Hiero had been looking for her everywhere. She hadn't been around the healer's quarters, or anywhere in the main camp. It was an odd time of day, to be sure, sometime between late afternoon and early evening. Still, he had hoped to find her before heading home. Their small family had been strained to new limits of late, and he was worried about his siblings.
His search had taken him into the woods south of the camp, seeking out the sun-dappled spots he remembered she had favored for her bug-watching habit. The once mossy ground was now crusted in ice and snow- he knew it wasn't the time of year for it, but he supposed she might still come around to... check on them? What did bugs even do in the winter?
"Zin?" He tried again, more softly, ending it with a sigh. Vale's territory was fairly vast, and she could be anywhere. If he didn't find any luck here, he'd just have to head back and wait by the den.
A puffing breath escaped her jaws. Slow steps carried the young she-wolf in the direction of Ironhold, Vale’s sheltered home. Of course, home had been a finicky thing to Zinnia as of late. She struggled to push the thoughts away, narrowing golden eyes and staring down the snow-and-leaf churned path ahead. Just as the scents of camp swelled in her nose, a voice rang out, calling her name.
She easily identified the speaker as one of her littermates, the one who she shared duties with. One ear flicked up with interest as she quickened her pace, making haste towards the source of the call. Lifting her chin, she surveyed the barren woodland that stood between her and the densite, hoping to spot the golden-grey fur of her brother through the stark colors of snow and tree bark.
“Hiero?” She caught a flash of yellow, and turned abruptly. Paws crunched through untouched snow as she wound through the dead bracken. Familiar pathways she’d trod during the warm seasons now lay cold and glossed over with a layer of snow. Prints she determined to be Hieronymus’s were one of the few things that marred the white powder.
Zinnia slowed as she approached him, her tail half lifted with curiosity. Despite her weariness she smiled, glad nonetheless to see kin. Kin that she trusted, anyway.
"Zin!" Hiero spun around and caught sight of his sister, then trotted forward to meet her. A rare half-smile appeared on his face, but melted away as soon as he remembered why he had called for her. He knew what he needed to talk about, but... what could he say? A mild sense of dread clutched at his heart. By the time he came to a stop in front of her he was looking tired, drawn, and older than his years.
"Zinnia... I just wanted to see how you're doing." He looked away, unsure of how to continue. "It's just, we haven't really spoken since..." The words caught in his throat. Images from that night were still sharp in his mind- It was too soon, too raw, to just say it outright. His anger was like dull embers now, but every time he saw their father it would flare up with renewed fury, and it was getting difficult to manage. He did not like to admit it, but the strain was wearing him down. He needed to talk, as much for himself as for her. Looking back toward her he began to speak, too fast. "I'm worried. About you, about Hera and Ambrose, and... I'm worried about mother."
Her own smile withered slightly as his did, and she felt a lump rise in her throat. Her paws prickled with tension as she slowed and came to a halt before him. She realized moments before he spoke what this was about. Her ears pulled back nervously, and she couldn’t help but drop her gaze as well. The tightness in her chest grew, and she clenched her jaw for a moment. Then she sighed, heavy and worn.
“I’m worried too.” She mumbled, managing to meet his gaze again. Though looking at him only made the hurt worsen, it seemed. “Especially about Mother. I think...I think she must know, at least something… maybe more than we do. I don’t know.” Her face scrunched. “I don’t understand…. why… how he could..” She was talking way too fast now, too. “...hurt her...hurt us! It’s--” She broke off as her throat became too tight to speak. Thick tears rolled down her face, tears she had stifled since their discovery of Silvanus’s betrayal, tears that she could no longer hold back.
Her haunches thudded to the ground as she tried to control her sobs, shoulders shaking with each raspy breath.
Hiero regretted bringing it up the moment he saw Zinnia's smile fade and her ears pull back. He wished dearly that this was something that could be forgotten, that what they witnessed that night could melt away in the sun's rays, but those were a child's wishes. They weren't children anymore. He listened intently as she began to speak.
“Especially about Mother. I think...I think she must know..."
He nodded. "Yes, I think so too. Mother's been..." A lump was forming in his throat, and he found that he couldn't continue. As she began to speak faster and finally broke down in tears, he could feel his despair clawing at him, dragging him down. Seeing his sister like this was devastating. Part of him had already known how bad things were, but now he could see the cracks forming in everything he held dear, and it reminded him painfully of his own helplessness in this situation. There were hurts he could not mend, and problems he could not fix.
Still, he could try.
He sat down heavily next to her, and arched his neck over hers in a protective embrace, his heart breaking silently.
"What do we do now?" It was the question burning in his mind, but it was one that he knew he couldn't lay on her shoulders. He could feel the tears welling up behind his eyes, trying to force themselves out, and he blinked rapidly to ward them away.
"Zi-innia..." His voice cracked and he clenched his jaws shut, afraid that he wouldn't be able to keep the fear and desperation out of words.
Her eyes were fixed on the soil, though blurry with tears that prevented her from truly seeing. She shuddered; a weak attempt at stifling her cries made her cough. Sucking in a breath, she flapped her ears back, barely hearing as her brother moved closer. The sudden thud of his arrival and warming contact made her throat tighten again, and she fought not to whimper.
Hiero’s stuttered words sent a bolt of pain through her, and she twisted slightly to push her face against his fur. She didn’t trust herself to speak without weeping more. She curled her tail tightly against her haunches and tried to think about nothing, about the darkness that was all she could see. She could hear her brother’s heartbeat faintly, and concentrated on that.
When the tears no longer came, Zin exhaled weakly and opened the eye that was not pressed against fur. “Hiero.” She murmured quietly. It wasn’t an opening to further speech, but simply his name. A comforting word.
She didn’t pull away either. The closeness was something they hadn’t shared in a while, and she didn’t want it to end. It would have to eventually, but not yet. Not yet.
Hiero tightened his embrace protectively, as if he were afraid his sister might disappear. He wanted nothing more than to cry with her, to sob and rage, to vent all of the pain and frustration that had been building within him. He shut his eyes tightly and focused on keeping his breathing steady- he couldn't afford to lose control. He needed to be strong.
Soon his sister's sobs began to fade, and a cold, exhausted kind of clarity returned to his mind. Out of a half-meditative state, he heard her murmur his name, and it nearly broke him. What could he say? Every word of support or comfort that drifted through his head felt hollow, insufficient. He let the new silence hang between them for some time, punctuated by soft breathing that fogged up in the chill air. The sunlight that cut through the trees was beginning to fade. They would have to leave soon. Hiero finally spoke, his voice low and distant.
"We're still a family. No one can take that from us." He hoped it was true.
She felt tired. Not in the way as if she’d been running, but oddly different. It was both emotional and physical, and she didn’t think sleep would much help. Her eyes fluttered shut for a second. Then her brother’s voice stirred the quiet again, and she lifted her head without pulling away from his fur. A weak half-smile flicked across her maw.
“You’re right.” She replied, taking a deep breath. She thought of Rose and Hera and felt her chest swell. They weren’t alone, not ever. And Mother… sweet Dahlia. Zin sniffed softly, brushing her snout against her brother’s thick fluff. “Thanks, Hiero.” The creamy she-wolf murmured. After a moment of hesitating, the young female slowly shifted backwards and out of her sibling’s cozy embrace. She could feel the cold prickle at her fur, causing her to wrinkle her nose in bitterness.
Zin glanced towards the sky between the canopy and shivered slightly. “Let’s go home,” She chuffed, turning to meet her brother’s orange gaze. It was a short walk, thankfully. Rising to her paws, she arched her back and flexed toes in the frigid soil, swinging her head to face the direction of Ironhold.
The affirmation loosened the knotted muscles in his back and lifted a weight from his heart. It filled him with warmth, even as the cold air needled through his newly-exposed fur. It was a point of light in the darkness. If his sister could still believe it, then so could he.
Hiero returned her gaze with a reassuring nod and a soft smile. Home. Though a new darkness had had crept into the word, stinking of deception and uncertainty, it would never taint it entirely. As long as they were all together, the light would always be enough to push it back. His smile disappeared with the failing sun as Zinnia turned toward Ironhold, though his steady resolve remained. Winter was nearing its end, and these long nights would soon give way to rain and new growth. He tried to keep his thoughts on spring as he left snowy footprints in his sister's wake.
Too soon, he knew, he would have to exchange words with his father. And Gods help the coward if he caused any more harm in the meantime.