The tree loomed at her all at once in the darkness. Mary Alice Nolan slipped to one side, trying to keep her eye on the golden shape that slipped ahead of her in the gloom. A branch hit her on the shoulder, but bent, smaller twigs dragging across her light jacket with a tearing sound. She was going to hear about that from Ruri. The trees were thinning, and she put on an extra burst of speed, drawing up next to the bounding wolf. Her girlfriend glanced her way, tongue lolling from her mouth in silent welcome, then lowered her head and rocketed forward again.
“Dammit, Ruri,” Mary Alice called after the golden wolf as she drew away from her. Ruri didn’t like to make it easy. This wasn’t their first run together. Mary Alice knew it would end with her a sweaty, exhausted mess, while Ruri would be rejuvenated and up for pretty much anything. She grinned. Pretty much anything was usually very fun.
She put her head down and lengthened her stride, digging deep into her altered physiology and the iron-hard discipline of her training. The grin was more of a grimace now, but it didn’t matter. This was the time she would beat her girlfriend to the edge of the woods. Her mind clarified and her reflexes sharpened. She leaned into her instincts, trusting them to guide her around trees and over treacherous terrain. The less she thought about it, the faster she went, until she felt like she was flowing over the ground, at one with the wind. She blew around a young tree, then hurdled a long dead stump. The moon wasn’t full, not yet. If it had been, she would have no chance of catching up to Ruri, but she drew closer to that elusive golden shape one step at a time. Her tail was raised over her back like a fluffy banner, and Malice concentrated on it, using it to goad her like a red cape in front of a bull.
Ruri’s head was down. Her powerful shoulders churned and her hindquarters bunched and lengthened with explosive speed, but she didn’t pull away. Malice grinned. If she stretched out her hand, she could grab that tail. Her fingers twitched. Once she had the tail in hand, it would be child’s play to wrap it up, and throw herself to the side, bringing the werewolf down. She had no katana, not for a run like this, but her mind visualized the blade being drawn across the beast’s neck, blood spraying red across the golden fur.
What? No! What was she doing, visualizing the death of her girlfriend? Mary Alice shook her head, trying to clear it of the disturbing imagery. She and Ruri were together, and things had been going pretty well the past few months. It wasn’t easy for someone like her to date someone like Ruri, but they managed, and the sex was incredible. So far, she’d kept the truth of Ruri’s background from her superiors. It wouldn’t do for a Hunter, one of the US Army’s elite monster-hunting soldiers, to be found literally sleeping with the enemy. Mary Alice knew what would happen if they were found out. She would lose Ruri and her position. It was doubtful either of them would survive, which was chilling, but also strangely comforting.
Am I in love with her? It wasn’t the first time the question had crawled through her brain. It had a tendency to crop up at the most inopportune times, like when she was sprinting at full tilt through a forest in the middle of the night. She shrugged her way past a thick fir, trying to keep from getting a face full of needles and snow. Am I? She wasn’t sure. But she knew that if Ruri was taken from her, she wouldn’t stop until she had Ruri back, or had died trying. Ruri calmed her, kept her out of her own head and away from dark thoughts and even darker memories.
And for all her darkness, Ruri stuck with her. That was the amazing part of it all. No matter how surly she got after a meeting with Uncle Ralph, her girlfriend was there with a hug or a snarky comment. She always seemed to know exactly what Mary Alice needed. She had the sinking feeling she wasn’t keeping up her end of the bargain on that one.
No, Ruri was fantastic. She was smart, and fun.
Mary Alice looked up. The golden wolf she’d been chasing had taken off while she was deep in thought. There was no sign of her tawny fur nor her paw prints.
“Crap.” The cold air steamed from the utterance. She would have to trace her steps and figure out where Ruri had deviated from her usual path. The packed snow among the trees crunched softly as she made her way back along her own footprints. There it was! When Mary Alice had swung to the right around that fir, Ruri had gone left and had continued, taking an angle away from Mary Alice. She was in the woods somewhere, probably watching and laughing to herself. Pounce and chase was one of Ruri’s favorite games when in wolf form. She positively delighted in it. Malice wasn’t bad at it either. She slowed down, letting her senses reach out, feeling for something different in her mental landscape. There were times she thought she could actually feel Ruri, like a point of pressure on her skin, though one that caressed more than jabbed.
She kept an eye on the prints as she moved forward slowly, taking care not to step on the snow when she could manage it. Not only did the crust squeak under her feet, but it concealed dead branches that would give away her position. What moonlight there was at this late hour dappled the forest floor, making the prints difficult to see. She almost missed when they stopped. She grinned and shook her head.
“You’ll have to get up earlier than that to get the drop on me,” Malice said. She looked up into the boughs of the large tree where the prints stopped. There was no sign of Ruri. She blinked once, then looked around. A featherlight touch ghosted across the back of her head. Ruri was behind her.
She leaped straight up, grabbing the nearest branch and levered herself up as Ruri dashed beneath her. She dropped down and took off after the wolf. Ruri bounded and weaved, trying to pull ahead, but Malice kept pace. Eventually, Ruri stopped trying to throw her off. She shortened her paces and dropped back until Mary Alice paced alongside her. The canine grin was still there, but not as sharp. It was time to enjoy each other, not to try to outdo the other. She made no move toward Mary Alice, and Mary Alice was content to leave it that way. She fell into an easy running rhythm and opened herself up to her surroundings.
How long they kept pace through the snowy woods, Mary Alice had no idea. The woods ceased between one step and the next and they were loping across dead grass swathed in snow. Mary Alice slowed and looked around. There was no one to be seen; it was much too early. The sky to the east was lighter. Dawn wasn’t that far off. They’d been out much longer than she’d thought. It was time to head back to the truck. She wasn’t sure where they were, not exactly, but she had an idea. Skirting the edge of the woods and cutting through them would be faster than attempting to retrace their steps.
“Come on,” she said to Ruri who still paced alongside her. Sweat rolled down Mary Alice’s back. She’d wanted a workout and she’d gotten it. Ruri looked like she’d come back from a leisurely stroll. There was no trace of matting to her coat and she didn’t seem to be breathing heavily at all. At least she didn’t have to worry about her falling behind.
Something grabbed hold of the back of her foot and tugged. For a second, Mary Alice was able to keep her balance, but another tug overbalanced her completely and she tumbled in an ungainly sprawl of limbs. Snow puffed up around her and she scrambled to turn the fall into a controlled tumble. She got her feet under her, then a warm mass struck her right between the shoulder blades and she sprawled forward. She had enough presence of mind to close her mouth before she ate too much dirt. Adrenaline surged through her; the night snapped into sharp focus around her. Malice dug her hands into the ground and flexed her arms, pushing herself around to face whatever it was that was attacking her. She grabbed at her waistband with one hand before she remembered she hadn’t grabbed a knife on the way out of her home. It had seemed like overkill with Ruri around in wolf-form.
Ruri was face to face with her, tongue lolling as she panted, waiting for Malice’s next move.
“Dammit, Ruri.” Mary Alice slapped the grass with an open hand. “I could have killed you.”
Ruri’s sneeze told her what she thought of that statement. She clacked long teeth together next to Mary Alice’s ear, and despite herself, Mary Alice couldn’t help but flinch. Ruri took the opportunity to favor her with a wet lick along the side of her face.
“Oh!” The outraged gasp was less than effective, but it was all she could manage as a rebuttal. “That’s it.” She launched herself at the laughing wolf who danced away. Fur glided through Mary Alice’s fingertips, but there was nothing to grab hold of. She pushed herself up to a low crouch and circled to keep Ruri in front of her. The wolf bowed down, her head low and back haunches and tail held high. Glowing golden eyes tracked her every move. Mary Alice feinted to the left and reversed herself to the right as Ruri dodged away from her. She caught the wolf around the front of her chest with one arm. Together they tumbled to the ground, rolling over and over until they came to a stop with Ruri somehow on top again. She dipped her head toward Mary Alice’s face.
“Enough,” Mary Alice choked out past gasping laughter. She raised her arms to protect her face from Ruri’s exceptionally wet tongue. “Enough already.” Instead of giving her the wet tongue bath she was expecting, Ruri laid her head on Mary Alice’s shoulder for a moment. Peace seeped into her and she relaxed, wrapping her arms around Ruri’s warm body. It would be all right. Ruri’s breath expanded her ribcage in an even cadence beneath her hands. Things would work out. They had to.
Light bloomed around them and Mary Alice looked away from the source, trying to preserve her night vision. Long shadows traced the form of their bodies upon the snow.
“Ma’am?” A man’s voice reached her ears. He sounded young, his voice was light and unsure. “Are you all right?”
Crap. Mary Alice scrambled to her feet. Ruri went sat on her haunches and looked in the direction of the speaker. She didn’t seem too perturbed.
“I’m fine.” Mary Alice made a show of brushing the snow off her pants. She waved in the direction of the lights. “Just out for a morning run with my dog.”
“Park’s not open yet.” Now that he was convinced she wasn’t in mortal danger, the man’s voice hardened into something approximating authority. “And you should really have your dog on a leash.”
“Yeah, sorry. I don’t like to let her run when there are other people around, so I thought I’d come early.” She shrugged and tried not to think what Ruri must be thinking. “Other dogs tend to be scared of her, so I can’t take her to the dog park.”
“I get it. If you get out of here before my boss shows up, I’ll pretend I never saw you. Only I better not see you here before open again.”
“Got it.” Mary Alice patted the top of her leg. Ruri turned her head slowly and stared at her. “Come on,” Mary Alice hissed. She hadn’t been aware that wolves could roll their eyes, but that’s exactly what she was treated to as Ruri heaved herself up.
“And put a leash on that dog!” the young man called after them.
“Sorry, sweetie.” Mary Alice pulled the leash and collar out of her pocket. “It’s just until we get out of sight, then they come right off. I promise.”
Ruri was still as Mary Alice buckled the collar around her neck. Every line of her body sang with tension. Ruri followed along when Mary Alice broke into a jog, but her usual grace was gone. They couldn’t get out of sight fast enough for either of them.
Malice struggled forward, her hands reaching out. Was she trying to block out the light that threatened to sear her retinas, or was she grasping at it? Beams of brilliance lanced toward her between fingers and tears streamed anew down her face. It wasn’t the first time she’d cried that night, she knew that, but why? The reason escaped her and she took one more labored step toward the thing that was trying to blind her.
Something pulled at her. A thin cry threaded through the howling winds. Not even a breath of it brushed across her skin, yet the tempest shrieked at her. Malice looked away, trying to penetrate the darkness behind her.
“Mal.” There it was again. Ruri. No, she couldn’t let her love stop her. If she didn’t get to that light, all was lost.
“Mal.” Ruri’s voice was right next to her. It whispered in her ear and howled in her soul. “Mary Alice!” Hands grabbed her upper arms. In vain, Malice tried to shake them off. She couldn’t be stopped. She wouldn’t be stopped. She raised both hands to strike.
“Holy crap!” Ruri threw herself to the bed as Mary Alice’s open hand knifed through the air where her head had been a second before.
“Oh no,” Mary Alice said. It was stupid, she knew that, but she could find no other words as her world coalesced around her. The loft was bright, lit by the winter sun through the row of windows in the loft. She blinked, but the searing light that had threatened to blind her was nowhere to be seen.
“Are you back?”
“I…think so?” Mary Alice shook her head, then looked down at her hands. “Did I hit you?”
“Not for lack of trying.”
“Oh.” She pulled in a deep breath, centering herself in the moment and allowing the last of the dream to slide away. If it’s a dream, why does it feel so real? Why can you remember it so clearly?
Warm arms wrapped around her shoulders and Ruri pulled her close. “The dream again?”
Mary Alice nodded.
“That’s the third time this week. Maybe you should find a therapist to talk to. Or a shaman.”
“No.” Mary Alice shook her head with as much emphasis as she could muster. “No religion. Of any kind.” Shrinks were even worse than priests in her estimation. Both peddled a sad sack of tricks, none of which would help her. Sleeping after a run was supposed to be better. She’d been trying to work herself to exhaustion over the past few weeks. The dream didn’t come when she was so tired she was ready to fall over, but no longer it seemed. Ruri helped. She wrapped her hands around her lover’s forearms and held her in place, taking comfort in the feel of Ruri’s skin warm against her own.
“Do you want to talk to me about it?” Ruri nuzzled her face down into the crook of her neck.
“There’s nothing to talk about. I was trying to get to the light. If I didn’t get to it, terrible things would happen.” Her subconscious wasn’t exactly subtle. Mary Alice didn’t have to dig too deeply for the root of her night-time restlessness. Stiletto. It was ironic. Killing Stiletto was supposed to bring her some peace of mind, instead here she was trying to pull herself together after yet another night of fractured sleep. For all intents and purposes, the woman had disappeared off the face of the earth. Uncle Ralph had seen to it. The fiery ambulance wreck had been a bit of overkill as far as Mary Alice was concerned, but when it came to her handler, she had long since ceased being surprised by the lengths he would go to keep their existence a secret.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.” She tried to push Ruri’s arms away gently, but Ruri tightened her arms, holding her tight.
A spiteful buzz on her bedside pulled her out of Ruri’s comforting arms.
“Now what?” Mary Alice reached over and snagged the phone. She stopped as soon as she saw the laughing death’s head on the display. She angled it so Ruri could see it. “Uncle Ralph.” She took a deep breath and drew her thumb across the screen. “What do you want?”
Even if Ruri hadn’t seen the phone screen, she still would have known “Uncle” Ralph was on the other line. No one else could bring such unhappiness to Mal. Anxiety flowed off her in a spiky wave.
“I hear you.” Mal’s normally expressive voice was flat. “Yes. No. I’ll need a couple days.” She paused, waiting for Uncle Ralph’s response.
As much as Ruri tried to listen in, she couldn’t make out what Ralph’s response was. Her wolf might have had a better chance of it, but her human ears weren’t quite up to the task. She hoped he was merely checking in, but she suspected it was another job. They’d had scarcely a moment to rest these past few months, and she’d hoped they might have a few days just the two of them. Now that didn’t seem likely.
She got out of bed and pulled a loose robe around her naked body. There was no point in waiting around if she couldn’t listen to both sides of the conversation. Her stomach rumbled, an artifact of their long run only a few hours before. Ruri puttered around the kitchen, pulling together a warm breakfast of scrambled eggs and ham. Mostly ham for her, with only a few spoonfuls of eggs. She made sure the ham didn’t come in contact with Mal’s eggs. The Hunter refused to eat meat, though Ruri had seen her nostrils flare on more than one occasion when she’d had a particularly rare cut of steak.
Mal Nolan. Even after living with her for months, Ruri felt like she’d only scratched the surface when it came to her enigmatic mate. Oh, she was attentive and warm, but always at a remove. So often, when they were together, her eyes gazed at something deep inside her own mind. Mal wasn’t quite distant, but neither was she completely present. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Mated pairs practically lived in each other’s pockets. She’d been longing for that type of closeness with someone for so long, but with Mal, it was completely one-sided. She had to feel the bond. How could she not? Mal blazed like a beacon on her internal landscape. Ruri would never lose her, it wasn’t remotely possible. But if Ruri was gone, would Mal notice?
She poked at her half-eaten slab of ham and sighed.
The clatter of a plate against the granite of the kitchen island pulled Ruri out of her funk. Mal sat across from her; she nodded her thanks for the eggs before scooping up a big bite.
Ruri stared at her, using the weight of her gaze to push Mal into talking about her conversation with Ralph.
“Uncle Ralph has a new assignment for me,” Mal finally said. “I’m going to go away for some time. I don’t know how long. You’ll stay behind to keep an eye on Cassidy.”
No way. This isn’t happening. How could Mal even suggest such a thing? A knot expanded in Ruri’s chest, driving breath from her lungs and keeping her from pulling a full breath. The wolf bristled beneath her skin and she had to relax her mouth after her lips peeled away from her teeth. Ruri drew herself away from the wolf, maintaining enough mental separation to keep her from forcing the shift into wolf form. The wolf resisted her efforts, trying to muscle her way into Ruri’s form. Her muscles trembled on the edging of cramping, just short of initiating the transition. It was a testament to how worked up the wolf was that it was this difficult to resist her, even with the full moon still a few days away. This won’t work, Ruri tried to tell the wolf. I have to talk to her, convince her this isn’t the way. The wolf paced within her, not content to listen to her words, not when it meant their mate would be far from them. Let go. All at once, the wolf stopped fighting. Ruri looked down. Mal leaned across the table, and had her hand wrapped around Ruri’s arm. The wolf quieted at her touch, and Ruri took advantage of the lull.
She sat up straight while watching Mal closely. She had no doubt that her eyes glowed the deep burnished gold that betrayed how close she’d come to shifting. Well, let them glow. Mal needed to know that what she’d just tried to propose had no chance of succeeding.
“I don’t think so,” Ruri said. “There’s no way in hell.”
“It’s not up for discussion,” Mal let go of her arm and looked back down at her plate. She scooped some eggs onto her fork, but didn’t lift them to her mouth.
“You may not think so, but I go where you go. You’re not leaving me behind.” That Mal could even suggest such a thing was upsetting in the extreme. The wolf shifted restlessly within her. They were in complete agreement.
“I can’t take you with me on assignment. You know that.”
“I don’t see why not. I’ve gone with you on other hunts.”
“That’s different.” Mal placed the fork carefully back down on the plate. “There are all sorts of people here. Where I’m going is much less populated.”
“And where is that, exactly?”
Mal cut her a sideways glance then turned her gaze back to her plate. “Wisconsin.”
“Wisconsin? Why on earth would you go there?”
“It’s part of my territory. I do venture outside of Chicago, you know. I’m responsible for a big chunk of territory.”
“Then why haven’t you been out before?”
“I have, only not recently. Smaller incidents are handled by Black Ops squads. There doesn’t tend to be a large concentration of supras outside of large population centers. Your people don’t like to be far from food sources.”
“They’re not my people.” The denial was automatic, but true. Her people had disappeared after Dean was killed. Her Alpha had held their pack together, and though most of them now acknowledged Cassidy as Alpha, she wasn’t included. The kicker was that most of that was Mal’s fault. Maybe not directly. She doubted Mal had set out to be her mate. How nice would that be? a small voice in the back of her head asked. The wolf whined in agreement, and sorrow washed through them, carrying away the words she’d been planning to say.
Mal shrugged. “Either way. The point is, I don’t often leave the city, but it does happen. Something’s going down in the North Woods. I need to look into it. You need to stay behind.”
“Don’t tell me what I need.” Ruri struggled to keep the fury from her voice. Despite her best efforts, heat still colored the edges, enough that Mal glanced her way, an eyebrow raised. What I need is you, she wanted to say, to scream until Mal finally understood. “You can’t leave me here.”
“What’s to stop me?”
Does she even realize how cruel her words are? Ruri looked out the front window, not really seeing the lines of grey concrete that stretched out in front of them. She must not, Ruri decided. She can’t. “I can follow you to the ends of the earth. I will follow you to the ends of the earth. You can’t stop me.” It wasn’t a threat, it was a simple statement of fact.
“Someone needs to keep an eye on Cassidy.”
The shift in tactics wasn’t unexpected and Ruri almost smiled. This was a much easier argument to overcome. “Cassidy doesn’t want or need an eye kept on her. She has two dozen wolven at her back. If anyone needs someone at their back, it’s you.” When Mal took a breath to respond, Ruri kept going. “How pissed off do you think Cass will be when she finds out you set me to ‘watch over her’?”
“Pissed.” The response was quiet. Mal gnawed at her lower lip, but didn’t say anything else.
“You know it. And you know I’m coming with you.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Think about it all you want.” Ruri pulled her robe more snugly around her. “It doesn’t change the fact that I’m coming along. You can’t order me around. You’re not my Alpha, you’re my…” She stopped before saying “mate.” Mal got nervous when she used the word, though she didn’t understand why.
“Girlfriend.” Mal sighed deeply. “You’re my girlfriend, and I don’t own you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Fine, you can come. But you can’t get in the way.”
“I won’t. So what’s going on in Wisconsin that we need to take care of things? Demons? Vampires?” Please, let it not be wolven.
“All I know is kids are dying. Teenagers. Five of them so far, and no one knows why.”
“No one there knows, or your people don’t know?”
“Both. Uncle Ralph has no idea what’s going on, but he doesn’t think it’s normal. So I get to check it out and see if it’s related to supra activity.”
“Were there injuries?”
“I don’t think so. He’s going to call me back, and we’ll get the details then.”
“All right.” No injuries means it was unlikely wolven were involved. Wolven kills tended to be messy, especially if it was one newly turned. So there was that. The woods sounded nice, and her wolf enjoyed the snow. She’d wanted time just the two of them, maybe this was it.