Become the Beast, 2: Splinters of my Soul

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  • Nikki Caldwell
    Nikki Caldwell

    They woke up just as the sun was beginning to peak over the horizon, the air cool enough to see the steam of their breath. The sleeping bag and their own body heat had kept them plenty warm. Josh gave a wide yawn, stretching out his taller frame as Nikki did much the same.

    The teenagers sat up in the bed, glancing around them.

    The truck bed wasn’t exactly their massive bed at Jada’s house, but it served well enough for one night. They needed a new home. Maybe they’d find one on their way to Toronto. He felt her hand slide into his pocket, snatching the keys to the truck before sliding into the cab through the back window. Nikki pulled her shoes back on, glancing back to her boyfriend with a grin.

    Last night had been utterly miserable, but whatever had been awoken in Josh…and rightly, in Nikki, hadn’t faded.

    Josh moved from the back, following her through the back window before pulling the sleeping bag in with him. It was bunched up and stored in the back seat. He followed suit though, pulling his boots back on after rubbing the remains of the sleepiness out of his eyes.

    Nikki broke the silence first, before the engine even turned over. ”I want Roo.” It wasn’t a question, but a bare-bones statement that left everything else open. ”She’s bonded with me. Jada can’t take care of her like she needs anymore.” Taking her out was an unspoken highlight of Nikki’s day, the huge dog rightfully more a running partner– or hell, Nikki’s personal bodyguard– than a pet. If Roo wanted to go after something, nobody could rightfully force her to stop. Nikki’s motorcycle brakes were the only thing that might stand a chance.

    Josh nodded. He too loved that massive dog. She’d taken to him after he moved in, but not nearly so much as Nikki.

    “I can ask Mick to bring her out to us.” The redhead that served as the head of security for Valhalla would be the best equipped to handle their beloved beast on a road trip. The truck was more than big enough to tote her around when they did get her. Josh turned slightly in the seat, quiet for a moment. “Did we do the right thing? Fightin’ with Moe, I mean. He went through that awful shit and I’m gonna cave Calder’s face in for it…but I—I just want Moe here. With us.”

    ”He wouldn’t let us do anything else for him but fight.” There was something different to the dynamic without Moe by their side. Starkly different. Serious. Quieter. Nikki felt more like a woman and yet more like a beast, blood practically humming in her veins. When she turned to look Josh in the eyes, there was a spark in hers. ”He needs to decide whether he wants to come back to us. Where he fits.”

    The mohawked-teenager was quiet for a short while. There was a levity that Mojave brought to them that was noticeably absent without that familiar presence. Calder had taken Moe because he’d perceived that Josh loved him the most, at least that’s what he’d bragged about on Battlelines.

    But Moe was gone. He hadn’t listened to them. Nothing like that had happened before, and it certainly would never happen again.

    “You’re right.” She was right. It was up to their boyfriend whether or not he wanted to come back. They’d welcome him back, surely.

    Moe was safe around his family. Josh would be well out of the gaze of the Titan and Nikki could take her time to prepare for Sahara in this journey for a new home. “Which way’re ya gonna head?”

    ”Gotta make things complicated on us.” The ghost of a grin passed over her face. “I dunno. Would you rather be a tourist in Toronto, or would you rather get lost in upstate New York?” There were always other options, but right now those were the most obvious.

    “Kinda wanna go runnin’ through the woods like when I was a kid back home.”

    Josh leaned across the seat, pressing his lips to her cheek before moving down to nip at the tender skin of her neck. “Go huntin’.” He brought a hand to thread through her hair. He was hungry. He wanted a nice fat steak for breakfast and then…well, he was hungry for other things. “Could do that Wild Hunt thing if’n ya want. Could hunt you. You hunt me. Have ourselves a good ol’ time.”

    He chuckled in her ear, letting her hair go as the Heir moved back to his side of the truck.

    “Hungry first though. Let’s find a diner?”

    His touch with that tone of voice brought shivers. Though still, she snarked.”That’s not exactly what a Wild Hunt is.” Whenever Nikki was with her brother, she was the one asking ‘huh?’ all the time. In his absence, she became the well-read one. She was only now realizing that dynamic. ”But everything worth doing starts with breakfast.”

    ~~~~~~~~~

    Halfway along some road they’d forgotten the name of already, the Amazon and her companion found a diner…and Nikki could only watch in amazement as Josh downed nearly four plates of the house salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. How he’d not fallen into a carb coma was beyond her. A country boy at heart, raised up to clean his plate…and the rest of hers too when she got too full.

    Back in the truck after they’d paid their bill and another stop at a place called Stewarts to fill the tank. Josh got a pint of ice cream while he was there, clearly having left just enough room for dessert and from the way he’d moaned about the taste–was happy to share with her.

    He’d been right. It was goooood.

    Hell, he’d made the suggestion to find a home around here just so they could have this ice cream whenever. It was tempting enough, but the drive to keep moving was calling them, so they piled back into the truck and kept going. Nikki pulled them off the road after only a little while, following some dirt road that led into the woods before she pulled them to a stop completely. A big leafy old forest with massive old oaks and elms, just welcoming them to cavort between their trunks.

    The rain was just beginning to come down, a gentle sprinkle when Josh stepped outta the truck.

    “You wanna catch me, Amazon?”

    ”You’re the one with the experience in this kinda place.” She took a deep breath, lungs full of fresh, humid air that had an almost rainlike scent. ”You gotta teach me how to be outdoors, country boy. Un-domesticate me.”

    He grinned, “I ain’t never lived in a city before Boston. Ain’t never seen much of the country until I met Jada.” The mention of his mother did nothing to sour his mood. “But you never forget what runnin’ through the woods is like when you was raised in ‘em. They adopted me and I didn’t know anythin’ but love ‘till they told me where I came from…and I got the itch to find out. Left the woods. Ain’t been back since.”

    It was a little over a year now.

    “You wanna be un-domesticated, city girl? You just gonna run and feel it. Woods’ll do their magic.”

    Josh stretched his arms above his head, breathing deep the air of the place he loved the most. It was easy to get lost here.

    ”Is the air always this wonderful, or did we pass through some kinda magic?” Her feet hit the leaves and she took a couple steps out on the trailing end of their road. Growing up in California… there were some big trees in parts of it, but she’d still never seen anything like this. ”You’d catch me in five seconds. I’d get lost in the wonder and forget to track you.”

    “Ain’t no magic. Not out here. Just you and me. Trees and animals and life and death. Probably a hunter or two. You gonna let it split ya into tiny bits or are ya gonna keep focused on the goal?”

    He let his arms fall slowly and he followed her out, stopping just behind her. “You go first then. You run. Just run. You pretend I’m some big hungry wolf out to eat ya and you run as fast as you fuckin’ can. If I catch ya, ‘m gonna eat ya, Nikki. I’ll give ya a minute.”

    For a moment she stood there absorbing his words, just from their unexpectedness. The next she was off, down the hiking trail their road had turned into. But that wasn’t the sort of stuff they were there for.

    She dodged into the overgrowth, at first trying to watch her head and her feet at the same time. By the time she had to think about keeping track of where she was, she’d already gotten lost in this. Josh watched her, the grin spreading from ear to ear as she disappeared from view down a curve in the path. He could still hear her. Her sneakers trampling the leaves and twigs that made up the beaten path. This was perfect.

    And he was still hungry.

    He pulled his phone out of his pocket, surely a minute had passed by now. Josh threw it into the bed of the truck before taking off himself.

    He didn’t follow the path. Josh ran down next to it, along a side of undergrowth that followed. It was easy to hear her. She ran, uncaring where she stepped or what she stepped on. Birds flew from her path as she ran. Josh wanted to sink his teeth into her.

    She could hear him behind her, hear herself. Even a city girl knew that was bad, She zigzagged in what she hoped was an erratic fashion, dodging under a low limb and took a sharp left. Less leaves meant less noise, but more footprints. She wasn’t giving up yet. The next low limb, she grabbed and swung and somehow made it, pressing her back against the trunk.

    Josh didn’t think of anything but now.

    The pain Moe had been put through. His anger. The deep festering rage that built up every time someone he loved got hurt. It stayed packed down in the wake of this.

    Hunting his prey.

    She’d saved his life in the bathroom of Valhalla. She sat by his side when Sahara beat him to within an inch of his life. She stood by him when Mojave ran.

    He didn’t hear her.

    She was learning.

    Stock-still and up a tree, she didn’t know what came next for her part of this game. Dropping on him felt like a victory, but at the same time essentially she’d be quitting. It was easier to breathe without making noise when she inhaled through her mouth, though it was still work.

    One thing she wasn’t used to? Being prey.

    Then again, she wasn’t used to him acting this way either. Puppy wasn’t the word for him right now. Nikki watched as he scanned the area, looking to the ground next to see if she’d left some trace. He smiled to himself when he saw it. This game was one of his favorites growing up. Sure it was just a glorified version of tag, really…but Josh has played it so many times growing up.

    He inhaled deeply, scenting the air like his nickname-sake, before continuing to move on. Josh stopped at a tree twenty yards from her and disappeared into the scrub.

    She didn’t move immediately. That felt too easy. But the lingering thought was there that if he circled back on the same path, she’d be completely exposed. She dropped back to the ground, crouching in the tall grass, waiting to see if anyone or anything had heard her landing. The rain kept falling, a steady flow of drops to keep the forest from being too silent. There were birds in the limbs above her, black birds and sparrows and the occasional knocking of a woodpecker far off to her right.

    It had to be safe to move. She hadn’t heard him. Josh wasn’t silent. It was impossible in here to be completely silent.

    Nikki moved then, certain he’d overshot his distance and was doubling back. It was the move that made the most sense, and there was that old adage that if your enemy (heh) knew where you were…then don’t be there. She got to the tree where she saw him disappear into the scrub and crouched down into the foliage…

    There was a pair of shoes next to her.

    Josh’s boots sat there haphazardly with the socks stuffed inside them.

    Bare feet were quieter. He could be anywhere. He could be right behind her, if he was patient enough. She could take off her own shoes, but she didn’t know the woods like he did. She had no idea, really, what poison ivy or poison oak or any other number of things looked like.

    She crept past the shoes, going further into the woods, trying harder not to make noise now. She’d dallied in dance as a child, and it was that awareness of her own feet that lead her to attempt to walk through the woods quieter. A swish of foliage as she ducked under it was a softer noise, the occasional crackle of a leaf happening less.

    The Amazon kept moving.

    A few more steps.

    There was a squirrel chittering above her and she dared to look, only to feel the rush of air in front of her, the WHUMP of feet hitting the forest floor before his tattooed arms wrapped around her.

    She was over his shoulder, a sharp smack on her ass to distract her from fighting back as he started to walk to the truck.

    “Always been a lot easier to climb trees if you ain’t got shoes on.” Josh couldn’t help the laugh. “I win, Amazon. Gonna eat you up now.”

    It was enough to shock her system just for few steps. A bolt of lightning struck somewhere deep inside of Nikki and her hand shot out, grabbing his belt before she threw her weight to the side. Falling from his shoulder and pulling him down with her. Josh hit the dirt hard and the Amazon snatched his wrist, twisting his arm behind his back and wrenched up hard. Her boyfriend let out a surprised yelp and grimaced, baring his teeth as she strained his shoulder and elbow.

    Her other hand smacked his ass hard enough to sting her palm.

    Josh yelped again.

    ”Don’t be so cocky so soon, boy. You’re not out of the woods yet, are you.” She let go of him and took a few steps back, raising her gaze. ”Better hope the elements start slinging burgers and fries at us, ’cause I don’t know where dinner’s coming from otherwise.”

    “Least I know my way outta the woods.” He slowly pushed himself up from the ground, ignoring his dropped shoes. Josh glanced to her from over his shoulder, the smile spreading over his face brought one to her own.

    At least until he spoke again.

    “And you ain’t gonna get outta here until you catch me…so tag, you’re it, city girl!”

    And the motherfucker shot off into the woods like a thoroughbred at the races.

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