It feels like a hangover at first, waking up half-aware, head sloshing and thick like every agonizing heartbeat pumps a molten lead headache into her tender brainpan.
She hears a bird's morning song, smells grass and leaves. A breeze through her window makes her shudder, and she groans blindly groping for her covers so she can burrow into someplace nice, warm, and dark enough to sleep it off with as little fuss as possible.
The breeze blows a bit stronger, insistently, and her fingers grasp crinkling, dry leaves instead of her bedcovers.
Valerie's eyes snap open. She shoots upright fast- too fast- her head throbs like her pulse is little hammer blows behind her temples and she moans. Her whole body feels like one gigantic ache.
She's sitting outside, in the woods, surrounded by trees, the sounds of wildlife, a flattened carpet of grass, leaves, biting bits of branch.
Also she's naked.
Her first instinct is to cover herself, but that's stupid, since there is absolutely no one else around. She makes herself calm down, assess what exactly the hell is going on, and blatantly ignores the obvious because it doesn't have to be that. For all she knows she went on a post-hunt victory bender with the team and things got a little out of hand.
Never in her entire life did Val ever think she would wish she'd slept with Dash Baxter. Hell, even Paulina. Anything was better than the alternative.
There's nothing covering her but stray leaves clinging to some splattered mud. Her feet are cut and filthy and her hands are
Valerie's skin is dark enough that she could maybe write off the wetness on her hands as dark, drying mud, but there's no mistaking the red under her fingernails. Her hands start shaking and she swallows; a lingering flavor in her mouth nothing like the usual morning-breath she gets after too many shots. It tastes like her whole mouth is full of pennies.
She knows the itch on her gums. It's the same after she eats a burger, barbecue ribs, or maybe a nice steak dinner.
There's little pieces of meat between her teeth. She can feel them, with the tip of her tongue, she wants to pry each of them loose and wash the goddamn taste out of her mouth but she can't use her nails because there's blood under them and oh God what's stuck in her teeth who's stuck between in her fucking teeth.
Valerie keels over, hands planted on the earth, and violently heaves on some leaves.
It's such a bad idea, but she can't look away from the pile of sick in front of her. There's a glint of something in there, something small and metal. She pinches it between her (bloody bloody bloody) fingers and and holds it up.
It's the tag from a dog collar. A cute piece of stainless steel cut into the shape of a cute little doggy bone, engraved with a name and address. Valerie chokes back a scream and throws it away as hard as she can, gagging on another wave of nausea and disgust.
She hugs herself, naked, filthy, and bloody. The scabbed, half-healed claw marks on her shoulder are bare and throbbing. The bandage must have fallen off sometime...last night.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck
There's no sign of her clothes anywhere, not even any scraps or tatters. She's a naked girl in the woods with no phone, no money, no idea where the hell she is, and all she wants is her dad's silver-plated Colt .45.
One of the perks of being completely alone, at least there's no one around to see you cry.
Somehow, Valerie know exactly which way to go. The woods smell like bark, leaves, the tang of wet earth, and a scent that reminds her a bit of a petting zoo. She instinctively picks a direction where the smell is...thinner? Weaker? Well, whichever direction smells less like nature and more like car exhaust and chemicals.
She walks for a long time, her bare feet don't even feel it when she steps on a branch or a sharp stone.
Abruptly the woods just sort of stop. The trees are skinny and trimmed, the carpet of leaves are gone, and the grass between her toes is absurdly green and trimmed. Valerie crouches and finds some extra cover behind some bushes, feeling like some feral animal. There's a house right ahead, a nice big yard open to the woods. For some reason she can't decide if she actually wants someone to be home so she could ask for help, or if she desperately wants it to be empty. The reasons have little to do with nudity.
So she waits. Watches the house, listens, even tries smelling for people. There's no one in the windows, nothing in the backyard except a clothesline and some laundry swaying in the breeze. She looks up at the sun and tries to guess what time it is. Early, maybe nine o'clock or so. Valerie remembers that yesterday was definitely Saturday, last night of the lunar cycle. And if the address on the...tag was indication enough, she has a rough estimation of where she is.
Nice, rural town like this, everyone's probably at church right around now.
Finally deciding, screw it, Valerie bolts from her hiding spot and sprints across the lawn to the clothes lines. She doesn't want to be out in the open for very long, so she grabs a towel, the first pair of shorts that look like they'll fit, and a big sports jersey.
She follows a garden hose back to its faucet and spends the next few minutes blasting herself with cold water and scrubbing as much blood and dirt off of herself as she can. Turns out her hair is a bramble of twigs and leaves.
Scrubbing herself raw with the towel, she leaves it on the grass and puts on her stolen clothes. The shorts are loose around her hips but the jersey is baggy and hikes down almost to her thighs. At this point of her day she just accepts the snarling Timber Wolf mascot from the local football team as another sign that the universe just hates her. It's actually quite freeing, really.
No longer violating the local decency laws helps too. Valerie's in survival mode; focusing on specific tasks lets her leave everything she doesn't want to think about back in that forest like a bad dream.
She needs cash next. Her eyes and her nose tells her the street is empty. Another thing about small towns: they leave their cars and trucks unlocked. Valerie stuff a few bucks worth of spare change into her pockets, along with the occasional stray single, maybe managing about six dollars in all.
Yeah, that's me, Valerie Gray, criminal mastermind.
On the road into town there's a pair of shoes hanging off a power line. Could mean anything from 'buy meth here' to 'first one to get the nerd's shoes up there wins.' She finds a nice, hefty rock on the side of the road, stands directly under it and keeps tossing it up until she finally jars them loose. They're a bit beaten up and two sizes too big, and wearing them makes her feel like she's wearing flip-flops, but most business have the whole 'No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service' thing going on, so they're necessary.
Main street is all Mom and Pop shops that are closed this early on a Sunday. Her shoes clop on her heels as she walks, steps her pace as she passes 'Lost Dog' posters and has to remind herself that they're too old, and none of the names match the one she knows.
There's little diner on the corner, the kind that seems to exist in a state of perpetual white laminate and chrome from the sixties. Besides the bored looking waitress and the cook leaning on the counter, Valerie's the only one there.
She situates herself in the furthest booth, back against the wall. The waitress seems slightly miffed by the extra five steps she has to take. Nosily emptying her pocket change on the table, she asks for black coffee. Strong black coffee. No, thank you, she doesn't want anything to eat. She doesn't even want to think about eating.
The coffee is hot and bitter and scalds her tongue a little. Valerie keeps drinking to burn away the taste of everything in her mouth. She sets it down and the waitress pours her another. Take all the time you need, honey, refills are free.
All she would have to do is ask to borrow the waitress' phone for a few minutes. That's it. But she doesn't because she's a fucking coward.
She knows the score. They all agreed to do the right thing if the worse were to happen. Kwan would insist that they wait until the next lunar cycle. Dash would be in denial. Star would give her a snotty, teary hug and then put one silver round in her chest, like a professional.
And Paulina? Paulina would cut her heart out, wash her hands, and then get a mani-pedi.
The waitress' clicking heels recede and Valerie wraps her hands around her coffee cup to keep them from shaking.
What the hell is she supposed to do now?
The bell above the door jingles, letting in a breeze of fresh outside smells into the restaurant. Valerie looks up and sees two people chatting with the waitress. She ignores them and stares down into the murky brown mirror in her cup.
Her nostrils flare, catching a scent that reminds Valerie of walking into a house that keeps pet dogs. She's on edge without knowing why; her arms prickle with goosebumps, fingers clench tighter on her mug. Valerie perks her head up and sees a girl striding up to the table.
She's a bit of a shrimp but built sturdy, black sleeveless tank showing off trim, carved arms pale and covered in tattoos. Her hair is hacked boyishly short and dyed white. She stuffs her hands into her jeans and grins at her. Valerie clenches her teeth and swallows the growl building in her throat.
The girl keeps grinning. Her eyes are emerald green and twinkling playfully. "Mornin'."
"Good morning," Valerie returns curtly. "Now go the hell away."
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
Another girl comes up behind the first, taller even without the pair of army combat boots. There's something familiar about her that Valerie can't place. "Please tell me this isn't her," she begs the white-haired girl.
"The nose knows," she taps the side of it with her finger, far too pleased with herself over that pun.
Valerie gets a better look at the taller girl's clothes: a t-shirt with a wolf's silhouette outlined in a huge white moon, a black jacket littered with buttons of paw prints, full moons, and messages like: 'Equality EVERY Day of the Month' or 'Hairy not Scary.'
"Son of a bitch," Valerie snarls.
"Look who's talking," Sam Manson says. Valerie does not flinch.
Tattoo-Girl looks back and forth between them. "You two know each other?"
"By reputation," Manson says.
"Yeah, you're that Fur-Hugging rich girl that was at the protest a few days ago," Valerie recalls.
"Fur-Hugging?" The girl asks.
Manson shrugs. "I've been called worse."
"So...wait, what's your deal, then?" The girl asks Valerie, curious and non-accusing. Valerie knows what she is, she can smell it on her, and Valerie's heart is hammering with the certainty that the girl knows exactly what she is, too.
"Dani," Sam waves out a hand with mock formality. "Meet Valerie Gray, Federally-Licensed Vigilante and Executioner."
Valerie looks her in the eye and says, "I'm a Wolf-Hunter, kid."
"...oh." She looks like she wants to take a few steps back, if not outright run out of the diner. She just stands there, with this sort of kicked puppy expression, and for the first time Valerie can remember she's a tiny bit ashamed of her profession.
"Yeah," Sam repeats. "'Oh.' It's really kind of poetic, don't you think? The girl who makes a living murdering innocent people winds up-"
"It's not murder," Valerie hisses.
"Right, because they have to legally be considered 'persons' for it to be murder, right?"
"Don't you even start with that bullshit," Valerie lifts up her sleeve to show off the claw marks on her shoulder. At least, she thought it had been the claws. Obviously she'd been wrong. "The thing that gave me this tore through three other people before I put him down, so don't even fucking suggest that he was innocent."
The girl, Dani, shuffles and says quietly, "So I guess that Jack Russell was all you, huh?"
Valerie flinches, and turns away from both of them and back to her coffee. Dani slides into the booth seat across from her.
"Sorry. I didn't mean it like that. The first time's always the worst."
Valerie doesn't want her apology, or her sympathy, so she gulps down her coffee to avoid looking at her.
"Coffee won't really help. Last thing you need is to be jittery. Here," she unscrews a steel flask and hands it to her. "Little 'hair of the dog,' huh?" She grins at the bad joke. "Calm your nerves a bit."
Valerie doesn't need to even bring her nose to it to smell the whiskey. She silently holds out her cup and lets the girl reach across and pour in a few finger's worth; black ink standing out on her pale arms. The left arm is swirling tribal designs that make Valerie think of thorns and claws. The right one has Norse runes and stony illustrations of snarling god-wolves.
Valerie swallows the coffee and winces at the kick. "What are you two even doing here?"
"Caught the scent of a first-timer," Dani says. "We decided to go find whoever it was and help 'em out."
"Whoever they were," Sam says.
Valerie tries not to be obvious about sniffing the air around Manson. She smells like tofu, expensive shampoo, deodorant, and sweat. There's also the scent of others on her- she recognizes Dani, but the other one is unfamiliar and very...male. She smells like someone who hangs around with wolves, but isn't one herself.
"And now?" Valerie wonders. She's almost scared of the answer; the same way she's scared of facing her friends, of going to her Dad and telling him that she's another one of those things that killed his wife. Because that morning in the woods she was afraid of living and now she's even more afraid of dying.
Because, as fucked up as it is, these two complete strangers are probably the only people she knows that would even consider helping her.
Manson crosses her arms and grouses. "Told you before, we're here to help out someone who's scared and dealing with something they can't control. Whoever they are."
It takes a few seconds for the words to sink in. She feels like crying again, which she can't do because she's not in the woods anymore, not alone, and if she did waking up naked with blood on her hands wouldn't feel like some distant dream anymore.
Dani smiles at her and pours a little more into her cup. Valerie drinks more Jameson's than coffee and her hands feel like they're shaking a little less.
"So..." she rasps out. "What now?"