"Maybe your little bitch asshole, Ray, from all the cock that's been stuffed up it."
Evan felt himself brace involuntarily, as though Brad's casually-spoken comeback had been a yell of Incoming or Fire in the hole or whatever it was going to turn out these guys actually yelled when a bomb was about to go off. All of the Marines Evan had met swapped breeding-related insults all the time, but demographics being what they were, this was the first one Evan had heard leveled at a Marine who actually was brother to a bitch.
Ray gave a toothy grin, and Navi stuck her head up over Ray's knee to give an even more self-satisfied version of the same expression, accompanied by a growl that was almost a groan.
"Fuck yeah, that burns for a few days," Ray said, in a boasting tone, as if Brad hadn't insulted him at all--completely the reverse. "Takes a real man to take it up the ass."
Ray bumped his fist gently against Navi's muzzle. She licked his knuckles and then disappeared back down into the armored box under Ray's seat.
"But Navi's strictly a once-a-year kind of girl, so I've got seven or eight more months of pain-free shitting to look forward to. And even when our once-a-year comes up again," Ray went on, turning in his seat to speak directly to Evan, who was gradually realizing that this, like everything else so far, was just an exercise, "Brad's totally out of fucking luck. No breeding in the same company, unless you're--"
"Ray," Brad snapped.
Frost, who was perpetually half out of his box, didn't bother lifting his head from Brad's thigh as he bared his teeth and issued a sincerely menacing growl. Evan had instinctively backed away the first dozen times he'd heard it, but he was starting to gain some confidence that Frost wouldn't actually tear out his throat or anyone else's outside of combat. No matter how easy it would be for him.
Apparently undeterred by either Brad or Frost, Ray rattled on. "Unless you're not in the same company anymore, Jesus, I'm just saying. If I get out and the Corps decides they need another ten litters of little Navis, then I'm getting fucked like clockwork once a year for the next ten years, but, bonus, we can request that Navi's babydaddy is a wolf from our former unit, so Brad can finally get a piece of my fine ass while Frost and Navi make little Navi-Frosts, and nobody has to worry about Team One turning into a crazy feral wolf pack, because me and my sister are chillin' back home while she cooks up the pups."
For a moment, Evan was choking on all the different questions he wanted to ask, now that it was so obviously all right to ask. He stole a glance at Frost while he was still trying to choose one, and found the wolf staring unnervingly directly at him. He flicked a glance toward Brad, but Brad was staring expressionlessly out the window. No help.
Looking back at Ray, Evan asked the most general of all the questions that occurred to him. "Can that actually happen? A wolf pack like that, I mean, in the modern--"
"Can that actually," Ray repeated, sounding incredulous and outraged all at once. "Reporter, had you ever met a real live wolf before you came over here? Did your grandpa have a brother from when he fought in the war?"
Evan blinked. "Uh, yeah, he did. He was in the Army, he brought his brother home, and when I was a kid--"
"Okay, see, that's where you're totally wrong," Ray said, shaking his head like a dog--no, like a wolf--shaking off water. "You never met a fucking wolf. You met your grandpa's brother, who was a thirty-seven-year-old fat-as-fuck mass-produced Army wolf from 1942, who probably would never have been rated service-quality if they hadn't needed to turn out a fucking million wolves in a year. You rode that thing like a fucking pony when you were a kid, don't tell me you didn't, and you think that's a wolf. You don't know fuck about wolves in the modern professional military, and--"
"Well that's why I--" Evan started to say.
Brad cut them both off, abruptly turning to look back toward Ray. "Because Navi's a fucking alpha bitch in the making?"
Brad's tone had turned genuinely angry--cold and clipped, nothing like the usual drawl of his insults to Ray, with a bass line of growling supplied by Frost. "Like, what, any year now when she actually hits that growth spurt she's going to hook up with Frost and throw the whole company out of whack? Like one wolf would follow her--"
Navi had her head up between Ray's knees, but she didn't make a sound, just stared steadily over at Frost. Ray had one hand hovering over the top of her head, not quite touching. "Fuck you, my sister's a fucking Recon Marine, she doesn't have to be a fucking Siberian giant to have the best ears in the battalion, and actually the whole fucking battalion is following--"
"My brother would follow Navi," Trombley piped up, blithely cutting into something that seemed to be shaping up into an actual fight.
Evan completely failed to avoid looking over at Trombley and his brother. The wolf was inside his armored box, but his unblinking odd-colored eyes glowed out of the dimness, and Trombley, as always, had one hand stuffed in after the wolf. His hand moved constantly, petting the invisible killing machine in the dark.
From above their heads, Garza's disembodied voice chimed in. "Ghost would totally make Ghost-babies with Navi, but he thinks Frost is a better team leader."
"Of fucking course Frost is a better team leader, he's Frost," Ray snapped, dropping his hand to rest on the back of Navi's neck, and Brad looked sharply away again. "All I'm saying is that Frost doesn't get to fuck Navi or any other bitch in Bravo Company for really good and obvious reasons, so Brad should probably stop fantasizing about my asshole and all the cock that gets stuffed up it."
No one argued with that. Even the wolves subsided into silence.
Evan put his head down and started scribbling down notes so he could reconstruct this whole conversation later. There was a moment of near-total silence in the Humvee. Then a shadow fell over Evan, and he looked up to see Mike Wynn and his sister, Ash, leaning into Brad's window.
Ash actually lunged through the window after a second, putting the front half of her body in Brad's lap while her back legs stayed outside. Brad didn't respond to that at all, and Mike said, "We're staying put for a while, guys. Twenty-five percent watch."
Evan wasn't really listening to Mike, though, because Ash was closing her jaws on the back of Frost's neck--the vulnerable stripe between the collar of his MOPP suit and the place where his desert-clip ended and white fur fluffed out around his head like a mane. Frost lifted his head into her grip, letting out a low whuff that sounded mildly annoyed. Ash shifted her attack and started licking his face.
Evan had never wanted so badly to pull out his camera, nor had he ever been so certain it would get him killed.
Mike was still talking. "Brad, the LT's meeting with team leaders individually, just to go over our current status--" and meanwhile Frost got sick of having his face washed, pulled away and snapped his teeth harmlessly at Ash, then licked her nose. "Find him before you go to sleep. Three of you need to catch some shut-eye."
"Sleep?" Trombley demanded. "What kind of fucked-up war is this?"
Ash, finished with whatever that had been with Frost, looked around the Humvee. She didn't make a sound, but Navi popped up from under Ray's seat, and Trombley's smoke-gray brother stuck his head out over Trombley's shoulder, both obviously checking in with the Gunny's sister.
"I can't sleep, never mind going anywhere, with your sister in my lap," Brad said, though still without trying to push her away. He sounded utterly at ease, as if that whole argument--whatever it had actually been about--hadn't happened. Frost, with his head back down on Brad's thigh, had his eyes nearly closed and his ears splayed. He looked half asleep.
Ash turned her head from checking on the wolves and closed her teeth on Brad's hand, just as she had on the nape of Frost's neck.
"Yeah, yeah, we got other guys to check on," Mike said, backing away from the window. Ash followed, but promptly darkened Evan's window, rearing up with her paws against the top of the door--checking on Ghost up on the roof, of course.
"Garza," Mike called up, "how are your legs?"
Brad, set free, opened his door. Frost popped out first, and Brad followed on his heels. Evan couldn't escape with Ash blocking his door. Trombley, despite his objections, seemed all set to go to sleep where he was, with his head half into his brother's box. Ray was leaning forward, helmet to the steering wheel.
"Brad doesn't mind, and that thing's an oven. Come on. I'm going to actually bake cookies in there, you have to get out."
Ray sat back and pushed the Blue Force Tracker screen out of the way, and Navi popped up between his legs and scrambled over to Brad's seat. She stuck her head out the window, and her tongue lolled out. In the bright sunshine, you could see why her color of gray was called blue. Evan studied her for a moment, wondering if it was a good or a bad sign that after a week among Marines she looked tiny to him--her MOPP suit was even more ridiculously baggy around her than most wolves'--when she probably weighed a hundred pounds.
"Ray," Evan said, tearing his eyes away. "One more question."
"No, Beaver Hunt," Ray said, as he reached over to push back the legs of Navi's MOPP suit to free her feet. "You don't get to fuck Navi either, Jesus, you would make the most fucked up hippie communist werewolf babies ever. Plus, no offense, she says you smell terrible and she's not going to be in the mood again until October at the earliest, and even then only if it's not a hundred degrees outside. If you want a female that bad you're going to have to find a human one."
Evan decided, after a couple of seconds of thought, not to touch any of that. "Why don't any of you ever say Trombley's brother's name?"
Without moving his head out of the armored box, so that he sounded weirdly flat and far away, Trombley said, "They just don't--"
"Shut up, Trombley," Ray snapped, and Navi turned her head back into the Humvee to give a genuinely harsh snarl. Maybe sitting in Brad's seat conferred the ability to actually be menacing.
"Trombley gave his brother a stupid name," Ray said. "We don't say it. That's all."
Evan frowned. Evan's idea of a stupid name was demonstrably not the same as a Marine's--Gung Ho and Doom and Kanji (not something written in kanji, just ... Kanji) were apparently entirely normal--but....
"Lilley's brother is named Fluffy," Evan said slowly, feeling his way along. "And Jacks's brother is Princess, and--"
"Fluffy and Princess and Baby are all named Eagle," Ray corrected. "There's a fuckton of Eagles. It used to be Liberty or Victory, but the last few years everybody and his brother named their brother Eagle. Kocher's brother over in third platoon is the senior Eagle in the company, so he gets to be actually called Eagle. The rest of 'em are called whatever everybody calls them. Trombley's brother's name is a whole other fucked up thing."
Obviously there was no point in asking what kind of fucked up thing it was; Ray wasn't going to tell him, and wouldn't let Trombley tell him, either. "But he has another name, right? All wolves have two names, the one you give them and the... wolf name."
"Scent name," Ray agreed. "We get ours from them just like they get their spoken names from us. But we're not going to go around calling Trombley's brother Warm Gun--"
"Hot metal, gun oil, cordite," Trombley corrected, his voice still coming out hollow from half-inside his brother's box.
"Which is what a warm gun smells like," Ray insisted. "But yeah, no, we're not calling him that, either, thanks. We could call him He Who Must Not Be Named, but it's way faster to just not say his name."
Trombley picked his head up. "You could call him Voldemort. Voldemort is badass. That would be okay."
Evan stared. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Ray staring. Even Navi, who probably didn't get the reference--although what the fuck did Evan know, she was named after a video game, she probably absorbed pop culture from her brother by osmosis--was staring.
Finally, Ray said, "Go to sleep, Trombley. And you," Ray pointed an accusing finger at Evan, like it was his fault when Trombley said stuff like that. "You are definitely never, ever going to be allowed to fuck my sister."
"I... figured," Evan said, nodding. He finally realized there was light coming through his window, and fled the Humvee.
As had already become usual, Evan only made it about three steps from the Humvee before Bo broke off from what she was doing--helping Christeson and his brother dig their grave--to zero in on him. Lieutenant Fick had seemed okay with having Evan ride with Second Platoon, but Fick's sister seemed determined to make sure that he didn't cause any trouble while he was here. Evan knew the drill now, and stood still while Bo sniffed him all over--what she could smell through a MOPP suit, he had no idea, but he wasn't about to argue with a gigantic military wolf.
Bo was the tallest wolf in the platoon--her shoulder came up almost to the bottom of Evan's flak vest--but not the biggest. She was lightly built, with narrow shoulders and long legs. She had short, sleek fur that was brindled in pale and darker tan. She was desert camouflaged all by herself. Fick had told him that her known ancestry in Saudi Arabia went back to the sixteenth century; Bo's mother had been brought to the US after the Gulf War, when everyone realized that desert wars might just be a big thing in the next few decades. It made the woodlands camo on her MOPP suit even more ironic than everyone else's. Without the MOPP suit, Bo herself would be able to just disappear into the sand out here.
Of course, not being able to see Bo was sort of an unnerving thought. Evan realized that a half second before he felt Bo's muzzle jab into his thigh from behind. He took a staggering step forward, and then kept going, letting Bo move him across the impromptu encampment. Their goal turned out to be the little bit of shade available next to the command vehicle. Even looked down at her when they got there, and Bo gave him another shove on the hip, backing him up against one of the wheels. When there was no further Evan could back away from her, she snapped her teeth a couple of times.
Evan stood very still.
Fifteen feet away, Fick turned his head and called out, "She wants you to sit down and stay where she can keep an eye on you."
Evan raised his hand to wave awkwardly, and he thought Fick smiled a little before he went back to talking with Pappy. Fick really didn't seem to have a problem with Evan, but maybe he just hid his suspicion better. Maybe he and Bo were doing good cop/bad cop.
Evan sat down, and Bo--whose head was higher than Evan's when he was sitting on the ground--snapped her teeth in his face. Stay was as clear as if Evan were plugged into that pack-sense Marines were always talking about, or as if Bo were his sister instead of Fick's. But then that one was pretty easy.
Apparently satisfied, Bo trotted away again, and Evan watched her go. She didn't break stride as she passed Christeson and his brother, who was also desert blood, solidly dust-colored. Evan was ninety percent sure that his name actually was Dusty. They were nearly finished digging their grave, Christeson neatening the corners while Dusty threw dirt.
Dusty looked up as Bo passed and let out a gruff little noise that sounded exactly like a teenaged boy trying to pitch his voice low when speaking to an adult. Bo turned her head in acknowledgment of his attention, but didn't make a sound.
She dodged around Team Three's Humvee, maybe going to check in with Doc Bryan and his brother, or just keeping tabs on that team. She was out of Evan's sight, though, which meant Evan was--give or take whatever she could tell about what he was doing through the pack-sense from the other wolves--out of her sight, too.
He sat still for a minute, waiting for her to reappear. She didn't, and Evan cautiously stood up, looking around--but he couldn't see her from this vantage point, either. He looked for Fick, just in case.
Fick was standing near the exact center of the space defined by second platoon's Humvees, parked in a double row along the road. Pappy was gone, but Brad had found him, and they stood talking at the typical arm's length distance that would allow both their wolves to sit between them. Bo wasn't taking up her half of the space, though, and Frost was pacing circles around them, as though to protect them from interruption.
That left an empty space between Fick and Brad that neither of them intruded on as Evan watched them. Brad kept his hands clasped behind his back, and Fick's gestures all angled off sideways. That seemed strange, and so did Frost's constant movement, especially against Brad's utter stillness. Wolves and their brothers usually mirrored each other more than that.
Evan looked around again for Bo just as she came around the far side of a Humvee. She stopped and stared directly at Evan, and he felt his knees wobble with the impulse to sit down before she made him sit down. Bo looked away before Evan could actually move, though. Her gaze went straight to her brother, and Brad, and Frost, who was circling them both like they belonged to him.
Evan waited for Bo to rush in, to knock Frost away from her brother and take her rightful place. He'd been told--and had already seen evidence to support--that wolves were more possessive of their brothers than of food, water, anything.
Bo kept still, and Evan looked back and forth like he was at a tennis match. Brad unbent far enough to nod as Fick pointed to something down the road; Bo didn't move. Brad spoke and Fick seemed to mirror him unconsciously, dropping his hands and keeping perfectly still as he listened; Bo didn't move. Frost made another circuit; Bo didn't move.
Fick turned his head to look past Brad, and something in his posture told Evan that he was making eye contact with Bo, maybe speaking to her silently.
Bo turned and trotted away without looking back.
That was... past weird. Evan found himself ducking his head again, looking down at his notes just as he had in the Humvee. He still had to unravel what had happened there. Brad hadn't wanted Ray to say something, had been really serious about Ray not saying it, but he hadn't objected to any of the thousand things Ray did say. Not until Ray worked his way around to the idea of a unit going feral--and then Brad had said, furiously, that it couldn't happen with Navi.
Because Navi was nowhere near being an alpha bitch.
No breeding within the company, Ray had started to say, unless you're--like there was an unless he knew about, and that unless was something Brad and Frost didn't want spoken out loud.
Evan kept his head down. He didn't look around for anyone. They all had to be able to see it. Fick and Brad were standing right in the center of the platoon--right where everyone could see exactly what they were or weren't doing, in fact. And just as conspicuously, Bo and Frost were avoiding each other completely.
Evan jumped like hell when somebody slapped him on the shoulder, but it wasn't Fick, or Brad, so that was something. It was Poke, with his hulking brother by his side. Doom was jet black, half again as wide as Bo, and his teeth were almost exactly level with Evan's belt buckle.
"Hey," Poke said, grinning, "you know you don't have to do what the wolves tell you, right?"
Evan glanced down at the sand--he still hadn't stepped out of the shaded spot Bo had pushed him into. He smiled cautiously back at Poke. "Even that wolf?"
Poke laughed. "Yeah, okay. Hey, Hitman Two Whiskey Actual." Poke turned his head in the direction Evan had last seen Bo heading, but he didn't raise his voice, and he wasn't wearing a radio. Whether it was the pack-sense or lupine hearing, Bo appeared a second later, leaping up onto the top of Team Three's Humvee.
Poke grabbed the back of Evan's neck--Evan was sharply reminded of Ash's grip on Frost--and said in the same low voice, "Me and my brother got your boy, okay?"
Bo nodded, a sharp and completely un-wolf-like gesture that she had to have copied from Fick. She turned away and jumped down, and Poke dropped his hand far enough to give Evan a little shove. Doom moved to flank him as they started walking, keeping him sandwiched between man and wolf.
"You couldn't just say hey, Bo?" Evan asked, though even as he said it he realized that he couldn't have. He couldn't really summon the spit to talk when Bo was too close to him.
Poke raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, sure, right before I scratch her ears and tell her how pretty she is, and then she takes my arm off at the shoulder. Regs say every human outranks every wolf, but some wolves are more human than others."
Evan frowned. "So where's the line, then? When do humans really outrank wolves?"
Poke shrugged, leading them around the Humvee to the side facing open desert. "Humans get fed first, watered first, cas-evaced first, treated first in the field even though the wolves got their own corpsman. But nobody's going to eat all his food when his brother's hungry or drink all his water when his brother's thirsty or let the doc look at him first if his brother is hurt worse. Mostly what it means is if the LT gets smoked in a firefight--"
Doom looked up sharply at Poke, and Poke, without looking down at his brother, spat on the ground and kicked sand over the spot. Doom looked back out to the desert.
"--then the platoon does what Gunny tells us, not what Bo tells us. But Gunny'd be telling us to do what Bo wanted anyway, which is fucking destroy the bad guys who did it, so it's all pretty much covered. We follow our leaders. The regs are just something for the man to hang you on if you fuck up."
Evan looked from the spot on the ground where Poke had spit to Poke, who was staring into the desert. For all Evan knew, he was still talking, to Doom or to anyone else in the platoon through the pack-sense. Evan tried staring out into the desert, too, but he kept seeing the empty space between Fick and Brad behind them, Bo's utter stillness and Frost's restless motion. He really didn't want to think about the fact that for all the things Marines were willing to say, there were also things they evidently couldn't.
"We were talking about wolves' names, in the Humvee," Evan said, still looking out into the desert, so it could be just an idle observation if Poke wanted to ignore him.
Poke looked over, though, with an expression Evan couldn't read. "That what you were talking about? Trombley's brother? Everybody felt pretty tense for a little while there."
Because of course the rest of Team One had known when Brad and Ray were arguing, even if they happened not to have heard every word. Evan shrugged and tried not to smile. Whatever was conspicuously not going on between Fick and Brad--or between Bo and Frost, if that could possibly be a separate question--the whole platoon had to know it. It had only taken Evan, a wolfless man, a week to notice. It had to be all over the pack-sense. Maybe everyone talked about it silently, where Evan couldn't hear.
"I was just wondering," Evan said, looking down at Doom and sticking to the safer line of questioning. "Why Doom?"
Poke grinned. "Cause he's the motherfucking doom of the enemy, dog. Look at him, my brother's a stone cold killing machine, nothing escapes his wrath."
Before Poke said it, that was more or less what Evan would have guessed, but Poke sounded much too cheerful about that explanation. Doom chose that moment to flop over onto his side, waving all four feet in the air to get the legs of his MOPP suit to slide down. Poke moved to kneel beside him, and leaned over Doom to brush sand off the pads of his feet while Doom's mouth hung open in a toothy wolf's grin, tongue lolling out on one side.
"His name's not really Doom," Poke explained without looking up. "It's from this Latin thing I read one time. Dum spiro spero, you know that one?"
"Uh," Evan tried frantically to remember. With all the information he'd tried to cram before coming to Iraq, Latin phrases had gotten stuffed into the bottom of his brain somewhere. "That's--where there's life there's hope, right?"
"While I breathe I hope," Poke corrected. His hands were moving more slowly now, methodically touching every spot on each of Doom's feet to check for subtle injuries. "Espera means hope, you know that? Same word. So it always kind of stuck in my head after I read it. And when my brother picked me, out of every guy in our boot camp class--he picked me, and I knew that was it. As long as we live, no matter what, we got each other. As long as I'm breathing, as long as he's breathing. Dum Spiro, that's his real name."
Evan opened his mouth to ask about the wolf's other name, but before Evan could say a word Doom twisted around under Poke's hands to get his feet under himself and took off running straight out into the desert. An even faster camouflage blur went rocketing out on an angle from their right--their three o'clock--and the two met and came to a sharp stop near a rock, maybe thirty feet away. The other wolf was Bo, and she danced backward from something that Evan identified as a huge black snake just as Doom pounced on it in the act of striking toward Bo.
Doom shook the thing, and it swung limply in his grip. Then he dropped it, backed away a couple of steps, and sat down, letting Bo walk up to it and sniff. She bent her head down to it and then straightened up with a sharp toss of her head. There was something black--the snake's head--dangling from her bloody jaws. She turned and jogged toward them with it, and Doom picked up the rest of the snake--one end of it nearly reached the ground--and followed her.
Bo paused in front of Evan, and for a minute he was worried she would drop the bloody snake's head at his feet. What the fuck would that mean?
Poke said, "Hey, you got it, right? No snake's gonna bother your boy here. I told you me and Doom had him, he's good."
Bo jogged off with the snake's head still dangling from her teeth. Doom trotted past them as well, headed purposefully somewhere carrying most of a snake longer than he was tall.
"He owes Princess for a snake he scarfed back at Matilda," Poke semi-explained, turning to follow his brother. Evan obediently trailed them both toward Team Two's Humvee while trying to work out what Poke had said to Bo.
"Wait," Evan said, halfway there, "are you saying Bo is worried about me? That's what all of that is?"
Poke stopped short and looked baffled for a moment. "You think that's how she treats somebody she doesn't like?"
Of course it wasn't, Evan realized. If she didn't like him there would be more teeth. A lot more teeth. He glanced in her direction, thinking of the blood on her muzzle.
Bo had presented the snake's head to Fick, who was standing with Lovell now. Lovell's brother and Bo stood between them, and once Fick had taken the snake's head from Bo, Lovell's brother began licking her muzzle clean; Bo, being taller, bent her head to accept the attention.
Fick took out a knife, cutting the section of the snake's neck that Bo had held between her teeth away from the actual head--that was where the poison was, and this was bound to be a poisonous snake. Fick tossed the chunk of neck, and Bo caught it out of the air and turned away, leaving Fick with a snake's head in one hand and a bloody knife in the other. He turned away--to get rid of both, Evan hoped--and Lovell and Lovell's brother went with him. Lovell's brother kept looking over his shoulder at Bo, who went straight to Christeson and Dusty's grave and dropped the chunk of snake next to Dusty's head.
Dusty sat up in their grave and snapped it up whole, and Bo sat over him, watching him chew. The bones crackled between Dusty's teeth.
That was him, Evan realized. Dusty was the youngest wolf in the platoon, sixteen months old and not even done growing yet. Evan was a civilian, the only one without a brother or sister to protect him and keep him hooked into the pack-sense. Bo was just looking after both of them.
Evan turned away to follow Poke and Doom, and spotted them already standing by Team Two's Humvee. Manimal was sitting sideways in the driver's seat, apparently on watch. His brother--Princess, who was almost as big and almost as dark as Doom--was standing with Doom over the beheaded snake. As Evan watched, Princess bit the thing in half and retreated into the shade under the Humvee with his half. Doom flopped down on the sand between Manimal and Poke to eat his share.
"Just remember to chew," Poke said, looking down at Doom and nudging him with one foot. "Doc Brunny said the next one of you who chokes on snake bones, he's letting Tiger do a tracheotomy."
Evan looked around for the veterinary corpsman and his brindled brother, who usually rode with Team Two, but they were out of sight. Pappy and Rudy and their brothers were there, near the back of the Humvee. Pappy was standing over Rudy, who was kneeling with both wolves sprawled in front of him.
The wolves were easy to match to their brothers--Pappy and pale gray Hurricane wore the standard woodlands camo MOPP suits, while Rudy and dark-brindled Sandy wore customized desert camo suits covered in some kind of short streamers. All four wore matching checkered scarves tucked into the collars of their suits for protection against the constant dust.
Pappy and Rudy were both holding plastic water cans. Pappy was refilling Rudy's Camelbak, and Rudy was refilling Hurricane's. Hurricane was sprawled out in front of Rudy, and he was resting his head on Sandy's hip. Sandy had his head up, looking out toward the edge of Second Platoon's temporary territory. As Evan watched, Rudy shifted his weight onto one knee and leaned his head against Pappy's hip. Pappy took one hand away from the can and ruffled Rudy's hair, and Rudy looked up at him and smiled.
Evan couldn't tell whether he was supposed to look away; they weren't doing anything particularly private. They were just there beside their Humvee, being shieldmates.
Everyone knew about breeding, and what it meant for the brothers of the wolves involved, but it was true what Ray had said--that was once a year for most guys, maybe twice. And, sure, guys stuck together for long periods of time with no women around would do what guys did together. Compared to breeding that was no big deal. But shieldmates were something different; they were the stuff of epics and romances and cheesy war movies.
Evan hadn't known what to expect when he'd heard that the TL and ATL of Team Two were shieldmates. It had been a couple of days, and he still wasn't sure that dramatic incidental music wouldn't suddenly burst out around them.
Not this time, though. Rudy turned his attention back to Hurricane's Camelbak, and Pappy looked around and caught sight of Evan. He nodded a wordless greeting; it was Rudy who glanced over his shoulder and said, "Welcome to Team Two, my man. What can we do for you?"
Evan smiled almost involuntarily--it was hard not to smile at Rudy under any circumstances--and looked around at the others. Poke was giving him a distinctly unhelpful smile, and Manimal was watching him with an expression Evan couldn’t read.
"We've been talking about wolves' names," Evan said, nodding toward Poke, because that fallback hadn't failed him yet.
"Fuckin' Trombley," Manimal muttered. Poke spat on the ground, and Pappy said, "Jacks, hey."
Manimal didn't say anything more about Trombley, and when Evan looked over Pappy still had his eyes on Rudy's Camelbak. Evan said, "I've been talking to guys about how they chose their brothers' names."
Manimal shrugged, and it was Pappy who spoke--maybe the first time he'd ever spoken to Evan without Evan asking him a direct question.
Pappy was smiling a little. "Now you done it. You're gonna get Rudy started about true names and the Old Ways--"
Rudy shoved his shoulder against Pappy's thigh and said, "Show some respect, Pap."
Pappy looked down, still smiling. "For you?"
Rudy looked up and grinned. "For the Old Ways, wolfbrother."
Pappy held Rudy's gaze in silence for a few seconds--Sandy turned and laid his head on Hurricane's hip, closing a circuit--and then Pappy abruptly looked away, concealing his face from Evan.
Rudy tucked a tube back into the collar of Hurricane's MOPP suit and capped the water can. He looked up at Pappy, who showed no sign of being finished with filling Rudy's Camelbak, and then looked over at Evan and flashed a smile as he shrugged.
"My brother is Sandalio," Rudy said. "It means the true wolf."
Rudy didn't say anything else, although he kept smiling at Evan.
"Sounds like there's a story to that," Evan prodded cautiously, hoping he wasn't about to stumble into the middle of something else nobody talked about--but Pappy hadn't sounded like he minded Rudy talking about the Old Ways, whatever that meant exactly, just like he'd heard it one too many times.
Rudy nodded. "I chose my brother's name because of my name. Rudy is short for Rodolfo--that's the name my mother gave me, but in the old days I would have had to earn it. I would have had to choose a name for myself when I bonded with a wolf, not a name for my brother."
The old days. Rudy wasn't casually referring to one of the World Wars; he wasn't even talking about back when Paul Revere and his brother raced to Concord to raise the militia against the British. Rudy was talking about a thousand years ago, when pagan Norse wolfbrothers took new names when they joined the wolfthreat, to represent giving up their old lives to live among wolves and fight the ancient battles against trolls and dragons. Old Ways, Jesus Christ. There were centuries of stories in Sandy and Rudy's names.
Rudy just shrugged again, like a thousand years of history wasn't a noticeable weight. "It means famous wolf, but I learned when I was young what it really meant, to have a wolfbrother's name. I was determined to live up to my name, but I knew that even if I found my brother and earned fame beside him, I would never be the real wolf, the true wolf. That would be my brother, so that was what I called him. Sandalio, the true wolf."
Pappy finished with Rudy's Camelbak while Rudy was talking, and when Rudy finished, he set the water can on the ground and said, still leaning over Rudy, "That story was a lot longer when you told it to me."
"Everything is longer for you," Rudy said, and Evan didn't even think before he turned his back. He was a little relieved to find that Manimal had turned to face forward in the driver's seat of the Humvee, and Poke was also looking studiously away.
"Time to give the grownups some private time," Poke said, just loudly enough that Evan didn't hear the exact words Pappy said back to Rudy, though he couldn't really miss the sounds of MOPP suits rustling. Poke gave Evan a hard pat on the back and said, "You should probably go get some sleep."
"Sleep," Evan said. "Yes."
It sounded sort of ludicrous--not what kind of fucked-up war is this, but who can sleep in the middle of all this? Looking around, though, Evan could see that second platoon's little temporary encampment was quieting down. Fick and Bo had both disappeared from their visible spot in the center of things, and everywhere Evan looked he saw men and wolves settling in for a rest. Those who hadn't found a place to try to sleep were sitting quietly, eating or reading or tending to their gear.
Evan headed toward Team One Alpha's Humvee. Garza and Ghost had disappeared from up top, but he could still see Navi's head hanging out the window. Evan was halfway there--equidistant from all the vehicles, just where he'd gotten caught when the first alarm had gone, scaring them all into their MOPP suits. When somebody grabbed his shoulder from behind, he quashed the impulse to run for cover and froze instead.
He looked down and saw Trombley's brother standing beside him, panting and looking up at Evan with his different-colored eyes. Which meant it was Trombley's hand on his shoulder. Sure enough, a second later, Trombley whispered, "It's stupid, he has the best name. Lucky."
Evan turned his head--he was actually about to ask Trombley why he'd named his brother that, and what was so wrong with it--when he saw Navi's head come up, mouth open in a snarl. A huge, impossible, surround-sound growl made the hair on the back of Evan's neck stand up--not just Navi, all the wolves at once--and Ray Person screamed, "Trombley, you brother-fucking retard, they heard that!"
Evan looked over his shoulder at Trombley, who dropped his hand but just stood there, looking more puzzled than scared as the growling went on. Evan saw, beyond Trombley, wolves appearing from in and behind and under the Humvees. He took a single step away, but they were everywhere, surrounding him and Trombley and--Trombley's brother. Twenty huge, angry recon Marine wolves, inching closer and growling in concert, making it sound like there were a thousand of them.
I'm going to die, Evan thought, with horrible, perfect clarity, and when he saw a wolf-shape hurtling toward them he threw up his arms and turned his face away. But there was no snarl, no spray of blood or rending flesh--no attack on Evan himself--so he looked. Bo had knocked Trombley's brother onto his back and was standing over him, one paw resting on his bare throat. Bo wasn't making a sound, but she had her head down and her tail straight out, and just the sight of her made Evan want to roll onto his back, too. The growling of the rest of the pack seemed to ease a little, sounding more like thunder in the distance than imminent death.
Evan tore his gaze away from Bo and saw that the other wolves had all stopped advancing--and now Fick was walking over, at what seemed like an unhurried pace, as if he wasn't unnerved at all to be stepping into the center of a ring of murderously angry wolves. Now that he was slightly less panicked, Evan could see that each wolf's brother was standing or kneeling close to him. None of them were touching their brothers except Christeson. As Evan watched Christeson threw an arm and leg over Dusty's back--ride him like a pony, Evan remembered Ray saying scornfully--and tackled him slowly to the ground. Dusty, teeth bared, never looked away from Trombley, even when he hit the ground. Evan tried to inch further away without looking like he was moving.
Fick walked straight into the center of the storm, stopping beside Trombley, who looked scared, but still confused. Evan realized abruptly that Trombley shouldn't be confused. Trombley was a Marine, a member of the platoon. He should have known the other wolves would hear anything he said, the way Poke had known he didn't have to raise his voice to talk to Bo. The pack-sense should have made this all obvious to Trombley, but he seemed just as far behind the curve as Evan himself.
Fick, however, was clearly on top of things. He grabbed Trombley's shoulder--not the back of his neck, but just to one side of it. Evan was close enough to see that Fick's grip was clamped down hard enough to be felt through the MOPP suit.
Calmly, without raising his voice--as if there were no audience but Trombley himself--Fick said, "Spit."
Trombley just stood there, staring down at his brother, who whined under Bo's paw.
"Spit the bad luck out of your mouth," Fick said, giving Trombley a tiny shake, and Trombley ducked his head and spat.
Evan flinched at motion in the corner of his eye--behind Trombley and Fick's backs--which resolved, when Evan looked, into Frost. He paced back and forth, staying behind them. Guarding their blind spot, Evan realized. Guarding Bo's blind spot, because she was facing the other way and couldn't see around the men. And though she was holding back twenty wolves from attacking one and was surely prepared to rip the throat out of the first wolf to try anything, Bo didn't look toward the wolf in motion behind her. She knew who it was. She trusted Frost to have her back, even against the rest of her--their--platoon.
Evan looked for Brad as Fick said, still perfectly calmly and quietly, "Now kick sand over it, Lance Corporal. Bury it."
Brad was standing near the back of his Humvee, arms folded over his chest, as though his brother was acting alone. As though it had nothing to do with him if Frost jumped in to back up Bo and Fick. He wasn't even looking at Fick and Trombley; he was watching the rest of the platoon.
"Now," Fick said, and Evan looked back to him just in time to see Fick's gaze move toward one particular Humvee--toward where Tiger and Miller were standing side-by-side on the hood of Team Three's Humvee, Evan thought. Doc Brunny and Doc Bryan stood directly in front of their brothers, and Evan thought he saw Doc Bryan nod and flash a hand signal.
"You're going to run three times around the platoon's victors. Counter-clockwise, for undoing. Your brother's going to lead, to clear your path. Step only where he steps. Go."
Bo stepped back, letting Trombley's brother roll to his feet, and Trombley chased his brother on the shortest path to the edge of the double row of Humvees. Frost followed, and as they turned left, Evan saw that Frost put himself between the rest of the wolves and Trombley and his brother. Brad turned and walked to the other side of the Humvee and stood still, watching.
Fick looked around the platoon, turning on his heel to take them all in. The growling had stopped entirely when Trombley started running, and all eyes and ears seemed to have stayed focused on Fick and Bo.
Wolf pack, Evan thought. Jesus, if they're not feral, what is?
Still without raising his voice, Fick said, "A quarter of you are on radio watch. The rest of you should be sleeping. We need to be rested and ready when the word comes down."
Then he turned toward Evan--pointedly withdrawing his attention from the entire platoon. Over Fick's shoulder, Evan saw them break out of their stillness. He heard Gunny's voice and Pappy's and Lovell's and Poke's all taking up Fick's words, moving the men back into order. Brad was silent; Brad was already busy policing his team.
"I want you to understand," Fick said, and Evan's attention sharpened suddenly on the lieutenant. Evan glanced down at Bo, but she was sitting at Fick's feet, for once letting her platoon do without her direct attention. "The wolves--they're bonded to the men, and they're extremely smart, but they're still wolves. They understand very little of what goes into a modern war.
"Bo's rated one of the smartest wolves of her generation, and she still doesn't understand exactly why she has to wear that MOPP suit or what actually happens when an officer calls in an artillery strike. Every wolf in the Corps has to take almost everything we do on faith. So the things they believe in, they believe in even harder than the men do."
We don't say it,, Ray had told him, That's all. Poke had spit on the ground and kicked sand over the spot when he said something about Fick dying--it had been Doom who wanted him to, Doom who looked up sharply and didn't relax until Poke did it.
"You're saying that the wolves are superstitious," Evan said cautiously.
Fick nodded. "They think what Trombley did was just as dangerous as if he'd been walking around with a ticking bomb. They think he put the whole platoon in danger."
But Bo had put that aside to keep order--and Frost had put it aside, to help Bo. Bo had made twenty wolves back down when they thought their lives and their brothers' lives had been threatened, and Fick had followed her in and defused the bomb they all thought Trombley was waving around.
"And now--that's it, they're fine now?"
Fick smiled slightly. "There's some danger of Trombley and his brother going down with heat exhaustion, but they should be able to finish three laps before that happens. After that we'll be all right."
"But what happens if--"
Evan stopped short, and looked down at Bo again. Bo was looking steadily back at him, and Evan realized that, yes, he did know better than to ask that question with a wolf sitting practically at his feet. Even--especially--that wolf.
"You and I are rational men, Evan," Fick said seriously. "You and I both know that if anything untoward should happen to Second Platoon, or Bravo Company, or to any Marine anywhere in the AO, it's because we're in the middle of a war, not because of anything any one Marine said."
"Right," Evan said. "Of course."
Fick nodded sharply, like that was the end of it, like he wouldn't wade into the middle of twenty or seventy or hundreds of wolves with his sister at his side to bail Trombley out if the platoon, or the company, or the battalion decided to blame him for jinxing them.
Just then, over the quiet of the camp, Evan heard Brad call out, "That's one."
Evan looked over Fick's shoulder and saw the little trio--Trombley's brother leading, and Trombley following with Frost at his side--run past the gap between two Humvees.
Evan looked back to Fick, but Fick was looking down at Bo. Bo was still watching Evan.
"It's come to my attention," Fick said, without looking up. "That you hadn't understood until just a little while ago how protective my sister is of you."
"It's fine," Evan said quickly. "I get it now."
Fick looked up, definitely smiling this time, and Evan was suddenly aware of how young he was. "No, you don't. Bo's a really good mom to her pups--"
Bo, for the first time Evan had ever seen, touched Fick, pressing her head against his hip. Fick lowered his hand to the nape of her neck.
"--but she just gave birth to her second litter five weeks ago, in Kuwait. It was bad timing--it happened to a lot of bitches involved in the invasion. We had to leave them behind at Camp Matilda to be fostered. By the time we get back they'll probably already have been sent back to the States to bond with their brothers. Bo needed someone to adopt, and you were the first orphan she saw after she had to leave her pups."
Evan blinked. Too many things to think of at once--he was about to start counting on his fingers to figure out when Bo had last been in heat, and at the same time--it was one thing to hear that Bo was protective of him. It was another to hear that he was an outlet for her frustrated maternal instincts.
He had to ask. "How long...?"
"About twenty minutes," Fick said, looking up from Bo to hold Evan's gaze, and Evan couldn't even tell whether Fick knew that that might not have been what Evan was asking. "Twenty minutes after the last time she saw her pups, we ran into you. So this was kind of inevitable. I just wanted to tell you, because most of the platoon already knows, and the rest will soon--Bo gave you a name. A scent name. I don't know if you can pick it up, if she tells it to you. I can describe it, if not."
"I--my grandpa's wolf, when I was a kid." Evan felt like an idiot mentioning old Glory, remembering Ray's indignation, but Fick gave him an encouraging nod. "He told me his name, I picked it up."
"That's two," Brad called from the other side of the Humvee. "Slow down, Trombley, it's not a race. Your brother's going to overheat."
Evan didn't look away from Fick, and Fick didn't even seem to have heard.
"Give it a try," Fick said. "Ask her to tell you your name."
Evan looked down at Bo, who turned her head to look up at him. He still couldn't speak--and this seemed like the wrong way to ask, anyway. Without looking away from Bo, Evan knelt down in the sand in front of her.
"Bo," Evan said. "Could you--would you tell me my name? Please?"
Bo shifted away from Fick to press her nose against Evan's cheek--Evan could smell her breath, tried not to think about how close her teeth were--and then he jerked back and wiped at his mouth. But no, there was nothing on his fingers--his pen was in his other hand. There was nothing in his mouth, either, except the taste--smell?--of hot plastic and bitter ink, like he'd bitten down on a pen until it exploded in his mouth.
Bo gave him a wolf-grin, and when Evan looked up at Fick, he was smiling. "Mine's ink, too. Must run in the family."
Evan grinned back, and lowered his gaze to look Bo in the eye. "Thanks."
She licked his cheek and then retreated to Fick's side, and Evan got to his feet. "So, uh, I guess I'm adopted now?"
Fick nodded, his smile shrinking into seriousness again. "It's not legally binding, but if we're ever free at the same time, I'll teach you the first twenty generations of Bo's matrilineage. Nineteen of them are in Arabic, it's good practice."
Evan nodded, and then said, "Hey--I've been asking everybody about names, what about Bo? Is it short for something? How'd you choose it?"
Fick looked down at Bo and said, "Bo is short for--"
Brad called out, "Three and sit the fuck down," and Fick looked up sharply in the opposite direction. Evan looked over his shoulder and saw the company commander heading toward them.
"Sorry," Fick said distractedly, as he moved past Evan, "It's kind of a long story. Try to get some sleep."
Evan stood still, watching Fick and Bo trot over to meet their CO and his brother. Evan looked in the other direction, and saw Doc Bryan and Doc Brunny already kneeling over Trombley and his brother at the back of Team One Alpha's Humvee. Frost was sprawled out in the shadow of the Humvee, and Brad was crouching over him, pouring out water over his feet.
That meant no one else was going to be in the back seat for a while, Evan realized. Maybe he really could get some sleep.