"Nothing at all, they're just hoping she's going to sleep it off and wake up in the morning completely fine. Like I'm supposed to feel comfortable with that and think we live in some make-believe world where things actually go right and-" I'm starting to sound a little hysterical so I cut myself off. I pinch harder.

He sighs then hesitates. "I know how you feel, the way that being helpless eats away at you. Watching someone you love suffer while you're trapped and unable to do anything is- it's unbearable. I would never wish it on anyone, especially someone I care about, like you."

His arm around me tightens briefly. "So what can I do to help?"

I pull away to look Hale in the face. He's never looked more beautiful than he does now, genuine concern in his emerald eyes, a little furrow between his brows. Emotion hits me like a physical blow while looking at him.

I want to show him how much of a great friend he's been in the last few weeks. How much he's come to mean to me. I want him to know that I appreciate everything he's done for me, all of the time and help he's given me. 

The hollow feeling in me lessens as I realize that even though life has been beyond rough lately, here I am, with a sense of purpose and friends who care about me, for the first time in my life.

I lay a hand against Hale's cheek, opening my mouth to say something. But my mind goes blank as he turns his face into my touch, lightly brushing his lips across my palm. The heat of his lips pale in comparison to that in his eyes.

"Hale-" I whisper, a new and unfamiliar heat spreading through me. It's frightening, how much power one little touch has over my body. Frightening, how much the look in his eyes makes my skin ignite, flames licking up my chest and across my face.

"You're a really great friend," I blurt, yanking my hand away. Mortification makes my cheeks burn and I wanted to crawl into the forest and hide. What is wrong with me?

To my complete surprise, Hale laughs.

"You're a great friend too." His eyes were warm and full of amusement.

There's a moment of awkward silence in which I contemplate kicking myself in the face. I feel embarrassed, frustrated with myself and a little disappointed.

"So I was right," Hale finally says, jolting me from my thoughts.

"About what?"

"The first time I saw you; I was right, you are a lady." A smile spreads across his face. "Lady Talia Kinsley. It fits."

I punch him lightly in the leg. "Really? You're going to tease me right now?"

He chuckles, holding his hands up. "I couldn't resist." His expression turns serious. "But really Talia, how can I help you right now?"

I shake my head. "There's not really anything I can do except wait. But that's the hardest part."

"Then I'll wait with you."

My stomach decides that now is a great time to growl loudly. I jump, blushing. I hadn't even realized I was hungry. 

"I take it you missed dinner?" he asks. 

I nod, stomach growling again. I curse it silently.

"Don't move, I'll be back in a few minutes." Hale jumps to his feet and hurries into the woods.

He returns with a plate full of bread, meat and cheese, handing it to me with a bow. He even managed to get an orange, my favorite. I had no idea he'd noticed.

I take a bite of bread, moaning in delight when I realize it's still warm.

Hale asks me about Willow while I eat, wanting to know about our childhood together. I tell him about all the things she does to make me laugh, impressions of our father scolding us, coming up with unflattering but accurate nicknames for the people in our town. I talk about how much I worried about her not having friends back home, how she can be so bratty and self righteous. 

It's the first time I've ever had someone to talk to about Willow. I might not be able to tell Hale about her powers but that's not the part of Willow that matters, what makes her special. It's the kindness she shows animals, the way she would gently tuck a blanket around Father when he dozed off while reading. How she could tell when I was having trouble sleeping and would come lay with me, her lavender and sunshine smell so comforting. 

"Do you have siblings? Sebastian mentioned you had a sister, I think," I ask, nibbling on a piece of cheese. 

Hale is quiet for a second. "I do. I had two brothers as well."

Ah. Suddenly, his constant avoidance of speaking about his family makes sense.

"I'm sorry," I murmur, looking away. 

"It's been a long time," he says simply, looking away.

I try to imagine the pain of losing Willow and I can't. The fear seems too raw, too real with everything that's happening. But I can see that Hale is hurting, the wound I've unintentionally reopened. 

"Tell me about them?" I ask gently, letting him know that he doesn't have to.

"I'm not sure it's the best thing to talk about right now, all things considered."

"I'd like to hear about them, if you'd like the tell me." And I do. I've shared a part of myself with Hale tonight, he should be able to do the same. I want to see a piece of him that he doesn't show to others. 

For a long second, all that can be heard is the rustling of the wind through the trees. The stars are starting to come out, diamonds against the velvet purples and blues of the sky.

"I had two older brothers," he starts, his voice so quiet, it's almost like he's speaking to himself. "Elrick and Ronan. Elrick loved my father deeply, wanted to make him proud by constantly studying war strategies and practicing with his sword. He followed my father around like a shadow. Ronan though, he was quieter, gentler. He preferred to read and draw, constantly studying everything he could."

Hale shifts, clearing his throat before continuing.

"Ronan taught me to read, to use my mind just as much as my body. Elrick taught me to fight and stand strong, to never back down if there is something worth fighting for. Though my father favored Elrick, my mother Ronan, I loved them both equally."

He trails off and I don't dare make a sound. He's clearly lost in his memories, reliving moments with his brothers.

"Sometimes it's hard for me to remember their faces," he admits. "To remember them much at all. But there are times that I realize that they are still living through me. Every time I find a way to solve a conflict without violence, or stop to appreciate the beauty of the forest, I can feel Ronan and the lessons he taught me. Every time that I defend someone weaker than myself, or stand my ground for something that I believe in, I know Elrick would be proud of me. Even though they're gone, they left parts of themselves in me. I honor those parts and their memories by being the best man that I can be, the man they would be proud to call their brother."

Hale goes silent. 

I feel heat streaking down my cheeks and realize I'm crying for the second time tonight. But not out of sorrow for his loss. I'm crying because of the tenderness in how he speaks of his brothers, the beauty of his love and connection to them now. The place in his heart where he holds his brothers is lovely beyond words.

I shift closer to him, until our sides are pressed together and I lean my head against his shoulder.

I feel something stretch between us, a thread of connection and understanding. It holds this moment still, fragile and full of sadness, but beautiful too.


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