The night was quiet as Daniel walked back. The sun had set some time ago, but Daniel had hardly noticed as Penny’s words followed him through the forest under pinpricks of distant stars. 

I guess you’d need a family to understand that.

Leaves crunched beneath his feet as he shuffled his way back to the Blair’s house. The forest echoed with empty chirps and half-hearted croaks as Daniel mulled over those words, again and again. He tried to tell himself they weren’t true, so why then did they hurt so much?

He had the Blairs, they were his family, weren’t they? But the way Penny talked about her parents, her brother—did he feel that way about Pam and Charley? They were nice and kind but did that make them really his family? Why not?

Then again, he had only now them for a little while now. Didn’t it require more time? But who said that? There were no requirements on something like this, so why then did it suddenly feel so empty? His doubts about them made him only doubt even more. If they truley were his family, shouldn’t he know instinctively? He shouldn’t have to think about if someone was family or not, he should just know. But he didn’t which made him only start questioning all over again.

The worst of all was if he even wanted to feel that strongly. It was crazy, absurd, and contradictory to everything he’d thought up until that moment, but a lingering skepticism crept up in the back of his mind. Penny loved her family, so much so she was willing to put the whole forest in jeopardy to get back to them. That didn’t seem right, and yet what could be more so? To be so welcomed, so accepted, so loved by people that it drowned out every other worry sounded wonderful. And terrifying. It had been what was missing in every other foster home Daniel had staid in. A sense, a true sense of belonging.

But now, in a single instant, he had been shown another side that feeling. A seemingly very selfish one. Did he want that? Would he hold on to the Blairs despite everything else, even against the right thing to do? And if he didn’t, what did that make him? Was that what it meant to belong to a family?

It seemed that in order to get what he wanted, he would have to become someone he didn’t like. The alternative was to do the right things at the expense of being utterly alone. Which was he supposed to do? Where those the only two options? The questions trailed him like a ghost through the whispering leaves as he meandered back to what he now was not longer sure was his home.

He didn’t know how long it was until soft, amber light peaked between the branches ahead. The  glow of the back porch lights lay spread on the ground like a warm rug as Daniel emerged from the woods. Pam sat on the edge of a deck chair, passing a flashlight from hand to hand, Charley was beside her, pacing up and down. They both froze at seeing Daniel. Then, in an instant, they rushed to him, sprinting across the backyard.

Charley gave him a broad smile as Pam caught Daniel in a hug. “You’re back!” She said, holding him tight. He didn’t respond, however.

Charley laid a hand on his shoulder. “Did you get lost, again? It’s almost midnight.”

Daniel’s voice was flat. “I…yeah. Yeah, I got lost.”

Charley frowned. “What’s wrong?”

Daniel didn’t reply. Charley’s frowned deepened, but he didn’t say anything further.

“Come on inside,” Pam said, ushering them all back to the door. “Where were you? We went looking for you, but with no luck. How far away were you?”

Daniel shrugged. “I just went to the meadow,” he lied.

Pam drew her lips into a line, not saying anything.

“We’re glad you’re safe,” Charley said. “Why don’t you head up to bed. Okay?”

Daniel nodded, looking down as he mounted the stairs. He got ready for bed, but when he finally laid down, he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned, his mind festering with the events of the day. The room was quiet and the silence felt like a weight pressing him down into bed. He rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling. He could hear the Blair’s talking downstairs, but he didn’t listen.

The clock read 2:34am. He sat up in bed, giving up. He unlatched the window and rested his chin on the sill. The forest lay still outside, a dark haze in the moonless night. Leaves rustled like forlorn whispers, a choir of near stillness stretching into the dark. The night wore on and Daniel drifted in the gloom, heedless of time or place as neither seemed to matter much anymore.

***

A cool wind played with Penny’s hair as she lay on her back enjoying the warmth of of a spring sun. Around her spiraled a never ending field of amber grass. The land droned softly as the calm breeze whistled through the millions of golden stalks.

She looked up into the deep, brazen sky. Her brother burst from the field, bubbling with boyish energy. “Whatcha doin’?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Penny said. She patted the ground next to her and her brother joined her looking up.

“You look like you’re thoughting,” he said.

Penny smiled. “You mean ‘thinking?’”

He shook his head. “You’re thoughting.”

Penny laughed. “Well, I’m not thoughtin about anything.”

“But you’re always thoughting,” he said. He squinted up at the sky. “Or are you looking for something up there?”

“What would I be looking for?”

“Clouds of course,” her brother said.

Penny grinned, raising an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yeah,” he replied. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “But you gotta be quiet. They don’t like noisy people.”

“Hey,” her dad poked his head over the edges of grass. “What are we whispering about?”

“Clouds,” Penny said.

“We’re trying to find some,” her brother said.

“We’ll you can’t see them from down there,” her dad replied. “You get up high. Come on.” He took her brother’s hand and helped him up onto his shoulders. “There, now that’s much easier.”

“Oh oh! I think I see one!” Her brother said, bouncing up and down. They both plowed off into the grass and Penny just shook her head as they left.

“Your father,” a voice said, “is a very strange man.” Her mother’s head popped in over Penny. Her head was silhouetted by the sun, her hair lighting up in a rich, blonde halo around her head. Penny always thought her mother had the most beautiful hair.

Penny smiled and her mother flopped down next to her. “See anything interesting?” her mother asked. Nearby her father ran past, her little brother riding his shoulders as they chased an imaginary creature.

“Only those two,” Penny replied.

Her mother smiled. “They are quite a pair.”

Penny propped her head up on her elbow. “And what about us?”

“Us?” He mother asked, rolling over to face her daughter. “We’re the smart ones,” she said, bopping Penny on her forehead.

Penny frowned. “Is that it?”

“We have fun,” her mother said, sliding closer. “Lots of fun. Ha!” She began tickling Penny.

“Stop!” Penny said through the mirth, rolling over. Her mother kept on and Penny laughed so much her sides hurt. Her mother pulled her close, wrapping her arms around her daughter.

“See, that was fun,” she said, kissing Penny on the head.

Penny just giggled, holding her mothers arms as they watched brother and father run through the warm, gold sunshine, looking for clouds. There was one, far off above the horizon. A gray thing in the otherwise azure expanse.

“Look dad!” her bother said from atop his shoulders. They all watched the gray dot drift closer, unfolding into billowing, dark sails.

“Looks almost like a storm,” her father said as Penny sat up in the grass. They all stood still, watching the bank of clouds exfoliate into a tumultuous promenade of charcoal thunder heads and black, airy columns.

The breeze became a wind, pouring out before the storm. Penny rose to her feet. “We need to go.” But nobody moved. Her father and brother remained rooted to the ground, facing the oncoming tempest. The air began to whip and churn, flinging Penny’s hair over her face in the increasing gale. “Dad, we need to leave!” She yelled over the furry. She pulled her hair aside, “Dad, can we—” But he was gone. Her brother, too. 

Penny spun around, her mother lay on the ground. “Penny!” She said, seeming to struggle to get up.

“Mom!” Penny yelled. There was a blast of lightening and her mother disappeared.

The grass was blown flat with the power of the wind. The sun was gone now, the storm having become a maelstrom of cascading rain and grinding bodies of thunder. Penny turned, the wild air clawing her hair as a sudden roar arose in the distance. Bright as plummeting stars, a wall of lightening cracked the air as it rode towards her. A horizon of deafening light crashing across the land until it slammed into her, her scream drowning in the pandemonium of black-lit storm.

***

Penny awoke in a cold sweat from the dream to find herself encased in woven branches. She struggled to bring her mind back to the present, trying to shake the feeling of drowning in that nightmarish storm. She finally realized that in her panicked sleep, she must have instinctively grown the a thicket around her.

It was completely dark inside. Penny spread her wings, relaxing the branches and opening the canopy above her. Temperate and gentle stars watched from beyond the tree tops. Penny let out an extend sigh, settling back onto her side. The day had been long. Getting the growth stone. Fighting the Cull. Searching the woods. And then…

She curled up, tucking her head beneath her wing, trying to forget. After her fight with Folwor, she  had scanned the woods, flying high above the greenery trying to spot anything irregular. But she hadn’t been able to concentrate, her thoughts tugging back to Daniel.

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to push out that afternoon. Trying ignore the sense of guilt. Trying to forget the look on Daniel’s face.

She had bigger things to worry about. Despite the distraction, she had covered a large portion of the forest and there hadn’t been any sign of the last stone. Wind, wasn’t it? Folwor had said something about that when she’d taken them into the woods. Penny hadn’t been paying that much attention, but she was pretty sure that was what the last gem was. What it did, she didn’t know, but it wasn’t that important. So long as it helped her get home. 

But before that, she had to find Folwor. How she was going to do that was beyond her. The wolf knew the forest way better than either she or Daniel. There was a slight chance she might be hold up back at her den where Penny had spent the previous night, but Folowr would probably guess that would be the first place Penny would look for her. Even if she was there, the strength gem—stone—whatever, most likely wasn’t.

Well, all of that could wait until morning. She couldn’t see anything at night, so trying to look more was pointless. That and the Cull were still somewhere out there. From what Folwor had said, they took over dead animals. It was entirely possible they had a couple demented birds on their side and Penny didn’t relish the thought of running into one of them in the dark.

Sleep eluded her. Her body didn’t feel her own, not that it ever had since this whole thing started. The forest tickled with noises: a mouse running over tree roots, beetles and crickets offering quiet commentary on the night, and larger things she didn’t know lumbering through the woods. They all wandered close, she could see dim outlines between the breaks in her covering. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone?

Her stomach growled. For whatever magical nature she possessed, it obviously didn’t extend to quelling hunger. Because of course it didn’t. 

More rustlings and she pulled her wing tighter over head. Just stop. Please, just stop. Critters crawling through dead leaves. A larger animal, maybe a boar, snorting just outside her shelter. The night was brisk, a slight gust brining a chill through the narrow breaches of her hide-away. Her feathers rustled, a small bit sneaking through her dense down, brushing her face. She shivered at the slight cold.

She drifted between exhausted dream and miserable waking. It was just like her first night out here. Lamar had brought her to that clearing. She’d been small, alone, having been heedlessly transformed. Those first nights had been terrors. Shunted into a strange world, not knowing where she was, where her family was. There was no one to sleep beside. Her brother and she shared a room. That first night, that was all she could think about, about how gone he was.

Awake. A sniff just beside her head. Penny jumped backward. She couldn’t tell what it was. A mountain lion? A bear? It seemed large, plodding around her small enclosure.

Something danced over her foot and she jumped up. A swarm of ants mingled on the ground. She couldn’t step without them cover her feet. A pang as her stomach growled again, the sound churning in the growing cacophony of forest noises. They all poked at her exhausted mind. She had to hover off the ground for dread of the bugs crawling everywhere. Her wings felt like they had weights strung to them. Without them to cover her face, the slight gusts worked their way deeper into her limbs, chilling her.

The whisperings in the forest. Animals shuffling in and around her, snorting, and sniffing, slinking and crawling through the underbrush as the wind picked apart what warmth she had, cutting to her bones, the hallow bones of a bird that kept her weak and tired body pitifully aloft for fear of touching the ground as the throng of insects made the floor moved with their numbers of beetles and grasshoppers and ants and termites and weevils and crickets and ticks and mites and centipedes and cockroaches and—

“STOP!” Penny cried, collapsing to the floor, exhausted. Her wings ached and she shivered with cold.

She cried. Why? Why did this happen to her? She just wanted to go home. She had been taken from her family and forced into this misery. Alone, cold, and hungry, she lay, convulsing in sobs.

Eventually, her tears spent, she lay still on the soft forest earth, lacking the will power to shake off the bugs that creeped over her. Her face pressed to the ground, she could feel a lingering warmth buried in the dirt from the long day. It was almost comfortable. She thought back to the last time she had slept so well. It wasn’t her own bed, nor the cave in Folwor’s den. It was a perch on the sill of a window. She had been much smaller, but she hadn’t been alone. Daniel had slept below her, breathing deeply in his sleep. She hadn’t realized how comforting it had been to hear that, the presence of someone else after so long in the dark woods.

She missed him. But she could not recall that moment without recalling another. 

His face rose like soft candle light in her memory. Pained at her words. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, Daniel.” She buried her face in the dirt. “I’m so sorry.” He might not understand or—no, no that was unfair. That was cruel to call him that. The one person who could help get her home, who wanted to help get her home and she had stung him.

Perhaps she deserved this. Perhaps Daniel had been right. Perhaps she was simply selfish.

But she still wanted to get back. She didn’t want to stay here in this place. But that was no reason to do what she had done. But did that mean she had to stay? She recoiled at the thought. No, there was no staying here, no…

It was then she realized the forest had gone silent. 

Penny didn’t move. She tried to see out of her cover, searching frantically for any sign of glowing eyes. The woods were as black as pitch, the dim star light glossing only the edges of objects. Then something stirred. Worming its way under the fallen leaves, it slunk through her cover. Penny backed up against the edge of the trees as something emerged from the darkness.

A tiny mouse poked its head out from the grass.

Penny cocked her head at the little animal. It brushed its whiskers with a minuscule paw, studying her in turn. It was holding something, no bigger than a pebble, black and with dotted lumps across the surface. The mouse set it on the ground and scampered back into the night. Penny leaned down to see what it was. 

A blackberry.

She was still puzzling over it when the mouse came scurrying back, this time with a walnut. He plopped it right next to the blackberry. “Hey,” Penny said, her voice hoarse. But the mouse had already hurried back into the woods. What was it doing? Seconds later, not one, but two mice returned with more fruit.

“What are you doing?” Penny asked. In response, the two mice pushed their meager mound of food towards her. She looked at it, then back at them. “But why?” Their only response was to push her the food again.

Hunger getting the better of her curiosity, she snapped up the handful of berries and nuts. The mice sat on their back paws, almost like they were waiting. “Um…” was all Penny could manage. She wasn’t sure what to say.

That seemed the wrong thing at any rate as the mice fled back into the woods. She let out a long sigh and huddled against the side of her shelter. She closed her eyes, tucking her head beneath a wing and was just about to shut everything out when there came the sound like a strong wind. She peaked out from under her wing to see scores of mice running into her enclosure, all bearing food.

She raised her head as they all put their tiny scraps of fruit, or nuts, herbs before her. Why were they doing this? Her mind went back to the things Folwor had told them about the Bright Jay and she then distantly recalled something she’d said.

Each creature and plant is filled with life. And a portion of all that life is yours. As tribute to you, to help you keep all things safe, the forest and everything in it.

They were counting on her. Her to keep them safe.

Penny looked at the mice and what they had brought. The dozens of mice looked on, hopeful. Hunger gnawed at her stomach, but Penny just stared at the food. She…she couldn’t. 

But she did.

The mice curled up and slept beside her. Penny at last went to sleep, her stomach full of their gifts. And her shame.

***

The first thing Thole became aware of was the ability to feel again.

His eyes snapped open and he sucked in a breath like he had just escaped from drowning. Life. Warmth. Being

He opened his eyes. The world had shifted. Whatever body Wlite had put him in was closer to their old forms than that skimpy animal he had inhabited before. He shuddered, remembering the feeling of nothingness that had accompanied the transfer. A part of him still felt unmoored, like it was drifting in a strange ether where everything was naught.

It was over, though. Hopefully, he would never experience that again. Never again.

He moved to stand up. It was difficult. This new body was much larger than the first. But it also felt more powerful. He could feel the extra weight on his limbs, but that also seemed because he had more muscle. Speed traded for strength. He wished he could see what he looked like, but he was still beyond Wlite’s veil. There was no light to be found.

“This is all the help I can provide,” Wlite said. Gone were the overlapping voices as she spoke.

“What creature is this?” Thole said, flexing his bulk.

“A predator,” Wlite said. “Feared by the animals of this land. It is the best I can give you for what lies ahead.”

“Am I to kill her?” Thole said. He couldn’t help the skepticism in his tone and Wlite noticed.

“You doubt?”

“It is not myself I doubt,” Thole said. “But this form, it seems slow. Powerful yes, but the blue one already possesses that in scores.”

“Not fully,” Wlite said.

Thole narrowed his eyes. “I don’t understand.”

“When you first found the blue one, when she was with the she-wolf and the boy, what did she look like?”

“Minute, small,” Thole said. “She was like that of any other bird.”

“And now?”

“Like that of our first encounter,” Thole replied. “Her power seems to wax and wane. I can’t explain it.”

“We have been thinking,” Wlite said, tremors of other voices in hers, “that as his successor, she has yet to fully inherit the old blue one’s powers.”

“Possibly,” Thole said. He was itching to leave this place. The absolute darkness unsettled him. As monstrous as they’d all become, it did not make them any more accustomed to hiding in the shadows. “But if that’s true, then what can we do? She might not be enough for us without her full strength.”

“I might have the answer to that,” Wlite said. “While you were amorphous during the transfer, I was able to briefly see your memory.” Thole stiffened at that, but didn’t say anything. “During your battle with her and the other two, she does not quite resemble her predecessor.”

A cold slither of liquid touched Thole’s leg. He growled, a deep rumble in his throat. “You needn’t show me. I can recall the fight.” The liquid limb retreated.

“She doesn’t bear his crests,” Wlite said. “At least, not all of them. He had three, she has but one.”

Thole nodded, remembering. A bright, green gem in the center of her chest. “Do we have the other two?”

“No,” Wlite said, her sweet voice taught. “We have located one, however. How her predecessor managed to scatter them upon his death we don’t know, but this stone lies far from here.”

“We haven’t we brought it back?” Thole asked.

“In time if need be,” Wlite said. “Right now we have a better trap. They have located the first stone and most likely the second…”

Thole understood and nodded, his tone grave. “So we lie in wait at the third.”

***

Daniel awoke to stark sun light on his face. He squinted past the glare to see the forest outside. He had fallen asleep at the window. His neck had a kink in it from the odd angle he’d slept at and he rolled his shoulders to try to alleviate it.

A warm current drifted in through the open panes. He should go down to breakfast. He didn’t move. He lay back on his bed, staring up. The house was quiet from his room. He didn’t feel like getting up. He didn’t feel like doing anything. The only thing that stirred was the memory of yesterday that went round and round in his head.

The image of Penny flying off over the forest. What she’d said to him.

He rolled over onto his face, burying it in his pillows. He couldn’t fall back asleep, but he could just lie here. He could do that.

His arm hung off the bed as he gave himself up to lethargy. 

But he needed to get up. The third stone was out there. They needed to find it. He and Penny and Folwor had to find it.

No they didn’t. Folwor was gone and Penny, well, he doubted she needed his help. She obviously didn’t want it. And what could he do anyway?

You promised, a voice said.

Yeah, he had. He’d promised to get her home. Well, clearly he did know how to do that. He apparently didn’t even know what that was. 

He thought back to the Smiths, the home before coming to the Blairs. Their house had been near the coast. It was beautiful there, but he couldn’t stay. He’d known that from the moment they had opened the front door. Their cold smiles and trite welcomes. For the two months he had staid there, he would go sit on their back porch and look out over the sea. It churned in slate gray hills, rolling and tumbling over themselves, pounding forward until it crashed into the crags below. It went no where. It just fumbled and stumbled around, not going anywhere but never content with were it was.

They given him up eventually. Up until the Blairs, that had been his favorite place. Out near the shore, removed from people who didn’t seemed to care. Not far enough apparently as the Smiths still sent him back.

It wouldn’t be long with the Blairs as it never was. It would be nice to see Mrs. Burrow again. He wondered if his double bunk bed back in the group home had been reassigned already. It had only been a couple days, but there had been a lot of new kids when he’d left. What if they didn’t have room?

He sat up. What if he couldn’t go back? What if there’s wasn’t space for him?

Where would he go then?

There had to be somewhere he could go. Another group home, maybe one another family on the list. But that was stupid. Families had to interview and submit requests which all took forever. He might not have any place.

You could stay, the voice said again.

No he couldn’t. The Blairs would change their mind eventually and send him back. That’s how it always was. That was how it always would be.

But didn’t he want to stay? Of course he did. They were nice. More than nice, they seemed to actually care about him. Seemed to anyway. It wouldn’t last and before long he’d be out the door. And then what?

Daniel sank down face first back onto the bed. It was too much to think about. If he could just sleep, he wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Just to set it aside, just for a moment.

A knock came at his door.

Daniel looked up to see Pam poke her head in. “We missed you at breakfast,” she said, checking her watch. “And lunch.”

Daniel turned toward the wall. “Not hungry.”

He felt the bed shift as she sat down next to him. “What’s the matter Daniel?”

“Just tired,” he said.

She rested a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t respond. “Did something happen out there? When you got lost?”

He pulled away. “I just want to sleep.”

She sounded like she was about to say something, but it faded into a sigh. “Alright,” she eventually said. She lingered for a moment more, but when it became clear Daniel wasn’t going to say anything further, she left.

The day turned by with indifference, shadows pivoting around Daniel’s room with the hours. He passed the time with shallow naps and gazing out the window. The forest remained pallid, waving feebly in an insipid wind.

The woods were a dull yellow as the sunset. Daniel heard Charley come in down stairs. He thought he heard Pam talking to him before footsteps mounted the stairs. They were predictably followed by a knock.

“Daniel,” Charley said. “Can I come in?”

“No,” Daniel said.

“Please?” Charley asked.

Daniel sighed. It was evidently loud enough that Charley hear it and took it as permission to enter. “Hey, Pam told me you’ve been up here all day.”

“Yeah,” Daniel said. He was still laying on the bed and didn’t look up as Charley came into the room.

“Mind if I ask what’s going on?” Charley said. 

“Nothing,” Daniel said.

“Uh huh,” Charley said, settling beside Daniel. “And, uh, does this ’nothing’ have anything to do with why you were out so late?”

“Maybe…”

Charley lay back on the bed. “You know, it’s okay if you were scared.”

Daniel shook his head. “That wasn’t it.” To his unamused surprise, Charley laughed. “What?” He asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Charley said, continuing to laugh.

“No, what is it?” Daniel insisted, sitting up.

Charley waved him off. “Just something stupid.” He noticed Daniel’s irritated expression.  “It’s just a story from when I was a kid.” He sat up, propping his back against the wall. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, now I want to hear it,” Daniel complained.

“Do you now?” Charley said. “Even if it’s a ‘nothing?’” He put his hands behind his head. “Tell you what, if I tell you my nothing, you tell yours, alright? Sound fair?”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “Sure.”

Charley smiled which just annoyed Daniel even more. “It was back when Pam and I were kids. We used to play in the woods from dawn till dusk. There were lots of cool places out there. Caves, cliffs and rivers, all sorts of neat stuff.”

He leaned forward. “One day in the spring we’re hiking up this trail when we get lost. Horribly turned around, have no idea where we are. It starts raining and we duck into this small cave to try to stay dry. It poured for hours and hours. We’re huddled up under there as lightening and thunder pound the air outside.”

“What happened?’ Daniel asked despite himself.

“We were there for what felt like forever,” Charley said. “The rain washed over our feet, chilling us to the bone. And that was before it came.”

“What?” Daniel said. “What came?”

Charley smiled. “A titanic black bear. It apparently was trying to get out the rain, too. I’ll never forget it. We’re sitting there, trying to stay as dry and as warm as we can when a bolt of lighting cracks at what felt like not fifty yards away. The whole world lights up in a terrible flash, everything bright white. And there it is, frozen like a moment from an all-too-real black and white movie. A bear right in front of the cave.”

Charley paused, Daniel leaning into the story. “We didn’t dare move,” Charley said. “It lumbers closer, sniffing the air. It probably couldn’t smell or see us until it was so close. It stops, just two feet away from Pam’s face. Its fur is slick with rain and it’s not sure what to make of us. We’re scared stiff, we can’t breath. It’s about to move when someone yells from behind it.”

Daniel frowned. “Who?”

“Well, turns out we’d been gone so long, that our parents went looking for us. Pam’s father just happened to find us cornered by the bear. He yelled and hollered to get its attention. In the end, it must have through he was either a bigger animal or just too weird to mess with as the bear left to find shelter somewhere else.”

Charley looked at Daniel. “That was the most scared I’ve ever been. That and one other time.”

Daniel raised an eyebrow. “What was the other time?”

Charley’s brow knit together. “Last night.” Before Daniel could say anything, Charley put up a hand. “I’m not telling you that to make you feel guilty, Daniel, although you about gave us a heart attack.” He shook his head. “The point is…” He sighed. “Daniel, you can tell us anything. Anything.

Daniel turned away, but Charley put both hands on his shoulders causing him to meet his eyes. “I mean it.”

Daniel didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what to say. He just sat with his fists balled it eating away at him until he couldn’t stay still any longer.

“No.”

Charley blinked in surprise. “No?”

“You’re wrong,” Daniel said. He jerked away from Charley, standing up. “I’ll just make you angry.”

“Daniel, what—”

“No!” Daniel shouted. “No, you-you don’t know me. I’m going to do something, say something  that you guys can’t take and then I’ll be gone. I’ll be gone and back in the foster home and you all will be happier for it. It’s just how it is.” His voice trailed off. He sniffed, tasting salt from tears he didn’t realize had. “It’s just how it is okay, so why don’t you just send me back already?”

“Daniel,” Charley said, voice soft. “We’re not—”

“But you will,” Daniel said, lashing back. “I’ll be up too late, or break something, or say the wrong word one day and then that’ll be it. Gone. Good-bye.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “Tomorrow works. I’ll go. I don’t care. I…I don’t care.”

There was a long pause. Daniel sniffed, not daring to look at Charley until the latter rose from the bed.

“But I do.” There his foster-father stood. Tall, noble, and infinity tender, the world’s broadest grin on his face. “I care, Daniel. We care. You can’t go back, because what would we do without you?”  

“But I–I’ll mess it up,” Daniel fobbed. “You’ll change your mind one day and I’ll have to leave.”

Charley settled onto his knees before Daniel. “There will never be a day we want you to leave,” he said. “And if something ever took you from us, however far for however long, we’ll come find you and bring you home. You know why?” He asked, his face full of pride and affection. “Because we love you, Daniel.” Charley took him by the shoulders as he spoke. “We’ve only started getting to know you, but I can’t ever imagine stopping. So don’t you dare go anywhere on us. Don’t you dare.”

He wrapped his arms around his foster-son and Daniel crumbled into the embrace. The world itself felt like it was in that hug, a world with a home in it at last and Daniel clung to it with everything he had.

Daniel finally pulled away, a watery smile on his face which was matched by the expression on Charley’s.

He wiped his eye with the back his hand as she stood up before Daniel. “Come on,” he said. “Pam’s got dinner on and is probably wondering what’s taking us so long.”

Daniel just laughed. It felt good to do so.

Pam stood waiting, arms crossed at the bottom of the stairs with the definition of worry on her face. “Are you two okay?”

Charley smiled and Daniel grinned. “Just fine,” Charley said, pulling Daniel close. “Just fine.” He shared a look with Pam and whatever it said made her break out into the warmest smile. She quickly hid it with a stern frown.

“Dinner will be getting cold.” They followed her into the dinning room and for once during dinner, Daniel wasn’t silent, he wasn’t withdrawn, he wasn’t quiet. He talked. He joked. And he laughed. He was home.

***

Penny had trouble flying high, her body feeling weighed down with morose conscience. She was sure she looked terrible. She felt that way. The rough night had led her to wake up late, costing her precious daylight to find the wind stone. It was already growing dark as she glided over the canopy. The mice had brought her a surprising breakfast which she had eaten as quickly as possible, hoping she wouldn’t taste the guilt if she swallowed fast enough.

As she’d departed, she had seen a ring of forest animals around her shelter. Beavers that had patched the gaps in her cover, blocking out the wind. Bobcats and falcons to scare away the noisier woodland creatures that might disturb her. Myriads of other animals had contributed to make her rest better. They had all tried to help her in some way or form that night. It might have worked had she felt differently about herself.

She shook her head, riding an updraft to gain altitude. She’d find the wind stone, find Folwor and go home. Then it would all be over. 

Finding them was proving to be the trick, however.

She’d scoured the the forest for miles to the south and west and was just looping back around towards the east. She had flown the distance between the crater and the meadow the day before, but had seen nothing out of the ordinary. She’d had to broaden her search pattern to try to comb more area, but her efforts were beginning to become desperate. Where was the thing?

A cawing sound came from behind her and she glanced back to see a cast of hawks trailing her in V formation. She squawked at them and they disbanded. She ruffled he feathers, looking back in front of her. Why couldn’t they just leave her alone. Why—

What was that? A clearing up ahead. It was hard to tell in the dimming twilight, but it stood out amongst the forest. It was a perfect circle. If that didn’t scream something strange, she didn’t what did.

Relieved, she tucked her wings and dropped into a nose dive. She had to admit, this body was fun sometimes, if only sometimes.

She flared her wings, curtailing her descent about a hundred feet above the clearing. No sign of any stones. She dropped the rest of the way, landing lightly on the forgiving soil. Now where would it be? In the middle perhaps? The grass was all flatted to one side, radiating out from the center. Except there was nothing there. 

There was a patch where something heavy had clearly been resting for some time, but it was gone. Penny paced around the spot, stumped. What had become of the stone? No other creature would have taken it, Penny doubted they were even aware enough to have done anything with it. But then where was it?

Suddenly, the air dropped to a perceptible chill. The wind ceased and Penny’s feather’s stood up on end. She turned around, wings half bent, ready to react at the slightest movement.

“I knew we’d meet again,” a voice said, rasping and heavy like gargled sap. “But I think this time, you’ll find the fighter much, much harder won.”

Penny’s eyes widened as she saw him in the gloom of the oncoming night. She’d seen them before, but with a Cull inhabiting its body, its bulk had been diserbingly enlarged. Emerging from the woods and standing at least nine feet at the shoulders, was monstrous bear.

“If you want what you came for,” Thole said. “You’ll only get it through me.”


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