The Cowboy and the Beach Bums
Nothing in my life ever made me feel so bad as the monster headache that squashed my brains the next morning. Well, maybe when I was infected with Wyrm toxins after that battle with the Black Spiral Dancers, but this had to be a close second. I am never going to drink that much alcohol ever again. Bet on it.
And the sun's early rays banking off the ocean didn't help any. No matter how much I tried to go back to sleep, no matter how contentedly Nick snored beside me, I simply couldn't get back to sleep. And my tongue was a dry sponge, sucking all the wet out of my mouth.
Eventually, I gave in to the inevitable and got up. It wasn't easy either. Nick had rolled over on my arm during the night. He's a roller. He just can't seem to stay still in bed. At least he doesn't fling his arms and legs out as he sleeps. I haven't had an elbow smack me out of a sound sleep yet.
I switched to wolf form as I got my arm out from under Nick's neck, feeling pins and needles run down into my right paw. The dugout is big enough to crawl around in and out of in almost any of our five body shapes, except maybe crinos. Despite that, going out is usually best in Lupus. It's the smallest of the forms and has the keenest senses. Perfect for travel and stealth.
But my transformation took a little longer than normal this time. I kind of got hung up when I hit hispo. See, you can skip going to the big bad crinos war-form when you're just going to four legs from two. I guess you sorta skip glabro, the caveman looking form, too. But you can't skip hispo on the way to lupus.
Which was probably a good thing. We werewolves, I've learned, heal phenomenally fast in our "middle" forms. So while it probably took me over six seconds to handle a simple change over, by the time I was ready to go out looking like a scrawny coyote, most of my hangover was gone.
Most, but not all. My eyes still ached and my body felt like stale bread left out in the noonday sun, but the crushing headache was only a tiny annoyance instead of the brutal train wreck it had been before.
If I ever drink again, I better drown in it, cause I never want to feel like that again.
The light was too bright. There's not really any way to avoid it either, with the glints glowing like molten gold dancing on the sea and the cloudless sky opening up to the sun. I sooooo hate being a morning person.
The beach was pretty much deserted in the early morning light. The sand was sort of cool under my feet and yet held that crunchy dry-wet feel that made me think of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. Which made me think about my other great passion in life. FOOD!
I stretched, walked over to a nearby bush and gave it a scent marking sample from my bladder and sniffed at it. It's a canine thing. Scent is important. It tells people that you are still alive, that this is your place or stuff and believe it or not, it keeps pests away. Ants really hate urine.
I switched forms, back to human boy shape, and stretched again. My back popped a few times as I got back into my hairless skin.
Luckily my khakis have been dedicated to me. It's one of the perks of being a werewolf medicine man in-training that you get to learn and use magic. Well, you'd call it magic. We call it by different names depending on the way it's used. If you do it by yourself or through yourself, it's a gift. If it's something that you do to or through an object or with the specific help of spirits, it's a ritual. The energy itself, what people in human society might call magic is something that we Garou call Gnosis.
Anyways, it's through a rite called Talisman Dedication that I'd made my clothes one with my body and spirit. That way, when I change forms, my clothes change with me and don't get Incredible Hulked every time I shift. Of course, if I had stripped bare last night I'd still be wee willy in the wind.
"'Lo there, Shortie," I heard from the direction of the bath house. As regular as sunrise, Rolf came up over a steep dune, lugging his own portable pier. He dug the end of the surf board into the sand by the picnic table in front of our dugout. He reached out as I got closer and rubbed his big salty paw through my hair.
"Lookin' a little shaggy there, little dude," he said, grinning. I had grown my hair out a little as part of my disguise, my new life away from Mom and Dad, but it was longer than I felt comfortable with. Maybe I'd talk to Joey and see about a trip to the barber shop.
"Gutter-mouth still asleep?"
"It was a long night," I replied, then told Rolf about our meeting with the changelings, the good vibe I got off the ones closer to our age, the maps and how things looked in the Dreaming.
I purposefully didn't mention that Kenny and Robby were like me and Nick, nor did I tell Rolf about what Nick and I did, do and have done when it's just us alone. Not because I was ashamed, or anything like that. Telling him all that private stuff wouldn't change the important facts and to be honest, I don't think any of that would have mattered to Rolf one way or the other. For an ahroun, he's a pretty laid back guy.
Besides, telling him any of that stuff would be so embarrassing I'd turn blue.
"Sounds like you made some friends," he smiled. "Just be careful when dealing with other supernaturals. There are things in their worlds that don't exactly match up in ours. Sometimes, their enemies can be just as bad as our own, but at least we know most of what our enemies can do."
"Yeah, I figured as much."
"But definitely learn whatever you can from them. Might come in handy."
"When are you going to teach us how to fight?"
He stared at me for a long moment before turning his eyes out over the water. "You heard Veronica, yesterday. None of us can give you any training until you pass her test."
I turned to look out over the water as well, the dazzling flashes of Helios dancing on the charging breakers only making me squint now and not in pain. The headache had faded to a memory.
"Nick might resist her on that," I said, low and sad. My understanding of my boy's behavior or late made me almost want to ask Rolf to get Veronica to back off. But I knew that the elders usually stuck together publicly, even if they might disagree in private.
"Well, I'm no keeper of the ways, like Yoseph," Rolf began, scratching thoughtfully at the stubble on his chin, "but if I was you, I'd look for an easy way to fix her wagon. She's tribal sept elder. She wont back down without a good reason. Sometimes," he paused, glancing my way, "you gotta pick your battles. Better to deal with what you can without having a fight you know you'll lose than to plunge in stupidly and get your pack mates killed."
I sighed loudly, just deflating about everything out of my lungs. "I know."
We stared back out over the ocean again, watching as a sandpiper ran back and forth up the sand as the waves lap at the brown grit of the shoreline.
"He's still fighting his mom's tribe, huh?"
"How'd you know that?" I asked, surprised by Rolf's insight. I know he wasn't just the big dumb bruiser type like the average ahroun, but to hit the nail on the head so squarely like that was almost unreal.
"Gimme a little credit, Cub. He's not the only member of this tribe who started out as a male born to a Fury."
"Just one among many, Speaks With Water."
I considered for a moment, half kicking myself for not even considering Rolf's past or of thinking of his as being deeper that any other beach bum who's had his head whacked by his own surf board one time too many. I should have known by now that the first sniff doesn't tell you everything.
"So how'd you get past it?" Maybe there was something here that could help me help Nicky.
Rolf shrugged his shoulders. "Beat my sister in a klaive duel," he replied evenly.
That took the wind out of my ears. Klaives are nasty weapons, used in hunting Wyrm-things and used in ritual combat. They are usually about the size of an over-sized Bowie knife or a short sword, usually with some sort of nasty stylized edges or tribal thing going on. The blades are big like that, with big handles too, so that they can be used by a Garou in full Crinos form.
Now if the size of these weapons didn't make them nasty enough, they often have powerful spirits bound into them so that they bite harder when the wielder hits something. But that's not the only thing that makes them so dangerous. When a klaive is used against another shape shifter, it doesn't need that spirit's strength to cause hideous wounds. You see, klaives are always made of purest silver.
And the rumors about werewolves and silver are true. Dead true. Most times, drawing any silver weapon against another Garou, much less a klaive, usually means that someone is either going to be maimed or dead at the end of the fight.
"I didn't kill her," Rolf said. "I only took her klaive, gave her a scar to remember me by, then threw the blade into the ocean."
"Why didn't you keep it?" I asked before I could think better of it.
"Because, Cub. Sometimes, pride can get you in more trouble than it's worth. If I'd kept it, she'd have a reason to still be pissed at me and come to take it back. Along with taking her revenge. By giving the weapon back to Gaia, she has no motivation to attack me and I prove my right to exist and have these," he said, grasping his crotch through his board shorts.
"And that worked?" I said, after a brief giggle.
"Worked for me. But I'm ahroun. Nicky-cub might have to find a different path."
"Yeah, I guess," was all I could say.
"Listen, little dude. You've got a good head on your shoulders. Nick's a sneaky one, but you're the one with the talent for mental gymnastics. I've never met a theurge your age who could open a cursed caern. You got gifts."
"Yeah, right! Like you don't know! How often do you think Unicorn comes down and gives speeches to a whole sept at a simple totem ceremony?"
"Uh, I dunno."
"Me either, Cub. But I've never seen or heard of it ever happening before." I felt his eyes flick over to me and turned to meet his gaze. "That alone should have clued you."
"So, we're special, Nick and me?"
"Special enough that Sea Smoke-rhya wants to do things right by you both. Do you want to know why she's so tough with you two?"
"Aside from what Unicorn said about us?"
"It's because of what Unicorn said about you. But it's also because she lost her own boy cubs."
"Huh?" I asked.
"She had two sons," he said, drawing a deep breath. This was usually a sign that a Garou lesson was about to be told, parable style. "Both were good boys, strong, like you and Nick. Gifted like you two as well. Both went through the change and she let them mostly do as they pleased. One was slightly older than you guys, the other was about your age.
"A theurge in Smokey's pack had a future-vision, saying that Smokey's boys would be great heroes. The boys found out about the vision and the prophesy and decided that because of that they were suddenly invincible, invulnerable and unstoppable.
"They were wrong on all three. They went hunting a strong Wyrm-spirit on their own. A left-over from the time of the Storm-Eater spirit that nearly devoured the whole of the West. The battle was huge, lasting from noontime until sunset. Great and terrible powers were released, spirits bound into the earth were unleashed and then flung at the great evil spirit.
"In the end, Smokey's sons did manage to defeat the beast, killing it and banishing its soul from the Gaia realm entirely. But the cost was far too great. The creature used silver and acid against the two young Garou. Their wounds were so hideous and deep, the blood they lost far more than they could regenerate. They were dead by the next sunrise."
"Mercy!" I breathed in awe, sounding a lot like my mother for some reason.
"So if it seems like Veronica is too unyielding about something, keep in mind where she's coming from."
"I will." He ruffled my hair, getting a smile out of me. "Hey, Rolf?" I asked, pulling at my pocket.
"You said, before Sea Smoke-rhya put her paw down, that you'd show us some knots. For the arts and crafts necklace thing…"
"You got some string?" he grinned. I held up the bag with the hemp cord bundles. "Kewl! Let's get started."
Nick woke up about an hour and a half later, but it took him another twenty minutes, at least to crawl out of the dugout. He pulled himself up onto the picnic table behind me while I was working with the hemp cord. He laid back on the table, turned to face me so his knee, rested on my shoulder blade, and yawned like a bored house cat.
"Morning," I said. He reached out and patted me twice on the shoulder. "Did you sleep well?"
"Did you enjoy last night?"
"Uhn-hunh!" he replied and I could imagine him grinning with his eyes closed. I leaned back and lolled my head backwards, feeling my hair drag on his side.
"Did you remember pants?"
"Hmmmm," he said, making a dry mouth sound before dropping into a southern civil war general sort of accent. "That detail has escap'd my memory, suh." I turned and looked, seeing my boy's toy flopped over in the shadow of his thigh.
"Whut?" he asked, and further punctuated his question with a loud fluttering fart.
"Hmm, charming," I dead panned. "Rolf's surfing so you have a little while before he gets back to go get decent."
"Ah'm sure he's seen it before. He wont be terribly offended," he continued, sounding more like a bad cartoon voice now.
"Oh-kay," I said, turning back to my weaving, leaning my head back against his tummy. "How's the head?"
"Mhmmm, you treated it really good last night."
"Not that head, you dork! The one you don't think with."
"Hehehe, I don't think with that head," he said, his stomach quivering as he tried to finish the joke. "It thinks for me!" He continued giggling for a few seconds and then moaned in pain. "Muh brain's pounding, if ya'll still care."
"Try switching forms for a few seconds. Seems to take the punch out of the headache and all."
I felt his weight shift as he started his transformation. I'm not sure which form he went to, but he only took about a minute before he was feeling better. Judging by the lick on the back of my neck he gave me, Nick had gone all the way to wolf form, lupus.
"Yup," he woofed back.
"Cool. What do you think?" I asked, presenting him with the tangled mass of knotting. It was a jumble of half thought out patterns, beads strung and hung at odd angles, frayed ends where I'd had to wet the end of the string with my mouth in order to get a bead to slide on cleanly and places where I'd dribbled some drool on the cords when I held them in my mouth to tighten down a knot.
He looked at it. He blinked and looked me in the eye, then looked back at my test project with a tilted head, the universal canine symbol for confusion.
"Can we eat it?" he whined.
"No, we can't eat it! Silly woof-boy! This is just ideas and practice. Rolf showed me some knots and tricks. See, this one is a square knot chain, and this part is a four-strand flat braid. Ooh, and this part with the beads is called a half-knot spiral."
"But, we can't eat it?" he whined more insistently.
"Looks mangled," he woofed out.
"It's just knots and ideas and stuff."
"Ah, so we can eat it!"
"Wouldn't advise it, little dude," Rolf said, planting his board again. He was still wet and salty from the ocean. Nicky thumped his tail in greeting. "Judging by the smell, one of you already has enough digestive problems and consuming said knot-work might make for a tough BM."
"Mine!" Nick barked proudly. Apparently it's the height of manliness to claim your farts. Especially if others are offended by them.
"Lemme see that," Rolf said, leaning over to inspect my work. His big hands seemed out of place with the thin strands of hemp cord, but he obviously know what he was looking for. "Not bad," he said, handing it back. "A little tighter square chains, though. Looks like you got the hang of it."
"Teacher's pet," Nick snarled playfully, pushing a paw off against my side. Rolf dutifully ignored the taunt.
"What plans do you and the slacker here have for today, Cody?"
"Well we," I emphasized, "have to go find our buddy JJ. After our little intervention yesterday, it's a sure bet that the bullies will be back, looking for a little payback. We can't leave JJ in the lurch like that. He's all alone."
"Sounds about right. When do you start classes with your sword fighter buddies?"
"Joey-rhya's supposed to set that up. I think we start next week," Nick put in.
"Yeah, and we have to find some gear of our own for the class."
"Well, technically speaking, training with the fae falls outside of Smokey's order that none of us train you. So take advantage of it. Seriously, little dudes. Learn as much from them as you can."
"We will, Rolf," I said, and Nick just thumped his tail some more.
"I'll give you one piece of free advice about learning any martial art, boys. Listen closely." Nick and I both leaned in, eager to hear. "Keep your mind and your body as pure and as loose as water."
A few heartbeats passed. Nick had an expectant look on his face, impatient to hear the actual pearl of wisdom that he just knew was coming. A few more seconds passed, and stretched out in anticipation.
"That's it?" I asked? Nick and I shared a quick, confused glance, him getting the canine head twist thing going again.
"That's it," Rolf grinned, standing to grab his surf board.
"Keep ya'lls minds and bodies as pure as water?" Nick whined, now fully into annoyance on his way to a serious case of slightly ticked. "How's that supposed to help?"
"Hey, I'm a surf hound, not a ninja master."
"Uh, thanks, Rolf," I said. Nicky interrupted with a sarcastic growl that's the equivalent of "I think." "We'll keep that in mind." Nick added something very rude that I didn't quite hear, but thankfully, neither did Rolf.
"Okay, little bros. I gotta go meet someone. Hang Loose!"
"Seeya, Rolf," I called as he started jogging up the dunes, back towards the bath house. Nick barked a cheerful good-bye as well. As he topped the dune, Rolf threw up his hand in the universal surfer's hand sign; pinky, index finger and thumb extended from a fist.
"So now what?" Nicky yipped, starting his transformation back to human.
"Well, in order?"
"Clothes for you, then we go get food and find JJ."
"Or Chuckles and company?" Nicky grinned, crouching over, naked, as he climbed into our dugout. I pocketed my test weaving and the rest of the materials, then dove in behind him.
"Toss me my shirt," I said, collecting my Sketchers and socks.
"Where do you think we'll find JJ?"
"Well, I'm guessing his rental is between Center and the Res, so he can't be that far. We should have tried to follow his scent yesterday," I said, realizing we'd already screwed up. I mean, here we are, nature's most perfect hunting and killing machines and we'd already missed an easy chance to find out where JJ was staying.
"Yeah, well, we were distracted," Nick asserted. I can tell he was a bit bummed by the idea that we'd been stupid already. "Not like we done this before."
"True. But we're tail deep in it now. We gotta be sharper."
"Hmm, yeah. We gotta be all sneaky. Alert."
"So what would James Bond do?" I asked. And just like that, I realized that Rolf had cheated on Sea Smoke's order not to teach us. He'd planted the seed in my head. Rolf made me start not only thinking deeper about stuff, but he'd set me up to make the best use of both of our natural talents and strengths.
It's an auspice thing. Theurges are aces with spirits and mysteries. Ragabash are awesome at stealth and subterfuge as well as being smart asses who can find the tiniest fault in someone to magnify and ridicule. Rolf had subtly got me onto the right way to plan things by making me actually think just like a Garou pack leader.
"Bond, Nicholas Bond," he said, trying to sound British and not greatly succeeding. He sounded more Scottish. I really wish I could arch my eyebrow at him in annoyance sometimes.
"Okay, okay, okay, don't try so hard," Nick said, slipping his shirt on. He was only missing shoes and sock now. "So we, uh, stake out the ways from his house to Center and wait for him to come by. You like?"
"I like. And we can call his cell to get him to come out and hang out with us," I added. "Whaddya think?"
"Feels about right."
"Okay then, that's works for me. Let's do it."
The only thing wrong with our plan was actually getting JJ to answer his phone. I must have left about 12 voice mails in that first hour and about 10 text messages. But for all that, no response.
We'd found a really great look out spot. The upper floor of the southern-most arcade had a wide porch on three sides. Most of the games upstairs were old and not as interesting as the stuff downstairs, so it was mostly deserted. We briefly switched to the caveman form, glabro, and shimmied up onto the roof. From there we could see pretty much the whole beach south to Black Rocks, north to the state border and beyond, and everything that was going on down in the cul-de-sac at Salisbury Beach Center.
But without any connection to JJ's phone, all we had was an awesome perch and the climbing sun scorching us. Frustrated, much?
"Is it just me, or are we cookin' without fire, here?"
"It's not just you," I agreed, feeling let down. I lay on my belly, facing the beach approaches. Nick was about eight feet away, watching over the street side from his half of the corner.
"Did we over-think this?"
"Maybe he's just a late sleeper," I offered. I was beginning to get worried that we were just wasting time, chasing our own tails.
"Well, guess who's not a late riser," Nick said. I could almost hear him grinning thinking about doing something particularly naughty to our current number one bad guy.
"And the rest of the up-chucks. Check it! Idiots on parade!"
I crawled over, staying low, to look down on the procession. Sure enough, Charlie and his pack were at it again. From our perch, we watched the bullies, now totaling seven, as they waded into the arcade across the cul-de-sac from us and began harassing smaller kids. The only difference between this day's set and yesterday when we stopped them from pulping JJ was that they brought some extra muscle as look outs.
"So, the dense can learn," Nick commented wryly.
"You're living proof of that, babe," I grinned, looking deeper into the arcade's shadows. I kicked on my heightened senses and once again thanked my ancestors and all the spirits that we Garou have so many advantages over normal folk. Our mentors tell us we'll need them all to survive. But right now, I'm just happy that it works when I need it to.
"Shadow Foot, see by the pin ball machines?"
"What, that old hockey game?"
"No, to the left of that. Further back."
"No wonder he hadn't answered his phone," Nick said, getting up on his hands and knees. "He cain't hear it in all that noise."
Sure enough, our cowboy friend was standing in front of a Bally table, using a little hip action to goose more points from the spinners and bumpers.
"We gotta do something. I think Chucky-boy is on the prowl. Wont take even those mental midgets long to find JJ in there." I had to agree with Nick's assessment. In just a few moments, JJ would be out numbered and surrounded.
It was time for action. I switched to hispo and ran to the opposite side of the roof. I turned to see Nick had done the same.
"Big jump?" he yipped. I licked his nose briefly, woofing something like "for luck." Then I ran at top speed for the edge of the building and sprang high. Stretching out in the leap, I arched up, hoping to gain some height. I managed to leap up to the top of a power pole that rose from about the center of the cul-de-sac. I took a step out on the metal support arm that crossed the pole like a "T" with lamps hung on both sides, and jumped again, angling for the roof of the arcade JJ and the bully pack were in. It was close, but I made it, switching to wolf form with a skid as I did so. Nick landed a few feet away, in crinos, grinning like he had a mouth full of canary.
My blood was singing in my ears. What a rush! I so love being a werewolf!
We both shifted to glabro, the caveman looking form, and used that extra muscle and height and resiliency to drop over the beach-facing edge of the building. We switched to full h-omid form as we walked around the corner and into the arcade.
The overpowering, clashing mix of sounds hit me like a shot to the jaw as I crossed into the shadowy arcade. Neon flashes splashed around in the cacophony of stale popcorn scents, subtle changes in temperature and a smoky feel to the air. I felt a strange shudder pass through me and I recognized that thrill at once.
Glamour. Gnosis. Magic. Call it what you will, it's the same energy. But this felt more like changeling Glamour than spirit Gnosis. And I could tell why. This place was full of wonder and energy and emotions and fun.
"Hey, you okay, Glub-Glub?" Nick asked me, suddenly just appearing in front of me. I guess I was still more sensitive to the energies the changelings know so well. More sensitive than Nick, anyways.
"Yeah," I said, snapping back to reality. "Where's JJ?"
"Uh, this way, I think," he said, and he broke left, past two kids battling each other on an oversize video screen. We ducked around a circle of machines and came upon a bank of six or seven pin ball machines.
And saw Charlie and his pack passing someone out of their semi-circle, the not so gentle way. Our buddy JJ was trapped, however. The kid they shoved out quickly scrambled away, just slightly banged up. Charlie and his pack must have felt like they were safe and powerful while hemming JJ in like that.
Which suited Nick and I just fine.
I felt the subtle passing of Gnosis beside me and saw Nicky fade from view. It's a really weird thing to see happen. It's a Gift that a lot of ragabash Garou have called Blur of the Milky Eye. Kinda like a cheating form of being invisible. Helps the rag in question spy on people and move in undetected. Truly a useful Gift.
However, the fact that he was going in silent and unseen meant that I was going to have to be the perfect distraction and actually keep everyone's attention long enough for Nicky to get into position, save JJ or whatever he had in mind and forgot to tell me about. Later on, he and I were going to have to have a long talk about strategy and tactics.
As if I was any kind of expert on either. Chess club and Scrabble only teach you so much. And I wasn't much for playing soldier as a kid. Mom would have shit gilded turds if I'd even so much as looked at a toy gun.
Okay, so I was going to have to be the bait and the trap. Guess that meant I was going to have to rely on my own instincts and powers. Fortunately, two of them came immediately to mind. Two Gifts, I should say.
One is a pretty impressive deal called Heightened Senses, and it pretty much does what you're thinking. It turns all my sensory input into like hyper mode. I could hear the tiniest sounds, smell things hundreds of feet away, see in almost total darkness like it was just sunset and could detect the slightest vibrations in the ground through my feet. Pretty much any Animal Planet extra-human sense there is would filter into me and through my own senses. Might not mean much of an advantage to you, but when you are surrounded and outnumbered, any warning might be the one to save you from a severe beating.
So I powered up my senses and took a deep breath as all the sounds and light changes and scents in the arcade magnified and sifted across my cranium. Which wasn't entirely pleasant; some humans really stink!
Like the seven or so I was about to try to take on by myself.
The other Gift was a subtle one. Hopefully not so subtle that it wouldn't work on the assembled assholes before me. It's a little Gift called Persuasion. I know, it sounds like something you'd expect a politician or a crime lord or some other equally distasteful type to have naturally. But what it really does is make it so that the Garou using it has a better chance to talk himself out of a fight rather than get into one unnecessarily.
Joey told us that when it comes to just outright brawling, there are no better fighters than Garou. At least not without decades of martial arts training and being some kind of dedicated Shao Lin monk or something. He also said, it's sometimes better to walk away from a fight you don't need to win than to win it and get into worse trouble.
Or something like that. He's always got a line like that handy. For a Silent Strider, he sure does have a lot to say.
I was hoping to use Persuasion to draw things out. Give Nick more time to do whatever it was he had a wild hair to do. And hope that I could more or less keep JJ from getting pounded more.
I moved in, readying myself for a fight. We werewolves have another form of energy available to us. We call it Rage. It's hard to accurately describe it any other way than just to say Rage. It's more than just anger, more than just hatred and fury. It's a primal thing, like werewolves themselves. It's the energy of pain and frustration and aggression and righteous fury, all sort of rolled into one, pushed into a space too small for all of it and then let out in tiny drops. Rage is what makes a werewolf not only the most dangerous living creature on the planet, but it gives us strength to change shapes, to shake off nasty wounds, to get pissed and move ridiculously fast in a fight and to just plain want to rip the heads off of things.
Some of you might think this is a sort of natural blood lust. Well, I can't speak for all Garou about that, but so far it's not been that way for me. There are legends about Garou that let the Rage rule them and the tragedies that come of it. I try to keep my Rage in check and only use it when necessary. Sometimes it's all you can do to keep the Rage inside you. Sometimes you just can't contain it anymore. Either way, it's a dangerous aspect of being a Garou. You have to master the Rage and not let the Rage control you.
In a way, Garou are Nature's Jedi, I guess, constantly struggling with our own Dark Side. And fearful of the results should we let that Dark Side out. After all, look at what it did to Anakin.
JJ caught sight of me, even as Chuck was in his face, pushing him against one of the machines. The look on JJ's face was one of pure fear and then a slight hope. I have to give Chuck credit for at least recognizing when a situation had changed. He wasn't as dumb as Nick might take him for, although, like all bullies, he thought in predictable patterns.
Anyways, JJ's change of visual focus caused Chuck to look over his shoulder and see me. Almost at once, his buddies followed suit, seeing the look of remembrance that passed over their leader's face. Several of them moved, putting their faces and bodies in the same line, ready for anything.
One in particular, the big guy that I'd given a groin kick too yesterday got right up into my face, staring down at me. He got right up in my grill, and I heard and felt the wind rushing from his nostrils. It was pretty clear that he definitely hadn't seen the close side of a bar of soap and shower for at least a few days. It was also pretty clear that he was claiming first rights to pulp me.
After all, I did kick him in the nuts yesterday. He not only recognized me, but he was really ready for some payback. I know because I could smell his anger and fear rising. I also knew that I could use my powers to defeat "Knuckles," but up close and personal, he was just plain huge. I could see the muscles on the side of his jaw flexing as he worked himself up.
Ooooh, scary, I thought. Want to see my REAL jaw muscles, tough guy?
"You!" Charlie shouted, his eyes going from shocked to almost delighted. "All alone this time, huh, fucker?"
"I'm gonna break your balls off, pretty boy!" Knuckles said, looming over me, staring down his nose, all trying to look tough. He clenched his fists down by his sides, using his thumbs to crack his fingers, loudly. He was practically bouncing as he shifted his weight from foot to foot.
I tried to keep my expression neutral. Calm. Relaxed. Partly because I knew it would piss them off more and partly because I was using my expanded senses. I needed to know where all seven of the bullies were and keep track of their movements as well as keep an eye out to protect JJ and for when Nick made what was sure to be a dramatic entrance.
It must have unnerved them to see how unaffected I was by all their threat displays, muscle flexing and the fact that they outnumbered me. Bet they'd be wetting themselves if they knew I'd just hopped the 50 or 60 feet across the cul-de-sac with a single bound. For some reason, the theme song to a cartoon I'd watched as a kid played through my mind, but with slightly different lyrics: Teenage Mutant Ninja Werewolves. Teenage Mutant Ninja Werewolves! Teenage Mutant Ninja Werewolves!! Heroes with a long tail!
I actually started humming the song, and damnitall if Knuckles didn't do the Spock eyebrow! Can everyone but me do that?
"Where's your buddy today, Blondie? I owe that little redneck bitch a beat down," Charlie said, punching his palm.
"Please smile when you say that to his face," I replied calmly.
"He don't have the guts to face me again. I'll kick his ass!"
"Sure didn't seem like you could last time," I taunted, keeping my tone even.
"He got lucky!" Charlie shouted back.
"It wasn't luck, Chuck," I said, goading him a little. I felt Charlie's pack moving to surround me. Knuckles was still up in my grill, but I made a point of ignoring him.
JJ tried to back out between two pinball machines, but Charlie was too quick and had a hand wrapped around JJ's arm in a blind reach and grab. Okay, that caught my attention. One guy near Charlie hung back, but the others moved to screen me and Knuckles McAsshole from the rest of the arcade patrons.
I looked up to Knuckles, for the first time looking up to his eyes, past his flaring nostrils. Bullies enjoy fear but they thrive on pride. Trust me, I was the target of a lot of bullies in school. I've had a chance to get a good view of what makes them tick. They gain status among each other by how much fear and intimidation they can get away with inflicting before they even have to result to getting physical. You have to know these things if you want to avoid getting stuffed in a locker. Or worse. Like lots worse.
And it was that tiny insight and survival knowledge that I used against Knuckles. With a little help from my gift of Persuasion, that is.
"Good thing you brought all these dorks to help you beat up one kid, tough guy. God knows you can't take me alone." Bang! I'd hit him square in the pride, hard.
His answer was as predictable as it was fast. He grabbed a fist full of my shirt, partially lifting me up on my toes. He thrust his face down into mine so fast that his forehead actually hit my Orioles hat, and knocked it off my head. Now, I've taken a lot of heat for being a loyal O's fan up here in Red Sox territory. But no one has ever just knocked my hat off my head about it. Or for any other reason either. That got me a teensy bit madder.
"I don't need no help to fuck you up, punk!" he shouted, looking down into my face. He could definitely use a breath mint, or at the least, a toothbrush. I saw and felt four of the surrounding pack take a step back as Knuckles glared at them from up close to my face. His eyes were wild. A lot wilder than a kid just looking for revenge from a fight ought to have looked, I remember thinking at the time.
But anyways, when they backed up, it was just about what I had been waiting for. I had a little room to move in. Not that I knew what I was going to do with that room, but I remember that Robby and Kenny had said something about sword fighting being a lot about controlling the distance between you and your opponent when they showed off last night. And that lesson stuck with me.
Knuckles raised his right fist up high, wanting me to see it coming the whole way in and, I guess, trying to build up for a nasty hit. He actually pushed me back with the fist full of my shirt, like he was measuring the hit and wanted to have the biggest impact possible. Maybe he was actually going to pull me into the punch and make it worse.
All of a sudden I was wondering what sort of moron I was to let this jerk just haul off and pound me like this. It's almost like I was asking him to punch my ticket. I started to get nervous, anxious and a little angry at myself. Frustrated, even though I wanted to stay calm and control the situation.
And for a werewolf, frustration is a short trip to Rage.
Knuckles soooo wanted to make the first hit look like a heavy-weight knock out punch. He was grinning or sneering or something like that, looking so pleased with the violence he was about to enjoy. Almost like it was sex to him.
So I grinned at him, even though I wasn't really feeling it. I forced it, but it had the right effect on him.
"Better make it count, Knuckles," I said, winking. "It's the only punch you'll ever get on me."
He punched me in the left cheek, real… real hard. Snapped my neck back. I felt dizzy and my vision had floaty dark splotches that matched the neon tubes and overhead can lights of the arcade. He used his fistful of my shirt to keep me from falling completely to the floor, which was a good thing, since my legs went a little wobbly.
Now aside from that log-truck punch, a few things went through my head at that moment. First was a strong sense of regret in letting this guy haul off and whack me, knowing it was going to hurt this bad. Next, when the spots cleared and my brain reset, was a question on where Nicky was. Actually, it was more of a long string of choice phrases in English and Garou-speak. Rolf and Joey are gifted linguists when it comes to swearing and I'd learned that well enough.
As I got control of my head again, which was on a fairly loose swivel after that punch, I questioned my own sanity. I mean, I'm a mystic, not a warrior or professional smart ass. Why the silver-dripping hells was I acting like either?
I shook my head to stop the stars from swimming in my vision and took a look around. The four goons around me were roughly in the same places. Knuckles was holding his ground and keeping me in his grasp like a dangling trophy. He was grinning, looking for and obviously getting the approval of his packmates.
But I just had to smile and giggle a little. Because I saw Charlie bent over a pinball machine with his boxers pulled up over his shoulders from behind. Atomic Wedgie! Charlie's helper was rolling around under the same machine, holding his crotch in pain. Which means that JJ and Nick were out and safe. Time for me to get out, too.
So, with my senses powered up, I pulled in all the scent and sound clues to where all the bully pack were. Then, when I realized that I was ready, I let my Rage out.
I looked directly at Knuckles, locking eyes. Someone behind me said something like "Yeah, I bet he felt that one!" The Rage flowed and I flowed with it. My eyes must have flashed, because Knuckles looked scared all of a sudden.
After that, things happened fast. Almost too fast to follow. My left hand shot out and grabbed Knuckles by the wrist, the same arm that had a hunk of my shirt. My right foot kicked back and caught a guy behind me, it felt like I'd nailed him in the knee or shin. The same foot folded up as I pulled Knuckles forward and lifted my knee into his crotch.
"Wha tha?!" one of the bullies to my right said. That gave me a new target. So I shoved Knuckles over at him, sending them both crashing down in a pile. I don't know how many of them fell over, but one bully on my left, a huge red-headed kid with big shoulders, suddenly bent over and dropped to a knee. I grinned when I saw why. Nick had knelt behind the red-head and lifted his forearm and fist up between the kid's thighs from behind.
Someone jumped on my back, trying to get me in a headlock or choke hold or some WWE thing. So far, I'd been just hideously faster than the bullies and lucky. Now my years of being an only child and a non-athletic preppy kid worked against me. I don't know how to fight. Not physically, anyways. My in-home combat training consisted mostly of well turned phrases, biting remarks and cutting sarcasm.
Fortunately, Nature equips her werewolves with the advantages of instinct and Rage. I bit into his arm as he tried to loop it under my chin. He screamed in pain and I struck backwards with my elbow and charged us both into a driving game so that he fell backwards over the seat. I reached up to punch him and he cringed like a little girl getting a lizard shoved in her face. My heightened senses detected urine.
"Yo! Glubber! Let's roll!"
I stooped to pick up my cap, which put me on about an eye level with Knuckles, who had managed to get to one knee, bent over, still holding his crotch in agony.
"You know what?" I asked him. "I really hate bullies." I picked up my hat, pulled it on tight and partly stood up over him. "Oh, yeah, and I owe you something."
Then I slugged him in the jaw so hard it hurt my hand. He slumped over, his head on a spring as he fell back down.
"Hey, c'mon! While we're still young!" Nick called again. I left the arcade, taking the first few steps backwards, to keep an eye on the fallen bullies. I wrung my hand out, feeling the stinging of that punch.
After running for a few blocks, we paused outside the public restrooms, which were in the same block building as the public safety office and the local police station. We came to a stop and caught our breath. Nick put his back to the bricks and sank to the ground, giggling. JJ leaned against the wall with both hands, his head hanging low between his shoulders, panting heavily.
"How's," Nick began, as he caught his wind again, "how's the hand, Iron Mike?"
"Stings," I replied, leaning over my knees, still wringing my hand out. My chest was heaving still. It's so much easier to run in wolf form. You don't get nearly as tired.
"Hehehe, damn that was fun!" Nick said, shaking his head.
"Ya'll saved me again," JJ said in awe.
"Well, we did piss them off last time," I explained, almost recovered from the short run. My wrist and knuckles still tingled a bit. They never tell you in all those Hollywood action films that punching people hurts your hand like that. Maybe I'm just not used to doing my fighting with my fists. Or, might could be that Knuckles just has a hard head.
"Yeah, and we coulda avoided all this if you'd answer your phone once in a while," Nick said.
"Huh?" He fished his cell phone from a front pocket and check the messages. "Guess I couldn't hear it in the game room. All that noise. Sorry, guys."
"No big. But you gotta be more aware of your surroundings. Chuckles and Knuckles and their goon squad are serious business. They'll be gunnin' for any of us alone from now on." JJ nodded at my assessment and got a grim and worried look.
"I don't know why you keep helping me. I'm nobody."
"Everybody is somebody," I said. "Even those bullies." I looked around, cautiously, in case we'd been followed. So far, no pursuit.
"Yeah, and somebody just got their sorry asses kicked, two days in a row!" Nick winked at me, and growled softly. JJ would only have heard Nick being growly, but he'd actually said, in Garou-speak, "Who's the tough guy now?"
"Whatever," I said back, in English.
"What did Chuck want with you today? More money?" Nick asked, holding his hand up to me. I helped him stand and then walked into the men's room. I wanted a look at my face. Nick followed me, of course, as did JJ. By the speed in his steps, I guess that JJ didn't want to be alone. With a twice humiliated pack of toughs licking their wounds and lurking about the town, who could blame him.
"They wanted more money," JJ answered, leaning back against the tiles by the hand dryers behind me while I stood before the mirror and sinks. "And to know where you guys were." He looked at his feet occasionally, looking up to see me checking my face in the mirror.
"Maybe we should just give 'em our address. Save 'em the mental effort of tryin' to find us, eh, Cody?"
"I'll pass on that one," I replied.
"Yeah, well, I think I'll piss on this one," he replied and moved over to one of the urinals.
Checking my face revealed three interesting and important facts. First, I apparently can take a punch without much bruising. I couldn't find any visual evidence, despite the left over pain in my cheek. Second, JJ was trying very hard not to seem nervous as he kept his eyes very much away from where Nicky was using the urinal. But we'll get back to that insight in a minute. Third, I saw some bruising on JJ's neck. It was just a flash of darkened skin, reddened and purpled, I should say, but I should have seen it before. His shirt mostly hid it. I doubt that without my senses being still magnified that I'd have noticed it at all.
Clearly, our cowboy friend was used to hiding things. The collar of his shirt was just high enough to cover where the bruising was, at the joining of his neck and shoulder. And apparently I'd been taking tact lessons from Nicky.
"Hey, JJ," I said, still looking in the mirror, but my focus now on him. "What happened to your neck?"
"Huh? My neck?" he said, startled. The kind of startled that happens only after being distracted or lost in thought.
"That mark?" I turned and moved towards him, reaching out. Even as my hand lifted his way, JJ shrank back from me. His own hand went up and covered the spot on his neck. So I stopped. Bathroom etiquette clearly dictates that you don't touch another guy in the bathroom when he clearly doesn't want you to.
"Oh, uh, I musta banged it on one a' those pinball tables," he said quickly, covering the area in question with a hand. "It's nothing. Just a scratch."
Nick finished, flushed and turned around, and let the waistband on his bathing suit snap up over his bits. JJ made a conscious effort to not look at Nick as he did that. Such a conscious effort that it was pretty clear to me that he was actually looking and just didn't want to get caught doing so.
Almost immediately it dawned on me. I'd remembered from my own days in school doing that exact same look. Locker room in gym class. Bathrooms between periods. Walking past the athletic fields during football practices. Looking around during videos in class. All those little hidden looks that I had thought I'd mastered the sneaky sidelong glances and outright peeking out the corner of my eyes. I had done all of that before realizing that I was the kind of boy that liked other boys. I guess all of us who have that social aberration know those moves rather well. Well enough to recognize it in someone else.
I gave Nick a significant look. Or at least, as much of a significant look as I could give. I'd really give a lot for a hint on how to do that eyebrow thing.
Nick gave me back a look and a subtle "grrr?" It was almost like the verbal equivalent of a wolf tilting his head in confusion. Fortunately I don't think JJ caught that.
"Well, whatever. We have to keep in touch better. Chuckles wont be likin' how things are goin'." Nick did have a point.
"Yeah. You're right," JJ said, pulling his shirt collar back up over the spot and turning to face us. Again, I caught his eyes flicker elsewhere, but this time it was over my shoulder to his reflection, checking to see that the mark on his neck was well covered. He relaxed slightly at that and kind of grinned. It was a forced grin though.
"Well, I'll not be standing in as a boxing bag for Knuckles again."
"That's punching bag," Nick corrected.
"Whatever. I didn't like it too much."
"Who's Knuckles?" JJ asked.
"The guy who got in my face and grabbed my shirt. I don't know his name, I just call him Knuckles because of that popping thing he does with his hands."
"Oh, that's Tony. He's kinda like Charlie's top guy. He's a black belt or something."
"Well, that's interestin' to know. Tony, huh?" Nick said, getting his thinking look. "You know all their names?"
"Most of them. I hear them talk to each other sometimes when they're done with me."
That struck a nerve. He'd said, specifically, "when they're done with me." Not after they take my money. Not after they beat me up some or humiliate me. When they're done with me. I'm sure it was just a slip, but one with a lot of meaning to me, suddenly.
There was something very bad going on here, and it wasn't all about just taking JJ's allowance. I had felt battle Rage before, but this just fueled my hatred of bullies in general, and this particular pack of them became my focus.
"Well, we're pretty much takin' up space in here. Wanna do somethin'?" Nick said, sensing that I was in what he calls "Cody Time." It's my thinking face, I guess.
"Like what?" JJ asked. "I don't have much money left and Dad wont be home for a while."
"We got some money," Nick said. "And we don't have to spend any to do somethin' fun. We could go down by the water and play Frisbee or somethin' like that."
"Yeah, that sounds like fun. And Charlie hates the beach. He can't swim."
"How'd you know that?"
"Tony teases him about it sometimes."
"Well, it doesn't mean he wont be on the beach, just that he wont be in the water," I said, using that cool logical thought process that Nick extolled one moment and then berated me for the next. There's one thing about living with a ragabash, it's never boring.
"Yeah, but what Jedi Master Cody is sayin' here is that we'll be safer at the water than we will runnin' around on the hot pavement. And, if you want to be even safer, we can go to the water in front of your place. Or ours, if you're feelin' adventurous," Nick grinned.
JJ felt more comfortable down in front of his own place. That would have been my choice too. With a bully pack out there gunning for me, I know I'd feel better being closer to home. You never know how much safer you feel of how much you simply, deeply miss the comfort of four walls.
He invited us inside and almost at once I was overcome. I know it was just a beach rental, but there was just something about the house that affected me. It was just so...
You have to understand. My parents were hyper anal yuppie puppies. The "family home" was my mother's biggest artistic arrangement and constant project. It was also Dad's chance to organize and label things in more detail than a librarian with OCD. I was never even allowed to let my clothes hit the floor when I took a shower, for both aesthetic and organizational reasons. There were even bins for my clothes AFTER they were washed, so that I'll have a head start on getting them put away properly.
So when I walked into that house, with its neat appearance and stylish furnishings, it was like I was transported. It was like walking into my parents' house in downtown Baltimore again. It was like being teased with the only home I've ever known and could never go back to again.
Nick noticed my mood at once. He touched me, once, across the small of my back and then went into instant motor-mouth mode, keeping JJ occupied. I excused myself and ducked into the downstairs bathroom. Once in there, I found myself looking pale. My weeks of living in nature at the beach had put a healthy tan on me. Not as deep, or complete, a tan as Nicky's, but I was sorta proud of it.
But as I leaned on that vanity and stared out from under my blonde bangs, my reflection was pale again. And I felt myself tremble a little. Memories can do that to you. It took me a few minutes to get my head together. That and a good face splashing.
When I got my color back and didn't have visions of my parents' faces staring back at me, I walked out of the lavatory and over heard the conversation in the kitchen, already in progress.
"…not like that," I heard Nick saying. "We just cain't stand to let assholes get away with treatin' people like that, izzall."
"Yeah, but ya'll keep showing up fer me." JJ's voice sounded like he was still unbelieving that anyone was willing or even capable of helping him out. Like he didn't feel that his own life was worth someone coming to the rescue for. We'd have to work hard to change that perception.
"Jus' lucky, I guess."
"Yeah, I guess. He gonna be okay?"
"Who, Cody? Yeah, he's tougher'n he looks. Don't let the boy-band hair fool ya."
JJ giggled a bit at that. "He does have boy-band hair."
I heard a tinkling sound and then the churling liquidy sound of something being poured over ice in tall glasses.
"Yeah, but it's cute on him," Nick said and slapped both hands to his cheeks as I came around the corner. His voice kicked up an octave and he started squealing like a girl on MTV. "OH! Cody! Ya'll're sooooo fine! Please, please, please, pul-ease be my boy friend!" He finished with clasped hands beside his face and a rapid flutter of eyelashes, smiling far too much.
JJ fell out, laughing like he'd been in a darkened prison cell for his whole life and someone just told him the funniest joke in history. But Nick wasn't done yet.
"Oh, Cody! Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, kiss meeeeee!" Nick wailed, punctuating it all with a spin on one foot and then flopping down back first on the couch with his legs straight up in the air, shaking like a leaf in a hurricane.
They both break into giggling fits that threaten to split them open sideways. Nick snorts when he laughs that hard, which just made it harder for JJ, who was trying really hard not to make so much noise. He must have hit that kind of laugh where you feel it happen so suddenly that like your lungs freeze up so that even when your mouth is wide open you can't really get any sound out at first. And then the sound comes out and you just can't help it. Your eyes squint and get watery.
It sounded really good to hear JJ laugh like that. I was rapidly becoming of the opinion that he didn't get to laugh like that much. It was healthy and healing for him. And I'm all about healing. So, I come into the room looking to play along, acting dumb and all. I looked back and forth between them and just blurted out, "What?!"
JJ and Nick just looked up at me, stared for a moment and then burst out laughing again, both of them. JJ fell to his knees and pounded the floor with his palm, trying to catch his breath. Nick rolled off the couch and had to wipe his eyes.
"Did I miss something?" I ask, running a finger through my hair. The full on giggles kept going. Nick just looked up and had a huge smile on his face. Spirits, what that smile does to me, even when I don't understand why he's smiling.
We sat around for a bit, de-sweatifying, drinking iced tea and watching TV for a bit. I missed TV a lot more than I realized. Good thing that JJ's dad popped for cable with movie channels. It wasn't long before we were pretty much cracking each other up with Jim Carrey faces and pratfalls and stuff. And what they did to that poor ankle-biter dog on "There's Something About Mary", funny but sad at the same time. When they did the part about the "loaded gun/hair gel" bit, Nick and I were laughing even harder.
But that's another story. One I might not tell.
After a while we actually went outside to throw the Frisbee some and just burn off some energy. I felt like we were making progress with JJ, really helping him to open up about whatever was bothering him. But bullies, like most things in life, you can't seem to get away from long enough. Evidently they knew where JJ lived too, because as we were going down the short boardwalk from JJ's house, Charlie and his goons were waiting out front.
And this time, there were more of them. And they had these long tubes of what looked like construction steel bars in their hands. And, well, to be honest, they didn't look like they were in a mood for a tea party.
"Uh oh," Nick said, stepping in front of JJ. I just sort of looked at them from under my bangs, getting pissed off.
"Nick, remind me later about not doing that movie star tough guy bullshit," I said, squaring up my shoulders.
"We want that little bitch back!" Charlie said. Uh oh, I thought, glancing at Nicky and JJ. Nick visibly got redder in the face, but what caught my attention was how JJ seemed to be cowering and on the verge of tears. "He's our property!"
"Property?" I asked back, knowing that Nick was about two seconds from totally beyond words.
"And we're gonna take him back whether you want us too or not!"