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I Could Find My Way Back

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(Lucia dreams of the stars, darkness, an open valley embraced by mountains with white moonlight liming the peaks. Harsh breath, crunching snow, a heartbeat. A heartbeat. Two heartbeats, out of time, one fast from running and the other slow with sleep, both loud in her ears.

A heartbeat, a sense of direction, the moon sparkling off the fresh snow caught in the pine trees. Two heartbeats, and she feels her pulse accelerate, trying to keep up with the race through the night, and a log cracks in the fireplace, startling her awake.)

--

It was afternoon and bitterly, damply cold, the snow falling in wet clumps, sticking to Lucia's arms as she split log after log. She stopped for a moment, fumbling to unzip the tight collar of her parka, wiping at the itchy sweat on her forehead, under her wool hat. The parka was someone else's standard-issue Park Service coat, retrieved from the backseat of her truck when she realized she wouldn't be making it back down the mountain in the sudden blizzard.

If she ever told this story, she would say she was following a sound when she put the axe down and started walking east, but in truth she couldn't hear anything until she was already into the trees. There was some other reason Lucia walked away from the cabin, some irresistible feeling tugging her into the woods and leading her to the sad whimpering of an animal in distress. A dog? she thought, and then remembered. Wolves.

Lucia stopped short, thinking of the lectures from the wildlife biologists, about never approaching a wild animal, especially not an injured one. Another pathetic whine came from the trees, and she furrowed her brow. "Fine," she said, her breath a cloud in the cold air. "Fine, but it's probably nothing," she muttered, tromping through the snow, her boots sinking through the ankle-deep fresh snow. "Or it's a bear cub, and you're going to get eaten by its mama, stupid."

The noise was coming from a tree well, a six-foot-deep pocket around a tall tree where the snow hadn't filled in with steep and unforgiving sides. Bright eyes stared up at her: a wolf, dusky brown and gray, tracking her as she paced gingerly around the edge. There were furrows in the snow walls where the wolf had tried to climb out, red streaks near the sharper stones sticking out of the sides.

"What do you want from me?" Lucia asked, crouching down. "I don't think I could climb out of there either." Still watching her, the wolf sat down, panting hot breath into the cold air, tongue lolling. She saw a glimmer of something - a silver tag on a cord around its neck. "Do you belong to someone?" she asked. The wolf grumbled and laid down, head on its paws, and looked up at her. She felt overwhelmingly sad thinking of leaving the wolf here, trapped and buried in the cold snow.

She pushed herself up and the wolf jumped to its feet, barking. "I'll be back," Lucia said, thinking about the pile of gear the search and rescue rangers kept in the cabin.

--

It took her nearly until nightfall to rig a Z-pulley on a nearby tree. "Don't eat me," she said, throwing end of the rope into the tree well. The wolf scrambled away and sat in the corner, watching curiously as she half-climbed, half-slid down the rope. "Okay," she said, as her feet hit the ground. It was darker in the well, and the wolf's eyes reflected the light strangely. "I really hope you don't eat me," she said, and took a tarp from her backpack. "Nice wolf. Good wolf. You had to be pretty tame for someone to put that collar on you, right? So you're probably not going to eat me."

The wolf took a cautious step forward, sniffing the air as she spread out the tarp. "Here's the plan: you're going to get on this tarp, and I'm going to wrap you up and pull you out. Like the whale in Free Willy." She exhaled shakily. "Come here, nice wolf," she said, and the wolf obliged, stepping onto the tarp. "Okay. Don't bite me." She grabbed the sides of the tarp and pulled them up, causing the wolf to yelp, startled, and stagger just enough off-balance for her to get it on its side. The wolf thrashed for a moment before settling down, looking discontent but holding still.

"Good, you're doing good," Lucia said, mostly to herself, using some webbing to secure the tarp around the wolf. It looked ridiculous, a wolf-burrito, with the blue tarp around its middle and legs sticking awkwardly out. "I hope this works," she said, and then, "Sorry," as she dragged the wolf the few feet over to the rope. She clipped the wolf-burrito to the carabineers on the rope and then scrambled up the rope, kicking snow down into the well.

"Here goes nothing," she said, hauling on the rope. There was a distressed yelp from the well, but she felt the weight moving on the other end of the line. Using the pulley was easier than trying to pull a hundred pounds of wolf straight up, but it was still slow going, one huge heave at a time. She was out of breath halfway, and by the time she could see the top of the tarp, she was exhausted. She gave a final pull, and the wolf managed to scramble out of the hole and then collapse in the snow. Lucia leaned against a tree, arms and back aching. The wolf struggled against the tarp, biting at the straps. "Chill," she said sharply, and the wolf froze and looked at her.

She walked over, reaching out slowly towards the wolf. On impulse, she pulled one glove off and offered her hand to sniff. "Hey, buddy," she said. The wolf butted its cold, wet nose against her palm. "All right, let's get you untangled," she said, and started untangling the straps and unwinding the tarp. The wolf quickly wriggled free and bounded away, jumping through the snow, rolling around, racing in circles. Lucia watched for a moment, smiling, and then kept packing up.

--

The wolf followed her back to the cabin, occasionally running off but returning every time, panting and happy, muzzle covered in snow, vanishing again to leap joyfully after birds too high to reach. Lucia stopped on the cabin's little porch, stomping the snow off her boots and watching the wolf sniff interestedly at the stump where she had split the logs. The sky was quickly darkening, and the wind was picking up, blowing clouds of loose snow that stung her cheeks. Lucia set her bag inside the cabin and came back to split the last few logs. The wolf dug a little burrow in the snow and turned in a circle before settling down with its paws underneath it and tail tucked over its nose. Lucia hummed herself as she chopped, losing the melody a few times when she ran out of breath.

"Time to build a fire," she said to the wolf. She picked up an armful of split logs and carried them inside. She came back to the wolf standing beside the woodpile wagging its tail, and it followed her back and forth between cabin and woodpile, pacing beside her on her third trip, her fourth. "You can't come in," Lucia said, the wolf standing expectantly at the threshold as she closed the door. "You're a wild thing. You belong outside."

--

(The letter is in Lucia's pack, and she rolls over and pulls it out. She has it practically memorized, but she wants to look at Kit's spiky, slanted handwriting. Same place, it says. Same time. I'll try not to make you pull a Lassie and haul me out of a well this time. See you soon.

Lucia breathes out slowly and lies back, untwisting her sleeping bag and setting the letter under her pillow, where she can keep one hand on it as she falls back to sleep.)

--

Not long after Lucia managed to get a good fire burning, the wind started to shake the windows of the old cabin, rattling gusts punctuating the constant low whistling through the valley. She pulled her feet up on the battered sofa in front of the fireplace and wrapped both hands around the camp mug full of tea. An uneasy feeling was creeping through her, a sensation that she couldn't get warm, that she had forgotten something.

The storm quieted long enough for her to make out a soft scratching at the door. "You can't come in," she said, half-heartedly. "You're a wolf. Don't tell me you can't put up with a little snow."

Scratching, again.

Although, some rationalizing part of her thought, it was a tame wolf, or maybe just a big dog - but she had never seen a dog with a coat that thick, or a muzzle that long - no, it was almost certainly a wolf. But it had that string around its neck, and it hadn't minded her touching it - a real wild animal would never have tolerated being wrapped in a tarp and hauled out of a hole.

Lucia sighed and set her tea on the floor. "All right," she said, "stop scratching, I'll let you in."

The wolf was sitting on the porch, bright strange green eyes staring up at her. The wolf tilted its head down, and then - a woman was there instead. Lucia inhaled sharply and stepped back, clutching the door. The woman had unruly blonde hair, cropped short, and she shook it out of her face as she unfolded from her crouch and stood. She was a little shorter than Lucia, and looked up at her, smiling and showing her straight, white teeth, stark in the moonlight. She was naked except for the leather cord around her neck, the silver charm now resting on her sternum. Lucia looked up quickly, cheeks heating.

"Hi," the woman said, and wrapped her arms around her ribs. "It's cold out here."

"Did you -" Lucia started, and trailed off, unsure where to begin.

"It'll be easier to explain inside," she said, still smiling, and slipped past Lucia into the cabin. Lucia shut the door slowly, never taking her eyes off the woman, staring at the smooth skin of the woman's shoulders, the dip at the small of her back, the flex of the muscles in her ass and thighs. The woman casually grabbed the folded blanket from the back of the sofa, wrapping it around her shoulders and turning to Lucia. Lucia slowly returned to her spot on the sofa, picking up her tea and clinging to it.

"Thanks," the woman said, sitting down at the other end of the sofa. "For - pulling me out of there."

"Are you a wolf?" Lucia blurted.

"Sometimes," the woman said. She had freckles over the bridge of her nose, and they reminded Lucia of the brown pattern on the wolf's coat. "Sometimes I'm me. My name's Kit."

"Lucia," Lucia said. The blanket only came down to Kit's thighs, leaving her knees bare. She crossed her ankles daintily and Lucia jerked her gaze upwards. "Do you live...here?" Lucia asked. "In the park?"

Kit laughed. "No, I'm on vacation. Just another stupid tourist getting into trouble," she said, with an easy grin. "I bet you deal with that a lot."

"Not so much," Lucia said, still trying to recover from - everything. "I'm a soil biologist. I don't do much work with the park visitors."

"Oh, cool," Kit said. "Hey, do you have anything to eat?"

"I could make some noodles," Lucia said.

Lucia almost laughed at Kit's hopeful expression, like - well, like a puppy waiting for a biscuit.

--

"You're taking this pretty well," Kit remarked, as Lucia put a big pot of fresh snow on the hook over the fire. "Usually there's some screaming or accusations of witchcraft."

Lucia shrugged, sitting on the floor and digging through her pack for the noodles. "My grandmother always said she could talk to birds."

"What, really? That's awesome," Kit said.

"She thought so. She used to tell me what they were saying. My mother never believed it. She used to get mad at my grandmother for telling me stories. But my grandmother said it just skips a generation."

"What skips a generation?"

"The - magic, I guess," she said, fidgeting with her pack before chancing a glance up at Kit.

Kit tilted her head thoughtfully. "I could hear your heartbeat," Kit said. "Before you came to help me. I could hear you. I knew you were out there and you would come."

"I could - I had this feeling, that someone was out there. I didn't know why I had to go over there, but I knew I did," Lucia said.

"I'm glad," Kit said quietly.

Lucia smiled. "Me too."

--

Kit joined her on the floor by the fire, and they ate instant noodles straight from the pot with ancient tin sporks Lucia found in the cupboard. They sat there for hours, talking until Lucia's voice felt worn out. Kit told her about growing up in the city, spending weekends at her aunt's farm, running through the fields and wrestling with her cousins, about wanting to stay outside forever but always having to go back. Lucia talked about her family, about how hard it was to be so far away from them, but it was worth it to be out here, to have the whole park and her lab and go outside almost every day.

"Dirt, huh," Kit said, thoughtfully.

"It's not just dirt," Lucia said. "There are all kinds of soil bacteria - it's the foundation of the entire ecosystem."

Kit smiled wryly. "I want to find the thing that I'm as interested in as you are in dirt."

"I hope you do," Lucia said sincerely. "There's dirt out there for everyone, that's what my mother always said." She felt punch-drunk, giggly. Kit gave her a skeptical look and they both burst out laughing.

--

"It's late," Kit said, yawning, when the snow on the windowsill had formed a respectable drift. The wind had slowed to a gentle swish through the trees, but the snow was still coming down. "Tomorrow's the new moon. I won't be able to - go back unless I go now."

"Why?" Lucia asked, curious.

"I can only change in the moonlight. That's just how it works. If I don't change back now, I'll be like this until the moon comes back," she said, looking intently at Lucia.

"The road won't be passable for days," Lucia said, slowly. "I won't be going anywhere. You can stay, if you want."

Kit smiled, just a small sliver. "Cool," she said. "Yeah. I'd like that." She slid a little closer to Lucia and tentatively put her head down on Lucia's shoulder.

Lucia put her arm around Kit, biting her lip to contain the smile suddenly breaking across her face. "We should go to sleep," she said. "You can choose if you want the cot or the sofa."

Kit yawned sleepily and slouched over onto Lucia's lap. "I'm comfortable here. It's warm. We can just bring the blankets down here."

"Okay," Lucia said, willing to be convinced. "Do you want, um. Something to sleep in?"

Kit blinked up at her slowly. "Oh, right. Clothes." She smiled, a little sheepishly. "Does it bother you?"

"It definitely does not bother me," Lucia said, and gently poked at Kit's shoulder. "But you have to let me up to get blankets."

The cabin had a camp cot in the corner, and Lucia tossed its one little pillow to Kit, along with a few old quilts and two sleeping bags - one sleek and new, the other a flat bedroll with a flannel lining. Kit pulled the cushions off the sofa and layered everything into a respectable bed, settling in while Lucia checked the windows and stirred the coals before putting another log on the fire.

Lucia hadn't realized how tired she was until she laid down. "This is nice," she said, eyes closed, already feeling sleep creeping into the edges of her consciousness. Kit rustled a little closer, pressing her forehead against Lucia's shoulder, and then Lucia was asleep.

--

It was still dark when Lucia wakes up, opening her eyes to find Kit staring back at her. "Hi," Lucia whispered.

"Hi," Kit said, leaning forward, her slender fingers on Lucia's cheek. The dying fire cast dark shadows around Kit’s eyes, her collarbones, and Lucia overwhelmingly wanted to put her mouth in the shadowed hollow of Kit's throat.

The kiss started soft, open, and Lucia pulled Kit in, one arm around her back, one hand in her hair. Kit arched into her, the warm, solid press of her body making Lucia sigh into Kit's mouth. Kit pushed the hem of Lucia's Henley up, biting a little at her lower lip, and Lucia returned the scrape of teeth. "Hang on," she said, disentangling enough to pull her shirt and sports bra over her head.

"Fuck, you're gorgeous," Kit said honestly, as Lucia settled back into the nest of blankets. Kit leaned in and kissed her a little sloppily, trailing off to suck a wet bite on the side of Lucia's neck. "Can I - touch you?" Kit asked, and Lucia took Kit's hands and guided them to her tits, squeezing a little, not too hard, the way she preferred.

"What do you like?" Lucia asked, stroking Kit's side, over her ribs and down the dip of her waist, up to the soft rise of her hip, and back.

"I don't really - I haven't done this a lot," Kit said, eyelashes fluttering when Lucia trailed her fingers lightly over one pink nipple.

"That's okay," Lucia said. "Tell me if you don't like something." She bit gently at the top of Kit's high, small breast, cupping it in her hand.

"I like that," Kit said, a little dreamily, and then, "oh, that's -" breaking off in a sharp inhale when Lucia set her thumb on Kit's clit and rubbed.

"Good?" Lucia asked, grinning.

"Yeah," Kit said, leaning in to kiss Lucia again, rocking her hips against Lucia's hand, spreading her legs. Lucia stroked Kit's clit between two fingers, slid her hand further down and teased Kit's wet cunt. Kit moaned and grabbed Lucia's hand, guiding a finger inside. "Fuck, yes," Kit said, flushed from her cheeks down to her chest. Lucia added another finger and fucked her steadily, thumb brushing her clit. Lucia caught Kit's nipple in her mouth, licked it and nipped, and Kit tensed all over, clenching around Lucia's fingers, sighing a long, shuddery breath.

Lucia pulled her hand away gently and rested it on Kit's hip. She was almost unbearably turned on, and she kicked off her sleep pants and put her hand on her clit, rubbing in small, hard circles.

Kit blinked her eyes open and reached out, rolling them until she was on top of Lucia. "I really want to eat you out," she said.

Lucia nodded, and Kit leaned down, biting a spot at the base of Lucia's neck until she gasped, and then licking over the spot. She moved down, biting and liking on her breasts, down the soft rounds of her belly, on the outside of her hips and the insides of her thighs, sharp, stinging points of bright pain, then the soothing heat of Kit's mouth.

Kit sucked on her clit, used the tip of her tongue, spread Lucia open with two fingers to lick with the flat of her tongue. She was enthusiastic, humming happily when Lucia sank her fingers into Kit's hair. "Yeah, that's perfect," Lucia said, as Kit found a good rhythm. "Fuck, fuck," she gasped, drawing one knee up and rolling her hips, feeling her orgasm just out of reach. Lucia licked her fingers and rolled her nipples between them, squeezing her tits, finally coming with a moan. She tugged Kit up and kissed her, and Kit settled down on top of her, tucking her head under Lucia's chin.

Outside, the sky was glowing orange and pink, a clear day.

--

"You could come with me," Kit whispered the next night, one arm and one leg thrown over Lucia, carding her fingers through Lucia's hair. Lucia shivered all over from the soft rush of Kit's breath against her ear. "You could run with me."

The feeling rose in Lucia like a tide, pulled by some inexorable gravity, yes yes yes. "I can't," she said after a pause, swallowing down the salt taste of longing.

"Shh," Kit said, and squeezed her hard. "It's okay. Not yet."

"We have to leave tomorrow," Lucia said. "What if we don't -" Lucia stops and tries again. "You're going home, and I'll be here, and we -"

"I'll write you a letter," Kit said. "It'll work out. You'll see."

--

The waxing moon was barely a sliver, almost entirely washed out by the bright band of the Milky Way. Somewhere in the valley, wolves howled a long, eerie song. Kit stood next to her on the porch, wrapped in a blanket like she was the first night. Lucia thought that it seemed like weeks ago, instead of days. Kit lifted her head, inhaling deeply through her nose, listening. "It's my friends," she said.

Lucia nodded. Kit turned to her, green eyes shining in the moonlight, pupils wide from the dark. Lucia thought about the first time she saw Kit's eyes, looking out from the darkness, and grabbed Kit, tangling her fingers in Kit's unruly hair and kissing her, fierce and hard. Kit clung to her with one hand, the other still holding the quilt around her shoulders.

"I'll miss you," Lucia said, feeling it torn out of her, raw.

Kit rested her forehead against Lucia's for a moment and shivered in the cold. "I miss you already," she said.

The wolves howled again, unearthly and high, mournful, a question. "They're probably worried," Lucia said, but didn't let go.

"Yeah," Kit said, drawing away, slipping the blanket from her shoulders. She handed it to Lucia. "Write me a letter," she said, and smiled, her eyes wet and shimmering.

"I will write you so many letters," Lucia said, holding the quilt to her chest. "Go on. Get out of here."

Kit stepped down off the porch, and then she sprinted away, a wolf running into the woods, vanishing into the glittering dust of loose snow blowing across of valley. Lucia stayed on the porch until she heard one wolf howling, sadness and longing, a promise, and then it was silent. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and went inside to stoke the fire.

--

(The first letter comes in January. Dear Lucia, it says. I think about you every day. I am back at UC Davis now. Not much to say, it claims, but then there's a page of amusing stories: her grumpy roommate who won't stop watching C-Span even at 2am, and how she couldn't play Hackensack because she just wanted to chase the ball - it's embarrassing. I played soccer for years, no problem, and but Hackensack? Can't do it.

Tell me how the dirt is. I miss you.)

--

(Dear Kit, Lucia writes back. I saw the Lamar wolf pack out in the valley. I was with some of the wildlife biologists and they offered to take me up in the helicopter to see the wolves. It wasn't the same, since I didn't have to rescue anyone from a ravine.

Lucia looks forward to her weekly trips to the ranger station, where old Betty behind the desk will straighten her glasses and say, "Torres, mail for you."

Kit sends a few novelty postcards that say things like "You're a DEER friend," with a picture of a trophy buck mounted on a wall.

I hope this means you're not going to eat me, Lucia writes back.

I try to stick to bunnies, Kit writes back.

Lucia sends back pressed leaves, pictures of the lab, a photo of her sunburned across her nose and grinning, holding up a sample bag of soil. DIRT FOREVER, she writes on the back.)

--

(Lucia begs Warming Hut #32-Valley for a few days. "I like it out there. It's peaceful," she says. "I get a lot done." Old Betty gives her a suspicious look but puts the note up saying that Wolf Run Cabin will be occupied by a soil ecology experiment trip until Tuesday.

Lucia packs her backpack, throws in some instant noodles for old time's sake, and takes her truck up to the trailhead. The snow's deep this year, so she snowshoes out to the cabin.

She starts chopping wood for the fire, and then goes inside to wait.)

--

(The dream is of her lover coming back to her, running over the mountains, coming from the other side of the valley, following the sound of her heartbeat. And when she wakes up and goes to stand on the porch, a familiar old quilt folded over her arm, she can hear the wolves in the distance, howling, singing a song to her.)