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The Verge

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“You sure you’ll be all right?”

I groan, flopping back on the bed. “Mom, please, I’ve been sitting around correcting Spanish homework for two weeks. Just let me get out there and do something.”

She sighs, a rush of static over the phone. “Okay, Del, but that ankle starts bothering you again you stay in the car, you understand?”

I’m a twenty-five year old man and capable of making those decisions for myself but I guess, being my mom, she’s contractually obligated to say things like that. “Yeah, yeah. What’s the job?”

“River hulk.”

I hear the grimace in her voice. With good reason. Those things are scary as fuck, not to mention hard to kill. “Are...we gonna have help?”

“Yeah, there’s another guy coming along.”

“One guy? That’s—uh, not a lot of backup.”

“He’ll do. Just—ah, I’ll let Ed explain when you get there. Be careful, Del.”

“I always am.” Not strictly true or, well, even close to true. But what else am I gonna say?

“All right. I’ll talk to you later.”

I chuck my phone on the desk and rise, rotating my ankle. Still a twinge here and there but it’s fine. Paying the bills is boring as shit. I want to get out there and do some good.

———

The state park sign is a little overgrown for the early summer but I spot it easy enough and pull off into the dirt lot. Ed’s truck is there, and when she sees me come in she hops out of the cab.

Nobody else here today. Too hot, maybe. I don't care about that right now. Too ready to out there and get my hands dirty. I park the car and come over. Ed looks pissed. There’s another door slamming from the other side of the cab, which must be the other guy.

“Hey, Del,” she says. “Your ankle okay?”

“Fine. So…river hulk, huh? What’s the plan?”

Ed jerks her head. “Him.”

The guy comes around the truck.

He’s beautiful. Not stop-in-your-tracks beautiful but the more I stare at him the more beautiful he gets. Not very tall—Ed’s height, maybe five eight—but he’s got a well-kept beard over a kind of blunt, heavy face, and waves of dirty blonde hair on top of his head, though the sides are shaved closer. He’s also pretty jacked under that white t-shirt. I try to say hello but my jaw has dropped and all that comes out is “huh.” He watches me with brown eyes so light they’re almost gold.

“He’s a werewolf,” Ed interjects.

I take a reflexive step back. The guy winces. “Kind of.”

“Kind of?” I blurt out.

“Okay, fine,” Ed concedes. “Half a werewolf.”

“A werewolf fucked my mom,” the guy explains.

That was blunt. I’m shaking my head. “No. That’s impossible. Monsters can’t reproduce with humans.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I stare at him, waiting for things to make sense. Ed glances over. “What’s your mom again? Shapeshifter?”

“Yeah.”

At last. Everything’s starting to fall into place. “Your parents were both monsters.”

“I’m Jesse, by the way.” He sticks out his hand.

Tentatively I reach out and shake it. “Del.”

His grip is firm but not crushing, and his hands are a little calloused. I feel like there are a few things I should have gotten out of the way first. “So, werewolves…kill people.”

“Yeah.” He lets go.

“Do you…kill people?”

“No.” He turns and starts heading for the woods. “It sucks.”

Ed watches him go with folded arms. “Where the fuck did you find this guy?!” I hiss.

“I didn’t fuckin’ find him, your senile-ass grandfather found him!” she hisses back.

“Well—do you know him? Is he gonna murder us as soon as we look away?”

“I worked with him a couple times. Didn’t fuckin’ like it, but we lived.”

“You got questions, all you need to do is ask,” Jesse calls over his shoulder.

Seems he has pretty good hearing. Ed grabs a duffel out of the bed. I’ve already got my backpack. We follow him to the edge of the lot and into the treeline.

It’s almost noon and pretty hot already. Ed’s in a tank top, which is smart. I’m suffering. The woods aren’t that dense so the shade helps but not that much; sunlight splashes down through the trees, making me squint as we turn right and head off the dirt path. The leaves are bright green, still growing. Jesse walks with surety. Apparently he knows where we’re going.

The moon was new the night before last, so at the very least I think we can probably take him if he tries to kill us. Maybe. I know how werewolves work but we’ve never actually killed a shapeshifter. From what I remember, they’re supposed to be nonviolent. Werewolves are really violent, though, so maybe they cancel each other out. “Hey,” I say. “So, uh, what do you do?”

“You mean professionally or in my spare time?” Jesse replies.

Sarcasm. Great. “I mean do you, like…turn into a wolf-man and stuff.”

“Not really. I can grow teeth and claws.”

Well, that doesn’t sound that scary. “Okay. And do you shapeshift?”

Then Jesse’s gone and a wolf is trotting through the trees ahead of me.

It happens so fast I don’t see the transformation, which is a shame. It’s not really a wolf, I guess. As far as I know they don’t get that big. He’s gotta be at least three feet at the shoulder, closer to three and a half, with black fur with sprays of tan at his ruff and back. He pauses and turns, blinking at me with big brown eyes.

Then Jesse the (beautiful) man is back and he heads forward again. “I can do that.”

“Uh huh.”

“But mostly what I can do is take hits. So let me handle the heavy lifting when it shows up.”

“Don’t know why Niles called me and Del in at all,” Ed mutters. “Can’t you just kill the fuckin’ thing?”

“Probably. If I’m sloppy it might get away, though. I’m at kind of a low ebb right now.”

I nod. “The moon.”

Jesse glances over his shoulder. “Yeah.”

“I brought some stuff that might help,” I tell him, and reach around to my backpack.

“Besides the paintball guns?”

Those are in Ed’s bag. “Yeah. Built a new spell. I’ve never tested it before, but, well, it might work.”

“That’s encouraging.”

Ed chuckles. I shoot her a glare.

The ground gets soggier. Jesse navigates through it, planting his feet on rocks and tufts of yellow grass. This looks like river hulk territory, and Ed and I share a nervous look. “You know where this thing is?” she says.

“I think it’s nearby.”

“How can you tell? Can you smell it?” I ask.

“No. It smells like swamp and we’re in a swamp,” Jesse answers. “I can feel it. Just not that well. Moon’s weak.”

“What do you mean, ‘feel’ it?” He probably thinks I’m annoying but I don’t really give a shit. No one understands monsters, but I want to. I want to know.

He rubs his forehead. “We can all feel each other. It’s, ah…it’s hard to explain. There’s a…a place at the back of my mind where—“ Jesse halts. “Oh. Back up.”

It takes me a moment to register but then I start backing up and a second later the ground starts rumbling. Jesse stays right where he is, balanced on a tall tuft of grass.

The river hulk is rising out of the ground.

Not so much climbing out of it as built from it, the mud sucked toward her and piling up to form her body, like a mudslide in reverse. Two slick grey stones poke out to form her eyes, and a gaping hole beneath for her mouth. Phragmites sprout from her head, feathery and stiff. She lets out a gurgling series of chirps and buzzes like a chorus of peepers and red-winged blackbirds are trapped inside her.

I call her “she” because she’s pregnant. Her belly is bulging and round. “Fuck,” I whisper, retreating very slowly, half because the terrain is unstable and half because this is fascinating. The river hulk is enormous. As the mud gets sucked in, she just keeps getting bigger. Jesse’s shoulders rise and slump again in what I can imagine is a resigned sigh.

Then he jumps at her face.

That’s when I start to back off for real. I do not want to get hit by a wayward swipe of her arm. Even getting clipped would be enough to kill me—those limbs are basically liquid cement, and I do not have a powerful werewolf body, I have a weak fleshy human body that is not very difficult to crush for something like a river hulk. And then she would take my corpse and smush it up and pack it into the wall of her home with the corpses of all her other victims.

As they do.

Ed is already headed for higher ground—there’s not much, but she’s spotted a rise in the forest floor and I follow her, slinging my backpack off my shoulders. The duffel bag thuds to the leaves, and Ed yanks the zipper open. Two paintball guns. She starts to load one double-quick. I dig in my backpack and pull out what I need.

There’s a big flat rock jutting out of the dirt so I spread the sheet of paper out there and pop the top off the Tupperware of ink, scramble down and grab a nice handful of watery mud and throw it in there to add some oomph. Mix it up with a thick paintbrush and get my thoughts in order.

I stole this spell. I steal every spell, because best guess right now is magic works through tradition and belief and I’m just one guy, I can’t come up with hundreds of years of certainty and devotion all by myself. So I stole the components of this spell—today from the symbology of an indigenous Central American population. Hoping it still works because we’re not in Central America, we’re in Tennessee, but I had a good feeling about the angle.

There’s a snarl from up ahead. Jesse’s lain out in the swamp, pushing himself to his feet The river hulk heaves an arm into the air and Jesse’s legs pump. He gets out of the way just in time as her limb smashes down, and then he’s going for her face again. His hand scores a thick gouge out of it, tearing away her eye. She hoots in—I don’t know. Anger, pain, displeasure. Something.

It’s hard not to watch it. Like witnessing two apex predators fight to the death. Jesse’s trying to clamber up over her shoulder but her shoulder’s made of mud and anyway, she’s swiveling around in an attempt to dislodge him. He slides down her arm but then surges up and manages to get onto her back. Then he’s digging and digging—is this gonna be over already?

One of those sludgy arms whips up and bashes into his side. He flies fifteen feet through the air and skids to a stop in the mud. Holy shit. The hulk lumbers toward him. He’s not moving.

A crack from beside me. Ed’s paintball gun. A splash of neon pink appears on the hulk’s back. Don’t know why they hate paint so much but they do. She whirls, gurgling at us.

Okay. Time to start working. I begin to write. 

The hardest part is the disputes in translation. I use as wide a range of sources as I can find, but even so there’s usually at least a couple interpretations that prevail, and I just have to go with the one I agree with the most. Pronouncing the spell isn’t super easy either, although Youtube is helpful and practice is essential. As I’m muttering to myself my knee starts to sink into the dirt. Because it’s turning to mud underneath me. Whoops. Not specific enough. I do a little improvisation and reorder some things and stop sinking. My head pounds, and the pins and needles are next, shooting all the way down to my fingers and toes. Then they start prickling behind my eyes too, which is really unpleasant. It’s hard to breathe.

“You got it yet?!” Ed watches the hulk, tense but steady. “Cutting it kinda close!”

I shoot her a look with watering eyes and keep going. The hulk is still trundling toward us. Ed drops the paintball gun and goes for her machete. Great. We have to hand-to-hand this thing, our chances are not good. I am in fact almost done with the spell, but whether or not it’ll actually do anything remains to be seen.

The last symbol. I put down the final strokes, which should be what draws it all together, and look up, swiping at my eyes. Ideally the hulk will dissolve into muddy water.

She doesn’t do that. She does gurgle again and kind of slump. I’d call that a middling success. Of course, a middling success doesn’t mean shit when a river hulk is five yards away and pissed off at you for painting her pink. “Fuck,” Ed mumbles, and lifts her machete.

The river hulk moans and sits back. Jesse appears on her shoulders, digging in the back of her neck. She tries to reach up for him, but her arm begins to fall apart as it rises into the air. Oh, I think that’s my spell. That’s nice. Jesse’s elbow-deep in her neck, his legs trapped in her body. He pulls back all of a sudden, his shoulders tightening, muscles straining under his t-shirt. The hulk swivels but can’t throw him; he’s lodged inside of her. The back of her neck bulges out as Jesse’s hands start to emerge.

At last he yanks out a clump of dirt with a shaggy fringe of roots hanging off of it. The hulk collapses, and Jesse lands inside the remnants of her body with a squishy-sounding thud. He tosses aside the roots; the long strips of grass are still buried in the amorphous corpse.

“Holy shit.” I pick my way down the rise.

Jesse shrugs. “Not really. This is kind of what I do.” He winces and wraps an arm around his ribs.

“Are you hurt?” I ask.

He straightens slowly. “Yeah, but it’ll heal before long.”

His shirt is soaked through with mud, front and back, as are his jeans. “Um…you took a lot of hits. Are you sure you’re—“

“Del,” he interrupts. “It’s fine. This won’t kill me.”

“The fuck happened?” Ed. “I had to save your ass. Thought you were supposed to be good.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” He lifts a hand and grins in genuine amusement. “My claws got stuck.”

I’m wearing boots but still skirt the edge of the river hulk, peering down. “Did you get the baby?”

Silence. Jesse’s staring at me. Ed’s staring at him, then me, then the hulk’s body. I don’t think she knows what’s going on either. “The baby?” Jesse asks.

“Yeah.” I gesture at her. “She was super pregnant. Is her kid dead too?”

Jesse rubs his forehead, leaving a smear of mud. “Okay. First of all, the hulk’s not a she, it’s an it. Technically, I’m also an it, but I won’t get on your ass about that. Second, it wasn’t pregnant. Monsters don’t conceive children. Humans do that.”

“Your mother did,” I shoot back without thinking. Oh, that was rude. He might want to slash my face off now.

Jesse lets out a shallow sigh, wincing again. “Shapeshifters are a poor excuse for a monster. Anyways, my third point is that’s not even how hulks fucking work. It found a smaller hulk and packed the thing into its own body to make itself bigger and stronger. Fuck’s sake.” He steps over the mud and past me. “Let’s just go.”

“Uh-uh,” Ed says. “You are not getting in my truck like that. I just cleaned the seats.”

Jesse halts and looks down at his mud-covered self. Then he grabs the hem of his shirt and peels it off over his head.

Oh boy. He’s got powerful shoulders and he’s cut but not weird-cut like a bodybuilder, and his hips are broad—he’s gotta weigh over one-sixty. There are smears of mud on his skin and over the thick blonde hair that covers his chest and stomach. I realize quickly that I’m staring and correct that but from Jesse’s cocked eyebrow and sly grin I know I was too late.

“No! You are not riding fuckin’ naked in my truck! And you’re still fuckin’ dirty!” Ed flings a hand out at him.

Jesse tries to wipe himself off with a muddy hand, which does nothing at all. “Sorry. I’ll just shift before I get in.”

Ed presses her lips together, controlling her temper. “You are going to get dog hair all over my seats.”

“Hey, it’s that or the mud, take your pick. I’ll vacuum it afterwards if you want.”

“Whatever,” she grumbles. “Let’s just head home.”

He shifts right there and pads off through the woods. God, that wolf shape is huge. Ed climbs back up to her bag and starts to pack. I follow suit.

“He’s gonna be on the downstairs couch,” she says. “Don’t worry about not waking him up, though. Really, just do your thing.”

Um. “What?”

“Oh.” She snaps her fingers. “Forgot to tell you. He’s staying with us now.”

“What?! Why? For how long?”

She waves her hand. “Until this whole shit is over.”

“Ed—what are you talking about?”

She pauses for a moment and lets out a long breath. “Okay. So we had a meeting while you were stuck at home. Meredith…thinks there’s another monster king.”

Oh, fuck.

The last time—the first time—we had one was twelve years ago. I was only thirteen so I don’t remember too much. I do remember my dad getting killed, of course. Monsters got violent, even more so than normal. But I guess once we killed the monster king everything went back to the way it was before.

Except now there’s another one, apparently. And I see a problem with this new arrangement. Jesse’s still nearby so I switch to Spanish. Me and Ed are both Mexican although I never actually lived there so I don’t really know the slang. “Hey, Ed. The monster king makes monsters go berserk, right?”

“Right.”

“And Jesse is a monster.”

“Right.”

“Who’s going to be staying on our couch.”

“I don’t know. He said he’d be fine. And Meredith wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

I rise, shouldering my backpack again. Not that I’d tell Ed this but I’m a little excited. There’s not many monsters that can talk to humans, and the ones who will are few and far, far between. So Jesse’s sort of a one-in-a-million opportunity.

He’s also really hot and I wouldn’t mind finding him sleeping on the couch in his boxers on my way downstairs in the morning. Which I am absolutely not mentioning to Ed. Just gotta work on keeping my eyes to myself. Through the trees Jesse is waiting like an omen, silent and still.

Then he starts trotting away with his pink tongue hanging out of his mouth so the effect is kind of ruined. Maybe we can pass him off as a dog. A freakishly huge, scary dog.

I’m kind of looking forward to this. I shouldn’t be, but here we are.

Chapter Text

I stare at the ceiling.

The fan rotates at the second-highest setting. It’s 8 in the morning and must be 80 degrees already. My AC unit is in the basement but I haven’t dug it out yet.

Maybe it was all a dream.

It seems like a dream. How could a monster be killing monsters? Helping humans? There are no monsters that help humans. Although Ed says he’s been doing it for years, and Jesse says he doesn’t kill people. He’s a werewolf, it doesn’t make sense. Okay, shapeshifters are nonviolent, but werewolves are…animals. Maybe not most of the time, but certainly around the full moon.

I guess we’ll see in a week or two then. I roll over and pull on a pair of athletic shorts. My back feels damp from lying in bed sweating. Ugh.

As I’m coming down the stairs I spot Jesse asleep on the couch, just like I daydreamed about on the car ride home yesterday. His hair is messy, one leg propped up on the arm of the couch, the other splayed over the side. His thighs are…muscular. Just like the rest of him, to be honest. His chest rises and falls shallowly, and his skin shines a little with sweat under the fine dark blonde hair.

It’s probably bad to be salivating over a werewolf but I’m a twenty-five year old virgin so it is hard to help myself.

Jesse’s eyes are slitted open and watching me. Oh, fuck. I jerk backwards, decide it’s far too late to hide, and continue down the stairs as if I have not been ogling his sleeping body. “Uh—morning.”

Jesse sits up slowly, rubbing his face. “Don’t let the good looks fool you.” He rises and stretches his arms above his head, shivering. “Part of being a werewolf. If you’re attractive humans like you better.” He heads into the kitchen. “Makes it easier to hurt them later.”

The sounds of shuffling, cabinets opening. I stay right where I am, fingers tight around the banister. That was…about as blunt a warning as I could get. Does he hurt people? He doesn’t kill them. But there’s a lot you can do before crossing that line. That’s the whole point of monsters, after all, to hurt humans. Because some kill, yes, in an unknowable myriad of fantastically gruesome ways, but not all of them do. Their methods are too many to name—panic, despair, madness, some subtler, like guilt, shame, self-disgust. So Jesse…I don’t know. He doesn’t have to be the sum of his parts. He could be something new. He’s definitely a monster, is the thing I seem to be failing to grasp. Because I’m still attracted to him and I still want to get closer to him, even though undoubtedly all I’m doing is making it easier for him to hurt me—

Jesse’s face appears around the dividing wall, wearing a faintly embarrassed grin. “Uh…I just realized how dramatic that sounded. Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way. Just, you know. That’s the werewolf method. In case you were curious.” He points a thumb over his shoulder. “Want some coffee? It’s brewing.”

Then he disappears again.

Okay.

Well, now it would just be rude not to accept, so I follow him into the kitchen. He’s by the window, turning on the fan. A warm but still welcome breeze flows over me. 

“How are you feeling today?” I ask.

“Pretty good. Still sore, but nothing’s broken anymore.” He rests a hand on his ribs.

“That was fast.”

“Hm. Faster when the moon’s not so weak.”

“Yeah. About that.” I pull up a stool and sit at the island. “So you don’t turn into a wolfman.”

“Unfortunately, no.”

“Unfortunately?”

“Come on, if I have to deal with the fucking moon, the least I could get is a transformation. But no, I don’t.”

“Okay, so do you still, you know. Go berserk?”

He shakes his head. “No, I can control it pretty well. Just turn into an asshole, mostly.”

“An asshole.”

“Yeah. I start to really hate humans. More than normal.”

I rest my chin on my hand. “So being a monster makes you hate humans.”

He shrugs. “Well, for the most part, but they’re still annoying on the new moon so I think some of it is just me.”

“Yeah, I feel that,” I sigh.

He grins, then goes in the cabinets and comes up with a pair of mugs.

The coffee is done before long. I spy on his mug, which he probably notices but I don’t care. Lots of cream, no sugar. We settle down at the island. We’re both half-naked and he’s sitting very close to me. God, he’s built. Wonder if that comes with the monster thing too.

We don’t speak. He doesn’t seem like the type who needs to fill silence with small talk. Instead he watches the bird feeder, and I find my gaze alternately drawn there (sparrows and juncos, a goldfinch or two) and back to him. The way his fingers are tucked around the mug, how the breeze from the fan makes his hair flutter. His beard is a bit of a mess from having just woken up. The silence is nice.

But I’m nosy so I break it. “Ed said you’ve worked with her before.”

He blinks, rousing. “Yeah, once or twice.”

“So, did you do something? Why doesn’t she like you”

Jesse glances over, lifting an eyebrow. “Why would she?”

“I don’t know.” I set my mug down. Hot coffee is somewhat less appetizing on a summer’s day. “I don’t think you’re that bad.”

He lets out a low, amused chuckle. “That’s gonna change. But yeah, I mostly work by myself unless it’s something really big.”

“What kind of work do you do?”

“You know. A couple jobs now and then. Monsters making noise, I make them go away.”

“You kill them.”

“Uh…most of the time.”

“You let them get away?”

He raises his hands. “Hey, sometimes they just need me to tell ‘em to kill less people.”

“Does Niles know you let them get away?” My grandfather. He might not be in charge anymore, I don’t know. He’s getting demented.

Jesse levels his gaze at me. “I’m trying not to burn all my goddamn bridges.”

I rub my eyes. “You have bridges.”

“I’m a fucking werewolf, what do you expect? I do jobs so you all don’t fucking come after me. And if Niles or Meredith or whoever decides I’m not pulling my weight then I need somewhere to go.”

“Why would they come after you? You don’t kill people.”

“Because they don’t fucking like monsters, Del. Come on, you know them.” His lip curls.

That’s true. But something doesn’t make sense. “Wait, so—why are you working with us now? We kill monsters basically every month, won’t that burn all those bridges you’re trying to preserve?”

Jesse grimaces. “Yeah. Well, I kinda fucked things up already.”

“With…your monster connections.” I’m starting to put it together. “You did something to piss them off.”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re here for—protection? From them?”

“Yeah,” he mutters.

“Oh my god.” I hop off my stool. “Are they coming for you? Do I need to put down barriers?”

“No they’re not. Sit down.” He waves a hand. “If they come after you two, they’re making enemies they don’t want. Me living here is protection enough.”

I sit down again but I’m not satisfied. “Who’s after you? Why?”

Jesse watches me with narrowed eyes. Think I found something he really doesn’t want to talk about. I meet his gaze and hold it. I want to know this. I want to know which monsters he’s made friends with and what he did that made them want to kill him.

Then a door upstairs slams and the stairs creak and Ed appears, tossing her phone onto the island. “We got a job. Oh, coffee. Thanks, Del.”

Jesse stares into his mug. I heave a sigh. “Jesse made it.”

Ed pauses and shoots a look over her shoulder, then continues pouring. “Gaunt hounds.”

“Are you kidding me?” Another dangerous one, but not like river hulks. Gaunt hounds are smaller and easier to kill, but one bite and you come down with cancer. Any type, pretty much, but always nasty. Some people live for two or three years. Most…don’t.

Jesse grunts. “How many?”

Ed dumps sugar in her mug. “Ten or twelve. Hey, you wanna take this one? I hate those things.”

He scratches his beard. “If we wait a week, maybe. Not like I am now. They’re gonna make me sick and that’s gonna slow me down. I won’t get all of ‘em.”

“God, you’re fuckin’ useless.” She stirs her coffee too hard and some splashes over the side. “We can’t wait. They already killed someone.”

“Great. Can we bring guns?” I ask.

“Mm, I mean, we can bring ‘em, but there’s people living nearby.”

Okay, so I just have to be careful. Gaunt hounds aren’t smart, strong, or even fast, but they’re heavy and their bite force is like a crocodile’s. Still, a machete should do it.

“Bring snacks.” She flings her spoon into the sink. “It’s a six hour drive.”

——

The hounds are in Ohio.

I drive most of it and Ed takes over for the last bit. The victim lived in the woods. Died a few days ago so the hounds have probably moved in by now. Jesse stares out the window as the trees pass by. Can he get cancer? Doesn’t sound like it, from the way he was talking.

I think he’s pissed at me. I probably asked too many questions. But he took all those hits from the river hulk for us, the least I can do is figure out how to keep whoever’s after him from sneaking in in the middle of the night and killing him. Except apparently he doesn’t want to talk about it.

I didn’t anticipate a werewolf wanting privacy—reluctance to talk to humans, maybe, but that’s not the sense I was getting. Well, that’s fine. I’ve been studying monsters for twenty years, I’ve discovered two or three alternative kill methods, I’ve built dozens of spells and some of them have even worked on the first try. I’ll figure out how to help Jesse one way or another.

Ed leans over the wheel, squinting at the mailbox numbers. “Almost there.”

Jesse stretches, letting out a huge yawn. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Ed pulls into the driveway. The house is in disrepair, a one-story with shabby wooden siding that’s falling apart. There’s an overgrown lawn with a rusted pickup in the grass and a long-abandoned swing set sunk into the dirt. “Looks like this guy wasn’t doing too great before the hounds got him,” I murmur.

“Kinda the point.” The truck pulls to a stop and Jesse swings his door open, climbing out. “Guy like this dies of cancer, no one thinks twice where it came from. Hm.” He wrinkles his nose.

“What? What is it?”

“I smell them,” he replies. “Smells like death.”

Ed hops out and slams her door shut. “Least we know they’re here.”

Jesse leads the way. It was raining on the way over, and the ground is squishy under my boots. The nearest house is maybe fifty yards down the road so we shouldn’t be interrupted, long as we don’t fire any shots. Ed and I brought guns anyway just in case. Jesse didn’t. Ed offered, but he just looked kinda put off and declined. As we approach I start to smell it too. Fuck, that’s nasty. Not even very strong yet but it’s like a corpse that’s been left too long in the sun. A dozen of the goddamn things? Inside the house it’ll be unbearable.

The windows are dirty and grey, blinds drawn. Jesse grasps the door knob and glances over his shoulder. First turn doesn’t get anywhere. Must be locked. “I can probably—“ I begin.

Jesse turns the knob again and it snaps. Ah. The door swings open.

I see the eyes first. Not because they shine but because they’re bright spots in the shadowed room, gluts of white, bubbled tissue bulging from their sockets. So many. As the dim sunlight struggles to pierce the darkness I can see them lying there, in the atrium and to the left in the living room and to the right in the kitchen. The smell comes next, slapping me in the face and making my eyes water. Ed gags next to me. “Fuckin’ gross,” she whispers.

I’ve smelled bodies that have gone undiscovered for days and this is the same except there’s twelve or so. The hounds gaze at us—like Dobermans, kind of, with the thin legs and the pointed ears, but they’re grey, splotchy and grey and hairless. Pools of liquid spread from under their bodies and stain the floor, clearish and brown-yellow. Thick strings of saliva hang from their mouths. They wheeze and grunt softly, and their sides heave, skin stretched thin over deformed ribs.

Nobody moves for a moment. Then Jesse crouches in front of the nearest one. “Hey there,” he murmurs.

The hound whines, lifting its nose. Then its jaw drops open and a long tongue encrusted with ulcerating plaques flops out. Oh no.

It licks his face. Which is gross enough but the scent of its breath hits me a second later and I buckle, grasping the door frame with an iron grip to keep myself from doubling over. Rotting. I’d forgotten how bad it was. Is it possible to keep this in my memory? Something so wretchedly awful?

“Gross,” Jesse says, although he really hasn’t reacted much to any of this. He grabs its neck and pushes its head back, exposing its chest.

Then he jams his hand into its body. He kind of gets sucked in, but when he yanks back a second later its heart comes with him and the hound dissolves, skin splitting, bilious ash spilling out. Jesse makes a face and drops the heart—not a true heart, more of a fist-sized, malignant-looking mass, yellow-white with tatters of membrane hanging off of it.

Scrabbling as the pack starts to climb to their feet. Okay, here we go.

One of them jumps at Jesse but he catches it midair, staggering back, and hurls it at the next. They both hit the floor with a wet thud. He can throw those things? Christ, he’s strong. Oh, they’re coming after me too.

Ed’s already out the door and I follow, backing up and remembering just in time not to trip and fall on my ass down the step. The hounds lumber out. My machete’s already in hand so I swing it as soon as the first one gets close. It smacks the thing in the face, caving in its skull, the bone collapsing under the force. The hound staggers so I seize the opportunity and dive in, jamming the blade into the center of its chest. It starts to dissolve. Another one down. Not so bad.

Five more pour out onto the lawn. Ed swears and readies her weapon.

Well, here we go.

The hounds aren’t very fast but the tree cover between here and the road is pretty sparse and I’d rather some concerned passerby didn’t call in a dog attack to the local troopers. There’s two coming at me now so I play it safe, swinging at them and keeping them back, waiting for an opportunity. They’re big, not big like Jesse in his wolf shape, but big. A snarl from inside the house. Don’t think that was a hound.

One of them launches itself at me. I track its jaws with my eyes and swivel, lashing out as it flies past. The machete thunks into it like I just hit a sack of wet sand but it’s enough to throw the thing’s balance off, and it crashes to the ground. That’s my chance. One more swing at the second to ward it back before I step on the fallen hound’s neck and jam the machete through its body.

The ribs cave and the blade sinks in deep but I guess I missed because it doesn’t dissolve. That means I have two options—stay here and finish it or leave my weapon stuck inside its still-solvent body, which would leave me defenseless against the one that’s leaping at my head right now.

I yank the hilt back, tilting the blade, and hit the damn heart because it’s suddenly easier to pull out the machete. Good. If I missed again I’d be dead. As it is I have just enough time to whip the machete up before the second hound tackles me to the ground.

I get the blade in between its teeth, but my back thumps to the grass, knocking the wind out of me. The hound chews at the tarnished steel, but it’s wedged all the way at the hinge of its jaw so it can’t snap down. Sprays of thick yellow saliva spray onto my face. From across the yard Ed shouts “Del!”

The hound gurgles, shaking its head as it tries to bite me. My free hand is at its throat and my muscles burn with the effort of keeping it away. One of its paws is braced on my chest. Fuck, it’s heavy. The hound’s teeth are loose in its blackened, pus-filled gums, mobile and twisting against the blade. It lunges, its rotting breath washing over me. I hold it—barely, just inches away—and gag, my eyes burning. Get a leg under its body and shove but it’s too fucking heavy to push off of me. I’m going to get bitten. Another gurgle and some glutinous, foul-smelling liquid is expelled from its throat and splatters on my face. Ed shouts my name again. She’s dealing with a few of her own right now. She can’t help me.

Then a hand appears in my vision, jammed between the hound’s teeth, wrapping around its upper jaw and heaving back. I manage to keep hold of my machete as the hound is lifted off of me and hurled to the ground at my feet.

Jesse.

“Fucker,” he growls. There’s one latched to his forearm. He grabs the top of its skull, crushes it, tears its jaws out of his arm, and throws that one down too. They’re both still alive and I hasten to fix that, diving forward to stab the first one. Straight through the front of its chest so I don’t miss this time. Jesse’s already crouching to kill the second and a third clambers onto his back and bites down on his shoulder.

“Go help Ed,” he says, and grabs the third hound, flipping it over onto its back. Its jaws are still attached and its neck extends unnaturally, dragging Jesse down; he doesn’t seem bothered and shoves his hand into its body, rooting around.

I go help Ed.

She’s doing okay. One of hers is down and there are two more. Our eyes meet over their backs; her gaze flicks to her right. I sneak up on the one to her left. They’re pretty dumb and it doesn’t notice me until I jump on it, at the same moment Ed lunges at the other one. I get my arm around its neck and its legs buckle under me. Awkward to maneuver the machete from this angle but as the hound thrashes under me I get the point of it in the right spot and stab.

Its body collapses beneath me, covering me in disgusting soggy ash. I wrinkle my nose as I rise. It’s dropping from my shirt and off my fingertips.

“Any left?” Ed calls. She’s got a few yellow splatters on her but that’s it.

I turn.

Jesse’s on his knees, eyes closed. He shakes his head. Oh. “Hey.” I jog over. “Are you okay?”

He nods and murmurs, “Yeah, don’t worry about—“

“You’re covered in teeth,” I interrupt.

He’s covered in teeth. They’re stuck in his arms, his back and shoulders, his leg through the denim. “Yeah.” He lifts an arm and inspects them. They’re stuck in the messy wounds, roots red-pink and ragged. Dark red blood stains his shirt and jeans. “I’m fine. Just gotta pull ‘em out.”

“Are you okay? Are you gonna get sick?” I ask.

His eyes flick up, and I get the sense he’s annoyed with me. “This won’t kill me,” he replies.

“All right.” That’s Ed, approaching. “Jesse, there’s no more gaunt hounds nearby? This was the whole pack?” When he nods in affirmation, she turns to me. “Del, you get bit?”

“No.” I gingerly wipe my face. “But, uh…it—it spat this stuff at me. I don’t know if—”

“You’re fine,” Jesse cuts in. “No bite, no sickness.”

That’s a relief. He starts to rise; I help him and he doesn’t protest. The lawn is covered in ash and stinks like a ripe corpse.

I must stink like one too. I change inside the house and stuff my old clothes inside a couple of garbage bags because we have to take them with us, in case the guy’s family comes by to collect his belongings. They won’t be able to explain the ash, or the smell, but that’s not our problem. Okay. That was a nice brush with death. But no one got hurt and that’s what counts. Well, except Jesse but he doesn’t seem to care all that much.

I kinda care, though.

He climbs into the back of the cab with me and strips down to his boxers. I catch Ed’s baleful glare in the rearview as she pulls out of the driveway. He already put down a couple towels before we left for Ohio or she’d be snapping at him.

“Hey, Jesse,” I say.

He glances over at me. “Hm?”

“Thanks for saving my ass.”

“Yeah.” There’s still a few teeth stuck in the hand he used to haul that hound off of me. He starts to pluck them out and drop them on the rubber floor mat.

“It could have bitten your hand off.” It could have. With a bite force like that.

He shrugs. “Grows back. I think.”

“You think?”

“Lost fingers. Still got ‘em.”

His lungs are working hard, and faint wheezes ride on his voice. “You’re…sick,” I say. Can already tell he’ll get pissed at me but—

He shuts his eyes, rubbing them. “Be fine. By tomorrow.” A grin. “Do kinda feel like shit, though.”

Multiple gaunt hound bites. I’d be chock full of tumor by now. “You want me to help you get those teeth out?”

His eyes slit open, and he nods.

There’s a mostly-empty box of gloves under the seat. Have to replace those. The road twists and turns so I brace myself on the passenger seat back as I lean over. It’s not just the teeth—he’s torn up from where he ripped the hounds’ jaws out of his flesh, and still bleeding. Hopefully those towels will soak it up.

“Okay,” I tell him. “This might hurt.”

He chuckles at that. Then I yank the first tooth out of his thigh and he hisses, his leg jerking up.

“You have to relax.” I push his leg back down. “I can’t get them out if your muscle’s tight.”

He obeys without swearing at me which is more than I can usually say for Ed. His thighs are covered with the same dark blonde hair that coats his chest and stomach. It’s soft under my palm, which I try not to think about as I’m probing in the ragged wound for more teeth. Some of the muscle is weirdly dense and the wrong color. Tumor.

When all the teeth are out of that wound I go for the first aid kit but he waves me off. “Rag’s fine,” he rasps. Well, that’s cheaper than gauze, and if he’s not worried about cancer he definitely won’t be worried about an infection so I stuff a rag in there and move on.

His hand is next. The teeth have punched through it and the tendons and bones are visible. Personally, I’d be concerned about that. Jesse is not. Then his arm and shoulder, and his back is last; he curls up facing the window, hugging himself. His skin is going kind of ashen-gray. He shivers as I work. I’m trying not to be too harsh, pulling apart the edges of the wounds as gently as I can. Some of the teeth are huge but some are tiny and I have to fish for them in the stringy remnants of muscle, the leak of blood. He twitches and moans when we hit a bump in the road and I jab my finger into the wound by accident.

“Oh, fuck.” I pull my hand out. “Sorry.”

He shakes his head. “It’s. Okay.”

Eventually I can’t feel any more teeth so I sit back and wipe my hands on the towel. “Done, I think.”

Jesse relaxes, turning slowly. His eyes close again, brow creasing. Pain, or something.

“You better put some clothes on,” Ed says from the front. “Don’t wanna get pulled over and have some cop ask why there’s a naked guy in my back seat.”

It doesn’t look like Jesse could raise his arms, much less dress himself. I’m about to offer my help when he disappears and is replaced by a huge-ass wolf. There are still rags tucked into his leg and shoulder but they fall out when he changes.

“What the—“ Ed flings her hand up. “That’s not any fucking better!”

“Ed, it’s fine,” I try. “He just looks like a big dog.” A really big dog. He’s hunched, squished down by the ceiling of the cab. There’s no way he can curl up on the seat—he just won’t fit.

Then he rearranges himself, lying down across the seats, and next thing I know a giant wolf head flops into my lap.

That’s one way to manage it. I instinctively start to pet him because I’m an idiot and then I stop that. He doesn’t snap at me, though. And there’s nowhere to put my hands so I end up resting them on his neck anyway. He is…fluffy. There’s not really another way to describe it, much as I strive to think of one. One of my fingers finds a sticky patch of blood; I move to stay away from the spot.

Jesse sleeps. Ed stops a couple of times for gas or a pit stop and I slide out from under him and he doesn’t even twitch, just snuffles a little when I slide back in. By the time we get home my clean sweatpants are covered in drool. It’s dark out and I’m the one who brings our bags inside and as I toss them down in the hall I already hear the upstairs shower running. Thanks, Ed. Jesse ambles inside and shifts back to close the door behind him.

His wounds already look better—shiny with new flesh, puffy and red-pink. Still ringed with dried blood. “Uh…” I jerk my head. “Do you want the shower first?”

The downstairs one. He nods sleepily and heads for the bathroom.

Okay.

Well, it’s not the first time I’ve almost died, but it might be the grossest. And I’ve certainly never had anyone almost get their hand bitten off to save my life. I know he did it because he needs protection. I know he did it to uphold his end of the deal. Monsters don’t help humans, not without a wicked price.

But it seems like Jesse’s the only one paying it. I felt the way his muscles tensed under my hand when I was pulling those teeth from his back. There has to be something more to this. He doesn’t kill people, isn’t that what he said? Why would a werewolf not kill people? It would be so easy for him. I’ve seen that strength, he could crush my neck in half a second if he wanted to.

He stripped the couch and folded the sheets before we left so I make up his bed again. Then I am drinking a cup of milk when he gets out of the shower.

He’s naked, which, well, isn’t unexpected, I guess, but I’m still super a virgin so although I maintain my voice at a normal tenor I can feel my face going red while I make a mighty attempt not to look at his dick. “Do you need some clothes?”

“No,” he mumbles, and digs in a duffel bag beside the couch. His ass is really, really nice. But then he pulls on boxers and rises and then halts, pointing. “Did you do that?”

The bed. “Oh. Yeah.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” He crawls in, cracking a smile. “Still feel like shit.”

“No problem.” I continue drinking my glass of milk now that Jesse’s mostly naked body has disappeared under the sheets.

“Hey, Del.”

I venture from the kitchen so I can see him. “Hm?”

“Your mom probably told you to be careful.”

“Yeah.”

He pulls the sheet up. “You should be careful.”

Then he shuts his eyes so I guess the conversation’s over. Be careful. I thought she meant about the river hulk.

Doesn’t matter anyway. Caution’s never been my strong suit.

Chapter Text

Jesse’s still asleep when I come downstairs the next morning. I don’t ogle him this time because I have self-control. Ed’s got a class this afternoon so she’s down pretty early (for her, anyway) and I’ve got a tutoring session later; the two of us end up on our laptops, her at the table and me at the island. She teaches a couple different types of martial arts and she likes to keep up with what other instructors are doing. Meanwhile, I’m grading yet more homework (French this time, at least, not Spanish).

It’s oppressively boring and I end up glancing over my shoulder a lot at the living room, where Jesse’s still out. He’s on his back splayed over the couch again.

“Is he dead?” Ed asks.

I sigh and return to my grading. “No, still breathing.”

She grunts. “Shame.”

Okay, that’s it. “You mind telling me exactly what you have against him? He’s gotten his ass kicked for us. Twice.”

“Yeah, that’s his job.”

“Ed.”

She grimaces. “Fine. So the last time I worked with him there was a bunch of us on this nest of gutvines.”

Gutvines. Great. Nominally plants that like to crawl down people’s throats, incubate in their stomachs, and then crawl back out, although they’re less picky about which orifice they exit through. Usually they just make their own.

“And this girl is there, I think her name was Hannah. New to the business, not a lot of experience. And Jesse doesn’t like the look of her. Says it’s hard enough to cover all our asses and we know what we’re doing, he can’t afford to look after her too. But this nest is fuckin’ huge. It takes up a whole goddamn barn, there’s at least ten of us there and we need everyone we can get. So she wants to go in, he’s telling her to back off, we’re telling him to shut the fuck up, and then he just grabs her arm and breaks it.” Ed snaps her fingers. “Twists and she starts screaming. Well, then she can’t fucking go in. Anyways, she needed surgery. It was fucked up.”

“Did you lose anyone?” I ask. “In the nest.”

Ed narrows her eyes at me. “No.”

“Was that because of Jesse?”

“Are you fuckin’ kidding me right now?”

“In the interest of transparency.” Jesse’s voice from the living room. “I should let you know that I’m awake.”

Ed rolls her eyes. “Great.”

“I remember that one.” He sits up slowly, rubbing his eyes. “I was throwing up gutvines for two days.”

She rests a hand on her chest. “Stop, you’re breaking my heart.”

“Someone would have died.” Jesse rises, stretching. “I barely kept all of you alive. I know how much I can handle and I know how much you all can’t.”

Ed slams the laptop shut and comes over to where I'm sitting, staring Jesse down. “You broke her fucking arm.”

Jesse stares back. “You were there, Ed. I did the right thing.”

“Call me crazy, but I don’t think you have the best perspective on this.”

Jesse’s jaw tightens, and I watch him tamp down the irritation. “Doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.”

“Yeah, of course it doesn’t matter. You don’t give a shit about us. You’re here to save your own ass. Whatever.” She waves a dismissive hand and heads back to the table to grab her laptop. “I gotta get ready.”

She stalks across the hall into the library and the door slams. Well, this is awkward. “Uh…sorry about that,” I say.

Jesse’s face is still set in anger but he relaxes slowly. “No, it’s fine.” He crouches and digs in his bag. “She’s got the right idea.”

“What, ‘cause you’re a werewolf?” I ask. “But you already said you won’t turn rabid and kill us, so what’s the problem?”

Jesse’s pulling his jeans up but halts; then he starts to dress again. “What do you know about werewolves?”

They’re pretty uncommon these days—I’ve never seen one—but I know something about them. “Well, they look and act normal most of the time, but on full moons they turn into a big scary monster and start mutilating people.”

Jesse’s clothed by now and staring at me like I’m an idiot. “That’s what you think we do? Just—kill at random?”

Oh. “Did I…miss something?” I say weakly.

“Yeah, you could fucking say that.” He shakes his head. “Anything can kill at random.” Jesse heads for the kitchen. “A jealous lover. A grizzly bear. That’s not monstrous. That’s just shitty luck. And it’s not how werewolves work.” The coffee pot’s still on the burner and he pours himself a cup. “The first step is to find a target. Someone vulnerable, who’s seeking validation. Then you validate them. But you make sure you’re the only one who validates them. And then they start falling in love with you. That’s why we’re so attractive, to make them want you. By werewolf standards I’m a three out of ten.” He goes in the fridge and takes out the cream.

“So they fall in love with you. Head over fucking heels. Sometimes it takes a little while so you just avoid them once a month so they don’t see what you turn into. You string them along, you pull them closer to you and further from everyone else. You make yourself their whole world.” Pours the cream into his coffee. “And then you reveal it. On full moons I turn into a fucking man-wolf hybrid.” He snorts in amusement. “I can’t control it. How can I ever be free from this curse?” Twists the cap back on the cream and replaces it. “And of course they want to be there when you change. Because you’re in love, right? How could you possibly hurt them? True love will save you. It’s the only way.

“And then you transform and eat them. The end.” He takes a sip of coffee.

I sit there in silence, not having the slightest idea how to respond.

“Anyway, that’s the method. The manipulation,” he continues. “Because then it’s not random. A grizzly bear eats you, you had a bad fucking day. This way it’s their fault. They didn’t love you enough. They weren’t worthy enough. A grizzly bear can’t do that.”

I know this should be making me sick. But to hear this—how monsters work, which we can only guess at in total fucking blindness, to hear the absolute truth, it’s like he’s just handed me a pearl, shiny and black, that sits cool and heavy in my palm.

“But here’s the thing.” Another sip. “Why do we have to go berserk at all? Why can’t we just lie about that part and stick to the manipulation? It’s fucking stupid. Whoever made us should lose their fucking job.”

Whoever made us.

I lurch forward. “Wait—whoever made you? Someone makes monsters?”

He stills, except for his lips peeling back again, exposing teeth that are just a little too sharp. “Probably.”

Then he turns and plucks the coffee pot off the burner and goes to the sink to wash it. “Who? Who made you?” I press.

A half-shrug. “I don’t know. None of us do.”

The water runs, steam rising from the sink. Someone makes them. That seems important. Does it help? Honestly, I doubt it. We can barely deal with the monsters themselves, let alone whatever builds them. I watch Jesse’s back, his broad shoulders, how he runs a hand slowly through his thick, wavy hair. He looks a lot better than yesterday. Not sick anymore.

“Have you ever done that?” I ask, not sure if I want the answer. “You know…made someone fall in love with you. And then…”

Jesse shuts off the faucet. “I already told you, I don’t kill people.” He swishes water in the coffee pot and dumps it out. “And as a matter of fact, I don’t lie, either, unless a job needs it. So no. I haven’t done that.”

Do I believe him? He says he doesn’t lie, but hey, he could be lying about that too.

But he also almost got his hand bit off for me yesterday. So maybe I believe him after all.

——

“Siren,” Ed calls as she comes in the door, flinging her phone at me.

I catch it mere millimeters from my face. “Careful, you almost whacked my laptop.”

“No I didn’t.” With her free hand she takes down her hair and it instantly expands. The humidity today is awful. “Anyone who’s currently lying on the floor being fucking useless wanna come help me with the groceries?”

Jesse is lain out in his wolf shape directly in front of the fan, his fur ruffled by the breeze. There’s gonna be wolf hair…all over the carpet. At Ed’s pointed question he rises, human-shaped again, and heads out the door.

It’s only been a few days since the gaunt hounds. I pick up Ed’s phone and read the message from Meredith. “Damn. They’re just coming one after another.”

“Yeah.” She deposits her grocery bags in the kitchen. “Monster king. They’re crawling out of the fuckin’ woodwork.”

Jesse reappears, carrying another six bags. “Is the siren male, female, or what”

I scroll down. “Female.”

“So you’re safe. You’re not into women, right?”

Well. Guess I’m kind of obvious. “No, I’m not…” I glance at Ed. Don’t want to say anything but—

Ed leans back against the counter, rubbing her forehead. “What do I need to worry about? Is it gonna sing at me and make me stab you or something?”

“They’re not like succubi, they can’t work that fast.” Jesse sets his share of the load down on the island. “You’ll probably get entranced is all. Might actually be useful, it’ll be distracted.”

“Great. Good to know I’ll be fuckin’ useful.”

He grins at her, amused. “Hey, if it were male Del would be the one drooling over it. Luck of the draw.”

“How ‘bout you, huh?” she shoots. “You gonna be trying to hump its leg?”

“No, humans are the only ones dumb enough to get entranced with each other. I don’t write poems about that shit.”

I toss my laptop on the ottoman. “‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate—‘“

“Yeah, like that.” Jesse gestures at me. “Not to mention summer days fucking suck. I don’t—“ He sighs. A little tension had gathered in his shoulders but it drains out. “Never mind. Where’s the siren?”

“Across the state. We should leave tonight,” Ed replies.

“Should I bring my violin?” I ask.

Directed at Jesse. He watches me for a moment, then nods curtly. “Yeah.” Another grin. “It starts kicking my ass, you better come through.”

I return the grin. “I always do.”

“That’s a fuckin’ lie. No offense, Del,” Ed adds airily. “Okay, let’s start packing.”

——

Jesse stares out the window for most of the ride but as we approach Edmonston, Pennsylvania he straightens in his seat. “Oh, no,” he mutters.

I straighten too. “What?”

He leans forward. “Ed, how many people has this thing killed?”

She puts up two fingers. “At least. Might have others she’s working on.”

“Fuck,” he mutters.

Ed glances back. “What? What’s wrong?”

Jesse hesitates.

Killing sirens is simple in theory—as with gaunt hounds, you need to destroy their hearts. The main problem is getting to the heart. I have helped kill a siren before and she was…bigger than she looked at first glance. Also with more claws and shit. So if this one’s especially big and bad—well, Jesse’s five foot eight or so. She straight up might just outrange him. “Will you have trouble with her?” I ask. “We could call for backup, see if anyone’s in the area.”

“No.” He rubs his forehead. “Might need the violin but I can kill it.”

It’s about two in the morning with half a moon in the sky, and Edmonston is dark. Quiet homes line the street until it splits around a wide green, lit by antique-style lamp posts. Center of town.

“Hey, Jesse. Got any ideas yet?” Ed asks.

Jesse’s frowning. “Keep going.”

He’s supposed to know where it is, or approximately where it is. I don’t like how he hesitated earlier. Ed takes us past the center of town, past a fast station, past a Dunkin Donuts that’s still open. Then Jesse leans forward and points. “Up there.”

I squint. There’s a sign: EDMONSTON ATHLETICS CLUB. Ed pulls in.

Creeping through closed public spaces in the dead of night never fails to make me feel like a criminal, which I guess technically we are. But we haven’t gotten caught yet because we’re not idiots. Like we would never go into the actual building and trip the alarm, and it looks like, from where Jesse’s taking us, the siren’s not in there anyway. Instead he heads past the club and around the back, to the tennis courts.

The high chain-link fence jangles when he haps onto it, and Ed and I are halfway up by the time he lands on the other side. “You two should stay back,” he tells us.

Ed swings herself over the fence. “Why?”

I’m the last one, and I land beside Jesse as he scans the courts. Maybe it’s just me, but it looks like his eyes gleam like a cat’s, reflecting the light of the half-moon. “Venom,” he replies.

“Okay. Well, I don’t fucking see her here,” Ed hisses. “You got any more bright ideas?”

Jesse shoots her a glare. “She’s here. Just give it a second.”

We give it a second. And then another few seconds. There are three courts and I’m scanning them and not coming up with anything, just some stray leaves from the dense forest past the other side of the fence, skating stop-and-go across the splotchy green surface as a breeze carries them. The wind picks up a little as we stand there waiting, and the trees bend and rustle.

Then there’s movement at the far corner of the courts that I mistake for leaves at first until it starts to build and resemble something that is definitely not a pile of leaves. I pull out my notepad real fast. Don’t hear anything yet but I need to be prepared for Ed’s sake. And for Jesse’s.

“Katie.” Jesse starts toward her.

Katie?

I follow him closely because his warning to stay back is but a vague memory in the face of my curiosity. Ed follows too, although probably not for the same reason. I think I hear it now, a song not like singing but still a song, borne on the wind, maybe. (It’s not really on the wind. Her song doesn’t exist outside my head—our heads, mine and Ed’s, anyone else she chooses to snare.) The siren stands there waiting for us.

Not the seaweed-draped, unspeakably beautiful maiden of lore. Beautiful, yes, but the way a normal person could be. In fact, her hair and skin seem a little too shiny—greasy, almost. She’s naked, as one might expect, and her body approaches what you might see in classical art—pale, with soft rolls of fat at her ribs and hips. Her face is half-hidden behind the curtain of lanky black hair. All in all, not terribly impressive, but of course I’m not the one she’s trying to beguile. Ed actually seems to be doing pretty good. No drool or anything. “Jesse,” the siren says.

He watches her—no teeth or claws this time, just him. “Katie, what are you doing? Did you kill two people?”

A gust of wind blows across the courts and her hair lifts in slow motion, drifting around her as if caught on currents, and strange glints of light play over her body like she’s underwater. “I’m sorry, Jesse. I had to. You know.”

“Fuck.” Jesse grimaces. He looks caught.

“Can you stop it?” She raises her long-fingered hands, pressing them to her face. “I know why you’re here. I never needed to before but I had to kill them this time.”

“I can’t stop it, Katie,” Jesse tells her. “I feel it too.”

The monster king.

“You resist it?” The song is clearer now, and I’m still listening, still writing. Ed’s gone glassy-eyed. “Maybe I can resist it too,” Katie says.

Jesse glances over his shoulder at me. “I don’t think you can.”

That was definitely a signal for me to back the fuck off, so I hook my arm around Ed’s and physically drag her away. She stumbles and falls on her ass and won’t look away from the goddamn siren so it’s slow going. Not writing anymore, just checking my work. The song is repeating.

“Please don’t kill me, Jesse,” Katie says behind me.

“You’re making noise,” Jesse replies.

“It’s not my fault.”

“I know, Katie.”

There’s another rustling noise—not the wind in the trees, something separate, and I look over my shoulder to discover that Katie is no longer just a woman because half of her is a scorpion.

The bottom half, in particular. Her human torso weaves in the air atop a ten-foot thorax and six jointed legs, plus two claws and a huge fucking tail. By this point I’m pretty sure Jesse will need help so I let go of Ed, who’s rubbing her eyes, and flip open the violin case. Jesse leaps at Katie but she snatches him out of midair, lightning-quick, and lifts him in her claw. Jesse growls, slamming his fist down on the joint at the base. Her tail shoots forward and I nearly have a heart attack but Jesse catches it, holding it away from him with both hands. He trembles with effort.

Reading music backwards is not especially easy but the melody, as with most siren songs, is sweet and slow. I am just proficient enough in the violin to play the correct notes with the correct rhythms; it won’t sound pretty, but in my experience it doesn’t need to. I kneel, stick my sheet-music notes in the empty case, put my phone down next to it with the flashlight on, and start to play.

Katie freezes when she hears it. I don’t think she’s very happy with me. And indeed she starts to approach—fuck, those six legs are fast, and I can’t run because I need to see the music and Ed’s still too woozy to help me. I guess I overestimated Jesse’s usefulness in this fight because Katie’s carting him around like a snack she’s saving for later.

But I have to trust him. There’s no other choice. This is the only thing I can do to weaken her. No shouts of warning so I spare a split-second to glance up and find Jesse with his legs wrapped around her torso, smashing his claws into her face. She cries out with a wail that seems to rend the air, that makes my stomach turn and my vision tilt sideways. “Oh, fuck,” I mumble, trying very hard to refocus on the music and also to not throw up. Then Jesse shouts in pain or surprise or something and I look up to find Katie’s tail buried in his shoulder. Venom. Hope he’ll be okay. No time to think about it. I have to keep playing.

Then Ed steps in front of me, facing the siren with machete in hand. Maybe she’s feeling better. Not that a machete will do much good against a giant-ass scorpion, but we didn’t really know what to expect coming in. (The last one was half-lion and lions don’t have exoskeletons.) I finish the song and start again from the end. Katie slumps, and her claw falls open, Jesse crumpling to the ground. He curls up, clutching his stung shoulder. Uh oh. Doesn’t look like he’s in any condition to be putting in the killing blow, and I’m afraid if I stop playing for one second she’ll come after us kill us all.

Ed takes a few steps forward. I play louder. Katie’s claws rest on the cracked green court, her head bowed. Ed jams the machete back into its sheath and clambers up onto the thorax; her blade goes in through Katie’s back, and Katie shudders and lets out a high, clear tone, like someone tracing the rim of a glass with their finger.

Then she dissolves into…I don’t know what it is until literally hundreds of scorpions are flooding over my shoes and I make a really, really good effort not to scream. I end up kind of whining and dancing in place but overall it could be worse. Ed’s swearing and kicking the things off of her. Jesse disappears under them briefly, still curled up on the ground. But they seem to be fleeing and are soon gone, vanished into the trees or the rest of the athletic club courts. Ew.

“Fuck!” Ed shivers. “Is it fuckin’ dead?”

Jesse sits up, still clutching his shoulder. “Yeah,” he gasps.

I stick the violin back in its case and rush over. “Are you okay?”

“Fine. Fine.” He shakes his head. “Won’t kill me.”

Doesn’t look that way. “Hm. You said you don’t lie, right?”

His eyebrows shoot up and he gives me a look like I’ve just crossed a line although I don’t know what fucking line that is. “Yeah, and I said I’m fine. It just hurts.”

Ed comes up. “You get stung, Del?”

I jerk my head. “No, I didn’t, but he did.”

“Yeah, I saw that. I got eyes.”

Jesse’s smiling. I rise to my feet. “Let’s just get out of here.”

I clip the violin case closed and sling it over my shoulder again, a little embarrassed. After I clear the fence I hear some grunting behind me and find Jesse struggling on the fence, the stung arm clutched close to his chest. Ed rolls her eyes, reaches down, grabs him by the belt, and hauls him up.

The car ride is quiet for a while. I’ve taken over the driving and follow the directions from my phone. In the back seat Jesse relaxes slowly, the sheen of sweat disappearing from his forehead, the pain easing out of his face. Ed’s eyes flick to him often for, I suspect, the same reason mine do. But I don’t want to say anything yet; Jesse’s still hunched over his arm, grasping it tight.

Eventually, as we draw to a stop at a red light and sit waiting in front of an empty cross street, Jesse says, “I knew her.”

There we are.

“She was probably four or five hundred years old. Hadn’t killed anyone since the nineteenth century. I guess when you get older that stuff kind of loses its shine.” He straightens slowly. “She just ruined marriages, made guys go broke, things like that. I talked her down the last time around.” The first monster king, twelve years ago. “But it’s worse this time. Fuck.”

“Okay, but—Katie?” Ed interjects.

The light turns and I hit the gas. Jesse smiles out the window. “She would change names every ten or twenty years. Human things fascinated her sometimes. She liked to try and explain them to me. Thought I was an expert,” he says. “Had to break it to her that all my firsthand experience still doesn’t really help that much.”

“Firsthand experience?” I ask.

He glances up with a grin. “I went to public school, Del. That’s how I pass so easy. You talk to an actual werewolf, they all come off like fucking sociopaths.”

“Hm.” Ed nods in understanding. “But you’re not a sociopath.”

“I’m a monster,” Jesse counters. “But I’m here.”

“To save your own ass.”

He’s quiet for a second. “Yeah.”

There’s an awkward silence, and I’m not in the mood to rescue Ed because she’s being a dick, so I let it hang there over the hum of the engine, the faint blowing of the AC. Finally Ed breaks it herself. “What did you do, anyway?”

Jesse lets out a long sigh, slumping in his seat. “Friend of mine is a graft. Monster king got to him early, I guess, because he’s been having fun taking organs from animals but all of a sudden he wants to harvest an entire goddamn family. Told him that’s a lot of fucking attention we don’t need, he didn’t listen, we fought, I almost killed him, he almost killed me, he was winning but got scared so he fled and tattled on me, I had to go. And here we are.”

“A graft? Thought you can’t kill those by hitting ‘em,” Ed says.

Jesse shrugs. “I got close.”

“Who’d he tattle to?” I ask.

Jesse’s quiet. “Friends,” he mutters.

“Look, the siren already killed people.” Ed waves a hand. “She wasn’t gonna stop, we had to kill her. Sucks for you, but that’s just the way it is. Shit like this and what your friend did is gonna keep happening until we find where the fuckin’ monster king is hiding.”

Jesse presses a hand to his mouth, gazing intently out the window. “Yeah.”

These stories aren’t encouraging. If this siren could be talked down last time but started killing this time around—if a fucking graft, which we don’t even know how to kill, has decided all of a sudden to get violent—

We need to find the monster king. It showed itself last time, but we can’t just sit here waiting, because this one is round two and it already looks like a more effective model. So we need to find it. I just gotta figure out how.

Chapter Text

“Sorry, Del. We don’t even know what to look for.”

Not sure what I was expecting—Niles hates magic, as does my mom and Meredith and everyone else who gets a say in things—so I can’t be surprised that their analog-style searching is coming up empty. I press the phone to my forehead for a moment before responding. “Listen, Mom, you come up with anything, anything at all, let me know, okay? We might be able to do something about it.”

A pause. “Something?”

After all these fucking years. She’s gotten better about the gay thing but still wants to get on my case about magic. “Yeah, something. Also known as better than nothing. I don’t know, Jesse’s supposed to have some kind of connection to other monsters, maybe he can help.”

A rush of static. “You gotta be careful with him. I know it might look like he’s on our side, but—“

“But he’s a werewolf, I get it. I know what I’m doing.”

“Del. This isn’t a joke.”

“I’m fine, Mom. Listen, I gotta go, we’re leaving soon.”

“All right. Good luck.”

I end the call. Strictly speaking we’re not leaving soon—more like in a couple of hours when Ed gets back—but I do still have to pack a few things. There’s a gravemouth in Virginia.

Jesse’s in the living room, curled up in his wolf shape in front of the television. The fan is going full blast, ruffling his fur. The TV’s showing what looks like Planet Earth. I lean up against the dividing wall. “You like watching this stuff?”

He lifts his head, gazing at me; then he’s human-shaped again, sitting there with his legs sprawled out—faintly embarrassed, if I’m not mistaken. “I don’t know. Wolf shape makes me kinda stupid. And easily entertained.”

“Hm.” Not sure how touchy he’ll be about this, so I decide to dive right in. “You mentioned, when we first met, that you’re…that monsters are all connected somehow.”

He eyes me. “Any reason you’re asking?”

“The monster king.” I rub my face. Was up late last night searching for anything that might give us a lead. “We don’t know how to find it. I was hoping you could help.”

“Dead end,” Jesse says. “We are all connected, but my connection’s weaker than most. And anyway—“

“Weaker?” I interrupt. “Why?”

He lets out a long sigh. “Shapeshifter.”

Right. Shapeshifters, by all accounts, aren’t much of a monster. Supposedly they’re often nonviolent, solitary, preferring to live in remote areas where nobody much will run into them. A few have even lived in human settlements from time to time.

“It’s a good concept,” Jesse continues. “Looks exactly like a human, blends in with them well, doesn’t mind living among them for extended periods of time. And it also turns into something with sharp teeth. Problem is, they forgot to put in the part that makes you actually want to kill people.” He rises, lifting the hem of his shirt to let in the breeze from the fan. “Which, I’m pretty sure, is the same thing we all use to sense each other. My mom can barely hear whispers. I don’t get a whole lot myself, especially when the moon’s low. Sorry, Del, but I got no idea where the monster king is.”

“Hm.” Well, it was worth a shot. “Hey…is your mom still alive? Do you know?”

He gives me an incredulous grin. “Uh, yeah, she’s still alive. She lives in Colorado. I go see her every few months.”

My jaw drops. “You—you visit your mom?”

“Yeah. She raised me, I’m not fucking rude.”

I know I’m supposed to be wary and shit but that is delightful. “Wow. Never expected the big bad werewolf to be a mama’s boy.”

“Hey.” He jabs a finger at me. “You’re on thin fucking ice.”

But the threat is good-humored and I grin right back at him. “Uh-huh.”

He stretches, exposing a strip of stomach above his waistband. I sincerely don’t think he cares about me staring so I stare a little bit. Just a little bit. “You sure you’re ready for the gravemouth? They’re fast.”

“Yeah, we’ve killed one before. I’ll be fine.”

“Okay.”

“Hey, Jesse.”

“Hm?”

“What’s it like? Being, uh…being connected like that.”

The grin is gone, and he watches me for a moment, then shrugs and turns. “Already told you, I don’t get much.”

“I know, but what’s it like?” I press. I want to know. And it might be important.

He stands there, the fan ruffling his white t-shirt. (There are dozens in his bag. Guess he goes through them pretty quick, considering how often other monsters fuck him up.) His hair, too, the sides and back freshly shaved, the rest thick and wavy and soft-looking in the stream of air. “It’s like…a wide, black ocean. I can feel it at the back of my mind. That’s about the only way I can describe it.”

“A black ocean.” I think about it. “Interesting.”

“I wouldn’t call it that.” He sits down on the floor again. “Gonna take a nap before I have to go fight this thing. Wake me up when we’re heading out.”

Then he’s in his wolf shape so I guess the conversation’s over and it’s time for me to go pack.

——

There’s a chain across the cave mouth with a big red ‘DO NOT ENTER - MAINTENANCE’ sign hanging off of it.

Ed shades her eyes from the sun and points her flashlight toward the cave. The beam bites into the gloom. “So we’re sure this is where it’s hiding.”

“They like moist, dark spaces,” I tell her. “And the bodies were found, what, a hundred yards up the river bed?”

It’s hardly a river bed, really—more like a stream bed if that, a gentle, glittering trickle of water flowing over a soggy strip of mud and down into the cave. “There’s no fuckin’ rope,” Ed says. “The rings are empty. Look.”

Metal rings bolted into the wall—as Ed noticed, free of rope. Not such a big deal for the first bit but I read online that the cave takes a downward tilt and most of the journey involves clambering down a slope of sixty degrees or greater. Without a rope, apparently. I do a fair amount on the rock wall at the gym, but I don’t think Ed’s ever touched it in her life. “Do you wanna stay up here?” I ask.

“Fuck that. Jesse, is it down there?”

He’s frowning at the cave mouth. “I think.”

“You think.”

“I don’t know. Hard to tell.”

“Fuckin’ useless.”

“What did you expect? It’s a goddamn gravemouth. It’s a pile of dirt.”

“With teeth.”

“Sorry. A pile of dirt with teeth.”

“Okay!” I chime in. “Let’s get started!”

“Yeah,” he grumbles, and ducks under the chain. “Ed, you should go second.”

She follows him. “And why the fuck is that?”

“So when you fall, I can grab you and keep you from splitting your skull open.”

“Excuse me? When I fall?”

“The rocks are fucking wet and covered in mold, so yes, when you fall.”

I’m behind them now as well and make another valiant attempt to ease tensions. “Guys! This won’t be easy, so let’s just save our energy for the actual climb, okay?”

Begrudging silence. Good enough. It’s already slippery, and I go with bent knees, carefully setting my sneakers down on the driest-looking patches of cave floor. Ed slips, nearly loses her balance and flails her arms for a few seconds before lurching upright again. In the dark my flashlight catches Jesse’s shining eyes, one eyebrow arched. Ed flips him off. “What the fuck are you waiting for? Go.”

He makes no comment, only advances again.

The cave starts to pitch downward and we change tactics, flipping around to climb properly instead of trying to slide and scrabble down with our heels struggling for purchase. I give the others a little head start. It’s actually not as bad as I thought—damp, yes, but it’s easy to find good holds. The smell of mold is in the air but I’m not finding much under my fingers. Jesse and Ed are slow so I take my time, stopping and listening for any signs of the monster. My flashlight is stuck in the mesh pocket on the side of my backpack, pointing deeper into the cave. Ed’s is jammed into her belt. Jesse…I guess he doesn’t need one.

The incline gets sharper and the going gets even slower. Ed grunts and swears. The rope would be really nice right now. Still, all my practicing is coming in handy—my grip is strong as it’s ever been, and I know just how to jam my toes into a crevice so that it’ll bear my weight. My arms aren’t even tired yet. Then there’s scrabbling from below me and a yelped “Fuck!” and in the beam of my flashlight I find Ed hanging from Jesse’s arm, cinched tight around her waist.

Surprisingly, he doesn’t make fun of her. Instead she gets her grip back beside him and says, “Hey, you can take your hands off of me now,” but he doesn’t reply, frowning, staring at nothing.

“Jesse?” I ask.

“Fucking kidding me,” he mutters. “There’s a choker here. We need to get out. Del, you go, I got Ed.”

I make a quick decision to trust him with that because if there is a choker here—and I’m inclined to trust Jesse on that one too—then I would really prefer not to start coughing up parts of my respiratory tract. I don’t see or smell the smoke but that doesn’t mean there’s none here.

So I hastily flip the flashlight around and start climbing as fast as I can and don’t look back. More grunting from behind me. Ed’s not protesting for once. She knows this is bad news. Stuck halfway down a dark hole with a giant mushroom belching poisonous smoke at us.

It was supposed to be a gravemouth. We’re not prepared for a choker. Well, I guess it is serendipitous that you kill them both the same way—dumping salt on them ’til they’re dead—but the problem is we can’t get near the choker without some heavy-duty breathing filters. There’s a tickle in my throat, and I cough just once into my elbow. Are Ed and Jesse okay? I try and glance over my shoulder to check but my flashlight’s at the wrong angle and I don’t see them. Sounds of coughing from deeper in. No time to pause.

The cave starts to level out and I pump my legs, grabbing the wall to keep myself stable. This is a mess. Is there still a gravemouth here? Will we be in any shape to kill it? I am, and Jesse seems pretty indestructible. But Ed…

At last I stumble out of the cave mouth and spin, aiming my flashlight into the dark. They can’t be that far behind, can they? Jesse said he had Ed, he said he had her. Find myself whispering “Come on, come on,” as I stand there peering into the gloom. Should I go back and help? He told me to go, and how much help would I be anyway, he’s way stronger than me—

At last they appear, staggering, Ed bent and coughing and Jesse not much better. He helps her out onto the leaves and then they collapse together, hacking away. Fuck. “Ed, you okay?” I ask urgently, kneeling next to her.

She tries to swear but can’t get the word out. Instead she hacks up a big gob of spit that lands in her palm. It’s dusky and gray. That’s actually a good sign.

“Sorry.” Jesse grits his teeth, holding back a cough. “My fault. Didn’t catch her fast enough.”

Ed shakes her head. “Fine,” she wheezes.

Not much use prying when they can’t talk so instead I just inspect our supplies (99-cent canisters of salt from the local Save-A-Lot, still right where they were when I packed them a few hours ago) and wait.

After a few minutes Ed and Jesse seem a little more stable and Ed’s the first one to state the obvious. “It’s supposed to be a gravemouth.”

Jesse nods. “Yeah.”

“What was the story?” She looks up at me.

“Just what you’d expect. Body with all its bones crushed, buried under six inches of neatly packed dirt.” I shrug. “Gravemouth.”

Jesse puts up two fingers.

Ed shuts her eyes. “It’s both. Fucking great.”

It’s both.

That shouldn’t happen. Monsters don’t show up in the same place. I don’t know if it’s a territory thing or just their way of keeping their exposure under control—one death in suspicious circumstances draws only half as much attention as two—but it’s a rule that’s as hard and fast as you get with monsters. Until now, apparently. “The monster king,” I say, looking to Jesse.

He nods, then rises, holding out a hand. “Salt.”

I stare. Ed stares. “You—you’re going back,” I say stupidly.

“Yeah.”

“But—it’s still in there! You’re gonna breathe all that stuff in—“

“This won’t kill me,” he interrupts. “Salt.”

“But what if they’re both down there? I mean, the choker just sits there, but a gravemouth—“

He cuts me off again. “I have to go back because I’m the only one of us who can, and the choker has to die, preferably before it kills anyone. Yes, it’s going to suck. Does that matter? Not really. Now please hand me the salt.”

Well, that pretty much addresses all my concerns. I hand over my backpack and he slings it over his shoulders and disappears into the cave again, the darkness closing over him.

Ed’s breathing is fast and kinda shallow, but adequate. I sit with her in silence for a little while, until she can take deeper breaths. She spits in her palm again, peering at it. Less gray. That’s good. Temporary damage that should be gone in a couple of days.

She wipes her mouth. “This is bullshit.”

“Uh-huh.”

“There’s not supposed to be two at once. The fuck do we do about that?”

“I don’t know, Ed.”

She presses a grimy hand to her forehead and shuts her eyes. “Great.”

I squint up at the trees. Shadows and sunlight flutter through the leaves. Nice day out. For us, anyway. I don’t think Jesse’s having a nice day, stuck in a damp dark hole with a choker at the bottom waiting for him and maybe a gravemouth too.

“Good thing we got him, though,” Ed says, kicking one sneaker toward the cave.

“Well—yeah, but he might still be in danger. What if the gravemouth buries him too?”

“He heals super fast, right? He’ll just climb back up tomorrow.”

“Ed.”

She puts her hands up. “I’m just saying! Like he told us, it sucks but someone’s gotta do it!”

It sounds fair when she says it like that—when Jesse said it like that—but it still doesn’t feel right. Of course, I can’t do anything about it. If I face a choker without a breathing filter, I’ll die. Jesse, on the other hand…

This won’t kill me. He keeps saying that. And so far, anything up to that point seems fair game. It’s a lot for one man to take on.

Guess he’s not a man, though, so maybe it’s okay. I sit with Ed, the breeze stirring her short, puffy ponytail. She still coughs now and then. I sit and wait. And wait.

“It’s been a while,” I say eventually.

Ed grunts. “Kinda.”

I sit for a few more seconds. Yeah, been a while. “I think I’m gonna go after him,” I tell Ed, standing.

She rockets to her feet. “You’re gonna what?”

“It’ll be fine! If he killed the choker, there shouldn’t be any more smoke.”

“What if he didn’t kill it? Not to mention there’s another fucking monster!”

“Listen, if I start wanting to cough I’ll come right back up. Okay?”

Ed shakes her head. “No. This is crazy. He’s probably coming out right now.”

“We can’t know that. Ed, I think he needs help.” I put out a hand. “Can I take your bag?”

She watches me warily. “I should go with you.”

That one makes me chuckle. “Ed, you’re already, um, not a great climber, and if you start coughing again you might fall. I know you want to protect me, but just let me do this, okay?”

At last, with a reluctant sigh, she takes out one canister of salt to keep and hands over her backpack. Good. Armed now, I make my way into the cave.

Jesse didn’t bring his phone. That would have made this whole ordeal easier, but he left it in the car because when you’re fighting monsters, phones tend to get smashed or folded or filled with blood. So I’ve got no way to contact him except descending once again, this time paying even more attention to my surroundings—straining to feel the slightest tickle in my throat, or to hear the dry whisper of dirt over stone. The cave cants down beneath me and I climb with care. Nothing, so far. The smell might even be less moldy this time around. Really hope Jesse hasn’t gotten his lungs dissolved or been buried in a shallow grave. If he lost to these things, then I’m pessimistic about my chances.

I hope he’s okay. Dumb of me, I know, because he heals from everything up to and including multiple cancers all at once, but I still hope he’s okay. Shitty that he has to go through all this just to stay safe from his monster associates.

The cave twists and turns, leveling out in places only to plunge down again a few yards later. But I go slow and steady and either time flies or the tunnel’s really not as deep as I thought because before long I hear a weak, “Del?”

Oh, shit. “Jesse!” I try to peer over my shoulder. The bottom is right there—I pick my way down and land, finally on solid ground.

Jesse’s sitting there against the wall.

He’s got one hand on his chest, which rises and falls rapidly. I hear a bubbly wheeze with every breath. There’s a canister of salt tipped over on the ground, and scattered across the cave floor are chunks of what look like dried sea sponge—satellites to the huge, orange-brown crater dug into the rock. The choker. It’s covered in salt crystals.

“Dead,” Jesse manages. He makes a face and spits into his hand. I shine the flashlight over and discover several fat, black centimeter-long worms wriggling across his skin.

Ah. I guess the choker really got to him. “Holy shit.” I kneel. “Are you okay? Can you get out of here?”

“Gravemouth was here,” he says. His voice is soft and rough. I imagine it’s hard to speak when your mucous membranes are turning into what’s squirming in his palm. “Hard to see with the smoke. It got my leg. Tried to climb and fell. Decided to sit here ’til I felt better.”

I point the flashlight at his feet. One of them is pointed in a slightly awkward direction. Well, damn. That’ll make things more difficult. “Is it coming back?”

“Tagged it with salt. Might have a few minutes. Ugh.” He spits onto the rock.

“Then let’s move fast. Hang on.” I pull open my pack and dig in it.

There are a few things I pack for every job—extra batteries, duct tape, those water-activated casting strips. I consider one of those for a moment but it won’t hold up to the stress of climbing. Fortunately, we also have bungee cords. I clip one end to my own belt and the other to Jesse’s. “You still have three good limbs, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. We’re gonna have to coordinate.”

He watches me for a moment with dull yellow-brown eyes. “You shouldn’t have come down here.”

“You know, it’s funny.” I sling my bag back on. “Ed said the same thing.”

“She was right.” He plants a hand on the wall and drags himself upright. “Let’s go.”

We begin the ascent. Jesse climbs beside me, and we need to stay even because whenever he’d need the bad leg I have to plant a hand on his ass and shove him upwards. It’s slow going. Boy, I hope the gravemouth isn’t about to pop out of the stone and eat us for breakfast.

“You know I heal, right?” Jesse asks conversationally. His voice is still all fucked up, and it’s hard to hear him over our harsh breathing.

“Yeah, I know.” I squint up, searching for a good handhold, and take a slightly worse one because Jesse needs all the help he can get.

“And there’s a gravemouth somewhere—“ He reaches up and grasps the hold. “—we haven’t accounted for.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m not saying it was really fucking stupid for you to come down here.”

I sigh. “It’s nice to feel appreciated.”

“Just a thought. Probably a lot less dangerous if you stayed with Ed.”

“Jesse, I was trying to help! I knew you wouldn’t die but sitting at the bottom of a hole spitting your lungs up into your hand probably sucks! And if the gravemouth fucking got to you, well, you really wouldn’t have been able to climb out of here with all your limbs broken, so forgive me for trying to save your—“ I get my hand under him and shove him upwards. “—heavy ass from getting crunched up and buried! Jesus.”

We drag ourselves out onto a spot that’s relatively horizontal and I sit right down for a break because this climb is not easy. Jesse’s wheezing next to me and I’m alarmed for a moment, assuming he can’t breathe, but when I grab his shoulder and turn him I discover he’s laughing.

“Sorry,” he rasps. “Sorry. You’re right. Still kinda stupid, but you’re right.”

Well, that’s something. I point my flashlight up at the rest of our climb. There’s a lot of it, and I’m climbing for two. Or one and a half. Better take a breather while I can, so I lean up against the cave wall, pulling my knees up to my chest. It’s dark in here. Dark and wet. “Guess it was kinda stupid, huh?”

“Yeah. But it’s okay.”

Jesse only lets us rest for another minute before we’re on our way again. He’s still worried about the gravemouth, and to tell the truth, so am I. Ed should be okay, she’s got good reflexes and a whole-ass canister of salt to throw at it. Meanwhile, the two of us are clambering up a slimy pile of rocks with very little room to defend ourselves.

I’m starting to tire at last. My arms and thighs are burning, my fingers sore. Jesse’s face is tight with pain. He still coughs now and then, and once he does slip and fall, although he manages to grab the rocks and I manage to grab his arm so the bungee doesn’t yank me down, only pulls tight. In the dim light I see his claws extended—not his nails but true claws, his fingertips clubbed and split around them. Cool. “Sorry,” he mutters, and with my help gets back up above me.

At last the cave starts to level out. Jesse’s breathing is…bad. It’s faster than ever, his back heaving, black worms crawling out of his mouth and down into his beard. He wipes them away with disgust and staggers forward. I wrap an arm around his waist just to make sure he stays upright. Fuck, how much does he weigh? With some effort we head towards the dim rays of sunlight that struggle through the gloom.

Ed’s on her feet and running toward us the second we make it out. “Holy shit! You guys okay?”

Jesse collapses so I collapse, crashing to my knees in the leaves. “We’re—alive,” I pant.

“Are they dead?”

“Choker,” I tell her. Jesse turns his head to the side and spits onto the ground.

“So the gravemouth’s still here somewhere.”

I nod at her and notice something is missing. The harsh sound of Jesse’s breathing. He’s frozen, staring wide-eyed into the air.

Then he shouts “Move!” so Ed and I scramble away and a mound of dirt appears beneath where I was just sitting, emerging from the earth. A gaping hole lined with fist-sized rocks leads the way.

There it is.

It’s like a huge, fat lizard made of soil, with a mouth that’ll suck you in if you don’t get out fast. Its body is six feet long, rounded beneath the leaves, but the part you gotta look out for is the tail, another six feet of solid earth that can bat a full-grown person fifteen feet through the air. And it’s coming toward me.

A gravemouth isn’t something you can outrun. They swim through land like sharks through water, so I have about a half-second before it’s on me. On instinct my hand goes to my backpack, but it’s zipped up and I’ll never get the salt out in time. Meanwhile Ed seems to have sprinted in the opposite direction from where she was sitting before, so her salt won’t get here fast enough either. Well, maybe it will only have a chance to break a few of my bones. Maybe it won’t suck me under and flee, spiriting me away to be crushed and drowned in earth in a long, drawn-out death from which I will have no escape. The ground rises under me and I lose my balance, flail, and fall hard on my knees, flipping around to see its glittering, black stone eyes bearing down on me—

“HEY!”

Jesse.

I don’t know how he mustered a shout like that with his throat squirming out through his mouth but it seems to have stopped the gravemouth from advancing on me; instead it turns, surfacing entirely, gazing at Jesse.

He stands, chest heaving, staring the thing down. “Back off.”

His voice crackles like an old record. The gravemouth sits there watching him. At the edge of my vision I notice Ed inching closer to me.

The gravemouth starts to turn back and Jesse shouts, “Hey! I said, back off. Get away from him.”

It hesitates, watching him again. There’s a tension in the air stretched so tight I feel it fraying. The gravemouth’s still locked on Jesse, but—somehow I know—not for long. All he’s got is his command and what’s stopping the gravemouth from getting bored and eating me? Jesse’s lips peel back, his jaw grown heavy, his teeth jagged and sharp. So that’s what they look like. The gravemouth twitches its tail.

When it whirls around Ed’s hand is already in my backpack and she flips the canister open and flings salt at the gravemouth. It snorts and hisses, recoiling, and that’s enough time for Jesse to add what he was carrying, and for Ed to dump my other canister on it. The gravemouth thrashes around a little bit but then it starts crumbling and its eyes fall out and that means it’s dead and I’m not going to be eaten.

I press a hand to my chest because my heart is going at least a hundred and forty beats per minute. Ed is already marching over to Jesse. “You can order monsters around?”

He winces, kneeling and grasping his ankle. “No.”

“You just fucking did!”

“I fucking—“ He coughs. “Talked to it.”

“You talked to it and it backed off.”

He flings an exasperated hand in the air. “If you yell at some guy in the street to stop where he is, he’ll stop. Then he’ll figure out you’re just some random asshole and keep doing what he’s doing. I talked to it.”

Ed doesn’t have a nasty comeback for that one. Instead she stands there for a second and then crouches. “You okay or do I have to carry you back to the truck?”

“I’ll shift. It’s fine.”

“Holy fuck.” I’m standing, finally. “Thanks for saving my ass.”

He shrugs one shoulder. “Now I don’t owe you shit.”

I kind of stare at him with my mouth open slightly because I don’t know how to take that until he grins at me. “Relax, I’m joking. Let’s go.”

Then he’s a wolf so I guess we’re leaving.

We run into a family when we meet back up with the trail, and their two elementary-age children definitely look scared as fuck of Jesse’s hulking wolf shape, so Ed rubs Jesse’s very fluffy neck. “It’s okay! See, nice doggie.”

They don’t look assuaged. We pass by them without incident. Jesse’s gait isn’t too bad; he’s compensating for the limp pretty well.

He shifts back when we all hop into the truck and settles in the passenger seat. Still not breathing great but knowing him, I don’t think that’ll be a problem for long. He leans his forehead against the window and shuts his eyes. I pull out of the parking lot and onto the main road.

Ed’s in the back, chin in her hand. “So we gotta deal with twofers now.”

Apparently. This is really bad news. Anytime you don’t know what you’re walking into, it’s bad news.

“Guessing you couldn’t tell the choker was down there?” she asks Jesse.

“It’s a fucking barnacle.”

“Hey, hey, no judgement. Just checking.” She chews her lip. “We gotta find this fucking monster king.”

Silence except for the air conditioning, the tires on the road. Jesse’s eyes aren’t closed anymore. He stares out the window at the sun-laden trees.

I’m watching the road, mostly. My attention’s elsewhere.

Chapter Text

The full moon is coming up and it’s making me nervous.

Ed too. Jesse seems to be the only one unperturbed. We haven’t had a job in a few days since the gravemouth thing so I go do my tutoring, Ed teaches her classes, and Jesse…does his thing. A lot of that is lying around in his wolf shape snoozing or watching TV. After his lungs get better he goes running. I ask to come with him once and he says I can’t keep up. That pisses me off because I’m in good shape so I go with him anyway. He starts off at something three-quarters of the way to a sprint and just keeps on fucking going. Turns out I can’t keep up. I do my own loop and come home. He returns over an hour later, breathing hard but otherwise basically fine.

That also pisses me off. But he looks kinda apologetic and tells me he wasn’t showing off, it’s just the physical stimulus of running that helps distract him. Then I’m thinking about the moon again and I’m nervous.

It’s not until the night after tomorrow. Jesse’s not worried so I shouldn’t be either. The shower helps, the lukewarm water running down my face, chest and back. Almost noon and the heat’s already starting to suck. As I head back to my room the door slams from downstairs. Ed’s got afternoon classes. Time to get a little work done.

I should be grading assignments but find myself not doing that; twenty minutes in and I’ve got two notebooks and a dictionary open on my desk with twelve tabs up in my browser and three Word documents minimized. Then there’s a knock at my door. I freeze for a quick second before realizing that neither Jesse nor Ed will have any idea what they’re looking at—probably—so I just hide my browser, flip my notebooks closed and call “What is it?”

Jesse opens the door and says, “Hey. Wanna fuck?”

I stare at him. He must be joking. But he doesn’t look like he’s joking, more like he’s waiting for an answer. “I—what?” I splutter.

“Do you wanna fuck? Full moon’s tomorrow night. Fucking helps.”

“Are you kidding me?” I stand and shove my chair back, having no real idea why I’m so offended. “What are—why are you asking me?”

Jesse raises his hands. “Hey, just seemed like you’d be interested. If you don’t want to, that’s fine.”

He’s serious. “You’re…serious.”

“Yeah.”

Jesse wants to fuck. Me, specifically, the twenty-five-year-old virgin whose idea of a wild Saturday night is watching Netflix documentaries until four in the morning. I need to stall for time. “Hang on. You wanna fuck because—“

“—full moon’s coming up and I’m antsy. Also it’s fun.”

Ah. Yes, of course. “So it would be for your benefit.”

He grins incredulously. “I mean, in general, sex is enjoyable for both parties.”

I stare at him some more, trying to shake the feeling of being used. Then again, sex wouldn’t mean the same thing to a werewolf, would it? He’s not a person. He doesn’t fall in love and go on dates—as far as I know. So this…it’s a diversion for him. And who says it has to be anything more for me?

I mean, yes, I’m a virgin. But that’s not likely to fucking change in the foreseeable future, or it wasn’t, until now.

Jesse leans against the door frame, crossing his arms. “Listen, no pressure. You don’t want to, I’ll head back downstairs and watch TV.”

I squint at him. “But you won’t…”

“Go rabid? No, I won’t go rabid if we don’t do this.”

Shit. Still need to stall for time. My heart is pounding in my chest. “Jesse, I’ve—I’ve never done this before.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You know?”

The grin softens. “I’m a werewolf, Del. I read people.” Not derisive. Just explaining.

There’s probably a really good reason why I shouldn’t do this. For example, he’s a werewolf and werewolves kill people. Except Jesse doesn’t, for reasons I still don’t understand. Okay, well, he’s also a member of the team and that might cause drama or something, although Jesse’s nonchalance seems impenetrable and I have a really hard time imagining him making any drama. Not coming up with much so far. He’s also really attractive. Is that a reason against?

“It’s fine, don’t worry about it.” Jesse straightens. Oh. I’ve been staring at him in silence. “I might make some food. You want any—“

“Let’s do it,” I blurt out.

He pauses and lifts an eyebrow.

“Sorry. Uh, yeah. I want to,” I tell him. Because I do. I want to not be a virgin anymore and I want to see Jesse naked, not from across the hallway this time but right in front of me. I want him to take my clothes off.

“Good,” Jesse says, and steps inside, shutting the door behind him.

We have at least a couple hours before Ed comes home. (God, Ed. I haven’t even thought about that.) He’s already pulling off his shirt, which is kind of a shame because I wanted to do that, and coming at me. I don’t really know what to do so I just let him put his hands on my waist and push me back until I hit the wall.

Then he’s kissing me.

I’ve been kissed exactly once before. Ed dragged me to this anniversary event at her club when I was twenty-one and I got talking to this big, burly guy, and it came out that I was a virgin in every respect, and he asked if I wanted him to kiss me and I said yes because he was very good-looking so we made out for a little while and then danced and said our goodbyes at the end of the night.

So I know a little bit what I’m doing. But it’s easy to tell Jesse’s better at it.

He has to pull me down because he’s short but our lips meet and his tongue opens up my mouth. I, being a fucking virgin, gasp in, I don’t know, surprise or horniness or something so he backs off and looks up at me. “You okay?”

“Yeah. It’s just—uh—I’ve never done this before.” I literally just told him that ten seconds ago.

He doesn’t dive back in right away and regards me for a moment. “Del, you can relax. There’s no pressure to be good in bed or whatever, I really don’t give a shit. And anyway, it’s not as hard as you think. I promise.”

I nod. “Okay.”

He kisses me again and his hands go under my shirt.

His palms are warm and rough and dry, but they’re so light running up my ribcage that it’s hard to reconcile with what I’ve seen of him—how he plunged straight into the dense ash of the gaunt hounds’ chests to rip their hearts out with strength alone. I twitch because no one’s touched me like that, ever, and he rests his hands on my ribs. “You’re sure you’re okay,” he says.

“Yeah! Yeah,” I answer, attempting to steady my voice.

“You know you can stop me at any time, right?”

“I know.”

He lifts his hands. My shirt comes up and I raise my arms so he can pull it off and throw it on the floor.

I was so busy thinking about his tongue in my mouth that I haven’t even looked at him yet, not really. And to be fair, I have seen him totally naked before. But he’s right here now and he’s just…amazing. Powerful shoulders, thick pecs, broad hips, and dark blonde hair coating his front. He must see me staring because he picks up my hand and puts it on his chest. “You can touch, Del,” he says with a grin.

Oh. He’s…firm. I cup his chest and can’t resist the urge to squeeze gently. “Yeah, that’s it,” he murmurs, his lively gaze still watching me.

Then he grasps my hip and kisses me again, and guides my hand down to his belt buckle. 

Ah. I pull the buckle open and undo his fly, even though I absolutely do not feel ready for this. Not that I could, anyway, since five minutes ago I thought I would be spending the afternoon building a complicated-ass sigil from scratch. Not totally sure how fast Jesse wants to go so I just hook my thumb in the waistband of his boxers and make out with him some more. Then he’s tugging at my shorts.

With a conscious effort I manage not to flinch away. I do want this, it’s just nerves. Still, I don’t want to be the only one standing around naked so I slip my hand under his boxers—his hip, the crest of it, skin smooth beneath my palm—and push them down. Then he’s stepping out of his pants and I’m stepping out of my shorts and we’re really doing this, I guess, because he smacks my ass and goes, “Want to get on the bed?”

I lie back on it and move up toward the pillows as he approaches. God, his thighs. He projects confidence that threatens to bowl me over with its sheer force, but it’s not cockiness, somehow; it’s just the way he exists, knowing exactly who he is. He wastes no time at all in straddling my hips and leaning down. His lips brush my neck and I let out an incredibly embarrassing moan. What was that? He didn’t even—

Jesse chuckles. “Guess we found your sensitive spot.”

“Sorry!” I can’t even look at him. “I didn’t know.”

“Del, don’t apologize. Christ.” He leans in again.

When he kisses my neck a shot of heat goes straight to my groin. I’m already sort of hovering around half-hard but that changes pretty damn fast. Then I realize Jesse’s dick is brushing my stomach and I glance down at it.

Um. I hope he’s not planning to fuck me because I may have played around a little bit but I really don’t think I can handle something that thick right away. It’s not terribly long at least, a good six inches. Really wish I could reach down and touch it but his hands have found mine and pinned them to the bed.

He’s kissing my neck again. Oh, fuck. My breath shudders. There’s the intimation of teeth, the smallest scrapes as his lips travel up my throat. The tip of his tongue traces a path between them. I wonder if he’s got fangs, right now, with the moon so close. He could rip my throat out if he wanted to. And I’m baring it to him.

“Everything okay?”

That’s Jesse asking me that. I blink to clear my head. “Uh—yeah, it’s fine, everything’s fine. Why?”

He rolls his eyes at me. “Werewolf. I read people.”

Ah. “Nothing’s wrong, I promise. Just nervous. Since it’s—you know.”

“Your first time.”

“Yeah.”

“Try and relax.” Jesse runs his fingers through my hair, which actually is quite relaxing. “You can let me do the work.”

He reaches down and grasps my dick.

Never had another guy touch me like that before and it makes me shiver and squirm a little. Jesse’s gentle, stroking me nice and slow. “How’s it feel?”

I nod. “Y-yeah. Good.”

“Hey. Where’s your lube?”

My mouth kind of hangs open for a second before he rolls his eyes. “I’m not gonna stick my dick in you, Del.”

Oh. Right. I roll my head at the side table. “Drawer.”

He leans over—God, he’s hairy, and smells like…I don’t know. Him. It’s a good thing. He finds the lube and squirts some on his hand and then reaches down again.

This time he guides the two of us together—me a little longer than he is but not as thick, and he jerks us with long, deliberate strokes. Above me his eyes drift shut. “Oh, yeah.”

I’m trying to think of what I should be doing when I remember what he told me. Try and relax, you can let me do the work. Right. There’s no pressure. Jesse takes my hand by the wrist and puts it on his waist. “Touch me,” he murmurs.

Okay, I can do that. I take his waist with both hands and let one travel down to his ass.

God, he’s muscular. Is that a monster thing or does he work out? His ass pumps slowly as he jerks us; his dick slides over mine, slippery and firm, and his strong fingers squeeze my shaft. “Mm—“ I bite my lip.

When I look up Jesse’s grinning. “Yeah, that’s right.”

I can’t help grinning too. This whole situation is fucking weird but it feels really good and I get to have sex with the hottest guy I’ve ever seen so honestly I’m not too bothered. Jesse leans down and his lips capture mine, and when we kiss he makes a quiet noise of satisfaction into my mouth. Fuck, that’s hot.

“Grab me, Del,” he growls.

I like it when he says my name. So I do what he says.

My fingers dig into his ass and I pull him toward me, encouraging him to fuck against me, because it’s electric, having his dick sliding together with mine, but the really hot part is the pure, base rhythm, how his eyes close and he loses himself in it, seeking the sensation of the two of us rubbing against each other. It’s nice to feel…desired. Above me his chest shines with sweat.

“Ah, fuck,” he hisses.

“What?” I ask breathlessly.

“Full moon puts me on a hair-trigger.” His mouth is at my neck again, and he murmurs into my skin, “Come on, Del, come on.”

There’s teeth this time for sure, just barely scraping down my throat, and for some reason that turns me on a lot so I gasp and reach down and grasp both our dicks, our hands colliding. My feet are planted, hips lifting off the bed now. “That feels good, huh?” Jesse’s breath is warm on my neck. “You like that?”

“Y-yeah—“ I can feel his dick sliding through my hand, the firm, slick head catching on my fingers.

“Give it to me, Del.” His voice descends to a throaty growl. “Come on, come on.”

I’m thrusting against him now, and the slippery friction of the two of us together threatens to burn me up. “Jesse—Jesse—“

“Yeah?”

“It feels—it feels good—“

His breaths turn heavy, and his hair tickles my forehead as he mouths my jaw. “You want me to come on you?”

Fuck, that’s hot. I’m halfway out of my mind with how turned on I am. “Yeah, come on me, yeah—“

Jesse’s whole body rolls against mine, and he grinds against me in our hands. I’m still thrusting, hopelessly out of time with him but it doesn’t even matter because he still snarls out, “Fuck, I’m coming,” and I feel his cum shooting onto my stomach as he pumps his hips—body shuddering, thigh tensing under my palm. Mostly I watch his face, his eyes closed, the exquisitely intense moment of climax and then how he relaxes just after, spurts of cum still coating my stomach.

He’s…beautiful. Not just hot. It’s the way he carries himself, the sly comebacks, the odd, insistent politeness, and how he’s inhumanly strong and capable of such violence but instead he chooses to do this. To protect us, to kiss my throat instead of tearing it out. He’s incredible. And, also, he’s a monster.

When he finally opens his eyes he cracks a grin at me and then climbs off, kneeling between my legs. Then he leans down and drags his tongue up my stomach, licking up his own cum.

Fuck.

I whimper out an involuntary “oh my god” and he gives me another devilish grin. “Yeah, that usually does the trick,” he says.

I cover my face and mumble, “Sorry. It’s just—“

“Del, I told you, you don’t have to apologize.” He grasps my thigh, squeezing it. “Come sit at the edge of the bed so I can suck you off.”

Oh. He already came and this whole episode was for the express purpose of keeping down his werewolf side so I had sort of thought we were done. Apparently not. I follow his instruction and sit on the edge of the bed, and he kneels between my legs.

And takes my dick in his mouth.

So watch some porn and I read some too, and none of the sloppy blowjobs, none of the warm-and-wet, spit-coated sex scenes could have prepared me for this. It’s heaven. I’d collapse if I didn’t plant a hand on the bed. Jesse bobs a couple of times, tongue cupping the underside of my shaft.

Then my dick goes straight down his throat. There’s not even a hitch. His lips close around the base and I’m totally sheathed in this wet, tight heat and I blurt out, “What the fuck, Jesse,” which is definitely not the right thing to do because he comes off of me and looks up.

“What? What’s wrong?” he asks.

“Nothing! I didn’t know you were gonna do that! Jesus!” I have an instant of feeling like an absolute fool, sitting here naked on the edge of my bed with my dick sticking up, but then I remember we’re fucking so it’s supposed to be like this.

“Sorry, too much?” He pushes his hair back. “I can—“

“No, it wasn’t too much! Just didn’t expect it. Holy shit.” How the fuck is he so good at this?

“Okay.” He sits there for a second, watching me. “So, can I keep going, or—“

“Yeah! Go ahead.” I wave my hand.

In less than three seconds my dick is in his throat again, because it’s just that easy, I guess. He stays down for a little bit, just sort of rocking, his tongue rolling over my shaft. When he comes off it’s only halfway, just enough for him to take a breath through his nose before he’s diving back down. My hips twitch up reflexively which I think surprises him a little because he blinks. Maybe it doesn’t, I don’t fucking know. “Sorry,” I breathe.

He comes off again and grasps my dick, jerking me slowly. “Del. First of all, don’t apologize.”

“I know, I’m—yeah.”

“Second of all.” He squeezes me, gentle but firm, making me shudder. “You can go ahead and fuck my mouth.” His tongue laves the head of my dick, tracing the crown. “If there’s one thing you really don’t have to worry about, it’s being too rough with me.”

Him saying that really makes me want to come but then he’s sucking me down again and I’m moaning. God, that’s fucking amazing. His hand goes to my back, down towards my ass, urging me toward him. Fine. Fine.

I roll my hips up.

My dick pops into his throat and right back out again and he doesn’t cough or anything, just shuts his eyes and nods a little bit. His hand is still on my ass, guiding me, and I fuck into him, forgetting the questions I have, the lingering apprehension about hurting him. All that’s left is his mouth and how he’s pulling me in. My thrusts are long, deliberate and deep, and he takes them without flinching. Not even a little bit.

“Jesse,” I breathe. “I—I think I’m gonna come.”

When I look down his eyes are open again and locked on mine, half-lidded, glowing gold in the afternoon sun. He takes me all the way down to the root.

That’s it. Can’t hold back anymore. The orgasm finally tips over and my whole body shivers as cum pulses out of me, deep into Jesse’s throat. To either side of his head my legs shake even as I pump into his mouth, his lips sliding over my shaft. He’s still watching me with bright, golden eyes, and I crush a hand to my mouth, hissing curses into it. The sheer intensity of the pleasure makes me feel like I’m about to explode.

The orgasm lasts…a while. Jesse rubs my thigh, slow and deep like he’s giving me a massage, and his throat tightens as he swallows my cum. My dick still throbs with heat, each pulse piercing me to my core. Finally—finally—I start to soften and pull out of his mouth, and he swallows one last time.

“So? How was it?” He wipes his mouth.

“I thought I was going to die,” I tell him.

“Why don’t you lie down?” he says.

I lie down.

There’s two pillows and a second later Jesse flops down next to me, also on his back. I guess a little cuddling was too much to hope for. I think he’s dozing, honestly, which is tempting because now that I’ve come the sleepiness is hitting me like a sledgehammer. But I still have questions.

“Did it work?” I ask.

Jesse chuckles. “Yeah, it worked.”

Okay. Good. I like that. “You’re, uh…really good at giving blowjobs.”

“Thanks, Del.”

“So, how did you, y’know. Get so good?”

He shifts, tucking an arm under the pillow. “It’s a monster thing. Werewolves are inherently good at sucking people off.”

“Really?”

“No. I’ve just sucked a lot of dicks.”

“Oh,” I mumble. Duh. “So you do this a lot. Around full moons.”

“Yeah, mostly. Sometimes when I’m on a job.”

I roll over to face him. He’s beautiful, skin just a little flushed, tiny beads of sweat glimmering in the hair on his chest and stomach. “On a job?”

“Yeah. If Meredith gets wind of someone who’s using black magic, he usually sends me to put them down.”

I always wondered who took those guys out. Me and Ed sure never get any of those jobs. “And you do that by…going down on them.”

He grins at me. “People tend to fall asleep after they come.”

“I thought you didn’t kill people.”

“Hey. That’s different and you know it.”

“I know, I know, sorry. Just wondering.” All in all, it’s not a bad strategy. Regular magic, the kind I use, works on monsters but not humans. Black magic is just the opposite, which makes Jesse the ideal assassin. “Huh. So you’re a honeypot.”

That makes him burst out laughing. “No one’s ever called me that before, but yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“They can’t all be into dudes, though.”

“Well, no, but I can flip most of ‘em. That’s a werewolf thing. People wanna fuck you more, makes it easier to lock down a target.”

I push myself up on an elbow. “Wait, you make people wanna fuck you? Like an incubus?”

His face darkens at that, if only briefly. Not sure what I said. “No, not like an incubus. I don’t make people do anything. They’re attracted to me, that’s all. It’s just kind of…there. I can’t turn it on or off.”

“Huh.” I flop back down, heaving a dramatic sigh. “To think, I, an experienced slayer of monsters, let myself be taken in by your werewolf wiles.”

He grins again. That’s better. “Little late for second thoughts.”

“No, no. No second thoughts.”

“Good. Because you seemed to be enjoying yourself.”

I giggle like a fucking idiot. “Yeah, it was fun.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Jesse sits up, swinging his legs off the bed. “Gonna go take a shower.”

He doesn’t invite me to join so instead I just lie there, staring at the ceiling. Beneath me the sheet is already starting to get damp with sweat.

I can’t believe I just did that.

I wanted to, though. Even though he’s a monster, even though we’ve known each other for two weeks. I want to know more about him. And I do, I think. How...considerate he was with me, even though this was just a quick fuck. 

I think of his golden eyes, his mouth at my neck, as I drift off to sleep.

Chapter Text

“Are you fucking serious?”

“Yeah, I’m fuckin’ serious.” Ed folds her arms.

Jesse glares at her sullenly over the island, from my left. Ed stands at the other end on my right. I’m sitting in the middle eating leftover stir fry.

Anger seethes off of Jesse but he doesn’t betray it in his voice or manner. “It’s not a good idea.”

Ed snorts. “Yeah, right. Letting a rabid animal roam around the house seems way smarter than locking it in the basement.”

“I won’t go rabid if you just—“ He clenches a fist and relaxes it. “Just let me walk around and go on the porch and watch TV and shit. I need to keep my mind occupied or it gets too hard to control.”

“Sorry, but this is my house and I make the rules, and you are staying in the fuckin’ basement.” Ed shrugs. “End of story.”

“Ed—“

“I do not trust you.” She jabs a finger at him. “Okay? There is a monster king on the loose and it’s making you guys violent and I do not trust you not to hurt us or our neighbors on the night of a full moon. It’s either the basement or you lose your room and board. I’m not taking any risks.”

It takes a while for his eyes to leave her, flashing gold in the late afternoon light. But eventually he looks away. “Fine.”

“That’s what I thought. Now what do we have for food?” She opens the fridge. “Who the hell got these steaks? Jesus.”

While Ed rummages for dinner I ask Jesse, “Will you be okay?”

He glances at me briefly and nods. “Yeah.”

Nothing’s changed since yesterday when we fucked. I guess I shouldn’t have expected it, since he’s not, well, human. I did ask him if we could do it again and he said sure, anytime, which sounded promising.

But nothing’s changed today except for him, in the lead-up to the full moon. I can’t pinpoint it exactly but something in his manner has made me wary of him, even a little afraid. Like I’ve picked today to remember he’s a werewolf.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” I ask.

“You can not lock me in the fucking basement,” he snarls. “But I guess that’s already settled. Forget about it.”

Then he stalks away to the living room. I know I saw some teeth in that growl.

I hope he’ll be okay.

——

I’m woken at one in the morning by a snapping sound from below.

There’s a couple of possibilities. One is that a burglar has chosen this night of all nights to break into our not-very-fancy suburban home with the eight-year-old pickup in the driveway and rob us blind. The other is that Jesse has broken free.

I lie there for a moment listening. No snarls, no breaking glass or banging doors. Just the quiet creak of footsteps moving around on the first floor. I shouldn’t go down there, it’s probably dangerous—definitely dangerous. But what if he’s about to escape? What if he’s going to bolt out of the house and start slaughtering people in the streets? I have to stop him.

But maybe I don’t have to wake up Ed yet. I pull on some pajama pants and creep out of my room and down the stairs.

The first thing I notice is all three of the bookcases we pushed in front of the basement door have been pushed away. We had to empty the cases, move them, and then put all the books back because they were that heavy. Behind them the basement door is ajar with the handle pointing down, which is not a way it should be able to point. Next I hear the snap of a stovetop burner igniting from the kitchen, and the metallic noise of a pot or pan being set down. A drawer opening and closing.

I sneak forward and peer around the corner.

Jesse is standing there in the dark in his black canvas jacket, tossing two steaks onto a skillet with a barbecue fork.

The oil’s not warmed up yet because it doesn’t start to sizzle for a minute. He stands there with his back to me, waiting, rolling his shoulders. No indication of noticing me. But he must know I’m here by now. He’s a werewolf. And yet he’s not rampaging through the streets, dragging people from their homes and devouring their flesh in a phantasmagoric display. Instead he’s…frying some steaks.

Eventually the oil starts to crackle and hiss and he flips the fan on low. Jesse leans back against the island, folding his arms. I stay just where I am, half-hidden behind the dividing wall. If I say something…well, I don’t know what’ll happen. Could be bad. As it is I already feel as if I’m bearing witness to some forbidden display, liable to be ejected if I make even the slightest interruption.

Jesse flips the steaks after a few minutes. If I try really hard I can pretend that I’m doing this to be vigilant, for the sake of doing my job and keeping people safe from the monster standing in our kitchen. Of course, if that were true I’d be chaining him up or something. Instead he’s cooking and I’m standing here in the hallway, fascinated.

Jesse turns off the burner and stabs one steak with the barbecue fork, lifting it into the air. Juice and oil drip from the browned surface. He opens his mouth.

Those are teeth.

I saw what he bought—the cheapest cut you can get at our local Shop ’n Save, but I know from experience it’s pretty damn tough without a lot of work. Jesse doesn’t seem to care. He rips it apart, teeth tearing off chunks with ease, chews and swallows. It’s an able demonstration of what he could do to, say, a person. His jaw is heavy in the moonlight, and when he opens his mouth for another bite I catch the reflection on the curve of his canines.

He makes quick work of his midnight snack.

Afterwards he wipes his mouth with a dish towel and tosses it on the island, gazing out the window for a moment. The silver moonlight limns his face. Then he says, “Del, you should go upstairs.”

Oh.

“I just—“ I stammer. “I mean, shouldn’t you—I don’t think I should leave you alone. What if—“

He turns and advances on me so quick I stumble back and almost fall. Jesse grasps the dividing wall, staring me down. He might have been angry this afternoon but this is different. For the first time I feel myself acutely in danger. “If you don’t go upstairs right now I’ll knock you out and carry you there myself,” he says. “If we make it that far.”

There are little cracks in the dividing wall radiating from where he’s put his claws through it. I edge past him and head for the stairs. When I glance over my shoulder he’s watching me with eyes narrowed in contempt.

I go back to my room and close the door and lie in bed listening. The creaking of floorboards. The muted noise of the TV.

It takes a long time for me to fall back asleep.

——

I wake a little after sunrise.

When I emerge from the bathroom Ed’s coming out of her room, tying her hair back. Can’t remember the last time I saw her awake this early. She heads downstairs and I follow her. Really hope Jesse’s still there.

The first thing we find is there’s no more bookcases in the middle of the hall. The second is the brand new knob lying on the floor by the basement door, a power drill sitting next to it. Third is Jesse standing by the dividing wall. Is he…spackling?

“Sorry I damaged your wall. This should fix it.” He smooths the layer of paste.

“You got out,” Ed says.

“Yeah.”

“Did you get—out out?”

“I didn’t leave the house, no.”

“Fuck’s sake,” she mutters, rubbing her forehead.

Jesse glances over. Half expected him to give her an I told you so or something. But he just goes back to his work. “I’ll fix the knob too. Didn’t want to wake you guys up with the drill.”

“Where’d you get this stuff? Did you take my truck?”

“Yeah. Filled the tank while I was out.”

He’s spackling.

The skillet is sitting in the drying rack and I put it on the stove to scramble some eggs. Ed’s making coffee. I get the feeling she’s not done with this but doesn’t want to tackle it without a little bit of caffeine in her system. There’s some green onions in the fridge so I start to chop those up.

When the coffee’s finished Jesse comes over for a cup as well, sensing, as I did, that Ed wants to talk. I continue making breakfast, fairly sure I don’t want to get in the middle of this, although I do keep an eye on them over my shoulder.

“You broke the door,” Ed says.

“Yeah. Sorry. I’ll fix it.”

“Were you planning on breaking out the whole time? You could have just fucking told me. Then we wouldn’t have wasted half an hour dragging those bookcases out.”

“I wasn’t. It just…it got too hard. I didn’t want to lose my hold.”

“But you were locked in a fucking basement.”

He watches her over his mug. “It took me ten seconds to open that door and I wasn’t wolfed out. I lose my grip, it takes two.”

Ed flings a hand out. “Then you could have told me it wouldn’t hold you! We could chain you up or something!”

He sets his mug down. “Ed, you can’t hold me. Nothing you do can hold me. I can hold me, and when I can’t then I know who to ask for help.”

“Fucking who is it then? Let’s give ‘em a call!”

Jesse stares down at his coffee. “They’re not human.”

“Great,” Ed mutters.

They’re silent for a few moments. I shove the eggs around in the pan. Almost done.

“So was this, like—a close call?” Ed asks. “How bad is it, exactly? Were we in danger? Are we gonna be next time?”

Jesse takes a sip of coffee and rubs the lip of the mug with his thumb. “The first time after the monster king showed, it was really bad. So I got help. Then it calmed down. I’ve been fine on my own the last couple of times. It, ah…it has been getting worse,” he says. “I’ll know whether or not I need help. And if I do I’ll go get it. You won’t be in danger.”

I turn off the stove and start dividing up the eggs. Ed’s simmering, but in a cooling-down way, not a heating-up way. Breakfast is quiet. I get the sense they’ve reached an understanding. The silence is comfortable, or almost comfortable. As we eat I notice that Jesse’s knuckles are red and shiny, like newly-healed wounds.

I wonder what it takes for him to control it. And why he decides to control it at all.

——

“This is bullshit.”

I twist, leaning over the arm of the couch to see what Jesse’s pointing at. “Red nuns don’t get stronger on hallowed ground,” he says, showing me the page in the notebook. “They just like it. Don’t ask me why.”

“No kidding.” This is the task I’ve assigned him to in order to stem his boredom, since we haven’t had a job in a few days—going through all the notes and lore we have on monsters and telling us what’s inaccurate. “Okay, thanks.”

Ed emerges from her room, finally. (Heard her get back around three in the morning, so I guess she had a good night.) “Bonemiser south of Buffalo,” she says, hurling her phone at me. Jesse lets out a groan. I flinch and cover my face reflexively but the phone never makes impact. When I lower my hands I discover Jesse has snatched it from midair and is handing it to me. Oh.

“What’s wrong?” I ask him, taking it.

“It’s a bonemiser, it’s gonna beat the shit out of me.” He runs a hand through his hair and sighs. “You two just try and take it down fast, all right?”

“So you don’t know any other ways to kill it?”

“No.”

Guess that means we’re packing sledgehammers. Normally a bonemiser is a scary job, but with Jesse there to take the heat off us it should be okay. “I have tutoring in a couple hours,” I tell Ed.

“Fine,” she replies. “We’ll leave tonight.”

——

“Something’s wrong.”

Great. Just what I wanted to hear. I glance in the rearview at Jesse, who’s frowning out the window at the trees passing by in the darkness. Ed twists in her seat. “What? What is it?”

“There’s something else there. I don’t know what.”

Ed lets out a long sigh. I feel that. We’re prepared for a bonemiser and not much else. Got some supplies with broad-range applicability in the duffel, but depending on what’s out there…

“We should go in anyway,” Jesse says. “Need to take care of the bonemiser. It won’t linger long.”

“What about the other fucking thing?” Ed asks.

Jesse rubs his beard. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Uh-huh. How?”

He gives her a smirk. “I’m creative.”

The smirk is fake, not that he even tried to cover it up. If the second monster is something like a vampire, yeah, you can kill those by tearing them apart. But if it’s a bloodseer or a dark-and-deep or a lazuli or a breath of life or one of the other zillion things you can’t kill with brute force, we’re screwed.

Unfortunately, he’s right about going in. The bonemiser will only stick around for a day or two, taking some bits and pieces from the local cemetery to supplement its fresh kill, and then it’ll be in the wind. We have to kill it now.

We leave the truck by the side of the road and hop the fence. (It’s a stone wall, actually. Waist-height. Security around cemeteries generally isn’t very good.) I squint into the darkness and find no lights, hear no rumble of motors. Good. No one digging graves or doing maintenance who might interrupt us. The grass is wet under our sneakers; it must have rained here today.

“Where is it?” Ed hisses.

“I don’t know.” Jesse’s eyes glint in the dark. “But it’s here somewhere. They both are.”

“God, you’re fucking useless.“

“Sorry. I’ll try not to slow you down.”

There’s less vitriol in Ed’s insults than there used to be, and it’s almost an inside joke now. Weird to hear it turning into that. A month ago everything Jesse did irritated her. Now…well, he still irritates her, but he doesn’t piss her off so much anymore. He takes a deep breath and lets it out, then gestures to us and heads to the right a bit.

Ed and I follow, flashlights out. We’re both toting sledgehammers, and we brought two backpacks this time full of odds and ends—silver, salt, animal blood, wood of yew, that kinda thing. With luck, it’ll be able to hold off the mysterious second monster long enough for us to run away or figure out a plan. I estimate there’s about a fifty-fifty chance we have enough for that. And if the coin flip falls the wrong way, well. We can blame the monster king while we’re being filleted or turned to stone or driven mad or whatever it is we have to look forward to.

I hope it doesn’t come get us while we’re fighting the bonemiser. You really can’t afford to split your attention when you’re fighting a bonemiser.

Jesse brings us to a mausoleum, squat and square with mournful angels at every corner gazing down upon us. A tall tree shades it, its branches reaching out in the dark, stars flickering through the leaves. Also the mausoleum doors are caved the fuck in, and Jesse creeps forward and sticks his head inside. He is a braver man than I. Ed and I hover behind him, sledgehammers at the ready. (Jesse didn’t want one. I offered multiple times.) He withdraws, glances around, and mutters “Where the fuck…”

Then he spins, dashing forward and shoving me and Ed aside, and the bonemiser drops from the tree and lands right in front of him.

It looks like a robot—sort of, except it’s built of bone plates with blood and flesh beneath to form the joints, the substance, the stuff that holds it all together. The worst part is it’s faceless; there are no features on the smooth, white-yellow plate. This one’s face plate rises several inches above its head, almost like a headdress or a crown. In the narrow spaces between the bone, red flesh glistens in the moonlight.

I’ve helped kill one bonemiser before. (We used explosives.) That one had a spearlike point where its left hand should be and a serrated blade at its right. This one’s got a club and a nasty-looking hook. Not the first time it’s shown its not-face on this continent, then—I remember my mom relaying a description like this a few years ago.

“Let’s go, asshole,” Jesse growls.

I think he just wants to get this over with. The bonemiser swings with the club hand and he arches away narrowly, swiping at it. I glimpse his claws and how they scrape across its chest without doing a damn thing except scratching it up a little. The hook arm comes up and Jesse blocks with a grunt. His forearm splits beneath its edge.

Okay. We should get a move on so it doesn’t take him apart.

Ed is already fanning out, and she sticks her flashlight at the base of a grave. I do the same. There’s a little space around the tree and the mausoleum. We should use it. Not good to trip over tombstones when you’re facing something that can cave your skull in with one hit. Ed takes the initiative, coming up behind the thing while it’s pushing Jesse back and swinging her sledgehammer.

The blow smacks into its upper arm, and the plate there splits. The bonemiser stumbles sideways but doesn’t fall. A hit like that would put me in the dirt for sure. Jesse leaps on it, teeth closing over the hook. The thing starts pummeling him in the ribs and gut with its club hand. Jesse takes the hits, his jaw tight. I go in with Ed while it’s distracted, striking at its back and legs. It barely stumbles. Jesus. The club arm whips out and I dance back, pulling the hammer in tight to my chest. Don’t wanna block with it because the handle will shatter and I’ll lose my weapon.

The bonemiser goes back to pulping Jesse’s insides. His eyes are bright in the light of the moon, claws hooked into plates at its chest and shoulder so he doesn’t lose his grip. Still his teeth are closed around the hook. A growl rumbles out from his throat, deep and animal.

A snap as the hook breaks. Jesse shakes his head and tears it away, stringy bits of red flesh and vessels hanging from the stump. The next hit from the club hand throws him to the ground, and he spits the broken mess of bone fragments and marrow onto the wet grass.

That’s one less thing to worry about.

There are some cracks in it now, at least, spiderweb cracks from the sledgehammers in its back and legs. Ed’s been doing better than me. She can bench more than I can. The bonemiser turns to her, and she retreats a couple steps, making some distance.

Jesse launches himself off the ground and scrambles onto its back, wrapping his claws around one edge of the face plate. He leans away from the club hand so it can’t get at his head and smash his skull in. The bonemiser tilts back and plants a foot. Ed circles around to its weak side. She’s trying to decide whether or not to go in.

“Have to finish this.” Jesse. The words are garbled, obstructed by too many teeth.  His mouth is smeared red. “Second monster wants to bolt.”

“Well, fuck!” Ed takes a chance, stepping forward and swinging. Her hammer cracks into its lower leg. “What is it? Where is it?”

“I don’t fucking know!” He pulls at the face plate until the club smashes into his hand and his grip springs open. The bonemiser swings its body, hurling Jesse to the ground again; he grunts in pain at the impact.

Okay.

No one’s going to like this but the bonemiser isn’t going down anytime soon and we shouldn’t let the other monster escape. Just because it didn’t leave any signs of its presence here doesn’t mean it left the people unscathed. I retrieve my flashlight and call out “I’ll go find it!” as I turn and start sprinting out into the cemetery.

A furious “What the fuck, Del!” from Ed behind me and then Jesse shouting, “Ed, I need you here!” so I think she tried to follow. I glance over my shoulder. She isn’t pursuing; instead she and Jesse are squaring up with the bonemiser. Good. This is the right play. I’m smart, I can bait the second monster into staying without getting myself killed. Probably.

I slow to a jog and swing the flashlight back and forth, scanning.

Gotta keep my eyes and ears open. It would be easy to die here. We take that risk every week, yeah, but I feel better when Ed’s with me (and even better with Jesse there too). Alone, it’s…different. I don’t have anyone to watch my back.

But I also don’t have anyone hurrying me up to kill the thing, which might give me a chance to try out an alternative strategy or two. Or maybe to learn something, and with the monster king looming in the back of all our minds—most of all in Jesse’s—I’ll take any opportunity to give us an edge.

I advance through the dark, flashlight panning slowly back and forth, eyes and ears open. The air is humid and closes in on me from all sides; it makes me shiver a little, the cold touching my arms like a specter’s fingers. I’m exquisitely aware of all the dead under my feet, the concentration of power seeping through the earth that squishes beneath my shoes. Not a good place for a fragile human like myself to be strolling through in the middle of the night.

The flashlight catches a glitter at the far wall of the cemetery and I double my pace, jogging over.

I keep the beam trained on the gleam. It doesn’t move even though it must know I’m here; that’s something. Bodes well for me being able to keep it from fleeing until the others show. As I approach I hear…something. Music, the plucking of strings. And there’s a smell apart from the grass and dirt and the recent rain.

Sandalwood.

I have a faint idea of what I’ll see before I see it, and my guess is right on. A beautiful man floats cross-legged in the air before me. (Why do some monsters have to be hot? I mean, I know logically it’s a ploy to make it easier to snag you, but the fact of the matter remains.) He wears flowing robes in blue and purple, embroidered with gold; on his lap sits a large wooden lute.

A talespinner. “Good evening,” he says, and smiles. His robes are patterned with a hundred faces, and all their eyes are focused on me.

“Hi,” I answer. This is doable. Talespinners play their hands in a couple of different ways, but all of it involves talking. I can stall until the others get here, no problem. This one drifts away from me, just a couple of feet. Protecting the lute from my sledgehammer. Destroy the instrument, the talespinner dies. I won’t get to that thing by myself.

“I sense the weight on your mind.” He bobs in the air, fingers stroking the strings of his lute. “Let me help you lift it.”

This is it. They answer questions truthfully—even about the future, which is a little frightening. You just have to play a game with them first. The rules are simple: answer three of its questions, true or false, and if you succeed it’ll give you what you seek. If you fail you’re sewn into its robes forever. The talespinner, of course, holds all the cards. If it wants you to fail, you’ll fail.

Thing is, some people succeed anyway. So why would it let them win? Because the victory, and the answer, spreads suffering greater than simply sewing them into its robe. And I’ve got a ringer I think it’ll give me a good shot on.

“Poor boy.” He plucks out an arpeggio, then a sweet, sad chord. “I can see you’re—“

“I want to know where the monster king is,” I blurt out.

He pauses, eyes alight in sparkling violet. “Before I give you an answer, you must first judge three—“

“I know, I know.” I wave a hand. “Three questions, true or false. Let’s go.”

He lets out a lilting chuckle. “So impatient. Very well.”

I have to do this fast, before Ed and Jesse finish with the bonemiser. Because they will think this is a phenomenally bad idea. But I know what I’m doing. I know.

“Hmm.” The talespinner plucks at his lute idly. “First question. Thirty-three years and eight months ago, a monster was born to a shapeshifter, and this monster calls itself a werewolf, even though it isn’t one, because it wishes it were one. True or false?”

Jesse. Of course it knows about Jesse. The goddamn things can tell the future, so why not? Okay, let’s see. Does Jesse want to be a werewolf, is the question. He doesn’t seem to like people very much, despite not killing them. And if he were a full-blooded werewolf he probably wouldn’t give a shit about the whole saving lives business, which seems like it would be a real weight off his shoulders.

But I remember what he told me a couple of weeks ago. Why do we have to go berserk at all? It’s fucking stupid. Whoever made us should lose their fucking job. “False,” I say.

“Mm!” The talespinner plucks out a quick, whimsical melody. “Very good. Now, the monster, in an attempt to control its own instincts, used you for sex and fabricated each and every gesture of tenderness during your exciting little tryst. True or false?”

Every gesture? That’s the crux of the question, isn’t it. Still, deep down I’ve known the answer ever since he rolled out of my bed to go shower, and I don’t blame him for it, either. I don’t even know if he’s capable of true tenderness. “True.”

“Very good.” He smiles slyly at me, and a parade of notes flows from the lute that seems like it shouldn’t be possible, even though the talespinner only has five fingers. But he’s not human, of course, so it doesn’t matter what I think is possible. They don’t care about that. “Your final question. The monster avowed to you that it doesn’t tell lies, and in doing so told you one. True or false?”

Fuck.

I wish I could say that was false. But the worse answer is probably the correct one, because the talespinner’s goal is to spread suffering and if Jesse does lie—if he’s lied to us—and yet I sensed that he meant it, when he said that to me, and I would really like it to be false because it would make everything ten times less complicated—

“Del!”

Jesse.

He jogs up to me, limping, flashlight bobbing. He didn’t have a flashlight before. “Where’s Ed?” I ask urgently.

“She’ll be fine.” He staggers sideways, grasping a gravestone for support. “Del, back up, now.”

“I wasn’t—“

“Now,” he snarls.

Fine. I back up, raising my hands.

“Ah, fuck.” He stumbles over to another gravestone, this one the right height for him to sit on, and hunches in pain, dropping the flashlight. “You.” Jabs a finger at the talespinner. “You’re letting him go.”

“Letting him go. I don’t think so.” The talespinner giggles madly, weaving in the air. “What will you do about it, Jesse Tower? Can you fly? Can you fly with your body all smashed up by the bonemiser?”

“God, you’re a fucking asshole.” Jesse straightens slowly, and in the beam from the flashlight I see his claws come out. “Let him go and we don’t have to do this.”

“You’re bargaining!” The talespinner laughs, high and brash, striking an atonal chord on its lute. “You’re bargaining for a human! And you wonder why we hold you in such low esteem!”

“Maybe, but at least I have two brain cells to rub together.” He starts to buckle but steadies himself. “Jesus.”

The crack of a gunshot splits the air and the talespinner’s lute shatters. It throws its head back and lets out a deafening scream, harsh like steel wool scraping out my eardrums. I crouch and cover my ears, tears springing to my eyes, praying for it to stop.

The scream cuts off abruptly and I look up, blinking, vision blurred. Jesse seems not the least bit affected; he just sits back on the gravestone, claws retracting. “Thank fuck,” he mutters.

Ed jogs out of the darkness opposite from where Jesse sits, stowing her pistol in her backpack. Oh. Jesse pulled the talespinner’s attention while she lined up a shot on its lute, hidden in the night. “Hey.”

“Hey.” I rise, lowering my hands. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She slings her bag over her shoulder. “Quick question though, what the fuck do you think you were doing?”

Whoops. “I was keeping it here until you guys showed up,” I say, which is true, if not the whole truth.

“Hm,” Jesse grunts. “You didn’t ask it a question or anything, did you?”

“Well, yeah.” I attempt nonchalance. “But I wasn’t gonna finish the game, obviously. I was stalling.”

“Right.” He nods. “You wanna try that again?”

I stare at him, uncomprehending.

“He heard you, Del.” Ed folds her arms. “You weren’t stalling. You were looking for answers.”

He heard me with his fucking supernatural hearing. Fuck. I stare at the gravestone in front of me, unwilling to meet their eyes. William Barnes, 1815-1882. “We need to find it,” I explain. “The monster king.”

“This.” Jesse points at the dull tatters of cloth, the shreds of wood in the grass that are all that remains of the talespinner. “This is not the way. Monsters hurt humans. That’s the whole fucking point. You can’t make deals with them because you will never come out on top, no matter what it looks like from your end. Don’t do that again.”

“Fine.”

“Ever.”

“I said, fine!”

He gazes at me, eyes a dull yellow-brown; then he winces and sinks to the ground. “Fuck, that hurts.”

I kneel next to him, unsure what to do. “Bonemiser did a number on you, huh?”

“Yeah. Ed put it down pretty fast, though.” His face is a mask of pain. “You two wanna help me back to the truck? Walking sucks.”

It’s hard to carry both him and the sledgehammers so Ed takes both of ours and straps them to her bag. We carry Jesse between us, each taking an arm, he walking at a slow but steady pace with his weight on our shoulders.

“Do you have pills in the truck?” he asks.

“Pills? Like painkillers?” Ed says. “I think so.”

“Good. I want them.”

“Um, not to disappoint you or anything,” I interject. “But for pills to work you need a functioning, you know, stomach. And the bonemiser looked like it was kind of…mashing your organs into soup.”

Jesse groans. “Fuck.”

Ed grunts. “Stop whining. You’ll be fine in, like, two days.”

“That’s not the point!”

“You’re fucking indestructible! So it hurts sometimes! Big deal!”

When I glance over there’s a grin on Jesse’s face. But it quickly turns into a frown and his chest sort of heaves and then a bunch of blood falls out of his mouth. “Sorry,” he mumbles, and spits a red glob of something that looks suspiciously like tissue onto the grass.

“That is gross! That is so gross.”

Jesse glances at Ed. “I brought extra towels. Your seats will be fine.”

“They better be.”

“Nice work with the bonemiser, by the way. Went down faster than I thought it would.”

“Hey, I’m good at my job.”

Nice to see them getting along, sort of. Past the cemetery gate the truck is sitting just where we left it. I know what Jesse said, and there’s no way to know what would have happened, but I can’t help feeling that I missed a precious opportunity here.

I glance over at Jesse again. What the talespinner said, about how he might be lying to us after all, doesn’t concern me as much as maybe it should. We’ve only known each other for a month but I trust him, still. And not just because we fucked. There’s something about him. There’s something he wants out of all this, and I don’t think it’s just protection.

With effort we heave him in the back of the truck. (After we put down towels, of course.) Ed hops in the driver’s seat and looks over her shoulder. “You okay back there?”

Jesse puts up a thumbs-up. Good enough. She starts the truck and we drive south, back homewards.

Chapter Text

“Hey, wanna fight?”

That’s Jesse, sticking his head into the library. I’m there doing an upper body workout for once in my goddamn life, and Ed’s just picking a resistance band. It’s her Jesse’s looking at, and she cocks an eyebrow. “What?”

“In case you gotta kick my ass someday,” he says. “We should fight so you know my moves.”

“In case I gotta kick your ass.”

“You know. Full moon.”

She stares at him for another minute, then squints. “Is this just an excuse for you to learn my moves?”

That makes him chuckle. “I’m flattered you think I’m smart enough for that, but I kind of just do the same thing every time regardless of what’s fighting me. So I don’t think I’ll be learning jack shit.”

Ed shrugs. “Sounds good. You wanna go outside? There’s more room.”

“Yeah. Bring a knife.”

Her face lights up, and she reaches over to the pile of knives at the base of the wall. They’re supposed to be stored in the basement when she’s done with them but they just kind of end up here. Ed picks a ten-inch blade and pulls the sheath off. Jesse raises his hands. “Whoa, whoa. Let’s leave that on.”

“Well, that’s no goddamn fun.” But she replaces the sheath.

“What about me?” I ask. “Should I join in too?”

Jesse looks over at me, slightly apologetic. “No offense, Del, but if I’ve flipped out then you might want to just…stay back.”

“Fine,” I mumble. There’s no getting around the fact that Ed’s worth two of me in a stand-up fight. I can hold my own, but she does this for her day job.

I follow them outside, because this sounds exciting and also I don’t want to work out anymore. “Silver,” Jesse explains. “It fucks me up. If you need to bring me down, use silver.”

“Uh-huh.” Ed pushes the door open. The silver thing doesn’t surprise me—it kills werewolves and hurts more monsters than that. One of those tools we bring on every job.

It’s hot outside. Summer hot, even though it’s barely June. The sun blazes down on our back yard, the grass green but a little pale. We could use some rain. Privacy hedges cage us in on all sides. Some of the neighbors might be able to see the sparring from their second floor, but Jesse’s not wolfed out or anything so it shouldn’t matter.

“I hate summer,” Jesse mutters, and strips his shirt off, hanging it on the porch railing. I won’t object to that. He walks out onto the grass in his athletic shorts, sweat already shining on his upper back. Ed pulls her tank top off and hangs it too, leaving her in her sports bra. I remain on the porch, in the shade, and take a seat on the swinging bench.

Ed takes a stance with knees bent and knife forward. Jesse pushes his hair back and lets out a long breath. “You don’t need to pull your punches, by the way.”

She snorts. “Yeah, like I was gonna pull my punches.”

Jesse grins. “Fair enough. All right, let’s go.”

“You go. I ain’t makin’ any first moves.”

“Okay,” he murmurs, and charges her.

A lot happens very quickly. His hands are open, fingers crooked like his claws are out but they’re not. Guess he’d be fighting that way on a full moon. Ed’s eyes catch it and she stays back, playing defense. They’re about the same height so there’s not much of a range advantage on either side, except for her knife.

She isn’t using it yet. Jesse is relentless in his pursuit and explosive in his attacks, lashing out with chains of strikes that Ed has to dodge. She can’t block—or could, right now, but if he had his claws out it wouldn’t end well. It’s a good thing our yard’s big or she wouldn’t be able to get away from him like this. I know she’s watching and waiting, forming a plan.

At last she makes a move, circling not back but outside of Jesse as his momentum carries him forward. Her bare foot lashes out, catching the back of his knee. He buckles but doesn’t go down. Still, it’s enough time for her to jab the sheathed knife into his shoulderblade. Jesse stumbles a couple of steps forward and nods. “Good.” He straightens. “I should clarify what I told you: bring a few knives. If you get one in me, you’ll want to leave it there.”

Ed nods, crouching, knife forward.

They’re at it for a while. It looks exhausting. Sweat rolls down Jesse’s spine and gleams on his stomach and chest; Ed’s sports bra is soaked through. At one point I go and grab myself some lemonade. Ed’s getting pretty good—the intervals between her hits grow shorter and shorter. Eventually she gets in a judo throw and flips Jesse over onto his back. He thuds into the grass and lands laughing, although he cuts off when Ed jams the knife into his sternum.

“Careful.” He rubs the spot, coughing out another laugh. “That’s where my heart is.”

“Ah, shit. Yeah, sorry.”

That sobers things up a little bit, because I’m thinking, and they probably are too, of what happens if Ed does kill him, whether by accident or necessity. She doesn’t make a joke about it, which I almost peg as unexpected but things have gotten better between the two of them. Then Jesse rises and stretches and says, “I could go for some water,” so we all head inside to the kitchen.

Would silver to the heart kill him? That does it for werewolves, but he’s only half werewolf. No one knows for sure what kills shapeshifters. We’ve never really had a problem with them.

Ed plucks a dish towel off the counter to wipe the sweat from her chest and stomach. She flings another one at Jesse, and it whaps him straight in the face, but he takes it without complaint. I fill the glasses with water.

“Well, thanks,” Ed says. “Getting to kick your ass was a nice birthday present.”

Oh, shit.

“It’s your birthday?” Jesse says. “You got any plans?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we could go for Thai.”

I completely forgot. I’m the worst housemate. “Happy birthday, Ed,” I tell her.

“Uh huh. You forgot, didn’t you?”

I cover my face. “Yeah.”

“It’s okay, I almost did too. Fucking crazy shit going on all the time now.”

That may be, but Jesse, sipping from his glass, looks more relaxed than I’ve seen him in a long time. It might be because of the new moon tonight. But the customary quasi-glower is gone, and he seems like a weight’s been lifted from his shoulders.

Maybe not for long, but it’s still nice to see. “Is there a bar?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Ed says. “Why?”

“Because I can get drunk one night a month and I definitely haven’t been taking advantage of it.”

Ed lifts her glass. “Oh yeah. Del, you wanna drive?”

No drinking for me, I guess. Although I did totally forget her birthday. “Yeah, no problem.”

We head out at five because they’re both starving, since they’ve been exercising and shit. I did return to my free weights, although I did not burn anywhere near as many calories as they did. The Thai place is only a few minutes away in the center of town, through the grid of suburban streets. When I glance in the rearview I find Jesse has shifted and stuck his head out the open window, pink tongue flapping out of his mouth.

He shifts back after we park. The Thai place is neither very fancy nor especially good, but it’s greasy, which Ed and I both appreciate.

“Hello!” The hostess smiles at us. “How many?”

She leads us through the restaurant, which is pretty crowded for a Thursday. “You guys better not tell ‘em it’s my birthday,” Ed mutters. “I don’t want anyone singing at me.” Well, I’m certainly not going to because I’m afraid of the repercussions, but behind her back Jesse catches my eye and smiles.

He and Ed order a lot of food. They also decide to split a large scorpion bowl. I order a normal person’s amount of food and no alcohol. Hope this doesn’t put too much of a dent in our budget—Jesse’s presence has strained it a bit already.

Ed talks more when she’s buzzed so she dominates the conversation a bit, telling us about the idiots of the month in her classes. Occasionally she still gets a few who are pissed a woman’s teaching them so then we get to hear about her wrecking the latest one in front of her class. Jesse asks for the blow-by-blow and seems to find it very amusing; he tips his head back and lets out a rich, full laugh, a genuine one. Ed laughs as well but she snorts, and then I’m laughing too but it’s at her.

Eventually she gets up to take a piss and Jesse scans the restaurant and raises a hand. Our waitress comes over and asks, “What can I do for you?”

Jesse’s whole manner changes.

He smiles in an almost bashful way, resting his arms on the table and leaning forward. “Hey, I couldn’t say this in front of her but it’s our friend’s birthday.” He nods at Ed’s empty seat. “I was just wondering if maybe we could surprise her…”

His eyes are different. I don’t know how, but they’re different. He was like a predator before, even today—he watched people like they were a totally different species. And now he seems like just some hot guy you’d meet at a bar. He seems funny and likable and sweet.

It’s working on the waitress. Hell, it’s working on me. “Oh, sure!” She smiles widely. “We’ll put something together for her.”

“Thank you so much. That would be great.”

“It’s no problem at all. Anything else you need?”

“No, not right now. Thank you again.”

Then she’s gone. “What the hell was that?!” I hiss. “You were—flirting with her!”

Jesse lifts an eyebrow at me, but he gives me half a grin so I can tell he’s proud of himself. “What? I’ve spent most of my life among humans. I know how to get what I want.”

“God, that was weird.” I can’t help chuckling. “You should show Ed.”

Don’t know if the booze has done anything, but he’s sure in a good mood. Ed gets back and Jesse calls the waitress over again and does the whole thing over, batting his eyelashes at her, his voice going light and curious. Ed loses her shit after the waitress leaves and Jesse’s laughing again, hand pressed to his chest.

Man, I wish things could always be like this.

After we’re done the waitress and a couple of waiters show up with a bowl of coconut pudding complete with candle, singing their hearts out, and Ed tries to be pissed for about three and a half seconds but she’s feeling the scorpion bowl and the anger folds pretty fast. Jesse sings along which means I have no excuse not to, although he demurs from partaking in the pudding. Apparently sweets aren’t his thing. I can’t complain because there’s more for me and it’s delicious.

On the way home he shifts and lies down in the back seat. There’s no towel down, which means someone’s gotta vacuum that tomorrow or Ed will be mad. When we return I open the door for him to hop out and halfway across the yard Ed crouches down and hugs his neck. “You’re fuzzy,” she says happily.

Jesse lets out a small woof and sticks his tongue out, panting. I take a picture on my phone for posterity.

——

Two days later and we’re on the road again.

It’s a wailing witch—not a bad one, as monsters go. We have an established kill method, which makes me happy, and it won’t beat the shit out of Jesse, which makes him happy. Ed doesn’t even have to do anything, which makes her happy. The only downside is that it’s probably hiding out in an abandoned cabin high on a mountainside that was built by a now-defunct Boy Scout troop. So we’ve got some hiking to do.

Ed drives us up the winding mountain road until we find a small pull-off for the trails. I’ve got my backpack on my back and a violin over my shoulder—won’t be playing any Chopin concertos but I can do enough to kill the witch. The heat actually isn’t too bad today; we’re only a hundred miles from home but the temperature dropped off pretty good last night. Ed shades her eyes, gazing up at the trees. “Nice fuckin’ day.”

“No kidding.” I check the trail map on my phone for the hundredth time and lead the way.

The trail is well kept and well blazed, and we ascend at a leisurely pace. No need to push ourselves—it’s best to face a monster with our strength intact. Ed tells us about the party her coworkers threw for her yesterday while we climb over rocks and roots. There's a new administrative coordinator she thinks might be into women, and while she's excited I'm a little more skeptical. "Come on, Ed, are you seriously gonna date her?" I ask.

"I don't know, why not?" Ed shrugs. "She seems cool."

"But we kill monsters and stuff. That's a lot to keep to yourself."

"We only do that, like, once a week! At most!"

"Yeah, but it's monsters! We have one living with us!"

I point at Jesse, expecting a response. But he doesn't say anything—doesn't even look like he heard us. “Hey, Jess, what’s up?” I ask him.

He frowns up the mountain. “What was the story on this thing again?”

“Pretty cut and dry,” I reply. “Guy mounted on a weathervane with a buncha holes in him and the wind whistling through.”

“Hm.”

“Why?”

“I don’t feel the witch.”

Uh oh. “Um…are you sure?”

“They’re usually not hard to spot. I don’t know.” He waves a hand. “Coming off the new moon. Maybe that’s why.”

Ed waits for us up the slope. “Should we turn back?”

Jesse sighs. “Well, we don’t really have a way to get more information. And if there is something there, we have to kill it before it flees.”

“Okay, then let’s go.” She turns and starts climbing again.

We turn off the trail and into the woods. There’s still signal up here so I guide us to the cabin without much difficulty, using the GPS on my phone. It’s pretty run down, the roof sagging, paint flaked and windows filthy. There’s still a sign out front emblazoned with BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA.

“There’s no wailing,” Ed murmurs. “Did it fuck off already?”

The body was discovered yesterday afternoon, and they usually stick around for at least forty-eight hours. I like this situation less and less. Jesse goes ahead of us, pushing at the cabin door. It looks stuck. He puts his shoulder down and rams it open. After a second he beckons for us to follow.

The cabin kinda looks like shit. The walls are all moldy and rotting. There’s a flag hanging still between two windows, and a couple of tables with the chairs all pushed in. No one’s been in here for a long time. But still…

“No wailing witch has been here,” Jesse says. “Look at this place.”

It’s true. They don’t like square edges for some reason. That flag would have been torn down, the tables and chairs in pieces. “What the hell’s going on?” I turn, searching for anything that might catch my eye.

“Oh, no,” Jesse whispers.

Okay. That probably isn’t good.

He’s staring at the door with something that looks almost like panic. Never thought I’d see him, of all people (not-people), panic, and the sight of it scares the shit out of me. “What? What is it?” I blurt out.

He turns and looks at me, then at Ed, then back at the door. “It’s a trap. For me, specifically. You remember the graft I pissed off?”

Ed’s mouth falls open. “There’s a fucking graft after us?!”

Fuck. That’s really bad news. We’ve known about grafts for hundreds of years and still haven’t figured out how to kill them permanently. The closest we’ve got is explosives, and that’s a maybe. Not to mention we didn’t bring explosives.

“He’s between us and the truck,” Jesse says, rather calmly, I think. “It’s not worth trying to outrun him, we can’t do it.” He turns to us again. “You two should go. He’s only after me, I’ll hold him off.”

“Can you get away?” My heart’s hammering in my chest so hard it hurts, although the fear hasn’t caught up to my brain yet somehow. “You said he almost killed you last time, right? And the new moon—“

“Was two days ago, I know. No, I probably can’t get away,” he says.

“That thing’s gonna kill you?” Ed stabs a finger at the door. “No! I’m not gonna let it just wreck your shit!”

“I appreciate that, but if you stay he’ll kill you for sure.” Jesse isn’t irritated with her, isn’t angry or even afraid. Just totally calm. “If I take my chances you two should be fine, but you have to go now. He’s coming.”

“I can give all of us enough time to get out,” I say.

Jesse and Ed turn to me.

“I can do it.” I sling the violin case down from my shoulder. “I can! Just keep him off me!”

“Good.” Ed claps her hands together. “Let’s do it.”

“No!” Jesse starts to shout but bites it back. “We don’t have time for this. He’s a graft. You can’t fight him.”

“Yes, I can. I do magic, remember?” I crouch, popping open the case. “Just trust me.”

That might convince Jesse but Ed knows better, has seen how my improvisations tend to be pretty hit-or-miss. He turns to her and I pray she sides with me here—

“He can do it, Jesse,” she says. “Come on, let’s go hold the line.”

Jesse looks between the two of us, caught, knowing he can’t force us to leave. That he has to let us help him.

Finally he points at Ed. “Stay back. I mean that. He’s huge these days, one hit will kill you. If you’re gonna hit him, use silver. He doesn’t like it any more than I do.”

She nods. “Got it.”

“You have to play it safe, Ed—“

“I know, I will. Promise.”

“All right.” His eyes meet mine one more time, only light brown now, missing the yellow the moon lends them. Then he jerks his head. “Let’s go.”

Ed takes a knife from her bag and follows him out the door, closing it behind her. From outside I hear him shout, “Taylor!”

Okay. Time to get to work. This is gonna suck.

I’m going with Latin for a few reasons—because it’s from the same region where violins came to prominence, because it comes from a culture of violence, and because I know all the words for blood and flesh and death and also a variety of weaving terms. (Weaving is big in the myths and epic poems.) I fit the violin under my chin and lift the bow.

My playing here is not representative of my actual skill. The bow screeches across the strings, and I press my fingers to the neck, trying to create as much discordance as possible. When the violin’s making some truly ugly sounds, I start to spin a curse, Latin flowing out of my mouth. Would be more potent if I could put a meter in there but we’ll just have to settle for wishes for a gory demise, invocations of hatred and vengeance, and the important part, the concrete part, the unweaving, the separation of components that were once whole. 

It’s a nasty spell, and my throat starts to burn, tears springing to my eyes. The violin screams as I draw the bow across it, and a few thin fibers pop loose from the bow of their own accord. Good, that means it’s working.

There’s blood on my arm, seeping from a fine line that’s opened up in my skin. That means it’s working too.

I try to focus on the monster. Hard because I don’t know what he looks like, and anyway, with a spell as vicious as this, there’s going to be some rebound. So I’ll just have to bleed. I’m shouting now, which hurts but I have to. The spell demands it, even though it tears my throat on its way out of me. I taste the blood in my mouth. Fuck. Gotta focus. The sound of the violin starts to warp, and I blink tears from my eyes, glancing at the strings. The metal coating is starting to unwind from the strings, the nylon cores showing through the steel coils.

There’s a rustling outside, and then the door flies open, twisting as the top hinge snaps from the frame. Someone whom I assume is the graft starts to wedge himself through.

He looks sort of like a man if a man could be eight feet tall and half that wide. His face is doughy and pale, and he grips the doorframe with fingers as thick as my wrist. The rotting wood breaks under his grip, and he punches and claws away more of the wall, making room to push through. His enormous bulk is hidden under a suit and heavy trench coat but he’s still at least five times my size. At least.

“There you are,” he growls, in an unexpected English accent.

I snarl the final words of the curse at him, violin shrieking, my bow sawing back and forth a final few seconds before every one of its fibers snaps and blood explodes from my arms in a red, agonized burst.

The graft cries out, collapsing to his knees. His face transforms into a column of squirming strings, a million worms of flesh wriggling to be free. Then his body jerks backwards once, twice, three times to reveal a bloodied Jesse dragging him by his coat to clear the door.

“Del,” Ed gasps, and darts inside. She, at least, looks unhurt, and starts to bodily drag me from the cabin. I drop the violin and let her. I don’t feel very good. From the corner of my eye my arms look strange. I don’t look at them. Don’t want to know what they’ve turned into.

We sidle past the graft. He’s still in a pale, writhing pile inside his oversized trenchcoat. Blood drips onto the navy blue fabric as we pass. Oh, that’s mine.

“You okay?” Jesse asks urgently.

I nod, having no idea if that’s true or not. “You?” I ask. Dumb question, of course, because he heals and shit, but half his face looks kinda broken so it’s reflexive.

“Fine,” he says, and jerks his head. “Follow me, I’ll keep us away from witnesses.”

Then he shifts and runs down the slope. I’m wobbly so Ed slings my arm over her shoulders and helps me along—holds me up, to be honest. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Spell,” I tell her. “It’s temporary. I think.”

“Jesus,” she mutters.

“It’s not deep.” I have no idea if “deep” can even describe what that spell did to me.

“Better not be. If that shit’s temporary, we gotta get out of here fast.”

“Was it bad?” I ask. “The graft?”

“I didn’t get hit,” she replies. “He literally snapped a tree in half. Not a huge tree, but still. Jesse got whacked a couple times. I can’t believe he’s still in one piece.”

Now that he’s ahead of us, a black shape trotting through the trees, the limp is evident. He pulls us to the right, away from the trail system. The journey seems interminable, even with Ed urging me forward, practically dragging me down the mountain. My blood smears the back of her neck and stains her tank top, although I think the oozing has slowed. If I’m getting better, that probably means the graft is too.

At last I spot the parking lot through the trees and beside me Ed gasps, “Finally. Fuck.” Together we stumble over the leaves. Jesse waits by the truck, tail wagging anxiously.

We emerge out onto the dirt. Ed unlocks the doors and throws me in the back. She’s about to climb in after but Jesse—human-shaped now—calls, “Ed, can you drive? My eye’s fucked up.”

She withdraws and heads around to the front and Jesse clambers into the back and slams the door shut. The engine roars to life and Ed sings backwards out of the lot and onto the road.

We head down the mountain, going over the speed limit but not by much because it’s a dirt road with lots of turns. Jesse’s wrapping towels around my arms. His eye is definitely fucked up. It’s swelling shut along with that half of his face.

“How is he?” Ed asks.

“Bleeding’s not bad. Think it’s stopping.” Jesse squeezes the towels gently, holding them closed.

There’s blood on my tongue and I’d like to wipe it off or spit it out but Jesse’s holding my arms so I just swallow it. Jesse turns and gazes out the window, up the mountain. “Taylor’s recovering,” he murmurs. “And he’s pissed.”

“Is he gonna come after us again?” I manage. Throat still hurts.

“Definitely not today. You fucked him up pretty good.”

Ed takes us down the mountain. I’m starting to feel better, and I gently tug one of my arms from Jesse’s grip and shake the towel off. Dried blood and a few thin, sinuous cuts, but they’re superficial. The spell was nasty but not all that strong, considering how fast the graft recovered. And how easy I got off. At last we pull onto the state highway, and Ed steps on the gas.

For a minute or two we sit in silence. The truck hums over the road. Jesse’s breath hitches now and then, and I wonder where the graft got him.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “This shouldn’t have happened.”

Ed rests her elbow on the door, head in her hand. “You wanna tell me what’s going on with you, exactly? You and your friends?”

Jesse starts to take a deep breath but winces. “His name is Taylor. John Taylor. As far as I know, he’s the only one who really wants me dead. He’s prideful and when we fought last time, I damaged his body pretty badly. So that really pissed him off. To be honest, I’m surprised he went through the effort of setting up a trap. Guess I underestimated his vindictiveness.” He rubs his forehead. “Or maybe it’s the monster king driving him nuts. I don’t know.”

“So he did all this specifically to bring you here.”

“Uh-huh. Set it up close by on purpose. He knows where I live, he can sense me a lot better than I can sense him.” Jesse grimaces. “I’m impressed he hid himself from me from a quarter-mile away, but then again, he’s five hundred years old. He knows shit I don’t.”

“Five hundred years old,” Ed mutters. “Great.”

“Yeah. Crafting a corpse to imitate a wailing witch probably took him about two minutes.”

“And now he’s gonna be pissed at us.”

“I think you two are pretty safe,” Jesse says. “Humans are chattel to him. You don’t hold a vendetta when a horsefly stings you.”

Ed glances in the rearview. “But Del fucked him up. Like, bad.”

“That actually works in your favor. Taylor’s big but he’s a coward. If he thinks someone can seriously hurt him, he’ll stay out of their way.”

“Except if that someone is you.”

“We used to be friends. It’s personal.” Jesse gestures. “And anyway, the new moon was two nights ago. He knew I wouldn’t be able to hurt him anything like I did last time.”

Ed’s quiet for a moment, thinking. Then she says, “Anyone else we should know about?”

Jesse rubs his beard, gazing out the window. Ed and I wait. There’s something he hasn’t told us yet.

Finally he shifts in his seat, glancing over at us. “There’s an incubus named Hector. He and Taylor are close. Hector’s helped me with a few full moons when the monster king was getting to me.”

“The monster king? Like, the first one?” Ed says.

“Mostly, yeah. First moon when this one showed was bad, I had to call him. Turns out he’s not happy I’ve been killing monsters for you guys for the last ten years.”

“Did he still help you?” I ask.

“Yeah, but he was a dick about it. And that was before I fucked with Taylor.” Jesse rests a hand on his ribs. “Hector’s shallow and his attention span is about three seconds long, so I doubt he actually wants to kill me. But if Taylor asks for his help, he’ll do it.”

Ed looks over her shoulder and switches lanes. “So what’s the story? How much danger are we in?”

“You two? Shouldn’t be any. If Taylor pulls this shit again, he’ll try to get me alone. Look what happened this time, he got fucked up and all three of us escaped.”

“And the other guy? The incubus?”

“Hector’s got a lot of raw power but no finesse. If by some off-chance he does come after us, we should actually make out okay. It’s hard for him to handle more than one person at a time.”

“Jesus,” Ed mutters. “This was a fucking mess.”

Jesse goes back to staring out the window. But his eyes are wide, and his fingers dig into his leg. Scared. He looks scared.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “My personal affairs should never have touched you guys.

“Listen, we got out, okay?” Ed says. “Del, how are you doing?”

“I’m good.” I shake my other arm out from the towel. “It’s just a few cuts. And I guess we’re out a violin.”

“I can’t believe you did that on the fly.” She grins, a bizarre sight in this situation, but the relief of escape must be hitting her. “Those things always give us so much fuckin’ trouble.”

Jesse straightens, appraising me. “That was pretty good. You came up with that on the spot?”

“Well—yeah, I guess.” Weird to hear people praising me for this stuff. Usually it’s Ed stressing out because I fucked it up or my mom judging me. “I don’t know, I just had a good idea and ran with it.”

“He’s scared of you.” Jesse makes a good attempt at a grin. “Felt it when we were running. You blindsided him.”

“Huh. Cool.” I like the thought of a monster being scared of me. Jesse said Taylor saw us as chattel, but chattel can’t turn a graft into a pile of useless, disorganized flesh.

“Should we go after them?”

Ed, from the front seat. Jesse goes a little tense. “No. They’re dangerous.”

“I mean, so is literally all the other shit we kill—“

“It’s not a good idea,” Jesse interrupts.

I sit up a little. “We can help you, Jess, you saw what I did to—“

“Don’t.” There’s the hint of a growl there. “They’re my problem, not yours.”

“Whatever,” Ed says, plainly annoyed. I’m annoyed too. He just saw what we could do, against a graft, of all things.

Jesse rests his chin on his hand and gazes out the window again. He’s clearly in over his head. I just wish he would see what the two of us can do. What I can do.

Well, if he sticks with us, then he’ll see soon enough.

Chapter Text

“Yeah, yeah, come on—“

Jesse braces himself against the headboard, grabbing my ass with his other hand. I hike his leg up a little further and let him pull me in, fucking into him with short, deep strokes. The hair on his thigh is soft and damp under my palm. I’m sweating too, can feel the droplets sliding down my spine.

“Fuck,” Jesse snarls, squeezing his eyes shut. His teeth are out, thick, saliva-wet fangs interlocking as he clenches his jaw. He lets me go and grasps his dick, pumping it.

This part I love, how his whole body coils with wound-up energy, how his muscles tense—his thigh under my hand, his stomach, his arms and chest. I fuck into him harder because I know he likes it that way, and wordless grunts shake from his body, grinding out of his throat. His eyes snap open, seizing mine, flashing predator-yellow.

My thrusts start to pitch out of control, because he’s hot and tight and he’s growling curses at me through his animal teeth, growling in a way that goes to bone just as well as if he’d sunk his jaws straight into me. “Fuck, Jesse,” I gasp, and hear a guttural laugh from the bed beneath me.

His ass clenches and I swear again as I come, plunging into him just a few more times as I shudder and bite my lip. For one second the tension in Jesse’s body coils so tight I think he’ll break—his muscles standing out, back arching, knuckles white as he grips the headboard. Then it all drains out of him and he softens, sinking slowly back to the bed, fingers relaxing. He grins, his own come beaded in his stomach hair.

After I pull out he rises with exquisite grace, taps my door open, and walks out naked into the hall. I sit there on the tossed-up sheets and watch him go. The skin of his back is flushed pink, shining with sweat. He’s beautiful.

The full moon is tomorrow night. Seems to be hitting him hard already, because the first time we fucked he wasn’t that wild, and he certainly hasn’t been in the times since. In a way it’s kinda nice to see him like this—feels like he trusts me somehow, in a different way than he trusts Ed. Still, I can tell it’s not easy for him. He’s irritable and annoyed at himself for it, restless and restive, biting back snapped responses and derisive comments.

I just wish that I could help, that I could make things as easy for him as they are on the new moon. The image of him guffawing at Ed’s stories over Thai food still pops up in my head maybe more than it should. All it took was a dumb anecdote to make him happy, and now even those set him on edge.

He deserves better. He really doesn’t want to kill humans, as evidenced by his sparring matches with Ed and all the advice about the silver. It just really sucks that the monster king’s driving him up a wall like this. All he’s done so far is put himself in harm’s way for our benefit.

By the time Jesse returns to retrieve his clothes I’ve pulled on a pair of athletic shorts but nothing else. It’s too damn hot. “Hey, Jesse?”

He pauses, clothes in hand. “Hm?”

I’m hoping that since we just fucked he’ll be more relaxed and this won’t irritate him as much. “Can I, uh…ask you something?”

He regards me, eyes narrowed; then he nods. “Go ahead.”

“I swear this is just out of curiosity.” Mostly. “Do monsters and humans ever—fall in love?”

Jesse lets out a laugh, more brittle and less full than the one at the restaurant. “Are you kidding me? Have you seen humans? Only other humans could fall in love with that.”

“I mean, shapeshifters are almost human, aren’t they?” Not a hundred percent on how true that is but I’m sure I’m about to find out. “Maybe one of them could—“

“They’re not,” Jesse tells me. There we go. “They’re imitations of humans. They react like humans but it’s…” He sighs. “It’s not the same. We’re different. What makes us up is different.”

“But you laugh, and you get angry, and you crack jokes with us. And you’re not working a job right now or anything, you don’t have to be a certain way.” I sit up on the bed. “So it’s just the way you are naturally, right? You’re—“

“I’m not a human,” Jesse says. He’s gone flat the way he does sometimes; if he is angry at me he’s not bothering to display it. “In fact, I really don’t like them. That’s what monsters are. We exist to spread suffering.”

“Except for shapeshifters,” I counter.

“Yeah, and shapeshifters don’t go berserk on full moons,” he shoots back.

For a moment neither of us says anything. He gazes at me like it’s the very first time we’ve met instead of like we’ve been living together—and fucking—for the past month. “Fine. I get it.” I raise my hands in surrender. “Just wanted to know.”

“Yeah,” he says, in a tone infuriatingly devoid of inflection, and leaves my room.

I flop back on the bed, pressing my hands to my face. It can’t all be my imagination. He’s been happy with us, even if the waxing moon makes that hard for him. My instinct tells me he doesn’t hate Ed and I like he seems to hate everyone else, and I refuse to just throw that out the window. His old “friends” are trying to kill him, so what’s to say he can’t make some new ones?

I roll over to let the breeze from the fan wash over my back, and close my eyes. Maybe I should sleep on it.

——

The next day Jesse has it bad and we don’t talk much. I have an ESL class to teach in the morning, Ed gets back from the studio around the same time as me. Jesse’s frying steaks again. There’s already four of them piled on a plate and two more are sizzling in the pan.

“Oh my god.” Ed tosses her duffel down in the hall. “Is there where our budget’s going? Steaks?”

“It’s that or drywall repair,” Jesse says curtly.

An unexpected smile appears on Ed’s face, and she rubs her eyes. “You’re like a cat. If we don’t give you something to do you tear up the furniture.”

Jesse doesn’t say anything, but he smiles down at the frying pan too.

“Are these fair game? Can I have one?” Ed opens up the silverware drawer.

“Uh—they’re chuck, right?” I ask. “So you might be chewing for a while.”

She groans and shuts the drawer. “Fine.”

I get the feeling this isn’t a good situation. Last time he only pulled out the frying pan in the middle of the night, and today it’s barely noon.

He takes the skillet off the stove when he’s done, washes it, and sets it in the drying rack. Then he eats one of the steaks in the space of about forty-five seconds. Even Ed’s impressed. The rest of the day he mostly stalks around the house, watching TV for brief periods, going out to the yard, coming back, working on some of that monster lore I gave him. At one point he does pushups for twenty minutes straight. It’s plain he’s trying to be unobtrusive, but Ed watches him like a hawk, and I watch him like a less vigilant, more curious hawk, so it doesn’t really work.

Around five I get up to make dinner (two room-temperature steaks remain sitting on the island) and I’ve just started chopping peppers when Ed mutters, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” from the living room.

I set the knife down and call, “What is it?”

“You better come here. Where’s Jesse?”

“I think he’s—“ Outside, or was, because the door to the back porch swings open and there he is. He joins us in the living room, leaning up against the dividing wall with arms folded.

Ed’s still staring at her phone, brow furrowed as if waiting for it to make sense. But she tosses it down on the ottoman. “Meredith just texted me. There’s a werewolf in Virginia and he wants us to go after it. Tonight.”

I stare at her. Jesse stares at her. It’s hard to come up with a good response to that. The full moon is rising in just a few hours, which means not only will the werewolf be extremely dangerous, but if I’m judging things correctly Jesse stands a good chance of flipping out too.

“Is this a fucking joke?” Jesse asks.

“You read the text. God damnit.” She slouches in the chair. “Obviously it’s a bad fucking time—“

“A bad time? You know that thing’s gonna rip me in half, right?” He gestures at the phone. “I can’t stand up against a werewolf on the full moon.”

“Well, there’s nobody else close enough to get there in time and it’s got a victim lined up, so if we don’t go in tonight someone dies.” Ed shrugs. “I don’t know. Honestly. It’s up to you if we take the job or not.”

Jesse runs his fingers through his hair, eyes narrowed. The werewolf’s not the only problem, of course. He might end up being a problem too. If we don’t go in, the victim dies; if we do go in, there’s a not insignificant chance that Ed and I end up facing one and a half werewolves, which aren’t good odds for two mere humans like ourselves.

“We have to go in,” Jesse says. “If we wait, it’ll just leave the area tomorrow morning and then we’ll lose its trail.”

“All right.” She rises. “Are you gonna be able to…you know. Keep it under control?”

Jesse shrugs. “I have no idea. Either way, you two need to stay back. Even if I do go berserk, the werewolf and I still will go after each other. Territorial thing. Unless you get in the way.”

“Got it.”

“Hey, you do throwing knives?”

“Uh—yeah,” Ed says. I don’t.

“You got silver-plated ones?”

“A few.”

“Bring them. Hopefully they’ll weaken it enough for me to give you a good shot.”

Ed lifts an eyebrow. “Hang on a second, can’t you just take the knife and stab it?”

The problem with werewolves is that when they change, they get huge. So unless your knife is about two feet long, you can’t reach its heart from the back, you gotta go in the front. Which is where its claws are. Jesse blinks, and his eyes, burning yellow, fix on Ed. “No. I’m not taking the fucking knife.”

“Why the fuck not? It saves us all a whole lot of fucking trouble!”

“It’s silver.” His lips peel back, displaying a dozen primeval teeth, bone-white and shining. “I’m not touching it.”

Ed doesn’t seem the least bit intimidated, and she cocks her head. “The handle’s not fucking silver—“

“I’m not taking it!” Jesse snaps. “I’m already letting this thing rip me to fucking pieces, is that not enough for you?!”

“Fine! Whatever.” Ed puts her hands up. “We’ll bring the fucking knives. Jesus.”

Jesse goes out on the back porch and stays there while the two of us pack. Ed’s got one six-blade sheaf of throwing knives—custom-made and not cheap. Well, it’ll have to be enough. The bigger knives are modified from various cutlery implements, which means they won’t really be effective for anything but the killing blow. So Jesse will be doing the bulk of the work. Again.

When we climb in the car he seems to have calmed some, and he sits in the back with his chin resting in his hand, gazing out at the passing houses and saying not a word.

——

By the time we reach Garland, Virginia, the full moon is rising in the sky.

The warm air rushes into the truck cabin through Jesse’s window. He opened it a couple hours back. Ed and I didn’t protest. We’re walking on a tightrope here.

“Is it gonna see us coming?” Ed asks.

“It could,” Jesse replies. “But I don’t think it’s paying attention.”

We drive through the dense trees on a winding backroad. Now and then Jesse murmurs a direction, and eventually we emerge onto a state highway. Something shines on his leg and in the ambient light I spot his claws peeking out from the hand resting there, emerging from slits at his fingertips. Um. Maybe I should distract him.

“Hey, Jess?” I ask. “What does silver actually do to you?”

He looks over, the light catching the back of his eyes like a cat’s. “It damages me. The monster part of me. It’s the antithesis to what makes us up,” he says. “In practice, it burns like shit and it sucks. It just really sucks.”

I sit up. “Wait, you’ve been stabbed before?”

He smiles at me—not maliciously, but it’s not a human smile. Not at all. “Not everyone likes me as much as you do.”

I decide to let that one pass me by. “Was it Meredith?”

“No. Some other guy. Lucky for me his partners didn’t back him up.”

“What did you do?”

“Ripped the knife out, threw the guy across the room, and told him if he pulled that shit again I’d gut him like a deer.”

“Oh,” I say faintly.

“He almost killed me.” Jesse sighs. “Reflexes saved me by half an inch, but I didn’t see it coming. Didn’t think he was gonna do it.”

“Wait. So they weren’t…”

“They weren’t hunting me, no. I’d just helped them kill a moongazer. Someone told me later a werewolf killed that guy’s daughter. Wish I’d have fucking known that beforehand.”

“Well, that’s shitty,” I mumble.

“Yeah,” Jesse says, and returns to staring out the window. “It’s up ahead, by the way. You should hide the truck in case the victim’s still alive. She might call the police.”

“Up ahead where?” Ed asks. Jesse doesn’t reply, so she just drives. Through the open window the chirping of crickets follows us, from the grassy fields sprawled out to either side of the road. A picnic pavilion comes up on our right, the headlights briefly illuminating the ‘BOOKER CREEK PARK’ sign.

“Victim’s still alive.”

Ed twists in her seat, making the truck swerve. She straightens it out. “What?”

“They’re back there.” Jesse jerks his thumb. “She’s crying. They’re both crying, actually.” Under the tension on his face there’s a faint amusement.

“Why didn’t you fucking stop me before we got there?! Jesus.” Ed pulls the truck off the road into the grass.

“Victim’s gonna flee back to town when we show up, which is in the other direction. She won’t pass us and catch our plates.” As soon as the truck stops, he opens the door and hops out. Seems like he’s given this some thought. Although I guess weaving in and out of human establishments to kill those pesky black magic users must have made him cautious. I’m already scrambling up into the bed to gather our supplies, with Ed on my heels. Jesse stalks away into the night.

“This sucks,” Ed hisses, and jogs away from the truck into the grass to pursue him. That leaves me to grab our stuff, and I follow her with, hopefully, everything we need.

Jesse isn’t running from us or anything, so I catch up to Ed and we head for the pavilion at a fast walk. “Here.”

She sticks two of our four silver knives in her belt, then takes one more for good measure. Well, just fuck me, then. Although I have to admit it makes sense. She’s got better reflexes and better eyes, she’ll be the one going in. The sheaf of throwing knives goes in her pocket.

“This really, really sucks,” she hisses again. Yeah, it does. Jesse goes ahead of us in silence, the black canvas jacket obscuring his silhouette in the dark. The park’s floodlights are off, although there’s light at the pavilion. Behind it two cars are parked. As we approach I catch the echo of crying off the concrete.

We might die. Any of us. If it comes down to it Ed will kill Jesse, no doubt about it. Or he might be too fast and kill us first, or the werewolf might do that. It’s a shitty situation but we might save one single life so we’re going in.

The red paint on the pillars is flaking off, and rust bubbles through; Jesse grasps one absently as he enters the pavilion. His claws leave a set of four scratches. “Hey!” he calls.

Ed and I hurry to follow. There they are.

A man and a woman, on the concrete floor between two picnic tables. She’s crouched, and he’s on all fours; both their faces are streaked with tears. Unnatural amounts of hair sprout from his neck and the backs of his hands. Transformation’s already started. If we got here five minutes later—

“Hey, asshole.” Jesse. “You wanna go or what?”

“Get away from him!” The woman staggers to her feet. Wisps of blonde hair stick to her cheeks where they’re wet from tears. “You don’t know what he’s going through!”

“Please, you have to get out,” the man gasps. “I’m dangerous.”

“Yeah, I know,” Jesse murmurs.

The woman shoves him.

Not very hard, and he’s so solid he barely stumbles. But his eyes track to her in a split-second, widening just a little in…I don’t know. I want to call it indignation but the offense is clearly greater than that.

I grasp her arm and pull her gently back. “You need to get out of here—“

She yanks away from me. “No! He needs my help!”

“Please.” The man grimaces in pain. “She’s the only one who can stop me. I need her.”

“Same thing every goddamn time. Don’t you ever get fucking bored?” Jesse shakes his head. The woman seems to have lost his attention. Good. “Hey, whatever,” he says. “We can just finish this right here and now.”

He reaches into his jacket. There’s no silver knife there. I know that, Ed knows that. The werewolf doesn’t. It spins, rising to its feet. The transformation is fast—no rending of clothes, no agonized cracking of the spine or warping of the jaw; it just gets big all at once, clothes splitting, brown-black hair sprouting from its skin.

Jesse’s been watching a lot of nature documentaries, so I’ve absorbed some of it too while I was grading homework. We saw one on mountain gorillas and the werewolf reminds me of them in shape, a little bit—a grotesque wolf-thing with arms as thick as tree trunks hanging from its shoulders, bulging with muscle, how it balances on hind paws the size of dinner plates. It’s scarier than a gorilla, though, mostly because it’s fucking huge. Half a ton, at a quick estimate. How much does Jesse weigh? Two hundred pounds? No, not even. Its muzzle is blunt and forested with teeth, its claws a good six or eight inches, black and shining. And its eyes burn yellow. Not animal-yellow—monster-yellow, ghostly and misted in silver. There’s something behind them that makes my stomach seize. Something dangerous that wants to hurt us not because it’s hungry or even because it likes violence. It wants to hurt us.

Jesse leaps at its throat with a snarl.

The woman screams “No!” and tries to jump into the melee but I manage to grab her arm again and swing her out of the way. “You have to go!” I tell her, dragging her back toward the edge of the pavilion. “It’ll kill you!”

“You should have let me help,” she sobs. “You should have let me help him!”

Think I’m losing her. “It’s too late now. You need to get to safety.”

“I just have to talk to him!” She tries to wrench herself away from me but I’m ready this time and my grip doesn’t break. “I can make him turn back!”

Fuck. We can’t afford her interfering, which is, of course, exactly what the werewolf wants—it’s spent weeks or months grooming her into a human shield. I’m trying to figure out the best strategy to talk her down when Ed appears with a knife in hand and points it at the woman. “You get out of here right now or I stab you in the face. How’s that?”

The woman freezes, looking between the two of us. This time when she tries to run it’s to her car so I let her go. That’s one way to do it. Ed and I turn at the same time.

Jesse and the werewolf are fighting.

Ed takes out her throwing knives and circles to my right, looking for an angle. I have no idea how we’re going to do this. They’re like animals, exchanging a few blows before separating for a moment to growl at each other and then going back in to do it all again. The werewolf is fast for a creature of that size, but it seems for the moment that Jesse is faster; he’s displaying a few shallow cuts but his guts aren’t hanging out or anything. As I watch the two of them circle around a picnic table. The werewolf opens its muzzle and roars. Jesse snarls in return, and the werewolf swipes at him. The force of its blow smashes the table to smithereens.

What are Ed and I supposed to do about that?

The werewolf arches suddenly, letting out a pained noise. Can’t see inside the fur but that has to be Ed’s knife, because she’s in a throwing stance and drawing a second one. The werewolf spins—starts to, and then Jesse launches himself at its face, his claws raking over its eye and cheek. That grabs its attention, and one huge paw curls around him and yanks him off, hurling him into a pillar. His back slams into it, and he falls to the ground. Don’t want to think about those puncture wounds. Ed hesitates, holding off for a moment. Has to wait for Jesse to get back up so he can distract it again.

He pushes himself off the floor and gets back up.

They engage again. The werewolf advances on him, smashing another picnic table and clambering over the remains. Then it flinches. A second throwing knife. This time when it turns Jesse runs up and climbs onto its back, clamping his jaws around its ear. He shakes his head and yanks, the muscles in his neck straining.

The ear rips off, leaving a strip of red gore on top of the werewolf’s skull. He spits it on the ground. The werewolf lets out a thunderous roar of pain, reaching up and pulling him off. He gets in another swipe on the way, scoring its face, and kicks it in the muzzle. Again it hurls him across the pavilion. He collides with a table, and the wood cracks under him. The werewolf gropes at its back, searching for the knife hilts. Ed retreats a good few steps. Didn’t Jesse say the silver would weaken it? When will that start happening?

Jesse’s back up again. Under his sliced-up jacket the white t-shirt is blotted with red. He vaults a picnic table and hurls himself at the werewolf.

There’s no technique here. I hope it’s intentional but fear it isn’t. He needs to distract it, after all, needs to give Ed every opportunity to land those knives. So this method, hurling himself at the werewolf with little thought or care, it might be a strategy. But I’ve never heard him snarl like this—didn’t know he could make those noises, matching the werewolf one for one. It jerks again, and Jesse leaps, climbing up onto its shoulders, chewing at its neck. The werewolf roars and grasps for him. Another knife in its back. Ed’s edged closer to make it easier to aim, although she keeps a couple of tables in between her and the melee.

The werewolf keens, stopping its assault on Jesse for a moment to grope at its back. Fucking finally. Then a roar of renewed rage as Jesse digs at its eye. By the time it hurls him to the concrete the socket is a bloodied mess. He starts to rise but its hind paw stamps down on his chest, pinning him.

Shit. I jerk forward and freeze. There’s absolutely nothing I can do for him here. The thing will kill me if I get close. The werewolf bends, slumping a little. At first I think it’s considering its prey but no. It’s hurting. A glitter through the air and a fifth knife lands in its back.

The werewolf turns, its lip curling up to reveal two rows of savage yellow teeth. Saliva shines on its muzzle. Ed shouldn’t have done that. Jesse’s down, he can’t pull its attention again. But that’s why she did it, of course. So it wouldn’t rip his head off with its bare hands. Its one remaining livid yellow eye fixes on her, and she stares right back, knees bent, ready to flee.

The werewolf leaps at her, and quick as lightning she flings herself backwards over a picnic table. The monster arrives a split-second later, splintering the table to pieces. Ed’s at the edge of the pavilion with no more barriers to save her, only a wide-open field behind her stretching out beyond the poured concrete. And she can’t outrun a werewolf on open ground. No human can do that.

Jesse lands on the werewolf’s back with a snarl, striking at its face again. The werewolf bellows in pain, reaching up for him. Ed seizes the opportunity, draws one of the silver knives at her belt and goes in for the kill.

The werewolf lashes out with speed like I’ve never seen. Its arm smashes into her and lifts her into the air, and the back of her head collides with a picnic table. Instantly she goes limp.

Fuck.

Jesse’s still mauling it but that won’t kill it. That won’t end this. It gropes at him like it’s tired. Okay, that’s good. I still haven’t moved. Don’t think it’s paying any attention to me. It gets a grip on Jesse—I watch the claws disappear into his body—and slams him against a pillar. He growls at it still, kicking its snout.

The werewolf is turned away from me. I advance, weaving through the picnic tables and piles of shattered wood, drawing my single knife. At least its heart is huge too, so I should have a pretty big target. The werewolf has Jesse pinned on the pillar, and he holds off its other paw with both arms. They snarl at each other; Jesse’s mouth is bloody from when he tore off its ear.

It has to be now, before they disengage. It has to be now. It has to be now. My brain sort of shuts off as I go forward, because it won’t help me here, all that will help me is my legs moving and my hand guiding the knife into the werewolf’s heart. So my legs move, and I come up on it, smell faintly its rancid breath, hear the harsh breathing as its chest wall expands and contracts.

I duck under its arm and jab my knife into the center of its chest, right below the breastbone.

The werewolf jerks, curling in on itself. I back the fuck up, bumping into a picnic table, stumbling and retreating past it. The werewolf tips its head back and howls—not fierce, not frightening. It’s mournful, soft and sad. My first instinct is to feel bad for it, before my second instinct kicks that one in the head. It could have killed all of us. The howl breaks off and it slumps, collapsing to the ground. Instantly it begins to decompose, fur falling off, skin shriveling, flesh turning into black ash and evaporating into the air or becoming brown liquid and seeping into the concrete. All that’s left is a skeleton, not man or monster—it’s the bones of a wolf, shiny and clean.

Jesse is rising slowly.

Not worth it to go for the knives. They’re tangled up in the skeleton at his feet. Maybe he’s all right—maybe the werewolf’s death has brought him back, calmed the thing that was snarling and slashing thirty seconds ago.

He lifts his head. One eyebrow is split open and blood oozes from it, dripping down his temple and cheek. His eyes are bright and alert and when they meet mine his face is empty, lips parted to make room for his many, many teeth. I search desperately for any sign of recognition, of Jesse, an acknowledgement of who I am or he is or what we’re both doing here. But all I get is his animal eyes burning yellow, trained on me. His teeth disengage and part slightly. There’s nothing there. He isn’t there.

That’s right. He’s a monster.

I could try to run. Jesse’s hurt and probably not too focused on devising clever stratagems in his current state. So I might be able to lead him off and find an opportunity to grab the silver knives left in the wolf skeleton—or those at Ed’s belt. Last I saw her she was still lying on the concrete, and I don’t dare look away from Jesse to check now. I could try to run, yeah.

But I have another plan, and I raise my hands slowly. “Jesse, it’s me.”

He lunges forward.

His hands ball in my shirt and there’s a faint burning as his claws split my skin. Not deep, he’s just grabbing me, not clawing at me. In an instant his jaws open around my neck.

But he doesn’t bite down. His teeth scrape my skin, and his breath is hot. I know he’s drawn blood, and he licks at it with a grunt. My pulse is hammering and must be jumping against his tongue. I’m afraid to breathe. He could kill me, right now. He could close his jaws and that would be it.

“Jess, it’s me,” I try again. “It’s Del. You know me.”

A sound rumbles out from his throat. A low, coarse growl.

“HEY!”

Jesse’s jaws withdraw from my neck and he starts to turn but not before Ed jams her knife in right between his shoulderblades. He roars in pain, buckling, and it’s enough space for me to scramble away. Thank God she’s okay. She’s got a broken half a bench in her hands and when Jesse reaches back to try for the knife hilt she swings it hard at his face. The board smashes into his cheek and he stumbles but doesn’t go down, so she swings it at his legs and when the board connects he crashes to a knee and she kicks him in the head.

It doesn’t even daze him. Instead he tries to rise and Ed belts him in the face again. “A little help here, Del!” she calls.

Right. Fuck. I edge around behind Jesse toward the wolf skeleton, since I’m out of silver knives. He seems to be preoccupied with Ed, and lashes out at her as he rises. She backs up, swinging at him again. He catches the blow on his arm. Five narrow throwing knives glitter around the skeleton’s spine and pelvis, and cradled in its ribcage the bigger knife, handle sticking out beneath the sternum. I snatch it up and dive forward. Gotta choose my target carefully. I don’t want to kill him.

The knife pierces his lower back and sinks in. He roars in pain and spins, grasping for the blade. But Ed goes, “Uh-uh,” and bats his arm away with the board. He spins again, eyes darting. We’ve bracketed him. Tentatively he steps toward me, swiping with his claws, but the blow is clumsy and even if I didn’t dodge back it wouldn’t have hit me. Then his body jerks, face tightening, and he falls to his knees again. Ed appears behind him, the second sheath at her belt empty. Jesse turns to her, struggling to rise, but I know what I have to do and snap a kick out at his head. He goes over this time, and Ed pounces, driving the last knife into the back of his shoulder.

Then she backs off. We make eye contact over him, and she lifts her fingers a little. Wait. Jesse grabs the pillar beside him and pulls himself upright, breathing hard. His lungs can’t be in good shape—his jacket and shirt are torn up and covered in blood from the werewolf’s claws. His eyes snap from me, to Ed, back to me.

He looks…scared.

Once more he tries to reach behind him and pull the knives out. Ed steps up and the broken bench takes him in the face again. This time it puts him straight on the floor. Animal grunts rumble out of his throat, riding on his labored breaths, and he pushes himself up again and stumbles toward the edge of the pavilion. Running. He’s running.

“Oh, no you don’t.” Ed follows, swinging the board into the back of his knee. He growls and goes down hard. She waits, the board hovering above his prone body. I come up beside her.

Jesse doesn’t move. Instead he just watches us, panting. Blood seeps into the concrete beneath him.

“Del, go get some rope,” Ed says. “We gotta move him in case that girl called the cops or some shit.”

Fuck. She’s right. I hesitate, but she jerks her head. “I’ll be fine. Go.”

She’s got half a bench to defend herself with, so I weave out of the pavilion and sprint through the grass back to the truck. I hope Jesse’s not faking or something. Is he even smart enough to do that right now? Well, if anyone can handle him, it’s Ed. They’ve practiced.

I come back with the rope. Jesse hasn’t moved, his back still rising and falling rapidly, three knife hilts sticking out of him. Ed takes the rope and crouches and Jesse swipes at her weakly, growling. She grabs his wrist and plants his hand on the ground, kneeling on it. “Would you fuckin’ calm down? Jesus.”

With haste she ties his wrist to his other arm, above the elbow, and does the same on the opposite side. Keeps him from getting at the knives. I don’t hear any sirens or even see any cars so that’s a good sign. Jesse growls again when Ed pulls the rope tight, but there’s no ferocity on his face. He just looks scared. Finally Ed beckons me over. “Hey, help me get him back to the truck.”

It’s not easy to lift him up in the first place, but Ed threads her arm beneath his armpits to lift him by the shoulders, and I go around his waist and grab his belt loops, and we manage to get him off the ground. He struggles, snapping at me, so Ed punches him in the nose. “Just fuckin’ chill out! We’re trying to help you.”

He doesn’t snap again but still tries to wriggle out. It doesn’t work well; his legs cycle weakly, feet dragging. Looks like the silver’s really taking it out of him. His breath is harsh in my ear, a faint gurgle coming from his throat. Blood. My shoulder is starting to burn from his weight.

At the truck Ed pops the tailgate open and we heave him into the bed. Ed climbs in after, drawing her last knife. “Drive. Get us somewhere where no one will see us.”

Jesse lies on the black plastic next to the two duffels. His eyes gleam, reflecting the light of the full moon.

I drive us away from the destroyed pavilion, up the state highway. Keep glancing in the rearview in case something’s happening out there, but Ed sits with her back to the window, ponytail whipping in the wind. There’s grass, mostly, grass stretching out on both sides of us, a few trees dotting the side of the road. Some houses now and then, paint peeling, old boxy cars sitting in the driveways. At last I spot a sale sign in the distance and slow to read it: ‘FOR SALE, INDUSTRIAL SPACE’ and a phone number. That should work. I turn and take us up the dirt road.

The floodlights tower dead above us, and we pass abandoned construction vehicles waiting beside piles of gravel. The doors to the warehouse are standing open and it’s dark and empty inside, but I go past it. I remember how Jesse opened the window on the way down here and I think he’d like it if we stayed outside, with the night air and the smell of grass.

The dirt lot out back is mostly empty—there’s certainly no people here at this time of night, and I pull up to the edge of it and park the truck. Check the rearview again. Ed’s still there, rubbing the hilt of the knife with her thumb.

I get out of the truck and join her in the bed.

When I climb in Jesse snarls, tugging at the rope holding him captive. Ed sighs and sits up on the edge of the bed. I sit next to her. “How is he?”

“See for yourself,” she replies.

Jesse growls at me again and lunges as best he can, snapping at my ankle. I pull my leg away even though he doesn’t get close. “Hey,” Ed says, and plants a foot on his waist, shoving him back. He lets out a moan of pain, and a bit of blood spurts from his mouth, collecting beneath his cheek.

“What time is it?” Ed asks.

“A little past one,” I tell her.

She rubs her eyes. “Great.”

We wait.

I don’t think either of us are much in the mood for talking. We killed the werewolf, true. We saved that woman’s life. But what we did to Jesse—yes, he almost tore my throat out, so we had to stop him, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. He already let that werewolf rip him to shreds, and then we stuck him with silver and beat him down with a picnic bench. And tied him up and threw him in our truck like a trussed deer.

He doesn’t like getting hurt. He doesn’t like going berserk either. I still haven’t asked him about it. Why doesn’t he want to kill people?

We wait.

It’s a nice night, at least. Humid but no rain, and not too hot. Beyond us crickets chirp, and underscoring them in the distance the harsh buzz of cicadas. Above us the moon is luminous and full, watching over us in the sky in glowing bone-white. Like the skeleton of the werewolf we just killed. Ed stretches her arms up above her head, yawning; Jesse starts to growl at her but stops when she doesn’t do anything to him. The floor of the truck bed shines in the moonlight with blood. There’s a lot of it. He should be dead right now. But of course he’s not human. Something else keeps him alive, something besides flesh and blood.

Boredom is tempting but instead I just empty my mind, because this isn’t the first time Ed and I have had to sit around waiting while a monster lurks nearby—we’ve done plenty of stakeouts, just the two of us sitting in the truck drinking energy drinks. The important thing is to not look at the clock. That just makes the time go slower. At one point Ed gets up and Jesse jerks, kicking out and snarling; she kicks him in the leg and tells him to fucking calm down and goes to get us a couple lukewarm cans of Amp from the cab.

Jesse’s breathing gets worse as the night wears on. He begins to try for the hilts sticking out of his back, straining against the rope. At first Ed nudges him with her foot to make him stop, but he just keeps trying and it becomes plain that he can’t get at them anyway, because the ropes are too tight or he’s too weak from the silver. So we watch him rocking and struggling. The effort makes him whine like a wounded dog. He’ll stop for a while, gathering his strength or waiting for the pain to recede, and then he’ll just start right up again.

At one point Ed says, “This sucks.”

I blink and look up, surprised by the break in silence, her words condensing out of the air. “Oh. Yeah.”

She doesn’t say anything else. A minute later Jesse starts to struggle again. He’s weaker every time.

“Is your head okay?” I ask. “You got thrown pretty hard.”

She rubs the back of it. “Think I got a concussion.”

“Hm.” I rest my chin on my hand. “We should take a couple weeks off, then.”

“Yeah.”

We crush our cans and throw them in the corner of the bed. Concussions aren’t good to start with, but they’re nasty when they pile up. So we have a hard and fast rule. Like the NFL. Eventually Ed gets up to go take a piss and then a little while later I get up to go take a piss.

When I get back Jesse says, “Fuck.”

For a second Ed and I just stare at him. Then I lurch forward but Ed grabs my arm. “Leave it, Del—“

“Don’t,” Jesse mumbles. “Don’t take it out. Don’t let me kill someone.”

He’s back. That’s a fucking relief. I want to take the silver out, I want him to just—be here, not be suffering anymore. But it’s not over, apparently. His face breaks, and he clenches his jaw, clearly in pain.

Ed squeezes my arm a little, and I look to our right, off to the east where the sun will be rising soon. Please let it be soon.

Jesse doesn’t snarl anymore, but he does moan now and then, little low noises half-muffled by the floor of the bed. Ed was right, this does suck. I fold my hands, crushing my fingers together. Sucks to be powerless. I do magic, right? I should be able to draw something up. I should be able to fix this. Well, I’m working on a long-term solution, true, but it’s not done yet and anyway it doesn’t help Jesse right now. Not when he’s lying on the ground full of knives, asking us not to take them out of him for fear that he’ll escape and murder someone. His eyes shine, not with the moonlight this time, not with an animal glow. I think those are tears.

Wow. Silver really does fuck him up.

It’s not much longer, I don’t think—hard to tell because my mind is elsewhere, having removed itself from Jesse and his quiet sounds of pain to pursue the project I’ve been chiseling away at for the past few weeks. So it’s hard to tell but at one point I blink and focus again and there’s an intimation of light, the faintest hint of a glow in the east. The sun. Finally. Finally.

“Please take them out,” Jesse whispers.

I crouch on the pool of dried blood, grasp the two knives at his upper back, and pull. They come with no resistance. Like I’m pulling them out of pudding, not flesh. Jesse jerks, curling, something like a sob shuddering out of him. Ed’s already got the other one from his lower back and she’s working at the knots. They’re tight from all his struggling but she’s patient and steady, and after a minute she pulls the rope free.

Jesse rotates his arms, slowly, presses his hands to the truck bed, pushes himself to all fours. Ed’s already letting down the tailgate. Jesse seems frozen where he is so I ask, “Do you need help?”

He nods.

Together Ed and I get him out of the bed. He breathes hard through his nose, and we lay him down in the back of the cab. His eyes are slitted, and he gazes at his hand, no longer clawed, curled into a towel.

He says something but it’s muffled by the seat so I lean in. “What’d you say?”

“Shouldn’t have brought my jacket,” he murmurs. “I liked this jacket.”

“Can we head home?” Ed asks.

“Yeah.”

He sleeps, mostly. I do the driving because Ed has a concussion. Halfway through I dig up a protein bar and another can of Amp to keep me awake. Been a long night. In the cab Jesse looks kind of dead, pale and still. He’s not, though. His chest still rises and falls.

We made it. I guess.

The sun rises as we drive, which seems strange—strange to emerge from the murk of the werewolf’s death, of Jesse snapping and snarling in the truck bed. But it only took a few hours and here we are now, sun bright, seventy-five degrees out. Joggers pass by on the sidewalk as I navigate our suburb, waving to me. One of them has a dog and the dog sticks its tail between its legs and tries to flee into the nearest yard. Whoops.

I pull the truck up to the side of the house and wake Ed up. We’re gonna be taking Jesse in the back way. He’s sleepy and accepts our help without words. The pain doesn’t seem so bad now; he winces and grunts, which is much more normal for him than those low moans we heard last night. I unlock the door on the back porch and we get him inside. He seems to be taking his weight okay this morning.

Ed goes straight for the kitchen, and I start to follow but linger by the dividing wall, watching Jesse. He teeters back down the hall toward the bathroom, plucking at his jacket, finally manages to pull it off his shoulders. The bloody parts at his back seem stuck to him, and he has to tug a little bit to persuade the shredded jacket to separate from him and fall to the floor. His t-shirt is a red, torn mess and he takes it off over his head with a hissed stream of swearing.

There are holes in his back.

Between his shoulderblades and at the base of his spine. They’re just holes—pits a few inches across coated with dried gunk in pink, yellow, and brown. That’s what was happening to him through the dark hours of the morning. “Jesse—“ I lurch toward him and stop.

He looks over his shoulder.

What do I say? It’s not like I can do anything. I barely even know what happened to him. “Do you need…help?” I ask distantly.

“No,” he says. “I’m gonna wash this off and sleep for a long time.”

“Okay.” Okay.

He disappears into the bathroom.

I join Ed in the kitchen. There’s an empty banana peel next to her and she’s cracking eggs into the skillet. She sighs, tossing the eggshells on the counter. “I gotta text Meredith and let him know we killed it.”

I open up the fridge and stare at the contents. “Are you gonna tell him…what happened? You know, with Jesse?”

“No, I’m not gonna fucking tell him what happened. He’s gonna flip his shit. And anyway, it doesn’t matter, right? No one got hurt.”

“Jesse got hurt,” I mumble.

“Come the fuck on, Del, you know what I mean.” She pokes the skillet with a spatula.

I’m still staring at the fridge. Milk. Right. Set the carton on the counter and go look for a glass. I’m fine, of course, somehow. Ed got a concussion and Jesse, well. Jesse got fucked up. But I’m fine.

I sit at the island and drink my glass of milk. After a couple minutes Ed hands me a plate of eggs. From down the hall the shower runs. Ed sits next to me and we eat in silence, listening to the rush of water from the shower, the birdsong outside. It’s easier not to think of the holes in Jesse’s back or the way he whined when Ed kicked him in the truck bed. It’s easier not to think of anything at all.