The branch snapped beneath my feet. The wolf pelt that had been loosely wrapped around my neck billowed out as I fell.
Grab my escaping pelt or scrabble for a handhold?
I hit the ground on my back, air knocked out of my lungs but pelt cradled to my chest. For one long moment, all I could do was lie there and listen to the night.
At first, the signs were good. Crickets chirped. A car honked in the distance.
Then night critters fell silent. Closer than should have been possible, a canine growled.
I winced. A full day of scouting and we’d missed a guard dog. How was that even possible?
While I struggled to pull myself together, the timbre of the growl deepened. Footsteps padded closer.
Soon the dog would see me and bark a warning to its owners. Lights would flicker on in the household I was burgling. My one shot at redeeming my name would be lost.
“Mission aborted,” I muttered to myself. “Time to regroup and try again tomorrow.”
Easing my way to my feet, I started stripping. If one of the Smythewhites looked out a window to check on Spot, I didn’t want them to see anything two-legged. Shoes, socks, pants….
Someone laughed so close by I could have reached out and touched him. “Wardrobe malfunction?”
I leapt a foot sideways, my pelt slipping off my arm the way it had a habit of doing. As if my lupine nature wasn’t entirely quiescent when shed into a leathery skin. As if its wishes trumped my own.
Now, the pesky skin slid down to land on the grass between us. And before I could snatch it back up, the stranger’s hand slid across my discarded fur.
A ghost caress ran up the full length of my spine. My breath caught in my throat. It had been years since anyone touched my pelt.
The stranger’s voice was deep and smooth, like water against river rocks. “What’s this?”
“It’s….” I shook my head, unable to believe I’d almost answered. It’s what woelfin use for transformation. It’s the other half of my self, my most precious possession.
It’s the memory of my worst lapse of judgement. The only way to correct a decade-old mistake.
I cleared my throat and went on the offensive. “It’s mine. Give it back.”
Unfortunately, no pelt appeared in my peripheral vision. Even when I remembered my humanity and tacked on a modifier:
Instead, a ghost thumb blazed a semicircle behind my left earlobe. Well, behind my pelt’s left earlobe. The stranger was teasing his fingers through my shed fur. Stroking gently, curiously. Was that good news or bad?
His reply, when it came, rumbled through my belly like a drumbeat. “Look at me.”
My eyes remained riveted on the ground, fixed on the dandelion down caught in my right-most toe cleft. I’d learned the hard way that non-woelfin were spooked by amber irises. I shook my head rather than obey him.
We were at an impasse. Silence lengthened. Crickets restarted. There was no traffic.
Eventually, I rounded my shoulders and mumbled an explanation at my toenails. “I’m sorry. I thought this was a park, not private property.”
“And the ten-foot-high fence?”
I couldn’t help myself. My mouth quirked sideways. “To keep out zombie giraffes.”
He laughed, the sound rich and enticing. I felt rather than saw as his whole hand massaged my pelt this time. My human neck turned jelly-soft beneath the caress.
His words tensed me back up in short order. “Do you need help?”
Of course I needed help. My cousin was dying. I craved a time machine. Or perhaps a way to break into the vast, dark house before me and steal back what didn’t rightfully belong to the people inside.
What I had was a man dropping down to kneel so close I was finally forced to look at him. His eyes were the stormy blue of a sunlit ocean. His dark curls had tousled free of any civilized arrangement. His shirt was misbuttoned, as if he’d seen me lurking in the shadows and half-dressed before rushing over to hunt me down.
“Is this your home?” Words tumbled out before I could stop them.
He shook his head. “Yours?”
“Heh. No.” The hem of my t-shirt was ragged and holey. The house—almost a mansion—was extravagant. The fact this stranger could even ask that question proved he was either delusional or kind.
He stared into my eyes, not flinching at their color. “Here.”
My pelt lay atop his hands, halfway between us. For one insane instant, I imagined leaving it there. His touch was blissful. The unfamiliar intimacy was gut-wrenching.
Instead, I asked the most relevant question in the face of this overwhelming attraction: “Do you have a twin?”
His brows drew together, but he didn’t request further explanation. Just shook his head and dashed the hope sparking in my belly.
“Ah, well, then.” I turned away. If he didn’t have a twin, he wasn’t for me.
Snatching my pelt out of the stranger’s lax fingers, I grabbed up jeans, shoes, and socks in one hurried gesture. I was halfway to the fence, plotting my escape route when he called after me.
“My name is Luke.”
A low-hanging limb assisted my ascent. Scrambling across the scrap of carpet I’d lugged along to shield against razor wire, my bare ankle nonetheless snagged on a protruding point.
An inhaled breath from below. I glanced down in time to see the man—Luke—catch a droplet of my blood in his outstretched fingers.
“Clothes,” he suggested. “They’re for wearing.”
I shrugged, shoving off the carpet then grabbing one corner to take the square with me. Down, down, down. I landed on the sidewalk on two bent legs.
Straightening, I found myself eye to eye with Luke, nothing but air and fence between us. In the seconds I’d been busy, he’d lowered himself to perch on the edge of a concrete planter. Despite the fact I’d used perfect plummeting posture this time, my lungs felt as windstruck as when I’d landed on my back a few moments before.
Luke was tall and broad but not muscle-bound. The veins on his hands stood out even in the shadows. He was strength and power incarnate.
He was also patient. His head cocked but he didn’t request my identity a second time.
Perhaps that’s why I gave it to him.
“Honor. I’m Honor, master zombie-giraffe hunter.”
Then, without allowing myself another moment for banter, I turned to flee from the home I’d hoped to burglarize in an attempt to regain the right to use my name.
Justice was right where I’d left him two blocks over. And still my breath caught in my throat when he stepped out of the shadows.
Because my nearly-a-lawyer cousin—double cousin, actually, the son of my father’s brother and mother’s sister—looked just like his dying twin. Both were olive-skinned with straight dark hair and eyes like wells of understanding. But only Justice peered at me as if I was dog shit stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
I coughed to clear my throat of the bitterness of his expression, then attempted to explain my hot cheeks away. “I ran here.”
Bastion would have known that cough was an evasion. Justice simply didn’t care.
Well, he didn’t care about my emotional volatility. He did care about the mission that had drawn us back into the close proximity we’d eschewed for years.
His eyes slid over me, ignoring my nakedness. “You don’t have it.”
I hugged my pelt closer to my chest before I shook my head in deflated confirmation. I didn’t have it, so we should….
My hand went for the door of the car Justice had been leaning against, but he pushed between me and the metal. “You realize we’re on a deadline. A permanent deadline.”
I clenched my fists, then relaxed them. Reminded myself that it was Justice’s brother who lost a little more will to live with each passing hour. Plus, Justice was skipping a very important capstone seminar to help us hunt for Bastion’s pelt. His surliness deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Still, his ailing brother and I were closer than siblings. We’d been a family of two for the past few years, out earning cash to pay for the others’ education. It wasn’t as if I was likely to forget that our seven-day window had already dwindled down to just a hair more than five.
Bastion’s decline was a pang in my gut that I ached to mitigate. And I had a temporary solution right there in my arms.
Lifting my shed skin until it nearly touched Justice’s nostrils, I raised my eyebrows at the exact same time. “We can stand here all night, or I can use my pelt to ease your brother’s pain.”
Justice’s nostrils flared. “It’s not a pelt. It’s a wolfsfell.”
This argument was cozy as a well-worn blanket. So I baited him, hoping for something lost a decade earlier. “Semantics. If you’d chosen the name ‘Fred’ instead of ‘Justice’ when you were a teenager, would you have been any less likely to study law?”
For one moment, I thought I’d hooked my cousin into his favorite pastime—arguing words and their meanings. My shoulders loosened. Maybe our relationship wasn’t irredeemably broken.
But then Justice’s eyes narrowed. “You’re talking hospice care.” He turned away from me to peer up at the Smythewhites’ rooftop, barely visible as it towered above nearby buildings. “My brother can handle a little ache here and there. What he needs is his own wolfsfell.”
I followed Justice’s gaze, wishing it had been as easy as I’d hoped to swipe back the decade-old stolen object. “I couldn’t get inside the house,” I admitted after a long moment. “There was a guard dog….”
And a man. Tall, dark, handsome….
Irrelevant, I decided, leaving the guard dog as the only road block worth mentioning aloud.
“I’ll research it.” Justice pulled out his phone as if he planned to dive into the issue here and now, after midnight, on a darkened street corner.
He still hadn’t moved out of my way or offered his car keys.
At his brother’s name, my cousin glanced up. For half a second he was the quarter of our pack he’d been in our youth. The strong, silent type with an emphasis on the first adjective. The one we all sought out when we needed an ear that would never retell our secrets…even if he might pick our grammar apart.
But that familiarity must have been a trick of the light. Because I shifted to my other foot and Justice’s listening glance turned into a scowl.
“We’re low on cash,” he told me. “Make yourself useful.”
He held out his hands, waiting for me to drop my clothes into them. Then he turned resolutely away as I slung my pelt across my shoulders and fell onto four paws.
Despite wanting to quell Bastion’s pain, it was a relief to avoid my newly reunited family for a short while. Among them, I was out of my element. Alone, I could spend at least a few hours returning to what I did best.
So I ran, following the thread of an online conversation struck up hours earlier. “Wife beater slipped me on Madison Ave,” a local had messaged. “Interested? 50/50 cut.”
At the time, I’d scratched my head, wondering why and how Bastion had managed to update his profile on the Bounty Hunter’s Forum in between bouts of vomiting and feverish napping. Because that was the only way our local counterpart could have guessed we were in town.
Knowing my sunny cousin, Bastion had probably thought he’d shake off his sickness then get back to work within hours. He hadn’t, of course. Instead, I’d been the one stuck answering pesky PMs from people I’d never met but who felt like they knew me. That’s what came of Bastion’s forum stories, thrusting thousands of interested readers into our day-to-day lives.
In this case, I’d messaged back a curt: “On vacation.”
“Just in case you get bored,” the local had countered, following up with his telephone number.
I wasn’t bored, but I was in need of both cash and distraction. So I turned toward Madison Avenue, allowing myself to forget both the past and the future. My claws clicked through the silence of suburban sleep as I achieved the site in question. The street was dark, residential. It was after midnight.
And the perp? Jimmy English hadn’t traveled far from the spot where he’d last been sighted. I followed the gray grunge of predator-turned-prey aroma for half a mile until it strengthened into the garlicky smugness of triumph.
The bail jumper had returned home. Of course he had. Didn’t we all crave our dens?
My local counterpart swore the wife hadn’t seen her husband in days. And she probably hadn’t. In wolf skin, I couldn’t see Jimmy either, tucked away in the kids’ treehouse.
But I could smell him. Could hear him. Knew from the scent of rage on the step closest to the bottom that the wife beater was plotting revenge.
Revenge on his spouse, who might not even know her husband had failed to show up for his court hearing yesterday. She was inside, unprotected. He was outside, sharpening his rage.
The capture couldn’t wait until morning. We needed to settle this immediately.
And…I needed backup. Without a human partner—or, you know, clothes—it would be difficult to apprehend a criminal. Apparently I’d been running on adrenaline all night long.
Luckily, suburbanites are lax with locks. I gnawed my pelt off my shoulders then pried the garage door upward, cringing when wheels squeaked on their metal tracks.
But nothing came out of the darkness to check on my intrusion. And inside was just what I’d hoped I’d see.
Stairs leading into what appeared to be a man cave. Old beer. Old socks. Everything old.
Meanwhile, off in one corner, the rarest of modern utilities—a land-line telephone.
Also old. But when I lifted the receiver, I was greeted by a dial tone.
I dialed the local bounty hunter’s digits from memory. Realized too late that I was likely waking him up.
Only, I wasn’t. Slim’s voice was curt. “What?”
“This is Honor. I changed my mind. Wanna be my backup?”
I rattled off my current location…then froze as the point of a knife dug into the base of my skull.
I could hear my uncle’s voice in crisp, vivid memory. “A blade plus your wolf teeth is all you need to protect yourself and your family. A dagger is the weapon of the strong.”
Despite myself, I hummed satisfaction. Because the holder of this particular blade was strong, even though she likely didn’t think she was. The knife point didn’t wiggle even though the woman’s voice, when it emerged, squeaked up, up, up.
“Who are you?”
“I’m a fugitive recovery agent, ma’am. Here to pick up your husband.” I hesitated a moment, then offered further reassurance. “I’m totally unarmed.”
The knife point slid sideways. The overhead light flickered on. To my surprise, the woman behind me laughed.
“I can see that.” Her tone had turned dry.
Which is when I remembered that I was naked save for the pelt wrapped around one wrist like a bracer. I turned…
…and sprinted toward the man looming in the doorway behind her. After all, Mrs. English might be strong when faced with a naked female, but she’d let herself be beaten by her husband for years before reporting him.
And that husband was the one who’d snuck up on both of us. His scent was unavailable to my human nostrils. But I’d perused his mugshot. Knew his face.
Jimmy English. Wife beater and bond jumper in the flesh.
He was furious. Our voices must have drawn him closer. Then he’d assumed—what? That his wife had seen him creeping into the treehouse and ratted him out?
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t me but rather his spouse who drew Jimmy’s ire. He charged toward her, wordless rage bellowing. I changed my trajectory to intersect his path.
As I sprinted by, his wife took in the intruder with the same recognition but much more horror than I’d felt at his presence. The barely healed wound along one side of her jaw was bright red now, her face having whitened around it. She flinched as if the two broken ribs Jimmy left her with had shattered a second ago rather than last week.
I was the naked one, but it was as if Jimmy English’s arrival had stripped his spouse of something far more valuable than mere clothes.
No wonder she cringed, seeming to lose half her height in a second. The knife she’d been holding clattered to the floor.
Scum is awfully good at taking advantage of opportunities. No wonder Jimmy dove past me, stretching for the weapon that would provide the upper hand he should have already possessed by virtue of his bulk.
I couldn’t let him have it. Mrs. English needed the strength of success, not another beating by her husband.
Jimmy’s upper lip curled into a sneer. And I took advantage of his posturing to slide my arm through the gap between his fingers and the weapon.
Too bad my pelt had a mind of its own.
Wolf teeth caught on Jimmy’s elbow, and he lashed out instinctively. I don’t think he even had time to choose a target. Just got lucky when his fist connected with my breast so hard I yelped.
I expected the sound of my pain to send Mrs. English scurrying for cover. Instead, she appeared to have recovered her spine.
Or so I guessed. My eyes were watering too hard to really see her. But I felt the jolt as she kicked her husband with the full force of years of pent-up aggression.
“You bastard! You really think it’s okay to hit a woman young enough to be our daughter?”
Her heel in his groin shook both of us. I rolled sideways away from the burly monster who’d crumpled into a pile of deflated testosterone at his wife’s furious feet.
Mrs. English kept kicking while I leveraged myself upright. Headlights curved across the wall behind me…then stopped.
The timeline had moved up faster than anticipated. Slim must have been out cruising—no wonder the answer to my call had been so prompt.
I’d intended to chase Jimmy into the front yard in wolf form, leaving the capture to my partner. Teaming up with Bastion, the move would have been seamless. Even with a stranger for a partner, I should have been able to stick to the shadows and let Slim cuff our perp.
After that, I would have shifted and called out instructions. Made myself known and ensured I landed my cut of the bounty.
But now I was naked, in a lit room, watching a marital dispute that seemed destined to continue. Because with every kick, the wife appeared to be learning to inhale.
I could steal some clothes, intervene and talk Mrs. English around until she was confused about my former nakedness. Stick to the plan. Refill the pack’s dwindling coffers.
Or I could walk away and let this wronged wife complete her retribution. Slim would find them at his leisure. Jimmy would go back to jail, so the same end would be accomplished. I’d just fail to make my own contribution clear.
“So much for cash,” I muttered, toeing the knife sideways so it wouldn’t end up part of the marital tussle. Justice would be pissed at the lack of cash flow, but I inhaled deeper than I had in hours. For the first time all day, the name “Honor” hung unwrinkled across my shoulders.
Sliding past the raging wife, I shifted in the stairwell and wriggled out beneath the raised garage door. Then I waited in the shadows until Slim disentangled himself from his seatbelt and made his way upstairs.
I slunk back to the fleabag motel where my pack camped, exhausted and craving my family. Halfway there, my head started pounding. The sensation was sharp, intense…then abruptly gone.
I shook away transient pain and kept on running. By the time I made it to the foot of the stairs leading up to the motel landing, dawn was just beginning to gray the sky.
The hour was either very late or very early, depending on your perspective. I didn’t expect anyone to have waited up for me. But as soon as I shivered out of my wolf body, the door swung open above my head.
Darkness fled. Light cupped me. My twin stepped out onto the concrete landing and leaned down over the rail.
Like Justice and Bastion, Grace and I were biologically identical…yet we’d never be mistaken for each other. Grace was well named, her body slender where mine was athletically curvy. Perfectly managed hair poured over her right shoulder in stark contrast to my endlessly tangled mop of curls.
Until recently, we hadn’t spent more than a weekend of our adulthood together. Grace had focused on finishing up her undergraduate degree at RISD before landing a sought-after fashion-design internship. I’d been hunting criminals with Bastion while attempting to redeem my sins.
No wonder we had very little to talk about.
Now, though, Grace and I were united with one purpose. “How is he?” I asked, slipping past so I could peer around the door jamb. Justice was hunched over a computer in one corner. A dark lump on the opposite bed was smaller than it should have been.
“Worse.” Grace breathed out through her nose, as frustrated as I was. We both watched as Bastion turned restlessly underneath heavy covers. It was high summer, yet our cousin could never seem to get warm.
Then he moaned, and my feet carried me closer until I could lean over where he curled beneath the bedspread. Tomorrow, we would revamp our plan for finding Bastion’s pelt. We’d discuss avenues Justice might have found online while I was bounty hunting. Then the three of us would turn our strategy into fact.
Tonight, all I could do was give my favorite cousin a little fleeting comfort. My pelt slid off my shoulders as if it was a living being. I shook out the skin to its full extent, let it drift down to cover Bastion like a shroud.
No, not like a shroud. Like a blanket. A cocoon, both warm and healing.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then Bastion’s deep exhaustion bit into my bones.
He wasn’t just worse; he was floundering. There was little of my cousin left inside this body. Just fever and emptiness leading to dark, endless sleep.
His eyes had sunk into their sockets, his family resemblance to our dead parents during their last week of life starkly evident. Bastion was dying because of my mistake, just as Justice and Grace would decline if the thief started using their stolen pelts.
No wonder the pair wanted nothing to do with me. Yet when my legs buckled, hands were there to catch me. Justice on one side, Grace on the other. Together, my family lowered me until I lay next to Bastion on the bed.
A damp cloth materialized on my forehead. Someone’s fingers twined through mine. I barely felt the contact, so intense was the agony of virtual ice picks pounding into my skull.
Beside me, Bastion stirred. Sat up. “You shouldn’t…” His hand was steady as it peeled the pelt off his chest and shoulders.
As the fur lifted, pain eased within me. The two-day-old lines bracketing Bastion’s mouth tightened at the exact same moment.
Either I bore the pain or he did. I was grateful when Grace reached over and dislodged his fingers.
“Leave it,” Grace said sternly. “She wants to.”
The pelt fell. The pain returned with a vengeance. My head now pounded like a gong being rung by a dozen drunk chimpanzees.
And for once, my twin was right. I did want this.
I nodded. Bastion hesitated, then left my pelt where it had fallen across his body.
Relieved, I reached for returning agony as if it was a hand-quilted comforter, pulling it close around my sullied soul.
Hard hands pushed me off the edge of the bed and I didn’t manage to grab onto anything solid. I hit the ground butt-first—good thing my rear end is padded.
“Whereza fire?” I slurred as I blinked open my eyes. Sun poured through the window, turning Justice into a silhouette. But I understood his head shake. As he turned away, I could imagine him rolling his eyes.
No wonder he was pissed. It felt like only a few minutes had passed since I let unconsciousness salve my agony, but the sun’s position suggested I’d slept for most of the day. Behind me, Bastion was once again hunched under the covers, my pelt discarded. He must have soaked up every ounce of the energy I’d manage to store during my short time in fur the previous night.
Was it just my imagination, though, or did he seem to be sleeping more soundly than he had yesterday? That realization did more than an aspirin for melting away the pounding inside my skull.
“There is no dog.” Grace prodded me with a pointed boot toe, reminding me that I couldn’t sit on the mildewed carpet forever.
The floor slipped sideways as I tried to press myself up to standing. My hair frizzed across my face, blocking my view. I grabbed onto the side of the bed to balance myself while my balance spun like a tilt-a-whirl. “You know that how exactly?” I croaked.
“Went through their garbage.” I raised my eyebrows and Grace flushed. “Justice went through their garbage,” she corrected herself. “No Alpo cans.”
“So they feed it dry dog food.”
“…and I dropped by to see the town dog catcher. Nobody from that address has ever applied for a dog license.” This time, Grace didn’t wait for my argument. “Yes, I know that’s private information. But I dressed to impress. He looked it up for me anyway.”
I reached across the rumpled bedspread to regain my pelt. The fur was cold at first, but hairs warmed as I stroked them. Alertness unfurled inside my human skin.
With returning clarity came the harsh reminder of reality. One week after each of our parents had started to decline, they’d faded away at midnight.
My stomach clenched. That wouldn’t happen to Bastion. I wouldn’t let it.
“Today’s day three,” I said aloud, running the back of my hand across Bastion’s forehead. Beads of sweat came away on my fingers, but he didn’t move beneath my ministrations.
As best we could tell, being separated from our pelts only caused harm once someone started using the missing items. That same manipulation gave us a small window of opportunity when we could track down the stolen skin.
Unlike with our parents, this time we’d been lucky. Proximity and youth meant Bastion had been able to point us in the direction of his stolen pelt before he became delirious.
Unfortunately, he was no longer strong enough to narrow down the search window. Our luck was rapidly running out.
Or maybe not. “Five hours until showtime,” Grace informed me, waving what appeared to be a newspaper clipping through the air in triumph. When I just stared in confusion, she deigned to elaborate.
“Benefit party at the Smythewhites this evening.”
It was time to create our own luck.