You fly for a long time. It's exciting at first- chasing after one of the most dangerous Mutes in the world- but it soon becomes clear that Scarlemagne has too big a headstart to just catch him with a hope and a stolen bird. You all agree that it's not going to happen. You all fly some more.
Eventually, night begins to fall, and the air begins to chill. You can't see your hand in front of your face, but you keep flying. At some point, Benson falls asleep. Then Dave. Then Mandu. And still, you're flying.
"We're not going to catch him," you say, hoping to rip that bandaid off.
Kipo is unfazed. "Not tonight. Tomorrow."
"We don't know where we're going."
"We're going after my dad. That's enough."
"Kipo, the bird is exhausted. You're going to kill it."
You can just barely make out her shifting, hands going slack on the reins. With a long, somber sigh, Kipo turns the bird around. And you fly.
"Whattaya think this thing eats?" you ask, trying to fill the silence. It's weird to be the one doing that. Normally you just want the world to be quiet. But here and now, you want to be loud. You want the world to feel a bit less big.
"Yup. It's what makes them pink." Kipo scritches one on the neck. It tenses underneath her; a byproduct of a long life of bad handling. "Don't worry, buddy. We'll get you plenty of water and snacks."
"We're not adopting the flamingo."
"We're adopting the flamingo. Deal with it."
You sigh and lean against her. It's embarrassingly soft of you, but you're tired and it's pitch black out- who's gonna see? Kipo radiates heat and smells distinctly of dog slobber, which isn't a pleasant combo but isn't the worst thing you've smelled, either, and you could probably fall asleep right then and there.
And you do.
And you keep flying.
You dream of wolves.
They're big, slobbering things, like hungry wolves are. The instinctual part of you, the part of you that's all wolf, tells you they haven't had a meal in a long time. That's bad. The hungrier a wolf, they more vicious a wolf.
For once, they're not after you. In the center is Kipo, tied up and so weak and pliable. All skin and bones, Kipo is, but she's taller than you, and has more meat. You know this. Logically. Not because you've measured who would be the tastiest or anything. That's a wolf thing, and you left the wolves a long time ago.
(It's Dave- a juicy, filling morsel that can be taken down with ease. Unless he's an old man. Then it's Kipo.)
You open your mouth to say something, though what you're not sure, and a howl comes out. You're not Wolf- you're a wolf. And Kipo is the dinner bell.
Kipo opens her mouth and screams. It sounds like a flamingo cry.
It's almost dawn when you wake, clinging tightly to Kipo's arm. Kipo doesn't notice. She looks exhausted, staring straight ahead. Her eyes are almost pitch black, pupils blown wide to see in the remaining darkness. The rims are deep purple.
You shudder, and it's not because of the wind.
The people of the second burrow are crowded around the giant hole in the ceiling when you all land. They look wary and haunted, their shoulders bunched and metaphorical hackles raised. The flamingo lands and immediately drops into a roosting position, exhaling a pitiful cackle. Kipo gives it one last pat before sliding down the side, followed close by Mandu. The pig was squealing for food.
It was the big man who came forward. You bristle instinctively. This guy is no an ally. This guy tried to take Stalky. If he'd had his way, Kipo and her father never would've reunited, simply because it was a rule. You don't like him.
Judging by his sneer, he doesn't like you, either.
"So," says Hoag, "come back to finish us off, have you? Didn't even bother to pretend you aren't one of that Mute's cronies, after all he did today? Bringing that bird here."
"Hey, man," says Benson, frowning. "We aren't exactly fans of Scarlemagne ourselves."
"Riiiiiight, because I'm supposed to believe Professor Oak's daughter just magically showed up after being missing for ten days, alive and unharmed, mere minutes before that beast broke in, and it was some crazy coincidence?" He tilts his head toward the purple fur on Kipo's arm- which has turned back to its original size, but hasn't quite decided if it wants to look human or not. "Did this Scarlemagne give you that in return for us? Or was that on the house?"
Kipo flinches, grabbing her wrist self-consciously. "Hoag, I would never betray the burrow! You know that. Everyone here knows that." Her eyes begin to search the crowd, zeroing in on those girls from earlier. "Asher? Dahlia?"
Asher and Dahlia exchange a look. You don't know them well enough to know which one opens her mouth to speak. "Does that... hurt?"
"What? No! It's just-"
"It looks like... like Mute fur." The other shudders. "Kipo, what happened to you?"
You bare your teeth as you step forward. You don't like these girls either, but you recognize it's mostly for petty reasons. It just wasn't fair that Kipo knew them so well and so long and gave them hugs, too. That's all. And if they were at least brave enough to look at her while realizing she wasn't fully human instead of running, and that's more than you were able to do- well, that's just another reason. They're soft. They don't have fight-or-flight instincts like a good warrior. They just stand there. "Suddenly Mute experts, are we?"
One of them flinches, grabbing the other's arm. Her voice is wobbly. "I dunno. I just dunno, okay? It's not natural."
Kipo's entire being seems to take the blow like a slap. She stares, open-mouthed, eyes watering. "I'm... I'm sorry," she says. She turns to Hoag, who is smiling like he's won. "I will never give up on my people. I'll be here if you need me. I'll find you all food, and medical supplies, and-"
"This isn't the surface, kiddo," Hoag replies. "We have everything we need."
You take another step forward, snarling, but Benson puts his hand on your shoulder.
"Fine," Kipo says, her voice strangled. "But when- if- you do need me... I'll always be close by, alright?" She turns back to the bird and gives it a gentle pat. "Think you can give me a quick boost up, girl?"
"How about all of us?" You're quick to ask, though you're not personally invested in what the flamingo thinks or feels.
"I won't ask you to-"
"Kipo," you say, surprisingly patient, "I'm not staying with mole-people. I'm staying with my mole-person."
Benson scoffs and waves Hoag off, clearly infuriating the man. "If this is what being in a burrow is like, then gimme the surface any day."
"Yeah!" Dave adds. "Forget security and regular meals! This is whack!"
No one stops you from getting on the bird- not even the bird- which, honestly, is the most damning thing of all. You give them a parting growl. Cowards, you think, knowing you'd have done the same if you'd been presented the same evidence. It's easier than admitting that they have a reason to be scared. Weak. Soft.
"They hate me," Kipo says, her voice soft, and you can feel her trembling beside you.
"They don't hate you," Benson rebuffs. "They just need time to adjust. And when they're done adjusting, they'll welcome you home with open arms and a lot of apologies."
"That's even worse." Here come the tears, rolling down her cheeks without direction. "They're afraid of me."
Your fingers dig into the feathers and you watch with a strange sort of emptiness as Benson wobbled up the back of the flamingo to hug her. Kipo cried often, over small things, but this was the first time you ever heard her be loud about it. The sobbing hurts you more than any wound. You want to howl- not a joyful howl of prey, but a mournful one. The one the vague approximation of a father-figure had done when he found out his packmate had passed away. Sad. Meaningful.
But you're no wolf.
But you're Wolf, and you don't know how to help, either; so you sit and stare and wish you could somehow know better.
The bird takes you to a small place of gnarled branches. You recognize, vaguely, that it's probably some form of bush, made large like the dandelions and the grass and the Mega-dogs. There's a fresh puddle on the ground, and you test it. You grimace and tell the truth; if you don't mind a little slobber, it's drinkable rain water. Benson turns five shades of green.
Next comes the matter of making a camp. You climb and climb, bending the branches downwards with your meager body weight. You tie them down when you can; break them when you have to. You surround the makeshift hut with the remaining sticks, too small to attract the Mega-dogs. If they come stampeding, you'll have time. Not much, but enough to dive into the bush. In a place like this, that's really the best you can hope for.
You're not scared. You've survived worse.
Kipo is inconsolable through dinner. You try to do the little things that usually make her brighten- give her the biggest bug leg, give her the softest patch of moss, give her Stalky to sleep with so she feels safe. Nothing works. Fine, you think, and catch a tiny little fish, leaving it the wind. If you can't do anything about it, maybe they can. You curl up next to Kipo and wait.
You dream of wolves.
This time, you're the wolf. It repulses you to see the furry paws underneath you, the great snout poking out. There's a circle of daisies around your throat like a collar. It's horrible. You're horrible.
(It's what you desperately wanted to be, once.)
The prey is Hoag. He's fairly fast for a mole-man, ducking underneath branches and around trunks, but no one can match a hungry wolf. It's not long before you and the pack have him surrounded.
"Should've known," says Hoag, bitter to the end. "You're monsters, the whole lot of you!"
You snarl, baring your teeth. You don't care much what the mole-man thinks- he is, after all, lunch meat- but you hate the way he speaks. The sniveling tone that seems to scream he thinks he's better. Whatever. He'll soon be bones anyway.
You leap at him, only to feel yourself being thrown to the side. There's a wolf on top of you now- not vicious or angry, but scared and pleading. Her eyes are a bright purple.
"Don't vouch for him!" you snap. "He'll have us both for pelts!"
Hoag's eyes get bright with something sick and twisted. Something almost like hope. "Not her. Not if she'll keep me safe."
"Fat chance!" the wolf you are, you roll your eyes. "She's part of my pa-"
The fur falls in stripes off her face, landing around you like confetti. New fur comes quickly- purple, spotted, and very, very different. The purple-eyed creature unsheathes its claws, digging them into your shoulders. Sharp teeth open wide to swallow you whole.
You scream her name.
You roll off the moss patch, searching desperately for Stalky. Kipo reluctantly sits up, cradling the staff to her chest like a teddy bear. Benson lifted his head, saw the giant Timber Cat stomping towards their camp, and dropped it again. Dave snored on.
"Mornin', Yumyan," Kipo says, rubbing her eye. "The attack didn't affect your cats, did it?"
"What attack?" asks Molly, who is close behind.
You stand up, shoulders bunched. You feel embarrassed for being spooked. "Scarlemagne hit the burrow."
The white cat's nose wrinkles. "Is that what all those birds were? I just thought they were ganging up on prey."
"They eat shrimp."
"Shrimp is pretty tasty. I've fought my fair share of battles over it."
Yumyan clears his throat. His purple eyes are wide and a little worried. "Kipo, where's Pierre? I can't stand to wait any longer. My little lovebug needs pets."
"Oh. Right." Kipo points in the direction of the still-sleeping Mega-Mutes. "He did a great job getting me home, so we let him snack on the dogs as an extra special reward."
Yumyan's ears fall into a straight line. "My precious baby boy. Is with those slobbering mutts. You left him with those slobbering mutts?"
"He was a good boy and he deserved a treat!"
"He hopped off without us," you say, figuring that might lighten the tension a bit. It isn't like it's their fault the beast had chosen a new home.
"I should've known better," grumbles the Timber Cat, running a paw down his face. "Not even I can keep my Pierre away from a morsel as juicy as a pack of dogs."
"He'll come back when the smell gets too overwhelming," Molly reassures him, giving him a sympathetic back on the back. She pauses and squints. "Hey, human, what's with your arm?"
Kipo glances down almost instinctively. She groans. "Oh, come on."
"The fur's never lasted this long before," Benson comments from the comfort of his moss. "Unless it went away while you were sleeping?"
"I have no idea," she admits, glancing at you, eyebrows raised.
You shrug, eyeing the fur warily. "I didn't notice anything."
Molly looks at Yumyan. "Whatcha reckon it is, Yumyan?"
"Dunno." He rubs the edges of his chin curiously. "Gimme your arm."
Kipo sighs and lets him gently hold it between furry gray paws. Yumyan hums and haws over it like it's a complicated concept. "Lemme try something," he mutters; and then, with great precision, he pokes the very center of her palm. Kipo's fingers twitch, the fur lengthens, and out comes the claws that have just haunted your nightmares. You swallow heavily.
"Well, I'll be," Molly says, her eyes practically bugging out of her head. "It's a cat paw!"
Yumyan drops the hand and pulls her into a side-hug, laughing heartily. "I knew I liked you for a reason! Whattaya doin', hiding behind that human pelt? Let your feline fly!"
"The human is me," she says weakly. "I'm kind of... both? Maybe? I'm still working on it."
"Shame," he answers, shrugging. "When you get out of that little fleshy vessel, you gotta stop by the village, alright? We'll have a party so amazing it'll be legendary!"
"A new comrade!" Molly adds. "Show enough bravery and we might even see about gettin' you an axe!"
"Hate to disappoint, but I dunno if I'll ever be completely... whatever." Kipo hesitates. "I'm still not sure if I want to be, even."
"Not to worry, kitten." Yumyan gives her a solid slap on the back. "Cats don't back down. If there's one inside your human shell, it won't be hidin' for long."
"That is... not comforting."
"It will be!"
"Ominous," Dave mutters, rolling over.
You dream of cats.
You're Wolf, but you're no wolf. Behind you are the shadows of cats- their muzzles are short but their teeth are sharp, their paws are thick and hold claws just as powerful. It's fear, but it's a different kind of fear- something more familiar. Something like betrayal, and love.
You run until you have to pause for breath, and in that moment something sleek and distinctly purple steps out of the void. It's not like the others- it's bright and sharp and very, very capable. Claws dig into the soft moss as it creeps closer. Drool hangs from its maw.
You aren't scared anymore.
You grab Stalky, twirl it, and send the pointed end the feline's direction. "You're not her," you say with conviction. "Kipo couldn't hunt something cute, and I'm wearing her barrette."
It launches at you with a roar.
You awake to the sound of snapping wood.
For a brief, horrifying second, you think the dogs are coming. You're halfway through a warning cry when you realize the sound is coming from above, not below. A tug on the edge of your pelt brings your eyes to Mandu, who snorts pleadingly at you as he gestures to branches with his nose. You give him a reassuring rub and hand him Stalky.
You go up a short ways, then around the trunk. You can make out crickets in the distance, but you aren't entirely sure if they're Mega too and just far away, or small and nearby. But the growling is close. The growling isn't Mega. It's all Kipo.
Well. Maybe it's a little Mega.
Clawed hands mercilessly struck the hard wood, over and over again. The fur had stolen both of Kipo's hands, leaving wild paws in their wake. Muted grunts leave the girl's lips.
Dangerous, the wolf thinks.
Friend, Wolf thinks.
"What're you doing?" you ask.
Kipo lets out a squeak and jumps onto the branch above, clinging like its life or death. She presses in close to the wood as you step onto the branch she was just on. It's solid enough to pass for floor. "I know you're there," you say, because you know she's trying to hide. "Rule one-o-five; if you're gonna train, be ready for the real deal to hear you."
She disengages, landing with a soft thump. Kipo holds her hands behind her back, but they're so big they peek out anyway. Her eyes, which flicker around nervously, are a rich purple. "Sorry, Wolf."
"We should stick together. This is a dangerous place to be alone."
"Okay, okay. Just... give me a minute." She grunts and tenses, attempting in vain to do... something.
You blink at her. "We don't have all night, Kipo. We both need sleep."
"I'm trying, okay!"
"Trying to do what?"
"Get rid of these things!"
"Oh," you say, not entirely sure what to do with this information. "Was that why-"
"They keep popping out," she blurts, half to herself. "I just thought that maybe, if I gave them a workout, they'd... I dunno why I bothered, though! These things aren't going away when I want. It's like asking Dave to be a certain form."
You tilt your head slightly. "They aren't things. They're paws."
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Kipo scoffs. "They aren't natural. I'm not natural. I'm too Mute for humans and too human for Mutes. Neither of them can accept me like this. And who can blame them?"
"You flinch when you see me like this. I know you do. So don't pretend this is okay."
You scowl, hating to be interrupted. "I have my own issues. But you're not something people have to 'accept'. You're Kipo. If they don't love you as Kipo, who cares if they think you're a Mute or a human?"
"I care!" She flings her arms out, and you watch as newly sharpened claws swing precariously near you. But you're not afraid. You won't let yourself be afraid. "I spent my whole life thinking I was normal. And suddenly I'm just some... freak of nature?" Kipo glances at her paws, then looks away. "I scare everyone. I even scare you."
You suck in a deep breath and touch a paw, and Kipo goes very, very still.
You flip it over, studying the spots as best you can in the dark. The fur is a bit scruffy where it's been ruffled so much the past few days, but you can tell it can be so soft if treated right. The claws are pointy but not razor sharp. You risk looking into Kipo's eyes, and the purple is so pretty.
"I'm scared of these," you admit, quietly. "But I'm not scared of you. And if they're attached to you... I don't have to be afraid of them. Not like this."
And you set the paw gently against your cheek, leaving your throat and back so horribly exposed.
And Kipo, ever the sensitive wuss, falls to her knees, hugs you close, and cries. And if you cry too- well, it's dark out. Who can tell?
You still dream of wolves. But when you do, you're with a fearsome, loyal panther.