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Chapter Text

 

Now Chil the Kite brings home the night
That Mang the Bat sets free--
The herds are shut in byre and hut,
For loosed till dawn are we.
This is the hour of pride and power,
Talon and tush and claw.
Oh, hear the call!--Good hunting all
That keep the Jungle Law!

- Rudyard Kipling

 

I burn, I freeze; I am never warm. I am rigid; I forgot softness because it did not serve me.

- Catherynne M. Valente

 

Beth's first thought is that he's beautiful.

It's a crazed thought, embarrassingly hysterical, and it hits her with every bit of the force he uses to hit the ground. Later she looks back at this moment and she understands so many things so much better, and one of the things she understands is that he is he, but for the moment, stumbling back with her knife still clutched in her numb hand, blood running hot down her side from a hard line of talon scores slashed through her jacket, all panting and reeking fear sweat and despairing rage because she's sure - even more now - that she's about to die, she watches it as it leaps from the low incline of the liquor store's roof, powerful hind legs drawn up and thickly muscled forelegs - forearms? - spread back and wide like bat wings without the wing, and it's insane.

But she thinks it's beautiful.

Its lines, its hard curves, the way it slices its huge body through the air, somehow graceful where no grace should be present. All that power coiling and uncoiling under glossy black. Beautiful.

Then she returns to thinking she's about to die.

She stumbles backward a step, two, and she's wryly pleased with herself when she doesn't flinch as it lands on all fours in front of her. The three snarling, naked monstrosities - there was only supposed to be one, she only saw one come back here - are still ranged behind her, patchy hides mottled with sores and filthy yellowed fur, scythe claws dangling and milky eyes rolling, and she figures they're not going anywhere anyway. They can wait.

Maybe this thing will fight them for the privilege of ripping her corpse apart.

Well. She'll do some ripping of her own first.

Her boots splash in rainwater thick with grime as she finds a firmer stance and lifts the knife, the runes on the sterling blade caught and thrown into dreamlike relief by flickering neon. She has no idea if the silver is going to do anything, no idea if it's all just stories, if the whole thing is just one big fucking lie, but if it's true this will burn like hell before they disarm her - literally, right? - and anyway...

"C'mon," she breathes. Hisses rise from behind her, hyena-laughter. Crazed as she feels. The thing in front of her is growling like thunder and backing up but it's clearly not thrown by her. Not at all. It's backing up to charge, canine head lowered and massive shoulders rippling, and when its lips peel back from its gleaming teeth she sees incisors as long as her hand.

She's not scared. She really isn't. It's been a long time since she had anything to lose.

"Come the fuck on." She's impatient. No idea what the fuck it's waiting for, what the things behind her are waiting for, no idea why she isn't in bloody shreds all over the alley's blacktop floor. She brandishes the knife - okay, yes, she failed, she failed them all, but she can't help that now and there's no point in angsting over it - and spreads her arms. "I'm right here!"

She realizes the horrors behind her have ceased their cackling half a second before the dog-thing lunges.

There are things you realize without realizing. There are things that become apparent to you all at once and in every important way, but you only figure it out much later and after a lot of other stuff has happened. It's like that with his beauty, it's like that with the fact that it is not an it at all, and it's like that when it lunges and doesn't lunge at her. She's sure it has, ducks her head and squeezes her eyes shut and readies herself to slash with the knife at the same instant she readies herself for the feeling of her guts spilling all over the cracked tar, but somehow she already knows it wasn't coming for her. She feels a warm breeze, the heat of it as it hurtles by her, the caress of fur on the outside of her forearm, and she smells something indescribable - canine, yes, the smell that somehow attaches itself to all dogs, but also not, musky with blood and the faintest edge of decay, sweat, and something she fails to identify, at the time, as cigarette smoke.

And something else under it all. Sweeter. Still thick but fresher. Something that makes her want to break into a run that has nothing to do with fear. She will never identify that smell as any one thing.

Except him.

She turns as it passes her and watches, stunned to paralysis, as it slams into the first of the three and sinks those hand-long canines into a patchy-hide shoulder, rips its head sideways. Drops of black blood scatter into the air and the thing releases a bubbling scream that's still horrifically like laughter, raises its scythe claws and rakes them down the dog-thing's foreleg. Flash of torn flesh through the black forest of its fur, bright crimson streaming into that black, and somehow over the snarls and screams of the others she hears the patter of the blood as it hits the tar and splashes into the thin puddles of rain.

The horrible thing is half the size of the dog - wolf, it's a wolf - and she's initially sure it must be an easy fight even with three against one, but then the other two throw themselves onto its furry back and grapple, claws flashing like volcanic glass knives, their rows of jagged teeth smeared with gore as they bite and bite and tear, and now that they've started back up with their awful laughter they refuse to stop. The wolf-thing rears and staggers, lets out a growl that has far more in common with a roar, reaches clumsily back and swipes at them. Its paw catches one and flings it down and Beth hears the burble and crunch as that paw crushes its ribcage, but the other one is still clinging, shaking its flat head furiously from side to side, and more blood is showering through the beams of neon like nightmare rain. The first one the wolf took down is rising, jaws wide; one of its arms is dangling loose by a thin shred of meat but the other is raised and its claws catch the wolf in the flank, rip and peel back a long strip of fur. It has time to do that before the wolf bites through its neck and jerks sideways and sends its head rolling behind a dumpster.

But the third one is hanging on. And the wolf-thing is weakening.

She could run. It comes to her in a rush, the same rush that's bringing feeling back into her limbs, tingling her fingertips with adrenaline. This is perfect. Two of the monstrosities taken down, one definitely very dead and the other one probably so, and if she's lucky these two remaining things will take each other out. Either way they're both preoccupied. She could run and get away, and she's hurt, still bleeding freely even if her own pain has faded into a dull background throb, but she'll be okay.

She should run. She really should. She bites down on her lip. The knife feels like it's dragging her arm toward the ground.

She runs.

Not toward the mouth of the alley. She's not thinking. Thinking now might get her killed. She clenches her legs like springs and they sent her into the air and she's already stabbing, clawing her way up through thick fur - soft, how is it so soft - until she reaches the naked thing still biting into a frenzy as the wolf bucks and snarls and tries to shake it off. There's no way she should be able to hang on. No fucking way. But she does, and she feels her own hard grin as she slashes the thing's side open, ripping it all the way around to its knobby spine, black blood and gray flesh and sickly pale bone all gone pink and orange and red in the rear window's neon.

Budweiser. Budweiser.

It catches her attention as she slashes again and smells burning hair, burning skin, the silver melting its way open. Screams, not glee but agony. Its muscles seizing, narrow frame convulsing and finally knocking it free with the force of its own spasms. Her blade is still deep in its shoulder and she goes with it, landing under it with an impact that explodes the breath out of her, cold wet soaking through to the small of her back and the thrashing weight of the thing on top of her, the stench of its blood and fear and surprised rage. She doesn't hesitate, still isn't thinking; she kicks it off her with strength that would surprise her if she had any mental space for surprise, and before it can recover she flips herself and pins it with a knee in the center of its back, slices open the side of its throat and watches blood jet over the blacktop with detached interest.

She's not even here. She's very far away, hovering above the whole thing. She smells smoke. Heat of flames on the back of her neck.

Laughter.

She falls back onto her knees and almost drops the knife. She doesn't. She keeps hold of it. It's what she does.

She holds on.

Abrupt silence except for cars passing at the far end of the wide alley, a few distant voices. Two on a Thursday morning in northwest Atlanta, but even though it's not exactly loud out there, in here it's unnaturally still, as if they've slipped sideways into a nearby but faintly delineated other universe, something into which people can come and go but where not everything fully penetrates. Because this hasn't exactly been quiet, but no one is coming. No sirens. No indication that anyone out there has any idea that anything even slightly weird has just happened. Anything at all out of the ordinary.

Monsters and whatnot.

She heaves in breath, ragged around the edges. Whatever chemicals were suppressing the pain are bleeding out of her. Literally, maybe.

She could still run. Stumble, anyway. But she turns, looks to her right, and there's the wolf-thing, lifting itself onto its hind legs, forelegs - arms, they really are arms - wrapped around itself. It puffs, moans. Drools bloody foam, its tongue lolling. It swings its eyes toward her, and she perceives a gaze both piercingly blue-

And deeply intelligent. Nothing like the mindless hunger she was facing down before.

A total absence of malevolence.

She watches, speechless, as it staggers toward her, still standing upright. Like this, it's easily seven feet tall, maybe more, looming over her. She should be running; she should also be terrified. Those teeth. Considerable claws of its own. It could snap her in half like that proverbial twig.

She's not.

It whines, wavers, and falls - collapses, hits the tar with a deep thud that shakes her, and curls in on itself, shaking.

Slow, every movement deliberate, she pushes herself to her feet.

The pain is worse with every step she takes. She's pretty sure she's still bleeding. But all her attention is locked on the wolf-thing in front of her, and as she stands and stares down at it, it begins to change.

She's never seen anything even vaguely like it. As such, she can't really process it. Her brain observes but makes no sense out of what it's observing. There isn't any sense to be made. It simply is, is happening before her eyes, and long ago she at least got beyond assuming she was insane every time she sees something like this.

It arcs, twists, and as violent shudders wrack its muscles the air fills with the sound of cracking bone, cascades of it, someone heavy-footed stomping over sticks. The fur thins and seems to recede, black transitioning to pale bare skin stark in contrast. The long, narrow snout packs itself into the shrinking skull, teeth pulling in on themselves. It breaks apart and remakes itself, reforms, and she pulls in a slow breath as it subsides into the naked body of a man awkwardly crumpled halfway into one of the bigger puddles, streaked with gore, face hidden by a tangle of hair dark as the fur.

Okay.

She has options. She can freak out. She can still run. Freaking out and running are not mutually exclusive. She could, before she does either of those things, go to him and grip him by the hair, yank his head up, and slit his throat.

Because sure, he looks like a man now. But he's not one. No fucking way. And right now, as far as she's concerned, that's more than sufficient cause for killing.

She bites her lip and makes her way over to him, slips the knife back into the sheath at her belt and crouches beside him.

He's not moving. Maybe cutting his throat would be redundant.

But she lays a hand on his back, fingers grazing deep, ugly slashes extending down to his ribs from which blood is still seeping, and feels the expansion and contraction of lungs at work. Shallow, but there, rasping under her palm.

He moans. Shivers.

And she knows she's not going to kill him.

She lifts his hair out of his face. She still can't see much through the grime and the gore but she makes out a sharp cheekbone, scruffy facial hair, blunt nose. The muscles under her hand are corded, thick, powerful. He's smaller like this, yes. He's hurt. He's weak. Could be dying.

He's still dangerous.

She sighs and combs a hand into her damp hair, shoving it back from her brow. Her hands are both filthy, but it's not like her hair was in good shape. None of her is. The whole thing is a fucking mess and has been for over a year, so at least this is familiar territory.

She takes hold of his upper arm, shakes him. He groans, tenses, but otherwise there's nothing.

"Get up."

Nothing. She shakes him again, harder. "Get up or I'm leavin' you here."

Because if he can't walk at least sort of on his own, there's really nothing she can do anyway. And she knows better than to bother with 911.

He lets loose another groan, louder, a little more of himself behind it. That's good, probably. She slides her hand under his bicep and tugs, lifts. "C'mon. I got stuff back at my place, I can..."

Can what? Sure, she remembers everything Daddy taught her and has had many opportunities to put it to use, but are stitches really going to be enough for this man? This creature?

Well. She can only do what she can do.

She presses her other hand under his middle, feels more planes of muscle across his stomach, and as she does he twitches and mutters something she can't make out.

She leans in. You idiot. You idiot, it could be a trap.

But if he was going to kill her, he could have done it long before now.

"What?"

But then he's shaking her away, trying to push himself up, and before his arms can fold under him again she has him, grunting with the effort, helping to lift him. They make it to his knees and he half falls, leans against her, and somehow she can bear him.

He repeats it, shifting his legs. Trying to get them under him. This time she gets it, though she doesn't understand. Like everything else here, it makes no sense at all.

"Whatever," she mutters, and hauls him to his feet.

He's completely naked. Once, not very long ago, a farmer's daughter in the full of her seventeenth year would have smiled nervously and blushed and looked firmly away, twisted a strand of her hair between her fingers. Now that same farmer's daughter, orphaned and aged the span of both a year and a lifetime, observes this fact for all its practical implications and moves on. Yes, he has a normal-looking dick. So he appears human in that respect too.

She manages to shrug off her jacket, ties it awkwardly around his waist. It looks ridiculous. Fortunately that doesn't even vaguely matter.

His head is lolling back and to the side as she helps him to the mouth of the alley. Her apartment - her room - is three blocks from here. It'll suck, it'll make everything hurt so much worse, but she can make it and there's Vicodin waiting for her along with everything else she'll need. In the meantime there's something surreally pleasant about the solidity of him, even if he can barely walk. The strength beneath the weakness - weakness she's almost certain is temporary. She doubts he's actually going to die.

His heat. Even the smell of him - canine, bloody, smoky.

And something else.

Out of the alley and onto a street thinly traveled in the small hours, cars passing only now and then. They have to be getting looks; that also doesn't matter. It's nice when things don't matter. It's simpler.

Her life has, in many ways, gotten very simple.

But this feels like a complication.

She's an idiot. She is a complete and utter idiot for this. She should have left him. But maybe not all of that farm girl burned away a year ago, because there was no way she was ever leaving him there. Not even after what he said to her. It didn't necessarily mean anything anyway. He might not even know where he is. What's happening. What's going on. Might be that all he can understand is his own agony, which must be significant.

Nevertheless, he said it. And when he said it and he met her gaze, his blue eyes were clear. Desperate.

Frightened.

Don't.