Ryan slowly came awake laying on a stained, wet concrete floor covered with dark stains and smears. The air reeked of blood and sickness making his wolf whine and urge him to find a safe corner to hide in. Low whines and growls filled the air making him try to hunch lower to the ground on instinct. He slowly pulled himself up into a tailors seat as he glanced around. His head ached from whatever they had drugged him with making his vision fuzz in an out as he fought to stay awake.
He sat naked on cold concrete, even his dog tags and ring were gone. The wolf gave him the scents of old blood that permiated the cage, filling his mind with a constant low growl of warning. This reminded him way too much of the one time he was captured and held for a month while on a mission. He was in a small metal cage, set in a row of similar cages.
The cages around him were filled with Were in their wolf or half human forms. One or two men sat naked in their cells. All of them were heavily scarred and thin. No one spoke beyond a rumbling growl that rose and fell. Ryan took their lead and stayed silent as time crawled by.
The air seem to vibrate as the growl spiked, the other Were watching as two Were were pulled out of their cells at gunpoint and lead away. Hours later one of the men was brought back injured and bleeding, the other cage remained empty. The rest of the captives were tossed power bars and bottles of water before the lights went out. They were left alone in the darkness with only the low whimpers and growls for company.
Past. First full day in New York.
Ryan woke late the next morning, feeling a bit better. He changed into jeans and a Marine core tee shirt that both were now much too big on his ravaged frame. There was no way a gym would fit into his budget but maybe he could run in the mornings to get some muscle back, he mused, lacing up his boots and slid on his jacket. He needed to get a job soon but even with a Masters in Structural Engineering he doubted he would be able to find work beyond menial labor. A Were was required to disclose their status at every job interview. It was even a field on most job applications and if it was found out that you lied on the application you could face jail time and fines if charges were pressed.
He picked up a sandwich from a street vendor and forced himself to eat it slowly as he made his way to the subway. The virus had ramped up his metabolism until he was constantly hungry. The doctors at the hospital had insisted that it would back off once he caught up with the deficit he was running from being so sick.
He doubted it was that simple, if his metabolism was always going to be ramped up a bit beyond normal levels than he was going to constantly have to eat more calories to compensate for the lose. Add in the massive amount of calories that were burned during a change and he was going to have to eat like someone training for a marathon or triathlon to even keep his body weight up. He was going to go broke just from food it he was not careful.
He spent the rest of the morning at the library typing up a resume and generic cover letter. He printed out a stack of copies and did a little bit of research on the Were virus while he was at it. Most of the articles were clearly written by none Were or consisted of autopsy reports from those who died from the initial infection.
Several articles went on and on about the inborn lack of intelligence and animal nature of Were that were born to other Were or turned as children. It smacked a little too much of racial profiling and political shuffling for him to take any of those articles seriously. He might be sick and exhausted but he was not losing any intelligence since the attack, if anything he felt a bit more clear headed considering he was no longer running around constantly on high alert in a war zone.
They also went on about various wolf characteristics that could be used to identify a Were, everything from arm hair and bushy eyebrows to pointed ears and teeth. Yep, utter crap. For all that his body had wrecked itself adjusting to the virus it had not left any visible marks to show that he was Were that he could see.
He hit another street vendor for a cheap hot dog and a bottle of water before he went to a local cafe to peruse the available papers for job listings. He planned out the rest of his week like it was a long range mission, blocking out parts of town that he would visit each day and places that he wanted to leave resumes at. He could do this, how hard could it be to be a normal guy again, right?
The reactions at each place he interviewed were about the same.
“Master Gunnery Sergeant Ryan Colton Arrington?” They asked, eyebrows raised.
“Yes, sir.” Ryan said, shifting slightly in his automatic parade rest.
“It says here that you’re Were? Didn’t think they were letting the Were into the military.” They drawled like they hoped to catch him in a lie.
“They aren’t, sir. I was infected while working for the Marines in the middle east.”
“Working as a civilian?” They pressed with almost a hungry look.
“No, sir. I working as a marine. I served since I was twenty, sir.” They were always disgruntled at this, like they were convinced he was somehow still lying to them.
“I hate to turn a veteran away, Son, but I just don’t have any openings at the moment.” He said, completely ignoring the Help Wanted sign that sat in the front window.
“Of course. Thank you for your time, sir.” Ryan said courteously, forcing himself to shake the hands that were offered and happily walking away from the ones that were not.
He applied to work everything from construction and dock work to grocery bagger and janitorial staff. No one wanted to hire a worn out looking veteran who was also a Were. No one called back for a second interview. No one called his cheap cell phone at all, not that he was really expecting it. He had given the number to a family friend hoping he would at least pass it on to his sister. His old man might be an asshole but he wanted her to at least have a way to contact him if she needed anything, not that he would be able to do much at the moment.
He spent his days traveling around the city applying for jobs or just leaving resumes where he could, walking as much as possible to save on bus and subway fares. He hoped to wear himself out enough by the end of the day to drop into an exhausted sleep but it didn’t always work. Most nights he got a few hours of sleep before the nightmares snapped him awake and shaking.
He thought he was doing rather well for a soldier returned from the war, reintegrating the psychs liked to call it. He ate, slept, and kept himself clean while hunting for work. He kept himself too busy to think on the fields of death, full of friends and enemies alike, that haunted his dreams and sometimes his waking hours. He was fine until the subway.
His shoulder burned and stabbed at him with every breath, cold rain chasing him from the deserted streets and into the crowd filled subway terminal. He hooked his bad arm tight against his stomach, hoping that limiting the movement would stop the grinding burn of wounds that should have long since healed. The psychs on base had been convinced the pain was all in his head but he spent too much time writhing in pain as if the fangs were still buried deep into his muscles for it to be all PTSD.
He boarded his train, taking a seat and tried to stop the shakes that wracked his frame, teeth chattered as he wrapped his arms around his chest. He knew he looked like a burned out junkie strung out without his fix but he was drenched to the bone, his bad shoulder stiff and the only seeming point of heat on his body. The wolf within him kept a constant stream of complaint, pressing for him to leave, hide, find a den and lick his wounds.
A sudden slamming boom had him on the ground, almost under the seat before his body finished registering the sound. He pulled his suddenly steady hands from his head to see the wide eyed stares of the people around him. He carefully got up in the swaying car and moved to stand by the door ignoring the gazes that followed him and the jeers from several young toughs farther down the car as the adrenaline burned through him making every detail around him sharp, every motion a potential danger to investigate.
He just had to get home, just back to his room and he would be okay. He kept that as a mantra running through his head as he forced himself to walk, not run, once the doors hissed open and allowed him to escape the subway car, his heart hammering against his ribs. He ignored the way his hands shook with reaction and cold as the adrenaline left his system, stuffing them in his pockets as he stepped back into the rain.
He was sure he was hypothermic by the time he got back to the hotel which was slightly impressive considering Were ran a few degrees hotter than regular humans. The rain striking pavement muffled the world around him enough to let him slowly relax him paranoid watchfulness. In a war zone it had become second nature, after all being paranoid is only extreme if they aren’t out to get you. Now that he was back stateside however he needed to push it away.
His hands were shaking so badly he dropped his key twice before he managed to get back into his room. Dragging at his wet clothes, he forced himself to hang the sodden material over the radiator before he went to the shower to try and warm up. He spent the rest of the night wrapped up in bed jumping at every sound, jerking away from dreams of claws and black furred muzzles with human eyes peering back at him as they slowly tore his chest open. He tried to ignore the fact that the wolves had his eyes. He spent most of the night staring at the crack under the door waiting for morning.
The rest of the week Ryan applied to bars and fish packing companies on the docks and at the fish markets. He at least got a small promise of day to day work if he showed up at five am to start unloading trucks as they came in. He was paid under the counter, three hundred dollars for every overflowing bin of fish that he could unload before eight am.
The reek of fish stuck to his clothes and hair for days afterward, leaving him nauseous and fighting the urge to burn the clothes since no amount of washing got the smell out completely. He worked the docks three days a week, spending the rest of his time job hunting and looking for some place better to live. He only had another week until the full moon when he would be forced to change and he doubted the hotel would let him stay after that.
The pain of changing was slowly lessening as his wounds healed, thankfully. The first time he had screamed himself voiceless before the last of his bones and muscles clicked back into place seemingly hours after the change started. They said his first change had only taken an hour but it had felt endless.
It still felt unnatural and wrong while he was changed, half wolf, half human but the change itself was slowly speeding up with each full moon he went through. He knew that born Were were able to change fully into wolves and he hoped that he eventually would as well. The half state he was forced into each month felt monstrous and broken in a way he could not explain.
Ryan was walking back from a morning of tossing fish, his nose clogged with the cloying reek, hands chapped and frozen from handling the iced fish, when two men stepped in front of him blocking his way, one smoothly pulling a knife.
“Hey, man. We’re taking donations.” One of the young thugs cackled.
“I’m just heading home, guys. I don’t have any money.” He said trying to back away before the punks could start anything.
“No see, man, we been watching you. You work at the docks most mornings. Means you get paid. Hand it over or we might have to get rough, friend.”
“Fine, fine. Just calm down.” Ryan said reaching into his back pocket for his wallet.
When the other guy crowded close in anticipation of the cash he moved, lashing out hard and hearing the guys nose break. Knife guy was next stepping up to stab but Ryan was in his element, blocking the knife with his jacket and punching with his other hand. He was in his element, instincts and training taking over as the two idiots stepped back in swinging. He blocked a punch and kicked out leaving the knife wielder down clutching his knee while the other gained a black eye.
He froze for an instant when he realized that the deep steady growl thrumming the air around them was coming from him. That was all it took for one of them to hit him in the side of the head with a convenient brick. Shouts sounded out down the street as the kid grabbed his wallet and hauled his other friend away as fast as they could go leaving Ryan bleeding on the concrete and seeing double.
“Christ, you okay? Hey, don’t black out on me.” A voice said somewhere to one side, a hand reaching to steady him as he got his legs back under himself. It was pure bad luck that he grabbed his bad shoulder, forcing a gasp out of Ryan before he was released.
“I’m fine.” Ryan insisted shaking off the assistance, pulling himself upright using a nearby brick wall. His side and shoulder were aflame and his head pounded in time to his heart beat but his vision had cleared up already. Situation normal, all fucked up.
“Well, you look like you need to sit back down. Take your time.” The man said, shifting to one side to look back out down the street.
“Really, I’m good. Thanks.” Ryan insisted, tugging his clothes back into place and trying to ignore the rather bad rip down one side of his jacket. Knife boy had gotten one good slash in before he had lost the blade. At least it had not cut him at all, he was not sure he completely trusted his enhanced healing to not let him get an infection yet.
“Listen, I’m an off duty cop. You want me to drive you down to the precinct so you can report this?” the other man said earnestly. “I’d rather not leave you to keel over on someone’s doorstep.”
“Nah, I’m fine and it was just a couple kids playing at being thugs. They didn’t even get anything.” Ryan said with a sigh, pulling out a second wallet. He had grown up around New York and been in too many questionable areas to ever carry his cash and license in his back pocket.
“Nice, listen…do I know you from somewhere?” The cop asked helping him step out of the alley and onto the main street. Ryan glanced up at the man, rubbing at a scrape along his temple. He was thin and muscular, blonde haired and blue eyed, the poster child for every cop advertisement and recruiting spiel.
“That depends, Davy.” he said with a grin, recognizing his old friend from college. “You still dating Megan Vassar or have you finally settled down?” The man recoiled slightly to take a better look at the shorter man next to him before breaking into a short bark of laughter.
“Christ, Colt Arrington. Where the fuck have you been?” He asked with a wide grin, lightly tapping the other man on the shoulder, mindful of any other injuries he might have.
“In the Marines mostly, I just got out. No one’s called me Colt in years, not since college.” They grinned at each other for a beat before Dave looked away for a moment, checking the rest of the traffic on the street.
“So you just got out and wind up in my neighborhood. Jeez.” he whistled. “Gotta love the coincidences.” he eyed the disheveled state Ryan was in for a long breath before he tucked his phone away. “Listen, my place is not to far, you’re welcome to come up and get cleaned up a little.”
“Thanks, I know I reek.” Ryan said with a wince. “I haven’t found a steady job yet so I’m making what I can at the fish market.”
“Not a problem. Trust me, I did plenty of similar jobs the first few years on the force, Colt, or do you prefer Ryan now?”
“Ryan’s fine, Thanks. Lead the way.” He said with a grin, gesturing the taller man to precede him. “I have to say, anything is going to beat the place I have been staying. Worst shower I have ever used, and that includes a bucket and hose.”
“The thrills of the Military, see the world, learn new skills…”
“Get to enjoy the wonders of nature and primitive camping while carrying a fifty pound pack and getting shot at.” Ryan said with a laugh.
“Exactly why I didn’t join. I like my boots without scorpions, thank you.”
“Nah, the scorpions were cool, it was the spiders you had to watch out for. Saw some as big as my hand, if not bigger. You ever want to scare someone, Google ‘Camel Spider’ and show them the pictures.”
“Really?” Dave said, eyeing the smaller man with disbelief.
“Swear to God.” Ryan said with a grin. True the things were not even really spiders and not as big as most of the stories said but it was never a good thing to find nocturnal animals in your kit after a long day, especially ones with that many legs. Shoving them in go bags had become a joke to play on the newbies coming in.
The shower was heavenly. Dave tossed him a change of clothes on the bathroom counter, stealing his pants and shirt to run them through the wash. Ryan tried to not utterly hog the shower but the hot water relaxed the muscles in his injured shoulder and side, letting him be mostly pain free for a time if you ignored his scrapes and bruises.
Ryan tried to ignore how his ribs showed against the pale skin of his torso, he had lost too much weight between the infection and his injury and it was slow building it back. Add in the constant stresses that the changes were putting on him each month and he looked like a gaunt refugee instead of a soldier. It was just a little after ten in the morning and he was already starving again. No matter how big a meal he managed to eat his body was constantly demanding more. He needed to do better than this or he was going to wind up back in the hospital.
He toweled off and pulled on the loose sweats and tank top that Dave had left for him, cleaning up behind himself on auto pilot. He stepped into the kitchen where Dave was making sandwiches trying to ignore how his stomach clenched just at the sight of food. Dave looked up with a grin, only to freeze for a second staring at his chest. He thought it must be the scars visible on his shoulder and arm but he followed the other man’s gaze to the red tags hanging outside of his tee shirt.
“You’re a Were?” Dave said, sounding shocked.
“Yes, I was infected in an attack on the base we were stationed at.”
“That explains the refuge look, you’re not eating enough. Get started on these and I’ll make you something else.” He said, turning back to the fridge and pulling back out the meat and cheese.
“You’re alright with me being a Were?” Ryan said, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Yeah. Look, I know it’s not the most politically correct stance right now but it’s not like you asked to be turned, right? Go ahead and start on the sandwiches, really.” He pressed, making another two thick ham sandwiches before he sat down to eat his own.
“Thanks.” he muttered, sitting down at the breakfast bar and picking up half a turkey sandwich. He had to restrain himself from inhaling it in massive three bites.
“Have you went through any changes yet?” Dave asked cautiously, “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“No, it’s alright.” Ryan said after a beat, tucking his tags back under the tee shirt. “I’ve been through three. I’m due to have another in a week or so.”
“You’re only changing once a month?”
“Yeah.” Ryan said washing down the first half sandwich and starting on the next.
“You know you can change more often than that right? It’s supposed to help with how violent the changes are.”
“Where did you hear that?” He asked, forcing himself to chew the food slowly, clearing his mouth with a sip of water before he spoke. See, civilized animal here, not a stray.
“From some of the Were we’ve had come through the precinct. Most of them are just trying to get by like the rest of us. There’s a small community of them in Bed-Stuy and a few other neighborhoods around town. Frankly, I wish we could get a few on the force. They’re better than sniffer dogs when it comes to tracking a suspect on foot and harder to take down if it comes to a fight.”
“Good to know.” He murmured, already mentally vowing never to use the jail for such a purpose.
“You have somewhere safe to change yet?” he asked, nibbling at his own sandwich as Ryan started on the second sandwich at his elbow, ham.
“Just my hotel room. It’s not really big enough to change in but it will have to do for at least next week. After that I’m hoping to find an apartment I can afford soon but will have to make due until than.”
“The precincts allows Were to come in on the full moon and use one of the larger cells if they are afraid it’s going to be a bad one. You’re welcome to do the same if you need it.”
“I’m not violent. You don’t have to worry about that.” Ryan said flatly, picking up his bottle of water and taking several gulps.
“I’m not saying you are but I do know that the more a Were shifts the calmer and healthier the wolf is. Frankly, Colt, you look like you’re one good meal from dead.” Dave said, pulling out a bag of chips from the cabinet and pouring a few handfuls on a plate to set between them.
Ryan was silent as he munched on his food considering what had been said. It was a constant pressure at the back of his mind, the need to change, to give in to the animal and run. The pull got worse as the moon filled, tugging at the presence he mostly tried to ignore. The brochures called it the inner animal and said it was a mental manifestation of the virus. He was fairly sure that was bullshit. The animal in his head was still him, just the wolf half of him, adding instincts and animal reactions to day to day life.
It was interesting to say the least. The wolf disliked the city, it disapproved of the constant noise and overflow of smells. It hated the screech and scream of the subway and trains, the constant press of too many people and too much pollution and exhaust from the cars or buses they passed. It approved of Ryan’s run early each morning however, pushing him to head toward the parks or any patch of green he was near and of anytime he managed to get mostly meat for a meal. It disliked the hotel he was staying in and the messy overlap of scents. It wanted a place where only his scent was, a place to mark as home, territory.
It liked the way he was constantly on the move each day but wanted a safe place to go back to at night. So far, Ryan was mostly in agreement with the wolf, only having to force it’s irritation down when he had to travel the subway or move through crowded spaces. He was not sure if it was a good sign or not that the wolf had even like the fight, calming in his mind as they seamlessly melded in agreement to protect what was theirs.
He was fairly sure that thinking about part of yourself in the third person was a bad idea but he had no real context for what he was going through. He had run dozens, heck maybe even up to over a hundred missions over the last ten years, many of them classified but he had always had some kind of intel to use as his guide. He was flying blind in this, using only his gut instinct and that of the wolf to guide him since most of the information he found seemed either blatantly false or biased. His gut had rarely steered him wrong but he felt like he was leaning over a cliff reaching for something with no way to stop himself if he fell.
“Well, on to happier topics. How’s your family handling it? Have you heard from Peyton yet?”
“Yeah, well the old man made it official and disowned me. Sent the family lawyer to officially ask me to never darken his doorstep again. I haven’t heard from Peyton. I tried to get her my number but I have no idea if it ever even reached her.”
“You’re kidding.” Dave said, staring at him in shock. “Damn that’s rough. Is there anything I can help with? I knew your old man was a jerk but hell.” The wolf made soft sounds of approval in his mind, it liked this man.
“No, I’m doing okay. Thanks, though. I’m just glad that Grandfather is still alive to keep the title away from him.”
“I know, heaven help us if Duke Arrington passes away. I’m still in some of the circles even if I did abandon my family duty to become a cop. I haven’t heard a peep about it so at least he’s keeping it out of the papers.” Dave said with a sigh. “Tell you what, leave your cell number with me and I’ll try and make sure Peyton has it at least.”
“I appreciate it, Dave.” Ryan said, feeling a flash of affection for the other man. Dave had always been the steady one in their group. While Ryan was off on hunting trips or running through the streets around campus most weekends during college, the rest of their group of rich college kids drank and partied their way through school. Dave was the one who made sure everyone got home safe most nights if not exactly sober.
“It’s the least I can do, man.” He said with a frown. “Did you at least enjoy being in the marines before all this? You were in for what, ten years?”
Ryan grinned at Dave’s blatant attempt to lighten the mood and spent the next hour regaling him with stories of the people and places he saw while enlisted. He finally begged off, promising to call if there was anything he needed and heading back to his apartment. It had been a nice spot of normality in his stripped down life. He was a little surprised that Dave had not married and settled down since that had seemed to be where he was heading after college but it was clear that he lived and breathed his job.