Walker groaned as he sat, putting a hand to his forehead. “What happened? I—” His eyes opened, then immediately narrowed. “You lied to me.”
Alex smiled. “Nope. I failed, and you can confirm that with Watcher.”
The man stood, trying to shrug off Alex’s paw, but the bear kept a vice-grip on his shoulder. “I said you were on his side.”
Alex’s grin threatened to split his head. “Nope,” he repeated. “I’m on both your sides.”
At that, Watcher barked a short, painful laugh. “Ridiculous. That man is a Shepherd, intent on killing every last one of us.”
“Maybe,” Alex admitted. “I got his side of the story earlier. Watcher, tell me about Mirror’s Smile.”
The Child of Wolf froze, tail and muzzle dropping. “I fail to see what—”
Alex held out a paw. “Indulge me, Watcher. Tell me again what happened to her.”
The wolf sagged, nodding. “Very well, Mr. Demont, if you insist.” He turned and walked over to the riverbank, looking down. He hesitated as he approached Mirror’s body, kneeling next to the fallen Child of Wolf but visibly afraid to touch her. “She had Pledged herself to a small tributary of the Mississippi river. Someone poisoned the water, and—”
“Someone,” Alex interrupted. “You mean AllChem.”
Watcher nodded. “Yes, but I would not learn that until later. I tried for months to help her, when I could. Every remedy I knew, every possible cure I could divine, every prayer I could remember and some I invented just for her.” He reached down to Mirror’s body, fingers hesitantly brushing against her dull fur, tracing one visible rib on her skeletal frame. “Nothing worked. Little by little, the life went out of her, until in the end she begged me to end her pain.” His voice broke. “So I did.”
“You killed her,” Walker sneered, grunting as Alex dug his claws into his shoulder. “Put all the fancy words you like on it; you murdered her.”
Watcher’s head spun back towards Alex and Walker. “No! I… I did everything I could think to do! I was so young, then. I had only just realized my nature. She…” He turned back to his fallen mate. “She was the one to show me the truth of what I was.”
Alex nodded. “Sounds right.” He looked at Walker. “How does that sound to you?”
Walker glared over his shoulder. “How does what sound?”
Alex rolled his eyes, dragging the man over to where Walker knelt next to the fallen body. “For being so smart, you two sure are dumb.” He grabbed Watcher’s arm in his other paw, hauling the Child of Wolf to his feet. “Get a good look at each other. Look down, at her. Who do you see? What’s her name?”
“Mirror’s—” “Lisa—” Both man and wolf spoke, then stopped, staring at each other.
The bear let that sink in for a few seconds before continuing. “Walker, you said you buried everything for your job, until you met Lisa. Watcher, you said you had only just come into your nature when you met Mirror’s Smile. Both of you say the woman you love took sick for an unknown cause. Walker, the wolf tried to heal your girlfriend. Watcher, you did everything you could for Mirror.” As the two stared at each other in growing horror, Alex drove his point further home with every statement. “Walker, the wolf killed Lisa. Watcher, you put down your mate. You found out that AllChem had a chemical spill upstream, the company Walker worked for.”
He let go of their shoulders, walking away from both, while they stood in shock, eyes turning from each other to Alex and back. “You—either, both, whatever—threw away your dreams for your job, then met a woman who could help you have both again. She died when you used your newfound knowledge to try to save her, turning your back on the other half of your past. When you found out it was your company, the people for whom you had given up those visions in the first place, that cost you the love of your life, you cracked.” He threw his paws up in the air, turning to face the other two. “Come on, guys, don’t make me say this out loud.”
Walker and Watcher turned to each other; the man’s face twisted in disgust, the wolf’s in shame. “Right,” Alex said into the uncomfortable silence. “You two have a lot to discuss. I’m not asking you to kiss and make up, but do you two think you can resolve your differences without resorting to name-calling?”
“Don’t count on it,” Walker muttered, his eyes boring into the top of Watcher’s head.
Alex shrugged. “If you can’t, you’re going to die. Your only path to victory is suicide, Walker. It’s your choice. Find some way to live with Watcher, or quit living. Do you see a third option?” He waited several seconds for Walker’s indignant sputters to settle back into that angry stare. “Neither could I.”
A sharp howl jerked Alex out of trance, blinking rapidly, twisting behind the wheel of the borrowed truck. To his right, in the passenger’s seat, the Child of Wolf sat, his head thrown back, his muzzle hanging open, baying loudly enough to rattle the windows. Watcher’s entire body shook, his paws balled into fists, claws sunk into his pads, thrashing against the seatbelt. Tears streamed down his muzzle as he struggled to breathe, to cry, to pour out five years of pent-up anguish.
Alex turned in his seat, putting one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the Child of Wolf’s shoulder. “Hey, Watcher… it’s going to be okay.”
“No, it’s not,” Watcher sobbed, slumping in his chair. “What have I done? What have I done what have I done oh Dancer and Tundra and Nighteyes and… I’m sorry… I’m so, so sorry….” His head bent, his ears pinned against his skull. “Lisa… Lisa, I’m sorry, I… I failed….” His voice descended from there into wordless sobbing.
“Watcher, listen,” Alex said gently, trying to calm the wolf. “I can’t possibly say I understand what you’re going through right now, because I don’t. What I can say is that you’re not alone, and we’re here to help. All of us. Briar and Dancer and I, at least. We’ll get through this. You need healing.”
Watcher swallowed heavily, struggling for control. “No, Mr. Demont, I… I don’t think there’s any healing for me, not after what I’ve done. I don’t think there’s penance big enough.” He closed his eyes, tensing. “I’d like… please, Alex, I… I don’t think I can live with the shame of killing my own kind.”
At that, Alex grinned. He drew in a deep breath, and as he let it out, his face stretched, mouth and nose fusing into a short blunt muzzle tipped by a black leathery nosepad. Fur blossomed along his cheeks, spreading over his scalp and down his neck to disappear beneath his disintegrating shirt. Claws burst from the ends of his fingers, digging into the steering wheel and poking into the wolf’s shoulder. He grunted, squirming against the seat and then tugging at his jeans to free the stubby tail trapped beneath at the end of his spine. Then, after a few moments of struggling, the remains of a pair of shoes flew into the truck bed.
The Child of Bear caught Watcher’s open-jawed stare and chuckled. “If you can’t deal with it, what makes you think I’d handle it any better?”
“But….” For once, the wolf seemed at an absolute loss for words. He swallowed heavily, blinking rapidly as if trying to dispel an illusion. “How?”
The bear shrugged. “Before, I only thought I believed. Now I actually do.”
Watcher leaned back in his seat, gaping. “I really have no idea what to say to that, or to anything else. I’m at a loss as to what to do.”
The Child of Bear gestured to the steering wheel. “We go back to Shadowdance’s Protectorate. We help him rebuild. We help you and Tom rebuild. The rest will take care of itself.”
The wolf shook his head. “It’s not that easy. I’ve… killed people. I’m afraid I may try to do so again.”
“Killing you won’t bring them back,” the bear said, turning to face out the front window. “Alive, at least you can do penance. I don’t think you’re a risk, but if you do try something, there will be others around to catch you before you do anything drastic. It’ll be a long time before you’re well, and it won’t be easy, but you’ll have others around you to help. Besides, Briar and Shadowdance already know.”
Watcher looked up at that, ears drooping. “They do?”
The bear nodded. “Yeah, we caught Tom, I followed up on a hunch, they saw him change. Now, we should get going. We’ve got a lot of healing ahead, for all of us.”
The wolf shook his head slowly. “This… this is too much. I’m in your debt, Mr. Demont.”
“Please,” the Child of Bear said as he started the truck. “Call me Mountain.”