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A Wolf In Any Other Clothing

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Four

 

Thunder rumbled and the panes in the windows rattled. It was dark early, the sky obscured by rain and treacherous, fast moving, black clouds. Seiji stared out the window in the den, ignoring the steady whistle of the tea pot, flinching just a little when the next strike made the whole of the house shake.

They were late. They were stupid for staying out when the afternoon began hazing with the gray, static air of approaching storm. It was the season for such storms. The rain battered the earth. Dashed the shrubbery and trees outside the house with its force. He leaned his forehead against the cold glass, irritated that between the two of them, Ryo and Rowan hadn't the sense to have given up long ago at hunting down some evasive, possibly non-existence predator and come home.

Ryo didn't want to believe White Blaze was capable. Seiji thought that a tiger was a tiger, regardless and a bit of plump sheep was as appealing as any of the lesser wild game he might hunt. They tended to forget that the creature was not, after all, a great lumbering house cat. Seiji's arm throbbed from such indifference. It hurt when he moved it. It felt swollen and hot, it itched. He lifted a hand to graze the whole flesh below the wound, as close as he dared come to the actual damage itself. Even that jarred.

"Does it hurt?" Sai came up behind him, peering at him with narrowed, suspicious eyes, holding the lip of a saucer with a handless, ceramic tea cup on it. Seiji's favorite cup. Seiji's favorite brand of tea from the smell. The kettle had stopped its insistent whining without him noticing.

"Do you want?" Sai asked, offering the cup and saucer. Seiji nodded, taking it with his good hand.

"Thank you." Softly, He couldn't raise the cup without taking the saucer in his other hand. He lifted the arm and winced. Sai winced with him.

"It does hurt, doesn't it. Have you taken a pain pill yet?"

"I don't need one, Sai." Seiji carefully sat the saucer down on the windowsill.

"Nonsense. The doctor wouldn't have given them to you, if you didn't need them. Whyever are you so stubborn about such things, Seiji?"

"I don't need them." He did not raise his voice to Sai. He kept his tone and his eyes devoid of annoyance. There was a certain residue guilt from what he had perpetrated upon Sai as well, but it was hazier than the one he felt over Ryo. He had not really been there when Sai had been hurt by his hand. He only had what they told him of the incident to go on.

"They ought to be back by now." He changed the subject. Sai was easy to lead, when it came to things concerning Rowan. He stepped up to the window next to Seiji, peering out through the rivulets of water.

"It is rather nasty out, isn't it? What time is it?"

On reflex Seiji lifted his wrist to see and ground his teeth at the stab of discomfort. Sai lifted a brow at him, a distinct, I told you so, look in his green eyes. Seiji brought the arm up the rest of the way to spite both Sai and his own incapacity.

"Almost seven."

Sai frowned, then shook his head, ridding himself of doubtless pessimistic imaginings. "They're probably just waiting out the storm. Rowan has an affinity for the woods. They're okay. Most likely wet and miserable, but okay."

"Who's wet and miserable?" Kento came tromping down the stairs, damp haired, shirtless with a towel about his neck. He'd been caught out in the downpour working on the wretched pile of rusting metal that was his car. He'd come in as drenched as if he'd taken a plunge into the lake.

"Rowan and Ryo." Sai explained.

"Oh." Kento shrugged. "They'll survive. Sooooo," He got a strange, leering sort of look on his face. "what flavor was yours?"

"My what?" Sai asked blankly.

Kento sputtered a little, as if he'd swallowed a gnat. "Ummmm., your tootsie pop?"

Sai blinked at him, completely baffled. "Cherry. Why?"

"N-nuthin'. Just wondering." He staggered into the kitchen, making suspicious sounds behind his hand. Sai narrowed his eyes and glanced to Seiji.

"What was that all about?"

Seiji hadn't the slightest interest. Seiji thought he was very well on the verge of driving himself to distraction, worrying about a thing he could not even securely pin down. Anxiety did not usually afflict him. Standing here, staring into the storm achieved nothing. It made his head as well as his body ache. He thought the therapy of a hot bath might ease both pains.

"I'm going to fix soup for supper, do you want some?" Sai asked.

"Later." Seiji handed him the cup. "I'm going to go upstairs and soak. If Ryo gets back, tell him to come let me know."

 

*

 

Rowan was mud covered from a fall down a slope turned unstable and slick. He'd bruised his knee on a root on the way down, and limped slightly as a result. He was wet to the point that dry was a foreign, peculiar concept. Even his waterproof vest was soaked through. He'd given up trying to wipe the water out of his eyes and just blinked away the accumulated droplets from his lashes. He was lost. So very, embarrassingly lost, turned around by the storm and the darkness and a mad, wild rush to chase after whatever Ryo thought he had seen in the forest. He didn't want to admit it, but he supposed Ryo had figured it out by now.

Ryo sloshed when he walked. Ryo's long hair was plastered to his face and neck. He wasn't quite at dirty as Rowan. He'd kept his feet by some miracle of grace and luck down the same slope that had tumbled Rowan head over heels, coating him bodily with mud, leaves and debris. He had his sword out still, and that determined look in those black rimmed blue eyes of his that said very clearly that his ire was up and damned if he was going to let a little thing like a storm deter him when he had the scent of a challenge. Besides, Rowan had dared to suggest that maybe what he'd seen had been a trick of eyes shocked by lightening strike, of tree limbs whipping in the storm winds, of darkness and shadow. Ryo hadn't liked that much. Had stared hard at Rowan, with water dripping off the tip of his nose and declared that Rowan could go home if he wanted, but he was going after whatever it was he had seen.

So of course, Rowan was stuck tromping through the rain after him. Which was just as well, since he wasn't certain which direction home was anyway.

"What's that?" Ryo called back to him past the rain and the rustling of branches. Rowan perked up, listening for the anomaly. And heard it above the howl of the wind. A distant, keening wail, like something in pain. Desperate, mindless pain.

It struck some primal chord of panic in him, that pitiful cry through the storm. He grabbed after Ryo's arm and caught a handful of sodden flannel shirt.

"Wait a minute. Wait a minute, okay? We don't know what it is."

"That's the point of going to see." Ryo shook off his fingers, on a fucking mission now and mindless of caution. Rowan cursed and followed, drawing an arrow placing it in the cross bow, watching the woods around them, since Ryo's attention was focused inexorably forward.

Lightening flashed and they saw it. Something dark and thrashing on the ground, squealing in agony and fighting against the insurmountable jaws of a great steal trap. It was a deer. A young doe by the size, one of her fragile legs shattered within the strong teeth of the trap.

"Shit." Rowan said softly, shaking his head. He hated traps. He hadn't known there were hunters placing them around. It made walking the woods at night suddenly a much more dangerous prospect. He lifted the cross bow towards the thrashing, wild eyed animal.

"Rowan -- no." Ryo put out a hand in horror. "What are you doing?"

"Ryo -- she's dead anyway. Can't let her just suffer."

Ryo blinked, shuddering. He drew his hand away slowly.

Rowan took a breath and released the bolt ---

---and something cracked like a mini smack of thunder through the woods. It was too quick for him to even register, the time between his release of the bolt and the sharp boom. Ryo moved, a reflexive snap of his arm as he brought the blade up. He staggered a step backwards, sword almost snapped from his hand. Rowan felt a sharp sting on his cheek a breath after the sound had faded. He lifted a hand to touch the spot. Drew it away and saw blood before the rain washed it off his skin.

"What the fuck---? What the fuck --" He yelled it the second time, with the dawning realization that somebody had shot at them.

"We're not goddamned fucking deer, you asshole." He screamed into the darkness.

"What?" Ryo was still uncertain what had happened.

"Somebody shot me."

Ryo blinked at him, then held up his blade. "That wasn't a bullet." He said, running a hand along the edge. There was a chip out of the blunt side, where the blade itself had deflected the gunpowder borne missile. The chip of steel was what had hit Rowan's cheek. Better that, he thought sourly, than a bullet.

"That was goddamned fast." He muttered.

Ryo just shook his head, as if he were a bit amazed that he'd managed it himself.

There was a rustling in the woods across from them. A human form, in a camouflage rain slicker and a rifle held cautiously at ready, emerged from the brush.

"Man, you are so fucking lucky that missed." Rowan stalked forward as far as the now still doe. "Every hear of taking a second to look before you shoot."

"What're you boys doing out here this time of night?" A belligerent voice came back at them.

"Hunting. Same as you." Rowan shot back.

The shadowed face under the slicker took in Rowan's cross bow, stared longer at Ryo's katana.

"Hunting what?"

Rowan recognized the voice. It had not been that many hours ago that he'd talked to this man at the strip club in town.

"Drummond?" he asked. "You Vic Drummond?"

"Yeah. Hey, you're that kid that was askin' me questions this morning."

"Yeah. I guess neither one of us liked the answers, huh?"

"What're you out there looking for, kid, if you think it was your dog I shot yesterday?"

Rowan shrugged. Ryo went a little tense.

"You shot White Blaze?"

"If it was on my property, then I got the right to shoot it."

"You shot White Blaze."

"This your trap?" Rowan asked to distract him.

"Yeah, its my trap. What of it?"

"How many more you got lying around here?"

"None of your business."

Rowan drew back his lips in a patently false smile, ready to tell the bastard how very much it was his business to know where the things were in order to avoid the same fate as the hapless doe, but something shifted in the thick brush behind Drummond. Something that towered tall enough that at first he thought it was a shifting wall of thick vines or a small tree bending with the wind. But trees didn't snake out arms the size of a man's torso with gleaming curved claws the size of banana's and snag a body off its feet and jerk it back into the darkness.

Drummond didn't even have the chance to scream. Just an aborted shocked expulsion of air as the claws went through rain slicker and clothes and pierced the body underneath, causing blood to spurt and making a distinct ripping sound of both cloth and softer flesh and muscle.

It happened so quick that all of those things were merely flashes of imagery. Rowan stood for a shocked moment, hands clenched on the slick fiberglass of the crossbow. He couldn't even draw the breath to curse.

Instead he thought over and over in panic. That was not a fucking bear. That was not a fucking bear. That was not a fucking bear.

 

*

 

White Blaze whined at the kitchen door. He looked up at Sai demandingly, cold feline eyes sparking with insistence. Sai waved a wooden spoon at him and chided.

"You're not going out in this weather, you bad cat. You've got a bullet hole in you and Ryo would kill me if I let you out."

The tiger's ears twitched back in irritation. He padded back through the kitchen into the den with a definite sulk to his stride. Sai went back to his soup. The wind changed direction outside and drove rain against the window over the sink. Sai frowned at it, beginning to worry a little himself about Rowan and Ryo caught out there. Suppose they'd been hit by lightening? Suppose a tree had fallen on them? Suppose they'd been in a wreck on the way back? The memory of Seiji's crumpled car was still a nasty image in his mind.

He shook his head to clear it of those unsavory thoughts, and scooped the handful of green onions he'd been chopping into the pot. Kento came into the kitchen and leaned over his shoulder to look into the pot.

"Smells good. I want cheese toast with mine."

"You know where the oven is."

"Yeah, but you make it better."

Which was true. Kento could make a mess of the simplest recipe, but on the upside, he'd eat it whether it was burned, runny or lacking proper ingredients.

"Its getting late." Kento leaned against the sink, crossing thick arms across his chest, his foray after food momentarily forgotten.

"I know. I'm beginning a worry. If it wasn't so nasty outside, it wouldn't be nearly as bad."

Kento nodded. "I'm thinking, that if they're not back in a little while, I'll ride out and see if I can spot the jeep."

"Oh, that would be a lovely idea. I'm sure everything's fine, but --"

"Yeah, yeah, I know -- better safe than sorry, huh? Hurry up with my cheese bread then."

Kento wondered into the den and the sound of the television announced he'd settled himself on the couch. Seiji came down not long after, looking as irritable as White Blaze and as restless. One assumed his soak hadn't helped. He hadn't quite taken the time to dry his hair and the damp ends created spots of wetness on the shoulders of the blue silk robe he'd donned. There was something a little feverish in his eyes that made Sai chew his lip in worry.

"Have you taken your medicine yet?"

Seiji gave him a long warning look. Sai sniffed and reached for the bottle of antibiotics, reading the label for himself. "You really ought to follow the perception."

Seiji held out his hand for the bottle silently.

"It's a childproof cap. Would you like me to open it for you?"

Which got a nastier look, then a sigh and a nod.

"Do you want one of the pain pills, too."

"No."

Argument was futile. Sai opened the bottle with only minor difficulties and handed Seiji one of the large green pills.

"Oh, my you shouldn't take things like that with alcohol." Sai admonished when Seiji got a bottle of his favorite chilled wine from the refrigerator. Of course he was ignored. Seiji downed the pill and took the rest of the glass of wine out of the kitchen to join Kento in the den.

Sai scowled, his sense of justice offended. No one ever listened to good advice. No one ever listened to his advice in particular. It was quite clear that Seiji's arm was hurting him and he was too stubborn to take the easy way out. Like it was more honorable and manly to just endure pain when a nice little pill would take it away for you. Sai would have jumped for such a pill when he was in hell with a broken wrist. Would have very happily gone and begged one of the local doctor if the transference through the gateway back to the mortal realm hadn't miraculously healed all their various wounds.

Seiji was just being stubborn. Seiji hadn't the slightest notion what was best for him. Sai picked up the bottle of pain pills. Hydrocodine. 1000 mg. Take every six hours as needed. Oh, codine was good. Sai liked codine. He had the most lovely codine laced cough syrup that made him feel ever so good after he'd swallowed the stuff.

He opened the bottle and spilled one of the capsules into his palm. Seiji would thank him, if Seiji knew, but more than likely Seiji would just start to feel better and be none the wiser. Sai opened the capsule and let the white powder fall to the bottom of an empty soup bowl, then hurriedly ladled a portion of steaming soup overtop it. He stirred and took an experimental taste. One could hardly tell and he was looking for a suspicious bitterness.

He loaded up another bowl for Kento and placed the two and a platter of cheese toast on a tray and took it into the den, feeling only slightly criminal. Seiji was in the armchair by the window, paying more heed to the rain outside than he was to the TV. Kento made a grab for the cheese bread and Sai carefully handed him the non-doctored bowl of soup. He took the tray over to Seiji and asked cheerfully.

"Would you like a cup of hot tea with this?"

Seiji held out the empty wine glass. "A refill, if you don't mind."

"Ummm, I drank the rest." One really ought not to take drugs and wine together.

Sai smiled. Seiji stared at him.

"Well, it looked good and -- and it was hot over the stove. Tea?"

"Tea." Seiji agreed after a moment.

Sai hurried back into the kitchen, making sure Seiji was still seated before grabbing the wine and emptying it quickly down the drain. He hesitated with the last dollop, then swallowed it himself. He truly hated having to be furtive. Rowan would laugh at him about the whole thing. Rowan wouldn't blink an eye at spiking a drink. Not that Sai had spiked anything. Not really. This was only for Seiji's own good.

The tiger was scratching at the door again, a low whining growl emanating from his throat. He wanted out bad, like there was something scurrying about the yard that only he could sense and needed vitally to go out and pounce upon and consume.

"You had dinner." Sai chided. "You're not going out."

 

*

 

"I'm going out." Kento stuffed the last of the cheese toast into his mouth and rose, dusting the crumbs from his hands off on the sofa arm. Seiji drew his brows in disapproval, a spoonful of soup halfway to his lips.

"Be careful." Sai stuck his head out from the kitchen. Sai was in a fit of nervous energy. Sai was flustered and Sai was doing a lot of pacing from room to room.

Seiji didn't say anything. It was useless to wish Kento to be careful if he were going out in that dreadful car of his. All one could do was hope the fates were kind and might look out for his well being yet one more time.

Sai followed Kento to the front door, pestering him about taking a rainslicker and an umbrella and driving the speed limit and watching out for floods in low spots of the road. Sai, Seiji often thought, had probably been a old Jewish mother in his last life.

Seiji flexed his arm, trying to work out the stiffness. It was still angry and inflamed, it made the whole of his body feel hot. It made all his muscles ache. He wondered if Ryo had felt like this when he'd been poisoned by the lythos in hell. Worse probably. A great deal worse. Ironic that he sported a similar injury. At least his soul wasn't in jeopardy.

He sighed and rose with distinct lack of his usual grace. Into the kitchen and he could still hear Sai lecturing Kento and Kento goodnaturely agreeing to things he would immediately ignore he moment he was out the door. Kento and Rowan were like that. They had a penchance for catering to Sai's idiosyncrasies to his face to appease him and then doing exactly what they wanted once his attention was fixed elsewhere. Well, Rowan was a little more circumspect about it. He had to put up with Sai's sulks when Sai found out his helpful advice had not been heeded. Rowan had more reason to want to keep Sai sulk-free.

Seiji didn't particularly care. But tonight, he thought wearily that bending to Sai's pestering might not be such a bad thing. One of the wretched pain pills would not be that much of an admission of weakness. It might even clear his head.

The struggle with the hideous child-proof cap made him sweat. He swallowed the pill with the last of his luke warm tea sat the empty cup on the counter by the sink. After turning the fire on to heat water for another cup he went back to the den, sat down on the couch that Kento had abandoned and flipped the television to the weather channel.

Rain, rain and more rain was all the forecast promised. Seiji ran his good hand through his hair, staring morosely out the window. The tiger was pacing, making low whining sounds. It made Seiji edgy. The thunder did.

"Seiji?"

He blinked, not having heard Sai come up. Sai stood between him and the television, offering him the cup of tea. Sai had one of his own. Sai sat down beside him on the couch and took the remote. He flipped through the channels until he found one of the prime time soaps he liked to watch and sat there sipping tea, the remote held securely in his hand, as if he were afraid to let it go in case an emergency channel change was in order. One supposed he was used to guarding the thing from Rowan, who was a notoriously irritating channel surfer.

"Oh, this is one of my favourites." Sai felt the need to explain to Seiji. Seiji looked back towards the window, absently sipping the tea, not paying the least bit of attention to Sai's running commentary about this character's mid-life crisis or that one's suspicion of his best friend carrying on an affair with his girl.

He took another sip of tea and surprisingly enough it was cool. He stared down at the half empty cup, mildly baffled that it had lost temperature so quickly. The fingers holding it felt numb. The torn, stitched up and fevered arm was hardly noticeable. His head drooped a little, hair sliding into his face. He couldn't quite summon the desire to brush it back, or lift his head for that matter. On some lower level, the slow gathering lethargy frightened him. The desire to shut his eyes and fall into a deep, all consuming sleep was overwhelming. Welcoming.

 

*

 

"Goddamnit, Ryo. Will you wait?"

Ryo paused reluctantly, flinging wet hair out of his eyes to glare back at Rowan. Rowan stabbed the dangerous end of the cross bow in the direction the thing that had come out of the woods to snatch its human prey had fled.

"What?" impatiently.

"That was not a goddamned bear."

Rowan had already said that. A number of times. Ryo stared at him through darkness and rain, waiting for Rowan to say something a little more beneficial to the situation. Rowan just sputtered and looked spooked.

"I know its not a bear, Rowan."

"Well what the fuck was it?"

Rowan cursed a great deal when he was upset. Rowan was cursing fluently now.

"I don't know."

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Ryo, just say it. You think maybe something did slip through the gate before we closed it?"

"Maybe. Rowan, we can't let it get away. That man ---"

"Is fucking shish-kabob. Dead dead dead. I'm armoring up. I'm not traipsing around out here and having that thing do that to me."

"Fine. Whatever."

"I thought nothing could cross over. I heard that from somebody there."

"That's bull shit." Ryo was moving again and Rowan followed. "Something came through and got me. Two something's."

"I'm gonna armor up." Rowan repeated.

Ryo didn't answer. Ryo heard something in the brush to the right. He darted that way, tearing through bramble and drooping vines. Something dark and fast reared up out of the shadows. There was the smell of blood and wet fur, but no sound. No animal growls, no harsh breath. An arm the size of his body swiped out and he skidded feet first in the leaves, slamming up against thick, backwards bent legs, like he was sliding for home. He sliced out with the katana and it cut through fur, but not flesh. Light flared above him, and with a resounding, thunder loud crack a far from mundane arrow exploded against the form towering over him.

For a split second, between arrow's charge and explosion, Ryo got an unhindered look of the thing. Not pretty. Not pretty at all. Twice a man's height at least, if it weren't haunched over. Thick, tawny fur covered its body, from it's long, man-like arms, to the vaguely canine shaped head that sported teeth that put White Blaze to shame. It didn't seem to have a neck, just a muscled body that sloped up into a head. Small, pointed ears and eyes that were almost obscured by fur, but gleamed with frightening --- intelligence.

Then the explosion blinded him, made him reflexively throw up his arms to cover his face and curse himself for not armoring up when Rowan had so desperately wanted to. He expected pieces of the thing to shower down on him. Most fleshly things would, hit by one of Strata's arrows. This thing didn't. It staggered back a step. Shook itself as if to clear its head, then let out a hoarse, hissing growl and leapt over Ryo towards the archer.

And Rowan was too damned close to effectively get off another shot.

 

 

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