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Windsday, Messis 1
Eager to join his friends for an early-morning run, Simon Wolfgard, leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, hurried toward the terra indigene Wolves who were using trees and shrubs for camouflage as they watched the paved road that looped the Courtyard. Actually, they were watching the man who was riding on the road at an easy pace.
Blair growled. It was a soft growl, but the human suddenly scanned the area as if his little ears had caught the sound.
Simon said, a little concerned about their focused attention on a human they knew fairly well.
Karl Kowalski was one of the human police officers who worked directly with the terra indigene to minimize conflicts between humans and Others. Because of that, he had been labeled a Wolf lover and had had his share of conflicts with other humans. The latest incident had happened the prior week when a car "accidentally" swerved and almost hit Kowalski while he was taking a bicycle ride before work. Because the terra indigene viewed that as a threat to a member of their human pack, Simon, Vladimir Sanguinati, and Henry Beargard-members of the Courtyard's Business Association-decided to allow the human pack to ride on the Courtyard's paved roads.
Simon had thought all the Wolves had been told about the Business Association's decision-especially Nathan, who was the watch Wolf at the Liaison's Office, and Blair, who was the Courtyard's dominant enforcer-but this was the first time any of the humans had ventured to ride on a road that still had Trespassers Will Be Eaten signs posted as a warning.
Blair's growl wasn't as soft this time.
Must have been loud enough for human ears, because Kowalski started to pedal a little faster.
Oh. Bicycle. Now Simon understood the real focus of the Wolves' attention, the reason for their excitement. Humans had ridden bicycles up to the Green Complex as well as a few other places in the Courtyard, and the Wolves had been intrigued by the two-wheeled vehicles. But those instances had been about transportation to or from a task. This could be something else.
Jane, the Wolfgard bodywalker, asked hopefully.
Simon thought Nathan's opinion of police work was skewed more toward hopeful than accurate. Still, they could offer to play. If Kowalski didn't accept, they would just enjoy a run. But . . . bicycle. Simon really wanted to chase one.
The Wolves charged up the road, Simon and Blair in the lead as they swiftly closed the distance between the pack and their play-prey. But would they have a game?
Kowalski looked back. His eyes widened-and he pedaled faster.
Jane surged ahead of the males, pulling up alongside the bicycle's back wheel in seconds.
Jane snapped, clearly offended by Nathan's unwanted warning. She moved up a little more, now in position to play-bite Kowalski's calf.
Kowalski glanced at Jane and pedaled faster. Instead of going over the bridge that would take them into the Hawkgard section-and commit the human to the big loop within the Courtyard's three hundred acres-Kowalski turned onto the road that ran alongside the Elementals' lake, heading back toward the Green Complex.
The Wolves ran, maintaining their distance even when Kowalski slowed down while going up a rise. They took turns pacing the bicycle and pushing their prey to run and run. Or pedal and pedal. As they reached the intersection with the Courtyard's main road, Kowalski swung left toward the Green Complex instead of turning right toward the Market Square.
Most of the pack, having slowed to a trot as their prey tired, circled back toward the Wolfgard Complex. Nathan headed for the Market Square and the Liaison's Office, where he would keep track of the deliverymen and guard Meg Corbyn, the Courtyard's Human Liaison. Simon and Blair followed Kowalski until they reached the Green Complex. Then Blair continued on to the Utilities Complex while Simon dashed for the water trough in the common area that formed the open center of the Courtyard's only multispecies complex. He lapped water, then shifted to his human form and dunked his head, flinging water as he stood up and tossed his dark hair away from his face. He splashed his arms and chest, then grinned when Kowalski parked the bicycle and approached the trough warily.
"That was a great game of chase!" Simon said happily. "You understand how to be play-prey."
"Yes." Simon cocked his head, puzzled by the human's wariness. Hadn't they just played, had fun? "Want some water?"
"Thanks." Kowalski splashed water on his face and neck, then on his arms. But he didn't drink.
Simon pondered the not drinking for a moment. Humans were clever, invasive predators who had recently shown the terra indigene once again why they could never be fully trusted-not even by one another. But physically they were so much weaker than other kinds of predators. This not drinking, for example. Nothing wrong with the water in the trough. Someone had already drained yesterday's water, using it on the potted tree and other plants in the open area, and refilled the trough with fresh water for drinking and splashing. Humans would drink water pumped from the well if it was in a glass or a bucket or some other small container but couldn't drink the same water from a shared outdoor container?
It made him wonder how they had survived as a species long enough to become such a problem.
"So, who doesn't understand about play-prey?" Kowalski asked, rubbing a hand over his face.
"The female pack. Every time we invited them to play, they stopped riding their bicycles and asked if they could help." Simon spread his arms in a "what's that all about?" gesture. Then he pointed at Kowalski. "But you invited us to play, and we all had a good run."
Kowalski snorted a soft laugh. "Well, I sure had a good run."
"Since the females can't pedal as far or as fast as you, maybe they could play chase with the puppies." The pups would learn how to run as a pack without the risk of being kicked by real prey.
Simon studied Kowalski, who studied him in turn.
"I'll talk to Ruthie," Kowalski finally said.
They both heard the clink of glassware and looked toward the screened summer room below Meg Corbyn's apartment.
"Must be later than I realized," Kowalski said. "I'd better go home and get cleaned up for work."
Simon watched the man walk toward the bicycle-and the summer room. For a moment, it looked like Kowalski was going to go in and talk to Meg, and Simon felt his teeth lengthen to Wolf size as his lips pulled back in a silent snarl. But Kowalski just raised a hand in greeting, said, "Morning, Meg," and rode away.
Simon walked around the trough, then stopped suddenly when he realized he was naked in his human form. It had never mattered until Meg came to live in the Courtyard. But humans reacted in various ways to seeing one another without clothing, even when clothing wasn't needed for protection or warmth. Meg had adjusted pretty well to friends shifting to human form to give her a message or answer a question before shifting back to their preferred furred or feathered form, but it was different with him-maybe because their friendship was different from any other she had with humans or terra indigene.
Most nights, he slept with her in his Wolf form. They had their own apartments, but those places were connected by the summer room and a back upstairs hallway, and more and more it was becoming one den instead of two. But they weren't mates in the same way Kowalski and Ruthie were mates. Then again, terra indigene Wolves mated only once a year, when females came into season. Meg did the bleeding typical of human females, but she hadn't shown any physical interest in having a mate. Except . . .
She'd asked him to go skinny-dipping with her a couple of weeks ago. Both of them naked, in human form. She'd been nervous about being in the water with him, and she seemed scared after he'd kissed the scar along the right side of her jaw-a scar made by the cut that had saved the Wolfgard in Lakeside as well as many other Wolves throughout the Northeast Region and even beyond.
He'd kissed her before-on the forehead once or twice. But when he'd kissed that scar, he'd felt a flutter of change inside him, and in the days that followed he began to understand on some instinctive level that he wasn't quite the same as the rest of the Lakeside Wolfgard. Not anymore.
Maybe it wasn't just for Meg's sake that, after the kiss, he'd invited her to play a Wolf game despite their both looking human. Then she wasn't afraid anymore. And since then . . . Well, it wasn't lost on him that, in summer weather like this, human males wore next to nothing in and around their own dens and no one thought anything of it.
"It's hot upstairs," Meg said, not raising her voice because she didn't need to. His ears might look human, but he was still a Wolf and could hear her just fine. "I brought some food down here for breakfast."
"I'll take a quick shower and join you."
He hurried inside and up the stairs to the bathroom in his apartment. Washing his hair and body didn't take long, but he stood under the shower, enjoying the cool water falling over him as he thought about the complication that was Meg Corbyn.
He had brought her into the Courtyard, offering her the job of Human Liaison before discovering that she was a blood prophet, a cassandra sangue-a breed of human females who saw visions of the future when their skin was cut. She had escaped from the man who had owned her and used her, and Simon and the rest of the terra indigene in Lakeside had taken her in.
That sounded simple but it wasn't. Nothing about Meg was simple. She was the pebble dropped in a pond that was the Lakeside Courtyard, and the ripples of her presence had changed so many things, including the terra indigene who had befriended her. Because of Meg, the Courtyard's residents interacted with humans in ways that were unprecedented-or, at least, hadn't been considered in centuries. Because of Meg, the terra indigene throughout Thaisia had tried to save the rest of the blood prophets who had been tossed out like unwanted puppies by the humans who had owned them. Because of Meg, the Lakeside Courtyard had a human pack who provided an additional learning experience for terra indigene who had a human-centric education and needed to practice their skills with humans who wouldn't take advantage of mistakes.
Because of Meg, he had the uncomfortable feeling that a little bit of being human had become attached to and inseparable from his Wolf form.
Plenty of human females over the years had wanted to take a lusty walk on the wild side and have sex with one of the terra indigene. And plenty of terra indigene had been equally curious about having sex in their human form. But that was about pleasing the body for a night and walking away. Or, for the Sanguinati, it was about using lust as a lure in order to feed off the blood of their preferred prey.
Having sex was different from becoming someone's mate. Mating was serious business. It was about pack and family. Some forms of terra indigene mated for life; some did not. Even among the forms that usually mated for life, the bonds didn't always hold. Simon's sire, Elliot, never talked about why his mate had left him. And Daphne, Simon's sister, had told them nothing about her mate or why she had shown up in Lakeside alone just days before her pup was born.
No, the mating bond didn't always last, and most of the time, the repercussions were small. A pack might break apart if the dominant pair split. Some might leave for other packs, even other parts of the continent. But ordinarily, a species wouldn't become extinct if a mating bond broke-and that could happen if his bond of friendship with Meg became something more but couldn't survive being something more, couldn't survive a physical mating. He knew it. Tess and Vlad and Henry knew it. Maybe some of the humans knew it. But he didn't think Meg knew it, wasn't sure she would be strong enough to carry that weight on top of what she had been asked to do already.
She had been hurt by the humans who had caged her and used her. Hurt in ways that made her fearful of the human male form. While he occasionally wondered if having sex with a human would feel different if the human was Meg, he wasn't willing to risk their friendship, wasn't willing to break the bond they already had. So he needed to be extra careful now for her sake, for his sake, for everyone's sake. How much human would the terra indigene keep? The Elders had asked that question without specifying if they meant human population, human inventions, or the intangible aspects of a form that were absorbed along with the physical shape if you lived too long in a particular skin.
Simon shut off the water and dried himself before pulling on a pair of denim cutoffs.
When the Elders had first asked that question, he thought they expected an answer in words. But after the recent war that had broken the Cel-Romano Alliance of Nations on the other side of the Atlantik, and the Elders' decision to thin, and isolate, the human herds in Thaisia, Simon understood that the answer would be shaped by what the Elders learned from the things that happened in and around the Lakeside Courtyard.
Meg fussed with the dishes on the small table in the summer room, but her mind was still replaying the image of Simon and Karl Kowalski standing by the water trough, talking. Simon had looked happy. Karl had had his back to the summer room, so she hadnÕt seen his face, but heÕd seemed tense. She wondered why Karl would feel tense about something that pleased Simon so much. Then again, a Wolf and a human didnÕt often see things the same way.