Accepting His Wolf
by Sunny Day
eBook ISBN: 978-1-62741-983-3
Rio’s actions unseated previous commander of Legion base Beor. He is suspicious of the man chosen to replace him, but Nathaniel isn’t what he was expecting. Nathaniel, while willing to work with werewolves, doesn’t plan on sleeping with one. Once they are involved, what happens next?
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It was almost noon when Nathaniel showed up at Legion station, waving absently at the Legionnaires in the foyer, some of whom led the prisoners in. He deftly found his way up to the second floor, where his unit was located. The room was almost empty, as most of his colleagues had gone to lunch or were out in the field. Nathaniel nodded to the ones who were present and headed straight for his desk.
“You had a call, Nathaniel,” Brannon said, frowning at him even as he took a call on his own desk. Brannon didn’t like Nathaniel and made no secret of the way he felt. Nathaniel wondered why he was now relying messages when otherwise he’d have done his best to ignore Nathaniel. There were two possibilities. Either it was something important, or something Brannon thought was embarrassing. Brannon wouldn’t hesitate at all if he thought he could humiliate Nathaniel in front of their coworkers. Luckily for Nathaniel, his and Brannon’s views on what was embarrassing often differed. He regarded Brannon as a pest. Their dislike was known in the unit so they mostly didn’t have to work together.
“What was it?” he asked absently, shrugging out of his jacket. He’d spent almost all morning outside the building and hadn’t received any messages on his Legion-issued communicator, even though he had it on him all the time. In fact, it was via communicator he’d been called to North 11, one of the smaller stations in the city.
“Don’t know. Colonel Harris just asked to see you,” Harris answered resentfully. Nathaniel raised an eyebrow. “I see.”
It certainly explained the man’s bad mood. The station commander, Colonel Harris, was Nate’s mentor. They’d served together and despite his higher rank, Harris considered them friends. He made no secret of that and often dropped by to either talk to Nathaniel or give him specialized tasks. Brannon wasn’t the only one who envied their close relationship and disliked Harris’s attitude.
“True. He seemed disappointed you weren’t already here.” Cade, another younger Legionnaire butted in, pushing the papers he was working on away on his desk.
Brannon shrugged negligently. “His shift had already started,” he explained, watching Nathaniel intently. “You know you were supposed to be here hours ago.”
Brannon must have delighted in informing Harris of that.
“I was off at North 11 station,” Nathaniel answered. Brannon narrowed his eyes at him.
“I thought you were done with it.”
“Something came up. Did Colonel say what he wanted?”
“No,” Brannon said sharply.
Cade grinned. “He didn’t. He just said to come see him when you’re back. I assume he has another assignment for you.”
Could be. Harris was, after all, his superior. Nathaniel wondered idly what Harris had in mind. He could have just as easily ordered Cade or Brannon or any of others to do as he wanted, but he’d asked for Nathaniel. Brannon looked miffed, probably insulted that Harris hadn’t asked for him instead, once he said Nathaniel wasn’t as yet present. Brannon was in his forties and had almost ten years more experience than Nathaniel. He disliked the influence Nathaniel had among their fellow Legionnaires and felt it was a clear case of favoritism on the colonel’s part.
The communicator on his desk blinked innocuously, informing Nathaniel he had messages. Those were ones that either weren’t important enough to be routed to his personal com, or deemed too important to be transferred via open network. Legionnaires had their own security measures inside the building. Nathaniel riffled through papers on his desk, concluded that everything could wait, and reached for his jacket, preparing to leave again.
“Hey, Nathaniel, can you—” Another one of his colleagues approached him, brandishing a stack of papers. Nathaniel raised both hands. “Sorry. Ask me when I get back,” he said apologetically.
Jeremy frowned. “You just got back,” he pointed out accusingly. Nathaniel almost rolled his eyes. Jeremy was a recent graduate from Legion Academy and had started to pick up some of Brannon’s more annoying characteristics. Nathaniel would have to do something about it or the kid would end up being insufferable.
“I need to go out again,” he explained patiently.
“Wish I could come and go at will from my job as well,” Brannon said darkly, tapping impatiently at his communicator. The machines at the Station were supposed to last and be secure, which meant that they were basic. There were now more modern ones, with more options, but most Legion personnel even privately stuck to basic ones. Nathaniel did. Brannon didn’t, and his attitude was why he was never going to advance.
“Colonel asked for me,” he added for Jeremy’s benefit. “I’ll help you when I get back.”
“The Colonel?” Jeremy asked, eyes wide as saucers.
Cade leaned back in his chair, obviously enjoying the gossip. “Yes, the colonel. He came down personally, didn’t call on communicator, didn’t send someone.”
Nathaniel stifled a laugh. Harris was a paranoid bastard and proud of it. He wasn’t going to leave a message on a communicator anyone in Nathaniel’s unit could use, or even worse, give it to one of the young recruits appointed as his assistants. That’s how rumors got started…“I better hurry. The Colonel will not be happy if he has to wait for me.”
“I thought the two of you were friends,” Cade said.
“You are?” Jeremy repeated, swinging his gaze from Cade to Nathaniel. He hadn’t been at unit long enough. “My uncle respects him a lot.”
“I know,” Nathaniel said. “Your uncle asked Harris, who asked me, to help you when you came,” Nathaniel said kindly. Jeremy was young, one of the new graduates from Legion Academy, which meant he was an officer. Like many of those, he’d thought he was better than regular Legionnaires who just applied for a job and advanced through the years. Jeremy arrogantly assumed he could order Nathaniel, who’d joined Legion when he was nineteen, around. It’d worked in Nathaniel’s favor since he was tasked with training young officers. There was nothing wrong with Jeremy that a couple of years in field wouldn’t cure. He’d also had a hunch Jeremy’s uncle, a grizzly old sergeant, was going to smack some sense in his nephew’s head once he got a report from Harris.
Jeremy’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know that,” he said weakly. Cade smirked. He’d apparently surmised as much. Nathaniel made a point to mention Cade to Harris. They could always use good officers.
“We weathered some hard times together,” he explained to Jeremy. He pulled his jacket on again, then opened a drawer in his desk and rummaged through it, before pulling out several insignia. When out in the field, he preferred the simple, dark gray uniform of Legion. People were less careful of low-ranking members, and he’d found it useful. If Harris had called him and he had to attend the Colonel in his office, he’d better make sure he was properly attired, since some high-ranking sticklers were liable to complain if they saw him without markings of his rank. He set the small red pin on his chest, brushing the lint from his sleeves. He grimaced. He had been wearing the damn thing the last time he got shot at, and it was still crooked.
“Haven’t fixed that yet?” Cade inquired.
“The metal melted. They said they’d have to issue me a new one,” Nathaniel grumbled, unsuccessfully trying to straighten the pin.
“Give it up, Nathaniel. It’s still crooked,” Cade said, suppressing a laugh. Jeremy’s eyes had bugged out at the sight of the pin. Nathaniel sighed.
Brannon sniffed, but he didn’t comment.
The red pin didn’t denote rank. It simply meant he’d gotten into Legion via Cleaner unit, working on the fringes of their world for five years before getting a permanent position in Legion. It wasn’t the easiest way to choose. Some people went into Cleaners instead of to jail. The ones who volunteered were either crazy, suicidal, or too tough, as the saying in Legion went. Not surprisingly, most Cleaners ended up in high positions in Legion once their tour was done. Colonel Harris was one. It was where he and Nathaniel had met. Putting on the pin, Nathaniel reminded everyone present of that fact, and that it accounted for the close friendship they had no matter what the rumors seemed to imply. Jeremy had obviously gotten the message.
Nathaniel left the squad room and started climbing the stairs. Like most Legion buildings, this one was old and almost without any windows. Fluorescent markings on the walls directed those visitors who weren’t sure where they were going, but these were higher floors where most civilians weren’t allowed without an escort. Security sensors built in the wall scanned him unobtrusively. Some of them were set for Nathaniel’s ID, hanging around his neck and tucked out of sight under his jacket, and some demanded he put a palm on a designated surface so he could be identified. Nathaniel had been here before and knew the drill. He had fifteen years of service, and while he had no desire for promotion, he wasn’t without influence. People like Brannon would never get it. He was happy where he was and had no intention of making waves. Maybe at some point later in his career, but he was still young, in great shape, and wanted to be in the thick of things as much as possible. The Legion, as it was now, was a cross between the police, army, and government of the old world, before disaster struck. They had an important role in their world and consequently their members wielded a lot of influence.
He wasn’t a frequent visitor to Harris’s office, the colonel preferring to see his friends outside of his workplace, so it took him some time to find it.
Two young Legion members stood in a small foyer, talking quietly.
“Lieutenant Nathaniel to see the Colonel,” Nathaniel informed them, slowing his pace.
The one behind the desk made a show of checking his computer. “I don’t have the name, Lieutenant.”
The other one, though, took Nathaniel in one glance, eyes lingering on the red pin and drawing the correct conclusions from the fact that Nathaniel had climbed up here alone and without triggering the alarm.
“I’ll inform the Colonel, sir,” he said respectfully, and disappeared behind the door. His friend eyed Nathaniel coolly. He was apparently startled when Harris himself showed at the door.
“Come on in, Nate,” he said, waving him inside. Nathaniel suppressed a grin and followed him into his office, nodding at the officer who announced him. “Thank you.”
“I think only one of those will end up being useful, sir,” he said as the door closed behind him.
Harris chuckled. “Not going to ask which one.”
Nathaniel smirked. “Thought it was clear, sir.”
“Yes, he needs experience in the field. I already have a position for him in mind. How is Jeremy shaping up?”
“Young and arrogant, sir, but not without reason. I believe he is trainable,” he responded promptly.
“Darrel will be happy to hear it. Have a seat, Nate.”
“Morrow told me you were at North 11 station,” Harris said, settling into his chair. It creaked ominously. The chair had traveled with the Colonel from the station they’d settled in Unclaimed Territory, years ago. Most of the supplies allotted there were on their last legs. The chair was no exception but the Colonel had clung to it, repairing it when it became too worn down. Nathaniel, same as any of the Colonel’s many friends, had been roped into helping with the project. Most of them hoped the damned thing would one day spontaneously burst into flames.
At Harris’s words, Nathaniel glanced at him in surprise. Harris had not only come looking at him downstairs, but tried to find him via network.
“You could have called me, sir.”
Harris grimaced. “It wasn’t that urgent.”
“But it is important, sir?”
Harris ignored his question, instead giving Nathaniel a long once-over.
“You’re looking well, Nathaniel. No lingering effects from the shooting in January?”
“No sir. Except the pin.” He glanced down at his chest.
“The—oh, that. I’ll tell someone to issue you a new one.” He squinted at the pin on Nathaniel’s chest. “Is that melted?”
“Only partially, sir.” He studied his old friend carefully.
“Regret to say I can’t return the compliment, sir. You look awful.”
The Colonel was in his fifties now, a stockily built man with hair peppered with silver. His nose has obviously been broken more than once. He cut a dignified and imposing figure. However, there were dark bags under his eyes, he was pale under the tan from the Unclaimed Territories, and his lips were pressed in a thin line. He snorted, some of his old humor showing in his eyes at Nathaniel’s comment.
“You always were a cheeky bastard.”
“You trained me, sir,” Nathaniel replied, his mind whirling. He’d last seen Harris more than a month ago at a dinner party given by one of their mutual friends. He knew that Harris had an important position in Legion and wondered what was troubling his mentor.
Harris sobered abruptly. “So I did.”
“Is something wrong, sir?”
Their world was healing from intense war and they had a long way to go, but life now, in the Claimed Territories, was both safe and pleasant enough.
“No.” Harris rubbed his forehead. “My job has been more stressful than usual.”
“I find it hard to believe. We have both come a long way from the Cleaner Unit, sir.”
“I don’t like politicians, Nate. I have to work with them, but I don’t like them. Lately, they’ve conspired to make my life hell.” His voice was strong and determined as ever. He gripped the edge of his desk and looked squarely at Nathaniel. “That was what I wanted to talk to you about. Have you heard the rumors, Nathaniel?”
In a big organization such as Legion, there were always different kinds of rumors, some less absurd than others. While Nathaniel made a point to know what they were about, he didn’t let them influence his decisions. “What rumors?”
As far as he knew, there were several that could warrant Harris’s attention.
“The shifter problem.”
The colonel was never known for pulling punches.
He was intimately acquainted with shifter controversy. Before aliens invaded their world, they were on the brink of open war between humans and shifters. A war with invaders had given them a common enemy. During the war they had worked and fought together, but the alliance was fragile and started to crumble almost as soon as peace was achieved. The Legion commanders, however, were adamant not to allow their population to become divided again, and worked diligently to integrate them completely.
The Legion itself was a big hurdling step. For all intents and purposes, shifters policed themselves, and their reception to Legion’s intrusion into what they saw as their own business was, in the best cases, lukewarm. Nathaniel had never personally served in Space Squadron, which was the only part of Legion that officially recruited and worked with shifters. The Squadron was a neat way of sidestepping the issue.
“Let’s not sugarcoat it. The Legion itself has a less-than-sterling history when working with shifters. We are trying to change it, but old prejudices die hard. After the scandal at Boer, something had to give.”
“I’m familiar with the Boer situation, sir,” Nate said neutrally.
He was. After recent media coverage, it was hard not to be. Some humans detested shifters, like Legion members at a station in Boer. Since they were tasked with maintaining order in the whole town, their bias had caused open war between the local pack and station. Once the dust settled, Legion had found itself in the unpleasant position of having to apologize. Nathaniel forced himself to keep still and his face stayed impassive. Nathaniel had never told Harris about his ancestry, but the older man must have guessed. On the fringes of their world, such secrets had a way of coming out and subsequently being promptly forgotten. If someone saved your ass, you didn’t care if they shifted into an animal occasionally. Well, most people didn’t care. Some did. Nathaniel had met both kinds.
“Shifters argued that with the rising influence of Legion, and the fact it dealt with both humans and shifters, it made sense to integrate the two.”
“I have heard of the motion. It isn’t new, sir. It has its detractors and supporters, both among the shifters and humans.”
Shifters had their own hierarchy and they were prohibited from joining the Legion, a remnant of old world policies.
Harris shuffled his papers. “It isn’t, but what with the situation in Boer, it came to the forefront. There is no denying it’s a crucial matter.” He took a deep breath. “The new regulations are already prepared, Nathaniel. The only thing left is not to implement them, because orders are already made, but to inform the public. The shifters will be allowed to serve in Legion.”
Nathaniel sat there, stunned.
“The Space Squadron, which was a mixture of both species to begin with, is easier to deal with,” Harris continued. “As for the rest, we are pulling in shifters we already worked with and”—here he hesitated—“the ones who are already in the Legion. Unofficially, of course.”
Nathaniel considered this. “I hope you know not all of them will want to out themselves, sir.”
The colonel waved his concerns away. “I’m aware. We need at least some of them to come forward, to show both humans and shifters that Legion, despite reports to the contrary, is willing and capable of utilizing both species.”
“If you say so, sir,” Nathaniel replied skeptically.
Harris’s gaze sharpened. “You don’t believe it?”
“You and me both know there are people in Legion who served alongside shifters and kept their mouths shut about their secret, as do ones who positively detest them,” Nathaniel answered honestly. Harris knew it as well as him.
“No one said it will be easy. Anyway, it’s not what I wanted to talk about.”
Once again, Harris had managed to throw him for a loop. “It’s not, sir?”
“No. This information will soon be made public. I called you because you’re being reassigned.”
This was the last thing he expected.
“Exactly.” Harris pulled out a paper folder and handed it to Nathaniel. Stunned, he accepted it and opened. He stiffened in his seat.
“It’s a promotion,” Harris said. “You’ll be commanding a station. A smaller one, but it’s important.”
“That’s not what’s bugging me, sir,” Nathaniel admitted ruefully.
“You haven’t seen the paperwork, otherwise the promotion would be bugging you. Take it from someone who has experience.” Harris looked mournfully at piles of paper on his own desk. “Believe me, Nathaniel, we didn’t make this decision easily. Your name was one of the few who were considered. You’re the one who got the job.”
“I’ll keep my thanks for now, sir.”
Harris barked a laugh. “Fair enough. You’re expected to be there on the first of the month. Your duties will be reassigned. I’ll miss you, Nathaniel, but I truly believe this is right for you.”
That remained to be seen, Nathaniel thought sourly, still unable to process.
His next destination was Boer.
* * * *
Even in Space Squadron, who were not a pack in the strictest sense of the word, Rio had been expected to listen to the alpha. He was one of strongest wolves in the pack, but he wasn’t an alpha. It meant that there were times he was supposed to obey. Generally, Rio didn’t have problems with that. Generally, said alpha wasn’t at his door with a sly grin on his face and a basket in his hand. It made alarm bells ring in his mind. He was not ashamed to admit he was afraid.
He’d never been stupid, after all.
Sean grinned at him, his teeth blindingly white. No doubt he was aware of the effect his impromptu visit had on Rio.
“Hi, Rio. I didn’t wake you up, did I?” Sean looked disapprovingly at his watch. Rio blinked. He did, actually, and Rio was now fervently wishing he hadn’t gotten out of bed. Why was Sean here? If the alpha wanted to talk to him, the normal procedure was to summon Rio to him. Sean had been pack alpha for more than twenty years. Rio resisted the urge to drop his head defensively. Instead, he stretched his arms above his head and yawned, leaning on the door frame insolently.
“It’s not like I have anywhere else to be,” he answered, cocky as always. He had spent years in Space Squadron, where his time was strictly organized, and after that, when he returned home, there was Patrol and his time was even less his own. He luxuriated in the feeling of having nowhere else to be. So what if he was sleeping in? He wasn’t going to apologize for that, alpha or no alpha.
Sean pursed his lips. “Can I come in?” he asked blandly. Rio ruthlessly suppressed a flinch of alarm. “I brought muffins,” the alpha declared jovially once they were in the kitchen. “Lara made them.” Lara was his mate.
“And you are sharing voluntarily?” he asked, pulling a chair from the table and dropping onto it. “That’s scary.”
Sean deposited the basket on the table and took his own seat.
“I always knew you were smart.”
Crap. He knew Sean had an agenda. He eyed the man suspiciously.
“You know, five minutes ago I was stretched out in my own bed and didn’t have a care in the world. Now you are in my kitchen. For some reason, that scares the shit out of me,” he informed Sean.
Sean sniffed. “That’s not very hospitable.”
“I wasn’t trying to be,” Rio answered dryly. “Let’s skip the small talk. What do you want?”
Sean leaned back in the chair, its legs squeaking across tiles as he settled. Rio refused to feel intimidated. He was all but challenging an alpha. But he had led the Patrol for more than a year, and while he conferred with Sean from time to time, he was the ultimate authority. He wasn’t going to back down if he didn’t have to.
“You know the Legion is restructuring Boer Station.”
“It’s the oldest station in the city,” he pointed out. “The other two are smaller and can’t effectively cover Boer’s territory. I’m aware most shifters will distrust anyone from Boer but it can’t be avoided. Besides,” he added, shrugging his shoulders, “Legion isn’t going to give up on a station just because her previous commander screwed up. They’ll appoint someone new.”
“So they did,” Sean agreed.
Rio raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t heard the name of the man Legion had chosen to command Boer. As far as he knew, months after Patrol turned in the evidence against most of the command staff of the station, Legion officials were still bickering about who was going to inherit Reyes’s position. He could understand that. While initially the charges were met with disbelief and condescension, the Patrol had gathered a lot of evidence and couldn’t be dissuaded. Additionally, Rio had called in the contacts he had in Space Squadron, and even shifters, and with them affiliated politicians joined in. There was no denying accusations, and most of the officers were looking forward to spending a long time in jail. Good riddance, as far as Rio was concerned. Now Legion was humiliated and wanting to put the events in Boer as far behind as possible. He figured they were going to be especially careful about who got command of Boer now. It was why it was taking so long. Some shifters argued that Legion officials waited with the appointment because they planned to reinstate Reyes once he was cleared of charges levied against him. Rio disagreed. Reyes’s trial had put Legion in hot water. They didn’t relish the position and would do anything to make it go away.
“You might even get a shifter,” he said. “We are allowed to serve in Legion now.”
The new regulations were still coming into effect. Rio had gotten calls from more than one friend who was still in Legion and forwarded the news to Sean. He doubted Sean didn’t know beforehand, since he was sure Legion had negotiated with shifters before making the change and Sean was influential in those circles, but it was only polite to volunteer the information.
“The Legion suggested some of us start to work there. They are of an opinion it would help lower the tension between shifters and Legion. We agreed.”
Who’s we? Rio wanted to ask, but kept his mouth shut.
“A smart move.”
“The Patrol seemed a logical choice.” Sean allowed himself a small smile. “You were their founder and commander.”
Fuck him sideways. That’s what Sean wanted.
“No way. I’m retired, or I want to be.”
Sean didn’t roll his eyes, but he looked like he wanted to.
“You were retired when you organized pack members into Patrol,” he pointed out reasonably. Rio scowled at him.
When he had returned home after leaving Space Squadron, he had found his pack in strained circumstances, largely due to corrupt officers at Legion station. It wasn’t like he’d set out to interfere. Sean and other shifters were trying to work around the problems, but Rio used to be Space Squadron and as such had intimate knowledge of how Legion worked. He could move against them. He’d chafed under restrictions until there was no other choice. He’d organized shifters, starting with just four different men, and started following on investigations which involved shifters and men on the station which were most prejudiced. In just two months, he had over two dozen people under his command, contacts in the station, and a determined enemy which he’d ultimately defeated. He’d thought it was the end of it. Apparently not, judging by the smug look he was getting from his alpha.
“That was different,” he said. “We had to do something.”
Sean raised one shoulder. “I don’t disagree. That’s why I think you’re the best man for the job.”
Rio thumped his head against the table.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Sean chastised mildly. “I sort of need you in good health.”
Exasperated, he looked at Sean. “Pick Lucas,” he said, naming his de facto second-in-command. Sean didn’t even blink.
“Lucas would be first to point out you’re a better choice.”
“I didn’t leave Space Squadron so I could do the same job planet-side, alpha.”
Alpha nodded. “I’m aware.” He studied Rio carefully. “If I may ask, what are you planning to do, now that Patrol doesn’t exist anymore?”
Rio squirmed. Truth be told, he had no idea. He’d officially dismissed the Patrol once it was clear Legion had no choice but to take their complaints seriously, and the men who were a threat to shifters on the station were removed from positions of power. It was months ago but he was still involved in the trial and used the free time to do the things he didn’t have time to once he’d returned from Space Squadron. He bristled. “I’m a very good mechanic.”
Sean scoffed. “You’d be bored to tears in a matter of months.”
That stung. It was the truth, but it still stung. “Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t,” he retorted, not quite able to keep annoyance out of his voice.
The alpha frowned for the first time. “This is important.”
He knew that, and it irked him that Sean felt the need to reiterate it.
“Why does it have to be me?” he grumbled, folding his arms over his chest.
“It has to be someone.”
“But it doesn’t have to be me. Look, if you want me to work with you, I need to know everything. You don’t get to keep things from me. Why me?”
Sean sighed, pulling the basket with muffins toward himself. He pulled off the dishtowel that covered it, revealing golden brown muffins nestled inside. He picked up one and started chewing. Rio waited patiently.
“You know what Chris wanted to do to East Boer.”
Rio blinked, surprised by the non sequitur.
“Killing Legion members, or killing humans, wouldn’t have been good for the pack.”
Sean dismissed him with a flick of his hand. “I know. The way you did it was so much better. I don’t think the rest of the shifter population would have thanked us if we restarted old enmities. But. Legion is going to try and recruit from Patrol, and some of those guys are loyal to Chris.”
Rio shrugged. He knew that.
“It didn’t stop them from doing their jobs.”
“No, but then you were in command. I know that Kaye plans to volunteer. Chris knows.”
“And you don’t want him to have so much influence?”
“Chris is young. I’m still not ready to step down. He has a potential to be alpha, but until it happens, he is still learning.” Sean grinned as he finished the muffin. “It’s my job to help him.”
Rio froze. “Uh, no. No way. You’re not pitting us against each other, I won’t allow that.”
“Relax, Rio. I’m not.” Sean stretched back in his chair. “Have a muffin. They are great.”
Sean raised an eyebrow. Rio grabbed a muffin and took big bite, chewing loudly.
“Sure you are not?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Rio muttered, swallowing another bite of muffin. He didn’t like Chris. The two of them were among the strongest wolves in the pack and as such, one of them was going to inherit Sean’s position. Chris wanted it. Rio was largely indifferent, but couldn’t change the way he was, which meant that Chris saw him as an enemy. He’d tried to sabotage Patrol at the begging, then had to give up when it turned out its existence was helpful to the pack. Rio was sure Chris was gleeful when he’d dismissed the Patrol, mainly because it raised Rio’s influence in the pack and among other shifters in the city. Rio had done his best to avoid him as much as possible.
If he accepted position in Legion, Chris would see it as a way to cling to that influence.
“I’ll take you at your word,” he said, “but you have to know Chris won’t be happy about this.”
Sean dismissed his concerns. “He’ll live.”
Rio kept his mouth shut. Chris wasn’t going to argue with the alpha, but he was going to resent Rio. His wolf snarled. What did he care? He had no reason to take orders from Chris.
Of course, if Chris became alpha…He grimaced and shied away from the truth.
“I’m still thinking.”
“If you have reservations about this, I’d like to hear them.”
Rio sighed, then pressed the heel of his hand into his eyes before giving Sean a dry-eyed look.
“When I was in Space Squadron, Legionnaires knew we were werewolves.”
“Most of them didn’t mind, or they were stationed somewhere else if they did mind.”
“Like East Boer.”
“Like East Boer,” he agreed. What happened, the problems they had, weren’t the work of just one man.
“If it’s not the Legion, and it’s not the job, what is the problem?”
“I respect Legion.” He took another muffin. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea to integrate humans and shifters in East Boer station.”
The alpha’s eyes sharpened.
“Because of everything that happened?”
“Well, yes. Shifters here don’t like Legionnaries, and humans are mistrustful of us after all the bullshit Legion officers sprouted.”
“We have to change that. If it works in Boer, it will show everyone it can work.”
He had utmost respect for Legion, Reyes and his friends aside. Some of his best friends still served there and in Space Squadron.
“I was afraid you were gonna say that.” Rio swallowed the last bite of muffin. If he was going to be roped into a job, the least he could do was make alpha pay for it.
“Who else are you planning to bully into joining?”
The Patrol was now officially disbanded. Theyhad a rousing party when a special unit arrived from Legion Headquarters and their enemies were arrested.
“Such a harsh word.” The old bastard was grinning. He steepled his fingers over his belly, looking unbearably smug.
“Fine. Who else is volunteering?”
The muffins were really great. He took another one.
Sean rattled off the list. Rio winced when he realized most of his men were on it. He was going to strangle Lucas. Where was their loyalty? They could have at least warned him.
And where was his brain when he hadn’t noticed he was effectively steered away from making any decision in the last three months which would make his accepting the job problematic?
He grabbed the last muffin and bit into it with relish. Sean winced and eyed him mournfully, then sighed. “Well?”
Rio refused to feel guilty. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Is that a yes?”
Like you expected anything else, you scheming bastard, Rio thought sardonically, but finished the muffin and wiped his hands.
* * * *
Rio sighed without turning to see which of his men had addressed him.
“I don’t like it here. I really don’t like it here.”
Rio twisted his head so he could study the men standing with him inside station Boer East. They had no problems getting in. Their new IDs already transferred to station personnel, the officers at the reception desk had barely reacted at their appearance. Rio didn’t think them coming all together was the smartest decision they could have made, but his men had waited for him this morning so he just went with it. Some, like Paul, looked wary. Kaye looked smug, which was enough for Rio to bite back his protest and go with them. At least he would be able to keep them under control.
It was back to bite him in the ass, because while one or a pair of them could be ignored, a group of ex-Patrol members inside the station was gathering unwelcome attention. Gazing around, he was inclined to agree with his man’s sentiment. Most of the previous Legion members were reassigned after their complaints went through. Not all, though. Rio tensed, struggling with his instincts, which were screaming at him that this was enemy territory. When he had been here before, most times he was treated with open contempt, then later with resentful silence.
“Get over it,” he replied, trying to sound casual.
“Excuse me, sir,” a young Legionnaire said, pausing in front of him and his group. He was dressed in a drab gray uniform and he and his friend were loaded with boxes. He gave them a blank stare. With a start, Rio realized that they were blocking the men’s way and that was why he’d been addressed. The man seemed utterly oblivious to who they were. Must be one of the new ones.
“Need any help with that?” Lucas stepped toward him, pausing next to Rio. “Come on, guys, move over.”
The men exchanged glances. “Sir?” the man replied, obviously confused.
“Sergeant,” Rio said, softly enough for only shifters to hear him. Lucas looked puzzled, then realized what he meant. When he joined Legion, Lucas had gotten the rank of sergeant. The two men were confused by his offer because of his rank, not because he was a shifter.
“Well, hey,” Lucas said with mock disgruntlement. “It didn’t make me incapable of hauling stuff.” He made a pause. “Not yet, anyway,” he added thoughtfully. One of their friends snickered. “I think that comes with the next promotion.”
“Stop mouthing off,” Rio said mildly.
“Right away, sir.” Lucas beckoned Paul and Jack, and they headed toward a pile of boxes stacked against one wall.
“Come on,” Lucas said, even as he was grabbing the box and nudging the Legionnaires forward. “It will be quicker this way. You’re new, and I know where everything is.” His voice was now openly cajoling. “I was even a guest in holding cells,” he added with a disarming grin. The men now looked openly curious.
They went off with Lucas, Rio stepping back to let them pass. His remaining men did the same.
“On the upside, they didn’t run screaming after they saw shifters,” Kaye muttered under his breath as they watched them leave. He fingered the wolf-head patch on his uniform.
Rio pinched the bridge of his nose. While he trusted his people implicitly, he didn’t think they were the best choice for working at the station. Some wounds were still fresh. There was resentment on both sides and he sincerely pitied whoever was supposed to sort them all out.
He got a promotion, too, and now was second in command of the station. Best get on sorting out then. “They are not all like that,” he reminded them.
Kaye openly sneered. Graham gave him a dubious glare. “If you say so, sir.”
He sidestepped out of the way of another group of Legionnaires. The Legion seemed to have gone all out. Everywhere they looked, people moved supplies and equipment. Most of them ignored the gray-garbed group with telltale wolf-head signs on their chests. Not all, he thought as a black-haired woman, a civilian which he remembered from previous visits to the station, glanced at them fearfully and avoided coming close, all the while shooting them suspicious looks.
“What are you doing here?” an angry voice demanded. Rio pivoted to meet Rick’s glare. The man visibly flinched when he saw the way they were dressed. His eyes widened and he swallowed audibly but refused to back off. Rio had to give the guy credit. He was deliberately baiting a shifter. Rio’s men spread into a half circle behind him. Rick’s eyes snagged on the stars on his shoulder and he visibly stiffened. “What’s the meaning of that?” he asked, jerking his chin toward them. Rio gave him a cold stare.
“What does it look like?” he answered. He was the man’s superior now. Rick had no right to talk to him like this. He couldn’t afford to let it pass, or they were never going to integrate into Legion.
“I thought you gave up on your little pretend army.” More of Rick’s friends gathered. Crap. They hadn’t gotten rid of them all.
Two groups were now facing one another. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw other people hesitate as they watched them, clearly understanding something was happening. The crowd thinned around them, waves of tension pushing other people aside. In wake of the previous bustle in the room, the sudden silence was glaringly obvious. Rio saw a sergeant take a cautious step forward as he brought his hand to his mouth. Calling it in, then. Good man. He made a mental note to look up the man later.
“Pretend army?” Kaye asked. “You mean, the one who did a better job than you? Why would we do that?”
Rick’s face darkened. Rio raised a hand to shut Kaye up. Kaye exhaled loudly but subsided.
“Kaye is only partially right.” He gave them a cool smile. Rick continued boring his eyes into him. “We got recruited,” he informed the man smoothly. “But then, that should be obvious.” He leveled his gaze at Rick.
Rick jerked back like he’d been hit. His friends clamored.
“No way,” one of them said, stunned. “You’re lying.”
Rick frowned and opened his mouth. Whatever his shortcomings, he knew it was stupid insulting a shifter.
“How do you think we got in? Those aren’t visitor badges,” Kaye taunted.
“The Legion doesn’t take stinking shifters!” the man declared.
Rick winced. “Wayne,” he said.
“Come on, Rick, you know—”
“That’s enough.” Rick turned back to them, scowling.
“You are Patrol, not Legion,” he said.
“Things change,” he answered. The hostility stretching between them was almost palpable. It would take one of them—only one of them—making a move, and the fight would break out.
“Sir!” The exclamation came from the sergeant he’d noted earlier. Rio didn’t imagine the relief in the voice. The sound of boots hitting the floor became louder. A slim figure headed toward them, Legionnaires respectfully making way for the newcomer.
He was blond, with a darker gray uniform denoting higher rank. A tiny red pin adorned the front of his uniform. Green eyes slid over them, taking everything in.
Belatedly, Rio saluted. If he wasn’t mistaken, this was Commander Nathaniel Rheim, the station commander and currently the only man outranking him.
The man smiled thinly at him, then looked pointedly at their audience. The silence got thicker.
“Don’t you people have anything to do?”
The man came sharply at attention.
“I thought we weren’t done with set-up.” Nathaniel cocked his head.
“No, sir, there is still equipment to unload and assign, sir.”
“Great. You need more help setting up?”
The man grinned. “I could always use more help, sir.”
“Pick up whoever you want. If they have time to dawdle, whatever they are doing obviously isn’t urgent enough.”
The man looked like Christmas had come early.
He didn’t lose any time, calling back the Legionnaires who tried to slink off when Nathaniel’s attention wasn’t on them. In a matter of seconds, he had everyone moving.
Rio let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.
“Sergeant,” Nathaniel said softly. The man looked questioningly at him.
“I need this one for five minutes. After that he is yours.” Nathaniel jerked his head in Rick’s direction, his meaning clear.
The sergeant looked pityingly at Rick.
“Understood, sir,” he said.
“Good.” Nathaniel put his arm on Rio’s shoulder.
“Lieutenant Rick,” he said. “It looks like we meet again.”
Rio blinked in surprise. Nathaniel’s voice was hard. Rick had stiffened, shoulders hunching defensively.
He glared at Rio like it was his fault, but it wasn’t like Rio could move, not with Nathaniel’s hand on his shoulder, which was presumably why he’d done it.
In the sea of faces, Rio noticed Kaye staring at them. He frowned and made a sharp motion with his hand. They didn’t need to witness this. Kaye hesitated, but went with the others. Soon enough, three men were the only ones standing still, the crowd parting to give them space.
“I thought we had understood each other when we talked this morning. I warned you once already to mind your own business,” Nathaniel said pointedly. “What happens when I leave? You almost start a fight with my men, in my station.”
Rick flushed. “Sir, I would apologize, but those are—”
“Enough.” Nathaniel cut him off. “Do you really believe I don’t know who they are?”
Rick squirmed. Rio cleared his throat.
Nathaniel turned his head and Rio found himself under an intense green gaze. He felt a shiver run up his spine as those eyes bore into him. He also felt a stirring of rather inappropriate arousal. Crap. He did not need this.
Nathaniel’s fingers brushed the stars on his shoulders. “Aren’t you my new deputy?” he asked in a lazy tone.
“I believe I am.”
“You’re early,” Nathaniel said. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I was curious.”
“We’ll count this as a good thing,” Nathaniel said dryly, dropping his arm from Rio’s shoulders. Rio felt strangely bereft. He watched as Nathaniel turned back to Rick.
“You have an impressive file, Lieutenant,” he said. Rio knew this. Rick was good at his job. The fact that he had stayed on the job meant that he hadn’t broken the rules despite being a jerk about shifters.
“I have overlooked your misstep once. Care to tell me why am I going to do it a second time?”
Rick flushed. “The thing is, sir, we are not used—”
“I know what you’re used to,” Nathaniel interrupted. “Get over yourself, Legionnaire. I’m not asking you to become friends. On the job, however, you’ll respect shifters. If you don’t change your behavior, I’ll take necessary steps.”
Rick’s lips thinned.
“It won’t happen again.”
“You better be right, Lieutenant.”
With a surprise, Rio realized this wasn’t aimed only at Rick. Nathaniel meant him, too.
Nathaniel nodded curtly then headed away from them. Rick hesitated then melted into the crowd. Rio stayed where he was, rooted to the spot, a turmoil of feelings keeping him frozen.
“Major?” Nathaniel’s questioning voice brought him back to the here and now.
“Coming, sir,” he answered hurriedly. He wove his way through the crowd until he caught up with his new commander. Their shoulders brushed. He ignored flickers of warmth spilling in his belly at the touch. Nathaniel didn’t comment. He ignored people moving around them as he purposefully strode toward one of the numerous exits in the room.
“They are not going to like you,” he ventured as they walked along the corridor.
Nathaniel’s gaze slid toward him. “Rick’s friends? Probably not.” His expression was bland.
He debated how much he wanted to say. “You might have to do something about them.”
Nathaniel’s brows creased. “Maybe, maybe not.” His tone was noticeably cooler. Rio stifled the surge of disappointment. “I’m aware there is bad blood between shifters and remaining personnel. But they weren’t all criminally negligent or abusive. Rick is an asshole. I can’t do anything about it, and frankly I don’t want to. They stay. If we are lucky, they adapt. If they don’t, we will at least have an excuse to kick them out. Look at it as a win-win situation.”
“Understood.” Nathaniel wasn’t going to cut him any slack but on the other hand, as long as he treated shifters and humans equally, he had no reason to complain. The surge of attraction he’d felt for the man would probably go nowhere, but it couldn’t be helped. The man ushered him into the previous commander’s office. Rio hadn’t even noticed it was where they were headed and tried his best to ignore the wash of unpleasant memories. He noted it was cleared of all trappings of the previous occupant. Boxes filled one corner, and stunning pictures hung on the walls.
Rio couldn’t resist taking a look. “Beautiful,” he said sincerely. “Unclaimed Territory?”
Nathaniel was sorting through papers on his desk and barely spared him a glance. “Yes. It was my previous assignment. A friend took those.”
“He has talent,” he said sincerely.
“Had,” Nathaniel corrected absently. With one last look, Rio stepped back from the picture. Nathaniel, his face smooth, sat back in his chair and gave him a shrewd look. He pointed at the chair in front of the desk.
“Sit down, Major. Let’s have a chat.”
With no other recourse, Rio did as he was told. The chair creaked under his weight. He waited for Nathaniel to speak.
“As I understand, you were in Legion,” Nathaniel said finally.
“Space Squadron, sir. That’s somewhat different.” Rio stared straight ahead.
Nathaniel snorted. “Close enough. Here is the thing, Rio. May I call you Rio?”
If Nathaniel’s intention was to confuse Rio, he was doing a great job. Rio shrugged. “Why not?”
Nathaniel leaned forward, putting both arms on his desk. “Good. Let’s put our cards on the table. Our superiors—note that I say our and I don’t meant Legion in your case, because we both know shifters were involved in this decision—expect this to work. Therefore, they expect us to make it work.” He scowled, his face darkening. “How, they haven’t shared with me, which sucks.” He raised and threw the folder resting on his desk. “I don’t know how bad things were, what I’ll have to do smooth things over. That’s why you’re here. You’re supposed to help.”
Rio considered and discarded about a hundred possible answers.
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
When he looked up, Nathaniel regarded him coolly, eyes hard as emeralds. An unpleasant weight settled in his stomach. Nathaniel was friendly up until now. Now he sounded almost angry.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said.
“And just to make myself clear”—Nathaniel leaned back like he was trying to put as much distance between them as possible—“I don’t mean the kind of help your friend offered, either. I don’t take my orders from shifters, alpha or not.”
“That is not my intention. I don’t know what you have been told, but shifters aren’t like that,” Rio answered sharply. He’d really thought better of Nathaniel than this. It was true that Space Squadron were made to incorporate pack hierarchy, but he wasn’t a fool and more importantly, he wasn’t a bully.
“Your friend would beg to differ.” Nathaniel’s voice was snide. It was his words that took Rio aback.
Rio narrowed his eyes. “What friend?”
He caught a fleeting expression of surprise on Nathaniel’s face. He tapped his fingers on the desk.
“The one who dropped by to visit me.”
This was unexpected. “Why do you think that’s my friend?”
What was going on here?
Nathaniel sighed. “Don’t play games with me, Major. A shifter. Wolf shifter, to be exact. Call it my welcome committee from the local pack. The name was Chris if you still have problems with your memory.”
Rio barely suppressed a loud curse. Judging by Nathaniel’s expression, he didn’t get the best impression of Chris. It explained the cold reception. Lovely. First they almost start a brawl in the middle of station, now this. Rio gritted his teeth.
“I apologize in the name of the pack, sir. The visit wasn’t sanctioned,” he said briskly. Nathaniel eyed him speculatively.
“That is not the impression I was given.”
He was going to kill Chris and whoever in his pack thought this was a good idea. Nathaniel didn’t strike him as the sort of man who would allow himself to be pushed.
“Nevertheless, I am telling the truth…Nathaniel.”
Nathaniel scrutinized him. He seemed to relax minutely. Rio met his eyes, hoping Nathaniel would gauge his sincerity.
“I don’t respond well to threats,” he said reluctantly.
Rio raised both hands, palms up. “I never thought so.”
Nathaniel arched an eyebrow.
“Well, you did get in between a bunch of shifters and humans ready to fight,” he explained.
“Look, I don’t know what Chris told you. I do know that whatever it was, it was his personal opinion, and it’s not pack opinion, or the opinion of other shifters in the area,” Rio argued.
Shit, if they heard about this, the pack was going to get into trouble.
“I do happen to know it’s the same pack you belong to.”
“I don’t take my orders from Chris,” Rio replied, resisting the urge to shift in his chair. He held Nathaniel’s gaze steadily.
“But you take your orders from pack alpha.”
“Not on the job. I believe I’m supposed to take my orders from you,” he countered.
Nathaniel snorted. “Are you?”
A rope of heat coiled in the air between them.
Nathaniel made a noncommittal sound.
“We’ll see how that goes. Either way, you’re the highest ranking shifter on the station, both officially and unofficially.” He gave Rio a pointed look. Besides his new shiny rank, he had the strength to keep it. “I realize shifters will defer to you. I don’t have problems with that. I’ll consult you about any decision impacting them. However, the chain of command is not changed. I don’t care what someone’s position in the pack is. A human ranks them, they obey.” The steel in his voice was unmistakable.
Chris must have really fucked up.
Rio kept his expression cool. “I’m aware of how it works, sir.”
Nathaniel didn’t beat around the bush. “What about your men?”
He hesitated. “If they aren’t, sir, you’re within your rights to punish them, and I’m within my rights as a dominant wolf to make sure they remember the punishment,” he answered honestly. Perhaps he imagined it, but Nathaniel seemed to relax.
“We will handle it if and when it comes up.” Nathaniel rubbed his eyes. He looked around, then said, “Sorry, we don’t yet have an office for you.”
The previous commander had taken out the wall separating his and his deputy’s office to make one big office.
Rio hesitated for a moment, then plunged forward. “Am I allowed to pick one, sir?”
He had something else in mind.
Nathaniel raised his eyebrows. “Let me hear.”
Rio told him.
“Like to keep an eye on men, do you?” Nathaniel asked. He sounded amused. “Fine. It’s all yours.” He stood up. “Alyssa wanted me to come down. We are still sorting through supplies, what we need, what we have. It seems like a lot of stuff is missing.”
Rio kept his face neutral. He might have, possibly, helped himself to some of their equipment. He wasn’t about to admit it.
“Stay here, then. The files of new personnel are uploaded to the network.” Nathaniel pointed at the small screen. “Familiarize yourself.”
“Understood, sir.” Rio hesitated. “Can I look at your file, sir?”
Nathaniel stopped, obviously surprised, then threw his head back and laughed. “Sure. Why not.” His mouth twitched. “After all, I had a good look at yours.” With a nod of his head, he left the office. Rio leaned back in his chair. Well. This will be interesting.
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