The smell of Neal's blood was Peter's first sign that they had a really big problem.
"What?" Neal said, when Peter slid his shoulder out from under Neal's arm and tipped Neal against a tree. Neal had been shot in the leg. Thus far, the injury seemed to be non-life-threatening; it was merely painful and inconvenient and bled a lot. However, all this could change if they had to spend the night in the woods.
And, quite possibly, things were going to change in a hurry, because now that he'd noticed the copper tang of Neal's blood, Peter couldn't stop noticing it. To his own horror and distress, it was making him salivate.
"Peter?" Neal asked, his voice shifting to a worried tone. "Did you hear something?"
"Shhh," Peter shushed him, and Neal hushed instantly. Peter frantically calculated the date and the moon cycle and -- oh, God.
Normally he was meticulously, obsessively careful about keeping track of the day of the month and the time of moonset and moonrise. His detail-focused personality lent itself well to this, not to mention the caution that his parents had hammered into him until he wore it like a second skin. He always, always knew how far out from the next full moon it was. El helped him by keeping track herself and even setting an alert on his phone.
But they had been focused so intently on this case for the past few days that he must have lost track. He'd been absolutely positive that the full moon was tomorrow. El might have called to remind him -- El, in fact, must be going out of her mind if she'd realized what night it was -- but their phones had been confiscated by the drug smugglers who had driven them out to this meet.
... a meet which had gone catastrophically wrong, hours ago. They'd managed to get away, and Peter had even stolen a gun from one of their captors, but they'd fled into the woods and now here they were in a dark wilderness, with Neal injured and Peter ...
He swallowed hard, tasting bile, and looked up at the sky. There were patchy clouds, hiding the stars in blots of darkness, but not enough to conceal the glow of imminent moonrise on the horizon. Now that he'd noticed it, he could feel it pulling at the tides in his blood. He swallowed again and realized that he'd begun to shake -- in fear, but also with the rising spike of adrenaline that heralded the onset of the change.
"Peter?" Neal repeated anxiously.
Peter turned to look at him. Neal's face should have been merely a pale blur in the dusk, but Peter's eyesight was sharper now, enough to see the worried expression as Neal looked around for their pursuers. Peter wondered how he could have so terribly, stupidly overlooked his own symptoms. But he knew why: he'd been focused on their escape, and on Neal's injury. Worry and fear had overwhelmed his rational mind until too late to do anything about it.
He could run away. The thought, as soon as it occurred, was so overwhelming that it was all he could do to stand his ground, and that, too, signaled how close to the change he was. It always got harder to think. And right now, he needed his brain more than he ever had in his life.
Normally, the change was an inconvenience, not a disaster. Werewolf lore had gotten some things right and other things devastatingly wrong, most particularly that werewolves were not doomed to become mindless, slavering beasts. Werewolf packs, like wolf packs, consisted of nuclear families: parents, mates, siblings, children. And all werewolves were calm and rational in the presence of their packmates, no more aggressive than a normal wolf or dog. Peter never had any trouble as long as El was with him. They always made sure that he was indoors before moonrise, and that she had no other commitments that night. He kept heavy-duty veterinary tranquilizers on hand, just in case she needed them, but she'd never had to resort to that. Usually he paced around the house for a little while after the change, then lay on the couch with her and watched TV while she petted him. (Well, she watched TV; Peter watched the flickering colors, mostly.) He'd fall asleep with his head in her lap and wake up naked and human. They had come to regard it as pleasant, if strange, couple time. Some months, he went upstate to spend the night of the change hunting deer with his mother and sister on his parents' huge, wooded farm.
But without his mate, without his parents -- that was where the classic werewolf tale of a monstrous, mindless beast came from. That was why his kind had been hunted into hiding and supposed extinction many years ago. Lone, packless werewolves were doomed to become exactly what the old stories said they were: ravening killers, tearing apart anything in their path, whether wildlife, livestock, or human being.
Or ... Neal.
Peter was capable, to a limited degree, of suppressing his change. It was a terrible strain, and his parents had warned him that it was dangerous, both physically and emotionally. But there had been a couple of times in his life that he'd managed to do it, though it usually left him exhausted and cranky and prone to catching every stray bug that came along for the next month. Those times, however, had always been in the city, behind walls and roofs to shut out the moon.
Here in the wilderness, with the smell of Neal's blood in the back of his throat, and the sounds and scents of the forest all around him ... there wasn't a chance.
"Neal," Peter said. His voice sounded hoarse and thick. "You're going to have to go on without me."
The edge of the moon slipped above the rim of the world, so low on the horizon that it cast little light, but Peter felt it like an electric shock down his spine. He wasn't going to be able to hold on much longer. Minutes. Maybe less.
And Neal, damn him, let go of his tree and took a hopping step forward, holding out a blood-streaked hand. "You're hurt, aren't you? I knew you'd try to do the stupid, macho -- Peter, no. We're going together or we both stay here."
"It's not that. There's no time." How could he restrain himself? If only he still had his handcuffs. The only thing he had on him was the gun he'd taken from one of their captors when they'd escaped, stuck through the waistband of his jeans. It only had two shots left, but two were better than none. Peter took it out and stared at it. Two bullets. Just one would be enough ...
"Peter, look, I don't know what you think you're doing, but whatever it is, stop it." Neal's voice shook a little. "I mean, how far do you think I'll get in the woods without you? Not exactly a Boy Scout here. I'll fall into a river or get eaten by a bear. Think of what El is going to say when she finds out you let a bear eat me. Not to mention how bad it'll look on your report."
Peter's teeth were chattering. He clenched his jaw. One bullet -- but how was he ever supposed to expect Neal to get over that? Or El? And yet, if he killed Neal, he'd never get over it himself, and wouldn't deserve to ...
"Peter!" Neal said, and he was up in Peter's space, the warmth of his fingers on Peter's cold ones, the smell of his blood and his skin. The gun slipped from Peter's hands into Neal's, and that was all right; at least Neal had protection now, from the people chasing them, and from Peter himself. "Peter, please," Neal said, his voice cracking in desperation. "Tell me what's going on."
Peter pushed Neal away from him as hard as he could, almost sending Neal sprawling on the leaf litter under the trees. "What's going on," Peter snapped, clinging to self-control by his fingernails, "is that you are going to take that gun and go as far and fast as you can. Head deeper into the hills -- I'm sorry, God, I'm sorry, but the FBI will have search parties all over this area by morning, and all you have to do is avoid being caught until then. Stay out of sight, and if anything moves, shoot it."
Maybe he could break his own leg, but there wasn't anything heavy enough ...
"Peter, seriously, if this is an attempt to draw them off my trail, it's the stupidest plan ever. This plan makes my plans look like masterpieces of foresight and careful preparation --"
"Go!" Peter tried to shout, but it came out more of a whimper, or a growl. He fell to his knees "Go, Neal, please."
"No," Neal said, his distress so strong that Peter could smell it under the hot scent of blood. He was too close, too damn close. Peter scrambled backwards when Neal tried to approach him again, and Neal stopped, helpless. "Peter, whatever's wrong, we'll figure it out together."
"What's wrong --" Peter said between his teeth, the words choked, garbled, "what's wrong is that I'm a werewolf, Neal, and I'm going to kill you. Just -- go!" The struggle to hold back his wolf side was so intense now that he felt as if he was being torn apart. "Run!" he managed, before he lost control entirely and the change swept across him like a breaking wave.
The gun was cold and heavy in Neal's hands.
He knew about werewolves, of course, but only what everyone knew: that they were mindless beasts, tragic victims of an incurable condition that was lethally dangerous to everyone around them. And they were extinct. Every last one had been hunted and killed, or, at best, imprisoned in jails or asylums, where they'd died. And all of this had happened long ago. The last werewolves had been killed in the early 19th century.
Now Peter, in front of him, was thrashing in the grip of convulsions. Neal could almost convince himself that Peter had been -- lying to him, or confused, or something; maybe they'd drugged him, maybe he'd hit his head ... except, Peter's arms and legs really shouldn't bend like that, and his face, God, his face ...
Neal tried to take a limping step backwards, but his injured leg nearly buckled under him, so he stood his ground as the wolf that had been Peter thrashed and struggled and managed to finally untangle itself from Peter-the-human's clothing.
Peter-the-wolf was huge, bigger than the biggest dog Neal had ever seen. He must have weighed about the same as human Peter, which made sense -- conservation of mass and all of that. (Thinking about it analytically kept Neal from collapsing into a gibbering heap of terror, which was a plus.) Peter had thick, shaggy fur, brindled brown and gray. His eyes were brown, flecked with gold, and they fixed on Neal with an intensity that was very ... Peter.
"Peter?" Neal tried hesitantly. He didn't raise the gun -- he didn't want to shoot Peter, no matter what. But he brought up his other hand to support the first, gripping it so tightly that the joints in his fingers ached.
The wolf's head and tail were low. If wolf body language was the same as a dog's, then it seemed to be uncertain. Not aggressive, exactly -- at least Neal didn't think so. More like wary and perhaps confused.
"It's okay," Neal said, keeping his voice quiet. Not that he was an expert on wild animals, but he did know something about getting past dangerous Rottweilers in the course of nocturnal explorations. "It's just me, Neal. You know me."
The wolf's furry ears swiveled at the sound of Neal's voice. It gave the faintest hint of a growl, a low rumble deep in its broad chest.
"Peter, knock it off," Neal said before he could stop himself -- which probably wasn't the best way to address a dangerous wild animal that, up until a couple minutes ago, had been his handler and friend. But ... it was Peter. And Peter wouldn't hurt him. This, Neal knew down to his blood and bones.
He'd forgotten, very temporarily, about his injured leg, but now the pain surged back to remind him. And the wolf was sniffing the air. It smelled the blood.
Neal swallowed a rush of panic. Couldn't animals smell fear? Except this wasn't an animal, not really. It was Peter.
Moving slowly and carefully, he tucked the gun into his waistband and showed his open, empty hands. He wasn't going to shoot Peter, even if it came down to self-defense, so there was no point in holding it. "Look," he said. "No guns. We're still friends, right? Even though you're a wolf now."
Peter growled again, low and deep, and took a step forward. Neal took a quick, involuntary step back, and his stupid, shot leg buckled under him. He went down hard on the rotten leaves and tree roots as a bolt of blinding pain lanced up his leg. For a moment all he could do was lie there, panting and trying to get his brain and body to work again.
Something rustled in the leaves beside him. Neal opened his eyes and looked up the long legs of the wolf to the furry body and the mouth full of sharp teeth.
"Oh damn it," he said weakly. When it came to attack-trained Rottweilers -- and werewolves were probably more or less in that category -- he'd just done the basic opposite of what you were supposed to do. Rather than standing his ground and looking confident, he'd fallen flat on his ass. He waited to get his throat ripped out.
Instead, the wolf sniffed him carefully. Neal held perfectly still as it sniffed his neck, and his hands, and lingered disturbingly long over his injured leg, which they'd bound with a sleeve of Peter's shirt. Neal wasn't sure if it was the blood, or the injury itself, or just the fact that Peter recognized his own smell. Either way, it was disturbing.
Eventually the wolf finished its explorations, turned around once, and lay down next to him, close enough that he could feel the warmth of its great, shaggy body.
Wow, Neal thought, but was afraid to say out loud; he didn't want to rock any boats by making noises or sudden moves. He couldn't keep lying here on the ground, though; for one thing, he could feel his body heat being leeched out by the cold, damp leaves. And his leg hurt horribly. Fear and adrenaline had kept him going for a while, and then he'd been too freaked out by Peter's sudden, inexplicable behavior to notice his own discomfort, but now he was all too aware that he felt like hell. All he wanted to do was lie here, despite the cold, but he knew that giving in to his lethargy would probably be a bad idea.
He pushed himself to a sitting position. The wolf swiveled its head to look at him, but didn't move otherwise. It was so huge that, had it stretched out its legs, it would definitely have been longer than Neal. Gold-flecked eyes regarded him calmly, and Neal was once again aware of Peter's presence behind those eyes.
"So ..." Neal said hesitantly. "We're good, then?"
The wolf seemed to think about this, and then, shifting its position, it laid its huge head in his lap.
"Uh, I guess that's a yes." Very hesitantly, Neal raised a hand and petted around its ears. This seemed like the thing to do, even if the idea of doing it to Peter was impossibly weird. The shaggy fur on top of Peter's head was rough to the touch, but it became very soft at the base of the long, furry ears. Neal wished he could examine wolf-Peter in the daylight, because up close, Peter's fur was wonderfully variegated. Like Peter himself, Neal thought -- from a distance, a rather uninteresting brown blur, that turned out to be full of unexpected variation and beauty when seen up close.
Peter was very warm, but Neal's legs were getting very cold. "I think I need to stand up now," he said, and gently pushed Peter's head off his lap. Standing up turned out to be easier said than done. He tried a couple of times, but fell back each time. The wolf shook itself and rose to its feet, and Neal found that he could pull himself up by using Peter to hold onto. If Peter was bothered by this, he didn't show it, at least not in any way that Neal could identify. He didn't growl, at least, which probably meant it was all right. If human Peter was anything to go by, Neal expected that wolf-Peter would have no problem growling about things that annoyed him.
Wolf-Peter raised his head suddenly, scenting the air. His mobile ears swiveled. Neal went still with his own, thief-trained version of a wild animal's reflexes, and then, very distantly, he saw the flicker of a flashlight through the trees.
"Damn it," Neal murmured. They'd been mostly concerned with covering ground, rather than covering their tracks.
Peter growled. It was so low that Neal could barely hear it, but he could feel it throbbing through Peter's body.
"Yeah, I agree," Neal murmured. "But all we've got are a couple of bullets between us, and, okay, you're pretty intimidating, but I doubt if you could handle getting shot at point-blank range." One thing he did know about werewolves was that the silver-bullet thing was just a myth. Werewolves were as susceptible to regular bullets as any animal.
He had been using human Peter as a crutch, but wolf-Peter, big as he was, didn't stand tall enough to make that a practical option. Neal located a length of dead branch that was sound enough to support his weight. Peter pressed close to him, his bulk helping keep Neal from tipping over. Upon reflection, Neal made a bundle out of Peter's discarded clothing and looped it over his stick. Peter was going to need it if he changed back; being naked out here would be a problem.
"Does Elizabeth know about this?" Neal asked as he stumped slowly through the woods, heading uphill. Peter seemed to be leading, and Neal was content to follow him; even if Peter had no idea where he was going or why, it wasn't like Neal had any better ideas. "Well, I guess she basically has to." Peter's ears swiveled back to point to him, then forward. "And obviously you didn't hurt her, and you're not hurting me. You didn't have to freak out so badly about changing in front of me. I know it's probably scary for you -- they still hunt werewolves, don't they? Or they would, if they knew about you. Don't worry, I won't ever tell."
He was rambling and he knew it, but Peter didn't seem to mind, or at least was polite enough not to growl at him. Talking helped keep him awake, which was starting to be a problem. He was lightheaded and dizzy, and noticed at one point that he was starting to sweat, which seemed like a very bad sign since he was also so cold that his teeth were chattering.
When he fell, he wasn't sure if he'd tripped on something or if his legs had stopped working. He went down mostly on Peter, who made an undignified (and unwolflike) squawking noise. "Sorry," Neal gasped, when he could talk again. He was lying partly on Peter's warm fur and partly on the cold ground.
Peter gave Neal's face a warm swipe with his tongue.
"Gah!" Neal scrubbed at his face with his sleeve, and scowled at Peter. "Don't ever do that again."
He managed to clamber back to his feet, with a lot of help from Peter, who basically got under him and allowed Neal to use him as a lever. Neal had lost his walking stick, though, and he only made it a few more steps -- hunched over and holding onto Peter -- before he fell again. This time he stayed where he was.
Peter whined low in his throat. It was an almost human sound of distress.
"Yes, I know, but I just ... can't. Go on without me." Which was stupid, he knew -- go where? Nobody who saw Peter would know who he was. At best, they'd think he was a dog or a wolf; at worst, they'd recognize him as a werewolf and shoot him.
Peter tried to worm his head under Neal's back, presumably trying to get him on his feet again. When Neal resisted, rolling away, Peter lay down beside him, stretching out to bring as much of his body as possible into contact with Neal's. Between the fur and Peter's body heat, it felt good, like being partly wrapped in a warm, heavy fur blanket. Peter had a distinctive smell, a musky animal smell which was also, in some indefinable way, very Peterish. He was solid and warm and Neal couldn't help huddling into him.
"I promise not to tell Elizabeth," Neal mumbled.
What happened next was mostly a blur. There was being cold and being warm, and movement and jostling, and he had a distinct memory of arguing with someone and begging them not to shoot Peter, though they didn't seem to have any idea what he was talking about. The next thing he was aware of with any clarity was waking up in a hospital room -- a blessedly warm hospital room, with his leg elevated and Mozzie poking into corners.
"Any spy cameras?" Neal mumbled.
Mozzie didn't flinch, so either he knew Neal had been waking up, or he'd finally mastered the zen arts he claimed to be learning. "Not yet," he said, "but I know better than to relax on Big Pharma's turf."
"I don't think pharmaceutical companies bug the patients' rooms, Moz." Mozzie, Neal thought muzzily, would get a kick out of knowing Peter was a werewolf. It would confirm half a dozen of his pet theories. Then Neal woke up enough to remember that he couldn't tell anyone ever, and furthermore, he wasn't entirely sure he hadn't hallucinated the whole thing due to hypothermia and blood loss. "Is Peter here?"
"'Hello, Mozzie, where's the Man?'" Mozzie said, looking hurt. "Way to appreciate my company."
"No, it's not that. C'mere, siddown." Neal snaked a hand out from under the blankets (nice blankets, warm blankets) to wave in the direction of the chair beside the bed. "How long was I out?"
Mollified, Mozzie sat. "Not all that long, really. It's afternoon of the same day they brought you back from the trackless wilds. And the Suit's fine; he was here earlier, but he's off somewhere with Mrs. Suit now."
Neal looked closely at Mozzie, trying to figure out if "... on a leash" was the unspoken part of that sentence. Mozzie frowned at him. "You know, I don't think you're entirely awake yet."
"Probably not," Neal said, and decided to drowse for a while.
When he woke up again, it was to the sound of muted arguing, which turned out to be the result of Mozzie, Elizabeth, and a properly human-shaped Peter playing cards on the bedside tray-table.
"El, he's cheating, do something."
"Cheating is a very loaded word, Suit."
"I'm not sure what other word you'd use for the act of sticking a card up your sleeve," Peter said. "What kind of person cheats at Crazy Eights?"
"Uh, someone who wants to win?"
"So you admit you're cheating." There was a muffled squeak. "El, stop laughing, it's not funny. People used to get shot for cheating at cards back in Wild West days."
Neal cleared his throat and the cards were temporarily forgotten. Once they'd gotten the initial pleasantries out of the way, Peter caught up Neal on what had gone on with the investigation. The FBI had mobilized a search and rescue operation that had caught the smugglers, as well as finding the two of them on a hilltop.
"And you were, uh --" Neal balked, unsure how to ask without being too obvious. He didn't like hiding this from Mozzie. Maybe there would be a way, eventually, to bring Moz in on the secret; Neal was confident that Mozzie wasn't going to grab a gun and go werewolf-hunting. Well, reasonably confident.
"I was fine," Peter said firmly, answering the gist of the question that Neal couldn't safely ask.
Elizabeth unveiled a picnic basket in which she'd smuggled lunch for Neal, and Neal found that he was starving. Mozzie drifted off on unspecified business (and probably best left that way, Neal thought, for reasons of plausible deniability), leaving Neal alone with Peter and Elizabeth. A brief, awkward silence fell before Neal said, "So."
El smiled and squeezed Peter's hand. "You probably guessed as much, Neal, but I do know," she said quietly. "You can talk openly in front of me."
"And I told her what happened in the woods," Peter added.
"How much do you remember?" Neal asked, genuinely curious.
"I always remember the basics, but it's hazy, like remembering a dream. I don't think the same way as I do when I'm human." Peter looked embarrassed.
It must be difficult for him, Neal thought, to reconcile the involuntary transformation with his control-freak tendencies. He thought about asking if Peter remembered licking him, then decided not to push his luck by embarrassing Peter in front of Elizabeth. At least, not yet; best to keep that one back for a hole card. Instead, he said, "If you'd bitten me, would I be a werewolf too?"
Peter snorted. "Don't believe everything you read. It's hereditary, not contagious. And ..." He hesitated. "It's important that this stays between us, Neal. We -- werewolves, I mean -- have spent a lot of years keeping ourselves safe by hiding."
"I know. I do understand what's at stake, Peter. I won't tell anyone, not even Moz, not without your permission."
Peter smiled slightly.
"Anyway," Neal said, striving for a lighter mood, "you're not especially scary as a werewolf. I mean, not really any more scary than you are as a human."
"Gee, thanks," Peter said, but he exchanged a look with El, with a certain amount of uneasiness.
Neal frowned. "Okay, what now?"
"Well ... it's more complicated than you think," Peter said. "We try our best not to, but werewolves really can go on killing rampages. It might have happened to me last night, if not for ..." He hesitated again.
Elizabeth patted his leg. "Just tell him, honey. You don't want him worrying unnecessarily, and I think it's sweet."
"You would," Peter muttered.
"Tell me what?" Neal asked, frustrated.
"What keeps us from going rogue is the pack bond," Peter said, and now he'd gone slightly pink. "We're very dangerous when we're alone. We can't think or control ourselves. But we're perfectly calm around our pack members."
Neal couldn't resist a broad, teasing grin. "Really? I'm part of your --"
"Don't let it go to your head," Peter said gruffly. "It's instinct; there's nothing I can do about it."
Which meant, too, that he couldn't mask it with anything else. In the woods, Neal thought, that had been raw honesty, and thinking about it, he felt warm right down to his toes. He remembered how very definitively the wolf had still been Peter, or at least Peter's essence: warm, protective, affectionate. And now that he knew the truth, he could see the wolf in Peter -- the grace and power and fierce strength.
Neal hunted for the right words; what he finally came up with was naked honesty, to reciprocate for Peter's involuntary honesty in the woods. "I'm glad I know. That you don't have to hide it from me anymore."
And Peter smiled, quick and soft. "Me too."