For various reasons, I wasn't able to get the next part of Reformation done today. I know, cliffhangers and winding things up, I'm sorry! I'll be extra generous with words next week. For today, though--I'll give you an excerpt from a novel I've got coming out with Dreamspinner later this year. I posted the first chapter a while back, but it's been months, so I'll post it again and continue it. So, nice long story post for you, just not the story you were looking for. *sad sigh*
And audiobook winners, I'm tackling you next. No, I haven't forgotten, I've just been slammed.
You couldn’t sneak up on a werewolf.
It wasn’t possible. Everyone agreed on that, from a million pop culture references to the people who actually ran ops with the real ones. Werewolves had hyperdeveloped senses, and they were incredibly protective of their territory and their pack. You could trap a werewolf, you could trick a werewolf, you might even be able to bargain with a werewolf―I was banking on that―but you couldn’t sneak up on one. They could tell where you’d stepped almost before your foot hit the ground.
So why was I standing outside a chain-link fence in the snowy twilight, slowly freezing to death while waiting for someone to notice I was there? I’d been counting on being found quickly; I really hadn’t packed for the snow. My bad―Davis had told me I needed more than a sweater and a jacket better suited to a California winter than a Colorado one, but I’d been too frantic to listen to him.
If I died clinging to a fence in the middle of nowhere, Davis might bring me back to life just so he could kill me again for being such an idiot.
“Avoid the guardian,” he’d said, thin lips terse as he’d handed me the map. An actual physical map, not GPS—nothing I could program into my phone. “You can’t take the obvious road without getting stopped, so you’ll have to hike in to another part of their preserve. And burn that map when you’re done with it. I’m fuckin’ serious, Ward. If that’s found by the wrong people, it could cause a domestic terrorism incident.”
“I’ll destroy it,” I’d promised hastily, glancing at it before I stuffed it in my pocket. At that point, my daughter Ava had been gone for three months. At least she hadn’t been missing, not anymore. Davis had located the pack she’d been sent to. I’d just had to find it, get the nearest werewolf to ask questions before shooting or biting or whatever appealed most at the time, and persuade them to let me stay.
Well, at least I’d managed the first part of it.
“Don’t you people have cameras?” My lips were so cold I could barely articulate the words, but the act of speaking seemed to break through the layer of ice that had chilled my anger ever since I’d started hiking.
I’d gone seven miles through the snow after abandoning my car, the pale winter sun doing little to warm me as I trudged along, hoping against hope for a sign that I was going in the right direction. Finding the fence had felt like a godsend at the time, but I’d been here for over an hour now, waiting for anything and getting nothing at all. My breath rasped in my thin chest, and I’d had to stop and use my inhaler twice. Much more than that and I’d be courting real trouble, so I kept my breaths shallow and my scarf pulled across my mouth.
“Seriously,” I went on. “What wolf pack doesn’t have cameras covering every part of their territory? How can you not have seen me yet? If you’re not as goddamn paranoid as I was led to believe, I’m going to be so pissed.” Also probably deceased, but that was my problem, not theirs.
Actually, no, I was going to make it their problem too.
“I will climb this fence,” I announced to the growing darkness in front of me. “I’ll climb this fucking fence, and I’ll get all snarled in the barbed wire at the top, and then you’ll wish you’d found me while I was still alive, you assholes, because you’ll be untangling me for fucking hours!” I don’t think I’d sworn this much since my brother’s funeral.
Okay, I was angry, but I was also being serious. Someone should have seen me on camera by now. Davis had been very clear about that. Maybe the one I was closest to wasn’t transmitting—I needed to move, then. I needed to pick a path and go, because if I didn’t start walking now, I might not be able to before long. Right or left? Which direction had the road that passed the guardian been on, again? I’d already burned the map, shit, shit….
I went right. If I hit the road, at least the guardian would probably keep me alive if they found me. I wouldn’t be able to help my daughter if I was dead. My feet felt dangerously numb, and my nose might’ve been blue by now. The wind made my eyes water, and tear tracks froze on my cheeks. I clung to the fence, using it half for guidance, half for support. “I’m gonna find you, baby.” I would. “I’ll find you.” I had to. I wasn’t going to sit back and let the government take her from me just because she’d turned out to be a werewolf.
The mutation had been around since the early forties, when a super-soldier experiment resulted in men that, instead of having all the heightened senses of wolves, actually turned into wolves. They escaped the confines of Pine Camp in northern New York, crazy with fear and adrenaline, and went on a biting spree. Most of the bitten died after turning into wolves.
A few of them managed to turn back into people, though.
The government took responsibility for their mistake and divided the surviving werewolves into packs. Hollywood loved them, scientists wanted to study them, and bigots wanted to kill them, but for the most part, real werewolves stayed firmly out of the spotlight. The only exception to that rule was when someone turned unexpectedly. Someone like my Ava.
The bite didn’t manifest in lycanthropy for everyone bitten. Some people, a tiny percentage of those exposed to the mutation, were simply immune to the shift. They could carry it, though, and they could pass it on. For Ava, the gene must have come from her mother. Carriers were almost always incredibly healthy, and I was far from a model of vitality. It was just as well I wasn’t usually attracted to people who could get pregnant.
Every now and then, maybe half a dozen times a year, a child would shift. Usually it didn’t happen until puberty, or some other time of extreme stress. For my daughter, it was her first day of preschool.
I could still hear her voice from that morning in my head. I’d been running late, stressed by the start of a new semester and the challenge of trying to get my daughter dressed, fed, and into her car seat before eight in the morning. She’d been clingy, more than usual.
“I want to stay with you!”
“But you’re a big girl now, sweetheart. Big girls go to school. You’ll have so much fun and make so many new friends.”
I’d gotten the call about her change at lunch, right after dismissing forty freshmen from my Physics 101 class at the community college where I’d taught. I hadn’t recognized the number at first―I’d almost let it ring through to my voicemail. “Hello?”
“Mr. Johannsen?” The woman’s words had been almost too warbly to make out. She’d cleared her throat. “It’s Maria Kostakis. Ava’s teacher.”
“Oh, boy.” I’d sighed and sunk down into my chair. “Is she okay? She’s not sick, is she? She was pretty unhappy this morning, but she wasn’t running a temperature back at the house.”
“She’s….” I’d never had a professional trail off like that with me. It made my heart beat harder in my chest.
“She’s what?” I’d snapped. “What?”
“She’s turning.” Those words seemed hard to get out, but once she’d managed them, Ms. Kostakis had continued faster and faster. “She told me at snack time that her hands hurt, and when I looked at them I saw—there were claws coming out the end of her fingers, and her palms were changing color. I got her to the nurse’s office before things got much worse, but our school doesn’t have the sort of containment facilities needed to handle a shift, so—”
“It’s standard procedure, Mr. Johannsen. If a child shifts in a public environment, they have to be contained immediately so they can’t infect others. The nurse called the police, and when the SWAT team arrived—”
“A SWAT team? She’s four years old!” I knew the basics of dealing with an unexpected shift—I worked in public education—but SWAT seemed excessive.
“A four-year old werewolf. The danger she put our entire school in, I just….”
“She’s a kid, not a bomb!”
“She might as well be a bomb!” Ms. Kostakis had shrieked at me.
It had taken longer than I’d wanted to get the rest of the chain of events out of her. SWAT had come, ushered my baby girl into a cage, and taken her to the nearest government facility equipped to deal with werewolves. By the time I’d gotten there, Ava had already been transported again. And this time—
“We can’t tell you where she’s gone, Mr. Johannsen.”
“The hell you can’t.” I’d never been so angry in all my life. Never: not when I’d been laid up in the hospital for weeks at a time, not when Rick and Davis had enlisted, not when Ava’s mother left us. “She’s my daughter. I’m her parent, her legal guardian. You can’t just take my child from me.”
The state official behind the bulletproof glass had weathered my outrage without batting an eye. “Actually, under the Safety in Isolation Act of 1946, we can. Your child is a member of a protected but dangerous species, and the best place for her is in a pack where she’ll get proper care and oversight. Werewolves need to be in packs in order to be mentally and emotionally stable.”
“How will ripping her away from everything she’s always known make her emotionally stable?” I’d demanded. “Ava is an only child―she just started school this morning! I’m all she knows, and she needs me. We need to be together.”
“Werewolves adapt differently to change than humans, and Ava is very young. She’ll do better in her new situation than you’re giving her credit for. Regardless, Mr. Johannsen, you’re not going to be allowed to see her.” Cool eyes had regarded me dispassionately. “It’s best if you accept the government’s transition payment and forget you ever had a child.”
“I refuse.” I’d stood, furious enough that I barely had any energy left for standing. My breaths had been so shallow I was light-headed, but I’d be damned if I showed any weakness in front of a soulless bureaucrat. “You can expect to hear from my lawyer.”
“If that’s how you want things to go. You won’t get anywhere with it, though.”
I’d left full of righteous indignation, enough to drown out my fear. Eventually the tables had turned, though, and fear replaced confidence as I learned that the official was right. No lawyer would take my case. The law was ironclad: werewolves weren’t classified as human. They were a dangerous subspecies, and they were the property of the government. Any attempt to locate my daughter would result in my imprisonment, which I’d have risked if I could have gotten anywhere, with anyone.
In the end, the only person who would help me was Davis, and I still didn’t know everything he’d had to do to get the information he did. I’d asked, but he wasn’t sharing his sources. I didn’t care as long as he was right. His information had led me here, to Middle Of Nowhere, Colorado, where he said I’d find Ava.
God, I was so cold. And when had my feet stopped moving? I glared down at them through my frozen lashes, willing them to get going again, but they refused. How far had I come from where I’d first found the fence? Was there another camera? My arm felt as heavy as an anvil, and it was so hard to keep holding onto the fence when all I wanted to do was rest. Just for a moment. Just….
Pressure so light I barely felt it against my hand made me turn. There was someone on the other side of the fence—an actual person. Hallucinations might be able to talk, but I wouldn’t feel them, right? She was mostly concealed by a hooded fur-lined parka, but I could see the top half of her face. Her eyes looked worried.
“Please,” I croaked. The cold had ripped my voice to shreds. “Let me see her. I need to see my baby.”
“Who are you talking about? How did you get here?”
“Ava. My kid. She―I know I’m not supposed to be here, they told me to just forget about her, but she’s all I have. Please. I’ll do anything to see her.” Anything at all.
Her mittened hand gripped mine harder. “What’s your name?”
“How did you find us?”
“Please.” I was so cold, and my hand was so heavy. It fell from the fence, even though she was trying to hold onto it. My knees collapsed, and I heard the woman cry out. “P-please.” I leaned my head against the unforgiving metal links, the only things that were keeping me from pitching into the snow. She knelt down on the other side of the fence and stared at me.
“Mr. Johannsen. Mr. Johannsen! Ward!” I blinked at her.
“Shit.” She glanced away for a moment. “Henry’s going to kill me.” She looked back at me. “Fuck it. I’ll be to you in two minutes, Ward. Do you understand? Don’t lie down.” She shook the fence for emphasis. “Do not lie down! Say you understand me.”
“If you lie down, you’re not going to get to see Ava. You hear me? Ava needs you to stay awake!”
My baby needed me. “I’ll stay awake.”
“Good.” She pushed to her feet. “Two minutes, Ward. I’ll be right back.” I heard the crunch of her footsteps vanishing into the dark, and I pressed my forehead hard to the fence.
Two minutes. I could do that.
As long as I didn’t die first.
By the time I arrived at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, I’d been in the sky for over twelve hours. Twelve hours was long enough for the stench of my rescue unit’s fear to gradually give way to shivering, sweaty relief. Lo and behold, I hadn’t killed anyone. Not anyone they’d seen, at least.
None of these kids had experience working with a werewolf, and their ignorance showed in the furtive glances and whispered conversations that they clearly didn’t realize I could hear. Probably none of them had ever wanted to work with an operative like me―they weren’t curious or bold enough to ask me any questions. That didn’t stop me from asking them some, back at the beginning of their escort mission.
“What happened to the rest of my squad?”
“They were recalled before they could make their rendezvous with you, sir.” At least the lieutenant managed to look me in the eye while parroting things to me.
“Any casualties taken?”
“None that I’m aware of.”
“I need a line to my commanding officer to verify.”
“He informed me you should check your personal messages, sir.”
Personal messages. Classified data was being left in my goddamn inbox now. That alone told me how pissed off Colonel Hill was at me. I’d made use of the secure phone in the cockpit of the C-17, a completely excessive aircraft given it was transporting just five men, and checked in.
“You returned without the package, beyond the acceptable time table, and almost gave your presence away behind enemy lines. Consider yourself grounded until you get a better handle on your capabilities, Major Dormer.” Click.
Well, fuck. Not that I hadn’t been expecting that, but it was going to make life more complicated for me and my pack. More complications were the last things I needed right now, but at least my original team was all right.
My nervous nannies finally delivered me back home, and that was all that mattered. I needed food, rest, and the presence of my pack to ground me. I needed time, just a little more time. Things would be fine.
They had to be.
Getting out of that plane was a relief. I breezed through my verification and debrief―the on-site special ops director was well-used to dealing with me―and got a ride to the gate, where my sister Samantha was waiting for me in her familiar red 4Runner.
No, scratch that. Her husband Liam was the one who got out of the car as I approached. Tension I barely even recognized I’d been releasing sprang back into my frame, tightening my shoulders. Liam seemed to notice, if the worried furrow of his brow was anything to go by.
“Henry.” His voice was low and clear, just the barest hint of a Quebecois accent evident in his pronunciation of my name. “Welcome back.”
“It’s good to be back.” He extended a hand and I took it, then drew him into an embrace, pressing my nose against the crook of his neck. Humans might see two grown men hugging the life out of each other in a parking lot and wonder, but for me, this greeting was as traditional as a handshake. Liam was pack―new pack, barely pack―but he carried my sister’s scent on every inch of his skin, and the scent of my wolves beneath that.
Liam scented me in return, and I could tell he didn’t like what he smelled. I hadn’t had a chance to clean up, and I still felt bathed in blood, dust, and death. It was no different than a dozen other missions, the price I paid as La Garita pack’s alpha, but Liam had grown up sheltered. I sensed his distaste and pulled back before I caused him any more discomfort. It was enough to have the smell of home in my head again. Soon the ache in my heart would ease.
I threw my duffle bag into the back seat in silence. Liam offered me the keys, but I waved them away. “I’m tired. I might want to nap a little on the way home.” It was a four-hour drive from Colorado Springs, plenty of time to be awkward with my new brother-in-law. God, I hope I slept.
“Of course.” He got into the driver’s seat, started up the car, and turned on the heat. The radio was set to NPR. Naturally. No heavy metal or hard rock for Liam. I was lucky we weren’t listening to fusion jazz or French pop.
“Samantha wanted to come.”
Oh good, so we were going to talk about it. “And she didn’t because?”
“The littlest pup, the new one. Ava? She isn’t doing so well.”
Fuck. “What’s Tennyson’s diagnosis?”
Liam sighed. “Failure to thrive. He can’t find anything medically wrong with her. Her shift isn’t noticeably out of alignment, no impingement on the heart or lungs, but she’s completely listless.”
“Failure to thrive.” I shook my head. “He’s got to hate that.”
“He does, very loudly,” Liam agreed. Tennyson was another of the newer arrivals, a transplant from a disbanded pack on the East Coast. He was one of the few werewolves with medical training for both the human and the animal parts of us, and after what had happened to his last pack, he was edgy as hell. I should have been there for him. I should have been there to ease the way for both of them.
The timing of my latest mission couldn’t have been worse. Three new arrivals in under a month: one who’d just lost his pack, one who was marrying into mine, and a child stuck in her pup form who had howled endlessly, so despondent that she’d refused to eat for almost a week. I was the alpha of La Garita pack. It was my job to welcome new members, to help them integrate and feel like they were becoming part of a new whole. That was what pack was: a sense of wholeness, the anchor for a soul living in an unstable body. It was family, or that was what it aspired to be.
Tennyson had been settling in, his walls still high but his reluctance to socialize ebbing. Liam and Sam had come back from their honeymoon even more ridiculously in love than when they’d left for it, which made it a little easier for me to deal with the fact that I had to share my sister now. Even Ava had finally stopped crying, willing to take food directly from my hand. She was a strong-willed pup, completely adorable, and I had three different couples vying to welcome her into their homes once she shifted back to human. Then I’d gotten the call.
Almost a month later, here I was: returning home without the success that would sate my handlers, wiry and strung out from too much running and not enough sleep and with my own sense of pack so strained it was almost like I didn’t have one at all.
Sam would ask me about that. I knew she suspected, but she’d been too happy to really dwell on it before. I’d have to work at my lie this time if she was going to buy it.
“I’ll go and see her when we get back.” Maybe spending the night with Ava in my other form would comfort her some.
“Samantha has been with her every day since you left. She’s doing everything she can.”
Was that censure in his voice? “I know that,” I said with deliberate slowness. “I’m not accusing my sister of anything.”
“There was much to deal with, while you were gone. Some that was difficult for a human.” Making Sam the acting head of the pack while I was gone was nothing new, but Liam didn’t understand the way we ran things yet. Sam might be human, the only human there, but no one dominated her. If she’d been born a werewolf, I was pretty sure she would have ended up the alpha, not me.
Given the work I did for the military, I was glad I’d taken on the responsibility instead.
“Sam knows how to handle things when I’m away.”
“She would be in trouble if a fight broke out.”
I could feel my jaw begin to creak. That was almost always where my shift began, and the last thing I needed right now was to alpha out on my new brother-in-law. “Did a fight break out?”
“Wouldn’t you have been there to assist her if a fight had broken out among my wolves?”
“Of course I would.” His voice was soft now, deferent. He knew he’d overstepped—I could smell the faint sourness of his apology—but my easy mood was gone.
“You’ve never really been part of a pack like ours before, Liam.”
“My pack was—”
“Your last pack was a bunch of lone wolves loosely associated because your government didn’t know what else to do with you.” The vast majority of werewolves were American, but the gene had spread to a few other nationalities. There were enough carriers in Canada to form something of a pack in the Laurentian Mountains, but they hadn’t been raised together, hadn’t spent their whole lives together.
“La Garita pack is different. My mother was the alpha before me, and her father was the alpha before her. He was one of the original soldiers infected with the mutation. Our pack is firmly established, and most of our members have been a part of it their whole lives. They know us. They wouldn’t endanger Sam, but if you think she doesn’t have fail-safes in place for her own protection, then you don’t know her very well.” I let my irises bleed from blue to gold. “Don’t disappoint my sister by underestimating her.” Or else, my alpha glare added.
If Liam could have shrunk any deeper into his seat, he’d have been under it. “I won’t.”
“Glad to hear it.” It took more effort than usual to get my eyes to change back. Too much time spent shifted lately. I needed to get home, see my sister, settle in with the new pup, and rest. God, I needed to rest. I felt so tired now that I was back on somewhat friendly ground that I could barely hold myself upright. I leaned my head against the cool glass of the window and shut my eyes. I wouldn’t be able to sleep with just Liam in the car, not after our little altercation, but at least I could spare myself the trouble of making any further conversation with him.
Apparently I was more tired than I’d thought, because the next thing I knew I went from dreaming I was hunched and quivering on all four feet over a body to suddenly waking up with a gasp, snapping my half-inch fangs in the direction of the disturbance. Liam had already pulled his hand back from my shoulder, apprehension clear in his face.
My jaw was distorted, painful in the aching, grinding way that always came with a partial shift. I forced my teeth back to human and got my bearings. “Ah.” It was dark now, but the 4Runner rumbled to the beat of washboards in the dirt road, and above the trees I could just make out the edge of familiar, moonlight-limned mountains. We were almost to the guardian’s home.
“I thought you’d want a moment to collect yourself before speaking with him.”
“Henry….” I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to say it, but Liam collected himself and pressed on. “Are you all right?”
I wanted to snap at him. Fuck that, I wanted to actually nip him, draw a little blood and put him in his place, but Sam would chew my head off if I did. And he was family. I needed to make an effort, even if it was harder now than I could ever remember it being. “It was a rough mission.” Understatement of the year. “I just need a little time to reacclimatize. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” I could hear the doubt in his voice but didn’t have the time to pursue things—we were already pulling to a stop by the guardian’s home. John Parnell was waiting for us by the road, scowling as usual. His house was well-lit, and I could see the silhouette of his daughter moving around the living room, probably cleaning up plates after another TV dinner. Things had been different for the family since his wife Clara left last year, and not in a good way. John had been our guardian for over two decades, but that didn’t mean he liked us.
He did his job, though. “Fuck, it’s colder than a witch’s third tit out here,” he grunted as I rolled down the window. He passed me a sheaf of handwritten papers. We could have transmitted all this information digitally, but the government was understandably wary about werewolf networks getting hacked. Information isolation was a necessary part of keeping the pack safe. “Upcoming delivery dates, incident reports, and the maintenance log. Camera nine is malfunctioning.”
“Another one?” I frowned as I glanced through the papers. “Last month it was Camera six.”
“They’re not really built to withstand the weather, and your infrastructure’s getting old. You should ask for a system overhaul.”
I snorted. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.” I wouldn’t get any favors from my handlers until I gave them a successful mission. I’d already pushed things, lobbying for and getting the new blood.
“Oh really?” John raised a bushy gray eyebrow. “Interesting times abroad?”
“You could say that.”
“Huh. Well, not to heap more damage on you, but you should know that there’ve been sightings of a large white ‘dog’ outside of Monte Vista. Nobody’s caught it doing anything wrong yet, but the weather’s just going to get worse over the next month. If it’s looking for food….”
Fuck. “I understand.” I couldn’t bring myself to think about “stray dogs” right now. Wilson had kept his head for the past fifteen years; he could handle himself for another winter. He’d be all right.
“I hope you do.” He slapped the side of the truck. “It’s out of your hands for now, at least. Don’t let it fuck you up too much. Welcome back, Alpha Dormer.”
“Thanks, John. Say hi to the kids for me.”
“I will.” He wouldn’t. He walked back to his house, and I rolled the window back up. We were almost there. The sense of disruption I’d been feeing ever since I left was finally ebbing away. My home was waiting for me. My pack. My family. It would be all right.
When we got to the fence, Liam opened a program on his phone and typed in a code. The gate slid open for us, automatically closing once it got to its apex. The compound was a little less than a mile ahead. I could already see the lights through the trees.
The first cabin at the end of the road was ours, in front of and slightly apart from the rest of our little town. It was larger than most of the other houses, a throwback to when our family had been more numerous. Dark logs and a tile roof gave it almost a Bavarian appearance, and the porch light glowed brightly. I was out of the truck almost before Liam stopped it, heading toward the front door at a jog. I was home, I was finally—
I inhaled deeply, scenting the air just in front of the door. There was a smell here that I didn’t recognize. A person here that I didn’t recognize. Trespasser.
I almost ripped the door off its hinges getting inside. Liam was right behind me, and I followed the smell of the intruder into the living room, feeling the shift pull at my face again, readying my fingertips to burst into claws that would—
“Henry, stop!” Only here was Sam, right in front of me, smelling just fine. A little stressed, but healthy. Her long blonde hair was pulled into a disheveled bun on top of her head, and she was wearing one of my college sweatshirts. She smelled like us. She smelled like home. “It’s okay,” she said, and I wanted to melt onto the floor, collapse with my relief. “I’m fine. Everything is fine.” She smiled at me, broad and happy, and held out her arms. “God, I’m so glad you’re back.”
I hugged her, and it was almost perfect. Almost perfect. The scent of the intruder still lurked in the air, stronger than ever now, and even though I wanted nothing more than to relax at last, I couldn’t. I looked over her shoulder at the couch.
A man sat curled into a ball on the far right cushion, bundled up in what looked like every blanket in the whole house. His hands, clutching a tepid mug of hot chocolate, looked painfully red, and I heard an unhealthy-sounding rasp in his chest with every breath. His thin face peeked out from beneath lank, straw-colored hair, but his expression was blatantly defiant.
He was also completely, utterly human. Not a werewolf―he didn’t even smell like a carrier. He had no place here, in my home.
“Who the hell is that?”