Rating: PG-13 (for fantasy action violence described somewhat graphically)
Prompt: Mutation/Physical Transformation
Summary: Sadie is very different from the other shapechangers around her, and not in a good way. It makes her something of a freak among the freaks, but she's dealing with it mostly. Then, one night, something wicked her way comes.
Author's Notes: This is the first story in the Shapechangers 'verse I've created because I got sucked into origfic_bingo and never finished my bingo. The prompt for this was "mutation/physical transformation". I only got four out of the five you need for one and so I'm posting the four stories that I have as a WIP. You don't need to know or have read anything prior to this. You can start here. Other stories to come in this same 'verse.
“Hey, thanks,” Kellan says. He smiles, deposits his clothes into Sadie’s arms and walks off, naked as he was born. She shakes them out and folds them, placing them on the bench with everyone else’s clothing. He joins the others, also naked, in the backyard. They could transform in their clothing if they wanted, but it takes extra energy. Friday night free-for-alls are just for fun. One night a week, they lay aside the masks of their human faces to race and roar without uncomprehending, ignorant eyes to observe and betray them.
Kellan bounds gleefully into the open backyard, towards the black shapes of the trees that mark the transition from his yard to the woods. He pauses at the edge of the light cast by the flood lamps, around which gnats and moths flutter. Sadie can just barely make out his body changing. His skin thickens into hide, he sprouts pale white hair all over his body. His body becomes a liquid thing. Arms stretch into four legs, hands into hooves. His spine takes a swaybacked curve, concave where before it was a flat plane of muscle and bone and tendon. His neck, thickens, puffs, the snout comes in. The last to rise are the antlers. They grow so quickly they look like roots reaching up to drink from the sky.
Sadie has watched this many times. It always moves her. Sometimes she tingles, sometimes it brings a lump to her throat that takes the whole night to swallow down, sometimes it frightens her. They tell her it doesn’t hurt after the first time, but still wonders if she could handle the sight of her body becoming another thing. Could she stay sane and watch her hand turn into a paw or the tip of a wing? Maybe that’s her problem, she’s too attached to this body, too afraid of occupying another.
By the time she’s glanced again, Kellan is done and galloping toward the trees. Watching a shapechange is like watching food in the microwave. It fucks with her sense of time. In reality, the whole thing takes less than thirty seconds. Less time than popcorn or instant coffee. Sadie’s actually timed it from the porch, counting under her breath as she watched their transformation into the wild and wondrous menagerie they are.
Millions of years for human beings to evolve and rise above all the other animals and in less time than a standard TV commercial, the process goes backwards. Sadie wonders about the first shapechanger. Were neanderthal shapechangers or Homo Erectus shapechangers back in the day? Were there once monkeys that became other animals?
Maybe that’s really how people got fire. Someone like Kellan, who had the power to control it, brought it to them. Out in the yard, he tips his head back and breathes out a puff of breath and then white smoke. He’s building a good flame, she can smell the heat and ash from the porch. He bellows fire into the night air, bright gold flame blossoming in the darkness with the sound of a high, reedy wail. His hair and hide are unburned though the flames now wreathe his face, throat, blown back at him by the wind. He doesn’t just control fire, he’s immune to it. You could throw him into a furnace and he’d emerge none the worse.
Sadie does not let herself think about how that’s a very accurate kind of metaphor and also something that pisses her the hell off about Kellan Rodriguez. The guy just never gets burned. Ever.
The wide, raised stone area around the fireplace was prime real estate after the pack clambered inside, hopping barefoot through the four inches of snow to the warm refuge of the house. Sadie had mugs and hot chocolate and various snacks waiting for them in the kitchen. It gave her an excuse to give up watching them reveling in the snowfall, kicking up white dust storms and shaking it off their coats, out of their feathers.
Tonight’s stab in the heart was Ryder, looking like a coal-black dream with snow clinging to his fur. She begrudged him his speed and breathtaking grace as he raced across the blue-white carpet of undisturbed snow, leaving a wide swath of paw prints in his wake. It was stupid, but watching him made her jealous. He made it look like the most glorious thing. It felt like a little extra “fuck you” from the universe that not only could she not join in, but that she had to watch while freezing her ass off.
So she left, got things ready, fixed herself some cocoa and waited in the stifling silence for the others. The fireplace felt damn good, and so did being ignored by the others while they got their snacks. The weekly looks of pity and guilt had grown old. Sadie was glad they were preoccupied with their cocoa (or tea for Kat Ashley and Wilson, both badly allergic to it, and to milk). Soon she could make her excuse to leave. Most of the pack stayed over Friday nights. Kellan’s house was more than big enough, and five of them already lived there. Sadie never did. It was enough she came at all. If not for the gentle cajoling on the part of Kellan and Tisha and Anna - and some prodding from Ryder - she wouldn’t have. Mostly she did it to spare them the effort. Refusing made her feel difficult, stubborn and attention-seeking when she tried to beg off, saying everything but the truth: ‘I’m not really one of you, I don’t belong’.
Kellan sat down between her and the hot metal grate around the fire. Gut instinct told her to worry that if he leaned back, he’d touch that hot metal and burn himself, but fire never seemed to worry him.
“Thanks for the hot cocoa,” he said, raising his mug like maybe they were going to toast. She raised hers, but didn’t make contact.
“I just put out the stuff, that’s all.”
“Will you be safe to drive home tonight?” he asked. Not subtle at all, but he never really had been. From the moment she first met him wearing his human face, he had been a very direct person. How could he be otherwise with those piercing dark brown eyes? Even when they were just sitting, drinking hot chocolate, talking about nothing important, he was looking right through her and she felt it sharply.
“It’s just a few inches. I’ve driven through worse.”
“You sure? I’m sure Tish won’t mind sharing her room. She doesn’t even snore.”
“I didn’t bring my PJ’s or my toothbrush. My morning breath might take somebody out.”
He grinned. “I could lend you both.”
“It’s all right. Snow’s going to let up soon. They said we weren’t supposed to get more than six inches.”
He left it there, thank goodness. Kellan had a way of making the simple act of saying “no” very, very difficult. Sadie had never quite figured out why. She wasn’t the only one. The others said the same. Kellan got his way a lot. He didn’t force or threaten. He just made disagreement seem impossible.
Sadie did not want to spend the night. That ritual was for the real pack. And she wasn’t really one of them.
Kellan was silent, looking over periodically. She wasn’t sure if he wanted to say something or wanted her to say something, but she’d learned to deal with awkward silences by having questions and conversation starters prepped in head. Anything to keep the other person talking. Because then you weren’t an awkward loser, you were a good listener. She’d ask things the others in the pack were into. With Tish it was her job and music, with Bannerjee it was sports, with Kat Ashley, her family.
She didn’t have that starter for Kellan. He managed to remain mysterious, even to the others who had known him for years. Sadie knew precious little, not even what kind of music he liked or his favorite food or even where he was from.
So she fell back on the one thing she actually knew and she asked, “Do you ever get burned by fire?”
He didn’t answer in words. Calm as he pleased, he put down his mug, swiveled around, pushed away the grate and stuck his hand straight into the heart of the fire, just above the logs. Grimm and Veronica looked over from the couch, curious but unconcerned. Sadie raised an eyebrow and watched him, turning his hand over, wiggling his fingers in the flames with a grin on his face. That answered that question. No fire could burn him. He could have just said that though. Sticking his hand into flame was a bit melodramatic, she thought.
“I see,” she said. He pulled his hand out, then he grabbed her arm, quick as a snake striking. Sadie sucked in a sharp breath between her teeth. His flesh was so hot it nearly hurt. Her heart pounded like the rhythm of running hoofbeats on the ground - thud, thud, thud. He squeezed her with restrained strength that scared the shit out of some primal, animal part of her that recognized a more dangerous creature when she encountered one. If he wanted to break her arm, there was nothing she could do.
Sadie looked up to his eyes, swallowing against a suddenly dry throat. His smile faltered, like something had suddenly saddened him. She pulled her arm in close to her body.
She felt the remnant of that touch the rest of the night, all the way home. As she drove through the snow, the phantom of a fever-hot hand was wrapped around her arm, tugging her back.
Sadie leans her head against the hand rail. She’s tired, and hasn’t slept well lately. It’s amazing how the little banalities of life get to her even here. She’s watching human beings transform into incredible creatures, still contemplating the annoying owl outside her bedroom window. The damn thing has hooted so loudly it’s disrupted her sleep for two weeks running. It’s starting to give her nightmares. If the stupid bird would go away, she’d stop waking up at 3am, sweating and panting, terrified. She never remembers the nightmares, just the “oh god I’m going to die and so is everyone else” panic she can’t get rid of until morning.
Ryder bounds into the the flood light’s glow, tongue lolling out of his mouth. He drops and rolls in the grass, looking ridiculous and happy. She gives him a smile and he flips onto all four paws, trots towards her. He gives her an eager look, jumps, tosses his head. It’s the lupine version of “come and play!”. He even play bows to her, rump in the air and chin nearly resting on his paws. She turns her gaze. Then it’s like he remembers. He gives her an apologetic, wide-eyed look. His dark shape slinks off into the shadows.
She sighs, drinks tea, does her best to think of anything else: the owl, going in early to work next week, her rent getting hiked. Anything but the one thing she can’t have. The one thing she should have.
The old werewolf legends got one thing right. It takes merely a scratch, a bite. Trade blood with a shapechanger in their animal form and you’ll become one, too. It takes a mere drop to set the creature free that’s been waiting there all along, dormant. Nobody knows what creature a person will become when the blood mingles. Some say it comes from a person’s personality, some say it’s like a personal animal spirit, some say it’s random, some say there’s a pattern.
Sadie wouldn’t know. She won’t get the chance to find out, because she is the shapechanger who didn’t change.
Sadie is the shapechanger who does not change. She should have. Her blood and Kellan’s mingled. Too much flowed from both of them that night not to, even if Kellan hadn’t been doing it on purpose. Not like he had a choice. Making her was the only way to get enough power and energy to heal himself, to save himself and the pack.
He rammed her through the chest, five antler points pierced her body, pinning her against a brick wall. The blood from his mouth and open wounds across his face flowed down his antlers and into her heart. Sadie stared, literally breathless, into endless black eyes. She hurt more than she had ever hurt in her life, so much that the fear and betrayal - she'd tried to help this creature - all melted away. All she could think of was the pain.
The turn takes twenty-eight days from the mingling of blood to the first shape change. That’s where the old stories about full moons and werewolves come from. Twenty-eight days is a lunar cycle, and the full moon’s light allows for a lot more outdoor shenanigans than a new moon.
Sadie’s twenty-eight days have come and gone. It’s been a year and change. She smells like a shapechanger to other shapechangers, she senses the rest of her pack, especially Kellan. He certainly got the power boost from turning her. The fire he breathed that night melted glass and concrete and metal. But twenty-eight days later, she had no other shape, no powers. Tisha can control electricity, Bannerjee reads minds, Wilson and Anna can both remote view and Bear can freeze anything he touches when he wants to.
All Sadie has is the taunting presence of the pack in her mind. If she closes her eyes and lets herself, she can taste the blood of the mouse that Bear just killed, feel his sharp, foxy teeth crunching delicate little bones. She can smell the various tracks and scent marks left in the forest the way Grimm does. She can feel what it’s like to run swifter head tossing, hooves pounding the ground in a rhythm like the heartbeat of a person falling in love for the first time, paced and unpaced all at once. She can watch, but never become.
She can’t even join in. It isn’t safe for her to play amongst these creatuers. Even if they were cautious of her, one swipe of Tisha’s great, tawny paw or an errant wild kick of Veronica’s hooves and she could be ended. It would defeat the purpose of their freedom if they spent all night being careful of her. They spend enough time doing that already.
So she sits on the porch, she watches, and she aches to join them. Tisha and Anna chase after each other’s tails, feline forms sliding through the dark so smoothly it defies physics. Wilson and Bannerjee circle and dart across the starry sky, going so high it gives Sadie a vertiginous shiver. She smiles up at them and turns to look at the moon. Across the face of the thin crescent, a third form appears. This one is far away, yet still larger than either the hawk or the raven. She squints, standing up on the porch steps.
It is not a bird, she realizes when she sees the long, whiplash tail trailing behind it. She doesn’t know what the hell it is, except coming in fast. When it swoops to descend, Sadie’s heart falls with it. Her very soul knows the ill omen in this sight, and so do the others. Shapechangers who come in peace give fair warning and come in human form. This is not normal. This is not good.
Bannerjee screeches a warning that sears across the frosty night air. Wilson caws along, they form a chorus of alarm. Tisha and Anna pause in their wrestling, both looking up at the sky. Tisha raises her head, opens her mouth and roars in the way only a lion can. Then Ryder howls, and suddenly a great cacophany has gone up.
The woods come alive with rustling leaves and breaking twigs. The others are coming in, fast. From the porch, it looks as if some terrible force is shaking the very woods themselves. Sadie makes no noise at all, she just stands waiting, trying to discern what the dark, sharp winged shape in the sky is. It comes closer, making a rumbling sound like stone against stone, soaring through the glow of the flood lamps. Sadie catches a glimpse of talons, and smooth, nearly-shiny black scales.
It’s a dragon.
Its wings pump fiercely, creating wind like jet engines. The blades of grass in the yard bend, leaves stir violently in the trees. The thing is at least three times the size of a standard one-car garage.
The pack stays changed, watching, waiting. Kat Ashley slithers up Grimm’s body, wraps loosely around his furry throat, both for the warmth to fight and because giving Grimm an extra, snapping head can’t hurt. Kellan trots to the front, snorting out warning plumes of fire. The dragon arcs its neck down and roars, breathing out rolling blackness with a sound like metal girders twisting. The darkness is not smoke, it is too solid and opaque. It is as if the dragon breathes night itself over the pack.
Kellan shoots out a wave of flame that instantly disappears. Roaring, Grimm raises up on his hinds legs. As he falls to all fours, he stops. They all stop, frozen where they stand. Sadie hears their growls and groans, but no one’s mouth is moving. She realizes with horror that they are being held in place by the dragon. They realize it, too. In her skull, their panicked mental cries sound like clanging pots and pans. Can’t move! Stuck! Paralyzed! What’s holding me? Can’t move!.
The dragon touches down, thick black claws gouging the ground. Realizing that her pack is helpless, Sadie turns, tripping up the porch steps, seeking Ryder’s clothes. He always keeps a knife on his belt, in an old leather sheathe. Clumsy, shaking hands throw clothes everywhere, and when she finds it, she’s barely able to unbutton the snap. In the yard, the dragon lifts up to its hind legs, like a scaled imitation of Grimm, still stuck in mid-fall. She races off the porch, screaming senselessly for the dragon to let them go.
The dragon bends, its taloned paw swoops, going straight for Ryder. It’s going to knock him over like a child playing destructively with figurines. With a wordless scream, she throws herself between the talons and Ryder, covering his body. The sharp tips of the claws rake over her back and throw her several feet. By some miracle she lands on her back and the knife is still in her hand.
Rolling to her feet, she screams and races toward the dragon. She does not know how hard those scales are, but she has to try something. Perhaps with a small knife and some luck, she’ll find a spot between them. Maybe she can get it to lower its head. Its eyes are not covered. Blinding it might even force the thing to let go of the pack.
She strikes at a space between the scales on the dragon’s lower abdomen. The blow is so hard it hurts her hand, but is useless. It doesn’t even leave a scratch. The dragon’s swan-like neck bends down, long ivory teeth bared to bite her. Optionless, she throws her body over the dragon’s neck and holds on as tightly as she can, fingers of her free hand latching onto a protruding scale that looks like a shark’s fin. He dragon raises up, lifting her from the ground. The motion helps her swing her legs up and over. Now she’s riding the damn thing like a rodeo bull, thighs clamping as hard as they can. Knife in hand, she stabs wildly, desperately, scooting up toward the head while the dragon thrashes. She just has to stab one eye.
To hold fast, Sadie sacrifices her only weapon, letting the knife go so she can hold on. She wraps both hands around the neck, too, some grotesque kind of hug, the ground comes close and goes away in nauseating waves. She won’t be able to hold on much longer. When the dragon lowers its head enough, she’ll let go, she decides. Maybe if the dragon chases her, it will lose its hold over the pack. That’s all she’s got to do. Get the pack free. Distract the dragon. She’s been around the pack long enough to know using their powers requires concentration or it goes haywire.
She screams, the dragon roars, their voices making weird, resonant harmony in the night. She kicks, but she might as well be kicking a brick wall. Her only advantages is that the dragon’s neck is far longer than it’s arms. Its reach isn’t good. It has to bend down to get at her. Bending down gets her closer to the ground, but also closer to its talons.
The dragon’s neck swans downward, a talon scrapes her leg, opening up a fresh, gushing wound before it tosses its head up again, then down violently. The motion bumps Sadie’s head against the scales. It’s like being hit with a bat. It makes her dizzy and nauseous instantly, but she does not let go. The scales are smooth and her sweaty hands ache, the dragon raises up completely and she slides down the length of its neck on the underside, barely surviving the ground shaking landing. The dragon throws itself side to side while Sadie grasps for purchase. Her hand clutches the first place it touches, but instead of a scale there’s a cold metallic bump the size of a soup bowl. Every instinct in her brain and body tells her to yank it out - anything to injure this horrific monster. She finds the edge of the thing, gets an inch of leverage and holds. She knows in a moment it’s a bad move. The dragon’s paw grabs her, its taloned fingers wrap all the way around her body and pull her. She holds on, and takes the metal thing with her and part of a scale, too when he pulls her free. The paw squeezes tight. Bones pop and snap all over her body. Her left shoulder comes out of its socket entirely. She blacks out completely for a few seconds and wakes when she is hurled bodily away from the dragon.
Time moves in agonizing slowness. Sadie sees the ground all the way down. Landing is an explosion through her entire body. It knocks her very heart into not beating for a single, excruciating moment. She desperately tries to roll over, tries to breathe and the world lights up with agony. A thousand knives stab her over and over again.
The dragon growling behind her, Sadie reaches for a small rock just between Anna and Tisha’s paws. She looks up into the eyes of her friends. Tisha makes a miserable keening growl, still frozen. Sadie wheezes, taking blood-filled breaths. Extending her arm is torture. Motion comes by fraction of inches from her trembling, battered body. She pushes against the ground with her left leg. A bolt of pain makes that an impossible motion to repeat. She looks up again tries to speak, to mouth, “Tish - Tish -” but she coughs redness instead and her breath whistles wetly.
Grass rustles behind her. Sadie turns her head, lays her cheek down. In the place of the dragon is a man wearing a strange kind of white linen suit. He is sharp faced, handsome though wicked looking. He has terrifying pale blue eyes, chopped off red hair and thick ginger stubble. His approaching steps are slow. Sadie whines in pain and panic. God, how can a rock within reach of her fingertips be so, so far away? She stretches, gasps as much as her pained chest will allow.
“We have done with our battle now. Now you will listen to me,” the dragon says, calmly. He speaks English laced with an accent she can’t identify straight off. Not that it matters. She knows she will die here, and prays it will happen quick. Perhaps he has a gun. She hopes.
“Look at me, Sadie. Look. Get up.”
The dragon shaping her name in his mouth sends fresh, icy horror racing through her. He knows her. The implications are terrifying and the terror makes processing his words harder. She stares down into the shiny pool of her own blood. Through the haze and blackness spreading across her vision, she understands. To get to her knees is a fight she barely wins at all. She trembles fiercely and lolls her head back to look up at him, blinking hard as the blood runs into her left eye. It stings.
“Listen closely to me, I will not repeat this. You will meet me again. There is a place in the city, the museum. You will meet me there in three days, alone, as soon as it is open. Bring no one. I will wait for you by the painting of the three Graces. Be there immediately. Very bad things will happen if I come here again for you. Do you understand me?”
Sadie cannot speak and even her small nod makes her gag on her own blood. The blossom of pain in her chest tips her forward. She can see only the dragon’s shiny black shoes between the blades of grass. Far above, his voice booms. “She does not lack for courage, does she?”
The dragon’s smile is in his voice. Through the pain, Sadie shivers with the knowledge that he is standing over her, grinning. What kind of creature could look down at a person that they have so badly hurt and smirk?
“My compliments to your sire. Ah, it’s you, the white hart. I can sense she’s your first. What an exquisite first. I regret that this became necessary, that it caused her pain. One day, I will have to ask how you found such a creature for your own.”
Bereft of even the rock as a weapon, Sadie plunges her fingers into the grass and deeper, into dirt. Hitting him in the face might distract him, make him let go. Tisha and Anna would leap if given the freedom, and maybe Ryder can bring down a bolt of lightning to hit the man. Kellan’s mind is all fury and flame inside her own. If he were free, he would burn this man to the purest, finest ash.
Sadie curls her hand around the clod. A foot lightly presses down on her hand, enough to stop her. She casts her eyes up.
“No,” he says. “Do not let your pride get in the way. I honor you. I mean no insult. I would not have told you to come to me if I did not intend to leave you alive and able to do so.”
She doesn’t know what to say, she just wants to scream “fuck you” as she feels the darkness settling over her. The dragon removes his foot and crouches by her. He reaches down, strokes her hair. “We will not fight anymore, Sadie. Good woman, brave woman. You did very well. Very brave, very brave.” She realizes that the bastard is petting her.
His hand stays as she lays her cheek down on the grass. It is all she can do now to focus on breathing. He lifts his hand and it is like a thousand pounds have been taken off her. His feet retreat into the dark and become paws so quickly it takes place in the fluttering of her eyelids, faster than she’s ever seen. The air booms, whooshes and the dragon is aloft and then gone.
A second after she loses sight of him, Grimm’s paws finally hit the earth with a dull thud that she feels more than hears. Hooves pound, feathers rustle. Bones and joints pop, as animal bodies resume their human shape. She sees bare, brown feet coming towards her. In the distance, there’s screaming.
“Hold him back!” Tisha orders, in a voice that is only shaking a little. Being a nurse, she knows what she’s doing, though Sadie hopes it won’t involve anyone touching her chest. Ever. “I need to work here. Anna, go get the first aid kit inside. It’s under the kitchen sink. Bannerjee, my stethoscope, it’s out in my car. My keys are on the key rack, go!”
“Should we call 911?” Wilson asks.
“And tell ‘em what? Our girl just got beat up by a damn dragon?” Ryder retorts.
“We’ll tell them she fell!” Grimm replies, shrill and sharp.
“From what?” he argues again.
Tisha’s face appears above her. “Sadie, honey, stay with us. Where does it hurt? Can you tell me that?”
Sadie can’t talk. Each breath is like being run through by Kellan all over again. She wants very much to die, to be allowed to die quickly. She can only lift one trembling hand and grab Tisha’s naked arm, realizing she feels nothing below her ribcage. She tries to move her lips but the words don’t come.
“Hurts everywhere, huh?”
Sadie nods with one eye closed so the blood doesn’t get in. Bannerjee comes running back into the yard. It’s weird to see them still naked, as though they don’t realize they haven’t put clothes back on. She takes a breath that doesn’t come easy, but hurts less. Tisha goes in and out of focus.
“No, no, Sadie. I need you to stay awake. Ryder’s gonna hold your hand, just squeeze his hand, stay with us,” she orders, in a harder, faster voice. Ryder’s enormous hands enfold hers, cold and dry and calloused but she can’t grip in return.
A hand slaps her face lightly, but it doesn’t work. It only buys a few more seconds of looking at the brown, blurry shape crowned by the crescent moon.
She sees fire in the sky, hears her name screamed in a pained way. She knows that this what she will take with her into the dark - the fire and the screams and the memory of the dragon’s smile.
The worst pain, by far, Sadie ever felt was on the night she got Made. Or at least the night when Kellan bled into the open wounds in her chest to take the power of her Making into himself, to draw from the permanent bond that now linked them forever.
Lucky for her, she didn't stay conscious very long. Just long enough to hurt and then pass out.
She woke up anticipating that same pain. She gasped into consciousness and touched her chest without thinking. She expected blood and agony but got neither. Nothing hurt. She looked down. She wore a gray top, the kind from hospital scrubs, and all her wounds were gone. No blood came away when she checked her fingertips. Under the collar of the shirt were only scars, flattened and so whitish-blue they stood out against her skin.
“You healed quickly. It’s supposed to happen that way. Just take a deep breath,” said the very beautiful Black woman with the puffy reddish-colored afro.
This woman knew why Sadie looked at the scars and why she was afraid. She was part of it, that much Sadie deduced right off the bat. She must have been a friend of the white deer man. Sadie’s breathed a little harder and sat up, taking a quick scan around.
She was on a couch in a nice house, though a but cluttered and eclectic - (who put a Buddha statute on one side of a table and Catholic saint candles on the other?). It smelled like candles and citrus-y household cleaner and hamburgers and french fries. Sharply so, actually. Sadie was amazed she identify what she was smelling and the small sounds she heard (talking in another room, water dripping from a faucet, Tisha breathing, wind outside, cars on the distant highway).
“The men with guns?” she asked, getting off the couch. Dizzy, she tipped forward, catching herself on the wooden coffee table. She noted the copies of Muscle Car Review and Essence and Popular Mechanics and National Geographic and thought, absently, Jesus, lady, you’ve got some really divergent interests. As she stood, she heard a car getting close, crunching rocks slowly beneath tires. She thought of the men with guns who'd been there, who'd gotten a shot off right into the white deer's side. Don’t bring them here, get out, lead them away she thought.
“It’s not them. It’s all right, Sadie, sit down.”
“What?” Sadie stumbled back until she tripped and she fell. This woman knew her name. That was bad. She put her back to the wall, steeling herself.
“It’s all right. We found your I.D., that’s all.”
“Well, Grimm and Anna. They went back, got your things. Your car’s even in the driveway. So you can leave any time you want, okay?” Tisha asked and she nodded, so Sadie nodded in return and picked herself up against the wall. “But if you stay, I'll explain what’s happening. I know this has got to be a lot and you’ve probably seen things you don’t understand.”
She trembled, pressing her palms to the wall to support herself. The terrified tremors in her chest sucked out all the air and left none for speaking. “Why?”
“Why did he hurt me?”
Tisha had the softest, gentlest frown in all the world. “To save his life. To save our lives.”
“But I was trying to help him.”
“I know.” Tisha dared to close the distance between them. Her presence did not feel threatening, even though the idea of having anyone near flooded Sadie’s with so much adrenaline it physically ached. “You saved our lives tonight. You didn’t know you were doing it, but we’re here in this house and we’re safe because of what you did.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know, sweetie, I know. Listen, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to put your purse on the coffee table, your car keys are in it. Any time you want, you can take those keys and run away and nobody will come after you. You can leave whenever. Door’s right there. This is my house, and it’s nobody’s prison. But if you stay, you can ask me whatever you want. Okay?”
Tisha backed away and put Sadie’s purse on the table. Then she sat down, hands on her knees, calm as anything. Sadie thought she looked like she was trying not to spook an already spooked animal. Later she’d realize that she herself was exactly that, a spooked animal who needed to be retaught to trust human hands and human words.
Sadie reluctantly took a seat on the edge of the couch. “The deer, he was a man, too." wasn’t he?”
Looking as placid and merciful the figures in the shrines to either side of her, Tisha nodded and then began to explain. She explained shapechangers and their powers, about packs and how they were now part of the same pack and what it meant to be connected by blood the way they were, about hunters, and what would happen in twenty-eight days. She even quickly showed Sadie what a shapechange looked like.
When she finished, Sadie asked, “The men with guns, the Hunters?” she asked. Tisha confirmed with a nod. “Will they come after me?”
“I don’t know. Hopefully not. But if anything happens, you won’t be alone, and you’ll know what you’re facing and you’ll have a way to deal with it. I promise.”
“What do you mean?”
“Next time, you’ll have power. Next time, you’ll be different. Everything will be different.”
All the faces looking at her are anxious, wondering. As Tisha leads her to the table, Sadie is aware of everyone watching to see how well she is, what she’ll say, how she’ll react. They’re unnerved by her silence, which she’s kept since they took her to the healer in Washington County. Tisha had to tell her about that, she doesn’t remember much after passing out.
Tisha said her injuries were so bad that even the healer, Big Boss Stanton, couldn’t fix her completely. All Sadie recalls is the smell of antiseptics and heated metal. Stanton gave her some really good, really illegal painkillers and healed what he could. Nearly every bone in her body was broken, her internal organs damaged, the gash on her leg had severed a tendon, her spine crushed. Big Boss took all night putting her back together, and couldn’t finish everything. Her mangled arm and shoulder are only half-healed, the rest she’ll have to do herself. She’ll need a cane and Tisha’s help with rehab for her leg.
Most mysteriously, Stanton could not heal the scars. Usually, Tisha said he could make any cut or burn disappear. But where the dragon’s claws touched her, he could do nothing.
Now the pack waits for what she’ll say. Wilson puts a plate of food in front of her. She stares down at it like she isn’t sure what it is, even though it’s just pancakes and bacon. She thinks about it for a minute, then looks at the fork and knife that there are there on the table. Sadie just stares, then sighs gently and very slowly. Her chest can tolerate shallow breathing and careful movement, no more than that. The ribs are tenuously healed and the bruising is all still there.
She looks up, finds herself staring straight into Bannerjee’s dark, inquisitive eyes. It flashes her back to seeing him run naked across the lawn with car keys in his hand. Tisha sits down beside her. “Try to eat a little if you can,” she coaches.
They’re all staring, so she might as well talk. “We have to do what the dragon says,” she announces, voice airy and rough even to her own ears. There’s a communal breath, all of them inhaling sharply in shared reluctance.
“That may not be the best idea,” Bannerjee says, pushing his glasses up his nose.
“I’m with him. I think we all are,” Anna says. Her girlfriend, Veronica, is holding her hand. “We cannot risk that dude killing you.”
Kellan gently taps Grimm on the shoulder and he surrenders the seat to Sadie’s right. Kellan sits down, leans close. Sadie realizes this is how he convinces people. He crowds everything out, pushes the world back so all you see and feel is him. She turns her eyes away, looking down at the tablecloth, at the bruises up and down her hands, her arms. He can’t overshadow those. She feels them as deeply as she feels him.
“Sadie, it’s okay. You don’t have to go. We’ll protect you. He can’t get you now, he’ll never hurt you again. I swear.”
She looks up into his eyes. They’re so dark as to nearly be black, the way they are when he’s changed. “We were dead, Kellan, we were all dead. We lived because he let us live.”
“It’ll be different next time. We’ll be ready for him, we’ll have guns. He won’t hurt you again.”
She shakes her head. “You don’t get it. The dragon asked to see me alone, in a public place.”
“And?” he asks.
“He had us all where he wanted us. We couldn’t touch him. So why does he care if I come alone, in public? People only ask to meet that way when they want to be safe. What could he possibly need to be safe from?”
In the silence, Kellan’s tries to say words but they just come out as stilted breaths, arguments that die before they start. She’s finally persuaded him of something.
“Sadie,” he says. Her name is a plea, an apology, a resignation, but not a disagreement.
“I think the dragon was warning us.”
“That there’s something worse than dragons out there,” she replies.
- END -
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