The Heart of The Forest 2.10

Shadows Rise-RR

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[Wolves Camp | Inviditas 10th, 2525 | Early Evening]

The clan stood sullen and silent for what felt like an excruciatingly long hour. While Dani’s role was to bear the weight of the Hourglass, most of her clan-mates remained motionless as the sand trickled down; right hands covering their hearts and heads bowed low. The weight was symbolic—no sand had been added or subtracted from the Hourglass in ages, and the object was rather light—yet, as years passed and her understanding of its actual meaning grew, Dani felt the piling red specks weigh heavier and heavier on her hands. She watched the sand flow until the final grain hit the bottom of the Hourglass, then touched her mother’s arm to signal that the hour had finally passed. Claire took the Hourglass off Dani’s hands. Tom weaved through the crowd alerting workers and issuing quiet instructions. In a matter of minutes, the campfire was ignited and multiple torches illuminated the paths to and from the central clearing.

As light flooded the encampment, the clan sprung back to life. Tables were brought out from the dining hall with trays of food and pitchers of water. Sarah’s complaint to her mother prior to the ceremony wasn’t entirely truthful. The younger members of the clan weren’t excluded from the festivities; they just weren’t allowed to stay up all night with the adults. For the remainder of the clan, that meant access to alcohol remained restricted for the first hours of the party; while the minors were still present.

Since the ceremony took place before her birthday, Dani had missed out on her first taste of liquor by just five days. Now, at age fifteen, she was finally allowed to join in the late-night revelry. More importantly, of course, was the liquor. Despite Lena’s constant reassurance in past years that it was no big deal, it was still something she’d been excited for. And she wasn’t the only one. Sure enough, not long after the fires were lit, two fifteen year old boys were caught sneaking in their liquor early. Not only were they publicly reprimanded by Tom and their parents, but they were prohibited from attending the party at all and sent to have dinner in their rooms. Normally, disrespecting any rule; no matter how small, would warrant some form of punitive measure. For lighter offenses, it was usually chores. For most teenagers it was worth spending a couple of hours or days cleaning the latrines or helping the cooks cut potatoes, but this was different. The Hourglass Night wasn’t just a night to reflect on the inevitability of death, but an opportunity to celebrate not only one’s own life, but all the lives lost to their chosen path. To disrespect tonight’s festivities warranted greater punishment. Thankfully for them, Tom decided another year’s worth of waiting would be more than enough punishment, and the best way to make an example out of the two.

“I’m surprised that wasn’t you. Or that you didn’t try to sneak in last year.” Dani glanced at the younger teenager who’d come to stand next to her. Franklin was watching the two boys march away to their cabins; defeated, a trace of a smirk playing on his lips.

She shook her head at his statement. “The most important rule for a successful troublemaker is ‘if someone’s expecting it, it’s not worth doing’. I can’t be too predictable, Smith. I have to keep people on their toes, you know?”

“You were probably just worried you wouldn’t get away with it this time,” Franklin answered with a disbelieving scoff. “And don’t call me ‘Smith’. That’s my dad.”

Dani frowned. “What do you mean by ‘get away with it this time’? I don’t usually get away with things.” At his protest she hummed, regarding him with interest. “ Okay, how about Smithy, then?”

“How about you call me ‘Franklin’ like everyone else? And you’re the Alpha’s daughter, Dani. Impartial as I’m sure your mother tries to be, you can’t pretend that doesn’t affect anything.”

“That’s boring. I like Smithy,” Dani smirked. “And of course it affects things, but that doesn’t mean I can get away with breaking the rules. How many times have you seen me suspended for one thing or another?” She patted Franklin on the arm to encourage him to follow along when a path to the refreshments table became available. “Look, you’ve been training under Matthison and I know what he thinks of me. And I know that he thinks it’s my sister’s fault I’m this chaotic being, unable to take anything serious, but he’s wrong. Dead wrong. And I usually don’t bother correcting anyone about that, but if we’re going to be training partners in any way moving forward, that’s vital information for you.”

Franklin walked beside her, offering polite nods to passing Actives as they issued cheerful greetings. “He’s never said anything of that sort, and nothing’s been decided in regards to us training together.”

“Because that would mean working with Lena and letting her conduct the training, which isn’t something Wayne wants to do. He’s going to do it because he knows you need that, but he’s going to stall as much as possible for the sake of his pride.” She stopped next to the table and picked up an empty plate, piling a few different pastries on. “And I know he never said that, but come on . . . . He’s not the only Instructor who thinks Lena should keep me in line. Wayne I can forgive because he still has some of that leftover military training in the back of his mind, you know? He thinks any and all transgression is a blatant disrespect and there’s nothing in between insolence and complete obedience.”

The sounds of chatter were enough to drown out their conversation and somewhere a small group were already coordinating their varying musical talents into something that Dani might have considered harmonious. The results were mixed. Even with all the noise, Franklin glanced around as if to check for any Instructors that might be listening in. “Why are you having this conversation with me?”

“Because, Smithy,” she smirked as she uttered the nickname, “you went into that spar thinking I’d eat dirt within a minute and I almost broke your arm. Now, the funny part is; you would have won if only you’d taken me serious. Lena knows this, Wayne knows it too. I was careless, you were arrogant and—fortunately for me—luck favors the bold.”

“Luck won’t carry you,” Franklin scoffed.

“I learned from that spar. I’m not banking on luck to save me twice. The fact you came up to me tonight under the same misguided assumptions you had before, though? That tells me you still need a lesson or two.”

Franklin frowned, slighted at first, but his expression gradually shifted to suspicion. “Did you choose to fight with those batons because you knew I would rule out a spar to first blood the moment I saw them?”

Dani smiled and picked one of the pastries in her plate to bite into, chewing it with a soft hum of approval. “These taste so much better than last year’s. I gotta remember to ask who made them.”

Franklin shook his head, failing to hold back an amused sound and swiping one off her plate. “Do they, now?”

Dani groaned in protest halfway into another bite.

“What’s that?” Franklin smiled and took a generous bite off the stolen pastry and she swallowed hers with an aggravated glare. Franklin chuckled, but as Dani continued to glare he reached for the table, picked up a similar pastry and placed it on her plate. “Alright, here you go.”

Dani took a step back from him with an irritated snort. “That was uncalled for, Smithy. Do it again and I might break your arm for real.”

“Are you going to answer my question?”

Dani was all the more aggravated at her failure to redirect the conversation. “It was a gamble, but again. . .”

“Luck favors the bold.” Franklin muttered. “So you preyed on my better nature. Quite the gamble.”

Dani snorted, momentarily setting her plate down on the edge of the table to pour herself some water. “No. I took advantage of your preconceived notion of me. And it was a gamble, yes, but don’t think I wouldn’t have made an honest attempt to bleed you if it hadn’t worked.”

“Never mind how that would even be possible,” Franklin muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. “My preconceptions; and everyone else’s for that matter. . . That’s something you perpetuated. ”

“Taken advantage of? Sure. Perpetuated? I don’t know. Have I, really?” Dani smiled behind the rim of her water cup, taking a long drink. “When have I ever told anyone what to think? I mean, you can draw the conclusion that some of it is rebellion. And that’d be a given because if I don’t do it now, when am I ever going to, right? But besides that, if; allegedly, I had snuck into the Instructors rooms in the middle of the night and doodled on their faces, what does that say about me?”

“Do you have to say ‘allegedly’ just because there’s no proof you did it? Everyone knows it was you. Who else would have bothered doing something like that?”

Dani sighed, finishing her water and setting the cup down. “I asked you a question, Smithy. Let’s say I did something like that. You could argue I’m doing it to have a laugh on someone else’s expense; to stir up trouble because I know I can just get away with it, and, actually, that is what you said, isn’t it? And I’m under no obligation to correct you if that assumption just so happened to be wrong.”

“If you’re not doing it to get away with it, then what could you possibly have to gain from this kind of petty nonsense, Dani?”

“I am doing it to get away with it, but not because I know I can get away with it. I don’t. If I could get caught and suffer absolutely no consequence, then there would be no point.” Dani chuckled at Franklin’s dubious expression. “Look at it from my mother’s point of view for a second, alright? The Recruits in this clan are being trained to go out there, commit possibly the worst possible transgressions and get away with it. Now, if she knows I did something wrong; harmless but wrong, and I left no trace, I got away with it completely, would it be in the Wolfpack’s best interest to punish that behavior?”

Franklin opened his mouth to answer, closed it again, then settled for taking another bite of food to buy himself time.

“That was a rhetorical question, Smithy. The obvious answer is no, it wouldn’t. Of course, it also wouldn’t benefit anyone if all Recruits ran amuck releasing stink bombs around camp, so if I do get caught . . . Let’s just say you don’t want to know how many crap buckets I’ve had to clean in the past three years.”

Franklin scoffed under his breath as he brushed some pastry flakes off his shirt. “You never used any stink bombs. I’m pretty sure I would have at least heard about something like that happening.”

“Do you remember a couple of years ago when Tom called everyone up and said the Dining Hall was going to be off limits for a week?”

“You’re not serious.” Franklin searched Dani’s eyes for any sign of dishonesty. Finding none, he frowned. “He said there was a raccoon infestation.”

Before Dani had the opportunity to say anything else, someone cut into their conversation. “She’s not serious, Frank. You should know better than to buy into everything that one has to say.”

Dani tilted her head to the side, looking past Franklin to the older girl standing behind him. “Are you calling me a liar, Adria?”

Adria’s smile was almost mischievous. “I would never. If I was going to call you something it would probably be an exaggerator.”

“Never? Don’t know if I believe you there.”

“Skepticism is a healthy practice,” Adria said, with a calm shrug. She turned to the table and examined the offerings with a contemplative expression. “Frank, Lionel said he wants you for an Olith game later.”

“How later is ‘later’? I don’t plan on staying up all night, Wayne said he’ll give me a new scar for every time I come in late for training. Then ‘maybe I’ll learn the importance of punctuality’.”

“After the children go to bed. And, to his merit, it seems to be an effective teaching method.” Adria picked out a few pieces of fruit and one of the pastries then turned her attention to Dani. “I’ve heard some around the encampment theorize that you weren’t actually responsible for the, uhm . . . the raccoon infestation. They think you’re covering for someone. I’m inclined to agree with that. It was far too malicious for you. You’re not malicious and if someone believed you were responsible for that situation, they wouldn’t assume malicious intent. Am I right?” Adria didn’t wait for an answer and, giving her brother an affectionate pat on the shoulder, turned to walk away.

Franklin glanced after his sister as she left them. “Is she right?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Dani muttered. “Why would I take blame for something I didn’t do? I had to clean the entire thing by myself and it took me a week to do it.”

Franklin smiled knowingly. “Uh-huh.”

Dani’s eyes narrowed as she inched closer, catching a faint glow in Franklin’s eyes just as it dissipated. “Did you just read my mind, you jerkface?”

Franklin shrugged. “We all have to use the talents we’re given in life, don’t we? You’re good at wreaking havoc, I’m a telepath.”

Dani snorted. “Keep it quiet.”

“I don’t care for petty gossip; it’s tiresome.” Franklin said, rolling his eyes. “If I shared every little detail I picked up from people I’d get swarmed by busybodies on a regular basis. I don’t have the time or patience for that”

“You’re telling me about gossip, Smithy? Forget who you’re talking to?” Dani couldn’t help a smirk when the nickname brought on a look of annoyance. “You’ll get used to it.”

Before Franklin had a chance to answer, several whiny protests alerted them to the fact it was time for the younger members of the clan to retire for the night. Dani scanned her surroundings and it didn’t take long for her to spot Sarah trying to sneak away from the other children. Dani snorted in amusement. “I’ll catch up with you later, Smithy. Have to go take care of something.” She didn’t wait to get a response and started making her around the central clearing, watching as Sarah successfully disappeared behind a tree in the middle of the commotion.

Her clan mates’ ‘music’ had improved in the past hour. The cheerful conversation had been joined by childish protests and aggravated scoldings. Underneath it all, the faint ruffle of boots trampled grass; lurking in the shadows cast by the empty cabins that encircled the clearing. Dani’s steps were slower, more cautious, they folded the blades of grass gently against the earth, barely uttering a sound. It wasn’t necessary caution—not with the cacophony of sounds emanating from the party—but a deeply ingrained habit. Dani gauged the direction of her sister’s steps and followed carefully until she spotted her again. Sarah was ducking down close to the outer wall of a cabin, Dani smirked and circled around. She stood behind Sarah, regarding her in silence for a moment before leaning in close and calling out loudly. “Hey there, squirt. Whatcha doing?”

Sarah let out a startled squeal and spun around to swat at her. “Dani, sshh!”

Dani chuckled. “Did you think that if you hid well enough mom was going to forget about you?”

Sarah smiled sheepishly. “It’s a busy night. I just wanted to watch the Olith game.”

Dani snorted and shook her head. “Come on, I’m gonna take you to bed.”

“Dani, come on . . . Just for a little bit? Please?”

“Not tonight, Squirt. Like it or not, tonight we gotta follow all the rules.” Dani held out her hand for Sarah to take. “The boys play Olith all the time. The only reason you want to watch is that you’re not allowed to.”

Sarah scoffed, but took it. “It’s not fair.”

“You’re gonna be saying that your entire life. The world isn’t fair and that’s true for everyone. The only difference is you’re still a kid and you have to do as you’re told. Period,” Dani said, smiling. “When you’re older you’ll have more opportunities to do the wrong thing. Then you can spend your weeks cleaning crap buckets, like me.”

Sarah chuckled. “What?”

“Do you think the workers do that? It’s all misbehaved Recruits.”

Sarah shot her a skeptical look. “You’re kidding?”

“Exaggerating at most. I’m not kidding that I’ve had to do that. And I’m not the only one. And if you’re thinking about following in my footsteps, you should mentally prepare for it. Mom is not going to spare you any punishment.” Sarah hummed, her contemplative frown made clear she hadn’t been thinking of consequences. As Dani led her out of hiding and across the noisy clearing, she added. “That’s why it’s important to pick your battles. If it’s not important enough to risk having to clean crap buckets, just don’t do it.”

“Or . . .” Sarah mumbled, a thought forming in her head. “I could just make sure I don’t get caught!”

Dani broke into a laughing fit. “I guess that’s also an option, yes. However . . .”

“I know, you caught me,” Sarah mumbled, rolling her eyes. “I just need to work on it.”

“Don’t feel bad. Not everyone’s born with my trouble-making skills.”

Sarah shot her a glare. “How many crap buckets did you say you had to clean again?”

“Alright, no need to get vicious on me.” Dani stopped as she saw Tom push past a few dancers stumbling along to the music on his way to them. “Look, there’s dad. See, I told you they weren’t going to forget you.”

“You said mom wouldn’t forget me. Dad’s not mom.” Sarah’s mutter was defiant for the sake of defiance, but there was an unmistakable note of hurt underneath.

“I’m sure mom hasn’t forgotten you either, squirt.”

Sarah shrugged. “It’s a busy night.”

Dani squeezed her sister’s hand reassuringly. “Still. I’m sure she hasn’t.”

Sarah nodded and let go of her hand. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She took one step towards her father and looked over her shoulder with a teasing smile. “Don’t get drunk and pass out somewhere. Someone might, I don’t know, come along and doodle on your face.”

Dani chuckled. “I don’t know who’d ever do such a terrible thing to me, but I promise I’ll be careful.”

“Good. You have a reputation after all. Would be really unfortunate if someone got the best of you one of these days.”

“If someone out there is willing to try I wish them all the luck. They’ll definitely need it.” Dani smiled and nodded a greeting as Tom came to take Sarah by the hand. “Hey. Where did mom go? Thought she would at least have a drink before calling it a night.”

Tom nodded. “Claire wanted to have a talk with Lena after the ceremony and now she’s waiting for someone to come to bed,” he paused to offer Sarah an amused smile, “but she will come out.”

“Is Lena going to be in trouble because of the whole . . .” Dani searched for words and found none that fit, making a vague, helpless gesture with her hand instead.

“No. I don’t think anyone should get in trouble for that. What Eddie did was a serious betrayal, it wouldn’t be fair to reprimand anyone for still feeling resentful.”

“Has it ever happened before?”

Tom frowned, tugging Sarah out of the way of a passing Active holding two mugs filled to the brim with ale. “Once. At least, as far as I’ve witnessed.”

Dani hummed, noticing a trace of discomfort in Tom’s expression. “Was it Lucille?”

“Yes,” Tom answered without hesitation, despite the discomfort the subject still caused. “The situation wasn’t resolved quite as peacefully then.”

Dani sighed. “I can guess for myself how that conversation’s going.”

Sarah looked between the two of them, puzzled. “Who’s Lucille?”

Tom flinched and Dani could practically hear all the rehearsed lines he was considering to get out of this: “No one important”, “It’s a long story” and, of course, the worst possible choice . . . “We’ll talk about it when you’re older”. Finally, he heaved a tired sigh and settled on a real explanation. “Lucille was your mother’s best friend ever since they were very young and, like Eddie, she made a huge mistake that eventually cost someone’s life. So, like with Eddie, your mother had to enforce the clan’s laws.”

Sarah frowned. “What did she do?”

“That . . .” Tom ran his free hand through his hair. “That’s something better left alone, love. It upset a lot of people; your mother included. It wouldn’t be fair to reopen those wounds. Do you understand?”

Sarah nodded, slowly, still processing what she’d just been told. “I think so.”

“Have you said goodnight to your sister yet?”

Sarah shook her head and mumbled a quiet, “Goodnight.”

Dani crouched to meet her sister’s eye level and smiled. “Hey, squirt . . . Chin up, yeah? What’s the point of being sad over stuff that happened twenty years ago? You should be thinking about what dreams you’re going to have tonight. Or . . . How much noise you’re going to make when Dahlia comes in hungover tomorrow.”

The suggestion managed to elicit a small smile. “Do you still have those firecrackers?”

“I . . . Uhm . . .” Dani trailed off as she met Tom’s severe gaze. “We’ll talk about it in the morning, okay?” She stood, lightly tapping Sarah on the chin to coax the girl into holding her head up. “Goodnight, squirt.”

******

Dani kept an eye out for Lena, but in the first two hours after the children were removed, there was no sign of her. In that time, Dani ate some more pastries, lost a few hands of Olith, was persuaded to join an uncoordinated sing-along, and turned down a couple of invitations to dance. While she appreciated the efforts of their improvised band more and more as time progressed, it wasn’t enough to convince her to dance like no one was watching. One of the boys from the Olith table—Franklin’s friend, Lionel—remarked, laughing, that she was in dire need of liquid courage. Dani told him to “Piss off,” but was forced to consider he might be right. One of the dining tables had been covered with bottles of different shapes and sizes and a couple of casks of ale and wine. She wasn’t sure what most of the bottles were and despite hovering by the table multiple times in that past hour, always ended up pouring herself water instead. On her fourth visit to the liquor table, someone finally swooped in, and before she had the chance to turn away, she felt an arm wrap around her shoulders.

“Alright, kid. I can’t let you go on like this. You’re gonna ruin your reputation.”

Dani looked up at Emmett’s amused face. “What reputation, Emmett?”

“You know, the rebel child who’s not scared of anything? How are you gonna come off if you keep pussyfooting around the drinks table? You look like a baby deer in a water hole, waiting for something to pounce.” Emmett grinned and gave her a playful shove. “Fret not, poor innocent child, uncle Emmett’s here to help.”

“Twins sake,” Dani muttered. “Alright, what do you recommend?”

“Ale.” Emmett pulled his arm away to grab a mug and fill it up for her. “It’s your first time, don’t complicate things. Ale is practically water, it’s not gonna do anything to you unless you drink a gallon of it.” He held the mug out for her to take. “It’s a little bitter, so if you can’t put up with it, there’s spiced cider and mead, in those bottles there, but don’t overdo it. Stay away from the harder stuff, those will do you in before you know it.”

Dani looked down at the mug, sloshing the liquid around with a suspicious frown.

“Kid, just drink it,” Emmett insisted with a small chuckle. “You’re gonna be fine.”

Dani hummed, taking a reluctant sip. It was more watery than she expected and, to her taste, not as bitter as Emmett had made it out to be. “It’s not bad.”

“What’d I tell you, huh? It’s not that big of a deal,” Emmett said, pouring himself a drink from one of the unmarked bottles.

“So what are you drinking then?” Dani asked.

“It’s something the Crimson Shadows brew in the desert. Pretty strong, bitter as hell; they call it Dragon’s Piss. Apparently they gave us a crate of the stuff last year. Not for the faint of heart; stay away from it, Runt.”

Dani had another taste of ale, shooting Emmett a curious glance. “Were you allowed to drink in Newhaven?”

“What kind of Innkeeper doesn’t drink? You gotta keep up appearances.” Emmett smirked, sipping his drink with a small grimace. “Why? Considering a different career path?”

“And live that far away from camp?”Dani snorted. “No, thank you.”

Emmett chuckled. “Ah. You can take the Wolf out of the forest, but . . .”

“But not this Wolf,” Dani cut him off with a small wave. “If I have a say in it, I’ll live out my days and die in this camp.”

Emmett arched an eyebrow and slowly reached for her mug. “I think you had enough of that, Runt.”

Dani chuckled and pulled the mug away from Emmett’s grasp. “I’m not drunk yet. I do want to leave. I hope I’ll get to see the entirety of Valcrest before I’m forced to settle, but I’d never call anywhere else home. I’ll always come back.”

Emmett poured himself another drink. “I suppose that makes sense. You do have more reason to come back than I do.”

“Why did you come back, then?” Dani finished her ale and, after considering some of the other bottles, poured herself another.

“Your mother said I would be useful here. Besides, I got no place to go, so might as well.”

“What about your brother?”

“Eh. Might have burned that bridge already. Kid doesn’t want me around no matter what I do.”

Dani shook her head. “You’re giving up too easily. Eldric is angry, he’s cooped up in here, and you’re an easy target.” She shrugged. “If a punching bag is what he needs right now, then maybe do that for him.”

“You think I should let him punch me senseless and that’s gonna help?”

Before Dani could answer, Lena cut into the conversation, walking up to the table and pouring herself a goblet of wine. “She’s telling you to stop demanding forgiveness and offer something instead, you dumbass.”

“Hey. I thought you weren’t going to come out after all,” Dani said.

“I needed some time to myself, but I wasn’t going to skip on the party altogether.” Lena’s tone was tense following what Dani assumed had been a difficult conversation with their mother. The way she downed her wine in one large gulp was another clear indicator.

“I don’t want to make your night any worse, but there’s a chance Sarah will start asking you questions about Lucille.”

Lena froze, hand outstretched, reaching for the wine bottle. “Why?”

“I mentioned something to Tom in front of her and she wanted to know who she was.” Dani told her, apologetically. “He told her the gist of it, but he didn’t tell her everything. And we know who she goes to when that happens.”

“Fabulous,” Lena muttered, grabbing the bottle of wine and taking a swig from it. “Why did you have to bring her up at all?”

“What’s the big deal?” Emmett asked. “I mean, doesn’t Sarah already know you’re adopted?”

Lena shook her head with a snort and took another hefty swig of wine, her cup now discarded. “Yeah, but she doesn’t know how I was adopted, Emmett. She’s nine.”

“You’re telling me,” Emmett chuckled, “that no one, at any point, in the past nine years, mentioned your birth mother in front of her? At all?”

“Your father tried to, but Tom put a stop to it,” Dani answered. She then turned her attention back to Lena. “I can talk to her myself if you don’t want to deal with it.”

“No.” Lena sighed, her next swig of wine a little more restrained. “I’d rather tell her about it myself. It was going to come up eventually. I just wish it wasn’t this soon.”

Emmett hummed, reaching for his bottle once again. “I’ll trade you.”

Lena laughed. “If you can’t handle Eldric, Sarah would eat you alive.”

“Probably true, but you know what they say up in the desert?” Emmett smirked, refilling his cup.

Lena rolled her eyes. “Considering the source, I’m sure it’s going to be fascinating.”

“They say that the greatest remedy for a worried mind is . . .” He finished his sentence by downing his entire drink at once.

“Healthy,” Lena scoffed.

“We all die young, Bright Eyes.” Emmett poured himself another shot and raised his cup playfully “Might as well live a little, yeah?”

“The way you talk, if you ever wanted to retire, I’m pretty sure the Crimson would take you. You’d fit right in,” Dani mused.

“Living out in the desert with a bunch of roughhousing shirtless mercenaries? Me?” Emmett grinned. “You’re right. I can absolutely see where I’d ‘fit right in’.”

“Twins . . . Go take a dip in the lake, Emmett,” Lena scolded. “Stop voicing your frustrations in front of my little sister.”

Emmett snorted a chuckle and walked away, leaving the two of them behind to join the singing and dancing taking place in the center of the clearing. The dancers were, predictably, intoxicated and Dani knew that—unlike Emmett—most of them would never allow themselves this level of unbridled merriment otherwise. It made it all the more entertaining to watch. She wondered how they would react if only they could see themselves. The Wolves who were still sober, or at least not as intoxicated, clustered into groups; either engaged in cheerful conversation or gathered around tables playing games of chess or hands of Olith. On any other night, Dani imagined that’s where Lena would spend her night, but her sister lingered by the drinks table, having made quick work of her wine bottle.

“You’re not going to play any games?” She asked.

Lena glanced over at the game tables and scoffed. “No. I’m sick of Olith and there isn’t much of a challenge in playing chess against most of these guys. Wayne’s the only one who’s good at it, but he’s an arrogant prick.” She picked up another bottle and pulled off the cork. “I think I’m going to get something to eat and turn in.”

“Come on, Lena. What’s the point of having a party if you’re not going to enjoy it?”

“Everyone else is enjoying it just fine, and I’m happy for them,” Lena told her with a tired smile, “which is all the more reason for me to turn in. I wouldn’t want to let my bad mood sour anyone else’s night.”

“Admirable, but stupid.” Dani smiled, imitating Emmett’s earlier gesture and placing an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “Emmett is a bit of a dumbass, but he’s got a point, you know? Live a little.”

Lena shook her head and removed Dani’s arm unceremoniously. “Emmett is drunk and I’m still uncomfortably lucid after a whole bottle of wine so I don’t think his advice is going to work for me. Another downside of being an almighty telepath.”

Dani frowned. “You . . . Don’t get drunk?”

“Not really. Tipsy, if I really try. Most Enlightened are at least resistant to alcohol, but some telepaths are pretty much immune.” Lena took another drink from her new bottle as to emphasize her statement. “I just think wine tastes good.”

Dani hummed an interested note, her gaze falling on a small group of Wolves engaged in cheerful conversation; Madeline and Eldric among them. “Is this common knowledge?”

“I don’t advertise it. Why?”

Dani smirked. “Wanna challenge the new girl to a drinking contest?”

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