Chapter Two

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I soaked myself in the hot springs, letting the heat massage my weary body. In the water, my shrunken right arm looked more wretched, the skin puckered tight, the bone showing. Dr Myint had me exercise my stiff fingers in rigorous physiotherapy sessions. Curled, they looked like talons. The sessions worked: I could move my fingers after months.

Of the second malady I had, I made sure I had the medication prepared and ready. Months of taking them assured practised ease. Almost routine. Yet I loathed this dependence on medication so that I could not be addicted to craz. Such irony.

Around me the forest rustled. I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Earlier I forced myself to run. I hadn't yet turned. Turning wolf was painful. My entire body felt as if it was on fire. I had ended up on the grass, panting, hurt, terrified when I tried. Even becoming who I was... became an ordeal.

I hate you, Yeung Leung.

A growl grew in my throat. With a sigh, I splashed water on my face. Enough. I hated being weak. I had to go see Lien.

The familiar scent alerted me that April was close. I slipped out of the hot spring and draped the dry towel around me quickly, while hating the forced and pretend modesty. I had known her since I was a child and we were a Pack now. Nudity was natural for us.

We loved each other. Our love was banned in our world.

So we danced a dance around each other, with words and gestures and glances, while our bodies told the truth. We were wolves and our truths were expressed in other ways.

Her scent comforted me. I watched her when she approached, still clad in Clan colors. Why so formal? I thought. Especially around me?

Suddenly I felt irrationally self-conscious. Naked. I drew my right arm close to my chest.

What's wrong with you, Francesca?

"April," I greeted her. "Have you eaten?"

I could tell that she had. Something savoury, a hint of pepper, beef-related. "I did," she replied. It was ritual greeting, done many times. It was ritual to tell us that things were normal. Things, however, had never returned to normal. We were only pretending it had.

Silence lapsed uncomfortably between both of us. We were never uncomfortable with each other. Something had changed. I couldn't place my finger on it. It was simply the tinge of an odor, rank and unexpected.

What are you hiding? What are you not saying?

April had become more reticent after Mariette's death. The Pack keenly felt her withdrawal. It wasn't right.

It shouldn't be that way. I felt as if I was losing another Pack member all over again.

"Let's visit Lien," I said quietly.

~*~

I watched Lien and April chase each other across the field, envious at the ease with which April assumed her wolf-form and gratified at how Lien embraced my Second as if she were her own mother. My body ached to go running too, to feel the earth beneath my paws and the wind in my fur. Yet the thought of turning scared me and I was brought back immediately to the time... that time when I fought with Yuen on board the shishini ship. I shuddered and closed my eyes. My heart thudded painfully. I couldn't breathe. Everything spun about me. The wind, the blue sky, the green-ness of the grass swirled in madness-inducing colors.

Dr Myint informed me, very kindly, that I had post-traumatic stress disorder. Flashbacks, he said to me when I healed in Starfang's sickbay, are common.

But can I command Starfang? I had blurted out, my head sore and body leaden with medication. Am I fit for command?

The doctor had glanced at me, a few seconds' hesitation, and nodded.

Now I shivered in the late afternoon sun, gripped in freezing cold even though I was fully clothed and the sun was warming my back. The laughter drifting from the field did not even cheer me. I was numb.

I forced myself to look at Lien. She had grown very quickly within these few months, taller and more filled out, as she was nourished by good food and care. Yet her smile was still impish and cheeky, the one I'd remembered seeing a long time ago. Her happiness reassured me somewhat. She was running rings around April, dodging wolf-April nimbly, her trusted companion Mog by her side yapping away, body wiggling in a play bow.

With a laugh that sounded hollow even to me, I jogged up at them. April's tail wagged. Lien giggled and stuck her tongue at me. I made as if to chase her and she burst out laughing, darting away. The anxiety within me, that knot of gnarled barbed wires and feelings, slowly unravelled. I was enjoying myself.

Lien bulleted into me and we tumbled. The smell of crushed grass filled the air. I stared at the blue sky and the white clouds scudding across the horizon, pooling above the mountains. Lien curled up on my body, a warm weight with a heartbeat and breathing.

That moment was timeless. We swam in the vastness of sky.

Then the moment was broken by April running up to us. She was back in human form and so comfortable in her nudity. We were wolves. We were never ashamed of our nakedness.

"I hear the dinner bell," April said, her cheeks pink with exercise and health. "Let's go."

"I will join you when I am ready," I replied, grabbing Lien and hugging her tightly. She smelled of sun and earth. And of wolf, of course.

Silently, I watched April's retreating back, my bones heavy with longing. Our relationship had changed. A storm was coming. 

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