AN: This is it guys! The final chapter. We've come a long way, and I want to thank you all for reviewing and for showing interest in the story. It really helped to keep me motivated. I love you guys, and hopefully I will start writing something new soon.
She was standing in a room. A dark room. Teresa was next to her. They were at Headquarters, she realized. Teresa had flowers in her hands, and Ilena frowned when she realized the other woman was wearing a dress. A white one. It was frilly and delicate. Ilena looked down at herself. She was dressed in men's clothing, very formal. She was confused for a moment, not sure what was going on. Orsay and Ermita stood before them and...Noel? Yes, that was Noel, dressed as one of the priests of Rabona. Beside her stood Galatea, Agnes from her training days, Miria, and …Dauf.
"Yo, Ilena," Noel said, ripping Ilena's attention away from the odd ensemble. "I said 'Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?'"
"Uh...What?" Ilena looked between her and Teresa, her confusion growing.
"Lenie!" Teresa hissed. "What are you doing?"
Teresa threw her hands up, tossing the flowers around her. Dauf and Miria both scrambled to pick them up. "Pretty flowers for pretty Riful!" the Awakened Being chanted in a sing-song voice.
"With these roses, I will profess my undying love for Hilda," Miria said seriously, clutching the flowers to her chest.
"I just knew you were going to get cold feet!" Teresa wailed, covering her face with her hands and sobbing. "You don't love me!"
"What? Of course I love you!" Ilena protested. This behavior was so far out of the realm of normal.
"I hereby decree this marriage over!" shouted Noel, banging an ornate staff on the floor.
"Wait!" Ilena said. "I do want to marry Teresa! Please, give me another chance!" Noel furrowed her brows, thinking hard.
"I must confer with the council." She announced. Galatea, Dauf, and Agnes huddled around her. Miria was too busy counting the petals of one of her roses trilling 'she loves me, she loves me not' as she pulled each one off. "Miria!" Noel's bark caught the girl's attention, and she scrambled to join the huddle. Ilena stood there nervously, awaiting their verdict while Teresa sniffed next to her, wiping her tears on the back of her hand.
After a few minutes, Noel nodded and raised her head. "We have reached a decision! I will marry Teresa and Ilena if and only if Ilena agrees to bake the council forty-seven squirrel tarts." Orsay and Ermita looked at each other and nodded in agreement.
"A fair price, oh magnificent one," they said in unison.
"What say you, Stick-up-the-butt Ilena?"
"I accept!" she said without pause. She would gladly bake one-hundred squirrel tarts if it meant she could marry Teresa.
"Let the ceremony commence!" Noel shouted. "The rings, please." Galatea pulled out a gold band with a ruby as large as Ilena's fist in it. She handed it to Teresa. Ilena got one with a chunk of emerald on it. "Do you, Ilena, take Teresa to be your lawfully wedded bullfrog?"
"I do!" She slipped the ring onto Teresa's finger.
"And do you, Teresa, take Ilena to be your lawfully wedded potato?"
"I do," Teresa replied, smiling brightly as she put the ring on Ilena's finger. Noel nodded, satisfied.
"I now pronounce you unicorn and daffodil. You may kiss the cheese-biscuit." Everyone cheered, and Ilena planted her lips on Teresa's, happy as a clam
Ilena opened her eyes, staring at the planked ceiling of her and Teresa's room to get her bearings. It was the third time that week she had awoken from that particular dream. A strange strange dream, too, one she chose not to dwell on because she was unsure what it meant.
She could tell by the light in the room that she still had at least another hour before she needed to get up. So she turned on her side, intending to snuggle closer to Teresa, but the other side of the bed was empty. Ilena sighed. It was the fourth time that week she had woken up alone. Teresa was still having so much trouble sleeping. She tossed and turned all night, unable to get any sleep even when on the floor and propped against her sword.
Knowing now that it was useless to try and get back to sleep, Ilena swung her legs out from under the sheets and onto the floor. She dressed in simple trousers and a shirt before heading quietly to the kitchen, enjoying the feeling of the cool stones under her bare feet. She could see out the window that Teresa was exactly where Ilena thought she would be. Sitting on the roots of the huge oak tree outside the cabin. But Ilena did not go out to join her immediately. She took her time, careful not to wake Clare who was still asleep upstairs, and made a pot of tea, sitting at the kitchen table while she waited for it to steep.
When it was finished, Ilena poured it into two cups and headed out the door. She knew that Teresa heard and felt her coming, but the other woman did not look at her, even when she was standing right next to her. But that was normal. Ilena walked around to sit next to Teresa, holding out one of the cups of tea. Teresa did look at her then, giving Ilena a tired smile, though she did not turn enough for Ilena to see her scarred cheek, choosing to present the ones over her eye and jaw instead.
"Thanks." She leaned forward to kiss Ilena chastely before turning back to stare across the empty field. Well, almost empty. Their three cows were huddled at the far end under a cluster of pines with the horses grazing along the edge of the fence.
"Are you alright?" Ilena asked, already knowing the answer she would get.
Ah, so it had been the dying dream again. Not a dream where Teresa died, but one where someone she cared for died. Usually, it was Ilena or Clare, but Jean made a few appearances as did Flora.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Teresa shrugged, which was better than her response the day before.
"Who was it this time?"
The other woman sighed. "Fine. It was Galatea."
"Galatea?" Ilena repeated, surprised. "Really? Well, that just proves that you really do like her," she teased with a hint of a smile.
"Oh, shut up, Lena." But Teresa returned the smile as she rolled her eyes, leaning her shoulder gently against Ilena's. "And don't you dare tell her."
"I promise." She took a sip of her tea. "I had the marriage dream again."
"What was Noel wearing this time?"
"The priest outfit again," Ilena informed her, glad to see that the image made Teresa chuckle. "And Dauf was there."
"Dauf? Huh." Teresa considered it for a moment.
"Mhm. He picked up the flowers you threw. To give to Riful"
Teresa grew somber again. As Ilena had predicted, once he learned of Luciela's death, Isley had gone to the Southern lands to claim them from Riful of the West. Ilena heard stories of the destructive aftermath of the battle. Riful and Dauf against Isley and Rigardo, the Silver-Eyed Lion King. The Empress of the West had not stood a chance. Ilena was almost sad that she was gone. Almost
"When are we meeting Isley again?" Teresa asked.
"Next month. All seems to be going well with him," Ilena replied. "From what I hear, he's keeping to his end of the deal." After having healed and regained their strength, Ilena and Teresa had gone to take care of the last two Awakened Beings, one of whom was Rigardo. They had found him in the company of Isley. Instead of trying to take them both, they struck a deal. Isley could have the Southern lands and Riful's claim to the Western lands, and they would not bother him as long as he kept his impact on the humans to a minimum and promised not to harm any of the remaining Claymores. Without Priscilla, and knowing that Teresa was the one who had defeated her, it did not take him long to agree, though he insisted that Rigardo be spared as well. Ilena suspected they were more than just friends.
Isley explained to them that Priscilla had come to him with muddled memories and a broken mind, but one day, she had sensed an aura that she recognized, and took off to find it. The three of them surmised that this aura must have been Teresa's while they were in the North, and that Priscilla's addled brain had been the reason why it took her so long to find the object of her vengeance, eventually stumbling upon her months later.
"That's good," Teresa said, sipping her tea. "It still feels so strange for it to all be over."
"I know." After a few months back at Headquarters, Ilena decided that everything was as in order as it ever would be. The people who funded the Organization seemed to have abandoned it, and Ilena had no desire to become involved in some distant war, so she took the small blessing without question. After that, there was not much left to do in the barren lands of the East. She had called together all the warriors once everyone had returned. Well, almost everyone. There had been two awakenings among the younger Claymores, which were both taken care of, but no other fatalities or serious injuries. The remaining women all decided that they would rather not have to ever come back to Headquarters, so they voted to move their meeting place. It was decided that wherever Ilena and Teresa settled would be the place. That was why their cabin had an extra bedroom. It was for visiting Claymores.
It had taken them only a month or so to build the house with help from the others. They felled the trees and cut the lumber themselves, letting Ilena and Miria design the plan and lord over the building process. Ilena had picked the spot. It was in a hidden valley, very close to the lake where Teresa had first professed her love. There were a few villages close enough so that they could get Clare things she needed that were not as easily acquired in the forest. Though there were no more real threats of Yoma, apparently bandits tended to steer clear of towns that claimed Claymore protectors. Teresa and Ilena did not accept monetary payment for their protection, but they were able to get just about anything they needed from the surrounding towns without charge. They did not need much and tried not to take advantage of the situation. It worked out nicely for all involved, and Clare had even made friends with a few children in the closest town, which accepted their Claymore protectors much more willingly and amicably than Ilena had expected, not reacting with fear or apprehension when either she or Teresa came into town.
The cabin they had built was set at the edge of a rolling field surrounded by forest and was far nicer than any home a human could have made. Two stories with three bedrooms, one downstairs and two up. A large stone kitchen off the side of the house with a place for a fire. A living area with another fireplace and several large windows to let in light. A stable off the west side of the house, and a pig pen and a chicken coop. They were even starting a garden in the back. Ilena and Teresa stayed in the large bedroom downstairs, though they honestly did not spend much time there. Clare had her room upstairs to give her the privacy she insisted she deserved, and any visitors took the other room, which held two beds.
It was more than Ilena could have ever hoped for. And it was perfect. She had worked so hard, so very hard, to make this new life for them as good as it could possibly be. After seeing the pain on Teresa's face the first time she looked at her scars, after the tearful goodbyes between Clare and Jean, after seeing the haunted look that still lingered in Stella's eyes...Ilena knew she had to bring her small family as much joy as she could. It still hurt her every time she caught Teresa staring at her reflection, knowing that she was focusing on the scars. It hurt the first time they had made love after recovering, and Teresa had not wanted Ilena to look at what she claimed was her ruined body. To see Teresa, normally so brave and strong, be brought down by something so superficial as her appearance had confused Ilena. Eventually, she realized it was not the scars themselves that bothered her lover, but what they represented. The fragility of life. That was why Teresa had nightmares, why Ilena so often woke up alone, the other side of the bed already cold.
So she dedicated herself to making every other aspect of Teresa and Clare's lives as wonderful as they could be. To try and make up for the pain they had endured thus far. And part of her knew it would never be enough to take away the pain.
"Are you going to go hunting today?" Ilena asked, eyeing Teresa's bow leaned up against the trunk of the tree. She had been teaching herself how to shoot because, apparently, keeping a small farm running was just not enough excitement for her. Ilena understood. She filled her own days with as much work as she could. Too much time to think was not a good thing for either of them. Besides, Teresa only killed enough for them to eat, never any more. It only took her a month to master the skill.
"I was planning on it," Teresa answered. "You wanted to make stew, right?"
"Yes. Clare really likes it." Neither of them were picky in the slightest about food, but Ilena enjoyed trying out new things for Clare, and had discovered that she had a knack for cooking. She and Teresa were eating more than they ever had, which was still not a lot, simply because things tasted good. She had learned that if she liked something, there was no reason to only eat enough to keep her going. Their bodies could process it easily. It was also a good way to make sure they always had at least one time every day that they were all sitting down together to talk.
"So a large rabbit, then?"
"That would be best, yes," Ilena said with a nod of her head, draining the last of her tea. They sat, turning their eyes to the east as the sun finished rising over the tree line. "And we're running low on herbs and spices. If you happen to come across any, I would appreciate it if you gathered them. I'll go into town tomorrow for the rest. If you need anything, put it on the list"
Teresa nodded, lifting a hand to rub her left shoulder.
"Is it hurting again?" Ilena asked with concern.
"Yeah. I think there's a storm coming in this afternoon." Teresa's left shoulder had taken a lot of damage in her fight with Priscilla, and Galatea had been so focused on the life threatening wounds that she had saved it for last, along with the more superficial cuts and scrapes. Over the weeks following, they realized that the muscles had not healed properly, leaving Teresa without a full range of motion in that arm. Another reason why they had decided not to fight Isley, though the White Silver King did not need to know that.
"I should have put something in your tea," Ilena lamented. She had started collecting herbs with pain killing properties for both Clare and Teresa. "I can go inside and make another cup."
"It'll be fine," Teresa said softly, but she leaned her head to Ilena's shoulder and gave it a kiss. Ilena knew that if the fabric had not been in the way, she would have been able to feel the roughness of the scar on Teresa's lip. She had come to love that roughness. "But thank you. I actually concentrate better on hunting when it hurts a bit." Ilena thought that just sounded like Teresa trying to justify her stubbornness, but she let it slide.
"I hate it when I wake up and you're not there," she said quietly, hesitantly, not wanting to put any guilt on Teresa. Ilena knew she was doing her best.
"I know." Teresa snaked her right arm around Ilena's shoulders. "I hate it, too, but it's easier for me to clear my mind out here." She smiled softly. "You did a good job picking this place." Teresa told her that all the time, and it made Ilena's heart flutter each time. She was so glad that she could do something to help Teresa's pain, both mental and physical. It was getting better, she was pretty sure. Back when the house had first been finished, when Teresa no longer had any pressing responsibilities to hold her attention, she would go days without sleep, trying to stave off the nightmares, and when she did sleep, she woke up several times each night, usually screaming. Now they were down to three or four times a week and lessening in their severity.
"You know you can always talk to me about what you see," Ilena told her, leaning into the loose embrace. "No matter what it is."
"I know." And sometimes she did. Sometimes Teresa did tell her about the things that haunted her at night. And sometimes she did not. Ilena respected whichever decision she made.
"Hey!" They both turned their heads to see Clare standing in the doorway in her nightgown with the dog at her heels, its tail wagging furiously. "What are you guys doing? We have a big day!"
"I thought she would sleep later," Teresa said softly.
"Me, too. I suppose she's excited." Ilena stood and offered a hand to Teresa. "You know how she gets when there's something to look forward to."
"Indeed." Teresa grabbed her bow before taking Ilena's offered hand. "We're coming, Clare," she called back. "Just watching the sunrise."
"But there's so much to do! You'll have time for mushy stuff later!" Clare could barely contain her excitement. "They'll be here any minute!"
"Clare," Ilena said. "They won't get here until at least after lunch, maybe later. We have several hours."
"But still!" She was practically bouncing on her feet. "I have to get the eggs from the coop, and then I have to weed the garden, and oh shit! I forgot, I still have to wash the sheets for the guest beds!"
"Clare!" Ilena exclaimed. "Watch your mouth, young lady!"
"She learns that from you," Ilena said to Teresa with a slight glare. The other woman pretended not to hear her and addressed Clare instead.
"I thought I told you to do that yesterday," Teresa said with a slight frown as they reached the house.
"I kind of forgot..." Clare admitted sheepishly.
"You mean you were too busy playing with the horses all day," Teresa interpreted.
"Well, I wanted them to be all shiny and pretty."
Ilena glanced back at the field and could see that the horses' coats did indeed shine in the morning sun. Clare's, a blood-red bay, shone almost like fire. They were lovely animals, all four of them, with good dispositions. It had been so hard to find ones that did not become skittish around the two Claymores. Horses had some sort of sense about them that made them wary of the half Yoma women. Finally, with the help of the horse trader in town, they found four that did not shy away from them. Three for riding, and a draft breed to pull the wagon or plow. Ilena was planning on planting corn the next spring in the extra field space around the cabin.
"I don't think Jean's going to care how shiny your horse is," Ilena told her, ushering them all inside, careful not to trip over the dog. She had done that quite enough already. She did not understand how an animal so large could still manage to get under her feet. And he was clumsy as anything. Teresa insisted that he would get over that as soon as he grew into his feet, but Ilena was not so sure. At least he would grow up to be large and imposing. It had been very difficult to convince Teresa that they could not have an actual wolf, but Ilena had finally gotten her to compromise on settling for a wolf hound instead. "But she might care that Argus smells like a trash heap." She looked down pointedly at the half grown puppy, who grinned back up at her in such an adorable manner that Ilena could not help but reach down and scratch him around the ears. "Go get dressed and give him a bath after breakfast."
Clare scrambled back up the stairs, which Argus had yet to master. He seemed to contemplate following her for a moment, but satisfied himself with joining Ilena in the kitchen instead, curling up in the corner that was his. Teresa gave Ilena swift kiss before heading back outside to go hunt. Normally, Ilena would have wanted her help with the house, but she could see that Teresa would need the time alone before entertaining guests. Stella was easier than the others, understanding the air of sadness that hovered around Teresa these days, but Teresa liked to be able to act like nothing was wrong, like the scars were nothing but badges of honor to her, like she slept soundly every night and dreamed only of flowers and kittens, like she had not cried for hours into Ilena's neck when her arm had collapsed under her the first time she had straddled Ilena in bed and put her weight fully on her left arm like she had so many times before. No, no one but Ilena got to see how hard this really was for her.
After breakfast, Ilena gathered the sheets from the two beds in the guest bedroom, letting Clare off the hook for once. The girl was so excited about seeing Jean again that Ilena understood how she could forget to do one of her chores. She really was usually rather diligent about them. Once Argus was washed, smelling much better, the two of them weeded the garden and collected eggs from the chicken coop. Clare also did her daily check of the fence that was meant to keep out foxes. When all the daily chores were done, they trudged up to the field and brought the horses and cows into the barn. Ilena always took Teresa's predictions of rain to heart. They were usually right.
Teresa returned around lunch with a rabbit in her hands. She looked much more settled than she had that morning, though Ilena knew it could very well be an act for Clare's sake. She apologized for not helping with the chores, but made up for it by cutting up the vegetables and cleaning the rabbit for the stew. She still looked tired
"How much sleep did you actually get last night?" Ilena asked her after they had eaten lunch and Clare had gone back out to check on the horses.
"I don't know. A few hours. Maybe four." Four was more than she usually got. Teresa had long since stopped trying to lie to Ilena about how well she was sleeping.
"That's better, though."
"Mhm." She looked out one of the small windows in the kitchen. The glass had been the hardest thing to get for the house. It was so expensive, so hard to transport, too, but Ilena had been patient. "I hope they get here before the rain sets in." The clouds were beginning to gather outside, dampening the sun.
"They'll be fine," Ilena assured her. "Stella knows the way."
"You're right." Teresa was working on another cup of tea, this time with the herbs Ilena had wanted her to take earlier. It was a small victory. "Thank you, Ilena, for putting up with my...limitations." Ilena frowned.
"Don't start that again, Teresa," she replied, standing to clear away the plates. "We've already been through this. I love you. Exactly the way you are. You don't have to change anything for me. All I want is for you to be happy." She braced her hands on the counter, and the next question slipped out before she could stop it. "Am I not doing enough?" Silence met her, and she did not want to turn around, did not want to see whatever hurt or guilty expression she knew was on Teresa's face. Those were the two conflicting emotions radiating from her. She steadfastly faced the window, expecting Teresa to argue at some point. Instead, she heard the chair scrape the floor, and a few second later, Teresa's arms circled her tightly from behind.
"You do far more than enough." she said quietly in Ilena ear. "I'm just an ass who forgets that sometimes."
"Yes, you are," Ilena agreed. "But you're my ass." Teresa kissed her neck softly.
"I'll get back to my old self one of these days," she promised. "I won't be like this forever, I promise. I want to be happy with you. I mean... Shit, that didn't come out right." Ilena stayed quiet, letting Teresa gather her thoughts. This was not the time to start unnecessary arguments. "I am happy with you. I love you, and Clare, and I love living here. It's everything I could have wanted out of life. And I should tell you that everyday instead of sulking about a few scars. It's been months. I should be over this by now."
"It will take its own time, Teresa," Ilena said, still not turning around. She liked the feel of Teresa's arms protecting her. "And I don't want you to try and push it. Let it take its course. We have all the time in the world."
"You're so wise, Lena."
Ilena smiled, turning then to face Teresa. "I know. And we will have to continue this conversation at a later time. I can feel Stella and Jean coming." Their auras were on the fringe of her senses. She had been pushing and pushing her abilities, and was quite pleased that she had a rather large range now.
"I did, too," Teresa grumbled, not wanting to be outshone. "I just didn't want to say anything yet." Ilena leaned forward to kiss her nose lightly.
"Pouting is not very becoming," Ilena informed her. Teresa just scrunched up her face further, sticking out her bottom lip in exaggeration. "Very mature. A wonderful example for our daughter."
"I like it when you call her that," Teresa said with a smile. Ilena blushed slightly.
"Well, it's what she is." She patted Teresa's shoulder and extracted herself. "And we have some things we still need to do before they get here." Teresa sighed, but followed her. Together, they had the house ready by the time Stella and Jean arrived.
Clare shot out of the door like an arrow as soon as she could see Jean through the window, ignoring Ilena's protests that she wait. She met them halfway, wrapping Jean into a tight hug. Ilena could hear here telling Jean how much she missed her. The calmer girl smiled and agreed that she had missed Clare, too. Together, they finished walking to the house, with Clare chattering excitedly in Jean's ear, telling her about everything that had happened in the months since they had last seen one another. When they arrived at the door step, Clare only let Jean get out a quick greeting to Ilena and Teresa before dragging her off to the stables to show her the horses.
"Stella," Ilena said warmly, embracing the warrior. She had become looser with her hugs. She had decided that the world needed more of them. "I trust the journey was pleasant?"
"It was, Ilena, thank you," Stella replied. "Greetings Teresa. You're looking well."
"And you're a liar," Teresa said with a small laugh. Ilena thought it might have even been genuine. She, too, embraced Stella. "Come inside. The storm will be here soon." They ushered her into the living room after taking her cloak to hang up in the kitchen. Ilena glanced out the window as the clouds darkened. She could hear a clap of thunder in the distance. Argus, the big baby, had wedged himself between Ilena's chair and the wall, his ears flattened. A lot of protection he would be in a real emergency.
"Would you like some, tea?" she heard Teresa asking Stella. "Ilena made some not too long ago, and it should still be hot."
"That would be nice, thank you," Stella replied, settling into a chair on the other side of the fireplace.
"Mhm. Yes, one for me, too," she said, knowing what Teresa was asking. "And make one for Jean, if you don't mind." Ilena remembered that the girl had actually enjoyed the tea Ilena gave her last time they were here. Clare, however, did not care for the stuff.
"So, how have you been?" Ilena asked Stella as they waited for Teresa to return. "How's Jean been doing?"
"We're both well," Stella answered with a slight smile. "I do appreciate you assigning her to me. She...helps."
"Of course." Ilena studied the younger woman carefully. She seemed to be at a healthier weight, and her eyes held more light than they had. "She's a good girl. Very smart, and very caring."
"She is, indeed," Teresa agreed as she returned, handing Stella and Ilena their tea. She placed Jean's cup on the table, ready for her when the girls returned from the barn. "Clare's been so excited since we got your letter saying you would be passing through." Ilena remembered how surprised she had been to go into town for grain only to be tracked down by the post master and handed a letter. She had never received a letter in her life. "I thought she might burst before you even got here." They all chuckled.
"Jean is much more subdued," Stella said, fingers wrapped around her warm cup. "But I could tell that she was just as excited. She's so funny when she tries to hide it."
"Clare never tries to hide anything," Teresa complained jovially. Ilena looked over at her, and was happy to see that her smile was unforced and natural. It made her scars look so much less severe. "It's been 'Jean this,' and 'Jean that' for weeks now. They really are quite smitten. I thought the months apart would lessen that, but apparently I was wrong."
"At least we like Jean," Ilena reminded her. "It could have been a lot worse. It could have been Ophelia." Teresa made a face. The month prior, Tera and Allie had visited with Ophelia and the other trainee assigned to them, Helen. While Teresa had taken an instant liking to the jolly and humorous Helen, who even Ilena had to admit liking, they were both wary of the unstable Ophelia. Clearly, her time spent with Tera and Allie had been doing her good. She was far less sadistic and cruel than Ilena remembered, even going to far as to apologizing, quite sincerely, to Clare about the way she had treated the human girl while at Headquarters. She seemed lost, to Ilena, and confused about her feelings and her place in life, and Ilena could see the person she should have been trying to come out. But there was still something off about her that made Ilena want to keep her away from Clare.
"Too true. When Clare gets a little older, they'll make a cute couple," Teresa said with a nod. She and Ilena had sat down with Clare and laid down some ground rules. They approved of her choice with Jean, but they both agreed that she should at least wait a year to pursue it. It would be relatively easy seeing as Jean was still traveling with Stella. That had not kept Clare from trying to argue, however. "She just needs to learn some patience." Ilena had to resist rolling her eyes. Teresa was the last person to talk about patience. Although, if Ilena thought about it, Teresa had waited for her for years.
"You know," Stella said, "whenever we stop somewhere nice or beautiful, Jean says to me, 'I'm going to take Clare here one day.' She cares about that girl a lot." Ilena could see the worry in her eyes, the knowledge that loving Clare would bring Jean heartache one day.
"We've tried our best to explain to Clare that she needs to be careful and sensitive of Jean's feelings," Ilena replied. "She understands, I think, and she seems to be genuine. I don't know if she's old enough to know, though." Ilena sighed. It was an argument she had with herself and with Teresa all the time.
"I loved you the moment I saw you," Teresa said quietly. "I was thirteen. Barely older than she is now."
"I know, but still." Ilena never had anything to say to combat that argument other than the fact that Teresa had been much more mature at that age than Clare was. Especially now that Clare was being given the chance to act as a normal girl, and did not have to worry about anything except doing her chores.
Stella shifted uncomfortably in her chair, and Ilena decided it was time to change the subject. She was saved from having to do so, however, when Clare and Jean burst through the kitchen door and into the room, both giggling. Ilena did not think she had ever seen Jean look so happy.
"Jean, Teresa has poured you a cup of tea," Stella told the girl. This sobered her up, but she still had a smile on her face.
"Thank you, Teresa," she said, taking the cup from the table and sitting on the floor next to it. Clare joined her, making a silly face at Argus, who seemed torn between playing with the guests and hiding from the storm that he knew was coming.
"That's Argus, Jean," Clare said, rolling her eyes. The pup perked up at the sound of his name, and crawled over to Clare, tail thumping weakly against the ground. Jean smiled at him and scratched his head. "He's normally a lot more fun than this, but he's scared of thunder. Aren't you, silly boy?" Clare leaned down to kiss his nose and scrunched up her face when he tried to lick her.
"How are the horse, doing?" Teresa asked. Sometimes they became skittish during storms.
"Fara was a little jumpy, but everyone else was fine," Clare said, turning away from the dog.
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly as they reminisced and watched the rain come down. As the sky grew dark with the coming night, Ilena poured out the stew and cut up the bread Teresa had baked the day before. Stella offered her surprise that Teresa had the patience for such a task, and Ilena chuckled, having been surprised herself when Teresa first expressed interest in learning. But she was happy the other woman had. It was nice to have fresh bread regularly, and she loved the way it made the house smell.
After dinner, it did not take long for Jean and Clare to show signs of fatigue, and Ilena ordered them to bed. They would have plenty of time the next day to talk and catch up. Once they were settled upstairs and Ilena could no longer hear movement from either room, the three adults got down to talking business. Ilena was still trying to work out a way to keep all the surviving Claymores in contact. It was good not only as a way to stay in touch, but also in case one of them reached her limit. She wanted to make sure they still had some sort of Black Card system in place to prevent the creation of any further Awakened Beings. It was proving difficult since most of the warriors had decided to remain nomadic, while a few settled near towns as Teresa and Ilena had.
Her solution was a sort of chain system. Each Claymore was responsible for keeping in contact with one or two others who lived near them. And those would keep in touch with two more, and so on and so forth. It was inefficient, but it was the best Ilena could think of at the moment. Teresa and Ilena were responsible for Stella, Galatea, and Flora. The latter two had settled in a home of their own on the other side of the mountains, though they still roamed a lot, trying to teach Deneve. Ilena suspected that once Jean was fully trained, Stella would find a place in the same area to live. That way she would be close enough to several of her friends to make regular visits. She also knew that Jean would want to stay close to Clare.
It was getting late when Stella excused herself, claiming that she was tired after her journey. Teresa and Ilena said their good-nights and then went about clearing away leftover dishes from dinner, and blowing out the candles in the living room.
"I'm glad they came to visit," Teresa said softly once they were back in their own room, pulling her nightshirt on over her head. She no longer tried to hide her scars from Ilena when she dressed. Those first few nights had been awful. "It's good for Clare."
"It's good for you, too," Ilena replied. "You seemed happy today." Teresa smiled.
"I was. I still am." She circled Ilena's waist and kissed her soundly, though it was not the needy kind that would lead to more. It was just one of appreciation. "I love you, Ilena."
"I love you, too," Ilena whispered into Teresa's neck, holding her tight as they swayed together in the bedroom, moving to some music that only Teresa could hear inside her head.
"Tomorrow, I think I'll take them down to the lake. They'll like that."
"I think that's a great idea, love." Ilena tried to steer them closer to the bed, feeling tired herself. She had gotten up earlier than planned that day, and she never slept all that well when Teresa was absent from the bed. "Come on, Teresa. Bed time."
"Five more minutes!" Teresa wined with a joking smile.
"Not tonight. I'm tired, and you could always use the sleep."
"Ugh, fine. You win." She finally let go of Ilena and slipped into her side of the bed. Ilena followed her, snuggling up behind her so that her chest was pressed to Teresa's back. Teresa blew out the last candle, and Ilena heard her sigh with what she was fairly certain was contentment. "Love you, little Quicksword," she whispered softly.
"I love you, too, my Number One," Ilena replied, breathing in the sweet scent of Teresa's hair.
That night, Ilena dreamed of their training days. Of her growing love for Teresa and of their eventual joining. It left her with warmth and happiness, and when she awoke, with the sun's rays peeking through the curtains, she smiled. Because next to her was Teresa, sleeping soundly and peacefully, face calm, not troubled as it normally was.
With the blond warrior asleep and happy in her arms, Ilena knew that they would be okay, and for the first time since becoming a silver-eyed witch, she truly looked forward to what the future would bring.