“Where is he?” My arm was across Murrel’s chest where’d I’d slammed him against a tree. He just grimaced at me, grunted as the air whooshed from his lungs.
When I’d found out that Keelan had gone into the woods alone, I’d immediately gone after him. I didn’t shift as my shoulder holster was the only gear I had on me and I didn’t want to leave it behind. It hadn’t been too difficult to track him through the trees until the trail dead ended. I’d walked around, trying to pick up his scent again but found nothing. That is until I practically collided with Murrell. He seemed to be as shocked to see me as I was to see him. Although we both recovered quickly, I had a gun and I used my size to overpower him long enough to put my handcuffs on him. The handcuffs were inscribed with runes by witches to prevent a shifter from accessing their animal form.
“Where the fuck is he?” Fear terrorized my imagination, fueling the rage I already felt toward the asshole in front of me. They always talk about bulls seeing red. I figure it had more to do with fights ending bloody than with blacking out or having one’s vision shaded in the color. All I know is I didn’t see red. But I wanted to. I slammed him back into the tree again, ignoring the crack from his torso and pained cry from his contorted maw.
That’s when I heard retching and whipped around, letting Murrell collapse to the ground. Keelan who’d seemingly vanished bare minutes before was on his knees outside a grove of oaks, heaving partially digested food and stomach acid. I rushed to his side, kneeling near his head so I could keep Murrell in sight as well. Turned out that had been unnecessary as Alex had followed me and now stood over the prisoner. I nodded my head at him before gently placing a hand on Keelan’s back.
Keelan jumped, falling backwards on his ass, his eyes rounded and darting. I put my hands up placatingly. “Keelan, hey, love. It’s just me. You’re okay. You’re safe.” I slowly moved toward him and pulled him into my arms where he collapsed onto my chest and cried. “I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”
It took a few minutes for him to cry himself out, but as soon as he did he wiped his face almost angrily and pushed away from me to stand up. “Fucking hormones, dammit.” As I stood, he looked at me, as if he hadn’t realized I was there. “Why are you here?” His lips pressed into a thin line. “Were you following me?”
I gaped at him. No ‘thank you, you saved my life’, no ‘I’m sorry for going off alone’, nothing but censure for having the audacity to make sure he was okay. I tried to reign in my temper with a deep breath. “I fucking saved you. What other goddamn way could I have gotten here so quickly without fucking following you.” Well, remaining calm was a wash.
His eyes flashed. “I didn’t need you to fucking save me,” he snarled. He paced away, running both hands furtively back and forth through his hair, mussing it up. After a minute of deliberate breathing he turned around, matching me glare for glare. “Fine.” He glanced to where Alex was standing guard over Murrell who’d pushed himself into a sitting position and had leaned back against the tree. “I was going to bring you here anyway.”
“Why?” I couldn’t keep the suspicion from my voice. Why did he seem unafraid of Murrell? Why had he planned to bring me or Alex, or both of us to a rarely visited part of the reservation? Some questions found voice. “You’ve been avoiding me the last couple of weeks. Were you running around with him?” I knew he hadn’t been, I’d had too many eyes on him, but I needed to see his reaction.
“Right,” he drew out the singular word with a scoff. “You know, if I’d honestly wanted to ditch your spies, I would’ve. And you’d never find me. I chose to stay. I chose to be protected. I chose family. I have always chosen family. And I always will.” With each exaggerated word, he jabbed my chest with a finger for punctuation. “What I wanted to show you is in there.” He motioned toward the grove he’d vomited in front of as he went to stalk by me, headed back toward the festivities.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked, wrapping my arms around his torso, pinning his arms from behind; that was for my own protection as I recalled the jab to the sternum. I may have cooled off some at his speech, but I definitely wasn’t going to let him walk back alone.
I could feel him relent a little, his head falling back to my chest. He was looking up, but not at me, at the stars visible through the trees. “Asshole,” he whispered. I chuckled, giving a quick squeeze before letting him go.
I grabbed his hand and turned to head to the grove he’d said he’d wanted to show me only to stop dead as I saw Alex on the ground. He coughed, groaning as he moved to push himself off the ground.
“Alex, you alright?” I withdrew my pistol and pushed Keelan until his back was to one of the grove’s trees as I scanned the our surroundings for Murrell. Nothing.
“Ugh,” he coughed again, “I think so.” His voice sounded a little hoarse. He pushed himself up enough that he was on one knee with the other foot flat on the ground in front of him as he looked around. “That son-of-a-witch choked me out. Well, at least he can’t change while- Fuck.” He pulled my cuffs from the ground beside him. They looked scorched, the runes melted on the metal. “How the fuck did he do that?”
The handcuffs were the most expensive pieces of standard equipment our station had. As a shifter reservation, we needed something that could be used on individuals who could just shift to get our of human restraints more than anything else. Destruction of city property, yet another charge to add to his already extensive list.
“Keelan, you know anything about this?” He seemed to know more about Murrell than he should. I looked back when he didn’t immediately respond. He was leaning against the tree where I’d put him, his head leaning back against the bark, eyes closed and mouth twisted slightly as he rubbed his stomach. It felt like my rib-cage might’ve grown a little smaller. “Keelan? You alright?”
He cracked an eye wearily. “Stress and morning sickness aren’t exactly soothing on a stomach individually, let alone together.”
“Wait, what?” It took my brain a second to catch up with my ears. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Yep.” His lips tilted up a little, wanly. “You’re gonna be a patriarch.”
And with those five words, my world transmogrified. It wasn’t as if it was wholly unexpected, but he’d gone the hospital a couple weeks ago and hadn’t called me. I’d thought that meant he wasn’t pregnant. I mean, you’d tell someone so world changing as that as soon as possible, right? I suppose I hadn’t exactly tried talk to him either. I’d thought he’d wanted space.
“Congrats, guys,” Alex croaked, finally standing with his own gun out as he scanned the perimeter, “but can we focus here? We’re not out of the woods yet. Pun intended,” he added with a not-quite-feral grin. I could see a slight discoloration on his neck where I guessed he’d been choked out.
Right. This was something we had to deal with later. “I’ll take point. Keelan you stay in the middle and Alex will cover the rear.”
Keelan’s eyes opened, flashing to the entrance of the grove. “What about the-”
“Once you’re safe and we have backup, we’ll come back to take a look.” I smiled what I hoped was a reassuring smile.
“You don’t understand,” Keelan said, pushing off the tree and heading to the entrance as he spoke, “it’s Dr. Batista, well, his body, and-” sound cut off as he simply disappeared at the widest gap in the tightly packed grove. The trees almost looked like they were molded like that, perhaps by an ancient druid. I immediately followed Keelan, barely squeezing through the opening and the raw smell struck me, but Keelan just stood off to one side. He had his phone flashlight pointed at the face of a body who definitely looked like the dead twin to the little balding doctor.
I felt something on my back and looked around to see a disembodied hand at the center of it. I grabbed Keelan’s elbow and pulled him back outside where the hand seemed to grow a body. It was Alex.
“Damn, dude, what happened?” he whispered. “I tried to follow you but hit a wall,” he looked down at his right hand almost forlornly, “and thought I’d lost my best friend.”
I snorted. “There’s some kind of barrier. If Keelan hadn’t walk in first I don’t think I would’ve noticed the gap in the grove.”
“Damn. You know, I didn’t notice it before either.” His eyes scanned the grove.
“There’s more. I’m pretty sure it blocks scents; Dr. Batista’s body is in there.”
“Whoa, for real?”
“It also blocks out sound,” Keelan added. “Oh, don’t give me that look. I was in there before you arrived, remember? I couldn’t hear anything from outside, not even the wind.”
I hadn’t known I was making a face and wondered if it looked at all like Alex’s skeptical one.
I sighed. “This changes things. If we all leave, we might not be able to find it again.”
“You won’t,” another voice piped up, instantly drawing all of our attention. “But it’s a good thing we have this guy.” Chase held up a birdcage with a long-crested eagle at the bottom, wings out slightly to keep balance as a hood covered its eyes.
“And that is?” I asked.
Chase put a hand to his chest dramatically, “Dear, me. What is the Guard coming to?”
“Jesus. Cut to the chase, Chase.” Alex rolled his eyes with annoyance, belied by a faint lift to his lips.
“What?” Chase fluttered his lashes petulantly. “You don’t recognize the man you just let get away?”
“How did you know where to find Dr. Batista’s body?” I asked for the n-th time. Robert Murrell sat unconcernedly with another pair of spelled cuffs connecting him to the table and an ankle cuff specifically designed for bird species. It contained a spell to shrink with the wearer’s size and act as a tracker and/or stunner. It almost seemed unnecessary after acknowledging Chase’s nearly supernatural ability to track this guy. Almost.
“I know a witch’s spell when I see one. Don’t you?” He said it so flatly that I couldn’t be sure he was mocking me or not. My vote was the former. He looked over my shoulder at the one-sided mirror. “Look, we’re getting nowhere. Do you wanna make a deal or not.”
“I can’t be sure you have something we want?”
He just pulled his shoulders up slightly and let them fall. “Then it’ll be on your head.”
I stood at the sound of a knuckle on the glass behind me. “We’ll be back. Drink some water. Wouldn’t want you to get dehydrated.” We’d turned up the thermostat to literally make him sweat but so far he hadn’t so much as looked at the bottle of water he’d been given.
Alex and I stepped into the hall, pulling the door closed. Just up the hallway another door, this one leading to the viewing room for interrogation three, opened and Captain Thurgood stepped out.
“What is it, Cap?” Alex asked.
“Come with me.” We did. He led us down a flight of stairs and through couple halls to a conference room. When we stepped in Keelan was standing at the window fidgeting with the hem of his t-shirt, twisting it around a finger. The now-taught fabric exposed a small convex curve to his abdomen.
I turned to the captain. “What is this?” We’d spent the last day and a half, give or take, interrogating Murrell and I hadn’t had time to have a real talk with Keelan. He’d called several times, but I’d been too busy. At least that’s what I told myself.
“Just hear me out okay?” When he crossed his arms over his chest he looked… vulnerable. I just nodded and leaned against the wall by the door. Alex and Captain Thurgood took seats at the table. “Okay,” he nodded slowly, gathering his thoughts. “Okay. So, you know how my parents died eight years ago?”
“Yes,” I said slowly.
“Well, I didn’t escape the house. Not on my own, at any rate.” He took a deep breath and sank into one of the comfortable computer chairs surrounding the long, oval table. “I was in the house. Their shouting woke me up. My bedroom door was closed and I never closed it. Not while I slept. I tried opening it to get to them but the handle scorched me. The windows were painted shut. We hadn’t gotten around to fixing them yet and I panicked and called out to them. You know,” he looked down at his hands, lacing and unlacing the fingers, rubbing the backs of the knuckles with his thumbs, “witsec set us up with a house that had small tunnels running through the walls and floors as a safety feature for small form shifters. But… My claustrophobia wouldn’t let me near them. My parents had already shifted and were in the tunnels but they came for me anyway. Mom had shifted back to calm me down and just convinced me to shift as my dad took my computer chair and threw it through the window. Kinda wish I’d’a thought of that.” His chuckle was strained. “We were only on the second floor, so I’d’ve been okay. Probably. Well, actually, likely not, as a small grenade came in the window.”
He now sat still, staring at the table as if it were a window into the past. I wasn’t sure if he realized he was crying. You couldn’t hear it in his voice unless you were listening for the faint hitch in his breath every now and then or how his vocal chords were stretched just a hair too tight. “Dad jumped on it like in the first Captain America movie only this one actually did go off. It wasn’t just any bomb either. It was a white phosphorous bomb and mom had caught some of the shrapnel as she shielded me when dad had jumped on the grenade. I think dad died instantly. I don’t know. But if he didn’t, I couldn’t hear him scream. Mom screamed, though.” He cupped his hands over his brow as if he couldn’t bring himself to face us. It felt wrong somehow, with him on one side of the table and the three of us on this side. Like we were a tribunal deciding whether to pass down judgement.
Still standing, I walked around the table and pulled out a chair from beside Keelan. I sat, angling myself to face him. I reached an arm around his shoulders and leaned my forehead against the side of his. I didn’t say anything. What was there to say? I’m sorry? That wouldn’t take away the memory of watching a loved one die a horrific death. I was sorry though, for not trying harder to reach him, understand him. For not listening to him. I rubbed circles into his back as he shook silently. Captain Thurgood never talked much but I was grateful Alex, who always seemed to have something to say, had the presence of mind right then to say nothing.
I passed Keelan a tissue box when he started sniffling. Half a box later, his face was dry if a bit red and slightly puffy. “Sorry,” he said, voice thick.
“No need to apologize,” Captain spoke softly. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Keelan cleared his throat and Alex entered the room with a bottle of water which he passed to Keelan. I hadn’t even noticed he’d gone. I nodded my thanks and open it for my mate. He would likely have gotten annoyed at me any other time for doing that but just now he took it without comment.
“Not long after, uh, the grenade,” he said, clearing his throat. “A ph- um, an eagle came through the window. I tried to get away, but it scooped me up in its claws.” He smiled weakly. “I kinda lost consciousness mid-flight, but he dropped me off at the US Marshal’s office the next state over. He made me promise not to tell anyone that he’d helped me. Said he’d kill me if I did…” I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or grimacing. “But recent events have proven he was bluffing.”
I wasn’t sure I liked where this was heading. “And this eagle…” I left the sentence open ended.
“Is Robert Murrell.”
“Why didn’t you come to us sooner?”
“Because I needed information from him and turning him in would’ve been a betrayal.” He looked at me, his hazel eyes, more blue today, begged me to believe him. “I owe him my life.”
I sighed. “But do you owe him our child’s life?”
“No,” he winced. “You’re right, I should’ve said something sooner. This is all really dangerous and could’ve gone bad fast. It’s just-” He bit his lip. “I didn’t think you’d believe me if I told you the truth.”
I squeezed his hands. “Of course I would.”
He met my eyes and nodded. “Okay. Then, there’s one person who wasn’t caught with Jeanine Mor.”
“What do you mean?”
“The one person she trusted to ‘take care of things’,” he put up his hands with two fingers up as rabbit ears and curled them down to emphasize the fact that what he’d just said was innuendo for murder, as if it needed emphasis. I smiled at that but it only lasted a second. “Avery Lange.”