Starling Hills At My Worst, You’re Still Better Than My Best
After everyone had eventually departed and the last were sent on their way with reassurances they had it covered, Natalie stayed behind to start cleaning up. There was trash to put out and decorations to take down and all the while she felt that shame and embarrassment gripping tight, skin prickling with anxiety. The wolf was very aware of the other and she was tired of getting feedback at every move. Dakila was putting away food. Dakila was walking into the kitchen. Dakila was — it didn’t matter. Stop. Stop with the hypervigilance.

Grabbing a stack of cups, she threw them into the full trash bag at her knee before cinching it up, tying the plastic into a knot.

Things were okay, right?

Natalie sighed, not sure if she should bring up things. If she did, how? There was a want to apologize. A really big one. As much as she rolled it around and around, it didn’t feel much like a compulsion, but something that really did need to be said.

Leaning the bag against the table’s leg, Natalie spoke up.

”Hey Dakila?”
It probably went without being said that he was tired. It had been a big day that he had had to watch coming over the last few. Work weighed on his mind as much as the pack. Tiffer's departure was in and of itself not easy. Losing one person firmly in his corner in spite of their differences had been difficult to take.

But the meeting had gone as well as it could have, he'd decided. He'd never expected accolades from the wolves, nor did he think he really deserved them. His job could help them all, and that was forever the goal, but it was always going to be a liability in turn. The fact that no one seemed to hate him was... well, better than the last time.

It had gone so well, in fact, that he hadn't even offered to step down as King like he'd considered more than once. It was a weak response to an unsettling situation, anyway; if they really had good reason to want him out, they'd make it happen without him offering up his neck.

With a lot on his mind, he'd sent everyone off, including Bedelia who had wanted to be helpful. He... knew he needed a little bit of time with his Second. Make up for the fact that he hadn't warned her foremost. He'd just... well, it was hard to explain, even to himself, but it had felt like a lot to sit her down beforehand and insist she hear the hard news all on her own. A thin reason, and he couldn't have told you even now which way would have been better.

He was putting things in the dishwasher. One of many things on the list of things to do before he could even think to start recuperating. Natalie... he imagined they were on a similar page.

"Yeah?" He'd stop what he was doing, if undivided attention felt better.
She bit at her lip as the sounds of dishes being stacked in the racks were the background to Dakila’s voice finally carrying over. Taking a breath, Natalie took a look at what was left to do, but decided it could wait for a few minutes. Words were probably best while actually being in eyesight.

Moving towards where he was, she felt suddenly increasingly unsure. What if he didn’t even want to talk to her? She’d pushed back on his choice, her wolf had almost growled at him. He couldn’t exactly be happy with her.

Swallowing, she stopped across from him, trying to get words to actually be just that — words. ”I’m, um, earlier I… I’m really sorry.”
Her continued unease was evident to him. Not sharp and stabbing like panic, but the undercurrent that had caught more than a few of them this afternoon. But even so, he was surprised by what met him when she came in to meet him for whatever conversation was coming.

The apology. He wasn't going to pretend he didn't know what she had upset herself about. They'd had a very brief but tense moment where they had not been on the same wavelength. Her wolf, threatened by another unpleasant surprise, feeling stronger and more capable to handle it on her own. And Natalie? Well...

"Natalie..." He was sad that she even felt like she needed to do this. "Don't be, I need friends who are willing to speak their mind, show me what they're feeling. Even if it's not all rousing support and undying loyalty."

Not that he'd felt she'd been disloyal... but goodness, if he gave her reason to be, he hoped she would accept her own gut reaction.
Light chastisement came back at her and she didn’t understand at first, waiting which way to seesaw with more explanation. In the end, it was because he didn’t expect her to always agree, welcomed the differences being voiced, and really, it was everything she knew innately. That’s who her friend was, but the context had been so different and it had been so public. Logically she knew even so that it should have been okay, but it was harder to actually practice.

”Okay. I,” she started. Stopped. Started again. ”It just doesn’t feel okay the way it happened. It was surprising and I was and am worried, but I didn’t expect that kind of reaction from her, especially in front of everyone.”
He shook his head. Not denying her words, but feeling there was more complicated layering involved than just the fact that her wolf had perhaps tried to start something.

"I put you on the spot, and I'm sorry for that. When everyone gathered I... started to regret I hadn't told you on your own. If anyone deserved that much--." He left the rest implied, shrugging, too tired to pick his words as neatly as he'd have liked.

"She's just worried about the pack. And I gave her every reason to."
Dakila had, hadn’t he? It was surprising like she said and… and as someone that was supposed to be leading right by his side Natalie should have known beforehand, right? It was a thought that really surfaced at him drawing attention to it. Why hadn’t he?

The wolf had just been worried for sure. There was only aggression to the situation, not to him, something that felt certain down deep when given space to breathe and better understand.

”Why didn’t you,” she asked carefully.
It was the kind of question that he deserved to be put under. He knew that.

And he didn't want his answer to be a tepid brush off. Like... he hadn't thought about it, or he hadn't had time. Neither were exactly true, even if the notion had occurred to him late and his time truly was a precious commodity. He didn't want her to think it was a mere oversight, because it wasn't. The reason he highlighted his own failure here was because he was relying on her, like he'd said during the meeting itself, to be the one to call him out when he strayed.

Perhaps there was some truth of that in his answer, then. "I was worried you'd feel responsible for talking me out of it, if I brought it to you, alone."

That she'd feel some measure of need to spare the others even the thought.
The answer Dakila gave had her confused, not understanding where he was coming from. It was like the conversation had simply spun under them with her coming to him worried and now he was doing the same.

”I wouldn’t have done that,” she explained, the option laid out not feeling right. She would’ve had opinions, but it wasn’t really fair for her to end a conversation before it began when ultimately it was something the entire pack needed to voice in on. ”That’s something the pack has to figure out.”
"I know." Again, it was a big part of why it had been... the wrong move on his part, and why he hated her to think she needed to be sorry when it was really a cascade of happening from his own choices.

"I've just had a lot on my mind, and plenty to worry about. It's no excuse, it was just... Well, not fair to you, but you remember how things went the last time. With the other. Julian, Max..."

Even Emily, in the long run, for all he'd tried to do...

"I just got in my head. Focused on dealing with the pack as a whole."
He knew, but still had done it and, well, it started to make sense as the topic of Max and Julian was brought up. The last time Dakila had brang news related to his job a disproportional reaction had taken place, biting everyone in some way. She was grateful tonight had proven to be very different and the wolves they’d surrounded themselves with weren’t ones to drop everything for aggression and fear, but willing to pause, to actually communicate.

”That’s okay,” she landed on. It hadn’t been the right call, but his actions made sense. ”I understand… but, we’re a different pack than back then.” For the better. A swell of what she wanted going forward had her picking back up. It was maybe an old topic that they seemed to continue to circle on, but there was hope this time Dakila would open up even more and take it to heart. ”And I think, I’d really like it if you would talk to me more about stuff like this. I’m supposed to be helping you as a second and a friend, but-” She gave a grim smile, shrugging some. Natalie was here, but he had to be taking the steps to meet her.
He was nodding, agreeing with her entirely. Especially about them being a different pack. He was both aware and intensely grateful for that. If this same thing had come down the line with certain members still in their midst...

Well, he could only imagine how they'd feel, even not in the pack anymore, when they heard the inevitable news.

But that still wasn't excuses for his doubts now. He couldn't figure out why he couldn't quite shake them. His logic told him everything Natalie said to him, but he'd still let himself get spooked.

Another, final nod. "Still breaking... bad habits, I know. But for what it's worth... I really don't think I'll be able to do this without you. So I guess I better listen this time, huh?"

Sorry little smile. He'd progressed from the early early days, but not enough. He was still too inclined to take it all on himself when man nor wolf was actually capable of that.
Dakila recognized it and the acknowledgement was something that was good to hear, but he had to start doing better. How things were now wouldn’t cut it. He recognized that, too.

”Yeah, that’d be good.” Her own small smile met his with a nod.

She took a step towards Dakila, with the intent to wrap her arms around him. The wolf would move slowly closer before nosing at white fur, leaning in.
They probably both needed that, right now. He let her step into his space and hugged her, his own wolf... well, not especially bothered, even after earlier. They were on the same page with that: reaction had been expected, upset, and they were simply glad it was not worse. His was not a reign that had ever expected complete obedience or unwavering faith.

The white wolf sighed in a sense of relief, and Dakila held his friend, letting the weight of his exhaustion take him for just a moment.

"It's going to be rocky for a while, but I'm glad you're here."
Arms wrapped around her in return and she felt something settle into place as both sides sinked into the feeling. The last remnants of tension from the wolf ebbed away and it sloughed out of Natalie right alongside. Things would be okay; they were okay and would continue to be so so long as effort continued to be made, strides had.

Words rumbled and she squeezed just a bit tighter. ”I’m glad I can be. We’ll get through it.”
Eyes closed, he soaked in that feeling. Needed a little extra to shore up and bide against what was to come. At least now he had the pack handled and could move forward rather than sit and regard his hurdles.

"We will," he agreed, and when he released her and could look at her face again, he admitted, "This whole thing has me very tired." He'd been about five seconds from putting his head down on the counter while doing dishes.
Letting go and giving a half-step distance, she gave a concerned smile. He was tired either metaphorically, physically, or both. Probably, both. Natalie gave his arm a squeeze.

”You haven’t even started yet,” she said with some soft mirth. ”I can finish up here so you can lie down and take a breath if you want.”
He knew it was just the start. That was what made it crazy, really. But Dakila wasn't one to shy from a challenge, and getting over this particular hurdle--and the much more public one to come--would put him in a better position to find his new normal. And to try very hard to make sure it was one he could live in.

Tempted--instinctually, terribly--to insist he could keep working, that she didn't need to do this for him, he stopped himself just as he opened his mouth. Clear his throat, looked at his floor. The house wasn't too terrible, the wolves were all polite guests. There wasn't so much to do that it needed two people desperately.

"If you're sure," he said, unable to commit entirely to taking her up on her offer with great confidence. But he was trying.
Natalie wondered if he’d push back on it, insist there was a need to keep on going even though exhaustion was already weighing him down. Being kind with oneself seemed to be a missing trait in Dakila when it came to certain things as had been settled. Surprisingly, he seemed to cut himself off, reassess.

An out was given and she smiled.

”I’m sure. Go get ready for bed. I know where everything goes.”
His life was not one where many people got to treat him like that. But he'd let Natalie in a long time ago, and he'd given her authority as well for a reason.

So he nodded, reached to squeeze her on the arm in silent thanks, then blanked his mind of all his sideways thoughts on the matter. No, don't think about it. Just go and get ready for bed, listen to your friend.

And he'd do that. Into the privacy of his room for a moment. Brush teeth, wash face, put on some clothing meant for rest. He did not rush himself through it, refused to think that he could do it quickly and then go help. He let Natalie have her time to serve him as she insisted, and reminded himself he was not needed. Not in this. Not tonight.

Eventually, though... he did come back out, looking soft and probably rather sleepy, but not about to let her sneak out without a real goodbye at least.
She offered a nod with a grin at the squeeze, watching him go with some relief. Maybe, he’d actually get some good rest for once.

Putting her mind to the tasks at hand, Natalie moved through the kitchen to finish the rest of the dishes, setting the machine to wash once full. Trash was taken out, interior decorations that’d been collected were put away into the garage or stacked by the door if they were going home with her, everything almost done all in all.

Setting bats upon the pile, the sound of a door opening and footsteps had her looking over to see Dakila coming back out, seemingly ready for bed, soft, and she was grateful to see it. ”I’m almost done. You should be in bed,” Natalie lightly chastised.
"And not say thanks to you?" he countered, closing the distance.

"I may be going easier on myself, but a good host at least sees his friends out." And besides, he needed one last hug. Reassurance for them both that no one had fucked anything up too royally today.
Oh! She let out a small laugh, opening arms to meet him in the embrace. Taking the opportunity, the timber moved in at a steady pace before leaning against the other’s frame, tail slowly wagging.

”If that ever changes I’ll know to be worried,” she responded fondly, offering a good squeeze.
A good hug, especially now that he was winding down. It hit a little different.

To think him and Natalie hadn't even been especially close until reality had forced them to know one another or fall apart entirely. The pack had always been her, and now here she was, making sure it was in the best hands possible. Natalie was downright integral.

"I'll try my best not to worry you anymore." He held her at arm's length a moment to really look at her after the hug, before letting her go. "You ready to head out? Need anything taken to the car?"
It was a nice promise and she gave a smile for it, hands holding his arms. ”I’ll hold you to it.” He’d do his best and that’s all anyone could ask.

”Yeah, I just need to load these up,” Natalie explained with a look to the small pile of tubs. ”Just a trip or two.”
"Well, if you'll allow me to help, I can see you out that way."

A good note to end on, he felt. She'd done so much for him today and would continue to do so, no doubt. But he was never going to just kick back and watch when the reasonable thing to do was help.

They were going to make this work, together. Everything from parties to difficult discussion, to the big moments where they stood in entirely too much spotlight.
”That would be great, thank you.” Natalie was hardly going to turn him down and even if she did, Dakila would probably do it anyway.

”Here if you can get these two,” she moved the ones in question towards him before picking up her own few, items shifting a tad inside making noise. Natalie would lead the way out and to her car, the task easily taken care of between the two of them, as with most things.
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