Briar approached the water cautiously, taking a seat on the bank next to Alex. The man knelt next to the river, his hair falling in front of him in wet ropes, blocking his face, and his beard dripped into his chest. His hands rested on his knees. He didn’t look up when she approached, and for several seconds, the two sat in tense silence, until she broke the stillness. “How did you know?”
Alex didn’t lift his head. “I didn’t.” His voice was implacable, inscrutable. “I hoped I’d been wrong.”
Briar nodded, then closed her eyes. “So what does it mean?”
Alex looked up at that. “It means exactly what you think it does. I should’ve realized it a lot sooner.” He lowered his gaze to the water. “This isn’t going to be easy.”
The Child of Rabbit wrapped her arms around her knees. “You’re thinking too much about the future. You know what needs to happen. You just have to go do it.”
“I know,” Alex sighed. “It may not work out that cleanly, but you’re right.” He looked back towards the tent. “Shadowdance is pretty much recovered. His Protectorate… that will take years, but the worst is over. From here, there’s just rebuilding.” His eyes turned back to Briar’s. “You going to be okay with everything?”
Briar nodded in response. “I’m more worried about Dancer. This has been hard on him.”
Alex chuckled. “This has been hard on all of us. The knot on the back of my neck still hurts.” He shoved himself to his feet with a groan, then helped the Child of Rabbit stand as well. “No point in putting it off any longer.”
Briar took Alex’s hand in her paw, giving it a gentle squeeze. “I should go forage.” Then with that, she was gone, dashing off into the trees, barely a rustle marking her departure.
Alex stood, staring at the spot at which the Child of Rabbit vanished, then turned back towards the leather tent the the plume of white, healing smoke rising from its top. Inside, a mountain lion lay curled on his side, mewling quietly. His fingers were clenched, claws sliding in and out of their sheathes as he dreamed. From time to time, a shudder would pass through his tan fur, or his thick tail would lash against the ground. On the far side of the sweat lodge, Shadowdance crouched over his hind paws, his arms folded and his elbows on his knees. His tail brushed the ground in slow sweeps as he watched the Child of Cat struggle through his nightmare. As Alex walked in, he lifted his gaze, then rose and motioned the man back outside, following and letting the flap drop to hold the vapors within.
The Child of Wolf looked back to the tent, then to Alex with a scowl, tail pinning to his back. “I still don’t like this.”
Alex nodded and clapped the wolf on the shoulder. “I know, Shadowdance. I know. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a better way to help him figure out what he’s been missing. Your Protectorate needs you, you’ll have him to help you heal it, and you’ll have Briar to help you watch him.” He glanced towards the lodge, then back to the Child of Wolf with a smile. “Besides, at worst, I’ll have his car and his phone, and his guns are long gone. What’s he going to do, rant at you?”
Shadowdance barked a short laugh at that. “Fine. Yes, I want the help. Just….” He looked past Alex, towards the highway. The fires had been extinguished, but soot still hung in the air. “I’m not used to thinking about the future, and I don’t like it very much, but I think that we’re all going to have to learn how.”
Alex nodded in response, giving the wolf’s shoulder a squeeze. “I’m afraid we’ve all lost that luxury, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on what we are, any of us.” He chuckled. “For now, finish recovering and help Tom. If I’m not back in a few days, then you can worry about what comes next. I know you can’t leave, but this place won’t be safe any more.”
Silence hung in the air between wolf and man for a few moments, until Shadowdance focused back on the man’s face. His ears lifted and his tail waved behind him. “I’ll have a deer waiting for you when you get here.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “As long as you don’t tear your arm out of the socket to catch it. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” With that, he held out his hand to the Child of Wolf. “Shake.”
Shadowdance mock-growled, then ducked his head and licked Alex’s fingers, making him jerk his hand back and wipe it on his filthy jeans. Then the wolf gave a final wave and ducked back into the sweat lodge, letting it close behind him.
All that remained between Alex and the World of Man, then, was the long walk to Parson’s truck. The hike back to the road felt longer than the one taking him to the sweat lodge just outside Shadowdance’s Protectorate. I don’t want to leave, he realized with a quiet chuckle. Still, this will all be over, one way or another. Then, I can return, or find my own place… or it won’t matter. That last, he considered, then shrugged and set it aside as unimportant. What will happen will happen, he reminded himself. Do what you need to do, and let the rest take care of itself.
The bear-mind woke from its slumber and smiled, then drifted to sleep again.
Parson had parked his truck where his own vehicle had been; as the once-hunter had said, his own was gone. The key he’d taken from Tom’s jacket slid into the lock easily enough, and the engine started smoothly on the first try. The fact that he was about to drive a borrowed vehicle without permission after being gone for several days in the wake of an explosion in his apartment briefly reared itself in his head, but he brushed it aside, pulling out onto the interstate. He was doing what he needed to do. Everything else would take care of itself.