Starling Pond Maybe You Should Start With One


Meeting at a park in Starling Hills was a safety net and the amount of space made it harder for anyone to eavesdrop, the reasoning behind the choice made a lot of sense. Overall, it should help, but anxiety had her feeling it up in her throat as Natalie waited on a flowerbed’s stone wall near the entrance of the park. It wasn’t so much if things would go wrong that had her super worried, though there was definitely a place for that. No, it was simply Amber. Amber’s reaction, Amber’s words, everything, that was what flew through her head and made it hard to sit down and wait for said person to arrive. But, she was doing it, leg bouncing and all.

Checking her phone for the umpteenth time in the span of a few minutes, the unchanged screen taunted her. There was still a small twinge of wonder if Amber would cancel last minute, hopefully not. Natalie was just early and seriously needed to just breathe. Inhaling, she blew the breath out slowly as a chorus of ducks could be heard coming from the pond. If anything, hopefully Amber would at least let her say her piece and from there it fully depended on the other to lead the rest.

Let it be known that while picking out her outfit, Amber had first wanted to dress in all black. A mourning outfit for their friendship. As the clock ticked down, Amber was forced into a white tank with car keys in hand. As pleasantly petty arriving late would have been, Amber wasn't about to give Natalie an inch. She would be perfectly on time and perfectly apathetic.

The walk from the car was annoyingly short when she finally arrived at the park, giving Amber no time to adjust her game plan. The profile of Natalie came into view and she had to swallow back the instinct to call out. How terrible that her body wanted to immediately move faster and throw a hand up to wave. That wasn't them. Not anymore.

Instead, Amber put effort into her slow approach and gave a curt "Hello", once she knew Natalie could see her.
Familiarity in scent had her looking around for Amber before movement did, one of those weird things that really stood out in this moment. It made her cringe, shying away from the wolf a bit even though at this point such actions were as natural as breathing. Finding her, she gave a soft smile, making to stand as a hello was given. Based one everything setting the mood for the conversation, the tone in which Amber was approaching doubled down on it. Pushing ahead despite the clear signs of nothing about this was wanted, hands clasped together to wring against each other.

”Hi, thanks for agreeing to talk. I, um, I have a lot to say.” Natalie fell out of step on where to take the conversation next for a beat. She wished it could all just be dumped right now and then aired out and sifted through while Natalie left and didn’t have to watch as doors were either further shut or left open. The uncertainty was hard to deal with. ”Do want to get icecream first and we can walk with it?”
Natalie sure was chipper. She must be used to it, Amber thought bitterly. Pushing past the obvious tension as if it didn't exist had to come naturally now. It was Amber that broke under the weight and the same flare of white-hot anger licked its way up her throat.

"I see." There wasn't physical acid spewed from the words but she sure wished there had been. Hilarious how Natalie wanted to talk now. When it was already supposed to be too late. Her sandal shifted on the pavement as she stopped walking. Amber sighed. It was supposed to be too late. However, she had still come.

"Ice cream first." Amber decided. She might as well get something sweet out of this.
Something in her gut curled up at the response. Amber had never been like this, the tone felt wrong coming from her. It was territory Natalie didn’t want to traverse through, simply wishing for them to zoom ahead till everything was okay...ish. It would be, right?

Natalie nodded with a simple, ”Okay,” in agreement, heading towards the simple stand that sold all sorts of snack foods to the public. It was one of those weird moments where it was very clear that her own life was in a bubble all on its own, completely different from the general public at large. Everyone here seemed so happy, kids running and laughing, parents setting up picnics and chasing after toddlers, and here she was feeling like every single move or word was bound to cause some sort of eruption. Hopefully, that wouldn’t happen until she was able to say her piece.
Amber followed behind with arms crossed and tucked close to her body. This all felt so wrong. Worse than the library. She knew she was actively contributing to the tension, her short responses and tight-lipped demeanor were less than welcoming. But, she felt justified.

The menu was tacked onto the side of the stand and Amber searched for the most expensive treat she could find. It lay at the bottom a large sundae with all the fixings. Wordlessly, she pointed at it and offered the first smile of the whole interaction. It had too many teeth and the barest hint of her gum line. A fitting smile for the company she kept.
Natalie’s own pick was easy and so she waited patiently in expectation for Amber to offer out her own. No words, just a pointing finger towards a sundae with a smile that Natalie didn’t know how to interpret. An unsure one of her own followed and so Natalie moved attention to the worker, putting in Amber’s order and her own single small scoop of moose tracks. It was all going to feel like lead in her stomach anyways.

As they waited for the icecream to be made, she couldn’t help it. ”I think we’ve been to this park before.” Right? Hadn’t there been some duck festival some years ago?
Okay, now Amber felt like a pig for getting the massive ice cream. She definitely wanted it and she would scarf down a good chuck, but compared to the dainty order of Natalie, Amber was going to look like a heifer.

She glared at the stand's menu and worked her way back to body positivity. Amber deserved this treat for all the bullshit of yesterday. Besides she needed something to keep her occupied from making snide remarks.

"Probably. Before things went to shit." Ah oops. Look like one slipped out.
Natalie felt like she’d been kicked. She gave a thin smile with a nod before simply resorting to waiting in silence as the icecream was scooped out.

She deserved whatever Amber had to say. Any other sharp comments, any yelling, any of all of it, really. It wasn’t fair considering the alternatives Natalie had been left to weigh against themselves, but choosing to push Amber away had still been her choice to make.

The methodical sounds of frozen cream giving way to the scooper were loud to her ears as focus switched to that. Eventually, the sundae and then the scoop were placed up on the counter to be taken by each of their owners as Natalie shifted to the side to pay.

Putting her wallet away and picking up her unappetizing scoop, they could finally begin to walk into the park some, every step unsure, but ever forward.
"Thank you." Amber said to the server, taking her sundae bowl separately. She glanced to Natalie then and gave a smaller, "Thank you" because while she was mad, it wasn't an excuse to be impolite.

They moved away then and Amber realized the unfortunate logistics of balancing a large bowl in one hand while the only strained to get a sizeable spoonful. She succeeded, barely, and savored the first bite. Damn, did she need that hot fudge yesterday.

Whatever Natalie had in mind, it wasn't here. A far-off bench maybe? Amber stabbed at her sundae again. "Can you tell me now?" Surely they weren't going to wander forever.
A part of her stiffened at the question and she nervously turned attention Amber. ”Umm, let’s find somewhere to sit first,” Natalie answered, eyes flicking to passersbys as they walked. There were too many people that could overhear right here, they needed to find some place that wasn’t so crowded. Quickly looking around while feeling like Amber was no doubt burning a hole in the back of her head, Natalie landed on a particular spot.

”Let’s try over there,” she questioned, pointing off towards a small grassy hill, a few ducks waddling past as the main crowd’s trail meandered a good ways from it.
Judgemental eyes pierced at the back of Natalie's head. Her ex-friend(?) sure was a master at prolonging the inevitable. At this point, Amber was getting worked up enough that she was almost assuredly setting herself up for disappointment. Whatever cockamamie was about to come of out Natalie's mouth had to be a load of bull. Plain and simple. Telling Amber next to a bunch of ducks on a semi-private patch of land wasn't going to change a thing.

So, Amber huffed and puffed and followed behind Natalie. "Fiiiine. Just tell me when."
”I will,” she assured, deflated, feeling super small and not at all like there was a whole large beast gnawing inside her. If only Katya was here, a thought referenced to a few times by now. Maybe, it’d be easier.

Making their way up, it felt like in no time at all they were at the top of the rise and with nothing else to do, no close passerbys to use the excuse of, Natalie felt herself freezing. Now what? ”This is… nice?” Which was no doubt a lame filler used after a beat as she turned to Amber.
She didn't know where Natalie got off on this.

"Look." Amber's whole face and body were just done. "If this is all it is, then I better just go home."
She was met with a wall and Natalie grimaced, looking from her to the side as a breath was drawn in. ”It’s not,” she corrected with a drawing up of shoulders, looking back at Amber as they fell again. ”It’s...I’m… I don’t know how to start.” Her hands crumpled the cup of melting icecream towards the middle before she looked down at it. The running chocolate and vanilla around the bits of candy mocked Natalie as her hand relaxed. There was no solace there, only the glaring reminder she had one chance at this and already it was going poorly simply because of her wasting time.

Now or never, right? If she didn’t, Natalie would lose Amber even though a voice was insistent on the idea she probably already had. Still… Inhaling, she grabbed hold of flighty words that soon became strings that pulled into a sentence. ”Umm… Do you remember that night I showed up at your place and I had blood all over me?”
The exhale got trapped in her throat. She thought about that night often. It was a reminder of what could go wrong and the catalyst of everything.

Amber gripped her ice cream bowl and let her spoon fall into the melting mush. Her voice quie, sounding far away. "How could I forget."

She refused to look at Natalie. It would only make the visual so much starker. "It was awful."
Her face screwed up at Amber’s reaction, a familiar pit of uncomfortable gross feelings arising from their cage in regards to Dante. There might as well be miles between them. It’d been so scary, not just for Natalie, but also for her friend who had to deal with the fallout without knowing the story or being able to help all because of very real consequences she hadn’t been allowed to articulate. There’d been no choice and the part of it that she’d personally carved out had only caused more problems, more potential for Amber to get hurt.

She felt her hands shaking and balled up the free one as if that might stem the motion. Natalie inhaled. ”You weren’t supposed to see me like that. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone and I was told to leave my friends behind. I tried my best and I’m sorry for hurting you. I’m really, really sorry, but it was that or you could’ve been hurt and I couldn’t live with that.” And maybe if she’d been stronger, their friendship would already be dead in the water as soon as the change had hit, but Natalie hadn’t been, always unable to do the final cut when it came to Amber.
It was finally acknowledged. The stupid, awful truth of where their friendship began to take on water and sink beneath their feet. Amber had hung on, a delusional passenger until the end. In every bit of fairness, Natalie had too.

She looked up then. Mouth open a small amount, so very aware of how sticky her lips had become from the ice cream. It all felt like lead in her belly now.

"See you like that?" Amber floundered, surprised. "I was your friend. I'm supposed to help when you're hurt or - or in pain." Her breath came out in quick pants as she worked herself up. "I just wanted to be your friend and all I got was this...this pod person!"

Shit. The tears were coming again.
Natalie took in a rush of air, face flushing at the accusation. In what possible world would she ever want something like this? ”No! I don’t, I didn’t like it.” A whine threatened to climb out of her throat and she snapped her mouth shut before it could. The trajectory of this conversation was plummeting before anything at all had been revealed more than the first layer. It was frustrating. She was so frustrated with herself, especially as Amber was crying again. Just say it. Say it!

”They could’ve killed you or turned you. Or I could’ve. There were rules,” she shook her head, grasping for words to explain. ”I’m not human, Amber.” Realizing it was finally out, her eyes widened as the world seemingly paused on its axis, every breath a thousand times louder, everything else muted around them.
"No DUH!" Amber threw her hands out. That wasn't the problem here. Amber was fine with Natalie being de-human-ified. She could deal! She had been dealing with that shit for over two years.

"Except that you were! Until you turned into a-a...a" Her voice hiccupped, eyes dancing wildly as her hand motions became more frantic. "I don't fucking know what animal, but you don't just forget how to be a decent human person!"

While Natalie's world tilted and hushed, Amber's was in shades of red. The enormity of Natalie's words would hit later, but a secret revealed that had long been known was nothing more than a quiet truth. And Amber wasn't in the mood for quiet right now.
All at once, Amber confirmed her suspicions while blasting through any pretense expected. Instead, animal was a branded as a label and Natalie did her best to brace against it, but it smarted still.

She felt hackles being raised by the wolf in question and it was a lot to try to balance, external and internally two entities. And she. Just. Why was this exploding? A deep breath was taken and let out.

Natalie searched Amber’s face before ultimately dropping her gaze to the grass, guilt eating her alive, a renewed companion that’d been by her side since this whole thing had started years ago. ”I tried,” she breathed. “And I’m sorry it wasn’t enough. I messed up.” If she’d just cut her out completely like Dante had told her... ”I was scared.”
Was it enough? No. Her stomach clenched painfully against the anger. Amber hated how they went from young women laughing over a duck pond to being on opposite sides of a secret species war. All those lies. All those damned implications.

Amber swallowed painfully, face blotchy and hot. "I was scared too." Said barely above a whisper.

Was it fair? No. She wanted to let the fury grow, lash out again and scream about the stupid injustice and dumb decisions. But, it all came down to choices. The ones they made for better or worse. Amber's shoulder's slumped and she turned, walked two steps to chunk her half-eaten sundae into the trash nearby. She wasn't going to need it anymore.

Amber kept her back to Natalie, fingers twitching before they wrapped around her body. "You sucked at hiding it." Her lips wobbled as if trying to smile. The barest hint of hope against the torrent of hurt.
The pressure behind her eyes threatened at Amber’s reply and won out as she walked away. There, she’d done it and seemingly that was the end of everything for good. At least her conscience was clear of one small weight in a pull of thousands. Hot tears slipped out as she looked from the melted soup in her hand, trying to reign in the hurt before it could take its full course.

Amber’s voice was a surprise, figuring she had been on her way out. The back of a hand wiped away tears embarrassingly as confusion pulled her expression, a thick unsure huff escaping. ”What was my give away,” she questioned, looking up at, sure enough, Amber, who unfortunately had her back to her, but she hadn’t gone to leave after all.
She wanted so badly to laugh but her chest still felt too tight. A tear escaped and Amber let it roll down to her chin. "All the dumb excuses and that day at the restaurant." Amber kicked loosely at the dirt, looking down until the little droplet splashed against to top of her sandal. The pieces had of course started that first night when Natalie had looked completely normal after such a traumatizing event. In a way, Amber had forced herself to be okay, to brush it all aside, because Natalie had done it so effortlessly. At least, it seemed that way on the surface

The boiling anger from before gave way to numbness and Amber felt bare against the cold. An arm unwrapped itself from her side and she buried her face in an elbow, wiping off stinging eyes. Her lip began to feel raw under her teeth - suddenly aware that she had been biting her lip the whole time.

What a mess.

Amber turned a single pace to the side. She couldn't see Natalie yet but the first move had been made. An olive branch. "I had help though. Figuring it out." If they really were going to share secrets then Amber had plenty to offer up as well.
”Oh.” There’d been a lot of a dumb excuses, Natalie wasn’t a great liar by any means. It made her feel gross and anything she thought of was never really strong enough in her opinion to hold up to any sort of scrutiny. Of course that would be a flag, but the real winner no doubt had been the Terrace and the shift that’d caused a giant blank in her memory till she’d woken up at Alina’s. She wanted to laugh out a sound of self deprecation and cry at the same time for the timing of it all. In another timeline, she could’ve just been out with it right then and there, reassured by Dakila, but instead, Alina’s presence had spooked her enough to be the warning it was, no matter how nice the king had been at that very moment.

Amber turned around somewhat, already better than just her back. Help, she’d had help in deducing. Natalie blinked, not expecting that. ”Who?”
In for a penny... Amber swallowed and moved her hands to fold around her back. Eyes back on the ground as she hummed a short note in preparation.

"Well, Asha got the wheels turning at the Terrace. Said I should be careful around you and you were dangerous to both yourself and me." She dared a peek over her shoulder. "It clicked then." Asha had confirmed further when Amber connected the dots. A gut punch. She had felt stupid for not knowing and horrified for the way Natalie's life had turned upside down.

Funny, it was probably then that the whole mess started. Not the bleak, awful night at her apartment. No, the second act began when Amber started keeping her own secret.
Asha? The jaguar queen? The information given to Amber was spot on, but she could see how easily the pieces could connect with it. Asha should’ve known that. An uncharacteristically gross feeling of perhaps betrayal fuzzed up around the edges, but she pushed it away as soon as it was noticed. It’d been to keep Amber and her safe. She couldn’t fault her for it. It was advice she might’ve given even.

A heavy sigh escaped and she nodded slowly, absorbing. ”That makes sense.”

But, wait, uh! ”Um, did.. Did she tell you how she knows about me?” Natalie was suddenly very concerned that she was somehow outing Asha right in this moment. It was best to try to damage control real quick.
Amber turned fully this time, catching the deep sigh. It must be a lot to take in. Amber couldn't tell if Natalie was relieved by having the burden taken off her shoulders or resigned that her story had been told by another. Maybe a mix of both.

She sucked her lip between her teeth, suddenly unable to look Natalie in the eye. Although she had never been told, Asha's approach to a shifter lifestyle had to be against the norm. Was it that taboo of a subject? Amber had never asked another were before.

"She told me what she was." Amber confessed. Under different contexts, Amber might not have believed her, but with the eyes and claws, it seemed Asha was an out and proud Jaguar. It still felt like an unfair exchange for Natalie. She had her choice taken, even for good reason.

"I know of a few others. Different circumstances, but I've always kept your secret." Amber shut her eyes tight. "Except once."
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