It’s Cora who first scents the kit. She’s walking a few steps in front of Derek though the Preserve when she stops suddenly and turns, her face screwed up. “Ugh! Foxes stink!” Then she frowns. “Wait… that’s weird.”
Derek lifts his nose.
Foxes. They’ve been hanging around for weeks now. The winter has driven them closer to town, and to the Hale territory, than they would usually dare come. They smell of musk and urine, bitter and sharp, and overlaid with the earthier scents of the woods: pine and loam and, today, the sweetness of petrichor after this morning’s shower. Except Cora’s right. Derek can smell it too. Something…different. Something new. Derek doesn’t think he’s ever smelled anything quite like it before, but he knows one thing for sure: it’s not a fox.
Cora shoots him a look, and they pick their way wordlessly down into the narrow gully. In spring, a creek runs through it. In winter the creek bed is full of rocks and dead leaves.
Derek hears the foxes before he sees them; the crunch of small paws in leaves, the rustle of dry undergrowth, twigs snapping, and the cautionary yips of the pack warning of predators approaching. The flash of a red tail is enough to make Derek’s senses sharpen, his wariness at the unfamiliar scent overtaken by a sudden rush of pleasure at the prospect of a hunt. He and Cora crash through the undergrowth after the foxes, all stealth forgotten now the chase is on.
There are five of them—no, six—and something else too. Before he has a chance to fix on that unfamiliar scent, Derek skids on a clump of wet leaves. He hears Cora’s bark of laughter as he almost lands on his ass, and growls at her in response. He’s tempted to shift into his wolf form, but Cora’s still in human form, and if he bounds past her now on four paws she’ll call him a dirty cheater.
A series of frantic barks cut through the sharp morning air.
Derek scrambles down the last few feet of the bank and hits the ground running. He follows Cora down the creek bed, the nearby crash of the foxes through the underbrush inciting them both to greater speeds.
Cora leaps over a fallen log. Derek follows.
For a moment, they’re both frozen with shock.
Six foxes. A family group, perhaps. Four adults and two kits. The kits are slowing them down. Three of the adults hang back, the rearguard, to give the kits time to get away. But they aren’t alone. There’s a boy with them—a boy—scrabbling up the opposite side of the creek bed on his hands, naked, filthy, and working in tandem with the adult foxes to shepherd the kits away.
“What the hell?” Cora’s eyes flash gold.
Derek growls. Wildlife might not understand pack borders, but other shifters sure as hell should. Still, something’s not quite right here. Something still smells off. Derek shoves it to the back of his mind. It’s something that they can figure the hell out once they’ve dealt with a trespasser on Hale Pack territory.
Derek and Cora run toward the opposite bank of the creek, the foxes forgotten now. The boy has become their only target. He scrambles up the bank, a shower of dirt and dead leaves raining down in his wake. He’s trying to keep up with the foxes, but even from this distance Derek can hear his rasping breath, and the whine of pain every time he puts his weight on his left leg. He’s losing ground rapidly. The last of the foxes disappear over the top of the gully before the boy has made it even halfway up.
Derek and Cora reach him easily.
“This is Hale Pack territory!” Cora says, her top lip lifting in a snarl. “State your business.”
The boy continues to try and scramble upward, whimpering now.
“Hey!” Cora yells.
The boy scrabbles more frantically, and yelps. Derek can smell blood, and pain, and fear, every one of them overlaid against the boy’s own abnormal scent.
“Hey!” Cora yells again, and reaches down to grab the trespasser.
The boy rears up, snarling and snapping at Cora, a wild thing. Derek lets his fangs drop and his claws appear, ready for whatever the hell the boy’s about to shift into. Cora’s fingers are spread, her claws ready to extend, and she’s drawing her right arm back already, prepared to attack once the feral, thrashing boy gives her an opening.
Derek stares, but the boy doesn’t change.
He doesn’t change.
Derek has never seen anything like it. He’s never smelled anything like it.
The boy is standing almost upright now, but hunched over. His posture is defensive, but he’s growling too. Derek catches a glimpse of honey-colored eyes from behind a tangle of filthy, matted hair. The boy’s fingers are curled into fists.
Nothing that can make claws would ever make a fist.
The boy postures and growls. He makes a stuttering, chattering sound in his throat, interspersed with a few high-pitched yelps; the gekkering of a fox kit.
Cora takes another step toward the boy.
“Cora,” Derek says, his heart thumping.
The boy tries to turn, and stumbles, his feet tangled in the underbrush. He goes down heavily, and Derek winces as he hears the boy’s head thump against the ground. The boy whimpers, and then his eyes roll back in his head and he’s gone.
“What the hell is he?” Cora demands, her forehead creased in a frown.
Human, Derek thinks, but the thought is so absurd he can’t even bring himself to say it aloud.
He shakes his head instead, and picks the unconscious boy up.
The boy has been living with the foxes. Their scent—their stench—pervades him. He might look like a person, but he stinks like a fox. He’s as skinny and long-legged as a half-grown kit as well.
He can’t be human.
There haven’t been humans in at least twenty years. The last one died in captivity in New York. Derek’s seen the pictures of the man. Everyone has. Okay, so there are plenty of conspiracy theorists out there who talk about colonies of humans living wild, but they’re the same sort of guys who believe in alien abduction and the yeti, so Derek’s never believed the stories. He’s wanted to. A part of him has mourned humanity in the same abstract way he’s mourned the dodo—why do we kill when we can so easily save?—but he’s never actually believed any were still alive.
His uncle Peter talks a lot about the history of civilizations, and how the weak have always been overcome by the strong. It’s just the way things are, he says, but Derek wonders if it’s the way things have to be. What’s wrong with a little idealism? What’s wrong with thinking that the planet is big enough to share with other creatures, other cultures?
“Humanity isn’t gone, Derek,” Peter told him once. “It’s only changed. It’s been hunted out and bred out. We only did to them what they did to the Neanderthals. We came from humanity and, in the end, we overcame it. It’s the survival of the fittest.”
Somehow though, sharing DNA with an extinct species isn’t much of a consolation. Derek knows that several hundred years ago his ancestors were human, and that human history is his history as well, but there’s just something heartbreaking about the extinction of an entire species. It’s an irrevocable loss, whether dodo, or Neanderthal or human, but it’s a loss that Derek has had a lifetime to come to terms with. He isn’t prepared to revise history yet, not on account of a single feral trespasser.
Not on account of some defective shifter.
“Mom!” Cora bellows as she pounds up the porch steps. “Mom!”
By the time Derek gets to the front door, the body of the boy limp in his arms, his mother is there to meet him.
“Derek! What’s going on? Who’s—” Talia’s eyes widen as she catches the scent, and she claps her hand to her mouth, and in that moment Derek knows for sure.
“We found him in the woods,” Cora says. “He fell down trying to run away and cracked his head. What do we do with him?”
Derek has never seen his mother speechless in his life, but today is the day for impossibilities.
It only takes Talia a moment to recover. “Inside,” she says. “Downstairs.”
Derek knows without being told what basement room his mother means. It’s a large room, clean but plain, with nothing but a mattress on the floor. Most of the pack has used the room at one time or another, usually when puberty hit and their shifts suddenly became harder to control with the onset of heat. When the urge to run as a wolf got twisted up with the urge to hunt something apart from prey; to mate, to breed. Puberty sucked. And to be locked in a basement room with your mother for the duration of the full moon, while your hormones were raging, because she was the alpha and the only one who could talk you down? Mortifying. Thank god those days are long over.
Derek gently deposits the unconscious boy on the mattress, and turns to his mother.
She gestures him to back away, and closes and locks the door.
“What is he?” Derek asks in a low voice.
“What does he smell like?” Talia asks.
“Like a fox kit,” Derek says. “And like something else.”
“Like a human,” Talia says in a quiet voice.
Talia’s face is grave. “I would have thought so too.”
The boy—the kit—is conscious again within the hour. Derek can hear him snuffling and whimpering, and the scrape of his hands and knees on the floor as he crawls around the room. He yips a few times, questioning, calling, and then he’s silent as he listens for the other foxes to respond. They don’t, and the noises the kit makes become small and distressed.
Derek tries not to listen to them. He sits on the floor of the living room and plays cars with his nephew Jacob. Well, Derek plays cars. Jacob just picks the cars up and enjoys the sound they make when he smashes them into one another.
During the day, most of the pack adults are out at work.
Derek is on break from college, and Cora is on suspension from high school for the week—something about talking back in class, unsurprisingly—so it’s just them, and his mom, and the smallest pack members, Jacob and Cassie. Jacob is two, and Cassie is four. Both of them are Derek’s sister Laura’s kids.
“Uncle Derek?” Cassie asks, trailing into the living room with a peanut butter sandwich. “What’s that sound?”
The kit is whining.
“A fox kit, baby,” Derek says. He doesn’t even know if Cassie knows what a human is.
Cassie climbs onto the couch to eat her sandwich. “He sounds sad.”
“He’s hurt and scared,” Derek tells her.
“He needs a hug,” Cassie tells him. “Where’s his pack?”
“ I don’t know,” Derek says. He thinks of the foxes that ran, and wonders how long the kit has been with them. Long enough to learn how to act like one of them. But where the hell did he come from before that? Humans are supposed to be extinct.
Which leads to another question Derek isn’t willing to think about yet: what are they supposed to do with him?
Alan Deaton is a vet. He’s also the Hale Pack emissary, which means Talia trusts him to keep their secrets. He turns up at the house still wearing his scrubs, and smelling faintly of antiseptic.
“Talia tells me you have an injured animal,” he says when Derek opens the door.
Behind Derek, Talia sweeps down the stairs. “It’s a little more complicated than that, Alan.”
Deaton looks unsurprised. “Well then, let’s take a look at the patient.”
Cora tries to follow them down to the basement, but Talia holds up her hand. “I need you to keep an eye on the kids.”
“Why does Derek get to help?”
“Derek is stronger than you,” Talia says.
Deaton’s eyebrows rise a fraction of a degree, and Derek wonders what he’s expecting to find in the basement.
Talia opens the door.
The kit’s scream echoes throughout the house. It’s the scream of a cornered wild animal—half afraid, half enraged—and the sound of it reverberates in Derek’s bones and brings his wolf lunging close to the surface of his skin. Derek’s just made it to the doorway when the kit bursts free.
Before Derek knows it, he’s got an armful of struggling, growling kit. Derek tries to keep hold of him, but the kit squirms, turns, and sinks his teeth into Derek’s forearm, cutting and tearing at the flesh. For a second Derek’s so surprised by the sharp pain—so bright that it flares white against his vision—that he almost lets the kit go. Later, he thinks it’s probably the fact that the children were upstairs that made him tighten his grip instead. He couldn’t risk the kit hurting them.
“Oh, my,” Deaton murmurs, syringe in hand. He jabs the kit in the neck.
Derek waits until the kit stops struggling, and slowly releases him.
The kit whimpers and utters a few distressed yelps as the anesthetic takes hold. He staggers around the basement, shaking his head and stumbling sideways, until he’s so dozy that he doesn’t even care when Derek gets close enough to touch him. Derek guides him gently to the mattress on the floor, and kneels down with him. He doesn’t pull away when the kit half-climbs into his lap and tries to burrow under his arm.
He pets the kit’s filthy tangle of hair, and grimaces when his hand comes away covered in mites.
The kit is much more malleable now that’s he’s doped up to the eyeballs. He squirms and growls a little when Deaton begins to examine him, but it’s a half-hearted effort at most.
Deaton pats the kit’s flank as he kneels over him. “Where on earth did you find a human, Talia?”
“I didn’t,” Talia says from the door. “Derek and Cora did.”
“He’s quite feral,” Deaton says. He sniffs. “Living with…foxes?”
Derek nods, and watches as Deaton checks the kit over.
There are layers of dirt ground into his skin that will basically have to wear out, Deaton decides. Other than that, the boy isn’t in terrible shape. He’s thin, a little malnourished, but what animals in the Preserve haven’t had a lean winter? His feet are callused, the skin of his soles and around his heels thick and rough. The kit’s left ankle is severely sprained, and swollen with fluid. His skin is bruised black.
With the kit sedated, Deaton takes the opportunity to clean him. First he takes his clippers from his bag and shears the mass of filthy hair off the boy’s head. The kit grumbles and grimaces, his unfocussed eyes impossibly huge.
A bath is next. Deaton works a soft scrubbing brush over the kit’s skin. The water that drips off him is gray with filth. Then Deaton wipes him over with antiseptic, and something that smells of harsh chemicals to get rid of his mites and lice.
When the boy is as clean as he’s likely to get for now, Deaton dries him off and binds his sprained ankle.
“I’ll give you anti-inflammatory drops for his food,” he says. “And vitamin supplements. They’re chocolate flavored chews, so he should eat them with no problems. I want you to start him off with basic minced beef or chicken, and plain rice. Nothing too rich at first, or he’ll be sick.”
Derek nods, and rubs his fingers against the ridge of bone behind the boy’s ear. He looks surprisingly delicate with his head shorn, and so very young.
“How…how old is he?” Derek asks. Because the last known human died twenty years ago.
Deaton takes another look. “Well, humans are hardly my specialty, but he’s adolescent. Maybe fifteen, sixteen? It’s difficult to know exactly.”
“So there were humans still alive, still breeding, sixteen years ago?” Derek frowns down at the kit. This changes everything he knows about history.
Deaton nods slowly. “So it appears.”
“There could be others out there,” Derek says quietly. Knowing it somehow makes the loss of humanity, their erasure from history, feel even more acute. The kit is something miraculous, and at the same time something achingly ephemeral.
Deaton begins to pack his things. “There has always been speculation about enclaves of humans surviving in remote areas,” he says. “Not that I would have believed it myself, until today.” He glances up at Talia. “My advice, if you want to hear it, is to keep this very much to yourself.”
Derek has a sudden image of the kit in a cage somewhere, and people paying money to go and stare at him.
“Your advice is always welcome, Alan,” Talia says with a faint smile.
Derek stares down at the kit’s face, and strokes his head again.
The kit blinks up at him, his amber eyes full of tears, and Derek feels a rush of pity for the little wild animal who is incapable of understanding what’s happening to him.