Julia sat alone in the tent, fingers steepled as she leaned forward and stared off blankly at the far wall. It was late, past midnight now. She’d come back from meeting the mages over an hour ago, heading straight to the sept after to make sure that there would be appropriate arrangements for their guests. They would have emissaries from Arcadia and a mage delegation arriving by dawn, and it was important to be ready.
The Garou elders weren’t happy. But what choice did they have at this point? What would disagreeing with her now do; except disrupt things, losing them time and caerns, increasing the chances of the enemy’s victory. They hadn’t given her any realistic solutions, nothing that properly considered any knowledge of the enemy or that could be acted on quickly enough to matter. They had already agreed to her plans, even if it was more begrudging than she would have liked.
Things had gotten a bit hairy when she had told then she wanted to hold the meeting at the Nemeton. There had been shouting – a LOT of shouting, about how she pushed too far against tradition, how could she possibly know that the enemy would have spies among these ‘allies’, how could she risk something so powerful at a time when so many other caerns had been destroyed? She had calmly pointed out that the Outsider already knew the location of their caerns, so what was the point in hiding? If he had intended to do something to the Nemeton, it would have happened by now, and she would have felt it. They needed to show trust in their allies, they needed to demonstrate that they were able and willing to co-operate, and they needed to let the mages properly understand what they would be helping to protect instead of sending them in blind and hoping for the best. And if one of the guests was a spy, the location of the meeting was irrelevant next to the content. She’d pointed out that they had told her she was wrong before, that her choices had been wrong and what she wanted couldn’t be done. How had that worked out?
They had insisted on having the meeting at the sept, on their territory and terms. She hadn’t wanted that – it felt like an unnecessary display of power, throwing their weight around at a time when they needed aid. But she had conceded and it would be held in the pavilion here. The Nemeton had a feral heart and was unlikely to let many people get close without good reason – they had already had plenty of experience with its vengeful side. She couldn’t afford to keep pushing, had to give something at least; this small concession would show she was willing to listen, pacifying them and making things easier if they didn’t all come to the meeting with their hackles high. She was their queen, and now was not time she needed to spend fruitlessly negotiating with her own people when their entire world was in peril. They could save that for dawn.
She was aware that she had pushed them very far, very fast, and it was natural to resist change. So she had let them go and make the arrangements, trusting in their judgement. Now though, she didn’t know what to do. She supposed she should go home, rest and be with her pack. But she didn’t entirely want to.
Their territory had been ransacked, violated. It wasn’t clear why yet, if anything had been taken. They’d cleared up as best they could, but everything looked very bare now – the furniture had been shattered, walls and carpet smeared with food and dirt and other mysterious substances. They would have to start from scratch. The idea of that oddly seemed more daunting to her than the impending battle. She hadn’t been sure why at first, but it was becoming clearer and that was making her uncomfortable.
She stared blankly off into the distance. Outside she could hear the myriad sounds of people moving and preparing. This was the quiet before the storm, before the unavoidable fight to come. In a way, this was worse than the fight. She didn’t have the build-up of anticipation that others seemed to have. At least when they were in the middle of a battle she could focus on the moment, listen to her instincts and fight to win. Now was just… waiting for the inevitable, losing herself in her thoughts and an endless swirling ‘what if’. What if she had forgotten something crucial? What if it wasn’t enough, if they still lost? What if she was wrong?
What would happen if they won?
When she had stood in the ruins of their territory that evening before heading out, there had been a strange sense of finality to it. The knowledge of the time and cost it would take to rebuild everything from the ground up… the practical part of her said that she had the money for it, would happily give Annie whatever was needed. But another niggling voice said that wasn’t what she meant. It was about more than the ruins, it was about what they represented. She had the ability to pay the cost to fix the house. Did she have the ability to pay the cost to fix her pack? She wasn’t sure she did.
If they survived this, if they won and the Outsider was defeated and they had a world to come back to, it still wouldn’t really be finished. She’d have to spend months, years, rebuilding what had been lost. She’d have to work to forge alliances between tribes and between species. Countless caerns had been taken and destroyed, would need rebuilding and replacing. There wouldn’t be time to sit idle, especially after the staggering losses her side had already taken – and likely would further tomorrow. It would be the ideal time for the wyrm’s forces to strike, and she had to be ready for that too. And that meant that once more she would be turning away from her own pack, to look instead to her people as a whole. If she was to be the alpha for all Garou, she couldn’t also focus on being alpha for just a small few.
In a way, even if he lost, the Outsider had perhaps won at least on small victory against them. They had always been a tumultuous pack, barely holding together. Perhaps it was because they were so young; perhaps it was because they were so inexperienced; perhaps it was just because the mix of personalities were so very different. They had been through a lot together, good and bad and much of it their own doing. Stormbringers had been so much more accurate than they had ever intended. She’d fought as hard as she could every step of the way to hold them together, even when it seemed like doing so might well tear her apart. Now a part of her wondered if that had been a contributing factor in their fracturing – if by trying to make everyone happy, she had ended up making nobody happy. The idea of letting them go had felt like it would be a failure on her part, showing that she wasn’t a good enough alpha. But now that she looked back, she couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps that would have been a kinder thing. Perhaps Annie would have been happier in a quieter pack, one that let her have something closer to the ‘normal’ human life she seemed to want. Perhaps Nahuel would have been happier in a lupus pack, where he didn’t have to try and integrate into the human world and could run free in the wild. Perhaps Cal would have been happier… pretty much anywhere, with an alpha that could better handle and direct his rage impulses.
Would you have been happier without them?
Don’t ask that.
She was getting too introspective. She stood up, stretching out her stiff back and leaving the tent. There were so many people she wanted to talk to, wanted to say goodbye to. She hadn’t spoken to so many of her friends in so long. But the Garou would be, should be with their own packs in this quiet moment before it potentially all ended. Her mother was… was… And the rest of the world was asleep, as they should be at this time of night. Besides, saying goodbye would be admitting that she thought she was going to die, that they were going to fail. She couldn’t do that.
Julia wandered through the sept. Everywhere she went people were busy, although they would stop and bow or kneel when she passed. She’d learned to acknowledge it on autopilot, a quick nod and smile or a murmured word. She knew where her feet were taking her, even if she was deliberately going on a very roundabout route. Before long she was standing in from of the palisade surrounding the building where they kept him. The guards nodded, letting her pass.
Jake was pacing back and forth in his cell, staring at the doorway as if he expected her. The look on his face was agitated, and she wondered why. She knew that the elders of the sept had come in here to talk to him – mostly Leaf, asking questions and looking to get information. In a way it had been oddly comforting to hear that. It made it feel like at least some of the Garou elders believed in her, that this apocalypse could be prevented and so they needed to prepare and plan for the aftermath. She wasn’t sure how much they had told him of what was going on beyond these walls though, if anything.
As soon as she entered he stopped pacing, stepping up as close to the bars as he could. The scent of silver and protective wards hit her like it always did when she came here, a hint of bile rising in the back of her throat.
“Jules, what are you doing?”
She blinked, pausing uncertainly in the doorway. What did he mean? What was she doing here right now? What was going on out in the world? He reached out a hand unthinkingly towards her when she stopped, the faintest wrinkle of discomfort on his face as the wards activated and pushed him back a little, burning the skin that had gotten to close.
“Stop, don’t do that!” She hurried in, getting closer to the cell. “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” He repeated the question, withdrawing the raised hand as she came closer. There was a hint of relief on his face, but the overwhelming emotion was… fear? Anguish, pain more than just the injury he had inflicted on himself.
“I don’t understand, what do you-”
“Your elder told me,” he said, his voice fast and upset. “The shifty looking one, with the goatee, who thinks he’s really fucking clever. He was trying to get more information from me, answer for an answer. He told me what happened the other day, with the fighting. He told me about what you were going to…” he paused, taking a deep breath. “Jules, please don’t do this.”
“What?” She frowned. “What did he tell you?”
“He said you were going to fight that… arch-fey-whatever thing, the one that wanted to steal Annie’s kid and smashed up my apartment. He said this is you trying to prevent the apocalypse, providing the werewolves that big battle they’ve always dreamed of – but you aren’t going to go to that. I could live with that, maybe.” His fingers were clenched, his voice troubled as he clearly tried to hold himself back from pacing again. “You’re going to go through some death forest in Arcadia that nobody comes back from, to fight the fucker personally and… and… You can’t Jules, you can’t do this.”
Julia’s frown deepened. “Why did he tell you this?”
“I don’t know, to fuck with my head? To test my resolve and see how I react, what juicy secrets he could get me to spill?” He shook his head angrily. “Who cares? Please, don’t do this.”
She took a step back, folding her arms. “Why not? If I don’t, who will?”
“Fucking anyone!” He ran a hand through his hair, turning and giving in to the desire to pace. “Jules, you’re queen! You’re more than just a werewolf, you’re a symbol of hope, or victory, or whatever! If you’re on some big battlefield, there will be people around who can protect you, keep you far from harm, die for you if necessary. If you go alone into the woods… if you die, who will know? If you fail, if you-”
“Why do you think I’ll fail?” She didn’t bother to hide the hurt in her voice. “I won’t be alone, I’ll have my pack-”
He scoffed, waving a hand dismissively. “Four of you, against that? Even if you guys had more experience fighting in general, you don’t work together well enough to… you might be a great swordswoman, Jules, but against something as old and powerful as that…” He shook his head as if he couldn’t find the words. “He kicked our asses before, and that was right in the middle of the city in our world where he’s supposed to be at his weakest. Hell, there were five of us, two experienced fighters! If the kid hadn’t done whatever she did, you’d be… we’d never have got to you and you’d be-”
“It won’t be just us!” she snapped. “The fey are looking to find a ritual to bind him away properly, we’ll have mages and fey with us too. We can do this, we have to do this. He has my mother, he has Sura and Vivian and Emma! And if we don’t stop him, he’ll let out all the others just like him, and then nothing will matter because…” She took a deep breath. “Yes, nobody else has ever made it through the woods, nobody else has ever come back. But we have. If I don’t do it, how can I ask someone else to, knowing they might fail?”
“And then what?” His voice was frantic as he turned back to look at her. “What happens if you do fail? What happens to me?”
Julia took another step back. “_What_? We’re about to go and try to prevent the world from ending, I’m going into what is almost certainly a trap and you’re asking me what will happen to you?”
“Yes!” He leaned forward, wrapping his hands around the bars. The wards activated instantly, but he held firm as they burned his hands. She opened her mouth in horror, stepping forwards a little, but the look on his face was so intense that it scared her. “What happens to me if you fail? I walked away from my whole life, Jules! I have nothing but the clothes on my back! Did you think they’ve let me keep the job and the money and the apartment? I have nothing! And I’ll be on the shit-list of every wyrm creature from here to Malfeas for the rest of my goddamned life! But I didn’t even think twice, because none of that shit matters. I don’t care about any of it, because you…” his voice cracked and he slumped a little, letting go of the bars as he collapsed to his knees. His hands were red raw, blistered and charred from the silver. “If you die, what was it for? What was the point?”
“What was-!” Julia swallowed, then turned and walked back towards the door. He watched her go in silence, as if he was accepting some choice she was making. It was hard to keep herself steady as she reached the guards.
“I need you to let me open the door,” she said quietly.
“Are you sure, your majesty?”
“Yes.” She held her voice a calm as she could. “He’s no threat to me, and I trust you to keep anything hostile far from either of us. It won’t be for too long.” The man nodded and turned to one of the others. There was a brief conversation and then two of the theurges went away to lower the wards – not remove them completely, just halt their effects for a short time. She knew how to get into the cell herself.
She stepped back into the room to find Jake still where she’d left him, kneeling slumped on the floor. She could smell the burnt skin of his hands, resting limply on his lap. He looked up as she came back in, his eyes unbearably sad. She made herself hold firm, standing in front of him with her arms crossed.
“What was the point? How can you say that?” she asked quietly. “Are you that selfish?”
“Yes.” He looked up at her. “I am utterly selfish. I won’t even pretend that if it hadn’t been for you, I’d never be in the position I am now. My life was fucking great, and I wanted for nothing. I’d never have even considered giving it up."
She swallowed again, pushing down anger and hurt. “Not even to prevent the apocalypse? Not to save the world that you’re part of?”
He shrugged. “That was what my side was working for – at least in theory. Destruction of everything, remember? I liked the earthly pleasures stuff, sure, didn’t really want to lose it. But I knew what the end goal was. You know I did this for you, only for you.”
“And what happens if I fail? What happens if I die?”
“Don’t.” He sounded agonised, staggering to his feet.
“What happens?” she pressed. “Do you stop co-operating? Do you go back to the wyrm, undo the ritual Annie did? Do you-”
“DON’T!” he roared, slamming his hands against the bars again. “I don’t even want to think about losing you, do you hear me?! I can’t! I can’t lose you!” His eyes were wild, full of fear and rage. “If you’re gone, I have nothing that matters left. You think I give a shit about the rest of these guys? Even if you win, if the fey thing doesn’t come and turn us all into slaves or… whatever it wants to do, you think I’ll give a fuck about what they want from me if you’re dead? The only thing I care about is you, the only thing that’s keeping me safe and alive is you, the only thing that give me any reason to think that things could be fine and that I made the right choice is you! I love you, more than anything, more than I thought possible! Please don’t go out there, don’t walk into the trap. Don’t go out to die. I can’t lose you.”
She stared at him, eyes wide and mouth trembling a little. He looked back, his eyes seeming to burn into her soul with the intensity of his gaze. Slowly, tentatively, she stepped forward, pushing past the lowered wards as she reached up her hand. He made a brief sound of concern, to warn her away from the cell and its protections, and then he seemed to realise that his hands weren’t being burned a fraction of a second before she leaned in and kissed him.
He tasted of sweat and dirt. She didn’t care. She pressed her mouth against his, faces meeting between the bars of his cell. He made a soft sound of surprise, leaning in instinctively to kiss her back. She pulled away after only a few seconds and he looked down at her in confusion. “What have you… the wards…?”
She didn’t answer, putting her thumb into her mouth and biting down until she drew blood with a wince. He watched curiously as she pressed it against the bars, moving her hand and murmuring softly below her breath. There was a creaking, straining noise, and then the bars shifted and moved aside.
Jake stared at her, no barrier between them. “What are you-?”
She stepped into the cell, wrapping her arms around him and kissing him again. In an instant, his arms twined around her waist, injured hands pulling her close. It had been three weeks since she’d last been able to hold him, since Annie had done the ritual and he had been put here. They hadn’t really been focused on letting him do things like regularly wash or shave, and the beard growth scratched at her face. She didn’t care. He was warm and safe and she’d missed him so much.
His voice was low and hoarse when she pulled away. “I didn’t know you could do that. Are you the only one who can get in?”
“No. But of course they gave me the key. I’d have abdicated or something if they hadn’t.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“…Probably not. But I’d have been really, really cranky.” She lifted a hand and touched his face, running her fingers over his stubble. “You’ve gotten scruffy.”
He laughed softly and rested his hand on the curve of her stomach. “You’ve gotten fat.”
“Ugh, don’t. I’ve been having weird food cravings too. It hasn’t started kicking yet though.” She looked down, a quiet calm filling her heart as she saw his hand on her belly. She’d missed his touch.
“Jules…” He tilted her face back up towards him. “Please. Don’t do this. You’re queen, you’re pregnant, they’d understand. Get someone else to go. I can’t lose you again, not after New Year’s.”
“I have to. I have to make sure this is done right.” Her voice was firm. She leaned up, kissing his cheek as his eyes closed with a look of pain. “If the Outsider wins, I’ll be dead – because that’s the only way he’s winning, is over my corpse – and the world will be turned into whatever he wants it to be. If we win, but I… don’t make it… well, I guess it’s up to you what you want to do after that. I’d hope you would keep helping, if only because you know that’s what I’d want you to do. If I don’t come back, it will be especially important that people keep working together, to try and rebuild what we lost. It’s going to be hard enough as it is. But I can’t make you do anything.”
“Shit… just… shit.” His voice cracked and he held her close, as if somehow that might make her change her mind or that the moment would never end. “Why do you have to be so damned stubborn?”
“Am I wrong?” she asked, muffled by his shirt.
“Yes! I… I don’t…. probably not. Fuck, I hate that you always end up being right. It just gives you more reason to be stubborn. But you can’t be right forever. I don’t want to find out you were wrong b the sky splitting open and raining monsters, or the guards outside marching in and killing me.” His voice was pleading, but there was resignation creeping into it. “How will I know? I’ll just be stuck in here while you plan, while you go and fight and whatever happens, happens. How can you expect me to stay here and just wait for you, hoping this wasn’t the time you were wrong?”
“What do you want to me to do?” He opened his mouth to answer her, but she cut him off. “You can’t come with me. They’d never let you, and you have no gifts anymore to help us with. It’ll be hard enough to take care of myself and my pack, without worrying about you as well.”
“I can still fight,” he said reproachfully. “I’m probably a better fighter than half the people here, even giftless.”
“You think I can risk losing you either?” She lifted one of his hands, concentrating as she reached within for the gift and the skin began to heal. “I’m going to win, OK? And then I’m going to come back here, I’m going to fix the mess that fairy shithead made, and then we’re going to be parents.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me.”
She let go of his healed hand and gave him a filthy look. “I’m sorry? Are you being selfish again?”
“Yeah.” He hugged her. “I’m going to be a shitty father, Jules. Hell, I’m already a shitty father – I have nothing to do with Annie’s kid, and I don’t want to. But right now, I’d give pretty much anything to get the opportunity to find that out the hard way with you. I don’t care if it has horns, or no fur, or if it’s some kind of lizard. I need you to come back so we can find out together.”
“You really aren’t selling me on this whole ‘not being a single parent’ thing, you know.”
“I know. But you love me anyway, luckily.” He kissed her forehead.
She held him close, breathing in his scent. The room still made her uncomfortable, the tang of silver permeating the air and the wards making things feel thick and heavy. But just for a moment, she needed to be here with him. Hearing him voice his fears that she wouldn’t come back, that they’d never see each other again… it brought her own fears to the surface, that this would be their last embrace. She needed to burn it into her heart.
And hearing him made her realise that she owed it to some others to be there for them too; people who she lived, despite their differences, and who she should be there for tonight. She withdrew gently, kissing him and stepping away.
“Where are you going?”
“I should be with my pack. This could be our last night together, I should be there.”
“And I get to spend it alone?” He paused. “Wait, ‘last night’? What happened to the promise to come back to me?”
“They’re my pack,” she said quietly. “Cal and Nahuel have both lost the women they love to this thing. I’m not heartless enough to rub it in by spending tonight here with you. We need to be a cohesive unit tomorrow, so tonight we need to be together.”
“Last night…” he repeated, frowning and reaching towards her.
“I’m under no illusion that this thing on my head and the demands having it will make are not going to stay compatible with the lives they want to lead for much longer. Afterwards, those of us that have survived will have to make a choice – either they give up the lives they want in order to follow me, or I let go at last and go my own way. So yes, if we lose tomorrow then this would be our last night together as a pack. But it still might be, even if we win.”
He took a deep breath. “Right. Sure. I mean, obviously I’d rather you spend it here with me. But the werewolf pack instinct is… well, not my thing, but I get it. You should go. Right?”
She smiled gratefully and leaned in to kiss him. He crushed his mouth against hers, arms wrapped so tight that she found it hard to catch her breath. She responded enthusiastically. It wasn’t exactly romantic – her bump was awkwardly between, and the cold walls of the harshly lit cell and all is wards weren’t building an atmosphere. But it didn’t matter. She found herself still struggling to catch her breath as he pulled away, his taste still on her mouth.
“You know, you don’t have to go yet,” he murmured. “I mean, I know it isn’t exactly comfortable in here, but we could…”
“Really. On the floor, in a cell laced with silver, with guards directly outside waiting for me who could come in at any moment.”
“You’re going off to battle tomorrow without me. You might die. Do you really want our last time together to have been Christmas?” His voice was low, incredibly tempting as he held her close and his fingers traced the back of her neck. “Besides, it’s not like we can slip up and have another accident at this point. You won’t have to worry about protection, we can just-”
She laughed. “Are you listening to yourself? You’re lucky you’re so damned pretty. And it wasn’t Christmas, it was when we first saw each other after I came back, near the end of January. Are you conveniently ‘forgetting’ that one, or just trying to guilt me into staying? Do you really want to spend all my energy before I go away to fight?”
He sighed plaintively, tugging at one of her curls. “I miss you Jules. All of you, even the bump. I’ve been on my own here for weeks while you’re off saving the world, getting by with brief visits and the hope that if I’m ‘good’ eventually they’ll let me out so I can see you. I know why I’m in here, I know it’s for my own protection as much as theirs. But I’m a social creature, it’s driving me mad. I’d prefer something better, but if you’re up for it…” He sighed again, gazing down at her. “Fuck, we don’t even have to do anything. You could just stay here and let me hold you for a while.”
“I can’t…” she said softly, barely audible.
He leaned in and kissed her again. For a moment it felt like maybe he had the right idea, and she could feel her resolve wavering as his tongue swept her mouth. It would be so easy to stay – hell, she could probably persuade them to let her take him to her tent, it would be more comfortable there…
Then he pulled her away and gently shoved her outside the cell’s perimeter. The rite triggered and the bars slid back into place. She stared at him, eyes wide and bright with the hint of tears.
“Go, before I regret it,” he said hoarsely.
“I’ll be back,” she promised, mostly believing her words.