Reality

Shay Sheridan


An "after the end of the happy ending" story of Wolf and Virginia...and Wolf and Virginia. Thanks are due to Chris Leo for her tremendous effort doing the original coding and archiving at Kingdom's Press. And I am indebted to Calathea for detailed instructions on adapting that coding so the story can appear in its current form.

Reality is the longest and most complex story I have ever written. Though time and interests have taken me far from the off-kilter world of The Tenth Kingdom, it still holds a special place in my heart, as do the other members of a small but dedicated fandom with whom I shared several years of stalking following the career of Scott Cohen, who played Wolf. Here's to all of you, kids!


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 ~ Departure
Chapter 2 ~ Rapid Transit
Chapter 3 ~ Round Trip
Chapter 4 ~ Shepherdess Makes Quite a Mess
Chapter 5 ~ Appetite
Chapter 6 ~ Present, Tense
Chapter 7 ~ Past, Imperfect
Chapter 8 ~ Pinching Shoes
Chapter 9 ~ Wolves and Lovers
Chapter 10 ~ Chiaroscuro
Chapter 11 ~ But Little Lambs are Lethal
Chapter 12 ~ Dreams
Chapter 13 ~ Denial
Chapter 14 ~ Naked Truths
Chapter 15 ~ Disintegration
Chapter 16 ~ By Dawn's Early Light
Chapter 17 ~ Summons
Chapter 18 ~ Wolf's Tale
Chapter 19 ~ Crossroads
Chapter 20 ~ Reflection
Chapter 21 ~ Sun
Chapter 22 ~ Air
Chapter 23 ~ Blink
Chapter 24 ~ Shock
Chapter 25 ~ Face to Face
Chapter 26 ~ Alpha
Chapter 27 ~ Time
Chapter 28 ~ Rhyme
Chapter 29 ~ Nexus
Chapter 30 ~ Arrival


Chapter 1 ~ Departure


Virginia rose. "I'll see you soon. I really love you, Daddy."

Tony's eyes filled with sudden tears. "You haven't called me Daddy since you were a kid."

She kissed him and then hugged him. He squeezed her so hard she thought her ribs would crack. Then she eased out of the hug and stepped back, watching Wolf land a kiss on her father's cheek, which Tony actually didn't seem to mind. She took Wolf's hand and stepped through the mirror. As the room began to twist and fade, she just had time to hear Wolf say, "See you soon, Grandpa."

And then she was swept into the vortex. Her heart and stomach lurched with the passage and the rapidly flashing images made her dizzy so she closed her eyes. In just a moment, she knew, she'd be back in New York, and her life with Wolf would begin.

Phooooooooooot!

"Virginia."

Her eyes were still closed, and for some reason she thought it was her father who had spoken, which made no sense unless Wolf's last remark had prompted Tony to follow them after all. Which it might have; Wolf had the ability to provoke and irritate her father, so—

"Virginia, can you hear me?"

Well of course she could, what a ridiculous question! She opened her eyes.

She was not in Central Park.

She was not standing in a grove.

She was not standing at all. "What...?"

She was in a bed. A bed in a brightly lighted room. A bed over which her father was leaning. "Dad?"

Tony shushed her. "Honey, lie still, don't try to talk." Dad? What was he doing here? Had he come through the mirror after all? And where was Wolf? Where was she? She turned her head and saw people in blue, white and green uniforms, fluorescent lights, curtains, metal poles with things hanging from them. There was an acrid, medicinal odor — a hospital! She was in an emergency room.

"Where...? DAD!" Something terrible had happened. There was panic in her voice and her father came back into her line of vision, this time with a nurse.

"You had an accident, honey," Tony said, not doing a very good job of making his tone soothing and comforting. On the contrary; he sounded terrified. "On your way to work. The Park Police found you lying on the path with your bicycle all bent. You hit a dog and—"

"Prince!"

"What?"

The nurse gently pushed her back down as she struggled to sit up, but Virginia kept speaking. "The dog —Prince — Wendell, you know." A furrow creased her brow. "Dad, not then, now! That was ages ago!"

"Sweetie, shh, you don't know what you mean. This just happened an hour ago."

"What are you talking about, Dad? You know!" Why was he being so thick? Her head hurt tremendously. " You know? After the banquet? The kingdoms? Wendell? Wolf?"

Tony shook his head and tried to look wise and fatherly. "No, Virginia, it wasn't a wolf, it was a dog. A golden retriever. Oh, if you're worried about him, don't be. He's okay. Just sat there barking. He was still at it when I got there."

"What did he say?"

Tony stared at her. "What do you mean 'what did he say?' He said 'woof.'" He frowned. "Miss — Nurse —I think she might be delirious. Maybe we should get the doctor—"

"—I am not delirious! Why couldn't you understand him? Did the spell wear off? Why is he a dog, again, anyway?"

"Why? Dog? Spell? Oh, Honey, take it easy, okay?"

"What are you saying? What's happened?" Virginia's voice was approaching a screech.

"Sir—"The nurse stepped in and pushed Tony aside gently. She smiled broadly, then spoke distinctly: "Now - now - Miss - Lewis - we - took - a - verrrrry - bad - hit - on - our - HEAD. We - may - have - a - slight - CON-CUS-SION." She was speaking as if she thought her patient were slow, which only served to increase Virginia's panic. "We - need - to - do - some - tests. Dr. - Najima - will - be - right - back - to - tell - you - about - them."

"No!" Her head really was throbbing. "You may have a concussion, but we do not!" She put up a hand to her forehead and found a gauze bandage there. She looked at her hand incredulously. This was crazy. The nurse was crazy. Her father was crazy. She was crazy. She fought for control of her voice, though her heart was pounding, thudding in her chest. Okay, okay, take it easy. Of course he couldn't tell you with the nurse standing there. "Dad," she said, trying to sound sane, "Let me talk to you alone." She gave her father a significant look, then shot her gaze at the nurse.

The nurse didn't even flinch. "I'll go tell the doctor you're awake." She waddled out into the corridor.

"Dad, listen. I know, the nurse was here, you couldn't —I know you know. Tell me what really happened."

"I told you, honey, you collided with a—"

"—No, what happened while we were coming back? Through the mirror. After we saved the Kingdoms." Horrified, she saw her father still looked at her with that sad, concerned expression. "Come on! Trolls! Dwarves!" She began to babble, her voice rising. "Wendell was a dog, and then you turned him to gold, and then he wasn't — oh, oh — and Snow White! You broke your back, and, and Mom, she was the Queen, and I had to, I had to, and..." She looked at Tony expectantly. "And I just came back. Today! Please, please say you remember!"

Her father leaned close to her, his face gentle, his eyes tender. "Honey. Virginia, I...listen to me. You had a nasty crack on the head." He reached over and stroked her face, and the concern in the gesture brought tears to two pair of eyes. "You had a dream, that's all. A pretty vivid one, from what I'm hearing, kingdoms, gold dogs —If you have a concussion, it could make you think it really happened—"

"No!" Her voice went up and Tony shushed her. No! No! No! This was wrong! They'd been away nearly a month, and now — She felt the panic rise and the frustration and suddenly she burst out crying, huge wracking sobs. Like she'd cried at Snow White Falls. That was real, that had happened!

Hadn't it?

A whisper of a shadow of a hint of a doubt crawled into a corner of her mind, and she had to marshal her will to push it away. It had to have been real! Of course it was! How else would she remember the thousands of tiny details of everything that had happened to her: the damp coldness of Dragon Mountain, the ghastly smell inside the Huntsman's lair, the sound of Snow White's voice in her ear, the incredible tastes of that amazing banquet in Kissing Town, the sight of that little worry line between Wolf's eyebrows—

Oh, God, Wolf!

She remembered so well, with such aching clarity, every detail of his face, every expression, every sound he made. How could he have been a dream? How could a month have been compressed into a single hour? How could she have invented someone like Wolf, with his unique idiosyncrasies? How could she create such minute detail about everything they'd done—

Everything they'd done. Everything...

She stopped crying abruptly. Tony looked relieved.

There was proof, the kind of proof she needed to show herself that she wasn't crazy or hallucinating. She would get proof. But first she needed to get rid of — "Dad?"

"Yes, honey?"

"Could you go get me a, um—" Her eyes darted around the room wildly, inventing. "Could you get me, from the, ah, gift shop—" the first thing she thought of popped out of her mouth "—I want a, a stuffed animal."

"A stuffed—?"

"Puh-leeeeze, Dad," An odd phrase fluttered into her head. "A rabbit. To cuddle. A long-eared rabbit's best. To, ah, comfort me." Hah! she thought. Could I have invented THAT?

Tony gave her a look that said Oh dear, she's lost it! But aloud he said, "Okay, sure. Whatever you want. Will you be all right?"

"Uh-huh. The nurse is right there."

Tony smiled uncertainly, then bolted for the gift shop.

The moment he left, Virginia called the nurse. "Yes? Feeling better?"

Virginia smiled what she hoped was a rueful smile. "Yes. Sorry. Listen, could you give me a pregnancy test?"

The nurse looked surprised. "Well, the doctor—"

"—Please! I need to know. You need to know, before you, um, take X-rays or something, don't you?"

"Yes, but I don't know if they'll—"

"—And please don't tell my dad."

This the nurse understood. "Sure. Okay." She escorted Virginia to the bathroom.

She was back in the bed when Tony returned. "Honey, they didn't have a rabbit." He seemed dismayed, and for a moment she wondered what the heck he meant, until she remembered the errand she'd sent him on.

"Oh, that's okay, Daddy. Never mind."

"But I did find you this." He held out a stuffed animal. It was a little fluffy sheep.

Virginia coughed convulsively. She took the sheep, noting a little tag in its ear that said "I Love Ewe" inside a pink heart. She ran her fingers through its fluffy wool, then suddenly began to cry. Oh, how she missed her Wolf!


Dr. Najima was a young Japanese resident with a lightly accented voice and a gentle manner. He poked, probed, squinted at and listened to various parts of Virginia, making small mm-hmm-ing noises to the nurse while she dutifully wrote things on a clipboard. Tony hovered by the curtain, interjecting nervous questions from time to time.

The doctor wrapped his stethoscope around his neck. "You look fine, just a little bump on the head, some bruises. I'll have the nurse bandage that scrape on your leg." "Does she have a concussion?" Tony piped in anxiously.

"Perhaps. You did lose consciousness, so it is possible. I'm going to recommend a CAT scan, though it's probably not necessary. And you don't seem to have any broken bones." A smile creased his pleasant face. "You are very lucky, Miss Lewis."

Yeah, lucky, she thought. "What about—" She caught the nurse's eye, then looked pointedly at Dr. Najima.

"What?" He smiled back at her.

The nurse sailed in. "Doctor, let me take Mr. Lewis out and show him where he can wait during her CAT scan." And with that she steered Tony out the door before he could utter a word.

"Did you have something to ask me?" He nodded towards the curtain." Maria doesn't usually take parents out unless there's something private to talk about."

Virginia leaned towards him, unconsciously dropping her voice. "The nurse gave me a pregnancy test. I have to know."

"Oh. All right, let's see." He flipped through the chart, giving her unadorned left hand the briefest of flickering glances. "Don't worry," he said, "You're fine."

"'Fine. You mean—"

"—Nothing to worry about. You're not pregnant."


It was dawn when they left the hospital. The tests and examinations and waiting had eaten up almost eight hours, and both Tony and Virginia were ragged with exhaustion. Tony had caught a few catnaps here and there during the night, but Virginia couldn't sleep. Her mind kept racing, twisting her thoughts, bringing her back time and again to the questions Why? and What had happened?

There were no answers.

Except the one she didn't want to believe. That everything she'd lived through over the past month had been in her head, part of a dream, a fantasy from her subconscious. It hurt terribly to think that, hurt all the way down into her heart, but she couldn't imagine what else could explain what had happened. She shuffled into her bedroom and tossed her bag onto the bed. Across the room her reflection startled her; she crossed to the dresser mirror and stared back at herself. Something was different. Her hair. She hadn't seen herself reflected in a mirror since she'd awakened. Now she realized her hair had grown back to shoulder length, from the rough bob Wolf had given her—

She forced the thought away. Her hair hadn't grown back. It had never been cut. Just more proof that her adventure had never happened.

She'd been so sure, so unshakably positive that the test would prove that she was pregnant. Wolf had been sure. She'd believed him. Now she wondered how she could believe in him.

Tony came in, and settled her into her bed, sitting next to her holding her hand. "You'll be okay, Honey," he said, then yawned. "Sorry. I'm gonna get some sleep. You do that, too. But whatever you want, whatever you need, don't get up, Call me. I'll be right there." He leaned over and kissed her on her forehead. "I love you, sweetie. I was so scared." His voice got thick, so he stopped talking, patted her shoulder and left, leaving the door ajar. Virginia suddenly remembered how he'd hugged her before she stepped through the mirror, how he—

She stopped herself. The sooner she stopped thinking about that, the better.

How she was going to do that, she didn't know.

She caught a glimpse of her hand as she reached for the stuffed sheep. Her left hand, where the singing ring should have been. Tears clouded her eyes. She clutched the stuffed sheep and wept into her pillow.


She went back to work two days later. Everyone clucked over her, examined her bruised forehead, offered help carrying the heavy trays. Virginia thanked them tersely, wishing they would leave her alone.

After a day or two, they did.

Days went by, then weeks. Indian summer slid into autumn. Virginia sank deeper and deeper into herself. Nothing seemed important to her, nothing mattered except the fact she'd lost her storybook life.

Her dream of a life, that was. After all, it hadn't been real at all, had it? None of it.

Tony watched her drag herself from room to room, and was deeply worried. He missed her attitude, her caustic sense of humor, even the frequent scoldings when she'd tell him exactly what he was doing wrong. True, Virginia had never been what he'd call outgoing — at least not since her mother deserted them. She'd been a happy, friendly child, but in the years following her mother's departure he'd watched his daughter put up walls and formidable defenses, defenses he'd never been able to help her knock down.

Tony sighed. He knew he was a lousy father. Just like he was a lousy businessman. And a spectacularly dismal failure as a custodian. He picked up a screwdriver and drove it home into the elevator's wiring. Sparks flew out and he sucked his finger.

Virginia came out of their apartment. He'd never seen her look as despondent or remote as she did now. Ever since the accident...wait! Maybe something physical was wrong with her. A flutter of panic gripped his heart. But the doctors all had said she was fine. And she'd absolutely refused to see a shrink, though he'd gingerly suggested that perhaps she should, to deal with her depression. Not that he believed in such things, usually. Sure, he knew Christine could have used a psychiatrist, so maybe- -

NO! Tony pushed the thought away. Virginia was not Christine. She wasn't crazy.

Still...

He watched her as she crossed to the elevator, carefully stepping over his tools. "Hi, Honey."

"Is it working?" Her tone conveyed she didn't much care either way.

"Yep, she's running. For the moment." He stopped, an expectant look on his face. "Off to work?" His sunny smile seemed forced.

"Uh huh." Virginia studied the grill over the ceiling vent, cutting off contact.

"You're not walking through Central Park..." Even before she'd broken her bike it had seemed a bad idea to him for anyone who wasn't a mugger to go there after dark.

"Subway."

The elevator shuddered to a stop. "G'bye, honey," Tony called after her. She said nothing, just twitched her backpack higher and left.

Virginia didn't go into the park anymore. And even though a bus across the park would have been the fastest way to go, she didn't even like to look at it through the bus' windows. The subway was so noisy and so crowded she couldn't even think. And that was what she wanted most these days, not to think.

Wrong, she corrected herself. What she really wanted was to wake up from this nightmare. Except it wasn't. This was reality, this grey, empty existence, without hope. Without love. Without a lover who had never existed.

She walked down to the subway entrance at 77th and Lexington near Lenox Hill Hospital. At four p.m., rush hour was in full swing, and she had to fight her way through an army of pushy New Yorkers, each of whom had to be the first in line through the turnstiles. Her instincts carried her through unscathed. It was a particularly crowded Thursday afternoon, and commuters stood four and five deep, clinging to the platform dangerously close to the edge. Virginia stayed back by the wall. Another train would come along if she couldn't get into the first one. It didn't really matter if she was late. Let them fire her.

She knew they wouldn't, though. Everyone at the Grill felt sorry for her, how depressed she'd become. It was like a family there, a strange, multi-national family, and before the accident she'd taken a little comfort in the noisy, nosy staff, who knew everybody's business and accepted everyone's idiosyncrasies. These days she found them all a little hard to take.

She leaned back on her pack, against the tile wall, and let her mind wander. The buzz of the crowd was an effective white noise generator through which her thoughts were diffused and softened. Her eyes roamed down the platform, taking in the loud teenagers from the nearby private school, harried-looking doctors who hadn't been able to find a cab, doormen and housewives and cashiers and maids and shoppers and tourists. She wondered how many of them were going home to someone they loved and who loved them.

She closed her eyes for a moment. Stop thinking about that, she ordered herself. Just stop thinking at all. She opened her eyes again, blanked her mind and looked down the other end of the platform. More shoppers, children, woman with unnaturally-dyed red hair, old man with cane, man in jacket—

Her heart lurched. The man in the jacket had his back to her, and was very far away, but something about his back, his posture, the color of his hair—

Virginia looked away, breathing deeply to calm herself down. For a moment she'd thought... A bitter smile crossed her face. This wasn't the first time she'd caught a glimpse of someone and for a moment thought it was Wolf. The first time it happened she'd had a feeling of bliss wash over her, until she got close enough to see the man was not at all like him, except in height and coloring. Four or five "sightings" later she'd realized that her mind was making up a connection to her fantasy lover. But there was always that initial moment...

She made herself look back down the platform. It was better to get a reality check when these thoughts took hold. Better to remind herself that Wolf existed only in her mind.

It took her a moment to find the man again in the swelling crowd. But then there he was, a little taller than most of the commuters. No wonder she'd thought he was Wolf. The guy was slumping a bit, as if to make himself blend in with a shorter world. So much for reality, Virginia thought. Now I'm making up stories about strangers. She saw the man raise his left arm, probably to check his watch. He turned in Virginia's direction, to peer down the tunnel for the #6 train.

Virginia felt a shiver run down her entire body.

It was Wolf.

It was Wolf.

Even at this distance she could see his face clearly, and this was no stranger, no man with similar build and coloring. This was—

Her feet were taking her down the platform without her brain telling them to move. She banged into people, who cursed resentfully as she pushed by. He'd turned away again, now staring off across the platform to the uptown side, jiggling impatiently from foot to foot, his movements, his nervous energy, his face, his body—

"Wolf!" She called out without planning to, but the word was obliterated by a rumbling roar as the train came into the station, brakes squealing, metal wheels shrieking against track, sparks flying, so she called his name again, louder this time, and she was only a few feet away from him now—

"Wolf!"

And he turned around.


Chapter 2 ~ Rapid Transit


It was him! He'd cut his hair, and he looked like he'd just shaved — like five minutes ago — and those clothes — was he trying to blend into the population? Where had he gotten them? Where had he been?

Why hadn't he come for her?

He looked puzzled for a moment, but then the train screeched to a stop in front of him and he turned away towards the first car. Virginia was momentarily swept up by the crowd as it surged forward. She found herself swimming upstream against a tide of commuters, and — Oh, NO! — he was moving away from her. With a desperate shove she forced herself away from the train, pushing through the people, moving slowly but purposefully to the first car, and he was waiting for the doors to open and she reached out and grabbed at his coat–

"Wolf!"

He turned sharply, blinking, as her hand closed on his sleeve. He looked at her hand, then her face, then ran his eyes over her appraisingly, but made no effort to greet her. She grabbed hold of both his arms. "I was looking for you but I didn't know where you were, and I began to think, I gave up—" She paused, panting with the exertion of reaching him, of finding him.

He studied her with familiar hazel-green eyes. "Um, do I know you?"

The husky voice was his. But, but, why was he saying this? "What do you mean?" She couldn't stop the panic in her voice. "I know it's you— "

The train doors slid open, revealing a sardine-tin of people. He looked at the door, took a step, but she held him back. "Hey — Miss — come on!" He sounded irritated and started to peel her hand off his arm.

"Wolf! I know it's you! You are Wolf, aren't you? Tell me! Tell me!" She tightened her grip.

He looked over his shoulder desperately at the subway car, watching as a last hardy soul crammed in among the sweaty commuters. When he turned back to Virginia, he sighed deeply, releasing his frustration. "Yeah, okay, I'm Mike Wolf."

"Mike—" Virginia drew in a breath.

The doors were closing. Missing the train was a done deal and he relaxed a bit. "But I don't remember where we met, Miss...?"

"Stop it! It's not funny!"

"I'm sorry, I don't know what you—"

"It's me! Virginia! "

"Nice to meet you, Virginia, weird to meet you this way, but—"

"Why are you doing this?" In her frustration she began to cry, still hanging on to his sleeve.

He looked around, uncomfortable with her outburst, starting to be a little alarmed. People were still swarming onto the platform, jostling them, staring at the strange scene as it unfolded, looking away as they caught Virginia's eye. The train started to pull out and the sound was annoyingly loud so he moved towards the wall, Virginia still in tow. "Look. I really don't know you. I'm sure I'd remember." He spoke to her in a placating tone, as if he thought she were crazy, or a stalker, someone to be careful not to upset.

"Wolf, please!" Virginia started to hyperventilate, gulping for air but not getting enough into her lungs. The platform spun crazily around her. She still clung to his arm. And then he was holding her arm, looking at her with extreme alarm, saying something she couldn't hear because of the growing static in her ears. There were so many people, and so little air, and why wouldn't he recognize her, didn't he love her anymore, and he was–

"—you sit down." Virginia felt herself supported under the arms, half dragged and half carried to a bench and plopped down. "—your head between your knees," he was saying, and she dropped her head down until the blood started returning to her brain. Finally she lifted her eyes, still breathing shallowly, but feeling better. He was squatting in front of her, a very worried expression on his face. Virginia took in a long, deep breath. It was him; it had to be! Eyes, hair color, jaw, even the deep crease between his eyebrows. He was Wolf.

But Wolf never wore a suit, or a tie, or carried a cell phone. And this Wolf did, and he was using it now, tapping in numbers. "I'll get an ambulance."

"No!" She shook her head. "No. I'm okay. I'm all right. Please, no ambulance."

"You're sure?"

"Yes. Absolutely."

"Is there someone you'd like me to call...a special car?"

"No! No one. No one." She dropped her face into her hands." I know you think I'm crazy. Like from a loony bin. I know it looks that way. I just... I'm not, I don't know. I just thought..."

"You thought I was someone you know. Someone you know really well. I get that. The name thing, though, you know, that's a little odd..." He looked at her kindly, she thought, a little smile on his face. Wolf's face.

"My—" She'd started to say "mate." It sounded insane that way. "My fiance."

"Oh."

She looked up at that. He'd said it just the way –

She laughed, a bitter, unfunny laugh at herself, at her delusions, at the cosmic impossibility of the situation. "Sorry. I'm sorry."

"That's okay." There was a little silence. "I'm guessing it ended badly?"

She didn't know how to answer, so she let his question lie there. He straightened up, and one of his knees made a popping sound. "Yowch." He bent over and rubbed it. "That'll teach me to shoot hoops with an ex-NBA guard."

This was really impossible. This guy looked exactly like Wolf, down to his grin and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, but he was clearly someone else, someone from the Tenth –no — from New York. Another train was coming into the station. He looked at it, longingly, she thought. "Go," she said. "I'm sorry I bothered you."

He was kind enough to look conflicted. "Well, if you're sure you're okay."

"Oh, yes. Sure. Fine." She fished around in her pocket and came up with a crumpled Kleenex, blew her nose and stood up. Her knees were oddly weak and she wobbled.

He steadied her. "You're not okay."

"I am. I have to get to work."

He looked into her eyes searchingly and it made her want to faint, being so close to him. He smelled faintly of cologne. "Listen, let me put you in a cab." He still held her arm. She started to protest, but he raised a hand to shush her. "Hey, my mother would smack me if I left a damsel in distress fainting on a subway platform. I don't have to rush back to my office. Let me take you up to the street and make sure you find a cab."

"But—"

"And don't go to work. You're too upset." The train was leaving but he wasn't paying any attention to it. He hooked an arm around her shoulders and steered them back towards the turnstile. "Let me be a hero today, okay?"

She nodded, her mouth too dry for speech.

There weren't any empty cabs to be found, though he made a valiant effort to hail one. Virginia stood on the sidewalk, leaning against a mailbox, as he lurched about in the street, waving and whistling. Out here, in the sunlight, Virginia felt herself almost afraid to look at him, he reminded her so of her Wolf. He moved with the same combination of grace and flamboyance, and she could hear him muttering under his breath when a car honked at him, or a cab refused to stop, just as she imagined Wolf might have done, though what he was saying was a great deal more pungent than "Cripes."

She revisited the oddness of the situation again and again. How was this possible? What was real? The question scared her, made her doubt her own eyes, her sanity. The whole situation terrified her, and she realized that a great part of her wanted to retreat, run away while his back was turned. This just wasn't right. He wasn't Wolf. He was. He wasn't. He—

"Got one!"

He was grinning at her delightedly, with the joy of a hunter bringing down his prey, holding the cab door open, and as if mesmerized she walked over and got in. "Where's home?"

"Um. No, I have to go to work. The park near Columbus Circle — Grill on the Park."

He made a face. "Sure?"

"I have to."

"Okay."

"Thanks, thanks a lot, Mr. Umm...I'm sorry I was so weird back there."

"Oh, please. You call that weird? You should meet my family." He laughed softly and she managed a smile. Then he stopped, cocked his head at her and seemed to come to a decision. "You know what? Shove over. You can drop me off. Hate to waste a good cab. Besides, that was the last fare on my Metrocard and I don't like standing in line."

Numbly she obliged. He slid into the seat next to her and the cab took off. They rode in silence for a few blocks.

'So...his name was Wolf, too, huh. Your fiance."

"Uh-huh." She felt very nervous.

"With or without an 'e' on the end? Two 'o's?' I'm asking because I'm hoping he's not a cousin or something."

"Wolf was his first name."

"Really. Huh." He considered this for a minute. "That's...different. Well, whoever he was, he must've been a real jerk."

She swallowed. "No. No. He was nice. He just...wasn't who I thought he was."

"Ah. Yeah, I've heard that before. My girlfriend. I didn't turn out to be the person she thought I'd be either."

Virginia felt strangely as if the wind had been knocked out of her. "Your girlfriend."

"Ex-girlfriend, I should say. Thought I should've joined her saving the world, one person at a time. She's in Central America doing something worthwhile."

"And you—?"

He smiled ruefully. "Selling the world one company at a time. See?" He reached in his pocket and handed her a card.

"You're a stock broker?"

"From a long line of stock brokers. Not a compassionate bone in our bodies."

She smiled at him. "I know that's not true."

He inclined his head in a little bow. "What about you?"

Virginia looked away. "Oh...I'm just a waitress. At the Grill. Where I'm going."

"Hey, a noble profession. The world's gotta eat!"

"I suppose so."

"I'm starving. Missed lunch for that doctor's appointment. Stupid knee." He looked at his watch. "If I didn't have to go back—" He looked at her briefly, then looked away. "But I have to. Too bad. I'm ravenous!"

Virginia snorted, then covered her mouth in embarrassment. The way he'd said it!

They turned onto 59th Street and he leaned over the seat. "Drop me at Sixth Avenue, okay? The lady's going to Columbus Circle." He pulled out his wallet and handed the driver a twenty. "Just keep the change when you get there, driver." He smiled at Virginia and dropped his voice. "Don't let him charge you twice."

"Oh, no, you don't have to pay! I feel terrible, you shouldn't..."

He waved away her objections. "Please. Broker, remember? I'll just do a little insider trading and get the money back."

"Oh."

"Kidding. I was kidding."

She flushed. "I — I know that. It's just...you are...very nice."

He made a wry face. "Tell my ex-girlfriend, okay?" The cab pulled over to the curb. "Take care of yourself." He stepped out of the cab and was gone.

Virginia stared out the window at his back as he disappeared down Sixth Avenue. She felt stunned, as though she'd been caught up in a tremendous whirlwind and then dropped gently into the land of Oz. Reality wasn't what she'd thought it would be. She lay her head back on the seat and closed her eyes. What had happened was still out of her grasp but she felt better than she had in months. She felt excited. Whoever he was, whatever reality was, she couldn't let him go. She shouldn't let him go. She should get out now and follow him–

Wait, wait. The edge of something was pressing into her palm. A business card. She still had his card! She held it as if it were a holy relic. "Michael Wolf," she read softly, "Senior Account Manager, Thurson/Wolf & Rauthursdottir."


The lobby of 1251 Avenue of the Americas was a sterile box of marble and chrome, with ugly metal sculptures at each end that shouted "Art by committee!" No one really looked at the sculptures; everyone was too busy filing into the appropriate elevator, and launching themselves skywards to work.

Virginia looked at the business directory, then found the elevators to floors 30-40. She pressed 38. The elevator doors slid together noiselessly and she was propelled upwards. Calm down, she said to herself. You are not a stalker. You waited till the morning to come here. You went to work like a reasonable human being. And now you're here to— what? In fact, she didn't really know. She'd have to improvise.

At 38 she stepped out into a hallway leading to glass doors, with "Thurson/Wolf & Rauthursdottir, Members NYSE" etched in large roman letters. Inside was a reception area, the carpet a magnificent oriental, the lighting subdued, and, except for one mirrored wall, the art, walls and furniture a palette of soft beiges and tans. The fabrics served to muffle sound almost completely she wondered if sensory deprivation chambers felt like this.

"May I help you?" A woman with a lilting voice sat behind a glass desk, protecting the door to the inner offices. She, too, was clad in beige, which made an attractive counterpoint to her very dark auburn hair and exotically slanted grey eyes. Virginia looked at her and thought, she's as much a decoration as that painting on the wall.

Aloud, she said, "I'd like to see Mr. Wolf."

The receptionist flashed perfect teeth at her "And which Mr. Wolf would you like to see?"

"Oh. I didn't know there were....Mr. Michael Wolf."

"Do you have an appointment?"

Oh. She should have realized — "No. I don't. I just—"

The receptionist shook her lovely head as she glanced through a daily calendar. "I'm afraid Mr. Wolf is very tightly scheduled today. Perhaps someone else?"

"No...I just wanted to see him... To thank him for—" She shrugged. "This is kinda silly—" The receptionist said nothing, just continued to smile blandly at her. The smile was beginning to wear on Virginia's nerves. "Really, it would just take a moment."

"I'm sorry. Would you care to make an appointment?"

Clearly she wasn't going to get anywhere with this guardian at the gates.

"Could I wait?" More bland smiling and head-shaking. Okay, receptionist-guard dog, you win. "Maybe I'll just leave a note?" That would be okay, Virginia thought. That way I can let him know I was here, and then get out with my dignity intact. Grimly she chastised herself, even as the pretty Gorgon handed her pen and paper. What had happened to her famed nerve, her bravery? The kind of stuff that got her through Dragon Mountain? Well, I guess I never had it, really, because it never happened. I never went to Dragon Mountain. I never did any of it, just made it up. Wishful thinking. She started scribbling a quick note of thanks.

"Hey." He was standing in the office doorway.

"Hi." Now that they were face to face, she had nothing to say.

He stepped into the reception area. "We meet again. Come to buy some Microsoft?"

He was so damn charming. He was so, well, Wolf. "No, 'fraid not."

"Just as well. It's down three points and counting."

"No, I, uh, I just wanted to say thank you for not having me hauled out to Bellevue yesterday. I was really obnoxious, I know, and you were so, so nice."

He rolled his eyes and moved in to whisper — loudly — to her. "Sshh. Don't tell them I'm nice. I'm supposed to be a shark! Nice is a bad image around here."

"Sorry. Don't want to get you in trouble."

"No trouble. Hey, want to come back to my office?" The receptionist interrupted. "Mike, you have an appointment in fifteen minutes."

"You know where to find me, Veronica. So...follow me — it's 'Virginia,' right?"

His office had a sweeping view looking down Sixth Avenue. Virginia looked out the window, marveling at the view, at the enormity of the space. "It is nice, isn't it," he said, reading her mind.

"You must be very good at what you do."

He shrugged. "Yeah, and I'm also good at being the great-grandson of the founder."

Virginia looked up as Mike pointed (and when, exactly, had she stopped thinking of him as Wolf and started thinking of him as Mike?) He was gesturing at a large portrait on the wall over the leather sofa. The man pictured had a shock of white hair, a long thin nose that was the twin of Mike's, and piercing green eyes that followed her around the room. "Your great-grandfather? He looks...terrifying."

"So they tell me. Benjamin Bryson Wolf. Unfortunately I didn't know old 'B.B.'"

They called him 'B.B.?'"

"Yup." There was a wicked gleam in his eye.

Virginia got it. "Let me guess. As in 'Big Bad—'"

"Wolf, yes. You're very quick! That's how he was known. Hilarious, huh?"

"You have no idea." She walked around the office, examining everything. "So he was a founder. And your grandfather?"

Mike nodded, gesturing to the couch, and waiting until Virginia was seated before sitting himself. "Yeah. A family thing. My great- grandfather, Grandpa, me..."

"What about your father?"

Mike's smile faded a bit. "No, not my dad. He was the black sheep of the family."

Sheep! Wolves! She fought for control of her face. "He didn't want to go into the business?"

"No...he and my grandfather had a big falling out. Grandpa didn't like the woman Dad wanted to marry. My mother. Didn't think she was the right sort, or something." His face had clouded and there was a hint of bitterness in his voice. Virginia realized she'd trespassed into a family drama.

"Oh. That must've been terrible when you were growing up."

"Not great. Not great at all." He shook off his emotion and turned to her. "What about you? Are you from a long line of waiters?" He must have realized how that seemed, for he quickly corrected himself. "Sorry, that sounded rude, like I was being condescending or something, which I didn't mean to do. I don't at all think there's anything wrong with being a waiter, I mean, it's not inherently less important than what I do, really, it's very important, and now I'm babbling, please stop me—"

Virginia leaned back, mouth agape. She was experiencing an almost palpable sense of deja vu, intensified by the sudden wild look in his eye that preceded both of them dissolving into laughter. Oh, God, it felt wonderful to laugh!

They settled down into a comfortable silence. Mike looked at her intently for a moment, then turned to check his watch. Well, that must be my cue. "I should go, I guess, I just wanted to thank you again for yesterday." She stood up to go.

Mike jumped to his feet. "No, I don't want... Listen, you want to have lunch?"

"Don't you have an appointment? The receptionist said—"

He smirked at her. 'Nah, that's just a little code Veronica uses in case I want to end a meeting. Gives me an out up front." He looked at her with a slightly embarrassed expression. "Pretty crappy behavior, huh? I bet I'm making a great impression."

"You're doing okay so far." Hah! Better than you know.

"Great! I know a terrific Italian place. I hope you're hungry, I am."

"Again?" She thought back to their conversation in the cab. Ravenous, indeed.

"Always. I have an enormous appetite...for everything." He looked at her pointedly and a little shiver of pleasure ran through her. They started to walk down the hall towards the reception area.

"Hello, Michael."

The mellifluous voice belonged to a tall woman with upswept honey- colored hair and eyes the color of glacial ice. She was dressed in a deep red "power" suit that showcased her magnificent curves despite the severity of the cut. One long leg peeked through a slash in the skirt. Virginia felt invisible next to her, in the pale blue sweater and skirt she'd agonized over choosing this morning.

She glanced over at Mike. The gleam in his eye implied panting and tongue-lolling. Hmm. Real, imaginary, men were evidently all the same. "Um, hi, Regina." Cool, confident Mike was clearly non-plussed.

Regina bestowed a honeyed smile on him that did not include Virginia. "Didn't see you all day today, Michael. Been busy with something special?"

"No, nothing special. You know, the usual." That made Virginia feel very special.

"Thought we'd get together, talk about Hardwood Paper over lunch."

Mike looked like Hardwood was very much on his mind, and the wood was getting very hard, indeed. "Well, Regina, we could, sure-" He blinked and belatedly remembered Virginia standing at his side. "Oh, I forgot -" no kidding! Virginia thought. "Let me introduce Virginia...um—"

"Lewis."

"Virginia Lewis, this is Regina Rauthursdottir. Reggie's also a broker; a brilliant one, if I may say so." He grinned at the honey-haired woman, and Virginia wondered that he didn't bow before her.

"You may say so." Regina flashed movie star teeth. "And, Miss Lewis, are you investing with TWR?" Her tone was ripe with disbelief.

Bitch. "No, actually I'm a friend of Mike's." Where had THAT come from? She hoped he wouldn't contradict her.

"Really?" Regina looked incredulous. "How nice. You must be new friends. Michael and I have known each other for ages. Haven't we. Michael?"

"Mmm, yes." Oh, stop drooling!

"Grew up together, really. Our great-grandparents were the founders, you know." She linked her arm territorially in his.

Virginia smiled back, hoping she didn't look too strained. 'I guessed that from your name. It's...very unusual. And long, I might add. What is it, Czech, Norwegian?" Nazi war criminal??

The other woman smiled tightly. "Icelandic, actually."

"Ah."

"They're very progressive, the Icelandic. They understand the importance of women in society. My family name, for example — 'Rauthursdottir.' It means Rauthur's daughter. They don't just glorify their sons."

Virginia Tonysdottir couldn't think of anything to say in response.

Mike snapped the silence. "Actually, Regina, we'll have to talk later. Virginia and I are going to lunch."

The blond didn't miss a beat. "Luigi's?" At Mike's nod, she smiled down her perfect nose as Virginia. "That's my favorite place. Michael and I love the cannelloni. Well, don't let me hold you up. Have a nice lunch."

Virginia felt deflated. So this was his standard lunch place with the women he knew. Oh, well. It had all been a little too good to be true.

"Bye, Regina."

"Goodbye. Oh, Michael..." His name practically oozed out of her mouth. "Don't forget we have a meeting with Benedict at two." Virginia glanced at a clock on the wall. 12:30. So much for a long lunch getting to know each other. "Nice meeting you, Virginia." The blond turned and undulated down the hall on high red heels.

"Shall we go?" Mike's attention was back on Virginia, now that the Ice Queen was gone.


Despite her reduced expectations, lunch turned out to be wonderful. Mike was funny, witty, entertaining, but he also had the endearing ability to listen, really listen. She found herself opening up about her father, her mother's desertion, how rough her life had been, yet she didn't feel the familiar defenses that usually made her talk about herself in self- deprecating ways. She realized with surprise that he was the first man she'd ever been able to talk to this way, right off the bat. Even with Wolf, there'd been days, weeks of—

She made herself stop thinking about Wolf. What was the point? Why dwell on a fantasy, when she had the real thing right in front of her?

Mike was speaking to her, in a low voice, and she snapped out of her reverie. He was saying to her, he was asking –

"How about dinner? Tonight."

"Tonight?" She was caught off guard, and he misinterpreted her response.

"Well, unless you're working, or it's too short notice, or—"

"No. No, I'm free, I'm—sure. I'd love to." This was really happening! He obviously liked her, no matter what twitching that Regina caused him to do.

He looked relieved. "Great! Wow. Terrific. How about eight?"

"Yeah, great."

"I'll pick you up."

She gave him her address, and felt her heart race with an excitement she thought she'd never feel again. Mike was wonderful, smart, clever and handsome, just like Wolf, but he was also confident, non-neurotic, and completely, totally human. He was comfortable in her world—hell, he was even employed! And obviously he liked her. He seemed smitten. She felt safe with him. She felt attractive and desirable. She felt –

Guilty.

A little niggling, nagging thought chided her that somehow, some way, she was being unfaithful. But how could that be? Maybe Wolf had been a premonition of Mike. Maybe "Twilight Zone" forces were at work. Maybe she only dreamed him up from a conk on the head, but the bottom line was he didn't exist and never really had. No point at all, she reasoned, in feeling guilty over a storybook hero who wasn't real.

She let her mind come back to Mike, who was so very, very real. She smiled. Reality could be good after all. Maybe even better than fantasy.


Chapter 3 ~ Round Trip


Wolf kissed Tony on the cheek, and took Virginia's hand. Just as he stepped with her through the mirror, he said, "Goodbye, Grandpa!" and had the wicked satisfaction of watching the startled expression on his mate's father's face, just as the room began to twist and swirl.

He'd been through the mirror twice already, and knew to brace himself for the feeling of lightheadedness it caused. He grasped Virginia's hand tightly as the force of the vortex dragged him forward. There was the unpleasant feeling of lurching through nothingness as he felt himself— —slam into the ground. Stunned, eyes closed, he tried to get his bearings, but why was the ground so cold, so hard, why was he lying down, where was—

"Virginia?" His voice was so faint it surprised him. He started to open his eyes and a torrent of cold water suddenly hit him in the face. Coughing, choking, he rolled to one side, spitting out foul water. He wiped his mouth and opened his eyes. He was lying on a stone floor in a place that smelled of filth, rot, blood. He became aware, slowly, of tremendous pain throughout his body.

"Get up!" Before the guttural voice died away a wooden bucket hit him in the back and a heavy boot kicked him brutally in the side. His ribs caught fire with the sudden pain, and he rolled across the filthy floor to escape, unable to speak, barely able to catch his breath. "Get up!" the voice screamed again, and he reached out and felt a damp stone wall, pulling himself up more by feel than by sight. He leaned, hunched over, against the wall, his mind trying to encompass where he was, what had happened, why they weren't in the Tenth Kingdom.

Virginia! He spun around. He had to protect her from whoever was trying to kill them—

Virginia was nowhere in sight.

But with that look his heart fell. He knew exactly where he was, even before the guard with the heavy boots and the whip struck again.

He was in Snow White Memorial Prison. In the punishment cell.

Just as the realization formed itself fully in his mind, the guard cracked the whip, catching him across the chest. He yelped with the shock of the blow. He saw that his shirt was shredded, red welts visible through the torn fabric.

"Stand still, prisoner!" Wolf struggled to stand perfectly still, though his limbs were quivering with the blow's aftermath. He looked up. The guard was a beefy, sandy-haired brute, with too few teeth and too many muscles. He was the one who had tortured him the most, when he first came to the prison, before he'd learned how to stay low, stay out of sight, stay, for the most part, out of trouble.

Why was he here again? What couldn't he remember? And where was Virginia? He wanted to howl out her name, but the look in the guard's eye convinced him to keep his mouth shut.

A door squeaked open behind him and another guard entered, "Brins, we got another three to go. You finished with him?"

"Yeah. He got his punishment!" Brins leaned into Wolf's face, his vile breath and sour sweat making Wolf want to gag. He kept his eyes down, focusing on the floor, trying not to wince as the guard poked him where he'd just whipped him. "Dint'cha, prisoner? So I guess you won't be stealing food anymore, will ya?" He didn't wait for an answer, which was fortunate, as Wolf was in too much pain and confusion to answer. "Take 'im back, Root."

The other guard grabbed hold of one of Wolf's arms and hurried him down the dank corridor towards his cell. Wolf knew the way—incredibly they were returning him to the same cell he'd languished in for seven horrible months. Had he only left here a few weeks ago? So much had happened—he'd been released, found a new kingdom, met his mate—

And lost her, apparently.

The door slammed shut behind him and Wolf fell onto the pallet that passed for a bed. He needed to think. They'd gone through the mirror, they should have been in that big park near Virginia's house... For the life of him he couldn't imagine what had gone wrong. Clearly some time must have passed, he must have done something in the missing time that caused him to end up here, but what?

It was too much to wrap his mind around. His entire body ached; his back, in particular, was aflame, and he knew he must've been whipped at least two dozen times to be in so much pain. He wanted to get up, to go find Virginia, but he was locked in, and he was so tired, so very tired...

Despite himself he fell into a troubled sleep.

The commotion in the hall woke him.

Wolf managed to sit up, though his limbs had stiffened in sleep. The acute pain had changed into a miserable throbbing everywhere. He was thirsty—the bowl of water that served as his daily ration was across the tiny cell by the door, and with a grunt he stood up and retrieved it, trying, despite his thirst, not to drain it. If he emptied it too early, too bad—he'd just be thirsty the rest of the day.

It amused the guards to give him his water in a bowl instead of a cup like everyone else got. "Beast," they'd called him, and "animal," and while the names and their "special" treatment of him pained him, he took some comfort in the fact that he, the "animal," possessed far more intelligence and greater skills than they did. Empty comfort, perhaps, but thinking about it had kept him sane the first time he was here.

His shirt was sticking to him. That didn't bode well for the state of his back. He pulled the fabric away gingerly, wondering as he did so why he didn't remember being whipped. Maybe he'd thrown himself into a kind of trance—that had happened before, his mind helping him through the ordeal. What worried him more was why he couldn't remember what had happened between entering the mirror and waking up in the punishment cell.

He found another shirt under the pallet. Odd—but old habits died hard, he supposed. When he'd been here before he'd traded a particularly pungent bowl of beanstalk stew for a second shirt. He must've done it again—lucky, or he'd have been forced to wear the ripped and bloody one for as long as he remained here.

He threw off that thought with an angry shake of his head. He couldn't remain here. He had to get out, get to Virginia, wherever she was. He shuddered to think that she might be incarcerated somewhere else in the prison. He' d never heard of female prisoners here—

He went cold at the thought she might be kept here for some other purpose.

The noise from the corridor was increasing. Prisoners were yelling, clanking on the bars with metal cups—there was a sense of disarray, anarchy, that was alien to the prison. Something was up, something out of the ordinary. He moved to the door, gripping the bars and looking out at his limited view.

"Hey — let me out!"

"C'mon, release me!"

"Who ya lookin' for?"

"Over here! Over here!"

Prisoners down the hall were calling to someone he couldn't see. Maybe, maybe, he thought with a jolt, it was someone looking for him— could it be one of Wendell's lords, or, or even Wendell himself? If they'd been gone a while, maybe word had gotten out—

His hope died as he realized that everyone probably thought they were safely in the Tenth Kingdom. Unless he could remember, there was no way of telling if anyone knew they were missing, or even how much time had passed. Even he didn't know Virginia's location. She could be miles, or kingdoms, from here.

But someone was coming, someone special enough to cause this sort of commotion, and maybe they'd take a message to Wendell anyway—

"You."

He froze. That voice...he looked up and felt his grasp on reality recede, roll back and turn itself inside out.

"What are you?"

It was the queen. Wendell's step-mother. Virginia's—NO! He must be dreaming, this must be a nightmare, she was dead, he'd seen her dead–

"Do not make me ask again." She moved closer to his cell, her all-too- familiar face, a study in cruelty masking as nobility, smiling expectantly at him.

THIS IS NOT POSSIBLE! "This can't be real," he said aloud.

The queen's answering smile was cold, her tone condescending. "I know you are amazed that I would speak with you, a common prisoner. But you are uncommon, too, are you not?"

"I am a half-wolf," he replied, surprised at his own voice.

Her triumphant smile said she was impressed by her own cleverness. "If I let you out, you must serve me without question."

He couldn't answer, but his head nodded almost of its own accord. The instinct for freedom, it seemed, cared little whether this was happening for real or only in his head.

The queen released the door and he stepped into the corridor, dropping his gaze and moving past her quickly. Just walk, think later—

"Give your will to me." Her voice was strange, compelling, and it froze him in his tracks. Wolf felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Something was inside his head, whispering to him, and he knew what it was, it had happened before, just this way –

"Your Majesty! We've cornered the dog!" A swarthy man skidded around the corner and the queen whipped around to look at him. Whatever had been inside Wolf's head dissipated, and he came back to himself to hear the queen say, "So, wolf, it seems I won't need you after all." She gave him an appraising look. "Pity." And turned on her heel to follow the man down the hall.

She was gone. He stood alone in the corridor, jeered and screeched at by the other prisoners. He couldn't think—wouldn't let himself think. He turned and moved swiftly down the hall, towards the entrance, towards freedom.


Chapter 4 ~ Shepherdess Makes Quite a Mess


No one stopped him.

He ran as far and as fast as he could, and when he reached the woods he kept going until he dropped, exhausted, on the path. He dragged himself up and receded into the darkness of the underbrush, going to ground under a deadfall to rest and to think.

Before leaving the prison he'd looked everywhere for Virginia. He'd passed the troll-dusted, unconscious bodies of the guards, Brins and Root among them (he couldn't resist planting his foot squarely and forcefully in Brins' back), and found doors open that should have been locked as he scoured the corridors for signs of her. He covered E block, then worked his way through the prison, avoiding the guards who were still mobile, searching every place he could to seek his mate. When he met a locked door he'd call out her name desperately, only to be met with mocking shouts, obscenities or unanswered echoes. He'd come to the end of the last corridor, and hadn't caught the slightest scent or sound of Virginia.

He went through the motions because he couldn't imagine NOT looking for her, and couldn't think of anything else to do; down deep, though, he knew he wouldn't find her. The whole situation smelled of magic. Evil magic.

Or maybe a curse. They could have been cursed, though frankly he couldn't imagine when or how it had happened. Or WHY. Some of the guests at Wendell's coronation had clearly been less than thrilled to hear Wendell pardon all the wolves, and some of them did have skills in magic, but then again, hadn't he saved all their lives? Why would they curse him? And why would they curse Virginia, who'd done nothing but free them from the evil queen's machinations?

The evil queen who now seemed very much alive.

He couldn't figure it out. He TRIED to be logical, he TRIED not to let his emotions get the best of him, but panic was rising and the time was coming that he'd have to face the reality of his situation. Somehow, some inexplicable way, he'd gone back to the beginning of his journey. Now that his mind was focused on the problem he recalled that the beating in the punishment cell was exactly what had happened to him just before the queen had released him. The first time. After months of staying out of trouble, his hunger had become intolerable and he'd filched a strip of bacon from a guard's lunch. Unfortunately he'd been caught, just as it disappeared into his mouth, and his rapture at the long-denied taste had been swiftly replaced by a brutal whipping. At the time he'd thought it worth the pain, but he also remembered with shame just how eagerly he'd met the queen's appearance with subservient bobbing and weaving, willing to do anything to get away from another beating, from another day in that claustrophobic cell.

And now something had happened to bring her back — or, rather, to bring him back to where it all began.

Or...maybe there was another possibility. He grasped at the thought desperately. This could be a hallucination, some sort of vivid nightmare. Yes! Maybe, MAYBE, there'd been some sort of accident as he and Virginia came out of the mirror. Yes, um, maybe he was unconscious somewhere, Virginia ministering to him, sitting by his bedside, and he was just having a bad dream. That would be nice, he'd wake up and she'd be there, holding his hand, his dreamy, creamy perfect girl –

He pinched himself, winced, and let out a long breath. No, he was awake, racked with aches and hungry and alone, but awake.

But what if –

A thought began in the back of his mind and grew and grew. He tried to push it away, but it forced its way into his brain and wouldn't leave. What if...

What if THIS is real, and everything else has been a dream?

No, that doesn't make sense. All these weeks, all that traipsing around the nine kingdoms, the details so clear, the smells, the tastes—

But what about that other time, the time you were given fifty lashes, when you hallucinated an entire eight-course meal, and you woke up still able to taste the pheasant in wine, the cream of leek soup, the trifle, and you imagined Queen Riding Hood at the table with you, in that strapless red tulle number, and no one could convince you it hadn't happened?

Okay, okay...that WAS awfully vivid. But, but an entire month-long journey? All the dangers? Could I have imagined the queen coming to my cell like this — before it even happened?

She has great powers. No telling what she could do, what she could make you see.

What about Little Lamb Village? I nearly got burnt alive! I can still feel the heat—

You've ALWAYS been afraid of that. Of what happened to your parents. You made it up!

"Leave me alone!" he yelled at himself, unaware that he was shouting out loud. "What about the Tenth Kingdom — I saw it! I WAS THERE!"

How do you know? "Because, because, Virginia was there! She's my mate! She loves me! She's the girl of my—"

Imagination.

Wolf's breath caught in his throat. No! Not my succulent, creamy, corky —"No!"

Come on, Wolf. You said it. She's the girl of your dreams She's perfect —TOO perfect. You made her up because you couldn't find anyone like that. Not one who'd love you. Admit it — you've always been obsessed with human women.

"I have not!" But he knew it was true.

He remembered, abruptly, a hopeless infatuation he'd once had—a shepherdess, with milky skin, hair of a strawberry blonde hue that he'd never seen among wolves, a sprinkling of auburn freckles across her nose, slender but luscious, young and fresh and provocative.

He'd been fifteen, all hormones and impulses, routinely cuffed by the wolf girls he bothered, until he took to stalking away on his own, sullen and confused.

He'd stumbled upon her lying in a field, not very attentive to her sheep, daydreaming, eyes to the cloudless blue sky. She'd sensed him standing there and clambered to her feet with none of the innate grace the wolf girls had. Where their eyes were of exotic changing hues and set on a slant, her eyes were round and wide, and quite simply blue. She looked at him staring at her and blushed prettily.

He thought he'd never seen anything quite so beautiful.

"Hullo."

"Hello." They'd hit an awkward silence. Though she looked to be his age, she had the slightly better grasp of social behavior that girls seem to possess whatever kingdom they hail from. "Haven't seen you before. My name's Dorcas. I'm a shepherdess."

"I'm a w—" No, humans are afraid of wolves, be careful! Give her a name, any name! Wendell, Wallace, William, Wilfred— "Wwww...Wilf." Oh, she was fragrant!

She crinkled her tiny nose. "That's funny. Sounds almost like 'wolf.'"

Cripes! "Does it? Oh. Um." His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. "So, Dorcas, do you live around here?" Good, good. He'd heard the other, older boys talk this way.

"'Round the hill at Blueberry Farm." This was nice. This was going well. "What about you, Wilf? Where ya from?"

Oh, huff-PUFF. That was a tricky one. "Wolv-" No, idiot! "Wood. Er — woods. Other side of the woods." Ohhh, she was so distracting! Those fat curls and the low cut bodice, and that perfect Cupid's bow mouth –

"Want to help me watch my sheep?"

More than anything! Sheep (drool!), shepherdess (pant!), both! (Oh, rapture!) "Um, yes, all right."

They'd spent the afternoon together, and though the details of what they'd said and where they'd gone were long lost, he did remember one thing: she'd been the first human, other than his mother, that he'd wanted to kiss instead of bite.

He'd taken quite a lot of abuse for that from his siblings and their friends. It was indicative of how deep the infatuation went that even though he cared what they thought he kept sneaking away to see her.

He'd spent much of the summer following her around, mooning after her (and what an appropriate expression that was, as his human mother despaired of what she called his perpetual full moon state!). As the days wore on, he came to the conclusion that he'd met the Love of His Life. Their walks in the pasture had become visits to the woods, and silence had turned to laughter, then silence again, and finally, finally he'd kissed her.

Or rather, she'd kissed him. He thought he'd jump out of his skin when she grabbed his shirt and kissed him hard on the mouth. Parts of him that had been twitching for weeks just at the thought of her became very uncomfortable indeed in the time it took for that kiss. This was it! This must be love! This must be the girl who'll be my mate!

He thought he should propose. But first, he needed to be honest with her, tell her his real name, the truth about himself. She should know all about him. After all, he knew everything he needed to know about her — her exotic non-wolf looks, her alluring, perfect, delicious smell—She'd understand. He knew she'd understand.

But she hadn't. When he'd told her he was a half-wolf, first she'd laughed, then she'd chided him for joking about such a thing, and finally, when he'd been forced to flash his eyes yellow and let his tail loose (and didn't THAT feel better!) she'd gawked at him, horror-struck, then let out a shriek that made him cover his ears. She'd run screaming back around the hill to her farm, and he'd pursued her until he saw the farm workers coming out of the barn, pitchforks in hand, coming after him, coming to kill him. He'd fled back to the safety of the woods, back to his family, back to the jeers and "I told you so's" of the wolves. Wolves don't mix with humans, he'd been told, unless it's to eat them. Anything else is trouble.

His parents had been understandably silent on the issue. But in the end the wolves had been right. Less than a month later his parents were dead, burned at the hands of Dorcas' family and the other good people of the shire.

If he'd had any sense all those years ago, he would have turned his back on his human half and stayed with the wolves forever. But he couldn't. Despite himself, despite the horrible memories of betrayal and distrust, a pattern had been set for him. His heart wanted what it wanted, and what it wanted was a human mate. Unfortunately, that had never seemed to be a reciprocal desire among human women. They might be intrigued briefly by him, but they were also afraid of or disgusted by the animal in him. And had he experienced a change of heart, he would've found the wolf women distrustful of him as well. For them he was all too human, a betrayer of his own kind. After a while he stopped expecting to find the real Love of His Life.

And then he'd found Virginia. He'd known from the first that she really was the one for him, and he'd been struck early on by how she didn't seem to fear him. Even in Little Lamb Village, she'd stuck by him. He was the one who'd run away. She really was extraordinary. She really was perfect.

Perfect. PERFECT. Too perfect? FANTASY perfect???

Wolf shifted a little in his makeshift den. What he was thinking couldn't be true. He couldn't have made her up. Well, he COULD have, of course he could have, he had a vivid imagination, but–

NO! Virginia is real! I remember everything about her!

Or maybe, his mind countered, you made up everything about her.

The doubts and his inner argument were making his head hurt, and he felt decidedly queasy. Being a wolf and not entirely human, his remedy for both was eating. He sniffed the air and listened intently for pursuers, and when there were none, he climbed out from under the dead fall and loped away in search of food. Thoughts and doubts could wait. Eating was more comfort than thinking about what was and wasn't real, or how his life had no meaning anymore.


Chapter 5 ~ Appetite


Tony was surprised to hear Virginia singing — singing — in the shower.

For weeks she'd moped along, monosyllabic and remote, and now, suddenly, she was singing in her high thin voice (he put his ear to the door to listen) "Hey Jude," mixing up the words and repeating endless choruses of "La, la, la, la, lalalalaaaa, lalalalaaa, hey Jude."

Strange, to say the least.

When he analyzed it, it also seemed strange that she was showering in the early evening, unless—

"Virginia?"

"Mmm, yes, Dad?" She appeared in the living room in a terrycloth robe and a towel around her hair. She was smiling. Actually smiling.

Uh-oh. The instincts of fathers throughout history prickled and gave him the answer, but he asked the question anyway. "Got a date?"

She smiled again, and looked away. She was blushing. "Um, yeah."

"Who is it?"

"A guy I met. Name's Mike."

"Have I met him?"

"Nope." She was torturing him. She lived to torture him.

"And what does this Mike do?"

"Daa-ad! Sheesh." She rolled her eyes. "What am I, sixteen?" But she was grinning.

He looked her square in the eye, trying unsuccessfully to give the appearance of a disciplinarian. "No, but you are my daughter and I want to know who you're out with, and whether he's some sort of lowlife with dishonorable intentions —"

"He's a stockbroker."

"Really?" Tony's face lit up. "Well. Have a nice time, honey."

Virginia snorted. Money had a powerful effect on her father's judgment, no doubt about it. She went back in her bedroom to dry her hair.

In his armchair, Tony smiled. It was reassuring to see her in good spirits again. It had been so long since she'd really enjoyed herself.

Not, mind you, that he wanted her to enjoy herself too much! She was still his baby girl, after all.

At eight o'clock sharp the bell rang for the door downstairs, and Virginia beat Tony to the buzzer and chirped into the speaker that she'd be right down. She'd bolted for the door before Tony could ask why her date wasn't coming up. Virginia wasn't yet ready to throw Mike to her father. Give the guy a chance to prepare.

Mike was at the downstairs door, not pacing but on the verge. Oh, how handsome he looked! She was caught off guard by him all over again.

"Wow. You look great!" He ogled her shamelessly.

What a nice way to be greeted! She was glad she'd run out and bought a new dress in a deep violet color that intensified her eyes. So it cut into the housekeeping money—so what? Some things were more important than having a supply of Mr. Clean and steak in the house.

She buttoned up her coat against the slight sharpness of the wind, and shivered a little with delight as he put his arm around her. They stepped onto the sidewalk and he looked up.

"This is a terrific building—great location—pre-war, big windows. You must like living here."

"I like being near the museum. And the park." She did, she realized. She liked living near the park. Once again.

They were walking to the corner of Fifth Avenue. To a car. A big car. A big car with a driver. Virginia realized a fraction of a second before a liveried driver opened the back door that this was HIS car. Not a taxi, not a car service car. A limo.

"Cripes," she said.

He stared at her for a second, then smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "Just another of the perks of being a Wolf."

"What? Oh...yes, I understand." He followed her into the back seat, and the driver closed the door and started the car.

"Virginia, I'd like you to meet Robert, who has the unenviable task of shepherding the Wolfs around on a daily basis. Robert, Virginia Lewis."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Lewis." The driver was one of those people who are ugly in an interesting way, and when he smiled at her in the rearview mirror, it was with a lopsided but rakish grin.

"Hi." She smiled back, then turned to Mike. "A driver, huh...so...what were you doing taking the subway?"

He gave her a mock insulted look. "Surely, Virginia, you're not suggesting I am above taking public transportation?" He raised his hand to his head and for just a second Virginia thought he was going to scratch at his temple; instead he ran his hand through his thick dark hair. "Actually, mid-day I stick to the subway. You get around much faster. Besides, Robert is really my grandfather's driver, aren't you, Robert?"

"Unfortunately yes, Mike." The two men laughed.

There was a pleasant camaraderie to their banter that Virginia found appealing. Mike was clearly not one to treat employees as servants, despite his obvious affluence. She liked that. He seemed to put Robert on his own level. Where, she wondered, does he put me?

"Didn't know what kind of food you like, so I'm going to take you to one of my favorite places and hope for the best."

Virginia had been expecting he'd take her to a well-known New York restaurant, maybe one with a view, or famous clientele, but "one of my favorite places" turned out to be a tiny candle-lit restaurant just off West Street without so much as a sign out front. There were only a handful of tables, and the hostess, who called Mike by name, didn't bother to give them menus. "Trust her," Mike said, as the hostess went off to get them wine. "She'll take good care of us."

And she did. Plate after plate of one-of-a-kind delicacies arrived at their table, until Virginia had to acknowledge she couldn't eat another morsel. She hadn't had such a fine meal since—well, since THAT dinner in Kissing—

Angry at herself, she brushed away the memory. She wasn't about to start confusing herself now.

Mike's eyes were sparkling in the candlelight, and he lifted a glass of wine. "To subway platforms." They clinked glasses. The way he was looking at her — she felt flushed, excited. She hoped it wasn't just the wine. She didn't think it was. Robert was waiting by the car when they emerged from the restaurant. "Want to walk a little?" Mike asked.

"Yes. I'd like to."

Mike whispered something to the driver, who nodded and smiled, and retired to the car. They walked around Greenwich Village, wandering the twisting streets, admiring the facades of charming houses, peering in shop windows. Silly, prosaic things. Virginia found it all amazing, though she'd been there hundreds of times. I guess it depends on the company. She stole a sideways look at Mike, who was examining a gargoyle head set on a gate.

At length the wind off the river began to take on a harsher edge. Mike reached down and pulled Virginia's coat more snugly around her. "Chilly?"

"A little." She found it sweet to be bundled up by him.

Mike looked around and waved, and the car pulled up. Robert had evidently shadowed them at a discreet distance—Virginia hadn't seen him since they left the restaurant.

They rode uptown silently, sitting close together. Mike reached over and took her hand, smiled at her, then kissed her hand lightly. In the darkness of the car she saw his face only in flashes, as headlights lit it up, but in those moments she could see him staring at her with the same intent look he'd had in the restaurant.

The car slowed, then stopped. With a little start of surprise she realized they were in front of her apartment.

"Virginia —" He stopped. The streetlight bathed them both in an amber-pink glow. He swallowed, looked down, then back at her. Her heart was pounding. She knew what she wanted him to say, something along the lines of "Let me make mad, passionate love to you," but instead he just said, "This is really strange." His voice was hoarse.

Strange, indeed.

He shook his head. "I don't feel like this is our first date. Do you?"

Her eyes opened very wide. "You...feel that way?" When he nodded, she released her breath. "Me, too."

"I feel like this is, I don't know—" If he says "destiny" I am going to pass out. He left the thought unfinished. "I am not handing you a line. I swear. It's like deja vu, or something. But I like the feeling. Boy, do I like it." She didn't reply. She didn't think she could.

"Please, Virginia, tell me I'm not behaving like an idiot."

You're not. You're SO not. "You are. I like it, though."

"Well, okay, good enough. Great, even. This is good. Tomorrow."

"What?"

"Want to see you tomorrow."

"Oh—oh, I'm working tomorrow night. At the Grill." Dammit!

"When are you done?"

"Not till eleven—"

"I'll pick you up. We'll go somewhere."

"But—"

"Okay, we won't go anywhere. I'll walk you home."

"It's in the park—"

"We'll go trolling for muggers, then."

She laughed. He was making her breathless. "Okay, okay. Yes."

"Great!"

"But no muggers."

He smiled at her. "No muggers. Deal." And then, without another word, he leaned in and kissed her. Not a little first date kiss. A big, serious, world-class, epic kiss. A great kiss. After eons during which planets shifted their orbits, empires rose and fell and Robert walked around the block at least twice, Mike opened the car door and walked Virginia across the sidewalk to her building. "Tomorrow," he said, kissing her hand again. He watched her go into the lobby, then turned and went back to the limo. Robert, unobtrusive as always, was back in the driver's seat. "Nice girl," the chauffeur said, catching his eye.

Mike looked out the window. "The one." The car shot down Fifth Avenue into the dark.

~*~*~

Wolf raided a henhouse, stole all the eggs, then went back and grabbed a chicken, too. He was an expert poacher, and completed his raid swiftly and nearly silently, though he cursed himself bitterly as he did so for reverting to old habits.

A miserable state of affairs, indeed, he thought, stuffing the eggs into a satchel he'd helped himself to from beside a sleeping farmhand. Funny, though, how you never forget the really important skills: picking pockets, sneaking past shepherds, stealing eggs from under sleeping chickens without ruffling their feathers.

Deep in a hollow he lit a small fire, and heated a skillet he'd pinched from a farm kitchen. He straightened the lapels of the coat he'd "liberated" from its previous owner. Hmmph! He wasn't an animal! He liked good clothing. He preferred his eggs cooked, didn't he? The thought cheered him momentarily, until it hit him that skulking in the woods eating stolen eggs, wearing stolen clothes, was a far cry from eating truffled game hen in King Wendell's banquet hall in a velvet suit made expressly for him by the king's tailor.

I guess that was an illusion, too, he thought glumly. Whatever gave me the idea that I'd ever be welcome to eat with royalty? He snorted derisively at his own stupidity. So far he' d managed not to think about the big question, though it loomed over his head like a dark cloud. Instead, he'd let himself drift into the easy patterns of thievery and scrounging. But now the insistent thought depressed him so much that he found his appetite diminishing. The chicken, whose neck he'd been about to wring, dropped squawking from his hands and ran into the forest.

All right, then—let's talk about it! Did I imagine everything or not?

You dreamt it!

I didn't!

You dreamt it! Didn't!

Did!

He hit himself on the side of his head with a balled up fist. Didn't, didn't, didn't!

Or did I?

He was making himself crazy.

Maybe he was already crazy, really truly nut-job crazy, not just high- strung and neurotic.

Neurotic....n e u r o t i c...

Where had he gotten that word?

He turned the phrase over in his mind, savoring the sound of it. New- rot-ick. Like "erotic." Well, he certainly knew what that word meant, it described his favorite fantasies–

But the other term...he understood its meaning, all right, it referred to the dysfunctional ways he dealt with food, with his fears, his obsessions, but when exactly had it become part of his vocabulary? And, while he was at it, where had "dysfunctional" come from?

He screwed up his face, concentrating. It seemed suddenly VERY important that he know. He'd heard it from –

Dr. Horovitz.

Wolf felt the blood drain from his head. Reality turned upside down again, for the second time since he'd awakened in prison. He felt giddy.

Dr. Horovitz.

Okayokayokay...Think, Wolf, think. MAYBE I could concoct a month-long trek through the nine kingdoms...maybe I could imagine dinner with the king. And maybe, just maybe, wishful thinking could account for a wonderful creature like Virginia.

But, DR. HOROVITZ??? Nothing about her had any counterpart in his world. What they'd talked about, the books she'd had him read, the terms she'd used and he'd seen explained in print, NONE of it had ever been part of his experience, or that of anyone else in the nine kingdoms, wizards, warlocks and wise- women included. Of that he was absolutely, positively certain.

Just as he was absolutely positive he hadn't made her up. Because she'd HELPED him, really truly helped him, to understand things about himself he hadn't understood before. He'd changed. He was a better person, one who knew it was wrong to steal, behave cavalierly towards others. And in all the years before, NOTHING had ever done that.

And if she was real...

"Cripes!" He jumped up, knocking the skillet off the fire, scattering firewood everywhere. It was all real! It had all happened! "Cripes!" he said again.

Time was wasting. Now he knew Virginia existed, he had to find her. If he had to scour all nine kingdoms to do it. Or even the Tenth.

"Oh, no!" He suddenly realized he'd missed something important. The mirror! If history was repeating itself, for whatever reason, the traveling mirror had to be in the prison. He hadn't even looked for it when he was searching for Virginia. Would it still be there? Or had the evil queen appropriated it? And if he did find it, would Virginia be on the other side? Too many questions, too many possibilities. Better to take action and let the possibilities sort themselves out later.

Wolf suddenly felt much, much better. Things were definitely looking up. He even felt hungry again.


Chapter 6 ~ Present, Tense


Regina Rauthursdottir was not a patient woman.

Inferior service, shoddy merchandise, inept subordinates and unfulfilled promises all annoyed her greatly, but waiting was what she hated most of all.

She was tired of waiting for Michael Wolf.

She tapped one Jimmy Choo pump impatiently on the polished floor, folded her arms over her vermilion silk blouse (Armani) and stared out the window. Sunbeams danced over the leather and chrome sofa (Corbusier), reflected off the bronze sculpture (Alberto Giacometti) and sparkled on the black smoothness of her massive desk (ebony from endangered rainforest trees), but the glories of the autumn day were lost on her. Michael was late. He was keeping her waiting. Again.

He was supposed to be here at nine sharp. He was supposed to be in a meeting with her.

He was supposed to be HERS.

A frown creased her perfect face. Unacceptable.

"Regina, dear—have you seen Mike?"

She crossed to the dapper elderly man who had just entered her office. "Sorry, William. He's late. Do you want to meet anyway?"

William Benson Wolf shook his head. "I need you both. Let me know when he arrives." He looked at his watch and grimaced. "Regina, darling, can't you keep him in line a little better? I'm depending on you."

"I wish I could, William."

"Getting nowhere fast, eh?" She didn't reply. "That boy is an idiot. What the hell is wrong with him? You know your grandparents and I always thought..." He gestured to a portrait on her wall. "Your great- grandmother would have wanted it. Continue the partnership, eh? Good bloodlines, doesn't do to water 'em down." He chuckled, and Regina made herself smile. "Problem was his parents. His mother, really. If he's difficult it's her fault. She's to blame. For everything." He sighed, then reached over and patted her on her cheek. "You're special, Regina. You'll get your way, I know it." His eyes twinkled briefly and he turned to go. "Tell me when you both are ready to meet." Their grandparents had wanted it that way. She wanted it that way, and had ever since she could remember. And for a while, she'd thought Michael did, too. Certainly he seemed enamored of her — she could tell his heart rate went up when he was near her, he forgot how to speak coherently, he praised and complimented her often. Obviously their pheromones were in sync. But when push came to shove, he remained indifferent to a serious connection. And she was no shrinking violet, she'd made her interests known.

They'd been in Central Park for the company picnic, up near the Conservatory Gardens (and whose bizarre idea had it been to go there, anyway? Did they think she LIKED the out of doors?) She'd monopolized him, drawn him away from the others, until they were hidden from view. And in a move calculated to put those pheromones to the test, she'd pulled him into a long, sensual embrace, using every ounce of her prodigious feminine charms in a kiss that could have cured a blind man.

Oh, he'd liked it, all right — his body told her so, and mentally she'd claimed victory. They'd left the picnic, gone straight to her apartment for a marathon of uninhibited sex, which was then followed by a blistering affair. Finally! she'd crowed to herself. Finally I GOT him!

But the affair had ended, dwindling away after a couple of months as Mike became remote, unavailable, avoiding her until she'd had to confront him. He'd infuriated her when he said he'd come to the conclusion he didn't love her, and respected her too much just to sleep with her.

Respect! What a load of—!

She hated him.

She wanted him.

She'd get him. No one said "no" to her.

Regina was not patient. But she was determined.

"Hi—sorry, really sorry I'm late. William on the prowl?" Mike was standing in her doorway, apologetic and uncharacteristically disorganized.

"If you mean has he noticed you're late, yes he has." She looked at him through cold eyes. "We both did."

"Sorry, Reggie. I don't know what happened. I overslept. I'll grab the file and we'll go right in." "Late date?"

His grin wavered. "I'll get the file."

Regina stared after him, fighting the impulse to slam the door. He had all the signs. He was infatuated with someone. And it had to be that Virginia Lewis, the drab little waif he'd dragged in here yesterday.

Unacceptable.

She reached for the phone. "Tracy. Call W.W. and tell him Mike and I are on our way."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And when you've done that, get me Robert Burleigh on the car phone."

"Mr. Wolf's chauffeur?"

The idiot! "Yes, Tracy, do you know anyone else by that name?"

"Um—no, Ms. Rauthursdottir. Sorry."

Note to self: get a new assistant. "Tell him I have a job for him." She cradled the phone and allowed herself a small smile. The hunt had begun.

~*~*~

The closer he got to Snow White Memorial Prison, the more nervous Wolf became. Nervous! It went way beyond nerves—at the first sight of the prison he'd started sweating profusely and his heart began to pound. The stripes on his back from the whipping, which hadn't bothered him all day, started throbbing. He briefly flirted with the idea of avoiding the place entirely. If I have to go in there, I may fall apart completely, he thought, cursing his own fears. On top of everything else, they'll punish me for escaping.

But the traveling mirror was there, and it might be a way to get to Virginia. He had to go. HAD to. Yet as luck would have it, he never had to go inside. He arrived at the prison's outer yard just in time to see a chain gang of prisoners assembled to toss out a load of trash, throwing it haphazardly onto a garbage barge. One after another, the items arced through the air, landing in a huge pile of rubble on the boat.

A glint of sunlight caught his eye and he looked up to see the prisoners begin to pass their last item: a large, ornate-framed mirror.

The mirror. One after another they manhandled it closer to the river. But not close enough. In front of Wolf's horrified eyes, the troll prisoner at the far end of the chain threw the mirror, grunting with the effort, and it came down with a thudding crash on top of the heap of junk, shattering into hundreds of shards of silvered glass.

"Oh, no!" Wolf whined. The mirror! Oh, cripes—this was bad. He swallowed. His mind raced ahead: the other mirror was with the queen. And he really, truly did not want to have to be within her grasp. He didn't like the way she got inside his head—look how easily she'd done it before, when she'd scarcely begun working on him.

Bad, very, very bad indeed.

But, he thought, mentally squaring his shoulders, there was no help for it. If he wanted to find Virginia, he'd have to try everything possible. And if it meant confronting the queen...well, maybe comforting was the wrong word. Sneaking around behind her back and getting to the mirror unobserved was a much, much better concept under the circumstances.

He moved away from the prison yard, keeping close to the river. He'd stolen a boat the last time — might as well do it again.

He untethered a smart little craft and was underway before anyone noticed. The sight of the prison dwindling in the distance filled him with relief. He might be heading out of the frying pan into the fire, but that particular skillet was filled with nothing but bad memories, vivid recollections of many painful varieties of unpleasantness. The sooner he was well rid of it, the better.

~*~*~

Mike met Virginia at the Grill, endured the stares of Candy and the other girls, and walked her home. Not through the Park. They stopped for coffee at a diner—a lowbrow, funky place where the waitress left them alone to sit and talk for hours.

At Virginia's building they stopped in the shadows and shared a lingering kiss.

Across the street, in a stairwell leading up to the sidewalk, a man spoke softly into a cell phone. Two days later he was able to report Mike and Virginia had met again, for dinner.

And a day after that, he shadowed Virginia to a SoHo hangout where Mike taught her to shoot pool. He already knew that Mike was seeing Virginia over the weekend.

He sat in the car outside the pool hall, watching Mike and Virginia through the window. They looked happy, and for a moment he felt guilty for spying on them. But only for a moment. "Is there anything else you want me to find out?"

The woman on the other end of the line was silent. "No," she said, dismissively, her voice tight. "That's all, Robert. For now."

~*~*~

Wolf was red-eyed from lack of sleep; he hadn't wanted to close his eyes while on the river for fear of drifting onto the rocks that lined the southern shore. He shivered. That's what I need, all right — to run aground in the Troll Kingdom! Better to stifle a few yawns and keep your eyes open until we're safely past.

But the rolling movement of the boat on the water was lulling him to sleep despite himself. He tried to fight the feeling, but found it increasingly difficult to keep his eyes open. His arm rested on the tiller and he lay his head back against it for JUST A MINUTE.

"Wolf."

He opened his eyes, blinking. Someone had spoken his name. His eyes darted around the deck, then he twisted around to check the stern. Nothing but boat and water. When he turned back towards the bow he yelped in shock. A woman was standing on the deck, not half a dozen paces from him. A dark-haired woman with regal bearing and a lovely face. A familiar, kindly face. A famous face.

"Cripes!" His eyes practically fell from their sockets as he stumbled to his feet. "You're—"

"Yes, I know," said Snow White. "Now—"

"Wow! I mean WOW! Really! I mean, I never thought I'd ever, EVER meet you in person, in the flesh, particularly since you're dead— "

"Listen! Please." Snow White sighed deeply and Wolf, instantly contrite, started to apologize for babbling, but a sharp look from the Fairest of Them All silenced him. "Listen to me, Wolf. You must listen very carefully. Will you do that for me?" He nodded mutely. She stepped closer and put her hand on his cheek. She was taller than he would have expected, although maybe, he speculated wildly, being dead made you taller for some reason.

Her voice drew his attention. "You will find her. But there are other things you must see to first." She patted his cheek in an almost motherly way, and Wolf felt the sting of tears in his eyes at the sudden rush of memory the sensation brought. It had been so many years since his mother had done that, touched him that way.

She smiled at him, stepped back, and began to recite:

"The path where dangers lurk,
The road once traveled by,
This you must not shirk
To find her by and by.

"What's done must be undone,
A stolen life regained,
A struggle to be won,
A captive soul unchained.
"

He felt terribly confused. "I don't understand —"

"You will." As he watched, her form began to shimmer and fade until it became transparent and disappeared entirely. His legs were suddenly rubber and he folded up against the side of the boat, staring at the place Snow White had been standing, with a mixture of wonder and trepidation. Cripes! He'd been visited by Snow White! She'd come to see him! She wanted him to do something –

Something confusing. Something dangerous. But first he had to

WAKE UP!

Wolf's head snapped forward and he awoke with a start. The boat had run aground against the bank and the jarring thud had jolted him awake.

He'd dreamt it?? Well...that didn't make it any less important. Maybe more. He was savvy enough to know that you had to take visions, intuition and dreams seriously. Ignoring them was just asking for trouble.

But what she wanted sounded like BIG TROUBLE, too. What had she asked of him?

A path where dangers lurk... uh-oh. That definitely sounded like BIG TROUBLE. A stolen life regained...captive souls... What did it mean? "Oh, huffpuff!" he moaned. "A riddle! I HATE riddles!"

The deck was at an angle and he stopped thinking and examined the condition of the boat. It was wedged between a log and a boulder, but otherwise seemed undamaged. Better work it free and keep moving before a troll guard spotted him. Best be on his way.

Although...

Snow White's rhyme played through his brain –

The path where dangers lurk,
The road once traveled by...

What could that mean? It SOUNDED like it meant a dangerous road he'd been on before...

This you must not shirk
To find her by and by –

Did that mean in order to find Virginia he'd have to follow the path he'd taken before?

Could it literally mean he should retrace his steps, recreate the journey he'd made the first time? If so, that would mean –

The troll's castle. Ugh. But to find her by and by it was worth the risk.

Wolf stepped onto the shore, gave his boat a last, longing look, sighed, and set out across the desolation of the Third Kingdom towards the lair of the troll king.


Chapter 7 ~ Past, Imperfect


"Where are we going?"

Mike regarded Virginia across the seat of the little sports car. "I thought we'd go out to the island, I mean, if that's okay."

Virginia smiled at him. "That would be great. It's a lovely day for a ride." She leaned back against the soft leather and let the golden sunshine play over her face. She'd been a little surprised when Mike showed up without either driver or limo. The little green car with the black convertible top was certainly a stereotypical "guy" car, but she had to admit it was awfully cute. They'd made plans to go somewhere for the day, and it seemed Mike didn't want the burden—or the presence—of a driver along. Virginia was glad. Though Robert was completely unobtrusive, she still felt silly being chauffeured around.

"Um...?" Mike was looking at her quizzically.

"Yes?"

"Your hair...it's different."

She instinctively put her hand up. "Yes. I got it cut yesterday. Like it?"

He reached over and ruffled her very short locks. "I love it. You look great."

Virginia smiled to herself. She couldn't really explain the urge she'd had to cut her hair short —time to let go of old habits, old styles? It felt like it had something to do with her dream of the nine kingdoms, but if pressed she couldn't have said in what way. But she had started thinking about cutting it the day after she met Mike. Wonder what a shrink would make of THAT, she mused.

The Saturday traffic for a warm autumn day wasn't too bad on the Long Island Expressway, though once out of Queens they did experience the mysterious LIE phenomenon of drivers slowing down for no reason, almost as if they were hoping to find an accident to gawk at. They stopped for lunch on the north shore at a seafood cafe, eating steamers outside in the sunshine, with the salty breeze off the sound plucking at their clothes. When they got back in the car, Mike paused before shifting into gear. "I'd like to show you something." They took a winding road that offered occasional glimpses of the water, and of large homes that Virginia categorized immediately as mansions. Mike turned off onto a side road and suddenly they were face to face with an imposing gate, though which Virginia could see an enormous grey stone house. Built along the lines of a small English castle with crenellated roofs and massive arched doorways, it would have looked at home in Oxford or alongside the Tower of London. Scaffolding surrounded one of two square turrets that framed the front door.

No cars stood in the circular driveway, and the little gatehouse was unoccupied.

"What do you think?" Mike was looking at her with a mixture of amusement and nervousness.

"Wow, it's, it's huge. But sort of, kind of..."

"Ugly, stodgy, pretentious, go ahead, say it."

"No, it's great." He rolled his eyes. "Why, who lives here?"

"I did, for a while."

Virginia stared at him. "You did?"

Mike shifted a little in his seat. "This is my grandfather's house. Well, one of them. I lived with him from the time I was fifteen until I finished college and moved into my own place."

Virginia studied his profile as he stared at the house. There was something missing from the story. "Why did you come to live with him?"

"After my parents' accident." When Virginia said nothing, he met her gaze. "I was away at prep school when I got a call from my grandmother. There'd been an accident, my parents' car — they didn't tell me until after the funeral."

Virginia was horrified. "That's terrible!"

Mike shrugged. "I don't know. I suppose they thought they were sparing me, or something. I moved here during the last three years of high school, and then I was off to Yale. I really didn't spend much time here, summers, mostly, and holidays. It's actually not all that great on the inside. Lots of pseudo-Brit decor and antiques. Even a suit of armor, if you can believe it. Cool, when you're a teenager, but also kind of intimidating."

"I can imagine. It's pretty intimidating from the outside."

"It's a great party house, though, no doubt about it! Well, at least it was when my grandparents were out of town." He gave her a mischievous smile, which Virginia returned.

"I bet you were quite the troublemaker."

"I did my fair share. I'd take you inside, but it's closed right now for some roof repairs. William's living in the city these days. It's closer to the office, and since my grandmother died I don't think he likes coming out here that much."

"Well...it's pretty amazing. Like living in a palace, I'd imagine." Are you Prince Charming, Mike? If so, what does that make me? She thrust the train of thought away. Cripes, Virginia! Must everything be a fairy tale to you? He's a guy from a wealthy background who lived in a big house. Get a grip.

Mike backed up the car and they retraced their path down the long driveway. He was quiet, Typical of me to be so self-involved when he's trying to share a little about himself. It's crappy losing even one parent; imagine what it must have been like for him! Mike's strong hands were on the wheel of the car, an unruly lock of hair falling over his forehead. Maybe he is Prince Charming. He certainly looks the part. He glanced her way and caught her looking at him. He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and bit his lip thoughtfully.

"I'm wondering..." He let the sentence trail away.

"Wondering what?"

"If you would like to meet my mother."

Virginia was stunned. "I-I thought you said...I'm sorry, did I misunderstand?"

Mike shook his head. "No. It's...complicated. My parents were in a car accident. My father was killed. My mother is still alive."

"Oh. Well, that's wonderful, that you still have her around. She lives out here?"

"Yes. But...well, we might as well go. We're pretty close." He turned to catch Virginia's eyes. "I want you to meet her. I think it's important."

She didn't really know what he meant, but she nodded. "Of course."

About five miles further east, the car turned onto a curving driveway that led up to a large white building with a massive stone foundation. As they came abreast of the entrance, Virginia noticed a beautifully lettered sign saying "The Russett Nursing Home." That's what Mike meant by a complicated situation.

A friendly woman at the front desk welcomed them, shaking hands with Mike and saying how nice it was to see him again. She rang for an attendant, a tall woman in white who escorted them down a hall to a large solarium. The atmosphere and the decor were soothing and well-kept, but Virginia felt quite nervous —what would she find? How disabled was his mother? She began to wonder if coming had been a good idea. Mike reached over and took her hand, as if he were privy to her thoughts.

"Mrs. Wolf, you have visitors."

A tiny woman sat in a high-backed chair, looking out the window. At the nurse's voice she turned slightly, and Virginia saw a faded woman in her sixties, with perfect, lovely features, her hair, long and blondish-gray, gathered softly at the nape of her long neck. Curly wisps framed her face. She would have been beautiful, but for the expression on her face.

Or lack of expression, really, Her eyes seemed to lack focus, and it was hard to tell if she was gazing at the forest beyond the yard, or at some private place within herself.

"Hello, mom," Mike said, dropping to a crouch in front of the chair.

The woman's turned to face him and her eyes seemed to gather life. "Oh," she said, in a slightly accented voice as light and dry as a fallen leaf. "Tom, you came." Her face softened into a gentle smile and she reached out a hand to stroke his hair.

Mike captured her hand and kissed it. "No, Mom. It's me, Michael. Not Dad." His voice had dropped so that Virginia had to strain to hear him.

The woman in the chair sighed. "Yes. Yes. Michael. Oh, it's Michael! Mike, your father...did he come?"

Virginia felt a lump grow in her throat.

"No, Dear, he didn't come. You remember about Dad, don't you?"

The woman's eyes clouded and she looked at her hands. "Tom's dead. He is, isn't he? A long, long time."

"Yes." He kissed her hand again. " But I wanted to see you. See how you are. Have you been well?"

"Oh, yes. They take very good care of me. I'm feeling so much better. In the summer I'm going to go home."

Mike looked down and didn't answer, but his expression told Virginia clearly that his mother was never coming home. It was obvious he didn't want to say the words. He looked up, squeezed her hand, then stood, rubbing his knee absently. He reached for Virginia. "Mom, I brought someone for you to meet. A friend of mine. This is Virginia. Virginia Lewis, my mother, Lisette Wolf."

Virginia stepped closer and took the woman's hand. It was cool and soft, and no bigger than her own. "I'm glad to meet you, Mrs. Wolf."

Lisette regarded her with eyes that were startlingly dark in a pale face, warm brown eyes that suddenly did not seem vague at all. "You're very pretty. She's very pretty, Michael."

Virginia blushed and looked to Mike for help. "Yes, she is, isn't she?" he replied.

No help there. "Thank you," Virginia managed.

"And polite. So much nicer than the other one."

"Okay, Mom." It was Mike's turn to look embarrassed. "It's a beautiful day—would you like to go outside?"

They took Lisette into the garden, walking slowly and letting her lean on their arms. Seated on a wooden bench the three of them talked about flowers, trees, autumn. Lisette asked no questions about Mike's work, or his life, and he offered no information. The generality of their conversation would have been depressing to Virginia had not real affection been evident in the way Mike touched his mother's shoulder, held her hand and looked at her. And Lisette would gaze adoringly at him from time to time, but then her attention would wander away somewhere and her eyes would drift.

Virginia wondered if it was Alzheimer's or some other degenerative condition that affected her, or whether she suffered from a mental illness brought on by the accident that had killed her husband. She seemed very sweet, if remote, and not disoriented as much as forgetful.

She suddenly thought of her own mother, and that brought up a host of memories.

No, not memories, she reminded herself, Dreams, fantasies.

By now that's what she knew them to be. Her fantasy of finding and then losing her mother was vivid in her mind, at least as vivid as her grandmother's delusions that Christine was eternally skiing in Aspen. Grandmother needed to believe that. And so had she, she supposed—she'd needed closure, in one form or another. In truth, she really had no idea what had happened to her mother. Hell, maybe she WAS in Aspen. It was as good a fantasy as any other, and less Freudian than her own wish-fulfillment dream of having to kill her.

"When is Tom coming?"

Virginia's attention snapped back to Lisette and Mike. He'd taken his mother's hand in his own much larger one and he leaned into her. "Mom...Dad isn't going to come. You know that he's—he passed away. A long time ago. Do you remember?"

In an instant the woman's face clouded. "Don't say 'passed away.' I hate that!" Lisette's tone was harsh, but then she began to cry, bitterly, and Mike, alarmed, tried to comfort her. "He's dead. Killed." she moaned.

"Mom, I'm sorry—please don't cry, please." He held her close as she shook.

The cry became a wail that trailed off into a whimper. She seemed to struggle with her thoughts. But a moment later she looked up with hope in her eyes. "I want to see Tom. When is he coming?"

Virginia felt like a peeping tom.

"No, mom, maman, he won't be coming" The expression on Mike's face was unreadable and Virginia could tell he was trying not to show any emotion. She knew what that felt like.

"Oh." Lisette was quiet for some time, and then shivered. "It's chilly."

"Let's go back inside."

By the time they settled her into her room, Lisette seemed very tired. Mike said his goodbyes to her, kissing her on the forehead tenderly. "I'll get the car." He rushed out, not looking at Virginia.

Virginia knew he needed a little space. She turned to say farewell, but the older woman grabbed her wrist, the delicate little hands stronger than they looked. Lisette's eyes pierced Virginia's. "Watch them."

Virginia started. "Who? I don't—"

Lisette pulled Virginia closer and hissed in a desperate whisper. "They'll eat you up."

The hair stood up on Virginia's neck. "Wh-what?"

Mike's mother laughed abruptly, a witch-like cackle, and then, just as suddenly, as if exhausted, let go of Virginia's arm. "Tommy," she sighed, looking up with soft eyes, "When is he coming?"

"I'm sorry." Virginia backed out of the room, uneasy and close to tears.

If Virginia was unnerved, Mike was positively brooding. They drove some miles in silence.

Finally Mike spoke, not turning to look at her. "Sorry. Bad idea."

"No it wasn't. She's lovely." But the thought of Lisette's words haunted her and she shivered.

He shook his head a little, looking very depressed. "She's sick. I shouldn't have done that to you. I don't know what I was thinking. It wasn't fair."

"Mike. Please. You're not being fair to HER, not me. I know she's ill, but she's also very sweet. MY mother tried to kill me, remember?" She hadn't meant to speak so bluntly.

"What??" Mike looked aghast and jammed on the brake.

"You know — in the bathtub, before she left. I told you."

"No, you didn't. That's unbelievable! Horrible."

Virginia put a hand to her head. Hadn't she told him? That first lunch they'd had? Or had it just seemed like he knew? Because Wolf knew? Aaggh! Everything was getting jumbled up. "I thought I told you. I'm sorry. She was ill. My dad came in and stopped her. That's when she left. End of story."

"That's a terrible story, Virginia."

"I didn't mean to talk about me—"

"That's a lot easier for me than talking about my mother, so don't apologize." He looked at Virginia, smiled, and turned again to the road. "She wasn't always like this. She was a great mother, the best, really, before. It started when my father died. She was still alive, but —you know. Not completely." He looked over at her. "I want to tell you about her, about them. But first I want to show you one more thing. If you can stand it." He looked sideways at her. "I guess this you didn't expect the Mike Wolf history trail, did you?"

"I don't mind," Virginia said. "I want to know everything about you." "Everything?" He raised an eyebrow. "That sounds promising."

They had turned onto a small back road. The sun was beginning to set and the orange sky peeked through a corridor of trees. "The last stop."

The house they were parked in front of was small, almost a cottage, with stuccoed walls, a deeply sloping roof and a large front yard enclosed by a fence of natural wood. The yard looked a bit ragged, and weeds poked up alongside the house, but the effect was wild and charmingly unkempt. A Chinese maple, purple leaves rustling, shaded a flagstone path leading to the door. It was no rival to the massive mansion that he'd shown her earlier, but—

"It's adorable, Mike." He opened the door to the car for her. "Another of your grandfather's houses?"

"Nope," he said, as he walked her to the flagstone path, "This one's mine."

"Really?" She didn't want to say so, but it seemed out of character for him to have a house that looked for all the world like, well, like elves could live in it.

"Well, actually it belonged to my parents. I guess my dad bought it as a reaction to the family home, you know? Quite the rebel, my dad."

"Sounds like you admire that."

He stopped for a beat. "Very much. I wish I were like that, sometimes. Want to come in?"

"Sure."

Inside the fading light from the sun did little to illuminate the rooms, and Mike snapped on a switch that lit several colored-glass lamps. Virginia admired the compact beauty of the house. The tiny hallway separated a cozy living room from a small dining area, each painted a soft yellow and framed by dark wood paneling. Straight ahead from the front door a matching wood staircase led to the second floor.

"I don't come out here much, but I can probably find wine, or coffee, as long as you like it black."

"Wine sounds good."

"You can make yourself at home, or follow me to the kitchen..."

"I'll come."

The kitchen faced west, and the sun tinted the walls an orangey pink. Mike started rummaging through cabinets. "I know there's some wine here—though it may be cooking sherry—"

"Um, about the ducks —" She gestured to the border print that ran around the wall, the salt and peppershakers, the watercolor of a mallard above the table.

"Oh, yeah. Not guilty. The ducks were my mom's. They sometimes come to the pond out back. At least they used to. I'm not what you could call a 'duck' person. Not that I hate them or anything, I mean I like them 'a l'orange' — okay, here we go. Red."

They brought glasses and wine into the living room, settling onto the couch. "I know it's a little cold, but the boiler takes forever to get going, so, let me add just one thing to make the atmosphere complete." Mike walked over to the fireplace and flipped a switch. A line of red began to glow behind the fire screen. "Ta-da!"

Virginia snorted. "Oh, let me get this straight, an electric fireplace?"

"Sure —what, you think I'd know how to start a real fire?" He flicked out the other lights and they were bathed in the reddish glow from the fireplace. "Please. I'm a city boy. Just be grateful you're not lost in the woods with me."

"Oh, I don't know. It might be fun."

"It might at that." They sipped the wine, and looked at the fake fire.

"So...you said this was your parent's house?"

"Uh-huh. My dad was never one for the privileged life-style. Not like my grandfather. Or me, either, I guess," he added wryly. "He taught at Stony Brook —romance languages. He and mom moved here right after they were married. This was where I grew up until —well, until the accident." He reached over to an end table and handed her a framed photograph. Virginia recognized a much younger Lisette, happy, smiling, her arm around the waist of a tall man with dark hair. The man's face was hidden in part by the beard, but his eyes were remarkably like his son's. "They were considered hippies by the rest of the clan."

Mike took the picture back, absently running his finger over their faces. " Funny thing—my grandfather was always okay towards me, though he barely spoke to my dad, and never to my mother. I told you they had a huge fight about her."

"But why—What did he, your grandfather, have against her?"

Mike shook his head, and Virginia saw his expressive mouth tighten for a moment into a thin line. "It's hard to say why the illustrious William Benson Wolf likes or dislikes anything, or anybody. Nobody's ever adequately explained it to me. I guess maybe because she was foreign. Dad was taking time off after college—and, boy, that didn't go over too well! He went to Europe, just bumming around, and met Mom, who was a student in Paris. She's from Belgium, actually. The old man was furious. I gathered from comments I heard my parents make that he had someone picked out for Dad, just like he had his career all picked out, too."

She tried to imagine her own father behaving like that, and couldn't. "That's a little controlling!"

Mike smiled, but Virginia noticed he still looked troubled. "Yeah, you might say that."

"So when he found out they were married— "

"Well, actually, they weren't. He found out his only son had gotten this 'unsuitable' woman pregnant. The marriage came later, after Dad had refused to dump her." His grin was a bit rueful this time. "So let's just say that I caused a bit of mischief even before my official debut."

"Practice for mischief later on."

"I guess so." He reached over and stroked her cheek. "I'm feeling a bit mischievous right now, actually." He looked at her intently and raised his eyebrows in a silent question.

Ohhh...that look! An expectant mix of hope and lust. A very, very familiar look –

Stop it! Why are you being so analytical about him? What are you waiting for? DO something!

No more thinking. She leaned over, took his face in her hands and kissed him soundly.

Mike was startled by her sudden movement, but his surprise lasted barely a second. He responded enthusiastically, his hands circling her waist and drawing her in. They'd kissed before, sure, but there was a fervency now that Virginia welcomed, and knew she'd desired for some time. She felt his hands on her face, in her hair, then slowly rubbing down her back, pressing her body to his, and she shivered with desire. She needed to make love to him NOW.

Mike seemed to be thinking the same thing; at least his movements were telling her so. One of those wonderful hands slid around to the front of her blouse, tracing his fingers gently, driving her crazy with his touch. With a gasp she pressed herself further towards that lovely, eloquent hand, as she continued to devour his mouth. He was unbuttoning her blouse to touch her — she was grabbing his sweater with both hands, pulling it off, their lips breaking away from each other unwillingly. Then his hands were fidgeting rather expertly with the hooks of her bra, and his mouth was on her sensitive skin, eliciting soft sounds of pleasure from both of them, and he was kissing her lightly all over, and somehow her underwear had vanished and he had no pants on and he was lowering her gently onto the soft green and brown of the forest floor, beneath the canopy of trees, behind the protecting bushes, and Wolf was kissing her, his hands roaming somewhat awkwardly but passionately over her, and they were about to do it, about to become mated, feverishly, urgently, no time to think or plan or—

No, no! Not Wolf,

There is no Wolf.

Mike!

Think, Virginia, think, and – "Wait! Wait." She pulled away from him suddenly.

"What?" Mike was panting, his hair unruly, his eyes saying OH, NO, DON'T STOP NOW! "Am I, are we going too fast, or —"

Too fast? "No, it's not too fast, it's good—" Oh, it's the same but it's different, confusing,

"—but, but-" Her mind raced. Think! There is something to remember, something to change — yes, that's it! "Do you have a, uh - -"

"A what?" Dawning comprehension. "Oh. Yeah. Sure. Wait. Where, where —?" He jumped up, found the pants he'd hurled aside, fished through his pockets, scattered change everywhere, found his wallet, pulled out a condom, lost his grip on the wallet, dropped credit cards and money and another condom on the rug, and she started laughing, she couldn't help it, and after one freaked-out look he was laughing too, which began to change the mood drastically, and their romantic interlude would have ended right there except her hand, acting nearly without thought, reached down to touch him, eliciting a throaty growl she found oddly comforting. The laughter remained in his eyes, but he leaned over to kiss her again and she knew how much she'd waited for this moment. For him.


Chapter 8 ~ Pinching Shoes


The trolls’ lair brought Wolf nothing but trouble.

He climbed the castle's crumbling wall, a miserable, precarious effort, but at least he remembered where the footholds were. He reached the central chamber safely and stood panting a little, listening. Trolls were audible in the outer corridor but nowhere in view.

But something was in view: the magic shoes, twinkling at him, trying to seduce him. He shook off the feeling with an indignant huff. Let's see: shoes mean the king is in residence, so better be extremely careful. He sniffed the sour air, wrinkling his nose at the stench of trolls, searching for some trace of Virginia, but caught not a hint of his fair mate's sweet scent. Silently he moved towards the hall door, again passing the shoes — and didn't they sparkle beautifully in front of the fire! No, no, NO! He heard raised voices and looked out into the hall. King Relish was striding down the corridor, trailed by an enormous ugly troll and a ghastly orange-haired troll, and dragging by the nose a squat, hideous troll. Relish bellowed and they cringed.

"Idiots! Idiots!"

"Come on, Dad," the tallest troll whined, "We didn't just hand over the dog, you know —"

"No, Dad," wheedled the orange-haired female, "We tried to bargain with her —"

"Yeah, Dad," piped up the third, "Bud the queed outsbarted us — ow, ow, OW! Watch the dose, Dad!"

They were headed his way, so Wolf turned towards the window — oh, those shoes, how they glittered! — and exited the way he'd come, balancing on the parapet, then using overgrown vines to lower himself to the ground. Lucky the trolls took such rotten care of the place! He ran down the glacis, paused to listen and then sauntered away from the castle, pleased at his escape, though frustrated at not finding Virginia. Huff, PUFF! Could this really be what Snow White had had in mind for him to do? What a waste of time and energy and –

"Oh, NO! How did those get there?"

What were the magic shoes doing under his coat?

Oh, cripes! They'll be after you now! Drop the shoes, drop them and run!

He ran. But he didn't drop the shoes.

Behind him he could hear faint but angry voices, and he didn't dare stop to look. He glanced briefly to his right. In the distance the distorted trunks of the beanstalk forest reached up into lightning-streaked clouds. No, not that way — I hate those beanstalks! And I'm not going back to that prison, absolutely, not for any reason. Besides, Tony's not there, I don't have to rescue him, I don't HAVE to go that way — boat, boat, boat!

He put on a burst of speed and sprinted for the river.

The trolls had been gaining on him but no troll, not even an enraged one, could outrun a wolf in flat-out flight. Wolf reached the river, jumping in to push the boat away from the debris on which it was stuck.

"Move! Move! Come on! On!" Finally it slithered free and he climbed aboard, shaking off the water. He could see trolls in the distance, closing the gap between them, and he raced to stoke up the engine, then used a pole to push the little boat further from shore.

He was nearly mid-river when the trolls reached the bank, and stood shouting obscenities at him in impotent rage. The squat troll tried swimming after him, but began floundering immediately and had to be pulled out of the water by his siblings.

The boat started picking up speed, and Wolf began to relax, even standing on the deck to wave gaily to the trolls, which enraged them, to his vast amusement. He felt so smug that he failed to notice a promontory jutting out into the water, nor did he see the troll on top of the promontory taking aim with his slingshot. The troll dust hit Wolf squarely in the back, and within an instant he collapsed on the deck, senseless.

The little boat puttered away down the river.

~*~*~

His head had been crushed by a rock.

No, a troll had squeezed it until it burst.

No, a giant had stomped on it. Repeatedly.

"Oohhaagghh."

With a groan and a wave of nausea, Wolf opened an eye. Big mistake. The blinding light of — dusk — sent a bolt of lightning through his eye into his brain. He sagged back down again until the pain subsided to a bearable ache, then ever-so-slowly rolled onto his side and tried opening the other eye. Better.

Looking at the deck reminded him where he was, and he struggled to a sitting position, attempting successfully to open both eyes together. He looked around. Incredibly the boat was still moving, riding the current now that the wood for the engine had burned itself out. He was amazed he hadn't hit anything, but was furious at himself for being caught unawares. Besides, he'd lost precious time by not being awake to stoke the engine. He knocked himself on the head to emphasize the point to himself, which only served to intensify his headache. Stupid! Start using your brain, Wolf! If there's any of it left. He brushed the troll dust off his coat and wiped his face, then used the rail to pull himself upright. He clung to the side, waiting till the vertigo passed. Nasty stuff, troll dust. Dangerous creatures, trolls.

And there on the deck next to where he'd lain unconscious were two other nasty, dangerous items — those cursed magic shoes! Wolf growled at them, which made his head feel worse. What had he been thinking? Or more to the point, why had he NOT been thinking? "I should pick them up, right now, and throw them overboard, get rid of them once and for all!" Hadn't he resisted them before? And—shame coursed through him— hadn't he lectured Virginia about the addictive properties of magic? "Better get rid of them now, while I still can," he muttered. He picked them up, snarling at the way they tingled in his hands. Go on, Wolf, throw them over the side!

He stuffed them into an inside pocket.

He had no idea how long he'd been knocked out, but by the fading light he reckoned it had been several hours at least. He put more wood on the engine fire, and then moved to the bow, scanning the riverbank ahead. And shivered. There on the right bank, silhouetted eerily against the streaking sky, was the ruined castle, the one that had so unnerved him when he passed this way before. He knew now why it had filled him with unease; the queen had been there at the time, far too close, able to see him, speak with him, get to him, watching, always watching.

She can't get to me now. I'm not in her power this time. He gulped. At least he didn't THINK he was. Her contact with him had been brief, though intense, and after all, she hadn't even wanted or needed his help. She'd left him there. She couldn't know he was this close.

More importantly, he was close to the mirror...the second traveling mirror.

The queen probably also had the dog up there — and the prince, whichever was which these days. Not that he cared too much about that right now. Wendell would have to fend for himself this time. Wolf just wanted to find Virginia. To the Goblins with everyone else!

Still...

If he was going after the mirror, he might as well see what was going on with Wendell. He didn't have to DO anything once he found out. Didn't have to RESCUE him. Again. No sirree, one rescue to a customer.

Unless, of course, you were talking about Virginia. He'd rescue her a million times if need be. A zillion, even.

He docked the boat at the quiet little river town that sat virtually at the foot of the castle, then made his way up the slope. "Looks to be a two- castle-siege day," he said grimly. "But I'll just find the mirror and go through it."

The shoes twitched in his pocket. Ooh—I should put them on, and sneak into the castle —good, good. Put them on, put them on!

No! No! Why do I still have them? Throw them away now!

Don't be silly —this is the PERFECT time to wear them! He pulled them out of his pocket and slipped them over his shoes. The familiar buzzing feeling took hold and he watched in wonder as he disappeared from the feet upwards. "Wow! This is GREAT!"

He sauntered around the side of the castle, examining the junk at the bottom of the drained moat, not bothering to move carefully. The queen's men could never see him now!

Except there were no men.

The castle yard was deserted. And when he marched straight though the front door, no one was there to stop him even if he had been visible. No one was there at all. But the dying embers of the fire in the throne room told him someone HAD been there, and recently, too.

Somewhat reluctantly he took off the shoes, staggering a little as he put them back in his pocket. Best save some power for later.

Part of him hoped it would be sooner.

He roamed the corridors, picking up the scent of power that he knew came from the queen. It was everywhere — she'd been here a short while ago, probably left while he was lying in a stupor on the deck. There weren't many habitable rooms left in the old castle, but he found dog hairs in one of the dungeons, and an odd blend of human and canine scent in one of the better bedchambers. Evidently Prince Wendell retained plenty of his doggy nature no matter what he looked like. He wasn't housebroken, either.

As for the mirrors, he found where they had been excavated from the earth, but no trace of them in the castle.

Too late again! "This is getting to be a bit discouraging, if I may understate the situation," he muttered, heading for the door, then jumped as he nearly collided with someone.

The elderly caretaker in the doorway looked just as frightened, from the way his knees buckled and his voice shook. "Would you be a friend of the queen's, sir? Sorry, sir, they've gone."

Wolf let out the breath he'd been holding. "How long?"

"Not two hours since."

"Which way?"

"To the prince's palace."

"Thank you. " Wolf turned to go.

"You won't find 'em there, though. Not yet. They're stopping somewhere."

"Where?" This slow questioning was trying Wolf's patience.

"Don't rightly know. Didn't tell me. They went west, though."

"Thank you."

"Or maybe north. Dunno, really."

Great! Just great. Going to the palace but not going. West, or maybe north. West was the Disenchanted Forest (unpleasant memories). Little Lamb Village (he shuddered at the thought). North was Kissing Town (best forgotten). The Deadly Swamp (at best deadly). None of it seemed promising. "Thanks a lot," he rumbled at the caretaker, pushing past him and dashing out the door.

"Hah!" said the old man, wiping his very damp brow. "Queens with nasty tempers, princes and dogs what ain't, felons, and who knows WHAT this fellow's about? I quit!"

~*~*~

Wolf was hungry. Very hungry. Ravenous. Possibly, he thought morosely, on the verge of starving to death. He'd picked up some food (well, stolen it) in the village but had devoured it all within an hour of entering the Disenchanted Forest. Now he fished around in his pockets in the hopes of discovering an overlooked morsel, but found only crumbs. He licked them off his fingers and frowned. He hadn't even seen so much as a rabbit since he'd been here. The prospects looked dim, indeed, for getting a meal before he tramped through the entire forest.

He already felt like he'd been walking forever. Like he'd been born walking and had a lifetime to go before he could stop. Maybe he should have gone north. Except this way was "the road once taken by." The way he'd come before. "Queen Snow White, I REALLY hope you know what I'm doing!" That phrase didn't seem quite right, but the sound of his own voice bucked up his spirits, at least for a moment.

The forest moaned softly around him. Wolf pulled his coat tighter, more from the gloom than from the cold. This journey was so much worse than the last one, because this time he was making it alone. Wolves weren't by nature meant to be solitary creatures, and though circumstances throughout his life had often dictated he be alone, Wolf craved the company of others. Even when he had to hide his true nature from them, he was happiest having others around — village idiots, trolls and "burn the wolf" fanatics excepted. It made him feel like he was part of society. Any society.

Sure, he was traveling much, much faster this time without Tony dragging that stupid Prince along. But Tony's idiosyncrasies — and idiocies — at least had been diverting, providing some relief from the endless grind of picking a path through the forest.

But most of all, the harsh journey had been sweetened by the presence of Virginia. She'd carped and argued, picked on him, pointed out his mistakes and inadequacies. She'd been the cause of trouble, freeing magic birds and drawing the huntsman to them. She'd been closed off, uncommunicative, and when she did speak, angry, annoyed and annoying.

In short, she'd been wonderful. He missed her. Deeply. Painfully.

Just thinking about Virginia made him want to howl, but he settled for a sigh. Whatever Snow White had in mind with this ridiculous trek, he held tightly to her promise that by doing as she wished, he would, eventually, find his lost love. I'd better, or I'll — I'll —huh! What CAN you do to someone who's not only a revered heroine but also a dead one? "I'll stop believing in you, THAT'S what!" he said belligerently.

"Oh, will you?" A voice spoke close behind him. Too close. "Well then, stranger, I suppose we'll have to do the same to you."

Wolf gasped at the closeness of the voice. He spun around, to find eyes staring into his own. Many eyes, shrewd and distrustful. Gypsies! Cripes! You'd think I'd get the knack of hearing them creep up on me, but NO! That's bad form, Wolf! And potentially fatal form when dealing with gypsies.

"Um, no offense," he offered in his most ingratiating tone. "Just talking to myself, actually." His stomach rumbled as if in agreement. "I'm probably just hallucinating from lack of food."

The leader leaned in towards him. "Ah, then we'll have to do something about that, won't we, fellows? We have plenty to share. The forest is very good to us, eh?" The others laughed conspiratorially.

Yeah? Well, not too good if the huntsman finds you, Wolf thought, but aloud he said, "Thank you, you're very gracious." The leader took him by the arm (a little forcefully, he thought) and led him towards the encampment. It looked the same as it had before. Well, of course it did — after all, it WAS the same encampment. Nothing had changed because he was reliving his first visit, and –

Oh huff-PUFF, this thinking was complicated. Eat first, think later.

Other gypsies looked up as they entered the circle made by the caravans. "Un straniero — viajero! Taksidos!" the leader called. "A traveler is joining us for dinner! Tha phae mazi tos!" Several gypsies whispered together, gesturing in Wolf's direction. He hoped they weren't discussing how to murder him, but so far they seemed as welcoming, if wary, as they had the first time.

Someone handed him a bowl of stew. A woman with tousled hair gestured for him to eat (winking at him rather overtly) and took a spoonful herself. He followed suit. The meat was cooked beyond recognition, but he was so hungry he didn't quibble. He cast his eyes around as he ate, and there, on the fringes of the circle, he saw again the strange little boy he'd noticed on his first journey. The boy's eyes, large and intense, of an iridescent green, widened even further as he stared back at Wolf. There was a moment of startled recognition, not of Wolf himself, but of what he was. Poor little cub, Wolf thought, he has no idea how difficult his life is going to be. Well, maybe I'll get a chance again to tell him some truths about the world.

A fiddler had started a melody, and several of the gypsies began to sway to the music, kicking up their heels higher and higher as the song gained speed and liveliness. Wolf enjoyed their leaps and kicks, but knew that they'd soon ask him to repay in kind. He was prepared to tell them a story, or show a few sleight-of-hand tricks, but the dance was suddenly interrupted by screeching voices coming from a wagon. Two women, a edhead and a brunette, burst through the caravan door, falling to the ground as they hit and tore at each other, rolling on the dirt in a tangle of bright skirts and flailing arms.

The men jeered and hooted; the other woman stood talking and laughing together, pointing, eyes dancing in the firelight. A good catfight had great entertainment value wherever humans lived, Wolf reflected, watching the gypsies enjoy the show. Finally several men, with great effort, pulled the two apart. The redhead was facing Wolf, and he had to admit she was quite a beauty. But her voice was whiny as she complained to anyone who would listen, "She stole my garnet beads! She stole them! Feodor, do something! The little slut is a thief!" She tugged at the sleeve of the gypsy leader, who hushed her and pulled her fingers away.

"Sloya, they're not even real garnets, so shut up," jeered a woman standing nearby. "Fight over a man, if you must fight!" Another tittered at this, and the redhead glared in their direction.

"Give her back the necklace, girl," Feodor said, advancing on the brunette with his hand out.

She shook her head and Wolf saw her curls dance impertinently. "No!" she cried, backing away from the gypsy leader. "They're mime!"

Wolf's ears pricked up. Something...

"She's nothing but trouble! She acts like she's too good for us!" Sloya prompted a burly fellow standing nearby. "Lino, Feodor, send her back where she came from!"

"You wouldn't dare!" hissed the other girl.

Wolf's pulse began to pound.

The girl was still backing in his direction, and he stood up directly in her path. She stepped backwards onto his foot, then crashed into him, recovering her balance quickly, spinning around angrily to accost the idiot who'd blocked her way. Her face came into his view, a delicate heart- shaped face, with vivid blue eyes and red lips, framed by short dark hair –

"Virginia!"

His heart lurched, jumped and danced. "It's you! Virginia, Virginia, Virginia!" Delirious with delight, he grabbed her and swung her off her feet, the disguising gypsy clothes flying around her, then set her back down to earth, drawing in her scent, and pulled her into the kiss he'd been yearning to deliver for what seemed an eternity. His hands cupped her face, her dear face, his mate's face. His lips locked on hers and his heart nearly burst with relief and joy and happiness, and she stood wrapped in his arms until, without warning, she kneed him forcefully in the groin.

Wolf crumpled up with a gasp, holding himself and howling in agony. All around him, gypsies stood, some laughing, some gawking, some with knives in their hands.

"'Virginia?'" one said with a smirk. "Vergine? Gigi? Hahahaha!" Several of the men chortled and shared knowing looks. A snarl escaped from between Wolf's clenched teeth.

She ignored the men. "You — you—" she hissed at Wolf, "Who do you think you are?"

She loomed over him as he lay in folded agony, her eyes ablaze, arms akimbo, feet firmly planted. She glowered at him. One hand wiped her mouth and she spat onto the ground.

Who am I? What kind of question is THAT? He wanted to shout, "I'm the one who's been searching for you, facing trolls and prison guards and almost certain death, trying to rescue you, and you do THAT to me??"

But the only thing that came out of his mouth was "Aaaooowww!" His feelings were hurt, but there were other parts that felt much more tender at the moment.

"Silence! What is going on here?"

The voice was so sharp it cut through the commotion like broken glass. Wolf looked up from where he lay and saw a woman advancing on him, the crowd parting to let her through. Even upside-down he recognized her as the ancient crone who had read death and murder in his palm. Great, he thought, still feeling the pain of the assault on his manhood. The more the merrier. Maybe she'll slit my throat and put me out of my misery.

"Mother Triuna, this stranger attacked me!" the girl they called Gigi complained to the gypsy crone.

"More like she attacked him!" someone laughed, then stopped abruptly as Mother Triuna's black eyes stabbed at them.

"Stand him up."

Hands reached down to lift Wolf under the arms. He tried to stand up straight; he felt it incumbent upon him to display whatever dignity he retained. "Hello," he said, going for a smile but grimacing despite himself.

The old woman stared at him a moment with eyes that bored right through his skull. Then she moved in closer, until she was less than a foot away, and took his chin in her claw-like hand, turning his face this way and that, studying him intently. He couldn't tear away his eyes from hers. Her scent was like old, dry bones.

"I know you."

He felt a chill. Was it possible? "I don't think I've had the pl—" He stopped abruptly, her eyes spearing him. 'Yes," he said.

She released his chin, stepped back and looked him up and down. She walked around him. Her eyes strayed to his hands and then returned to his face. "A wolf," she said simply. The men holding him dropped their grip and reached for their knives.

"No — no!" Wolf put up his hands in a submissive gesture. He looked directly at the old woman. "I mean yes, I am a wolf, and I have met you before. I was here, with my friends."

"Liar," said Feodor. "Do you think us fools? We've never seen you before."

"No, you're not fools, of course you're not, it's hard to explain. I mean, it's impossible to explain. I don't even really understand it. We were here, in this camp, before, but it's really now — this same time, only it's happening differently this time around, and I have to retrace my steps and see to something, I don't know what, but, but things are different, and I'm just trying to find her, Virginia, I've come for her —"

"You can have her!" shouted the redhead Sloya.

"My name is Gigi and I don't know you!" Virginia's voice was shrill and furious. He turned to look at her. What was wrong with her?

The large man named Lino grabbed Wolf by one shoulder and spun him around. "You are crazy! We don't know what magic or foolishness you're talking about! But a wolf, we know what that is, don't we, fellows?" There were calls and sounds of agreement. Ugly sounds. Mob sounds.

Wolf began to get angry. "You 'know' what a wolf is? I doubt any of you do. Except Bedros."

There were gasps from several people, and the gypsy let go of Wolf's shoulder. Almost as one, all eyes turned in one direction — towards the young boy.

There was a moment of stillness, during which the boy's mouth dropped open and people began to look at each other, confusion on their faces.

"How— how do you know my name?" The boy had a soft voice, but it was clear in the silence.

"You told me."

"I didn't. I didn't talk to you." He ran to the old woman. "I didn't, Grandmother!"

Wolf took a step towards her. No one stopped him. "He did. When I was here. Before. We had a long talk, Bedros and I." He looked the old gypsy in the eye. "You believe me, don't you?"

Now all eyes shifted back to her. "Perhaps." Wolf felt great relief until her next words. "But I also believe you are trouble. Tie him up."

"No — wait! I just want to talk to Virginia—!"

Two large men grabbed him and pulled him away. They tied him to the wheel of the largest caravan, leaving his arms free but winding a rope tightly around his chest. He thought with some effort he might be able to wiggle himself loose, but it was obvious they had no fear he would escape, tied as he was in the center of the camp. Now that Mother Triuna had made her decree, the gypsies seemed to lose interest in him. With two exceptions.

"Mister."

Wolf looked up to see the boy peering at him around the corner of the wagon. "Bedros." The boy stood mute. "Don't be afraid of me. My name is Wolf. I won't hurt you. I CAN'T hurt you — see?" He struggled lightly against the ropes.

"Are you..." His voice was extremely soft and he gripped the wood of the caravan with white knuckles. "Are you really a wolf?"

"A half-wolf, yes."

The boy moved a little closer, looking around to see if anyone was watching. "You smell different than people. I mean, not bad, just different." He took another step closer, curiosity conquering fear. "My mother was a wolf."

I know, thought Wolf. "So was my father," he said instead. "Where is your mother now?"

The boy's face clouded. "The huntsman got her when I was little. He's a very bad man."

"Yes he is." Wolf was experiencing a very vivid sense of deja vu. "Bedros, you should be very proud to have wolf blood in you. We are a very old race, you know. Some say older than humans. Just think how wonderful it is to be part of both!" Yeah, sure, persecuted by both, accepted by neither! What a hypocrite I am! At least the boy seemed to have a fairly happy life among the gypsies.

The boy shrugged. "I don't feel very special, except...." He sat down next to Wolf and lowered his voice into a whisper. "I do like having a tail. Though I don't like tucking it in."

Wolf nodded in agreement. "I understand completely. Sometimes it's best to keep it a secret, though."

"That's what Grandmother says."

"The thing is, Bedros, some people think we just go about eating little girls and attacking livestock. And there are some times when —" There was a palpable pause. "Bedros, um, has your Grandmother told you what happens to wolves when the full moon rises?"

The boy looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"

Okay, here we go again. Wolf took a deep breath and began to tell Bedros the wolf equivalent of the birds and bees. He figured the boy had a few years before puberty to get a grip on the facts, but still he knew the boy wouldn't really understand until he'd felt the pull of the moon in all its power. Still, knowledge ahead of time couldn't hurt. Bedros listened intently, eyes widening, mouth agape, as Wolf detailed the Change and gave him advice on how to deal with it. Not that he himself had ever mastered coping with it. I wonder if I'll have this conversation with my own child some day. Will he —or she—have a tail? Will my cub be governed by the moon? He forced his attention back to Bedros, who was asking questions he actually could answer.

"Bedros!" The voice was angry and so familiar in its cantankerousness Wolf didn't need to turn his head to know who it was.

"Virginia." He smiled at her. Oh, how the sight of her made his heart race!

She made a face. "Stop calling me that. Bedros, your Grandmother wants you." The boy complied, jumping up and speeding away, but not without a friendly smile to Wolf. "What horrible things were you telling him?"

"The most horrible things of all. The truth. Virginia —" she opened her mouth to protest. "What do you call yourself ?"

"Gigi."

"Think — look at me. Don't you recognize me?"

"No."

"I am your mate."

She scoffed. "Your mate! That's disgusting. As if I would let a wolf touch me." She folded her arms and stood with a defiant stare.

Wolf looked away, gathering his thoughts. The sense of unreality that had dogged him intermittently since this trip began returned to make him doubt his senses. She smelled like Virginia. She looked like Virginia. She WAS Virginia. She had to be. He remembered her —how could she have forgotten him? Why was she here, among the gypsies? How could she have gotten here, when it had only been a couple of days since she came through the mirror?

But — and the dawning realization was so enormous, he caught his breath. The words "we've cornered the dog" echoed in his memory. Could she have come through the mirror if Wendell the dog never made it to the Tenth Kingdom?

Think, Wolf, think..."How long have you been with the gypsies, Gigi?"

She seemed wary of his question. "Why?"

"Please, just humor me, all right? I can't do anything to you, tied up like this."

"Well...they're probably going to kill you, anyway, so what does it matter? But don't call me Virginia any more."

"All right." Boy, she certainly was as stubborn as ever!

"Not long. A few weeks." Her face grew haughty. "Did my father send you to get me?"

"Your father?"

"Right. Pretend you don't know what I'm talking about."

"I — don't. You mean Tony is—"

Her mouth dropped open. "You dare to call him—" She stopped suddenly, looking around. "They must not know who I am, do you understand? If one of them finds out who my father is, I will kill you myself. I have no wish to be ransomed." Her hand moved pointedly to her fringed boot, and he saw the flash of a knife. "Understand?"

"Not really. Who is your father?"

With a swift movement she slid the knife up towards his throat. His hands were free, but her nearness so overwhelmed him that he didn't try to take the weapon from her.

"Viscount Anthony, Lord of the Western Mountains, as well you know. Your master, I have no doubt." Her voice had dropped to an intense whisper. "If they let you go, return to him and say I will not marry Prince Wendell. But remember: if you call me by my rightful name again, you will die immediately. If you kiss me again you'll WISH I killed you. NOW do you understand?"

"Um...sure."

She stood, sheathed the knife, and melted away into the darkness. Wolf's head spun. He understood nothing. Wendell? Viscount Anthony? Ransom? None of this made any sense. Unless he accepted the obvious conclusion: she was not Virginia, at least not HIS Virginia. He let his head fall back against the wheel.


Chapter 9 ~ Wolves and Lovers


Virginia lay curled up on the rug in front of the electric fireplace. Next to her Mike was dozing, his breath rhythmic and warm on her neck.

She felt very much awake.

Her mind was focusing on the moment when she'd shoved him away, when they were nearly at the point of no return and she'd suddenly realized they needed to use protection before they made love. Remembering that action, coming on the heels of the strange flashback to her fantasy of making love to Wolf, kept her from drifting into satisfied sleep.

For the first time in weeks she allowed herself to think about her dream, and found it as clear, as real in her mind as ever. And she remembered...her passionate interlude with Wolf, spontaneous, idyllic, a joyous discovery of each other. She'd thought "at last!" as they rolled across the leafy earth entwined in each other's arms.

It seemed to her she'd acted delighted, thrilled, really, when Wolf told her a few days later, slyly, that she was pregnant, carrying a little wolf cub inside her. But though a happy-ever-after ending had been foretold, though Wolf was clearly beside himself with joy, hadn't the surprising news startled, even shocked her? Hadn't she really suppressed her concerns, her fears, her–

ANGER

—anger at herself, anger at him, that everything was happening so fast? She hadn't even determined what their relationship was — hell, she hadn't even determined if they had a real relationship! And she'd found herself expecting his child.

She began to examine her fantasy more closely, trying to analyze it with the zeal of a latter-day Freud. Had she so desperately craved an unreal fairy-tale life that she'd hidden the realities of motherhood behind gauzy fantasies? God, her relationship with her own mother had been so disturbing, and now nonexistent; how could she have blithely accepted the idea of having a child herself? Sex was great. Love, even better. But the truth was, she wasn't ready for children. She didn't even know if she wanted them.

Perhaps, she wondered, shifting a little beside Mike, perhaps, her dream had been a premonition. Advice couched as narrative. An elaborate bedtime story with a moral that you should use your brain before other body parts become involved. If that was so, if she'd been meant to remember the lesson, then she supposed she was grateful.

She rolled over and looked at Mike. He was fun. He was kind. He was handsome and rich. And he was certainly sexy. Oh my, yes. He'd touched her in ways that made her scream, and sigh, and laugh, and want him to do it all over again. He even had a family tragedy in his past, which, she thought, rolling her eyes at her own foolishness, made him a little mysterious. He was a dream come true, in a way. And maybe she was falling in love with him. Maybe she was destined to be with him, if you believed in destiny. Which she thought she probably did. Whatever their destiny, the lesson was a good one. Everything in its own time.

Mike sighed and stretched. She leaned over and kissed him awake.

Later, in the car going home, she caught him casting furtive glances at her. "What?"

He laughed, chagrined at being caught. "Nothing. Just feeling good. Great, actually. Amazing, really. Terrific, fantastic, delirious—"

"You tend to babble, you know."

"Only with people I really, really like."

"Oh good. You like me, you really, really like me!" She leaned over and kissed him lightly. "The feeling is mutual." Her hand went up to stroke his neck.

"Whoa — I'm driving. You have no idea what that does to me." He put a hand on her arm. "Thanks for letting me drag you all over my past today. I know it was rough ground."

"Not that rough. And some of it was incredible." They smiled at each other. "So...who was the 'other one' you took out to see your mom? The other girl she was talking about?"

"Uh-oh. Nailed! I should have known you'd remember that."

"You're stalling."

"Um, that was Regina she was talking about. You met her, remember?"

Oh, yeah, I remember! "Yes. From the office. I didn't realize she and your mom knew each other. Considering the problems between your grandfather and your parents, I wouldn't have thought..."

"Well...Regina and I...we dated for a while, had a little...you know. Okay, my feelings of comfort are rapidly evaporating here."

"Really? I'm feeling fine." Virginia couldn't resist making him sweat a little. "So you were seeing each other?"

"Briefly. Really. Trust me. I mean, she's great, she's a terrific person, very talented, beautiful—"

"Yep, I'm feeling more secure by the minute, Mike, please go on. Was it serious?"

"Virginia! No. Reggie and I...Did I mention we're related?"

"What? You were dating your cousin? Oh, please don't tell me she's your sister—"

"Virginia!" He stared at her wildly, and his reaction convulsed her with laughter. "No, stop it, come on. We're related by marriage. Her great- grandmother, she was the Rauthursdottir, was married to Warren Thurson, and when he died, she remarried my great-grandfather."

"B.B.?"

"Right. They didn't have any children together. So, the only incestuous thing is that they all worked together. Got it?"

Virginia suppressed a giggle. "Maybe you could draw me a chart? So...now that we've established it was not illegal for you two to date, what happened?"

"Reggie is great. She and I weren't, though, not together. We went out for a couple of months, about a year ago. And then for a while after Cathy left—"

Cathy?? "Who's Cathy?" She tried not to poke him while he was driving.

He flashed her a look that said "Ouch!" clearly, but went on. 'Okay. Cathy was the woman I started seeing after Reggie. The one who went to Central America, remember?"

"Oh, right. The one who's saving the whales."

He made a face. "Not exactly. She's off in the rainforest doing medical work with Indians. She's a doctor."

"Oh." Virginia deflated, feeling suddenly like an underachiever. "Where is she doing this work?"

Mike shook his head, and the familiar furrow appeared between his eyebrows. "Don't know, exactly. It was a little abrupt, actually, her going. We were getting pretty serious, I think, though we had some problems, and then one day she was gone. I never got to talk to her directly, just got an email, saying this terrific opportunity had come up and she was off to Honduras, or Costa Rica or somewhere. She just ended it, said she knew we wanted very different things out of life. I guess that part was true. I tried going over to see her, but she'd already left." He looked over at her. 'You're very good at this, you know."

"At what?"

"At finding out things about me and not telling me much about yourself."

"I wasn't really trying to do that."

"Maybe. But fair's fair. Tell me about this Wolf guy."

"Wolf?" Despite herself, she felt her heart lurch at his name.

"Yeah, Wolf. The one you were so upset about at the subway station. The incredibly handsome guy I look like. You know, " he prompted, "your fiance?"

"I know." There was a very long pause while she gathered her thoughts. "Wolf...well, Wolf was..." Wolf was a fantasy. "Wolf was unique." She sounded strained, even to herself.

"How so?" There was a funny note in Mike's voice too, that she tried to read, but couldn't.

"Well, he was very uh, intense. Kind of neurotic, really, with a lot of issues." Funny, how saying that made her feel disloyal! "But very sensitive, funny, resourceful, sexy..."

"Oh. And what kind of work did he do?" Mike sounded jealous. That's what it was!

"Work. Well—" She could hardly say her fantasy was an ex-con; what would that say about her? "Um, he did a lot of different things, a tour guide, I guess you could say, and he was into food — things...and, and he had a job working for a member of the royal family, once." That sounded okay, she supposed.

"Uh-huh." Mike was looking at her strangely. "Was he foreign? I mean with a name like that, the royalty—"

"Yes, yes he was. Very foreign." That sounded lame. "Lots of different customs."

"Is that why you stopped seeing each other?"

"No, I... Yes, that was it, I guess." The conversation was so strange it was making Virginia extremely uncomfortable.

Mike seemed to pick that up, finally. "You'd rather not talk about him."

"If you don't mind."

Mike stared at the road ahead. There was silence between them for a few moments. Then he asked, "So...is it really over between you?"

She studied his profile, thinking before she answered. "Yes." She leaned against him. "It's over between us."

He put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulder.

~*~*~

The night crawled on towards dawn.

Mother Triuna sat in her caravan, wound in a ratty shawl that had been hers since it warmed her in the cradle. She hadn't slept; she never slept, anymore. Tonight something had drawn her to her well-worn deck of cards, something to do with that stranger. But there was more to it, something urgent. She couldn't explain it, nor did she want to. She would let the cards speak.

She shuffled the deck slowly in her gnarled hands, clearing her mind, concentrating only on the cards as they flipped and regrouped over and over, front and back, open and closed.

She placed a necklace on the table, a gypsy talisman figured with the signs of her clan. Then she cut the cards and began to place them on top of the talisman.

Danger.
Anguish.
Loss.

She paused, drawing in her breath.

Five of Coins - Suffering.
Ten of Swords - Defeat.
The Black Tower - Downfall.

Could nothing cross this?

Her hand shook as she dealt the mitigating cards.

The Magician.
The Moon.

She paused again before laying the final card. The Wheel of Fortune–

Destiny.

Her eyes widened as the card fell into place. As it must be.

She reached for a knife.

~*~*~

Wolf fell into a sleep made restless by the events of the day. Towards dawn he woke to a silent camp, and began to work again on loosening the ropes. He was surprised to find that someone, Bedros, perhaps, had left a tankard and a plate of stew close enough for him to reach. That was kind, he thought, sniffing it, though the congealed grease had the effect of quashing his appetite. He returned to his struggles with the restraints.

There was a soft step behind him and he stopped pulling on the ropes and feigned sleep. Suddenly he felt someone tugging — no, cutting — the ropes, and he turned his head, expecting to see the boy, but instead looked into the bottomless darkness of Mother Triuna's eyes. "What—?"

She put a warning finger to his lips, and he fell silent while she finished cutting through his bonds. The strands parted and he shifted, happy to get off his tail; it was almost numb from sitting in one position for so many hours. The old woman stood up, silent as a cat, and Wolf did the same, never taking his eyes from her. He was acutely aware of the six-inch blade in her hand. Was this some sort of nasty game the gypsies were about to play with him, a hunt of some kind with him as the prey? Or did the old woman want him gone before the others woke, perhaps to forestall violence? Either way, he thought stubbornly, he wasn't leaving without Virginia, whatever Virginia she might be. Whether she wanted to go or not.

With a quick movement the old gypsy reached down and grabbed his wrist so tightly her ancient bones bit into his skin. With the knife she gestured towards the woods beyond the encampment, woods the early light could barely penetrate. She looked into his eyes and he thought she was willing him to understand. He wished with all his heart that he did. And then she said:

"What's done must be undone."

A shiver ran up his spine. He opened his mouth to speak to her, but she shook her head vehemently, and pointed again to the trees, more urgently this time. He didn't pause to think, but started towards the woods, hoping Snow White's words would guide him. Some of the gypsies were beginning to stir with the dawn, and he stepped carefully around them.

The darkness of the woods had just enveloped him as the first arrow struck its mark. Lino, the enormous bearded gypsy gasped and stared at the silver arrow protruding from his chest. He looked up, amazed, and fell face forward into the dirt.

Chaos erupted in the camp. A woman, Sloya, from the sound, screamed Lino's name, and suddenly people were running, shouting, trying to find the arrow's point of origin. Wolf heard someone call "There!" and saw a man point into the woods. As if to mock the words, another arrow flew from a different direction entirely, catching the gypsy through the heart.

Wolf stared at the mayhem before him. The huntsman! Those were his arrows, that his skill, to shoot an arrow and know it would hit its target. But he was stunned; the huntsman hadn't come this way before, the last time, had he? Had the hunter attacked the gypsies in this way? Wolf knew nothing of it. But–

What's done must be undone.

Wolf held still and took in a deep breath. There on the wind, faint but present, was the smell of rotting animals, of blood. Of death. He turned, following his nose, putting his back to the terrified scene in the gypsy camp. There! A movement in the woods to his left.

He stopped, freezing in his tracks. The crossbow would find his heart as surely as it did the gypsies' unless he could catch the huntsman unawares.

The shoes.

Soundlessly Wolf slipped the magic shoes over his own, waiting until his hand disappeared in front of his face. He moved forward now, watching the shadow among deeper shadows as it moved relentlessly towards the gypsies. He stalked the huntsman, coming up behind him nearer and nearer until the hunter stood directly in front of him, his rough coat camouflaging his shape from the gypsies' view.

The huntsman lifted his crossbow again, adjusting the arrow methodically, slowly, patiently. Before him the gypsies ran to and fro, three of them dead now, the others not knowing where to run, how to escape. He raised the bow to his eye, and from his position directly behind him, Wolf could follow his line of sight, see the next target. Amid the chaos, one figure stood still, eyes wide, frozen in terror.

Bedros.

Not the boy! Not the cub! "No!" Wolf shouted, and the huntsman's startled flinch sent the deadly arrow into the heart of a horse six inches from Bedros' curly head. The boy stared at it for a moment, then ducked away behind the caravan.

The huntsman spun about, looking for the source of the shout, already reloading another arrow with a swift smoothness. Wolf stopped dead, willing his breath to stop, not daring to crunch a single pine needle. The huntsman was no more than six feet from him now, and Wolf could swear the man's watery blue eyes looked into his own, but then the man turned, the crossbow lowered. Wolf leapt.

The huntsman heard the sound, but Wolf was upon him before he could react. The crossbow was slow to rise and the arrow spent itself in the earth, spearing a cricket as it did so. Wolf crashed into him, knocking them both to the ground. The bow was dragged from the huntsman's hands as they rolled, hitting rocks, both finally slamming into a tree. Wolf let out a pained "oof!" as the air was knocked out of him, but he clung to the huntsman's cloak, unwilling to let him go. The huntsman stared, eyes wide, his hands seemingly grabbing nothing. But the nothingness had form, and mass, and the shape of a man, and he grabbed the invisible assailant around the neck until it began to choke and had to relax its grip on him. He rolled away, looking for his bow, and saw it lying among the underbrush.

Wolf saw the man's eyes shift, and he sprang first, grabbing the weapon, smashing the huntsman in the side of the head with it. The man crumpled to the ground without a sound. Wolf tossed the bow away, rubbing his throat, coughing.

People were coming. Almost the entire gypsy clan, hearing the fight, had left the open circle and were running towards where the huntsman lay. Feodor was one of the first to reach them and immediately knelt by the unconscious hunter, binding his hands, going through his pockets. There was a startled gasp from another gypsy, and one by one they stared in Wolf's direction as he gradually began to appear. The shoes, exhausted by all the activity, had run out of power. He stepped out of them, feeling slightly dizzy.

"Demon!" A woman pointed at him and backed away slightly. "Evil!"

"No, it's just—" he started to say, but another voice cut in.

"Don't be stupid!" Gigi's voice, imperious and filled with ridicule, sliced through the air, commanding attention. "Look; it's just his shoes. Magic shoes. He probably stole them from the trolls."

Wolf started to protest, but thought better of it. After all, she was quite correct. Besides, she'd nipped the superstitious chatter about demons in the bud. The gypsies turned their attention back to Feodor, who had found something interesting in the huntsman's pouch.

"What's this?" The gypsy leader unfolded a paper and began to read haltingly: "'Huntsman: you shall receive ample reward for discovering the whereabouts of this woman—'" Feodor looked up, his gaze streaking to Gigi. "'The Lady Virginia, daughter to Viscount Anthony of the Western—'" His eyes narrowed, and he stepped towards her, holding out the paper, revealing a quite accurate drawing that captured her likeness thoroughly. "'Lady' Virginia?" The gypsies stared at her, shrewd eyes beginning to calculate her worth.

"Don't you dare touch me!"

One of the woman scoffed. "She always did act too good for us!" There were mumbles of assent. The circle around her tightened.

And then, suddenly, a howl came from the wagons.

Wolf shuddered. The sound was both human and wolf-like, and it was filled with heart-rending sorrow. The gypsies froze for but a moment, then streamed back into the camp. Wolf followed at a distance, acutely aware of Gigi's presence near him. Bedros was kneeling by his grandmother's still form, holding her head on his lap, his head raised in a wolf like attitude of mourning. Very human tears ran down his face. The huntsman's third arrow had pierced Mother Triuna through the heart. The band clustered around the dead woman and her grandson, aghast, unable to speak, until Sloya turned her head, her eyes seeking out and spearing Gigi. "You! She is dead because of YOU!"

Gigi paled. "I didn't, I didn't—"

A man grabbed Gigi by the arm, but Feodor shoved him aside. "Forget the girl. We must leave the forest, and quickly, too. Hitch up the horses." People ran to follow his orders. Several men and women lifted the old woman's body, bearing it off to a wagon. Gigi turned to follow, but Feodor stepped in front of her. "No. You must leave us. Go away, any path you choose, but you must not come with us. I bear you no ill will..." He looked over his shoulder "—but others feel differently. We already are unwelcome in many places. Leave us, or we all will die." He looked at Wolf with a measured gaze. "I think you saved many lives. For that I thank you, friend. But you, too, must go."

Wolf said nothing.

The gypsy leader turned and followed the others. Wolf watched him go, and then his eye fell on the boy. A man and a woman were comforting him, stroking his hair, holding him as he wept. Wolf swallowed the lump in his throat. The cub would be all right. Someone would care for him. He was alive.

Alive...was the huntsman alive? Cripes! Wolf uttered a stronger curse under his breath and dashed back into the woods.

He was relieved to find the huntsman where he'd fallen, not unconscious any more, but still groggy, and the man's uncertain gaze fell on Wolf briefly before drifting towards the sounds of the camp. As Wolf checked the huntsman's bonds he had an intense flash of memory of himself standing over the older man, axe raised, ready to kill, and of Virginia's voice imploring him not to do so, saying it was wrong to kill a helpless man, no matter how evil he might be. Wolf shook off the memory and picked up the fallen crossbow. An evil weapon for an evil man.

"What are you waiting for? Kill him!"

"What?"

Gigi stood behind him. She took a step towards him, pointing at the man on the ground. "Kill him. He'll only come after me again." She tossed off the words as if she were barking orders to a servant.

Wolf frowned. "I'm not a killer."

"You're a wolf, aren't you?"

He bit back a reply. How could she be so like Virginia and yet so unlike her? "Let's just go. He's nothing without his crossbow."

He'd walked a good ten paces before he realized she wasn't following him. "Well?"

"Do you honestly think I'm coming with you?"

Wolf walked up to her, standing close enough that she was forced to look up sharply to see his face. He took a deep sniff of her and she stepped back, indignant. "I'll tell you what I think. I think you are terrified of being caught and sent back home. I think you are afraid to be here alone but are too proud to admit your fear. I think you are used to privilege, to getting your way and telling people what to do. And —" his voice was rising, "I think that's too bad, Miss, because you're not at home, and if you don't want to end up back home, or dead, or worse, you'd better start listening to someone else, namely ME!" He stepped back, out of knee range, and glowered at her.

Gigi's mouth gaped open, and her face changed from red to purple to white. "You, you—!" Wolf ignored her. He had to find the magic shoes. Then he could go. He found them under a pile of leaves, and could tell by the mild tingling in his hands that they were beginning to recharge themselves. He stuffed them under his coat and started to walk away.

"I bet you're addicted to those." Her voice taunted him.

"Am not." The nerve of that girl!

She laughed unpleasantly. "SURE you're not."

"What do you know about it?" She made him want to growl!

"I've seen it happen." She was following him. He was beginning to wonder if he wanted her to. "Magic is very addictive to people with weak personalities."

Weak—?! "Well you've got a pretty rotten personality, no question about that! Does your father really think Wendell would marry you? Wendell's too smart for that, if you ask me, even if he's not the sharpest sword in the closet."

She hit him on the arm. "How dare you!"

"NO HITTING!" Wolf snarled, showing his teeth, "or I won't be responsible for what happens!"

That shut her up for a few minutes. They moved through the woods, sun beginning to break through the gloom, Wolf leading, Gigi at least a half dozen paces behind, ignoring each other.

"What are you going to do with the crossbow?"

He'd forgotten he was carrying it. "I'm going to get rid of it, some place it can't be found."

"Why not bury it?"

"Nope. Buried things have a way of turning up. Besides, I don't want to poison the forest."

They walked on in silence.

The afternoon moved on towards evening. They found a stream that led to a picturesque waterfall and stopped to drink. Wolf rearranged the contents of his pockets and slung the crossbow over his other shoulder.

"I knew you couldn't throw away those shoes." She stared at him from the mossy bank, a smug expression on her face.

Again with the shoes! "I can throw them away any time I want."

"Then do it now. I dare you!"

Oh, she made him so MAD! "You think I can't?"

"I bet you won't even let anyone touch them."

"Oh, really?" He pulled the shoes out. "Touch them; go ahead. I don't care!" He did care, actually, he cared a little too much, but he wasn't going to let this annoying little— He was so mad he thrust them out in front of him. "Just don't put them on — I'm watching you."

She snorted. "I wouldn't dream of putting them on." And then before he had time to react, she grabbed the shoes and hurled them over the waterfall.

"My shoes!!!" He ran to the edge, staring down at the falls as the magic shoes twinkled away into oblivion. "I can't believe you did that, you, you—" He ran out of words and just stood there.

She stood up. "That's better. Now I can trust you to lead me out of here." She walked past him.

"What? What are you talking about!?"

She rolled her eyes. "Did you think I was going to follow a wolf in the woods after dark when he could put on invisibility shoes and sneak up on me and ravish me?"

Wolf stared at her. Was she kidding? "First of all," he growled between clenched teeth, "I am a wolf of my word, and I would never do that."

"Hah."

He ignored her sneer. "Secondly, I wouldn't need magic shoes to be invisible at night. Third—" He used his greater height to stare her down until she shrank back, "What makes you think I'd have to SNEAK UP on you to catch you?"

She paled visibly.

"And FOURTH, there isn't a sane person, human or wolf, in all the nine kingdoms who'd want to ravish someone as horrible and miserable as YOU!" He huffed once more at her and turned. "Come on. It's getting dark."

She said nothing more but fell in step behind him.

They walked on through the last rays of sunset. In a way Wolf had to admit he was glad the shoes were gone. The whole time he'd had them he'd been aware of having them, and that could make a person careless. He'd never admit it to her, though.

He was beginning to feel very hungry again. Very hungry indeed. For her part, the girl said nothing about her own hunger — at least she didn't complain about the hardships of the journey, so he supposed he'd have to be grateful for that. She really was a succulent little thing, as beautiful as his mate, with the same lovely body and delicious smell... He found himself sniffing in her scent and salivating at the very thought of—

Wait! What's wrong with me? Wolf shook his head to clear it. He didn't think about his own Virginia like that. Though she was a delectable little thing, he was long past the stage of thinking about tasting her. At least in THAT way. He was a changed wolf, er, man. He was enlightened. He didn't eat people.

Any more.


Chapter 10 ~ Chiaroscuro


Unacceptableunacceptableunacceptableunacceptable

Regina threw the telephone across the room, getting a little thrill from the violence as it smashed into the wall and began to buzz. How dare he! He’d taken her to his house, the cottage — and not only that, but out to meet his mother. That was unacceptable! Those places existed for them, for Michael and herself, not for him and that little waif—

She began to pace across her bedroom walking the distance, exactly 23 feet by 25 feet, wall to wall, window to window, making a circuit of the room, not even registering the dizzying view from her forty-second floor apartment. Far below a boat crawled down the East River. People hurried home to their families, or to their cats. Lights were coming up all over town with the setting of the sun.

Regina saw none of it.

She rubbed her left temple. The headache which had begun with Robert’s call showed all the signs of becoming a migraine, but with a perverse pleasure she welcomed the pain. What she saw before her eyes, with blinding clarity, was something even more sickening: that girl (she couldn’t bring herself to think her name) and Michael, HER Michael, writhing in passion together, in his house out on the island, on other nights in his loft downtown, and even, in her imagination, on the leather couch in his office, just on the other side of her wall. Robert Burleigh hadn’t reported that to her, but she imagined it was only a matter of time before they would dare to pursue their cloying relationship in front of her. Dare, hell! They would do it brazenly, practically inviting her to watch, torturing her, twisting a dagger through her heart, through her brain, through her eyes, leaving the musky smell of their foul congress behind them to choke her.

Regina stopped her pacing and went to the table by her bed. In the drawer she found a small box, carved beautifully into filigree by an unknown artist. Michael gave that to me, she gloated. He said it was a birthday gift, but I know it meant much, much more. She put her hand inside the box, toying with the button from his shirt, the small bottle of cologne she’d taken from his house, a photo of the two of them from an office party, the key case he thought he’d lost, and in a little gold box the lock of dark hair she’d snipped from his head while he slept. Talismans, she thought. They made him hers. Her property.

Frowning, she tossed the box with its contents onto her bed. She wasn’t a witch. These tokens were useless as long as the girl was in the picture, seducing him from his rightful partner. Stealing him from HER.

Which is unacceptable.

The pain in her head was becoming unbearable. She threw herself across the bed, pulling the lock of hair through her fingers, rubbing it lightly over her throbbing temple, willing the pain away, whispering Michael’s name over and over again like an incantation.

~*~

“Am I ever going to meet this ‘Mike?’”

Tony stared across the table at Virginia. She paused, a plate of asparagus in one hand, a beer in the other. She put them down carefully in front of her father before answering. “Sure, dad. Soon.”

Tony reached for the beer and unscrewed the top. “How soon is soon?”

“Well, it’s — soon. You know.”

Tony made a face at her, but Virginia wasn’t looking. For the past few weeks he’d barely seen her. Her evenings and weekends were spent either at work or with this Mike person who seemed to have swept her off her feet. She wasn’t around much during the day either, and he suspected she’d changed work shifts to the lunch hour so she could spend even more time with Mike.

It’s hell living with a grown-up daughter, he grumbled to himself. There had been a few nights she hadn’t come home at all, and while that troubled him as only a father could be troubled, he knew if he made a scene about it she wouldn’t come home ever. He wondered when he’d lost control of his home life. Probably from day one, he thought grimly.

He hoped she was being careful. He hoped she wasn’t doing anything she would regret. He hoped Mike was a decent guy. He hoped he’d get to meet him.

He decided to try one more time. “No, really, Virginia, please bring him by here. I really do want to meet him.” A thought crossed his mind. “You’re not ashamed of me, are you?”

Well, that was the problem, actually. Virginia suddenly felt a pang of guilt. She was hurting Tony’s feelings. He really is an okay guy, she reasoned, if a hopeless screw-up. And Mike certainly has an odd side to his family... “Okay,” she said, trying to hide the resignation in her voice. “How about Friday?”

“Good. That’s good. We’ll sit and talk —”

“We’ll stop by on our way out, dad.”

“Good enough. Pass me the meatloaf.”

Virginia passed the meatloaf, then glanced at the clock. 5:30. Time to get ready.

“Aren’t you eating?”

“Nope. I’m meeting Mike at his office. We’re going out.” She smiled at him and went down the hall.

“Hmm. Going out. Again. Sure.” Tony took a mouthful of meatloaf and called after her retreating figure. “Come home at a decent hour, okay?”

Virginia didn’t answer.

~*~

Veronica the receptionist smiled her usual bland smile at Virginia. She dialed a number and another woman, a model-thin redhead with tawny eyes, appeared to lead the way back to Mike’s office. Virginia had by now been in the offices several times, but evidently no one was allowed to go back to the inner sanctum without an escort.

The redhead was Shira, Mike’s secretary. Virginia remarked to herself yet again how striking the people were who worked at Thurson/Wolf. Where they’d gotten all these gorgeous people, male and female, she couldn’t guess. Maybe, she mused, there’s an employment agency specializing in exotic beauties who can type. But it wasn’t just the secretarial help. As they passed down the hall, Virginia looked into some of the other offices. In one a tall, fortyish blond man with Viking features was in discussion with a handsome woman, her silver hair caught up in a french twist. They looked like actors from a foreign film. Across the hall a pale-eyed man with swarthy skin and jet black hair was admonishing an assistant. The underling looked for all the world like he would have put his tail between his legs, if he’d had one. Virginia smiled to herself at the image.

“Just wait here,” Shira said. “I’m sure Mr. Wolf won’t be long. I’ll be leaving now. So if you need anything—"

“No, no, I’ll be fine.”

Virginia sat down on the soft leather couch, looking out the window at the sky. How beautiful it was, she mused. Or maybe that was just her mood. Yesterday morning when she’d awakened, tangled in the sheets of Mike’s bed in his wonderful TriBeCa apartment, she’d felt so content, so happy, that she could hardly keep from laughing. Mike had wondered at her gaiety, but she couldn’t explain it in words. She’d had to show him. Just thinking about how she’d showed him made her want to both laugh and blush.

“You must be the young woman my grandson is seeing.”

The voice behind her was rich and low, with a hint of gruffness. Virginia swivelled, squeaking on the leather.

She sprang to her feet. “Hello, yes, I’m uh, Virginia.” She was in the presence of a, well, presence. He was an imposing figure all right, not as tall as Mike but broad-shouldered and heavier, giving the impression of vast strength. Of power. White hair, cut a little on the longish side, framed his tanned, lined face, and the contrast with his rather light green eyes was startling. “Well, ‘Uh-Virginia’—” She blushed in embarrassment at his mockery — “I’m Michael’s grandfather, William Wolf. I see you’re making yourself at home.”

He was smiling at her, a very easy smile that showed off white teeth, but though his words seemed innocuous enough, something in his manner conveyed disapproval. She was beginning to feel very small in front of him, and very much out of place. “Yes, I’m waiting for him to finish his meeting. The secretary said I could wait here, that he’d be done soon.” Why did she feel compelled to explain herself?

“Did she. Well. Michael’s in a meeting with someone rather important.” And I’m not? She was getting a little annoyed with the old man’s tacit commentary. “I’m sure he’ll be along as soon as he’s done.”

“I don’t mind waiting.” She smiled at him, trying to look confident, feeling defiant, but suspecting she was a rather insignificant blip on Mr. Wolf, Sr.’s, radar screen.

“Fine. I’ll leave you then. Good evening, Miss Lewis.” He gave her an almost imperceptible nod, then turned and left.

Well, that's interesting, she thought. I didn’t even tell him my last name and he already knew it. Though it was certainly possible Mike had talked about her to his grandfather, she somehow still felt spied on. And he’d tried to intimidate her. She didn’t like either feeling.

Virginia went to the doorway, hoping to see Mike, needing his presence to reassure her. But as if to hammer home her discomfort, the next person she saw was Regina. Virginia sighed inwardly as the honey-haired woman slithered toward her, the skirt of her claret-colored dress swishing against impossibly long legs.

“Well,” Regina cooed. “It‘s Virginia, isn’t it?”

Virginia made her voice drip with honey. “Hello, Regina. How are you?”

“Fantastic. And you? You look a little tired. Getting enough sleep lately?”

Virginia smiled. “Not really.” She tried to smile in a way that said “your ex-boyfriend and I are up all night having sex.”

The blonde’s smile didn’t waver. “Too bad. You look like you could use a long nap. They have terrific concealers now for shadows under the eyes.”

Oh please! What was this, high school? “Thanks. You’ll have to tell me what you use.”

Regina smiled. Virginia smiled. She was trying not to feel like a terrier in the presence of a saluki. Why was everyone who worked here so damn tall?

“Well, I’ll be going. You and Michael have a nice time. Don’t keep him out TOO late.” Regina swished down the hall to her office and pointedly closed the door.

Virginia walked back to the window and looked out, slowly releasing an angry breath. Though Mike’s office was an oasis of comfort, filled with reminders of his personality, Thurson/Wolf & Rauthursdottir as a whole was beginning to give her the creeps. All that beige! All those smoky mirrors! Impossibly tall, good-looking people populating every office. That skanky Regina lurking around every turn. And at the top of the food chain, Mike’s terrifying grandfather calling the shots. Virginia reflected it must have been difficult to grow up in the presence of such a critical personality. Poor Mike. And his poor father. She wondered if she’d have had the fortitude to stand up to someone like the elder Mr. Wolf. Had Mike ever wanted to rebel? she wondered. Had he wanted this career, this life, or had it been dictated to him? Had he embraced it willingly?

Her eye went to the portrait of the founder on the wall. Even HE looked friendlier than William Benson Wolf. It was amazing, though, how strong heredity could be. All three of them, B.B., William and Mike, had such incredible eyes, able to deliver an amazingly penetrating gaze. Of course, when Mike looked at her, it was a marvelous sensation. With William it just made her shudder.

She looked at her watch. It was going on 7:20. Looking across Sixth Avenue she saw klieg lights set up in front of Radio City Music Hall. Some special show opening, she imagined. It was easy, she thought, this high up in the middle of Manhattan, this island of glass and artificial light and electricity, to forget there were other places on earth, places where the lighting came from the moon and stars, where it was green, where there were trees, where nature was wild, not framed on four sides by concrete. For a moment she felt nostalgic for the wonderful kingdoms of her imagination.

“Sorry! I didn’t think we were ever going to finish.” Mike tossed papers onto his desk and put his arms around her, sighing, then drawing in a deep breath. “You smell good.”

“Thank you.”

He kissed her cheek perfunctorily and went back to the desk. “I thought we’d be done about an hour ago, but Reggie found some paperwork this client is going to need to sign, so as long as he was here — but then it dragged on and on—” He plopped down in his chair and leaned back. “I’m fried.”

She came up behind him and started rubbing his shoulders. ‘If you’re too tired to go, I’ll take a raincheck—” She tried not to sound disappointed.

“No. No. I want to go. I refuse to let this place—” He cut off what he was going to say. An angry crease had formed on his forehead, but as Virginia started rubbing his neck, it gradually lessened. “Aaah, that feels great. But do that a little more and we’re never leaving here.”

“And what would your grandfather think of that?” she teased.

Mike’s furrow came back and he didn’t smile. “Screw him.” At her startled expression he laughed, a short burst that didn’t in the least sound amused. “Never mind. Rough day. Let’s go.”

As they passed Regina’s office Virginia could have sworn she saw a shadow by the door. Spying, so much spying.

They went to a lovely, romantic place for dinner, but Mike seemed distracted throughout. Virginia began to grow tired of carrying the conversation all by herself, but chalked it up to Mike’s tiredness. He pushed his food around on his plate absently, smiling at her when she said something amusing, but somehow hot completely present.

They walked up Broadway after dinner. Though she couldn’t see him, Virginia assumed Robert was nearby. Mike held her hand, but that same distracted mood still possessed him. Finally she stopped.

“Mike, what’s going on?”

“What do you mean?”

She took a breath. Talking about feelings was really a challenge, she thought. “You’re...kinda not here tonight. Did something bad happen at work? I mean, more than it being a long day?”

“Virginia, there’s nothing wrong. I’m just really tired.”

“I know, you said that. But there’s something else, I can tell.”

“Come on, Virginia.” He took a few steps away, then stopped when he realized she wasn’t following. “I said it’s nothing.” He sounded annoyed.

Virginia swallowed. “I had a little conversation with your grandfather.” He didn’t say anything. “I got the feeling maybe he’s been talking to you about me. Is that true?”

“Are you accusing me of something?”

She was stunned. ‘Mike, no, of course not! God, why would you think that? It’s just, he seemed to know about me, my name, and you seemed angry with him, so I thought—”

“You thought what, that all we do at work is dissect our social lives?” Mike looked really upset and she couldn’t figure out what she’d said to trigger his anger. “You might be able to get away with that at the restaurant. Some of us have actual work to do, you know!”

The words came out in a harsh tone she’d never heard him use before. Her cheeks flushed with anger, but then despite herself she could feel herself start to shut down. “I’m sorry,” she heard herself say in a little voice, “I didn’t mean to—”

“—No, I’m sorry. I can’t believe I said that to you; that was terrible.” Mike closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. She could see he was consciously pulling back from a confrontational stance. “Forgive me?” He touched her face and she nodded, but the sting of his diminishing words was still there. “You’re right. I just get mad when he tries to take over my life. There’s stuff going on at the office, Virginia — and yes, he did ask me about who I’m spending all my time with. So I told him about this wonderful woman I met, named Virginia Lewis, and I thought he’d —” He looked away. “Forget it. You don’t need to hear about this.”

“Yes I do, if it’s about me.” She took his hand again and held it.

“No,” he said. “It is, but it’s really not. It’s about him and me. And my father. It’s a lot to take, sometimes. It’s—” He stopped abruptly.

“Mike?”

“Listen,” he said, taking both her hands, ‘I think I’m just going to take you home and call it a night, okay?”

She nodded. At this point she knew his mood was counter to a romantic interlude anyway. Hers, too, if the truth be known. He smiled halfheartedly at her and turned back the way they’d come. In a few seconds the car pulled up, Robert at the wheel.

They drove to her house, not saying anything to each other. This time their silence was oppressive, and disturbed her. He walked her to the door, but didn’t kiss her goodnight, which upset her more than anything else. As he turned to go Mike said, rather diffidently, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Mike.”

He didn’t answer. The car drove away.

~*~

She waited until late afternoon to call, hoping he’d call her first

“Thurson/Wolf& Rauthursdottir. How may I direct your call?”

“Oh, hello. This is Virginia Lewis. May I speak to Michael Wolf?”

“One moment, please.” The receptionist put her on hold, and music by Yanni filled the earpiece. Virginia frowned, but in a new seconds, much to her chagrin, she was humming along. “I’m sorry, Miss Lewis. Mr. Wolf is out sick today.”

“Sick? What do you mean sick? Sick how?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know. He called in earlier and spoke to his secretary.”

“Was he feeling sick yesterday?” Her mind flew to their less than happy parting the night before.

“I really don’t know, sorry. I’m not the regular receptionist. I’m a temp. A ton of people are out sick. I guess the flu’s going around.”

“I guess. Well, okay. Thanks.” Virginia cradled the phone. Now she felt guilty for her frustration the night before. No wonder he’d been difficult. Must’ve felt it coming on.

She dialed Mike’s number. It rang four times and then there was a click. “Hello.”

“Hi, Mike? I heard you—”

“This is Mike. I want to talk to you, but it’ll have to be later. So after the beep, leave a message. Thanks.” Oh, his answering machine. Where was he?

The beep came. “Mike, it’s Virginia. They told me at your office that you were home sick, and I wanted to find out how you are. If, if you can, please call me, because I—”

There was another click. “Virginia?” Mike sounded sleepy, and his voice was thick.

“You’re there. Hi. How...are you? They said—”

“It’s nothing. Just the flu or something. Sleeping.”

“I’m so sorry I woke you up.”

“‘Sokay.”

“Can I bring you anything? Medicine? Chicken soup? Me? I could come over—”

“No, I—” He broke off. Virginia could hear labored breathing.

“Mike?”

There was an awfully long pause. “I’ll be fine.” There was that raspy, frightening breathing again.

Virginia frowned. “Are you sure? You don’t sound too—”

“Fine! I said I’m fine,” he said sharply.

Guilt. I’m bothering him and he feels like hell. “Okay. I’m sorry. Call me if you need anything, promise?”

There was another long pause, during which she heard more of the raspy sound. He really didn’t sound good at all. “Mike?”

“Yeah, yeah. Okay, fine. Goodbye.”

“Bye.” The receiver clicked and he was gone.

Virginia stared at the phone, then began to pace a little. Mike really sounded awful. But he’d been fine last night, he hadn’t been sneezing or coughing or anything. She began to get worried. Men are really terrible about being sick, she thought. Either they’re complete hypochondriacs like Dad or ridiculous stoics. Either way they don’t take care of themselves.

She bit her lip, wondering what to do.

~*~

Virginia stood at the door to Mike’s apartment, a loft, really, all the way downtown. There was an emptiness to the place that she supposed harkened back to its original purpose as an industrial building. Mike had neighbors, but you'd never know it. The hallway was empty, and she thought with alarm if anything really ever happened to him, he could lie here without a soul ever knowing he was alive or dead. The thought made her shudder. She clutched a rather large bag containing a variety of over-the-counter flu medications, kleenex, Vick’s Vaporub and the largest jug of orange juice she could find. She paused, her finger poised over the buzzer. God, I hope this is a good idea. I don’t want to be accused of smothering him.

On the other hand, she could always drop off this stuff and leave.

She buzzed. She waited. She buzzed again. She knocked. She waited.

She raised her hand to buzz again, but there was a sound at the door. She looked at the peephole and smiled. There was a sizeable pause before she heard locks turning. The door opened and Mike’s face appeared. “Virginia...what are you...”

“I’m sorry. I know you told me not to come, but I was worried. You sounded terrible.”

He looked terrible, too, his skin an unhealthy gray, his eyes dark and feverish. His voice was a scratchy whisper. “I’m all right. You shouldn’t be here.”

“I’m not afraid of catching the flu. I have pretty good resistence to germs. Look, we’ve spent so much time together, If I’m gonna catch something from you I have it already. I brought you some stuff from the drug store.” She stood in the doorway. “Can I...come in?”

He looked at her, at the bag, shivered and pulled his robe more tightly closed. “I really have everything I need—”

Really! All this fuss! “Come on. Let me be Florence Nightingale. I promise not to stay long. Mike, I like having someone look after me when I’m sick. Don’t tell me you don’t because I won’t believe you.”

It seemed he took an awfully long time to decide, but finally he stepped back to let her in. “Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Consider me warned.”

The inside of Mike’s loft looked like a wrecking crew had been there. Amazing! In the few days since she’d last been here the place had been completely transformed, and not for the better. The shades were drawn and no lights were on. His clothes lay in disarray throughout the apartment, couch pillows had been tossed on the floor, dishes of half-eaten food littered the cocktail table and in the bedroom, sheets and blankets were half on and half off the bed. Pajama tops matching the bottoms he had on were hanging on a lamp shade. “Wow, nice shot, nearly a basket,” she quipped, but Mike didn’t smile. So this was the “hidden” side of Mike, the slobby side that his cleaning lady kept from the world!

The only items she expected to find were not in evidence — the kind of drugstore goods she’d just picked up. A quick look in the bathroom failed to turn them up either. “I thought you said you had everything. You don’t have anything, not even tissues.”

He shrugged.

“When did you come down with this?”

“Last night.”

“What is it, sore throat—”

“I just feel like hell. Fever, stomach, you know. Do we have to discuss the gory details?”

“No, of course not. Do you want some orange juice?”

He shook his head. He started to breathe shallowly. “I...need to sit down,” he panted. His face was ashen.

“Yes, yes, of course. Sit.” He plopped in the bedroom chair, on top of a pair of socks and a newspaper. He was shivering slightly and put his head down for a moment over his knees. She knelt and touched his forehead. “Jeez, Mike, you’re a mess.”

“I’ll be okay.” He sat up, drawing in a big breath.

“Maybe you should see a doctor.”

“No doctors!”

His vehemence shocked her. “Okay,” she said softly. “But just let me straighten up your bed so you can get back in it. Then I’ll make some tea. That’ll make you feel better.” She didn’t know if it would, but it was something to do.

She pulled up the sheets and plumped the pillows, and an image from long ago flooded her mind — her mother, before she’d left, fixing up Virginia’s bed when she had a sore throat or a cold. A comforting presence, with a cool, soft hand on a little girl’s forehead. The bed made, Virginia reached for the pajama tops. They were soaked with sweat. “God, Mike, you really are sick. Let me call a doctor, get you a prescription —”

“Virginia, please, stop.” He swallowed. “I have some medicine. In the cabinet, top shelf.”

She went into the bathroom. On the top shelf between razor blades and toothpaste was a small amber-colored bottle with pills inside. “Are these the ones? Little brown pills?”

“Yeah. There should be a few left.”

She brought them out with some water. “What are these, exactly? There’s no doctor’s name or anything.”

“Didn’t get them from a doctor. Herbal.”

Oh, great. Mike was Nature Boy. “Is that a good idea?”

He swallowed the pills and made a face. “Gah. Don’t worry. They’re not made of poison mushrooms or anything. They work.”

She was unconvinced. “Okay, but promise me if you don’t feel better tomorrow you’ll see a doctor. A real doctor.”

“Uh-huh.”

Promise me.”

“God, what a pain you are, Virginia! Okay, I promise.”

“Good. Listen, change your pajamas and get into bed. I’m going to make some tea.”

“Yes, Nurse Ratched.” He gave her a half-hearted smile and pushed himself up from the chair.

She took the bag into the kitchen and put the orange juice away in the fridge. There were more food-encrusted plates on the counter, and after she put water on to boil, she busied herself clearing them away. She left the dishes in the sink for the invisible cleaning lady. So he sees an herbalist, huh? Okay, then he gets herb tea. She’d bought both black tea and camomile at the store and put a bag of the latter into a cup, filled it with hot water and a spoonful of honey and went back to the bedroom.

Mike was in bed, but sans the pajamas. “What are you, a nudist?”

“Too hot.”

“Whatever. Drink this.”

He took the cup and sniffed it. She rolled her eyes. “Drink it. Then go to sleep.”

“You’re very pushy.”

“I know. Dream about going to see a doctor tomorrow.”

“I’d rather dream about you.” He sipped the tea but cocked an eyebrow at her.

She smiled. “That’s nice. Even when you’re delirious you're horny.”

He looked up at her with a sly, thoroughly lascivious smile. “It’s a big bed. Care to join me?”

“You are delirious.”

“And you’re cruel.” He yawned hugely. She took the cup from him and put it on the night stand next to the pill bottle. He had been looking a little livelier while they bantered, but now just lay back and closed his eyes. “I’m just gonna...” He trailed off.

“Yes, sleep. I’m going to stay here a little, okay?”

He looked too tired to argue. “Okay.” He opened his eyes again. “I’m sorry about last night.”

“I know. Forget it.” She stroked his forehead. Like her mother had done for her. She wondered if Lisette had done the same for him. She must have. Funny how maternal instinct clicked in so, well, instinctively. I wonder what sort of mother I’d be? she mused, then felt a pang as the thought struck home.

Virginia turned the night stand light down to low and pulled the chair over nearer to the bed. She sat watching him, hoping he would be okay in the morning. Preparing herself to argue more strongly in favor of seeing a doctor.

Whatever else those little brown pills did, they seemed to relax him, and he fell asleep quickly. Virginia sighed. Tough guy. Shark. Hah. Laid low by a virus. She looked down at Mike’s dark head on the pillow and felt a rush of affection for him. Funny, she thought, how that combination of strength and vulnerability plays on both sets of our hormones, the sexual and the maternal, for a potent double whammy. Maternal instinct and libido. A very potent combination, indeed.

It was a little stuffy, so she got up to open the window a crack. She raised a blind, looking out at his tremendous view of New York harbor. Lights twinkled in the darkness and reflected in the water. In the distance she could make out the Statue of Liberty. Beautiful. She looked at her watch. Maybe I’ll stay till morning.

She left the shade up and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea for herself, then carried it back to the chair. Mike had rolled over on his side, dragging the blanket with him, and his naked back was uncovered. Better pull up the covers now that it’s cooling off in here, she thought. And — ooh, bonus! I get a nice view of his cute ass, too, while I’m at it! She reached over him for the blankets and stopped. What was—

She stared at the bed. What was that? She bent down.

There was a scar at the base of his spine.

A two-inch-long crescent-shaped scar, a very old scar, white against his darker skin, a scar right where—

No.

No, no—

Right where a tail would be.

Where Wolf’s tail would be.

No. No!

Her brain reeled. No, this can’t be, get a grip, this is reality, this isn’t fantasy, he’s not, he isn’t, he can’t, he can’t be—

She stepped back, staggering slightly, backing into the window sill, her shadow streaking across the bed from the bright moonlight—

Shadow.

She spun around, staring at the sky.

Moonlight.

Full moon.


Chapter 11 ~ But Little Lambs are Lethal


It was quite late by the time they reached the end of the woods.

"Finally!" Gigi sighed, emerging from the trees to gaze at the lights of the tiny village in the valley. "Civilization at last!"

Wolf recognized the location and was not comforted.

Little Lamb Village. Scene of so many memories, not the least of which being his near-execution at the hands of fire-hungry villagers. Avoid, avoid, go around, go now, run in the other direction, Wolf! the voice of reason shouted in his head.

The voice didn't have a chance, not with his stomach shouting so much louder. And he knew he'd better answer its call — the last few miles he'd actually started drooling every time Gigi's scent wafted his way.

The girl in question was halfway down the sloping path, intent on making the village before the threatening skies above unleashed a torrent of rain. Wolf shivered and trotted off after her; despite her rudeness, despite the drooling, he felt he had to keep her in sight, no matter how horribly she behaved towards him. Truth to tell, being near her was almost like being near Virginia: her scent, her looks, even the pitch of her voice... as long as he didn't actually listen to what she was saying, Wolf could almost believe he'd been reunited with his mate.

Almost.

They'd walked straight through since the unfortunate shoe incident of the afternoon. Amazing how much faster one could travel when not encumbered with Rapunzel-length hair, a dog on rollers and a maniacal killer on one's trail! Wolf had suffered one deep pang of nostalgia, though, as they traversed the deep forest in darkness. He'd remembered that oh-so-illuminating night spent in Snow White's cottage, when he'd begun to understand what made Virginia so cold, so unhappy. It came to him now that the cottage was where he'd really started to fall in love with her, not just lust after her (although waking up on a bed of her sweet-smelling hair still ranked as one of the erotic highlights of his life). Unfortunately that night in front of the fireplace was not to be repeated. There'd been no reason to stop, every reason to press on.

As if to underline Wolf's unease about the town, thunder rumbled overhead and a flash of lightning briefly illuminated the rolling countryside. There would be rain soon, and lots of it.

He sped up to walk with Gigi into the town. At least this late at night no sheep were about to tempt him, nor any shepherdesses, either. He took a mental inventory of himself and realized he didn't feel the way he had the last time he passed this way. His blood wasn't racing, and his nervousness perfectly understandable under the circumstances. Tonight he was probably as safe as a wolf could be in this terrible town, which wasn't very safe at all.

If he was out of sorts, it was because the purpose of this journey was still beyond his understanding. He'd found Virginia, all right, but she wasn't his mate. He'd saved the gypsies, most of them, anyway, but all he'd gotten for his pains was a curt thank you and a swift goodbye. He'd saved the boy –

Well, that at least was something. Evidently because of his actions something terrible HAD been undone. But if so, where was Snow White? When was he going to come to the end of this quest?

The heavens opened up, drowning his thoughts, just as they reached the Baa Bar.

The inside of the tavern was as warm and noisy as he remembered. Not that he remembered it very clearly at all —mostly he recalled it as a blur having something to do with his various appetites. Most full moons were like that for Wolf, some better, some worse, and that had been one of the worst, including as it did a full-fledged blackout, a vision of the evil queen and a violent confrontation with a henhouse full of chickens.

Wolf shuddered. Would he never be able to act like a human being when the full moon called him? He still feared what would happen once he returned to the Tenth Kingdom. Would Virginia be safe, as she insisted she would? Or would his cycle grow worse and worse until it destroyed them both?

Still, there was that one clear recollection, one of the few things he remembered about that awful night. It had happened right here, in the tavern, when Virginia had saved him from getting roughed up by bulliesby identifying him as her husband. The memory still warmed him, as did the thought that he would be her husband, soon, for real this time.

But only if he were reunited with her again.

Gigi had commandeered a table — probably badgered someone until they vacated it in terror of her, Wolf thought darkly. He sat down across from her, warily regarding the people around him.

"Evenin' folks. Eatin' late, aren't ya?"

The round-faced proprietor appeared at their table, setting down two steaming mugs of cider, though neither of them had ordered anything yet. Barbara Peep's good-natured face would have been more welcome in Wolf's eyes had he not seen it twisted into murderous rage when she and the other Peeps had attempted to burn him at the stake. Her cheery good humor seemed real enough now, but he had to fight to keep from snapping at her.

"Not a fit night out — p'raps this'll warm you both up. Can I get you some food, then?"

"Yes! I'm utterly famished!" Gigi graced the woman with a winning smile, but the moment the Peep woman left the smile turned into a frown. "I don't suppose you have any money."

Wolf frowned back. "And why would you suppose THAT?"

"Well..." Clearly she was about to say something derogatory, but for once held her tongue. "So you CAN pay for this?"

Well, now that she mentioned it....Wolf felt around in his pockets. Too bad he'd stashed the crossbow outside under a woodpile; just one of the ruby eyes on the carved silver head would have bought quite a lot of pork chops. "Well, at the moment I —"

His fruitless search made Gigi roll her eyes exactly the same way Virginia rolled hers when she was exasperated with him. "Never mind," she said in a surly tone, "I'll pay." She half-turned away from him and stuck her hand down her cleavage.

Oh I wish I were that hand! Wolf thought, trying to imagine the sensation, fighting with his tongue to keep it from lolling. Stop it! Get a grip! He whined slightly and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment until stars replaced the image in his brain of her snowy breasts. He opened them in time to see Gigi pluck a small velvet purse out of her bodice. When she untied it Wolf caught the glint of gold.

The Baa Bar's owner brought them plate after plate of meat, meat, MEAT, and bowls of steaming vegetables. Wolf rarely paid any attention to things that grew in the ground, but even he had to admit the turnips and carrots looked enticing. Gotta hand it to these Peeps—pretty clever scheme, damming up that magic well!

He sheared the meat off another lamb chop, crunched the bone loudly and sucked out the marrow. "Mmmm-MMM! Hits the spot, all righty!" he cooed happily, sharing his joy.

Gigi curled her lip at him. "You're disgusting."

"Sorry if I offend you," he said, licking his fingers.

"Ugh. Where did you learn your manners?"

He leaned over the piled of cleaned bones and gave her his most predatory stare, complete with flashing yellow eyes. "I learned my manners back home," he growled in a menacing tone, "Back home with the pack."

It had the desired effect. Gigi sat up with a gasp, pulling as far away from him as she could go, as a result nearly falling off her chair. Good! Serves her right! What an unbelievably insulting person! I'd like to throttle her. Well, actually, I'd like to bite her! No, REALLY, what he WANTED to do, despite her caustic words and superior attitude, was to lean over and kiss her. The conflicting impulses fought in his head and to make them go away he picked up another chop.

A shadow fell over the table.

"You're new, aren't you?"

Oh NO.

Sally Peep.

Wolf swallowed. Hard.

The blonde shepherdess leaned on the table so that her tight bodice was leveled at his eyes. "Haven't seen you here before. Are ya here for the festival?"

Wolf opened his mouth but it was so dry his voice came out in a very unmanly, unwolfy squeak. "Well, I, um —" He cleared his throat and tried again. "Not really, no."

"Too bad. There's going to be a competition for Most Beautiful Sheep and Shepherdess tomorrow, and I'm going to win!" She stood up and tossed her curls, then looked at Gigi for the first time. "You're not going to enter, are you?"

Gigi's eyes glittered. Uh-oh... Shut up, Gigi! Just keep quiet! "I might," she said nonchalantly. "Or I might not. Haven't decided." Aagghh!

Sally twisted her lip. "I wouldn't, if I were you." She turned back to Wolf, all seductive smiles. "My name's Sally Peep. What's yours?"

Oh, cripes! He wasn't under the influence of the moon, he'd halfway expected to encounter her, and he STILL couldn't form a complete sentence around her. It was if he were fifteen again, meeting Dorcas. Well, she DOES resemble Dorcas, quite a bit, in fact, why didn't I notice that last time? Well, there was a full moon last time, and I don't know WHAT I was noticing, and why am I thinking about Dorcas anyway? Am I regressing?— isn't that another of Dr, Horovitz' words? Regressing? Re-gress-ing? Obsessing? Can you say obsessing, Wolf? Stop stop STOP! Pull yourself together! A name a name a name a name — "My name?"

Which was the moment Gigi decided to put in her oar. "His name is Wolf. And if you don't mind, Miss Peep, we're eating."

Aagghh! Gigi! NO!!!!

But it was too late. At the word "wolf" a deadly silence fell on the Baa Bar.

"No, no, it's not 'Wolf,' don't be silly, Gigi dear, that's just her little pet name for me, it's, um —" oh well — "Wolf-SON. Warren Wolfson."

He grinned at Sally, at Barbara Peep, at the people around him, hoping they wouldn't notice how forced a grin it was, and he was standing up and pushing away from the table, saying "Come on, Gigi, time to go, we've got that, um, appointment, and thank you, Mistress Peep for that excellent meal, Gigi —"

"Don't pull me, Wolf, I'm not finished!"

Aaauuuggghhhh! Wolf again! "Honey —" and now he was gritting his teeth and clamping his hand down on her arm, and she was finally coming with him, though not easily, staring at him as though he'd lost his mind, and they were making their way to the door as everyone glared at them, including Sally, whose face had changed from seductive to cold, and they were outside in the rain, wet but alive.

They both started shouting at once.

"Don't you EVER call me Honey again! I don't even like you!"

"What's wrong with you? Don't you know they'll burn me alive if they find out I'm a wolf?"

"Maybe if you kept your eyes off that slutty girl's chest for a moment you wouldn't look like one!"

"Are you TRYING to get me killed?"

"And your table manners gave it away anyhow!"

"I'm not the one with bad manners!"

"Don't you ever put your hands on me again!"

"And what was that about entering the contest?"

"What were you thinking?"

"What was I thinking? Listen, lady, they'd throw you on the fire along with me!"

"Not if I'm nowhere near you, so keep away from me!" She glared at him, rain dripping off the end of her nose.

"That's fine with me!" Water plastered his hair and seeped down his collar.

"Fine!"

"Fine!"

"Goodbye and good riddance!"

"You'll be sorry!"

"Hah!"

And with that they stormed away in opposite directions.

Wolf retraced his soggy steps to the woodpile where he'd secreted the crossbow. He was relieved to find it untouched. Not the sort of thing to leave around, unless, of course, the Peeps used it to kill each other off. That would make the world a better place, no doubt about it.

He slung it over his shoulder and looked around, trying to decide what to do. Finding a dry place to spend the rest of the night was probably the first order of business. He turned up a street at random. Well, this is another fine mess. Find Virginia, lose Virginia. Find Gigi—lose Gigi. Not that she's much of a loss, that infuriating, self-important, trouble-making –

"Leave me alone!"

Oh, no. That voice! That annoying, supercilious voice! Could she not spend a minute on her own without getting into trouble?

"Don't touch me!"

Evidently not.

Wolf closed his eyes and sighed, then turned and sped towards the sound.

~*~*~

"Quit shouting. No one's gonna hear you, anyway. Now, you're not gonna give us any trouble, are you?"

Two enormous Peep boys flanked Gigi in a narrow alley with a pile of smelly trash at one end. They'd come up on her so suddenly, their steps muffled by the rain, that she hadn't noticed them until an enormous hand grabbed her shoulder. As they spun her around, she saw Sally standing at the entrance to the alley, a look of triumph on her face.

"Let go of me."

The larger of the two smiled at her. The smile was not reassuring. "We just want to talk with you, nice like, don't we, Bert?"

"That's right, Ewan!"

"Now then —you're not going to enter that contest tomorrow, are you, girlie?"

"None of your business what I do — and don't call me 'girlie!'" Her tone was haughty, but a little note of nervousness underlay the annoyance. The two men were AWFULLY big.

"Now, now, GIRLIE, I think you're being a bit rude to my cousin Ewan," the other lout said. "Our Sally is going to win that contest, and us Peeps, well, we stick together. We don't want any outsiders coming in here and stealing something that belongs to us."

Gigi laughed derisively. "So I guess I make Sally nervous, eh? 'Course, compared to her, even a troll could win the prize!"

A strangled noise came from the end of the alley. "I don't want her at the contest, cousins," Sally called in a nasty voice. "Troll, eh? — we'll see!" She turned and flounced down the street, disappearing into the shadows.

The larger Peep, Ewan, tightened his grip on Gigi's arm. "It's just not nice to mess with us Peeps, Girlie. 'Specially not when there's a prize to be won. Our Sally does like her prizes."

"Yeah," added Bert. "I reckon we'd better fix it so's no one could find you pretty, eh?"

Gigi blanched. Ewan grinned at her expression. His eyes narrowed and he looked her up and down. "I reckon, cousin, that we could have a little fun, too, while we're at it."

"Yeah — good idea!"

The two closed in on her, but the larger stiff-armed the other one. "Bert, why don't you go tell Sally we'll be awhile. By the time you come back it'll be your turn."

"All right — but I won't be long." The second Peep disappeared around the corner.

"Just let me go. I'll be on my way. I won't even be here tomorrow, I promise!" Gigi's eyes showed the extent of her panic, which only seemed to entertain the lout further.

"Oh, you'll go, all right, eventually. Right now, you come over here!" Ewan whipped her around until she was pressed against the whitewashed side of a building. Gigi tried to struggle, tried to knee him, but he evaded her attempts. "Not nice," he sneered. One enormous hand reached over and started pawing her.

Wolf blind-sided him with considerable force. The two men fell onto the muddy road, but Wolf immediately rolled to his feet. "You heard her. She doesn't want anything to do with Sally or that stupid festival, so just leave her alone, all right?"

Ewan responded by swinging around and knocking Wolf's legs out from under him, and he crashed to earth with a bone-jarring thud. The two rolled in the mud, punching each other, until Wolf wrestled his way to the top. The rain made his hands slick and Ewan slithered out of his grasp, clouting him in the side of the head with a huge fist. Stars filled Wolf's vision and he shook his head, both to clear his brain and to get his wet hair out of his eyes.

"I thought you'd have the sense to get out of Little Lamb Village!" Ewan jeered.

"Yeah, so did I," muttered Wolf under his breath. He rubbed his temple, trying to make the ringing sound in his head go away.

"I guess I'll have to teach you a proper lesson, wolf!" Ewan's pasty face split into an unpleasant grimace.

Wolf struggled to his knees. Ewan also was getting up, slower because of his massive build, but fast enough to grab hold of Wolf before he could get to his feet. Ewan's muscular arms squeezed Wolf's ribs until they threatened to crack. But a sharp elbow jab sent Ewan backwards, holding his side and cursing.

"No lessons," Wolf panted, holding his own ribs. "We're just passing through town, that's all, and we're going now, aren't we, Gigi?" He turned towards the wall.

Gigi was gone.

Great.

He turned around to look for her and a second club-like fist punched him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He collapsed down to the ground again, wheezing, trying unsuccessfully to get air into his lungs.

"Having a bit of a problem, cousin?" Bert helped Ewan up and stood cracking his knuckles. "Decided I wanted to go first. What happened to the girlie, then?"

Yeah, thought Wolf bitterly, what happened to her?

Ewan stood, rubbing his side and wiping a trickle of blood from his mouth. "HE got in the way, that's what happened." He emphasized his point by kicking Wolf hard enough to knock him over.

Wolf took in a shuddering breath and looked up at the Peep boys. They stared back at him, thin-lipped with anger and ready to pummel him into jelly. This was not going to be pretty.

And this time there'd be no Virginia to rescue him.

~*~*~

Gigi stepped out into the street from the barn. It finally had stopped raining, but a thick damp mist remained, obscuring the streets, making them seem spooky and dangerous.

She frowned and drummed her fingers on the barn door. She should go look for Wolf. That would be the right thing to do. After all, he'd stepped in to keep her from being — well, probably raped. Certainly beaten up. Maybe even murdered. He hadn't had to. He'd just shown up, appearing out of the rain to attack that big oaf with the huge hands. She shivered at the memory of those big hands running over her body.

No. She should remain here, safe in this barn. Who knew what dangers waited out in the streets? Perhaps that would be the sensible thing to do, and she was most assuredly a sensible girl. Besides, she was still angry with Wolf. He really shouldn't behave the way he did towards her, speaking to her like that, taking it for granted that she'd do what he said, bossing her around –

Oh, stop it, Gigi! He saved your life — admit it! And you just left him out there to deal with those horrible Peeps!

She was beginning to feel guilty. It was a new emotion for her, and she didn't like it, not one bit. It upset her to consider what other people were feeling; life was so much easier when you just looked out for yourself.

She also didn't like the idea creeping up on her that she was a coward.

"Grrrrr!" She clenched her fists and railed at the universe for a moment. Don't think, Gigi, just do it!

She ran out into the street, cursing herself for the stupidity of her actions.

It took her some time to find him.

The fog made it difficult to locate the narrow alley, and once she recognized where she was she proceeded with extreme caution, not wanting to run headlong into her assailants again. She felt her way around a dark corner and found herself in the alley. It was very quiet. She walked halfway in —no one was there and she sighed with relief. That wolf had probably high-tailed it out of town without a second thought about her. She started to go and stopped. Something was... She turned back, slowly, looking down the dark alley. That pile of trash at the end looked larger than it had before.

They'd tossed Wolf on the trash heap when they were done with him. His feet had ended up on a load of rotten apples, his head lay in a puddle. The puddle had a pinkish cast to it, and Gigi's horrified eyes took in the blood running from Wolf's nose and mouth into the water.

Oh my God —they've killed him! It's all my fault! A tremendous wave of guilt washed over her, and she reeled back, sagging against the wall with the enormity of the situation. I've never done anything quite this terrible before! She put her face in her hands. I killed him! I killed him!

Wait. Had he just made a sound? "You—Wolf—can you hear me?" She knelt down in the puddle and listened. Was he dead? No. He was breathing, rather loudly in fact, and the eye that wasn't swollen shut was open a slit, though it didn't seem to be looking at anything in particular. "Wolf?" He groaned. "It's Gigi." He groaned even louder at that. "Can you get up?"

"I own zing zo." She could barely hear him and couldn't figure out what he was saying, so she put her hands under his back and pushed him up into a sitting position. His groaning grew louder, and he said quite crossly, "Eev ee aone!"

She frowned at him and pushed him harder. 'I'm not going to leave you alone. You have to get up or you're going to die. Do you want that?"

"Ess."

"Too bad." She managed to get her arms around his chest, which made him cry out and then swear at her, and using the wall for support, pushed upright until she got him to stand. She leaned him against the wall. She already felt out of breath —he was just too big and too tall for her to manage alone, unless...

"Listen to me, you mangy animal! How dare you make me feel guilty! None of this is MY fault — you brought it on yourself, you know!" She made her voice as imperious as possible.

Wolf's one good eye began to focus, and fixed on her angrily. The corner of his bloodied mouth curled open to reveal his teeth, and a low growl came from his throat.

Good, thought Gigi. This is promising.

In the end she got him so mad he made it to the barn mostly under his own power.

Wolf staggered in on shaky legs, then collapsed on the straw and lay there while Gigi shut the barn door. She looked down at him. He was a crumpled mess. She felt awkward, out of her depth. She'd never been responsible for anyone before, and she wanted to help, wanted to offer comfort, but was rather at a loss about the practical aspects of the job. Should she run and get help? Maybe the nice woman who'd shown her to the barn — Fidelity, she thought her name was. She'd seemed a cheerful, helpful sort, probably capable of tending injured people. Or animals.

On the other hand, what if the woman was one of those odious Peeps? What if she turned them over to the awful pair who'd attacked her? Then where would she be?

Correction: where would they be. She looked at Wolf bleeding at her feet, and felt ashamed of herself. The Peep boys had taken out their anger on him, and here she was still thinking only of herself.

She was scared.

The amount of blood on his face and clothes was shocking. Well, Gigi, you're going to have to just get on with helping him or he just MIGHT die. Stop acting like a spoiled brat. The least you can do is look after him, when he got this way saving you.

To stop from thinking about how scared she was she looked around the barn. Fidelity had given her some bedding and she covered Wolf with the rough wool blanket, then remembered something she'd read once in a romantic adventure story and started ripping strips off her petticoat in case she needed bandages.

She made a compress out of one piece, soaked it in the water from the trough by the wall and sat down next to Wolf, carefully dabbing at his face. All the blood made her feel rather queasy, but she kept taking deep breaths to help her focus. She wiped away the blood from where his lip was split, and from the abrasion over his cheekbone below his swollen right eye. Along his hairline she found another cut — it seemed that was the one most of the bleeding came from. Mostly he lay there insensitive to her ministrations, but every now and then came out of it enough to whine or protest her actions. She fought hard to control her temper, and for the most part succeeded.

Once the blood had been washed off, Wolf still looked terrible, his face bruised and swollen. But he no longer looked like he'd been flayed alive. Gigi wound a makeshift bandage around his head to cover the scalp wound that refused to stop bleeding. It gave him a rakish look, much like a wounded pirate. She smiled despite herself. As long as she didn't have to hear him talk, Wolf was really not bad looking at all, even black and blue. Though he CERTAINLY wasn't her type. Definitely not.

She leaned closer. Wolf was finally still. His face seemed to have taken the brunt of the blows, but Gigi wondered if he had any broken bones. Maybe she should check, now that he was unconscious. Gingerly she peeled back the blanket and unbuttoned his shirt. For some reason she felt very embarrassed. It wasn't like she'd never seen a man with his shirt off, heavens, that would be ridiculous. It was just that she'd never, well, touched a man quite this much. No matter what those gypsies thought, she'd never, ever, done anything more than kissed anyone. She'd let them think she was much more experienced so they wouldn't get any ideas about showing her how things were done.

Wolf's chest at the moment was decorated with dark bruises here and there that made her wince at the sight of them. What really startled her, though, were a few fading stripes —he'd been whipped, and rather recently, too. Goose flesh crept up her arms and she shivered. Her father whipped servants, sometimes, when he wanted to "teach them a lesson"; she hated hearing the sounds of their cries from the courtyard. She put the thought out of her mind. If she had her way, she'd never go home again.

Gigi gently started to poke him here and there. Hmmm...what does a broken bone feel like, anyway? Is that a rib? She frowned, concentrating. That's why there are physicians and healers, silly, they have the knowledge. I don't. I don't really know what I'm doing! Wolf didn't wake up, didn't stir at all or make a sound — until she found a particularly tender spot on his stomach. At her touch he moaned loudly and twisted away from her probing fingers.

Gigi was terrified. Oh, no! I've made it worse! She scuttled back through the straw, away from Wolf, who was now curled up, protecting himself from further poking. She slid back against a wooden post and started to cry. I'm not good at this! I need help! I'm only good at hurting, not helping anybody! I can't do anything! People get hurt and killed around me —like the gypsies, like him! I'm a killer, that's what I am! Her anger at herself, at her incompetence, overcame her and she put her head down in her arms and began to sob.

"'Ginia..."

She didn't hear him at first because she was crying so loudly.

"Virginia."

Gigi sat up with a huge sniff and blinked her eyes. Had Wolf said something? She wiped her nose on her sleeve and crawled over to him. "What is it? What do you need? What can I —"

"Don't cry, Virginia." He opened his left eye and put his hand on her arm, the only part of her he could reach. The gesture astonished her, so much so that she forgot to complain he was calling her by the wrong name. Amazing. He was trying to make HER feel better.

He said something else she couldn't quite catch, so she leaned closer. "What — what did you say?"

A tiny wolfish grin appeared on his face a fraction of a second before his arm somehow came up around her and pulled her in, trapping her against his chest. "Gotcha!" Gigi started to squirm away. "Mmm. Like that." He squeezed her tighter.

Now this was getting ridiculous. She felt annoyance begin. What did he think he was doing? "Listen —"

"Love you, 'Ginia." His other arm wrapped around her, so now she was firmly in his grasp. Wolf was looking at her but from his glassy expression she realized he wasn't seeing her at all. And his grip wasn't loosening. Apparently he didn't have any broken bones in his arms.

What should she do? What COULD she do? She didn't want to hurt him. Maybe she should just stay this way until he let go. He'd have to, at some point, wouldn't he? She looked at Wolf's face, listened to his regular breathing. He seemed to have fallen asleep. It would be a shame to disturb him.

Besides, she reasoned, ever practical, it's cold in here, and there's only one blanket.


Chapter 12 ~ Dreams


Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!

This must be a dream, I have to be asleep, This can't really be happening! Wake up, Virginia!

But of course she couldn't wake up, she wasn't asleep, she was really in Mike's room, the light from the full moon streaming in across his bed. This was real, this was happening.

Mike Wolf was a wolf, a real one.

She wanted to run, but even more she wanted to shake him awake, to shout at him I thought you were–

What, real? Human? Her dream come true?

Well, wasn't he? Hadn't she thought the words "Prince Charming?" Hadn't he been her real fantasy, the man, the Wolf, of her imagination, but dressed up, tricked out, rough edges smoothed, domesticated, perfected?

Be careful what you wish for, Virginia.

She must be insane to be thinking like this.

It couldn't be true.

It had to be true.

She stared at the moon. Her belief in her fairy tale journey had receded so far away that she hadn't seen the obvious clues. Bringing him Kleenex and orange juice, indeed — it was almost laughable.

Now she'd seen the truth, seen the scar, seen him react to the full moon with moodiness, strangeness, pain, fever —even his ravenous hunger all too evident from the many dirty dishes that littered the place. Oh, yes, he'd disguised the facts very cleverly, "the flu," was it? "Medicine" without a doctor — "they work," he'd said about the pills — he must have taken them dozens of times, every full moon, whatever they were, to suppress the signs.

Did his grandfather know? Of course, he'd have to know–

Oh my God. "There are tons of people out sick," the temp had said. More of them? All of them? William one too, as his son must have been. And that receptionist? What about Mike's secretary? Or the blond man, or the silver-haired woman?

Or Regina?

All of those people...all those tall, handsome people... all of them wolves?

She felt hysterical laughter growing, gnawing at her insides, threatening to burst forth as if she were a madwoman, and she put her hand, both hands, over her mouth while she regained control of herself. No, no, there is a logical explanation, there must be, human wolves cannot exist, I made them up, this is my imagination, I just want it to be true—

No I don't! I want everything to be normal!

Don't I?

Of course she did. And, and she could be seeing things that were not true. Yes, yes, calm down, that's it, the scar is from some other kind of surgery, maybe an accident. He could have injured himself any number of ways as a small child. The moon? Coincidence. He was getting sick, he had a fight with his grandfather, that's why he was moody and cranky. The fever explained itself, a stomach flu, and he had rotten eating habits, or he had people over and hates to clean, and of course the flu is going around and could decimate the staff of a large company...everything can be explained.

Or is the explanation the lie?

She felt the window behind her and slid down against the wall, legs suddenly numb, weak, unable to move, unable to accept it. Yet unable to deny it.

She looked at him. He was asleep, but not peacefully, shifting restlessly and muttering from time to time. What was going on in his head? A dream? Or was it instinct, an animal reacting to the pull of the moon? What would happen if he waked?

If it all were true, if his life itself were the lie, if he'd taken such pains to cover up what he really was, why, why had he let her come in?

And hardest of all to answer, Do I want it to be true?

Do I want ALL of it to be true?

~*~*~

In his dream, Wolf's mother came to him, and stroked his forehead. "Were they bad to you today, at school?" she asked, sympathetically. He nodded, knowing if he spoke he would likely start to cry and he didn't want to, not even in front of the only person who wouldn't shame him for it. "Ssshh, I'm here, it's all right," and she began to sing a little song to him, a song of her people, not a wolfish song, words and tune mysterious, alien even, yet beautiful.

And he felt very loved, but also very sad, though he didn't know why, and he turned aside so she wouldn't see his tears, but when he looked back she was gone, and he was terrified, and he ran looking for her, and for his father, and there they were in the distance and he called out for them but the call became a moan and he fell down in the rain, holding his stomach at the pain of seeing them burning there on the pyre while Dorcas and Sally and Ewan and Bert and all the rest of them danced gleefully about the fire, Sally leading her sheep, which bleated accusingly at him.

He turned away, unable to watch, and Brins pulled him upright and punched him in the jaw. "That'll teach him a lesson!" and Root echoed "Yeah, cousin!" and hit him with a beanstalk hard enough to drive him to his knees. He looked in wonder at the blood pooling around him, it was seeping under the door of his cell and when he looked out the tiny window he saw Bedros pinned to the door with a silver arrow and the queen was clucking disapprovingly to Snow White, "What does he think he is?" and he was back at the beginning again, again, again, he'd never get out, never be free, never find her, he was cursed, cursed, cursed, cursed –

"Cursed," he mumbled, and came awake.

Virginia was asleep in the crook of his arm, her head on his chest.

A dream, it had been a dream. Virginia was here, he'd found her. The whole thing had been a –

"Aah." He'd tried to move, to shift a little, because even though his mate was just a little thing, her weight on top of him was making it hard to breathe. But when he moved, every muscle in his body seemed to cry out at once. He unclasped his arms from around her and lay back, feeling a cold sweat break out on his forehead. He felt disoriented, nauseated, as he waited for the pain to subside. Something bad had happened to him, though he didn't know what.

The noise he made had disturbed her and she woke up, blinking and yawning. She stretched and clutched the pillow, then, as her pillow flinched, realized what —who —she was using as a pillow, and that the "pillow" was awake. She pushed herself away, her face scarlet.

"Vir —" he tried to sit up, to give her a hug, to reassure her he was all right, even though he felt far from all right, but it was too painful and his vision was spinning so he lay back down again. Her anxious face swam into view above him.

"How — how are you feeling?"

"Not too good. Virginia—"

"No, I'm not Virginia, remember?"

Not — ? What —? Who — Oh, no, not—

Gypsies/Huntsman/Shoes/Peeps/Pain—

"Gigi."

"Yes. That's right." She smiled a tentative smile at him.

"Oh." There was disappointment in his voice, and she looked away. "Where am I?"

She dared to move a little closer. "In a barn. In Little Lamb Village. The Peeps — do you remember?"

He closed his eyes — one eye, really, the other one wasn't behaving properly. He remembered. All of it, except for how he got to the barn. And one thing he remembered clearly. "You left," he said crossly.

She blushed again, her eyes not meeting his. "I...I was afraid," she said simply.

He'd been prepared to rant at her, once he got his strength back, but her admission caught him off guard. He said nothing for a few minutes. "I need to get up."

"No, no, you should rest—"

"No, REALLY. I need to get up." He rolled over to his side and attempted to push himself upright. Gigi scrambled over to help him stand.

"If there's something you need, I could get it for you, or do it for you—"

He staggered to his feet and leaned on the beam for a minute until the room stopped spinning. He wasn't sure if he preferred the new eager-to-help Gigi or the old rude one. "Thanks, but you don't have the equipment to do it for me." That mystified her for a moment, until the coin dropped and she blushed again. Not before time, Wolf thought, feeling his way to the door, or his bladder was going to end the discussion right there.

A short relieving time later he groped his way back in and sank down by the trough. Cripes, he looked a mess! He splashed his face and gasped as the water stung the raw places. The bandage came off, crusted with blood, but the cut wasn't bleeding anymore so he didn't rebind it. His eye was the worst, all colors and puffy, but though it was bloodshot he could see out of it fairly well.

"Well, now you got the water all bloody, what if I wanted a drink?" Evidently old rude Gigi wasn't completely gone after all.

"Too bad," Wolf said. Washing his face was about as much as he could handle right now, and he collapsed back down to sit against the beam, holding his stomach. He felt thoroughly pulped but didn't think anything was broken. Broken bones were a very specific sensation he hoped never to experience again, thank you very much. He looked around, recognizing the place now; it was the same barn he, Tony and Virginia had stayed in the last go-round. The beam he was leaning against was the one he'd had Virginia tie him to–

No good thinking about that dark time. "Is there anything to eat?"

"I'll get something," Gigi looked like she'd rather be doing anything other than staying in the barn with him. He didn't say anything and she went out.

He must have dozed off for a few minutes, because a new voice roused him with the word "breakfast." The voice belonged to the farm wife who owned the barn, and she was carrying some bread and butter and cheese on a wooden tray, and was followed by Gigi, who bore a pitcher of milk. Wolf began to salivate.

"Here, let me put this down and — heavens! What happened to you?" She very nearly dropped the tray, which would have really been a shame, stared at Wolf and clucked compassionately at him. "Was there an accident?"

"Peeps." He picked up a piece of cheese and stuck it in the corner of his mouth that didn't hurt. At least his teeth were all where he remembered.

The woman frowned and shook her head. "Those Peeps. Think they own the town. Well, they practically do, really. Not that I should be gossiping about them, I'm sure most of them are perfectly nice, but those boys — well, I shouldn't be surprised if some day someone shoots them dead in the street like wild animals! Can't play games with people without expecting them to be angry with you!"

Wolf would have pointed out that what they'd done to him was hardly a game, but his mouth was too full to say so. He looked over at Gigi, who was picking at the bread and butter rather listlessly. He swallowed his mouthful. "What's wrong with you this morning?"

"Nothing." She got up and moved away.

Their hostess finished chattering and left the barn, but Wolf didn't see her go because something she'd said had pricked a memory and he was trying to identify what it was... shoot them dead in the street, that's what she'd said, and OH, CRIPES! He looked left and right and tried to turn around but it was too painful to do so. "The bow! Where's the bow?"

"Bow?" Gigi walked into his line of sight.

"Crossbow! The huntsman's crossbow—"

"How should I know? Where did you leave it?"

"Gigi! I had it when I went into the alley! Was it there?"

She frowned. "I don't know. It was dark. I was helping you —"

"You have to go find it!" He was yelling now, and it hurt to do that, but he couldn't leave it lying around. Something awful and magical like that needed to be kept away from people. Especially people like the Peeps.

She folded her arms. "I'm not going back there. It's just a stupid bow. Forget it."

"Then I'll go." He grunted as he started to rise, and Gigi looked down at him with a mixture of pity and irritation.

"All right, all right," she said with a heavy sigh. 'I'll look. But if the Peeps find me it'll be all your fault!" With a toss of her skirts she was gone.

"Yeah, all MY fault," he muttered. "Always the wolf's fault." Wolf finished his breakfast. He felt much better for having eaten, though he doubted he'd get very far on foot today. Which was indeed a shame, as he wanted to put this awful place behind him once and for all. This whole sojourn in Little Lamb Village felt about as useless as a bowl of beanstalk stew at a wolves' banquet. Unless Snow White secretly hated him and had devised this whole trek as punishment, which he was beginning to suspect.

Gigi returned empty-handed.

Well, that was it, then. The deadly magic bow was in the hands of someone who really shouldn't have it. He should have buried it, after all. But what could he do now? Maybe they'd just melt it down for the silver, if the fates were favorable. He doubted it, though. Now there REALLY was a good reason to get out of town.

Almost on cue the barn door opened with a bang, which sent painful reverberations through Wolf's head, and a young bumpkin entered with a cheerful "Ready to go?"

Wolf looked up at Gigi, who was wearing a smug expression. "I've hired Fidelity's son to drive us to the next town," she said.

"Really?" Well THAT was being a clever girl, he had to admit.

"Best to keep moving, I thought."

Wolf couldn't help but agree.

The strapping fellow, John, helped Wolf climb in the back, where he settled himself on new hay. The wagon had a stale smell of pigs but at least no little piglets were coming along for the ride. Best not to be choosy when you're getting a free ride, Wolf reminded himself. John pocketed another of Gigi's gold coins and Wolf reflected, not for the first time in his life, that there were advantages to traveling with rich girls.

Gigi climbed up next to the lad, just as Fidelity came out to wave farewell. She'd packed them all a lunch, which was unexpected and kind. Wolf suddenly had a thought and beckoned the woman over. Her open face was guileless and smiling. Wolf wondered if she and her son had been part of the burning-at-the-stake party, but he doubted it and dismissed the thought. The Peeps were responsible, and he could make them pay, yes indeedy he could!

"Listen," he said, a conspiratorial gleam in his eye, "since you've been so nice, there's something you should know. The Peeps have dammed up the magic well and are using the water themselves. That's why everything they grow or raise is so incredible."

Fidelity and John stared at him, amazed. "What? Why, they'd never -" "If you don't believe me, take some people and check in their barn under the floor." He smiled at their astonishment, and winked at Fidelity with his good eye. She giggled like a schoolgirl.

That ought to do the trick.

~*~*~

The road was rutted and muddy, the horse plodding and slow, and the trip tedious. Wolf gave up trying to find a comfortable position and became resigned to the bumps and lurchings of the pig wagon. He managed to nap when he could, to lie still when he couldn't, though John had to stop the wagon several times to let Wolf out, to sit down on ground that wasn't moving, and once to be sick rather vividly by the side of the road.

He didn't notice the terrain or the direction they were headed. But he did notice that Gigi was always nearby, helping him in and out of the wagon, offering water, not shying away from his misery. That in itself was worthy of note, if nothing else was.

He awoke from a brief, unsatisfactory nap to find her sitting in the back of the wagon with him, studying him intently. When his eyes met hers she looked away. It came to him that her uncharacteristic silence and helpfulness stemmed from guilt. Whatever she might say, however dismissive she was, inside she obviously felt responsible for what had happened to him. Well, okay, good. Let her feel that way!

But it didn't help to stay indignant, or to refuse to speak to her. The truth was, he didn't dislike having her around, when she wasn't causing trouble for him. He liked her when she wanted to help. There was something endearing in her pugnaciousness, and he admired her cleverness, too. In that she was like Virginia, smart and sensible, most of the time. But oddly, in some ways she was more like HE was — like how she got herself into trouble by not thinking before she spoke. He recognized her tendency towards selfishness, and had to admit THAT was like him, too. No wonder they grated on each other's nerves. And, with all the ways she resembled Virginia, it was hardly surprising he also was attracted to her. Not that he wanted to dwell on that.

He decided to break the ice. "Gigi?"

"Yes?"

"Where is it that you're going?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you're obviously running away from home. Do you know where to, exactly?"

She frowned, and looked at him as if she expected him to spring a trap. "Why?"

"I'm interested."

That seemed to startle her a bit, but after a moment she spoke. "Well...I don't know, really. Just...away."

"What's this about you marrying Wendell?"

She made a face. "Oh, THAT."

"Yes, THAT. Is that true?"

"As far as my father's concerned it is. I don't really know what Wendell wants. I mean I've only ever met him twice, the first time when I was only about eight years old." She laughed mirthlessly. "You should see the gleam in my father's eye when he talks about it."

"So...so how come you ran away?"

She shrugged. "I didn't like the idea of being sold off in marriage. The last time I saw Wendell was about a month ago, when he and his entourage stopped to pay a visit to the Western lands, and my dad was bowing and scraping and behaving like an idiot in front of all the courtiers. Wendell just looked bored. He didn't even look my way." Her face clouded. "My father's not thinking of me at all, just of all the gold he can get." She suddenly looked like she was going to cry.

Wolf tried to reconcile his image of Tony Lewis with what he was hearing about Gigi's father, but aside from the salivating over gold, it was a difficult stretch. Tony might be greedy and self-involved, but Wolf couldn't imagine his future father-in-law behaving that way with Virginia. "I know Wendell's got a lot of faults—" yeah, like right now he's a golden retriever! —"but he's rich, and he's really not too bad, for royalty. Um, no offense."

"I'm not offended," Gigi said. "After all, my father purchased his title."

Wolf snorted. "Hah. Typical."

"I'm not ready for marriage," said Gigi, a faraway look in her eye. " I always wanted adventure. I want to experience life before I throw it all away." Wolf felt his bruises and thought perhaps he was experiencing enough life for both of them. "I guess I wouldn't mind getting married eventually," Gigi continued, "if I met the right person. Someone exciting, someone a little more worldly than Wendell. He would have to be a prince though, of course."

"Of course," murmured Wolf.

"I mean, not that there's anything WRONG with Wendell, I'd just like someone not as, well —"

"Dull?"

Gigi looked scandalized, but suddenly giggled. "He IS dull, isn't he?"

"Thick as a brick, I'd say." Wolf smiled, then said honestly, "He wouldn't know what to do with you."

She cocked her head at him. The gesture was startlingly familiar. She was SO like Virginia! "What do you mean?"

"Well, I mean, you're a pretty corky girl, Gigi, all smart and feisty and —" He stopped.

"And?"

He'd been about to say "and beautiful and succulent and smelling like ambrosia," but he caught himself and just finished with "—and everything." Better not travel THAT route.

She was looking at him oddly. "Thank you. That's very nice of you to say."

"You're welcome."

There was a lengthy pause.

"It's not your fault, you know," Wolf said at last. "That I got beat up."

"Yes, but I —"

He shook his head. "No."

"Really?"

"Really."

The relief on her face was so apparent that Wolf laughed a little, which of course made his ribs hurt.

"Thank you again," Gigi said.

"You're welcome again."

"Oh, look!" she said, pointing. Wolf turned his head and saw a sign by the side of the road as they plodded past:

Kissing Town, 15 miles.

~*~*~

In his dream, Mike's mother came to him, sitting by his bed, stroking his forehead, and ruffling his hair in a way that embarrassed him. He felt safe with her there, he always had, even on those nights his father would withdraw into an upstairs room and lock the door, and Mike would hear scary sounds, sounds of furniture being flung, growls and shouts, and worst of all a plaintive howling that set his teeth on edge. He loved his father, loved his strong and charismatic presence, but those awful nights, regular as clockwork, unnerved and terrified him, bringing on feverish nightmares about a beast that was devouring his father, that would come for him, that would eat him up too.

Sometimes instead of going upstairs, his father would disappear entirely for a day or two, returning wan and tired. Mike liked those days better; he would imagine his father was on important business for the government, maybe a secret spy mission.

Lisette still stroked his face, crooning a little lullaby to him, with words in a foreign tongue, but the meaning was clear: she loved him. But he felt very sad, though he didn't know why. He saw himself turn away from her, tears starting in his eyes, and his grandfather's face loomed over him, with its eternal expression of disapproval, his mouth twisting Michael, you must stop this self-indulgent behavior. Control yourself! You are better than they were, Michael, your father knew what was expected but he let his emotions ruin his life. And his mother again, singing to him but the song was dark now and not at all soothing and her face was obscured by the full moon and he heard sobbing and now he was comforting her, stroking her cheek, Grandfather shouting at him What I'm telling you is the truth, Michael, this is your heritage too, its in your blood —and he thought he must be mad, his grandfather insane, but he could feel it, could feel the pull, the need, the terror, and now it was HE who was locked in a room, not an attic but a room with soft walls in a private place, a place his grandfather had arranged for and You see? This is what happens! Mike saw a man, a young man, no, not a man, sobbing in a corner, wailing — no, howling, howling mad, the beast devouring him please not me HUNGER MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP until he lay exhausted in the soft room. And Grandfather, his voice no longer berating but soothing, persuading, you see, you see it is not a lie, Michael, it's real, all of it, now do you understand?

He shifted in his sleep. He felt hot, so hot. Listen to me, you don't have to succumb to it, there are ways, Michael, ways to control it. This will make it better, easier, never mind what it is, it will take you through, it will protect you, make you seem what you are not. No one will know. But the price! The dullness, the flattened senses for a day afterwards, a day to be reminded again and again that he was different, that he bore a shameful secret.

In flashes like lightning he saw crowds of people, the clubs, the parties where he'd tried to drown the differences, to obscure the secret in a haze of whatever he could snort or smoke or drink, not the little brown pills but other things, whatever he was offered, whatever was there to try, then be dragged home nightly by men in his grandfather's employ, watching him, they were always watching him. People mustn't know. It's for your protection but it was all about control — Grandfather controlling him, the moon controlling him, the pills controlling him, the demand to control himself. No no no, he wouldn't be controlled, he would lose himself, he would choose to lose himself in excess, but all the booze and drugs and women in the world weren't enough, there was always the moon, always Grandfather, always himself ready to inflict his own torture

. And then, eventually, eventually, inevitably, compliance, acceptance that nothing could come of his rebellion, nothing would be changed, and a realization he didn't want to die, that maybe there was sense to following the plan, to being protected. And finally, surrender, to a future planned for him before his birth. A semblance of normality, a level of comfort, though something within could never be filled by any talk of history and heredity and expectations and secrets and destiny.

Business as usual.

And then,

Virginia.

Mike smiled and rumbled deep in his throat. His dream changed, the nightmare dissipating, Virginia's lovely face where the moon sat in the sky. Her face grew a body, a lovely silky body pressed against his, her scent in his nostrils. He remembered the feel of burying his face between her breasts, drawing himself alongside her, inside her, the need for her obscuring everything else, yet for once at peace with himself. The one, he'd said, if in fact there is destiny.

Yet, yet, yet — always present, always hovering, the doubt, the darkness, a shadow, sometimes with the shape of his grandfather, sometimes of the beast, sometimes of himself, his shadow falling on her as she sat by him stroking his forehead with her soft, cool hand, and it was terrifying her, he would drive her away, screaming, or it would devour her NO! NEVER, I WOULD NEVER — but knowing he could. He could. He might. I would –

His heart pounding, he awoke gasping for breath –where am I what did I do— Virginia! no I didn't; it's only the moon. A dream. A dream. Another dream. Not reality. He sighed with relief and ran a hand over his face, still panting a little. Just a dream, a bad one. The dreams would be gone tomorrow, for another month, then —

He rolled onto his side, to find the pills, to drug him back into unconsciousness for another few hours until the moon set. Until he was sure. And stopped, staring.

She was sitting there.

Under the window, the moonlight silhouetting her shape, but a reflection lit up her eyes, and they were looking at him, holding his own.

"Virginia—" He didn't know what to do, what if he—

"I know what you are."

Her voice stabbed through the darkness and his breath caught in his throat.

She was coming towards him, her hand reaching out, and is this part of the dream, or is it real?

"Virginia..."

Her cool fingers combed the hair out of his wild eyes.

"I know what you are," she said, more softly, "and I am not afraid."


Chapter 13 ~ Denial


His eyes were wide, the irises large and black in the dim light.

She leaned down and kissed him gently on the mouth. Then she pulled back, smiling at him. She thought he looked almost terrified, and his breath came in shallow pants. Strange how only a short while ago he'd sounded ill to her, Now she recognized the sound as a sign of the struggle between himself and the animal within.

There was no need for him to struggle now. Virginia knelt on the bed and held his face between her hands. "I am not afraid of you," she said again, her eyes steady, watching his response.

Mike put up a hand to stop her. "Virginia..." His voice was raspy, the syllables came haltingly. She kissed him again, harder, and this time she felt him respond, start to kiss her back. His hands came up around her waist, then slid slowly up her back, clutching her through the fabric of her blouse as his tongue probed into her mouth, and he rose to his knees, hardness pressing against her thigh. Then suddenly he pulled away, dropping his hands, shrinking away from her, eyes not meeting hers. But she wouldn't let him go, capturing one hand between both of hers. He made a sound deep in his throat.

"Don't be afraid of me, or of who you are." She placed his hand on her face and nuzzled it, then kissed his palm softly. He let out a little groan as she did so, then stroked her face. She thought she saw a flicker of light in his eyes, but it could have been a reflection from the window, she wasn't certain.

"You won't hurt me," she said. "Let the wolf out."

~*~*~

Sunlight streamed in through the window where the shade was pulled up, pouring onto the bed, playing over Mike's face, making it impossible to stay asleep. He yawned and stretched, flinching a little at the tightness in his joints as they protested the movement. He squinted into the light, waiting for his brain to catch up and remind him where...and who, he was.

The bedside clock said 8:35 and at first he thought he was late for work and couldn't understand why the alarm hadn't gone off, but then remembered it was Saturday. At least he assumed it was. For all he knew it could be Sunday. That had happened before, more than once, losing an entire day. The thought of what must have transpired again depressed him.

Next to the clock a plastic bottle lay on its side, pills spilling out onto the nightstand. That explained the disembodied feeling. No wonder his brain felt thick, his eyes blurry, his skin a little numb. Probably should go for a run, that would at least start to clear away the fog, but he doubted he'd make it further than the shower. The blanket felt heavy as he raised it, attempting to sit up, and something next to him stirred and sighed, nestling further into his shoulder.

What the hell?

Virginia.

He had no idea why she was there.

Mike let go of the blanket and turned to look at her as she slept. He was used to waking up with a feeling of disorientation, confusion, head filled with the remnants of wild dreams after nights like these, but this was a first. He concentrated, trying to make his sluggish brain assemble all the pieces, and eventually he could remember Virginia arriving at his door just as the unpleasant symptoms that had been building within him all day were about to reach a peak. He remembered, vaguely, her fussing over him, bringing him tea, of all things, bossing him around, fixing up his bed — after that the details blurred and ran together in a foggy, drugged stream. One thing was certain: he'd opened the door for her, not hiding in his apartment incommunicado as he always did. He'd wanted her there, with him, that much was obvious. Even his mother had never gone through this with him; by the time he'd experienced it for the first time, Lisette had been damaged, fragile, locked away.

But the chance he'd taken when he opened that door! And so had Virginia, though she didn't know it. He groaned inwardly at the thought of what MIGHT have happened. Fortunately he'd obviously slept straight through. The fact she was still here (and lying naked next to him) might speak for her expectation that he'd feel better this morning, or that she wanted to stay with him, to comfort him. Or maybe, he thought with a little smile, she just didn't want to sleep in her clothes. Impossible to guess. He'd have to ask her.

He was very, very glad to find her here. Yet he was troubled by the fact of her presence.

He turned on his side, shifting so that he cradled her in his arms. She was beginning to wake up and he traced her profile with his lips and planted a gentle kiss on the tip of her nose. Virginia opened her eyes, smiled sleepily at him and snuggled against him, kissing his stubbly chin and then the hollow at the base of his throat. Which felt very good indeed, quite erotic, and he felt his lower region twitch at the sensation.

Virginia had awakened at the first tender touch. Her voice still sleepy, she murmured into his neck, "Good morning, my wolf."

He froze.

Virginia felt the change in him immediately and opened her eyes. "Mike?" His hands pulled away from her. "Are you all right?" He didn't answer. "What's wrong? What just happened?" He sat up, his back to her, and alarm resonated in her next words "Tell me. Please."

"Why did you call me that?"

Virginia felt a warning tingle go through her. "Why did I call you—? Well I, I thought...last night, we... That is, I —Mike. It's, it's okay." She sat up behind him and wrapped an arm around his shoulder, pressing herself against his back. "It's all right, I told you. I know—"

Mike stood up, nearly spilling her onto the floor. "You know? What do you know? What are you talking about?" He stared at her, his brow deeply furrowed, his eyes wary.

Virginia's heart started to beat faster. "I know," she said, slowly, "about your secret. I know about the moon —"

He laughed once, and stepped back from the bed, incredulity spreading across his face. "'Secret'? 'Moon'? Virginia, what is this, some kind of joke?" He grabbed his robe off the chair and pulled it on. She knelt on the bed, clutching the sheet, suddenly feeling very vulnerable in her nakedness. This was not what she'd expected, far from it, in fact. "It's no use denying it, Mike, I may be the only person you know who understands —"

"Understands WHAT?" he snapped.

"About you." She knew she sounded desperate, she felt desperate. What was going on, anyway? "You're different —more than human, you're a wolf — a half-wolf maybe, but — "

"A wolf —? Jesus! Are you insane, or, or, on crack or something?"

"You know I'm not. You know it's the truth." Why would he deny it when the truth was so obvious?

"I mean," Mike rattled on, folding up clothes, piling papers, his hands busy and his eyes not meeting hers, "You come in here though you know I'm sick, and I ask you not to, you spend the night without me even knowing it, and, and maybe I was delirious, it's possible, but now you start telling me, what — that you think I'm a, a — a werewolf?"

"YES!" She hadn't meant to shout, but it made him turn to look at her. "Maybe what you are is called that. Maybe you're just a wolf. It doesn't matter. I know what you are, and you don't have to hide it from me, I've seen all the proof — Don't you remember last night?" He didn't answer, and she took a breath and went on. "The full moon — it makes you sick. Makes you want to change..." She started to listen to herself and realized how insane it all sounded by daylight. "What about the scar? On your back, your tailbone?"

His hand went to the spot of its own volition. "Scar?" His eyes moved as he searched his memory. The action looked real to her, not like a performance, and she wrinkled her brow. "That's a birthmark. You mean — that's — you think I have a tail?"

"No, obviously you don't, now, I think it was removed —"

"Listen, Virginia, I don't know what's making you come up with all this crap, but I'm beginning to wonder, you know? I mean, when we met there was that story about your fiancé and his name was Wolf, so I gotta wonder what this obsession of yours is —"

"Obsession? Mike, what are you talking about?"

"Whatever. Maybe you need to see someone. I don't know what to say. This, this full moon story is weirding me out, all right?"

"Mike, I'm not making this up —"

"Just — STOP it, okay?" He shouted the words at her and threw the books and papers he was holding onto the floor with some force. He let out a long breath. "Maybe you should go."

The extent of the denial was so absolute, Virginia couldn't think of a response. She'd been on the verge of tears, but now all emotion left her. She felt nothing, just numbness, as she retrieved her clothes and took them into the bathroom, where she dressed quickly. When she came back into the room, Mike was sitting in the chair, his head in his hands. "Mike..." He didn't respond, didn't look up. She picked up her purse next to the nightstand and let herself out.

On the street she began to cry, furious, anguished, heartbroken tears.

Why wouldn't he admit it? When she'd been there with him through the night!

Was it possible he didn't remember? That seemed unlikely. But the entire thing was unlikely, wasn't it?

Could it be she HAD concocted this from evidence that pointed to something else entirely? After all, he hadn't grown claws, or fangs, his eyes hadn't really flashed yellow, and if the nature of their lovemaking had been more intense than usual, he hadn't been, well, beast-like or anything. Just Mike, ardent and passionate, but himself.

Unless the pills were somehow affecting him...

The pills, what were they, exactly, and what was their part in his strange denial?

Well, at least she could try to answer that question. She opened her hand and looked at the two little brown pills she'd taken from the nightstand. Perhaps there were other ways, more scientific ways, to find out what was going on. Ways to distract herself from thinking too much about her aching heart.

~*~*~

Mike sat in the chair for some time, trying to think. Trying NOT to think. Wolf. Wouldn't that be nice, to be something strong and powerful and mysterious. In his dreams! Well, in his dreams, that's what he was like, a beast of mythical proportions, more than human, dangerous, yes. But absurdly impossible.

The truth was far more devastating than some mythic fantasy.

He leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling. Virginia's conclusion was disturbing, to say the least. But it was clear she knew there was something terribly wrong with him, even though he'd tried to keep it from her. Stupid! Stupid! I should never have let her in!

Too late. Well. He hadn't been in his right mind, had he?

He suddenly felt very anxious. He got up and paced around the room, He could feel his heart pounding and his hands beginning to tingle. I'm hyperventilating; better calm down right now, an anxiety attack won't help. He looked at the clock– nine am on a Saturday morning. Should he call —? She'd said any time he needed to.

He needed to.

He sat down on the bed and dialed a number. After two rings a woman answered.

"Hello?"

"Yes, hi, It's Mike, Michael Wolf. I'm really sorry to call you on a weekend, but —"

"Are you all right?"

"No. Yes. No. I don't know."

"Is anything the matter, Michael? Do you need to see me?" "Yes. I don't guess it's possible, today, but..."

"Hold on a minute." She went away from the phone and he concentrated on making his foot stop tapping "Are you there? I can see you at eleven, if you like. Would that be all right?"

He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "Yes. Yes, that would be fine. Great."

"All right then, eleven o’clock. See you then."

"Okay. I really appreciate this, on such short notice."

"That's fine. I told you to call me if you needed to talk. Goodbye."

"Goodbye. And thanks, Dr. Horovitz."

~*~*~

Virginia went home to change her clothes. Tony was out somewhere, but he'd left a plaintive note saying, "Virginia, I was worried about you. If you are reading this, please let me know where you will be." It was about as concerned a note as he'd ever left for her, and with a rush of guilt she realized how she'd been neglecting him lately. She washed up and ran out the door.

She was at the kitchen entrance of the Grill by ten. The crew was surprised to see her, as she didn't have a shift, but she wasn't there to work. She needed to find Candy.

The blonde popped in a little after ten. "Virginia — what are you doing here?" Her face lit up; she and Virginia had been pretty good friends until the last couple of months, since Virginia's accident in the park, and she'd never stopped trying to renew the relationship.

"Listen, Candy, are you still dating that drug guy?"

"Sshh, Virginia, please!" Candy pushed her into a corner. "Tazer's not a drug guy, he's a chemist. Well, I mean he was a chem major until he got suspended. He's working at his dad's pharmacy. You make him sound like a dealer or something."

"Sorry." Virginia had her own suspicions about the guy, but shelved them for the moment. "Do you think I could ask him to test some medicine for, uh, a, a friend of mine, find out what it's made of, you know?"

Candy wrinkled her brow. Thinking was an effort. "Well, sure, I don't know why not. How come you're testing it?"

"He, she got it from one of those herbal places and I want to find out if it's safe. You know. Doing a favor for him. Her."

"Ooh, sounds like a mystery!" Candy liked mysteries, as long as they weren't too challenging. "You're not, like, trying to find a good poison, or anything? Like that movie? The one where there's a serial killer and, and he works as a chef, so he can kill all these people? I mean, God, Virginia, if you were a killer or something, or Typhoid Mary, could you even find a better job than working for a restaurant? I mean, duh! Though I guess maybe you could, if you—"

"—Candy!" Virginia's sharp tone snapped the blonde's attention back to earth. "No one's poisoning the customers. Just want to know what's in this. Will he do it?" She held up a vial and shook the two little pills inside.

"Yeah, okay, sure," Candy said. "Tazer's coming by at noon for a sandwich. I'll give it to him then."

"Thanks, I owe you. Will you let me know when he's done?"

"Sure." She turned as the captain bellowed her name from the front of the kitchen. "You better go before they make ya work. I'll call ya."

"Thanks, Cand." Virginia beat a quick retreat. Might as well go home and wait to make her peace with Tony.

~*~*~

"Come on in."

She stepped aside to admit him, and Mike noticed Dr. Horovitz' only concession to Saturday was to wear a tailored pantsuit instead of a skirt. Her signature silk scarf pinned with a gold bow, the oversized glasses and the intense pink lipstick were all in place, as if this were a regular appointment on a regular day. She greeted him with crisp professionalism, no mention of how he'd missed two scheduled appointments in a row.

"So, Michael," she said, gesturing him to a chair, her Viennese accent as juicy as ever. He didn't sit, but stood by the desk, shifting a little from foot to foot, and she regarded him with shrewd eyes. "So, tell me, what happened, another episode?" Funny, he thought, how part of her skill as a therapist was knowing when to be a Jewish mother. She noticed he was still standing and clucked reprovingly. "You are going to stand for an hour?"

"No, no, I just, I uh..." Now that he was here, he felt very unsure of how to begin. He walked over to the armchair, looking at the walls lined with books. He scratched his chin. He ran a hand through his hair. He cleared his throat. She waited. "Sorry about the missed appointments. I'll pay for them, of course, here —" His hand reached for his wallet, but she stopped him, clucking in a motherly way.

"This is why you are here? I know you'll pay. Forget that for now." She watched him squeeze the high back of the chair, drum his fingers on it, pat it. "You're very nervous today, Mike. You can either sit down and tell me about it, or stand around stalling all day. The choice is yours." "Okay. All right." He sat down, but not on the chair, on the leather couch across the room from her. He looked at his hands. He tapped his fingers on his knees.

She moved to the armchair and watched him owlishly through the enormous eyeglasses. "So. What happened that was so bad you needed to drag me to work on a Saturday? Come on, spill it out."

"I thought..."His voice trailed off. He looked at the books.

"You thought what?"

He took a deep breath. "I thought everything was going fine. I met this really terrific girl — Virginia. I told you about her, last time I was here —"

Dr. Horovitz examined her notes. "Ah yes. In the subway. The one you met in that highly dramatic way." She lifted her head. He nodded. "You are still seeing her?" He nodded again. "Is she as crazy as you thought she was? Is that why you are here?"

He looked up to see the doctor smiling. "No. That was all a mistake. About her ex-fiancé and all. We hit it off. Things have been going really well. I care about her. A lot, quite a lot. I want to be with her all the time, I feel, I might even...you know."

She nodded her head in understanding. "You think you might even be in love with her. Mike, I don't want to be rude, but we've talked about this co-dependency thing before. With Cathy, you rushed in, and you were mistaken about the relationship. What makes this so different?"

The corner of his mouth raised in a crooked smile. "I don't know, yes. I think I may love her. Maybe, it just seems like it's —" He looked at her, then away. 'Don't laugh. I feel like we're...supposed to be together. Like it's destiny or something." A look of embarrassment crawled across his face. "I know, I know. Romantic bullshit."

Dr. Horovitz looked at him thoughtfully and said nothing for a moment. "Maybe it's preordained for you to be together. These things are possible, I suppose, but what do you know about her that makes you think so?"

"Everything she says, well, resonates with me. It's like I know what she's going to say before she says it. Stuff like that. And, and, she's kind, she's helpful, she's there for me, she's..." The anxious look he'd arrived with was back on his face. "But the problem is, Doctor, the problem, my problem —"

"Yes? The problem is —?"

"It happened again. Yesterday. Last night."

"Another one of your episodes? I thought so. What happened?" He swallowed and nodded. "Yes. Another one. I..."

"Yes?"

"I got sick. I felt like I had a fever. Restless, nervous. Then, then a blackout, I guess. Hallucinations. I think they were, anyway." He tugged at his nose, at his hair, then clenched and unclenched his fists. "She was there. Virginia was. I don't even remember what happened. I could have done anything. I could have — I might have —"

"Hold on. Might have? Might have what? What did you do?"

'I DON'T KNOW!" His tone was brutal, but to his horror, Mike felt tears in his throat, his eyes, and he wiped them away with his hand. Dammit! He hadn't realized how close to the surface everything was. "I hate this," he said, miserably.

"You hate this? Come on —I know you can elaborate on that. You went to college, after all, Mike."

Oh, great —she wasn't about to leave him alone. "I hate —feeling like this. Exposed. Crying. Out of control. Crazy. Manipulated." He snorted and made a really unpleasant face at her, then added ruthlessly, "But I guess that's what I pay you for, isn't it?"

"Who manipulates you? Is it me?"

He reached for a tissue and blew his nose. "No. Not really. Not —no. Sorry."

"Don't be sorry about what you feel. It's good to know what you feel, If you're being manipulated, who is doing it?"

He shook his head. "Controls. Tries to control me" He got up and started to pace around the small room.

"Your grandfather, is it him?"

"You know it is. That's not what I want to talk about."

"You know you don't have to do what he says —"

"I told you, I don't want to discuss it!"

"All right, all right. But if you want my opinion, from the way you're acting, I think it's bothering you. Please sit down, you're making me dizzy."

He laughed, a short, bitter sound. "Now you know how I feel." But he sat down again.

She took off her glasses and polished them on her scarf. "All right. Let's go back a little. You are with your girlfriend. You feel sick, you have a fever, then it all gets confusing. Today you are terrified that you might have done something during a blackout. Mike, what are you afraid of? What did you think you might do?"

"Kill her."

She was silent a moment, then spoke softly to him. "Why do you think you'd kill someone you love?"

"Because I'm not myself when I do it."

"If you're not yourself, then who are you?"

He made a disgusted sound. "Not who. WHAT. I've told you this before. Yes, I am myself. But when it happens, I think I'm some THING else. Don't you get it? I'm crazy. Mentally ill. Sick, disturbed, psychotic, whatever. When I have these attacks, these episodes, I actually believe I'm not human! A beast, a, a thing. I feel that way, like I'm a werewolf, or something powerful, horrible. I actually believe it's happening. I act that way."

"So you think —"

"I DON'T think. I'm INCAPABLE of thinking!" He was on his feet again, shouting, growling, hands gesturing madly, eyes staring. "And then in the morning, I can barely remember what I've done. I find things ripped up, broken. Destroyed. And I've eaten anything I can lay my hands on. What if I were to — no, no, I can't think that or I will go completely mad." He started to laugh, a strange, awful laugh that he couldn't stop, and could feel the edge of hysteria advancing, so he breathed deeply a few times, consciously trying to calm himself. "I don't know what's real. It all seems like a dream, afterwards, or delirium. You know what, doc? I am a lunatic —in the real meaning of the word. I see the full moon, I go crazy. I act like some sort of terrible creature. I must be pretty believable at it, too. I actually bit my last girlfriend —I'm sure that's why Cathy left me. Couldn't get far enough away. Afraid I'd eat her up, I imagine!"

"Mike —"

He ranted on, obliterating the doctor's words. "I thought it was gone. I hoped it was gone, now that I met her. But —do you know that this morning, Virginia actually called me a wolf? She thinks I am one, for real, no kidding, that's how sick I am. That's how crazy she is, I guess, crazy after all. But not dangerous like me, no, no. This psychosis, this delusion, this compulsion, this I don't know what it is —I'm losing my mind, one full moon at a time. I can't stand it any more. I don't know what to do. What I'm going to do. My grandfather was right. I'm nuts, just like my father." He started to cry again, suddenly. "Like my mother. Both of them."

She put down the file. "Mike. Those books I had you read, the ones on convinced seasonal or preordained psychosis? Do you remember what they said and what I keep trying to tell you? Your lack of attention growing up and indulged fantasies have led you to believe that something —the moon, in this case —is controlling your behavior. It is not so. You want to let out anger, but don't let yourself, so you create an excuse to do it. Every month you have an 'episode' that coincides with wolf myths. You may have a clinical condition that can be treated —the blackouts, anyway —and the rest will have to be solved with more therapy. Possibly medication."

"I know what you've told me. But it's in my head and I can't get it out, no matter what I do, what I read, how many sessions I have, how many sedatives I take —" He flung himself back on the couch, staring at the ceiling through streaming eyes. "It's been going on so long...so many years. I can't stand it. I just can't. I can't live like this anymore!"

"All right, all right." She passed him the box of tissues. "Let me say it another way, okay? This creature you believe yourself to be, this wolf, or whatever, he is full of rage, he is powerful. He destroys, and he cannot be contained. Correct?" Mike nodded. "He, it, cannot be controlled, not by you, not by anyone, can he?"

"No."

She leaned in. "Don't you think it curious, then, that one of your issues has always been your resentment against your grandfather, for how he exerts control over your life, your career, your choices?"

His gaze burned into hers.

"You are very conflicted, this I know you know, about your relationship with him. You feel he is responsible for your parents' tragedies, yet you also love him and depend on him. You choose to depend on him. What kind of creature do you think you would have to be, to break away from someone you give so much power to? And if you can't, or won't, do it consciously, what do you imagine your subconscious mind might do to rebel against all that control?"

"But why be something so horrible? If I need to feel powerful, why don't I think I'm Batman, or something?"

She smiled at him. "Because you feel so guilty about this rage. Your mind can't accept that you hate him so much, so much that you want to kill him. It's not your girlfriend you fear you might kill — you just think that to punish yourself. So is acting out, biting, breaking things. You're angry with him. And you're angry with yourself, for not standing up to him. So? You are a horrible beast. You are not Michael Wolf. You are Michael, the wolf."

"I don't know. It's so real, in a way. And the fever —"

"Your mind can make you physically ill. It is called a psychosomatic effect. And this beast, this uncontrollable wolf, is real to you. Don't get me wrong — this is not a simple problem. But I feel we are closer than we've ever been. I want to ask you about something you said. I haven't given you a prescription for sedatives. What are you taking and how did you get them?"

"It's over-the-counter. Herbal stuff." Yes, supplied by my grandfather. There's an ironic conflict of interest, all right.

"Well...you shouldn't take it if it's not FDA approved. Really, be careful. You never know what may be in those things. If you need to relax, or to sleep, try a glass of warm milk."

He laughed, a true laugh this time. "Not chicken soup?"

"Why not? That cures everything."

~*~

The call came at about three. Candy was heading off her shift and let Virginia know that Tazer was waiting in his apartment near Columbia University. Virginia made the trek up to 114th Street, to a fifth floor walkup. Smells that were unusual, to say the least, were creeping out under the door, and Virginia hesitated before knocking. She couldn't shake the feeling of doing something illegal. Well, Tazer was probably doing something illegal, anyway. She set her jaw and knocked.

'It's open!"

"Hey, Tazer." She spoke to his back. He was bent over a stained kitchen counter which had been converted into a kind of laboratory, his nose only inches from some greenish concoction in a glass flask. He grunted a hello and took a swig of the flask. Virginia had known him almost as long as she'd known Candy, and she still found them an odd couple. Tazer clearly had intelligence and a vast amount of education, though currently he was "taking a break" while his suspension ran its course. What his infraction had been was anybody's guess, though she assumed it had something to do with controlled substances, and his possession of same. Candy, on the other hand, was, well, to be kind, an airhead. Opposites attract, I suppose, Virginia thought. Of course, I'm one to talk! "Find out anything?"

Tazer looked up at her and squinted over his John Lennon glasses. The bright blue bandanna holding back his frizzy hair made his curls stand up on top of his head, and coupled with the Hawaiian shirt he wore over an old pair of green scrubs gave him the chaotic look of a hippie mad scientist. He threw Virginia a meaningful look. "Yeah, I guess you could say I found out some stuff."

She slid onto a high stool across from him. "And?"

He lifted a stoppered vial and stared at the sediment thoughtfully. "Who did you say gave you this again?"

Tazer was looking at her with a fair amount of suspicion, and Virginia felt a strange tingle up her spine. "Uh, someone I know who got sold this stuff. For his — migraines. I told him not to take it until I checked it out."

"Good thing you told him that. This stuff is dangerous."

She had gripped the counter without realizing it. "Why? What is it?"

"Well," Tazer flipped open a pad that lay on his desk. "Mostly Aconite. Alkoloidal aconine in crystalline form, with the alkaloids of aconine and benzaconine. Plus point one percent belladonna. The rest is starch, buffer material, coating —" He leaned over the counter. "This stuff is almost pure Aconitum napellus. It's a deadly poison — even this small a dose. Sure, it could stop a migraine. It could stop your heart, too. Who did you say was selling this stuff?"

"I — I don't know. My friend didn't tell me." She sat still for a moment, trying to recover from what he'd told her. "Thanks, Tazer, I really appreciate it." She got off the stool and started to the door.

"Do you want this back?"

"No, I do not want it back. Throw it out, okay? I mean it."

"Sure, I will."

She paused with her hand on the doorknob, the dazed feeling wearing off. "Wait. What did you say it's called again?"

"Aconite. It's from a plant, Aconitum napellus, of the Ranunculaciae family." She groped for the pad in her pocket but couldn't find a pen. "Don't have to write that down. Just remember it from its common name."

"Which is?"

"Wolfsbane."

"Wolfsbane?!" Her own heart seemed to stop for a moment. "Thanks, Tazer," she muttered again, and groped her way to the door.

"You're welcome. Hey, tell your friend to stay away from whoever sold it to him. But if it's designer drugs he wants —"

Virginia didn't hear him. Her brain was racing. Wolfsbane, wolfsbane. Mike was systematically poisoning himself. With something called wolfsbane.

Twenty minutes later she stood in front of a Kinko's, cursing the fact that she had no computer at home and had to rent time on one.

Four minutes later she was logging into the Internet.

Seven minutes after that she sat staring at the website for The Pharmacological Directory of Poisons, Herbs and Medications.

Twenty-eight minutes later, hands shaking, she looked at the pages she'd printed out, and read:

Wolfsbane, aka Monkshood, Old Wife's Hood, Friar's Cap. Botanical: Aconitum Napellus; Wolf's Bane, common name, the direct translation from the Greek iycotonum, known in classical times as Aconitum lycotonum, derived from the idea that arrows tipped with the juice, or baits anointed with it would kill wolves.

In homeopathy wolfsbane and aconite are used for the reduction of pain. As a tincture taken internally or injected with a hypodermic, it diminishes the rate and force of the pulse and reduces fever.

Symptoms of aconite poisoning include:

Tingling of the mouth, numbness, soon extending to the entire surface of the body, paralyzing sensation of the throat and vocal cords, reduction of appetite and cessation of thirst, epigastric pain, bloodless appearance of the face, cold extremities, reduction in body temperature, staring eyes, suppression of hearing, contraction of the iris, reduced heart rate, sedation, weakness, hallucinations, delirium. Death.

Historically Wolfsbane was thought to be an antidote against other poisons, but criminals given the herb as an experiment in 1524 died quickly. A common herb, wolfsbane has been used by witches in potions since medieval times. Mixed with belladonna it was thought to be part of a "flying potion" because it induced hallucinations of flying.

In the middle ages, wolfsbane was believed to cure lycanthropy — to prevent those afflicted from assuming their wolfen forms.

Virginia stared at the words on the page until they began to swim.


Chapter 14 ~ Naked Truths


By the time the wagon pulled into Kissing Town, Wolf's bruises had stopped hurting quite so much, but a nervous restlessness kept him from feeling quite like his old self. Despite this, in the last few miles he'd managed to eat his part of the packed lunch and most of Gigi's to boot, though Gigi had refrained from any nasty comments about his eating habits. That was fortunate, as his hunger had not abated — in fact, he was more ravenous than ever, a condition that he noted and filed away to be dealt with later.

Since their conversation Gigi and he had fallen into a quiet companionship, which he found familiar and comfortable and rather reassuring, especially considering his expectation that something awful was certain to befall them. Why he felt this way, he didn't really know — the last time he'd been in Kissing Town no one had tried to kill him, or beat him up, or burn him at the stake. It was, however, where his heart had been broken so thoroughly by Virginia that for a time he feared he'd die from it.

Oh, well, he thought gamely, banishing the bad memory, that won't happen this time. It can't! I can't make a fool of myself in front of Virginia, or spend money on useless gifts for her, or otherwise behave like the thoughtless wolf I used to be. First of all, she's not here to see me do it, secondly, I haven't got any money, and third, I'm a changed wolf —er, man. I'd never do that again. I now know the meaning of true love.

"Roses for your lady, sir?"

John had stopped the wagon in the town square, and a little girl dressed as a walking valentine was peering up at Wolf, a bunch of red roses in her hand. "Er—no," Wolf said, dismissing her with a wave. Gigi was gazing around her at the happy couples, hawkers and merrymakers strolling through the street. Colorful signs advertised everything from kissing lessons to honeymoon hotels and Gigi took it all in with a smile on her face. "This town is beautiful!"

"Uh-huh." Wolf had been this way before, and knew that ugly problems often came wrapped in pretty packages. His nervousness flared as he gazed up at the tower dominating the square; that's where the Huntsman had lurked, waiting for an opportunity to wreak his revenge. Don't think about that! he cautioned himself. You left the huntsman tied up in the forest. He's probably dead.

But of course another thought insinuated itself. You thought he was dead the first time, too. Maybe you should have done what Gigi said. Maybe you should have shot him with his own arrow.

Wolf sighed. Being a changed man carried its own set of complications.

He climbed out of the wagon gingerly, holding his ribs, happy to discover that his legs would hold him up. Gigi jumped down beside him. John was eager to get on to his marketing and then be on his way, so they thanked him and watched as he turned the wagon around and disappeared down the street.

"Well," said Gigi. "So this is Kissing Town. Now what shall we do?"

It was a very good question, indeed. Did Snow White have a plan in mind, Wolf wondered, one with instructions for Kissing Town? At least without the mirror involved he didn't have to win 10,000 gold wendells or anything...or did he? Until he could figure it out, he considered his torn and filthy clothes, stained with dirt and blood. This was no way to appear in Kissing Town. People here were smartly dressed, and a ragged appearance might draw a little too much attention. "Well," he said, considering, "what I'd really like is —"

"I want to take a bath." Gigi was looking down at her clothes critically. "And I need a change of clothes."

When had she started reading his mind? A bath would feel wonderful. He could almost feel the hot water, a luxury he hadn't enjoyed since the last night at Wendell's palace. Ahhh, bubbles, waves lapping gently to release his sore muscles...mmmmm — sitting in a tub with the beautiful, wet, naked...

With a start he snapped out of his reverie.

"Look!"

Gigi was pointing to a sign that said "Sweets-2-the-Suite Hotel." The sign, pink and orange with tiny cupids and hearts, was so florid it gave him a headache. Right now he had no patience for cute names. But then again, the whole town was cloyingly cute, and there was no escaping the terrible puns and questionable taste of even the most simple establishment. And the idea of a bath and a real bed was so desirable that worries about the dire fate that would surely befall them here in Kissing Town were almost driven from his head.

Almost.

"Let's go to that one," Gigi ordered, falling back into familiar pushiness. Wolf was too tired to put up much of a fight though not too tired to goad her.

"Why Gigi," he said, a salacious look on his face, "are you taking me to a hotel?"

"In your dreams, wolf-boy. I need to freshen up, and you — well, you look completely disreputable."

"That's because I am. Isn't that what you're thinking?" He hadn't meant to snap back at her, but the words slipped out of his mouth.

She gave him a quizzical stare, then shrugged. "This is a one time offer, Wolf, because you've had a rotten day. But you can come or you can stay here in the road, for all I care." She turned and flounced toward the hotel.

He followed her, catching up in a few long strides. "Okay, okay, okay. Forgive me. I'm just really tired. Thanks."

Her mouth unpursed. "You're welcome."

The lobby of "Sweets to the Suite" was decorated in the same florid style as most of Kissing Town, and the unctuous clerk had a huge waxed moustache and a pretentious accent. Probably phony, Wolf thought darkly. He was feeling impatient and had to restrain himself from pacing. He hung back a little, aware of his disheveled appearance, sensitive to the glances guests were throwing in his direction, smarting at how they seemed to hurry past him.

Gigi accosted the clerk. "How much are rooms with bath, please?"

The clerk smiled broadly at her. "We have a range of rooms, my lady, from the simple 'Drowsy Corners' to the grand 'Beds of Paradise.' But —" he looked from Gigi to Wolf appraisingly, "Perhaps my lady and her rough-and-tumble swain would like the ultimate in comfort for their night of romance, the Honeymoon Suite."

"We want two rooms!" they blurted out in unison, then, startled, looked at each other warily.

"Oh, you've had a little spat. Never fear — it will pass. Everyone's in love in Kissing Town."

"Almost everyone," Gigi said, rather forcefully. "Not us."

"Yeah," Wolf echoed. "Not us."

The clerk smiled indulgently.

A few minutes later the two of them were being led upstairs by a peppy bellhop who seemed far too happy with his job. "No luggage?"

Wolf resisted the urge to bite the fellow right in the middle of his sunny disposition. "Our luggage was lost...in the, um, accident. Perhaps you can help us get some new clothing?"

"Certainly, sir. Happy to!"

Gigi elbowed Wolf and snorted as he flinched. "I suppose you expect me to pay for that?" she hissed between her teeth.

"It's that or I'm naked," Wolf replied matter-of-factly, and snorted back as Gigi hesitated a beat before following on. It was absurdly easy to get her goat. Hmmm, GOAT, nice juicy goat, with perhaps a rabbit chaser —He staggered a little as he came back to himself. He needed to get some food. Fast.

Gigi was shown a frothy confection of a room in red and pink, the "Doily Double," with lace-curtained windows overlooking the Casino. It was far too fussy for Wolf's taste, rather like being inside a box of chocolates —though Gigi seemed to like it well enough. Wolf braced himself for his own room, down the other end of the hall. This one was marginally better, but not much, decorated as it was with purple velvet draperies and garish paintings depicting bowls of obscenely succulent fruit. The "Purple Passion Room," indeed.

But what he did like was the enormous bathtub prominently placed in the center of the room, already being filled with steaming water by an army of housekeepers. Can't fault the service, he thought, sighing a little in expectation. A maid finished sprinkling rose petals into the water (that was all right — he'd fish them out after she left) and handed him a fluffy white robe with the initials "S2tS" embroidered on the pocket, before winking at him and hurrying out the door.

"Ahem." The bellhop was waiting.

Wolf made a huge show of looking for a tip. "Sorry. Lost in the er—accident."

"Oh, that's all right, sir." He sounded oddly happy anyway. "Shall I go fetch you some new clothes, sir?"

"Yes, yes, please, that's what you should do." Wolf dashed behind a lacquered screen and began tossing his clothes over it in his frenzy to get into the bath. "The lady's paying."

"Good for you, sir." Wolf looked over the screen to see the bellhop winking at him in a knowing fashion. He emerged feeling, and looking, rather like a sheep, swathed in the fluffy white robe that reached nearly to his ankles. He regarded his image in the dresser mirror. A wolf in sheep's bathrobe. Would the fellow never leave, so he could rip it off and get into the tub?

"Would Sir care for any style in particular?

"Something nice, not too flashy." That went against his nature, but he thought it best to keep a low profile in Kissing Town while he figured out exactly what he was supposed to do. "Oh, and I like my coat tails a little on the long side."

"Very good sir. I'll take these along to have them cleaned, shall I?" The bellhop, still cheery, gathered up Wolf's grimy clothes and opened the hall door. "Shouldn't take too long. Sir will have his new ensemble in plenty of time for his evening with the lady."

"With the lady, yeah, sure." Wolf muttered. He was past caring what everyone thought. The moment the door closed he threw the robe onto the bed and climbed stiffly into the water. He sat down, sinking back against the side of the generously proportioned tub and uttered a sigh of complete bliss. The sensation of the hot water was even better than he had imagined. The water lapped against and soothed his aching muscles, making the scrapes and bruises sting, but in a good, therapeutic way. This is the life, he thought. Plenty of hot water, new clothes, people bringing you things, a nice, soft bed, a nice, soft, creamy, dreamy girl in the bed with you, her hands gently running along your –

Wolf sat bolt upright, splashing water on the thick purple rug. No, no NO — it doesn't help to think about her, about finally being with his love, being with Gigi —

NO! He splashed again. NO! I MEANT VIRGINIA, NOT GIGI! I wouldn't, I couldn't, not with my lovely, perfect mate waiting for me wherever she is, far away, NOT HERE, NOT ANYWHERE NEAR HERE, AND GIGI'S JUST DOWN THE HALL –

Oh, cripes! The feeling of calm relaxation that had possessed him moments ago was obliterated by a wave of guilt. "What's wrong with me? I am so bad, so bad! Wolves mate for life, I shouldn't be having these feelings about someone who isn't my mate!"

But why not? his brain countered. You're mated, you're not DEAD, Wolf. It's all right to look!

"No it's not! Because when I look, I want. And when I want, I try to get, and when I try to get, I —Well, it's just not good!"

Oh, come on, relax! Your mind may know she's not Virginia, but your senses don't. Your body surely doesn't. No wonder you desire her. Part of you thinks she IS Virginia. It's perfectly understandable.

"Understandable or not, that's no excuse. I'll just try not to think about her. That's it. I'll be good...she's all the way down the hall. I'm safely here in my own room —"

But the problem is, you don't want your own room, do you?

Ah. That WAS the problem. Despite the bone-shaking beating, despite his worries about what was to come, despite his belief that he WOULD, eventually, find Virginia, what he really wanted to do RIGHT NOW was to climb out of the tub, walk down the hall stark naked, fling open her door and drag Gigi into bed. No matter what he said to himself, or how he argued with his own conscience, Wolf found this sudden urge nearly impossible to ignore. He certainly couldn't ignore his own body; he was starting to get an erection just at the thought of her. Oh, no! When this obsession had started, he couldn't tell, but once he started obsessing about something, he knew from experience it was almost impossible for him to shake it. This only compounded his feeling of impending doom.

He gritted his teeth and splashed water on his face. Surely if he thought about something else the feeling would go away. "Good idea," he congratulated himself. "Let's see...what's the least romantic thing I can think about? Trolls. Good! That's good. Big ugly, nasty trolls, staring at me with stupid looks on their faces, weapons, metal piercings, leather clothes, leather, Gigi in leather, tight-fitting leather, tight in all the right places, sleek and yummy and ohhhhhhhh...No! Start again. Dwarves. Okay...short, tiny, Gigi's tiny, she'd have to tilt her face up to be kissed...Aagghh! Dwarves live in caves...mountain caves, mountain peaks, lovely twin peaks with rosy pink —"

Oh no! Wolf submerged himself, releasing his breath slowly in a stream of bubbles. Maybe if he stayed here he could soak some sense into his brain. Or maybe he'd just drown himself. Right now that didn't sound so bad..."Ptui!" He sat up, spitting out water, gasping as his air ran out. He lay back, morosely considering the universe. "Cripes! What's happening here?"

He had no answer for that question, so he closed his eyes rather than look at the plump cherubs painted on the ceiling, cherubs that looked good enough to eat.

Somewhat later, he awoke in a tub of lukewarm water. In addition to the cooling of the water, the room was now suffused in a golden light that signaled sundown. He couldn't believe he'd been in the tub so long. His fingers were completely wrinkled and the air on his wet body was beginning to chill him. Time to get out.

Someone was tapping at the door. Oh, good, his clothes. At least he wouldn't have to put on that silly robe again. "Come in," he called, and started hauling himself out of the tub before he had time to remember about hiding his tail.

The person who entered barely noticed his tail.

She was too busy noticing everything else.

"Wolf, I — Oh! My goodness!"

Wolf's mind registered Not bellhop—! and he plopped back down in the tub, causing a wave to wash over the side. "Go away!" Cripes! She'd nearly given him a heart attack! She should have knocked, or something!

She DID knock, you idiot!

Oh.

Well, this was perfect. Here he was trying not to think about Gigi in relation to anything involving sex, nudity, or even a bedroom, and he'd gone and flashed her in his altogether. It would be funny if he wasn't in such an obsessed state about her.

And yet...somewhere in his brain a bad little voice was saying now's your chance...

As Wolf started to rise from the bathtub, Gigi thought: I can't believe he's not dressed yet and then I CAN'T BELIEVE HE'S NOT DRESSED! She ran back out into the hallway and slammed the door, leaning against the wall, panting, heart pounding. Good heavens! He was —she'd —he had —oh, dear!

She was shocked. She was mortified.

She giggled, and clapped a hand over her mouth.

She waited a few seconds, then knocked.

Wolf had taken the opportunity as she slammed the door to vault out of the tub and throw on the robe. "What?"

"Are you — um— decent yet?"

He shook himself, hating the feeling of his wet tail trapped inside the robe, and ran a hand through his still damp hair. "Yes."

But a few long seconds still passed before she dared to open the door ever-so-slowly. Gigi peeked through the crack, as if she were fearful of what she would find. "Sorry."

"You should be."

Her mouth dropped open. "No need to be so nasty. You told me to come in." Her eyes narrowed. "I bet you did that on purpose. Are you some sort of pervert?"

"Oh, right, right!" Wolf could feel his hackles raise and his eyes beginning to flash at her. "Go ahead, call the wolf a pervert! I bet that makes you feel better about yourself, doesn't it, you ignorant, spoiled little girl!" The last words came out in a growl.

"What? How dare you —"

"How dare I?" He started to move towards her threateningly, but this time she stood her ground. "Aren't you afraid of the wolf, little girl? Don't you know what wolves do to —"

He stopped, suddenly, mid-sentence.

"Go on! Whatever you were you going to say, say it!" Her chin was thrust out belligerently; her eyes challenging him to continue.

Wolf swallowed. She was so close, her scent overwhelming. "I—I— never mind, never mind." Still muttering, he moved away from her, clear to the other side of the room.

Gigi frowned and opened her mouth to speak again, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Bellhop!"

"Come in." Wolf was glad of the interruption. He didn't understand how they had gotten into a fight so easily. No, correct that, how HE had gotten them into a fight. After all, it'd just been a mistake, hadn't it? The bellhop entered with an armload of clothes. When no one said anything, he put them on the bed and retreated to the hallway. Wolf stood in a stupor for a few seconds, staring at the window, oblivious to the door closing. But when he turned around again, Gigi was gone as well. Pity, he thought. I should apologize for being so hostile towards her.

And he was beginning to suspect why.

He started to get dressed, but his mind was busy elsewhere. It couldn't be time, could it? Already? It had been significantly less than a month since the last full moon. But by what calendar should he measure that? When he had returned to the beginning of the journey, awakening in the prison, had that "started the clock" all over again? Or was it all continuous?

Wolf began to pace, scratching at his eyebrow nervously. Think, think. This time around in Little Lamb Village he hadn't been affected by the moon. The skies had been obscured by clouds, and there had been torrential rains — but surely he would have felt it if the moon had been there, rains or no. But he hadn't taken as long to make the trip, this time, had he? The timing was all off. He really had no idea where in the lunar cycle he found himself.

Except his behavior was telling him the answer.

"Huff PUFF! Not now! Not here!" It was bad enough in Little Lamb Village. He hadn't spent much time in town during a full moon —what would he do in a town devoted to romance and pleasures of the flesh? "Well, at least there aren't any sheep," he thought glumly. All right, all right, all right. What to do? He could hibernate in the room all night with a mountain of lamb chops, but his restlessness would probably drive him into the streets anyway. He could go off by himself into the wilderness surrounding the town, but he didn't feel up to it. Maybe he should try to distract himself..."Yeah, that's it! I'll go to the Casino! I'll watch people play, and I can't get into trouble myself because I don't have any money." Money wasn't very tempting, anyway, to a wolf in the Change. It didn't inflame any of his hungers. And speaking of hunger, his stomach was really protesting now. Time to eat.

Wolf looked at himself in the mirror. He'd put on the new clothes, because the old ones, though clean, still looked shabby. The bellhop had done well. Wolf admired himself in the new black suit with the deep violet shirt. Not TOO flashy, but just enough to keep him from looking like an undertaker. Besides, the color of the shirt made his black eye look less startling.

Now to find some food. But first he'd have to go apologize to Gigi for his behavior. He'd explain what he was going through. She'd understand. She had to.

~*~*~

Gigi went back to her room after the fight. Really! It was all HIS fault, and he was calling HER names? Here she'd spent nearly all of her remaining money getting him a place to stay, buying him clothes, and he -

And he'd embarrassed her. Her face still burned when she remembered walking in on him like that. Oh, it had been so silly! Just a mistake, but he'd turned it into something terrible, something she had done to embarrass HIM. Really! As if she'd wanted to catch him...like that.

She felt herself start to giggle and tried to stop, hiccupped with the effort, and giggled again. True, she'd only caught a glimpse, but, well, she'd never seen ALL of a man before. She put her hands over her eyes, as if she could stop the image in her brain, then chastised herself for being such a fool. For heaven's sake, Gigi, girls —women —your age are married already! And some, she knew, had lovers when they were even younger. So why was she making such a fuss? After all, he's just a man.

Well, not precisely. She'd seen a swish of a tail, too, in that glimpse, and that had shocked her more than, well, the rest of him. Or at least as much. Worse, in truth she hadn't been all that embarrassed, really. In fact, if anything the incident had made her even more...curious.

Oh, Gigi! Shame on you! This is no way to behave! He's a despicable wolf!

Wait! Whose voice was speaking in her head? Hers? More likely her father's. Her entire life she'd done things that her father considered wrong, inappropriate to her station, from chatting with a stable hand as if he were her equal, to dancing "in an unladylike fashion." And let's not forget the lecture I got when I complained about father whipping that servant boy. His piteous cries had broken her heart, and all her father said was "this is none of your concern. Go to your room!"

Well, she wouldn't be going to her room again, not ever. She'd never go back. Running away had been the best thing she'd ever done —spending time with the wild gypsies, meeting commoners, wearing, eating and doing what she pleased. And certainly meeting Wolf had opened her mind to all sorts of considerations! He wasn't at all like the wolves she'd been warned about by her father. She'd never, really, felt in any danger from him — in fact, he'd saved her life and, despite occasional rudeness, generally behaved like a real human being towards her. Traveling with him was really an education.

She suppressed another giggle. An education, all right. Just look at today...

Her mood turned serious. If that was what she really felt, she'd better stop saying things to him, things she didn't mean, hurtful things like "you disgusting animal" and "you have revolting table manners." True, he was aggravating, but those were the kinds of words her father used. She didn't want to be like her father, close-minded, bigoted and cruel. She wondered if she loved her father, at all. It was clear he didn't care a thing about HER. If he did, he wouldn't want her to marry a boring, silly, SAFE stick-in-the-mud like Wendell. Her father didn't know a thing about her, who she was, what she wanted out of life. He never would. The thought both saddened and angered her.

You know what would REALLY get to him, Gigi?

What?

If you chose someone NOT boring, NOT silly, NOT safe, and totally inappropriate. That would serve your father right!

She smiled wickedly at the thought. But, but, marry someone like that? That seemed a little extreme –

Who said anything about marriage?

Gigi gasped a little at her own thought. She'd never — oh, she couldn't. She wouldn't.

Could she?

"Oh. My. Goodness!" She had to stop thinking about this. Better go do something else. Like eat dinner. She was certainly hungry. She turned the handle of the door and walked into the hallway –

—just as Wolf was passing her room on the way to the stairs.

They nearly collided. "Oh," said Wolf.

"Oh," said Gigi.

They stopped, awkwardly trying to avoid looking at each other, and then both started to walk towards the staircase again. Gigi seemed to get in Wolf's way. He seemed determined to get in hers. "Excuse me," she said.

"Excuse ME." Was he making fun of her? She stopped. Wolf gestured for her to go first. She did the same for him. Neither moved. This was starting to become ridiculous. "Ladies first," he said, sounding a bit strained. "Thank you." This time she did go first and he followed behind. Then at the top of the stairs she halted abruptly and he collided with her, nearly knocking her down the steps. He reached out to grab her, to keep her from falling, and for a moment she had the dizzying sensation of leaning at an angle towards certain injury, yet being held securely in his arms. It wasn't an unpleasant sensation.

Wolf seemed to feel otherwise, for after taking a step backwards he released her quickly. "All right?"

"Yes," she said, feeling oddly breathless, "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Wolf scratched and looked around nervously. "Um."

She thought he looked like he had something to say. She had something to say, too. "Listen —"

They started speaking at the same time. Again.

"Gigi, I um — sorry for what happened. I didn't mean to get so upset, but it's because —"

"Look, Wolf, I know what happened wasn't your fault, not entirely, I have a tendency to take offense, I know I shouldn't —"

"—you see, it's my cycle. When the moon gets full, I start feeling very nervous, and very argumentative, and I —"

"—be that way, but I'm used to getting my own way, you were right, and it's taking me a while to stop doing that, and I -"

"—have been trying to concentrate on finding Virginia, but sometimes I get distracted, I get these urges, and—"

"—was embarrassed to walk in on you like that, I mean I do respect your privacy, so naturally I was feeling sensitive, and—"

"—so I want to say I'm sorry and please forgive me."

"—I'm sorry and I hope you'll forgive me."

Gigi looked at Wolf. What had he said? Something about forgiving? "Okay, sure."

Wolf looked at Gigi. What had she been talking about? It sounded like she forgave him. "Thanks."

They smiled at each other and he finally let himself take a good look at her. "Wow! You look sensational!" She did, too, in a long violet evening dress that made her eyes look even larger and bluer. She pirouetted, and the dress swished around her ankles.

She regarded him. 'You do, too." He did, she thought, he looked amazing, considering what he'd been through in the past 24 hours. True, he still sported a black eye and a bruise on his cheekbone, but the black suit made him look respectable anyway, and the shirt brought out new shades in his oddly-colored eyes. She noticed something else, too. "Your shirt matches my dress."

So it did, Wolf noted. Clever bellhop. Dangerous bellhop. Wolf looked at Gigi again and bit down hard on the inside of his mouth. She looked good enough to –

"Eat? Uh—dinner? Want to?" His voice sounded hoarse, even to him. No, no, NO, Wolf! Bad idea. Oh, come on. A wolf's got to eat, doesn't he? Especially at a time like this.

"All right. I guess I'm still buying."

"'Fraid so."

"Well," she said sarcastically, "Maybe later we'll go to the Casino and you can win me a thousand wendells."

"A thousand? Why not ten thousand?" he said airily. Shut up, Wolf! Control yourself, will you?

"Well, we'll see." She smiled at him. Wolf certainly isn't boring. Or safe. And that suit really makes him look quite —Goodness! Stop thinking this way!

His return smile was a little tight. Watch yourself, Wolf. This could be bad, very bad...or very good...

Gigi went to ask the desk clerk for a suggestion for a restaurant, and when she turned around to ask Wolf his preference, he wasn't there. She found him outside on the sidewalk, pacing nervously, scratching at his eyebrow in that weird way that unfortunately reminded her of a puppy she'd owned. He was talking to himself, something about "Good, good, good —no! —bad! Bad! Bad!"

Odd. "You're acting very strange —"

She stopped because he had frozen in place, hand still up at his head. "Am I? You noticed that? Do you think anyone else did?" He seemed genuinely concerned, and she felt rather confused. Was he asking her to help him act more —normal? Like an ordinary human? If so, perhaps it would be kinder to encourage him.

"Uh, no, not that strange. You just seem a little, uh, nervous, that's all."

He relaxed somewhat. "Good, good. Thanks. Good. I'm really trying, but it's getting a little hard — huff-PUFF! I mean, it's hard sometimes —er, difficult. Under the circumstances. You know." I'm so glad we had that little talk about my cycle!

I have no idea what he's talking about! Gigi thought, but aloud she said, "Good for you." She fell into step beside him. "So...dinner? What do you like?"

"Meat!"

"Ooookay." She took a step away from him, but continued on.

They decided on a restaurant on the next street, a bustling bistro that drew them in with its inviting aroma but wasn't too expensive. They sat outside, among a crowd of diners. Though he didn't mention it to Gigi, Wolf thought it best that they not be alone —images of him dining alone with Virginia the last time brought up too many memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. And the presence of other customers, though a little annoying, gave him the feeling that nothing unfortunate could happen. Which of course made no sense if one analyzed it, but he was disposed to grasp at straws at the moment.

He devoured a rack of lamb and then, still unsatisfied, consumed a huge, bloody steak, as Gigi looked on, her eyes wide. She sipped her wine and ate her meal with extreme delicacy. I bet she's thinking I'm a disgusting animal again! Look at her, leaving meat on that bone! She's doing that on purpose, to tempt me! He downed a glass of wine and tried not to feel defensive. He was tired of her judging him, though he had to admit, albeit grudgingly, that she was being civil to him at the moment. The food satisfied his hunger, at least temporarily, but he kept glancing at the sky, waiting for the moon to rise. He filled his wine glass again.

Worries about the full moon and his continued nervousness plagued him throughout the meal. Part of his brain listened to Gigi, who seemed oblivious to his distress. She had started nattering on about the weather, the town, their clothes—a variety of inconsequential matters. Her laughter seemed forced, even to Wolf, who admittedly wasn't quite himself. But what, he wondered, was wrong with HER, to make her babble on like this? He drank more wine and tried to ignore her.

He passed a hand over his forehead. Was he getting feverish? It was hard to tell, but he thought maybe he felt a bit warm. He didn't seem to have stomach cramps, but then again, with the pounding his ribs had taken, it was hard to tell where that soreness left off. He had, however, developed a slight headache and had to restrain himself from telling Gigi to stop chattering. He forced himself not to comment, and instead drained his wine glass. He moved to refill his glass and was surprised to find the bottle nearly empty. And now that he thought about it, this was their second bottle. Gigi had had two glasses —he remembered refilling it, but the second sat on the table, barely touched. Wolf frowned — had he drunk the rest?

That really wasn't like him at all. Normally he could take or leave spirits, though if food HAD to be cooked, he did like it cooked with wine. As a drink it tasted awfully acidic, though tonight he seemed oblivious to the taste, guzzling it as if it were water. Alcohol affected wolves less than it did ordinary people, but he was half human, and after so many glasses the human part of him definitely was beginning to feel the effects. He put the glass down, missed the table entirely, and stared blankly as the glass seemed to fall in slow motion to crash into shards on the ground.

"Are you all right?"

Wolf blinked and waited for Gigi to come into focus. "What?"

"Are you all right?" She was biting her lip in that crooked way Virginia always did. Ohhhh, Virginia! He felt his throat close with emotion. "Your eyes went all weird there for a minute."

All weird? Were his eyes changing? Maybe he was further into the Change than he thought. "Fine. Yes," he answered, his voice a little thick.

"Okay." They watched as a busboy quickly swept up the glass and put another on the table. Wolf emptied the bottle into it. Gigi watched him, feeling a little concerned at the amount he was drinking. This was an unexpected wrinkle —should wolves even be allowed to drink? Did it make them dangerous? Wait, wait! What am I thinking? That's patronizing and unfair. Still, she felt a little shiver at the thought of Wolf out of control, beast-like, frightening. She looked at him surreptitiously. He seemed calm enough, checking the sky again, as he had throughout dinner. Frankly she couldn't understand why, as the low clouds that obscured the first stars of the evening didn't seem to promise rain. "Wolf —?" When he didn't answer, she reached over and poked him. "Hey! Am I talking to myself? Hello?"

Wolf had been looking at the sky but thinking about Virginia. Thinking about her made him so wistful that tears were forming in his eyes. When Gigi poked him he jumped and flinched away from her as if her touch were fire. "What? What is it?"

"Where were you, Wolf? You seemed far away."

"I was just..." Images of Virginia suddenly flashed into his mind, Virginia smiling at him, holding his hand in the swamp, turning her face up to him, rolling with him through the underbrush, touching his face — Oh, how he missed her! It was all too much to bear. His eyes got blurry and two tears spilled over and ran down his cheeks. He sniffled and wiped his eyes.

Gigi stared at him. Wolf was — crying? What had upset him? Don't tell me he's one of those guys who gets all maudlin when he drinks. Next I suppose he'll start singing old wolf songs about his mother! She wanted to ridicule him. She wanted to be annoyed with him.

The truth was, she found it all rather touching.

What could she say to him? She couldn't find the words, and cursed herself for her lack of experience in showing compassion. You have a lot to learn, Gigi! "Wolf, what's the matter—"

"Go. Let's go." In a lightning-fast change of mood, Wolf suddenly seemed impatient. His eyes weren't wet anymore; in fact they seemed rather wild, as if strange thoughts were whirling through his head. "Let's go NOW!"

"Okay, okay," she said, placating him, but he got up suddenly, nearly upsetting the table, and headed for the exit. His moods were certainly erratic! It was hard to keep up. He's dangerous, Gigi. He's a wolf. Well of course he is! HE'S certainly not dull! Uh-oh, that train of thought was making her nervous, very nervous indeed.

She paid the bill and followed Wolf, but when she got to the street he was nowhere in sight. "Oh, great! I buy you dinner and then you abandon me in a strange town!" She felt her anger rising. And then she heard the howl. "Oh, no! NOW what trouble are you going to get me into?" She barreled down the street towards the sound. It didn't take long to find him. Wolf was standing on the fountain in the town square, walking around the perimeter, pausing now and then to howl up at the cloudy sky. "What are you doing? Come down here!"

He grinned at her, a perfectly wolfish grin, charming and dangerous and somewhat giddy. "Oh, hello, Gigi. Where have you been? Awrroooo!"

"Sshh!" She made a face at him. "You know where I've been. Eating dinner with YOU! Come down here before someone notices you're a wolf, er, Wolf." She filled her voice with all the imperious entitlement at her command, but he didn't follow her orders. Instead he folded his arms and glared at her belligerently.

"Well, I AM a wolf. And who cares if anyone knows. What will they do, burn me at the stake? Huh? Again?" His voice was rising and becoming choked with anger. "Let them try! I'll stop them! I'll eat them all up! See if I don't!" He was teetering on the edge of the fountain and she began to fear he'd fall off, maybe break a leg. Or his neck. But amazingly he held his balance, nimbly stepping out of her way as Gigi tried to reach up and stop him. "I'm a wolf all right, people! Yessirree! Wanna see my tail? The lady wants to see my tail, don'tcha, Gigi?"

Gigi looked around in alarm, but the few passers-by seemed much more involved with their lovers and paid him no heed. "Come on, Wolf, come down here. Now."

"I'll show you I'm a wolf. Lookee here!" He started to unbutton his trousers, but Gigi had had enough.

"Stop it!" She reached up and grabbed his coat, pulling him off the fountain. Wolf fell but caught himself without landing too heavily. As it was, he landed on top of her, and for a moment they lay there, face to face. She panted a little, because the wind was knocked out of her. And because he was so close...

"Hellooo, Gigi," he said, smiling wickedly He took a deep sniff of her. She shuddered and tried to get away. He smiled lasciviously as she wriggled under him. "It must be destiny. Whaddya think?"

"Get—off—me!" With a grunt Gigi shoved Wolf aside and rolled away.

"What?" Wolf propped himself up to lean against the base of the fountain, leering drunkenly. The problem was, he looked like he was having trouble focusing on her, which spoiled any rakish impression he might have been trying for, and with his new coat splotched with dirt he looked like a derelict. Gigi had no sympathy for him.

"I can't believe I was feeling sorry for you, you animal!"

His grin faded. "Don't call me that." His voice was low and very, very threatening.

"Then don't act like one!"

He pulled himself to his feet and lurched towards her. As he got closer she could see beads of sweat on his forehead. His eyes were angry now, and he was scowling at her, and she felt a wave of terror. Gigi, why, oh why don't you keep your mouth shut? Out of the corner of her eye she could see movement, people on the fringes of the square. He won't try anything here, I think. I think I'm safe...I HOPE I'm safe.. He was getting too close. His mood had shifted from benign to threatening when she called him an animal. She should have known better. Evidently the word was a trigger for him —he'd taken offense every time she'd called him that. She shouldn't have said it, she knew that, but now it was out of her mouth. She knew she should have made her escape the moment he began to behave erratically, but now it was too late.

Wolf stopped less than a foot away, and raised his hands as if he were about to grab her or throttle her. Gigi froze. Surely he wouldn't, he wouldn't! Suddenly he closed his eyes and shook his head, clenched his fists, and blinked several times before letting his gaze fix on her. His eyes looked different again. He opened his mouth to speak, but said nothing, and stood there, his mouth open, until with a small sound like a whine he bolted away from her to disappear among the buildings.

Gigi sank onto a stone bench. She felt faint. What had just happened? She hadn't a clue. She put a hand up to her chest, felt her heart beating wildly through the thin fabric of her dress, and began to sob with relief. Are you sure it's only with relief?

"Gigi, you idiot! You idiot! And that Wolf! What's wrong with him?" The evening that had started out with so much promise was now in ruins.

Promise of WHAT? She laughed bitterly at her own foolishness. What had she expected? "Serves you right for getting such ideas into your head!"

She put her hand to her chest again, and was relieved to find her heart had stopped racing. And realized something else. Something was missing...something she expected to find, securely tucked in her bodice...

"My purse!" She leapt to her feet and scanned the square. Nowhere in sight. She'd lost her money and suddenly knew where with perfect certainty. "That — that — WOLF! He stole it!"

~*~*~

Wolf came back to himself outside the Casino. It took him a minute of intense concentration to realize where he was, and the thought pierced his fuzzy brain that he'd just been with Gigi and had behaved rather badly. He felt ashamed of himself and cursed the moon again.

He was clutching something, something small and soft and made of velvet —oh NO! How did THAT get into his hand? Gigi's little black purse, the one she kept nestled in her bodice. She hadn't given it to him, had she? He wrinkled his bow in thought, and in a moment remembered deftly retrieving it from its lovely hiding place as he had tussled with her on the ground. His fingertips remembered the sensation, now, and he shivered with the tactile memory. He'd had his hand down her dress and she hadn't even noticed!

He inhaled Gigi's scent from the fabric of the purse and rubbed it against his cheek, sighing. Then he caught himself. Stop it! You're only making things worse! Of course, the realization that he'd picked her pocket — er, bodice — appalled him as well. He had to stop doing these things. It really wasn't right.

He couldn't really figure out why he'd done it.

Noise from inside the Casino poured out into the street as the door opened. Wolf weighed the purse in his hand, then opened the little strings and peered inside to check the contents. Gigi didn't have much money left; she must have spent a fortune on the two rooms and dinner, and the realization that most of it had been spent on him made Wolf feel even guiltier. He counted what remained in the purse. There were ten gold pieces inside, and he whistled under his breath as he remembered that's exactly the amount I had last time! This put a whole new wrinkle on his actions. Suppose he'd been meant to take the money? Perhaps Snow White did expect him to win the Jackrabbit Jackpot after all.

Why?

He couldn't imagine. He tried to remember the rhyme, the riddle she'd told him, but his brain was muzzy and he had to concentrate very hard to remember.

"The path where dangers lurk,
The road once traveled by,
This you must not shirk
To find her by and by.

"What's done must be undone,
A stolen life regained,
A struggle to be won,
A captive soul unchained."

A captive soul unchained. That was the only part he could think of that made any sense here. Maybe, just maybe, he was supposed to ransom someone who'd been kidnapped, or, or, bribe someone to let a captive go? Could that be it? Would the queen accept money in exchange for Wendell?

It seemed very unlikely. But then Wolf was getting used to unlikely occurrences on this journey. He had to give it a try. Perhaps his destiny was again to free Wendell, this time using the money he'd win. Right, right — free Wendell to...what? Marry Gigi?

For some reason that didn't fill him with joy.

He dusted himself off and went into the Casino. The noise from the wheels, from the games and from the patrons shouting and cheering was overpowering and hit him like a solid object. He was remarkably dizzy, and thirsty, and somewhat confused about the evening so far. But he didn't feel like eating anything —or anyone —and began to hope this would be one of the easier full moons to endure. He just needed to avoid Gigi until it was over. In the meantime he wondered how much longer he could remain upright.

A cocktail waitress came by with a tray of drinks and Wolf helped himself to one as the tray passed. It was pink and fizzy and tickled his nose, but he was so thirsty he drank it down in one long swallow. Yuck. It tasted vile. It tasted — pink. It did little to relieve his thirst, though it did leave him with an interesting buzzing feeling behind his nose. The next waiter was carrying tall glasses of something blue topped with a parasol. Wolf couldn't figure out how a parasol that small could keep anything dry, but the drink was wet enough and less fizzy than the other, so he lost interest in pursuing the question. Afterwards, the buzzy, lightheaded feeling persisted, but at least he wasn't thirsty any longer.

He'd expected to find the same croupier as last time manning the wheel for the Jackrabbit Jackpot, and there she was, all crisp and neat in her snappy gold uniform. Her bright blond hair was pulled into a bun under a silly little bellhop's hat, and Wolf idly speculated that it might be very fine, indeed, to engage in some activity or other that would muss up her hair. He flashed her his most devastating grin, the effect ruined somewhat by a small hiccup. He cleared his throat and smiled again. The croupier smiled back. "Care to try your luck, Sir? Ten thousand-to-one return."

"Yeah, I know."

She raised an eyebrow. "Have you been here before?"

"You might say that."

She looked up at him through long, dark lashes. "I'm sure I would've remembered YOU, Sir."

"Wellll, thank you, Miss."

"You're welcome." She leaned in and beckoned him closer. He complied. "If I may say, so, Sir, you might want to try another game. This one's only ever been won once."

"I know. But I'm going to do it again." With a grandiose gesture he flicked a gold coin into her hand, and picked up the ticket she gave him in return. "Just watch," he said with great confidence.

The wheel spun and clicked to a stop. "Bad luck, Sir."

Wolf's grin barely wavered. "Another, please."

Whirrr. Click. "Sorry."

"Again."

Whirrr. Click. "Sorry again."

"Another." A deep crease was forming on his forehead.

Whirrr. Click. "Um— not your night, Sir. Care to try a different game?"

"No!" He gave her another of his dwindling supply of coins, grabbed a green drink off a passing tray and slugged it down." Again!" The buzzing feeling was back, and so was his expectation of success.

"All right." Whirrr. Click. "Different number, perhaps?"

Wolf stared at the wheel, panic beginning to set in. He was having trouble focusing on the numbers, but he was sure he'd picked the same one he'd won with the last time, Seventy-six. That WAS the number. He was positive. But....maybe, maybe things had changed, he was here a different night, the wheel had been oiled a little more, or a little less. "How old are you, Miss?"

"Twenty-three."

"Twenty-three, then." He handed her a coin.

Whirrr. Click. "Oh, dear."

Seventy-six.

Wolf narrowed his gaze to sharpen his focus and considered the wheel. The Jackrabbit Jackpot had ceased to be a game to him; it was his prey, and like any prey, it could be brought down. He looked at the three remaining coins lying in his palm. One of them HAD to win. He knew it. He felt certain. It had to —why else was he supposed to be here? "Again," he said, and his voice was intense and cut through the other sounds of the Casino like a knife. Several people who had been drawn by the wheel's activity stepped away and whispered about the dangerous-looking man gripping the table. Wolf didn't notice. "Again!" he repeated, more harshly. The blonde croupier regarded him with alarm, but took a coin anyway. "N-number, Sir?"

"You choose." His stare was intense and he made her a little nervous.

"I don't think I should, Sir."

"Choose!"

"Is there a problem here, Arielle?" An enormous man stepped next to the croupier and examined Wolf with a critical eye.

"No!" Wolf didn't even look at the man, just stared unblinkingly at the wheel.

"Perhaps it's time to try another table, Sir," the man suggested, moving as he spoke to insinuate his bulk between Wolf and the croupier.

"I want to play this one." Wolf put a coin down on the table. "Seventy-six." He swallowed. "Please."

The bouncer shifted a little and nodded. "You heard the man, Arielle."

The wheel spun. People had gathered and many sets of eyes watched it spin. Wolf gripped the table tighter. The wheel seemed to spin forever. Then it slowed, and settled into the groove. The pointer stopped. "Twenty-three," said the bouncer. "Bad luck."

"Bad luck? Huff-PUFF, there's more at work here than bad luck, there's bad magic, too, or at least a bad wheel — what is it, lopsided? Weighted? Rigged? Cursed?" His voice was rising, drawing the attention of others seated at the tables. His words were a little slurred, too, as if his tongue wouldn't obey his brain.

The bouncer's face darkened. "That'll be enough. Time to go." He put his hand on Wolf's sleeve.

"I'm not done yet," Wolf said pugnaciously, pulling away. He and the other man were of a height, but the bouncer outweighed him by at least fifty pounds. Wolf didn't notice. Wolf didn't care. "I have two more chances!”

"You're out of chances, my friend. Let's go." The heavier man grabbed Wolf under the arm and started hauling him towards the exit. The crowd parted to let them pass. Wolf wasn't going easily, and he dug in his heels to brake their progress. It seemed to the onlookers that a full-scale brawl was about to erupt. The bouncer got a hand on Wolf's lapels and another around his throat. They began to struggle in earnest.

"There you are!"

Gigi's voice pierced the air, and both Wolf and the bouncer stopped to stare at her.

"Hello, Gigi," Wolf croaked, this throat constricted by the other man's fingers.

"Don't you 'hello' me, you thief! Where's my money?"

"Money?" Wolf tried to smile at her but the hand around his throat was hurting him so he kicked the bouncer in the shin with all his might. The other man yelped and hopped away, tripping and falling heavily onto a card table. The table collapsed under his weight, sending cards, money and people scattering. Wolf didn't even look. Gigi was here. And she was still waiting for an answer. "Um. Money..."

"You stole my purse. Give it back." Sheepishly he withdrew the empty bag from his pocket and gave it to her. "It's empty! Where's the gold?" Not daring to make eye contact, he opened his right hand to reveal the two gold coins still gripped in his palm. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth fell open. "That's it?!"

"Well, I, uh —you see, let me explain, there's this thing, I'm supposed to win, I think, and the Jackrabbit —"

"Shut up, shut up, shut UP! I can't believe, you, you —" She couldn't even speak, she was so furious, and was starting to hyperventilate. Wolf reached over and put a hand on her shoulder to calm her, but it had the opposite effect. Gigi whipped around and cracked him across the face with her open hand, with such force that he staggered back. 'Don't you touch me! Give me my money!" She gabbed the hand that contained the remaining gold and the force of her action sent one of the coins arcing into the air to disappear into the crowd. She shrieked with fury and clutched the remaining gold piece, shoved Wolf roughly away from her and ran to the exit. Someone tittered in the silence, and then the noise of the Casino resumed. The floor show was over.

Wolf stood frozen for a moment, his cheek still stinging from the blow. He'd felt woozy, but the shock had cleared his head somewhat, leaving nothing but anger, anger at the place, at himself, and right now mostly at her. He burst through the Casino doors, a scowl on his face, growling a little in his throat. "Gigi! Come back here!" How dare she strike him! Didn't she understand what he was trying to do? He was on a mission, a noble quest, one he had to complete, and she was denying him the means to do it! "GIGI!"

"Sir?"

A small man dressed in the uniform of the Casino was running up to him. "What do you want?" Wolf snapped.

The fellow caught his breath at the intensity of Wolf's tone, but carried on gamely. "Uh, well, your winnings. I have them."

"What winnings?" Wolf stepped towards him. "WHAT winnings? I didn't win the Jackrabbit Jackpot." He sounded bitter.

"Jackrabbit —? Good heavens, no. The Chariot Chase Roulette —"

"I only played the Jackpot wheel!"

The man chuckled indulgently, then looked again at Wolf's expression and his chuckle faded. "Sir, you played a coin just as you left the Casino. On the Chariot Chase. While you and the lady were, um, arguing."

Wolf tried to remember, but all he could summon up was Gigi slapping him. Wait — she'd grabbed for the coins...one of them flying through the air, towards –

"The Chariot Chase Roulette?" There was astonishment in his voice.

The man smiled. "Yessir. Your number won. A gold coin on number seventy-six—"

"Seventy-six? "

"—at five hundred to one. Here you are." And he held out a small red sack that jingled as he hefted it.

Wolf took the sack. Not ten thousand, but — "Gigi!" He turned and raced down the street, shoving the money in his inside pocket.

There she was, up ahead, about to go into the hotel. He had to tell her, had to make her understand –

"Keep away from me, Wolf! I'm warning you!" She put her hands out in front of her as a warning, but as a defense it made Wolf laugh derisively.

"Warning me? What, you might hit me again?" He'd been about to tell her about the winnings but here she was making him mad again. "You'd better not try it or you will be very, very sorry, no question about it! Now listen, I have to —"

"Leave me alone, or I'll scream my head off till they arrest you!"

He stepped in, blocking her escape. "Everyone always says that. You think I care any more?" He was close enough to her to see the fury in her eyes. She wasn't easily terrified.

She was close enough to see her handprint on his cheek. He wasn't easily put off. "Back away, Wolf!" She dropped her voice to a hiss. "Haven't you done enough? You stole my money. Isn't that enough for one night?"

"I didn't steal it! Well, all right, I did, but I needed it, don't you understand? And I've got —"

"You liar, you thief!"

"If you'd just shut up a minute —"

"'Shut up?' YOU shut up, you insufferable, drunken —"

"Narrow-minded, silly —"

"Criminal!"

"Snob!"

"Animal!"

There it was, that word again. Gigi saw Wolf's eyes flicker yellow in a very non-human way, and then bore into hers with that terrifying light. She could see his expression change, tightening into fury. He was truly frightening. He was –

"Don't you dare—"

And then the strangest thing happened. There was a slight rustle in the air and flash of pink and purple somethings over her head, and Gigi's expression melted into one of pleasant acquiescence. "Woooolf," she said, in a very, very different way, and smiled at him seductively.

Wolf's eyes snapped back to their human color. Damn this magic love town. Gigi was, she wanted, she, he could —No, no, control, control, control! "Gigi, Gigi, listen to me, you're under the influence of —"

"Shut up," she said, this time very softly, and flung her arms around his neck, pulling him in, her mouth suddenly on his, kissing him hungrily, greedily, right there in the street.

The sensation after so much denial, so much fear of giving in to his own desires, was too much to bear. Something binding, something holding Wolf together suddenly broke, snapped apart completely. He ceased to think about right, wrong, good, bad, yes or no, but yielded, finally, to his raw desire for her. He moved forward, carrying Gigi back to the wall, his body pressing her to the brick wall, his mouth finding hers. Her eyes opened in a silent O, but their depths were filled with passion and expectation as strong as his.

The kiss was intense, and seemed to last forever, but eventually their hands began to move freely over each other, plucking at fabric, struggling to loosen, lift, untie where they could. Desire made them reckless. People were coming down the street towards them, but Wolf didn't care, he was lost in Gigi's aroma and her feel. But Gigi retained a shred of propriety and pulled her mouth away from his. "Room," she gasped.

"Yours," Wolf panted between kisses. "'Closer." Still entangled with each other they lurched into the hotel lobby, oblivious to the smarmy desk clerk, who nudged the bellhop and said, "I told you! Pay me." —then up the steps to the second floor, where one of them extricated a hand from under the other's clothes and turned the knob to Gigi's room. The door sprang open and they nearly fell inside, as another couple coming up the stairs watched in bemused understanding. This was Kissing Town, after all.

Wolf shut the door with his foot and, still kissing, the two of them traveled the short distance to the bed. Wolf was dimly aware of the red-velvet bedspread, but as they crashed onto the bed, the feel of the velvet against the back of his hands inflamed his senses even further. He rose up from Gigi enough to pull off his coat, as she began to unbutton his shirt. He sat up, pulling her with him, and even before she'd finished pulling his second sleeve off his arm, he was sliding his other hand up under the silk of her dress, gathering the soft fabric until he could pull the dress off over her head. By now both were flushed and panting, hair tousled, eyes feverish and hands demanding. The rest of their clothes, shoes and hose came off with a series of pulls and grunts and whimpers and then they were naked on the velvet-covered bed.

Wolf, drunk with want as well as alcohol, was way beyond the thinking process. His senses were swimming with her aroma, her taste, the feel of her skin, the velvet rubbing on his arms and knees, but Gigi, though giddy with magic, had enough coherence left to think I'm really going to do this! I'm going to make love with a man! With Wolf, with — A thrill of terror snaked through her excitement. He's a wolf. This is dangerous. He's dangerous. He's —Any reservations she might have had at that thought evaporated as Wolf kissed down her neck and began to bite softly at her breast, his tongue flicking hotly over her nipple. Her body responded without thought, arching up towards him, craving more contact. Oh — this feels —!!! And then she, too, was lost.

~*~*~

Faint music and noise from the casino entered the open window of the room where Wolf and Gigi slept. The gentle wind blew the lacy curtains to and fro, wafting the smell of flowers into the room from the vase near the window.

Wolf turned over restlessly, waking from a sleep of confusing dreams. His head was throbbing, POUNDING, and the random sounds from the street seemed overwhelmingly loud. He frowned and rubbed his aching forehead. His mouth felt terribly dry, and he was queasy. What had he been doing? Had the Peeps —? He opened his eyes. No. The room was dark, but he could see clearly that he wasn't in the barn, that he was in a lavishly furnished room. He felt soft sheets over his naked skin, feather bedding beneath him. Kissing Town. Hotel. Oh. Oh, no. Oh, cripes! He turned his head sharply, too sharply, and pain stabbed wickedly through it, but he didn't care, he had to know –

He expected to see her, but his heart still fell as he saw her slumbering peacefully next to him. Gigi, her short curls on the fluffy pillow, a smile playing on her lips. Smiling over what they'd done, no doubt, the same things now drilling a hole through his heart.

Oh, no, no, no, NO! It was true.

Wolf sat up, ignoring the sensation of vertigo as his head came upright, pulling his uncooperative body off of the bed, backing away from it. From her.

What had he done?

Exactly what he had been afraid of doing since they arrived in this town. He'd betrayed his mate. He was bad –BEYOND bad, untrustworthy, dishonorable. Unworthy of Virginia.

Damn the moon! Damn it! He hadn't had a chance with that evil orb controlling him. A terrible curse, the full moon. He staggered towards the window, wanting to rail against it, to tell the moon exactly what he thought of it. The sky had finally cleared and faint moonlight was coming in through the gauzy curtains. He shoved the lace aside and looked up into the sky.

At the crescent moon.

He drew in a sharp breath.

Crescent?

Not a full moon?

But, but then, how...why—?

Wolf went cold. Not the full moon. Not under the moon's control. He'd deluded himself into blaming the moon, he'd wanted so to believe it. He'd done everything, EVERYTHING himself. For himself. Self. Selfish. Not because something else had MADE him do it, but because down deep inside himself he'd just WANTED to.

He sagged against the windowsill, groaning a little at the enormity of his delusion. Gigi turned a little, sighing, oblivious to the terrible reality of Wolf's betrayal. How could he explain this? How could he ever tell Virginia? How could he ever FACE her? How could he face either of them? He couldn't. Not ever. Suddenly a fragment of Snow White's rhyme came into his head, unbidden, not the phrase about the "captive soul" but another one. The one that explained why he'd come to Kissing Town. Now he understood. Now it was too late.

A struggle to be won

A struggle with...himself?

If so, he'd lost the struggle, lost the battle. Forfeited his word, his honor. Betrayed his true love.

And he had nothing to blame but himself.


Chapter 15 ~ Disintegration


The phone rang and rang and rang.

When the line clicked Virginia held her breath, but once again it was only Mike's answering machine. She hung up before the beep.

She'd been trying to reach him since she got back from Tazer's, after she'd found out the contents of the pills. Mike hadn't answered his phone. Was he out, or just refusing to take her calls? Either way she was worried, about him and about how the morning's conflict would affect the two of them together. She spent the rest of Saturday sitting in the apartment, miserably reliving the events of the day.

Tony had been there when she returned, and she noticed him watching —surreptitiously, sure, but watching all the same —as she made call after call. Probably she should say something, but she really, really didn't want to All through dinner, as Virginia picked at her food, Tony made futile attempts to jolly her out of her mood; later, as she sat blankly in front of the television, not watching, just brooding, she felt her father's gaze on her. By then he had a distressed look on his face, and that made Virginia feel quite guilty, but she had too much on her mind. Dad would have to wait.

But clearly Dad didn't have that same patience. Just as the ten o'clock news came on, the couch dipped as Tony sank down next to her. "Virginia."

She composed her face into neutrality before turning to him. "Yes, Dad?"

"Virginia. You wanna tell me what's going on? You two have a fight?"

"Who?"

"You and Mike. You know, Mike? The guy you're dating? The one I have yet to meet?"

She opened her mouth to reply to the gibe, but then just looked away and nodded.

"A big fight?"

"Yes."

"What about?"

"Oh, Dad, I can't explain it."

"Sure you can."

"No, really, I can't." She got up and walked over to the window.

Tony followed. "He didn't — do anything to you, did he? Hurt you?"

She smiled at him and shook her head. "No, Daddy. Nothing like that. He has some stuff he won't deal with. Important things. I tried to tell him I understood, but..."

"I wish I understood. Virginia, if this guy has problems, maybe you should forget about him."

"I can't." She turned to him with a look of misery. "I think maybe I...love him."

Tony looked at his daughter and then dropped his head. "Oh, that."

"Yeah. That."

"Honey," Tony began. "See, the thing is, I'm not real good at these things. Offering advice, solving problems. If that's what you need. Maybe that makes me a bad father, but—"

"—No, Dad! How can you think that? You're a great father!"

"Well. At least I'm not a hypocrite. It's not like I had a clue about how to have a normal marriage."

Virginia held her father close, thinking about what he'd told her, how he'd married her mother even though he knew she wouldn't give up her other lovers. Well, maybe he wasn't a bad husband, either; hadn't he stayed with his wife, still loving her, as he watched her descend into madness? "You're a wonderful person, Dad. The best."

"Oh, Honey," he said sadly. "Just be careful. I want you to be happy. I don't want anyone to hurt you."

Virginia hugged him. He felt big and warm and familiar. "I know, Daddy. I love you." She held him a moment and he kissed her on the forehead. "I guess I'll go to bed."

"Sweet dreams, honey."

Virginia went to bed, but her dreams were anything but sweet. All night long her mind was filled with memories of the argument: Mike yelling, upset, dismissing her from his presence. Those were bad enough, but worse was the recurring image of him dead. Her fears that he would inadvertently poison himself with the wolfsbane were so vivid that she woke herself up, heart pounding, tears in her eyes. She had to make him face the truth about himself, to understand what really was going on.

And how could he not be aware of what he really was? That was a question beyond her understanding. All Virginia knew for certain was she had to do something before her nightmares became real.

~*~*~

Sunday morning she tried his number again. Still no answer. She was becoming desperate, and desperation gave rise to the wild thought that she should call his office, even if it was Sunday, because he'd told her that sometimes people at Thurson/Wolf put in weekend hours. Maybe someone would be there and have an idea where Mike was. It was a long shot, but worth a try. She dialed the number.

Mike answered the phone.

It took her a moment to regroup. "Mike?"

There was a pause before he answered. "Virginia, is that you?"

"Yes. I was...oh God, Mike, I'm glad to hear your voice. I...was worried."

"Why would you be?"

She tried to analyze the sound of his voice. Was he cold? Annoyed? It was maddening trying to figure it out over the phone. "I was worried because of the way we left it yesterday. I'm...sorry if I said things that upset you."

"Well..." She heard him sigh loudly. "I'm sorry we had a fight."

That sounded promising. But she had things to talk about and needed to see him face to face. "Mike, could I come over and talk to you, just a for a little while?"

"I have a couple of hours more work here—" He paused again. "All right. I'll let you in."

She hung up and grabbed her things.

It was strange being in the office building on a Sunday. She had to enter through a side door on 49th Street and a tired-looking guard waved her into the service elevator, which seemed to take forever to crawl up to 38. When she got to the office she tapped on the glass doors until she saw Mike come down the corridor to unlock it for her. She stepped into the office and the doors closed noiselessly behind her.

"Hi."

"Hi."

They stood about awkwardly for a few moments. "Let's go back to my office."

"Okay." They walked past doors, some closed, some open. "Are you alone?"

"I am now. A couple of others were in before. It's pretty quiet." He was dressed casually, in a blue oxford shirt, navy sweater and jeans. He looked like he was all right, but there were shadows under his eyes. She imagined there were shadows under her eyes, too.

"How come you're here on a Sunday?"

He walked over to his desk and gestured to a messy collection of files and papers. "Had to catch up on the work I missed Friday." He looked at her pointedly. "When I was out sick."

"That's what I want to talk to you about, Mike."

He started to pile up the files. "Look, Virginia, don't start this crazy stuff again. I've said all I'm going to say on the subject."

"Well I haven't!" Her aggressiveness startled him into silence. "I need to show you something." She unfolded the printout and thrust it towards him. "Do you know what this is, Mike?" He started to read it and wrinkled his brow. "This is what you're taking in those pills of yours. The ones you said were for the 'flu' you had."

His face darkened. "What did you do? What is this?"

"It's a description of what your pills are made of. Did you know what's in them?"

"You had them analyzed? What the hell did you think you were doing?

"Trying to help you—"

"—Don't need your help!"

"Yes you do!" Amazing, terrible, sad, how quickly they were yelling at each other. "It's a kind of poison, Mike. A poison that has unusual properties. Shall I read them to you?" She grabbed the list back from him. "'Aconite—Symptoms of aconite poisoning include: numbness, paralysis of the throat, stomach pain, slowing of the heart, weakness. It seems to me you had all of those symptoms. But there's more. 'It can cause hallucinations, delirium. Or death.' It could kill you. That's what you're taking, Mike, a poison!"

"So what? Every medicine can be poisonous if you take enough of it. Sorry, but I don't buy it!" He started to walk away from her, but not before she saw the panic flare in his eyes. He hadn't known what was in the pills. She was sure of it.

She reached out and grabbed him by one arm, swinging him around to face her. "Listen to me! I know you're afraid—"

"—Afraid? Of what? Don't be silly—"

"—Tell me. Where did you get them?"

"What does it matter?"

"Then why?" Her voice was now a piercing cry and he finally looked at her and held her gaze. "Why do you take them? They don't cure the flu, Mike, you know they don't. So, why? Please tell me truth." She dropped her voice to a whisper. "Please?"

"To—to—" His own voice quavered a little, and he cleared his throat. "To calm me down. They're sedatives."

"Why do you need sedatives?"

"Virginia, I, I can't. Please don't ask me to..." He dropped his eyes.

She held onto his arms. "Please."

"Because, because... All right, okay. You want to know?" He shook himself free of her and started to pace in short, choppy lines. "It's because I'm nuts. Crazy. I have to knock myself out, get unconscious or I might...do things. Bad things. I'm a real mental case, Virginia, and you'll be better off if you leave now and forget you ever knew me." He sat down heavily on the couch, running his fingers through his dark hair over and over again. "Sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I had no right to think... I should have warned you about me."

She followed him, regarding him silently for a moment before sitting next to him. "Mike, you're not crazy."

"Please, Virginia, I've paid shrinks a lot of money over the years to tell me the truth. Too bad they can't seem to help me."

"What do you think is the truth?"

"'Think?'" A bitter smile twisted his mouth. "I know."

She turned his face to look at her. "What's the truth, Mike?"

"You'll think I'm..." He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them they were dull and his face haggard. "Virginia, I have some sort of psychosis, illness. I... When you called me a wolf I just, I couldn't bear it, because, because that's how I act. I have this sick, twisted idea that when there's a full moon, I am a werewolf or something. I don't know what it comes from. I just know it's been happening since I was a teenager. Other kids got acne, I got... this. I black out, I have terrible, horrible dreams about killing things, people. I wake up and I've torn my place apart. Virginia—you want to know why Cathy left? Because one night I woke up to her screams. I'd bitten her on the shoulder. Bitten her. Drew blood! Completely freaked myself out, not to mention her. I don't know why I let you in the other night. I might have hurt you. That's why I acted so weird. Obviously I was so out of control you thought I might really be a wolf. Which is your issue, by the way."

He started to smile a little at that, but then his eyes filled up and he lay his head back against the couch, not looking at her, not looking at anything. "I've been in therapy for years. I even signed myself into a hospital once, a mental hospital. Do you know what they're like, even the private ones?" His voice caught a little and he breathed in deeply, once, twice. "But no one has ever even put a name to this. So I knock myself out, so I'm incapable of doing anything until the delusion passes. That's why I take the pills. I didn't know how dangerous they were, but I can't believe my grandfather would give me anything that could kill me."

Virginia put a hand on his chest. "Your grandfather gave them to you?"

"Yeah. He knows all about it. Because my father evidently was crazy too, the same way. I used to hear him tearing things up, howling. It was horrible. I didn't know what was going on at the time. I didn't know it was an illness that ran in the family. And you've met my mother." He laughed harshly. "So there's the family secret, Virginia: fucked up genes, from both sides! Why in the world would you even want to know me?"

She looked at him with deepening understanding, wanting to scream at his grandfather, What did you think you were doing? She took a deep breath and reached over. He closed his eyes at her touch. "Mike. Please listen to me and try to accept what I'm going to say. All this time, you've had this delusion, an illness, you say. Your dad had the same problem. I know it's hard to accept, to even imagine, but did it ever occur to you that it might not be a delusion?"

"Virginia, please."

"No. Please, just listen. Do you know what aconite is used for? Or used to be used for? In the Middle Ages, they called it wolfsbane, Mike, and they used it on werewolves, to keep them from changing at the full moon—"

"—What?" he started, his eyes flying open.

"It's true. It's been an herb used for hundreds of years by healers and apothecaries. And witches. All of whom believed it had those properties." She showed him the paper. "It's off the net. I found the same thing on at least half a dozen sites." She watched him read, watched his eyes getting larger and larger, his hands busy, rubbing the paper between finger and thumb until he nearly wore a hole in it. "I know you think that's the stuff of legends. But, but, what if it were true, that there are people who have, um, unique abilities, who are influenced by the moon—"

"—It can't be true. Werewolves don't exist."

"Maybe not the way we think of them. 'The Wolfman,' Lon Chaney, that sort of thing, who get bitten by werewolves and end up in horror movies. No, that's fiction. But maybe there are human wolves. Maybe it's natural for them to be as they are. Maybe the unnatural thing is to try to stop being a wolf."

He was shaking his head. His hands holding the paper were trembling. "I can't believe that. There's no way." "Then ask yourself this: Why didn't your grandfather give you another kind of drug, some other, more usual sedative? There are all sorts of things around. Why something this arcane? Why wolfsbane?

He stared at her with incredible intensity.

She held his eyes, willing him to understand. "What does he know that you don't, Mike? What is the truth?"

He started to breathe in little shallow panicked gasps, and had such a look of alarm on his face that for a moment Virginia feared she'd pushed him over the edge. He dropped his face into his hands. "I don't know. I don't know, I don't know." His shoulders were shaking and Virginia wrapped herself around him, stroking his hair until the shaking stopped. Then she lifted his face to hers and kissed him gently. They clung to each other in a tight embrace. "Oh, God, Virginia, what's real?"

They sat they way for a very long time.

"Virginia..." Mike dropped his head against the back of the couch, pulling her in again tightly within his arm. She stroked his chest slowly, feeling his heart beat rapidly beneath her hand, soothing him. His face rested on the top of her head, and she could hear him breathe as he attempted to regain his composure. "I don't know if I can believe all this. It's...it's too much."

"I know. To let go of everything you're sure of, what you thought was real, to accept such magical notions. I know. Believe me." She looked up at him, noting how the look of panic had not quite left his face. "You will have to confront him, Mike." She didn't need to say who. He understood.

"If I am a, what, what you say I am, then he..."

She finished his thought. "Then he is one, too." He took in a short little breath and his eyes widened. So like Wolf, she thought, suddenly. So like him. Something resonated in a tiny corner of her brain, but she couldn't focus on it, because Mike looked like his world was coming unraveled. And it was, she thought grimly. How could he not have been told? Her anger at William Wolf intensified.

Mike was white-faced; he looked decidedly unwell. "I know this has been a shock. Lie down. I'll get you some water."

"Okay." She stood up and he stretched out lengthwise on the couch, flinging an arm over his eyes, his hand clenched.

"It's a lot to believe, I know." She took the ceramic mug from his desk and went down the hall to the water cooler.

She sipped some herself and then filled the cup again. Poor Mike. Lied to his entire life —how would he ever be able to believe what she was telling him? There was a mirror over the water cooler, and Virginia studied her reflection. Would she have believed it if someone had told her that her entire life was a lie? That she wasn't even really human? His reaction showed a tremendous need in him, a need to explain who he was, to know himself.

She was angry with herself, for being so foolish, thinking of him as a prince who'd rescue her from her dull existence, someone without needs or problems of his own. She'd thought she knew him, but what did she really know? Ever since she'd met him, she'd thought of him as steady, comfortable in his skin, normal. Confident. It was still hard for her to put aside the word perfect. Even in that brief instant in the moonlight when she'd known what he was, hadn't she still imagined a calmness within him that could be envied? A control in how he lived, how he dealt with his secret? She'd been wrong, so wrong. Imagine a life spent never knowing the remotest truth about yourself, a life spent doubting your own sanity.

She doubted she would have survived.

The cup was spilling over onto the polished floor, and she straightened up, making eye contact with herself in the mirror. Mirrors. Always mirrors. Again the little prickle in her mind... The thought stopped, not on its own, but because she suddenly was aware of something reflecting behind her, something colorful. Virginia turned around and looked through a doorway to the office behind her. The office next to Mike's. Regina's office; she'd seen Regina disappear into it the evening of the full moon —oh, Lord! Was that only the day before yesterday?

The lights were on, as they were throughout the suite of offices, and something was catching the light, reflecting back a bright spot of color. The office was lavishly furnished, but her eyes did not rest on the couch or the desk or the sculptures or any of the other expensive things, but on the portrait catching the light on the wall opposite the door. She walked slowly, as if hypnotized, towards the painting. A painting of a beautiful but haughty woman, with golden hair the color of Regina's, a face very like Regina's, perhaps a little stronger, a little sharper. A woman swathed in folds of richly-hued fabric. Red fabric, red from her tight sleeves to her cloak to the gauzy hood that framed her face.

She knew the face. She'd only seen her briefly, at the coronation ball, but her clothes would have proclaimed her identity to anyone. "Red Riding Hood," Virginia breathed.

The cup crashed to the floor, shattering on the marble.

"Virginia?"

RedRidingHoodRedRidingHoodRedRidingHood

Mike rounded the corner into the office. "What is it? I heard something crash—"

Her hand lifted of its own accord, trembling, her finger pointing at the picture.

"The portrait? That's Regina's great-grandmother. She was named for her."

"I know who she is." Virginia felt lightheaded, and when she spoke it was without inflection. "Where did she get that name, 'Rauthursdottir?' I know what it means. She was too vain to hide who she was. It means 'Red's daughter,' isn't that it? Red Riding Hood's daughter, Red's daughter, Red Riding Hood. And Benjamin Bryson Wolf. The 'founders.' Wolf and Rauthursdottir. Wolf and Red's daughter. Riding Hood, married to B.B. Wolf? The Big Bad Wolf. That's who they were."

She started to laugh and it was such a strange, hollow sound that Mike reached over and shook her. "Stop it! What's wrong with you? You're talking like this is some goddam fairytale—"

At that, her strange laugh became even shriller, and through it the words poured out of her in an emotionless monotone. "It's all true, Wolf and Red, Red and Wolf. I should have guessed, that's who you are, Mike, it's—" Her eyes came back into focus. "Oh my God, Mike, it's real! It's not just you. It's all real. Everything. Red and Wolf and—" She stopped, stunned by what she was saying. Wolf. Wolf WOLF WOLF WOLF!"Oh. Oh, God, Oh my God!"

"What? What is it? Virginia?"

Why hadn't she seen? Why hadn't she understood everything? Obvious, obvious, from that night, the night of the full moon. How could she not have realized? How could she have forgotten? He was the pattern, if—If Mike was a wolf, if Mike existed, if there were wolves, wolves in human form, if Mike, if they, if they were, if there were—- then he, then HE was, then Wolf, WOLF was—

She swayed a little.

"What is it? What's happened?" His own crisis forgotten, he held her shoulders as if she might collapse in front of him.

"I have to, I, I need..." She pulled away suddenly, before Mike could stop her, propelling herself towards the ladies' room. She turned the faucet fully on and scooped handfuls of cold water onto her face. Her heart was pounding. She looked up at her white-faced reflection in the mirror. Mirror. I came through the mirror. I did. I did. Yes. A lie, a fantasy, a truth. Wolves exist. Mike exists. Where did I think he came from? And if he is real, then, then Wolf is real. A equals B, B equals C, therefore A equals C equals XYZ, Q.E.D. I think, therefore I am. No, no, no, control yourself! Wolf, WolfWolfWolfWolf

Exists.

Somewhere.

She closed her eyes and leaned on the sink, feeling faint, breathing deeply, opening her lungs, her mind, her heart. She knew. She'd always known. She just hadn't let herself believe.

"Virginia, are you all right?" Mike was outside the door and she staggered out, seeing him but not really seeing him, and she walked past to lean on the doorjamb of the nearest office. Mike came over to her, touched her on the arm and the touch awakened her to where she was, who he was. "Are you okay?" His voice broadcast concern for her. She threw herself into his chest and hugged him tightly, holding on as if she would fall, squeezing her eyes shut. His arms came up around her. She knew the feel of him, the same but different than Wolf, the softness of his expensive sweater, his face smoother, more freshly shaven. She knew his smell, too, familiar, yet again different, the crisp laundered scent of his shirt, the faintest hint of aftershave, something Wolf would never have dreamed of using. Mike was real, tangible.

And Wolf?

Still holding Mike tightly, she opened her eyes.

"Virginia, what's going on?"

"I don't think I can explain, not right now, I need to go, I need to think."

"You can't, how can you, after everything—"

"—Please, Mike, please let me go!" She flung herself away from him and ran for the door.

~*~*~

Mike stood, unmoving, as the glass doors whooshed closed after Virginia. For a moment there was silence, except for the pounding of his heart. And then he became aware, with senses that he was beginning to understand transcended normal, that someone was standing nearby. Startled, he turned. A pale man with blue eyes was slouching in the doorway to the coffee room. "Hunter! I didn't hear you come in."

The smallest possible smile touched the blond man's lips, but did not light up his eyes. "I know," said Hunter Thurson. He looked at the glass doors. "Nice girl. Pretty. You're a lucky man, Mike. I don't know that cousin Regina would be happy knowing she was in her office, though."

Something about his manner irritated Mike. "Let's not tell her, then."

Hunter smirked and nodded almost imperceptibly.

"Have you...been here long?"

"A while."

Mike noticed the other man was holding a small cell phone. "Why are you here? Doing some work for W.W.?"

"In a way. Your grandfather wants to talk to you."

Mike frowned and started to turn away. "Then he knows where to find me."

"Mike."

Mike turned around. "What is it? Just tell him I—"

Hunter stepped closer, still smiling the artificial smile. "He sent me to get you. Bring you to the house."

He was too close, invading Mike's personal space, and Mike stepped back, despite himself. "Not now."

"Now." Amazing how smoothly Hunter had made the cell phone disappear and a little silver-plated gun appear in its place.

Mike stared at it, not comprehending at first. He looked up at the other man. There was a different look on Hunter's face. A very cold and ruthless look. Mike swallowed but kept his expression impassive. "I don't think he wants you to shoot me, Hunter."

Hunter shrugged, and smiled again. "Let's hope I don't have to, then. I'd hate to lose my job." The little gun jumped impatiently. "Shall we go?"

There was no recourse. Mike started towards the door.


Chapter 16 ~ By Dawn's Early Light


Morning.

Noise from the street.

Gigi opened one eye. Pink. Nothing but pink. She closed her eye and rolled over, savoring a few more moments on the satiny sheets. Except the satin was sticking to her face and the pillow smelled a little too much of scented soap... which clashed with the overwhelming odor of dying flowers wafting around her. The cloying smell trickled up her nose and she sneezed.

She stretched lazily and rubbed her nose. There was something fuzzy in the back of her mind, struggling to come into focus, and she let her mind wander, freely connecting the dots...satin, bed, hotel, Kissing Town, kissing, kissing Wolf, oh —

Oh.

That!

The memory thrust its way into the forefront of her brain and she let out a little gasp. Her heart skipped erratically and she could feel her face turn red. Oh, she'd —they'd. Goodness.

Well.

Funny, she didn't feel any different, really. Somehow, she thought she should feel different. More mature. Wiser. More womanly. Whatever that meant.

"Um." The voice came from across the room. Startled, Gigi opened her eyes wide and started to sit up, then realized she wasn't wearing any clothes and clutched the red coverlet tightly to her. She scrunched up against the headboard among the heart-shaped throw pillows, and regarded the other occupant of the room. Wolf was sitting on the windowsill, wearing his traveling clothes. He stood up as she focused on him. Well, this was more embarrassing that she would have imagined possible. What on earth should she say?

He saved her the trouble "Morning." He remained by the window, which filled her with relief.

"What...what time is it?"

"Nearly an hour past sunrise."

"Well. Er. Good morning." There was a lull. "How long have you been up?" Oh, dear, that didn't sound quite right. She blushed, from her forehead to the tips of her toes, but fortunately Wolf could only see the former. "I mean, have you been awake long?"

"Yes. I couldn't sleep." As Gigi watched he shifted his weight from his left foot to his right, then back again. His hands were clasped in front of him, but they were making little dancing movements. He looked very nervous. Gigi was glad she wasn't the only one feeling that way. "Um. How are you?" He sounded nervous, and embarrassed, too, Gigi thought; at least he didn't look like he was going to ravish her again any time soon. Which, confusingly, left her feeling both relieved and disappointed.

"Fine. I, uh —" She realized how dull she sounded and struggled to make "morning-after" chat that was wittier and more confident —like she imagined a girl should make after sleeping with a man for the first time. She smiled at him and hoped it didn't look too forced. "About last night—"

"—Yes, last night." Funny, Wolf looked more pained than delighted. Had she done something wrong? Wasn't she as good at it as his other girlfriends? What about that Virginia he always was going on about? Perhaps I wasn't energetic enough. Or maybe too energetic. Or, wait! Maybe I'm supposed to tell him how great HE was last night. Yes, that must be it. Men always want to hear what great lovers they are, don't they?

Problem was, she didn't remember how great he was. She didn't remember much at all. The last thing she did remember clearly was falling into bed with him; after that everything was quite murky. But a little flattery couldn't hurt, could it, while she waited for her brain to catch up? She tried to put on what she hoped was a dazzling smile. He looked at her curiously, but she pressed on, dauntless. "Wolf, ah, last night was —wonderful. Incredible, really. You were quite..." Word, Gigi, word! "—quite wonderful." Oh, great! She'd said "wonderful" twice! What would he think, that she was some silly little virgin who'd never had to talk to man after they'd —well, it was true, after all. She had no experience at this part of S-E-X, either. Words were not coming to her in a very coherent manner right now.

Wolf didn't seem to notice her discomfort; he was far too distracted by his own agenda. "Wonderful, uh, that's good, Gigi, that's nice. I'm glad you had a nice time." Oh CRIPES! That's not at all what he wanted to say! He started to pace a little. This was getting worse, the longer he delayed. Why couldn't she just hate me and tell me never to come near her again! But no! She thought he was a "wonderful" lover. Hah! He didn't even remember doing it! And funny, wasn't it, she had no idea how little experience he actually had in these matters, just a few all-too-brief interludes with Virginia, and—

Cripes! He'd almost forgotten Virginia again!

He really, really wasn't looking forward to this discussion, though he'd been rehearsing what to say to her for hours. He cleared his throat and planted himself as firmly as he could without fidgeting, which showed the seriousness with which he regarded the situation. It was bad enough he had to explain it to Gigi. How he was going to ever talk to Virginia about this was beyond imagining. He opened his mouth and began his rehearsed speech: "Um, Gigi, I want to apologize for what I, what we, what happened. I've been under a kind of a strain, you see, not that that's much of an excuse."

She blinked at him. What was he talking about? Why was he saying this?

"—And you see, I thought maybe it was the full moon, but it turned out it wasn't, and maybe I had a little too much to drink at the restaurant—"

Gigi's eyes grew wider. It almost sounded like he was saying—

"—And I suppose because you look so much like Virginia, and you certainly do smell like her, no doubt about that, you have the same delicious aroma of, er, I mean even now, it's still a little confusing to have you. . . Well, never mind, that's not important, what I'm trying to say is—"

Gigi stared at him, her mouth falling open. That was it! He was trying to say he didn't —"You didn't really want to ravish me?"

Wolf paused, thrown off his script. "Well, yes, I mean no, yes, I mean, I suppose that what I'm trying to say is, I'm so sorry that I got so confused, but you're a lovely person in your own right, and I'd never want to—"

"YOU DIDN'T WANT TO — DO THAT — WITH ME BUT YOU DID ANYWAY?"

"No! No, I'm not saying that" Wow! She really was making him sweat for this apology! "I did really want to, but I'm sorry I did, and I promise it will never—"

"—You didn't want to, you did anyway, and now you want to dump me?"

"I didn't say that! That is, I did want to. And besides, you wanted me to, you were—"

"—Oh, so this is all my fault, is it?"

Agh! Would he never understand women? "No, it's not your fault, its, its nobody's fault —" She opened her mouth to speak and he jumped in, trying to navigate her mood. "No, it's my fault, I'm sure it is. Everything is my fault, I know, I know, it's always my fault. But you know, Gigi, it was all a mistake, it's not really dumping you, I mean, it's not like we're really seeing each other, I mean, yes, of course I'm seeing you, I see you right here, and though it's not dumping you, I can see why it seems that way, like it is a sort of dumping and you could consider yourself the dumpee, but I'm just saying—"

"You monster!" In her fury, Gigi forgot to keep a grip on the coverlet and her breasts bounced up into view. Wolf closed his eyes, though in truth the last thing on his mind right now was a lusty romp with her —or anyone else, for that matter, possibly for the rest of his life. He turned his back on her. "Don't you walk away from me, Wolf!"

"I wasn't walking, I was turning, so you wouldn't be embarrassed—"

"—Embarrassed!" Gigi stood up on the bed, wrapping herself in a sheet, and Wolf turned back to find a toga-clad wild woman towering over him. "Gee, why should I be embarrassed about giving myself to an ungrateful, selfish, self-centered creature like you?" With each insult she hurled a pillow at him, which he caught until his arms were full. "Don't you have any feelings? Don't you care if you hurt people?" She was starting to cry, and Wolf couldn't help but feel great pity for her, young and vulnerable as she was. Her words stung him, and even though he knew they'd both been out of control the night before, he did feel that he was primarily to blame. The guilt was tremendous. Incredible. Depressing. He dropped the pillows and fumbled for a handkerchief to give her but she batted it away before crumpling onto the bed. "How could you?" She buried her head in the blanket and wailed. "How could I?"

Wolf sat down on the bed. She didn't push him away —she didn't seem to notice him at first. "Gigi If it makes you feel better, I hate myself much worse than you could ever hate me."

"I doubt it."

"Gigi." He put a hand on her shoulder but she wrenched away from his touch.

"Go 'way."

"I'm so sorry —"

"GO AWAY!"

Wolf stood up and moved towards the door, head down. He'd made a mess of things. Again. "I'll be around if you want to talk."

"I won't! I never want to see you again!"

Well, he'd gotten his wish. She despised him. Including himself, that made two of them that hated him. Virginia would make three. He closed the door softly, leaving her to sob inside her room. Her unhappiness weighed heavily on him. He felt responsible.

Responsible...responsibility...

Oh, no! There was something else that suddenly came to mind, a sobering thought that wormed its way into his brain and wouldn't let go. What if...no, no, it couldn't be. Whatever was controlling his journey, Snow White, or The Powers That Be or an Unseen Hand —surely none of them could be so cruel as to make history repeat itself in one extremely sensitive area. Please, please, he thought, squeezing his eyes shut and slumping against the wall. Please don't let me have gotten Gigi pregnant!

He really didn't want to think about that possibility, but once the thought was present in his brain it began to gnaw at him as mercilessly as an earwig. You should have thought of that last night, Wolf, but NOOOOO! Starting a family was something he'd wanted to do, but with his mate, not with every woman he passed on the road. Not that Gigi was just any woman — oh, huff-PUFF, shut up, stop blithering, Wolf! This is serious!

In fact, it was terrifying.

He knew there were some men who didn't think twice about such things —they just racked up the notches on their belts and moved on to the next conquest. Some of them were so selfish they'd boast in every tavern about how they were single-handedly populating the kingdom with little versions of themselves. Men like that disgusted him. Wolves weren't like that. At least not honorable ones, he corrected glumly. Any honor he might have once possessed was pretty much gone by now.

It was such a tricky, confusing subject to consider. Wolves mated for life, and a female wolf would expect to start a family immediately, but humans? He realized he hadn't even been sure that Virginia, his mate, was truly happy to discover there was a little wolf cub growing inside of her. She said she was, but certainly he'd been aware her delight was much more subdued than his. He began to worry —what if she secretly hated him for what had happened? What if Virginia hated their cub? His fears rolled on and on, gathering momentum. And now what if he'd done the same thing to Gigi? Oh, Wolf! Why couldn't you keep your "tail" in your pants! So many people would be hurt! So many people would suffer! He felt wobbly suddenly and sat down on the top step of the staircase. Life was complicated enough. Why, oh, why, had he been incapable of controlling himself?

"Calm down, Wolf, calm down," he said aloud, trying not to pant. "You may be worrying for nothing. It doesn't always happen the first time, you know that."

True, but it had with Virginia, hadn't it? And if Gigi was so like Virginia—

What would she do if she were pregnant?

What would he do?

He felt like there was no air in the hallway. He had to breathe. He had to go outside. He lurched to his feet and ran down the stairs.

The desk clerk made a disapproving face as the front door slammed behind the disreputable-looking man with the remnants of a black eye. "Some people," he remarked snidely to the bellhop, "have the manners of an animal!"

~*~*~

The man with the shaggy coat and the floppy hat stood in the town square, looking up at the tower. He was oblivious to the stares of the couples passing him, who whispered to each other with alarm at his curious clothes and piercing stare. He looked out of place in Kissing Town, frighteningly so, with his cloak of animal skins and the shiny weapon slung over his shoulder. An unusual bow, it was, with the face of a falcon and the shimmer of silver about it. Weapons weren't often seen in Kissing Town. There was no need; this was a town for love, not violence. There was something distinctly odd about this lone man, and those who passed him shivered and hurried by.

The huntsman didn't care. He considered the tower again, then turned away. Better to stay at ground level. She was here somewhere, he'd tracked her this far. Her and that meddling companion —a wolf, no less, he'd been ambushed by a wolf! Ordinarily he had no time for revenge, but if that wolf crossed him again—

He hefted the crossbow. It felt good to have it back on his shoulder. Without it, he'd felt incomplete. Those ridiculous overgrown bumpkins in Little Lamb Village! They'd hardly known what they had in their possession. To them it had just been a lump of silver in a pleasing shape, valuable for what it was made of. They hadn't dreamt what it was really worth, what it had cost in lives. Foolish, greedy boys. They'd never know now that its value had increased by the addition of two lives. Their own.

"Buy some flowers, Sir?"

He looked down. A small girl was tugging at his coat, holding a bunch of flowers in front of her. She had a hopeful look on her face, a face framed by ringlets and lace. She smiled at him. He smiled back, and as he bared his crooked teeth her smile became uncertain. "What do you want of me?" he inquired in a harsh whisper.

The little girl's pink face became decidedly pale. "F-flowers for your lady?"

He leaned down until his face was inches from hers, and now he could see she was trembling. The thought neither pleased nor displeased him; she was merely a means to an end. He reached over and caught her arm. "Well, little girl, in fact I'm looking for my lady. Maybe you can help me find her?" His other hand reached into his coat and flicked open a parchment. "She looks like this. Think you can help me?"

Tears appeared in the little girl's eyes and she shuddered, terrified.

"Well, can you?"

"Yes, Sir, yes Sir, I'll help you! Let me go!"

He let go of her arm. "Very good. I knew it was our destiny to be friends."

~*~*~

After she'd run out of tears, Gigi washed her face and started to get dressed. That awful Wolf! How could he have treated her like this, like she was some sort of dishtowel to be used, wrung out and then thrown into the laundry! Or worse, as if she were one of those women who sold their favors, whom one used and didn't care for at all!

She sniffed and wiped away a straggling tear. I will not cry again! Not because of Wolf! He'd hurt her feelings, that was the real story. Worse, she felt mortified by their evening's escapade. All right, she had to admit she'd wanted him, but what had she expected, really? Did she anticipate true devotion from a rootless, shiftless wolf? Of course he'd used her. What had she been thinking? What else did she expect?

Well...

Much as she didn't want to admit it, the fact was she'd been using him, too. She'd wanted to get back at her father, hadn't she? And at Wendell, at the whole arrangement between them that would have her sold to the highest bidder in marriage. Oh, Gigi! What were you planning to do? Trot Wolf out and say, "Look, Daddy, look what I did, I gave my virtue to this unsuitable suitor? Joke's on you!" Maybe, but hadn't she already decided she wasn't ever going home? Then what, what had been going through her mind?

Curiosity.

That was it??? She'd wanted to satisfy her curiosity?

Well, even if that was it, she thought defensively, at least Wolf should have known better. He should have stopped what they were doing. After all, didn't he say, hadn't he always said, he was in love with that Virginia person? And he'd —they'd —done it anyway? That didn't speak very well for his character.

She sat down on the bed. What they'd done didn't speak very well for either of them.

Oh, dear. She hadn't thought she'd feel this miserable afterwards. Maybe her expectations were too high. And, she thought guiltily, there was something else: she just wished she remembered more of the experience. A girl should have some memories from her transgressions. "Oh, Gigi! You are so, so wicked!"

Maybe if she concentrated really hard, she could remember more about what S-E-X was like. She had clear memories of them ripping off each other's clothing. She cast a glance at the purple dress draped forlornly over the bedpost —it had a huge tear up one side —she wouldn't be wearing that again.

But when the mists cleared and she suddenly remembered his hands sliding up her body, awakening her to his touch, and their lips pressed together —Oh. Oh my. More of it was coming back to her memory, and what she remembered made her blush and tingle inside.

Wolf's mouth on hers, on her neck, her breast, sliding down her belly, to – goodness! Where he'd kissed her! The memory brought a rush of sensation that surprised her. I must be a terrible person, Gigi thought, if just remembering makes me feel like this! And then she recalled, with surprising intensity, that when he'd done that to her, how she'd felt as if her body were on fire, and then she felt as if she were out of her body for a few long, short, infinite, immeasurable moments, her breath coming in gasps, her voice crying out in pleasure.

So that was what it was like. No wonder people wanted to do it.

The room, with its messy bed —the scene of the crime, she thought suddenly —now brought up too many intimate thoughts. She needed to go outside, get some air, clear her mind and organize her thoughts.

And try to decide what she wanted to do now, now that she'd told Wolf to get out of her sight. Sure, she felt that way, still, but the fact was, without him, without any money, she had no idea what to do next, or where to go.

She pulled on her boots and was heading towards the door before she noticed the small pouch on the entry table. It was red suede with a gold design she didn't recognize, but when she looked at it closely she read "Lucky In Love Casino." When she hefted it, it was quite heavy and jangled a bit. Curious, she looked inside.

Gold coins, one-, five- and ten-Wendell gold pieces —dozens, no, perhaps hundreds of them! Where on earth—

There was a folded slip of paper on the table. Slowly she opened it and read in Wolf's emphatic handwriting:

GIGI,
I TRIED TO TELL YOU LAST NIGHT I WON THIS AT THE CASINO—I AM SORRY I TOOK YOUR PURSE BUT!!! I WON 500 GOLD WENDELLS SO MAYBE THAT MAKES UP FOR IT SO HERE THEY ARE IN RETURN —WELL NOT ALL 500, I KEPT A HANDFUL BECAUSE I DID ALL THE WORK, HA HA, BUT NEVER MIND, YOU SPENT ALL YOUR MONEY ALMOST AND MOST OF IT ON ME SO I THINK YOU DESERVE THIS.
I KNOW YOU WONT FORGIVE ME BUT IM SORRY.
ABOUT EVERYTHING.
WOLF

Gigi let out a long breath. When had he tried to tell her? It must have been right after their fight in the Casino. Funny, she couldn't really remember now what they were fighting about, though she certainly remembered them kissing in the street. He must have written this note while he was waiting for her to wake up. Well. He was full of surprises, that Wolf. It almost made her want to — No! She wouldn't accept his apology. She closed the door behind her, setting her jaw with determination.

Still, maybe he wasn't all bad—

—YES HE IS!

—No, come on, he has his decent moments—

—NOT LAST NIGHT!

—Well, it's not like you're one to judge, you wanton little thing!

Aaaggghhh! "Stop it, Gigi!" she chastised herself. "In a minute you'll be apologizing to him, if you don't watch out!"

Well, that would never happen. Armed with a sense of indignation that was still pretty powerful and feelings that still smarted, she tied the purse to her wide gypsy belt and trotted down the stairs. The desk clerk nodded at her as she went by, then flinched as the door slammed once again. "Honestly!" he whined to the bellhop, "Was that couple raised in a barn?"

The day was bright and the sun danced prettily on the whitewashed buildings and slate roofs, but Gigi was in no mood to appreciate the sights of Kissing Town. She'd buy some breakfast, now that she had the means, and then decide which way to head out of town. The magic love town had lost its luster in the bright daylight. At least now she wasn't without money. In that respect, she noted grudgingly, she probably owed at least a passing thanks to Wolf. Maybe after she ate she'd try to find him. She wouldn't try very hard, though.

She thought she remembered a cafe and bakery around the corner where she might buy a muffin and perhaps a cup of cocoa, and she slipped out of the sunny boulevard into a narrow shady street. Her eyes hadn't quite adjusted to the dimness yet as an enormous, calloused hand grabbed her by the mouth, another one around the waist. She flailed at her captor, but whoever he was, his strength was far beyond hers. And then a voice, hoarse and ghostly, whispered in her ear, "Lady Virginia, how nice to see you again. I expect your father will be happy to see you, too."

Her heart threatened to leap out of her chest. The man released his grip around her just enough to swing her around to face him, and when she saw who held her, she thought she might collapse from fear. The pale eyes, as cold and blue as a glacier, froze her with their endless ice. The lank blond hair, laced with strands of gray, the horrible animal-pelt cloak, the smell of death about him. The huntsman! That's what Wolf had called him. But, but —how, how had he found her?

As if reading her thoughts, the huntsman smiled a cold, cold smile and whispered to her, "I take my time, but I always get my prey." He chuckled, a terrifying, inhuman sound that twisted her insides. "Come along, my lady. I expect you to come without much trouble. I hope you won't make me have to do anything that could leave marks." She stared at him, afraid to move, afraid almost to breathe. Oh where, where was Wolf now, now that she needed him?

~*~*~

The last time Wolf had been here, sitting on the ledge over the swiftly-moving stream, he'd been so despondent, so utterly without hope, he'd hurled the obscenely expensive singing ring into the water below him and watched it sink, along with his hopes of living happily ever after. It had been the low point of his life.

Today was running a pretty close second.

"I never want to see you again!" The words kept echoing in his mind. First Virginia and then Gigi. And, presumably, Virginia again, if he ever found her.

On that other occasion, he'd sunk so low that when the evil queen, Wendell's step-mother, called out to him, he'd actually gone to her. Why not? He had no life. Without Virginia, he'd felt he had no reason to live.

Right now it was hard to find a reason, too. He had no idea where Virginia was, but was fairly certain that a) he'd messed up so badly he'd never find her, and b) even if he did, she wouldn't want him to after his betrayal with Gigi. Meanwhile, Gigi hated him too, he probably was the father of two unwanted cubs, he'd screwed up Snow White's riddle, and Wendell was going to remain a dog for the rest of his life.

The last bit didn't bother him all that much, but taken in conjunction with everything else, it only intensified his misery. He was a failure as a hero, no doubt about it.

He resisted the urge to throw his head back and howl —what good would it do? Besides, his head still throbbed a bit.

Of course, all the misery in the world couldn't quell a wolf's hunger. His stomach began to rumble and he realized he hadn't eaten anything all morning. He might not have much to live for, but starvation was too slow a way to die. With a heavy sigh he stood up and dusted himself off.

He shambled listlessly back towards the center of town, eyes down, wallowing in his miserable predicament. He really, truly, did not know what to do next. Was there any point in continuing his quest? Or had his actions forever doomed him to remain apart from his mate? If only there were some sign, some message, some indication of what path he was to follow.

The sign, when it came, was from a direction he never would have expected.

~*~*~

The tiny pony cart rumbled along the rutted track. Gigi stared at the huntsman's back and tried to find a comfortable position. He'd tied her hands together, then run the rope through a rusty metal loop set into the side of the cart. She tugged on it again, as she had repeatedly since he'd turned his back on her. Nothing doing. The loop was rusted, but it held.

Oh, Gigi, you idiot, you should have tried harder to escape! He'd half dragged, half carried her down the shadowy street to the arch where the cart waited. She hadn't seen a soul along the way, no one who could have come to her aid. He'd thought it out very carefully, it seemed, with the practiced cunning of a predator. But maybe, she berated herself, maybe she could have struggled more, tried harder to shout or call for help, though in fact his hand had remained firmly over her mouth until he gagged her. Maybe if she'd only kicked him a little harder—

Should have. Would have. Could have. It was no use wondering about it now. He'd had the upper hand from the beginning.

The huntsman turned around suddenly and Gigi froze. He reached back to pull the filthy cloth from her mouth. Gigi choked and spat, and he chuckled softly and turned back to the reins. "Relax, girl," he said, "it's a long trip."

Gigi slumped against the side of the wagon. When she looked behind her, she was depressed to find that Kissing Town had become no more than a bump on the horizon. There was no escape; she'd be delivered to her father, an unloving husband and eternal misery, and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. No one would ever come looking for her. Not Wolf, certainly —she'd told him in no uncertain terms to leave her alone forever.

Besides, even if people did look, how would they ever find her? How could she leave a clue as to where she was? It's not like she could drop a trail of breadcrumbs to be followed, like Gretel and Hansel had done—

No, but, her ever-inventive mind realized, there was something she could leave behind, something any pursuer would be glad to follow.

Slowly she worked her bound hands around to the front of her belt. The bag of coins hung by a leather strap and she ever so carefully began to untie the strings that held it closed. It was hard work; her captor hadn't left much slack in the rope that tied her to the wagon, but eventually she was able to pry the bag open a little. Her fingers groped inside and she tried to nudge the bag a little higher by lifting her thigh. There! Her fingers grasped a coin and she withdrew it with great care, her eyes on the huntsman. This time he didn't turn around.

Gigi clutched the coin in her palm, then with a furtive movement reached up as high as she could and pushed the coin over the edge of the wagon. Please, please, don't let it make a sound!

Her wish was granted. The coin fell silently onto the dirt road, and lay there gleaming in the sun. She released the breath she'd been holding, and fiddled for another coin. A path of gold, she thought. Surely someone will follow.

Oddly, she felt sorry it wouldn't be Wolf.

~*~*~

"No sir, I told you, the lady went out earlier and hasn't returned." The desk clerk regarded Wolf with disapproval. What a ruffian the fellow was, all glowering impatience. And the odd way he kept sniffing the air! And now he was running outside again, Don't slam the —aaaaah! —The third time it had slammed that morning. "Animal," the clerk remarked disdainfully. The bellhop shrugged.

Wolf stood in front of the building, nose up, sniffing the air. When he'd scented the dank, musty, bloody smell as he crossed the town square, he'd been so shocked, so horrified, that he'd nearly run into a wall. The huntsman! Here? How? He'd hoped never to catch a whiff of the man again, but here he was. In Kissing Town.

That meant only one thing: Gigi was in danger. The huntsman never gave up a hunt, not until he'd brought down his prey. I should have remembered that, Wolf thought bitterly. I should have protected her. I should have killed the man when I had the chance. Gigi had been right.

There —Gigi's scent, so recognizable because it was the virtual twin of his beloved Virginia's. He bolted away down the street, rounding a corner into a narrow passageway, still on her trail. But her scent was different now... it was mixed with something else...

Fear.

His heartbeat quickened. There was something else now, mingled with her aroma. The smell of death. The huntsman. This was where he'd caught her.

Oblivious to other smells now, he followed Gigi's path through the back streets of Kissing Town, glad for once that he was a wolf, that he was able to track her. But he had to hurry; the trail would grow colder, and quickly, too. Wolf picked up his pace, and headed out of town.


Chapter 17 ~ Summons


"Reinforcements?"

"Just get in the back." There was impatience in Hunter's voice, and the hard nose of his gun poked a little more sharply into Mike's side.

Mike looked at the chauffeur, who stood holding the door to the limo. "Must say, Robert, I'm a little surprised."

"Sorry, Mike." Robert couldn't even look him in the eye as he closed the car door behind them. There was no need for Mike to verbalize his disappointment; the chauffeur had had his trust, seemed a friend. Well, the day had been full of revelations, all of them pretty distressing so far.

The huge car purred into life and Robert drove swiftly down 49th Street into Times Square, and then turned south on Broadway. Mike looked out the smoked glass, observing would-be theatergoers lined up at the TKTS booth, hot dog vendors, tourists swarming into Virgin Records and photographing the Coca-Cola sign. It was a typical late fall Sunday in New York City. Everything exactly the same as always. Nothing had changed. Nothing except him.

Strange, he thought, how being abducted at gunpoint failed to send him into a panic. He felt oddly calm, lethargic, almost, as if there were nothing left that could harm him. Surely not Hunter with his gun. His silver gun. I wonder, are there silver bullets inside? Or will a regular bullet stop a werewolf? Werewolf. Wolf. There, the words were out, though in fact they hadn't left his brain since Virginia put them there.

The thought, the word, wolf, did make his heart race a little. Even so, the strange lassitude remained, and he struggled to focus, to gather himself for the confrontation that was bound to come at the end of this journey. He had some curiosity about why he was being taken to see William. But mostly he worried about what had happened with Virginia, there at the end. Why had she suddenly become so upset? Why had she run out that way? And all that business about wolves and Red Riding Hood and

No. When he thought about it, the enormity of what she'd said to him became too much to bear. He needed her with him, to help him make sense of it all. He depended on her. Please, let her not be gone. Forever.

Because I can't live without her.

He shut his eyes against the thought. When he opened them, he became aware the sun was now shining through the rear window, chasing the car as it headed east. He looked out the window as the car passed the gray granite of the Morgan Library. "I thought we were going to see my grandfather."

"We are."

"He lives on Sutton Place. We're too far downtown."

"Not the apartment. The house."

"On the island?" Hunter nodded. Curious, Mike thought. The house was supposed to be closed up for repairs. "When did he go out there?"

Hunter shrugged. Clearly the giving of information was not part of his instructions.

Mike sank back in the corner and studied the other man. Hunter had always been...odd, existing on the fringes of daily activity at the firm. What he did there was actually a bit of a mystery. He was a Thurson, after all, Regina's uncle, in fact, but not one of the stars, like she was. Like he, Mike, was. Funny, he'd never really thought about Hunter's place at Thurson/Wolf before; he was just a strange, peripheral presence, handling things for William. Quietly. Invisibly. "Special projects." Like abductions? What else does he do —has he done —for my grandfather? Mike considered him with new interest. Hunter hadn't put the gun away, though Mike clearly had no intention of trying to leap from a moving car. Instead he held the weapon almost lovingly, caressingly, in his large, blunt-fingered hand. He loves it; it's his power.

The car plunged into the Midtown Tunnel and the darkness closed in around them. An apt metaphor for my life, Mike thought.

He tried not to think about what to expect. Whatever was going to happen would happen. The thought made him frown; wasn't that the way he'd gone through life, drifting, anchored only by his work and his grandfather? The work remained what it was. But his grandfather...?

It did no good to dwell on it. An answer, some answer, was coming, he was sure of it.

~*~*~

"Mr. Lewis?"

Tony stared at the vision of loveliness holding her coat over her arm outside the apartment door. She was quite tall; he was 6'3" and only had to look down a few inches to see her huge blue eyes. Blue eyes that were looking at him very appraisingly. He felt awkward, ungainly and badly dressed in front of this, this goddess in the deeply plunging ruby-red blouse and high-cut skirt. He let his eyes wander down her long legs to the shiny black boots. My God, Tony thought, didn't I wish for this on my last birthday?

"Mr. Tony Lewis?"

"Why, yes, yes, uh, hello, hi." He came back to himself and smiled at her. Winningly, he hoped. "May I—" His voice cracked and he tried again, in his most suave tone, "May I help you?"

"I hope so. May I come in?"

"Oh, oh, sure, of course, come in." He stepped back to let her in and she walked past him into the living room. She took in the shabby furniture, dingy wallpaper and down-at-the-heel look of the man in front of her. Whatever her thoughts, she kept them to herself.

"Mr. Lewis, I have to talk to you about something... personal. Something very, very delicate. It's difficult to talk about, but I know I can trust you."

"Oh." This sounded important." Tony ran a hand through his disordered hair. "Won't you sit down, Miss —er?"

"Rauthursdottir. Regina Rauthursdottir." She smiled at him ruefully as he sat down across from her. His half-finished beer was on the table between them, and he moved it closer to him, as if that would make everything a little neater. "I know my name is a mouthful." The way she said "mouthful," her brightly stained lips forming the words, her tongue flicking out to moisten them after, gave Tony a little thrill down his spine, and he shifted slightly in his seat. "So why don't you just call me Regina?"

"All right, Regina." He smiled at her. She smiled back. "I'll call you 'Regina,' then... Regina." He giggled a little, despite himself, and imagined what her hair would look like if he unpinned it. He had to will his hand to remain where it was on the chair arm.

"Mr. Lewis—"

"—Oh, Tony, please."

"Tony. You have a daughter, Virginia, I believe."

"Yes." What did Virginia have to do with this enchanting creature?

"Is she expected soon?"

He frowned. What had Virginia said, when she ran out? She'd been upset when she came back, and she'd paced around the apartment for a few minutes before dashing off again. "No, I don't think so. She said something about going to the park." The frown became more pronounced. "I wish she wouldn't do that, going there alone. Do you know that this year alone the number of muggings—"

"—Tony, Tony." She paused, waiting to claim his attention again.

"I'm sorry. Kind of got onto my soap box."

"That's all right." She smiled at him winningly. "You're a concerned father. That's sweet. And that's why I'm, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Tony, but I'm afraid Virginia's involved in a very bad situation. A romantic entanglement with—" She paused dramatically and fished for a handkerchief.

"I knew it!" Tony jumped up. "It's that Mike, isn't it? I knew when she wouldn't introduce me! What is he, a criminal, inside trader? Drugs? What?"

"My husband." The lacy handkerchief dabbed at one lovely eye and she stifled a sob.

"Oh!" That wasn't what he'd expected. "Oh," he repeated, "I'm so... That's terrible. Oh, dear. Regina, Virginia, she, I'm sure—"

"I'm sure she didn't know," Regina said faintly, sniffing into the handkerchief. "She seems very nice."

"Oh, she is, she is, she'd never. I am so sorry."

"Thank you." Regina sniffed again, louder, and looked up at him. His heart did flip-flops at her tragic expression. Boy, if he got his hands on the guy... "I wonder, Tony, might I have a glass of water?"

"Oh, of course, of course. Certainly. Just sit there, I'll be right back." She gave him a wan but grateful smile and he dashed out of the room.

As Tony disappeared into the kitchen, Regina's expression hardened. She looked at the bottle of beer and reached for her handbag, then reconsidered. No. Too difficult. This wasn't the place.

"Here you are."

She took the water with thanks, but only drank a sip. "I wonder... no, no, I can't ask you to do that." Her voice conveyed noble self-sacrifice.

Tony sat down next to her. "What? What is it? You can ask me anything." He reached over and patted her hand and she squeezed it in return.

"I wonder if I could ask you a very big favor."

"Anything, of course."

"If you could just come with me, down to my car, I have some... things that I found in Michael's dresser. Things that —well, they might be your daughter's. This is so very upsetting." She squeezed his hand again and he reached over to put an arm around her shoulder. "Would you mind coming downstairs with me and taking a look at them? I didn't want to carry them in here, and if they are Virginia's, well, you can take them. I just can't bear to let them stay in our home any more. And I don't want to run into her up here, if you don't mind—"

"—Of course, I understand, Regina. I'll come with you." He stood up and helped her on with her coat.

"Thank you. The car's right downstairs."

He held the door open. "How can you stay with a guy like that?"

She looked at him and sighed. "I can't help it. Michael and I... It's our destiny to be together."

He followed her, shaking his head a little. Destiny. Hah. The guy was a jerk and a liar. He was going to have to tell Virginia as soon as he saw her. It wouldn't be pretty, but she had to know.

The car was a large maroon Jaguar sedan, and Tony whistled in appreciation. "That's a beauty!" He looked at her. 'You do like red, don't you?"

"It suits me, don't you agree?" she asked, an enigmatic smile on her lips. Her red-tipped fingers played over small key chain. "Here, let me open the door for you." She pressed a button and the door lock popped. "The things are in the back. Under the seat. If you lean over—"

Tony knelt on the car seat and rummaged around. "I don't feel anything."

"A little further over to the right." Regina looked around. A nanny passed, dragging a reluctant pre-schooler; across the street in front of the museum a noisy tour group gathered. They were far enough away. The tree-lined street in front of Tony's building was quiet, except for the ambient noise of traffic from Fifth Avenue.

Now.

"I still don't—" Tony's voice was muffled. His long body stretched across the back seat. Regina moved in to kneel behind him. Her hand reached inside her purse. "Here, Tony. Let me help you."

~*~*~

Virginia stood on the hillside, staring into the copse of trees.

Staring at nothing.

She'd been so sure, so sure this time that the portal would be there, be visible. Surely now that I know I came through the mirror, that it's real, it will appear to me! She was aware there was no logic to her thought, but nothing was making sense anymore except the one thing she knew in her heart. Wolf exists. But there was nothing, nothing but trees and grass and the occasional person passing by, scarcely giving a second look to the young woman staring into the shade with a perplexed look on her face.

She wandered a little further afield, though she knew the spot, was positive this was where the door had been. She'd come here before, after her accident, many times. In the days following her awakening at the hospital she'd haunted the park, hoping against hope that the blurry passageway to another place would magically appear. But it hadn't, and after a while it had become part of her dream, not of her reality.

But now!

As sure as she was, now, that she had been to the Nine Kingdoms, that she had in fact lived the adventures she'd begun to think were fantasy, that was how sure she was that she would find the portal, locate the doorway that had brought her here and would take her back. To Wolf.

But there was nothing. Nothing at all.

And if it had been there...? What, really, was she planning to do?

She felt terribly confused and conflicted. And she was desperately sad and not just a little guilty for running out on Mike without an explanation. Without telling him the whole truth about herself, about Wolf. She'd left him there, vulnerable, nearly destroyed by what she'd told him. The desperation in his voice as she ran out the door haunted her.

But she was haunted by other memories, too, memories of Wolf and their time together. For the thousandth time she cursed herself for not holding fast to the belief that he existed. He was her mate. Her soul mate. How could she have doubted he was real? Didn't she love him?

But...didn't she love Mike, too?

Her head throbbed with unanswered questions, and her heart ached when she thought of what would happen. One thing was all too clear; whatever happened, whatever she did, she was going to inflict tremendous pain on someone. Someone was bound to suffer.

Perhaps all of them.

For now there was nothing she could do, nor think to do. She turned away from the trees and headed back towards Fifth Avenue. At the park entrance at 79th Street, as she stood waiting for the light to change, her New Yorker radar tingled suddenly with the sensation that someone was standing behind her. Too close behind her. She started to turn, and a voice spoke in her ear. "Virginia. How nice to see you again."

She spun around to see Regina only a step behind her. "Regina! You scared me to — What are you doing here?" Damn it! Her heart was pounding more than it should be, but the memory of standing before the portrait in Regina's office made it impossible for her to consider Regina merely a conniving bitch. Now that she knew her lineage, Regina's history —well, she had no time any more for her snotty behavior and imperious attitude, even if she was some sort of watered-down royalty! Her shock turned to anger. "What the hell do you want, Regina?"

"Such language. You really are a common little thing, aren't you?" Regina pushed a blonde curl off her forehead. "Just want give you an invitation, and here you are, being rude to me. Wouldn't want you to miss the party, so I thought I'd come collect you."

"I'm not going anywhere with you. Whatever kind of party you're throwing, Regina, I'm not interested." Virginia turned her back on the other woman.

"Oh, dear. I was afraid you'd feel that way. Pity. Your father's the guest of honor."

Virginia had one foot in the street and froze. She turned around, stepping back up onto the curb so Regina wouldn't tower over her quite so much. "What are you talking about? What do you know about my dad?"

"He's very charming, Tony. Well, at least he thinks he is. We had a lovely conversation, the two of us. He's not feeling all that well, now, though."

A ripple of panic passed through her. "Where is he? What's wrong with him?"

"Not very much. Yet. Perhaps you'd like to see for yourself?" She stepped forward, the pleasant expression on her pretty face turning ruthless and cold. "Because, my dear Virginia, if you don't come, I guarantee you he'll be feeling much worse very, very soon."

Any icy hand clenched around Virginia's heart. "Where is he?" The words came out in a whisper. She was terrified of what Regina might have done. Why? What could she possibly want? Was this, could this all be about Mike? It seemed incredible, but... The arrogance of the woman was almost palpable. "Take me to where he is!"

"Of course." Regina smiled. "See? I knew you'd come to my party after all."

She led Virginia to 81st Street, and for a moment Virginia was sure they were going into the apartment, but Regina paused in front of a dark red car. "He's in the back."

She tried to see through the darkened window, and could make out Tony's shape on the seat. "What did you do to him?"

Regina shrugged. "Nothing much. He's just taking a little nap. Get in the front. We're going to take a ride."

In a daze, Virginia walked around the car to the passenger side. Regina got in behind the wheel and unlocked the other door. Virginia crawled in, immediately reaching over the back seat to check on her father. Tony seemed to be breathing but was very deeply asleep or unconscious, not responding when she shook him or called his name.

Regina started the car. "Sit down and buckle your seat belt, Virginia. I'd hate anything to happen to you." A sound, somewhere between a snarl and a giggle, escaped her lips. She's insane, Virginia thought suddenly. And I'm even crazier to get in her car.

She turned towards the blonde. "I don't care how pissed you are that Mike is seeing me. You're sick, Regina! You're crazy to do something like this! I'm not going anywhere with you until you tell me what you did to my father."

"Don't be so dramatic. You talk like I boiled your bunny or something." She made the little giggle-snarl sound again, and her eyes looked frighteningly opaque. This time the hair stood up on Virginia's neck, and for the first time she truly felt afraid of Regina. "Relax. I didn't hurt your big, strong daddy. Why would I? There's always room for another janitor in the world. I just knocked him out a little. With this." There was suddenly something in her hand, a little dusting of some sort of powdery substance.

Virginia's eyes narrowed. "What is that?"

"Oh, a little something to make people shut up and do what I want. It's a handy little drug. I got it from Burleigh."

Virginia caught her breath, her eyes fixed on the little pile of pink something in Regina's palm. "Wh-who?"

"William's chauffeur. Robert Burleigh."

Another piece of reality folded and shifted in Virginia's mind. "Burly?" she whispered.

"That's right." Without warning, Regina blew the handful of powder into Virginia's face, and she collapsed sideways against the door with a surprised gasp. Regina wiped her hand on the lace handkerchief and looked over at the unconscious figure beside her. "What does he call it? Oh, yes —'troll dust.' Charming name, isn't it?" She looked at the still figure next to her. "Don't bother to answer, Virginia. It was a rhetorical question." She made the strange high-pitched giggle again, then shifted the car into gear and pulled out of the space.

~*~*~

The sun had leeched out of the sky during the trip, and as the limo pulled into the driveway Mike could see gray clouds obscuring the horizon where the sky and the Long Island Sound met. The car completed its circle and the water disappeared behind the mass of the gray stone house.

Robert opened the door and Mike got out. The scaffolding was still in place around the central tower and the huge house still had an unused look about it. But there were a number of cars parked in front and he could see a few more at the side near the garage. He walked up under the portico, Hunter two steps behind him.

Inside, the great hall was lit by electric lights modeled after torches. The effect was quaint, a modern homage to medieval life, but the ludicrous nature of the imitation for once failed to lift his spirits. The building had been an unusual place to spend his adolescence, a kind of funhouse filled with odd objects and peculiar decor, but it had never really felt like a home. Right now it felt like a dungeon.

William was waiting in the library. And he was not alone.

Mike was a little startled, though he'd seen the cars outside. He'd expected his grandfather to receive him in private, tell him whatever he had to tell, make demands, lecture him, maybe even threaten him. What he found looked more like a courtroom.

William was seated in his wing chair behind the library table, flanked by two men, a senior manager named Taylor and Geoffrey Singer, the head of the marketing department. Grouped in a casual circle were others he recognized: Sylvia Gray, William's secretary, Terry Greenwood and Linear Pelt from Legal, Cleo the office manager, Veronica the receptionist, two traders, Jack Furman and Andre Lenoire. He also noticed the head of Accounting, several junior staffers and a handful of others he didn't know by name. His secretary Shira didn't seem to be present. Nor, he noticed, was Regina.

He looked around, staring at faces, at the people he thought he knew, lunched with, talked sports with, who seemed now to be waiting for something.

"Thank you, Hunter." The wait ended as William Wolf spoke. Hunter stepped out from behind Mike, and seemed almost to give a little bow towards the older man. Like William is the king, or something, Hunter slouched over to the wall and leaned there, his mission complete, though his hand remained in his pocket.

"Michael." The old man's voice belied his age, cutting through the air like a hatchet. "Sit down, Michael."

"I'd rather stand, thanks."

"Don't be silly. Taylor, get my grandson a chair." The younger man complied, bringing forward a ladder-back chair, placing it in the center of the room. "Sit down. Please," William said, gesturing.

Mike sat. He looked around. The image of a courtroom was unavoidable. "Do we go straight to the public execution, or do I get to consult a lawyer? Linnea, Terry? want to represent me?" The joke fell flat and the honey-haired lawyer shifted in her seat self-consciously. The man next to her shuffled his feet and looked helplessly at the wing chair.

"You needn't turn this into a circus." William's voice was filled with distaste. "You'll only make this worse for yourself."

"Worse. How so? I've already been kidnapped."

"No you haven't, don't be ridiculous."

"Really? I get a gun stuck in my ribs by Hunter, a mysterious summons to a house that's supposed to be boarded up, some kind of Star Chamber reception —what would you call it? An engraved invitation?" He was angry, ready to do battle, but William wasn't looking at him.

"Hunter, was a gun really necessary?"

The man in the corner shrugged slightly. "You told me to be persuasive, William."

"Still..." The old man's attention veered off his associate and returned to Mike. "In any case, Michael, I understand you had quite the little scene earlier today. And—" Singer handed him a paper "—there was that unscheduled visit to your Dr. Horovitz yesterday. I thought we discussed that a few months ago. I told you not to—"

"Let me get this straight." Mike's eyes bored through his grandfather. "You're spying on me, on everything I do? You have no right!"

William ignored his outburst. "To say I am disappointed in the way you're conducting yourself would be to understate my feelings."

"Really? In what way? I don't hear you complaining at staff meetings when you count how much money I bring in."

"That's not what I'm talking about, and you know it, but since you bring it up, your receipts are down, too. Probably because that girl is distracting you. But let's not digress."

"No, let's not, William!" Mike was out of his chair and in the corner of his eye he saw Hunter come away from the wall. "Let's talk about Virginia. You have no right to interfere in my private life—Interfere, hell! You have no right even to have an opinion about it!"

William shifted in the chair, putting his palms on the desk and leaning forward. "I certainly do have the right, I am your grandfather!"

"I'm not a teenager—"

"Then stop acting like one! That girl is undermining everything you've worked for. She's undone all the progress you've made. You haven't been yourself lately—"

Mike snorted. "And how the hell would I even know? You treat me like some sort of psycho, William, and I'm not, am I? That's the truth, isn't it?"

"Look at you: you can't even control yourself—"

"—Control myself?! What sort of a comment is that? Jesus, William, you don't have the right to dictate to me. All these years and you're still feeding me the same old bullshit!"

"Calm down!"

"No, I don't think I will! You're the one who's made this into a circus." He turned in a circle, indicating the ring of spectators, most of whom looked acutely embarrassed by the scene before them. "If this isn't a trial, what is it? What's the penalty for having my own life, for not being your lap dog? Public humiliation? Stoning? Tell me, why are they all here? And why did you bring me out here anyway? I'm willing to bet it's not for a fraternity initiation. Why is our private business on display?"

"It's family business, Michael. We're all family, here."

"Please. A company is not a family, no matter how many touchy-feely seminars we have. I don't want to discuss my life with half the firm present. And I sure as hell have no intention of discussing it with you!"

William leaned back. "I'm afraid you have no choice."

Mike set his jaw. "I'm afraid I do. I'm leaving." He started towards the door, but two of them, Andre and Jack, blocked his way. He sized them up; both were as tall as he, and Andre in particular quite a bit more muscular. He knew he'd never get through them. Mike turned again towards his grandfather." What is going on, here, William? Tell me. Tell me!"

"There's no need to raise your voice."

"Isn't there?" Michael spun back around and slammed his hands on the desk. Several of them jumped at the sound but William didn't flinch. "Maybe it's time I did raise my voice. I can't believe what a wuss you've made of me —and I've let you do it. Maybe I need to start demanding some answers from you after all these years!" He was beyond caring about the others now, his entire focus on the white-haired man across the table.

The old man sighed, covered his mouth with a leathery hand, and rubbed his jaw a few times. His pale eyes were locked on his grandson. "All right. What is it you want, Michael?"

"I want —I want to know. Who I am. What I am. What we are. What kind of creatures are we, grandfather? Why have I been subjected to half-truths and outright lies? What was wrong with my father? Why does the moon make me crazy? Why have you been drugging me with wolfsbane?"

There was a ripple and murmur from the others, but he kept on, growing louder. "Are you surprised I know? Well, I do know. That's one of the things Virginia gave me, a gift of truth. That's more than I ever got from you. I've been in the dark all my life, haven't I? You've kept me there, and I want to know why. What's the truth? I deserve to know, I need to know or I am going to go crazy, William!"

He had worked himself up to such a state that the last words came out in an impassioned rush, furious and pained, fueled by years and years of frustration.

The silence following his outburst was nearly as deafening as his tirade had been. For a long moment, too long, Mike thought there would be no answer after all. He closed his eyes. It was all futile, pointless.

And then, from an unexpected quarter, hope.

"Tell him, William."

Mike looked towards the voice. Sylvia Gray, his grandfather's secretary, stood up and walked to the desk. Her sleekly-coiffed silver hair and perfectly tailored clothes gave her a severe demeanor, but there was a look of compassion in her face that seemed almost motherly when she gazed at Mike. Her manicured hand fell on William's shoulder. "I told you it was wrong not to let him know."

"Sylvia, please, that's for me to decide." William tried to wave her away but she wouldn't be dismissed.

"Not any more. You've made it our business. As you say, William, this is a family." Her eyes lifted to meet Mike's. "That's not a platitude, Mike. It's literally true." She let go of William's shoulder and walked around to the front of the desk. "Tell him. You have to."

There was a murmur around the room, and Mike saw a few heads nodding. Others looked concerned, a few nervous or apprehensive. At length William sighed deeply and pushed himself upright. He moved around the table to stand looking up at his grandson.

Mike was struck, as he always was, by the power emanating from his grandfather. But for once he wasn't intimidated. His heart was pounding, but with expectation. Twenty sets of eyes were fixed on the two of them.

"You want to know who you are. What you are. What we are, all of us. I hope you're ready to know."

"Whether I am or not, I have to know."

"As you wish." William held his eyes one more moment, then looked away, almost as if he were concentrating on something no one else could see. Mike blinked. His grandfather seemed to be shrinking, bending, folding over, and at first he thought William was falling and reached out to help him, but then the very shape of the man was changing, shifting, blurring, clothing falling away, and then in a heart-stopping moment the old man no longer stood there, but in his place an enormous white wolf stared back at Mike. A wolf with William's eyes.

Mike caught his breath, his head suddenly light. This is not really happening! He looked around wildly for help, for corroboration that he hadn't lost his mind, that others were seeing this, too, but others were changing as well, now, bodies bending into other shapes, two legs becoming four, muzzles growing out of noses and chins, hair growing and covering and becoming fur, silver and black and grey and brown.

Mike stopped breathing. He was standing within a circle of wolves.


Chapter 18 ~ Wolf's Tale


He wasn't aware he was holding his breath until his lungs started to protest and spots began to dance in front of his eyes. His eyes still did not quite understand what he'd seen. He took a few steps, circling to look around at the wolves. They did not seem to threaten him; all regarded him calmly, their opalescent eyes following his movements.

"Are you all right?"

Sylvia's voice made him turn. She was still herself, neatly clad and imperturbable, and Mike became aware for the first time that there were half a dozen others who had not changed form. Hunter held his position by the wall, Veronica and a few of the men still sat or stood where they had before. A sound, a sort of muted growl, drew his eyes downward again. One of the wolves, a large brindled male, was nudging the tawny female next to it, huffing into her ear. The look between them was uncannily human, intelligent and somewhat furtive. The white wolf swung his head around sharply, growling, and the two others stopped their interaction. The sequence was unmistakable: they were talking and the white one, the leader — William! — just told them to be quiet.

"What are, how did they—" He was breathless again and couldn't finish the thought. Sylvia came towards him and the wolves made room for her to enter the circle.

"Don't be afraid of them. They're still who they were."

"Who they were." He echoed the words but didn't quite understand what she'd meant.

She put a hand on his arm. "They're still the people you know. This is our other form."

His eyes flicked up at her, then down at her clothes.

She smiled. "I don't do it much anymore. Arthritis. Besides, I just had my hair done."

He gaped at her. Her wry manner was so familiar and yet what she was saying was unquestionably bizarre. The wolves watched them. "Can, can they understand us?"

"Of course." She seemed to find the question amusing.

He looked at the others still in human form. "What about them? Why...?"

"Trey over there broke his arm and he's still in a cast. The others can't change. They're only part wolf." She turned and fixed her eyes on his. "Like you."

"Like me..." He tried to digest that bit of information, but his mind wasn't cooperating.

The white wolf whuffed softly and Sylvia nodded. "Come," she said. "You look like you need a drink. Let's let the others get dressed." She took Mike by the elbow and steered him towards the library door. "Don't worry."

The wolves parted to let them pass.

They went into the dining room, where Sylvia opened the sideboard and took out a bottle of brandy and two glasses. She went about her task efficiently, normally, and for a wild moment Mike thought he'd imagined what he'd just seen in the library.

He sat down, sipping brandy, realizing he'd unconsciously taken his old seat at the table. As a teenager he'd much preferred the times he ate in the kitchen with the cook to the formal dinners in this room. William's wife Judith had been even more distant than her husband, a grand dame who inhabited a world that evidently did not include much room for her grandson. Or even for her husband. They'd led rather separate lives, he recalled. Like William, she never talked about Mike's parents, which even at a young age he'd realized was odd, not to mention confusing.

And William? Well, he'd always been as he was now, the chairman of the board in his home as well as his office. A domineering, dogmatic—

Alpha.

The word was from a nature documentary he'd once seen, but Mike knew it was the right term. That was it, wasn't it? William was the leader of the pack. He had a sudden, nearly uncontrollable urge to laugh. He fought it, taking a big swallow of brandy. It burned, but his head felt clearer. "Sylvia?"

"Yes, Mike?" She poured another glass of brandy, but left it untouched.

"The fur, the claws..." He furrowed his brow. "Where does it all go?" It seemed very important that he figure it out, as if a scientific answer might help him cope.

She laughed, mocking him affectionately, and sat down next to him. 'They don't 'go' anywhere, Mike —they just change. Except for the tail, of course. That remains, even when we're in this form."

He was astounded. "You mean —right now —you have a tail?"

"Of course, dear." She smiled flirtatiously. "And if I were twenty years younger, I'd show it to you."

His mouth dropped open and she laughed at him again. Then she patted him on the arm, her expression turning serious. "Normally you'd be taught these things when you're very young. I know it must be hard to accept this when you're an adult and you've stopped believing in magic."

"That will be all, Sylvia." William was standing in the door.

Sylvia got up, once again crisply efficient. She handed the brandy to Wolf, Sr. and disappeared from the room.

"So." The old man walked around the table, staring out the window at the water. "Are your questions answered?"

"Not really." Mike got a secret pleasure out of the way William jerked back around to stare at him. "I mean, where did we come from? How did we get here? I still don't understand what exactly—" He stopped, unable to verbalize everything he wanted to —needed to —know. "I think it fair to say that I have more questions now than I did before."

There was a moment of tense silence while they regarded each other. The old man's face was harsh, almost angry-looking, but then the leathery wrinkles softened and a look of acquiescence came into his eyes. He sighed. "I see." He looked away again. "Perhaps I have been unfair to you, Michael, in not telling you before this. I suppose there's no other way... it's a rather long and complicated story."

"I'm not going anywhere." The two men held each other's eyes. William walked to the head of the table and pulled out the chair. His chair. Alpha, all right.

"I think perhaps I should start at the beginning." The old man settled himself. "Do you know the story of Little Red Cap and the wolf?"

Mike stared at him.

"Many years ago," William began, in the tone of a practiced storyteller, "four generations, as we wolves count them, but generations much longer than those you'd understand as human, a young girl was rescued from certain death at the hands —and teeth —of a big, bad wolf. Her name was Frida, but everyone called her Little Red Cap, not only for her favorite piece of clothing, but for the bright copper curls that covered her head. Her rescuer was a woodsman, who told people afterwards a long, self-aggrandizing story of how he saved the young girl after she'd been swallowed whole by the wolf, and how he killed the beast by cutting him open and filling his stomach with stones.

"At least that's how the story was told. In truth, the 'little girl' was fully sixteen years old, and while the woodsman did give chase and made a lot of noise thrashing about in the forest, Red Cap managed to triumph over the Big Bad Wolf herself, not by violence but by charming him as much as he charmed her. And, after all, what wolf of any size could swallow a teenage girl whole without killing himself in the process? Really, what a ridiculous concept!"

"Ridiculous," Mike echoed.

"You must keep in mind that the wolves I speak of were not wild animals as people know them here, but intelligent and clever and able to assume both human and lupine shapes. In any case, the Big Bad Wolf, who had the perfectly serviceable name of Bejann, but who knew the value of a dangerous reputation, merely stole a kiss from the girl and let her go, escaping into the forest as the woodsman and his hunting party were closing in on the grandmother's cottage. The grandmother who had not been killed either, you understand, merely tied up while Bejann raided her larder.

"When she returned to town, Frida refused to tell the truth about what had happened, because wolves were considered lesser beings by the human population. The woodsman certainly had nothing to gain by contradicting Frida's image as a brave young woman. The woodsman became a local hero, dining out on his reputation for some time, until he had a fatal encounter several years later with three hungry bears.

"As for the girl, she was so endearing, and so lovely, and indeed so brave and clever, that when the old queen died without an heir, Red, as she was now officially known, by popular acclaim was made the ruler of the country. At first she was terrified, but in fact she had a taste for the job and turned out to be quite good at it. In time she married Prince Warren, the third son of Gustav the Hunter, ruler of the neighboring duchy, and their lands were combined into one kingdom. "Queen Red and Prince Warren had a child, a girl called Gudrun, but known familiarly as 'Little' Red. But the Queen never forgot the Wolf who had so intrigued her, and she sent a secret messenger, a serving-troll named Brazen, to seek out what had happened to him."

"Troll?" Mike interjected. "Wolves and little girls are bad enough, but... trolls?"

"I'll come to him by and by. As it turned out, the Wolf had never forgotten Red either. He was the leader of an enormous pack that lived in the hills and forests of what was now called the Second Kingdom—"

"The what?"

"It's not important—"

"Why don't you let me decide that?"

William wagged a finger at him. "I'll draw you a map when we're done. Don't interrupt me again. Now then. For years the Wolf had thought about her day and night, following her tale from afar. But when he confessed to the rest of the pack that he felt she was destined to be his mate, half of them rebelled and deemed him unfit for leadership. Wolves, it seems, can be as prejudiced as humans, if they choose to stoop so low."

"Ah."

William frowned. "Are you taking this seriously?"

Mike waved his interruption away. "I'm sorry. Please go on."

"Fights broke out between the two factions, with the result that those who supported their leader were driven away, and some were even pursued and killed by their former pack mates. But Bejann never wavered; he went after his mate with single-minded purpose. With the help of Brazen, the Wolf and Red first met in secret, but then became more reckless in their encounters. Prince Warren, suspecting his wife's infidelity, but having no proof, instead vented his rage on wolves in general, declaring them all to be villains, and ordering them shot on sight.

"When Red tried to stop his edict against the wolves in the kingdom, the Prince had her charged with treason against the realm and imprisoned. The people of the Second Kingdom, who had so loved her, now turned on her; after all, she had consorted with a beast! Such miscegenation was deemed punishable by death. But before the sentence could be carried out, the Wolf and his followers, assisted by Brash, overcame the tower guards and helped her escape.

"You will no doubt find their means of escape difficult to accept, because I know you think you have a logical mind—"

"Well, I was a math major, after all." William was scowling at him, and Mike made himself stop talking. The problem was, he was feeling quite hyper, and the urge to get up and pace was very nearly overwhelming him. Find this part difficult to accept?!! He fought the urge and sat still, though one foot kept tapping out a frantic rhythm under the table.

"As I was about to say," William gave him a final withering look, "they made their escape from the kingdom in a very unusual way. The old queen before Red had dabbled in magic, and had owned a traveling mirror, one of only three ever made. Supposedly it led to another country, another dimension, if you will. Red had left it hidden for years, for she was a little afraid of its magic. Thus Red and the Wolf and his followers, and even the loyal troll, made their escape through the mirror. With them came Red's daughter, for the queen could not bear to leave the child even if she did not love its father.

"They ran, not knowing what they would find in the other world, but knowing they could never return; for as the queen entered the mirror, the prince and his men found the chamber where the mirror was hidden. The queen's loyal lady-in-waiting, who had never stopped loving her, perceived that the prince meant to send his men after his wife, and so smashed the mirror into a thousand pieces. No doubt she paid for her actions with her life. We will never know.

"But before the mirror was destroyed, the prince himself had touched its surface, and so he, too, was transported to the mythical 10th Kingdom. On the other side he met with Brazen and the wolves and was forced to beg for his life or he would have died right there where the portal ended.

"Imagine the wolves' surprise when they emerged from the mirror into late 19th-century New York! What could they do? What did they know? They came from a place with no industry, a place pastoral, old-fashioned and backwards compared with this bustling metropolis. And their world had magic and this world had none.

"But they were clever, and industrious, and Red had a taste for luxury, so they were motivated to succeed.. They reinvented themselves. The Wolf reclaimed his birth name: Bejann, son of Brice, and translated it into "Benjamin Bryson Wolf." It sounded important, the name of a man on the move, a modern American man. And like other immigrants of the era, he worked industriously and learned about things, and created his own empire. The others did the same, applying themselves to their new lives and succeeding wildly. But he remained their leader, the alpha of their pack."

Mike twitched but said nothing.

"Prince Warren, realizing he was outnumbered, called a truce and threw in his lot with the others. Red allowed him to, for the sake of their child. Only Brazen, with his troll features, had to remain hidden, until he discovered a talent for playing monsters on the stage and in the early motion picture industry."

Mike's head was spinning.

"The situation with Red and Warren was difficult. Prince Warren, Third Son of Gustav the Hunter, was now simply 'Warren, the Third Son,' which he simplified to Thurson." Red found herself in a terrible situation. She loved Benjamin, but Warren was her husband. She couldn't legally be 'Mrs. Wolf' and she refused to be known as 'Mrs. Thurson.' What she did was truly modern for the times. She made up her own name, based on something she found quite by accident about the small country of Iceland. There names pass along gender lines from the mother, not the father. She wouldn't have to acknowledge either her husband or her lover in identifying herself. This independence appealed to her, for many reasons, not the least being her hatred of her husband. She called herself "Regina, for queen, Rauthur, which means red. She intended her own daughter to keep it, to be known forever as 'Red's daughter,' to keep the royal tradition alive.

"Warren was furious. He could do nothing about his wife, not with Benjamin there to back her up, but he drew the line at his daughter being symbolically torn from him. Regina allowed Gudrun to keep her father's surname. But when Gudrun herself came of age, she embraced the new identity her mother had created for her, 'Rauthursdottir,' passing it on as well to her own daughter, Regina Frida. And so the women's names passed through the female line, while Gudrun's son, Hunter, retained Thurson, from Warren's line. And so it has continued. Regina Frida passed the name to her daughter Regina Gudrun, our Regina.

"Warren's life in this new world of his was short and not very happy. He alone yearned for his old life, but of course could not return. His attempts to gain dominance at the company were futile, for the others were wolves, and had no respect for him. He grew bitter, irrational, prone to outbursts of violence. He became an abusive drinker, a recluse who would appear from time to time to have embarrassing outbursts in the office. Eventually he died. Whether it was of accidental alcohol poisoning or by his own hand, no one knew. Of course," William said with a sly smile, "I have always harbored the suspicion that B.B. and Red helped him on his way."

"So they could live happily ever after," Mike offered.

William's face grew serious. "Well, not exactly. Once Warren was deceased, life indeed became easier for B.B. and Red. They were married, and—"

"Wait a minute, wait a minute." Mike put a hand to his forehead and tried to understand what his grandfather was saying. "Then Red was your mother, which means you aren't a full wolf either!" He couldn't believe he was discussing such a subject, but by now he was hopelessly enmeshed in the story.

But the older man was shaking his head. "No. The company continued to grow, but their family didn't. Red never had any other children, which was terrible for B.B. Then, finally, Red became pregnant, but tragically she died in childbirth. The child was stillborn. A wolf and a human together, well, there are often such misfortunes."

Mike clenched his teeth but kept silent. William's message was coming through loud and clear.

"It was a time of great sadness for the wolves, especially for B.B. He blamed himself for Red's death, for thinking that a wolf and a human woman could live as man and wife without tragedy. He sank into a deep depression from which no one expected him to recover. You see, Michael," William said, leaning in to his grandson, "Wolves choose their mates for life. When one dies, well, often the other cannot survive."

Mate for life... "What, what happened?"

"B.B. was rescued from his despair by the fact that he had become a part of this new world. America was filled with optimists, with people who had left devastating loss behind and come here to try again. People who overcame tragedy and built new lives. He'd so embraced that philosophy, had succeeded so well here, as a human might, that when a young wolf working for him caught his eye, and made it known that she was interested in him, the grieving widower responded accordingly. Several years after Red died, Benjamin and Iphegene became mates. Shortly after, I was born."

"I see."

"Do you?"

Mike looked at his grandfather. "This is quite a story. You must see how it sounds to me. I want to believe it. I mean, I suppose I do —I saw you turn into a wolf, right there in the library, for Chrissake. "

"I am a wolf. I didn't 'turn into' anything. I merely changed form."

"All right, all right, whatever you say. I won't debate semantics. But I need to hear the rest."

"The rest? I've just given you our whole history—"

"—And I appreciate that. I really do. But I need to hear about my father."

William paused, looking at Mike closely for a moment before going on. "Very well. As I said, I was born to B.B. and Iphegene, the first of three —you know of your Great-Aunt Eugenie and Great-Uncle Benedict, both long dead. I was the first, and as such I was considered the inheritor of the firm, and of the pack. By now the pack had grown, some had intermarried, some taken spouses from the world of humans. The blood was thinning.

"I married your grandmother and we had only the one child, your father, Thomas Wilson Wolf. There were no others —Your grandmother was...delicate."

Delicate? Mike thought about his grandmother. "Delicate" was about the last word he could imagine applying to her. What's the truth, Grandfather, that Grandma just hated sex? I remember her, she was a bitch! Then the realization hit that she literally was a bitch, and he nearly choked on the brandy.

But William continued on, oblivious of Mike's reaction. "So you can imagine how we loved your father. He was brilliant, charming, precocious, a delight to everyone. We all saw great potential in him. I suppose in a way we considered him the 'Crown Prince' of our little kingdom in exile. But when he came of age, something was wrong. Very wrong." William paused, looking uncertain for the first time since he'd started his narrative. Then he sighed deeply. "This is a difficult thing to discuss, and I doubt you'll understand."

William looked at his grandson as if he expected a smart answer or rebuke, but for once Mike held his tongue, though inside he was shouting and whose fault is it if I don't understand?

"When a wolf attains puberty, he becomes subject to influences outside himself, primarily the phases of the moon. When the moon is full, a wolf feels the need to change to his lupine form and hunt. It is part of who we are, and what we must be. If dealt with properly, if prepared for and embraced, it is a time of great freedom, and exhilaration, of allowing our wilder nature to take charge over our rational minds. It is more difficult, here, than it was in the Second Kingdom, perhaps, but it is manageable. And it is necessary to our survival.

"Thomas had known about this all his life, but when it happened to him for the first time, he couldn't accept it. Where other wolves would retire to the country and experience the freedom of bounding through the woods under the moon, Thomas refused to leave the house, torturing himself by trying not to change into his animal form. I tried to reason with him. I tried to show him there was nothing terrible or shameful—" William broke off and bit his lip. Emotions played over his face and Mike gave him time to grapple with them.

"In time he did manage to deal with it with more equanimity, but he was never able to shed the sense that it was an affliction. It was clear there was a deeper problem. Your father did not want to be what he was. He wanted to be merely human."

Mike felt a pang of sadness for his father, and, oddly, a rush of sympathy for William, too. "I suppose that's why he fell in love with my mother."

"No doubt. But of course it was a terrible mistake."

"I don't think I want to hear that."

"Come now. It was illogical. Wanting to be something other than he was wasn't ever going to make it true. He needed someone who could help him embrace his heritage, not disavow it. He should have taken a wolf for his mate. There were some appropriate females for him, but he had to be rebellious."

"Christ, William, you sound like a dog breeder!"

"Don't be offensive, Michael. It was important. Thomas being my son, he had to show strength or the others would never accept his leadership. And I wanted the line to continue."

The slow bubble of anger inside Mike erupted. "The line? Don't you mean the 'pure blood line?' I'm sorry you didn't get your master race of wolves, William. I'm sorry you got stuck with me!" He felt his face flush. He hadn't realized he'd feel so hurt.

"You mustn't take this personally, Michael. I didn't know what you'd be like. None of us knew. I just knew that my father's first wife was a human woman, and their child died trying to come into the world. Mixing the blood is...uncertain."

"Oh, please. Medicine has changed a lot since then. There are specialists, hospitals—"

William barked back at him. "And do you suppose wolves have children in hospitals? Where doctors can comment on the newborns' little tails?" At Mike's startled expression, William sat back and folded his arms. "Hadn't thought of that, had you?" When Mike didn't respond, he went on. "That's only part of it. We are a small pack, and there will be no others coming to join us. There is duty involved here. Thomas had a duty to his family. To the firm. To the other wolves. When he turned his back on our heritage he was insulting every one of us, as well as everyone who had come before."

"And yet Benjamin came here because of his love for a human woman."

That stopped the old man's momentum. He drew in a long breath and tilted his head back slowly, looking down his long nose at Mike. "Yes. And because of those actions we will never be able to return home. Understand me, Michael, I loved my father, but what he did was wrong and has forever separated us from our people."

There was no answer for that, but there was still a huge piece missing. Mike had to know. "If you were so committed to keeping this heritage going, to making sure we didn't die out, that my father be 'returned to the fold,' then why, William, why did you keep me from knowing this all these years? Why didn't you tell me about all this wolf stuff, the moon, about what was going on? Christ, William, I don't, I just don't get it! You should have told me! I'm not your son, okay, I can't replace him, but maybe I would've been able to understand, to be a part of what you wanted to preserve! Don't you see? You could have tried —sure, it would've been tough for me to understand at first, but now, now it's too late. It's almost impossible."

"I couldn't."

"Why not?"

The old man's hands gripped the table and his face looked more lined than ever. He picked his words with care. "Your father, when you were born, he didn't want you to live as a wolf. He wanted you to be what he wasn't—" William stopped abruptly. "Michael, you're a half-wolf. You feel the moon, your body wants to change but it can't, not fully. But one thing that never changes for a wolf, full-blooded or half, is his tail. Your father mutilated you. He had your tail removed at birth."

What about the scar —on your back, your tailbone, Virginia had said, and he'd responded, incredulous, furious, You think I have a tail?

"It's not just that, though, your father clearly had deep problems. And your mother, well, she was human, and not one who cared to embrace the reality of living with a wolf, clearly she wasn't capable—"

"—Yes she was! You never even gave her a chance! She wasn't afraid of anything. She wasn't afraid, even when—" Images, sounds, memories, his father shuttered upstairs, horrible noises, Lisette holding a terrified little boy, Shush, don't worry, it will be all right, go to sleep, I'll sing to you. Mike swallowed. "She wasn't afraid."

"Perhaps. But with both of them so unprepared to accept the responsibilities of their own lives, let alone their son's, they didn't tell you. They didn't prepare you at all, and when Thomas died, I thought..."

"What? What did you think?" There was bitterness in his voice, and anger, and he couldn't hold it back any longer. "Did you think that keeping me drugged and dependent on you was somehow going to make everything all right? How could you imagine it would be better to I think I was crazy than to know I was a wolf?"

"I thought you'd accept it better. People here have all sorts of neuroses, mental health issues. It's accepted here, almost expected. I thought the pills would work better. Because of everything that had been done to you, and that which hadn't been done, I don't know, I thought it would be for the best if I kept you close. It seemed to me you did so well. I... suppose I didn't see."

"You didn't want to see." He leaned back, glaring.

"Understand, Michael, that whatever your issues, no matter how upset you are, you were from the start everything I wanted your father to be. You have always made me very proud of you. You are undoubtedly the future of the firm. You and Regina."

"That's why you wanted us to get together."

William nodded. "She's only a quarter-wolf, as it happens, She's virtually human. I know you won't want to hear this, but I thought that even if you weren't able to live as a wolf, you are still descended from B.B., as Regina is from Queen Red. You should lead. You should be together. It would strengthen you. It would strengthen all of us."

"More selective breeding." Mike couldn't stand sitting still any more. He pushed himself upright and stepped away from the table, gathering his thoughts, trying to contain his rage. "If I have any weakness, William," he said through clenched teeth, "you encouraged it. Your thinking is so illogical: be a leader, be a wolf, only don't know you're a wolf. Strong enough to lead, but weak —I still don't get it!"

"Please believe me, Michael, I thought I was doing it for your own good. I wanted to spare you the pain. The pull of the moon, It's much worse, I think, for a half- than a full-blooded wolf. Your father...I was afraid you couldn't... " William was beginning to look decidedly ill, and Mike thought he'd never seen him look so old. He waited. "I was afraid," William said, his voice shaking a little. "I didn't want to lose you, too."

Mike leaned over the table, forcing William's head up. He was dimly aware that somehow, something had shifted between them. "Why? Why would you lose me? Wouldn't it have made a stronger bond between us?"

William's pale eyes were bleak as he turned them to his grandson. "You still don't understand. Thomas couldn't bear to be who he was. I was so afraid that you would suffer the same way. Don't you see, Michael? Your father killed himself."


Chapter 19 ~ Crossroads


Above the lonely crossroads a buzzard slumbered in a scrubby tree, dozing with one eye open in the morning sun.

Travelers crossing here needed to know with certainty where they were bound, for no signpost marked the routes to help them on their way. The four roads diverged at perfect right angles, each heading to a different point of the compass.

A rumbling from the south awakened the bird.

A small cart came up to the crossroads and turned right without pausing. The buzzard paid little heed to the horse, the driver, or the young woman in the back, but his eye was caught by a glint of something shiny that suddenly fell, dropping onto the East Road as the cart turned. The wagon continued on its way, and the buzzard swooped down upon the path to peck at the bright spot. But shiny though it was, the object was hard, and when he picked it up it did not taste of food. The bird circled and dropped the tasteless thing, expressing his distaste with the avian equivalent of "Bleahhh!" The coin fell on the Northern Road and rolled away from the crossroads. The buzzard swooped away to perch again upon the tree limb.

Gigi hadn't noticed the fate of her coin, for she was more concerned that the huntsman continue to gaze ahead of him and not turn back in time to catch her marking their passage. So far she'd been quite lucky. In fact, at the moment he seemed to be dozing a little, now that he'd turned them eastward.

She bit her lip. East. If he'd been taking her home, they would have taken the West Road, for that way lay her father's lands, in the high hills bordering the Western Sea. But they'd gone in the opposite direction, and she wondered why. She imagined, with alarm, he was bringing her directly to Wendell's palace. What awaited her? A hasty wedding? Imprisonment in a tower until she acquiesced? Beatings? Servitude? Or worse: eternal boredom as the wife of an eternally boring ass.

The thought of the petulant, immature, soon-to-be-King Wendell made her think again about Wolf. It wasn't that Wolf had hinted he knew Wendell; that connection was so ludicrous she barely credited his story. But when she considered the two of them equally, she realized more and more that while Wendell still meant nothing to her, Wolf, for all she professed to dislike him, had crept slyly into her heart.

Sure, she was still angry with him, especially when she considered that his gift of gold to her could be construed as payment for, ah, "services rendered" the night before. She pursed her lips at the thought. No. He couldn't really have meant it that way, could he? Surely he'd meant it as a peace offering, as a payment for a real debt. That was the problem with Wolf. He seemed really to want to do right; he just didn't know how to do it without ruffling her feathers.

But maybe that was her problem. Maybe she had put up defenses so high and so thick that she couldn't see what Wolf was really trying to do. She had to confess he had his good points, and truly there were more of those than bad ones. Certainly he wasn't the hired thug she'd taken him for when she'd first met him at the gypsy camp. For one, there was that habit he had of saving her life at the risk of his own. As a personality trait that was pretty impressive.

Secondly, life with Wolf was not dull. In fact it was quite exciting, if also dangerous and exhausting. It felt to Gigi as if her life hadn't really begun, even living among the gypsies, until she met him. She'd lusted for adventure? Well, he'd certainly delivered it to her.

She'd lusted for more than adventure, too, which brought her to the third point: he was awfully good-looking, wasn't he? Well, in a raffish, disordered kind of way. Oh, Wendell was handsome, true —the blond, blue-eyed kind of good looks that most women swooned for, but Gigi couldn't ignore the way her heart jumped just a little when Wolf looked at her that way.

But mostly, for all his peculiar gestures and tendency to babble and occasional rudeness and general weirdness, Wolf had done something no one had ever done for her before: he actually seemed to care that she existed. She was touched by how he'd given her his full attention during that long ride from Little Lamb Village to Kissing Town, even though he'd been through a terrible ordeal. He'd been interested in what she'd had to say. In who she was. In what she wanted out of life.

It was the first time she could remember someone acknowledging she had any value as a person, not just as the daughter of a nobleman. Nobleman —hah! Her father had amassed a fortune designing sewage disposal systems for wealthy landowners. Soon wealthy himself, he'd purchased the title and the estate of the Viscount of the Western Mountains. So much for her noble bloodlines! But no matter who she was, merchant's daughter or noble lady, she'd always had ideas, things to say, and she'd felt sometimes, growing up, that she would burst from the frustration of trying to keep her personality in check, not to speak out or offer her opinion on anything more important than what color dress to buy.

When Wolf had let her speak, she'd repaid him by being abrasive. Some reward she'd given him! But there had been something liberating even in their arguments —he engaged her, didn't ignore her. Wolf's attention was like a gift she'd been waiting to open all her life. Despite the arguments and frustrations of being with him twenty-four hours a day, Wolf's acknowledgment of her, his willingness to connect, was, indeed, something to be cherished.

Her eyes began to fill as she realized how much she missed him.

Oh, well. She sniffled once and made herself stop. It hardly mattered what she thought or felt. She'd never see him again, anyway. She groped around in the sack for another coin. The pile was dwindling; she'd better space them further apart. Good thing she'd tossed one onto the East Road at that crossroads. She'd better hold off for another mile before dropping the next one.

The cart rattled down the road and disappeared.

The dust settled. Time passed. The sun rose higher in the sky. Back at the crossroads the bird dozed again.

"Ohhhhhh—"

The buzzard jolted upright. Something loud and annoying was approaching from the west.

"Ooohh, a tinker, tinker, tinker, I,
A 'andsome fellow, two foot high—"

The buzzard cocked an eye at the source of the sound.

"If you don't know me, that's a shame,
'Cause Acorn, Esquire, is me name!

"Ooohhhh—"

A swaybacked draft horse plodded into view, pulling a wagon crammed with the oddest assortment of things: ornate knick-knacks, rusty pots, baskets with broken handles, a scythe, two brooms, picture frames, a chamber pot —that clanked and chimed in time to the jostling of the cart. The buzzard narrowed its gaze; the driver looked nearly small enough to be dinner.

"Whoa, Lightning!" The crooked little man yawned and stretched and pulled on the reigns. The ancient horse immediately began to graze on the stubbly grass around the crossroads. "Let's see, let's see... Kissing Town be south of here —'ello! Wot's this?" He squinted with his one good eye, which was large and perfect and quite a lovely shade of blue-green, as opposed to the other, which was closed by a hideous scar that split his face diagonally in two. With difficulty he clambered down from the high seat and walked a few paces down the southern road. Something bright lay in a dusty rut, and he bent down to look at it. "Well, I'll be stuffed and roasted for supper! A gold wendell!" He walked a few more paces down the road, trying to spy if the rightful owner was lurking anywhere nearby. Nope. The road to Kissing Town was deserted. But a few paces beyond he saw another shiny spot, and, hustling down the path, discovered another coin. Acorn smiled, revealing a set of broken teeth repaired with metal. Truly, this was a sign that prosperity was ahead, for if the road to Kissing Town wasn't exactly paved with gold, at least it appeared to be dotted with it!!

The little man ran back to the wagon, grabbed the bit and turned Lightning to the south. It was worth walking if it meant scooping up gold! Whoever the unlucky fellow might be who was littering the road with coins, Acorn the Dwarf meant to be the one to clean up after him.


The scent was gone.

Wolf turned in a circle, sniffing the breeze for any trace of Gigi or the huntsman, but it was no use. Nothing. But the terrain was flat, the road the only way to pass through the high scrub, so he kept on the way he was going. There really was nothing else to do.

Over the last few miles, he'd come to a conclusion: thinking about the future was useless. It hardly seemed worthwhile to dwell on his indiscretion (Betrayal! Call it what it IS, Wolf!) with Gigi. There was no undoing that. He'd just have to live with the consequences.

Wolf frowned. He didn't particularly care for consequences.

Likewise, the question of whether or not he would ever find his own mate again was so huge, so unanswerable, that it was pointless to even consider it with his conscious mind, because when he did let himself think about it, the panic began to well up, and right now he couldn't afford to let that happen. Right now he had more immediate things to think about. Like saving Gigi. He really was worried about her. But more than that, maybe, just maybe if he did that, saved her from an appalling fate, maybe Snow White would let him continue his quest for Virginia.

Maybe.

Wolf looked over his shoulder. Kissing Town had disappeared. He was in the middle of nowhere, by his reckoning. He sniffed again. Still nothing. He walked on, his shoulders slumping, despair wrapping itself around him despite his efforts to keep from considering how futile everything had become.

But because his eyes were downcast he found the first coin.

It glimmered among the weeds lining the path, and Wolf bent over to pick it up. He sniffed the coin. Yes! Very, very faintly he could detect the slightest hint of Gigi's scent. Why Gigi had dropped it he couldn't imagine, but it revived his flagging hope.

He picked up his pace. Twenty yards further on he found the next coin, fifty yards beyond that, the third. She was leaving a trail! What a clever girl that Gigi was!

"I'm coming, Gigi, Wolf is coming to your rescue!" He would rescue her. He would rescue Wendell, if need be, and then he would rescue Virginia. If he could find her. He waved the uncertainty away. So what if moments ago he'd been hovering over the pit of despair. Now he felt positively giddy.

But then things were pretty nearly always either black or white with Wolf.

Several miles later, Wolf's pockets were jingling with coins. He rounded a curve. And saw a surprising vision.

"Ohhhh—
A tinker, tinker, tinker, I—"

"Acorn!"

"Whoa, Lightning!" The dwarf pulled sharply on the bit and stared with suspicion up at the tall man loping towards him. Tall people made him nervous, what with their big feet and tendency not to look where they were stepping.

"Acorn!" Wolf called again. "What a surprise to see you!"

The dwarf wrinkled his brow. "Do I... know you?" His manner suggested that he didn't know him, didn't want to, and once gone, hoped never to meet him again.

"Of course you know me!"

"Seems unlikely."

"Acorn, it's me—" Wolf began, then remembered that this time around he really hadn't talked to Acorn before, though they had been in prison together. He bent down to the dwarf's eye level so Acorn could see his face clearly. "You know me; I'm Wolf, the wolf from E block. The one who ate all the —oh, never mind. You know, Snow White Memorial Prison. Wow! I'm surprised you got this far. Where'd you go after you escaped?"

"Huh?" The dwarf cocked his head and looked at Wolf with a total lack of comprehension. "What're you talkin' about? I've never been in prison."

"Oh, come on, Acorn. It's me, remember? You don't have to pretend."

"I tell you," the little man said, growing red in the face, "I 'AVE NEVER BEEN TO PRISON! I earn an honest living, and I'll thank you not to insult me further!" He jerked on the reins. Wolf had to jump back so as not to be run over by a wheel.

"Wait!" He reached over and grabbed the reins from Acorn, and the ancient horse stopped once again. "Don't be insulted! it's just that I thought you'd remember."

"Well I don't. I've never seen you before, you clumsy giant! I don't know you!"

"Yes you do! You just escaped, like I did!"

"Didn't!"

Wolf studied Acorn with growing confusion. The dwarf seemed adamant, and the direction he was traveling was, in fact, the opposite he should've been going if he were moving away from the prison. "Then where," Wolf asked, bending down again, "where did you just come from?"

Acorn made a surly face and folded his arms. "Not that it's any of your business, but I've been stayin' wif my mother by the sea. For two months, it is now, ever since my wife Drucibella kicked me out of the—" He spat. "And that's definitely none of your business!"

Wolf straightened up and pondered this information. "Soooo... you haven't been in jail."

"Wot did I just tell you?"

"And you don't know Tony Lewis?"

"Who?"

"Tony. . .Anthony Lewis." There was a pause while Wolf tried to make sense out of the situation. He couldn't, but he'd have to sort it out later. "Never mind," he sighed. "Listen, tell me something, though. Have you seen a young woman traveling with an older man? He might be wearing a big floppy hat, and he's got a fancy crossbow, and she's succulently lovely, a creamy dreamy missy with dark hair and..." He stopped. He was talking about Gigi as if she were Virginia. But Acorn was shaking his head anyway. "Are you certain?"

The dwarf narrowed his one good eye and stuck his chin out. "Now you're callin' me a liar? Listen, Bigfoot, you'd better not make me angry!"

Wolf rolled his eyes. Huff-PUFF! Dealing with Acorn was maddening! He resisted the impulse to snap at the little man. This was futile. "Forget it," he said, and started to walk away.

But as he passed the wagon, he detected a familiar aroma. Gigi! No, not Gigi herself, it wasn't strong enough for that, but something of hers was in the wagon. "Haven't seen them, have you, Acorn? I'll bet!" He started to paw through the assorted junk, but the scent was coming from further front, from under the board where the driver sat. From a small sack. Wolf grabbed for it, and Acorn rushed over and began to tug at his coat tails.

"Hey! That's mine! You jail-breaking criminal, you leave that alone!" He let go of Wolf's coat and attached himself to his leg.

"Just a minute." Wolf ignored Acorn's efforts to pull him away from the wagon and dumped the contents of the sack onto the seat. Gold! He sniffed the glittery pile. No doubt about it; this was Gigi's money. He turned to face the dwarf, plucking him forcibly away from his leg and lifting him up bodily, plunking him down in the wagon on top of a frying pan. "Tell me —WHERE DID YOU GET THE MONEY?"

"It's mine! I found it fair and square!" Acorn struggled to get away, but Wolf held him firmly in place. "Finder's keepers! I found it on the road!"

Clearly the dwarf had been collecting it just as he had, only from the opposite direction. "Then you must have seen her. Don't lie to me, or I'll, I'll...eat you for dinner!"

"I didn't see 'er! I swear!" Acorn put up his hands defensively, though Wolf had no intention of coming near him again. "I found the gold on the road, just after the crossroads." Light dawned in his eye. "They must've turned off before I got there. Taken another road. I didn't see them, I swear it!"

Wolf let go of him. "Where is this crossroads?"

"'Bout five miles back. But I swear I didn't see nuffing!"

Wolf didn't answer, just stared up the road Acorn had traveled with a faraway look in his eyes. He started to gather up the gold into the sack.

"Hey, you!"

"What?" Wolf turned.

"That's mine! Don't you touch that gold! I found it fair and—"

"—and square. I know. All right, all right." What did it matter, anyway? Wolf didn't care a fig about the gold. He just wanted to find Gigi, and the dwarf collecting the coins had made his search all the more difficult. He could feel the pall of failure start to settle on him again and he squared his shoulders and took a deep breath to push it off. Without another word he started down the road again.

"Hey!"

"What is it now?" He was growing extremely impatient.

Acorn stood up in the wagon, his hands on his hips. "They didn't go west, that's where I came from. Try north or east."

"Thanks."

"And I never, ever have been in prison, and don't you forget it!"

Wolf nodded and went on his way.

The dwarf watched him for a long time. "Silly git," he said, climbing back into the front of the wagon and finding the reins. "Does 'e really think I look like a criminal?" With an incredulous shake of his head he snapped the reins. "'Come on, Lightning! Let's get out of here!"

"Oooohhhhh—
A tinker, tinker, tinker, I—"

~*~*~

The buzzard had long since deserted the crossroads by the time Wolf arrived. The place was empty and silent. Any scent that might have existed there was also long since gone, and Wolf stared down one road after another trying to decide which direction to go. He wasn't really sure of this area, though he could see the high mountains to the north. North. Dragon Mountain. Dwarves. Mirrors. He turned to the East. East was the Deadly Swamp, but also Wendell's palace. It made sense, he supposed, that they would have gone that way.

But —wait. Something was nibbling at the back of his mind. Presumably Wendell, in whatever form he currently occupied, was still traveling with the queen. And hadn't someone, the caretaker at the ruined castle, said something about the queen and her entourage stopping somewhere on their way to the palace? He'd seen the traveling mirror break back at the prison; might the queen be going to the dwarves' factory to pick up another? In that case, could the huntsman be meeting her there?

But what about Gigi's father? Didn't he live to the west? Yet Acorn hadn't seen them on his travels, and surely he would have if he were coming from that direction. If they had gone west. If Wolf could trust the dwarf.

He gave a frustrated shout to the sky. "What do I do? Which way?" He walked down the eastern road a good fifty paces, checking the grass and the track for any sign that Gigi had passed that way. Still nothing. He retraced his steps and did the same to the west. Nothing. He went north.

And there, on the path, twenty paces on from the crossroads, was a single coin. Aha! North it was! He walked on, lengthening his stride. He'd catch up to them. He had to.

He thought again about his encounter with Acorn. It was very odd, indeed, that the dwarf hadn't known him. While he'd been in prison those long, miserable months, Wolf had acquired a bit of a reputation, not for his crime as much as for his eating habits and his behavior during the seven full moons that had passed while he was there. His howling was notorious throughout the prison, and since all the prisoners ate together in the same mess, he'd heard a fair amount of whispers about himself while he was there. How could Acorn not have known who he was?

Unless it were true that Acorn never had been imprisoned there.

But how could that be? Wolf struggled to make sense of it.

In fact, a lot of things didn't make sense. Things about the kingdoms that were, well, different than when he'd left. Different than the last time he'd taken this journey. Like how the Queen and her minions had captured the dog without his help. Like the mirror breaking at the prison. Like how the huntsman had been sent by Gigi's father to find her. Or, in fact, the very existence of Gigi and her father. Had they always lived in the kingdoms? If so, how was it that he hadn't encountered her among the gypsies the first time?

Wolf scratched at his temple. What was going on here? He knew he was supposed to change something, fix something —that much was clear from Snow White's rhyme, but so much was already different without his interference. How was he supposed to know what to do if things kept being different?

And, he thought suddenly, why are they different?

That question worried him more than all the others.

The sun had passed its zenith, but it was a hot day, and no trees grew close enough to offer any shade. Wolf took off his coat. By now he'd been walking since early morning, on no food and little enough water, and as the road began to head uphill he started to really feel the effort. The loneliness of his trek was getting to him again, too, as it had in the Disenchanted Forest. How long ago had that been? Days? A week? A fortnight? He couldn't remember.

The road began to incline sharply, the ground underfoot shifting subtly from packed earth to rutted grass to barely a track for Wolf to follow. The doubts he'd had at the crossroads had never left him; now he feared his worst expectations were true, that, despite his finding the coin, Gigi had never passed this way. If she had, she and the huntsman would have had to be on foot by now, for the road had become far too steep for a horse to negotiate, unless it were a mountain pony.

He looked for a place where a cart might have been secreted, but the boulders that had begun to appear on either side of the path were far too small to hide a wagon. No doubt about it. He'd taken the wrong road.

But the fact remained that Virginia had once come this way, traveling to Dragon Mountain, so indeed this was "the road once traveled by" from Snow White's rhyme. Was this the way he was supposed to go, then? But wait: he, himself, had never climbed up into the mountains the first time around, so did the rhyme apply? Oh, it was so confusing, trying to figure out what to do!

He cast his eyes downwards, feeling a little guilty about the lie he'd told Virginia in the Swamp. Well, he hadn't exactly lied, he just hadn't quite told the truth. Part of it was true, or nearly so. He'd told her he could follow her scent through time itself, and while that was a pretty sentiment, and he believed he could do it, it was a bit of an exaggeration, even for a wolf. But she'd assumed he'd followed her through Dragon Mountain, and that was patently untrue, though he'd allowed her to believe it.

The truth was, when she'd broken his heart in Kissing Town, he hadn't had a clue what to do next. "Hah!" he said aloud, "not much has changed!" But that time, the queen had called him and he had gone to her.

And he had gone to her.

Wolf was still ashamed that he'd gone. And that, arriving at the palace, he'd reaffirmed his allegiance to her. What did he care? He might as well serve her, or anyone else who wanted him. Nothing really mattered. It had only been through chance that he'd come upon the queen watching the Deadly Swamp in her glass and realized Virginia was in mortal danger there. And then he'd known what to do. Convincing the queen that he should follow them had been easy. Lying to Virginia had been hard.

But he had lied, hadn't he? He was a liar. And a cheater, a betrayer. He looked at his coat. He was a thief, too. What else? He'd been ready to kill the huntsman. He had killed—

No! That part of his life was past. He was a better person now.

Wasn't he?

Wolf stopped in his tracks, panting, and wiped his face. He was beginning to feel quite dizzy, and the thoughts he was conjuring up about his life were not pleasant ones. He didn't want to think about them. He needed to rest. He needed to eat. But if he stopped too long, he'd lose any chance of finding Gigi...or was it Virginia? For a moment there, he'd forgotten who he was chasing.

He took some deep breaths of the thin air and started walking again. Above him the steep summit of Dragon Mountain taunted him. Was he expected to climb up there? Well, he would, if he had to. He'd climb all the way to the summit if need be.

But in the next minute his climb upwards came to a stop. The road dead-ended at the edge of a cliff.

Now what?

Wolf looked over the edge. There was no way down as far as he could see. He'd have to continue along the cliff until he could find a way to move upwards again. He frowned at the sky. It was late afternoon. Not much light left. Better keep moving.

Don't think. Don't remember. Just walk on.

By the time he reached the waterfall, darkness was almost complete, and Wolf knew he was lost. He supposed these were the Snow White Falls, named for the heroine who meant so much to everyone in the Fourth Kingdom, but whose legend was spoken throughout all nine, wherever people talked of valor, or heroism, or strength or destiny.

Valor. Heroism. Wolf spat with disgust. Strength —well, he had none left to spare. He sank weakly on a boulder and let the fine mist from the falls spray him. He didn't care. Hungry, tired, without any hope of finding the trail, he couldn't take another step. And even if he did, where was he to go? Despair filled him. He felt utterly defeated.

As for destiny, well, this was his, wasn't it? To achieve nothing. To fail completely at his quest. Never to find his mate. Perhaps to die lonely and alone. Maybe even here.

He let his head fall back against the rock face of the cliff, and he closed his eyes. What was the use of continuing? He'd lost the trail. He'd lost Gigi. He'd lost Virginia. He'd lost everything.

"Wolf."

He opened his eyes, startled. Snow White stood by the falls, her clothing strangely untouched by the water. He growled at her. "Go away."

"Wolf, you have a quest to complete, a path to follow—"

"Leave me alone!" He sat up, his eyes glowing. "Can't you find someone else to do your dirty work? Don't you have anyone else in all the Nine Kingdoms that you can torture this way?" He pushed himself to his feet, his anger overtaking his exhaustion. "Why me, exactly? Haven't I done enough already? Cripes, I saved everybody once. That's enough. Let somebody else do it this time around. Couldn't you have left us alone, safe, together? No. You had to mess things up again. Why? What was wrong with how it all turned out? Everyone was happy!"

"Not everyone." He glared at her. "That's why it has to happen again. That's why you have to finish the journey. You must repair the past."

Repair the past? "Right now all I want to do is find Virginia, go to her. I don't care about anyone else! Don't you get it?"

Snow White didn't say anything, just looked at him with an unreadable face.

He leaned against a rock and turned his face away. "I just want to be left alone." There was raw emotion in his voice. "I'm tired. I'm so tired of it all."

Snow White took a long time to answer. "You're almost home, Wolf."

He laughed once, bitterly. "I don't have a home. I never did. Not since—" He swallowed, pushing back the memory of his parents. "And I don't deserve one, now, not after what I've done. You know, it's funny. I almost believed it for a while."

"Believed what?"

"That I could live happily ever after. That somehow, some way, I deserved it. Because I'd changed. Become a good person. But you know what? It's a load of crap, Your Majesty." He was yelling now. "I can't change. It's a wolf's nature to deceive, to destroy. We're destined to be hanged, burned, shot, stoned. Happy Ever After is for the heroes and the heroines. It's for the Wendells of this world, not the Wolfs."

"What makes you think you're not a hero?"

He made a disgusted sound. "Don't patronize me. The least you can do is be honest. But maybe that's too much to expect from the great heroine who made her stepmother dance in red-hot shoes. I guess cruelty is contagious, isn't it, Your Majesty?" He was reckless now. He didn't care what he said. He wanted to hurt her. Hurt everyone. Hurt himself.

"That's enough!" There was steel in her voice, suddenly, enough to make Wolf stand up straight and look at her angry face. "Rudeness is not tolerated, Wolf." She paused and he watched her anger drain away. "Even if there's truth in what you say." She sighed deeply. "Do you think you are the only one who could change?"

He looked in her face and saw what he hadn't seen before. Wisdom, yes, but also perhaps a little pain. It surprised him —he didn't expect it in a ghost. But then again, she was more than a ghost. She was the history, the heart and the soul of the kingdoms, in one impressive package. He dropped his head. "I didn't mean to be rude."

"Yes you did. But that's all right." He looked up to see her smiling at him. "Don't underestimate yourself, Wolf. When I said hero, I meant it."

He didn't speak, just shook his head.

"You don't believe me?"

"How can I? Look what I've done." He was amazed to find his voice so thick.

"Look, then, at what you've done." She gestured and he followed her hand with his eyes. The waterfall behind her seemed to smooth and flatten, become a sheet, and then a surface as calm and reflective as a mirror. As he watched with widening eyes, an image began to form, an image of a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, with tawny sun-streaked curls and piercing green eyes set deeply in a tanned face. The eyes gave away his heritage, but his face was unfamiliar.

"Who is that?"

"He is the leader of the rebellion that will free all the wolves in the Nine Kingdoms."

"All the Nine—?" Wolf frowned. "No. That will never happen."

Snow White smiled again, indulgently. "It will. It will take time, about eleven years. But in time they will be as free, as equal, as anyone else. And very few souls, people or wolves, will have to die in the struggle. He will be a great leader."

"Why are you showing this to me?"

"Look again." Wolf turned to look at the waterfall again, and the image of the man shimmered and seemed to change, grow younger, shedding years before Wolf's eyes, to become again a boy, a shy, quiet boy, full of questions that could only be answered by a stranger kind enough to talk with him. A stranger who would save his life.

Wolf gasped. "Bedros!"

"Yes." Snow White reached over and touched his shoulder. "So now you know what you've done."

Suddenly, surprisingly, Wolf felt tears well up in his eyes, then trickle down his cheeks, and for once he didn't care, didn't try to stop them, didn't mind her seeing them. He sat down on a rock and let it happen. Snow White stroked his hair, tenderly, like a mother, and at the touch he began to cry in earnest, because he was so tired, and because he had given up and because he was so amazingly grateful to find out he'd done something of value, and even if he wasn't a hero, it was something to hold on to.

She waited silently until he collected himself enough to speak again.

"Thank you." He looked up, snuffling a little into his sleeve, and saw that Snow While's face was very kind, and very grave, indeed.

"Wolf, there's not much time to waste. There is one more thing you should know. There is something you must find, and take with you. It is of the utmost importance, for with it you will determine the course of history."

"What is it?"

"A prize kept for many years by a dead queen. It has kept her from yielding utterly to death. You must take it. You must use it and know when to use it... and for whom to use it. There will be a choice, and you must make the right one."

More riddles! Wolf opened his mouth to ask What? What is this mysterious thing, an object, an incantation, a potion? But he knew it was useless. She would tell him only what she chose to reveal. The rest was up to him. He would have to make the choice. He would have to choose well.

He looked up to thank Snow White, for what she'd shown him, for trusting him to succeed. Strangely he couldn't see her anymore, just hear her voice, and now it seemed rather far away. "And now you must wake up."

Wake up?

Wolf opened his eyes. He was lying on the rocks close by the falls, and the first rays of dawn were breaking over the mountain peaks above him. Where he lay there was still a gray mist close to the ground. He sat up. A dream?

It didn't matter. He believed her utterly. Strangely, he felt stronger, able, ready to face the challenge.

"Thank you," he said again, though she was nowhere in sight. But in the grass a faint radiance shone. Tiny flowers, white as snow, glowed with slight iridescence in the dawn light, just enough to light a path, to point the way down the mountainside towards a new destination.

Wolf took a deep breath and stood up. He went to the stream, splashed water on his face and had a long, cooling drink.

He was ready.


Chapter 20 ~ Reflection


Beneath a wretched hovel slowly sinking in the muck, within a dank and fetid cavern, atop a crumbling bier of moldy stone, rotting, flesh bit by bit succumbing, dissolving into nothingness to dust the swamp that slowly swallowed her, alive but not alive, dead yet not dead, aware of everything yet oblivious to touch, sound, smell, taste, sight,

the swamp witch slept.

And dreamed.

A dream half-awake, half slumbering, first shreds and pieces, like the shreds and pieces of her flesh, slowly knitting together into the fabric of memory, to form a shroud of remembrance to cover and comfort her.

O, my mirrors!
she dreamt,

Young, fresh, lovely I was once!
Not a thing of rotted flesh where only the will survives.
But beautiful,
And rich in grace if not in wealth.
A poor relation to a young queen who ruled a great land,
a queen who married a handsome prince
but not for love,
at least not on her part.
And O! I was loyal to my queen, I, her lady in waiting, I, her companion, confidante, counsel,
I am, good cousin,
I would tell her,
she whose shoulder is always yours to cry upon, my will yours to command
And she would reply,
O, Merigard! You are closer to me than a sister, nearer than my husband, dearer than a mother or a lover, to you alone will I always tell my secrets, to you alone will I always unburden my heart.
Her mouth close to my ear
A slash of red,
like a wound, weeping secrets into my ear, my heart,
her secrets my secrets.

How I loved her! How I doted on her!
How I envied her.
But I banished envy from my heart
for love of her.

And then she took a lover.

Handsome, clever, dangerous, forbidden—
mystery hung about him like a cloak.
I understood —who can resist secrets?
And she, she who told me everything, who shared every secret, she who said I was dearer than a lover, told me everything there was to know about him. Everything,
save his deepest secret.
The only one that mattered.

I had my ways even then, to find things out.
And my heart near burst with pain that she would keep this from me.
And soon her secrets were no longer mine, but only his to keep.
I wept.
What a fool I was.

The secret of their escape,
THAT she told me.
I was afraid, devastated, she would leave, she would leave me,
but,
she insisted,
Merigard, you must go, too! Come with us, with my lover and I, run away with us from the prince, find a new life, never leave me, never leave your queen, dear devoted friend, dear closer-than-a-sister.
And Yes, please come, dear Lady Merigard,
her lover echoed, though less fervently, much less so.
And yes!
I cried,
YES! YES! I will come with you!

But then I began to think:

It is clear he has enchanted her, she will never again tell me her secrets, she will never again pour out her heart to me, why should my own heart break to see them in their great happiness, when I cannot truly share in it?

And then I thought:
Why?
WHY should I go?
Why should I leave my home, the castle, the land I grew up in, to live abroad in a land unknown, perhaps in poverty, bereft of comforts,
and unloved?
Unloved
By her.

And then I began to wonder:
When she is gone, who will be queen?

But I kept that in my heart and said nothing.

The means of their escape—
Magic!
Magic rumored of but never proven.
A mirror.
A MIRROR
Through which one might pass as if through water—
Imagine!
To surge upwards through crystal water-that-is-not-water, rising, breaking the surface to gasp for breath in another land, a farther shore than anyone had ever seen. Where there could be no following, no pursuit, if the truth of the mirror were not known.
A wonder!
She'd found it, and others, too, mirrors of all shapes and sizes, of all purposes; mirrors to travel, mirrors to tell the truth, mirrors to spy, mirrors to remember, mirrors to forget, to convince, to change, to control.
Powerful mirrors.
None of them interested her.

But they interested ME.

And when the night came for our departure, I came to the place where the mirror waited, and her lover turned a wheel, and I watched her lover's people pass through the frame, my mouth an O of disbelief and wonder,
and then her lover moved to pass through, holding her small hand
But then her husband, the prince! The prince had found out and followed them!

(far be it from me to say how he came by this knowledge)

and he saw them going, and hastened to send his guards to stop them,
and my queen cried out NO!
And NO! I echoed,
I will stay behind, and shatter the glass so the prince may not catch you!
And my queen, my friend, my heart, sobbed and called Farewell, Merigard! I shall never forget your sacrifice!
And she was gone.
Sacrifice!
Oh, please.

I stood watching, whispering, Goodbye, my queen, goodbye, my heart.
My traitorous heart.
The prince approached. After them! After them! he cried, and I could have broken the mirror then, as I promised, but instead I pushed him through it, and his men stopped short of the glass in uncertainly.
I could see him for a moment, blurry, as he hit grass, rolled and was dragged to his feet, surrounded by them,
surrounded by the wolves.

I turned the mirror off.

I turned to the prince's men.

The prince's men swore at me and raised their weapons.
You can kill me,
I said,
or you can let me go and I will be forever in your debt.
They grumbled at me.
Stay your hands,
I said, moving towards them,
and you will be rewarded.

They were silent.
Help me,
I said, my hand upon the leader's chest,
and I will never forget you,
never,
you who made me queen.
And the leader smiled at me.

Within her dream, the swamp witch sighed, a sound at once both old and dry like the beating of bat's wings, yet wet and filthy, too, dank, a swamp sound, a sucking, hollow sound.

O, my mirrors!
Mine now. Mine alone,
As was the kingdom.
How they fascinated me!
Foolish Red, to have left them behind!
I stared at them for hours, for days, sometimes not sleeping nor eating, learning to use them, learning to control them,
caressing them like lovers,
receiving pleasure from them in return.
I walked before them
naked
turning this way and that, and saw myself reflected over and over.
You are fair, the glass said.
Surely I am more beautiful than Red, I said,
and the mirrors agreed.
Surely I deserve a lover greater than hers.
But you have us! the mirrors protested.

I took lovers anyway.
But none was fine enough
or rich enough
or good enough
and by and by I tired of them.

Besides, my mirrors were jealous
and so I put my lovers to death,
one
by
one.
I found I enjoyed that, rather.

But I grew pale and wan sitting before my mirrors,
And by and by bored as well
and impatient for happiness.
Mirror, I said, show me the world around me! Show me other kingdoms!

O, the world beyond my lands!
I beheld in the glass
Kingdoms of dwarves
Kingdoms of fairies, and of trolls
Of thrush-bearded kings and girls with too-long hair
and silly children who taunted bears, and frog princes and pipers and animal musicians and beasts and beauties,
And one dreamland beyond imagining, with square towers of glass that reached into the sky, and birds of metal above them, and other wonders, too, beyond the possibility of reason. But people seemed to live there, and strive there, and war against one another, and die there, as they did everywhere.
Frightening places. Fascinating places.
I did not look for Red.
I did not want to see her
I did not want to see her happy.

And one day, mirrors showed me a handsome prince and his young queen and they were so in love I felt the envy stir inside me anew, as if I were looking upon my beloved traitor.
But how happy they seemed, these two, how fortunate,
more fortunate than I

How
dare
they
be
happier
than
I!
Show me, I cried, show me where this is!!
And the glass showed me a land of unbearable beauty
Where is this?
I demanded
It is nearby, O fair one,
the glass said.

And then I thought:
Why look for happiness?
Why want it,
You will never have it.
But perhaps you can take it.
Perhaps you can take it away.

And then I realized:
It was no longer enough to gaze.
No longer enough to look at life.
Time to take what I wanted—
To take away the happiness of others.

Perhaps then I would be happy ever after.

And so I put aside my crown and put on a disguise, my old sensible poor-relation gown, and took a wagon with nothing in it, only my mirrors for company, and rode for days and days until I came to where they lived.

I asked for shelter. They were kind. The happy have that luxury, kindness.
I became a lady in waiting, a role I had perfected, one who listened, one who cared,
companion, confidante, counsel, caring friend
in the castle where the prince lived happily with his happy wife
and their happy child.
A child with white skin and dark hair and red lips
they called Snow White, of all ridiculous things.
Why not Betty? Or Ermentrude? Or Millicent? Or Genevieve?
Or any other normal name?
But no, Snow White it was.
I sensed a lack of imagination.

As unimaginative as Red.

I came into their lives that way.

But left another way, a long while after,
after deceit and danger
and death
and learning the Power
and poisoned combs and poisoned apples,
after glass coffins
and who's the fairest
and witchcraft
and meddling princes
after red hot shoes
and feet burnt to shreds
and unimaginable devastation
and unendurable pain.

I left another way,
crawling on my hands and knees
to this hideous place
to rot away in ugliness and isolation
alone but for my memories

but
for
my
mirrors,
hidden here, among the old and warped mirrors I begged the odd traveler and tinker and gypsy to give me.
But my mirrors, MY mirrors, mine forever,
like my magic, like the Power I had learned.

Years passed. I planned my revenge.
Many revenges.
But I could not make them happen.
The happiness of my enemies endured.
And in my darkness, in my isolation
I began to think:

I cannot bear this
I must change this
They must be made to pay before I die.
And then I began to wonder:

CAN I change this?

And then I began to consider:

How may I change this?

I limped about my horrible abode, dragging useless stumps that had been white delicate feet. Thinking. Thinking.
I stared into a small, round mirror, secreted in my ruined clothes as they drove me from the palace where Snow White danced with her prince, her dwarf minions gathered about her like hideous children.

I took my mirror and held it in my hand and concentrated,
concentrated so hard that my eyes poured tears and my head throbbed worse than the pain in my feet but still I kept on, until my eyes wept blood and my ears echoed with my own screams
until I felt, slender as a strand of silk, lighter than a feather's shadow,
the stirring of another

somewhere
another with the Power.
A dissatisfied farm wife. A seamstress. Her dolt of a husband raised goats.
They had a child, I think.
And I called to her.
To give me my revenge.
Kirsten.
Come to me, Kirsten, I said, come.
And, confused, frightened, provincial, red hair askew, hands wringing in terror, patches on her apron, no shoes,
she came.
Red hair—a sign, I thought, of success.
I taught her, I prepared her, I readied her, I transformed her, I set her loose upon them.

She failed.

She had no grasp of subtlety.
Even as they stoned her to death outside Castle White for trying to murder Snow White's heir, I sat considering my mirrors.

What if...
What if
Mirrors to remember
Mirrors to control
Mirrors to change
Could change what IS? What has been?

A pretty thought.
It obsessed me.
I tilted the mirror of change
to reflect into the other for remembrance.
The reflections arced away into infinity.
What if, I thought, what if reality is mutable? Can I not change what was by returning to the beginning?
And so I reflected one into the other, and placed myself between them.
Take me back! I cried. Change my remembrance! Change my story!
Infinity enveloped me.

Nothing happened.

I was still in my hovel. My feet still were shredded. I was still old.

But something had changed. I looked into the mirrors. Show me, I said, show me my kingdom. A queen sat on the throne —MY throne, traitorous Red's throne,
and I gasped Red! My Red! All is as it was!
But it was not.
Her name was Red, but she was the third of that name, and there had been no flight, no wolves, no Lady Merigard.

No!
I still existed.

Show me Castle White! I demanded.
Time had shifted, subtly. Snow White was very old. But so much had not yet happened. Her grandson was a child.

Why? How?

It didn't matter. I had changed it once, but not enough. I would change it again. I was not daunted, mistakes had been made, I knew that now, I knew I could fix them, I knew I could not go back, but I could still destroy them.
I concentrated into my glass again.
Pain.
Blood.
Screams.
And then. . . the thread, the scent again of Power from another.
But the seamstress was gone.
Something tickled in my glass. There —
in the western lands, by the shore, it was she! But now she was the wife of a minor nobleman. The same woman, but not the same.
Christiana. Lady Christiana.
Red hair neatly tucked in a bun, a look of serenity. A small child at her feet, a dark-haired girl —a flash of Snow White —no, not nearly as pretty, small, gamine.
I called the woman
Come to me, come, Lady, I need you, you need me.
She came, and I prepared to teach her, to ready her—

And she... refused.

Refused!

She missed her family, her child, her house, her garden, the sea.
I could not believe it. I promised her wealth, power, fame.
No, she said, send me home. I have everything I need.
I am happy.

My blood froze, my hands clenched and my eyes rolled back. Happiness!
Denied to me, I would deny it her.
I sent her home.
To die.

I watched her bewildered husband by her failing body. I watched her sobbing child embrace her mother's corpse.
I had taken their happiness and it brought me pleasure.
But only for a moment.

Again! I will try again, until my will is served. I turned the mirrors toward each other. Change! I cried! Bring me peace! Infinity, infinite opportunities, infinite possibilities!

Again nothing here in my hiding place seemed to breathe or shift or move, but in the mirrors I saw yet another Red upon the throne, another Castle White; some faces changed, some ministers rose in power, some disappeared. And now there were wolves again, in the shadows at the edge of my reality, sniffing for who knew what, and when I sought my replacement, she was not on her farm, nor in the western lands, but in a different mirror, in my dreamland of tall towers of glass and flying metal, a sad and confused woman, another urchin child, but this woman, O this one, she had potential! The Power was strong in her, and she was willing and she came to me from far away, and I brought her to me, shaking, weeping, pulling at her hair, her red hair, nearly shattered by what she'd almost done to her urchin, and I remade her, I taught her, I created her anew. I sent her on her way. To Castle White, to continue my work.

If I could not change my past, I would destroy their future.

Ah, Christine, Christine, Christine
She was the best.
I lay upon my deathbed and watched her work.

O, but she was clever!
She had subtlety.
She nearly succeeded.
She came so close —O, so close!
She would have killed them all, House of White, Red, Black and Blue, all the kingdoms in between, fairies, trolls, dwarves—
It would have been glorious!

She would have done,
but for the interference of that damned urchin child, now grown,
and one of those wolves —would they never let me be?
As dangerous as my Red's lover, I should have put HIM down all those years ago, the heartache, the effort it would have saved me!

The swamp witch stirred, bits of desiccated tissue falling from her in her restlessness. She drifted toward wakefulness; her dream a waking dream.

And this time I could barely summon my will to try again.
But try I did.
Mirrors
facing
mirrors
facing
infinity,
an infinity of realities.
And only I, and this swamp, do not change.

This time I knew where to look. Find Christine again. She was the best. But make some changes, Christine, I will show you. I will instruct you.

I have sent her on her way. Again. She will succeed this time.
There have been changes. She has already captured Wendell, She has not involved the wolf. She drowned her daughter in the bathtub.

This Christine will not fail.
Not this time.

I would be content.

Except...

I fear a flaw in the mirrors, an unevenness of quicksilver, perchance. A bubble in the glass.
Things are beginning to splinter. People appear in several mirrors. Reality doubles on itself in places. Something is not right. I do not know what. Is there one reality now, or many?
And I begin to wonder:
in my dreamland, does Red still exist? Or have I erased her forever?

A sound, like footsteps.

Eyes, in bony sockets, open.

Someone at my door.


Chapter 21 ~ Sun


"No!"

"It's true, Michael, he—"

"—No! My father did not kill himself!"

He gestured violently and the brandy glass went flying to crash against the wall. He flinched at the noise, his eyes turning to the stain spreading on the pale green paper, but he wasn't seeing it; he was seeing the tall figure of his father standing before him.

"What do you want me to say, Michael?" William spread his hands in frustration, then clenched them when there was no response. "The truth is the truth. I know it's very difficult for you, but you must believe me. I know what happened."

"It's not true." Mike walked over to the window, leaning his forehead against the cool glass, his palms flat against the window, his eyes on the water, his mind's eye still only seeing the dark hair, beard, hazel eyes twinkling at him, remembering laughter, imagination, his father swinging him up over his head, the ground miles away, his father smiling, holding his hand, one arm around Lisette, teaching him, being with him—

It couldn't be true. He would never have ended his life. He'd been too... alive.

"Michael."

William had come up behind him and put a hand on his arm, a tentative, awkward gesture of connection. The old man left his hand there just a moment, and Mike was aware of the tenuousness of the touch. He tried to think of the last time his grandfather had done anything as intimate at touch him on his shoulder. He couldn't remember such a time. Not like his father; Tom had been tactile, warm. "No. You're wrong. It was an accident."

William removed his hand. "Stop it. Think. Use your brain, for God's sake."

The coldness, the sharpness, was like a slap. Mike turned, furious. "'God?' That's funny. Don't lecture me, don't talk to me like you have the ear of the Almighty! Pretty presumptuous! Who are we wolves supposed to pray to, anyway, William? Some sort of animal spirit? A dog god? Or maybe we're supposed to pray to you, the great omniscient William Wolf, knower of all things—"

"That's enough!"

"No, it's not, you don't know anything. You didn't know him, you didn't want to know him when he married my mother! How could you lie? How could you say you know—"

"—How could I not know!" William's voice was ferocious. "How could I not know he killed himself, that he drove into a stone wall because of how unhappy he was, how he hated himself, hated what he was, what we are? Do you think I'm blind, or an idiot? Do you think I didn't make it my business to know everything that went on in your house?"

"What, you were spying on them, too?"

"He was my son, dammit, Michael! He was my son! I had to try! But I couldn't help him. I couldn't stop him. He was so afraid all the time, afraid he'd hurt you—"

"What?" Mike's eyes opened wide in shock. "He wouldn't —he would never have hurt us! He couldn't have..." He stopped. "He wouldn't have—"

—howling, thrashing, objects breaking above them, his mother close, her perfume, her soft voice, stay here, Michael, stay in your room, ne t'en fais pas, Maman will be right back, stay here, cheri—

He wouldn't have...would he?

No, no, this was a lie, it was a mistake. An accident, the brakes, the hill, a misstep on the gas—

William was walking away from him, back to his chair at the head of the table, back to his symbol of authority. But he was walking like an old man, shoulders slumping, dropping heavily into the chair, not a leader, not an "alpha," just an old, tired man. Somehow, that shocked Mike deeply. "He wanted to end his pain," William rasped. "I couldn't stop him. I couldn't. I didn't understand it... and after you were born, he seemed to be better, more at peace with himself... I thought he was. I suppose I... didn't know how to reach him."

William's head turned and he looked up at his grandson. Impossible, Mike thought, it looks for all the world like his eyes are wet. William looked down at his hands, then pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his nose. "Excuse me," he said stiffly.

Something clenched in Mike's throat. For William to appear so... He stopped. He'd been about to think "human," but was at a loss to say if that truly applied. Vulnerable, then. Whatever it was, it appeared genuine.

"It's all right, William...Grandfather." The old man rubbed his nose and blinked a few times. "I don't blame you." I can't blame you, it was an accident.

"I do." There was a moment when Mike held his breath, waiting, waiting for William to continue. But when the old man looked up, his face was composed, impassive again. "It doesn't matter. What's past is past."

Maddening, how William wouldn't let the connection between them last for more than a moment. "It's not just in the past, can't you see that?" Mike turned away in disgust, walking to the far end of the room, trying to frame what he wanted to, had to say. What he felt. It was strange, this argument, but familiar, too, familiar in how he was talking to his flesh and blood but feeling like he faced a stranger. It was a sickening, empty feeling, it made him want to shatter something, tear something. He considered his words carefully, fighting the urge to shout, to vault across the room and shake—No. He regained control, biting off each word. "Whatever you believe, or you think you know, even if my father wanted to take his own life, he never, never would have done anything to hurt my mother, and she was in the car—"

"—I know she was." Something in his grandfather's voice made him freeze. William was tight-lipped, his face unyielding. "Maybe you need to think about that."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"It means," William said, "that in the end Thomas knew their marriage was wrong. Perhaps he blamed her, too, in his unhappiness—"

"—That's a lie!"

"I'm not alone in this. He said as much to Hunter, the day he died."

"No!"

Back. They were back at the beginning of this endless chase, arguing in circles. But there was something else going on; Mike felt the struggle between them had become more than an argument. It had become an urgent tug of war over memories, and he had to, needed to, pull William over the line. The magnitude of this need disturbed him.

"Mr. Wolf."

Both men looked up. Robert stood in the doorway, unhappy to interrupt, but clearly needing to do so. He didn't look at Mike.

"Well?"

"Miss Rauthursdottir is here and wants to see you."

"We're done here." There was no question, no "aren't we?"

"We're not done, William!"

"I am." The old man stood up and straightened his jacket. "Regina, my dear."

"Sorry I couldn't get here sooner. Did I miss anything big?"

Regina swept into the dining room in a cloud of red. She seemed flushed, too, excited. She kissed William on the cheek and looked at Mike. "Michael? You look a little... I don't know. What's been going on here?" She frowned ever so slightly, the tiniest, prettiest crease forming on her forehead.

"Not much." Mike didn't attempt to keep the bitter sarcasm out of his voice. "I know the family secret."

"The family secret... Ah. Well, that is big, isn't it?" Regina dropped the hand that had rested on William's arm and placed it softly, comfortingly, on Mike's chest. She stroked his lapel and looked up at him through her lashes. "I see. Are you all right?"

"I wish everyone would stop asking me that!" He reached down and disengaged her hand.

She frowned again, less prettily this time. "No need to get upset, Michael, just let me help—"

"—I don't need your help, Regina."

"Oh? But you need help from Virginia, I suppose?"

There was something quite unpleasant wriggling under Regina's lovely mask. Disgusted, Mike shot her a look and moved past her towards the door.

"Where are you going?" William's tone was challenging.

He met the cool green eyes with his own blazing ones. Then he turned and left.

William didn't try to stop him.

He moved blindly through the hall, passing the others, the other wolves, but saw them only as a blur. Sylvia said something to him but he didn't reply. He had to get out. Get some air. Get away.

Outside he passed under the portico, walked by the cars, across the gravel onto the grass. He kept walking until he reached the low wall at the edge of the rocky beach, and then he stopped only because the felt the cold grey stone against his knees, blocking his way. The breeze off the water was sharp and filled with salt; it cut through his sweater and tugged at his hair. He drew in a deep breath, then another, and tried to think.

He'd been sick of lies and half-truths. He'd wanted answers. Now, after seeing what he'd seen, after hearing what he'd been told, he knew the truth about himself. That was bad enough, disturbing enough, but what sickened him was the image of his father, his own father, as something other than what he'd always thought him to be. He'd killed himself. And he'd tried to kill Lisette, too. It was impossible to believe it was true.

No. Perhaps it was possible to believe it.

He'd thought about killing himself, after all. Like son, like father?

What had been Thomas' fear, his crushing need to end his existence? Was William correct? Had his dual nature been too much to bear? Was it not enough to have found a life with a woman who loved him, with a son who adored him?

Maybe we didn't love him enough, maybe we, maybe I...

Mike looked out at the water, at the place where he thought it should meet the sky, but the horizon was still obscured by a gray fog. Where is the sun? I need the sun to see where it ends.

The son. He was Thomas' son. Michael Thomson Wolf. He had to lift the fog, to know what had happened for himself.

Which meant there was only one place to go, one painful place to go.

He turned his back on the Sound and let the wind push him up onto the lawn, back to the drive. Robert was leaning against the limo, but straightened up as he approached. "Mike?"

"Keys."

Robert's rumpled face twisted, uncertain.

"Give me the keys."

The chauffeur handed over the car keys. Mike climbed into the front seat of the sleek black car, reversed it and turned down the drive. A few of the others standing around watched him go, looked at each other, but said nothing.

Inside the house, William stood by the window, watching the scene play out before him. A shadowy figure came up beside him, and without turning he spoke. "He doesn't believe what happened to Thomas. He doesn't believe me." William looked at Hunter's hawk-like profile. "You were there. You saw what happened that day."

"It's exactly as I told you." Hunter turned to face the old man. "He was my friend, William. I would have stopped him if I could."

"I know, I know. Thank you."

Hunter looked out the window again. The limo was disappearing around the curve of the road. "Should I..."

"Let him go."

"Are you sure?"

William shrugged, a profound gesture of helplessness. His eyes caught Hunter's for a moment, then he turned and walked away.

Hunter stared down the road, his eyes narrowing, long after the car was lost from view.

~*~*~

Virginia was in a dungeon, a chilly, dark dungeon.

She peered into the darkness through gummed eyes, fighting the throbbing in her head, seeking the remotest hint of light and wondered how she'd gotten back to the kingdoms, to Wendell's dungeon, or maybe Snow White Memorial Prison. It was too much to think about, so she closed her eyes and let the darkness take her again.

She opened her eyes. It wasn't completely dark; there was a certain dim light in the place and now she could see it wasn't a dungeon at all, it was a room with sleek, featureless walls. She was cold because she was wearing some sort of thin cotton garment and the room, whatever it was, had insufficient heating. She was lying on what felt like a hard mattress and when she attempted to sit up, found to her frustration she was tied to it with restraints. What had happened? Where was she? It took a minute for her brain to shake off the last of the dust, for her to remember the car, Tony, Regina.

Great. Regina is into some sort of S&M, no doubt, and is using her toys to imprison me here! She wondered where, exactly, here was. For all she knew, she could be in the basement of Regina's apartment, or an abandoned prison, or Dr. Regina Frankenstein's lab, awaiting dissection. Anything was possible where that psycho bitch was concerned. If her hands had been free, she would have smacked herself in the side of the head for her lack of smarts in getting into the car. What had she been thinking?

Dad. She'd been thinking of her father.

Where was he? She pulled at whatever was binding her but they wouldn't release. She craned her neck around as far as possible. Tony wasn't in the room. The gray light came from a window covered with heavy drapes on the wall to her right. Above her she saw a metal rack with a clip-on light and holes in the wall that did not look like sockets. There was a kind of cart nearby, but upside down it was impossible to figure out what it was exactly. On the wall to her left, at the foot of the bed, there was a door.

Virginia pulled again at the bindings, to no avail. Her helplessness was beginning to frighten her and her concern for her father was growing. I should have helped him, she thought, I should have found a way to get help, or get away, not fall into Regina's trap!

But she couldn't have. Beyond imagining, Regina had used troll dust on her... troll dust! in New York City! Troll dust she'd gotten from Robert Burleigh. Burly! The impossible mention of that name, coupled with the troll dust...! She thought about the chauffeur. His ugly, funny face... no. He was no troll. He was human. But there was something about him, wasn't there, that suggested—

No, no, not important, Virginia, focus on getting out of here. Focus on finding your father. Did she dare call out for him? Should she call for help? Wouldn't that tip off Regina?

Too bad, she had to know if he was all right. "Dad!" she shouted, as loudly as she could, "Dad! Tony! Tony Lewis! Dad! Answer me! Can you hear me?"

Nothing.

"CAN ANYONE HEAR ME? HELP!"

He didn't answer, but she thought she heard something through the wall, so she called again. She thrashed about, trying to loosen the restraints and they still wouldn't yield. But the bed itself moved a little and banged against the wall. She moved again, slamming the bed into the wall over and over, calling for help, for her father, hoping for a sound in response.

"HEEEELLLLP!"

The door flew open and a tall, angular woman stepped through the doorway. Her unlovely face was angry, her brows knitted, hands on her hips; she fairly quivered with fury. There were sounds coming through the open door, strange sounds, loud, high-pitched whining, crying, hysterical laughter, distant voices—

Where on earth was she?

"Be quiet!" barked the woman. Her small eyes glittered like jet beads.

"Let me out of this bed!"

"I told you to be quiet!"

Virginia shook her head furiously. "Please. You have to let me out. I was kidnapped!"

"Sure you were." The woman smiled humorlessly.

Virginia tried to control her anger. "Please. Please, at least tell me where my father is."

"I don't know what you're talking about. Now shut up or I'll have you gagged. Do you want that?"

Virginia closed her mouth. The woman paused, shooting Virginia a warning look, and closed the door behind her.

Useless. Futile. Virginia let her head fall back against the mattress. Tears of fury, frustration and hopelessness welled up in her eyes. She'd never felt so helpless, so alone. No one knew where she was. There was no way out, no escape.

And there would be no Wolf to rescue her.

And Mike?

She closed her eyes. She couldn't delude herself. He'd never find her. Mike was so much like Wolf in many ways, but he wasn't a tracker, he wasn't used to living by his wits in a dangerous land fraught with peril.

He wasn't her mate.

For some reason that made her cry even harder.

The need to blow her nose finally made her stop crying. But her hands weren't free, so she had to keep sniffing and snuffling until she could breathe again. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" she chastised herself, laughing mirthlessly at the absurdity of her situation. She looked through blurry eyes at the ceiling. That insufferable woman! "Shut up" indeed.

That woman...

There was something itching in the back of her brain about the woman. She looked oddly familiar, though Virginia couldn't remember where she'd seen her before. She was quite homely, with small eyes and a large nose and ears, russet-colored hair pulled back in a bun. Unusual looks. The kind of person you would remember, unless...

...unless she were part of the background, like a maid, or a nurse, or a waitress, or—-

That was it; the street clothes had confused her. She had seen her before, in a uniform, or rather she'd mostly seen the back of her, that same frizzy hair and square frame as she led the way...

Virginia gasped.

She knew where she was.

She just didn't know why.

~*~*~

When he passed the stone farmhouse on the curve at the bottom of the hill, Mike felt his entire body tighten. His hands went white on the wheel, and he felt a rolling wave of nausea as the car came abreast of it. He made himself look, though he didn't want to, didn't want to at all.

This was the place, the old stone walls set so close to the edge of the road. He'd passed it so many times, hundreds of times, and as the years passed he'd grown used to the sight until he no longer averted his gaze when driving by. But now all the horror, sickness, terror was back; he felt haunted by it, this place that had stolen his father and his mother from him.

The building flashed by and was gone, returning briefly in the rear-view mirror, then disappearing again, like the ghosts it possessed.

His hands unclenched.

The late afternoon sun was trying to stage a comeback. Watching the changing patterns of light in the trees, Mike recalled the last time he'd been this way, with Virginia, the day he'd taken her sightseeing into his life, the day they'd become lovers. A beautiful day. A magical day, when the past was the past and the present was everything.

Virginia. Where was she? His need to have her with him was almost palpable. The way he felt about her! He'd never, ever experienced anything like it, not with anyone else, not even with Cathy, and he'd been ready to marry her. Virginia inhabited his entire being. He felt like they were one person. It was almost an unearthly sensation—

He took in a little sharp breath. Wolves mate for life, William had told him. Was this it? Was this some sort of animal instinct, some genetic predilection bonding him to her? Was there no free will involved?

His past was eclipsing the present, destroying it. He wondered if he wouldn't have been better off leaving well enough alone, just thinking he was insane.

His destination came into view. He put all thoughts out of his head as he turned up the drive, parked messily and bounded up the steps into the white building.

"Mr. Wolf?"

The administrator of the Russett Nursing home rose from her desk behind the reception window, looking somewhat perplexed. "Did we expect you today?" She glanced down at the clipboard in her hand.

"No. I didn't have time to call. Mrs. Rausch, I need to see my mother."

"Well, of course, of course. Why don't you have a seat while I find out where she is, or if she's having a nap or something... we're a little short-handed." She seemed a bit put out by this interruption of protocol, but moved to her desk and picked up a phone, punching in an extension.

Mike was too keyed up to sit; he paced restlessly around the reception area, pausing to watch through the window as she spoke quietly into the receiver. Come on, come on, come on! He tapped on the desk and she turned around. "I can find her myself."

"Wait, please." She replaced the phone in its cradle. "I have someone just coming on duty who'll take you back." She smiled wanly at him. "I do wish, Mr. Wolf, that you would try to give us a little notice before your visits. Generally we find our patients don't like to be surprised."

"My mother won't care."

His voice was rather low but there was a hint of a growl in it and she backed off a little."No... no, probably not... but in future —oh, here's the nurse. Barbara, take Mr. Wolf back to see his mother, please."

"Yes, Mrs. Rausch." The nurse tucked a strand of frizzy rust-colored hair back into its bun, and gestured with one large, square hand. "This way, please."

Lisette was sitting in a chair, holding a half-finished embroidery on a hoop in her lap. She wasn't embroidering, merely looking at the pattern of daisies and roses printed on the cloth. Her eyes were on it, but her hands picked idly at the fabric.

Mike thanked the nurse without looking at her. She stood in the doorway a moment before heading away down the corridor.

"Hello, Mom."

Lisette looked up, her eyes coming into focus. "Hello." She didn't seem to recognize him, and Mike's heart sank. So much depended on her being present today.

"Mom, it's me, Mike. Michael. How are you feeling?" He crouched down in front of her, and she studied him, her face screwing up in concentration, a mirror-image of the crease between his brows appearing on her face.

Her eyes strayed to the table at her side, to the framed picture of a young, smiling couple. It was the same picture Mike kept on his mantle, and as he watched his mother, one white hand rose from the embroidery to trace the faces through the glass. She looked back at him then, and uttered a tiny, delighted sound. "Oh, oh. You came. You came!" Her face broke into smiles and, relieved, he leaned in to kiss her cheek. She threw her arms around his neck and pulled him in close to her. "Oh, Tom! You came!"

Mike's relief disintegrated. She didn't know who he was; her mind had betrayed her yet again. She still thought—" No, mom, mother," he began.

And then he realized what needed to be done.

He reached up to stroke her soft hair ever so gently. "Yes, it's me, Lisette," he whispered in her ear. "It's me, Tom."

Her voice throbbed with joy as she pulled away, her hands cupping his face. "I waited for you. I knew you would come, my dear, I waited so long. They wouldn't let me go to you and they wouldn't tell me why, but 'I have to go find him,' I told them, 'he needs me, my husband needs me."

Mike nodded and smiled at her, letting her chatter on, letting her believe his charade. He felt unbelievably heartless, like he was perpetrating a cruel joke. At length her words began to slow down, and he kissed her palm and took both her hands in his. "I'm sorry. I wanted to come to you sooner, but I couldn't. I have to ask you something—" he suddenly remembered his father's odd endearment: "—ma chere eclair." Funny, he'd never realized how silly that sounded. But Lisette giggled flirtatiously in response and clapped her hands together.

"Of course, Tommy. Ask me anything. Whatever you want."

He took her hands again. "I want you remember for me, can you do that?"

"I'll try, you know I will."

"Before... before the time you came here, do you remember that?"

She scoffed at him. "Of course. Ask me something else." She sounded as if they were playing at riddles.

He adored her. This was so unfair, so terribly unfair. "Something happened, just before you came here. Something bad. Do you remember that?"

A small shadow passed over her eyes. "I don't know, Tom. Don't think about bad things. You're here."

"Lisette." Why, why must I do this to her? "Think back, dear, think about why they wouldn't let you come to me. It was a long time ago, I know."

"A long time. I don't want to think about that, darling."

"I know, I know. You must, please. It's important." Mike wanted to get up and run but he couldn't. "We were in the car, coming home. May, in May."

"May is a bad month. I don't like it." She pulled her hands away, suddenly, her fingers twining themselves in the fringe of her wrap. "Let's not talk about that, we can have some tea. I'll make some tea."

"No, please, please try. We were coming home, in the car, we were on Old Shore Road—"

"I didn't like their tea, oh no! And they weren't very nice to us, no they weren't!"

Mike blinked, bewildered. "Who wasn't nice? Do you mean the doctors?"

She shook her head, looking into the distance at something invisible to him. "They weren't nice at all, I thought he wanted to make up, but he didn't, he was so mean, the things he said! Well, they can keep their tea, and their money!" Her expression changed, and she refocused on him, not seeing his confusion. "You were so brave, Tommy, 'He's our son,' you said, I was so proud of you!"

Confusion didn't begin to address what he felt now. Was she remembering something real, or embroidering a dream? "Our son..."

She leaned forward, her hands reaching to rest on his shoulders. Her face was inches from his, and he could see, despite the fine lines of age, the beautiful girl she must have been. "He's just a boy, he's not like them, they won't have him, will they, Tommy?"

"No, no, of course not." Himself. She was talking about him, Michael. "Lisette, I don't remember; help me to remember. We were in the car, there was an accident—"

"—No. No. No. No, no, no. No." She shook her head. "It's not true, he's not—" Her eyes filled and she began to whimper. "He's not. You lie. I want to see Thomas."

"Sshhh, shhh, I'm right here." Mike's guilt was beginning to overwhelm him. His mother didn't deserve this. None of it, least of all his pretense. But it was too late to stop now. He held her and kept speaking softly. "We were in the car, Lisette. Do you remember? Did I do something wrong? Did I say something to you before... it happened?"

She whispered something he couldn't make out.

"Tell me, please."

"There's something wrong."

"What's wrong?"

"No." She sat up and looked at him, chiding him. "That's what you said, 'there's something wrong.' And the car... it wouldn't... You said, 'I didn't think he would...'" She began to tremble and her voice became higher and thinner. 'I don't understand. Why won't it stop, Tommy?" Her eyes went wild and she started to make a kind of keening noise. "Why won't you let me see him? Oh, Tom! Tom!"

"Lisette—" No! No more. "Mom... Maman, please." Her hands were biting into his arms but he barely felt it. His mind was looking at the pieces of a puzzle, all fitting together, and he didn't want to look at the picture just as he didn't want to see the stone wall, but he had to. He wanted to bolt, but he let her wind down, let her breathing calm, and began to speak to her in the softest voice he could muster. He pulled every French word he could remember out of his brain, and the sound of her childhood language began to soothe her, eventually.

She rocked to stillness. "I love you," Mike said, "Tout ira bien." He kissed her gently on the forehead. "Mom... I have to go. I'll come back. I'll come back soon, I promise."

She said nothing, her eyes vacant again, her hands plucking at the embroidery. She began to hum a little song. A lullaby.

Mike stood up, ignoring the stab as the cartilage in his left knee shifted. "I have to go," he said again, more to himself than to her. And then he was in the hallway, pounding towards the exit, a haze, a red haze, beginning to form in front of him.

An accident.

Suicide.

Lies.


Chapter 22 ~ Air


Wolf shivered.

It was impossible to see the sun inside the Swamp; the heavy canopy of trees was an effective umbrella, shadowing the mucky ground with a diffused yellow-green light. But the covering held in the air, causing the Swamp to have a climate of its own, humid, mulchy, thick. Sweat dampened his hair and trickled down his neck as he pushed aside the tangled vines and tree limbs in his way.

Despite that, he shivered.

He didn't like anything about the Swamp. He didn't like the way it looked, the way it felt; he didn't like the smell of it, particularly, a combination of the sweet-sour odor of rotted living things and an unnamable smell that made him think of small, closed spaces, like his prison cell, like an airless closet, like a coffin.

He shuddered at the image of himself being loaded into a casket, nails sealing him shut—

Stop it! Wolf shook himself, head to toe, as if he had just climbed out of the water. It was just the Swamp playing tricks on his mind. Oh, no doubt about it, he was well aware of the pitfalls here. It was only his awareness of them and his single-minded need to save Virginia that had kept him alive the last time he passed this way. Then he'd seen only her face in his mind, and his senses had been so attuned to her that he'd been able to pick up the traces of her scent despite the cloying stench of rot and death. Virginia and Tony hadn't realized how lethal the Swamp could be. He had. He did.

Nevertheless, he sped up his pace as best he could, keeping to the nearly invisible path, trying to avoid the sucking mud and the patches of dead wood that could mask deadly sink holes or lurking unpleasant creatures.

He'd come down the mountain at record pace, following the snow-white flowers until he'd recognized where he was. Then he'd covered the grasslands fairly swiftly, stopping only once at a lonely house for food. The ancient hermit who lived there had been wary of him, but the gold coin Wolf offered in exchange for food had sealed the bargain. Wolf felt better having eaten; moreover, the fact that he'd bought his dinner instead of stealing it made him feel better about himself than he had since before Kissing Town. Civilized people paid for their food, they didn't poach, steal or swindle for it. Maybe he was becoming a better person after all.

Maybe. There still was the unresolved matter of Gigi to address. But his dream encounter with Snow White had bolstered his confidence and given him some hope that his actions were not all in vain. And the way she'd lighted the path for him towards the Swamp... well, there was magic at work, surely, and he hoped it was good magic, magic that would help, not seduce him.

He knew where he was headed; he'd known since Snow White told him what he needed to find. The only dead-yet-alive person he could think of was the dreaded Swamp Witch, Snow White's stepmother, who had crawled away into the Swamp more than a hundred years earlier, never to be seen again. But rumors of her persisted, and after what had happened the last time, with Virginia actually seeing the Swamp Witch, he had no doubt that he was about to make the acquaintance of the walking ghost herself.

The thought made Wolf shiver again, but he squared his shoulders and plowed on.

Now that he was within the Swamp, his sense of direction had almost vanished. This was not a comfortable feeling for him, or for any wolf. Normally like all his species he had an uncanny ability to track, but here all directions seemed alike, and with the sun diffused into an undetectable pattern, he couldn't even tell if he was walking in circles. Wolf stopped. Roaming aimlessly was futile. He closed his eyes and turned slowly, sniffing. It was a technique that usually served him well, but now he wasn't sure what he sought.

"Lost?"

Wolf's eyes flew open and he jerked his head back. A tiny figure was floating inches from his nose, and trying to bring it into focus made him cross-eyed. He drew back further and saw what it was.

"A fairy," he growled. "Go away!"

"But you're lost. I can help!" The fairy batted her tiny lashes at him, assuming a coquettish posture in mid-air.

"Riiiight," Wolf drawled. "And what happens then? You help me find what I'm looking for, but when I get there I'm as tiny as an ant, or the house is surrounded by trolls, or once I find it I can't find my way out. I'm no tourist, missy, I've been around the Swamp before! Now buzz off!"

"Very well... " The fairy pouted prettily. "But you'll be sorry!" There was a little burst of light and the fairy disappeared.

"Huh. Good riddance," Wolf commented to himself. He felt pretty smart, having avoided falling into the trap of asking for her help. Fairy magic indeed! But the fact remained he could wander here forever without finding what he sought. There had to be a way...

the road once traveled by

Cripes! He'd almost forgotten the rhyme! What way had he come before? There weren't any landmarks, were there? Think, think—

Sure. He'd found Virginia and her father asleep, covered in vines, near... the Mushroom Island! Virginia had said it was close to the tiny house where the Swamp Witch lay. Well, now that he had a destination, something to focus on, maybe he could...

Wolf closed his eyes again, and thought about mushrooms. True, most everything in the swamp was fungus-coated, but the mushrooms had a particular earthy smell, so maybe if he REALLY concentrated—

There! In the nearly still, thick air, a heavier, more textured aroma, like the smell of a fairy ring, or deep earth, or—

Mushrooms!

Wolf took off at a jog, following the tiny thread of odor through the mist. He kept a watch on his footing, too, still slipping several times in the soft wet earth, splashing through brackish water once or twice, but following his nose. His feet must have picked up mud, for they began to feel very heavy, getting more so by the moment. The branches and moss seemed much thicker now, and heavier. His arms could hardly rise to push them out of the way. It was such slow going, and he felt so tired.

The smell was getting stronger, though, easier to follow. And now there was something else. Music. He heard music, from the direction he was heading, impossibly soft at first, but growing louder as he pulled himself forward. A song, a familiar song, low under the mist, the sound of many voices in one, all singing the same, familiar song, one he knew well, and there were the words now, barely audible, but he knew the words, he'd heard them many times, and the voice was a sweet voice, a low, velvety croon, the sound of a mother singing to her little child, her little cub.

Go to sleep, sleep little child,
child of mine, child of mine,
mother is with you, have no fear,
nothing can harm you my dear.

The voice continued, humming now, rocking him in her lap, and he was filled with a sense of peace and quiet and calm and

Why was he lying down?

Wolf came to himself with a start. He was lying on a little mound of damp earth, his head cradled in his arms, and hundreds of red and white capped mushrooms surrounded him, poking up between his fingers, one nudging his ear, all vibrating, swaying, all singing, humming in one soothing voice, calling him, trying to kill him. He pulled himself upright, glaring at the little caps, shrinking away from the vines that had already begun to grow around him. He ripped one out that encircled his ankle, and stood up, shaking from his near-death experience.

"Why are you leaving us?" One little mushroom looked up at him, its voice low and kindly, motherly. "We love you, child, stay with us. Lie down again."

With a growl Wolf stamped it into the earth. It gave a little squeak and was still.

"Come back!" the little voices sang.

Wolf shivered yet again. "This is a BAD place!" he muttered to himself, backing away from the little mound.

He turned around, seeking the trail. There it was.

And three hundred yards further on, he found the house.

There was no sign of life in the place. He walked gingerly around the tarnished mirrors that lined the pathway to the house like malignant weeds. At the door he wondered, should he knock? He decided against it. He pushed the door and it creaked open.

Wolf had to stoop a little inside the tiny house, as evidently it had not been built for normal-sized people. He imagined Virginia, tiny, petite Virginia, would nearly scrape the ceiling with her head. The thought of her gave him a little pang. Would this bring him closer to his love? Oh, he hoped so. How he hoped so!

Virginia made him think of Gigi. What was she doing? How was she faring? Was he fated to save her? Wolf's shoulders slumped. He didn't even know where she was. But he had a job to do, something to find, something that keeps a queen from surrendering to death. Whatever that was.

He stepped around the small furniture, wondering how the Swamp Witch had managed to live here. Perhaps, perhaps with her ruined feet she'd had to drag herself around, maybe that was why the furniture was so close to the ground. The thought of her pulling herself like a slug made him feel a little ill.

There was a door, a kind of cellar door, in front of him, and though with all his heart he did not want to open it, he knew he must. The doors opened with a cloud of dust and a rush of fetid air that made him gag and cough. When the dust had settled about him, he saw a cracked stone staircase leading downwards, and, swallowing his fear, started to descend.

The cellar's ceiling was slightly higher than the upstairs room but Wolf still had to crouch a little. He followed a short hallway, more like a tunnel, if the truth be told, which opened into a subterranean chamber lined with mirrors of all shapes and sizes. He didn't like the look of them, no siree! But in the middle of the room was something he liked even less. There, on a bier made of the same stone as the staircase, lay all that was left of the Swamp Witch.

His initial fear subsided. "Is that it?" he wondered aloud. Why, she was DEAD! A corpse! And while he didn't particularly enjoy the company of dead people, he much preferred the idea of a DEAD Swamp Witch to that of a living one.

Maybe this wasn't going to be so hard after all.

He approached the body warily, fearing the smell of it, but found it had no smell at all. This was bad, worse than putrefaction. No smell? Unheard of! Unless it were preserved by magic, evil magic. But perhaps it was an illusion; perhaps it did not really exist. He extended one finger and poked it slightly. Fabric disintegrated at the touch and he grimaced and swallowed. It was real. It—

What do you want?

Wolf jumped so quickly that he bumped his head on the ceiling. His eyes opened wide on alarm, the whites visible all around the iris. The voice hadn't come from the body in front of him. The voice was in his head. And there was a buzzing that accompanied it, a buzzing he knew all too well, the feeling/sound that came with the voice of the evil queen when she'd spoken to him through her reflection. But this voice was different, not seductive like the queen's voice, no, but whispery, dry, horrible. This voice was like death.

Why have you come here?

Wolf said nothing. Better to find what he was after, get out quickly, be gone as soon as possible. He looked around the room. Other than the large mirrors there was nothing in the chamber. Nothing except the body itself.

What was it he was supposed to find? Surely it couldn't be one of the large mirrors —he'd never be able to carry it out of here. No, it had to be something personal to the Swamp Witch... something on her...

Wolf's gorge rose at the thought of touching her, but he moved towards the body.

I know you... you are the one who destroyed my plan

Oh, great. She knows me. This can't be good.

You must be stopped

"Sorry, Witchie, I'm not stopping for nobody. I'm a non-stopping wolf, that's what I am." The comb! Virginia had taken the comb. That must have been what Snow White meant! He scanned the clutching hands and the head—

There was no comb.

"Cripes! What is it, then?" Gingerly he lifted a piece of the witches' dress from one nearly mummified arm. The fabric came away in a puff of dust and the leathery arm underneath rolled slightly away from the body. Wolf thought he was going to be sick.

Defiler!

The word buzzed in his head and he winced. "Trust me, Witch, I am not going to defile you." What was that, a ring? Surely that was the talisman. Fighting his disgust he pulled the ring from the skeletal finger. For a sickening moment he feared the finger would come off, too. But it didn't.

Trespasser! Destroyer! I will not let you take my victory from me!

The voice nearly deafened him, but Wolf was tired of threats. "Oh, yeah? Well you're dead, or almost, and I don't see you leaping up off that stone to smite me, so I'll be on my way—"

Remembrance, bind him fast!

There was a sound, a scraping sound, and Wolf turned, expecting to find someone lurking behind the mirrors, but there was no one, just the mirrors, just a huge, misshapen mirror that was scraping across the floor towards him, all by itself, slowly, inexorably dragging itself as if it were a living thing. Wolf was struck with terror, and he backed up, away from it, but it was between him and the door—

Change, hold him for eternity!

—and now there was another mirror scraping across the stones behind him, a tarnished mirror that was blocking his escape and now the mirrors were parallel, facing each other, moving towards each other, reflecting into each other, and they were making him feel trapped, and the room felt airless, and he began to feel quite dizzy and he heard the hollow voice in his head and a laugh, the laugh of the dead as it said

welcome to infinity

and Infinity took him.

A sound like wind chimes and splintering glass. The very air seemed to ripple and shift, his surroundings undulating in a sickening roll, and he wanted to turn away, be sick, close his eyes. But he couldn't, his eyes were frozen on the greenish glass as it reflected upon itself, showing him, reflecting him over and over and over and over and he was inside it and there was something there, he saw a

Cub. There was a cub... he was a cub, looking up at the world from two feet above the floor, adults huge and imposing but there was his mother, her soft eyes full of laughter when she looked at him, saying his name, he'd forgotten he'd once had a name, no time to remember, her voice filling with alarm now, voices loud at the door, his father's voice, quiet but forceful at first, then rising to growl and threaten ferociously, other people, raised voices, a slammed door, fear in his mother's voice, we have to go, we must leave...

/splinter/
...school, age ten or so, good at games, kicking the inflated pig's bladder with Jorrain and Trevor and Nose and Pips, friends, smart, cutting school, too smart for books, they think, the Master saying I'll show you boys how smart you are, a cane, so what? A whipping, I won't cry but it hurts, oh how it hurts, and what is that? Don't tell them, can't tell them, it's a secret, you're a secret, the boy has a tail! The cry of wolf! Wolf! A chase again, no friends, no school, not again, not ever, and once more moving...

/splinter/
...at last, at last, a town of wolves, people like him, but not like him, he's not enough like them, tolerated, accepted after a fashion, sulking, moody, all the teasing, the poking, quit it! running away from them, then Dorcas! Only Dorcas, all he could see, his groin throbbing as he scented her, wanting her, passion blinding him, and the kiss nearly undoing him, the men with pitchforks, oh no, they're burning the town, they're burning them, mamma, pappa, oh no, NO! they're BURNING THEM!

Wolf tried to break free, to hold himself, and the scream rose in his throat, my fault! my fault! but there was no sound, no air as

...running, a running figure, he was running, panting, heart beating, sweat in his eyes, blinded by the sun, shouting behind him, stop, sheep blood on his clothes, his hands, his mouth, stop, stop him, stop the wolf, you're just wolf now, no other name, Wolf it is, catch him, escape, glorious! exhilaration, relief, exhaustion, clever, you're too clever, they'll never get you, do it again, and again and

/splinter/
...hands on him, pulling, hitting, punching, don't fight them or they'll —NO! The whip, again and again, his back on fire, throw him in the cell, no trial, no air, no sky, no hope

/splinter/
...voice, her voice, in his head, doing things, bad things, kill the girl, kill the girl, NO!

Wolf moaned, holding his head. He didn't! He hadn't, but—

/splinter/
...blood, blood on his hands, human blood, on his clothes, her lifeless form, her body, throat torn out, limp rag doll on the floor of the barn, full moon in his face, in him, her blood in his mouth—

He folded up, unable to breathe, he hadn't killed her, he loved Virginia, he'd saved her over and over again, this wasn't how it happened! But the mirror, in the mirror

/splinter/
...gone to her, nameless wolf, gone to the queen, her servant, loyal toady, rewarded, she strokes his hair, running her fingers, her gloved fingers, through his tail, now you are mine, now you belong to me, then a swift movement, a scratch, the poison immediate, and he can't breathe, why, my queen, why, why, why? Because you are who you are, darkness, numbness, image fading in the mirrors... /splinter/

The images coming faster now ...cub, a cub, he is the cub, mother screaming it's a monster! Kill it! I don't want it, knife at the cub's throat, pain, darkness
or
/splinter/ cub, father, in the woods, a silver arrow from nowhere, father falls, dead, before the cub can shriek, a blond man in a large hat, approaching, arrow at the ready, smiling, She said I'd find you here, run, run, but the legs won't work, arrow loosed, a sharp pain, gasp for air, mulch in the face, darkness
or

/splinter/ mating with Dorcas, pleasure then pain as he is dragged off her, dragged, screaming, half-naked, tied to the stake, Dorcas begging I love him! flames ignite, and he is burning, burning, the smell of his own searing flesh the last thing in his nostrils
or
/splinter/ Virginia, the queen, he is the king, everyone is bowing, he nods his silver head at his son, the crown prince
or
/splinter/ the wolves destroy the human village
/splinter/ Gigi, naked in the bed
/splinter/ Virginia naked in the bed, Wendell's bed
/splinter/ Sally Peep dead at his feet, her flesh in his teeth
/splinter/ a pardon for all wolves
/splinter/ death by hanging
/splinter/ death by fever
/splinter/ he is on top of a huge glass building, flying machines overhead, he stares, Virginia in his arms
/splinter/ ancient, doddering, the wolf staggers from the prisoner's mess to collapse in his cell for the last time, no air, no sky, the coffin, airless, they lift his ancient bones to seal him forever in the airless, suffocating, infinity of—

Choking, Wolf fell face forward onto the mirror, his weight knocking it onto the floor on top of him, crashing there, breaking, glass showering him, the scream of the witch in his head, but he didn't hear it any more, didn't feel the razor sharp shards as they cut him. He lay senseless, silent, unmoving, unaware.


Chapter 23 ~ Blink


The castle was larger and more splendid than Gigi could possibly have imagined. As the cart containing her and the huntsman moved relentlessly towards the building where she would learn her fate, she could not help but gawk at the pointed turrets —how many were there? There must be at least a hundred! and the sprawling magnificence that was Castle White.

She'd had no idea that Wendell was THIS rich. Why, the gatehouse they'd passed —perhaps two miles down the road! was nearly the size of her father's manor house. Everywhere she looked, she saw men, dangerous looking men, standing guard along the way. Wendell must have an army at his command. She tightened her lips. No wonder Lord Anthony wanted to marry his only child off to a man this rich, and obviously this powerful.

She wondered at this. Wendell had seemed so...shallow, disinterested. He hadn't seemed the type at all to be able to run such a powerful household. Well, maybe appearances were deceiving. Maybe she'd need to reassess the man she had no doubt she was about to be forced to marry.

The thought of her impending marriage cast a pall over her again. She didn't want Wendell. She never had. And she never would.

She wanted Wolf.

But she'd never have him. So, she thought, with the practicality that had marked her nature from childhood, perhaps I'd better make the best of the situation.

A drawbridge was lowering, and the huntsman turned around and grinned at her. "Journey's end," he said, and she noticed the huge knife in his hand. What? Surely he didn't mean to kill her, now that they were—

With one stroke he sliced through the ropes binding her hands. She fell backwards onto the floor of the cart, and heard a bark of mirthless laughter. "Doesn't do to have the chicken trussed too early," he hissed at her.

"Very funny, I'm sure!" she tossed back at him, as bravely as possible. But he had already turned back to the reins and was moving the cart across the drawbridge. It was pointless to try to jump out now. On both sides were men — armed men, who looked like they'd as soon kill her as look at her. No, she had no choice but to follow this through to the end. Whatever that was.

~*~*~

...who...

...is...

...he?

Darkness. BLINK. Filmy grey light. BLINK. Darkness.

"...thief......mirrors......found..."

BLINK. Headache. Vertigo.

"...'s awake."

BLINK. Face through a gauze. Pale. BLINK. Female. BLINK. Clearer.

"Wha—" Throat hurts.

Face close, concerned eyes. Smile. Friend?

"Ssshhh. There now, don't move."

Good idea. "Okay." Head's on a pillow.

Soothing voice. Kind. "Are you feeling better?"

Better than what? "Think so."

"Good, good. I'm glad." BLINK. She's beautiful. Does he know who she is? "And may I ask who you are?"

"I'm..." Wait — heart thumping — does he know who he is? Try again. "I'm..." She doesn't know you. YOU don't know you. This is bad.

"Shy, I see." Smile comes closer. Not as pretty a smile as he thought. "Tell me. What were you doing in that chamber?"

"I don't...chamber? Where?" Confusion, where was I, but more, WHO AM I??

"You know, my patience is not unlimited."

"It's not?"

"I am very angry at you, you know."

"You are?" He wrinkled his brow, trying to remember. "I'm sorry." The apology sprang to his lips. Instinctive behavior.

The woman came closer, and he could see her red hair coiled in a braid around her head, the pointed collar, the crown on her head.

Crown.

Definitely not good.

"Of course I'm angry. You've been naughty, haven't you? Breaking priceless objects. Grave robbing."

"I was?" He was totally confused. And totally taken aback when she raised her eyes above his head and two muscular brutes grabbed his arms and jerked him upright from the couch where he was reclining. "Ow!"

His muscles ached where he was being held, and someone was holding his head back by his hair, which brought stinging tears to his eyes in addition to the dizziness of being vertical so suddenly. The woman looked gravely distressed, but he was beginning to realize her expression didn't necessarily match her intent. But her voice was still gently soothing. Rather lulling, in fact.

"Gently, gently. Don't damage him. He's rather pretty."

"But, Your Majesty —" This voice was guttural and whiny and it set his teeth on edge.

"Do as I say, troll."

Troll? He knew what a troll was. Oh dear. But the pressure lessened and his hair was released. He started to speak before they grabbed it again. "I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to do... whatever you think I did."

"I do appreciate your apology, though it doesn't really go far enough, does it?" She strolled around the room, and his eyes tracked her. "When my men came to collect the mirrors, what did they find, but an uninvited guest, a clumsy guest, who broke an irreplaceable glass."

Mirror... The mirrors were parallel, facing each other, moving towards each other, reflecting into each other, and he was trapped, the room airless, and... Blink. The image flashed through him and was gone. He stood panting. Why couldn't he remember?

"And to add insult to injury, what do we find in your hand, but this lovely silver ring!" She held out her hand, revealing a filigree ring in her palm. "You were very bad to take this from her."

Her? "I'll give it back to her. I'll apologize." Damned if he could remember who "her" was!

But the red-haired woman was shaking her head sadly. "Oh, dear. I'm afraid that won't be possible. There's nothing left of her now. She's gone to dust. Just a pile of dust, alas."

He was horrified. "I didn't kill her, did I?" Whatever they were talking about, whoever she was, whoever HE was, he didn't like the idea that he could be a killer.

The woman smiled, her eyes crinkling up at the corners. "You sly thing, of course you did! Well, I should say you helped her on her way —she's been nearly dead for years! Decades, really. She was my mentor, you know. Almost a mother to me, but, in time, all things must pass. All people, too. We must move on." She shrugged. "You know, in a way, you did me a favor."

He said nothing, because he couldn't figure out what to say to that.

"That's why I didn't have you killed immediately. I wanted to know the sort of person who would do me such a kindness." She leaned in close, looking up at him, as if she were studying his face. "I can always have you killed later!" At his blanching face she laughed a little, merrily, then walked over to an elaborate chair and sank into it with a satisfied smile. "I've been tied to her for so many years — obligations can be terribly boring. And now you've freed me from her! Why, just the other day I dropped in on her, on my way home from — well, shall we say an extended visit in the south —and I asked her when I could take the mirrors with me. She refused, can you imagine? After everything I've done for her, wasting years of my life in that dreadful —" She stopped, her eyes becoming shrewd. "Wait — that's where I know you from. You were a prisoner —"

I'm a criminal???

"—Yes, yes... you're that wolf I was going to use to catch the dog!"

I'M A WOLF???!!!!! He knew about wolves; he WAS one? That hardly seemed likely!

She stood again, coming towards him. "Let him go." The hands disappeared but he heard grumbling behind him. "You'll be pleased to hear I caught him without you. Now, as I recall, you were going to give me your will."

Give her his will? What was she talking about? Wait... he had a sense memory of a buzzing in his head. No! He didn't quite know what it was, but he knew he didn't like it. Don't let her do that — "Yes, Your Majesty," he blurted out, before she could do anything to him, "I already have. I... I heard your voice in my head and I had to come to you." His mind raced, inventing, and came up with something else. "The ring was my gift to you."

"Really." Her face was neutral for a moment and he feared she knew he was feeding her a line. But then she smiled, eager, it appeared, to believe the flattery. "How very sweet. I do believe I like you. I am never wrong about people. I knew you were something out of the ordinary." She put out one hand, one gloved hand, and his legs knew what to do, even if his head didn't, and he knelt and kissed the ring, the silver ring that she had placed on her index finger. As he took her hand he felt the glove and in his mind a splinter, an image...

—her servant, loyal servant, she strokes his hair, running her fingers, her gloved fingers, through his tail, now you are mine, now you belong to me—

And then it was gone. He shivered, the feel of the glove still on his lips, his tail...

TAIL?

That would take some getting used to. But she was speaking again.

"—and Burly, you are dismissed. Go relieve the guards at Wendell's chamber."

"Yes, Your Immensity."

"Blabberwort, Bluebell—help with the mirrors,"

"Yes, Your Scariness."

He turned and watched them go, three misshapen, hideous trolls. One seemed to be a female. She looked frightening. But the woman in front of him frightened him more. The tallest troll turned and went out a door, while the others — the others walked over to a greenish mirror and walked through it.

"What is...what is —" He could hardly get the words out, so he just pointed at where they'd disappeared.

"Oh, that." The woman shrugged. "That's just a little short cut back to the chamber. That's how we got you here." She simpered at him again, her eyes dancing. He was wary, but tried not to let it show. "I hope you didn't hurt yourself too badly on the broken glass. I bandaged your hand myself."

He looked at his hands. The left one had a silk scarf wrapped around it with a faint line of blood visible through it. The scarf smelled of the woman. "Thank you."

"It's just a little cut. One must be careful around glass. I do hope you haven't given yourself seven years' bad luck."

There's a comforting thought.

"Now... what am I to do with you?"

"I... don't know, Your..." crown, crown ...Highness." He didn't really have any idea what to do. What he could do. What he SHOULD do right now.

"Perhaps a footman... no, maybe in the kitchens. Would you like that?"

He was hungry. Kitchens meant food. "Yes, Your Highness."

"Very well. Come with me then — do you have a name?"

Name... /splinter/ —stop the wolf, you're just wolf now, no other name — "Just 'wolf.'"

She wrinkled her brow a little. He thought she was quite beautiful. And quite terrifying. "That's rather obvious, but, well. Come. Perhaps I can find some use for you, wolf. I can tell you will serve me well."

"Oh, yes, I'll serve you. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, I'm your wolf, no doubt about it."

He was babbling, letting the words say themselves, as if he'd said them before, but at the same time he felt relief. At least I have a purpose, now.

She led him through the corridors of a vast palace, and his mouth dropped open from the splendor that surrounded him. He had no memory of anything, but doubted a criminal like himself had ever seen such a place before. Everywhere they went, servants bowed to the woman and called her "Your Majesty." She was a queen, no doubt about it, and she was interested in him!

They passed through a chamber and a golden-colored dog came bounding up to them to be stroked, wagging its tail fervently. He was aware of his own tail, now, and more painfully aware of not acting like the dog in front of him. Tail or not, he felt like a man, and didn't like the implied stigma of being related to a canine. He frowned. He supposed he'd heard of human wolves before, and had an inkling that they were somehow less than men.

The woman greeted the dog warmly, scratching it so that one leg went off at a rapid twitch. She laughed, a low, musical sound. "Funny, isn't he? He was briefly not a dog at all, but now he's back, just a happy fellow, aren't you, boy?" At her companion's obvious confusion, she smiled. "The prince was much more compliant than I expected. Didn't need to worry, as it turned out." She caught his expression. "I know. You haven't any idea what I'm talking about, have you?"

"Not really."

"Well, it doesn't matter. Everything is on the road to success now. I just need you to help me a little."

"As you wish, Your Majesty."

"Because I can change my mind at any time and have you killed." Her hand was on the dog's tail, and she pulled it, making him yelp. "You do understand."

He blinked at her and nodded mutely.

"Good. Come — the kitchens are just over here."

As they turned towards a staircase, a slight commotion made them turn their heads. Two guards were coming towards them, a small woman between them. Not much more than a girl, really, dressed in ragged gypsy clothes. Behind them a man in a floppy hat had stopped to speak to a footman. The small procession stopped a few feet from the queen.

"The Lady Virginia, Your Majesty."

"Very good. I'll deal with her shortly. Take her to the throne room."

The guards nodded as one and turned with the girl to head in another direction. The girl swiveled, staring, her mouth open, and she made a little sound, somewhere between a sigh and a sob. She looked at the queen's new servant, her eyes lighting up, her demeanor softening.

He looked at her. Right at her, his expression unchanging.

"Come, wolf."

"Yes, Your Majesty." And he turned and was gone.


Chapter 24 ~ Shock


"No! Let me up, you moron!"

There was a commotion in the hallway. Mike could hear it as he moved relentlessly toward the front door of the nursing home. Voices were raised, two male voices. He didn't pay them much attention. He had to get to his car, get back to the cold grey house and his inevitable final reckoning with William.

He rounded the corner, and now, up ahead, he could see the source of the noise; a short, muscular orderly had his hands full trying to put a very tall man into a wheelchair. The patient was wearing some sort of straightjacket, but he'd managed to pull himself halfway out of it, and the orderly had resorted to manhandling him. Mike frowned. He hadn't seen the staff get physical with the patients before —it made him worry about what happened to Lisette when he wasn't there. But he didn't stop. He couldn't.

"Take this thing off me! I'm not crazy!"

"Listen, mister —" the orderly had a nasal, whiny voice, "it says here you're schizo, paranoid, bi-polar, alcoholic and a bed-wetter, so I'm not taking any chances! You're gonna put this on, and then we're gonna get a nice shocky-wocky, okay? You'll feel soooo much better after, I promise!" With a final wrench he leveraged the bigger man into the chair by sitting on him, and tied him down with restraints.

The patient struggled, his voice rising in panic. "I am not schizo, and, and you can't give me electric shock! I won't let you! There's nothing wrong with me —" He dropped his voice into a more rational tone. He squinted at the orderly's name tag. "All right, Billy, is that your name? Well, Billy, listen. It's a mistake, that's what happened, I don't know how but I —"

"Oooh, no, no no!" Billy shook his head, bobbing it like a spring-necked dog on a back window. "Right here on your chart it says, 'John Doe, paranoid schizophrenic, alcoholic, wets bed, E.C.T. —'" He stuck the chart under the patient's nose. "Charts don't lie, Mr. Doe!" He reached for the grips and started to swivel the chair away towards a grey door.

"No!" The man in the chair pulled and fought against the restraints, nearly shrieking his protest. Mike, passing them, flinched and glanced their way again. "It's all a mistake! I'm not a John Doe, I have a name, it's Tony Lewis! Call my daughter, she'll tell you, I'll pay you! I'll give you a reward! Call her, please! She'll tell you who I am! I'll give you the number! Her name is Virginia Lewis. Please!"

Mike stopped short.

"Don't worry, mister," the orderly was saying. "Shocky-wocky, then drooly-wooly, then sleepy-weepy! It will all be better soon." He shrugged. "Or not."

"No! Don't do this!" The man sounded desperate, terrified.

"Wait."

The orderly and the patient turned as one as Mike walked towards them. "Sorry, mister, I have to take this patient to —"

"No." Mike looked down at the man in the chair. "You're Virginia Lewis' father?"

The man stared up at him. "Yes. Yes, Tony Lewis. Listen. Listen, make this guy let me —"

"What's your address?"

"What? Two East 81st Street."

"My God." He is her father! Mike stared at Tony Lewis. Maybe Virginia's father was mentally ill. Maybe that's why she'd never let them meet. He looked at the man in front of him. No. She would have said something, especially after she met Lisette.

Hope dawned in the older man's eyes. "Please get me out of here — are you a doctor?"

"No." Mike started to release the restraints, and Billy put up a hand to push him away. "Back off!" he growled at the orderly, who backed off immediately. "You've made a mistake. I'm releasing him."

""You can't do that!" Billy protested sulkily. "The chart says —"

"Shove the chart." Mike released the last bond. "There you go." Tony stood up shakily, wrestling off the straightjacket and throwing it at the orderly, who fought with the straps, cursing. The other two ignored him.

"I can't thank you enough. They were about to zap me. Case of mistaken identity, or worse. So..." He rubbed his wrist and put out his hand. "Who ARE you?"

"Oh, sorry," Mike said, grasping Tony's hand. "Should've said. I'm Mike Wolf. Virginia's —-"

That was as far as he got before Tony punched him in the jaw.

The force of the unexpected blow toppled Mike onto the floor, where he stayed, stupefied, his head buzzing. "What — what the hell —"

"You son of a bitch!" Tony hissed at him. "Jerking my little girl around! How dare you do that to her, you prick, get her all starry-eyed about you while you're running around on your wife!"

"Wife?" Maybe he had heard wrong. "I don't —" he started to get up off the floor but Tony shoved him back. "Hey! Don't do that!"

"Why? You want a piece of me? Get up then, you low-life, and I'll really teach you a lesson!" Tony balled up his fists. "Not only do you screw around with my daughter, you cheat on that beautiful wife of yours. You don't deserve either one of them!"

"I don't have —"

"What? The balls to be honest?"

"Wife! I don't have a wife!"

"Yeah, sure."

"Will you just let me speak a minute?" Mike stared up at 6'3" of pissed-off parent. Tony stayed silent, but clenched his jaw. "It's the truth. I'm not married!" Mike scooted himself up against the wall and put out his hands placatingly. "I swear to you!"

"Oh, really?" The sarcasm poured from him. "Try again. I met her."

Mike's brow wrinkled in confusion. "Who? Where did you get the idea I was married?"

Tony's stern look wavered. "From...her. Your wife. Regina."

"Regina? No, you're wrong she... Jesus." Regina? She couldn't! He got upright, and Tony didn't try to stop him. "Tony, Regina and I work together. She's pretty intense sometimes, but I can't believe... my God." Thoughts, disturbing thoughts, were beginning to connect in his head. He looked at Tony under a very worried brow. "When did you talk to her?"

"Morning, I don't even know, is it still Sunday?" Mike nodded. "She came to the apartment, told me you were her husband, you were cheating on her — well, I believed her. You're saying you're not..."

"No. We were involved awhile ago, and I knew she didn't take us breaking up too well, but I've known her all my life and I never thought she would do something like this..." He stopped and looked at Tony again. "Why are you here? How did you get here?"

Tony looked around sheepishly. "I don't really know where 'here' is."

"Russett Nursing Home. North Shore, near Port Jefferson."

"Jeez Louise... I have no idea! Regina was going to give me some things, she said they were Virginia's, and we went down to the car, and I was trying to find them under the seat..." he closed his eyes and screwed up his face. "And then— " He blinked. "It's her. Regina. She must have hit me or something. Why would she do that?"

"I don't know, Tony. There are a lot of things happening that I really don't understand. But I'm going to find out. What Regina's up to..." He remembered, suddenly, Regina in the office, insulting Virginia while he stood by like a whipped puppy. Regina, just now in the house, elated, breathless... Could she —A shadow passed over his face and he grabbed Tony by the shoulders. "Where's Virginia?"

"I... I don't know. She went to see you and then she came back; she was going to the park... why? What do you, you don't think something's happened to her, too? Do you? Do you?"

"It better not have." Mike looked over Tony's shoulder and let go. The orderly was still there, still clutching the chart. "You."

"Me?" The orderly's eyes opened wide as Mike approached him. "I don't know anything about anything. That's what they pay me for."

"Who admitted him?"

"Who?"

"Me, you idiot!" Tony was at Mike's side.

The orderly smiled nervously, revealing a serious underbite lined with misshapen teeth. "Oh, you mean Mr. Doe?"

Mike was running out of patience. "Who brought him in? Tell me or —"

"Or what? You don't scare me!" The orderly stuck out his lower jaw pugnaciously. Mike and Tony looked at each other, disbelieving the runty fellow's attitude.

"Oh, really?" Mike had had enough, of the day, of liars, of frustration. He moved forward suddenly, slamming the shorter man against the wall. "That. Was. The. Wrong. Answer. Understand me?"

The orderly nodded. "Chart — chart — it's on the chart. Don't hurt me, okay? I'm fragile!"

Mike grabbed the chart and released him to sag down the wall. Tony read aloud over his shoulder. "'John Doe, admitted'...how? Where does it say?"

"Right there," Mike said grimly. "'Special admittance, R.R.'"

Tony caught a breath. "That's. . ." "Her, Regina. I don't understand this... I don't know what she has to do with this place... wait." The chart had two pages and he flipped to the last one. "'Administer E.C. therapy, restraints... keep isolated from patient in room 122S?" He looked up. Tony's confused gaze met his own.

"What does that mean?"

There was a noise and both turned in time to see the orderly slam through the gray doors.

"Let's go see."

There was an inner door behind the gray ones, and the moment they passed through it, they heard the sounds. Crying, sighing, someone wailing. It gave Mike the shivers. He'd heard all this before, in that dark time when he'd locked himself away to try to deal with his demons. The sound of tortured souls was one not easily forgotten. "I didn't know they had a psych ward like this here."

"What are you doing here, anyway?" Tony kept an eye on the door numbers but clearly was checking him out as well.

"My mother is here. Over on the other side. She's not well."

"I'm sorry." Tony bit his lip. Mike remembered Virginia saying my mother tried to drown me in the bathtub. He felt very sorry for Tony.

There was another door at the far end of the corridor, one with a lock, but the orderly had gone through just ahead of them and it hadn't snapped shut yet. Mike sprinted to it and got a grip on it before it locked.

Beyond it was a grey corridor, unadorned by pictures, or colorful paint, or comfortable couches as was the rest of the home. There was a window on the far wall, barred. The noise was no greater here, but the cries were more piteous. Someone wailed at a pitch that made Mike's ears ache.

They moved slowly down the corridor, expecting adversaries to come lurching at them. 122S was near the end on the right side. There was sound coming from inside, a woman's voice, and a metallic sound that reverberated and set his teeth on edge.

He looked at Tony, who nodded to him in some sort of Starsky and Hutch parody as if they were cops who been working together for years, as if it were normal for them to be stalking a nameless prey in this manner. He shook aside the image, fought the inclination to kick down the door and turned the knob easily.

The nurse was there, the one who had brought him to his mother. She turned in alarm, her large mouth dropping open, her hands holding something, caught in the action of reaching it towards the person on the bed before her. His eyes followed her hands.

"Virginia!"

He hadn't said it, Tony had. Virginia was trussed up in restraints, struggling, her eyes flashing, unable to speak because of something in her mouth, the nurse about to put —

— wires —

—that machine —

The machine — that was it, it was humming a little, and he quite clearly caught electricity in the air, and didn't have time to consider how strange it was that he could smell electricity, because a dark figure launched itself from the corner where it had been lurking, and the force of the compact body blind-siding him took them both down to the floor.

He was aware that Tony was shouting and that some sort of struggle was happening near the bed, but he had his hands full with the orderly, who, though short, was surprisingly muscular. He was being grabbed at, pummeled, in a very haphazard but effective way, and he couldn't get leverage to push him off.

He brought his leg up and smashed his attacker in the back, throwing him sideways. The man squirmed, trying to get out of his grasp. Mike grabbed his lapels, punched him once in the nose and then managed to haul him onto his feet.

"Sis! Heeelllllppp!" The orderly gurgled and squealed, throwing his head back in the direction of the others.

The nurse was his sister?

"I'm coming, Billy!"

Mike looked up to see the fuzzy-haired nurse bring her head down and butt Tony in the stomach. Tony made an "oof" sound and tottered backwards onto the bed. And then the two hospital employees were venting their full rage on him.

They shoved him back against the wall with some force, numbing his spine for a very bad moment. Contorted faces were close to his, and one hand, he didn't know whose, snaked around his neck. The fingers were closing, choking him, and despite his efforts he was no match for two of them.

—and then there was tingling sensation, the hand let go, he heard a scream, and the nurse fell away from him to lie twitching on the floor. He kicked out at her brother, catching him in the upper thigh, and the shorter man fell over, clutching himself and cursing. It had all stopped so suddenly, he couldn't grasp it all.

Until he saw Tony standing there, holding wires out in front of him, wires that led from the humming machine. He blinked. "Tony?"

"I zapped her," Tony said proudly. "Twice."

"Good idea." That's why he'd felt the tingle.

There was a muffled sound from the bed. Virginia still was fuming and struggling against her bonds. Both men stepped over the fallen bodies to tear at the restraints that held her. Mike removed some kind of rubber gag from her mouth. "Don't worry," he said, soothingly, "rescue is at hand."

"—OFF ME!" Virginia shouted as the gag was removed. She stared — no, glared at him. "What sort of thing is that to say, 'rescue is at hand?'" She smacked him once on the chest, as he gaped, stunned at her reaction. And then her face crumpled and she began to sob with relief.

Mike gathered her up, holding her tightly. He could feel Tony next to him, saw him stroke Virginia's hair and heard him say, "It's all right now, Virginia."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Virginia was saying. Her arms went around both of them, squeezing tightly, clutching at their clothes.

"Daddy... I was afraid she would..."

"I know, I know, sweetie."

She pulled away suddenly, focusing on Mike's face, studying it and saying with a sense of wonder "You found me! I don't know how you found me!" She pulled him close again. "It was Re-Regina. She tried..."

"I know."

"She's crazy, Mike. And she had, she used, Troll Dust."

"What?" the two men spoke together.

Virginia looked from one face to the other. "Troll..." She sighed. "Never mind." She noticed Mike's jaw and reached up to touch it. "Oh! Look at that bruise! They punched you!"

"Well..." Mike looked slyly at Tony, who looked at the ceiling.

"We need to get out of here," Tony offered, changing the subject.

Virginia looked down at herself. "I need clothes."

They found her things in a drawer and while she dressed, Mike and Tony used the straps from the bed to bind the orderly and the nurse. Looked at next to each other they did bear a family resemblance. And something else. When he looked at their name tags, Mike discovered they shared a last name —

Burleigh.

The discovery was one more unanswered question. "You," he said to the woman, who was coming around. "What did Regina tell you?"

"Who?"

"Look," Mike growled at her, "I've had a hell of a day, and I am in no mood to banter with you. My friend here knows his way around electricity — does he need to show you again?"

Tony opened his mouth to protest and Virginia elbowed him.

"Er, no, that won't be necessary!" The nurse shook her rusty hair out of her eyes. "Miss Regina told us to put them somewhere they wouldn't be found." She looked at them slyly. "We've done it before."

"And you agreed to do that???!" Tony was incredulous.

"Sure," Billy interjected. "We always do what Miss Regina says!"

"Why?"

The two looked at each other as if he were mad. "Because we have to. We always have," the nurse said.

"And we always will," Billy offered. "She's our —"

"Ssshhh! Billy! Mustn't tell, mustn't!" The two of them sat back, exaggerating the closing of their mouths.

"They're lunatics! The lunatics are running the asylum!" Tony shouted.

Mike shook his head. There was something much bigger going on, and he didn't want to explore it with these, these —minions. He clenched his jaw. "I have to go. I know where she is. They're all there together..."

Virginia appeared at his side. "I'm coming with you."

He nodded reluctantly, afraid for her but not wanting to let her out of his sight again. "I found out some things, today, Virginia. Terrible things." He turned to her, taking in her worried face, her sweet face. "But I found out you're the only true thing in my life."

"Oh, Mike." She put her arms around his waist and hugged him, burying her face in his sweater.

Tony tapped him on the shoulder. "Am I missing something?"

"Quite a few things. Sorry," Mike said, breaking away from the embrace. "Let's go. I have a car —" The three of them were halfway down the hallway when something struck him. "Tony. I have to ask you a favor."

"Sure."

"I have to go find Regina — and there's someone else I have to deal with. But given what's going on around this place, I'm worried about my mother. Could I ask, would you stay and keep an eye on her?"

Clearly Tony was eager to go, be part of Regina's comeuppance. He looked torn and turned to Virginia.

"Please, Daddy?"

"Honey —"

"Dad. She needs someone strong to watch over her."

Tony rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay. Where is she?"

The relief was obvious in Mike's voice. "204. North Wing. Her name is Lisette." He paused, his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Thanks. I owe you."

"Call it even."

"Sure." Mike took Virginia's hand and started towards the door.

"And, hey —" Tony called. "Take care of my little girl, okay?"

Mike grinned, "Always." He turned to Virginia. She smiled, but her eyes were unreadable. Something prickled inside him, but there was no time to consider it. He grabbed her hand and ran with her to the car.


Chapter 25 ~ Face to Face


"So sorry to keep you waiting."

Gigi whirled around. She had been standing on the dais of the throne, studying a tapestry, fascinated by the play of light and shadow in the needlework, the illusion of translucence in the depiction of some sort of object woven into the design. She didn't really care about the tapestry, but looking at it calmed her down a little, kept her from thinking about what lay ahead. And about what — whom —she had seen in the corridor. But at the sound of the queen's voice, her fears returned in a rush.

The queen glided towards her, the train of her gown fanning out in a perfect semi-circle of scarlet. "You look quite natural up there, next to the throne." There was nothing overtly frightening about her manner, and her face was creased in a warm smile, but Gigi regarded her warily, expecting her to spring, suddenly, like a trapdoor spider. Everyone knew about the "evil queen"; what she was doing here, in Wendell's palace, was beyond Gigi's understanding.

"It's a pretty scene, don't you agree?" The queen gestured at the tapestry. "It's Snow White, of course. With her husband, Prince Florio. Wendell's grandfather." Gigi turned, despite herself. Of course it was Snow White — a pale, dark haired woman extending her hand to a handsome blond man. That translucent object behind them, she realized now, was a coffin. A glass coffin. She turned back to face the queen, but said nothing.

"I admit she was beautiful, in her own way. Though artists tend to exaggerate and flatter. Only mirrors tell the truth. " The queen smiled, but now Gigi saw that the smile stopped at her lips. The older woman stepped towards her and raised a hand toward Gigi's face. "You are very pretty, too."

Gigi flinched and stepped back, feeling the edge of the throne behind her knees. The queen smiled again.

Gigi's mouth tightened. Enough of this. "Why have you had me brought here?"

The queen laughed, a lovely tinkling sound. She sounded quite genuinely amused. "Don't be so impatient! It's not a very attractive quality in royalty."

That wasn't at all what Gigi had expected to hear. "'Royalty?'"

The older woman did not respond immediately. She turned away, the scarlet dress winding and unwinding about her legs like pooling blood. "When I came here," she said, "I came as a commoner. That won't be your fate, Virginia."

"My name is Gigi."

"Your name is Lady Virginia of the Western Mountains. It's pointless to pretend it's not. You father tells me you do not relish the title. Foolish, foolish girl."

Gigi's anger flared, burning through her fear, anger not just at the woman, but at her father for speaking about her to this creature. She descended from the dais to accost her face to face. "What do you WANT?"

Again the queen sidestepped the question. "My mentor was very fond of your mother."

"My mother —"

"Your mother was foolish, girl. She had potential. Potential to be great, or so I've heard. She refused the power, and so she had to die."

Gigi gasped. Her mother had been gone so long, and she herself had been so very young, she barely remembered her at all, but if this woman knew her — "What do you mean, 'had to die?'"

"I assure you I am blameless. But it begs the question — will you be foolish enough to refuse greatness when it's handed to you?"

"I don't know what you mean, and I don't know what you want of me!"

"It's not what I want, my dear. It's what your father wants. And what Wendell wants." Her tone had shifted subtly, now she was all business, almost brusque in manner. "Prince Wendell wants you, young lady. He wants to marry you. You'll make him the happiest man in the kingdoms tonight when he announces your engagement. And let's just say your future depends on keeping him happy."

Gigi had been expecting the news, but still was perplexed. "Look, I know my father arranged this, but, but... I still don't know why! Wendell never showed any interest in me. Why, now, does he want us to be married?"

The queen threw her head back and laughed. "Men! Oh, my dear, who can tell why they do anything! Suffice to say you are now his passion, his desire. He will have you, or he will have no one." She stepped closer to Gigi and cupped her chin. "Don't deny your destiny, my dear. How terrible can it be? Wendell's quite the handsome fellow, rich, a little spoilt, perhaps, but you can cure him of that. A most eligible young man, desired by all the young ladies. And he's chosen you —I think that's marvelous. And remember —you will not only be his wife, but his queen. Surely there's little you can find to dislike in that prospect."

"It's just..." She let the thought trail off. What were her reservations, after all? "I don't love him," she finished lamely.

"Don't love him? My dear, you have Prince Charming waiting for you. Surely you can't be expecting to meet anyone better —" She stopped, her eyes narrowing. "Oh, I see. That's it, isn't it? You're in love with someone already, are you?"

Gigi closed her eyes.

The queen sighed theatrically. "What is he, a merchant's son? No, that's not romantic enough for someone like you, I suppose. A gypsy, then? A poet, perhaps? And let me guess: you're waiting to be rescued by your lover, by this paragon of heroism!"

Was she, was she waiting to be rescued? Her mind went back to the corridor, to the moment she'd caught sight of Wolf, the moment when her despair had turned to joy and hope after so long, to the moment when she'd seen him standing there —

—next to the queen, his eyes blank as they turned from the queen to look at her, and then flicked away, disinterested, uncaring. The moment when her sudden flame of hope had died.

"No," she said. "I don't expect to be rescued."

"Good," the queen said, a smug smile playing about her lips, "because I've gone to quite a lot of trouble to get you here, to arrange your marriage to Wendell, and I'd hate for him to be disappointed."

"And what do YOU get out of it?"

The older woman stepped back at Gigi's pugnacious tone, regarding her with interest. "Wendell and I have come to an understanding. I have pledged not to stand against him, nor to raise a rebellion. I do still have my supporters, you know. In return, he plans to give me quite a large duchy in the northern part of his lands. I will be the ruler there — it will be almost like having my own little kingdom. I find it an appealing prospect after so many years in exile. Besides, I told him I'm too tired to make much trouble any more."

Gigi made a face. "And he believed you?"

"Don't be rude, dear. I've accepted the best terms I can get." She moved closer until their faces were mere inches apart. "I advise you to do the same."

"And if I don't?"

"The consequences of that foolish choice are too gruesome to consider. Please don't force me to consider them. I'd hate that. I've taken an interest in you." She smiled again, a benevolent smile. "You have it, too, I can tell, though you don't know it." At this mysterious statement she reached over to push Gigi's hair out of her eyes. This time Gigi didn't recoil; there was something so familiar in the gesture that she couldn't move. For a moment she stood like that, memories tugging at her, until it came to her with unendurable clarity. She fought back a sob.

My mother.

"Well, then, my dear," the queen was saying, "are we in agreement?"

~*~*~

The wolf had never seen such a large and well-appointed kitchen in his life; granted, he didn't remember much about his life, but he did have vague sensations of having been chased from a large kitchen more than once. He tried to hold on to the impression, but the more he concentrated, the more it seemed to slip away.

But the palace kitchen was huge—almost indecently so, a veritable fantasy-land of smells that set his nose to twitching and his mouth to watering. And no one, absolutely no one, was trying to chase him away.

That in itself was a wonder, but stranger still, he'd been given a huge plate of food to eat — probably with the thought that a wolf with a full stomach would be less likely to eat up the pantry. It was a good, if simple, plan and he recognized its basic validity as a concept. He sniffed haughtily. He was still coming to terms with the concept of even BEING a wolf, and rejected the idea —that he would "wolf" everything down in his path —as being slanderous.
Nevertheless, he cleaned his plate.

They set him first to polishing silver —large pieces, he noted, not utensils that an unscrupulous wolf might be expected to slip into a pocket. He spent over an hour at the task, bringing the tarnished serving dishes to a high reflective shine. He didn't try to think about his situation, other than to wonder what task he might be assigned next. Worrying seemed pointless — what the queen wanted him to do, he would do. Whatever it was. Without question.

He finished the polishing, and the under-chef put him to the task of stirring a huge vat of something —soup, gravy, beverage, he couldn't quite tell. It had a rich ruby color and smelled of a number of things, most of them unrecognizable. But he caught a whiff of something earthy, deep and a little pungent, and the aroma jogged something in his brain... fungi. Moss. No, mushrooms. But whatever the thought was, it didn't rise to the surface, unlike the mysterious lumps that bobbed up to the lip of the pot as the ladle went around and around.

He listened to the chatter. There was some sort of large party being planned — that much was clear. The enormous staff bustled about in a frenzied but efficient manner, creating culinary masterpieces, folding linen, bearing tremendous trays of glassware.

"Here." A woman in a frilly apron and a seriously displeased expression held out clothing to him. It was a suit of livery, scarlet and white and gold, and he thought it quite flashy and beautiful. "Put this on. Everyone's to be in their best dress for the ball."

"The ball?"

"Yes, the ball... where have you been?" the woman snorted. "It's Prince Wendell's coronation tonight."

"Is that important?"

"Not half it ain't! All the royalty from the Nine Kingdoms is expected. The queen is most particular. Leave that stirring — I'll do it. You can change in the servants' pantry." She thrust the clothing into his arms, topping the pile with a pair of shoes that glistened brightly, like black mirrors.

"All right."

He passed through a door into a small inner chamber, placing the beautiful suit on a chair. He pulled off his outer clothes and began to dress. Whoever had chosen the livery for him had a good eye; the clothing fit him perfectly, even the shiny shoes. He wondered if the queen had done it — she'd certainly studied him appraisingly enough to judge his measurements. "Huh," he muttered, "the way she was looking at you, she might have been measuring you for her bed!" That made him smirk until the thought came, unbidden — "or for your coffin." Probably best not to consider this line of thinking any further.

The hose was real silk, the fabric of the breeches satin and the coat a fine brocade shot with gold embroidery. As he buttoned up the shirt and arranged the jabot, his eyes closed involuntarily as the fabric brushed against his jaw. It felt wonderfully silky, almost like a woman's caress.

Like her hand stroking his cheek...

Unexpected emotion welled up inside him and he sighed deeply. His eyes flew open. What had he been thinking? What memory had he experienced?

What woman?

There was a cracked mirror over a washstand, just big enough to see one's face in, and he studied himself for a moment as he slicked back his hair. He had a crease between his brows, and it deepened as he willed himself to recognize the man before him. No matter how hard he stared, how much he concentrated, the man looked completely unfamiliar. "Who are you?" he asked the reflection. The man in the mirror had no answer.

He reached over to grab his old, tattered clothes, and inadvertently caught the ragged coat by its hem. As he lifted it, something fell from the pocket onto the floor with a metallic clink. It was a small gold-framed mirror, and he considered it for a second as he bent to pick it up, wondering why it was in his pocket. The back was filigree, quite beautifully wrought. It must be worth something, he thought. He turned the mirror around.

The mirror caught the light from a window, shining it into his eyes, and for a moment the wolf was surrounded by white. Something like an arrow of light seemed to pass from the window to the mirror, from the mirror to his eyes. For a moment he was blinded by it, then by sparkles and after-images, until he was left staring into the glass, with a rush of sound and light, seeing himself, seeing into his own green eyes
into eyes
his
my
eyes
staring at
a
very
fine
chap
falsely imprisoned trumped-up charge Virginia's suitor her BETROTHED bad so many bad things want to change want to be a GOOD person food substitute for love have the books to prove it ROMANTICALLY RECKLESS DANGER with the fur not against it not what you seem you are a wolf a lonely path in life to be different we'll never find her all my fault IT WAS MY FAULT the moon makes me hungry for EVERYTHING burnt my parents good the good people the nice farmers like the gypsy said A GIRL DEAD A WOLF BURNS remember me all nice please FOREVER have to kill yourself the moment SHE'S GONE your life won't be worth living A WOLF MATES FOR LIFE not your first boyfriend stupid enough to think a girl like her an ANIMAL LIKE ME eight nine twenty four seventy two commmiinng we are both different a NOBLE wolf who saved the Nine Kingdoms VIRGINIA I
could
follow
your
scent
across
TIME
itself

I could...

Virginia, I could...

VIRGINIA

I'm a wolf. I know these things.

I KNOW THESE THINGS

"I know," Wolf gasped, his legs buckling.

~*~*~

Gigi stared at herself in the large oval mirror. The gown was beautiful, white with just enough gold crystals to catch the light and make the entire thing shimmer. In her entire life, even as the privileged child of a lord, she'd never had a dress like this. Never even seen the like.

"You look very beautiful, my lady."

Gigi looked down at the chubby little elf who was sewing the last part of the hem. "Thank you."

"You'll make a lovely bride, too. Can't wait to start work on that dress! Ohhh, you're so fortunate, you are, to marry the prince! What a handsome fellow he is, isn't he?"

"Yes, I suppose."

The seamstress clucked at her. "You suppose! Oh, my, that's a funny one!"

"Is it." Gigi wished she felt more excited. Everyone else seemed to be. The entire palace was filled with servants who bobbed and smiled at her, wishing her happiness, fixing, doing, pampering, primping her, readying her for the ball. For her prince.

Their good wishes and excitement were not contagious, at least not to her. Not for a moment did she imagine the queen merely planned to see them married and then retire to the country. What she was planning remained a mystery, as was her statement, You have it, too, though, you don't know it. Both disturbed her greatly.

But as for Wendell... well, that part seemed straightforward enough. Perhaps she could do no better than to marry him. Perhaps she was wrong about him — maybe his standoffish manner towards her had been a front to cover, what? Shyness? A deep affection for her? Well, she supposed, stranger things had happened. Perhaps this was what was meant to be. Perhaps this was destiny.

She frowned as the word came into her head. She was sick of hearing about "destiny." It smacked too much of "duty," and she'd sworn she'd never return to do any duty that her father had demanded of her. Yet here she was, getting ready to be betrothed to someone her father had picked. When the man she wanted was so close, yet completely out of reach.

She looked toward the door. Would she ever see Wolf again? Was he going to remain in the palace? The thought of encountering him, daily, in the corridors, was unthinkable. What would she say to him? What would she do?

Or maybe the situation would never arise. Perhaps Wolf would accompany the queen when she left for her own, new lands, or wherever she was headed. He'd certainly seemed devoted enough to the queen. Maybe he'd meant to bring Gigi here all along. It certainly looked that way.

Both lines of thought depressed her. If it was hard to imagine running into Wolf when he didn't care for her at all, it was harder still to imagine never seeing him again.

"There — last stitch!" The elf straightened up, grunting, and hung her little silver scissors around her neck. "Don't you look as beautiful as Snow White herself!"

"Thank you." Gigi tried to muster up a smile. "You did a lovely job."

"Oh, now, your Ladyship." The elf blushed. "I'll leave you now. Don't sit down — you'll muss the beading!" she ordered. She curtseyed once and left.

Gigi wandered to a window. The window was small and the ground seemed very far away, and she was reminded of another of the Five Women Who Changed History. "If only my hair were longer," she mused, "I could climb down and escape." She looked at her short bob in the mirror. "No chance of that, I guess."

"Ahem."

She turned. The discreet cough came from behind the gloved hand of a lord she hadn't seen before, a youngish man with an impeccable if colorful uniform. "Yes?"

"Your ladyship, Lord Rupert de la Tours de Namours, at your service."

"Lord Rupert."

"Ahem, His Highness, the most puissant Prince Wendell, requests your presence, if you would be so kind as to accompany me...?"

"Oh." Well, the moment had to come sooner or later. Probably best to get the meeting over with. "Of course, Lord Rupert."

"Allow me to lead the way, my lady." Rupert snapped his fingers and a servant opened the door. As they stepped through he turned to her. "I do hope you like the decorations. I was up all night deciding what color the candles should be. I felt it important that they compliment your coloring. Aha. You have blue eyes. I thought so. Are you a 'spring?'"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I'm certain it will be to your liking. I chose as my theme, 'Veiled Radiance.' You'll see. Lots of —Ah, here is His Highness."

Rupert had completed a deep bow and was backing away before Gigi perceived that Wendell was standing in front of them.

And not just Wendell. He was flanked by two people. Her father and the queen.

Lord Anthony, Viscount of the Western Mountains, stood resplendent in a new suit of blue velvet, his thinning reddish hair combed back from his face. Although he was a very tall man, Gigi noted with disgust that he was hunching over so as not to be taller than the prince. Typical. Sad to say, her father was a born toady.

The queen was in black, now, a cloak of heavy velvet that encased her like bats' wings. Her face was impassive, but her eyes were lively, and Gigi wondered what was going on in her head.

And Wendell — well, he looked quite handsome, that much was certainly true. He wore a beautifully cut white uniform, crisply pleated pants, a scarlet sash and a chest full of medals. Gigi wondered idly what he had done to merit the medals. Probably they were merely decorative. She suddenly felt guilty at the thought. Give him a chance, Gigi!

"Lady Virginia." Wendell bowed formally, his blond curls bobbing a little as he inclined his head.

"Your Highness." She curtseyed deeply. She looked down, as was the custom, and when her eyes rose, Wendell's hand was before her, offering to help her up. "Thank you, Your Highness."

"Lady Virginia—"

"— prefer 'Gigi,' if it please you, Your Highness. She couldn't help it. She didn't feel like a "Virginia"; it was such a terribly formal name. She heard her father make a disapproving sound, but chose to ignore him.

"How charming." Wendell still sounded his old formal self, and she kept her eyes down. Wendell cleared his throat. "Lady Gigi, I am most pleased you have agreed to become my wife. For many years I have felt a strong attraction to you, an attraction that has consumed me with a flame of passion—"

Passion? Wendell sounded like he was reciting a speech he had memorized, and not very well.

No, Gigi thought. This is not right. She took a deep breath. "Please tell me in your own words, Prince Wendell."

There was a rather loud gasp from Lord Anthony and a tsk-tsk from behind her — Lord Rupert, no doubt. But it was the queen who spoke. "Tell her how you really feel, Wendell."

It sounded like an order, but strangely a change came over Wendell.

"Gigi," he said, in a completely different voice, "I adore you. Marry me. Please. I cannot live without you."

"What?" The word popped out of her mouth before she could stop it. Wendell sounded sincere; more than that, he sounded utterly besotted. Well, this could change things. Maybe she could learn to care for him, at least, if not love him, if he cared this much for her. He had taken her hand, and she turned her face up to show him that she was willing to try, and looked up into his blue eyes —

—and a shiver passed through her.

His eyes were unfocused, empty, and though his mouth was curved into a smile, a broad smile that showed his perfect white teeth, it was clear that he, Wendell, was not really present. Horrified, Gigi looked beyond him, beyond the thing that looked and sounded like the prince, to where her father beamed with delight. To where the queen stood, a look of utter satisfaction on her face.

A look of power.

~*~*~

"You!"

He didn't know how long he had been there, on his knees before the rough plank table, head hanging limply, one hand still hooked over a chair, the other clutching the mirror. The voice, impatient, annoyed, came from the other side of the door, followed by banging, and it woke him from his stupor.

"Come on, don't take all day!"

Wolf lifted his head, breathing deeply. "Wh-what?" He felt lightheaded.

But not empty-headed. He remembered. He remembered!

"How long does it take you to change your clothes?"

He pulled himself upright. He knew where he was. He knew how he'd gotten there. And he knew why he'd been brought there.

"Get a move on!" The woman was becoming decidedly angry.

"Coming."

He squeezed the mirror once more, tightly, the swamp witches' mirror then put it in his pocket, in the pocket of the embroidered vest that matched the embroidered coat of the livery. The prince's livery... no, really, the queen's. He was the queen's servant, and she'd brought him to the kitchen to serve her. To do her bidding. To kill them. "To kill them all," Wolf whispered.

Well, huff-puff— he'd have to see about THAT.

If there still was time.


Chapter 26 ~ Alpha


The car sped along the winding road, gouging the shoulder as Mike took a curve too fast. Virginia clutched at the dashboard and lurched against the door. The huge car continued to hurtle recklessly through the corridor of trees. She wanted to say something, to urge him to slow down, but one glance at Mike's face convinced her to let it be. She struggled to put on the seatbelt.

His exuberant mood following the rescue had vanished, replaced by grimness. He was on a mission, a quest, with single-minded determination.

"Mike."

He glanced at her briefly. "Are you all right?"

"That's what I want to know about you. What's happened?"

The concern in her voice brought a wan smile to his lips. "You mean before or after I was kidnapped?"

She let out her breath. "What — was there an epidemic? Not by Regina —"

"My grandfather. Brought me out to the house by force. Got Hunter to do it."

"Hunter?"

"I don't think you've met him."

"I don't think I want to."

"No, you don't." He stared out at the dusky road and snapped on the headlights. "Virginia, I found out some very bad things, things about my father, what they did to him —and some truths about me. Some of THAT you already know, though how, I have no idea." He glanced at her. "If I thought I'd lost my mind before —" He turned back to the road. "William told me. All about my family. We're all —what you said. But more, he said we came from originally — I can't even tell you what he said, it's so unreal!"

"He told you you came through a mirror, from a place called the Nine Kingdoms."

The car swerved, but somehow he kept control. "How... how do you, how could you..."

She smiled and put a hand on his arm. "Because I've been there."

"Virginia — "

"I got there by accident. It seems like a dream even now, but it exists. It's a place where our fairytales come from. Sort of like a European country, castles, mountains. But there's magic, too, and the people who live there, some aren't even people at all, there are trolls —"

"Trolls," he repeated. "And wolves."

"Yes."

Mike seemed to consider his words carefully. "Wolf. That's where he was from, isn't it?"

"Yes." She paused, letting the pang strike her that always came at the thought of him. "That's where he came from." That's where he is.

"You know," he said in measured tones, "the horrible thing is, what we're talking about isn't even the worst of it. It's the lying, the crimes that have been committed. The people that I thought I knew. I mean, look at William. Hell, look at Regina. How could she have tried —"

Virginia shivered. "She's crazy. She's obsessed with you."

He shook his head. "It's like everything real has been turned upside down."

"Tell me about it."

"Everything except you, Virginia."

She smiled but said nothing.

"We're here." Mike turned the long black car into the driveway. In the dying light of evening the house was a forbidding monolith against the sky. Lights had been turned on along the length of the driveway and around the circumference of the large front yard.. There were a few people outside in the false light, some evidently heading for their cars, but as the limo approached they all stopped and watched. Mike pulled the limo into a space by the wall and turned off the engine. "Maybe you should stay in the car."

"Like hell I will."

"Virginia," he reached over and grabbed her hand. "I don't know what might happen. They're wolves, for God's sake. Real ones."

"I've handled a wolf before," she said.

"And very pleasant it was, too. But you know what I mean." Impulsively he leaned in and kissed her. "I love you." His eyes held hers. "I don't want to worry about you."

"You're always worried about me."

"Well, you get into a lot of trouble."

"Look who's talking." Virginia squeezed his hand. "Go. I'll be fine."

She watched as he got out of the car and crunched across the driveway to the portico, where he stopped to speak with someone. The other man stepped back, revealing his face in the overhead light. Robert. The two seemed to be arguing —at least Mike's posture was aggressive and she could hear a belligerent tone in his voice, though she couldn't hear the words clearly.

She couldn't stand it. She got out.

~*~*~

'I don't know," Robert was saying. "She just drove out of here about ten minutes ago. Really tearing up the road."

"Forget it. I'll deal with Regina later. Why didn't you tell me about them?"

"Take it easy, Mike—"

"I'd don't want to take it easy!"

Robert gestured and shifted his eyes away. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? My brother is an idiot and my sister is a law unto herself. We don't get along. I had no idea they were working there—"

"Really? And how long have they been doing Regina's dirty work?"

"I don't know — look, I don't keep tabs on them. I'm sorry."

"And what about you, Robert?" Mike leaned in, challenging the other man, and Robert backed away a little. "Are you working for her, too?"

"I —"

"Because if I ever found out you were part of that—"

"No way!" Robert seemed aghast at the thought. "She asked me to tell her where you went. That's all."

"That's all? Christ, Robert!"

"I had to." A pathetic, slightly whiny tone had crept into Robert's voice. "I can't explain; it's, it's complicated. I had to, okay? But believe me, Mike, I wouldn't have done anything to hurt Virginia."

Mike looked into Robert's face, seeing nothing to suggest the chauffeur was lying. "All right," he said grudgingly. "But this isn't over."

He shoved past Robert, who sagged weakly against a column, looking sick.

Mike pushed the heavy door open and it banged against the foyer wall, making the glass torches dance in their holders. He stayed in the doorway. A couple of the brokers were leaning against the wall in conversation, and looked up, startled, at the noise. "Where is he?" Mike demanded.

One opened his mouth to speak but a deep rumble cut him off.

"Right here."

William stepped into the hallway, flanked by Hunter, as usual, Mike thought sourly. "Where'd you go?" William asked, a challenge in his voice.

"Maybe you should ask Robert. He likes to follow me." His voice had become hoarse. What was it about his grandfather that made him want to pace? "I've been to see my mother."

"Oh. Why don't you come inside, Michael, and we'll talk—"

"No! You come outside, William." He looked over William's shoulder. "You and Hunter."

"Mike, don't be —"

"DO IT!" With that, Mike turned and went outside, leaving the others in stunned silence. There was a pause before anyone moved, and then, surprisingly, William headed for the door. The remaining men shifted uneasily. A moment after, Hunter followed.

Outside, Mike stepped to the middle of the lighted yard. He was dimly aware of Virginia, standing in the periphery of the light, but he couldn't think of her. Not right now...

"So what is this, Mike?" Hunter snorted. "What, are you calling us out, to some sort of gunfight?"

"Be quiet, Hunter." William remained on the portico steps. "All right. What's this all about?"

"I saw my mother, William. We talked about the day my father died."

William shook his head. "What's the point of dredging it up? I told you —"

"You told me lies." His restlessness got the best of him and Mike started to pace a little, working out his words as he moved. "You said he was depressed. Lie. He was angry, furious, in fact, William. At you. You wanted to take me away from them, didn't you? To live with you.." Mike stopped and fixed William with a stare that would have blistered anyone else. "Well, you got your wish."

"Yes, he was angry, both of them were. They didn't understand what was best for you."

"I'm not done. You said my mother was incapable of dealing with him, of living with a wolf. Lie. I remember, William. She was always there for me, and for him, too. She was so strong. She kept us together, while he dealt with his demons." Mike took a step towards the stone portico, and Virginia had the uncomfortable image of a gladiator looking up at the emperor, waiting for the lions to be released.

She looked around. Gradually the others had filtered out of the house, and were standing in a loose circle in the driveway. She picked out Robert, his ugly face intent on the scene before him. Was it true? Could he in fact be a troll, or descended from one?

"And finally, William, you say my father was so incapable of dealing with his nature that he had to end his life. Lie. The worst lie of all. That night, after they left here, there was something wrong with the car—"

"That's enough, Michael. I'm sorry you can't believe the truth. Your mother isn't well, you know that. She lives in a fantasy world."

"I believe her!"

"Michael, please." William lowered his voice. "Look, if you won't believe me, believe Hunter. He was as close to Thomas as anyone ever was. He saw some of those episodes, Michael. He tried to help your father through them."

Virginia followed William's gesture to the man at his right, a massively built blonde man with pale blue eyes and a hawk-like profile. Her heart lurched and her hands began to tingle. The huntsman! "Mike," she said in a strangled whisper, That's Hunter?"

He looked at her strangely. "Yes... what is it?"

"Him. He's... evil."

"What?" Mike's eyes widened, but he turned away from her.

"That's right, Mike, I saw him," Hunter was saying. "Your father seemed really upset that afternoon. More than usual. I tried to talk to him, but—"

"—Hunter..." Mike squared himself. "You were here?"

"Of course he was." William interjected impatiently. "Hunter was my driver then. We were all here together, your parents, Judith, Hunter. We were having a perfectly reasonable discussion until your—"

"—The last thing, William, the last thing my father said in the car, was 'I didn't really think he'd do it.' I didn't really think he'd do it. There was something terribly wrong with the car, something that was done to it. That's what he meant. That's what he said. She's never forgotten those words. No matter what else she's forgotten, no matter what else is wrong with her, my mother remembers the last moments before her husband died!" The edge of his voice was a knife slicing through the silence. "What do you think he meant by that, William?" His eyes left his grandfather and fixed on Hunter. "Did he tell you do it, Hunter, huh? Did you cut the brake line or screw up the transmission? What technique did you use? What did he offer you?"

Hunter paused, then smiled, though to Virginia's eyes he seemed a little uncertain. "This is crap, Mike, I never did anything. I liked Tom. If anything happened, it was his fault." Hunter jerked his head toward William, then stepped down onto the driveway, distancing himself from the white-haired man.

"No." William raised his head, looking at Hunter for a moment, then let his gaze fall on Mike again. "Thomas said that?"

Mike nodded. Something was happening to his grandfather's face. The craggy leather was changing, churning with barely controlled emotion. "I did not want your father dead. I loved him. I despaired for him, but I loved him, even as he was. I would have died instead of him, if only I could have." William sighed, a sound of profound sadness. "Believe me, Michael. Please."

Mike looked at the old man, searching for any sign of duplicity. He could find none. At length he spoke. "I do. I believe you." The old man closed his eyes and reached out a hand to steady himself on the stone pillar that held up the portico roof.

"But someone damaged the car."

Everyone turned to the new voice as Virginia stepped into the circle. She hadn't meant to speak, but the words had popped out of her mouth anyway. Mike reached out for her and she took his hand. William looked at her and smiled with resignation. "Miss Lewis." He inclined his head.

"Mr. Wolf." She nodded back, just as politely. Inside her stomach roiled and twisted.

"She's right." Mike said, seeking out at Hunter again. "Someone did it."

Hunter snarled at him. "This is ridiculous. I'm leaving."

Robert appeared from nowhere, blocking Hunter's path.

"No you're not." There was an unspoken command in Mike's voice. Virginia watched mutely as a few of the others moved, tightening the circle that now contained Hunter, Mike and herself.

Hunter stopped, looked at them and turned back to William with a short laugh. "This is bullshit, William, you know it!"

"Is it?" William's eyes were glowing with a strange light, and if Mike had never seen such a thing before, Virginia had. She caught her breath.

"Did you do it, Hunter? You were alone with that car the whole time we were inside. It would have been so easy for you to do it, wouldn't it? You're clever. You know about mechanical things. You could have. It must have been you who killed them." In the harsh overhead light William's face was an unreadable mask, his voice alone betraying his emotions. "What I don't understand is why, Hunter. You grew up with my son. You say you were his friend. Why would you do it?"

Hunter said nothing.

"You killed my son. I'll see that you pay for what you did—"

"I don't think so, William," Hunter said, a strange smile playing on his mouth.

Virginia grabbed Mike by the wrist.

The little silver gun was in Hunter's hand.

"Put that away, Hunter!" William's voice boomed from the portico.

"I don't think so," Hunter said again, his voice steady, now, even a little exultant. "Maybe you don't realize what I did for you, what I did for the company.' He gestured around the circle with the gun. "For all of you."

"For you, you mean!" Mike snapped.

"Come on, Mike. Face reality. Your father was weak, everyone knew it. And you're just like him, all fucked up. You don't have what it takes to run this company, to be the leader. You don't have the balls."

"And you do, I suppose?" Mike stepped forward and Virginia put up a hand to hold him back, but he shook her off. He seemed possessed of a resolute intensity that had only now, in this confrontation, come to the fore.

Hunter raised the little gun higher. "Yeah, I do, Mike." He turned his head sharply to William. "Look how I outsmarted all of you! For twenty years! And why, William? You didn't think I was clever enough? Kept me back, doing little odd jobs for you? Driving your car...! Did you think that was all I could do?" Virginia could hear petulance in the harsh voice.

"You had your place here, Hunter."

"My 'place!' What did I have to do to prove myself, William? What couldn't you see in me? I shouldn't have to prove myself, not to you. Your father was a thief, a criminal! My grandfather was a king! A king! And my grandmother — she was a legend. Your father stole my birthright, William. I could wait, though, wait till after your time. You know that I should've been the next. I deserved it. I should've had it, should've been next, not Tom. Not your precious, pathetic Tommy."

"Why did you have to kill him? He was no threat to you, Hunter!" Mike stepped closer. "He didn't want any part of Thurson/Wolf. No way was he going to take over."

"Oh really?" Hunter sneered. "Ask your grandfather about that, Mike. Never gave up hope, did you, William?"

The old man met his gaze. He stepped down from the portico, closer to Mike. "On his worst days, he was better than you, Hunter," he said evenly.

Hunter's face went white and Virginia saw his mouth tighten. "Well. That's about what I expected from you. So stupid, so short-sighted, old man. And now you want him to follow in your miserable footsteps?" He laughed bitterly. "Well think again, William, because I'm removing him from consideration."

"No!" William's voice quavered and cracked. " Not Michael. Not him too, Hunter!"

"I make the rules now, William!" The silver gun came up, to point directly at Mike. Virginia watched, frozen with horror, as the finger on the trigger began to tighten.

There was a sudden movement to her left, a blur of white and gray, that coincided with the crack of the gun. She heard a muffled cry, and something fell heavily to the ground at her feet. It seemed an eternity before her brain comprehended what her eyes were seeing: William, crumpled, blood pouring from his chest, white hair awry, twitching and gasping. All around them, people froze in place, mouths agape, as their leader lay in a bloody heap before them. "Not... Michael..." he gasped, and fell silent.

Hunter stared at William too. "Shit," he muttered.

Someone began to moan, a terrifying keening sound, Sylvia Gray, moving, the only person in motion, rushing to kneel by William.

"I didn't mean—" Hunter began uncertainly. And then his face hardened. "Just as well, I guess," he said, the gun rising again, seeking his target. "Time for a hostile takeover."

Sylvia uttered one plaintive sob, and Hunter's attention was caught by the sound, his eyed flicking away for a millisecond. And then Mike was moving too, rushing at him, shouting/growling/roaring in fury, and the gun cracked again, and Mike jerked and spun around, and Virginia was screaming in her head Let it just be his bad knee, he just twisted it as he ran, but she knew better, knew different from the way he moved, and now she was screaming his name aloud, running up to him as he began to fall backwards, breaking his fall, and all she was aware of was the startled look on Mike's face and blood, blood on him, blood on her hands, blood seemingly everywhere.

Things moved with deceptive slowness. She was on the ground now, holding Mike, and he was alive, struggling to get up and Hunter was moving towards them, his gun still trained on his target, and she closed her eyes, knowing what was coming, and that there was nothing, nothing anymore she could do to stop it from coming.

And then, then, a voice, from near the ground, Sylvia's voice, no longer keening, flat and emotionless and heavy, "He's dead. William is dead."

A murmuring, a rustling started, a sound that seemed to come from everywhere at once. Around her the others were moving now, too, swaying, shifting, blurring, changing, bodies altering form, becoming their deadly form, and a sound went up that froze Virginia's blood, the sound of many wolves growling deep in their throats. Before her terrified eyes twenty wolves advanced toward their prey, a pack acting as one, closing in, fangs exposed, eyes glittering, a feral roar drowning out Hunter's shrieks as they fell upon him.


Chapter 27 ~ Time


Troll dust, troll dust, troll dust...

Wolf frantically rummaged through the contents of the pantry shelves, all the while casting worried glances over his shoulder. Time was running out — if things followed the path he expected, the queen could arrive at any moment to test the poisonous brew meant to give her guests a headache for eternity. He'd already ditched the real poisons — now all he needed to do was locate the substance that would knock everyone out convincingly... but only temporarily.

Living through this particular situation for the second time was strangely just as anxiety-provoking as the first time. At least this time around Wolf knew which of the loathsome ingredients in the punch were poisonous, and which were meant to mask the taste of the poisons. Even the slug-worm waiting to be wrestled into the brew was a legitimate flavor additive. He shivered. There were some miiiiiiighty strange cooks out there, dreaming up recipes disgusting enough to make a grown wolf shudder. "If I were chef here, I'd serve nothing but lamb!" he muttered, flinging bottles and jars aside. "Okay, and pork, and chicken, and maybe some of that steak tartare I saw on the menu at the Grill on the Park —"

Well, if he ever wanted to get back to the Grill, with his tastyyummysucculent Virginia in tow, he'd better get about the substitution — ah! There it was. He grabbed the canister of troll dust and slid over to the huge cauldron, liberally dosing the bubbling brew with it. Just a soupcon more —

Footsteps! Quickly he thrust the canister under a mound of dirty cloths and picked up the giant stirring spoon. Just in time. The queen stepped through the doorway, her eyes seeking out her new and loyal servant. "My wolf," she murmured, simpering.

He smiled and touched his brow in a salute. "All present and correct."

~*~*~

"Can't you see what's happening?"

"Lower your voice, Virginia. Ladies do not scream."

"Father! There's something wrong with him, he's possessed or something — she did something to him!"

"Don't be ridiculous." Lord Anthony frowned at his wayward daughter and peeked out of the chamber doorway. Good; no one of merit was in the corridor. Even that nosy Lord Rupert seemed to have disappeared. "Just keep your voice down, girl, or they'll think we're savages."

"Savages?!!" Gigi's voice was filled with sarcasm. "They're worse than that, father. Don't you see what's going on here?"

"No, I do not, unless you mean my only child making a spectacle of herself and ruining her chances of becoming a queen!" He shut the door and turned, scowling. "Are you trying to ruin my life as well? Haven't you damaged your reputation enough, running off with those gypsy vermin? Good gracious, Virginia! Do you hate me that much?"

Gigi tried to calm herself down, but only succeeded in drawing her voice down into a harsh whisper. "You! It's always about you, isn't it, Father? Always trying to get over on your betters. Can't you see, for once, that they aren't our betters? They're all a bunch of pretentious fops and fools —"

"Hush! That's treason! The queen will hear you!"

"It's the truth! She's worse than all of them. She's evil, Father! Don't you remember what she's done? They sent her to prison because —"

"Lies! All lies!" Lord Anthony dismissed her words with a flip of his hand, and Gigi stared at him incredulously. Had her father lost all contact with reality? "Those rumors were exaggerated, Virginia. I know you are far too young to understand, but politics determine how people are vilified when they are no longer able to defend themselves. Anyway, she and Wendell seem to have made peace with each other, whatever happened in the past."

"You mean like her murdering his parents?"

"Quiet!" Anthony grabbed his daughter by the shoulders, shaking her a little. Gigi gave a little gasp, and the violence of his actions seemed to shock her father into regaining control of himself. He let go of her; almost as an afterthought he patted her hand. When he spoke again, there was a wheedling sound in his tone that made Gigi want to scream. "My dear, try to understand. The queen has taken an interest in you... and in me." A sly smile spread across his face. "She really is a wonderful woman. Very accomplished. Astonishing resemblance to your mother, don't you think?" The smile became giddy, and Gigi stared at her father, realizing that the fatuous fool before her was as enchanted as Wendell.

But not with magic. Her father's delusions were self-inflicted.

"I don't remember Mother all that well, Father," she said, as calmly as possible, "but I doubt she went around murdering people."

"That's enough. I won't hear another word from you." Gigi's father turned to stalk towards the door.

"What did she promise you?"

"None of your business. Now get ready —the ball begins shortly."

"Do you really think the queen would be interested in you?" She flung the words at him like knives, hoping to strike her target. To make him hear her. "Does she know that the Viscount of the Western Mountains began life as a digger of cesspools?"

His long legs spanned the space between them in two strides and the slap to Gigi's stunned face echoed in the sparsely-furnished chamber. "How dare you talk to me like that! How dare you."

Gigi felt the intense sting of her cheek but could not move. Tears came to her eyes, though not from the blow. Is this the only way we can reach each other? Pain for pain? "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Father." She held out her arms, reaching to hug him.

He stepped back. "Get ready," Lord Anthony said as he left the room.

The door closed. Gigi crumpled onto a settee and began to sob.

~*~*~

Coaches. Dignitaries. Royalty. Gifts. Pomp and circumstance. The castle was ablaze and abuzz with activity.

In the ballroom, Lord Rupert bustled about, verging on hysteria, tweaking the details, driving the servants to muttering loudly under their breaths as they moved, removed, altered, shifted and replaced at his command. "Something's missing!" he fussed. "Not enough 'flash!' Not enough glimmer! Not enough sparkle!" He began to pace. Not enough time! At this late hour, where would he find such an intangible thing? "Ruined, ruined!" he moaned. "The Ball will be a disaster!"

"Er, sir?" Rupert turned to find a tiny servant at his elbow. "If you want more sparkle and flash, I don't suppose you'd want to add some mirrors —"

"Mirrors!" Rupert glowered at the man. "Oh, tush. Don't be ridiculous! Mirrors are so..." His eyes narrowed, sight drifting inward as the picture began to form in his mind — light! Glorious, sparkling, glimmering — "Genius!" Rupert cried. "I am a genius! You —I have an idea. Get me some mirrors!"

The small servant rolled his eyes. Nobility! Sheesh! "Yes, m'lord. I know just where to find 'em."

On a balcony above the dance floor, the royal musicians tuned, shined and re-tuned their instruments, mopped sweat off their foreheads and tugged at their coattails. Standing for five or six hours would be difficult enough —why, oh, why had they been made to wear these dreadful costumes? "I wish I were back playing for tips at the 'Piece o' Crumpet Pub,'" sighed the cornet player, running a finger under his stiff collar. "Ain't there some rule about this in the union handbook?" The viola de gamba player shrugged. "Sure; what do YOU care?" grumbled the cornet player. "You get to sit down!"

~*~*~

In her upstairs chambers, the queen raised one arched eyebrow and regarded herself in her mirror of truth. Perfection. But she wouldn't ask the Question. Not yet. Not until she was sure the answer would be, again, You are, milady. You are the fairest of them all. She passed her hand over her upswept hair and reached for the final ornament. A comb, enameled and bejeweled. A gift from her mentor, the last she would ever receive from her, since the Swamp Witch was now a pile of dust, thanks to that wolf in the kitchens. "Such a lovely comb," the queen murmured in a velvety contralto. "And so useful in a pinch!" She swept out of the chamber, oblivious to the servants, who bowed deeply as she passed.

~*~*~

Not far away, in a royal bedroom behind thick walls, guarded by three trolls, the future King Wendell sat in a velvet-covered chair, staring at a portrait of his grandmother. It seemed to him that there was something that he had to do, something he wanted to say, something he wanted to YELL—!

Sweat drops appeared on his forehead. He felt on the verge of knowing. Snow White stared back at him, as if willing him to act. He could almost hear her voice, urging him to do something—

//Resist, Wendell!//

His eyes opened wide. Yes, yes, he would resist. His knees began to straighten and he started to rise. He would go downstairs and tell everyone what was going on, that he'd been duped into—

You will do as I command.

Wendell sat back down. This voice was stronger, much stronger, and he could feel his will seeping away. Gigi. Think of Gigi, Wendell. You want her. She will be your reward. She will be your queen.

"I want her," he said in a flat tone. "Gigi will be my reward. Gigi will be my queen."

How much time was left?

Three floors below, Wolf finished pouring the punch into a silver bowl and covered it with a cloth. He felt confident that no one would touch it; after all, the queen had given express orders that no one but he come near it. The body of the cook had long since been dragged away into the pantry. The man would awaken shortly with a tremendous headache and a belief that he had been raised from the dead. But the queen would be none the wiser.

Wolf climbed up on a table and peered through a high window that overlooked the drawbridge. The carriages containing guests were still arriving. Perhaps there was still time to find Gigi, talk to her, try to explain what was going to happen.

He took the servants' stairs, skirted the main hallway and made his way up to the royal quarters. He passed a broom closet and bit his lip. No more mistakes this time.

There was a noise down the corridor and he pressed himself into a corner. A cadre of liveried servants were coming towards him, grunting under their burdens. Wolf backed into the broom closet, careful not to dislodge anything. He peered through a crack in the door and his mouth dropped open.

Mirrors!

The servants were carrying the huge mirrors that belonged to the queen, huffing and puffing with their weight. Where on earth were they going? The procession passed and Wolf slipped out of his hiding place and shadowed them.

The liveried army bore the mirrors to the balcony overlooking the ballroom. Lord Rupert was there to greet them, to move and guide them until the mirrors were placed JUST SO. What were they up to?

Wolf watched, fascinated, yet also horrified. It seemed, incredibly, that Rupert was using the mirrors as decorations, placing them to reflect light into the already brilliantly lit ballroom. Wolf rolled his eyes and whimpered in frustration. Huff-PUFF! Didn't Rupert know what dangerous objects he was playing with? Was the man an idiot?

Well... yes, he IS, Wolf reminded himself. Nevertheless I should warn the idiot, get those blasted mirrors covered or out of the way, or —

No time, no time. Find Gigi. Wolf ducked back into the hallway, following his nose. He peered around a corner, smelling trolls, and was rewarded by the sight of the three who had manhandled him in the queen's chamber. The trolls lounged against a door in various stages of inattention. One picked lice from her hair. One picked his misshapen teeth. Another picked his nose. Wolf's lip curled, but he passed on, his nose telling him Gigi was not behind the door they were guarding.

The castle was built along standard lines, a rectangle with corner turrets, and in one angle of the rectangle he caught a whiff of the delicate scent he'd been seeking. The trail took him to a narrow circular staircase that disappeared upwards. Gigi was in the Tower.

The upstairs hallway was smaller than the one below, the ceilings lower. There was only one door, and no guards. The scent was very strong. Wolf reached for the doorknob and found it locked—that's why there were no guards. He tapped and whispered loudly through the door. "Gigi?"

"Go away."

Wolf grinned. That's Gigi, all right! "Gigi, it's Wolf."

There was a long pause before her voice came again. "Go away!!"

Wolf's grin faded. "Gigi?"

"I don't want to see you. Leave me alone!"

"Don't be ridiculous. Hang on." Wolf looked at the locks—a crude bolt and a keyhole. Piece of cake. Sometimes a shady past came in handy. Wolf reached in his pocket and pulled out a fish fork, corkscrew and nut pick he'd grabbed from the kitchen. It took only a few minutes and little enough effort to fiddle with the keyhole until he felt the tumblers click. He shot back the bolt and opened the door.

Gigi stood before him in her shimmering white gown, her arms folded. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes glittered angrily. Wolf goggled at her. Angry or not, she was one spectacular sight. "Wow. You look... incredible," he blurted, his tongue starting to loll out of his mouth.

She raised her head and looked at him with disgust. "And now I suppose you've come to ravish me before you lock me up again and go back to your lady friend."

"No, I—what?" Wolf frowned. "What in the Nine Kingdoms are you talking about?"

"Right! Pretend you didn't arrange for me to be kidnapped!"

"I didn't!" Wolf whined, "How can you think that? I've come to tell you—"

"That you've been working for my father the whole time?"

Cripes, she was impossible! "Gigi. Please listen to me! I'm working downstairs —"

"For the queen?! I saw you with her. You're a liar, and you always have been, so I have nothing to say to you!" She turned and flounced away across the small tower room, her beaded gown glimmering in the candlelight.

Wolf stood silent for a moment, overcome by her sight, by how much she looked like Virginia. But there was no time to wallow. "Gigi," he began, holding his frustration in check, his voice placating, "there isn't much time. Please, just listen to me."

She had pressed herself against the far wall, her face in shadow. "Why should I?"

"Because a lot of people may die if you don't. You could die. I couldn't stand that."

That seemed to do the trick. Gigi remained silent, and Wolf went on, quickly, before she changed her mind. "I know you believe the worst of me, because of how I behaved in Kissing Town, and I know I can never make that up to you, but you must trust me when I tell you I am trying to stop the queen from taking power here. In a very short while a lot of dangerous things are going to happen, and I need you to trust me and do as I say, so that you and Wendell and the other people don't get hurt."

"She wants me to marry him."

It took Wolf a moment to follow her thought. "The queen? Wendell? Why would she want you to marry him?"

Gigi stepped away from the wall. Wolf could see she'd been crying. "She says she and Wendell made some sort of deal. She says he wants to marry me. But she's enchanted him, or convinced him or something. He's not himself."

"Yeah? Well, maybe that's an improvement," Wolf muttered, starting to pace. Why would the queen say that? What can she gain by saying that? Nothing... unless she's playing for time in some way... It was all very confusing. A different thought struck him. "Um...you don't want to marry Wendell, do you?"

"Of course not."

Good, good. He wasn't sure why, but he felt relieved. Then he felt guilty. Don't start all that stuff about Gigi again, Wolf. Remember Virginia! He shook his head, trying to get his focus back on the subject at hand. "I would take anything the queen says with a whole mountain of salt, Gigi."

"I do. But no one will believe me..." she moved closer and searched his face. "Except you."

"That's because I am extremely clever," Wolf quipped, smiling at her. Gigi returned the smile half-heartedly. "Don't worry. I have a plan."

"Yes, but will it work?" Gigi sounded doubtful.

"Well," Wolf replied, "it did the first time." Gigi looked confused. "Forget it. Just remember not to drink the punch. Or slap the queen."

"Slap the —?"

"And above all," Wolf said, taking her by the shoulders, his face serious, "stay away from any comb she might be wearing. It's poisoned. Be ready for anything. The key to it is to get her off-balance, so she believes she's won."

"And what happens then?"

"Er, that's the part of the plan I haven't figured out yet."

"Oh, great." She looked at him with a dubious expression.

There was a noise of fanfares from the courtyard below. Wolf turned towards the sound. "It'll be starting soon. I have to go."

"But — " Gigi grabbed at his sleeve, "don't you want me to come with you?"

"No, no, not yet. Stay here and pretend to do what they want. I'll see you in the ballroom. All right?"

"All right. Wolf —?"

He took a step towards the door and stopped. "Yes?"

"I couldn't bear it when I thought you were lying to me."

"Oh. Well, I'm glad I wasn't." He hesitated. There was something he'd been thinking about for some time, something he needed to say to her. He'd better say it now, while he had the chance, before things got crazy.

Gigi seemed to notice his hesitation. "What —what is it?"

"Kissing Town."

"What about it, Wolf?" She was watching him intently and Wolf struggled to meet her eyes.

"Well, um, I just wanted to say that, you know, if, if what we did there means that, that there's a —if you find out you're gonna have a little cub, well —"

"Wolf —"

"I just want you to know that even though I am not your mate, and even if I don't know exactly how I will do it, I will see to it that he gets whatever he needs—"

"Wolf, I—"

"—and that you never feel that—"

"WOLF!"

He blinked at her. "Yes?"

"There's no cub."

"Are you sure?" He took a deep sniff in Gigi's direction, and she smacked him in the chest and jumped back.

"Stop it, Wolf!"

"Just want to check. I wasn't sure—"

"Well, quit it. I'm sure." She regarded him squarely and took a deep breath of her own. "I've been thinking about Kissing Town, too, and I remembered. Believe me, there isn't, there couldn't, because we didn't."

Wolf's mouth dropped open. "We didn't? But, but, I thought..."

Gigi smiled at him sideways and blushed rosily. "Well, we did do some things... some rather naughty, rather... pleasant things..."

"Yeah..."

"...but..."

"But?"

"But, Wolf, when it came right down to it, we didn't do — IT. You couldn't. I... think you were too drunk."

"WHAAAAAT??!!"

Wolf looked aghast, and Gigi couldn't help it; she giggled, then covered her mouth, unsuccessfully trying to hide her amusement at his obvious chagrin. "Sorry, Wolf. But that's what happened."

"You're sure?"

"Absolutely."

"Oh." He looked utterly crestfallen. "And I call myself a wolf."

"Cheer up," Gigi went on, patting him on the chest. "If it makes you feel any better, I still think you were wonderful."

"Humph. Thanks."

"And you could still consider it cheating..."

"Yeah, okay, thanks a lot." Wolf sighed. "I'd better go before you cut off my tail, too."

His further thoughts were drowned in the sound of herald trumpets. The ball was about to begin. No time, no time left at all. "I have to go. Remember what I said."

"Good luck." Impulsively Gigi grabbed him and kissed him on the cheek.

Wolf smiled ruefully as he closed the door, then bolted down the steps.

Time. Destiny.


Chapter 28 ~ Rhyme


Agatha Shnecken frowned and grunted as she slipped one hand under the armpit of her ancient charge and hoisted the old woman into an armchair. Agatha wrinkled her nose. The aged woman had that musty "old person" smell, and now was settling into the chair with a disgustingly phlegmy wheeze.

On the other side of the chair, Agatha's mirror image, her twin sister Ermentrude, rolled her eyes and mimed stabbing the old woman in the back with an invisible dagger. Agatha swallowed a wicked giggle. The old lady for whom they acted as ladies-in-waiting, nursemaids and slops bearers was cranky, spiteful and stubborn as an old mule. As an employer she was a nightmare.

She was also, however, one of the most beautiful women in the Nine Kingdoms. The ancient wheezer in the chair was Queen Cinderella, the last of the Five Women Who Changed History.

Agatha surveyed the glittering crowd as one by one they approached to curtsy, bow, genuflect or grovel before the chair. Pah! It was bad enough being the step grand-niece of Cinderella on a normal day; on occasions like this one, Prince Wendell's Coronation Ball, it was very nearly intolerable.

For about the eight-millionth time in her unattractive life, Agatha cursed her maternal great-grandmother. So what if Gisela van der Vlox had been one of Cinderella's step-sisters; did Agatha and Ermentrude have to suffer for it so many years later?

Well, Agatha reasoned, wrinkling her over-large nose in disgust again and squinting her undersized eyes at the back of Cinderella's head, this life of servitude can't last forever! Cinderella was one hundred ninety-eight years old (though publicly she only admitted to one hundred sixty-seven) — surely she'd have to kick the bucket sometime soon!

In the meantime, Agatha folded her fleshy arms and sighed again. It just wasn't fair that the old hag still looked to be about forty years of age and remained as glamorous, flirtatious and powerful as ever. Well, her past gave her the power, but Cinderella's lustrous red hair was a wig, her figure was courtesy of an intricate series of corsets, and her face, well, that only proved the power of a keeping a good wrinkle wizard on the payroll. Agatha leaned over to Ermentrude and cackled, "I hope her teeth fall out when she bows to Wendell!"

"What? What's that?"

Damn. Cinderella's hearing was pretty sharp for an old bag. "Nothing, Your Majesty. We were just, ah, chuckling over the Naked Emperor."

"Humph," Cinderella wheezed, her still acute eyesight picking out the naked man surrounded by servants and huge feather fans. "I remember his grandfather. Now there was a man who should be naked. This one looks like ten pounds of lard in a fifty-pound pig's bladder. Mwahahah — ackkk."

Agatha and Ermentrude gagged as Cinderella coughed up a particularly large glob of phlegm. Ermentrude held out a handkerchief and looked away as the queen spit into it.

Agatha shuddered.

"Where's Wendell?" Cinderella asked crankily, wrinkling her perfectly smooth brow.

~*~*~

Rupert was in his element. He stood at the top of the entrance staircase, awaiting the next arrival, and gazed about the ballroom with pride. The mirrors, with their silvery glow, had added just the right touch to complete the decorations. He stifled a giggle. Wendell would be so pleased!

There was a fanfare, and he snapped out of his ecstatic reverie as the next arrival appeared at his elbow. Rupert glanced at the tall figure in the dark blue uniform and smiled at a fellow member of Wendell's Privy Council. "Viscount Gregor Lansky!" he announced. There was mild applause in response.

The other man bowed to the crowd but didn't descend the stairs. Instead, he grabbed Rupert's arm and pulled him to the side. "She's here, Rupert!." he said angrily.

Rupert pursed his lips. "'She?' Oh, Queen Cinderella —oh, yes! There she is, over —"

Lansky frowned. "No—Wendell's step-mother. The Lord Chancellor told me Wendell brought her here. What on earth was he thinking?"

"I know. Wendell told me. Really, Gregor." Rupert laughed at the other man's stern countenance. "They've kissed and made up."

"It's hardly a laughing matter, Rupert. The woman is dangerous!"

"Don't be silly. Wendell has her well in hand."

"Does he, indeed? I wonder... who is in the palm of whose hand?"

Rupert flicked an invisible speck from his lilac uniform jacket, then brushed Lansky's golden epaulets. "Tush, Gregor. Fuss, fuss, fuss! You're always imagining the worst. Relax! Have some punch! Have fun! Wendell's going to be king tonight!" And with that merry pronouncement, Rupert sailed away to greet Young King Cole as he made his entrance.

Lansky stood silently a moment, his eyes on the empty throne across the room. "Will he, indeed, be king?" he wondered aloud. "Or will someone else be pulling his strings?"

Within a draped doorway on the other side of the ballroom, the queen watched the scowling man in blue, her eyes considering him shrewdly. She turned to the man by her side. "That one must be killed, straightaway."

"If that is what you wish, Your Majesty," the huntsman said, with a little bow. "But perhaps we should wait."

"Indeed? Waiting is very difficult."

"Patience is a virtue, my lady. I assure you, none shall escape." To bring home the point he patted the bow hanging over his shoulder.

She flashed her eyes at him. "See that they don't."

~*~*~

"Lord Anthony, Viscount of the Western Mountains, and his daughter, the Lady Virginia!"

Rupert's voice rang from the staircase and Gigi stepped out next to her father. A murmur of voices greeted them. Next to her, her father beamed and waved at the crowd. He was loving this, the recognition. He'd even insisted that they enter fashionably late —he had no idea that arriving SO much after Cinderella was an enormous faux pas. Her father was clueless, Gigi realized with sadness tinged with scorn, and would be so for his entire life.

The ballroom was packed with the cream of the nobility: elfin princesses, dwarf barons, assorted kings, queens, ambassadors and dignitaries from the farthest reaches of the Nine Kingdoms. Gigi looked around. She had been to several fancy balls before, but now she felt as she imagined Cinderella must have on that fateful night, perched in her glass slippers — out of place, masquerading as one of them, but secretly wondering if anyone would see through her disguise.

There'd been a time when she would have played her part docilely, not acknowledging that there were any other choices to made for her life. But the events of the day, and her experiences over the last few weeks, had stripped away the last illusions that she was meant for a life as a member of the idle rich. People lived and died and suffered and experienced real joys and vicissitudes outside these walls, while inside the insulated nobility danced their lives away. This life was no longer one she could abide. To her it would not be living at all.

Anthony hadn't spoken to his daughter since their argument, but he held her arm tightly now. He would steer her to her destiny, whether she liked it or not, and he'd never give her the opportunity to run away again. As they descended the staircase, Gigi let her eyes roam around the room, seeking Wolf. She couldn't see him, though there were plenty of others clad in the livery of the palace. What do I do, Wolf? When do you appear?

When will it be time to act?

~*~*~

Time. Time. Time. Wolf's heart began to pump a little faster. Time to go, time to be a hero, time to rescue everyone, foil the queen's plans, save the Nine Kingdoms — Cripes! Anything else? No wonder he was nervous.

In the hallway outside the ballroom he slipped on the velvet coat and picked up the gloves that would complete his servant's disguise. The queen's silk scarf still bound his hand, and he began to unwind it. Hopefully the cut had stopped bleeding by now...

What's this? He stared at his palm. Nothing, no cut or wound of any kind. But, but. he'd felt the cut pull against the scarf as the blood had dried. He'd definitely experienced a sting in his palm while he'd polished all that silver; so how could it be completely healed so soon?

It was a mystery, all right, but a minor one, in the vast scheme of things. Destiny awaited. He pulled on the gloves.

Wolf rolled the cart to the entrance to the ballroom, awaiting his cue. His eyes sought out the sparkling mirrors on the balcony above the stairs. The glass, the traveling mirror, that was what he should be concentrating on. He'd better establish which one was the correct mirror, because he'd had enough of close encounters with other mirrors to last him a lifetime.

He looked around. Snow White would be a welcome sight just about now.

She failed to materialize, however. Instead, a fanfare sounded, followed by the pear-shaped tones of Wendell's majordomo announcing the arrival of a very special guest.

"Ladies and gentlemen, lords and ladies, we all know of the Five Women Who Changed History: His Highness' grandmother Snow White, the Lady Rapunzel, Gretel the Great, Sleeping Beauty — and now I present to you the last living of those Five Women, The Dancing Queen herself, the Slipper Supreme — Queen Cinnnnnderella!"

From his vantage point across the room, Wolf watched as a beautiful red-haired woman appeared at the top landing and opened her arms to the crowd, who went mad with cheering and applause. Well, he thought, it IS pretty amazing. She must be two hundred, if she's a day, and she's still pretty tasty looking! Imagine; the last of the Five Women—

Wait. What had Lord Rupert said? Snow White, Gretel, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty?

"Huff-puff, Sleeping Beauty? That's not right!" Wolf exclaimed. "That's wrong! Sleeping Beauty wasn't one of the Five Women! What about Red Riding Hood?"

He'd spoken louder than he'd intended, and a chubby little elf with scissors on a ribbon around her neck clucked next to him and interjected, "Red Riding Hood? That's a name I haven't heard in a while. Why would she be one of the Five Women?"

"Well," Wolf said, somewhat at a loss to explain, "She was queen of the Second Kingdom —"

"What a silly thing to say! She abdicated her throne, didn't she, must be over a hundred years ago. Left the place in chaos."

"No, she..." Wolf trailed off, confused. He cast his sharp eye around the room. There was no honey-blonde ice queen dressed all in red. No sign of the current descendant of the famous — or infamous, in his opinion — Riding Hood. "But...what about Riding Hood III? She should be here—"

The elf chuckled. "Riding Hood III? Don't be daft! That old kingdom's under the protection of Prince Wendell." She looked at him carefully. "Are you new here?"

"No. . .well, yes. Not really. Maybe. I don't know..."

"You don't know?" Wolf shrugged helplessly, his mind back on Wendell. The elf moved away, looking warily over her shoulder.

The coronation seemed to be going extremely smoothly for Wendell. He faced his noble associates calmly, if a little dispassionately, and answered by the book the first two questions put to him. Wolf found his attention wandering, as the elf queen posed a challenge and Wendell proclaimed his wisdom by greeting his visitors in five languages and quoting the wise deeds of Snow White. There was no talk of bones, and that made sense, Wolf concluded; Wendell hadn't been a dog all that long, had he?

And then Queen Briar Rose III was roused from her beauty sleep to challenge Wendell on his valor. Wolf looked with interest at the young woman, a dark-haired lovely who yawned hugely through her question. No Riding Hood III, eh? Well, thought Wolf, that's no detriment to society. Meanwhile Wendell was addressing the question of his bravery by reciting chapter and verse of his military studies, and describing his prowess as a hunter. Wolf suddenly was all ears. Wendell's speech was not remarkable for what he said, but for what he didn't say.

He didn't say he'd killed the troll king.

Wolf felt his attention snap towards the throne again. He hadn't fought the troll king... because the trolls were not at war with the Fourth Kingdom!

"Huff-PUFF, what's happening?" Wolf said to himself, scratching madly at his temple. Yet another example of how things were different this time. He fought a wave of panic. How different were things going to get? Could he trust the potion he'd concocted? Maybe he was about to murder a hundred members of the nobility! "Calm down, calm down, Wolf," he cautioned himself, fighting the urge to hyperventilate. Okayokayokay; so things were different. So the trolls weren't at war. So much the better. So Wendell hadn't been a dog very long — lucky Wendell. What did it matter if there were no Red Riding Hood, if Acorn hadn't recognized him, if Gigi and Lord Anthony hadn't existed before, if Virginia had never come through the glass—

Sweat broke out on his forehead. What did it MATTER?! It mattered a great deal! The total sum of these alterations to history proved that more was wrong here, more changed, than could be accounted for by mild variations in timing and coincidence. Basic, fundamental things were different this time—

—or was it that they were different in this PLACE?

Wolf came to a complete stop; panting, scratching, twitching, muttering, all of it ceased at once. Only his mind percolated on. Of course. Of course. Now that he considered it, it was astonishing to him that he had not concluded the obvious truth the first time history had diverged. He was not back where he had started. He was somewhere else, in some other Nine Kingdoms, populated by another Wendell, Cinderella, Acorn, Riding Hood, troll king, evil queen—

But how could that be? How had he found his way here? Did he even know if he was who he thought himself to be?

The question induced dizziness and Wolf leaned on the cart, trying to reason it out. I must be. I remember Virginia. My Virginia—

Oh no! He felt in imminent danger of returning to the desperate thoughts he'd entertained outside the prison, when he'd wondered if Virginia had been a dream.

All right, all right, Wolf thought feverishly, staring into the punch bowl but seeing only the images in his mind. Let's assume I am who I am, but that this is not my Nine Kingdoms. How did I get here, and how do I get out? How do I find Virginia? And why am I here in the first place?

Crushing doubts filled him. Did it really matter now that he had saved the boy wolf, the future hero, if Bedros was not going to save his wolves, Wolf's people in his own reality?

//Yes.//

The voice was outside his brain, and Wolf whirled. Snow White shimmered in front of him. "Am I sleeping?" He didn't think he was, but events were making him doubt his own consciousness.

She smiled at him. "You are quite awake. And it did matter. Just as what you do next will also matter."

"And what's that?" He wasn't being a smart-aleck; he really was at a loss.

"Remember what I told you."

Damn this enigmatic commentary. "I need a little more direction, here."

She shook her head. It was disconcerting, Wolf thought, to be able to see the ballroom through Snow White. Finally she spoke. "Wolf — perhaps by your actions you can gather the fragments and make them one again. I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"I'm hopeful."

"Well, can't you fix it? I mean, if you know how to do it—"

"I'm insubstantial, Wolf. I exist between the reflections—" She stopped herself and sighed. "I can't tell you any more. My time is running out." She gestured down at herself and Wolf realized she was more tenuous than ever, more transparent. "But whatever happens, you must finish what you came here to do."

"Can you be a little more specific?" Wolf hopped from foot to foot with nervous frustration. "Is it the same as last time?"

"Just remember your pasts." And with that she faded away.

Wolf gaped at the empty space where she had been, able to see quite clearly the congratulatory throng swarming about Wendell as he successfully completed his answer. "Remember my past?" He tugged at his hair. No, wait — she'd said his pasts, plural. What had she meant?

//The sound of wind-chimes and splintering glass//

Splinters... seeing himself reflected over and over in an infinite variety of lives—

His eyes went again to the huge mirrors on the balcony. Perhaps by your actions you can gather the fragments...

But whatever was required, there was no time to do it right now. The music swelled for the Cinderella Waltz — Wolf's cue. He wheeled the cart into the ballroom, and began to hand out goblets filled with very special punch.

~*~*~

The song ended. The ancient but beautiful Cinderella wobbled back to her throne and was seated by two hideous women in puffy silver wigs. Wolf retreated to the base of the steps to wait for the toast. Okay, here's the plan, Wolf: drug everybody, then in the chaos rescue Gigi, grab Wendell and smack some sense into him (he really liked that part of the plan!) throw the queen in chains, disarm the huntsman, turn them over to Wendell and his lords, then head for the mirrors, before anyone can stop you. Simple.

He frowned. Not much of a plan. Besides, it didn't address the fact that he really had no idea if Virginia were on the other side of the traveling mirror or not. And Gigi — what was he to do with her?

The Lord Chancellor pounded his staff. "Ladies and Gentlemen, honored guests, I give you His Majesty, King Wendell Winston Walter White!" The crown encircled the curly blond locks. The crowd cheered. Wendell stood and waved to the crowd. Wolf crossed to him and pressed a goblet into his hand, a very specific goblet, for it alone was not filled with the punch, but with innocent wine. Wolf nodded but couldn't help winking at the king. Wendell ignored him.

"Let's have the toast!" someone cried.

"Yes! Yes! Let's have the toast!" the crowd bellowed.

"One moment."

A hundred pairs of eyes snapped to the king as he put up a hand to stop their cheers. "Dear friends," Wendell said, sounding smooth and assured, and every inch the king he now was officially, "before the toast, I ask your indulgence."

Uh oh, Wolf thought.

"My fellow nobles, brother and sister royals, let me use this occasion to share with you my great joy. For tonight marks not only my ascension to the throne of the Fourth Kingdom, but also my betrothal to the fairest in the land, the very noble Lady Virginia of the Western mountains, who has agreed to become my wife!"

There was a buzz of voices and an explosion of delighted applause, as the woman in question was pushed forward to stand next to her intended. Wolf stared, quite overcome by the sight of her and feeling strangely jealous. Gigi looked flushed and embarrassed as the king took her hand. Gigi looked around the room, everywhere except at Wendell. Her eyes caught Wolf's and rested there a moment before passing on. Lord Anthony was making a bit of a spectacle of himself, glad-handing everyone in his path as he pushed his way towards the platform. He stood beaming at the crowd, waving and posturing, though no one was actually paying him any attention.

"A toast to the bride and groom!" a man naked except for his crown shouted. Glasses were raised again, and this time the king raised his own. Gigi was holding a goblet, too, but seemed unaware that it was in her hand. She looked beautiful, Wolf thought, but rather as if she were about to cry.

"A health to our king and his bride, King Wendell and Queen Virginia!" cheered Rupert.

"King Wendell and Queen Virginia!" the crowd cried in response.

And then there was silence as a hundred people hoisted their punch and drank it down.

"My, that was tasty," the naked man said, and promptly collapsed to the ground.

Suddenly all around the ballroom people were choking, collapsing, twitching a little and becoming still. Wolf closed his eyes and shivered; the sight of so many people seemingly dying because of his actions was something he didn't need to watch again, even though he knew they would recover. He could hear the thumps as the royal guests hit the floor. Somewhere above the main level a flute squeaked once and trailed away as the flautist collapsed. And then, finally, the room became quite silent.

After a moment Wolf opened his eyes and looked over at Gigi. She gazed with horror at the sight of all the bodies, her eyes huge, and dropped her untasted punch as if it were a goblet of spiders. "Wolf," she breathed, her voice scarcely audible, "what have you done?"

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me," Lord Anthony said, looking quite miffed, "I didn't get any punch."

"Father," Gigi said, "Do shut up. Don't you see what's happened here?"

On the dais, Wendell's head was tipped back as he savored the last drops of his wine. He smacked his lips and blinked, regarding the bodies stacked up all around him. "Oh," he murmured, his brow wrinkling a little.

"Anyone for seconds?"

Wolf felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. Some things might be different here, but the queen was as frightening as ever. She stood at the top of the stairs and looked down at the bodies around her. Evidently she'd come to gloat, but a cloud crossed her eyes as she flicked from Gigi to Wendell. "Oh dear," she said. "Why aren't you dead?"

"Sorry to disappoint you," Gigi said, sticking out her chin, her hands planted on her hips. Wolf's gaze flicked nervously from one woman to the other.

"Well, yes, I am a little disappointed, but that's easily remedied." Her hand went up a fraction of an inch and the huntsman materialized at her side. His bow was off his shoulder and he held it loosely but at the ready. Wolf ducked his head a little, looking around slowly, moving only his eyes. The queen wasn't paying him the slightest bit of attention. If he ran up the stairs, perhaps he could get at the huntsman before—

No such luck. He got a noseful of eau de troll just as two pairs of large and extremely strong hands grabbed him from behind and dragged him to the foot of the stairs.

"That's him," the huntsman said. "Your Majesty, that's the wolf that attacked me in the gypsy camp."

"What a disappointment," the queen said mildly, and sighed. "I do wish you'd told me sooner."

"Sorry," the huntsman replied smoothly. "It took a while to place him."

"Hmmmph. Pity, too. I had such hopes."

"We're having a bonfire tonight," a female troll breathed in his ear. "Feel like being part of it?" The stench of the troll's breath nearly made Wolf vomit, but the thought of fire was worse. He fought against them but one kicked him in the back of the leg and he collapsed to his knees.

"Wolf!" Gigi shouted, then whirled on the queen. "Stop this! You want me? fine, but leave him alone! I'll marry Wendell, I'll do whatever you want."

"Oh, my dear." The queen smiled and started to descend, her black cloak crawling behind her like a velvet shadow. "I don't need you anymore. You were just a distraction for Wendell. A focus for me to use to hold his attention from what was really happening."

"So you made him think he loved me. I knew it!"

"Not really. He cares for you, my dear. Didn't you know? I just made him need you."

Gigi fell silent and looked at Wendell, who flashed her a woozy smile. "Hullo, my love. June wedding?"

She ignored him. "Then let me go. Let us go."

The queen hesitated. Interesting, Wolf thought. She came abreast of Gigi and studied her face. "Perhaps if you give me a reason..."

"I mean nothing to you."

"Nothing..." the queen said, her eyes playing over Gigi's features. "When I saw you, I thought, she reminds me of myself. She has the power to rule, and I have no daughter..." Her eyes narrowed, her face hardening. "You would kill me. You are a threat to me!"

"I'm no threat. I don't want anything you have!" Gigi cried desperately.

"Oh, girl, your very existence is a threat! I will have no one fairer than me in my kingdom..." She giggled and gestured, her gloved hands describing a circle around her. "Or should I say, 'kingdoms?' They're all mine now." Her smile faded. "All that remains of the Fourth Kingdom is Wendell... and you." She turned to the huntsman and he came down the stairs to join her. The silver bow was in his hands.

"No!" Near the king, a tall man in a dark blue uniform was staggering to his feet, clearly fighting against the drug in the punch. "I am Viscount Lansky, and I declare myself the King's Protector!" He held a silver dagger in his hand, and it was pointed at the queen. "You shall not touch a hair of His Majesty's head!"

The huntsman released an arrow and Lansky fell in a heap at Wendell's feet, a startled look on his dead face.

"Well," the huntsman said admiringly. "You were right about him, Your Majesty."

"The girl next," the queen said. Wolf struggled but the hands held him fast. The queen tsked at Gigi, who stared in horror at the dead man. Wendell stood in unmoving silence, but his eyes had strayed to his dead courtier and a line creased his forehead. The queen took a step away from Gigi. "What a pity you didn't drink the punch, my dear. I'm afraid this will be much more painful."

"Good gracious!" said another voice, from an unexpected quarter, as Lord Anthony apparently noticed his plans going awry. "Oh, dear! You've killed a man! A member of the nobility! Your Majesty, I hope this does not mean that the wedding is definitely off? Because I had hoped that—"

"Silence!" The queen whirled on him, her face furious.

"Of course, I will be silent," Lord Anthony nattered on, unfazed. "Silent as the grave. I just wanted to clarify the actual arrangements, because Wendell has, in fact, made the announcem—"

He stopped, because an arrow was sticking out of his chest. He opened his mouth as if to complete the sentence, then toppled wordlessly to the floor. Gigi shrieked and ran to him, but it was already too late. Lord Anthony, clueless Viscount of the Western Mountains, had died as he had lived: never comprehending the obvious.

There was no time left, none at all. Wolf kicked backwards and heard a satisfying shriek from one troll, then sank his teeth into the female's hand. The trolls released him and hopped away, whining and moaning dramatically. The huntsman was before him, and he slammed into the man, knocking him to the floor. He could feel his teeth ache — no doubt they were lengthening as his anger and need to protect Gigi grew. The two men struggled as they had in the woods; the huntsman older but immensely strong, Wolf quicker and more agile. He wrestled the bow away and brought it down on the huntsman's cranium with a resounding thud, then staggered to his feet just in time to use it again on the smaller troll's jaw and to jab the blunt end into the female's mid-section. He heard another noise behind him and turned to see a third troll. Wolf stepped under the huge troll's punch, yanked him by his nose ring and brought his chin down hard against the marble floor. The troll joined his siblings in unconsciousness. Wolf panted and leaned across the balustrade.

"You're very good at doing unexpected things," the queen's voice said. "Unfortunately, so am I."

Wolf looked up. The queen had Gigi around the throat, and in her other hand was Viscount Lansky's dagger.

He growled at her, eyes narrowing. He wanted to pull Gigi from her grasp and then kill the queen, rip her throat out, push her down a flight of stairs—

Remember what I have told you

A memory suddenly of Virginia crouched over her mother's dead body, the look of sadness on his mate's face, the tears of despair, the exhaustion as she slept, trying to bury herself in unconsciousness to forget all she'd lost. Wolf was confused. Why was he remembering that, at a time like this?

Remember everything I told you

"You're finished here, Your Majesty," Wolf said, forcing his voice into a soothing tone. "The guests aren't dead — just unconscious with troll dust."

"Another traitor!" She clutched Gigi more tightly about the neck. Gigi gasped.

"They'll be waking up soon. It's best for you to release her. It will be taken into account—"

"—You want to kill me!"

"No," Wolf said, though his aching teeth and slightly glowing eyes said otherwise. "I want to help you."

The queen was dragging Gigi up the steps, backwards. Heading — where? Wolf started to move up the steps, following them. "Don't move or I'll kill her." The queen squeezed her arm against Gigi's throat a little more tightly and continued to ascend the stairs.

"There's nowhere to go."

"Isn't there?" Her eyes glittered with madness but also secret amusement, and Wolf realized with a thrill of alarm, she's going to the mirror. She's going to escape through it.

Gigi clawed at the queen's arm, but couldn't get a grip. Her other hand flailed uselessly in the air behind her, but the queen merely moved her head and laughed.

Wolf looked towards Wendell, but the king was still staring blankly as if listening to something only he could hear. Lord Anthony and the other viscount were dead. There was no one left to save Gigi but himself. How could he save Gigi, while she was held captive in this way? How could he—

Captive.

Remember everything

A rhyme came into his head, the fragment of Snow White's enigmatic rhyme. It seemed so long ago that she'd said it to him; he'd nearly forgotten it...

What's done must be undone,
A stolen life regained,
A struggle to be won,
A captive soul unchained.

a captive soul...

Wolf looked again at Wendell. The young king was standing perfectly still, still in thrall to the queen, staring at nothing in particular. Wolf's eyes shifted to the queen. She was nearly at the traveling mirror. There was a look of mingled triumph and fear on her face — a ghastly expression that twisted her beautiful face into something horrible and inhuman. Something—

—soulless.

"Not everyone ended happily," Snow White had said to him.

"I gave away my soul..." the queen had said as she died.

Tumblers fell into place in Wolf's mind, unlocking the rhyme. A captive soul. Not Gigi. Not Wendell...

So that was the point of it all!

"Your Majesty," he started to say, but in that instant Gigi's loose hand connected with the queen's hair and fell on the bejeweled comb. The queen felt it, too. With a curse she released Gigi from her grasp and clutched at her hair. Gigi flung her arm in a wide swipe just meant to ward off the other woman.

Too late, Wolf realized what was about to happen. "No, Gigi, don't!"

His frantic cry went unheard. He watched as, almost in slow-motion, the comb's teeth grazed the queen across the cheek. She stepped back, putting one gloved hand to her face. Wolf had a dizzying flash of deja vu as he watched her stagger a little and heard her say, "You've drawn blood."

"Well, you tried to kill me," Gigi said, not understanding. She looked anxious but not particularly worried, relieved, perhaps, at being freed. She rubbed her neck.

Behind Wolf one of the trolls said "Uh-oh!" in a sing-song voice from the floor. The queen turned her back on Gigi and walked shakily down the rest of the steps, then collapsed to her knees.

"Hello, what's happened?" Wendell said suddenly. He shook himself much as a dog might, and staggered from the dais, staring dazedly at the bodies of Lord Anthony and Viscount Lansky, at the unconscious huntsman and the three trolls. "By the Five Women, Are we under attack?"

"What's... what's wrong with her?" Gigi was saying, a note of alarm now creeping into her voice.

"Poison." Wolf crossed to kneel down where the queen had fallen. His hands were moving over her gloves, feeling for the silver ring he'd pried from the desiccated finger in the Swamp Witch's cave. "Don't worry," he said to the woman who had tried to kill him, Gigi, Virginia, Wendell and a roomful of nobles. She was finding it hard to breathe. Her eyes were wide and terrified; clearly she could feel herself slipping.

"What are you doing?" Gigi said. He didn't answer, and Gigi turned away, seeking her father's crumpled form. Wolf watched her out of the corner of his eye, understanding. The queen meant nothing to her. Nothing to Gigi.

There! He felt the ring on the queen's finger; he could feel it under the gloves—

Under the gloves. She was already wearing the ring, the ring that Snow White had said would keep her from succumbing to death. But she was clearly dying! It wasn't working! It was supposed to, Snow White had said—

No, no, Wolf remembered, what she'd said, what she'd literally said was he would find a prize kept by a dead queen that kept her from yielding to death. But the Swamp Witch had died because he'd removed her ring—

No. Not the ring. She'd never said it was a ring. Wolf looked at his hand and remembered the cut that had healed miraculously, that had been there when he started to dress in livery, but which was gone afterwards. After he'd remembered who he was. After he'd looked in the—

"Mirror!" he shouted, batting feverishly at his pockets. There it was, the round shape of the gold mirror, and he pulled it out, ripping fabric in his haste. The queen was nearly gone; merely the faintest wisp of breath remained and it rattled in her chest. He reached under her head, propping her up, while the other hand raised the mirror to her face. "Your Majesty," Wolf said, then stopped. "Christine Lewis! Remember who you are."

At first he thought it was too late. The woman's cheeks had paled to a bloodless hue and she felt limp in his arms. But then the eyes opened a little, as if with great effort. "I... am... the... queen..."

"Look. Look at yourself."

Her eyes fluttered a little, flicking to Wolf before focusing on the image before her. To Wolf it seemed as if a light suddenly reflected from a nearby torch, or perhaps it was the shine off a suit of armor. Perhaps it came from the mirror itself. Whatever the source, it filled the tiny mirror with a great radiance that illuminated the queen's face. He squinted his eyes at the brightness, and when he opened them again the queen was lying silently, her eyes closed. Too late. Have I been too late?

Muffled scraping and muttering began all around him. People were starting to wake up.

Gigi looked up from where she knelt by her father's body. "They're not dead!" she said, wonder in her voice. Then she looked again at her father and lowered her head, but slowly enough that Wolf saw the streak of tears down her white cheeks.

"I switched the poison for troll dust," Wolf told her, once again feeling an almost visceral wave of deja vu. He looked around the room as the nobles began to grunt and right themselves.

"What — what happened?" King Wendell was staring at him. "You, servant! What happened?"

Wolf ignored him, because the woman, whoever she was, was blinking at him, looking blankly around the room. The scratches were gone from her cheek. She was alive! Wolf smiled at her and rose, offering her his hand. She sat up very tentatively and looked down at her gown, her expression confused. "What on earth am I wearing?"

Gigi had risen, too, and crossed to them. "It's a long story," Wolf said. "But after everything is cleared up, we'll have a nice talk."

The older woman blinked at Gigi. "Are you... no. No. Who are you?" She stopped. "Who am I?"

"We'll explain everything..." Wolf said, wondering how on earth he was going to do that. He turned to Gigi and gave her a little squeeze. "I'm sorry about your father."

Gigi bit her lip. Her eyes were wet, but her voice was strong. "I'm sorry, too. About a lot of things. I'm sorry he didn't, that we never..." She put her head against Wolf's chest and snuffled a little. He held her for a few moments until she looked up again, and he wiped away the tear smudges from her face. Gigi studied the mass of confused nobility. "What do we do now?"

"Well," Wolf said. He felt tired, tired in every sinew and every bone. "Wendell has his throne back. I'm going home." He gestured at the traveling mirror. Just leaving this way seemed a terrible anticlimax, somehow. "Wendell." He turned to the king, "You'd better arrest that man on the floor. He killed two of your nobles. And those three trolls — you might want to hold them hostage in case their father declares war on you. Just a suggestion."

"You're going home?" Gigi looked away. "I thought you might...you might..."

"I can't," he said softly. "I have to go find Virginia." He looked around, hoping Snow White would make another appearance. "I'm not even sure she's there."

"I see."

"Gigi..."

"I guess I'm not sure what to do now." She looked around bleakly.

Wolf considered his words. "I don't suppose you might actually want to be queen...?" He dropped his voice into a conspiratorial whisper. "Wendell's a little dull, but he's essentially a good guy. I mean, he's no wolf, but he seems to like you." At her shocked expression he laughed.

"Are you kidding? He was under a spell or something!"

They turned to Wendell, who was being given a thorough going-over by a physician and several of his courtiers. He happened to look up and smiled at Gigi. "See?" said Wolf. "It looks like something's still there, Gigi."

"Maybe, but..." Her expression said it all; she wasn't ready to settle for Wendell, even if it meant being queen. Wolf considered her appraisingly, thinking about all they had been through together. She was, in truth, resourceful, stubborn and completely, deliciously desirable. She was also somewhat more adventurous than Virginia. He found that both appealing and terrifying. Just as well that he was leaving.

"Well, I guess I should be going," Wolf said, at a loss of what else to say. He offered a hand to the evil queen — well, Christine Lewis. She still looked somewhat dazed. Together Gigi and Wolf helped the red-haired woman up the stairs toward the traveling mirror. Wolf found the switch and turned it. His reflection shuddered and wavered, then disappeared. He heard gasps behind him as the skyline of New York came into view, the image swirling dizzyingly to come to rest in a green area surrounded by trees. "That's the Tenth Kingdom," Wolf said, as much to himself as anyone. "Good-bye, Gigi. I'm... I'm sorry you didn't find your prince."

"Wolf. I want to go."

"Gigi, I don't think that's a good idea—"

"—Why not?" She searched his face. "Look. I'm not asking you for anything. You want to find her, your Virginia, and I understand. I'd never be able to stand you for long, anyway, you know."

"Yeah. I actually have my own opinions."

"Right." Gigi smiled wickedly. "We'd kill each other." Then her expression softened and she looked again at the image in the glass. "I won't bother you, unless you want me to. I just want to go... there. It looks like a good place for new adventures." She clutched Wolf's arms. "I'll leave you alone, but I can't stay here, Wolf. Nothing about it seems real to me anymore." She looked up at him with round blue eyes that could never fail to turn him into jelly. "Please?"

Wolf wondered for a moment if the Tenth Kingdom could survive two Virginias. He sighed, looking at the determined line of Gigi's mouth, and gave up.

"All right." Something else I'll have to explain to Virginia.

Gigi squealed with delight and hugged him. "Do we just go through?"

"Yes. But there's something I think I have to do first." He turned and considered the other mirrors. He walked along the semicircle of reflections, seeing his image repeated over and over. Splinters, Wolf thought. Fractures of reality.

He came to the last mirror and put his hand on the frame.

"You — you're a wolf!"

Wolf spun around. Wendell was on his feet, staring at him from the foot of the staircase, his face angry. "Wendell?"

"That's King Wendell, you inferior creature! Speak to me with respect!" Wendell pointed and Wolf, shocked beyond words, realized his tail had come out in the struggles and Wendell was gesturing at it.

"Yeah, I'm a wolf, Wendell, and you were a dog, remember? What's wrong with you?" He was beginning to get annoyed, but turned back to the mirror.

"Treason! Disgusting, filthy—"

"—Okay!" Wolf had had enough. "I get the point, but I'm leaving, so you can bark at me all you like." He turned to Gigi. "Huff-PUFF! This, after I save his kingdom for him! I take back what I said. You're way too good for him. I'm glad to take you with me."

Ugly emotions contorted Wendell's face as he sputtered angrily. "Where are you going with my bride?"

Gigi whirled on him. "I'm not your bride, Wendell. I'm nobody's bride. Cut it out!"

Wendell's demeanor darkened into threat. "You've corrupted her, you filthy animal. She's not going anywhere with the likes of you. She belongs to me!"

"I do not! What's wrong with you? You don't really want me!"

"That's immaterial. I'm not letting that beast put his hands on you! Defiling a human woman — he should have been shot the moment he entered my kingdom. There's no place for his kind here!"

Wolf took a step away from the mirror to stare at the king. Fury boiled up inside him, yet more than anything he felt hurt. "You know what, Wendy? I was right all along. You're an ass and a bigot, and I wouldn't stay in your miserable kingdom for all the bacon in it."

"How dare you!!"

"—and furthermore, it's too bad you weren't a dog longer, because it might have taught you better manners. Frankly, Your Pompous Majesty, I liked you better as a dog, and I didn't care for you then!" Bedros, Wolf thought, you'd better hurry and grow up. The wolves of this kingdom are really gonna need you.

He pushed the mirror and it began to topple slowly towards the next one.

"Stop!"

Wolf turned at the command, ready to tell Wendell to shove his scepter right up his royal behind. But Wendell was holding something now, something silver and pointed and dangerous, with the face and ruby eyes of a hawk.

The huntsman's bow.

"Filthy animal," Wendell hissed, bringing the bow to his eye.

"Gigi! Go now!" Wolf shouted and started to run. Behind him the first mirror crashed into the second, exploding into quicksilver and dust. And then the second was falling, ever so slowly, towards the next fragile domino in the line.

Gigi stared open-mouthed at Wendell, the man she'd thought dull but harmless. Her heart pounded. She took a deep breath and flung herself through the mirror. As the glass took her she heard the second and third mirrors crash to the ground.

"You're dead, wolf." Wendell squeezed one eye shut.

The sound of breaking glass was all Wolf could hear, and inside the sound he thought he heard moaning coming from the mirrors. He shut his ears to the cries as he reached the traveling mirror.

Wendell Winston Walter White, grandson of the great Snow White, King of the Fourth Kingdom, doomed from this moment forth to be known as Wendell the Huntsman, tightened his finger and loosed the silver arrow.

Virginia, Wolf thought. He flung himself across the frame as the arrow reached him. He had the sensation of ice and fire all at once, and looked dully at the arrow in his chest as he toppled backwards into Christine, the woman he'd traveled so far to save, the captive soul he had unchained. As they fell into the mirror, his last sight as his consciousness began to fade was of the final mirror shattering. It let loose a shrill scream as it exploded into nothingness. The mirrors, save the traveling mirror, were dead.

But Wolf was already gone.


Chapter 29 ~ Nexus


The first rays of morning filtered through the trees, silhouetting the tall apartment buildings along Fifth Avenue. Virginia looked towards the sun and gathered her coat about her. It was too early for the sun to provide any heat on this chilly November morning in Central Park. Or maybe, she thought, maybe it was the nature of the gathering that chilled her.

I've been lucky. Until this week I've never had to go to a funeral before.

She reached over and took Mike's hand. If she felt any warmth at all, it was because he was standing next to her and not dead, as she had feared in the frenzy of the events nearly a week earlier. No, he was very much alive, his arm in a sling, a little paler than normal, perhaps, and largely silent, but that might have been due to the reason they were in the park.

He'd insisted on coming here today, though both Virginia and his doctor had objected. While in the hospital, he'd missed the big church funeral for his grandfather, and absolutely, stubbornly insisted on being here today. In the end, the others had delayed the gathering until Mike could be there with them.

"How are you feeling?" she asked, studying him.

"Just the same as I did five minutes ago when you asked me. Fine."

"Really?"

"Really. I mentioned you are a pain, right?" he said, but he smiled.

"Right, Mike."

"Just as long as you know."

They continued to walk up a little hill, where others from Thurson/Wolf were standing in informal clusters. It was a very different feeling, here, outside, from the packed church where religious and civic leaders had praised and eulogized William Wolf. Virginia had been surprised by how far his influence had been felt; when the mayor got up to speak, she had realized just how prominent William had been.

But now, now she only saw people from his firm. Employees, close friends all of them members of William's — she still had trouble thinking it — his pack.

Looking around, she realized the only outsiders at the gathering were herself, and, standing a little away from the others, her father and Lisette. The two of them stood to the side, Mike's mother tiny and delicate next to Tony's bulk, keeping space between themselves and the others. The wolves, Virginia reminded herself. Wolves, people, Mike, Virginia. Virginia, Wolf...

I have to forget him.

Next to her Mike followed her gaze. "He's great with her."

"What?"

"My mother. Your dad. She seems so much better."

"Oh, yes."

"She should never have been in that place. I should have—"

"Don't do that."

"How do I know what they did to her? How do I know—"

"Mike. Stop. Please. There's no way, there was no way of knowing what did or didn't happen there. Be glad you have her. Be glad she survived."

"I am. I am." He turned to look at her. "Both of you."

"Me? You're the one who gave us a scare."

He lifted her hand and kissed it. "You're cold."

"Put your arm around me, then, you big bad wolf."

I have to forget him. There is no going back.

Mike brushed his lips playfully against the top of her head, but when he spoke he was somber. "I still can't believe what Regina did."

Virginia paused before speaking. "You're... thinking about Cathy."

He looked for a moment like he was going to protest, but then nodded. "It's unbelievable." He shook his head.

Virginia shivered. She'd been at the hospital when the police came to tell them they'd found Cathy's laptop — in Regina's apartment, along with a frightening collection of personal objects that clearly proved Regina's obsession with Mike. Though the exact details of what had happened to Mike's previous girlfriend were still unknown, the conclusion was all too obvious: Regina had eliminated her earlier rival, just as she'd tried to do with Virginia. "They'll catch up to Regina eventually," Virginia said confidently. At least she hoped she sounded confident.

"Everyone, please." Sylvia Gray was beckoning them up the hill and people were beginning to form a circle. The choice of location was not lost on Virginia. The two dozen or so participants were grouped around a particular stand of trees that she knew well, for she had come there herself many times, staring at nothingness, waiting in vain for the mirror portal to open.

There is no going back.

"Well, we're all here, I think. Let's begin, shall we?" Sylvia was impeccably dressed, as always, but Virginia was a little surprised to see the older woman wearing a bright green dress and matching coat. Looking around, Virginia realized that everyone, except herself, her father, Lisette and Mike, were clad in equally festive colors. Not what she would have considered normal clothing to wear to a memorial service where ashes were to be scattered.

But from Sylvia's first words, this promised to be anything but normal.

"Packmates, friends, I speak as is my right at William's companion, not his mate in our old meaning of the word, but one who cared for him, and who was cared for in return."

Virginia could feel Mike start next to her. "Did you know?" she whispered.

"No," Mike whispered back. "He was a lucky man. After Grandmother he deserved a little fun."

Sylvia held out a wooden box that Virginia supposed contained William's ashes. "William, son of Benjamin," she began:

"Into the fire we send your body
Into the earth we spread your strength
Into the water we pour your courage
Into the air we release your spirit."

"Taylor." Sylvia handed the box to a man with dark skin and pale eyes.

"Through fire your weaknesses are taken from us." He passed the box to a woman.

"In the earth your strength is gathered for us." She in turn handed it on.

"Through water your courage is shared with us." The young man looked visibly upset and his voice quavered. He passed the box on.

"In the air your spirit lives, always with us." The last man gave the box back to Sylvia.

"Thank you." She took a breath and looked around the circle, her face grave. She started to speak, and this time all of them recited with her:

"We listen to the wind and hear his call.
As long as there are wolves to listen he will howl.
Now let him run free under the full moon forever."

"Mike." Sylvia handed him William's ashes. He gripped the wooden box tightly in his right hand, feeling, suddenly, a loss that just a few short days before would have been unthinkable. He missed his grandfather. He met Sylvia's tawny eyes, which were a little red but as kind as they always were when she looked at him. "It's your right," she said softly, "and your responsibility." She reached up and kissed him on the cheek.

His responsibility. Mike looked at the people gathered before him, people he had known all his life. But other than Virginia, who stood quietly beside him, and Tony and Lisette on the fringes of the circle, these people, these familiar faces, were something more. Wolves. A pack of wolves, gathered in sorrow to mourn their loss. And they were all, as one, looking to him.

Looking to their leader.

When had that happened? Perhaps in that first confrontation with William; perhaps at his challenge to Hunter, or at his grandfather's death. He didn't know for certain, but he knew it to be true, in the way they looked at him. In the way he felt about himself.

He cleared his throat. "Thank you for being here," he said, "for helping me, all of you. It means a lot."

"Of course, Mike," someone murmured, and he felt hands softly touch him as he passed among them, moving to the space between the trees. He looked once more to Sylvia; she nodded. Mike opened the box and slowly poured the ashes in a small circle around the space where they were gathered. There was nothing to look at, nothing to indicate why this spot had been chosen. But they all knew.

Virginia knew. She looked at the emptiness where the mirror portal should be, watched Mike as he moved around it, spreading the ashes, returning William to his homeland... or at least as close to it as he would ever get. She closed her eyes. The emptiness of the space and the look on Mike's face, combined, were difficult to bear.

"Good bye, William. Grandfather," Mike said. He closed the box and moved back to Virginia's side.

The others seemed to know the ceremony was concluded. One by one they passed by Mike, creating a sort of receiving line. Some smiled, some touched him on the shoulder, some just nodded. One or two even seemed to bow a little as they passed. And several acknowledged Virginia as well. Then they turned, some alone, some in pairs and groups, and left them on the side of the little hill.

Virginia looked over Mike's shoulder. Tony was talking with Lisette but happened to catch Virginia's eye and raised a querying eyebrow. She smiled at her father and nodded very slightly. Tony smiled back, then turned to Lisette. The tiny woman looked up at him, took his arm and the two of them walked slowly away.

"Well," Mike said.

"Yes."

"That was interesting."

"Mmm-hmm. Are you—"

"I swear, Virginia, if you ask me if I'm okay one more time..." His wild look made her laugh.

"Okay, okay. I won't." She glanced back up at the little copse where the ceremony had been. "So... is that what's always done? Is this what a wolf's funeral is usually like?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. I've never been a part of it before." His mouth turned down a little. "Another thing he kept from me, I guess." Virginia gave him a little squeeze. He returned a half-smile, and the hint of a sparkle lit up his eyes. "Personally, I always thought we were Unitarian."

She punched him softly in his good arm.

"What would you like to do? Sylvia has invited everyone to her apartment..."

He took a deep breath and released it. "Do you mind if we stay here for a little bit?"

"Not at all. I'd like to. Want to walk a little?"

"Let's just sit for a while. There's a bench at the bottom of the hill."

"Okay."

Virginia linked her arm in Mike's and turned her back on the hill and the secret it kept. The sun was higher now, and warmer on her face, and the smell of mulch and dead leaves and crisp air filled her nose. The leaves crunched underfoot, singing a sad autumnal song, and Virginia was filled with a melancholy that could only partly be attributed to the season.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, feeling each other's closeness. On this beautiful morning, the park seemed to be theirs alone, their own personal fairytale land, with the spires of Manhattan jutting high above the verdant scallop of the trees.

In the distance they heard the cry of wolves. A pack, perhaps, mourning their alpha. Virginia stirred at the sound; mournful though it was, there was a beauty about it, a beauty that brought tears to her eyes.

At length Mike shifted. "I was thinking."

"About?"

"About the New York subway system."

She cocked her head at him. "Interesting segue, Mike."

"And about how glad I am that it exists." She opened her mouth to say something silly, but thought better of it. "About how glad I am you decided to take the subway at rush hour on the Thursday before Columbus Day. And how glad I am that my knee is screwed up and I had an appointment with Dr. Jerome Farber on that day and couldn't find a cab afterwards and had to take the number six train from 77th Street."

Virginia said nothing.

"Virginia." He kissed her hand again and got up and began to pace somewhat nervously. "I've been thinking about this, a lot, in between finding out I am not exactly who I always thought I was, and thinking I was going crazy and discovering who killed my father and rescuing you from troll-people and getting shot and things like that—"

Virginia smiled, but her heart was pounding.

"And I want to, I need to ask you, Virginia—"

"Mike—"

"I love you, Virginia. I've told you that, I know. And I —" He stopped moving and gazed at her intently. "Please marry me."

She'd suspected, known it was coming, but her heart was fluttering in her throat and it took her a moment before she could open her mouth to answer him. She glanced away, for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "Mike—"

There was a muffled thump and Mike gave a soft cry.

Virginia jumped, startled, and looked up. Mike lay on the grass, moving slightly, but obviously dazed.

Regina was standing over him.

"No!" Virginia started to get up, but Regina was faster. She vaulted across the grass and slammed Virginia back against the bench.

"You can't. You mustn't go to him, Virginia. He's not yours. He never was."

"Regina, don't, please don't hurt him."

"It's none of your concern."

Regina knelt on Virginia's legs, effectively pinning her to the bench. The woman's full weight held her there, and to emphasize her power, Regina held a wooden stick, like a nightstick, or a chair leg, pressed to her throat. Virginia grabbed at the stick but couldn't push it off. The pressure made breathing difficult. She gasped, struggling for air.

"Please, Regina—"

The blonde woman's face was inches away, and she was completely disheveled, as if she'd lived in her clothes for days. It was possible she had been living in them for the last week; the police had kept surveillance on Regina's apartment and the woman had never reappeared. More than that, she looked totally unhinged. Her hair stuck out from her head in clumps, her eyes were wild and darkly circled, yet she seemed to have applied fresh lipstick — though not quite on the contours of her mouth. Her red dress had a huge tear down one sleeve and it fluttered in the breeze, but even without a coat, Regina did not look cold. It seemed to Virginia as if her assailant had passed far beyond sanity.

Regina smiled slyly. "Did you think I wouldn't come back for Mike?"

"Please—"

"Beg me, that's right, you conniver, you thief! Did you think I would let him be with YOU?" Her voice rose into a shriek, assaulting Virginia's ears. "Bitch!"

Anger welled up inside Virginia. "I'm not the bitch here, Regina."

Regina responded by pressing harder into her throat. "He can't have you if you're dead, you know. Not if you're dead. Not when you're dead."

"Even if you kill me, he's not ever going to want you, Regina," Virginia panted. "You are sick. You're screwed up. You need to be put away." She struggled, but it was no use.

"He'll learn. Or he'll be dead, too. Either way, you're dead. Either way... she'll be gone, then we'll be together..." She started to keen, to talk to herself in a singsong tone that chilled Virginia's blood.

Mike was still on the ground, but he was watching them as he shook off the blow, and from the look on his face had begun to comprehend what was happening.

"Like Cathy," Virginia said, trying to remain calm, trying to play for time. "You got rid of her, too."

Regina giggled, nearly cackling. "Dear Dr. Cathy. At Fresh Kills."

"The landfill?" The horror of the idea made Virginia twitch despite the pressure on her throat.

"They can't find you there. Hides them all. Hides them all," Regina sang to herself. "Hide and seek. Hide and seek. Want to play hide and seek?"

Ten feet away Mike looked around dizzily, straining to see anyone, anyone at all who could help. People were strolling far in the distance, but not close enough to be of assistance. He looked back at Regina. Her back was to him, and he could tell from Virginia's labored breathing that she was close to unconsciousness. He had to save her, had to do it now.

Suddenly the dull ache in the back of his head, the nausea from the blow, began to fade away... no, he realized, they had disappeared completely. He heard a high-pitched sound, but when he looked around, he realized it was inside his head. Something was happening to him, something that made him cold and hot at the same time, that made the hair prickle on his head and arms, that made the air suddenly smell of things he'd never known. His teeth — his teeth were hurting, and suddenly he could see colors and individual blades of grass with breathtaking clarity. And his shoulder no longer ached — no, he felt better, and stronger than he remembered ever feeling before—

And angrier. Fury/excitement/bloodlust/

He stopped thinking. Something terrifying and intoxicating and frightening and thrilling was taking him over, something as familiar as his nightmares... but this time he didn't fight against it. He let it happen.

Regina was ten feet away, hovering over Virginia, killing Virginia, and impossibly he leapt upon her from a crouching position, his eyes glowing golden, the very air suffused with the color of topaz, upon Regina in her red RED RED BLOOD RED BLOOD! He wanted to kill her, rip out her throat, taste her blood, and she was screaming, as his weight knocked her to the grass. Then he was on her, his teeth seeking her throat—

—but hands, several pairs of hands, were pulling at him, pulling him away, and Virginia's voice was in his ear STOP STOP Please, MIKE, STOP! and he had to stop, panting, tumbling backwards onto the grass as Virginia held him, saying his name over and over, her scent in his nostrils, as the power faded, his breath returning to normal, his eyesight clearing, his teeth retracting.

And as he sat there, dazed, the clarity fading but the sense of his surroundings returning, Mike saw that the other hands were Robert's and his chauffeur was kneeling by Regina, who was screaming, babbling, twitching in Robert's grasp.

"Mike! Mike!"

"Yes... Virginia! Are you, are you—"

"I'm fine, Mike, I'm fine, you—"

"What... happened?"

"You... changed. You changed." Virginia's eyes were huge. She rubbed her throat.

"Changed... What do you mean?"

"A wolf. You were changing. Like for the full moon."

"No. I can't. I don't..." He swallowed and stood up shakily, bringing Virginia with him. "I just knew she was going to kill you."

"You were protecting me, Mike." Virginia clasped him tightly to her. "That's why it happened."

Sirens could be heard in the background, growing louder. They looked towards the sound.

"I called the police."

Robert Burleigh said the words softly, and they both turned to him. He still knelt on the ground, holding Regina, but her shrieks had faded and she mumbled to herself, twisting slightly, unable to get away from the man who held her down. "I've been tracking her. I was afraid this would happen."

"You were following her?" Mike said disbelievingly. "I thought you worked for her."

"I do," Robert said simply. Virginia regarded him carefully. It almost seemed as if the ugly face grew tender.

The sirens grew louder.

"Hide and seek," Regina crooned. "Hide and seek."

"She's insane." Virginia shivered.

Robert dropped his head. "I know. But I am sworn to protect her. Even from herself."

Police cars were pulling up onto the grass. Virginia saw an ambulance following.

"I'll go with her, Mike," Robert said. "She won't bother you again, I promise. I'll see they take care of her. I have to."

"Why?" Virginia didn't understand.

He looked up at her and spoke quietly. "I must serve her as my ancestors served them, all the Reds. It's what we do."

"Robert," Mike said, not really sure what to make of everything, "if you need anything..."

"Thanks, Mike." He smiled sadly. "Goodbye, Virginia."

Men in uniforms burst out of the cars, and suddenly there was a flurry of actions and questions and men with guns and men with medical equipment. Mike and Virginia answered dutifully, but sparingly, telling only that Regina had been stalking them, had attacked Virginia, that there was an ongoing investigation. And no, they didn't need medical help, but Regina needed a one-way trip to Bellevue.

The police seemed to sense their reticence, but collected information, wrote reports and phone numbers and secured promises for follow-up discussions, then begrudgingly allowed that Mike and Virginia didn't have to come along to the station. The medical personnel took Regina from Burleigh, though he insisted on going along with her to the hospital. As the doors closed on the ambulance and its straight-jacketed occupant, Virginia heard a shrill voice shout out, "Release me! I am the great-granddaughter of Red Riding Hood!"

"Right, lady," a cop quipped, making a face as he closed the door, "and I'm Rumpelstiltskin's uncle."

Virginia watched the cars drive away. A small group of rubberneckers had gathered, and a few stuck around, hoping for details, but when Mike and Virginia refused to accommodate them the onlookers drifted away. Eventually the little grove was quiet again.

The two stood in silence a moment.

Eventually she spoke. "I'm glad Regina's in custody."

"Yes. Maybe she'll get help."

"Mike, you're too nice. She's a murderer."

"I know. Believe me, I know." He took a deep breath. "But she's out of our lives now."

They walked a little, letting their tension dissipate. Suddenly Mike stopped. "Virginia."

"Yes?" she said, a little absently. Something in the periphery of her vision distracted her. A sparkle of sunlight, perhaps.

"You didn't answer me. We got interrupted." He gave her a smile and touched her cheek. "I'm waiting."

"Waiting?" She couldn't follow what he meant; over Mike's shoulder the sparkle drew her eye. "What?"

"I asked you to marry me."

Marry me... She heard him, understood him, but the sparkle was demanding her attention and she narrowed her gaze, but it wasn't really sunlight, couldn't be, because it was in the wrong direction. She was looking at a shimmer in the air, a shimmer of light and impossibility—

"Virginia?"

"Oh my God. Oh my God. Look!" She pointed, and Mike, confused by her manner, by her lack of answer, nevertheless followed her pointing finger to a peculiar sparkle of light, a glow between the trees, where lately the wolves had gathered to mourn their loss.

"What is that—"

There is no going back...

Is there?

"The portal," Virginia whispered. "The mirror...is open!"


Chapter 30 ~ Arrival


"Virginia!"

QuicksilverFireIce
Pain
VORTEXVVVVVVVOOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRRTTTTTTTTTEEEEEEEEEEXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
/SHARDS/
QueenRhyme
PoisonKitchenCastle
/INFINITY/
WitchSwamp
WaterfallCrossroads
DwarfHuntsman
MoonSheetsSatin
Gigi
Ginia
Virginia
/FRAGMENT/
WagonBloodPainDreamPeepsGypsiesRuinsTrollsDorcasDreamEscape
Queen
PrisonerTortureWhip
Virginia
/REFLECTION/
VirginiaainigriV
WhippihW
TortureerutroT
PrisonerrenosirP
QueennnnneeuQ
F o r w a r d / d r a w k c a B
/SPLINTER/
SILVERBLACKNESSSSSSSSSILENCE

F
A
L
L
I
N
G
V
I
R
G
I
N
I
A
!

"Virginia!"

~*~*~

"Virginia?"

The light sparkled, inviting her, and she felt the breath leave her body as she drew towards the portal. Something caught at her arm.

"Virginia!"

She turned, blinking back to awareness. Mike had his hand around her slender wrist, and though he was not holding her forcefully, his grip secured her, kept her from crossing through the shimmering doorway.

"Where—where are you going?" He was trying to keep his tone light, but couldn't entirely hide his alarm.

She put her hand over his and Mike released her wrist without protest. She clasped his hand between both of hers, holding it tightly. "It's the portal. The one I came through. The door back to the Nine Kingdoms. It's open, Mike. It's open."

"I see it is." He glanced at the light. "Virginia. You can't think of going through."

"Yes. I can. I have to."

"No!" The word came out with some vehemence, and he forced a calmer tone. "All right. All right, then. If you really feel you have to go, then... I'll come with you."

"No, you..." It was incredibly hard to say what she wanted to say, to explain. "I have to go alone, Mike. You... have a place, responsibilities, now, people who need you—"

"—The hell with them. I need you."

"Please, Mike, this is so hard—"

"Good!" He stepped back a few feet and squared himself. His face was working, his hands clenching. "Hard? I want this to be so hard you can't think of going. I don't want you to go. I don't know why you say you have to! Please, Virginia, I want you to stay. I want to marry you!"

"I know." She couldn't look him in the eye. "I know you do."

"Then don't go."

"I must."

"Why? Tell me why, then! What is it that is forcing you to go? Now we can be together. We finally don't have to worry about Regina, Hunter, William—"

"Wolf." She looked up, willing him to understand. "It's Wolf, Mike. I have to find him. Wherever he is, even if I have to search forever."

And there it was, he was, between them.

Mike stared back at her intently, his forehead deeply creased, his eyes searching hers. "Virginia," he said hoarsely, "you are my mate."

She paused, framing her words. "But you aren't mine, Mike. He is."

Mike's face crumpled. "I thought," he began, his voice husky with emotion, "I thought maybe you could, you would..." He stopped himself and shook his head. "I knew. I knew when I said I loved you and you didn't answer."

She reached for his face, stroking his cheek. He didn't lean into it, as Wolf would have done; but pressed her hand more tightly to his face, then kissed her palm. "I do love you, Mike," she said. And I would never want to hurt you, came the familiar thought, borne on a wave of memory. "You're handsome, wonderful, decent—"

"Thrifty, trustworthy..." He was trying to smile, losing the battle.

"All those things," Virginia said. "And so, so much more." She pushed the hair off his forehead and he closed his eyes for a moment. "You're Prince Charming, Mike, how could I not love you?" Her voice was soft and kind. "But it's not the same way it is with... him."

"I don't understand why."

"I don't either, not really. It shouldn't be this way, but it is."

"Virginia." He swallowed hard. "I'm in love with you. Be with me. I don't feel complete without you. I need you—"

She smiled at him, feeling great tenderness, ignoring the tears running down her cheeks. "I can't do that," she whispered. "I know you love me. But I can't be that part of you that you haven't found yet. I'm like you, Mike, so much like you. I don't know myself, really, but I'm finding out. Wolf is helping me. He knows who he is, who he wants to be. This is your world, Mike. This is where you have to keep looking, until you know exactly who you are." She went on, the unstoppable tears continuing to streak down her face, her voice catching," I know there will be someone for you, I know it. Someone to help guide you on your search. I still have to search for part of me. Do you understand? I need Wolf. He's my..."

"...mate."

"Life. Wolf is my life." She stopped speaking because she couldn't any longer; there were no more words to say, anyway.

Mike took her hand and kissed her palm once more, then framed her face with his hands. His eyes were glistening as he studied her. Then he leaned in and pressed his lips softly to hers. His mouth curved into a crooked smile. "I wish I were your Wolf. " His eyes held hers a moment. "Find him. Goodbye." And then he turned away, his parting gift to not let her see him fall apart.

She watched him walk down the slope, the chill November air catching his jacket; his bearing, his shape, were all the same as Wolf's. But not the same. Not exactly. A hand was squeezing Virginia's heart so tightly she thought it would burst. She turned away before she couldn't and stepped through the portal. Her body lurched forward, and there was a rush of light, a trail of quicksilver as the mirrors slid past.

SILVERBLACKNESSSSSSSSSILENCE
VORTEXVVVVVVVVOOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRTTTTTTTTTEEEEEEEEXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
GoodbyeAshesPackBloodMikeBulletHuntsman
ShockNurseTrolldustCarRegina
RedPortraitWolfsbaneMoonShadowsFever
/WOLFMIKE
MIKEWOLF/

PassionKissFireplaceCottageMansion
LisetteRobertDad
SubwayHospitalPain
CrashDog
Bicycle
F o r w a r d / d r a w k c a B
Bicycle
Dog
Crash
/SPLINTER/

CRASH

Something heavy ran into her, knocking her backwards, and then she was rolling over and over on grass, soft grass, until, breathless, she came to a stop with something warm and heavy pinning her to the ground.

"Am I dead?"

Her eyes flew open. Mike's voice.

No.

NO

Wolf's voice.

WOLF

He was lying across her at the bottom of a hill. A hill in Central Park. The hill she'd just climbed, beneath the copse of trees that sheltered the portal. Overhead a few stars pierced the glow of New York lights to twinkle between the trees. Night, it's night? she wondered to herself.

"Am I dead?" Wolf panted. He rolled off her and lay in the grass, feeling his chest, looking at his hand, then, finally at her face, as if he hadn't noticed until that moment that she was there. "Virginia...?" He said it tentatively. Then he said it again, disbelievingly, with an intake of breath. Then he said it a third time, and his voice was filled with relief. And then he shouted

"VIRGINIA!"

"Oh, Wolf!'

And then she was crying. She wept and held him, afraid to close her eyes, afraid he would vanish. "I lost you and—"

"—I was searching for you and—"

"—You didn't come through the mirror and I was afraid you—"

"—There was this rhyme and a quest and Snow White but you weren't—"

And then there was no more talking for a time.

Virginia stood up and offered her hand to her mate, who got up slowly, looking once more at his chest as if he was going to find something wrong with it. From her perspective, she didn't see anything wrong. He was wearing a red vest and knee britches under a velvet coat decorated with gold braid, some sort of costume that was both absurd and perfectly right on him. She realized she'd seen him in it before, in Wendell's palace, when the evil queen... when her mother... when she'd had to...

She looked down to smooth her clothing and was surprised to find she was not wearing her trench coat and black wool dress but the skirt and blue sweater she'd worn during her long trek in the Nine Kingdoms. A wonder. Strange. As strange as the fact that the trees were full of leaves and the air was warm. It wasn't autumn anymore, it was summer. Again. A warm summer night.

He followed her gaze to her clothes. "Wow! Guess I fixed things..." He looked down and plucked at his velvet coat. "Or... maybe not. Huh. I was just wearing this. Confusing, I must say."

He wasn't making much sense, and that fact filled Virginia with joy. She embraced Wolf again, laughing to herself as he scratched absently at his temple and muttered something about fragments and shards and beginnings. How she'd missed that eccentricity! Well, he was eccentric, and intense, and needy and obsessive and imperfect. And she loved him for that; her heart wrenched with how much she loved his imperfections, his joy in being with her, his wolfishness. His strength. It was just as she'd told Mike. He truly needed her, and she him.

Mike. She suddenly felt tears well up, as she looked at Wolf and saw Mike standing before her, asking her to stay. Were the tears were for happiness, or loss, or both? She couldn't tell. She was deliriously happy and devastatingly sad, all at once.

Wolf seemed not to notice. He wrapped her in his arms, then let his hand stray to her belly. Suddenly Virginia was seized with a great sadness. How could she tell him there was no cub, that something had changed and the baby they had created had ceased to exist? Her mouth started to form the impossible words. But Wolf was listening, his eyes closed, and suddenly he smiled, and left his hand on her stomach, warm and sure, his eyes twinkling at her. "I was afraid maybe I hurt the baby when I fell on you. But he's all right. The cub's all right, my love."

Her eyes opened in surprise, a cry coming from her, and she threw her arms around him again, "Oh Wolf, Wolf, I'm so glad..." And, she thought, her hand absently moving to her stomach, it really was true, something had changed in her, dimming, if not quite banishing, the doubts. "I want to have this baby, our baby," Virginia said, rather vehemently.

"Well, that's good," Wolf said, grinning wolfishly at her. "I was a little worried, I confess."

"You were? I... didn't know."

"You didn't say anything before, my succulent darling, and I was afraid you were angry. I knew there was something wrong."

I knew when I said I loved you and you didn't answer, Mike had said.

Why should I try to hide my emotions, Virginia wondered, when a wolf can so easily see through me? She sighed. She felt relieved, unburdening herself of doubts. Her change of mind surprised her. The sacrifices, the changes in her body and in her life, her fears about being a mother, her anger at Wolf for what he, what they had done so recklessly, seemed to fade against the brighter light of the cub's existence. When had that happened? When I realized how much I truly loved him, and had to find him to be complete.

There would be questions, anxieties, of course. She felt as if she might be ready to face them, to ask the hard questions and share her more difficult feelings with Wolf. There would not, could not be any barriers between them, not any more. I trust him. I believe in him. I believe he will always be there.

She looked at her clothes again, at the summery landscape, felt the sultriness of the air. Had she come back to the beginning? The beginning of her life with Wolf? Her mind went to Mike. Had all of that time they spent together been real? Or had that been a dream?

"Or is this the dream?" she wondered aloud.

"Um, I don't think so, Virginia. Would you like me to pinch you?"

"No, no, that won't be necessary. If this is a dream, I'm content to stay asleep."

Perhaps it was Destiny, after all. She'd needed to meet him, the Wolf of her world, the one who conformed to the rules by the sacrifice of his nature, in order for her heart to know what it wanted. And what it wanted was Wolf, a strange being, to be sure, an imperfect match for her world, but the perfect match for her.

She gazed up in wonder at him. He was looking over her head, then tilted his face down to smile at her in a way she recognized. He had something he wanted to tell her and could barely contain it. "What? What is it, Wolf?"

He took her hand and kissed it. She had a flash of Mike doing that and her heart wrenched in her chest. But Wolf was leading her up the hill, back towards the mirror portal, and he was smiling that enigmatic smile and she looked at him quizzically. There was someone standing up there at the top of the hill, looking around, looking lost, a woman smaller than she remembered, with a smooth face and a long dress, a woman looking a little confused, but kind, who gazed at her at her and smiled. And then the woman opened her arms and Virginia went into them, tears flowing down her cheeks, both their cheeks, while the woman stroked Virginia's hair and whispered, "You are my little girl, aren't you?"

"Yes," Virginia whispered, and fell into her mother's embrace.

"Forgive me," Christine said.

"I love you, Mama." Virginia looked over her mother's shoulder at Wolf, who was standing close, smiling a crooked smile, his face filled with wonder at their reunion, his eyes wet as well, and Virginia knew, somehow, some impossible way, he'd done this for her.

Light flashed behind them and a tall man materialized out of nowhere, nearly falling over them, bellowing. "'Grandpa?!' Dammit, Wolf, what did you mean by..."

There was sudden silence, and the woman in her arms turned to the very tall man, her eyes shining at him, and his mouth fell open but no words emerged from either as they stared at each other.

And Virginia was lost in happiness and happy ever after.

~*~*~

Later, much later, in the night, Wolf and Virginia sat curled up on the couch. They were alone, in a manner of speaking, at least in the living room. Christine slept in the bedroom, watched over by Tony. She would still need help, care to find herself again. She needed to be with her family, most of all, the husband who had never stopped loving her, her daughter who had lost her and now found her. "As long as she's not in some place like that nursing home," Virginia murmured to herself. It would take time. Tony would wait, gladly. So could she.

"Did you say something, Virginia?"

Their reunion had been bittersweet, after all. It was late, nearly morning now, but neither Wolf nor Virginia felt like sleeping. There had been so much to talk about. And much of it was painful. Virginia had started, telling Wolf about meeting the wonderful person who had so reminded her of her mate. She hadn't revealed all the details, but had admitted the intimate relationship. It hadn't been easy. There had been tears. Wolf had been hurt to think she hadn't believed in him enough. Hadn't believed that he was real. She understood. She felt tremendous guilt; after all, Wolf had never ceased believing in her.

And then it had been his turn. For once he hadn't tried to hide the truth or package it in pretty ribbons. He'd told her of meeting the noble but wild and willful Gigi, of how his annoyance with her had been replaced by acceptance, then friendship, and then disastrous obsession. It was hard for him to look Virginia in the eye when he spoke of Gigi. Despite his own hurt over the man who'd temporarily stolen Virginia's heart, in the end he very nearly fell to his knees asking her for forgiveness for his own actions.

And now they sat on the couch, Virginia curled up under Wolf's arm, but both knew the pain would remain a little longer between them.

"I'm so sorry, Wolf. I said once I never wanted to hurt you. And now I have."

"I did the same to you."

"What do you think happened to her?" Virginia said softly, trying to change the subject a little. Unfortunately it was hard for her to picture Gigi without feeling a teeny wave of jealousy.

"And what happened to that tame wolf of yours?"

"You're my tame wolf." She poked him in a rib. "Where are they, I wonder?"

Wolf thought for a moment, biting his lip. "Maybe they aren't... anywhere."

"Really? You think we made them up?"

"No, no, it's just... here we are, where we meant to end up. If we came back to the end, I mean the beginning, I mean, arrived at the place we left... cripes, this is confusing!"

"Tell me about it," Virginia sighed.

"Oh, all right," Wolf said, taking her literally. "Maybe, when I broke the mirrors, things went back to normal everywhere. Maybe I un-existed them."

"That makes me sad."

"Me too." Wolf's looked at the floor. "Gigi deserves a chance to be happy."

There was that prickle of jealousy again. Virginia ignored it, or tried to. "Do you really think so, though? I mean, you came back in the clothes you were wearing there... wherever 'there' was. I came back as if nothing had changed. Something is off somewhere."

"Good thing, because I was pretty much dead back there."

"Good thing," Virginia agreed, stroking Wolf's chest.

"That feels good. Don't stop."

"Okay."

"I don't know what to think, my creamy sweetheart. I mean, Snow White hinted that Wendell back there was gonna be a pain in the ass for some time to come. Some things just might not have been fixable. Maybe the magic was too strong. It's possible there are still left over fragments of, er..."

"Dimensions?"

"Yeah. Dimensions, realities, something like that. I don't really want to believe it, though."

"No? Why? You didn't know there was a Tenth Kingdom until you went through the mirror."

"Yeah, but what if every time we went through it we went to a DIFFERENT kingdom? One that has bumble bees the size of giants, or poisonous bacon, or, or hundreds of Wendells trying to kill all the wolves... Cripes, Virginia, that would be so confusing, not to mention really, really unfair to a couple of heroes like us. No, I prefer to believe it was all magic. Temporary magic."

"All done with mirrors, you mean?"

"Huff-puff, Virginia... that was a terrible joke."

"Sorry."

He kissed her on the top of her head. "Virginia, I broke the mirrors, but I didn't really want to fix anything. It was really just to find you. But if everything was really the same, like it was before, you wouldn't have your mum in the other room."

"I know, and that's worth everything." She ran her hand along his stubbly jaw. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." He squeezed her shoulder.

"If everything ended up the same, would we remember everything we went through?"

"I don't know. This kind of thinking hurts my brain. Sorry."

"I'm sorry, too, Wolf. Sorry I hurt you."

"Me too. And I won't talk about Gigi again. I won't even mention her name."

"I'm sorry I didn't believe in you for a while there."

Wolf pulled her close, smelling her hair, his heart a little sad, but the sadness was outweighed by the joy it held. "I guess I have to be happy you chose me."

"Oh, Wolf. There was no choice. I think, for a while, I loved Mike, but when I found out you—"

"'Mike...'" Wolf turned the name over in his mouth a few times. "Mike, mikemikemike... Funny name. Kind of short and, you know, dull."

"Don't be jealous. 'Wolf' is a little odd too, you know."

"To you. I'm used to it by now."

"Besides, 'Mike' is only a nickname. We like to shorten names sometimes. His name was really Michael."

"I know what a nickname is, just never heard..." Wolf stopped short. Something bolted through his brain, as sharp as the huntsman's arrow when it pierced his flesh. He took a deep breath. "'Michael... Mike.'" He said it differently this time, and Virginia sat up a little.

"What is it, Wolf?"

He had pulled away from her and was staring at her, his eyes a little too white around the irises.

Her heart began to pound. "I'm sorry, what did I say?"

"You... loved Michael... that was his name?" He had a strange scratchy sound in his voice.

"Yes, but Wolf, when I realized you weren't a dream – oh, Wolf, I don't want to be empty, I don't want to spend my life in dreams and regret like Lisette, I want to be with you—"

"—Lisette?" Wolf was panting now, staring at her, eyes wild. What was wrong with him? She didn't know, and it frightened her.

"Lisette. She was Mike's mother... oh Wolf, I'm so sorry for what I've done to you—"

"No," he said, "no, no, no, that's not it, my love, my own, my mate!" He flung his arms around her, pulling her tightly to his chest. She felt his heart beating, soaring, she felt his kisses on her face, in her hair, and, strangely, she heard his voice breaking, filled with emotion, felt his cheek wet against hers.

"Wolf," she said, afraid but enthralled. "What—"

"You never betrayed me." And then he pulled back, to look at her, his face lit up with love and wonder. "I remember now. I forgot, I had to forget, so I wouldn't go crazy. But I remember now. Lisette," he said, "Lisette was my mother's name."

"Oh my God, Wolf."

"And," he said, crying and laughing, remembering what he had forgotten for so long, to spare himself the bitter memories of his past — you have a name, you remember your name — "And she named me Michael."

~*~*~

F
A
L
L
I
N
G

SILVERBLACKNESSSSSSSSSILENCE
Lurching
Swirling
Cold
Hot
Tingling
Rushing
Pop!
Tumbling...

...head over heels in a breathless somersault—
Prickling under hands. Grass.
Wind in hair.
Air—I'm outdoors—

Gigi was cold. She took a deep breath, sat up, reached blindly for Wolf and opened her eyes. And gasped. The world around her was filled with color: red, orange, yellow and brown leaves against a vivid blue sky. Autumn trees. Most remarkably, fringing the green sward on which she sat, were the tallest, most beautiful buildings she'd ever seen. Sunlight glistened off glass windows hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet in the air, illuminating copper roofs and carved stone towers as far as she could see. She stared, hypnotized by the beauty of it all, ignoring the chill in the air. Nothing in the Nine Kingdoms remotely compared to this!

"Oh, Wolf!" she sighed, "the Tenth Kingdom is beautiful!"

There was no reply. She looked about. Where was he? He'd said he was coming right behind her... what about Wendell? The arrow! A chill passed through her. What if something had happened to Wolf? What if he... No! No, Gigi, don't think about that, you're resourceful, you may be on your own here. Think of what to do next—

There was a sound nearby. Gigi looked down from the tall magical buildings and saw a man sitting on a bench at the bottom of the slope, face in his hands, dark hair spilling through his fingers, his posture unmistakably one of deep distress. She jumped up, ignoring the grass stains on her white gown, concerned about what might be wrong, unaware in that moment that her newly-minted compassion had driven thoughts of herself from her mind. She placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. The man looked up, embarrassed, wiping his eyes with his fingers. "Goodness!" she said, relieved. "Wolf!"

He gave a sharp intake of breath, startled as well, but his face broke into a smile. "Virginia? You decided to stay?" He stumbled to his feet.

"I..." Gigi didn't know what to say. She looked him up and down. Something was odd. What was he wearing? He seemed different, somehow. "Wolf?"

He blinked at her, and let his eyes take in her clothing. "Virginia?" There was hesitation in his voice now, and his smile faded a bit.

She bit her lip. This wasn't right. He wasn't...

He let out a long breath. "It's Mike... Wolf. Do you...emember...?"

"Mike..." He looked exactly like Wolf, but not as unkempt. Not as ragged. His clothes were neat, his hair trimmed, and there was something about his face, that same wonderful face, tired and tear-stained as it was, that made her heart crumple, made her forget everything else. He was rubbing his shoulder absently as if it hurt, and on the bench was a triangle of fabric and straps that could only be a sling. "What happened? Did you hurt yourself? Did Wendell shoot you?"

"Virginia?"

"No, I..." She'd always been a practical girl. It wasn't wise to question Destiny when it threw a curve at you. Face it, Gigi. He is not Wolf. Not your Wolf, anyway. She raised her chin a bit and drew herself up to her full height, half a head shorter than he. "Yes. Lady Virginia of the Western Mountains. How do you do?" She curtseyed, nicely, but wobbled a little as she stood up on the slope of the hill.

He took her elbow to steady her. "'Lady'..."

"Well. I prefer Gigi."

He looked at her clothes. She had an air about her, even in the silly dress-up tiara, an ease, a sense of command. And he knew for certain —"We haven't met before."

"No. I don't think...and yet..." She let the sentence drift. Suddenly she smiled, that same, perfect smile he recognized. It made him smile too, it made his broken heart leap up, just a little, with hope.

I know there will be someone for you, I know it.

How can this be? How can any of this be happening? On the other hand, how could his whole improbable life have happened? How could he be who —and what —he was? Maybe it was time to stop thinking. Maybe it was time to act, like the man, like the wolf he was meant to be.

"My name is Mike Wolf," he said, and added, somewhat rakishly, "At your service."

"How do you do, sir." Wolf, of course, she thought. She looked again at the buildings. "This is a beautiful kingdom. I didn't know how lovely it was! I didn't know what to expect. We always thought it was just a legend, the Tenth Kingdom. People must live happily ever after here."

"Happily..." He'd have to think about that. "Sometimes they do." Gigi shivered and Mike shrugged off his jacket. "Here. You look cold." She accepted the jacket and snuggled into it with the same little wriggle Virginia would have made.

"Thank you. Goodness! What happened?" There was a little spot of blood on Mike's shirt where he'd ripped open a few stitches during his struggle with Regina. "Are you wounded?" Her brow wrinkled and she bit her lip. "Let me take a look. I'm quite good at bandaging, as it happens. Have loads of experience. Well, some. Oh dear, here goes another petticoat! Well, it can't be helped. Take off your shirt," she ordered.

"Stop! Please! I'm fine." She was taking his breath away. "Are YOU going to fuss over me, too?"

She flashed him a disapproving look, which only made him laugh. It felt good to laugh. "Did you fight a duel?" Gigi chirped. "For a lady's honor?" The look on her face was intense and filled with curiosity and something very like titillation, which amused him, and made him want to laugh harder, or embrace her, or both. "You must be very brave."

He felt oddly proud, maybe even heroic, which felt a little silly nonetheless. "Well... I don't know, I... suppose so."

"You're a hero."

"No, I—"

"Well, you must be a gentleman, at least. Squire? A knight, surely."

"Sure, I'm the Prince of Wall Street, just ask my grandfath..." Memory subdued him. "But tell me about you. How did you get here? Where exactly are you from? Was there a mirror? I don't know what, or how, this all is possible, but you—"

The words were tumbling out of him, but he had to stop, suddenly, because her hand, with its small soft fingers, was on his lips.

"Ssh," said Gigi, looking up at her prince. "Let me do the talking."

~*~*~

Wolf stood on top of the tall building, the wind so many stories up in the sky ruffling his dark hair. Virginia was by the railing, and called to him, waving. "Look at this, Wolf," she said, pointing to something in the distance. "You'll love this!"

Wolf looked. He saw his mate, his Virginia, his world, her own hair askew, her cheeks pink, her beautiful mouth open with delight, her jacket whipping behind her like a bird's wings. Or an angel's. She seemed to be the only thing he could see, the only thing he needed to, despite the staggering panorama of the Tenth Kingdom spread all around him, beneath this building which by its very name bespoke of the new empire that was his. The spire rose a hundred and two floors, she had said, and they stood on the eighty-sixth. Incredible. "I see," he said, moving to her, his arms wrapping around her, his nose drinking in the scent of her, one hand on her stomach, the other around her waist. "I do love it."

She heard the catch in his voice and turned around. "Wolf?"

"Yes." Her face was turned up to him now, her shining eyes enormous, powerful.

"Is everything all right?"

He looked up. Above the silver pinnacle of this magical building, a flying machine —a skywriter, Virginia had called it, swept silently above them, emblazoning letters of white against the cerulean sky. Wolf struggled to read them upside down—I, then a symbol, then N - Y. He squinted and looked again at the symbol, and his focus shifted to recognize the shape of a heart. I heart N Y? He didn't understand, but perhaps for that moment it didn't matter, for the heart was his, happy and content at last. He had a momentary flash in his memory of this moment, a stunning bolt of lightning in the form of deja vu: himself, Virginia, atop the shining glass building at this impossible height, their eyes uplifted to read words inscribed upon the sky. A splinter in the witches' mirror, a splinter of his life. Only one among the infinite possibilities of his life, one might-have-been, or could-yet-be.

He said something Virginia couldn't quite catch, and she snuggled close to him, where he could shield her against the wind. "What did you say?"

"I said," Wolf whispered into her hair, "I choose this reality."


The End


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