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You Drive Through the Dust

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Nate was leaning over a desk, comparing a mission plan to the relevant map sheet, when he felt a ping through the pack-sense. It was like a tap on the shoulder or the sound of a radio clicking on in the instant before sound started coming through. Nate straightened up to something like attention immediately. His CO might be anywhere, but he was now also effectively in the room with Nate.

Nate? Captain Schwetje's voice, through the pack-sense, came laden with so much don't worry, not urgent that it was almost diffident.

Sir, Nate returned, projecting back alert focus both from himself and from Bo. She'd already taken her leave of the wolves of Bravo's Second Platoon and was homing in on Nate.

My location, when you have a minute, Schwetje directed, though again with so little force that it felt like an invitation. The words were accompanied by an impression of Schwetje's current position, about ten meters from where Nate sat in the headquarters building. I've got some personnel things to run by you.

Yes, sir, Nate affirmed, choking back the sense of urgent eagerness he put through the pack-sense to something merely dutiful. Bravo Two currently consisted of Nate and three junior enlisted men, and had for nearly a month now. With the Mountain Warfare course drawing to a close Nate was--to say the least--eager to find out when he might have his platoon at something resembling full strength.

Would now be convenient, sir?

Nate forced himself not to count seconds while Schwetje hesitated. He was starting to get used to the pause that ensued every time he asked his commanding officer a direct question.

Sure, Nate. Now's fine.

Be right there, sir. Nate was already on his feet; he held himself to a leg-stretching walk as he covered the distance to the captain's temporary office. When he got there, Bo, who was constrained by entirely different standards of dignity, was already outside the door, almost dancing back and forth with bright-eyed anticipation. Keeping just three wolves in line had gotten boring for her about three and a half weeks ago.

Nate knocked on the door, sending a ping through the pack-sense at the same time. The inevitable pause followed; Nate straightened his blouse and Bo shook herself, shedding dust in a small cloud.

"Come in!" Nate entered with Bo on his heels and snapped off a salute, which Schwetje returned precisely. Bo bowed to Yellowjacket, a pale tawny wolf who was, like most recon wolves, nearly Bo's height and about fifty pounds heavier. Yellowjacket accepted Bo's greeting with a rather amiable lick on the nose.

Schwetje resumed his seat first, and Yellowjacket returned to his brother's side of the desk to flop down on the ground. Bo lay down next, beside the chair Nate would take. Nate sat last, keeping an eye on Bo. She lay with her legs gathered compactly under her, tail curled tightly around her rump, her ears pricked up and her eyes turned up to Nate.

Nate, as he often did lately, quietly pushed patience through their bond as he took his seat.

He then contradicted himself by speaking up before Schwetje could start an excruciating exchange of idle conversation on some other topic. "There was a personnel matter, sir?"

"Yeah," Schwetje frowned down at some files on the desk, tapping his fingers on them. "I'm working on assigning NCOs, and I wanted to tell you, first of all, we tracked down a gunnery sergeant for you with a sister. Mike Wynn, his sister's name is Ash. Saw combat way back in Mogadishu--they're real good. Probably DI material one day."

Nate nodded, allowing a little of his sense of relief to leak into the pack-sense.

Schwetje smiled at that. Officer-bitches like Bo were rare enough that finding a gender-matched platoon NCO was noticed as a special point of accommodation. It was unavoidably necessary--a male/female officer/NCO pair at the head of a platoon was the quickest way to get wolves reverting to the Old Ways and a feral pack structure, which could be somewhere between a headache and a disaster depending on when and where it went down--but it was a lot easier to locate two males for a platoon than two females. Nate and Bo had gotten lucky with their first platoon, where they'd replaced another officer-bitch; Keith and Silver had already been there waiting for them. It took a particular temperament for a bitch to be assertive enough to keep her platoon in line as Gunny's sister without challenging her lieutenant's sister for dominance, but Nate would trust Gunnery Sergeant Wynn and Ash, and whoever had chosen them for him and Bo.

"For your team leaders--you went out on that patrol with Sergeant Patrick's team, right? You worked with him and Reyes?"

Nate nodded, even though working with them had consisted solely of Nate and Bo shadowing them through the trees. They'd very politely used Nate's call sign when reporting in, but that was as much authority as he'd exerted over the team. He'd been there to observe, nothing more.

Bo certainly remembered the experience. She'd been a lot more frustrated than Nate had about not being in charge, though she'd shared his slightly awed respect for the smooth, silent expertise of the men and wolves. She leapt ahead from the question to the conclusion that she might get to have Patrick and Reyes's brothers--Hurricane and her old shipmate Sandy--in her platoon, and wriggled all over with delight. She didn't stir from her spot on the floor, though; Yellowjacket was still sprawling on his side of the desk.

"We'd be happy to work with them again, sir," Nate offered.

Schwetje nodded. "Shieldmates, so you can have Patrick as a team leader and Reyes as his ATL. They've earned a rotation together, after being apart in Afghanistan."

Nate nodded. Their relationship had been evident in the time he spent with them. They hadn't been visibly demonstrative, and he didn't think any of the handful of words he'd heard the team speak had been exchanged between Reyes and Patrick, but the extra bond between them had been tangible in the pack-sense, nearly as strong--and as private--as the bond between man and wolf. Their brothers obviously were in full accord with their choice.

That would give Nate a platoon NCO and leadership for a team, which with his three junior enlisted men would bring his platoon up to a single full team's strength.

Schwetje frowned, tapping his fingers against a file again. "This one's an actual question, Nate, and I want you to know that you can say no, okay? You can say no, and that's fine."

Nate took a step back in the pack-sense, closing himself and Bo off more than usual in preparation for whatever Schwetje was about to say.

Sensing Nate's retreat, the captain grimaced and nodded, then took a breath. "Brad Colbert and Frost."

Nate was so completely thrown that he reached out instinctively into the pack-sense to assure himself he'd heard that right, that Schwetje really meant it. He found nothing but solemn sincerity and concern, and backed away again, closing himself off and forcing himself to keep his thoughts off his face as the reality of it sunk in.

Brad and Frost, in their platoon.

He looked down at Bo, reaching for her. She pressed her muzzle into the palm of his hand and it was like touching a live wire, like closing a circuit. Bo sent him, surprisingly sharp, her memory of the memories Frost had shared with her during their cas-evac, Frost's recon team hunting in the hills of Afghanistan. Even if they weren't together on patrol this time, Brad and Frost's team would be their team, under their command.

Nate did feel, for his own part, a glimmer of disappointment. Having Brad as a TL would mean he definitely couldn't have Brad any other way; singling out one team leader of three would be unavoidably prejudicial to good order, and with the special exception of his platoon NCO--who would be just barely under his command, given a lieutenant's normal reliance on his gunnery sergeant--the men of his own platoon were off-limits to Nate. If Brad were a recon E-5 in any other unit no one would mind him and Nate getting up to anything they wanted to, but the rules against abuse of power were in place for good reasons, and Nate wasn't going to start off his new command by even considering violating them.

But it was hard to regret the loss of that possibility when Bo was so desperately excited to be working with them, hunting beside them, fighting beside them. Any other arrangement, even if it allowed Nate and Brad to mess around together in their rare off-hours, would have meant rarely seeing them at all. This meant they'd be training together, deploying together. Even on a deployment, with the platoon broken up into teams carrying out their own recon missions, Brad and Frost would be there in the platoon's pack-sense. They would always be within Bo's reach, and so within Nate's. And no matter who else wound up in Nate's platoon, he'd have faith in his men and wolves, because he'd have one of the best team leader pairs in recon.

"Nate?" Schwetje said, and Nate blinked and looked away from Bo, taking his hand off her and straightening up as she curled herself back down to the floor.

Schwetje was frowning, and even though Nate was holding himself carefully out of the pack-sense--his sense of disbelieving delight in his luck was downright unprofessional, and neither he nor Bo were going to be able to rein it in in the next minute or two--he could read that same concern Schwetje had been feeling before.

"Nate, I know you didn't put them down on your exclusion list, but you probably weren't thinking they might end up in your platoon. If you don't want them, just say the word. I'll put them in Third Platoon and you'll hardly have to see them. Captain McGraw and Banner can handle them."

"No," Nate said, too sharply, and Schwetje looked taken aback.

"Sir, sorry, sir--" Nate looked down and met Bo's gaze, concentrating on their access to the pack-sense, opening it just enough to let their mutual sense of happy surprise leak out at a dignified volume. "We'll be glad to work with them, sir."

Schwetje smiled, and Nate felt his immediate sense of relief and problem solved. "No favoritism, now, Nate."

Nate dared to crack a smile. "No, sir. Absolutely professional. But as short as our previous acquaintance was, we know Sergeant Colbert and Frost's reputation. We couldn't ask for a better TL pair."

Schwetje nodded, his smile falling away. "You're sure, Nate? You're sure you can command them just the same as any other man and wolf?"

Nate glanced down at Bo, pressing the question at her. Frost was the father of her pups--would that change things for her?

Bo gave him a rather exasperated push of thought--she'd sent it before, whenever he was making things too human. Pups were pups, and the pups were weaned and gone. Breeding was breeding, and now wasn't the time. Frost was--

Bo gave him another memory, the image Frost had once teased her with, of her infantry platoon all clustering around her feet like pups. Bo thought now, triumphantly, of Frost being one of the pups at her feet, picking him up by his scruff and setting him where she wanted him to go, shoving him off on a mission with an authoritatively maternal shove on the rump.

Nate grinned, and on the other side of the desk Schwetje laughed. Nate looked up, startled to realize that Schwetje--Yellowjacket, Nate could feel Yellowjacket's amusement at the image--had picked that image out of the pack-sense, even as much as Nate and Bo had been closed off from it.

Nate tightened up his barriers, Bo automatically following suit, thinning their pack-sense contact with Schwetje and Yellowjacket down to the minimal link that respect for rank required of them. Nate nodded firmly. "Yes, sir. We can command them. We look forward to it."

"Good," Schwetje said, picking up a file and moving it over to another pile, dropping it with a very final slap. "They're all yours."

With everyone in one place for Mountain Warfare training, Nate and Bo and their opposite numbers in Alpha were able to complete the transfer of Reyes and Sandy and Patrick and Hurricane the old-fashioned way. That pleased all the wolves, and Nate knew it was easier on the men, too.

Nate and Bo had spent their long summer of training between unit assignments, drifting outside the pack-sense except for what they formed with training units, always knowing it was only temporary. He wouldn't wish even a day of that isolation and uncertainty on any of his men, and he was glad to be able to prevent it for Reyes and Patrick, though he supposed that as shieldmates they would suffer less from it than most.

They did it up right: Nate and Bo brought along the rest of the platoon--PFC Christeson and Dusty, Lance Corporals Stafford and Lilley with Scooby and Eagle, respectively--to the designated neutral meeting area, a little way from either unit's barracks. Reyes and Patrick followed their platoon commander, their brothers at their heels, and Nate grinned as he watched Bo stand tall, refusing to be intimidated by the Alpha platoon's superior numbers. The whole platoon wasn't even present, but there were still a solid dozen men and wolves there to see the sergeants off.

The actual handoff took just a few seconds. The Alpha lieutenant's brother touched noses with Hurricane, then with Sandy. Their successive releases from the pack-sense were tangible in the overarching pack-sense that made up recon.

Bo was already extending eager invitation through the pack-sense, but she stood her ground at Nate's side, waiting for them to come to her. Patrick and Reyes each shook their former lieutenant's hand, and then they crossed the invisible line in the dust into Bravo Two's territory.

Bo danced forward to meet Sandy and Hurricane, snapping her teeth eloquently as she directed them, together, together, closer. The wolves stood obediently shoulder to shoulder, heads together, and Bo came to a solemn halt before them and touched noses with both of them at once, drawing both wolves and their brothers into her pack-sense as a single unit. Nate heard--and felt--the quiet surprise of the rest of Bravo Two at the ease with which she absorbed the new wolves into the pack-sense. Even Alpha's lieutenant looked reluctantly impressed.

Sergeant Patrick was grinning, and Rudy was laughing, pumping his fist in delight. Hurricane and Sandy bowed together, and Bo cheerfully washed both their faces and then led them off to meet the younger wolves. Nate was grinning, too, reaching out a hand to shake with each of his new NCOs even as the feeling of them spread through the pack-sense. Patrick was quiet and steady, content to let Reyes draw everyone's attention but confident in his own authority. Rudy was just as distinctive as he'd seemed when Nate only heard him out loud, exuberant and earnest and somehow managing to be on his Own Fucking Program in perfect sync with recon.

Both of them were, rightly, orienting their attention more to the junior enlisted men, who would make up their team for the time being, than toward Nate, who would channel most of his pack-sense awareness of them through Gunny Wynn once they got linked up. They each shook Nate's hand, accompanied with the equivalent pack-sense contacts, and then moved on. Hurricane and Sandy, introduced to the junior wolves, were doing the same.

Bo returned to Nate's side, standing at a little distance from the men.

Sergeant Patrick, Nate said, letting his words be broadcast to all the men just as if he'd shouted them out loud. All five turned to him, but Sergeant Patrick took a step forward.


Nate nodded. Get your team back to base and get settled. Bo and I have some things to do.


Patrick saluted, including with it a warm sense of respect in the pack-sense. Nate returned the gesture with equal goodwill, and then turned and led Bo away from the barracks, toward one of the lonelier areas of the base. Bo knew what Nate was looking for and took the lead, steering them away from every occupied space, until they reached a sheltered hillside out of sight, smell, and hearing of everyone.

Bo closed down their pack-sense connection with the rest of the platoon to mere awareness of their location and condition, and then for a moment she just stood there at Nate's side. Their own bond seemed to open up wider, or maybe it was just the chance to actually pay attention to each other, to acknowledge what had been stirring irrepressibly in the back of both their minds and now flooded openly between them.

Nate dropped to his knees, laughing, and dug his fingers into the fur at her shoulders until he felt her wanting to pull away. He sat back on his heels. Go, go.

Bo bolted off down the hill, barking like a pup, jumping for joy. Nate straightened up to watch her, grinning so widely his own face hurt. It had been a long summer, and they'd had to get through it in the absence of a pack of their own. Bo had weaned her first litter and sent them off into the world to find their own brothers. They'd survived BRC and Combat Water Safety and SERE. Bo wasn't the same wolf she'd been six months ago, and Nate couldn't help being relieved, as well as glad, to see her cut loose with puppy antics when she had the time and space.

She came romping back to Nate after a few minutes, jumping up to put her paws on his shoulders. Nate put his hands on her shoulders, though she didn't need steadying, and let her lick his face a while, until her wild, incandescent pack-happiness settled into a single focus: Frost Frost Frost Frost.

"Hey," Nate said aloud, shifting his hands to either side of Bo's jaw, halting the facewash. "Hey. Not just Frost."

Ash, he told her in the pack-sense, and since he had no idea what Ash looked or smelled like, he pushed the memory of Silver at her, reminding her how Silver and Keith had guided them, stood beside them, run the platoon in their absence.

"Frost and Brad are going to lead a team," he said quietly, shaking her a little. "Just like Patrick and Hurricane. They're going to be with their team. Ash and Wynn are for us. Ash will be with us."

He didn't have to say the rest in words, though he pushed it through the pack-sense to be sure she understood how concerned he was. They were likely to meet Ash and Wynn and Frost and Brad all at the same time, when they returned to Camp Pendleton. Bo couldn't get distracted by Frost; she had to give the right of precedence to the senior NCO pair, to Ash and Wynn. They had to be brought into the pack-sense first, even if it was easier to pull Frost in at a distance, having connected with him before. Nate and Bo couldn't start their partnerships with Wynn and Ash by passing them over for a junior wolf and team leader.

Bo huffed in his face. Of course. Wolves understood seniority and place-in-the-pack at least as well as men did. She understood Ash's role, and Frost's. It didn't diminish her happiness at the upcoming reunion, and she'd never be careless like this in public. Only with her brother.

"Of course," Nate agreed out loud, smiling again. "Go on, then, we've got a few more minutes before anybody needs--"

Bo didn't let him finish before she threw them both sideways, dragging him into the dirt before she took off running. Nate gave in and chased her down the hill and back up again like he was a kid again, too--like he had any hope of catching her when he was laughing so hard.

Thirty miles out from Pendleton, Nate felt a ping through the pack-sense. Not the close pack, neither his own platoon nor coming down from the company level; this came through the wider pack-sense of Recon, and it wasn't intended for him. It hadn't originated with a human. It was Frost, reaching out for Bo.

No. It was Frost offering himself to Bo. It was an unobtrusive contact, diffident, correctly submissive. There was no content but the fact of the communication, the sense of his presence. Frost was available to her, ready to be brought into the pack-sense of her platoon at Bo's convenience.

Nate looked down at Bo, who heaved a long sigh and pushed herself up to sit between his legs, her head on his thigh, her nose tucked into the crease of his hip. She gave him a long-suffering look, and Nate shared with her the wordless, resigned sense of necessary patience. Bo wouldn't reject the contact, wouldn't push Frost away when he had offered himself. Neither would she take him up on his offer. She would wait. They would all wait.

Twenty miles out, Frost's ping turned into something like a nudge. Nate had the strong sense impression of Frost bowing so closely at Bo's feet that his paws were between hers, so that she couldn't take a step without acknowledging him.

Bo gave another sigh. Nate watched it travel through her body, her shoulders heaving between his thighs. He put his hand on the back of her neck.

Frost wasn't budging, and Nate knew that in another few minutes somebody's patience was going to run out. Wolves weren't good at extended standoffs, and their communication relied heavily on gesture and performance; Bo deigning to communicate with Frost now, even to tell him to go away, would launch a complicated tangle of implications. It would take a human to say something that meant only the words that were said.

Nate reached out through the open connection, past Frost to Brad, with a single word. Wait.

It was enough to get Brad's attention, and Nate felt the contact between the wolves attenuate within seconds. He rubbed his thumb over the base of Bo's ear and remembered the day they had first met Frost and Brad: Frost had been antagonizing Bo, and Brad had convinced him to stop with a look and a few seconds' silent communication.

Bo accepted the memory with interest, sharing back her own rather jumbled recollection of the cas-evac flight. Nate smiled even as he shifted uncomfortably. Bo's memory was heavy on the sensation of those hours, and he didn't really need the twitchy anticipation of almost-in-heat on top of his present impatience to meet his NCOs and get the platoon settled. He remembered all too well how things with him and Brad had proceeded after that, and he didn't need to be thinking of that now.

Nate forced his attention onto the soothing pointlessness of a head count, reaching out through the pack-sense to check on each of his men. Nate smiled--and felt Bo share his amusement--when they touched Patrick and Hurricane and realized they were doing the same. Nate left Patrick to it and carried on with his own checks, few though they were, easy though it would have been to just turn his head and look at them all.

Rudy was meditating. Lilley was staring out the window. Stafford was lecturing Christeson about something, and Christeson was caught between a fear of seeming gullible and an eagerness to believe everything Stafford said. Nate offered him a quiet touch of reassurance; Stafford was being entirely truthful, and even accurate so far as Nate knew, about dive training.

Nate returned his attention to Bo, and she confirmed that all the wolves were as healthy as the men. Hurricane and Sandy had traded places at some point in the last ten minutes. Scooby was irritated that Dusty had joined Stafford and Christeson's conspiracy to keep Scooby from licking the stitches on his foreleg, which constituted the only injury the platoon had suffered in its last training exercise. Eagle was asleep with his head in his brother's lap, dreaming of running.

A few minutes later they came into pack-sense range of the northern edge of Camp Pendleton. The preserve there was occupied by wild packs--never-bonded and no-longer-bonded wolves--and they inevitably reached out to try to connect with the wolves and men who passed near their territory. Approaching Pendleton from the north always meant running a gauntlet of undisciplined contact.

Nate closed his eyes and settled both hands on Bo, helping her concentrate on policing the pack-sense of her own platoon. Nate could feel her interposing herself, blocking access down to a mere awareness of the wolves' locations. Bo could feel--Nate could feel through her--something like a collective sigh of the platoon's relief at being so well shielded, but neither let it distract them from Bo's work.

And then, with a sudden burst of overkill energy--like the last step out of a sucking bog and onto dry land--they were past the nearest approach of the preserve to the road and in among the strong, orderly pack-sense of the great mass of men and wolves at Pendleton.

The instant the doors of the bus opened at Camp Margarita, recon's stomping grounds within Pendleton, Nate was aware--and Bo was conscious of nothing but--that their soon-to-be pack members were awaiting them nearby. Nate looked around and spotted Frost sitting statue-still beside Brad; logically the red-tawny wolf standing alertly just ahead of Frost and Brad would be Ash, and the man with her would be Gunnery Sergeant Wynn. That left the man and wolf flanking Wynn and Ash on the other side still unexplained.

Nate pushed a query at his CO, carefully leashing himself to politeness and a hint of confusion.

Schwetje, riding at the front of the bus and already standing to exit, turned his head and said, "Oh, yeah, your other team leader is here, too. Lovell and Blue."

His casual tone matched his projection through the pack-sense: a startlingly wolfish unconcern for things not immediately present. Nate couldn't have done anything differently if he'd known he was meeting a third man along with Wynn and Brad; why tell him?

Nate gave a clipped nod that hopefully looked calm and then looked down at Bo. This piecemeal assembly of a platoon was harder on her than stepping in at the top of an established unit had been last year, but of course she was undaunted. Knowing there were a third man and wolf waiting to be taken into her platoon only made her more eager to get out there and bring them all in from the cold.

Schwetje and Yellowjacket preceded them from the bus, but Schwetje quickly waved them off toward their men. Schwetje knew as well as any wolfbrother that men stranded outside the pack-sense weren't to be left waiting on formalities.

Nate reached back as he headed across the parking lot. Patrick, with us. Rudy, take your team to the barracks, see if we've gotten any more men assigned in our absence.

Sir came back through the pack-sense in stereo, and Nate didn't have to look around to know he was obeyed. He could feel them all falling into place in the pack-sense as Bo prepared to make new additions.

Nate let the familiar litany of inevitable mental images flash through his mind, locked away in as much privacy as he would ever have: Brad standing over him while he was kneeling naked, all but mute with need; Brad's teeth closing on the top of his shoulder as Brad fucked him; kissing Brad; lying dazed on the floor of the heat-shack with Frost and Bo between them, holding Brad's hand. Overlaying all those mere images, mere facts, was the pack-sense they'd shared, wide-open and utterly immersive, leaving nowhere to hide.

Nate pushed that away as he walked. Not present, not important. They were here in Oceanside now. They were Bravo Two, not Nate and Brad and Bo and Frost in a heat-shack.

Bo stopped short at a convenient demarcating crack in the pavement and stood at Nate's side. The three waiting men started forward, making their salutes to Nate as they did, and Nate returned them before Ash reached Bo.

Bo touched noses with Ash at once, opening the pack-sense to her and giving her her rightful place as the platoon NCO's sister. Nate breathed a silent sigh of relief, meeting Wynn's--Mike's--eyes as he did and seeing his own expression reflected back. Bo and Ash fit together with a smooth sense of inevitability, and balancing the pack-sense was made instantly easier with another bitch on board. Mike's presence in the pack-sense was likewise instantly comfortable, and Nate knew he was once again lucky in the men under his command.

Mike stepped forward to shake Nate's hand, while Bo combined licking Ash's face with herding Ash to a place at Bo's side. Ash automatically shifted a half-step back, taking Bo's flank, and Mike moved into place at Nate's shoulder.

Bo turned her attention to the remaining men and wolves, and gave a soft whuff in the direction of Lovell and Blue, who wasn't blue at all but an ordinary gray. Blue didn't hesitate before coming forward to be folded into the pack-sense, though Nate thought he saw Lovell flick a sideways glance before he followed.

Blue fit into place in the pack-sense with a familiar click; Lovell and Blue had served before with Mike and Ash, and Ash's comfort with them complemented Bo's innate ease in managing the pack-sense. Nate found he was grinning as he shook Lovell's hand, and Lovell grinned back before he stepped aside, taking up a position near Patrick, and leaving just Brad and Frost facing them.

Frost was sitting again, rigid at Brad's side. Waiting, as ordered. Brad looked slightly less frozen, meeting Nate's gaze with a slightly questioning smile. Nate nodded, and Brad looked down--must have told Frost the wait was over--and without anyone moving a muscle Nate felt it happen. Frost offered himself and Bo made him her own almost faster than Nate could perceive, and if he hadn't been bracing himself for it for the last three days he wouldn't have had time now.

Nate held Brad's gaze through it. He saw Brad's eyes widen slightly, saw the slight relaxation of relief go over him even as Nate felt it himself. It really was different this time, when it wasn't just them, when they weren't all caught up in Bo's heat. They were lieutenant and sergeant, each in their place.

Brad stepped forward as Frost came to Bo to be greeted, as though she had to get the scent of him for the first time. Bo gave Frost a perfunctory lick and then got her teeth into the scruff of his neck, and Brad was grinning as he offered Nate his hand.


Nate shook Brad's hand even as he watched Frost bowing readily under Bo's teeth. "Sergeant."

Brad was pushing warm, proper respect at him, nearly drowning out the underlying contentment and relief. It felt almost exactly like the way Patrick had first saluted him.

Nate caught Brad's name for him--Pappy--at the same time he recognized the similarity of the feelings and the familiar congruence with which the two sergeants fit into the pack-sense. He turned slightly as he realized it, letting go of Brad's hand to look at Pappy, who had been on Brad's team in Afghanistan last year.

Brad's team had been on watch together at the Peleliu's heat-shack in December.

Pappy's expression didn't change, and he echoed the same sense of deference and respect for Nate that he'd been projecting all along. Pappy would have recognized Nate right away--even before he'd been assigned to Nate, when Nate and Bo shadowed his team in training. He'd known who Nate was, he'd known exactly what happened, he'd seen him, and....

Pappy offered a glimpse of two memories superimposed: Nate sitting in the isolation unit during the cas-evac flight, and Nate on his knees in the heat-shack, waiting while they removed the other wolf. Clothed or naked, what stood out in Pappy's sight of him was his quiet stillness, an impression of him controlling the uncontrollable. It hadn't felt anything like that from the inside, but Nate understood what he was being given.

He nodded firmly to Pappy just as Bo let Frost get back to his feet. Brad stepped around Nate to join the other NCOs, his brother at his heels.

"Gentlemen," Nate said, looking around and picking up quiet support from Mike and a really impressive poker face from Lovell.

Before Nate could say another word, Rudy piped up in the pack-sense with Sir, we've got a dozen E-3s and E-4s here.

Nate looked over at Mike and felt Bo reaching simultaneously for Sandy and for Ash. From all sides, Nate could feel the threads of contact with the new wolves, who with their brothers would more than double the size of the platoon.

Bo hesitated for an instant at his side, but Nate said aloud, "Go, go get them."

Bo took off at a run, Ash at her heels, pushing an imperious Stay at the other three wolves. Blue and Hurricane shifted, looking after them, but Frost stayed pinned to Brad's side, and all of the men had their eyes on Nate.

"There's just one thing I want to get settled before I let you get back to your teams," Nate said. "And it's easier to talk about it when my sister is distracted."

Nate watched their expressions go blank as they closed off their reactions from the pack-sense--all except Brad, who had been as braced as Nate was right from the start.

Nate smiled slightly and said, "Her name is Bo. I know you may have seen a longer written form around, and you may see it again, but my sister's name is Bo. That goes for everyone, right down to the E-2s. She doesn't consider it a familiarity or a nickname and she will take it personally if anyone uses the long form."

The TLs all deigned to crack a smile. Pappy's was the most obvious, Lovell's hardest to spot, Brad's a flash of teeth, there and gone. Nate's work here was done, as far as the TLs went.

Mike stepped up to his shoulder and said, "That's it, gents. Go find your teams."

All three saluted, and Nate returned their salutes and held his ground as they walked away.

Mike stayed beside him. "Doesn't like Boadicea, huh."

Nate smiled, his eyes still on the TLs. Frost had finally broken away from Brad, and was trotting alongside Hurricane, jostling him good-naturedly. "I filled out the naming paperwork the day after she chose me, which was two days after I got to TBS. And then the day after I handed in the form she decided she didn't like that spelling."

Mike huffed a laugh. "The spelling?"

Nate nodded. "That turns out to be an argument you can't win with a wolf, even if she's only four months old. She likes the spelling Boudicca--" Nate pushed the mental image rather than spell it out, and Mike nodded. "For whatever that's worth. The Corps won't allow me to change her written name, so we just settled on Bo."

Nate raised a hand and half-consciously tapped his fingers against the tattoo on his chest, where that compromise was written into his skin.

Mike nodded again. Neither of them moved to follow their sergeants across the parking lot.

Nate turned to face him, finally. "You know my history with Sergeant Colbert. Bo's history with Frost."

Mike's lips pursed into a wry smile. "Pretty much the first thing I heard about you, sir. Gunnery Sergeant Griego made sure I was fully briefed on the situation as soon as I got my orders."

Mike's voice was perfectly neutral, and his face betrayed no more than resigned amusement at the situation. Nate felt his misgiving only through the pack-sense, a wariness that matched Nate's own feelings after interacting with the company NCO, something he knew how to interpret when hearing it from another bitch's brother. There were plenty of Marines--officers and enlisted alike--who didn't believe bitches should ever be bonded to officers. They had a tendency to resolve the problem in their own minds by mentally demoting officers bonded to bitches. Nate hadn't caught Griego at anything overt, and it was early yet; there was still the chance that Nate and Bo could win him over without an open fight. Nate had to allow the possibility.

Nate nodded. "Understood."

"Colbert also insisted on making sure I understood the situation correctly," Mike added, his smile twitching slightly wider. He filled in the rest through the pack-sense: Brad had been circumspect about details, determined both to praise Nate and to assure that there were no lurking secrets for any of them to be ambushed by.

Nate nodded more sharply, but let Mike see what there was to see. Nate was just as determined to have the situation rightly understood, and thought as highly of Brad as Brad evidently did of him. He'd come out of the heat-shack liking Brad, trusting him, attracted to him, and more than anything else, wishing for a chance to work with him.

"I won't bother recovering the same ground, then," Nate said aloud. "But I--Mike, have you ever done a solo?"

Mike raised his eyebrows--not offended, but he hadn't expected Nate to take that tack. "No. Ash did three litters, all peacetime, all right here at Pendleton. All Mike Bravos."

Nate nodded. "Bo was supposed to have her first Mike Bravo here, a year and a half ago. She rejected all the wolves." Nate couldn't resist letting a glimpse of that through, to be sure Mike would understand what that had been like, and Mike grimaced and nodded.

"She rejected the wolf she was supposed to get in December. Frost's the only wolf she's ever accepted, so Colbert is the only--" Nate stopped short of saying Marine I've ever been fucked by. It wasn't technically accurate, and Mike didn't need him to fill in some euphemism to understand Nate's meaning.

"Out of all that," Mike said slowly, one eyebrow twitching up. "Colbert's the one you didn't put on your exclusion list?"

Nate nodded. "We got the job done together; it was an effective match. I think we can do this. Brad must think we can do this or he'd have put me on his exclusion list by now. You're brother to a bitch, you're recon, and you've been around longer than either of us. I need to know what you think the odds are that this doesn't go bad on us."

Mike was still for several seconds, and Nate could feel him turning it over before he spoke. He understood as well as Nate did that Brad's assignment to the platoon had come from up the chain of command, and that that was no guarantee of a good outcome. It was their responsibility to make this work, now, and if Nate had to do something drastic it was best done as soon as possible.

"Bo doesn't seem bothered," Mike said, his words layered with the newness of their pack-bond, his uncertainty of that evaluation. "Frost seems like he's determined not to let on if he is bothered. And you and Brad are professionals. I've seen officers get a lot more tangled up with their men than one go-round in a heat-shack without completely fucking things up."

"We'll be going into combat," Nate pointed out. All kinds of things got all kinds of lax in peacetime, not least the rules about appropriate relationships. And their go-round in the heat-shack hadn't been quite the usual.

Mike shrugged. "I don't know what we'll be going into, Nate, and I don't know you. I know Brad. I trust his judgment, and he seems to trust yours."

Nate put his chin up. "I need you not to trust my judgment too far, Gunny. I need you to let me know if I'm fucking up as far as Sergeant Colbert--or in any other way, but especially with Brad. Privately, if we can, but I want you to know that I understand your role here. I need you to step in when you see me about to make a mistake."

Mike held his gaze in silence for several seconds, then nodded. "Thank you, sir. I'll do my best for you."

Nate nodded sharply, pushing gratitude through the pack-sense without a word. He turned to head toward their barracks--he could feel Bo's greedy delight in the new members of her platoon, and he probably shouldn't leave her on her own to push everyone around for too long--and Mike fell in at his shoulder.

"Mind you," Mike said, halfway there. "This is recon."

He pointed out to Nate half a dozen guilty consciences flashing like beacons in the pack-sense, E-3s and E-4s nervously anticipating the arrival of their lieutenant and gunny.

"Privacy's gonna be a bitch."

"Good thing we've got two of those, then," Nate replied.

Mike didn't deign to show much of a smile at that, but Nate could feel his answer in the pack-sense. Damn good thing.

Bo took Nate's desire for a private pack-sense connection with Mike as a challenge. It was only a couple of days before Nate and Mike could communicate in the presence of the platoon without any of them picking up the danger! signals Nate and Mike exchanged as tests. To be absolutely certain, they recruited Corporal Person, who Brad had claimed immediately as his RTO. Ray was brother to the only other bitch in the platoon, and thus strongest in the pack-sense after Bo and Ash.

With Ray and his sister, Navi, sitting directly between them, Nate and Mike exchanged a rapid-fire series of signals. They took turns showing Ray what they'd transmitted and silently tracking the signs of exactly how unnerved Ray was until, nearly a full minute before Mike expected him to--Nate had thought he could hold out even longer--he cracked.

"Okay, this is seriously creepy, sir. Gunny. I can't hear you! That's not natural! Navi hears fucking everything!"

Nate grinned. Price Is Right rules? Nobody wins if we both went over?

Mike shrugged. You can tell yourself that if you need to, Nate.

Between them, Ray's eyes went wider as he looked rapidly back and forth. "What? Oh my God, what are you saying?"

"Just calibrating, Ray," Mike said, bland and no-nonsense.

Bo, bored with the exercise now that she knew she'd mastered it, stood up and pounced on Navi, who rolled over readily, wagging her tail like a puppy. Ash stayed at Mike's side, giving both of the younger bitches the same benevolent look.

Ray threw his hands up and said, "Fine, fine, be secure in the fact that you can be creepy and plan shit without anyone knowing whether you're talking to each other or not. Jesus. Sir."

"Thank you for your help, Corporal," Nate returned. "You're free to go."

Ray stood up like he was spring-loaded, but he waited until Bo let Navi up before he actually went anywhere.

The acid test came later that day, while Nate was eating at the same mess table as Captain Schwetje. Mike sent him the familiar danger! three o'clock! signal, and Nate, with days of practice at it, resisted looking sharply to his right. He kept his eyes on his CO instead. Captain Schwetje didn't look to his right, either, or to Nate's right. He looked directly at Nate, frowning in confusion. He didn't look for Mike at all, though he was sitting three tables away, readily visible.

Nate nodded to Schwetje and looked back down at his food, waiting for him to say something. When he hadn't after three minutes, Nate sent back privately to Mike, danger! five o'clock! and glanced toward Schwetje again. Again he looked at Nate.

He clearly knew Nate was doing something, sensed the communication in the pack-sense going on under his nose, but he didn't respond at all to the content of the message and he didn’t know who Nate was communicating with. They couldn't block him out as thoroughly as their own platoon, which made sense. Bo and Ash could much more easily manipulate their own platoon's pack-sense than their connection up the chain of command. Even so, they were effectively concealing their communication.

Success, Nate sent to Mike, this time not looking up to see whether Schwetje noticed.

Sir, we really need to talk about the percentage of every day you spend fantasizing about fucking PFC Christeson.

Nate managed--just--not to choke. Bo, who'd been sitting between his legs, bored, lifted her head and nosed at his ribs. She sent him a sharp reprimand for both his near-inhalation of his mixed vegetables and for the possibility that he was spending any time at all thinking about fucking Christeson. In Bo's view Christeson was effectively the same age as his brother Dusty, who was barely out of puppyhood and not done growing yet.

Nate put a hand on her head and assured her that Mike was just trying to get a reaction out of him and Nate had no actual interest in making any kind of move on his teenaged PFC. Bo huffed and put her head down, sending an equally sharp sense of disapproval toward Mike for not timing his teasing so that Nate wouldn’t choke on his food.

Anyway, Nate added as an afterthought, because now and then he felt compelled to try to make Bo understand these things, fucking Christeson would be rude to Jill.

Bo had tagged along on both of Nate's dates with Jill and categorized her, disconcertingly, with Nate's sisters among the wolfless humans she liked because Nate liked them. She thought Nate bringing up Jill when they were discussing Christeson was a baffling change of subject; clearly one had nothing to do with the other. Nate didn't press it any further, and finished his meal without any further excitement.

Schwetje followed him out of the mess hall, sending him a wordless command to hang back. Nate obediently slowed his steps until his CO was at his side.

"Nate," he said quietly. "I noticed what you were doing there, talking privately with someone."

Nate nodded. "Gunny Wynn. Platoon commander and NCO is one of the permitted private bonds, sir."

"Oh," Schwetje said, sounding taken aback.

In defiance of all experience, the back of Nate's neck prickled, waiting for teeth, waiting to be put in his place, for his CO to tell him he could get away with that, since the regs did technically allow it, but nothing else.

"That's okay, then," Schwetje said, and smiled as he clapped Nate on the shoulder. Nate couldn't muster up any surprise, so he tried not to think anything about it at all.

A few weeks later, with rumors multiplying through the pack-sense like bacteria in a hot tub, they were called to a briefing on the possibility of deploying to Iraq. Nate took Mike, and--since the entire platoon regarded him as unquestionably first among the team leaders--Brad. They sat in a row in the base chapel, with Ash and Bo and Frost lying under their section of the bench, curled up as small as possible. Bo sat up, head on Nate's knee, while Frost and Ash each had their heads on their brothers' feet.

The actual briefing was just barely more authoritative than the soup of speculation that occupied the pack-sense all over the base. They were warned to prepare their families for their absence, and Nate thought of Jill, who he'd just started occasionally spending the night with, and then of his family back in Baltimore. He'd had his will and life insurance in order since before his last deployment, and Jill knew perfectly well that he was a Marine and that there was a war on, so there wasn't much more to do.

They were warned to be ready to deploy on eight days' notice. Nate kept his eyes front as he sent Mike a dismayed estimate of the chaos that would involve, given that they had no gear for the desert, no vehicles for the kind of mission being vaguely outlined, and no idea how to cope with possible long-term exposure to chemical weapons.

Mike, at his side, shook his head very slightly and sent back Worse than that.

No one asked about the implication of deploying that weighed heaviest on Nate's mind. Nate glanced around, doing a head count of bitches in the room, and realized that he and Bo were the highest-ranking ones present apart from General Mattis and Prima up at the podium.

Nate sent a query up through the pack-sense, felt Schwetje relay it, and waited for Mattis to focus on him and nod permission. "Sir, if we're to be ready to deploy on eight days' notice, will breedings be going forward?"

Mattis nodded, and shot a sense of approval--and brother-of-bitch solidarity--down through the pack-sense. Nate saw Schwetje sit up straighter at the General's attention to one of his officers.

"Good question, Lieutenant. Breeding will go forward as normal, until and unless we receive a concrete order to deploy. Arrangements will be made when and as necessary to address the situations of bitches who are pregnant or nursing at that time. And unlike Afghanistan, if we're going into Iraq we won't be doing field breedings. BreedCom is satisfied with the efforts made in the past year to grow the wolf Corps, and they don't expect that extraordinary measures will be required going forward."

Nate nodded and took his seat again. No field breedings, at least; that would be an improvement over their last deployment.

Brad, you want to tell Ray?

Brad sent roger that and, at the same time, Ray, Navi's not getting out of breeding unless and until we're actually deployed.

Ray sent back a slightly scornful lack of surprise underlain with resignation; Nate sympathized too completely to take any exception.

"I can also tell you," Mattis was saying, "that in honor of our possible deployment, this year the birthday hunt will be held at Twentynine Palms."

The reaction was muted but ranged, in the General's presence, roughly from huh to near-orgasmic moto delight. Bo, between Nate's feet, was all but vibrating in place at the idea of being allowed to pursue prey through the desert like she was built to. Nate's grin at the prospect was entirely sincere; she was going to be something to see.

Ray, still communicating with Brad, picked up the announcement and responded a little more candidly. Navi, so help me fucking God if you go into heat in November just because you don't like hunting in the fucking desert we are moving to fucking Texas when I get out and the scorpions will be bigger than you.

Mike smiled slightly at Nate's side, and pushed helpful images of some of the more picturesque places in Texas toward Ray and Navi. Navi remained loftily unconcerned.

Nate looked down at Bo and thought that that was one thing he could be sure of: if the wolf's wishes had anything to do with it, he and Bo weren't going to see the inside of a heat-shack before Thanksgiving.

Nate felt Brad approaching a few seconds before Brad reached the door of his office; Brad was fizzing with happy excitement, leaving his enthusiasm open to the pack-sense. Nate hadn't experienced anything like it in the weeks Brad had been under Nate's command, and even though it was obviously something good it put Nate on his guard. He and Bo were both sitting up straight and watching the door when Brad leaned through, waiting for clarification of Brad's emotion.

Brad's face and his exhilaration both were suddenly blanked out when Brad saw Nate watching him with mere curiosity. Frost, at Nate's side, actually let out a tiny whine; Nate couldn't hear it, but Bo did, and transmitted it to Nate.

Nate gathered this was no time to stand on excessive ceremony. He beckoned Brad in with a gesture and a tug in the pack-sense, and spoke out loud for good measure. "Brad?"

Brad, carefully straight-faced, reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded envelope. "I assumed you'd have one of these, sir. They should have been sent out at the same time."

It was a BreedCom notice--and now, when the pups were seven months old, it could only be an outcomes notification for Bo and Frost's litter. Notifications would have gone out simultaneously to the brothers of all parents of the litter, which in this case meant just Nate and Brad. They'd have gone into the mail together at the other end; only the final distribution was different.

The company NCO would have been pleased to deliver the good news to a TL who had jumped from six to twelve successfully bonded pups on his record. Captain Schwetje would be responsible for delivering Nate's notice, and Captain Schwetje, like most of the company, had already left the base for a weekend liberty.

Nate controlled his own expression and his presence in the pack-sense, allowing no anger, no disappointment, no resigned lack of surprise to leak out. He was proud to feel Bo, beside him, keeping a cool reserve without any prompting.

"You know what can happen to paperwork, Sergeant."

Brad nodded, already shifting his weight backward.

Nate felt Bo shift her weight after him and dropped a hand onto the back of her neck. Supporting the chain of command was one thing, but....

"You mind if I have a look at that, Brad?"

Brad grinned again, his effervescence returning to the pack-sense in a rush as he crossed the distance to Nate. Nate stood up behind his desk and Brad leaned over the other side, tugging the sheet from the envelope and laying it flat between them.

Bo peered over the edge of the desk for a few seconds and then leapt up onto its surface, curling herself up compactly to see the page.

The best news was at the top of the list: Second Lieutenant Charles Douglas was listed beside Lightning (sun on sand at the ocean's edge). Sun on sand had been the undeniable boss of the litter, and he'd taken after his mother enough to be sent to TBS just like Bo had, to find a brother among the officer candidates.

Bo was grinning wolfishly, picturing her offspring spending his puppyhood where she had spent hers. She was pleased to think he'd found a brother as suited to him as Nate was to her.

Nate echoed her delight back to her even as he directed a grin at Brad. "That gives you, what, three out of twelve officer-quality?"

Brad nodded. "But sir. Look."

Halfway down the list was Private Robert Jemison - Tanuki (sun on salt-rimed stone) and at the end of the line there was an asterisk.

Nate raised his eyebrows. Brad's grin was wolfishly wide.

An asterisk was a warning; it meant that the wolf and man in question were likely to end up in the same MOS as the parent being notified. Sun on salt had been the smartest of Bo's pups, and he was already being considered for recon when he wasn't even through SoI. He--or his brother, or the combination they made--had already impressed the brass.

"Congratulations," Nate said, sliding the paper toward Brad, shushing Bo through the pack-sense as she pointed out that the litter's success had everything to do with her and Nate's care of the pups, something to do with Frost, and nothing at all with Brad. "Heading out to celebrate?"

Brad nodded. "Seems like a waste of a weekend, otherwise."

Just then Nate felt Brad get pinged through the pack-sense--Ray, full of impatient eagerness for the weekend and the party.

"Go on," Nate said, taking a step back as Bo stood up between him and Brad. "Get to it."

Brad folded up the page and tucked it into his pocket. "I hope you're doing some celebrating of your own soon, sir."

Nate smiled, throwing his arm over Bo's shoulders, higher than his own when she stood on the desk. "Don't worry about us, Sergeant."

Brad gave a final salute, and Nate took his arm off Bo to return it. Frost bowed to Bo, who leapt down from the desk to give him a fond bite on the muzzle in parting.

When Brad and Frost were gone, Nate closed the door and closed off most of the pack-sense before he dropped to his knees to hug Bo while she wagged her tail like a pup. Bo offered him a rapid-fire series of suggestions for celebrating, most of which involved running hard after live prey. Nate ruled out seeing Jill anytime in the next two days, and made a mental note to call and explain.

Walking out of the battalion-wide briefing on the birthday hunt in the first week of November, Nate caught up to Schwetje and said, "Sir, we should really coordinate transport for the company."

Schwetje gave him a slightly wide-eyed look. "You heard what Godfather said, Nate. The birthday hunt is voluntary. Every man and his wolf need to make their own choice to be there."

Nate blinked and then nodded. The silent second half of that statement, when Godfather said it, had fairly obviously been And if any motherfucker in this battalion chooses not to be there, I will know the reason why.

"Recon Marines can find their way through enemy territory blindfolded," Gunnery Sergeant Griego added. "They don't need their hands held to find Twentynine Palms, Lieutenant."

Nate gritted his teeth against the reassurance and forced himself not to look toward Mike, nor to mentally spell out the condescension just under the surface of Griego's words.

"Good point, Gunny," Nate said crisply. "Sir. I'll make sure Second Platoon understands Godfather's feelings about the voluntary nature of the occasion."

Schwetje gave Nate a pleased clap on the shoulder, and Nate made his escape as quickly as he could, already silently planning with Mike who they'd have ride with who, carrying what gear, out to Twentynine Palms next week.

It was essentially a dry run for their possible-probable upcoming deployment, with slightly less logistical support than Nate expected for the real thing. All the men had had STD screens in advance of the inevitable, as Godfather phrased it, high spirits of the occasion. All the wolves had had their physicals. (Ray had come out of Navi's mockingly wide-eyed. "Guys! She's pregnant! When the fuck did that happen!" Navi, as she had for two solid weeks by then, just looked smug.)

They'd assembled all the gear everyone considered indispensable for the hunt: warm clothes in all-black for the desert night, water, compasses and red flashlights. Most importantly, everyone readied various components of body armor and assorted tools and weapons. Traditionally, the battle of men and wolves against trolls and wyverns had been fought at close quarters, and for a thousand years men had been arming themselves for that battle with axes and other blades. Nate's men were no different, arguing one- versus two-handed axes versus machetes and sharpening their chosen weapons.

For days beforehand Nate had nightmares that it was going to turn out to actually be their deployment: they would arrive at Twentynine Palms and be loaded onto C-130s, whisked off to war with nothing but their black watch caps and hunting gear. He woke up barely past dawn on the ninth and lay still for a while, watching Jill sleep. If this was it, if he got taken away from her today and spent the next six or eight months with his platoon, half a world away from her....

Bo's nose pressed coolly against his shoulder, and Nate turned his head and smiled. I know, I know, I'd still have you.

He reached over and scratched her a little behind the ears, letting himself feel her uncomplicated eagerness for the day and night to come. Last year on the tenth of November they'd been in Afghanistan; the birthday hunt had been indistinguishable from every other attempt by the wolves to chase down something to eat. The humans' chow the next night had been supplemented with something that was supposed to be cake, but it hadn't made the occasion much more festive. This year's birthday festivities promised to make up for that in spades.

"Yeah," Nate whispered. "It's going to be one hell of a party."

"Hm?" Jill murmured, reaching over to him without opening her eyes. Her hand found his shoulder, and Nate captured it with his own and squeezed. "You getting up?"

"Yeah," Nate repeated a little louder. He'd mostly managed to avoid the tendency, common among Marines, to speak to Jill as if she were hard of hearing just because everything he said wasn't also being transmitted to her through the pack-sense. He did make it a point to enunciate. "We'll be on the road in half an hour."

"Hm," Jill said, picking her head up this time, smiling and scooting over to press up against him. Bo huffed against Nate's skin and moved away from the bed, heading for the kitchen. "Not much time. I'll see you tomorrow at the hotel then, huh?"

"Absolutely," Nate agreed, closing his eyes as he kissed her. His nightmares couldn't get to her unless he opened his mouth and put them into words, and there was no need to do that.

Rifles were issued at the start of the hunt with one clip each. Every Marine was a rifleman, so they wouldn't be sent out without them, but Nate had them all check to be sure their chambers were empty before they slung the weapons to the side for running. Nate noticed the TLs removing their clips entirely, tucking them into readily accessible pockets on their tac vests. Nate himself followed suit, hopefully a little more smoothly than the younger Marines.

"Remember," Nate called out, eyeing the men who chose to keep their rifles loaded. "We do not fire if we do not have a clear shot on an identified hostile. We have the moon only for the next five hours, and after that visibility will likely be too poor for ranged weapons. These will be close-quarters fights, which is why we're all carrying hand weapons."

Rudy chose that moment to thrust a huge two-hander of an axe skyward. "The Old Ways!"

The medics were checking that everyone had a safe sheath for running with their blades. Everyone was strapping on their chosen pieces of body armor; Rudy alone was jingling softly under a layer of chain mail. Men looked up and yelled back at Rudy, variously, oo-rah or, in honor of Rudy's throwback gear, Hrotholf!

Nate grinned and took a step back, testing the secure fit of his own vambraces. When everyone had straightened up, and the wolves were just on the edge of starting to fight each other from sheer excitement, Nate nodded to Bo. She headed for their entry point into the open desert beyond their assembly area. For a moment Bo stayed still, gathering the smells and sounds picked up by her entire pack, and then she led them into the falling darkness. The hunt was on.

Four hours into the hunt, with the half-moon hanging low in the sky and throwing stark, eerie shadows from every rock and clump of scrub, Second Platoon brought a wyvern and troll to bay against a steep, rocky hillside. Doom and Frost and Kanji and Gung Ho were arrayed before the things, holding them in place while the rest of the platoon got into position.

Nate and Bo hung back for a moment, directing men through the pack-sense. Some had to hold back, and with the moon still up Nate wanted Pappy and Rudy and a few other marksmen up on the rocks; he wouldn't turn away the chance for a kill-shot if it was offered. Wolves and men could be seriously injured in the hunt, and Nate didn't intend to carry anyone out of the desert, or to have to explain any absences from the ball.

There was another reason to hesitate, more basic and more compelling. At least a third of Nate's men--himself included--had never seen a wyvern before. Nate had only participated in one real birthday hunt, two years before, in peacetime, and he'd only come up against a troll. He'd seen pictures and videos, but nothing really prepared a man for the reality of a wyvern: an impossibly huge snake with its hind end perched on two legs, stubby wings rising out of its back, moving with an entirely alien menace.

The troll, beside it, was big and nasty looking--to say nothing of the rancid smell, communicated and amplified from the wolves to the men--but it had a basically hominid shape. Besides, they all knew it was only a remote-controlled replica, no matter that it was a military-grade fighting machine. Everyone was fairly certain that they were programmed not to kill Marines on purpose.

Real trolls had been extinct since at least the twelfth century, wiped out by the alliance of trellwolves and men. But they had never quite bothered to eradicate wyverns, and various curiosity-hunters, naturalists, and biologists over the centuries had bred them back to an approximation of their former glory. Wyverns were huge, and incomparably wild, and they would kill--and, it was generally thought, eat--a wolf or a man if they got the chance.

Wolves and men were smaller and, give or take their armoring and weapons, softer and squishier than either wyverns or trolls. The rational answer--the modern professional military answer--was high-powered firearms if not carpet bombing, but the birthday hunt wasn't about doing anything the modern way, and the men who weren't taking up sniper positions were unslinging their rifles and stacking them in the dirt. They were unsnapping their axe sheathes now, gripping the weapons they used just once a year in hands guided by ten centuries of tradition.

The birthday hunt was about honoring the fact that wolves and men had driven trolls to extinction, and wyverns into obscurity, long before they had firearms at all. They'd done it by hand and tooth and claw, with the strength of the bond--the strength of the pack.

Nate felt the last moment of hesitation and preparation come to an end. Every man was shifting his weight forward, blade in hand. Every wolf was inching toward its position. For one last second, Bo's authority held the wolves in place, and no man would move without his brother.

Bo and Nate lunged forward at the same instant, Nate with his hatchet swinging, Bo letting out a howl, and the platoon surged into motion with them. The snipers scampered uphill, the backup fanned out across the best vantage points, and a mass of men and wolves streamed in toward the wyvern and the troll. The pack-sense guided them; they were one creature in forty-four bodies, far outmassing their prey and never getting in their own way. Men and wolves split to take on one or the other without anyone having to issue an order. Nate was one of the first men to reach the wyvern, launching himself at its side while Bo joined Frost and Doom in feinting and darting at it, keeping it snapping at them and leaving its midsection exposed.

More men were diving in around Nate; he could feel every one of them as clearly as he felt his own hands and feet, felt every blow that landed as clearly as the crunch of his own hatchet through scales. Brad got a glancing blow on the wyvern's hamstring and had to dance quickly out of the way of a back-swiping claw. Lovell's axe struck the troll high, sinking so deep that he had to let go of it and jump back, pulling his knife as soon as he'd hit the ground. Ray sailed in howling as loudly as his sister, swinging fiercely at the hip of the wyvern, hanging on for an instant before it started to coil around him. Frost and Gung Ho were there, biting at the opposite side of the wyvern to make it twist away so that Ray could break free. Manimal was clinging to the troll's back, slashing at it. Fluffy and Princess were darting around the troll's feet, not bothering to try to bite into its impenetrable hide, but keeping it off-balance all the same.

He'd never fought a wyvern before, but the rhythm of it found Nate like it found all of them. He was conscious of being part of the continuity of the pack, down through hundreds of years of experience; at the same time he wasn't thinking about anything but running over to take his place to dart in again, making a slash and rolling clear with a wolf--Frost this time--at his side. They stepped back for a few seconds--Nate was aware of the other dance going on to his side, felt and heard the crack of the troll landing a blow--Christopher reeled backward and two wolves closed on him to tow him back toward the docs--and Lilley rushed up from the reserve, piling on with the rest.

Meanwhile, three distributed attacks drew the wyvern out nearly straight. When it reared back, Nate was ready with the wolves and men all around him, and they threw themselves at its vulnerable belly. Nate's hatchet rose and fell in perfect alternation with three others and a handful of wolves all biting and clawing until they broke through the scales and skin.

The wyvern let out an awful hiss as blood and ropy guts poured out. Nate kept swinging and the wolves kept biting, tearing the thing open, making sure it would never heal from these wounds. There was a sudden short burst of rifle fire--louder through the wolves' ears than his own--and a hand on Nate's belt, hauling him back. Nate grabbed with his own free hand to catch the scruff of the nearest wolf and drag it with him, and they all got clear just as the wyvern collapsed into a monumental corpse.

The troll had gone down several seconds before, while Nate was immersed in the fight with the wyvern; now a cheer went up from all of them at once for the double kill. Nate was howling as loudly as any of them, shaking his bloodied hatchet in the air. The man behind him--Tony, with a grin and a wink--let go of him as Bo came racing up over the fallen wyvern to knock Dusty aside from Nate and take her own place at his side. That seemed to break a dam, because suddenly there were wolves and men swarming all over the wyvern, yelling and laughing and hacking at it, breaking scales free for souvenirs and presents. Teeth and claws would be a longer, bloodier job, but right now it was all yelling and shoving and hacking and smearing blood all over anyone not sufficiently coated in it.

Nate didn't see who tackled who first--he was holding himself to the spot where he'd stopped, watching, considering whether to go break a few scales free himself--but the dismembering party on the wyvern turned into men grappling on top of it. Men were also wrestling off to one side, and Nate didn't have to look uphill to know that Rudy and Pappy were still up on the rocks, celebrating that last shot. The pack-sense, wide open between all of them, still keeping them all in sync, tipped from sheer adrenaline high to frenzied want with the suddenness of a storm on the water. Nate instinctively pulled away from it even as he felt himself responding--but it wasn't like heat, mindless and overwhelming as the tide. This was a party, wild and raucous and fun.

Nate took a step back even as Bo veered abruptly away from him--Nate could feel several of the wolves decide at once to leave the men to their foolishness, forming a hunting pack to see what game the wyverns and trolls might not have frightened away. Nate took another step back, looking around. Men were in pairs and trios and little knots, some still playfully fighting, some definitely not, and Nate deliberately didn't take note of who was where doing what. Just bodies, dressed in black, smeared with blood and dust and still bristling with weapons and tools. Just bodies, and all brothers in the pack-sense, all cheerfully crazed with delight at what they'd done, and Nate didn't need to know anything more.

His gaze caught on another man standing perfectly still by himself. Nate saw Brad's grin--moonlight caught on his white teeth in his blood-and-dirt-caked face--before Brad turned pointedly away, walking the way the wolves had gone.

Nate hesitated, sweeping another unnecessary glance over the platoon. Pack-sense told him everyone was exulting in whatever they were doing, riding their adrenaline highs and the flood of connection with each other, the out-of-control positive feedback. Then he turned and started skirting around the wyvern in the direction Brad had gone.

Brad was waiting for him on the far side of some fallen rocks at the base of the hillside--Nate had appreciated their strategic value from the other side a few minutes ago, but they came in handy like this, too. Not that this was really private--nothing was a secret from the pack-sense tonight--but Nate could feel Brad's desire to be a little separate. It echoed his own.

Not too separate. Nate felt Brad tug him closer through the pack-sense, not just encouragement to come over to where Brad was standing, stripping off his bloodied and dirtied gloves. Brad was coaxing him closer in the pack-sense itself, too, encouraging Nate to drop the distance he was keeping between himself and the wildness of the men.

"Nate," he said out loud, sounding kind of wrecked and hoarse. It was from screaming during the fight, Nate knew, feeling the same rawness in his own throat when he swallowed, but Brad had sounded like that from about the second hour on in the heat-shack--which was also the last time he'd used Nate's first name.

Nate took a step toward him, raising one hand to his mouth and biting down on the fingertip of his glove to tug it off. With blood in his mouth he let the pack-sense rush back in on him, surging through his body as much as his mind--the fierce, triumphant arousal of the men, the hunting wolves on their race through the desert, Bo and Frost racing side by side up the smooth path of a dry wash. Loudest and brightest and most captivating of all, Brad was blazing in the pack-sense, his blood pounding with reckless lust. Nate felt it all thundering through his own body, his cock going hard in his pants and every sense suddenly more acute. He could feel the embrace of his thigh holster and the straps that held his fighting knife, could feel the friction of every inch of his clothes, and the night air was cold on the back of his neck as fresh sweat broke out.

Nate jerked his glove off and stumbled the rest of the way across the distance to Brad, shoving him into the rock at his back. They crashed against each other, and despite the clothes and gear between them it felt familiar; their bodies remembered each other, and the pack-sense drowned out the differences. Nate closed his ungloved hand on the back of Brad's neck, skin to skin as they ground against each other with their whole bodies. The pack-sense was wide open between them, and Nate could feel how it felt to Brad, on top of how good everything else felt to the guys a few meters away.

Brad tilted his head back, pressing the nape of his neck into Nate's fingers, mouth falling open, and the thought flashed between them that despite all the time they'd spent fucking, there was a lot they'd never done. Unable to deviate too far from mimicking the wolves, they'd been single-mindedly focused on fucking and getting fucked. Brad grinned a little, open-mouthed like a wolf, and Nate was conscious--more in his balls than his brain--of Brad's very sincere regret that he'd never gotten to suck Nate off.

Now, Nate agreed, stepping back without letting go of Brad. They swung around, hanging on to each other, pack-sense still guiding their feet so they wouldn't stumble. It was inescapably like dancing--exactly like the dirty, bloody, crazed precursor to the ball that this night was--and they were both laughing as Nate slumped back against the rock. He tightened his fingers on the back of Brad's neck as Brad worked on getting Nate's pants open. He wouldn't push them down--on top of the amount of stuff Nate had strapped to them, it would be stupid to get actually undressed--but in short order he had his hand on Nate's cock, and Nate groaned as he added his spike of pleasure to the pack-sense and got it back a dozen times over.

Nate shifted his grip on Brad, shoving down on his shoulder, and Brad dropped to his knees. Brad didn't hesitate, taking Nate into his mouth in one smooth motion, pressing his shoulder to Nate's thigh to keep him still. Nate slid his bare hand under the edge of Brad's watch cap, scrubbing his fingertips through Brad's short hair as he gasped, overwhelmed by the wet heat of Brad's mouth--fuck, Brad's throat--and the simultaneous knowledge of just how much Brad liked this, how he reveled in deploying another hard-won skill to devastating effect. Nate could feel Brad's arousal, his cock throbbing in his pants, and he was going to do more about that than let Brad suck him off in just--one--minute.

But first there was this, and Nate let himself be wolfish, lost in the sensation, the rush of pleasure that rebounded through the pack-sense and focused here, on him, his dick in Brad's mouth. Nate was thrusting helplessly while Brad took it, digging his fingers into Nate's thigh and thinking nothing but Yes, yes, more until Nate lost control completely, lost himself in Brad's mouth and the pack. He came as sudden and hard as a hammer blow and the orgasm knocked him a little out of the pack-sense, giving him enough space to open his eyes and see with only his own senses as Brad let Nate's dick slide out of his mouth.

Brad grinned up at him, open-mouthed, licking lips rubbed raw. Nate got both hands into the top of Brad's tac vest and hauled him up, and when the pack-sense rushed back in on him, Nate was already undoing Brad's pants. He remembered--more because it felt better than because he thought it through--to take Brad's cock in his ungloved hand. It was startlingly unfamiliar, and Nate realized--tilting his head down to look while Brad's ragged breathing in his ear took on a hint of a whine--that he'd never actually touched Brad's cock with his hands. Brad had taken care of getting his own condoms on, and by the time he'd been anywhere other than buried in Nate's ass, he'd been thoroughly uninterested in being jerked off.

He was interested now, twitching little thrusts into Nate's grip. Nate let go for a minute to lick his hand, and Brad groaned in irritation and got his own hand into his pants, only for Nate to knock it aside a second later. He wrapped wet fingers around Brad's cock and jerked him hard and fast, knowing at every stroke how much more Brad wanted, with the exultation of the pack still driving him. This was the last burst of frenzy--a lazy sense of satisfaction was already spreading through the pack under the last spasms of frantic desire. Nate didn't let Brad fall behind, dragging him through it until Brad jerked against him, coming under Nate's fingers, gasping in his ear.

They stayed still, after, feeling the last of the platoon finish behind them. There was a chorus of taunts about coming in last before the flames finally burned out into satiety. Nate's hand was still in Brad's pants, and Brad was still leaning heavily against him as they both tried to catch their breath.

Nate flexed his fingers, making Brad hiss a little, but he didn't pull away. Nate made himself let go, wiping his hand on his own boxers before he pulled them up. Brad shifted backward far enough to start putting himself to rights. Nate reached out to Bo reflexively; she was still hunting, and amused as always by the way humans finished so fast.

Brad huffed a laugh and said out loud, "Yeah, well, there's a lot less chafing this way."

Frost and Bo, in perfect synchrony, pushed back a fondly indulgent thought about the terrible fragility of humans.

Nate finished fastening up his pants and said, "I'm starting to feel naked without a rifle."

"Agreed," Brad replied, and led off back toward the platoon.

There were still a few rifles on the ground where they'd been dropped before the last clash. They found their own and Nate looked around for Mike while Brad trotted over toward the fallen troll, where Ray and Navi were perched on one arm.

Ray looked up from what looked like a dissection with his fighting knife and yelled, "Brad, tell me you brought that fucking cutter, I think I can get into this casing!"

Nate headed the other way, up onto the wyvern, where Mike was showing Christeson and Stafford how to pry up the scales around the base of the wing without breaking them. Mike smiled as he handed one to Nate, and Nate placed it carefully into his tac vest before he moved a few feet over and started looking for an unbroken scale to pull up himself.

So, Nate thought, carefully directing it to Mike alone despite the continuing tumult of the pack-sense around them. Did I just fuck that up?

Mike snorted out loud, and Nate looked over at him and then, when Mike raised an eyebrow, around at the platoon. None of them had given a shit when Nate and Brad came back together. None of them were paying any special attention to Nate or Brad now. Nate sifted through his awareness of the pack-sense, which was settling down into more normal patterns as the overwhelming unity of the hunt ended. His and Brad's mutual attraction--which had, along with its origin, been common knowledge throughout the platoon anyway--was just about the least interesting thing to have been acted on in the last half-hour. Grudges, crushes, mixtures of both, and yet more complicated issues had burst into life and now were squared away with everything else. The pack-sense was a quiet, steady counterpoint to the cheerful yelling--and weird electrical noises--going on all around him.

If that feels like you fucked up, Mike opined, you need to lower your fucking standards.

Nate drew the short straw and wound up doing the driving when he and a fellow lieutenant carpooled from Twentynine Palms to the hotel in Nevada where the officers ball would be held. Patrick and his brother, Ax, were soon both asleep in the backseat, and Nate drove east into the rising sun with Bo in the passenger seat beside him.

Halfway there, Bo lifted her head, and Nate snapped out of his highway hypnosis and realized she'd been puzzling over something.

Fucking Brad isn't rude to Jill, Bo concluded, and Nate followed her logic trail through a sense that Brad had priority, since Nate had fucked him months before he even met Jill, and a self-important determination that anything relating to herself--breeding, the hunt--took precedence over any merely human concern of Nate's.

Nate looked over at her, and Bo's ears pricked as she recognized the sudden roil of tension chasing away Nate's up-all-night grogginess.

It's still rude, Nate informed her finally, though he couldn't actually dispute any of her points. I'm going to have to apologize.

Bo didn't understand that. She accepted that it was necessary to make amends for an injury, but she could not grasp what injury Jill had suffered because Nate had sex with Brad on the night of the hunt. There was a general dispensation from the regulations on sexual activity on that night, so it hadn't even been Against The Rules.

It's complicated, Nate insisted, and Bo promptly lost interest.

Breakfast was still being served in the hotel when Nate got there, but they'd been fed at dawn, when the hunt concluded, before they were turned loose. Bo was even less interested in food, still smug and sated from having eaten her own kill with her pack the night before. Nate picked up a key from the front desk and had no reason not to go up to see Jill immediately; he forced himself not to hesitate.

Jill was sitting up in bed with the remains of a breakfast tray beside her, still in pajamas. She looked up and smiled when Nate came in, and Nate smiled irresistibly back. His exhaustion didn't leach away her own night's sleep, and his anxiety didn't contaminate her good mood before he'd had a chance to speak. He felt lighter just being near her, just being in the presence of someone with no connection to him--no wolf to hold her to him--who wanted to be with him anyway.

As long as he hadn't fucked it up already.

Nate walked over to the chair nearest the bed and perched on it while Jill looked him over.

"Definitely a shower before you sleep," Jill agreed, half-correctly reading Nate's avoidance of the bed.

Nate nodded and said, "I want to say, first--"

Jill's eyes went wide and Nate halted, then remembered, again, that she couldn't just pluck his confession out of the pack-sense. Then he hesitated, wondering what she had picked up.

"Nate? Did somebody get hurt? Is everything okay?"

Nate shook his head quickly. "Everyone's fine. We had a few sets of stitches and a few broken ribs, and Ray got a little bit electrocuted, but there was no real harm done. It went really well, actually; we took down a wyvern and a troll. Everyone was excited about it. That's...."

Nate ground to a halt again, searching for the right words to describe it to someone who had never felt anything like it. Jill's eyebrows went up, and the look in her eyes switched from concern to fascination--prurient fascination, Bo's nose promptly informed him, and Nate told her, not for the first time, and not with any great conviction, not to cheat for him like that.

"Is it actually like the movies?" Jill demanded, half-laughing.

The look on Nate's face had to be giving him away, now.

"By movies do you mean," Nate said, and cut himself off before he said porn. He didn't want to contemplate whether Jill had ever watched wolfthreat porn.

Jill waved her hand. "The war-romance ones, you know. There's always a hunt or a successful battle or something and then they all go wild for each other."

"Oh," Nate said, recalling a few scenes that he'd always dismissed as romantic fantasy until--well. Until now. He'd never been on a birthday hunt that had gone that well; that was another new experience he could chalk up to recon.

"Yeah. I'm sorry, I should have--we should have talked about that. All of us had to test clean before we were allowed to go, and it wasn't--we didn't...."

Jill grinned. "Nate, you're a Marine. You're brother to a wolf. We did talk about this--your job takes you away from me sometimes. You have sex with other Marines sometimes. And then you come back, right? Here you are. You came back."

"Yeah," Nate agreed, relief welling up along with a surge of affection--of love, but this probably wasn't the way to say it, and Nate could choose his moment. Jill wouldn't know before he told her. "Yeah. I came back."

"Then come on." Jill stood up and held out a hand, and Nate put his in hers and let her tug him to his feet. "I'll scrub your back and you can tell me where your new bruises came from."

Nate kissed her first, carefully gentle, deliberately chosen. She would never share the memory with him, the fury and triumph of the hunt, nor anything else he'd ever endured for the Corps, what it otherwise meant that he had sex with other Marines sometimes. "I will. All the good parts."

That night at the ball, when Jill took mercy on him for a while and took a break from dancing, Nate stood and looked around at the spectacle of it. Everyone was in dress uniforms, and the dancers fell half-consciously into perfect patterns, pack-sense automatically tugging the Marines on the floor into coordination with each other.

Nate reached past them to his own platoon--at this distance just a sense of their existence, a vague warm glow of continued health and safety--and remembered the night before, the way the pack-sense had engulfed them in the thick of the fight. Now it guided the most frivolous of exercises, and it was all the same pack-sense, all the same lesson. They gained more than they lost--more than they could ever describe--from their partnership with the wolves. The wolves would carry them safely through whatever they faced next.

Nate remembered his nightmare about deploying straight from the hunt, and he thought about the way it had actually played out. If the prep had been a dry run for deploying, he could only pray the hunt had been a preview of war. His teams had--as every infantryman was taught--located, closed with, and destroyed the enemy. Bo and the wolves had gloried in their desert skirmish.

We're ready, Nate acknowledged, glancing over at Bo where she lay in a heap with several other wolves, well-fed and willing to let the humans have their incomprehensible fun.

For the first time he felt a surge of pure excitement at the prospect of going off to war--with this platoon, this pack, brought to this exact moment of readiness.

Let's go.

Bo, halfway across the room, stood up eagerly; when Jill found him again Nate was still trying to convince her to lie back down.