Strength of the Wolf

an excerpt



Prologue

Forward Operating Base Dalaram

Farah Province, Afghanistan

Tim and Lucas slowly wove their way between the tents and rough wooden structures of FOB Dalaram. It was so damn hot, down here in the valley. Thankfully, the uniform of the day was boots and ‘utes, so Tim wasn't sweating into the extra layer of his uniform blouse. Spending the past year aboard a combat operations post, high in the mountains, had thickened his blood.

"So close but still so far," he said on a heavy sigh, pulling his damp skivvy shirt away from his sweaty skin. Tim and the rest of his battalion had been deployed for more than a year and he was ready to get the fuck out of this country.

Lucas looked over at him, brows furrowed.

"We're a plane ride away from being home," Tim explained. "But it's one long fucking plane ride and it's still three days before they'll even let us board."

A grin transformed Lucas' already handsome features. "Yeah, with its typical efficiency, the Marine Corps rushed us to this FOB, just to make us wait until we had to stick around even longer for the full moon."

"After spending a year aboard a COP with twenty-five werewolves, the combined tension of a couple hundred of them just before a full moon is such a joy," Tim said acerbically.

"Noah's practically climbing the walls." Uncharacteristic annoyance colored Lucas' tone. "His agitation is, as usual, influencing every werewolf on the base."

"What do you expect, Lucas? It's the day before the full moon run." Tim laughed. It was useless to point out that Lucas' shortened supply of patience was also caused by Noah's tense mood.

"That's part of it, sure," Lucas replied. "But you know how Noah is. Too much down time makes him a very cranky werewolf. If you were really my friend, you'd help me find something for him to focus all that intensity on." Lucas said the last sentence with a smirk.

"I thought that's what you were for." Tim couldn't help it, Lucas was too damn fun to tease. Right on cue, the lieutenant's face flushed bright red.

"Fuck you." Lucas shoved Tim's shoulder. "Sir."

The rule they'd observed during the last year was in effect now. They were both off duty and discussing Lucas' and Noah's pack of werewolves, so rank was set aside. Right now, he wasn't Captain Madison, Lucas' company commander. He was just Tim.

"We're all still a little belt fed," he said seriously. "We've been on high alert for the last year. Now we're just staging at Dalaram, nothing to do until they ship us home."

"With a tense pack of werewolves," Lucas added.

They started across the open compound near the west gate. "At least the werewolves get to leave the base tomorrow night and go play in the sand. After that, a couple of you are going to get laid. That'll kill some time," Tim said teasingly.

Lucas flushed again, handsomely. He huffed an embarrassed laugh and glared at Tim, his eyes flashing with humor. "Why are you following me?" he suddenly demanded in mock anger. "You're so bored you have to come with me to turn in the logistics paperwork for the full-moon run?"

Tim laughed. "There is no better entertainment than watching high ranking officers fall all over themselves to accommodate a measly second lieutenant."

"You're just jealous 'cause even though you out rank me, I'm more important to the Marine Corps," Lucas taunted with a smile. "That's why you follow me everywhere, you're hoping my awesomeness will rub off."

"I follow you everywhere to make sure you get there and aren't delayed by genuflecting werewolves." Tim pantomimed bowing toward Lucas and they both laughed. Lucas never allowed his wolves to debase themselves in that manner. He expected them to stand tall, heads held high.

"That's what you're jealous of!" Lucas said, with a snap of his fingers. "Does Timmy want a pack of werewolves of his very own?" Baby talk was not a good look on Lucas. "When we get home, maybe Noah and I should find you a lady werewolf to mate with."

Tim laughed, his chest tightening. He didn't correct Lucas' assumption.

"Now that I think about it, though," Lucas studied Tim through narrowed eyes, "with the way Noah's wolf reacts to you, maybe it's a boy werewolf we should find for you."

Tim took a deep breath so he could deflect Lucas' shrewd scrutiny with a smart-ass reply.

A wall of heat slammed into him like a runaway Humvee. A skull-shattering roar filled the air. Tim hit the ground hard, sharp pain spiked through his shoulder and hip. The impact jarred every bone, forcing the air from his lungs in a mighty whoosh. His teeth rattled and his ears rang. The coppery taste of blood filled his mouth. Tim couldn't move; he couldn't get air back into his lungs. All he could see was white light, the only sound was a high-pitched ringing. Tim's chest burned, the side of his tongue throbbed with a stinging pain. He had to get to his feet, he was vulnerable on the ground. Where the fuck was his weapon? Was he wearing his sidearm?

Rolling to his hands and knees, Tim finally sucked a breath into his lungs. His throat and lungs burned. He shook his head to clear his vision, regretting it immediately. The ground tilted beneath Tim and his gut clenched. He swallowed several times, trying to keep down the contents of his stomach.

He could make out shapes now. There was sand everywhere. Marines were scattered around the compound, unmoving. Screams and shouts were just audible over the constant ringing. Someone had a jackhammer pressed to the inside of Tim's skull, moving his eyes shoved Ka-Bars deeper into his sockets.

Getting one foot beneath him, Tim wondered if he could stand. He'd been on his way somewhere when the world had exploded. Where had he been going? The shouting was getting louder. Tim heard screams of pain. He'd been headed to the base HQ to submit paperwork, but it wasn't for his mission. Who had he been with?

Lucas.

"Lucas," he rasped, voice barely audible. He couldn't get enough air into his lungs. "Lucas!" Tim tried again.

"Captain?" Lucas' weak question was followed by a hacking cough.

Tim's vision cleared. He finally managed to make sense of the shouts. There were cries and screams from the direction of the west gate. He got to his knees and looked around the compound. Lucas was beside him, propped on his elbows and looking dazed. "Lucas, you okay?"

"I think so." Lucas rolled to his side, curling in on himself as his lungs cleared themselves with violent coughs. "What the fuck happened?" he asked when the spasms passed.

Tim managed to focus on the gate. It was several seconds before what he was seeing registered. The gate was a twisted, ruined mess of metal and wood. A smoldering truck stood just outside. Marines scrambled around the vehicle. The scene was chaos.

"Bomb," he gasped. "Outside the gate."

"Fuck." Lucas slowly rolled to his hands and knees and spat into the sand. "We've got wounded. I think some are werewolves."

Tim didn't have to ask how Lucas could know that, as he lay on the ground. Tim watched the pandemonium, realizing the Marines needed direction. They needed someone to take command.

"Can you stand?" Tim asked Lucas. "They need help."

Lucas pushed to his knees. "Yeah, I'm fine."

Tim struggled to his feet. He stumbled slightly as he tried to help Lucas. Tim left him to manage on his own or else they'd both do a face plant.

"Come on, Lieutenant," Tim said, as he and Lucas pushed through the dazed crowd of Marines. "You see to the wounded. I'll manage security."

"Aye, Captain," Lucas replied breathlessly. He took two steps forward before he faltered, going down onto one knee. "Oh shit!"

Tim's already racing heart slammed hard against his ribs. "Are you hurt, Lucas?" he asked, already starting to kneel beside him.

"Noah." Lucas' voice was low and raspy.

Hell. That was the last thing they needed. Tim paused, suddenly remembering. "We left Noah back at his tent. He can't be wounded."

"Mirroring me," Lucas replied. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath. "Thinks I was injured."

"Can you let him know you're okay?" Tim helped Lucas struggle to his feet again.

Lucas gave a sharp nod. "I did... on his way... bringing Hubbard... a few others." He spoke in that fragmented way he did when splitting his attention between Noah's thoughts, and events around him. His color was returning and he seemed to breathe easier.

They headed for the gate again. Tim felt steadier on his feet. "It's good Noah's coming. We need help from Marines who weren't shaken up by the blast."

Nearing the mangled gate and the charred truck, Tim barked his first order. "Set up an area to triage and treat the wounded. Need to clear that truck and make sure there are no secondary devices."

"Lucas!" The bellowed name carried over the bedlam.

A shudder ran the length of Tim's spine at the worry and anger carried in that cry. Beside him, Lucas turned toward the sound of his name. Tim turned as well, ready to recruit the werewolves to assist in securing the scene.

Sergeant Noah Hammond was unusually tall, blond, and intense on a good day. Radiating concern for his Dominant mate, the True Alpha werewolf was downright scary. Shell-shocked Marines cleared a path for him as he crossed the compound at a run, a small group of his werewolves trailing behind him.

Lucas held up both hands, palm out in supplication. "I'm fine, Noah."

Hammond grasped Lucas' shoulders and dragged their bodies together. He buried his face in Lucas' neck and Tim heard his shaky exhalation.

"Jesus, you scared me." Noah sounded angry. Tim knew it wasn't directed at Lucas, but at Noah's own sense of helplessness during the moments he'd thought Lucas had been hurt.

"The blast knocked me senseless. It didn't occur to me to let you feel that I was fine." Lucas ran his palms over Noah's arms, chest and shoulders. It wasn't unlike trying to sooth an agitated animal.

"Gents, I understand you just had a scare," Tim said, interrupting regretfully, "but we've got wounded Marines and an unsecured west gate."

He watched Noah and Lucas pull themselves together. Bolstered by one another, their professional demeanors fell into place.

"What's the plan, Captain?" Noah asked, pulling back completely from Lucas.

"I need the two of you to see to the casualties," Tim replied. "There are going to be werewolves among the wounded."

"Yes, sir," said Noah.

"I need to commandeer Hubbard, or another shifter," said Tim. "I need a magic nose."

"Terrell?" Noah glanced over his shoulder.

The tall, handsome, thickly muscled Marine answered up. "Just tell me what I gotta do," he said, with a somber eagerness. His pale green eyes were wide and alert, contrasting even more with his dark hair. He took in the carnage behind Tim.

Tim turned and led his small team deeper into the melee of the bomb site. "Marines! Listen up!" he shouted in his most forceful officer's voice. "Lieutenant Young is going to help you square away the wounded. Follow his orders and give him whatever help he needs, so the corpsmen can treat the most severely wounded first."

Lucas pushed forward, issuing clear and precise orders. Noah was right on his six, further clarifying Lucas' intentions and assigning specific tasks to individual Marines.

Tim gestured for several armed Marines to accompany him to the mangled gate. "Everyone, back away from that vehicle!" he shouted. "We need to clear it before anybody else gets hurt."

Behind him, Hubbard barked instructions, implementing Tim's orders. Terrell was a large man. Not quite as tall as Noah, he was much more thickly muscled. He'd earned the position of Beta to Noah's True Alpha, and his size and strength helped him effectively implement Noah's wishes and orders.

Tim gestured for a nearby staff sergeant to step closer. He ordered the NCO to take his armed infantry platoon, punch out, and recon for hostiles waiting to hit them while they were weak and distracted. Following Tim's order, Hubbard assembled an ad hoc armed security platoon. M16s were retrieved from wounded Marines so they could clear the charred truck.

Hubbard took point, accompanied by several other werewolves. They fanned out, weapons trained on the truck. The shifters encircled the truck, postures indicating they were scenting the air, searching for any hint of unexploded ordinance.

"Seems clear, sir," Terrell called over his shoulder. "All explosives have the charred smell of detonation. No sounds of any timers. I can't feel anything that might send or receive an electronic signal."

"How about humans?" Tim asked, looking over the remains of the truck through the scope of his weapon. "Alive or dead, what are you sensing?"

"Two bodies, both dead," Hubbard replied.

"Have a team verify that and determine the source of the detonation," Tim ordered, stepping closer to provide cover.

Tense moments passed as they watched the team of humans and werewolves inspect the burned out vehicle. The curled and blackened bodies of the occupants were pulled from the cab and onto the ground. The sun beat down on Tim. He'd sweat through his skivvy shirt so it stuck to him miserably. Rivulets ran down his face and his neck, soaking his uniform even more. Visible waves of heat rose up off the sand around them.

Shouts rose behind him. Tim listened with half an ear, knowing no threat was likely to come from inside the Marine base. One of the voices was Lucas. Another was Noah. Corpsmen were seeing to the worst of the wounded. Tim thought he heard Marines with advanced first aid training looking after the less severely injured.

A small wave of relief washed over Tim when he heard the base commander's voice issuing orders. Once all the bodies were located and the scene secured, Marines would be ready to tow the bombed out truck into the base and to repair the useless gate.

When the team gave the all clear, Tim lowered his weapon, but not his guard. He moved in to receive the sit-rep. Dead Afghan civilians were pulled from trucks further back in line, unfortunate collateral damage. It had been a powerful explosion and Tim was surprised more Marines hadn't been killed or wounded. As Hubbard talked, Tim turned to see how Lucas and Noah were faring.

A small tent had been erected for the Marines KIA. It looked like the wounded were grouped by severity and lined up in tidy rows. Some of the more severely wounded were ringed by small groups of Marines. Even Noah and Lucas knelt beside wounded Marines, talking intently.

Tim turned back to Hubbard. "Round up a few more men to hold the perimeter while the gate is repaired."

"Yes, sir." Corporal Hubbard waved over three armed Marines and relayed Tim's orders to them.

The three Marines turned to jog out across the blistering sand.

"Let's go give the base commander a sit-rep," Tim said, gesturing Terrell to follow.

"Sir?" Hubbard looked confused.

"Come on, Corporal," Tim said with a grin. "You're more likely to bite than he is."

Terrell looked abashed for about a second before he realized he was being teased. "Yes, sir. I'm just used to Sergeant Hammond having to deal with you officer types." He huffed a quiet laugh.

"Captain Madison," said Colonel Pollack as Tim and Hubbard approached. "What's the sit-rep?"

"Colonel, sir, a civilian driven heavy truck approached the gate, in line with several others, ostensibly to gain clearance to enter the base for the purposes of delivering goods for our use." Tim summarized the information Terrell had gathered from survivors and witnesses. "Marines assigned the task of checking identification and security clearances of the vehicles and occupants had been talking to the occupants of the suspect truck for several minutes when the vehicle detonated."

"Jesus fucking Christ," the colonel said with disgust. He glanced around, taking in the number of wounded Marines and the charred skeleton of the truck responsible for the damage.

"Initial examination indicates that a large amount of a plastic explosive was placed on the truck's undercarriage and was triggered manually by a vehicle occupant," Tim continued.

"The fuckers waited until a bunch of Marines were nearby, so they could inflict as much damage as possible, didn't they?" asked the Colonel's senior enlisted, Sergeant Major Pattison.

"That's the way it looks, Sergeant Major," Tim said, sharing the NCO's disgust. "We've cleared the vehicle and are securing it inside the base, but an EOD team needs to confirm our assessment of the device."

"Absolutely," Pollack replied. "We've called one in from a field mission, already."

"I put Lieutenant Young in charge of seeing to the wounded." Tim indicated the triaged groups of Marines.

"The choppers are on standby, ready to CASEVAC the ones who need it," said the colonel.

"When Lieutenant Young is clear, I'll get his sit-rep." Even as Tim spoke, a concerned shout came from the area of the wounded.

"You stay with me, Gunny!" Noah's voice was low and rough, his tone forceful. "You cannot shift, damn it!"

Beside him, Corporal Hubbard took a step in Noah's direction. An injured Marine lay writhing on the sand, Noah kneeling beside him. Terrell gave a distressed sounding whine, high in his throat.

"Is that what I think it is?" Tim asked Hubbard.

"Sergeant Hammond is trying to keep a werewolf from shifting," Terrell answered distractedly. Tension radiated off of him and his hands curled into clawed fists.

"Could the Alpha use his Beta's help?" Tim asked.

"If a lot of the shifters have serious injuries, he could probably use my help, sir," Terrell answered.

Tim relieved Hubbard of his M16. "Go, Corporal," he said, with a lift of his chin. "Go serve your Alpha."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, Captain," Hubbard said as he ran across the compound and dropped down beside Noah.

"Is there a problem I should know about?" Colonel Pollack asked.

"Most likely not, sir," Tim replied. "When Sergeant Hammond was wounded in action, I learned from Lieutenant Young that werewolves can cause themselves greater harm by shifting before their more severe injuries have been repaired."

"I thought they healed faster in wolf form." Pollack said, looking at Tim in confusion.

"They do, but that's a bad thing if the wounds are severe enough," replied Tim. "They heal themselves damaged and it can't be repaired."

"Does the wounded shifter understand that?" Pollack's curiosity seemed genuine. "If they do themselves more harm by shifting, why do they keep trying?"

"Sergeant Hammond says that shifting eases pain and the drive to ease the pain overwhelms logical thought." Tim answered.

"Do the corpsmen know this?" the colonel asked, his concern obvious.

"Thankfully, yes. The corpsman who treated the True Alpha explained it to his Dominant so Lieutenant Young could keep Sergeant Hammond from shifting."

Tim watched Lucas stand and confer with two corpsmen. "Lieutenant Young," Tim called when Lucas broke from the huddle. "What's your sit-rep?"

Lucas jogged over to where they stood. "Colonel. Captain." He nodded respectfully toward the two of them.

"Give me the run down, Lieutenant," Colonel Pollack said. "I've got resources on standby, let me know what it is you need so we can get our Marines help."

"Yes, sir." Lucas swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "Five enlisted Marines were killed outright in the initial blast. Two more later succumbed to their wounds. We have ten severely wounded, both enlisted and officers, who require CASEVAC for injuries such as loss of hands, arms, eyes, and debilitating shrapnel wounds."

"When the corpsmen have them stable enough to travel, the sergeant major will have the chopper transport them to the field hospital." The colonel gestured toward Pattison.

Lucas gave a quick nod of acknowledgment. "I believe they're nearly ready to go, sir. An additional fifteen injured enlisted Marines suffered minor wounds such as burns, shrapnel, and sprains when the concussion threw them to the ground."

"The Lieutenant and I were both knocked to the ground by the explosion, Colonel. We're fortunate not to have sustained any of those injuries," Tim added, remembering his own disorientation in the wake of the blast.

"We're all fortunate you escaped injury and were able to take command of the scene. I'll make sure your battalion commander knows what the two of you did here today." Colonel Pollack turned back to Lucas. "How many of our casualties are shifter versus human?"

"It's a fairly even distribution across the board, Colonel," Lucas answered quickly. "As is SOP these days, the detachment standing guard duty, as well as the platoon working gate security were fifty-percent each, human and werewolf."

"How are our wounded shifters faring?" Pollack asked, looking past Lucas with narrowed eyes, taking in the still clustered groups of injured Marines.

Lucas paused, brows drawn together slightly. "In what manner, sir?"

With a quick glance at Tim, the colonel replied, "I was just informed that severely injured werewolves can cause themselves additional harm by shifting."

Lucas' expression cleared. "Correct, sir. The number of wounded shifters was small enough that the True Alpha was able to stabilize them all."

"I'm very glad to hear that, Lieutenant. It's fortunate the two of you were here."

Lucas wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of one hand. "We're very grateful to be of assistance, Colonel."

With a gesture toward the wounded Marines, Pollack said, "Take the Sergeant Major and work with him to get our most injured Marines CASEVAC'd."

"Roger that, Colonel." With a respectful nod, Lucas turned back to his task.

Corporal Hubbard approached slowly. His shoulders were hunched as if trying to appear smaller, the way he did when submitting to Noah's authority.

"Excuse me, sirs," Hubbard said in greeting. "The True Alpha says I'm to provide any needed assistance to Captain Madison."

Pollack turned to Tim. "Captain? I'm trusting you to make sure my base is cleaned up and secured for the night. Be sure Lieutenant Young and the corpsmen have what they need to take care of our casualties. Give me an updated sit-rep when you're done."

"Understood, Colonel." Tim suddenly remembered what he and Lucas had been doing when the blast had hit. "When this all happened, sir, the Lieutenant and I were on our way to your offices to file the paperwork for the full-moon run, tomorrow night."

The colonel nodded as he turned to go. "Have him get it submitted as soon as he's able. We'll make sure things are squared away for the pack. I'll put out the word to the officers to make sure their duty rosters accommodate the werewolves."

"Thank you, Colonel. I'll let Lieutenant Young know."

Hubbard took control of the repair team effortlessly. Under his leadership, they tore down the remains of the destroyed gate. He coordinated different groups to prep the wall, construct the gate, and gather materials and tools as they became needed. Just after darkness fell, Hubbard encouraged them to hang the heavy, cumbersome gate. He and a small group of werewolves used their superior night vision to make final adjustments.

Tim floated between the calm competence of Terrell and Lucas, as he somberly saw to the arrangements for both the living and the deceased. Small groups of Marines, under the supervision of corpsmen, carried the most seriously injured to the helipads. The walking wounded were treated and sent to their tents to rest. Marines needing additional treatment of their wounds were moved to the base infirmary, where they could be monitored while they got some sleep.

With great care and respect, the bodies of the Marines who lost their lives were zipped into body bags. The base seemed to fall quiet, save for the sounds of the ongoing gate repairs, as their fallen brothers were moved to the base morgue.

Noah stood, looking down at the LPCs, Kevlar, and M16s, arranged in tidy rows. There were seven sets, placed carefully in the sand. These were the possessions of the seven Marines who had lost their lives.

"Interested in helping me set this up in the corner by the guard tower?" Tim asked Noah after several moments of contemplative silence.

"I'd be honored, Captain," he replied, his voice rough from use and emotion.

Together, and with a minimum of words exchanged, they buried the butts of the M16s in the sand, placed a pair of boots on either side of each stock, and perched a Kevlar on the end of each barrel. It would give the Marines aboard FOB Dalaram a way to pay their respects and work through their grief.

"The gate has been secured, Captain." Terrell's voice startled Tim from his contemplation.

"Good job, Hubbard," he said tiredly, giving the corporal's shoulder a friendly slap. "Your help has been invaluable, today."

"Thank you, sir," Terrell answered, managing to appear both pleased and embarrassed by the praise. His eyes darted quickly to Noah, who gave Hubbard a pleased look, tinged with pride. As Tim watched, Terrell straightened and puffed out his chest slightly.

Tim bit back a grin. "Anybody seen Lucas lately?"

Noah drew breath but before he could answer, a voice called from behind them.

"I'm right here," Lucas said, coming to stand close beside Noah. "I imagine it's time to give the colonel a sit-rep?"

"Yep," Tim answered tiredly. "We can turn in your paperwork at the same time."

Lucas looked confused for a brief moment, before he pulled the creased papers from a utility pocket in his uniform trousers. "I nearly forgot."

"Let's all go make our reports and then we can get some sleep," Tim said, leading the way to base HQ.

Behind him, he heard Noah say, "That means you, too, Corporal Hubbard. Better get moving."

Tim couldn't hear the substance of Terrell's surprised response.

Colonel Pollack was in his office, speaking into a sat phone. Sergeant Major Pattison showed the four of them in as soon as they entered HQ. Pollack acknowledged them and motioned them to sit. Pattison leaned against the credenza behind the colonel.

When he ended his call, Pollack set the handset down and laced his fingers on top of his desk. He leaned forward and looked at each of them in turn. "Damn fine work today, gentlemen. Damn fine."

"Glad we were in a position to be of assistance, Colonel," Tim replied.

"I'd been told you don't hesitate to take command when it's needed," Pollack said, his gaze meeting Tim's levelly. "And that you easily adapt to rapidly changing circumstances."

"I'm a Marine, sir," he replied. "That's what we do." Tim was so tired, he answered by rote.

"Some better than others, in my experience." Pollack leaned back in his chair. "Lieutenant Young; Sergeant Hammond; your presence here has created a nearly euphoric mood. And I didn't think morale could get any higher."

"Thank you, Colonel sir," Lucas said respectfully. "We're honored to have been able to help."

"Corporal Hubbard." Colonel Pollack turned narrowed eyes on Terrell. "You oversaw the rebuilding of my gate, isn't that correct?"

"Y-y-yes, sir," Hubbard answered hastily. "Under orders from Captain Madison, as well as my True Alpha and his Dominant."

"How do you fit in this pack hierarchy, Corporal?" Pollack seemed genuinely curious.

Hubbard hesitated.

"The corporal is very modest," Lucas said. "It's been my experience that he's unaware of how valuable he is to me and to his Alpha."

Hubbard's cheeks flushed slightly. "Thank you, sir," he said quietly. "I'm Beta to the True Alpha and his Dominant."

"Would that be similar to a senior NCO?" Pollack asked.

"Yes, sir, very similar." Hubbard brightened, as if heartened that the Colonel so easily understood. "I carry out his orders, pass on messages, enforce his will, mete out discipline for minor infractions, things like that."

"He's the only werewolf I trust with my Dominant's life, Colonel, on the rare occasions I can't provide protection myself," said Noah.

"I'm very glad I've had the opportunity to meet you, Corporal Hubbard," Colonel Pollack said. He turned his attention back to Tim. "There's talk of redesigning and updating all of the training materials on having werewolves in combat."

"I've heard that rumor, too, sir," Tim replied. Things would have been much easier for Lucas a year ago, if he'd had better access to critical information.

"If you're approached to contribute to this project, Captain, I recommend you accept. You're a valuable resource."

Tim masked his surprise at such open faith in his abilities. "Thank you, Colonel. I'll give it serious consideration if I am approached."

Pollack gave an exhausted sigh. He ran both hands over his face and seemed to age before Tim's eyes. "Gentlemen, you taught me something earlier that disturbs me. I also believe that you may be in the best position to help."

That took everyone by surprise, if the silence in the room was any indication, since this kind of candor from a high ranking officer was unusual.

"What precisely did you learn that disturbed you, Colonel?" Tim asked.

"That werewolves don't automatically heal perfectly when they shift. I realize now it was naïve, but I'm not the only officer who believes this." Pollock shook his head slowly. "I really thought shifters re-grew severed limbs or gouged eyes." His tone held a note of regret.

"It hasn't been much of an issue since Vietnam," Tim replied, still unsure where this was going. "Once the weres shift, they feel less pain and they heal faster. But they have to be reconstructed first." He paused. "What about this information concerns you, sir?"

The colonel's expression grew dark. "We weren't prepared for these new anti-personnel explosives. Certainly not in the numbers we're encountering them. When it was discovered the shifters could sniff them out, command thought they had the perfect solution. We've been throwing the weres out front this entire time." He made a casually dismissive gesture that Tim knew was anything but.

"And when something went wrong, you assumed the weres would just shift and be perfectly fine." This from Noah. "Aren't any of the officers in my pack informing anyone how this works?"

Tim wanted to know the same thing. It was incumbent on officers to look after the men in their command.

Pollack's expression indicated he had no idea. "I'm not entirely sure there's a problem. It's possible no one has made any connections, yet. It's still pretty early in the game."

"Are my wolves becoming combat casualties at a higher rate than humans?" Noah sounded agitated. Lucas casually reached across and placed his hand on Noah's leg.

Pollack met Noah's eyes directly. "At this moment, I don't know if they are or not. I just recently had the sergeant major start gathering the stats." He turned in his chair. "Sergeant Major?"

"The colonel already has me compiling stats on our casualties," Pattison said. "At first, that information was only logged in the individual medical records. It wasn't a statistic anyone thought we needed to track."

"We've been focusing on the unexpectedly high numbers of blast injuries and amputated limbs, but not on who was being injured," the Colonel finished.

"Either way, a lot of my wolves are going home with missing limbs," Noah observed darkly. "It's tragic when any Marine loses a limb, but humans don't have a biological imperative to shift once a month and hunt for prey."

Tim rubbed his fingertips over his forehead, feeling queasy.

"Which is why I'm suddenly very concerned." The colonel sounded genuinely worried.

"I'll find a way to look into this when we get back to Pendleton, sir," Tim assured him. He already pitied the fools at the Pentagon who would be the targets of Noah's and Lucas' ire.

"Both of these conflicts are taking longer than they were expected to," Pollack said. "Nothing is going the way it was supposed to. We're just getting started. They sent us here with nothing in place to deal with the physical and emotional scars of all the returning vets."

"By the time anyone gets around to implementing anything, the problem will already be unmanageable," Tim mused.

"Light a fire under them, Captain," Pollack said fiercely.

"You can be assured I will, Colonel," Tim vowed.

"Good. Now, do you have something for me, Lieutenant?"

Caught slightly off guard, Lucas fumbled in his pocket for the necessary paperwork for the full-moon run the following night.

"Very good, Lieutenant. You're all set. You're all dismissed, gentlemen. Have a good night."