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Dog Day Afternoon

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It was only noon, and it had already been a long day.

Audrey had spent the unseasonably warm morning handling a complaint about ‘teenage mayhem’ that was actually Marge MacPherson’s Halloween decorations getting a little too into the spirit of the holiday. Alone, because Nathan had already left the station with Tommy by the time Audrey had finished her first cup of coffee. It hadn’t been worth picking a fight with him over it, not when the call was from Landon Taylor- Nathan was in a better position to help Landon, if he thought his Trouble was doing something unpredictable.

Still, if she’d known the dancing skeletons were going to be that aggressive, she’d have brought Rafferty along for backup.

She’d considered calling Duke, but she was still having trouble shaking the image of Lady Justice holding a sword to his throat, or banishing the icy ball of fear that had formed in her stomach when he’d drowned on dry land trying to help her find Daphne. And this wasn’t his job; he deserved a break.

And it was fine, really. Marge was just- enthusiastic. Once Audrey had gotten past the witch on the doorstep, it had been relatively easy to talk her down. Nobody had gotten seriously hurt, which was always a plus, and Audrey’s bruises were minor. Still, Audrey was ready for a very large cup of coffee, an even larger sandwich, and a few quiet hours at the station.

Which, of course, was when the first dog bolted across the road in front of her car.

She slammed the brakes and spun the wheel, coming to an awkward stop with her tire pressed into the curb and her heart hammering in her chest. The dog- a low-slung, brown-spotted thing with a short tail and floppy ears- vanished into the bushes on the other side of the road. Audrey swore colorfully, reversed a few inches away from the curb, and put her car in park with the hazards flashing; she needed a second, and while rounding up escaped pets and strays was definitely not her job, she really didn’t want the dog trying that again with someone else.

She was reaching for her radio to call Laverne and have her send somebody more appropriate out when the second dog emerged from the bushes beside her car. It was taller and darker and had a longer body and a shorter muzzle, and its ears were held flat against its head as it trotted along the sidewalk. It also wasn’t wearing a collar that she could see, and the hair on the back of her neck rose, a low tingle starting in her fingertips.

Taking a breath, she told herself she was being ridiculous; it was just a couple of dogs. They’d probably escaped from someone’s backyard. It was probably nothing.

Except one block up, a car slowly rolled through the intersection without even a cursory attempt to slow for the stop sign, and bumped up over the curb to come to an idling stop in someone’s azaleas, and there was no one in the driver’s seat. There was, however, a very distressed dog barking aggressively at the rear window.

Definitely not nothing. She grabbed her radio, stomach churning.

“Laverne, this is Parker, is Nathan back at the station yet?” she asked, watching the second dog turn around and head back the way it had come. She could hear barking, even with the windows rolled up- more than one dog, and coming from more than one direction, and this, this was definitely something.

“...Laverne? Laverne, this is Parker, please come in,” she said, after a moment, and the tingling, churning sense of awareness amped up. “This is Detective Parker, if anyone is reading, please respond.”

The radio remained stubbornly silent, and the awareness shifted to dread. She was about three quarters of a mile from the police station; that was a lot of territory to be under the influence of a Trouble. Not an impossible amount, she’d seen a few Troubles with that sort of range, but not many, and it was enough to worry her.

Another car rolled past, the slow crawl of a vehicle in drive but not being given any gas, and it, too, contained no actual people. The dalmatian standing in the front seat, however, seemed to be giving quite the earful to the smaller, meeker terrier cowering on the passenger seat.

Anyone?” she tried, one last time, before she gritted her teeth and hung up the handset. She turned her car off, and headed after the still-moving vehicle, hoping the doors were unlocked. By some minor miracle, they were, and she reached for the driver’s-side door handle, only for the dalmatian to charge the window, barking and growling.

“Don’t you dare,” she snarled back, pulling on the door handle. The dog launched itself out of the car, and stumbled when it hit the ground, and Audrey hopped inside and slammed the door closed before it could turn around. “Bad dog,” she called, and the one still on the seat whined unhappily. “Not you,” she said, applying the brakes and putting the car into park. She turned it off, and the dalmatian leaped against the window, still barking. “Look, I let you out, that’s all I’ve got so far, go yell at someone else!” she snapped, because this, this was a lot and she hadn’t managed even the start of a proper theory, and she was pretty sure the dog was probably a person, but it wasn’t behaving like a person. She waited a moment, but the dalmatian jumped at the door again, and Audrey swore.

“Fine, not the easy way, then,” she said, and she turned her attention to the other dog. It was trembling on the other seat, tail tucked between its legs and ears down, and Audrey made a face. “I’m sorry about this, but I need to go that way,” she said, reaching out. The dog folded down, but didn’t growl or snarl, so she curled her hands around its ribs and lifted, maneuvering it into her lap so that she could slide awkwardly over the center console and get to the passenger door. “Okay, buddy, we’re getting out of here. It’s too hot for me to leave you in here. Just- try to stay out of the road, okay? I really don’t have room to bring you all back to the station with me.”

The dog just whined, low and unhappy, and Audrey felt a twist of guilt. It was probably a person, and it was definitely scared, and there wasn’t anything she could do about that just yet. Not when she still didn’t even know how much of the town was affected.

“I’m going to sort this out, okay? I am- I am going to figure out what happened, and I am going to fix it. I just- need some time. But it’s going to be fine. So just. Just try to keep calm, and stay out of the roads, and- and you’ll be fine,” she said, on the off-chance there was still enough human in there to understand. The dalmatian hit the other side of the car again, and Audrey opened the door and scrambled out, darting toward the sidewalk with the terrier held under her arm like a little furry football. She spun around as soon as she had a bit of cover, but the dalmatian was climbing back into the car through the open passenger door, and Audrey let out a breath.

“Okay. Okay, fine, that- that’s fine. Door’s open, not my problem.” She set the terrier down, and gave it a firm look. “Stay out of the roads,” she repeated. Then she headed a few yards down the sidewalk, trying to put some space between herself and the aggressive dalmatian so that she could get back to her car. She needed to go turn off the other car, and then she needed to get back to the station, and then-

-and then she’d figure out what to do next.

***

Audrey was three blocks closer to the station, and had stopped to assist five more stranded vehicles, and she had not seen a single other human being. She’d tried the radio at every stop, and was still being met with silence. After the fifth stop, she yielded and took out her phone. She had been hoping to see someone, had been hoping she’d be able to get some sense of the scale.

She could hear barking from almost every house she passed. She needed to know.

Every call she made went to voicemail; Nathan, Tommy, Dwight, Duke, Claire, even the Teagueses, no one was answering.

No one was answering, and the Herald offices were another half a mile down the road. The Rouge’s berth was even further.

Her hands shook as she dialed the number for the Harbormaster’s office. Nothing.

The Freddy was at the opposite edge of town, more than three miles out. The Pink wasn’t much closer. Dr. Lucassi had offices at each. He didn’t answer, either.

The Gull was at the far edge of town behind her, another three miles. No one picked up.

Audrey put her phone away, and sat down on the curb next to her car, forcing herself to breathe. She could handle this. She’d handled Hadley’s Trouble; this wasn’t really that much different. So people weren’t just disappearing, they were being transformed, somehow- it wasn’t the first time she’d had to figure it all out on her own, and it wasn’t the first time it’d been more or less the whole town. She could handle this.

The Irish setter she’d just freed from a fairly crumpled sedan paced around the rear of her car and nosed at her face, whining softly and wagging her tail. Audrey dragged in a breath, and gently pushed the dog back, forcing a smile.

“Everything is going to be fine,” she said, allowing herself one careful pat of the dog’s shoulder. “I am going to sort this out, and everything will- everything will be normal. Just like always. It’s fine.”

The setter wagged her tail harder, and pushed her head under Audrey’s hand, and Audrey stood up quickly before she could give into the temptation to indulge in any more serious petting. She didn’t know who the dog was, but she was very sure she wasn’t anyone Audrey knew, and that meant she had to keep her hands to herself.

“It’s okay,” she repeated. “Good girl. Stay out of the road, okay? You’re gonna be fine.” The dog pressed against her legs, and Audrey bit her lip, feeling awful as she reached down to push her away. “No, I’m sorry, you can’t come with me. I need- I have to get back to the station, I have to- I have to work. You’re okay, just- just go find somewhere to lie down, okay? Go play, it’s gonna be that kind of a day, just- enjoy it while you can.”

The setter whined, but when Audrey continued to push, it turned and headed down the sidewalk.

Audrey pretended she was relieved, and got back in her car.

***

He wakes with the sense that something is wrong, though he does not know what. He uncurls from where he was lying on a cool, firm surface, and pushes up with awkward, uncooperative limbs, peering around and sniffing the air, searching for whatever it is that has alarmed him. There is a distant sound that means water, and it is familiar. There are layers of smell, complex and varied, but they are also familiar, in the deep, comforting way that says home. He is in his den; this is his place, where he is safe and sheltered.

He neither hears nor scents anything that suggests danger, so perhaps the wrong-feeling was merely a sleep shadow.

He snorts, and shakes himself out, dust and fur rising to float in the shafts of warm light leaking into the den. Then he stretches, forelegs first, then hind legs, his back curving as he revels in the pull of his muscles. He is awake now, and though there is a pool of light on the soft surface that something in him recognizes as bed, he is not interested in lying back down.

He is interested in food. He tilts his head back, and sniffs again, but he is distracted by an itch. He drops his haunches to the floor to scratch rapidly at the uncomfortable feeling under his chin, then stands back up. There is food-smell from the space beyond the bed-space, and he trots off to find it, nails clicking on the ground beneath his feet.

***

By the time Audrey made it to the station, the pit of worry in her stomach had become a gnawing, overwhelming ache. Nine cars, just between where she’d started and the station. There were undoubtedly more, and she really didn’t have time to do a street-by-street sweep to find them all, but it was just after twelve thirty and the day was only getting warmer.

She needed to solve this, quickly. She just had to hope that the engines would keep running for most of the day, that the climate control would do enough to keep anyone from dying of heat stroke because they’d suddenly lost the ability to open their doors.

And she had to hope that no one had been cooking anything, that no one had been operating dangerous equipment that would now be untended, that-

-she didn’t have time for this. She couldn’t afford to dwell on all the ways people were at risk, now, all the ways they were suddenly vulnerable. They were still mobile, at least, they were still capable of basic reasoning, sort of, hopefully most people would be able to stay out of harm’s way until she’d figured out how this had happened and how to turn them back.

She parked next to Nathan’s truck, and wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed when a quick peek showed it to be empty. At least she’d have known where he was, would have been able to keep track of him- she was already sure she was going to struggle to get anything useful sorted out once she went into the station. She could hear barking, so much barking, and she had no idea how she was going to get everyone calm and quiet so that she could work.

But she had to try, because at the very least, she needed to take a few minutes to go through whatever calls might have come in, to try and understand what had been happening before everyone turned into dogs.

And she needed every drop of coffee she could find.

She headed for the doors, and there was an increase in noise from the other side. Audrey braced herself, glad for the storm doors- no one had made it into the alcove between the outer doors and the inner doors, at least. She closed the outer doors firmly behind her, and headed for the next set. No one would be able to get out as she let herself in- it had to be relatively safe in the station.

Probably.

She hoped.

She pushed open the inner door, having to work for it- three heavy bodies were pushing back, barking and snuffling and frantic to get to her. She squeezed inside, one arm up to protect her face as the bulky dogs shoved eager noses entirely too close.

“Hey, no, stop, back- back up, down, just-” she started, shoving them back as much as she could. “Yes, hello, hi, settle down, easy-”

After entirely too much jumping and smelling and licking- and Audrey was going to try very hard not to think about that- she finally got them to back off enough for her to catch her breath. The biggest of the three was still in her space, pressed against her legs with his tail wagging fiercely, tongue lolling out- he was blocky and tall, jowls hanging heavy and wet, fur short and tan. The other two were pacing and wriggling, one of them still letting out the occasional excited bark- the calmer one was black and white, with medium fur and a medium build, a generic enough dog shape that Audrey couldn’t guess at what type he was. The louder one was a similar size, but he was sleek and silver and Audrey knew she’d seen that breed before, even if she couldn’t remember the name.

She didn’t recognize any of them.

Her stomach twisted, a pang of frustration coursing up her spine. She’d been in Haven long enough, now, that she at least no longer mixed up the names of the officers she worked with, even if she wasn’t always a hundred percent on the officers who usually worked shifts when she was supposed to be off-duty- but these weren’t unusual hours for her. She’d probably spoken to at least one of these people on her way out this morning.

And she didn’t recognize them.

She had hoped-

-but maybe it would be easier, with people she knew. People she spent time with.

She hoped so. Because while they might not be in any proper state to help her, Audrey could kind of use a friend to lean on. Which was going to be a lot harder if she couldn’t even guess at who her friends were.

“Sorry, guys, but I need to get through,” she said, mostly to distract herself from that thought. “And it looks like you’re doing a fantastic job here, so how about you just- you just stay here and watch the doors, that’s, that’d be helpful, that seems like something you can handle.”

She picked her way around the big one, trying to ignore the enthusiasm of the silver one- it was making excited, talkative sounds, and bouncing back and forth as all three of the dogs attempted to follow her up the hall. So much for staying and watching the doors; it’d been a long shot, anyway. Though she did wonder how much, if any, they might have retained of their human vocabularies- they obviously hadn’t been trained, but would common, simple commands work, when they weren’t so excited?

She thought it would probably be a little rude to test it, but honestly, she wasn’t going to get anything done if she was being crowded at every turn.

Particularly as she could hear an increase in barking from beyond the doors at the top of the stairs; her current companions were making it very clear that something was happening, and it sounded like everyone who had been in the bullpen or the offices was making noise, now.

She really hoped there would be coffee up there.

***

It is loud. It is loud, and crowded, and he dislikes it, dislikes the constant noise. He cannot hear anything useful over all the noise, and he is very sure he needs to be listening. He is very sure he is supposed to be doing something- he should have a task, he is supposed to have a task.

A whine escapes his throat, and he folds his ears back. He is supposed to have a task. He does not know what his task is, but-

-there is chaos, and he dislikes chaos, chaos makes it harder to accomplish tasks. He paces back and forth, back and forth, trying to make sense of the chaos- the noise is wrong, but the place is right, this is a place he knows. His scent is everywhere, but it is layered under and over many, many other scents. Some belong to the others beyond the doorway, the ones making so much noise, but some...

He pauses, another whine escaping, one ear cocking up as he finds a trace of a scent that is important. It is faded, old, but it has saturated this place, and it brings to mind a gruff voice and a sense of authority. He whines again, and trots to where the scent is heaviest; some part of him recognizes chair, but that is unimportant, what is important is the scent. It is familiar, it is important, it is- not as simple as comfort. It is pack.

It has not been refreshed recently. Some part of him knows that it will not be again.

The knowledge upsets him, nearly as much as the chaos. There is noise, again, more noise, a sound that he recognizes as door. His ears lift, his legs going stiff as he turns to try and hear better, nose twitching as he tries to find anything useful in the welter of scents. He goes to the door separating him from the wider space, hearing the others move, and a voice rises above the chaos.

He knows the voice. Of that, he is absolutely sure. The voice is important, the way the scent is important, the voice means comfort and safety and pack and order. The voice is firm and brisk and the chaos outside the door is fading, subsiding into something more manageable. He whines, and paws at the door, and it pops quietly and moves toward him. He wedges his nose into the space it creates, and pushes until he has room to slip out. He is immediately engulfed in the crowd, and he growls a warning at a big male who jostles him. The other whines an apology, dipping briefly into a play-bow, tail wagging furiously but held low, and that is- satisfying. He relaxes his posture slightly, gives a single wag of his tail to indicate forgiveness, and the other stands back up, soft ears pushed forward, tongue lolling, but keeping a more respectful distance.

The rest begin to give way, as well, creating enough space for him to walk, ears folding back and tails tucking just slightly as he moves toward the voice. He does not smell fear from them, so he does not allow himself to be distracted by how they yield; some part of him believes this is proper, and he has more important things to do.

There is scent, now, along with the voice, and the owner of the voice is walking, speaking, trying to get through the crowd. She smells of stress, and fear, and a myriad of others, but under that, she smells of soft and familiar things.

He shoulders his way through the densest part of the crowd, because it is very important that he go to her. She will know what his task is, she will know what he is supposed to be doing. He is sure.

***

Despite her efforts, the three dogs that had followed her up the stairs still managed to slip into the main floor of the station with her. Audrey heaved a sigh, and gave up on trying to push them back- outside of a brief bit of startled snarling and yipping, they quickly blended into the mass of furry bodies. And it was a mass; Audrey was pretty sure she counted fourteen more, but dogs kept vanishing behind desks or under other dogs, and there were too many similar colors and shapes for her to be sure of who she’d counted.

“Yeah, okay, yes, hello, I know, I know, everything’s a mess and this is all very exciting but I- no, please- I need to get through, okay, I need- well that’s just fantastic.”

Someone had knocked over the coffee maker; there was broken glass scattered on the floor, and that was a problem. There also wasn’t any coffee on the floor, and that was also a problem, but it wasn’t one she could fix. Even if she could figure out who might’ve licked it up, it wasn’t like she could take humans-in-animal-shape to the nearest vet.

Particularly since the nearest vet was probably also a human-in-animal-shape.

There was also definitely no way she was getting close enough to the shards to sweep them up without someone in her small hurricane of dogs stepping on some and getting cut, so that was just going to have to wait.

Not that she was particularly happy about the idea of just leaving it, and hoping that nobody got cut while she wasn’t watching.

But dog-proofing the station was, honestly, entirely more work than Audrey actually had time for; she could spend several hours trying to make sure that these dogs- these people- were slightly safer, or she could spend those hours trying to figure out how to turn all of them back, and thus protect the people she couldn’t personally get to.

Because there was absolutely no way Audrey was going to be able to personally care for an entire town of dogs. That was just not a possibility. Which meant she needed to solve this as quickly as possible- even if that meant ignoring some of the minor issues right in front of her.

Which wasn’t particularly comfortable for her, but she didn’t have to like it. She just had to cope with it.

“Okay, everybody- everybody just, just do me a favor and try to stay away from the shards of broken glass. That’d be really- really helpful, right now.” She started toward her office, trying not to step on any paws- not easy, when they were all still crowding her. The big one that had followed her upstairs was staying particularly close, and he seemed to be irritated by the press of bodies; a sleek looking retriever- or maybe a spaniel, Audrey wasn’t sure- made an effort to get near enough to nose at Audrey’s hand, and the big dog let out an unfriendly sounding growl. The spaniel held her ground, bristling in response, and the big dog nearly knocked Audrey off of her feet, shoving into her knees in an effort to keep close.

“Hey!” Audrey snapped, at the same time that a medium-sized black and white dog let out a sharp, forceful bark. She thought, for a second, that it was another of the dogs that had followed her upstairs, but no, this dog had a heavier ruff and more black than white, and the shape- it was a border collie, she was pretty sure, and the other dog hadn’t been. The border collie charged at the big dog, body held low and ears pricked forward, and Audrey had a sudden vision of the swirling pack around her legs dissolving into an impenetrable dogfight.

The thought sent a wash of cold fear through her, and she glanced toward the nearest desk, wondering if she could get onto it before she got caught in the middle.

But the big dog made a startled noise, and danced back, tail tucking between his legs, and the spaniel moved back as well, and the border collie kept moving, turning back to push them both a few more steps away. To Audrey’s surprise, they went, and the space they vacated wasn’t immediately filled with more dogs; the border collie swung around, and made a sweep toward her other side, and suddenly Audrey could actually see the ground around her feet.

It only lasted a moment, but it was something. And even if most of the dogs pressed back in, a few of them seemed to decide that it wasn’t worth risking the border collie’s attention. A handful drifted off, disappearing under desks or moving to stand with their front feet on the windowsills so they could look outside. And the rest, at least, were not pressing quite so close, now that the border collie was sweeping back and forth in front of her.

Apparently, even Trouble-induced herding dogs still had the instinct for it. Audrey could only be glad of that, though there was something... A tickle of recognition, a sense of comfort that she didn’t think was solely down to the fact that he’d gotten her some breathing room. And maybe it was wishful thinking, maybe it was just that she was overwhelmed and didn’t want to deal with this alone, but she had only made it this far by trusting her gut, and her gut was telling her that she knew him.

She thought. She hoped.

At the very least, it was different from the uncomfortable certainty that she didn’t know the others.

The border collie paused, looked back at her over his shoulder like he was waiting for instructions, and she didn’t know if he’d understand, or not, didn’t know how much any of them could understand, but she pointed toward her office door.

“That way,” she said, and his posture changed, his movement changed, a tight weaving pace as he headed in the direction she’d pointed, creating space as he went. Clearing a path, and it was more of a relief than Audrey actually wanted to admit.

She didn’t like being crowded, and it would have been uncomfortable enough if they were really dogs. Knowing that they were in all likelihood the people she worked with just made it worse.

Audrey walked briskly after her new helper, and was even more grateful when he turned at the door of the office and made it very obvious he didn’t mean to let the rest of them follow her in. She slipped past him, and closed the door most of the way before she looked down, and gave him a quick tilt of her head.

“C’mon, you’re staying with me,” she said, and he obediently followed her in, and she closed the door firmly behind him. There was an immediate rise in barking and whining from the other side, and she could hear scratching, but the door stayed latched, and Audrey’s shoulders relaxed. She headed for her desk, trying to figure out where she needed to start. “Okay. Okay, this, this is slightly better, I-”

There was an unhappy yip from the couch, and Audrey tensed right back up, turning around. The border collie was standing, stiff-limbed and with his ears pinned back, nearly nose-to-nose with a much smaller dog that had apparently been sleeping on her couch. The small dog had silky, russet fur and a very pointed nose, and its big ears and cheek fluff gave it a slightly curious look. The little dog sniffed delicately at the border collie, before it stood up, backed slightly further away from the edge of the couch, and curled up once more. The border collie didn’t look particularly pleased, but he backed a few steps away as well, before looking up at Audrey.

“...Hey, if they’re quiet, they can stay,” Audrey said, shrugging.

The border collie whined, and Audrey shook her head.

“Really, it’s fine. C’mere, just-” she gestured, beckoning the dog closer, and he gave the small red dog one last uncertain look before he walked over to stand next to Audrey. She wanted to get a better look at him, now that there weren’t a dozen other dogs getting in her way, wanted-

-wanted something, something that might let her be sure.

“I think I know you, buddy,” she said quietly. “And I really hope I’m right, because I could really use your help.” The dog’s tail wagged briefly, held low, and his ears pricked forward as she spoke, and she looked him over. He stood a little lower than her hip at the shoulder, and most of his body and head were black; the tip of his tail, his feet, chest, and a ring around his neck were all white. So was a patch around his nose, leading into a bright, fuzzy stripe up his muzzle and between his ice-blue eyes.

He was a very cute dog, really, and he was watching her with a very familiar focus.

“Nathan?” she asked, and the dog pricked his ears forward, and gave a low whine. Which didn’t prove anything other than that he knew she was talking to him, and was responsive, but... Well, if she was wrong, it’d be embarrassing, and she’d probably owe some apologies, but she felt better for the idea that Nathan was with her.

Even if she was still a little annoyed at him for ditching her, earlier.

“I really hope you’re Nathan,” Audrey said, making an effort to sound confident and teasing, just in case she did end up being wrong. “Because that’s what I’m calling you. Sound good?”

The dog wagged his tail, slightly more enthusiastically than before, and Audrey nodded.

“Good. Okay. I need to check and see if we got any messages, and then we’re going to go pick over Laverne’s station and see if she wrote down anything that might give us somewhere to start. That’s the plan.”

***

The room that smelled of food was more complicated than anticipated, but he has prevailed. He has also jumped or climbed onto nearly every surface, and dug at corners or shoved his nose into cracks until he has revealed the hidden caches, and he is distantly aware that he is probably making a mess.

The thought bothers him somewhat, but he is unsure why, and it is unimportant in the face of his new bounty. He is happily chewing open a container that smells of salt and sweet and oil, tail pounding on the floor as he works, when there is a sound from outside. He pauses his gnawing, ears pricking forward and swiveling as he listens- there is growling, and a high, unhappy whine. He considers ignoring it- the sound is outside, and he is inside, in his den, where it is safe and warm- but the sound comes again, and he registers something else. The whining is accompanied by a pitiful yelp, and it is not an adult sound.

It is a pup sound.

The growling gets louder, and the pup yelps again, and all the hair down his back stands up, a growl forming low in his chest. He abandons his delicious container, and bolts for the space where the sound is clearest, where out should be.

He finds a strange tree, and a hole in the top of the den, and no way out. He whines, circling the strange tree, and it smells like outside, there are scents on the tree that have clearly been brought in from elsewhere, but he does not understand how. He whines again, and scratches at the tree with one foot, but it does not provide him any answers.

Outside, the pup is howling now, a thin, awful sound of distress, and he cannot help it, he howls back, an assurance that he hears, that there is help nearby. Someone big barks, someone closer to the pup than he is, someone who is not trapped by an uncooperative tree in an uncooperative den, and he growls, frustration coursing through him.

He stands up, bracing his forepaws on the tree, and whines loudly before dropping back to all four paws. But out is definitely up, somehow, and he needs to be out, so he needs to go up. He lifts up again, paws resting against the tree, and he makes an attempt to scramble- he slips, falls, snaps angrily at empty air, and picks himself up. He backs up, examining the tree, and takes a running leap, managing to catch all four paws on bits of wood. It is awkward, and the angle is steep, but he is determined, and he claws his way further up.

He nearly falls, trying to go from tree to flat ground, but he kicks his feet and manages to push himself the rest of the way. All four feet back on solid earth, he shakes himself out, gathering himself before he charges out the open entrance of the den. The sun is high, and the earth outside of the den is surrounded by water, but there is a narrow ledge that leads to more solid ground, and not far from it, a short-nosed, sharp-eared hulk is attempting to dig its way under an outcropping of shiny stone.

The warbling howl of the pup is coming from underneath.

He does not bother barking; the pup is distressed, which makes the hulk a threat, and he will not tolerate threats near his territory. His charge is silent save for the sound of his feet on the ground, and when he hits, he hits hard. He bites at an exposed rear leg, and knocks the other dog back, and the other dog gives a series of startled, pained yelps. Now he growls, fierce and determined, teeth bared in a vicious snarl, head down and body held low, prepared for a fight.

The other dog decides he does not want one. He turns and runs.

He waits, holds his pose until he is sure the other dog is truly gone, and then he relaxes, turning toward the outcropping and the distressed pup noises. He lies down a few feet away, and whines softly, an entreating noise.

The pup stops howling, and whines again instead.

He lets go a quiet, coaxing yip, tail sweeping across the ground behind him, and he reaches with a paw, scratches lightly at the ground.

It takes time, but slowly, the pup moves to the edge of the outcropping, looking out with obvious fear.

He rolls over, flashing his belly and looking at the pup upside down, giving another imploring whine, tail still wagging.

The pup barks at him, sharp and urgent, and he rolls back over and shimmies forward, nosing carefully at the pup. She is trembling, and she smells of fear, and her scent is not like that of anything nearby. She is lost, and she is afraid, and that will simply not stand. He licks her twice, quick and perfunctory, before he pushes close enough to catch the scruff of her neck in his teeth and pull her out from under the outcropping. She whines, but it is a minor protest, and he ignores it as he positions better.

He picks her up and carries her briskly back up the thin path and toward his den.

***

There were three messages on Audrey’s desk, none of them useful. There were two more on Tommy’s, one exed out to indicate the call had been handled, one sitting next to the phone currently out of its cradle; Audrey hung the phone up as she read the message, and dismissed it, as well. Frustration boiled up, and she tried to dismiss it- it had been a long shot to hope there had been anything useful laid out and waiting in her office for her- but her head was pounding and she really wasn’t looking forward to wading back across the bullpen to get to Laverne’s station.

She should probably check Nathan’s office, as well, but even that short distance seemed overwhelming.

Nathan gave a quiet whine, and pressed against her legs, and Audrey reached down without thinking, running a hand over the top of his head. His tail thumped rhythmically against the side of Tommy’s desk, and Audrey jerked her hand back, feeling color flood her cheeks.

“Sorry,” she said, and she officially hated this. “Sorry, that- I probably shouldn’t do that, huh.” Not that it looked like he minded, currently, clear eyes fixed on her face, head tilted as he listened to her speak. “I’ll try to remember. For the both of us.”

He whined again, tail moving in a less certain pattern, ears twitching.

“You don’t understand, do you?” she asked, shaking her head. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. This has to be hard for you. But we’re going to sort it out, right? That’s- that’s what we do. At least, it used to be.”

And that wasn’t going to get her anywhere, so she shook her head again, and forced a smile. “Nevermind. We’re going to sort this out. Which means we need to go look, see if you got anything useful before all this started. So stay close, okay?”

Her words earned her another uncertain tail-wag, and she sighed and headed for the door. Nathan’s posture shifted, taking on a very different air of focus as he trotted to keep up with her, staying just out from under her feet.

“Good, just like that. Good job,” she said, pausing with her hand on the door knob. She took a deep breath, bracing for the increase in noise, and opened the door.

Only about half of the dogs swarmed them this time, the rest apparently having decided that the novelty of her presence had worn off. Audrey could only be grateful, and Nathan’s presence still seemed to be keeping them from getting too excited- she wondered about that, if it was some residual sense of hierarchy, or just a recognition that it would be a bad idea to crowd him, or if it was something they’d sorted out before she’d made it back.

Whatever the reason, it was useful.

Nathan’s office was just as much a bust as her own had been, empty of anything even remotely useful, including any notes about what he’d gone to talk to Landon about. Though this was definitely not Landon’s Trouble, and she didn’t think it was likely to be related.

She snagged a piece of paper off of Nathan’s desk, and quickly scribbled a note to track down whether or not the Magnussens had any extended family- she didn’t think this was Tor’s Trouble, either, but it was definitely similar. If she didn’t find anything else to go on, it might be worth the trip out to his farm, just to see; maybe if Liam had gotten upset-

-she didn’t really think it was likely, but it wasn’t like she had a lot of options.

And at least she knew Cookie was actually a real dog.

Laverne’s station was covered in precise, orderly notes, messages taken in a clean and steady hand. Audrey started rifling through them, trying not to knock them too out of order, finding something at least a little steadying in the lingering scent of menthol and smoke. Nathan seemed to, as well, exploring the room and the desk with a curiosity she hadn’t yet seen from him, nose twitching as he sniffed everything.

Audrey was just putting the notes down when a dog she hadn’t seen in the initial rush came trotting in, dragging a sweater after itself. Nathan’s ears pricked forward, but his tail immediately began wagging, and the other dog- smaller, fluffy and dark-coated with grey streaked around her muzzle- wagged back with a tail curled high over her back. She dragged the sweater under the desk and proceeded to start to make a nest out of it, and Audrey bit the inside of her cheek to keep back a comment as Nathan stuck his head under the desk to nose at her.

“I think she’s got it, Nathan,” Audrey said, after a moment, when the smaller dog had curled up in the sweater and turned her attention to licking Nathan’s muzzle, and it was- it was almost sweet, it was affection, it was just also decidedly uncomfortable.

At least, it was uncomfortable for her, and she doubted it would be much more comfortable for Nathan, if he remembered it later. However much he usually bore up under Laverne’s casual affection without complaint, this was different.

“Seriously, c’mon, we have- we have work to do, let’s go.”

Nathan didn’t move, and Audrey felt a pang- frustration, definitely frustration, because it was absolutely not jealousy over Nathan’s attention, or over the easy exchange of contact- but what could she do? It wasn’t like they kept collars and leashes just lying around, and even if they did-

-yeah, no, that just wasn’t going to happen. She was not prepared to deal with that.

“Fine, stay here if you want, but I’m going, and I’m locking up behind me,” she warned, heading away from Laverne’s station. She barely made it to the doorway before Nathan was back at her side, and she didn’t want to look too closely at how much of a relief that was.

“Not that I’m not glad you’re coming with me,” she said, heading for the doors, “but it probably says something that even as a dog, you’ll pick work over, you know, spending time with your- friends? Family? People you let call you hon in public, anyway.” Nathan’s ears moved as she spoke, tail wagging uncertainly as he trotted at her side. “Do me a favor, huh, I don’t want everyone following us out, it’s safer in here. Probably. So when we get to the doors, just- do what you’re doing, actually, you... clearly got this.”

She wasn’t sure if he understood what she was asking for, or if he was just acting on instinct, but he was definitely making it clear he didn’t want the other dogs near the doors, and Audrey would take the win. She slipped through the doors, and held them open long enough for Nathan to follow her, and closed them behind him. There was only a little scratching from the other side, but Audrey still took the time to fasten the bolt lock to secure them.

No matter what her anxiety was telling her about the fire code. It was safer if they stayed in one place.

She thought.

“Okay. Okay, we’re- we’re going to make a quick stop by the harbor, okay, because there’s something I need to check, and then... We’ll figure it out from there. Sound good?”

Nathan gave a short, muted bark, and Audrey was going to take that as a yes.

***

She speaks to him, and he can hear the upset in her voice. It is layered under all of her words- those that he understands, and those that are just so much noise. It is heavy in her scent, as well, though it is not as sharp as it had been before; her heartbeat is steadier now, also.

She is calmer, when she speaks to him.

He is calmer too, when she speaks to him.

So he pricks his ears forward when she talks, listens for the words he knows, and stays close. He tries to make sense of what she wants- she did not like it when the others moved too close, so he does not let them. That pleases her, and everything in him wants to please her, wants to hear the stress fade and the approval filter in.

Even if he does not understand why they they are leaving the space that they are in.

He follows her down the steps, and only balks for a moment when she opens more doors and steps outside. There are so many smells, it is overwhelming- anything could be outside, predators or strangers or-

-she does not hesitate, and he has to scramble to push past the door as it begins to swing closed.

“---- Nathan, ----- stay close -----?”

He recognizes the name she has offered- feels it clicking into place more solidly every time she says it- and he knows stay, so he moves closer to her legs, trotting to keep up despite the overwhelming wave of scent. He wants to stop, to explore it, to take the time- but she is not stopping to smell anything, is moving briskly as though the messages left painted on the earth and carried in the wind have no meaning.

He huffs his disapproval, but focuses only on those smells that might mean danger.

...There are not very many, despite what his instincts tell him about outside.

And they are not outside for very long before she stops next to something he knows is car, and opens the door. He perks up, and jumps in willingly when she gestures, moving to stand where he can see out. He likes cars, he knows this- he does not know why, but he knows drive and the thought evokes a sense of warm and calm. His tail wags as she sits down, and her voice is soft when she speaks. She sounds happier.

He likes when she sounds happy. His tail wags harder.

“-- sit down, I -- you ----.”

He sits, and yawns out a whine, anticipation trembling through him. He does not know where they are going, but they are going!

And she is happier.

That is a task Nathan understands.

***

Audrey was a little surprised by how easy it was to convince Nathan to get in the car, but he looked pleased enough to be there.

Which made things a lot easier for her, and was, honestly, kind of adorable. She filed that thought away, looking forward to seeing him squirm and turn pink when she teased him about it later-

-except they weren’t doing a lot of teasing, lately. Things were too unsettled, too off-balance.

Which was what she wanted. She’d been the one to push him away, she’d been the one to decide that something needed to change. She’d wanted to protect him, to keep him from getting hurt.

Instead, it seemed like all she’d done was hurt them both. And Duke, just for getting caught up in it.

And this was not what she needed to be focused on, and it would have been a hell of a lot easier not to dwell if she’d had someone to talk to who could actually talk back.

“So I know technically we should probably be going to the Herald first,” she said, driving past the turn that would take them up to the Herald offices. “But I want to check on- I want to check something, because I am very sure I saw Duke take a flyer from that woman who walks all those dogs, and I want to try the number, see if anyone answers.”

Which was, admittedly, based on absolutely nothing more than hey, she clearly likes dogs, but the paper-thin excuse still made her feel better.

Not that Nathan was in any position to judge her decisions, just then.

She drove slowly, keeping a careful eye out- she only saw a few dogs, along the way, and they all stayed out of the road, which was a relief. Nathan seemed mostly curious, shoving his nose against the join of the window and the door and snuffling loudly, tail wagging rapidly and the occasional anxious whine escaping. He only broke out into barking once, his entire demeanor changing to hostile aggression at the rapidly-vanishing tail of a big, flat-faced dog who seemed to be moving with a bit of a limp.

Hey,” she chided, reaching out to make a grab for where a collar would be, if he were wearing one. Which, of course, he wasn’t, so she settled for taking a firm grip on the nape of his neck and trying to tug him back down onto the seat. “Cut that out, I can’t concentrate when you do that and I really need to watch where I’m driving.”

He looked back over his shoulder at her and whined, pawing at the window, and Audrey tugged more firmly.

No. Leave it. He’s gone, it’s fine. And why do you even have a problem with him? You didn’t have a problem with anybody else.”

...Which raised a whole new set of questions, and Audrey felt a pang of doubt about bringing Nathan with her to the Rouge. He’d obviously recognized Laverne, after all, and it had certainly seemed like the other dogs at the station were still aware that he was- in charge, sort of. Which suggested that they still at least sort of remembered who they were, or at least how they felt about other people, and he and Duke were... definitely not on great terms.

She glanced in the rear-view mirror, wondering if she should stop, if she should go find the other dog.

...No. Better to check the location she was sure of, first. If she didn’t find anyone there, then-

-then she was going to have to just get on with it, and remember that Duke was more than capable of taking care of himself. Regardless of what shape he was wearing.

She parked further back from the Rouge than she usually would, and gave Nathan an apologetic look.

“Hey, just- just stay here a minute, okay? Just in case he is home, the last thing we need is you two fighting again. I’ll be back in a minute, I promise.” Nathan didn’t seem to understand, standing up on his seat and wagging his tail, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he clearly waited for the door to open. “Wow, you are making this very difficult. Just- stay. Stay here,” she repeated, opening her door and slipping out, closing it quickly behind her. Nathan stayed next to the passenger door, still looking expectant, and Audrey tried very hard to ignore the guilt squirming in her stomach.

She was only going to be gone for a minute.

She made it halfway down the walkway to the quay before her resolve broke; Nathan had begun to bark, an anxious, distressed sound that made her cringe with each more-frantic repetition. She turned around and went back to the car, and he stopped barking, shifting to an unhappy whine as he made a visible effort to dig at the side of her door.

“Hey, hey, hey, stop, you win!” she said, “Stop tearing up the upholstery, I give up, you can come with!”

Nathan didn’t settle until she’d opened the door for him, and he leaped out of the car like he was afraid it was some kind of trick. Stomach twisting, she reached down, offering- touch, contact, something, but he tucked his tail between his legs, looked warily at the still-open door, and stayed just out of reach.

“Oh, come on, that’s not fair,” she said, closing the door. “I wasn’t going to grab you, I just- I was trying to be responsible, here. C’mon, please don’t give me that look, the door’s closed, I’m not going to grab you.”

Nathan unfolded from his tucked position only slightly, taking a stiff-legged step closer, and pressing his head into her hands.

“I’m sorry,” she said, running a hand over the top of his head. “I’m sorry, okay, that- it was a bad call, I was just- I was just trying to do the right thing. I just didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Nathan whined, and pushed harder into her hands, and Audrey gave him a few more reassuring strokes before she stood up.

“Just- please don’t fight, okay? I really- I can’t deal with that right now.”

Nathan whined again and pressed himself against her legs, and Audrey sighed and headed back down toward the quay. It wasn’t like she really thought she could reason with him.

They hadn’t made it halfway before Audrey could see movement on the deck of the Rouge- a massive black shape slunk out from behind one of the raised covers, pacing to the edge of the deck and watching them approach. The dog was definitely bigger than Nathan, shaggy and black, upright ears pointed in their direction over a wolf-like muzzle. Audrey thought it was probably some kind of German shepherd mix, and it was definitely paying close attention, posture tense and wary.

Nathan noticed as soon as she did, and the pressure of his ribs against her legs increased, his ears pricking forward. She felt a tremor roll through him, and she really wished he’d been willing to stay in the car, but at least he didn’t go charging off.

The shepherd mix on the deck was sniffing the air, and its tail had begun to sway, an uncertain suggestion of a greeting. Its ears swiveled, and it gave a low, whining bark that sounded like a question.

At her feet, Nathan took a few cautious steps forward, and barked back, and the shepherd’s entire posture shifted. Wary alertness melted away, replaced by a sudden, overwhelming exuberance- it dropped into a play-bow, tail wagging furiously, before it bounced back to its feet and raced along the edge of the deck, dancing in place next to the ramp that led to the ship. It barked again, an enthusiastic sound, and hopped up the steps to stand at the top of the ramp, whole body wriggling.

Audrey felt some of the tension in her shoulders fade, even as a twist of regret squeezed her chest. It was Duke, she was sure of it, and he seemed none the worse for his current state. The recognition was there, even if the over-the-top greeting was something Duke would never have indulged in, if he were his usual cool and collected self.

“Well, he’s happy to see us, at least,” she said, which was, honestly, almost more than she’d expected. “Play nice, okay?” Audrey asked, but it looked like maybe she didn’t need to. Despite her worry, Nathan’s pose had relaxed, slightly, as well, his tail wagging with more surety, his ears still pricked forward in a way that looked more like interest than alarm. Audrey took a few more steps toward the Rouge, and apparently that was just too exciting- Duke bounded down the ramp, great, bouncing leaps that brought him equal with Nathan far faster than Audrey would have preferred.

Particularly as she could see how much bigger Duke was, taller and longer and definitely heavier, and he didn’t seem to be exhibiting any of the wariness that had kept the other dogs from getting close to Nathan.

Duke stopped bare inches in front of Nathan, dropping back into the enthusiastic play-bow and giving a muted, joyful bark, barely leaving time for a response before he was springing back up to pounce on Nathan, and Audrey’s stomach dropped.

But Nathan just ducked slightly, managing to avoid being knocked completely off of his feet, and shoved back, pressing into Duke’s side with his shoulder and making a sound that wasn’t quite a growl, something that lifted into a trill and definitely sounded more enthusiastic than offended. They bounced off of each other for a moment, all loud noise and flailing limbs and wagging tails, and when they broke apart, it was with tongues lolling and relaxed, open postures. They spent another long moment sniffing each other’s faces, which was definitely better than the alternative, and Audrey watched with a melancholy sort of satisfaction.

They were happy to see each other. Without reservation, without caution, without any trace of the hostility that had been crackling between them like raw electricity every time they’d crossed paths since the ghosts.

“You can’t just admit you like each other when you aren’t under a Trouble?” she asked, drawing their attention back. “Seriously, you actually have an excuse to circle each other and growl, and it’s all wagging tails now.”

Nathan’s ears twitched at her tone, his head tilting slightly. Duke, however, took a dancing step closer, tail still wagging hard enough to shake his whole body, and before Audrey could even think to tell him not to, he’d reared up to plant his front paws on her shoulders, wet nose snuffling under her chin.

Audrey felt the change in the mood like a sudden snap of cold a second before Nathan’s snarl broke the air. Then it was all movement and sound, Duke’s paws raking her shoulders as he dropped with a startled yelp to deal with the sudden attack on his flank, Nathan snapping and snarling and growling deep in his chest. Duke’s ears went flat against his skull as he backed off a few steps, his tail tucking between his legs, and for a second, Audrey felt an awful swell of pity she knew he wouldn’t appreciate.

Then Duke was growling back, all the fur over his neck and shoulders and back rising in a bristling mass, lips pulled back to reveal very white teeth as he braced himself. He made a sound that raised the hair on the back of Audrey’s neck, and she was struck by just how big he really was.

Even Nathan seemed taken aback by the sudden change, stopping abruptly in the face of Duke not retreating like Nathan clearly expected, freezing a foot away with limbs stiff and tail held straight out behind him, lips still pulled into a snarl.

That’s enough!” Audrey snapped, the words half-shouted past the slamming of her heart in her chest. “Stop it, the both of you, just- stop! Nathan, cut it out, Duke didn’t do anything to you. Duke, it’s okay, that’s- it’s okay, just- just stop.”

They both jerked at her tone, Duke’s defensive posture taking on a new edge, Nathan’s tail immediately tucking between his legs. Nathan glanced over at her and whined, and Audrey put her hands on her hips and widened her stance and tried to look as big and pissed off as she could.

“I said stop,” she scolded, loud and deliberate. “Bad, bad dog, you stop that right now.”

If she weren’t still shaking, adrenaline burning cold in her veins, she’d probably have thought it was funny, how well that worked. Nathan looked stricken, ears plastered back against his head, pose shifting to one of contrite obeisance, head lowered and tail wagging pitifully where it was still firmly tucked. Duke, for his part, went from stiff-limbed to flat on his belly, and his snarl disappeared- though his fur was still standing on end, a visible sign that he didn’t entirely trust that they were done.

Audrey waited a moment, not relenting, waiting for her heartbeat to slow slightly before she took her hands off of her hips. Very slowly, she went down on one knee, and hoped like hell that she wasn’t about to get bitten as she held out her hands.

“Come here,” she said, the words a little less harsh, but no less firm. She snapped her fingers, and gestured, and Nathan scuttled over, whining and cringing as he pressed into her hand. Duke whined and shifted in place, but he didn’t come any closer, eyeing them both warily. Audrey’s stomach twisted, and she gestured again. “It’s okay, Duke, come here. Come on.”

Slowly, Duke pushed himself up and slunk closer, and Audrey kept her hand out, deliberate and inviting. He nosed at her fingers, then pushed his head under her hand, and Audrey’s fingers threaded through his thick fur before she could think better of it.

“It’s okay. It’s okay, come on, everything’s- everything’s fine. I’m sorry. That- that shouldn’t have happened, I should’ve- that shouldn’t have happened. But it’s okay.” She let her hand slide back so that she could scratch lightly behind Duke’s ear, and Nathan whined again, butting his head against her chest as he tried to fit himself as much as possible into the space between her outstretched arms. She wrapped her arm around him, pulling him into a slightly better position and making a little more room for Duke, and he was shaking, his whole body trembling with distress.

“Wow, okay, that- it’s okay, guys. I just need you to not fight, okay, you were doing so well, just- everybody relax. I need everybody to relax. Nathan, Duke is allowed to be where I am, you have to let him. Duke, it’s okay, I’m not going to let anything happen, you’re not in trouble, you didn’t do anything wrong. Maybe don’t jump, you’re kinda- you’re kinda huge, and I really don’t want to be climbed on, but it’s okay.”

Duke pressed a little closer, and Nathan’s head came up, and they were nearly nose-to-nose, and Audrey’s pulse kicked back up, because if they started again-

-but Duke flicked his ears forward and then back again, and whined softly, and nosed at Nathan’s jaw, and Nathan nosed back, sniffing his way up Duke’s cheek to his ear and Audrey’s hand curled deep in the fur there. He snorted wetly, nose pressing hard against her skin for a moment, and then pulled back. Duke whined again, and Nathan shifted to lick a quick stripe over the bridge of Duke’s long snout.

And just like that, the tension broke; Duke relaxed, tail wagging hard enough to shake his entire body once again, shoving his nose at Nathan’s face and licking whatever he could reach, and Nathan stopped shaking, dropping onto his haunches and tilting his head back and enduring the attention with what looked like resigned goodwill.

“I don’t know where you get off, looking that put-upon,” Audrey commented, feeling a bubble of relief well up that was creeping ominously close to a giggle. “That whole thing was your bad, I am pretty sure you should be the one apologizing, but- whatever. This works. This- this works.”

She stayed where she was for a moment, giving herself just a little bit longer to really relax, taking comfort from the press of warm bodies and the feel of soft fur, and then she pushed herself back to her feet. Now that everybody was on the same page again, she still had a Trouble to solve.

“We’re just- well, I’m just gonna go rifle through your things for a minute, Duke, and then we can get out of here,” she said, as the boys broke apart at her movement. “You can yell at me later, I promise.” She headed toward the Rouge once more, and Duke took off ahead of her, bounding back up the ramp. Nathan followed, trotting at a slightly more measured pace, and Audrey shook some of the remaining tension out of her hands. They were fine. Everything was fine. She could handle this, as long as they weren’t fighting.

The deck of the Rouge was in a bit of disarray- Duke had clearly pulled all the laundry off of the lines, and things had been pushed out of place, but the door was open, and there was a tray sitting on the crate next to his favorite chair, so he’d obviously been up and about before the Trouble hit. The tray was mostly undisturbed, and there was a delicate carafe sitting beside an empty mug and plate. Audrey felt a stirring of hope, and headed over, lifting the carafe- it was still half-full, and Audrey could have cried for relief.

“I’m finishing your coffee,” she called, glancing over her shoulder to try and figure out where the boys had gone. Duke had disappeared out of sight behind a pile of crates, but she could still see Nathan’s hind end, and his tail was wagging furiously. Which was fine, as long as they were happy, figuring out what they were doing could wait long enough for her to pour herself a desperately-needed cup of coffee-

-except Nathan was whining, high and excited, and there were other sounds, and Audrey very carefully set the carafe down and crossed the deck.

“Guys? Please, please do not be doing anything that I am going to have trouble explaining later-” she started, as she rounded the edge of the crates, and stopped.

And blinked.

“What the hell,” she said, and it was less a question than an expression of flat disbelief. “What- no. No, I refuse to accept this.”

Duke just thumped his tail happily against the deck, looking up at her with an expression that could only be described as pride. Nathan flopped down on his belly, whole body wriggling, alight with absolutely rapturous canine joy as he nosed at the puppies tucked between Duke and the line of crates.

“Where the hell did you get puppies?” she asked, gesturing helplessly, and Duke turned to examine them, prodding each furry body in turn. There were four of them; two of them were nearly half Nathan’s size, giant pillowy lumps of fur that looked more like teddy bears than dogs. One of them was clearly a small golden retriever, and the fourth was solid black with a delicate pink nose and pale blue eyes.

And none of them belonged on Duke’s boat. This was a complication she was absolutely not prepared to handle.

“Seriously, where, where did they come from? You don’t have kids, how did you- four of them?

Four puppies. Four children. Audrey looked back at the harbor road, trying to make sense of it, trying to understand where the hell Duke could have just found a handful of kids.

“I- you know what, no. No, I- I am not dealing with this right now.” She turned around, gesturing sharply as though she could banish the puppies if she banished the thought. “I need so much more coffee before I deal with this.”

She headed back to Duke’s seat and the carafe of coffee, sitting down and pouring herself a mug; she drank the whole thing in one go, not caring that it was only lukewarm and that there was every chance the mug had been licked at some point before she got there.

Even lukewarm coffee with the possibility of dog germs was a massive improvement in her day, at this point.

***

Tail still wagging absently, he watches intently as his pack-mate nudges the smallest of the pups further into the bed of soft things he had made when he had realized that the soft, inviting bed he’d seen before was down, and he did not know how to make the strange tree let him go down. Up had been enough of a hardship, and that had been without a pup to carry. Down had proved to be more of a challenge.

But he had adapted, and this new bed might not be as soft, but it is enough to keep the pups warm. And now it is better, because he is not the only one watching the pups.

It is better, that his pack is here. He stretches enough to nose his pack-mate, reassuring himself of his continued presence- and his continued goodwill. He does not understand why his pack-mate had been so angry, but he had not liked it. He had not liked the surge of fear that had come with it- pack should not fear pack, and this is his pack. Their scents are layered throughout his den, are layered just as thoroughly through his memories of good and warm and comfort. Their pack-leader has presented him a name, and it is something he understands, recognizes, the way he recognizes her, the way he recognizes his pack-mate and the sound that means his name. It is right that they should be together; it is wrong that he should have felt afraid.

His pack-mate turns and licks his snout absently, most of his attention still focused on the pups, and he relaxes, laying his chin down on his front paws. Their pack-leader had solved it, and his pack-mate is calm now, is happy to have pups to watch, and that is enough.

He does not understand why their pack-leader seemed less-happy; there is plenty of food, once he can figure out down, and everyone likes pups.

Their pack-leader returns, and she still does not look happy. He wags his tail more obviously, because it is proper to greet her, and his pack-mate does as well, and she sighs.

“-----. Stay up here, ---- find ----- out. ----?” It is too many words, and he is not sure if he is supposed to stay or find or out. He raises his head off of his paws and whines uncertainly, and she shakes her head. “Stay here,” she repeats, and he lowers his head again, accepting this.

She turns to walk away, and his pack-mate stands up, which is not staying. Pack-mate-Nathan trots after their pack-leader, and she makes a sound, but it is not a chastisement, and if they are going somewhere, he wants to go too. He has been alone forever already, he is not staying if they are not staying.

He stands up, pauses to reposition the pups slightly, and pads off after his pack.

Their pack-leader goes to the entrance of the den, and goes down, and he watches carefully. She understands down, there must be a way-

-his pack-mate whines, urgent and unhappy, dropping to his belly and trying to follow, and she chides him sharply.

“No! No, Nathan, stay. -----, ---- stay there.” She pushes at his pack-mate’s nose, and he licks her hands and continues to whine. “------, Nathan. Stay with Duke.”

Duke considers this, because he wanted down, but she is their leader, and she wants them to stay, and he is still not quite sure how she is doing down. But there is nothing down except the den, and the den is safe, so there is no reason to be afraid that she is going down where they cannot follow. His pack-mate, though, is still trying, and it is upsetting their pack-leader.

He is bigger than his pack-mate. He moves closer, and flops down on top of him, preventing him from continuing to try and go down. His pack-mate yelps, outraged, and turns his attention to trying to dislodge him. Their pack-leader laughs, and it is a good sound, it is a safe sound. His pack-mate whines, and Duke turns his attention to licking pack-mate-Nathan’s ears, not moving an inch.

“Good job. Good boys,” she says, still laughing, and it feels like comfort. “Stay there.”

She disappears down the strange tree, and he can still hear her laughing as she moves further into the den. His pack-mate continues to whine, but he stops wriggling, surrendering to the instruction to stay. Or just accepting that Duke is not moving, and he is too heavy to be pushed.

He continues to lick his pack-mate’s ears, trying to soothe his anxiety. There is nothing to be afraid of; the den is safe, and their pack is together, and everything is fine.

***

Audrey took a moment, once she was off of the ladder, to let herself giggle- she couldn’t help it, she was going to cherish the image of Duke just flopping down on top of Nathan to hold him still. She wished she’d had her phone out, but it’d seemed like tempting fate to try and get it out of her pocket while she was still on the ladder; there wasn’t anyone to help her, if she lost her balance and broke something because Duke didn’t just have stairs like a normal person.

The giggling only got worse when she saw the state of Duke’s kitchen. Apparently, tearing down his laundry to make a puppy-bed was not the worst of what he’d been up to with no one to watch him. He’d opened most of the drawers and cabinets- even the upper cabinets- and there was a pile of boxes and jars and wrappers in the center of the kitchen. A jar of peanut-butter had been pretty thoroughly mauled and left off to one side, and she wondered just what had sparked him to abandon his clearly-hard-won bounty to find his way outside.

Whatever it was, it had to have been important if he’d been determined enough to figure out the ladder.

But she wasn’t actually there just to gawk and laugh, so she began searching through the mess, looking for the brightly-colored flyer she remembered. It took a few minutes, but she eventually found it, and, as she’d suspected, there was a name hand-written above the phone number, which had been underlined twice.

“What a surprise,” she said, irritated more than she had any right to be. Duke had every right to get a phone number from an attractive woman. It was probably even a good sign, given how angry and guilty he’d been after what’d happened to Evi. He should be trying to make connections, to focus on the positive things, when everything was such a mess.

It still rankled, left a bitterness at the back of her tongue that she didn’t want to examine too closely.

She couldn’t afford to. She didn’t have enough time.

She took the flyer with her, and headed back up the ladder. The boys hadn’t moved, Duke still lying over the top of Nathan, Nathan still looking pitiful and anxious and awkwardly flat under a hundred pounds of German shepherd. The sight chased away some of the frustration that had started to build, even if she didn’t exactly appreciate the fact that they both made serious efforts to lick her face as she climbed back up.

“No, stop- stop that, come on, not appropriate, so not appropriate, give me some room, here, let me up!” she said, fighting down the urge to start laughing again. “Man, you would both be in so much trouble if you were actually you right now.”

Duke stood up, releasing Nathan, and they both jockeyed for space next to her legs as she stepped back out onto the deck.

They hadn’t made it more than a few steps before the two gigantic fluffballs came plodding around the corner, trailing the golden retriever after them.

“Oh, and nobody was watching the kids? Great, that’s- that’s just great,” she said, turning back to close the door to the interior of the boat; she didn’t want anyone falling down, that was- that was a crisis she didn’t need. “Seriously, Duke, how, I really- I hope you remember enough of this to explain.”

Duke gave her a quizzical look, before moving to sniff each of the puppies in turn; Nathan was already trying to round them up. He wasn’t succeeding, mostly because it looked like one of the fluffballs had decided it was a fun new game, and was attempting to break loose and attack Nathan’s tail. Duke interrupted only long enough to check in, but seemed perfectly content to let Nathan handle things- he turned back toward his alcove, and gave a quiet bark, ears pointed forward.

After a moment, he moved away, and Audrey considered following; they did appear to be missing a puppy, and Audrey couldn’t help the faint, spreading itch of alarm at the thought. Before she could, however, the second of the teddy-bear puppies let out a warbling noise and pounced on her foot, making what looked like a very sincere effort to chew on her shoe.

“Oh, no,” she said, shaking her head. “No, nope, definitely not, this- this is not a thing we’re doing, nope.” She reached down and scooped the puppy up, and it warbled again in protest before it turned all of its efforts to twisting in her hold. She adjusted, not wanting to drop it, and it licked her face before attempting to gnaw on her chin.

“Not doing that either,” Audrey protested, tilting her head back and trying to find a position that didn’t leave her vulnerable to chewing. “No, hey- god, you’re heavy, why are you heavy, you look like you’re made of fur. Stop that, no, do not chew on my hair, why- okay, no, this isn’t working for me.” She set the puppy back down, and gave it a gentle nudge. “You want to chew on somebody, go help Thing Two chew on Nathan, that’s- that’s allowed.”

Nathan, after all, liked kids. He could handle it.

Thing One, however, made another play for her shoe, and she huffed out a laugh and picked it up again just enough to spin it around.

“No, that way. Go on.”

Thing One hesitated, but the sound of Thing Two successfully catching Nathan’s tail, and Nathan’s very dramatic collapse to the deck as a result, seemed to convince it that there was more fun being had elsewhere.

And it looked like they were having a lot of fun; Nathan was putting on quite a show of being downed, and Thing Two was howl-shrieking happily as it attacked his flailing limbs.

...It really was too good not to get a record of. She took her phone out, and opened the camera, switching over to video just in time to catch Thing One joining the fray, leaping fiercely to begin gnawing on Nathan’s shoulder. Thing Two wailed a protest, and pounced Thing One, and the golden pup took advantage of the bigger puppies’ distraction to make its own play for Nathan’s tail.

She was focused enough on the ensuing melee that she didn’t notice Duke had come back until he walked into frame, the camera just catching his feet. She glanced up, and he was carrying the fourth puppy- she panned up quickly, catching a brief blur of black-against-black before Duke had moved too close for her camera to catch anything useful.

“Hey, what-” she started, as Duke deposited the puppy at her feet and barked at her. “I don’t know what that means,” she said, and Duke barked at her again before he turned away, tail swaying and ears pricked forward as he observed Nathan with the other pups. Then he was pouncing, very carefully catching one of the bigger puppies and drawing it away from Nathan, making growling sounds that were leagues away from the fierce, terrible noise she’d heard before.

Audrey couldn’t help but laugh, watching as the game went from a melee to a pups-versus-adults scramble. It really was painfully cute.

At her feet, the fourth pup whined, and climbed between her feet, pressing against the back of her heel. Audrey put her phone away, and turned around, crouching down to examine the little dog; it was trembling, and she scooped it up.

“Are you too small for this?” she asked, cuddling it against her chest. It was smaller than even the golden pup, barely more than a handful, and it squirmed as close against her as it could, tucking its tiny face into the crease of her arm. “...Yeah, I feel the same way sometimes,” she said, the words dry. “It’s okay. We’re going to figure this all out, and then we’re going to figure out where you belong, get you back to your family. I bet somebody is very worried about you right now.”

The puppy whined, and went still, and Audrey stroked one careful finger down its delicate back, trying not to let herself feel the steady weight of pressure bearing down on her. She had to fix this. She couldn’t afford to just- stand around on Duke’s boat taking cute videos.

She needed to put this right.

She crossed over to Duke’s chair, sitting down and settling the puppy in her lap so that she could take out both her phone and the flier, and called the number. The call rang through to voicemail, a chirpy voice informing her that Karen wasn’t available right now and leading into a list of rates for her dog-walking service. Audrey hung up, and tried again, and then a third time before she hung up with a low hiss of frustration. The puppy whined at the sound, and both Nathan and Duke looked up, visibly concerned, and she waved a hand.

“Not you, you’re fine,” she said, folding the flier up and pinning it down under the empty carafe. “Just. A hunch that didn’t pay out, it’s fine. Just means we still have work to do, that’s all.”

Nathan’s ears flicked at the word work, and he sat up, dislodging the golden puppy as he did.

“Yeah, I think that actually counts as a problem,” Audrey said, forcing a smile. “But thanks. Yeah, we gotta go back to work. Which means I have to figure out what I’m supposed to do with all of them.” She gestured at the puppies. “Because I can tell you what I do not want, and that is four random kids turning back into kids on this boat. That, that would not be good for anybody.” She’d seen some of the places Duke kept his guns stashed, and she- very intentionally- had no idea what else he might keep tucked away, but there was absolutely nothing child-proof about the Rouge.

“How does Laverne feel about babysitting?” she asked, fixing Nathan with a look, and Nathan looked right back, ears swiveling. “Yeah, let’s go find out, that’s- that’s the plan. Drop the kids off, then see what we can dig up at the Herald. Sound good?”

Nathan barked, tail wagging.

“You are way more agreeable like this. Just, so you know.” Audrey stood up, shifting her hold on the small puppy, and reaching down to grab the golden in her other arm. “Okay, everybody! Let’s go! We’re going for a car ride!”

***

This is a task Nathan understands, and it is a relief. He nips at the heels of the largest pups, encouraging them along in front of him as he follows her. Beside him, the other- who is pack, who must be, because he is as deeply familiar as the scents from before, and his name-sound is one Nathan knows- tilts his head and whines, ears flicking with indecision. She turns around, and calls again.

“Come on, Duke. You ----, ---- okay.”

The other continues to hesitate, and Nathan falls back a step to nip at his heels, as well. The other yelps, skipping ahead and turning to direct an uncertain look at him. He pitches his shoulders low and gives a single wag of his tail as he pushes the pups another step, and the other whines again, but relents. Which is proper, the other should yield to her, and to him. They have a task.

Something in him knows that the other- that Duke- is not as fond of tasks.

But the other is helping, now, encouraging the pups along. The other tenses when they leave the den, limbs moving more stiffly, ears moving more quickly- he is alert, attention shifting from her to the pups to him to everything else, and he remembers how his instincts had warned about outside. The other is wary, is guarding.

...That is an acceptable task. He takes a moment to nudge Duke, a silent exchange of approval.

She opens a different door when they reach the car, placing the two pups she carried onto the floor. Then she turns to collect the others, but the pups are curious and distracted, and do not wish to be collected. She manages to grab one, but the other makes a clumsy attempt to bolt. He chases, overtakes, and blocks the way, turning the pup back with a sharp bark. The pup tries again in the other direction, but she manages to catch it- and as she places it into the car, his sister and the golden escape. She makes a noise of displeasure, and he hurries to try and cut off the larger pup.

Duke simply scruffs the golden, despite a yelp of protest. It is certainly more effective than what Nathan is doing, but the she-pup is too big for him to scruff properly. He carefully tumbles her instead, and pins her in place with a paw. The she-pup whines and warbles in complaint, but she is able to pick her up and put her in the car without her brother escaping. The other presses very close, filling the space behind her, and depositing the golden with the other pups.

“Want ---- ride ---- here, ----?” she asks, patting the seat, and the other accepts the cue, jumping into the car and lying down on the seat. “---- you, Nathan, ---- want ---- ride -----, ----- up ----?” She gestures to the open door, and to the door he had before. He hesitates, unsure, and she shrugs and closes the door behind the pups, opening the other. “----, up, --- go.”

He jumps up, and peers into the back, checking on the other, and the pups, but nothing has happened in the few seconds the door has been closed. The other looks uncertain again, but is lying still, eyes on the pups while his ears shift to follow her as she closes the door and goes around the car. He turns to follow her, as well, watching until she is sitting. Then he scoots closer, nosing at one of her hands, assuring himself that she is still well.

She pats his head, and it sends a wash of contentment through him. The patting does not last nearly long enough, but when she pulls her hand back, he sighs and moves back to the center of his seat. He does not understand her reluctance to touch, but she is in charge.

He turns to check on Duke, again, and then the pups, and then looks out the window. There are others, but not the one that moved like danger, so he does not bark. They return to the place of before, the place that is his, that is full of familiar scents and familiar others, and he wags his tail and yawns with excitement.

The other whines, but it is not a happy sound.

“---, we’re here. We’re ---- go inside, ---- pups ------. ------ take -----, I -----.”

She opens the door, and steps outside, and the other’s whine takes on a growling edge, low and dissatisfied as he sits up. Nathan turns, barks a rebuke, and Duke shifts his weight, but does not relax. Nathan feels the hostility rise up again, as unsettling and alarming as before- Duke should yield, it is proper.

He barks another rebuke, this one with a growl of warning, and the other flinches, a moment before she opens the door.

“---, Nathan- ---- going on? ---- you ---- fighting?” There is frustration and confusion and chastisement in her voice, and Nathan cringes, whines and jumps out of the car, lying on his belly. He did not mean to do the bad thing, but-

“I -----, I ----- out --- car -----!” She gestures vehemently, and opens the door, and the other whines loudly, and retreats to the far side of the car. “No, Duke, ----- get out ---- car. We’re going inside.”

The other does not move, and she makes a displeased face, sighing loudly.

“-----. Stay here, --- you ---. ------.” She reaches for one of the pups, and Duke shifts forward and growls. She jerks back, and Nathan cannot help it, he leaps back to his feet and snarls, loud and angry. Duke bristles, and the pups begin to make distressed sounds, and Nathan feels a wash of uncertainty that makes him angry. He does not understand why the other will not yield, and he does not like that the pups are upset, and he hates that Duke has frightened her. It is wrong and he pushes closer, trembling with the anger that has seized him.

“Whoa! Stop, ---- you, stop! Nathan, -----, enough, -----. I’m ----,” she says, and her tone is trying to be soothing, but he can still hear the alarm under it. “Duke -----. I -----.”

She reaches down, and grabs Nathan’s neck, forcing him to take a step back.

“No fighting, -----? I --- you ---- not fight. Please. Let me ------.”

He does not want to step back, he does not like this, he is angry and the other is wrong and she is still afraid-

-but she is in charge, and he is supposed to obey. If he does not yield, he is just as wrong. He does not like that thought at all.

“---- stay, please. No fighting,” she repeats, and he whines and lies down, anxious discomfort leaving him shaking.

“Thank you. Good boy, good job. Stay,” she says, and he tries, tries to ignore how everything in him says he needs to protect her.

“Duke, buddy, I ---- out --- car,” she says, voice soft. Duke is whining, now, is not displaying threat any longer, has backed up again to press against the other door. “Please, --- you come here? Come ---- me, ------, I won’t let ------ hurt you. ----- trust me, please.”

Duke whines again, but creeps forward, and his posture and his scent are full of fear. Duke is trembling, nearly as much as he is, but-

-he does not understand. There is nothing here to be afraid of. Duke was not afraid before, was wary outside the den but not like this.

Nathan does not like not understanding.

“-----, Duke. I’ve --- you. Come here, come on. Come ---- me.” She takes a step back, beckoning, and Duke inches forward, but he stops at the edge of the seat. Duke is radiating distress, and Nathan remembers his own distress when she went somewhere he could not.

He stands up and moves forward, tail wagging in quick, close sweeps, and passes her, ignoring the sharp tension in her voice when she calls his name. He is not fighting. He is helping.

Duke is cautious, but Nathan whines as he approaches, posture conciliatory, and Duke does not growl. Nathan hops up, placing his front paws on the seat, and noses at Duke, and the fear-smell is overwhelming. Duke presses his head against Nathan’s chest, nearly pushing him over in his attempt to find comfort. Nathan whines again, and gives a quiet yip, backing up and dropping to the ground. He turns in a circle, and backs away with another yip. Duke hesitates, still, but his ears have lifted, are pointing forward instead of lying flat.

“-------, Duke. ----? Nathan’s -----, come on out. ------.”

Duke yawns out a noise of distress, flashing his teeth, but he stands up. Nathan yips again, and turns another circle, and Duke finally yields, hopping down from the seat and onto the ground. Nathan crowds Duke, nosing at him and licking his face encouragingly as Duke slinks over to her, seeking assurance.

She speaks gently, soothingly, and her hands are careful as she pets them both. Duke relaxes, and leans heavily against Nathan’s side. The pressure is satisfying.

Duke remains calm enough that she stands to approach the pups again. Duke whines and shifts, but does not object, but Nathan can smell fear again. He tries to soothe Duke, nuzzling and nudging until they are able to take charge of the larger pups- his success is limited, and he must herd both puppies and Duke. The pups have picked up on Duke’s distress, and are hesitant, so it is not easy.

But she is opening doors, and however much Duke appears to be afraid to go inside, he also clearly does not wish to be left behind. Duke presses too close to Nathan to be helpful, but he is yielding now, and it is enough.

***

Audrey had to adjust, tucking the smaller of the two puppies into her jacket and holding the other awkwardly under her arm, so that she could get the doors open, and it was a relief when Nathan managed to get the other two puppies and Duke through the front doors in short order. It hadn’t occurred to her that Duke might react badly to being at the station- but whatever memories he still had, whatever feelings he was acting on, he’d clearly recognized the building, and just as clearly hadn’t wanted anything to do with it. Which would have been fine, she wouldn’t have pushed him, except she really needed to leave the puppies somewhere safe.

The fact that he’d been frightened enough to growl at her... She would have to remember that. Would have to make an effort not to keep him trapped at the station quite so often.

She wished she had any idea how much they understood of her reassurances and rambling explanations.

She got the inner doors open, and held them long enough for Nathan to herd everyone through, and indicated the stairs.

“Come on, we’re going up. We’re going to put the puppies somewhere where they won’t get hurt, it’s okay.” Duke whined and crowded her heels, but at least he wasn’t growling. Nathan urged the larger puppies on, and Audrey slowed down, because they were having a little trouble figuring out the stairs.

Still, they made it up, bit by bit, and Audrey set the golden down on the top step so that she could unlatch the upper doors. As soon as she started, there was an increase of noise, snuffling and scratching and barking, and Duke started to growl again. Audrey felt the threat of a monumental headache building, and hoped that Duke didn’t decide to bolt- or worse, lunge at the first body on the other side of the door. Nathan made a sound that fell somewhere between a bark and a whine- and, honestly, Audrey hadn’t known dogs could sound exasperated, but that was definitely an exasperated sound- and shoved Duke with his nose, before turning and barking harshly at the door.

“I- I really don’t think that’s helping,” Audrey said, scooping up the golden again and pushing the door open. “Everybody back up, please, let us in, back-”

Nathan slipped past her feet, still barking, and quickly harried the handful of dogs back a few feet. To her surprise, Duke pushed past her as well, bristling and stiff-legged, still growling, placing himself between her and the dogs trying to get around Nathan’s flank to reach her. There was a moment of visible uncertainty, some of the other dogs bristling in turn, before Nathan turned around and moved back to Duke’s side, pressing into him.

The herd backed off, clearing space. Audrey held the door open long enough for the large puppies to make it through, and closed it behind them.

“Okay, that- good, that’s good. Duke, it’s okay, just- calm down, everything’s fine. Nathan, good job, thank you, you’re- you’re doing really good. Thank you.”

Audrey started toward her office, nudging the puppies in the correct direction with one foot, and Duke circled back, nudging both of them before pressing against her legs. She could feel him shaking, and could feel the finer vibration of his growl, but he wasn’t attacking anyone, and that had to be good enough.

“It’s okay. It’s okay, everybody’s safe, it’s fine. You’re fine. Come on, let’s go, this way- no, don’t wander off, keep- thank you, that’s, yes, keep going. Go on, keep-”

Audrey huffed and adjusted her hold on the golden, who was wriggling and kicking, trying to get down as the larger puppies started to range a little further away from her feet, noses pressed to the floor.

“No, we’re not exploring right now. No. Keep going. Everybody- yes, thank you.” She managed to get everyone into her office, and pulled the door closed behind her, heaving a sigh of relief and putting the golden down with the other two. The small puppy was still sitting quietly enough, so Audrey held on to her long enough to pull a cushion off of the couch and onto the floor to set her on.

The red-haired dog was still on the other cushion, and looked up with obvious concern when the other cushion moved.

“Hey, there. You can stay in here, if you want, that’s- that’s fine, but you’re going to be stuck with the kids if you do,” Audrey said, gesturing to the puppies, who were happily sniffing their way around the edges of the room, despite Duke’s nervous hovering. “I’m just- gonna go find Laverne, so you’ve got a minute to decide.”

Audrey headed back for the door, and the little red dog stood up and hopped off of the couch, stretching elegantly before trotting over to the door, clearly not interested in sticking around now that the room had gotten crowded.

“Probably a good call,” Audrey said, reaching for the doorknob. Nathan appeared at her feet, ears twitching back and forth, pose uncertain, and Audrey shook her head. “No, Nathan, stay here. Stay with Duke, I’ll be right back. Please.”

Nathan whined unhappily, and Audrey gestured him back.

“No, I mean it this time. Stay here, I’ll be back in a minute.” She pulled the door open just enough for the small red dog to slip through, and squeezed through herself, closing it firmly and resolutely ignoring the immediate, alarmed barking that was much too loud to be Nathan.

She was going to be right back, they’d be fine for a minute.

The little red dog drifted away, and Audrey politely fended off the handful of others still in the immediate area, heading for Laverne’s station. She checked under the desk, and yes, Laverne hadn’t gone anywhere, and looked up with curious dark eyes when Audrey ducked down.

“Hey, Laverne. Hey. I’m sorry about this, but I need a babysitter, and you’re kinda my best option, here. Because I’m about eighty percent sure you are Laverne, and when I get this all sorted out, and those kids turn back into kids, I’d like them to be with someone who isn’t a scary stranger.”

Laverne tilted her head, but didn’t move, and Audrey reached, very carefully, under the desk. Laverne sniffed her hands, and wagged her tail, and Audrey relaxed slightly. Still, she felt decidedly awkward about pulling Laverne out from under the desk, even if she mostly just wriggled confusedly and continued to wag her tail.

“Seriously, I owe you, I am buying you danishes every day next week,” Audrey promised, making her way back to her office. The spaniel Audrey was pretty sure she’d seen earlier was lying outside the office, nose pressed to the crack beneath the door, ears flicking with every anxious sound from within- somewhat quieter, now, but still audible- and there was a golden retriever sitting practically on top of her, looking just as interested in what was happening.

“Excuse me, coming through- no, out of the way, scoot, you cannot come in, that- that would probably be a very bad idea, go on, scoot-”

Audrey managed to nudge them out of the way enough to get back into her office, pushing the door closed by backing into it as she set Laverne down, barely managing before the combined impact of Duke and Nathan knocked her over. Audrey slid down the door, one arm up to protect her face as they both attempted to check her over at the same time.

“I didn’t go anywhere,” she said, exasperated, “I was only gone for a minute, back up, let me- no, get back, I’m serious, let me stand up!”

They didn’t back up, and Audrey gave up, letting them sniff and nudge and whine for a minute.

“This is ridiculous. Just- I hope you realize, this is ridiculous, and I will be reminding you of this at every possible opportunity,” she warned. “And we’re done, I’m done, if you get stepped on it’s your own fault.” She pushed herself back up, getting her feet under her and- despite her words- making an effort not to step on any paws as she did. “Neither of you ever gets to pretend you’re aloof and independent ever again, I swear, I will call you on it, this- this is ridiculous.”

She brushed herself off, not that she thought she was ever going to get the dog fur out of this jacket, and looked around, assessing. Laverne was cautiously sniffing the largest of the puppies, and Audrey had a moment of doubt- they were so big, and Laverne was a little smaller than Nathan- but the puppy barked and pounced, and Laverne carefully and firmly knocked it on its rump, and Audrey relaxed. Laverne could handle herself, and was already wagging her tail and nosing at the puppy again, the puppies would be fine with her.

It was an immense relief, tension Audrey had only peripherally been aware of sliding away.

“Okay. Okay, this will work, this is fine. Laverne, kids, have fun. Nathan, Duke, come on, we’re leaving, we have work to do.”

She picked the golden puppy up, and set it down further away from the door, clearing the way as much as she could. Nathan immediately moved to press as close to the door as possible, very clearly unwilling to be left behind again, and Duke hovered behind him, and between the two of them, Audrey barely had room to actually open the door, but she managed.

And Nathan and Duke immediately came nose to nose with the spaniel and the golden retriever, who had returned to their position outside the door. Audrey braced herself for a renewed bout of anxiety and growling, and tried to move enough to the side that if it turned into a fight, she wouldn’t be in the way, but Nathan was exchanging neutral enough sniffs with the golden, and Duke had gone entirely still in front of the spaniel.

The spaniel sniffed at his face, plumed tail wagging slowly, and Duke flicked an anxious glance at Audrey, but remained unmoving.

“It’s okay,” Audrey said, voice as steady as she could make it. “It’s okay, she’s- she’s just saying hello, you’re fine.” Audrey thought, running through everyone she remembered being on-duty earlier, and everyone she’d seen Duke have genuinely friendly conversations with, and narrowed her eyes. “...Rebecca is just saying hello, you like Rebecca, everything is fine,” she added, even though she was only about fifty percent sure the spaniel was actually Rafferty. It seemed like a reasonable guess, though, and Duke was very slowly starting to sniff her in return, tail moving in incremental stages toward something that could have been a wag.

“There, good, see? Everything’s fine. You have friends here, it’s not so bad, right? But we need to go, so come on, everybody out of the doorway. Before the kids get loose, because I am not chasing them around in here. Come on, move, move-” she shuffled forward, moving Duke and Nathan- and by extension, the retriever and the spaniel- along with her.

She pulled the door closed, making sure it caught securely, and headed for the stairwell. The sooner they were out of the station again, the happier she’d be- it was just too much, too many beings to keep track of.

And though she was loathe to admit it, she was pretty sure she’d caught some of Duke’s tension.

Nathan followed, chasing the golden off after a few steps, and then circled back to get in between Duke and the spaniel; Duke had relaxed enough to be showing real interest, and Nathan directed a probably-unnecessary nip at his flank to get him moving. Duke whined and flicked his ears, but didn’t snap back, turning to follow Audrey instead, and Audrey almost laughed.

“What, so one pretty girl, and suddenly you’re totally fine?” she asked, shaking her head. “That’s just typical.”

Duke shoved his head under her hand, and Audrey bit down on the inside of her cheek and told herself not to read anything into that. He wasn’t himself, he didn’t have a clue what she was saying, he was just responding to her tone of voice. That was all.

She still gave him an affectionate pat before she drew her hand back.

Getting them back out of the station was substantially easier than getting them in, and Audrey gave herself a second to just- take a breath and center herself once they were back outside. The breeze was clean and crisp, and a welcome change from the stuffy air inside the station- it was definitely starting to smell like dog, and she didn’t want to think about how much worse it would get if she didn’t get this sorted out soon.

Nathan and Duke stayed relatively close, following her to her car without any issue. She opened the back door, and Duke hopped in and laid down again, and Nathan made himself comfortable in the front seat, and Audrey started back in the direction of the Herald. She wanted the subscription list, and to do a little digging in the archives- she still didn’t have any real leads, but she had a couple of ideas, and at least it would probably be quieter at the Herald.

Hopefully, she’d make some kind of actual progress.

***

Duke waits patiently as they drive, feeling the movement of the car and thinking of the movement of his den. He is much happier to be away from the place that smelled of stress and conflict and felt like fear and grief and trapped. He is not particularly happy that they have left the pups there, but his pack-leader and pack-mate-Nathan were both comfortable there, and he has vague memories of the one the pack-leader brought to watch them. He thinks she might be the one who used to watch his pack-mate, and that is acceptable.

And there were others there, ones who were not quite pack, but were not quite outsider, either. He is not sure what to make of that, but they are not there any longer, so he supposes it does not matter.

His pack-mate stands in his seat, and looks out the windows, and he watches him, content to take his cues from Nathan. Nathan is calm, and only somewhat interested, so Duke continues to wait, eyes half-closed and ears relaxed.

When they stop, he sits up, taking in the uncertain flicker of his pack-mate’s ears. Their pack-leader gets out of the car, and comes around to open the doors, and he hops out obediently. He takes a moment to check in with Nathan, and then takes a few steps away to explore an interesting smell. Nathan shoulders him out of the way to get closer to the smell, and Duke huffs and moves to give him space.

Their pack-leader pauses to watch them, and he abandons the smell to stand beside her, hoping for petting. She is sparing with her touches, and he is not sure why. She keeps her hands out of reach even when he leans against her leg and tilts his head up to see her face.

It occurs to him that his pack is complicated, and he snorts and shakes his head, because it is an idea he is not certain how to handle. He is not sure he likes understanding complicated.

The aggressive bellow from up ahead is almost a welcome distraction.

There is a door propped open at the top of a hollow hill, and there is a big, big male there. The other male’s face droops under floppy jowls and hanging ears, deep-set eyes nearly invisible under folds of skin, and his muzzle is pale with age, but Duke takes a step back anyway, lips pulling back to show teeth. He recognizes the other male’s scent, and he smells of threat.

“--- in ---- me -- Nathan you ----?” his pack leader asks, sounding frustrated, and Duke flicks his ears at her and shifts so that he is pressing against the front of her legs instead, blocking her way and letting out a low growl. He does not want her getting any closer to the threat, particularly as the other male has clearly caught her scent now, and looks interested. “----- no. ------ Duke, I ------.”

Nathan approaches, ears pinned back, and noses at him, and Duke tilts his head away, because he cannot afford to be distracted. He continues to growl, and the other male bellows again, and Nathan looks up, ears lifting. His tail begins to wag, his shoulders relaxing, and Duke does not understand, does not understand at all, there is a threat-

-Nathan’s tail stops wagging, his head tilting, and he whines, a sound thick with confusion.

Duke remembers complicated, and understands.

“Boys, ------, I’ve ------. ------- settle down.” Their pack-leader’s voice is firm, and Duke whines, because she is pack-leader, she is in charge, and Nathan is reacting with confusion, and it makes him uncertain. He was sure there was a threat, but if he is the only one...

There had not been a threat at the place that felt like fear. Maybe he is wrong. He does not like being out of balance with his pack, does not like that he fears things they do not. He does not like what that might mean.

Another dog appears beside the big male, tiny in comparison, barely even the size of the large pups- it is sharp-eyed and focused, though it is just as washed with grey as the larger dog. It growls irritably at the big dog, nose twitching and ears perked, and barks a greeting that Duke does not trust. The little dog is less of a threat than the big dog, certainly, but he still doesn’t want it near his pack.

The big dog takes a few steps forward, and Duke snarls, warning him off. He is not entirely sure he wants to have this fight, but he will if he has to.

Stop it,” his pack-leader orders. “-------, no fighting!

Nathan whines, and leans, hard, into Duke’s shoulder, and there is a warning in it. He is upsetting their pack-leader, he is going to get them in trouble, and Duke does not want that, but-

-the big dog charges, unexpectedly fast. Duke realizes the flaw in his positioning too late to fix it, and takes the impact against his side with a sharp yelp instead of turning to face it and exposing his pack-leader by doing so. Nathan snarls and scrambles around him, and their pack-leader darts back, and Duke is glad, because if she is out of the way, he can move.

The little dog is barking frantically, but he stays in the doorway, leaping in place. Duke tunes him out, turning to snap at the big dog’s leg, scoring a bite before he feels teeth dig into his scruff. Nathan snarls again, the sound turning muffled, and the teeth let go, and Duke spins and catches a mouthful of shoulder, biting deep and shaking his head, hard. The big dog yowls, the sound deep and resonant, and tears loose. Moments later, pain rakes across Duke’s muzzle- a glancing blow, but too close. He yips and scrambles back, and the big dog presses his advantage, bowling Duke over before he can get his footing back, and their pack-leader is yelling but he cannot afford to listen. Nathan grabs the big dog by the hind leg, yanking, but the big dog outweighs Duke, and Nathan cannot move him much.

Still, it is enough of a distraction for Duke to roll back to his feet, and he lunges before the big dog can turn on Nathan, getting a better grip this time.

Then there is a hollow thwock noise, and another, and something stinging cracks against his sensitive snout. He yelps, but doesn’t let go.

Stop it ------! Bad, bad dogs, let go! ------ you, I -----! ---- ENOUGH!

There is another stinging smack and hollow thwock, and Duke lets go, retreating only enough to realize his pack-leader is too close. He presses against her legs, trying to sort out where his foe has gone-

-but his foe has backed away, is watching his pack-leader warily, sunken eyes focused on the grey tube in her hand.

His pack-leader is breathing hard, and she is shaking, and there is fear in her pose and in her eyes. He cannot smell much past the blood in his mouth, and he whines, disliking that he cannot check to make sure she is not hurt, but he does not see any injuries. He keeps himself firmly between her and the big dog, looking for Nathan- Nathan is flat on his belly, and there is dark around his mouth and smeared on his shoulder, but his pose says anger and distress, not pain.

His pack is unharmed. He doesn’t relax, because the big dog is still too close, but he is pleased.

“----. I ----, ----. ----.” His pack-leader speaks, the words low and breathless and distressed, and her empty hand runs from the top of his head down his back. He makes a quiet noise when she touches something that hurts, and she flinches; he lowers his head and presses his ears back, upset to have startled her. Her fingers thread through his fur, and he can feel her hand shake as she grips a little too tightly, and he risks looking away from the big dog to nose at her wrist, tongue flicking out in a furtive attempt at offering comfort.

She makes a distressed noise, and he whines and licks her again, trying to fix it. Nathan crawls over, placing himself between the big dog, and Duke and their pack-leader, and Duke noses at him, relaxing slightly. The big dog has retreated a few more steps, and is licking his own wounds, and he does not look like he intends to attack again.

“----. ---- me see, I ----, ---- stay still-” Their pack-leader’s voice is still shaky, and her fingers comb through his fur, pausing to press around the edges of places that hurt. He does not like it, but he stays still, whining softly as she investigates his leg and his shoulder and the back of his neck. There is blood on her fingers when she brings her hand up to press at the edges of the score along the top of his muzzle, and he whines again and tries to lick her hand.

“No, don’t ----, ---- not good, you’ll ------ me ---- you’re you ---- I ---- you ----,” she says, and she pulls her hand away. “---- Duke, ---- I ----, you -----. You ----- stop ----, I ---- you -----.”

She wipes her hand off on her pants, and frowns at him, and he whines and wags his tail cautiously. Nathan follows suit with a whine of his own.

“I don’t ---- I’m ---- get you cleaned up,” she says, “---- we -----. I ---- we ---- wait ----- you’re you ----. ----.” The worst of the fear is gone from her voice, and he wags with more enthusiasm. “Nathan, come here, ---- me --- you.” She turns her attention to Nathan, who wriggles anxiously and does not stay still while she tries to check him over. Despite that, she seems satisfied when she is done. “----- you ---- stay ----. ------.” She gives Nathan a pat, and stands up, turning her attention back to the big dog. Her expression goes grim, and Duke flattens his ears automatically in response.

“You two, stay here,” she orders, and he is very sure she means it. Nathan whines and lies down again, and Duke crawls closer, and they both manage to stay until she starts to walk toward the big dog.

Orders or not, they both stand up and rush to crowd around her, because that is not good.

“--- stay here ----?” she snaps, and she gestures with the grey tube. “Go lie down, I -----. I ----.”

Duke eyes the tube warily, and considers her posture, and considers the posture of the big dog. He is watching her, but he looks more intimidated than aggressive. Still, he is sure the big dog is not to be trusted.

“He’s not ---- me,” she says, and she sounds sure.

The big dog is not to be trusted, but the pack-leader is. Duke lies back down, whining unhappily. Nathan hesitates, and tries to herd her back a step, clearly not convinced. She taps Nathan lightly with the tube, and gestures again.

“No. I -----. ------. Go lie down.”

Nathan whines, and lies down. The pack-leader walks forward again, and Nathan stands back up. She gestures warningly, and Nathan tucks his tail and folds his ears in a visible sulk, and turns his attention to Duke. He barks once, and Duke flicks his ears, because he is already staying, there is no need for Nathan to boss him. Nathan does not seem to appreciate that, but he moves closer anyway, and the pack-leader relaxes, and continues forward. Duke flicks his tail in a brief, sympathetic greeting, because he does not like this either, and he can see the stress on Nathan. Nathan barks at him again, more quietly but no less bossily, and begins to lick the long cut on his nose.

Duke whines but submits to the attention, sneezing when the sting gets to be too much. He listens to the pack-leader loudly berating the big dog, and lifts his head quickly when the little dog finally leaves the security of the doorway to approach, but both big dog and little dog are clearly unwilling to challenge the pack-leader.

He still dislikes that they are so close to her, but he can tolerate it as long as they are not threatening her.

Nathan is less happy about it; he growls softly every time she touches one of them. Duke sympathizes, nudging at his jaw and offering the occasional supportive lick when he starts to get loud.

Finally she turns back, and calls for them. The big dog looks displeased, but does not growl as they approach. Duke is tempted to growl, because he does not like the big dog, but the pack-leader looks stern, and he decides it is not worth it.

“We --- play nice,” the pack-leader says, brandishing the tube at the big dog. “We ---- not fighting. I ---- work ----, ---- you ---- help me ---- behaving yourselves. ------- not -----.”

She looks between all of them, and Duke wags his tail and lowers his head. He does not understand all of her words, but he understands her message just fine. Nathan takes a moment longer, but he yields as well. The big dog heaves a sigh, and stands up, walking back up the strange hill to the doorway and disappearing inside.

“---- I ----,” she says, sounding satisfied, and she turns to follow the big dog. The little dog gets underfoot as Nathan and Duke follow her, sniffing and making excitable sounds, and Duke flicks his ears and tries to step around him. Nathan exchanges a cautious greeting, and Duke is tempted to growl again.

He doesn’t. The pack-leader was very clear.

Entering the other-dogs’ den is uncomfortable. It reeks of their claim, enough that even the pack-leader wrinkles her nose, and there is a loud machine making repeated thumping noises beyond the next doorway. It hurts his ears, and there is another scent that makes his nose itch, and it is dim inside, and he does not like it there.

He hesitates just inside the doorway, and whines hopefully at the pack-leader. Maybe they will not stay?

“Sit down, ----,” she says absently. “I ---- work.” She opens a cache, and takes something out, and carries it to one of the tables. She sits, and begins poking something on the desk, and Duke heaves a sigh. He tries once more, and she doesn’t even look up.

Duke huffs again, and flops down across the doorway, putting his head on his paws. At least if he lies in the doorway, the smells are not so bad, and there is a thin patch of sunlight.

Nathan whines, pacing over to nudge the pack-leader; she pats him absently and tells him to go sit. He continues to whine, and when he rests his chin on her knee, she pushes him firmly away. He goes, looking limp and dejected, sulking his way back to the doorway. Duke eyes him warily, wondering if he is going to have to move, but Nathan simply flops down half on top of him, and curls up. Duke shifts so that he is not lying on a spot that hurts, lifting his head and resting his chin on Nathan’s flank, and closes his eyes.

He can be patient.

***

Audrey stretched, rolling her head on her neck, but it did nothing for the pounding in her temples. She could still feel her heart beating too fast, and she wasn’t entirely convinced that Vince wasn’t going to cause more trouble, but everyone was quiet, for the moment, and she needed to focus.

Even if she was going to remember that attack, later.

But that was a problem for later, and she had problems enough right now. She flipped through the pages of the bulky binder until she found the Ms, and flipped back until she was in MA, looking for any listing for Magnussen. She found Tor, and three others- and one of them was hyphenated. Audrey guessed that was probably Liam’s mother, and wrote down the first half of the name to look up next.

She called each of the Magnussens in turn, and no one picked up.

She looked up the other last name- Norfolk- and got seven listings. Six of them had phone numbers, and no one picked up at any of them. Audrey wrote the seventh address down, and turned to the computer, taking a minute to dig through Dave’s eclectic filing system to try and track down birth, death, and marriage announcements. It took some doing, but one by one she went through families associated with Magnussen, and then families associated with Norfolk, until she’d thoroughly exhausted those options.

Her headache only got worse, and she briefly considered whether it would be worth it to go down to the coffee shop on the corner and try to figure out the basic brewer. Then she considered how bad it smelled in the Herald, where there had only been two dogs, and they hadn’t been cooped up inside, and decided she could live without it. She looked over her notes, and scowled, opening up the virtual archives and typing in dog.

Her search returned a hundred and seventy four articles.

She gave herself exactly thirty seconds to consider exactly how unethical it would be to call a pet rescue from out of town, and let this play out while she took a nice relaxing trip anywhere else.

Probably very. She sighed and opened the first article.

Two hours and too many phone calls later, and Audrey almost hung up on the timid, slightly-damp voice that answered hello- she’d been directed to so many voicemails, and she really hadn’t expected an answer, and she fumbled her phone trying to correct herself.

“Hello? Is this-” she glanced at the paper in front of her, trying to remember who she had been calling. “Paula Reese?”

“Yes? Who is calling, please?” the voice had gone from timid to annoyed.

“This is Detective Audrey Parker, from the Haven Police Department,” Audrey replied, sharper than she needed to be, but if anyone had the right to be annoyed right now, it was her. “Miss Reese, are you currently at home?”

“...Yes,” Paula replied, the annoyance gone, replaced by alarm. “Why, is- is something happening? Am I in danger? Do I need to leave my house?”

“You’re not in any danger,” Audrey replied, leveling her tone, “but it is very, very important that I speak to you.”

“About what?” Paula asked, and Audrey really, really would have preferred to be having this conversation in person.

“Have you, by any chance, happen to have heard of the Troubles?” Audrey asked, hoping that Paula wasn’t going to just hang up on her.

“...What?” Paula asked, tone going quizzical. “You said you were with the police department?”

“I am, yes,” Audrey confirmed, filling her voice with as much authority as she could manage. “I am a detective with the Haven PD, and it is my job to deal with some of the more... unusual things that happen here in Haven, so I am asking you, in all seriousness, if you are familiar with the Troubles.”

“...I... I’ve heard stories,” Paula said, and Audrey relaxed slightly. At least she wasn’t going to have to start from absolutely nowhere. “I didn’t think-”

“Some of those stories are true,” Audrey said, cutting her off. “Does your family have any of those stories?”

“...Grandma Millie used to talk about... things like that,” Paula said, and her voice sounded damp again, and Audrey exhaled, forcing some of the tension out of her shoulders.

“Miss Reese, we have some things we need to talk about. I’m going to just confirm your address with you, here, and I’m going to ask that you remain in your home until I arrive.”

Audrey ran through the address, and hurriedly scratched down the notes Paula gave her about finding the place, and let the call end.

Then she took a moment, resting her head in her hands, and let herself feel a measure of relief. At the very least, she’d spoken to another human being; she would have help, even if- by some awful bit of chance- Paula wasn’t actually the person she was looking for.

She really hoped Paula was the person she was looking for.

She stood up, gathering her notes and making sure she had her phone, and paused.

Nathan and Duke were asleep in the doorway, in the narrow patch of sun that was making it in under the awning, curled up around each other. Duke’s ears were twitching, but otherwise they were still, and she almost hated that she was going to have to disturb them. She doubted either of them had been getting much rest, lately.

She snapped a picture, and the shutter sound that the phone made brought Nathan’s head up, pale blue eyes blinking alertly at her.

“Yeah, it’s time to go,” she said, and Nathan scrambled up, dislodging Duke and shaking himself out. Duke grumbled a protest, and levered himself to his feet with much less enthusiasm. He held himself carefully, visibly favoring his left rear leg, and Audrey pursed her lips, pushing down the surge of anger- she could yell at Vince later. When he’d understand it.

For now, the best thing she could do was get this fixed, so that there were actually doctors somewhere in town, in case the bites stayed.

Dave perked up as she started to move, as well, sitting up from where he’d been curled up on Vince’s chair cushion.

“No, you stay here,” Audrey said. “I definitely do not need your help right now, you- you just keep an eye on things here.”

Audrey headed for the door, and Dave hopped down and followed, and Audrey rolled her eyes.

“Still not taking you with me,” she said, and Nathan barked a warning, folding around her legs and giving Dave a challenging look.

Dave backed off, and Audrey gave Nathan an approving pat.

“Thanks. Okay, guys, we have a real lead. Let’s see if we can’t get this whole thing sorted out before it gets dark.”

***

Nathan follows her to the car, tail wagging enthusiastically. She is different- some of the unhappiness is gone, and the smell of stress is less. It is pleasing to see. He nudges Duke, who grumbles at him and follows more sedately. She opens the car door, and Nathan pauses to watch- Duke climbs in, instead of jumping, and whines when he curls up on the seat. Nathan considers, and jumps in after him, and she makes a surprised noise, but closes the door behind him. Nathan crowds into Duke’s space, and Duke grumbles and shifts until there is more room, and Nathan curls up with his head resting on Duke’s hip. Duke noses at him, and licks his chin, and settles.

The ride is longer than the others have been. He tries to be calm and quiet, but he cannot help but sit up to look out the windows. Duke complains every time, but watches him watching the windows with a quiet focus.

But there is nothing outside that should not be there, and she still seems pleased, talking quietly under her breath, bits of phrases and careful tones that he does not understand.

When they stop, it is at the end of a long space lined with trees, and there are high walls beyond the trees. His nose is already twitching by the time her door opens, and she turns to look back at them.

“---- I ---- need you to stay, ----. Stay here, I ------ right back.”

...He does not like that, he does not want to stay if she is going. He barks, loud and unhappy, and Duke lifts his head with an unhappy sound of inquiry.

“---, ---- not my house, I can’t bring you ----- I’ve talked ----. ---- give me ----, I ---- right back, I ----.”

He continues to bark, and Duke adds a low howl of annoyance.

No, I- you- no. You stay. I ----, you’re ---- kid. You don’t get your ----, you throw -----. Not ----, buddy, nope, not ----. Stay with Duke.”

Duke howls again at his name, and she makes a frustrated sound and closes the door. She walks away, and Nathan barks louder, and Duke howls again, long and unhappy.

She stops at a door, and waits, and the door opens, and there is a person, a whole other person, and she is with the person without them, and Nathan claws at the door, barking even more urgently. Duke clambers into the front seat, pressing his nose to the window and continuing to howl, adding the occasional whining cry for good measure. In the doorway, she speaks quickly, gesturing at the other person, and the other person looks over at the car with an expression of confused good humor.

She and the other person nod at each other, and the door closes, and she comes back. She opens the door for him, and glares as he launches himself out of the car.

“I ---- tell you ----, ----. --- you ----, ---- you’re you, ---- I ---- not ---- you ----.”

She sounds annoyed, but there is humor under the annoyance. That is acceptable, now that she is back and he is not stuck in the car. She opens the other door, and Duke climbs carefully out of the car, pressing into her side with a mournful noise of complaint.

“Yeah, don’t ---- you’re ---- here, either, I’m ----- you ----. Come on, both of you, we’re ---- inside.”

She leads them to the door, and knocks, and the door opens again.

“I ---- Buster outside,” the other person says, and she smiles down at them. “-----?”

“---- Nathan, ----- Duke,” she says, and the other person looks at her, brows furrowing. Her scent takes on a nervous edge.

“...You ----- your dogs ---- you ----?”

“---- I’m here ---- you ----.”

The other person goes pale, and the sound of her heartbeat jumps.

***

“Oh,” Paula says, looking faint and confused. “...Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”

Audrey’s desire to seize Paula by the shoulders and shake her diminishes immensely, and she manages a smile that is at least mostly sincere.

“Yes, please, that would be great. It’s been a very, very long day.” She followed Paula through the elegant hallway and into the kitchen, and Nathan and Duke crowded around her feet. “Thanks for letting me bring them in, they’ve had kind of a stressful day, as well, and they really don’t like being left in the car.”

“It looks like it- what happened to his nose?” Paula asked, sounding genuinely concerned, and pulling a pair of mugs out of the cabinet. She fussed with the coffee maker on the counter, and almost immediately, coffee started pouring into one of the mugs. Audrey thought she might be willing to forgive Paula for this whole rotten day.

“He got into a fight. But I can’t get him patched up until after- we sort a few things out.” Audrey accepted the chair Paula indicated, sitting down heavily, and reaching gratefully for the full mug Paula set down in front of her. She waved off the offer of milk or sugar, drinking more than she should while it was still steaming. Duke and Nathan settled at her feet, Duke on her left, Nathan on her right, resting his chin on top of her foot.

“I- I’m still really not sure what you needed to talk to me about?” Paula said, fussing with the coffee maker again, and leaning against the counter with her hands behind her, gripping the granite surface. Audrey knew that pose- nervous, defensive, but she was pretty sure Paula really didn’t know.

“Have you talked to anyone else, today? After about eleven thirty? Anyone other than me?” Audrey asked, keeping her tone gentle.

“...My mother called from Pensacola, we talked for about an hour, around one,” Paula replied, and Audrey shook her head.

“Anyone in Haven, I mean,” she corrected.

“...No, I haven’t. But that’s- that’s not really that unusual, I don’t... I don’t get out much, and-” Paula’s expression flickered, a shadow of hurt and anger that she hid under an awkward smile. “I don’t get out much,” she repeated.

“Has something happened, recently, that upset you?” Audrey asked, putting sympathy that she didn’t quite feel into her voice. Paula turned back to the coffee maker, shoulders going tense, and she fussed with her mug for a minute before she crossed over and sat down at the table across from Audrey.

“I recently- what does this have to do with anything?” Paula asked, and Audrey dragged in a breath and took another sip of coffee.

“When people who are Troubled get upset, or- are dealing with a lot of emotions, it can trigger their affliction,” Audrey explained gently.

“But I’m not,” Paula said, shaking her head. “My grandmother told stories, that’s all- I- the Troubles aren’t real.”

“I’m afraid that they are,” Audrey said, keeping her voice soft. “The Troubles are very real.”

“And you think I’m- but why? What’s happening? I haven’t even left my house today, what could I possibly have done?” Paula demanded, and Duke’s ears flicked forward at her tone, Nathan’s head lifting off of Audrey’s foot.

“Miss Reese-”

“Paula, please-”

“Paula...” Audrey forced a tired smile. “This is going to sound a little- impossible, I know that, but please, bear with me, because I have had a very difficult day, and I promise you, I am telling you the truth. At sometime between eleven-thirty and twelve today, everyone in town... They changed. And since you didn’t, I’m pretty sure it’s your Trouble that caused it.”

“Changed how?” Paula asked, and Audrey gestured at Nathan and Duke at her feet.

“They’re dogs,” she said, and Paula blinked at her. “Everybody, everyone in town, appears to have turned into a dog. Except you.”

“And you,” Paula pointed out, her voice rising anxiously. “If- if you’re telling the truth-”

“I have an- an immunity, to the Troubles. They don’t affect me. It- it helps me, to help people who are Troubled. I told you on the phone, it’s my job to deal with some of the more... unusual things that happen in Haven. So please. Please just- can you tell me what was happening, here, between eleven-thirty and twelve?”

“...Nothing,” Paula said, and it sounded earnest, not defensive. “I wasn’t- I slept in. I hadn’t slept well, so I stayed in bed late. I wasn’t-”

“Why didn’t you sleep well?” Audrey asked, and Paula blinked, her lips pursing.

“I- you, you’re sure this is my fault?” Paula asked, and Audrey considered, and took another sip of her coffee.

“Not entirely, but usually- if one person is left unaffected, they’re almost always the source, in something like this. And I’ve spent the last three hours making phone calls and moving around town, and... There’s nobody else left, Paula. Everybody else is like them.” She motioned again, and Duke lifted his nose to try and reach her hand. She pulled back, and he sighed and dropped his chin onto his paws.

“You’re telling me these dogs, these dogs right here, they’re actually people?” Paula asked, and Audrey nodded.

“Yes. My partner, Nathan- Nathan Wuornos, the chief of police?- and Duke Crocker, he owns the Grey Gull, out past Twin Pines Overlook,” Audrey said, and Paula’s expression went baffled.

“How do you know?” she asked, and Audrey hesitated.

“I- it’s a little hard to explain, but... Almost everyone else, I can’t really tell. But Nathan and Duke, they’re- they’re my friends, they’re- very important to me. I spend a lot of time with them, I know them. And I could... tell. I think. I hope. If I’m wrong, tomorrow is going to be a very awkward day at the office.” She managed a wry smile, and Paula smiled back reluctantly. “And they’ve stuck with me all day, today, even when they clearly weren’t happy about it. So I’m... I’m pretty sure.”

“And- that one, I’m sorry, is that-”

“Duke.”

“You said he got into a fight?” Paula asked, and Audrey nodded, trying to keep her anger out of her voice.

“Yeah. With Vince, from the newspaper. I think. It- it’s been a very difficult day, and it seems like... I don’t know how much they remember, about who they are, or how much they understand, but they do seem to recognize certain people, and they definitely know when they run into someone they aren’t happy to see. And- they’ve been pretty good, most of the day, but... That’s why I asked if you could put your dog outside, I wasn’t- entirely sure how they might respond. I don’t know how they’d react to a dog who’s actually a dog.”

“Buster’s pretty good with other dogs,” Paula said, but her expression had gone thoughtful and distant. “But yes, it’s- probably better not to test it. And this is everyone in town?”

“Everyone,” Audrey confirmed, and Paula blushed.

“This morning... Buster hopped up on the bed to check on me. I don’t usually sleep in so late, and he was worried. He’s such a sweet boy. And I was talking to him. I- the reason I wasn’t... sleeping well. I broke up with my boyfriend, last week, I found out- he’d been cheating on me. For months. I- I was devastated, I threw him out, but it’s- it’s been so lonely, and I just. Haven’t been feeling... I’m not sleeping well. And Buster, he knows he’s not allowed on the bed, but he knew I was upset, and so he came up anyway, and he laid down, just like that-” she gestured at Duke, who looked up curiously, “right next to me. And I thought... I thought wouldn’t it be nice, wouldn’t it be better, if people were like dogs. If they were loyal, if they were good. If they were kind.” Paula smiled awkwardly, brushing at a tear that had started down her cheek. “I thought, wouldn’t it be so much better if everyone were like that. If everybody-” She broke off, shaking her head. “It was just- an idle thought.”

“Not so idle,” Audrey said, “And I- I really need you to help me figure out how to fix it.”

“I don’t know how,” Paula protested. “I didn’t even know that I’d done it! I didn’t think it was possible!”

“Maybe- it was an idle thought, but you believed it, didn’t you?” Audrey asked, trying to follow the thought, trying to feel it out. “You believed... it would be better.”

“...Yes,” Paula said, frowning. “Dogs aren’t mean, dogs don’t betray each other, they don’t use each other, they aren’t- they aren’t cruel and greedy and- and they don’t hurt each other for-”

“I- I’m sorry,” Audrey interrupted, shaking her head, and feeling a twist of bitter amusement, “But I’ve seen two unprovoked attacks in the last three hours, I- dogs are dogs. They aren’t people, sure, they don’t do things for the same reason that people do, but... They can still hurt each other. There are probably dogs- people- out there right now, fighting over whatever it is they’ve managed to find and claim. Because I don’t know if you know this, but the population of Haven is a little more than twenty thousand people, and- there’s a lot of people out on the street, right now, confused and trying to make sense of things. And they’re going to start hurting each other, because they’re going to be hungry and thirsty and cold, once the sun goes down.”

“Oh,” Paula said quietly, her expression falling. “I don’t- I don’t want anyone to get hurt, I never meant to do this, I didn’t-”

“I know you didn’t,” Audrey assured. “And no one is blaming you, that’s not- Troubles happen, and it’s not anybody’s fault, we just. Have to deal with them, once we know about them, and then we have to try and learn to keep them in check. So you believed it would be better, if people were dogs. But that’s not true, you have to know that. Because you’re thinking about it now, right, and you know- you know I have a point. There are puppies, Paula. Little kids, who are probably scared- I brought four of them to the station, earlier, because they were lost, they got separated from their families, but I don’t know where they belong, I don’t know who to bring them back to. It’s not better for them. It’s not better for their parents. It’s not better for any of the people who got stuck in their cars, or who are trapped in their houses, or are locked out on the street. It’s not better for me. Cute as these guys are-” she forced a smile, and motioned, “I really kinda want them back, you know? And it’s not better for them- Duke got hurt today, because he was- because he trusted me, and followed me, and I couldn’t protect him. Nathan could’ve gotten hurt, too. And they wouldn’t even have really had the choice not to, because they can’t make those kinds of choices like this.”

“I just-” Paula started, but she broke off, chewing on her lower lip.

“It’s not really better for you, either, is it?” Audrey asked gently. “You don’t want to hurt anyone- you don’t want to be responsible for people getting hurt, or kids getting lost. And whatever your ex did to you... However awful he is, do you really think he’d be different, as a dog? Because I’m betting he’s still probably kind of a jerk, he’s just got sharper teeth and nobody to hold him accountable, now.”

Paula visibly shuddered, at that, and Audrey reached out, covering one of Paula’s hands with her own.

“And let me tell you, it’s not nearly as satisfying to smack somebody on the nose with a newspaper when you know they don’t really understand what they did wrong.”

That won a startled laugh, and Paula gave her a curious look.

“You didn’t really,” she said, and Audrey cracked a sharp smile.

“I really did. It was the first thing that came to hand, like I said, they got into a fight at the newspaper.”

Paula laughed again, and Audrey felt her roll her fingers against the table.

“I know- I know it probably felt really good, knowing Buster cared about you, knowing he didn’t care what was going on, he just wanted you to feel better. And that’s- I mean, dogs are pretty amazing, I can’t argue with that. But people are pretty worthwhile, too, when you find the right ones. And I know- I know how much it sucks, when you think you have, and it doesn’t- it doesn’t work out. But you can’t give up on people, and really, dogs need people, just as much as we need them. And right now, there’s too many dogs with no people, and that’s not going to end well for anyone.”

“...I guess that’s... probably true,” Paula said, tapping her fingers again. “They probably don’t like being all alone, do they?”

“From what I’ve seen today? They really don’t,” Audrey said, and Paula nodded.

Something in the air shifted, like pressure releasing, and Audrey realized a second too late that she should probably have encouraged Nathan to sit somewhere other than under the table.

Paula made a startled noise, eyes going huge and round, and pushed back from the table.

“It- you were right,” she said, sounding like she hadn’t quite believed it, and Audrey smiled tightly.

“Like I said, kinda my job,” she said. “Nathan, just- hold still, you’ll smack your head. Duke, a little space, maybe?”

“...Yeah,” Duke replied, looking just as wide-eyed as Paula, and he stood up carefully and backed up. “Audrey? Explanations?”

“Give me a second,” Audrey instructed, scooting her chair back. She ducked down, and Nathan looked out at her with an expression of pure perplexion. “Hey, you back with me?”

“...Think so,” Nathan gruffed out, and she reached out, offering him her hand.

It hurt more than she wanted to admit, when he shied away from it, clambering out from under the table unassisted. He managed to smack his head in the process, and she bit back the sharp words that rose up, drawing her hand back and curling it at her side.

“Paula, can you excuse us for a second? I’m gonna give you a number for somebody, I think she’d be a really- a really good person for you to talk to, I just- I should get them back out to the car.”

“I- sure,” Paula said, nodding, “just- do you, maybe, want to borrow a shirt?” The comment was directed over Audrey’s head, at where Duke had backed himself up against the counter. “And- maybe a first aid kit?”

***

Even declining Paula’s offer of assistance, it still took a few minutes before Audrey was able to get back out to her car- she more or less pushed the boys off down the hall toward the front door, and spent a few minutes reassuring Paula and making sure she was calm. Then she gave her Claire’s number, and made her own escape.

Nathan and Duke were standing by the rear of her car, with the trunk popped open. Nathan had the first aid kit out, and seemed to be doing his level best to clean out Duke’s bites without actually looking at him. Duke was looking just as awkward, standing stiffly and bracing his hands on the edge of the trunk like he didn’t trust himself without something to hang on to.

“Seriously, are you guys okay?” she asked, heading over, and Nathan flushed red and looked away from her. Duke turned a slightly less visible shade of pink, and shrugged, which turned into a wince.

“Mostly,” Duke said, and she didn’t want to look too closely at how much of a relief it was to hear his voice. “Be fine with a couple of band-aids.”

“Should see a doctor,” Nathan gritted out, visibly reluctant. “Might need stitches, definitely need antibiotics.”

“I’ll be fine,” Duke insisted, and Audrey shook her head.

“Nathan’s right, you really should get this checked out. Bite wounds get infected, you really don’t want to deal with that.”

“They aren’t actually dog bites,” Duke said, before he shook his head. “And you know what, I really don’t want to think about that.”

“You want to tell me where you came up with puppies?” Audrey asked, and Duke’s blush turned more visible. “Or is that also something you don’t want to think about?”

“...The first one- seriously, ouch, is that necessary?” Duke broke off, pulling away from Nathan’s careful doctoring, and Nathan glowered and dragged him back into place. “I- I heard her. Someone was- there was another dog. He was... hurting her, or scaring her, I- I heard her crying. I chased him off, and- brought her home?” He blinked, looking unsure, and a trace of chagrin slipped into his expression. “She was lost. I didn’t want to leave her.”

“And the rest of them?”

“...Once I was up on deck, I could see them moving around. I- it seemed like a good idea at the time?” he tried, hissing out another complaint as Nathan taped a gauze pad into place.

“So I’m guessing you have no idea who they belong to?” Audrey pressed, and Duke shrugged.

“Not a clue. They were alone when I found them, that’s why I- they were alone when I found them.”

“Well, at least you made sure they were safe,” Audrey yielded, softening her tone. “That was good of you. And hopefully, they’ll be able to tell someone at the station who their parents are.”

“Yeah,” Duke said, shifting uncomfortably. “Hey, do you mind-” he gestured at the spare jackets Audrey kept in her trunk, and she shook her head.

“Go ahead.” Duke pulled the larger one out, and shrugged into it, wincing as he moved his shoulder. “At least you were wearing pants,” Audrey pointed out, and Duke shot her a dirty look.

“Whole thing’s bad enough,” Nathan complained, “have to bring that up?”

“Fine, fine, did you check his leg?” Audrey asked, and Duke huffed.

“I’m right here,” Duke said, and Nathan nodded.

“‘Fore you got out here,” he said. “Not as bad as the shoulder.”

“Good, that’s- that’s good. What about your face?” Audrey asked, turning her attention to Duke, and Duke looked away.

“I’ll clean it up myself, just drop me off at the Rouge and- oh, oh damn, where’s my phone-” Duke checked his pockets, and frowned. “Okay, kept the clothes, lost what was in the pockets. Sure, fine. Just- just drop be off at the Rouge, I have to call the Gull, I-”

He stopped, eyes narrowing, and turned a suspicious glare on Audrey.

“You went through my things,” he said, and Audrey shrugged.

“Chasing down a lead. I told you you could yell at me later.”

“Yeah I only understood bits and pieces of what you were saying. Mostly things like stay,” he said. “Not the point. ...You went into the kitchen?”

“Yeah. You trashed it, you’re remembering that right,” Audrey said, and Duke gave a pained-sounding whine that was eerily close to the noises he’d made before. “Sorry. How did you even get into the upper cupboards?”

“I climbed,” Duke said, bringing his hand up and pressing his fingers into his temples. “I am really ready to go home now.”

“Yeah. Let’s- get you home,” Audrey agreed. She and Nathan, unfortunately, still had work to do. “We’ll drop you off on the way back to the station.”

“Harbor isn’t on the way to the station,” Nathan pointed out, packing up the first aid kit and putting it away, and closing the trunk with more force than was necessary. “Need to get back.”

“I think we can afford the five minutes-” Audrey started, and Duke sighed and shook his head.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “He’s right, you two need to get back. I can walk from the station.” He hesitated, and added, “Don’t mind sticking around a couple minutes, if you need help with the pup- with the kids.”

“...Yeah, okay,” Audrey said, because she wasn’t sure how else to respond. She hadn’t expected that he’d still be worried about them; she probably should have. “Think you guys can handle getting in the car, or do I need to open the doors for you?”

Nathan shot her a glare, and stalked around the car to get in the front seat. Duke watched him go, and waited for the door to close before he sighed and fixed Audrey with a rueful look.

“He’s gonna be a dick about this for weeks, isn’t he?” he asked, and Audrey shrugged.

“He’s just going to have to get over it,” she said. “You were- you seemed pretty happy to see us,” she added, the words slipping out before she could stop them. Duke tilted his head, and gave her a quizzical look. He smiled, and it was a faint and bitter thing, not gentled at all by the cut across his nose.

“Yeah, well. You two, you’re- pack,” he said. “Guess that doesn’t change.”

“He seemed pretty happy to see you, too,” Audrey said, the words soft. Duke flinched, and put on a different smile, too bright and too sure.

“Guess he liked me better as a dog. And really, who wouldn’t, I think I pulled it off well.”

Audrey let herself laugh, more relief than amusement, and shook her head.

“Yeah, you were pretty cute,” she said. “Wait ‘til you see the pictures.”

“...Wait,” Duke said, and Audrey grinned and headed for her door. “What pictures?”

----

For those curious, the breakdown of characters and breeds appearing in this story are as follows:

Nathan - Border Collie

Duke - German Shepherd

Claire -Papillon

Laverne -Keeshond

Vince -Bloodhound

Dave - Norfolk Terrier

Rafferty - Brittany Spaniel

Stan - Golden Retriever

Background Cops -Weimaraner,Mastiff

Thing One & Thing Two - Malamute Puppies

Unnamed Puppies -Golden Retriever, Unknown Mix