7.9

The others that had come with Jessie’s father had found enough dry wood for another fire. Jerret had it going once the sun set and the others sat around it, making small talk cooking the remaining fish. Jerret slunk away into the ship and lay down on Calvin’s bed, struggling to sleep in the small bit of peace the room afforded. He woke up briefly as someone walked past and into the kitchen, barely registering it before falling asleep again.

There was no noise the next time he woke up. Instead an oppressive silence held the ship. He slumped his way to the kitchen, took stock of the remaining food, and sat down heavily. Three people had been hard to feed, he wasn’t sure how to manage seven. Something bigger than fish would be needed, but he’d had little luck since catching the first one off guard.

He ate enough to offset his growling stomach and shifted, climbing awkwardly outside. The ground wasn’t nearly as muddy now, and the long-extinguished fire pit had dried out the nearby dirt. He padded around the clearing, sniffing at the dirt. Nothing had ventured near, though that wasn’t surprising. Everyone made such a racket he’d probably have to travel a while to find any wildlife. He headed for the pond they had fished at and passed it by with only a casual glance along the shore.

The air was refreshing this far away from the ships. He’d gotten used to the recirculated air of stations, but nothing beat a real breeze and the scents it carried. He caught a whiff of something and started tracking further away from their clearing.

Jerret was beginning to think the entire hunt was a waste when he came to another clearing with a few large animals in it. They were somewhere in between deer and horses, and as he moved downwind he could see they hadn’t noticed him yet. He’d caught an injured one last time, on the smaller side. If he could get a bigger one this time they’d be able to stretch it for days. He could finally stop worrying about supplies for a while.

There was a rustling off to his right, and the creatures perked up instantly. Two smaller ones and one larger beast immediately started for the other side of the clearing cautiously. The remaining large one headed for the noise instead, walking within a few yards of Jerret where he was crouched in tall grass. He crept along with it, looking for an opportunity to pounce. It stopped suddenly and bucked a little, ears swiveling. Jerret followed its attention to the girl’s father, who had his hands up defensively in case the creature attacked him.

The standoff lasted mere moments before the creature lunged forward with it’s head down, bleating. Jerret bolted forward and grabbed the side of its head, dragging it to the ground before it could reach its target. He bit down on its neck and jerked violently until it snapped and the creature lay still.  He could taste blood in his mouth and shook violently with adrenaline, still gripping the dead animal.

The man sat down heavily and Jerret snarled at him, startled. There was a moment where his instincts screamed to lunge at the man before Jerret regained control and released his catch. He sat next to it and panted heavily, looking from the very dead animal to Jessie’s father.

They sat in silence until Jerret’s breathing had calmed, and Jessie’s father cleared his throat. He gestured to the carcass, “Want some help with that?”

Jerret stared at the man, who gave him a half-smile. His last attempt to communicate while shifted hadn’t gone well, but he didn’t have much choice. He grabbed a leg of his catch and pulled at it, then looked at the man again.

“I have a knife.” He produced a dangerous looking knife from his boot and offered it to Jerret. Jerret stared at him in disbelief, then annoyance. The man looked smug as he shifted back, and handed him a bundle of fabric which turned out to be pants. Jerret put them on without a word and started butchering the carcasses as well as he could. It had been long time since he’d had much need for that skill, but it wasn’t that difficult.

The man watched him in silence until he’d gotten through gutting it, then spoke up again, “I don’t think we got off on a good foot before.”

“Hmm.” Jerret focused on his work, managing to get one leg separated.

“I don’t meet a lot of shifters, or at least not that I know about. I have no idea how to raise one.”

Jerret got another leg separated and set it next to the first, not responding.

“I don’t even know what species she is. We tried tests but there’s nothing to compare it to. So every time I do meet another shifter I keep hoping I’ll get more information, something to keep me from screwing up raising her.” The man wasn’t watching anymore as Jerret made a sloppy attempt at harvesting the rib meat. The animal seemed to have most of its muscle in its legs. With a heavy grunt he managed to flip the carcass over and started harvesting the other side.

“You clearly don’t want to talk about yourself but…” He trailed off and sat there in silence as Jerret finished harvesting meat. He had it stacked on the ground, which wasn’t terribly sanitary but they didn’t have much choice. Jerret wiped the knife off on his new pants, which were already covered in blood and dirt.

“Nothing?”

For a moment Jerret envisioned what would happen if he told the man everything he knew. He debated it, then handed the knife back carefully. “Thanks for the knife.” With that he started gathering up the meat. The moon was setting and what little ambient light there had been was rapidly changing. The man picked up everything he couldn’t carry and the two of them headed back to the ship.

***

Sam washed the meat off as best he could once they got back, packing it in the now full refrigeration unit. The vagrant had fallen asleep the moment he sat down in the kitchen. With everything cleaned up and put away Sam paused to study the man.

He was in fairly good shape despite being thin, heavily scarred in some areas, and clearly put no thought to grooming beyond the basics. Another refugee from the fights that nobody knew what to do with. Sam checked the other rooms and found a blanket to drape over him. He knew better than to risk waking the man, but it was the least he could do. He left the ship and headed back to his own, yawning. Morning would arrive sooner than he liked and he wanted to be awake to help cook at least.

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