This story is set in The Tomorrowlands Universe; a full list of TTU stories can be found on the wiki.
© 2007, Tad 'Baxil' RamspottFINDERS, KEEPERS
As ten pairs of yellow eyes bored into him, a thought blew by on the wind: <This land is ours. Leave right now.>
Jim casually unshouldered his backpack, dropping it to the ground at his boots. Several of the wolves let out a low growl and got to their feet. He stared at each pack member in turn, tasting the echo of the thought, tracing it to its source -- there. That large grey one near the back, head held high, making no effort to move.
Obviously the pack's alpha wolf. Jim pointed at him. "You there," he spoke aloud. "We need to talk."
The two wolves between Jim and the grey backed up protectively, their growling increasing in volume. The wolf at Jim's right started to circle around behind him. Jim sighed; he had half expected it would come to this.
He casually waved a hand in the direction of the circling wolf, reading the life pulsing through its pattern, threading a tendril of his will through to its head, giving a precise yank at a loose thread of consciousness. The wolf blinked, staggered sideways, and crashed into a tree with a yelp, its sense of balance suddenly missing.
The display, and the whiff of magic, gave the others pause, and Jim seized the initiative.
"Stand down!" Jim shouted around the clearing, glancing menacingly at his nearest opponents. "I came here alone, and I just called out your alpha. Can he not defend himself?"
The grey wolf leapt to his feet, growling at the insult; another thought hurtled through the wind. <I don't need to. You have no right to challenge me, human.> The word dripped with contempt. <You couldn't hope to lead a wolf pack.>
Jim narrowed his eyes. "Now you're being idiotic on several levels." He dropped into a crouch, summoning old and familiar feelings, and the world bent and twisted around him.
Jim saw the nearest of his antagonists step back in surprise, and several of them looked questioningly at the alpha. Jim pressed past the sensory distractions of his wolf form, and tried to clear out his mind; it had been a while since he'd attempted telepathy. <You were saying?> he thought, and molded that thought into a coherent shape, and gave it a push outward.
The alpha snorted dismissively, but a new edge of fear was tangible in his thought. <Yet you arrive here on two legs? You're no wolf. Spare us your shapeshifting tricks, mage.>
Jim snorted back -- the myriad smells of the forest briefly overwhelming his nose -- and broadcast impatience. <I was a wolf while you were still playing make-believe on the playground, kid. Your excuses are growing thin.>
<They're not excuses!> the grey snapped. <We're here to leave human society behind for the pure wolf life. If you can't handle that, the pack would never have you anyway. We're not some refuge for mongrels.>
It was almost too much to take seriously; Jim found his tail wagging in amusement as he sat. <Purity? So real wolves are telepathic now?>
The alpha couldn't quite suppress a wordless sputter-thought; Jim ignored him and focused. Shortly, he was again a well-tanned, dark-haired human, kneeling next to his backpack.
<Don't give me that bullshit. We have to talk somehow. Better this,> the alpha thought pointedly, <than returning to human form.>
Jim rolled his eyes as he stood up. "Whatever. Are we done wasting time on my wolf credentials yet? Since I'm not even here to challenge you."
<... Huh?> the alpha thought, thrown off guard.
"I told you, we need to talk," Jim said, glancing around the pack to make certain the other wolves had settled down. "You guys have a problem. Once upon a time, a pack could come out to the wilderness and practically start their own nation. Once upon a time, all it took to find a home was a day or two's walk. But it's not 1997 any more, and by pretending it is --" he put his hands on his hips. "Any of you old enough to remember what happened to the last Snoqualmie pack?"
He was met by a chorus of growls. <Of course we know!> the alpha broadcast.
"Then why are you so insistent on sharing their fate?"
As the conversation deepened, nine pairs of eyes flicked back and forth between the grey wolf and the stranger. It was becoming apparent that, despite Jim's disclaimer, a vigorous challenge of some sort was in progress.
<We're not stupid,> the alpha sent. <There's always risks to claiming a home, but we know what worked for them and what didn't. This time, the fight will be on our terms.>
"That's exactly what I'm talking about," Jim said, jabbing a finger at the alpha's snout. "By the time it comes to a fight, you've already lost."
The grey wolf bristled. <And if we're not willing to fight, we lose. I'd rather have a chance.>
"There is no chance if you can't let go of hate. Every pack that's fought them, sooner or later, has failed. Every pack."
The alpha snorted. <The humans can't stop us all! We are the future. We are the Third Age.>
Jim twitched as if slapped. "And the manifesto?" he shouted. "You dare to quote the manifesto at me? Maybe I should walk away and let the army shoot you all."
The wolves stirred at that, looking uncertainly at each other. <They wouldn't!> one of the pack members blurted out, a small brown wolf with an ear notch. <We haven't hurt anyone!>
The alpha turned and growled, and ear-notch shrank back in silence.
"Of course not," Jim said sarcastically. "You're pure wolves, real wolves. Why would they think a group of territorial predators would want to hurt anybody?"
<We do know what happened to the last pack,> the leader cut in, still glaring at ear-notch. <That's why we moved backcountry. They won't send troops into the wilderness.>
"True in 1997," Jim said grimly. "But these days, all they need is a provocation. Which brings me to my visit." He fixed the alpha with a stare. "You picked a hell of a time to announce your presence, you know that?"
The grey's ears flattened. <What do you mean?>
"A pair of hikers on an overnight trip didn't return home yesterday," Jim said. "We found their car this morning on an access road a few miles south."
<I told you, we're not stupid. We didn't attack them.>
"Nobody's saying you did."
The grey snorted. <Well, then. Why we should care about them?>
Jim bit back his growing annoyance and walked up to the alpha. The two wolves on guard faded sideways as he approached. He crouched down to stare at the grey, nose to muzzle. "Why shouldn't you care?" he asked softly.
<Because they're just two more stupid humans,> the alpha thought back, defiantly.
Jim sighed and shook his head. "Awful quick with those assumptions, aren't you?"
The grey looked around uncertainly at his pack. <Well ... uh ...>
"Alright," Jim said, sitting down next to the alpha. "Before you embarrass yourself any further, yes, the missing hikers are human. But I'll bite. Why would their species make a difference?"
<I don't mind theris being out here,> the wolf protested. <They haven't done wrong by us.>
"And the missing hikers have?"
<Their race has. You know how people treat us!>
"So this is about taking your revenge out on innocents?" Jim asked. "Is that it?"
The leader turned his muzzle away. <What the hell is your problem? A pair of stupid people gets lost, and if we don't care about it, it's some sort of genocide?>
"Frankly, yes," Jim said. "Just not in the way that you think."
<... Explain yourself,> the alpha said impatiently.
"Okay. First -- I assume the signs up at the trail crossings are yours. Did you guys also leave the note at the ranger station?"
<That was us.>
"Uh-huh," Jim said. He looked around the wolfpack and raised his voice. "Did you guys know that I'm breaking Search & Rescue rules to even be out here talking to you right now? The regs are very clear. 'No rescue effort may be made' -- no rescue effort -- 'if hostile therianthropes are known to live near the area to be searched.' A few 'keep out' signs would have been a judgment call, but once the note came in, we legally had no choice. So thanks to a few stupid threats, we're sitting on our hands, unable to move in to help two people that are quite possibly dying."
<And what does any of this have to do with genocide?> the alpha cut in.
"I was about to get to that," Jim said icily. "See, when the hikers' family and friends heard, they got understandably upset and called a local TV station. Now the reporters are baying at our inaction. This is statewide news, and people want answers. So why don't you give me a few: who will the media blame if the hikers die, and how long before they come in with the guns?"
<What!?> the alpha roared in his mind. <We never did anything! That's bullshit!>
"Yeah, well, welcome to the 21st century," Jim said grimly.
<Those shiteating sons of bitches -->
"Hey," Jim interrupted, leaning over to speak directly into the grey's ear.
The alpha's head whirled toward him, fangs bared. <What.>
"Yes," Jim said, staring into the alpha's slit-thin eyes, "it's bullshit. But now it's out of your hands, and you've only got two choices --" his train of thought derailed as the earlier cursing sunk in, and he couldn't hold back a short laugh.
That only got the alpha madder. <What's wrong with you? This isn't funny!>
Jim tried to refocus. "No, it's ... hee. It isn't. I'm sorry. But did you actually just call the humans 'sons of bitches'?"
<They're that and worse --> the alpha started, but his anger dissolved into a double-take. The poorly-suppressed snickers of a few pack members brushed past Jim's mind.
The grey shook his head and brought a paw to his muzzle. <You know what I meant. Language habits are hard to break, okay?>
Jim grinned sympathetically. "Hey, better screwing that one up than the other way around."
<What do you mean?> the alpha asked, obviously relieved at the subject change.
"Once, in the early days, I was talking with Claw about our pack leaders -- we were in a mixed-theri group. I made some comment to the effect of 'those fellas are straight-up sons of bitches' -- as a compliment, mind you. Meaning they were as good as wolves in my heart. My beta overheard."
The grey's ears perked. <I bet that didn't end well.>
Jim's smile widened, though his face softened in painful memory. "Of course not. I swear he was ready to kill me on the spot! That was the last time I ever tried to use that phrase as a compliment, that's for sure."
<Ha! Yeah. It's tough for non-wolves to understand us, isn't it?>
The smile fell away from Jim's face. "And what they don't understand, they fear."
Jim was silent for a few moments, then words burst forth in a torrent. "Can't you see it? That's exactly your problem. When the humans fear you, they'll fight you. When they fight you, they'll win. So by putting an aggressive front up to people, you're setting yourself up for failure -- and worse."
The debate picked up as though never sidetracked. <There's no other option!> the alpha thought fiercely. <If they don't fear us, they'll walk all over us!>
"And that," Jim said, getting to his feet, "is where you're wrong. Which brings us back to your two options."
All eyes were on Jim as he popped a crick out of his neck and strode back over to his pack. <If you were going to suggest running, don't even bother,> the alpha said dubiously as Jim unfastened a strap and reached inside.
"I'm not, so --"
<Or moving. Nothing will change if we do.>
"Will you let me talk for a moment?" Jim interrupted angrily. The alpha gave him an aloof stare, but was silent, so Jim turned back to his rummaging.
"Option one," he said, fumbling to find the opening of a plastic bag near the bottom of the backpack, "is you can whine about bullshit and refuse to care about the hikers. I can already tell you how that one ends: They'll send in the troops to clear you out, and I'll watch your slaughter on TV and mourn for the future of our species."
<Would you spare us the predictions of doom?> the alpha asked with an eyeroll, and Jim felt his mounting frustration snap. Quietly, deliberately, he shifted his arm in the pack to reach sideways into a space that wasn't entirely there. His fingers closed around something cool and familiar.
<So they've made up an excuse to pick a fight,> the alpha continued. <Fine. We've got plans. We know the woods. We --!!>
The grey's thought abruptly cut off as Jim drew the small revolver from his pack, straightened his arm out behind him, leveled the barrel at the alpha's muzzle, and pulled the trigger without looking. A metallic click echoed around the clearing.
The single, fluid motion was over before anyone could react, and the pack fell into a shocked, frozen silence.
Jim slowly swiveled his head backward, finally locking eyes with the alpha's, directly in line with the barrel's sight notch. Several of the wolves glanced at each other -- and the very real gun -- uncertainly.
Finally, Jim spoke, softly, without menace: "Have you ever been in a gunfight before, kid?"
The alpha bared his teeth, the question shocking him into recovery. <What do you think you're -->
Jim curled his own lips up, fixing the wolf with a withering stare. "Shut up. This. Is. Important. Have you ever been in a gunfight before?" He looked around and raised his voice. "Have any of you? Because your leader died about 10 seconds ago. And I didn't see any magical defense. I didn't see any fighting back. Hell, I didn't see any of you so much as even moving."
<That's not fair!> the alpha protested. <They won't -->
"Oh, shut up," Jim growled, gun arm still extended. The wolf took one look at his face, and did.
Jim looked around the clearing at the rest of the pack. "Realize this: The army won't give you any more warning than I just did. They won't stop after the first shot. The soldiers you face will be well-trained and much better armed. They will have technological and possibly even magical support. And if I, by myself, can pull this shit on you --" Jim sent the pistol flying at the alpha with an overhand flick; the wolf flinched away, then did a double-take as he realized the gun had come to a midair halt three inches from his nose.
Leaving his sentence unfinished, Jim stood and walked over to the hovering gun, his boots crunching loudly in the dross. He scooped up the weapon by the barrel, thumbed on the safety, and tossed it over his shoulder. It arced gracefully, and dropped cleanly to rest in one of his backpack's side pockets. "What's your name?" he asked, towering over the alpha.
<Silver,> the grey wolf replied, clearly intimidated, eyes flicking sideways at the throw.
"This is fucking serious, Silver," Jim said. "This is not a game for cocky, whiny kids. Don't you dare say even one more word about fighting for a home until you can look every single one of your packmates right in the eye and convince them that you can hold off a fucking army."
Silver's tail drooped between his legs. He glanced around at the other wolves, not meeting anyone's gaze.
Jim took a deep breath and realized that he was trembling.
When he'd pulled the gun, Jim's old training -- drilled into instinct -- had taken over; hidden reserves had coursed through his body like fire, senses had sharpened, invisible defenses had locked into place. And now, light-headed from the surging energy, still prepared for a fight that had never begun, he fought down fear. And his final words echoed through his skull -- in a voice he hadn't heard in years.
S'ra's face flashed in, too. The casual toss of his blunt muzzle: "Hold off the army? Is that all it will take?" Jim's silent terror as the matter-of-fact tone made him believe, just for a moment, that they actually could.
Then another voice brushed his mind, high and clear -- Bella? No, too solid for memory. Jim refocused as the new words pulled him back into the present.
<You've done this before,> one of the she-wolves was projecting. Only half a question. <Who are you?>
Jim looked around, still fighting adrenaline, trying to locate the source. He'd always hated that about telepathy -- even when he had been in a group where he recognized everyone's thought-voice. At his left, one of them was sitting up, muzzle tilted sideways; a quick mental check confirmed it was her.
"I'm --" he started, and almost told her, but he was still on edge, and the old voices and old fear that the name brought up were too close to the surface. He took a breath to steady himself. "Uh, I just go by Jim. Jim, these days."
<I mean, do we know you from somewhere? What's your pack-name?> she pressed.
"I doubt you do," Jim said, panic and instinct competing for his brain as he fought back images of long-gone teammates. "It's been years."
<Oh. I guess not,> she said, abruptly lying down with a disinterested look.
<Hey, anyone else smell deer?> one of the wolves to Jim's right said, raising his nose to the breeze.
There was a general elevating of muzzles. <Nah,> another wolf responded. <But there's a family of raccoon nearby.>
<You're mixing up squirrel and raccoon again,> a third chipped in, and an argument started over the subtleties of various animal scents.
The subject change gave Jim time to drive the memories back, and he accepted it with gratitude. But it still seemed abrupt and inappropriate ... until he realized what he'd done.
The panic defenses he'd set up to keep his coworkers from probing too deeply about his past had kicked in. Subtle tugs at minds, disinterest, distractions; he'd almost forgotten they were there.
Jim suddenly felt guilty -- these were fellow wolves, asking what should have been an innocent question. The name by itself should mean nothing to them, as long as he avoided mention of the Redeemers, and running away from his name even out here felt uncomfortably close to throwing his therianthropy away the way Teri had. There might be risks if one of them recognized him, but these guys were young and so far from California ...
Honesty beat out fear for a few seconds. "Fang," he blurted out.
He got a few quizzical looks -- then remembered to modulate and reverse his magical effect. A few of the wolves blinked as their brains shifted back into gear. <Oh, okay, Fang,> the she-wolf said. Her eyes brightened. <Moonfang, from Vancouver? Anna's husband?>
"No," Jim said, quietly relieved. "Just Fang. Not married."
Silver injected a thought of clearing his throat, looking around the pack to reassert himself. The other wolves guiltily settled back down. <Now maybe this makes sense. Fang ... the Adams alpha?> he asked.
"The who?" Jim asked, not placing the name.
<I mean, the pack near Mount Adams, back after the Changes,> Silver clarified. <The one the Army attacked in ... was it '99? I don't remember its name.>
Jim shook his head. "Even if I'd heard of them, not me. I've never run a pack."
Silver's eyes went wide. <You've never even --!> he sputtered. <And you just walk in here and start telling me what to do?>
Jim turned to face him full-on, raising an eyebrow. "Are you challenging me, pup?"
Silver flinched and crouched in submission. <... No,> he thought quietly.
Jim grinned despite himself. "Then maybe we can talk about saving you guys' hides now?"
<Just a minute,> Silver protested, tone growing increasingly desperate. <Yes, you're strong, but that doesn't mean you -->
One of the other wolves -- who had been silent the entire time -- got to his feet and yipped at Silver. The alpha broke off, and the two of them looked at each other for several seconds. Jim felt faint flickers of telepathy, but made no effort to eavesdrop; this had all the signs of an alpha/beta conference.
Silver finally drew himself up and stared up at Jim. <Alright, they -- we -- will listen to you,> he said grudgingly. <You've earned that much.>
Jim glanced around the pack. All 10 pairs of eyes were again on him -- but this time, wide with curiosity. "Alright," he said, dipping his head in respect toward Silver; no sense in being a sore winner. "Thank you. Like I was saying, two options. The first being fighting ... and losing."
<And your alternative?> Silver asked, a bit impatiently.
Jim turned back to his backpack and rummaged down to the plastic bag again. He removed a Western Washington University sweatshirt, and held it up in one hand, looking around soberly at the wolves. "Just so you all know, I swiped this from the car. That's theft, obstruction of a rescue effort ... probably even removal of evidence from a crime scene. If this works out, they'll probably forgive me. If it doesn't ..." he stared into Silver's eyes. "I hope you realize that I'm putting myself on the line here, too."
<That belonged to one of the hikers?> the alpha asked, obviously sidestepping the point.
"I'm hoping it still does," Jim fired back. "If they're already dead, we're all pretty much screwed."
<Then you want us to help you find them.>
"You catch on quick," Jim said. "But here's the trick. You find the hikers -- and then you judo the media bullshit."
<Huh?> Silver asked dubiously.
"I'll pull some strings, make sure you get credit. You use that. Talk to the newsmen --"
<What?! You've got to be kidding!>
"I'm completely serious," Jim said.
<Out of the question,> the alpha snarled. <We're not sellouts.> A contemptuous image of a brown dragon floated through Jim's mind.
"Hey, look, whatever you think of Redwing, he did get one thing right," Jim countered. "Get the media on your side. If the media hates you, the public hates you. If the public hates you, everyone looks the other way when the guys with the guns come in. If you want any chance of a home here, you simply can't afford to be the bad guys."
<We couldn't convince the media even if we wanted to! You said it yourself, they're just looking for an excuse -->
Jim cut him off. "That's where the rescue comes in. The media likes a nice, tidy story. If you save people's lives, that makes you good guys. They can't twist that around without their tidy story falling apart."
<Oh, sure,> Silver said sarcastically. <They'll make us the good guys. Because why would they think a bunch of territorial predators would want to hurt anybody?>
"Then don't let them. Set the narrative," Jim said, his irritation at Silver creeping back in. "They've been treating you like killers, but here you are saving people's lives. That's pure gold. Injustice and redemption."
<Look, it'll never work! They've made up their minds already!>
"It can work, and I'll tell you why: Because this is the first time you'll get to tell your side of the story. I guarantee they'll be eating out of your hand --" Jim paused and raised a finger. "If you can get one ... little ... thing ... straight."
Silver glanced back at his beta, then looked at Jim resignedly. <Okay, what?>
"You apologize for that note. You fucking grovel if you have to. And you'd better be sincere -- newsmen can smell fakers just like we can scent prey. But if you've got that, the rest of the story will fall into place. You tell them you put out those signs because you just wanted to be left alone. You never meant any actual harm, and you feel awful about the misunderstanding. And this is the most important part," he said, jabbing his finger, remembering one of the alpha's earlier remarks. "You drop the Human Evolution bullshit like a hot potato. You explain that this episode has made you realize all you want is to peacefully coexist. Screw fear -- get their sympathy."
The alpha's ears flattened. <You're crazy. Forget it. We're out here to get away from exactly that sort of stupid human game.>
"Yeah, well," Jim said pointedly, "that was option one."
<Oh, for...> Silver started, but the beta quietly coughed. Silver looked at him, then around at the faces of his packmates. <Okay, fine,> he thought. <Give us time. We'll think about it.>
Sensing a shift in momentum, Jim pressed on. "Think quick. We're burning daylight, and every night the hikers spend out there drops their chances of survival."
<Look, it's not that simple. You're asking a lot.>
"I am. But two lives are at stake," Jim said. He paused and glanced around. "And all of yours."
<We still need to discuss it,> Silver said.
Jim picked up his backpack, shouldering it and clicking the hip belt closed. "Not really, no. You're the alpha. Your word is law." He couldn't resist a jab. "Unless you're going to give them an order unpopular enough to draw a challenge?"
<How could I not?> Silver asked in disbelief. <You're asking us to give up everything we came out here for.>
<No, he's not,> a different thought-voice cut in to the conversation -- and Jim recognized the she-wolf who had asked his name earlier. He glanced back to see her trotting up to his side. <Silver, we came out here for a place to be ourselves. Fang's right -- we're not going to fight our way into it. I don't know if his plan is going to work, but if we don't save the hikers we're out of options.>
<Lupi!> Silver snarled. <Stand down! You don't decide for the pack!>
<What's there to decide?> she said. <I'm going to help him. If you want us to follow Fang, I have no challenge. And if you're going to sit by and let the Army come in, I'd rather leave than die.>
Jim glanced around the pack to see the other wolves looking at each other uncertainly. The beta snorted and stared at Lupi; she raised her head and locked eyes with him. Their hidden thought-quivers buzzed back and forth.
Jim considered, then focused and sent some mental tendrils snaking toward the alpha. <Silver?> he thought quietly, guiding the query along the narrow channel.
The wolf glanced up with angry eyes. <What more do you want?> he thought back privately.
<Just to warn you,> Jim thought, projecting concern. <Lupi's stand surprised me as much as you. If you were really looking for input from your pack on your decision -- you'd better listen when they speak up.>
<Shut up. I don't need any more of your advice,> Silver thought, quietly baring his fangs. <You walk in, humiliate me, and split wolves off from my pack. Any more of your "help" and you might as well pull that gun back out.>
Jim kept his face straight. <Silver, I'm here to save lives. I'm a rescue worker. It's what I do. And with twelve lives on the line, there's no room for pride. There's no time to play stupid face-saving games. You just do what works, and you do it fast. I suggest you take that lesson to heart before the rest of your pack revolts.>
Silver retreated from the mental connection as his beta looked at him and softly growled; they locked eyes in a lengthy conversation. Jim looked around the pack. The other wolves seemed to be getting increasingly restless. Jim adjusted the straps on his backpack and waited in silence; nothing more he could say would help right now.
A shallow, sharp probe touched Jim's mind, and he sent a <??> back at it to find Silver at the other end.
<Alright, Fang. Fine. Let's make a deal,> the alpha thought privately at him, the earlier anger replaced by a tinge of bitterness.
<What do you mean?> Jim answered.
<You're here about the hikers. I'll tell the pack to help you find them if it's that important to you. But forget the rest. No media. We'll take away their excuse to attack and I'll take it from there.>
Jim rolled the idea around for a few moments. It was tempting -- get his job done and get this whiny, abrasive wolf out of his hair. But that wouldn't solve the pack's problem, and he'd put too much effort into this to let the brat sell out his friends with shady half-measures.
<Silver, that's not my deal to make,> he thought back. <You offer me anything, it had better be a plan your pack has approved.>
<!!!> Silver cried wordlessly, exasperated. <Christ, make up your mind! Not two minutes ago you were telling me my word is law around here -- now I can't even order them to help you out?>
<You can do whatever you want,> Jim thought. <But you're ultimately accountable to the wolves who follow you, and you're treading on awfully thin ice right now. No deal we make will stick if you get challenged and overthrown.>
Silver was silent for a few moments. <As if that wasn't your whole goal here,> he thought acidly.
<I already told you. I'm just here to save lives. Both the hikers and you guys. You're the one who refused to treat this as anything but a showdown. And the only reason -- the only reason -- I've fought back in kind is that you keep pulling your manifesto bullshit.>
<What do you mean, bullshit? What the hell's your problem with Human Evolution?> Silver challenged.
Jim suppressed a twitch. <One, a long and personal story,> he answered. <Two, and more importantly, it doesn't work. I'll be happy to explain later -- but right now, your pack's pretty restless, and sitting here whispering isn't helping that.>
Silver glanced over his shoulder. <We've got a minute. Silence is still talking to them.>
<Who?> Jim asked, but the answer quickly seemed obvious. <-- Your beta?>
<Ah,> Jim thought. <And what does he think of all this?>
<He says that after everything we've seen you do, I can't afford to be on your bad side.> Silver's eyes flicked around, then he straightened up and stared at Jim. <Which is probably true, but I'm not sure I care any more. So help me God, you have got to be the most obnoxious son-of-a-bitch I've ever met.>
Jim held back a chuckle. <Was that a curse or a compliment?>
<Huh?> Silver thought back. <... Oh.>
Silence cut into their conversation with a soft growl, and Silver broke off and turned to face him. Telepathy buzzed back and forth, and Silver looked around at several of his packmates. A few got up and trotted over to join Lupi at Jim's feet.
Silver flattened his ears and glared at Jim, reopening the private thought exchange. <So now, if I don't go along with your insane plan, I have a revolt on my paws. I hope you're happy.>
<Not really, no,> Jim thought back, suppressing the urge to say "I told you so." <I'd be a lot happier right now if you had just asked me at the start what I wanted, instead of trying to threaten me away.>
<Yeah, yeah. Because this is all my fault. What am I supposed to think when a human marches up to my pack?> Silver asked.
<That he wouldn't do something that stupid without a good reason?>
Silver projected an exasperated sigh. <I hope you don't really believe that. Humans do stupid things all the time.>
<So do us theris,> Jim chided. <But I'd rather think the best of everyone than be selectively blind.>
Silver glanced around and changed the subject. <So what am I supposed to do now? You won't listen to me unless my whole pack agrees, but you've already made half my pack leave.>
<Unless I miss my guess,> Jim thought, <your pack is split between wolves waiting for your word as leader, and wolves telling you to take my advice. There's an easy way to satisfy them both.>
Silver glared at Jim. <You're still insane. It'll never work.>
<Half your pack says different.>
Silver broke off the connection, stared at Silence for several seconds, then sent a pointed mental sigh at Jim. He yapped at his packmates and walked over to Jim's side. The remaining wolves stirred, and slowly followed.
<Alright, Fang,> Silver broadcast around the clearing. <We'll help you. But if your plan causes anything to happen to any of my packmates, I'll rip your throat out myself.>
Jim chuckled and let the face-saving threat slide. "If anything goes that badly wrong," he said, "you'll probably have to get in line."
Silver dipped his muzzle in a nod. <Alright, guys,> he broadcast. <We'll take orders from Fang until this is all over.>
Jim recognized the subtext -- when this goes wrong, it's not my fault -- but ignored it. He looked around at his ten new search and rescue volunteers, cinching his pack straps tight. "Only the rescue itself," Jim clarified. "I can't speak to the media for you -- I'm not a packmate, and that explanation has to genuinely come from you or it'll backfire."
<But that's the hardest part!> ear-notch piped up. <You're not going to just leave us to figure it out, are you?>
Jim reflexively glanced at Silver, expecting a growl, before realizing that his temporary promotion had freed everyone to speak to him directly. "No," Jim said. "I'm not a packmate, but I'm a fellow wolf, and we've gotta stick together. I'll help all I can."
<Maybe I can talk with them,> Lupi volunteered. <They'll go easier on a girl.>
"That sounds like a good idea, and I hope your alpha agrees," Jim said. "We'll see. Anyway, you all ready to save those hikers?"
<Yeah,> came the thoughts in a ragged mass.
The enthusiasm was lackluster. Jim considered. "Let me rephrase that. Two people are missing ... in your woods. Mother Nature thinks she can play hide-and-seek, but we've got a dozen of the best noses in the state. Are you ready to hunt?"
<Yeah!> the wolves thought, their ears perking up.
Jim grinned, a glint of something feral in his eyes. "Before we found the note, Fred bet me $20 this would be a two-day sweep. He thinks it's too thick out here to find 'em in an afternoon. Ha! You all ready to show the humans who really knows this forest?"
<Yeah!> the pack chorused, many tails wagging.
"Then it's time to prove that there ain't nobody who can outhunt a wolfpack!" Jim shouted, raising his fist and throwing his head back into a full-throated howl.
The pack joined in -- even Silver, Jim noted with some satisfaction -- and they were already running by the time the echoes died away. Muscles burning in magically enhanced exertion, face locked in a smile, wolves yapping excitedly at his heels, Jim dashed back toward the trail.
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