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A Wolf In Any Other Clothing

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Two

 

Ryo had had a dream that night, stretched out on the floor of the den pressed up against White Blaze's feverish warmth. It verged on the same nightmare he'd had ever since returning home from hell. Hallucinatory creatures pursuing him through fog and fetid swamp, dark predatory shapes that were always just beyond his perception. Himself too weak to turn and fight, too weak to run fast enough to evade them. Toyed with mercilessly by things that knew that sooner or later they would win. Only this time it wasn't the pack that trailed him. It was something larger and solitary that noiselessly glided through the swamp, drawn by the aura of his life. Drawn by the faint scent of life that leaked through the gateway that had brought him here, that still pulsed, fed by the power of all their armors.

He never saw it, only sensed its presence. Sensed its pure malevolence. It herded him where it wanted him to go and when there was no place else to run, it lurked just within the thick boundary of fog, waiting for him to cower in surrender. He wouldn't. He screamed at it, challenging it to attack him while he was up and willing to fight, knowing that if it waited too much longer the poison would seep in and take even that advantage away from him.

And in the dream it did, washing over him much too fast, drawing the strength out of him, sending him to his knees in the fetid mud of the swamp and out of the darkness and the fog something sprang - - - -

- - - - He woke up with a start, blinking at the logs that made up the rafters in the ceiling. The tiger's long body slumbered peacefully beside him, twitching occasionally with cat dreams. His hair was damp on his forehead from sweat and his shoulder throbbed with the ghosts of wounds that had faded the moment he had crossed back over the boarder from hell. He lay for a while, listening to the early morning sounds of the house. The familiar creaks, the ticking of the clock over the mantle. He heard the heavy treads of Kento going from his room down the hall towards the shower. Heard Rowan humming along to some tune on the radio upstairs. The two of them were going into town this morning to ask about the tiger shooting. Rowan had said he'd wanted an early start. Rowan had said this was a working man's town and people appreciated a body who was up with the sun and ready for a hard days work. As if Rowan had ever put one in that didn't involve saving the world. Ryo wasn't ready to get up. Not ready to leave the soft warmth of the rug and the cat who he had sat up worrying about all night long. He trusted Rowan to find out what had happened. Rowan was good at that sort of thing.


"Man, you have got to get this thing tuned. I feel guilty just riding in it, it sounds so bad." Rowan slouched back in the passenger seat of Kento's old Chevy, one arm hanging out the window, sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose as the breeze and the early morning sun invaded the car.

"I did." Kento said, sounding indignant. Everyone but him had accepted the fact that the car was in its last, painful stages of life. It bounced over a rut in the road and it sounded as if something scraped ground. It felt like Rowan's bones were rattling, the shocks were so bad. You'd think Kento would nurse the thing along, but he still drove like a madman. Seiji wouldn't get in the car with him unless it was a dire emergency. Sai would tend to grab frantically for the seatbelt in a race to get it fastened before Kento could kick gravel up in his bid for the road.

Rowan didn't mind. Rowan was of a more adventurous nature. He liked to live dangerously. He still used the seat belt, but he grinned when they skidded on a back roads turn and left a cloud of dust behind them. It was a long ride to town. A long weaving trek through miles of forest that covered not quite mountainous land. The mountains were further on. These were just the foot hills. It was still damned backwoods. Mia's grandfather had done a lot of studying out here. A lot of research into some peculiar things, which Mia had taken up. Mia was more a city girl, though. She liked the libraries and the museums and the colleges to be close by. It was inconvenient to have to drive two hours just to find a bit of obscure information in some ancient text that was sitting in the archives of the some museum that she was affiliated with. She was affiliated with a lot of them., especially since she was into her post-graduate work. Which was why they got use of the house.

And why they had to drive a good forty-five minutes -- thirty if it was Kento driving -- to reach the closest outpost of civilization. Sometimes the woods thinned out and there were pockets of fenced pasture land. A lot of sheep. Some cattle. Some tilled plots where ranchers cultivated their own corn and wheat. Mostly it was wilderness. Undeveloped forest. There was a lot of wildlife out there. A lot of things living in the depths of miles and miles of forest that probably had never seen a man. Rowan liked to hunt out there in the depths. Liked out go out with a bow and revert for a little while to the primitive. Not a lot. Sai got upset if he brought back too many large eyed victims. Sai could handle a buck here and there, especially if he didn't have to see it gutted, but he'd start getting mopy and morose if too many animal corpses showed up on their doorstep. Which was okay with Rowan. It wasn't the kill he got off on, it was the hunt.

It was early afternoon when they got into town. The main road off the highway, was two lane and sorely in need of repair. There was a main strip with two intersections and a few parallel roads on either side of Main Street. Mostly business, since a good deal of the locals lived out in the backwoods on ranches or farms. There were two drug stores, a bank, a popular chain motel, a discount department store, the big feed and seed outlet, a scattering of restaurants and two local bars. There was talk of a theater being opened, but one truly doubted the eventuality of that happening.

"So where'd we start?" Kento asked.

"You go down to the feed and seed and I'll go ask the law if anything's been reported."

The sheriff's office snuggled in-between a struggling coffee shop and a grease spattered garage. It had a bulletin board outside the door littered with wanted posters the subjects of which would probably never venture anywhere near this out of the way little town. The only villains that might be drawn here were most certainly not of a caliber that the aging local sheriff could deal with. Or even comprehend.

Rowan strolled into the office. It always struck him as looking exactly like the set out of the Andy Griffith show's Mayberry sheriff's office. Complete with open faced cells compacted within the large main space, and the rickety old desk with the country deputy sitting behind it drinking coffee and reading the county paper.

"Hey, deputy Bob." Rowan said cheerfully. The name plate on the desk read Robert Bensley. Rowan had met him on several occasions during the delivery of a speeding ticket or four. It was sheer perversity that Kento had never received a one.

"Its deputy Benson." The man grumbled, with the tone of a man well used to being called names he was less than fond of.

Yeah, whatever." Rowan plopped down in the chair on the other side of the desk. A particularly large spider could have crawled up onto the chair and received a less flattering look than the one deputy Benson gave Rowan. He slowly put the paper down and stared expectantly.

"I was wondering," Rowan started, a story already clear cut in his head. "If anybody had reported any trouble with wild animals or anything. Somebody shot at my dog last night, and I wanted to see if he'd caused any trouble. Chasing stock or something?"

"You wanna fill out a report?" A weary sigh. The deputy started to reach for a stack papers.

"No. Nothing like that. Just wanted to maybe make it right myself if anybody had any problem. You heard any thing?"

"Well, there've been a lot of sheep missing from a couple a farms. A few cattle ripped up and gutted."

"Really? What's doing it?"

"Nobodies seen anything. Just missing animals or carcasses. Not a lot of tracks to tell who the culprit is. Might want to go down to the Hot Ta Trot and ask Vick Drummond if he shot at anything last night. He lost a few sheep I hear tell and was mad as hell."

"Lost 'em last night?"

The deputy nodded.

"And he's over at the Hot Ta Trot?"

"That's where he drinks."

 

Kento had gotten side-tracked on his way back from the feed and seed. Predictably Rowan found him at the greasy little hamburger shack, flirting with the fifteen year old behind the counter.

"She's illegal." Rowan told him, hauling him away.

"M'not after her." Kento said indignantly, stuffing the last of a burger into his mouth. "She's just nice. Always gives me double portions."

"Right. She must know you're a growing boy." Rowan smirked.

"Fuck off, Rowan." Kento muttered, then asked. "Where we going? You find out anything?"

"Hot Ta Trot and sorta. You?"

"Not much. Guy at the feed store said he hadn't heard anything, but he's like a hundred and ten, so he might not remember even if he had. Why we going to the Strip joint, Rowan?"

"Lookin' for a guy."

Kento gave him a blank look.

"Trust me.'

The Hot Ta Trot was at the end of main street. As far away from the church as it could get and still be within the town limits. It was a seedy one stripper club that got business only because it was the only place within a fifty mile radios that one could see a live naked woman one was not married or courting. Which wasn't saying much. Rowan had seen the full time stripper with her clothes on and she was nothing to brag about. There was a poster next to the door proclaiming a visiting act though. The famous Chesty McBoobs, who apparently worked with reptiles, an assortment of battery operated devices and various food related items. One had to how famous she could be if she was reduced to working an out of the way place like this.

It was dark and warm within the bar. The tinny sound of cheap speakers emitted a late eighty's tune and a top heavy woman was performing on the stage. A group of men sat close to the stage and few more at tables around it drinking and silently taking in the act. Maybe six customers total, which was more than Rowan would have thought this early in the day to be patronizing a run down strip joint.

They weeded their way between tables. The locals never even glanced back at their presence, too immersed in what the stripper was doing. Even Rowan had to stop and stare.

"Here baby, only two bucks." The woman -- she was far past the claim of girlhood cooed seductively at one of the men leaning on the stage. It was a toostie pop, sans wrapper that had previously seen what one assumed to be a well trafficked area of her anatomy. Two of the men hastily held forth the required bills and she chose one to bestow the token upon. She had a handful more to doll out.

"That is just --- ungodly." Rowan muttered to Kento, who was staring, mouth agape at the antics on the stage. He stared himself for another few breathes before he tore his gaze away and tapped a baseball capped man on the shoulder.

"Hey, you know if Vick Drummond is here?"

He was. And he did not appreciate having his attention drawn away from the novelty the visiting stripper was providing.

"Yeah, I shot at something." The man said, eyes flickering back and forth between Rowan and the stage. "But it weren't no dog, I can tell you that."

"Well, he's a big dog. You sure?" Rowan asked.

"No dog did to my cow what this thing did. Ripped her all to hell and back. Ain't no dog got claws like that."

"Well -- what do you think it was then?' Rowan asked with a sinking feeling. Tigers most certainly had impressive claws.

"I dunno. Maybe a big cat down from the mountains."

"Cat? What about a bear. Maybe it was a bear or something."

Vick Drummond arched a shaggy brow at Rowan. "Bears don't attack livestock, boy. Bears ain't as fast as whatever it was I shot at was last night. Bears don't travel in pairs."

"Pairs? There were two of them?" The sudden hopeful note in his voice got him a wary look from the rancher. But the fact that there had been two things out in the night hunting together pointed distinctly away from White Blaze. That particular tiger only hunted with his human pack.

"There was two of something out there. Shot at the one and the other high tailed it back into the woods in the other direction. Neither one of the things left tracks worth a damn. The rain this morning didn't help."

Two things. Two things that were good at covering their trail. White Blaze was crafty as hell. Rowan had trouble tracking him and Rowan was proud of his ability to follow a trail. Which meant that maybe White Blaze had been curious about whatever else was out there and just happened to be around when the rancher had gone on his shooting spree.

It was something to tell Ryo at any rate.


Seiji reached for the cabinet over the sink and winced, drawing his arm back out of reflex, a slight tightening of his lips the only facial indication of pain he allowed himself to show. Ryo saw it anyway. Ryo was in the midst of chopping up the only fresh meat he could find in the fridge, a package of T-bones that Kento had been planning to grill out. Kento would bitch, but White Blaze was already up and prowling, whining at the doors to be let out. A nice bowl of fresh red meat -- well meat mixed with a fair bit of scavenge that Ryo had managed to obtain from pantry and refrigerator, would settle him down.

"I thought Dr. Veska told you to go and have that looked at?'

Seiji reached with his other arm for the container of tea bags, flung golden bangs out of his eyes with a toss of his head and fixed Ryo with a flat stare.

"She's a vet."

"Doesn't make any difference." Ryo thwacked the big butcher knife down sharp enough to shatter the bone clear through in one of the steaks. "Its just common sense you ought to go and have a doctor see it."

Seiji lifted a brow and set water on to boil.

Ryo glowered at his meat mixture, scooped the whole mess up and dumped it in a big stainless steel bowl and stalked into the den to tempt White Blaze with it. God, but Seiji irritated him. Stubborn and secretive and imperious.

He stomped back into the kitchen as the tea kettle began to whistle and stood in the doorway scowling at Seiji.

"Okay, you win. I am mad at you. I am so close to flat out hating you right now I can taste it. That make you happy, you arrogant jackass?"

Seiji paused in reaching for the kettle. He stood there a moment then pulled his hand away. "This isn't the time or place."

As if airing the dirty laundry during the light of day in the kitchen were below him.

"What is the time? Middle of the night on the doorstep of your room so you can slam the door in my face when it gets too --- emotional for you?"

Seiji blinked at him. Seiji very carefully reached for the kettle with his left arm and poured steaming water into his cup. "Is there a point to this?" he inquired, back turned. Ryo thought just maybe there was a ghost of a tremor in his voice. A sliver of upset that he was trying hard to hide. That tiny, insubstantial slip made Ryo feel suddenly --- elated. Like somehow or another, against all odds, he had come out on top in this little game that he and Seiji constantly engaged in. And after weeks of having the shit kicked out of him in a realm not his own, the notion of taking on the role of aggressor was just --- damned appealing.

"The point is, Seiji, that you need to -- just -- get -- over it. And I will hold whatever grudges I damnwell please and I don't need you to tell me what I should or should not be feeling. As if you have a corner in the emotions department. And I want you to go see the goddamned doctor about your arm."

"My arm is fine." Short, offended declaration. Ryo stalked up to him and punched him square in the place tiger claws had previously raked.

Seiji went pale. Seiji could not have looked more shocked if Ryo had taken up a gun and started shooting up post offices. Seiji staggered back into the counter, hand going up to his arm, blinking furious and completely reflexive pain tears out of his eyes.

"It hurt?' Ryo asked.

"Of course it hurts." Seiji hissed. He dug his fingers into his arm and a spot of new blood stained the cotton of his shirt.

"I'm sorry. I'll drive you to town to have it looked at."

"I don't need you to ---"

"I'll drive you to town to have it looked at." Ryo repeated flatly.

Seiji stared balefully at him.

"I probably popped the stitches." He added. "You wouldn't want me to have to sew it back up, would you?"

"You hit me."

"Do you still want your tea before we go?"

"You -- hit -- me."

"Yeah -- well, you were being an ass. And you said I should be angry at you."

"I didn't say to hit me."

"Well I did and I was and I'm not anymore, so can we go to see the doctor or what?"

". . . . . . . . ."

"Seiji," Ryo placed his hand over Seiji's prying long, pale fingers from the blood splotched shirt. "Please?"

Seiji looked down at his hand still captured in Ryo's. Pale skin against dark. There was blood on his fingers as well.

"You made me bleed, Ryo." It was almost a question. Baffled that Ryo could do such a thing. Ryo was somewhat startled at the fact himself.

"I'm gonna go and tell Sai to watch and make sure White Blaze stays in, then we'll go, 'kay?"

Slowly, Seiji nodded.


"Hey!" Rowan with his usual high level of energy, burst into the house, bringing breeze and blown leaves in with him. "Where'd Ryo go?" he asked the house at large, zeroing in on the den where Sai was guiltily watching a daytime soap.

Hastily and with some embarrassment he turned the channel to the weather station. "It looks as if it's going to rain again tonight." He said, as if he'd been watching all along. Rowan gave him a look, swept a hand at the sprawled form the tiger on the rug before the wood stove and repeated.

"So where's Ryo?"

"He took Seiji to the doctor to see about the scratches."

"God, Seiji let him? Was there much blood involved?"

Sai lifted a brow and said cryptically. "A bit. What did you discover, Rowan?"

"Oh, this and that. Here, brought you a present. How's the cat?" He tossed Sai a tootsie pop with a somewhat crumpled wrapper. Sai looked at the candy, then back up at Rowan. Kento had followed him in, looked at the cat, then at Sai and got a funny look on his face before spinning about without a word and heading for the kitchen.

Rowan plopped down next to Sai, leaning across him to snag the remote control. He hit previous channel and the trials and tribulations of Pine Valley came to life on the screen.

"Are we watching the soaps again, love?" Rowan smiled up at him.

Sai blushed and made a grab for the remote. "I was not!"

"Is Erica still a backstabbing floozy?"

"She's not! She's just ---" He glared, caught in the trap.

"I know, I know. So many men, so little time. So he's got you tiger sitting?"

Rowan leaned in close, taking a breath of Sai's hair. Rowan smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and alcohol.

"Have you been smoking again?" Sai asked suspiciously. "You promised --"

"I haven't." Rowan insisted, about the time his hand slid up under Sai's shirt to brush against the skin of his belly.

"You've been drinking, then." Sai accused, then suppressed a giggle as Rowan's fingers touched a sensitive spot.

"Just one." Rowan said. "Or was it two?"

"Well you smell like a pub. Where have you been?"

Rowan smiled at him, then sat back, retracting all his wondering members. "No where. Just asking questions in town."

"It's awfully early to be drinking."

"I was undercover."

Sai sniffed. "Well, what did you find out?"

Rowan told him. It wasn't much to go on. And it pointed to White Blaze hunting livestock as much as anything.

"So what now?"

"I dunno. Maybe I'll go out hunting tomorrow and see what I can find."

"Hunting." Sai wrinkled his nose. "Well be careful."

"I'm always careful, Sai." Rowan leaned back in, nuzzling Sai's jaw. Maybe two drinks had gotten him rather friendly this early in the day. But it was quite nice, what he was doing to Sai's ear lobe.

"Ummm, Rowan -- Kento's just in the kitchen."

"Good."

Which was not exactly the response he had wanted. Rowan sighed against his neck and muttered. "I gotta go take a leak."

He patted Sai's knee and pushed himself up of the couch, heading for the downstairs' bath. Sai sat there, thinking Rowan had had more than two drinks, absently unwrapping the candy pop Rowan had given him. The wrapper stuck a little, as if the thing had sweated.

He stuck it in his mouth, attention drawn back to the soap while he waited for Rowan to come back. Rowan did, a few minutes later, and stood in the doorway staring wide eyed, with much the same look on his face that Kento had gotten before he'd run for the kitchen.

"What?" Sai said, around the glob of candy in his mouth.

"Ummm, nothing. Nothing. I think I'm gonna go and check out my hunting bows."

"You don't want to go upstairs?" He was a little disappointed that Rowan's mood had changed so abruptly.

"Ummm, maybe later. Gotta go."

At which he fled with the guiltiest look on his face. As if he'd done something simply terrible. No matter. It couldn't be that bad and Sai would ferret it out of him tonight.

 

 

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