This was not the first time Clive and Edward walked out unimpeded with a kidnapped shifter in tow. It was usually the norm since they started taking precautions to make sure the owners of the shifters and property alike were away. On the rare occasion they couldn’t wait for such an opportunity and conflict was imminent, they made a point to restrain the owners before removing the shifter from the premises. After a close call where a shifter was almost killed by the ashamed owner, they learned to take no needless risks.
Clive had Caleb meet them at the hotel. The hulking bear shifter shielded any curious gazes from Zander's sleeping form as he carried him inside. Once they had Zander safely tucked away in the hotel room, they were methodical. Clive and Edward stripped and sponged him down, healed when needed, and checked for parasites and any crawlies Zander might have collected. Caleb called the haven to make sure everything was still up to par under their part-time therapist and current house-sitter's critical eye. Roy wasn't the most reliable with his busy schedule, but he made time when he could to ensure someone supervised the troubled shifters when the owner was out saving lives.
Clive furrowed his brow and took the phone from Caleb when it was handed to him. “Problem, Roy?”
“Possibly. Dale went cat again and is hiding under the couch. I wouldn't think much of it, but it was after a brawl with Mika. You know how cutting he can be when he's in a mood.”
Clive did. Mika turned bitchy into an art form. It didn’t help he was extra edgy while waiting to see if Zander was alive. “Did you ask Dave to check on Dale? He's usually good with him.”
Roy cleared his throat and pitched his voice lower. “Dave and Dane are both under the couch with him. Did I fail to mention that?”
Clive exhaled heavily. “As cats, I imagine.” It was not that large a couch.
The triplets were house-cats and at twenty, the youngest residents currently living at the haven. Dale was the only one of the three abducted but the other two brothers insisted on helping him recover at the haven. Which was fine, their support helped Dale immensely. The problem was how the two teamed up to get revenge every time Dale felt victimized over simple arguments. Super glue and fur were involved the last time. Clive was not looking forward to discovering how far they’d go when he wasn't around.
“Roy, would you inform Mika that Zander is safe, healing, and looking forward to seeing him again? Maybe mention it while in the TV room, so our three hellions can hear and understand just why Mika is in such a foul mood. You could even invite them to all get the room ready for him.”
“You'll be back tonight, then?” Surprise was clear in Roy’s voice. “Do you think he's ready?”
Clive glanced over to where Zander had been scrubbed pink and dressed in clean clothes. The panther shifter was still out cold and there was no way to judge how well he’d adjust to life at the haven. There was also no place suitable to transition someone with Zander's level of abuse. Very few institutions were capable or willing to handle the extra equipment and training needed for treating shifters.
“I'm going to port him in within the next few hours. I think driving him up would be too much of a risk.” Zander waking up in the middle of the highway and having a freak out was his biggest concern. “I'll come back and deal with the rental and make a final sweep. You'll have Edward and Caleb to help with things by then, but if you could stay until I get back, I'd appreciate it.”
“Not a problem, Clive. I was planning on a few days, just to be on the safe side. You never know how your rescues are going to go. Is the kid okay?”
Clive glanced again to where Zander was stretched out on the bed, frowned and turned away. “He's fucked up, no question.” Clive didn’t bother to censor himself. “We won't know until at least a month if he's going to be in a null-collar for the rest of his life or if his cat is savable. They hurt him bad. Maybe even as bad as Jasper ten years back.”
Roy whistled a low note and fell silent. Jasper was one of their hardest patients, abducted and trained not only for sex but also to kill when in his cat form. The lion shifter had a full pride to search for him when he was abducted. When they finally discovered Jasper they called the haven, to help convince him to leave his pit of a prison. Jasper returned to the haven three different times over the course of five years. He owned his own null-collar and was known to wear it even now when things got too stressed for him. Jasper was living a good, steady life but it only because of the patience, therapy, and manpower divided by those at the haven and the loving pride that cared enough to get him there.
Clive’s research revealed Zander didn't have any relatives to help keep him steady out in the world. If he was feral, the panther shifter would be completely vulnerable to any law enforcement who discovered his state. He risked being thrown in jail, or more likely 'accidentally' killed in the process of his capture. It was still too early to tell, but the magnitude of the many potential problems weighed heavily on Clive as he said his farewell to Roy with a promise to call before porting in.
“Are you seriously comparing him to Jasper?” Edward carefully untangled Zander’s damp locks with a brush. “He's shown no signs of violence, no aggression at all. Jasper was practically foaming when we pulled him from those psychos.”
Clive met his gaze with a grim frown. They’d been rescuing shifters for fifteen years now, starting when Clive returned from his first year of college to find his father trying to ‘train’ Edward into a servant for a rich client. After cutting all ties to his fucked up family, Clive and Edward started looking for other shifters in need. They raised money through grants and charities to create the Shifter Safe Haven, and networked with shifters and doctors who were sympathetic to the animal shape shifters. They even created the only known amber alert system for stolen shifters.
He might not have known ten years ago what sort of work Jasper would need when the haven took in the lion shifter. Clive sure had enough experience now to suspect what it was going to take to get Zander living life again.
“He's fucked, Ed. Mika was a failed mercy killing in his eyes, and he injured himself to commit it.” There was a festering wound on Zander's neck where he snapped his first leather enchanted collar on his skin. The infected flesh was resistant to healing even after all this time. Clive sighed and ran fingers through his hair in agitation. Mika was living at the haven and in an essential stage of his recovery; it was only more worry to add.
“The question is if his cat is gone too, or just the human,” Clive continued. “If the cat is intact, things will be easier. He's younger than Jasper, and the brain is still in its elastic stage, but he won't be an overnight fix. Whatever the fuck they did to him, they broke him. Two years of starvation, rape, and dependency on a fucking leash for a sense of security. Don't let his tears fool you. He's going to be a monster until he gets his shit straightened out. Best prepare for it now.”
Shifters usually recovered two different ways. They isolated and curled inward until they could handle the world again, or they sought out comfort and surrounded themselves with love until they could face life on their own. Through it all, they had natural defenses and tools that allowed them to numb and deal with things in bearable amounts. Then there were the rare ones, guys like Jasper that went bat-shit crazy at the drop of a hat, reacted with claws and fangs to everything, then came back to sanity to sob for the world to be different and him not to be in it.
Jasper spent days seeking comfort, only to suddenly lash out. He would alienate everyone only to come back whimpering forgiveness. He required so much attention, disrupted so many lives… And damn, it was so worth it.
As if reading his mind, Edward spoke up. “Maybe we should give Jasper a call. I bet he'd be more than happy to come down and play big brother every now and then for the poor kitten. Zander should be able to see that it can be done. That the hard work and pain pays off.”
Clive nodded in agreement. He took a heavy seat on the foot of the bed while Caleb went to get them an early dinner. Seeing Jasper again would be good. Clive hadn’t realized how seeing Zander in that condition had hit until now. All he wanted to do was sit under a hot shower and wash the day away. There was just too much to do, too many loose ends to tie up.
They were still trying to discover who stole Zander and if it was the same magic user who abducted Mika. Had the two shifters ended up in the Rothton lair by the means of two separate culprits? It seemed unusual the Rothtons would seek out another connection in such a dangerous market as slaving. Mika was grabbed out of a college in Michigan. Clive wasn't sure if it was a coincidence or a calling card. All he knew for certain was cat shifters were being targeted more frequently and their clients were getting more monstrous in their treatment of the young men.
Edward fixed him with a sympathetic look. He reached down and pulled a small box from his boot. “Happy birthday, man.”
Clive blinked in surprise, stared at the box, then met Edward's amused smirk. “Is it?”
“Yup. Had a feeling you forgot again. Thirty-seven and I don't think you've remembered more than five now.”
Clive shrugged sheepishly. “Well, if I'm going for the record and all.” He opened the box and beamed when the smell of magic rose up. “Wards?”
“The best. Cost a pretty penny, too, but I knew you were looking for something to fix the gate after those dickheads came by and tried to blow a hole through it.” They actually tried to blow a hole through the house. The bomb detonated when it came in contact with the magical energy of the previous wards, leaving a very frightened postman alive to tell the tale.
“Thanks, Ed. This is about the most thoughtful gift I've ever received.” He got up and hugged Edward, who rolled his eyes good-naturedly and hugged him back fiercely.
“Like hell. It's as meaningful as buying you a fucking lock on the gate,” Edward said with a growl. “But you're an idiot and you have no life outside of what we're doing, so I figured it was as good as it was going to get to make someone like you happy.”
Clive’s smile didn’t dim in the slightest. He flipped the top rectangle of fabric over and read the symbols inscribed. “They even have a clause so shifters in mortal danger can warp through. Ed, this is fucking amazing.”
Edward shook his head. He hid his pleased blush with a flurry of movement as he picked up Zander's stained clothes and threw them in a bag. “You need a lover, idiot, not a fucking door. Romance. Love. Sex, for fuck sake. Do you even remember what sex is anymore?”
Clive shrugged disinterestedly. He shut the box and dispelled it to his room in Vermont. He'd install the wards that night if there was enough time. The sooner they had stronger defenses, the better he'd feel about leaving on missions like this. “I'm not a horny animal like you, Ed. I can manage to live my life and not chase the tail of every sexy guy that walks past the door.”
“That’s total bullshit.” Edward stalked over, leaned down, and went so far as to flip Clive’s glasses up so he could see him unobstructed. “You need a vacation. You need to get away from the victims and remember that sex can be enjoyable. You need to stop saving everyone else and give yourself five fucking minutes of attention. Your last relationship lasted less than two weeks, three years ago. You forgot your damn birthday. Again. Come on, Clive; it time to get a fucking life already.”
“I have a life. A very nice life,” Clive said sweetly as he put his tinted glasses back into place. He combed his hair back into its normal, shaggy mess. “Let’s face it, Ed. It’s hard enough to get a professional to come into this situation and be willing to stay. A boyfriend? I might as well start the conversation by saying I have between five to fifteen kids in my life, they switch constantly, and they're all emotionally disturbed. I'm not holding my breath.”
Clive was happy. He might not always be aware of things like birthdays and the state of his hair, but happiness definitely trumped the superficialities.
Sure, Edward could complain all he liked he had no life outside of his shifter work but really, the haven was his life. It was trying some days, exhausting others, and he hadn't ever planned on dedicating his life to rescuing and protecting a bunch of riffraff shifters, but he wouldn't change a moment of it. Not the scars, not the random death threats from dumbass bigots. Not even the shivers of fear when he gazed into the eyes of a wounded, frightened animal and wondered if they were too far gone to come back from the brink.
It was worth it. Every time. He didn’t need anything else.