It had been a bad idea. A really bad idea. He had told the Grimm so again and again, and look where they were.
Up to their eyebrows.
Because it had been a really bad idea.
Monroe scanned the woods around them, looking, sniffing, listening, for anything out of the ordinary. Human or non-human.
The woods were quiet. Fog hung heavily between the moss-covered trees. Steady droplets were a soft background sound, the drip-drip almost soothing. The moss cushioned sound, the fog softened the air. Everything was quiet. Almost beautifully mystical. Aside from the critters that normally inhabited the woods, nothing else was here.
It was as if the attack hadn’t happened, like it had been a dream. Actually, a nightmare. Come and gone. Leaving pain and devastation behind.
And no one would come looking for them any time soon.
Monroe sighed and moved noiselessly back to the overhang. It had been created by a tall tree crashing down many years ago, roots tearing out of the ground and sticking into the air. Moss and crawlers had covered the looming roots, hanging like a curtain in front of a doorway. The tree had torn out soft earth and now it was like a nest, moderately dry, hidden from plain sight, and reasonably warm.
Not that he actually felt cold. His system was too well adjusted for that.
Someone who wasn’t adjusted was his companion.
Monroe almost snorted a laugh.
Companion! A Grimm!
Then again, what was it they were? Partners? Colleagues? Well, hardly that. Nick came to him for help.
“If I had anyone else I could talk to about this stuff…”
Monroe remembered the exasperation like it had been yesterday. No, he hadn’t complained about being a walking Grimm library. He had willingly let the other man inside.
And then things changed when Nick came for the occasional beer in the evening, alternatively a coffee and bagel in the morning. The man was costing him money! Then again, it was nice to have someone around sometimes. Being a reclusive, reformed blutbad had its disadvantages. Not that Monroe had run with a pack ever before. He only knew his family and even they, after the young had grown up, weren’t all too keen on crowds.
Monroe had no clue why Nick stuck around. A Grimm was a hunter. Monroe’s kind was the enemy – well, if they stepped out of line. They were the peacekeepers between creature world and humanity. Without Grimms both sides would be at each other’s throats and Monroe didn’t want to place any bets on what side might be the winner; in his opinion it was a no win situation. An open feud would destroy both communities. It was bad enough that the creature world was fractured and unstable through feuds, rivalries and questionable alliances. They didn’t need a war.
And then there was the fact that Nick Burckhardt was far from what he had expected him to be. Monroe had never met a Grimm – he wouldn’t be alive today if Auntie Marie had come by his place – and the stories were… terrifying. A horror scenario. Nightmares told to the children to keep them in line. His grandfather had been killed by Grimms. Monroe had never known him, but the stories told by his family when he was just a pup had been scary. Granddad had been the embodiment of the Big Bad Wolf.
So Grimms had been terrible creatures for Monroe all his childhood, and as an adult he had found a way to appease the inner beast and live hidden among humans.
But Nick had been so different from the tales. Innocent, sure. He hadn’t known who and what he was back then. Still, later he hadn’t really changed. He was still looking for a way to handle what his heritage told him to do -- be a Grimm -- and his job as a police officer.
It had been strange to sit in the living room of his home, talk to the other man, listen to the moral conflicts he experienced, and actually understanding where he came from. Monroe truly understood and because Nick tried to be different, tried not to go out and simply kill the non-humans -- he was different. Maybe he was a new kind of Grimm; maybe he was an aberration.
Monroe slid between the lichen and moss hanging from the tree roots, his eyes adjusting to the gloom with ease. It smelled of Nick in here. Mixed with pain and fear and blood. The blood was tickling his senses, but he hadn’t felt the urge to rip something apart just yet.
Pilates is your friend, he recited in his head. Rigorous life-style, thank you!
Nick hadn’t moved much. He lay curled up, on his side, arms wrapped around his abdomen, face pale and sweaty and contorted in pain. His dark hair was messy, sweaty. It hung into his eyes. The wound on his shoulder was covered by his jacket, but the jagged, torn edges of the fabric showed stains of blood.
Sharp, strong teeth. A second of inattentiveness. And trouble had found them.
Monroe knew he should have been able to smell the other, but he hadn’t, which was troublesome. Only when it had launched himself at them had he become aware of the creature.
And the more frightening aspect had been the moment of realization that not the Grimm but the blutbad had been the target. That had truly shaken the wolf. This thing hunted others; his kind. Monroe momentarily felt a curl of unease, close to fear, then pushed it away.
He had been the target. Nick had gotten hurt.
The creature – two arms, two legs, fangs, extended jaws, really, really fast! – had bitten him in the shoulder, tearing a very deep wound, and then fled when the Grimm had shot at it. Nick’s aim hadn’t really been off; he could have killed it. He had simply chased it away.
Stupid cop training! Monroe raged silently.
Grimms were supposed to be killers. Nick had to learn that his life depended on his instincts.
Then again, had the instinct been to kill or to preserve a life?
Monroe sighed as he crouched down beside the other man, taking in the feverish face, the deep lines of pain. Poison, he had realized. Fast acting, agonizing, but apparently not lethal or Nick would be dead by now. The wound was inflamed, he saw when he carefully lifted the jacket’s edge. But no longer bleeding.
He sighed again.
Nick was an enigma. A Grimm who didn’t hunt. A Grimm who tried to reason and talk peace. A Grimm who relied very heavily on his police training. A Grimm who had partnered up with a wolf.
Oh, he was probably going to be the laughing stock of so many fireside tales. Not that blutbaden really mingled. Territorial feuds were ugly and the last time he had seen his family, the bristling and hackles-rising had been ever-present. Once the young left they were no longer welcome, aside from a visit to pay respect to an alpha. Monroe was far from respectful and he really didn’t want another get-together like the last time, years ago. That had been… really ugly.
The voice was weak, laced with pain, but a core of strength came through. Monroe looked into the too-bright eyes.
“Nothing out there,” he told the injured man. “Nothing but fog.”
They were deep in the woods. Nick’s cell phone was trashed, but at least they had the backpack’s contents, which was quite helpful. Food, water, emergency kit and blankets. And Monroe had two days to figure out how to get them out of this mess. Because whatever had attacked them – him – was still out there, even if he couldn’t smell it.
He dug through the backpack and opened the water bottle, giving some of it to Nick. The younger man drank eagerly, then sank back with a groan. Monroe didn’t have to ask how bad it was; he could see and smell it. It was almost like the pain was a living thing of its own, that he could feel it.
Nick clenched his teeth, jaw muscles working, and a soft groan escaped his suddenly bloodless lips. He curled up again, riding out another wave.
“It was after me,” Monroe murmured when the wave had passed.
The blurry eyes shot him a question.
“You were in the way. It was coming for me. It got you because…”
Because Nick had been stupid. Cop instincts. Protect the innocent. Monroe flexed his fingers, feeling claw tips, and he cursed his failing control.
“I’m a cop, Monroe,” Nick whispered.
“You’re a Grimm! Grimms don’t throw themselves between a blutbad and whatever that thing is!”
“I’m a cop,” the Grimm repeated doggedly. “First and foremost. I protect. I’m not a hunter. I’m not running around looking for your kind and killing them in cold blood!”
And he wasn’t trained either. He had still a long way to go. Thrown into a game he didn’t yet understand.
Monroe sat back, looking at Nick, wondering how come he was now involved in this mess.
Because of the missing girls, because one of his own kind had stepped out of line, because Nick had latched onto him for help and told him he trusted him!
That had thrown him. It still did.
Grimms were loners. Like blutbaden. They came together for procreation and that was that. And they didn’t really get old. Marie Kessler had lived a lot longer than Monroe would have given her credit for, and if not for the cancer, she might have gone on for a few more years.
Nick was innocent. He was vulnerable. And too damn honorable!
“You can’t be a Grimm and a cop,” he growled, leaning his back against the dirt wall.
“Who says so?”
Monroe gave him an exasperated look. “You’re a Grimm!”
“So you keep telling me. Being a Grimm doesn’t come with a handbook! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!”
“Kill the bad boys of the creature world.”
“In cold blood?”
He looked into the pained eyes. “It’s what you Grimms do.”
“It’s not what I do, Monroe.”
“Things will be after you. Reapers aren’t the fun kind. They’ll cut your head off, end of story!”
“I’m not going to start hunting! Forget it. I have a job and if someone, something, threatens the people I’ve sworn to protect, I’ll act accordingly.”
Nick screwed his eyes shut and hissed, fingers clenching into the messy fabric of his shirt as the pain came back.
“You didn’t even try to shoot that thing,” the wolf grumbled.
“I don’t kill in cold blood.”
“It was out to kill you!”
“No, it was after you. I did what I had to do.”
Monroe scrubbed a hand over his face. Annoyance, exasperation, anger and a grain of understanding coursed through him.
“You won’t live very long if you keep doing this,” he muttered.
Nick was silent, his eyes a little clearer, but still in pain. Finally, “It’s how I do it.”
Monroe shook his head, then let it fall against the dirt wall behind him. Of course it was how he did it! And because he did it his own way they were now stuck in the middle of nowhere, Nick was injured, and Monroe had been upgraded to personal bodyguard.
Yeah, he was the laughing stock. Any decent blutbad would take the opportunity and kill the Grimm. Rip out his throat, make him pay for what his ancestors and kin had done. But Monroe was a reformed wolf. And he kinda liked the guy. A lot.
He closed his eyes. This was getting worse and worse!
A soft moan had him alert and the suppressed cry made him lurch over to where Nick was fighting another surge, one that was a lot worse than before. One hand clawed at the bite, blood slicking the pale digits, and the scent hit Monroe’s nose like a tidal wave. Blood and the sharp, acidic smell of the poison. Talons broke through and his canines lengthened, eyes turning red. He fought the instinct, pushing the wolf back, and forced Nick’s hand away from the injury.
The young detective cried out when Monroe had to apply more force, but he was too weak and simply slumped back, panting, eyes dilated.
“Hurts,” he managed. “God, it hurts!”
And then the cramps struck once more. Monroe had to use a lot more strength than he would have thought to keep the other man from doing himself even more harm as he almost convulsed.
Nick finally collapsed, a limp weight resting against his thighs. His breathing was shallow, the skin cool and damp to the touch. Monroe didn’t like it; not one bit.
Something whispered past outside and he fluidly moved into a crouch, muscles tense. It sounded like a slither, dragging over the mossy ground, the leaves whispering. The hanging moss veil moved like in a breeze. It still smelled of the forest, but Monroe’s hackles rose and his wolf side was by now pushing forward.
Something was out there.
Something was looking for them.
… shot through the opening and right at him.
The blutbad had a second to realize he was in trouble, then he was thrown back against the wall with a painful thud. A thick, rope-like vine grabbed his ankles, immobilizing his feet, another made a run for his wrists. He slashed at it with sharp claws and managed a few hits, then a new attack from above had him completely immobile. He howled in anger, struggling hard, fangs completely out and his face completely wolf now. If the vines hadn’t kept him tied, he might even have been able to finish a complete morph.
And then the creature stood before him, green and brown and black and looking like a walking tree. Black eyes, a face barely human, the skin overgrown with moss and lichen and even grass. It hissed, baring pointy teeth that spoke of a predator.
There was a loud click and Monroe’s head whipped around to stare at his injured friend.
Nick was standing. He was standing! Unsteadily, sure, but he was upright. And he was aiming his service weapon at the intruder, only a slight tremor speaking of his current state. Startling clear eyes, hard and unyielding, were fixated on the moss thing.
“Let him go.”
The voice chilled the blutbad. This wasn’t Nick. This was the Grimm. This was more than a police officer protecting him. This was a Grimm giving a final warning.
The moss creature rumbled softly, turning to face the Grimm.
“I said: let him go,” Nick repeated.
Damn if the man wasn’t terrifying. Monroe wanted to run right now. Far, far away. As it was, he was rather well wrapped-up. Where was the man who had been poisoned and riding out waves of pain? How could he even stand?
And then Monroe remembered what Nick had told him about Aunt Marie, about her last fight, how she had killed one of the guys sent to finish her. She had finished him.
“He is your enemy, Grimm,” the moss thing said.
“He is my friend.”
“Blutbaden are violent, terrible things. You are their natural enemy. He won’t think twice about selling you out to his kind.”
“He hasn’t killed me yet.”
And Monroe had had the chance. With Nick down for the count, for sure. And before, too. Innocent and not yet truly aware of his potential, the young Grimm was easy prey.
He hadn’t, though. Because Nick had told him he trusted him. It had blindsided the wolf, it had made him step back in confusion and re-examine everything. And he had found that being an unconventional, reformed wolf might work in a partnership with an unconventional Grimm.
“You, on the other hand,” Nick went on coldly, “bit me. You poisoned me.”
“It was a mistake I regret.”
“What are you?”
The gun never wavered, the eyes never lost their coldness.
“I am the forest.”
Monroe blinked. Huhwhatthef…? What?!
“My kind, like the Mellifer, protects. Grimms are not our enemy. We always existed in harmony. Your aunt was aware of us and never killed one of my kind. In turn we assisted.”
“By attacking my friend?”
The moss creature rumbled a little. “Blutbaden are never friends.”
“Neither are jagerbar, but I didn’t kill any of them either.”
One more point for Nick. Monroe knew the story and he had been surprised to hear there had been survivors. Actually, all of them had survived. He hadn’t shot at the kids at all. The family was still together and Monroe had heard rumors that Frank Rabe had sworn to repay Nick his favor one day, if he needed it. Nick had brushed it off and gone about his police work as if nothing had ever happened.
Something had, though. He had a jagerbar indebted to him. He had made a point, he had been noticed.
“Please let him go,” Nick repeated. “Monroe won’t harm me.”
So much trust. And somehow Monroe couldn’t see himself laying a paw on the man. Trust or no trust.
“He is a violent creature,” the moss thing said. “A blutbad.”
“And he’s my blutbad, I trust him.”
There. Those words. Spoken out loud. Monroe stared at the Grimm, mesmerized. Somewhere in his frazzled mind he howled at the proprietary ‘my blutbad’, but that was drowned out by the confusion.
No one had ever trusted him before. No one. No one had staked a claim on his loyalty, his integrity…
The moss creature cocked its head. “I made a mistake harming you, Grimm. Please allow me to help.”
Nick stepped back as one of the vines approached, his step a little unsteady. Monroe tensed, wanting out, wanting to help. Wanting to protect.
Damn, his instincts were really completely off with this guy. Why else had he attacked him that very first time they met and then offered him a beer? He had invited a Grimm into his home!
Grandfather would probably turn in his grave!
Of course he had been curious. He had looked into the wide, terrified eyes, listened to the rapid beat of the younger man’s heart, and he had dared to joke while it could turn out to be just a clever ruse to catch him unawares. But everything had pointed at a young, inexperienced Grimm. A very determined one, too. Monroe had been strangely drawn to that and he had followed his instincts which, for the first time, weren’t screaming blood and gore and rage at him.
The inner wolf had been interested.
“I can administer an antidote, Grimm,” Monroe heard the creature say. “I mean no harm.”
“Then let him go,” Nick demanded, a light rasp in his voice.
Shit, Monroe thought. Whatever Grimm magic was running through Nick’s system, it was wearing off. Fast.
The creature looked at Monroe. “Attack me and you will die,” it promised darkly.
Then the vines fell away and Monroe was free. For a whole second nothing happened, like a weird kind of Mexican stand-off, then Nick’s breathing stuttered a little. It was the only warning Monroe got. He was just fast enough to cushion Nick’s fall as the younger man collapsed. He was still holding on to the gun and he raised it feebly when the vines approached, but Monroe laid a hand over the white-knuckled grip.
“Thanks,” he murmured in a low voice.
Nick released the hold on the gun, fading fast now.
The forest creature watched them, then the vine pushed under the torn jacket and Nick winced, then almost twisted out of Monroe’s hold when it did something. He swallowed a scream. Monroe nearly jumped at the enemy to tear out its throat.
But then it was over and Nick became limp. He was trembling, semi-aware, almost unconscious. Monroe gingerly removed the gun.
“Tread lightly, wolf,” the forest creature said, voice cold. “He trusts you. Abuse the trust, be responsible for his death, and we will hunt you down.”
“What is it to you?” Monroe snarled, baring fangs.
“We protect. We harmonize with the Grimms. Marie knew it and she was always welcome among the forest. She died too soon, without passing on her knowledge to her heir. He has to learn faster than others."
The vines had by now disappeared out of the underground hole.
“A Grimm’s instincts are sharp and sure. So I trust his that you are a friend, that he can trust you. Should you betray him, the forest will make you pay.”
Monroe rumbled. Blutbaden didn’t like to be threatened.
Like a wraith, the creature disappeared.
He sat in the now once again silent burrow, holding Nick in his arms, a limp weight, completely at his mercy. Monroe was still very much wolf at the moment, the talons sharp and dangerous, brushing harmlessly over the clothes that were no protection for Nick at all. The smell of blood, now free of the acidic poison, held no lure for him. At least not of the violent-tear-him-apart-eat-him kind.
It was all about trust.
Peeling back the jacket, Monroe checked the bite wound and found that it was covered in a kind of clear slime. The infection seemed to have disappeared and the coating was like glue, and completely odorless.
“Now what?” he murmured, settling back, Nick still protectively close to him.
Through the vines he saw that night was falling and he wouldn’t risk running around the forest with an injured Grimm in the middle of the night.
“Looks like we’re spending the night,” he sighed.