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---Into the Wolf's Den
"Thanks for letting us borrow The Divine Sarah, Zoltan," Simon said, twirling the keys. "I just can't ask these two to cram themselves into my tiny escape pod."
Zoltan waved languidly and smiled. "She doesn't get enough driving, really. Just be careful with her." He peered a little more closely at Megan, who stood stiffly. "You look tired, dear. Still not sleeping well?"
Megan smiled and managed to keep herself from shrugging. "Well, the painkillers the hospital sent me home with work just fine for the ribs and bruises, but the itching is another matter."
Zoltan's finely-groomed eyebrows rose.
"Her back is peeling," Tizemt said. "From the plasma bolt's radiation."
"Let me know if you need moisturizer. I have a vast selection," Zoltan said, adding plaintively, "They never write about how dry undead skin gets."
They retired to the garage, where they exposed The Divine Sarah to the thin light of a drizzly day: an ancient VW bus painted vividly with murals derived from Mucha's art, laced with psychadelic fillers. The interior seats were lushly upholstered in crimson and gold, and the walls were covered with garnet shag carpeting that dated from well before anyone getting into the van was born. The windows had neatly-restrained curtains of the same colors. There was a large futon folded in the back, draped with a comforter.
Simon turned the key and The Divine Sarah roared to life promptly. The trip out of town was uneventful and mostly silent. Megan slipped into a pleasant sort of torpor, staring out at the buildings sliding past.
"Er," said Simon eventually, "there's something I should warn you about."
Megan mustered an interrogatory noise, and Tizemt sat up with interest. "Yes?"
Simon swallowed hard. "Um, well, one of my sisters kind of... went feral for a couple years. Got it into her head that she should, you know, go to Alaska and join a wolf pack and learn to hunt and stuff."
The women stared at him curiously.
"Well, anyway," Simon went on, "she came back and she brought... you see, there are... what I mean is..."
"Cubs?" Megan supplied.
"Yes," Simon said, grimacing. "And they're, um, not very good at interacting with humans. So, if you could just, you know, not really pay attention to anything they say..."
"It'll be all right," Tizemt said. "I like kids. And puppies. This'll be interesting."
Simon made a noncommittal noise and turned down a dirt road. As The Divine Sarah ambled along slowly between tall trees, Megan heard a chorus of high-pitched howls start in the distance. She peered out. A six-pack of gangly wolf cubs were chasing alongside of the van, tongues hanging out in delighted canine grins.
"There they are," Simon said grimly.
"Awh," Tizemt said, peering out the window. "They're so adorable! How old are they?"
"They're almost a year old," Simon said, "chronologically. Mentally, I'd say they're five- or six-year-olds. Superintelligent, y'see."
"AWH!" Tizemt repeated, with more googlyness.
," Simon said, and brought The Divine Sarah to a jouncing halt in a large, open parking area next to a low-slung ranch house. "We're here." He held his hand back over his shoulder, palm up.
Tizemt tore herself away from the window and placed her ticket to the Fat Lady's show squarely in Simon's hand. "Thank you," she said.
Simon clutched the ticket to his chest, eyes closed, silly smile on his face. "It'll all be worth it," he said, as if reciting a mantra. He made certain that his ticket was tucked away in his wallet, and that his wallet was inaccessible in the inner pocket of his jacket.
They opened the doors carefully, since the wolf pack was capering around the bus with unflagging glee.
"Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" one cub said.
"Wow! Wow! Wow!" a second said.
"Auntie!" a third said.
A fourth bit the third sharply on the ear. "Uncle
," she said.
"Uncle!" the third said, barely cowed.
"Who's this? Who's this?" a fifth said.
"Mom! Mom! Mom!" said the sixth. "Uncle Simon's here with some really big ladies!"
There was a very real possibility that Simon would disappear under the tide of enthusiastic greetings. Megan wondered if she felt well enough to fish him out before he was trampled.
A great grey wolf emerged from the house via an oversized doggie door. "Uncle Simon doesn't often bring guests," she said.
"Hi, Jasmine," Simon said, surfacing from the wolf tsunami. "These are some friends of mine, Megan and Tizemt."
Jasmine stared at Megan with disquieting intensity. "Are you sick?" she said.
"Just a little injured," Megan said, backing off a step.
"She's taking codeine for cracked ribs and bruises," Simon said, rolling his eyes. "And the other scent is the goo we put on her back for burns."
Jasmine cocked her head. "You're in spandex?"
"God, no!" said Megan.
"She got in the way of the spaceship the other day," Tizemt said. "By accident."
"Jasmine, don't keep them on the doorstep!" a voice called from inside the house.
"Right," Jasmine said.
They passed through a mud room where towels were hung over low rails, a few pairs of adult-sized boots and shoes were lined up against the wall, and large laundry machines took up half the space. The hallway beyond had windows on both sides, connecting the mud room to the house proper, entering it via a sprawling eat-in kitchen. A tall, middle-aged, black woman, hair short and natural, was just pulling off an apron that was covered with spatters of tomato sauce and curry, as well as smears of something resembling engine oil. "Simon! Your call was such a nice surprise!" She moved to hug him.
Simon shook himself and smiled as if he were facing a customer in the Great Scot. "Hi, Mom!" he said, and dutifully hugged her.
Jasmine's claws clicked on the nigh-indestructible flooring as she walked past Megan and Tizemt into the depths of the house, tail low, head high.
His mother held him at arms length. She, like Simon, wore tinted glasses to partly conceal the familial pale amber eyes. "I like the facefuzz," she said. "Your brother will be appalled that you grow better facial hair than he does."
"He's still got the chin spinach?" Simon asked.
"Oh, yes," she said. "He'll want to kill you if you're getting chest hair too."
"Hah," Simon said, then turned from his mother to the women looming behind him. "Mom, this is Megan Amazon, and this is her friend Tizemt -- I mentioned her on the phone. Megan, Tizemt, this is my mother, Larentia Canis."
Everyone shook hands all around. Professor Canis beamed at Megan. "You look just
like your mother," she said.
"I do?" Megan said, glancing down at herself.
"Well, all right," the professor said, "not exactly, but you carry yourself like her, and that's as good as looking like her to me."
"Ah," Megan said.
"And, Tizemt, I understand you're looking for a job," the professor said, smiling. "Simon, why don't you get Megan a drink and have a sit-down in the rec room while I show Tizemt around lab 5?"
Simon and Megan looked after the professor and the rather dazed Tizemt. "Sorry," Simon said. "Mom's not big on social chitchat. If there's something to do, she goes right for it."
"No problem," Megan said. "My mom's like that sometimes too."
"Really?" Simon said, rubbing the back of his head. "I thought it was just because Mom wasn't brought up human."
"Oh, no," Megan said, putting an arm around his shoulders. "There are reasons she and Mom got along. Do you want to go play with the cubs? 'Cause I can..."
"Oh, god, no," Simon said. "I'm not going to abandon you in this house." He gestured at something Megan could only assume was an industrial mixer, though it had a number of attachments she couldn't figure out. "You never know when something is going to attack or malfunction or something."
"I'm sure I can defend myself against an errant vacuum cleaner," Megan said.
"You've never seen the Vac6000XL prototype," Simon intoned doomfully. "We'd have to break out Mom's dimensional conveyor for that rescue."
There was a large, sturdy, reinforced chair that looked like it had been moved into the room fairly recently, given the discombobulation of the rest of the furniture in the rec room. Megan was glad to sit down in it, sighing and closing her eyes.
Simon watched her with a certain calculation in his eyes. "You okay?"
"Tired. Achy. It's probably a good thing the docs put me on bedrest and wrote me a note to get me out of work." Megan ran a hand through her hair. "If I have a job to go back to."
Simon collapsed in a nearby chair. "It sounds like the Captain Zip thing is getting complicated. Why don't you look for something new? I'm sure Mom could point you at someone or other. Might as well get everything we can out of the visit."
"Because you won't be back for another six or ten months?" Jasmine asked from the door. She was taller than Simon in her human form, but narrower of shoulder with her weight settled comfortably into her hips and thighs. She was sleek and dark and fierce, her hair cropped close to her scalp, and she wore a knee-length brown batiked tunic.
Simon didn't look at her. "Probably," he said.
"You know, it wouldn't kill
you to visit more often," Jasmine said, settling cross-legged onto a couch. "Maybe your nieces and nephews would get used to calling you 'Uncle Simon' then."
"I'm a little tired of being a family educational tool," Simon said, staring intently at the floor.
"You wouldn't be if you'd just let Mom take care of things," Jasmine said.
"I wouldn't have to be if you hadn't explained everything to your kids in excruciating detail, instead of just saying, 'That's Uncle Simon and he smells funny,'" Simon said, glaring at her finally.
"My kids deserve to know all the weirdness in this family," Jasmine said, meeting his glare with her own.
"It's just another passive-aggressive way to tell me you don't like the way I am," Simon said, pulling off his glasses. "You don't have to keep telling me. You made yourself eminently
clear on the subject the first time."
"I haven't once mentioned it since then," Jasmine said, sitting up. Megan could almost see her hackles rising.
"No, you've not mentioned it to me
," Simon said, back straight and chin out, "but my sources tell me you still haven't shut up about it to anyone else."
Jasmine's lip curled. "I can talk to my friends and family about whatever I want. If I think you're going down the wrong path, there's no point telling you
about it, because you'll just keep going out of spite."
"But if you can get everyone on your side, maybe you can magically make me the way you want me, is that it, oh mighty alpha bitch?" Simon said. He stood up suddenly and jammed his glasses back on. "This conversation is over. I'm going to wait in the van."
"What's going on?" Professor Canis said, standing in the doorway, forced smile on her face. Tizemt stood behind her, peering inquiringly into the room.
Simon stared at the floor in silence, hands thrust into his jeans pockets. Jasmine examined her cuticles intently.
"Jaaaaasmine," the professor said.
"What?" Jasmine snarled.
"Why are you picking fights with Simon again?" the professor said, walking into the room and standing next to Simon, one hand set lightly on his shoulder.
"He started it," Jasmine said.
mature," Simon muttered.
"Kindly do not lie to me," the professor said. "It is beneath you. And you know my hearing."
"Simon isn't living like our kind should," Jasmine said, lip curling. "We have a responsibility
to live the natural
"Our kind? The natural way? What a lot of narrow-minded, hypocritical twaddle." Professor Canis stared Jasmine down in just a few seconds, without needing to remove her glasses. "I didn't raise you to romanticize intolerance. And most importantly, you can't make Ste-- Simon's choices for him." The professor squeezed Simon's shoulder and murmured an apology.
"I didn't mean to fight," Simon said miserably, "I just wanted to introduce you to Tizemt..."
Jasmine rose. "And introduce your girlfriend to the family?"
"I'm not his--" Megan began, rising to her feet.
"She's not my--" Simon said at the same moment.
Jasmine threw her hands in the air. "Humans
," she roared, and became a large grey blur that swarmed out of the room. Her empty tunic crumpled to the floor.
The four stood in embarrassed silence.
"Well, that was unnecessary," the professor said, clearing her throat. "We just wanted to let you know that Tizemt and I have, I think, reached an internship agreement."
"I'm glad," Simon said, voice flat.
"Thank you, Professor," Megan said.
Tizemt bounded forward and shook Megan's hand, then Simon's. "Thank you both! A job AND a way home! This is SO awesome."
"Will you stay for dinner?" the professor said, a little tentative.
Megan glanced at Simon's stony face and said, "I'm feeling pretty lousy, actually, Professor." She put an illustrative hand to her side. "Alien plasma bolts take a lot out of a girl."
Professor Canis gave her an odd look, somewhere between anger and gratitude, then smiled. "Of course, I understand. But I hope the two of you will come to dinner soon. Even if you aren't Simon's girlfriend."
Megan wasn't sure if that was a joke. She laughed, hoping it was.
Tizemt thanked Professor Canis all the way to the door. At the door, however, Simon turned to face his mother. Tizemt hurriedly took Megan by the elbow and the two strolled out to the van, where the cubs immediately converged on them and drowned out anything being said in the doorway.
On the way back to the city, Simon broke the silence by saying, "Sorry about all that."
"No," Tizemt said, "I didn't know it was going to be so difficult for you. I'm sorry."
Simon shook his head.
"Families are hard," Megan said.
"Yeah," Simon said. "And Jasmine's always been kind of... dogmatic."
The other two groaned.
feeling better already," Megan said, leaning back in the seat.
"Can I buy you a drink or three, Simon?" Tizemt said.
"Let's take The Divine Sarah home first," Simon said. "Between the amount of booze I need and Megan's happy pills, I don't think any of us will be in any shape to drive."