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a world without wolves


Mira
 Mira
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It was years before he could breathe inside the city walls, truly draw the rank oxygen into his lungs and not feel the clawing panic that accompanied its stink. Before, every labored inhale screamed that he would asphyxiate; drown; die like one of society's forgotten mongrel dogs in the street.

But his nose lost its sensitivity to it after a while. His lungs adapted. His senses dulled, until he was as deaf, blind, dumb as any runt born to a long-perished litter. He didn't spend much time outside the city, not anymore, to know if the deadening was permanent. He feared that it was. Fear was its own stink, and a permanent perfume when it was his own.

He knew that he was no longer a wolf. But he wasn't human, either. He was something chimeric in between, a nightmare of self-preservation and unfulfilled instinct. His loyalties were jumbled, if they existed at all. Now, he gazed dully around himself at the bar, at this kennel of humanity: at the one-armed barkeep, professionally removed but constant in his temperament and in the quality of the information he dispensed; at the discordant pianist too far-gone on cheap scotch and soda to differentiate the white keys from the black; at the slender woman in the skin-tight red dress, her presence familiar enough that he sometimes allowed her to sidle close, but never enough to touch; and she never tried, not anymore.

"You picking up what I'm laying down here, Gray?"

The drink before him glimmered undrunk and diluted in its glass, and it wept down its sides. Always bourbon. The smoke musk reminded him of wood-fire he had once known on the mountain, back when hunters' encampments had served as a reminder of encroaching humanity and not a nostalgic lapse. "Laying down." Spoken in a gruff echo that might have come from a world away. It did come from another world, one they had both shared, once, though the man sitting beside him had no way of knowing it. "Aren't you getting tired of laying down?" He had an image of the man beside him, Saul, on his back with his belly exposed. It was absurd to imagine the ritual, but maybe not wide off its mark.

"We've gone after too many of their shipments too fast," Saul simulated his best growl back at Gray. "And the trains ain't running like they used to."

"All the more reason to hit them now," Gray responded. The woman in the red dress was sitting too close; under the bar, he shifted his leg away.

"Jesus, will you use your head for one fucking second?" Saul erupted. "The only lines left running now are the Nobles' trains! And after that string of stunts we pulled last week—the casualties—you think they're not coming armed to the teeth?" Saul bared his, an expression Gray had to keep himself from returning; the corner seam of his lip pulled and released vaguely like a muscle twitch.

"Take it easy, Saul." Another of their gang returned from the poorly-landscaped pool table. His furtive eyes danced nervously toward the door.

"Tomorrow," Gray said. A hush settled over the bar, the same hush that always followed any proclamation the uncanny man made. He pushed off and rose. The bartender skimmed his drink and credits, nonplussed by the standoff, as if he was descended from a long line of tenders that could be traced all the way back to the operative days of saloons. At the piano, the pianist was doubled-over inventing new chords with his forehead.

"I know what we are. I know the choices I've made." Saul's eyes gleamed with sudden fever. "But I can live with that. And I intend to live with it. You're suicidal, Gray, and you want to pull the rest of us down with you. Well, not me. Men like me tough it out to see tomorrow. Things are going to turn around any day now—and when they do, I intend to find my place in them."

Saul left before Gray did.

"Never heard the old asshole talk like that before," Cueball remarked. "Never heard the optimism. Think it's the election making him plan ahead for a change?" It was a half-hearted question, barely deserving of any inquiring punctuation. He was already sizing up his next opponent from across a green felt expanse.

"Buy a girl a drink, bright eyes?" the woman in red fluted at him. The color of her dress made her brave again in her approach. Gray took his shoulder out from underneath her hovering hand, turned up his collar, and pushed out the door.

 

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Outside the bar he found himself in cold daylight. Freeze City, the uninspired name of a last-standing civilization that had lost all innovation and hope, choked to its caving steel teeth with pollutants and people. The Forgotten Coast, a frozen waste outside its walls, the perfect subversion of this scene: flat and barren, windswept and snow-laden. Equally inhospitable to life. It was just taking the humanity sheltered here a while longer to see the graveyard for the stones.

He was tall among the throng. There was no tempering the illusion, no controlling it: he was what he was and could not change it any more than he could change his true genus. He stood out as he stepped off the curb into the street, but his assimilation went virtually undetected; a testament to the bland inattention of those around him. They kept their heads down, their shoulders hunched, expressions melting like malformed clay back into unsculpted and purposeless raw material.

She was also there on the street.           

Gray had seen the girl before. He had smelled her before. Even in this claustrophobic, fast-expiring metropolis that exhausted his every sense—that destroyed everything that made being alive worth living, and not just surviving—he knew her.

He didn't want to know her.

She passed down this street often with her dog. He had never seen her keep company with anyone else. Gray watched her, always at a distance. Their eyes never met, or if they had, she wouldn't know it: he partitioned his gaze behind tinted sunglasses, and never stayed long enough for a double-take. He was always just there and gone.

Today was different. Today, the girl was screaming.

They were taking her dog. The creature was in the process of being forcibly requisitioned by one of the local gangs and probably destined for a fight. Judging by its lack of breeding and dopey, fearful expression, it was likely to perish in the ring between the jaws of some more vicious beast, if it even made it that far. There were plenty of dogs humanity expended to train a taste for blood-letting in the others.

"Leave him alone! Stop it! No!" This last ejaculation a desperate shriek, barely a pronounced word, but recognizable between species as a cry for help. It made his flesh crawl to hear. A pair of burly arms roped the girl around the waist and wrenched her away from the squealing dog; she kicked out at the air, making her whole body an ineffectual weapon.

Gray was half turned away already. He could keep turning. The apathetic trajectory was familiar, and plenty of others had taken it already. From behind dark lenses, out the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of small blunted teeth, and heard the dismayed grunt of the leader in the aftermath of the girl's bite. A thick fist raised itself in the air to bludgeon.

To outside eyes, Gray's fingers closed over the man's wrist in its downswing. To outside eyes, he must have had a knife secreted, because his grip alone couldn't puncture skin the way it did now. The man howled and pulled back, doubled over, and clutched his arm; his grip made the bright red rivulets of blood flow faster, as did the fearful pounding of his heart. The man's brain didn't know a predator, but his pulse did. Gray could hear his terror like the galloping of extinct hooves through a ghost-swept wood and despised him all the more for it.

"Get up." The guttural order raised every hair in the vicinity, and when the man didn't heed, Gray snagged him by the nape and hauled him to his feet. "I said get the hell up."

The other men of the pack converged, and seemed ready to lend their numbers to a fight, until the specimen suspended in his grip blanched suddenly. The man had caught the flash of one burning yellow eye over the rim of Gray's flat black Wayfarers. His illusion was always weakest in direct sunlight. When the others saw their leader's expression, they slowed in their haste to bring themselves to slaughter.

Gray flung the man away from him. The other stumbled his way into a run; his ragtag associates followed, shooting perplexed glances back as they went. Once they had dispersed, the next inevitable encounter loomed. In the overcrowded city they were suddenly alone. The girl was there. The dog cringed away from him, cowering behind her legs, also there despite its best efforts.

Almost self-consciously, Gray shifted his hands back into his pockets.


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Jersey
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She grew up with tales of princesses tucked away in ivory towers, never recognizing that the walls around her family property fulfilled similar purposes. Her mother would read to her every night before bed, her soft voice and weaving tales of fantastical beasts and princes saving the day. Now there was only silence, occasionally interrupted by the harsh mutterings of the men her father met with behind closed doors.

She did not know how or why her mother had died, only that she had never returned and a bloodied silk scarf was all that remained.  The girl continued to read with a voracious appetite that filled the family library with well worn books. Literature was hard to come by in this town, but her father always provided. She never wanted for anything, for clothes, shoes, or other finery, and yet there was this clawing emptiness inside of her. It could not be satisfied by and books or trinkets. But she was never alone, not really, her father had men who watched day and night, posted outside her door like statues. Behind their sunglasses she could never truly confirm their gaze, but she grew accustomed to the pinpricks up her back that indicated she was always being watched. It had been like this since her mother died.

As a politician her father was a busy man, always shaking hands and delegating something to be done. He was very rarely home, but he loved her in his own way. In a town were very few had anything at all, she had everything she could ever want. He always returned from his travels with a new gift, something shiny and meant to fill the void beating in her chest. But he never talked about his travels, never told her where he went or what he did, and conversation never moved beyond pleasantries. He kept her busy while he was away though, with lessons and studies. When he returned she brought him such joy to listen to her sing and play piano. He said once, after a glass more than he should have, that she sounded just like her mother. They did not speak of her often, but she was a heavy shadow cast over them. It darkened the whole estate, the pristine interior so neglected of light and love it appeared sterile. It was choking her, smothering her slowly like a fire with nothing left to burn.

Her first taste of freedom was an accident. Her father occasionally allowed her to go to market alone, flanked by guards of course, because it had been tradition when her mother was alive. He did not approve of it, but as she got older it become more and more obvious leaving her alone in the estate was slowly eating her alive. She had always been small, thin and petite in a way that made her appear delicate. Clothed in heavy garbs to protect against the cold, she had not meant to slip into the crowd and disappear. It took her a few minutes to even realize that curious pinprick sensation had been temporarily abated. At first, the fear took her breath away. She spun wildly, painfully cognizant of the ramifications of her actions. Everyone was a predator, she had heard her father describe the streets of Freezecity before. She took shelter in an alley way, holding herself tight as the image of her mother’s blood-soaked scarf danced in her head. It was then she heard the cry, the piteous sound of an infant abandoned. Her terror paused briefly as she sought the source of the sound, and it was behind a small bin she found the pup. It was not a happy nor healthy thing, bony and covered in fleas. Its eyes were so crusted from infection it could not see her, but as she thoughtlessly scooped the poor thing into her arms it’s whining ceased. The guards caught up to her soon, unaware of the cargo smuggled tight within her jacket.

Her father was so upset. He was not a fan of animals, absolutely hated dogs, but the girl could not be swayed. She cried and would not let the creature from her arms until he relented. She nursed the pup to health, feeding him by hand all hours of the night and tending to his infections. The mutt grew in health and size, becoming a constant companion. The mutt appeared to be a Shiba Inu mix and never left her side. She named him Yuki, and it became their favorite pastime to try and duck the guards. Why they never told her father, she did not know, perhaps they did not want to admit being bested by a defenseless young woman, but she succeeded more often than she failed. It was too easy, in the massive throngs of people, to just slip by for fifteen or so minutes and escape the heaviness that otherwise loomed above her.

She felt those pinpricks return, but differently this time. Her blood ran cold, instinctually aware of the danger she was in though she could not determine why. Her eyes quickly swept the crowd for the familiar faces of her body guards, but she could not find them. It was then the man grabbed her, jarring her so violently she screamed. Her terror only increased when she realized she was not the target, but her dog.  A thick arm wrapped tight around her waist, yanking her from the dog she had so desperately held onto merely a moment ago. Her futile screams continued, making those who passed by duck their heads and step a little quicker. The girl was distraught, kicking and flailing uselessly against the man who held her. Her eyes looked down and met her companion’s who looked to her so fearfully for guidance she temporarily lost sense. All she could think was to protect.

 She clamped down her teeth so suddenly on the man’s arm hand he yelped, but she did not release even as she begin cringing in anticipation for the oncoming blow. But it never came, and she hit the ground unexpectedly. Before she could dwell on what had transpired she was on top of her dog, pulling the terrified animal into her arms protectively. She cradled him and buried her own face into the fur, anticipating the worst until man’s barking voice drew her out.

She recognized him, or at least she thought she did. He was tall, even from his lowered vantage point, and she could tell that the men who had attacked her now felt that same fear she just had. One man was bleeding as though attacked by a serrated edge, though she saw no weapons. Her mind was racing, she could hardly begin to make sense of what had happened. Then it was over, the men were gone, and they were alone. She stood uncertainly, Yuki still nervously whining at her ankles.

“Thank you,” She said quietly, meeting his eyes behind his dark sunglasses. “I’m Aria,” She spoke softly, a voice unaccustomed to having a strange audience.

“Please let me repay you for your kindness,” She offered, digging into her pocket before he could insist otherwise.

 


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Mira
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The hand delving into her pocket, her name and words, barely registered at first. In the world Gray inhabited, a human reaching for something concealed never meant anything good: it meant a gun or blade, and quick bloodshed like spilled pennies. But he was distracted, suddenly, by the sheer number of distractions that seemed to fall away when he stood near her. The scent was so removed from memory that it was almost unfamiliar. But she smelled of the creaking wood where he had grown up; of sweet sap collecting in jewels on fresh green shoots; of the pure, glimmering water of the mountain glade where he had once run wild on four legs, before he was forced to start limping along on two. She smelled like what had once been safe and good and was now destroyed, as if a surviving piece of it had broken off and attached itself to this vessel standing before him now.

The city came roaring back. It always did. And as she extracted a fee, premature of him asking, Gray sidestepped the offer. "If I wanted your money I would have taken it." The repulsion of any kindness or thought of recompense came as swiftly as the earlier blow he had delivered. It wasn't his intention to be rude, until it was, and he realized that speaking to this girl—who smelled so unlike anything he now knew—in the same way he spoke to everyone else was exactly the right approach. No exceptions. Smelling like his ghosts didn't make her exceptional.

His eyes swept her again from behind his tinted frames. She might feel the heat of them, or at least see the way his chin lowered to account for the discrepancies in their height. She was well-kept, too consciously groomed to belong to the low streets, although more disheveled now owing to the men who had roughed her up. She held herself erect—maybe in the face of what he had said, or maybe the city just hadn't broken her back yet. Today's encounter was certainly a step in the right direction.

And he didn't want to provide the footing for another. Gray turned to go, but the girl's dog, in an effort to skate out of the way of him, rebounded off another passerby and wound up brushing against his foreleg; the creature barely cleared his shin in either form. Gray trapped a growl of warning in his throat, but it was too late: the dog, overwhelmed by fear, forgot all indoctrinated discipline and bolted.

The girl was after her dog like she was the one attached by a tether. Gray swore, and darted a fervent glance around the crowd. His brief respite exited with her, and he was suddenly flooded with smells: the sour, mingling sweat of compressed bodies; the ammonia of multispecies urine arising from the alleys; the hot dog vendor grilling something that was decidedly not pork sausage over old oil. Dormant dangers and cruel intentions lurked, and any one of them could already be honing in on her. Had the attempted abductors really gone? Gray had misplaced the scent of them, addled by memories of a lost spring.

He went after her. She was surprisingly swift for a human, and the hunter in him woke, blinking lamp-like eyes and shedding its long stupor. His pulse quickened, and there was the old thrill, the sudden unwillingness—and borderline inability—to tear himself away from pursuit. He refused to recognize, or feel, what might have once been joy. The impulse was fleeting, and any old inclination toward it was gone already by the time he caught up to her.

The frightened dog had made it all the way to the canal. The Freeze City Waterway was a dangerous, incessant propulsion of brown water, barreling along so fast that it submerged and scattered most of the refuse thrown to it back to its banks. Sludge accumulated like black foam, like sin, along the shore. The dog had come to the end of its run. Gray watched the girl approach with gentling, dove-like coos, but there was no calming with a wolf standing behind her, and he saw his error in following. A clod of dirt shifted beneath its paw and cascaded down the cliffside, and the dog listed toward the water. Gray struck, faster than the human eye could perceive; he seized the creature by the nape, felt it go limp in his jaws, in the ferocious grasp of fingers, as he yanked it out of gravity's clutches. His instinct to carry it like a pup warred with his instinct to kill. He held it aloft over the rushing water. The dog was now reduced to an unstruggling figure; its eyes, glazed over in fright and final surrender, were glued to Aria.

"I should do you both the favor." It wasn't a taunt, but a statement of bland fact. A quick release would free the dog from its petrifying fear, and the girl from her imperiling attachment to it. It would sever the bond between them and end their strange, unnatural alliance.

Gray let the dog dangle, and refused to believe that he in any way dangled similarly awaiting her response.


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Jersey
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The girl was so grateful, so relieved to have a savior she did not immediately think to question his intentions. She was fishing gold coins out of the stashed bag in her pocket, knowing the average city dweller would have thought nothing of pocketing cash in exchange for kindness. She herself was complicit in this kind of economy, forced to show affection for a father who showered her in gifts but never love.

The man’s response was met with the stiffening of the girl’s spine, her palm extended filled with coins as though her brain couldn’t quite comprehend the response. Her fingers curled into a hesitant fist, jamming the currency back from where it came as color reddened her cheeks. Whether this was from anger or embarrassment was debatable for the girl did not speak, watching him with the same cautious eyes he regarded her with. The difference was with the lack of sunglasses he might’ve saw her clearly, a well-to-do-girl with a shininess to her eyes that indicated she was on the verge of upset. She could not say the same for him, bewildered by the tall, strange man with no discernable emotion in his face. She stared at him so intently she could only react after it happened.

 Yuki’s lead slipped from her hands as water might, and as the lead went so did the dog. She gasped audibly, but her legs were moving far before her might caught up. She was quick, ducking through the crowds as a rabbit would the thicket. But Yuki was quicker, and the chase would have likely continued further had they not been stopped short by the muddy canal that carved out the edge of the city. She had never gone this far before, but she was not cognizant of the fact. She only thought of Yuki, her heart hammering so wildly in her chest the whole city might’ve heard it had they stopped to listen.

She could not swim and neither could Yuki, but the dog seemed more ambitious to try than she. He paced and whined at the edge of the water, all her murmurings and soothing sounds lost beneath his high-pitched keening. It was then she realized the man was still behind her, as she felt his presence behind his back. He moved too quickly for her eyes to follow, but suddenly he was at the water’s edge. Relief flooded her prematurely, her gasps of thanks strangled into a stricken sound as he dangled her dog helplessly over the water. The creature was silent as it was held aloft, but it’s limbs vibrated with terror.

At his words Aria looked at him as one would a monster from their nightmares, her blue-green eyes rapidly filling with tears. “How. Dare. You!” She shouted, each word punctuated by the onslaught of nearby river rocks. The tears had begun to flow down her face like a punctured dam, but her aim was true as she scooped down and continued to throw rocks at the antagonizing figure before her.

“Give! Him! Back!”


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Mira
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Of all the human behavioral responses, Gray had not expected to get pelted with rocks. He sidestepped away from the river quickly, carrying his (evidently precious) cargo with him. He raised a forearm to shield his face, and, in his distraction, let the girl's dog drop; it landed safely on four legs and bolted to her side, its primal fear of him no longer overruling its unfathomable commitment to her.

"Stop it," he growled. "Knock it off." And the next instant she did, winging another pebble at him that struck his sunglasses off his nose. Gray dropped at once to grope in the dirt for them, only barely remembering the reason why he improvised a half-mask over his face. He glowered at her between a wedge in his parted fingers. "One minute you want to bribe me and the next you want to start a war. You better make up your mind whether you want me as a friend or enemy, runt."

In truth, Gray didn't know what he was at this point. His own preference was to be nothing, a bystanding nonentity existing on the fringes of her world with no inclination toward interfering either way. But that perfect scenario seemed a lifetime removed. He just couldn't keep his damn nose out of it.

Gray replaced his sunglasses, uncaring, or simply unwilling to acknowledge how they now rested slightly askew on a broken hinge. There was a minor nick on his forehead that a disheveled sweep of hair concealed. "Now, unless you can find your own way home, I think I will take that money." He was careful to give special emphasis to the word: take. Just so that there was no forgetting the very first words he had ever spoken to her.

The sun was just starting to sink over the river, swallowed like a beating heart between the broken jaws of skyline. Gray could feel the moon in his bones, and after such a trying day of failing to force humans into line, he felt empowered to take his revenge at her expense.

"My advance now." He would take the length of the walk to decide what else to exact from her. The girl's dog, gaining new strength from its master's proximity—as if she was the moon—growled timidly. Gray bared his teeth in hollow response.


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