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it seemed a great long time since he'd been cheerful. he spent the days patrolling now, not to sightsee but to guard. he had a purpose, an aim. if they did not yet have the numbers to get simmik back, then he'd ensure no saint snatched away another of their own. he'd die before he'd let that happen on his watch.

but now, cam fully empathized with mal. with newfound focus and responsibility came an enormous weight on his shoulders, and constant dread soured his stomach, as if he'd eaten rotten fish. no longer did he look upon the bounties of neverwinter forest with a child's awestruck gaze; now everything seemed dull, off, wrong.

and he tried to convey this sense of protectiveness within his urine, marking each stale tree along the way until he had no more left to give. what if they saw right through him, though? smelled the true fear and naivete within his claim to the forest?

and who were "they," anyway— was he more afraid of the saints, or afraid of letting his packmates down?

cam lifted his leg and released a final, sparse trickle upon the edges of a holly bush, and stared at the berries within. once, he would have admired their vibrant color against the green. now, all he saw was red—and red was blood—and blood was coming. it was inevitable.
It all was awful. So many gone. Caerus too. But if he left to look for her eldest, who would still be here when he got back? He tried to tell himself that Caerus was an adult, that he would be ok... He didn't believe it though, at his heart. So much had gone wrong, how could he believe something was ok when there was so much room for disaster?

His patrols were more just routine that were hammered into his brain. His spirit wasn't really in it, but he knew he had to do it. He had to keep people safe but he was doubting it had any effect. There were no smiles here, no positivity. And Mal had been slowly devolving over his return -- he was unkempt, world-worn. It took him a moment to really be aware of Cam coming the other way, Hey. He was quiet.
mal's mottled coat emerged, dappled even more by the shadows cast by trees. he, too, looked somber. hi, cam replied, moving up to greet his leader with a gentle touch of his muzzle to the other man's shoulder. i'm on patrol. care to join me?

with a sigh that seemed heavy enough to sink into his toes, he continued on his slow tread with mal hopefully in tow. i'm so sorry about caerus, he murmured, verdant gaze seeking mal's, albeit slightly sidelong. is there anything i can do? go look for him, sure, but he wasn't sure if the pack could spare him at this point. their numbers were so low. . .

and it was a hollow offer, anyway. what could he do? if caerus was missing, he was missing. cam himself had gone floating down the river as a youth, lost to mal for quite some time. and cam was no tracker. he would be no help.

his time was better served here, protecting the trees that sheltered him from everything bad in the world.
He was glad Cam was around. A very faint smile at the nudge -- it disappeared quickly though. He did nod, though, Yeah, that'd be good. It was where most of his time had gone recently. 

But then there was Caerus. The weight was obvious, wasn't it? It wasn't like it was something he could hide. I don't know -- I-- he cut off, went quiet. I want to go find him... But I'm afraid someone else will leave while I'm gone. If only he could tuck everyone together, keep them all under his metaphorical wing. He felt so alone now, even though there was still a pack here, but with his son gone... It was like somehow Cupid was taking him away from beyond the grave. He didn't say that. For obvious reasons. I know he's supposed to be old enough to be ok but--- again he cut off, silent. He didn't finish what he was saying there. But after everything, he could only imagine the worst. He shook his head.
cam nodded. yeah, i understand, he murmured. he moved closer to mal, the two of them in sync. i'm sure he's okay, and that he'll return. but i will keep a close eye on the outskirts, see if i spot him coming. 

he wouldn't leave. not even with notice. mal had lost too much—and it wasn't even a tactical move on cam's part. it wasn't as if he were crucial to the operation of this place. but he worried about the effect of his own absence on mal's psyche should it happen. the mottled young man needed all the support he could get in these turbulent times.

you know how i went away, a couple times, he remarked, smiling ruefully at mal. and came back just fine. caerus is much more capable than i was at that age. 

if this cruel world hadn't killed cam yet, it certainly would spare caerus. 

. . .right?
He knew Cam was trying to help. But after so many bad things, it felt more like just a single sandbag to stop an entire flood. 
You weren't fine the one time, Mal had to remind, and the Saints are out there. If he ended up with Simmik, at least she'd protect him, but at the same time, it was terrifying, he didn't want his son to have to experience whatever awful things they'd do to him. He was scared for his son -- well, sons, the majority of those missing were the boys.

And at the same time Mal felt bad for having brought it up. He looked away then, down, ears twisting back. Sorry. I don't know what to do, which was a statement he was uttering more and more. It wasn't like Cam was likely to have the answers either. Nobody did. Could the world hear him wondering if things could get worse? It could explain how things had gone as of late.
i was eventually fine, cam countered softly, but nothing he could say would truly help. he sighed, slowly pulling to a stop and resting his chin upon mal's shoulders. a brief but intimate touch, quite unlike his normally withdrawn self. but every night he dreamed of his mother's comforting warmth and support, and if he could give that to mal, even for a moment. . .

he withdrew after a few heartbeats, giving his alpha a thoroughly unsure but genuine smile, the corners of his mouth barely curving upward. we both have been saying sorry much too often, lately, he murmured. so much to be sorry about.

silence, then—but it was never really silent, was it? even in winter, the sounds were muffled, but still there. the wind through the trees, the drip-drap of snowmelt off branches, the rustle of dead leaves disturbed by some creature or another. cam thought they might truly suffer in actual silence, with naught but their thoughts for company.

as it was, at least they had the forest.

he'll return, cam said, his voice more confident than his face. and we'll get simmik back, too.
Mal was always a creature who craved touch -- perhaps deprived of it too much in his youth and trying to make it up now or something like that. So when Cam stopped and touched him, Mal turned towards him and return the expression because that's just how he was -- but Mal couldn't do so exactly, so it was more of just a touch to Cam's neck. And when Cam pulled away, so did Mal. Silently he was tired of the walls that had gone up -- everyone was trying to protect themselves. It wasn't what he'd wanted his pack to be like. Maybe he'd messed it all up.

Though he might say he hoped, Mal had pretty much lost most of his hope. It was a little empty. I hope so. -- I just.. I can't take more of this. It's too much. Far too much. I can't-- He cut off, shook his head. What did he do if he was just faced with more loss? Where was the bottom of this pit he was sinking in to? The world had done a good job of beating him down and so little had happened to build him back up again. Mal was just a broken man.

Quietly, then, I'm not good company any more. That was the truth, wasn't it? Maybe that was why everyone was leaving -- he just couldn't smile any more. They all knew. So they left. And then it made him think that maybe he just deserved to be alone.

Such a great train of thought. It didn't make for the most exciting of threads.
'good company'. . .ha. cam had never been that, and yet, mal seemed to like having him around. but there was no rebuttal to give except a shake of his head, a kind set to his eyes. whatever he could say, mal wouldn't believe him. not in this funk. 

it's all right, he murmured. you've heard the saying, 'two wrongs make a right?' well, we're both poor company, at least lately. . .but maybe together, it's not so bad. it was a joke, although there wasn't much laughter in his voice. just a bit of levity, a small attempt to brighten the mood.

cam was content to wallow in his own fears and loathings, but this was different. this was comforting a friend in need.

he breathed out softly, slowly, ruminating on various inanities for a brief moment before speaking again. what do you want to do, mal? he asked, looking to his leader for next steps.
Mal's, Hmm--, might have been almost a laugh. He tried to smile, appreciating the attempt at least, but that's what his smile was -- an attempt. It didn't even really get the crooked star meme either. He wished things were that simple. It would make all this far easier and choices more clear. 

His reply wasn't exactly a croak, but maybe croak-adjacent, I just want to make everyone safe and happy. Okay. Maybe it wasn't really what was asked, but it was the only thing  he did want at this point. He was failing at something so clean and simple (on paper) as it was, so how could he ask for more? If he could have retreated inward on himself then he would have, but the laws of matter didn't allow. Then in a whisper, It's all I've wanted.
last post for me <3

mal put too much upon himself. cam had never felt the need to take responsibility for others. he barely took responsibility for cam. so he didn't understand it, but he could sympathize. and he hated seeing him hurt.

i know, cam replied. his ears wavered, swiveled. we can try. go get simmik, go find caerus. . . that's all we can do is try.

and god, did he want to try.

he gave mal a pensive look, then smiled. but not right now. right now, we should make these borders as impenetrable as possible. he didn't have much urine left, but he'd squeeze it out somehow. maybe they'd make a detour to the stream, get some water and refresh themselves before continuing.

all they could do, after all, was try.
Mal probably had more reason to think solely about himself than many wolves -- he'd been abandoned many times by many wolves, and others just plain hadn't treated him kindly. But he still didn't put himself before those few he treasured -- if anything, it had made it worse. And now, he suffered because of it. He spiraled into darkness while trying to haul out others to the light.

Try. But yes, as useless as it sometimes felt, they could at least go mark the borders. It was something. But... What would ever be enough? Not right now. But he would agree, nod his head, and come along to do leaderlike things.

At some point, Mal would probably slip out of this funk, but for now? Not yet, not yet.