Chuck sat silently behind the Nerd Herd desk, chin in one hand, elbow on the table, staring out into space. He’d just had another mission the night before. It had gone alright, all things considered, even if one of the badguys had gotten away. At least no one got hurt, and he didn’t… change.
But that was probably just because Casey had pumped him full of enough tranquilizer to kill – not just sedate – an elephant. He, of course, got an earful about how expensive it is to tranquilize him, and how, if he was normal, it would have serious effects on his body. Yeah, well, he used to be ‘normal…’
The doors to the store opened. Blinking, Chuck tried to pull himself out of thought, sitting up straight in the chair and scooting toward his computer. If he didn’t at least look like he was working, then the other nerds might take that as a signal that they didn’t have to pretend to work, either. Not that he thought Jeff and Lester ever worked, anyway.
When he looked up, however, he saw some familiar – and some not-so-familiar – faces. He didn’t have to flash again to know who he was looking at: tall, broad-shouldered, butch, looked like he probably ate nails for breakfast… His name was Roman Drogovic, and he was a prominent Russian operative of Fulcrum.
He was also the guy who got away on their mission last night, and it looked like he brought some cronies. Four big guys flanked him, all dressed in black and sticking out like sore thumbs. The store employees were already giving them funny looks. Whoever the thugs were, they apparently weren’t important enough to be in the Intersect, but they looked like they could probably lift at least the front end of a small car if they wanted to.
Panicking and almost falling out of his chair in desperation to hide under the desk, Chuck made a sound that wasn’t quite any actual words. He fumbled for his cell phone, his heart pounding in his ears.
Drogovic knew what he looked like. He didn’t know he was the Intersect, but he knew he was an operative, and that was enough to warrant capture. And if he was captured…
When Chuck finally yanked his phone out of his pocket, he scrambled to call Casey or Sarah – only for a long, thick, sharp, and still growing claw to tap on his phone screen instead of his fingertip.
Chuck dropped the phone with a yelp, looking at his shaking hands. All of his fingernails were changing, and it’d only be seconds before any other part of him followed suit.
Nearby, he heard Morgan talking to none other than Drogovic. As usual, Morgan was being his completely ignorant self, at least until Drogovic interrupted.
“Your leader of Nerd Herd,” Drogovic growled out, his Russian accent thick and his R’s rolling. “Where is he?”
“Who, Chuck?” Morgan replied.
That was the last Chuck heard. He was already gone, crawling out from under the desk and taking off at a low sprint across the store, away from the direction of his best friend and the Russian agent. He all but slammed into the door to the back, throwing it open and staggering inside.
Gasping for breath and with sweat dripping off his face, he kept running at an awkwardly fast gait, having to reach out and grab a nearby wall to make the turn toward the break-room. His claws scraped against he paint, but he couldn’t worry about that right now.
Reaching the door, he wrenched it open and stumbled inside, slamming it and locking it behind him. He couldn’t hide here for long – everyone would be on break soon – but at least he had solitude for the time being.
His chest heaving, he reached for his phone – but he’d left it under the Nerd Herd desk. The blood drained from his face and he whimpered, patting himself down again in a vain effort to make it appear.
“Oh – oh, this is so bad…” he breathed as he whirled and closed the door blinds. Still gasping ineffectively and not calming down, Chuck suddenly thought of the watch. He didn’t have an earpiece to hear them respond, but at least they should be able to hear him…
Lifting it to his mouth, he blurted into the communicator in rapid panic with a breaking voice, “Guys – guys, I got a real problem here, and – and I—I don’t think I can handle it, Drogovic is in the Buy More and he’s looking for me and—”
He was cut off by his own groan as he felt a sudden ache spread through his body, and he clutched his skull, pinching his eyes shut.
“Not now not now…” he panted, “Please not now…”
The doorknob rattled. Whirling, Chuck turned to see Sarah rush inside, closing and locking the door behind her in one swift motion. Judging from the way even she paused for half a second, staring and smelling horribly of fear, he really was starting to change.
He stood there with enormous claws tipping his fingers, his already sizable canines now even larger and incredibly sharp, with some of his other teeth following suit. His yellow eyes were wide as saucers, and he was starting to feel claws on his feet threaten to rip through his sneakers.
“Chuck—” Sarah started, approaching him quickly but cautiously, her hands before her in a placating manner.
Chuck didn’t need placating. His only brief bout of hesitation came from his fear that she thought he was some freakish monster, but once panic pushed that aside, he took a long stride toward her, only to hesitate again.
“Sarah!” he choked out, trembling violently in terror. “Sarah, y-y-you gotta do something – I – I can’t stop it!”
“Yes, you can,” Sarah said slowly, quickly taking his hands. Thankfully, that made him look at her face instead of staring at his claws. “You can do this, Chuck. Just take deep breaths, close your eyes, and calm down. You aren’t going to let this happen.”
As his hearing steadily became even more acute, Chuck could hear the faint sound of Casey’s voice from an earpiece Sarah had apparently put on for the crisis. “Walker…” Casey started in warning, but he didn’t go on.
Sarah ignored him, anyway. Gently, she squeezed Chuck’s hands as he pinched his eyes shut, gasping for breath.
“It’snotworking,” he whimpered all at once, a grimace of pain crossing his face.
“It’s only not working if you don’t let it,” Sarah insisted, trying to sound calm, though her own fear was rising. “Think of something that calms you down. Close your eyes, and only think about that. Focus on slowing your heartbeat.”
Chuck kept his eyes closed… but only for a second longer. Hesitantly, he blinked them open again, looking Sarah right in the face. She looked back at him, fighting down any terror she felt that his yellow eyes were now identical to a wolf’s.
Slowly, Chuck stopped shaking. He leaned forward slightly, craning his neck down as his rapid breathing began to slow to a calmer pace. As his nose brushed by her cheek, he finally let his eyes fall shut again, his chest no longer heaving so dramatically.
Sarah didn’t move. She felt the fur that had started to grow on his clawed hands begin to recede, and the claws quickly followed suit. Within just a few more seconds, he was human again.
And almost that same instant, his eyes snapped open and he immediately flinched his head away from her face, sliding his hands from hers with one of his usual rapid, quiet blurts of realization: “OhmyGod.”
Taking another breath, he quickly said, “Sorry – sorry, sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t, uh, that was…” Chuck swallowed and made a face at himself. “I didn’t realize I was that close,” he finished, finally managing not to stammer since he had looked away from her, though he sounded incredibly sheepish.
Sarah couldn’t stop a smile from playing on her lips. “It’s alright, Chuck,” she said with a small laugh.