Kevin sat down at the table, glad to be wearing his favorite jeans and t-shirt. He was bare foot and ran his toes over the floor. It hadn’t been swept in a while so he could feel the dirt that had been tracked in scratch lightly against his skin.
The others were already eating. It was strange fair. The usual kind of weirdness that Chris made. Kevin scooped some of the rice from the pot onto his plate and pushed it around. There was no way to identify all the ingredients that were mixed up in it. Another experiment.
“When are we leaving?” he found himself asking. It wasn’t until then that he’d realized that he was going with them.
“How far into this rabbit hole do you plan on going?” Wolf asked.
“Until I hit the bottom,” Kevin thought.
“That could be a long fall,” Wolf cautioned.
“Could be,” Kevin agreed.
“You’re not going,” Lee objected.
It was her that he had expected to reject him. Pulling his mouth into a tight line and dropping his eyes to the food, he tapped the fork against the edge of his plate.
“How many allies do you have?” he asked.
She didn’t answer.
“Seems to me that you’ve only got the three at this table and it sounds like you need the ones that you can get.”
She pressed her hands flat against the table, spreading her fingers out. Looking at the lumps of rice on her plate, she drummed her nails. The clicking of them marked the seconds.
“I don’t see how you’re coming will help,” she proceeded. After a pause, she added “It’s bad enough that Chris insists upon coming.”
“What’s the risk? Afraid that I’ll die?” he demanded.
She slapped both her hands against the table and snapped her head up so that she was looking at him.
Clenching her hands into fists, she brought them down on the table again, harder this time.
“We could all die!” she yelled.
Her eyes were wide and her face flushed. Flashing her gaze to each of them, she pressed her lips together.
“I just don’t think you understand,” she apologized.
Her voice trembled. She put her head in her hands, bracing with her elbows on the edge of the table. Fists clenched into her hair.
“Then explain it to us,” Kevin whispered.
Reaching out to her, he brushed his fingers down her arm. Flinching, she pulled away.
“I’m Lodi,” she sobbed.
“She’s a hot mess,” Wolf said.
“Stop it,” Kevin thought.
“Truth hurts,” Wolf sneered.
Kevin savagely stabbed his fork into a lump a rice, splatting onto the table. Nick raised an eyebrow at him. Chris frowned.
“And what’s a Lodi? Stop dancing around the issue and just fucking tell us,” Wolf growled, this time it was out loud. Kevin choked and gripped his fork tightly. “I mean… It’s just…” He let it go. There was no reeling that one back in.
“Stop it you fucker,” Kevin thought.
“You’re just as tired of this shit as I am,” Wolf declared and he was right.
Kevin could feel the tension building up between his shoulders and crawling up along his neck. The tightness gripped the back of his head and was starting to dig its fingers at his temples. Rubbing his fingers on his cheeks he closed his eyes. He leaned forward and let his head rest against the cool wood of the table then ran his hand over his stomach.
Nick got up and rummaged through the fridge.
Lee was pressing her fingers against her mouth, but Kevin was unaware of it.
“Eat that,” Nick said, letting a package of hamburger drop onto the table in front of Kevin.
Nothing else was real. He growled and dug his hands through the plastic into the meat, scooping it into his mouth.
“Fucking shit,” Wolf muttering out loud, around the mouthful of cold meat.
“Better then nothing,” Nick responded.
The three of them watched while Kevin devoured the entire package of meat.
Chris pushed his chair back, his heart fluttered in his chest and his breath quickened. He glanced around the room and took note of the exits. The door to the living room was no good, it meant going past Kevin. But there was the back door. He could run out between the trailers.
Nick laid his hand on Chris’s thigh and murmured “It’s alright” up close to his ear. He hadn’t noticed Nick move close to him.
Taking a shuttering breath, he tried to understand what was going on.
“You’re spirit isn’t a predator,” Nick’s voice whispered from Chris’s memory. That made him prey. Was his spirit afraid? If his spirit was afraid, that suggested there was reason for him to be. But there had been a similar response when Nick had first shifted. He had run. He had felt terror. No. He could not believe that these animals could decide everything. He could not believe that they could decide how they could behave.
Kevin slurped up the blood from the package and Chris shuddered.
Nick pulled a towel from the counter and tossed it to Kevin.
Kevin wiped his face and hands.
“Your wolf is an asshole. You know that?” Nick asked.
Kevin snorted. “You have no idea.”
Wolf settled without comment.
Chris couldn’t look away from the empty Styrofoam tray and plastic wrap with the film of blood. Nick picked it up and threw it away. Kevin wiped at the table.
Lee brushed her hair from her hair and then rubbed her hands together.
Lighting a cigarette, snagging an ash tray and perching himself on the edge of the chair, Nick started talking.
“There was once two great kingdoms in Solis. One was ruled by the Techies and one by the Mages. They came together in a place called Lodoss. There they started a project to create people that were able to use both tech and magic. They imagined a future race of a perfect people. They created the Lodi.”
Nick gestured towards Lee who looked away.
“They were humans grown in a lab that were not supposed to have free will, but they did. They were more powerful then expected and they could not be controlled. The people working on the project weren’t able to implant the tech and Gaia shard into natural humans as hoped. Because of that, it was decided that they needed to be destroyed.”
“So, you’re a robot?” Kevin asked.
“I have tech implants,” Lee answered.
“What is a Gaia shard?” Chris asked.
“They broke a Gaia seed from a Life Tree into small shards and then implanted them into the Lodi,” Nick explained.
Lee rubbed her hands together. Nick handed her the pack of cigarettes. She took one, tamped it excessively before lighting it.
“There were those who tried to protect the Lodi. They were able to get some of them out of Lodoss before the…” he let the sentence fade out.
Lee’s hands trembled. Tears ran down her face. Nick tried to take her hand, but she jerked it back from him. She closed her eyes and pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes willing the images to stop. The screams echoed in against the high ceiling. They ran. They pressed against her, pushing. A loud noise crashed next to her and hot blood splashed across her face. The taste of copper filled her mouth.
“Lee,” Nick called her name.
He was so far away.
The others were so close. A hand closing on hers and pulling her away. Staggering down a hallway and into a small room. She was shoved into a small space. Ash burned her eyes. It was hard to breathe. People were talking on the other side of the curved metal door.
Nick shook her shoulders. She dropped her hands and looked at him.
A question she had asked a thousand times.
Nick pulled her against him. But there were other arms wrapping around her too. Chris and Kevin were with her, embracing her in this small kitchen. Why did she have to go back? She didn’t want to go back.
“We started the war,” she whispered. “Because we lived.”
“It’s not your fault,” Chris said.
“How would he know?” she thought.
“You didn’t choose this,” Kevin added.
“No, I didn’t. None of it,” she thought.
Nick softly kissed her on the forehead.
“You don’t have to go back,” he said.
Holding that in her mind, she imagined staying here forever. Just like this, with these men. She imagined finishing her psychology degree and working in a hospital. Living in a big city. Traveling the country. Would Kevin want children? Could she have them?
Then the tug came. That ever present demand that she come and that she hurry. There was an urgent need.
“No,” she choked it out on a sob. “I have to go back.”
They all hugged her tighter.