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The Stag

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Chase yawned from his perch on a tree stump. He rubbed his tired eyes, staring without really seeing the stars lighting up the night sky. The wet tongue licking his fingers reminded him that he was supposed to be keeping an eye on the dogs and not getting lost in his thoughts. He scratched behind Peter’s ears and smiled when the dalmatian ran off to rejoin the rest of the pack. 

Another yawn slipped out before Chase could help it. He glanced at his watch, brows knitted in confusion. He shook his wrist and looked at it again. The second-hand wasn’t moving. It was stuck at a quarter past one. He must have broken it in the scuffle from that afternoon’s arrest. 

Oh well. It wasn’t hard to assume it was getting too late to be out for much longer. He often lost track of time when he was unwinding from the day’s case in the yard with his four-legged companions. He stood, stretching his sore muscles with a low groan. Blamed his stiff joints for tripping over a tree root that blocked his path back to the house. 

His knees knocked together and he crossed his arms, tucking his hands into his armpits. The frosty night air bit at his naked limbs like bloodthirsty mosquitoes. He cursed himself for neglecting to bundle up to take the dogs out for their final stroll before bed. He longed to wrap himself in a big cocoon of warm blankets in front of the fireplace that he hoped he remembered to light before they left. 

Chase shuddered. His breath came out in a cloudy vapor around him, like a veil over his vision. Waves of fog rolled across the field, obscuring the view of the dogs. He pitched a loud whistle, urging the canines to hurry. He was reassured by the chorus of barks echoing back at him as they ran ahead. The glimpse of yellow light in the far distance was his only guide now and so he trudged on. Thoughts only on the promise of home waiting for him.

A hunched figure slowly loomed in Chase’s path. He quirked his lips in a soft grin, thinking one of the dogs was waiting for him after all. He put a hand out to beckon the loyal creature. But as he got closer, the blurred form grew bigger and rose up.  The hair at the back of his neck stood on end. Chase stopped dead in his tracks.

It definitely wasn’t one of the dogs.

The thing grew into a massive animal. Sharp barbs jutted out from the top of its head. It shifted, contorting in on itself. Taking shape as a giant stag with long branching antlers that made it appear gigantic. Wisps of smoke floated off the being as it moved towards Chase’s direction. 

The creature emitted a painful cry that made his blood run cold. Chase covered his ears, cradling his head as the noise pierced louder. Watched the beast stalk closer through watering eyes. He was too startled to scream.

The stag stared him down, unwavering gaze fixed on his. Chase forced himself into action, anxious to put distance between him and the beast. He walked backward slowly, eyes remaining locked with the creature and matching pace with every heavy stomp it took. He tried to go carefully, so of course, he ended up stepping into an unseen rabbit hole. He cried out with a loud curse and fell to the ground. He gritted his teeth and let out a hiss as his twisted ankle erupted in pain.

A loud grunt pulled his attention to the animal. Only a few feet away by then. 

On instinct, his shaky hands reached for the gun he wasn’t carrying. Chase glanced around quickly. Nothing around him could be used as a weapon or shield. He flinched as the sound of stomping heavy hooves reverberated around him. He could only watch the animal with frozen fear. Wide eyes cataloging every measured step. 

It took Chase too long to recognize the thick substance dripping off the creature’s pelt. It gleamed a bright red. A familiar metallic smell in the air. It filled his senses and made him gag. 

Eventually, the animal came to a stop in front of him. The stag snorted through its nostrils, breathing heavily. It pawed at the ground and ducked its head. Before Chase could put his arms up to try and defend himself, the beast shook itself out and he was sprayed with the substance covering it. He picked at a spot on his face, rubbing the viscous liquid between his fingers. 

His fears were confirmed. It was blood. 

Chase hurried to wipe his hand on the wet grass. His gaze grew wide when he noticed more of the substance trailing after it. There was no visible wound he could spy that explained why the creature was leaving blood behind in its tracks. Maybe it didn’t belong to the creature. Maybe it had hurt someone else. Something else.

When the beast grunted angrily, Chase shut his eyes tight. He remained still, shoulders hunched and ready for the beast to finally pounce on him. 

But no attack came. 

Only the sounds of the stag’s heavy breaths touched Chase’s ears. He opened his eyes, blinking rapidly. The creature paced in front of him, kicking at the ground near his twisted ankle. It ducked its head, tilting its antlers towards him. It was waiting for him, Chase realized. Offering to help him up. 

Chase weighed his options. He looked back towards the path the stag had come from. No longer able to spy his light home. Even if he could see the house, he wasn’t going to be able to make it there by himself with his bad ankle. He had no idea where the rest of the pack had run off too. Hopefully they were inside and safely tucked away, cozy in their beds. Chase was alone, didn’t have much of a choice really...

With a low groan, he reached for the creature, trying to be gentle as possible as he hoisted himself up. It raised him easily, like he weighed nothing. The beast was significantly taller than his short frame. 

Once he was standing upright and leaning most of his weight on the stag’s side, it grunted softly, shaking its head and sighing like a cross mother. It walked at a snail’s pace, allowing Chase to get used to hopping to move forward with its help. It made for an odd picture he could easily imagine.

Now that Chase was closer, the sickeningly-sweet iron smell was gone. He still couldn’t find any cut or injury that explained the blood from before. He added it to the growing list of questions that were swirling through his head. He was also no longer cold, Chase noted. The soft, velvet-like fur of the stag was warm at every point of contact. Except for the pain of his swollen ankle, (though that too seemed to fade as they trekked carefully through the trees), he felt oddly at peace. The fear and shock no more than a distant memory. 

Together, they continued through the forest. He lost track of time as he hobbled along with his helper. Chase wasn’t sure where they were going, but he held on tight, trusting his companion to lead them where they needed to go. The familiar sounds of the nocturnal creatures that guarded the woods deafened to a quiet hum. He couldn’t help whispering inconsequential nonsense to the stag, treating it as if it was another stray. He only received soft grunts in response. 

Sooner than he thought possible, he heard the sounds of the river that cut well beyond his acre of land. That must mean they were approaching the train tracks, had crossed over state lines. They were going far, much further than he had hoped. 

But the creature showed no signs of slowing down. Rather, it picked up speed. Chase huffed and struggled to maintain his grip. There was a franticness to the stag’s steps that started to alarm him. 

“Easy, please,” he called gently, nerves stacking back up. “I can’t go that fast!”

The beast let out a loud cry and froze. Chase nearly collapsed on top of it. Wheezing as a cramp in his side made itself known. Fuck. It felt like he had been walking for days.

He opened his mouth to ask if they could rest, but before he could take another breath, the world around him was illuminated with blinding bright light. Chase turned away, groaning at the harsh intrusion. He reached for the stag. Only cold air met his fingertips. 

Fear gripped his heart in a painful vice. What was happening? Chase stumbled around, balancing precariously. No, he wanted to shout. No! Something was wrong. He clawed for the creature, despair filling the empty void around him. He wasn’t safe anymore. Where was his friend? 

Sounds flooded his ears and he could hear a thundering engine coming toward him. 

With a fierce jolt, his head snapped up and Chase blinked rapidly. Consciousness crept up on him as he fought the strain of his lingering dream. He had been sleepwalking again. 

A blaring whistle stabbed his eardrums. The train. With a swift glance, Chase realized he was standing in the middle of the train tracks. The light that illuminated his path was crawling closer, headed straight toward him. Oh fuck...Oh fuck!

Chase tried to run, realizing the frightening situation he was in. He took one step and then crashed forward, writhing in pain from his abused ankle. He tried to pull himself up. Could only grunt and watch with terrified eyes as the train came, racing fast in his direction. The shrill whistle a horrible reminder that he was very much in danger. 

Miraculously, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the stag. It was below him, at the edge of the paved road that crossed below the hill of tracks he lay on. The creature planted its hooves into the ground, shaking his head wildly. Chase dared to close his eyes, not sure if he was still caught in the middle of his nightmare. When he opened them again. The stag was still there. Huffing and bellowing frantically as it thrashed around. 

With a rush of desperate energy, Chase dragged and threw himself over the side of the tracks. Rolling down the hill to safe ground, just in the nick of time. His chest heaved as he watched the train far above him chug on. The shriek of its whistle blasted inside his head. A second later and he could- would have been killed. 

His heart pounded painfully and he wasn’t sure if he should cry, shout, or vomit. He might have to do all three once he remembered how to breathe right. Chase curled into a fetal position, willing the world to stop, just for a few moments. 

A familiar grunt greeted him. He saw the stag, standing in the middle of the road. It just stood there, watching him. It couldn’t be real. It couldn’t. 

Chase pinched himself, hard. Cursed loud at the new bruise that was sure to blossom. He struggled to remember the last real moment before he must have fallen asleep. It was all hazy. He could only recall feeding the dogs some treats around 8 pm. He looked down at his watch. It was almost 3 am. He had been sleepwalking for hours. 

The stag made more noise and Chase pulled himself to his hands and knees. He stared back at the beast, not caring if it was actually there or not. The road it stood in was very real, that he knew. And that meant safety. Or at least, his closest chance for it. 

Chase made his way to the deserted pavement, pulling himself upright with the help of a street sign. He groaned and leaned heavily against the back of the post, ignoring the creature. The closed gas station down the road boded well, Chase grumbled to himself. It was dark, he couldn’t tell if it looked familiar. With a near growl, he forced himself to walk around and read the lit up street sign. 

He nearly fell over again in relief. A grin broke out on his face as he recognized the name.

Tempest Hallows  

He knew this area! It was home to his eccentric psychiatrist and on-call colleague at the FBI: Dr. Henrik von Schneeplestein.

A puff of laughter escaped Chase. The little region was practically a ghost town. A pitstop for folks traveling between states. Less than a hundred people lived in this part. He knew the way to the doc’s tucked away residence. Had been to the beautiful estate plenty of times, both as a patient and as a guest for dinner. It was only a short distance from the gas station. He could make his way there and ask the man for help. Beg for a loan of shoes and a ride home. 

Instead of waiting for the stag to make its next move, Chase headed towards the lane that would take him to Henrik’s place. It was a slow walk, and it hurt like a bitch as he took inventory of all his wounds. But he was ecstatic; the pain meant nothing compared to the feeling of relief that steadied his steps. Just a little further, he’d get there before dawn could ignite the sky. 

His teeth clattered a bit as he trudged onward, splashing through a muddy patch of earth. He could still hear the echoes of the creature behind him as he outpaced it. Leaving it to trail behind him as he crossed across the covered bridge that took him off the road and towards the grounds of Henrik’s home. Though they were far apart, Chase was convinced that the distance between them was intentional on the animal’s part. He sighed and let it be, perking up at the first signs of the familiar, immaculate architecture of the house that was never more beautiful than at that very moment. He barely resisted running.

As he approached, the porch light turned on, blinding him momentarily. Before he could knock, Chase looked back to see the stag watching him from a shadow of the bridge. He questioned if it was a figment of his imagination or another warden of the forest. He wasn’t sure which truth better suited his fragile grip on reality. He whispered a quiet thank you and turned away. 

With the last of his adrenaline-fueled strength, Chase pounded a heavy fist on the door, counting the seconds that were beating aloud. Or maybe that was his heart? He felt exhausted, could hardly make sense out of anything. 

Less than a minute later, he heard the locks come undone. The door opened to reveal the blessed sight of the too-tall German. Surprise flitted across the doctor’s face before it was schooled into its usual, authoritative expression. Henrik stepped out, peering down at Chase through his glasses, cautious curiosity lighting up his gray-blue eyes. 

A giggle escaped Chase before he could help himself. He didn’t know many people who could wear plum purple, matching silk pajamas and still look as good as Henrik did. He grinned at the sight of the man’s initials embroidered over the pocket on his chest. The sight of it had no right to be as cute as it did. His fingers twitched to trace the curly script. Gods, he was going hysterical. 

Henrik hummed, looming closer. “Chase.”

“Morning, doc,” Chase piped out, trying to shake off the haze as his brain started to feel fuzzy. His eyelids drooped and he sagged against the doorframe to keep himself upright. “Hope you don’t mind me stopping by for a house call. Was in the neighborhood.” He tried to make a flippant gesture, only succeeded in nearly toppling over. “Whoa…”

“Whoa indeed,” Henrik mused, reaching his hands out to rest on Chase’s bare shoulders, steadying him. His touch burned in a comforting heat and Chase fought a shiver. “You have been walking for quite some time I think,” he stated, looking over Chase’s shabby appearance with a raised brow. 

“Long story,” Chase replied, scrunching his mud-plastered toes. “Could I borrow a jacket and some cash for a cab? I’ll explain later, I’d really like to go home.”

Henrik’s grip tightened. “Absolutely not.” 

Before Chase could even think about begging, the doc was suddenly much closer than he had been moments ago. The man’s hand drifted behind his back as he began crouching to try and lift him up. 

“Wait, wait-no!” Chase cried out, hand fisting Henrik’s shirt to hold him in place. “I don’t want to be a bother. I’ll be fine!” He could tell Henrik wasn’t all convinced. To be honest, Chase wasn’t fooling himself either. “I know it looks bad, but-”

“Chase.” 

The sound of his name was a mixture of gentle command and offer. Henrik caught his chin between his fingers, forcing Chase to look at him. There was no pity in the man’s eyes, only earnest care and concern. And just like that, Chase didn’t have it in him to put up a fight. Henrik smiled encouragingly at him. 

With pink cheeks and a nod of consent, Chase placed his arms around the man’s shoulders. Henrik bent down and carefully scooped him up into his arms. The doc’s hold was firm across his back and under his knees, holding him close against his chest. Henrik carried him into the house, closing the door behind them with a nudge of his foot. He led them upstairs, where Chase knew the guest suite was located.

Chase bit his lip as he locked his fingers securely behind the man’s neck, brushing a thumb against the collar of Henrik’s shirt. He kept his gaze averted, thoughts a jumbled mess. He had grossly underestimated how strong his psychiatrist was. He wasn’t sure what other surprises he could possibly expect next. 

He all but buried his face into the crook of Henrik’s neck. Lulled into a comforting trance by the soft sway of being carried; of being protected. He was grateful for the silence that accompanied them. Henrik asked no questions from him, only readily offered Chase his assistance and shelter when he greeted him at the door. He could tell the man had a multitude of inquiries behind his spectacled eyes, but he was waiting for Chase to broach the subject first. Chase couldn't begin to imagine how to explain to Henrik about how he had woken up from his unconscious stroll, miles away from home. Let alone the mysterious stag. This was the first time his sleepwalking problem had put him into immediate danger. 

Chase sighed to himself as Henrik placed him down on the edge of a tub. He waited until Chase had a firm grip before he let go. The opulent bathroom was just as luxurious as the rest of the house. The only hint of grime were the souvenirs of dirt and twigs Chase brought in with him. He was sullying the doc’s home with his presence. 

Through prickling eyes, he watched as Henrik turned the tap on and made a noise of satisfaction when he checked the temperature. The man pulled out towels from a cabinet, along with an array of miniature bottles of what Chase assumed were soap. Chase picked at the cuts that covered the palms of his hands. They were caked with blood and soil. 

He felt tainted, even more so when he spotted traces of filth smudging Henrik’s shirt as the man knelt in front of him. The doc tugged on his hands gently, turning them over to inspect the wounds. He remained still, not letting out a hint of being in pain when Henrik moved his attention down to his ankle.

Was this a mirror to how Chase looked when he rescued a stray? 

“I will gather the supplies needed to attend to your injuries and wait outside the door until you are ready,” Henrik said evenly, turning off the tap when the tub was full. “Do you need help getting undressed?”

Chase looked down, clearing his stiff throat and shaking his head. “It’s alright, doc. I don’t think our therapy sessions included you having to bathe cripples.”

It startled him when Henrik cupped his face, fingers splayed over his cheeks. Chase avoided his gaze despite how close they were. Sure now that the man’s generosity was coming to an end because of Chase’s misplaced pride.

“You have not been rendered lame, Chase,” Henrik rebuffed with a calm sternness. “You are here as my friend, not a patient.” Chase sniffled when the doc paused. “A wise man showed me that friends take care of each other,” Henrik offered kindly.

With a choked sob, the tears Chase had been holding back fell freely, comforted by the sincere scolding. He remembered that day months ago when he called on a flu-stricken Henrik, carrying a batch of homemade soup. The doc had been so touched by the simple gesture that just the memory of it made Chase smile.  

“It’s just soup, not a cure,” Chase joked, amused by the man’s total surprise at being given the large Tupperware. “Haven’t you had friends bring you things before, when you weren’t feeling well?”

“No, actually,” Henrik replied, pushing up his glasses. “My colleagues have always preferred to keep their work and personal lives separate.” 

That didn’t settle right to Chase. He knew what it was like to not be accepted by one’s peers. He felt sad that even someone as charming and refined as Henrik was seemingly just as alone as himself. 

“Well, then,” he began with a shrug. “As an unofficial FBI consultant and not yet my physiatrist since you had to cancel today, that just leaves us as friends,” he said, pushing the container further into the man’s hands. “And friends try to take help each other when they’re not feeling great. Looks like you’re stuck with me.”

The amused expression that graced Henrik's face assured Chase that the doc didn't seem at all upset by the prospect. 

When Chase glanced back up at Henrik, the man greeted him with his trademark, all-knowing smile. Smugness looked good on him.

“Who knew a pot of chicken noodle could leave such an impression,” Chase muttered under his breath. 

“It was an excellent soup,” the doc insisted, brushing away tracks of tears with the pads of his thumbs.

Chase snorted. He listened with an indulgent smirk as Henrik rattled off the nutritional benefits of each ingredient. Knew the doc was trying (and succeeding) to distract him.

“I’ll be sure to write a letter to the can company that made it,” Chase interrupted, holding back a grin.

Even though Henrik knew he was joking, the man’s affronted expression at the idea of canned soup was priceless to behold. Chase let out an incredulous laugh. It warmed him to see Henrik fighting back a chuckle of his own. The man didn’t laugh enough, Chase thought to himself.

“Thank you, Henrik,” Chase said instead, leaning further into the man’s grasp. “Really. I’m sorry I had to wake you up in the middle of the night and bug you for help.”

“It is no trouble at all, Chase,” Henrik said, squeezing lightly. “Not for you,” he added with a quirk of his lips.

Chase smiled back, cheeks flushing once more. 

Soon after, Henrik left to find bandages and Chase tried to relax in the hot, soothing water. Ready to wash away the remnants of his adventurous trek through the forest. Chase had been lucky the stag had brought him into Henrik’s path. 

He flexed his fingers, almost remembering the feeling of soft, thick fur beneath his hands. If it wasn’t for the train, he wondered where the creature would have taken him. He still questioned what part of the dream had been real. 

Was the creature still out there, waiting for him? 

With a weary sigh, Chase slipped under the water, too exhausted to think about it anymore. He guessed he’d have to wait and see the next time he fell asleep. For now, he was going to bask in the feeling of safety at being in Henrik’s home. There was no monster around the corner to be afraid of. Just a friend, helping out another friend in need.