Trudging his way through the forest towards the neighbouring village, he tilts his head up and gives the air a wary sniff. From his side, the large wolf-grey dog with sharp amber eyes and a thick coat lifts her head and does the same. Having rescued the dog from the cruel hands of village children years ago, she’s been by his side ever since. Satisfied with what her nose tells her, the dog looks up at him and swings her tail once as confirmation.
That’s what he calls her, his most faithful and only companion.
She doesn’t have a name and never will because neither of them are optimistic enough to think that she’ll live a very long life, and he doesn’t want to have to add another name to his already extensive list of all those he’s lost.
As they continue trekking through the forest, approaching the clearing he agreed to meet the villagers in, there’s a slight shift in the air. It’s not a threatening scent, but it’s new. He stiffens and clutches at the sleeves of his jacket, mentally sifting through all the possible reasons for this unexpected meeting.
Living in the forest far away from Dead Zones—places with large, desecrated structures where people once lived but are now inhabited by rabid animals and Strains—and open roads, he resides in a small cabin with ample distance between himself and the nearest villages, which are inhabited predominately by Humans and New Humans (those with only some strain in their blood. They lack many if not all of the benefits that Strains have as well as the privileged status Humans have. The worst of both worlds, he thinks).
For the last few years, he’s managed on his own by hunting and selling and trading the extras to the villagers. On occasion, he’s had to act as hired protection, chasing out or killing unwanted predators and intruders, but it’s rare for them to be bothered, given how deep in the forest and isolated they are. Although tense and shaky at best, they have an unspoken agreement between them: he’ll provide them with his services so long as they leave him alone.
Neither party acknowledge just how heavily the villages rely on him for food and safety.
He prefers it that way.
The forest is silent and cold, and it’s been this way for as long as he can remember. The birds refuse to sing their songs, having learnt that silence usually keeps them alive for longer, and the deer run at the slightest hint of a threat. It wasn’t always like this though, he remembers his grandmother telling him once.
It wasn’t like this before Day Zero.
The day the world ended.
He’s not sure how many days or years it’s been since Day Zero. He hadn’t been born yet when it happened, and it’s not something he cares to calculate or keep track of because he has his own Day Zero.
His Day Zero took place six years ago.
The Strain in him howls mournfully at the memories.
He takes a deep breath and calms himself down, willing his eyes to return to their usual grey-green and his claws to retract. That’s the problem with being a Pure Strain—Strains that can take on both a humanoid and a full Strain form, unlike New Strains which are only able to take on humanoid Strain forms—it made him more in tune with his instincts. His entire family had pure wolf strains in their blood, and like all those with pure strains, they were all born with it. No one quite knows when it first started, but it’s been there for so long that they’ve never questioned it.
They’re wolf Strains.
It just is.
Refusing to dwell on the memories any longer, he focuses on the clearing up ahead. He can hear their heartbeats through the trees. There are three of them, but one stands out from the rest. It’s young and loud and beating out of control.
The dog raises her hackles in alarm.
They can both smell blood.
Stepping around the last tree, he gets a clear view of the clearing. There are two men standing there; they smell of sour nervousness and uncertainty. But they try to stand tall, their backs straight with confidence they don’t possess. They’ve been taught to never show weakness to Strains.
Whoever thought the idea up was an idiot.
There are so many ways he can sense their fear and anxiety. He can smell it in the air, see it in their eyes, and hear it in their heartbeats. His mere presence causes so much distress in them, it makes his Strain rumble in amusement.
The scent of blood’s not coming from either of the men though. It’s coming from the boy standing between them. Young and slender, the boy watches him with large brown eyes and a rope leash attached to his neck. There are bruises on his face and cuts running down his limbs. He can smell more blood from underneath the boy’s tattered rags and the rough ropes they used to tie his arms and legs together. The boy’s feet are equally cut up and bare. If he ever had shoes, the villagers must’ve taken them away. That doesn’t surprise him. Shoes are always a good commodity to have and always in demand, regardless of quality and size.
The dog hardly pays any attention to the boy and directs her growls to the men, daring them to try anything underhanded.
Unimpressed, he arches an eyebrow at them expectantly, waiting for an explanation.
Were they hoping to trade the boy for goods, or did they just want him gone and taken care of?
Derek runs his eyes over the boy again. The ropes don’t smell of wolfsbane or anything magical, so if the boy was a Strain, he would’ve escaped by now. He wonders what the boy’s crime is to be brought out here. Maybe he’s just a thief they caught, or a traveler who wandered too close and trespassed unwittingly.
Crossing his arms, he continues to wait for an explanation.
He isn’t given one.
The men don’t even bother trying to barter.
It probably doesn’t cross their minds to kill two birds with one stone. Or perhaps they’re just unwilling to spend more time talking to a Strain than they absolutely have to. In the villages, despite their unspoken agreement, they avoid openly interacting with him in fear of attracting the attention of Humanists—Purgers. If Purgers were to get the idea that they were Strain sympathizers, no one would be spared.
With no negotiations and minimal interaction, the two of them quickly pay for the meat and tell him to dispose of the boy however he saw fit.
(Of course they make the Strain do all the dirty work.)
Accepting their payment of fruits, vegetables and tools, he tosses them the sack of preserved meat and watches them leave.
“Good riddance,” he hears one of the men mutter.
That means they were pleased with the transaction—glad to be free of the boy.
He wonders what this boy with the large brown eyes had done that made it necessary for him to be disposed of by a Strain.
Left alone with the boy, he takes a step closer and inspects him again. The boy returns his stare with his own frightened gaze. Definitely not a Strain, or at least not one he’s familiar with. There are new strains emerging all the time. Some take on the form of New Strains, some of New Humans, and some just drive the person mad.
Derek wants to roll his eyes and snort. He picks up his payment and toys with the idea of returning home and just leaving the boy here, helpless and alone. A child would never survive out here, especially not tied up. There’s a soft shuffling sound and he and the dog both look at the boy, who’s fiddling with the ropes wrapped around his wrists. His brows are knit in concentration and there’s blood dripping down his hands from the poorly made rope rubbing against his skin.
He actually rolls his eyes this time and steps forward.
The boy freezes and stares at him, heart hammering loudly away in his chest.
In one smooth movement, he pulls out a knife from his belt and slices through the ropes, then kneels down and down the same with the ones around the boy’s legs. When he looks up, he’s surprised by the sight of the boy smiling in disbelief at him—the frenzied, fearful beating of his heart suddenly…hopeful?
His eyebrows furrow in confusion but those brown eyes merely continue watching him, the fear being replaced by anticipation and amazement. It makes Derek uncomfortable to be shown so much appreciation for nothing. The boy must’ve been convinced that he would die out here.
(And he will—it just won’t be by Derek’s hands.)
Without another word, he turns around and leaves the clearing, the dog trotting happily after him, relaxed now that the villagers have gone. He hears the boy’s heartbeat speed up and there’s the loud noise of someone crashing through branches and leaves. Turning around with an annoyed scowl, he can’t help but stare in disbelief when he sees the boy standing there, sheepish. The rope leash on his neck had somehow gotten caught on the branches of a nearby tree and the boy’s snarling at it, trying to loosen it with his bloodied, shaking hands.
How did this child ever manage to survive until now with his clear lack of instincts and skills?
Again, Derek takes a moment to consider the pros and cons of just turning around and leaving. If he leaves now, he won’t have to worry about being followed back to his cabin by the boy, and the smell of blood and panic will attract trouble from predators soon enough. He looks down at the dog and she returns his gaze, ready to support him no matter what he decision he makes.
The first time he saw the dog, he had thought about naming her Laura (strong, beautiful, unshakeable Laura), but that hurt too much—especially knowing that he’ll lose her sooner rather than later.
He doesn’t know why he does it, but he takes out the knife again and holds the rope leash taut. The boy’s hand flies up and stops him by the arm. Derek arches an eyebrow and looks from the hand on his arm, to the boy, back to the hand, then back to the boy; a silent but clear threat. The boy pulls his lips taut and holds his hands up in surrender.
Satisfied, he returns his attention to the rope. Although unresisting, the boy’s breathing grows shallow and his heart rate spikes even higher when the knife inches closer to his throat. Baffled by the unfounded and alarming reaction, Derek frowns and withdraws his hand and knife, watching the boy struggle for air, soundless except for his wheezing.
Unsure of what to do, he sheaths his knife and starts undoing the knots with his hands instead, occasionally bringing out his claws to cut through particularly stubborn strands. The entire time, he’s tempted to comfort the boy and to tell him to just breathe. But he refrains because the boy might get the wrong idea and actually think that Derek cares about his well-being or something (and that’s the last thing he needs).
When the rope comes undone, he can see a thin line running across the boy’s pale neck, underneath the angry, red burns from the leash. It’s an older scar. That explains the panic attack, at least. Is this why the boy hasn’t uttered a single word the entire time? Did someone try to cut through his voice box? Did he know too much and needed to be silenced? It wouldn’t be the first time he’s heard of something like this happening. With the tension between Purgers, Humans, New Humans, and Strains, these kinds of practices are hardly uncommon.
There are times when he likes to think that life before Day Zero were better than this and they’ve just temporarily regressed. He recalls his grandmother’s stories about a land teeming with people of all shapes and sizes, from all cultures and backgrounds. She had only been a girl when Day Zero took place, but the stories she told were always so vivid and colourful, he couldn’t help but be envious of her for getting to see these things first-hand. He and his siblings used to sit around her and listen to tales of buildings stocked with all kinds of food—more food than anyone could ever need, and strangers who would greet each other without suspicion and weapons.
Maybe they’ll return to that again one day, he muses, unconvinced.
He turns his attention back to the boy, silently chiding himself for how getting so distracted by his own thoughts.
The boy is breathing normally again, taking in deep, measured breathes as he stares at the rope on the ground. He rubs his neck tentatively, fingers running over the scar out of habit rather than pain. Then he looks up at Derek and shoots him a grateful smile which catches him off guard because it hadn’t been his intention to help the boy or to give him any hope of survival in any way.
Pointing towards the forest, he gestures with his head for the boy to leave. He doesn’t know if they speak the same language, but the message he’s sending is clear. But instead of fleeing, the boy takes a step towards him, his big doe eyes bright and imploring.
He arches a brow and points again.
What exactly is this boy expecting from him? Just because he didn’t kill the boy doesn’t mean he’s going to take him in. The dog’s all he needs for companionship and warmth; she’s as close to pack as anyone’s gotten since Laura left him alone.
Derek glances down at the dog. She looks from him to the boy, waiting for his signal to drive the boy off into the woods and out of their lives. He doesn’t know why he doesn’t take her up on her silent offer. It’s stupid and reckless, but instead of chasing the boy away, he merely scowls, shoves his free hand into the pocket of his jeans and turns around and marches back the way he came.
The boy seems to have taken his silence as consent of some kind because the entire way back to the cabin, he’s there, fumbling around behind them, scrambling through thick leaves and branches, trying desperately to keep them in sight. He’s loud and clumsy, and so very human in his gracelessness.
The dog lets out a lazy yawn as she trots next to him. They’re walking at what they consider their ‘easy pace’. He remains indifferent to their follower while her mouth is open in silent laughter, listening to sound of branches snapping from behind.
Neither of them turn back even once to check on the boy.
When they get back to the cabin, he’s begrudgingly impressed when the boy stumbles out of the trees and into the small clearing, arms flailing at phantom branches and insects. He stops abruptly when he realizes they’re no longer in the thick of the woods. Now he looks lost and bewildered, but pleased with himself and at the sight of the cabin. Turning to Derek with his hands on his waist and panting, he smiles again.
And again, Derek doesn’t understand.
He doesn’t understand how the boy can still smile when he reeks of pain and fear.
(He doesn’t understand how the boy can still smile when Derek lost the ability to do so, so many years ago.)
When he looks down and takes everything in, a pang of guilt hits him square in the gut at the sight before him. The boy’s feet have been bloodied from running around without shoes, driven by nothing but sheer tenacity. His calves have been cut up by sharp bushes and undergrowth, and his knees scraped from falls and tumbles. The blood on his arms have mostly dried and the cuts on his wrists look raw and painful. If the boy’s a Strain or New Human, he’s not one with any enhanced healing capabilities.
The guilt doesn’t last very long when he remembers that the boy was supposed to have been left for dead out there. But at the same time, now that the boy’s made it all the way to his cabin, he couldn’t very well just let him die outside; that would attract unwanted animals and attention.
Instructing the dog to keep an eye on their unwelcomed guest, he goes inside to carelessly toss the villagers’ payment onto the floor in a corner and sets about, finding the medical kit. It’s not very well-stocked by any means since he’s only ever had to use it on the dog, but it’s still better than nothing.
The boy’s picking off flecks of dried blood off his arm while keeping one eye on the dog when Derek returns outside. He snaps to attention, turning his head so fast, his neck cracks and pops from the sudden movement. He looks more alert and wary now, eyeing the kit questioningly.
Derek rolls his eyes because the boy’s already made the poor decision of following a Strain home and now he’s hesitating? Impatient, he motions for the boy to approach.
After a moment of uncertainty, the boy does as he’s told.
Or, at least he tries.
With the adrenaline wearing off, the boy winces and blinks back tears as he tries to tiptoe over to the cabin, each step pressing dirt and grime into the fresh cuts on his feet. Despite the pain, he stubbornly continues to advance, one agonising step at a time. Perhaps this is how he’s managed to not get himself killed so far. Where he’s lacking in instinct and skills, he makes up for in his willingness to go through hell and back just to stay alive.
After a few more steps, Derek can’t stand it anymore and hoists him up by the back of his rags with one hand and carries him inside. The dog follows and sits herself by the door, watching him while keeping an ear open for intruders outside.
It should alarm him how light the boy is, but they live in hard times and not everyone can hunt and trade to maintain a diet as balanced as his. He props the boy up onto the table and begin inspecting the wounds. Most of them are shallow, superficial, but if any of them get infected, that would just lead to a mess he has no intention or means of dealing with.
He asks if the boy understands the words he’s saying and gets a nod in response. Pleased that they’re able to at least communicate verbally, however one-sidedly, he tells the boy to brace himself for the pain because the wounds need to be clean and disinfected.
The boy nods again and gives a weak smile. Derek doesn’t know why the boy even bothers trying to smile at the person who led him through the woods which led to these cuts in the first place. He shrugs it off though, not wanting to think about it too much, and gets to work. Brown eyes watch him intently as he starts cleaning and disinfecting the cuts, taking in and memorizing the procedure (or to ensure he’s doing it right, he suspects).
His grip on the boy’s foot remains firm, unrelenting when the boy flinches and hisses at the burning sensation of cuts being disinfected. The smell of pain is rolling off him in waves and he’s mouthing a torrent of profanities without a sound. Ignoring this, Derek continues pulling splinters and dirt out of the cuts and washing it down with water and disinfectant. Neither of them have a choice but to bull through it now.
Half way through the second foot, the boy’s eyes roll up and he passes out, giving in to the pain and exhaustion.
Derek huffs in annoyance and continues his work. At least there won’t be any more flinching and tears to distract him. Every now and then, he would pause in his work to listen to the boy’s heartbeat if only to make sure he’s still breathing and alive.
It takes longer and more medical supplies than he had expected. After he finally finishes with the boy’s limbs, he has to cut away the rags because he can smell blood from underneath. There are bruises and welts on the boy’s front and back. Some are new, probably caused by the villagers, but most of them have already healed and turned into scars; nothing but raised, discoloured skin to remind the boy of the trials he’s faced to survive this long.
When he finishes cleaning and bandaging the last of the wounds, he steps back and wonders what he should do with the boy. His original plan had been to release the boy and let him run off and then continue on with his day, but now, he can’t very well leave him out in the woods smelling of pain and blood—not after all his hard work.
The dog watches him curiously as he lifts the boy and puts him down on the bear skin rug on the floor by the fireplace. It’s where he normally sleeps during winter nights, with the dog curled up next to him. She’s wondering why he did what he did, and he shrugs because he doesn’t know the answer to her question.
(But that’s a lie, because he does know.
He knows exactly why he did it.
It’s because he’s afraid that the wind will carry the boy’s helpless screams all the way to his cabins.
He’s afraid of finding the boy’s broken and mutilated body in the woods.
He’s afraid that instead of seeing those large brown eyes, he’ll see Laura’s cold, blank ones staring at him from the ground, and her blue, blue lips moving and calling his name without ever making a sound.)
Heaving a sigh, he tells the dog to stay on guard while he goes to check on the traps he set yesterday. If he doesn’t retrieve the kill, the meat will spoil and rot. And while he’s more than capable of hunting with his teeth and claws, he prefers to remain as inconspicuous as possible. There’s no need to make it known to Purgers that there’s a Strain in the area. The dog gives him a huff but doesn’t move from her position from the door as he leaves, ruffling her fur on the way out.
It doesn’t take him long to do his rounds, knowing the surrounding area better than his own cabin. He manages to snare four rabbits, one of which has already been gnawed on and torn apart by scavengers, but no big game today. Resetting the traps, he returns to the cabin with the rodents. There’s no real need for big game yet. When the situation calls for it, he’ll hunt. But until then, he’ll leave his catches to nature. He still has a large supply of preserved meat and can bring that to the village to trade if he’s in need of supplies and greens.
With the increase in rogue animals and Strains, it’s become near impossible to keep livestock around villages. Not only is the chance of livestock actually reaching maturity slim to none, but the risk of bringing in unknown predators to the village far outweighs the benefit of having a chance to taste domesticated meat.
His Strain shuffles with dissatisfaction, wishing he would just give in to the instinct and hunt.
The dog greets him with a thumping tail when she sees him through the doorway. The boy’s still asleep, right where he left him, completely oblivious to the world.
Derek sniffs at the air. He can’t be bothered to walk all the way over to make sure the boy's wounds haven’t opened up. Satisfied, he brings the rabbits over to the porch and sits down and begins skinning them with his knife. The furs are always worth something to the villagers. They turn the pelts into blankets and overcoats to help them get through the harsh winters that sweep through the lands, freezing everything in its path.
He turns and glances towards the hearth, wondering how much food he should prepare for the evening. Although he doesn’t want to feed the boy, the sooner he recovers, the sooner he’ll leave, and then Derek can return to his old routine. With that decided, he leaves the rabbits and their pelts on the porch and goes to retrieve water from the stream nearby.
The water tastes of metals and other substances he can’t name—it always has, as far as he’s concerned. But once upon a time, according to Uncle Peter, who had heard from his father, water was completely clear and tasted sweet and fresh.
Derek can’t imagine crystal clear water, let alone sweet and fresh tasting clear water—whatever ‘fresh’ is supposed to taste like.
Washing the blood off his hands and knife, he fills two large pails with water and carries them inside without breaking a sweat. He refills the dog’s dish, and she takes a few delicate laps, just enough to wet her mouth as a sign of appreciation and lies back down to continue watching him work.
Lighting a small fire in the hearth, he hangs up a pot of water over it, careful not to disturb the sleeping boy. He misses the stove they used to have when he was a child. It was just a large metal box with four openings on the top that they managed to drag out from a building on the outskirts of the closest Dead Zone. It held kindle and fire in its belly and allowed them to bake and cook multiple things at once. As a child, he used to turn the strange, now deformed knobs on the box, letting his imagination run wild, trying to imagine how the box could’ve ever heated itself up without kindle the way his grandmother told him it supposedly did.
After preparing one of the rabbits, he rummages through the things the villagers had given him and pulls out stalks of vegetables and leafy plants and mushrooms. Chopping them into small pieces, he tosses them into the boiling water. The stew won’t be anything amazing, but he never uses spices or accepts them as payment for his services, not when they could so easily be contaminated and poisoned, and their scent overpowered.
He hasn’t eaten properly seasoned food since his Day Zero.
Not even with Laura.
Outside, the sun’s already starting to set. It’s the middle of fall and the sun refuses to remain in the sky any longer than it has to. He goes outside and cleans up any traces of blood either the boy or the rabbits made. Getting up in the middle of the night to chase off hungry predators isn’t something he wants to have to do.
Once he’s satisfied with everything, he returns inside and takes the pot off the fire and pours himself a bowl of rabbit stew. He tosses the dog one of the rabbits and watches her tear at it hungrily. In the back of his mind, he tells himself that he doesn’t need to go through the trouble of boiling water and chopping up vegetables. He could eat the rabbit raw too. But then he would see his mother’s disapproving face as she tells him that they’re Strains, not animals, and quickly erases the idea from his head, guilty and ashamed.
He puts a lid on the put and leaves the other half of the stew either for the boy or for breakfast. It’ll be for whoever woke up first, really. After he’s finished eating, he moves to sit by the fireplace, making sure that there’s some distance between him and the boy and curls up. He brings out his grandmother’s journal containing her childhood recollections. She had always been an avid writer and her journal was one of the few things he managed to save from his Day Zero. He can recite all the entries verbatim, but he loves the sensation of weathered pages on his fingers and seeing the elegant script of his grandmother running across the page. Having long since gotten bored with reading the entries in order, he flips to a random page and starts reading.
Not many people are familiar with letters anymore—at least not in the villages he’s encountered; maybe it’s different elsewhere. Although the villagers, or those capable of speech, can communicate verbally, the literacy rate plummeted with the need to survive overshadowing the need to read and write. His grandparents and parents had insisted on them learning. Survival wasn’t an issue for them, not in the same way it was for Humans and New Humans.
The dog, having finished her dinner, pads over and curls up at his feet as he reads about buildings that used to house books rather than people, about a time when just about everyone, the old and young alike, was well-versed in letters. People would just sit in this building and read, travelling off to distant worlds and timelines without ever leaving the place.
He can’t even begin to imagine what being in such a building would be like.
But he still closes his eyes and tries.
In the morning, he opens his eyes just as sunlight starts streaming through the opened windows. He stiffens at first, tense and alert at the unfamiliar smell in the cabin, but then he looks over and remembers the events that took place yesterday. The boy’s still sound asleep; he’s somehow rolled towards the edge of the rug with his limbs stretched in impossible angles.
The very thought of having to deal with the child makes him want to go back to sleep. Instead, he drags himself onto his feet and goes on his usual morning run over to the stream to wake himself up. The dog’s sitting by the door when he returns, patiently waiting for him. He glances over at the leftover stew and then at the bandaged figure on his floor. Promising to be back in a little while, he pulls a shirt on and grabs the remaining rabbit along with two of the pelts from yesterday and makes his way to the closest village.
The pelts haven’t been properly prepared yet, but the villagers know how to do it. He just wants to get in and out before all the villagers are awake, especially the children. Without any of the learnt restraint the adults show around him, the children were often the cruelest of the villagers, taking turns and daring each other to taunt and harass him with spiteful words and rocks. Sometimes, they would venture beyond the village walls and into the forest in search of him and his dog in hopes of catching them off guard.
Both his actions and inactions only seemed to further egg them on.
Their hatred towards him is unwarranted, but it’s all the children know and what they learnt. They’re encouraged by their parents to fear and hate all Strains, even if it’s a Strain who supplies the village with meat and safety. At the end of the day, he chalks it up to their lack of knowledge.
An unlearned man is a dangerous man, his father used to tell him, turning to superstition and false beliefs instead of facts and logic, they’re best avoided. Never interact with those who spit thrice on the floor at the mere mention of Strains; it is the sign of someone who’s given in to superstitions.
Purgers will spit thrice at the mention of Strains.
Some of the village children have started to spit thrice on the floor whenever they see him approaching.
He knows he won’t be able to stay for much longer.
Entering the village, he walks through the gates without so much as a nod to the guards. They couldn’t stop him from entering even if they tried, not without access to wolfsbane or mountain ash. Their sturdy village walls provided nothing but a false sense of security for those residing inside.
The village is mostly quiet save for the sound of adults getting ready to start another day of work. There are men pulling wooden carts fitted with rubber tires about, slowly making their way towards the fields. No one spares him a moment’s worth of attention.
The children are still asleep.
Derek makes his way to the baker, a stout middle-aged woman, a New Human who grew up in a large town that no longer exists. As far as villagers go, she’s one of his favourites and one of the few he’ll privately trade with. A smart business woman, she’s always treated him with respect and cordiality, openly disciplining her children when they were rude to her ‘best customer’.
To a small extent, he’s opened up to her, occasionally telling her about how well his trapping season has been and how much meat the village can expect for the winter. It’s already more than he tells anyone other than the village head. And in return, she tells him of any travelling merchants the village may be expecting in the near future.
He never brings the dog to the village. She would reluctantly follow him if he wanted her to, but he hates the idea of taking her anywhere near the people who showed her so little mercy before. He doesn’t understand why Strains are considered monsters when Humans can be so much worse. But then again, Strains aren’t any better—not when they’re the ones that took Laura away from him.
The baker smiles at him when he enters, wiping her hands clean on her flour covered apron. He never bothered learning her name, or the names of any of the villagers. Just like the dog, he doesn’t want to put a name to the faces he hates or the people he’ll inevitably leave behind.
They don’t talk very much today. He hands over the rabbit and the pelts in exchange for bread and medical supplies. The baker doesn’t question his sudden need for bandages and disinfectant, and he’s grateful for it. He gives her a nod of appreciation and takes his things and leaves.
By the time he returns to the cabin, the morning fog has cleared and the ground is slowly starting to warm up. Any hope he has of the boy waking up and leaving is dashed when he reaches the cabin. There’s movement coming from inside, too loud and clumsy to be the dog’s. He makes his way to the doorway and arches a brow at the sight of the boy shuffling around with the dog trailing behind him, keeping a close eye on him and growling whenever he touched something he wasn’t supposed to or knocked Derek’s few belongings over.
The dog turns to him and gives an exasperated huff, licking her nose, pleased to finally be relieved of her child-minding duties.
Seeing this as a chance to test the boy’s reactions, Derek lets his eyes bleed red and his fangs grow. It’s not his full Strain form, but it’s enough. He clears his throat and the boy jumps up with flailing arms, knocking over a chair, then he whirls around to face Derek, heart rate spiking in surprise.
He narrows his eyes and growls threateningly.
The boy rubs the back of his neck, trying to feign nonchalance. He looks embarrassed at having been caught but not guilty—startled but not afraid of the Strain standing before him. And then he sees the sack in Derek’s clawed hands and his eyes immediately light up with curiosity. Derek changes back, completely floored by the boy’s lack of reaction. There isn’t a shred of self-preservation in this child; this child who can so easily turn his attention away from a Strain in favour of a sack.
Wanting to get back at the boy, however pettily, he leaves the sack on the table and goes to reheat the leftover stew. He can hear the boy shuffling next to the table, can feel him staring and eyeing the sack. The dog growls whenever she sees his long, twitchy fingers inching towards it. Soon, it turns into a game between them and Derek can’t help but shake his head at them.
When the stew’s poured and ready to be eaten, he decides to put the boy out of his misery and takes the bread out of the sack. Bright brown eyes immediately snap to attention and hone in on it hungrily. Derek tears the bread into halves and leaves it on the table in favour of finding meat scraps for the dog’s breakfast. When he returns, neither the bread nor the stew has been touched and the boy’s just standing there, eyeing the food.
He chucks the meat over to the dog and sits back down and begins to eat. When the boy still doesn’t move, Derek rolls his eyes and tosses one of the halves at him, watching him fumble around, trying to catch it. When the bread’s finally securely wrapped around his fingers, the boy stares at him in disbelief.
He’s a talker, Derek can tell. Even without his voice, his eyes and hand gestures manage to fire off a dozen words per second. Right now, all his silent words are telling Derek that he’s grateful and sore and unsure of what’s expected of him.
Derek grunts and gestures at the bowl of soup and tells him to sit down and eat before he changes his mind and feeds his share to the dog.
The boy’s hesitation disappears after that. He sits down on the other side of the table and begins wolfing everything down as though afraid Derek will carry out his threat. He stuffs his mouth so full of bread and stew that he has trouble closing it to chew properly. Derek can only watch in morbid fascination. It reminds him of the squirrel Cora found in the woods once. She brought it a handful of nuts just to see how many it could pack into its already bulging cheeks, and he chided her for taunting the creature, to which she retorted that thanks to her, it wouldn’t have to worry about starvation for the next few months.
He doesn’t realize he’s completely stopped eating until the boy pauses halfway through his meal and looks at him. Snapping out of his trance, he quickly takes a bite of bread and wrinkles his nose in feigned distaste at the boy’s table manners.
With his mouth still full, the boy grins.
The grin reminds him of days long past, back when the world still seemed like an alright place despite its lack of book houses and crystal clear water. It makes his chest constrict. It’s tight and painful, and it takes all his self-restraint to not flinch away at the brightness or to snarl at the hopefulness.
After breakfast, he tells the boy to sit still and not to wander about or touch anything. He suspects that it’ll be a difficult task for the child to accomplish, so he leaves the dog behind to watch him.
He has every plan to kick the kid out as soon as his feet heal, and he tells him so.
Narrowing his eyes, the boy huffs, his nose twitching in annoyance. He reaches out and takes one of Derek’s hand with surprising boldness. With a finger, he begins writing letters onto Derek’s palm. So shocked by the fact that the boy is familiar with letters, he almost misses the message.
N-O-T pause K-I-D. S-T-I-L-E-S.
Derek furrows his brows in confusion. “What the hell is a stiles?”
The boy points to himself, giving a name to himself.