by D'Artagnon

Chapter I

Deeper & Deeper

Even since learning that I was Garou, I've never considered myself as one of those health conscious guys. Before then, Gym class was just a reason for me to goof off. And the way Mom had me dressed all the time, even my gym clothes were a topic of excessive in-house discussion if they got "overly dirty."

So it was odd that I felt the urge to get out and run when we woke up that morning. Nick was already awake when I cracked my eyes open. He just kept holding me. Also, apparently, sometime during the rainy night, I had somehow managed to get my hand wrapped around something of Nick's below the belt that wasn't his tail. I don't think he minded much.

I stood, stretched, swapped into wolf form and took off, chasing out into the crisp morning air. It's kinda weird how the early morning temperature at the beach there on the Massachusetts coast in mid-summer was still on the chilly side. But it felt good, the air and just getting out and stretching my legs and everything else in a flat out run.

And this time, the running gave me time to think. I don't remember all of what passed through my head, but I do remember feeling like some things were falling into place. Weird, no?

Nick ran beside me, occasionally shoulder and hip bumping me as we ran along the shoreline. The movement of the water in and out indicated that the tide was in, and surging. We ran back and forth as the waves rolled and slid up the brown sand in foamy sheets of brine.

"Don't get wet!" Nick woofed, dancing away from a rogue splash. He was keeping me close to the waterline so that I had to scamper and dodge away from the rising surf. He used body position and his strength to keep me from getting away from the wetness.

But try and tell my feet that! I stepped in a shallow depression in the sand one moment and the water rushed in to fill that depression, making it suddenly bigger than a mop bucket. My footing faltered and I slipped.

Fur and salt water don't really mix comfortably. Especially when you're only 30 inches to the shoulder and your belly gets sandy and soggy at the same time. The wave slapped against my muzzle, and I inadvertently had my mouth open at the time. My mouth and nose filled with sea water unexpectedly, forcing me to snort as the wave slid back into the ocean. Salt water and nasal passages doesn't mix well either.

"Hey, stop polluting Mother Ocean!" Nick woofed at me. "You haven't had a shower yet!"

"Oh ha-ha," I barked back, shortly, trying to stand as a smaller wave came up and lifted me slightly. I struggled out and stood next to Nicky, muttering in wolf-tongue as I came on shore. Then, giggling suddenly, I gave in to a very canine instinct. I shook myself dry. Well, drier. But Nicky was standing right next to me, so he got the brunt of my shaking off, wet sand and sea water liberally flying in his direction. He barked in surprise and bolted a few steps away, clear of my car-wash like water flinging.

"That," he spoke, as I finished shaking out, looking over at him with a wolfly grin on my muzzle, "that was not cool, beloved."

"Admit it, you'd have done the same," I chided back, coming over to where he sat, aloof in the sand. I gave his muzzle a few licks, but he tried to avoid my tongue while remaining in place.

"Oh, alright. Ah'd have done it too," he reluctantly agreed.

"So I guess we should shower, huh?"

"Did Ah suggest that?"

"Yes, you did. We've, uh," I said, suddenly remembering what the agenda for the day was. "We've got things to take care of."

"Important things," Nick woofed softly.

It's hard to believe that it had only been a few days since Rolf's death. Harder still to realize that this was going to be the day we buried him. I personally haven't dealt much with death until lately. My parents thought I was dead now. Robby's parents had died recently as well. As a warrior for Gaia, death was supposed to be something I could hand out, easily. It was supposed to be part of my everyday existence, the struggle to destroy monsters and keep my own fur in one continuous piece.

I guess, in a way, a lot of death had entered my life of late, in a lot of ways. But it wasn't an easy thing.

Much of that day, after showering and getting presentable, was spent helping with the large number of funerals. The numbers down at Black Rocks had swelled again, sometime during the night. Mourners had traveled, sometimes from half the world away on moonbridges, and as a result, there were so many werewolves from all over the place down at caern center that Nicky and I got lost in the flow. We did do as proper young cliath should and helped the mourners get around. We also helped carry bodies to the caern center for the group funerals, and helped with the various ceremonies.

Garou funeral rites tend to be different between tribes, but they all have one thing in common. A rite known as the Gathering for the Departed. I wont bore you with the details of what goes on during that. Depending on the tribe it can be a very primitive ritual where the body is burned or buried, it can involve structured, formulaic ritual and calling on the totem of the tribe and individual, it can even be something as moving and powerful as a song, either by a true master of the voice or by a group of wolves singing out their lament together. And let me tell you, those werewolf howl-singers know how to make you cry from how sad and beautiful their voices are together.

I learned a lot that day about the character of the different tribes. Despite their various differences and at times odd points of view, we all share a common point of origin. And despite those differences, or maybe because of them, there is a deep strength to the Garou. Diversity that distinguishes us by style and type, yet breeds flexibility and expression to the various different things that it means to be Garou.

All in all, it was a very solemn day with little in the way of differing Garou getting each other's tails up. The deaths of so many in one event was a shock not only to the mourners, but to the whole Garou Nation. We'd lost eight in that raid, three more to their injuries in the time since. Werewolves aren't as numerous as the rest of you humans. Basically you guys outnumber those of us who actually carry the werewolf gene something like half a million to one. And of that number, only one in ten actually has the ability to change. To put it mildly, there aren't many of us left.

But that's a different story.

My own contributions to the rites themselves wasn't much. For the most part, being a young Theurge, my job was to assist in the rites when called upon and to be observant at all other times. Basically, to be seen and not heard, like an altar boy in a Christian or Catholic church. Nicky stood with me and helped when necessary. To be honest, much of it was a blur. It would take me many days of meditating and reflection before I understood much of what I saw and participated in. I wonder if human religions are like that. My own parents weren't what you'd call church going folk, so I have no clue there. I would have to say that chances are most kids in churches don't really understand what their elders actually believe at times. Here I was getting a hard look at it and learning by doing.

I guess in a lot of ways, Garou have a certain spiritual advantage over regular people. We actually are spirit and flesh, while most humans don't feel the connection between their spirit selves. In the Umbra, there are shadows of normal people, and those shadows are always so vague and misty. Only those who are truly spiritually awake, or in some way supernatural, have solid spiritual presences in the Umbra, even if they themselves can't interact with the Umbra.

Sad in a way. So many people want some connection to each other and to the spiritual. If there was a way to help them find that in themselves, and I could be part of that, I'd consider my life well spent.

After noon, there was a break in the festivities. Which, since we are a beach front caern, means grills all over were fired up for tube steak and burgers. And with so many meat eaters around, that's a lot of cooking. Nicky really got into it, tasked with tending one of the grills. He was as joke a minute as I've ever seen, handing out munchies such as grilled corn on the cob, hot dogs, chicken breasts and drumsticks and wings (really big among the Bone Gnawer tribe), and burgers, with or without cheese, all with that big Nicky grin and such a happy string of banter that his grill was one of the more popular ones.

I just sat back and watched most of that. Nicky was in his element and he needed to shine. He was not only just being himself, but he was being the epitome of a sad times Ragabash. When things are tense, point out the truth with a laugh, but when times are sad, lift spirits by being the clown, the comedian, the fun party guy. And my Nicky is good at it.

So, I'm sitting off to the side, half my paper plate empty (we're big on recycling in the C of G) and a nice warm feeling building in my belly after so much sadness and keeping my eyes down to avoid being overcome by all the grief, when a shadow falls over me. At just shy of 2pm, shadows aren't usually very long, so chances are the owner of said shadow must be close. And tall. I silently chided myself that I didn't hear whoever it was coming up behind me. I'd blame the sound of the ocean, but in all likelihood, I was probably daydreaming and caught unawares.

"Could I sit here," a surprisingly light sounding Germanic accent said. Turning my head and shielding my eyes from the sun, I saw it was not just one person making the shadow, but two. Magnus and Sven, the Get boys, each holding a bottled water and a plate of food. Mostly meat, I noticed, although Sven did have a sizable portion of potato salad.

"Sure," I agreed. I'd found a slight v-shaped depression in the sand, obviously a place where some adventurous beach goer had dug out a place to play just above the high tide mark and I was sitting on one side while eating. Sven, the speaker, sat nearer me, and Magnus sat on almost the farthest edge of the opposite side of the "V."

"I would like to talk to you," Sven began, his English halting but well spoken, like he was occasionally having to search the vocabulary for words he knew but didn't use often. The sound was smooth, but with a cadence that wasn't used to the language.

"Okay," I replied, not sure what this was all about. Ragnar, Magnus' dad, had a serious mad-on with Nicky's mom. That should have made this encounter awkward enough, but Nicky and I were known as a couple, and to some who like using nasty words as *charach.* The Get really don't like *charach,* and they aren't really what you'd call open minded about homosexuality in general. I doubted they would start a stink about it now, during a day of funeral services, but I really didn't know them well enough to know.

Magnus had a very odd expression on his face. On a day filled with sadness enough already, he looked positively miserable. To say he had a hung dog look would be an understatement. At the moment, my immediate thought upon the two of them being there was to worry about where Ragnar and Nick's mom were. Both of their tribes had lost members in the ambush, and both were high up in their own tribal hierarchy. Come to think of it, this was the first time I'd seen Magnus and Sven away from Ragnar, ever.

For a short time, we simply sat and ate. It's a canine thing. If you can eat beside someone without there being any aggression or food stealing, that meant you were all equals in the pecking order. It was a way of signaling that there was no competition, no conflict.

After plates were down to semi-damp bareness, crumpled and packed into tight balls for proper disposal later, we sat staring out over the ocean. The tide was coming in, getting kind of close to us, but we were only in danger of wet bare feet, knees at best. The sense of calm was rewarding to me, as was the feel of the sea breeze and the scent of the salty air and the presence of the water near me.

"I have never learned to swim," Sven said, his voice soft and lilting, despite the hard Germanic accent. "I have always had great fondness for the waters, but it was not something I was ever taught."

"It is easy enough to learn. I'm sure there are many who could teach."

"It is not always enough to want to swim or find a teacher," Sven said, again with a halting meter to his words. "There is often fear to overcome as well."

A Get of Fenris youth speaking of fear openly to a Child of Gaia? And fear of something elemental and basic, or about something athletic? There was something not entirely plain going on in this conversation. It was just enough off point that I began looking for hidden meanings.

I should also say before this continues that the average Get youth is about as verbally subtle as a dentist with a dump truck. They typically aren't what you'd call mentally astute. A joke from Monty Python about a tree and a herring comes to mind when describing their relative mental sharpness. Not to say they aren't smart, just that they aren't very cerebral or insightful. As a tribe, they have a reputation of jumping over the cliff first and then thinking about if it's a good idea or not after they hit bottom.

"Are you worried about Rolf's howl tonight?" I asked, looking to see where this was going. "He wanted it to be done in surfer tradition. A circle of surf boards out in the water at sundown."

"We… may not be there for that. There is discussion of returning to our home caern after the howl. Father may decide that we need to remain on shore. But there are things we have need to talk on."

I risked a short glance at Magnus. His eyes remained fixed on a sail boat stretched out on the horizon. Not an uncommon site in this part of New England. The two-masted boat had its sails tucked in tight, sailing close to the wind, with its canvas puffed out tightly in graceful curves. It was though he was part of this conversation on the side, but not going to say anything.

"We aren't talking about swimming, completely, are we?" I asked.

"You are known as Speaks With Water. It is known much about you."

"It is," I said in agreement. "Though not all is known in completeness."

"It is true of many things," Sven said, making a short glance to Magnus. "This is not easy for us to discuss. Swimming has many risks."

My eyes flew open at this. *Could he be talking about being gay?* I wondered. *If so, does that mean that* they *are?*

"It really depends on where you swim and how," I said, feeling that the conversation had indeed gone into uncharted waters. "I take it there aren't any safe places to swim where you live?"

"Swimming is not safe there. No swimmers live in *our* house." His voice betrayed a tremor when he said "our." My gut was telling me a lot. What wasn't being said here was as loaded as the coding Sven was using in what he did say.

"When do you return home?" I asked.

"Could be soon. Sooner than we would want. We are wondering what sort of swimming lessons could be learned."

I looked deep in Sven's eyes then, hoping to find some clues to exactly what they meant. My first reaction was still feeling strong. In his eyes, however, there was no overt clue. Sven was unreadable. He'd be awesome at playing cards. Magnus, since he was staring out over the Atlantic, was also unavailable for me to see more deeply.

"There are better places to discuss swimming than here on the sand. We could go someplace else to talk about swimming, if you like."

"We would have difficulty getting permission to leave here."

"Father would be unhappy," Magnus said, his voice devoid of emotion. He seemed to be trying very hard to not show his feelings, on anything. Strength of stone. Even so, I felt right away that there was some deep pain there.

"Would you be allowed to explore the caern?"

"It would be wise to know ones surroundings," Sven agreed, his eyes narrowing as he considered the loophole.

"There is a sea wall, to the south of the caern, by the campground. It is a good spot to stare at the city lights and sail boats across the mouth of the river. Perhaps after Rolf's howl would be a good time to watch the boats come in. The stars are very clear there at night."

"I think… I think we should see such, then. Father will be busy in council into the night at that time," Sven said, looking over at Magnus. As if on cue, Magnus looked back at Sven and gave a slight nod.

"Then maybe I'll see you there. Perhaps we can talk more of swimming then."

"We look forward to this," Sven said, standing. They both left, nodding to me politely before walking away, speaking softly and quickly to each other in their native tongue.

"What was all that about?" I wondered, aloud.

I was about to get up when a second shadow fell across me from behind. I was beginning to wonder if I was just completely oblivious to things going on around me when the shadow walked over to the spot Sven had just sat in and likewise took a seat. It was Joey, and he gave me a friendly slap on the back as he sat down.

"Well, seems like you've made new friends," he said, munching on a hotdog. A liter size bottle of water promptly found a sand coaster beside him as Joey got comfortable. "Nick's found his calling, I think."

"Yeah, fast food and fast words. It's his niche." I didn't feel so bad about Joey approaching me silently. It's his thing.

"So what did the Get boys want?"

"Oddly enough, I'm not really sure yet. If I had to guess, they aren't ready to completely say yet. It was all… idunno, very cryptic."

"Humm," Joey replied, leaning back on his elbows. "Well, stranger things have happened." He idly plucked a pinch of sand and let it rub out between his fingers, drifting back between us on the beach winds. "And if they ask, the answer is yes, they can stay." I couldn't help but smile.

"Gaia! How do you do that?" I asked, incredulously.

"Do what?"

"Always know what people are going to ask?"

"I could cheat and say a spirit told me, but that's not always true. You want the real answer, cub?"

"Yes, please."

He leaned up on one elbow, rolling slightly towards me. I leaned down as well, dropping to my knees in the pit formed by the V shaped pit. He glanced side to side as if about to tell a huge secret.

"I know," he said at length, "how people think."

He leaned back with a wily smile on his face, tossing an errant strand of his hair back out of his vision, assisted by the wind.

"That's it?"

"Not much to it. I noticed how much attention the two Get boys have been paying you two lately. Even on the monkey wrench crew, Magnus was watching everything Nicholas did with great… interest."

"What?" I blurted out.

"Relax. I don't think it was with *that* sort of interest. I think he was just curious and making comparison to his own life." Joey gave me a sidelong glance. "You're not the jealous type, are you?"

"I don't know," I answered honestly. "I'd like to think I don't have anything to worry about because Nick doesn't track by sight alone," I said. I know I mention it a lot, but it's a canine thing.

"Well, I don't think you have much to worry about from the younger Get. Ragnar will be the problem. If he finds out that his son is having thoughts like that, he'll be in a fit rage. He'll be looking for someone to blame."


"Some people are too proud to see the truth of things, Cody. Ragnar longs for the glory of his name and deeds to continue. He is very, well, conceited. And he does have a lot of reason to be proud of his deeds. However, he feels that anything that Magnus does will reflect more to the glory of himself than the boy's own destiny."

"And if Ragnar has some personal reason to think his son is… has committed some act he disapproves of… do you think he'll turn violent?"

"As I said, stranger things have happened. Even among the Get, Ragnar isn't known for his subtlety. Many proud adults, even some who might ordinarily seem open minded and progressive turn into reactionary bigots when the thing that they only publicly tolerate happens to their child. At that point, some become, well, highly defensive and aggressively try to blame someone else for why their son likes other boys, for example."

"That seems dumb. I don't think anyone can turn someone gay. If so, you'd think it would be easy to turn someone straight. Like, just find the switch and flip it or something."

"You must realize by now, cub, that sometimes the results weigh heavily on the equation."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means, oh wise one," Joey said, casting his eyes slightly to the puffy clouds slowly building above us, white and airy at this time. "That some parents view the acts and wants of their children as a reflection on themselves. Some would be so backwards as to assume that should, for example, their son start liking other boys in a romantic or sexual sense, that it speaks to a failure on the part of the parent."

"My parent's didn't turn me gay," I said, feeling a slight bit of anger. "And no one came to my school recruiting me or anything like that. I just am. I can't help it."

"It's in your nature. Which is why your tribe is so accepting of it."

"I've been meaning to ask you, Joey-rhya. We're accepted into the Child of Gaia tribe, even though Nick was born into a Fury household and my own background points to either Silver Fang or Glass Walker tribal past. How is it that you're still our guardian and teacher even though you're a Silent Strider?

"Two reasons. One, I was asked to do it, since both Nick's mom and Veronica are pack mates of mine. Two… well, my connection to the Changelings and a previous silver pack links me to the possible members of the next silver pack. I guess you could say there's a third reason. I pulled rank."

"Since it was you who reactivated this caern?"

"You show insight, cub," Joey smiled.

I contemplated that for a moment. Again, I'm glad that Joey-rhya is my teacher. He forces me to think for myself and even if I get it wrong, he lets me learn the wrong way so I recognize it. I just wish he would come clean on some things more directly.

"So, hypothetically," I started, still formulating my thoughts.

"Yeeees?" He prompted me.

"So, there's been a lot of talk about Phoenix packs lately. Unicorn mentioned it to Nick and me."

"You did say as much," Joey offered.

"Well, do you think that Magnus and Sven are destined for the Phoenix pack as well?"

"From everything I've heard so far concerning the prophecy, there are to be many called to such a pack. Many, not of Garou alone."

"That's not what I asked."

"Cody, you're going to find that where prophecy is concerned, the truth is only fully realized afterwards. Seems like a waste to me. If only the real meaning was known first, would save a lot of time and trouble. Simple directions are best."

"So the prophecy isn't well understood?" I had a plan forming.

"Even prophets sometimes don't know the complete story they are given to tell. The spirits are fickle that way."

"Okay. That helps."

"Really?" Joey asked, tossing me the People's Eyebrow. I tell ya, there's no winning with that look.

"You still didn't tell me how you know things people will say."

"You'll get it in time, kiddo. Learning what people think by how they move, by the expression on their faces, by the things they do and don't say, just takes time and careful observation. I think you've already got part of it. How'd things go with Robby and the bane?"

"I have the feeling you already know," I grinned. Then I went into a lengthy explanation of the events, including a very brief summary of what Kenny and I talked about afterwards. Joey, for his part, sat and listened without interrupting. When I got to the end of my narration, he simply smiled at me.

"Now do you realize what I've always seen in you?" he asked, wryly.

"A little bit. I feel more confident. It took a lot out of me, too."

"But," he pointed out, "you did succeed. And in doing that, you have grown."

"Would I have grown from failure, too?"

"Yes. There is always something positive to be gained from failure, even if it's only to make you angry enough to try again, harder."

"Just that sometimes the cost of failure is sometimes very high?"

"You gain wisdom, child," Joey grinned.

"Tell me," I began, worry surely creeping onto my face. "If I'd failed to save Robby…"

"Then this conversation wouldn't be happening. The bane would likely have killed you at the very least, probably Nicky as well."

*Likely have killed you.* That echoed in my head a moment. Reminding me of the risks involved. Life and death. Very heavy shit. Strangely, I was sort of more worried about the other consequences of screwing it up. I mean, if I failed and died and that was the only outcome, okay, so bad for me, but if it would have killed Nick too? And what about…

"Would there have been anything that could be done to save Robby?"

The pause that stretched out between us left me feeling a bit uneasy about what answer I might get.

"To stop him, maybe. Save him? That I don't know, cub. I wish I had an answer for that."

"What would you do to stop him?" I asked, gulping.

Joey-rhya simply looked at me with a sad sort of certitude, and I knew that the only solution to a Robby gone rogue from a bane possession would wind up with a dead Robby, or a dead Joey. Neither idea appealed to me.

"We're in a do or die position, is that it?" I asked.

"Life is not a do-over sport, cub. It's harsh at times, and often final. We live, we learn, we fight, we win, or we lose all. Survival of the fittest is often a matter of muscle over mind, but don't forget the mind over muscle can yield longer positive results."

I nodded, mostly because I felt the truth of what he'd meant, even if the full meaning hadn't dawned on me yet. I had a feeling that I'd come to it directly. Or it would come to me.

"But come now. You've had a victory over a powerful enemy, you and Nicky both. At the next moot, I will speak for you both."

That was good news. In Garou society, the only way to learn stuff was to prove your worthiness to learn, through deeds, showing honor, and showing wisdom. Not an easy thing to do, especially the wisdom parts. The more that other Garou valued your contributions to the whole, the more they shared with you of werewolf secrets. Of course, they started expecting more of you, too, but I guess that's the how of it among humans as well.

"I think you should take a moment and go see about your buddy JJ," Joey said. "We have enough cliath here to help with the remaining services until it's time for Rolf's circle."

"How are we going to do that, anyways?" I asked. "I thought surfer tradition said that we have a memorial at sea, on a circle of surf boards. But that's supposed to be if there's no body recovered."

"He will be interred within the ocean," Joey replied solemnly. "We have boards enough for all mourners who wish to attend."

"Oh," was all I could muster. In my mind, that meant we'd be treading out into the ocean with a body on a surf board, and coming back with one empty. I wasn't sure I wanted to see Thrasher dumped into the ocean like that. But it was his wish. It was the place he was always at home.

"His final wishes will be carried out there as well," Joey said, standing up. "Here comes Nicholas. You two should probably go check on things with your friend now. Do be careful."

"I will. And I'll let you know what happens at our meeting with the Get duo later tonight."

Joey nodded and then, glancing at the sun's reflection on the ocean, he sidestepped into the Umbra, leaving me and my Nicky alone.

"Hey sexy," Nicky said, presenting me a plate with a napkin opened over it. "Ah bring to you… the gift of meat," he said, grinning like he had something fun and naked planned.

"Good, I'm starving," I said, grinning up at him. He had a clown smile of barbecue sauce traced over his lips, with a comma shaped dollop hanging on the end of his nose and a dribbled bit on his chin. I quickly snatched up the plate and tried to keep from looking at him, which kinda irked him a bit. The surest way to get under a ragabash's skin is to ignore an obvious joke he's trying.

To be honest, though, I was really, really hungry. Even after chowing down with the Get boys just twenty minutes before, the tank was still half empty. The food helped put back some of what all the funerals earlier and the exorcism last night had taken out of me. Got to keep my strength up.

"Soooo," Nick said, by way of starting a conversation while I was filling my face. "What did Joey say?"

"We should go see about JJ," I replied between mouthfuls, looking around for something to wash down with. Hotdogs are great, but the buns and mustard can really dry you out quick in the salty sea air.

"We kinda have been puttin' it off."

"Yeah. Not like we haven't been busy." I really needed a drink. Nicky had recently become enamored of a Yankee tradition with hotdogs. Sprinkling them with celery salt. This one was packed with it a bit more than I might like.

"Well, soon as yuir tummy's full we can stretch on down the shore to his place and touch base." I looked up and Nicky was using a bottle of water against his face in an almost obscene way, his tongue licking up the side like he sometimes does to certain parts of me when we're being frisky. That was a good sign as far as I'm concerned. If he's horny again and joking and teasing me about it, then he's not letting grief and guilt get the better of him.

"Uh, is that for me?"


"Well can I have it?"

"Do you want it?" he said, his lips tracing up towards the cap in a big open shape, his nose leaning against the clear plastic. He was just joking around, I knew, but he was starting to turn me on. Not a good thing when I'm thirsty. Didn't take Nicky long to figure out my buttons, and he was hitting them in a very calculated fashion.

"Oh, baby, you know I want it," I deadpanned, keeping my voice monotone. "Oooh, yeah, you know what I like. Give it… to me."

Nicky looked over at me suddenly annoyed. "Yuir lucky ah love you," he said, handing over the bottle. "Joy killa!"

"Just keepin' you honest, Shadow Foot," I grinned back, getting him to grin as well. I chugged about half the water, feeling my tongue re-hydrate after that first gulp. I put the bottle down between us and dug into the small portion of potato salad left on the plate. He'd brought a lot of food, and I'd scarfed it down quickly, barely tasting it. Guess I should eat better, especially after working tough magic.

"You look good with your hair all blowin' round like that," he said suddenly, all pretense of joking gone. It was such a change in tone that I had to look over to see if he'd really said it. "Kinda like you were born to be a beach boy."

"Just a prep on vacation," I shrugged. "Thought it was all part of my cover."

"Maybe, but…" and he reached out and ran a hand softly through my hair. "But it does make you look nice. Natural."

"Natural?" I said, a forkful halfway to my mouth. "You know I have to dye the tips every couple of weeks."

"Ah meant more like… well, it's like you seem more natural, ah dunno. Just what ah see."

That got me to stop in mid chew. And quite suddenly, it clicked. Not my teeth, although that happened too. Something that Thrasher had said to me. "Keep your mind and your body as pure and as loose as water." *Be like water.* He might have meant it for fighting, but it suddenly made so much more sense to me, about all the things in my life.

*Be like water.* My Garou name is Speaks With Water. He wasn't just teaching me how to fight or how to deal with spirits or the Umbra or shape shifting or anything else werewolfy in nature.

*Be like water.* He was telling me I needed to be myself. He was hinting that Speaks With Water doesn't just mean I should talk to the spirits of water, but that I should speak as water. I should trust myself. Go with the flow.

*Be like water.* Be me.

"Woooff," I said around half a mouthful of potato salad and then swallowed it in one loud gulp.

"Such language, suh!" Nicky sang out, deepening his drawl comically.

"I get it now!" I said, putting the plate down. Nearby seagulls eyed the plate warily, looking for a free meal to steal.

"Get what?"

"What Rolf meant. Remember? He said be like water. Nicky, he meant… he meant to trust our own nature. To trust who we are."

"Yeah? How's that?"

"Look. Water always seeks the lowest point. It always goes to wherever it ought to be. Right?"

"Wait. Stop. Don't give me the complex analogy crap. What's the simple answer."

I took a deep breath. "Water is what we as shape shifters are. We change as the situation merits. That's what he meant, for fighting, for everything, I guess."

"Be the water?" he asked, almost to himself.


"Ah think you should be the water," Nicky said levelly, giving me his deep thought expression. I recognized it because he so rarely wears it. "Ah'm meant to be shadows, you're meant to be water. You're powerful and changeable. Ah'm untouchable and slippery and deeper than ah first appear."

I started to argue that and realized the truth of his words as well. Once again, I was kinda startled. Here I was struggling with who I was and what I was and what I was supposed to do, and my crazy, devil may care boyfriend had already figured it out for himself.

I felt a bit like the last person to get the joke.

"Rolfy really knew what he was talkin' bout though. He always said you took longer to puzzle out the deep stuff. Ah may not get all the nuances and deep mysteries, but ah know bullshit when ah smell it. He called me Captain Obvious and you Mister Fantastic. Guess he was right."


Nicky leaned over and took both my hands in his. "It's pretty simple, Glubber. Ah'm the simple one who knows what's what. You are the one who looks deeper, finds the real truth. I can find the trail, you map it."

And just as I was figuring out what Nicky was saying, something else appeared in my brain that should have been obvious. Something that we should have looked into right when we first heard of it.

"The maps!" I stood suddenly, feeling the need to walk in small circles as the revelation washed through me.

"Whut?" Nick asked, confused.

"I think I figured something out. Something important. Remember the maps that Robby and Kenny have?"

"The Harry Potter maps?"

"Yeah. Oh, Gaia, I'm so stupid. I should have seen this sooner."


"Shadow, water, maps, SkyFire, what a dolt I've been."

"If you got somethin' important to say, could you just come out and say it, cuz ah'm seriously not getting' what you're sayin'."

"Nick, the maps aren't separate. They're layers. Like, uh, like…."

"Like onions?"

"Well, okay, guess that works. We've been thinking of the maps as being two different things. But they're not. They're just different parts of the same thing. We have to figure out how they work together."

"You got all that from Rolfy's be like water speech?"

"There's more to it, but it's the start. Like you said, puzzles and mysteries."

"Great. Now Ah know what to get ya'll for Christmas. A Rubik's Cube."

I cocked a none-too-pleased look back at Nick, my bangs partly in the way. "Someone's gone to a lot of trouble to put parts of the real clue in our hands. More to the point, the parts of the clue are just enough to make us need to look for the other parts. I need to see those maps again."

"Okay, we can do that afta checkin' in with JJ. Keith still has 'em over at the Nymph, right?"

"Yeah. Damn, for beach bums, we sure have a full schedule."

"Our hippie elders will be so proud," Nick said, brushing off the sand as he stood. "So, JJ's?"

"Yeah. Oh by the way," I said, and then launched into telling him about the coded conversation with Magnus and Sven. Oddly, Nick took the story in without comment. Usually, he's chock full of side remarks and subtle acknowledgements. When I finished, he was also oddly silent.

"So what do you think?" I asked, slightly put off by his silence.

"Ah think we'll have to deal with it more later. We're being tailed. Don't look back."

"How can you tell?"

"I can smell him. Wind's behind us and he's not botherin' to stay out of the air frum us."

"Do we know who it is?"

"Not human. Could be Garou."

"Could be?"

"Well, there is a whole beach fulla folks sun bathin' and playin' in the sand and water, not to mention about a few hundred guest Garou in the caern too. You try to pick one scent outta all that, plus the ocean smells. Ah'm lucky ah could get that much."

"Okay, so…. So we keep on to JJ's or what?"

"Let's lose 'em in the arcade," Nick suggested, digging his paws into the deep baggy pockets of his tan cargo shorts. The wind was blowing harder, shifting and lifting his mullet bangs. It exposed more of his forehead, showed off his profile. I felt myself inhale at how, well, noble he looked, in that moment. How striking. I had to shake my head to think clearly.

"Them? I thought it was a him not a them." We picked up the pace a little as we passed the patio leading up to where JJ and his father were staying.

"Ya'll ain't makin' my job easier by squawkin' like you know anythin' 'bout baseball. The simple fact is that the Oriels suck!"

"What?! Don't change the subject by talking about the Oriels! Not like the Braves have seen the shy side of a championship in years either."

"Least we've been in the playoffs in the last ten," he countered. Why all of a sudden we were talking baseball completely went over my head. Unless this was some ploy to not be overheard. I noticed that people were making it plain that they weren't looking at us while we were shouting back and forth about sports teams.

"If you count anything they did last year as a playoff run, you're sadly mistaken. Atlanta wouldn't know how to support a winning team if you gave them directions and a pack of hounds!"

"Baltimore's last great team left town, and then they stole the Browns, who still suck." He pushed me hard, getting me to have to rebalance on one foot for a moment.

"Yeah, tell that to the Ravens' Super Bowl rings, jerk face!" I quickly pushed him back, hard, which wound up pushing him into the arcade. At the last possible second, he grabbed a fist full of my shirt, rudely twisting it, and dragged me into the arcade with him. Instantly we ducked to the left and around the staircase to the upper level.

"Balcony?" I asked.

"Rooftops," he replied, nodding. We bolted past the upstairs bathroom entrances and out onto the balcony. There were no kids hanging around up there, even though there were plenty of crushed out cigarettes up there. The balcony was where kids came to smoke between quarter spending sprees.

We leapt out over the balcony railing, such feats becoming second nature to me, and landed roughly on the roof of the strip mall beside the arcade. I jumped with my arms wide, feet first. Nicky was showing off a bit and he pulled a front flip and landed in a shoulder roll. I guess it was less of a rough landing for him than me, I took all the shock in my legs. We quickly moved about twenty yards across the strip mall roof and ducked used a tall metal lamp post to slide back to street level, like firemen on a fire pole.

"Ah think we lost 'em," Nick said, his eyes roaming the street as I regained pavement under my paws.

"Lost *them?* I thought it was a who, not a them?" I asked, emphasizing the "them."

"See for yourself," Nick said, peering around the corner. "Chuckles and Knuckles. They don't know which way we went. They's so twisted 'round they can't see straight." He leaned back and looked me right in the eyes. "You were brilliant."

"They wont be searching long. Think they were waiting for us to show up at JJ's?"

"Mah very thought. When we got ten doors down, they dropped on our tails. They picked up pace when we passed JJ's rental. It's a sure bet they put 2 and 2 together."

"And probably got 5," I deadpanned. "We should make a break for it while they're still inside."

"Yeah, okay." And we were off again, going back down the boardwalk, onto the beach and past the rows of houses until we got to JJ's place.

"So, you said definitely not human?" I asked as we passed the house painted hideously the wrong color yellow at the edge of the boardwalk.

"Possibly. More like not totally human, least not anymore. It's what tipped me off that we was bein' followed."

"You're nose hasn't been wrong before," I said, sighing loudly. "So if they're not totally human anymore, what are we dealing with? Are Chuckles and Knuckles formori?"

"Wish ah could rightly say," Nick said, his voice as serious as I felt.

It was the word formori that hung on both our minds. Without getting too deep into the science and/or mythology of Garou cosmology, formori are creations of the Wyrm. They are creatures that have been somehow perverted, twisted into mockeries of true beings. They often have some sort of powers, usually disgustingly so, and all are in some way polluted and vile. Not just externally, but in spirit and in mind.

Sadly, lots of humans are easily swayed by the Wyrm, seduced by it and their own darker desires. When you are given power based on your own evil intents, it magnifies your capacity to do worse things. And often, where formori are concerned, their powers and twists reflect each other. It's a nasty cycle.

They are the horror stories that older Garou tell cubs around campfires at night. The thought of facing formori alone sent a shiver down my tail, and even though I was in human form, I still felt it all the way to the tip. The backup thought that somehow JJ had to deal with a formor in a sexual way nearly made me barf. Poor kid.

So we shuffled up the sandy back yard to the beach house deck, trying hard not to look like we were watching for trouble. It's harder than it looks. Nicky's a master at it. I'm still learning.

A quick knock at the door and a few heartbeats of waiting and we saw JJ's face again. He opened the door and let us in quickly. I hadn't noticed but the sky was running cloud races and a shadow passed over the deck as we went inside.

"Hey, guys," JJ greeted us. His smile was infectious and I felt my own smile spread as we stepped inside. Nicky immediately went dramatic and fell over backwards on the couch, his feet flopping up like he was laying in a hammock.

"Hi, JJ. Been a while. How's things?" I asked, slapping him on the shoulder. When did I start doing that? That was almost like a jock move.

"It's been pretty good. Dad's taken me around Boston and Providence, and up into New Hampshire and such. It was cool meeting his school friends and their kids."

"We was kinda worried bout you."

"I didn't mean to make ya'll worry, Nick. I know I was kinda a dork before, you know, when ya'll told me you were superheroes and all. But since then… I hardly know where to begin. We went up to New Hampshire and stayed with Dad's friend Gary and… I met Chad!"

"Chad?" Nick and I said as one. We swapped a look before refocusing on JJ again.

"Yeah. Ohmigod, he's soooo cool."

"I get the feelin' that there's a lot of feelin' goin' on in Chad's bedroom," Nicky said, lifting that damned eyebrow twice, rapidly. I'm about to give up even trying to do that anymore.

JJ's face flushed red, showing off a small constellation of freckles across his cheeks and nose. "Ya might could say that," He admitted, blushing further down his neck. "We kinda messed around. And like, we fell asleep holding each other. It was very *nice,*" JJ said, stumbling to find "nice." His eyes took on a bit of a distant gleam, as if he were focusing on something visual in the recent past.

"Too bad he lives so far away," I stupidly blurted out. Nick shot me a surprised and mortified look, but I just couldn't stop the words coming out of my mouth. "Sounds like you guys had fun. Maybe he's good for you."

"He is good for me. I never felt like that before with anyone. Not the sex stuff, but like…" he trailed, sinking deeper into the wingback chair. "Like we had these deep conversations. Really late into the night, just laying, touching, talking. I cain't describe it no better than to say it was…"

"Perfect," Nick offered softly, a subtle backspin on his words triggering a small frown from me. I turned my eyes off to the silent television in the corner of the room. I could see Nick and JJ reflected there, continuing to discuss the "magical" and "romantic" and "awesome" events between JJ and Chad. The change in our friend was like night and day.

Don't get me wrong. I wasn't jealous of JJ. In fact I was fantastically glad that he'd caught a break and maybe found someone to connect with at that ultimate intimate level. But it was a level that Nick and I hadn't found together yet, despite how much we loved each other. My mind drifted back to Kenny's words, briefly, and came to the conclusion that while Kenny had been right, he'd also been wrong. *It can usually wait,* he'd said, but he forgot to mention that it was also inevitable and far more important than almost any other act two people in love can do.

And soon, I'd have to have that talk with my own boyfriend, and put that inevitability into action. I wasn't ready just that second, maybe even not that day. But it was high time that Nick and I finally went all the way, together.

It's funny to note that in the moment you decide something, all the fear, anticipation, worry, angst, trepidation, excitement, and lust sort of leave you. I guess once the decision is made, the body relaxes and prepares itself for the proper time. I know my mind quieted considerably at that moment. With a nod and a sigh, I turned my attention back to the here and now, trying to pick up on the conversation.

"… so, with the new deals Daddy put in with the local horse breeders, we'll be comin' out here more often, like every couple a weeks, and I'll get to stay with Chad."

"That sounds great, JJ. I'm so happy for you," I said, although my voice wasn't entirely in it. This got me a slightly worried look from both JJ and my Nicky. "Sorry, my head's not entirely here," I said, by way of explanation. "There was, well, I guess you could say a death in the family. I don't mean to damper your great news, but we kinda need some info from you."

"From me?" our cowboy friend returned, his eyes shifting between me and Nick before he sat forward on the edge of the chair.

"Fraid so, pardner," Nick managed in his best western drawl. "It's about Charlie and his bully pack."

"Did they… Kill someone?"

I nodded sagely. Well, I hope it looked sagely, anyways. I didn't want to spook JJ, but his information might be crucial. JJ turned two shades paler at my nod. He swallowed hard and composed himself.

"We need to know where they hang out," I said, leaning over my knees on my elbows. "You see, it's not just you that they're hurting. We're part of a big investigation. I can't get into all the details yet."

"Because it's a superhero thing?"

"Xactly," Nicky said, rolling on his side on the couch. "It's a big deal, but we gotta keep it quiet so like normal folk don't panic and the bad guys don't know which way we's comin' from, savvy?"

"Yeah. But what can I do to help. I'm nobody?"

"Firstly, you're someone to us, JJ."

"And ah bet someone to Chad as well."

"Right, so stop putting yourself down. Secondly," I began, sighing. "We believe that Charlie and his group are part of a, uh," I said, hoping he wasn't catching how I was trying to string together enough truth without piercing the veil further.

"Domestic terrorist cult," Nick slid in smoothly, not even interrupting so much as inserting words that matched the situation.

"Right," I said. "They're probably low level recruits, but this group is likely responsible for the deaths of over two dozen people in the last month." Okay, so it wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the whole truth. Whole enough that I didn't feel guilty about not telling him exactly how it was true.

"An' we need to observe them a bit and figure out how best to put a stop to all this killin' an' stuff. An' for that ta happen, we gotta know where they live, an' where they operate from."

"I thought ya'll knew where the hideout was already?" JJ said, as if stating the obvious. "Everyone knows where they go."

"Where's that?" I asked.

"The old hotel. It's like they have a club house or somethin' up on the 5th floor and roof. They took me there once for… you know," our buddy said, his eyes drifting away from us in shame. "They got power and water and plumbing and everything there. They even got like all kinds of stolen stuff. Car radios, computers, tourist cameras. I think they steal credit cards and stuff to keep them in money."

"They don't live with their parents?" Nick asked, his thoughts following mine.

"They said they's all runaways. But I never saw no runaways living so high on the hog. They got pool tables up there. More than one! And they got like all kindsa exercise equipment and swords and like a place to make metal stuff."

"They have a forge?" Nick and I said as one. Pieces were starting to drop into place. If this was the source of the Cold Iron and silver hybrid weapons, as well as the source of those Cold Iron clubs and staffs that could kill Robby and Kenny's kind…

"Yeah, I guess. It's on the 4th floor. While I was there, I was forbidden to go to the 3rd floor and ta never go above the 5th without one of them. Not like they let me do anything around there." JJ made like he had more to say, but snapped his mouth shut. Something told me what he had decided not to say was something that wasn't important mission data, but was something more motivational to Nick and myself.

"They took you there often, did they?" I asked, letting my persuasion power push a little at JJ's mind. His eyes looked up to me and he was shivering slightly. I reached out and drew his head to my chest, not even aware that I'd left my seat. JJ sobbed for several minutes before he regained control. Poor kid looked like he'd been struck under the chin by a professional boxer.

"They… they have a place," he began, "on the 5th floor. It's near their computer set ups. The smell… I thought for sure they were going to kill me the first time I was there. I thought, that smells kinda like the back end of the pig barn back home. Where the pigs get slaughtered." He took a deep shuddering breath before continuing.

"They got all kinds of things in that there. Stuff I never even dreamed existed. Huge and strange sex toys. A big wheel that they can strap you to and you're helpless so they can hurt you or fuck any part of you they want. Chains and handcuffs from the ceiling, more comin' outta the ground. Some kinda circus swing thing, even something that looked like a hammock made outta chains. There's a drain in the floor so that when they hose the place down it don't stay on the floor and get into other rooms." The light sort of left JJ's eyes for a moment before he, haltingly, spoke again. "They… did things to me in there. And put it on camera."

Nick and I exchanged a glance. We'd both reached the same conclusion. Doing things on webcams was one thing. I mean, if it's a consequence you want to face, you make that trip yourself and live with it. And usually, at least as I understand it, if you choose to do naked sexy stuff with a webcam, sending it anywhere, that was your choice. And you likely wouldn't hurt yourself.

This was different. What Charlie and his group had done to JJ went beyond rape, humiliation, assault and violation. Somehow, they were feeding off of JJ's natural sex hungers, perverting his drive for personal contact, and then profiting from it somehow by distributing the depravity they'd performed on him to other sick twists. I get the feeling that Charlie and his crew enjoyed hurting people especially if they got sex tingles at the same time.

**IF** it had been JJ's choice, that might have been one thing. If he'd somehow profited from those actions, even though it was a heck of a mental and moral stretch for me, I could understand it. Free will, and all that.

But what these guys, these murdering, raping, stealing assholes had done to JJ was more than just steal his innocence and pride and joy in life. They'd done more than even those horrible crimes suggest. They'd ravaged his entire being, heart, mind, body and soul. And they'd done it simply because they could and it gained them… Well, something. Something foul and dark.

I was beginning to get a very bad feeling about the whole situation. A quick scan of JJ with my magic sense proved strangely enlightening. Something was different about him, and not in a positive way.

On instinct, I reached out and lifted the hem of JJ's shirt. He tried to sit back and tug the shirt back down, but I was very quick. He hadn't expected it. And then Nick and I both gasped.

"JJ," I managed to breathe out in shock. The pale skin along his belly was badly bruised, with what appeared to be tiny scars marring the purpling flesh. That is until you looked closer at the scars and saw them for what they really were. Not scars so much as carvings.

Garou glyphs! Our language carved in small scale into his bruised skin.

"Who hurt you like this?" Nick asked, his jaw clenching.

"She said no one would be able to see it. Only special folk would know."

"Who?" Nick repeated, trying to keep the anger out of his voice.

"A girl. And a boy. Both of them older than us and Charlie and his gang. They… They use fire, and a big bright knife. Sometimes they carve these spinnin' whirly things on their own skin. Sometimes they mark me or Charlie's folk. Please don't tell Chad or my Daddy!"

"I can't promise that, JJ," I said, as Nick closed his eyes, shaking his head in anger and sadness. "We have to know, JJ. It's important. Did they tell you what those marks are for?"

"I know what they is," Nick responded before JJ could. "He's been marked. More than that. I know what the glyphs say, Glub-glub."

JJ's voice was almost a whisper, as if hiding further shame. "It's okay. She said it would help me heal after all the painful sex stuff they did to me. Especially when they needed to drain blood from my, uh… balls and junk."

"They… did that… to you?" I asked, completely shocked at the horrors they'd visited upon this kid.

"They probly said you had the sweet blood, didn't they?" Nick asked.

"How'd you know?"

I let the shirt fall back, giving Nicky a questioning glance.

"Cody," Nick said, solemnly. "He's bein' used for raw materials. For dark magicks. Ah think we may have a bigger problem than we suspected."

"What do you mean?"

"Those marks on his belly, yeah, they say things like regenerations an' sealing up an' stuff like that." He Cajun accent was almost flat normal at this point, which usually meant he was trying very very hard to not give in to his Rage. "But they also mention several Wyrm things by name."

That revelation caught me off guard.

"An' if what he's sayin's true about who put the marks there, we still got some old pals kicking around."


"From Virginia. 'Member?!"

And when that clicked in my head, I knew things were far more dire than ever before.

"Can't be, Nick. We watched them burn! They simply CAN'T be alive!"

"Shouldn't is one thing, Glub-glub. But you and ah both know that cain't usually ain't in the vocabulary. Face it, my Speaks With Water. Brittney and Gene musta lived through the fire. Escaped into the Umbra or something. Either way, they're back, an' my guess is they know where we live."

The images came back to me, along with the smells. That rented camper burning. The sight of my parent's backs as I pushed them out, just before the thing exploded.

And worse, the images of that pack of Black Spiral Dancers who had been sent to recruit or kill me and take over that caern in the back hills of Virginia. Gene, tall, constantly riding the Rage, thin as a whip and about as cruel. Brittney, a crazy chick who had a seriously twisted relationship with fire. Their two partners, Hank and Dean, who Nick and I had fought and killed. Hank's brutal nature, his apparent enjoyment of inflicting pain, slowly. Dean's batshit crazy giggling and twisted crinos form. Evil werewolves are hideously scary at times. That face haunted my nightmares. Thought I was past that.

JJ simply smiled, almost stupidly.

"And they have him as a thrall, don't they. A puppet."

"Fraid so. Don't mean we still don't have to help him. That carvin' and bruisin' is a nasty piece of work. We need to tawk to da elders again."

"I agree. And this time, we bring JJ with us."

"I get to see the other superheroes?" JJ said in a sort of dazed way. It was then that I realized that he was truly under some kind of spell. Poor kid wasn't himself. Hopefully, once we figured how to take the spell or curse or whatever off him, he'd have no memories of the horrors he'd been through. The fact that such a mercy might also wipe out his good memories of Chad (if that actually happened, the cynical part of my mind conceded) made me a little sad.

We were behind the 8-ball and needed answers, quick. Nick and I packed JJ up a few things, got some water in him and busted down the beach back to the caern. And we would have gotten there and made a huge mistake if it weren't for…

Well, it's hard to describe. With all the sudden impulse decisions and odd revelations and reality bending left turns outta nowhere, something in the back of my head screamed "Slow down! Think!" We Garou believe strongly in past lives, ancestor intervention, spirit warnings, those sort of things. So I knew not to ignore my gut and my brain when both were sounding the same alarms.

"Uh, Nick. We're forgetting something."

"What?" he asked, his head on a swivel.

"First rule of Fight Club: we don't talk about Fight Club," I said, hoping his highly sarcastic mind would put it together. The thought in my mind was simple. We had to help JJ, not only for our own better interests, but for his. But we could also had to make sure the caern was protected. It was one of the tenants of the Litany, our werewolf nation rules. "Ye shall take no action that causes a caern to be violated." Caerns are part of the mystical nature of Mother Earth herself, and if enemies gain access to or destroy a caern, it's the same as killing part of the Earth itself. Kinda a big no-no.

"oh, right," Nick whispered. "Maybe we oughta find a meetin' place and have help come to us?"

"Or at least call in for advice first," I said, digging into my pocket for my cell phone.

"Or do that," Nick agreed. "We're kinda vulnerable out here in the open. Let's duck into a shop for a bit." Nick grabbed JJ's hand and practically dragged him back towards Center. We wound up walking into the candy shop just as the dude working there was laying out a fresh batch of maple fudge and doing all that crazy, awesome hand work with it on the big water cooled table. I finally got a signal through and heard Joey's voice whisper harshly to someone near him as he brought the phone up to his ear.

"Yes, Cody?"

"Hey, uh, we got a problem. Our buddy, JJ, he's… infected," I said, wincing at my choice of code word. "He could use some help, just not sure if bringing him home right now is the right thing or if we need to take him to, uh, to, um, the clinic?"

"How badly is he infected?" Joey asked, apparently an old hand at speaking in code.

"I think he's run across our old friends Gene and Brittney. Wouldn't you know it that Brittney gave him a batch of something," I tried playing it off like this sort of thing happens all the time. "We're at the candy shop down Center, by the batting cages. You got any ideas what we should do?"

"Stay there. I'll be along shortly with someone who knows about infections. And Cody?"


"Good thinking. We'll talk later about this, but I think you guys made the right decision in asking for help."

"Thanks Joey. Hey, before you hang up, we did get some information out of JJ. I think we might have a clue or two that you'll be interested in."

"Sounds good. We'll talk to you in a few minutes." The line closed and I looked around to where Nick had JJ sitting at one of the tables at the back of the shop, where he could see the door easily. I joined them as the waitress came over. We quickly ordered cokes and three small caramel ice cream sundaes, Nick asking if they had any tabasco sauce to shake on top of his.

"Joey's on the way. He's gonna bring a friend."

"Cool," Nick said, eyeing JJ warily. "I texted Kenny. Robby's doing okay. He's still resting and whatever. No signs of relapse."

"Good." I cast my eyes around. From my seat, beside Nick, I could see clear across the cul-de-sac and partway through the corner towards the alley between the candy shop and the batting cages. Great sight lines, brick wall behind us, Nick and I felt secure enough to relax a little bit. Ice cream deserves proper attention, after all. Even bad ice cream, which this wasn't.

It was kinda weird sitting there eating calmly while so much of me was a few steps from going major Rager. We'd learned so much stuff that made me angry, determined and in a lot of ways sad, just talking with JJ. And we'd discovered that the enemy was right under our noses the whole time. Or right over them, if you consider that the old hotel was a multi-story building. I started thinking of it as a towering nest of nasty yellow jackets.

For those that don't know, yellow jackets are a nasty sort of ground bee. They are notoriously aggressive and territorial. They also have very painful venom in their stings and can sting multiple times. They also have a nasty bite and have been known to strip the flesh off small animals, working together. They tunnel underground for their nests, and can claim a large area.

How do I know all this? Ancient secrets told me by ancestor spirits, maybe? Garou lore passed down to young cubs as an example of how you should respect even the small things in nature? Not this time. When I was 7, walking home from school, a friend of mine stepped a little too close to a yellow jacket colony. He was stung 47 times in the space of a few seconds, as we both ran away in terror and pain. I only got hit three times, but I will always remember the pain that those few stings left in me. My friend was in the hospital for three days recovering. Three days.

So I have a respect and hatred of the little nasties. Small angry things in groups should always be taken seriously. Pack tactics. Gave me something to think about while dipping my spoon into caramel and sweet vanilla bean ice cream.

Joey and Rolf's Satyr buddy Skeeter stepped into the ice cream shop just as three small girls and their chaperone father left. Joey made a show of buying a few pounds of fudgy goodness while Skeeter stepped up to us. The surfing Satyr pulled up a chair and grinned at Nick and I, although I could tell his heart wasn't really in it.

Like us, he was grieving for Rolf. "Sup, Groms?" he asked, ruffling Nick's hair. "You boys keeping it real?"

"Real as it gets, dude," Nick replied. JJ looked up from his ice cream with a kind of dopey expression.

"What's he been smoking?" Skeeter smiled. "Maybe I should get me some 'a that!"

"It comes at a cold price," I replied, letting my spoon clink in the empty glass from my sundae.

"Hard and cold," Nick said, savagely, pushing his own glass away. He clearly wasn't feeling it. I think, in a way, having Skeeter here reminded Nick of how Rolf had saved him, sacrificed for him. There are debts you can't ever repay, no matter how much you wish to. Nick was feeling that.

"Gotcha, gotcha," Skeeter nodded. "Well, when you grommets are ready, we'll get little man here someplace safe."

"Oh, right," I said, realizing my manners. "Skeeter, this is JJ. He's got some troubles and we're trying to help him." I turned to our cowboy friend to see him staring out the glass storefront of the ice cream shop. "JJ, this is Skeeter. Just don't call him Patrick and things will be okay."

"Ouch! Don't harsh me with my government name, Cody the kid. I got a rep to live down to."

"Skeets is gonna get you someplace cool, JJ. Trust him, he's one 'a us."

"They're here," JJ said, his face going pale. I turned and followed his gaze. Across the cul-de-sac, through a constant stream of happy beach goers and the occasional car or motorcycle, I could see Charlie and Tony, or Chuckles and Knuckles as we'd come to know them, standing with several of their pack around them. Their eyes were drilled right into where Nick, JJ, Skeeter, and I sat. Joey made for the door, looking into his bag of sweet smelling stuff and that seemed to be Skeeter's signal.

"Let's roll boys."

"We have an audience."

"Yeah, saw them gnarly dudes as we came in. Any way you wanna play this?"

"Yup," Nick replied. "You and Joey hang and rattle a sec. We'll distract Chuck and his pack. You guys slip away when we move."

"We'll do what?" I said, sounding even more high pitched than normal.

"Oh, don't go acting like you got good sports in Baltimore again, ya pussy," Nick said, standing. He headed for the door, pushing past Joey like he was upset.

"You don't get to run away from a comment like that you dumb red-neck!" I shouted, bolting after him. We started arguing as we hit the street, making as much of a commotion as we could. People stopped their happy ambling to listen to the two of us throwing down on each other's hometown sports teams' prowess (or lack thereof) and it gave Joey and Skeeter a chance to bust out with JJ, still kinda star struck, in tow. Joey patted me on the shoulder as they left. I never saw which way they left or how they got JJ out of there, but by the time Nick and I had crossed to the middle area of the cul-de-sac, they were well and truly gone.

And we stopped arguing long enough to look right at Chuck and his gang. I swear, I was feeling my Rage at that moment, but Nick's brilliant plan to use the crowd to cover Joey and Skeeter's escape kept me focused. Kept me concentrating on what I needed to do in the moment.

So, like, there we were. Less than twenty feet of hot asphalt between us, staring down, about thirty feet from their "headquarters" and it's just Nick and me. The looks coming at us were sharp as daggers. We returned them, feeling every bit as invincible as if we were covered in armor, loaded with tank guns and on fire. In werewolf culture, a stare down usually results in someone getting throated. If it doesn't get resolved right away, it leads to a confrontation eventually.

We held their complete attention, the whole bully pack now forming up behind Charlie like they were planning on making a move. Nick, in typical ragabash fashion, grabs his nuts and flips the bullies the finger. I simply point at them, my finger moving back and forth between Chuck and Tony, then I brought my thumb up to my neck and made that universally understood gesture across my throat.

It got the reaction we were looking for. They started to make a move, as a group. I believe that they were so antagonized by our little performance, they would have openly attacked us. For a moment, I was almost afraid they might.

A police car came around the end of the round at center. The cops stopped between us and Chuck's bully pack. That's when Nick and I took a moment and jumped into the Umbra, vanishing into thin air. Fortunately, the cop car had a mirror we could both stare at and that helped make the step into the Umbra that much faster. We wasted no time and booked back to the caern.

We had a funeral to prepare for. Putting Chuck and his upchucks in their place would have to wait for later.

Moonrise saw a procession of Garou and a few other guests among the Satyrs that lived nearby heading towards the ocean. The sun was just about to drop behind the western hills, leaving the sky a mottled mix of oranges and purples. The clouds were high, building slowly. Likely gonna have rain the next morning, but at that point of the evening, it was like the sky itself was watching as we gathered to bid Rolf goodbye.

Nick and I stayed near Joey, who was among several of the elders who held extra surf boards for the folks who were bearing Rolf to shore. We helped hand out some of the other boards to mourners not familiar with surfer memorial traditions. Many brought their own, wearing small wreaths of flowers either on their heads or around their necks.

Several of the mourners brought instruments. Guitars, ukuleles, bongos, more traditional looking drums with Garou markings, flutes, one Fianna tribe Garou with a bagpipe and Rolf's buddy Skeeter playing a syrinx (that Pan flute thing). They played Waltzing Matilda at first as the group gathered, but shifted it to Danny Boy as we got moving. Rolf's pack mates, pretty much most of the elders of our sept, carried his body out to the shore on his beloved surf board, draped in a clean white sheet, flowers tucked in around his form. We paddled into the surf, which was strangely subdued. We paddled out deep, barely keeping the lights of Salisbury Beach Center and Newburyport in sight.

We sidestepped into the Umbra, which is a lot harder and easier while riding a surfboard. Harder because using the board isn't exactly second nature to me, and easier because the gauntlet between the spirit world and static reality is very thin out away from land. Made me wonder if it's so thin out here, maybe stuff finding easy places to go into the Umbra explains the Bermuda Triangle disappearances. Sometimes I think too much, though.

The many mourners gathered in circles, out beyond the point where the incoming waves started breaking, riding the swells. Rolf's body was towed into the middle of the circle, which was saying something since the whole grouping was four or five surf boards deep around the center. Many of the other mourners bore tiki torches as we paddled out, giving a soft orange gleam to the waves. 'Roni looked majestic astride her board, actually sitting on the thing in Hispo form. You'd never guess she was older than the World Wars. Most of the rest of us were in full Crinos form, secure that no humans would see us perform this final farewell.

The three elders plus Joey-rhya kept Rolf's board in the center, literally doggy paddling to stay afloat. He looked so peaceful, so relaxed, just lying there, decorated for his funeral. My mind flashed back to the first time I'd seen him. We'd only been at the new caern a few days when Joey opened up the moonbridge to a caern in Australia. Rolf hopped across with nothing but his board under one arm and a slung backpack draped over the other. He looked wild to me, shaggy and unkempt, like the only water he'd washed in lately involved sea foam and close encounters with crabs and starfish. His always floating hair like a lion's mane, he smiled reached forwards with his hand and gave both Nick and me a firm shake.

"Hey, Cub. You might talk to water," he said, grinning with that megawatt smile, "but I'll teach you to walk on it!"

Somehow, I knew he fully intended to. And anyone watching Rolf surf knew that the big beach bum could *dance* on water.

But now, my water walking lessons incomplete, we were about to return him to the great sister ocean he loved so. I couldn't help but tear up. He was like the uncle I never had. I learned so much about life from Rolf. I learned so much about myself and what it means to be Garou from him. More than just my training was incomplete now. Part of my life felt like there were whole sentences missing.

Beside me, Nick sat solemnly as well. He was usually the first to offer some joke or observation to lighten the mood. Sadly, even Nicky knew that this was a time for other emotions. He absently fingered the necklace I'd made for him, the smoky glass bead at its center slick now with sea spray as the boards lifted over an incoming swell.

"We are here," Thunder-Paws-rhya stated, speaking the Garou tongue even in Hispo form, "to return our brother to the waves he loved, and to the heart of the great mother, Gaia."

Near Thunder-Paws, another elder began a slow drum beat on a leather skinned bongo, tapping out a slow heart-beat like rhythm with a rounded mallet. The rite master began the opening ritual, often called calling the winds, or calling the corners. It was meant to focus all of our attention to the funeral rite to come. It also invited the spirits to bless this ceremony. After calling the corners, the primary rite master called for Unicorn, who was not only our Tribal totem, but had been Rolf's personal totem and the secondary totem of his pack.

As the call to welcome the spirits ended, I unconsciously found my hand straying to the unicorn horn at my waist, tucked into the side of my swim suit so that it poked out the leg hole on the left side. It seemed to throb with the calling of the spirits, and I knew, somehow, that Unicorn himself was watching this ceremony closely, even if he chose to remain invisible. Looking around, I noticed several of my tribe mates seemed to feel Unicorn's presence as well.

'Roni spoke again, her voice still strong and regal, although a subtle tremor in her tone spoke volumes about her emotions. Rolf had been a packmate of hers. He'd helped re-establish the sept here, the community. Obviously, his death affected her greatly.

"We give thee back unto the waters, Thrasher-rhya. Back to the waters you loved so." she said. "We celebrate your life and your deeds, but more than that, we honor your name in the ancient ways."

With that, she shifted to Crinos, the surf board under her drifting a little deeper into the water, and she tossed her flower wreath into the center of the circle, landing it right on Rolf's hands, crossed over his chest. As the wreath fell, she tilted back her head, and let loose with a keening, deep, sad howl. It was long, a held note with slight quavering, showing her grief in the most elemental way a Garou could.

From behind us, and all around the circle, wreaths flew. They formed graceful, Frisbee-like arcs as they soared to the area where Rolf's body floated. Each ring of flowers was punctuated by another howl, each one of different pitch and tone, merging, distorting, even counter-pointing each other in a rising wolfsong.

Nick and I threw our wreaths together, managing to land them on Rolf's board. We were in the innermost ring of the circle, so it wasn't a far cast. We both shifted to Glabro and howled as well. Nick's voice took a deeper tone than mine, certainly deeper than I'd have given him credit for. I started around mid range, but my weird high-pitched tone carried through into my Glabro form, so my sound was like half an octive higher. Still, sounding our howls together seemed to add something to the wolfsong.

When the howl had lasted a good long time, I noticed that the moon had risen. It seems that Luna was going to observe the passing of Thrasher/Rolf as well. I noticed that the moonlight reflected especially brilliantly on the klaive clasped in Rolf's crossed hands, mixing with the torchlight. Somehow it all seemed appropriate.

"Speaks With Water," 'Roni commanded, as the wolfsong fell off. "Rolf was my packmate, but he was also your teacher. I think it would be appropriate if you did the honors."

"I will honor my teacher, and all those who honor him, Thunder-Paws-rhya," I replied and closed my eyes. I reached deep into the flowing Gnosis of the world and focused. With a subtle push and a silent prayer to the spirits that I do this right, I summoned a fire spirit. The little ember appeared in my palm, dancing back and forth.

"So much water," it said to me, acting a little nervous. "Don't let me fall in!"

"I will be careful with you, small friend," I said, bowing to him. "I have a small task for you, if you will grant it."

"What do you ask of me, Speaks With Water?"

"Our brother has passed into the beyond. All that remains is to return him to the waters he loves. Can you help us?"

"You need me to cleanse his flesh and fur?"

"If you could."

"This is easy. I will give you the power to call on me for such. You are a very kind and honorable person. I trust you will not abuse my power?" the spirit asked, expecting an answer.

"I take most seriously your greatness and generosity, small flame. I know what help you can be, and what harm you can do if provoked. I shall always respect what your power is capable of."

"Very well. I will leave here now, but we shall talk again, young Garou."

"I thank you."

A tingling began in the back of my mind, mirrored by a tingling in my palm. The little flame spirit left, but I could still feel its power with me. I pointed my palm towards the body of my lost mentor, and with tears I didn't know I was crying, I let the power of fire flow from me.

The burst of flame was pale blue, with differing blue hues scattered throughout its substance. The arc seemed to touch gently onto Rolf's surfboard, and then surrounded his body, encircling it rapidly.

As I called the arc of blue flame back to my hand, Rolf's body took fire, despite the dampness from the ocean. The fire grew, and began consuming him. All around me, the gathered mourners began to howl again. It was a plaintive, soul-deep sound of rising voices, drifting over the waves. Only the sound of the fire and the distant crashing of waves on the shore and the soaring cries of seagulls mixed with the second wolfsong.

I don't know how long we stayed out there, howling for Rolf, howling for all those we'd lost. But what I do remember is that when the body and board slipped under the waves, there was a deep shimmering of silver in the water. Like a bright light in a swimming pool at night. It seemed to go down as Rolf sank beneath the waves.

"Goodbye, Thrasher-rhya," I heard Nick say beside me, his voice catching with his own tears, hoarser now with all the howling out in the salty air.

"Seeya, Rolf," I said. Nick and I just looked at each other for a moment and we both reached out at the same time, just holding hands. Other Garou around us also started holding hands, forming a series of circles. Nearest the middle were Veronica, Jasmine (Rolf's sister), Ragnar, Joey, the two of us, Magnus and Sven, Nick's Mom, and Mephi, as well as about six other werewolves I didn't recognize, but based on their sizes and the amount of decoration they wore, obviously highly ranked.

I should point out, Ragnar and his sons were well away from Nick's moms and both Nick and me. I think several of those present realized that Ragnar's presence was more because he pulled rank than because he and Rolf had been friends. They also recognized that Ragnar wasn't completely happy about two low wolves being so close to the ring of honor. Odd how that opinion didn't extend to his own cubs, huh?

'Roni made to close out the ritual, when the waters grew warmer and brighter, almost burning with Luna's clear glow. Many of the assembled Garou grew worried. I had the feeling that this was something unusual for a surfer funeral, much less a Garou final rite.

Unicorn stepped out of the water, literally shaking the ocean off his mane as he walked up to the surface. He stood before the assembled mourners, looking around. Many of the visiting Garou were startled, never having seen such a powerful spirit choose to appear. This was no mere jaggling. This was Unicorn himself.

"Lighten your souls, beloved of Luna. You have honored your fallen in the traditions and ways each would have requested. Such compassion and respect for your heroes pleases us.

"However, we feel there are two great wrongs here that need to be addressed." The Incarna of Unicorn pointed his horn to Jasmine. "Autumn Wind, Sister of Thrasher," the spirit spoke loudly. "In the past there was blood shed by you and your brother. Blood shed with silver. Blood shed for reasons of pride."

"Yes, mighty Unicorn. That is true," Jasmine spoke up.

"In defeating you, your brother spared your life. He removed from your paws the weapon of your pride and flung it into the ocean. We honor his wisdom in both returning to you your life and removing from you the weapon.

"However, we cannot allow this weapon to remain unused in the events to come. Dark forces are gathering and fully prepared Garou are needed."

I glanced around as Unicorn said this, noticing three things right away. First, many of the assembly were looking in awe, but agreement with the spirit's assessment. Second, there were small conversations going on, knowing looks and such between some of the mourners, Ragnar chief among them. Third, the unicorn horn at my waist was glowing as brilliantly as the waters under us. I pulled it from my waistband, but kept it between my knees, pointing towards the front of the board under me.

"So, Autumn Wind, We give to you the klaive of your brother, to wield in his honor and name." And with that, Rolf's klaive lifted up out of the ocean, hovering, dripping.

If you've never seen a klaive, it's an impressive sight, hovering or not. They are often more organic in shape than like traditional swords or daggers. Often with wide blade faces, deep and tooth-like serrations for the business end, often with a really long handle for a Garou in Crinos to use a double grip. If you've played any of the "God of War" series games, you have a pretty good idea what most klaives look like. There are some that are more like what you'd think of when someone says sword, but those are usually very rare, extremely powerful and held in highest regard. Thrasher's klaive was more like the Kratos blades; thick, heavy-looking.

The klaive floated to within a few feet of Jasmine and she looked at it with awe and wonder. One of her hands absently stroked a battle scar made by silver. More than likely, made by the silver right before her. It wasn't a huge wound, but the fur over it hadn't regrown.

"By accepting this klaive, you bind yourself to undoing the wrongs you have done, to fighting the Wyrm where it lives and breeds, and to honor the memory of your fallen brother."

"I humble accept," Jasmine said, reaching out to touch the handle of the blade. As soon as she did, she was bathed in silver light, and she gasped. Instantly, I realized why. The silver wound instantly began to smooth, heal, and grow fur. In a few moments, it was as if there were never a wound there.

Gasps passed through the crowd as they realized what had happened or were told by those with a better vantage point. I exchanged a glance with Nick and was surprised by the shimmer in his eyes. He'd never heard of anything like this either.

As the glow faded, Jasmine bent over the blade in her lap and cried softly. Occasionally, she could be heard to whisper Rolf's name and mumblings that sounded like, "I'm so sorry."

Unicorn then turned his gaze, body and horn to focus at Nick. The hushed mumbling around the circle fell off at once. I could feel hundreds of eyes resting on my back, and knew that Nick probably could too.

"Shadow Foot, step-son of Jasmine and mate of Speaks With Water. Thrasher knows that there is much turmoil in your young heart. He also knows that there are trials lined up for you and your pack mates that will re-define what it means to be Garou. He has asked for a favor for you, and we honor it as well. His klaive goes to his sister to heal a rift between them. The klaive he took from his sister he gave to the sea.

"We feel that it should reside with you," Unicorn spoke, and with a soft dripping sound, a second klaive, nearly a twin to Rolf's, lifted above the ocean, glowing with Luna's pale, bright luminescence. It floated out towards my mate's board, his eyes transfixed with it. The glow from the weapon covered his face, chasing all shadows from his countenance.

"By accepting this klaive, you bind yourself to forging a new path for the Garou. You will honor the righteous traditions of the past and strike out the ways that have led to the horrors of long ago. You shall fight the Wyrm where it lives and where it breeds. All of this in honor of your fallen teacher, and the path he asks you to show to all Garou."

Nick's face, lit as brightly as it was, showed his tears at what he was being asked. He cautiously reached forwards, his lips trembling as he was about to respond, when he was interrupted by a powerful, angry voice.

"I must protest! I cannot allow this charach cub to claim and hold a klaive! I call on the spirit of Thunder to back my claim for that honorable weapon before that welp soils it with his unclean hands!"

He was actually paddling towards the floating klaive, preparing to cut directly in front of Unicorn himself to do so. The snearing look of disgust on his face was almost a slap in mine as he charged in. I was about to do something likely foolish and intercept him, protecting my mate and such, when I sensed the presence of another great spirit. And then another.

And another.

And yet another.

And then in threes and fours, the skies over us were suddenly filled with spirit avatars. Every greater spirit I had ever heard of filled the skies above the circle. Even in the far distance, I could sense the presence of the mightiest of Garou spiritual hierarchy, the Celestines themselves, were watching.

The mighty spirit of Thunder spoke, his body a dark mass of vaguely human shaped clouds, his voice like the power of every hurricane ever dreamed of focused. "Stay your hand, Ragnar Wyrmslayer!" The power of Thunder's voice was a physical thing. I felt it in my chest. It drove waves before it as the spirit settled in over Ragnar.

"This klaive is not for you! If you ever attempt to claim it again, or deign to reach for it, you will suffer my wrath!"

"But these are *charach!*" Ragnar exclaimed, his anger and Rage overcoming his common sense. "I am a warrior or great rank, honor and accomplishment! They are not worthy!"

"You dare defy our wisdom? Our commands?" Thunder demanded. Ragnar was clearly shaking in Rage, but his religious fervor of his own totem spirit publicly berating him kept him in place.

"Know this all of you," Unicorn directed. "The old ways must merge with new ways. You have no more time to follow your foolish and inane paths, chasing your tails to your own undoing. You are Garou. In the past you have committed atrocities far worse than what you term charach. You have slaughtered your own kin. You made war on the other Changing Breeds, some of them now extinct because of your misuse of our gifts. You have forgotten the true path. These cubs, and the pack they will form shall be the new pattern. All shall learn new ways, or shall perish in the approaching conflagration."

With the vast movement of spirits above us, I had nearly forgotten about the klaive floating in front of Nick. Unicorn turned his horn back to him and the klaive actually hovered a bit closer to Nick.

"I humbly accept," Nick said, reaching out to take the klaive. That's when Ragnar lunged. And that's when Unicorn showed he's not a show pony or just a decoration on a girl's bedroom wall.

With a flash of his horn and a wild tossing of his mane, Unicorn slashed at Ragnar's flank. In an instant, he and his surf board vanished, as if never even there. I swear, even the waves under him didn't react to his sudden disappearance.

"Father!" Magnus cried out.

Thunder responded, his voice somewhat softer but no less deep and resounding. "Fear not, Magnus Ragnarson. Your parent has been returned to his home caern, mostly unharmed. He will not be permanently damaged, but his pride shall surely be quelled. Take that as a lesson as you and your companion remain here. There is work for you to do, and your Father's poisonous influence needs to be tempered by distance and humility."

"Yes, Mighty Thunder," Magnus responded, bowing deeply over the surfboard. I thought for a moment that he was actually smiling. Sven caught my eye and his expression was one of both majestic awe and hope at what had happened.

And in all this, Nick had finally wrapped his hands around the klaive, bringing it to his chest. I noticed his tears were drying, but the marks on his face still shown with Luna's bright glow. He glanced at me and gave me a weird sort of proud smile. I had to imagine I was smiling back.

"Go now," Unicorn commanded gently. "There are many things to discuss and remember about your fallen heroes. Honor them and their ancestors. And in the morning light, rededicate yourselves to your purpose. Go in peace."

Slowly, in groups, the majestic parade of spirits above us scattered, leaving only the light of the moon to caress our fur in the gently wafting sea breeze. I remained where I was a moment, floating with Nick as Magnus and Sven paddled over. The elders who were part of Rolf's pack gathered where his body went under, forming a circle of their own.

"The spirits truly favor you," Sven said, still staring up into the sky.

"And you as well," I replied, not realizing that I was still speaking in formal Garou-tongue.

"Father, it seems, has been reprimanded," Magnus said, his voice both somber and seemingly relaxed, as if for the first time. "It seems we are meant to remain here a while longer."

"So it seems," Nick said, still staring dumbstruck at the klaive. It looked huge in his hand, a wide curving up tip with three jagged spurs of silver top and bottom, glyphs carved or set into the silver.

"You must be a mighty warrior to be given such a gift," Magnus said, a certain humbleness coming over him.

"Bah! Wars not make one great!" Nick said, dropping into Yoda voice. "By the size of your wang greatness measured is!"

This caused both of the Get boys to blush furiously. Never one to let the joke end too soon, Nick quickly cast his eyes to both of them. "Ooooh hoooo! Know you the wang sizes between you, do you? Yeh heh heh heh!"

"Oh great Yoda," I intoned.

"Yesh?" Nick replied.

"Up shut, you must. Or kiss you I will not."

We talked long into the night with Sven and Magnus, helping them find a place to bed down our burrow at the old bath house. The Get boys seemed to be much more relaxed without Ragnar hanging around all the time. They even managed a very blush infused kiss while sitting with us. It was a big step for them. Oh, I'm sure they've kissed before, in private. But seeing them being openly affectionate, even if it was only in front of Nick and me, was a good sign.

After using Rite of Talisman Dedication on his new sharp toy, Nick kept taking practice swings with the klaive. We both decided right away that we needed expert help with learning how to use it. We decided that we'd petition Joey-rhya to join the Jedi class. If nothing else, we'd get to spend more time with Robby and Kenny. The Get boys, who have had some weapons training as well, asked if they might be able to join.

Which brought up a sticky point. Not that they wouldn't be welcomed. They just didn't have legal standing to be in the United States. Okay, granted, human customs don't really affect werewolf travel options and any place we can hop into the Umbra is pretty much home. But, even Nick and I didn't have official legal standing here. School was about a month from starting for local kids and we'd definitely stand out if we weren't in class come fall. Sven and Magnus would stand out even more, accents and all.

I had the feeling that with the morning light, we'd have some answers and some more complications. After all, we still had to travel to Canterbury for Robby's parents' funeral. I was not looking forward to burying more people. I think Nick could sense my unease. He yawned big, getting a similar reaction from Sven. We bro hugged with the Get boys, who retired to their temporary quarters, and we got down into our own burrow, in lupus form.

As we lay down, Nick got behind me in the dugout, resting his muzzle on my neck. It was one of the ways we normally cuddled when sleeping, but tonight it seemed to mean so much more to me. He was taking care of me. I think he knew how much all this death surrounding us of late affected me. All the healing work after the monkey wrench crew got jumped, all the funerals, all the body preparations, I hadn't realized how much it had taken out of me.

But Nicky knew. And he comforted me, knowing that tomorrow we'd still have one more obligation to the dead. And he knew, without having to say it. Without having to make a production of it.

That is why I love him, why I'll go through a wall of flame and raining liquid silver for him. He loves me without having to say it all the time, even though he does. And he knows when I need him to cheer me up, and when to just be with me.

Together, tired, emotionally spent and enjoying each other's presence, we listened to the ocean waves, heard the soft whistles of the sea breezes over the dunes and bristling through the beach grass, and drifted off to a deep, contented sleep.

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