He wakes, still caught in the nightmare, with a jolt, claws scrabbling against the ground and ripping up huge clumps of dirt; the acrid stench of flesh burning clogging his nose and phantom wisps of smoke filling his lungs. His black lips are pulled back, thick fangs glinting in the dim light under the porch, furry chest heaving, and his muscles jumping so bad he looks like he’s having a seizure as he thrashes against the dirt. He can still remember the overwhelming heat, feels it pressing in on all sides as if he’s right there again, terrified and blinded by it, flames licking at his flanks as he crawled, staggered to his paws, and then ran and ran and ran. His mother’s screams ring in his ears as clear as tolling bells, her usually soft, mellow voice raised in an agonized howl as she’d told him to run, Dmitri, run, keep running and don’t look back, don’t stop, keep going baby, don’t stop, we’ll find you-
But they wouldn’t. Her cries chased him into the part of their territory that wasn’t ablaze, forced him forward as instinct kept him following the ley-line, his burned pads a harsh stab of pain that was almost, but not quite, hidden beneath the shards of horror and fear and anger and confusion. It was instinct that had his ears straining, searching, listening for his father, the voice of reason that would overpower all of the bad, make everything okay, but he knew, he knew, he wasn’t going to hear it, would never hear it again, never be gently but firmly scruffed for trying to sneak away when he thought no one was looking when he was just able to start walking, exploring, doing what cubs would always do.
He plunged into coldness, swept up in a current too powerful for him to fight, dragged along and under, sucking in water, thinking that he was dying, until he felt The Power curling around him and lifting him up, carrying him to the other bank where he collapsed, shivering, directly over the knot where the ley-line met three others, all branching in different directions of the forest and carrying life, growing things, except in the direction which he came in because the fire was still roaring, still possessed and all-consuming, destroying his entire world. He laid there as the pain bled away and his skin knit back together again, unblemished and perfect, fur growing in where it had been previously burned off, The Power cradling him and little buttercups growing against his cheek, but he didn’t see any of it, couldn’t feel any of it, his throat muscles working but no sound emerging from him. His mind, though, was as clear now as the smoke-free sky, not a cloud in sight, a constant broken, moaning mantra echoing in it—just two words, two little words that tore his heart to shreds and turned his stomach to lead and consumed him, consumed everything, blackness yawning in a gaping chasm as the hole opened in his soul and sucked in everything, took away everything but The Power, settled its hooks in deep to remind him that he was alone. That he would always be alone.
Just two little words.
My fault my fault my fault my fault my fault
It feels like it’s been three hours, but in all actuality it’s probably been less than five seconds, when he crashes back into reality, blunt human fingers tangling in the ivy growing around him, under him, like a bed, crushing the fragile stalks. His eyes burn and his cheeks are wet, lungs smoke-free but raw, gasping in great heaving, sobbing breaths that pain him and cut fresh tracks down the dirt on his face. When did he change back? Does it even matter? It really doesn’t, the nightmare still fresh at the front of his mind, the cool breeze that reaches him caressing his shivering body, making him break out in goosebumps. He reaches blindly for that part of himself, for the warmth and the familiarity and the comfort it brings as his body stretches and morphs, bones cracking and tendons popping, teeth aching as they adjust and skin prickling as long fur grows in. He wraps himself up in his canine armor, drawing it and The Power around himself like a cloak, and rises into a standing position. His ears strain, quivering, his sharp sight cutting through the gloom, but there are no footsteps in the house above him, no car in the driveway and no Doberman snarling and barking as she smells him and tries to reach where he is, tries to frighten him away to protect her pink, hairless pack. The distant rumble of the nearby highway can be heard, silence never truly falling, and he ignores it as he slips from his hiding place and looks around. He’s wary, the aftershocks of his nightmare keeping him twitchy and alert to any disturbance, as he trots up the stained mahogany hardwood steps onto the porch proper, and then he’s pushing through the large doggy door that’s never locked and into the house.
It smells like pack, and family, and home, even though it’s not his, will never be his. The emptiness reminds him of that, and will keep reminding him, so he’s quick to sniff his way to the kitchen and takes several moments just to drink the water in the metal bowl laid out for the dog that lives here. It tastes stale, metallic and almost coppery, but he drinks anyway because it chases away the foul taste in his mouth, leaves his palate feeling cleaner, if not completely cleansed. He doesn’t dare take even a mouthful of food, because it’s frankly disgusting, the meaty smell manufactured, and with the way he feels right now he knows he would just throw it right back up as soon as it hit his stomach.
It’s all he lets himself have, because he has no idea when the family will be back, so he takes one last lap and licks his muzzle before he’s running back through the doggy door and down the steps. He’s off the property in record time, barely even bothering to look around because while he has never been to this house before, has never even seen it before today, he’s been in this neighborhood plenty of times. There are a lot of dog owners here, a lot of comfortable homes with safe little crawl spaces and unlocked doggy doors, so it never surprises him that it’s here he winds up in the middle of the night when his mind sleeps but his body walks the streets, his nightmares fueling him along and keeping him in the shadows, unseen, until he’s safely tucked away until the morning when he wakes up in pain and agony and terror. At least until his nose clears and he can breathe in and smell pack, and it unconsciously calms him down because he keeps to himself, lives by himself in his cramped, filthy apartment, stays alone, but he hates being alone. He can’t stand the silence, and the fact that it just reminds him every single second of what he’s done, and that this is his life now, the constant empty ache mocking him, never letting him forget his sins. So he doesn’t let himself, he refuses to let himself, and he lives with them every single moment of every single day. When he has it, though, he cherishes that tiny feeling of pack, and belonging; that tiny flicker of completion that he clings to and tries to make last until he goes back to living in reality and abandons it until he’s trembling and fragile the next morning and he can pretend it’s his, if only for a little while.
These houses aren’t his den, and these strangers aren’t his pack. He doesn’t have a pack.
He doesn’t have anything.
The place he grudgingly calls his den is not on a busy street. It’s quiet, and the rent is cheap, and the utilities are included. Set back off the road, the small complex is shabby, but still holds hints of its former glory, of the fact that it used to be something bigger and better. He can see it in the impressively-forged wrought iron railings that climb up with the stairs and wrap around the balconies—year after year of cheap, gaudy-colored paint cracking and peeling away now to reveal sore-looking rust spots and dark, imposing metal. There are tell-tale signs of former grandeur in the sweeping landscapes dotted with old willow trees, their curving branches pressing ever downward towards the earth to brush the grass and their small, trembling leaves swaying in the wind in a way that can almost completely hide away a brooding soul who wishes to lean against the thick, sturdy trunk, possibly with a book, and not be found for hours. The entire complex, which is only about fifteen little apartments in one long, squat building, has that kind of quiet but regal air about it that marks it as forever trapped in time, steadily chugging along without losing an ounce of regality, even as the old bricks probably made by hand grow darker with age, mortar crumbling and chipping here and there, all aesthetic things that could be patched, could be repaired, but are allowed to continue on and show the steady wear of time.
The first time he had seen the building, when he’d come to fill out an application, Dmitri had just stood on the grounds for a while, looking at the complex, and as the wind had tickled the hair on his arms and tugged gently, playfully, on the dark brown hair curling against his big, silly ears, he could have sworn he’d heard a soft, quiet sigh of contentment, and a moment later an even softer voice whispering I, like you, am not as I seem. I am a relic lost in time but still cherished and warmed by those who choose to see me, an old soul in a new, fast-changing world. Here I stand, though. Tried, tested, and still fortified, still strong. Here I will be, too, when the new and shiny trinkets break and are discarded, replaced by newer models and flashier toys. Here I will be.
It’s not perfect, not even really pretty, inside his apartment. It shows the wear of time even worse than the exterior, the dark-paneled walls scratched and paper-thin with basically no insulation, and the carpet is all but threadbare. In some cases it has been worn away completely to expose the old, knotty floorboards underneath. He can’t even tell what color the carpets were originally because now they’re just the color of dirt, with darker stains here and there, but he doesn’t care because it’s a place to sleep at night, where he can put a surprisingly sturdy door with an equally shaky lock between him and the rest of the world. It’s his tiny, pitiful territory with the toilet that doesn’t always flush right and the lights that flicker because of faulty wiring and the mirror above the gritty-feeling sink that’s cracked. At least he doesn’t have to make constant patrols and piss on things to mark it as his. That’s never really been his thing. It will never impress a mate, not by a long shot, so it’s a good thing he doesn’t want one.
Getting to the apartment and getting inside is always the tricky part. His porch is mostly enclosed, thankfully, so he’s just got to make sure he looks around to be positive he’s not spotted as he lopes around the corner and lets his canine body slip away until he’s pink and naked and scarred, standing on two legs instead of four and wrestling with the difficult latch until he hears it grind back and he can shoulder his way inside. The door is shut firmly behind him, tumblers clicking as he throws the lock shut and then steps back. He breathes in deeply, instinctively, and lets the scent of his den wash over him and calm the tight, knotted line of his shoulders he never realizes is there until the stiffness eases up and they move back down from where they’ve hunched up towards his ears.
There’s only one window in his apartment, but it’s a decent size, so it’s not too bad. Not that it would matter if there weren’t any windows at all, because The Power is always with him so he’s never away from nature. It finds its way through every crack and crevice to curl around him, warm and buzzing on his skin as he sits down on his mattress. He scrubs a hand over his face, feels the barely-there scrape of stubble, and pushes a sigh through his clenched teeth. He doesn’t mind a little facial fuzz—why should he, he spends every minute of the day he can get away with as a dog—but it feels weird on his own face. It makes him feel like he’s an adult, no longer gangly and uncoordinated but sure in his own skin now. There are no more ungraceful sprawls from tripping over his own feet. Instead there is a sureness in the way he moves now, muscles developed and his body lean and fit. And scarred.
That’s the first time he sees it. He tilts his head down to look at the scar running from the center of his collarbone to the first slight bump of his abs. A hunter had caught him decades ago, back when he’d still been young and stupid and ridiculously hopeful. So caught up in his joy of being wild, even despite the bitterness and gaping hole in his soul, thinking maybe, just maybe, he could try and start again. He hadn’t known, though he should have—had never run into a hunter before then, but should have realized that the shrewdness in the pretty girl’s eyes did not meet up with the easy smile on her face. They had laughed when they had seen each other, though when he thinks back on it now she had laughed first, at him, and he had just laughed along because she thought it was funny running into a boy without a shirt on in the middle of winter, and he hadn’t been thinking, had laughed because it really had been funny, and then she was on him and there was the flash of polished, deadly silver above her head before everything went gray and agony had torn through his chest and down his front. He had screamed, pinned and frozen as he felt his muscles being carved through, screamed and screamed and screamed while she had laughed, high and cold and mean before whispering filthy, nasty slurs into his ear.
The Power had boiled up around them, then, reacting as he reached for it, because he didn’t want to die, even though he did, but not like that, not that way, not with his organs exposed to the frosty air and the memory of being called a filthy, disgusting cur still searing through his brain. She had no idea what she had done, didn’t even know what he was, not fully, and he was so feral from the pain that he didn’t think, just reacted, bloody hands curling around her wrists, then grabbing at her face, and then she had screamed because he just wanted her gone, wanted to get away, and he just pulled and pulled and pulled, skin hot and buzzing, and then there was the stench of burning skin, the feel of it melting and giving way like butter beneath his fingertips before something wet splattered against his face and when he could see again his chest was closed and there was a scar and he was covered in blood, his blood and her blood, he could smell it and feel it still hot and bubbling against his skin. Breathing in greedily because he was alive, he was alive, he’d rolled over the snowy ground and left a bloody trail in his wake but he didn’t care about that because he was still breathing, couldn’t get up, just rolled right into the nearest creek and stayed there despite the frigid temperature and scrubbed, claws lengthening, at his bloody skin. He had to get it off, had to wash it away, and then he’d felt his stomach pinch and suddenly he was throwing up, bile burning hot and painful up his throat and his eyes streaming as he sobbed and hugged himself, rocking back and forth and still in the creek.
Eventually he’d calmed down but hadn’t moved, not until he felt a wet nose snuffle at his ear and his eyes snapped open, looking up into the amber eyes of a slate gray she-wolf who wagged her tail once when she saw him looking and then sat, waiting, stoic and patient and understanding until he’d finally crawled onto the bank, fur rippling and growing, body shrinking, and sat there shivering and miserable until her tongue began to wash him, her body pressing close and warm. She knew he wasn’t going to freeze to death, and so did he, The Power already warming him up from his core until his trembling stopped. He didn’t move, though, not until she scruffed him gently, and then he stood, his head down, and followed her into the forest and away from the bloody, torn up ground a few yards away and the faint, still-there scent of burning meat, the hole in his chest impossibly bigger, and deeper, and darker, tendrils reaching out along the edges, still so raw, and curling toward his heart.
Dmitri opens his eyes, pulling himself from the memories. He never knew her name, or if she even had one. They had never actually talked to one another, preferring instead to speak through their looks and body language. She reminded him of no one, and yet everyone, he had lost, her moods constantly ebbing and flowing, cresting and tumbling like the wild tides of the beaches he had never been to, and probably would never see. It had been good, though, a temporary balm on his ruined psyche. He misses her. He hasn’t missed anyone in a long, long time. Belatedly he realizes that his cheeks feel wet and he takes a deep, shuddering breath before finally laying his eyes on the scar. Immediately he frowns, raising a finger to prod at the space over the empty cavity, directly over it, and the skin feels a little numb at first, a little cold, but then suddenly it feels hot, his breath hitching, claws growing in thick, and he jerks back and away. It burns like the sun and he cries out, whines throatily, his back connecting with the wall and his unchecked strength making it shake, almost tumbling him right through it because the walls really are that thin, but then he’s hunching forward, toes digging into the carpet, rocking himself up onto his feet so forcefully he almost falls sideways, his equilibrium off.
Staggering into the bathroom, because really his den is just the big main room and his tiny bathroom, he slaps at the wall until he hits the switch, flickering artificial light making him flinch because he’d been sitting out in the growing dark. He crowds up to the mirror, staring at his fractured reflection, at the dark cluster of swooping, elegant penmanship scrawled over the middle of his breastbone, directly in the center of the emptiness beneath. The skin is still warm, almost unbearably so, but not in a burning way anymore. It doesn’t feel like someone is pressing a flame to his skin, there’s no stench he’s so familiar with but refuses to think of. For several moments he’s troubled, absently tracing his fingers over the letters that curl and swirl in beautiful, calligraphic lines. It feels like someone is pressing their palm flat against his chest, right over the name—because that’s what it is, there’s no way to deny it. The heat ignites something in him, something long ago sequestered away, stuffed behind thorny bars and locked up. It roars through Dmitri, overtakes him and tunnels his vision until the black letters are all he can see, dark and bold against his pale, pale flesh.
A garbled cry rips from his throat like it’s been punched out of his gut, the feeling overwhelming him. His fingers dig into the rim of his sink, the porcelain offering only a moment of resistance before it crumbles like ash in his palm and his knees buckle, smack hard against the cheap tile, the hand not scrabbling at his skin flying out to hold him up before he cracks his temple on the side of the toilet. Not that it would kill him, even though he already feels like he’s dying, feels like his breath is seizing in his chest, his heart pounding against his ribcage so badly he almost fancies he could see the outline if he could focus on it, could look at anything but the black peeking between his fingers, blood welling up from where the tips of his claws press around it. He wants to dig them in, flay the skin, rip it off of him because he doesn’t know what it means, why it’s there, why it’s doing this to him. It has something to do with the name, though, because none of this happened until he saw that name, carved like a brand, like a mark of ownership, like he’s owned, and his canines drop heavily at that, venom already making them itch and burn, and suddenly he can breathe again, shoving out the fear, shoving out the feelings, and in its place swirls his rage.
He is not a toy, and he doesn’t know why he’s so furious, his skin buzzing as The Power gathers around him, helps him corral that dizzying emotion he refuses to accept and shove it back into that dark, cold place where the thorns grow bigger, thicker, digging in and pinning it in place so it can never escape again. His head clears when it’s gone, swallowed up, hidden away, and the sink is ruined and there’s a dent in the shape of his hand on the floor and his canines don’t ache now, sliding up and away. Standing slowly, his heart settled, he breathes in deep and slow, the buzz going quiet, pulling away, returning to the earth now that he’s got things under control. The calm, indifferent cloak returns and he wraps himself up in his armor, burrows into it and glances back at the mirror. He looks at his eyes, the word freak whispering across his mind as he observes his face, watching as color returns to his cheeks. His right eye is blue, and his left eye is brown. Normally he hides that fact, because even he knows that there’s no human alive with eyes like his.
He’s evading. He knows exactly what he’s doing, deflecting, refusing to look at his chest, and he turns away angrily and walks out. The light gets slapped off with no finesse, plunging the tiny, claustrophobic room back into darkness. A few quick steps through the quiet and he tumbles himself into bed, burrowing into his blankets and pillows and feeling exhaustion overpower him. Eyes closed, he pulls his invisible walls higher, closer, and doesn’t realize he’s back to stroking the letters. The skin there is cool again, numbed by the crater, so he doesn’t feel the strokes of the rough pads of his fingertips, his mouth silently forming the name. There’s a shiver of something down his spine, something he doesn’t know how to name, but it curls low in his belly, flaring hot, and then it’s snuffed out. With a sigh, a flutter of lashes, and a soft snuffle as he scents his pillow, he unconsciously breathes out the name again as he walks into the darkness of his nightmares.