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Denial of Destiny

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  1. I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain

Duck Newton is perfectly ordinary. When he’s a kid it’s something he accepts and while he isn’t thrilled to be labelled as such, it’s true. He isn’t fantastic at maths or English or any of his other classes, but he’s not bad either. He’s pretty good at the sports and games they play at recess but the asthma means that he can never play for long or particularly intently and, while the art teacher compliments his pictures, she’d always talk about his creativity not his skills. Duck isn’t great at anything, but he’s okay at everything and that’s good enough for him.

In fact, the only area he seems to excel in is in the creative sides of school. In English, his stories, while not fantastically written, describe the creatures that haunt the world and cling to the shadows, causing chaos when and where they won’t be discovered, and watching from a distance as everything falls apart. In art class, he gives these creatures faces; short with a mouth curved into a broad smile with disproportionately long teeth and limp hair that flows to down to smooth pale arms that are just slightly too long to look natural, and ordinary sketches of a street with splatters of something dark across the ground where the streetlights’ glow reached and shadows that almost seemed more like silhouettes. At the start, his teachers had been impressed with his creativity but as the teeth in the pictures lengthened and claws started dripping something dark and his stories lost any of the brightness and happy endings, the teachers finally decided to talk to his parents.

At first Duck had interpreted it to be a good thing. He isn’t the best at drawing but he had done his best to depict the monsters he sees and he thought that the cautionary tales he writes – it was been a phrase he had used in a book report last year and he thought it described what he is trying to do really well – while gruesome would do well to keep his teachers from making the same mistakes others did. He doesn’t know who they are, but there have been too many of them and he sees them sometimes when he closes his eyes at night. He’s been having these dreams for as long as he can remember, and they all take place in this different city with tall buildings and so many people. More people than he’s ever seen during tourist season at Kepler. There’s this one man with a tattoo on his left bicep and eyes that seemed to glow gold with a large sword who always fights the creatures back and defends the innocents. He’s a hero through and through and, though Duck can never say anything in these visions, he’s always barracking for him and shouting out warnings as best as he can without a tangible dream-body. He is merely a shadow of a presence and while it sometimes brings him comfort, knowing that the creatures won’t be able to so much as touch him, it makes him want to cry when he can’t do anything to help. Although the man always has a few friends fighting with him, they all leave at some point or another and never come back. Those who stay eventually all die and Duck cries for them, knowing he can’t do anything to help.

So, he starts keeping a notebook and pen on his bedside table and whenever he has one of these dreams, he writes about the creatures. The way it hunts its prey, what it looks for and what it tries to avoid. Everything that he can remember goes down in the notebook and he writes his stories to spread the knowledge he’d gained without making it too clear that he has seen all these things. Maybe one day, when he is older, he can go and find this man, and help him figure out the mysteries behind the attacks and maybe see if the creatures were all evil. Because there is no way that every single one of the creatures is evil, they had to have some shred of goodness in them and Duck is going to find it. But until then, he makes sure to keep quiet about his dreams and his notes because he doesn’t want to give the kids even more ammunition about why Duck Newton isn’t quite right.

It’s only by chance that Duck realises the real reason his teachers want to talk to his parents. He had gone out to lunch and forgotten to take his book with him and when he’d crept back into the building to grab it, he hears his teacher, Miss Adams, talking to his art teacher, Caroline. Their tones are hushed, even in the silence of the school, and Duck strains to hear what they’re saying.

“It’s disturbing,” Miss Adams had been saying as he walked near, and, when he peers around the corner of the doorway, he can see a few of his pictures along with what had to be one of his stories clasped in her hand as she waves it in front of Caroline.

Caroline makes a noise in agreement and replies, “Well, what’s your plan for tonight?”

Miss Adams sighs, “Duck’s parents seemed perfectly reasonable at the parent-teachers so it should all be fine, but I’m concerned for him. I understand his parents want him to be able to express himself, and I can’t disagree with that, no matter how inappropriate his hair is or the fact that they’re letting him – or should I say, her – go by that ridiculous name, but allowing a child to watch horror movies at such a young age is absurd.”

“Horror movies?”

“How else would he get these ideas?” Miss Adams responds, jabbing at a picture of a creature with his head twisted all the way round with glowing eyes and grey skin.

Caroline sighs again.

“I guess we’ll find out tonight.”

*

When Duck comes back with his parents for the meeting, they have him sit between them like at the parent-teacher conferences. Most of the words go straight over his head, but he understands that the teachers don’t like his recounts of the man’s adventures and the diagrams of the monsters.

“He has an overactive imagination,” His father argues at one point.

Miss Adams cocks an eyebrow in disbelief but before she can say anything, his mother rushes in to say, “He has night terrors. He wakes up screaming about monsters and things like that.”

Although still somewhat dubious, Miss Adams seems more ready to accept that excuse and Duck understands that he is to keep his mouth shut. Even if his parents are wrong. He doesn’t have night terrors or nightmares or anything like that; they aren’t dreams, they’re real and he knows it.

Miss Adams leans forward, her hands placed on the table primly before her.

“Mr and Mrs Newton, I understand that you don’t have much control over his dreams or his overactive imagination, but, ” She spreads her hands emphatically, “I do ask that you try and restrict the more visceral and gory stories and pictures for home. I don’t in any way mean for him to stop exploring his creativity, it’s just that I worry for the other students. They are far too young to be seeing such things.”

She sounds perfectly logical and Duck has never hated her more. It’s the one thing that is his, that he truly excels at and now he must hide it like it’s something to be ashamed of. Can’t they see that he’s trying to help them? That he sees these visions for a reason and he’s just trying to fulfil what he thinks is the quest or reason behind why he gets them.

Miss Adams clears her throat, “Additionally—” She say and Duck snaps back to attention, “— His hair is also a cause of concern.”

Duck’s hand automatically reaches up to grab a short lock of hair by his ear. It’s too short to see, but even without looking, Duck knows the rich, deep colour off by heart.

His mother’s voice is tense when she asks, “What of it?”

Miss Adams sighs,” He is a child, Mrs. Newton, and no matter how hard he begs, you should not be dyeing his hair. It’s inappropriate! What starts now as a fun little quirk of wanting to be special can easily become a habit and when he’s all grown up and still dyeing his hair frivolous colours like that, no respectable company is going to hire him. It’s bad for their image, for anyone’s image.”

Duck looked up to his parents, waiting for them to correct Miss Adams, because he didn’t dye his hair. Never. His parents never lied, too. But they say nothing and his father just sends Miss Adams a tight smile and says, “We’ll take it into consideration.”

As his dismissal sinks in, she loses any semblance of friendliness and she continues, “I have put up with her quaint wish to go by ‘Duck’ instead of her real name and the fact that she wants to be a boy, but I will not put up with the hair for much longer.”

Duck flinches in his chair and his father lets out an aggrieved noise, looking furious. He stands up, places a firm hand on Duck’s shoulder guides him out of the classroom, ignoring the teacher and leaving his mother to trail behind. As they walk through the school, Duck tries to distract himself from what Miss Adams said. Sure, it’s a bit weird for him to think he’s a boy, but he’s so much happier when people think that he is one, and shouldn’t he be happy? Duck’s fighting back tears by the time his father pushes through the front doors of the school and out into the parking lot.

It’s winter and although it’s barely six, the sky is already dark, and the streetlights are glowing dimly. Duck pulls free from his father’s grip and hurries across to his car, tugging on the door handle even though he knows the car isn’t unlocked yet. Looking back, he sees that his parents have fallen in line and are quietly talking. As they draw near, they fall silent and Duck keeps his eyes downcast as he slides into the car after his father unlocks it.

He quickly buckles up and leans against the window, watching as his father pulls away from his school and into the main street on the way home. As he watches the scenery flash past and tries to see if he recognises any of the few people out this late, he starts dozing off. He hasn’t been asleep long but when he wakes up, his parents are whispering in the front seat; he doesn’t move.

“We have to,” His mother is saying, “I get so much shit from everyone for letting him dye his hair and it’s not like anyone would believe otherwise and let’s not even get started on the boy thing.”

“Hey,” Duck’s father’s tone is warning and when his mother continues, she sounds abashed.

“I just don’t get it. Okay, I can believe it when he says that he’s a boy but why? Why couldn’t he just have stayed as our precious little girl?”

Duck’s father clears his throat pointedly, “It doesn’t matter. We have a son now.”

“Yeah, of course you’re happy,” His mother says in a wry tone, “You always wanted a son.”

“Nah, I just wanted a kid with you.”

They fall silent for a moment before Duck’s mother says, “We’ve been lucky so far, that no one’s bullied him at school about his hair.”

The unspoken second half of the sentence hangs heavily in the air.

“That we know of,” His father says and Duck frowns before realising he’s meant to be asleep.

Why would anyone tease him about his hair?

His mother blows out a long breath and lets out a bitter laugh, “Funny how, the only way to get people to stop thinking we dye his hair is to dye his hair.”

Duck’s father doesn’t say anything but there’s a quiet rustle of clothing and a soft patting noise.

“We’ll explain it to him after dinner and see what he thinks.”

Duck’s mother hums and as she falls silent, Duck closes his eyes again and tries to figure out what’s wrong with him.

*

After his shower, Duck has just finished putting on his pyjamas when his parents call his name. He quickly grabs his dressing gown and wraps it around him. As he’s walking down the corridor to the stairs, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and pauses. His hair, darker and flatter than usual, doesn’t seem all that weird. It’s his and had always been his.

“Honey?” His mother calls out and Duck quickly scampered down the stairs.

When he moves into the living room, he sees his parents sitting in the armchairs, and Duck reluctantly sits on the couch. With his parents sitting nearly opposite him, it mirrors an intervention too much for his liking and Duck squirms.

His father sighs and said, “Duck, I don’t know how to put this simply, but your hair isn’t normal.”

“Whaddaya mean?” Duck asks.

“Exactly what I said,” His father says.

“What he means,” His mother interjects, “Is that no one else in the world has hair like yours and it’s not normal.”

“Carmine has red hair and even though she’s the only person in all of Kepler to have red hair, no one says her hair isn’t normal.”

“Yes, but people outside of Kepler have red hair,” His mother explains patiently.

“I saw a teenager with blue hair once.”

His father huffs out a little laugh, “You know about hair dye?”

Duck nods.

“Well, the only other people in the world that have blue hair, dye theirs. It’s all fake.”

“But mine isn’t.”

His mother smiles at him and even though it’s meant to be comforting, there’s something tired about it, “I know, honey.”

“But…” Duck trails off.

But what? What can he say? But no one says anything? That isn’t fully true. Sure, the other kids never say anything but, as Duck is realising, they’re kids and don’t know any better. To them, Duck has always had blue hair and there’s nothing out of the ordinary about that. But when he goes shopping with his mother, the other adults stare at him when he walks past and whispers to each other like he doesn’t know that they’re talking about him. Occasionally, someone will actually come up to him when his parents are distracted picking something out and ask if his parents treat him right.

And when they don’t talk to him, they just talk to his parents and he hates seeing the tight, pinched expressions on their faces when people try to talk about him. Duck hates the way the other adults make his parents feel. He hates the way they make him feel. Duck doesn’t hate being the centre of attention, but he doesn’t by any means like it either and, as he’s realising now, his vibrant hair is a cause for much of the more unwanted attention he garners.

“Look, Duck, I’m gonna square with you,” His father says, leaning forward to look him in the eyes, “If you dye your hair, all of this can go away. All the people saying shit about you and thinking we’re bad parents, all gone. But, if you want, you can keep your hair the way it is. We don’t mind, okay?” His father smiles at him.

“Okay,” Duck echoes quietly, trying to think through it.

He has already decided to stop writing about the man at school. He’ll still write his notes and draw his diagrams, he just won’t do it at school where anyone can see. It’s something he can easily hide but still keep his. If he dyes his hair, though, there’s no bringing it back. Everyone will look at him and see something different and he’ll never be able to just come home and wash it out and be himself again.

His mother reaches out, and lays a hand on top of his, “You don’t need to decide now. You can think about, figure out if you want to dye your hair and what colour you’d like to do it.”

Duck nods and his mother smiles softly, “Come on, I’ll come up and tuck you in.”

*

A few days later, his mother tells him she’s pregnant and Duck takes it for the sign that it is. He doesn’t know if he’s going to have a little brother or a sister, but he does know that he’s going to love them more than anything. In the months leading up to Jane’s birth, his parents try asking him about his decision and he tells them he doesn’t know yet. It’s only when he sees Jane for the first time – with her delicate wisps of brown hair – that he knows his answer. He hadn’t realised it until then, but Jane was his last hope. If she’d had hair like his then he wouldn’t have been alone, and his hair wouldn’t have been weird. They could’ve walked through the supermarket together, proving Mrs. Sanders from down the road wrong, because there was two of them and he wouldn’t have to pretend to be someone that he isn’t.

Instead, he finds himself walking beside the trolley as they walk through the supermarket a few days later, a finger tightly grasped in Jane’s hand. As they walk past the shampoos and conditioners, Jackson’s grandmother turns her nose up at the sight of him and heaves a disappointed breath. They stop in front of the hair dyes and his mother turns to him.

“What colour do you want, honey?”

She looks exhausted but pleased. Whether it’s because Jane is here with them and safe or if it’s because Duck has finally given in, he’s not sure. He doesn’t reply and instead scans over the different boxes. He picks up two boxes and bring them over to Jane. Holding them up near her head, he puts the box with the colour closest to her hair in the trolley and puts the other one back. If Jane isn’t going to look like him, then he’s going to look like her so there will be no doubt that they’re brother and sister. Before his hair had been a part of him and he hadn’t wanted to give it up, but he knows Jane is going to be a part of him, too, and she’s way more important than Duck’s dumb hair colour.

When he goes back to school on Monday, his hair is a mousy brown and all the kids barely spare a second glance at it, but Miss Adams is almost smiling. He purposefully avoids her gaze as he unpacks his bag into his desk and slides into his seat. When she passes around the sheets of paper and tells the class to write a story about anything, Duck automatically starts writing about the latest creature the man was facing in his visions. It’s large and covered in something that looked almost like moss and he doesn’t know what it does yet, but people are dying, and he knows that it doesn’t care about sticking to the shadows.

He has just finished the first paragraph when he realises that if he knows about the creatures, they might know about him. He’d been subconsciously aware of this for a long time, and he’d secretly hoped that he’d get to meet the man with glowing but now, with Jane, he knows that can never happen. If any of the creatures came and hurt Jane because of his visions, he’d never forgive himself. Duck knows that he can’t stop the visions from happening, but maybe, if he ignores them, the creatures would ignore him, and he can keep Jane safe.

Crossing out the paragraph he had written, Duck’s pencil hovers over the page for a minute or so before he begins writing a story about two siblings who would go and rescue dragons from bad castles with mould and poorly trained knights. Just like the story he is concocting, his visions – no his dreams – are a figment of his imagination. His diagrams and his accounts are just stories with pretty pictures; none of it is real. He just has to pretend to be normal and maybe one day, he will be, and Jane will be safe.

 

  1. Some consequence yet hanging in the stars

Minerva appears for the first time when Duck’s eighteen and it both changes his world completely and barely leaves a dent in it. On one hand, he’d always known that there may be something larger at play and the confirmation that there is doesn’t surprise him all that much, but the fact that he is being forced into a destiny that goes against what he’s spent years trying to achieve is frustrating to put it simply. When they first met, Minerva had tried to sell his destiny as something incredible and to be grateful for, but Duck just felt a deep-seated sense of fear because all his hopes of being ordinary just went straight out the window.

He had been young when he decided to ignore his visions to protect Jane and the knowledge that he didn’t just see the creatures but was also meant to fight them left Duck wanting to grab Jane and his parents and make them leave Kepler and never come back. He wanted to join them and when he had tried to explain to Minerva that he was still young and he had a life ahead of him (though there was a voice that whispered otherwise), and he had a family that he needed to keep safe, she didn’t seem to understand his misgivings.

She had laughed, a boisterous and merry thing, and told him, “How better to protect your family than to defeat the very abominations that seek to destroy all of Kepler?”

She didn’t seem to understand that Duck wanted a calm and normal life. One that suited his brown hair and bland stories he wrote in the later years of school. Duck just wanted to get a job, move out of his parents’ home and happily live out the rest of his days. He never asked to be the chosen one or whatever it was that Minerva was peddling. He had seen what had happened to the monster fighters in his dreams and he never wanted that to be him. He didn’t care for the thrill and danger and never felt the same satisfaction when he succeeded as his sister did. He had decided when he was eleven that he just wanted a boring, plain life and he was going to stick by it no matter what Minerva said, dammit.

Duck had thus, ignored Minerva as much as he could. He went out and played hockey with his friends and when he wasn’t with them, he was helping Jane out with her homework or was alone in the forest. He tried to restrict his trips into the forest, only on Fridays and Saturdays, but the stress of Minerva appearing everywhere was enough to get him to flee to the forest on a Wednesday, where he now lay on the grass, staring up at the sky. He had been there for a while, just watching the stars twinkle in the clear sky above, framed by the tall trees of the Monongahela forest.

Minerva was, for once, quiet when she arrived, and Duck doesn’t notice her presence until she’s awkwardly hovering a few feet away. She clears her throat but doesn’t say anything and Duck pats the floor beside him. She lowers herself with grace and although she doesn’t lie down, she sits with her legs crossed, staring up at the sky with him. It’s the closest to getting along that Duck had ever experienced and for a moment he feels sorry for her. Here she is, ready to train the chosen one to save the world or whatever and he’s just some dumb kid who’s ready to flunk school and spends his time lying on the forest floor alone.

“I’ve always loved the forest,” Duck says, and Minerva’s face turns to face him.  

She’s glowing blue in the clearing like the stars above and although her face is perfectly visible, he can barely make out where her eyes are, glowing a shade lighter than what he figures is her skin. Minerva cocks her head at him.

“These trees have been here for longer than I’ve been alive, longer than my parents have been alive, than my grandparents, and they’ll still be here when I die,” He throws his hands up and gestures to the tree closest to him.

“I look around at this forest and it reminds me that nothing I do matters. I’m so small and insignificant, I barely live for a fraction of the lifetime of this forest, never mind the world or the universe.”

“And this is comforting?” Minerva sounds confused.

Duck shrugs as best as he can lying down, “Sure, Minnie.”

It’s the first time he’s called her by this, but it’s also the first time they’ve spoken about something that isn’t his destiny. They fall silent for a few moments, simply watching the stars overhead, a single cloud slowly drifting across their view, briefly obscuring Duck’s view of the moon. Duck is content to stay put and just lie there watching the stars until he falls asleep but Minerva turns to him after a minute or so and says, “As the chosen one you should have something to signify your destiny but you, Duck Newton, look perfectly ordinary.”

Duck snorts, “That’s kind of the point.”
Minerva frowns, “What do you mean?”

He laughs bitterly, “Looking different isn’t a good thing in school. Everyone thought my parents were like deviants or hippies or some shit like that. People doubted their ability to look after me because I had fucking blue hair and that ain’t fair on them.”

Minerva leans in close and peers at his hair, “It’s brown?”

“I dye it.”

“So, you hide from your true self.”
Duck shoots up and glares at Minerva, “What does that mean?”

“Your hair is a part of you, just like your heart or your eyes or your destiny but you hide from it.”

“That’s not who I want to be!” Duck’s voice is louder than he expected but Minerva has been hounding him for weeks and he has had it.

“When I first dyed my hair, I didn’t really want it but this is my life now. I want control over that much. I want to be able to decide what I do, and I don’t want to be one of those people who dies fighting the creatures. I want to live, Minerva. I want to come out here and watch the skies and walk through the forest. I want to see Jane graduate and I want to see my parents travel the world like they always wanted to. I want to succeed and I want to live a long, happy life.”

Minerva sighs, like she’s sad, “You don’t have the warrior’s spirit yet, but one day, Duck Newton, you will understand.”

“Yeah,” Duck says, “One day as in not today, so, for now, come and lie down with me and watch the starts.”

He falls back onto the ground loosely and after a moment so does Minerva. Her hands lay limply by her sides, twitching slightly as if she’s not sure what to do with them, and her eyes look up at the sky, unblinkingly.

“You understand responsibility well,” She says.

Duck makes a noncommittal noise and she continues, “You recognised the dangers of your destiny and out of responsibility and care for your family, you distanced yourself from this part of yourself but have no doubt that this is part of you. Just as your hair is yours by nature, this destiny is yours and it will only cause you pain if you ignore it.”

She pauses and more quietly continues, “I understand that you must be scared but Duck, you must, for the good of Kepler and the rest of the worlds accept your destiny and take up Beacon.”

“I can’t do that,” Duck whispers, “I’m only eighteen. I’m still in high school, not that that counts for much. I have the entire world waiting for me and you’re asking me to sacrifice that for what?”

He knows he’s being selfish and he knows exactly what he’s meant to sacrifice his future for. He’s meant to sacrifice it for Jane and his parents, for his friends, for the old lady who lives down the street, for the people of Kepler. For the greater good.

Minerva’s eyes flicker away from him for a moment before focusing in on him, “I had a sister once.”

She falls silent and Duck patiently waits.

“I was her elder and expected to protect her, but I failed and Duck, I am here to guide you. Whether it be in protecting Kepler of stopping you from making my mistakes, I am here to help you.”

She reaches out a hand and even though Duck knows she’s not really here he reaches back.

Even with Jane and his friends, he’s still painfully alone. He always knew he was different, even before all this. Sure, he had dyed his hair brown and stopped writing about the monsters, but he still knew. He liked the people of Kepler and he wanted to be like them but no matter what there is a gap between him and them that he couldn’t breach. He could never bring himself to be excited about formal like the rest of his friends because he knew it was so pointless in the scale of things and no matter what they said, he just couldn’t get excited about it. When his parents spoke about him moving out for university and maybe finding a girlfriend and settling down, Duck desperately tried to picture himself living that long because he knows that the creatures still prowled in the dark and that anyone could die at any stage and there was no point in planning that far ahead. But he wanted to. Even though a woman in a duster jacket had taken up the monster hunting mantle after the man stopped appearing in his dreams, he knows she’s a temporary solution to an eternal problem that only he can fix. But he doesn’t want to. He wants to be able to plan things for more than a week in the future because he doesn’t fear suddenly dying, he wants to live that normal life and Minerva’s presence is a reminder that that can never happen.

Unwillingly, Duck feels tears welling in his eyes. Minerva may be an unwanted reminder of his destiny, but she is the only one who understands. She stands on the same side of the gap as he does and she sees all the facets of himself, clearly and without judgement. He remembers when she had first appeared and tried to spar with him. He’d been out of breath in minutes and, unlike his parents, had seemed more curious than anything about his binder. When he got his top surgery done, she’s one of the first people he had showed it off to. She had let out a little cheer and said something about how it must take have taken a lot of courage to do.

Duck had braced himself for it to move towards another conversation about accepting his destiny, but she had just rested a hand an inch or so above his shoulder and told him that she was glad that he felt more comfortable in his body now. There were still hard days, but Duck was happy now. Proud of his body and if he just happened to train shirtless when Minerva convinces him to train with her, it was just that he doesn’t want his shirt to get sweaty.  

She is a kindness that he appreciates and although he doesn’t know her well enough to bare his soul to her – he’s barely known her for a few months, he knows intrinsically that she’ll never leave him and, in the everchanging mortal world, she’s a constant that Duck relies on. Like the forest, she seems to be unaffected by the time that causes all the people in Kepler to rush from place to place, trying to enjoy as much of their life as they could, and Duck is stuck in the middle. He wants to enjoy his life, but he is all too aware of how insignificant and pointless it all is.

His hand fazes straight through hers as he grasps at it, and she smiles sadly. A tear trickles down his cheek and he sucks in a shaky breath.

“I’m sorry, Minerva.”

“Do not be sorry. You must accept that change is inevitable, and you must be true to yourself to achieve your destiny. Even if you think you are not yet ready, I see the truth for what it is, and now, Duck Newton, you must do the same.”

Duck opens his mouth to respond, but Minerva suddenly flickers out of sight and he’s left alone staring where her body lay, the grass not even slightly squashed. He’s run out of time again. Rolling back, he stares up at the sky and wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He’s being selfish yes, but if he’s not ready, he may endanger more people than he would save. He should take the time to establish himself and when he’s ready to face the truth, he’ll do whatever Minerva wants him to do. It’s a pretty lie and Duck doesn’t believe it for a second. Instead, he lies there silently crying because a chosen one doesn’t get to decide to do what he wants to, he must follow his destiny and Duck can’t escape it. He will, however, do his best to delay it because he wants to live a normal life and even if he won’t fight whatever Minerva wants him to fight, he will fight for this.

 

  1. But he was ware of me and stole into the covert of the wood

Duck had told Minerva that he had always loved the forest and while it’s true, it fails to capture the entirety of Duck’s feelings for the Monongahela National Forest.

His passion had started with, as many things do, his family. It was before Jane was born and he had gone for a walk and picnic with his parents.  It’s the earliest memory Duck has of the forest. He remembers tall, sturdy tress with gnarled roots and strong branches that extend out and overlap with those of other nearby trees.  Soft morning light filtering through the layers of leaves overhead projecting dappled spots of brightness that moved slowly as a gentle breeze works through the canopy. When Duck breathed in, the air was fresher than anything he had ever smelt before and when he walked, the fallen leaves crackled underfoot, and the dirt was springy with moisture. Sometimes, Duck would hear the quiet gurgling of a creek or the lilting call of a bird but most of the time the forest was quiet. It had been one of the greatest days of his life and even now, he still feels the same guttural sense of immense awe when he stands at the base of the Monongahela forest.

After the first trip, he’d become obsessed and had begged his parents to return so often that he had walked all the trails and the park rangers had come to know him by name. And it seemed that the forest knew him, too. It had been too subtle for Duck to notice at first, the way the ground was never muddy or too dry, always that soft soil that allowed him to keep walking for hours without his feet becoming sore. The way that the slopes became gentler and the way his path was never obstructed by fallen branches or bushes as he made his way through the forest, exploring every inch of it. The way he always seemed to find something new and beautiful even when he tried walking the same paths he had walked before.

He hadn’t noticed until he’d come on an excursion with his school and had had to watch the way his friends stumbled and tripped over things that he could have sworn weren’t there when he was walking. It had been a long day and Duck had learnt to hate the noise that came with his friends’ presence by his side. Whenever he and come with his parents, they were always content to let him walk ahead while they took their time and enjoyed a quiet conversation. Sure, they were there, but Duck was essentially alone when he wandered the forest. Some days he’d fancied bringing a friend and sharing the unadulterated joy he feels when he follows the well-hidden trails and found the subtler beauties of nature. The excursion had proved him wrong and near the end of the day Duck had pulled away from the group and placed a gentle hand against the trunk of a nearby tree.

“I’m sorry,” He’d murmured, “Next time it’ll just be us again.”

He wasn’t sure if he wanted to say any more but he was cut off before he even had the opportunity to by his teacher’s voice calling out for him, and he had, with one last soft pat, made his way to his class and boarded the bus to go back to school.

*

As he grew older, Duck kept coming back with his family. They had to start doing the easier walks when Jane was young and when she grew old enough to appreciate the forest like he did, Duck was disappointed to see Jane’s utter disinterest. They were very different, Duck figured. Jane had always cared more about people than places, so it made sense for her to take the opportunity to spent time with Duck rather than to enjoy the nature.

Duck loves Jane, it should never be doubted that he does, but as she kept prattling on about something or other that was happening at school, Duck felt his patience wearing thin. He managed to not complain but it was close, and he only made it by tenderly trailing his fingers against the rough bark of trees as he walked past, each touch alleviating the stress of having to socialise in a place that is above such frivolities. He went home after and asked his parents if he was allowed to go alone in the future and after some deliberation they acquiesced, and Duck is truly alone when he goes back to the forest.

It marks a new routine and even though he still occasionally goes with his parents, it is understood that the forest is Duck’s and if they want to spend time with him, to do it elsewhere. Duck goes back alone and with each visit the ground grows steadier beneath his feet and the paths grow more and more beautiful until he disappears for an entire day following paths only he can see.

The first time he spends the night in the forest is by accident. He’s maybe seventeen and high out of his mind. He had been playing hockey with his friends when the noise of them all had grown to be too much, and he had stumbled out and somehow managed to skateboard to the edge of the forest where he dumped the skateboard and continued on foot. It’s late and already completely dark; he has only the thin light of the moon showing the way but despite this he knows exactly where to place his feet and he doesn’t trip once. He doesn’t try to navigate or find a path to follow, rather he just lets his feet follow the invisible path the forest provides for him.

He’s walking for what feels like hours in the dark, soaking up the cool, night air and the freshness of the forest when the trees thin out and Duck finds himself on the top of a small cliff. At the base there’s a small lagoon with pebbles the colour of ivory and water so pure it almost glows blue in the night. It doesn’t look very deep, but Duck knows that even if he jumps from here, the forest will keep him safe.

Until now, he had never thought of it so plainly. Intrinsically and at a subconscious level, Duck had always known the forest loved him as much as he loved it and that it would never hurt him, but he had never once put it into words. It’s one of those laws of life that Duck operates by but never says aloud: He loves his sister and the forest and they both love him back. From the day he had first come into the forest he had felt a pull, and he realises now that those first few years of silence were the forest assessing him to see whether he was worthy of its love. Not that it mattered because even if the forest had remained apathetic to his affections, Duck would gladly spend the rest of his life here. But the forest accepts him, and Duck takes the final step and falls off the side of the cliff.

It's not high, maybe a three-metre drop and Duck falls into the water with a quiet splash. He surfaces eventually and floats, staring at the sky above him. His eyes focus blankly on the stars above and it’s only the gentle tug of water that keeps him anchored. He hears a quiet scuffling noise and when he looks up, he sees a black bear, resplendent and magnificent. It stares at him from the shore of the lagoon, unblinking and unmoving, on all fours. Duck stiffens in the water and comes to float vertically in the water, his feet hovering a foot or so above the floor. He doesn’t feel fear however and after a minute or so a small golden coloured bird with red hints comes to land on the bear’s shoulder. It chirps questioningly, cocking its head at him, and Duck suddenly understands.

He paddles closer to the shore and walks out. After the first step where his shoes squelch against the smooth line of pebbles lining the lagoon, he yanks them off and continues barefoot. He stops maybe a foot or so before the bear and it looks up at him with dark eyes and Duck sinks to the ground before it, on his knees, and bends his down in deference to the forest. He hears the bear huff out a breath and feels the bird’s small claws dig into his shoulder as it hops over to land on his shoulder. After a few beats, the bear moves forward and presses his nose into the crook of Duck’s neck and Duck releases the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding. Duck leans his head towards the bear and absentmindedly reaches up a hand to gently stroke the bird and he soaks in the feeling of the soft fur against his face and the delicate feathers beneath his fingers.

They say nothing but Duck understands.

He doesn’t know how long they sit there but when he next wakes, he’s lying with his face firmly placed against the soft side of the bear and the bird is tucked in the collar of his shirt. He blinks blearily and doesn’t move as he watches the sun start to rise between the trees. It’s autumn and there’s a low mist snaking over the surface of the lagoon. He shivers lightly and the mist almost seems to stop its movement, and instead spreads around Duck, giving him a wide berth as he slowly wakes. He shoots up with a start as he realises that he’s just spent the night in the forest and his parents have no idea where he is. He looks around and realises that he has no idea where he is.

The sudden movement causes the bear to rouse and it looks at him for a moment before closing its eyes again and going back to sleep. Slowly shuffling away from the bear, Duck stands and stumbles over to the lagoon where he had dumped his shoes and jams his feet in before walking off into the forest. He doesn’t put any thought into where he’s going because he’s never done so in the past. He always trusts the forest to take him where he needs to go and, sure enough, half an hour later he’s stumbling out onto a maintenance road near the exit. As he leaves the forest, the bird takes off and flies away, as if its job is done.

He slowly walks home in a daze and when he gets home, his parents’ concern and anger over his disappearance are distant, as if he’s hearing it through a phone held too far away. He’s so tired and he thinks he tells his parents this. He remembers dragging himself up the stairs and seeing Jane’s scared face as he walks to his room and he must look truly bad for her to look like that but he’s really just too tired and then he’s falling asleep.

*

His parents don’t bring anything up to him, as if they’ve forgotten what he’s done but Duck hasn’t and neither has the forest. The next week a park ranger comes to his school to raise awareness about the environment and give some fire safety tips and at the end of the incursion Duck makes his way to the ranger. She looks at him with recognition in her eyes; it had been years since Duck had followed the marked paths, but it was still inevitable to run into the staff at some point during his visits.  He struggles for a moment to remember her name; he had spoken to her a month or so ago about a species of moss. Sam.

She smiles, “Hey, what can I do for you, Duck?”

Duck awkwardly shuffles, “I was, uh, wondering if you had …” Duck trails off.

Sam’s face grows gentler and she looks at him with patience.

“I was wondering if I could become a ranger?” Duck nervously laughs. “It’s pretty dumb, isn’t it? Sorry for bothering you.”

Sam claps him on the shoulder, “Not at all. Kid, everyone in the service knows who you are, and we all know you’re meant to work with the forest. Always have.” She shrugs. “It was kind of inevitable, wasn’t it?”

Duck sheepishly grins, “I do love the forest.”

“I know you do,” Sam clears her throat. “I don’t have the paperwork on me right now, but I can give you a few notes and places to call if you want a head start. You’re meant to get a degree for these sorts of things but you’re Duck Newton so exceptions might be able to be made. I’ll have to ask about some stuff, but you should swing by after school sometime this week and we can get talking. How does that sound?”

“That sounds great. Thanks, Sam.”

She leaves and Duck doesn’t pay attention to class for the rest of the day, too busy thinking about a future in the forest.

Later that week, Duck runs into Sam at the Info Centre and she tells him they can work out some work experience for him so he doesn’t have to leave – She winks at him and says that they’re all aware of how attached he is – and, with that, Duck Newton has his future nicely laid out for him. A month later, he’s signing a contract for the placement at the end of the school year and shortly after, Minerva arrives. She tells him of a grand destiny that he must accept, and Duck wants to laugh because he was already chosen, and he already accepted his destiny. It just wasn’t her one.

  1. But to himself so secret and so close

He’s been working as a forest ranger for a few years before Duck saves up enough to move out. He finds an older, but still well-kept and large apartment with all of two neighbours. When he’d first met Mrs. Pearson as her new neighbour and not as the boy who kept playing hockey in old stores, he’d been nervous but she’d looked at him, unimpressed, and informed him that she was retired and it was the middle of winter, would he like to come inside? He had gone inside, promising himself that it was just this once, but he was back again the next week with a batch of muffins. The two of them had quickly settled into something peaceful where they’d sit together on the lonely nights and share dinner and watch shitty gameshows. Their evenings together made Duck feel blissfully nostalgic but left him with a heavy feeling in his stomach. One day, when he leaves for the evening and is going back to his door, he’s struck with the realisation that the heaviness is because Mrs. Pearson is being maternal to him in a way his mother hasn’t been for years.

His mother loves him, there’s no denying that, but she doesn’t care much for him on a personal level. She’d been the first to hop on the bandwagon of dyeing his hair and had been pushy until he’d given in. She’d been the first to throw out his old pictures and shred his old stories. Even for someone from Kepler he’d been weird and considering the way she reacted to his ‘unusual’ nickname, she didn’t take the hair or the rest of him particularly well. If she didn’t approve of him being a boy, she never said it but there was something in the disappointed stare she would turn his way when she thought he wasn’t paying attention that let Duck know the truth. When Duck had started disappearing into the forest for hours which turned to days which turned to a trip that went for the full fortnight of holidays, his mother had been the one who had stopped calling the cops first. His parents used to always be there to greet him with a tired smile whenever he dragged himself back but, as he kept going back to the forest and kept forgetting to come back, his mother stopped bothering and by the end, even his father would only leave him a note on the kitchen table.

It had been subtle at first, but looking back, Duck knows that his mother took Jane’s birth as the opportunity to properly raise a child who was perfectly normal. She was always going to her hockey matches in primary school and her debates in high school. When Jane went on her first date, his mother was waiting in the living room to hear how it went while Duck was packing his bag for a trip into the forest. When he walked out the front door, she had waved at him and told him, “Honey, have a nice trip,” and when he came back, she was out watching Jane play water polo.

She had never called him Duck. She would always call him by his first name in the hopes of bringing it back into fashion but as ‘Duck’ asserted its position as his main name, she swapped to calling him ‘honey’. It was the best he was going to get, Duck reasoned, and pretended it didn’t hurt when she used the wrong name. She would slip up sometimes and Duck shoved the knowledge that she knew all of Jane’s friends’ names and middle names and siblings’ names to the back of his head. He wasn’t sure when he started pulling away but by the end, he called her maybe once a month after he moved out and that was about it.  

She loved him, but always from a distance and Duck had never realised how immense that distance was until he met Mrs. Pearson with her stew and a cheery greeting of his name. The name he had picked for himself, not the one his parents gave him. She’d greet him with a kiss on the cheek and bid him off with a hug and a container of leftovers. They’d spend the evening just talking and Duck would complain about the dumb teenagers and Mrs. Pearson would counter with a story of one of the times she’d found Duck being one of those dumb teenagers. The stories were much more personal than anything his mother had ever told anyone about him.

The first year he’d moved in, he’d bought her a pot of dahlias for her birthday because he remembered how she’d told him how she’d had them at her wedding. She’d cried and hugged him tight and Duck couldn’t think of anyone else he wanted in his life. She had kids, Mrs. Pearson had explained, but they had left Kepler years ago for work and her husband had gone missing in the forest just as long ago and she’d been left alone. But she had Duck now. And Duck had her.

In return, she’d bought him his first bottle ship kit for his birthday, and they had spent a month or so slowly working through it. When he finished it, he put it on the mantlepiece and although it had been his first gift from Mrs. Pearson and one that had sparked an interest that had spanned for over a decade (and had resulted in the spare bedroom being filled with these bottles), it was her second present that meant the most to Duck.

They’d been neighbours for a year or so when Duck is woken up after a long day by knocking at the door. He stumbles to the front door and opens it to see Mrs. Pearson standing there with wild hair and an odd, lumpy bag in her hands. She smiles brightly at him and pushes past without saying anything. Duck trails behind her into the living room, where she sits down and pats the couch next to him. He sits down with a thump and blinks blearily at her. It’s the middle of summer and the number of people setting fires despite the warnings is far higher than warranted by Duck’s pay.

Mrs. Pearson sighs, and without saying anything opens the bag. Nothing happens for a few seconds but then a soft nose peeks out, followed by the form of a kitten so young, it’s still shaky on its feet. It’s a sooty grey colour with bright eyes and upon seeing him it lets out an absolute squeak of a miaow.

 “What the fuck?” Duck says, automatically reaching his hands out to pat the kitten.

It looks him over like it’s deciding whether to bite him or not but evidently decides against it and brushes up against his fingers. It scampers across the gap between Mrs Pearson and Duck, digging its claws into his thigh as it crawls into his lap. He scratches it behind its ears and turns his gaze back to Mrs. Pearson.

She sighs, “Thank God. I was worried that you might not like cats.”

Shuffling a bit closer, she continues, “You’ve been lonely, Duck. I went out to dinner with one of my friends, Victoria, and when I was walking home, I heard this little guy in the bushes. I brought him – her? – here because I thought you might want a friend.”

Duck wishes he could say that he didn’t tear up, but the kitten looks up in confusion when a droplet falls on its back.

“Yeah, thanks, Mrs. Pearson.”

“We’ll take them to the vet tomorrow and do all the boring shots and stuff.”

She stands up primly and dusts off her skirt, zipping up the bag and quietly excusing herself. When she leaves, Duck scoops up the kitten and quickly carries it to the bedroom and they fall asleep together on his bed.

The next morning, they go to the vet and as they’re walking out, Mrs. Pearson asks him, “What are you going to name her?”

Duck plasters a faux thoughtful look on his face and says, “I’m gonna call her Detergent. Terry for short.”

The jovial look on Mrs. Pearson freezes and a few long moments pass before she’s rolling her eyes heavenward and heaving a disappointed sigh. Duck lets out a snort of laughter and Mrs. Pearson reaches a hand over to ruffle his hair, something that’s rather impressive for a woman who’s not a millimetre over 150cm. Duck smiles at the gesture and reaches a hand up to fix the mess and Mrs. Pearson tells him, “It’s funny that between the old lady with grey hair and the 25 year old man, he’s the one dyeing his hair.”

Duck stares at her and she continues, “You need to touch up your roots, dear.”

As they walk back to the car, Duck checks his hair in the window of a store and sure enough, his hair is partially blue. He’d need to fix it when he got home. He grabbed a pen from his pocket and scrawled hair fix on the back of his hand. Mrs. Pearson, seeing the gesture, tutted and said, “You don’t need to dye your hair if you don’t want to. No one’s going to think twice.”

“My mother said –”

“Bah,” Mrs. Pearson cut him off, “She made you do it in the first place. You’re in Kepler.”
To someone who wasn’t born in Kepler, it wouldn’t have made sense, but Duck understands. Kepler is just as weird as he is and always had been. When he was younger, his hair wasn’t a very big deal for a lot of the people in Kepler. Sure, the adults had complained and said it was dyed even when it very clearly wasn’t, but Duck had started noticing that the only people who seemed to actually care about his hair were the ones who weren’t from Kepler. Those who had lived in Kepler all their lives hadn’t blinked twice whenever Duck ran past with bright blue hair and seemed to be, on some level aware that the blue hair was his natural colour.

A few weeks after he had first dyed his hair, he had seen Victoria from The Cryptonomica in the park and she had bent over and ruffled his hair. Looking closely at his head, she had sighed and mournfully told him, “It’s a shame you had to change your hair, kid.”

It was the subtle acceptance of his natural hair colour that let him know that what Kepler considered normal was vastly different than what any place else considered normal. Even though Kepler wasn’t particularly weird – there were no strange occurrences that couldn’t be explained or mythos about the area – there was an aura that was slightly off-putting and odd. The people who had always lived in Kepler seemed to function by similar but slightly different rules to the rest of the world and those who moved to Kepler never seemed to be able to be able adjust to the innate laws that governed Kepler. This was what Duck had realised in high school when trying to figure out why his friends who had moved to Kepler always seemed confused when they saw his roots coming through while his friends from Kepler never blinked twice. It was almost as if Kepler’s limit for the weird and abnormal was much higher than in other towns and even the weird was accepted as normal.

After that realisation, Duck started changing his habits slightly; when he was with his Kepler born-and-raised friends he’d never bother with hiding his roots as the blue grew back in but would always jam on a beanie when a non-native Kepler friend walked in. He’d been subconsciously using this technique with his other neighbour, Leo.

Duck still remembers the old grocery store – Gudrun’s Groceries – and he remembers the two or so years when he had to drive out to Snowshoe to get his groceries before Leo moved in and opened up his shop. Even though Leo only moved here a couple of months after Duck’s 18th birthday, there was the same feel about him that all of Kepler’s people had. If Duck didn’t remember the time before Leo’s arrival, he would have assumed he’d been born and raised her because he certainly acted like it. But Duck does remember, and he takes the same care to hide his roots and lets out the occasional “ouch” when he stubs his toe on the doorframe as he leaves for work in the morning.

Duck has, well he wouldn’t call them fond, but he has memories of Mrs. Pearson when she was still working as an officer. He remembers how she would always come out and look for him when he disappeared for too long in the forest or how she would keep her car stocked with water bottles for any kids she found getting high around town or how she would never take anyone in for playing hockey at the abandoned clothes store. It made sense for her to be a caring neighbour because she’d always kept an eye out for him when he was younger, but Leo didn’t know Duck before he became his neighbour, so it was confusing the first time he swung by with some groceries.

Like Mrs. Pearson, Leo apparently did not have a sense of appropriate visiting hours because at half past seven, Duck was drawn from his couch by the sound of knocking. Opening the door, he sees Leo standing there with a bag of groceries in one hand and a warm smile.

“Heya, Duck,” He says and lifts his hand up to showcase the bag, “I noticed you haven’t come by in a while and I thought you might be running low on supplies.”

Duck gapes at him and eventually composes himself, “… You didn’t need to do that.”

Leo laughs and it’s low and slightly rough and his eyes seem to almost glow golden in the darkness of the late hour. There’s something familiar about it but before Duck can pin down where he remembers it from, Leo is cocking his head and asking if he can come in.

Duck moves off to the side and lets Leo in. He opens his mouth to warn Leo about Terry but before he can she scrambles into the corridor and immediately does her best to get underfoot as Leo makes his way to the kitchen. It’s actually rather impressive. Duck’s meant to be the chosen one but even he gets tripped up by Terry sometimes and yet, Leo easily navigates the enthusiastic moving ball of fur in his way.

As he enters the kitchen, he puts the bag down on the table and starts emptying it out. Most of it is pretty generic, milk and coffee and cereal and bread, but then he puts the hair dye down and Duck’s head jerks up to look at him. It’s the right colour too which is weird because Duck always shops at Snowshoe where fewer people would recognise him. He’d told the girl who worked the cash register on Wednesdays that he was buying it for his mother and ever since she’d kept a spare box for him in case they ran out. But Leo, as far as he could tell, should have no clue about his actual hair colour and yet there it is, the right colour and even the right brand.

Leo smiles a bit and says, “I didn’t know the exact details so I just guessed as best as I could about the colour. Hope it’s the right one.”

Duck helplessly makes noises that in no way resemble words, and Leo just chuckles. Duck holds up a finger and ducks into the corridor where he peers into the mirror and notices that he’s let his hair grow out way more than he usually does. Absently lifting up his fingers, he estimates there to be at least 5cm of blue. Well, the cat’s out of the bag, he might as well own it. Duck walks back into the kitchen and apologises but Leo just claps him on the shoulder.

“It’s nothing,” He reassures Duck and huh, isn’t that odd.

Even though Leo definitely isn’t from Kepler and has only been here for all of seven years, he acts like someone who was born in Kepler, barely looking twice at his hair. Duck stares at Leo and the sense of recognition grows stronger.

“… Have you had dinner yet?” He asks and Leo shakes his head.

“I only just closed up shop and I came here straight away. Didn’t want the milk to go off.”

Duck bobs his head in a nod and asks, “How do you feel about a risotto?”

Leo stares at him cautiously, “Can you cook?”

“Of course I can,” Duck says, trying to sound as affronted as possible, shoving the memory of his failed attempts at mac and cheese to the back of his mind. The instructions had said nothing about cooking the pasta before baking it, so it had been a rather crunchy dinner.

“You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t believe you. I remember being a young man at your age and believe you me, I couldn’t cook worth shit.”

“Wanna help out?” Duck offers and Leo pushes away from the table.

“Sure, sounds like fun.”

Leo starts sorting through the groceries on the table and setting the risotto ingredients aside while Duck opens up the cupboards to grab the rest when he sees a familiar blue glow reflecting in the kitchen window. He turns back around to see the tall form of Minerva hovering in the doorway to the kitchen with an inscrutable look on her face. As if noticing Duck’s attentions, Leo looks up to where Minerva is standing and as he looks into what Leo probably sees as an empty doorframe Minerva’s expression switches to disapproval and she shakes her head once, slowly, before fading away. Leo frowns and turns back to Duck as if to ask a question, but he seems to think the better of it and says nothing, instead getting back to the grabbing the rest of the ingredients.

The risotto is nicely cooking on the stove maybe half an hour later when Duck hears knocking at the door and he walks over to see Mrs. Pearson waiting outside. When she sees him, she holds up a bottle of wine and says with a smile, “Hey, I heard you and Leo talking—” 

She doesn’t say it, but Duck can hear the implicit ‘and it’s about time’ “– And I wondered if you had room for one more.”

Duck moves asides and she pats him on shoulder as she passes.  When he enters the kitchen, he sees Mrs. Pearson greeting Leo with a loose hug and a peck on the cheek. He stands in the doorway for a moment or so, just watching the warm scene before Mrs. Pearson is turning around and asking him where he keeps his bottle openers. Jolted into motion, Duck quickly crosses the distance to the drawers and chucks it at Mrs. Pearson, who catches it one handed before opening the bottle. Leo grabs the glasses from above the sink and she pours a glass for Leo, one for Duck, and finally one for herself. Terry is miaowing at Duck’s legs, trying to get a sip, he supposes, and he quietly hisses at her. She miaows one final time before giving up and sitting on his feet. Duck’s staring at her, trying to figure out how he’s going to ever move again when he hears Mrs. Pearson and Leo start laughing.

“She’s a spiteful one, isn’t she?”

Duck starts smiling too and, as they sit down with wine and risotto, talking about their weeks and the latest gossip in Kepler, Duck realises that this is of his own making. There is no Minerva telling Mrs. Pearson to be his friend and asking Leo to look out for Duck. He has his dream job because he worked for it and he has a pet because he earnt it and now, he is enjoying a night with friends and there is no external force pushing the pieces into position. Duck did this, and, as he enjoys the peaceful and friendly aura of the room, Duck feels a weight he didn’t know he carried lighten for the first time in a very long time and he can almost forget about his so-called destiny.

 

  1. So shall you feel the loss, but not the friend which you weep for

The first time Duck sees Ned Chicane, it’s 3AM and he’s in the supermarket in Snowshoe. The girl who knew his face and kept a spare bottle of hair dye for him had moved out to some city for university and although her replacement had continued the tradition, her replacement hadn’t. Now, he has to walk to the cosmetics aisle to grab it and actively figure out where his brand is and which one is his shade of brown; he always tells himself to write it down but always forgets to until he’s already thrown out the empty bottle. One particularly memorable time he forgot to check the colour resulted in his roots being just a shade darker than the rest and it had bugged him for weeks before he fixed it. He gets to the dye section and he sees that someone has reorganised the bottles and Duck sighs, settling in for a long search. He’s managed to find the right brand when he notices someone walking up the aisle and stopping a section over, looking at the different oils for beards, if Duck remembers the shelving system correctly. He looks up and sees a man with one of the most impressive beards he’s ever seen. It’s not necessarily long but it looks to be in perfect condition without a single hair out of place and Duck, despite never wanting to grow a beard, is jealous.

The man notices Duck’s stare in a surprisingly short amount of time and turns to look at him, cocking an eyebrow at the sight of a fully-grown man sitting on his ass, surrounded by boxes of brown dye. He smiles though and it’s toothy and friendly, despite not looking quite sincere.

“Why hello there, friend. What’s someone like you doing in a place like this?”

Duck almost wants to laugh, what the fuck is up with the way this guy talks? He reaches up to grasp the beanie he’d jammed onto his head and pulls it off. The man gasps and moves in to peer at his hair.

“Dyeing the roots of your hair so people think that’s your natural colour? That’s genius …” His voice gets quieter and if Duck were a normal person, he wouldn’t have heard him say, “… I should do that if the cops come for me here.”

The man shakes his head slowly, as if dispelling the thought, and refocuses on Duck, holding out a hand in his direction.

“The name is Ned Chicane.”

Duck reaches up to grab his hand and it’s a terrible handshake considering that Duck is still sitting on the floor and Ned isn’t a short man. They both kinda jerk their hands up and down a couple of times before letting go.

“Duck Newton.”

The man laughs and it’s a deep-bellied noise. Duck smiles back.

“You Victoria’s kid?” Duck asks after a moment.

Ned blinks at him and he seems to tense, “Yeah, how’d you know?”

“I’m from Kepler. It’s a small town and the only new people we got is someone moving in to help out Victoria in The Cryptonomica and a couple of kids visiting their uncle for the holidays,” Duck’s tone turns wry, “I’m guessing you’re not the kids.”

Ned nods, “I knew it was small, but I didn’t realise it was that small.”

He looks somewhat concerned, his eyebrows furrowing and Duck wonders exactly why no one knows all that much about him past where he’s staying and what he’s doing. Even that is pretty unknown because Duck has no idea what Victoria even does at The Cryptonomica let alone her kid. Kid? Protégé, maybe?

“Yeah, well. Don’t worry, the glow of being new around here fades away real quick. You’ll be one of us soon enough.”

Duck’s lying when he says that, but it would be much harder to explain Kepler than it is to give him empty platitudes. Looking at him, Duck gets the feeling that Ned is the sort to cut ties when the going gets hard and he’s not sure if Victoria could handle him leaving. He’s not been in town long but when he sees Victoria on her Saturday visits to the Monongahela forest, she seems happier.

“So, you know Victoria?” Ned’s voice is nonchalant, but Duck catches on to his meaning easily.

Deciding to ignore what he’s really asking, Duck says, “Sure, she used to read in the park on weekends when I was a kid. We’d talk occasionally. Now she comes to my work and I try to chat with her. She’s got no one else.”

It’s sad. When Duck was young, he’d heard about Victoria with her weird store of fairy tales and lies. She’d been odd and open about it and the people of Kepler hadn’t liked that. He’d looked at her with her books on the unknown and he saw himself as a grown up. He saw the way she never had any friends or family so, when none of the other kids were around, he’d pull out his own books and join her. They didn’t always talk, sometimes they just read, but when they did, Victoria had always seemed genuine and kind. He couldn’t understand how her hobbies kept her separated from the others.

When he grew up, he stopped going to the park to play or read and only seemed to visit after hours to get high with his friends. Then he was leaving high school and working as a park ranger. It was a surprise the first time Victoria came to the centre in the forest. Everyone knew her health was on the decline and that she was in no shape to do a walk. Duck had braced himself to have to explain to her why he couldn’t let her do one of the walks, but the door swung open and she was standing there with one of her books. Instead, he’d found her a bench nestled off to the side of one of the less popular trails and he’d frequently find her there when he took his lunchbreak.

She’s been happier lately though and Duck supposes that her new friend, Ned, must be the reason. He must care for her too if he’s asking about her. Though, it really would be better if he asked Victoria and not some random dude in Snowshoe.

Ned shoots him a look and Duck says, “You should ask her, if you want to know?”

Ned nods, and turns back to the shelf, grabbing a bottle and waves at Duck before walking away. Duck peers after him and wonders if he’ll see him here again.

*

He does. By some miracle of fate or odd convenience, every time Duck goes to the supermarket in Snowshoe, Ned just happens to be there, too. It doesn’t matter whether he’s going as the sun rises or long after it sets, they just happen to always cross paths. The first few times, Duck would nod in his direction and keep going but as the visits continued, they started talking.

Ned ‘Always Changing Middle Name’ Chicane is probably – most definitely – a criminal who plays fast and loose with morals, as would be evidenced by his ‘subtle’ bragging about the sources of the items in his collection. Despite this, it’s very easy to see why Victoria likes him. He’s charismatic and caring in a gentle, more lowkey manner and boy, does he have some good stories to tell. They chat frequently while they shop, and it almost becomes a habit to grab a basket on Wednesday nights and move over to the fruit selection to help Ned pick out some pears. It’s odd that he never runs into Ned in Kepler and it’s odder still that he only sees him in Snowshoe’s grocery store, but Duck isn’t one to question things and he’s happy with the way things are. He doesn’t consider changing things at all and inviting Ned out for drinks or whatever it is friends do until Victoria dies.

He’s not sure why, but he wakes up from a nightmare more terrible than one he’s had in years a couple hours after he goes to sleep and tumbles out of bed. He gets dressed and shoves on a pair of runners before jogging along one of the streets that leads to the forest. He enters the forest and doesn’t bother trying to find a path, knowing that he will end up where he needs to. When he ends up coming out into the parking lot of the supermarket in Snowshoe, he’s confused for a moment before he sees the familiar shape of Ned’s Lincoln Continental. They’d gone shopping together long enough for Duck to recognise that this isn’t one of Ned’s usual days to come to Snowshoe. So, why would he be here tonight?

Duck slows down to a brisk walk and quickly enters the store, peering around to see where Ned is. He finds him by the wine displays, holding two bottles in his hand. Duck comes to a dead stop when he sees the look on Ned’s face. He’d distantly known that Ned put effort into portraying a cheerful and friendly persona, but now that he’s faced with Ned’s true and unguarded emotions, he’s shocked by the change. His beard, usually immaculate, is frizzy and tangled, his hair greasy. His shirt is rumpled and looks like it was fished off the floor and he’s wearing thongs in the middle of winter. As he takes this all in, Duck starts moving again, slowly walking towards Ned.

Ned looks up as Duck nears, eyes bloodshot, and doesn’t say anything. They stand next to each other in silence as Ned keeps going through the selection.

“… What happened?” Duck asks.

“Victoria,” Ned starts to say before stopping. He heaves in a deep breath and continues, “She uh, died this morning.”

Fuck, Duck thinks. He knew that Victoria was getting really bad recently, but he hadn’t realised the end was so near. He tears up as he realises that he’ll never see Victoria reading on a bench again. He’ll never be able to thank her for helping feel more normal for all those years. His own grief is overshadowed by the realisation that Ned’s grief seems much more recent than it should be considering how long it’s been. But then again, it was clear how much Victoria meant to Ned.

“This morning?”

Ned sighs, “Yeah, there was paperwork and lawyers and so much work and I haven’t had the chance to sit down until,” He lets out a bitter laugh, “Until now.”

Duck bites his lip and reaches forward to grab a bottle of scotch.

“She was a great person.”

Ned sniffles and whispers, “Yeah.”

“Come to my place,” Duck says, “We’ll drink to her honour.”

He keeps his eyes angled forwards, but Duck knows that Ned has turned to look at him and is assessing him.

“Sure.”

Duck bobs his head in a nod and starts walking to the checkout. He places his scotch on the conveyer belt and takes the wines out of Ned’s hands, adding them beside his bottle, before paying for all of them. Ned opens his mouth as if to protest but Duck shakes his head. As he picks up the bags, he walks out of the store, trusting Ned to follow, and heads to his car. Leaning against it, Duck angles his face up and looks at the stars up above. It’s a clear night and Duck would usually try to spend it in the forest, but Ned needs him more so he sends a silent apology to the forest, hoping it will understand.

He keeps his face upturned even as he hears the scratch of keys against the car and Ned’s quiet swear as they keep getting caught against the lock before they finally slide in and he’s unlocking his car. He doesn’t move until he hears Ned slide in and buckle his seatbelt and turn on the car. Duck awkwardly climbs in, propping the bottles on his lap, one hand holding them in place as the other buckles up.

Ned pulls out of the parking lot and onto the main road leading to Kepler. As they start the drive back, Duck stares out the window, watching the trees as they pass. They’re nearly black in the night, the soft light of the moon illuminating the tops of the taller trees and giving the grass a light glow.

“So, Snowshoe?” Duck asks.

“I used to travel the whole country, it feels weird to stay in one town,” Ned says, and after a moment asks, “You?”

“My neighbour owns the grocery store in Kepler and he never lets me pay. It doesn’t feel right so I go to Snowshoe.”

Neds hums and the conversation dies as quickly as it started. Ned doesn’t say anything else, silently following Duck’s directions as he shows him the way home.

As Ned pulls his car against the curb, parking it, Duck sees a light turn on in Mrs. Pearson’s house. He almost wants to swear as she cracks her front door open and watches as Duck drags himself out of the car, traipsing over to his apartment with the bags of alcohol in his hands and Ned following behind him. Ned casts a curious glance at Mrs. Pearson and, after guiding him to his front door, Duck walks over to her.

He places his bags on the ground and, with gentle hands, draws her into a hug. Pressing a quick kiss into the top of her head, Duck pulls away and awkwardly pats her on the shoulder a couple of times. She stares at him with concerned eyes and furrowed eyebrows.

“Victoria died this morning.”

Mrs. Pearson gasps and tears well up in her eyes. That’s right, they would play blackjack sometimes.

Duck stands there, and watches how, even though she’s so close to him, her figure is still barely visible and silhouetted in the light streaming out from her front door. A hand comes up to cover her mouth and her breathing sounds oddly wet.

“You’re a good friend, Duck Newton,” She says, eventually and Duck feels bad.

He’s not being a good friend. He doesn’t know Ned well enough to be a good friend to him. He’s just trying to be there for him in any way that he can and unfortunately, it seems like the only way includes excessive drinking. He smiles sheepishly and picks the bags up again, wine bottles clinking against each other.

“Well sure, Mrs. Pearson, if you call getting sloshed being a good friend.”

She lets out a quiet laugh and shoos him away. He follows her directions and moves back to his front door where Ned has been waiting. He slips off his shoes and, after a moment, Ned does, too. Unlocking it, he holds it open for Ned to pass by and immediately Duck hears the quiet clacking of claws against the floorboards as Terry runs towards him. He opens his mouth to warn Ned but before he can, Ned is crouching down with open arms and Terry is launching herself at him.

Duck slams the door behind him and flicks on the corridor light, not sure what to expect with the added vision and is pleasantly surprised to see Terry nestled in Ned’s arms, purring contently. It makes sense that animals would like him.

“So, that’s Terry,” Duck says by way of introduction and starts moving to the living room where he drops heavily onto one side of the couch. Ned almost primly sits on the other side, probably to avoid disturbing Terry from her perch. One of Ned’s hands has come up to scratch behind her ears and he lowers her onto his lap.

Duck groans as he realises, he’ll need to get up to get glasses to drink from, but then again, he’s not working tomorrow. Instead, he pops off the lid of one of the wines and takes a swig of it before handing it over to Ned, “I hope you don’t mind.”

Ned shrugs and tips the bottle up to his mouth with one hand and Duck nearly winces as he starts chugging. He’s going to regret this tomorrow. After a moment Ned hands the bottle back to Duck and he takes another drink. He should enjoy it while he can, and they sit together, silently passing the bottle between them. Duck doesn’t know how long it’s been when Ned finally talks.

“She left me The Cryptonomica.”

Duck turns to look at him, and sees Ned’s head tipped back against the couch, eyes shut firmly. Terry has since migrated into the seat between the two of them where she’s contently sleeping.

“That’s nice of her,” Duck says for a lack of anything better.

Ned lets out a bitter laugh, “No, it’s not.”

“Hmm, why not?”

“She’s tying me down here.”

Duck stays silent. He’s always known that Ned is the sort to run but it had never been this clear and Ned is actually talking about this with him. Was this his way of trying to get Duck to convince him to stay?

“Is that so bad?” Duck eventually responds.

“… I guess not.”

Duck tips the wine bottle up only to discover that it’s empty and grabs the bottle of scotch with a groan. His twists the cap and takes a sip.

“It’s just –” Ned gestures, as if searching for the words to continue, “I don’t even believe in that crap and she gave it to me. Why?”

Duck shrugs.

Ned opens his mouth as if to keep talking but then shuts it and reaches over to grab the scotch.

“Should grab some ice to go with this,” He says but doesn’t move.

“Mm,” Duck agrees, similarly still.

“And a cup.”

“Mm.”

A thought strikes him, and Duck drags himself to his feet.

Ned raises an eyebrow at him, “Going to grab some ice for me?”

Duck shakes his head and stumbles to his bedroom. The lights are off, but he doesn’t bother turning them on, walking straight over the wardrobe. He squats down and grabs a small box shoved into the back and drags it forward. There’s a thin layer of dust on the top and Duck cautiously lifts the lid to avoid disturbing the dust. Inside lies the familiar form of Beacon. Reaching cautiously out, Duck grasps the hilt and draws it up and out of the box towards him. Beacon almost starts to unfurl and Duck quickly grabs the blade to stop it.

Sluggishly shuffling back into the living room, Duck sits beside Ned and holds Beacon out to him.

Ned gives it a quick glance over and raises an eyebrow.

“What’s this?”

“My sword,” Duck says and shrugs, “I dunno, take it and keep it in The Cryptonomica. It’s weird enough, right?”

Ned swallows and reaches out but stops just before taking it into his hand.

“You’re giving it to me?”

“To look after, yeah. I don’t need it at the moment, and I might in the future, but for now,” Duck looks Ned in the eyes, “Can you look after it in The Cryptonomica for me?”

Ned’s jaw works and he stares intensely at Duck and Duck’s worried that he’s going to turn him down. Maybe he’s blown this, and Ned will leave. Duck isn’t quite sure why he needs Ned to stay in Kepler but there’s a weight in his gut that has him trying his best to stop him. Maybe it’s because they’re friends, or maybe it’s because Ned belongs in Kepler. Regardless, Duck can’t let him leave.                                 

“You’re giving this to me,” Ned points between the two of them to punctuate his words, “To look after in The Cyptonomica. Indefinitely.”

Duck nods, “I know what I’m asking but …”

“Why?” Ned asks.

“Because you’re meant to be in Kepler, Ned. This is where you belong. Trust me on that.”

It’s a longshot but despite Ned’s relatively recent arrival to Kepler, he seems to understand the true weight of what Duck’s saying. So many of the people who moved to Kepler have been living here for longer than Duck’s been alive, and they still don’t understood what Kepler really is. But Ned does. Ned and Leo both have the same outlook that only the Kepler born-and-raised people do. He looks at Duck with dark eyes and frowns, almost contemplatively.

“I’m tired,” Ned says, eventually.

“I’ve got a spare bedroom,” Duck offers, “I just hope you don’t mind ships in bottles.”

He stands up and after a moment, Ned does too. As they walk to the spare bedroom, Duck gestures to his bedroom door and says, “If you need anything just come and ask, okay?”

Ned nods and Duck shows him to his spare bedroom. He swings open the door and flicks the light on. Even though the room is still set up like a bedroom with a bed and wardrobes and bedside tables, cupboards line the walls with bottles stacked neatly within them and on every other available surface. Ned whistles slowly and Duck nervously shuffles in.

“Yeah, Mrs. Pearson got me into them a few years back,” He says by way of explanation.

As Ned walks past him and pulls the doona over and lies down, Duck sees him set Beacon into the small amount of available space on the bedside table. Ned pulls the covers back over himself and closes his eyes.

“Goodnight,” Duck says before he flicks the lights off and closes the door.

He goes back to his bedroom and quickly gets changed into his pyjamas and brushes his teeth. As he crawls into bed, Terry walks over next to his head and curls up on the second pillow. He reaches up and lazily scratches her fur before going to sleep.

When he wakes up the next morning, his head hurts terribly, and he nearly rolls over to go back to sleep before he remembers that Ned’s in his spare bedroom. He stumbles out of bed and into the kitchen where he grabs some Panadol. He fills a glass of water and takes both of them to his spare bedroom where he knocks on the door. There’s no response and Duck cautiously opens the door. It’s empty inside; Ned is gone.

Duck swears and places the glass and Panadol on the bedside table before rubbing his face. Shit. He quickly walks to the front door and swings it over, not caring that he’s still in his pyjamas, and sees that the Lincoln Continental is also gone. Ned could be hours away for all Duck knew. He closes the door again and goes back to the spare bedroom to see if Ned left a note or anything. There’s no note but Duck notices that Beacon is gone.

*

Duck doesn’t see Ned around town and when he goes to The Cryptonomica, the doors are locked, and the windows are dark. He’s nearly resigned to the fact that Ned may be gone for good when it comes to Wednesday. He’d gone on a run in the forest and had been surprised to end up at the Snowshoe grocery. As he comes out, he almost trips over his own feet when he sees a familiar car in the parking lot. He bursts into the store, nearly scaring the cashier and starts checking all the aisles. He finds Ned standing in front of the cereal selections and Ned drops the box in his hands as Duck purposefully walks over to him. Ned reaches his hands up in front of him, as if to ward off an attack, but Duck just grabs his shoulders and draws him in to a tight hug.

It’s awkward for a moment, with Ned’s hands uncomfortably stuck in between them, but he quickly wriggles them out and hugs Duck back with surprising force. Duck tightens his hold in response and Ned leans his head against the top of Duck’s. He breathes in deeply, unsure of why he’s so affected by the thought of Ned leaving. But the same feeling that lead Duck to the forest all those years ago is now leading Duck to Ned, too. Duck draws back after a while, leaving his hands on Ned’s shoulders, and scans him.

Ned is looking better than he did the day of Victoria’s death, but his beard is still unbrushed and his shirt is still unironed. He looks tired but at least he’s still here.

“You didn’t leave,” Duck says.
Ned bites his lip and looks away for a moment, “No.”

Duck bobs his head, “That’s good.”

He draws his hands away from Ned and notes how Ned looks almost sad to lose the contact. Ned really does need friends.  Duck grabs the box of cereal that Ned dropped and hands it back over to him. Ned takes it and clears his throat.

“Are you busy this weekend?” He asks.

“Uh, no,” Duck replies after a moment.

“Good, good,” Ned responds, “How would you, my friend, like to help me execute my vision?”

Huh? Duck cocks an eyebrow.

“Well, it’s my store now, and I have some good ideas on how to change The Cryptonomica.”

On one hand, it would be sad to see Victoria’s store disappear but on the other, if it became Ned’s store, that wouldn’t be too bad. It’s harder to leave a place that you make for yourself and Duck knows Ned well enough to know that Ned is fully aware of this. I guess he’s settling down.

“Sure. What time would you like me there?”

Ned seems surprised that he’s agreeing and responds, “Maybe 10?”

Duck smiles at him, “Sounds good. My neighbours and I are having dinner on Saturday and we would love to have you join us.”

The look on Ned’s face is nothing short of wonderment and Duck knows he made the right choice.

“Sure,” Ned stammers, “That sounds great. What time should I be there? Do I need to bring anything?”

Duck shakes his head, “If I’m helping you over the weekend, we can just go together, I’ll handle the food, don’t worry.”

Ned beams at Duck, “Well then, it seems I’m all set.”

“What aisles have you already gone down?” Duck asks after a moment.

“Just the cereal and condiments aisle. I was waiting to do the fruits and vegetables when you got here.”

“How’d you know I would show up?”

Ned shrugs, “You always do.”

“Yeah, well, we’re friends. What else would I do? Let you pick the bad cauliflowers?”

Ned’s ears turn slightly pink at being called a friend and Duck knows that he’ll do his best to never let Ned be alone again. Whoever he was with before Kepler, whatever he was doing, was not good for him and Duck will do everything he can to make sure he doesn’t go back to that. Ned’s going to stay in Kepler and he’s going to run The Cryptonomica. Duck knows that’s what Ned’s meant to do, in the same way he knows that it’s his duty to watch over the forest.

“Come on, I’ll show you the trick to cauliflowers,” Duck says and sets off to the fresh produce section, trusting Ned to stay by his side.

 

  1. And I’ll still stay, to have thee still forget, forgetting any other home but this

Minerva is gone. There was a time in Duck’s life when he wished that she would never come back but now that she’s gone, he misses her so much. He’d just started to accept the destiny she was giving him and now she’s gone. It isn’t fair; Minerva hadn’t deserved this. No matter what she said about bringing about the end of her people, Duck couldn’t think of her as a bad person. He couldn’t even be mad at Leo for lying to him for all those years. God, and he was actually dumb enough to think that Leo had become his friend because he wanted to. It all boiled back down to destiny.

Leo and Duck had spoken in his bathroom for a while and a lot of it made sense. Duck can’t deny that if he had known that there had been chosen ones before him, he would have tried to hot potato the job onto the next poor sod.  It just frustrates him that Leo had been pretending to be ignorant all this time, and he’s not sure if he’s mad because they could have tried to save Minerva together, or maybe they could have avoided Ned getting hurt and everyone else getting hurt if Leo had just told the truth and helped them in the Pine Guard or simply because he had trusted Leo. Regardless, what’s done is done and Duck is currently very done with everything.

They’d ended the conversation and Duck had taken off the next week off work and spent all of Friday re-watching The X-Files. Theoretically, it’s a nice time. He sits on the couch eating plain biscuits and mandarins while petting Terry absentmindedly. It was also incredibly depressing and Duck’s not sure whether he wants his weekend to be just as bad, so, early on Saturday morning, he gets dressed and pops over to Leo’s.

Leo opens the door slowly and the early morning light glints off his golden eyes. It’s then that Duck remembers that each of the chosen ones have a mark to set them apart from the others. Duck had his hair and Leo has his golden eyes. It’s more surprising that Leo still has his eyes. Minerva hadn’t been gone long enough to see whether his hair would keep coming out blue, but Duck had figured that when Minerva died, his powers would be completely severed. But if Leo’s eyes are still golden, there’s hope that Minerva survived. Maybe she did get to a bunker and maybe her world just happened to have bunkers strong enough to survive a meteor hitting the world. Leo blinks at him and yawns, almost pointedly.

“Yeah, Duck? What can I do for ya?”

“I’m heading into the forest for a bit, do you mind feeding Terry until I get back?”

Leo rubs at an eye with the palm of one hand and nods, “Sure,” and turns back inside, closing the door behind him as he does.

With that settled, Duck starts walking off towards the forest. It’s still so early that barely anyone else is awake yet and Duck enters the forest without having to talk to anyone. As he moves further in and starts following a familiar path, Duck feels a weight that he hadn’t even realised he was carrying lighten from his shoulders. Letting out a sigh of relief, Duck surrenders himself to the last bit of normalcy he has left in his life. Minerva may be gone but the forest would be here for thousands of years after he and Ned and Aubrey had all died.

To other people, Duck would be aimlessly walking but Duck sees where the bush parts and the logs conveniently span the creeks; his path is very clear. He puts one foot in front of the other and trusts the forest to show him something beautiful. He takes in the fresh air that carries a hint of rain and listens to the distant birdcalls. At one stage he sees a spider the colour of sapphires spinning a web that sways in the breeze in between two trees.

It’s only when the sky above starts darkening that Duck realises that he’s spent the entire day walking. As he sits down on the shore of lagoon where he first accepted his destiny, Duck realises that his feet don’t hurt in the slightest. He pulls his shoes and socks off his feet and check to see if they’re red or if he has any blisters. He may not have been mundane for long, but he had been trying to blend in for a very long time and he knows that his feet should be sore after walking as long as he did. They’re perfectly fine and Duck stares in awe.

Does this support his theory that Minerva is still alive or is it something else at play? His destiny from Minerva had made him stronger and sturdier and he hadn’t even accepted it until a few months ago. He had, though, accepted his destiny from the forest. Maybe the forest is helping him in some way. Had it always helped him, and he just hadn’t noticed? Or had it started helping now, now that Minerva was gone? Shit, there’s too many questions and he can’t answer half of them.

He lies back on the pebbles that lined the shore. As the night had cooled, as had the pebbles and Duck finds himself shucking off his clothes and slipping into the warm water of the lagoon. He walks in towards the centre, where the water’s deepest, and tips onto his back, staring at the stars. He floats there, breathing calmly, and can nearly forget who he is.

Duck Newton is a man with a job and responsibilities, who is constantly facing death and cannot afford the luxury of just disappearing for weeks like he used to when he was younger. In the forest, in this moment, it’s almost like he’s not Duck Newton anymore. He’s both more and less. He’s the entire forest and a single blade of grass. He’s the chosen one and he’s no one. He breathes slowly and calmly closes his eyes.

*

Duck walks out of the forest and follows the streets back home. He unlocks the door and Terry sprints down the corridor and launches herself at him. Digging sharp nails in as she scrambles up to his shoulder and buries her delicate face into hair that Duck realises has gotten too long. He hadn’t been gone that long, Duck thinks to himself. He distantly remembers watching the sun rise and watching it set again several times, but he can’t even start to quantify out how many times he saw the sun rise. He moves into the bathroom, walking steadily, with a hand on Terry’s back to keep her from falling off. He stands in front of the mirror and peers at his reflection.

He looks well-rested without any of the bags beneath his eyes that he’d had before he left. He might even have a glow to his face. In the time that he’s been in the forest, his facial hair has gotten a little long and Duck resolves to shave it off after a shower because, even if he had gone swimming every day, he’s still kind of gross. He moves to turn the shower on when something catches his eye. He peers into the mirror and his roots have definitely started growing out. His hair is messy and long now, at least an inch or so longer than he would usually leave it and he hasn’t had the chance to redye his roots since a couple weeks before the latest abomination. He had been busy at work and then he didn’t have time when the abomination turned up, and now that he’s disappeared into the forest for who knows how long, the blue has come through strong and clear, bright even in the dimly lit bathroom. He sighs and runs a hand through it, pulling a face as he feels how greasy his hand is when he takes it out.

As he steps in to take a quick shower, Duck runs a hand down his flat chest. Even now, it still fills him with a burst of happiness. He comes back out, shaves, and somehow manages to get dressed with Terry constantly moving around him. He moves into the kitchen and checks the fridge. It’s just as he had left it but by now the fruit has gone mouldy. It seems that Leo had figured it would be a long trip and didn’t bother stocking up. Sighing, Duck quickly tries to figure out whether he wants to do the grocery shopping now or if he wants to put it off.

He’s just decided to go now when he sees a sheet of paper on the table. He crosses to the table and reads Leo’s scrawling handwriting.

“Aubrey and Ned came over asking about you today and I didn’t know what to tell them, so I said you’re out. You should probably go and visit them when you get back. Also, Ms. Divine says to tell you that you’ve been logged as checking for hazards throughout the forest, so you haven’t missed any days at work.

  • Leo, 12th

It’s dated, which was nice of Leo to do, but without a phone or computer and no working clocks, Duck has no way of telling when the twelfth was. He knew he had left on the seventh of the month, but he has no idea what today is. He sighs and pockets his wallet and keys. He scratches Terry behind the ears and opens the front door, trying to close it behind him but Terry just yowls. It’s a loud and painfully sad sound and Duck finds himself going back in to reply on the note that he’s taken Terry with him and he’ll back later. As he leaves his apartment the second time, this time with Terry firmly zipped up inside his jacket and a beanie jammed on his head, Duck tries to figure out how he’s going to get to Amnesty Lodge. Before he would have just run and even if he still had his powers, he wouldn’t risk running with Terry.

Resigned, Duck starts the slow walk over to the Lodge, keeping to the quieter streets as he does so. Even if Juno had covered for him at work, he doesn’t want to risk running into her just yet. He makes his way to the Amnesty Lodge with a single-minded purpose, barely noting any of the people that pass him as he walks, but, as he arrives, he stops still.

He hasn’t done anything wrong. Sure, he disappeared for a bit but it’s not like the next abomination is coming for a while. So, why is he still standing outside? From inside his jacket, Terry pokes her head up and licks the underside of Duck’s jaw before mewing. It startles him enough that he moves to the front doors and gently pushes one open.

The quiet sounds of a piano drifts over and Duck can hear a few quiet conversations taking place. He walks in and sees Moira sitting at the piano, hands moving steadily across the keys, and her eyes closed. Near the piano is the main arrangement of armchairs and couches surrounding the hearth. A hearth which contains a fire that jumps between something a little more than sparks and something much larger and brighter. Duck looks over to see Aubrey flicking her fingers up and down in tandem to the swell of the flames, a look of concentration on her face.  On the couch next to her, Duck sees Ned sprawled out with a laptop, presumably editing the latest Saturday Night Dead. On the other couch Barclay is typing slowly on his laptop while Mama seems to be dictating, with fast-moving hand gestures.

Duck quietly walks over and sits on the other side of the couch from Ned. Only Ned looks up, and his eyes go wide, his mouth dropping for a second before he’s shuffling over towards Duck and placing his computer in his vacated spot. He rests his left arm along the top of the backrest and Duck leans in towards him a bit. Unzipping his jacket, Terry pops out cautiously and sniffs the air a bit before turning to look at Ned with bright eyes. She crawls over to Ned and he scratches her under the chin with a couple fingers.

“Well, long time no see,” Ned greets Terry before looking up at Duck, “To the both of you.”

Duck bites his lip nervously, “Sorry, I was only meant to be gone for a day or two. How long was I gone?”

Duck casts a surreptitious look at the others. Mama and Barclay have noticed his arrival and Mama sends him a nod while Barclay smiles in greeting. Aubrey, however, doesn’t seem to have noticed him. Her eyes are still carefully focused on the fire before her and in the light of the flame, one of her eyes sees almost orange. As if sensing his attention, her eyes flicker to him for a moment before focusing back on the fire.

“Almost two weeks,” She says before Ned can reply.

“Shit,” Duck swears.

Aubrey raises an unimpressed eyebrow at him and it’s easy to see that she’s upset. Duck’s not sure if she’s furious at him or just worried. He quickly gives her a once over to see if she’s alright. She’s wearing her pyjama pants and a pair of slippers with fire designs on them, but Duck can’t see any visible injuries. She’s swapped out her flame earrings for rabbit earrings though, Duck notes absently.

“Are you actually going to play that card with me?” Aubrey’s voice is stony. Definitely furious.

She smiles and it’s a cruel thing, “Oh, sorry,” She says in a mocking tone, “I forgot to mention I’m going to disappear off the face of the Earth after we fought an abomination. Catch you later, or not, because I just won’t come back for weeks.”

Duck stands up and walks over to where Aubrey is sitting. She stands up and tilts her chin up defiantly at him as he stares her in the eyes.

Ned clears his throat, “Aubrey.”

She holds up a finger in his direction, “No, Ned. You told me he does this all the time but that’s not fair on me and it’s not fair on you.”

She glares up at Duck and he sees that her eye is actually orange. It mustn’t be important though, if she hasn’t said anything about it yet. She looks madder than he’s ever seen her before but then he catches a faint tremor in her jaw and notices a slight dampness to her eyes. Aw, shit.

He reaches out slowly, giving her the chance to pull away, and wraps his arms around her. She just melts into him. Where Ned’s hug was strong and warm, Aubrey’s is tight and just as equally unreserved and open as she is. Her face is buried in his shoulder and she clutches his back with spread fingers. As he begins to feel dampness spread where she’s hidden her face, one of Duck’s hands comes up to cup the back of her head and Duck plants a soft kiss against her temple.

“I’m sorry,” He says, “It was a mistake. I swear. I’m not going to leave you.”

He goes silent and after a moment Aubrey pulls back with a watery smile and says, “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to be mean, but I was so worried.”

Duck shrugs, “I know you didn’t mean it.”

Aubrey pulls back and Duck lets her. She sniffles and wipes at her eyes. Duck casts a panicked look at Ned, not sure what to do now. Ned shakes his head at Duck, as if he’s disappointed and says, “Say, Aubrey, why don’t you come sit on the couch with us.”

Aubrey nods and Duck guides her to the couch with a hand on her back. As she sits down between Ned and Duck, Terry walks tentatively onto her lap. A gentle hand reaches out and strokes down Terry’s back and she lies down.

“What’s she called?” Aubrey asks.

“Terry,” Duck replies.

“Couldn’t think of anything better? Where’s the pizzazz?” Aubrey’s voice is still subdued.

Duck leans in towards her and, in a low voice, says, “It’s short for Detergent.”

Aubrey laughs and it’s still a weak sound but it’s stronger than she was before. She rubs a hand over her face and relaxes back into the couch. Duck shoots a look at Ned again and Ned just shrugs, like the useless friend that he is. Turning back to Mama and Barclay, he sees that they’re gone. Duck scans the foyer to see if he can spot Dani but he only sees Moira playing calmly playing, as if in a trance. They’re all useless. With a sigh, Duck bumps her shoulder before wrapping an arm around Aubrey’s back.

“Where’d you go?” Aubrey asks.

“The forest,” Duck answers.

Aubrey looks confused, “For the whole time?”

“Uh, yeah,” Duck sheepishly admits.

“Ned says you do this every once in a while. Do you always go to the forest?”

Duck nods, “Ever since I was a kid.”

“Why?”

Duck freezes. Is he allowed to talk about the forest? Reveal its true nature to Aubrey and Ned? He’s nearly convinced himself not to say anything when it hits him that these people, of all the people Duck’s ever met in his life, are going to be the most likely to understand. Aubrey would definitely understand, what with her thing with Dani. Sure, the love Duck holds for the forest is vastly different from that that Aubrey holds for Dani, but she’d understand. Duck hasn’t even considered it until this moment, but the forest has the same sort of feel about it as the abominations and Sylvans do. He knows the forest has been here for thousands of years though, so it can’t possibly be from Sylvain because the gate only opened up here less than a century ago. If it’s not from Sylvain and it’s not normal, what is it?

Duck has never paid much thought to why it picked him. He knows that he was picked by the forest to represent it and protect it from harm, but he never knew why he was selected and not someone else, like Juno. Minerva had never told him why he was selected either and now she probably never will.

“Duck?” Ned’s voice is cautious and interrupts his thoughts.

“Sorry, sorry,” Duck murmurs, “I don’t know. It, uh … It picked me, Aubrey. Years ago. I accepted.”

Aubrey and Ned frown as they try to piece together what Duck’s said and he almost wishes he could have explained it better but he’s not sure how much he should tell them.

“Picked? Like a destiny?”

“Not quite,” Duck says, “I was chosen by Minerva, too, but Minerva never really gave me a choice and she showed up when she declared me her warrior. The forest also picked me, but it knew me first. We spent so much time together, it came to recognise what sort of person I was. It made more sense.”

“Oh! Like you passed a test, then?” Aubrey asks.

Duck’s nose scrunches up at the oversimplification, “I guess.”

He reaches up to run a hand through his hair and almost startles when he touches his beanie. He plucks it off his head and folds it up to put inside his coat pocket. Duck runs a quick hand over his head so smooth down the stray hairs and almost misses Aubrey’s gasp. She launches in his direction and grabs the sides of his face.

“Duck Newton,” She says, sounding very serious, “What is up with your hair?”

“He dyes the roots,” Ned pipes up.

“No, I don’t,” Duck replies, “That would be dumb.”

“You never corrected me.”

“Bzzt,” Aubrey says, waving a hand about, stopping Duck’s reply to Ned. “Your hair, it’s blue.”

“Yeah,” Duck drawls, “Always has been.”

“Minerva?”

“Yeah.”

Aubrey smiles a bit and ruffles his hair, ruining his efforts to keep it neat.

“Why’d you hide it?”

“Lots of reasons.”

“Such as?”

“My parents made my do it, it’s not natural. Besides, I just wanted to be normal. It symbolised my destiny, you know? That things were out of my control.”

“Is that so bad?” Aubrey says.

“I guess not, but at the time, I was eighteen and I was meant to have the whole world in front of me, but instead, I was given some lifetime commitment.”

“But you accepted a destiny from the forest?” Aubrey’s voice is uncertain but it’s true.

Duck couldn’t complain about being forced into a destiny when he had willingly accepted one from the Monongahela forest. It was a level of hypocrisy, Duck hadn’t even noticed before. Aubrey is nervously wringing her hands in her lap and even Ned looks somewhat on edge.

Oh. The Pine Guard coming together as it did, meeting all together before the stone archway as they did couldn’t be anything but destiny. Just like how Minerva wanted him to fight for her cause and the forest wanted Duck’s heart to always belong to it, the Pine Guard asked for a part of Duck, too. Aubrey and Ned were well aware of how the Pine Guard was formed and they were equally aware of Duck’s disdain for destiny. Did they think he didn’t want them?

“I accepted the forest because I believe in it and I love it. I love the forest and nature, so I want to protect it. The destiny or whatever the forest set out for me just happened to align with my own interests. I didn’t want Minerva’s because I’m not a warrior. I don’t want to fight some monsters until I get killed and lead some awful life running after the latest threat in a never-ending series of fights. I never did and I still don’t want to –”

Aubrey and Ned look almost miserable and Duck feels a pang.

“—But, the Pine Guard. I believe in what they stand for. I may not want to fight, but if it means the three of us get to work together, I’ll do it because I believe in you and I love you two.”

Duck isn’t the most open person, he’s well aware of this, but he loves his friends and if he has to say it out loud to them for them to get it, so be it. Ned Chicane has always been one of his closest friends and Aubrey is one of the sweetest kids he has ever met. If he’s going to be upfront with anyone, it’s going to be them. Even now, after telling them that he loves them, he’s still not letting on how much because holy fuck, he loves them just as much as he loves the Monongahela forest and maybe even more.

Aubrey smiles brightly and she looks so genuinely happy that Duck finds himself smiling back. Ned shuffles closer and slings his arm over Duck’s, resting on Aubrey’s shoulders. The three of them lean in closer together, clumping together around Aubrey and it feels right in a way that nothing else ever has. The forest always makes Duck feel like he’s nothing, and while it’s comforting, nothing holds a light to how he feels now. He feels like so much more than he has ever been before, and he never wants to let go and give this up.

Aubrey, Ned and Duck becoming the Pine Guard together was destiny. Duck has been surrounded by different forces choosing him and pushing him this way and that long enough to realise that they were inevitable but, in this moment, surrounded by his friends in the Amnesty Lodge, he doesn’t care. For once, he’s grateful that, of all things, this is a part of his destiny.