Summary: James has left behind the ranch and his werebear pack for the big city of Evene. He wants to be more than his instincts. He wants more of life than the peace of the mountains broken by the exhilaration of the hunt. But when a lost shifter, just bitten, crosses his path, he realises that there is nowhere he can escape his wildest side.
The mysterious man is young, lost and desperate. He knows nothing about being a shifter, not even what kind of animal he can become. He needs James’ help. But if James is strong enough to offer, is he strong enough to take it?
James clenched his fists, effectively embedding nails sharper than they should have been into his own palms. The pain helped him focus and hold back the change. He was not made to live in a city, anything from the smell of fresh meat to the brush of a dog against his bare legs could set him off when he hadn’t been running in a while. And it had been a while now, what with the Narati campaign taking up all his available waking hours and some of the ones he should have been asleep, too.
And now, for the last straw on the camel’s back, another shifter had been leaving his smell all over his neighbourhood. James had moved to the city to escape the animal hierarchies that dominated the lives of his family in the ranch by the mountains his people had occupied for generations, but he was just as vulnerable to his instincts here as he was out there. The main difference was that when surrounded by cement and metal, all that he had to struggle against were the excessive noises and smells humans and their pets produced; and, of course, himself. But there were no true rivals for resources and if he had any frustration to work off… well, being known as cutthroat only made him more valuable to his company.
This stranger, though, was getting to him. He had first detected the scent a week ago on his way home, so exhausted that he had taken a cab, afraid of crashing if he tried driving. The smell had woken him right the hell up when it had wafted through the open car window, only a few streets from his house. But he had explained it away as a new shifter in the city not knowing how things worked here. In the wild, where packs and families of shifters would occupy territories empty except for cattle, it would be hard for a stranger to miss the markings of dozens of shifters. In the city, James was alone and his territory was too large for him to really spend time regularly in all of it. It extended two neighbourhoods in all directions and five in the direction of his workplace, connecting the office and his home in a path that would have been freshest despite its size because going to work was pretty much all James ever did. Except that he hadn’t run to work in weeks, not even his supernatural stamina good enough to manage exercise on top of a ninety hour week. Sometimes he wondered how humans did it because nobody seemed to think it was strange that he could.
But now the Narati campaign was done and his physical exertion had nothing on the fury that had invaded him when he had arrived to his own front garden to find the smell stronger than ever. This was most definitely not an accident. No shifter could miss this was his home. In fact, for the first time now, he could tell what type of shifter the man was: something smaller, a canine, perhaps a coyote or fox. The scent was clear and distinct but he had little experience meeting shifters that were not werebears like himself. And, like werebears, other shifters were not and did not smell like the animals they became.
Not that it mattered, James belonged to one of the biggest subclasses of shifters in the continent and he was a big man, too. Tracking was no problem, his brain, though exhausted, was almost not required to process the information left clear in the air and ground. Before he had made a conscious decision, his feet were propelling him forward. The smell was fresh enough that if he hurried, he had a good chance of catching up to the intruder.
He had barely walked two blocks when he saw him. He couldn’t pinpoint a smell from that distance but the certainty that he was looking at his stalker was immediate. He sped up. It was just a boy, barely out of his teens, dirty blond hair long enough to get in his eyes and stopping way before anybody not supernaturally inclined could have heard him coming, proof positive that the man wasn’t human. He turned, looking surprised but not afraid, which did not bode well for either his senses or his sense since James was still spitting mad. James had him up against the wall before he could think better of it, his instinctive need to show dominance in his territory combining with his tiredness to overwhelm all his well trained human manners. He could feel his canines elongating, his mouth close enough to the other’s throat to tear, now the body against his shook in the fear announced by the wild heartbeat but the man clenched his teeth and withstood his gaze.
“What were you doing at my place?” He demanded, pushing him further onto the wall. He meant more than his house.
“I was looking for you,” the guy explained, raising his hands to push lightly at James, firm but not aggressive. He had to be strong enough to push James away at least a little, no matter what type of shifter he was, but he wasn’t doing it. His eyes were dark, looking almost black by the poor lightening of the street lamp but James could tell his pupils were dilated. He was afraid but he wasn’t letting it affect him, he wasn’t challenging and he wasn’t cowering. James felt himself calm down despite himself at the reasonable, almost respectful, tone he was using. “I just started this new job, I deliver on a bike and I could feel you around here so…”
James backed up enough to stop touching him but with his superior height, the guy still had look up at him. He raised an eyebrow and nodded for him to proceed.
“Well, I wanted… I don’t know anybody who is,” he gestured between them, his hand grazing James’ chest before he snatched it back. “I don’t know what I’m doing; I was bitten only a few weeks ago and…” He stopped and looked away, his agitation was obvious now. “I changed. I was hurt and I ran, I just ran. I don’t know what I’m doing,” he repeated.
“You were bitten?” James asked, horrified. Biting was reserved for spouses, there were ceremonies and they definitely included an explanation.
The boy didn’t seem to hear. “I don’t know why I kept coming back, just that I felt…I needed to. I don’t know how but… I could tell. I could tell you were like me. And today I found your house…” He looked up at James beseechingly. “I knocked. You didn’t answer.”
James stared at him. The idea of a shifter knocking on another’s door was so absurd as to almost be funny. He remembered the constant competition between his siblings to be the first to announce a visitor was coming, something they had trained themselves to be so good at that they had sometimes claimed someone was coming only to discover their grandparents, in the next house over, a good few miles south, were the ones entertaining.
With his anger gone, James was starting to feel every minute of the last forty hours. “You probably do need help,” he concluded with a sigh. “What a mess.” He thought of the horror stories of bitten shifters, about how not having grown up with it they did not know how to control the change at all. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not without a willing partner to initiate the newly bitten, but what else was new?
“Will you help me?” The boy asked, he smelled desperate but he looked determined. James couldn’t even begin to imagine what he must have been feeling.
It wasn’t like he had much of a choice, he wasn’t going to let the boy kill somebody and expose his whole species to the world. “Tomorrow, but you need to come with me right now.”
“Where to?” He was growing progressively more distrustful, maybe getting the story out had reminded him that someone like James had put him in this position in the first place.
“To a place you like,” James said, mockingly. “I need sleep and you need to be in my hearing so I can stop you from doing something stupid.”
The boy was happy to curl up on James’ sofa with a blanket. And James was almost absurdly grateful to be allowed to lock and bar the door and collapse on his own bed. He could have called home and his parents would have understood it was an emergency but he could hardly manage to get off his clothes, much less hold a sensitive conversation. He let himself drift off to the steady sound of the shifter’s heart, that way he could keep track of him even in sleep.
James hadn’t expected to like the news when he called home for advice, he was jealous of his free time and this disruption was likely to take up a serious amount of it. Even so, he had somehow imagined that he could drop the kid off somewhere for more experienced shifters to deal with and get on with his own life. Not such luck, his mother had been clear, a newly bitten shifter’s senses were not to be trusted, and taking him anywhere with a large shifter population was a monumentally bad idea that would very likely trigger a change, and if he changed, there was not guarantee he would know how to change back.
“He needs somebody to guide him through the transformation.” She sounded unnaturally neutral; James looked down at his half empty coffee cup in despair. He couldn’t possibly be awake.
“Guide him?” He asked, finally, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Are you saying what I think you are saying? Guiding as in married guiding?”
“Marriage is a human institution. Guiding someone does not create a permanent bond,” she clarified.
“It still means a bond!” He said, too loud, before he forced himself to put his anger into a hiss. “I would have to let him into my mind.”
His mom sighed, sounding pained but resigned. “There is no other way for him to learn about his animal side at his age.”
“He is pretty young,” James said, stalling but also honestly hoping she would find a different way.
“How young?” She asked and he glanced at the boy passed out in his sofa.
“I don’t know, maybe underage.”
She huffed. “That’s a human idea, James, what matters is if he’s past puberty.”
That was as good as a no. “Oh. Yes.”
“Then he is too old to learn on his own,” she said, firmly, the same no nonsense tone she used to end arguments at the dinner table. “He would be too old even if he had time to prepare for the bite and he doesn’t.”
“Okay, so he needs a guide. Why me?”
“He sought you out,” she said, simply.
It wasn’t like the boy knew him from any other shifter, James was just around. “Yes, because I’m here, that’s all.”
“Well, because you are there and time is short. What is stopping you?” Her voice shifted. “Have you met someone? If you have a partner…”
“No.” James cut her off. “I haven’t met anyone, I just don’t want to tell a kid I just met that I need to… That to help him I need to sleep with him.”
“Do you want me to ask Sean?” She asked, no judgement in her voice, nothing but an offer he couldn’t possibly accept.
“Sean?” He echoed, voice catching in his throat. He hadn’t seen Sean in person in three years, since he had packed his bags and left him and their pack in the middle of the night.
“Who else do you think would travel to that stinking place you live in to help a complete stranger because you asked?” She asked, patiently.
It was true. His siblings were either too young or had partnered up, as had all his cousins except Stella and not even he would suggest something so outrageous. Sean would come, Sean would have followed him here if James had let him. But James had not let him. He couldn’t have, knowing how he not simply needed but adored their forests, not remembering the way he had flinched when visiting the mining town nearest to the ranch. It was the only thing that made him feel any better about the way he had treated Sean at all.
James had needed out, he had needed more than Sean and his family and the forest but even if Sean needed him —and if he did, it was not for any good reasons— James couldn’t ask him to give everything else up. Here was a man who knew James better than anybody alive and loved him for it, and James couldn’t muster any feelings for him beyond the affection of years of shared experiences and support.
And desire, he wanted Sean still, he wanted him in a way that had made him a little hopeless about all his subsequent relationships. But he knew it wasn’t about Sean; James wanted someone in his bed that he could run with. Sean fit the bill, that was all. As with the forest, that wasn’t enough for James to build a relationship on. Sean might have accepted, but it would have been a mistake. James could not be his whole life and there was no other life for him in the city. So he had left without telling him and made damn sure to cover his tracks, both physical and electronic, in case Sean got desperate enough to try and get somebody to search that way. Last year, he had finally called and Sean —after some pained questioning about his leaving— had been eager to visit but James was older now and he knew that if he allowed it, they would easily fall into their old pattern. He could easily make Sean stay. The reason was simple: James had entered his mind and somehow had changed something there. It was the same reason he was afraid to help the boy, he knew how to shift but he did not know how to touch someone without touching all of them.
“Is there something I need to know?” He asked, defeated. This new information didn’t change the one basic fact that had led him to ask: There was a person in his sofa who was going to die if James didn’t help him, possibly after killing someone else.
“Nothing you don’t know already,” his mom replied, she knew about Sean. James had had to tell her when his friend had refused to acknowledge there was anything to his new feelings but the consequences of an intimate encounter. She reminded him anyway. “He cannot have time now, but give him time after, keep him close, make sure he is dealing with it. He won’t know what to do with his new senses once they really open up to him, much less the instincts.” She hesitated. “Sometimes once it’s not enough.”
James closed his eyes and growled his frustration, he felt his body hair stand on end, his skin itched, begging for the relief of shifting. He ignored it. He had no intention of destroying his living room and changing inside was a painful experience for an animal as large as a bear.
“I will call you after,” he promised and hung up. It was eleven already, later than James had slept in ages. It was still too early for this.
He hit the receiver too hard against the cradle, a crack appearing on the light green plastic even as his sleeping guest woke up and fell off the couch.
He scrambled to his feet, obviously alarmed and James raised his hands. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
The boy stared and James realised that very moment that he could not use his name to calm him down because he did not know it. “I never asked your name. I’m James, by the way.” He lowered his hands and offered his right.
He breathed in, visibly calming himself down and perched on the sofa’s arm. But he wasn’t calm; not really, he kept his gaze focused on James, as if he was a predator that couldn’t be trusted not to go for the throat if given the chance. “Alex,” he said and his heartbeat skipped a beat. He was lying about his name?
Maybe he didn’t like his name, but people who used nicknames didn’t think of them as lying. It didn’t really matter, his body was telling James more than enough of his story was true. He was a new shifter, he didn’t know how to control his senses. Or the change itself. James had calmed violent people by talking them down in the past and knew well that contradicting him wouldn’t get him far.
“Listen, Alex,” he said, “I will order something for us to eat. I have got nothing but,” he turned towards the kitchen, and sniffed. “Cereal and very mouldy cheese.”
He turned to find the boy frowning at him. “You can tell what’s in the kitchen by smell?” He asked, his face making it clear how unlikely he found that.
“Yes, and so can you. You just don’t know how.”
Maybe!Alex stared some more.
“One of the things I can smell is that you probably want a shower. I will get you some clothes…”
Alex snorted. “Your clothes aren’t going to fit me.”
James shrugged. “As long as they keep you covered, I’m the only one who will see you.”
“What do you mean?” Alex stood and straightened. He was shorter than James but he was above average height, not built but far from slim.
“You know why you are here,” James told him, impatiently. “If you go outside you could change so you have to stay in till…”
“I can’t go outside?!” Alex bristled. “Who do you think you are?”
“You asked for my help.” James reminded him, sharply, and barely kept himself from taking a step forward at the challenge clear in Alex’s posture.
“I wanted some advice, not for you to take over my life!” Alex replied.
James breathed out. “It’s not that simple, advice isn’t gonna cut it with the mess you are in.”
Maybe without knowing it, Alex could sense the truth of his words. His steady heartbeat, his worry, because he dropped the anger like it was too heavy to carry one more minute. “Oh, god. You’ve got to be kidding me! How is this even happening?”
James was more than a little lost. “What do you mean? You asked for my help.”
“I asked for your help because I could tell you were a werewolf! And I could only tell because I’m one, too. How is that happening?”
James had never had to explain to anybody the realities of his world, everybody he had ever met either knew already or could never find out. “I’m not a werewolf,” he said instead.
“What?” Alex sounded close to murder or tears, possibly both.
“I’m a werebear. You might be a werewolf, I’m not sure.”
“A bear?” Repeated Alex.
James didn’t think he sounded appropriately impressed. “Yes, a bear, like the kind that can have a wolf for a snack.”
“I’m not a werewolf?”
“You could be.” James inhaled but it didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know. “I haven’t really met any before, I can’t quite tell.”
Alex just stared at him, he couldn’t tell what type of shifter he was but it’s absolutely obvious that he was confused as hell. James took a seat and resigned himself to an impromptu seminar on the topic. “There are many types of shifters, we call them all shifters or were because we are all human sometimes. Werewolves just kept getting caught in the middle ages and that’s why they are more popular with humans. Or unpopular, I suppose. They are not even one of the largest populations of shifters in the world.” He didn’t bother to hide his annoyance.
Not-really-Alex took a seat at the foot of the sofa, looking defeated. “This is too fucking much.”
“I can help you,” James repeated. “You need to transition properly, to become your other self,”
“I changed already,” Alex objected.
James shook his head. “It’s not about physically changing, it’s about… your mind needs to become the animal, too. But you can’t do it alone, you don’t know how, you have never been an animal, just in the body of one.”
“But why do I have to?”
“Because the animal has a mind of its own, if it is not your mind, it’s just an animal, and it can do anything it wants. You have no control whatsoever, you are just lucky you haven’t killed anyone.”
“Killed?!” Alex exclaimed, voice going high. Having the possibility brought up didn’t send him into denial, though, on the contrary, what he wanted were assurances of his innocence. “How do you know I haven’t?” It was strange to meet a human who could contemplate himself hurting someone so easily, then James realised he was an idiot. Of course Alex believed a were could be a monster, the only shifter he knew besides James actually was one.
“I googled,” James explained, showing him the phone he still held. “No news about animal attacks, well, nothing but a dog getting hurt by a raccoon.”
“I’m not a raccoon!” Alex said, apparently not reassured that it was a dog that had been injured and not a person.
“I know, you smell like canine, you probably wouldn’t try to go for a human. Unless you were in a city and they scared you or…” He swallowed, hesitating, but he couldn’t pull his punches now if he wanted to convince him, either. “Unless they were small,” he finished.
“Oh god.” Alex said in a small voice. “Are you trying to scare me so I listen to you? Why would the… the animal be hungry if I’m eating?”
“I just want you to understand,” James said in a voice as soft as he could manage, he put a tentative hand on Alex’s knee. Alex let him. “Nothing has happened yet. But wild animals aren’t safe, it doesn’t matter how well fed they are.” He met the other man’s eyes and promised, “We can stop it from happening.”
“We?” Alex asked, hopefully.
“I told you, I know how to help you. I have to show you how it feels.”
Alex nodded, but a moment later he was frowning. “How can you show me how it feels?”
James swallowed, there was no way the explanation would go over well. “Shifters don’t just change, there’s other things that are different about us. We have a connection to the animal part of ourselves, we can go into our unconscious mind.” He made himself meet Alex’s gaze, hoping to seem honest. “We can go into other people’s, too, under very special circumstances.”
“You want to read my mind?” Alex asked, sounding dubious. He shuffled back till James was forced to remove his hand and then he stood, apparently incapable of having this conversation and meet James’ eyes at once.
“No, not read it, I need to connect to it. I need to show you how my mind works with the animal mind so you can do the same. It’s more like you will be seeing my mind.”
Alex shook his head. “That sounds…”
“Intimate, yes.” James readily admitted.
“…crazy.” Alex finished.
“Crazy is whoever bit you without asking or explaining.” James replied, getting angry even if Alex was the last person he should be getting angry at. “Do you know who it was?”
Alex tensed at the question. The answer was obviously yes. He sat back down on the sofa, tugging his too large trousers up. All the fight and all the fear gone to be replaced by sadness so profound he seemed to be drowning in it. “I think so.”
“If we tell the elders of his pack they will make sure he doesn’t do it again,” James explained. He didn’t feel the need to specify that they would accomplish this by killing him, it was well deserved and it was more important to get it done quickly than to keep Alex’s trust.
“She,” Alex said, simply.
James nodded encouragingly. “So you know her?”
“My girlfriend, she… She caught me cheating but she said it was okay and then she asked me to come with her to meet her folks.” He exhaled. “Of course I went.”
“Did she explain then?”
“No, not… she changed. She took me to this spot in the forest, her ‘childhood hideout’ and she changed in front of me.” He was shaking now, remembered emotion taking over him. “I thought I was going crazy, like, I had seen her change but I couldn’t believe it. I ran…”
James winced and Alex stopped. Running from a predator was pretty much like presenting yourself as prey; even pups knew that if somebody ran from them, it meant they should give chase. “She went after you.”
“Yes,” he agreed, eyes closing for a moment. “Now I realise what they say about dogs and not running but…”
“Do you think it was an accident?” James asked, desperate to interrupt his speculations. It wasn’t a fair situation, it wasn’t fair to ask someone who had never heard of shifters to react sensibly when something like that happened to them, but he didn’t think telling Alex that was going to help. “That she didn’t mean to bite you?”
“No.” Alex sounded angry himself all of sudden. “It was no accident, she took me there and she changed into a…” He stopped himself with difficulty. “Into something that could kill me.”
“Yes, of course, that wasn’t accidental, but later, when you were running from her, do you think she just grazed you? It’s a bit like the way dogs will play with you by trying to bite you. Sometimes they do bite harder than they meant to.”
Alex stared at him. Then stood and started unbuttoning his shirt. James didn’t speak, but he couldn’t help the sound that escaped his throat when he saw the teeth marks on Alex’s abdomen. “Does this look like a little playing getting out of hand to you?”
“If you hadn’t turned…” James said out loud, without meaning to.
Alex nodded, fists clenched on the shirt he was holding open. The wound looked ugly even mostly healed, he couldn’t even begin to imagine the amount of blood there would have been when it was fresh.
“Did you change then?”
“I think so, I don’t remember much, after… the pain.” Alex looked away, an intense look on his face. “I just wanted to come home and I got here somehow. I quit my job; I have been sleeping on couches… I don’t want her to find me.”
“You really don’t. If she meant to turn you, she wants to keep you.”
“Keep me?” Alex echoed.
“Shifters only turn their mates… their spouses.”
“Spouses? We had been dating for three months! And I’m only nineteen!”
“Nineteen?” James repeated.
“Almost twenty, but still, it’s been three months and I cheated on her. Why the hell…?” He looked down at his still uncovered chest. “I moved.”
“I tried to run,” he said once again. “I moved, I don’t think she wanted to… I was on the ground, she jumped for me, I scrambled back.” His hand moved to the wound, already scarred over and high on his left side. Then they both watched as his hand slid up to his upper chest till it rested right over his heart.
“Oh, god,” James said, stunned. “She tried to kill you. This is even worse than I thought. We have to report her.”
“I can’t,” Admitted Alex, miserably.
“Why the hell not?” James snapped. “She tried to kill you.”
“Because she would tell,” Alex answered. “And if my parents find out, they will kill me.”
“Tell what?” She couldn’t possibly tell anybody about weres, her own pack would stop her, not to mention that nobody would believe her and if she changed in front of them to prove it, she’d probably get shot for her trouble.
Alex gave him a wary glance and started closing his shirt, he was halfway through before he muttered, eyes still firmly on his moving hands. “She caught me with a guy.”
It took James a moment to return from his wild flight of fancy. “Oh. You are…”
“I don’t know!” Alex exploded. “But if she tells my parents, they will never speak to me again. It will ruin my life.”
“Look, that sucks, but she is dangerous. Even if she told and your parents freaked out… the alternative is that she could kill somebody.”
“But she only wants to hurt me, right? And she can’t find me.”
“Alex, she is a were…” James said, helplessly.
“What’s that mean?”
“She can track you by smell. Especially if you have been… intimate so recently.”
Alex got up and started to pace in front of the sofa, he probably didn’t know it but he was comforted by marking his territory. James wasn’t so pleased about the endeavour himself but he gritted his teeth and allowed him the small comfort. “No, no, no.” Then he looked at James, and his face filled with a mix anxiety and hope. “You said you would help. Do the mind thing…”
“I did.” James agreed. “I will. But…”
“But it’s not a mind thing only. And I want her name.”
“No. I can’t… I can’t risk her telling them.”
James changed tactics. “Okay, your name then.”
Alex startled. “I told you…”
James gave him a pitying look “I can hear it when you lie, your heartbeat gives you away.”
Alex’s eyes widened. “Oh, god. That’s… that’s fucked up.” Then he seemed to think of something. “That’s how she knew. The fucking bitch.”
“You were lying to her,” James pointed out. Sure, he had an unfair advantage but it’s not like Alex should have been lying to him, considering what James had rescued him from. And he sure as hell shouldn’t have been lying to his girlfriend, not before she’d turned out to be a murderous psychopath, at least.
“I was lying to me. I was… I was trying to figure it out before breaking it off with her. And anyway, I can lie if I want to, she was lying to me to, wasn’t she? But I couldn’t tell.”
“What’s with the name then?” James asked, sidestepping the philosophical argument. “You are not lying to yourself about that, are you?”
“It’s because of my parents.”
James had had enough. “Look, here, I just had one of the worst conversations of my life with my mother to try and find a way to help you. And let me tell you, I do not like the way she found. She pretty much told me I had no choice but do it, or kill you before you murdered someone.”
“You would kill me?” Alex asked, stopping completely and focusing all his attention on James.
James repressed his need to shift uncomfortably under his gaze and told him, “If you change, you are going to kill something sooner rather than later. Maybe you get lucky and it’s just a rat, maybe you are bigger than I think and it’s a person. If you don’t get help… I might have no other choice.”
“So your mum is a…” He waved his hand between them again.
“Were. A werebear to be more specific. We all are. It’s inherited. Bitten shifters are rare.” James shook his head. “Stop trying to distract me. Tell me the truth.”
“You know I have.”
James persisted. “About who you are.”
Alex closed his eyes, defeat writ large upon his posture. “Hadrian.”
It was an extravagant name. James frowned, trying to think where he’d heard it before. But Hadrian didn’t make him go through the effort, adding. “Attenburo.”
James’ eyes widened. “The major’s kid.”
“Yes. The fuck up who is not in college, that kid. And now this…” He huffed and paced some more. James had the distinct impression that he was not referring to the supernatural turn his life has just taken.
“Hadrian,” James concentrated on making it a command and the boy turned to look at him. “I will never say a word. I can’t say I know what you are going through. My parents never minded, but I get the bullshit from everybody else just the same.”
“That I’m gay.”
Hadrian’s eyes ran all over him, as if trying to find… what? A hint of pink? Some multi-coloured accessories. “Oh. Um… thanks for telling me.”
“I would have had to tell you anyway. I can’t guide you through the shift without… I mean, we need to,” he exhaled, massaging his brow more to cover his face than because he could develop a tension headache. “We need to sleep together.” He could have kicked himself, he hadn’t meant to blurt it out like that but he had been talking around it for too long.
Hadrian took a step back. “Is this a joke?”
James stood and walked as far as he could get while remaining in the room and turned his back to him. “No.”
“How… how does that even make any sense? You are going to show me how to be a werewolf by fucking my brains out? Really?”
“It’s not… the sex, per se, it’s the trust. Going into someone’s mind requires trust. Rather a lot, really. And intimacy… sex provides both.”
“Trust?” Hadrian laughed, incredulous. It was not a nice laugh. “Why am I going to trust you because you are sticking your dick in me?”
James turned slightly towards him, briefly met his eyes and then tried to recall the way his mother had explained it to him once upon a time, when he had smashed into puberty and become so desperate for touch he had ended up confessing because he had been sure it had to be supernatural. “You know how we act the way we think and speak? Well, we think the way we act. If you do something that shows you trust me, you will trust me.”
“That’s some twisted logic you have got there,” Hadrian sneered, clearly unimpressed.
It was. Sadly, it was also the truth. Then James realised the obvious.
He took a step closer. “I can teach you how to tell if someone is lying.”
Hadrian immediately backed himself into the couch and fell onto it. James raised his hands, it wasn’t a very meaningful gesture coming from someone whose hands could turn into deadly sharp claws at any moment but hopefully Hadrian would read it the human way. “Just a spoken a lesson.”
Hadrian sat up, then got to his feet again, getting farther away as he got higher. “Okay.”
“It’s all in the heartbeat, it works the same way lying detectors do, when someone lies, their heartbeat spikes.”
“That’s it?” His mouth twisted.
James sighed, put upon. He didn’t see why anybody would need to question the usefulness of super-hearing. “There’s other things,” he admitted. “Sweat, fidgeting. Minute movements that are obvious when you have the very keen vision of a predator. But let’s stick to heartbeat for now.”
“Okay,” Hadrian conceded. “What do I do?”
“Listen. Find the sound of your heartbeat,” James told him. After a moment, Hadrian nodded. “Now find mine.”
Hadrian’s gaze unfocused. He was quiet for a moment but his breathing started accelerating. “I can’t do it! I don’t know what I’m looking for. I just hear a lot of…” He waved a hand around. “Noise. Cars and beeping and…” He listened intently. “Cats. They are yowling like crazy.”
James thought for a moment, he had simply filtered out background noise without being told to do so, but he had learnt later how to focus all of his senses to get the most of them. The principle was simple: You started close enough that it wasn’t hard to perceive and moved away slowly while keeping your eyes, or nose, or ears on the thing. “Okay. Take my wrist,” he offered, extending his arm but not moving from his spot. Hadrian eyed him warily but stepped forward and took his wrist in his hand, positioning his fingers easily to find the pulse. “There. Now listen to it for a minute.”
They were both silent, James was listening to both their hearts and could hear when Hadrian’s synced with his. “You think you know it now?”
The boy blinked glassy eyes at him. “Yes,” he breathed.
“Now let go but don’t stop listening.” Hadrian let his wrist slip from shaky fingers but stayed close, breathing shallowly. James gave him a minute to get used to it before he decided it was time to test Hadrian’s focus. “I will tell you some things now, you have to tell me if it’s true or not.”
“I have a sister called Nen, she prefers being a cub to a kid and we are all worried she’s going to disappear into the forest and not come back one day.” Hadrian nodded, eyes closed. “My boyfriend doesn’t know I’m a werebear.”
Hadrian’s eyes opened, he looked confused. “What’s the lie?”
“All of it. It was… it was bad one. What about ‘I love you’?”
“Oh!” Hadrian exclaimed, getting into it. “Do another one.”
“Your ex is a fucking psychopath.”
Hadrian gave him a watery smile at that. “Word.”
“I haven’t slept with a shifter in almost four years.”
“Why?” Hadrian asked. “Are there not many gay shifters?”
James laughed. “There’s plenty of gay shifters,, but not in the city. We need to run and you can’t run in a park if you are a bear. A wolf might pass as a wild dog in the dark but not a bear and not a puma, certainly. Shifters and cities don’t mix.”
“But you are here,” Hadrian said, not disputing the facts but his motivation.
“That’s why I’m here,” He tried to explain, he had explained so many times already that he had lost hope of being understood but he couldn’t stop trying. “I’m here to be as human as I can be, to do something I want, not something I need.”
“You are suffering,” Hadrian said, not objecting but curious. James did not know how he knew, then he realised that his pulse was speeding up as he spoke of being here and, inevitably, thought of being back in the ranch, free to run. Free but bound to the pack, not alone anymore but…
“Part of me is,” he admitted.
Hadrian frowned and tilted his head so that one of his ears was pointed towards James. “Why…?”
James breathed out, trying to calm himself. “I’m not lying… I’m upset. I don’t like speaking about this.”
“I know you are upset!” Hadrian bit out, annoyed. “I don’t need superpowers for that!”
James raised his eyes from the floor, surprised. “It sounds similar, if you are only listening to someone’s heartbeat…”
“Oh, god, do you think that suddenly I can hear your heartbeat from across the room so I’m not going to look at your face, or your posture, or listen to the tone of your voice anymore?”
“I guess not. It’s just that superpowers are more reliable.”
“That’s stupid. You know about them, it’s not like I can see something or hear something you don’t know about. If you can fake a pained tone, you can fake a calm heartbeat.”
“You can’t fake a calm heartbeat, that’s the…”
“I’m sure you could,” Hadrian interrupted. “with practice.”
James shook his head but kept his tone even. “You can calm yourself down, you can’t avoid being startled or upset in the first place and those feelings affect your heart rate.”
“Whatever. Why are you trying to be more human?”
James shrugged. “I wasn’t happy. Back home”
“Because you weren’t human enough?”
James snorted. “Because I was bored out of my skull,” he explained, crossing his arms. “Farming is not very exciting.”
Hadrian tilted his head, remembering, not listening. “I had a good time when I visited my uncle in the south, he has a farm…”
“How long was your visit?”
“A month or so.”
“Now close your eyes and imagine waking up with the sun every day, and going through the same tasks, and talking to the same people. Except at some point you stop talking, because what’s the point? There’s nothing to say that isn’t about the work anyway. There’s no talking, just… exchanging information.”
“Okay… doesn’t sound ideal, no,” Hadrian agreed, obviously taken aback by his vehemence.
But James was on a roll, he was still so angry at the choice he had had to make out of two shitty ones: Lose his family or lose himself. “And then you change more and more often because it’s the only thing that feels good anymore. You sleep in the forest and neglect your duties and people get angry but you can’t stop, either, because the idea of changing every night is the only thing that gets you through the day and,” he took a deep breath. “When you are a bear… you just are. There is no doubt and no fear, and there aren’t a million things you are missing on. A bear doesn’t waste anything; it does what it wants when it wants, and what it wants it’s what it needs, and what it needs it’s what it wants.” He had been so close to taking it, too. It had come to that in the end, not even a choice between himself and his family. Leave the bear behind, or stay and let the man disappear.
“Okay, you don’t like farms,” Hadrian said, raising his hands to signal his complete lack of objection. “I can tell you are telling the truth, no heartbeat checks necessary!”
He looked away, a little embarrassed at having shared so much in such a rush. But he felt better too, lighter. Nothing had changed but at least somebody knew. Hadrian didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, but he was here and he was listening. It was a lot more than he’d had for a long time.
“I don’t want to do this…” He paused, making sure to separate the statements. “But I want to help you.”
“I can tell you think it’s true but I don’t get why.” He hesitated, licked his lips and just said it, “You said you were gay.”
James exhaled, upset but trying not to get angry. “This isn’t about fucking. Yes, I’m gay and you are hot. I still don’t want to be inside your mind, or invite you over into mine. This is beyond intimate. This is what my people do when they marry each other, Hadrian.”
“Yes, quite,” James spit. “No offence, but I don’t know you. And I don’t want to do it.”
Hadrian looked down and suggested, “Then maybe you shouldn’t. I mean, I have no choice…”
James sighed; he had perhaps oversold his point. He had been honest but maybe it wasn’t a good time for honesty, when honesty wouldn’t change a thing. “There’s nobody else.”
“Well… you said there were lots of gay shifters, why not?”
“There’s as many gay shifters as gay guys in general but I told you: shifters don’t really live in cities. There’s a young female werepuma around East Side, keeps to herself when we meet at the reserve, and a guy who is a water were living in a boat. We crossed paths when I walked a client to one of the restaurants that look onto the river. That’s it as far as I know.”
“But I could wait…” Hadrian said. “You could ask around?”
“You can’t wait. My mother was very clear on that.”
“It’s been two weeks already…”
James frowned, the way his mother had put it had seemed that after a person was bitten there wasn’t any time at all, let alone weeks. “Two weeks?” He echoed.
“Yes, so a couple more days…” Hadrian continued.
James raised a hand for him to wait and wiped out his phone, accessing the calendar. “Do you know what day it was?”
Hadrian gulped. “Independence day.”
James eyes snapped up. He wasn’t sure if that made it worse or if it didn’t matter, but it seemed like too much of a coincidence to be meaningless.
It wasn’t. Although the meaning was completely accidental. It had been the last day of the waning crescent phase, a time when the moon’s light hardly reached Earth and might not have reached Hadrian at all in the middle of the firework shows. Shifters, like every living thing, were affected by the moon’s cycles. It was possible to stop yourself from changing during the full moon, even at its peak, but it wasn’t natural. A shifter needed to shift and the moon gave you a damn good reason, whatever else was happening in your life. Most shifters took the chance with joy; packs all over the country would be howling and running wild in their territories. James himself had learned to capitalise on the restless energy that coursed through him and use it to work frenetically through the night instead. He felt like crap in the morning but he also felt like the victorious champion in a battle against a universe that had, once again, failed to subdue him into doing its will.
He turned to Hadrian. “You got lucky; she bit you on am almost moonless night, now we are halfway through the cycle, though. The need to change will get stronger.” It was only going to get harder going forward and from Hadrian’s desperation earlier in the alleyway, it hadn’t been easy so far.
“So is it true about the full moon?”
“Of course. It affects the ocean. You think it would not do anything to us?”
“It doesn’t affect humans,” Hadrian protested.
James gave him an incredulous look. “It does. But it doesn’t matter, you are not just human anymore.”
“So it needs to be… as soon as possible.” He deflated. “I believe you. I just… I need time, to process.” He rubbed his arms, as if he was cold. But it would take a blizzard to make a healthy were cold.
“It’s your decision,” he said. “But you really shouldn’t go out, the fuller the moon gets…”
“No, I mean, can we get food, like you said?”
“Oh, yeah, totally.” Food would help James wake up and comfort Hadrian. “What do you want?”
Hadrian looked at him blankly before answering rather doubtfully. “Meat?”
James laughed. “Yeah, it’s a thing.”
Hadrian looked crestfallen. “I’m a vegetarian.”
“Yeah, not so much anymore. Vitamins or whatever are not gonna to cut it for you anymore.”
Hadrian didn’t try to argue. Maybe he could hear James’ was telling the truth, maybe he had used all his arguments up. He asked to use James’ shower and before James had finished telling him about the tabs, the bathroom door was closing with a definite click.