Wolfsbane and Mistletoe


Chapter Fourteen



Keeping Watch Over His Flock

Toni L. P. Kelner

Toni L. P. Kelner is the author of nine mystery novels and numerous short stories, including the Agatha Award-winning "Sleeping with the Plush." Though she's written about carnivals, fan conventions, high school pranksters, circuses, family reunions, vampires, and lingerie shops, this is her first werewolf story. Her personal pack includes her husband, fellow author Stephen P. Kelner; two daughters; and two guinea pigs. Unfortunately, none of them recognizes her status as top dog.

Maybe half the members of the pack were in wolf form, with the others still human, and Jake wasn't sure which he would rather look at - the bared teeth or the stern frowns. So instead he aimed his answers at the Christmas tree with its twinkling lights. There was something unreal about having his whole life decided in front of a Christmas tree, but that's what happened when you broke virtually all of a werewolf pack's rules on Christmas Eve.

"Look, I didn't mean to go solo without permission," Jake said.

"Was I unclear in denying you permission?" Though Brian was one of those who'd stayed human, the growl in the pack leader's voice could just as easily have come from a lupine throat.

"No, but - "

"Had you proven yourself ready by successfully taking a form deemed appropriate for your surroundings?"

"No, but - "

"Then what exactly did you mean to do?"

He swallowed. "Okay, I guess I did mean to. Look, can I tell it from the beginning?"

There was a murmur, and he risked a glance at the pack. Nobody looked particularly friendly or willing to listen, but Brian said, "Proceed. But Jake, don't lie again."

The message was clear. If he didn't tell the truth, he could kiss his place in the pack goodbye. He swallowed hard. He hadn't been in the pack long enough to know what it meant to be ejected, or even if he'd survive the experience.

The thing was, Jake wasn't sure that telling the truth would help. Even when Felicia, Brian's wife, had caught him sneaking into the house, he hadn't realized just how much trouble he was in until Brian started calling in the other pack members to judge him, right then and there, even though it was getting close to midnight. What with the holidays, not everybody could get to Brian's house, but enough were there to make whatever they decided official. And final.

"Okay," Jake said, "this is what happened."

"Are you excited about tonight?" Ruby asked.

"Duh! Who wouldn't be?"

"Me, too," the little girl said. "I just love Christmas."

"Oh yeah, Christmas." Jake rolled his eyes. It wasn't sugarplums running through his head, not with the full moon only hours away.

"What did you ask Santa for, Jake?"

"Huh?" He looked away from his game of WarCraft for a second, which was enough to blow his chance for a high score. "Shit!"

"Language!" said a voice from the kitchen.

"Sorry," he muttered.

"I'm sure Santa won't mind you saying one bad word," Ruby said, trying to make him feel better.

"Yeah, maybe not," Jake said, wondering if she was jerking his chain. Did the kid really still believe in the guy in the red suit? She was nearly nine, for freak's sake. Of course, Ruby had been raised in a real house with a real family - so real it was scary - while he'd been shuffled from foster home to foster home. It hadn't taken him long to realize that he didn't need to bother sending change-of-address cards to the North Pole.

"So what did you ask him for?" Ruby persisted.

He hadn't asked for anything. It hadn't occurred to him. "Um . . . It's kind of a secret."

"Like when you don't tell anybody your birthday wish?"

"Yeah, like that."

"Mom said it's okay to tell Christmas wishes, because sometimes Santa Claus can't get me everything on my list, so Mom and Dad have to help. Didn't your mother tell you that?"

"Ruby!" the voice from the kitchen chided.

Ruby put a hand to her mouth. "I'm sorry, Jake. I forgot!"

"It's okay," he said, and it was. "I don't really remember her anyway." The only memory he thought he had was a vague one of her scent. "I'm used to it."

"Besides, you have us now," Ruby said, putting her hand on his arm. "We're going to have the best Christmas ever!"

"Dam . . . Darned straight!" He wasn't some loser on his own anymore - he had a home, and a pack to watch his back. The full moon was on the way, and with it, his first honest-to-God, away-from-school-grounds run. Knowing that had been making him antsy all day long - if he'd been in wolf form, his tail would have been whipping around like crazy.

Felicia, Ruby's mother, came out from the kitchen with a well-filled plate. "Cookies!" she said brightly.

One whiff, and Jake was happy to put down the joystick. He reached for an iced gingerbread man and chomped on the head with even more gusto than he would have before finding out what he really was.

"Do you want to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with me, Jake?" Ruby asked around a mouth of crumbs.

"Yeah, as if I wanted to watch a prey species prancing around." Reindeer were for eating.

Felicia didn't have to speak, just gave him a look, and he saw Ruby was looking half-confused, half-troubled.

"I mean CLAY species," he said. "You know, made of clay. That's why they call it claymation."

Ruby still wasn't convinced, and Felicia said, "No time for Rudolph right now. We're going to put out the manger scene. You can help, too, Jake."

"Sure, if you want." Not only did she make awesome cookies, but it was always a good idea to stay on the good side of the pack's alpha female.

Brian came down the stairs from his trip to the attic, carrying a dusty cardboard box, and Jake was amazed once again that anybody could look so boring in human form, yet so freaking cool as a wolf. He was just this guy, in a college T-shirt and jeans.

"Are you ready for me?" Brian stopped at the archway into the living room, trying for casual.

"Mistletoe!" Ruby exclaimed and rushed over. He put down the box to pick her up and plant a kiss on her cheek.

Then Felicia joined Brian under the mistletoe, and after she'd been thoroughly kissed, she turned to look at Jake. He held up one hand and said, "Thanks, but I'll pass."

Brian just grinned. Despite being pack leader, he was a pretty good guy. He'd been the one to track Jake down and spring him from the system to get him into Dogwarts, the boarding school where packs taught the young werewolves the ins and outs of their world. Of course the school had some innocuous formal name to throw humans off the scent, but none of the kids used it.

Jake had been seriously stoked when Brian invited him to join his family for the Christmas holiday. He was the only kid at Dogwarts who hadn't been raised in a pack, and even though everybody was friendly enough, he hadn't been around long enough to establish himself. He figured hanging with the pack leader and his family ought to earn him a few dozen coolness points.

Brian moved the box next to a long table along one wall that Felicia had cleared off that afternoon, and opened it to show a pile of bundles wrapped in newspaper.

"I want to help," Ruby said.

"Gently now," Felicia warned her.

"I know, they were Grandma's. I'll be careful."

The way they slowly unwrapped each piece, Jake was expecting something extra cool, but all he saw was a bunch of decently painted ceramic figures of the usual suspects included in Nativity sets: Mary, Joseph, the kid, the Kings, some shepherds, and an assortment of camels, donkeys, sheep, and cows.

It looked as if they'd emptied the box when Ruby said, "Where's the wolf?"

"Must be in here somewhere," Felicia said, and rummaged around until she found one last wad of newspaper. "You do it, Jake."

The three of them were looking at him like it was a big deal, so he took it and peeled off the newspaper to reveal another figure.

He looked at it, and then at their expectant faces. "It's a dog."

"It's not a dog!" Ruby said. "It's a wolf."

"It looks like a dog," Jake said. "Kind of mangy, if you ask me."

"Jake doesn't know the story," Ruby said. "Tell him, Daddy!"

Brian cleared his throat. "In those days, Caesar Augustus sent word that all the world was to be taxed, and each - "

"Dude, I've seen A Charlie Brown Christmas three times this week. I know how it goes."

Felicia frowned, but relented when Ruby giggled.

Brian said, "Then you know that an angel appeared to the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem, who were keeping watch over their flocks. And of course, shepherds always had dogs with them."

"Then it is a dog."

"Not exactly. Even now, there isn't that much difference between a dog and a wolf - "

"Yeah? So why doesn't anybody in the pack turn into a Chihuahua and party with Paris Hilton?"

"Just listen!" Felicia said sharply.

"Whatever."

Brian went on as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Back then, the differences between types of canine were even less. So it turned out that these shepherds had a wolf to guard their sheep."

Jake wanted to ask why the wolf didn't just chow down on mutton one night, with shepherd's pie for dessert, but from the look in Felicia's eye, he figured he better not go there.

"When the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the Christ child, the wolf went with them, and when they were struck with the glory of the Lord, so was the wolf. Being a wolf, he wanted to give praise the best way he knew how. So he howled."

Jake blinked. He was pretty sure Linus hadn't said anything to Charlie Brown about a howling wolf.

"Naturally, the other animals were afraid," Brian continued, "and the shepherds were going to chase off the wolf. But the baby smiled at him, and waved His hand, and suddenly a man was standing there. And he bowed down with the others to praise the child. It was Jesus' first miracle."

"Turning a wolf into a naked guy?"

Felicia frowned again, but Ruby giggled and said, "Jake! They gave him something to wear."

Brian nodded. "When the shepherds went back to their flocks, the wolf went with them, still in human form, and they welcomed him. He married one of their daughters, and was a man in every respect. Except that he was stronger and his senses were those of a wolf."

"Like us," Ruby put in. She was too young to change, but she had the other werewolf gifts.

"That's right," Brian said. "Since the werewolf had those superior senses, he was able to recognize the danger when Herod's men came to Bethlehem to kill Jesus. It was the night of the first full moon after He was born."

"Like tonight!" Ruby said. As if Jake needed to be reminded about the full moon.

"The wolf warned Mary and Joseph to take Jesus to Egypt, and he went along to keep Herod's men from catching them. Once they were safe, an angel appeared to the wolf and offered him a reward. The wolf told him that while he was happy to be human, he still missed his old life. So the angel told him that every month, when the moon was full, he'd be able to return to his wolf form, and all his children would have the same gift."

Brian took the figure from Jake and placed it into the Nativity scene. "This was the first werewolf."

Jake stared at the statue, then at Brian, waiting for the punch line. Nada. But before he could say anything, the phone rang in the kitchen.

"I bet it's Aunt Ronnie!" Ruby said, and skedaddled away, with Felicia following, laughing.

Brian looked at the Nativity scene again, and said, "You're kidding, right? No offense, but Spider-Man has a way cooler origin story."

"Offense taken," Brian said, and just like that, the nice guy was gone and the alpha wolf was in charge. "I know you're new to the pack, Jake, but this is our tradition, and I expect you to show respect."

"Do the other packs believe this stuff about angels making us werewolves?"

"Each pack has its own myths," Brian admitted, "but they've all got some story. How do you think we became werewolves?"

Jake shrugged. "I don't know. Some kind of evolution thing, maybe."

"You think this is purely survival of the fittest?"

"Yeah, man. I mean, look at us. Stronger, better senses, like you said. We're wolves!"

"Wolves are endangered, and have been for years. That doesn't sound like a good evolutionary strategy to me."

Before Jake could argue the point further, Felicia called from the kitchen. "Brian!"

The pack leader patted him on the shoulder before heading into the kitchen.

Jake picked up the mangy sheepdog figurine again. He couldn't believe it. His first Christmas with the pack, and they were telling Bible stories. It was more like Christmas with Hannah Montana or some other lame Disney show than with a freaking wolf pack!

He realized the voices in the kitchen were sounding a lot more serious than they should have for a phone call from Brian's sister, so he drifted that way. Brian was listening and scribbling notes onto a pad while Felicia gathered junk from the cabinets.

"What's up?" he asked Ruby, who was watching it all with wide eyes.

"Mom's going tracking," she said.

Brian hung up the phone. "Dave will be here to pick you up in fifteen minutes," he said. "Have you got everything?"

She looked at the pile on the kitchen table. "Leash, harness, flashlight, cell phone, emergency kit. Yeah. I'll go change." She trotted up the stairs.

"What's going on?" Jake asked Brian.

"A little girl in town is missing. Felicia and David are going to join the searchers."

"Why not you?"

"Felicia is a better tracker, and the people in town are used to Dave handling her. I'll stay here with you and Ruby."

It only took a second for the implication of that to sink in. "What about the full moon?" The plan had been for Felicia to stay with Ruby, while he and Brian went for a good long run in the woods.

"I'm afraid we're not going to be able to go out tonight. We can't leave Ruby alone. The moon will still be full tomorrow night."

"Yeah, but tomorrow is the pack Christmas party. There won't be time for a decent run!" Jake knew he was whining, and in a bratty kid way rather than the way a submissive wolf was supposed to, but he couldn't help it.

"Jake, a little girl is missing! Isn't that more important?"

"She's human, right? Not a member of the pack?"

"What difference does that make?"

"Are you kidding? If she's human, let the other humans worry about it."

Felicia came back into the kitchen, having changed into all black. As in a black Labrador retriever. She padded over to Brian, who put the harness on her, and fitted the phone and other things into the harness pockets.

"Good hunting, Mom," Ruby said, putting her arms around the big dog.

"Thanks, sweetie," Felicia replied in the odd voice some werewolves were able to muster, even while in other forms. Jake hadn't even come close to mastering the technique himself. "I'll be back before Santa comes. You go watch Rudolph."

"Jake," Brian said, "will you keep Ruby company for a few minutes?"

"Yeah, sure." He followed the little girl back into the living room, but stayed close enough to the door to the kitchen to listen in. He'd learned years before that he was good at eavesdropping, without knowing why his hearing was so much sharper than normal. Than normal human hearing, he corrected himself.

"Can you believe that?" Felicia said, half-growling. "More worried about a run than a lost child?"

"He's a teenager," Brian said. "He thinks the world revolves around him."

"I think you're wasting your time with him, Brian. He's not right for the pack."

Jake silently flipped her the bird, even if she couldn't see it. See if he ever helped her put up her junky manger scene again.

"Give him time," Brian said soothingly.

"I won't let him ruin Ruby's Christmas!"

"Ruby likes him."

She snorted, though it was more of a snuffling while she was in that form. "That's something in his favor anyway."

A car horn sounded from the driveway.

Brian said, "There's Dave. You better go. Good hunting, love."

Felicia barked in response, and Jake heard Brian opening the door for her to bound out to the car. He scooted over to the television so he could pretend to care about a singing, candy-ass reindeer.

Brian came to the doorway. "Jake, could you come in here?"

"Sure."

He followed the pack leader, and the two of them sat down at the kitchen table.

"Look," Jake said, "maybe I could go out by myself. A lot of the guys are taking their first solo tonight."

"I talked to your teachers about that possibility."

"Really?" he said eagerly. "I'm ready, I know I am."

"What's the pack's first rule for a run?"

"Stay away from humans."

"And if you can't?"

"Don't interfere with them in any way. Stay out of their sight."

"And if you can't?"

"I won't go anywhere near a human, Brian, I swear."

"What's the rule if you can't stay out of a human's sight?"

He sighed, and quoted, "If you are seen, make sure to be in a form that will not cause alarm."

"Have you managed to take another form?"

"Not exactly."

"Which means what, exactly?"

Jake looked down at his hands. "It means I can be a different-colored wolf," he said, thinking about his classmates' snickers when the best he could do was to morph into a wolf with a deep purple coat, while they were successfully changing into German shepherds, Rottweilers, cocker spaniels, even an enormous Maine coon cat.

"That's not good enough. You're not ready for a solo."

"Why can't I just run as a wolf? Even in that story you told me about the angels and crap, you said we didn't start out as dogs, right? We aren't poodles or terriers or freaking opossums. We're wolves! For the first time in my life, I know what I am!"

"You're a werewolf. And if you've paid attention in class, you know that means man-wolf. The human comes first, and humans make choices. We can change into anything we choose to."

"I tried changing into something else. It didn't work."

"Keep trying. You just need to choose a form you're comfortable with. Felicia runs as a Labrador retriever most of the time, and I'm a pretty convincing Newfoundland."

"I'm not comfortable as anything but a wolf."

"Maybe you just don't want it badly enough."

Jake looked Brian right in the eye. "Well, maybe I don't. Maybe I like being a wolf, and maybe I don't want to change into anything else."

"Then you're not going to solo. It's okay if you want to change tonight, but you have to stay in the house."

"Yeah, whatever." As if he'd feel any less trapped as a wolf. It'd be even worse, to smell more of the outdoor world he was missing.

He started to slouch his way back to the living room.

"And Jake," Brian added, "if I catch you eavesdropping on me and Felicia again, you won't get a solo run until you're thirty!" Jake didn't know if it was the leader's voice or the way he held himself that suddenly made him seem more lupine than most of the pack was under a full moon.

Son of a bitch! How had he known? Jake threw himself down on the couch, glaring at the TV screen while the dumb reindeer moaned about being a misfit. He should try being the only outsider in the pack. Jake had been used to always being the new guy when he was moving between foster homes. He hadn't cared then. Now he was finally someplace he wanted to stay, someplace he wanted to belong, but he was going to be stuck being the new kid forever. Not being able to tell the guys at the Christmas party about his run was only going to make it worse. Maybe he could make something up. He grinned, imagining himself chasing after Rudolph and making more than his nose red.

The only good part of the evening was that Brian mostly ignored him. Instead he and Ruby laughed their way through watching Christmas videos, eating gingerbread men, and actually hanging a row of piece-of-crap stockings by the fireplace. Felicia stayed gone, and though she and Dave called in a few times, he didn't bother to ask what was happening and he sure as hell didn't eavesdrop.

When Jake finally escaped into the guest room, he refused to look out the window at the fat moon hanging in the sky, calling to him. What was the point of changing in the house? What was he supposed to do then? Curl up like a puppy on a tweenaged girls' poster? Maybe Brian had a Santa hat for him, and would take cutesy pictures for next year's Christmas card. Hell, why didn't they just get him fixed?

Finally he couldn't resist it any longer, and drew the blinds to at least see the moon. That was all it took, the one look, and he lost it. Jake knew the change felt different for different people - for him it felt like the best stretch anybody could ever have, the kind where you feel longer and looser when you're done. Ten minutes after that, without ever actually making a decision, he was downstairs, pushing the specially designed back door open to escape into the night.

He scurried off quickly, but once he was safely out of earshot, he stopped to breathe in deep. This was the life he was supposed to lead. Out in the wild, hearing and smelling and tasting things he'd never notice as a human. Why would he want to choose any other form when he could be a wolf? Hell, if it hadn't been for computer games and McDonald's, he'd have chosen to stay a wolf forever.

Of course, he was still going to obey pack laws, more or less, and that meant getting farther from the house. Fortunately, the house edged onto an open area and it was easy enough for him to lope through the woods, avoiding houses and roads and any humans who might spot him. Then he let himself go, running and howling and chasing rabbits. Okay, he didn't catch any, but it was early yet. He'd show Brian he was ready to solo, and was imagining telling the other young wolves at the next night's Christmas party when he ran right into a clearing. And smelled humans.

He skidded to a halt in the leaves, unable to stop himself from giving off a puppyish whimper. Standing stock-still, he listened and looked and sniffed. There was no sign that anybody had seen him.

Funny place for people to be on Christmas Eve, he thought. It was just an old shack, and he didn't think the place even had electricity hooked up. There was no fire, either, and while it was plenty warm for a wolf, it was awfully cold for humans.

Car trouble? Nobody was outside or looking out the window, so he crept around to the front of the shack, where a new-looking SUV was parked on a narrow dirt road. He got close enough to feel that the engine was still warm, and the tires intact.

What did he care anyway? The humans could handle their own problems. He was about to go back to the woods when he smelled something else. Somebody in that shack had a hard-on. He'd been surprised, and more than a little embarrassed, when he'd realized that arousal had its own smell, but there was no way anybody attending a coed school full of randy teenagers wasn't going to learn that smell.

Jake grinned the closest he could get to a grin as a wolf. Though he'd been way too nervous to try to spy on any of his amorous classmates at Dogwarts, this was different. He bet he could get a better show than anything on YouTube, and wouldn't the guys be jealous when they heard about it? He couldn't smell the guy's partner yet, but she had to be in there. Nobody would go to the trouble of sneaking out to the woods just to jerk off.

He was still within the rules, he told himself. The humans didn't know he was there, and wouldn't see him if he was careful. Chances were that they'd be too busy to notice anything but what they were doing.

He scouted around and found an old woodpile near a window that had some of the glass in place, and carefully put his front paws on it so he could peer inside. The humans had thoughtfully set out a couple of kerosene lanterns, making it easy for him to see them and hard for them to see him. And what he saw nearly made Jake bark with laughter. Standing with his back to him was a guy in a freaking Santa Claus suit! The hat, the beard, the whole nine yards. Yeah, this was going to be something to see.

Then Santa moved to one side, and Jake saw who it was with him. It was a kid. A little kid, a girl who looked even younger than Ruby. She was staring up at Santa with big brown eyes, and saying, "I thought there'd be snow at the North Pole. And reindeer."

"Don't worry about that, Cindy," the guy said in a creepy voice. "Just come sit on Santa's lap." Then the son of a bitch started to pull down his pants.

Jake knew a pedo when he saw one. He'd seen too damned much of that kind of thing at the foster homes he'd been stuck in, too many crying kids and smirking old men. One dude had made a play for him, but Brian had gotten him out in time. That guy still showed up in his bad dreams every once in a while.

Well, he'd be damned if this guy was going to get away with it. Every pack rule was forgotten as he howled and threw himself through the shreds of glass remaining in the window frame and onto the back of the pervert.

The phony Santa screamed as Jake snapped at him, ripping at the fake fur collar and drawing blood. The guy twisted around and managed to push Jake from him, then grabbed a piece of broken furniture to club at him. Jake backed off, but was tensing himself to spring when he felt the little girl tugging at his tail with all her might.

"Don't hurt Santa Claus," she yelled. "Bad dog, bad dog!"

Santa was on his feet by then, waving the chair leg, and Jake smelled the acrid piss as the man wet himself.

God, he wanted to rip at his throat, or better, tear into his crotch so he'd never hurt another kid. But the girl was still holding his tail, keeping him from his prey, and even as a wolf, he couldn't bring himself to bite her. All he could do was growl at the man backing toward the door.

Damn it, he was going to get away. The kid realized it, too, and sobbed, "Santa, don't leave me."

The bastard kept moving backward, ignoring the girl's pleas. She was crying so hard that her grip loosened, and Jake threw himself forward and toward Santa. At the last second, he felt her grab hold again, and his teeth closed on nothing more than the cheesy beard as he ripped it off the man's face.

Then Santa was gone, scrambling for his car while the kid held Jake back. All he could do was let loose a howl of frustration while the bastard drove away.

The little girl was still crying hysterically. When she finally let go of Jake's tail, she curled up into a ball of misery, her hands over her head as if to fend off the attack she was sure was coming.

Jake stared at her. What the hell was he supposed to do now? He couldn't just leave her. What if the pedo came back? Even if he didn't, how would the kid get home?

He got down on his belly, the same as he would for a superior wolf in the pack, and crawled over to her. She jerked when he touched her, but he didn't move any closer, just lay there on the warped wooden floor as her crying slowed. She must have finally realized he wasn't going to bite her, because she sat up. Though she scooted away from him, she didn't scream or try to hit him.

After a long moment, she said, "You bit Santa Claus."

Jake shook his head vigorously, wishing he could talk in wolf form the way Felicia could. Inspiration struck, and he grabbed the beard with his teeth and put it down in front of the girl.

"His beard?" she said, picking it up. Then she found the strings that had held it on to the guy's ears. "It's not real." She breathed a little gasp. "He wasn't the real Santa."

Even as a wolf, Jake could roll his eyes. After all that, the kid still believed in Santa Claus. But he shook his head again, confirming what she'd said.

"Then where am I? How am I going to get home?" Tears flowed again, and Jake wanted to cry with her. He didn't know the answers, either.

Though he wasn't sure how far they were from other houses, he didn't think she could walk very far. For one, now that Santa and his noxious scent were gone, he could tell that there was something funny about her smell, as if she'd been drugged. Belatedly, he realized that this must be the missing child Felicia had gone to search for, and he wished to God it had been she who had found her, instead of him.

Maybe he could carry her. He lay down in front of her, then tried to point at his back with his muzzle, to show what he wanted her to do. But she shrank from him. Jake didn't really blame her - if he'd seen a wolf attacking somebody, even somebody who deserved it, he wouldn't be all that eager to hop on the wolf's back afterward. He rubbed a paw across his muzzle and realized the fake Santa's blood stained his fur.

Okay, then, the thing left was to go for help, and get back as quickly as possible. And he got two feet beyond the door before he heard her crying for her mama and daddy.

Jake sat down. He just couldn't leave her. He couldn't leave her, and they couldn't stay there. That meant she had to come with him, but short of dragging her by the scruff of the neck, he couldn't figure out how to convince her he was harmless.

If only he didn't look so damned scary, so damned . . . So damned WOLF. Hell, she'd called him a dog - maybe she was afraid of dogs, too. Or maybe she was now. Even if he could change to some other canine form, or even just give himself puppy dog eyes, they'd be stuck. Human wouldn't be much better - after Santa, the last thing the kid needed to see was a naked teenager. Not to mention what would happen if anybody saw a naked teenager giving a little girl a piggyback ride.

If only he'd been able to learn the trick of changing to some other form. What had Brian said? That he could take any form he chose. All he had to do was choose some form that could carry the kid without scaring her. When he thought about what a kid Ruby's age would like, it only took him a second to decide what to go for. Hell, it couldn't hurt to try.

He was wrong. It did hurt. It hurt like hell. It was nothing like changing from human to wolf, or even from wolf to human. The worst part was not being able to let loose the grunts of pain he wanted to for fear of scaring the kid even more. It took twice as long as it should have taken to change, and twice as long after that to recover enough to wobble back into the shack.

Cindy gave that little gasp again when she saw him. "You're real!"

He nodded.

"Have you come to take me home?"

He nodded again.

"Are we going to fly?"

A shake.

"Why not?"

He did his best shrug, given the circumstances, and snorted.

"Is it because you're alone?"

He nodded, relieved that she'd come up with an explanation.

She approached him gingerly, and patted his head. Then she started to climb on top, Jake standing as still as he could to make sure he didn't startle her. Once he was sure she had a good grip on him, he started out the door and down the road.

It wasn't too bad at first - even though he wasn't used to carrying anybody, at least she was skinny. But he got awfully tired after a while, what with the extra weight, keeping an eye out for danger, and as Cindy got sleepier and sleepier, making sure she didn't slip off his back. All of that was even harder because he was still trying to figure out how the body was supposed to work. Whose idea was it to make the legs so long and spindly? At least the hard feet were useful - he didn't have to worry about stepping on broken glass or sharp rocks.

The first couple of houses they came to were dark, and Jake wasn't going to risk leaving her until he was sure there was help around. Only when they got to a well-lit house, with plenty of cars parked nearby, where he could see people talking and laughing inside, did he carry her to the front porch. He had to kind of kneel down so she could get off. As she stood, rubbing her eyes, he nudged her toward the door. He didn't back away until she hit the doorbell, and he could hear somebody coming.

He was starting to leave when she called out, "Wait! Which one are you?"

He should have known it was coming. So he made one final choice, and his nose glowed red in the moonlight.

"After that," he said to the assembled pack, "I headed back here. And Felicia caught me."

"I see," Brian said. He'd stayed quiet during the whole story, and the expression on his face hadn't changed a bit. "Felicia, do you have anything to add?"

"He didn't try to deny that he'd been out, if that's what you're asking."

"Can you explain how he found that child before an experienced team like you and Dave could?"

Felicia looked abashed, something that normally Jake would have been delighted to see. "We did track her to the road, but once she got into the car with the phony Santa, we couldn't follow any farther. We were working a spiral, trying to pick her scent up again, when we got the word that she'd been found unharmed at a house on the edge of town. She barely stayed awake long enough for her parents to get her, and nobody knows what happened."

"I see. Dave, I understand you investigated Jake's story."

Felicia's tracking partner stood. "I changed to track Jake and the little girl back to the shack. Everything there was just like he said."

"Will you be able to find the pedophile by scent?"

"Without a doubt."

Brian nodded. "Jake, do you have anything else to say?"

A million things ran through Jake's mind: He could point out that the kid was safe because of him, or that it was Christmas, or that he was new to the pack. Or he could just apologize and throw himself on their mercy. But it all stuck in his throat. They knew the story - what they decided to do was up to them. "No, sir."

"Very well." He turned to the pack. "Jake has broken several pack rules tonight. Normally, any of these transgressions would be reason to eject him from the pack, but since he is still young, he may remain if a pack member takes responsibility for teaching him better. Will anyone vouch for Jake?"

Jake didn't want to look up, didn't want to see the faces of the pack members, most of whom were basically strangers, after all. Then he heard a voice say, "I will."

It was Felicia.

"I will, as well," Dave said in his deep wolf voice.

Other voices chimed in, some of them the parents of his school friends and others he didn't even know the names of. Finally Brian waved them down. "As pack leader, I also vouch for Jake, and for now, will keep him with my family so that I can attend to his learning - and punishment - personally. Therefore the matter is settled, and the meeting is adjourned." He looked at his watch. "You all better get home to get those stockings filled. Merry Christmas!"

Jake was so choked up he could barely return the greetings and handshakes and hugs as the pack left. It was probably just as well, he decided later. If he had been able to speak, he'd probably have gone all Tiny Tim on them and said things that would have embarrassed him for the rest of time. Not cool, especially when it was looking like he'd be with the pack for a while. Maybe he'd wanted something for Christmas after all.

He was feeling pretty damned good until Brian said, "Now, about your punishment."

Jake nodded. Whatever it was, he could take it.

But Brian flashed a grin. "It can wait until after Christmas. You better head on up to your room and get what sleep you can. Ruby will be dragging us all out of bed in an hour or two to see what Santa brought her."

"No problem," Jake said. "I don't want to mess up Christmas any more than I already have."

"You haven't messed up anything, Jake. We're lucky to have you around - especially that little girl," Felicia said, then actually kissed him on the cheek. At his surprised look, she pointed upward. "Mistletoe."

He grinned. "But I'm still not kissing Brian."

"Thank the Lord for small favors," Brian said. "Now go to bed."

Just before he headed upstairs, Jake stopped at the manger scene and looked at the figure of the dog or wolf or whatever it was. Then he reached over and moved him closer to the baby Jesus, where he could keep a better eye on him. Just let Herod's men or anybody else try to mess with that kid, and they were going to get themselves one big, hairy, scary Christmas surprise. Nobody messed with kids while his pack was around.


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