It was still early in the morning when Yeller emerged from the room with his pack. Sven followed behind him, his chest and shoulders wrapped carefully. The others had already laid out their packs and had shifted. Dietrich cocked his head at Yeller quizzically but didn’t press any question. Tereza’s Heat was still smothering. They needed to get moving, and if the questions were dire enough, they could be asked on the road.
Yeller went about helping each of the beasts into their packs. Sylvi took his old pack, leaving him to support Sven if the need arose. He checked the rooms once more for anything left and opened the front door before allowing Cashia’s form to emerge. The wolves stepped from the double-wide out into the desert. They scented the warming wind. There was still a smell of snow lingering at the edges of the desert sands. For now, though, the muddy grains were warming beneath their paws.
Nat relaxed into Sven’s consciousness. It had been a long night and morning. He was physically exhausted and only too happy to have Sven take over for the rest of the day. He was drained beyond what he could have imagined possible.
So…? Sven asked after they had been trotting for the better part of an hour. Nat blinked awake. He looked around, realising that the desert still stretched on in an unending trail of gritty brown and khaki. The only change was the direction of the light casting shadows on far-off rises and little stones.
Where are we at? Nat yawned, trying to shake himself awake.
Somewhere in Utada…still… Sven replied.
Huh. ‘k. What’s up? Nat asked, not sure why Sven had decided to wake him from a rather pleasant sleep.
Well. You know? Doing better? Sven eventually coughed out.
Nat nodded, his lips still pressed together. He was not ready to talk yet. He was still trying to figure out what had put him over the edge. The swamping, smothering darkness was hanging on at the edge of his mind, waiting to dig in. He drifted with the thought, his mind lulled by the wolf’s easy gate.
Sven sighed and shook himself. He was being ignored. Maybe it was better to let the man sleep. Cashia cast him a questioning glance before rubbing up against him. “You doing all right? Do we need to break for your wounds?” he asked.
“Doing fine. We can cover more ground. Just chatting with the man,” Sven replied.
Cashia grunted. “He doing all right after this morning?” Cashia was ever obviously aware that Sven and Tereza were privy to what had transpired.
“He doesn’t hate you if that’s what you’re nervous about, Cash. He’s being particularly quiet, though,” Sven huffed. He had a bad feeling about this. He had not heard Nat’s thoughts go silent since they buried his mind weeks ago. He panted off his nervous energy.
“I am sorry for panicking your host. It was not my intention, but it happened while he was in my care, and I do apologise for it.” Cashia’s ears flipped back. He whined gently.
Dietrich turned from the front of the pack to look back at the two dragging the rear. Tereza’s Heat was still radiating, permeating everyone’s senses. Nothing had been fixed. He wasn’t sure what had happened to create the tense impression he had from his heavy hitter and his second in command, but it felt like a question he was not allowed to ask.
“It will get better, hopefully. He is upset more at his memories and that he couldn’t control them to help you and Tereza,” Sven acknowledged the apology.
“He needs to stop sacrificing himself. It’ll do him no good,” Cashia hissed.
“He was protecting you and your host back when Michael took him. This time, though, it was not protection I was getting from him. He’s quiet and trying to please; you’ve noticed that, yes?” Sven jumped over a wide gap in the asphalt.
“Thought he was going about it out of some obligation.” Cashia kept pace with Sven.
Sylvi dropped back to walk on the other side of Sven. “I never really got to talk with him, but I lived in his memories for the last few months.”
“He’s been through some things, and not just the attempted murder and the time since we got here?” Sven nudged against his wife with a whine.
“Yeller wants to know if he’ll be okay with us talking about him like this,” Cashia chuffed.
Not that I want to be.
You keeping track of this conversation?
Not like I can’t ignore it.
Cashia and Yeller will find out things you might not want them to know.
Nat sighed inwardly. Count it as an apology then. I can’t say it, but if they knew, maybe they won’t be mad.
No one’s mad, brat.
Brat. You can’t-
Oh, I don’t want to, but as the therapist I had in the hospital said, you can’t get over your problems when you’re actively experiencing them. Need to let the wounds scab over a bit before you know you’re able to heal or something like that. So, I’m gonna have flashbacks, and I’m gonna hole up in here and let them eat me alive until they spit out my bones, and I can start putting myself back together.
That’s…not how that works. You need others. You need to talk about what’s happened, before Michael, during, after.
You do the talking. I am exhausted. Spill the beans. I don’t care anymore; I just want to sleep.
“He’s grumpy, but not about us talking about him. Seems he needs an ishøster.” Sven shook out his fur in annoyance. “Knew his folks were religious?”
“Knew his dad was an angry drunk?” Sven laid down the first card.
“Yeller says he suspected.”
“Knew his mom took up opiates after his dad broke her arm in one of his fits?”
Cashia took time coming back from that one. “Yeller said he remembered when she was in a cast for a bit one summer in grade school and went over to help Nat put in a rose garden. His dad had bought her a dozen plants.”
“She apparently never got off them after that and used it to escape from his dad without leaving. Something about wanting her son to grow up knowing his father. About religion not letting them divorce. I don’t understand this logic, but that was the reason he seems to have solidified in his soul.” Sven watched a pair of crows fighting over what looked to be a cob of corn from a deserted field.
Sylvi continued where Sven had left off. “Brat didn’t quite get the luxury of escaping like his mom. Received the short end of the stick, and the belt, and anything else that came to the man’s hand when he found something wrong, or invented something to be mad about. Everything from academics and clothes to house cleaning and love.”
Cashia stayed quiet longer than before. “My host is angry. I am. He’s not sacrificing. He’s pleasing. Looking to appease, because he doesn’t want to get hurt again. That what I’m getting out of this?”
“I don’t think he started things this morning so much to please as he didn’t like that Tereza wasn’t getting fair treatment, and maybe there was some pleasing. He wanted Dietrich to not be mad at him.” Sven left off the ravens and turned back to Dietrich watching them closely.
“What am I mad about?” Dietrich waited for the three to catch up to him.
“Nat had a bad flashback when he was trying to ‘fix the problem’ you so adamantly told us to get sorted.” Cashia barred his fangs at the wolf.
“That why you all look like someone died? The kid had a bit of a scare?” Dietrich returned the fangs.
“Fuck off. Go lead up there or something,” Sylvi warned.
Dietrich shut his mouth, startled.
“You’ve been in his head. You and Deck both. Felt you creeping around. You know what he’s been through. Know what his father did to him. Brat didn’t need you pushing him. He sees you more clearly as leader than I do right now.”
“You vying for my position?” Dietrich growled.
“No, telling you you’re acting like his old man at the moment, and that makes me want to rip your throat out,” Cashia bristled.
“I haven’t done anything to him.”
Sylvi returned Dietrich’s growl ounce for ounce. “You, Deck, hit him. And he sees you as someone he’s supposed to trust. The people who were supposed to care for him abused him, and he thinks that’s an expectation. He’s fucking trying to appease you, all of us, because he doesn’t want to get hurt again. If doing what you say, what we say, makes us happy, that means to him we won’t hurt him. You seeing where I’m going with this?”
“I’m not his dad,” Dietrich sniffed.
Yeller pulled his shift, bare feet settling on cold asphalt. “Walk. Away.”
They continued to cover ground well into the setting sun and appearance of the first stars. The moon rose along the desert skyline, large and shattered casting shadows across cliffs and cacti. Yeller helped the group unload their packs to sleep and shifted back when everyone was comfortable. Sven curled around Sylvi, and the night passed uninterrupted.
The days passed as they headed south and east. The desert shifted little in difference until it was suddenly soaring with immense columns and plateaus of deep red and brown before being swept away into rolling hills of sage and scorpions. The winter grew bitter once again as they approached the edge of the Rockies, barely skirting it. Rabbits, ground owls, rats and hibernating snakes made up the bulk of their diet as they passed by massive geology that glistened and cast foreboding fingers across their paths.
In the blanketing of full darkness, most of the group changed to their human form, but Sven maintained his wolf-like appearance regardless. Yeller joined the others some evenings, but they could tell it hurt him to do so, his eyes lingering on the white wolf. Soon enough, Yeller gave over to Cashia more and more often. The others knew something was wrong. Heinrich and Dietrich had their suspicions but decided it was better to not mention their thoughts to their hosts. This was something that had to be worked through.
Nat slept through most of the road trip, waking only rarely when Sven would prod him or when Tereza would come lay next to him. Their restlessness, their edgy desire for the situation to change rubbed at him, but they restrained themselves.
He could not bring himself out of the icy darkness. He could not face the world and be real yet. He was too raw, so far in the deep end that the world inside himself resembled the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Only black and monsters and cold lurked there.
The last hope that Yeller had was the steady beating warmth of his power mark. It never wavered, never cooled, never heated, but always remained firm. Hana mentioned her mark too was stable in its warmth. Deck had tried to link with Nat on more than a couple of occasions to come up empty, like when he had turned Dietrich loose to find him when the birdmen had taken his friend.
They entered the outskirts of Dallas in mid-spring, four weeks after Nat went silent. They planned to follow the highway down to the coastline and follow the roads along the beach until they hit Fort Dade in Florgia. The city still had some inhabitants, more than the scarce settlements they had seen out in Reclamation- Mexico, but it was paltry in comparison to what the city had been capable of supporting before the war and the drought.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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