again, under different circumstances, the subject wouldn't have come up at all. "Hardly."

It was rare that Thalia thought of her mother, a scattered, self-involved woman as miserable as she was beautiful.

She looked down. The photograph Abigail had returned to her showed a waif-like teenage girl glancing at the camera over one shoulder. The wind flung out her hair—long, loose waves the color of wheat—dramatically behind her and teased the hem of her fluttering sundress. One manicured hand was raised to secure a wayward curl behind her ear, and a faint smile played at the corners of her mouth as if she was recalling something that had amused her. Her eyes, however, were troubled. The colors captured were vibrant and rich: alabaster skin and flaxen hair and emerald eyes and the clear sky behind her so blue, blue, blue.

On the surface, her mother had come across as charming and alluring, and people reacted to her. Men's eyes followed her from the moment she entered a room, and women were won over by what they perceived as effervescence. Even boys who had just begun adolescence had a tendency to stare as if they wished she would drop something.

Endearing was the term used for her mother's childish flightiness and theatrical behavior. Traits that should have been noticed as signs of a larger, underlying problem—silvered laughter ringing false, spending money as if it was about to fall out of fashion, drinking alcohol like water—were condoned and dismissed or even encouraged.

The effulgent facade well concealed the truth: her mother fell apart behind closed doors. She seemed to exist only at extremes—highs as well as lows—and she could go from bliss to despair with little, if anything, to herald the change. Both positive and negative emotions were flamboyantly expressed. She had little tolerance for stress, frustration, or simple criticism. She possessed an array of irrational fears and resentments as well as a driving need to be the center of attention.

As Thalia saw it, her career had been nothing more than an avenue through which she gained narcissistic satisfaction from being admired. Even in her personal affairs, she was better at longing than loving. Men sought her attention, but her relationships were kept shallow and superficial. She wore the guise of aloof disinterest, but the truth was that she was dependent on others to provide the attention she craved.

She had once labored over dream-like watercolors and penned exquisite poetry, tightly chained sonnets about dark waters and white flowers and villanelles about the world brought to its knees. One night, she accused Thalia of being the reason she no longer wrote or painted and immediately dissolved into tears, the kind of aching, breathless sobs Thalia had never heard before or since.

Thalia had left without a further word.

In hindsight, she regretted this, but, even now, she knew not what else she could have done.

Her mother had held herself in contempt, some part of Thalia understood in hindsight. Her depression had not merely been anger turned inward; it had been a sense of despair so pervasive it had tainted every aspect of her life.

Alcohol served as her mother's crutch. Any remarks about it were deflected. She was not above manipulating others to protect her continued drinking. To hear her tell the tale, her dependence and her failures of responsibility were always, always, always someone else's fault.

And yet...that was not all there was. Thalia had heard the stories and seen the evidence. Her mother had once been a vivacious girl, brimming with life and love. Traces had remained, and, when Thalia had thought to look for them, she had stumbled quite unexpectedly across the fragmented shards.

She had been a contradiction, complex and elaborate, and Thalia wished that her own feelings about the woman could at least be simple. Unfortunately, her life was never that simple. They formed layer upon layer of hurt and shame and bitterness and anger and need. She longed for the day to come when she could uncover old wounds bit by bit, make up her mind about how she felt about the woman's memory, and finally wash her hands of all of this.

That bonfire idea might be worth something after all.


Abigail's voice broke her reverie. "Mm?"

"You were saying...?"

"Right. I..." She faltered, something that was rare for her, but only momentarily. How could she possibly tell Abigail any of this? "You know what? Words fail."

"I see," Abigail said, and Thalia knew that on some level she did understand—but not nearly as well as she believed she did. Perhaps that was precisely the problem. "Can you do me a favor and open that box?"

Surprised by the unexpected request, Thalia followed her gaze to the small wooden chest sitting at the foot of the bed. It was constructed of red-brown veneer, outfitted with iron trappings, but the polished cherry wood looked to be nothing more than a thin overlay that covered a cheaper material. The lock was ornate and larger than necessary, made to instill false confidence in its owner rather than to testify to the quality of its construction.

"There's a catch, isn't there? There always is," she added, more to herself than to Abigail.

"No key."

Thalia shrugged. "That? Not a problem."

She withdrew a flimsy paper envelope from her bag. Wrinkled and unsealed, there were no markings on the outside beyond a single scratch of black ink that might have shaped either a nine or a four. Contained inside were several thin, short lengths of metal and one of soft wood. She chose a black wire, a little thicker and sturdier than the others; this one was bent to have a series of notches and grooves that imitated a key's ridged carvings.

She slid it into the keyhole and turned it with caution, feeling the structure of the lock's pins and tumblers beneath her fingertips. Her suspicion about it being cheaply made proved correct. Her hands were neither as steady nor as gentle as they ought to have been—in this, she supposed, the student had never surpassed the teacher—but it did not matter.

The lock sprang open with a nearly inaudible click.

"Good party trick, huh?"

Abigail looked unimpressed. "You didn't break it, did you?" She asked, her voice rising an octave with concern.

"Of course not." Thalia replaced the wire into the envelope. "Picking a lock won't damage it. That's the point. If you turn too far or something, it just stays locked."

She threw open the lid to reveal the interior of the chest, empty save for a small pouch crafted of sun-bleached animal hide that sat in the corner. The stitched design was unskilled, most likely the work of a child. It was nearly impossible to determine what, if anything, the embroidery had been intended to be.

"What's this?"


Abigail held her hands out for it, and Thalia placed the purse in her cupped palms. With shaking fingers, the bronze-skinned girl untied the bow that held the beaded strings closed and shook out the item contained inside: a small, winged figure dangling from a rawhide cord. The talisman was carved from turquoise and flanked on either side by clay beads in varying shades blue, cyan darkening to navy, each bauble separated by a hard leather knot.

"Take this."

Looking over the small pendant, Thalia was surprised at the intricacy of the details the craftsman had managed to capture in the blue-green stone. The charm depicted an eagle in full flight, wings outstretched to full span and head bowed. Its eyes, painted with gold leaf, were narrowed with what might have been determination. It was no larger than an inch or so at its widest point, but every feather was represented individually. The eagle had minute talons that had been filed to individual points, as had its beak.

"My papa gave this amulet to me," Abigail said. "It was a spoil of war from one of his victories. I want you to have it."

Thalia hated the discomfort of receiving presents at the best of times. To take something so personal at a moment such as this felt like an unspeakable transgression. "I can't possibly accept—"

"I want you to have it," Abigail repeated, her expression rapt. "It will keep you safe."

Her hand tightened around it without thinking. "But it's yours."

"You should take it!" A high voice suggested from the doorway, the exclamation a rapid-fire burst. Mary approached with dainty, mincing footsteps. Her movements seemed rigid highly controlled; Thalia suspected she was trying to hide her restless, anxious energy. "She really has wanted to give it to since she met you," Mary explained earnestly.

Abigail patted the empty space beside her. "Come lay with me."

Mary complied, and banter followed as they arranged themselves ("You're cold." "No, you're warm.") on the narrow bed—just barely big enough for two, even a pair as small as they were. If Abigail had not sounded so weary, if Mary's voice had not been wet and tumultuous with unshed tears, if she herself did not have a thousand concerns of war and peace and more personal conflicts hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles, it would have been easy for Thalia to imagine that tonight was any other night.

Hearing someone approach, she looked up at the doorway in time to see Phoebe enter. The tall girl had the grace to look sheepish, and her shoulders were taut as if she had braced herself for some kind of rebuke.

Entirely her doing, she mouthed, indicating Mary with a tilt of her head.

Thalia did not smile, but she winked one bright blue eye. She noticed Phoebe's posture relax, but only slightly.

"Phoebe!" Abigail was either oblivious to the tension in the air or she was beyond the point of caring. The truth probably laid somewhere in between. "Make Thalia take her gift."

"What..." She trailed off as she noticed the necklace in Thalia's hand. For the first time in what seemed to be days, Phoebe smiled at the sight of the pendant. The gesture was only minute and not long-lived, but it softened her usually forbidding features. "Let me help you put it on?" She offered.

"Fine," Thalia conceded as she got to her feet. "I know when I'm outnumbered."

"No," Phoebe chided. "You don't."

Thalia felt the beginning of a smirk tug at the corners of her lips. It was the closest she came to an expression of an amusement these days. She had never been generous with her smile or her laughter, but she could not remember the last time she had let herself—or had any reason to—express any kind of mirth. "Give me time. Maybe I'll learn."

"No," Phoebe said with a faint sigh. "You won't."

Thalia presented her back to her second-in-command, and, using one hand, she gathered her hair to expose her slender neck. A moment later, she felt the tickle of Phoebe's long fingers, calloused from so many battles, brushing over her bared skin—a sensation that was not altogether unpleasant—and then her hands fell away without warning.

"Sôteira!" She heard Phoebe exclaim behind her. It was a formal title, Thalia knew, and Phoebe always infused it with respect, but, when she used it to address Artemis, it somehow adopted the fondness another girl might reserve for a pet name.

Abigail merely smiled.

Beside her, Mary tried to mimic it, but the expression was forced and displayed none of the serenity her best friend—the sister of her soul, as Abigail had phrased it—had demonstrated.

Letting her hair fall, Thalia stuck the pendant in the pocket of her jeans and turned around in time to see Phoebe rise from her graceful bow.

For a goddess, her sister did not present herself as intimidating. She stood a scant inch or so shorter than Thalia herself, who was petite, and they shared a similar deceptively delicate build as well as fey-like features. Artemis was clad in loose, flowing garments of white and gold, but they were unmistakably modern—dainty golden sandals, ivory pants, and a gold corset-style bodice over a long-sleeved white shirt. The bell-shaped sleeves fell past her thin wrists, and her strawberry-blonde hair was arranged in loose braids, lending her a youthful, innocent air.

She surveyed the tableau with a cocked eyebrow. "Am I interrupting something?"

"Quick, guys. Hide the contraband," Thalia drawled. "We can't get away with it anymore."

"Sarcasm is the last refuge of the weak," Phoebe informed Thalia in a brusque undertone. Without sparing time for the lieutenant to retort, she turned to Artemis. "We were just leaving, my lady," she hastened to reassure her goddess, low and deferential. She always seemed to fold in on herself whenever Artemis was present, suddenly becoming meek and submissive, but there was a heavy note of command in her voice when she added, "Come, Mary."

"Of course," Mary agreed instantly. For all of them, it was reflex to comply with whoever held authority. It must have been difficult for her to overcome that instinct enough to hesitate. "But—I—um..."

"Give her a moment to say goodbye," Artemis broke in.

Already half-way to the exit, Phoebe missed a step. She paused, an embarrassed blush spreading across the bridge of her nose and bringing heat to her cheeks. She murmured her agreement and sketched a rough half-bow, a graceful arch of her back, then continued on her way.

Thalia felt a rush of gratitude, but it was not enough to appease the prick of annoyance she felt at her sister's cavalier attitude. She closed the space between herself and Artemis and folded her arms over her breasts, unconsciously widening her stance.

"You're late." She made no attempt to hide the disapproval in her words. She was vaguely aware that Mary looked stunned, but Thalia thought the Hunters should have been used to her by now. Out of their twelve, she was the only one who ever tried to take Artemis to task. "What the hell could possibly have been so important?"

"I'll tell you later," Artemis promised.

Thalia watched as Artemis moved to kneel beside Abigail and Mary, her head bowed. Her lovely, delicate face was schooled into serenity in an attempt at comfort, but her hands betrayed her as she gestured to illustrate some point. Her movements were just a little too affected.

Thalia wrapped her arms tighter around herself as Abigail leaned forward to whisper something into the goddess's ear. It was easy to forget in times of duress that enhanced senses meant there was no such thing as privacy within such close quarters. Thalia made out the hushed request as easily as if it had been at conversation level, and a part of her wished she had not.

She felt sick.

Artemis nodded once, a sharp, regal gesture, and straightened. "Of course." A ball of white energy appeared in her hand. With a flash, it lengthened and took shape, morphing into a short sword with an elaborate hilt and crescent-shaped cross guard. The wicked blade tapered to a sharp point. She addressed the other two without once taking her eyes off of Abigail. "Could you leave us?" Regardless of how she phrased it, it was unmistakably an order. "Please," she added as if as an afterthought.

After placing a final kiss on Abigail's cheek, Mary took her leave. The fabric curtain fluttered closed in her wake.

Artemis's piercing silver-blue gaze flickered to Thalia.

"Yes," she murmured after a moment and lowered her bright eyes—but not before Thalia noticed the emotion there. Sorrow? Yes. Regret? Perhaps. But no shame.

No shame at all.

"You, too."

Authors' Note (Sister Grimm and Neko Kuroban): Please take the time to review! Feedback always, always goes appreciated — and is always replied to.