When she opened her eyes, Mackerel was in paradise.

Rays of sunshine sliced through the leafy trees, dappling the dusty brown ground with golden petals of light. Around her, the forest breathed, with trees swaying back and forth to the song of their leaves shaken by the breeze. The searing heat scorched her from the outside in, warming her to her very core. This was a place that had never known the crippling strength of cold moons and snow and the rattling of shallow breaths clawed out of collapsing lungs, nor would it ever know the spattering of fresh scarlet blood on snow, or the roil of frozen winds over a white plain of nothing.

How ironic that hell was masked in such a beautiful guise.

"Vetis?" she called tentatively, her eyes searching hungrily for his dark coat and hot-coal eyes.

(they're all she's never missed about her times as a servant, those red orbs whose fire it seems was snatched from the sun)

But he didn't emerge, didn't offer her that twisted smirk that she knew held no real malice, didn't apologize for fucking thrusting her out of the world that she had embraced even given the circumstances of her imprisonment. She hated herself for ever liking him as she sat there in the sunshine.

Because he never cared about you, no.

(it was all a dream in the end, that visit to heaven, but it still burns in the back of her throat when she thinks about it)

She was a pretty little thing, only a few moons younger than herself, with black fur darker than the night sky and twin green stars for eyes. It was easy to see why Maelstrom fell for her like a suicide from a bridge. He took the fall and he splintered.

Every day now, she can see the love and the hate and the sadness that made a home in his mind. She wants to hate the Clanner for breaking him, wants to hate the stars and cruel fate and herself for not helping him before it was too late.

But he's gone now, and they're all going too.

He's kind of like her rock, that hulking mountain of a cat. He's everything she wants and everything she needs, somebody to build back up so that she can say this is what I've done with my life and I'm proud but it's not going to happen, no, because he's just as broken as she is.

She can't help anybody without helping herself first, but Mackerel won't face that because she knows what it means and she just can't take another disappointment.

She knows that there's no fixing the damage done to her. She was destined for this fate before she was born, star-damned. She doesn't even know why, and that will always be the worst part. Some things will haunt her no matter how deeply she buries them.

And that makes her more alike to Shackle than she'll ever know.

She'll always have courage. Not the courage that roars and guides the way, but the quieter kind, the kind that says I will try again tomorrow.

So it's no surprise that she takes blow after blow until the day she dies, bleeding out a worthy death back in the hay loft by the limp body of the tortoiseshell who lost her way, too. She's come full circle now, and still as empty of answers as ever. The feeling leaves her as quickly as the blood does.

She dies with Shackle and Maelstrom and Twister around her. They're telling her she's going to be alright, and she knows that, yes, she knows things are okay now.

The last threat is gone. There are no assassins, no cutthroats, no tyranny ruling this forest. The kingdom has crumbled and only one servant remains.

It's the one she loves.