Jolene's breasts hurt. She thought she'd pumped enough to deal with the worst of the soreness, but she feels the heavy ache in her chest as she wipes the sweat from her brow. It's with a grimace that she takes hold of the crossbow bolt jammed into the wolf's chest and yanks.
The glasses protect her eyes, but she still blinks against the blood spray. Aisha's the only person Jolene knows who never blinks.
"Doing okay?" Becca asks, planting one boot on the neck of the nearest wolf and jerking her bolt free.
"Sore," Jolene admits, wincing, and turns to look for another of Becca's silver-tipped bolts.
"Injury?" Aisha asks from behind her.
Jolene shakes her head and turns with half a smile. "Motherhood."
Aisha wipes the flat of her blade clean on her thigh and bares her teeth in the mockery of a smile. It's the same response she had when Jolene announced that she was getting married and then two years later when she told them she was pregnant.
Jolene sighs and touches her left breast, but the pressure, even as light as it is, isn't helping. "What's the count?"
Aisha flicks a look around, but it's Becca who says, "Five. The pack was small."
"Or"--Aisha kicks over one of the carcasses--"we missed a few."
"The big one," Becca says.
They all sweep a look around, but there's nothing to see in the dark.
They used to go to Aisha's apartment for inventory and damage checks. Becca and Aisha still do, but Jolene goes home, where Lin can run his fingers over her while she holds her breath against the fear of contamination.
"You're good," Lin says, and kisses the back of her neck.
She releases the breath she'd been holding and lets her shoulders fall.
Aisha sets her feet on the table, her boots landing on the wood with a loud thunk when Becca says, "We're short some things."
Jolene frowns at everything that's on the table. The first thing she notices is that they need to cast more bullets.
"And not just bullets," Becca adds, flashing a smile when Jolene raises her head. "Bolts for the crossbow and maybe we could try some more of that silver powder. That's been working the best for the initial traps."
"But harder to recover," Aisha says. It's the same argument that they've had since Becca had used the powder against a pack who'd invaded her house--
Jolene doesn't like to think about that.
She lifts one of the silver bullets and twists it between her fingers. Bullets aren't as economical as bolts. They use explosive rounds for maximum damage, which makes the pieces pretty much impossible to recover. "We're running out of silver."
"We could always do what our grandmothers used to do."
Jolene looks at Becca, who's staring back at her with the same curiosity. Becca shrugs, and Jolene can't figure out what Aisha means either, so they turn their gazes back to her.
Aisha smiles. "Net them and chop off their heads."
The image that flashes in Jolene's mind makes her queasy, and she shakes her head while Becca huffs her annoyance. "Geez, Aisha, old school much?"
"It worked," Aisha says with a shrug. "Especially when silver was harder to find."
Becca had said, "Trust me, Jo. Stay home with the baby and wait until after you have your period. We don't want any surprises."
It's no surprise that it's Becca who curls a hand around Jolene's elbow, tugging her away from the stove as she says, "Butt in the chair and pump."
Jolene looks at Becca and shouldn't be smiling in response to the take-no-prisoners determination on Becca's face.
"Going to sit down and pump. Thanks."
Becca pats Jolene's shoulder and takes over melting the silver.
Jolene's auntie used to say, "They can smell fear."
The first time Jolene had held a crossbow, she'd walked into the woods and saw a naked man. When her auntie and mom had told her stories, she'd always imagined the wolf -- large and scary with dripping teeth and gleaming claws like something she'd read out of a novel. So she'd been so shocked that when that man had turned into a wolf, she'd stumbled. She didn't know how not to be afraid of watching a human being transform into a monster.
When she'd seen his claws and his teeth, when all of that speed barreled toward her, she'd panicked and run.
The hardest thing Jolene's ever learned was not to run.
She didn't know it was possible until she'd met Aisha.
Aisha goes down, and Jolene uses the thing's mangy fur to yank herself up and forward so she can drive her knife into its flank. It's not a kill strike, but it's enough of a distraction that it rears its head instead of taking a bite of Aisha and howls.
It whirls on her, its eyes so big and bright, even in the dark, but Aisha somehow manages to loom larger. She stands above a monster, clutches its head, and swipes a knife across its throat. Jolene blinks and shudders against her natural instinct to lick her lips. She uses the back of her sleeve to wipe away the blood.
Before she can finish, there's another howl. She twists around, and another wolf is running forward.
When it falls, it's Becca who stands behind it, face grim as she sweeps a look around. "I think that was the last one."
"You always say that," Aisha says, and looks at Jolene, offering her a hand up.
Becca says, "And you always say that," while Jolene accepts the help up.
Becca and Aisha share a smile, and Jolene smiles, too, even though her heart is racing and her hands are shaking a little bit.
She has to ask, "What's the count?"
"We're assuming that these--" Becca frowns. She's searching for a word, because she hasn't found one that suits her yet. Jolene thinks it'll be a million years before Becca finds one that suits her. "Things." Becca shakes her head to show her dissatisfaction, and Aisha supplies, "Werewolves," with a smirk.
Becca rolls her eyes and continues, "Things. We're assuming they're some bloodthirsty, rabid hybrid between wolves and people."
"Your point?" Aisha asks, propping her boots on the table. At least they're clean, Jolene thinks absently.
"My point is, what if we're wrong?"
Jolene had just finished introducing Lin to her friends when Lin had extended his hand to Aisha and smiled. "Nice to meet you."
Aisha had moved so quickly.
All Jolene had seen was the blood welling up from the top of Lin's hand. She'd heard Becca say, "Geez, Aisha, you couldn't give Jo a little bit of credit?"
Jolene kisses the scar every time she gets home.
"Was it a good night?" Lin asks, but kisses her before she can answer.
"We're alive," she whispers against his mouth, and he always squeezes her that little bit tighter. Then she slides her hand into his, tangles their fingers together, and takes him to bed.
Aisha sprawls the length of the loveseat, a pillow wedged beneath her head and remote control in hand.
"Something age appropriate," Becca reminds her.
"I'm old enough!" Sara protests, but one look from Becca stops the rest of her arguments.
She drops onto the floor between Jolene's legs, and Becca scoops Lance out of Jolene's arms and takes him into the kitchen with her. On nights like these, Becca usually orders pizza; Aisha never finds anything age appropriate, and Jolene has to exercise veto power and say, "No," while she braids Sara's hair. She undoes all of that work later and tries something different, whatever Sara happens to see in the magazine that's spread across her lap.
It's a quiet, relaxing night, but that doesn't stop any of them from glancing at the windows when the house creaks or keeping a weapon within reach.
They all look at Sara sometimes, because they know that soon, she'll be old enough. Jolene doesn't like to think about her baby being old enough either, but Lance will be, too, eventually.
Neither of the kids are, though. Not yet. When Lance is asleep in his bassinet and it's way past Sara's bed time, they each give her a hug and a kiss good night.
The only way to end the night is curling up on the couch together, Becca in the middle, Jolene on her left, and Aisha on her right as they watch a comedy sketch that they only half listen to.
Its breath stinks. Jolene has always known that, but it took a while to steel herself against the way her stomach clenched too suddenly, the way bile rose in her throat. She had to figure out that nausea didn't equal fear. It's adrenaline that makes her hold on, even though her heart's thundering so loudly that she can hear the rush in her ears. She doesn't shut her eyes. She remembers what her auntie had told her, what Aisha confirmed years later, and looks the monster in the eyes. Then she jams her knife into it.
It howls. The sound jitters straight through her, but she pulls and repeats the motion, same as the mantra in her head, die—
Jolene blinks and stares up at Becca.
"Damn it. Aisha! I think it got Jolene."
The thought buzzes in Jolene's head before she realizes that she's Jolene, and oh god, it got her. They all experience this, and Jolene thinks she's lucky that it took twenty years before it was her time.
Jolene fell in love with Lin when he took a knife for her.
"Okay, baby," he'd said, and held up his bandaged hand. "Wanna tell me what's going on?"
She'd wanted to keep it a secret, but Becca said, "Don't. If he asks, tell him. If he's an asshole about it, we'll sick Aisha on him."
So Jolene told him, and in the end, he'd held her while she mourned all over again for her auntie and cousins and mom.
Jolene shuts her eyes and is grateful that Becca and Aisha pretend that she's not sobbing as they undress her and get her into a bath.
"Tell Lin," she hiccups.
"No," Becca says, end-of-discussion firm, and scrubs hard at Jolene's skin.
Jolene thinks she's too numb to feel anything, but her breasts hurt so badly that she whimpers when Becca presses a loofa against them.
"Please, Becca," Jolene tries again, but Aisha interrupts with, "Ready?" when they lay her on a towel on the bathroom floor.
Jolene shuts her eyes and shakes her head, her pointed No trapped behind the dowel shoved into her mouth.
The sear of the silver on her skin makes her think stupid things. She wonders if this is what Lin experiences when he's in the field.
When Jolene had met Lin's friends, she understood immediately why he called them family. When they looked at her and Becca and Aisha, she'd hoped that they understood the same thing.
"This is when a girl needs a cigarette." Jolene's known Becca a long time, and she knows Becca doesn't smoke, but it's comforting to hear the joke.
She shifts to sit up and can't tell whose hand curls around her shoulder to keep her in place. She tries to give a name to ask, but all that comes out is a squawk. Someone runs an ice chip across her lips, but she draws it in and sucks on it, even though the chill makes her teeth ache. When Jolene finally opens her eyes, Aisha and Becca are both standing over her.
"What's the count?" she croaks, and a tear slips down her cheek.
Aisha smiles, fierce and proud, and it suddenly reminds Jolene of her auntie and makes her heart thump in that same sad but hopeful way.
"We got 'em all, Jo," Becca says, holding her hand so tightly.
And Jolene exhales, smiles, and is grateful that she's in the middle this time.