Chapter Ten: Nootau
They had both had semi-outed themselves, but Nootau saw the need in Aegeus's eyes. The desire for Nootau to answer honestly. They both knew the answer, Aegeus obviously needed the words. Too bad his throat was as dry as a blacktop on an August day in Chicago. Nootau swallowed several times, desperate to work past his fear. They trusted him. He should trust them. Simple as that.
Funny thing about fear, though. When it has been engrained throughout a lifetime, one filled with secrets and hiding, then it held power over people. Even when their minds screamed "safety!" No danger! They looked for the first sign of betrayal. What that was, more than anything, was a fucked up way to grow up. Nootau knew that, but he did have reason to fear.
"Hey, hey," Aegeus said, reaching for Nootau. "It's okay."
He jumped back, hands up, balled in fists.
"Sorry." Aegeus took a step back, his expression wounded. "I'm sorry."
Nootau sank to the floor, his hands on his thighs and head bowed. His hair hung in front of him, covering his face. Small graces. But his locks couldn't hide the fact he was shaking. Fuck, if he trembled any harder he'd be a walkershake. Hopefully he tasted good. Nootau cringed.
Aegeus knelt down on the floor, then scooted forward an inch at a time.
Nootau watched warily. Four words. I am a walker. That's all he needed to say. It should be so simple, but it wasn't. Not even with the image of Aegeus's joyful smile when he said them could shake the fear off.
Fingertips traced over Nootau's forearm. The tentative touch sent his fight or flight into flight mode. He shuddered instinctively, but he was proud of how he didn't draw away. The corner of Aegeus's mouth twitched into an almost smile. He scooted closer. Nootau held his ground despite his head screaming to leave.
Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, Aegeus wrapped an arm around Nootau's shoulders. His nervous hum filled the air, but Nootau found himself relaxing, even leaning, into Aegeus's hold. So much warmth sounded him. Why would he ever want to leave such quiet strength such as this?
This is what it's like to be protected.
"How we doing?" Aegeus whispered. "Better?"
All Nootau could do was nod.
"Do you want to tell me?"
Again, he nodded.
"Then that's enough for now." Aegeus snuggled closer, pulling Nootau in his lap. "Yes, Edie and I are part of the Underground. Have been for years. We won't let anything happen to you Nootau. Just let us know let us know why you need help so we can protect you."
Nootau's throat didn't feel so closed off anymore. Still, he couldn't get any words past.
"What's got you running? Why are you so scared?"
Scared, him? Not of the evil men at Camp Stone, but of what opening up to Aegeus could mean.
"Who hurt you?"
No. Not him. Ahanu. "Someone... " Nootau descended into a coughing fit before recovering his voice. "Someone is selling walkers to the highest bidder. Dead or alive. Preferably dead."
"Yeah, they're working from inside the camps." His voice shook, more than he liked. "Ahanu stumbled over it. That's what killed him. I still don't know they why, but... But I'm hoping I can find out."
"Was Ahanu the accidental death from Camp Stone?"
"Yes." Gods above. Why did it hurt so much to say?
"And the wolf attack?"
"Are you sure? You're pretty beat up, Nootau."
"That was... A disagreement."
"Pretty big disagreement."
Nootau nodded. He couldn't say it was him. Who knew what Aegeus would say? Do. When Nootau felt Aegeus relax a fraction against him. The telltale action only made him more aware of how much that answer cost both of them.
He'd lied. It was one he'd have to take to his death too.
Aegeus rubbed his back, holding Nootau closer. "Then we'd better find out who's behind it."
"And I think I have an idea where to start."
"Me too. The box, the one you and Edwige were holding, has information from Ahanu."
"Then maybe we'd better look at what's in the box, see if we're on the same page."
Aegeus moved Nootau off him and stood, hand out, waiting for Nootau to take it.
The brilliant smile he received made his heart hurt.
"Thank you, for wanting to help."
"Edwige knows a good heart when she meets one."
Aegeus gave a rueful smile. "Prepare to grovel. A lot."
"What's a lot?"
"Starting on your knees might help."
* * * * *
The three of them stared up at the building. Four stories. Brick. Non-descript except for a sign made from metal next to the door:
Bureau of Skin Walker Affairs
Just the name made Nootau's hackles raise. He growled.
A foot came down on top of his. "Quiet!"
Nootau hobbled in a circle, swearing under his breath. Edwige looked far too pleased with herself. How many times was he going to have to say sorry? She sniffed and turned to the door. Aegeus offered Nootau a shrug, mouthing "Give her a little longer."
Yeah, okay. She deserved to be angry.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Nootau asked again, because it certainly didn't seem like one.
"Oh, don't worry so much," Edwige replied.
"And how exactly do you plan to walk right in?" It was dark, after hours, and on a desolate street in a bad part of Chicago.
"With her help." Edwige pointed down the street then readjusted the backpack she had brought with them, leaving Nootau to check out their new companion.
A woman walked toward them with an air of confidence. When she stopped in front of them she flashed a brilliant white smile. Her bleach blond hair stood in a mohawk, and piercings were in enough places Nootau wondered where else she might have them.
She clapped him on the back. "Alway walk like you own the world. No one will question it."
"Nootau, meet Olive."
They shook hands, but he couldn't see how she would be of any help. One more person locked out of the building wouldn't do anything.
"Now," Olive said, pushing past them. "If you'll excuse me."
"And what is she going to do?"
Edwige grinned. "Olive happens to be an excellent locksmith."