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New Orleans… four weeks after the UCE Conference
Watching Hunter shoot up with demon-werewolf anti-toxin clawed at her insides. As the squad leader for the U.S. Military’s Paranormal Containment Unit, she couldn’t passively witness this and make it all right, personal relationship notwithstanding. During the past three weeks she’d told herself so many lies, which was easy to do when not having to actually see Hunter take the meds—even though she knew Doc had insisted he stash them in his luggage as a precaution. But throughout this last and final week of her official leave the truth had gut-punched her. Everything about Hunter’s deteriorating condition was not only antithetical to her job that was to ensure no humans were at risk, it pure and simply broke her heart.
Right now she had to finally admit that, her lover was a huge, six-foot-five, two-hundred and twenty pound potential explosive in a civilian environment. Max Hunter had been severely infected. Max Hunter could go through a hard transition on any given full moon, and could possibly wreck unspeakable havoc. Max Hunter was therefore a bio-hazmat. Denial was no longer acceptable. The fact that he hadn’t totally flipped yet was probably moot.
Sasha closed her eyes for a moment, trying to wrest Captain Sasha Trudeau, the woman she’d been, to the forefront of her mind. It felt like the walls of Dugan’s Bed & Breakfast were closing in on her. How was she supposed to stay here or explain to the barrel-chested elf who owned the place that he, his patrons, and his entire staff were at risk?
All demon-infected werewolves had been sent back behind the demon doors or exterminated in the region. As far as anyone knew, every infected Shadow Wolf on North American soil had also been exterminated. People and supernaturals felt safe again to walk the streets. She and Hunter were United Council of Entities icons of a supposed new era in supernatural diplomacy and law enforcement.
The normally timid believed in them and had banded together to find uncommon courage in the name of justice. The Fae Parliament had come together in an unusual display of solidarity, along with the Were Clans and the Shadow Clans to vote out the devious Vampire Cartel that had master-minded the entire black market, demon-wolf blood toxin scheme. Even the Mythics and Phantoms, for once, gave up their fierce feudal independence to join forces to oust those that supported the illicit demon-toxin trade. Uninfected Werewolf clans had a fragile peace with the clean Shadow clans, voting as huge blocks, which left a vendetta on the table with the Vampires. They had to watch their backs; everyone who’d gone against the Vampire Cartel had to stay sharp.
And now her man was fighting a very private, seemingly losing battle against the thing he’d championed at the conference—honor amongst wolves.
Defeat made each inhale ache as Sasha drew in shallow breaths. There were local business-supernaturals and pub owners to worry about too, like Ethan and his gentle, healing wife, Margaret, who also worked at Tulane posing as a human ER trauma unit nurse when not helping out at her husband’s tavern. The couple was just now getting their lives back on track, trying to keep unsuspecting human patrons obliviously coexisting with their steady supernatural clientele at their lively Fae ale house around the corner. She’d half expected The Fair Lady to be firebombed by vamps after Ethan and Margaret had testified against them, effectively putting their lives on the line and exposing themselves and their young children to possible Vampire retaliation.
Hunter, therefore, had to hold the line for more than himself; the community looked up to him… them. Even her military brass had given her and her squad a much-needed month’s leave following the glowing, albeit somewhat doctored reports—courtesy Xavier Holland—for a mission well-accomplished. Bless Doc for his golden pen. Disaster had been averted. After the tragic loss of a five star, General Donald Wilkerson, no one questioned her methods as long as they worked and the public was none the wiser. She knew a part of them was scared shitless and they really didn’t want to know. As far as the brass was concerned, her squad had averted a potential civilian catastrophe—perhaps they had.
But the fact that one could have occurred meant that the pressure was on by the schizophrenic human military forces that wanted to learn more about all things preternatural. Brass wanted to know, but didn’t want to know. People needed culpable deniability, but also needed to be able to sleep at night. Fear factors had to be addressed. That was real.
That meant sooner or later questions would be asked, there’d be a demand for cogent Intel, and anything the least bit suspect would make every high-ranking official up the food chain extremely nervous.
For now, they viewed her and her team as the best operatives to mine sensitive data. However, they didn’t know jack about Hunter or the various wolf clans she’d kept on the down-low. Yet, in the supernatural community, she and Hunter were supposed to be the law, diplomats from the North American Shadow Wolf clan—protectors of the weaker supernaturals and humans. They’d even won a rare seat for Shadows and Werewolves to co-represent at the U.C.E. Elder’s Bench.
Now this… horrible secret, the kind of thing she swore she’d never be a party to. Easier said than done. If the Shadow Clans learned of Hunter’s struggle, after all they’d been through they’d possibly exterminate him on sight. His own enforcer, Bear Shadow, would be sent. That was the way of the wolf. Clean. Non-negotiable. Efficient. Then the local pack of his ancestry would grieve in long, mournful howls. His grandfather, Silver Hawk, would be given his remains, and then it would become pack and clan history told orally for generations to follow.
But she also had the other part of her life to worry about, the human side. If her military brass learned she was harboring a potential virus-carrier, and had slept with him, they’d have them both targeted. Best case, they’d shoot him and court martial her for treason, then hang her. At this point, she wasn’t really sure that she cared. Her insides were dying very slowly as she watched the man she loved and had once admired slowly become lost to himself. A silver bullet to the center of her forehead would’ve been more merciful than witnessing this.
Sasha gazed out the window from where she sat amid mussed bed linens. Her squad was nearby; she could feel Fisher’s presence, along with Woods’s. The signature of her wolf familiars was strong enough to raise the hair on her arms, and where those guys were no doubt the rest of her squad would be too. Clarissa, Winters, and Bradley, hung with Woods and Fisher like family, which was a good thing. Couldn’t hurt to have two good soldiers with solid wolf senses in a loose formation with a seer, a kinetics guy, and someone versed in the dark arts watching each other’s backs in Voodoo town.
The sadder point was, though… they’d all bonded like family… loved Hunter like a brother, the same way Doc had taken him into his heart like a son. Confusion ate at her mind as she wrestled with the question of whom to go to first—Doc, or Hunter’s grandfather, Silver Hawk, or maybe she’d quietly speak to the team’s bio-chemist and resident seer, Clarissa, before alerting the elders?
Sasha kept her gaze trained on the window, trying her best to ignore the sight that haunted her peripheral vision—of Hunter prepping a vein. She then mentally shunted aside the sounds in the room until she could only hear the revelry going on at Finnegan’s Wake bar across the street… fitting name for the merry Fae community that frequented the establishment, but the happiness had long been bled out of their room.
For over three weeks after the blue moon coordinated United Council of Entities Conference, Hunter had hidden his worsening condition from her like a junky. The only reason he’d been able to shape-shift so quickly at the Conference was because Doc had slipped him some meds. If she’d only known then… maybe she could have convinced him to go in for a full eval before it got this far. Hundreds of thoughts battled for dominance in her brain. There had to be something that could be done! Why did he hide it for so long?
But little-by-little his condition had been impossible to conceal from the person who’d shared his body and bed. Now his need eclipsed the shame and he’d simply stopped trying to pretend any more. It was what it was.
She’d seen the tracks; knew what they were from years of having taken those same meds at Doc’s insistence. After a while, shooting up in less obvious places just didn’t cut it; one needed a vein, a mainline artery. Denial had claimed her—making her pray they were spider bites, when she knew better. Now he was needle dependent… even though he’d ironically been the one to free her from the purgatory of life on metabolic drugs. There was no justice in the world. Each injection worked more slowly, was more painful. That’s how she’d found out—the night he’d shot up in the bathroom and had fallen, convulsing.
The look of humiliation in his eyes remained burned into her mind. For all Hunter’s strength there was a pleading quality that begged her not to flee, not to leave him, but to also not come near him to help him up as his canines ripped through his gums. She’d been paralyzed in the doorway, just as she was paralyzed now sitting on the side of the bed sipping shallow breaths while he pumped a fist with his belt in his teeth and tightly pulled against his bicep.
Where was his inner wolf… that pristine, free being that disbelieved in Western medicine? The drugs would make his wolf senses dull. He would no longer be able to hear at peak efficiency, or move like lightening, or see in the shadows… or become one with the shadows. He wouldn’t see auras or sense approaching danger—all the things he’d given her a glimpse off when she came off the meds were now denied him because of a cruel blow of fate. All because an honorable man tried to do the right thing, now he’d been handicapped by the very scourge he’d hunted. He’d battled evil, it had bitten him, and had polluted his system so severely that his Shadow Wolf immunity was not kicking in to stop it. The injustice of it stabbed her spirit. There had to be a way to get Max back to normal, back to his glorious Shadow Wolf self.
Tasting tears as she swallowed hard, she refused to allow them to fall. “Tap the oxygen out of it,” she said quietly, knowing he was so eager for a second hit of his meds that he was about to make a deadly mistake.
A first quarter moon washed a blue-white haze across Hunter’s handsome, ebony face and she watched him struggle to stop to take a few seconds to tap the hypodermic. It wasn’t even a full moon yet and he was already in agony. She wondered what would happen as the luminous disk in the sky became a waxing Gibbous then went full. His disheveled hair spilled in an onyx wash across his broad shoulders. It had lost the eagle feather and leather tong, along with some of it’s naturally, glistening luster. That made her sadder as she stared at him wondering if this time would be the tipping point, the point of no return for his Shadow Wolf.
“I waited too long,” he said with a wince. “Let it get too near dark and let the moon come up on me. Every time I keep hoping this will be the last, but it isn’t.”
Sasha stood and quickly walked toward him, drawing on all her military training to remain calm, despite the weight on her heart and soul. “Let me prep your needle before you kill yourself,” she said in a quiet but firm tone.
“If it’s gotten this far where I can’t even wait to prep a damned needle,” he said with a bitter chuckle, “then it doesn’t much matter, does it?”
She held his sinew thick forearm, “Yeah. It matters to me. Kill yourself on your own watch, but not in front of my face.” She snatched the needle from him, held it up to the moonlight, and gave it a few quick taps before expressing some of the serum. “After you take this, we need to talk.” She stabbed into a bulging vein without mercy, tears that she’d refused to let fall slightly blurring her vision. “That’s a double dose… more than enough to hold back a hard transition.” She yanked the needle out and stared at him as he shuddered and his lids lowered. “Enough to get you high. When did you start double dosing, Max?”
Hunter nodded and allowed his head to slowly loll back. “Yeah… enough to get me high.”
Sasha hurled the needle across the room and went in search of her jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers. She had to get out of the room before she possibly shot him. Yet, at the same time, in her soul she knew it would be the same as murdering the victim.
“You okay?” he asked calmly, finally lifting his head with a lazy smile and appraising her in her French-cut, gray cotton briefs and mid-drift cotton camisole.
“No! I’m not okay,” she shouted, whirling around to snatch her nine millimeter off the dresser and to slip on her shoulder holster over her t-shirt.
“Why not, beyond the obvious?” he said, rubbing his palms down his face and sitting forward in his boxers.
“Why not? Why not! Because you’re not okay, Hunter!” Her fingers felt like they’d become fat sausages as she tried to work her weapon into place and zip up her jeans. Her mind was scrambled, her words unclear, her vision blurry. She couldn’t breathe.
“So, what else is new?” he said dryly. “Is this the part where you tell me we’re breaking up, or what?” He stood, no longer looking at her, and began searching for his jeans.
“We have to get you to Doc. You have to stop overdosing on the meds. The amount you’re taking is—”
“Killing the fucking pain, Sasha,” he said in a low, rumbling, murmur that came out like a near growl. “So if you’ve leaving me, then do it in one swift, decisive move—like a razor cut. Don’t stab me over and over again with the goddamned threat.” He yanked on his pants and stripped the belt from his arm as an afterthought. “I’ve gotta go eat; this bullshit makes me nauseous on an empty stomach. I would ask you to join me, but on nights like this, it’s gotta be raw.”
For a moment she just stared at him. Then, slowly, very slowly, she turned away without a word, opened the door, and walked down the hall towards fresh air.