Link stood in the doorway of his room. He'd lived in this one for only a few months and packing hadn't been difficult. If he ever needed a symbol, a visual representation of how empty he was, he'd found it. Everything he owned had been stashed in his duffel.
It was half empty.
His old room, the one on the small farm that he never thought of, had been full of belongings. Pictures, clothes...stuff. None of it had been important, but it had all been proof that people lived there, people loved there.
After Sibelius and his team collected their evidence, there hadn't been much left.
"Jesus, you've already packed?" Fritz asked, his tone sharp.
Link lifted his duffel, hugging it tightly. "I told you I was, Fritz." He tightened the imaginary band around his heart, the one that kept the grief back to a functional level. It was the only thing that kept him upright, it also prevented him from addressing any other feelings. New feelings that were too confusing for Link to deal with. Still, he felt Fritz enter, felt the heat of his body against his back, then his side. Fritz tugged at the duffel and Link released it, his breath caught in his throat.
"I was serious, Link," Fritz murmured, close enough to touch. "I won't go with you this time. I've been there; New York City where Sibelius's pack is headquartered. The buildings are all too close and the people are rude. It's noisy all the time and you can't tell if it's night or day because it's always bright."
To be spared the loneliness of night? Link thought that sounded perfect. He could see why it would be a nightmare to a shifter like Fritz, though. He came alive in the woods. In the beginning, when Link hadn't learned how to twist a tourniquet around his heart to keep from bleeding out his grief, Fritz had been there allowing Link to stay near him but never asking him to speak. Fritz had hunted a lot, not with a bow or rifle, but with his body. He could stand still for hours...perfectly motionless, until wham! Link shivered, imagining the brutality of what had always come next.
Fritz lifted his hands as if to pull Link into a comforting embrace, but he stopped. His hands lingered in the air between them and Link wondered if Fritz was waiting for something. A sign that he wanted Fritz to keep going, to erase the inches that remained between them? Tighten, tighten. Fritz dropped his hands with a harsh sigh.
Link wanted to flinch from the angry sound. Instead, he got angry too. "This isn't living, Fritz. Whatever the fuck I am doing here—waking up, breathing, walking around—I feel like a zombie. I can't turn without seeing something that reminds me of them. The forests look the same, the air smells the same. Everything reminds me of them and I can't take it!" He hated himself for using his grief this way, but it was better than the honest answer. Nothing could make him face that.
Fritz pulled away, like Velcro ripping from its other half. He shoved his strong hand through his thick black hair. His arm muscles were tense, nearly vibrating with his frustration. His blue eyes weren't piercing as much as they were inviting, like a pool on a hot summer day. "There's nothing here that you'd want to stay for?"
If Link hadn't already tightened the band around his heart, he thought it might have broken from Fritz's tortured tone. How could he say that Fritz was what he was running from? That every day was torture, wanting but not being able to have? Each moment that strengthened his feelings for Fritz was another moment stolen from Bryan. Link gasped, his hand covered his mouth and he squeezed his eyes shut. He didn't say that name. He didn't even think it.
He'd meant his heart, at that moment, hurt but clearly Fritz had taken it as an answer. He left before Link opened his eyes again.
"You're sure, son?" Ryder asked Link later on in the back office of the hybrid bar. Link had hoped Chuey would be there, but he was at Hope with his adoptive father.
Roscoe was there as well though, and his mate Sawyer, who sat next to Link offering his silent support.
"I'm sure. If Sibelius wants to do an exchange to strengthen the relationship between our packs, then I would like to be useful. And...maybe...getting out of here will help."
Ryder just nodded. He scratched his beard, giving Roscoe a side eye. The two of them were the pack masters for the hybrid pack in Pineville and the bear pack in Hope, respectively. "I don't think either of us feels entirely comfortable sending you out there, Link," Ryder admitted.
Panic flared up in Link. If they said he couldn't go, then that was it, he wouldn't be able to go. He'd learned a lot about traditional shifter culture during the months following the tragedy—his family before had all been fox shifters, but they hadn't needed a pack, they'd had each other—here, though, first and foremost was the chain of command. If Ryder said no, then that was it. "I can do this, Ryder," Link said, his voice high and reedy.
"Simmer down, son," Roscoe said as his mate placed a comforting hand on Link's forearm. "No one is saying you can't go, we're just worried is all. I'd never send one of my pack into a dangerous mission without back-up."
Link gulped. "But, I'm going to be in Sibelius's pack, that can't be so dangerous."
Ryder shook his head. "These are turbulent times. Now that the Protectors of the Pure have a public face, they'll up their game. Abraham Richards has already doubled down his efforts."
Abraham Richards had been the political face down south in Dry Creek, Texas during the Protector's plot to poison the shifters with a compound that killed their inner beasts, making them normal humans. After that plan failed, he'd gone quiet for a while. Now, it was like he was on every news channel, every talk show. None of them had known at the time, but the mole who had kidnapped Link, Jaesun, Chuey and the babies had been Abraham's son, Mark. Immediately after his son's disappearance, Abraham had blasted his picture everywhere on social media, the news, paid advertisements. Then, when the van had been found, he'd blasted that image. The van as the shifters had left it, torn apart from the top, had made for an exciting front-page image.
"They're saying they have a cure," Link said quietly.
Both Ryder and Roscoe growled at that.
Link slunk down in his chair.
"You aren't sick," Sawyer murmured to him. "There's nothing to cure."
If they knew the idea Link had, neither pack master would allow him to go. "I know, I just meant, we know what their next step is. Right? They'll start trying to insist that shifters take the cure."
Ryder clenched the hand laying on the desktop into a fist. "Abraham has already proposed it as a form of judicial punishment. Shifters who are convicted of the worst crimes, murder, rape, would be given the cure as a form of rehabilitation. Sibelius has his lawyers fighting that already. But you don't need to worry about anything like that. Just, keep your head up, be aware of your surroundings and do whatever they tell you to do. You're twenty, still young, but I have faith in you, Link. You've already shown so much growth since the...tragic event."
Link bit down on the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood.
The office door slammed open at that moment, saving Link from having to respond. Fritz rushed inside, his body a coiled snake ready to strike. "You can't actually be allowing this," he snapped. "Link isn't ready! Look at him!" Fritz gestured angrily at him. "He's bit his cheek again. He can't even have a conversation without falling apart."
"Hold on, that isn't fair," Sawyer said, getting to his feet. "He isn't falling apart. He's coping!"
Link sat there, staring at his hands. Fritz was right, that didn't mean Link wasn't going. If not to the New York pack than somewhere else.
Roscoe gave a warning growl when Fritz rounded on Sawyer.
Ryder got to his feet as well, standing in front of Fritz like a barricade. "This isn't like you, Fritz," Ryder said. Link knew what Ryder's face would look like when he used that tone. His eyes would crinkle in the edges with concern and his lips would be turned down slightly. It was the only way he ever looked at Link. "I agree that it doesn't sit right with me, but Link is of age and unmated. He can make his own decisions."
"Even if he was mated, he could make his own choices!" Sawyer snapped. Roscoe patted him.
"My mate is correct," Roscoe said. "Just because a person is mated, doesn't mean they lose their voice. But, if he was, the alpha would have a say in his life. That's just the way it is." He shrugged as if in apology. "As it is, Link isn't mated." Roscoe turned on Fritz. "Unless you want to stake your claim?"
All of the air in the room seemed to whoosh out in one second. An explosion had gone off inside of Link. It was as if two opposing forces, a wall of water and a wall of fire, had collided, leaving behind only destruction. Link wanted Fritz to say he was making a claim, to call Link his mate. He also thought he might die if Fritz did. Link cursed his easy life on the farm. His loving parents, his annoying but well-meaning sister, the boy down the road who was to become the man in his bed, none of that had prepared Link for what life was really like; grief and need, twisting together.
"I...I..." Fritz sputtered.
Link clenched his hands into fists in his lap and continued to stare at them.
Ryder sighed heavily. "Then, unless you have some actual evidence, proof, you have no say here."
The bus that would take Link to the train station turned around the corner, coming right for him. A small group had gathered while he waited. Chuey was there, as well as Jaesun and Jack. Together, they'd become the type of friends that Link hadn't thought he'd make again. Others had come, Maggie and Gaia, Garth and Cass, and of course Ryder, Roscoe, Gideon and Wilder.
"This is me," Link said, lifting his duffel.
"You'll call when you get there?" Maggie asked.
He'd been given a shiny new cell phone from Ryder. "The very moment," he told her.
"I can't believe he's not here," Jack said with an uncharacteristically angry voice. Behind him, Gideon shushed him, drawing him into a back hug.
Link didn't need an explanation, he knew the "him" Jack referred to. After Fritz had stormed out of the office, he'd disappeared. Link thought he'd at least say goodbye, but the bus was here now, and Fritz wasn't.
"Blood brothers hug," Chuey said, drawing Link and Jaesun into a tight embrace. It ended up being more of a dog-pile hug as the rest of them added their arms.
The band around Link's heart loosened, letting out a sob that he quickly swallowed. "You've all only known me like this," he said, wiping the tears. "You met me at my lowest moment. Thank you for...thank you." Silently, he vowed to return a better person, a happier person, or not all.
His money was on the latter.
As he trudged up the bus steps, giving the driver a nod who, for some reason blushed profusely when he saw Jaesun, Link forced himself not to look back. The bus had a few other riders. A young woman looking at her cell phone, and an older man in the back with a paper.
Link sat furthest away from everyone else. His body sunk into the seat like a stone to the bottom of a lake. His fox snarled at him, it had been angry with Link for a long time. Link thought back to that fateful conversation a while back, immediately after Link and the others had been rescued from the Protector's van.
Fritz hadn't known he was awake and had been talking to Logan. Link woke up in the middle of their conversation, but had heard the worst of it.
"He's timid, but strong. Link will heal, Fritz," Logan had said, scribbling with his pen against paper, likely his medical record.
Fritz had hissed, the warmth of his palm on Link's hand disappeared. "I feel so guilty, Logan," Fritz had said. "And then, I just get tired of waiting. I don't know how much longer I can wait."
Link opened his eyes. The bus was to the train station now. He trailed after the others like a zombie, following the conductor's directions. Jaesun had said that he'd helped Ryder buy the train ticket and now Link saw why. It was in the front of the train, in the mostly empty business class. There were many vacant seats behind him; plenty of space for Link to cry quietly, undisturbed as he looked out the window.
Once, Link had been given a skateboard by his father as a gift. It had been impractical since they lived on a farm and there wasn't much cement around them to speak of, but Link had loved it. He'd constructed ramps out of wood and other scavenged material and had spent hours gliding down the slopes, flinging himself into the air. One day, he'd hit a rock, careened off the ramp and broke the wheel mechanism. Even after fixing the toy, it hadn't been the same, had never rolled quite the same way.
That was how Link felt now, like a broken toy. The train began to chug forward, the scenery flashing by faster and faster.
He'd fix himself, repair what was cracked, but he'd never be the same. He'd always be just a little bit broken.