TBP: Ecce Femina
Wednesday, December 18th, 2030
"Jackie DeTomaso, you are insane!"
Raven Blackmane held on for dear life as Jackie's Ducati motorcycle screamed down the highway between two lanes of stopped traffic. Riding on the back of the racing bike, she couldn't see the speedometer, but they had to be going upwards of forty miles an hour -- in the winter slush, with no more than a foot of clearance on either side. Half-melted snow mixed with salt sprayed up behind them as they went. Raven tucked her head up against Jackie's back and wrapped her arms a little tighter around his waist. She couldn't see his face through the helmet he wore, but somehow she doubted that he would mind.
Stupid, she told herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I knew I should have allowed myself more time. Blasted eight AM time slots...
Raven had awakened at six-thirty this morning, only to discover that the streets around her apartment were covered with a good six inches of new snow. The buses wouldn't be coming through that for a while, not until the snowplows cleared a path. Surprise, surprise, Raven's neighborhood wasn't exactly considered a high priority area, and she would miss the early bus that could have struggled through the rush hour traffic and still gotten her to the university by eight. She could have asked Pastor Alex for a ride, but he lived way on the far side of the river; by the time he got there, it would be too late to get her to the school. So, in desperation, she called the one man she knew with a motorcycle, knowing that he would be able to bypass the traffic jams and get her to her destination in time.
Assuming that Jackie didn't get them both killed en route.
The handsome, smooth-talking Italian Scab didn't risk a look back at her to reply to her comment on his sanity. Keeping his eyes on the narrow strip of road available to him, he threaded the bike through the long lines of cars, trucks and buses at a speed that surely would have gotten him a ticket had there been any cops in a position to pursue him. Raven was reminded of the trench run from Star Wars, and a little piece of her mind giggled in spite of herself: Stay on target... stay on target...
In the grey haze that clung to the edges of her mind, her lupine alter-ego whined and tucked back her metaphorical ears. Dogs do love car rides, but this was a little too much exposure at too great a speed for Wolf to feel comfortable with it.
Jackie slowed down a little bit as they squeezed between two lumbering semi-trucks -- thus proving that he had not completely taken leave of his senses -- and then spotted the exit for the university coming up on the right. Fortunately the cars in the right lane chose that moment to begin creeping forward again. The little bike slid into the lane in front of the semi, taking advantage of the gap created by the truck's slower acceleration, and made it onto the exit ramp with about six feet to spare. Raven let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
A few minutes later they were in front of the Life Sciences building, and Raven quickly dismounted and flipped up the visor on her helmet. It was, in fact, her helmet -- Jackie had given it to her for her birthday back in May, along with the black leather jacket and chaps she was wearing -- and it had been specially designed to fit her wolfish head. Raven didn't want to think about how much that must have cost. Jackie's family was exceedingly wealthy, thanks to Papa DeTomaso's Pizza Paradise and various other family businesses; she knew that Jackie could drop that kind of money in the street and not even miss it. But it still made her feel uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of such lavish generosity. It felt too much like racking up debts.
For now, though, she just smiled and nodded to him. "Thank you so much, Jackie," she said, and meant it. "You really saved my butt."
Jackie pulled off his helmet and gave her that trademark roguish smile, his lupine amber eyes sparkling. "Prego, bella," he said, taking her hand and raising it briefly to his lips. "It was my pleasure. Will you need a ride home, as well?"
"Thanks, but I can take the bus from here," Raven said.
"As you wish. Say, are you coming to the Christmas party at Villa DeTomaso on Friday? Papa has a few casks of vintage wine he's going to be opening up -- late Nineties, very good stuff."
Raven's smile felt a little uncertain, and she struggled for a moment to hold it in place. "I haven't decided yet," she admitted. "You have a wonderful family, Jackie, and your parents are terrific hosts -- but there's going to be a lot of people there I don't know, and not a lot that I do."
"And the wolf still doesn't do so well with crowds?" Jackie guessed.
"Not when they're loud and busy and unfamiliar," Raven agreed. "I'm all right at the Pig, but those are people I know. Heck, I spend more time in that place than I do at home. But at your place, with all those strangers..." She shrugged. "I just get a little nervous."
"I completely understand," Jackie said graciously. "And I'll back you up no matter what choice you make. You decide to come, just give me a call, all right?"
"Will do," Raven nodded.
"All right. Good luck today."
Raven grinned. "Thanks, but I'm not the one who's gonna need it. Merry Christmas, Jackie."
"Merry Christmas, Raven."
Jackie donned his helmet and took off, and Raven hurried inside Life Sciences. She checked the wall clock: 8:05 AM.
"Crap!" Taking to the stairs, she raced up the two flights and down the hall to her classroom. Taking a moment to compose herself, she took a few deep breaths and then walked in.
A round of groans rose up from the students. A few who had been standing with their bags in hand sat down again at their desks, looking disgusted.
Raven grinned as she sauntered into the room, dressed head to toe in black leather and gazing over her students like some 21st-century Angel of Death sizing up her victims.
Like prey ready for the taking, Wolf agreed, letting out a silent murr of approval at the imagery.
Quiet, you, Raven thought back, imagining herself swatting the side of the wolf's muzzle in a playful fashion.
Wolf returned a mental image of lolling her tongue out at Raven, an expression whose human meaning she had picked up on.
Ignoring the heckling from her split personality, Raven tossed her backpack on the table and turned her attention to the students. "Come on, guys, you didn't think I was going to let you off that easily, did you?" she asked. She took off her helmet and set it aside, then opened the backpack and pulled out a stack of papers.
"Everybody got a Scantron and a pencil?" she asked, scanning the room. It looked like they did, and no one said anything to the contrary. "All righty, then. I've got your Christmas presents right here." She hefted the pile of final exams and displayed them to the class. "Let's get started, shall we?"
That afternoon found Raven working alongside Letty Daniels in the kitchen of the West Street Shelter. They were making chili -- lots of it -- for the guests who would be staying at the Shelter tonight. Homeless people tended to look for places to stay warm when harsh weather struck, and the heavy snowfall from the previous night had driven many of them to the Shelter's doorstep. Splendor would turn no one away, so she'd called in Raven and Letty to help prepare extra rations for dinner.
Raven was happy to help. She owed Splendor big time. The woman had saved her life last year, rescuing her from a band of Scab-slavers, and Raven wasn't about to forget it.
"So, how'd they do?" Letty asked, as they were finishing their third and final batch for the day.
Raven shrugged, searching the spice rack and trying to remember where she'd put the onion salt. "About as well as could be expected, I think. Ninety percent of them passed with a C or better."
"That says good things about you as a teacher, I'd say."
"Not necessarily," Raven said with a smirk. "That doesn't count the half of the class that dropped before the final."
Letty winced. "Ay! Fifty percent!?"
Raven spotted the onion salt, grabbed it, and carried it back to the pot, dumping a sizable amount of it into the mix. "Such is the nature of freshman biology. The attrition rate is horrific." She stirred in the spice until it disappeared from view, sampled the chili with a clean spoon, then put in a little more.
"Careful, there," Letty chuckled. "Not everybody likes their food as spicy as you do."
"Says the Latin chick," Raven retorted playfully. "Relax, this is just onion. Not like we're putting in habañeros or anything." She paused and frowned. "You know, that actually sounds good..."
"Don't even," Letty laughed. "Splendor will kill us."
"Probably," Raven agreed. "We'll split the difference, then. Pass me the cayenne pepper."
Letty shook her head, but handed Raven the spice anyway. "I take no responsibility for this," she said.
"Aw, come on. If you don't share the blame, you can't share the credit." Raven opened the bottle and poured in the pepper -- not as much as she would have used at home, but still a healthy amount. She stirred the chili thoroughly, then got another spoon and sampled it again. She closed her eyes and let out a little whuffle of pleasure, her tail curling behind her. "Now that is good chili," she declared.
"Any time you get that expression about food, Raven, I worry." Raven turned and saw Splendor over at the door, leaning against the frame with one arm. Her bright green eyes glittered with a wry amusement that matched the small smirk on her lips. She nodded toward the pot. "Am I going to need to have a fire extinguisher ready?"
"Not tonight," Raven assured her, setting the spoon aside. "Just enough pepper in there to give you a tingle. If it bothers anyone, just give them milk to neutralize the capsaicin in the peppers. You want to taste?"
Splendor dismissed the suggestion with a wave. "Thanks, but no. I wouldn't be able to appreciate it, anyway."
Raven nodded in understanding: Splendor's peculiar form of SCABS kept her from gaining any sustenance through food, and it had taken most of the sensitivity out of her taste buds, as well. "All right. Anyway, it just needs to simmer a bit longer, say half an hour, and then it should be ready to go." She set the lid on the pot and turned the heat down to low. "You need anything else?"
"Not for now. Are you coming back this evening?"
"If you need me."
Splendor nodded. "I'd like to do a patrol tonight to make sure everyone's here who needs to be. You know how some of my people can be about asking for help."
"I'll be there," Raven promised. "Eight o'clock all right?"
"That works," Splendor agreed. She turned to go, then stopped and looked back. "Oh, by the way, Raven, I think your handheld was beeping a few minutes ago."
"Thanks, Splendor. Probably just an email notice. I'll be right there."
Raven and Letty spent the next few minutes cleaning and straightening up in the kitchen, then hung up their aprons and went back to Splendor's office to retrieve their belongings. Raven pulled out her little handheld computer and called up the email program.
There were a handful of new messages, but only one stood out among the usual spam. "That's odd," she said, frowning.
"What?" Letty asked.
"It's a message from Darkwolf. I haven't heard from him in months."
"The secret agent guy?"
Raven nodded absently, calling up the message on the screen. Like most of Darkwolf's messages, it was brief and cryptic:
I believe this will be of interest to you. Take note of the third story in the left column. --DW
On the second and final line of the message was a hyperlink. Raven tapped it with the stylus, calling up the web page over the handheld's wireless connection. It was an online newspaper -- and she did a double-take when she saw which one.
"The Gazette," she murmured. "You gotta be kidding me."
Letty frowned. "¿Cómo?" she said, puzzled.
"Um, the Dos Lobos Gazette," Raven said, distracted. "My hometown paper when I was growing up. How on Earth would Darkwolf know that?"
"Well, he works for the Feds, right?"
Raven flicked an ear back. "Point." The page was from the Local News section of the paper, with the top story on the right side of the screen and a series of small blurbs in a column on the left. She scanned down to the third one.
"Councilman Matthew Kepler was hospitalized yesterday after what physicians called a mild heart attack..."
Icy fear gripped Raven's heart like a vise. Her knees suddenly gave way, but Letty caught her and guided her into the chair.
"Easy, hermana!" Letty said. "What is it?"
Raven tried to speak, but no sound would come out. Dumbly, she gazed back at the little screen.
"...collapsed in the midst of council debate on proposed population control measures in the Lobo Creek wolf pack..."
"...listed in good condition at Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in Darrington..."
"Oh God," Raven whispered. "Daddy..."
"So your father's all right?"
Raven sighed, pushing her food around idly on the plate with her fork. This wasn't what she'd had in mind when she arranged to go out to dinner with Alex. "So they say. They don't expect any long-term harm from it, but..."
She shook her head wearily. "The paper said that he collapsed while they were debating population controls for the wolf pack that lives in the mountains around Dos Lobos."
"You mean killing wolves?"
"Yeah. Some people in the council think the pack is getting too large, that it's going to start going after domesticated animals. They want to petition the Fish and Wildlife Service, try to get them to shoot some of the pack." She shook her head again, this time in disgust. "Idiots."
Wolf growled in agreement, projecting a few graphic images of what she thought should be done with such people. Raven's human self was having a hard time arguing against them.
Alex took a sip of his drink and eyed her carefully, oblivious to the exchange going on inside her. His black ermine eyes shone like two pieces of obsidian in the middle of his white-furred, but otherwise human, face. "I take it your father cares a lot about the wolves," he said.
"He's a ranger," she said, as if that explained everything. "He worked hard to protect that pack when it moved into our neck of the woods. He was so happy when wolves made it off the Endangered Species List in Washington -- until he discovered that made it harder to protect them." She paused, then looked up at Alex. "I think there's another part to it, though."
Alex raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"I disappeared while I was out studying wolves. Not that particular pack, but still... I wouldn't be surprised if he's drawn some kind of connection between them and me."
Alex frowned. "But he doesn't know that you got SCABS, does he? Doesn't know you became a wolf?"
"No, but they never found me. Never found my body. And believe me, they looked. I don't remember how many times we ran away from helicopters. I don't think it would have been too hard for him to put the pieces together, or at least consider the possibility."
Alex took a bite of food, chewed, and swallowed. "I've wondered about that," he said. "Why did you hide?"
Raven shrugged uncomfortably. "It was a lot of things. I'm not sure even I understand all of why I did it. I think my new instincts drove me to hide from humans, to stay with the pack. Plus, I was collecting the sort of data you can't buy with a million-dollar grant -- close-up inspection of pack social structure, foraging patterns, reproductive strategies, not to mention the effects of the Flu on the pack." She pushed around her food a little more. "But I think a big part of it was that I didn't want to come back to my parents... you know..." She gestured vaguely at her own body.
Alex gazed at her for a long moment. "Were they prejudiced against Scabs?"
Raven looked up in surprise. "Oh, heck no. Mom and Dad don't have a bigoted bone in their bodies. They were just afraid of the virus, afraid of what it could do to them, to their daughter. Dad took the job in Dos Lobos because it was off the beaten path. The Martian Flu had never hit there. Remember, this was twenty-oh-four, when it still looked like the world might fall apart. Everybody was scared back then."
"And you didn't want them to be afraid of you."
"Yeah," Raven said softly. "Heck, Alex, I was afraid of me. Afraid of what Wolf would do if I lost control of her. Even after you led me back to God, it took a lot of work and a lot of time before I really felt like I could trust her around people. If there were any chance she would hurt them..." She shook her head. "I just couldn't risk it."
They were both silent for a long moment. At last Raven looked up.
"I have to go to him, Alex," she said. "If he died not knowing that I was still alive, I don't think I could live with myself." She looked back down. "I don't know how I'm going to face him, but I have to try."
There was another long silence. Then Alex said, "I have something for you that might help."
Raven's ears perked up. Unconsciously, she cocked her head as she looked at him.
"Not here," he said. "Finish your dinner first, then I'll show you."
Raven searched his face for any sign of what he might be talking about, but his usually-expressive features were carefully neutral. At last she shrugged and turned back to her meal.
Raven waited until they had re-entered the comfortable warmth of Alex's car, which had been running with the heater on for the last ten minutes thanks to the miracle of remote ignition. Then she turned to him and raised her eyebrows expectantly. "All right, Alex. Whatcha got for me?"
Alex took a deep breath and let it out again. "Okay. Give me your hand."
Raven's ears twitched forward. "Huh?"
"Trust me," Alex said with a small smile. "Just give me your hand for a minute. Without your glove, please."
She stared at him for a moment, then shrugged and peeled off her glove. "Okay," she said, not at all sure where Alex was going with this. "Are we praying or something?"
Alex's smile briefly widened into a grin. "Maybe later. I do need to close my eyes for a minute, though."
The ermine-man's eyes squeezed shut. "Because I need to concentrate. Just give me about a minute of silence, and don't let go of my hand."
An uncomfortable feeling was beginning to stir in Raven's stomach. Wolf growled in suspicion. "This is kinda freaking me out, Alex. What are you doing?"
Alex sighed, but he didn't open his eyes. "You know how SCABS gives some people special gifts?"
Raven could think of a few off-hand without even trying too hard. "Yeah?"
"I'm going to use mine." He looked up into her eyes. "Do you trust me?"
Raven nodded. The last year had brought her through a lot of changes, a lot of healing of the inner wounds and scars that had plagued her, and Alex had played a major role in that healing process. He had been an anchor for her when she was at her most vulnerable. "Yes, I trust you," she said, sending a reassuring mental pat toward Wolf. The lupine image in her mind relaxed a little and laid down, but continued watching Alex carefully.
He gave a small nod. "Okay, then." He closed his eyes again. Raven looked down at their linked hands and waited.
After a few seconds a prickling sensation ran into her hand and up her arm, as if the limb had fallen asleep and the nerves were suddenly coming back on line. Then, as she watched, the thin layer of gray fur that covered her hand contracted back into her body, leaving smooth, feminine human flesh behind.
I get it, Raven thought to herself, watching the process with open fascination. Alex is some kind of polymorph. He's turning me into a human. She had to admit, that would make it easier to talk to her parents, though she would still have to convince them of who she was. Idly, she wondered who Alex was using as a model for the change; a polymorph couldn't work without some kind of mental or visual reference to copy from. Somebody he knows personally, or a celebrity? she asked herself. The thought of showing up in Dos Lobos wearing the face of some Hollywood starlet was an amusing one, but it might bring almost as many complications as showing up as a wolf-morph.
Wolf's mental projection jumped to her feet and yelped in alarm as she sensed the changes running through their shared body. Raven reached out to soothe her, projecting confidence into her thoughts. It's all right. He's not hurting us.
Wolf growled in sharp disagreement. Other Self is disappearing into the mist, she 'said', the mental image translating into something roughly akin to speech. I cannot feel our paws, our legs, our tail.
Rest. Be at peace, Raven sent back, trying to shape her thoughts into concepts that the lupine half of her mind could understand. I will not walk this path forever. A night's run on this trail, and then I will return to you. She guessed at how long the changes might last, given what she knew about polymorphs. Rest here and keep watch.
I do not like this trail, Wolf said sourly, lying back down in the gray haze. Already she seemed fainter, further removed from Raven's mind. But I shall wait.
I shall return, Raven promised. Then, she turned her attention back to the changes running through her.
The ripple of transformation traveled down her body, and she felt her tail contract and vanish. The head was strangest of all, as lips, jaws, and ears all shifted and contorted as if she were being molded like clay. She noticed her senses of smell and hearing retracting to baseline human levels, and it seemed as if someone had just stuffed her ears and nose with cotton. Her vision, which hadn't been bad even in her usual form, seemed to grow a bit sharper, and colors flushed to an intensity she'd forgotten they ever had.
Then, with little more than a whisper, Wolf faded into the grey, until she was only the barest shadow in Raven's mind. She could still feel her there if she reached out to her, but -- for the first time in years -- she could not hear the wolf's voice in her mind.
The silence was both shocking and liberating.
At last the changes ceased, and she reached up with one slender hand and ran her fingers along the lines of her face. After so many years as a wolf or wolf-morph, the bare skin felt strange under her touch. Her skin tingled slightly all over, as if she had just soaked herself in a vat of depilatory cream.
Alex opened his eyes. She flashed him a smile, feeling her lips pull back from human teeth, and the expression widened into a grin as she realized that she didn't have to hide a mouthful of fangs anymore. "How do I look?" she asked. Her voice, at least, was unchanged.
Alex smiled. He suddenly looked tired, and she wondered how much the effort of changing her had drained him. "Why don't you see for yourself?" he asked, gesturing at the visor above Raven's head.
Raven looked up. "Oh, right." Flipping the visor down, she opened the vanity mirror --
And felt her heart skip a beat.
She saw herself. Her own face -- not Raven Blackmane, but Samantha Raven Kepler -- stared back at her with a look of utter astonishment. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, but the image remained the same. It was her, the real her, essentially unchanged from the time she had last seen herself in the mirror, more than five years ago. Every contour, every detail just as she remembered...
Except for a pale white line running diagonally along her left cheek. She frowned at that, until she remembered that one of the slavers had struck her there. He'd been wearing a ring of some kind, and it had cut her skin open...
"Oh, God," she breathed. It was as much a prayer as an exclamation. "Alex... how? You've never even seen me like this..."
"I don't have to," Alex said. "I'm not a polymorph, in the usual sense. I can't even change myself. But I can help other Scabs revert to their human form." He waved his hand vaguely, a motion Raven caught out of the corner of her eye. "I don't know how it works, exactly, but..."
"Can you do this for anybody? Any Scab?"
"Only if they already have some ability to shift. It doesn't work on morphlocked Scabs, which I think is why I can't do it to myself. My theory is that any Scab who can shapeshift, even a little bit, has some kind of mental block that limits how far they can go. This... gift of mine seems to remove that block. Temporarily."
Raven swallowed. "How long do I have like this?" she asked, still looking at her reflection. I need to get some makeup, she thought.
"About six hours, give or take. I don't do this very often. It takes a lot out of me, and if word got out that I could do this..."
"People would be lining up around the block for it."
"Exactly." He gave her a weary smile. "Under the circumstances, though, I think you deserve it. I'll come with you to see your parents, Raven. I think it will soften the blow if you can tell them you have SCABS while you still look like the daughter they remember."
Raven snorted. "Well, yeah," she said. She shook her head slightly in amazement. "Alex, this is... geez, I can't even believe this is happening." She turned to look at him. "Thank you," she said earnestly. "Thank you so much." She could feel tears beginning to rise up in her eyes. On the spur of the moment, she leaned over and wrapped him in a tight hug.
Alex chuckled and returned the embrace. "You're welcome," he said, his voice sounding a bit strained. He made a small choking sound. "Okay, oxygen becoming an issue..."
"Oh! Sorry." Raven let him go and sat back with a grin, and for once she didn't have to watch where she put her tail. She wiped the tears from her eyes and took a deep breath, refocusing her thoughts. "All right, I have a few things I need to take care of at the school tomorrow, and then I'll book us on the first flight I can get after that. Does that work for you?"
"It should. I'll talk to Pastor Kevin, but I'm not scheduled to lead any of the Christmas services, so I don't expect any problems." He reached out and gripped her hand, squeezing it once. "You ready for this?"
Raven looked back at her reflection. She still felt a twinge of apprehension at the thought of seeing her parents again, after what she'd put them through, but it didn't seem nearly so scary now as it had a few hours ago. "I think I'm as ready as I'm going to get," she said.
Raven fairly bounced into the West Street Shelter at a quarter to eight, grinning like a school-girl on the first day of Christmas break. Which, in a sense, she was, although at twenty-eight she was pushing the limits of the term "school-girl". The Shelter was as busy as it had been earlier, if not more so, and Splendor wasn't in her office when she came in. Raven politely asked one of the other Shelter workers to send for Splendor; the young otter-morph woman squinted at Raven for a moment, as if trying to jog her memory, then shrugged and disappeared into the back. Raven casually scanned the pictures on the walls while she waited, casting the occasional glance at the other Scabs in the waiting room who were eyeing her with varying degrees of curiosity and suspicion.
Splendor came out a few minutes later. The herpamorph woman put her hands on her hips and gazed at Raven for a few seconds. Then her eyebrows shot up suddenly, and Raven grinned.
"Raven?" Splendor asked, her voice carrying a tone of mild surprise.
If anything, Raven's grin went wider. "How'd you know it was me?"
Splendor smirked and counted off the points on her long, slender fingers. "Your eyes, for one. Your hair. That scar, which matches the cut you had on your face when we brought you in here. Your clothes, which I saw you wearing earlier. And you're an apparently Norm woman wearing jeans with a tail-flap."
Raven blushed at that last one, then reached back and buttoned shut what some Scabs called 'the back fly'. "Forgot about that," she said sheepishly.
"Don't worry about it. You ready to patrol?"
"Whenever you are," Raven said, pulling a flashlight out of her coat pocket and holding it up for examination.
They went back to one of the storerooms and gathered up a few basic supplies: instant heat-packs, walkie-talkies in case they needed to split up, thick gloves and knit caps for both of them, a couple of thin blankets made of a synthetic material that was both light and warm, and first aid kits in case they ran across anyone who needed medical attention -- sadly, an all-too-common occurrence on West Street.
"So, what's with the norm-job?" Splendor asked, as they headed out of the Shelter and began walking down the street. They would follow West Street to its end on Lysette Avenue, then cross the street and proceed to its opposite end before looping back to the Shelter. "You didn't mention that earlier."
"It was a surprise to me, too," Raven said. She played the beam of her flashlight over the alleys and windows as they walked, looking for any sign of those who might need their help. "Don't tell anyone, but Alex has been holding out on us." She briefly explained their earlier conversation in his car.
"Interesting," Splendor said. "So that's what you looked like before you became a Scab?"
"Not counting the scar and the extra five years, yeah."
"Hm." Splendor said nothing more for a long moment.
Raven looked over at her and raised her eyebrows. "What?"
The hint of a smile touched the corners of Splendor's mouth. "You must have been popular with the boys," she said.
Raven blushed and grinned. "Some of them," she admitted. "I didn't get many dates in high school, though. I think most boys find tall girls to be too intimidating. Besides, I was kind of a geek."
"I thought you used to play hustler at the pool halls."
Raven laughed. "Well, yeah, but those weren't the guys I went to school with, either."
They walked in silence for a time, keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings. They came across a few stragglers that hadn't gone to the Shelter, either because they were new to West Street and didn't know about it or because they were too sick, drunk, stoned or otherwise out of it to get there on their own. One by one they escorted each of them back to the Shelter, where the staffers were waiting to give them a warm reception. One of the new 'guests', a young teenage girl Raven and Splendor had found huddled in a pile of trash with her older brother, wept openly at the sight of a warm bed, clean clothes and hot food. She embraced the two women tightly, whispering "thank you" over and over again, until finally one of Splendor's assistants led her off to the showers to get cleaned up.
As they went out to continue their patrol, Raven saw Splendor furtively wipe a tear out of her eyes. Her gaze was focused steadily on some spot in the distance, and her usually graceful movements seemed stiff and forced.
"Splendor? Are you all right?" Raven asked quietly, when they were out of earshot from anyone back at the Shelter.
The older woman seemed to compose herself, taking in a deep breath through her nose and then letting it out again. "Yeah. Fine." Then, after a few seconds, she added, "Kid just reminds me of myself, once."
"Oh." Raven gave her a sidelong glance, but Splendor's composed, hardened features betrayed nothing further. She felt a pang of sorrow and compassion for this woman who had done so much for her, and yet could never seem to break through the walls around her heart. There was something deep inside Raven that wanted to latch on to Splendor like an adoptive mother, but the older woman stayed at arm's length, distant and professional and almost cold. Raven's love reached out toward her like the leading stroke of a lightning bolt, searching for something to connect to, but it could find nothing within Splendor that would reach out to complete the circuit, and so its potential remained untapped, unreleased... frustrated.
But that didn't mean she was going to stop trying.
"I guess you had a pretty rough childhood, huh?" she asked.
"You could say that," Splendor said evenly. "Though I was luckier than a lot of Scabs." She looked over at Raven. "So, you're going home to see your family?"
Raven hid her disappointment at the abrupt change of subject and nodded. "That's the plan. Alex is coming along to keep me looking like my old self, at least until I get through the preliminaries." She sighed and shook her head. "I still don't really know how I'm going to do this, though. It's been five years. Everybody's got to think I'm dead by now. They're probably going to feel pretty betrayed when I show up again... geez, what will they think when they find out I've been hiding here for the last year..."
She looked up, and for a moment was puzzled by what she saw. Splendor was staring at her, very intensely. She couldn't be sure in the dim light, but it looked like some of the muscles in the older woman's face were twitching slightly.
A few seconds ticked by as they locked eyes. When Splendor spoke again, her voice was very quiet. "You have a father and mother who love you," she said. "Nothing is more important than that. Not five years. Not SCABS. Nothing." She paused and took a breath. "Don't give that up because of fear. I want you to promise me that you're going to go through with this. That you're going to go to your mother and father and let them have their daughter back. That you're not going to give up because you're scared. Promise me."
Raven cocked her head and stared at Splendor, mouth agape, momentarily dumbstruck by the woman's quiet intensity. "Why?" she asked, when she found her voice again.
She couldn't be sure, but in the light of the nearby street lamp it looked like Splendor's eyes were glistening, as if wet. "Because it's important to me," she said. Her voice sounded hoarse.
Raven swallowed once, then nodded, not taking her eyes off of the other woman. "I promise," she said. "I'll go through with it."
Splendor held her gaze a moment longer, then nodded, turned and continued walking. "Good," she said, not looking back. "Now, come on. We've got a lot of ground to cover yet."
Wordlessly, Raven followed.
Raven returned to her normal form shortly after returning home that night. Wolf seemed a little irritated at her counterpart's long absence, but also relieved that Raven had actually come back. She spent a long time 'bonding' with her alter-ego, allowing Wolf to take control of their body and amuse herself with a rawhide and a few rubber chew toys. One of Wolf's favorite games was to allow Raven just enough dexterity and control in her forepaws to toss a ball into the air, at which point Wolf would leap up and catch it in her mouth. The idea had repulsed a number of her friends when she told them about it, but Raven had long since gotten used to Wolf putting things in their mouth. Dogs will be dogs, even if they're sharing your body, and compromise was what made their situation work. She sometimes considered trying to re-integrate the two halves of her personality, but in some ways she felt more comfortable knowing that her lupine instincts were lumped together where she could keep a metaphorical eye on them.
After sleeping in next morning (something that both Raven and Wolf enjoyed immensely) and then tying up a few remaining loose ends at the school, Raven went hunting for plane tickets. She had a little money saved away, thanks to some financial magic from Epona -- she didn't know how on Earth the pro-Scab foundation had retrieved her assets from her human days without anyone back home hearing about it, but they had -- and she could scrape together enough for a ticket, provided she could get one cheaply enough. Fortunately there were always flights with last-minute vacancies, even during the holidays, and in the thirty years since William Shatner first promoted the idea, the airline industry had perfected the process of selling those empty seats at economical prices. She found a flight to Seattle with two open seats that was leaving in less than four hours.
It was a bit of a mad dash from there to call Alex, pack bags, and get over to the airport and through check-in and security before the plane took off without them, but they made it without having to run anyone over on the way to the gate. As they squeezed into their seats -- one aspect of air travel that really hadn't improved in thirty years -- Raven was faced with a problem common to many Scabs that she had not, up 'til now, had to contend with.
Simply put, tails and airplane seating don't mix.
"I can't believe they aren't required to have special seating for situations like this," Alex said, looking and sounding a little incredulous.
"They do, but with us I think it's a full flight," Raven said, looking up and down the center aisle of the aircraft. There were seats near the front of the coach section that were adapted for 'animorphic body plans', as the saying went, but not many, and Raven and Alex weren't the only Scabs on the flight. "Maybe," she suggested, lowering her voice, "we could just take care of it ourselves?" She looked up, her expression hopeful. Wolf growled -- at Raven, not at Alex -- but she calmly and firmly shushed her. I will return, she promised.
Alex looked at her for a long moment, his expression vaguely concerned; but whatever he was thinking, he didn't share it. At last he closed his eyes and nodded. "All right," he said, keeping his own voice low so the other passengers wouldn't hear them. "Sit down as best you can. We don't want to make a scene of this. Try to make it look like you're doing it for yourself."
Raven grinned broadly and sat down in the seat sideways, almost eagerly reaching out and taking Alex's hand when he sat down. After about twenty seconds of concentration from Alex -- and a fairly convincing performance from Raven to make it look like she was in charge of the process -- the human form of Samantha Kepler turned and settled back into her seat.
All things considered, it still wasn't all that comfortable. But it was a vast improvement.
Alex seemed to wilt in his chair, looking exhausted. It seemed to have hit him harder this time, and she wondered if that was due to doing it twice in two days or if he had just been tired to begin with. Raven squeezed his hand, running hairless fingers over soft white fur, and took a moment to appreciate the silence in her mind.
"Thank you, Alex," she said. "For everything."
Alex opened his eyes, just a crack, and smiled weakly. "Hey," he said. "If it will help you reconnect with your family, help you put your old life back together with your new one... it's all worth it, right? We all have to face our fears if we want to move forward."
Raven tried to ignore the quiet little flutter in her stomach at that last part. "Right," she said, giving him another smile. This one felt a bit forced. "Facing my fears. That's me." She turned and looked out the window, as the plane began to taxi away from the terminal.
"Absolutely," she murmured.
Unless you lived in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, New Delhi or London -- and were trying to get from one of those places to another one of those places -- chances were good that you, the average frequent flyer, would never experience the great innovations in air travel that had come to pass in the first three decades of the twenty-first century. This was largely a matter of cost. Airplanes were expensive, and the new hypersonic airliners that had started to come into common use in the last ten years were particularly so. Most of the planes in the world's air fleets were still the same dependable subsonic transports that had been ferrying people around for thirty years before the turn of the century. The names and model numbers changed slightly, as did certain minor aspects of the airplanes' shape, but the overall design was basically untouched.
So it was that a flight from Pennsylvania to Washington still took about four and a half hours, not counting the time change. Raven and Alex managed to sleep a little on the plane -- especially Alex, who looked as if someone had drugged him -- but nonetheless, they arrived in Seattle feeling stiff, sick of flying, and still with a long journey ahead of them. Dos Lobos was not the most convenient or accessible place in the world, which had a lot to do with why people chose to live there.
"I still don't get the name," Alex said, as they sat and ate fast food while waiting for the small commuter plane that would take them to Darrington, the closest place to Raven's hometown with its own airstrip. "Why 'Dos Lobos'? Washington isn't particularly known for Spanish names."
Raven smirked. She had reverted to her usual form not long after landing, and the expression felt odd on her wolfish mouth after spending the last few hours in human form. "As usual with small towns, there's a fascinating story behind it that's really only fascinating to a few old people who actually remember how it all happened," she said dryly. "The gist of it is that a rich guy from California bought a big plot of land out in the boonies so that he could have somewhere to get away from it all. Then he decided that he really didn't want to get away from everything, so he started bringing in construction workers and basically built himself a small town there that would have everything he could possibly need. They say that he called it 'Dos Lobos' because he saw a couple of wolves while he was out walking in the forest one day -- but some people say they were just wild dogs, and others say he just liked the sound of the name and made up the whole story. Anyway, after he died the heirs sold off the property in a bunch of small parcels, and that's how the town was born."
Alex considered that for a minute, then nodded. "That actually is kind of interesting," he said thoughtfully.
Raven let out a brief chuff of laughter. "Trust me, it gets duller after you hear it repeated a few hundred times. They had to have stories like that where you came from, too, right?"
He chuckled. "If they did, I didn't pay much attention. I spent my teen years in a Scab gang on the south side of Chicago. I was too busy getting drunk, high or into trouble to worry about folklore."
Raven's eyebrows shot up. "Seriously?" Alex nodded; Raven scoffed. "So how on Earth did you end up as a preacher in Pennsylvania?"
Alex smiled, and the light sparkled in his jet-black eyes. "God got a hold of me," he said. "I had just taken delivery of a batch of crystal meth from our supplier, but the cops were on my trail. I was looking for a safe place to hide the stuff and ended up wandering into a storefront church that was in the middle of a revival. I was sort of skulking around in the back while this pastor was walking up and down the aisles praying for people. Before I knew what was happening, she came up and put her hands on my head. I was on the floor about two seconds later."
Raven grinned. Her own encounter with the power of God a year prior had showed her how profound an effect it could have. "So you were basically a rebel who got captured and joined the other side," she said.
"After a fashion," Alex agreed. "While I was doing carpet time I sort of took stock of where I was and how I had gotten there. I saw how badly I'd screwed up my life and realized I didn't want to be in charge of it anymore. So I gave it to Him." He shrugged. "He delivered me from the drug addiction overnight. The alcoholism took longer to beat, almost a year. Then He told me to go to Bible college. After they ordained me, I started looking for a place to minister. I met Pastor Kevin at a conference, and I knew I wanted to be involved in the same kind of inner-city ministry that had rescued me. He invited me to come in for a trial period. They liked what they saw, so they hired me on." He smiled. "That was four years ago."
"Praise God," Raven said soberly. Then she smirked at him again. "Geez, and I thought I was messed up," she said, winking.
Alex laughed. "Yeah, well. The way I like to see it is, if God can save me, He can save anybody. That's why our ministry at Light of Hope means so much to me. There's so many people in the city, especially Scabs, who think that they're at the bottom of a dark pit with no way out. If we can show people like that that there's a reason to live again... well, is there anything better than that?"
Raven smiled, but her reply was cut off by the approach of a man in a flight jacket.
"Marlow and Blackmane?" he called to them. They looked up. "Go ahead and get on board, gate two. We'll be leaving in just a few minutes."
"I've never been on a plane this size before," Alex admitted, as they climbed aboard the ten-passenger prop-driven aircraft. "It's not too different from flying on a jet, is it?"
Raven hung her head and shook it wearily. "City boys," she muttered. "Buckle up and hold on, Alex. It gets bumpy from here."
Wolf didn't like flying. It was just unnatural, for a wolf to be sitting there with all four feet off the ground, the floor beneath them shaking and bobbing and pitching as the little craft was blown around in the harsh winter winds. The pilot knew his plane well, and kept her flying safely all the way to Darrington, but Wolf still found the experience unpleasant and more than a little disturbing.
She did, however, fare far better through the experience than Alex did.
The young pastor moaned softly as Raven and another of the passengers helped him out onto the solid ground of the airstrip, where he sank to his hands and knees and focused on long, deep breaths. If Raven hadn't known any better, she would have sworn his fur had turned green.
"Oh, thank you Jesus," he murmured. "Praise you, God. Thank you, Jesus..."
His thanksgiving went on like that at some length, occasionally interspersed with dry heaves as his guts made a good effort at turning his body inside out.
"Good thing they had enough air-sickness bags," the other passenger remarked, looking up at Raven. He was a big, burly fellow with a shaved head, goatee, and pleasant demeanor. "I wouldn't have thought a little guy like that could hold so much."
"Weasels are known for their voracious appetites," Raven said, only half-joking. On a good day, Alex could polish off three-fourths of a large pizza with little apparent effort. This, obviously, was not a good day. The way he was going, tomorrow wasn't looking too promising, either.
"Huh," the man said, thoughtfully, as if he had just noticed that Alex wasn't a norm. "You want me to see about getting him some medicine? They might have something at the front office."
"Thanks, but let's see if we can go together," Raven said. "Alex? You good to move a little farther? It's awfully cold, and I'd like to get off this runway."
Alex groaned something that sounded like an affirmative, and they helped him into the main building for the airstrip, which was little more than a lobby, one ticket counter, a rental car counter and a set of business offices. Alex sank gratefully into one of the lobby chairs and tried to find a position that wouldn't lead to further pain and nausea.
The lady at the counter helped Raven scrounge up some antiemetic pills, a clean rag and a cup of cold water. Alex took the medicine gratefully and then lay there as Raven used the rag to apply the rest of the water to his face, soaking through the thin layer of fur to the skin. As she did so she prayed softly for God to relieve Alex's pain and nausea. After a few minutes he seemed to be doing a little better, and Raven went to the pay phone and started looking through the local directory for lodging. It was already late, and because of the time change it felt three hours later. They wouldn't be able to go any further tonight. Besides, Raven still didn't know whether her father had been released from the hospital yet.
Darrington was about as small as a town could be and still have its own airfield, but there were still a few places for travelers to spend the night. Most of them were bed-and-breakfasts geared toward vacationing couples; there wasn't enough business to really support full-time hotels, but lots of families had extra rooms in their homes and were willing to make a few bucks off of them when the opportunity presented itself. It was at one such house that Raven found a couple of empty bedrooms available for the night, for considerably less than it would have cost for two hotel rooms. (Not that Raven didn't trust Alex, but a young pastor and a single woman sharing a room together would be a dubious breach of propriety under any circumstances.)
There wasn't much call for taxis in the little town, either, but for a modest surcharge the proprietor of the B&B was willing to come pick up Raven and Alex in his van. Mr. Andrews was in his mid-sixties, recently retired and enthusiastic about the new business he and his wife had started. He questioned Raven at great length about their reasons for visiting Darrington, her childhood in Dos Lobos, her life in the city, and especially her experiences with SCABS. Raven carefully edited out any mention of Wolf or split-personality disorder, lest this jovial man question his decision to invite her into his home.
Mrs. Andrews was everyone's grandmother, and instantly took pity on poor Alex. Like Mr. Andrews, she reacted with surprise to Raven and Alex's appearance at first but quickly warmed up to them as they talked. She offered Alex some chicken broth, but he decided that his stomach would be best served by getting to sleep as soon as possible.
"These here are our guest rooms," Mr. Andrews said, when he had led them upstairs. "Used to be Mike and Jenny's, until they moved out. Make yourselves comfortable, bathroom's down the hall on the right, and just let us know if you need anything, all right?"
"Thank you," Raven said, looking in on the rooms. "Everything looks wonderful." One room was decorated in shades of green, the other in lavender, but other than that the furnishings were fairly nondescript. A few inspirational pictures and nature photographs hung on the walls, and the beds were fitted with plain white sheets, thick feather pillows and fluffy duvet covers. Raven took the purple room and helped Alex get comfortable in the green one. At last, after a long day of travel, they settled into their beds for the night. They did not so much drift off to sleep as make a steep nose-dive into it, but much like their earlier flight into Darrington, no one was awarding points for elegance.
Friday, December 20th
Wolf awoke before Raven did the next morning, but there was little in the bedroom to hold her interest; after padding around the perimeter and taking in the scents of the last several guests, she curled up in a sunbeam at the foot of the bed and fell into a light doze. Raven returned to consciousness to find her nose tucked under her tail and a gentle warmth baking her back. She gave her alter-ego a mental nudge, and the wolf got up, stretched, and yawned impressively.
Which trail do we run today, Other Self? Wolf asked, sending Raven an image of herself brushing past Raven's legs and looking up at her. Do we hunt? Do we play?
Raven sent back an image of herself scritching the wolf's ears. Our sire is hurt. We go to track him down.
Wolf growled. What hurt Sire? Is it a threat to the pack? Shall we kill it?
No, Raven 'said', sending an image of herself shaking her head. It is an illness that hurt Sire, not a predator. There is nothing to kill.
Wolf blinked at that and cocked her head. Sire is weak? Then perhaps he is no longer fit to lead the pack.
Raven sighed. We don't cast out our pack-mates when they are weak, Wolf -- we share our strength, to help them heal and become strong again. That is the human path... the path of compassion. The last word was a difficult one to translate into images; Raven chose the picture of a wolf nuzzling up against a pack-mate with a wounded paw, licking the wound and whining.
Wolf seemed to understand, and nodded her head once. Very well. This is your trail, Other Self. You lead the way. And with that she stepped back into the grey, yielding control of their body to Raven.
Raven felt her body shift and change, and then she was on her hands and knees on the floor of the bedroom. She stood up, did a few stretches of her own, then began getting dressed for the day ahead.
She met Alex downstairs in the kitchen, where Mrs. Andrews had prepared a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, toast, coffee and orange juice.
"How are you feeling?" Raven asked, sliding into the chair next to him. She winked at him. "You still look a little pale."
"Har, har," Alex said, piling eggs onto his plate. "I'm doing a lot better, actually. I'm not sure if I'm ready for sausage, but the eggs look delicious."
"Weasel in the hen-house," Raven said wryly, loading up her own plate with a combination of eggs and sausage that had both her and Wolf salivating in anticipation.
Alex smirked in return. "Right. So what's on the agenda for today?"
Raven shrugged. "We check the hospital, see if my dad's still there. If not, we head for Dos Lobos. There's a small fleet of rental cars at the airfield."
"How far is it?"
"Two or three hours, depending on the weather. If Dad's already gone home, we should be there in time for lunch."
Alex raised his eyebrows. "Does that mean you're planning on just showing up at the door for a bite to eat?"
Raven let out something between a laugh and a sigh, shaking her head. "Somehow, I think doing that would make everyone forget about food for a while."
A quick phone call to Our Lady of Mercy Hospital confirmed Raven's suspicions: Matthew Kepler had been released yesterday afternoon and returned home with his wife. Mr. Andrews gave Raven and Alex a ride back to the airfield, where they rented a Jeep to take them to Dos Lobos. There were cheaper cars available, but Raven didn't trust them on the mountain roads in winter. The rental agency was kind enough to throw in a set of tire chains at "no additional charge", though Raven suspected it was simply folded into the cost of the vehicle. Alex firmly declined Raven's offer to let him drive.
"You grew up in the mountains. I grew up in a reclaimed swamp," he said. "I think that gives you just a bit more street cred for something like this."
The trip to Dos Lobos was beautiful, taking them along winding mountain passes and through evergreen forests wrapped in snow. Raven paid it little heed, though, for her mind was wrapped in thoughts of her parents. The quiet anxiety in the pit of her stomach was growing again, as she tried to imagine the look on her parents' faces when she came to the door.
At last they came around a bend in the road, and the town came into view before them. The first thing Raven noticed was the decorations. Christmas lights covered the houses, the streetlights, and a good number of the trees. There seemed to be glowing reindeer, manger scenes or snowmen in front of every third building. A huge banner hung over the street at the entrance to town, proclaiming DOS LOBOS WISHES YOU HAPPY HOLIDAYS in large red letters. Smaller text below listed Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Winter Solstice, and New Year's as the specific holidays in question, with little symbols next to each one: a Star of David for Hanukkah, a cross for Christmas, a sprig of holly for Solstice, and so on.
"Looks very ... ecumenical," Alex said, leaning forward to gaze at the banner as they drove beneath it.
"That's Dos Lobos for you. Our own little multicultural microcosm. Something for everybody..."
"As long as you're not carrying the Flu?" Alex guessed.
Raven shrugged. "It's not the sort of thing I thought about much as a kid," she admitted. "We all knew, vaguely, that there were Scabs out there, much like I imagine kids in Chicago know that there are Asian people out there. But they were never really real to us. Truth be told, I don't know what kind of reception we're going to get. A lot can change in five years. Heck, for all I know this could be Scabtown, U.S.A. by now."
"That would certainly make things easier."
"So would winning the lottery, but I'm not buying any tickets."
They drove past a few blocks of houses before reaching the true downtown area, which was a four-block strip that lined Main Street and didn't go much beyond it to either side. Downtown was an eclectic mix of establishments, small enough and diverse enough that you couldn't really say that one type was particularly more common than the others. There were clothing stores, drug stores, bars, coffee shops, a few fast-food franchises, a supermarket, a bank, and the pool hall where Raven used to play hustler. There were also gift shops and curio stores, probably intended to take advantage of the tourist trade. Dos Lobos hadn't had many visitors back when Raven lived here, but it looked like word of the town was starting to get out. Even given the last-minute shopping rush, there seemed to be quite a few more people on the sidewalks than she was used to.
On the streets running parallel to Main on either side, you could find three of the town's five churches, two synagogues (Orthodox and Messianic), the mosque, the public library, and the town hall, as well as a few of the nicer restaurants, a laundromat, and a handful of bed-and-breakfasts. Most of the rest of the space 'behind' the downtown strip was taken up by parking lots.
"Know any good places for lunch?" Alex asked.
"Used to. I hope they're still here."
Alex smiled knowingly. "Home has changed a bit since you were here last?"
"A little," Raven admitted. "It was changing even when I left for college, nine years ago. After people realized that the Flu wasn't going to destroy the world, the town council decided to start angling for the tourist trade. There's some great skiing out here, and the peace and quiet is an attraction in and of itself. Of course, tourism brings in its own share of problems, but the extra money is hard to resist."
"What did people do for a living out here before the tourists started coming?"
"Timber industry, mostly. There are several big tree farms around here, and between the logging, the saw mill, the paper mill and the local furniture shops, you can employ a lot of workers. And then, of course, there's the whole service industry for the town itself."
"Hmm." Alex frowned, as if a thought had just struck him. "Aren't paper mills supposed to cause a lot of pollution?" he asked.
"Historically, yes," Raven said. "But our mill was built in the early Nils, so it's a lot more environmentally conscious than most of the old ones. Biodegradable dyes, unbleached paper, you get the idea. Still, companies will cut corners whenever they think they can get away with it, so the DNR has observers out here to keep an eye on the mills and the loggers and make sure they're playing by the rules."
"And that's what brought your dad out here?"
Raven smiled. "Good guess. They offered him the position shortly before the paper mill opened. He was looking for a way to protect us from the Flu, anyway, and Dos Lobos seemed about as far off the beaten path as you could get."
Alex grinned. "But not far enough to get away from McDonald's and Borders, I notice."
Raven smirked at that. "Is there anywhere left on Earth where you still can?"
They pulled into a parking lot on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Pine Street, a block west of Main. Kitty-corner to the lot was Offenbach's Café, one of Raven's favorite restaurants from her teenage years; in the southwest corner of the intersection was Dos Lobos Cemetery, the town's first and only final resting place for its citizens. A fresh blanket of snow covered the park-like terrain of the burial ground, making it look clean, white, and peaceful.
They crossed the street and entered the café. It was about one o'clock and the place was still busy with the lunchtime crowd, but there wasn't much of a wait. A woman dressed in a black apron and a tan T-shirt -- the restaurant's uniform -- came up to seat them. She was of medium height, a few years older than Raven, with soft brown eyes, a straight, slender nose, and cream-colored skin. Her straw-blond hair was streaked with highlights and pulled back into a ponytail, a hairstyle she had obviously been using for many years and was not about to give up simply because she had passed thirty. Raven recognized her immediately: she was Marie Offenbach, daughter of the restaurant's founders. She had been the general manager of the café even in her twenties, and she now owned the place outright. Raven wanted to announce herself and play catch-up with the woman, but for now she kept quiet and pretended to be the stranger she looked like. She still didn't know what kind of reception she was going to get in Dos Lobos.
Marie's eyes were wide as she approached, and her mouth was open in the shape of a small 'o'. Evidently Scabs were still rare enough out here that they provoked a reaction -- although, Raven realized, that wasn't really unusual in most parts of the country. Fortunately, the woman seemed merely surprised by their appearance, and not truly afraid.
"Well, hello!" she said, her voice carrying the same cheery timbre Raven remembered. "Welcome to Offenbach's. Two for lunch?"
"Yes, please," Raven said, smiling back at the woman and being careful not to bare her teeth too much.
Marie seated them at a booth on the south side of the building, next to a window facing the cemetery. She took their drink orders and then left them to look over their menus.
"What's good here?" Alex asked, looking over the selection.
Raven grinned. "Everything," she said.
After a few minutes Marie returned with their drinks -- Coke for Alex, hot apple cider for Raven.
"So what brings you to Dos Lobos?" she asked.
"Personal business," Raven said. "You heard what happened to Matt Kepler?"
"That poor man!" Marie said, looking genuinely concerned. "We could hardly believe it when we heard the news. I've heard he's been under a lot of stress lately, but still -- he doesn't look like the sort of man who would just collapse like that, you know?"
Raven nodded sadly, fighting down the lump that had formed in her throat. "Yeah. He's always been strong," she said softly. Then, taking a deep breath and straightening in her seat, she added, "Anyway, we're here to visit him. Do he and Sandra still live up on Spruce Drive?"
Marie shrugged. "I guess so. I only really know them from when they come in here. But they've never said anything about moving." Her brow crinkled in a sudden frown. "Of course, they've never said anything about knowing any Scabs, either, so what do I know?" She laughed, but it sounded nervous and a bit forced.
Raven gave her a mild, patient smile. "Well, this is a recent development for me," she said. "He hasn't seen me like this yet, so I'm curious to see what sort of reaction I get."
"Oh! Well, I'm sure it'll be fine," Marie said, waving her hand in a small dismissive gesture. "He's a sweet man, you know."
Raven's smile grew a little broader. "Yeah. He is."
Marie smiled back. She still seemed a little nervous about something, but she had relaxed a bit. "So, what can I get you?"
They gave her their orders, and she headed back toward the kitchen. She came back a moment later, wringing her hands a little.
"Hi! Um." She looked down, bounced on her heels a few times, and cast a glance to either side before continuing. "What I said, before... I hope that wasn't offensive or anything."
Alex smiled reassuringly. "Not at all," he said. "We call ourselves Scabs all the time."
"And sometimes worse things than that," Raven added, winking.
Marie let out a sigh. "Oh! Good," she said, looking relieved. "I was afraid there might be some special word for it now, like... I don't know, 'Furry-Americans' or something." She laughed again, and this time Raven and Alex joined her.
"Not so far, thank God," Raven said wryly. "The one nice thing about SCABS is that it affects people of all different ethnic groups. I think that's helped to shield us from the Political Correctness Police."
"Okay," Marie said, relaxing a bit more. "I'm glad. We don't see a lot of Scabs around here, you know." She clasped her hands in front of her and shrugged. "I just didn't want you to feel unwelcome."
"Well, we appreciate it," Raven said, smiling back.
Marie beamed. "Great! Okay, I'll go take care of your lunch now." With that she turned and strode purposefully off toward the kitchen.
Alex raised his eyebrows. "She's funny," he said.
Raven chuckled. "Marie has always been eager to please," she said. "Glad to see that applies to Scabs, too."
"If everyone in town reacts that well, you should have an easy time of it," Alex said.
"Yeah, but that's a big 'if'. And Marie doesn't know who I am yet. It's a good sign, but we're not out of the woods yet."
Their food came up a few minutes later, and they ate mostly in companionable silence, with Alex pausing on a few occasions to remark on the quality of the food. Raven agreed; Offenbach's definitely hadn't lost their touch.
Marie brought their bill promptly after they'd finished eating. Alex offered to take care of it, and while they waited for Marie to run his debit card Raven sat and gazed out the window at the cemetery across the street. Despite the snow, it was a mild winter day, and there were a handful of people walking among the headstones, no doubt coming to visit departed friends and relatives. Raven watched as one woman walked up the sidewalk from downtown and entered the cemetery. She was alone, dressed in a long navy blue coat, and held bouquet of roses cradled in her arms. Near the entrance she paused and looked around, as if she had just heard something odd -- and that was when Raven saw her face.
"Oh my gosh," she gasped, as the woman turned and continued walking into the graveyard. She rose quickly to her feet, almost banging her knee on the edge of the table in the process.
"What?" Alex asked, looking up sharply.
"I'm going over there," she said, pulling on her coat and buttoning it closed as fast as she could. "Go ahead and take care of the bill, then catch up with me."
"What is it?" Alex asked again.
Raven swallowed, then nodded in the direction of the window. "It's Mom."
Raven's mother already had a significant lead on her by the time she made it out of Offenbach's and across the street, but that was just as well. The grounds of the cemetery were open enough that she could follow her at a distance without drawing attention to herself, and Raven wasn't ready for a face-to-face meeting in any case. But Sandra Kepler was bringing flowers to a graveyard, and Raven needed to know why. She knew it couldn't be her father -- if he had died, Marie certainly would have heard about it, and it was far too early for the burial to be finished in any case -- but the chances were good that it was somebody Raven knew. Better to find out now than be surprised later on.
Sandra followed a snow-covered path about a hundred yards into the cemetery, up to a plain-looking headstone that stood alone at the base of a small hill. She placed the bouquet of flowers atop the headstone and then knelt before it, bowing her head.
Raven tried to look casual as she approached, pausing from time to time to look at the headstones as she passed them. Her mother seemed not to take any notice of her, and as Raven grew closer she could tell that the older woman was talking. Finally she got close enough that her lupine ears could make out what she was saying.
"I'm not sure why I decided to come here today," she said, looking up at the cool gray stone in front of her. "It's been a long time since I've done something like this. And it's not as if you're really here. But with everything that's happened to Matt..." She paused, and shook her head. "I just wish that you could be here for him. For both of us. I don't think any of us ever realized how much we depended on you until you were gone... how much it meant to us to see you smile. Or hear you laugh. Or have you give us a hug and tell us you loved us." She reached up and touched her hand to the stone, a gentle caress. "We miss you so much," she said, and with those words her voice broke and her controlled demeanor shattered.
Raven winced, as her mother's words ceased and quiet weeping took their place. She really didn't know how to deal with this. Sandra Kepler had always been a private woman, and while she had never been stingy with her praise or her affection, her grief was something she kept to herself. Raven could count on her fingers the numbers of times she had seen her mother cry, and she had never seen Sandra in the kind of all-consuming mourning she was displaying now, where speech was impossible and her entire body shook with quiet, gut-wrenching sobs.
For a moment, she almost forgot what she was. A large part of her wanted to run forward and wrap her mom in a comforting hug, to just try to ease her pain. But then she caught a glimpse of her wolfish reflection in the dark, polished granite of the gravestone in front of her, and she remembered that things weren't that simple anymore. Besides, her mother had never shared this side of herself with Raven before; it seemed like it would be wrong for her to intrude upon her privacy now.
Raven felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Alex standing there beside her. Without thinking about it, she wrapped him in a hug, which he readily returned. They held each other, pretending to look at the markers in front of them, while they listened to Sandra vent her grief.
Raven didn't know how long they had been standing there when her mother finally pulled herself together, prayed something so soft that even her wolfish ears couldn't pick it out, then stood and made her way out of the cemetery, never even noticing the two Scabs who stood no more than thirty feet away. When she had gone, Raven approached the tombstone, Alex only a few steps behind her.
She saw the words on the tombstone long before she got to it, and she couldn't really even pretend to be surprised. She just bowed her head and shared in her mother's sorrow, breathing in the scent of the roses, reflecting on the shadow of herself that fell across the simple inscription:
She felt Alex come up behind her again, a silent presence offering comfort and strength. After a moment she leaned back against him, and he put his arm around her.
"Samantha Kepler," Alex said. His voice was quiet, thoughtful.
"That's me," Raven agreed sadly. "Not every day you get to stand on your own grave. I wonder if that's bad luck."
Alex said nothing, just held her a bit tighter.
"Well... that's it, then," Raven said. "They think I'm dead."
"It doesn't change anything, Raven," Alex said soothingly. "They still love you. After what we just saw, you have to know your parents will be overjoyed to have you back."
"I know," Raven admitted. "But it's not going to be easy for them to believe it. I mean, they've given up. They think it's over. How are they going to deal with it when a ghost shows up on their doorstep?"
"I'm not sure." He gently squeezed her shoulder. "But don't you think it's time we found out?"
Raven gazed at the words chiseled in stone for another long moment, remembering what she and Alex had both given up to be here, now. She remembered her promise to Splendor. She remembered the haunting image of her mother's pain over her absence.
And she remembered her father, who had nearly died thinking his daughter was already gone.
She drew herself up and took a deep breath. "You're right, Alex. It's time."
The Kepler house was up on Spruce Drive, on the slopes of the mountain that bordered Dos Lobos to the east. It was a beautiful street, with lots of trees and the houses set back a good distance from the road, and the view it offered of the valley that the town was nestled in was nothing less than spectacular. It was a ten or fifteen-minute drive from Downtown up to Raven's old neighborhood. She stopped the Jeep at the curb a few houses away, set the parking brake, and turned to Alex.
"It'll be best if I go up there alone, at first," she said. "Just to get the lay of the land, so to speak. In the meantime, see if you can find a place to stay. Mom and Dad's house usually has room for a guest or two, but for tonight I think it's better if we don't impose on them."
Raven shook her head. "Afraid I can't help you there. I never had to pay for lodging in this town before. There are some B-and-B's near Downtown, so you might check those. There's a motel at the north end of town, for the ski bums, but it was put in after I went to college so I don't know exactly where it is. I'm sure somebody at one of the stores downtown could point you in the right direction, though."
Alex nodded. "All right. I'll message you when I find something." He offered his hands to her. "You ready?"
"Ready," she said, putting her hands in his without hesitation. Twenty seconds later, she was Samantha Kepler again, and Wolf was barely a shadow in her mind.
After the changes were over, Alex put his hand to Raven's forehead. "Lord, you know that this isn't going to be easy for Raven," he prayed. "I pray that your Spirit would go with her, that you would give her wisdom and guidance as she goes to reconnect with her parents. Please give her the words to say, to help her parents understand what has happened to her, and give them the grace to believe and accept it -- to accept Raven for who she is, and who she has become. I thank you, Lord, that you promised never to forsake us, and we trust and believe that you will go with Raven now. We commit this whole situation into your hands. In Jesus' name, amen."
"Amen," Raven echoed, giving Alex what she hoped was a brave smile. "I'll see you soon."
She climbed out of the Jeep, and Alex slid over to the driver's seat. "God be with you," he said.
Raven smiled; coming from someone else, that might have sounded pompously spiritual, but for Alex it was simply a matter of being real. He didn't believe in 'luck' -- good, bad, or otherwise -- so wishing Raven good luck would be an empty cliché for him. Far better, as he had once told her, to leave a person with a genuine blessing that might actually do them some good.
"Thanks, you too," she said. Then Alex pulled away and headed back to the town below, while Raven turned and began walking up the hill to her parents' front door -- and whatever reception might await her.
The Kepler house was a two-story structure in the modern American quasi-rustic style. The exterior walls were made up of dark hardwood logs that had been split in half, smoothed, varnished, and applied to the outside of the house in horizontal rows like siding. The result was a building that looked like a log cabin but was, underneath the surface, essentially like any other modern wood-frame house. Large windows looked out at the valley below, and a pair of French doors opened out onto a deck that matched the color of the house. The driveway wound up to a garage on the right side of the house, and in between the deck and the garage a set of wooden stairs led up to the main entrance.
As she approached the house, Raven wondered whether there was a better way she could have done this. Could she have called ahead, given them some kind of warning? Could she have written a letter?
No, she decided at last. If she had tried anything but a personal appearance, they probably would have dismissed it as a cruel joke. It was too easy to fake someone's voice over a phone line, and with modern CGI even a photograph couldn't be trusted. True, polymorphs could alter a person's body to resemble someone else, but there were very few people who could pull off a scam like that for very long. Like it or not, this was probably the best way of doing it.
She had just reached the foot of the deck and was heading around toward the main entrance when her ears caught the sound of a door opening. Looking up, she saw one of the French doors to the deck swing wide, and her mother walked onto the deck with a couple of throw rugs draped over her arms. The older woman caught sight of a figure standing at the base of the deck, turned, and began walking toward her.
"Can I help y--?" Sudden recognition flooded into Sandra's eyes, and her voice caught in her throat.
She froze. Raven froze. Dark brown eyes and ice-blue ones stared back at each other. The rugs fell limply to the floor of the deck, forgotten.
"Oh, God..." The words escaped from Sandra's mouth in a ragged gasp that left her jaw hanging open. Her eyes were so wide Raven could see the whites around them even from where she stood.
"Mom," she said, taking a step forward.
Reflexively, Sandra took a step back.
"Mom, it's me," Raven insisted, coming up the steps of the deck before her mother could decide to run or something. She came forward until she was less than five feet away. She could see now that Sandra's eyes were brimming with tears.
"Sam?" she whispered, looking at Raven as if she were afraid she would vanish into thin air at any moment.
Raven smiled sadly. "Hi, Mom."
Then they rushed into each other's arms, and both of them broke down crying.
For a long time neither one could find breath to speak. When Sandra found her voice, it came out only in gasps between the sobs.
"You're alive," she said, clinging to Raven like a drowning woman to a life preserver. "You're alive, Sam. You're alive!"
"Yeah," Raven agreed, forcing herself to find the words. "I'm alive, Mom. And I'm home."
It took a while before either of them had recovered enough composure to speak any more. When they did, they both realized how cold it was, and Sandra quickly ushered her daughter through the French doors into the living room. They attacked the nearest box of tissues, and when they could breathe again they settled onto the couch together.
"Sam, honey, what happened?" Sandra asked, taking Raven's hands in her own. "It's been five years! Who kept you from coming to us?"
Raven took a deep breath and let it out. "It's a long story," she said. "And I'll tell you everything, don't worry. But the short version is that it wasn't a person that kept me from coming." She looked up into her mother's eyes. "It was the Martian Flu. I got SCABS, Mom."
Sandra blinked, then swallowed. Her hands clenched once around Raven's. "What happened?" she asked.
Raven was about to launch into her explanation when she was cut off by the sound of another familiar voice.
"Honey, is everything all right? I heard..."
Raven's father appeared at the entrance to the room, his voice trailing off as he saw Raven sitting there on the couch with his wife. Like Sandra, he froze.
Raven, on the other hand, was more prepared this time. "Daddy!" she cried, and rushed to embrace him. After a few seconds he overcame his shock and wrapped her in his arms.
"Princess," he whispered, tears flowing freely down his face. "Oh, sweetheart, you're alive... thank God, you're alive..."
Several minutes later, when everyone was able to speak once more, they returned to the couch. Raven sat down at one end, a little removed from her parents so she could look directly at them, and quietly related the story of her fateful research trip in the wilderness, her encounter with the Flu-infected wolf, and the subsequent transformation wreaked on her by SCABS.
"It was like I wasn't alone in my own head anymore," she said, staring down at the human hands that sat clasped in her lap. "Sometimes I would be able to control my body, and everything would seem almost normal... but then the wolf would take over, I would change, and then there was nothing I could do until she gave control back to me again." She showed them a half-smile. "I was lucky that the wolf pack accepted me as one of their own, or I probably would have died out there."
"But how are you here now?" Sandra asked, eyes filled with concern. "There's no cure for SCABS, honey."
"No, there isn't," Raven agreed. "When I came back to civilization, it wasn't by my own doing." She briefly explained how she had been captured by poachers, sold to a band of Scab-slavers, taken across the country to Pennsylvania and eventually rescued by Splendor.
"She saved my life," she said. "And she put me in touch with other Scabs, people who could help me get back on my feet."
"And when was this?" Matt asked.
Raven sighed. "July of last year."
"Last year?" her father said, his expression one of surprise, hurt and a little anger. "Samantha, why did you wait so long to get in touch with us?"
"Because I was afraid!" Raven blurted, looking up at them with eyes that had misted over with fresh tears. "I had a wild animal inside of me, and I didn't know how to control it! I didn't know if I could control it! If the wolf had come out and hurt either of you, I..." She stopped and looked away, no longer able to meet their gaze. "On Halloween last year, the wolf escaped from my apartment. She attacked a little Scab girl who was out trick-or-treating and put her in the hospital. If her father hadn't stopped the wolf -- and put me in the hospital -- it would have killed her."
Her parents said nothing. Raven looked up at them and saw that their faces had gone pale. "After that, I knew I couldn't come back until I had found a way to control the beast inside me."
"How did you do it?" Sandra asked.
Raven shook her head. "It wasn't easy. I tried everything I could think of, everything the doctors could come up with. At one point I even tried going feral again, thinking that at least that way I wouldn't be a danger to others, but it turns out that neither half of me could live without some kind of companionship. Eventually I realized that the wolf wouldn't listen to me because my life had no purpose, no direction." She smiled slightly. "That was when God got ahold of me and dragged me back into His kingdom."
A sudden light sparkled in her parents' eyes. "So," Matt said, "you're--"
"Recommitted to Christ and living like it," Raven said, nodding. Her smile grew broader. "Sometimes I think God let me go through all of this just to win me back."
That got a smile out of Matt and Sandra, too, though it didn't completely banish the concern from their eyes. "So, did God deliver you from the wolf?" Matt asked. "Was this a demonic thing?"
"Oh, no," Raven assured them, shaking her head. "The wolf is still with me, and all of the people who've prayed for me have agreed it isn't demonic. It's a part of the changes SCABS made in me; my mind has just compartmentalized it, probably to make it easier to deal with. But after I gave myself over to God, I think it resolved a lot of that lost feeling I had, gave me some direction. Since then the wolf and I have been learning how to coexist, how to treat each other like partners instead of fighting each other. It's not evil -- it just sees the world differently from us."
She looked down at her hands and fell silent.
Matt cleared his throat. "Well, honey, it's... it's a lot to take in. I don't really know much about SCABS, but it sounds like what you went through was worse than what most people have to deal with."
"I also had it a lot easier than a lot of Scabs do," Raven said quietly.
"Maybe so," Matt conceded. "I guess all I'm saying is... I can't imagine what it was like for you. But I believe that you did what you thought was right." He gently put his hand on her shoulder, and gave her a small smile. "And I'm glad that you came back to us. I just wish you'd done it sooner."
"I know," Raven said, putting her hand over top of her father's. "And I'm sorry that I waited so long. Even after Wolf and I got on better terms, I guess I was still afraid to face you guys. I had been feral for four years, and I knew you must have thought I was dead. I know it's stupid, but sometimes it seemed easier just to let you go on thinking that. Besides... I wasn't really sure you would believe it was me. Normally, I'm... wolfier than this."
"I thought you said you could shift back and forth," Sandra said.
"I can," Raven agreed. "Between a full-bodied wolf and a humanoid one." She touched a hand to her cheek. "Last Wednesday was the first time I've seen this face in five years."
Matt frowned, puzzled. "How did you do it?"
"A friend of mine. The same one who led me back to God, actually: Alex Marlow, my pastor. He's a Scab who can help other Scabs shift back to their original human forms -- but I didn't know that until last Wednesday. He tries to keep it a secret."
Matt smiled. "I guess I can understand that."
"So how long does it last?" Sandra asked.
"Not long. About six hours," Raven said. "He's here in town with me, actually. I'll bring him by later, but I figured it would be better for us to do this talk with just the three of us."
"All right," Sandra said. "Do you think he'd like to join us for dinner?"
Raven smiled. "Yeah," she said. "That would be great."
It is, perhaps, only human nature to find refuge from strange and chaotic events in the bastions of the routine and familiar. Life goes on, and even the most momentous days must eventually give way to the ordinary things that must be done. So it was that, after all the tears had been dried and Matt and Sandra's initial questions had been answered, Raven and her parents busied themselves with the very mundane task of cleaning house. It had been a common enough thing for Raven to help her parents with the chores when she came home from college for summer or winter break; indeed, it had been something of a joke among her family that Mom only provided one free meal before you had to start earning your keep. They fell into much the same routine now: Sandra went to the kitchen and began preparing dinner for four; Matt dusted the living room and cleared away clutter that had built up in the 'public' areas of the house; and Raven beat the dirt out of the rugs on the deck (where they had been left after Sandra dropped them), vacuumed the floors, then went to the kitchen to help her mother. Thanks to the routine, they were able to go for as much as five minutes in a row without the strangeness of the situation weighing on their minds.
Raven was slicing some vegetables for a salad when she caught her mother just standing there watching her. "What?" she asked, smiling self-consciously.
Sandra mirrored her expression, creasing laugh-lines in her cheeks and around the corners of her eyes. Those lines were a little deeper and more numerous than Raven remembered, and her straight, jet-black hair was showing more strands of gray than before, but Raven thought she was still one of the most beautiful women she had ever known. Her dusky skin glowed with life, her dark eyes sparkled and glittered with intelligence and humor and passion, and the lines of age had only made her seem more distinguished, at once both elegant and very down-to-earth. The recent trials in her life may have weighed her down, but they had not broken her spirit. This was still the woman Raven looked up to, the woman she had always wanted to be.
"Just looking at you," Sandra said, that small smile still upon her face. She shook her head slightly. "There's a part of me that keeps saying, 'This must be a dream. Any moment now I'm going to wake up and she'll be gone.'"
Raven set down the knife and hugged her mom, then drew back and took her hands in her own. "No dream, Mom," she said, smiling. Then the smile turned into a smirk, as an appropriate in-joke came to her mind. "'Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as I have.'"
Sandra matched her smirk, immediately catching the reference from Jesus's post-resurrection appearance to his disciples. "I suppose now you're going to want me to give you something to eat in front of me, right?"
Raven grinned. "That's all right, I can wait 'til dinner."
The two women turned back to their respective tasks at the kitchen counter. "So, tell me about this pastor friend of yours," Sandra said.
"Well, he's the associate pastor of our church, Light of Hope Christian Fellowship. It's a non-denominational storefront church near the bad part of town."
"Most storefront churches are," Sandra observed.
"Right, to be a light in the dark places," Raven said. "He's been there for four years, got hired fresh out of Bible school." She related what Alex had told her about his troubled past and his subsequent redemption from it.
"It's always encouraging to see God transform someone's life like that," her mother said.
Raven smiled. "It's even better when it happens to you."
"Or to your own daughter," Sandra agreed. "So, what does he look like?"
"Cute," Raven said, grinning mischievously. "He mostly looks like a norm, except that he has these big black eyes and white fur all over his body. Well, it's white right now, anyway -- in the summer it turns brown."
"Hmm," Sandra said. She looked at Raven speculatively, and saw immediately from Raven's playful expression that she wasn't going to just come out and tell her what species he was. "Carnivore or herbivore?" she asked.
"Definitely a carnivore," Raven said.
It only took Sandra a second after that. "Ermine?"
Raven grinned and nodded. "Got it in one."
"Mm-hmm," Sandra said, with a note of satisfaction. "Are you interested in him?"
Raven tilted her head to one side, looking up at the ceiling while she searched for an answer. "I wouldn't say no," she said, after a moment. "I haven't really pursued it yet, but I've definitely thought about it. It's too early to be looking too seriously, though. I'll be done with my master's degree in a year and a half, and then I'm going to want to look somewhere else for my doctorate. Maybe even move back to the northwest. I don't really know yet."
Sandra nodded absently, as if she'd expected something like that. "You still want to be a professor?"
Raven didn't even have to think about that one. "Yeah, I do. As crazy as it is sometimes, I love teaching, and I love research. I really believe this is what God made me to do."
Her mother smiled. "So do I."
Shortly before four o'clock Raven's handheld beeped, notifying her of a message from Alex:
Found a room at motel, King & Tybalt St. Just woke up from nap. What do you want to do for dinner? Phone 509-83-679-4300, room 109. --Alex
She called the number and relayed her parents' invite to dinner, which Alex graciously accepted. He arrived at the door twenty minutes later. Introductions were made, and light conversation continued as Alex helped them finish the final preparations for dinner. When all was in readiness they sat down together, Alex blessed the food, and they began to eat in earnest. It was relatively simple fare -- oven-baked chicken, tossed salad, mixed fruit that had mostly been canned, and the kind of dressing that came in a box -- but for Raven it was Mom's Cooking, and therefore without equal. Conversation wound through a dozen different topics, from Matt's recent hospital visit (which he made light of) to the relative merits of Bible college versus theological seminary (which Alex thought was too hidebound and stuffy). Eventually talk turned to the city council debate over population control on the Dos Lobos wolf pack.
"I don't understand why anybody's worried about it," Raven said. "It's not like people around here have sheep or cattle to worry about. What are they afraid of, that the wolves are going to eat somebody's dog?"
"That's what they're saying," Matt said. "But that's a smokescreen. It's the ski people that are really behind it. There's a proposal in the works right now for a new ski resort, but everything we've seen shows that the pack is growing, and that means they've probably expanded their hunting range. If we find out they've expanded into the area marked out for the resort, it's going to make it a lot harder for the project to go through."
"So they figure they're just going to shoot some of them to make sure the tourist dollars keep flowing," Raven said harshly. "Brilliant. If they start shooting wolves they're going to scare the whole pack away."
"Very possibly," Matt agreed.
Raven sighed. "How is it looking? Can we stop this?"
Matt shook his head. "It's too close to call right now. Fish and Wildlife will probably OK the control plan if it goes through to them, since wolves aren't endangered here anymore. Our best chance is to put enough pressure on the council to make sure the petition doesn't get sent."
"Can the town's people vote on something like this?" Alex asked.
"Not directly, but word spreads fast around here," Matt explained. "If enough people start making noise, the other members of the council will realize they're going to be in trouble if they push this through. We've had referenda to boot people off the council before -- no reason we couldn't do it again."
"But we're going to have to pull in a lot of support to manage something like that," Raven said.
"Exactly. I've got all the DNR people working day and night to sway people to our side." Matt held up a hand and began counting off points on his fingers. "I've managed to pull in support from the Elks and the lumberjacks' union. Paul Tetley got the K of C on board. The Muslim community is against the new resort on principle, so we think we can pull them in on this, too, if we can convince them of the connection."
"On what principle?" Alex asked.
"They came out here to get away from the godless atmosphere of the big cities," Sandra explained. "They're afraid that bringing in too many tourists will 'undermine the moral fabric of our town'."
Raven smirked. "That a direct quote?"
"From Ibrahim El-Hazaz, the new imam at the mosque," Sandra nodded. "He's been talking a lot about moral decay in the last year or two."
"Which is why we're not telling him," Matt said wryly, "that Deirdre managed to pull in the local Wicca chapter on this, too."
Raven laughed. "I guess politics makes for strange bedfellows."
Alex raised his eyebrows. "Is there any religious group you don't have in this town?"
"No Zoroastrians yet," Raven said quickly. She glanced over at her parents. "At least, not the last I heard."
"No Hindus or Shinto, either," Sandra added solemnly. "And only three Buddhists, last time we checked."
"And one solipsist," Matt said, deadpan. "But he doesn't spend much time preaching, since he thinks the rest of us are all figments of his imagination."
Alex looked back and forth among the three Keplers. "I think I'm beginning to understand where Raven gets her sense of humor," he said.
"'Raven'?" Sandra asked, cocking an eyebrow in her daughter's direction. "You're going by your middle name, now?"
Raven shrugged. "Well, I was using it as a Net handle all through college anyway. Besides, I'm sure you've heard how the Scab community is -- practically everybody uses an alias. Two of my best friends back in the city call themselves 'the Wanderer' and 'Lady Death'."
Sandra rolled her eyes. "That's cheerful."
"Yeah, one of these days I'm going to get her to explain that to me. Anyway, who else have we got on the pro-wolf bandwagon? Has anyone talked to DLM yet?"
"DLM?" Alex asked.
"Dos Lobos Messianic Synagogue," Matt explained. "As a matter of fact, Rabbi Moshe invited us to their Sabbath service tomorrow morning. He's going to give me five minutes during the announcements to make our case, and we'll be taking signatures after the service for the pro-wolf petition I'm bringing to the council."
"You should come with us," Sandra said. "Hannah's in town for the holidays with her husband, and she's going to be singing something for the service."
"Hannah!" Raven said, breaking into a broad grin. "You bet I'll be there. I haven't seen her in ages!" She paused. "Of course, technically that's true of everybody in this town, but I haven't seen Hannah since the wedding."
"Were you two close?" Alex guessed.
"Like sisters," Raven agreed, nodding. "I sang at her bat mitzvah, she sang at my baptism, we went to college together, I was maid of honor at her wedding..."
"They've been inseparable since fifth grade," Sandra said.
"Until she got married, right after graduation," Raven added. "Then she moved to Seattle with her husband. Meanwhile, I got a grant to do some summer research on a wolf pack in Idaho." She grimaced. "You already know how that turned out." She turned to Sandra. "I take it you guys have talked to her since I disappeared."
Her mother nodded, her expression bittersweet. "She gave a beautiful eulogy at your memorial service," she said.
Raven smiled sadly. "Poor Hannah. We're going to have to give her a call after dinner and fill her in." She checked her watch; it was about five-thirty. "Two and a half hours left before I change back; I may have time for a quick visit if we hustle." She looked up at her parents. "If you guys don't mind me ducking out this evening," she added, almost apologetically.
Sandra and Matt exchanged a look. Raven caught the gist of it: they wanted her to stay, but they knew she would be disappointed if they asked. Besides, this was Hannah; if there was anyone who deserved to see Raven again besides them, it was her.
"That's all right," Sandra said at length, turning back to Raven. "I'll make the call, and put you on after I tell her the news."
"Sounds good," Raven said.
While Sandra went to get the phone, Alex put a hand on Raven's arm. "You did say Hannah's a Messianic Jew, right?" he said, his dark eyes serious.
Raven raised her eyebrows. "Yeah?"
Alex nodded gravely. "Good thing."
Raven cocked her head and stared at him dubiously.
Alex gestured at the nearest window. "It's after sunset on a Friday," he said.
Raven waited. "So..?"
Alex smirked. "Seeing as you're about to get resurrected on the Sabbath, it's good to know Hannah won't be against that on principle."
Raven rolled her eyes and groaned. "Five point deduction for excessively obscure Biblical in-jokes," she said.
Alex adopted a wounded look. "'Excessively obscure'? Come on, it's the Pharisees! They're not obscure!"
Raven crossed her arms and gave him a resolute expression. "They're not an extant movement, either. Are you even sure Orthodox Jews are still opposed to miracles on the Sabbath?"
Alex frowned. "Well, not as such, no."
Raven smiled triumphantly. "Five points," she repeated, gazing imperiously down her nose at him -- which was a lot harder to do than usual.
Alex looked imploringly over at Matt. "Is she always this... nitpicky?" he asked.
Matt smiled. "She's a scientist, Alex. Their idea of a good time is reading a paper and then talking about everything that's wrong with it."
Raven gave them both a mock-haughty look. "God is in the details," she said.
Immediately, Alex smacked his forehead. His face was a mask of utter astonishment. "Is that where we left Him?!" he cried, sounding almost perfectly incredulous. "Geez, and here I've been looking for Him for months in the sweeping generalizations! Pastor Kevin's going to be relieved..."
Despite herself, Raven laughed.
"That was better," Matt noted. "I'd give him five points for the delivery, maybe another three for the quick uptake."
"Fair enough," Raven agreed, grinning good-naturedly.
"Sam?" Sandra said, sticking her head back into the room. She was holding the phone, and her hand was placed over the receiver. "She's asking for you."
Raven took a deep breath, then stood and took the phone from her mom. As she walked out into the comparative privacy of the living room, she lifted it to her ear. "Hey, Hannie. It's me..."
The childhood home of Hannah Miller (formerly Cohen) was only a block up the street from the Kepler house. After dinner Raven said good-night to her parents and Alex and walked down to her friend's house. It was shortly after six, and a light snow had begun to fall over the town. As Raven approached the front door she could hear the sounds of voices within, adults and children alike, though no light came through the windows but the dim glow of candlelight. That made sense; it was the Sabbath night, and in keeping with Jewish tradition the Cohens did not use electric lighting on the day of rest. Raven knocked on the door, and a moment later Hannah answered it. She looked just the same as Raven remembered: curly black hair fell down around her shoulders, framing a face with smooth olive skin and large, dark, soulful eyes. Those eyes were now wet with tears, and Raven knew from what she had heard over the phone that those tears had been flowing for some time. Fortunately she seemed to have regained most of her composure.
"Samantha!" she cried, wrapping her friend in a fierce embrace. "Oh, praise God!"
"Hey, Hannie," Raven said, returning the hug with equal strength. "Hope I'm not interrupting anything."
"Oh, it's all right," Hannah said, releasing Raven and holding the door open for her. "Come in, please!"
Raven stepped inside and took off her boots and coat, letting Hannah put them in a nearby closet. The front door opened into a living room that was filled with candles, all of which had to have been lit before sunset in accordance with the Sabbath. The Hanukkah menorah sat on the mantelpiece above the fireplace; in the corner of the room was a small nativity scene, a quiet testimony to the Cohens' Messianic faith. Six small children of various ages, from three to about seven, were playing on the floor with a variety of toys, supervised by two of Hannah's sisters-in-law. The adult voices Raven had heard outside came from the adjacent dining room, where Hannah's parents, her husband, her four brothers and the remainder of their families sat around the dinner table together. The meal looked to be essentially finished, and they were now in the midst of after-dinner conversation -- which abruptly paused when Raven walked in. All of them knew her, and doubtless all of them knew she was supposed to be dead.
Hannah's mother, Leah, got up and embraced Raven warmly. "Samantha Kepler!" she said. "I scarcely would have believed it if I hadn't seen you with my own eyes! It's so good to see you back here, safe and sound again."
"Thanks, Mrs. Cohen," Raven said, smiling. She nodded to Hannah's father. "Hello, Rabbi Moshe."
"Shalom, Miss Kepler," Moshe said, returning the nod. "God's blessings be on you and your family."
"And yours as well, sir," Raven replied.
Hannah put a hand on Raven's shoulder. "We can talk in my room," she said softly.
Hannah's bedroom had long since been converted to a guest room by her parents, but it still had the plush purple carpeting and lavender walls Raven remembered from their teenage years. They sat on the bed together, backs to the headboard and feet stretched out in front of them. Hannah put an arm around Raven in a tender, sisterly hug, and Raven rested her head on her friend's shoulder. For a long while they just sat there together, enjoying each other's presence for the first time in years, and watched the snowflakes fall lightly to the ground outside the window.
"It's like a dream," Hannah said, breaking the silence at last.
Raven smiled. "That's what my mom said."
"So. SCABS, huh?"
"Is it anything like the TV show?"
A smirk. "Hardly."
"Guess I'm not surprised." Another pause. "Are you going to show me what you look like?"
Raven frowned. "I don't know if I'm ready for that yet, Hannie. It's like... I'm not even used to being Sam again, you know?"
"It's all right," Hannah reassured her, taking Raven's hand in her own and giving it a gentle squeeze. Raven squeezed back in response.
"Soon," she promised. "Before I go back, I'll show you. Just not yet."
"Sounds fair," Hannah agreed.
"Okay," Raven said. Then, after a moment, "So. What have you been up to? Any of those little ones yours?"
Hannah shook her head. "No," she said sadly. "At first, David and I decided to wait. I started anesthesiology school the fall after... we got married," she finished, steering away from the subject of Raven's disappearance. "It was a two-year program, and we knew it would mean a lot more money for us than if I had just stayed in basic nursing, so I stayed on the pill just to make sure that a baby wouldn't keep me from finishing. Then we held off until I finished paying off my student loans; and then we decided to wait a little longer and save up enough money for a down payment on a house."
"One thing after another, huh?"
"Yeah," Hannah said, suddenly quiet. "Except that we've been trying for a year now, and nothing's happening." She swallowed. "I'm starting to wonder if maybe there's something wrong with one of us."
"Oh, Hannie, don't say that," Raven urged her, gently touching a hand to Hannah's cheek. "Lots of people take more than a year to get pregnant, especially if they've been on the pill for a long time. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. Maybe it's just not God's timing yet."
"Maybe," Hannah said, though she sounded less than convinced. "I guess it's not all bad. We have more time for each other this way. And we've been able to do a little traveling."
"Oh, yeah?" Raven said, interested. "Did you finally get to see the Holy Land?"
Hannah sat up and looked at her, grinning broadly. "We were there this year," she said. "For Rosh Hashanah."
Raven beamed. "Wow. What was it like?"
Hannah shook her head, as if she didn't have the words. "It was amazing. Unforgettable." She laughed. "If I hadn't been as sick as a dog half the time we were there, it would have been perfect."
"Oh, no," Raven winced. "What happened?"
Hannah shrugged. "I don't know. We had been there for about a week when I came down with a nasty flu or something. They had to keep me at the hospital for a few days. Fortunately I got mostly over it before we had to fly back."
"Be thankful for small favors, I guess."
"Yeah. Remind me sometime and I'll show you the pictures. But anyway, what about you? What's life like in the so-called Scab capital of North America?"
Raven chuckled. "Well, that's a long story. I guess the first thing you should know about is a place called the Blind Pig..."
They talked until they lost track of time and the tall candles Hannah had lit in her room had burned down to half their length. It was only when a familiar wave of dizziness and discomfort ran through Raven's body that she remembered her time was running short. Her skin began to itch, and she knew that shortly it would begin to sprout fur once again.
"I have to go," she announced, rising quickly to her feet. "It's starting."
Hannah frowned, then her eyes widened as understanding dawned. "Sam, honey, you don't have to leave," she said. "It doesn't matter to me what you look like, I know it's still you."
"I know," Raven said, her expression bittersweet. "But it matters to me." She turned and quickly left the room, Hannah a few steps behind her. She retrieved Raven's coat and boots and handed them to her; as Raven struggled into them she turned and forced herself to smile at the members of Hannah's family who were still up and talking in the living room.
"Sorry I can't stay any longer," she said. Another wave of dizziness ran through her, and she had to grab hold of the doorknob to remain standing. "Shalom to all of you. Goodnight, Hannie, I'll see you tomorrow."
Then she left, shutting the door behind her even before she could hear Hannah's reply. She had just made it down the front steps when a rush of vertigo sent her falling to her knees in the fresh snow. Fur and tail sprouted, head and ears shifted, nails became claws, and Wolf's presence came flooding back into her mind on a tide of grey.
Other Self! Wolf cried, wagging her metaphorical tail in relief.
Raven barely paid her any heed. Scrambling to her feet again, she bolted off into the shadows.
The lights were still on in the living room as Raven approached her parents' house, and she could see through the French doors that they were still sitting there talking to Alex. Staying back in the shadows, she circled around past both the deck and the main entrance to the door that opened onto the kitchen. Her parents had given her a key to the house before she left, in case she came home late; quietly, she slipped it into the lock and opened the door, closing it carefully behind her. She paused and listened, but neither her parents nor Alex seemed to have heard her.
Slowly, silently, Raven slid out of her coat and placed it on one of the hooks by the door, then removed her boots as well. In stocking feet, keeping her toes raised so that her claws didn't click on the linoleum floor, Raven crept up to the doorway leading into the main hallway and peered around the corner.
The hallway ran in a straight shot from the main entrance at one end of the house to the back entrance at the opposite end. On the near end, the left side of the hall opened up onto the expansive, high-ceilinged living room, while the right side had a much smaller doorway leading to the kitchen. This doorway was off to one side, nearly at the junction between the kitchen and the dining room beyond it, so someone sitting in the living room could not see someone who entered through the kitchen. Beyond the living room a narrower segment of hallway branched off to the left, leading to the first-floor lavatory, some closets, and the stairs to the basement; meanwhile, the main hallway passed the dining room and ended in a small vestibule by the back door. A cozy den/library sat adjacent to this vestibule, across from the dining room, and next to it were the steps leading up to the second level
At the moment, Raven's parents were sitting on the couch with their backs to the hallway. Alex sat across from them in an upholstered chair that had been a favorite napping spot for the family dog during Raven's teenage years. After watching for a few seconds, Raven crept past the doorway and into the dining room; from there she could reach the vestibule and then the stairs, and be safely inside her room before anyone knew she was home.
But it was not to be. Alex must have seen her, and Matt and Sandra must have read something in his expression, because their conversation ceased almost as soon as she had passed.
"Sam, is that you?" Sandra called.
Raven stopped. "Yeah, I'm back," she said, keeping her voice neutral.
"Did you have a nice time with Hannah?" Matt asked.
Raven closed her eyes and suppressed a sigh. "Yeah, it was great, Dad. She was a little shaken up at first, but I think she's used to the idea that I'm alive now."
"Why don't you come tell us about it?" Sandra suggested. "I haven't talked to Hannah for at least a year."
This time Raven did sigh, letting it sound appropriately weary. "I'm pretty tired, Mom. My body thinks it's almost midnight. I'd like to just go to bed, if that's all right."
"All right," Sandra said reasonably. "Well, at least come here and let us pray for you real quick."
Raven winced. It was a tradition at the Kepler house for the family to pray together before bed. The request was nothing out of the ordinary, but Raven's current circumstances certainly were. "Mom..." She trailed off, her supply of excuses momentarily exhausted.
There was a pause. Then her father spoke, his voice calm and gentle but carrying a strength behind it that brooked no argument. "Samantha, come here," he said. "Alex told us that you'd be back to your wolf-mode by now. Are you trying to hide that from us?"
Raven clenched a fist and pounded it half-heartedly into a nearby wall in frustration. It was pointless to lie, not to mention wrong, and she knew it. "All right, Dad," she said, working hard to keep the irritation out of her voice. "You know what? I am. Yes, I'm hiding from you. I don't want you to have to see me like this. Not yet."
"Princess, we don't care what you look like," Matt said, his voice still gentle.
"Maybe not, but I do," Raven retorted.
"Sam, honey, this is silly," Sandra said, in a tone of voice that suggested that 'silly' was putting it mildly. "We're going to have to see what SCABS has done to you sooner or later. Unless you're planning on keeping up this charade every time you see us, for the rest of our lives. Is that really what you want? To keep pretending nothing's changed?"
Raven closed her eyes and shook her head. "Look, Mom," she said. "I'm trying to make this easier on you guys."
"I don't care if it's easy," Sandra said, her voice strong and suddenly sharp. "I care if it's real. Something important happened to you, Sam -- something my brain has a hard time even imagining. We want to be there for you, to help you deal with this, but we can't do that if we don't understand it."
"You can't understand it," Raven said bitterly.
"Maybe not," Sandra conceded, though her tone suggested she still wasn't backing down for a minute. "But why don't you give us the chance to find out, one way or the other, for ourselves?"
Raven pounded her fist against the wall, harder this time, and a decidedly inhuman snarl escaped her throat. "Fine," she snapped. "Have it your way. You want to see what SCABS did to me?" She fairly stormed into the living room, her hands spread wide, marching around the couch until she was standing about six feet in front of them. "Go ahead. Behold the freak."
For a long moment she just stood there before them -- arms out, fur bristling, tail jutting straight out behind her, ice-blue eyes flashing in stubborn defiance. But as her parents sat staring at her, eyes wide and mouths agape, the familiar feelings of shame and self-loathing started to eat away at her anger-driven sense of composure. Her cheeks burned beneath her fur, and tears began to fill her eyes.
"I warned you," she said, her voice low and harsh. "But you wanted real, so here it is. Raven Blackmane, the horror-film monster made flesh."
"What? Samantha, no," her father said, rising from the couch and reaching out toward her. She flinched away. "Alex was right: You're beautiful, wolf or not. SCABS hasn't changed that."
Raven shot a glare over her shoulder at Alex, but he was gazing at the floor with apparently great interest.
"And you're not a monster," Sandra said firmly.
Raven redirected her angry gaze at her mother. "Oh, yeah?" she said. "Then why were you staring at me like a carnival side-show?"
Sandra closed and opened her eyes, a motion too slow and deliberate to be called a blink, and shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said, rising to her feet and taking a step toward her. Raven could see tears coming to her eyes, as well. "It's just..." She smiled sadly. "You still have your father's eyes."
Raven bowed her head, and felt the last of her composure drain out of her with one long, shuddering breath. Her legs seemed to give way beneath her, and she fell into her mother's arms, her father joining them a moment later and wrapping them both in his strong, steady embrace. Raven just stood there, soaking up a shower of love and unconditional acceptance she hadn't been willing to admit she needed, as her body shook with sobs and the tears soaked the fur around her eyes.
"You're not a freak, Samantha," Matt said quietly. "There's still a lot of the old you in this body, whether you realize it or not. And you are beautiful, as a woman and as a wolf." He paused, and hugged her tighter. "But even if you weren't, even if there were no trace of the body we remembered in this one, even if you were a wolf completely... we would still love you just as much as always."
"We will always love you, Sam," Sandra said. Her voice was little more than a breath, and through her own tears Raven sensed that she was trying very hard to hold herself together. "Nothing will ever change that. Nothing."
Raven sniffed, and gasped for air. "I know. I know." Then she smiled weakly, and leaned into her parents' arms, resting her head against her father's chest. "But it's nice to be told."
Saturday, December 21st.
Raven awoke at eight the next morning to find breakfast already waiting for her: eggs, sausage, hash browns, toast, coffee and orange juice -- the classic Kepler Saturday Morning Breakfast -- were ready and waiting on the table by the time she came downstairs. She and her parents sat down together, gave thanks for the food and began to eat, reveling in another family tradition that had gone unpracticed for far too long.
"I made toast and hash browns for you," Sandra told her, "but don't feel like you have to eat them. I know Alex eats grains and vegetables, but I wasn't sure if you still could with your new stomach."
"Fortunately, SCABS went pretty easy on me there," Raven said. "I seem to really crave red meat if I haven't had it for a few days, but other than that I basically eat the same things I used to. A lot of carnivores aren't so lucky." She grinned as a memory struck her. "One time Wanderer met our friend Phil at a salad bar and made himself eat something -- just to be a good customer, right?" She shook her head in an expression of pity. "Screwed up his digestive system for two days."
"Oh, no," Sandra said, laughing and wincing at the same time.
"He seems to have learned his lesson since then," Raven said. "It's a Lupine Boys motto: 'If it ain't bleeding, we ain't eating!'"
Matt and Sandra chuckled; Raven had explained about the Lupine Boys during one of their conversations yesterday.
Alex showed up about fifteen minutes into their meal, dressed in his quasi-priestly black button-up shirt and slacks, and eagerly joined them at the extra place setting Sandra had prepared for him.
"Sorry I'm late," he said. "What time is the service?"
"It starts at ten," Sandra said. "Don't worry, you've still got plenty of time."
True to her word, they finished the meal shortly after nine. While Matt and Sandra cleared the dishes, Raven took Alex's hand in her own.
"Would you mind changing me now?" she asked. "We don't have a lot of time, and I'd like to get a chance to take a quick shower before we leave."
Alex smiled knowingly. Showering was not something most animorph Scabs engaged in too often, given how long fur took to dry and the unpleasant scent it carried while it was still damp; but that was no guarantee that Raven's human skin would be perfectly clean when she changed back. "All right. I'm feeling pretty well rested, so God willing it won't take too much out of me this time."
He closed his eyes, and Raven felt the change begin to take hold. Wolf whined and paced inside her mind. Other Self is leaving again? she asked.
I must, Raven replied, giving her a mental scratch around the ears. Don't worry. These mountains have many good trails and forests, and later you and I will run them together.
That seemed to mollify Wolf a little, and she lay down and let the grey fog wrap around her. I will wait for you.
Raven had never been particularly disposed to taking quick showers -- her long hair by itself more than doubled the time involved -- but on this occasion she managed to limit it to about ten minutes. The remaining preparations went quickly, and the Keplers and Alex made it to the synagogue with a few minutes to spare before the start of the service. Fortunately Matt had made arrangements beforehand for the pro-wolf petition, and there was a table already set up out in the lobby where they would be able to take signatures after the service. They were met at the door by two well-groomed teenage boys wearing yarmulkes, who greeted them warmly and gave them copies of the bulletin for the day's service. There was a special welcome for Matt and Sandra printed in the announcements section. Raven wasn't mentioned -- no doubt the flyers had been printed out several days before -- but judging from people's reactions, it was evident that word of her arrival had spread fast. A number of people came up to her to express their happiness about her 'return from the grave'. None of them made mention of SCABS or asked for details about what had happened to her, but the curiosity was evident in the eyes of more than a few. Raven treated them in a polite and friendly fashion, but she didn't volunteer any information beyond what was asked for.
After the song service, which contained an interesting mixture of traditional Hebrew hymns and more contemporary English worship music, Rabbi Moshe came up to the podium and began reading the announcements. After working through a few minor administrative details, he turned his gaze on the Keplers.
"As many of you have no doubt noticed by now, we have some very special guests with us this morning," he said. "Councilman Matthew Kepler is here, along with his wife Sandra and his daughter Samantha." There was a burst of spontaneous applause, and Moshe nodded in approval and waited for it to die down before continuing. "The Keplers are longtime friends of my family and of this congregation. We have shared in their sorrows and struggles in recent years, and so it is a great joy for me to be able to share in their happiness this morning." He smiled. "This is a season for celebrating miracles -- the miracle of God's provision for the Temple oil at Hanukkah, and the miracle of Yeshua's birth, which we remember at Christmas -- so it is fitting that we should have with us this family that has received two miracles of its own: Matthew's quick recovery from his recent heart attack, and the far greater miracle of having their daughter returned to them alive after five very long years."
There was another round of applause, with some whistles and cheers from Hannah and a few of Raven's other friends. She blushed and made a show of ducking her head between her legs, as if to hide herself under the pews, which got her a few laughs from those who saw it.
"But," Moshe continued, "that's not why they are with us today. Matthew has asked to speak to us about a matter that is currently before the town council, and I'm inclined to give him a few minutes to make his case. Matthew, could you come up now?"
Matt slid out of his seat and walked up to the podium, briefly embracing Moshe before taking the microphone. "Thank you, Rabbi Moshe," he said, turning to face the audience. "You may have heard about the recent proposal that has come before the council regarding the Dos Lobos wolf pack. There are those who claim that the wolves have grown too numerous in recent years, and that this town should ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to institute population control measures on the pack. This would mean employing sharpshooters to kill some of the wolves. More than likely, this would cause the surviving members of the pack to move further away from Dos Lobos, and maybe even leave this area altogether.
"There are others, myself included, who believe that this is cruel and unnecessary. The Dos Lobos pack has been around for at least as long as the town itself, and in all that time they've never caused us any trouble. Wolves have a natural fear of humans, and while on most nights you can hear the pack howling on the mountains around us, when people go out into the forests they stay out of our way. The pack does seem to be getting a little bigger lately, but that doesn't change the fact that they pose no threat to humans."
Matt paused and rubbed the bridge of his nose; his words had been growing more impassioned and intense as he spoke, and he seemed to be taking a moment to calm himself before continuing. "I know that the wolf generally gets a bad rap in the scriptures," he said. "Wolves were a real concern for the shepherds of ancient Israel, so it's not surprising that they were often used to represent the enemies of God's people. But while the wolf is a predator, it is also one of God's creatures, and I like to think that it has some positive aspects to inspire us, too." A small smile came across his face, and his eyes seemed to light up. "Wolves live or die based on the teamwork of the pack. They're a family that has to work together to survive. They carefully guard and provide for their young. And like us, they're social creatures, bonding with each other in play and song, as well as in work. If that isn't a model for God's people, then I don't know what is."
There were a few murmurs of agreement. Matt nodded and lifted up a piece of paper. "We're putting together a petition to take to the town council, to let them know that the people of Dos Lobos value our wolves and want to let them stay here unmolested. We'll be out in the lobby after the service collecting signatures. I realize this is the holiday season, but the wolf-control issue is likely to be the first thing on the agenda when council reconvenes in January. I'd like to be able to bring a message with me to that meeting that will put an end to this cruel proposal. I hope you'll join me in signing the petition. The wolves are a big part of what makes this town special -- even our name is a reminder of their presence. Let's do what we can to keep them here, so that their... wild and magnificent beauty... will be here for our children to treasure, and for the generations to come. Thank you."
Matt returned to his seat, and Sandra and Raven both embraced him from opposite sides. This wasn't a political rally, so there wasn't any applause when he finished his brief speech, but it seemed to Raven that he had been getting through to the people. Of course, they would find out soon enough, based on how many signatures they got for their petition.
Rabbi Moshe continued the service without editorializing on Matt's crusade, finishing up the last few announcements and moving on to the collection of the offering. Hannah came up and sang during this time, a relatively recent song of worship that had been written in Hebrew and was accompanied by a mix of traditional and modern instruments. Raven had never learned Hebrew and couldn't pick out more than a handful of words, but she enjoyed listening as her friend sang with obvious emotion of her love for the Almighty, while the exotic, almost mysterious Middle-Eastern music rose and fell in the background.
The song drew to a close, leaving the synagogue quiet and reflective. Rabbi Moshe came down from the podium to stand before the glass case, or 'ark', where the DLM's copy of the Torah (purchased eleven years ago at a cost of nearly ten thousand dollars) was displayed. Moshe opened the ark, and the people rose as one to show their reverence for God's law. The rabbi brought out the huge, ornate scroll and returned with it to the podium. While he and the congregation remained standing, he opened the scroll to a certain passage and began to read, the Hebrew verses ringing out in a loud, clear voice:
"Shema Yisra'el: Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad. We'ahabta et Adonai Eloheka bekol-lebobka, ubekol-napseka, ubekol-me'odeka."
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Raven recognized the passage from past visits to the synagogue with Hannah; it was from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, a key passage of the Torah, and one identified by Jesus himself as the greatest commandment. Rabbi Moshe always began his readings of the Torah with this passage, to emphasize its importance.
Moshe rolled the scroll to a slightly later portion of the text and read another passage, which Raven didn't recognize. He then returned the Torah to the ark, closed it, and returned to the podium, while the people sat down. He read the translations of the passages from his English Bible, for the benefit of those who did not know Hebrew -- it turned out that the second passage had been from Deuteronomy 9, concerning the Prophet whom Moses said would come after him -- and then launched into his message in earnest. It was rather similar to many Christmas sermons Raven had heard over the years in her parents' church, but with a with an added level of insight into Christ's Jewish heritage that she found novel and interesting.
After the service dismissed, Raven went out with her father to help take signatures and answer questions at the petition table. Sandra was going to help, as well, but Leah came up and took her aside almost before she had gotten out of her seat. Raven grinned as she watched her mother being led off by the energetic shorter woman.
"She probably wants all the details about what happened to me," she told Alex. "We won't be seeing Mom for a while."
Alex smirked. "Well, you're going to be busy anyway, right?"
"True." Raven frowned as a sudden thought struck her. "Uh oh. You rode here with us. I'm afraid you're going to be stuck here for a while."
Alex waved off her concerns. "That's all right. I actually wanted to talk to Rabbi Moshe, anyway, so that should keep me busy for a while."
Raven smirked at what she knew to be an egregious understatement: Alex could talk for hours about theology if given the slightest encouragement. "We'll come find you when it's time to go," she said dryly.
Many people lingered to socialize after the service, and it took more than an hour before the synagogue was mostly empty. To all appearances, Matt's plea was a rousing success; dozens of people stopped by the table to sign the petition, and some stayed to ask what else they could do to help.
"Just spread the word as much as you can," Matt said. "We'll have people taking signatures at the DNR office for the next two weeks, and we'll try to get out to the public as often as possible."
"I hope you two are planning on taking Christmas off." Raven looked up to see Hannah coming towards them, dark eyes sparkling.
"Hey, Hannie," she said, rising and embracing her friend across the table. "Nice job up there today, you sounded great. One of these days you're going to have to tell me what you were singing."
Hannah chuckled. "I'll bring you the translation tonight."
Raven tipped her head and gave her a quizzical look. "When?"
"At the party you don't know about yet."
Raven groaned and put a hand over her face. "Oh, no, Hannie, please..."
"Don't worry, it's nothing fancy," Hannah laughed. "We're just getting some of the old gang together at Wolf Tracks tonight, around seven. Have a few cafe mochas, shoot some pool, what do you say?"
Raven raised her eyebrows skeptically, but a smile was already beginning to creep across her face. "I assume that by the 'old gang', you mean the Magnificent Seven, and not the entire Class of '21?"
"Just the Seven," Hannah assured her. "Plus husbands, wives and/or significant others." She winked. "You're welcome to bring Alex, if you like."
"Don't read too much into it, now, Han," Raven said, wagging a finger at her playfully. "But thanks for the invite, it sounds like fun." She grinned. "We'll have to see if any of you guys have gotten good enough to challenge me in the last five years."
Hannah turned up her nose at her. "I suppose you'll just have to grace us with your presence and find out, won't you, your highness?" she said, momentarily adopting a haughty upper-crust accent.
Raven tossed her head back and to the side, casting her gaze on the ceiling to her left. "Oh, very well," she said, matching Hannah's tone. She raised her right hand, limp-wristed, and flicked it upward twice in a dismissive gesture. "Inform the peasants that the Queen of the Cue shall be arriving on the hour of seven."
"Just so, milady," Hannah said, attempting a curtsy and managing it fairly well. They both looked at each other for a moment, then chuckled at their own absurdity.
"So where are you off to now?" Raven asked.
"Lunch at my parents' house," Hannah replied. "Then probably a nap." She tugged at the neck of her thin, royal-blue sweater. "Right now, though, I think I'm going to go stand outside for a few minutes. Is it unusually warm in here, or is it just me?"
Raven looked down at her own shirt, a pastel green turtleneck. "I'm probably the wrong person to ask," she said. "I'm used to being covered in fur, so everywhere feels chilly to me."
"Good point." She turned to Raven's father, who was still sitting next to her behind the table. "What about you, Matt?"
Matt shrugged. "Feels all right to me."
Hannah's face took on a resigned expression. "Okay. I'll have my father make sure the thermostat isn't stuck or something, but it's probably just one of those things."
"Probably," Raven agreed. "I'll see you later, Hannie. Love you!"
"Love you, too!" Hannah said. Giving Raven one last, quick embrace, she turned and headed outside, hands in her pockets and face turned skyward. Raven watched her until another group of people came up to the petition table, then turned her attention back to the work at hand.
Raven shifted back to her normal form shortly after 3 p.m. Wolf was glad to see her, but also restless, so Raven fulfilled her promise and went running along the snow-covered paths up into the woods around the town. Raven's humanoid body wasn't really suited for running trail in those conditions, so she let Wolf take control and gave her pointers on where to go. Wolf bounded eagerly through the snow, nosing the scents of the local wolves and other wildlife, as well as the dogs who ran these paths with their human masters. Most of the rodents and other small game Wolf might have hunted were already in hibernation for the winter, but on a few occasions she heard something, mice or voles, moving about in burrows beneath the surface. On one occasion she actually caught a mouse, pouncing onto it and taking it bodily into her mouth. She wasn't really hungry, though -- Raven had filled their shared stomach only a short while before -- so she just held it there, not biting down, but not giving it enough room to wriggle free, either.
What are you doing, Wolf? Raven asked. She wasn't really angry, but she was curious as to what her lupine half was thinking.
Wolf sat down on her haunches. Other Self, a forked trail, she said. It was the mental picture the wolf used to indicate that she had a question.
What is it? Raven asked.
Wolf's ears twitched. Is a bat a rodent? The last word-picture was a quick montage of most of the rodents Wolf knew -- a rat, a mouse, a squirrel, a vole, a muskrat and a chipmunk. She didn't include beavers, probably because they were so large they didn't seem like they belonged with the others.
Raven frowned. This was new territory for Wolf. No, it isn't, she said after a moment. Bats are like rodents, but they are not the same.
How are they different? Wolf asked.
There were dozens of small differences between bats and rodents, but to be honest, Raven couldn't remember most of them at the moment, so she just went with the obvious choice. Well, bats can fly, she said.
Wolf was silent a moment, as if pondering this. Then, with a deft flick of her head, she flipped the mouse in a long arc through the air into a nearby pile of snow. The rodent scurried away, confused and terrified but otherwise unharmed.
Mice can also fly, Wolf said, a note of amusement in her voice. But not very well.
If Raven had had control over her own jaw at that moment, it would have been hanging against her chest. Then, she laughed, richly and sincerely, the mental image ringing through their shared mind. Wolf wagged her tail and continued exploring.
They returned home after a couple of hours, both of them realizing that Sandra would likely have dinner ready for them at about that time. Wolf trotted up onto the deck and found a thick blanket sitting folded on the railing. She sniffed it, then sat down.
It has Dam's scent, she observed. She left it for you, to keep us warm with your thinner fur.
Looks that way, Raven agreed. I should lead on this path -- we need my paws to eat human food.
I can eat human food without your paws, Wolf pointed out, if Dam or Sire puts it on the floor.
True, Raven agreed. But they wish us to eat with them, and they will not eat off the floor.
Wolf let out a sigh. Dam and Sire play with you, but not with me, she said, her tone sullen.
Raven's mental persona frowned. I'm sorry, Wolf. I didn't know you wanted them to play with you.
Every pup plays with its parents, Wolf said, as if stating the obvious. It is the way of things.
Good point. I'll ask them about it.
Wolf wagged her tail, sending back an impression of gratitude, then handed control of their body back to Raven. She quickly grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around herself before anyone could see her naked (or as naked as she could currently get), then went inside.
Later, during after-dinner table conversation, she broached the subject with her parents.
"So, basically, you want us play with you like you're a dog?" Matt asked, his expression skeptical.
"I realize it sounds crazy," Raven said. She frowned slightly. "Which, I guess, it probably is, from a strictly medical standpoint. But like I said, my brain has compartmentalized all of these lupine instincts and emotions into what is basically a separate personality, and I'm not convinced it wasn't the best thing to do under the circumstances. But that side of me has emotional needs, too, and one of those is to feel the affection of mother and father. It wouldn't have to be anything too major -- maybe just brushing my fur, or playing catch with a Frisbee." She smiled. "Which, take it from me, is actually a lot of fun, even when my other side is in control."
Her parents exchanged a look. "You're sure that it's safe to let this instinctive side run loose around people?" Sandra asked. "Yesterday you said that it had attacked people, that you had been afraid it would attack us."
"I didn't know her then the way I do now," Raven said. "And she didn't understand about people back then, either. She knows how to tell the difference now between real prey and humans or Scabs. And based on what I know of her now, I'm fully convinced she would never hurt you."
"I'm still not really comfortable with you calling it 'she'," Matt said, his expression almost apologetic.
Raven shrugged. "It's the only way I know how to deal with it. And I don't care much for the alternatives."
"All right, we'll talk about it tonight," Sandra said, after another glance at Matt. "But if you trust the wolf, then I trust your judgment. I think we should be able to work something out."
Raven nodded. "Thank you."
She and Alex helped her parents clear the table and do the dishes, then sat in the living room and watched the news with the sound muted. She told him about the get-together later that night.
"Wolf Tracks was our favorite place to hang out when we were teenagers," she said. "It's kind of a restaurant, slash coffee bar, slash pub. They have a few VR games, pinball..."
Raven grinned. "Good guess. It's an amateur hangout, though. Most of the serious players hang around the Main Street pool hall. They think Wolf Tracks is beneath them."
Alex smirked. "I take it that's why you were able to hustle them -- they didn't know you were any good."
"Exactly. I didn't play in the big tournaments, but I would go down there from time to time on weekday afternoons when there were just a few guys there, play a game, win some cash." Her lip twisted in wry amusement. "And word never got out about it, because, hey, how many serious pool guys are going to admit to being beaten by a girl?"
"Not very many, I guess," Alex chuckled. "So, who's coming to this party?"
"Potentially? Myself, Hannah, Kyle and Kaylee, Connor and Ashley, and Ben. Plus you and any significant others Ben and Hannah may bring along. Back in high school they called us the Magnificent Seven."
Alex looked skeptical. "Who did?"
"Well, we did, actually," Raven said, grinning sheepishly. "But between us we ran the school newspaper and the class yearbook, so we made sure the name stuck."
"Ah, yes. Control the media and you control the world."
"Theoretically," Raven agreed. "In practice, we were still the geeks. Anyway, most of us went to college together, too -- though Connor and Ashley got married right out of high school and Connor took a job with the timber company here in Dos Lobos. And Ben went to England to get his Ph.D. in history, so who knows what he's been up to. But we all have family here, so it stands to reason that most of them should be in town for Christmas."
"Sounds like fun," Alex said. "Are you planning on going as Raven or Samantha?"
"Sam, of course," Raven said automatically. Then she frowned, as a thought struck her. "If that's all right," she added, looking apologetic. "Why, is it... too much?"
Alex shook his head and waved a hand dismissively. "I'm sure I'll be fine," he said. "I just had a nap and a big meal, so I should have plenty of energy to work with. When do you plan to show your new self to your friends?"
Raven thought about it for a moment. "I suppose I could do it later tonight, after they've had a while to get used to having me back," she said. "It's probably as good a time as any, with everybody in one place. I could take them all out in the parking lot or something... somewhere it won't make a scene."
Alex looked at her in silence for a few seconds, as if he were measuring something, or looking inside her. "You know, Raven," he said, "I really don't think you need to be afraid or ashamed of being a Scab around here. We've been well-treated everywhere we've gone."
"I know," Raven said. "But I think it must be a little scarier, to see someone you know transforming into a wolf in front of you, than to see a wolf-Scab who is apparently a stranger just out walking around. Remember, this town has never had to deal with SCABS taking one of their own."
Alex nodded. "I understand," he said gently. "It's just that I have a lot of experience with keeping secrets. Most of them a lot worse than yours." He took her hand in his own. "Generally, I've found that the sooner I'm honest with people, the better the situation turns out in the long run."
Raven squeezed his hand. "I hear you," she said. "Just give me another day or two to sort things out. By Christmas Eve I'm sure everything will be fine."
She smiled hopefully. Alex smiled back, faintly -- but in the depths of his huge, dark eyes, Raven saw nothing but her own reflection.
THOP! CRACK! THUNK! The cue ball hopped neatly over the nine and the fourteen, struck the eight-ball from above and behind, and sent it rolling into the corner pocket four inches away. The cue ball bounced against the left bumper, rolled back toward the right, and stopped, half an inch from following the eight into the pocket.
"That's game," Kyle said, sounding vaguely disgusted. "What was that, four turns?"
"Five, I think," Kaylee said. "Sam was ahead of you in the rotation."
"Whatever. I only got four turns." He shook his head, as he returned his cue to the rack on the wall. "Congratulations, Sam. You're still as merciless as ever."
The words carried no real malice, but Raven adopted a wounded look anyway. "Kyle Banner, you cut me to the quick," she said, placing a hand over her heart. "When have I ever been anything but fair and kind with you?"
"Junior year, chem lab?"
Raven crossed her arms. "You stood up Kaylee. Restitution was demanded."
"How about the secret love poem I wrote for her in senior year, which you then published in the student newspaper?"
"We were just sharing in your joy!"
"Or the time you told me the winter formal was going to be Eighties Night, costume mandatory?"
"One little joke..."
"Or what about freshman theater in college, when you swapped a chunk of my script for Much Ado About Nothing with the spanking scene from Taming of the Shrew?"
"Okay, it's true, you're my whipping boy," Raven said, putting her hand on Kyle's shoulder. "But that doesn't mean we don't love you."
"Just the opposite, actually," Kaylee agreed.
Kyle hung his head for a moment, then took a deep breath and straightened up. "That's all right," he said, taking on a noble and long-suffering expression. "I recognize and accept that this ... persecution ... is my cross to bear." He ran a hand over his stylish chestnut-brown hair and down his clean-shaven cheek. "The price I pay for my dashing good looks and winning personality."
"Not to mention your profound humility," Raven said dryly.
"Oh, of course," Kyle agreed, deadpan. "But I don't like to brag about that."
Raven looked over at Kaylee. "Ensign, give me a B.S. reading."
Kaylee held up an imaginary tricorder in front of her husband and frowned. "It's off the scale, Captain," she said grimly. "We should man the lifeboats."
"Agreed. Assign him ten points for the snappy comeback, five points for deadpan, and break out the hip waders."
Kyle gave Alex an afflicted look. "You see?" he said calmly. "This is my burden."
Alex put his hand to his chin and gazed at the three of them thoughtfully. "I don't know, Kyle," he said. "I think you've got it pretty good."
Kyle smiled, slipped an arm around Kaylee and drew her to himself. "So do I," he said, kissing her lightly on the lips.
"And don't you forget it," she said, giving him a kiss in return that was far longer and deeper than the first one.
"Get a room!" someone bellowed from the front of the restaurant.
Kyle and Kaylee parted, and they all looked to the door to see Ben coming in with an unfamiliar woman on his arm, followed Conner and Ashley.
"Ben!" Kyle called, going over to meet him. "What up, dawg?"
The two men met halfway and exchanged a pseudo-urban greeting composed of complicated handshakes and fists tapping against each other in various orientations. Between Kyle, the clean-cut professional graphic artist, and Ben, with his yarmulke and thick, curly hair and beard, the gangsta-style bonding looked utterly ridiculous.
Alex laughed so hard he nearly fell over.
Ben quirked an eyebrow at the ermine-Scab. "Who's Chalky?" he asked.
"This is Alex," Raven said, coming up and embracing him. "Hey, Ben."
"Hey, Raven Girl, good to see you," Ben said, returning the hug. "He a friend of yours?"
"Yeah, he's my pastor," Raven nodded.
Ben raised his eyebrows. "A pastor? Miss Science has a pastor now? Well, there's a surprise!"
"Tell me about it," Raven said, rolling her eyes in a self-deprecating smile.
At that point Connor, Ashley and Ben's companion caught up with them, and introductions were made all around.
"Guys, this is my fiancée, Tanya Clark," Ben said, gesturing at the woman. She had light brown hair with blonde highlights, green eyes, a fair complexion, and quite attractive features. She also had a sense of grace and poise about her that hinted to Raven that she was more than she seemed. She didn't have access to her lupine sense of smell at the moment, but even so...
"Tanya, this is Samantha Raven Kepler," Ben said, then added with a wink, "but I like to call her Raven."
Alex looked at Raven. "So that's where you came up with it?" he asked.
"Ben has this obsession with 'street' names," Raven said dryly. She took Tanya's hand and shook it. "Pleased to meet you, Tanya."
A strange smile spread across Tanya's face, even as her eyes narrowed slightly. Raven felt an immediate tension fill the air between them the moment they touched hands, something primal and instinctive that even her current form couldn't mask entirely.
"Likewise," Tanya said, her voice carrying a cultured British accent. Her eyes flickered over to Alex, then back to Raven. "Pardon me for asking, but are you a Scab?"
Raven mirrored her tight smile. "As a matter of fact, I am. And judging from the way you carry yourself, would I be amiss in guessing that you are, as well?"
"You would not," Tanya conceded. She looked at Raven carefully a moment longer, her nostrils flaring slightly. "A canine of some type, I suspect? Perhaps a wolf?"
"Well done," Raven said. She breathed in, and even with only her human nose she caught a trace of a familiar odor. It was barely on the edge of perception, but combined with what she had seen and felt, it was enough. "And you would be a cat of some kind?" she guessed.
The corner of Tanya's mouth quirked up, and her eyebrows raised. "Good show," she said.
"Hey now, ladies," Ben said, putting a hand on each of their shoulders. "We're not gonna have any cat-fights here, are we? Or, cat-and-dog fights?"
Raven looked over at him and smirked. "Not to worry, Ben. I have no problems with cat-morphs."
"Nor I any problem with lupines," Tanya added, looking more relaxed now that their respective instincts had been recognized and acknowledged. "Come, let's get something to drink."
The group of friends sat down together for a while with their drinks and just chatted, catching up on what had been far too long a time apart, especially for Raven. She regaled them with stories of her experiences with SCABS, while Connor and Ashley talked about their children, Kyle and Kaylee about their careers and Ben about his adventures in the United Kingdom and Europe. Tanya and Alex chipped in from time to time with a few words about their own experiences, and Ben and Kyle in particular were fascinated to hear about Alex's life in the 'hood. Eventually the conversation migrated from the café table back to the pool table, where Raven continued to demonstrate her mastery in an impromptu nine-ball tournament. Before they knew it, two hours had sped past.
"Hey guys, it's nine-thirty," Raven said, looking at her watch. "Has anybody heard from Hannah?"
There were blank looks all around. "Not recently," Connor said, speaking for all of them. "She called last night to tell us about the party, but we haven't heard from her since then."
"I saw her this morning at the synagogue," Ben said. "Saw you, too, by the way, Raven, and nice to have you there -- but I haven't talked to her since."
Raven pulled out her handheld and keyed it to phone mode. "I'm going to give her a call," she said, dialing the number for the Cohen residence.
Leah picked up on the second ring. "Hello?"
"Hi, Leah, it's Sam," Raven said. "Is Hannah around?"
There was a long silence at the other end of the line. "N-no," Leah said, sounding confused. "I thought she was going out to meet with you."
"So did I," Raven said, frowning. "When did you see her last?"
"Well, she went out for a walk in the forest earlier, just after we lit the Hanukkah candle," Leah said. "She said she was too hot, and felt cooped up -- she needed some fresh air."
"David didn't go with her?"
"He was taking a nap, she didn't want to disturb him. When she didn't come home, we figured that she must have gone on ahead to meet you. Oh, Samantha, what's happened to my baby?"
"Don't worry, Leah, we'll find her," Raven said. "I'm going to hang up now and call my dad, okay? The rangers will take care of this."
"All right. All right," Leah said. "Please find her, Samantha."
"We will, Leah. Goodbye." Raven hung up before she could say anything else. She ignored her friends' inquiring looks and immediately dialed her father's handheld.
He picked up a moment later. "What's up, Princess?" he asked.
Raven took a deep breath to steady the gnawing fear in her gut. "Dad, we've got a problem..."
Several minutes later Raven hung up the phone. She quickly outlined to the rest of the group what had happened.
"Search teams are on their way as we speak," she said, "but it's going to be hard for them to find her out there in the dark. Especially since the snow's kicking up again."
"What can we do?" Kyle asked.
Raven blew out a breath of air between pursed lips. "To be honest, I don't think there's much that a norm civilian could do that the rangers can't do better, and more safely. You go out there in the snow and the dark, you might get hurt -- and then we'd have more people we need to rescue." She slid her eyes over to Tanya. "For those of us with functional noses, though, I think we can be of help. Have you met Hannah?"
"Briefly, earlier today," Tanya said, nodding. "I was in this form, though, so I didn't get her scent as strongly as I could have."
"Neither did I," Raven said. "Let's stop by the Cohens' house and borrow something of Hannah's that we can key on. Then we can split up and try to track her down."
"You shouldn't be out there alone," Alex cautioned. "Like you said, you could get hurt, and then we'd have a bigger problem on our hands."
"Agreed," Raven said. "We'll go in pairs, one tracker with one helper. If she went out walking from her house, we know she's somewhere in the east woods, and there are two main trails leading up there. Tanya, you and Ben take the south trailhead, up on Titan Street. Alex and I'll take the north trailhead, on Prescott. Take a handheld with you, and be sure to call in if you find anything, okay?"
Tanya rose to her feet. "Let's do it," she said.
There wasn't much wind, but the snow was falling steadily as Raven and Alex reached the Prescott Street trailhead. The flakes floated lazily to the ground, but there were enough of them that a fresh layer was building up with surprising speed.
"If we don't hustle there isn't going to be much of a trail left," Raven said. "I'm turning things over to Wolf from here on in. Watch your step and try to keep up."
"Understood," Alex said. "Be careful."
Stripping off her clothes and handing them to Alex (who kept his eyes politely averted), Raven reached out through the gray fog to the faint image of the wolf in the furthest corners of her mind. Wolf! I need you, she said.
As she opened the connection between them, her body began to shift; by the time Wolf's mental image was before her thoughts, Raven was back in her usual wolf-morph form.
Other Self! Wolf cried, pleased that Raven had returned to her early. What trail do we run?
Our packmate Hannah has gone missing, Raven said. Will you help me find her?
Hannah is like a sister, Wolf said, with a firmness that suggested that was all that needed to be said. I will find her. Her ears seemed to flick forward, and she cocked her head. But I do not recall her scent.
Here it is, Raven said, placing Hannah's borrowed shirt before her nose and inhaling deeply. After two or three breaths, Wolf barked and wagged her tail once.
I have it, said Wolf. Give me four strong legs to run on and a nose that will reach the ground, and I shall follow her to the ends of the land. An image of a shoreline flashed through her mind, the limits of what Wolf understood as the world.
You will have them, Raven said. Take the lead, and I shall follow. Then she stepped aside, and Wolf's presence flooded forward and assumed control of her body. Moments later she was on all fours and sniffing around in search of her quarry.
It didn't take long for her to determine that this was indeed the trail Hannah had used. Her scent is here, Wolf said after a few moments. But it is not fresh. The night was young when she passed this way.
Can you follow it? Raven asked.
I can, Wolf said, and set off along the trail.
The pursuit was long and difficult. The fresh layer of snow masked Hannah's scent, burying it under the clean, empty smell of the white. On occasions when the path was clear, Raven had to occasionally remind Wolf that Alex needed to follow, and in these times she would turn around and bark or growl with impatience until the ermine-man caught up with her. Once he was within a few steps, she would turn and begin following the scent again.
Hannah's trail went along clearly-defined footpaths, but in the fresh snow it was almost impossible to tell where the paths ended and the untamed forest began. Wolf led them ably, though, over fallen trees and rocky slopes and through woods as black as pitch. Fortunately Alex had an ermine's night vision, and was able to see as well as Wolf could in the dim conditions.
They had been running the trail for nearly an hour when they abruptly hit the end of the line.
Uh oh, Raven thought. She had the impression that Wolf agreed with the sentiment.
In the middle of a small clearing, the fresh snow had covered over an area where the older snow had been trampled down for several paces in any direction. Hannah's scent was strong in the middle of the depression, but beyond its perimeter there was nothing save in the direction from which they'd come.
Did she double back? Raven asked.
Wolf growled a negative. Then the trail would have begun growing weaker after we passed the place where her return path parted from the old path. The trail has grown steadily stronger as we followed it, but here it ends. And there is something under the snow. Raven stopped, focusing her attention more on the input she was getting from their shared nose. Wolf was right; there were patches in the snow where the scent was stronger.
What is it?
Wolf searched until she found one of the patches, then dug down through the snow. She felt around until her nose struck something, and she pulled it out.
It was the tattered remains of Hannah's thin blue sweater.
Oh, no, Raven gasped, her mental voice little more than a whisper. No...
Wolf wasn't listening; she was too busy rooting in other patches. Further investigation pulled out pants, socks, boots, undergarments, mittens and a hat. Most of them looked torn, scuffed, or chewed.
Other Self, Wolf said. These things carry another scent, along with Hannah's.
Raven's mental self winced. She didn't want to believe what her nose was telling her.
Her alter-ego told her anyway. It is the scent of wolf.
Sunday, December 22nd.
Matt walked through the front door of the Kepler house shortly after eight the next morning, looking exhausted and bedraggled. He'd sent Raven home with Alex after he and the other rangers arrived at Hannah's last known location; now she was sitting at the breakfast table with Sandra and Alex.
"No luck?" she said.
Matt shook his head. "Just some wolf tracks, but nothing conclusive," he said, sinking into the empty chair next to his wife. "The snow covered everything too fast; there's no way to know if the tracks we found belong to the wolf you smelled on Hannah's clothes."
He tugged wearily at the sleeves of his coat, as if he lacked the energy to even take it off. Sandra got up and helped him remove it, then carried it over to the coat rack.
"You have to stop pushing yourself so hard, honey," she said quietly, putting her hand on his shoulder as she returned to the table. "The doctor warned you about this."
"I know," Matt said, reaching up to take her hand in his. "But this is Hannah. She's practically family. I can't not do my best for her."
"I know," Sandra said, giving him a bittersweet smile. "Just be careful, okay?"
Matt nodded, and Sandra returned to her seat. "We've already had two calls this morning," she said. "People want to know if this was a wild animal attack."
Alex sputtered on his coffee. "Two calls before eight in the morning?" he asked.
"News travels fast," Sandra said. "All those rangers who were out looking last night have families who want to know what's going on. Same with the helicopter pilots who swept the mountain. And Ben and his fiancée probably talked to people, too, including Hannah's family."
"It's going to be a madhouse at Council tomorrow," Matt said grimly. "People are going to blame this on the wolf pack."
"That's moronic," Raven said bluntly. "Wolves don't attack people. Besides, there wasn't even any blood -- even if you couldn't have seen it, we would have been able to smell it."
Alex looked at each of the Keplers in turn. "I hate to say it," he said slowly, "and I know it sounds incredibly unlikely... but I think it's pretty clear what really happened."
"I'll say," Raven said sourly, glaring into her cup of coffee. "It's those scumbags at Tycho Luxury Resorts."
Alex blinked. "What?"
"The ski people," she said, still not looking at him. "They must have kidnapped Hannah and let a dog use her clothes as a chew toy. Plant them out in the woods, make it look like the wolves did it, and the fresh snow covers their tracks. Then they use people's fear to push through the control plan."
Alex stared at her. "Um..."
"Bastards," Raven hissed, shaking her head. "I never thought they would stoop this low."
"Wouldn't you have been able to smell them on her clothes?" Sandra asked, frowning.
Raven shook her head. "Hannah wore most of that stuff to synagogue yesterday. There were already scents from dozens of people on there. I could never pick their scents out from all the DLM folks." She pushed her chair back from the table and stood. "But that doesn't mean I can't find them."
"Raven, hold it," Alex said. "Where are you going?"
"Out hunting," she said coldly, snatching her coat off a nearby chair where she'd left it the previous night. "If they're holding her captive, it's probably somewhere close. They can't have gotten far in last night's weather. I'm going to go sniff around the motel, maybe a few other places. See if I can catch her scent anywhere." She headed for the door.
Alex got up and followed her, catching her just outside. He put a hand on her arm.
"Raven, you need to slow down and think about this," he said. "There are other explanations."
"Yes, but I'd really prefer to think that Hannah is still alive," Raven said harshly. "And while we're considering those other possibilities, she could be sitting bound and gagged, waiting to be shipped off God knows where and sold into slavery."
"Raven, that's crazy --"
"That is exactly what happened to me!" Raven said, cutting him off with an angry chop of her hand. Her eyes were wild with fear and rage. "So don't tell me it can't happen."
Alex closed his eyes and sighed. "All right. Is there any way I can help?"
"You want to help? Go to church and pray." She turned her back on him. "You'd just slow me down, anyway."
With that she stalked off, leaving Alex standing on the porch. After a moment he shook his head and sighed.
He cast a glance heavenward. "Keep an eye on her, okay?" he murmured, then opened the door and went inside.
The family reconvened at the dinner table that night. Raven returned shortly after nightfall, looking more defeated and frightened than before.
"Nothing," she said. "I searched everywhere on the motel grounds, then went over to Tycho's local offices. There's no sign of her."
"Our people still haven't turned up anything more, either," Matt said, his ice-blue eyes clouded with worry. "But the sheriff's deputies haven't ID'ed any suspicious traffic out of town that might indicate kidnappers on the run. Chances are good she's still in the area." He put a hand on Raven's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Don't give up hope, Samantha. We still have other avenues to investigate. We'll find her."
"What about the wolf pack?" Alex asked, for the moment ignoring Raven's fixation on the 'kidnapping' angle. "Are you going to be able to prevent a panic?"
Matt's expression turned unpleasant. "I hope so," he said. "We're going to talk to the Council in the morning, and I hope we'll be able to persuade them this wasn't the pack's doing. But I don't think it's going to be pretty."
"Politics rarely is," Sandra said.
Monday, December 23rd.
"So, Lieutenant," Councilman Brandon Davies said, pacing back and forth before the assembled audience at the town hall. "Let me be sure I understand you correctly. Are you saying that it is impossible that Hannah Miller was attacked by a wolf?"
Lieutenant Deirdre O'Shea, Matt's second-in-command at the Dos Lobos DNR office, shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She was a reasonably attractive woman, Alex thought -- in her early thirties, with large hazel eyes, a lightly freckled face and a slightly upturned nose -- but right now her face was lined with worry and unease at the grilling she was receiving. She nervously fingered her long braid of auburn hair as she spoke.
"I'm saying that it is extremely unlikely," she said. "There are no recorded incidents of a healthy wild wolf attacking a human being."
"Ah, but it all comes down to that word 'healthy', doesn't it?" Davies said, raising a finger. "A rabid animal is another story."
"There's no evidence of rabies in the Dos Lobos pack," Deirdre said firmly.
"Not so far," Davies corrected. "But isn't it possible that a rabid animal might attack a human?"
Deirdre rubbed the end of her braid between her fingers. "It's very difficult to predict what a rabid animal will or will not do," she said reluctantly.
"So it's possible?"
The ranger looked very unhappy. "Theoretically, yes."
"There you have it," Davies said, turning to face the rest of the council members, who sat at a long table at the front of the room. "Even our rangers admit that a rabid wolf could have attacked and killed Hannah Miller. Add to this the reports that, just this past night, six people have reported seeing what they described as either a wolf or a large dog skulking around the woods behind their houses. And all of these homes were on the east side of town, the same area where Mrs. Miller disappeared."
Davies turned to face the audience. "This latest incident only confirms our suspicions. The Dos Lobos pack has been a major fixture of this area for thirty years, so everyone realizes that it must be a good place for them. But apparently the wolves have been so successful here that overcrowding is becoming an issue. Disease, incursions on human lands -- scientists have long recognized these as signs of a population that has exceeded its territory's ability to sustain it. Population control is the best thing for the pack, and the best thing for Dos Lobos. It's time we asked the Federal government to come in and settle this matter."
Davies returned to his seat, and Matt took the floor.
"It is true that disease can be a symptom of overcrowding," he said. "But there's no way we can know if that's the case here unless we take the time to investigate. Nobody has gotten a close look at this animal Councilman Davies referred to. It could be a dog, as far as anyone knows. Even if it is a wolf, we would need to have it examined by a veterinarian before we could determine whether it's rabid."
He turned to face the audience. "Councilman Davies and I agree on one thing: the pack is a major part of this town. I would even go so far as to say that the wolves are the heart and soul of Dos Lobos. The fact that we've been able to coexist with them peaceably for the last thirty years is a testament to the values we share as a community: tolerance for others, and a willingness to live side by side with nature without destroying it. These are the things we believe in, the things we're committed to. That's why we're so careful about the way we harvest our lumber. That's why we have one of the cleanest and most eco-friendly paper mills in all of North America. And that's why we have had a no-kill, no-harassment policy with the pack for the last thirty years. If we turn our backs on that in a moment of panic... if we let ourselves blame the wolves for something we can't even be sure they did yet..." He shook his head. "Well. That wouldn't say much for our commitment to our own values, would it?"
Alex noticed a number of heads around him nodding in agreement. Matt turned back to face the other members of the council.
"Let the rangers try to catch this animal that people have seen sniffing around town," he said, opening his hands before him in an imploring manner. "We'll have it examined for disease. If it's a wolf, and it does have rabies or some other serious illness, then we can take another look at our options and decide what to do about the pack. But let's put aside this idea of shooting wolves until we know more about what's going on. Emotions are running high right now, and that usually doesn't make for good decisions."
Matt returned to his seat, and the council chairman looked around at his fellows.
"Councilman Kepler's proposal seems wise," he said. "All in favor of tabling the wolf control measure until this animal can be examined?" Four of the nine council members raised their hands. "All opposed?" Two hands went up. "Chair votes aye, the motion passes with two abstentions," the chairman said, then banged his gavel once to close the matter. "Lieutenant O'Shea, thank you for your time. You are free to go."
Deirdre nodded to the chairman and left the stage. The council was dismissed shortly thereafter, and Alex met Matt on his way out.
"You did it," he said, smiling up at the taller man.
"We dodged the bullet," Matt agreed, as they walked out of the town hall. "The council won't meet again until after the holidays. That gives us time to keep gathering signatures for our petition and figure out what's going on with this mystery animal people are seeing."
"About that," Alex said. "I have some thoughts..."
"I think I know what the animal is. And I think it ties in with the search for Hannah Miller."
Matt stopped and looked at the young pastor. "Go on."
Alex cast a glance around to make sure no one was eavesdropping, then leaned a bit closer. "I think Hannah may have gotten SCABS," he said. "I think maybe she's the wolf people have been seeing."
Matt's ice-blue eyes widened. "Hannah?" he breathed. "A Scab?"
"I know," Alex said, raising a hand to forestall any potential protests. "But think about it. A woman disappears into thin air, and all that's left is a pile of chewed clothes with no blood on them? Look, SCABS doesn't hit everybody the same way, even just among us animorphs. Some people it comes on gradually, and some people it hits hard. And some people get hit so hard that they snap, and fall back on instinct. They go feral. But deep down, they're still human beings, so they don't always act like the animals they've become. I think that's why this wolf has been getting so close to the town: on some level, she knows she's supposed to be with people, but her instincts are telling her to keep her distance."
Matt frowned. "Is this like what happened with Samantha? Where she has her human mind and then a wolf mind fighting with it?"
"I doubt it," Alex said, shaking his head. "Raven's case is very unusual. But lots of animorphs revert to instinct when they're frightened or traumatized, and Scabbing over can be very traumatic for some people. Some never come back from it, and some only manage it with a lot of help and support."
Matt stared into the middle distance for a few seconds, obviously deep in thought. "What you're suggesting makes sense," he said at last. Then he fixed Alex with a skeptical look. "But still... SCABS isn't all that common, Alex. It only affects something like one out of every twelve people who get Martian Flu, right? But you're asking me to believe that two completely unrelated women from the same podunk town got the Flu on completely separate occasions, five years apart, and somehow both of them ended up getting almost exactly the same version of SCABS? What are the chances of something like that ever happening?"
The corner of Alex's lip twitched. "I'm not sure chance has anything to do with it," he said soberly. "You're a man of God, Matt. You know as well as I do that our world isn't governed by mere odds and statistics. Now, I'm not going to say God gave Hannah or Raven the Martian Flu, or even that He gave them SCABS -- but how do we know He doesn't have some higher purpose for letting them change the way they did? We already know it helped bring Raven back into the Kingdom; who's to say He doesn't have something good in mind here, as well?"
Matt nodded, slowly and thoughtfully. "All right. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you're right, and it is Hannah. Is there anything we can do to help her?"
"Potentially, yes. The instinctive behavior we're seeing here is reinforced by fear and other kinds of stress. Many feral Scabs will regain their human intellect if they're put in an environment where they feel safe and at peace. That's not always as easy as it sounds, though, because a lot of times the human mind panics when it realizes it's stuck in an animal's body, and that pushes the instincts to take over again. Newly made fullmorph Scabs often have a hard time staying calm long enough to figure out how to control their shape. That's where I come in."
"You think you can change her back into a human?"
"It's very likely. Most animorph Scabs aren't truly morph-locked; they just have mental blocks that keep them from shifting as far as they're able to. That seems to be especially true among fullmorph Scabs. If I can get sustained physical contact with her, there's a good chance I can change her back into human form. That will bring her human mind back with it, which will give us time to get her used to shifting on her own before the mental blocks reassert themselves. I haven't used my gift on very many people, but from what I've seen it seems likely that this should help her regain a lot of control over her own body."
"All right," Matt said again. "I'll talk to the other rangers and put together a plan to catch her. A tranquilizer dart won't hurt her odds of coming back from this, will it?"
"It shouldn't. Other Scabs have been tranq'ed before without any lasting side effects."
"Okay. We'll draw her out, tranq her down, and take her back to the DNR office so you can work your magic on her. Don't worry," he added, before Alex could say anything, "I won't tell anyone about your secret. All the other rangers need to know is that you're going to try to talk her out of her feral state." He smirked. "We can call it 'Scab empathy treatment,' or whatever you like. Sound good?"
Alex nodded. "That should work. When do you plan to start?"
"Tonight. We need time to put plans and equipment together for the capture operation, and if she's following lupine instincts she's not likely to show herself before then, anyway. I'll keep you posted."
He turned to go, then stopped, frowned, and looked back at Alex. "Why do you suppose Samantha didn't think of this?" he asked. "We don't have a lot of experience with SCABS out here, but now that you say it, it makes a lot more sense than a kidnapping."
Alex sighed. "Raven is aggressively not-dealing with this," he said, shaking his head. "I think she has a mental blind spot about it. She doesn't want to believe that her best friend has SCABS -- doesn't want her to go through the things she went through -- so she subconsciously suppresses the whole idea. It doesn't even occur to her."
Matt looked saddened at the thought of that. "She's so smart," he said quietly. "It's hard to imagine her doing something like that."
"I think her smarts may be contributing to it, actually," Alex said thoughtfully. "We've already seen that her mind has this remarkable ability to filter, sort, block and compartmentalize data, especially unwanted data. She's been through a lot in the last few years -- more than I can really say without her permission. It's not too surprising that she would develop some serious defense mechanisms." He half-smiled, but the expression carried no humor. "In this case, though, I think they're working a little too well."
"I wish I knew how to help her," Matt said.
Alex put his hand on the other man's shoulder. "Just be her father," he said. "That's all she needs from you right now. God will take care of the rest."
Matt smiled gratefully. "I know."
Raven heard a sigh on the other end of her handheld's phone-link. "Not in the slightest," Tanya said, sounding weary. "I've been all through the paper mill and all the surrounding buildings. There's not a whiff of her, darling."
"Blast it," Raven muttered. "Nothing here, either."
Raven had enlisted Tanya's help in searching for Hannah the previous evening, after her own initial attempts had come up empty. The two women were systematically combing the less populous parts of town, the few industrial facilities Dos Lobos had -- anywhere Raven thought the kidnappers might be hiding her friend. But they were running out of places to look, and they still had yet to find any trace of Hannah that wasn't at least four or five days old.
"All right," Raven sighed. "I need to think about this, try to figure out where we haven't looked yet. I guess you can come on back, but would you mind checking back with the sheriff to see how the investigation is going?"
"Not at all."
"Great, thanks. I'll call you if I come up with anything."
There was a pause. "I believe," Tanya said, slowly and carefully, "there are other potential explanations for Hannah's disappearance, other than kidnapping."
"Yeah, yeah," Raven said, irritated. "You and Alex both. But I'm not ready to give up on Hannah yet. I'll call you later, okay?"
"I -- all right," Tanya said. "Good luck."
"Thanks. Bye." Raven thumbed the button to close the link and put the handheld back in her coat pocket. She closed her eyes for a minute, thinking. She didn't know where to look next, so she decided to walk down Main Street and see if inspiration struck. It was an approach to problem solving she had used before, both pre- and post-SCABS: putting her body in motion helped keep her mind in motion, as well. She left the parking lot of the small public storage facility she'd been snooping around and walked the two blocks back to Main, taking a right turn to head back toward the downtown area.
She was still in her wolf-morph form, but it didn't particularly bother her. She'd been walking around town like this, from time to time, since the day they arrived, so people knew there was a wolf Scab in town. They just didn't know she was the same person as Samantha Kepler, since no one except her parents had yet seen her in both forms. Raven had been carefully vague about the nature of her own SCABS case when discussing it at the synagogue, so she had reason to expect that her anonymity was still more or less intact.
She walked briskly, with strength and purpose in her movements, in spite of the fact that she didn't really know where she was going. Her gaze moved from one building to the next, weighing each one against her criteria: Is this a publicly accessible place? If so, what are the chances someone could hide a person here without others noticing? If not, who does have access to it? What motivation might they have, if any, to support wolf control? Would they be sufficiently dedicated to the cause to resort to kidnapping? Do they have the resources to pull it off?
And so it went. Most establishments were dismissed out of hand; some were marked as potentially suspicious, but unlikely. The few that she thought highly likely had already been checked at some point in the last two days. Maybe it was time for her to start widening the field of likely candidates... Raven's analytical train of thought was abruptly derailed as a woman walked out of a store in front of her, loaded down with shopping bags. They both halted just in time to avoid crashing into each other.
"Oh, I'm sorry! Please excuse me!" the woman said, half-laughing in embarrassment. Raven recognized her voice and speech pattern half a second before they saw each other's faces. Marie Offenbach's eyes widened as she realized whom she was talking to.
"Oh, it's you!" she cried, her mouth forming that characteristic little 'o' again. "I am so, so sorry. I'm such a klutz."
"It's all right, Marie," Raven chuckled. "I wasn't really watching where I was going, either."
Marie's brow crinkled in a slight frown. "How do you know my name?" she asked, puzzled.
"Oh. I, um... I saw the newspaper clipping on the wall in the restaurant," Raven said, thinking quickly. "They had your name and picture next to the review."
"Oh, that's right! Okay." She laughed; as usual, it sounded a just little forced. "You know, it's so weird that you would be here in town right now. There's this woman who just disappeared out in the woods over the weekend, and they found her clothes torn to pieces and surrounded by wolf tracks."
Raven swallowed. "You don't say."
"Yeah, I know, crazy," Marie said, tossing her head and rolling her eyes in an expression that was roughly equivalent to a shrug. "And now a bunch of people are saying there's a wolf stalking around their houses at night." She frowned again. "Say, you wouldn't know anything about that, would you? I mean, I know Scabs aren't werewolves or anything crazy like that, but... I don't know. I've lived here for ten years, and I've never seen a wolf get that close to town. It just doesn't seem like something a wolf would do, you know?"
"I, um... I'm sorry," Raven said, as an icy fear that she couldn't fully explain began to claw into her heart. "I'm afraid I don't know anything about that."
"Okay," Marie nodded. "Just thought I'd ask. Some of our regulars have seen you around, and at breakfast today they were talking about it. We thought you might know something, but..." She shrugged.
"No. I'm sorry." Raven shook herself, a sort of full-body tremor, then turned away. "I have to go."
"Okay, sorry to bother you! Bye!" Marie turned and walked off down the street, not looking back. Raven stood there a moment, then turned and headed back the way she had come, toward the north end of town and the street that would take her up toward her parents' house.
She kept her head down as she walked, trying to be inconspicuous even though she knew that was absurd. Her gaze flickered between the faces of the people she passed, trying to judge their expressions. It could have been her own subconscious talking, but now most of the people around her seemed suspicious, uneasy, even fearful. She felt her ears flatten back against her head and quickened her pace, fixing her eyes on the slush-covered pavement in front of her. She didn't look up again until she was at the door of her house. Mom didn't seem to be home, and she didn't care. She went straight to her room and locked the door behind her.
Alex returned to the Kepler house in the late afternoon. Sandra answered the door.
"That went longer than I expected," she remarked, as Alex followed her back to the kitchen. A couple of pots simmering on the back burners of the stove indicated that dinner was in progress. "Was the council in session all that time?"
"Actually, no," Alex said. "Matt and I went back to the rangers' office to muster the troops. We think we know how to take care of this mystery wolf and find Hannah all in one stroke." He briefly outlined his theory about Hannah and how they hoped to rescue her. Sandra was as skeptical as Matt had been about the odds of such a thing happening, but she agreed that it made more sense than anything else, given the evidence they had.
"It sounds like Sam could be of use to you in this," she said.
"She could," Alex said. "Unfortunately, I don't know if she's ready to listen. She's been in pretty heavy denial about this whole thing. Matt's going to take the wolf back to their office when they catch her -- I guess they have some facilities there for taking care of injured animals. He'll call me when they have her, and I'll see if I can persuade Raven to come with me then. Do you know where she is?"
"I haven't seen her, but I haven't been upstairs since I got back. Oh, by the way: Leah Cohen called me today. They're having another prayer vigil for Hannah tonight at DLM and wanted to know if we could make it." She smiled knowingly. "And Rabbi Moshe specifically invited you to come."
Alex beamed. "I'd be honored. And if I have to leave early because God answered our prayers, so much the better."
"That would be good," Sandra agreed. "So, did Matt tell you if he was coming home for dinner?"
"He said in about an hour. They had some preparations to take care of for the capture mission first."
"All right. Are you going to try to find Sam? If she's still out looking for Hannah, it could take her a while to get back, and she'll probably want to know about the vigil." She smiled sadly. "And if she's given up, she could probably use a friend."
Alex nodded soberly. "I'll check upstairs."
Raven's door was shut. He quietly tested the doorknob; it was locked, as well. He tapped on the door twice with his fingertips.
"Raven?" he said.
Alex tapped again, louder this time. "Raven, it's Alex. Can I come in?"
Silence again, at first; then he heard the faint sounds of someone stirring and padding over to the door. There was a soft click as the privacy lock was disengaged, then the footsteps moved away again. Alex paused a moment, to see if he would receive a more verbal invitation; when it didn't come, he opened the door and stepped inside.
Raven's childhood bedroom -- now really a guest room -- was decorated sparsely but tastefully. There was a full-size bed with its headboard against the right wall, leaving a small walkway between the bed and the bay window at the back of the room. A dresser with a large mirror ran along the left wall; the mirror was covered by a sheet. Along the near wall, to the right of the door as Alex entered, was a closet; the space between it and the bed was taken up by a nightstand and a computer desk. The floor and walls were done in pastel greens, and the curtains on the window were a darker shade of the same color. There was nothing that Alex would have recognized as being distinctly Raven, and it occurred to him that her parents must have put away her personal effects a long time ago.
Raven was sitting on the floor, between the bed and the back wall, hugging her knees against her chest. She didn't look at him as he entered, but kept staring into the space in front of her. The curtains were shut and there were no lights on in the room, but Alex could still see the lost look in her eyes.
Alex took a step toward her.
"Shut the door," she said. Her voice sounded hollow, empty. She still didn't look at him.
Alex looked at her a moment longer, then quietly closed the door behind him. He came over and knelt in front of her. She had a box of tissues next to her, and a pile of crumpled ones that suggested she had already gone through a sizable fraction of its contents. She stared right through him and said nothing.
What can I say? he wondered. "Are you all right?" No, that's stupid, she obviously isn't. "What's wrong?" Equally stupid. "I think Hannah's a Scab." No, the evidence is already right in front of her face; if it still hasn't occurred to her, then there are deeper issues at work, and she's not going to be able to hear it from me yet, anyway. The last thing she needs right now is an argument. Need something meaningful that isn't hopelessly obvious... ah, of course --
"The council voted to table the wolf control measure until after the holidays," he said. "Your dad convinced them not to decided anything until they've caught this wolf that's poking around the edges of town."
Raven nodded absently, as if to herself. "Good," she muttered. "Bastards' plan didn't work. That's something."
Alex suppressed a sigh. Raven stirred, and seemed to notice him for the first time.
"I couldn't find her, Alex," she said, her voice sounding strangled and faint and wavering on the edge of breaking. "I looked all over and I couldn't find her. Couldn't help her. And now it's starting."
Alex frowned. "What's starting?" he asked, gently.
Raven took a breath -- short and sharp, a ragged gasp for air -- and shook her head slightly. "Didn't you see it?" she asked. "The people looking at us like monsters? The fear in their eyes?" Another gasp. She was hanging on to the barest thread of control, and every word trembled as if it might collapse into sobs. "They're gonna blame us for what happened to Hannah. They're gonna think we took her and ate her. They're gonna try to kill us. It's starting, Alex!"
"That's not going to happen," Alex said, putting a reassuring hand on her knee. "People are scared, yes, because something's happening that they don't understand. But that doesn't mean they're going to have a witch hunt and burn us at the stake. These are good people..."
"There are no good people," Raven said fiercely.
Alex looked at her for a moment, then nodded. "Well, no. Technically speaking, there aren't," he admitted. "But you know what I mean. You grew up in this town. I've been here four days and I can even see that these aren't the sort of people who flip out and kill what they don't understand."
"I don't care. I can't go out there."
"We need you to go out there," Alex said, gently but firmly. "There's a prayer vigil for Hannah tonight at the synagogue. All of her friends and family are going to be there." He sought her eyes, and after a moment she looked up at him, with obvious reluctance. "Raven, they're going to expect you to be there. For Hannah's sake."
Raven took a few deep breaths. "They're... they're not going to want Raven there," she said at last. "Please, Alex, I can't be Raven anymore. Not here."
"I'll change you, if that's what you mean," Alex said. "But it doesn't matter whether you call yourself Raven or Samantha. You're still the same person."
"No. It does matter," Raven said. She rolled onto her right side and brought her legs beneath her into a kneeling posture, then grabbed his hands and clung to them fiercely. "Please do it! Change me back! Change me back! I don't wanna be..." Then her voice broke entirely, and she collapsed against him, sobbing. Her grip weakened, and Alex wrapped her in his arms and held her.
Matt lifted the walkie-talkie to his mouth and opened the channel. "All rangers, report readiness."
"Paul here," a voice responded after a moment. "Bait's in position."
"Bait confirmed," Matt acknowledged."For the record, I'd like to say kosher steak is awfully expensive bait," Paul said. "You know, there was a special on pork chops this week."
"No pork," Matt said firmly.
"I know, I know. Still, of all the people this could have happened to..." He trailed off.
Matt grinned. "It's okay, Paul. I'll pay you back later."
Another voice crackled over the link. "Rashid here. Cedric and I are in position with the net."
"Net confirmed. Paul, can you see them from where you are?"
"Negative. Their blind looks great from here."
"Joy here," a woman's voice said. "Med supplies standing by. Secondary shooter armed and in position."
"Meds and secondary confirmed," Matt said. He looked over at Deirdre, who knelt beside him in front of the second-story window of one of the houses where the mystery wolf had been spotted before. They had a wide, clear view of the woods on the eastern slope, as well as the spot in the backyard where Paul had placed the meat, ten feet from the trees. At the moment Deirdre had her tranquilizer gun cradled in her arms and was checking the dosage on the dart.
"What did Leah say Hannah's weight was?" she asked.
Deirdre shook her head slightly and blew out a breath. "Gonna be a damned big wolf," she said.
"Assuming that her weight hasn't changed. That's not always a sure thing, from what I hear."
"Maybe not, but it's the only thing we have to go on," Deirdre said, sliding the dart back into the gun and closing the chamber. "If it looks a lot smaller than that I'll cut back the dosage." She turned and put the gun in position, resting the bipod on the windowsill, and peered through the gun's IR scope out into the woods. "Primary shooter in position."
"Primary confirmed," Matt said, speaking into the walkie-talkie. "Cut the chatter from here on out. There's no way to be sure how good her hearing is. Click your com buttons once to acknowledge, and twice if you see any sign of her."
There was a series of clicks, as the other rangers acknowledged his orders. Picking up his own night scope, Matt settled down next to Deirdre and waited for the wolf to show herself.
Matt had no idea how much time had passed when a double-click came over the walkie-talkie. He panned over the edge of the woods until he saw a large shape, glowing softly against the green background on the night scope, moving cautiously toward the bait. The wolf's eyes shone like two piercing beacons as she came closer, and her legs, ears and muzzle glowed fairly bright, as well, but the rest of her body gave off relatively little heat. The animal's winter coat was doing its job.
"There she is," Deirdre murmured, so quietly Matt almost couldn't make out the words. Glancing over, he saw her taking careful aim with the tranq gun.
There were other double-clicks coming over the link now, as the rest of the rangers spotted the wolf. She approached cautiously, looking this way and that, but she walked past the blind at a distance of less than fifty feet and continued on toward the bait. Matt nodded in satisfaction; Cedric and Rashid were now behind her, and between the blind and the scent-neutralizer they had sprayed on themselves earlier, they should be virtually undetectable by the wolf's senses. If the tranquilizer didn't put her down immediately, they could use the net to entangle her until it took effect.
The wolf moved to the very edge of the forest and peered out at the bait from behind a large tree. She stood there for a long moment.
"Damned big wolf," Deirdre whispered, taking aim. There was no way she could hit the wolf behind the cover of the tree, but Matt knew she would fire as soon as she had a clear shot.
The wolf raised a paw to step forward, then paused and put it down again. She looked off to her right -- where, as it happened, Joy was waiting with the second gun, though at the moment she, too, would be partially blocked by the trees. The animal looked back at the bait, up at the house, and back to the right. Then, her ears flattening against her head, she slunk off to her left and back into the woods.
"Blast!" Matt snarled, opening the link. "Get that net up, now!"
Cedric and Rashid exploded from behind the blind, raising the net high as they ran forward. The wolf, seeing the way behind her blocked, bolted off along the perimeter of the woods. Deirdre and Joy both fired, but neither shot hit the fleeing animal.
"Dammit!" Deirdre said feelingly.
"She's gone," Rashid said over the walkie-talkie. "Looks like she's headed south along the edge of town."
"Roger that," Matt said, feeling disappointed. "Pack it up, everybody. Obviously she realized this was a trap. We'll reconvene back at HQ and work something out. And if any of you have any ideas on how to deal with an animal with wolf instincts and human reasoning, I'd love to hear them."
The rangers had been back at the station less than half an hour when the phone rang. Matt was helping Rashid and Cedric put away the net; a minute later Deirdre ran into the room, phone receiver in hand.
"We've got her," she said quickly. "220 Milsom Drive. Guy found her huddled in the back of his garage."
Matt looked up in alarm. "Did he try to go in after her?"
"No, but I think he's getting jumpy," Deirdre said, eyes worried. "He says he'll shoot it himself if it comes out at him."
"Gimme," Matt said, holding out his hand. "Get the tranq guns ready to go."
Deirdre nodded and handed the phone off to him, then darted out through the door again. "Hello, sir?" Matt said.
"Mr. Kepler? You better get your people down here right away, you understand?" The voice sounded more frightened than angry. "I ain't gonna let this thing come after me and my family."
"Don't worry, sir, we'll take care of it," Matt soothed. "We'll be there in ten minutes, tops. Now, I want you to listen to me. We believe this wolf may actually be a person who's gone feral."
There was a pause. "You mean a Scab?" the man said, sounding both surprised and skeptical. "This ain't your daughter, is it, Mr. Kepler? There's rumors around town that she's a Scab of some kind."
"The rumors are true, but this isn't Samantha," Matt said. "We believe it may be Hannah Miller."
"Hannah... the girl who disappeared? Damn... I don't know if I buy that, Mr. Kepler. This thing looks nasty. I can't see much of her, but she's growling and snarling up a storm back there."
"That's because she's scared. Just stay where you are, and for heaven's sake, don't shoot at her, all right?"
"All right, sir. I'll hold back. But person or no person, if she attacks me, I'm gonna defend myself."
"Just don't provoke her, sir, and she won't. We'll be right there." Matt hung up, put the phone aside, paused, picked it up again, and dialed another number.
"Alex, it's Matt. We need you and Samantha, right away."
Alex quietly approached Raven and put a hand on her shoulder. "Raven," he said softly.
She opened her eyes and looked up at him, a bit crossly. "What?" she asked, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb those around her. Down in front, one of the synagogue's elders was leading a prayer for Hannah's safe return, while the rest of those assembled either murmured in agreement or quietly prayed on their own. Raven was near the back, sitting in an aisle seat.
"Come on. Your father needs you," Alex said. "That mystery wolf is hiding in the back of somebody's garage and we need your help getting her out of there."
Raven frowned. "What do you want me to do about it?"
Alex gave her a pointed look. Realization dawned, and a look of anger and indignation filled her face. "No! No way! You are not doing this to me!" she hissed.
"You're the only one who can do this," Alex said sternly. "Nobody else in this town knows how to talk down a wolf!"
"There's no way I'm turning into that thing in front of these people!" Raven snapped. The people around them were looking at them now, but she took no notice.
"Would you think about somebody besides yourself for a minute?" Alex growled.
"Think about -- what do you think I'm doing here?!" she protested. "I'm here for Hannah!"
"And Hannah's the one in the garage!" Alex shouted.
The room went silent. Raven stared at him, shocked. So did everyone else.
"Can you really tell me it hasn't occurred to you?" he demanded. "Hannah disappears in the middle of the woods, leaves her clothes behind, and the only other thing there's any sign of is a wolf? A wolf that then mysteriously starts hanging around the edges of town, like it's not quite sure if it belongs there? A wolf that somehow figured out that a bunch of meat lying out within easy reach means it's a trap? And now that wolf is hiding in somebody's garage? Wolves don't hide in garages, do they? Give me a break, Raven! You're the scientist here -- put it together!"
"Don't call me that," Raven whispered, eyes still transfixed.
"Fine! Raven! Samantha! Sam! Princess!" he snarled, putting a note of derision into the last word. "Call yourself whatever you bloody want! It doesn't change who you are! You're a Scab, like me! Are you gonna start dealing with that? Because if you don't, Hannah is probably going to get shot or stuck in a cage somewhere like a rabid dog!"
Something changed in Raven's eyes. It only took Alex a second to recognize it.
"Hannah?" she said softly, her eyes filling with tears. "Oh God... Hannah? It can't be..."
"It is," Alex said firmly, beginning to calm down from his tirade. "You already know it, you just don't want to believe it."
"She... the Flu," Raven said, visibly putting the pieces together. "When she was in Israel. She must have gotten the Flu. She didn't even know..." For a long moment she stared into space. Then she looked up, and in an instant the swirling confusion in her eyes crystallized into resolve. She stood up.
"We have to save her," she said, her voice clear and strong. "Your gift. Can you help her?"
"We'll find out soon enough," Alex said gravely. "Come on."
They hurried out to their rented Jeep and raced off to 220 Milsom Drive. They barely noticed the long line of cars that followed them from the synagogue.
They pulled up to the house and parked alongside one of the big vans belonging to the DNR. Raven spotted her father, Deirdre, and the rest of the rangers standing in front of the detached garage. Deirdre and Joy had their tranq guns at the ready, and Paul and Rashid were standing by with a hoop net and a noose. Matt was standing under a porch light, back by the door to the house, with an overweight, middle-aged balding man in a black coat and jeans. A rifle was propped up against the wall a few feet away.
"Looks like they got him to put down his gun," Alex said quietly.
"Small favors," Raven said, nodding once.
From the street, she heard a flurry of car doors opening and closing, and the sound of voices.
"What's going on?"
"They said there's a wolf in there..."
"Did the white guy say that thing is Hannah?"
"Oh, my baby..."
Raven caught her father's eye. "Dad, we've got a problem," she said, crooking a thumb over her shoulder at the crowd growing behind her.
Matt looked, frowned, and nodded. "Got it. Cedric, help me keep those people back."
While the two rangers went to intercept the onlookers, Raven strode forward to talk to Deirdre.
"Where is she?" she asked, peering into the darkness of the garage. The big door was rolled up, but from the look of things the building hadn't been used to store a working car for a very long time. An old, rusted Volkswagen Beetle -- probably late Nineties, from the look of it -- was parked in the back right corner, but it was surrounded by old furniture, lawn chairs, yard tools, bicycle parts, mattresses, boxes of clutter, and other things that were just unrecognizable.
Deirdre gestured at a narrow walkway that ran back between some boxes and an old table. "Back there," she said. "Through the scope I can just see her paws sticking out."
Deirdre's IR scope was attached to the tranq gun, so Raven turned to Rashid, who gave her his handheld model. After confirming the wolf's location she nodded and handed it back.
"All right," she said grimly. "I'm going to need you guys to back off and stand down. Maybe go over by the house. If she comes out of here and sees a bunch of people pointing nets and guns at her, she's probably going to panic again."
The rangers didn't seem to like the idea, but Deirdre nodded to the others and they stepped back, laying their weapons aside. Raven looked at Alex.
"You ready for this?" she asked. "You've never done two changes this close together."
Alex shrugged. "I'm going to have to be."
"All right. Let's do this."
In her mind, Raven reached out to the grey, finding Wolf back in the far corners of her mind. Her alter-ego responded, trotting forward out of the haze, and Raven felt her body shift back to its usual form.
Other Self! Wolf howled.
Wolf! Raven called her. Hannah needs your help. She has become a wolf, and the change has made her frightened and confused. She is lost in the grey and needs us to lead her out again.
Hannah is a wolf? Wolf asked, her surprise evident. Raven sent her an affirmative gesture, and the wolf wagged her metaphorical tail. Now she will be able to hunt with us!
Maybe, but she has forgotten who we are, Raven said. She has lost the ties to humanity that we have. She needs Alex to help her find them again, or she will be lost in the grey forever.
I will not leave her to walk alone, Wolf promised, the memory of their own attempt at the life of a lone wolf looming far too strongly in their shared mind. Let me lead on this trail, and I will bring her to packmate-Alex.
Thank you, Raven said. She quickly removed her clothes, handing them to Alex, who set them aside. She knew that most of the people she knew were watching her, but there was no time for modesty. "Keep these for Hannah," she said, feeling the chill December wind ruffle her fur. It was cold, but bearable, at least for a short time. "If this works, she's going to need them a lot more than I do."
"Got it," Alex said.
Mentally, Raven stepped back, and Wolf moved forward to take control. She was on all fours a moment later, as colors washed away to pale shadows and her night vision grew keener. Everything was a little bit blurry now, but she could clearly make out the other wolf's paws as she lay hiding in the darkness.
Wolf strode forward slowly but confidently, breathing the scent of the other wolf into her nostrils. The other wolf must have smelled her, as well, for her growling stopped. Her paws drew back out of sight, and Wolf heard her moving, jostling the humans' clutter as she sought a new hiding place. Wolf came up to the corner where she had seen the other wolf's paws, and carefully poked her head around the corner.
The Hannah-wolf was large, almost as large as Wolf herself, and wore a coat of black fur tipped with brown accents. Despite her size, though, she was afraid, and cowered back against the old car and whined like a lost pup. Her ears went back as Wolf approached, and she ducked her head and let out a growl that dissolved into a bark.
Wolf raised her tail until it was level with her back and swiveled her ears so they pointed straight out to the left and right. The fur on her shoulders ruffled up, and she curled back her lip, revealing her long, white fangs. Imperiously, she lowered her head until her muzzle was right next to Hannah-wolf's. To a wolf, the meaning of the display was clear: I lead. You follow. Submit to me.
Hannah-wolf ducked her head and tried to look away, but Wolf gave her a short warning-growl. A few tense seconds passed between them.
Then, Hannah-wolf relented. Flattening her ears back again, she bared her teeth and stuck her tongue out between her fangs, touching her own nose. She turned her head back and to the side, exposing her throat. Wolf opened her jaws wide, snorted, and snarled, but Hannah-wolf maintained her posture, wagging her tail submissively.
Raven felt a ripple of satisfaction run through Wolf's mind. Hannah had accepted her as leader. Now Wolf reached out to comfort her, nuzzling her cheeks and ears. Hannah-wolf responded in turn, licking at Wolf's face. Wolf put her mouth around Hannah-wolf's muzzle, gently, for just a moment, and then released, and Hannah-wolf sniffed at her. After a few more seconds of these reassurance behaviors, Wolf turned and walked toward the front of the building. Hannah-wolf followed her, but hesitated when she saw Alex standing out there, waiting. She ducked her head and put her ears back. Alex and the rangers got down on their knees to appear less threatening, but Hannah-wolf still wouldn't come out.
Wolf stuck out her tail again and held her head high, looking down on her packmate. She waved her tail back and forth slowly, like a flag, and waited. After a moment Hannah-wolf slunk forward and nosed at her face again. After a few more brief gestures of affection and reassurance, Wolf trotted over to Alex, wagging and rubbing up against him.
"Hey there, Wolf," Alex said gently, reaching out and petting her. "Hey there."
Wolf sat down next to Alex and waited, as the man stretched out a hand toward Hannah-wolf, palm down.
"Hannah," he cooed. "Come here, girl."
Hannah-wolf cautiously approached, sniffing the knuckles of his fingers. After a moment she took another step forward, smelling his hand and wrist. At last she wagged her tail, and Alex gently brushed his hand against her cheek She did not flinch away, so he slid his hand up the side of her face to the top of her head, petting her and scritching behind her ears. She seemed to enjoy that, and came closer, until she was right in front of him. He brought his other hand up to her back and stroked along it, then scratched the space between her shoulder blades. Once he had both hands on her and was reassured that she wasn't going to flinch away, he closed his eyes.
There was no glow of light or mystical humming sound, but Raven could sense nevertheless that power was being exerted. For several seconds, nothing happened...
And then, as the rangers and the crowd watched, the black wolf began to change. Her limbs lengthened, stretching and folding until knees and elbows touched the ground, while her paws flattened out and expanded into hands and feet. Her torso expanded in some ways and contracted in others, the rib cage flattening and broadening as the shoulders and pelvic girdle realigned themselves. Her ears shrank and rounded, and her muzzle separated into human nose and mouth. Her tail contracted and then disappeared entirely, and most of her fur soon followed, as human breasts expanded outward and surplus lupine nipples vanished from view. The fur that remained on her head lengthened into thick, wavy black hair, growing out between Alex's fingers as he held her steady through the change...
And then Hannah Miller was lying naked on the ground, and Alex collapsed beside her in exhaustion.
Raven was back in her humanoid form in a matter of seconds, as Wolf readily ceded control back to her. "Deirdre! Give me a hand here!" she called, draping her coat over Hannah's body to give her some small protection of modesty before turning to check on Alex. She put her fingers to his wrist and felt for a pulse. It was strong and steady, and she allowed herself to relax a little. "I think he's all right," she said. "Joy? Could you make sure?"
"I'm on it," Joy said, coming forward with her medical kit.
Working together, Raven and Deirdre quickly dressed Hannah in Raven's clothes. Even after all these years, they were still fairly close to wearing the same size, and everything fit more-or-less comfortably. Hannah began to come around as they were putting Raven's jeans on her.
"Wh- what happened?" she murmured, looking around. She saw Raven, and her eyes grew wide. "Sam?" she asked, faintly.
Raven smiled at her warmly. "Hey, Hannie," she said, sparing a hand to reach out and stroke her friend's hair and cheek. "I told you I'd show you what I looked like before I left, right?"
Hannah smiled in return. "Where am I?" she asked. She propped herself up on her elbows and looked down. "And why am I wearing black lace underwear?"
"Those are mine, sweetie," Raven said, blushing a little under her fur. "I'll explain later, okay? Let's just get some clothes on you."
"Fine by me. It's freezing out here!"
By the time they had Hannah bundled up in Raven's clothes and winter coat, Matt had brought them a few emergency blankets from the van. Raven accepted one gratefully, then turned her attention back to Alex.
"Looks like he's going to be fine," Joy said, "but he's out like a light. We should get him inside."
Raven looked up at Matt. "Dad?"
"I just talked to Leah," he said. "We'll head back to their house. He can stay there until he wakes up."
"Sounds good," Raven said. "See if you can have Mom bring down another set of clothes. Hannah's probably going to get some of her wolfiness back eventually, and I don't think any of her pants have tail-holes."
Tuesday, Christmas Eve.
Alex awoke somewhere warm, dimly lit, and comfortable, his mild headache notwithstanding. Opening his eyes, he found that he was sitting in an overstuffed easy chair, covered by a blanket, in a living room whose drapes had all been closed against the morning sunlight. Up on the mantelpiece across the room sat a menorah; to one side of the fireplace was a small nativity scene. That was really all he needed to figure out where he was.
There were other people sitting in the room, chatting amiably. Looking around, Alex quickly identified most of them: Rabbi Moshe and Leah; a few of their family members, whom he recognized from the synagogue; Matt and Sandra; Raven in her humanoid form, unabashedly lupine...
And Hannah, beautiful Hannah, smiling and laughing as she sat beside Raven and her husband on the couch, the joy shining from her face as brightly as any flame.
"Hannah," he said, forcing himself to speak in spite of his dry throat. "Glad to have you back."
All heads turned to face him as he spoke, and a round of greetings rose up from the assembled throng.
"Alex, you're okay!"
"You saved my baby!"
He raised a hand in a forestalling gesture. "One at a time, please," he said, wincing. "I have a bit of a headache." He coughed. "And a dry throat."
Leah nearly fell over herself rushing to get him a cup of water. Raven caught his eye and smiled mischievously. "Don't abuse the power, Alex," she teased. "You're a hero now."
"I'm the hero?" He chuckled. "You did most of the work."
"Well, yeah, but you're the one who collapsed like a rag doll," Raven said. "And your special effects were way better than mine."
Alex grinned at that, then turned to Hannah. "You feeling all right?" he asked.
"Much better, thanks to you two," she said. "Sam's been helping me learn to control this shapeshifting thing. It feels really strange, but I think I'm getting the hang of it."
"Glad to hear it," Alex said. "You should have until..." He looked up at the clock, then blinked; it was almost ten. "Good grief, were you people up all night?" he asked.
"Not all night," Hannah said. "Sam and I worked on shifting until something like two or three AM, but since then we've been off to sleep and back again."
"Our families are doing dinner together tonight," Raven explained, "and the rest of the Magnificent Seven are coming over in a little while."
Hannah gestured at the cups of coffee and used plates that littered the coffee tables. "We just had breakfast, and we've been waiting for you to get up."
"Don't worry, dear," Leah called from the next room, "I saved you some!"
"Thank you, Leah!" Alex called back, smiling and shaking his head a little. "I don't get it, though. What I did to you should have worn off hours ago." He looked back at her again and squinted; she still looked human...
Hannah smiled. "It did," she said, getting to her feet. She turned around, and Alex saw a long, bushy black tail sticking out the 'back fly' of the pants Raven had loaned her.
"This is the only thing I can't seem to get rid of on my own," she said, wagging it back and forth. "Not yet, anyway. If these are really just mental blocks, you'd think we should be able to work around them eventually, right?"
"Maybe," Alex admitted, taking a drink from the cup of water Leah put in his hand. "Thank you, Leah -- I haven't really done it often enough to know, though."
"Even if you can't get rid of it, having a tail's really not that bad," Raven said. "You just need to be extra careful about shutting doors behind you from now on."
"Oh, believe me, I'm not complaining," Hannah said, spreading her hands. "I'm just grateful to be back in my own right mind, and most of my own right body."
"No more feral instincts, then?" Alex asked.
"Nothing we've noticed," Raven said. "We've been experimenting. Hannah can shift all the way to wolf and back and stay in control the whole time. She doesn't seem to have a separate Wolf-mind like I do."
"Which apparently means I'm going to have to find out about any instincts I have as they take me by surprise," Hannah said wryly. "But hey, humans have instincts too, right? Doesn't mean we can't control them."
Raven smiled. "I'm glad you're not in the same boat I am," she said. "Wolf and I are getting along all right now, I think, but sometimes she can be a real pain in the neck."
"Now, I don't want to hear you saying anything bad about that wolf of yours, Samantha Kepler," Leah scolded, wagging her finger at Raven. "Without her, I never would have gotten my Hannah back. She's as much a hero as you and Alex!"
There was a round of agreements from the others in the room. Alex grinned and lifted his cup.
"To Wolf!" he said. "May she live long, and hunt well all of her days, and may her prey be always upwind!"
"To Wolf!" the others chorused.
Inside Raven's mind, Wolf sat back and gloated, soaking up the attention. It was nice to be needed.
Ben snapped the foam football to Matt, who dropped back into the pocket as his receivers went long. Three of Hannah's brothers were coming at him over the four-inch deep snow of the Cohens' backyard, while Ben, Kyle and Connor formed his offensive line. The Cohens' two remaining players hung back, covering his receivers. He saw an opening, and threw --
And Wolf caught it, leaping high into the air to seize it in mid-flight.
"Yeah!" Ben shouted. "Go Raven!"
Wolf dodged around Hannah's fourth brother, Levi, and raced for the end zone, marked by two trees at the edge of the property. She ran as few creatures could, the wind rushing past, the blood thudding in her ears, glorying in the joy of pure exertion. The trees drew closer... almost there...
And then she was sent sprawling by a black-furred missile colliding with her shoulder.
Wolf yipped as she went tumbling through the snow, dropping the ball in the process. Hannah pranced over and retrieved it, then turned to face the rest of the group, crouching in preparation to run.
"Is that a fumble?" Levi asked.
"I think she still had it when she went down," Alex said. He was the other receiver for Matt's team, but Hannah had long since demonstrated she was too good at intercepting passes for Matt to consider throwing to Alex an easy touchdown.
"Down by contact at the five-yard line," Matt said. "Still our ball, third down."
Hannah flipped the ball to Levi, who tossed it back to Matt, and play continued.
In their shared mind, Raven sat back and enjoyed the feelings of her body at play, content to let Wolf call the shots -- though she did provide helpful pointers about the rules from time to time.
This is a good game, Other Self! Wolf said, as they raced off to try for another catch. This time Matt handed off to Alex, who slipped past the defenders and into the end zone for a touchdown. We should play it with our packmates when we return home.
Sounds like fun, Raven agreed. We'll just have to make sure we find enough players with hands for both teams.
Wolf snorted derisively. That is not a hard path. One with human-paws to throw for each side. What more do you need?
Raven's mental image gave Wolf a wry grin. I don't think you're quite clear on all the rules yet, Wolf.
Rules. Wolf snorted again. You humans have too many rules. The pleasure of running the trail is what matters, not every rock and stick along the way.
Raven thought about that for a minute. You know, Wolf, she said, I think that's the smartest thing you've ever said.
And the game continued.
After the game was over, Raven sat out on the back porch with Alex, nursing cups of hot chocolate.
"I need to apologize to you," she said. "You offered me a gift, and I abused it. You wanted to use your power to help me reconnect my friends and family to who I am now -- but I tried to use it to go back to being who I used to be. To avoid dealing with the consequences of my lupine side. That was wrong, and I'm sorry."
Alex favored her with a small smile. "Apology accepted. And I'm glad you figured it out on your own."
"Well, not entirely on my own," Raven said wryly. "There was that whole matter of you ripping me a new one in the middle of the prayer meeting..."
"There is that," Alex agreed, wincing. "And I apologize for handling that situation so poorly. Things like that remind me of the person I used to be, and it's not a pleasant sight."
"I forgive you," Raven said, putting her hand on top of his and squeezing it. "And I don't blame you too much. You and Tanya had both tried the subtle approach already, and it didn't get you anywhere." She sighed, shaking her head. "My own powers of denial frighten me sometimes. Even after that, it wasn't until you fainted after changing Hannah that I really realized what I was taking from you." She looked up at his eyes, smiling a little as she saw her own reflection in them. "I won't ask you to change me again. And I won't tell another soul back home unless you want me to."
Alex squeezed her hand in response. "Thank you," he said. "But it's okay for you to ask. I wouldn't mind doing it for you from time to time." He smiled slyly. "For special occasions."
Raven smiled back. "What sort of 'special occasions' are you thinking of, Pastor Marlow?"
His dark eyes sparkled. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "We'll see."
Hannah stuck her head out of the house. "Lunch is here, guys," she said.
Leah and Sandra both had enough to do preparing for Christmas Eve dinner that evening, so lunch consisted of ordering take-out from the one authentic Chinese restaurant in Dos Lobos. Between the Magnificent Seven, Alex, Tanya, the Cohens and the Keplers, Moshe and Leah's home was filled to capacity. Alex, Tanya, David and the Seven sat on the floor in the living room, passing around cartons of rice and half a dozen different dishes. A bottle of soy sauce and a pot of green tea provided by Leah completed the meal.
"Y'know, I'm not sure we can call ourselves the Magnificent Seven anymore," Hannah said, as they sat down together. "I think we're going to have to include Alex and Tanya, too, seeing as they helped save my life."
"Yeah, but the 'Magnificent Nine' just doesn't have the same ring to it," Raven said. "Can anybody think of something better?"
"We could all get motorcycles and be the Nine Riders," Kyle suggested.
"Ooh, five points, Tolkien reference," Raven said.
"Or, you know, we could not, and just be the Nine Walkers," Ashley added, grinning.
"Judges?" Connor asked, raising his eyebrows as he glanced around the room.
"Five points," Kaylee said reasonably. "Not original, but it continues the running gag, and it's a more obscure reference."
Alex frowned at Raven. "You deducted points from me for obscure references."
"That was an excessively obscure reference," Raven said airily, nose turned up. "There's a difference."
"It doesn't much matter, I suppose," Ben said. "After all, whatever we call ourselves, we'll always know that the Magnificent Seven came first."
"In that case," Tanya said brightly, "you could be Seven of Nine."
There was a chorus of groans and chuckles.
"Twenty points to the new chick!" Raven said, offering Tanya a high five. The cat-woman leaned forward with characteristic grace and tapped her hand lightly against Raven's.
"All right, I'm starving," Kyle said, as he began opening containers of food and passing them around. "Let's get on with this. Pastor Alex, would you care to pray for the food?"
Alex blessed the meal, and the eating began in earnest. As usual when the Seven got together, the conversation continued uninterrupted between and around bites of food.
"Well, it's starting," Kaylee said. "We went down to pick up lunch, and three people asked us what happened with Hannah and Sam last night."
"You're going to be celebrities, you know," Connor said. "All three of you."
"Better watch out," Kyle said, looking at Raven and Hannah. "The city council might name you the official mascots of Dos Lobos."
"It would be sort of poetically appropriate," David agreed.
"Well, I guess we'll have to make the most of it," Raven said, looking over at Hannah. "We've still got some time to rally votes for that pro-wolf petition. Imagine the possibilities."
Hannah rolled her eyes. "Do I have to?" she asked.
"Only Raven would think to spend her Christmas vacation on a political action crusade," Ben said.
"Not our whole vacation," Raven said. "I'm just saying, come this Thursday people are going to be standing in line at the return desks for hours. They'll have plenty of time to listen to our spiel about saving the wolves. Heck, they might thank us for the distraction. If we push this for a few days, we could have all the signatures we need before the week is out."
"All right, you talked me into it," Hannah said, smiling. "After all, if I'm going to be a wolf now, the least I can do is show a little species solidarity."
"Word," Ben said, crossing his arms in a pseudo-gangsta pose. "Givin' a shout out to the brothers who the Man been keepin' down, yo!"
Raven gave him a mock-glare. "Don't make me hurt you, Ben."
"Or me," Tanya added.
"What?" Ben asked, feigning innocence. "A Jew's got as much right to be a gangsta as anybody else! Alex here was just telling me earlier, there used to be an entire Jewish Mafia in Detroit, back in the nineteen-twenties."
Raven raised her eyebrows. "Jewish gangsters," she said, her voice drenched in skepticism.
"I kid you not," Ben said, raising his hand as if taking an oath. "Tell 'em, Chalky."
Alex took a drink of his tea and set it down. "They were called the Purple Gang," he said. "Russian-Jewish racketeers who hijacked illegal shipments of booze coming across from Canada and sold them to Chicago and points west. Later they expanded to kidnapping, extortion, bombings, you name it. They were so powerful and bloodthirsty that even Capone wouldn't mess with them. You've heard of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre? They're the ones who made it happen." He turned his eyes on Ben and stared at him fixedly. "And for the record," he added calmly, "my street name was Luthor." His eyes narrowed. "Not Chalky."
Ben swallowed and nodded. "Got it. Sure thing, 'Lex."
"Y'know, I think I've heard of them," Connor said, frowning slightly. "Elvis mentioned them in 'Jailhouse Rock', didn't he?" Alex nodded.
"I've heard of the Purple Gang," Raven said, "but I didn't know they were Jewish."
"There! You see?" Ben said, looking triumphant. "I got as much right to get down with my boys as any brother in the street!"
"No you don't, darling," Tanya said patiently.
"And besides, that was more than a hundred years ago," Raven said.
Ben sulked. "A man can dream, can't he?"
Kyle put his fist in the air. "Keep the dream alive, bro."
Ben mimicked the gesture. "Word up."
Conversation drifted for a while, flitting from one topic to another. Several times they returned to the quality of the food.
"I'd forgotten how good Hung Chang really is," Raven remarked.
"It is," Alex agreed, as he sprinkled soy sauce onto his beef and pea pods. "But you know," he added casually, "you've got to be careful not to get this soy sauce in the green tea."
The others looked up, frowning in confusion.
"Why, does it taste bad?" Ashley asked.
"It should just taste salty," Connor murmured. "Which is kind of bad, but..."
"Because if you did," Alex continued, eyes focused on his plate, "then it would be cannibalism."
Several looks of confusion grew deeper; the rest just grew suspicious. Kaylee put down her fork and stared at him balefully, waiting.
Alex glanced up, looking around at each of them in turn while silence hung in the air. Then, quickly, he raised his hands in front of him, palms in, fingers bent as if clutching at thin air. Then, shaking his hands feelingly, his face wrenching into a mask of horror and desperation, he shouted, "Because soy in green is people! It's people!!!"
Hannah, Ben and David sputtered into their food with laughter. Tanya winced. Ashley looked puzzled. Kyle, Raven, Kaylee and Connor groaned, loudly and repeatedly. Alex sat there, grinning like an idiot.
"Ow," Raven said, clutching her head. "Ow."
"I think my brain melted," Connor said. "I'm scarred for life."
Hannah coughed and wheezed. "I think I aspirated my chicken sub gum," she gasped.
"Well?" Alex said expectantly, still grinning. "What's my score?"
"One hundred points," Kyle said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "And now you must die."
"What? Aw, come on, I -- ow!" Alex was interrupted as a fortune cookie bounced off his nose. Others followed in its wake.
"Ow! Hey! Come on, guys, I just -- ow! I mean, who doesn't love Charlton Heston? Hey! Ow!"
That night they gathered at the Keplers' church, for an ecumenical candlelight service that also included the DLM congregation and the local Catholic Church, St. Matthias. Raven, Hannah and Alex continued to cause a stir.
"Praise God you two came here when you did," Paul Tetley said to Raven and Alex. "I don't if we ever would have gotten Hannah back without you."
"It was a miracle," Joy agreed.
Alex shrugged. "Well, like Rabbi Moshe said, this is a season for miracles." He smiled. "God obviously knew what He was doing, even if we didn't."
"Seriously," Raven said. "I mean, if you want to look at it that way, we never would have gotten Hannah back if Dad hadn't had that heart attack."
Paul shook his head. "There's one that'll blow your mind."
"Not really," Matt said, coming up behind Raven. She turned and gave him a hug, which he returned warmly. "What the Enemy meant for evil, God meant for good," he added. "How many times have we seen that?"
"It does seem to be a theme," Raven agreed.
"Well, there you go," Matt said. "Redemption is what He's all about, right? Redeeming people, or redeeming circumstances..." He shrugged. "Same thing, either way."
Alex chuckled. "I wonder if maybe you should be the one up in that pulpit, Matt."
Matt spread his hands out. "Nah, I'm done for tonight," he said, smiling. "I'll leave the pastoring to the professionals. I may have to deal with predators, prey, polluters and poachers, but I think dealing with parishioners would be too much for my old heart to take."
Up on stage, the band began to play a few opening chords. Raven and her friends and family hurried to their seats. The Keplers, the Cohens, and their in-laws took up an entire row by themselves. Raven stood alongside Alex and Hannah, and Tanya stood behind them: four Scabs of varying degrees, all of them unashamed. They stood proudly among their friends and families, surrounded by love and acceptance. Whatever the world might throw at them -- hatred, suspicion, bigotry, distrust -- they all knew that here, at least, they could find refuge, in the arms and hearts of those loved them and called them sister and brother. And so they rejoiced.
"Good evening," the worship leader said, smiling out at the crowd. "Welcome to Latter Rain Evangelical, we're glad to have you with us. We're here to celebrate Christmas -- the birth of our Savior -- and how wonderful it is that we're all able to come and worship Him together. We're going to sing a few songs now; some may be new to you, some are old, but I hope they all bless you tonight. We're going to open with one that's an oldie but a goodie, Angels We Have Heard On High. Let's praise the Lord together!"
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o'er the plain
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains...
As they sang, Raven and Hannah exchanged a mischievous look. Without needing to say another word, Hannah morphed into a lupine head like Raven's, just in time for the refrain.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
The song continued through the remaining verses, repeating the refrain after each one. And though Raven and Hannah turned their "Gloria"s into full-throated howls every time, no one really seemed to mind.
Ecce femina: Latin, "Behold the woman".