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Time for Change
“Have eyes. Did notice.” Tenzin frowned, but the venom had gone now. She shifted to sit cross-legged, abandoning the cleaning utensils. This topic was not one she was sure it was wise to dig too deeply into, at least not too quickly. Questioning the concept of monsters was not quite the same as discovering you were sitting opposite one, and Jacinda’s emotions still smelled too fragile to risk adding a sense of betrayal to them.

“How, yes. Who, yes. Not perfect. Make mistake. But happy soul, mostly. And matters,” she corrected. Because they would need to come back to the girl. “Don’t hunt children. Never have.”

She watched the other woman watching her. “In Leh? Yes. Not for whole India. Follow Buddah, like said. All life deserves chance. Peace and balance important, not just hunt everything different. Naga spook village for searching food? Why die for that, Jacinda? Naga give no harm. So mediate village instead. Keep peace.” As examples went, it was an innocuous one; purposefully so. Jacinda was correct that it was all shades of grey, and sometimes there were no right or wrong answers, just bad choices and worse ones. Wading through that kind of philosophical swamp was not something Tenzin usually distracted herself with, though. She was far more the creature of instinct, in part thanks to her kin.

“Wasn’t choice, actually. Taught from cradle. Many are. Solitary ones, yes? Ah, no family I mean. In small villages rākṣasa hatyārā collect children not wanted. Strange ones. Crops die. Bad omens. And sometimes true, but mostly just too many mouth and need gone.” She shrugged, for such was life, and she had no complaint with her own childhood. She’d mentioned as much before, in passing, but never seemed sentimental at her own past. In truth the origins of her blood mattered little; the flesh and blood mother and father she had never known, or the question of why they had given her up. Tenzin had never really wondered about it, beyond acknowledging that if they had not she would probably be dead by now.

“Oh, lamas would probably say poor student. Despair for me to be teacher now.” Her sudden grin was nothing if not wolfish in aspect. The calling had changed her beyond recognition from the studious child she had been, and she knew the lama had struggled with her new nature. But the wolves had an intrinsic understanding of good and evil, and it certainly affected her outlook in the ways Jacinda was asking. It was also a question she wouldn’t answer in any definable way.

They had touched on this before, the night they had met. “We protect good. Man is both. Spirit-touched is both. And others. Make task difficult? Oh, sure. But not impossible. Sometimes protect is not death, like naga. Just easy option. So have question now. Did Nox Durante hurt you? He is spirit-touched, yes? But… good hunter? Did you feel reason here-” a finger prodded her own chest “-or because rule of dead regus?”
Jacinda tilted her head in thought as she listened. Despite the outburst of emotion, Tenzin had a...quiet, settled nature. Clearly, it hid deep emotion far below. She imagined part of it was from where and how she grew up. Monasteries, villages and Lamas all conjured up visions of meditation and yoga and study. Sitting for hours in a lotus position chanting mantras. It was definitely not the kind of life she had lived. Oh, she had lots of down time. Quiet moments. Sleeping under the stars. Hiking through mountains. Driving for hours and days. Over the years she had developed her own worldview. Her own 'cowboy philosophy', as people called it. Those who rode the trail, especially before telecommunication made it possible to watch movies or speak to people from any location, had a lot of time to think. And more. Not that she wrote poetry or anything.

Still...she saw humanity in a war for survival- and they the ones keeping the monsters at bay. The stories Regan had told her had formed the basis of that view. The dangers posed by creatures like rougs, chupes, or oni. And those made sense. But others, the more human, that was harder. And so he hammered at that over and over again. Despite that first kill of the roug who killed her mom, it had taken some doing to get her to not empathize with some of the others. The ones who looked monstrous were easy. But the others...Yeah, she wasn't sure that ever went away. It was probably why she focused on the former. Harpies or quetzals.

Naga and wolfkin, singers and fawns. She was not exactly interested in hunting something whose only crime was that they danced well. Or liked plants. Not Regan though, from the way he kept trying to convince her. And now she knew why. True, she had encountered wolfkin a few times. Those could be rough. But most of the time they seemed to be like the occasional hermit you'd find living alone in a cabin. Maybe a bit off or wild. But that was about it. Not really things she bothered to chase down, not unless they were hurting people. Not when there were more dangerous things to hunt. She did have a code, after all.

Naga had never crossed her path. And given what Tenzin described- the Naga and the village- she was glad of it.

It all seemed so simplistic, that old view so childish, now that she thought about it with fresh eyes.

Of course, now that she knew what he had been- a real monster!- she shook her head, feeling so fucking stupid, angry at herself. Because Ten was right. "It is too easy, isn't it. Shoot first, ask questions later." She closed her eyes for a moment. Ooooh, Jacinda, the hunter. So fearless and independent. Never afraid to challenge any authority. And yet...she muttered softly, 'It never occurred to me to question- what Regan taught me." What a fucking moron!

But Ten didn't seemed bothered about her own situation growing up. Not at all. Jacinda wondered if she'd ever get to the point she could let it go. Move on at least. She'd like to. She looked at the woman, now seated on the floor across from her, knees nearly touching. Quiet stillness and peace radiated from her. It felt...familiar, reminded her of something buried deep. She wasn't sure what it was, though. Only that once again she felt a strange pull as she listened to her voice, saw the calm in those deep dark eyes. The irritation at her stupidity lessened, though didn't go away completely.

Ten's grin seemed to light up the room, perhaps because it was so rare. Her eyes seemed to dance. It was infectious. Jacinda couldn't help but smile back. "Well, I can write the Lamas for you.. Let 'em know." Her voice became high and sweet. "'Dear Mr. Lama. Tenzin wasn't actually falling asleep during your lessons. Instead, she's helping me be less of a bitch. Thank you for teaching her. Amen.'" Her grin widened and she touched Ten's knee for a moment.

But Tenzin's question about Nox cut short the levity. Channelers, yeah Regan talked about them, though they hadn't been around back then. She was suddenly curious as to why, but that was for another time. He had spoken at length of about them from the ancient stories. And it was true, from many of the things she had seen, they were terrifying. The massive damage done. Volodin had unleashed in a market place, killing people right and left. They were walking bombs. But for all the ones you heard of, what about the others. Again, something she had never thought of.

And yet for all that, the ones the Regus had ordered to be put down had seemed harmless. Were harmlesss. And if she was honest, Volodin had been a high level enforcer for one of the crime families. Not exactly a good guy, channeler or not. And yet he had thought he was helping her, there at the end. Instead of feeling bad, she had shrugged off her betrayal like it was no big deal.

Even worse, though, was it wasn't just them. Their family too. She felt a powerful sense of shame overwhelm her. It was not something she had done often. Indeed, only twice. And had been painless, she told herself at the time. Necessary, but still... Perhaps she had purposely avoided those kind of assignments for that reason. Found excuses to fail. Maybe. She hoped. She was deeply ashamed and disgusted with herself, at how blind she was.

She looked away. No. You did it, bitch! Own up to it! Answer the fucking question!, a voice railed at her inside her head. Her stubborn conscience seemed to have come back with a vengeance over the past few months. Especially now. She looked back, steeling herself to not flinch at the condemnation she knew she would see. That she deserved. Quietly, "No, Nox never hurt me." She clenched her jaw and forced herself on. "I knew him. From America. And he was a good kid. Never hurt anyone that I know of." God, this was so fucking bad. "He was a good hunter."

Why had she wanted to join the Archangels? Really. Why? She had been bored, maybe. Lonely, too. Being part of a team, however temporary, was always...well, not always fun, exactly. But she was part of something, for a while at least. And she was arrogant, she knew. Wanted to be a bad ass. Jacinda Cross, of the the 1st Canticle of the Archangels. Regus knew how titles worked, what they did. So stupid.

"But I was following orders. Not really thinking about it. He deserved better that what we gave him." She remembered the boy's smile from years ago. The desperate way he looked to his dad for...something. The guy was a dick. But despite that, he and Aurora had stuck to the cause. How long had he known he was a channeler and still fought for the good of humanity? Something Tenzin said clicked. "We protect good. Man is both. Spirit-touched is both."

She dropped her eyes. "We are all both." A seed of resolve sprouted. 'I should apologize to him. If I could do it without him taking my head off. No, even if he takes my head off. I deserve it. It doesn' doesn't undo what I did. Tried to do. But..." She shrugged. It was all she could do...well, actually!- "And the girl! She's related to him." Dark anger colored her face. Anger- and shame at her own past. "You know what that means."

Her face hardened in determination, jaw clenching, looking Tenzin in the eye with a vicious smile. "And it's not gonna happen."
“Ah, yes. Too much sleeping.” Tenzin laughed, and there was something both sly and greatly amused by it. She gave Jacinda time to process the question. It wasn’t a pleasant one, truth told. That kind of self-honesty rarely was. She scented the changes in the other woman more than she observed them, and was mostly quiet while the emotions worked themselves through properly. She didn’t offer comfort. It wasn’t that kind of pain. And sometimes it just needed to be felt.

“Hierarchy important,” she said eventually. “Can’t complain for that. Can’t wonder why it made sense for the time.” The words were solemn, but didn’t offer an excuse; it was a purely practical observation, because she understood more than most the sense of belonging to something outside of yourself. Jacinda would have to make peace with her own conscience for the rest, for how long she had lived that way and why, but Tenzin would listen without judgement.

It hit hard and vicious as teeth snapping a throat, that burst from subconscious to active thought.

“Ah, maybe apology step too fast. Doubt he feel nice for woman who tries to kill him? Action matter more. Let him see that, means more than words. And even if he never sees, Jacinda, matters here most of all.” She tapped her own heart again, brows aloft in punctuation of how important she considered that last part.

Tenzin’s own resolutions about the girl had already been made, in quieter but no less iron terms. She had lived months to the Athari’s rules, but her boundaries had never shifted, and she would continue to operate amongst them while she could -- and while the Great Destroyer still breathed. As long as her brethren lived in flux, leaderless, she had little choice, else risk being hunted herself. Jacinda burned hot as flame. They would need to be careful of that. “Thinking careful. They would hunt us for this, your brothers and sisters.”
Jacinda's eyes narrowed, but her grin went lopsided as she chuckled. "Yeah...I guess. It's not like the last time he saw me was one he enjoyed." Nope, not even a little bit. But Ten's words were encouraging nonetheless. Actions mattered.

And strangely, even if Nox never knew how sorry she was, how she had finally rejected the cult-like hold the Atharim- at least the Regan/Regus (odd, that, she thought. So similar in many ways.) Atharim- held over her, well, Ten knew.

And she realized, even that didn't matter. She knew. And that was enough.

Strangely, she felt free. Like a freedom she had never experienced. Her thoughts were her own. There was no...orthodoxy to adhere to. No question to quash. She could know the answer or not. She could believe what she wanted. She could choose to hunt what she chose. Could safeguard and protect those who needed it.

Like Sterling. Her smile transformed into one of warmth and confidence. "I promise, Tenzin. I won't blow anything up. I won't be stupid. But even if it means all my 'brothers and sisters' come for me, I don't care. I don't accept their standard anymore. I am done being a tool. I am done being a hunter."

Her eye flicked down to the inked patterns on Tenzin's arm. Her hand reached out, fingertips lightly tracing the ouroboros amid the whorls. It stood out only because Ten had pointed it out. Her fingers wanted to explore the entire pattern, to learn this woman's story, painfully and painstakingly needled into her skin over hours and days and decades.

 She knew. Tattoos were personal, an expression of the inner person on the outer body. A declaration of who you were.

She traced the smake eating its tail lightly, eyes tentatively meeting Tenzin's. Her nostrils flared and the light seemed to...dim and surge at the same time. An oath. She was taking an oath. "I am a Guardian," she said with finality.

Her heart pounded, the feel of the pulse in her fingers against Tenzin's skin. A part of her wondered if it was Tenzin's heartbeat she felt.

Hoped for it, for some reason. She wasn't sure why. Only that this woman's...feelings mattered. She was important, and she stared into those dark mysterious eyes, trying to understand what she was feeling.

And strangely, the scent of pine permeated and she felt as though she were falling.

But her breath was slow and steady- despite the fear of opening up like this- her touch soft and gentle, and she watched for a sign.
Her lips quirked a smile for Jacinda’s promise. It was never an easy thing to ignore one's own nature, and seldom good for the soul either, but they had each other to rely upon for strength -- and to snap circling predators away. Given the dissolution she had witnessed on these shores she wondered if it was inevitable for the Athari to become so many poor splinters. It grieved her somewhat, to know that now of all times the pack would not be strong, for now was when it most needed to be.

“Destroyer lives still. Not forgetting either. Why I came.” But there was stark little any one of them could do against the slathering jaws of the Ascendancy, least of all while they remained so divided and spread thin. Lately the wolfdream had been troubling to that end. She half nodded to herself, but her attention redirected at the touch. Her arm shifted in welcome of it. Humans were rarely tactile in the way of wolves, and she missed it at times, that wordless affection. Her breathing deepened peaceful.

Her eyes lifted when she felt those tentative shifts in her companion. It left her conflicted, caught between a web of instinct and more learned common sense. Jacinda bared her throat vulnerable and Tenzin would not seize advantage on that; not knowing the lies she still kept, and how much damage their revelation might inflict. She’d never felt guilt for that before. Her nature was an honest one, but survival was stronger and the lies were necessary. 

Was it that any longer though? 

She trusted Jacinda. But these wounds were too newly healed, and Tenzin did not want to split them raw once more, or shadow her own truths over the epiphany. Her dedication came from something other than her wolfish ties. She did not wish for Jacinda to reflect back and mistake a confession now for the foundations being purely self-serving. But she could not answer to instinct until Jacinda knew what she was.

Her palm covered the woman’s hand, lingered in that warmth, and squeezed her fingers. She wished for the easy communication of pack then, but all she had was broken english and human limitation. Neither was convenient.
Jacinda's eyes widened slightly as Tenzin's hand closed over hers, the way her face seemed to relax, the squeeze of her fingers. Her black eyes held mystery, though, and she felt...a draw.

Her other hand began to rise, almost to gently brush stray silky black behind her ear, the slight tickle of fingertips, but her heart pounded too much. Instead, it faltered, only to touch Tenzin's other arm, to lightly trace the sinuous colored lines that were tactility imperceptible from her skin.

It was just a brush and yet everything felt loud. And she was scared. She swallowed and broke eye contact for a moment, trying to understand this woman, to push passed the barriers that separated them.

She was reserved, but Jacinda had been with her long enough to pick up on her body language- at least a bit. Her hands said one thing, her eyes another, the seriousness with how she sat versus the set of her face. Maybe. Or maybe she was just imagining it. Jacinda looked into her eyes and somehow, she could just feel the woman's hesitation, despite the slow flex of fingers. Jacinda looked down at the hand.

It could mean anything. A friend reassuring but setting boundaries. A sister giving comfort. A woman unhesitatingly considering what Jacinda realized she was offering. Realized and pondered.

And in that moment, Jacinda stood on a cliff. And she was unsure what to do. How to proceed. As before, it had snuck up on her once again. Only this time, the cracks had widened. The freedom was greater. Her world had opened, these last few months, far bigger than she imagined.

A step...she looked up again at Tenzin for a moment before smiling, small, really, one corner only curving up. Her heart thundered. "Stumbling into this house was the best thing to ever happen to me." she whispered, swallowing, trying to find the words to say what had only just dawned on her.

So inscruitible, hidden and protected behind that black, a barrier Jacinda desperately wanted to see past, craved to see beyond. She took a breath and jumped. "I would like to know who you are," was all that came out. That, and a gentle hesitant brush to her cheek. A touch to the woman's temple. "Here."

She froze, waiting.
It was too vulnerable. She realised that with a pang, and a flash of animal panic. Accepting openness in another was easy for her, but giving and expecting it from another stiffened her hackles with uncertainty. 

The wolves knew her inside out, from flesh to soul, and it was a natural connection she did not question. Humans were another matter. The last time she had been known thoroughly, it had been the lamas at the monastery, and that had been in the delicate balance of life, death, and judgement. Her training had been a different beast to the Athari of the Vatican, but it was still governed by the same rules. She had spent her life hiding.

It was a hard camouflage to abandon, and that even supposed she wanted to. The two spheres of her life had always been separate, and she had never had cause to contemplate another way. Caught unawares now, confronting that question for the first time in her life, she felt backed into a corner.

She did not want to destroy, and Jacinda looked delicate enough to break without meaning to. Fragile breath all held in her lungs, touch turned tentative now. The scents had all changed.

She will hate you for lying.

Following that alarming thought were distant nudges at her mind, the Moscow pack once more seeking the core of her distress. But they could not help with this, either. The animal awakening lit something in her, though. And it was flight.

She caught Jacinda’s hand in her own. Dark eyes never took a blink, but they were a little wide with the beating heart of her fear and discomfort. She bent the fingers to kiss, but then let go. “Can’t,” she said hoarsely. Then she found her feet in one fluid motion. Her brows knit. It almost looked like pain. “Need air.” Control had not been such a heavy burden in many years, but there was a whine in her throat barely stifled. She needed to get out. She needed to find calm.
Ten's eyes widened and time seemed to slow to a crawl. The small ember of hope that had begun smoldering grew, as if blown upon, and Jacinda felt roads of possibility open up in her heart. Careful, she told herself. She knew she was pushing, perhaps too hard. That Tenzin seemed frozen in contemplation gave her pause. It hurt, the warring evident on the woman's face.

And yet open and vulnerable, she Ten caught her hand tenderly and Jacinda stiffened, waiting. And for a moment, she saw it, saw the desire, the willingness, hidden in those black depths and her heart thundered in her chest. That moment seemed to draw out, anticipating when their lips finally touched.

But whatever it was that raged inside Tenzin, settled into panic. Fear.

Jacinda leaned back, heart going numb, as Tenzin rose quickly in one smooth motion, an animal cornered, seeking a place of safety. Jacinda was oblivious as the woman disappeared, swallowed up in some sort of bubble of nothingness. She wanted to feel angry. She wanted to rage. She wanted to cry. She wanted to run away. She wanted to feel....something.

But she felt nothing. She wasn't angry at Tenzin. She didn't feel like yelling. She didn't feel like crying. She didn't want to move.

She felt nothingness to her core. Her scalped pricked as if her skin tightened around her, sealing her off from the world.

Too much had changed so quickly. The foundation of her world had crumbled around her in such a short period of time. She was floundering, drowning, seeking for anything to anchor her.

Tenzin's placid stoic nature, her calm quiet strength, had drawn her.

But no, it wasn't just that. Her rare smiles. Her jokes. Her deep well of compassion. Those were things to love in another human being. Was why she loved her, she realized.

Jacinda looked at the charm, tooth ivory colored, held it. Given freely.

Maybe she had misconstrued things. Maybe in her desperation, she had seen what wasn't there. Even now, she wondered, if she saw what she wanted to see. That look in her eyes before she fled, the anticipation of a kiss.

She had driven her only friend away. She would be back, Jacinda was sure. Tenzin wasn't flighty like she was. Tempermental.

But the leaving hurt. And Jacinda made a decision. She wouldn't bring this up again. Ever. Never. Having her sister mattered more. She was as alone as it was possible to be in this universe. Tenzin was the only one who cared. She couldn't lose that.

Not even if it killed her. Not even if seeing Tenzin's fearless protection of the weak filled her with pride. Not even when those single sharpwhitted comments made her laugh and want to hug her. Not even when they sat at the table and Tenzin favored her with one of those rare toothy smiles, eyes dancing with earthy life that made her want to pull her to her and kiss her within an inch of her life.

Not even when every single moment with her would be the purest agony.

It would be worth it, she told herself.

Tears streamed down her cheeks, she realized, as the future appeared before her, laid out and set in stone, choking her so she could not utter a sound, could barely even breathe, even. And she found she could stand, though not steadily. Through the blur she felt her way to her room, shut the door, and lay on her bed, wracking sobs that tore from her chest, wordless in its keening, jaws aching from teeth gnashing, weeping quietly into the night.

Suddenly, she wished she didn't feel anything.

The house was quite and pillow cold and wet when she finally fell asleep.

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