The sun was setting, and their shadows were long and distorted on the ground. It was the end of another hot and dry summer day in Frankfurt. Everyone was a little bit lazy. Even the hunters. Hector had gone for his morning run before it grew too hot, and that had been about it for his physical activity for hours.
But he had plans now. Royer had been in Frankfurt for several days, and Peter seemed to get a lot out of their talks and the examinations. Royer wasn’t a cure, but he may be able to aid Peter in finding a way to control or understand the illness better in the long run. As happy as Peter was to work with Royer, Hector couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the doctor. What were his chances of being able to control his own transformations? Royer wasn’t a werewolf, at least not in the normal definition. He was born a wolf. His family were wolves and humans.
Well, right now, Royer very literally wasn’t human or wolf. Apart from the silver necklace, he was not wearing anything. His clothes were folded up in a neat pile on the ground, and he was standing in front of Hector, looking inquisitive and excited, in that strange shape of his that Hector couldn’t quite describe no matter how many times he saw it. He wasn’t monstrous. Just special. Every part of him looked like it was created for speed and for fighting.
They were alone, but Hector didn’t doubt for one moment that they were being watched, and it suited him fine. This was not only training. It was proof. Hector glanced at the building behind Royer. Most likely more than one pair of curious eyes were studying them from up there. He hadn’t told Royer. Wanted him to act naturally and not be thrown off by the audience.
Hector smiled at Royer. He had been planning this for a few days. He had hunted hares with Royer on their way to Frankfurt and he had taken he wolf with him on his morning runs, but he also wanted to fight Royer to see how competent he was in hand to hand, or maybe rather hand to paw, combat. He also wanted to show everybody else that Royer wasn’t a threat. That he could prove useful if he decided to stay. Frankly, it would be perfect for them, especially for young hunters, to have a wolf here that they could train with. Hector hadn’t told Royer all this, either. He had only asked him casually if he used to fight for fun with his own kind like dogs or wolves did, and when Royer confirmed it, he had offered a training session. He may also have implied that he didn’t expect Royer to best him since he was a very competent hunter. Royer had reacted exactly like he hoped; Playfully and eager to get some physical exercise.
Now they were facing each other in the middle of the training grounds outside headquarters. This was where hunters sparred or trained on their own to stay fit.
“Are you sure?” Royer asked. His eyes wandered to the bandage around Hector’s upper arm.
“Yes,” confirmed Hector and flexed the muscles. The injury was healing fine, and the stitches wouldn’t tear because of this. He was only wearing a bandage to make sure he didn’t get dirt in the wound today. He made an inviting gesture and smiled. “Come on.”
Royer crouched like a predator getting ready to pounce. It took him no longer than it would have taken a wolf to reach Hector. The hunter parried the attack and took hold of Royer’s arm to use the momentum to throw him to the ground. But Royer only turned around, unperturbed and effortless, and dragged Hector with him. It was a strange dance. Hector couldn’t help laughing. It had been too long since he’d had a proper wrestling match with anyone. The wolf man’s lips parted in a grimace that Hector was almost certain was a smile and not the snarl that it resembled. Hector kicked at him, but their grasp on each other’s arms was so firm that they both fell. Royer landed on his back with Hector on top of him, but it took him no time to toss Hector to the side, turn them around and straddle him instead.
It went on like that for a while. Hector managed to get out of the embrace, and they both jumped to their feet. This was as good as he had hoped. He was a little slower and a little more careful because of his arm, but not very much. And Royer was good. He had never been formally combat trained, but he had played with the other cubs when he was young and had hunted with his peers all of his adult life. His instinctive understanding of the fight wouldn’t have improved much with human training. Handling a gun or a knife would be different for him, but close combat of this kind was no problem.
Hector couldn’t help feeling a little proud of him. This was his wolf, after all ... Or the wolf man whom he had brought back home with him. Hector may have to defend the choice and he may be getting a reputation for bringing back wolves to Frankfurt, but look at the specimens in question. One was the chief physician and the other had remarkable physical potential.
The wolf man jumped and landed vertically on Hector with his hands and feet, and Hector fell back. Now Royer was straddling him again, and once more he was smiling. This time there was a mischievous edge to it. Very good. Hector appreciated the straightforwardness and Royer’s engagement in the fight. For wolf cubs, fighting was a game. For hunters, it was an art of survival. But it was fun too. No one had ever become an accomplished hunter without being able to enjoy a good fight.
Hector clenched his teeth and threw himself and Royer to the side. He managed to get out of the wolf man’s grasp and get back to his feet once more. If this had been a real fight, he would have been armed. He would have emptied his revolver in Royer’s chest or stabbed him in the neck with his hunting knife. And if Royer liked the offer that Hector was going to make him, he would have to learn to disarm a hunter.
Sweat was pouring down Hector’s body. His vest was soaked, and grass and dirt had been rubbed thoroughly into it. Royer seemed to be hot as well. When he ran in the summer heat as a wolf, he stuck out his tongue, but he was sweating like a human in this hybrid form of his.
Hector wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Don’t hold back.”
Royer’s smile widened. His teeth seemed too big for his skull. He could easily speak, but when he did it in this form, his voice sounded different. Now, instead of speaking, he made a sound that reminded Hector of a playful puppy’s growl and jumped at the hunter once more.
This time, their struggle turned Hector around, and he was thrown to the lawn and had to cushion the fall with his arms not to land face-first. Royer was on him immediately. Hands that felt more like paws in that moment pinned him down.
Hector held back a groan. Royer’s hands were boring into his shoulders. He was being kind to the injured arm, but he was not showing any mercy to the rest of him. It felt like his whole weight was pushed against Hector’s shoulders.
“Do you give up?” Royer asked. His voice was a little rough and his breath was warm against Hector’s cheek.
Hector pushed his hands against the ground and tried to lift himself and Royer. But it was pointless. If this had been a serious fight, if it had been a werewolf threatening to take his life and not just a friend who threatened his pride a bit, he would have gotten away somehow. But right now … He tried to get up once more, but finally had to consider himself bested. “Yes,” he panted. “You win.”
Royer stayed on his back for a moment. Was he wagging his tail? Hector wasn’t certain, but it wouldn’t surprise him. It felt like he had an overgrown puppy on his back. Then the pressure lifted, and he could hear Royer move around.
He stayed on the ground for as long as he could before anyone, Royer or potential onlookers, could draw the conclusion that was hurt. When he did get up, he was happy his back was turned to Royer because his shoulders hurt, and there was a dull ache in his injured arm now. He made a face, then took a deep breath and turned around. Royer was in the last phase of turning fully human. But he still looked like he wanted to wag his, now nonexistent, tail.
“You’re good,” Hector said.
“Thank you. So are you,” came the reply. Then a teasing undertone crept into Royer’s voice. “But I still won,” he added and bent down to pick up his clothes from the pile next to them.
Hector scoffed and shook his head. “Yes, you did. But in a real fight, I would have been armed.” He stretched his back and shoulders and regretted it at once.
“Were you hurt?” Now the mischievous note was gone.
“No.” Hector smiled. “Of course not. Let’s go get something to drink and …”
The sound of slow applause reached them from the other side of the training grounds. Two figures were walking towards them. Hector shaded his eyes with a hand to better see who it was. The shorter figure had a measured, no-nonsense gait, and the taller one was positively sauntering.
“Did they see us fight? Are they hunters?” Royer asked. His voice was even more worried now.
“They are hunters,” Hector replied. “And I hope they did.”
“So this is your newest prize,” called out the taller person. He was dressed according to the weather and was wearing a sheathed rapier at his side.
“Prize is a strange word to use,” Hector took the bait when the newcomers were closer. “Royer, this is Louis. And this is Anita.”
“It’s a pleasure to finally see what the fuss is about,” said Louis and held out his hand to Royer.
Royer shook it and smiled. “Nice to meet you too, Louis.”
Anita was wearing a sceptical expression. But she was not going to be rude. She shook Royer’s hand as well and greeted him, although she sounded a bit less enthusiastic than Louis.
“Rumour has it you can change your shape at will,” Louis continued. “And from what we’ve just seen, it’s more than a rumour.”
Hector hoped that the word rumour was as much an exaggeration as prize. He had presented Royer to the board, and with their approval, Royer was now welcome to stay in headquarters. People here had seen Hector with his new companion, some had talked to him, but until today, Hector had asked him to stay in his human form unless he was in no danger of being discovered. Until Hector had talked to everyone who may prove problematic and made certain that they would not harm or chide Royer, it was best that way. He had noticed some people sending the two of them strange looks in the dining hall, and there was still a couple of hunters on the road who may have a strong opinion on the matter when they returned to Frankfurt and discovered what had happened.
“Yes,” Royer said. “I can turn fully or stop halfway.”
“Remarkable. And we just saw you beat up Hector,” Louis continued, a little too gleefully.
“I’m not sure I’d put it quite like that,” Hector argued.
“I would.” Louis grinned at him.
Hector breathed in deeply and reminded himself that it didn’t matter. Louis was one of his best friends, but since they knew each other so well, they were also able to tease each other very efficiently. What mattered was that at least two other hunters had seen Royer fight and transform and being in complete control.
“Werewolves don’t have control of themselves,” Anita spoke up. “How do manage?”
Royer’s eyes darted to Hector and then back to Anita. “I’m not a werewolf. I’m not like the creatures you fight.”
“Then what are you?”
“Does it matter?” Hector cut in. “As you can see, he’s not allergic to silver and he can control his transformations. He is no threat to any of us. You can ask Peter his professional opinion if mine isn’t enough.”
Anita shifted her gaze from Royer to Hector and studied him for a long moment. “You were out there with him during full moon. I trust your judgement,” she said.
Hector smiled and inclined his head. They wouldn’t need to discuss the matter further.
“Well then, Royer,” Louis broke the silence that was starting to creep up on the quartet, “after what we just saw, I can’t help asking how you’re planning to use your extraordinary talents.”
Royer blinked and cocked his head. “I’m not sure I understand.”
Hector did. And he tried to silently will Louis not to go into details. His plan had been to talk to Royer about this after their sparring session.
“Are you planning on staying in Frankfurt?” Louis droned on, oblivious to Hector’s attempts. “If you are, I imagine you could help us out.”
Unlike Louis, Royer did sense Hector’s hesitation. He looked a little confused. “For now, I am here to help Peter,” he said. “But thank you. I’m glad you think I could be useful.”
“It’s really hot today,” Hector said. “If you will excuse us, we need something to drink.”
Louis bowed and made a flourishing gesture towards the buildings behind him. “Of course,” he said. “It was a pleasure, Royer.”
Anita gave them a small smile and then jabbed Louis’ side with her hand. As Hector and Royer left the training grounds, they could hear the two others laugh and talk.
“They were nice,” said Royer.
Hector scoffed. “That’s one word for it,” he said. But despite Anita’s coolheaded reservations and Louis’ friendly teasing, they really were. And it certainly was good to know that none of them were going to challenge his authority.
“What was Louis talking about? It sounded like he had something in mind.”
“Well …” Hector shrugged, then grimaced. Royer really hadn’t held back on his shoulders. “I can think of a number of things you can do here. If you want to stay.”
“Do you want me to stay?”
Hector looked up at the clear sky above them. This wasn’t exactly how he had imagined addressing this subject. “I am not going to force your decision, Royer,” he said. “But … Yes. I would be glad to have you here.”
Royer practically beamed at him at that.
The hunter shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. “Louis is right. You have talents that could be very useful here. If young hunters could see you as a wolf, maybe even train with you … It would help them understand how wolves move and act without being exposed to danger. You would be excellent at helping us with our training. But I don’t want you to agree to anything you don’t feel comfortable with.”
Royer nodded. He was still smiling. “I think I would be comfortable with that,” he said.