Inside Out

Gold Valley Mine 
 How long had she been gone? She didn't know. A few weeks? A month? Time was slipping through the cracks - she had lost track of how many nights she had spent out here on the rocky stretch of dirt. She wished she could forget everything, even her time spent in the cheetah's skin - at least when she was shifted, it was easier to let her human consciousness fall away into darkness. Thoughts of hunting and prey took precedent over her doom, over missing the coalition that she was no longer any use to.

 She slept deep in the abandoned mines during the day - not lucky enough to have one collapse on her and kill her - and ran the desert by night. There was no one out here but her and the pronghorns and rabbits, but she could hardly stand the thought of sleeping through the walking hours of vampires. Death would be mercy, but to give such satisfaction to a vampire twisted her heart when she had just grown to numbness.

 What day it might be was lost on Isolde. Her mind stirred to life as the sun neared the horizon, the schedule burned into her mind already. Her clothes sat in her car still, somewhere on the side of the road, likely with a sticker slapped on the window that was meant to be a warning of an impending tow. There seemed little point in retrieving them, and she was content to be naked in the few hours between sleeping and shifting. With no one to see her this way, it was of little consequence anyway.

 She sat at the mouth of the mine as she waited for her mind to work itself into clarity, staring at the lowering sun and wishing she could burn out her retinas. Too much time in the beast's body had damaged them in a way, at any rate - their usual ochre tone had been permanently made the yellow shade of her cat's eyes. Without a mirror, she couldn't yet know it - she was not particularly inclined to care either way. Her long hair was a tangled mess, not having been brushed in the same amount of time she had been without a shower.

 If cleanliness was next to godliness, this was no ill-fitting way to live.


Maybe there was his own kind of madness involved.

There had been nothing. No response from her despite all their efforts. She wasn't in Belle Vista--that was all they knew for certain thanks to Yana's ephemeral senses. But that was a very small window of the world to deny, and didn't make finding Isolde Casarez any simpler. Even making the potentially wild assumption that she was in Mountainside could only do so much--it wasn't a small place.

He'd furthered the playing field even more by assuming she wasn't any place terribly populated. Unless she had a friend that wasn't in the Coalition she could hang out with--entirely possible, of course--and lay low, where did she have to go? Finding her in a city would be impossible--he wasn't some sort of tracking expert who could stalk someone in a sea of people. So when he put himself to the task of trying to find her, he considered... where would he go if something terrible happened and made him leave this found family of theirs?

Somewhere he could shift, he felt. So Charlie had spent the last couple of weeks or however long it had been--time was getting away from him--searching the fringes of the area. Mountain paths in North Glenn, abandoned places in the outskirts. He'd even poked around the swamp down in Magic Hollow for a minute before he'd decided that there was no way a cheetah would enjoy that, and hoped that Isolde would not subject herself to that.

Red Rock, though... Driving the open stretches made Timeshare want to get out and run. It made sense, and so he was on high alert as he drove along, window down in spite of how chilly it was trying to be. He'd have to come back to Red Rock tomorrow, not nearly enough of it searched, already despairing about today. Ten hours into a long day of searching, an hour out from sundown when he--

He startled himself a little with how hard he put on the breaks when down a back road he saw a familiar car looking worse for the wear, abandoned. A potent mixture of relief and worry clenched at him and he parked his own next to hers, certain it was hers, begging she'd be there even though it was clear she was not. Why had Isolde parked out in the middle of nowhere and left? What had gone so seriously wrong as to drive her away?

Why hadn't she asked for help?

Thankfully, after such a day, an on-foot search was almost welcome, and he nearly thought about letting Timeshare out, but was worried that the young cheetah might get distracted by a hunt and forget their purpose in being out here. So he hoofed it on two legs, white-eyed as he took even breaths. Cheetah on the air, sometimes more stale than was helpful, but still he kept going. Felt himself tense as the sun began to go down in earnest, but couldn't turn back now.

Nearing an area that spoke of abandoned mines and dusty memories, he stopped. Both physically and mentally drained, he listened, the familiar presence of another stronger than before, but trepidation stopped him short, and he didn't immediately spot her as she wasn't quite in sight around a bend. He had no idea how this would go, on such uncertain ground when it came to this situation, of why and how...

"Isolde?" he called, loud but cautious into the blossoming gloaming.

 She felt him before she realized it - just a familiar tug in her mind that had the cheetah rising to the surface, chattering incessantly. Then, her name echoed across the dirt, and she bristled. All of the things she had been steadily building a wall against came flooding in through the cracks. She had been fool enough to look that gorgon bitch in the eyes - she had put herself here, in the place where she could not fulfill her role as a guardian, and could not even tell anyone else why. Isolating herself out here had seemed the best solution at the time - now, with the knowledge that Charlie would be the one to find her out here, she began to question herself again. Perhaps this had been an equally foolish move.

 She felt absolutely filthy, both inside and out. Hyper-aware of the crusty layer of dirt on her skin, the cold twilight air. She drew her knees up to her chest, arms around her legs, letting her tangled hair drape in piecey curtains around her body. She considered, for a moment, not calling out to him. Just sitting in silence, letting him come so close to finding her and leaving empty handed. Was it overly angsty to feel that her overwhelmingly stupid mistake meant her exile was justified?

 Yes, she decided suddenly. This was childish. She hurt, but this solved nothing. Time to woman up.

 "Here," she said, finally. It was not loud by any means, but likely at such a volume that he could hear her. Immediately, part of her regretted it. She was not ready to come out of hiding. And yet, her yellowed eyes would stare in the direction of his voice, and she inhaled a slow, deep breath, waiting earnestly for the sight of him.

She was near enough for him to feel it. The strange metaphysical things that bound them, less as individuals and more part of that overarching plot that was their kind. No doubt she was around, but where exactly remained a mystery for that moment as he waited. Whether or not she heard him, an answer or lack thereof would paint the situation a little more clearly.

Then he heard her voice. A single word, short and quiet, probably enough to go missed by a human, but not by him. He inhaled sharply, practically jolted by the confirmation of what he already knew.

Though he didn't run, it was a quick gait that brought him around a curve in rock, out and around to the front of the old mine shaft. This place was pretty terrible, actually, but that was an observation that took a strong back seat when he spotted her. Foremost was relief at finding her alive. Second came a wave of dread when he realized that though she was alive, she was not in a good way.

Had she really been out here all this time?

"Isolde," he said again, but this time it wasn't a question. Identifying the woman with his own eyes was an odd comfort, given everything else about this. He approached, wanting to get a better look to make sure she wasn't physically hurt and so he could get her out of here before it got dark. How well she'd respond to any of it, he didn't know, but he did know she was important to him and he couldn't just hang back like she was some odd stranger.

God, though, what a mess. He wouldn't say it, but even on approach she smelled downright wild.

 There was a certain safety in solitude, and perhaps she had known it at first and forgotten it as time wore on - but now, as the sound of Charlie's footfalls reached her ears, she realized it again. That sense of security fell away as the man crossed into her field of vision, and where she should have felt relief and comfort in his presence - which she did, to some degree - she was mostly left feeling vulnerable.

 Her expression melded into something forlorn as she looked at him in the dying sunlight. The wounded, childish part of her want to curl up into a ball, or to run, to hiss and spit at him until he left. The rest of her wanted to press her malodorous self against him and cling on for dear life. It was not just the cheetah craving touch, in all honesty, but it was certainly the major motivator.

 "Charlie," she greeted him, even quieter now, feeling like a complete, pathetic loser, sitting here in the dirt.

Oh, screw it. He was nervous and uncertain and this whole thing was just terrible in nearly every way, but she was alive and she wasn't bolting to hide and somehow that felt like all that mattered. It didn't matter what had happened in that moment, why she was here, essentially torturing herself, torturing them.

It just mattered that she mattered.

And with a few quick steps he drew into the mouth of the mine where she had clearly holed up for far too long, doing whatever it was she had been compelled out here to do, and he dropped to his knees in front of her, a hand tentatively going for her shoulder. Dirty was a far less terrible outcome than what he'd feared on several occasions since she'd disappeared. If he could pull her into a reassuring embrace, he would without regret.

 He didn't speak, which was perhaps merciful in the moment. Instead, he just came closer to her, and she was left suspended between the two extremes of wanting and not wanting. Muscles stiffened some, holding her knees a little tighter as he knelt before her, but she wouldn't dodge him or push him away. Her beast lurched forward as his hand fell to her shoulder, rubbing its body along the length of Timeshare's, and she released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.

 Isolde folded against him, hiding her sooty face in his shirt as she shifted her weight into his arms. Slowly, her own arms linked around him, and another quiet sigh of breath brought with it a crack in her numb resolve. Hot tears rolled down her face, leaving shiny streaks in the thin layer of dust on her cheeks, creating a mixture that would very likely stain his shirt.

 "Sorry," she whispered, without moving away, pressing the pads of her fingers against his back. It was a single, raspy word that was somehow meant to encompass everything but could not even begin to.

This might have been nice, if it hadn't felt otherwise so tragic. What could bring her to this, break her down into a base existence, he didn't know. The leave him, all of them, to leave Yana clueless as to why she'd gone, it had to have been major. Had to have been truly terrible, but he was scared to ask. Didn't ask, even as she managed a shattered apology and he shook a little as she cried quietly.

It just.. it didn't make sense. The ferocious guardian that she was, vibrant and confident as she'd always been. The loss was apparent, unmissable, and it made him desperate to fix something that he wasn't sure he could.

But he'd try.

"Listen," he managed after a moment and a clearing of his throat, his own feelings battered down in favor of not just spending the next several minutes bawling with her. "I'm gonna take you home to mine, okay?" Not straight back to Belle Vista. He'd tell Yana he'd found Isolde when things came down. He just... he needed to get her out of here. Away from this gaping maw of misery.

 It was nice to be held after weeks of entertaining the idea that she could spend the rest of her life alone. It was a softness that could have been appreciated in another circumstance - as it was, she suddenly lacked the energy to even be embarrassed by herself. Her tears stopped after a relatively short time, though her breathing remained somewhat erratic a bit longer. The pain of existing was relieved for a few soft moments.

 Charlie spoke again. It was more of a statement than a request - that he was going to take her to his home. She stiffened, wholly unprepared to face Yana so soon, before she remembered he did not live in Belle Vista. It bought her some time, although an alert to the Queen was inevitable. She was quiet for a few more seconds, turning her head so that she could still lean against him as she watched the sun begin to melt into the far west horizon.

 "Okay." A reluctant whisper. Her brain was slowly beginning to accelerate into something more complicated than she had had to deal with in so many days, but she would stave it off as long as possible. Pulling away from Charlie, she prepared herself to come along with him, golden eyes staying to the ground. It would be time to face the music soon.


That was as good of an answer as he'd really needed. And with the sun truly setting, his earlier thought came back to him, of needing to not be out here too much longer. Not that he was spooked easily, per se, but he knew better than to tempt fate in an area he was unfamiliar with. She moved to get up and he came with her, offering her a hand if she would take it, but finding himself shaking a little for it all.

It was mostly relief, but it was also acknowledging that finding her brought on a whole new set of problems to be solved.

"I parked by your car..." he pointed out softly. "Are you going to be okay to walk?" He hoped she had left clothing there, and not simply left it scattered in pieces across the landscape of Red Rock.

 Isolde would take the trembling hand that was extended to her - less because she needed any help in standing and more because it was another opportunity for touch, as much as she almost disdained herself for having such a desire. She withdrew from him once she was on her feet, crossing her arms across her torso as she prepared to step along with him. There was no shame for her to feel in nakedness, but there was a particular vulnerability that wracked her. To feel so exposed and also closed off at the same time was bizarre. The beast chattered incessantly in her head.

 Oh. Her car. She realized then it was probably what had given her whereabouts away. "I'll be fine," she assured him hoarsely. Surely it wasn't that long of a walk, and if Charlie would let her, the woman would remain silent for all of it. The growing darkness was appreciated, helping to shield her disrobed form from the rare vehicle that might pass them.

 Her keys were hidden in one of the wheel wells, and her clothes were still haphazardly tossed upon the passenger seat; her phone, battery long dead, was somewhere in that pile too. Isolde would find each of these items, pulling on the shirt and pants she had abandoned - they were wrinkled and admittedly somewhat musty-smelling, but the scent of them was probably nothing compared to herself. She slowly fished out her phone and her wallet, her undergarments and shoes, and then would make her way over to Charlie's car. Her things fell into an unceremonious pile in the floorboard near her feet as she settled into the seat, and she waited in silence for him to take her back to civilization.

Much as he was used to it in some ways, in this particular circumstance he really didn't know where to put his eyes. He found himself looking to her face, as that seemed safe, but the glimmer of yellow reminded him of how on edge she must have been, and the fact that she seemed to look anywhere but at him made him anxious.

She'd be fine, she insisted. He wondered how broad of a statement that was, but left her to walk. There was a lot he could have said, or asked. But the situation felt brittle or fragile, like a little too much pressure, a little too much noise, and it would shatter, proving to have been too good to actually be true.

Still couldn't believe he'd found her. A thought that tumbled around his brain as he mostly averted his eyes but also partially watched her get dressed from where he sat in his own car with the driver's side door mostly ajar. Would she feel berated, if he asked why she had done this? Would she be frustrated by his worry? Did he need to worry about belittling her?

Playing with his phone in his hands, thinking about Yana, but again deciding against it for now, he put his phone back into the center console as soon as she was in. Turned the key, let the engine turn on, and he moved the gear into reverse, backing carefully out onto the dark side road that would lead them back to a main road that would lead them--well, not through Belle Vista, thankfully. Just straight on east to Larkspur, more or less.

But he was still shaking, and it was a drawn breath through parted lips that preceded a statement so simple it hardly sufficed. "Missed you."

And a lot more than that, but maybe she'd feel better hearing it after a shower and some food.

 This felt a lot like being reunited with a family member who had done her terribly wrong. Except she was her own family member in this situation. She had betrayed herself, she had tried to run from herself, and yet, here she was, face to face with herself and so far from any capacity for forgiveness. The numbness that had just developed within her was shattered with Charlie's arrival, a crack in the dam that would lead to a flood - just when was uncertain, but the trickled had already begun.

 She began to slowly work her fingers through the ungodly tangles in her too-long hair, listening to everything - the clatter of his phone in the center console, the clicking of the gear shifter that put the transmission in drive, the tires crunching over dirt before dropping back onto the road. The whir of movement, the soft inhale of air from the man beside her that suggested he was about to speak, and so he did. Two simple words that touched her more deeply than she cared for. She turned her head, so that she was looking at his profile instead of staring through the window out at the darkness that passed.

 There was a moment of silence as she looked at him as if she had never seen him before. His wild hair and bright eyes, the straight bridge of his nose and slender mouth. She hadn't allowed herself to miss him. Any of them. There was still a large part of her that just wanted to stay in the rocky flatland and never have to face any of these poor people ever again. But here she was, in Charlie's car, with Charlie and the stupid little stuffed cheetah on the dashboard and her smelly clothes and a cab full of sorrow.

 She didn't say anything. Saying she missed him too felt cheap. Instead, she reached out to touch him, putting a hand on his shoulder and letting it run down to rest on his forearm just past the elbow. Her beast leaned into his almost immediately. "How long have you been looking for me?" Her voice was quiet as she spoke. She didn't know why she asked a question that likely had an answer that would make her feel even guiltier, but if he had been searching for as long as she had been gone, that was... dedication.

He felt her looking at him, saw the curve of her face in his peripheral vision, but he kept his eyes forward on the road up until the moment she reached out to touch him. Then his eyes fell to her hand for a moment, and he felt a different shade of a familiar pang of warmth as Timeshare leaned into her as well. Glancing to her face, then back to the road, he felt a little worry at her question.

But she'd asked, and refusing to answer would have been as good as the truth.

"Couple of weeks. A little more, maybe. Ever since we... well, since we realized you really had vanished."

More than just a few days to cool off from whatever it was that had chased her away in the first place.

 A couple weeks. Maybe more. She supposed at the very least it was nice that her concept of time wasn't completely lost; it sounded about right, at any rate. Silence followed his response. Yellow eyes turned out to look at the darkened road through the windshield, letting her hand remain on his arm, allowing herself the small comfort of touch.

 The thought appeared in her head, and she made an attempt to tell Charlie what had happened, to test the devilish magic of the undead. And yet, as her muscles worked to speak, and her mouth came open, no sound would come out. A vampire took away my ability to harm one of them. Her mouth closed as the words merely echoed in her head. Also she told me not to tell anyone. Fun times. A remorseful sigh, and she relaxed against the seat that cradled her. If Charlie did not prod her, she would remain silent for the remainder of the ride.

Two weeks well spent, honestly. Much as it had sucked on an emotional level and had physically worn on him--and drove his gas budget way up for the month--there weren't any regrets. Would it have been nice to find her on night two? Would it have been cool if he'd chosen to come out to Red Rock first? Sure. Definitely. But it hadn't really mattered how long it had taken.

She went as if to speak, but in the end she only sighed and he felt a quiver of worry but chose not to drag it out of her. Whatever it was, he felt like she needed to say it on her own time. The questions would go unspoken for now, but she had to understand that he certainly had them. This was not the sort of thing you could just shrug away, as if the reasons were of no consequence.

But this was a tightrope walk, and the last thing he would do was push her when she wasn't ready and send her careening back down to where he'd found her.

His two-week journey ended when he pulled into his spot in the apartment's parking lot. Returned home with what he'd gone out for. Strange, to bring her with him, but about to leave her alone, either.

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