A Protection, Inc: Defenders prequel story
by Zoe Chant
Merlin Merrick had experienced lots of excitement in his life, from fighting as a Marine to getting kidnapped by evil scientists, but he expected his first day on the job to make it to his top ten most thrilling experiences.
It was the opening of Protection, Inc: Defenders, the bodyguard agency started by the five men who’d been kidnapped, made into shifters, and given special powers. Sure, they couldn’t exactly put that on their website, but they’d spread the word among the shifter community that they were open for business. Their low-key advertising had worked: they’d been emailed a request for an appointment the instant their website had gone up.
As he headed up the stairs to the office, he wondered who their mystery client might be. The message had only given the initials CR and said they needed protection, so it could be anyone who needed protection from anything.
CR, thought Merlin. Countess Ruthven? Chrysostomos Rodocanachi? Cryptids Rock?
Maybe CR would be a rock star with a stalker, and Merlin could accompany them on their glittering tour around the world. Maybe it would be someone who had no idea why they were being targeted, and they’d have to protect her and solve a mystery, and it would turn out that she was a missing heiress or lost princess.
Maybe CR would be a beautiful woman who’d lock eyes with Merlin, and he’d instantly know she was his mate. They’d love each other forever, he’d give her the world on a platter, and he’d never be lonely again.
Maybe it’ll be a pie delivery person, said his inner raptor hopefully. With free pies!
Merlin repressed a sigh. Trust his inner raptor to prioritize lemon meringue over true love. He thought to it, Even if it is a pie delivery person, they’re not going to bring free pies to the office.
You never know, replied his raptor. Pecan, blueberry, caramel, sweet potato…
Merlin opened the office door, trying to ignore his raptor’s background murmur of Apple, cherry, key lime, ice box, coconut cream, chocolate cream, sugar cream…
He stepped into a scene which had now become all too familiar: an argument.
Pete Valdez, whose impressive muscles and brown hair reminded Merlin of the cave bear he could turn into, was glaring around the room. “I was here first, so I should get the case.”
“Now there’s a fascinating business principle,” said Carter Howe. His three-piece suit was as impeccable as ever, but there were shadows under his hazel eyes and his black hair was rumpled. Merlin suspected that he, like Merlin himself, had been too keyed up over the prospect of their first day to get much sleep.
Carter went on, “‘All jobs will be assigned according to who was first inside the office that day.’ If I’d only known that, who knows how much more successful I could have been?”
He shot a meaningful look at Pete’s cell phone, which was made by Carter’s tech company. Pete seemed utterly unimpressed.
“So how do you plan to protect the client?” Pete asked. “Throw money at anyone who attacks them?”
“I can shoot, you know,” Carter retorted. “I’m as qualified as you are.”
It was nice to see that even Carter had been swept up in the excitement of their first case. Alone among them, he wasn’t former military, but a self-made tech billionaire. He was also the only one of them who’d been born a shifter. But when he’d been kidnapped and experimented on, he’d lost his original animal and gained… something. Something none of them had seen, which he refused to talk about. Much like he’d refused to join the team, even though he kept hanging around it.
“I thought you didn’t work here,” remarked Ransom Pierce from his seat in the corner, as far from everyone else as possible. The light didn’t quite reach it, making him seem to sit in a pool of shadow. His red hair looked like a banked fire. Merlin remembered the one time he’d seen the hellhound that Ransom could turn into, that terrifying beast of darkness, and repressed a shiver.
“I don’t,” said Carter crossly. “I’m not volunteering for the case. I’m just here in case… um… you have a technical problem.”
“I’m volunteering,” Merlin broke in. “This is our first client, so we need to make a good impression to get good word of mouth. Carter doesn’t work here so he’s out, and Pete’s too intimidating, and Ransom doesn’t play well with others—”
Carter, Pete, and Ransom all began objecting at once, but Merlin forged on, raising his voice to be heard. “—and Roland’s the boss so he has to stay here and be the command center. Which leaves me!”
Roland Walker, who had been using a styrofoam coffee cup to water a wilting potted plant, straightened up. A shaft of sunlight from a window shone on his brown skin and silvering hair, haloing him in golden light and reminding Merlin of his fiery shift form. As he met their eyes, they all fell silent, daunted by his natural command presence.
“When the client shows up and we hear their story, then I’ll decide who takes the case.” With a glint of mischief in his dark eyes, Roland added, “Might be me. Perks of being the boss.”
Carter took off his expensive black overcoat and looked around for a place to hang it up. With a twinge of guilt, Merlin remembered that the coat rack had been destroyed in a shifting accident the night before, when his raptor had attempted to help set the office in order.
“What happened to our coat rack?” Roland asked.
“Merlin!” Pete bellowed.
“Hey!” Merlin protested. “What makes you think I had anything to do with it?”
“Well, did you?” Pete demanded.
“I knew it!”
“The client’s here,” said Ransom, silencing them all. Ransom… knew things. If he thought their client was here, half an hour early, then he was right.
They waited, but there was no knock on the door.
Go look, look look look, Merlin’s raptor demanded. The pies are getting cold!
There’s no pies, Merlin replied silently. But his very own mate and true love could be on the other side of that door, right now, just waiting for him to open it!
He rushed to the door and flung it open.
Instead of the beautiful woman Merlin had hoped for, he saw a boy of nine or ten with freckles and a mop of curly hair, fidgeting nervously and making his light-up shoes sparkle.
“You’re lost, kid,” said Pete from over Merlin’s shoulder. “Where’s your parents?”
“Is this Protection, Inc: Defenders?” the kid asked. “I’m CR—Charlie Rosenbaum. I want to hire a bodyguard.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin saw the rest of the men react to this. Carter’s right hand dropped to his hip and his left fumbled in the pockets of his overcoat, finding his weapons. Roland drew in a deep breath, preparing himself to fight. Ransom closed his eyes, his face taking on an intent expression that Merlin knew meant he was searching the psychic plane or whatever it was that he did.
“Ransom—guys—let me just ask—” Merlin began, but no one listened.
Pete, who was already right behind him, came even closer, looming protectively over the kid. Urgently, he asked, “Are you in danger right now?”
“Er, no,” said Charlie.
Merlin, who had a feeling he already knew the answer, asked, “Who do you need to be protected from?”
“Bullies,” said Charlie.
The tension vanished from the room like a popped balloon. Pete and Roland relaxed. Ransom opened his eyes and rubbed his forehead, wincing.
Carter, looking exasperated, replaced something in his overcoat pockets, looked around for somewhere to put the coat, didn’t seem to like anything he saw, and put it back on. “Bullies. You contacted a private security agency to deal with bullies.”
“They’re really mean bullies,” said Charlie defensively. “They tease me all the time.”
“You need to talk to your parents,” Roland said. “Do they know where you are?”
“They think I’m at a friend’s house,” Charlie admitted. “But I don’t have any friends around here! And when I tried telling my parents, they talked to the bullies’ parents, and the bullies found out, and that just made it worse. They all think I’m wimpy anyway. I want to show up with a big strong bodyguard, then they’ll never dare do anything to me again!”
Yes yes yes, said Merlin’s inner raptor. We’ll show the bullies our claws and fangs, and they’ll never be mean again!
The raptor sent Merlin a vivid cartoon image of a horde of bullies running and screaming, their hands flapping madly in the air.
Merlin was already determined to help Charlie, but… not like that. All else aside, shifters were a closely guarded secret. And if anything was likely to blow their cover, it would be the sudden appearance of a velociraptor in some suburban schoolyard.
Roland said, “Why don’t you come in, and we’ll talk about it. It’s cold outside. Do we have hot chocolate?”
Good idea, said Merlin’s raptor. We’ll all drink hot chocolate with lots and lots of marshmallows, and then we’ll guard Charlie and protect him from the bullies!
Ransom, looking slightly horrified at the idea of talking to a kid, said, “I’ll make it,” and vanished in the direction of the kitchen.
Pete, who was a single dad with a 13-year-old daughter, glanced at Roland. “We should call his parents first. So they know he’s safe.”
“I told you, they think I’m with a friend,” protested Charlie. “Anyway, I want to hire you as my bodyguards, not as my babysitters.”
“We did give him an appointment,” Merlin pointed out. Indicating the chair they’d set out for their prospective client, he said, “Have a seat. Tell us all about it.”
Roland introduced them all as the kid settled in.
Carter muttered, “I can’t decide whether I should be glad our website came up right away, or revamp our SEO so more kids don’t find it.”
“Oh, I didn’t just come across your website,” Charlie assured him. “I looked it up specially after I heard my parents talking about you. They said you were secretly a shifter agency and you wanted to spread the word that you could help shifters with shifter problems. And I’m a shifter with a shifter problem!”
“I thought you said it was bullies,” said Pete.
“Shifter bullies,” Charlie explained. “See, my parents just moved here to Refuge City, and they wanted to live in a shifter neighborhood where I could meet other shifters, and not be so careful about never shifting outside the house. But the only place they could find like that was full of big predators. All the other kids are lions and tigers and bears—”
Oh my, supplied Merlin’s raptor. Merlin stuffed his fist against his mouth to prevent himself from laughing. The kid obviously either didn’t know the reference or hadn’t realized he’d made it, and Merlin didn’t want to hurt his feelings. It was bad enough that other kids were laughing at him.
Amusement glinted in Roland’s eyes but didn’t reach his lips, and Carter and Pete were carefully keeping straight faces. For all that Merlin clashed with his teammates (and Carter), he felt an immense fondness for them at that moment. They had to be as disappointed as he was that their first client was a kid with a bully problem, but they were all being careful not to make him feel bad.
Oblivious, Charlie went on, “—and wolves and things like that. Me and my family are the only prey shifters in the whole neighborhood, and everyone’s always saying I’m wimpy and tiny and helpless and I can’t fight or hunt. And they’re right, I can’t fight them in my shift form, and I can’t fight them as a human because I’m smaller than them and I suck at fighting. So I need a big tough predator bodyguard to scare them off!”
With complete seriousness, Roland said, “Well, let’s get a few more details, and then we can discuss what’s best for your situation. Where and when does the bullying take place?”
“Mostly after school,” said Charlie. “It’s a gated community, with a tiny private school with shifter teachers. We walk back home afterward. There’s a stretch where we’re too far from the school for the teachers to hear anything, but not close enough to the houses for our parents to hear anything. And that’s when it all starts. They call me—”
Ransom returned from the kitchen with a steaming mug. Handing it to Charlie, he said, “Careful, it’s hot.”
I want one too! Merlin’s raptor demanded. Tell him to go back to the kitchen and make another one!
The hot chocolate did smell unusually, deliciously chocolatey. As the kid blew on it, Merlin said, “Charlie was just telling us that he’s from a shifter family that recently moved to—”
Ransom held up a hand. “I know.”
Charlie, his cheeks puffed out, didn’t seem to register this. But it made Merlin uneasy, and he saw Carter stiffen. Ransom hadn’t been listening at the door; he just… knew. It made Merlin wonder what else he might know. He had the feeling all of them had something to hide. Merlin sure did.
Charlie took a sip, then another one. With an awed expression, he said, “That’s the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.”
“What’s your shift form, Charlie?” Roland asked.
The kid hung his head, the hot chocolate forgotten. In a barely audible voice, he muttered, “A hamster.”
“That’s a GREAT shift form,” said Merlin. “Hamsters are adorable and fluffy. And it’s fun to be tiny! Just imagine how huge that hot chocolate would be if you were in your hamster form. Plus, there’s the hamster dance.”
“What’s the hamster dance?” Charlie asked.
Merlin was delighted. This would be such a treat for the kid, to be introduced to the hamster dance for the very first time. Pulling out his phone, he said, “One of the very first things to go viral on the internet was a website with an animation of dancing hamsters and a—”
Pete snorted. “Give it a rest, Merlin. The kid’s been through enough.” Turning to Charlie, he said, “I’ll take the case. If I show up once as your bodyguard, you can tell the bullies you can call me back any time. That should discourage them.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Roland. “This is a problem Charlie can solve himself. Look at it tactically, Charlie. You haven’t had any luck fighting when you’re both in animal form, or both in human form. But if you started the fight as a human and then shifted, you’d have the element of surprise on your side.”
“Yeah, but I’d be a hamster,” Charlie said glumly.
“Small doesn’t mean helpless,” said Roland. “And this isn’t a fight to the death. You just need to make them not want to pick on you again.”
“How am I supposed to do that when I’m a hamster?”
With a gleam of mischief in his eyes, Roland advised, “Run up their pant leg. Bite their ankle. Or use your shift form the opposite way: sneak up on them as a hamster, shift back when you’re right on top of them, then knock them down and sit on them.”
Carter looked appalled. “Roland, what century are we living in? What kids care about nowadays is tech toys and video games and smart phones. I can tell you how Charlie can get popular without risking getting kicked across the yard: he needs to have the newest, coolest, hottest-selling electronic item out there, and let the other kids play with it if they’re nice to him.”
“I don’t even know what that would be,” said Charlie.
“I do,” said Carter. “It’s a cutting-edge, top-of-the-line, easy-use holographic projector. Able to project any scene in a fifteen-foot radius, so your bedroom or schoolyard transforms into a jungle or a spaceship or any one of ten different, highly detailed scenes.”
“You sound like a commercial,” Pete remarked.
“His parents can’t afford anything like that,” said Ransom. Then, in a gentler tone than Merlin had ever heard from him, he said, “Don’t worry about the bullies, Charlie. I know things. And one of the things I know is that they won’t be bothering you anymore.”
“Because Pete’ll bodyguard me?” Charlie asked.
“No,” Roland said firmly, before anyone could reply. “Because as soon as you go home, you’ll tell your parents all about this visit of yours. I have a feeling that might fix everything. And if it doesn’t, you’ll take my advice and use your shift form to your advantage. And if that doesn’t work, call us back. But I don’t think you’ll have to.”
Everyone began arguing at once, but Roland raised his hand and stared them all down into silence. “Charlie, where do you live?”
“Fall Oak Heights. I took the subway.”
“By yourself?” Pete exclaimed. “Don’t ever do that again. And you’re not taking it back. One of us will drive you.”
“Just to the Fall Oak Heights subway stop,” Charlie begged. “I’ll walk from there.”
“Walk?” Pete snorted. “No, you’re getting dropped off at your doorstep, and I’ll wait to make sure someone’s at home.”
Roland broke in. “Merlin, drive him to his subway stop, then watch him from a distance to make sure he gets home safely.”
“Why are you sending Merlin?” Pete said belligerently. “Why not me?”
A flicker of annoyance broke Roland’s calm. “Because Charlie showed a lot of independence and courage in getting here, and I want to make sure that’s respected.”
Merlin hurriedly stood up. “Come on, Charlie. Let’s go.”
As he led the kid out, he heard two separate arguments break out behind them, one between Pete and Roland over helicopter parenting, and one between Ransom and Carter. Apparently they’d been out of cocoa powder, so Ransom had taken one of Carter’s expensive dark chocolate bars, dunked it into a mug of milk, and heated the whole shebang in the microwave.
The last thing he heard before he closed the door was Carter’s outraged exclamation, “That was 99% cacao from Debauve & Gallais! They were the chocolatiers for Louis XIV! That one bar cost—”
“That was awfully good hot chocolate,” Charlie said wistfully.
“I bet,” Merlin agreed. “It smelled great.”
Ask Ransom where Carter hides his stash when you get back, suggested his raptor.
In the parking lot beneath the building, Charlie’s gaze skated over Ransom’s anonymous rental car, Pete’s practical dad car and Roland’s equally practical Volkswagen, and went straight to Carter’s Ferrari. The convertible gleamed in the dimness, bright as a candy apple and twice as slick.
“Is that yours?” Charlie asked hopefully. “I bet the bullies would leave me alone if my bodyguard pulled up in that.”
“No, that’s Carter’s.” Proudly, Merlin said, “This is mine.”
Charlie didn’t look anywhere near as impressed as Merlin’s MGB-GT deserved. Clambering in, he said, “It’s awfully small.”
“It’s British. A classic! Beautifully restored! Small, fast, and perfect.” He gave Charlie a meaningful look. When the kid didn’t take the bait, Merlin added, “Like a hamster.”
Charlie heaved an enormous sigh as Merlin pulled out and began to navigate the busy city streets. “I don’t know why your boss wouldn’t let Pete guard me. He wanted to.”
“Roland was worried that as soon as Pete left, the bullying would start up again,” Merlin said. “He thought—and actually, I think too—that it’ll make a more lasting impression if you do something yourself that makes the other kids see you differently.”
“Yeah, turning into a hamster and getting stepped on will do a great job of that.”
“I had an idea about that. It’s kind of… building off Roland’s plan. Just a little elaboration on it, really. See, he wasn’t born a shifter, so there’s something about your situation I think he didn’t understand.” Once he said that, Merlin realized the implications and added, “Not that I was born a shifter, either. But I’ve talked to a bunch of born shifters since I became one.”
There. He’d covered up his little slip, he hadn’t told any lies, and Charlie hadn’t registered a thing.
“What’s he missing?”
“Well,” Merlin said, “From what I know—I mean, what I’ve been told—about predator group dynamics, all that tussling and teasing is basically there to give everyone a chance to prove that you’re strong and brave and tough and have earned your place in the pack. If you can do that, they’ll lay off you. But you don’t actually need to fight them. You just need to make a display of courage. Which you really do have, by the way. It took a lot of guts to get on the subway by yourself, then make five bodyguards listen to you.”
“If I make a show of courage as a hamster, I’ll just get stepped—”
“Forget about the hamster thing. You don’t need to be a hamster. No, you’re going to make a show of courage as a boy. There won’t be any risk to you… but the bullies won’t know that.”
“How?” Charlie asked.
“I’ll show up tomorrow after school, right when you hit the place where you’re all out of sight of the adults.”
Eagerly, his raptor broke in, We’ll hiss and chase and bare our fangs!
No, Merlin said firmly. Aloud, he went on. “I’ll wear a ski mask and pretend to be a mugger. I’ll say, ‘Gimme your money!’ Then you run at me and punch me in the stomach. It’s okay, you won’t hurt me. But I’ll double over and yell like I’ve been hurt, and then I’ll run away. And you’ll be a hero. And also, they’ll think you can hit really hard. If they ever ask about that, tell them you were pulling your punches before because you didn’t want to hurt them.”
Charlie perked up. “Thanks, Merlin. That sounds great!”
“My pleasure,” Merlin said. “After tomorrow, you’ll never be bullied again.”
The next day, Merlin parked out of sight, looked around to make sure no one was looking, pulled on a black ski mask, and concentrated hard.
Small, he told his inner raptor. Very small. Hamster-sized.
The scientists who’d experimented on him and his teammates had given them special powers in addition to making them shifters, but the problem with experiments was that, well, they were experimental. As far as Merlin could tell, not that his teammates would talk about it, their powers all had some kind of catch. Ransom knew things, but he couldn’t choose what he knew, and when he tried, it gave him splitting headaches. Merlin could change his size when he was in raptor form, but…
Cat-sized, retorted his raptor. Cats are cute!
And the next thing Merlin knew, he was a cat-sized velociraptor, his sleek black form reflected in the shiny metal of his car’s wheel rims.
We don’t want to be cute, Merlin said. We want to be stealthy, remember? Smaller!
After a brief battle of wills, Merlin’s raptor gave in. He shrank to the size of a hamster and scuttled across the sidewalk and into the concealment of an overgrown lawn. From there he proceeded toward the shifter neighborhood. It had a tall wall around it covered in ivy to shield it from the view of non-shifters, but Merlin easily climbed it.
He loved being tiny. It let him explore ordinary places as if they were magical new worlds. Grass became blade-thin trees, ivy stems were like the rope nets he’d climbed in boot camp, and a single chocolate bar was a feast. He wished he could help Charlie discover the joy of his own small shift form. Maybe he would after he helped Charlie become a hero and gave him his place in the pack of shifter kids.
Merlin scuttled into the park, ducked behind a tree, and became human again. Unlike most shifters, his clothes came with him; one of the perks of having been made in a lab rather than born a shifter.
Perks, Merlin thought, feeling slightly guilty. He’d come through being kidnapped and experimented on with a shift form he loved and a power that was, at worst, inconvenient. But his teammates hadn’t been so lucky.
Roland was haunted by the death of a woman who’d been taken with him but hadn’t survived the experiments, Pete flinched whenever anyone touched him, Ransom looked like he hadn’t slept in six months, and Carter hated his shift form so much that he wouldn’t even tell them what it was. If Merlin could change the past, he’d have chosen for none of them to have been kidnapped at all, even if that meant giving up the powers and shift form he loved.
Hey! his raptor exclaimed indignantly.
Sorry, Merlin replied. But his attention wasn’t on his raptor’s hurt feelings. He was too busy listening to the sounds of kids approaching. With his sharp shifter hearing, he could hear them before they came into view.
“Fluffy wuffy Charlie,” jeered a girl.
“Wanna run on a nice widdle hamster wheel?” teased a boy.
“Cut it out,” Charlie said. But he sounded defeated already, and Merlin knew the predator kids could hear it. Animal instincts were strong when children were young, and the other kids pounced on this sign of weakness. A chorus of hamster jokes rose up as the kids came into view.
Merlin adjusted his ski mask for maximum menace, and began to lunge out from behind the tree.
Just as he started moving, his raptor gleefully exclaimed, Anyone can fight a mugger! But it takes a REAL hero to fight a velociraptor!
The shift happened too fast for Merlin to stop it. The next thing he knew, he’d taken a flying leap out from behind the tree and landed in front of the kids as a ten-foot velociraptor.
“No!” Merlin yelled, or tried to. What came out of his huge fanged mouth was a terrifying hiss.
The kids screamed at the top of their lungs and turned to flee back toward the school. Unfortunately, at the exact moment that Merlin had made his move, so had someone else. A great black hound the size of a pony had silently padded out behind the kids. Smoke wreathed its body, and its eyes were pits of flame.
The instant he saw the hellhound, Merlin deeply regretted—well, everything really, but in particular, he regretted keeping his plan a secret from his team. Apparently Ransom had decided that no one else was going to do anything, so he’d showed up to scare the living daylights out of the bullies.
The kids shrieked anew, caught between what they undoubtedly thought were a pair of monsters. Ransom hurriedly shifted back, but the smoke remained, hiding his human form and looking like a cloud that could conceal anything.
Shift! Merlin yelled at his raptor.
He could feel his inner raptor’s alarm and confusion. In a panic, rather than shifting back to human form, he grew another two feet. Now the kids were trapped between an evil cloud and a twelve-foot velociraptor.
Charlie, who clearly had no idea that the velociraptor was Merlin, looked as scared at the rest of them. But in that moment, a look of resolute determination came across his face—the same look Merlin had seen when he’d opened the office door and seen a freckled kid when he’d been hoping for his mate.
Charlie’s clothes fell to the ground. An extremely fluffy hamster wriggled out, then scampered straight at Merlin.
Merlin froze, afraid to move for fear of accidentally stepping on him and afraid to try to shift back for fear of growing even bigger. In that instant, a chorus of shouts erupted from the direction of the park.
They were very familiar shouts. In fact, one of them was a shout that Merlin was all too familiar with:
“Merlin, you idiot!” Pete bellowed as he ran into the fray. Then, to the kids, “It’s okay! I’m Charlie’s bodyguard!”
At the same moment, Carter and Roland emerged from different directions, shouting, “It’s okay!” and “Don’t be scared!” Roland, who was coming from farther away, held a pair of binoculars, and Carter clutched a large electronic device. With a sinking feeling, Merlin realized that Roland must have come to make sure Charlie’s hamster fighting technique went okay, and Carter must have planned to give Charlie that fancy toy he’d been talking about.
The girl who’d been teasing Charlie glanced back and saw him charging a twelve-foot velociraptor as a hamster.
“Charlie!” she yelled. “Everyone, we need to help Charlie!”
The kids skidded to a stop, watching the hamster scampering determinedly toward the velociraptor. The next moment, eleven sets of kid clothes hit the ground, and Merlin was getting charged by three tiger cubs, two bear cubs, two wolf cubs, a lion cub, a panther cub, an eaglet, and, lumbering determinedly behind the rest, a hatchling alligator.
Merlin was so distracted that he missed the hamster reaching him until Charlie bit Merlin’s ankle. His little hamster teeth were sharper than Merlin had expected, and they sank right in. Merlin gave an involuntary twitch of surprise and pain, and the hamster went flying and landed on Carter’s shoe.
To Merlin’s immense relief, Charlie didn’t seem harmed, only confused. He scuttled up Carter’s pant leg. Carter let out a yelp and dropped his electronic device. It hit the pavement but instead of breaking, it bounced, turned in the air, and hit the ground again. This time it landed directly on its big red button.
There was a click and a flash, and a holographic projection appeared. Merlin could still see the sidewalk and the park and everything else, but he could also see a magnificent fairytale castle with Rapunzel letting her hair down from a tower, a moat with crocodiles and small sea serpents swimming in it, a jousting ground, and knights and horses wandering around.
That was when the pack of baby animals hit him. The eaglet dive-bombed his head, a tiger cub leaped high to latch on to his tail, a bear cub glommed on to his ankle, and the little girl who had started it all, who was now a fluffball of a gray wolf, lunged for his throat.
Merlin ducked and got bitten on the nose for his pains. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something that under other circumstances would have been alarming, but in this one was a huge relief: a mob of adult lions, tigers, bears, and other fierce predators charging him. The parents had come to the rescue.
Roland stepped between Merlin and the parents, holding up his hand. “It’s all right! I’m Roland Walker, from Protection, Inc. Defenders, the shifter bodyguard agency. No one’s in danger! Everyone, STAND DOWN!”
If Merlin had been asked to pick one person who could stop a pack of enraged predator parents in their tracks, he would have picked Roland. But he was still amazed to see them stop, and even more amazed when the baby animals biting him unlatched and scurried to their parents.
Merlin shifted back, rubbing his nose. “Ow.”
Roland turned his gaze onto him, making Merlin quail. “Ow, indeed.”
Carter turned off the holographic projector. The castle vanished. A man and a woman who strongly resembled Charlie came running up, panting. The hamster ran to them, his tiny legs working mightily. Charlie’s mom bent and cupped her hands, and Charlie jumped into them, then scurried up her arm and dove into her jacket pocket.
Charlie’s dad cleared his throat. “We’ll get the spare clothes, shall we?”
There was a lot of back-turning and scuffling while Charlie’s parents fetched armloads of bathrobes, and the kids and parents shifted and got dressed. Once that was done, the kids were the first to speak.
“Charlie saved us all!” exclaimed the wolf shifter girl. “He went straight for the velociraptor while the rest of us were running for our lives!”
The rest of the kids eagerly agreed. A rather bewildered Charlie was showered with praise for his courage and his sharp teeth.
Merlin, seizing the opportunity, said, “He bit me harder than anyone! Look, my ankle’s still bleeding!”
The kids gathered round to inspect Merlin’s injuries. They seemed suitably impressed.
“Exactly what happened here?” asked a mom who had formerly been a tiger asked ominously.
Charlie shot an imploring look at the bodyguards. Roland, turning so the parents couldn’t see, gave him a quick wink, then said, “We came to give a presentation to the community, as a follow-up to our email. Unfortunately, Merlin saw a… er…”
“A feral dog,” said Merlin smoothly. “A big black one. Really vicious-looking. I shifted to scare it off, but I hadn’t realized that the kids were coming home from school. Charlie here thought I was a danger to his friends, and he went right for my throat!”
“So did I!” piped up the wolf girl. “I protected my pack!”
“I protected my flock!” added the eaglet boy.
“I saw the dog,” said the alligator girl. “It was huge and mean-looking!”
“Huge and mean,” echoed one of the bear boys.
The smoke had long since dissipated, so Merlin caught the wry glance Ransom shot to him.
“Hey,” said the alligator dad, peering at Carter. “Aren’t you—”
Loudly, Carter said, “Charlie, in recognition of your courage, I’m giving you the holographic projector. Enjoy!”
He shoved it into Charlie’s hands, then turned and strode off with great speed, his long black coat billowing behind him. In an instant, he was gone.
Merlin glanced around the crowd of parents. He could see the sharp looks they were giving the bodyguards. It was obvious that they’d figured out that there was more to this event than met the eye. But their kids were so clearly and genuinely thrilled to have had the chance to be heroes and protect their packs, the parents seemed hesitant to challenge the team in front of them.
“Oh boy,” said Charlie. “A holographic projector. Wow!”
“Can you do the castle again?” begged the alligator girl. “I can get my princess dress!”
Charlie’s parents glanced at each other, then seized the opportunity.
“Yes,” said his mom.
“Absolutely,” said his dad. “You all go get dressed, and we’ll order pizza and cake, and we’ll have a castle party in our backyard.”
Gleefully, Merlin’s inner raptor exclaimed, Best day ever! We fixed things for Charlie and now we’re having a party with pizza and cake!
That’s just for the kids, Merlin replied silently. Sorry.
“Everyone’s invited,” said Charlie’s mother. The look she gave the bodyguards made her subtext of So I can interrogate you extremely clear.
“We’d be delighted,” said Roland. The look he gave the bodyguards made his subtext of This is not optional extremely clear.
Half the parents took their kids home, and the rest waited until the kids were gone before Roland told them the actual story. There was a lot of parental guilt to go around, but Merlin pointed out that all was well that ended well.
“I guess now that we’ve explained everything, we can go,” said Ransom, beginning to back away.
“Nope,” said Charlie’s mom. “You still need to come to the party.”
“Yes, stay,” said the alligator dad, giving Pete a hearty clap on the back. Pete didn’t flinch, but Merlin could see his jaw tense as he gritted his teeth.
“We came here so our kids could experience being shifters, and all bond together as a pack,” said a wolf mom. “And now they have. Not exactly how we intended it to happen, but…”
“All’s well that ends well,” said the lion dad, smiling at Merlin.
“So you’re all staying,” said a bear mom, in a tone that did not allow for excuses.
“Like I said,” said Roland, staring down his team. “We’d be delighted.”
“I am delighted,” said Merlin, and meant it. “Do you have a few Band-Aids I can borrow?”
“Only if you promise not to return them,” said Charlie’s dad.
An hour later, they were all in a backyard turned into a holographic castle with a mob of delighted kids running around. Charlie had put on a wizard’s robe (another bathrobe) and was casting magic spells in between gobbling pizza, with the other kids obediently freezing and unfreezing at his command. The alligator girl, now in a pink princess dress and tiara, was dancing around with the eaglet clinging to her forearm.
Ransom, who would have clearly rather fled with Carter, seemed to be attempting to blend into a wall like a chameleon.
Pete watched the kids wistfully. Merlin wondered if he was wishing his own daughter was part of the fun. Merlin had never met her. Pete seemed determined to keep her absolutely separate from the world of shifters, since she wasn’t one herself. As far as Merlin knew, she didn’t even know her father was one.
Roland’s gaze was on the parents, not the children. The lines in his face deepened into bitter grief as he watched a husband put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and pull her close.
Despite the crowd, Merlin suddenly felt very alone. Where was his mate? Did she even exist? Would he ever have children of his own? And his teammates—would they ever find their own mates?
A child’s high voice interrupted his thoughts. It was the wolf girl, side by side with Charlie.
“Could you turn into a velociraptor again?” she asked. “And let us ride you? Our parents said it was up to you.”
“I promise not to bite,” said Charlie with a cheeky grin.
Merlin laughed, thought pony-size, and shifted. For once, the size he wanted was the size he got. As the kids scrambled on to his back and clung tight, he thought Someday this won’t just be something I get to experience for a couple hours at someone else’s party. Someday this will be my real life, with my own true love and kids of our own.
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