The distance from Union Station to what was formerly the FEMA office of St. Louis was 1.2 miles. She’d walked Market St to get to work from there many times in the past, admiring the view of the Arch and looking at the Old Cathedral. Now, though, it might as well have been 100 miles. She left early in the day, slipping out between chores, and traversed the distance carefully. Market Street was mostly clear and having scouted the Old Cathedral as a meeting place should the powered contingent of Refuge Point need to evacuate she wasn’t too worried about making it there. She was worried about what she’d potentially find there. And the park… that was just Creepy Town.
With a wary eye to her surroundings, she hiked the distance to the building and began the laborious process of making her way inside. The front doors were blown out, so that wasn’t an obstacle. But the inside looked like a tornado had touched down. Hell, for all she knew, it had.
Picking her way gingerly through the main lobby, Natalie worked her way around furniture and shattered … whatever the hell that was. And even several corpses. To make her way to the interior stairwell. Uncertain whether people might have staked the place out, she was very cautious as she moved.
Human. Human scent.
Wolf kept his nose in the air. His companion beside him growled, hackles on her ruff raised.
Hide? His instincts screamed to go back to their lair. Humans were dangerous. He looked at the pale flesh on his once-paws. If humans were dangerous, what was he?
This one smelled different than the others though. He looked sideways at his mate from where he crouched awkwardly beside her. She had stayed with him when all else had gone. But they needed a pack and the others of their kind feared him.
Perhaps he could make a pack among the humans. That or die, he thought.
The two of them silently loped their way towards the gap in the wall of the building. If this one was not different, then quiet meant a chance to rip their throat open. His teeth were not good for that but he had learned how to use the knife tucked into the clothes that he had used to replace his fur.
Movement through the wreckage was slow. This building clearly hadn’t seen much in the way of scouting. The bodies still lay where they’d fallen. Thank god for small favors nature had run its course and the smell wasn’t an issue now. Skirting around yet another set of human remains, Natalie finally reached the stairwell and peered carefully into the darkness. The main office was on the second floor. The stairs themselves were of concrete, so they were stable. She could see light coming in from somewhere higher up than the second floor, so it was clear that something had crashed through the ceiling or wall up there to make an opening. But at least the way to the second floor seemed clear enough.
Ascending the stairs with caution, she paused by the fire door that protected the stairs from the main part of the building and steeled herself for the possibility of finding more bodies. She wouldn’t be able to identify them, she didn’t think…. but it was sobering to realize that anyone who WAS still here she probably knew. Pulling in a slow breath, she letit out and then made her way through the heavy door onto the main level of FEMA’s headquarters.
And damn near threw up at what she saw.
Someone had razed the place. Horror swept through her to see skeletons falling apart around desks of people she used to know. Phones off the hook in the parts of the bullpen still intact, and destruction along the west wall where some kind of power had literally swept what had to be 10 or 12 people into a single mass of humanity and…. She couldn’t look. Bones were broken, some looked… twisted? She couldn’t bear to look too closely. Did I do this? Oh God… is this my fault? was all she could think as she fell to her knees with her hands over her mouth, struggling to keep the keening sound stifled.
Wolf didn’t like the buildings. He didn’t like what was growing in the park, but he knew that, understood that, could work with that. The buildings closed him in, felt like a stone pressing him down. They smelled like death and pain.
And She didn’t like them either, oftentimes refused to go in with him. But the buildings had food and medicine and all these other words that been stuck in his head like a fire burning away what had been.
The woman… because it was a woman (the smell was different than the men they had encountered before)… she had gone up the stairs. He started to go up on hands and feet. But then he slowly stood up on his bare feet. If he did want to join her pack, he would have to pretend to be what he was.
Wolf kneeled down and pressed his face to Hers and growled softly to let her know to follow behind. If the woman was dangerous and had a gun (hunterspain! his brain screamed) then he would be the one to get hurt and She would be the one to have the kill. He then stood back and slowly, quietly went up the stairs. As he approached the door, he could hear the soft sound of something in pain. Even more reason to be careful. There was nothing more dangerous than a wounded predator. He reached for the door handle and carefully opened the door.
The sound of the door was lost to the woman who made the sounds of pain. Tears rans down her cheeks while she fought to catch her breath and keep her anguish as quiet as possible. Not that there was anyone to hear it, but this place was in some way sacred space for her.
It was less a sound than the sense of no longer being alone—that instinct that gets honed when you live in the wilds—that made Natalie suddenly suck in a breath and turn her head slowly to take a closer look at the place around her. The hair on the back of her neck prickled alarmingly and she’d learned to never discount that sense. She moved to crawl toward one of the desks where she might have a little bit of cover and peered out, her heartbeat loud in her own ears.
Wolf didn’t see the woman as he entered the room but he didn’t think she had left. He closed his eyes and sniffed the air, taking another step in but still holding the door open so that She could follow behind. If she was hiding, she wouldn’t out come out by herself, Wolf thought. But how did humans really think, anyway?
“Talk?” His mouth struggled to form the word, unused to anything but his communication with Her.
The gutteral utterance sounded strange… like someone who hadn’t spoken to another person in a long while. Warily she raised her head far enough up over the desk to look toward the sound. “We can talk,” she agreed cautiously. “What do you want?”
“Hurt?” He asked cautiously. It might have been someone else making that noise, but he thought it was the woman. He rested his hand on Her head, drawing strength from her presence.
Moving to stand upright, Natalie shook her head. “Not… physically,” she admits. “This…” She gestures around. “I used to know some of them.” There is a deep regret and sadness to her scent and her tone. “Are you.. okay?” She glances to the massive canine — lupine? — animal with him and then back up to his face.
Wolf looked around at the skeletons slowly. This was her pack. He understood that loss. He was still living it every day.
He pointed to them and acknowledged her loss and grief the best he could. “Sad.” He put as much emotion into the word as he could. But human words didn’t seem up to the task. So he leaned down to Her and explained what was going on. When he finished, She produced a mournful but muted howl in response.
He then motioned with his head towards the door behind him. “Others?” If this was all her pack, then it perhaps he could offer for her to join his pack, as small as it was. But if she had more pack mates back at her den, then he would need to find the way to ask for her help.
Natalie hesitated. She didn’t want to tell this strange man that she was alone, but at the same time…. there was something about the way he spoke and the way he acted with his animal companion that was somewhat compelling. Animals tended to be good judges of people, and the massive dog with the man was not reacting with snarls or other indicators that s/he was a fighting animal. Stepping more fully out where she could speak to him, she nodded a little. “Very sad, yes.” Again the thought that she might have caused any of this gave her a sick feeling in her stomach. “There are others… out there.” She nodded toward the windows. “But … this was my place before I was with them. I … had to come. To see.” To bear witness. And perhaps to see if all that she knew were gone.
Wolf wasn’t sure what to do next. She didn’t seem like the other humans they had run into, but he didn’t know if he knew how to ask for what he needed to ask for. So far she seemed to be at least partially believing he was what he was.
“Many others?” He motioned to Her and to himself. “Join others? Have food.” Every word reminded him of what he would never be again, a tearing in his chest like a packmate’s teeth. He knew he should use more words, but he just couldn’t make himself do it.
Natalie approaches slowly, leaving the man and his dog plenty of space. “There are probably 50 or so,” she agreed. “You’re welcome to come and see if it’s somewhere that you’d fit. We’re always looking for people willing to help and live peacefully.” She tilted her head, studying him. Something was off, but he seemed sincere. Perhaps he’d suffered head trauma or something. Having to relearn communication wouldn’t exactly be easy in the best of conditions, and these were anything but the best of conditions. Looking around at the office space, she added quietly, “I … need to look around here a little before going back. Okay?”
Wolf visibly relaxed. The part with most of the words was done, he could hope. He looked into Her eyes briefly – it was a good sign. She liked the woman.
He nodded. “Follow.” And he motioned towards her to indicate that he would just follow her lead.
He was a man of very few words apparently, but Natalie sort of liked that about him. She saw the look pass between man and beast, and she nodded to them both. “Sure,” she replied in a soft voice. Squaring her shoulders, she turned to look about the room once more, her sorrow nearly palpable. She touched certain desks as she made her way to a particular one, which she scanned intently as she moved papers around. Notes, messages, some kind of sign that any of her friends had survived…. but nothing really stood out. And finally after an hour or so of moving between the desks and through some of the offices, Natalie gave up. She looked utterly devastated by all that she’d learned, but she rejoined the man and his companion. “I’m Natalie,” she tells him finally. “Nat, if you like. What’s your name?”
“Nat,” he said, feeling it out the sound of it. Then he stood there for a minute looking confused as he realized he didn’t know what to say in response. She wouldn’t understand his name in the language he would have to say it in.
“I don’t know,” he said simply before following up with, “Wolf?”
Sympathy flashed through her features, and Natalie simply acknowledged his chosen name with a nod. “Wolf, then. It’s nice to meet you and your friend.” She offered her hand, palm down, to his companion as if it were an everyday occurance to meet a dog as large as this one. “We should probably move…. it’ll start getting dark soon.” She paused. “I don’t like being near hear at night… the park is kind of strange.”
Wolf was pleased as he watched Her sniff Nat’s hand before cautiously licking it. Accepting the overture of friendship would make it easier for Her to accept the move from their lair. It was something he had been thinking about for a while now.
The woman… no, Nat was right, Wolf thought. The park was strange – it was wild in a way that was familiar but also had something very unfamiliar woven throughout. But their lair was in a relatively safe place and it did have a supply of food. He wondered if Nat wanted the food. He supposed he could offer it to her later.
“You are….nice. Better than others.” He offered as they started heading toward the front entrance to the building.
Glancing at him, Natalie smiled a little sadly. Would the man still think so when he realized what she was? One of the very people who broke the world? She didn’t feel the need to really enlighten him just now. “I don’t think I’m better than anyone. We’re all just scared and trying to get along in a world gone mad,” she answered. “Some of us, I guess, are a little more willing to think the best of people.”
“Very strange.” He paused for a moment, looking at her with his head oddly tilted.
“What happened?” Wolf had woken up one morning in this form, with She licking his face. And all this time wandering, he had never had a chance to ask anyone the details. He assumed that humans had destroyed things, as they were prone to doing.
Natalie stopped there at the corner of the road and looked closely at him. He didn’t remember. “You were a Power, then?” She blew out a slow breath. “I can only tell you part of it… I don’t remember either. The Guardians were trying to stop Mr. Metamorph from releasing a virus into the atmosphere.” Her voice was tight. “We failed spectacularly and became the first people he infected. The virus made everyone’s powers go wild. And…. many, many people were killed.”
Wolf wasn’t sure what she meant by being a Power. In fact, much of what she said didn’t make very much sense. There were words but he didn’t really understand what they meant. But the emotion was very clear.
He put a hand on her shoulder. “Sorry.”
Her shoulder beneath his hand was taut and Natalie clenched her jaw for a second, then nodded. “Me too.” For a brief second, she laid her hand over the comforting one on her shoulder and then she was back to business.
“The de facto leader of Refuge Point right now is a guy named Santae. He seems a good man. I think you’ll find the rules we live under pretty easy to work with. Everyone spends part of their day doing a job that benefits the whole group. The rest of the time is their own to do as they choose. If you’re familiar with the area, you probably want to be on one of the expedition teams. They scout out places and scavenge useful items.”
Wolf nodded in response. It sounded like a pack that he could work with. “I can do that.”
As they exited out the front door, he motioned towards Gateway Park. “My food for Santae?” He was perfectly willing to go get it, but Nat didn’t seem like she would be comfortable wandering in the dark.
Natalie considered and then smiled slightly. “How about you leave it stashed for now? If it works out, we can come back another time and get it. If you decide you don’t like it there, you haven’t given away yuor provisions. Deal?” She didn’t technically have the authority to offer it, but as the liaison to the Powers for Santae, she was extending her authority to this.
“Deal.” This would have been the point where they would sniff noses if Nat was a proper wolf. But he didn’t have any idea what humans did. That would be the benefit of gaining a pack of humans. He could watch what they did.
He then realized the problem in this plan. Would they accept Her? He looked at Her and then to Nat and said questioningly, “Wolf too?”
If she had any qualms about the wolf named Wolf, Natalie didn’t express them. “Don’t see why not, so long as … he? she?” It was a brief query, but she continued on. “… isn’t going to growl or bite anyone, I’ll smooth it over.”
“She.” She would not be happy to know that someone thought She might not be female. But he would tell her. He told her everything.
“No biting.” And he smiled as he looked at Her. “Except hunting. Hunt for you.”
Natalie chuckled. “She, then. She’s beautiful. And yes, except for hunting.”
As they resumed their journey, Natalie thought about what the day had wrought. There’d been no messages in the office saying ‘hey, we survived, here’s where we’re going’—-not that she had truly expected there to be. She’d known it was a vain hope from the start. In her brief walk-through of the offices, she’d identified Ben, Rashid, Linda, Jo, and Heather by their clothes. The loss of the core group of people she worked with was devastating. But worse yet, there’d been no sign of Jeff, Helen, or Sam…. or Jared. Likely they’d all been out on the streets and killed with the rest. It broke something in her to know for sure they were gone, and she resolved in that moment that she didn’t want to know for sure about her parents and siblings. Not knowing allowed for hope.