Clay has a handful of life philosophies that he’s gained though years of extremely hard-won experience.
Sleep when you can. Keep track of where you stash your boots and dog tags, because they don’t come with you. Trust the people who earn your trust. When in doubt, and in the absence of a proper machine gun, go for a sidearm with more than ten rounds in the magazine and minimum .38 calibre for decent stopping power.
If still in doubt, shift out and go for the jugular.
Franklin Clay was born on January 16th, 1964, the coldest night of the winter so far. His mother, Norah Clay, was eighteen and scared and alone when she denned herself up in a broken-down hunter’s cabin in the Manistee National Forest, right on the shore of Lake Michigan. Clay was the only pup in the litter.
His mother told him, later, that things would have been different if he'd had brothers or sisters. That they’d have been family, pack, loyal to the blood until they died. Clay’s not sure about that, though. He can’t really trust any memories of his mother.
Clay took his first steps as a wolf, trotting along through the melting snow that April, carefully following in his mother’s tracks. In his other body, he wasn’t even crawling yet.
They were a pack of two, for years. Clay never knew any other wolves. As a kid, he knew there had to be others, because he must have had a father. His mother must have had parents. Really, though, this belief had been a lot more instinctive, that they couldn’t be alone. There had to be others, more packmates out there. When he’d asked, his mother had always just shaken her head. “It’s a secret, baby, remember? We can’t talk about it.” She had good days, sometimes, but they got more and more distant until the last thing he remembers of her is the week where she didn’t talk, didn’t smile, only acknowledged him vaguely, like he was something far away that couldn’t touch her at all.
He doesn’t remember that part very well.
Norah Clay just disappeared when he was eight years old. He came home from school one afternoon in October, a permission slip for her to sign because they were living in Ormond Beach then, just outside the Ocala National Forest park, and his class was going to Cape Canaveral next week, and she was gone. Just gone.
He doesn't think about her much anymore. Sometimes, though, he thinks about trying to track her. He probably could. Almost forty years later, he can still remember her scent.
Franklin Clay went into the system when he was eight years old. No one knew his secret. When he came out, he was seventeen and he joined the Army, because he was a wolf without a pack and he had nowhere else to go.
Clay knows that the army doesn’t know about werewolves because if they did, he’d be dead and cold and pinned open on an autopsy table in some government lab.
That hasn’t happened yet. He aims to keep it that way.
Clay meets Roque when he’s twenty-four and Roque is twenty. Clay’s a first lieutenant on his third Black Ops mission, Roque’s team missed the rendezvous, and they’re both bleeding out.
The Wolf of East Berlin is probably mostly apocryphal, owing more to stray dogs and industrial-strength Soviet homebrew than any basis in reality. Clay’s pretty sure, as he’s only been here twice, that it doesn’t refer to him.
Clay’s also been shot, so it’s possible he’s not thinking entirely clearly.
The wolf is shifting desperately under his skin, and Clay’s struggling grimly towards a pitch-black alley, the bullet grinding above his kidney and fresh blood pulsing down his back with every step. It’s possible he’s going to die.
And then someone grabs him under the arms and hauls him sideways, cursing, and Clay bites down on a snarl. “Fuck,” says the guy behind him, and over the stink of his own blood, Clay can smell him. American. Clay can smell an American a mile away. There weren’t supposed to be any other teams in the area, but Clay knows damn well they don’t tell him everything. The guy grips Clay more firmly under the arms, and says, “Come on, stand up. Get up.”
And something in his tone somehow brings Clay to his feet, and they manage to stagger another dozen steps or so before the guy stiffens abruptly. There’s the sudden stink of cordite and blood, and goddamn it there’s a sniper.
Clay manages to haul them sideways into the dubious cover of an alleyway, and now they’re both down on the frozen ground, bleeding out on the wrong side of the wall. Clay’s night vision is pretty good, and he can see the other man staring at him, half his face masked with caked blood from an earlier injury, his one good eye black with pain. He’s got a bullet through his spine, perforating his aorta or maybe his right lung, because blood’s bubbling up between his lips. He’s going to die.
“Get out,” the guy coughs, “Go, run.” Clay stares at him for a moment, in woozy, blood-loss shock, because the guy should have left Clay and made a dash the last 500 yards to the pickup point instead. He was home free and now he’s going to die. Then the guy grabs his jacket collar with a surprisingly strong grip for a man who’s mostly dead. “Get out,” he snarls. “Don’t wait, just go, for fuck’s sake—” and his voice breaks a little at the end, and he suddenly sounds his age, just a scared kid bleeding out on the cold ground of another country. Clay’s not consciously aware of the decision, but his teeth are suddenly closing around the curve of kid’s bare throat, a sudden hard bite, the bright taste of blood in his mouth. The guy makes a sound that would be a howl of pain if he only had the breath for it.
The kid stares up at him, one good eye blinking, and his expression’s a curious mix of fear and betrayal, anger overlaid like a thin veneer. Then he passes out. Clay gets him over his shoulder, slowly, agonizingly, and starts running, although it’s more of a controlled forward stagger, with pain grinding every step. The sniper’s either packed it in, or gotten bored or sloppy, because no more shots come their way. Maybe they’re just lucky.
Clay’s not bleeding anymore, an hour later when he shoves the kid into the medic’s arms. He can feel the bullet rubbing under his skin, but it’s an irritation, that’s all, and he’s resolutely not thinking about this right now. He lies through his teeth, and says it’s the kid’s blood. His superior hustles him onto the chopper a few minutes later, and he stares, wide-eyed, out the window to where dawn’s sullenly refusing to break. The smell of the kid’s blood is in his nose, now. He’s mostly numb, though. He wonders what the hell he’s done.
A few weeks later, Clay’s back in Germany, on-base on the American side of the checkpoint. It’s oh-dark-hundred, and Clay’s lying in his bunk, not sleeping, trying to decide whether to risk a run, when the door creaks open, and someone slides into the room.
Clay’s been able to smell another wolf since he landed at the base. It wasn’t hard to figure out who it might be. After all, the bleeding had almost stopped, an hour later, when Clay dumped the kid in the medic’s arms. But he’s never done anything like this before. He didn’t know it was going to work.
Wolves are very, very hard to kill. Clay’s starting to figure that out.
The guy stands over him for a long moment, and Clay stays very still, eyeing him in the dark. The wolf slides under his skin, close enough to touch, but the guy doesn’t smell like a threat, not really. A whole tangle of emotions, but not a threat, and then, abruptly, the guy curls down on the bunk next to Clay. “Second Lieutenant Will Roque,” the kid introduces himself, and his eyes flash when Clay turns to meet his gaze. “And I damn well remember you, Lieutenant Clay.”
One eye looks raw, but from the way he moves, Clay can tell that the sucking chest wound never took. He looks at the ceiling because it’s easier than looking the kid— Roque, Roque—in the eye. Roque says, quietly, “Why did you do it?”
Clay doesn’t know what to say. Two weeks later, and he’s still damned if he knew why he did it. “You tried to help me. Didn’t want you to die,” he says, because that’s the most reasonable answer, even though it’s only a fraction of the truth. He’s seen men die before. It’s part of the life, but it’s never grabbed him in the same visceral gut-twisting way as when he saw Roque on the ground. He still doesn’t know why he did it, not for sure, but that’s a shit answer for a man whose life he’s just turned upside-down and backwards. “I’m sorry,” he says, and it’s ridiculous, too little, too late, but it’s all he can offer the kid. “I guess you’re pretty goddamn pissed at me.”
In the darkness, Roque snorts. “I wake up with Cujo in my head and no bullet in my heart, we’ll call that a fair trade, okay?” And then he rolls over, and buries his face in the curve of Clay’s shoulder and inhales.
It’s not sexual at all, but it’s the still the most intimate thing Clay’s ever felt, and he shivers, takes a deep breath. Roque lifts his head, and one corner of his mouth lifts up in a lopsided smirk. “Mostly,” he rumbles, “I get the feeling you were supposed to be there when I woke up.”
With the wolf, things are easy. Blood is blood, but pack is pack, wherever you find it. And Clay takes another deep breath, and Roque’s scent triggers something elemental in his brain. He’d recognize it anywhere, now, across a thousand miles and through a million people. And maybe there’s something else he can give the kid, after all, so Clay says, “I won’t leave you again.” And that’s the absolute truth.
Roque laughs, a quiet whuff of air. His body is a warm, reassuring mass where he’s curled next to Clay on the bunk. “Yeah,” he says. “I know you won’t.”
Clay hasn’t had a pack since the day his mother left, but now there’s Roque.
The first time he changes in front of Roque, it’s the first time anyone’s ever seen him do it. Seen it and lived, that is. There’s a handful of enemies who’ve seen him change, and spent the rest of their short lives staring up at nothing.
Roque’s not afraid. He stares down at Clay, a riot of confused smells, fearaweexcitement blooming through the air around him. Then he crouches, so they’re eye to eye.
“Show me how,” is all he says.
Roque’s wolf form is massive, not quite as tall as Clay at the shoulder but broader across the chest. His fur is inky black, tipped with silver, which contrasts well to Clay’s blue-gray bulk. His canines glint like shell casings in the moonlight. They move like shadows through the darkness, leaping over fences, padding soundlessly around the sentries on huge silent paws.
As it turns out, Roque is very, very good at being a wolf. He’s quick and he’s quiet, and he shifts between shapes like he’s been doing it his whole life. The first time they run together, Roque holds form for more than an hour before he has to turn back. They’re miles outside the city, up in the hills with the lights spread out like a glowing electric sprawl below them, and Roque grabs the ruff of fur on Clay’s neck and shakes him, mouth twitching up into a half-grin. It's the first time he's seen Roque smile.
“This is okay,” says Roque.
The next day, Clay starts calling in every favour he’s owed, and a few he’s not. A few weeks later, and they’re running missions together.
They can’t play cards with each other because it’s too easy to smell a bluff. Besides, Roque is the cheatingest motherfucker Clay’s ever met.
They’re very good at their jobs.
Wolves are hard to kill. Since Berlin, Clay’s pretty much left the assessment at that point for years and years, mostly because he’s not dead yet. He should be. He doesn’t really think about it, most of the time.
He takes another bullet, later, right in the head. Just a lucky fucking shot, but maybe not for the shooter, because Clay wakes up three hours later with a splitting headache and eight Armenian sex traffickers dead on the ground with critical bits of their anatomy missing. He doesn’t actually remember what happened.
A Mexican cartel thug lights Roque on fire with an acetylene welding torch. That just makes him angrier.
Clay meets Cougar when he’s thirty-five and Cougar is twenty-three. Clay figures Cougar’s the worst trauma case he’s ever seen.
“Psych eval’s cleared him,” General Grier tells him. They’re in Grier’s office, and the General’s got the window open so no one can tell he’s smoking. The smell makes the inside of Clay’s nose itch. Grier snorts. “But you know what that’s worth.”
Corporal Carlos Alvarez’s team was on loan to the Company during one of those lovely clusterfucks that so characterized Nicaraguan missions that year. Clay’s read the file. A civilian rescue op that should never have been approved, not with the situation on the ground, but one of the engineers had been a Congressman’s daughter, so in went Captain Garrett Lim and his eight-man team, with Carlos Alvarez providing long-range tactical support.
“It was a combination of bad intel, a bad situation and plain old-fashioned shit rotten luck,” says Grier. “The civilians were dead before Lim and his men had boots on the ground. It was an ambush, the team got pinned down and wiped out. The only one who walked away was Alvarez, and only because he was up on the high ground, providing support. He says he saw the hostiles, tried to radio it in but they were jamming the signals.” Grier shrugs. “For what it’s worth, I think he’s telling the truth.”
Corporal Carlos Alvarez took out five of the hostiles before they pinpointed his position and started firing grenades. Alvarez hiked a hundred and fourteen klicks through the Nicaraguan jungle with shrapnel in his spine, trench foot rotting his boots and a dead headset in his ear before he crossed the border into Costa Rica.
“The truth is, he’s probably useless to Spec Ops now,” says Grier. “But he had a lot of potential. I was the one who pulled his file, you know. I hate to see that go to waste.” Grier looks at Clay, the lines around his eyes looking deeper than ever these days. He’s getting old. “I know you and Roque are a team, and I respect that, believe me, because you’re exceptionally good at your jobs, Major. I just want to see if we can salvage Alvarez. It’s not long-term, I promise.”
It’s not an order, but Grier was the one who finally assigned him Roque, back in the day, so he nods. “Yes, sir.”
Grier relaxes a little. “Good,” he says, like he didn’t want to make it an order. He snorts. “Between you and me, Major, what Alvarez needs is a team that won’t die on him, and thus far, you and Lieutenant Roque are the closest we’ve got.”
Alvarez is a tightly coiled mass of sheer traumatic damage, hair clipped close to his skull and eyes dark holes full of nothing. It makes Clay’s jaw ache to be around him. He makes Roque twitch. “This is a very bad idea,” says Roque, their first night in the field. Alvarez is sleeping, but not quietly. Roque’s gaze flickers across his trembling form, wrapped around his rifle like he thinks someone might take it from him in his sleep. He shakes his head. “Poor fucker needs a psych ward, not a tour of fucking duty with you and me. And what do we do about this—“ Roque flashes his teeth, just an edge of canine showing. “—no real handy explanation for that, you know.”
“It’s not permanent,” says Clay, watching Alvarez’s fingers twitch like they’re looking for a trigger. “And we’ll be careful,” he says. “Subtle. We could use the practice anyway.”
Roque snorts. “Yeah, careful and subtle. That’s us, all right.”
Careful and subtle works for a grand total of eleven weeks, but Clay thinks they could have gone on a lot longer if it hadn’t been for goddamn Honduras. Because Clay had known from the start, from the moment orders were passed down, that it was a bad fucking mission in the first place. Because now on top of bad intel, bad terrain and bad day period, he’s about to get shot. Again.
So he growls, quietly, under his breath, hoping they’ll just shoot him and move on, that Roque’s setting the charges, hoping he’ll wake up fast enough to track these assholes and fucking praying that Alvarez will sit tight and not give up his position.
Then there’s flat crack of a rifle, too close, and Clay says, “Motherfucker,” too loudly, as the guy holding the gun to his head drops like deadweight, half his head blown away. So much for that pipe dream.
There’s yelling, and suddenly every man in the compound has an AK and they’re spraying burst fire all over the place. Clay thinks, briefly, Alvarez might have been able to clear the area, but he gives up on that hope pretty quickly. Alvarez might run, but he wouldn’t leave his rifle. Out of the corner of his eye, Clay sees Roque coming up fast, a low, dark, vengeful shape. Clay bares his teeth and shifts out.
It’s over in about forty seconds. The sudden absence of gunfire rings in Clay’s ears.
When they make it up to Cougar’s perch, it’s bad.
Clay grabs his hand. “I told you to hold your damn fire if you were going to give up your position, Alvarez.” The kid’s whole abdomen is perforated, his ghillie suit shredded. Clay can’t even see half the damage, but, god, he can smell it. The kid’s blood is everywhere. Alvarez shudders, and his hand clenches down tight on Clay’s fingers.
“Sorry, sir,” he says. “Wasn’t losing another team.” Worth it, he doesn’t say, but Clay can see it in his eyes before he whimpers in pain and his eyes squeeze closed tight. “Lo siento,” he says, and spits blood.
Roque exhales hard, a growl edging out of the sound. “Martyrs,” he says, “Why do I always end up running around with the goddamn martyrs?” He shakes his head, but he grabs Alvarez’s other hand, jamming a pressure dressing against his chest, like it’ll make a difference. “What the fuck did they call you back on base, anyway?” he says, “That goddamn nickname, when they weren’t calling you Corporal Carlos Alvarez? I heard, but I forgot it.”
Alvarez grits his teeth, wetness spilling over out of his eyes. “Cougar,” he bites out, and then groans, trailing off into low, breathless panting. “Cougar,” he says again.
Roque glances up at Clay, and Clay doesn’t think about it. He just nods, once, tightly. “Well,” says Roque, “I promise you you’re going to find that nickname fucking hilarious tomorrow morning.” And then he grabs Alvarez—Cougar’s—wrist and his teeth close down hard. Alvarez blacks out, no fuss, just like someone’s hit a switch in his brain. But he’s still not dead, and that’s something.
Clay picks up his limp arm, and says, “I’m sorry, Corporal, but if you live through this, you can kill us tomorrow,” and bites him a second time. Double dose. It might help. Clay’s only done this once before, after all.
He drops Cougar’s arm, and his hand thumps heavy against the blood-soaked ground. The compound picks that moment to blow, very dramatically. They’re far enough away that the shockwave feels like a hot strong breeze, and small, burning debris starts raining down around them.
Clay stares down at the ground, only partly to shield his eyes from the burning particulate. “What the fuck did we just do?” he asks, mostly rhetorically. Roque shrugs.
“Wasn’t letting that poor miserable bastard die for me,” he says. He huffs a breath, and stares back towards the buildings, where flames have started sheeting upwards, towards the heart of the compound. “Paying it forward, I guess.”
So he and Roque sit in the light of the burning compound for hours while Cougar writhes on the ground between them. An hour or two after dawn, Cougar sits up, yelling something particularly uncomplimentary in Spanish. He stares at Clay. “Not dead yet?” His eyes are narrowed, and there’s already the gleam of something predatory there. Cougar shivers hard. “What’s happening?”
Clay drops a hand on his shoulder, and maybe he didn’t mean for things to turn out this way, but he told himself he’d look out for this poor, fucked-up kid. He’s probably not made it any worse, after all. “Take a deep breath,” he advises. “It gets better.”
Cougar grabs his hand, brutally tight, and doesn’t let go.
Cougar is a sleek, wiry wolf, his dappled, charcoal-grey pelt blending into the shadows so well that a half-dozen Columbian drug traffickers once ran right past where he was crouching and didn’t live long enough to regret it.
He’s modified the case for his big SR-25. The new canvas sling looks a little awkward, but it rides comfortably along the line of his back when he shifts out. Clay appreciates this kind of initiative.
He can’t handle a rifle in wolf form, but you can’t have everything.
Clay meets Pooch when he’s thirty-eight and just promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. It’s almost certainly his last promotion, but Clay doesn’t particularly care. There are things more important than playing the game and kissing the right asses, after all.
They’re at Hanscom AFB in Massachusetts, and Roque is currently cleaning out a quartet of raw-boned flyboys. They’re almost certainly out of cash, because someone’s aviator shades are on the table, and so is someone’s decidedly non-regulation butterfly knife. Cougar’s got his feet up on the bench, his hat pulled low, but Clay can see a smile tugging at his mouth. One of the pilots throws down his cards in disgust and Roque grins, his canines looking decidedly sharper than they should. “Shit, son, they don’t teach you to count cards in the Air Force?”
The kid starts sputtering, and Clay rolls his eyes. He’s been watching from the doorway and as much fun as watching Roque is—there’s a metaphor about a certain member of the canine genus in sheep’s clothing that his brain refuses to make—they’ve got a mission debrief in ten minutes, so they’ve really got to go.
Then Roque stiffens, his head coming up quick, and almost the same instant, Cougar snaps up off the bench like someone just jolted him with ten thousand volts. Clay has half a second to think he’s never seen either of them come to attention that fast, ever, when the scent hits him.
“Sir?” says the pilot, tentatively, because Clay’s staring out the commissary window like there’s an airstrike coming down. Roque snaps back, suddenly, drops his cards and grabs the cash and the knife. “I’m out, boys,” he says. Clay nods at him, tightly, and then he’s out the door, Roque and Cougar flanking him.
The pilot drops the UH-72A Lakota straight down the last ten feet, jarring the two-star General and his staff hard enough that one of the aides thumps the partition angrily. The general and staff disembark, ducking low under the rotors while the crowd of waiting base officers cluster around him. By the time the chopper shuts down, there’s nobody left on the airfield except Clay, Roque and Cougar.
The pilot jumps out, and the rotors slowly stop spinning, the air currents settling enough for him to draw in a deep breath. He tosses his headset on the seat behind him. He doesn’t take his eyes off Clay. “Sergeant Linwood Porteous, sir,” he says, and he doesn’t smile so much as show his teeth. “Is there a problem?” His tone says, are you going to make a problem? His posture is edging into defensive, three strange wolves in his territory, blocking his easy route to the hangar. He’s not backing down. Clay likes him already.
Roque stares him down. Without looking at Clay, he says, “If we’d had a pilot, we wouldn’t have had to hike a hundred klicks through the Kalahari desert last month.”
Porteous doesn’t back up. His voice even, he says, “You get some bad dust storms in the Kalahari, unpredictable thermal updrafts too, especially in the early mornings when that sun hits the cliffs. Not just any pilot can fly those.”
“How about you, Sergeant?” asks Clay, letting a bit of a smile creep into his voice.
Porteous rolls his shoulders back, already settling down into a more relaxed posture. He’s figured out they’re not a threat, and he even grins a little. “Sir, I’m the best damn pilot stuck playing air cabbie that you’re ever gonna find.” He sniffs, then tilts his head. “What unit, sir?”
“Colonel Clay,” he says, and the new rank still feels strange. Porteous raises an eyebrow, and his mouth starts shaping a word that he doesn’t say—losers. Clay’s only heard that one a few hundred times before. It doesn’t particularly bother him.
“I’ve heard of you, sir,” he says instead. Pooch ducks under the rotor and moves closer, drops his voice confidentially. “I didn’t know about the whole—” he bares his teeth, just enough to show a flash of canine, “—thing, though. Although, come to think of it, sir, with your team’s record, this makes a whole hell of a lot of sense.” Then he grins, wide and open. “Sorry about the cold shoulder, sir. It’s just I never met any, outside my in-laws.”
It turns out Porteous—It’s Pooch, sir, and yeah, I know, the name predates the irony, believe me,—wasn’t born but bit. His wife’s family are pack down in Louisiana—proper loup-garou pack, sir, I just married in,— and he was straight-up human until two years ago.
Later, Pooch says, “She told me she’d been lying to me, and I told her, I said, Jolene, there isn’t anything you could say that would make me leave. I wasn’t lying.” He’s sitting next to Clay on the back step of their little off-base house, a beer cradled between his hands. He looks Clay in the eye. “I love her, sir. What else was I going to do?” He grins, suddenly. “Gets a little twitchy in the cockpit sometimes, but I’m not sorry I did it. God, I never felt anything like it.”
“Roque’s right,” Clay says, “We could use a pilot. You up for a change of scenery?” Because Clay might not know this Jolene, but he can see where she’s coming from—when life hands you a reliable man, you don’t let him walk away.
Pooch narrows his eyes. “As much fun as ferrying around the brasshats has been, I can’t say I’m not interested in a new set of orders.” He smiles. “After I check in with the wife, that is.”
The next day, there’s a message at the house. “Jolene says you can have me as long as you promise to bring me back in one piece, sir.”
Pooch as a wolf is shaggy and slate-grey, with mild, dark eyes. He looks like a large, even-tempered animal.
This is a trap.
When Roque makes captain, he and Clay get very drunk and spend three days on the Yukon-Alaska border, just the two of them, running through the dripping, snow-filled spruce forest. Roque brings down a bull moose. Clay’s not sure whether it’s horrifying or hilarious.
Fighting off the six hundred pound grizzly that comes to scavenge off the kill, however, definitely falls in the never again category.
Three days later, they stagger back out of the woods, out on the road where the truck is parked, undisturbed except for a fine dusting of snow. Clay is pulling on his boots, and his brain must still be transitioning after three days in wolf form, which is always a handy excuse. “Did you ever think this was how your life would turn out?”
Roque runs his fingers over the new captain’s rank insignia on his jacket, and says, “You mean, stuck in a life partnership with a dumb white kid who still runs face-first into bullets, just like when he was twenty?” He raises an eyebrow, sardonically, at the fresh claw marks across Clay’s chest, already starting to close.
“Asshole,” says Clay, and pulls his shirt over his head, wincing.
Roque laughs. He leans against the truck, still barefoot, his breath steaming in the air. “Yeah, I guess it all could have turned out worse.”
There’s no getting around it. They need a tech.
Back when it was just Clay and Roque, they never ran the sort of missions where they needed one. They were more of a blunt force tactical team, and because they kept living through it, the brass decided they were good at it, and that’s what they kept doing, for years and years. But now there’s Cougar, and Pooch, and they have the manpower and the skills to run more elaborate operations, and the technical deficiency on the team’s becoming apparent.
Pooch is half-decent with the hardware, and Cougar can coordinate communications, when he’s perched up high providing cover, but what they really need is a combination comms officer and tech handler. Problem is, good techs are hard to find, and even when Clay can pull one, they tend to be high-strung and a total liability in the field. After the fucking disaster with Craig (couldn’t shoot, went to pieces under fire) in Georgia and Pfeiffer (poor performance under pressure, picked fights with Roque, ergo, obvious death wise) in Morocco, Clay gets on the horn with this month’s liaison, a prick named Carville who seems to think Clay invented this personnel problem because Clay just doesn’t have enough to do.
It takes an hour of shouting and negotiating, but Carville finally caves. "I got a friend over in Bragg might do me a favour, there’s a corporal sitting on his ass on base right now. Been on a few Spec Ops teams, tossed back and forth a few times.” Carville sighs, and thousands of miles away, Clay can picture him sitting at his desk in Langley, getting paunchy, rubbing his eyes like Clay’s desire to have competent personnel is the most unreasonable thing he’s heard this week.
The file, when Clay lays hands on, isn’t reassuring. Corporal Jacob Anthony Jensen, age twenty-three, resident of New Hampshire, stares back at him from the photo. From his file, Clay can see he’s technically proficient, well-trained and should be able to keep up. He’s had two combat tours, and a year in spec ops, bouncing from team to team. There’s also write-ups for insubordination, insubordination again, failure to convey an order in the field—and even Clay remembers hearing about that one, something about an idiot Captain in Al Basrah calling down an airstrike danger-close to his own men—insubordination, and he flips back to the first page again.
Kid’s been tossed around like a live grenade, which means no CO’s wanted to keep him long-term, which is bad news. But two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and a year’s spec-ops experience counts for something, and they need a tech.
Besides, it’s only temporary.
And then their new tech gets assigned. They’re in the Damascus safehouse, and Corporal Jacob Anthony Jensen hasn’t even unslung his duffel and kit before he’s telling Clay, loudly and at length, that their computer technology is completely antiquated. “—And really, sir, you should be kicking up holy hell that they’re sending you in the field with this kind of garbage. I swear, it’s like 1995 over here, but that’s okay.” Jensen grins, and starts unloading a second duffel, computer parts appearing at blurring speed. “I brought spares.”
So their new tech talks like there’s about to be a moratorium on words and he’s determined to get his quota in before the final date. Jensen’s rifling through the computer equipment that Pfeiffer left behind. “Crap. Crap, crap. Garbage. Jesus, this is the radio setup you guys were using? Might as well be yelling into tin cans, the frequency range on these things, you could tap in to the comm lines using a busted shortwave and three feet of copper wiring.”
Roque leans over the kid’s shoulder. “Setup’s worked okay so far,” he rumbles, and the kid doesn’t jump but it looks like he really wants to.
“Captain Roque,” he says, and he looks nervous, uncertain for maybe half a second before he suddenly grins, brightly. “Captain Roque. I heard you once cleaned out General Grier and his whole Baghdad staff in a nine-hour game of seven-card stud. Is that the truth?”
Roque closes his eyes, but the corner of his mouth pulls up just a little. “No,” he says. “It was five-card stud, and I did it in eight.”
Clay smiles from the doorway, because if Roque likes the kid, then they’re home free.
Jensen’s tinkering with the radios doubles the encryption matrix, increases their practical field range by eight kilometres and eliminates that high-pitched humming noise that usually drives Clay to murder after extended periods of exposure.
If Jensen never did another useful thing after that, Clay might still think he was worth keeping.
“You know,” says Jensen, sometime in the very immediate aftermath of their second mission in Yemen, “There’s been studies done in Canada about the effects of high-stress situations on closed mating groups of ungulates that I’ve always thought are pretty relevant to American military hierarchy.”
“Ungulates?” says Pooch, and swears when debris from the last mortar ricochets past him. Clay’s close enough to feel the heat from its passage.
“Cows,” says Clay, “and deer,” and ejects an empty clip. Behind him, Jensen’s got the targeting system half-dismantled, a pocket acetylene welder in hand. He’s looping together a handful of hair-sized wires, soldering madly.
Jensen’s face-first into the guts of the crappiest twenty-year old laser targeting system Uncle Sam can buy, and he’s still talking. “Something about the rutting season brings out aggressive behaviours in the beta males, and I had this Lieutenant who was always gunning for the CO spot, and any time we were under fire, it was just like watching deer fight when my grandpa took me hunting, with the stomping and the head butting and I’m pretty sure the exact same hormones levels.”
Roque fires a quick burst, then ducks back down behind their makeshift barricade. “Jesus Christ, Jensen, you gonna talk or are you going to fix the goddamn laser scope?”
“You know,” says Jensen, “I think I remember my last captain saying something about me talking too much too. And the one before that. Something about how they’d sell me to the Israeli special forces for ten bucks and a risotto MRE if I didn’t shut the fuck up.” Jensen cracks his knuckles. “Personally, I think they just keep passing me off because my glasses hide my pretty, pretty eyes.” Behind him, the toughbook screen flashes a green progress bar and chirps. Jensen crows. “Done, Colonel!”
As Clay calls in an airstrike against the mortar-happy assholes blocking their escape route, he sees Jensen grinning, a streak of dirt running through the sweat on his face like camo paint. Behind him, Cougar’s watching, still and unblinking.
The next morning, Clay’s at the table in the safehouse kitchen, doing paperwork. There’s a cup of coffee that he sure as hell didn’t make standing next to Jensen’s laptop. It’s still warm.
There’s a shuffling sound in the hall, and Clay watches Jensen stagger into the kitchen, tape wrapped around the electrical burns on his fingertips. He sees the coffee next to his laptop and blinks. “Whose coffee?” he asks, still half-asleep, and glances at Clay. Clay shrugs. “My coffee?” Jensen says, and the perplexed expression on his face makes Clay hide a grin behind his hand and redirect his attention towards the mission report paperwork.
Jensen accepts the gift with sleepy, blinking equanimity—“My coffee.”—and vanishes towards the back bedroom, laptop and cup in tow. Clay is pleased, because he appreciates it when his team makes an actual effort at civility, and clearly, whoever’s making an effort to caffeinate Jensen right now is working for the common good.
Two days later, Clay wakes up to find a steaming aluminum mug perched on Jensen’s makeshift workstation, on the back of the gasoline generator. Given that they’re in the middle of the Kazakhstani desert and probably two friendly countries away from a Starbucks, Clay thinks now it’s getting strange.
Jensen is singing a quiet, happy song into his coffee cup. From the other side of their tiny base camp, Clay sees Cougar watching him like he might be contagious.
Cougar’s acting—it’s hard to define. Not strangely, because Clay knows his team, and strange is relative. Just, maybe a bit outside Cougar-grade normal. He’s been watching Jensen, definitely more than the rest of them, and Clay thinks Cougar’s pack protective instincts may be tripping hard over having to deal with an outsider again. Cougar was, if possible, even less enamoured of their last two techs than Roque was, and Roque would have gutted Pfeiffer with a song in his heart if the paperwork might have been less of a nightmare.
Clay resolves to keep an eye on Cougar, and Jensen too. Jensen’s a good tech. It would be a shame to lose him.
Jensen has a complicated set of emotions when it comes to Clay. Clay can smell it off him every time he’s close. There’s wariness, understandably, of a new CO, figuring out where he stands. His nerves always smell a little raw, because Jensen’s been bounced around a lot of teams, a lot of COs using his skills and passing him along. Clay honestly can’t understand it, though, because underneath all Jensen’s bravado, the chatter and the purposeful shit-disturbing, there’s a beautiful eagerness, a desire to please, to prove himself. Clay doesn’t know how anyone could have passed this kid off, but then again, not every CO has Clay’s sense about these things. Or maybe Clay’s just a soft touch.
The kid takes to Pooch pretty much immediately, already comfortable in his company, but Pooch is like that. He keeps giving Clay looks, like Jensen’s an incredibly technically gifted and enthusiastic puppy that’s followed them home, and can they please keep him?
He’s still a little leery of Roque, sometimes, but it’s passing. Possibly he’s heard stories from their last two techs, and Roque’s not exactly Captain Approachable even on his best days. But Jensen’s good at his job and he’s got balls and he even made Roque laugh once, when they were stuck doing surveillance in the ass-end of the Kazakhstani desert, and Jensen, over comms, told a joke of such embarrassing filthiness involving a rabbi, a nun and a squid that Pooch yelled that they were corrupting his yet-unborn children. Clay counts that as a win.
And everything would be just fine, if it weren’t for Cougar and Jensen.
It started slowly, but it’s been building up, and Clay can’t ignore it anymore. Around Cougar, Jensen is such a wound-up mass of stress that he gives Clay tension headaches.
It’s so bad now that Clay thinks he must almost be imagining it, so after their latest mission, after the downtime, he orders Jensen out on a two-day initial recon with Cougar. Jensen grins, and he says, “Sounds like fun, Colonel,” and the sudden adrenaline spike makes Roque wince and he’s in the other fucking room.
Clay happens to be looking at Cougar, so he actually notices the precise moment that Cougar’s nostrils flare, and then he sees the way his eyes keep tracking Jensen. This isn’t new. In fact, Cougar watches Jensen a lot, and oh fuck. Clay wants to curse himself in every language he knows because fuck. He’s a fucking idiot.
“Oh shit,” says Pooch, suddenly, from the doorway, apparently having come to the exact same conclusion.
Jensen looks confused, that wide-eyed earnest look that Clay’s getting to know unfortunately too well. “What?” he says, “You mean you’re telling me sitting in a hole in the desert for two days with no wireless connection isn’t going to be fun?”
Clay’s looking at Cougar now, and the roiling tangle of emotional scent means he’s not one hundred percent sure what his sniper’s feeling, but he can guess. And goddamn it, Clay knows damn well just how good Cougar is at hiding things he doesn’t want seen. The look in his eyes now, just for an instant, is more naked than Clay’s ever seen him. Cougar is—fuck.
“Nothing,” says Clay sharply, to cover his rising dread. “You have your orders. Pooch and Roque will rendezvous with you in 48 hours to take over.”
Jensen leaves, still looking mystified. Cougar looks like he’s quietly dying. He follows Jensen out with his jaw tight, everything locked down again, but Clay already knows enough to know they’re in a lot of goddamn trouble.
After the jeep’s pulled out into the street and the engine faded away into the traffic, Clay stares at Pooch. Roque comes to stand in the doorway, his expression dark. “Somebody had better tell me,” says Clay, “That they saw this coming, and did everything possible to stop it.” He’s angry, but mostly at himself, because he didn’t see this coming. Should have seen this coming.
Pooch shrugs helplessly. “I wasn’t sure, I couldn’t tell. That’s the truth, Colonel, and I didn’t want to stir up trouble if there was nothing going on.” Pooch looks pained. Roque drops in a kitchen chair and scowls at the ceiling.
“So what now?” he asks, and Clay’s wondering the same thing, because it’s his own damn fault, he should have twigged to Cougar acting strange sooner, but Cougar’s control is better than anyone he’s ever met, so Clay figures he’s gotten careless. No excuse. They’re his men. He’s supposed to look after them.
Pooch looks deeply unhappy, but he’s the only one who’s run with any wolves outside their immediate unit. “In my admittedly limited experience?” he says, “When a wolf decides she wants you, you end up married and significantly toothier.” He stops, pushing the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Or dead. Shit. Apparently that can happen.”
“Goddamn it,” says Roque, succinctly, and Clay feels something close to actual terror, because this could go very badly, very fast.
Even when Cougar was human, he was a possessive fucking bastard. Clay could smell it on him anytime his team was under threat. Now he’s got wolf instincts egging on his human side, and Clay might not know exactly what’s coming, but he’s goddamn sure it’s not going to be pretty.
So he corners Cougar, ten minutes after he gets back, on the back steps of the house. Cougar puts his back to the wall and shows his teeth. His dark eyes flash.
“I can’t fucking help it,” he says, his voice low and harsh. “I tried.”
Somewhere, Clay thinks, there’s a world where his life is normal, where he has a wife and a dog and 2.4 kids, where he runs a roofing company, or a pathology lab, or even a US Army black ops team where eighty percent of the members aren’t werewolves who have suddenly and inexplicably imprinted on the single fucking human who never did a thing to deserve the shitstorm that’s headed his way.
Jensen is lanky and sunburned, and he talks too much. His glasses are ridiculously impractical for the field. He can’t cook worth shit and he has the distressing habit of remembering his laptop but forgetting his gun. But he’s also a crack shot, handles tech like a pro under fire, can fix a busted satellite phone with a snapped screwdriver and a twist of rusty wire, and is a genuinely good kid. He’s got a life, a family. He trusts them.
There really is no way this won’t end badly.
Clay’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop, but when it happens, it happens so fast it still catches him almost flat-footed.
They’re in one of the Company’s backstreet safehouses in Cairo, and it’s late enough that the city noise is muted. There’s a dog barking, somewhere, and the low roar of the ancient electric fan rattling in the window. Clay can’t sleep, but doesn’t want to risk a run in a crowded city like this when there’s a spike of aggression smell from Cougar and a choked-off yell. Jensen.
Clay’s out of his room and in the hall before he can think about it. The door’s already almost off its hinges, someone’s kicked it in so hard. The other bedroom’s a riot of smells, barrelling against him in snapshot flashes. Everyone freezes. Pooch is wide-eyed, his arms wrapped around Jensen, caught in mid-action of hauling him off the bed. Roque’s pinning Cougar, and despite having at least forty pounds of muscle on him, looks like he’s having a hell of a time at it.
Jensen’s breathing hard, adrenaline and nervous energy rolling off him so hard it almost makes Clay nauseous. Then Clay sees the line of bruises already starting to bloom across Jensen’s throat, sees the bright-red bite mark on Jensen’s neck, a perfect rounded series of almost-punctures. Shit. Shit.
If it looks like it’s going to be a bad night, no one ever lets Cougar sleep alone. Pooch or Roque will crowd in, dogpile him and usually they’ll get through to morning okay. Clay’s done it once or twice in the field, wrapped himself around Cougar to keep him from shaking. Until the stink of blood and burning fades out of his head. But it was an easy mission this time. No warning it was coming, that all that beautiful carnage in Cougar’s head was about to come spilling out again.
Clay’s only got a moment to curse himself out because Jensen, being Jensen, starts talking almost immediately. “Colonel, it was my fault, I tried to wake him up, I shouldn’t have done that—” he gets an arm loose from Pooch’s grip and gingerly pats at his neck, wincing. His eyes are wide and so fucking earnest. “It’s okay, Colonel. No blood, no report.”
Clay grits his teeth, all his senses on edge, fighting down the surge of raw animal rage that wants to grab Cougar by the throat and get him under control, that wants to grab Jensen and just shake him until he stops acting like such goddamn wide-eyed prey. Cougar’s still shaking himself awake. Roque leans down on him harder, but Clay can see the moment his eyes widen, the sudden spike of ragedisgustweakness flaring off him. Roque pulls back and Cougar rolls out of the pin, off the bed and out the door in an instant.
Shit, thinks Clay, and pins Jensen with a look. “Stay there,” he says, and follows Cougar out the door. Behind him, he can still hear Jensen talking, “Jesus, he just roughed me up a little, what’s the problem? My sister used to beat on me worse when we were kids—“
Clay leaves Jensen with Roque and Pooch, because he’s safe enough, now, and goes out after Cougar. When he picks up the scent, he finds Cougar two blocks away, his wolf form a massive dark shape where he’s sitting with his back to the wall of an empty neighbourhood square. Abandoned at this time of night, thank god. Dead palm leaves and garbage scratch along the asphalt as Clay drops down beside him. He grabs Cougar by the muzzle, mindful of the teeth, and shakes him. Not hard, just enough to prove a point. “Shift,” he says. Useless to try to get Cougar to talk, he knows, but even more useless when he’s four-legged.
Cougar shifts, pulling his legs in tight and dropping his head to rest on his knees. An oddly vulnerable gesture, one Clay’s never seen before. Cougar’s voice, when he talks, is scraped raw.
“Re-assign me,” he says. “Or him. He doesn’t deserve this.” A pause. “Please.”
Roque corners him later that week, a few hours after Jensen’s packed his duffel, grabbed his transfer orders and said, bye, guys, it was fun, hope I get to work with you again, the usual pleasantries, but with a weird look in his eyes and something off about his scent. Cougar’s been silently, vengefully cleaning his guns, and then everyone else’s guns, and Pooch has been glaring at Clay like this is all his fault.
“You know,” Roque says, “Given the fact that he’s the best tech we’ve had yet, and incidentally, the first one I haven’t wanted to murder slowly, and given the fact that our sniper is ridiculously fucking attached to him, I really think you should get him back.”
Clay’s leaning on the railing of the fire escape, and he doesn’t want to be having this conversation, but somehow that alpha-command glare has never really worked on Roque. “You know damn well we can’t function with Cougar incapacitated like that.” Roque doesn’t look impressed, and Clay says, “And what exactly, then, do you think we should have done?”
Roque stares straight ahead. “I think you should get the kid back here and he should take one for the goddamn team and run his neck into Cougar’s teeth, and then we won’t have to fuck around anymore.”
Roque sounds as if he’s only half-joking.
They’re in Syria, Al-Hasakah, near the Turkish border when Clay hears the news. They’re at the bar down the street from the Company’s safehouse, and clearly their habits are getting too predictable, because in walks Dixon and his boys.
Major Mitchell Dixon is a rat-faced excuse for a human being who Clay tolerates because murdering him would generate too much paperwork and he’d probably never get the taste out of his mouth. Clay feels Roque tense an infinitesimal fraction on the bar stool next to him, radiating casual menace. Pooch and Cougar are halfway through a game of backgammon in the corner, but Clay sees their heads rise and their gaze fix on Dixon and his team. Stay, he gestures, and they ease back, though not by much.
“Franklin Clay,” Dixon drawls, and Clay realizes his instinctive dislike for the man probably means he sounds a lot more like an asshole in Clay’s head as opposed to in real life. But it’s possible that Dixon just always sounds like an asshole. “Well, it’s a small fucking world. Buy us a round, it’s been a hard week.
His men line up at the bar. There’s Drake, Dixon’s hard-looking XO, and two guys Clay doesn’t recognize. They look like they’ve been in a fight. There’s a smell around them, dust and cordite, blood and blowback, and something else. In the corner, Clay sees Cougar’s head snap up from the game, his eyes narrowing.
Dixon grabs his beer, taps the neck against Drake’s bottle. “Well,” he says. “I said we’d have a drink for him, so here we are. Here’s to our late lamented geek. I applaud his skills at fucking up security systems, and I wish those skills had extended to bugging out quicker.”
Drake nods. “He took that one for the team, and I appreciate that, and I also appreciate the fucking peace and quiet, so here’s to hoping he’s up in heaven now, talking the ear off of Jesus Christ and all his seventy-two virgins.”
And then Cougar’s surging across the room, and Clay suddenly recognizes that scent, under all the other layers, small and sparking and electric. “Fuck,” he snarls, and Cougar’s got Dixon pinned back over the bar with an arm across his throat.
Drake leaps up, but Roque smacks him open-handed across the jaw, hard enough that he goes down, stunned. The two kids freeze for half a second before starting to wade in, and Pooch says, “Stay put, boys,” in a voice like the north Atlantic in winter, his big .44 magnum aimed very carefully in their direction.
Dixon is wheezing, kicking hard at Cougar’s legs. Cougar doesn’t even seem to notice. Clay figures they have two minutes, at best, before the police show up and Clay has no desire to experience the Syrian jail system first-hand, so he growls, “Was it Jensen? Corporal Jensen?” He already knows the answer, because he can smell Jensen on them now, the scent a few days old and already fading. “What happened?”
“Fuck,” wheezes Dixon, “We were in Afghanistan, in the desert about twenty miles north of Mazar-i-Sharif. There’s a compound there, belongs to Egorov, Russian ex-pat scumbag drug lord. We were setting up to blow his compound, force him to seek asylum with us and rat out his bosses when one of the motherfucking charges blew early.” Dixon gasps, sucks in air when Cougar loosens his hold the tiniest bit. “We had to bolt, he was still inside, I heard the shots over the radio.”
Cougar looks gut-shot for a second, and then rage darkens his eyes, black and predatory. “I don’t believe you,” he says, and shoves down harder.
Drake is on the floor, trying to pull himself up using the bar. “It’s true,” he rasps. “Look, I’m sorry if he was your guy or something, but he was too fucking slow and they shot him. He’s dead. What, you want us to go back for him or something?”
Roque puts a boot on Drake’s kidneys, and he goes back down. “When was this?” says Roque. He sounds as angry as Clay’s ever heard him.
“Three days ago,” says one of the kids, looking scared, and he says, suddenly, “I said we should go back and check again!” He looks about Jensen’s age, too young for any of this, and Clay feels a slow roll of nausea in his gut. It distracts him from the desire to shift out and kill everyone, at least. Three days.
Cougar lets out an incoherent snarl, and shoves Dixon away, like he can’t bear to touch him. He vanishes out the door, Pooch close on his heels. Roque digs his heel into Drake’s spine once more for good measure and starts backing towards the door. Dixon’s pulled himself off the bar, murder in his eyes.
“Go ahead,” says Clay, softly. “Please.” And something in his voice, or the look in his eye, is enough to make Dixon back up against the bar fast, like he’d retreat straight through it if he could. Clay keeps his gaze fixed on Dixon until his boot heel hits the door, and then he leaves. No one follows them.
The safehouse kitchen is tense as a foxhole during a mortar strike. Cougar’s pacing, the same five steps back and forth, back and forth, like a caged animal, trembling with barely-suppressed emotion. Finally, he fixes Clay with a glare. “He’s not dead,” says Cougar, low and rough. “I’d know it. I’d know.”
Clay doesn’t know whether that’s wishful thinking or whether Cougar honestly knows something the rest of them don’t, but if there’s even the remotest chance that Jensen’s still breathing, Clay knows Cougar would go.
Clay glances at Roque and Pooch, lays a steadying hand on Cougar’s shoulder. “I’m not ordering anyone on this one.” It’s his screw-up, and even if Jensen not his man anymore, he made the call that put Jensen in this situation. He’s going to fix it. And he’s pretty goddamn certain he’s not going to be able to stop Cougar.
Roque closes his eyes, tips his head back. “Security’s going to be tighter, after Dixon and team’s amateur hour,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Better off going in fast and dirty. Low tech.” He grins at Clay, humourlessly. “Just like the old days.”
Pooch is already moving. “Air or ground transport, Colonel?”
“Air,” says Clay. “Fastest bird you can get. We move out in an hour.”
They break the perimeter just after midnight.
Clay’s on point, Roque and Pooch flanking him. Cougar’s bringing up the rear, his silhouette looking sleek and almost strange without the bulk of the rifle casing strapped to his back. They left their clothes and gear cached with the chopper outside Hazareh Toghay, under the camo netting. It’s a shit hiding place, and someone’s bound to stumble over it come daylight, so they’ve covered the last dozen miles at a fast, loping run.
They haven’t run together like this in a long time, and it’s incredible, liberating even, because being a wolf is so simple. Clay feels the surge of raw animal strength, of adrenaline pounding through his veins, and his teeth flash in the night. He feels a long, low, eerie howl pull past his lips, and Roque picks it up, then Pooch, until it’s echoing like a Doppler nightmare in the darkness, and then Cougar surges ahead of everyone and leaps the fence, body arching through the darkness.
And then there’s nothing but the fight, the simple, brutal animal joy of it.
In his wolf form, Clay’s two hundred and eighty pounds of raw animal muscle, and he fights like something that came running off the Palaeolithic tundra, a hundred thousand years back. He drops down on the other side of the fence, and a sentry doesn’t even yell. His eyes widen and his mouth opens, but Clay leaps and brings him down before he can start to scream.
There’s blood on his teeth, and Clay snarls, his hackles bristling high off his back, and another guard comes skidding out of the shed, hauling his AK off his shoulder. Clay drops low to spring, but then Pooch comes over the fence and brings him down, and the guy dies screaming, his finger groping frantically for the trigger. Lights snap on around the perimeter of the compound, but maybe half of them are still shot out, still down from Dixon’s team’s attack a few days ago. The working lights make a patchwork of bright glare, small islands of light in the darkness, and more guards come pounding out of the compound, machine guns in their hands, a mass of conflicting, yelling voices, though Clay picks out one word—surrender—and if he weren’t in wolf shape, he’d probably laugh.
And Cougar, who’d come over the fence first and circled around, comes out of the darkness like the wrath of God.
Cougar’s the smallest in his wolf body, a couple hundred pounds of nimble strength, but he hits the pack of men in a snarling fury, leaping and darting and leaving screams in his wake. One of the men actually has half a second to draw a bead on him and Clay doesn’t even stop moving, knocks him in the leg so hard the man’s wrenched off his feet, Clay’s teeth in his femoral, blood spraying everywhere.
The roar of an engine, and a big, open-top Jeep skids around the corner of the main compound building, and for a moment, Clay actually locks eyes with the driver until the man bellows in fear because Roque’s crashed down hard on the hood, the metal buckling and shrieking under the force of it, and then Roque jumps into the cab and the screaming just keeps going.
Everything gets a little unfocussed for a while.
Clay snaps back into something like a rational headspace, and that’s always the risk in wolf form, that he’ll lose himself in the carnage, and this has shaped up to be more than carnage. This is a massacre, but Clay abruptly remembers why they’ve come, and regret just won’t form.
One of the outbuildings is on fire. He gets a flash of Roque, briefly silhouetted against the flame like some primal nightmare, and he knows, in his predator’s gut, that this fight’s almost over.
So, through the smoke and the flames and the screaming, Clay puts his nose to the ground, and starts looking for that bright crackling familiar trail of scent. The whole night’s a confusing riot of scents, all blooming in his brain and competing for attention. Blood, first, but no familiarity there, and the smoke is starting to billow harder, overlaying the night air and adding an extra dimension to the criss-crossing trails of scent and there’s Cougar, his scent instant and recognizable. Cougar, who’s already tracking.
Cougar’s tail is bristling, and the long line of his spine is rigid with tension. He barks, a high-pitched noise that segues into a howl, his head thrown back, distress radiating off so strongly that Clay’s tail almost drops under his body. Cougar howls again, his desperation echoing out and Clay joins him, instinct kicking in as the rising call ululates out into the darkness, because the instinct to howl out to a lost pack member is strong enough that it even overrides Clay’s growing desolation. That the night’s a waste, that they’re three long days too late.
And then Cougar stops suddenly, like he’s been kicked hard and points, his head low and his ears erect, straining. He’s absolutely still for one long second, and then he takes off, his claws scratching madly over the rough paving. Clay spends a futile few moments resisting the sudden spike of perfect hope, and then he drops his head and follows Cougar.
Halfway around the perimeter of the compound, where the floodlights are still extinguished, there’s a deep, narrow excavation in the rough, pitted earth. Clay skids to a stop as Cougar leaps down into the darkness, and Clay’s just rational enough to think munitions dump, land mines, toxic groundwater when he hears a very faint sound and suddenly, without thought, he’s throwing himself downwards.
He’s in the pit. Jensen’s in the pit, where the pitch darkness is barely brightened by the starlight, stripped to his boxers, his feet bare. He stinks of blood and piss, adrenaline and giddy terror. One eye is dark bloodshot red, and there’s bruises matting all down his face and chest. He’s on his knees in a stress position, his wrists cuffed to a water pipe behind his back.
Cougar’s already crouched in front of him, his ears laid back and his mouth wide, teeth bared in the nightmare snarl that’s been fixed since they broke the perimeter. It feels like hours ago. It’s probably only been minutes. Jensen blinks hard. “Oh god,” he says, his voice barely a croak. “Oh jesus.”
Clay drops down next to Cougar and growls, short and sharp, and Cougar snaps out of it. He circles around to the side, still snarling. Then he drops his head and charges. Jensen bites off a yell, and then Cougar smashes into the pipe, shoulder-first. Two hundred pounds of solid mass and a running start rips the pipe loose, water spraying everywhere. Jensen, soaked, wriggles ungracefully until he pulls free, his wrists still cuffed tight behind him.
Jensen’s sitting in the mud, panting, and Cougar suddenly drops the snarl and noses, almost tentatively, towards him. For a moment, Jensen looks like he’s going to throw up. But then he pitches forward, like he’s about to bolt, and Cougar steps in and plants all four paws to block him.
And then Jensen just freezes, pressed up against Cougar’s chest, his face buried in his fur. His shoulders heave, once, twice. Then he says, in a voice that’s calmer, but only just barely, muffled by Cougar’s pelt, “If this is the sleep deprivation and I’m hallucinating giant goddamn predators I’d be really fucking happy but if you’re real you’re going to rip out my throat so please do it fast, oh fuck. Oh fuck.” The edge of hysteria under the words flares for a second, then vanishes as Jensen’s shoulders slump. “Just kill me,” says Jensen. “First time I’ve been warm in days. Worth it.”
Cougar’s eyes flash in the dark, and he bares his teeth at Clay, just a little. Clay lays his ears back and whuffs a quick breath, acquiescence. Cougar’s eyes flash again, and his tongue lolls out in the most wolfish expression of a shit-eating grin that Clay’s ever seen. Fuck it, thinks Clay, as well as he can form thoughts as a wolf, anyway. This has only a ninety-nine percent likelihood of ending fucking badly. Then he leaps upwards, his powerful haunches propelling him halfway past the pit’s edge, his claws scrabbling at the earth until he pulls himself out.
Behind him, he hears that familiar slick organic sound, and then Cougar’s low voice, rough with disuse. “I wanted to tell you.”
And then Jensen says, very clearly, “You motherfucker.”
In the pit, there is currently occurring a lively exchange of information, mainly in the form of Jensen trying very hard to yell. He’s mostly failing, because shock and trauma can be hard on the vocal cords, but Clay understands the impulse.
“You fucker, I was freaking the fuck out, because you were watching me all the time, and the coffee, the fucking coffee and I knew that you knew, I knew you—and all this time you were—what the fuck I don’t even—” Jensen’s voice cuts off abruptly. “You came back,” he says, finally, his voice cracking a little.
“For you? Always,” he hears Cougar say. “Always. I swear.” And there’s a flood of lovereliefgrieflove from Jensen, and suddenly Jensen’s stress around Cougar makes a lot more sense. Clay shifts out and leans over the edge of the pit.
Jensen’s looking at Cougar like he’s never seen anything like him before. “You came back,” he says again. Clay hates to break the moment, but they’re losing the night, and they need to clear out. He whistles hard, and Jensen’s face swivels up towards him.
He holds out his right hand, and Jensen grabs it, bruised knuckles squeezing tight.
Clay has done some strange shit in his life, but he’s never crossed twelve mile of Afghanistan desert in his bare feet, wearing pants that he scavenged from a corpse, half-carrying his former tech.
Jensen is leaning on Cougar and Clay, but mostly moving under his own power. He’s exhausted, though, and with every mile, he’s listing against Clay more heavily. Roque and Pooch are ranging ahead, scouting the way, though Pooch circles back every so often to check on them. “Shit!” Jensen startles, the first time Pooch cold-noses him, but then he laughs, hoarsely. “Not funny,” he says, and swats at Pooch’s retreating tail.
By the time they’re three miles outside the compound, Jensen tips his head in Clay’s direction and starts talking, very quietly. “I was in the server room, making copies of the shipping records and financial transaction data when the charges went early. Don’t know what happened, maybe it was just an accident. So I patched into the security system, scrambled up the video feeds, threw as many ghosts into the system as I could so Dixon and the guys could get out.” Jensen’s head drops forward, and his eyes slide shut. “’Course, then the motherfuckers knew where I had to be. So three of them come through the door, and there’s me with nothing, not even my dick in my hand and my M4 up against the wall, on account of the fact I was still fucking with their system—” Jensen stumbles, and Cougar shoves up to brace his weight. Jensen’s hanging between them, almost deadweight, when he says, very quietly, “It wasn’t until the third day I figured out no one was coming back for me.”
Cougar makes a sound, low under his breath, and Clay doesn’t realize he’s matching it until he feels the low, almost subaural growl roll up his throat. Jensen flinches hard. “Fuck, stop, stop, I’m all out of adrenaline.” Then, quieter, “But you guys came back. I can’t believe you came back.”
Jensen’s quiet for a few minutes after that. Clay notices Jensen’s leaned a little further into Cougar’s space. Clay sees him brush his knuckles, almost tentatively, across Cougar’s bare shoulder.
After that, Jensen keeps up the running commentary for the next twenty minutes or so, with “You do realize that I’m chalking this all up to stress-induced psychosis, right?”, and “You stole a helicopter? Pooch stole a helicopter?” and “Jesus fuck, Captain, and I thought you were scary before. Can’t you, I don’t know, wag your tail or smile or something—no, wait, stop, that’s not helping, that’s actually worse.” Eventually he just leans heavy against Clay, exhaustion weighing his words down. “You could have just told me, you know.” Despite the pain, he actually sounds honestly put out. “I am like, the king of coping. I wouldn’t have freaked, I swear.”
Clay shakes his head a little. He’s not sure what to say, only that they couldn’t, not before. Jensen pulls his head up, a little, enough to catch his eye. “No, seriously, you came back to get me, and I was not a big fan of Hole in the Desert, Afghanistan, let me tell you, so that pretty much wins you a free pass forever, Colonel.”
He flicks his gaze towards Cougar. “However. You and I, buddy, are going to have an approximately eight-day long conversation where we will talk about feelings in a very manly way and then you’re making it up to me. Thoroughly.” Cougar smiles a little, like he’s never looked forward to a conversation more in his life. Jensen suddenly straightens, as much as he can. “Oh. Shit,” he pauses, then glances at Clay. “Um, you’re not asking, are you, Colonel?”
It’s a weighted question, and Clay snorts, jerks his head forward to where Roque and Pooch are circling back towards them, moonlight dappling their sleek coats. “What do you think, Jensen?”
“Okay. Good,” says Jensen, like the matter is settled. He can hardly keep his head up, but his gaze is fixed on Pooch and Roque like he still can’t believe it. “Fuck. I knew you guys were keeping something on the downlow. I just figured maybe you were sleeping with Captain Roque.” Jensen laughs, a little hoarse, but honest and happy, and still alive. “That’ll teach me to make assumptions.”
There’s a faint smear of light on the horizon by the time they make the outskirts of Hazareh Toghay, near the border. Jensen staggers a little when Clay lets go, but manages to keep his feet under him. “How’s your Pashtu?” Clay asks.
“Better than my Russian but worse than my Spanish,” says Jensen. “Although my flailing supplemental arm gestures and my pretty obvious head injury mostly speak for themselves at this point, I think.”
“Good,” says Clay. “Use it. There’s a Red Cross mobile hospital unit set up here, doing vaccinations. Go, tell them you’re an American operative, they’ll call it in.” He grabs Jensen by the back the neck, gently, but enough to make a point, and looks him straight in the eye. “We were not here, understand? That’s an order. You escaped on your own.”
Jensen nods, and his pupils are a little blown, but he’s still pretty coherent, all things considered. “I don’t know, sir, I’d been working on the cuffs, and then there was some kind of attack? Rival drug lord, maybe? Maybe twenty of them, I don’t know. They had M4s, and here’s the weird thing, like, rottweilers or something, and I don’t know what they feed ‘em over here, sir, but they were as big as fucking houses. So I just ran like hell, sir.” Anyone else, it would sound ridiculous, but with Jensen’s wide, guileless blue eyes, they just might buy it.
Clay pats his shoulder, mindful of the bruises. “We’ll get you back, soon as the brass spring you.”
Jensen nods. “You better, Colonel,” he says, and that trust’s still there, even after everything that’s happened. He turns to Roque and Pooch, who’ve trotted up and shifted back up to two legs. Jensen grins. “Fucking badasses,” he says, fondly, and then yelps when Pooch, still naked, pulls him into a one-armed hug.
“Weren’t gonna leave you there, idiot,” says Pooch.
Roque just shakes his head. “You better lie like a motherfucking champion, kid,” he tells Jensen, and Jensen grins.
“Don’t worry, Captain, no one every questions this pretty face. I think maybe it’s the glasses, they look trustworthy.” Jensen turns towards the town, takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders. “Okay,” he says, and then, suddenly, turns back towards them. Towards Cougar. He catches him by the back of the neck, and pulls him closer. “Hey,” he says, very quietly, and his eyes are wide but he looks surprisingly steady. “Fuck it,” he says. “I’m not scared if you’re not.”
He strokes his thumb briefly along the line of Cougar’s neck. “So, next time I see you, you better make a move, or I swear to god, I’m gonna be so pissed off. Okay?” Then Jensen ducks his head and kisses Cougar very lightly on the side of the jaw, right there in front of everyone. It’s a little clumsy, but he obviously means it, and then Jensen glares at them. “Okay, I meant that to be a lot smoother. No one saw that.” He turns, squares his shoulders. “Valhalla, I’m coming,” he says, and sets off towards the town in a barely-controlled stagger.
Beside him, Cougar is fighting a smile.
“Colonel,” says Jensen, when they spring him, stateside, five weeks later. “Colonel, I just spent three weeks in a Red Cross field hospital with a constant parade of children climbing over my bed and comparing my facial hair to a camel’s, and then I flew cargo-class back to the States, where I got to see my sister and niece for approximately eight seconds before spending the next two weeks in lockdown with a team of counter-intelligence agents, three of whom displayed frankly atrocious personal hygiene habits, and I spent the majority of that cheerful downtime deep in thought, and I’ve concluded, Colonel, that if someone doesn’t bite me in the next five goddamn seconds, I will not be responsible for my actions.” He pauses. “Sir.”
Jensen is a big rangy wolf, shaggy hair the colour of a sand dune at night, eyes still cornflower blue. He’s loping ahead, and then suddenly shifts out, long human legs skidding as he tries to keep his balance. Clay’s worried for a moment, because Jensen should be able to hold shape for longer than that, and then he realizes it’s because Jensen had to talk.
Jensen leaps suddenly and tackles Cougar, wraps his arms around Cougar’s neck and rolls with him. Cougar yelps, then relaxes into the motion. Jensen ends up on top, grinning. “Oh man,” he says. “Oh god. You guys have been holding out on me.” Then he shifts, already so quick, and snaps playfully at Cougar’s throat. Challengechallenge, Jensen’s scent says, with a distinctly human edge of race you.
Jensen darts off, Cougar fast on his heels. Pooch is circling around, already taking up the chase, lips stretched in a wide grin. Roque falls into step on Clay’s six, breath huffing in steaming clouds.
The moon is full, lighting up the night with a bone-white glare. His pack’s all around him, so Clay paws the ground, ducks his head and runs.
It’s been years now, since they ever came close to dying, and the taste is bitter on Clay’s tongue. Ashes are falling all around them, the burning hulk of the chopper looming in Clay’s vision like a dying animal. All the power in his blood, and he still couldn’t see it coming, couldn’t stop it. Should have stopped it.
Jensen’s on the ground, in wolf form, his tail pulled in tight, his muzzle pressed to the ground. Pooch is almost on top of him, his big teeth clenched, a low, constant whine escaping. Cougar’s on his knees, next to them, one hand buried in the fur on Jensen’s neck. He’s praying quietly, ash streaking his face, eyes wide and unseeing.
Roque’s digging a hand into Clay’s shoulder, hard enough to bruise. Clay turns to look at him, has to tear his eyes away from the burning wreckage. Roque’s old keffiyeh is wrapped tight around his mouth and nose, but his eyes are dark and vengeful.
Clay reaches up, clasps his fingers over Roque’s to steady himself. Then he takes a deep breath, fixes the burning smell forever in his memory. Not that it’s hard—Clay doesn’t think he could ever forget this, not even if he tried.
“Listen,” he says, every year of command in his tone, all the alpha-weight authority he can throw behind the word. Jensen and Pooch’s heads snap up, and Cougar stiffens to attention, his jaw so tight it looks like he’ll break at any moment. Clay stares them down, unblinking. “That was supposed to be us.” He’s already thinking about routes out of the country, borders they can cross at night, dark forest trails where they can move unseen, going north. Jensen and Pooch might have trouble holding form that long, but he knows he can rely on all of them. His pack.
He stares them down again, feels Roque settle into position next to him. He can feel his canines lengthening, the stir of muscle under skin, but he resists, for the moment. “We all heard him. Max. We heard him. A man with a voice is a man with a scent, and a man with a scent we can track.”
Clay feels his hackles start to rise, so he stops fighting it, lets the change pull him down to earth, four paws braced against the mud, the burning stench almost overwhelming him, but overlaying it, the scent of his pack, who are alive and whole and still beside him. Still here.
Clay takes one last deep breath, the hair rising all along the ridge of his spine. Max, he thinks, and a low growl rumbles through his chest. They’ll go north. They’ll go north and soon, soon, there’s going to be blood.