James watched as Clandestine walked in, and her eyes scanned the room quickly. It was a simple bedroom, and though it lacked personality, it had anything he would've needed. There was a sizeable bed layered with thick blankets, a heavy dresser with spare clothes and sheets, and a long wooden desk that held several miscellaneous books, only with tools for writing. Sitting on the edge of the desk was a tall sitting lamp with a dark metal frame that cradled the dancing flame hiding under the thin lampshade.
It was enough to dimly light up the room, but as was expected for what was essentially an underground bunker to keep the mages hidden, light was hard to come by. It had only been a day, but he missed the sun.
But the sun would have to wait, and so would the rest of life on the surface as long as they were hidden in the depths of the earth.
Clandestine continued to scan the room, like she was looking for a place to sit. As James closed the door behind her, she turned back to him expectantly, watching him with wide eyes for a cue of some kind.
She offered him a small smile.
It was a conversation James knew needed to happen, but the moment it came, he realized he wasn't nearly as prepared for it as he thought he was. He nodded back to Clandestine, briefly meeting her eyes before he too, looked about the room and gestured to the chair at the desk.
"Here," he said. "You can sit if you'd like."
He walked past her, watching out of the corner of his eyes as she pulled out the chair and turned it towards him. She hesitated though, standing with one hand on the back of the chair as she watched him. He found himself wandering only a few feet away to the edge of the bed, and he sat down on it heavily, turning to face her with a long sigh. Finally, she sat down too.
He knew she was waiting for him to start.
He closed his eyes, trying to remember the hazy memory from what was only a month ago. She knew James was his real name, but he didn't get any further than that. At least, not before Carter shot him.
"My name is James Hawke," he said slowly, deciding to start there. "I was born in the Moonlight Kingdom outside of a small town called New Haven, on a farm. I had... a family."
He paused, glancing up at Clandestine. She was leaning forward in her seat with her arms folded across her knees, watching him attentively. He hadn't expected to meet her eyes and found himself quickly looking away, down at the floor.
This shouldn't be so hard, he thought to himself. It's just a story. A true story, but you tell stories all the time.
He could see a question forming at the edge of Clandestine's tongue, but he leaped to speak before she could ask it.
"My mother and father were farmers," he said. "They grew roots. Carrots, beets, potatoes. We had animals. And a garden. And I was the firstborn. Four years later, they had my sister."
He paused with his mouth barely open, stumbling over her name.
"Larrel," he said slowly.
Another pause passed, but Clandestine didn't break it, and James couldn't seem to manage to look up at her.
"It's been a long time since I've talked about them," he said as a quiet confession, staring at his hands held together loosely in his lap. "To anyone, really. But I think about them all the time. When the day is done, and I close my eyes, I think of them again. And though the memories get dull with time, I..."
He sighed, flicking a gaze up to Clandestine only long enough to see a glimpse of her face. Empathy read through her dark brows, drawn into a line over her eyes, still locked onto him.
James let out a weak laugh, trying to bury the deep ache in his chest.
"When I was ten, goblins raided my family's farm," he said. "And my father stayed back long enough to hold them off so my mother, sister, and I could get away safely. From then on, we were refugees. We fled to New Haven first, but the raids had touched all of the farms surrounding the town, and they were drowning in displaced survivors in need of a home, with no ways to guarantee safety. So we fled again. We caught a caravan that drew us closer to the Moonlight Kingdom capitol, and closer to the mountains and the winter chill. We ended up in a city. Grenfell. Have you ever been?"
He glanced up at Clandestine as a weak attempt to interrupt his own monologue and invite the opportunity for her to share something. Anything. And he would be content if the conversation never returned to him afterward.
"I was there for a job, once," Clandestine commented, but her tone felt almost uncharacteristically gentle, almost like she was afraid she'd scare him off. Or maybe James was overthinking it, and she was only speaking softly to match his own sober tone.
"Monster hunting?" James asked. "In Grenfell?"
"Well, it was outside the city gates," Clandestine clarified. "If there's anything I've learned about Moonlight Kingdom cities, it's that they're really good at making fortified walls. But those walls don't always extend to..."
As she trailed off, James could see the realization in her face as her brows arched together in apology.
"Small towns," he said. "I know."
Clandestine pursed her lips together and let a huff of air out her nose.
"It was wind wolves, that time," she said softly. "I bet you've at least seen them before, right?"
"Only when blizzards hit," James answered.
"Yeah," Clandestine echoed back. "The only way to get rid of them is to drive them off. But... I wanted to hear the rest of your story."
She smiled again, ever so slightly.
"So you ended up in Grenfell," she said. "Were you safe there?"
James stared at her for a moment before he dragged his eyes to another point in the room with an unfocused gaze.
"Safe, yes," he said faintly. "But we had nothing. Nothing but the clothes on our back and the horse we fled out on, the latter of which was sold,because we couldn't afford to keep it, and we needed the money for food. The kingdom has provisions to help refugees, but fifteen years ago... cities were being overwhelmed."
He was tempted to skip to the end.
"To make a long story short," he said. "My mother remarried into a wealthy family and I became a soldier."
He squinted, drawing his mouth into a line as he pulled the corners of his lips back, trying not to cringe at his own summation.
"Wait, you mother...?" Clandestine spoke after a delay. "You never said your father..."
"Died," James completed the sentence. "A spear through his chest."
The silence that followed was thick and uncomfortable. Though James was well accustomed to silence, this was not the kind he liked to endure. He flicked his eyes back up to Clandestine and he regretted when their eyes met once more. However, she looked away first, but instead of letting the silence continue, she got up out of her chair and walked over, sitting beside him on the bed with just a few inches between them. He felt the mattress shift under her weight.
He half-tilted his head towards her, watching her out of the corner of his eyes. He was anticipating her to reach out, but to his surprise, she didn't. She just sat there.
"I'm so sorry you lost your dad," she said quietly. "I know it was a long time ago now, but... that stuff stays with you."
James held his hands together in his lap a little tighter, tapping one thumb over the other.
"...Thanks," he said stiffly. "I appreciate it."
Neither of them spoke for another passing moment, but James kept flicking his eyes towards her in anticipation.
"You know," Clandestine said quietly. "I never knew my parents, really. They uh... sent me away when I was a little kid, and I don't really remember much of that now. But Sylva, the one who taught me everything I know about monster hunting, if you remember me mentioning her... she was like a mother to me. Or at least, I guess as much as I think a mom would be since I never really knew any different."
James looked over to her, seeing that Clandestine was looking out into the room in thought. Her eyes looked sad, cast down to the floor.
"I really miss her," Clandestine said softly, and there was something in her tone that seemed to breathe of the present.
He couldn't help but wonder how much of that sentiment was reflective of how she felt at finally meeting other mages, and discovering that there had been a guild of mages all these years, kept in hiding.
"What was your dad's name?" Clandestine asked suddenly, looking over to him.
"Allen," James answered. "My mother was named Jane."
"Hm," Clandestine hummed. "And Larrel."
"Yes," James said.
"What was your father like?" Clandestine asked.
James blinked and looked back at his hands, still clasped loosely together.
"He was kind," James said quietly. "Honest. Patient. He was a good father and a good man."
James tried to remember his father's face, and the few vivid memories he still held onto from when his father was still alive. His father's death was forever burned into his mind, but now it felt distant, almost like it happened to someone else. He knew he'd been there, clinging to his mother's waist, with his fingers digging into her shirt. She'd told him not to look back, but he did anyway. His father was facing away from them, towards the group of goblins tearing through their fields. One of them raised a spear over their head, and launched it... and his father was too slow.
It felt so small compared to everything else he'd endured in the past few years, but he knew that that moment had been a turning point.
"I... was never the same after he died," James found himself confessing quietly.
There was a heavy weight in his chest, like a yoke he bore around his neck. It was always there, but at moments like this, he felt it. Every collective loss, but at the heart of it, it all started with his father.
"When I was a boy, all I ever wanted was to be like my dad," James said. "He was gentle, honorable, loyal, respected. He loved my family well, and though we lived a very simple life of hard work, he always managed to find joy in it. He was the happiest person I knew."
James let out a long, deep sigh.
"I'm ashamed of who I've become," he said lowly. "And things I've done in my past."
He closed his eyes tightly for a moment, mustering up courage before he looked to Clandestine. Briefly, he met her eyes. She was leaning forward again, but this time, sitting beside him. He couldn't help but feel like her eyes say through him, but in his gut, he knew that he was never as transparent as he felt. At least, not anymore.
"There's no easy way to say it," he said stiffly. "I ran away from home. I ran off to go become a soldier."
Clandestine's eyes widened, and her eyebrows arched and pulled upward.
"Just like that?" she asked.
Well, no. There were reasons why. It was just painful to think about it now. Logically, James could understand that it didn't make sense to hold his guilt so heavily over his head for the decision he made as an eleven-year-old, but when the decision he made back then changed the entire course of his life, it was difficult to do anything but blame himself. Especially since they'd already lost enough.
James closed his eyes again and took in a deep breath.
"With my father gone," he said slowly. "The pressure to support our family fell on my mother... and on me. I don't fault my mother for it anymore, because I understand that she was grieving as well, but where she became absent, I ended up stepping in for my little sister. I took up a job as a pageboy and servant at a wealthy estate to help support us. In the following months, my mother started to form a relationship with a wealthy businessman and they made plans to get married within the year. It all happened very fast."
"That all happened in a year?" Clandestine asked.
James hesitated, looking over to her.
"Yes..." he said, letting every letter work its way out gradually like it was its own syllable.
Clandestine stared at him, eyes wide.
"James, that's a lot," she said.
He stared back at her for just a second before his eyes darted off to the side.
"I know," he said, not sure what else to say. "I-- I mean, that's not the end of it."
Clandestine nodded slowly, looking at him and waiting for him to continue. He flicked his eyes back over to her only for a moment, trying to anticipate her reaction. He found himself bracing for it, because he knew once he said it, there would be a million questions, and rightfully so.
"There was a boy who lived at the estate where I worked," James said. "He was the son of the family that lived there, and we became fast friends. He was the reason I became a soldier in the first place. His family was moving, and he was willing to pull strings to bring me with him... a very big favor for a desperate kid that turned out to be less a favor and more of a bargaining chip and a tool that was later used as leverage. But... I'm getting ahead of myself."
He looked back at Clandestine, trying to search her for a reaction before he said anything.
Just say it.
"It was the Haddon Estate," he said.
Clandestine stared at him blankly. It didn't seem to register.
"Carter Haddon was the boy. We were childhood friends," he continued, waiting for it to hit. Still, she stared back blankly.
"Now he's otherwise known as Commander Haddon," James said. "Or... the man who captured you."
He watched as the concern faded from Clandestine's face, and her eyes went wide for a moment, unfocused as her eyebrows raised in realization. She stared through James for a second before her eyes snapped back into focus, and her eyebrows furrowed together.
"Wait," she said, her voice rising just a little. "You were friends with that guy? The pretentious, short soldier dude with the mustache and goatee? The smug one who tried to kill me? Who tried to kill you?!"
James forced a weak grimace of a smile.
Yes, that was him.
"Thanks for the nutshelling."